In 332 BC, Alexander the Great, who was hellbent on conquering nothing less than the entire world, set his eyes on Tyre. His historic campaign from Macedonia had already left a string of subjugated towns and villages in his wake. Then he got to Tyre. This was a problem – how would he invade and subdue a city on an island?
It was easy work to take the mainland city of Ushu. But he was stumped about how to manage Tyre. There was no question of moving on without occupying the island, since this would expose his armies to ambush from the rear as they advanced. Now, if you think that this story is going to be one in which we discover the impressive military and strategic skill of Alexander, you’d be wrong: this is a story about impressive engineering feats.
Today, geological scientists and historians have worked hard to examine the area today (the city is now called Sour) and study the landscape to try recreating what it was that Alexander and his army were facing at the time. The scientists realized that, in Alexander’s time, there would have been, lying a few meters under sea level, the answer to their problem: a narrow sandbar joining Tyre Island to the mainland.
Over the course of seven long and hard months, Alexander’s formidable war machine set out to create a path to the island on top of this sandbar. They piled up stone, timber, and whatever rubble they could find to raise the sandbar above sea level so it could be walked on. This would have been an astonishing 220 feet in width alone. Considering the technology available at the time (hint: it was basically nothing), this achievement was especially striking.
As it happened, the sandbar plan wasn’t the main reason that Alexander was eventually able to lay siege to the city and claim it. But the skills the army developed were used again later on, when the same tactic was employed to create a bridge from the Egyptian mainland to the Island of Pharos.
Most fascinating of all, though, is the longer term impact this land bridge made on the landscape. The bridge they built acted as a barrier against which silt slowly accumulated, until it created the 700,000 square feet of new land now in the area. Aerial photos show that Tyre Island is not much of an island anymore and is connected by a broad peninsula to the mainland. It is incredible to imagine that an army, led by a single man, was responsible for altering the very face of the earth. Alexander the Great only lived to 32 years of age and never did achieve world domination as he had hoped. But today, thousands of years after his death, the land still shows the mark of the siege of Tyre.
Plenty has been written about Alexander the Great. His full appellation was Alexander III of Macedon, and he was born in 356 BC, succeeding his father Phillip II as the king of the ancient Greek realm of Macedon. He succeeded his father, who was assassinated at the wedding of Cleopatra of Macedon (no, not that Cleopatra), and though just 20 years old when made king, he spent more or less all of his career on a vast military campaign to conquer Asia and Northeast Africa – and then later, the known world. Through Alexander, one of history’s most immense empires was created, and he is still remembered today as being unbeaten in battle.
If Alexander the Great seems to you to be a figure of almost mythical, non-human proportions, this is for a reason. He was tutored by the great Aristotle (“I am indebted to my father for living, but to my teacher for living well”) and was known to be a military genius the likes of which the world had never seen. It’s hard to imagine how he had achieved so many noteworthy battles sieges and invasions at the age of just 30. He is a man who had 20 cities named after him (one, for example, is Alexandria in Egypt).
Alexander is responsible for the spread of Greek culture, which morphed in time into Hellenistic civilization, out of which sprung the Roman Empire and the Western world we can recognize as such today. From the time of his death, every military leader of note would forever be compared to the gold standard that Alexander set. Military academies still admire and teach his distinctive tactics and strategies today.
There are also plenty of other quasi-legends about the leader’s childhood and private life. Plutarch related that, on her wedding night, Alexander’s mother Olympias dreamt that a bolt of lightning struck her womb and spread a flame that covered the entire world. His father, Philip II, was also reported to have prophetic dreams about his soon-to-be son: he saw a vision of himself putting a royal seal on Olympias’s womb with the image of a lion. Ambitious Olympias is said to have believed literally and seriously in her son’s greatness, reportedly teaching him from an early age that he was in fact the son of Zeus and more than a mere mortal. Considering that her marriage to Phillip was merely a political one and that she resented her husband, we can understand why she might have convinced the boy that his real father was in fact a god.
On the day Alexander was born, his father received news of an auspicious victory in the kingdom and simultaneously that one of the 7 wonders of the world, the Temple of Artemis, had burnt down. Alexander was raised like any other noble Macedonian youth: he received a classical education and was taught to ride horses, hunt, fight, read, and play the lyre. Even as a youth, people recognized his vaulting ambition. After his epic but surprisingly short military career, Alexander died at just 32 from causes not yet fully determined – possibly alcohol, typhoid fever, or poisoning by his enemies.
