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7 Reasons Alexander the Great Was, Well, Great

Alexander the Great, mosaic
Alexander the Great fights the Battle of Issus, ca. 310 B.C.E. Bettmann/Getty Images

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When Alexander III of Macedon died in Babylon at just 32 years old, he ruled a territory that spanned three continents and covered nearly 2 million square miles (5 million square kilometers). Not only was he the king of his native Macedonia, but he was also ruler of the Greeks, the king of Persia and even an Egyptian pharaoh.

So, did he deserve the title Alexander the Great? Absolutely.

"It's hard to imagine another human being whose personal choices had an impact on more people's lives for many centuries than Alexander," says historian Elizabeth Carney, an Alexander scholar from Clemson University in South Carolina.

"Because of the decisions Alexander made, hundreds of thousands of people died, any number of political entities disappeared or were replaced. And perhaps most importantly, he helped launch this vast cultural enterprise that combined aspects of the Greek and Macedonian world with aspects of the various worlds he conquered."

With that in mind, here are some other big things about him.

1. Aristotle Was His High School Teacher

OK, there was no such thing as high school in the fourth century B.C.E., but young Alexander was famously tutored from the ages of 14 to 16 by none other than Aristotle, one of the fathers of Western philosophy and arguably the greatest intellectual mind of Ancient Greece.

Aristotle would have been around 40 years old when he was hired by Alexander's powerful father Phillip II as a court philosopher. Aristotle, a student of Plato, wasn't yet a philosophical superstar and would have taught the prince science and math in addition to literature and philosophy.

Alexander the Great, Aristotle
Alexander the Great listens to his tutor, Greek philosopher Aristotle.
Stock Montage/Getty Images

What exactly was Aristotle's influence on the man Alexander would become? Historians can only guess. One clue is that Alexander loved the works of Homer and is rumored to have slept with a copy of "The Iliad." And Alexander didn't forget his geography lessons when he marched his army across the known world.

"Great advances in science, especially in geographical knowledge, were made as a result of Alexander's campaigns," wrote Michael Tierney in a 1942 study of Alexander and Aristotle, "and that they were possible is unquestionably due to Aristotle."

But both Tierney and Carney are unconvinced that Aristotle's political teachings on good government and good citizens shaped the way that Alexander operated as a leader.

"Is Alexander's political thinking affected by Aristotle?" asks Carney. "I would tend to say not at all."

2. His Father Was Pretty Great Too

The Kingdom of Macedonia was a political backwater before Alexander's father Phillip turned it into a military superpower. Tired of being pushed around by Greek city-states like Athens and Thebes, Phillip transformed the ragtag Macedonian army into a well-oiled fighting machine.

The pride of the Macedonian military was its well-trained cavalry and an unbreakable infantry formation called the Macedonian phalanx. Armed with elongated hunting spears called sarissas — 18-foot (5.5-meter) wooden poles with iron tips — Phillip's infantry would march in tight formations of eight men across and 16 deep. Each row would lower its spears in succession, impaling charging armies and horses.

When 20-year-old Alexander took the throne after Phillip was assassinated in 336 B.C.E., he inherited his father's army that had already crushed Macedonia's rivals on the Greek mainland and was rolling toward Persia.

Phillip is best remembered as the father of Alexander the Great, but Alexander may never have achieved his greatness if not for Phillip's huge head start. Historians still struggle to figure out who deserves the most credit for Macedonia's dominance.

"Rarely in history does somebody so able and famous have an equally able and famous successor," says Carney. "It makes it very hard to draw a line."

3. Alexander Knew How to Crush a Rebellion

After Phillip's death, several towns and territories under Macedonian control tried to break free. While young Alexander was busy getting the northern kingdoms of Thrace and Illyria back in line, the Greek leaders of Thebes heard a rumor that Alexander had actually been killed in battle.

No such luck. When Alexander received word that the Macedonian garrison in Thebes was under attack, he and his army flew to the fight, supposedly covering 300 miles (482 kilometers) in just 12 days. In the ensuing Battle of Thebes, Alexander decided to send a clear message. Anyone who crosses Macedonia will not only be defeated, but obliterated.

