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Home > Back Issues (Journal) > Journal V28 N1 (Jan - Mar 2002) > Alexander and Genghis Khan: Two World Conquerors Compared

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Alexander and Genghis Khan: Two World Conquerors Compared
by Mr Ronald Hee


When one thinks of would-be world conquerors, the name Alexander the Great is likely to emerge on the first attempt. By many measures, the man who came closest to achieving this goal, with an empire that at its height, stretched from Budapest to the Sea of Japan, was Genghis Khan. They were alike enough for the historian Rene Grousset to refer to the Khan as "the barbarian Alexander". Certainly in their own ways and in their times, both men shook the world. But while one man built an empire and ruled it by the sword, the other built an empire and tried to rule by persuasion and conciliation.

Growing Up to be Conquerors

In examining the early years of both men, one can get a sense of why one became a destroyer of nations while the other was much more benign. Both were born to relatively barbarian and backward tribes, next to great civilizations ­ Macedon lay north of the Greek states, the Mongolian tribes lay north of China. There the similarity ended ­ before both men would be born, their tribes' relationships with their neighbours would already play a critical role.

For generations, Macedon had adopted Greek ways so much as to be practically indistinguishable. The magnificent Macedonian fighting machine wielded by Alexander was a creation of his father, Philip, who in turn, had copied and then refined it based on the Greek model. Significantly, the Greeks were squabbling sister states, and could offer limited resistance to a unified Macedon under Philip.

Alexander was born into a life of wealth and privilege due the son of a conquering hero. Philip took great pains to groom his son to be his successor, constantly challenging him, and providing for him the pick of the kingdom as his playmates and competitors. And while himself a man of little learning, Philip arranged for the wisest man in Greece to tutor his son, none other than Aristotle. By the time of Philip's death in 336 BC, Alexander, aged 20, had already earned his spurs. He stood as regent in his father's absence at the age of 16. At the age of 18, he already had his baptism of fire and of command, leading a cavalry regiment in the successful Battle of Chaeronea. In two years of battle and diplomacy, Alexander managed to consolidate his power base in Greece and was ready to embark on a career of conquest.

By comparison, the man who would be Genghis Khan was born Temuchin, the son of a minor Mongolian chieftain. The Mongols were extremely poor and divided tribes, struggling to survive. Arrayed against them was a strong China, a China that had built the greatest defence line in history to keep these barbarians at bay and as barbarians the Mongols were treated.

Like Alexander, Temuchin's father was also murdered. However, Temuchin is said to be only eight at the time. Rather than living the life of a prince, Temuchin was sold into slavery and hardship. There would be no Chinese Aristotle to influence the young boy. It took 36 long years of ruthlessness, diplomacy and treachery to finally unite the Mongol tribes and for him to be declared as their leader. The name "Genghis Khan" was then conferred, roughly translated as "divine and perfect warrior-king".

Motivation for Conquest

Alexander, for his part, was heavily influenced by his tutor, and wanted to become the philosopher-king. He "believed that he had a mission from the deity to harmonize men generally and be the reconciler of the world, mixing men's lives and customs as in a loving cup, and treating the good as his kin, the bad as strangers; for he thought that the good man was the real Greek and the bad man the real barbarian."1

It is interesting to note that he saw being Greek not so much as an ethnic concept, but more as a cultural one ­ a cultured man is a good man, and a cultured man is a Greek. It followed that all non-Greeks were "barbarians" simply because they had not yet been exposed to Greek culture and Greek learning, in much they way the Macedonians had been. Alexander therefore saw his role as being to bring Greek enlightenment to the world.

Genghis Khan also saw he had a divine mission: "Heaven has appointed me to rule all the nations."2 But the goals of conquest for the Khan were not lofty, they were earthy: "The greatest happiness is to vanquish your enemies and chase them before you, to rob them of their wealth and see those dear to them bathed in tears, to ride their horses and clasp to your bosom their wives and daughters."3

For Alexander, all men, once they had seen the Greek light, were reasonable beings who could be united into one great commonwealth. There were no known cases of slaughter after battle, with the exception of the sack of Tyre, meant as a warning against other cities for opposing the Macedonians.

