King of Macedonia and World Conqueror
Alexander III (the Great) was perhaps the most important military leader of the ancient world. A man of tremendous talent and single-minded determination, he established a mighty empire and spread Greek culture throughout the ancient world. His conquests included the Persian Empire as well as lands in central Asia and India.
Early Years. The son of King Philip II of Macedonia and his strong-willed wife Olympias, Alexander showed great promise from an early age. His parents encouraged him to believe that he could accomplish anything he desired. They also arranged for Alexander to study with the best tutors of the time, including the Greek philosopher Aristotle. Through Aristotle, the intelligent and inquisitive Alexander learned about medicine, plants, animals, and geography. He also developed a profound attachment to Greek culture. He admired the plays of Euripides and the works of the poet Homer, especially the Iliad. He revered—and hoped to follow in the footsteps of—the legendary Greek heroes of the past.
A spirited and courageous youth, Alexander proved his skill as a horseman at age 12 by taming a very difficult stallion named Bucephalus. He also learned military strategy from his father. At age 16, while governing in his father’s absence, he led a successful attack against rebellious tribes in Illyria, a region west of Macedonia. Two years later, Alexander took command of the cavalry and played an important role in defeating the Greeks. This decisive victory gave Macedonia mastery over Greece. Afterward Alexander went to Athens as an envoy*.
This detail from a first century A.D. mosaic depicts Alexander the Great at the Battle of Issus in 333 B.C. At Issus, Alexander’s outnumbered troops soundly defeated the army of the Persian king Darius III. Although Darius escaped, Alexander continued to conquer Persian territory until he finally captured the Persian throne in 330 B.C.
Alexander's black horse, Bucephalus, was the most famous steed in history. Originally intended as a gift for Alexander's father, the horse was judged too wild and uncontrollable for riding. Alexander thought otherwise and took command of the horse. Discovering that Bucephalus was afraid of his shadow, Alexander pointed the horse towards the sun. He talked to the horse, stroked and calmed him. Alexander even taught Bucephalus to kneel down so he could mount him easily while wearing armor. Bucephalus was Alexander's horse for 20 years and accompanied him on his conquests. When Bucephalus died, he was honored with a magnificent funeral.
In 336 B.C., Philip II was assassinated, and Alexander became king of Macedonia. Many historians believe that Alexander’s mother may have been involved in the assassination plot. Philip had divorced Olympias and had taken another wife, and Olympias may have tried to protect her son’s right to the throne. Most agree, however, that Alexander had no part in the murder. By age 20, he had inherited a strong kingdom, a well- trained army, and control of most of Greece. Alexander was ready to venture farther afield.
First Conquests. Before he died, King Philip had begun planning an invasion of the Persian Empire. Alexander was determined to carry out this plan. First, however, he had to subdue rebellious tribes in the north and secure firm control over Greece. During the summer of 335 B.C., Alexander marched north with his army and established control over various tribes. Then he turned south toward the Greek city-state of Thebes, which had revolted against Macedonian rule. Alexander’s troops destroyed the city, killed 6,000 of its people, and enslaved the survivors. Only the Theban temples and the house of the great poet Pindar were spared because of Alexander’s admiration for Greek culture. The destruction of Thebes shocked all of Greece, and other city-states quickly acknowledged Macedonian rule.
Alexander then turned his attentions toward Persia. In 334 B.C., his army of 40,000 Macedonian and Greek soldiers crossed the Hellespont (now known as the Dardanelles), one of the straits* separating Europe from Asia Minor. First Alexander defeated the local Persian satraps* at the Battle of Granicus. Then he marched along the coastline, liberating Greek colonies from Persian rule. Turning inland, Alexander quickly took control of the interior. While spending the winter at Gordium, the capital of the kingdom of Phrygia, he untied (or possibly just cut) the Gordian knot. This complex knot fastened an ancient royal chariot to a pole. According to legend, the person who loosened the knot would rule Asia. Alexander’s success with the Gordian knot enhanced his rapidly growing fame.
The following year, Alexander led his army into Syria. Before long he came upon the troops of Darius III, the Great King of Persia. Although vastly outnumbered by the Persians, Alexander won a brilliant victory at the Battle of Issus. Darius escaped, and the survivors of his army scattered and fled.
Alexander marched to Tyre, an ancient port on the Mediterranean Sea that served as the base of the Persian navy. Located on an offshore island, lyre had formidable defenses. Alexander’s forces laid siege to the city for seven months before finally taking it in 332 B.C. Their victory destroyed Persian naval power in the Mediterranean.
From Tyre, Alexander moved into Egypt. The Egyptians honored him for freeing them from Persian rule, and they accepted him as a pharaoh*. A sacred oracle* hailed Alexander as the son of Ammon, the Egyptian god of the sun. While in Egypt, Alexander founded Alexandria, which in time became one of the greatest Greek cities of the ancient world. It was one of the many cities named for Alexander.
