The Lasting Courage of Alexander the Great

In the autumn of 324 BC, Alexander stood up and looked at the faces of his Macadonian army. He had seen these faces many times before. Seven years earlier before the battle of Gaugamela, Alexander saw in the faces of these same men a fierce love and a resolute spirit that led to a decisive victory for his army against the Persian king. But on this crisp autumn day in the year 324, Alexander did not see those same warmhearted expressions; instead he saw the fomenting glances of mutiny. 

In just under 13 years, Alexander the Great changed the shape of the known world. When he toppled the Persian Empire, he brought Greek language and culture into the East, which culminated in the establishment of Greek cities all throughout the western world.

But what was the source of his greatness? This question reveals a heated debate among the Greco-Roman philosophers: Did Alexander achieve greatness because he was virtuous, or because he was fortunate? Did Tyche, the goddess of fortune and destiny, bestow greatness upon Alexander, or did Alexander, by nature of his virtue, secure for himself the heights of glory? Although Tyche might try to claim Alexander as her chief masterpiece, Plutarch observed that a proper philosopher must acknowledge the many virtues of Alexander himself, especially the greatest of his virtues: courage. For it was courage, more than wisdom, justice, or temperance, that turned a young Macedonian prince into Alexander the Great, King of the Greeks and King of Asia. 

The story of Alexander the Great comes from our classical studies course, Famous Men of Greece, a collection of stories gathered from the annals of history and myth; it’s perfect for any student or teacher of classical history from 5th -7th grade. 

Before Alexander was a king, he was a student. When Alexander turned 13, Philip sent his son to learn from Aristotle. Under this capable tutor, Alexander learned about medicine, philosophy, morals, logic, and art. Above all, he learned to love the works of Homer and in particular the Iliad. Through the influence of this ancient Greek story, the young Alexander came to idealize the mighty Achilles, the perfect embodiment of a courageous warrior-king. Unsurprisingly, then, Alexander adored this hero, and the life of Achilles became a paradigm for Alexander.

In May of the year 334 BC, Alexander arrived at the banks of the Granicus river, where he would confront the Persian army for the first time. The Macadonian nobleman had declared Alexander king just two years earlier at the age of 20, but having just crossed into Asia, he was eager to test the Persian resolve. As he approached the Granicus, he saw the impressive Persian horde on the adjacent bank. Although his second in command recommended that he delay the attack and make camp, Alexander saw a unique opportunity to strike a crippling blow to the Persian Empire early in his campaign. But more importantly, unlike his seasoned generals, Alexander had the courage to take advantage of this opportunity. 

When Alexander ordered his Macadonians to cross the river, he led the charge with his elite Companion Cavalry, called the hetairoi (ἑταῖροι). Alexander plunged headlong into the vanguard of the Persian army. This daring act of courage caused the Persian center to collapse, and provided the Macadonian infantry enough time to cross the river and envelop the Persian forces. Alexander was a military genius, but it was his courage that won the battle.

This bravery won the loyalty and affection of his men, but this virtue was a double edged sword. As one Roman historian explained, “He demanded that his men should enter battle bravely” because he himself “set an example to the rest in valour” (History of Alexander 4.6). Alexander’s men repeatedly took great casualties when they accompanied him into battle, so perhaps at times the courage of Alexander descended into reckless disregard for the men that loved him. At these times, vice was confused with virtue, and Alexander’s men often paid the price. 

However, Alexander also bore the wounds and scars of his courageous accomplishments. When Alexander spoke to his troops before the Battle of Gaugamela (Γαυγάμηλα), it was sa id that he didn’t even need words because “so many scars spoke up for him–as so many ornaments to his body” (History of Alexander 4.6). Plutarch said the wounds of Alexander were practical evidence of his courage: the gash on his head from a scimitar at the Granicus (I.7-8); the arrow wound on his ankle at the siege of Gaza (I.10-11); the dislocated shoulder; another arrow through the shin at Maracanda; and many more (I.7-11). Alexander would call on these scars as witnesses in his defense: Fortune had not made him great, courage had won for him an empire. 

But on this cold autumn day in 324 BC, Alexander’s men were mutinous. After 13 years of conquest and victory, Alexander’s army was defiant and traitorous. Once again, Alexander required courage to stand up to his army.  History records the brave, almost audacious, speech Alexander gave to his men:

“I defeated in a cavalry engagement the satraps of Darius and annexed to your rule the whole of Ionia and Aeolis, both Phrygias and Lydia, and took Miletus by storm. All the rest came over to our side spontaneously, and I made them yours for you to enjoy. All the wealth of Egypt and Cyrene, which I won without a fight, are now yours, Coele Syria (Κοίλη Συρία), Palestine and Mesopotamia are your possession, Babylonia and Bactria and Elam belong to you, you own the wealth of Lydia, the treasures of Persia, the riches of India, and the outer ocean.” In short, Alexander had conquered the world and given it to his people. He continued, “You are satraps, you are generals, you are captains. As for me, what do I have left from all these labors? Merely this purple cloak and a diadem.”

When Alexander finished, he went back to his tent. His men, moved by his courage and reminded of their love for him, pleaded with Alexander for forgiveness. Alexander’s courage had once again saved his army. 

One year later, Alexander died from an unknown illness before he had the opportunity to continue his conquests. And perhaps the obscurity of his death should only further turn our attention to the virtues of Alexander’s life and the courage that made him great. The life of Alexander illustrates a central classical virtue: courage. Courage compelled him to advance when others retreated. Courage drove him to act when others could not or would not for fear of failure. In other words, the life of Alexander demonstrates the near limitless potential of a courageous life. As Christians, Thomas Aqui nas reminds us that courage is not only reserved for battlefield aggression. Rather, courage is an internal disposition of the soul that compels one to act with bravery and endurance. Through this Christian lens, Alexander becomes a model of courageous activity and a warning about excesses of reckless behavior.

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