According to the Greek historian Diodorus of Sicily, 6,000 Theban soldiers and citizens were killed and 30,000 captured before the city was burned to the ground. He wrote:

All the city was pillaged. Everywhere boys and girls were dragged into captivity as they wailed piteously the names of their mothers. In the end, when night finally intervened, the houses had been plundered and children and women and aged persons who had fled into the temples were torn from sanctuary and subjected to outrage without limit.

The tactics were cruel, but the message was received. Alexander was the undisputed new ruler of the Greeks.

4. He Stomped the Persian Empire

The Persian Empire had ruled the Mediterranean for two centuries when Alexander marched his 50,000-man army across the Hellespont to face King Darius III, who reportedly commanded a total Persian army of more than 2.5 million men.

Alexander the Great, Persians
Alexander the Great's first major victory over the Persians at Granicus.
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

The pivotal battle came near the Persian town of Gaugamela, where Darius had the land flattened and cleared to give advantage to his horse-drawn chariots. The Persians numbered 250,000 at Gaugamela, a seemingly insurmountable five-to-one advantage over the Macedonians, but Darius ended up playing right into Alexander's hand.

In what's known as a "pawn sacrifice," Alexander sent in thousands of troops to draw Darius' resources to the right flank. The sacrificed troops were able to distract Darius long enough for Alexander to launch a cavalry attack through a weak link in the center of the Persian line. Darius turned and fled as the famed Macedonian cavalry, led by Alexander, steamrolled through the Persian defenses.

After Darius was murdered by one of his cousins (and his head presented to Alexander), Alexander was crowned the new king of all of Persia, extending the Macedonian empire from modern-day Israel through Iraq, Iran and Afghanistan.

5. He Was a Globalist

Alexander's conquests, not only of the Persian Empire, but also Egypt and parts of India, launched the Hellenistic period, during which elements of Greek culture and politics were spread throughout the vast Macedonian Empire.

Alexander wasn't a Greek nationalist, intent on imposing Greek customs on every land he conquered. Instead, he folded foreign customs and religious beliefs into the fabric of his growing empire, winning the loyalty of his newly conquered subjects. The result was a Greek-speaking network of trade and military power that ruled the Mediterannean and Near East for three centuries.

6. Alexandria Became the Intellectual Capital of the World

Alexander founded more than 70 cities during his eight-year, 11,000-mile (17,703-kilometer) march throughout the Middle and Near East, but none compared to the grandeur that was Alexandria in Egypt.

Although Alexander chose the spot for the coastal city that bore his name, he didn't design it nor live long enough to see it flourish. After Alexander's death, the Macedonian Empire was chopped into three and ruled by each of his generals. Egypt fell under the control of Ptolemy and became known as the Ptolemaic Dynasty.

The Ptolemies spoke Macedonian Greek and filled Alexandria with Greek-style public buildings, including the famous library, which once held an estimated 700,000 scrolls, the greatest repository of knowledge in the ancient world.

The brilliant Greek mathematicians and inventors Euclid and Archimedes called Alexandria home, and the Ptolemaic navy commanded a huge fleet that pushed Alexandria's discoveries out into the wider world.

When Alexander died suddenly in Babylon from a fever at just 32 years old, the Ptolemies intercepted his funeral procession on the way back to Macedonia and built a glass sarcophagus in Alexandria where subjects could pay tribute to Alexander's mummy for centuries.

7. He May Have Been the World's First Action Hero

Alexander's heroics were written up in a series of fictionalized adventure stories called the "Alexander Romance", some of which date back to within a century of his death in 323 B.C.E.. Medieval versions are chock-full of sexy escapades, narrow escapes and colorful illustrations.

Next to the Bible and Quran, it's argued that the "Alexander Romance" traveled further and was translated into more languages than any other ancient collection of stories.

Fourteenth-century texts include the tale of Alexander exploring the ocean depths using a diving bell. But when Alexander settles on the ocean floor, his mistress double-crosses him, eloping with her lover and leaving him stranded in the deep.

For Carney, the popularity of the "Alexander Romance" reflects the enduring allure of this world-changing figure.

"Alexander grabbed people's imagination," says Carney. "That he was so young; that he wasn't defeated in a major battle; that things happened so quickly; he was such a risk taker and he went to all these places that seemed exotic."

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