Episode 8 – Sun Tzu versus Alexander the Great

Boy is this ever a heavyweight battle. From the Military bracket, entering the historical ring is a Macedonian, considered the greatest general of all time, Alexander the Great. On the other side is a Chinese general, strategist, writer and philosopher, the author of the most influential military work of all time, the Art of War, Sun Tzu.

Sun Tzu
Sun Tzu

Of all of the battles I had randomly put together for the first round, this was by far the most intriguing. Many in the West know of the record of Alexander as an undefeated general, leading the Greek peoples to victory over numerous superior in number adversaries. Sun Tzu is known for his work, the Art of War which has been used in military schools for centuries to this day. Both were highly influential during their time on earth and for the millennia after their deaths.

Let’s get this thing underway with a look at what we know about the man history know as Sun Tzu also known as Sun Zi. The name Sun Tzu means Master Sun which, given his accomplishments is very apropos. There is nothing we know about him from his contemporaries as much of the information comes from our friend from the Qin Shi Huangdi episode, Han historian, Sima Qian and the Spring and Autumn Annals, something I mentioned in last weeks episodlet on the Chinese Spring and Autumn era.

Sun Tzu’s traditional birth year is 544 BC in the state of Qi, although some claim he was born in Wu. There is even controversy as to whether the author of the Art of War is Sun Tzu or his descendant Sun Bin. Others claim that they are one in the same person. Whatever the truth, it is generally agreed upon, he was a general and strategist under King Helu of Wu during the late Spring and Autumn period.

 An interesting story about Sun Tzu was when he was tested by King Helu regarding dealings with the regents 180 female concubines. He asked Sun Tzu to train his harem. The general decided to split the women into two groups, each led by one of the favorites of the king. When commanded to turn right, the girls giggled. Asked to do it again, the continued to laugh. Sun Tzu ordered the two lead women to be executed, which they were despite the king’s protest. Sun Tzu told his boss that if the soldiers disobeyed orders, it was the general’s fault. The execution went on, with the Sun Tzu appointing two new women to take the place of their fallen comrade. As you might guess, when ordered to do something in the future, the harem complied, knowing the consequences.

Another story revolves about the Battle of Boju fought in 506 BCE. Controversy surrounds this battle as Sima Qian puts Sun Tzu at the head of the army of the Wu against the Chu but an earlier work, Zuan Zhuan makes no mention of him at all. Alongside King Helu, Sun Tzu supposedly led the army to a crushing defeat of the Chu taking their capital Ying and utterly destroying it.

His military prowess is not why he is in this battle or why he is so well known; it is his supposed authorship of the seminal work, Art of War. Not only has this book had a significant influence on military men for centuries, but it has also been used as a basis for many business works as well.

There are some listening to the podcast that would dispute the authorship of the Art of War, especially after the findings in 1972 of some bamboo Yingqueshan Han slips that indicate there were two versions of the book one by two different people, one being Sun Bin. While that may be true, I’m going with the idea that the original one is written by someone known as Sun Tzu. I may be way off base here, but I’m standing still on this issue. 

Regardless of which is right, the book the Art of War has influenced thousands of commanders of the military since Cao Cao‘s first commentary on it in the 3rd century AD all the way up to US General Norman Schwarzkopf, Jr., head of the US Military during the first Gulf War as well as Mao Zedong among many others. Mao is said to have leaned heavily on the book in his civil war which of course he and the communists eventually won. 

Excerpts have been published and quoted over the centuries with the KGB of the old Soviet Union using one in particular, “I will force our enemy to take our strengths for our weakness, and our weakness for our strength and thus turn his strength into weakness.”

As I mentioned, the Art of War has been used in numerous business books, but one intriguing place to show its effectiveness is with the head coach of the highly successful New England Patriots of the National Football League in the USA, Bill Belichick.

From war to business to sports, Sun Tzu and his work, the Art of War have had an enduring and lasting effect on the world and its inhabitants for millennium.

Now it’s time to, Put it Into Perspective.

