History and Stuff

Alexander the Great

World conqueror

by Chris Whitten

Included below:

Ukrainian translation

World conqueror, 356 B.C. - 323 B.C.

I'm holding a handful of arrowheads that may have been shot from the bow of Alexander the Great.

ancient bronze arrowheads
OK, that's a bit of a fantasy. But it's not too unlikely that these came from Alexander's army. These arrowheads were unearthed in Macedonia and date to the 4th century B.C., the century when Alexander and his men conquered most of the known world.

Alexander is one of the most fascinating personalities in human history. Although he was the son of a king and inherited an empire that included most of the Greek city-states, Alexander's own conquests are what have made him admired, vilified, emulated, and studied for over two millennia.

Through the years, so many stories have been told and retold about Alexander the Great that he has become more like a character from Greek mythology than a real human being. This, I'm sure, would have made him very happy. Being a Greek hero was always his ambition.

Alexander's ambition

Growing up, Alexander was fascinated by Homer's Iliad. It was the character of Achilles -- the hero of the story and the exemplar of all manly virtues -- that especially attracted him.

Alexander the Great
[Alexander. Click here for a larger image. Glyptothek Munich, Germany.]

Sometime in his early formative years he decided to model himself after Achilles.

Emulating the famous hero was apparently encouraged by his teacher, the great philosopher Aristotle. According to the Roman historian Plutarch, Aristotle personally annotated a copy of the Iliad for Alexander. Alexander kept it with him throughout all his later travels, even sleeping with it under his pillow.

Alexander's mother, Olympias, clearly encouraged him. This woman couldn't have been more meddling and ambitious for Alexander if she herself were a scheming goddess on Mount Olympus. In fact, she may have consorted with the gods. Or, at least, that's the rumor she spread.

Olympias informed her son that he was actually a descendent of Achilles. And probably Hercules, too.

Marble statue of Alexander the Great
[Marble statue from Gabii Louvre, Paris, France. Click here for a larger image.]

And so, in keeping with his family tradition and the great expectations of his mother, Alexander looked for any opportunity to demonstrate his heroic strength and courage.

In one episode, his father -- Philip II of Macedonia -- was considering purchasing a magnificent black stallion. But the horse was too wild. Nobody believed it could be tamed. The 14-year-old Alexander decided he could do it. He leapt onto its back and started a 16-year relationship with the horse, which he named Bucephalas.

As the story goes, Philip was so proud of Alexander that he said to him: "My son, look thee out a kingdom equal to and worthy of thyself, for Macedonia is too little for thee."

Alexander inherits a kingdom

When Alexander was 16, Philip made him regent of Macedonia while he was off fighting the Persians. (Nominally at least, Philip's campaign was revenge for Xerxes' Persian invasion of Greece, some 150 years earlier.) While regent, Alexander crushed an uprising in Thrace.

When Alexander was 18, Philip left him in command of the left wing of the Macedonian army at the battle of Chaeronea. The battle was won, thanks in part to a courageous cavalry charge led by Alexander himself.

When Alexander was 20, Philip was assassinated. A guard plunged a spear into his chest. Some say it was a conspiracy orchestrated by Olympias.

And so, Alexander inherited a kingdom.

Alexander conquers his world

Inheriting a kingdom from his father didn't really please Alexander. What kind of hero gets everything given to him? This wouldn't satisfy Achilles or Hercules and it wouldn't satisfy him.

Bronze statue of Alexander
[Nationalmuseum in Naples. Click here for a larger image. See this page for a series of larger portraits.]

Alexander wanted to get started conquering ASAP.

He got his first opportunity almost immediately. Some of the Greek city-states saw the ascension of the 20-year-old Alexander as a chance to regain their independence from the foreign Macedonians. By the way, "foreign" is how the Greeks saw the Macedonians, not how the Macedonians saw themselves. To this day, there's still contention over whether Macedonians are Greeks.

Alexander took care of the little rebellion post-haste. To set an example, he completely razed the Greek city of Thebes in 335 B.C., killing most of the population -- including women and children -- and enslaving those few left alive. After that the Greeks were happily united behind Alexander and he could focus his attention on expanding the empire.

He immediately began pushing east, against the old enemy Persia -- which his father never succeeded in defeating.

After winning a battle for the city of Gordium, Alexander is said to have solved the famously tricky Gordian Knot. He sliced through the thing with his sword rather than fool around it. A legend supposedly foretold that whoever solved this puzzle would rule all of Asia.

Alexander rapidly moved on to destroy the city of Tyre ... push through Palestine, Syria, Iran, and Afghanistan ... and conquer Egypt (or, depending on your perspective, "liberate" Egypt from the Persians). In bloody battle after bloody battle the Persian Empire and most of the known world fell to the hero Alexander and his Macedonian war machine.

Map of Alexander's world
[Alexander's empire. Click here for a larger image.]

Alexandria, Virginia to Alexander Beach, Washington

For his greater glory, Alexander founded some 70 cities in the lands he conquered and ordered them named after himself. Most famous, of course, is Alexandria in Egypt. In India, when his beloved horse died, he ordered a city to be built named Bucephala.

