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Alexander the Great

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Sean Connery as Alexander the Great (1961).

Alexander III, the King of Macedon1, was the conqueror of the Persian Empire and as a result of this is widely considered one of the greatest military geniuses ever, in such company as Julius Caesar and Napoleon. He has been known as Alexander the Great, but to some people, such as the descendants of the Persians, he is called Alexander the Accursed - for good reason, as it turns out.

Early Life

Alexander was born in 356 BC in Pella, the ancient capital of Macedonia, a kingdom to the north of Greece2. Alexander was the son of Philip II, King of Macedonia, and Olympias, daughter of the King of neighbouring Epirus. Philip had spent years forging the Macedonian army into a powerful, skilled and permanent fighting force, unlike the armies of other states where men served only when called, and usually not during the most important times in the agricultural year. With his army, Philip made Macedon into a great military force, conquering other states and expanding his territory.

From the age of 13, Alexander had Aristotle as his personal tutor. For the next three years, he was taught rhetoric and literature and became interested in other fields including medicine, science and philosophy. When Alexander was 16, in 340 BC, Philip assembled a large Macedonian army and invaded the northern Greek kingdom of Thrace. During his absence, he left his son as regent. Clearly Alexander was considered up to the task. This was not surprising, given that he had already passed the test of Macedonian manhood - hunting and killing a vicious local species of wild boar, and had also killed at least one enemy in battle.

During his father's absence, Alexander was called upon to face a rebellion of a conquered Thracian tribe called the Maedi. He assembled an army and led it against the rebels. His swift action defeated the Maedi and captured their stronghold. He even renamed it after himself, calling it Alexandropolis. This success was the first sign of his incredible talent as a general.

Two years later, in 338 BC, Alexander was given a post among the senior generals of the Macedonian army during an invasion of Greece. He led the entire left wing at the Battle of Chaeronea, in which the Thebans and Athenians were defeated.

Philip's remarriage and assassination

Not long afterwards the royal family was split apart when Philip married a noble Macedonian girl named Cleopatra3. At the wedding banquet, Cleopatra's uncle, a general called Attalus, made a remark about Philip fathering a 'legitimate' heir, by which he meant one that was of pure Macedonian blood. Since Alexander's mother was from Epirus, Alexander himself was only half Macedonian, and was understandably angry at Attalus' remark. Alexander apparently threw his cup at the man. Some sources say that the impact of the cup killed Attalus. Philip, whose relationship with his son had never been entirely happy, drew his sword and charged at Alexander, but tripped and fell. At which Alexander is said to have shouted:

'Here is the man who was making ready to cross from Europe to Asia, and who cannot even cross from one table to another without losing his balance.'

Alexander then fled to Epirus with his mother, although he returned later. In the spring of 336 BC, with Philip's planned invasion of Persia already set in motion, the king was assassinated by a young Macedonian noble Pausanias. Pausanias was himself killed as he tried to flee the scene. Neither ancient nor modern historians know for certain why Pausanias killed Philip. One possibility is that either Olympias, Alexander, or both, were responsible for the assassination, by driving the young man into committing the act. Another possibility is that Phillip was killed on the orders of the Persian King Darius III, who knew that Phillip had been preparing an invasion of Persia.

Philip's dream of conquering the Persian Empire now lay on the shoulders of his successor, King Alexander III. In part, the motivation for this campaign was revenge for the Persian invasion of Greece centuries earlier, which led to the Graeco-Persian War. Alexander secured his position by having his opponents executed.

Suppression of Greek resistance

Many of the peoples of the lands conquered by Philip took advantage of his death to launch rebellions. Alexander had to act quickly. He defeated the Thracians on his northern border, then the Illyrians before turning his attention to Greece. He sacked Thebes, killed many of its inhabitants, and sold others into slavery. The other Greek states sensibly got the message and did not resist his overlordship.

War in Persia

In early 334 BC, Alexander headed east to the Persian Empire with a large army of about 40,000, consisting of Greeks as well as Macedonians. Alexander faced the Persian forces at a crossing of the River Granicus. The Persians and a large force of Greek mercenaries on the Persian side were drawn up in defensive formation on the opposite bank to Alexander's army. Against the advice of his generals, Alexander personally led a successful cavalry charge, mounted on his famous horse Bucephalus. Unfortunately, it was so successful that Alexander and the small number of horsemen who were with him were temporarily cut off from the rest of the army. Alexander himself was nearly killed. A Persian noble named Spithridates managed to hit him hard on the helmet with an axe, disorientating him. The Persian aimed a second blow but was killed by Cleitus the Black, one of Alexander's bodyguard. Alexander recovered and was victorious. He supposedly lost very few men but killed tens of thousands of the enemy. The Greek mercenaries serving Darius had refused to surrender, but Alexander's troops killed most of them and captured the remainder. They were sent to work the mines of Macedonia as slaves.

