Alexander the Great

Definition

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published on 14 November 2013
Alexander the Great (Ruthven)

Alexander III of Macedon, known as Alexander the Great (21 July 356 BCE – 10 or 11 June 323 BCE), was the son of King Philip II of Macedon. He became king upon his father’s death in 336 BCE and went on to conquer most of the known world of his day. He is known as 'the great' both for his military genius and his diplomatic skills in handling the various populaces of the regions he conquered. He is further recognized for spreading Greek culture, language, and thought from Greece throughout Asia Minor, Egypt, and Mesopotamia to India and thus initiating the era of the "Hellenistic World".

Alexander's Youth

When Alexander was young, he was taught to fight and ride by Leonidas, a relative of his mother Olympias, as well as to endure hardships such as forced marches. His father, Philip, was interested in cultivating a refined future king so hired Lysimachus of Acarnania to teach the boy reading, writing, and to play the lyre. This tutelage would instill in Alexander a life-long love of reading and music. At the age of 14 Alexander was introduced to the Greek philosopher Aristotle who Philip hired as a private tutor. He would study with Aristotle for the next three years, and the two remained in correspondence throughout Alexander's later campaigns.

Aristotle’s influence directly bore upon Alexander’s later dealings with the people he conquered, in that Alexander never forced the culture of Greece upon the inhabitants of the various regions but merely introduced it in the same way Aristotle used to teach his students. The influence of Leonidas may be seen in Alexander's lifelong resilience and physical stamina as well as in his skill with horses. Alexander tamed the `untamable ' Bucephalus when he was only 11 or 12 years old. While his tutor's influence certainly had a profound effect upon him, Alexander seemed destined for greatness from birth. He had, first of all, a father whose accomplishments laid a firm foundation for his later success. The historian Diodorus Siculus observes:

During the twenty-four years of his reign as King of Macedonia, in which he started with the slenderest resources, Philip built his own kingdom up into the greatest power in Europe...He projected the overthrow of the Persian Empire, landed forces in Asia and was in the act of liberating the Hellenic communities when he was interrupted by Fate - in spite of which, he bequeathed a military establishment of such size and quality that his son Alexander was enabled to overthrow the Persian Empire without requiring the assistance of allies. These achievements were not the work of Fortune but of his own force of character, for this king stands out above all others for his military acumen, personal courage and intellectual brilliance.

While it is clear that his father had a great impact on him, Alexander himself chose to see his success as ordained by divine forces. He called himself the son of Zeus, and so claimed the status of a demi-god, linking his blood-line to his two favorite heroes of antiquity, Achilles and Herakles, and modeling his behavior after theirs. This belief in his divinity was instilled in him by Olympias who also told him that his was a virgin birth as she had been miraculously impregnated by Zeus himself. His birth was associated with great signs and wonders, such as a bright star gleaming over Macedonia that night and the destruction of the Temple of Artemis at Ephesus. Plutarch writes:

Alexander was born the sixth of Hecatombaeon, which month the Macedonians call Lous, the same day that the temple of Diana at Ephesus was burnt; which Hegesias of Magnesia makes the occasion of a conceit, frigid enough to have stopped the conflagration. The temple, he says, took fire and was burnt while its mistress was absent, assisting at the birth of Alexander. And all the Eastern soothsayers who happened to be then at Ephesus, looking upon the ruin of this temple to be the forerunner of some other calamity, ran about the town, beating their faces, and crying that this day had brought forth something that would prove fatal and destructive to all Asia. (Plutarch, Lives)

At the Oracle of Siwa, he was proclaimed a son of the god Zeus-Ammon.

