I recently came across the site of The Online Library of Liberty which has among others the text of Plutarch’s The Morals. Here I found Plutarch’s commentary about the life of Alexander the Great. In it he shows how Alexander exemplified virtue in his life and won his successes by sweat and blood and without the help of Fortune, or rather in spite of ill Fortune.
I studied Alexander’s life story some years ago. I could happily write a blog about Alexander alone. There are many striking examples of personal courage in Alexander’s life but one in particular made a deep impression on me. Hollywood could find no more dramatic moment of courage in history than this one but has so far chosen to ignore it.
So I was very gratified to read Plutarch’s eloquent account of the incident. I think you will find it gratifying also, for it is something god-like, hardly to be believed and reveals the essence of Alexander’s life and how he inspired awe and admiration in all, friend and foe alike.
First we must set the stage. Alexander is the most charismatic general in history and his men love him. It is said he can greet 3,000 of them by their name. Alexander and his small army have conquered all of Persia. They are now advancing laboriously through India, conquering small tribes and cities as they go, as Alexander’s ambition drives him to seek a way to the Ocean. They are not a happy band of brothers at this time. In fact the army is close to mutiny. As Peter Green puts it, ‘They were sick of glory and honour. They had endured more in 8 years than most men are called upon to face in a lifetime. Now all they wanted was a quick, safe journey home.’ When Alexander calls upon them to storm the walls of yet another Oxydracian tribal stronghold, they refuse. Alexander is furious and climbs up a ladder himself to shame them, cutting down the defenders on the wall. There he stands, the enemies’ arrows whistling about his ears. His men shout up at him to come back down. He looks at them for a moment and then jumps down… into the stronghold.
Brasidas advanced his fame all over Greece, by breaking through the enemy’s army lying encamped by the seaside near Methone; but when you read of that daring jump of Alexander’s (so astonishing to the hearers, much more to them that beheld it) when he threw himself from the walls of the Oxydracian metropolis among the thickest of the enemy, assailing him on every side with spears, darts, and swords, tell me where you meet with such an example of matchless prowess, or to what you can compare it but to a gleam of lightning violently flashing from a cloud, and impetuously driven by the wind? Such was the appearance of Alexander, as he leaped like an apparition to the earth, glittering in his flaming armour. The enemy, at first amazed and struck with horror, retreated and fell back; till seeing him single they came on again with redoubled force.
Now was not this a great and splendid testimony of Fortune’s kindness, to throw him into an inconsiderable and barbarous town, and there to enclose and immure him a prey to worthless enemies? And when his friends made haste to his assistance, to break the scaling-ladders, and to overthrow and cast them down? Of three that got upon the walls and flung themselves down in his defence, endearing Fortune presently despatched one; the other, pierced and struck with a shower of darts, could only be said to live. Without, the Macedonians foamed and filled the air with helpless cries, having no engines at hand. All they could do was to dig down the walls with their swords, tear out the stones with their nails, and almost to rend them out with their teeth. All this while, Alexander, Fortune’s favourite, whom she always covered with her protection, like a wild beast entangled in a snare, stood deserted and destitute of all assistance, not labouring for Susa, Babylon, Bactria, or to vanquish the mighty Porus. For to miscarry in great and glorious attempts is no reproach; but so malicious was Fortune, so kind to the barbarians, such a hater of Alexander, that she aimed not only at his life and body, but at bereaving him of his honour and sullying his renown. For Alexander’s fall had never been so much lamented had he perished near Euphrates or Hydaspes by the hand of Darius, or by the horses, swords, and axes of the Persians fighting with all their might and main in defence of their king, or had he tumbled from the walls of Babylon, and all his hopes together. Thus Pelopidas and Epaminondas fell; whose death was to be ascribed to their virtue, not to such a poor misfortune as this.
But what was the singular act of Fortune’s favour which we are now enquiring into? What indeed, but in the farthest nook of a barbarous country, on the farther side of a river, within the walls of a miserable village, to pen up and hide the lord and king of the world, that he might there perish shamefully at the hands of barbarians, who should knock him down and pelt him with whatever came next to hand? There the first blow he received with a battle-axe cleft his helmet and entered his skull; at the same time another shot him with an Indian arrow in the breast near one of his paps, the head being four fingers broad and five in length, which, together with the weight of the shaft which projected from the wound, did not a little torment him. But, what was worst of all, while he was thus defending himself from his enemies before him, when he had laid a bold attempter that approached his person sprawling upon the earth with his sword, a fellow from a mill close by came behind him, and with a great iron pestle gave him such a bang upon the neck as deprived him for the present both of his senses and his sight. However, his virtue did not yet forsake him, but supplied him still with courage, infusing strength withal and speed into those about him. For Ptolemy, Limnaeus, and Leonnatus, and some others who had mounted or broken through the wall, made to his succour, and stood about him like so many bulwarks of his virtue; out of mere affection and kindness to their sovereign exposing their bodies, their faces, and their lives in his defence. For it is not Fortune that overrules men to run the hazard of death for brave princes; but the love of virtue allures them - as natural affection charms and entice bees – to surround and guard their chief commander.
From The Second Oration of Plutarch concerning the Fortune or Virtue of Alexander the Great, Plutarch, The Morals, Vol. 1
We have seen that courage is not recklessness; courage is not courage unless guided by prudence. Alexander’s jump was not recklessness but a calculated risk of his life in the cause of a greater goal. He knew his men would follow him. What he miscalculated was the lack of means. His men, on seeing him disappear beyond the wall, surged up the few ladders available like men possessed and overburdened them so that they broke. Others threw themselves like demons against the gates with axes and it was finally the breaking open of the gates which saved Alexander. In a blind rage of revenge and grief his men killed everyone in the stronghold. Alexander survived his wounds, but only just.
If you want to know more about the incredible life of Alexander, I highly recommend Peter Green’s book Alexander of Macedon.
With audacity one can undertake anything. Napoleon
He who fears being conquered is sure of defeat. Napoleon
The battle is not to the strong alone; it is to the vigilant, the active, the brave. Patrick Henry
No great thing comes to any man unless he has courage. Cardinal James Gibbons
Courage is almost a contradiction in terms. It means a strong desire to live taking the form of readiness to die. G.K. Chesterton
One man with courage makes a majority. Andrew Jackson
Image: Statue of Alexander and Bucephalus at Thessaloniki, Greece by Rippedangelwings