While all of this pomp and grandeur is certainly interesting, it’s hard to imagine what a man that lived thousands of years ago could teach us about resilience, grit, and determination today. The world that Alexander lived in was very different from ours. He was born into luxury and privilege that most of us would associate with only the wealthiest celebrities today, yet he was also ostracized by his own court and, being ruler of the weakest kingdom, generally despised by the Greeks. There was even a time when Alexander and his mother were exiled from the kingdom because of political disagreements over Philip’s subsequent son – the rightful heir, since Alexander could not be, being only half-Macedonian.
Alexander thus had a potent combination of two quite different experiences: the shame of being a “half-blood” and second in line to his younger brother, who would be king, but also the deeply held conviction that he was in truth destined for greatness. It doesn’t take a psychologist to see that Alexander had an immense chip on his shoulder and would spend his entire life emphatically proving himself and his identity and searching for a place to call home. Can you imagine a person like this, being made ruler of several vast and powerful kingdoms all over the world, including Egypt, where was he was deemed a pharaoh and thus of divine origin? It’s hard to picture a time in history when men worshipped rulers not merely as kings but as literal embodiments of divinities, but this is the world that Alexander lived in.
By the time he arrived at Tyre, then, he was already a formidable military force and believed completely in his title as the greatest living general to grace the earth and probably a god as well. What could us mere mortals learn from this man who lived so extraordinary a life that it’s hard to believe some of it is true? Are we supposed to conclude that monstrous narcissism and relentless aggression is what makes a person “great”?
No, probably not. But Alexander the Great does show us just how much is possible when innate talent is paired with opportunity and a rock-solid self-belief. Try to put yourself in the mind of Alexander, who regularly took actions that affected not just hundreds of thousands of people in his own country, but hundreds of thousands more in far-off, exotic lands that most people could scarcely imagine, let alone conquer. Picture the sense of self-control, the size of his vision, and the gargantuan self-confidence it would have taken to believe genuinely that conquering the entire world was not only possible, but you had a plan to do it. And that plan was working.
This gives us an insight into why Alexander acted as he did when it came to seizing Tyre. He saw an obstacle and found a way around it. The fact that his solution required thousands of men and several months’ work was irrelevant. He did it. When the landscape was not amenable to his plans, he changed the landscape.
So sure was his will and so certain was his determination to get what he wanted that he undertook a plan that had been unthinkable until then in military history. What’s interesting is that, in Tyre, Alexander proved that he was not just a military genius. He was a genius, period, and he was willing to do whatever it took to achieve his goals, whether that meant battle tactics or overseeing an audacious engineering project that modern builders would even balk at today.
We cannot exactly call Alexander’s response to the problem of Tyre “adversity,” and we cannot frame his novel solution as an instance of resilience or overcoming adversity. Rather, we can see in Alexander’s life that we need never frame anything standing in our way as an “obstacle” at all. It is merely something that we have yet to bend to our will. While an excellent but conventional military strategist might have thought, “Hm, this is difficult – how could you lay siege to an island?” the Great Alexander simply decided, “We will have to make it so that it’s not an island anymore!”
What could you achieve if you had even a fraction of the bombast and arrogance that Alexander did? How would you behave if the world knew your name, and that name was routinely affixed with “The Great”? Chances are, you’d take a lot more risks, feel a lot more secure in yourself… and crucially, face adversity in a completely new way. You may not even see it as adversity.
In the modern world, many of us get overly attached to a kind of victim mentality and may create narratives for ourselves in which we are hard done by, set back, or unfairly treated by others or life itself. It’s as though we are the opposite of Alexander the Great – instead, we walk around as though we were Michael the Puny or Jenny the Weak. When we encounter a difficulty, we panic. Even though we may not frame it this way, it can feel like life, like the gods themselves are standing in our way. But if you are Alexander the Great, you are a god. You are in charge. You can never be a victim, only an active agent. You decide. You identify your course and take action until it’s achieved. You are not at anyone’s mercy, and even when you face uncertainty, suffering, loss or defeat, even this does nothing to reduce your dignity or self-belief.
“I would rather excel others in the knowledge of what is excellent, than in the extent of my powers and domination,” said Alexander. For this great man, his strength and conviction came from striving for the good, the noble, the virtuous. Despite being rightly viewed as a bloodthirsty warlord by many, he was also determined that every subject in his kingdom would be an equal, regardless of station, creed, or color. At the end of his life, he was believed to have said, “A tomb now suffices him for whom the whole world was not sufficient.”
Melissa would never consider herself to have anything in common with Alexander the Great, but she shares in his mindset when she decides one day to pursue her dream, no matter what. Melissa dreams of working for a company she’s admired from afar for years. But with little formal education and being a single mother to two young children, there’s no way she could work there, even if by some miracle she convinced them to hire her.
