The primary sources emphasize Alexander III of Macedon’s (“the Great” r.336-323 BCE) bravery in combat, and we know from the descriptions of these engagements, mostly from his best biographers, the Greek historian Arrian (c.86-c.160) and the Roman historians Diodorus Siculus (first century BCE), Quintus Curtius Rufus (first century CE), that the Macedonian king preferred active command over remote (or removed) command. In active command, the commanding general participates in battle, leading his troops from the front usually at crucial moments as the captain of a well-timed reserve action, whereas remote command places the commanding general in a location on the battlefield where he can direct the action from a safer distance and adjust tactical plans as the battle unfolds.

In many ways Alexander’s battlefield actions are the prototypical example of an active commander, as we know he led his elite Companion cavalry soldiers in battle and each of the major engagements he is famous for. While still a prince and only eighteen, he led the decisive cavalry charge from the left wing at Chaeronea (336 BCE), winning the day and establishing his reputation at a battle captain among his countrymen and the Greeks. At Granicus River (334) Issus (333), and Gaugamela (331) he arrayed his Companions in battle on the right wing of the Macedonian front, in the traditional position of honor, and fought with them to victory. In India at Hydaspes (326), Alexander personally led the dangerous river crossing upriver, a turning movement that allowed the rest of the army to cross closer to the battle, before fighting in the main engagement.

Active command was part of Macedonian and Greek warfare for centuries. Bronze Age chieftains gained military reputation and followers through acts of bravery on the battlefield, and the mythical heroes both cultures treasured, the Homeric heroes, all demonstrated leadership in war. For Alexander, joining his men in the glory and horrors of battle was both his birthright and a requirement if he were to exceed the accomplishments of past kings and heroes and become worthy of comparison to his childhood idol, a “Second Achilles.”


Top photo: Alexander and Darius III at battle of Issus. Alexander Mosaic. National Archaeological Museum, Naples. Source: Wikimedia. Click to enlarge.

Middle photo: Macedonian infantryman from Alexander Sarcophagus. Istanbul Archaeological Museum, Istanbul, Turkey. Source: Wikimedia. Click to enlarge.

Bottom photo: A map of Alexander the Great's empire at its largest extent c.323 BCE including details of key roads, location, and battles. Source: Wikipedia. Click to enlarge.


During his decade of campaigning (336-326 BCE), Alexander was wounded in combat at least eight times, evidence of his propensity towards active command as a general. Arrian and Curtius give the most details concerning these injuries, although other classical authors added interesting details. 


  • Scimitar-blow to the head; Battle of Granicus River (western Anatolia, Republic of Türkiye), 334 BCE. Diodorus mentions Alexander was attacked early in the engagement after crossing the river, when a Persian cavalryman “brought his sword down on Alexander’s head with such a fearsome blow that it split the helmet and inflicted a slight scalp wound.” Arrian states, “Alexander’s helmet, though partially broken, checked the blow.” This attacker was himself killed by Cleitus the Black, a trusted officer from King Philip II’s regime, whom Alexander would later kill in a drunken rage. None of the sources mention any medical treatment. 
  • Sword-thrust to the thigh; Battle of Issus (southeastern Anatolia, Republic of Türkiye), 333 BCE. While leading the Royal Companion cavalry charge, Diodorus states Alexander was wounded in the thigh.” However, Alexander continued to fight and Arrian’s commentary emphasizes Alexander’s commitment to his men, stating, “…though he received a sword wound in the thigh, Alexander visited the wounded, and when the corpses had been gathered, he honored them with splendid funeral rites, the entire army drawn up in its brightest battle array.” The sources do not mention medical treatment. 12543001089?profile=RESIZE_400x
  • Projectile to chest or shoulder and rock to leg; siege of Gaza (modern Palestinian Territory, Israel), 332 BCE. Arrian describes Alexander was wounded by missile fire from the battlements while reinforcing his troops. At this moment, he was “hit by a shot from a catapult; it passed through his shield and breastplate and struck his shoulder” and that “Alexander’s wound proved difficult to treat.” Curtius portrays an arrow wound instead, one that “passed through his cuirass and stuck in his shoulder, from which it was extracted by his doctor.” Interestingly, Curtius continues, stating that the Macedonian king asked for his injury to be treated, and returned to battle, only to begin to bleed again. Alexander “began to faint, his knees buckled, and the men next to him caught him and took him back to camp.” This injury required bedrest. After he returned to oversee the siege, he was struck again, this time by a rock thrown from the battlements, slightly injuring his leg, but not enough to keep him from fighting. 
  • Arrow through the calf; skirmish along the Jaxartes River, 329 BCE. Alexander was wounded again by local tribesmen in the mountainous northeastern frontier near Maracanda, who had previously massacred a Macedonian foraging party. Arrian states he was “hit by an arrow that passed through his leg and fractured his fibula. But even so, he captured the place” indicating the wound was not so bad that he could not continue in command. Curtius remarks that the Macedonian king was “hit by narrow, the head of which was left firmly lodged in his leg” that he was carried back to Maracanda on a litter. Both sources state that he was back to burning cities in just a few days. 
  • Stone strike to the head or upper neck; siege of Cyropolis (near Khujand, Tajikistan), 329 BCE. While campaigning in Bactria, Alexander received the most serious wound of his career while sieging the city of Cyropolis. Both Arrian and Plutarch locate the injury at back of the head and neck, with Plutarch further commenting that “for many days he was in fear of becoming blind.” Alexander recovered his sight, but the effects of the injury lingered. Curtius remarking a month later Alexander still “could not stand in the ranks, ride a horse, or give his men instructions or encouragements.” The severity of this head injury indicates brain drama, with modern historians wondering if it had long-term phycological effects on Alexander’s personality. 
  • Arrow to the shoulder; siege of town in Swat Valley (northern Pakistan), 327 BCE. Alexander received a superficial arrow wound to his shoulder while sieging a town in the Swat Valley, with Arrian commenting his corselet “prevented the missile from going right through the shoulder.” He continued to campaign and there is no mention in any of the sources of this wound requiring special attention. 
  • Arrow to the lower leg or ankle; siege of Massaga (in the Swat Valley, northern Pakistan), 327 BCE. Curtius mentioned another superficial wound while Alexander was campaigning against the Assaceni tribe’s capital of Massaga. While leading his infantry close to the walls, he was struck by an arrow from the battlements, “wounding his slightly in the ankle” according to Arrian. Curtius expands on these comments. “Alexander pulled out the barb, had his horse brought up, and without even bandaging the wound, wrote around fulfilling his objectives no less energetically.” 
  • Arrow to the chest; siege of Malli (Punjab region, Pakistan), 326 BCE. Perhaps the most famous of Alexander’s injuries took place while seeking the city of Malli. Here, he famously led an assault against the city’s battlements when his own troops balked, jumping into the courtyard before fighting hand-to-hand with the Indian defenders and taking an arrow to the chest. This wound appeared to be serious from the sources. Arrian states “the arrow penetrated his corselet and entered his body above the breast” with Curtius adding that “when he received his wound, a thick jet of blood shot forth.” The impact of the shot was significant. Once taken to his tent for medical attention, the doctors, according to Curtius, “cut off the shaft of the arrow embedded in his body without removing the arrowhead.” Stoically, Alexander “submitted to the knife without flinching” as the wound track was enlarged in the barbed arrowhead remote. Curtius states that it took seven days before Alexander was moved by litter and placed on a boat to sail downriver. The sources indicate that Alexander did not participate in full campaigning for another five months. 



