Though many ancient conquerors later had the title "Great" attached to their names, none was more deserving of it than Alexander III, king of Macedon. Coming from a mountainous kingdom to the north of Greece, he subdued the Greek citystates to the south. Then, at age twenty-two, he went on to take almost the entire known world. Eleven years later, having established a legend that would last throughout time, he was dead.
Even though the Romans would rule more land, no one man has ever subdued so much territory in so short a period. Yet Alexander did more than win battles. Trained in the classic traditions of Greece, he brought an enlightened form of leadership to the regions he conquered. His empire might have been a truly magnificent one if his life had been longer. As it was, he ensured that the influence of Greece reached far beyond its borders, leaving an indelible mark.
Macedon was a rough, warlike country to the north of Greece. Although the Macedonians considered themselves part of the Greek tradition, the Greeks tended to look down on them as rude and unschooled. But Greece's own day of glory had passed, and by the 300s B.C., the focus of power was shifting northward.
Philip II (382-336 B.C.; r. 359-336 B.C.), Alexander's father, proved himself the most extraordinary Macedonian leader up to his time. Had it not been for his even more remarkable son, he would be remembered as the greatest of all Macedonian leaders. Philip invented a new weapon called the pike, a spear some 16 feet (4.9 meters) long--a good 9 or 10 feet (2.7 or 3 meters) longer than the spears of Greek hoplites, or foot soldiers. Armed with pikes, his army conquered most of southeastern Europe in the years between 354 and 339 B.C.
Alexander's mother was named Olympias, and she brought her son up on stories of gods and heroes. She believed that on his father's side, Alexander descended from Heracles (better known as Hercules). She herself claimed descent from Achilles, hero of the Trojan War and central figure of Homer's Iliad. The Iliad became Alexander's favorite book.
The education of Alexander
Added to the influence of his mother and father was that of Aristotle, who tutored Alexander in his teen years. It is intriguing that one of the ancient world's wisest men taught its greatest military leader. No doubt Alexander gained a wide exposure to the world under Aristotle's instruction.
He was not, however, a thinker but a doer. A natural athlete, Alexander proved his combination of mental and physical agility when at the age of twelve he tamed a wild horse no one else could ride. Impressed, Philip told the boy that anyone who could accomplish such a feat deserved to rule the world. Alexander named the horse Bucephalus, and the two would be companions almost for life. When Bucephalus died during Alexander's campaign in India, he would name a city for his beloved horse.
By the time he was sixteen, Alexander had the job of managing the kingdom's daily business while Philip was away at war. When Philip marched into Greece in 339 B.C., seventeen-year-old Alexander led a force that attacked Thebes.
King of Macedon
The Greek city-states had never been truly united. Their disunity had worsened after the Peloponnesian War, which ended in 404 B.C. Philip saw himself as a fellow Greek bringing all of Greece together, but the Greeks regarded him as an outsider. After his victory at the Battle at Charonea in 338 B.C., however, the Greeks fell into line.
Back in Macedon, Philip took a new wife, who was determined that her own son would become his successor. This put the king into conflict with Olympias and Alexander. At one point the two men drew swords at each other. Alexander and his mother withdrew from the court for a year, but eventually father and son reconciled, in part because they realized that others in Macedon were willing to replace them both. Before they could fully patch up their differences, however, Philip was assassinated in 336 B.C.
Under the Macedonian system, a king's son could not simply expect to take the throne: he had to win the support of the nobles and deal with any potential enemies. Alexander was able to do this, killing as few opponents as possible. It was a policy he would pursue as a military leader, leaving as much good will as he could behind him while he pushed forward.
Achilles and the Gordian Knot
Alexander's immediate concerns in 335 B.C. were several tribes to the north of Macedonas well as some rebellious Greek city-states. The tribes were relatively easy to deal with. Alexander then made a lightning-quick movement into Greece, capturing Thebes and killing some 6,000 of its defenders. It was a brutal battle, but it could have been worse. Rather than slaughter the remaining 30,000 Thebans, he made them slaves and destroyed the city.
After that, he faced no serious opposition from the city-states. He embarked on a mission that had been Philip's dream: conquest of the vast Persian Empire to the east. The latter had once threatened Greece. Now Greece, led by Macedon, would take control of the Persians' declining empire.
The main body of Alexander's army, some 40,000 infantry and 5,000 cavalry, moved into Asia Minor. Meanwhile, their commander crossed the Hellespont with a smaller contingent so that he could go on a personal pilgrimage to the site of Troy. Alexander saw himself almost as a reincarnation of Achilles. When he arrived on Asian soil, he drove his spear into the ground as a symbol of conquest. Later he placed a wreath at a grave traditionally believed to be Achilles's.
Eventually Alexander and his army passed through the ancient Phrygian capital of Gordian. In that city was a chariot tied with a rope so intricately knotted that no one could untie it. According to legend, the fabled King Midas had tied the Gordian Knot, and whoever could untie it would go on to rule the world. Alexander simply cut the knot.
