Analysis of the Significance of Some Primary Sources Regarding the Leadership and Military Exploits of Alexander the Great When He Set Out to Conquer the Persian Empire
Alexander the Great is not just an ordinary military commander or political leader of the ancient world. His actions, just like the other great leaders of ancient times, were so profound and dramatic that its repercussions are still felt in the present time. Come to think of the political and social ramifications if there was no military machine or political leader that was able to assemble a formidable army to challenge the hegemony of the Persian Empire. An overview of existing records for instance tells historians that since the emergence of the power and grandiosity of the Egyptian kingdom, the balance of power has always been in the favor of the Middle East. For thousands of years, kingdoms were overthrown and new empires were built from the ashes of old. Nevertheless, the power structure and the source of economic and military might never ventured far away from Egypt, Babylon, Assyria, and Persia. In the latter part of ancient human history, before the advent of the Romans, there was no empire that generated so much fear and respect other than the government that was created by the Persians. Therefore, when the son of Philip, the king of Macedonia destroyed the monopoly of power enjoyed by the Persians, it was inevitable that the world should call him Alexander the Great. It is indeed a fitting epithet for a man who was able to accomplish the impossible, however, Bosworth was correct when he said that historians and commentators have the tendency to glamorize and glorify the achievements of Alexander the Great. This paper will attempt to write down a more objective look at the impact of Alexander’s executive decisions and military actions to the following socio-economic spheres: 1) the culture and population of some of the conquered cities and regions; and 2) the economy and population of Macedonia.
The historical significance of the document is on how it can help deal with an issue that Bosworth described as the ‘bias of the sources” Bosworth seemed ill at ease with the realization that certain historians have the liberty to interpret the meaning and value of Alexander’s actions based on preconceptions. Thus, in a few statements, Bosworth’s instinct as a historian and investigator of ancient knowledge came to the fore, and he was compelled to provide a more objective re-interpretation of the primary sources that historians utilized to paint a picture of Alexander the Great not only as a conqueror but the embodiment of the best of Greek culture.
Bosworth was correct in his insistence on objectivity and to set things straight with regards to the correct appreciation of the eyewitnesses accounts of the battles and the political maneuvering that occurred at the same time. It is imperative to know the real consequences of Alexander the Great’s actions, because political and military leaders in the present time study history’s lessons in order to develop the appropriate policies and strategies that they need to employ in order to save lives and preserve communities. Therefore, an erroneous interpretation of the consequences of a particular military decision or strategy implementation will create the same disastrous results even if the leaders are expecting a different outcome.
It is not easy to acknowledge the negative impact of Alexander’s reign. There are three possible reasons why it is easy to gloss over the dreadful repercussions of Alexander’s desire to defeat the mighty Persian Empire. First, the whole world is enamored of the positive impact of Greek culture. Consider for instance the impact of knowing the teachings of Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle. It is difficult to imagine a Western world that did not benefit from the conception of democracy brought to them by the Greeks. In addition, a significant amount of historical documents that analyzed Alexander’s military campaign and political maneuvering came from the Western world. Second, the primary sources that modern day historians and analysts utilize to develop Alexander’s biography are taken from the writings of those who revered him as a great leader and conquering hero. For example, he is viewed as a liberator by the Egyptians and Babylonians, because they suffered under the tyrannical rule of the Persians. Finally, modern day historians do not have access to the testimonies of the vanquished foes, especially the cities and communities that Alexander waylaid to achieve his goal of total domination. For instance, there were no extensive records of the testimonies of the Bactrians, Sogdians, and Indians. However, these people group suffered immensely as the direct result of the Macedonian’s war campaign.
The Revelation of the Primary Sources
According to Bosworth, the primary sources that he studied revealed “irreconcilable caricatures” of the great Macedonian conqueror. For example, one commentary describes Alexander the Great as a great man who espoused the value of the brotherhood of man, a description that seems to allude to a latter concept developed by the Romans, the so-called Roman peace that enabled conquered nations to live under one banner in peace and respect. However, the same commentator was taken aback by the wanton slaughter of human beings in the Malli campaign. Faced with the difficulty of reconciling two images of Alexander the Great, a more sympathetic historian will try to gloss over the difficult passages, and say that the dreadful actions on that fateful day was an isolated case.
