A Brief History of Alexander the Great (356 BCE-323 BCE)

Miguel Oliveira

Alexander the Great. A great general, perhaps the greatest of all time, Macedonian in birth, Greek in education, he expanded his kingdom far beyond what was thought possible, expanding Greek culture with him. But who was Alexander?

We can say that he was one of the brightest generals of all history, leading a military campaign and conquering over 30.000 km of territory with merely 40.000 men, territories of Egypt, Persia and India, and proclaimed himself a God, or a son of a God, backed up by at least two oracles. And all this in 12 years, dying in 323 at the age of 32.

The information we have on Alexander’s life comes from four historians: Arrianus, Diodoros of Sicily, Curtius Rufus, Plutarch and Theodorus, who wrote some time after the general’s death. Thus they are inspired in other sources and are actually secondary sources.

Before the age of Alexander and Philip the Second, his father, the other Greeks looked down on Macedonia, a territory of northern Greece, as barbarians and, therefore, non-Greek and inferior people with inferior culture.

However, the territory of Macedonia was rich in gold and silver, which made the Macedonians the richest “Hellenic” people. When he ascended to the throne, Philip the Second grasped Macedonia’s potential, assembling and training one of the best armies in the world. The Macedonian Phalanx was the most lethal and well-trained weapon in the Ancient World. Suddenly the Greeks were surprised with a considerable powerful Macedonia, much more powerful than the declining Athens and Sparta, not to mention Thebes, and yet it was a barbarian kingdom.

The true history of Alexander begins in 357 when the king Philip II meets Olympias, a Greek woman from the region of Epirus, and marries her, making her another of his many wives and cementing a new strategic alliance. What Philip could not foresee was that Olympias had a profoundly religious and mystic character, associating herself with mystic cults and personally contacting the Gods.

Rumours began that Olympias was consort of a superior being and had been seen sleeping with a serpent. Philip himself saw the serpent with his wife. Zeus, king of the Gods, is represented as a serpent in many of his aspects and Philip agreed with the rumours – either Olympias was consort to a God or a Daimon or she was a sorceress. Either way, it was best to leave her alone, and so did Philip as his passion waned.

When this happened, Olympias was already pregnant and Alexander was born, in 356, in the new capital city of Macedonia, Pella. At the same night we born, the temple of Artemis in Ephesus caught fire and later it was said that the Gods were too busy watching Alexander’s birth to care for the temples.

Philip did not know if he was his son or the son of a God. In order to be clarified about this, he sent an emissary to Delphi. Apollon, as common, did not give a direct answer but the words of the Pythia (who instructed Philip to worship Zeus above all Gods and to offer him more sacrifices) were clear for everyone: Alexander was a son of Zeus himself. The God of Delphi added that Philip would loose sight from the eye with which he peeped Olympias, prophecy which became true two years later when Philip became seriously wounded in his eye and lost that eye’s sight.

Meanwhile, Philip turned his attention to Greece, which he wished to conquer, and his forces advanced from Agae, ancestral capital and cultural centre of Macedonia, and from Pella, where Alexander and his mother lived.

The baby grew quickly and became a curious and ambitious young man. Just like every educated Greek he read Homer whom became his favourite poet: according to some sources he slept with a copy of Homer by his side. Alexander also develops a bright intelligence and at the age of 13 he tames the horse Bucephalus by realizing that the horse was afraid of his own shadow. From hence on Bucephalus became Alexander’s horse, until the man died.

When he saw this, Philip became aware of his son’s superior intellect and concluded no master in Macedonia was enough for him, hiring Aristotle from Athens to be his son’s teacher. He also offered his son one of the best school precinct ever: the Garden of the Nymphs, dedicated to this divinities and part of the gardens of the mythological Kind Midas.

Every day, in a cave of the garden, Aristotle educated Alexander in the most varied subjects, teaching him how to be curious, to think and analyse before acting. It was during this period that Alexander met Hephaestion who became his best friend and, some say, even lover. When they saw the proximity of the two, Philip and Olympias feared their son was an effeminate gay and sent for prostitutes to instruct the prince.