We have the beginning of Greek philosophy, Zoroastrianism was founded as was Buddhism and Jainism and the Olmec civilization in Central America began its decline.

Next up, is the undefeated general of the ancient world Alexander the III of Macedon, you know him better as Alexander the Great.

Alexander the Great
Alexander the Great

Born in Pella Macedon in 356 BCE, Alexander was the son of King Phillip II and his fourth wife, Olympia. Being the son of a powerful and wealthy ruler gave the young boy the best teachers available, one of them the great philosopher, Aristotle.

A great story about the young Alexander related to a horse that refused to be ridden. Phillip, seeing that the horse was untamable, wished it to be taken away. His son, then aged 10 asked to have his hand at it. When he showed that he could tame him, his father beamed in pride saying, “My boy, you must find a kingdom big enough for your ambitions. Macedon is too small for you.” He then bought the horse from the merchant who offered it to Alexander naming it Bucephalus. The horse was to be with the soon to be king all the way to India some twenty years later. 

As he grew older, the now teenage Alexander was a trusted leader under his father who would trust him with crushing revolts within his realm as well as running Macedon when Phillip was off campaigning in other lands.

Together, the two fought a combined force of Thebans and Athenians at the Battle of Chaeronea, defeating them, thus taking control of most of Greece except Sparta. Phillip was now the ruler of what became known as the League of Corinth where he made it known that his next target was a long-time enemy of Greece and the Greek states, Persia.

Alexander’s father Phillip was assassinated by the captain of his bodyguards, Pausanias in 336 BC. Alexander was named king right then and there. There is speculation that Alexander was in on the plot to kill his father as there were questions as to whether he was going to be named as heir because of Phillip’s infatuation with his new wife, Cleopatra Eurydice. Whatever the truth is, Alexander was now king, and head of a mighty army created by his father. 

It is here that many historians have given Alexander too much credit and his father Phillip too little. The father is responsible for the creation and early training of this formidable force as well as accumulating the territories with which to call upon the men necessary to conduct the wars that Alexander was to lead. The plans for the invasion of Persia was made by Phillip, but we have to admit that it was his son who carried out those plans successfully. 

Alexander was also given a bonus from his childhood as his father had set up a boarding school for his son and other young boys who would become the new king’s trusted generals such as, Ptolemy, Hephaestion, and Cassander. These men were to be known as the “Companions.”

The first thing Alexander needed to do when he gained the throne was to crush the numerous revolts throughout the region including the stubborn Thebans and Athenians along with Thessaly and Thrace. His victories over his opponents so early in his regency proved to his men that they were being led by someone they could trust with their lives. Most of the revolting states surrendered without a fight as they feared Alexander which went a long way in securing his rear when he decided to head off to Persia.

The Thebans along with the Athenians revolted yet again so this time; Alexander destroyed Thebes which caused the Athenians to beg for mercy. The defeat of the Thebans was so complete that the other Greek States decided to leave well enough alone. When Alexander headed off to Persia, he left Antipater to rule in his place in Greece.

When Alexander decided the time was ripe to advance with his armies into the lands controlled by the Persians, he led a force of somewhere a little under 100,000 men in both his army and navy. He crossed the Hellespont also known today as the Dardanelles, is a narrow stretch of water between the continents of Europe and Asia. It was here in 334 BCE that the Greek army entered Asia.

Starting with his first win on Asian soil at the Battle of Granicus, Alexander and his men won fight after fight, laid siege to many towns and fortresses along the way until he finally met the Persian King, Darius III at Issus. Darius’s army was routed forcing the king to flee without his wife, his mother and two daughters who were held captive by the Greeks in return for a hefty ransom.

Onward through the Levant, Syria, Egypt and finally into what is now Iraq, Alexander and his Hellenic allies won victory over victory until they finally would meet up with the Persian army at the Battle of Gaugamela. Since this is one of the contestants in the Military bracket of our tournament, I won’t go into any details except that Alexander’s tactics and his brave warriors won the day despite being massively outnumbered.

