Alexander (356-323 BCE) was a Macedonian king whose extraordinary military conquests ensured him a lasting place in the annals of war and empire. Despite the brevity of his life, Alexander enjoyed a favorable locus in time; his career would be the bridge linking what historians refer to as the Hellenic and Hellenistic periods of ancient history.
Alexander the Great (Megas Alexandros in the vernacular), otherwise known as Alexander III, was born in Pella, Macedon, the capital of the kingdom, in 356 BCE. The exact date of his birth is uncertain but is traditionally assigned to July 20. Alexander’s youth was marked by a rocky relationship with his sovereign father, Philip II of Macedon, though sources indicate Philip II was proud of his son after Alexander tamed his legendary steed, Bucephalus (“ox-head” in Greek). Alexander’s mother, Olympias of Epirus, on the other hand, seems to have enjoyed a close relationship with Alexander. Speculation continues as to whether Olympias and Alexander were co-conspirators in the assassination of Philip II.
Nevertheless, both parents thought Alexander deserved the best in education, and Philip II arranged for private tutelage from the Greek philosopher Aristotle, who nursed young Alexander on rhetoric and literature, including Alexander’s favorite work, Homer’s Iliad. Alexander often likened himself to Achilles, the celebrated hero of the Trojan War, and claimed descent from the hero by way of Olympias’s lineage. In fact, one of Alexander’s tutors, Lysimachus, referred to Alexander as “Alexander Achilles,” and referred to himself as Phoenix, the famous tutor of Achilles in the Iliad. From his father’s line, Alexander was linked genealogically to Hercules. By extension, Alexander was therefore related to Zeus, but this idea was further cemented by Olympias, who proclaimed that it was Zeus himself who had impregnated her, leaving Alexander as the resulting offspring. Ideas of his own divine descent remained with Alexander throughout his life.
After the assassination of Philip II in 336 BCE, Alexander rose to the throne; although years earlier, in 340 BCE, Alexander had been appointed to act as sole regent in Macedon when Philip II went to attack Byzantium. Alexander quickly crushed any hopes of rebellion in his southern Greek neighbors, whom Philip II was able to bring under his control, largely due to the economic and political distress caused by the Peloponnesian War. In 334 BCE Alexander began perhaps his most famous conquest, that of the Persian Empire, held under the leadership of King Darius III.
It was during these conquests that Alexander is reported to have loosed the infamous “Gordian Knot,” which, according to prophecy, was a feat to be accomplished only by the king of Asia. Whether the intricate knot was loosed by a stroke of Alexander’s sword, or by his removing the pole pin to which the knot was attached, remains unsettled. Regardless, the prophecy had been fulfilled by Alexander, and so it followed that he became the next king of Asia Minor.
Alexander had conquered much of the known world, including Phoenicia, Egypt, and Mesopotamia, and extended the boundaries of his empire to Punjab, India, the site of Alexander’s epic battle against the satrap Porus, immortalized in Handel’s operas, Alessandro and Poro. Along the way, Alexander had established some 70 towns and outposts, many of which bear his name, including perhaps most famously, Alexandria, Egypt. Alexander’s image became commonplace in many of these towns, in the form of either plaques, busts, or statues.
Alexander’s conquests were unique in that he was not as much of a destroyer as a preserver, especially regarding the traditions and the customs of the peoples he conquered. For instance, during his Persian campaigns, he adopted the custom of proskynesis (symbolic “kissing towards” a hand of a social superior to acknowledge rank), much to the chagrin of his Greek subjects. Proskynesis was believed to be a reservation for deities and was considered blasphemous by his Greek troops. Alexander was not yet considered a deity in their view, despite his own claim of divine descent.
On June 10, 323 BCE, Alexander met a sudden death in the palace of Nebuchadnezzar II of Babylon, which had become the cultural capital of Alexander’s empire. Theories abound as to the cause; malaria, poisoning (both alcohol and other toxins, such as arsenic, have been considered), typhoid fever, and even the West Nile virus have all been named as possible culprits. The matter of the division of his empire was asked of the dying Alexander. One supposed response was the Greek word krateroi, an ambiguous statement that could have meant either that his empire was to be bequeathed to the “stronger” or to Craterus, one of Alexander’s leading commanders of his army. Regardless of what was said, chaos ensued after Alexander’s death, and wars over rightful succession were waged.
The empire was eventually divided into three new empires: the Seleucid Empire of Persia and Mesopotamia, the Antigonid Empire of Macedon and Greece, and the Ptolemaic Kingdom of Egypt (which included the land of Palestine). Though the land remained divided, it still maintained a cohesion that had been established by Alexander the Great. The new Hellenistic period had dawned upon the ancient world, and with it a profoundly Greek linguistic and cultural influence spread far and wide across the empire Alexander had created.
After Alexander’s death, literature based on the life of the historic king of Macedon flourished. “Alexander romance,” legends, myths, and lore surrounding the life and conquests of Alexander, continued to be written, revised, and expanded well through the Middle Ages. Even in contemporary times, Alexander continues to be represented in popular media, including cinema. One such example is Oliver Stone’s 2004 film Alexander, which garnered both praise and controversy for its approach to the subject.
See also Attila the Hun; Caesar, Gaius Julius; Genghis Khan; Peloponnesian War; Rameses II
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University Press. (Original work published 2001) Prevas, J. (2004). Envy of the gods: Alexander the
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Worthington, I. (Ed.). (2003). Alexander the Great: A reader. London: Routledge.