Written by James Hoare
Quick facts on Alexander the Great
- Birth: Born in 356 BC in Pella, the capital of the Kingdom of Macedon.
- Father: King Philip II of Macedon.
- Mother: Queen Olympias.
- Education: Tutored by the philosopher Aristotle from age 13 to 16.
- Becoming King: Ascended to the Macedonian throne in 336 BC after the assassination of his father, Philip II.
- Persia: Defeated Darius III and overthrew the Persian Empire.
- Egypt: Founded the city of Alexandria, which became one of the leading cultural centers of the ancient world.
- Asia: Reached as far as the Indus River in modern-day Pakistan.
- Strategy & Tactics: Renowned for his innovative military strategies and tactics, like the use of the Macedonian phalanx.
- Cultural Impact: Promoted the spread of Greek culture across the known world, a period known as the Hellenistic Era.
- Companions: Key figures in his life and campaigns included Hephaestion (his close friend and general), Ptolemy (later Pharaoh of Egypt and historian), and Bucephalus (his famed horse).
- Death: Died in 323 BC in the palace of Nebuchadnezzar II in Babylon (modern-day Iraq) at the age of 32. The cause of his death remains a topic of debate among historians.
- Empire: At the time of his death, Alexander’s empire stretched from Greece in the west, through Egypt, Persia, and to the borders of India in the east.
- Hellenistic Kingdoms: After his death, his empire was divided among his generals, leading to the rise of several Hellenistic states like the Seleucid Empire, the Ptolemaic Kingdom in Egypt, and the Antigonid dynasty in Macedon.
- Influence: His conquests and the subsequent Hellenistic period had a profound impact on world history, fostering a fusion of Greek, Persian, Egyptian, and other cultures.
- Reputation: Widely regarded as one of the greatest military tacticians and strategists in history.
The king died quickly, his white robes soaked red. The laughter and rejoicing of a royal marriage – the wedding of his daughter – had quickly turned to screams and wails of lament as Pausanias, a member of the king’s personal guard, turned on his master, driving a dagger between his ribs. Tripping on a vine as he fled the scene for his getaway horse, the assassin was brutally stabbed to death by the furious spears of pursuing guards. Philip II died as he had lived: awash with blood and surrounded by intrigue. His legacy would leave bloody footprints across the whole of Central Asia and the Middle East.
Over a 23-year reign from 359 to 336 BCE, the king of Macedon – a mountainous land overlapping modern northern Greece, Albania, Bulgaria and Macedonia – had gone from ruler of a barbarous backwater of tribal highlanders to the overlord of the fractious Greek kingdoms and city-states. Bringing his rival monarchs in line through war, military alliance and marriage, Philip II had reformed the Macedonian army into one of the most feared fighting forces in the ancient world, with a view to bloodying their most hated foes, the Achaemenid Empire of Persia, which had humbled and humiliated the Greeks in the Greco-Persian Wars a century earlier. Aged just 20, Alexander III of Macedon – soon to be remembered as Alexander the Great – took the throne as the head of a military machine on the brink of war and legendary status, and gleefully drove it full throttle over the edge.
Alexander had been groomed for greatness from birth, but he was no pampered prince. Tutored by the austere Leonidas, who forbade all luxury, the general Lysimachus and the philosopher Aristotle, Alexander was proficient with weapons, horse riding and playing the lyre, and an expert in ethics, philosophy and the skills of debate. He trained daily in pankration, an Ancient Greek martial art, which focused on savage grapples, punches, kicks and choke holds. A Renaissance man before the Renaissance, he was schooled in the skills to conquer and the knowledge to rule. At 16 he had governed Macedon as regent while his father warred far from home, the young heir putting down rebellious tribes in Thrace and founding a whole new city, Alexandropolis – the first of many that would bear his name.
Like so many civilisations before and after them, the Ancient Greeks loved to gossip. Philip’s death, they said, was an act of revenge from his scorned lover Pausanias, but two other people immediately benefited: Olympias, mother of Alexander and once-favoured wife of Philip, had been in danger of losing her status to a younger king, and her baby daughter burned alive.