Though his miraculous birth is well documented by historians, there is little information on his youth, aside from tales of his precociousness (he allegedly interviewed visiting dignitaries about the boundaries and strengths of Persia when he was seven years old), his tutors, and his childhood friends. Alexander’s friends Cassander, Ptolemy, and Hephaestion would become his life-long companions and generals in his army. Callisthenes, another friend, was Aristotle's great-nephew, and came to the Macedonian court with the philosopher. He would become court historian and follow Alexander on campaign in the capacity of philosopher. Hephaestion remained his best and dearest friend throughout his life and second-in-command of the army. Of Alexander's youth, the historian Worthington writes that Alexander "would have been educated at home, as was the custom in Macedonia, and he would have grown used to seeing (and then participating in) the drinking contests that were part of Macedonian court life" but that, aside from that, "we know surprisingly little about Alexander's boyhood"(33).

Charonea & the Early Campaigns

Alexander’s military prowess was first noted at the Battle of Charonea in 338 BCE. Although only 18 years old, he helped turn the tide of battle in the decisive Macedonian victory which defeated the Greek allied city-states. When Philip II was assassinated in 336 BCE, Alexander assumed the throne, and with the Greek city-states now united under Macedonian rule following Charonea, embarked on the great campaign his father had been planning: the conquest of the mighty Persian Empire. Worthington states:

Homer was Alexander's bible and he took Aristotle's edition with him to Asia...During his campaigns Alexander was always intent on finding out everything he could about the areas through which he passed. He took with him an entourage of scientists to record and analyse this information, from botany, biology, zoology and meteorology, to topography. His desire to learn, and to have information recorded as scientifically as possible, probably stemmed from Aristotle's teachings and enthusiasm.(34-35)

With an army of 32,000 infantry and 5,100 cavalry, Alexander crossed over to Asia Minor in 334 BCE and sacked the city of Baalbek, re-naming it Heliopolis. He then liberated the Greek city of Ephesos from Persian rule and offered to re-build the Temple of Artemis, which had been destroyed by arson on the night of his birth, but the city refused his gesture. In 333 BCE Alexander and his troops defeated the larger force of King Darius III of Persia at the Battle of Issos. Darius fled the field, leaving his family behind. Alexander went on to sack the Phoenician city of Sidon and then to conquer Aleppo. In 332 BCE he conquered Syria and then Egypt in 331 BCE, where he founded the city of Alexandria. At the Oracle of Siwa, in the eponymous Egyptian oasis, he was proclaimed a son of the god Zeus-Ammon.

Alexander the Great

Though he had conquered Egypt, Alexander was not interested in imposing his own ideas of truth, religion, or behavior upon the people as long as they willingly kept the supply lines open to feed and equip his troops (an important aspect of his ability to rule vast areas which was to be neglected by his successors). This does not mean, however, that he did not ruthlessly suppress uprisings or hesitate to viciously annihilate those who opposed him. After designing the plan for the city of Alexandria, he left Egypt for further campaigns, easily conquering the land of Phoenicia except for the island city of Tyre, which he placed under siege. So determined was he to conquer Tyre that he built a causeway from the mainland to the island on which to mount his siege engines to take the city. This causeway, in time, collected silt and earth and is the reason why Tyre is a part of the mainland in Lebanon today. For their stubborn resistance, the inhabitants of the city were slaughtered and the survivors sold into slavery. His policy regarding the citizens of Tyre is a prime example of his ruthlessness.

The Persian Campaigns

In 331 BCE Alexander met King Darius III on the battlefield at Gaugamela where, again facing overwhelming numbers, he decisively defeated Darius who fled the field. Darius was later assassinated by his own general and cousin Bessus, an act which Alexander was said to deplore. Darius' body was treated with the greatest respect, as were the surviving members of his family. Alexander proclaimed himself the King of Asia and continued on to march on the great city of Susa which surrendered unconditionally without resistance.

