Chapter 4

Commander: Alexander and the Greeks

At the battle of Chaeronea in 338, Alexander’s father Philip had established Macedonia as the dominant power in the Greek world west of the Aegean. The ostensible aim of the campaign against the Achaemenid empire planned by Philip and carried out by Alexander was to liberate the Greek cities to the east of the Aegean. Although Alexander’s progress took him far beyond the world of the Greeks, as he took control of the kingdoms of the Near East, his relationship with them remained crucial to the security of his reign. The narrative accounts of Alexander’s life have something to tell us about his treatment of the Greek cities, and ancient orators and modern scholars have debated the question of whether Alexander was a liberator or an oppressor. We can gain a bit more understanding of the issues if we look beyond the narratives and consider what inscriptions put up by the cities themselves at the time can tell us about Alexander’s actions and their impact.

Autonomy and control

In order to understand Alexander’s relationship with the Greek cities it is important to be conscious of two central issues. The first is the meaning of the word autonomia (autonomy), which was an important element in ancient Greek political vocabulary, and theother is the existence of factionalism and rivalry, which characterized the political life of almost all Greek cities.

Autonomia was not the same as independence: it meant operating under the city’s own laws, and therefore was more to do with the internal administration than with involvement with other powers. But whether a city counted as autonomous might be a matter of perspective. The Greek cities of Asia Minor were from the middle of the 6th century subordinated to the Lydians, the Persians, the Athenians, the Spartans, and then the Persians again. In the 5th century, as allies of Athens (or members of the Athenian empire, to give a more negative perspective) these cities could be described as autonomous, but that autonomy was only guaranteed by Athenian naval power, and potentially the presence of Athenian garrisons, installed to protect the autonomy of the city (as defined by the pro-Athenian political leadership) from the threat of Persian-supported exiles seizing power. From the perspective of these pro-Persian citizens (or former citizens) the garrison would be a sign of lack of autonomy. There was, however, for these cities, no option of complete independence from outside interference. Only a very few Greek cities could be described as truly independent: until the battle of Chaeronea in 338, Athens, Thebes, and Sparta were the exceptions, and their relationship with the Macedonian kings remained somewhat different from those of other cities.

Competition was a central part of ancient Greek life. From the poems of Homer onwards rivalry for prestige was a driving force in the lives of the richer and more influential members of communities. The development of the institutions of the city-state, in particular citizen assemblies and law-courts, did nothing to weaken this competition, but rather provided an arena and a more defined set of rules under which it might take place. Political divisions in Greek cities were determined not so much by ideology as by the personal ambition of individuals. Even terms like ‘democratic’ and ‘oligarchic’, which were used by historians and philosophers in their discussion of civic strife, referred usually to more pragmatic distinctions (in the 5th century, supported by Athens or supported by Sparta), as Thucydides indicates in his dramatic description of the civil disorder that broke out in Corcyra in the early years of the Peloponnesian War. In smaller cities it was normal for ambitious would-be leaders to look for support—financial and occasionally military—from larger cities; and even in Athens the leading politicians were prepared to take money from external powers. Opposing demagogues would take money from Philip II and from the Persian king.

The inevitable result of this rivalry for power was the existence of political exiles. The losing faction at any one time would find themselves expelled from their city after being convicted of working against its interests, or else would leave to avoid the risk of being killed—whether as a result of judicial process or not. Deprived of their property they would either look for support from guest-friends in other cities while plotting their own return, or, if they had outstayed their welcome, they might seek service as mercenary soldiers. Exile was the experience of richer members of the community—the poorer people played a more passive role in political life, even in democracies.

The League of Corinth

When he defeated the armies of Thebes and Athens at the battle of Chaeronea, Philip II treated the two cities somewhat differently. In Thebes, an ally that had broken its agreement, he installed a garrison of Macedonian troops and, it is assumed, had the leading politicians hostile to Macedonia sent into exile. As a consequence of the advocacy of the orator Demades, no Athenian politician was expelled, and Athens was left ungarrisoned; the city became an ally of Philip, a status that made clear that the city remained an autonomous entity, even while it set limits to Athenian freedom of military action.

