Alexander the Great: all you need to know about the empire builder and military genius
Alexander III of Macedon (356–323 BC), better known as Alexander the Great, created one of the largest empires of the ancient world in little over a decade. But how much do you know about the military commander?
In this comprehensive guide to Alexander the Great, Spencer Day presents 17 moments that explain why Alexander was such force to be reckoned with, Jeremy Pound reveals Alexander's early life and considers his role as an empire builder, Professor Paul Cartledge considers his personality and semi-mythic status, plus Jennifer Macaire shares six surprising facts about his life and legend.
Follow the links below to jump to the highlights in each section:
- Who is Alexander the Great?
- What made Alexander the Great such a brilliant military leader?
- What were Alexander the Great's greatest battles?
- How did Alexander the Great build such a formidable empire?
- Did Alexander the Great think he was a god?
- How we know what Alexander the Great looked like? Plus 5 more fascinating facts
- What is Alexander the Great's legacy?
Alexander III of Macedon, known to most as Alexander the Great, inherited his kingdom (in modern-day Greece) at the age of 20, following the assassination of his father, Philip II, in 336 BC.
After suppressing his enemies on home soil, Alexander moved quickly to reassert Macedonian power in Greece and to conquer the Persian empire, achieving victories across the Persian territories of Asia Minor, Syria and Egypt without suffering a single defeat.
The next eight years of campaigning saw him create an empire that stretched across three continents and covered around two million square miles – south into Egypt and as far east as the Indian Punjab.
He was undefeated in battle and is widely considered one of history’s most successful military commanders – but died in his prime at Babylon in June 323 BC, just before his 33rd birthday.
Professor Paul Cartledge considers whether an older Alexander the Great could have formed an even bigger empire or grown even more impressive reputation...
Alexander the Great: the big questions answered
Paul Cartledege, AG Leventis Professor of Greek Culture Emeritus at the University of Cambridge, gives us his take on Alexander the Great...
He combined immense personal charisma and bravery (he often led his troops from the front). Plus he had a priceless ability to identify the key moment in a battle and act decisively to ensure he won that moment.
Where does Alexander the Great stand in the pantheon of great commanders?
Up there in Division 1, with Napoleon and Genghis Khan. He won the four key battles of his great campaign: at Granicus, Issus, Gaugamela and, for me the most impressive, Hydaspes. While Darius III of Persia commanded a motley crew of multi-ethnic forces, at Hydaspes Raja Porus led largely Indian ethnic forces fighting on their own terrain for their own terrain. And, of course, they had elephants!
What was Alexander the Great’s greatest failing as a leader?
One criticism is that he didn’t invest enough time and energy in the peaceful administration of his diverse empire. One symptom is that, at his death in 323 BC, he had three wives but no male heir yet born. In addition, he was too impetuous, too prone to believe alleged conspiracies against his life and too trusting in subordinates who let him down.
Was Alexander the Great gay?
As he had sex with both males and females, he was what we’d call bisexual. He married three times and sired at least two sons, one legitimate (born to his first wife, Roxana, after his death). Possibly his closest and warmest personal relationship was with a man – his near-contemporary Hephaestion, a noble Macedonian who, like him, was taught by Aristotle.
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What motivated Alexander the Great to undertake his extraordinary campaign in the east?
It probably never occurred to him not to carry on where his father had been forced to leave off. Probably, too, his Greek-style education and his love of Homer’s writings gave him the notion of trying to emulate his boyhood hero, Achilles (the mythical Trojan War was, after all, a battle between Greeks and Orientals).
Did Alexander the Great truly believe he was a god?
Without doubt he believed he was descended literally from more than one god, and he almost certainly demanded to be worshipped by his subjects as if he were himself a living god. Was he a megalomaniac? Yes, inevitably. No one but a megalomaniac could possibly have conceived, let alone pulled off, his greatest feats.
Understand why Alexander the Great casts such as shadow in history with writer Spencer Day's highlights of his life...
20/21 July 356 BC | Alexander the Great is born
He is born in the Macedonian capital of Pella. His father is the king of Macedon, Philip II, and his mother is the politically ambitious Olympias of Epirus.
