Eloquence is a highly interesting aspect of Alexander’s personality that only transpires on certain occasions and is hard to figure out as it automatically raises other questions. Was Alexander a born orator? He may well have been. Was Alexander inspired by his father’s eloquence? Not unlikely since Philip was a shrewd manipulator in words and deeds and this ability cannot have been lost on his son. Was Alexander a good pupil of Aristotle? No doubt and certainly when it came to learning those skills which truly mattered to him.
The art of rhetoric is lost in our 21st century of mass communication where fast phonetic language is the rule, but there were times when people would meet to talk for the sake of argumentation. It was an art to use our language effectively in order to convince and to impress our interlocutor with the tiniest of nuances. The fashion was popular with ancient Greeks who liked to elaborate their topics during their Symposia.
Historians like Arrian and Curtius often seem to be quoting Alexander verbatim when he addresses his troops or responds to certain situations. Generally, these words are considered as created by the authors rather than actually pronounced by the king. Maybe so, maybe not. Unfortunately, we have no original texts from Alexander’s journals or from the memoirs written down by his contemporaries like Onesicritus, Callisthenes, Ptolemy or Aristobulus. Therefore it seems too easy and even unfair to dismiss the idea that their accounts could have contained true original quotes and even speeches made by Alexander.
There are many examples of Alexander addressing his troops to motivate and encourage them at the onset of a battle, but he probably spoke to his audiences on many more occasions. It is said that he knew more than one thousand of his men by name and I am certain that he used every opportunity to talk to them in person. In modern vocabulary, he would qualify as being a good communicator.
We generally tend to accept the one sentence quotes that are reported in history, like:
- when young Alexander sees that Bucephalus is being led away because the horse is judged to be beyond training and exclaimed: “What an excellent horse do they lose, for want of address and boldness to manage him!”
- when Alexander visits Diogenes in Corinth (that is, IF that meeting did indeed take place) he would have said “If I were not Alexander, I would be Diogenes”
- when after the Battle of Issus Darius offers Alexander all of Asia to the
Euphrates and the hand of his daughter in marriage, Parmenion encourages his king to accept this offer but Alexander drily responded with “So would I, if I were Parmenion”
- or the plausible remark making Alexander say “sex and sleep alone make me conscious that I am mortal” or the one showing his bleeding wounds stating that this is not “ichor” flowing through his veins (golden blood of the gods).
It is beyond doubt that Alexander addressed his troops just before battle for he had an excellent personal antenna to gauge the morale of his men and he knew exactly how to motivate them. Very modern is the openness with which Alexander tells his army what they are to expect, embellishing the truth in his favor whenever opportune. But we cannot blame him for that as after all the trick is used by every politician then as now. The art consists in making the message clear and credible. “We are free men and they are slaves” is one such a quote.
The encouraging words he spoke just before crossing the Pillars of Jonah over which Alexander would have to retrace his steps to the
where the Battle of Issus was to take place are very telling. Both Arrian and Curtius spend many lines describing Alexander’s speeches and personal addresses to his commanders and even to individuals of lower ranks, making sure to touch every man’s pride and to get their mind ready for the battle to come. Pinarus River
Like a fine psychologist, he plays the cord that touches the soul of every man. He reminds his Macedonians of their victories in Europe including that at Chaeronea rekindling their old-time valor; he reminds them of the Granicus and the many cities of
Asia Minor they have already taken. When he faces the Greek allied forces, he brings up the brutal invasions of the Persians who burned their temples and homes adding that now was the time for revenge. To the Thracians and Illyrians accustomed to a life of plunder, he tells them to focus on the gleaming gold and purple of the enemies and the booty they would yield. Of course, he needs all these soldiers since according to the League of Corinth they joined forces to fight against ; they need to be motivated as well. When he tackles the subject of the Greek mercenaries fighting in Persian service, he points out that they fight for pay while Alexander’s own foreign troops – Thracians, Paeonians, Illyrians, Agrianes – are the best and stoutest soldiers in Persia Europe. Enough to kindle every man’s pride!
Arrian concludes by putting these words in Alexander’s mouth: “The enemy of Persians and Medes have lived soft and luxurious, while we Macedonians went to the hard school of danger and war. You have Alexander – they Darius!”. We know the outcome of that battle!
At Gaugamela, Alexander addressed his soldiers in quite a different way since each and every one of them knew how important this victory over the King of Persia was going to be. Nevertheless, he stresses that every soldier should preserve his discipline in the hour of danger, that all orders must be obeyed promptly and that all officers, whatever their rank are to pass their commands to their subordinates without hesitation or delay. Most importantly, Alexander emphasizes that the conduct of each of his men is crucial to the fate of all. In other words, if everyone does his duty as expected their success is assured, but if only one man neglects it the entire army will be in peril. Strong talk.
Once his forces are arranged according to his plan, Alexander once again rides up and down the lines to lift the spirits of every man and every squadron with a last word of encouragement. Everything depends indeed on the commitment of each and every one of Alexander’s troops to maintain the frontline and avoid any gap in the formation that could be exploited by the Persians. Amazingly and against all odds, Alexander has indeed been able to maintain his line of defense. His men did not let him down!