Conquering the world
Alexander's first military engagement in Asia Minor was not with a Persian commander but with a Greek mercenary named Memnon, who had been hired by the Persians. Memnon's forces were waiting for him at the River Granicus. Alexander surprised him by charging straight at the center of his army. The seemingly reckless charge, which was characteristic of his style in battle, nearly cost Alexander his life. But he won the battle--and his troops' respect.
By April of 333 B.C., having dealt with various Persian and local forces in Asia Minor, Alexander had moved down into Cilicia, the area where Asia Minor meets Asia. The Persian emperor Darius III came to meet him with a force of 140,000. At one point, because Alexander's armies were moving so fast, Darius cut Alexander off from his supply lines. Darius chose to wait it out, letting Alexander's forces come to him; Alexander, taking this as a sign of weakness, charged on the Persians. Again Alexander nearly got himself killed, but the Battle of Issus was a hands-down victory for the Greeks. Darius fled, leaving Alexander in control of the entire western portion of the Persians' empire.
Instead of raping and pillaging, as any number of other commanders would have allowed their troops to do, Alexander ordered his armies to make a disciplined movement through conquered territories. After the heavy tax burden the Persians had placed on their empire, Greek rule was a relief. People in some lands welcomed him as a liberator. As he had done in Macedon, Alexander left as few enemies behind him as possible so that he could more easily move forward.
In 332 and 331 B.C., Alexander's forces secured their hold over southwest Asia, conducting a seven-month siege on the Phoenician city of Tyre. By 331 B.C., he was in Egypt, where he founded the city of Alexandria, destined to become a center of Greek learning for centuries to come. In October of that year, he met a Persian force of some 250,000 troops (five times the size of Alexander's army) at the Assyrian city of Gaugamela. It was an overwhelming victory for the Greeks. Although Darius escaped once again, he would later be assassinated by one of his own people.
No more worlds to conquer
Alexander now controlled the vast lands of the Persian Empire, but he did not want to stop there. He asked his men, who had been away from their homes for close to four years, if they would go on with him; it was a mark of his ability as a leader that they agreed to do so. Over the next six years, from 330 to 324 B.C., they subdued what is now Afghanistan and Pakistan and ventured into India. Alexander secured his position in Afghanistan by marrying the Princess Roxana, but he was aware that some of his troops were growing weary. He sent the oldest of them home.
He wanted to keep going east as far as he could, simply to see what was there and, if possible, add it to his empire. But in July of 326 B.C., just after they crossed the Beas River in India, his troops refused to go on. There might have been a rebellion if he had tried to force the issue, but he did not. He sent one group back by sea to explore the coastline as they went and sent another group back by a northerly route. He took a third group through southern Iran, on a journey through the desert in which the entire army very nearly lost its way. In the spring of 323 B.C., they reached Babylon.
Alexander began plotting the conquest of Arabia. But he was unraveling both physically and emotionally, and he had taken to heavy drinking. He caught a fever and was soon unable to move or speak. During the last days of his life, Alexander--the man of action--was forced to lie on his bed while all his commanders filed by in solemn tribute to the great man who had led them where no conqueror had ever gone. On June 13, 323 B.C., he died before ever reaching his thirty-third birthday.
Alexander was no ordinary conqueror. His empire seemed to promise a newer, brighter age in which the nations of the world could join together as equals. Though some of his commanders did not agree with him on this issue, Alexander made little distinction between racial and ethnic groups. Instead, he promoted men on the basis of their ability.
From the beginning, Alexander's armies had recruited local troops, but with the full conquest of Persia, they stepped up this policy. It was his goal to leave Persia in the control of Persians trained in the Greek language and Greek culture. He left behind some seventy new towns named Alexandria. This began the spread of Hellenistic culture throughout western Asia.
But Alexander's empire did not hold. The generals who succeeded him lacked his vision. They spent the remainder of their careers fighting over the spoils of his conquests. Seleucus (c. 356-281 B.C.) gained control over Persia, Mesopotamia, and Syria, where an empire under his name would rule for many years. Ptolemy (c. 365-c. 283 B.C.) established a dynasty of even longer standing in Egypt. His descendants ruled until 30 B.C., when the last of his line, Cleopatra--also the last Egyptian pharoah--was defeated by a new and even bigger empire, Rome.
Gunther, John. Alexander the Great. Illustrated by Isa Barnett. New York: Random House, 1953.
Harris, Nathaniel. Alexander the Great and the Greeks. Illustrated by Gerry Wood. New York: Bookwright Press, 1986.
Krensky, Stephen. Conqueror and Hero: The Search for Alexander. Drawings by Alexander Farquharson. Boston, MA: Little, Brown, 1981.
Langley, Andrew. Alexander the Great: The Greatest Ruler of the Ancient World. Illustrated by Alan Marks. New York: Oxford University Press, 1997.
Lasker, Joe. The Great Alexander the Great. Illustrated by the author. New York: Puffin Books, 1990.
Macdonald, Fiona. The World in the Time of Alexander the Great. Parsippany, NJ: Dillon Press, 1997.
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