With the wisdom transmitted from Aristotle, the mythology of Olympias, the militarism and power of Philip and the genius of Alexander himself, the land was sown for him to become a great man.

When Alexander reached 16 Philip already owned most of Greece, only Athens and Thebes opposed him and both cities looked for help in their ancient enemy, Persia, which knew that if Philip detained all Greece he would become dangerous but if the Greeks remained divided in internal quarrels they would be harmless.

In the mean time, Alexander studied records from his father’s battles and acquired military knowledge. In Pella he even received Persian messengers who became impressed with the young man. But the true geniality of Alexander was to be revealed, in 338.

At this year, Alexander turned 18 and Philip decided it was time for him to make part of the army, giving him command over the horsemen. Thanks to the prince, the Macedonians won over the Athenians and the Thebans, in the Battle of Chaeroneia. Philip becomes king of all Greece and releases the war prisoners. However, Philip no longer trusted Alexander and they began hating each other.

In 337 Philip marries once more, this time with Cleopatra, a Macedonian. If she had a son of the king he would succeed Philip instead of Alexander and tensions between Alexander, Olympias and the king grew. At the wedding feast the drunken uncle of the bride insults Alexander calling him bastard and Alexander replies. Philip rises from his seat and draws his sword to punish his son but looses balance and falls down. Alexander mocks his father and leaves with his mother seeking exile with his uncle Alexander, brother of Olympias. Alexander’s sister, Cleopatra, daughter of Olympias as well, stays with her father.

So Philip marries his daughter Cleopatra with his brother-in-law Alexander, forcing Alexander (the son) to return. But Olympias doesn’t return with her son.

However something happens that changes everything: Cleopatra has a son. If Philip lived long enough for this child to grow, Cleopatra’s son and not Alexander would be king.

Philip is focused in conquering Asia but before departing he sends an emissary to Delphi. Apollo says “The bull is dressed with ribbons, the sacrifice is ready”, which the king interpreted as meaning the Persian king is ready to fall. Unfortunately the meaning was other, and quite more literal.

Philip had a body guard, Pausanias, whom he chose for his beauty and who was also the king’s lover. But recently Philip lost is interest in Pausanias and fell in love with another boy. Pausanias protested, but he was forced to drink until he was drunk by the friends of the said boy and those same boys took him to the chariot drivers who raped him. When the Pausanias asked the king to do something, Philip did nothing.

Meanwhile, Philip organized a great feast for the wedding of Cleopatra, sister of Alexander. In that festival he honoured all the Greek Gods, but went there almost as if he was a God, dressed with ribbons and splendorous, a true bull fit for a sacrifice. And so did the Oracle came to an end: Pausanias sacrificed Philip and ran away. Conveniently, he was murdered in the chase.

Soon, theories raised that Olympias, or even Alexander, was responsible for the crime, but nothing is truly known. The truth is Alexander was the only available heir at the time and Olympias made him rise to the throne. Immediately she ordered the murder of Cleopatra (not her daughter, the Macedonian woman) and Philip’s son. Cleopatra committed suicide.

In 336, with 20 years, Alexander ascended the throne of Greece and Macedonia, already with support from Greece and his army. And so he turned his mind to Persia, the richest and most powerful nation at the time, where Darius, the king, prepared for the new threat.

But before, in 335, Alexander went personally to Delphi. It was winter and no prophesies were traditionally made at that season, when Apollon went to the Hyperboreans and Dionysus took the oracle. But he was impatient and dragged the Pythia to the oracle until she said in despair “You are unbeatable”, a sentence the king interpreted as a sign from Phoebus.

From there on Alexander became extremely pious towards the Gods and turned his mind to Asia, but before he departed, Olympias tells him that when he returns to Greece she will tell him a surprising secret.

336 BCE to 323 BCE

In order to conquer Persia, Alexander must first take his troops to Asia, which he can only do by crossing the Hellespont, today’s Dardanelles.

The Hellespont was a double risk for Alexander, for his navy was much smaller than Darius’ and was made mainly by rowing ships which would sink in case the Hellespont was struck by a storm. However, Alexander was favoured by the Gods: the weather was perfect and Darius’ navy far away. To thank for his luck, Alexander sacrificed a bull to Poseidon in the middle of the Hellespont.