The dubious heroes of myth were Alexander’s own blueprint for greatness. With legendary figures on both sides of the family tree, it was hard not to be convinced of his own special destiny. His father’s bloodline claimed descent from Hercules – the son of Zeus and bull-wrestling demigod of Twelve Labours fame – while his mother’s family looked up to Achilles, the all-but-invulnerable champion of the fabled Siege of Troy. Omens and portents prefigured every decision, but as much as this ambitious new king gave every appearance of being a slave to destiny – looking for meaning in flights of birds and consulting oracles at every turn – he steered destiny himself, consciously building a legend that would lift his accomplishments well beyond those of his father and into the same world of the legendary journeys and heroic battles that had once inspired him. In just shy of a decade, he crushed the life out of the once-mighty Persian state and expanded the borders of his domain from Libya to India to create a mighty empire.
Fittingly, this conquest began with some mythical brand management. Picking up where Philip II’s army of invasion had been poised, Alexander crossed the Dardanelles – the narrow channel connecting the Black Sea to the Mediterranean, and Europe from Asia Minor – in early 334 BCE with 47,000 soldiers and mercenaries from across Macedon and the Greek kingdoms. Leaping from his warship in full ceremonial armour, vast plumed helmet and golden breastplate, the emperor-to-be sent a spear whistling through the air to crash into the undefended soil of Asia Minor. It was the first blow in a war that would claim for Alexander over 200,000 square miles of land and leave between 75,000 and 200,000 dead.
The coastline of what is now Turkey was littered with Greek cities ruled by the Persian invaders, and of them Troy had particular significance for Alexander. The alleged site of his maternal ancestor Achilles’ most celebrated victory and tragic death, Alexander carried with him on his journey the story of the Trojan War, Homer’s epic Iliad (a gift from his tutor Aristotle), and quoted from it often. First, he had the tomb of Achilles opened so he could pay tribute, then riding to a nearby temple of Athena, the Greek goddess of wisdom, the Macedon king was shown what they claimed were the weapons of Achilles. There, he took down a shield, replacing it with his own. Alexander wasn’t merely content sharing a fanciful familial association with Achilles; he wanted to rival him, visiting this site of bloodshed and heroism, and taking the mantle of one of Ancient Greece’s greatest heroes.
Was it a propaganda stunt that spurred on his army, or did he believe it? His fierce pragmatism and ambition would suggest both – a dangerous and unpredictable combination that made him one of the battlefield’s most iconic generals.
First meeting the Persians in battle in 334 BCE, Alexander quickly established a formula for swift and decisive victory at the Battle of the Granicus, just outside of his beloved Troy. Leading from the front ranks, a feint drew the stronger Persian units and their battle-hardened Greek mercenaries out, spreading their line thin and allowing Alexander’s cavalry to hammer through their scattered ranks. He was welcomed as a liberator by the Greek subjects of Asia Minor, and endeavoured to win over the local population too. Claiming to distrust tyrants, he appointed local rulers and allowed them relative independence, but with a new centralised tax system he ensured their autonomy was reliant upon his handouts.
With Persia’s control of the vast expanse of Asia Minor resting on its superior navy, Alexander opted to scatter his own vessels rather than fight a sea war he couldn’t win, and marched down the coast to take the enemy’s largest naval port, Halicarnassus – now Bodrum in Turkey – by land, forcing his way through the walls until the Persianshad to abandon their own city. After passing through Cappadocia with scarcely any resistance thanks to incompetent local governors in 333 BCE, Darius III, the Persian Shahanshah – king of kings – could stomach this embarrassment no longer, and with an army that outnumbered the Greeks by two to one, confronted Alexander at the Battle of Issus. Were the king to fail here then Darius’ army would be able to link up with his powerful navy and Alexander’s whole campaign, resting as it did on his thin line of victories down the coast, would be wiped out and all dreams of Greek civilisation free from the menaces of its aggressive Eastern neighbour would spill out into the dust like so much wasted Macedonian blood. At Issus, like many battles before and after, Alexander rode up and down his ranks of assembled men to deliver an address worthy of heroes, playing on old glories and grudges.
“He excited the Illyrians and Thracians by describing the enemy’s wealth and treasures, and the Greeks by putting them in mind of their wars of old, and their deadly hatred towards the Persians,” wrote the historian Justin in the 3rd century CE. “He reminded the Macedonians at one time of their conquests in Europe, and at another of their desire to subdue Asia, boasting that no troops in the world had been found a match for them, and assuring them that this battle would put an end to their labours and crown their glory.”
