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Alexander the Great

Contemporary bust of Alexander the Great
Contemporary bust of Alexander the Great

Alexander the Great (late July, 356 BCJune 10, 323 BC) was King of Macedon; With the warring and divided city states of Greece already united under his father, Alexander conquered Persia, Egypt and a number of other kingdoms, all the way to the center of Northern India. The conquests, their rapid spread of Greek culture, and the mixing of Greek culture with more eastern cultures ushered in the age of Hellenistic Greece across several continents.


Early life

Born in Pella, Macedon, Alexander was the son of King Philip II of Macedon and Epirote princess Olympias. According to a story from Plutarch (Alexander 3.1,3), Olympias was impregnated not by Philip, who was afraid of her and her affinity for sleeping in the company of snakes, but by Zeus. Plutarch (Alexander 2.2-3) relates that both Philip and Olympias dreamt of their son's future birth. Olympias dreamed of a loud burst of thunder and that lightning had hit her womb. In Philip's dream, he was sealing her womb with the seal of the lion. Alarmed by this, he consulted the seer Aristander of Telmessus, who determined that his wife was pregnant, and the child would have the character of lion. The name Alexander comes from the Greek prefix "alex", which means to protect against and "andres" which is the Greek root for "men" (eg. android, androgen).

After his visit to the Oracle of Ammon at Siwah, according to all five of the extant historians (Arrian, Curtius, Diodorus, Justin, and Plutarch), Alexander apparently let it be known that the Oracle had revealed his father was Zeus, rather than Philip. According to Plutarch (Alexander 2.1), his father descended from Heracles through Caranus and his mother descended from Aeacus through Neoptolemus and Achilles.

Macedon was located in the northernmost part of classical Greece and was derided by some Greeks (such as Demosthenes) as barbarian as a means to unite the rest of the Greek world against the ascendant power of Phillip II, but almost all others (such as Isocrates) considered them Greeks (if at times impoverished and backwards). Macedonians regularly sent delegations to the Olympic games, which at the time were reserved only for Greek males. Olympias herself was from Epirus, another Greek state on the edge of classical Greek civilisation, on the northwest of the Greek peninsula. Nonetheless, the Macedonians were keen to adopt the achievements of the southern Greeks, and Philip selected the noted Athenian philosopher Aristotle, who was born in the Greek city of Stagira on the Chalcidice peninsula, to tutor young Alexander. Again, according to Plutarch (Alexander 8.4), their relationship was ruptured after the execution of Aristotle's nephew, Callisthenes, although Aristotle may have continued to receive presents (plant specimens) from the king.

In 336 BC, he succeeded his father on the throne. Philip was assassinated at the wedding of his daughter Cleopatra to King Alexander of Epirus by a disgruntled young nobleman (Pausanias), who had been raped by retainers of Attalus, one of Philip's senior generals and the father of his newest wife, Eurydice. His murder was once thought to have been planned with the knowledge and possible involvement of either Alexander or Olympias or both, but in recent years Alexander's involvement has been deprecated, and there is some reason to believe that it may have been instigated and/or financed by Darius III Codomannus, the Great King of Persia, who had recently ascended to the Peacock Throne.

Period of conquests

Alexander proceeded across Asia Minor, defeating the main Persian army of Darius III Codomannus at the Battle of Issus in 333 BC, and then proceeded down the Mediterranean coast, taking Tyre and Gaza after famous sieges.

In 332331 BC, he was welcomed as a liberator in Egypt and was pronouced the son of Ammon/Zeus by Egyptian priests of the god Ammon at the Oracle of the god at the Siwah oasis in the Libyan Desert. He founded Alexandria in Egypt, which would become the famous capital of the Ptolemaic dynasty after his death. Then, Alexander marched eastward into Assyria (now Iraq) to defeat Darius and a third Persian army in the Battle of Gaugamela. When Darius was forced to flee the field after his charioteer was killed, Alexander chased him as far as Arbela. When Darius fled over the mountains to Ecbatana (modern Hamadan), Alexander marched to Babylon.

From Babylon, Alexander went to Susa, one of the Achaemenid capitals, and captured its treasury. Sending the bulk of his army to Persepolis, the Persian capital, by the Royal Road, while he stormed and captured the Persian Gates (in the modern Zagros Mountains), then sprinted for Persepolis before its treasury could be looted. He allowed the League forces to loot Persepolis, and he set fire to the royal palace of Xerxes as revenge for the burning of the Athenian Acropolis during the Second Persian War. He then set off in pursuit of Darius, who was kidnapped, and then murdered by followers of Bessus, his Bactrian satrap and kinsman. Bessus then declared himself Darius' successor as Artaxerxes V and retreated into Central Asia to launch a guerrila campaign against Alexander. Alexander declared the war of vengeance at an end with the death of Darius and released his Greek and other allies from service in the League campaign (although he allowed those that wished to re-enlist as mercenaries in his imperial army). His three-year campaign against Bessus and his successor Spitamenes took him through Media, Parthia, Aria, Drangiana, Arachosia, Bactria and Scythia. In the process he captured and refounded Herat and Samarkand, and he founded a series of new cities, all called Alexandria, including one near modern Kandahar.