But on the other margin the Persians were readying to repeal Alexander with an army made mostly of Greek mercenaries and lead not by Darius, who thought Alexander was just a newly rich boy, but by Memnon of Rhodes, who was also a Greek mercenary.

In the river Granicus the first battle was fought, the Battle of Granicus. The Macedonian king was in disadvantage, but he employed the techniques he had learnt and rode Bucephalus in front of his men, inspiring them confidence. Alexander won and the Persians run, including Memnon who later told Darius what happened. The Persian king decides next time he will himself lead his men in battle.

Alexander arrived Gordium which surrendered without a fight. In this city, said to have once belonged to kind Midas, there was an ox-cart with a huge knot and according to the myth whoever untied it would be king of Asia. Alexander accepted the challenge but he couldn’t find out how to untie it. So, he drew his sword and cut the knot. Later that night a great storm with violent thunders graced the city and everyone interpreted it as meaning Zeus himself approved the solution found by Alexander.

He rode to Issus, which he conquered, and guided his army, using Issus as a supply centre, towards Darius. However, the Persians took a shortcut through the mountains and conquered Issus back, cutting Alexander’s supplies.

Alexander went back and the Batle of Issus was fought. It was a harsh battle for Alexander who, nonetheless, had geographical advantage, since the Persian army, vastly larger than the Macedonian, couldn’t surround Alexander and his men because of the sea and the mountains that limited the battlefield. Darius’ army did breach the Macedonian Phalanx here and there, but Alexander won the battle and Darius run in fear.

Among the war prisoners Alexander made were Darius’ mother, wife and daughters whom Alexander allowed to live in the same high standards they did before. With this he symbolically nurtured the Persian women which meant he was the true king of Persia.

Alexander easily conquered Cyprus and Phoenicia. By then he received a letter from Darius asking him for an alliance. Alexander refused and answered saying that Darius was inferior to him and should not address him as Alexander but as Lord of Asia.

The general turned his attention to a city that, if conquered, would surpass all he did before: the unconquerable island of Tyros.

Tyros was divided between New Tyros, a city in the continent, and Old Tyros, an island without any terrestrial connection to the continent and completely surrounded by walls, the foundations of which were under the sea. Because of that, the inhabitants of Old Tyros felt safe in their city, which Alexander couldn’t conquer by land, knowing that the Macedonian had no functional navy.

Knowing this as well, Alexander tried to conquer them by diplomacy. When emissaries from Old Tyros were sent to the continent to ask Alexander what he wanted, the general said he desired to make a sacrifice to Herakles in the island temple. Tyros knew that letting Alexander in meant surrender to him, and so, new emissaries were sent to tell Alexander that there was a beautiful temple to Herakles right there, in New Tyros, on the continent. Furious, Alexander answered he would prove them that Old Tyros was a part of the continent as well.

Tyros, of course, laughed at Alexander, but he did conquer the island by land: he built a mole that allowed him to unite island to continent and at the same time attacked by sea with navy from Cyprus. Finally the unconquerable Old Tyros fell and Alexander either killed or sold as slaves, something he hadn’t done until then, all the inhabitants of the city he found outside the temple of Herakles, in which he sacrificed to the Hero God.

Conquering Tyros meant dominance over one of the most important harbours and Alexander decided to rest a bit. He went to Egypt, which immediately graced him with the title of Pharaoh and crowned him Ruler of Egypt.

There he founded the first and most important Alexandria in a strategic point in Nile’s delta. Alexander built and harbour which later became the centre of all Mediterranean commerce, and strengthened his navy recently expanded with Tyro’s ships. Alexandria is still Egypt’s most important commercial centre in modern times.

Later he made a pilgrimage to the Oracle of Amun-Zeus in Siwa. However he had a tough trip. First, they ran out of water and were extremely thirsty when a rain storm filled their amphorae, which was considered a gift from Zeus. Then, they got lost and crows guided them to the Siwa Oasis, which was considered a gift from Apollo.

