Tuesday, February 20, 2024

Modern misconceptions of Alexander the Great and Hephaestion

 I watched Netflix's docudrama and, like Professor Paul Cartledge in his recent interview (https://www.thecollector.com/paul-cartledge-alexander-the-great-interview/), I thought Netflix overemphasized the possible physical aspects of the relationship between Alexander and Hephaestion as a lead-in to the program. I also thought the program did not really emphasize Alexander's intellectual prowess as it pertained to military strategy, especially in the dramatization of the battle at the Granicus River. Alexander did not charge headlong recklessly into the Persian troops immediately upon arrival as portrayed in the film but carefully deployed his forces with unit commanders selected for their experience with troops armed with specific weapons. According to Arrian of Nicomedia, "After both armies finished their deployment, there was a moment of silence. Alexander then ordered Amyntas, son of Arrhabeus, to attack the Persian left wing with the Companion cavalry squadron of Socrates (now led by Ptolemy, son of Philip) at the front, followed by the Paeonian cavalry, the prodromoi and an unspecified infantry unit. Arrian then gives the impression that Alexander advanced at nearly the same time with the remainder of the right wing and the infantry, but later makes it clear that Alexander's attack came after the troops of Amyntas were pushed back.

The Persians answered the charge of the vanguard with volleys of javelins. Amyntas's force was at a disadvantage because they were severely outnumbered and the Persians were defending higher ground at the top of the bank. The Macedonians suffered losses and retreated towards Alexander, who now attacked with the remaining Companion cavalry of the right wing.
Historian A. M. Devine reasons that the failure of the attack led by Amyntas was not a mistake, but a ruse to draw the Persian cavalry out of formation as they pursued the retreating force of Amyntas into the riverbed. The disruption of the Persian formation would have made them vulnerable to the second attack led by Alexander in person.
Although other historians do not necessarily agree with Devine, Devine's explanation of Alexander's strategy reminded me a lot of Hannibal's tactics at the Battle of Cannae where the appearance of weakness was used to draw the enemy into a vulnerable position.
The docudrama also presented Alexander as a youthful, inexperienced commander when, in fact, Alexander had successfully put down several revolts in the Balkans and Greece after Phillip's assassination to reassert Macedonian authority before embarking on his Persian campaign.

Image: Sculptures of Alexander the Great and Hephaestion that I photographed at the Getty Villa in Malibu, California.

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