During this time, he adopted some elements of Persian dress and customs at his court, notably the custom of proskynesis , a symbolic kissing of the hand that Persians paid to their social superiors, but a practice of which the Greeks disapproved. This cost him much in the sympathies of many of his Greek countrymen. Here, too, a plot against his life was revealed, and his Companion and friend Philotas was executed for treason for failing to bring the plot to his attention. Although Philotas was convicted by the assembled Macedonian army, most historians consider this one of the king's greatest crimes, along with his order to assassinate his senior general Parmenion, Philotas' father. In a drunken quarrel at Macaranda Samarkand, he also murdered the man who had saved his life at the Granicus, Clitus the Black. Later in the Central Asian campaign, a second plot against his life, this one by his own Pages, was revealed, and his official historian, Callisthenes of Olynthus (who had fallen out of favor with the king by leading the opposition to his attempt to introduce proskynesis), was implicated on what most historians regard as trumped-up charges.

With the death of Spitamenes and his marriage to Roxanne to cement his relations with his new Central Asian satrapies, in 326 BC he was finally free to turn his attention to India. After accepting the submission of King Omphis of Taxiles, he fought an epic battle against the monarch Purushotthama in the Battle of Hydaspes. He continued on to conquer all the headwaters of the Indus. Exhausted and frightened by the prospect of facing another giant Indian army at the Ganges, his army mutinied at the Hyphasis (modern Beas), refusing to march further East. Alexander was forced to turn South, conquering his way down the Indus to the Ocean. He sent much of his army to Carmania (modern southern Iran) with his general Craterus, and commissioned a fleet to explore the Persian Gulf shore under his admiral Nearchus, while he led the rest of his forces back to Persia by the southern route through the Gedrosian Desert (modern Makran in southern Pakistan).

Discovering that many of his satraps and military governors had misbehaved in his absence, Alexander executed a number of them as examples on his way to Susa. As a gesture of thanks, he paid off the debts of his soldiers, and announced that he would send those who were overaged and the disabled veterans back to Macedonia under Craterus, but his troops misunderstood his intention and mutinied at the town of Opis, refusing to be sent away and bitterly criticizing his adoption of Persian customs and dress and the introduction of Persian officers and soldiers into Macedonian units. Alexander executed the ringleaders of the mutiny, but forgave the rank and file. In an attempt to craft a lasting harmony between his Macedonian and Persian subjects, he held a mass marriage of his senior officers to Persian and other noblewomen at Opis, but few of those marriages seem to have lasted beyond his death a year later.

His attempts to merge Persian culture with his Greek soldiers also included having his officers marry Persian wives en masse, and training a regiment of Persian boys in the ways of Macedonians. It is not certain that Alexander adopted the Persian royal title of shahanshah ("great king" or "king of kings"), but most historians think that he did.

After traveling to Ecbatana to retrieve the bulk of the Persian treasure, his Chiliarch and closest friend Hephaestion died of an illness. Later Roman writers considered Alexander's display of mourning excessive (although it may not have been seen that way by his contemporaries). He conducted a campaign of extermination against the Cossaens to assuage his grief. On his way back to his capitol at Babylon, Alexander encountered many signs of his impending death, and he fell ill and indeed died shortly after he entered the city.

Map of the empire of Alexander
Map of the empire of Alexander

Alexander married several princesses of former Persian territories: Roxana of Bactria; Statira, daughter of Darius III; and Parysatis, daughter of Ochus. However his greatest emotional attachment is generally considered to have been to his companion, cavalry commander (chiliarchos) and possibly lover, Hephaestion. Curtius maintains that he also took as a lover Darius' catamite, the eunuch Bagoas. Six months after Alexander's death, Roxanne gave birth to Alexander's son and heir Alexander IV.


In the afternoon of June 10, 323 BC, he died of an illness, in the palace of Nebuchadnezzar II of Babylon. Alexander was only 32 years old. Various theories have been proposed for his death, including poisoning by the sons of Antipater, by his wife Roxane [1], his European regent, and various diseases, including a relapse of the malaria he had contracted in 336.

In 1998, in an article titled "A Mysterious Death" in The New England Journal of Medicine, volume 38, pp 1764-1769, David W. Oldach, M.D. (a professor of pathology at the University of Maryland School of Medicine), and others (including eminent Alexander historian Eugene N. Borza), analyzed Alexander's symptoms as described in Arrian, Diodorus and Plutarch. Oldach dismissed the poisoning theory and diagnosed the king's final illness as typhoid, perhaps complicated by peritonitis and Guillain-Barré syndrome, leading to the possibility that a helplessly paralyzed Alexander might actually have been killed by his embalmers.

Legend has it that Alexander was preserved in a clay vessel full of honey and interred in a glass coffin (which, because of the rarity of transparent glass in the ancient world, would have been an incredibly expensive sarcophagus). A sarcophagus that was discovered in Sidon and is known as the Alexander Sarcophagus has been determined actually to be the coffin of Abdylonymus, whom Hephaestion chose as the king of Sidon after Alexander commissioned him to pick a new ruler for that Phoenician city.

Legacy and division of the Empire

Alexander left a huge empire to his successors, (the Diadochi or Diadochoi), who jostled for supremacy over portions of this realm. When the dust settled, virtually all of his officers had disposed of their Persian wives, and all but two of his top officers, his mother, his wife Roxana (Roshanak in Persian), his son Alexander IV of Macedon (323-309 BC), his illegitimate son Heracles (327-309 BC), his sister Cleopatra , his half-sister Euridice, and his half-brother Philip III of Macedon, were dead, only one of whom (Antipater) died of natural causes.

Soon after Alexander's death, his soldiers elected his infant son, Alexander, and half-brother, Phillip, to be the successor kings. But young Alexander was just a baby and Phillip suffered from a mental infirmity. Under the circumstances the great commanders of Alexander's army, the diadochi, elected one of their own, Perdiccas, to be regent and chiliarchos. A soldiers assembly formally accepted him and thus Perdiccas was set to rule the empire until Alexander IV reached maturity. However, in the very next year, 322, Perdiccas fell into a conflict with Ptolemy, one of the diadochoi and current satrap of Egypt. The regent took his army to Egypt in order to punish Ptolemy, but during the event he was killed.

The diadochoi met once again and chose Antipater to be the next regent. But now Eumenes, former secretary of both Alexander and Perdiccas, didn't accept this decision and started a rebellion against the diadochoi. The empire fell into civil war. One of the diadochoi, Antigonus I Monophthalmus (satrap of Lydia), was able to stop Eumenes. At first, in 317 BC, he tried to defeat Eumenes directly at the Battle of Paraitacene in central Persia, but failed. Eventually, Antigonus had to bribe Eumenes' own soldiers to assassinate him. By this Antigonus was now the most powerful of all the diadochoi.

Meanwhile, back in Macedonia Antipater had died, but not before nominating Polyperchon as the next regent. Antipater's son, Cassander, didn't accept this state of affairs and started a new war (319 BC). During this turmoil, in 317, Olympias, the mother of Alexander the Great, tried to dominate Macedonia and Greece and become regent as caretaker of her grandson, Alexander IV. She also ordered the death of Phillip III. Her plan didn't last long. In 316 Cassander conquered Macedonia and sentenced Oympias to death. Now he was the regent.

Antigonus regarded himself as just having been one-upped and now fought against Cassander. The rest of the diadochoi worried that powerful Antigonus would defeat them all one after another, so they formed with Cassander a coalition against him in 315 BC. In 312 Ptolemy conquered Cyprus while Seleucus took Babylon, Elam and Media, where he defeated Antigonus' satraps. Then in 309 Cassander finally disposed of Alexander IV. The boy was by now thirteen years old and the following year he could legitimately rule according to Macedonian law. His mother Roxana was also killed. Cassander kept this all a secret for the next several years, until 305 BC. In the meantime Ptolemy, Lysimachus and Cassander signed a treaty of peace with Antigonos leaving Seleucus alone to fight with him. Seleucus nevertheless managed to defeat Antigonus and conquer eastern Iran. Then in 305-304 BC all of the diadochoi finally learned of the death of Alexander IV and pronounced themselves as the successor kings, each to his own territory. Antigonus accepted none of these other proclamations and started a campaign to become sole ruler of the whole empire. Ultimately, he was defeated in the Battle of Ipsus in Phrygia in 301 BC. In the aftermath Lysimachus took Asia Minor, Seleucus took Syria and Ptolemy took Palestine.

