“A tomb now suffices him for whom the world was not enough.”
– Alexander’s epitaph.
“In this age, in past ages, in any age, Napoleon.”
– Duke of Wellington on the greatest conqueror.
Each of these conquerors, who lived thousands of years apart, are both regarded as the best from their time. Despite the gap, there is one startling similarity that almost seems unfathomable given today’s generals. Both men not only commanded their armies but led them into battle. Assuming some sort of magical equaliser in terms of technology and military force, which conquerer would be victorious if these two historical juggernauts met on the battlefield today?
Lets start at the start.
Napoleon was a minor lord who, through the turmoil of the time and his personal ability and merit, rose through the ranks to the highest command in his country, and then continent. Alexander was a Prince, destined and groomed to be a King. He even had Aristotle, one of the ancient world’s greatest minds, as a teacher.
What do these distinct upbringings mean for our hypothetical war?
Napoleon’s ascent demonstrates an instinct to react to and profit from an ever changing environment as well as the ability to maintain a level head in the midst of chaos, a desirable trait on the battlefield. Alexander’s upbringing infers experience. He would have been taught to imagine the outcome of every possible situation, a true tactician. He also had front row seats of his father’s rule, wars and modernisation of the military.
When talking about generals of such calibre, one cannot underestimate the value of their effect on the average soldier’s morale. The Duke of Wellington, who defeated Napoleon at Waterloo, said: “I used to say of him [Napoleon] that his presence on the field made the difference of forty thousand men.”
Given that 40,000 men was about the total sum of Alexander’s force, one might take this to mean Napoleon might have had a chance against the Macedonians all by himself. But Alexander once used his 40,000 men to defeat a host of 250,000, more than 5 enemies for every friendly.
Anyway, enough of this hyperbole, back to our champion’s effects on their men:
Napoleon’s charisma was almost paranormal. He knew the importance of hope and morale to his men and, more importantly, how to evoke these emotions through words: “A man does not have himself killed for a half-pence a day or for a petty distinction.” Napoleon said. “You must speak to the soul in order to electrify him.”
Napoleon’s Italian campaign against the First Coalition saw him not only fighting armies with superior size and reinforcements, but also commanding a disheveled and depleted French force, by far the most neglected of the Republic’s thirteen principal field armies, fighting on the most obscure front of the war. Rising to the the challenge, Napoleon inspired and rejuvenated – electrified, he might have said – his ragtag collection of troops and led them to victory after victory against bigger armies that were constantly being reinforced.
In just one month, Napoleon forced the Kingdom of Sardinia (the predecessor state of Italy), a nation which had been at war with France for more than three years, to surrender. Austria soon followed suit and the War of the First Coalition came to an end.
While the Italian campaign is often cited as Napoleon’s best, one cannot underestimate his effect on the result. Prior to Napoleon’s command, the Italian theatre had been an overlooked and neglected stalemate. With the troops he was given, no one expected Napoleon to make a difference, especially so swiftly. Not only was the Italian victory a direct result of Napoleon’s persona, it acts as a focal point for his whole career.
On the macro level, France as a nation was in a similar state to their Italian forces during the War of the First Coalition. Bankrupt after financing the US’s war of Independence, unstable after a chaotic decade of revolution and weak from wars with neighbouring monarchs and counter-revolutionaries. Blood run in the streets, enemies surrounded them on all sides and guillotines stood in every town square. Yet, Napoleon overcame these obstacles and took France from the brink of destruction to Europe’s premiere land power.
Alexander isn’t without his charms either. Take this story (that may be just that – a story) of Alexander which illustrates his innate understanding of living creatures and their fears. When he was just 13, Alexander’s father Philip II was offered a horse by the name of Bucephalus. As brilliant and beautiful as the horse was, it was utterly untameable, wild and reckless, and Philip couldn’t even get near the damned beast. Just as his father was about to dismiss the horse dealer, Alexander arrived and steadied the creature in an instant, turning it toward the sun to stop the horse’s own shadowing from frightening it.
Philip was so impressed by his son that he paid the dealer the high sum of 13 talents and proclaimed: “O my son, look thee out a kingdom equal to and worthy of thyself, for Macedonia is too little for thee.” Alexander took his father’s advice and rode Bucephalus into battle for the next 18 years until the horse died after the Battle of the Hydaspes.
Alexander was also one to overcome the odds. His war against Persia was always an uphill battle. Forever outnumbered, fighting the best Persia had to spare. Alexander’s first encounter with the Persians saw his 40,000 men defeating 75,000.
In the wake of such an unprecedented defeat, Darius III sent assassins to kill Alexander, putting the hefty sum of 1,000 talents on his head. The assassins failed and so, refusing to be defeated again, Darius rallied an army 100,000 strong.
Alexander rode the length of the 5 KM battlefield, calling out to his general’s by name, rallying them, inspiring them, and then marched his mighty phalanxes and 5,000 cavalry toward the Persians. Alexander and Darius came so close to one another that Darius claims to have stabbed Alexander in the thigh (a wound Alexander describes as a mere trifle) before running away, leaving his mother, wife, two daughters and heir to be captured by Alexander along with an immense amount of wealth.
