A few days ago I attended a talk by Dr. Neil Faulkner on the theme of Lawrence of Arabia’s War, which he gave in support of his new book on this subject.
Several times during the talk, Faulkner made points about T. E. Lawrence that immediately connected the latter to Alexander. For example, both had dominant mothers and both were inspired by heroic figures of the past (for Lawrence it was the Crusaders, for Alexander, Achilles).
To them I would add that both benefitted from deep friendships; that neither held the natives of the countries they were in with contempt, and both were not just fighters but explorers.
However, it was one other statement of Faulkner’s that really stuck out, and that is that one reason why the Arab Revolt succeeded when many insurgency movements of the past had failed, was because they had guns. Guns allowed them to do greater damage from a safer distance before escaping.
In the past, Faulkner said, if you wanted to kill someone, you had – generally speaking – to get up close to them so that you could jab them with your spear or slash with your sword.
Of course, one could use a javelin or sling but the former could only be thrown once and the latter had a slow rate of fire in comparison to a gun. Plus, the use of these weapons greatly increased your chance of being killed before being able to make your escape. And that was vital to the Arabs’ success. Not only because they lacked numbers but because they were in the fight as much for the loot as the promise of their own nation. Killing was no good if they died and could not take booty home with them.
When Faulkner started talking about the role of the gun, I immediately wondered if that was a reason why Spitamenes’ insurgency against Alexander failed. Thinking about it now, I would say it is one reason, but not the only one.
Spitamenes had another problem – he lacked the necessary tactics. When I read him in Arrian, he comes across as an insurgent trying to fight in a traditional manner. For example, he puts Maracanda under siege (IV.4), he captures a Macedonian fort (IV.16); he fights Andromachus’ and Caranus’ detachment in a set-piece battle (IV.5-6), takes on Craterus directly (IV.17), and fights another set-piece battle against Coenus (IV.18).
On all these occasions, he only comes off best when his opponents are either incompetent (the Macedonian detachment) or after using guile instead of brute force (the Macedonian fort). When he tries to fight in the traditional manner, he loses. And in the end, this cost him his life.
Spitamenes was not an incompetent commander – his decision not to fight a close-quarters battle against the Macedonian detachment but instead make use of his horses shows that, and he was adept at melting into the countryside when required to; however, his tactical ability had not caught up with the exigencies of his insurgent operation. And for me, this is the key thing; had Spitamenes superior weaponry he would still have needed to improve his strategy in order to use it effectively. If he didn’t, all the guns in the world wouldn’t make a difference. For Alexander would have had them and he certainly knew how to adapt.