Of an entirely different caliber is Alexander’s earnest appeal to his Macedonians in the case of the Philotas Affair in which his trusted general and boyhood friend is suspected of treason in an attempt to take the life of his king. This is a most threatening and highly alarming situation that can be compared to attacks on the lives of modern leaders like JF Kennedy or King Hassan II of
. Thorough investigations followed these attentats with more or less success. Morocco
In Alexander’s case, he had to lead the investigation himself and present the case before his Macedonians in accordance with the prevailing laws. Alexander’s exposé is worthy of the plea held by the most accomplished lawyer. He starts by telling his men how closely he escaped to death. He then shares his deep sorrow when learning that his longtime friend Philotas, and Parmenion his and his father’s most trusted generals conceived a plot to take his life. The informants are then praised for their courage in bringing the bad news to Alexander while he was bathing. Philotas in his efforts to keep the matter quiet must have had goods reasons to do so, he says. He even reads aloud a letter Parmenion sent to his sons, Nicanor and Philotas, which he had intercepted and in which Parmenion advised them to look out for themselves “for thus we shall accomplish what we have planned”. A sentence that had no meaning had the conspiracy not been disclosed. Alexander takes his plea a step further by confiding his hitherto personal skepticism about Philotas who had joined Amyntas (Alexander’s uncle who was under age when his father was killed on the battlefield, upon which Philip was chosen as Macedonia’s new king; with Philip’s death he could claim the throne) to make an impious plot against his life. He tells his soldiers how these acts have torn him apart – working on their sentiments.
Alexander continues by reminding his soldiers that he had put Philotas in command of his elite cavalry, entrusting his life, his hopes and victories to him. He had elected his father, Parmenion, to rule over Media with all its richness, a position that required integrity and respect for his king. Now his trust has been broken and he has fallen victim to such a shameful scheme! Alexander in his speech seeks refuge with his troops, going as far as to state that his own safety lies in their avenge.
Philotas’ defense, which I will not detail here, is not less flamboyant and another example of good rhetoric which, in my eyes, can only be traced back to Aristotle’s teaching.
Most significant and more difficult was the plea Alexander held in
India when his Macedonians refused to march beyond the . He called a meeting with his officers hoping they would agree on going forward, however, without success. He then gathers his troops and reminds them of what they had accomplished so far. Working on their sentiments, he asks them if they were afraid (a sensitive note, no doubt) and then exposes the great prospects that lay ahead. Alexander has shared all his men’s hardships, suffered the same wounds, the cold, heat, thirst and famine. After these words, his men stood there in utter silence as nobody dared to respond or contradict any of the king’s arguments till Coenus courageously stepped forward to verbalize the thoughts of the Macedonians present. They were determined not to go any further – all they wanted was to go home after too many years away from their loved ones. We know that Alexander sulked in his tent for several days after that but even he could not accomplish a miracle and had to give in and lead the army back west. Hyphasis River
Probably the most famous and best documented is the discourse Alexander pronounced at Opis in 324 BC. Here, Alexander called his Macedonians together and announced that he was discharging the veterans among them as well as the wounded and those unfit for further service so they could return to their homes. They would collect their pay and their bonus would make the envy of their family and friends at home. The king expected that his decision would please his Macedonians (who wanted so badly to go home when they were in
!) but instead, they resented his words and told him so with loud shouting. They felt pushed aside in favor of the Persians and other foreign troops and cavalry. It hurt them deeply that the very people they conquered were to take their place. India
Although Alexander was taken off guard, he immediately rushed into the rebellious mob to arrest the ringleaders of this mutiny. Then he made a fiery speech addressing his troops that had contributed to his success over the years. He started by referring to his father who brought the mountain people and goat herders to the rich plains of
and told them how to be victorious in battle. He, Alexander, had led them from victory to victory, adding all of Asia Minor to Macedonia Macedonia, reaping the riches of Egypt, Syria and Mesopotamia. They conquered the cities of Halicarnassus, Babylon, Persepolis and Bactra. He took nothing for himself while they all lived in luxury. He shared his soldiers’ toil and fatigue, hunger and thirst, freezing cold and scorching heat, even their wounds. None of them was killed in flight and those who fell in a glorious death were honored with a splendid burial and their parents were released from taxation.
Finally, Alexander makes a defiant statement: “if you wish to depart, depart all of you!” He tells his Macedonians to go back home to report that when they returned to Susa after all those years of conquests – and he names the peoples, lands, rivers and mountains they conquered – they deserted their king, leaving him under the protection of conquered foreigners. Do they expect their homecoming to be glorious in the eyes of their kin when they hear that they left their king behind? Very strong words, much more fierce than those used in
Alexander retires to his quarters for three days. By the third day, he has drawn new plans appointing Persians to occupy the hitherto Macedonian commanding posts, which include his Companions and even his Silver Shields! That was just too much for the Macedonians to bear! The very thought of having those Persian Barbarians commanding them was inconceivable. They thronged around the entrance of Alexander’s quarters begging for admission and offering to give up the ringleaders of the mutiny. Once again, the army conquered the heart of their beloved king but it was Alexander’s eloquence that brought them back to reason.
“Every man of you, I regard as my kinsman, and from now on that is what I shall call you” are the words Alexander used to close the matter. I think this says a lot about the magnanimity of Alexander but we should not forget that his eloquence widely contributed to his success.
[The picture of Alexander at Gaugamela is from Oliver Stone's movie Alexander]