So she takes an alternative route. Melissa strategizes and first angles for a lowly cleaning job at the company and, after being hired, gradually convinces management to let her implement a progressive childcare center on site and be in charge of its operation. Impressed with her competence and vision, the same management soon agrees to mentor Melissa and give her career advice. Within a few short years, the perfect job opens up in the company – and Melissa has made sure she’s first to apply and top of mind with the bosses, who already know and like her. The best part? She now works at a company that provides onsite childcare.
In other words, when she couldn’t reach Tyre, she built a bridge!
Alexander the Great’s lessons:
• When facing an obstacle, don’t get despondent or give up – simply become curious about how you will get around it (take the fact that you will get around it as a foregone conclusion!)
• Believe in yourself. No need to be a megalomaniac of Alexander the Great proportions, but don’t allow others to tell you what you are and are not capable of doing. This, rather than self-pity and feeling victimized, can bless you with far more dignity and resilience.
• If your plans aren’t working, change the plans. If the story takes a bad turn, change the story. If you’re losing the game, change the rules of the game until you are winning! The most successful people in history didn’t wait to be given permission to believe in their own competence – they just barged ahead and believed it anyway.
Chapter 9: Julius Caesar and the battle of Alesia
Let’s turn our attention back to antiquity and explore the story of Julius Caesar and the battle of Alesia. The event we’ll look at it is widely considered one of Caesar’s most impressive military victories, but on its face, the odds appeared entirely against him, at first. Though it is an extraordinary example of war strategy, we can also see in this story a powerful allegory for approaching difficulties in our lives.
Let’s set the scene. It’s September in 52 BC, and the Gallic wars are underway. The Gallic wars were a series of campaigns led by Julius Caesar against the people in Gaul, which is a region now roughly around France and Belgium. Though historians mainly have Caesar’s own account of the wars to go on (his book Commentarii de Bello Gallico), we do have other sources to help us confirm the casualty numbers and the series of events as they unfolded.
One of the most noteworthy battles was in the small settlement of Alesia, the capital of the Mandubii. The location of this town would be significant – it was perched high on a hill. Intending to seize the regions in Gaul for farmland, Caesar had been in the area since 58 BC, attempting to “pacify” the region and bring it under complete Roman control. Tribe after tribe was subjugated, often brutally, and the lands were ravaged. When he left the region, he ensured that no grain supplies would reach the survivors, so they would starve.
The Gauls united and rose up against Caesar, and the brave warrior Vercingetorix, King of the Averni, was an important leading figure, who drew the scattered tribes together to defend themselves. In response to this, the Romans redoubled their efforts, and a wave of bloodshed and violence spread over the region for many years. Caesar had his work cut out for him in pursuing Vercingetorix, and the battles raged on, with minor victories going to each side. Finally, however, Vercingetorix retreated the entire army to a small walled town on a hill – Alesia.
Now, according to Caesar, the metrics of the battle that would ensue were as follows:
On the Gaul’s side:
80,000 men in Alesia and 100,000 to 250,000 men in relief army, all led by Vercingetorix and two other commanders who would join later, Commius and Vercassivellaunus.
On Rome’s side:
60,000 men, led by Julius Caesar.
It would appear that Caesar would be entering into a game that he had slim hope of winning. What was worse is that Alesia had a perfectly strategic location. Perched on hill surrounded by river valleys, it was ideally situated to defend itself against attackers, but Caesar made a decision that would transform this seeming disadvantage into an advantage. He could not defeat the enemy’s army because they were so numerous and neatly encircled all in one place. On the other hand, how convenient would it be if the army was neatly encircled, all in one place…?
All of Vercingetorix’s army was within those walls – that could be seen as a problem, or it could be seen as an extremely lucky break. The goal, then, was not to attack from the front, where Vercingetorix’s army would just pick off the Romans one by one. Rather, Caesar instructed his army to build a wall (like Alexander the Great’s men at Tyre Island, they must have marveled at how often soldiers are asked to also be builders and engineers!). The Romans built a fortification that is known as a circumvallation, which comes from the Latin circumvallare, which means to circle around (“circum”) and rampart (“vallum”). This rampart would encircle the entire settlement of Alesia with a series of walls, ditches, trips, and watchtowers all designed to make sure that Alesia could not receive any aid from the outside. The wall, essentially, made the settlement’s defensive position into a liability.