343 BC | Alexander begins his education with Aristotle
Alexander travels to the Temple of the Nymphs in Mieza to be educated by the celebrated Greek philosopher Aristotle. There he develops a fascination with the exploits of mythical Greek heroes such as Achilles.
October 336 BC | Alexander becomes king of Macedon
Philip II is assassinated by his bodyguard while attending wedding celebrations in Aegae. Alexander – who has since come under suspicion for ordering the killing – becomes king of Macedon in his father’s stead.
May 334 BC | Alexander crosses the Hellespont
With an army about 50,000 strong, Alexander crosses the Hellespont to Asia Minor. His goal: to seize Persia and become the master of Asia.
May 334 BC | Alexander visits Troy
Alexander journeys to the town made famous by Homer’s epic poem the Iliad, to pay his respects to some of the heroes he believes are buried there, among them Achilles.
May 334 BC | The battle of the Granicus
The Persian king, Darius III, sends an army to confront the Macedonians on the banks of the Granicus river. Alexander secures victory following an audacious cavalry charge into the heart of the enemy – which he leads himself.
5 November 333 BC | The battle of Issus
Darius attacks Alexander near Issus. The Persian army fares no better than at Granicus – a whirlwind Greek cavalry assault proves decisive and Darius flees the battlefield.
332 BC | Divine intervention at Siwa Oasis
After leading a party of men in a perilous journey across the Saharan desert, Alexander visits the oracle at the Siwa Oasis, where he asks her if he is the son of the god Amon. He later suggests that she answered in the affirmative.
July 332 BC | The storming of Tyre
In a masterclass of ingenuity and resolve, Alexander storms Tyre following a seven-month siege, which had seen his men build a half-mile-long causeway out to the island. He then oversees the slaughter of 8,000 of the city’s inhabitants.
331 BC | The founding of Alexandria
Alexander founds Alexandria on Egypt’s north coast. The city goes on to become one of the Mediterranean’s most important ports. Today nearly five million people call it home
1 October 331 BC | The battle of Gaugamela
Darius brings an enormous army to the field near Gaugamela in modern Iraq. What follows is the decisive battle in Alexander’s conquest of Persia. Though Alexander’s army is perhaps less than half the size of its Persian foe, the Macedonian troops’ superior training and resolve – not to mention their commander’s peerless tactical agility – prevails once more. Darius flees the battlefield again. But this time there is no reprieve: soon after, he is slaughtered by his own men.
330 BC | The looting of Persepolis
The Macedonian army descends on the Persian capital of Persepolis and, in an orgy of drink-fuelled violence, loots the city and burns its great palace to the ground
327 BC | The siege of Aornos
In another masterclass of improvisation, Alexander seizes Aornos, a seemingly impregnable stronghold blocking his entry into India. Alexander’s solution is to seize the hill opposite and drive the enemy out of their encampment with his catapults
May 326 BC | The battle of the Hydaspes
The powerful Indian raja Porus confronts the Macedonians on the banks of the river Hydaspes. In an incredibly hard-fought battle, Alexander’s phalanx gets the better of an Indian army that includes 200 elephants. Hydaspes is the last great battle of Alexander’s campaign in the east – but it is also the bloodiest, pushing the Macedonian army to breaking point
326 BC | Alexander's men mutiny
Drenched by Indian monsoon rains and traumatised by the carnage at Hydaspes, Alexander’s men decide they have had enough and mutiny. Eight years and 17,000 miles into his epic journey east, Alexander is forced to accept that his remarkable campaign of conquest is over
324 BC | The second mutiny
Troops mutiny again at Opis (roughly modern Baghdad): faced with insurrection, Alexander cashiers 10,000 of his mainly Macedonian troops and stages a huge banquet of reconciliation.
323 BC | Alexander the Great dies
Alexander passes at Babylon: his cause of death is unclear; some theories suggest that he was assassinated by poison.
