The Virtues of War: A Novel of Alexander the Great

The Virtues of War: A Novel of Alexander the Great

by Steven Pressfield
The Virtues of War: A Novel of Alexander the Great

The Virtues of War: A Novel of Alexander the Great

by Steven Pressfield


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I have always been a soldier. I have known no other life. So begins Alexander’s extraordinary confession on the eve of his greatest crisis of leadership. By turns heroic and calculating, compassionate and utterly merciless, Alexander recounts with a warrior’s unflinching eye for detail the blood, the terror, and the tactics of his greatest battlefield victories. Whether surviving his father’s brutal assassination, presiding over a massacre, or weeping at the death of a beloved comrade-in-arms, Alexander never denies the hard realities of the code by which he lives: the virtues of war. But as much as he was feared by his enemies, he was loved and revered by his friends, his generals, and the men who followed him into battle. Often outnumbered, never outfought, Alexander conquered every enemy the world stood against him–but the one he never saw coming. . . .

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780553382051
Publisher: Random House Publishing Group
Publication date: 09/27/2005
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 368
Sales rank: 163,283
Product dimensions: 5.02(w) x 8.16(h) x 0.78(d)

About the Author

STEVEN PRESSFIELD is the author of the novels, Last of the Amazons, The Legend of Bagger Vance, Gates of Fire and Tides of War. He lives in California where he is at work on his next historical novel.

Read an Excerpt


A Soldier

I have always been a soldier. I have known no other life. The calling of arms, I have followed from boyhood. I have never sought another.

I have known lovers, sired offspring, competed in games, and committed outrages when drunk. I have vanquished empires, yoked continents, been crowned as an immortal before gods and men. But always I have been a soldier.

From the time I was a boy, I fled my tutor to seek the company of the men in the barracks. The drill field and the stable, the smell of leather and sweat, these are congenial to me. The scrape of the whetstone on iron is to me what music is to poets. It has always been this way. I can remember no time when it was otherwise.

One such as myself must have learned much, a fellow might think, from campaign and experience. Yet I may state in candor: All that I know, I knew at thirteen and, truth to tell, at ten and younger. Nothing has come to me as a grown commander that I did not apprehend as a child.

As a boy I instinctively understood the ground, the march, the occasion, and the elements. I comprehended the crossing of rivers and the exploitation of terrain; how many units of what composition may traverse such and such a distance, how swiftly, bearing how much kit, arriving in what condition to fight. The drawing up of troops came as second nature to me: I simply looked; all showed itself clear. My father was the greatest soldier of his day, perhaps the greatest ever. Yet when I was ten I informed him that I would excel him. By twenty-three I had done so.

As a lad I was jealous of my father, fearing that he would achieve glory on such a scale as would leave none for me. I have never feared anything, save that mischance that would prevent me from fulfilling my destiny.

The army it has been my privilege to lead has been invincible across Europe and Asia. It has united the states of Greece and the islands of the Aegean; liberated from the Persian yoke the Greek cities of Ionia and Aeolia. It has brought into subjection Armenia, Cappadocia, both Lesser and Greater Phrygia, Paphlagonia, Caria, Lydia, Pisidia, Lycia, Pamphylia, both Hollow and Mesopotamian Syria, and Cilicia. The great strongholds of Phoenicia—Byblus, Sidon, Tyre, and the Philistine city of Gaza—have fallen before it. It has vanquished the central empire of Persia—Egypt and nearer Arabia, Mesopotamia, Babylonia, Media, Susiana, the rugged land of Persia herself—and the eastern provinces of Hyrcania, Areia, Parthia, Bactria, Tapuria, Drangiana, Arachosia, and Sogdiana. It has crossed the Hindu Kush into India. It has never been beaten.

This force has been insuperable not for its numbers, for in every campaign it has entered the field outmounted and outmanned; nor for the brilliance of its generalship or tactics, though these have not been inconsiderable; nor for the proficiency of its supply train and logistical corps, without which no force in the field can survive, let alone prevail. Rather, this army has succeeded because of qualities of warriorship in its individual soldiers, specifically that property expressed by the Greek word dynamis, "the will to fight." No general of this or any age has been so favored by fortune as I, to lead such men, possessed of such warlike spirit, imbued with such resources of self-enterprise, committed so to their commanders and to their call.

Yet now what I have feared most has come to pass. The men themselves have grown weary of conquest. They draw up on the bank of this river of India, and they fail of passion to cross it. They have come too far, they believe. It is enough. They want to go home.

For the first time since I acceded to command, I have found it necessary to constitute a unit of the army as Atactoi—"Malcontents"—and to segregate them from the central divisions of the corps. Nor are these fellows renegades or habitual delinquents, but crack troops, decorated veterans—many of whom trained under my father and his great general Parmenio—who have become so disaffected, from actions and words taken or omitted by me, that I can station them in the battle line only between units of unimpeachable loyalty, lest they prove false in the fatal hour. This day I have been compelled to execute five of their officers, homegrown Macedonians all, whose families are dear to me, for failure to promptly carry out an order. I hate this, not only for the barbarity of the measure but also for the deficiency of imagination it signalizes in me. Must I lead now by terror and compulsion? Is this the state to which my genius has been reduced?

When I was sixteen and rode for the first time at the head of my own corps of cavalry, I was so overcome that I could not stay myself from weeping. My adjutant grew alarmed and begged to know what discomfited me. But the horsemen in their squadrons understood. I was moved by the sight of them in such brilliant order, by their scars and their silence, the weathered creasing of their faces. When the men saw my state, they returned my devotion, for they knew I would burst my heart for them. In strategy and tactics, even in valor, other commanders may be my equal. But in this, none surpasses me: the measure of my love for my comrades. I love even those who call themselves my enemies. Alone meanness and malice I despise. But the foe who stands with gallantry, him I draw to my breast, dear as a brother.

Those who do not understand war believe it contention between armies, friend against foe. No. Rather friend and foe duel as one against an unseen antagonist, whose name is Fear, and seek, even entwined in death, to mount to that promontory whose ensign is honor.

What drives the soldier is cardia, "heart," and dynamis, "the will to fight." Nothing else matters in war. Not weapons or tactics, philosophy or patriotism, not fear of the gods themselves. Only this love of glory, which is the seminal imperative of mortal blood, as ineradicable within man as in a wolf or a lion, and without which we are nothing.

Look out there, Itanes. Somewhere beyond that river lies the Shore of Ocean: the Ends of the Earth. How far? Past the Ganges? Across the Range of Perpetual Snows? I can feel it. It calls me. There I must stand, where no prince has stood before me. There I must plant the lion standard of Macedon. Not till then will I grant rest to my heart or release to this army.

That is why I have called you here, my young friend. Days, I can keep up a front, knowing the men's eyes are on me. But nights, the crisis of the army overwhelms me.

I must unburden myself. I must reorder my thoughts. I must find an answer to the corps's alienation.

I need someone I can talk to, someone who stands outside the chain of command, who can listen without judgment and keep his mouth shut. You are my bride Roxanne's younger brother and, as such, beneath my protection only. No other may be your mentor, to no other may you carry this tale. These are my motives of confidentiality. As well, I recognize in you (for I have watched you closely since you came into my service in Afghanistan) that instinct of command and gift for war that no amount of schooling may impart. You are eighteen and will soon receive your commission. When we cross this river, you will lead men in battle for the first time. It is my role to instruct you, for, though prince you be in your own country, here you are only a Page, a cadet in the academy of war which is my tent.

Will you stay and hear my tale? I shall not compel you, for such confidences as I must disclose in attempting to reorder my priorities may place you in peril, not now while I live, but later, for they who succeed me will seek to employ your testimony for their own ends.

Will you serve your king and kinsman? Say aye and you shall come to me each evening at this hour, or at such interval as may suit my convenience. You need not speak, only listen, though I may employ you as the occasion demands upon errands of trust or discretion. Say nay and I release you now, with no hard feelings.

You are honored to serve, you say?

Well, my young friend.

Sit then. Let us begin. . . .


My Country

My country is a rugged and mountainous place. I came out of it when I was twenty-one. I will never go back.

The great estates of Macedon's plains produce horsemen who call themselves Greeks, descendants of the sons of Heracles. The mountaineers are of Paeonian and Illyrian stock. Infantry comes from the mountains, cavalry from the plains.

Great clefts transect my country's uplands into natural cantons, spectacularly defensible, which themselves are divided into mountain valleys called "creases" or "runs." A run is a watershed; what "runs" is the rill or wash. One vale may contain a dozen runs; each has its clan and each clan hates every other.

The law of my country is phratreris. This means "feud warfare." Custom forbids a man to marry within his crease; he must court a maiden from another. If her father will not give his consent, the suitor steals the maid. Now the bride's kin mount a raid to take her back. No end of bloodshed is produced by this, and of saga and ballad. I have heard melodies all over the world, yet none more haunting than those of the mountains of my home. The songs are of feuds and lovers' quarrels, of loss and heartbreak and revenge.