With shock etched upon his face, Darius fled the battlefield as the Greek charge cut through his ranks like a scythe, with Alexander at its head, crashing straight through the Persian flanks and then into their rearguard. With their king gone they began a chaotic and humiliating retreat. With only one Persian port left – Tyre, in what is now Lebanon – and the hill fort of Gaza in modern Palestine both falling in 332 BCE, the thinly stretched Achaemenid defences west of Babylon quickly crumbled or withdrew before the relentless march of Alexander.
Unexpectedly, he then turned his attention not east toward the enemy’s exposed heart, but west in the direction of Egypt and Libya. They, like the Greek colonies of Asia Minor, would welcome him as a saviour. With no standing army and whole swathes of the country in the hands of Egyptian rebels, the Persian governor handed over control of the province outright. The last set of invaders had disrespected their gods, so perhaps the Egyptians were keen to take advantage of Alexander’s vanity and safeguard their faith by placing this new warlord right at the heart of it. Maybe, too, Alexander had seen how illusionary Persian authority was in Egypt, and wanted to try a different tack. He may have been one of the world’s greatest generals, but he knew the sword was not the only path to acquiring new territory.
Riding out to the famous Oracle of Amun – the Egyptian answer to Zeus – at the Siwa oasis, Alexander was welcomed into the inner sanctum of this ancient temple, an honour usually afforded only to the ordained priests of Amun, while his entourage was forced to wait in the courtyard. The exact details of Alexander’s exchange with the Oracle remain a mystery, but the end result was unambiguous. Alexander was now more than merely a hero of legend. Even the myth of Achilles reborn could scarcely contain his ambition, and he declared himself the son of Zeus. His worship spread across Egypt, where he was raised to the rank of Pharaoh. This didn’t sit well with Alexander’s countrymen, but here at least, the king didn’t push it.
“[Alexander] bore himself haughtily towards the barbarians,” recalled the army’s official historian Plutarch, “and like one fully persuaded of his divine birth and parentage, but with the Greeks it was within limits and somewhat rarely that he assumed his own divinity.” Despite his ‘haughtiness’, Alexander had been raised on tales of the Egyptian gods from his mother, and Greeks – the philosopher Plato among them – had long journeyed to this ancient land to study in what they regarded as the birthplace of civilisation. Standing amid the great pyramids and temples, the 25-year-old Alexander either saw around him an ancient power to be held in great respect or feats of long-dead god-kings that he had to better.
The result was the city of Alexandria, planned in detail by the king, from wide boulevards and great temples to defences and plumbing. Construction began in 331 BCE, and it remains the secondlargest city and largest seaport in Egypt, linking the king’s new world to his old one, both by trade across the Mediterranean and by culture. In making Alexandria the crossroads between two great civilisations, a great centre of learning where Greek and Egyptian religion, medicine, art, mathematics and philosophy could be bound together was created, and the city came to symbolise thebetter aspects of Alexander’s nature, his desire for education and learning and his patronage. Darker days, though, lay ahead.
Like an angel of death, Alexander turned from his ‘liberation’ of the Achaemenid Empire’s downtrodden subjects and drove east with a vengeance. Now in the belly of the beast, Alexander’s less heroic qualities were beginning to show themselves with greater regularity – an arrogance, cruelty and obsessive drive that had he failed in his conquest, would have been remembered as the madness of a tyrant rather than the drive of a king.
Breaking out of a pincer movement to defeat Darius again at the Battle of Gaugamela in 331 BCE, Alexander seized Babylonia. Provincial rulers loyal to the humiliated king of kings promptly surrendered. With his authority crumbling, Darius was stabbed by one of his generals, Bessus, and left by the roadside, where pursuing Greek scouts found him in 330 BCE. Overcome with pity – and perhaps respect for this foe they had chased across mountains and deserts – they offered the dying king of kings water from a nearby spring. In declaring himself Shahanshah, Bessus’s throne wasa fiction, and only a handful of frontier provinces remained in the usurper’s blood-slick hands. The once glorious Persian Empire, for 220 years the largest in the ancient world, had died by the roadside, humiliated and betrayed.
