Alexander III of Macedon (356–323 BCE) owes his epithet ‘the Great’ to the enormous territory that he dominated: from Greece in the west to the river Indus in the east, resulting in, at the time, the largest empire in antiquity. This is all the more remarkable when we recall that he subjugated this vast region within just eleven years, and that he was only 20 years of age when he came to power.
Many believed that someone who ruled the ‘whole world’ by the age of 30 must possess superhuman powers. In his historiography, it is not always easy to distinguish reality from myth. From the outset, biographies of Alexander allude to his divine origin. It is not inconceivable that he contributed to these rumours himself. He instructed his court poet and historian Callisthenes to record events as they occurred during his great expedition. These accounts are known to us only indirectly, from later sources. The literature depicts Alexander the Great as a hero, a brilliant general whose audacity, strategic insight and military strength were unequalled. But he also emerges as a man with an unbridled temper; even some of those closest to him paid for it with their lives. In the Greek, Roman, and later Western literature, he has remained Alexander the Great. In parts of the Far East, however, he has been known as Alexander the Terrible.
Alexander was the son of King Philip II of Macedon. The Macedonians claimed descent from the hero Heracles, son of Zeus. They considered themselves Hellenes.
Philip, who came to the throne in 360 BCE, did much to promote Macedon’s stature. He patronised the arts, stimulated the economy, and organised an unprecedented strong professional army. In his reign, Macedon became the greatest power in the region. He united the whole of Greece and he placed the previously autonomous Greek city-states under his rule in the Pan-Hellenic League. He married a series of princesses from the defeated territories for political motives, seeking to assure himself of their allegiance. Alexander’s mother, Princess Olympias of Epirus, was the fourth of Philip’s seven wives.
Alexander was born around 21 July 356 BCE. He saw little of his father who, as both king and general, was constantly away on some military campaign. Alexander stayed behind with his mother Olympias, who was surely happy with this arrangement, since she is said to have grown to hate her husband more and more with the passage of time.
Philip had arranged for his son to receive a Greek education: the boy’s early training was in the hands of Leonidas of Epirus, while his teenage years were entrusted to the celebrated philosopher Aristotle. As he grew up, his great examples were the Greek heroes Achilles and Heracles, whom he would frequently honour on his campaigns with sacrifices and games. Homer’s Iliad became a guiding motif in Alexander’s life. He also aspired to the Homeric ideal: to fight for personal success, honour and glory. In those days, the only real hero was a Homeric hero.
Even as a young boy, Alexander showed himself to be fearless. A great horse was offered for sale at the horse market. Known as Bucephalus (‘Ox-head’), this creature refused to allow anyone to mount him. It would rear up and kick out. Alexander had noticed that the horse was afraid of its own shadow. He turned it towards the sun and calmed it. After a while he successfully mounted Bucephalus and rode him. Philip was moved by the sight, and bought the horse for Alexander. Bucephalus served Alexander faithfully in the years that followed, until he died from battle wounds in 326 BCE.
At eighteen years of age, Alexander was allowed to prove his worth in combat. He was placed in command of the army at the decisive battle against Athens, at which he showed himself to be a highly capable leader despite his youth. Macedon carried the day, and Philip became leader of all Greece. The autonomy of the Greek city-states was no more.
If Alexander had expected his father to reward him for his courage, he was soon disillusioned. He was not given any part to play in the rest of Philip’s plans. Instead, he was to serve as regent in Macedon while his father was away fighting.
Not long afterwards, Philip was assassinated. It was rumoured that Olympias and Alexander were behind this assassination, but we cannot know whether there was any truth in such stories. In any case, Alexander was ready to ascend to the throne. There was an elder half-brother, from one of Philip’s previous wives, but he was seen as weak. Alexander ensured that all the others who had any claim to the throne were killed, leaving no opposition to his rule. This exemplifies Alexander’s ruthlessness, which spared nothing and no one, as he would demonstrate many more times after that. In 336 BCE, at 20 years of age, Alexander was King of Macedon and hegemon (leader) of the Pan-Hellenic League of Greek city-states. He surrounded himself with his father’s most loyal generals and with his boyhood friends, all of whom he would appoint to high-ranking positions in his army. One of them was Hephaestion, Alexander’s best friend.
When Philip died, the Greek city-states and the other territories he had subjugated saw an opportunity to regain their autonomy and rebelled. Alexander, who had inherited his father’s strategic insight as well as the strongest army in the region, restored his power with considerable violence, and sometimes with diplomacy
With every rebellion – and there were plenty – Alexander’s battle-readiness and strategic understanding proved so superior that all resistance was quickly crushed. He had gone through his trial by fire as king and as general, and had emerged triumphant. In 335 BCE the rebellion in Thebes briefly appeared to be succeeding, but that too was put down. By way of punishment and to set a deterrent example to other cities, Thebes was destroyed. The strategy worked: Greece remained calm until Alexander’s death in 323 BCE.
The Asian Campaign
According to ancient historians, Alexander was keen to emulate the exploits of gods and heroes. Besides his great role models Hercules and Achilles, he also drew inspiration from Dionysus, the god of wine. Dionysus, who played an important role in the everyday life of ordinary Greeks, was the son of Zeus and a Theban princess. He travelled as far as India, introducing people to the cultivation of vines. Everywhere he went, Dionysus – who was only a demigod – forged strong bonds with the peoples he encountered and had established his cult. When he returned, he was given permission to live on Mount Olympus, which implied that the gods accepted him as one of their own. Alexander appears to have been hoping for similar recognition.
Once peace had been restored to the Macedonian empire, Alexander could devote his attention to his grandiose plans. He wanted to subjugate the great Persian Empire and his father had already paved the way for him. Philip had persuaded the Greek city-states to support a campaign in Persian territory (and to supply troops) with the argument that he would liberate the original Greek coastal cities that the Persians had seized in the fifth century BCE. Alexander took up the plan where his father had left off.
For this campaign, Alexander raised an army numbering 48,000 soldiers, 16,000 supporting personnel, and a fleet of over 100 warships and transport ships. He appointed Antipater as his regent and hegemon of the Pan-Hellenic League, and crossed the Hellespont (the Dardanelles) to Troy, where his great hero Achilles had died. Just outside Troy, he visited the graves of Achilles and of Achilles’ his dear friend Patroclus. In the temple of Athena, near the grave, hung weapons which were said to have belonged to Achilles. Alexander took the shield and spear and hung his own in their place. Then he considered himself ready for battle against the Persians.
The first encounter was near the river Granicus. Although Alexander had taken only part of his army with him, his ingenious strategic decisions enabled him to devastate the gigantic Persian army, with its 20,000 horsemen and 20,000 (Greek) mercenaries. After this victory he continued further south, along the western and southern coast of present-day Turkey. His reputation preceded him and struck terror into local leaders. Several cities surrendered even before Alexander arrived in the vicinity, not least because some cities who were formerly Greek weren’t loyal to their Persian overlord. Other cities rebelled, but soon gave up their resistance when faced by the vastly superior strength of the Macedonian army.
The constant victories not only gained Alexander wealth and other goods, but also gave him a continuous supply of new troops as local boys were trained in Macedonian military techniques. In every city he subjugated, Alexander appointed a Greek administrator or satrap and left part of his defence force behind to retain his hold on power.
Ruler of Asia, son of Zeus?
Alexander’s ambitions became clear when he arrived in Gordium, in the central mountains, in 333 BCE. An ox-cart dedicated to Zeus stood there. It was said that anyone who could loosen the knot with which the cart’s staves were fastened – the Gordian knot – would rule over the whole of Asia. Like all others before him, Alexander found himself unable to untie this knot. He solved the problem, however, by slicing it in half with a mighty blow of his sword. He then declared that the knot was loosened. Legend has it that anyone doubting the legitimacy of his claim was silenced by thunder and lightning – that is, by Zeus himself.
Alexander continued on his journey towards Egypt. On the way, in Syria, the first battles took place with Darius III, the great king of Persia. Darius, who had naturally heard about Alexander’s victories, had raised an impressive army to engage the Macedonian force at Issus. Darius initially seemed to be gaining the upper hand but, when the Macedonians defeated his bodyguards and threatened the king himself, he retreated. He did so not in cowardice, but probably because he feared that without him the Persian Empire would crumble. Alexander killed many of Darius’ troops but he spared the king’s family. He treated them with considerable courtesy, promising to find suitable matches for Darius’ daughters. Later on, he would marry one of them himself and give another to Hephaestion
Alexander let Darius go, since he was eager to press on to Egypt. This country appealed to him for various reasons: it was wealthy, it enjoyed good trade relations, and it belonged to the Persian Empire. Egypt surrendered to Alexander without a struggle. He managed to gain the people’s support by respecting their religion and traditions. He was soon crowned Pharaoh of Egypt, with all the accompanying titles, such as Son of Ra.
In this period, Alexander developed divine aspirations. This became clear after his visit to the oracle of Zeus-Ammon in the Egyptian desert. He returned with the message that he had been accepted as a true son of Zeus, who had appeared to his mother Olympias in the form of a serpent and fathered him.
Alexander’s stature continued to grow and he frequently expressed his desire to be worshipped as a god. This did not strike the Egyptians or Persians as improper, but the Greeks saw it as blasphemy.
Lord of Asia
Determined, Alexander continued on his journey towards the east. He sometimes encountered resistance, but the Macedonian army dealt swiftly with each new opponent. In every region he dominated, he appointed new Persian rulers who were favourably inclined to him. To cement his power, Alexander founded new cities, calling almost all of them Alexandria and populating them with Greeks and Macedonian army units. He encouraged his troops to marry local women to consolidate Hellenic power.
