Alexander’s Mules

Alexander the Great
Alexander the Great; drawing by David Levine

The annual book on Alexander the Great has become a laughing-stock among scholars, though authors and publishers apparently continue to find it profitable. Engels shows that serious and important work on Alexander is possible, and that it need not be confined to the obscurity of professional journals. This book by a young scholar is, with all its technical faults (for which the publisher is as much to blame as the author), the most important work on Alexander the Great to appear in a long time. Neither scholarship nor semi-fictional biography will ever be the same again.

I don’t know on what authority Napoleon is reported to have said that an army marches on its stomach. He must certainly have known it. And he must have been equally aware of the fact, known until quite recently to all who had any experience of warfare, that it marched on the stomachs of thousands of animals. In the aggregate, Napoleon’s mules were more important than his marshals. Even in the Second World War, well into the age when far more efficient engines of transport, “living” on fuels not competitive with human consumption, were taken for granted, it is clear that the long age of the army mule had not passed: one of the truly immortal characters to emerge from the war was that fine American product of the melting pot showing his true worth—Francis the Mule.

Whatever Napoleon’s reflections on this matter of logistics may have been, there is no doubt of the authenticity of an equally famous remark of his: “Bon Dieu, que les hommes de lettres sont betes!” In the century and a half since modern scholarship on Alexander the Great began, with the work of J.G. Droysen, there has never been a systematic attempt to study the organization of his supplies, as he led an army almost constantly increasing in size through lands very largely unknown to him and to his Greek contemporaries—lands the mere exploration of which was to bring fame, centuries later, to men like Carsten Niebuhr, Aurel Stein, and Sven Hedin.

The dismal record of standard modern scholarship in this respect is not difficult to illustrate. W.W. Tarn devoted the whole of the second volume of his Alexander the Great (1948) to special studies: a long discussion of source problems, followed by twenty-five appendices, a total of 450 pages. “The Main Problems,” of course, are such issues as Alexander’s deification and Tarn’s strange idea that Alexander invented the concept of the “Brotherhood of Man.” Six appendices devoted to military matters contain nine pages headed “Alexander’s Communications.” (The subject is described as “rather neglected.”) They contain nothing but speculation (most of it misconceived) about the duties of certain commanders, and Tarn’s real point is to combat the view that the Greek cities of Asia Minor had a governor imposed on them. J. Seibert’s long survey of (in…

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