Taking the capital Persepolis after a last-ditch attempt to hold back the Greeks at a narrow pass called the Persian Gates, the power-drunk Alexander burnt the great palace to the ground in, it is believed, retaliation for the Persian sack of Athens in 480 BCE. Casting the first torch into the building himself, looting and burning spread across the city. Priests were murdered and Persian women forced to marry his soldiers. Zoroastrian prophecy had foretold “demons with dishevelled hair, of the race of wrath” and now, Persia’s holy men realised, the demons were here.
As his predecessor Darius had been, Bessus was chased down by the ferocious and dogmatic Alexander into what is now Uzbekistan and Afghanistan. Across deserts with little supplies, Alexander rode along his lines, picking up men who fell and lifting their spirits. A charismatic leader even against the backdrop of the bloodiest of campaigns, he had the power to inspire his weary soldiers. Eventually, Bessus’ support collapsed. With no army worth a damn, he had been forced to burn crops and stores before the Greek advance in a lastditch attempt to slow Alexander’s terrible pursuit. Fittingly for the betrayer of the last Shahanshah, his own men handed him over to the Greeks. His nose and ears were cut off at Alexander’s command, and he was sent back to Persia in chains to be impaled, the Persian punishment for traitors.
This rampage across Persia and her furthest fringes wasn’t the first time Alexander’s determination had taken on a more murderous hue. In 334 BCE, he had marched his men into the sea up to their chins rather than turn back along the beach, only surviving because the tide began to change direction with the wind, and in 332 BCE this sheer bloody-mindedness joined forces with his ruthlessness at Tyre – the first of many appalling massacres. Refusing to surrender and believing their island fortress was impregnable from land, Alexander laid siege, blockaded the port from the Persian navy and over seven months built a causeway from the mainland to the city – an incredible feat of engineering that allowed his catapults to come within range of the city. Tyre was soon breached, and Alexander’s fury fell upon the city’s population. Of the 40,000 inhabitants of Tyre, 2,000 were crucified on the beach, 4,000 were killed in the fighting, a handful were pardoned, and over 30,000 sold into slavery.
This act of impossible engineering and bloody vengeance was later repeated in northern India at the Battle of Aornos in 327 BCE, where the crossing of a mountain ravine by improvised wooden bridge – built over seven days and seven nights – was followed by the massacre of the tribal Aśvakas. Welcoming Alexander with open arms, the Greekspeaking Branchidae were set upon when it became known their ancestors had collaborated with the Achaemenids, while other defenders were murdered because they surrendered too late, or been promised safe passage to lure them from behind their walls and into the spears of the Macedonian phalanx.
Like arterial spray on armour, growing accounts of sackings, burnings, enslavement and murder pepper the record of Alexander in gore. It seemed like the further he got from home, the darker his deeds became.
While the rewards of conquest – plunder, wives, riches and glory – had been great, the Greeks werebeginning to tire not just of this endless war that had taken them further and further from home, but Alexander’s increasing pretensions. This monarch from Greece’s barbarian hinterland had begun to dress in Persian robes, train Persians for the army and insist on courtiers throwing themselves to the ground in the manner of subjects before the Persian king of kings – an affront to the dignity of the Greeks, who took pride in never bowing to their monarchs. On top of that, he now wished to be worshipped as a god.
After one drunken celebration in 328 BCE, this discontent found voice when Cleitus the Black, an old Macedonian general who had served under Philip II and saved Alexander’s life in battle, decided he’d had his fill. The general bristled, turned to Alexander, and told him that he would be nothing without the accomplishments of Philip, and all that he now possessed was earned by the blood and sacrifice of Macedonians. Alexander, more petulant than entirely regal in his fury, threw an apple at the general’s head, called for his guards and then for a dagger or spear, but wary of escalation, those present quickly began bustling Cleitus from the room and tried to calm their monarch. Either Cleitus wasn’t fully removed or then returned, but having clearly passed the point of no return, continued to vent his spleen, until Alexander, finally grabbing hold of a javelin, threw it clean through the old warhorse’s heart.
Cleitus was one of the first to challenge the king, but he wasn’t the last. In 327 BCE, a plot against him was betrayed, and the conspirators – his own royal pages – stoned to death. Then, later that year he struck another body blow against his traditional supporters. Callisthenes, grand-nephew of Alexander’s tutor Aristotle and one of the many historians in Alexander’s retinue, had become increasingly critical of his delusions of grandeur, and taunted him with a line from his beloved Iliad: “A better man than you by far was Patroclus, and still death did not escape him.” In short – you’re no god, and you’ll die just like the rest of us. Alexander accused Callisthenes of collusion in the pages’ conspiracy, and had him put to death.
