The Path of Bravery: Alexander the Great
Selflessness is the supreme virtue of the true warrior. Bravery is an extension of that supreme virtue. By accepting that the group comes before the individual, the true warrior unhesitatingly rises to perform brave deeds on the battlefield. Whether a common foot soldier or a general with thousands of troops under his command, the true warrior knows only one way, the path of bravery. Alexander the Great was a true warrior and he was a selfless disciple of that noble path.
In 336 B.C., Alexander became King of Macedonia at the age of 20. Over the next 13 years, he led his soldiers to countless victories, enriched them with vast treasures, and established the largest empire that the ancient world had ever seen, an empire that stretched from the sands of Egypt to the mountains of modern-day Pakistan, extending across three continents and covering nearly two million square miles. It took a special type of commander to lead his men so far from home, guide them across frigid mountains, scorching hot desserts, and raging rivers, fighting enemies all along the way. Alexander was certainly a man of colossal ambition, but above all else, he selflessly led his men and his bravery was never in question. Alexander the Great led from the front and his body was covered with just as many scars as any man who fought in his army.
A famous mosaic dating back to around 100 B.C. or earlier, depicting Alexander the Great, on the left and raising his spear, as he chases down King Darius fleeing in his chariot at the Battle of Issus in northwestern Syria in 333 B.C. Today, the mosaic is located at the National Archaeological Museum of Naples in Italy. (Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons)
One of the greatest examples of Alexander’s bravery occurred during an attack against a city belonging to the Malli, a powerful Indian tribe of the Indus River Valley in 326 B.C.
Upon the arrival of the Macedonians in their realm, the Malli fiercely resisted, but Alexander and his troops were too strong and overpowered several of their cities. Determined to make a final stand against the invaders, the remaining Malli fell back to their strongest city.
Upon the approach of Alexander’s army, the Malli abandoned their posts, falling back to the citadel of their city and leaving their outer walls unguarded. Thinking the town was ripe for the taking, the Macedonians swarmed through the gates, but they quickly discovered that their opponents were far from gone. With his men failing in their efforts to breach the central fortress, Alexander sprang to action, grabbing a ladder and holding his shield in front of him as he mounted the wall and led the way forward. Followed by his attendant, bodyguard, and a common soldier, the Macedonian king ascended to the top of the wall and clashed with the enemy as his small cohort trailed behind him. As author Philip Freeman writes in his stellar biography, Alexander the Great, “The rest of the soldiers below were so ashamed that they had allowed themselves to be left behind that they all clambered up the latter at once, breaking it under their weight.”
The ladder breaks as Alexander's soldiers rush to join their king atop the wall. (Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Cutoff from his soldiers, Alexander and his three companions were left alone. Dangerously exposed on top of the wall, Alexander jumped into the city and “positioned himself with his back to a large tree and stabbed anyone who approached him,” as noted by Freeman. After slaying several of the enemy, the Indians moved out of sword range and formed a semicircle around Alexander. Picking up stones lying on the ground, the Macedonian king threw rocks at any of the Malli who came too close for comfort. The Indians did the same and hurled their own rocks at Alexander.
Watching their king in distress, Alexander’s three companions also jumped into the city to protect their leader. Abreas, a common soldier, was quickly brought down after he was hit in the face with an arrow. Alexander was also struck by an arrow shot. Fired at such close range, the projectile penetrated Alexander’s armor and entered his chest, puncturing a lung. A fighter through and through, Freeman writes that the king “continued to defend himself, but he was bleeding so profusely and struggling so hard to breathe that he collapsed onto the ground.” Springing to action, Leonnatus, Alexander’s bodyguard, and Peucestas, the king’s attendant, clung to their commander, raising their shields to block the stones and arrows raining down on them.
Alexander's attendant Peucestas protecting his king with a sacred shield taken from the temple of Athena at Troy in 334 B.C. At Athena's alter, Alexander had dedicated his own armor and shield, exchanging them for arms said to have been left there since the Trojan War. Among these items was the sacred shield. (Photo Credit: The Deadliest Blogger - Military History Page)
When Alexander had jumped down the wall into the city, his soldiers were terrified that their beloved leader was no longer in sight. Their king had disappeared and the troops worked frantically to break into the citadel and reach him. As Freeman records, “Some stuck pegs into the mud bricks and climbed the wall like a mountain cliff. Others stood on the shoulders of their comrades to reach the top, while more pushed on the gate until the bar holding it finally snapped.” Alexander was in bad shape when they reached him, still being shielded, but lying in a pool of blood beneath the tree. The king was rushed to his nearby ship to receive medical attention and his soldiers exacted revenge against the Malli, cutting “down every man, woman, and child,” according to Freeman.
The arrow was removed from Alexander, but he hemorrhaged profusely during the procedure and fell into unconsciousness. He remained aboard the ship for days. Without any word coming down from their king, the men in the ranks feared the worst for their leader. Even an announcement from the command staff that Alexander was alive and would soon be ready to be seen failed to put rumors of the king’s demise to rest. After a torturous wait, the Macedonian soldiers finally watched as the curtains of their commander’s ship opened and his motionless body was carried on a litter down the ramp. “He seemed dead to all who were standing on the shore,” writes Freeman, “but the moment the litter reached the bank Alexander held up his hand and waved to the crowd.” His men were overcome with emotion. Many of these battle-hardened soldiers even wept. Their king was alive.
The curtains aboard Alexander's ship are opened and his men catch a glimpse of their wounded, but very much alive king. (Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Another litter was brought over to transfer Alexander to the dock, but he ordered that a horse be led forward. As Freeman describes, “In what must have been one of the most courageous acts of his life, the still gravely injured king pushed his friends away and climbed slowly up onto his horse to reassure his men that he was fine.” As the Macedonian king rode past his troops to his tent, his faithful fighters cheered wildly, showering him with flowers and reaching out to touch this son of Zeus. Summoning all his strength, Alexander dismounted, and through his sheer will alone, walked into his tent, where he subsequently collapsed onto his bed.
Once Alexander had begun to recover and regain strength, his officers lauded him for his bravery in the attack against the Malli stronghold, but implored him that as king, it was not his job “to risk his life in such a way when there were plenty of men in the army who could do the same thing,” as noted by Freeman. Processing the rebukes of his officers, Alexander proceeded to exit his tent and entered the army’s camp. A veteran soldier had overheard the chatter in the king’s tent. He walked over to his commander and looked him straight in the eye. “Alexander,” he said, “brave deeds are what true men do.” Heartened by these words from his fellow true warrior, Alexander embraced the grizzled veteran, and according to Freeman, “considered him a friend for the rest of his life.”
A marble portrait head of Alexander the Great dating back to the 2nd-1st century B.C. Today, it can be found at the British Museum in London, England. (Photo Credit: Tony Baggett/Encyclopædia Britannica)
Alexander’s veteran soldier reminded his king of what they both knew to be the truth. Brave deeds are indeed what true men and true warriors do. The commitment to following the path of bravery, which extends from the virtue of selflessness, is the only way for the true warrior to operate. This tenet remains as sacred for the true warrior today as it did during the time of Alexander the Great. Wars might change, but the true warrior is always guided by the same principles and remains the same.
Alexander The Great by Philip Freeman.
BBC: Alexander the Great.
History.com: Alexander The Great.
The Warrior Ethos by Steven Pressfield.