So Alexander's empire was divided at first into four major portions: Cassander ruled in Greece, Lysimachus in Thrace, Seleucus I Nicator ("the winner") in Mesopotamia and Iran, Ptolemy I (or Ptolemy Soter) in the Levant and Egypt and Antigonus Monophthalmos in Asia Minor and Syria.

Soon Lysimachus obtained Cassander's portion (285 BC), and the empire was divided into three major portions, controlled by the descendants of Ptolemy Soter ("the saviour") in Egypt, Antigonus Monopthalmos (literally "One-eyed") in Greece, and Seleucus in the Mideast. By about 281 BC, when Seleucus killed Lysimachus in the battle of Kurypedion, only two dynasties remained in Alexander's old empire — the Seleucid dynasty in the north and the Ptolemaic dynasty in the south.

After the battle of Kurypedion Seleucus went to Macedonia and was killed by Ptolemaios Keraunos ("the thunder"), a son of Ptolemaios of Egypt, who escaped from Alexandria. Keraunos became new king of Macedonia, but in 279 BC Macedonia and Greece were invaded by Celts and Keraunos was killed. In 277 BC Antigonus Gonatas, the grandson of Antigonus Monophthalmos, defeated Celts in the battle of Lysimachia and gained control over Macedonia. The Antigonid dynasty ruled in Macedonia untill Romans conquered the country.

End of rule in North India

Seleucus I Nicator was defeated by the great Indian emperor, Chandragupta Maurya and the Northern Indian regions were free of foreign rule. After the death of Seleucus, his son, Antiochus I Soter, started to rule the Seleucid Empire in Asia.

Many eponymous towns remained: Alexandrias, Alexandropolises and other Alexvilles dotted the landscape of this odd cosmopolitan mish-mash he had conquered. Whatever dreams he might have had of some kind of merging of Greek and Persian cultures died shortly after he did, with the Macedonians and Greeks edging the Persians into less powerful positions -- although there were Greek Diadochoi (Eumenes in particular) none of the Diadochoi were Persian. The imposition of a Macedonian ruling class on various Middle Eastern societies eventually resulted in a melding of cultures, and elements of the resulting Hellenic influence can still be discerned today in societies from Egypt to Central Asia and Pakistan.

Alexander's character

Alexander is remembered as a folk-hero in Europe and much of western and central Asia, where he is known as Iskander. To Zoroastrians, on the other hand, he is remembered as the destroyer of their first great empire and as the leveller of Persepolis. Ancient sources are generally written with an agenda of either glorifying or slandering the man, making it difficult to evaluate his actual character. Most refer to a growing instability and megalomania in the years following Gaugamela, but it has been suggested that this simply reflects the Greek stereotype of a medizing king. The murder of his friend Cleitus, which Alexander deeply and immediately regretted, is often pointed to, as is his execution of Philotas and his general Parmenio for failure to pass along details of a plot against him, though this last may have been prudence rather than paranoia.

Modern opinion on Alexander has run the gamut from the idea that he believed he was on a divinely-inspired mission to unite the human race, to the view that he was the ancient world's equivalent of a Napoleon or a Hitler, a megalomaniac bent on world domination. Such views tend to be anachronistic, however, and the sources allow a variety of interpretations. Much about Alexander's personality and aims remains enigmatic.

Alexander had a legendary horse named Bucephalus (ox-headed), supposedly descended from the Mares of Diomedes.

According to one story, the philosopher Anaxarchus checked the vainglory of Alexander, when he aspired to the honours of divinity, by pointing to his wound, saying, "See the blood of a mortal, not the ichor of a god." (In another version Alexander himself pointed out the difference in response to a sycophantic soldier.)

Historical perspective

Modern historians treat the death of Alexander the Great and the birth of the successor kingdoms as the event that divides Hellenic civilization from Hellenistic civilization. Alexander's conquests and the administrative needs of his Greek-speaking successors promoted the spread of the Greek language and Greek culture across the eastern Mediterranean and into Mesopotamia. At the same time Alexander reintroduced from Persia the concept of divinely-inspired kingship into Hellenic culture.

Ancient sources

The ancient sources for Alexander's life are, from the perspective of ancient history, relatively numerous. Alexander himself left only a few inscriptions and some letter-fragments of dubious authenticity, but a large number of his contemporaries wrote full accounts. These included his court historian Callisthenes, his general Ptolemy (later Ptolemy I of Egypt), and a camp engineer Aristoboulus. Another early and influential account was penned by Cleitarchus . Unfortunately, these works were lost. Instead, the modern historian must rely on authors who used these and other early sources. The five main accounts are by Arrian, Curtius, Mestrius Plutarch, Diodorus, and Justin. Much is recounted incidentally in other authors, especially including Strabo.

