Alexander the Great (356 BC – 323 BC) was perhaps the greatest military commander of all time. During one decade, he conquered all of the known world leaving one of the world’s most extensive empires.
Alexander earned the epithet “the Great” due to his unparalleled success as a military commander. He never lost a battle, despite typically being outnumbered. This was due to use of terrain, phalanx and cavalry tactics, bold strategy, and the fierce loyalty of his troops.
Alexander was born in the northern Greek kingdom of Macedonia, in July 356 BC. His parents were Philip II, King of Macedon, and his wife Olympias from Epirus. His parents provided him with high quality general Education; as trainers he had Leonidas the Molossos, to whom he owned his extraordinary physical stamina, and Lysimachos the Akarnan, while in his 13th year of age Philip brought the great philosopher Aristoteles near young Alexander. He was taught a variety of subjects including philosophy, poetry and ideals of government. To some extent, these ideals influenced Alexander when he was later governing conquered nations.
Being near his father taught Alexander a lot about politics and war strategies; and this helped him to be politically and militarily mature from a very young age.
After the assasination of his father in 336 B.C., at his 20th year, Alexander became King of Macedonia. Despite his young age it was very soon that he eliminated all conspiracies against him for the throne. Then, a lot of cities of Southern Greece revolted on learning that Philip was dead. But Alexander moved quickly against them, persuading them to declare submission to his rule. In the conference of Corinth, he was pronounced as Hegemon of Greece, like his father before him, and Arch-General in the coming expedition against the Persians.
Before leaving for the East, Alexander organized an expedition around Macedonia, in the region called ‘the Balkans’ today, in order to eliminate all possible threats and secure his fatherland-Kingdom.
Then, Athens and Thebes again revolted from the South. Alexander didn’t waste time; he again moved very quickly against them. This all ended with the razing of the city of Thebes and the retreat and apologies of all others. The Greeks always fought against each other. If Unity was not imposed among them somehow, no expedition could possibly be successful. So Alexander razed Thebes as an example of what a divider-traitor of the Pan-Hellenic movement would meet as ‘reward’.
Alexander’s army crossed the Hellespont in 334 BC with approximately 48,100 soldiers, 6,100 cavalry and a fleet of 120 ships with crews numbering 38,000, drawn from Macedonia and various Greek city-states, some mercenaries, and some feudally raised soldiers from Thrace, Paionia, and Illyria.
His first victory against Persian forces was at the Battle of Granicus
river. The final outcome of this great victory was the liberation of Asia Minor (a Greek territory) from the Persian rule.
Then he moved towards Syria and the Levant. In Cilicia, during the spring of 333 BC he defeated King Darius at Issus. Then, the road for the South was opened. In the following year, 332 BC, he attacked Tyre, which he captured after a long and difficult siege.
When Alexander destroyed Tyre, most of the towns on the route to Egypt quickly capitulated. However, Alexander met with resistance at Gaza. After three unsuccessful assaults, the stronghold finally fell. Alexander advanced on Egypt in later 332 BC, where he was regarded as a liberator. He was pronounced son of the deity Amun at the Oracle of Siwa Oasis in the Libyan desert.
Leaving Egypt in 331 BC, Alexander marched eastward into Mesopotamia (now northern Iraq) and again defeated Darius, at the Battle of Gaugamela. Gaugamela would be the final and decisive encounter between the two. Darius fled over the mountains to Ecbatana (modern Hamedan), while Alexander captured Babylon.
From Babylon, Alexander went to Susa, one of the Achaemenid capitals, and captured its treasury. He sent the bulk of his army to the Persian ceremonial capital of Persepolis via the Persian Royal Road. Alexander himself took selected troops on the direct route to the city. He then stormed the pass of the Persian Gates (in the modern Zagros Mountains) which had been blocked by a Persian army and then hurried to Persepolis. There he allowed his troops to loot the city for several days. Then, most probably in revenge for the burning of the Acropolis of Athens during the Second Persian War by Xerxes, Persepolis was burned down.
Alexander then chased Darius, first into Media, and then Parthia. The Persian king no longer controlled his own destiny, and was taken prisoner by Bessus, his Bactrian satrap and kinsman. As Alexander approached, Bessus had his men fatally stab the Great King and then declared himself Darius’ successor as Artaxerxes V, before retreating into Central Asia to launch a guerrilla campaign against Alexander. Alexander buried Darius’ remains next to his Achaemenid predecessors in a regal funeral. He claimed that, while dying, Darius had named him as his successor to the Achaemenid throne.
Alexander viewed Bessus as a usurper and set out to defeat him. This campaign, initially against Bessus, turned into a grand tour of central Asia. The campaign took Alexander through Media, Parthia, Aria (West Afghanistan), Drangiana, Arachosia (South and Central Afghanistan), Bactria (North and Central Afghanistan), and Scythia.
Spitamenes, who held an undefined position in the satrapy of Sogdiana, in 329 BC betrayed Bessus to Ptolemy, one of Alexander’s trusted companions, and Bessus was executed. However, when, at some point later, Alexander was on the Jaxartes dealing with an incursion by a horse nomad army, Spitamenes raised Sogdiana in revolt. Alexander personally defeated the Scythians at the Battle of Jaxartes and immediately launched a campaign against Spitamenes, defeating him in the Battle of Gabai. After the defeat, Spitamenes was killed by his own men, who then sued for peace.