How did a young king from Macedon inspire his modest army to conquer a domain that spanned the ancient world? Writer Jeremy Pound reveals the secrets behind the man – and his downfall
When, on 1 October 331 BC, Alexander III of Macedon faced the massed Persian forces of Darius III at Gaugamela, the outcome should have been a foregone conclusion. Comprising 34,000 infantry and 7,000 cavalry, Alexander’s Greek army was by no means small – but Darius commanded a mighty cavalry numbering 34,000 and, it is reckoned, more than 200,000 infantry. What’s more, the hot and dusty plain – in what is now northern Iraq – was home turf for the Persians. Alexander’s men, in contrast, had been on the march for over three years and were over a thousand miles from home.
In fact, the battle was indeed a rout – but not in the expected way. It was the Persians who were crushed, not the numerically inferior Greeks. We will never know the exact figures, but it’s believed that around 50,000 Persians were killed in the battle, compared with just 1,000 or so Greeks. With his vast forces in disarray, Darius fled. He survived – for now – but his reign was effectively finished, as was the once-great Persian empire, which had stretched from Libya in the west to the Indus Valley in the east. The way now lay open for Alexander to press on eastwards and establish his own empire. At just 25, he was the most powerful man in the world – the Great, indeed.
Brilliant military tactician, savvy politician, courageous and accomplished fighter – in terms of leadership skills, Alexander had the lot. Nor did it hurt to be the son of a king who had already set in motion the most significant shift in power in Greek history.
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Alexander the Great's early life and reign
Alexander was born in July 356 BC to King Philip II of Macedon – by all accounts a thoroughly unpleasant man, but also a mightily effective leader. In the space of just a few years, Philip transformed his state from a small, peripheral kingdom in northern Greece into an unstoppable war machine. In 339 BC, he won a crushing victory over Athens and its allies at Chaeronea, ensuring that Macedon effectively ruled all Greece.
Alexander won his spurs fighting alongside his father, earning plaudits for his bravery at Chaeronea, but would himself soon have the opportunity to rule. Suspiciously soon, in fact – it’s been suggested by some historians that Alexander might have been behind the assassination of Philip II in 336 BC, killed by one of his own bodyguards at a family wedding.
By fair means or foul, at the age of 20, Alexander III became ruler of Greece – and the ruthlessness he displayed in cementing that position bore all the hallmarks of his father. He put down unrest in the north of his kingdom with brutal speed and, when Thebes rashly declared independence from Macedonia, his reprisal was savage: the city was burnt to the ground, its people either slaughtered or sold into slavery.
But Alexander was not merely ruthless. He was also bright enough to know that brute force alone would not keep the diverse collection of states under his power in check. If his study of history had taught him anything – and, with the philosopher and scientist Aristotle as his teacher, he would certainly have been well schooled – it would have been that nothing unites states and their people more than having a reviled common enemy. In 490 BC and 480 BC, the Greeks, who had been fighting among themselves, had joined forces to repel invasions by the Persians under Darius I and Xerxes I.
Now, a century and a half later, Alexander saw an opportunity to turn the tables, and planned a united Greek invasion of Persia.
The expedition that began in spring 334 BC, when Alexander’s forces set off from the Greek mainland, would change the course of history. It was not just his military victories against the odds that defy belief, but also his achievements in overcoming daunting geographical obstacles – from vast African deserts to the precipitous mountain trails of the Hindu Kush in the western Himalaya – in a journey that would eventually cover about 20,000 miles over the course of 11 years.
The initial impetus and rallying call for the expedition may have been that long-held grudge against the Persians, but Alexander also had an ulterior motive: he was determined to reach the end of the Earth and the great ocean that he believed lay beyond. Certainly, no one could accuse him of a lack of ambition.
Alexander’s all-conquering tour began when he crossed into Asia Minor (Anatolia, today part of Turkey) before heading down the eastern Mediterranean coast through Syria into Egypt, looping back towards the Red Sea then continuing eastward through Assyria – where he triumphed at Gaugamela – Mesopotamia, Persia and Bactria, and through the Hindu Kush to the Indus River. If those ancient names seem unfamiliar, look in a modern atlas and tally the list of countries his army traversed to get an idea of the enormity of the achievement: Turkey, Syria, Lebanon, Israel, Egypt, Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Tajikistan, India.
