Where did Alexander the Great come from?
Philip II was an impressive soldier himself. He made Macedonia (a region north of the Greek peninsula) a power to be reckoned with and he dreamed of conquering the immense The Persian Empire.
Historical lists: builders of the ancient Empire
At age 12, Alexandre demonstrated impressive courage by taming the wild horse Bucephalus, a huge stallion with a furious behavior. The horse became his combat companion for most of his life.
When Alexandre was 13, Philippe appealed to the great philosopher Aristotle to teach his son. Aristotle sparked and fostered Alexander’s interest in literature, science, medicine, and philosophy.
Alexander was only 16 when Philip went into battle and left his son in charge of Macedonia. In 338 BC, Alexander saw an opportunity to prove his military valor and led a cavalry against the Sacred Band of Thebes – a select and supposedly unbeatable army composed entirely of male lovers – during the Battle of Chaeronea.
Alexander showcased his vigor and bravery and his cavalry decimated the sacred band of Thebes.
Watch the documentary event in three episodes, Ancient empires. Available to stream now.
Alexander becomes king
In 336 BC, Alexander’s father Philip was murdered by his bodyguard Pausanias. Aged just 20, Alexander claimed the Macedonian throne and killed his rivals before they could challenge his sovereignty.
He also suppressed independence rebellions in northern Greece. Once the house was cleaned, Alexander set out to follow in his father’s footsteps and continue Macedonia’s world domination.
Alexander appointed General Antipater regent and marched towards Persia with his army. They crossed the Hellespont, a narrow strait between the Aegean Sea and the Sea of Marmara, and confronted Persian and Greek forces at the Granicus River. Victory goes to Alexander and the Macedonians.
Alexander then headed south and easily took the city of Sardis. But his army encountered resistance in the cities of Miletus, Mylasa and Halicarnassus. Besieged but not beaten, Halicarnassus held out long enough for King Darius III, the newest Persian king, to amass a substantial army.
From Halicarnassus, Alexander headed north to Gordium, home of the legendary Gordian knot, a group of tightly intertwined knots hitched to an ancient cart. Legend has it that whoever unties the knot would conquer all of Asia.
As the story goes, Alexander rose to the challenge but failed to untie the knot by hand. He took another approach and cut the knot with his sword, claiming triumph.
Battle of Issus
In 333 BC, Alexander and his men encountered a massive Persian army led by King Darius III near the town of Issus in southern Turkey. Alexander’s forces were vastly outnumbered in men, but not in experience or determination for vengeance and to claim Persia’s great wealth, much of it was plundered.
As it became clear that Alexander would win the Battle of Issus, Darius fled with what remained of his troops, leaving his wife and family behind. His mother, Sisygambis, was so distraught that she disowned him and adopted Alexander as her son.
It was now clear that Alexander was a shrewd, ruthless and brilliant military leader: in fact, he had never lost a battle in his life. He would build an empire based on his motto: “Nothing is impossible to him who tries.”
Battle of Tire
Next, Alexander captured the Phoenician cities of Marathus and Aradus. He rejected Darius’ appeal for peace and took the cities of Byblos and Sidon.
He then besieged the heavily fortified island of Tire in January 332 BC, after the Tyrians refused him entry. But Alexander had no navy to speak of and Tire was surrounded by water.
Alexander ordered his men to build a causeway to reach Tyre. Everything went well until they got within striking distance of the Tyrians. Time and again, Tyrian forces thwarted Alexander’s clever attempts to gain entry, and he realized that he needed a strong navy to penetrate their defenses.
He gathered a large fleet, finally breached the city walls in July 332 BC, and executed thousands of Tyrians for daring to defy him; many others were sold into slavery.
Alexander enters Egypt
Ancient Empires: Alexander and Egypt
After rejecting another peace offer from Darius, Alexander left for Egypt. However, he was sidelined in Gaza and forced to endure another long siege. After a few weeks, he took the city and entered Egypt where he founded the city which still bears his name: Alexandria.
Alexander went to the desert to consult the oracle of Ammon, a god believed to have good advice. Legends abound about what happened at the oracle, but Alexander kept silent about the experience. Still, the visit reinforced speculation that Alexander was a deity.
Alexander becomes king of Persia
After conquering Egypt, Alexander confronted Darius and his massive troops at Gaugamela in October 331 BC. After fierce fighting and heavy losses on both sides, Darius fled and was assassinated by his own troops. It is said that Alexander was sad when he found Darius’ body and gave him a royal burial.
Finally rid of Darius, Alexander proclaimed himself king of Persia. But another Persian ruler, Bessus (also considered Darius’s murderer), had also claimed the Persian throne. Alexander couldn’t let his claim stand.
After relentless pursuit by Alexander, Bessus’ troops handed Bessus over to Ptolemy, Alexander’s good friend, and he was mutilated and executed. With Bessus out of the way, Alexander was in complete control of Persia.
To gain credibility with the Persians, Alexander adopted many Persian customs. He began dressing like a Persian and adopted the practice of proskynesis, a Persian court custom of bowing down and kissing the hands of others, according to their rank.
The Macedonians were not exactly happy with the changes in Alexander and his attempt to be seen as a deity. They refused to perform proskynesis and some plotted his death.
Increasingly paranoid, Alexander ordered the death of one of his most esteemed generals, Parmenion, in 330 BC, after Parmenion’s son Philotas was convicted of plotting an assassination attempt against Alexander (and also killed).
Alexander kills Cleitus
In 328 BC, Cleitus, another general and close friend of Alexander, also met a violent end. Fed up with Alexander’s new Persian persona, Cleitus drunkenly continually insulted Alexander and downplayed his accomplishments.
Pushed too far, Alexander killed Cleitus with a spear, a spontaneous act of violence that distressed him. Some historians believe that Alexander killed his general in a fit of drunkenness, a persistent problem that plagued him for much of his life.
Alexander struggled to capture Sogdia, a region of the Persian Empire that remained loyal to Bessus. The Sogdians found refuge on top of a rock and refused Alexander’s demand for capitulation.
Not one to take “no” for an answer, Alexander sent some of his men to scale the rock and take the Sogdians by surprise. Apparently one of the people on the rock was a girl named Roxane.
As the story goes, Alexandre fell in love with Roxane at first sight. He married her despite her Sogdian heritage and she joined him on his journey.
Alexander enters India
Ancient empires: Alexander in India
In 327 BC, Alexander marched into Punjab, India. Some tribes surrendered peacefully; others don’t. In 326 BC, Alexander met King Porus of Paurava on the banks of the Hydaspes River.
Porus’ army was less experienced than Alexander’s, but it had a secret weapon: elephants. Despite this, after a fierce battle in a raging storm, Porus was defeated.
An event occurred at Hydaspes that devastated Alexander: the death of his beloved horse, Bucephalus. It is unclear whether he died of battle wounds or old age, but Alexander gave his name to the town of Bucephala.
Alexander wanted to continue and attempt to conquer all of India, but his war-weary soldiers refused and his officers convinced him to return to Persia. Alexander therefore led his troops to the Indus River and was seriously injured in a battle with the Malli.
After recovering, he divided his troops, sending half of them back to Persia and the other half to Gedrosia, a desolate area west of the Indus River.
A mass wedding
In early 324 BC, Alexander reached the city of Susa in Persia. Wanting to unite the Persians and Macedonians and create a new race that would be loyal to him, he ordered several of his officers to marry Persian princesses in a mass wedding. He also took two other wives for himself.
The Macedonian army was unhappy with Alexander’s attempt to change its culture and many mutinied. But after Alexander took a firm stand and replaced Macedonian officers and troops with Persians, his army retreated.
To further defuse the situation, Alexander returned their titles and held a huge reconciliation banquet.
Death of Alexander the Great
By 323 BC, Alexander was the head of a huge empire and had recovered from the devastating loss of his friend Hephaestion, who was also reputed to be one of Alexander’s homosexual lovers.
Through his insatiable desire for world supremacy, he initiated plans to conquer Arabia. But he would never live to see that happen. After surviving battle after fierce battle, Alexander the Great died in June 323 BC at the age of 32.
Some historians say that Alexander died of malaria or other natural causes; others believe he was poisoned. Regardless, he never named a successor.
His death – and the bloody infighting for control that followed – destroyed the empire he had fought so hard for.
Why was Alexander the Great “great”?
Many conquered lands retained the Greek influence introduced by Alexander, and several cities he founded remain important cultural centers today. The period of history from his death to 31 BC, when his empire collapsed, would be known as the Hellenistic period, from “Hellazein”, which means “to speak Greek or to identify with the Greeks”. Alexander the Great is revered as one of the most powerful and influential rulers the ancient world ever produced.
Alexander The Great. Encyclopedia of ancient history.
Alexander The Great. Livius.org.
Biography of Alexander the Great of Macedon. Historydemacedonia.org.
Alexander of Macedonia. San Jose State University.
Bucephalus. Encyclopedia of ancient history.
The Battle of Issus. Livius.org.
The Sacred Band of Thebes, according to Plutarch, The life of Pelopidas. Fordham University.
The siege of Tire (332 BCE). Livius.org.