No history of Alexander the Great survives from his own time, except
in small fragments. The best account is from the mid-second
century A.D., from a Greek-speaking Roman senator named
Arrian, who using earlier histories put together the closest thing we have to an authoritative version of Alexander's life. By this time, 400 years after the events, many legends about Alexander had grown up. They had not just grown up -- they had been actively made up and broadcast, right from
the beginning. Alexander himself, even before he had done anything extraordinary, had done his best to convince contemporaries that he was a special child of fortune. During his major expeditions, he paid a historian to prove that his extraordinary deeds were the result of divine favor. After his death, many of his associates wrote histories. We would love to have some of these first-hand accounts; especially the one written by Ptolemy, a Macedonian general who became king of Egypt. But if we did, the problem would not go away. These men wrote to gain as much reflected glory as possible from their association with Alexander. Ptolemy, for instance, wrote that Alexander was led across a desert by two talking snakes. The history of Alexander has more pitfalls than most history: on
the surface, it is the history of a manufactured political myth more than anything else.
Thus restoring the real Alexander is as difficult as restoring the real
Mao Zedong would be -- so much of what has been written was lies from the
start. His adventures and accomplishments get caught up in the myth-making.
One can react to this problem by falling into hero worship or
retreating into skepticism, though hero-worship is the choice of 99% of the historians who have written on him. I'm simply going to follow established authorities, deleting all the comments about how wonderful, far-sighted and good for civilization all this conquering was.
Alexander crossed from Europe to Asia in 334 B.C. He died in 323, in Babylon, lord of the entire Persian empire and more besides. The events of this lecture, then, cover a mere 11 years. Not all of those 11 years were spent campaigning.
This remarkably successful career began when Alexander crossed the Hellespont
into Anatolia in the spring of 334. He was following up an earlier
expedition that he or his father had sent, and so
there was no opposition at this initial, dangerous stage of the enterprise.
Alexander was able to make a non-military visit to a place he very much
wanted to see: the site of Troy, and particularly the tomb of his
supposed ancestor, the hero Achilles. Alexander made a great ceremony
of the visit. He dedicated his own armor in the temple of Athena, and took
down ancient armor that had been there for centuries, to use as his own.
He put a crown on the tomb of Achilles, and his childhood friend and lover
Hephaestion crowned the tomb of Patroclus, Achilles' friend in the Iliad.
The whole exercise was meant to evoke the spirit of Homer, to give a special
flavor to his campaigns.
Alexander's entire motivation, throughout his life, was to emulate or even surpass the Homeric heroes, who had also attacked Asia and won famous and glorious victories. His ability to play that part convincingly, and the fact of his success, explains his appeal. What might have seemed ludicrous in the case of failure was inspiring in the light of success. This should not blind us to the calculated propaganda aspects of these early gestures.
Soon enough, Alexander had to fight. The satrap based at
Sardis came against him with an army that outnumbered the Macedonian force:
the satrap had about 40,000 men, many of them Greek mercenaries; Alexander
perhaps 30,000 infantry and 5000 cavalry. There was a hard-fought
battle at the river Granicus, in which Alexander, as was his habit, fought
in the front ranks of the cavalry. Alexander won, in large part because
his cavalry beat the Persian cavalry and then cut up the flanks of the
Persian infantry phalanx. Few Macedonians lost their lives, and this
put heart into the
The Battle of the Granicus did not, however, guarantee anything, even the conquest of Anatolia. There were many other Persian satraps and armies, and there was a big fleet off the shore of Ionia, ready to harass Alexander wherever possible. It is interesting to note the amount of opposition that Alexander faced from other Greeks. Not only had the Persian army held a large number of Greeks, but the Persian fleet was commanded by a very able Greek named Memnon. Further, although democrats in the Ionian cities welcomed the king of Macedon as a deliverer, oligarchs were determined to hold by the Persian cause, and admitted Persian garrisons to their cities.
Alexander had an unimpressive fleet. Despite the promises of the
Greek cities to Philip and himself, few had sent the ships they had obliged
themselves to provide. Alexander had not felt strong enough to insist.