Alexander’s forces triumphed in a succession of major battles, not all of them as quick and decisive as Gaugamela. The crucial Mediterranean port city of Tyre (now in Lebanon) was conquered only after a siege that lasted seven months. Cities galore were founded en route, from Alexandria in Egypt (today, the country’s second biggest city) to Alexandria Eschate (‘Alexandria the Farthest’) in Tajikistan and Alexandria Bucephalus, named for the Macedonian’s beloved horse, in what’s now the Pakistani Punjab.
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Not everyone met Alexander’s army with stern resistance. Many welcomed their conqueror with open arms and, often, lavish gifts. All, however, soon became part of an empire of unprecedented scope – covering over two million square miles, it linked East with West for the first time in history. Enclaves of Greek culture persist in remote areas of the Middle East and the Indian subcontinent even today, legacies of the Macedonian’s exploits over two millennia ago. No figure from ancient history continues to loom so large in the literature and culture of so many different peoples – in many he is deified, in many others he is utterly reviled.
But how did he do it? How did Alexander inspire and maintain allegiance and endurance in his troops as he led them on an expedition that, at times, must have seemed not just ambitious but downright deluded?
Providing the military brains behind unlikely victories such as that at Gaugamela helped – everyone likes to be on the side of a winner, particularly one who is seemingly invincible. Nor was Alexander the sort of general to monitor success from afar. Various sources depict him fighting courageously on the frontline.
Alexander knew all about the effectiveness of what today is dubbed ‘shock and awe’. The shock was simple enough – if you crossed him, he was merciless. Alexander’s path across Asia was a bloody one, strewn with the bodies not just of enemies but also of former friends whom he came to mistrust, and even the likes of doctors and priests whom he believed had let him down. The awe, meanwhile, came from creating an aura of one directed from above, encouraging the belief that his rise towards global domination was preordained. To that end, he employed tactics designed to convince all around him of his credentials.
The Greeks were a suspicious and religious bunch, so Alexander made a point of consulting oracles – which would inevitably confirm that his actions enjoyed divine approval; he even undertook a perilous eight-day trek across the desert to the oracle at Siwa in Egypt. And Alexander’s propagandist Callisthenes was invariably there to elaborate, enhance and disseminate the news far and wide. Much of the success of the Alexander ‘myth’ is down to the handiwork of Callisthenes – an exceptional spin doctor – from the famous account of loosening the Gordian Knot to the touching tales of Alexander’s bond with Bucephalus. Many people were led to believe that Alexander was, indeed, a god.
End of the road
Eventually, though, even the most successful conqueror meets his nemesis. Alexander’s came in the form of the River Ganges. By 326 BC, long years on the road and battle losses – not to mention tropical diseases and venomous snakes – had taken their toll on his troops. Faced with the prospect of crossing a threemile- wide torrent, only to face more of the same tribulations on the other side, Alexander’s army refused. The great adventure was over.
The return journey from the subcontinent was not pretty. The weary Greeks saw their numbers depleted first by flash floods and then, cruelly, a horrendous drought. As for their leader, his once razor-sharp mind became increasingly erratic. He drank more: 24-hour binges became a familiar part of his routine – followed, of course, by a couple of days of hangover. Unsurprisingly, plots against him began to simmer.
In autumn 324 BC, Alexander’s closest companion (and, some claim, lover) Hephaestion died – possibly of typhus fever or typhoid exacerbated by heavy alcohol consumption. Devastated, Alexander declined rapidly. He reached Babylon in spring 323 BC, and in June took to his sick bed. His condition worsened and within days he was dead, aged just 32. Was it a fever that killed him, or had his liver simply given up? Perhaps he was poisoned?
He was, after all, not short of enemies. Alexander the Great never made it home to Macedon. But then he never intended to. As the greatest military leader in ancient history, he left a monumental legacy: his vast Asian empire.
Historian Paul Cartledge looks into the personality of the 4th-century BC military genius to discover what drove him to create a huge empire covering three continents...
Alexander the Great had no low opinion of himself. That’s not surprising given that the 4th-century BC ruler had conquered most of the known world before he had even reached the age of 30. Nevertheless, he appears to have been aware of the value of self-promotion, so besides his armies of soldiers he employed a small army of writers and artists to project the image of himself that he wanted to disseminate to the world at large.