For the Khan, all others, including Mongols from other tribes, could never be trusted ­ "the vanquished can never be the friends of the victors; the death of the former is necessary therefore for the safety of the latter."4 The Mongols believed in the systematic use of terror; "every man, woman, child and beast in the path of the Mongol army was butchered, and every building burnt down "; "their cruelty was bestial, their blood-lust insatiable; and Genghis Khan's victims must be numbered in the tens ­ perhaps scores ­ of millions."5 It is believed that in China alone, as many as 18 million may have been put to the sword.6

Fighting Style

Both the Macedonian and Mongolian armies were the best of their times; the instruments by which two great empires were carved. Both depended heavily on excellent cavalry as the principle striking arm. Both embarked on their first major campaigns against powerful but decaying empires; Persia for Alexander, and China for Genghis.

Alexander's army was very small, usually numbering in the region of 30-60,000. This size enabled Alexander to wield tight personal control, both on and off the battle field. The army was never divided into smaller parts; it fought as one unit, with each combat element well-drilled to do its role as part of a larger action. The king's command style was marked by audacity, flexibility and resourcefulness. The key battles were set piece actions ­ Granicus and Arbela ­ where the entire army fought outnumbered against its foe, and won. With an army this small, it was no surprise that elitism permeated the ranks.7 Apart from smaller contingents of archers, slingers, and others, typically 'light artillery' formations, the army was made up primarily of the phalanx and the cavalry; the latter composed largely of the boyhood noble playmates of the king, known as the Companions. While the phalanx would be the immovable object that fixed the enemy in place, the cavalry would ride out at the key moment to outflank and smash the enemy.

The army of the Mongols was also not large for its time, usually numbering about 100,000. At its peak, during the Persian campaign, the army was said to have numbered 250,000. It was made up almost entirely of heavy and light horses, with later, a small engineering formation to destroy fortified cities. The army of the Khan operated in separate columns, separate 'armies' that would unite at the key point to destroy the enemy, often surrounding him in the process. Direct confrontation was to be avoided, the direct opposite of the Macedonian style. Instead, the Mongol way of war was to strike where unexpected. The invasion of the kingdom of Khwarizm, the first major offensive after the conquest of China, was a key example.

The Shah of Khwarizm outnumbered the Mongols 2:1. He entrenched his troops along the most likely route of advance, the River Jaxartes. To his surprise, rather than a head-on assault, three columns of Mongol troops smashed into his left flank, forcing him to turn and meet the threat to his rear. At that point, emerging seemingly out of thin air from across an "impassable" desert, a fourth column, led by the Khan himself, again smashed into his rear. In five months, the kingdom fell.8 In the style of combat, this campaign bore a striking resemblance to the German attack on Poland in 1939. Indeed, the Khan's "genius lay in forging as his weapon of conquest the most disciplined army in the world, and wielding it with sophisticated precision in the first example of blitzkrieg warfare known to history."9

Like the Macedonians, the army of the Khan did have elite units too. The Khan's best unit was similar to the Companions ­ the Imperial Guard. There was also the Old Elite Life Guards, which served the additional function of something of a staff college ­ no commander could reach a senior appointment except by serving in the Life Guards. Interestingly, while some places were reserved based on class and clan, the bulk of the positions were selected on merit.

Occupation Policy

With his philosophy of uniting all men, Alexander took what was for his time, extraordinary steps to rule his empire. He deliberately adopted Persian customs, sometimes to the disgruntlement of his Greek and Macedonian followers. He even took to marrying an Indian princess and a Persian one as well. "His Phihellenism was perhaps a natural enthusiasm, while his orientalism was a matter of policy, aimed at conciliating a conquered people."10 Unfortunately, Alexander died soon after these wars of conquest. He was only 33. He did not have the time to set into place the machinery to administer his empire. He did not appoint a clear heir. Little wonder that his empire broke apart, making way for an even greater empire, based from Rome.

