Introduction to Alexander the Great

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Alexander (III) the Great (356–323 B.C.), a king of Macedonia and Greece. Alexander conquered the entire Persian Empire, from the Aegean Sea to India and around the Mediterranean to Egypt. His conquests spread Greek culture over the Middle East and introduced the brilliant Hellenistic era of artistic, intellectual, and scientific accomplishment. Alexander was outstanding in personal courage, energy, and imagination. He became a legend in his own lifetime through the reports of the historian Callisthenes, who accompanied him on his great expedition. Many stories were told about Alexander's favorite steed, Bucephalus, and about exploits such as cutting the Gordian knot.

Alexander was not only a brilliant military strategist but also an able administrator. He saw the folly of the constant warfare among the Greek city-states and had a dream of uniting many peoples in a great common wealth. After his conquest of the Persian Empire, he began to organize the territory into a realm such as he envisioned. His early death brought an end to his plans.

Alexander was born in Pella, capital of Macedonia. His father was Philip II of Macedon, who had conquered Greece; his mother was Olympias, a princess from Epirus. Aristotle was Alexander's tutor, and the literature of Greece was his inspiration. The handsome youth took Achilles of Homer's Iliad, a reputed ancestor, as his hero. Alexander's teachers in military science were his father's generals. When he was only 16, he commanded forces in military actions against hill tribes.

Succession to Power

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In 336 Philip was assassinated while preparing for a campaign against Persia. Alexander has been suspected, probably unjustly, of being party to the crime, because he had quarreled with his father when Philip divorced Olympias and remarried. Alexander was 20 when he became king of Macedonia and Greece.

The presence of a mere youngster on the throne was the signal for a general revolt of the hill tribes and insurrection in some of the Greek city-states. Alexander, however, was backed by the powerful Macedonian army. In a show of strength, he struck north to the Danube River, west to Illyria, and south to Thebes. Thebes was completely destroyed except for its temples and the home of the poet Pindar, whose odes Alexander admired. The authority of the new king was quickly acknowledged throughout Greece.

Alexander inherited a strong, well-organized army from his father. The separate units, Macedonian and Greek, had been welded into a disciplined fighting machine, consisting of a large infantry force of some 30,000 men and smaller groups of cavalry. The phalanx, a narrow, deep formation of men protected by shields and armed with long spears, was the center of the line, with mobile units on the flanks. The phalanx would smash the enemy's line, and cavalry or light infantry would penetrate behind the enemy. These tactics were to be used many times after Alexander crossed the Hellespont (Dardanelles) in the spring of 334, when he began the war against Persia originally planned by Philip.

Mediterranean Conquests, 334–331 B.C.

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Alexander's forces met a Persian army under Memnon of Rhodes at the Granicus River on the western tip of Asia Minor and routed it in a single day. The Macedonians lost few men, while the enemy suffered heavy losses. Thousands of Greek mercenaries fighting for Persia were cut down without mercy. The western Persian headquarters at Sardis was taken. Also, the Greek cities on the Aegean coast were freed, neutralizing the Persian fleet, which needed them as bases in order to maintain control of the Aegean. An inland campaign, in which Alexander seized Gordium and other Persian strongholds, completed the conquest of Asia Minor.

Macedonian governors and garrisons of soldiers were left to hold the conquered areas, while Alexander moved south toward the Phoenician coast. He defeated the forces of the Persian king Darius III at Issus in 333 B.C., and some of the Persian royal treasure, badly needed by Alexander, fell into his hands. Darius' offer to divide the empire with Alexander was refused. After a seven-month siege the Macedonians took Tyre, in southern Phoenicia, and after a two-month siege Gaza, in southern Palestine, gaining control of the coast.

Alexander moved on to Egypt, where he spent the winter of 332–31. The Egyptians accepted him as a deliverer from the Persians. Assuming the title of pharaoh, Alexander made sacrifices to the Egyptian gods and declared himself son of the god Ammon. (All pharaohs were supposed to be half divine.) He ordered the building of a new seaport city, to be called Alexandria (as were many other towns founded by him).

Conquest of Persia, 331–330 B.C.

From Egypt Alexander marched north to Damascus and crossed Mesopotamia on his way through the heart of the Persian Empire. Darius, after his defeat at Issus, had escaped to Babylon, where he assembled a great new force. Moving north to Arbela (Erbil), he took his stand on the nearby plains of Gaugamela. Alexander routed the enemy forces, but the Persian ruler once again escaped. Claiming that Darius had abdicated, Alexander declared himself Great King of the Persian Empire.

The Macedonian army followed the Tigris River to Babylon and continued on to the ancient Persian capitals of Susa, Persepolis, and Ecbatana. From each conquered city it collected rich spoils. Darius retreated eastward until he was killed by a kinsman, Bessus, who tried unsuccessfully to halt the Macedonian advance.

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Final Period

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In 330–327 tribes near the Caspian Sea and in present-day Afghanistan and Russian Turkestan were conquered. By this time Alexander was setting up governments in the conquered territories under native rather than Macedonian officials. In 327 he married a Bactrian princess, Roxana. The Macedonian troops resented their king's friendly treatment of conquered peoples, as well as his adoption of Persian dress. There was growing discontent also over going farther and farther from home.

In 326 the army crossed the Indus River to the Hydaspes (Jhelum) River in northwestern India. There Alexander met and defeated the army of King Porus, who became his ally for the rest of the Indian campaign. After a few more battles, however, the army openly rebelled against continuing the campaign. Alexander was forced to turn homeward. A great fleet was built on the Indus, and the ships accompanied the army down to the Arabian Sea. From there the land forces returned through the desert to Persia, while the fleet explored the coastline all the way to the Persian Gulf.

Back at Susa in 324 Alexander took steps to merge the people under his rule into a unified empire. He ordered mass intermarriages between his Macedonian soldiers and Asiatic women, and himself took two Persian princesses as wives. Persian troops were added to his army.

At the Olympic Games of 324 a spokesman for Alexander proposed that the king should thereafter be treated as a god. In Persia the Macedonian troops were offended by what they considered their ruler's growing arrogance. When Alexander undertook to replace some of his veteran soldiers with Persians, there was another rebellion, followed in a few days by a reconciliation. In the winter of 324–323 a campaign was waged against Mesopotamian hill tribes.

Alexander had returned to Babylon to make plans for a land-sea expedition around Arabia when he fell ill with a fever and died. He was not yet 33 years old. His body, according to legend, was preserved in honey within a glass coffin and placed in an imposing mausoleum in Alexandria, Egypt.

Control of the empire fell to a group of Alexander's generals, known as the Diadochi (Successors). In the struggle among them for supreme power, Alexander's mother and half-brother, his son by Roxana, and Roxana herself were all murdered. Eventually the empire was divided between two of the Diadochi—Seleucus in Syria and Ptolemy in Egypt—and Antigonus, grandson of another, in Macedonia.