After a second unprecedented defeat, Darius was ready to submit to peaceful terms, to let Alexander keep what he had already conquered – generosity unheard of by a Persian King. But, as arrogant as he was charismatic, Alexander denied: “In the future, let any communication you wish to make with me be addressed to the King of all Asia. Do not write to me as an equal. Everything you possess is now mine.”
This led to Alexander’s and Darius’s last battle. 250,000 Persian troops with a cavalry regiment as big as Alexander’s entire host. As he always did, Alexander led his 40,000 soldiers into battle, lured the Persian cavalry away, broke their infantry line and destroyed them from the inside.
Alexander left Macedonia with only 40,000 men, replacing casualties with men from liberated lands. His preservation of troops gives him a big boost over Napoleon who went through men like a junkie through a pharmacy and even boasted: “You cannot defeat me, I spend 30,000 men a month.” That’s three quarters of Alexander’s whole army dead in just one month.
Napoleon, however, contended with a lot more than Alexander. Whenever Napoleon left for a campaign, ambitious politicians sought to dethrone him but Napoleon always reasserted his authority upon returning. Furthermore, Napoleon had to deal with logistics on a much wider scale than Alexander, who only had the single army to concern himself with.
Napoleon fought a Coalition of nations on multiple, simultaneous fronts, had armies and a population that needed to be fed (“an army marches on its stomach”), implemented social change, rebuilt and solidified his bleeding nation, all without Alexander’s absolute autocracy. Yes, Napoleon named himself Emperor but the French people had just gone through a decade (or even a century, back to the Enlightenment) of revolution and social change, dissuading themselves from the idea of absolute control whereas Alexander’s people simply didn’t know anything else, were conditioned to believe as much and incapable of imagining an alternative to the absolute right of a King.
Remember, Napoleon’s victories in Italy brought an end to the War of the First Coalition, which pitted 10 monarchies against the French. Napoleon almost held power for the following two decades, withstanding until the War of the Seventh Coalition – made up of 16 Nations to France’s one. That’s eighteen years of war against alliance of multiple empires after alliance of multiple empires where Napoleon not only survived but dominated. Enemies simply broke against Napoleon like waves against a cliff. Compare that to Alexander who, after he was finished with the Persian Empire, mainly defeated tribes and city states in one on one battles.
Body count and territory held are interesting (and very rough) statistics but not really applicable to our alternate war. It is akin to comparing the musket to the sarissa, technology and social change simply has too much of an effect on the result. Napoleon’s France was one of the first populations to be totally militarised, a precursor of what would come in WW1. For years before Napoleon’s ascent, France was on the verge of dissolution, fending off neighbouring monarchies and counter revolutionaries alike, violence, nationality and a desire to defend and die for their country spread through the population like the Black Plague had a few centuries earlier.
Alexander had his professional army and them only, with a few additions from conquered lands. And the world was less populated back them, people more spread out and travel restricted. The Macedonians had no idea the Americas even existed, whereas Colonial France was competing with other Empires to secure as many colonies as possible.
What more is there to analyse? We’ve considered the effect of both general’s on their soldiers, compared their strengths and weaknesses, looked at their achievements. I think that the only thing we can do is break their abilities down into points and see who scores highest:
- Napoleon’s butcher tactics would put him at a disadvantage if our magic equaliser plateaued the two armies, which gives Alexander the first point.
- Alexander’s ego and high expectations are what ultimately caused his campaign to end when his troops, fed up with conquest, demanded they turn around and head home. Napoleon’s people adored him. Even after he was defeated and exiled (the first time) they cheered and died for him when he returned.
- Napoleon’s ability to oversee an entire multiple-front war, making sure soldiers were equipped, fed and where they needed to be, all the while maintaining peace at home gives him the advantage over Alexander who only ever had to consider his singular army.
- Both men completely revolutionized the warfare of their age, but Alexander’s ingenuity, seen at the Siege of Tyre and Battle of the Persian Gate, demonstrate solutions that are so imaginative they could almost be called art, the perfect tool for the clutch.
- Napoleon’s determination was one of his greatest strengths. He was almost always outnumbered but regularly overcame the odds. Then, when he was beaten, he got back onto the horse and rode it to victory in the next battle. Even after his first exile, Napoleon stayed determined to retake his throne. Alexander never lost a battle so we never got to see how he handled defeat, but he was a known megalomaniac and let his troops homesickness overcome his determination in India. This alone, given the paranormal pull of both men’s personas, tips the scales in Napoleon’s favour.
Which, I think, brings an end to this devastating and hypothetical war.
Napoleon Bonaparte of the First French Empire
Do you agree with the result or think the whole war was rigged and under-researched? Let us know in the comments!
I was secretly going for Napoleon, so maybe that skewed the results. While I do like Alexander, his legend is almost as dubious as the Trojan war. All primary evidence of his reign has long been dust and all we are left with are second hand accounts that have likely been embellished after centuries of dramatisation.
Napoleon came from the lowest of nobility, the feudal equivalent of a kid attending some prestigious private school on a scholarship (or something even more whack like a system error) and outperforming all those snobs who had spent their entire lives preparing for it. He is the everyman’s tyrant. A butcher of the people, from the people.
Check out the History Repeating piece I did in preparation for this article, cataloging some of the similarities between Alexander ‘Private School Snob’ the Great and Napoleon ‘Grassroots Dictator’ Bonaparte.
You can also click on the History tag for even more Relentless history-inspired pieces.