The World of the Ancient Greeks
The Age of Alexander:
History | Warfare
Alexander III of Macedon
Alexander III of Macedon, popularly known to history as Alexander the Great, ("Mégas Aléxandros", Greek: λέξανδρος Μέγας or Μέγας λέξανδρος) was an Ancient Greek king (basileus) of Macedon. Born in Pella in 356 BC, Alexander succeeded his father Philip II of Macedon to the throne in 336 BC, and died in Babylon in 323 BC at the age of 32.
Philip had, after lengthy campaigns and diplomatic manouvers, managed to bring most of the city-states of mainland Greece under Macedonian hegemony, in the League of Corinth. In addition to a strong kingdom and experienced army, Alexander also inherited his father's Generalship of Greece, reconfirmed by all Greeks except the Lacedaemonains, and plans to invade Asia Minor, as part of the Greeks' long-running feud with the Achaemenid Empire of Persia. His youth and apparent inexperience prompted many of the southern Greek and neighboring barbarian states to renounce Macedonian hegemony, but with prompt action and a demonstration of force, Alexander was able to prevent rebellion amongst the Greeks. Alexander then proceeded to launch a short but successful campaign against Macedon's northern neighbors to secure his frontiers all the way north to the Danube. However, whilst he was absent in the north, Athens and Thebes revolted. Alexander hurried back and crushed the revolt, securing peace in Greece. Thus he was finally able to turn his attention towards the east and the Persians. In a series of campaigns lasting 10 years, Alexander's armies repeatedly defeated the Persians in battle, in the process overthrowing the Persian king Darius III, and conquering the entirety of the Persian Empire. Alexander then, following his desire to reach the 'ends of the world and the Great Outer Sea', invaded India, but was eventually forced to turn back by the near-mutiny of his troops.
Alexander died in 323 BC aged just 32, probably weakened by twelve years of constant military campaigning and his prolonged mourning for his life-long friend Hephaestion. There have been many suggestions as to the cause of his death; poisoning, malaria, typhoid fever, viral encephalitis, or the consequences of alcoholism, to name a few. Alexander married twice, (to Roxana of Bactria and Stateira of Persia), yet he had no legitimate heir at the time of his death. Although his son Alexander IV was accepted as king by Alexander's generals, it was in name only. Instead, his generals ('The Successors' or Diadochi) carved up the Empire between themselves, triggering forty years of internecine conflict. Modern historians hold the Classical Era to end with the death of Alexander, and the 'Hellenistic period' which followed it, was dominated, at least initially, by the Successor states which eventually emerged from this conflict. The Hellenistic culture, which developed during this period amalgamated a predominant Greek culture with Middle Eastern and Indian cultural elements.
Alexander remains one of the most well-known figures of Antiquity. He was one of the most successful military commanders in history, and he is usually considered to have been undefeated in battle. The states that emerged from Alexander's conquests lasted for centuries after his death, however, his cultural influence proved even more enduring. Alexander became the measure against which generals still compare themselves and his tactical exploits are taught in military academies throughout the world. Alexander's achievements very quickly became legendary, and he features prominently in both the history and myth of Greek and non-Greek cultures. The life of Alexander inspired its own literary tradition, in which he appeared as a legendary hero in the mould of Achilles.
Alexander was born in July 356 BC, in Pella, the capital of the Kingdom of Macedon. He was the son of King Philip II, the King of Macedon. Alexander's father claimed descent from Heracles through Caranus of Macedon and his mother from Aeacus through Neoptolemus and Achilles. His mother was Olympias, the daughter of Neoptolemus I, the king of the north Greek state of Epirus. Although Philip had either seven or eight wives, Olympias was his principal wife for a time. On his mother's side, Alexander was a second cousin of Pyrrhus of Epirus, who himself would become a celebrated general.
According to the ancient Greek historian Plutarch, Olympias, on the eve of the consummation of her marriage to Philip, dreamed that her womb was struck by a thunder bolt, causing a flame which spread "far and wide" before dying away. Some time after the marriage Philip was said to have seen himself, in a dream, sealing up his wife's womb with a seal upon which was engraved the image of a lion. Plutarch offers a variety of interpretations of these dreams; that Olympia was pregnant before her marriage, indicated by the sealing of her womb; or that Alexander's father was Zeus. Ancient commentators were divided as to whether the ambitious Olympias promulgated the story of Alexander's divine parentage, some claiming she told Alexander, others that she dismissed the suggestion as impious.