Of course, a wall takes time to build, and Vercingetorix guessed Caesar’s intentions and launched several attacks to try to prevent the Romans from completing their work. Not only were Caesar’s men able to fend them off, but they managed to finish the rampart in just three weeks. Considering that the entire construction was ten miles long and included 24 separate watchtowers, this was certainly no mean feat. Behind the wall, the men dug three six-meter-deep trenches, even filling the last one with river water. Stakes were sharpened and stuck into the ground as further deterrents. There were even eight rows of hidden pits in which thick, sharps stakes had been set up below, ready to impale the man who tried to escape. The Gauls were going nowhere.
And now, since Caesar knew that the people inside would continue to attempt escape, he set to work on building another fortress, encircling the first. After all, a few escapees had already breached the walls and disappeared. This rampart, however, was armed facing the other direction, not inwards to keep the Gaul tribes in, but also outwards to keep out any aid that the escapees might bring with them. This wall was called a contravallation – a counter rampart.
This was bad news for the people inside, who gradually began to starve. Trapped inside, conditions deteriorated fast. Once rationed food was exhausted, cannibalism was even suggested. In a tragic turn, the Gauls and Alesians decided to release the women, children, sick, and elderly, hoping Caesar would show them mercy, take them, and feed them. He did not. These people were left in between the two walls, and as they braved the elements and starved to death, it drastically lowered the morale of the men still inside the town.
As predicted, help did eventually arrive, even as Vercingetorix was considering surrender. At the end of September, there was a coordinated attack on both walls from the outside and the inside, and when this failed, another attempt under the cover of night.
It was October the 2nd that things reached boiling point, and 60,000 Gauls led by Vercassivellaunus launched an attack against a weak point in the rampart. The ensuing battles was vicious and protracted, but by the next day, Vercingetorix surrendered, saying that his men should either kill him there and then or offer him alive as a kind of tribute to Caesar. His men chose to surrender him, and the Romans kept him captive for 6 years more. He was eventually executed.
In the battle of Alesia, the Romans were said to have suffered around 12,800 wounded or killed, with the Gauls reportedly losing up to 250,000, with 40,000 captured. It was a monumental personal victory for Caesar and the infamous siege that put a stop to resistance in Gaul and handed it over to Roman rule. The Roman senate even declared 20 days of thanksgiving.
Now, at first glance, it can be hard to see what life lessons we could glean from this story (other than, perhaps, not to try to resist subjugation by Caesar…). However, studying important events from history can give us insight into a special, practical kind of problem solving that is sometimes difficult to appreciate in your own life – unless you’re a celebrated Roman consulate, that is.
What makes military history so interesting is that it is, in many ways, a live chess game that unfolds in unpredictable ways. And often, it is not strength or greater numbers that ensures victory for the winning side, but cunning, innovation and shrewd leadership. Even if you don’t plan to lay siege to an ancient Mandubii settlement anytime soon, you almost certainly will have faced a situation in which it felt like the odds were stacked against you. Maybe you’ve been dealt an unfair disadvantage, you’re working with too few resources, or you’re “on the back foot,” metaphorically speaking.
But in this story we see that, in battle, this isn’t the only thing that matters. Like Alexander the Great did with his epic sandbar plan, Caesar took the challenge facing him and turned it on its head. His plan to build two walls trapping his opponents was an entirely new innovation that proved that, when physical prowess might not have been enough, an intelligent, novel solution could be. Guesses vary widely, and it’s now considered likely that Caesar exaggerated his own account, but even modest estimates have each Roman pitted against at least two Gauls.
But what Caesar’s technique shows us is that, even if things are not quite to your favor, it doesn’t mean you are completely without resources or a way out. Whether Caesar’s political and military career is inspiring to you or not, and whether you agree with his methods, it’s pretty clear that he was a man who knew how to play the cards he was dealt. This was someone who knew exactly what strings to pull to find himself rising in Roman society, and his play at the battle of Alesia is just one of many incidents that give us a peek into this ancient man’s mindset.
What characterizes all of Caesar’s key historical moments is one thing: his willingness to change the game, to play his own game. Of course, he wasn’t reckless or a rebel – first he played by the rules, and then he broke them (“If you must break the law, do it to seize power; in all other cases, observe it”). Many great leaders teach us a similar lesson: before you can turn things upside down, see a fresh perspective, or solve a problem in an innovative way, you need to have a keen, intelligent grasp of facts as they are right now.