Then Alexander turned to the Indian subcontinent. In the winter of 327/326 BC, he personally led a campaign against the clans of the Aspasioi of Kunar valleys, the Guraeans of the Guraeus valley, and the Assakenoi of the Swat and Buner valleys. Alexander crossed the Indus and fought and won an epic battle against King Porus, who ruled a region lying between the Hydaspes and the Acesines (Chenab), in what is now the Punjab, in the Battle of the Hydaspes in 326 BC. Alexander was impressed by Porus’ bravery, and made him an ally. He appointed Porus as satrap, and added to Porus’ territory land that he did not previously own, towards the south-east, up to the Hyphasis (Beas). This river marks the easternmost extent of Alexander’s conquests, as it was there that his devoted soldiers finally revolted, refusing to march further in the East.
The total territory of his Empire in its peak during 323 B.C. is estimated at 5.200.000 square klm and contained parts of 26 modern countries (Greece, Albania, FYROM, Montenegro, Serbia, Bulgaria, Romania, Turkey, Cyprus, Egypt, Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran, Israel, India, Jordan, Kazakhstan, Kuwait, Kyrgyzstan, Lebanon, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan)
Alexander’s treatment of occupied territories was remarkably progressive and tolerant. Alexander forbid his troops from raping and pillaging, but, established new democratic governments, incorporating the local customs of the area. He allowed religious tolerance for the different religious groups. Alexander was famed for being an inspirational military leader. Addressing his troops prior to the Battle of Issus, as quoted in Anabasis Alexandri by Arrian Book II, 7:
“Our enemies are Medes and Persians, men who for centuries have lived soft and luxurious lives; we of Macedon for generations past have been trained in the hard school of danger and war. Above all, we are free men, and they are slaves. There are Greek troops, to be sure, in Persian service — but how different is their cause from ours! … And what, finally, of the two men in supreme command? You have Alexander, they — Darius!”
Many stories tell of the loyalty and faith his army had in Alexander. Once they were returning across a desert with hardly any water left. It is said that Alexander’s will alone, kept his troops focused on making the return journey. At one point, his army collected a small pitcher of water from the remaining supplies and offered it to Alexander. Alexander said nothing and disdainfully threw the precious water into the sand. It was incidents like this which created a God-like image around Alexander.
Plutarch delivers: “Alexander was extremely pure and noble in his relationships with the other sex and showed great respect to the institution of Marriage. He was saying that two things remind him that he is human and not god; sleep and the act of reproduction – like he believed that both were caused by the vulnerability of human nature”
When asked what his greatest possession was, Alexander replied ‘Homer’s Iliad’.
Plutartch records, Alexander saying:
“If it were not my purpose to combine barbarian things with things Hellenic, to traverse and civilize every continent, to search out the uttermost parts of land and sea, to push the bounds of Macedonia to the farthest Ocean, and to disseminate and shower the blessings of the Hellenic justice and peace over every nation, I should not be content to sit quietly in the luxury of idle power, but I should emulate the frugality of Diogenes.” On the Fortune of Alexander” by Plutarch., 332 a-b
For a man seemingly invincible on the battlefield, he ironically died at the early age of 32, on either 10th or 11th June 323 BC, in the palace of Nebuchadnezzar II, in Babylon. Alexander’s death came after suffering from a high fever, which lasted for 10 days. The cause of this fever is much disputed with some historians attributing it to poison, malaria, typhoid fever or other maladies. However, this 10 day fever is well documented and it is reported that thousands of members from his army passed by Alexander, whilst he lay in bed.
Alexander’s legacy was the spreading of Greek (Hellenistic) culture across a large part of the Middle East and Asia. Alexander greatly increased the contact between the East and West, leading to greater trade and sharing of ideas. Tens of cities (Plutarch delivers that they were 70) bore Alexander’s name, with some cities surviving into the modern age, and on the whole he found more than 200 new cities.
Personality and his bad side
According to Plutarch, among Alexander’s traits were a violent temper and rash, impulsive nature, which undoubtedly contributed to some of his decisions. Although Alexander was stubborn and did not respond well to orders from his father, he was open to reasoned debate. He had a calmer side—perceptive, logical, and calculating. He had a great desire for knowledge, a love for philosophy, and was an avid reader. This was no doubt in part due to Aristotle’s tutelage; Alexander was intelligent and quick to learn. His intelligent and rational side was amply demonstrated by his ability and success as a general. He had great self-restraint in “pleasures of the body”, in contrast with his lack of self-control with alcohol.
Alexander was erudite and patronized both arts and sciences. However, he had little interest in sports or the Olympic games (unlike his father), seeking only the Homeric ideals of honour (timê) and glory (kudos). He had great charisma and force of personality, characteristics which made him a great leader. His unique abilities were further demonstrated by the inability of any of his generals to unite Macedonia and retain the Empire after his death—only Alexander had the ability to do so.
During his final years, and especially after the death of Hephaestion, Alexander began to exhibit signs of megalomania and paranoia. His extraordinary achievements, coupled with his own ineffable sense of destiny and the flattery of his companions, may have combined to produce this effect. His delusions of grandeur are readily visible in his will and in his desire to conquer the world, in as much as he is by various sources described as having boundless ambition, an epithet, the meaning of which has descended into an historical cliché.
He appears to have believed himself a deity, or at least sought to deify himself. Olympias always insisted to him that he was the son of Zeus, a theory apparently confirmed to him by the oracle of Amun at Siwa. He began to identify himself as the son of Zeus-Ammon. Alexander adopted elements of Persian dress and customs at court, notably proskynesis, a practice of which Macedonians disapproved, and were loath to perform. This behaviour cost him the sympathies of many of his countrymen.