Those who have held leadership positions know that there are times when a group can become gripped by a sudden wave of panic or consternation. It can happen without warning; there may even be no readily discernible reason for this collective psychological seizure. Unless a leader takes stern and decisive measures without delay, such a panic can spiral out of control and plunge the group into disaster.
Now the historian Polyaenus, in his Stratagems of War (IV.3), comments on the workings of these mysterious terrors. Alexander the Great was conducting a forced march in an effort to reach the Tigris River before the Persian king Darius. Without warning—and for no apparent reason—a panic seized the rear of his column and rapidly made its way through the ranks, as if it were an electric current. Perhaps its origins lay in the pervasive stresses of fighting and surviving in remote lands. The emotion was powerful; fear and confusion emanated from the bodies of the Greeks with the detectable presence of some gaseous vapor. Alexander, a commander experienced not only in the techniques of war but in the psychology of men, knew that he must take immediate action to quell the panic.
So Alexander ordered the trumpeters to sound off loudly in prolonged bursts. This was the king’s signal of safety, which the men had been trained to recognize. He then ordered the first rank to throw down their weapons and halt in place. The next rank was ordered to do the same; this command was then repeated in succession, until all ranks had been disarmed. The entire army was made to halt. Alexander then showed himself, riding up and down the ranks, until he was satisfied that his calming presence had been made known to every set of eyes in his army. This pause lasted until Alexander and his subordinate leaders could see that the panic had passed. The men were then ordered to pick up their weapons and resume the march. As Polyaenus says in his prooemium:
Fortitude conquers by dint of sword, while superior conduct by art and stratagem prevails; and the greatest reach of generalship is displayed in those victories that are obtained with the least danger.
[Trans. by R. Shepherd]
We should not underestimate the dangers of such panics, for they can become a form of temporary insanity. The fact that they erupt with no visible cause does not lessen the degree of peril they generate. The Greek geographer Pausanias, in his Description of Greece (X.23.7) relates an unsettling tale about another such panic. This panic occurred during the invasion of Greece undertaken by the Gaulish chieftain Brennus. Brennus led an army of about 85,000 men into Greece in 280 B.C. Near Delphi, the Gallic force was routed; but this was not the end of their misfortunes. The night following the defeat, the remainder of the men at the Gallic camp was seized by some unnamed hysteria. They fell upon each other with their weapons, killing and wounding in a frenzy of consternation. Brennus eventually committed suicide. Of this episode, Pausanias (X.23.7) says:
They encamped where night overtook them in their retreat, and during the night there fell on them a panic. For causeless terrors are said to come from the god Pan. It was when evening was turning to night that the confusion fell on the army, and at first only a few became mad, and these imagined that they heard the trampling of horses at a gallop, and the attack of advancing enemies; but after a little time the delusion spread to all.
[Trans. by W.H.S. Jones]
The word “panic” is derived from the name of the god Pan. But why were these “causeless terrors” attributed to him? One reason is given in a myth related by Polyaenus (I.2). He says that Pan was a general of the god Bacchus. It was Pan, we are told, who introduced crucial military innovations. He invented the Greek phalanx, and gave it a right and left wing; it was because of Pan’s horns that ancient writers used “horns” (e.g., Latin cornua) to describe these formations. At one time, as he was moving his forces through a ravine, Bacchus was told by his reconnaissance units that a large enemy army was encamped above him. Bacchus was worried by this development, but his trusted general Pan took care of the problem.
At nightfall, Pan ordered the entire army to be perfectly quiet; then, on command, he told them to shout all at once. The huge roar echoed several times over the walls of the ravine, filling it completely with sustained noise. The encamped enemy came to believe that Bacchus’s army was much bigger than it actually was; gripped by a feeling of panic, the enemy fled without delay. This is why the word “panic” is traceable to the god Pan, and it is also why the nymph Echo is said to be Pan’s mistress.
It is clear from these examples that only quick and resolute action can quell a panic. This type of decisiveness, however, is rarely found today among those who call themselves leaders. The best recent example of this, of course, can be found in the Covid Panic which erupted in 2020 and limped along, more or less, until late 2022. Little or nothing was done by civil “leaders” to quell the unrelenting steam of fear-mongering that gushed in torrents from news outlets, social media, and the supposed intelligentsia. Not only did these figures do little or nothing to diminish the panic, they even tossed out their own agreed pandemic procedures.
They stoked the fires of fear to aggrandize themselves, protect their jobs, and win influence. They encouraged pointless and enormously destructive lockdowns, economic closures, and restrictions; they peddled demonstrable medical untruths long after the point when such behavior might be excused by good faith ignorance. The price of this criminal negligence and abdication of responsibility will continue to be paid for years. And if there is ever to be an honest reckoning for those responsible, nothing short of a tribunal vested with legal powers will do.
How different from this craven mentality is the poise and control of an Alexander, who knew how to quell the terrors of Pan! One marvels at his mastery of the psychology of men under extreme duress. It is knowledge that could only have come from long acquaintance with the chaos of battle. Polyaenus (IV.3.13) says that one time, when his Macedonians had fled from the field, Alexander replaced his troops’ coats of mail with a breastplate.
He did this because he knew the breastplate would be protection to them as long as they boldly faced the enemy. If they turned and fled, they would expose their unprotected backs to the enemy’s arrows and blades. “This had such effect,” says Polyaenus, “that they never afterwards fled, but, if they were overpowered, always retreated in good order.”
Read more about the effects of moral corruption and duress in the new translation of Sallust’s Conspiracy of Catiline and War of Jugurtha: