As the famous Latin proverb goes, “fortune favours the bold” and all of antiquity’s greatest commanders at one time or other took monumental risks – Caesar crossing the Rubicon, Hannibal crossing the Alps and Pyrrhus fighting in the thickest of the action at Heraclea.
In the end, it was these risks paying off that ensured their names became immortalised in the history books.
Yet of all these remarkable ancient generals one could argue that Alexander the Great risked his life the most.
Leading from the front
One of the most defining characteristics of Alexander the Great’s leadership was that he fought in the heat of battle at all his engagements, personally leading the decisive attack in several battles.
Usually Alexander initiated the decisive attack with his Companions, his elite Macedonian shock cavalry. At the Battles of the Granicus and Gaugamela, it was Alexander and his Companion Cavalry that inflicted the decisive blow.
During sieges and strong point assaults – where using cavalry proved impractical – Alexander similarly led from the front dismounted and led his army’s elite infantry force (this usually included his royal hypaspists, the Agrianian javelinmen and the Cretan archers).
The man epitomised the art of charismatic leadership, fighting amid the front ranks of his men.
Alexander’s leadership style proved highly risky and he did not come away from it unscathed. In a speech to his grumbling Macedonian veterans in 324 BC, Alexander noted the various wounds he had suffered:
“My body is covered in scars of every weapon you can think of. Stones, arrows, stones, clubs.”
Alexander gambled with death continually and on several occasions these dices nearly did not pay off:
In 334 BC, during the Battle of the Granicus, Alexander was saved from certain death when Cleitus ‘the Black’, one of his highest subordinates, slashed off the arm of a Persian noble who was about to slash his scimitar down on Alexander’s exposed head.
Five years later in 329 BC, when Alexander was leading his elite infantry in a sneak assault on the city of Cyropolis, he suffered a heavy blow to his head and neck from a stone shot from a catapult.
The blow knocked Alexander unconscious and, according to Plutarch and Curtius, left the Macedonian king almost blind for several days. His speech also became slurred temporarily.
Alexander suffered another similarly severe injury four years later, in India during another city assault. While leading an attack on the citadel of the Malli tribe, the Macedonian scaling ladder snapped in half behind him and Alexander and a few companions found themselves stranded inside the fortress.
As the small band defended themselves against hundreds of assailants, and the Macedonians desperately attempted to force their way into the stronghold, an Indian arrow pierced the king’s armour, puncturing his lung and causing him to faint.
Although Alexander was rescued and did recover (albeit perhaps temporarily, as some believe this wound contributed to his early death), he was later chided by his fellow officers for his needless risk-taking.
The world might look a very different place today had one of his risks not paid off. Yet none of them led to Alexander’s death (in the short term, at least) and instead resulted in the Macedonian gaining an aura unlike any other seen in antiquity.
Alexander’s “leading from the front” style of leadership was highly-risky, but it was also key to why his men were willing to follow him to the edges of the known world – and then further.
In Alexander, the Macedonian soldiers saw a man under whom they could never lose a battle. He also appeared to be favoured by the gods – a man who shared in the risks of battle repeatedly and seemed to always escape death.
To Alexander’s men and those that came after him, they viewed the Macedonian king as a man blessed by the gods, a semi-divine figure who went to take his place among the gods following his death.
For those ambitious warlords who came after him, Alexander’s charismatic leadership was legendary. Several attempted to emulate his style of leading from the front with varying levels of success.
Pyrrhus, king of the most powerful tribe in Epirus and famous for his war against Rome, perhaps had the most success in emulating Alexander.
Like Alexander, Pyrrhus led his troops from the front in both pitched battles and city assaults, regularly putting himself in great danger and suffering several wounds.
It was this similar leadership style that led contemporary Hellenistic historians and later Roman writers to describe Pyrrhus as the general who most-resembled Alexander the Great.
Featured image credit: Alexander Sarcophagus, illustration showing Alexander in the battle of Issus (333 BC). Ronald Slabke / Commons.