In the following year a more general agreement was established with the Greek cities (other than Sparta), some of the details of which are known from Athenian inscriptions. The arrangement is known as the ‘League of Corinth’ and involved the creation of an alliance led by Philip to campaign against the Persians. According to a speech delivered in Athens a few years later, attributed to Demosthenes but not actually written by him, the terms of the alliance began with the statement that the Greek cities were to be free and autonomous. One of the fragmentary inscriptions relating to this includes the terms of the oath sworn by the Greek cities as part of the agreement. They swear not to interfere with the constitutions of their allies, nor to seize any of their territory, or take up arms against them, or to overthrow the kingdom of Philip and his heirs, and they will fight on behalf of any ally that is attacked. It also refers to a common council of the allies—which could be called upon if any member were deemed to have broken the terms of the agreement—and to Philip as hegemon, that is leader of the alliance: where Philip and his successors decided to go, the allies would have to follow. An even more fragmentary inscription from the beginning of Alexander’s reign provides details of what the Athenians and Alexander are expected to provide for the troops the Athenians will supply on the campaign. When Philip was assassinated Alexander acted fast to renew the terms of the alliance, but in the following year it was tested by the revolt of Thebes, which took place while Alexander was securing his northern frontier.

The sack of Thebes

We have detailed accounts of the revolt of Thebes from Diodorus and Arrian, and although there are differences between them, they make it clear that the revolt followed a pattern very similar to revolts against the Athenians described by Thucydides in the 5th century. The trigger for the revolt was the arrival of exiles, backed it would appear by Persian money, who murdered the pro-Macedonian politicians who had been in control since the defeat at Chaeronea. This made it difficult for the citizen body to avoid conflict with Alexander, who arrived in front of the city before the new political leaders had a chance to rally support from other cities. Alexander made short work of the siege, and then turned the decision about what to do with the Thebans over to the council of allies, as the terms of the League of Corinth indicated he should. It was inevitable that the delegates would support the punishment of the rebel city, and although the destruction of Thebes that followed may appear a brutal act, it was not different from the way Athens had treated some other Greek cities in the 5th century.

The cities of Asia Minor and the islands of the east Aegean

When Alexander led his army into Asia the following Spring, his first task was to take control of the Greek cities there away from the Persian king. This was not a straightforward task, and something of what it involved can be understood by examining the experience of the city of Mytilene on Lesbos, which can be reconstructed from what is said in the surviving narratives and from the information from an inscription recording the settlement of affairs. As it happens Thucydides gave a detailed account of the difficulties faced by the people of Mytilene when the city revolted from Athens in 428–427: the revolt failed when the majority of the citizen body showed no enthusiasm for holding out against the Athenian fleet sent to force them back into alliance. A little less than a century later they faced a similar situation. The terms of the treaties arranged between the Greek cities and the Persian king in the early 4th century, which were considered by the Persians at least still to be in force, gave control of the cities on the mainland of Asia to the king. The islands were not covered by this, but the Persians clearly aimed to get or keep control of these.

In 334, when Alexander led his army into Asia, he made an agreement of some kind with those in power in the cities on Lesbos, and sent a garrison force of mercenary soldiers to support the men friendly to him who were now controlling Mytilene. In the following Spring the Persian navy arrived off Lesbos and persuaded the other cities to come over to their side. Mytilene was besieged, and the citizens, who had little real choice, given the power of the Persian fleet, came to terms with the Persians, agreeing to send away the mercenaries supplied by Alexander and to abrogate the arrangement they had made with him by destroying the stones on which its terms had been recorded. They agreed also to let back in to the city the exiles (who had presumably left the city when Alexander’s forces arrived), and to restore to them half the property that they had held when they left the city. The other half presumably stayed in the possession of the men who had supported Alexander, and had possibly themselves been in exile before his arrival. Arrian suggests that the terms of this agreement were not actually upheld by the Persians once they were back in control of the city. In the next year, 332, Alexander sent a general, Hegelochus, to regain control of the islands, and he recaptured the cities of Lesbos, including Mytilene. The terms of a new settlement are recorded on an inscription that does survive—itself an indication that they may have been honoured.

The surviving part of the inscription does not explain what the terms were on which the exiles might now return: it is quite likely that they were the same as those offered when the Persians took control the previous year. It does, however, go into great detail about the procedures for ensuring reconciliation between the two factions within the city, the returning exiles and those already in the city. It aims to prevent the use of the lawcourts to challenge the terms of the reconciliation, and it establishes a body of arbitrators drawn equally from the returned exiles and those already in the city. Modern scholars have disagreed over whether Alexander’s actions were those of a liberator or of a new conqueror of these cities. The reality of his position, however, was not a choice between freeing the cities or oppressing them, but rather the need simply to prevent the divisions between the leading citizens causing instability and the opportunity for a return by the Persians. In the city of Ephesus Alexander had to step in to prevent bloodshed between the rival factions. Contemporary inscriptions from the island of Chios and the city of Priene on the mainland refer to similar attempts to settle disputes, and indicate that Alexander was engaged in a great deal of correspondence and arbitration in trying to bring lasting order to the cities of the eastern Aegean.