The "problem of the sources" is the main concern (and chief delight) of Alexander-historians. In effect, each presents a different "Alexander," with details to suit. Arrian presents a flattering portrait, Curtius a darker one. Plutarch can't resist a good story, light or dark. All include a considerable level of fantasy, prompting the historian Strabo (2.1.9) to remark, "All who wrote about Alexander preferred the marvellous to the true." Never the less, the sources tell us much, and leave much to our interpretation and imagination.

Surviving classical period histories:

  • The Roman historian Arrian of Nicomedia wrote Anabasis Alexandri or "The Campaigns of Alexander" in Greek.
  • Another Roman historian Quintus Curtius Rufus wrote Historiae Alexandri Magni, a biography of Alexander the Great in Latin in ten books, of which the last eight survive.
  • The Bibliotheca historia ("Historical Library") of the Greek historian Diodorus Siculus, at least four books cover the conquests of Alexander and the actions of his successors, or the Diadochi.
  • The Epitome of the Philippic History of Pompeius Trogus by Justin, which contains many provable errors of fact and is highly compressed.
  • The Greek historian/biographer Plutarch of Chaeronea wrote a Life of Alexander and two orations On the Fortune or the Virtue of Alexander the Great

Alexander's legend

Alexander was a legend in his own time. His court historian, Callisthenes portrayed the sea in Cilicia as drawing back from him in proskynesis . Writing after Alexander's death, another participant, Onesicritus , went so far as to invent a tryst between Alexander and Thalestris, queen of the mythical Amazons. (When Onesicritus read this passage to his patron, Alexander's general and later King Lysimachus, Lysimachus quipped "I wonder where I was at the time?")

In the first centuries after Alexander's death, probably in Alexandria, a quantity of the more legendary material coalesced into a text known as the "Alexander Romance," later falsely ascribed to the historian Callisthenes and therefore known as Pseudo-Callisthenes. This text underwent numerous expansions and revisions throughout Antiquity and the Middle Ages, exhibiting a plasticity unseen in "higher" literary forms. Latin and Syriac translations were made in Late Anqituity. From these, versions were developed in all the major languages of Europe and the Middle East, including Armenian, Georgian, Persian, Arabic, Turkish, Hebrew, Serbian, Slavonic, Romanian, Hungarian, German, English, Italian, and French. The "Romance" is regarded by most scholars as the source of the account of Alexander given in the Koran (Sura "The Cave"). It is the source of many incidents in Ferdowsi's "Shahnama". A Mongol version is extant.

Some believe that, excepting certain religious texts, it is the most widely-read work of pre-modern times.

Alexander also anachronistically appears as a saint in Eastern Orthodox churches, and as a prophet in Islam.

Names used for Alexander the Great in different parts of the world

Because of the diversity of the conquered lands, Alexander the Great was known by different names, if not in his time then in the stories passed down in generations since then.

ho Megas Alexandros (ο Μέγας Αλέξανδρος) or, more formally, Alexandros III ho Makedon (Αλέξανδρος Γ' ο Μακεδόν): "Alexander the Great" or, more formally, "Alexander III of Macedon";
also Alexandros Philipou: "Alexander the son of Philip." In Greek, the name "Alexandros" means "Protector of Men."
Aleksander , Lek meaning "Born as a dream" (Ai-ka-le-si-ander)
Central Asia 
Arab world and parts of India 
Parts of India 

Alexander's titles

A list of the various titles held by Alexander throughout his life (all dates BC). Titles which are unknown whether he used or not, and unknown dates that he assumed confirmed titles, are marked with a question mark.

Dynastic chart

Preceded by:
Philip II
King of Macedon Succeeded by:
Philip III
Darius III Codomannus King of Persia
Darius III Codomannus Pharaoh of Egypt
- King of Asia

Alexander in popular media

A 1956 movie starring Richard Burton and appropriately titled Alexander the Great was produced by MGM, and numerous television versions have been created as well.

Oliver Stone's 2004 Alexander starring Colin Farrell is due for release on November 5, 2004.

Mary Renault authored a trilogy of novels speculating on the life of Alexander.

An epic animated retelling of the story called Reign: The Conquerer by Peter Chung of Aeon Flux fame debuted on the Cartoon Network's Adult Swim block variety show in 2003.

The British heavy metal band Iron Maiden had a song entitled "Alexander the Great" on their album Somewhere in Time. The song describes Alexander's life, but contains one inaccuracy: in the song it is stated that Alexander's army would not follow him into India.

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Alexander the Great

Last updated: 10-24-2004 05:10:45