Alexander is born in Pella, the Macedonian capital, at about the time his father becomes king of Macedonia. Philip II’s expansion of the kingdom, an unfolding saga of glory and excitement, is Alexander’s boyhood.
At an early age he proves himself well equipped to share in these military adventures. He is only sixteen when he is left in charge of Macedonia, while his father campaigns in the east against Byzantium. During his father’s absence he crushes a rebellious tribe, the Thracians. As a reward he is allowed to found a new town in their territory – Alexandropolis, the first of many to be named after him.
Macedonia is considered by other Greek states to be a backward place, but the education of the prince is the best that Greece can provide. In 343, when Alexander is thirteen, Philip invites Aristotle to become the royal tutor.
For three years the philosopher teaches the prince. No doubt they study Homer together. The Iliad becomes a profound source of inspiration to Alexander. Scrolls of the text will later be kept beside him in his tent while he achieves military feats to put the Homeric heroes to shame. Alexander and his most intimate friend from childhood days, Hephaestion, are compared by their contemporaries to the Homeric hero Achilles and his lover Patroclus.
Philip’s campaign in 340 against Byzantium provokes Athens and Thebes into taking the field against the Macedonians. The two sides meet in 338 at Chaeronaea. Later tradition credits the 18-year-old Alexander with leading a cavalry charge which decides the outcome of the battle. There is no historical evidence for this. But the prince certainly fights at Chaeronaea, and the day ends with a conclusive win for the Macedonians.
This victory enables Philip to present himself as the leader of all the Greek states. His position is formally acknowledged at a congress in Corinth, in 337.
The campaign against Persia: from 336 BC
One of the resolutions of the League of Corinth is to launch a war against Persia, with Philip as commander of the confederate forces. In the following spring (336) an advance guard of 10,000 troops sets off eastwards. But that same summer, at a feast to celebrate the wedding of his daughter, Philip is murdered by one of his courtiers.
The League immediately elects his son, Alexander, in his place as commander. But this degree of unity is short-lived. The Thebans rebel against the League. Alexander storms Thebes in 335 BC, killing 6000. He then puts into effect a stern judgement by the council of the League. Theban territory is divided between its neighbours. The surviving Thebans are enslaved.
This display of ruthless authority enables Alexander to leave Macedonia under the control of a regent, with reasonable confidence that Greece will remain calm during what may prove to be a prolonged absence.
In the spring of 334, still at the age of only twenty-two, Alexander marches east with some 5000 cavalry and 30,000 footsoldiers. There are ancient scores to be settled between Greece and Persia. And they will be settled fast. But first he engages in some romantic tourism, making a pilgrimage to the site of Troy. In a classic Greek ceremony he runs naked to the supposed tomb of Achilles, to place a garland. He is presented with a shield, said to have been dedicated by the Trojans to Athena.
From now on this sacred shield invariably accompanies Alexander into battle. It soon sees action. A short distance to the east of Troy a Persian army awaits the Macedonians. The battle is fought at the river Granicus, with Alexander leading a cavalry charge through the water. The Persians are routed. Many of their troops are Greek mercenaries, of whom thousands are captured. Most of them are killed, but 2000 are sent back to Macedonia in chains to provide slave labour in the mines.
A year later, at Issus, Alexander defeats an army led by the Persian emperor, Darius III. He captures the emperor’s mother, wife and children and treats them with every courtesy – a detail which does much for his reputation.
The destruction of the Persian empire: 333 – 330 BC
Within a mere eighteen months Alexander has cleared the Persians out of Anatolia, which they have held for two centuries. The conqueror now moves south along the coast through present-day Syria, Lebanon and Israel. The ports here are the home bases of the Persian fleet in the Mediterranean. By occupying them he intends to cripple the fleet and deprive it of contact with the cities of the empire, including Persepolis. Most of the Phoenician towns open their gates to him. The exception is the greatest of them all, Tyre, which he besieges for seven months.
By the autumn of 332 Alexander is in Egypt. The Persian governor rapidly surrenders.
Alexander spends the winter in Egypt. His actions there are the first indication of how he will set about keeping control of distant conquests, places with their own cultural traditions. One method is to establish outposts of Greek culture. In Egypt he founds the greatest of the cities known by his name – Alexandria.
