Alexander The Great And Military Success

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Alexander III, son of Phillip II of Macedonia, known also as Alexander the Great due to his conquest of vast territories had an empire that spanned from modern-day Italy in the west to north-west India in the east and included modern-day Turkey, Iraq, Iran (also known as Persia), Afghanistan, Pakistan, and north-west India, among other countries. It was the greatest known empire at its time and remained so until the advent of colonisation which resulted in conquests on the backs of naval superiority. Alexander’s initial ventures into Asia minor and the subsequent defeat of the Persian King Darius III began his vast campaign, yet his rise could have well and truly been cut short with an initial defeat. Multiple modern historians have attempted to piece together the success of Alexander, but due to the loss of primary sources of Alexander, reliance is often put upon Arrian (in military regards) who wrote the “campaigns of Alexander” almost 400 years later but based upon the primary sources that were not yet lost. In regard to the success of Alexander it can be attributed to a multitude of factors but for the purposes of this analysis they will be purely military aspects. Most important in Alexander’s success was due to his father, Phillip II. Without Phillip and the reform of the Macedonian army, Alexander would have been unable to achieve the level of greatness and praise he receives in the present day. Alexander cannot be written off though as he also the reason for a large portion of his own success due to not only his tactical ingenuity but his leadership on the battlefield. Alexander, furthermore, was an adept fighter standing his own ground not as a King but as a fierce fighter. Similar to himself his commanders and leaders he employed to aid in his conquest were factors of notable success. Commanders understood tactical strategy and the mechanics of battle formations to improvise, adapt and overcome any enemy. The commanders were reflections of Alexander with years of experience due to their time previously in Phillip’s army. Moreover, Alexander without an army could not have become great, thus his substantially trained army with specialist troops and personnel was a constant in the equation of success. His army although inherited from his father flourished under Alexanders command and grew in strength. Lastly a less direct variable albeit a focal point for success would be the failings and ineffective leadership of Darius III, ultimately his inability to propose and implement appropriate plans to defeat Alexander. The three battles, specifically, the Battle of Granicus, the Battle of Issus and the Battle of Gaugamela which contain the cumulative factors of Alexander’s success. All of the battles were geographically varied as well as in troop composition which portray so perfectly all the qualities of Alexanders success.

Phillip II and Military Reforms

Phillip’s renewal

Alexander’s inheritance of a powerful army from his father (Phillip II) would become the basis of his success. The Macedonian military was previously mediocre, ill equipped and relied on the peasantry and farmers at the beginning of Phillip’s rule. Philip thus implemented an innovative renewal of the Macedonian army with which “Macedon became a super power”. The renewal included the creation of a fully functioning full-time army which by the time Alexander was in power would be battle-hardened and filled with veteran fighters with excellent military intelligence. The army was organised and had already proven its worth as the opposition it had faced stood “no real challenge”. In specific terms of success Phillip encouraged the trend of the army to live off the land and being independent from helpers and attendants. This is a reason for success as Alexander did not have to commit as much to the army in monetary regards, furthermore, it would be able to keep the army mobile and cope with enduring high physical stress loads. By inheriting an army that understood the complexities of war and understood its role, Alexander only worried about how to use his army and how to operate it at its optimum capacity. Moreover, without Phillip implementing habits such as the self-dependency that needs time to be taught, the army, would not have been ready to the extent that it was for Alexander. Without the experience the army had, Alexander might have made similar mistakes that Phillip made and learnt in a relatively slow process that would have restricted the rate of his success.

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Phillip’s new army for Alexander