Caesar was a politician and knew how to work public opinion in his favor. He knew how to talk to his troops and inspire them to fight for him no matter what. He was ambitious, but he knew when and how to express this ambition, so he ultimately got what he wanted. Caesar is the perfect example of someone who understands tact, diplomacy, and tactics. It wasn’t sheer brute force or moral right that won him his many victories – it was cunning. And this cunning rests on the ability of a person to see into the rules of the game being played… and see a way to shift things so they come out on top.
Like Alexander the Great, Caesar had an indefatigable belief in his own entitlement to glory, but he also worked hard to conquer anything that stood in the way of his unfolding vision. In fact, one story goes that Caesar was put in awe of a statue of Alexander the Great when he was around 31 years old. He must have known then that Alexander already had, by that age, achieved immense glory. From that point, he would have redoubled his efforts – as Alexander did, so would he.
Like other ambitious and power-hungry generals and military leaders before and since, Caesar was a potent mix of grandeur, narcissism, and relentless drive, but he was also very, very intelligent. During the battle of Alesia, Caesar showed how he had been playing the game all along – within the rules, but also outside of them, when necessary.
How many of us can be said to possess this kind of strategic sense? How many of us are merely passively reacting to the conditions of our lives instead of asking, “Hang on, what can I create here? How can I change this story and play things differently?” Resilience, discipline, and consistency are only the outward signs of a deeper mental condition: the ability to be the authors of our own lives, the creators of our fates. Ultimately, the great men we’ve uncovered in these pages were so effective at leadership and domination because they were first able to conquer and master themselves.
There are many intelligent, strong, and capable people in the world, and certainly many ambitious ones. There are also many people who’ve been given great opportunities to exploit. But it is a rare talent to create those opportunities even when they don’t exist. Caesar wasn’t always Caesar. The man we know him as today was an image created deliberately and with purposeful effort. Some solutions will require a bit of out-of-the-box thinking, like Caesar showed at Alesia, but others will take a lot longer to play out. Caesar was known, for example, to plant seeds that would take years to yield results. But he followed through, he schemed, he plotted, he planned, and he undertook those plans with the careful precision of a chess-player.
Making the kind of mental shift required to think on the level of a Caesar or an Alexander is obviously no overnight project. But it’s easy enough to begin. Simply realize that nothing is set in stone. As long as the game is underway and you’re still in it, anything can happen. Even if the chips are down and things are looking bad for you, take a deep breath and remind yourself that it can be changed.
Look at what you are currently considering a disadvantage and see if it can be framed as an advantage. Look at the nature of your attackers and think carefully about the logic of your response to them. There is enormous resilience to be had in the refuge you can take in your own self-mastery. Don’t like what’s happening? Then change it.
Caesar is rumored to have said, “In war, events of importance are the result of trivial causes,” and “Fortune, which has a great deal of power in other matters but especially in war, can bring about great changes in a situation through very slight forces.” In other words, it’s not over till the fat lady sings! Even small acts and shifts in attitude can impact the great unfolding of fate. Though this means we need never lose hope because things can improve when we least expect it, it also means that we should never get too comfortable with things going our way – our fortune could swiftly change for the worse, too. This is why Caesar, even as he was thrashing the Alesians in their settlement, kept an eye open for those that had escaped, anticipated an attack from them, and prepared accordingly. Caesar never counted on luck, superstition, or charity. He was a leader, and that meant he took full and total responsibility for being the sole arbiter of his own fate.
Michael was an author who was having trouble getting agents to consider his work or convincing publishing houses to consider given his books a second glance. One day, an especially rude publisher tells him, “Look, I think this is the single worst book I’ve ever read.” It’s not a fair comment, but it does give Michael a strange new idea...
He gets to work writing something new – something he never considered. He abandons his old manuscripts and changes tack completely. Within a few years, Michael is at the top of bestseller charts after all and raking it in. He’s made a name for himself with a self-published book titled The Worst Book You’ll Ever Read, in which he writes a humorous mock self-help guide teaching his readers how to construct an anti-masterpiece that will have their audience heaving up their lunch. People love it.
Julius Caesar’s lessons:
• No matter how bleak things look, stay calm and take heart: you always have the power to choose your response, and you can often turn a disadvantage into an advantage simply by changing your perspective.
• When faced with a challenge or obstacle, try to think outside of the box and imagine a solution beyond your current way of thinking. Understand the rules, like Caesar, and then be brave and audacious enough to rewrite them completely to your advantage.
• There is never any reason for despair or giving up – things can and often do change at a moment’s notice. Stay alert and take whatever action you can, reminding yourself that, if there are no opportunities on the table that you like, you can create opportunities. The double rampart idea didn’t exist before the battle of Alesia – what novel solution to your own current problems is just one ingenious idea away?