|The world Alexander conquered.|
|A Greek statue of Alexander.|
|The famous Alexander mosaic, showing Alexander fighting the Persian King Darius.|
|Macedon on a map.|
The Life and Conquests of Alexander
Alexander the Great was born in 356 BCE, the son of King Phillip II of Macedon and his wife, Olympias, in the capital city of Pella. Alexander's mother was King Phillip's main wife, meaning Alexander was heir to the throne. Even from an early age, all signs pointed to greatness in Alexander's future. King Phillip dreamed that his wife's womb had been sealed with a lion's image, while Olympias dreamed that her womb had been struck by a lighting bolt, sparking "a fire that spread far and wide," a sign that her son was the son of Zeus. According to legend, on the same day Alexander was born, several other notable events occurred:
|King Phillip II of Macedon, Alexander's father.|
|Alexander's other "father," the Greek god Zeus.|
- King Phillip began a siege on the Greek city of Potidea.
- Phillip received word from one of his generals that a war had been won against several Greek cities.
- He also received the news that his horses had won their event at the Olympic Games.
- Apparently, the Temple of Artemis, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, also burned down on the same day, presumably because Artemis, a Greek goddess, was attending the birth of Alexander.
The Temple of Artemis, which is supposed to have burned down when Alexander was born.
It has to be noted that all of these stories come from after Alexander's life, so the series of events that corresponded with his birth were probably embellished. But as a child, even Alexander foresaw great things, allegedly exclaiming to his friends that his father would only be a taste of what Alexander would do when he was king.
|Aristotle, the great philosopher and Alexander's tutor.|
|The Iliad by Homer, which Alexander carried with him everywhere.|
My boy, you must find a kingdom big enough for your ambitions. Macedonia is too small for you.Very quickly, Alexander would do just that.
|The taming of Bucephalus.|
|Greece after Phillip's conquests.|
When Phillip and Alexander returned to Macedon from Greece, a change in Phillip's life almost destroyed the path of greatness Alexander was on. Phillip married a new wife, the niece of one of his generals. This new wife was Macedonian, and replaced Olympias, who was not Macedonian, as queen. This made Alexander's succession less definite, because if the new wife had a son, that child would be fully Macedonian, and therefore more likely to be named king. At the wedding, Alexander and Phillip, both quite intoxicated, got into an argument in which Phillip attempted to kill Alexander but tripped and fell, allowing Alexander to flee. After six months in hiding, Alexander and King Phillip were convinced to reconcile, and Alexander was allowed to return to Pella. Even after returning, however, Alexander's place as heir was far from safe, and King Phillip even exiled some of Alexander's close friends. Alexander no longer looked like a sure bet to succeed his father.
Because Alexander was heir to the Macedonian throne, it was expected that at some point during his life, he would succeed his father as king. But few people expected it to happen early in his life. All of this would change with the swing of an assassin's blade. In 336 BCE, when Alexander was 20, King Phillip was murdered by one of his bodyguards while attending a wedding festival. Several theories have been proposed as to why Phillip was killed:
- The bodyguard had been personally insulted by Phillip, and held his grudge until he was in a position to take his revenge.
- King Darius of Persia paid for Phillip to be assassinated to try and derail his plan to attack Persia.
- There is even a theory that Alexander and his mother set up the assassination, knowing that he was still, for the time being, the heir to Phillip and would be able to take power, which might not be true in the future.
Historians debate who had Phillip killed, and all three theories have their merits and issues. Whether Alexander had his father killed is debatable, but obviously no one gained more than Alexander from Phillip being dead. He went from a tenuous heir to a future throne to the King of Macedon, Hegemon of Greece, and the commander of a large and well-trained army that his father had prepared to invade Persia. But taking over his father's kingdom was not enough for Alexander. The young king was ready to make a name for himself and conquer the world.