Via the inheritance of the army, Alexander also gained the revolutionary Macedonian phalanx. The phalanx was an infantry formation comprised of 256 men stationed in a 16-men by 16-men row formation. It made up the bulk of the Macedonian infantry. The phalanx would be important to Alexander as it would become the backbone for his army and one of the consistent factors in his battle formations. The phalanx contributed to Alexander’s success due to its versatility in the army and its strength when facing various opposing armies. The phalanx could withstand a direct attack against opposing cavalry units due to its design which was an amazing feat for the time. Furthermore, its versatility meant that it could fit into any of Alexander’s battle plans and tactics that he wished to implement. This, coupled with the fact that the phalanx was experienced, tried and tested also contributed greatly to Alexander’s military successes. The technological military advancements that Phillip made were also a noteworthy reason for Alexander’s success. Phillip introduced the sarissa to the army. The sarissa was a pike or spear around 14 to 18 feet in length; this was much longer than the orthodox weaponry used at the time. The sarissa assisted Alexander as it allowed his army to gain an upper hand even from positions of disadvantage since the opposing forces were unable to utilise their weapons on the Macedonian soldiers. The sarissa, thus, prevented the opposing cavalry from piercing Alexander’s infantry formations. In the battle of Granicus, the sarissa was crucial to the success of the army as the incline the Macedonians faced meant the Persians had an elevated upper hand . Ancient historian Arrian attributes the turning of the battle of Granicus to the sarissa and its advantageous traits. By having the distance from the opposing army, the Macedonian were able to successfully climb the banks of the Granicus and ultimately win the battle. This technological advancement also ensured that less soldiers were killed; less energy was thus expended on training new troops and the veteran soldiers would live longer to contribute their collective experience to Alexander’s success in victory. Most modern sources would agree upon the outcome that without Phillip there would be no legacy of Alexander the Great. Ancient historians however due to their propaganda style of writing to ensure Alexander outshines anyone else, show leniency more towards Alexander himself as the reason of success. However, conclusively as the modem historian Worthington proclaims, that “without Phillip, no Alexander the Great” , proving the worth of Phillips efforts and its cumulative effect upon Alexanders reign and success.

Alexander the Great, Tactician and Fighter

Alexanders tactical work

In regard to Alexander though, his intelligent ability to tactically plan a battle, contributed to his own military successes. Thus, Alexander himself is a large factor in his own success as the conqueror of vast territories. Alexander was tutored by the famous philosopher Aristotle and was taught the art of thought and reasoning which contributed to the processes that he undertook before battle. Thus as the modern Historian Bosworth describes Alexander as “sharp in intellect” it can be supported that Alexander was never lacking in intelligent and reasoned thought. In context of this Alexander would often, if not always consult his commanders and ensure there would be no gaping flaws or lack in judgement before any battle to ensure the best outcome for his army. He would consider factors such as the topography and the lay of the land and often evaluate the best formation for his units to defeat the opposing army. By considering all of the variables, he would set up his army in such a way that it would provide it with the most optimum circumstances to win. Alexander always understood what was occurring in battle. He actively tried to control all of the variables that he could. Without such intricate and precise planning, Alexander would not have been able to rearrange his army in different formations during the heat of battle, which would have caused chaos and confusion. Alexander also used a tactic far advanced of his time: that of psychological warfare. When he was outnumbered, he would come up with a plan to inflict lasting damage on the opposing army. As one example, he considered the psychological impact on the Persian army if he was able to capture or kill King Darius. Thus, he organised his entire plan around this, causing Darius to flee. The Persian army, seeing Darius being pursued by Alexander, became demoralised. The battle was won. The precise planning by Alexander and having a vision in his strategy that looked beyond the conventional thought of simply winning the battle proves the worth of Alexanders own intellect on his success.

Alexander the fighter

Due to his physical prowess and ability to fight, Alexander led from the front and inspired his military to success . Alexander was not only a tactical thinker but also an adept fighter who charged into battle with his army without holding back due to his rank or royalty. Alexander, being in command of the Companion cavalry made the decisive charges and advances upon the opposing enemy. The charges he would lead would often be wedge formation charges which was utilised by the Macedonians as a primary tactic to defeat opposing enemies. Alexanders attacks were well planned and successful in defeating the enemy. Alexander would overall generate a dual effect in which he would inspire his troops and deliver a demoralising blow against his enemy which he could exploit and capitalise off. In the battle of Gaugamela Alexander was the catalyst in initiating the victorious charge. His cavalry unit had initiated a charge which forced Darius back, which subsequently allowed his troops to advance and rally while the Persians had been isolated, and their lines damaged severely. Alexander, due to his superiority in battle on the field instigated his own success and generated the factors of victory himself.