One indication that Alexander was successful is in the honours he received from the cities he passed through. In a number of places later inscriptions indicate the existence of festivals called Alexandreia, and priests and altars to Alexander Basileus (King) andKtistes (Founder). By the end of the 6th century it had become a regular practice for a city to honour the man who had founded it by celebrating an athletic festival in his honour and offering sacrifices to him. If, as was usual before the 5th century, the founder had spent the remainder of his life in his new city and died there, he would be buried in the centre of the city and his tomb would be considered a sacred place. He would be treated in the same way as mythical heroes, like Orestes in Sparta and Theseus in Athens, whose supposed bones were found and brought to those cities for formal burial. But there was no very clear distinction between the kind of honours paid to a hero and those paid to a god. On a number of occasions in the 5th century those in control of a city might decide that a new person deserved to be recognized as their founder. Most significantly at the end of the Peloponnesian War the Spartans installed a new regime on the island of Samos after taking it from Athenian control. The new rulers decided to honour the Spartan commander Lysander as their new founder, and created a festival in his honour, and honoured him as a god, according to a 3rd century Samian historian. It was in line with this that cities set up cults of Alexander and maintained them in the following centuries. Of course it was those individuals who benefited from Alexander’s settlement of Asia Minor who would have had most cause to introduce such honours. They served to bolster the position of Alexander’s supporters for example by attributing to him, as founder, responsibility for the very existence of their city; but this is not to deny the sincerity of the actions.

At Priene an inscription records that Alexander dedicated the newly built temple of Athena (Figure 4). In other cities, too, new temples started to be built in the wake of Alexander’s passage. At Miletus the oracular temple of Apollo at Didyma, destroyed by the Persians in 494, was restored, and the oracle could once again be consulted. Such developments were not necessarily immediate, but they are witness to a significant transformation of the fortunes of those Greek cities.


One Greek city stood aloof from the rest and from the Macedonians. Sparta had, until its defeat by the Theban general Epaminondas in 371, been one of the most powerful cities in Greece, directly controlling 40 per cent of the Peloponnese, and leading an alliance that covered most of the rest. Since then Sparta had lost much of its territory and all of its dominance. The Spartans refused to join the League of Corinth, or to serve with Alexander, and instead negotiated with Darius for financial support to lead an uprising in Greece. After an abortive attempt in Crete in 333–332, the Spartan king Agis launched his revolt in the Peloponnese in 331. Anti-Macedonian politicians were able to mount support for Agis in many Peloponnesian cities, but the Athenians did not join him, and the crucial city of Megalopolis in Arcadia in the southern Peloponnese also stayed loyal to Alexander. Agis was killed when the Macedonian regent Antipater led an army against him as he was besieging Megalopolis, and that marked the end of significant opposition to Alexander anywhere in Greece.


Athens appears to have received more honours from Alexander than other cities did. After his first victory, at the Granicus, Alexander chose to send his share of the battlefield spoils to Athens to be dedicated on the acropolis: three hundred suits of armour, displayed with a pointed message: ‘Alexander the son of Philip and the Greeks, except the Spartans, [set up these spoils, taken] from the barbarian living in Asia.’ When Alexander took over the royal palace in Susa he found there a pair of statues that the Athenians had erected in honour of the Tyrannicides, Harmodius and Aristogeiton, two men who had assassinated the brother of the last tyrant of Athens, and were held to be heroes of liberation. Xerxes had taken the statues home with him to Persia after the sack of Athens in 480BCE, and, according to Arrian, Alexander now sent them back. When Alexander had the palace at Persepolis destroyed as the final act of the campaign of the League of Corinth, it was Xerxes’ sack of Athens that was most obviously being avenged.


