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Alexander the Great

Alexander, the Great was born in Macedon in 356 B.C., son of Philip II and one of his several wives, Olympias. His father Philip had, by a combination of diplomacy and military successes, transformed a kingdom on the verge of disintegration into a powerful, centralized monarchy. He had converted an undisciplined militia organization into a well-drilled military machine, introducing innovations in technology and tactics that made the Macedonians superior to any of their foes. By astutely playing one polis (city-state) against another and the skilful use of negotiation, bribery and force Philip had aligned the major Greek states, except Sparta, into the League of Corinth with the intention of invading Persia- ostensibly in retaliation for the invasion of Greece in 480 B.C. His military and diplomatic successes were not matched on the domestic front.

The marriage of Philip and Olympias was experiencing some turbulence. The Macedonian elite, unlike that of the Greeks, practiced polygamy. Philip, in addition to the Epirote princess Olympias, had married Thessalian, Scythian, Illyrian and Thracian women, daughters of ruling families, for diplomatic reasons. Now he decided to marry Cleopatra, daughter of a Macedonian noble, who in short order became pregnant. Both Olympias and Alexander were concerned that a son with two Macedonian parents might have more appeal as an heir to the throne than Alexander. Happily, Cleopatra’s baby was a daughter (named Europa) but the potential of a son sometime in the future was an unwelcome prospect.

The marriage to a much younger woman, and a Macedonian one at that, seems to have been the final straw in a disintegrating relationship between Olympias and Philip. She fled into exile, briefly taking Alexander with her, and plotted revenge. Whether she and Alexander had anything to do with it or not- historians disagree- Philip was assassinated and, after a brief tussle, Alexander assumed the throne as king of Macedon. He was twenty. The enemies of Philip rejoiced, chortling that they now only had a boy to contend with.

Alexander was not a neophyte, either as a ruler or military commander and he had the benefit of experienced and loyal generals. The legacy handed down from Philip included these and a powerful and united Macedon. Without that, historians agree, the achievements of Alexander would have been impossible. He was as well-equipped for the task as one could have expected, given his young age. His father had provided him with the best possible schooling, engaging a number of tutors, including Aristotle, to ensure Alexander had the advantages of being exposed to the kind of education and culture Philip himself lacked. Aristotle cautioned Alexander that before he was fit to rule he had to experience what it felt like to be ruled. It was a lesson the young prince took to heart.

Alexander developed a love of the arts and, in particular, a great appreciation for the poetry of Homer. He carried a copy of the Homeric epics with him and longed to emulate the feats and lifestyle of his heroes Achilles and Heracles. (Eventually he would claim descent from both of those Greek heroes- Heracles on his father’s side, Achilles, on his mothers).

Philip also made sure Alexander became uncommonly proficient in the use of arms. Indeed he proved to be particularly adept in military matters. At the Battle of Chaerona, at the age of eighteen, Alexander had led the decisive charge by the Companions cavalry that turned the tide of battle in Philip’s favour. Alexander was also, like his father courageous, manipulative and charismatic. Both led their troops from the front and had the wounds to prove it, narrowly escaping death on more than one occasion. Each was able to command immense personal loyalty from the army. Both were able to clothe themselves in the raiment of liberators and became very good in converting those they had defeated into allies and supporters. But Alexander had also inherited and learned traits from his mother and some blamed her for his impetuous streak and, on occasion, his explosive and impulsive temperament.

When Alexander assumed the reins of power he moved quickly to consolidate his position. Almost immediately he had an opportunity to do so. Thebes decided to revolt against his leadership of the League of Corinth and sought supporting allies. Before that support could be mustered Alexander had stormed the city, killed 6000 Thebans and thoroughly sacked the city, sparing only the temples and the house of the poet Pindar and his descendants. He then asked the surrounding neighbours of the Thebans what would be an appropriate punishment for the residents still remaining. With their concurrence 30,000 survivors were rounded up and sent into slavery. The effect of the incident was to immediately quell any rumblings of revolt, a parallel perhaps to the later concept of killing one admiral to encourage the rest (pour encourager les autres). In a similarly ruthless manner Cleopatra and her infant daughter, her male relatives and a potential rival for the throne of Macedon were eliminated.

Six months after taking Philip’s place, Alexander also took up his cause and led his troops toward the Persian Empire. With his flair for the dramatic, he dragged the reluctant priestess of Delphi into the temple and sought from her a prophecy on his prowess. With her words, “My son, thou art invincible” he headed towards Asia. He followed the reverse of the route that Xerxes had taken in 480 B.C. and at the legendary site of Troy he offered a sacrifice and donned the bronze armor of Achilles that had been dedicated at the site. The first battle with the Persians was at the River Granicus and it was there that he inflicted a devastating defeat on the Persians. They had been supported by a contingent of Greek mercenaries who surrendered but to no avail. They were either massacred or sent back to Macedon as slaves, a reminder that Alexander wanted nothing to stand in his way in his march across Asia.