Commanders of Alexander

The commanders being like Alexander in skill were indispensable due to their versatility in leading their troops and their skill in fighting. The commanders and officers in the Macedonian army were responsible for undertaking Alexander’s tactical decisions. Majority of Alexander’s commanders had been around since the time of Phillip which increased the military competency of the commanders due to their amount of time and experience in the army. The duties they carried out would range from planning with Alexander pre-battle and advising him as needed in the thick of battle. Their versatility ensured that Alexander benefited from the best of both worlds from the commanders: their experience and their fortitude. The ability of the commanders to be able to inspire the troops in battle also had the effect of deterring the opposing enemy. Alexander benefited cumulatively from their successful intimidation of the opposing armies on the battlefield. Their intelligence was also not limited to the pre-planning and advising stages either; in the heat of a battle, the commanders were able to understand the tide of battle and direct their units in a strategic manner to achieve victory for Alexander. This asset not only lightened Alexander’s work load but it was a safety net such that his commanders’ reliable competence produced movements of the army that led to decisive victories. Alexanders most trusted advisors, Parmenion was the literal embodiment of all the factors sought for in a commander. Under Phillip Parmenion had according to modern and ancient historians been a valuable asset to Phillip, furthermore his experience with Phillip would roll over to aiding Alexander. Parmenion’s experience and time in the army ensured that there was a consistency in his advisory assets, always having a reason and purpose for his advice. Moreover, under Alexander Parmenion was tasked with leading the left wing of the Macedonian army according to ancient historian Arrian which proves the worth and scope of Parmenion’s skills. Ancient historian, Callisthenes attempts to detract from the work and effort put in by Parmenion especially by describing him as “lazy and ineffectual” . Modern historians though argue that Parmenion was in fact one of the prime factors of Alexanders military dominance and success due to his reliability. Ultimately though without his experienced and battle-hardened commanders such as Parmenion, Alexander would have struggled to replicate the success that he enjoyed.

Alexanders Army

Variation of the army

Due to the reliable combination of various army units and the advance nature of the army there was a consistency that allowed Alexander to succeed. In addition to the infantry, the Macedonian army contained a mix of units ranging from Cretan archers to the ‘Companion Cavalry’. This variation of speciality units in the army allowed for unit compositions that could match any opposing army with simple reorganisations. The battle of Issus proves this as Alexander had to move his battalions to protect his sides due to the mountains that were present on his right side. The variety furthermore mitigated any weaknesses as the formations could be reorganised very quickly to what was required even in the heat of the battle. The variety contributed greatly to Alexander’s success as no two battles were the same, whether the difference was in the opposing army’s composition or the geography. Furthermore, the army when put into new configurations was able to operate consistently due to the vast experience of each respective unit, meaning there was no confusion on the battlefield. Thus, the army and specifically each battalion or unit could be relied upon to execute tactics ordered in battle by Alexander.


Alexander’s army was advanced and ahead of its time, displaying self-dependency and experience that was hither to unseen before. This was due to a cumulative effort by both Alexander and his father in terms of the advance nature of the army. Alexander would follow his father’s trend of minimalism and only allow a single attendant or servant for 10 men, which was in the interest of maintaining the mobile nature of the army. Not only was the army mobile but it was tough due to the dependency they had on each other in the campaign. The mobility and self-dependency paid off especially for the battle of Gaugamela. The Macedonian army was able to out manoeuvre the Persians due to their sheer speed in travelling moreover, the Macedonians were able to rest for longer and engage on their own terms as they had come upon the stationary Persians. Without the mobility, the Macedonians would have had to come immediately from marching to initiating in a gruelling attack in which they were vastly outnumbered. Thus, by having the self-dependency the Macedonians were able to succeed in battle due to the extra rest they had.