In the meantime, Darius had rebuilt his army. The decisive battle took place at Gaugamela on 1 October 331 BCE. In spite of its huge size, the Persian army was defeated, again because of Alexander’s shrewd strategy. Darius fled but, some time later (in the summer of 330 BCE), he was assassinated by one of his former satraps.
Alexander was hailed by his army as Lord of Asia. The victory was celebrated exuberantly in the vicinity of Persepolis, the ‘capital’ of the Persian Empire. Alexander’s soldiers plundered the city, and Alexander set fire to the palace of Xerxes, the former king of Persia. Some say this was a drunken impulse but, according to others, it was a calculated act of vengeance: Xerxes had burned the Acropolis in Athens to the ground in the Graeco-Persian wars in the 5th century BCE.
Alexander had no intention of resting on his laurels and returning home. He wanted to continue his journey to India but a mood of unrest was spreading among his troops, who were battle-weary. What is more, the generals were irritated by what they saw as Alexander’s divine pretensions. For instance, Alexander had declared that everyone must prostrate himself in the dust before approaching him. This was a traditional Persian ritual known as proskynesis, which Alexander had introduced to appease the Persians. But the Macedonians saw it as blasphemy: a mortal allowing himself to be worshipped as a god. Alexander had growing difficulties retaining the support of his own countrymen as well as the Persians, all the more so because he rejected all criticism. During one of the regular drinking bouts enjoyed by Alexander and his staff, a heated exchange flared up between Alexander and Cleitus, one of his loyal commanders and friends. Cleitus had saved Alexander’s life in the Battle of Granicus. In response, Alexander seized a spear in his drunken rage and stabbed Cleitus to death.
In the spring of 327 BCE, Alexander provoked surprise by marrying. His bride was Roxana, a Bactrian princess, described by some as the most beautiful girl in the whole of Asia. This too aroused disapproval among his Macedonian inner-circle; if a child was born, it would not be a pure Macedonian birth.
In India, Alexander encountered resistance among his own men. The troops refused to carry on toward the east, whatever rewards they were promised. Alexander relented and led his army back, straight across the forbidding Gedrosian desert. According to the accounts, it was a hellish journey and Alexander shared the harsh conditions of his men. Water was extremely scarce and the blistering heat made matters far worse. Whenever a little water was found, it was taken to Alexander. But since his men had nothing to drink, he would not drink either. This attitude fuelled the legend. The troops eventually emerged from the desert at the end of 325 BCE. It seemed the worst of the hardships were over now. But Alexander had not yet told his men about the plans he had forged for the next campaign.
The demise of Alexander and his empire
The new plan was to attack Arabia from Babylon on the river Euphrates. By 323 BCE he had made all his preparations. An enormous harbour, big enough to accommodate 1000 warships, had been built in Babylon, and an invasion force was ready to strike. But it was not to be: Alexander died around 10 or 11 June 323 BCE, just short of his 33rd birthday.
The circumstances surrounding his death are shrouded in mystery. It seems that Alexander lost consciousness during one of his drinking orgies, and could not be revived. According to some sources, he was struck by a raging fever so violent that it caused his death. Another story relates that he was poisoned.
Alexander hadn’t named his heir. After his death, the decision fell to his army who eventually agreed on a successor and a tenuous division of power. Alexander’s half-brother and his son, born after his death, became joint kings Philip III Arrhidaeus and Alexander IV. Given the age of one and mental weakness of the other, Perdiccas was made regent. The other generals became governors of various parts of the empire. However, fights soon broke out among the generals, resulting in almost 50 years of war. By the end, both kings were murdered and Alexander’s empire fractured into smaller kingdoms.
Influence and inspiration
Alexander’s influence on the world was without parallel. He brought prosperity to all parts of his empire. He founded cities, built harbours, and opened trade routes. He patronised the arts, philosophy, and science; among others, his retinue included biologists, historians, and geologists who were all encouraged to record what they saw along the way. Since he founded cities in diverse regions and left Macedonian and other Greek troops there, the indigenous population came into contact with Hellenistic customs. Conversely, the soldiers he left behind adopted some of the local traditions. It was the beginning of the Hellenistic period: the spreading of Hellenistic culture and its intermingling with numerous other cultures. The Gandhara Buddhas are fine examples of Graeco-Buddhist sculpture. The reciprocal influences endured for centuries after Alexander’s death.