4. Inscribed blocks from the temple of Athena at Priene. The first inscription records the dedication of the temple by Alexander the Great

As in all Greek cities, as we have seen, the politicians of Athens were divided between those who supported Alexander and those who did not. After Alexander’s first victory over Darius himself, at Issus, when Darius was no longer in a position to offer financial support to them, the anti-Macedonian politicians remained quiet until the year after Alexander’s death. Under the leadership of the orator Lycurgus, the Athenians increased their state revenues and used the money to restore and improve civic buildings including the Theatre of Dionysus and the Stadium (restored again for the first modern Olympic Games in 1896); the practice was established of performing the plays of the great tragedians of the 5th century, Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides, at the festival of the City Dionysia, and considerable attention was paid to the ephebeia, the training of young men. After the tension and danger of the period from before the battle of Chaeronea until the destruction of Thebes, Athens flourished while Alexander was on campaign in the east, benefiting from the wealth that came back from the Persian empire in the hands of discharged veterans returning home. Modern scholars sometimes suggest that the Athenians were continually looking for ways to oppose Alexander, but the evidence to support this view is difficult to identify.

In 324 Alexander returned victorious from his campaign in Pakistan, emerging from the desert of Gedrosia at the head of his army. While this caused concern for some officials in his empire who had used his absence to enrich themselves from public funds, it was treated as an occasion for celebration by those in power in the Greek cities, who sent embassies to Susa and Babylon to congratulate him. In Athens a decision was taken to honour Alexander with a statue bearing the inscription ‘King Alexander, Invincible God’. There is no reason to believe that this did not reflect the popular view of Alexander at that point as more than a conquering hero, and there was no significant objection to the proposal, which is known from a fragment of a contemporary speech. Although Alexander is referred to as a god, the statue was not accompanied by the setting up of an altar or the appointment of a priest, so it is not the same as the cult offered by the cities of Asia Minor. Its rather extravagant description of Alexander could be justified by the claims made, amongst others, that in Pakistan Alexander had travelled further than the god Dionysus, and captured places that even Heracles had failed to capture. Similar decisions may have been taken by other Greek cities, but such evidence as we have is of questionable value.


One of Alexander’s most controversial acts on his return from the east, at least in the eye of modern scholars, was to require Greek cities to take back their exiles. As we have seen, exiles were a problematic phenomenon for nearly all Greek cities. It was not normally possible for individuals to possess land in cities other than their own, so those in exile for any length of time had to find some way of supporting themselves. Among the higher social groups who made up the majority of political exiles, fighting as a hoplite soldier or a cavalryman was one of the few forms of employment available, and many of the mercenaries who had served with Alexander would have been exiled from their cities at some point. As part of his reorganization of his empire on his return from the east, Alexander required many of his satraps to disband their mercenary forces, and some solution had to be found to make sure that these men had somewhere to go. The best solution was for them to return to their cities and settle on land there.

Alexander followed an established practice of using a major panhellenic festival, in this case the Olympic Games of 324, as the occasion for announcing his decision. Every Greek city would send sacred ambassadors to the festival, and it was therefore the ideal place for communicating important information. Requiring cities to take back exiles was to interfere in their affairs, reversing decisions taken by their courts. As such it challenged their autonomy, but the surviving histories disagree over how far the Greek cities did object. For Athens it presented particular problems, because many Athenians owned plots of land on the island of Samos, from which the Samian owners had been expelled. Those Athenians potentially faced a substantial loss of income if the previous owners were able to return.

An inscription survives relating to implementation of the decree in the city of Tegea in the Peloponnese. This makes clear that there was an opportunity for the cities to negotiate on how the restoration would take place, and it also shows that the concern to ensure reconciliation between the exiles and those who had stayed behind, which we saw in the settlement of Asia Minor, was a major issue here too. The surviving part of the inscription describes the procedure for allocating houses and garden plots to returning exiles, who would have to recompense the existing owners for them. It also mentions a special court made up of jurors from outside the city who are to deal with disputes. This was not a crude or heavy-handed action by Alexander. Had the years after 324 been as peaceful for the Greek cities as the years before (at least since the defeat of Agis in 331), it might have been possible to judge the impact of the exiles decree. However, Alexander’s death the following year and the subsequent wars, not only in Greece but across the whole of Alexander’s former empire, created disorder on an even larger scale than had hitherto occurred.

Modern scholars, following the lead of the ancient narratives, have tended to see the imposition of the ‘Exiles Decree’ as an authoritarian act, forcing cities to take in their former enemies against their will. This view is part of a wider interpretation of Alexander as an oppressor whose promise of ‘freedom for the Greeks’ was never anything more than an empty slogan. There were no doubt people who lost out from Alexander’s actions—not least those who had been comfortable working with their previous Achaemenid overlords—but the evidence of the inscriptions above all suggests that Alexander wanted a good relationship with the Greek cities, and the wealth that he released from the treasuries of the Achaemenid royal capitals was to enrich the cities of Asia Minor and the mainland hugely over the following decades and centuries.

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