One way I judge people is how they see Alexander the Great. This is a very helpful approach to judging others. Invariably any celebration of the Macedonian king gives insight into the flaws of the person doing the celebrating. There is one rather obvious weakness with my approach to judging character. You might be surprised about just how few people spontaneously tell you their opinions of ancient monarchs when they first met you. (Honestly, they should. It would help classify people much more efficiently than other techniques). So what should one think? Alexander the Great Man?
Leadership And Alexander The Great Man
Writers on leadership love to tell us about Alexander The Great Man. I have previously talked about this see here. I have noted JB Steenkamp’s approach to leadership; the great man of history leadership perspective, here. Now, I’ll dig more into Steenkamp’s views of Alexander. Hopefully, I’ll convince you that Alexander the Great needs a bit more thoughtful analysis than he gets.
Steenkamp seems to have bought the Alexander myth wholesale.
Alexander was one of history’s greatest eagles.Steenkamp, 2020, page 290
An eagle is a good thing, just run with this characterization. To be fair any theory needs fun, catchy descriptions. But what lessons should we take from Alexander?
Never Give Up, Except When You Need To
Alexander the Great was truly exceptional but don’t believe everything that is said. Some of it is clearly an exaggeration.
Alexander never gave up (until the Indus River.)Steenkamp, 2020, page 291
I can translate that: Alexander never gave up ….. until he did. Don’t give up, till you should give up is good, if Delphic, advice.
Loyalty To Your Followers
Steenkamp talks of Alexander’s great loyalty to his followers.
This is despite the fact that Steenkamp knows of Cleitus. Alexander seems to have murdered this follower, who had saved his life previously, while in a drunken rage. Still, I guess no one is perfect. Apparently, in his defense, Alexander felt really sorry about it afterwards. This murder is turned into a positive for Alexander by Steenkamp who suggests other kings killed their followers but did not repent.
Yet, it is worth considering the nature of the Macedonian monarchy when making this statement. Steenkamp does not do this. In Macedonia, the king is often seen as more first among equals. Many think that the Macedonian king was not the (semi-)divine being some kings are portrayed as (see here). Did Macedonian kings never apologize? How do we know given no meaningful discussion is given of the power of the Macedonian monarchy?
My point is that there is certainly a view amongst some historians that Macedonian monarchs had to listen to the views of their followers. You could frame Alexander’s, and his father’s, overarching political agenda as securing the king’s control over their powerful followers. Killing Cleitus may have been an over-reach that Alexander really needed to atone for or lose the support of Cleitus’ contemporaries who didn’t want to be the next one murdered by the king. Without thinking of the political background you can’t meaningfully judge actions and characters.
Never (Well, Rarely) Waste Your Follower’s Lives
According to Steenkamp Alexander was “never wasteful” of his followers’ lives. This is hard to take seriously. Steenkamp is aware of Alexander’s march across the Gedrosian desert. This led to the deaths of countless followers. It is hard to explain what happened. The basic question is; why was there a desert march at all given Alexander seems to have had ships to sail past the desert? Alexander doesn’t seem to have had to do the march across the desert that resulted in the deaths of many of his troops.
So why did Alexander do the march? You don’t need to go deep into the ancient history literature. Wikipedia tells us the two competing theories (and no others are popular). One theory was Alexander wanted to show that he was better than the ancient Persian king Cyrus the Great who couldn’t do the march across the desert. I.e., Alexander wasted the lives of loads of his followers in a pissing contest with a long-dead bloke. The other theory is worse for Alexander. That Alexander was punishing the army for mutinying when he wanted to go on conquering. The army had said enough was enough on the killing front. In return, Alexander lost loads of his followers punishing them with a desert march in a fit of pique.
Who knows what the reason was? I certainly don’t. Still, the idea that anyone can confidently say Alexander was never wasteful of his followers’ lives is just not credible.
Alexander The Great: Not A Great Person
It might be worth thinking about why Alexander attacked Persia. The official story was to avenge the Persian attacks on Greece in the 5th century BCE. This is a strange thing for Alexander to want to avenge. After all, his father had attacked Greece too, and Alexander had started his reign by smashing the Greek city-states. Alexander did a much better job of invading Greece than any Persian had ever managed. Add to this the fact that the Persian invasions were a century and a half before. In the twenty-first century do we still think random invasions are okay? Would it be okay for Mexico to invade New Mexico because the Mexicans wanted to revisit the Mexican-American war?
Yes, I know times change. I’m certainly not in favor of fixating on the worst things people did/said or holding historical figures to ever-changing modern standards. Yet, you can still point out that people you are holding up as heroes were pretty terrible people by any reasonable standards. Conquering was Alexander’s main thing. Criticizing him for the whole mass-murder thing is quite unlike picking out the worst comments some otherwise admirable figure ever made (e.g., Lincoln). There was even a tradition in Rome of seeing Alexander as a figure who descended into murder and tyranny. Think about that. It took a lot for Ancient Roman writers to disapprove of plans for world conquest. Maybe they had a point and Alexander went a little too far with the killing people?
One of the things I most object to in historical analysis of leadership is political naivety. There is a strand of thought that suggests Alexander was, I kid you not, ‘unifying the races’. This comes from his attempts to blend Persian customs into his court. Indeed, Steenkamp says:
Alexander’s vision of a world empire, governed jointly by the Macedonians and the Persians.Steenkamp, 2020, page 312
That sounds nice, doesn’t it? Take the conquered people and respect their customs. If I remember my studies correctly this idea seemed very appealing to early twentieth-century British historians. You can see why British Imperialists might like the idea of justifying an empire this way. It is fairly laughable though, isn’t it? Just a thought, but maybe the Persians would have been happier not being conquered in the first place? As such, the portrayal of Alexander as the great cosmopolitan hero seems a little too much like spin to me.
Respecting The Foreign Customs That You Like
Perhaps I am being too cynical but look at what customs Alexander thought would be good to bring into the Macedonian court. Probably the biggest clash came over proskynesis (prostration). The Macedonians didn’t prostrate themselves before their king. (BTW that they didn’t prostrate is evidence for the first amongst equals view of a relatively weak Macedonian monarchy). The Persians did prostrate. (This has been suggested as evidence of a more powerful monarchy).
To signal the equal position of Persians with Macedonians, Alexander tried to introduce proskynesis as common court ceremonial, but had to abandon that plan due to fierce resistance.Steenkamp, 2020, page 289
Strange coincidence that Alexander in attempting to unify traditions decided to go for the Persian tradition that set him up as more important than he was in Macedonian tradition. Why did the Macedonians resist? Were the Macedonians bigoted against Persians? Sure, that is likely one reason why Alexander could persuade them to invade in the first place. Still the Macedonians, unlike this modern leadership scholar, could see the implications of the unification of customs. The Macedonians were being downgraded. The point wasn’t that everyone was equal. At best, it was that everyone else was equal apart from Alexander and he was certainly very much on top.
Alexander The Great Man
I don’t know why people love Alexander so much. He was certainly militarily successful but I’m not sure anyone should want to emulate him nowadays. He obviously failed to set up a proper succession plan; his empire descended into wars and fragmented pretty much before he was cold. There are certainly significant leadership weaknesses when you look at Alexander. A number of his close followers tried to murder him. He murdered a bunch of them in return. That would probably be looked into by even the most supine HR departments in combined CEO-Chair organizations. Plus, I’m pretty sure leadership like that would get you removed even from tenured academic posts nowadays.
Read: Jan-Benedict Steenkamp (2020) Time to Lead: Lessons for Today’s Leaders from Bold Decisions that Changed History, Fast Company Press