Hardly anything of those original writings survives today, unfortunately – though we do have the works of ancient Greek and Roman historians and biographers such as Curtius Rufus, Arrian and Plutarch who themselves had access to the lost texts by Ptolemy, Aristoboulus, Nearchus and others. On the other hand, large numbers of portrait coins and medallions and sculptures do survive intact, some contemporary or near-contemporary, so that we have a very good idea of the impression Alexander wished to create for his many hundreds of thousands of subjects scattered from what is today Greece (including Macedonia) in the west, as far east as what is now Afghanistan and Pakistan.
One thing is very striking about all these various images. They all aim to elevate Alexander not only above the common herd of ordinary men, but above the status of the merely mortal altogether: to the status of a semi divine hero or even a god. Scholars argue as to whether Alexander sent down a formal decree from Babylon (in Iraq), one of his several capitals, actually ordering his subjects to worship him as a god.
But there is no question but that he was indeed worshipped as a living god, by Greeks as well as by Orientals, and there is every likelihood that Alexander wanted to be so worshipped. This was not unprecedented, because Alexander’s father Philip had already been granted divine worship as a living god. And anything Philip could do, Alexander could do better; it’s arguable that rivalry with his father was one of the biggest psychological motivating forces in all Alexander’s major projects, and one of the most powerful influences on his personality.
Who influenced Alexander the Great?
Philip II was, according to one contemporary historian, the most remarkable man Europe had produced. He raised his kingdom of Macedon from a small player on the Greek scene to the major protagonist and arbiter of the Greek world. A man of violent temper and ferocious ambition, Philip fell out with Alexander’s mother Olympias (a Greek princess) quite early on. Alexander perhaps therefore became something of a mummy’s boy – not in the sense that he was ever a timid, coddled wimp, but in the sense that his powerfully ambitious mother saw Alexander as a key weapon in her struggle with Philip, and the instrument whereby she could become not just another of Philip’s seven wives, but queen mother, mother of the heir apparent and eventually mother of the Macedonian king.
Alexander, who admired Philip but also envied his achievements, was probably happy to go along with her – perhaps even to the extent of conniving with her at Philip’s public assassination at Aegae in 336. However, Alexander did once quip that the highly-strung Olympias made him pay a high rent for the nine months she had housed him in her womb.
Apart from his parents, there were two great influences on his life from boyhood. One was the great Thessalian stallion Bucephalas, whom Alexander himself tamed and from whom he was pretty much inseparable from at least his early teens until the death of the great horse, aged about 30, in Pakistan in 326. So moved was Alexander by his loss that he actually named one of his new city foundations after him, in the Indus valley.
The other was Alexander’s boyhood comrade Hephaestion. He came from an elite Macedonian family, and was among the close group of comrades who had the privilege of being taught with Alexander by the philosopher Aristotle at Mieza, to the west of the Macedonian capital of Pella. Hephaestion was a bit older, and a bit taller, than Alexander, and it is probable that at some stage their relationship was more than platonic.
Yet for Alexander sexual gratification was apparently not that important. “Sex and sleep” he is said to have remarked, “are the only two things that remind me I’m mortal”. Or, as his best surviving historian Arrian (a Greek from Asia Minor writing in the second century AD) put it, warfare and military exploits gave Alexander the sort of thrill that others derived from sexual conquest. Not that Alexander was a monk; he is said to have had sex even with a mythical Amazon queen, and to have fathered a child with his beautiful Sogdian bride Roxane (from what is today Uzbekistan). He allegedly had affairs with the Persian wife of a dangerous Greek opponent fighting on the Persian side, and a liaison with a Persian eunuch.
What’s striking is that his preferred sexual partners were mainly Oriental rather than Greek or Macedonian. Philip is said to have fought his wars by marriages, that is by concluding diplomatic marriage alliances as a way to secure a victory, or as an alternative to fighting in order to decide the issue of territorial control. Alexander preferred to settle disputes by fighting, on the whole. However, even he took three wives, the other two besides Roxane both being Persian princesses.
