Alexander the Great

“There is nothing impossible to him who will try” – Alexander III of Macedon

Greatness comes at a price. This is what we can learn from the biography of Alexander the Great by Jacob Abbott if we only had one short sentence to review the book. There are many biographies written about Alexander the Great and each has a different focus. Jacob Abbott decided to keep it relatively simple, short and with a focus on the character of Alexander. His histories of warfare are mentioned, as well his rise to power, but both in shorter detail. If you want to learn about the personality traits of the greatest conquer in history, this is the book for you.

As a young boy, Alexander was raised in relative luxury. On the one hand, he was the son of Philip III of Macedon, born into incredible wealth. On the other hand, he was trained to physical excellence, did not bother with exclusive food or other displays of wealth. He was trained in warfare and from early on learned how to be a leader. One of the examples is how he tamed his horse Bechepalas. At only 10 years old he read the body language of the horse, figured out that it was distressed by all the attention, his own shadow and the nervous people around him, and then took the necessary actions to calm him down. In this he achieved to tame the horse, a feat that none of the horsemen (all double or more his age) had been able to achieve.

After the tragic death of his father, Alexander became the leader of his people. He did not try and change the way the country was being run. He did not replace the men that had advised his father but embraced the knowledge they possessed and respected their authority. By being humble he quickly gained the trust of his advisors and was embraced as the true leader of his people.

Even with his enemies, he had the same understanding. He was very successful in warfare and conquered many countries. In concurring a city he would always offer the opportunity for the people to join him before he would crash down upon them. Even when a military confrontation had preceded, people who openly supported him were spared from slavery, as where religious ministers and poets. When capturing the family of one of his greatest enemies (Darius), he left them to live on in their wealth. Overlooking the share brutality of his force (Alexander very probably is responsible for the most murders in the history of mankind) there was a sense of justice to his actions.

Justice was complemented by the sheer focus and determination he possessed. His goal was to rule the known world (to which he succeeded with grace). In effecting this goal he stuck to one distinct military configuration, the phalanx. In the phalanx the men walked side to side, carrying a shield on the left, and a long spear on the right. In that time this mass of people became impenetrable as the shields could be used to become one massive unit.  Both his focus in battle and in strategy can be compared to the hedgehog concept as proposed by Jim Collins in Good to Great. The hedgehog concept states that a company (or person) is best not to have many different goals, tactics and strategies, but to focus on one thing only. By laying a focus on one thing only, a person is able to excel and become the best, as did Alexander in conquering the world by using the phalanx.

Things start going downhill after the first invasion of Asia Minor. He rejects the offer made by Darius to receive a significant amount of land, stating that he (as the King of Asia) is the only one to redistribute land. Then he undertook the siege to capture Tyra, but at the end of the prolonged battle ended up killing all men and selling women and children into slavery. After concurring Egypt he had himself declared ‘Master of the Universe’, there was nothing left of the prior humility.

Humility was also gone in his own appearance. First despising the luxurious displays of the Persian wealthy, he himself became more and more acquainted with wearing this kind of clothing. Moderation was taken over by excessive drinking and might have even been the cause of the burning of Xerxes palace. This in the end also was the cause of his own death, dying roughly two weeks after two nights of heavy drinking and a subsequent fever.

Alexander the Great did not build his empire on the notion to last forever. Much of the affairs of the empire were dependent on him. This does not mean that he personally oversaw the many details of his ruling, but that his character was what build it all. With him gone the empire soon broke up into many pieces and there was no one to follow in his footsteps. Although Alexander the Great started with a perfect character, the power he attained got to him and eventually meant the downfall of him and his empire.

Remember upon the conduct of each depends the fate of all – Alexander III of Macedon

At the end of his biography of Alexander the Great, Job Abbott ponders one very significant question: What if only Alexander only had used his awesome powers for good? In his lifetime many people prospered, but an even greater number suffered and died in consequence of his ever-expanding empire. Reading about the life of Alexander the Great is very interesting and leaves you wondering how to maintain a good character when it matters. It may not be the best book to consider when thinking about leadership or character, but is definitively one that you should read when convenient.