Through the centuries, and around the world, Alexander has remained a source of inspiration for writers and artists. The Romans greatly admired him. His courage, his triumphs, and the staggering numbers of those he defeated appealed to their imagination. Much was published about Alexander in the Roman era, including several entire series of books, such as the ten-volume series by Quintus Curtius Rufus, dating from the first century CE. In addition, the so-called Alexander Romance (probably written in the 3rd century CE) is a stirring, partly fictionalised account of Alexander’s reign. In later centuries, this text was rewritten and expanded in several languages and regions, often adapted to suit local tastes and the age. In the Middle Ages, for instance, the stories were not only filled with Christian piety, but peppered with all kinds of fabrications. In illuminated manuscripts produced in the early Middle Ages, Alexander is depicted in a kind of diving-bell, heading for the bottom of the sea. In the late Middle Ages, the emphasis shifts to his courtly graces and chivalry. He was one of the most popular figures in the Italian Renaissance. Scenes from his life inspired decorations in the palace interiors of princes and aristocrats.
Several European rulers saw Alexander as their role model. One of his greatest admirers was Louis XIV of France (1638–1715). The ‘Sun King’ had divine aspirations similar to those of Alexander. Indeed, he proclaimed himself ‘the new Alexander’, and instructed Charles Le Brun to make a series of Alexander paintings for the Louvre. Since the French court determined fashions throughout Europe, Alexander enjoyed a surge of popularity. In Italy, Spain, Austria and Germany, palaces were furnished with paintings depicting scenes from Alexander’s life. In Persian literature, Alexander often plays a prominent role as the good king Iskander. He was much loved by Islamic princes from Persia and India. The appreciation for Alexander penetrated Russian culture with the advent of the Byzantine tradition; the Byzantine monarchs saw themselves as the direct descendants of the Macedonian king. The rulers of the first Russian state (from the 10th to the 13th century) not only adopted the Orthodox religion, but also adopted Alexander as ‘their’ hero.
In the 18th century, Catherine the Great (who ruled from 1762 to 1796) drew inspiration from Alexander. She named her grandson after him and raised him with stories of Alexander’s exploits. Her political goals were similar to Alexander’s. She too had the ambition of building a vast empire. It was during her reign that an absolute monarchy was firmly established in Russia.
Did you know
The famous Cleopatra of Egypt was Macedonian. Her ancestor Ptolemy was a close friend and general of Alexander and founded the Ptolemaic dynasty in Egypt.
It is not known what caused Alexander’s death in 323 BC, but theories range from deliberate poison to diseases such as malaria or typhoid and even liver damage from excessive drinking.
Many scholars believe the character of Dhul Qarnayn (the Two-Horned One), who appears in the Koran, is an allegory of Alexander.
Alexander belonged to the Argead dynasty, whose founder was from Argos in southern Greece. The dynasty rulers claimed to be descendants of Heracles and Zeus.
Iron Maiden sing about Alexander in the song ‘Alexander the Great’ from the 1986 album Somewhere in Time
Alexander was known as ‘the Invincible’ (aniketos) during his lifetime, and probably received the epithet ‘the Great’ not long after his death. The first recorded use of that title was about 200 BC by Roman playwrite Plautus.
Alexander had at least two wives (some sources mention three) and his father Philip at least 5. Polygamy was common with Macedonian royals.
As a teenager, Alexander was tutored by Aristotle, whose father had been court physician in Macedon.
The Macedonian kingdoms in Europe and Asia created by Alexander and his generals ended with the Roman conquest. Macedonia itself was conquered in 167 BC.
Alexander slept with Homer’s The Iliad under pillow, alongside a dagger (a useful accessory for Macedonian kings).
Alexander’s father Philip II was assassinated in 336 BC. Such a death was relatively common amongst Macedonian royals.
Alexander founded some 20 cities that bore his name – the most famous being Alexandria in Egypt. He also named one Bucephala after his beloved horse.
Alexander’s son Alexander IV and half-brother Arrhidaeus co-ruled after Alexander’s death, but were both murdered in the fight for the throne.
Alex was below average height, with blond hair.
For when he had work to do, he differed from other generals in that nothing stood in his way –not wine, not sleep, not games, not marriage, not spectacles’.
They say that Alexander, son of Philip, was distinguished by natural beauty – his hair was blonde and wavy, but by all accounts something terrifying could be seen in the king’s face.’
~Aelianus, Varia Historia XII, 14
It is not easy to say – quite apart from the reverence which is innate in that people towards their kings – how much they were devoted to this particular king in their admiration, indeed their ardent affection.’
You will have to find another kingdom: Macedonia isn’t going to be big enough for you.’
~Father to son
Philip observed that, while Alexander’s nature was stubborn and he resisted any coercion, reason could lead him easily towards what was necessary, and so he himself would try to persuade rather than command his son.’
From what has been said, then, it is clear that Alexander was not foolishly affected or puffed up by the belief in his divinity, but used it for the subjugation of others.’
Alexander used to say, too, that he recognised his mortality most clearly in sleep and intercourse, since both pain and pleasure originate from a single innate weakness.’