Persian control of the Greek colonies in Asia Minor was totally lost. It didn’t take much persuasion for the cities, many of whom had been founded by Greek colonists, to switch their allegiance to Alexander. Remembering the lessons of Aristotle, he treated his new subjects kindly spreading the word that he came not as conqueror but as a liberator. He did not raise the rate of tribute or taxation as was expected. In Persian cities he appointed Persian satraps (provincial governors) with the admonition that they had the option between absolute loyalty or death. At Gordium, the ancient capital of Phrygia, inside a temple stood a cart tied to a pole with an intricate, convoluted knot. Legend had it that whoever could untie the knot would rule Asia. Alexander severed it with his sword and headed, confidently, deeper into Asia.

As he entered the mountain passes leading into Syria, the Persian Great King Darius moved a huge army up behind Alexander, confident that he had trapped the Macedonian. Alexander was delighted for he realized that the narrow terrain wouldn’t allow the Persians to field all of their troops. It was a hard-fought battle, the Battle of Issus, momentum shifting from side to side, but in the end Alexander won decisively. Darius fled the battlefield leaving behind in Damascus his mother, his wife, their daughter, ladies-in-waiting and a fortune in gold. Alexander, nursing a thigh wound, retired to Darius’ opulent, abandoned tent to celebrate and allow his wound to heal.

Instead of marching eastward into the heart of Persia, Alexander decided to consolidate the territory he had gained. The old city of Tyre fell after a prolonged and brutal seige. Thousands were killed and Roman sources suggest that hundreds were crucified. After that, the residents of Sidon welcomed him with open arms. Then Alexander marched into Egypt where he was given the welcome he expected. Proclaiming him as pharaoh and treating him as divine, the Egyptians avoided any hostilities. Alexander founded a city on the Egyptian coast that he called Alexandria. It was destined to become one of the greatest cities of the Mediterranean. It hosted universities, libraries, the first museum, gymnasia- the best that Greece had to offer the world in terms of arts and culture.

Darius, afraid now of Alexander, sued for peace, offering to share his kingdom with the Macedonian. Alexander would have none of it and at the plain of Gaugamela, in Assyria the two armies met once more. Again, Alexander was heavily outnumbered (sources suggest it was 5-1 in favor of Darius) but the result was the same as at Granicus and Issus- a decisive victory for Alexander and his army. Darius fled, pursued by the Macedonians. Then one of Darius’ cavalry commanders, Bessus, the satrap of Bactria assassinated the Great King and declared himself the new ruler of Persia. Eventually Alexander caught up to him, cut off his nose and ears and turned him over to his enemies to finish the job. By portraying himself as the avenger of Darius’ betrayal, Alexander gained the support of many Persians. He began to wear Persian style clothing and encouraged his soldiers to take Persian women as wives. He himself married Roxane, the daughter of a Bacterian noble. (Later he would marry two Persian princesses, one a daughter of Darius)

After this major battle Alexander and his army rested and reveled in Babylon, Susa and Persepolis collecting booty on a grand scale (many millions, if not billions of dollars in today’s currency). At Persepolis, following a dare from an Athenian courtesan, Alexander burnt the great palace of Xerxes which he claimed was in revenge for the razing of Athens 150 years earlier. But plunder was not enough to quench Alexander’s thirst for glory. He wanted now to move into India.

A pretext to do so soon presented itself. Two Indian kings were waging war against each other and Alexander allied himself with Taxiles against Porus. It was Alexander’s first experience in fighting against elephants but in the Battle of Hydaspes his army won a crushing victory. Porus was wounded but Alexander was so impressed by his bravery that he gave the king his land back and more besides. Afterwards he pressed on, trying to find the Eastern Ocean, believed, at that time, to be the limit of the world. Then the monsoons hit and after 70 days of relentless rain, his men had had enough. They refused to go on. Alexander sulked in his tent for a couple of days and then accepted the inevitable. They turned back.

Some of the Macedonians, weary of wandering and the rigours of military life, began to plot against Alexander. Alexander’s response was quick and, some say, too far-reaching. Long-time supporters were assassinated on the basis of little evidence. Alexander drank excessively and during an argument, in a drunken rage, ran a spear through a cavalry commander who had once saved his life. When a close companion (Hephaistion) of his died of a fever, Alexander’s grief knew no bounds. He ordered that a huge monument be erected in his honour and approached the Oracle at Siwa to see if a religious cult could be established in his memory. That request was granted and Alexander celebrated by drinking a huge bowl of undiluted wine. Some say that he died almost immediately; others, that he lingered, speechless, for several days before succumbing to fever (maybe malaria)and, possibly, alcohol poisoning. In any event, tradition says that when he was asked on his deathbed to whom he bequeathed his kingdom, he replied “To the strongest” and expired. He was 33.

The conquests of Alexander created a huge empire and his impact on the world stage is still being debated by historians. Politically his empire would not last beyond the time that it took to create it; culturally this creation became the basis of the Hellenistic age. Historians critical of Alexander portray him as short-sighted and interested only in covering himself with glory for his military exploits while lamenting that there were no more worlds to conquer. The Roman Emperor Augustus felt that Alexander should have found greater satisfaction governing his empire than conquering it. Admirers say that he laid the groundwork for shaping a new political order; it was now up to others to finish the job.