Bosworth also discovered something critical to the analysis of the life and times of Alexander the Great. Bosworth said that more often than not the interpretation of the documentary evidence is made through the standpoint of Alexander. Another way of saying it is to declare that a great deal of commentators were fascinated with the personality of Alexander the Great. Thus, Bosworth was correct when he said that it is high time to shift the attention away from the iconic leader.
In order to accomplish Bosworth’s objective, he tried a technique that is similar to how detectives solve a crime. He utilizes data taken from primary sources, as well as the commentaries of other historians like pieces of a massive jig-saw puzzles. However, one can argue that it is oversimplifying it to say that Bosworth simply collect information and assemble in an orderly manner. The process is far more complicated, and only a talented analyst and commentator is able to glean insights using pieces of information that at first glance seemed unrelated to each other. One can also argue that Bosworth utilizes techniques similar to those utilized in reverse engineering. For example, in his desire to figure out the demographic effect of the need to send reinforcements from Macedonia to the theaters of war overseas, he analyzed the records that talked about the number of soldiers that accompanied Alexander the Great when he crossed the Hellespont. He compared the figures that described the strength of the army when it started the campaign to defeat the Persian Empire, and then, he analyzed the data that described Alexander’s army right before his death. In the following discussion, take a closer look at how Bosworth applied his skill as a historian and analyst to make sense of seemingly disjointed information.
Bosworth pointed out that on the army’s maiden journey, there were 12,000 soldiers that were sent out from Macedonia. However, he said that at least 10,000 warriors were already sent ahead as an advance force. Based on available data, Bosworth also asserted that at least 3,000 elite soldiers that made up the nucleus of Alexander’s army was also added to the mix. Finally, Bosworth said that before his death, there were at least 18,000 men comprising Alexander’s phalanx, and without a doubt the cream of the crop of his army. As mentioned earlier, the average student of history cannot find anything significant with these numbers. In other words, there seems no connection between these figures. However, Bosworth applied his analytical tools by asking the right questions, and through this process he was able to account for the losses due to the direct result of combat and the indirect effect of sickness and natural calamities.
When Bosworth combined these two sets of information, he was able to make the conclusion that even a generous estimate of troop strength cannot justify the presence of 18,000 soldiers after years of incessant combat and regular marches that took them from Hellespont to India. He said that this is only possible if there was a regular stream of reinforcements from Macedon. Thus, Bosworth’s technique is seen in the way he starts the analysis by focusing on what is already a logical conclusion, and then, he backtracks trying to find the tell-tale signs that will support his claim. As mentioned earlier, he begins the discussion of on how the war was a major drain in Macedonia’s human resources by stating that Alexander’s phalanx numbered 18,000 strong before he died. Bosworth went on to show that it would have been impossible to retain such a large figure if the number of the Macedonian soldiers did not reach at least 40,000 men.
In another example, Bosworth’s theory of massive reinforcement and steady flow of Macedonian soldiers into Alexander’s army was verified by examining a recording of a dispatch with an urgent plea for ten triremes during winter season. Bosworth said that in a typical schedule no boats were allowed to sail during the winter months. Thus, the the granting of access to sea lanes could only mean the urgent need for reinforcements.
Bosworth enhanced the validity of his claims by demonstrating his capability to look into information gleaned from primary sources in order to support a particular aspect of his assertion. For example, he highlighted the commentaries made by Arrian and Polybius. These ancient historians pointed out that 5000 infantry troops and 800 cavalrymen came via Macedon to strengthen the forces of Alexander in preparation for a big showdown with Emperor Darius’ army. One of his admirable traits as a historian also includes the meticulous way he checks the development of the story. Consider for instance the way he checked the veracity of Polybius claims about the reinforcements, and Bosworth said that the information was derived from a statement quoting Callisthenes of Olynthus. Bosworth went on to say that Callisthenes’ was no ordinary commentator, because he was a historian of the king of Macedon, and more importantly he was an eyewitness to the said events.
The eye for detail was not only limited to the way he examines the main source of the information, Bosworth also examined the temperament and motivation of the authors of the primary sources. For instance, Bosworth was wary of Arrian’s comments, because he knew that Arrian was compelled to act as the propagandist of the court. In other words, Arrian’s pronouncements always follows a particular format that was designed to bolster the morale of the soldiers and to shape the mindset of the people at home so that they will continue their support of the war. However, in one of Arrian’s report it was difficult to hide the significant losses incurred by the Macedonian army.