Conquering the World
The news of Phillip's death sparked revolt in Greece. While they respected and feared Phillip, they had little knowledge of the twenty year-old son who had replaced him. Alexander quickly changed that, bringing the large Macedonian army his father had created to Greece and crushing several rebellions before forcing Athens to sue for peace. Soon Alexander was accepted as hegemon of the Greek alliance, and preparations were re-started for an invasion of Persia. After securing the borders of Macedonia, Alexander led an army of more than 50,000 men, including 6,000 cavalry, as well as nearly 200 ships, into Persian territory.Alexander's first action when he arrived in Persia was to plant a spear in the dirt, showing that he planned to conquer it while thanking the gods (preemptively) for allowing him to do so. What happened next is well known, and also so extensive that many long, detailed books have already been written about it. If you want the long, gory, details and battle plans, check out those books. In a more concise setting like this, I think Alexander's conquests can be summed up like this: HE KICKED TOTAL ASS!!! Over the next twelve years, Alexander and his army:
|The Macedonian sarissa, or longspear, allowed the Macedonian army to be highly effective.|
- Won several huge battles against massive Persian and Indian armies.
- Captured the Persian king's family including his wife, children, and mother, whom he treated so well that she "adopted" Alexander as her son.
Persia before Alexander arrived.
- Was offered the land he had already taken by King Darius of Persia. Alexander said that he was already the King of Asia, and so he would decide how land was to be divided.
A closeup of King Darius in the Alexander mosaic.
- Captured Syria and much of the Middle East, including the famed island city of Tyre.
- Captured Egypt, which saw him as a liberator and named him son of their god, Ammon. For the rest of his life, Alexander would refer to himself as son of Zeus-Ammon, whom he saw as the same god. He also founded the city of Alexandria, which would later have a rather famous library and lighthouse.
- Alexander would then march his army East to Mesopotamia (modern Iraq), where he would again defeat King Darius, forcing him to flee further East into Persia. The victorious Alexander would capture the famed city of Babylon.
The Hanging Gardens of Babylon, which Alexander captured.
Another image of ancient Babylon.
- Having demolished two armies led by Darius and forcing him to flee deep into the Persian homeland, Alexander began to pursue Darius, trying to capture him so he could officially name himself King and execute his enemy. As he pursued Darius, Alexander captured both Persian capitals, Susa and Persepolis. Alexander allowed his men to burn and loot in Persepolis, a decision he greatly regretted later in life.
- As Alexander and his army pursued King Darius, they received word that his relative and governor Bessus had executed Darius, named himself the new King of Persia, and fled even farther East to continue resisting Alexander. Alexander, outraged that Darius had been killed by someone other than himself, vowed revenge against Bessus. Alexander treated Darius' body with great respect, giving him a royal funeral and burying him in the royal tombs, surprising treatment for a man who had been his greatest enemy.
- Alexander then pursued Bessus with a renewed fury, traveling throughout Central Asia in pursuit until Bessus was betrayed by his men and handed over to Alexander, who executed him. After this, Alexander was firmly in control of Persia, having captured it's capital cities and killed both men who called themselves Persia's king. Alexander settled down temporarily in the capital city, and began to act as a Persian king. This angered his Macedonian and Greek men, who on a few occasions refused to continue fighting. Every time, Alexander managed to smooth things out or capture and execute the conspirators.
- After spending time consolidating his rule in Persia, Alexander turned his attention to India, with the goal of conquering the entire known world. Alexander ordered the nearby Indian chieftains and kings to submit to him, knowing that the weight of what he had done alone was likely to intimidate these lesser rulers. Only one ruler, Ambhi, accepted Alexander's order and submitted, which turned out to be an excellent choice. Alexander rewarded this Indian ruler with great riches, and allowed him to continue as a satrap, or governor of his lands under Alexander. Ambhi then assisted Alexander in conquering those kingdoms who had not submitted. When they were defeated, Alexander put these new lands under the control of Ambhi as well. So the only man who submitted to Alexander was the one who became the most powerful and wealthy!
Indian coins with Greek on it.
- Alexander would fight one last major campaign in India. With help from Ambhi, Alexander and his army crossed the massive Indus River and fought with King Porus of Punjab. Alexander was so impressed by Porus' bravery that he named him satrap and allowed him to keep ruling.
The mighty Indus River, where Alexander fought one of his greatest battles.
- Alexander had every intent to keep marching East and conquering more of the world, but his men had finally had enough. Many of them had been away from home, fighting and risking their lives with Alexander for more than a decade. As the leader of the revolt, the general Coenus, reportedly told Alexander, the men:
longed to again see their parents, their wives and children, their homeland.