Gaugamela represents the greatest victory of Alexander’s many battles, but somewhat more importantly, it gave notice to anyone who was thinking of standing up to him and his army, to think again. He defeated a vastly larger army, which was filled with well-trained warriors, and did it with flair and panache.

So how did Alexander achieve such a great victory? You really have to go back to his father and all of the changes he made to the Greek army which included the lightening of the soldier’s armor as well as their shield, going from the shorter spear of the hoplites to the extra-long sarissa, adding more archers and slingers, kind of ancient artillery, and adding light and heavy cavalry units. This mixed army was unique and highly flexible. In the hands of a weak or mediocre general, it could be disastrous with so many different types of troops, but in the hand of a genius, it was unstoppable.  

From here, Alexander would head to India in 326 BC where he defeated King Porus of Pavrava in what is now the Punjab province of Pakistan. This fight is known as the Battle of Hydaspes which was the last one of Alexander’s expansion plans.

Alexander the Great would die three years later in Babylon on June 10, 323 BC. His kingdom at the time of his death included Macedon, the Greek city-states, Bactria, parts of India, Anatolia, Egypt, Babylonia, the Levant and of course, Persia.

The problem is, he did not have a succession plan in place which led to the Wars of the Diadochi between generals and heirs of Alexander’s, effectively splitting up his empire into smaller entities.

Time for the second part of Put it Into Perspective.

The Romans built their first aqueduct, the first crossbow is invented in Syracuse, and Chandragupta Maurya founded the Mauryan Dynasty in India.

Now we have come to the part of the podcast where we judge the two contestants against one another. Today, I’m going to go backward in giving points.

First is the awarding of points of the length of their military careers. Alexander’s was incredibly short, given how much he accomplished, a mere 17 years, starting when he was 16 and off with his father Phillip in their battles in Greece.

Sun Tzu is a little harder to determine, but we first hear of his military exploits around 512 BC with him dying in 496 or a total of 16 years. I’m going to give both men the full 15 points.

Next is how did they influence their world at the time. The full 20 points go to Alexander which is woefully inadequate, but that’s the rules. Sun Tzu, while influential isn’t in his adversary’s ballpark, so he gets 10 points.

When it comes to the 25 points for influencing history in the long run, I had to take some time to assess the two men. Sun Tzu’s book the Art of War is his seminal work and has influenced numerous military and businessmen throughout the millennia. Wars have been shortened but also fought, leading to the death of many people since the time of its publication. Alexander, on the other hand, has a few issues with his influence. His kingdom dissolved almost immediately after his death, not a good long-term strategy. Even with that, the spread of Greek culture and the Hellenistic civilization has affected the world to this day. You may wonder how the Greek culture spread but the answer is quite ingenious on the part of Alexander; he often left wounded soldiers behind in the cities he conquered where they mixed with the indigenous population adding their Greek ways to the local customs.

His conquests and battles have been studied probably as much as Sun Tzu is not more so. For this reason, Alexander gets the full 25 points with Sun Tzu receiving 20.

The big prize is the 40 points that go to the man who had the most influence on his country at the time he was alive. Well, suffice it to say that Alexander is fully deserving of receiving the full 40 points without question. He took this small country and made it one of the greatest empires in the world in his short life. It is unimaginable what might have happened and how the world would be different today had he lived another 10 or even 20 years. Sun Tzu’s effect on China, while important, was not on the same level as Alexander, so he receives 30 points.

In the end, Alexander the Great gets a perfect 100 points with Sun Tzu getting a respectable 75. Had the Chinese military genius gone up against pretty much anyone else, I would have predicted a much closer battle, but in this randomized matchup, he is defeated by one of the greatest generals of all time. Next round, Alexander gets to go up against another battle of extreme heavyweights, Giuseppe Garibaldi or Napoleon Bonaparte. 

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Mark Schauss has been podcasting for over 8 years. His Russian Rulers History was a top history podcast for 7 1/2 years. Discover his new entry into the podcast world.



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