The Themes within the Document
There were several recurring themes in the document. The first major theme covered was the starting number of Alexander the Great’s troops that left Hellespont to begin a massive campaign to conquer the Persian Empire. The second major theme was the impact of the wars, conflicts, natural calamities, and the hardships of the journey on Alexander’s men. This subject matter includes the casualties and the health problems encountered along the way. The third major theme is the need for reinforcements, and the discussion of the possible number of troops that were sent back to the battlefields. This particular subject matter also includes the discussion of the composition of the soldiers that reported for duty in the theaters of war in Asia Minor and the push towards the Indus Valley. The main purpose for highlighting this particular topic is for Bosworth to prove how costly the campaign was in terms of human resources, especially when it comes to the impact on Macedonian society.
The fourth major theme was the discussion on how the removal of at least 30,000 men from Macedonia affected the socio-economic factors of the small nation. After Bosworth was able to establish the estimated number of men that were drafted in to the main army, and the number of men sent to the battlefields for the purpose of reinforcements, he went on to trace the negative consequences of removing healthy and virile men from society that resulted in the significant decline in the availability of fathers that were supposed to replenish the population that was decimated, because of war and other causes of mortality.
Adhering and Refuting the Analysis in the Primary Sources
Bosworth’s claim that Alexander’s executive decisions and military actions caused irreparable harm to the following socio-economic spheres: 1) the culture and population of some of the conquered cities and regions; and ) the economy and population of Macedonia is supported by verifiable historical evidence. Bosworth postulated that if there was massive reinforcements and significant enforcement of levies and other measures to draft men into the army, then, it will cause an internal weakness in the socio-economic structure of Macedonia. He was able to show evidence to support this assertion when he pointed out that two decades after the demise of Alexander the Great, the reigning king of Macedon, king Cassander experienced great trouble in his attempt to repel Thessaly’s invasion. In the said examination of available evidence, Cassander was in a standoff with king Demetrius Poliorcetes who came to Macedon with 56,000 soldiers; and Cassander was only able to produce 29,000 Macedonians. Cassander was outnumbered; his troop strength pale in comparison to the great armies that Alexander the Great and Antipater was able to muster two decades earlier. Several decades later Philip V was only able to assemble 18,000 infantry men even if he was compelled to enlist Macedonian men as young as 16 year olds and old veterans. In order to regain a portion of Macedon’s former glory, Philip the V and his son Perseus had to wean the country away from war, and in the ensuing peace the leaders encouraged Macedonians to procreate in order to satisfy the country’s population requirements.
Bosworth’s concluding remarks provide the finishing touches to a remarkable analysis of the negative impact of Alexander’s war campaign, a side of his story that people often neglect to tell. Bosworth was able to accomplish this by focusing the spotlight on Macedonia herself. From the perspective of the land and her people, Alexander abandoned them when he was a young man of 22 years of age. If the land can talk she will say how Alexander squandered the inheritance of his father King Philip. The vast armies that were created for the glory of Macedon and Greece was forced to march across great distances and into the recesses of Asia in order to satisfy the burning desire for personal glory.
Bosworth focused his attention on something that he believed is obvious, and yet not perceptible to the ordinary student of history. Bosworth said that a careful analysis of primary sources that were utilized by modern day historians to develop a biography of the great Macedonian conqueror lacks coherence. He even said that these caricatures are irreconcilable. He said that historians glorify the achievements of Alexander the Great, others are even guilty of exaggerating his intentions and desires for the conquered lands. Bosworth said that it is imperative to provide an objective view of Alexander’s actions as a military leader and politician. He said that Alexander was ruthless and destructive. More importantly Bosworth pointed out that Alexander’s campaign brought Macedon to her knees, she suffered immensely from the exploitation of human resources, specifically the men that were supposed to father the next generation of Macedonians. Bosworth was able to support his claims through a close inspection of primary sources, and these are written by people who are either eyewitnesses to the events or have direct access to the materials that were written during the time of Alexander the Great. As a result, his pronouncements are persuasive, and it is important to reconsider his ideas about Alexander the Great, especially for military leaders and politicians using the Macedonian’s military strategies and policies to build contemporary governments. An objective analysis of Alexander’s decisions will help present day leaders to temper their desire for dramatic actions and decisive victories, because the aftermath may have drastic and irreparable consequences to the affected cities and regions.
Bosworth, A.B. “ Alexander the Great and the Decline of Macedon.” The Journal of Hellenic
Studies 106 no.1 (1986): 1-12
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