After this, Alexander turned north to Gordium where the army spent the winter. Gordium held the famous Gordian knot, which was a piece of rope with an enormous and very complicated knot in it. Legend held that the man who could untie the knot was destined to rule the world. Alexander simply cut through it with his sword, which, quite frankly, is cheating.

Many of the Greek cities in Asia Minor, part of the Persian Empire, were delighted by Alexander's success and welcomed him, but a few opposed him and were defeated. By the end of the year most of the Greek cities were free from Persian influence and rule. In the spring Alexander headed in the direction of Syria, although he was delayed for two months as he caught an illness.

In November 333 BC, Alexander met Darius himself in battle. Darius had not been present at the Battle of the River Granicus, but this time he led his troops personally. The site of the battle was Issus, a mountain pass in northeast Syria. The Macedonians were greatly outnumbered but the narrow field of battle reduced the impact of the larger numbers. Again, Alexander was victorious, thanks in part to Darius being persuaded to move from a more open field of battle where his superior numbers would have had more impact to the narrower pass. When the battle was lost, Darius fled, abandoning his family, whom Alexander treated with courtesy and respect.

At around this time, Alexander married a woman named Barsine, the widow of a Greek commander of the Persian fleet and according to Plutarch, the daughter of a royal Persian general who had had to seek refuge at King Philip's court. This meant Barsine had enviable connections to both Macedonia and Persia. She and Alexander later had a son named Hercules.

Tyre and Egypt

After this, Alexander moved southward, receiving the surrender of the seaports of the Persian Mediterranean coast. Only Tyre would not surrender, so the Macedonians laid siege to it. This was extremely difficult as it was built on an island a short distance from the mainland. He ordered the building of a great causeway to bridge to gap. When it came within range of the city, the defenders took to attacking the workers with arrows and other missiles. When it was completed Alexander sent battering rams along it, but the Tyrians had not been idle; they had spent the months during the construction of the causeway improving the walls at the point Alexander would attack, and the rams made no impact4. Instead, he sent his fleet to attack. Part of the wall had been damaged by the battering rams of his navy, and Alexander and his soldiers poured through the gap and took the city.

The siege had taken seven months, but when he finally broke through, Alexander slaughtered many of the inhabitants and sold others into slavery. Tyre had been vitally important as a naval base for the Persians and its loss was a huge blow to them. During the siege Alexander apparently received a message from Darius offering him some of the western provinces of the Empire as a peace settlement, but Alexander refused. He then moved south where he also laid siege to Gaza, which was defeated after two months.

Divine Ancestry

Alexander next moved to Egypt. He was welcomed there, as the people had hated living under Persian rule. Alexander was also hailed as a Pharaoh and a god, and founded the city of Alexandria5, which became an important and influential city.

While in Egypt, Alexander went to the oracle at Siwa. The shrine was dedicated to the Egyptian god Ammon, and in Greece he was identified with Zeus, as Zeus-Ammon. In Egyptian legend, Ammon had a rather disturbing habit of visiting queens in the form of a snake and becoming as a result the father of mortal kings6. Olympias had a dream that this happened on her wedding night with Philip, and it was therefore thought that Alexander had divine ancestry. Alexander believed it - given his remarkable successes, this is not particularly surprising - and a few years later even sent messages to all of Greece except Macedonia proclaiming that he was the son of Zeus-Ammon and that he himself was an incarnate god. Most of them recognised him as such, perhaps not wishing to risk his anger, and the city of Megalopolis even built a shrine in his honour.

The Battle of Gaugamela and the end of the Persian Empire

In 331 BC, Alexander left Egypt and headed towards Babylon. He met Darius's forces again at Gaugamela in modern Iraq. Allegedly the Macedonians saw the fires of the Persian army as they camped and encouraged Alexander to lead a night attack. Alexander supposedly refused, as he wanted to defeat Darius in a fair battle so he would not oppose him in future.

Darius's army, reportedly consisting of one million men, met Alexander's on 1 October, 331 BC, and was again defeated. Darius himself fled once again, and tried to reorganise his army while in hiding. Alexander, meanwhile, went to Babylon where the city was opened to him. He used the treasury at Babylon to give a bonus to each of his soldiers. Reinforcements were also sent from Macedonia. He occupied Persepolis and the imperial capital of Susa. He was proclaimed King of Persia and burned down the Imperial Palace in Persepolis. This was effectively the end of the Persian Empire.

Rebellion in Greece and Progress in Persia

In the meantime, the Spartans led a major uprising in Greece. Alexander had left Antipater, an experienced general, as regent and he led the Macedonians against the Spartans and their allies. Alexander sent money and reinforcements to help, and many Greek cities joined the Macedonians, preferring their hegemony to a revival of Spartan power. Antipater was victorious.