So Alexander dismissed his fleet, rather than pay for its upkeep, and determined
to neutralize Persian sea-power by taking all the important ports of the
Anatolian coast. In Alexander's time, this was a more practical idea
than it would have been 100 years earlier. Greek rulers now had at
their disposal sophisticated siege engines and siege tactics. These
had either been invented in the Sicilian-Carthaginian wars of the 4th century,
or been adopted from the east, depending on who you
Alexander spent the rest of 334 reducing Anatolian cities that resisted him; he also made arrangements to govern what he conquered. This was not meant to be a one-time looting expedition, but a permanent conquest.
In 333, Alexander moved east through Anatolia, aiming for the central parts of the Persian empire. While Alexander was moving east, the Great King of Persia, whose name was Darius, had mustered a huge army and was moving west to intercept the invader. They came together on the south coast of Anatolia at Issus. Darius actually came at Alexander from behind. Alexander had been moving so fast that Darius found his wounded and sick soldiers before he found the main Macedonian army. According to the story, Darius cut the hands off the wounded in a gratuitous act of terrorism and cruelty. When Alexander heard of this, he turned his army around and went after the Persians.
The Macedonians, though much outnumbered, had the advantage of the landscape. Issus was at a narrow spot between the mountains and the sea, and the whole Persian force could not be brought to bear. Alexander's people soon had the Persians -- who were again included many Greeks -- in retreat. The legend has it that Darius, in his chariot, and Alexander, on horseback, came face to face, and Darius wounded Alexander with his dagger. That may be romance, but what is certain is that Darius fled the battle as quickly as possible, leaving behind his tents, his treasure, and his wife and children. He also left behind ambassadors from Sparta, Athens and Thebes, who had been there intriguing against Alexander.
The battle of Issus was a great victory. The Persian empire still remained to be conquered, but the fact that Alexander had defeated Darius personally did much for his prestige. The Greeks at home would be more careful about crossing him in the future. It was beginning to look like Alexander might win. Certainly he thought so. When Darius sent an ambassador seeking some kind of accommodation, Alexander replied, "Ask whatever you like, but ask not as from an equal, but as from one who is Great King of Asia, lord of everything you own (Bury, 748, adapted)."
Despite these words, Alexander did not move to claim everything Darius
owned at once, by plunging into Mesopotamia and Iran. Rather, he
turned aside to Syria, Palestine and Egypt. He hoped to secure his
rear by taking all the seacoasts of the empire before going any farther
capture of Phoenicia in particular was important, because this was the home base of most of the Persian fleet.
Phoenicia gave Alexander one of his most difficult tests. Most of the cities there were willing to submit, but the greatest of them, Tyre, the rich and adventurous mother-city of Carthage, defied him. It felt quite safe doing so: Tyre, at least most of it, was on an island 1000 yards off shore. Alexander was unwilling to tolerate the existence of such a dangerous enemy base behind him, so he spent the first seven or eight months of 332 building a mole, or breakwater, from the mainland to the city. It was a difficult task, because his workers were vulnerable to attack from the fleet and from the city walls. The siege of Tyre was thus a long battle of siege engines. Eventually it was won by Alexander, who massacred or enslaved most of the population, in time-honored conqueror style.
After the Syro-Palestinian coast was taken, Egypt fell easily. Persian
rule had never been popular there, and a recent king had gone out of his
way to outrage Egyptian religious sentiment. Two incidents stand
out at this point. Having taken Egypt, Alexander took much of his
into the fierce western desert so that he could visit the isolated oasis shrine of Amun-Re. It was a risky journey, but Alexander was willing to take the risk to gain divine guidance from a famous oracle.
He never told anyone what he asked. Some of his companions thought
he asked about his parentage, if he really was the son of a god.
Another good possibility is that he asked Amun (known to the Greeks as
Zeus Ammon) what he should sacrifice to the gods when he reached the Ocean.
If he did ask this, it means that Alexander from this point was determined
to conquer the whole world. The Greeks believed that Ocean
was the body of water that surrounded the single continent of land
that made up the inhabitable world.
The second event that took place in Egypt was the founding of a city at the western mouth of the Nile. This city was named Alexandria, after its founder, and was meant for two purposes. It was to be a great commercial city that would dominate the eastern Mediterranean, displacing Tyre, and for that matter, Athens. It was also to be a Greek-Macedonian colony in Egypt, a permanent prop to Alexander's power in this still-rich but very foreign country. Alexandria in (or by) Egypt was simply the first many Alexandrias founded by the conqueror as part of his policy of permanently ruling what he had taken. It was also by far the most successful. For centuries thereafter, Alexandria was the richest city on the eastern shores of the Mediterranean, and the Greek capital of Egypt.
In 331, Alexander moved back to Asia and invaded Mesopotamia.
Here he won the most important of his victories, at Gaugamela. Darius
had assembled the largest army possible, 1,000,000 men supposedly.
Its cavalry alone outnumbered Alexander's host, and it included a chariot
scythes on its wheels and an elephant corps from India, not to mention, once again, Greek mercenaries. These forces did not avail Darius, who once more was put to flight. Another year, another country conquered: both Babylon and Susa, one of the Persian capitals, were taken.
The year 330 was devoted to the conquest of Persis itself. The
Persian army hoped to hold Alexander at the crucial passes known as the
Persian Gates. With 40,000 men in a narrow place, the Gates seemed
impregnable. But Alexander found a way around the pass, and took
selection of light and heavy infantry behind the gates and surrounded the Persian army which was entirely destroyed. This victory enabled Alexander to take Persepolis, perhaps the most impressive of the Persian capitals. A treasure of 120,000 talents, billions of dollars in our terms, was found,
and the Macedonian army lived among luxury for four months. The end of the party was spectacular. According to one story, an Athenian courtesan named Thais, in the middle of one drunken revel, challenged the Macedonians and Greeks to burn the palace. After all, she said, Xerxes had burnt Athens and wrecked its temples in 480. Why should the Persian buildings not feel
Greek revenge? It sounded like a good idea at the time, so they set to work with torches. Eventually Alexander came to his senses, and the fire was put out, but not before a lot of damage had been done and a controversial episode added to the progress of the divinely-inspired
I won't describe all of Alexander's further victories. It should
be mentioned, though, that Darius was deposed by one of his satraps, a
man named Bessus, because Darius had shown himself to be
useless as king. Then Bessus took the throne himself. Alexander spent most of the years 330 to 328 pursuing Bessus through the Iranian countries and into Bactria and Turkestan (Afghanistan and Central Asia), founding new Alexandrias as he went. Eventually Bessus was captured and
cruelly executed for attacking the king who was, in Alexander's mind, his
predecessor as Lord of Asia.
Alexander's determination to avenge his enemy Darius is indicative of
a change in his attitude. What had begun as a Greek crusade, as revenge
for the Persian War and as a reenactment of the
Trojan War, was now becoming something else. Alexander thought of himself as being as much the heir of the Persian kings as their enemy. He had conquered the Medes and the Persians, and they treated him as they did their own monarchs, with the kind of bowing and scraping that Greeks had
often seen as servile, the signs of eastern slavery. And Alexander accepted this. Some Macedonians began to resent the kind of state that now surrounded their ruler, and threatened to separate him from them.
The issue of divinity caused one dust-up in the royal circle. At Samarkand, at a royal drinking party, some Greek poets began praising Alexander as being greater than Castor and Pollux, who were heroes or minor divinities. One of the generals, a foster-brother of Alexander named Clitus, objected, and got into a roaring fight with the king. Clitus said that Alexander was forgetting how much he owed to others, including himself. In the end, Alexander picked up a spear and ran him through. If this drunken brawl proves anything, it was that it was too late to keep the king of Macedon from acting any way he liked, even with his closest supporters. He was simply too powerful to be treated as an equal or near-equal by anyone.
A bit later, the pages, the sons of favored noblemen who were being
trained in the king's
retinue, came to the conclusion that Alexander was overreaching himself. The crucial incident was when Alexander required his Macedonians to bow to him in the same way that Persians of the same rank did. This did not involve absolute abasement, but it was abhorrent to Greek feelings and
showed the Macedonians that they were no better than the men they had beaten. One Greek, Callisthenes, a nephew of Aristotle and the official historian of the expedition, refused to bow in the prescribed manner and was refused the royal kiss of friendship that was customary. Soon after,
the pages, whom Callisthenes was partly responsible for, resolved to kill Alexander while they slept: they had the opportunity because guarding his bed was one of their duties. The night of the plan Alexander foiled them by staying out drinking till dawn. Then someone got nervous and spilled
the beans. As a result Callisthenes and the guilty pages were executed. The death of Callisthenes caused something of a stir among his intellectual friends back in Greece. In the army itself, most simply adjusted to the new regime.
The ultimate extent of Alexander's conquests was in India (327-5). Alexander
seems to have thought India and the rest of Asia was much smaller than
it actually is, and he hoped to achieve a universal empire with just a
few more campaigns. His soldiers loyally fought for him and conquered
Punjab; but when he wanted to march across one more desert towards the Ganges, the army refused to go. Alexander reluctantly solidified his Indian conquests, marched down the Indus, and then returned to Babylon along the coast. Ironically, this march along a hot and dry shore was as
dangerous to his army as anything else he had done -- many soldiers died of the heat.
Alexander spent the years 324-323 in the old Persian capitals or in
Bablyon, which was marked out as his new capital. He had plenty to
keep him busy. While he had been gone in the farther reaches of Asia,
many of the satraps and officers he had left behind had gone wild with
guilty were tracked down and punished and replaced. Alexander also worked to attach the Persians loyally to his cause. One step had been taken before he left Persis and Media for the east: he had asked to have Persian and other Asian youths trained in warfare in the Macedonian-Greek style.
When Alexander got back, there they were, 30,000 of them, a group as big as his original army. This caused some dismay among the Macedonians, who feared they would be replaced. But actually Alexander depended quite a bit on his compatriots -- he just wanted to use them to best advantage.
To do this, he set up many colonies where Greeks and Macedonians were settled along with his Asian subjects, with each group being required to do the same military service, and each receiving equal privileges. Intermarriage was also used. On one occasion at Susa, the king married the daughter of Darius, Hephaistion his friend married her sister, and other Macedonian grandees (Bury) married the daughters of high-ranking Persian nobles. There was a huge wedding feast with 9,000 guests. More important, 10,000 rank and file Macedonian soldiers, with the encouragement of their king, married Asian wives.
But it took all of Alexander's charm to defuse Macedonian fears of being
discarded. At one point there was a mutiny, in which the troops asked
him to discharge them all, not just the old men as
Alexander had planned. Some shouted out: "Go and conquer with your father Ammon." Alexander won them back, but it was a touchy moment.
It is hard to say if Alexander would ever have been satisfied
simply to govern what he had already taken. In 323 he was planning
an expedition to Arabia, which would have been a tough nut to crack.
But that year, disaster struck down the young king, who was only 32 years
old. First, his
friend Hephaiston died. Hephaiston was perhaps the only person left for whom Alexander was friend first and great king second. Alexander felt the loss keenly. He spent huge amounts on a funeral, commanded that Hephaiston be treated as a hero or minor deity, and planned monuments and shrines all over the empire. But the most important effect of this death is that Alexander never stopped drinking. After four months he got sick, and still continued to drink. Eventually he died, leaving the world a much different place than it had been a mere twelve years earlier.
The consequences of the conquests deserve more time than we have in this lecture. Let's end by looking at two important points.
First, Alexander opened to Greece a whole new world for colonization
and exploitation. Because of him, the Greeks became the ruling class
of a huge empire that took in the entire Middle East and more. It
is this Hellenistic world created by Alexander and his army that
gave its historic impact. The classical culture created in Greece
in the previous two centuries became, thanks to Greek colonization and
influence, became the concern of educated and ambitious men over a large
part of the world. Alexander and his successors planted Greek cities
all over Western Asia; and this caused Greek theater, art, philosophy,
and poetry to spread as well.
Could this have happened without Alexander? It is worth noting how many Greeks -- from generals to foot-soldiers to Persian deportees -- Alexander found all over Persia. Greek infiltration was well underway. But the privileged position gained by Greeks through his conquests could not have
happened any other way. And privilege did give Greek culture more penetrating power than it would have gotten purely on its merits, however great those merits were.
Second, Alexander had a big effect on Greek culture itself. I have talked in the past of the Greek ideal of the citizen, the political man equal to his fellows and owning no master, the ideal that had developed in the archaic age from the more aristocratic ideal of the Dark Age. Alexander, through his success, made the idea of having an aristocratic master more acceptable to citizens, even the richer and prouder among them. After all, who could be ashamed to obey men like Alexander and his generals, some of whom became kings afterwards? Surely divinity had picked them out, had established their extraordinary power?
Alexander, the perfect recreation of a Homeric hero, and then some, made kingship intellectually respectable. We have said that old Greece was becoming more stratified before Alexander. Alexander and his legend-writers gave the trend a big boost.
Robin Lane Fox, The Search for Alexander
---, Alexander the Great (NU)