Non-combative technicians

Alexander also employed the use of non-combative technicians or personnel which aided in his success. The specialists were a range of engineers that varied in roles and provided a large variety of services to the army. One such sector were the siege engineers who were important as they constructed weapons such as catapults and crossbows which aided the army in its advances. The weaponry advancements made by the siege engineers were significant and the use of these weapons was revolutionised by Alexander. For example, his use of catapults was changed to being used in open field battles instead of merely being used in sieges of strongholds and cities. Weapons were not the only thing built by the engineers, for they were also tasked with the creation of pontoons and other structures to negate geographical hinderances. The task of the engineers was essential in maximising the opportunities and the ability of the main army to complete its job to the best of its ability. When the army was working at an optimum rate it was essentially unstoppable, which led to Alexander’s overall success. Without the engineers, there would have been no noteworthy advancement in military technology and thus, at the very least, reduced Alexander’s rate of success.

Deficiency of Darius III

Darius’s tactics

Darius’s transparency in tactics were easily negated and shut down by Alexander. Darius in both the battles of Issus and Gaugamela chose the battlefields upon which the battles would be fought. Although this would be advantageous the tactics Darius decided to employ were easily read by Alexander and planned against intricately. Darius was not incompetent as he is often made out to be by ancient historians such as Arrian, but Darius lacked the vision that Alexander had in planning and implementing tactics. This is evident in the battle of Gaugamela as when Alexander approached the battlefield. Darius had ordered his army to maintain formation. Firstly, this led to fatigue and psychological effects as the Persians were made to stay up all night in case of a Macedonian assault, secondly it allowed Alexander to scope out the Persian formation and plan accordingly. In this case it can be specifically seen through Darius’ inability to realise the effects of his actions and orders to his army that he had lost the fight only in the preparation stages of the battle. Modern and ancient historians both agree though that Alexander was merely too superior in strategic aspects and there was little Darius could do with the capacity for military tactics he had.

Darius in battle

Darius did not have the burning ambition of Alexander and thus the need for success was less which led to Alexander winning. Darius as the leader and king of the Persian kingdom was not willing to simply hand his land over but he lacked some of the persistent qualities that were required in war. Darius was not a clear leader in battle and would not be tactically engaged as Alexander was. Darius was stationed in a war chariot and in both the battles of Issus and Gaugamela fled from the battle proving the lack of ambition although he was fearing for his life. Darius unlike Alexander, once a tactic or failure arose resorted to panicking or not attempting to tactically improve his situation which cumulatively made his armies performance worse against Alexander and degrade within the battles. At the battle of Gaugamela Darius seeked a peaceful settlement which would be uncharacteristic of a King defending his land and honour. This portrayal in the lack of burning ambition portrays the mindset of Darius and how it would hinder himself and assist Alexander in success and history. The cumulative factors of Darius lacking the drive and tactical awareness to the extent of Alexander ensured Alexander’s success. Without Darius being at the lower calibre he was, Alexander would have had a much more difficult time especially due to the vast numbers Darius had in his army.


Alexander the Great would go onto to conquer more land and empires before his premature death in 323BCE but until this point the factors of his success are clear. The structure created by his father was the critical and most important foundation in the factors of success, without the reforms Alexander would have been just another ruler of Macedonia. The strength and reasons for the army and the commanders being effective and so competent in a military context is also derived from Phillips reforms. Phillips reforms had many cumulative knock on effects which ensured the strength and composition of the army was optimal at the time of Alexander. Alexander himself was a factor in the success he gained albeit though it can be argued not as large as his father. Alexander was the one initiating and leading the army to conquer and take over thus there is a large portion of credit that belongs to Alexander. Without Alexanders command and tactical composure especially against the vast numbers of Darius’s army, there could never have been any Macedonian expansion. The army and commanders although provided by Phillip were tended to and improved by Alexander, becoming standalone reasons for Alexanders for success. Without the army and commanders Alexander was virtually nothing, thus the care and effort that was taken in them was reflected in the successful results of the battles victorious. Moreover, Darius as the leader and King he was allowed for the enhanced skills of Alexander to shine thorough and furthermore, pierce the tactical ineffectiveness of the Persian army. Darius, although a formidable opponent, lacked the drive and assertive power which resulted in victory and thus success for Alexander. Conclusively, Alexander relied on a plethora of factors and reasons for his success, but importantly his fathers reforms shine through the most as the most reliant factor of Alexander’s success.


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