Genghis Khan, on the other hand, lived to the age of approximately 65. His conquest of China was completed in stages, from 1211 to 1226, providing him plenty of time to build the machinery of empire. Alexander's conquest of Persia, by comparison, took only 42 months. Based on the Mongol nomadic tradition, the Khan established a system of 'yams', or staging posts, throughout the empire. These posts, about 40 kilometres apart, were the distant feelers of the empire, providing a corps of imperial messengers, food, shelter and fresh horses.11 These messengers quickly communicated instructions and intelligence as required. The Khan also saw to the development of a code of law, called the yassaq. The Mongols' harsh methods did yield them a pacified empire, and the Khan seemed to allow anything that did not affect the security of the Mongols, such as freedom of religion. "Under my rule everyone may pray to any god he pleases."12

Legacy and Speculation

Alexander is generally considered to have had a huge civilizing influence. His wars of conquest are seen as having opened up commerce between Europe and the Middle East and beyond13; and his transmission of Greek culture across the Mediterranean is seen as not only laying the foundation for the Roman Empire, but also for the growth of Christianity.14 So many of today's languages have roots that are Greek or Latin in origin; so much of the world's storehouse of knowledge began with the Greeks.

Alexander also founded 70 cities, the most famous of which was Alexandria in Egypt, in 331 BC. This was to have been his world capital, and his successors accumulated there the greatest library in ancient times. The library may have contained anywhere from 200,000 to half a million volumes. It was at Alexandria, for example, that scientists first worked out the circumference of the world. Its subsequent destruction in 642 AD was perhaps the greatest act of vandalism in history, and contributed to the nadir of the Dark Ages.

In summation, Alexander's wars of conquest served to break the barriers preventing the spread of culture, religion, knowledge, and peoples. If Alexander did not die so young and so suddenly, it is reasonable to assume that he would have embarked on other wars of conquest ­ his next target was Arabia, and he was starting to worry about the Italian peninsula, for example. It is also reasonable to assume that he would have built a suitable imperial machinery, based on tolerance and respect. It may well have been that the thousand year empire of the Romans would have had a different capital.

If we see the spread of Greek culture as Alexander's legacy, and the city of Alexandria as his monument, what comparable monument marks the passage of Genghis Khan? The report card is somewhat mixed. There were the deserts of Central Asia, where the Mongols deliberately massacred entire peoples, and destroyed irrigation works. There was also the opening of the famous trade routes between Europe and China, possible only because of the peace across Asia imposed by the Mongols.

Unlike the Macedonians, the magnificent fighting machine built by Genghis Khan would continue on to greater glory, for the next 150 years. It is reasonable to speculate that if the Khan had not lived so long, the Mongol empire might have crumbled just as quickly as the Macedonians. The descendants of millions of innocents might well be alive today.


1. Fuller, J.F.C., A Military History of the Western World, p95.

2. Prawdin, M., The Mongol Empire: Its Rise and Legacy, p89.

3. Chambers, J., The Devil's Horsemen, p6.

4. Montross, L., War Through the Ages, p145.

5. Windrow, M., & Mason, F., A Concise Dictionary of Military Biography, p104.

6. Montross, op cit, p145.

7. Warry, J., Warfare in the Classical World, p73.

8. For a superb account of this campaign, see Montross, op cit, pp149-151.

9. Windrow & Mason, op cit, p103.

10. Warry, op cit, p72.

11. Montross, op cit, p61.

12. Prawdin, op cit, p182.

13. Fuller, op cit, p112.

14. Preston, R.A., & Wise, S.F., Men in Arms, p30.


1. Chambers, J., The Devil's Horsemen (New York, 1979)

2. Fox, R., Genghis Khan (London, 1936)

3. Fuller, J.F.C., A Military History of the Western World (New York, 1954)

4. Fuller, J.F.C., Decisive Battles of the Western World, 480 BC ­ 1757 (ed Terraine, J., Great Britain, 1972)

5. Montross, L., War Throughout the Ages (New York, 1960)

6. Prawdin, M., The Mongol Empire: Its Rise and Legacy (London, 1940)

7. Warry, J., Warfare in the Classical World (London, 1980)

8. Windrow, M., & Mason, F., A Concise Dictionary of Military Biography (UK, 1975)

Mr Ronald Hee served as a BMT instructor in the School of Combat Engineers from 1984 ­ 1986 during his National Service. His civilian positions include being with the Current Affairs Unit of Singapore Broadcasting Corporation and with the Singapore Discovery Centre, dealing with exhibit development and multimedia work. He holds a degree in History and Political Science (NUS) and continues to maintain a strong interest in defence technology and military history.

Last updated: 03-Jul-2006






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