In 11 years, from 335 B.C. to 324 B.C., Alexander and his army battled their way across 22,000 miles.

For perspective on that distance, think about traveling across America eight times, say, from Alexandria, Virginia to Alexander Beach, Washington. (Although Alexander did not conquer North America it's interesting to note that there are nearly two dozen cities and towns here named Alexander or Alexandria.)

For most of Alexander's army these miles were traveled on foot. There's speculation that some of the grueling miles weren't even necessary, except to confirm Alexander's status as a hero.

In 324 B.C., Alexander decided to march his army through the barren wasteland of the Gedrosian desert in present-day Iran. Some say he could have made this trip easy by sailing his troops through the Persian Gulf instead, but he decided to go through the desert as a challenge -- because no one had ever successfully brought an army through it.

Gedrosian desert
[The Gedrosian desert. Click here for more background.]

Although the number is probably widely exaggerated, the Roman historian Arrian claimed that three quarters of Alexander's men died during this misadventure in the desert.

Son of Zeus

As I mentioned above, Olympias had told her son that he was a direct descendent of Achilles, on her side. Later she revealed to him something even more dramatic about his lineage. Philip was not his real father. Zeus was his father.

Portrait of Olympias
[The beautiful, scheming Olympias. From a medal. Click here for a larger image.]

Zeus, the king of the Greek gods, had come to Olympias in the form of a snake.

As a matter of fact, Philip did acknowledge that his wife would sometimes sleep with snakes in their bed. This may have been part of the reason for their estrangement. Around 336 B.C. Philip effectively "divorced" Olympias and fathered children without her. This was about the same time that Philip was assassinated and Alexander inherited his throne.

In 331 B.C., the Egyptian oracle at Siwa confirmed that Alexander was the son of the Zeus. Actually, the oracle confirmed that he was the son of Ammon, but Ammon is the Egyptian equivalent of Zeus in nearly as clear a way as Jupiter is his Roman equivalent.

Was Olympias schizophrenic? Was Alexander a crazed megalomaniac?

Maybe, but they did have a quite practical reason for claiming that Alexander was a god or demi-god, and may or may not have ever believed it themselves. It helped Alexander rule.

Alexander's divine reputation helped him keep his tenuous hold over the people in his vast and disparate empire. It was an early precursor to the European monarchs' claims about the divine right of kings.

Grief, ennui, and death

For Alexander, the beginning of the end came when his best friend Hephaestion died of a fever. Hephaestion had been his close companion since they were teenagers. Many scholars say that Alexander and Hephaestion were lovers.

Hephaestion's death was devastating to Alexander.

Plutarch writes:

At this misfortune, Alexander was so beyond all reason transported that, to express his sorrow, he immediately ordered the manes and tails of all his horses and mules to be cut .... The poor physician he crucified .... Then seeking to alleviate his grief in war, he set out, as it were, to a hunt and chase of men, for he fell upon the Cossaeans, and put the whole nation to the sword.

Since this seems a bit extreme, even for a best friend and lover, some historians have speculated that Alexander was imitating the extravagance of Achilles when he grieved over the death of his best friend and lover Patroklos.

According to the Iliad, to satisfy his heroic grief, Achilles supposedly killed Trojans by the hundreds, beheaded children, and dragged the body of Hektor, Patroklos's killer, around and around Patroklos's body for a week or two.

Coin featuring Alexander
[Silver drachm featuring Alexander, minted after his death, ca. 310 B.C. Click here for a larger image.]

In the same year as Hephaestion's death, 324 B.C., Alexander's generals convinced him to withdraw from the action at the eastern frontier in order to consolidate his power back in Babylon, the capital of the empire.

This is not what Alexander wanted. He was supposed to be a hero. He had no interest in sitting on a throne administering to the business of an empire. He wanted to be on his horse, sword in hand, conquering new lands.

Alexander reluctantly spent the next year in Babylon, without Bucephalas, without Hephaestion, and without the action and glory of battle.

Perhaps the inertia ate away at his soul. Plutarch writes that Alexander "lost his spirits, and grew diffident of the protection and assistance of the gods, and suspicious of his friends."

Alexander drank heavily, and in a weakened state he caught a fever. After twelve days of suffering he died in Babylon at the age of 33.


Bronze statue of Alexander and his horse
[Alexander and Bucephalas. Click here for a larger image. Nationalmuseum in Naples.]

The Macedonian empire didn't live much longer than Alexander. After his death his kingdom was promptly carved up into three pieces by his generals.

And the Macedonian people have never seen much peace or freedom. They've been under the feet of ambitious conquerors from the Roman Empire, the Byzantine Empire, and the Turkish Empire. More recently, their country was carved up between the world wars and made a part of communist Yugoslavia.

But Alexander did win his glory. He fulfilled his ambition.

He is quoted as saying, "I would rather live a short life of glory than a long one of obscurity."

That's exactly what he got. 2,300 years later we remember him as a legendary, mythic figure.

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