Alexander finally agreed, leading his men back through India and to the Persian capital at Susa.I said I was going to be concise and brief about Alexander's military career, and that is what I did. The crazy part is, that long list above is a watered-down, and incredibly concise, list of the achievements of Alexander's military career. What I wrote does not even approach doing justice to what he accomplished while he was fighting. After ten years of almost constant battle, Alexander and his army, now reinforced by troops from many of the places he conquered, returned to Susa, to rest, recuperate, and plan future campaigns. Unfortunately for Alexander, he would never see these campaigns come to fruition.
|The kingdom Alexander conquered.|
|The death of Alexander.|
And that, in a nutshell, is the life and career of Alexander the Great. Throughout his life, however, he achieved some incredible things that have nothing to do with his conquests. So I want to briefly discuss a few of those events.
We discussed earlier how Alexander spent the formative years of his life studying under the great Greek philosopher Aristotle, in some ways making Alexander the culmination of Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle. But Aristotle was not the only great philosopher Alexander encountered during his 32 years of life. After his father was assassinated and Alexander was forced to put down rebellions in Greece, he visited the city of Corinth. While in Corinth, he apparently met with the famed philosopher Diogenes of Sinope, the founder of the Cynics. Diogenes was famed (and abhorred) throughout Greece for his disdain of modern culture and his belief that people should live simply, like primitive men or even animals. The name of his movement, the Cynics, even comes from the Greek word for the dogs they lived like, kuon. Diogenes lived in self-imposed poverty, sleeping outside, often in a giant clay pot. He also frequently committed actions that were supposed to bring shame to the modern world, such as walking around during the day with a lit lamp, looking for "an honest man." When Alexander visited Corinth, he wanted to meet this famed philosopher, who unlike the other philosophers of the day, had ignored his success. When Alexander asked Diogenes if he could do anything for him, Diogenes replied, "Yes. Step out of my sunlight!" Alexander allegedly replied, "If I were not Alexander, then I should wish to be Diogenes."
|Diogenes the Cynic in his clay pot.|
Towards the end of his life, Alexander met another famous philosopher. While finishing his campaign in India, he was introduced to the Indian gymnosophist Sphines, known as Calanus by the Greeks because he greeted them with the phrase "kale." Gymnosophists like Calanus believed in total asceticism, to the point that the most famous ones regarded even clothing and food as detrimental. Because of this they were referred to as the "naked philosophers." Alexander met Calanus, who immediately ordered the king to strip naked or he would refuse to speak. While we are not told whether Alexander obeyed, Calanus did teach Alexander his philosophy of good government. Calanus allegedly threw a piece of dried cow hide on the ground and stepped on the edge. Where he stepped, the hide was pressed down, but everywhere else, the hide began to rise up off the ground. He did this in several places with similar results, before he finally stepped on the middle, and the whole hide lay flat. This was supposed to show Alexander that he should not continue to wander the edges of his empire, but should concentrate on the center, if he wanted to quiet any possible rebellions. Certainly, this message resonated with Alexander's men, who not long after would refuse to go any farther, forcing Alexander to return to Persia.
When Alexander and his army returned to Persia, Calanus made the decision to return with them to the center of the empire, to serve as a teacher and advisor to Alexander. Alexander even wished to take Calanus back to Greece by force, to which Calanus asked how useful he would be if he was forced to display his thoughts to the Greeks. Calanus never made it to the center with Alexander, however. He was already an old man, probably in his seventies, and the travel weakened him. Not wanting to spend the remainder of his life an invalid, Calanus opted to commit suicide by burning himself to death. Alexander tried to convince him not to, but failed, and so Calanus was allowed to end his life. A huge pyre was built, and Calanus was given a royal funeral. He climbed onto the pyre himself, and apparently sat through his own death by flames without flinching, deeply impressing those who witnessed it.
Solver of Knots
Alexander is also famous in legend for solving the problem of the Gordian Knot. The Gordian Knot was an intricately tied knot in the kingdom of Phyrgia. Legend said that whoever untied the knot would become King of Asia. Alexander entered the palace and examined the knot, but could find no beginning or end. Seemingly stumped, he drew his sword and cut through the knot, technically "untying" it. Whether this incident happened, and whether the legend regarding the solver becoming the king of Asia was created after he did both, are up for debate. But the story has survived to the present day, and "untying the Gordian Knot" is still a common phrase to describe a person who is thinking outside of the box. Even Shakespeare mentions the Gordian Knot in Henry V.
