We have harped about how ancient Spartans bragged of rigorous discipline being instilled in their citizen armies. But there was another ‘lesser’ Greek kingdom on the northern periphery of Classical Greece that eventually managed to make its world-conquering claims that no other ‘civilized’ Greek city-state could ever boast of. We are of course talking about the ancient Macedonians, and how they conducted their legendary military campaigns around most of the known world – all under the brilliant leadership of Alexander III of Macedon (or Aléxandros ho Mégas). So, without further ado, let us check out ten amazing facts you probably didn’t know about Alexander the Great and his incredible army.
1) Most Macedonians started out as poor herdsmen, until Alexander’s father trained them –
We had previously talked about the great wars of Greece and Persia. And amid such disastrous scopes and heroic deeds, Macedonia remained a relatively unimportant backwater to the greater geo-political situation – mostly owing to its lesser strategic importance (in the north). In fact, the seemingly modest origins of the so-called Macedonian state is shrouded in obscurity, with most of the population of land being rural herdsmen in 5th century BC. Consequently, the southerly urbanized Greeks regarded the Macedonian inhabitants being semi-barbarous who lived on the edge of the then-known civilized world.
However, by the later Peloponnesian Wars (fought between Sparta and Athens) in the later part of 5th century BC, Macedonian kings had already started undertaking public projects that improved the country’s economy. But it was the great Philip II (Alexander’s father) who started his reign from 359 BC, and made the incredible military reforms that was to transform Macedonia into a future superpower. One of the most iconic features of these reforms was the evolution of the Greek hoplite into phalanx – a military stratagem that emphasized better army formation over individual prowess of a soldier (a classic tactic eventually mastered by the later Romans). And interestingly enough, Philip himself was inspired by the Theban military successes of the early 4th century, as opposed to the ‘pedigree’ of the renowned Spartans and Athenians; and even had grand plans to invade Persia (before he was assassinated).
In any case, Philip’s immense contribution to the organized Macedonian state and its military had been alluded to – even during his own lifetime, when then-contemporary historian Theopompus claimed “Europe had never before produced a man such as Philip”.
2) Macedonian discipline was so strict that it even forbade taking warm baths –
The phalanx as a formation demanded individual discipline and tenacity from each of its occupant soldier – with one historical anecdote from Polyaenus (a 2nd-century Macedonian author) relating to how Philip made his men march over 30 miles in a single day, with all their armaments and armor. The maintenance of such brutal military methods certainly required rigorous degrees of drilling and self-restraint. To that end, one particular scenario involved a high-ranking Tarantine cavalry officer (possibly hailing from a powerful Greek city on the west coast of Italy) who was unceremoniously stripped of his rank for just bathing in warm water. The simple enough reason was (according to Polyaenus) – “…for he did not understand the way of the Macedonians, among whom not even a woman who has just given birth bathes in warm water.”
And as if such drastic measures were not enough, each troop of the phalanx had to personally carry heavy provisions for at least 30 days during the campaigns (a practice that was also adopted by the later Roman legions). Furthermore, the mobility and self-sufficiency of the army was substantially increased by decreasing the number of servants (or camp followers) – which was reduced to one for every ten men.
3) Alexander had a group of 200 ‘personal companions’ in addition to the renowned Companion cavalry –
While Philip effectively drilled the Macedonians into an incredible fighting force, Alexander (the Great) endowed his inherited army with an air of majesty and pompousness. One of the conspicuous aspects of this ritzy nature was the induction of heavy shock cavalry into a primarily Greek force that was traditionally not known for its cavalry tactics. Known as hetairoi or ‘Companions’, these horsemen were generally derived from the Macedonian aristocracy and nobility. However, Alexander the Great went one step further by incorporating another core group of ‘companions’ within this already elite group. These chosen men were also referred to as personal friends of the king – according to many ancient sources.
To that end, the personal companions upheld the true meaning of the word – by accompanying Alexander in various scenarios, whether it be in the thick of the battle or during recreational hunting sessions. In fact, Alexander’s fascination with his own formed military brotherhood was so great that he himself often dressed in the uniform of a Companion cavalry regiment. Now of course, such ‘normal’ officer-like attires were only worn during times of peace (and planning), and were eschewed in favor of elaborate dresses during actual battles.
4) Alexander’s famed phalanx was actually composed of relatively light-armored infantrymen –
Once again, according to Polyaenus’ account of Macedonian military training, the infantrymen of phalanx were supplied with helmets (kranos), light shields (pelte), greaves (knemides) and a long pike (sarissa). So as can be gathered from this small list of items, the armor is conspicuously missing. And even after 100 years of Alexander’s death, there are accounts of his successor states’ phalanx army going without armor systems. From such literary sources, one hypothesis can be put forward – the Greek and Macedonian armies totally gave up on their heavy bronze cuirass, and instead opted for linothorax, a light armor made from glued layers of linen.
Interestingly, one of the accounts of Polyaenus entail how Alexander himself armed the men who had previously fled the battlefield with a hemithorakion – a half armor that only covered the front part of the body, so that the soldiers wouldn’t turn their backs on the enemy. In any case, metallic corsets would have been unnecessary for troops in the rear-end ranks of a well-guarded phalanx – a tactical advantage that must have been welcomed by the ancient commanders who were usually short in funds and equipment.
5) Alexander’s “unpaid” infantry traveled more than 20,870 miles on his Asiatic campaign –
Previously in the list, we had talked about how stringent discipline was part-and-parcel of Alexander’s Macedonian army, a quality that was rarely seen in other ancient proximate cultures. An extension of this intrinsic discipline can be comprehended from their jaw-dropping feats. To that end, according to a calculation made by historian Theodore Ayrault Dodge, the infantrymen who had joined Alexander in 336 BC and then embarked on his Asia-bound campaign, had traveled more than 20,870 miles (or 33,400 km) by the time Alexander breathed his last in Babylon (in 323 BC). So, on an average, each of these men had covered an impressive 1,605 miles (or 2,570 km) per year! And, when translated in geographical terms, many of the Macedonian veterans could have claimed to cross a multitude of rivers including the Nile (in Egypt), Euphrates and Tigris (in Iraq), Oxus (in Tajikistan), Syr-Darya (in Uzbekistan) and the Indus (in Pakistan).
It should also be noted that Macedonian kings most probably didn’t develop any means to actually pay their military forces. So, part of this monetary predicament was solved by allowing the soldiers to take part in plunders that usually involved despoiling the enemy cities. But even in such cases, the infantrymen were always given a far lesser portion of the ‘loot’ than their cavalry counterparts.
…continued on next page.