A few days ago I read the opening pages of Arrian’s Campaigns of Alexander. While doing so, I was struck by his account of Alexander’s Thracian campaign, and what it told me about the Macedonian king’s quality of generalship, even at the young age of 20.
As you may know, the Thracian campaign took place in the Spring of 335 B.C. Alexander undertook it in order to secure Macedon’s northern borders before he began his expedition to overthrow the Persian Empire.
In the course of a few weeks, the king defeated various tribal armies and armed forces in head-to-head battles, forcing numerous tribes to make peace with him. The campaign came to abrupt end when Alexander heard about Thebes’ revolt.
The first incident to jump out at me was the famous cart manoeuvre. As Arrian (I.1-2) relates, Alexander took his army into a ‘narrow defile’ below Mount Haemus only to find a Thracian armed force blocking the upper slopes with carts. They pushed the carts over the edge of the slope intending no doubt not only to cause serious injury to the Macedonian soldiers but put the phalanx into disorder (thus making a counter-attack easier).
Alexander, however, avoided any casualties, firstly by ordering those men who could to step out of the carts’ way or, when that wasn’t possible, ordering them to lie on the ground with their shields on their backs so that the carts rode over them.
I have to admit, his response to the threat of the carts is so simple that it is hard to imagine anyone doing anything else. But while I could imagine any general ordering his men to step out of their way, it surely takes a very creative mind to realise that we could make the carts go over us.
The next incident that stood out was Alexander’s crossing of the Ister (Danube) river. It seems that what he should have done was built a bridge. But, he didn’t. Instead, and as Arrian (I.4) relates, he ordered his men to sew up their tents and stuff them with hay. These were then used as floats during a crossing that took place at night.
This was a very daring plan. Prior to crossing the river, Alexander had assaulted those Triballians and Thracians who were hiding on a mid-river island. He tried to land on it but without success; one reason for this is because the current was too fast. Now, while the water in the open river would have been slower I assume it must have still been flowing at a fair speed in order to become unmanageable ‘through the narrows’ between island and land. If so, that must have made guiding the floats a difficult job. Especially at night time.
The next example of Alexander’s superior generalship that stood out at me was his response to being caught between Cleitus son of Bardylis in the fortified town of Pelium next to the Eordaicus River and troops belonging to Cleitus and Glaucias who held positions in the ‘commanding heights’ above the town.
Had Alexander made a wrong move here, he could have been killed and his army wiped out. So, how did he even the odds? Not by brute force but by employing psychological warfare.
This sounds very grand but as Arrian (I.6) tells us, Alexander simply drilled his men. Simply? He had them ‘execute various intricate movements’ and had them do so silently.
Glaucias’ and Cleitus’ armies – much larger than Alexander’s – were scared to death by the Macedonians’ discipline. As they watched the enemy soldiers go through their paces the silence must have deafened them. When, finally, Alexander ‘called on his men to raise the war-cry’, well, you can imagine what that must have done to the tribal armies frayed nerves. Unsurprisingly, it lead to those on the heights withdrawing from their positions.
To be fair to the tribesmen, not all fell back. One group stayed on a hill that Alexander needed to cross. When he approached it, however, the enemy fled.
With the hill secured, Alexander made his way to the Eordaicus. Crossing it would bring him to safety. As the Macedonians waded through the water, Glaucias’ men attacked them in the rear. The tribesmen didn’t have the guts for a fight, though, for they were careful to keep out of range of the Macedonian archers. Alexander’s shock-and-awe tactic was an on-going success.
Of the three events that I have mentioned in this post, it is the third that impresses me most. It not only required Alexander to make the right decision in a seemingly impossible situation but his army to hold firm as well. This highlights the fact that a great general, even one of genius, as Alexander was, needs a good army in order to display his talents. In the Macedonian army, Alexander was fortunate to have one of the finest ever to march across the earth.