Another method, equally important, is to present himself in the guise of a local ruler. To this end he carries out a sacrifice to Apis, a sacred bull at Memphis, where the priests crown him pharaoh. And he makes a long pilgrimage to a famous oracle of the sun god Amon, or Amen-Re, at Siwa. The priest duly recognizes Alexander as the son of the god.
In the spring of 331 Alexander is ready to move northeast into Mesopotamia, where he meets and defeats the Persian emperor Darius in the decisive battle of Gaugamela. His way is now open to the great Persian capital city of Persepolis.
In a symbolic gesture, ending conclusively the long wars between Greeks and Persians, he burns the palace of Xerxes in 330 (legend maintains that he is prompted to this act of vandalism by his Athenian mistress, Thaïs, after a drunken party). To make plain who now rules the Persian empire, Alexander adopts the ceremonial dress and court rituals of the emperor.
Alexander in the east: 330 – 323 BC
For two years Alexander moves through his newly acquired empire (which stretches north beyond Samarkand and eastwards through modern Afghanistan) subduing any pockets of opposition and establishing Greek settlements. Then he goes further, in 327, through the mountain passes into India.
One of the towns founded by Alexander in India is called Bucephala. It is named to commemorate his famous horse, Bucephalus, which dies here at what turns out to be the furthest point of this astonishing expedition. Alexander’s troops threaten to mutiny in the Indian monsoon. At last, in 325, he turns for home.
With his army reinforced by some Indian elephants, Alexander is back in Persia. In 324 he holds a great feast at Susa to celebrate the capture of the Persian empire. During the festivities, to emphasize that Greece and Persia are now one, he and eighty of his officers marry Persian wives. His own bride on this occasion is one of the daughters of Darius. Another daughter is married to Hephaestion
Later that year Hephaestion dies of a fever at Ecbatana. Alexander mourns extravagantly for his most intimate friend, ordering great shrines to be built in Hephaestion’s honour. But in the following year, 323, after a banquet at Babylon, he himself is suddenly taken ill and dies. The greatest conqueror in history, he is still only thirty-two.
The legacy of conquest: from 323 BC
Alexander has no heir (though the posthumous son of one of his wives is formally referred to as the king, until murdered in his early teens in 309). So Alexander’s generals set about carving up the new empire.
After prolonged warfare two of them emerge with sizable portions. Ptolemy establishes himself in Egypt. And Seleucus wins control of a vast area – Anatolia, Mesopotamia, Persia and the eastern part of the empire, including at first even the territories in India.
Ptolemy adds legitimacy to his rule in Egypt by acquiring Alexander’s body. He intercepts the embalmed corpse on its way to burial, brings it to Egypt and places it in a golden coffin in Alexandria.
It will remain one of the famous sights of the town for many years, until probably destroyed in riots in the 3rd century AD.
The companions of Alexander the Great are Greek in origin, as Macedonians, and their descendants continue to see themselves as Greeks. A veneer of Greek culture is the lasting result of Alexander’s conquests. It is spread thinly from Egypt to Persia and even beyond the Khyber Pass, in addition to the many Mediterranean regions lying closer to Greece.
These places do not become Greek, but they acquire a Greek tinge – for which the 19th century coins a name, Hellenistic. Alexander’s victories launch the Hellenistic (‘Greek-ish’) Age, which will last until the death of Cleopatra in 30 BC.
Macedonia itself, Alexander’s homeland, is subject to a succession of violent upheavals. In one of them his mother, Olympias, arrives with an army in 317 BC and kills his half-witted half-brother, Philip III, together with Philip’s wife and 100 of his supporters. She loses her own life in the next coup, in the following year.
In 276 a stable dynasty is at last established by descendants of Antigonus, another of Alexander’s generals. But its future is relatively short. As the most westerly part of Alexander’s empire, Macedonia is the first region to be devoured by its imperial successor. Rome first invades Macedonia in 197 BC. From 148 Macedonia is reduced to the status of a Roman province. Not until the 19th century does it feature prominently again in history.
But nothing can dim the memory of Alexander the Great.
The regimental song of the British Grenadiers, seeking to list heroes in the Grenadier class, begins with the line: ‘Some talk of Alexander, and some of Hercules’. The tourist to Troy, in 333 BC, would be pleased with the choice of his companion for the opening line – and pleased too with the order of listing, even if it is imposed by considerations of rhythm and rhyme.