It was the beginning of the end. Convinced he was a god, it would be the needs of men that would bring the conquests of Alexander to heel. Adamant that they were at the edge of the world and expecting to see the great sea that the Ancient Greeks believed ringed their continent from which they could return home, Alexander pushed his increasingly mutinous army into India. Confronted with valley after valley of new lands to conquer and battles to wage, they drove on – winning a costly victory against 200 war elephants fielded by King Porus on the banks of the Indus River. Battered and broken after 22,000 kilometres and eight years, monsoon season arrived and drenched the army in water and disease. Rumours also reached the camp that India was a bigger than they had previously heard, and contained armies even greater than that of Porus.
Alexander’s generals, mindful of the fate that had befallen other critics of their king, approached cautiously and appealed to his nobility. Coenus – one of Alexander’s most trusted commanders – implored him to let them return home to their families, saying so eloquently, “We have achievedso many marvellous successes, but isn’t it time to set some limit? Surely you can see yourself how few are left of the original army that began this enterprise… Sire,” he concluded, “the sign of a great man is knowing when to stop.”
Reluctantly, the warrior king agreed. Building a temple to Dionysus on the riverbank and leaving the inscription ‘Alexander stopped here’, they built a fleet of flat-bottom ships and began a long voyage home. Alexander the Great’s conquest began with Homer’s Iliad as its guide – a tale of triumph and conquest – and ended with the Odyssey – a desperate voyage home.
There were more battles, tragedies and triumphs to come, and many would never see home thanks to the long-running battles with the Indian kingdoms they passed through on their way down the Indus River toward the Arabian Sea, from where they could sail to Persia’s southern coast. One battle in early 325 BCE against the Malhi people of Punjab nearly cost Alexander his life as a siege ladder collapsed behind him, leaving him stranded on enemy ramparts, with his bodyguard panicking below. Even with his dreams of ceaseless conquest doused like campfires before battle, Alexander fought fiercely until an arrow pierced his lung, his chroniclers describing air escaping with the blood. Even with all Alexander had subjected them to, his army remained devoted to their monarch – believing him dead, they rampaged through the city, looting, killing and burning in retaliation. Patched up by his doctor, gaunt and unsteady, Alexander had to be sailed past his army while lined up on the riverbank before they would accept he was still alive.
With one force exploring the Persian Gulf, Alexander led the remnants of his army through what is now the Balochistan province of Iran – a sparsely populated landscape of arid mountains and desert. His men died in their hundreds, gasping for water, stumbling through the baking sands in their tattered sandals and blinking into the brilliant sun. By 324 BCE they had reached the Persian city of Susa, but back in the heart of the empire he had stolen, his trials continued – his childhood friend, stalwart general and, some historians have implied, lover Hephaestion died, and then in August the Macedonians in his army mutinied. The Macedonians he placated, but the grief he felt at the loss of “the friend I value with my own life” could not be so easily put right.
While his father died with dreams of a Persian conquest upon his lips, Alexander succumbed to a fever in 323 BCE with greater dreams still. Before his eyes poured the spears of the phalanx south into Arabia and west into Carthage and Rome. “Who shall lead us?” his followers whispered to their dying king. “The strongest,” he replied, and with his passing the great empire splintered.
In his tactical genius, charismatic leadership, enduring legacy and fanatical drive, Alexander was far removed from those around him. Perhaps in his view, ‘elevated’ above those around him, he was so far removed as to be incomparable. He was never defeated in battle, partly because of his tactical skill, leadership and army, but also because he was prepared to pay a toll in human lives.
Tales of the Greek gods endure not just because they present an ideal of heroism and greatness, but because they were flawed beings – a soap opera on a cosmic scale. Like the squabbling deities of Mount Olympus, Alexander the Great was violent, vain, petty and cynical, and like them he overcame impossible odds and accomplished breathtaking feats through ingenuity, charisma, martial prowess and force of will. His example were venerated by emperors, tactics studied by leaders for over 2,000 years, and in the Middle East, tales of ‘Alexander the Cursed’s’ savagery are still told in the lands he wronged. For good and ill, the shadow he casts is still the stuff of legend.