On the day that Alexander was born, Philip was preparing himself for his siege on the city of Potidea on the peninsula of Chalkidiki. On the same day Philip also received news that his general Parmenion had defeated the combined Illyrian and Paeonian armies, and that his horses had won at the Olympic Games. It was also said that on this day, the Temple of Artemis in Ephesus—one of the Seven Wonders of the World—burnt down, leading Hegesias of Magnesia to say that it burnt down because Artemis was attending the birth of Alexander. In his early years, Alexander was raised by his nurse, Lanike, the sister of Alexander's future friend and general Cleitus the Black. Later on in his childhood, Alexander was tutored by the strict Leonidas, a relative of his mother's uncle and by Lysimachus.
When Alexander was ten years old, a horse trader from Thessaly, brought Philip a horse which he offered to sell for thirteen talents. The horse refused to be mounted by anyone and Philip ordered it to be taken away. Alexander, however, detected the horse's fear of his own shadow and asked for a turn to tame the horse, which he eventually managed. According to Plutarch, Philip, overjoyed at this display of courage and ambition, kissed him tearfully, declaring: "My boy, you must find a kingdom big enough for your ambitions. Macedon is too small for you", and bought the horse for him. Alexander would name the horse Bucephalus, meaning 'ox-head'. Bucephalus would be Alexander's companion throughout his journeys as far as India. When he died (due to old age, according to Plutarch, for he was already thirty), Alexander named a city after him (Bucephala).
When Alexander was thirteen years old, Philip decided that Alexander needed a higher education and he began to search for a tutor. Many people were passed over including Isocrates and Speusippus, Plato's successor at the Academy of Athens, who offered to resign to take up the post. In the end, Philip offered the job to Aristotle, who accepted, and Philip gave them the Temple of the Nymphs at Mieza as their classroom. In return for teaching Alexander, Philip agreed to rebuild Aristotle's hometown of Stageira, which Philip had razed, and to repopulate it by buying and freeing the ex-citizens who were slaves, or pardoning those who were in exile.
Mieza acted like a boarding school for Alexander and the children of Macedonian nobles, such as Ptolemy and Cassander. Many of the pupils who learned by Alexander's side would become his friends and future generals, and are often referred to as the 'Companions'. At Mieza, Aristotle educated Alexander and his companions in medicine, philosophy, morals, religion, logic and art. Alexander developed a passion for the works of Homer from Aristotle's teaching, and in particular the Iliad, which Aristotle gave him an annotated copy of, which Alexander was to take on his campaigns.
When Alexander became sixteen years of age, his tutorship under Aristotle came to an end. Philip, the king, departed to wage war against Byzantium and the sixteen year old Alexander was left in charge as regent of the kingdom. During Philip's absence, the Thracian Maedi revolted against Macedonian rule. Alexander responded quickly and crushed the Maedi insurgence driving them from their territory, colonised it with Greeks and founded a city called Alexandropolis.
After Philip's return from Byzantium, Alexander was dispatched with a small force to subdue certain revolts in southern Thrace. During another campaign against the Greek city of Perinthus, Alexander is reported to have saved his father's life. Meanwhile, the city of Amphissa began to work lands that were sacred to Apollo near Delphi, a sacrilege which offered Philip the opportunity to further intervene the affairs of Greece. Still occupied in Thrace, Philip ordered Alexander to begin mustering an army for a campaign in Greece. Concerned by the possibility of other Greek states intervening, Alexander made it look as if he was preparing to attack Illyria instead. During this turmoil, the Illyrians took the opportunity to invade Macedonia, but Alexander repelled the invaders.
Philip joined Alexander with his army in 338 BC and they marched south through Thermopylae, which they took after a stubborn resistance from its Theban garrison and went on to occupy the city of Elatea, a few days march from both Athens and Thebes. Meanwhile, the Athenians, led by Demosthenes, voted to seek an alliance with Thebes in the war against Macedonia. Both Athens and Philip sent embassies to try to win Thebes's favour, with the Athenians eventually succeeding. Philip marched on Amphissa (theoretically acting on the request of the Amphicytonic League), captured the mercenaries sent there by Demosthenes, and accepted the city's surrender. Philip then returned to Elatea and sent a final offer of peace to Athens and Thebes which was rejected.
As Philip marched south he was blocked near Chaeronea, Boeotia by the forces of Athens and Thebes. During the ensuing battle, Philip commanded the right, and Alexander the left wing, accompanied by a group of Philip's trusted generals. According to the ancient sources, the two sides fought bitterly for a long time. Philip deliberately withdrew his troops on the right wing, counting on the untested Athenian hoplites to follow him, thus breaking their line. On the left, the sources agree in saying that Alexander was the first to break into the Theban lines, followed by Philip's generals. Seeing this, Philip turned and attacked the Athenians pursuing his forces, and routed them. With the rout of the Athenians, the Thebans were left to fight alone and surrounded by the victorious enemy, eventually they were crushed.
