November 24, 2004

Alexander the Mysterious

David Edelstein joins with other reviewers in complaining that Oliver Stone's filmography doesn't show you how Alexander won Guagamela and his other battles:'s impossible to tell where one army is in relation to another, or just how Alexander gets the best of his impassive Persian counterpart...

I'm not surprised. The simple fact no one's really clear today on how Alexander won any of his battles. The pat answer is that it had to do with the combination of Greek spear infantry formations equipped with longer spears, similar to the pikemen of late medieval times, and the creation of the first truly Hellenic cavalry (lancers on horses), among other things. Yet historians have never really come up with a satisfactory answer on how those stirrup-less Macedonian and Thessalian cavalrymen were able to carry out the most devastating lance charges the world has ever seen, and no one's really happy with the answer on how long those infantry spears were, either. It's all just (frequently inspired) historical guesswork, based on next-to-zero useful historical and anthropological data (you could charitably describe it as five secondary sources from Roman times -- Plutarch, Arrian, Diodorus, Curtius, Justin -- and some coins). I personally favour Delbruck's theories on Alexander's victories as sounding closest to the truth in most cases, but every model the historians have come up with has its own holes.

Could be worse. Don't get me started on Hannibal and the Carthaginians. Their doctrine and tactics are even more of a mystery. The simple fact is from a military point of view we know more about Egypt or Assyria or even Mycenae, hundreds of years farther back in the past, than we know for sure about Hannibal's Carthage. Alexander's Macedon is just slightly above that.

UPDATE: Note how Fox, a superb writer whose book seems to have been the basis for the screenplay on this movie, even seems to have his ideas about the Macedonian cavalry, as authoritative as anyone's, challenged by his own movie extra experiences. I skimmed his tome again today, and he never seriously challenges the Roman historians' estimates of the Persian army on the tiny battlefield of Guagamela (near Mosul) as numbering five times Alexanders'; a quarter-million men or more (although he does give himself a fudge factor, saying little about the battle can be known for sure).

(Oddly, he also seems to subcribe to the classical legend that the elite "silver shields" (argyraspids) of the Diadochi wars were the same guys -- not just the same unit, the same actual GUYS -- who had fought as hypaspists in Alexander's battles 40 or 50 years previously... making them a battle formation of sexagenarians. Sort of the "Space Cowboys" of classical lore.)

Delbruck (rightly, I believe) dismissed the vast numbers of Persians in this and many other Greek battle accounts as a fantasy, pointing out that the Greek authors split evenly on whether Persian soldiers were better individual fighters, or more numerous... if they were both, one presumes they could not have been consistently defeatable by any Greeks who felt like dropping in on them for over 150 years.

For the best modern scholarship on Alexander, one should weigh Fox in with N.G.L. Hammond, A.M. Devine and A.B. Bosworth, with Delbruck as your gross error detector. The truth's somewhere in between the five of them.

PS: So, how many Persians at Guagamela? Best back-of-envelope guess: 65,000, +/-15,000. (Alexander, it's reasonably certain, had 47,000). Still the largest army by far anyone who witnessed it had ever seen, but any number larger than that is the usual classical hyperbole.

Posted by BruceR at 01:58 PM