Ten years of active campaigning left physical and mental scars on both Alexander and the men who followed him into battle. And while forensic analysis of the wound descriptions has led some modern historians to both doubt the severity of Alexander’s injuries while wondering about the psychological impact of others, his proximity to the action suggests a brave, and perhaps in some cases reckless, battle captain. Most of his wounds were received while either directing siege operations or in the process of storming the city, a testimony to the inherent dangers of this type of classical warfare.


Suggested Readings:

Primary sources

Diodorus Siculus. The Library-Philip II, Alexander the Great, and the Successors. Translated by Robin Waterfield. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2019.

Quintus Curtius Rufus. The History of Alexander. Translated by John Yardley. New York: Penguin, 1984.

Strassler, Robert B. ed. The Landmark Arrian: The Campaigns of Alexander. Anchor, 2012.

Secondary sources

Bosworth, A.B. Conquest and Empire: The Reign of Alexander the Great. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993.

Gabriel, Richard A. The Madness of Alexander the Great: And the Myth of Military Genius. Barnsley: Pen and Sword, 2015.

Green, Peter. Alexander of Macedon, 356–323 BC: A Historical Biography. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2013.

Worthington, Ian. By the Spear: Philip II, Alexander the Great, and the Rise and Fall of the Macedonian Empire. New York: Oxford University Press, 2014.


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  • Professor Carey,

    Your insightful post got me thinking about how I would approach teaching about Alexander the Great and ancient warfare to high school students. It's a challenge to get young people to fully grasp the brutal realities of combat in a time so far removed from their own life experiences.

    Just today, I was imagining myself as a high school history teacher, trying to bring these distant events to life in a meaningful way. We live in an era where most people go their entire lives without ever being in a physical fight, let alone facing the mortal perils of the battlefield. How can we bridge that gap of understanding for future generations?

    I think delving into the specifics of Alexander's many wounds, as you've done here, could be a powerful way to drive home the visceral nature of ancient warfare. By tracing his scars - from the sword gash to his thigh at Issus to the nearly fatal arrow to the chest in India - students can begin to comprehend the raw courage and physical sacrifices demanded of ancient warriors and their leaders.

    Beyond just reciting dates and outcomes, vivid details like the arrow lodged in Alexander's leg at Cyropolis or his brush with blindness after the head wound at Gaza can lodge in young minds, fostering a deeper understanding of the human costs of war throughout history.

    Of course, we have to be mindful of the line between engaging students and overwhelming them with graphic violence. But I believe that thoughtful, focused accounts like yours are essential to conveying the harsh truths that underlie the often romanticized tales of ancient heroism. They can lead to valuable classroom discussions about leadership, sacrifice, the cultural contexts of warfare, and the ways the past continues to shape our present.

    You've given me some great food for thought as I contemplate how to make history meaningful for the next generation.


    • Kyle, your comments are most kind. I appreciate your dedication to your studies at APUS and I have no doubt you will bring an intimate understanding of the subject matter you teach to your own students. History is the most relatable of all disciplines because every human has their own story. 

      Take care.



  • Another great piece, Brian. The focus on Alexander's injuries truly reiterates the perils of fighting in his day and age, but also serves as a reflection of his leadership style to lead from the front. Fantastic job.

    • Thank you, Michael. Much appreciated. 

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