|A representation of the unsolvable Gordian knot.|
|Alexander "solving" the knot.|
Founder of Alexandria
Alexander founded at least twenty cities, possibly as many as seventy, several of which are still major cities to this day. As a testament to himself, he named almost all of them Alexandria. He founded the city of Alexandria in Egypt, which was the Egyptian capital for a long time, and was the center of trade and learning well into the era of the Roman Empire. He also founded a series of cities in Central Asia, all called Alexandria, although the greatest of those cities is now Kandahar, one of the biggest cities in Afghanistan. He also founded cities in India, Tajikistan, Pakistan and throughout the Middle East, many of which were the first cities in those regions and a basis for future civilizations to build upon.
|Kandahar, formerly Alexandria.|
We also briefly discussed Alexander's use of satraps earlier in the article. Satraps were governors of territories that Alexander had conquered. This was a system Alexander adopted from the Persians. These satraps were to answer to Alexander but were fairly autonomous in their region. In exchange they would rule the land, provide Alexander with troops and supplies, and hold the territory together. While many of Alexander's early satraps were Macedonian or Greek, as he got further from home he frequently put local rulers in charge, sometimes of land that had previously belonged to them! In this way, he was putting someone in charge who already knew and was known by the people of the area, who spoke the language and culture, and knew the land. While occasionally Alexander's satraps revolted, it was usually a very effective system that helped Alexander to control his territory during his life.
|Alexandria, Egypt, including the Great Lighthouse.|
He Really Loved that Horse
While Alexander named a ton of cities after himself, he also named one after his horse. After defeating King Porus in India, his famed horse, Bucephalus, died of old age at around thirty. Alexander loved the horse, and had been riding him his entire life. When Bucephalus had been captured once, Alexander had an entire city destroyed to get him back. So when Bucephalus died, Alexander broke his tradition and named a city something other than Alexandria- he named the town Bucephalus Alexandria. It is not known for sure where this city is now, although some historians believe it is the modern city of Phalia, Pakistan.
|Greco-Indian coinage showing Bucephalus on one side.|
Alexander (and most Macedonians) were also notoriously heavy drinkers. Many of the worst incidents in Alexander's career were made while heavily intoxicated. Alexander and Phillip were both drunk when they nearly killed each other at Phillip's wedding. Alexander made the decision to burn Persepolis while celebrating his victory. While having another celebration of victory, Alexander also fatally impaled one of his top generals, Cleitus, while drunk. And there are some historians that even propose that Alexander died of alcohol poisoning or a failing liver. But perhaps the most notorious alcohol-related incident in the story of Alexander is the story of the drinking contest that occurred after the Indian philosopher Calanus' funeral. Calanus had requested that his funeral be a celebration filled with drinking. Alexander took his request very seriously, proposing a drinking contest among his men. The winner, a common soldier named Promachus, drank roughly twelve liters of wine, and won a large sum of money for doing so. Unfortunately for him, he died of alcohol poisoning three days later, surprising nobody. Promachus was not the only one to have a really bad hangover, however. Apparently, 41 other men died of alcohol related issues over the next few days. It is not every day that you have a party that kills 41 people! So go Alexander?
|The famed drinking contest.|
One of the things that infuriated Alexander's men the most was that he began to act more like a Persian than a Greek. He had conquered much of Asia, including Persia, so it should not be that surprising that he did so. But his men did not like the fact that he began dressing like a Persian king, marrying Persian women, and having the court and daily rituals of a Persian. In many of the mutinies against Alexander, these incidents were cited. Most notably, Alexander began having his subjects kiss his hands, which in Persia was a normal act for subjects to do to their superiors, especially the king. But to the Greeks and Macedonians, this was seen as an act only fit for the gods, and thought that Alexander was declaring himself a god by allowing the kisses. All of these actions made Alexander's men doubt their allegiances to him, although they never led to a full and permanent rebellion.
Alexander made one other major effort to unite his Persian and Greek/Macedonian kingdoms into a cohesive unit. Near the end of his life, Alexander made a very interesting decision. He decided to have a massive wedding, in which not only he but many of his top men would marry Persian wives, symbolically uniting Persia and Macedon. Alexander married a daughter of King Darius, further linking himself to the old dynasty. Hundreds of his men also were married to Persian women, while his lesser soldiers, many of whom had already married Persians, were registered. To each new couple Alexander gave a lavish wedding gift and dowry, and all were invited to a massive banquet. It should be noted, however, that the men were probably not in favor of doing this, and only did so because of Alexander's orders. This is evidenced by the fact that nearly all of the men divorced their Persian wives after Alexander's death.