* envoy person who represents a government abroad
* strait narrow channel that connects two bodies of water
* satrap provincial governor in ancient Persia
* pharaoh ruler of ancient Egypt
* oracle priest or priestess through whom a god is believed to speak; also the location (such as a shrine) where such utterances are made
The Defeat of Persia, with Persia’s western territories under his rule, Alexander could focus on capturing Darius and conquering the central part of the Persian Empire. In an effort to halt Alexander’s advance, Darius offered to give him all Persian territory west of the Euphrates River. But Alexander was determined to completely shatter the Persian Empire. In 331 B.C., he crossed the Tigris and Euphrates rivers and met Darius’s army on the plains of Gaugamela (part of present-day Iraq). As in the Battle of Issus, the Persian forces vastly outnumbered Alexander’s army. Nevertheless, Alexander’s military genius overcame the Persians and led to another brilliant victory. Once again, Darius managed to escape.
Marching into the heart of Darius’s empire, Alexander occupied the great Persian cities of Babylon, Susa, Persepolis, and Ecbatana. After looting the royal treasury at Persepolis, the sacred capital of Persia, Alexander burned the city to the ground as punishment for the Persians’ destruction of Athens more than 100 years earlier. In the spring of 330 B.C., Alexander continued his search for Darius. Before he could capture the Great King, however, Darius was overthrown and assassinated by some of his own officers. The death of the Great King of Persia left Alexander free to assume that title.
The March East. Not content with his conquests of western and central Persia, Alexander continued to advance eastward into remote and uncharted territories. From 330 to 329 B.C., he led his army farther into central Asia, from the shores of the Caspian Sea to the snowy slopes of the Hindu Kush, one of the most rugged mountain ranges in the world. Along the way, he founded several cities and named them after himself.
In 328 B.C., he reached Bactria, the most distant region of the Persian Empire. It took Alexander three years to overcome the fierce resistance of the peoples of the region. To ensure future peace and encourage the spread of Greek culture and influence, Alexander had his soldiers establish military posts throughout central Asia. He also encouraged his troops to marry native women. Alexander set an example by marrying Roxane, a noblewoman of Sogdiana (present-day Uzbekistan).
Still unsatisfied with his conquests, Alexander was determined to push farther into unknown regions. In 327 B.C., he led his troops across the Indus River into India, a kingdom whose spices and traders were known to the Greeks, but whose lands were hidden behind mystery and legend. During his march into India, Alexander sometimes met strong resistance and went to battle. In one of the greatest fights, he defeated King Porus, the most powerful ruler in the Punjab (an area in northwestern India). During this battle, Alexander’s troops faced armored elephants for the first time. The experience frightened them and made them reluctant to continue their advance into unfamiliar territories.
The constant marching and combat took its toll on Alexander’s troops. In 326 B.C., they refused to go any farther east. Faced with rebellion among the troops, Alexander decided to begin the long, difficult march back to Persia. Part of his army sailed down the Indus River and back to Persia along the coast. The remaining soldiers, led by Alexander, took a land route that passed through the desert of southern Persia. The march across the desert resulted in the greatest suffering and losses of Alexander’s entire military campaign. Three-quarters of the troops died from thirst, hunger, and exhaustion.
Once back in Persia, Alexander found his kingdom in disorder. Satraps who had been left in charge during his absence had governed unwisely, and some had established private armies loyal to themselves. To restore order, Alexander executed several satraps and senior officials and replaced others.
In the autumn of 324 B.C., Alexander’s boyhood friend and closest companion, Hephaestion, died at the city of Ecbatana. After a period of intense mourning, Alexander began a winter campaign in the mountains of northern Persia. He then returned to Babylon and prepared to sail for Arabia,an area he had not yet conquered. Before he could leave, he became ill with a fever and died. Only 32 years old, Alexander had not named a successor. After his death, a son was born to Roxane, but the child did not live long.
Alexander’s leading generals divided his empire and established kingdoms naming themselves as rulers. Of these kingdoms, the Ptolemy dynasty* of Egypt and the Seleucid dynasty of Syria and Persia lasted the longest. It was through these kingdoms that Alexander’s legacy continued and Greek culture endured in his former empire.
Goals and Accomplishments. During his brief lifetime, Alexander sought to create a politically unified empire and also to spread the Greek culture he so admired. The division of the empire into rival kingdoms after Alexander’s death eliminated the possibility of a lasting, unified state. Yet he achieved his second goal. As a result of his conquests and the establishment of cities and colonies, Greek civilization took root in the conquered regions, and Greek became the language of education and commerce throughout the Mediterranean world. Moreover, a new Hellenistic or Greek-influenced culture dominated Persia, Egypt, and Asia Minor for years to come. (See also Armies, Greek; Greece, History of: Hellenistic Age; Wars and Warfare, Greek.)
* dynasty succession of rulers from the same family or group