Alexander the Great

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Definition

Joshua J. Mark
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published on 14 November 2013
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Translated text available in: Indonesian, Spanish
Alexander the Great & Bucephalus Mosaic (by Ruthven, Public Domain)
Alexander the Great & Bucephalus Mosaic
by Ruthven (Public Domain)

Alexander III of Macedon, known as Alexander the Great (l. 20 or 21 July 356 BCE – 10 or 11 June 323 BCE, r. 336-323 BCE), was the son of King Philip II of Macedon (r. 359-336 BCE). 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 Period (323-31 BCE) during which four of his generals (his successors, known as the Diadochi), in between their wars for supremacy, continued his policies of integrating Greek (Hellenistic) culture with that of the Near East. He died of unknown causes in 323 BCE without clearly naming a successor (or, according to some accounts, his choice of the commander Perdiccas was ignored) and the empire he built was divided among the Diadochi. 

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Alexander's campaigns became legendary after his death, influencing the tactics and careers of later Greek and Roman generals, as well as inspiring numerous biographies attributing to him a god-like status. Modern day historians have generally taken a more critical approach to his life and career than earlier accounts, as evidenced by criticism of his destruction of Persepolis and treatment of the citizens of Tyre, but the general consensus regarding his legacy among Western scholars, anyway, remains largely positive and he remains one of the most popular and recognizable figures in world history.  

Alexander's Youth

When Alexander was young, he was taught to fight and ride by Leonidas of Epirus, 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 and so hired Lysimachus of Acarnania to teach the boy reading, writing, and to play the lyre. This tutelage would instill in Alexander a lifelong love of reading and music. At the age of 13 or 14, Alexander was introduced to the Greek philosopher Aristotle (l. 384-322 BCE) whom Philip hired as a private tutor. He would study with Aristotle until the age of 16, and the two are said to have remained in correspondence throughout Alexander's later campaigns, although evidence of this is anecdotal. 

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 is said to have tamed the 'untamable' Bucephalus when he was only 11 or 12 years old.

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While his various tutors' influences 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. (Book XVI.ch.1)

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 demigod, linking his bloodline to his two favorite heroes of antiquity, Achilles and Hercules, 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, Life of Alexander, I)

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

Though his 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(l.c. 355-297 BCE), Ptolemy (l.c. 367-282 BCE), and Hephaestion (l.c. 356-324 BCE) would become his lifelong companions and generals in his army.

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Callisthenes (l.c. 360-327 BCE), 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. 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).

Chaeronea & the Early Campaigns

Alexander’s military prowess was first noted at the Battle of Chaeronea 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 Chaeronea, 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 to begin his conquest of the Achaemenid Persian Empire, defeating the Persian satraps at the Battle of Granicus in May. He then "liberated" (as he phrased his conquest) the cities of Sardis and Ephesus from Persian rule that same year before moving on to others in Asia Minor. At Ephesus, he offered to rebuild 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 (r. 336-330 BCE) of Persia at the Battle of Issos. Alexander went on to sack the Phoenician cities of Baalbek and Sidon (which had surrendered) in 332 BCE and then lay siege to the island city of Tyre. 

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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. 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 cited by historians, ancient and modern, as a prime example of his ruthlessness.

In 331 BCE, he conquered Egypt 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, Bronze Head
Alexander the Great, Bronze Head
by Mark Cartwright (CC BY-NC-SA)

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 Syria and northern Mesopotamia to pursue further campaigns against Persia.

The Persian Campaigns

In 331 BCE, Alexander met King Darius III again on the battlefield at Gaugamela (also called the Battle of Arbela), where, once again facing overwhelming numbers, he decisively defeated Darius III who fled the field. Alexander then moved on to take Babylon and Susa which surrendered unconditionally without resistance. In the winter of 330, Alexander marched toward Persepolis, meeting resistance at the Battle of the Persian Gates defended by the hero Ariobarzanes (l. 386-330 BCE) and his sister Youtab Aryobarzan (d. 330 BCE) at the head of the Persian troops. Alexander defeated this force and took Persepolis, which he then burned.

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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.

In the summer of 330 BCE, Darius III was assassinated by his own general and cousin Bessus, an act which Alexander was said to deplore. Darius III's corpse was treated with the greatest respect, as were the surviving members of his family. Alexander proclaimed himself the King of Asia and continued on with his conquest, marching into the region of modern-day Afghanistan. In 329 BCE, he founded the city of Alexandria-Eschate on the Iaxartes River, destroyed the city of Cyropolis, and defeated the Scythians. Between fall of 330 BCE and spring of 327 BCE, he campaigned against Bactria and Sogdiana, hard-fought battles which he won as he had every engagement thus far. Bessus was captured and executed for his treachery against his former king to send the message that disloyalty of that kind would never be rewarded.   

Alexander founded many cities bearing his name during this time to further his public image not only as a "liberator" but 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 (notably in 327 BCE) 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 c. 327 BCE Alexander would dispose of both Callisthenes and Cleitus, in separate incidents, for treason and questioning his authority, respectively.

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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 died in confinement.

Map of Alexander the Great's Conquests
Map of Alexander the Great's Conquests
by US Military Academy (Public Domain)

India & Mutiny 

In 327 BCE, with the Persian Empire firmly under his control and newly married to the Bactrian noblewoman Roxana (l. c. 340 to c. 310 BCE), 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 in 326 BCE 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 in 325 BCE, almost a full year after his troops had mutinied. 

His reasoning behind this decision, both the delay in withdrawal after the mutiny and the form it finally took, 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 (r. c. 550-530 BCE) at the old capital city of Pasargadae. He ordered the ancient capital and tomb to be restored and took other measures to 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 324 BCE at which he married members of his senior staff to Persian noblewomen while he himself married a daughter of Darius III to further identify himself with Persian royalty. 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 goodwill, 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 Babylon in 323 BCE with plans for expanding his empire but he would never realize them. He died at 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)
Alexander Sarcophagus (detail)
by Carole Raddato (CC BY-SA)

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 I and his heirs). Ptolemy I is said to have stolen 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 30 BCE, ending with the death of his descendant Cleopatra VII (l. 69-30 BCE). 

Seleucus founded the Seleucid Empire (312-63 BCE), 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 Seleucus I Nicator (the unconquered, r. 305-281 BCE). None of Alexander's generals possessed his natural intelligence, understanding, or military genius but, even so, 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 Diadochi failed in the peaceful fulfillment of his wishes, through the Hellenization of their empires they contributed to Alexander's dream of cultural unity; even if such unity could never be fully realized.

Editorial Review This article has been reviewed for accuracy, reliability and adherence to academic standards prior to publication.
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About the Author

Joshua J. Mark
A freelance writer and former part-time Professor of Philosophy at Marist College, New York, Joshua J. Mark has lived in Greece and Germany and traveled through Egypt. He has taught history, writing, literature, and philosophy at the college level.

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Cite This Work

APA Style

Mark, J. J. (2013, November 14). Alexander the Great. Ancient History Encyclopedia. Retrieved from https://www.ancient.eu/Alexander_the_Great/

Chicago Style

Mark, Joshua J. "Alexander the Great." Ancient History Encyclopedia. Last modified November 14, 2013. https://www.ancient.eu/Alexander_the_Great/.

MLA Style

Mark, Joshua J. "Alexander the Great." Ancient History Encyclopedia. Ancient History Encyclopedia, 14 Nov 2013. Web. 26 Nov 2020.

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