The love a highlander bears for his crease is irrational and ineffaceable. I have officers whose fortunes exceed those of rajahs; yet each dreams of nothing grander than to return to his crease and tell his tales around the fire. Look there, to those three soldiers beside the stacked arms. They are from the same crease. Two are brothers; the third is their uncle. See the four beyond? They are from a rival crease. If they were home now, these fellows could not sleep, hatching schemes to split one another's skulls. Yet here in this far country they are the best of mates.

The Greek of the south grows to manhood in a polis, a city-state with a marketplace, an assembly, and walls of stone to keep out the foe. He is a good talker but a poor fighter. The plainsman of Scythia lives on horseback, trailing his stock and the seasonal grass. He is savage but not strong.

Ah, but the hill clansman. Tough as dirt, mean as a snake, here is a man whose belly you can split with a pike of iron and he'll still crawl back to carve out your heart and eat it raw before your face. The mountain man is proud; he will rend your liver over a trifle. Yet he knows how to obey. His father has schooled him by the oxhide of his belt.

Here is the stock of which great soldiers are made. My father understood this. Once in the high country when I offered a smart remark of some clay-eating creaseman, Philip snatched me short. "My son has fallen under the spell of Homer's Achilles," he remarked to Parmenio and Telamon at his side (both of whom served my father before they served me). "He cites his descent from the hero—by his mother's blood, not mine—and dreams of assembling his own corps of Myrmidons, the invincible 'ant men' who followed 'the best of the Achaeans' to Troy." Philip laughed and swatted me gaily across the thigh. "Who do you imagine Achilles' men were, my son, except raw bastards like these? Clansmen from the hinter creases of Thessaly, rude and unlettered, soaked in spirits, and hard as a centaur's hoof."

Men are hard in my country, and women harder. My father understood this too. He paid court to these lasses of the uplands, or, more accurately, to their fathers, whose friendship and fealty he secured by all means. Thirty-nine marriages he made, seven official, by my mother's count; the tally of his brats may only be guessed at. There is an old jest of my army's loyalty: Of course they will not desert me; they are all my half brothers.

When I was twelve, my dear mate Hephaestion and I accompanied a recruiting party under my father to a crease called Triessa in the highlands above Hyperasopian Mara. Horses may not be ridden into such rugged country; their legs will break. One must use mules. My father had invited the clans from a number of contending runs. They all showed up, all drunk. Philip was born to rule such men. He boasted that he could "outdrink, outfight, and outfuck" the lot, and he could. The clansmen loved him. It was just after dark; a pig-riding contest was in progress. A sow the size of a small pony had broken loose; men and boys, mud-slathered, attempted to bring her down. Hephaestion and I looked on from the ring of the stone corral as one rogue with great mustaches flung himself upon the beast's neck. His mates began daring him to mount the sow and have intercourse with her. My father seconded this with exuberance, himself shit-faced and waist-deep in the slough. Cataracts of hilarity descended as the mustached fellow wrestled the sow in the slop. When the act had been accomplished, the luckless beast was butchered. The banquet of its flesh went on all night.

As we rode home next day, I asked my father how he could countenance such brutishness in men he would soon lead into battle. "War," he replied, "is a brutish business."

This response struck me as outrageous. "I would sooner have the sow," I declared, "than the man."

Philip laughed. "You will not win battles, my son, leading an army of sows."

It was my father's genius to forge these carlish highlanders into a disciplined modern army. He perceived the utility of recruiting such clansmen, who had been enslaved for centuries by their own vices and vendettas, to a new conception of soldiering, in which station and birth counted for nothing, but where a man might make his career on guts alone, and within whose order the very qualities that had held the hillman in chains—his own clannishness, brutishness, ignorance, and implacability—would be transformed into the warrior virtues of loyalty, obedience, dedication, and the ruthless application of force and terror.

From the time I was a child, it was acknowledged that Philip's Macedonians were the fiercest fighters on earth. Not only because they were individually tough, reared in this harsh and flinty land, or that my father and his great generals Parmenio and Antipater had drilled them to thoroughgoing professionalism, so that in discipline and cohesion, speed and mobility, tactics and weaponry, they surpassed all the militia armies of Greece and the royal and conscript levies of Asia, but also because they were possessed of such dynamis, such will to fight, born of their poverty and their hatred of the contempt with which their rivals had held them before Philip came, that it could be said truly of this force, as of none save the Spartans before them, that in action they never asked how many were the enemy but only where were they.

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