Alexander was in pursuit of Darius. When he caught up, he found Darius dead in his coach, having been murdered by Bessus, one of his provincial governors7, who then assumed his title. Alexander gave Darius a royal funeral and executed his killer. He then continued his advance through the Empire. Alexander also began to adopt aspects of Persian dress, which was unpopular with many of his men. He also introduced the practice of proskynesis, or obeisance to his position as king. This was a traditional practice for the Persians, but the Greeks disliked it as they associated it with the behaviour due to a god.

In 327 BC Alexander married a second wife, a Persian woman named Roxane, daughter of a Persian prince. She and Barsine were not to be his only wives, however. In 324 he married Stateira, eldest daughter of Darius. Because Darius had been a usurper, not a direct heir of the empire, he also married Parystatis, who was from the direct royal line, thus portraying himself as the true successor to Persia. At the same time he arranged marriages between a number of his leading officers - including his best friend Hephastion - and important or royal Persian women, as well as between Persian girls of lower rank and his ordinary soldiers and lower officers.

Alexander's Paranoia

A Macedonian general named Philotas criticised Alexander in private to his mistress, who reported his comments back to the king. At the same time, a conspiracy against Alexander was discovered and the men who found out about it went to Philotas to get an audience with Alexander so they could tell him. Philotas delayed organising this. Getting nowhere, the men reached the king another way. It didn't look good for the general.

As a result, Philotas was suspected of involvement and arrested, tortured and executed - as was his father Parmenio, Alexander's second-in-command. Philotas's treatment made Alexander's friends afraid, a state not helped when Alexander ran through Cleitus the Black, the same man who had saved his life at the River Granicus, in a drunken argument.


Alexander was extremely ambitious and was not content with his conquest of Persia. He pushed on into India8, capturing cities as he went. A group of Indian mercenaries was causing him great problems, so he made a treaty with them, allowing them to leave a city in which he had them surrounded, before slaughtering them on the march. He also faced an Indian king named Porus and his elephants in battle. Porus knew the elephants would scare the Greek horses, but the infantry had more success and the battle was won. During this battle Alexander's beloved horse Bucephalus died. To commemorate him, Alexander founded a city (as he was wont to do) and called it Bucephala.

By this time the Macedonians were understandably tired of constant travel and warfare, and refused to go any further. Alexander sulked a bit, before taking to his boats and travelling along a river with the intention of reaching the Outer Ocean, which was thought to surround the world. He reached the delta of the River Indus before sending his ships back under his admiral, Nearchus, and leading his men on a march back to Persia. On this journey a significant number of his men were lost to disease, hunger and poor food.

Alexander's Death

On his return, Alexander busied himself with administering his empire. Around this time, Alexander's best friend, and possible lover - speculation on this point has raged but cannot be conclusive - Hephaistion, died. Alexander's grief was great. After this, the king began to see everything as an omen.

In June 323 BC, at the age of 32, Alexander became ill after a night of very heavy drinking in Babylon. His illness was serious and when it became clear that he was dying, he was asked to whom he wished to leave his empire. He was weak, and could not talk loudly, but some thought his reply was 'to the strongest'. About ten days after falling ill he died of a fever.

At the time of his death, his wife Roxane was expecting their child. She was very jealous of Stateira, Alexander's second wife, and shortly after their husband's death, had her murdered.

Following his successes in Asia, Alexander had been planning the invasion of Arabia, but he died before he could carry it out. On hearing the news of his death, the Greek states revolted against the Macedonian hegemony. It appears that Alexander was buried in Memphis9 before being moved to Alexandria. The likely site of his tomb has been discovered by archaeologists after centuries of searching.

In Macedonia, Alexander's half-brother Philip took over and later shared rule with Alexander and Roxane's son, also called Alexander, who was not yet born when his father died. In 317 BC Philip was murdered and less than a decade later, Alexander's son was dead too. Hercules, his son by Barsine, was also killed. The empire Alexander had fought so hard to win was split into a number of smaller states ruled by his generals and officers.

These Macedonian rulers meant that Alexander's conquests had spread Hellenistic culture enormously and acted as a bridge between earlier classical Greek culture and later Roman culture, which in turn was influential in the Renaissance and the Enlightenment. The Greek language became the tongue of commerce. Alexander the Great had an impact that can hardly be overstated.

1Now called Macedonia.2The people of the Greek states to the south considered the Macedonians to be barbarians, and did not view them as true Greeks.3It was legal for him to have more than one wife.4Militarily, the time and lives spent building the causeway had been a waste, but it was left in place and eventually silted up, so it now connects the modern city, named Es Sûr, to the mainland.5Fairly obviously, this was named after himself.6Fortunately, it was thought that a god had merely to breathe on a woman if he wished to make her pregnant.7These men were called satraps.8Though the areas he went to are mostly in modern Pakistan, it was India at the time.9The then capital of Egypt, not the city in Tennessee which was the home of Elvis.

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