When they got to the Oracle of Amun-Zeus, Alexander was greeted by the priest, who did not master Greek and made a mistake: instead of saying “My child”, his sentence sounded more like “Zeus’ child”, which is a similar sentence in Greek. That was a very positive sign, but the Oracle itself said him even greater things: Yes, he was son of Zeus-Amun, yes, he would conquer Persia and yes, all of his father murderers had been punished and the Gods would no longer interfere in that issue. Alexander got the confirmation that he was son of a God and therefore a Heros, a hero.

Quickly he grew tired of peace and in 331 the most documented and famous battle of Alexander was fought: the Battle of Gaugamela.

Darius had a new weapon that threatened to break the Macedonian Phalanx: to the chariot’s wheels he added katanas over a meter long and during the battle those killed both Greeks and Persians in a myriad of ways. But Alexander was determined to capture Darius and the Persian king tried to run away. Alexander would have captured him, if it wasn’t because of Parmenion’s request for help – Alexander opted for saving his infantry.

In 330 Alexander conquered Persepolis, which made him king of all Persia. His man raided the city and murdered their inhabitants, and also each other in the euphoria. With this treasure, together with Egypt’s and Greece’s, Alexander became the richest man in the world.

But one night, drunken, he set the city on fire and destroyed the most powerful city of the Ancient World, which had caused so much grief to the Greeks.

Alexander proceeded in searching for Darius, so that the former king would recognize the new king. Meanwhile, the Persian was betrayed by his general Bessus, who killed him. When Alexander found Darius’ body he honoured him with a king’s funeral and buried him in the Royal House.

By that time both Greeks and Macedonians thought they were returning home, but Alexander didn’t want to and took them to India, randomly conquering small tribal kingdoms on the war. During this time his leadership was more threatened than ever and he even executed some of his childhood friends because of mere suspicion.

But then something unexpected happened: Alexander married. The strangest was not the fact that he married in the middle of a military campaign, but that he married the daughter of an unimportant local king, Roxana. He had previously married Stateira, princess of Persia, but that was merely a diplomatic wedding. This new wedding was a proof that Alexander now considered Persia his home, which increased the Persian’s loyalty, but also increased Greeks, Macedonians and Egyptians’ distrust. There is, however, that chance that Alexander married because he truly loved Roxana.

Either way, from that day on Alexander progressively became less Greek and more bohemian like the Persians: he had hundreds of concubines and demanded people to treat him like a superior being, which the freedom-loving Greeks frowned upon, something that cost Callisthenes, nephew of Aristotle and official historian of Alexander, his life. Only the worship of Hellenic Deities was a constant in Alexander.

Quickly he continued his pursue throughout India, where he faced a new threat which finally made him give up and go back home: war elephants. But the way back was not peaceful and instead of going all the way back, he took another way, going down the rivers and conquering the cities he passed by. Until he got to Melli.

Like he did in the past, Alexander decided he would conquer Melli. But before laying siege to the city a seer warned him that if he didn’t give up that city he would suffer a very serious wound. Alexander did not believe the prophecy, said to be sent by Phoebus, and ended up wounded with an arrow.

Alexander had gone beyond his limits. From thereon his life progressively degraded. In 324 his best friend Hephaestion died of an unknown disease. He executed the physician and cried for two days. Later Alexander himself got stuck in Babylon with another unknown disease, and he never healed to go back home and listen to what his mother promised to tell him.

At the age of 32, about one month before turning 33, in the ninth, tenth or eleventh of June of the year of 323 B.C. Alexander died without leaving an heir behind. His last words were to answer the questions of whom would he leave his kingdom to: “to the strongest” he said.

What was the cause of his death? Alcoholism? Malaria? The arrow wound? Compulsive self-destruction? All these have been pointed out, but the most probable answer is that it was the combination of the four.

His empire was separated in parts with great conflicts. His body, a symbol of power, was to be buried in Pella, Macedonia, but Ptolemy, who got Egypt, captured the body and made Alexandria his resting tomb. When the leaders joined to discuss, the weapons and bastion of Alexander were seated at the head of the table and he gained a Hero’s cult.

Many years later, when the last pharaoh of Egypt, Cleopatra, a descendent of Ptolemy, committed suicide, the location of Alexander’s body was lost.


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