The Great

Alexander the Great or Alexander of Macedonia was the king of the Ancient Macedonian Kingdom and the greatest military commander the ancient world had ever known. When discussing his biography with French diplomat Bourrienne, Napoleon Bonaparte once said "I place Alexander in the first rank, my reason for giving the preference to the king of Macedon is, on account of the conception, and above all, for the execution of his campaign in Asia.” Many of us have heard of this great Macedonian but what exactly were his accomplishments and why is he revered by so many Macedonians today?

Born in July of 336 BC in Pella, Alexander was the son of the Macedonian King, Phillip II, a member of the Argead dynasty. His mother, Olympias, was the princess of Epirus and was Phillip’s fourth wife. Raised in the manner of noble Macedonian youths, Alexander learned to read, play the lyre, ride, fight, and hunt.

By the age of 10, Alexander showed much courage and ambition when he managed to tame a wild horse brought to his father by a trader from Thessaly. Philip, overjoyed at this display, kissed his son tearfully, declaring: "My boy, you must find a kingdom big enough for your ambitions, for Macedonia is too small for you", and bought the horse for him. Alexander named it Bucephalas and named a city near India after the animal after it died.

On Alexander’s 13th birthday, Phillip began the search for a tutor and selected Macedonian polymath, Aristotle, for the role. Aristotle taught Alexander and his companions about medicine, philosophy, morals, religion, logic, and art. Under Aristotle's tutelage, Alexander developed a passion for the works of Homer, and in particular, the Iliad. Aristotle gave him an annotated copy, which Alexander later carried on his campaigns.

At the age of 16, Alexander's education under Aristotle ended, and Phillip deemed him ready for combat. One of his very first military campaigns included oppressing a revolt in Thrace while Phillip conquered the Greek city Byzantion (modern day Istanbul). In 338 BC, Alexander joined his father and the Macedonian army as they marched southward towards Thermopylae. They went on to occupy the city of Elatea which was only a few days' march from both Athens and Thebes. The Macedonians marched until they were finally confronted by the Greek army near Chaeronea. With Philip commanding the right wing and Alexander the left and accompanied by a group of Philip's trusted generals, the Macedonians crushed the Greek army once and for all and marched unopposed into the Peloponnese, the heart of Greece. It is said that after the battle of Chaeronea, Phillip was so overjoyed that he danced an ‘oro’ on the battleground where the mighty Macedonian army won.

Upon return to Pella with the entirety of Greece conquered, Phillip married Cleopatra Eurydice in 338 BC, the niece of his general Attalus. The marriage made Alexander's position as heir less secure, since any son of Cleopatra Eurydice would be a fully Macedonian heir, while Alexander was only half-Macedonian. After feuding with his father on the day of the marriage, Alexander exclaimed: ‘How can this man take you from Macedonia to Persia when he can’t move from one seat to the next’ after Phillip stumbled around drunk. Alexander was banished into exile and returned 6 months later.            

In the summer of 336 BC, Philip was assassinated by the captain of his bodyguards, Pausanias. As Pausanias tried to escape, he tripped over a vine and was killed by his pursuers. Alexander was proclaimed king on the spot by the nobles and army at the age of 20.         

Now king, Alexander had Persia in his sights. Phillip had made the necessary arrangements for an invasion to be possible before his death and Alexander had the cunning and ambition to fulfil his fathers dreams of being king of Asia. After securing and consolidating his rule at home, Alexander set out to defeat Darius III and absorb the Persian Empire.

Alexander's army crossed into Asia Minor in 334 BC with approximately 48,100 soldiers; 6,100 cavalry; and a fleet of 120 ships with crews numbering 38,000 comprising mainly of the finest Macedonian troops and some Greek mercenaries and slaves. After an initial victory against Persian forces at the Battle of the Granicus, Alexander accepted the surrender of the Persian satrap. Moving on from Halicarnassus, Alexander proceeded into Gordium, where he famously ‘untied’ the Gordian Knot. According to legend, Alexander was told that the future King of Asia would be the only person to untie the knot. Alexander reacted to this in a typical Macedonian fashion by unsheathing his sword and cutting the knot in two.

In the spring of 333 BC, Alexander marched into Syria, and into Egypt by 332 BC. During his stay in Egypt, he founded Alexandria and was proclaimed Pharaoh. Leaving Egypt in 331 BC, he defeated Darius at the Battle of Gaugamela. The Macedonian Phalanx proved too effective and Darius fled while Alexander captured Babylon. Alexander pursued Darius and found that he had been murdered by his own generals. He claimed that, while dying, Darius had named him as his successor to the Persian throne. The Persian Empire is normally considered to have fallen with Darius.

Alexander returned to Babylon and a plot against his life was revealed. One of his officers, Philotas, was executed for failing to alert Alexander. Drunk and ever more suspicious, Alexander personally killed, Cleitus during a violent drunken altercation in which Cleitus accused Alexander of several judgmental mistakes and most especially, of having forgotten the Macedonian way in favour of a corrupt oriental lifestyle.

In a display of unity between Macedonians and Persians and with hopes to set an example to his generals, Alexander took Roxana, an ethnic Persian, as his wife.

In the winter of 327/326 BC, Alexander personally led a campaign against King Porus of India. A fierce battle ensued in the Hindu Kush where the Macedonians were pitted against the mighty Indian war-elephants. Alexander was wounded in the shoulder and ankle by a spear, but recovered. His beloved horse, Bucephalas, was not so lucky and died in the battle.

East of Porus' kingdom, near the Ganges River, Alexander's army, exhausted by years of campaigning, mutinied, refusing to march farther east. Alexander tried to persuade his soldiers to march farther, but his general Coenus pleaded with him to change his opinion and return. The men, he said, "longed to again see their parents, their wives and children, their homeland". Alexander eventually agreed and turned south, marching alongside the Indus and back into Babylon.

Back in Babylon, Alexander planned a series of new campaigns, beginning with an invasion of Arabia, but he would not have a chance to realize them. On either 10 or 11 June 323 BC, Alexander died in his palace in Babylon II, at age 32. Shortly before beginning the planned Arabian campaign, he contracted a high fever after he drank from a cup of wine. He “shrieked aloud as if smitten by a violent blow”. The fever took hold and became stronger with each following day to the point that he was unable to move and speak.  The Macedonians were allowed to file past their leader for the last time before he finally succumbed to the illness on June 7, 323 BC in the Macedonian month of Daesius. Alexander the Great, the Macedonian king and the great conqueror of Persian Empire, died at the age of 33 without designating a successor to the Macedonian Empire.

Alexander's death opened the anarchic age of the Diadochi Wards and a bloody Macedonian civil war for power followed.  As soon as the news of Alexander's death was known, the Greeks rebelled and the Macedonians were defeated and expelled from Greece. In Asia, the Macedonian commanders who served Alexander fought each other for power. The Macedonian Empire split into four main kingdoms - Seleucus (Asia), Ptolemy (Egypt), Lysimachus (Thrace), and Antipater's son Cassander (Macedonia, including Greece). The rise of Rome put an end to Macedonian kingdoms. Macedonia and Greece were conquered in 167/145 BC.

Alexander's body was laid in a gold anthropoid sarcophagus that was filled with honey, which was in turn placed in a gold casket. While Alexander's funeral cortege was on its way to Macedon, Ptolemy seized it and took it temporarily to Memphis. His successor, Ptolemy II, attempted to transfer the sarcophagus to Alexandria however, legend has it that the convoy was ambushed during a sandstorm and Alexander’s body remains lost to this day.

Alexander's legacy extends beyond his military conquests. His campaigns greatly increased contacts and trade between the East and West. Some of the cities he founded became major cultural centers, many surviving into the 21st century.

Macedonians from every generation from antiquity to the republic have always felt an affinity to this great general, and while many countries may claim him to be theirs, Alexander was and always be a Macedonian.

Back to blog

Leave a comment

Please note, comments need to be approved before they are published.