Alternate history: what if Alexander the Great had lived longer?
Alexander the Great created one of the most expansive empires the world has ever seen – only for it to crumble in the aftermath of his early death at the age of 32. But if he had lived, would he have carried on conquering? Jonny Wilkes talks to Prof Paul Cartledge about whether an older Alexander the Great could have formed an even bigger empire or grown even more impressive reputation
Each month BBC History Revealed asks a historical expert for their take on what might have happened if a key moment in the past had turned out differently. This time, Jonny Wilkes asks Paul Cartledge what if… Alexander the Great had not died so young?
Few rulers throughout history, if any, can compare to Alexander the Great in terms of his military mind, warrior leadership and campaign of conquest. The King of Macedon built an empire that stretched from Greece and Egypt to the Indian subcontinent, and forever changed the ancient world by ushering in a new Hellenistic epoch of Greek culture and influence. And all by the time of his death at the age of just 32, which causes one to wonder what Alexander could have done if he had kept going or lived longer.
Alexander reached as far as the Punjab (modern-day Pakistan and northwestern India) less than a decade after launching a brutally successful invasion of the Persian Empire in 334 BC. There, his army, which had not once tasted defeat, faced its sternest test against the well-armed men and war elephants of King Porus of the Indian kingdom of Paurava. They won the Battle of the Hydaspes at a cost – including a personal one for Alexander as he lost his beloved horse, Bucephalas – but he chose to march on.
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“Alexander had the impression that he was within striking distance of ‘Ocean’, the great river imagined as encircling the ‘oikoumene’, or inhabited cosmos,” says Paul Cartledge, Emeritus A G Leventis Professor of Greek Culture at the University of Cambridge. “His teacher as a boy, Aristotle, had failed to tell him about China as he didn’t know himself.”
Had Alexander pushed on eastwards, he would have come up against the Chinese in their ‘Warring States Period’ and so quickly met the powerful Qin State, which a century later would unify all China. Yet it was unlikely that he would have reached China anyway, says Cartledge. After years of campaigning in unknown lands far from home, his men refused to go any further.
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“Alexander tried everything: threats, shaming, promises, self-flagellation, feigned or genuine illness. If even that combination, reliant on his aura, didn’t do the trick, clearly there was to be no going on,” says Cartledge. “But he does seem to have taken revenge: he had no need to return to Persia via modern Baluchistan along the Persian Gulf, where fighting and disease caused the unnecessary deaths of thousands of his own troops.”
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Alexander returned to Babylon, where he died in 323 BC aged 32. Had he lived, he almost certainly would have set about securing his conquests while preparing for another invasion, this time to Arabia. “He wasn’t absolutely the world’s greatest administrator, rather a better conqueror,” says Cartledge, but the establishment of his empire utterly relied on effective administration, as adding further territories would stretch his resources and armies too thin to control.
Alexander seemed to prefer a wholesale reliance on elites from the captured regions, as opposed to Macedonians or other Greeks, to act as satraps (provincial governors or viceroys) and for chief military officers.
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“He had seen the wisdom of devolving some local government. Immediately after the Hydaspes battle, Alexander gave back to defeated Porus his own territory, and indeed added more,” says Cartledge, which meant maintaining a strong presence in the region via a proxy.
“Chandragupta Maurya then founded the Mauryan kingdom in 321 BC, something Alexander would not just have tolerated, but actively encouraged. In other words, Alexander would have anticipated, in miniature, the Roman Empire’s system of ‘client kings’ – subordinate, but largely independent local or native rulers operating at the fringe of the empire.”
While this would have made the day-to-day control of Alexander’s empire easier, the incorporation of foreigners into his administrative and military structures caused much resentment among Macedonians. Alexander tended towards ruthless punishments in order to impose his will. “However, his poor handling of his childhood pal Harpalus – whom he first appointed as treasurer of the entire empire, then sacked, then reappointed, and who then ran off to Greece with masses of imperial treasure – suggests Alexander wouldn’t have been above pernicious cronyism.”
Did you know?As his army swept across Egypt, Persia and farther east, Alexander celebrated by founding as many as 70 towns and cities, more than a dozen of which he named after himself. He even named one, Bucephala, after his horse Bucephalas.
With his empire governed by appointees and client kingdoms, Alexander would have been able to focus on expansion. His wish to head deeper east may have been stamped out, but there were many more targets for his ambition. After Arabia, he could turn west. “Not to Rome,” asserts Cartledge, though. “Until 265 BC, Rome was still struggling to master its own backyard, and even then the Romans didn’t get all of Italy under their thumb until well into the first century BC.”
A more tempting proposition for Alexander would have been Carthage, on the northern coast of Africa. Cartledge says: “The Athenians had already thought of taking them on in the late 5th century BC, and Dionysius I of Greek Syracuse (405-367 BC), did succeed in ejecting the Carthaginians from Sicily. Alexander might well have fancied his chances.
When his appetite for conquering was sated, if it could be at all, the matter of succession would be of paramount importance. Could the empire survive without the aura of Alexander?
Cartledge is unsure: “I think the empire would have broken or been stolen away regardless of how long Alexander had lived. But had he lived long enough to make quite clear who was to succeed him, and prepared that person to assume the succession, then Alexander would have pre-empted the pretty much immediate post-mortem outbreak of the wars of his successors.”
What really happenedAlexander III came to the throne in 336 BC at the age of 20. His father, Philip II, had transformed the peripheral state of Macedon into the dominant power in Greece, and had planned to invade the Persian Empire. Alexander took that ambition up himself, crossing the Hellespont with more than 30,000 infantry soldiers and 7,000 cavalry. Crushing the Persians at every battle, Alexander became the most powerful man in the ancient world.
His decade-long campaign only came to an end, in the Punjab, when his exhausted and demoralised army demanded they return home. Alexander acquiesced, but his spirit was broken as he gave in to drinking and megalomania. Back in Babylon, he fell ill and died in 323 BC, aged 32. Alexander’s empire, which covered more than two million square miles, did not survive much longer, but it did lay the foundations of a Hellenistic world where Greek culture, language and thought spread from Europe to Asia.
Paul Cartledge is Emeritus A G Leventis Professor of Greek Culture and Senior Research Fellow at Clare College, Cambridge. He was speaking to freelance writer Jonny Wilkes
Professor Paul Cartledge is A G Leventis Professor of Greek Culture emeritus at the University of Cambridge. His books include Thebes: The Forgotten City of Ancient Greece, now available in paperback (Picador, 2021)