Alexander the Great is a name that everyone knows. Famous for his conquests, military tactics and strength, Alexander the Great has remained a famous name since 340 BC. He conquered lands his forefathers could only dream of and he fulfilled his life’s ambition to become the Lord of Asia in just 10 years.
Alexander the Great’s Early Life
Alexander the Great, also known as Alexander of Macedon or Alexander III, was born in Pella, in July 356 BC. He was born to King Philip II and daughter of King Neoptolemus of Epirus, Olympias. Some records have suggested that Alexander had six siblings, though the existence of some have been questioned. To our knowledge, it is possible that he had one full sister, three half sisters and two half brothers.
He was tutored by Aristotle from the age of 13. During his three years he learned about medicine, literature, science and philosophy. Unlike Aristotle and most of Greece, however, Alexander did not grow to share the same opinions regarding foreigners. At the time in Greece, it was common for non-Greeks to be treated as slaves or even enslaved. He did not agree with this viewpoint and appeared to have respect for those of both Greek and non-Greek origin.
At the age of 12, it is said that Alexander tamed a wild Thessalonian stallion. This was seen to be a courageous act as the horse was tremendous in size and had a fiery personality. The horse became Alexander’s battle companion for most of his life and was given the name Bucephalus. The young man’s courage did not end there, however. At 16 years old King Philip left for battle, leaving him in charge of Macedonia. The prince took the opportunity to showcase his strength and bravery and defeated the Sacred Band of Thebes. This happened during the Battle of Chaeronea. The army was made up of pairs of male lovers and was thought to be unbeatable. Upon the defeat of the Sacred Band of Thebes, Alexander’s rise to fame truly began.
His Rise to the Throne
A year after Alexander and his cavalry defeated the Sacred Band of Thebes, Philip and Olympias divorced. At the banquet to celebrate his father’s new marriage, he and Philip got into an argument. This resulted in Alexander and his mother fleeing the Epirus, northern Greece. Not long after he journeyed to Illyria, the prince and Philip made amends and he returned to Pella. Although reconciled, his position as heir was in jeopardy until the assassination of the king in 336.
Upon his father’s assassination, Alexander, with the approval of the army, succeeded the throne with no opposition. His first action as king was the execution of those he believed responsible for his father’s death. Those people included the princes of Lyncestis, as well as the entire faction who opposed him. With his throne secured, he marched south to recover Thessaly and was appointed generalissimo by the Greek League of Corinth.
Before the Asian Conquest
The Asian conquest had been initiated by his father due to the actions of Xerxes I in 480-479 BC. A century before Alexander’s birth, the Persian king Xerxes invaded Greece, burning cities and hoping to dominate the world. This was done with one of the largest ancient armies ever assembled and the Persians took over most of Greece.
After being appointed generalissimo for the approaching Asian conquest, Alexander passed through Delphi. In Delphi, he was proclaimed invincible by the Pythian priestess. The Pythia, or Oracle of Delphi, was said to communicate with the god Apollo. She was highly regarded and her words were absolute to those who crossed the country to see her. The young king continued on to Thrace in 335, defeating the Triballi after forcing his way through the Shipka Pass. He proceeded to cross the Danube river and overthrow the Getae, a people well known for their mounted archery. After turning west, he defeated the Illyrians coalition, who had invaded Macedonia while he was away.
A revolt led by Theban democrats arose when rumour of the king’s death emerged. Alexander rode almost 300 kilometres in 14 days to Thebes from Pelion. Upon his arrival, the Thebans refused to lay down their arms. As a result, Alexander entered the city and razed it to the ground. He spared only the temples and the poet Pindor’s house, selling the survivors into slavery. Macedonian garrisons were left in the region to serve as a reminder of the events and the price for unruliness.
Alexander the Great Prepares for the Asian Conquest
Alexander had grown up hearing the idea of conquering Persia from his father. In addition to getting revenge for the actions of Xerxes, the wealth of Persia was sorely needed. Not only was wealth needed if the king was to maintain the army his father built, but also to repay his debts. Previous excursions into Persian territories by the Then Thousand, Agesilaus of Sparta and Greek soldiers of fortune had revealed vulnerabilities. These exploits had made it clear that Alexander would likely beat any Persian army with his cavalry force.
In 334 Alexander crossed the Dardanelles with an army close to 40,000 men. The army included at least 30,000 foot soldiers and 5,000 cavalry. Men from the Greek League and those from Macedonia journeyed with the king into Asia. Alexander’s second in command was Parmenio, a man who had worked with Philip in his conquests. Parmenio had secured a foothold in Asia Minor during his years working with Alexander’s father and was a priceless ally.
The balance of Alexander’s army would serve him well in his conquests in Asia. In addition to soldiers, there were engineers, architects, surveyors, historians, court officials and scientists present. Individuals of every profession that could be of use in a long battle were brought along for the great conquest.
The Beginning of the Persian Conquest
Darius III was king of the Persian (Achaemenid) Empire at the time of Alexander’s conquest. Only after visiting Ilium (Troy) did Alexander face his first Persian army. The army was led by three provincial governors, or satraps, and the two forces met at the Granicus (Kocabaş) river. At this first battle against the Persian Empire Alexander’s enemy had a plan. The Persian’s hoped to tempt the young king across the river and kill him in the confusion. If not for their lines breaking, the plan would have succeeded and the Achaemenid Empire would have been rid of Alexander. The 2,000 surviving Persians were put in chains and sent to Macedonia.
News of the Persian defeat spread across Asia Minor and cities opened their gates to Alexander and his army. Democracies were put in place once the tyrants were expelled and the king’s Panhellenic policy was set. Alexander sent 300 sets of armour recovered from the Granicus to Athens. These sets of armour were offerings to Athena, goddess of wisdom. Despite the democracies set up in the cities, they were still de facto ruled by Alexander. His intention to succeed the King of Persia was clear when he appointed Calas as satrap of Hellespontine Phrygia. When the city of Miletus resisted the plans due to the nearby position of the Persian fleet, Alexander took action. The king took the city but refused to meet the Persian ships in a naval battle. He insisted that he would defeat the fleet on land by occupying the coastal cities.
Eventually, in order to gain control, Alexander worked with Ada, the widowed sister of the satrap in Caria. The sister adopted Alexander as her son and overthrew Pixodarus. Once this was done, Alexander restored Ada to satrapy and continued his conquest.
The Conquest of Asia Minor
Western Asia Minor was conquered in the winter of 334-333 BC. The hill tribes of Pisidia and Lycia were overthrown and Alexander advanced to Perga on the coast in the spring. Memnon, the Greek commander of the Persian fleet, died at this time. This death was a great benefit to the king as it meant that the Persian fleet lost its great commander. Alexander pushed on to Gordium, then Ancyra and Cappadocia. In Cilicia he was held up with a fever, giving Darius III the chance to move freely.
The Persian king and his Grand Army advanced north to the eastern side of Mount Amanus. Faulty intelligence on both sides ultimately led to Alexander and Darius’ armies facing one another on the banks of the Pinarus River. Alexander’s army won the battle, known as the Battle of Issus, and Darius fled. Darius left his family upon fleeing, leaving them in the hands of Alexander. Thankfully for them, the women were treated with respect and honour and cared for by the Greeks.
Alexander the Great’s Journey to Egypt and the Conquest of the Mediterranean
After the battle of Issus, Alexander made his way south to Syria and Phoenicia. He planned to destroy the Persian fleet and get a stronger upper hand. Most cities let Alexander through their gates with little trouble and the king sent his second in command to Damascus. Permenio’s duty in Damascus was to secure the city and seize control of its wealth, including Darius’ war chest. At that time, Alexander received a letter from Darius asking for peace. In an arrogant reply, he demanded unconditional surrender to himself as lord of Asia. With peace unlikely, Alexander took the cities of Byblos and Sidon.
The Greeks lay siege to the island city of Tyre for seven months after being refused entry. While this happened, the Persian army recaptured several cities and islands by sea while being defeated by land. Furthermore, while the siege was ongoing, Darius sent a new peace offer of a ransom of 10,000 talents for his family. In addition to the gold, the Persian king would give up his lands west of the Euphrates River. Alexander refused the offer and finally stormed Tyre, selling the women and children into slavery.
The king left Parmanio in Syria and advanced south to Gaza. Until Gaza he had encountered little opposition, but in Gaza he was halted for two months. During this time he received a shoulder injury during a battle. Some accounts claim that Alexander visited Jerusalem but this had remained ambiguous. In November 332 he reached Egypt and spent the winter organizing and investigating the annual flooding of the Nile. He visited the oracle of the god Amon in Sīwah and learned of the Egyptian culture. Alexandria was founded and, having secured the Mediterranean‘s east coast, Alexander began the journey to Mesopotamia in the spring.
The Battle of Gaugamela
Rather than taking the direct route to Babylon, Alexander and his army went north towards the Tigris River. Darius learned of this change of route and marched up the Tigris to oppose him. The battle was fought on October 31st on the plain of Gaugamela. Upon his defeat, Darius and his remaining army were pursued for 56 kilometres to Arbela. The Persians were then able to escape on their Bactrian cavalry along with the Greek mercenaries to Media.
Alexander occupied the province and city of Babylon and set up a working regime in the city. The man who surrendered the city was able to remain satrap along with a Macedonian troop commander. Susa, the capital, was also surrendered and handed over a treasure of 50,000 talents to the Persians. Alexander established Darius’ family in the city where they could live in comfort. After doing this, he continued on his conquest.
Alexander Visits Persepolis and Pasargadae
Alexander’s army dispelled the Ouxian mountain tribes and traversed the Zagros Mountain range. Once over the mountains he was, at last, in Persia. He passed through the Pass of the Persian Gates, held by Ariobarzanes, and entered Persepolis and Pasargadae. In Persepolis Alexander burned down the palace of Xerxes. This was symbolic of the end of the Greek king’s Panhellenic war for revenge.
The End of Alexander’s Panhellenic War for Revenge
Alexander had begun to see a different future for the world he had conquered. Rather than being ruled by the Greeks, he hoped that both Macedonians and Persians could rule together. The king took care of business in Persia before continuing his pursuit of Darius. Darius had retreated into Bactria and, in the summer of 330 Alexander continued the chase.
When Alexander reached the Caspian Gates, he learned that Darius had been killed by the satrap of Bactria. This had happened during a skirmish near Shāhrūd and Darius had been stabbed and left to die. Out of respect, Alexander sent the body of Darius III back to Persepolis so that he could be buried in the royal tombs.
Between Darius’ death and Alexander’s conquest of Asia, little stood in his way. Now known as the ‘lord of Asia’, he advanced to central Asia. Parmanio, his second in command, was assassinated as evidence of him plotting against Alexander was uncovered. New, loyal men were appointed and promoted to places of trust upon his death.
In 327 Alexander and Roxana of Bactria got married and in 324 he wedded Parysatis II. Ultimately conquering parts of central Asia including India, his empire expanded to the Mediterranean’s east coast, Egypt and Asia Minor. In 10 years he had done all he had set out to do and in 323 he returned to Babylon. In June of 323 Alexander died in Babylon. While many say he died of malaria or other natural causes, many argue that it was poison that killed him.