The Military Legacy of Alexander the Great: Lessons for the Information Age

  • Published

The Military Legacy of Alexander the Great: Lessons for the Information Age by Michael P. Ferguson and Ian Worthington. Routledge, 2024, 370 pp.

British Army Major General J. F. C. Fuller, a veteran of World War I and a profound contributor to the development of armored warfare, wrote extensively on military theory, history, and biography. In particular, Fuller found examples of ancient generalship pertinent to contemporary military affairs and wrote accounts of the lives of two famous ancient generals, Julius Caesar and Alexander the Great—works which demonstrate Fuller’s acumen as both historian and military officer.1

Ian Worthington, professor of ancient history at Macquarie University in Sydney, and US Army Lieutenant Colonel Michael Ferguson, history doctoral student at the University of North Carolina–Chapel Hill, have combined forces to write a new book attempting to follow Fuller’s lead and make the ancient art of war more accessible to a contemporary audience. Their work not only focuses on Alexander the Great’s campaigns and leadership but also melds the ancient history with contemporary events and concepts. Their goal was not to write another biography or military history of Alexander, but to highlight select examples of his career that resonate in the modern era.

Yet while the authors lay out a clear description of key elements of Alexander’s life and career and mix in several succinct accounts of modern events, the book’s dual approach never really unifies around their central intended theme. They do demonstrate how important studying Alexander’s life is for today’s military leaders, just not as effectively as could have been done. Their attempt to merge modern military and ancient history into a cohesive narrative misses the mark, primarily due to the bifurcated approach.

After an introduction, the authors begin with some background and biographical information, and then, in order to prepare the reader for appreciating the relevancy of Alexander’s context, they discuss contemporary military issues in an effort to “offer the reader a deeper appreciation for, and perhaps connection to, the ancient world by showcasing flawed assumptions surrounding divergent trajectories of modern conflict” (34). After explaining the rise of Macedonia and the development of its army in the aftermath of the classical age of Greek warfare, the book turns to surveying innovation and modernization in the modern military, focusing on the notion of the revolution in military affairs, inaugurated in the post-Vietnam era. Three chapters on key Macedonian campaigns are followed by another on modern issues, then another section on Alexander’s more distant campaigns, his leadership legacy, and his performance as a strategist.

The sections covering Alexander’s conquest of Persia are excellent, with tactical and operational details, maps, and careful analysis using a mix of modern history and ancient sources. The maps are particularly useful in aiding comprehension. The chapters on more recent military events and concepts are not as effective, partly out of a need for brevity but also in the topical structure in which they are couched. This ancient/modern mix is the chief problem with the book; the attempt to connect the Alexander narrative overtly to contemporary events and ideas is rather strained at times, despite frequent use of the “like Alexander” clause. A better approach would have been to mix the modern and ancient factors topically within the same chapter—that is, by extended applicable contemporary passages interlaced within the Macedonian narrative. For example, when discussing reforms and the innovative organization of the Macedonian army, some of the description of the post-Vietnam revolution in military affairs could have been more directly inserted, followed by a comparative section.

Additionally, although Alexander and the US military both campaigned in the Near East, Mesopotamia, and Afghanistan, little attempt was made at comparing the two, other than their shared challenge of confronting different cultures. A more robust examination of the geographic factors in warfare for both ancient and modern armies would have been fascinating. A stronger editing of the text, seeking to mix the two historical approaches, could have enabled the writing and scholarship to be more cohesive.

The authors’ call for the careful study of history by modern military practitioners is eloquently aided by their clear writing styles and carefully measured flow of facts and data. The reader is not drowned in detail, nor do they suffer from confusion due to breadth. A succinct, clever conclusion by former US National Security Adviser Lieutenant General H. R. McMaster, himself a history PhD, was a striking way to finish the work.

A detailed book on Alexander’s generalship in and of itself is a rich source of lessons learned, inspirational leadership, and brilliant innovation for a modern commander. What would make Ferguson and Worthington’s book resonate better with a contemporary reader is if, rather than forcing snippets of modern campaigns into the narrative, its language, structure, and approach modeled more traditional campaign history—the kind of history written by military officers for military officers, using one voice instead of two. This is what makes Fuller’s The Generalship of Alexander the Great (1960) so powerful for a military reader, and the Anabasis of Alexander by Arrian (c. 86­–160 CE)—a general like Fuller—stand the test of time. A Landmark version of Arrian, modeled along the lines of The Landmark Thucydides, is now available as a wonderfully accessible account of Alexander for today’s readers; it would pair quite nicely with Ferguson and Worthington’s work and give it a powerful resonance with the distant past.2

Nonetheless, The Military Legacy of Alexander the Great would be a useful study for students of history or security studies and would make a good reading for professional military education.

James M. Tucci, PhD

1 See J. F. C. Fuller, Julius Caesar: Man, Soldier, Tyrant (London: Eyre & Spottiswoode, 1965); and Generalship of Alexander the Great (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1960).

2 The Landmark Arrian: The Campaigns of Alexander, ed. James Room and trans. Pamela Mensch (New York: Anchor Books, 2012); and see The Landmark Thucydides: A Comprehensive Guide to the Peloponnesian War, ed. Robert B. Strassler and trans. Richard B. Crawley (New York: Free Press, 2008).

"The views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense."