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Alexander III the Great, the King of Macedonia and conqueror of the Persian Empire is considered one of the greatest military geniuses of all times. He was an inspiration for later conquerors such as Hannibal the Carthaginian, the Romans Pompey and Caesar, and Napoleon. Alexander was born in 356 BC in Pella, the ancient capital of Macedonia. He was the son of Philip II, King of Macedonia, and Olympias, the princess of neighboring Epirus. He spent his childhood watching his father transforming Macedonia into a great military power, winning victory after victory on the battlefields throughout the Balkans. When he was 13, Philip hired the Greek philosopher Aristotle to be Alexander’s tutor. During the next three years, Aristotle gave Alexander training in rhetoric and literature and stimulated his interest in science, medicine, and philosophy, all of which became of importance in Alexander’s later life. In 340, when Philip assembled a large Macedonian army and invaded Thrace, he left his 16 years old son with the power to rule Macedonia in his absence as regent, which shows that even at such young age Alexander was recognized as quite capable. But as the Macedonian army advanced deep into Thrace, the Thracian tribe of Maedi bordering north-eastern Macedonia rebelled and posed a danger to the country. Alexander assembled an army, led it against the rebels, and with swift action defeated the Maedi, captured their stronghold, and renamed it after himself to Alexandroupolis.
Two years later in 338 BC, Philip gave his son a commanding post among the senior generals as the Macedonian army invaded Greece. At the Battle of Chaeronea, the Greeks were defeated and Alexander displayed his bravery by destroying the elite Greek force, the Theban Secret Band. Some ancient historians recorded that the Macedonians won the battle thanks to his bravery. But not too long after the defeat of the Greeks at Chaeronea, the royal family split apart when Philip married Cleopatra, a Macedonian girl of high nobility. At the wedding banquet, Cleopatra’s uncle, general Attalus, remarked Philip fathering a ‘legitimate’ heir, i.e., one that was of pure Macedonian blood. Alexander threw his cup at the man, blasting him for calling him ‘bastard child’. Philip stood up, drew his sword, and charged at Alexander, only to trip and fall on his face in his drunken stupor at which Alexander shouted: “Here is the man who was making ready to cross from Europe to Asia, and who cannot even cross from one table to another without losing his balance.”
Alexander earned the epithet “the Great” due to his unparalleled success as a military commander. He never lost a battle, despite typically being outnumbered. This was due to the use of terrain, phalanx and cavalry tactics, bold strategy, and the fierce loyalty of his troops. The Macedonian phalanx, armed with the sarissa, a spear 6 meters (20 ft) long, had been developed and perfected by Philip II through rigorous training, and Alexander used its speed and maneuverability to great effect against larger but more disparate Persian forces. Alexander also recognized the potential for disunity among his diverse army, which employed various languages and weapons. He overcame this by being personally involved in the battle, in the manner of a Macedonian king.
In his first battle in Asia, at Granicus, Alexander used only a small part of his forces, perhaps 13,000 infantry with 5,000 cavalries, against a much larger Persian force of 40,000. Alexander placed the phalanx at the center and cavalry and archers on the wings so that his line matched the length of the Persian cavalry line, about 3 km (1.86 mi). By contrast, the Persian infantry was stationed behind its cavalry. This ensured that Alexander would not be outflanked, while his phalanx, armed with long pikes, had a considerable advantage over the Persian’s scimitars and javelins. Macedonian losses were negligible compared to those of the Persians.
At Issus in 333 BC, his first confrontation with Darius, he used the same deployment, and again the central phalanx pushed through. Alexander personally led the charge in the center, routing the opposing army. At the decisive encounter with Darius at Gaugamela, Darius equipped his chariots with scythes on the wheels to break up the phalanx and equipped his cavalry with pikes. Alexander arranged a double phalanx, with the center advancing at an angle, parting when the chariots bore down and then reforming. The advance was successful and broke Darius’ center, causing the latter to flee once again. Some of Alexander’s strongest personality traits formed in response to his parents. His mother had huge ambitions and encouraged him to believe it was his destiny to conquer the Persian Empire. Olympias’ influence instilled a sense of destiny in him, and Plutarch tells us that his ambition “kept his spirit serious and lofty in advance of his years”. However, his father Philip was Alexander’s most immediate and influential role model, as the young Alexander watched him campaign practically every year, winning victory after victory while ignoring severe wounds. Alexander’s relationship with his father forged the competitive side of his personality; he had a need to out-do his father, illustrated by his reckless behavior in battle. While Alexander worried that his father would leave him “no great or brilliant achievement to be displayed to the world”, he also downplayed his father’s achievements to his companions.
Alexander was erudite and patronized both arts and sciences. However, he had little interest in sports or the Olympic games(unlike his father), seeking only the Homeric ideals of honor (timê) and glory (kudos). He had great charisma and force of personality, characteristics which made him a great leader. His unique abilities were further demonstrated by the inability of any of his generals to unite Macedonia and retain the Empire after his death – only Alexander could do so.
During his final years, and especially after the death of Hephaestion, Alexander began to exhibit signs of megalomania and paranoia. His extraordinary achievements, coupled with his ineffable sense of destiny and the flattery of his companions, may have combined to produce this effect. His delusions of grandeur are readily visible in his testament and in his desire to conquer the world.
He appears to have believed himself a deity or at least sought to deify himself. Olympias always insisted to him that he was the son of Zeus, a theory confirmed to him by the oracle of Amun at Siwa. He began to identify himself as the son of Zeus-Ammon. Alexander adopted elements of Persian dress and customs at court, notably proskynesis, a practice that Macedonians disapproved, and were loath to perform. This behavior cost him the sympathies of many of his countrymen. However, Alexander also was a pragmatic ruler who understood the difficulties of ruling culturally disparate peoples, many of whom lived in kingdoms where the king was divine. Thus, rather than megalomania, his behavior may simply have been a practical attempt at strengthening his rule and keeping his empire together.
Alexander’s legacy extended beyond his military conquests. His campaigns greatly increased contacts and trade between East and West, and vast areas to the east were significantly exposed to Greek civilization and influence. Some of the cities he founded became major cultural centers, many surviving into the twenty-first century. His chroniclers recorded valuable information about the areas through which he marched, while the Greeks themselves got a sense of belonging to a world beyond the Mediterranean. Legendary accounts surround the life of Alexander the Great, many deriving from his lifetime, probably encouraged by Alexander himself. His court historian Callisthenes portrayed the sea in Cilicia as drawing back from him in proskynesis. Writing shortly after Alexander’s death, another participant, Onesicritus, invented a tryst between Alexander and Thalestris, queen of the mythical Amazons. When Onesicritus read this passage to his patron, Alexander’s general and later King Lysimachus reportedly quipped, “I wonder where I was at the time.” In the first centuries after Alexander’s death, probably in Alexandria, a quantity of the legendary material coalesced into a text known as the Alexander Romance, later falsely ascribed to Callisthenes and therefore known as Pseudo-Callisthenes. This text underwent numerous expansions and revisions throughout Antiquity and the Middle Ages, containing many dubious stories, and was translated into numerous languages.