Alexander the Great (as he would come to be known) was born in 356BC in Pella, the capital of the Kingdom of Macedon. He was the son of Philip II and Olympias, and was educated in his youth by the famous Greek philosopher Aristotle.
His father, Philip, was one of the great generals of antiquity. A hostage in the Greek city of Thebes during his formative years, he’d seen the effectiveness of heavy infantry deployed in phalanx formation (the manner in which the Greeks customarily fought) and once he was returned to Macedon and secure on his throne he set about reforming the army of his homeland.
He took the men of the plains with their long-established cavalry traditions and turned them into the most effective mounted force in the Western world. And then he took the men of the mountains and valleys and turned them into highly-disciplined phalanx infantry, armed not with the traditional 9-foot long hoplite spear but with the 18-foot long sarisa pike.
With these forces he conquered Thrace in the north and the Greek cities in the south. And then, with the Hellenic world at his feet, he started planning an even more daring and ambitious campaign: the conquest of Persia, the long-time enemy of the Greeks.
But he never made it. Assassinated in 336BC, his kingdom and his army were inherited by the 20-year-old Alexander, who also received the submission of the Greeks, as his father had, but not before the absolute destruction of Thebes.
Setting out from the site of the ancient city of Troy on the Asiatic side of the Hellespont, Alexander and his army spent a decade campaigning across the breadth of Asia. They liberated the Greek colony-cities of Asia Minor and utterly defeated the army of the Persian king Darius III at Issus.
Then, turning south, they captured the cities of the Levant and Syria before heading into Egypt. It was here that Alexander was first acclaimed as the son of Zeus-Ammon at the Oracle of Siwa Oasis, and became the new Pharaoh of the Egyptian people (who had long been denied their traditions under the Persians).
It was also here that he founded the first city of his new empire – Alexandria, one of many and the most famous.
For all his gains though the decisive battle remained elusive. It wasn’t until the two armies met again at Gaugamela (also called Arbela) that the matter was finally decided:
Alexander’s army of 40-thousand faced off against a numerically superior Persian force – some ancient sources say there were as many as a million enemy troops, although more modest (and no doubt more accurate) modern estimates put the opposing number at close to 100-thousand.
At any rate, the Macedonians and their Greek allies were faced with an almost insurmountable task. Darius III had gathered all the forces of the vast empire to crush them, and he had chosen his battlefield well: a vast, open plain where the superior Persian numbers could overwhelm and surround the beleaguered Hellenes. Doubtless, any other general would have called a cautious (if not hasty) retreat…
But not Alexander. He had been preparing for this moment his entire life, and he was not about to be denied. He deployed his forces in an oblique line with the wings echeloned back 45-degrees to draw in the enemy cavalry. While the two centres (composed almost entirely of infantry) were engaged he advanced his right win parallel to the enemy line, consequently forcing the Persian left to overextend itself in an attempt to block him from surrounding their flank. This had the effect though of opening a hole in the Persian line through which Alexander could lead his elite Companion cavalry in wedge formation (with him at the head, of course) while previously screened skirmishers engaged the enemy wing.
Alexander’s charge penetrated to the heart of the Persian army and threatened Darius himself, who fearing death more than defeat, decided to turn and run, apparently trampling members of his own bodyguard in his haste to escape.
Alexander would have liked nothing more than to pursue and capture/kill the enemy king, but elements of his own left flank were in dire need having borne the brunt of the enemy attack, and he was forced to go to their relief or risk losing his entire army.
At the end of the day a majority of the Persian forces were dead or had surrendered to the victorious Macedonians, while only a relatively small number of Alexander’s forces were counted amongst the casualties.
It was the death knell of the Persian Empire, though it took some time for the full effects to be felt as Darius still lived and was again trying to raise an army to defeat Alexander. He however was assassinated before Alexander could catch up to him by one of his own subordinates, a satrap named Bessus.
Angered by the death of his respected enemy at another man’s hands, Alexander pursued Bessus after having secured the Persian heartland and its capitals, including Babylon, Susa, Ecbatana and Persepolis.
With the death of Darius III the Persian Empire was no more. Now, it was Alexander’s Empire, and he confirmed this with his subsequent adoption of Eastern styles and traditions, as well as his marriage to a Bactrian princess, Roxane, and two daughters of the former Persian royal family, Stateira II and Parysatis II.
After capturing and killing Bessus in 329BC, Alexander consolidated his conquests in central Asia and founded a number of new cities, most called Alexandria. Then, after having defeated the Scythian tribes of the northern steppes and subjugated the problematic regions of what is now modern Afghanistan, he turned his attention to the Far East: to India, and what he believed was the route to the Great Eastern Ocean speculated to exist by ancient geographers.
Penetrating into India he encountered strong resistance, especially from the particularly brilliant King Porus. After a hard-fought campaign he finally defeated the Punjab monarch and dealt with him in the same manner as he had many of the Persian satraps he had encountered in his drive east – he reconfirmed him in his position and authority, and even added to the realms under his control, asking only that he submit to Alexander’s supreme authority as the new King of Asia.
It was around this time that his men became restless. Specifically, the Macedonian veterans who had fought not only at his side since the beginning of the conquests ten years previously but also with Philip before that. They were old men now, still strong but fading fast, and they wanted to enjoy the wealth and prestige they had won before it was too late. If they went on any further all they could look forward to was more hardship and death, forced to fight resilient foes in a seemingly never-ending stream.
They wanted to go home.
After a period of mutiny and mutual recrimination, Alexander finally came to the realisation that his conquest was over and that must return west, at least for a little while, to see to the administration of his newly-forged empire and raise new armies.
During the return he made the only serious blunder of his military career, marching much of his army through the imposing Gedrosian desert. Large numbers perished before the remnants stumbled into Susa in 324BC.
It was while he was planning fresh conquests of Arabia, and some speculate, the Western Mediterranean, that his close friend and confidante Hephaestion died, some say of illness, others of poison.
This loss devastated Alexander, and it wasn’t long after that he too fell ill. He died on the 11th day of June, 323BC in Babylon. He was 32 years old.
After his death, his close Companions and generals convened to decide who would succeed him. At the moment of his passing, when he had been asked who they should give the empire too, he is reported to have said, “To the Strongest!”
This was an ominous portent, since the years, decades, and even centuries after his death saw the realms of Macedon, Asia and Egypt wracked by almost continuous war.
Next week I’ll be discussing this era, the Hellenistic Age and the wars of the diadochi – literally, the ‘Successors’.
For the moment though, I’d like to talk about the criteria I’ll be using to judge Alexander’s “heirs”.
Alexander the Great was a singular individual, and many will argue that his like was not seen before nor has it been since. His contributions, as well as his conquests, were legendary. Thus, my reasoning follows:
Alexander was clearly a military genius, a man to whom war came naturally and, although might not be called an innovator (that label perhaps is better applied to his father) was definitely a supremely adaptable commander: equal to any task.
No other commander perhaps save Julius Caesar or Genghis Khan has been so beloved by the men under his commander. They were willing to die for him, and regularly did so. He in turn shared their deprivations and their struggles, even as he led them to victory after victory. He was, and remains, the model for an inspiring leader.
Alexander had a dream to unite the continents of Europe and Asia under a single ruler and thus put an end to the long-established rivalry between East and West. To this end he pursued his conquests, spreading Hellenic culture throughout central Asia and leaving a lasting legacy for future generations.
Although he could also be brutal and irrational, Alexander was chiefly known for the way in which he treated defeated enemies: with dignity and respect. He was a man of warrior virtue, and a model for future generations of generals.
At the time of his death Alexander was in the process of creating a new religious order, focussed on himself as the chief deity, a living god. Though he didn’t live long enough to see it properly implemented, this religious feeling pervaded the lands of his empire and he was regularly viewed as divine by many throughout the Ancient world (most notably in Egypt, his final resting place). This attempt at creating a new order suggests an awareness of his own legacy and how it could impact on the world, changing and shaping the course of human history for millennia to come.
So, that’s how I’ll be doing the judging – by comparing others to Alexander and seeing how close they came to fulfilling the same attributes.
I hope you’ll be back in a week’s time to see how the first lot do, men who knew Alexander personally, and thus, rightfully, should have been as close to him as anyone.
Next Week: The Successors (The Division of Spoils)