From Susa, Alexander marched on the city of Persepolis, where in 330 BCE, according to the ancient historian Diodorus Siculus (and others), he started the fire which destroyed the main palace and most of the city as revenge for the burning of the Acropolis in Xerxes’ Persian invasion of Greece in 480 BCE. This act was said to be instigated during a drunken party by Thais, the Athenian lover of the general Ptolemy, claiming it would be apt revenge for the city to be burnt 'by women’s hands', and she is said to have thrown her torch right after Alexander threw the first. Leaving Persepolis in ruins and carrying off the vast treasures, he marched on to Bactria and Sogdianna, conquering them easily. In 329 BCE he founded the city of Alexandria-Eschate on the Iaxartes River, destroyed the city of Cyropolis, and defeated the Scythians. Alexander founded many cities bearing his name during this time to further his public image as a god and adopted the title ShahanShah (King of Kings) used by the rulers of the First Persian Empire. In keeping with this status, Alexander introduced the Persian custom of proskynesis to the army, forcing those who addressed him to first kneel and kiss his hand.

The Macedonian troops became progressively uncomfortable with Alexander's apparent deification and adoption of Persian customs. Assassination plots were hatched only to be revealed and the conspirators executed, even if they were old friends. Callisthenes became one of these when he was implicated in a plot. Cleitus, the elder statesman who had saved Alexander's life at the Battle of Granicus, would doom himself in a similar way. In 328 BCE Alexander would murder both Callisthenes and Cleitus, in separate incidents, for treason and questioning his authority, respectively. Alexander's habit of drinking to excess was well known, and certainly in the case of Cleitus' death, significantly influenced the murder. Both Cleitus and Callisthenes had become quite vocal in their criticism of Alexander's adoption of Persian customs. Though capable of great diplomacy and skill in dealing with conquered peoples and their rulers, Alexander was not known for tolerating personal opinions which conflicted with his own, and this intolerance was exacerbated by drinking. Cleitus' death was swift, through a javelin Alexander hurled at him, while Callisthenes was imprisoned and either died in confinement or was crucified.

Map of Alexander the Great's Conquests

India & Mutiny 

In 327 BCE, with the Persian Empire firmly under his control and newly married to the Bactrian noblewoman Roxana, Alexander turned his attention to India. Having heard of the exploits of the great Macedonian general, the Indian King Omphis of Taxila submitted to his authority without a fight, but the Aspasioi and Assakenoi tribes strongly resisted. In battles throughout 327 BCE and into 326 BCE, Alexander subdued these tribes, finally meeting King Porus of Paurava at the Battle of the Hydaspes River in 326 BCE. Porus charged Alexander’s forces with elephants and fought so bravely with his troops that, after defeating Porus, Alexander installed him as ruler of a larger region than he had previously held. Alexander’s horse Bucephalus was killed in this battle, and Alexander named one of the two cities he founded after the battle "Bucephala" after him.

Alexander intended to march on and cross the River Ganges toward further conquests, but his troops, worn out by the hard-fought battle with Porus (in which, according to Arrian, Alexander lost 1000 men), mutinied and refused to go further. Alexander tried to persuade his men to press on but, failing to win them over, finally assented to their wishes. He split his army in two, sending half back to Susa by sea under the command of Admiral Nearchus through the Persian Gulf, and marching the other half on through the Gedrosian Desert. His reasoning behind this decision is still unclear and debated by historians. Even though he had abandoned his conquest of India, he still paused on his march to subdue those hostile tribes he encountered along the way. The harsh terrain of the desert, and the military engagements, took a great toll on his troops, and by the time they reached Susa in 324 BCE, Alexander had sustained considerable losses. 

Upon his return he found that many of the satraps he had entrusted with rule had abused their power and so executed them as well as those who had vandalized the tomb of Cyrus the Great at the old capital city of Pasargadae. He ordered the ancient capital and tomb to be restored and took other measures to ingratiate and integrate his army with the people of the region and merge the cultures of Persia and Macedonia. Alexander held a mass marriage service at Susa in which he married members of his senior staff to Persian noblewomen. Many of his troops objected to this cultural merger and increasingly criticized his adoption of Persian dress and manners which he had affected since 329 BCE. They further objected to the promotion of Persians over Macedonians in the army and to Alexander's order merging Persian and Macedonian units. Alexander responded by appointing Persians to prominent positions in the army and awarded traditional Macedonian titles and honors to Persian units. His troops backed down and submitted to Alexander's wishes, and in a gesture of good will, he returned the titles to the Macedonians and ordered a great communal feast at which he dined and drank with the army. He had already dropped the custom of proskynesis in deference to his men but continued to comport himself as a Persian, rather than Macedonian, king. 