Still Undefeated Champion
Finally, we need to discuss the seeming invincibility of Alexander. He is known as one of the greatest generals of all time. He fought in hundreds of battles, and he never lost. In Egypt, Greece, Macedon, Persia, the Middle East, India; in various terrains and conditions; with larger and smaller armies than the opponents- he never lost. Alexander was always able to use whatever advantages he did have to turn the battle in his favor, and he was successful because of this insane ability to read the battlefield and adjust. The skill that allowed him to tame Bucephalus the horse as a child allowed him to adjust the battle lines to take advantage of almost imperceivable battlefield quirks as a general. His army, his empire, and his legacy benefitted from this... and they were lost without him.
|The Prophet Daniel, who predicted Alexander.|
|An explanation of Alexander in the Bible.|
|An Greco-Indian coin showing their king, Demetrius, a Greek name, ruler of an Indian kingdom.|
|A statue of the Buddha in a distinctly Greek style.|
|An Indo-Greek kingdom. Notice the cities named Alexandria.|
|An ancient Bible text- in Greek.|
The exploits of Alexander have also inspired modern leaders and empires. Many Roman generals were obsessed with him, including Julius Caesar. Pompeius Magnus, another great Roman general, claimed to have found Alexander's cloak, visited his tomb in Alexandria, took the name Pompey the Great, and even tried to keep his hair long and curled like Alexander's. In 1798 Napoleon Bonaparte invaded Egypt, not because Egypt was essential to his plans, but because he was obsessed with Alexander and wanted to be like him. Even today, movies, video games, and books are made about Alexander. As the great John Green explains in his CrashCourse YouTube video about Alexander, he was great because even today, people still try to emulate him. We decided he was great when we chose to copy him.
|Pompey the Great, who tried to copy everything about Alexander, including his hair.|
|Julius Caesar in Egypt trying to emulate Alexander,|
|The movie about Alexander's life, starring Colin Farrell as Alexander.|
|An Alexander the Great video game.|
Last NoteI started this article with the plan that I would also be writing about Alexander's generals. Known as the Diadochi, or "the Successors," these men fought against each other to succeed Alexander, to rule his empire, and to be "the strongest" that Alexander had called for. I got so enthralled writing about Alexander that the article became longer than I had planned. So this article has become my first ever two-part series. My next article will start where this one left off: with Alexander dead, and his army and his empire waiting for someone, anyone, to fill his power vacuum and assume control. No one ever could, and the empire split into pieces. I will pick up next time with Alexander's generals dividing the empire. While these pieces would never hold the same power as Alexander's world empire, they would be some of the greatest empires of the time period, and in some cases, the world.
|The Greek kingdoms after Alexander.|
- Barksdale, Nate. History.com. "8 Surprising Facts About Alexander the Great." Posted May 13, 2014. Retrieved on 20 April, 2016 at http://www.history.com/news/history-lists/eight-surprising-facts-about-alexander-the-great.
- Bible. Book of Daniel, Chapter 8, Verses 5-12.
- Green, John. "Alexander the Great and the Situation...The Great?" Crash Course World History, 15 March 2012. Retrieved 25 April 2016 at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0LsrkWDCvxg.
- "History of Greece: Hellenistic Period." Ancient-greece.org. Retrieved 20 April, 2016 a "Macedon." Infoplease.com. 2012. Retrieved 20 April 2016 at http://ancient-greece.org/history/helleninstic.html.
- "Macedon."InfoPlease.com. Retrieved 20 April, 2016 at infoplease.com/encyclopedia/history/macedon-successors-Alexander-great.htm.
- Rogers, Guy Maclean. Alexander: The Ambiguity of Greatness. (2004: Random House).
- Romm, James. Ghost on the Throne. (2011: Vintage).
- "The Hellenistic Kingdoms." Greek-thesauras.gr. Retrieved 20 April, 2016 at http://www.greek-thesaurus.gr/hellenistic-kingdoms.html
- Wikipedia contributors, "Alexander the Great," Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia,://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alexander_the_great (accessed 20 April, 2016).
Alexander on Bucephalus in the Alexander mosaic.