After the victory at Battle of Chaeronea (338 BC) Philip and Alexander marched unopposed into the Peloponnese and at Corinth, Philip established a "Hellenic Alliance" (modelled on the old anti-Persian alliance of the Greco-Persian Wars) of all Greek states, with the exception of Sparta. Philip was then named as Hegemon (often translated as 'Supreme Commander') of this league (known by modern historians as the League of Corinth). Philip then announced his plans for a war of revenge against the Persian Empire, which he would command.
Exile and return
After returning to Pella, Philip fell in love with, and married Cleopatra Eurydice, the niece of one of his generals, Attalus. This marriage made Alexander's position as heir to the throne less secure, since if Cleopatra Eurydice bore Philip a son, their would be a fully Macedonian heir, while Alexander was only half Macedonian. During the wedding banquet, a drunken Attalus made a speech praying to the gods that the union would produce a legitimate heir to the Macedonian throne. Alexander shouted to Attalus, "What, am I then a bastard?" and he threw his goblet at him. Philip, who was also drunk, drew his sword and advanced towards Alexander before collapsing leading, Alexander to say, "See there," said he, "the man who makes preparations to pass out of Europe into Asia, overturned in passing from one seat to another."
Alexander fled from Macedon taking his mother with him, whom he dropped off with her brother in Dodona, capital of Epirus. He carrried on to Illyria, where he sought refuge with the Illyrian King and was treated as a guest by the Illyrians, despite having defeated them in battle a few years before. Alexander returned to Macedon after six months in exile due to the efforts of a family friend, Demaratus the Corinthian, who mediated between the two parties.
The following year, the Persian satrap (governor) of Caria, Pixodarus, offered the hand of his eldest daughter to Alexander's half-brother, Philip Arrhidaeus. Olympias and several of Alexander's friends suggested to Alexander that this move showed that Philip intended to make Arrhidaeus his heir. Alexander reacted by sending an actor, Thessalus of Corinth, to tell Pixodarus that he should not offer his daughter's hand to an illegitimate son but instead to Alexander. When Philip heard of this, he scolded Alexander for wishing to marry the daughter of Carian. Philip had four of Alexander's friends, Harpalus, Nearchus, Ptolemy and Erygius exiled and had the Corinthians bring Thessalus to him in chains.
In 336 BC, whilst at Aegae, attending the wedding of his daughter by Olympias, Cleopatra to Olympias's brother, Alexander I of Epirus, Philip was assassinated by the captain of his bodyguard, Pausanias. As Pausanias tried to escape he tripped over a vine and was killed by his pursuers, including two of Alexander's companions, Perdiccas and Leonnatus. Alexander was proclaimed king by the Macedonian army and by the Macedonian noblemen at the age of 20.
Alexander began his reign by having his potential rivals to the throne murdered. He had his cousin, the former Amyntas IV, executed, as well as having two Macedonian princes from the region of Lyncestis killed, while a third, Alexander Lyncestes, was spared. Olympias had Cleopatra Eurydice and her daughter by Philip, Europa, burned alive. When Alexander found out about this, he was furious with his mother. Alexander also ordered the murder of Attalus, who was in command of the advance guard of the army in Asia Minor. Attalus was at the time in correspondence with Demosthenes, regarding the possibility of defecting to Athens. Regardless of whether Attalus actually intended to defect, he had already severely insulted Alexander, and having just had Attalus's daughter and grandchildren murdered, Alexander probably felt Attalus was too dangerous to leave alive. Alexander spared the life of Arridaeus, who was by all accounts mentally disabled, possibly as a result of poisoning by Olympias.
News of Philip's death roused many states into revolt including Thebes, Athens, Thessaly and the Thracian tribes to the north of Macedon. When news of the revolts in Greece reached Alexander he responded quickly. Though his advisors advised him to use diplomacy, Alexander mustered the Macedonian cavalry of 3,000 men and rode south towards Thessaly, Macedon's neighbor to the south. When he found the Thessalian army occupying the pass between Mount Olympus and Mount Ossa, he had the men ride over Mount Ossa. When the Thessalians awoke the next day, they found Alexander in their rear, and promptly surrendered, adding their cavalry to Alexander's force, as he rode down towards the Peloponnesus.
Alexander stopped at Thermopylae, where he was recognised as the leader of the Amphictyonic League before heading south to Corinth. Athens sued for peace and Alexander received the envoy and pardoned anyone involved with the uprising. At Corinth, he was given the title Hegemon, and like Philip, appointed commander of the forthcoming war against Persia. While at Corinth, he heard the news of the Thracian rising to the north.