At about this time, in 324 BCE, his lifelong friend and second-in-command, Hephaestion, died from a fever, though some reports suggest he may have been poisoned. Historians' accounts of Alexander's response to this event universally agree that his grief was insupportable. Plutarch claims that Alexander slaughtered the Cossaeans of a neighboring town as a sacrifice to his friend, and Arrian writes that he had Hephaestion's doctor executed for failing to cure him. The manes and tails of the horses were cut as a sign of mourning, and Alexander refused to promote another to Hephaestion's position as commander of the cavalry. He abstained from food and drink and declared a period of mourning throughout his empire and funeral rites usually reserved for a king.

Alexander's Death

Upon his recovery from Hephaestion's death, Alexander returned to plans for expanding his empire but would never realize them. He died in Babylon at the age of 32 on 10 or 11 June 323 BCE after suffering ten days of high fever. Theories concerning his cause of death have ranged from poisoning to malaria to meningitis to bacterial infection from drinking contaminated water (among others). Plutarch says that, 14 days before his death, Alexander entertained his fleet admiral Nearcus and his friend Medius of Larissa with a long bout of drinking, after which he fell into a fever from which he never recovered. When he was asked who should succeed him, Alexander said, “The strongest”, which answer led to his empire being divided between four of his generals: Cassander, Ptolemy, Antigonus, and Seleucus (known as The Diadochi or `successors').

Alexander Sarcophagus (detail)

Plutarch and Arrian, however, claim he passed his reign to Perdiccas, the friend of Hephaistion with whom Alexander had carried their friend's body to his funeral in Babylon. Perdiccas was also Alexander's friend as well as his bodyguard and fellow cavalryman, and it would make sense, considering Alexander's habit of rewarding those he was close to with favors, that he would choose Perdiccas over others. However that may be, following Alexander's death, the generals ignored his wishes and Perdiccas was assassinated in 321 BCE.

The Diadochi

His longtime comrade, Cassander, would order the execution of Alexander’s wife Roxana, Alexander’s son by her, and Alexander’s mother Olympias to consolidate his power as the new King of Macedonia (a title he would later lose to Antigonus and his heirs). Ptolemy stole Alexander's corpse as it was en route to Macedon and spirited it away to Egypt in hope of securing the prophecy that the land in which it was laid to rest would be prosperous and unconquerable. He would found the Ptolemaic Dynasty in Egypt which would last until 31 BCE, ending with the death of his descendant Cleopatra VII. Seleucus founded the Seleucid Empire, comprising Mesopotamia, Anatolia, and parts of India, and would be the last remaining of the Diadochi after the incessant 40 years of war between them and their heirs. He came to be known as Seleucid I Nicator (the unconquered). None of his generals possessed Alexander’s intelligence, understanding, or military genius but would found dynasties which, with exceptions, ruled their respective regions until the coming of Rome.

Their influence over the regions they controlled created what historians refer to as The Hellenistic Period in which Greek thought and culture became entwined with that of the indigenous populace. According to  Diodorus Siculus, one of the stipulations of Alexander's will was the creation of a unified empire between former enemies. People of the Near East were to be encouraged to marry with those of Europe and those of Europe to do likewise; in so doing, a new culture would be embraced by all. Although the Diodachi failed in the peaceful fulfillment of his wishes, through the Hellenization of their empires they contributed to Alexander's dream of a cultural unity; even if such unity could never be fully realized.



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