Alexander the Great away from the battlefield
When Alexander was not fighting, there was nothing he loved to do more, for relaxation, than hunt. Big game hunting, that is – wild boar and lions; not child’s play quarries like hares or doves. In Macedon there were two tests of manhood: killing a wild boar and killing a man in battle. Alexander had passed both of those by the time he was sixteen, besides hunting the wild mountain lions and sharp-eyed lynxes that still abounded in the western Macedonian upland country. Bucephalas served Alexander no less faithfully as his hunting mount than as his number one warhorse. When the going got tough on campaign (as it did in Iran, Afghanistan and central Asia after he had defeated Great King Darius III of Persia and taken his crown) a reward for any success was a day’s hunting in a game park. In one of these hunting sprees near modern Samarkand, no fewer than 4,000 animals were allegedly slaughtered. It is the same dedicated hunter’s mentality that made Alexander ruthless in pursuit of all his goals.
Historians have argued since antiquity over what might have been Alexander’s ultimate goal, had he not died prematurely (and probably of a malarial or typhoid fever rather than by an assassin’s poison-bearing hand) at Babylon in 323 aged just 32. One theory takes us back to our starting point, to his self-projection as more than merely mortal. Certainly, he was religious, even superstitious, a trait he seems to have inherited or at any rate could easily have learned from his mother.
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He relied especially heavily on the guidance of his personal diviner, Aristander, a Greek from Telmissus in what is now southwestern Turkey. Aristander’s interpretation of portents such as the behaviour of birds could mean life or death for Alexander’s supposed friends no less than his sworn enemies. Consultation of oracular shrines was a fixed part of Alexander’s routine. Apollo’s seat at Delphi in central Greece was hardly out of his way in 336, and the priestess there was made to prophesy that he would be invincible.
But the trip to the oasis of Siwa in Egypt’s western desert in 332, a dangerous journey over several hundred waterless and dust ridden kilometres, was a different proposition. Alexander gravely announced that the oracle’s presiding deity Ammon, whom the Greeks often identified with their Zeus, had promised him his heart’s desire. But what that was has to be inferred from his subsequent behaviour. It was something to do with the truth about his origins; the oracle seems to have confirmed Alexander in his belief that he had been born the son of a god, rather than a mortal.
Not all his closest companions were as enamoured as he was of the notion that Philip was just Alexander’s “so-called father”. Nor did they all follow Hephaestion’s lead in paying to Alexander the kind of public adoration that they thought was appropriate only for a true Olympian divinity. Persians too had not been in the habit of recognising their Great King as a living god but had seen him rather as the vicar on earth of the great god of light Ahura Mazda. Some of Alexander’s Oriental subjects, on the other hand, such as the Egyptians, would have thought less of him as their king if he had not been the recipient of divine worship. So, as well as being one of the major drivers of his personality, Alexander’s intimations of godhead could easily have been one of the major causes of dissension at the heart of his mixed Greek-Oriental court.
Posterity has generally been more kind to Alexander, variously venerating or indeed worshipping him as a saint as well as a wonder-working holy man and military hero. Within the sphere of recent critical scholarship, however, a distinct note of hostility can be detected, influenced perhaps by contemporary experience of bloodshed in regions such as Afghanistan and Iraq that Alexander himself once traversed. Those scholars who see Alexander as little but a natural-born killer might bear in mind the words of the American poet Robert Lowell, in his poem The Death of Alexander: "No one was like him. Terrible were his crimes – but if you wish to blackguard the Great King, think how mean, obscure, and dull you are, your labors lowly and your merits less..."
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Alexander played polo
Legend has it that when Alexander the Great was about to invade Persia in 334 BC, the Persian king Darius III sent him a polo mallet and ball. It’s thought that this gesture was either inviting the Macedonian to a game, or he was suggesting that Alexander should “stick to games and avoid war”. Whatever the intention, Alexander is said to have replied: “I am the stick and the ball is the Earth” – before going on to conquer Persia.
Polo, one of the oldest sports in the world, likely originated somewhere in Central Asia. Mounted nomads played a version of polo that was part sport, part training for war, with as many as 100 men on a side. If its origins are obscure, there is ample evidence of the game’s regal place in the history of Asia: the game followed the nomads’ migration to Persia sometime between 600 BC and 100 AD and the Persians adopted polo as their national sport, where it was played by nobles and soldiers alike.
Some stories say Alexander the Great spent time with the Persian royal family when he was young, accompanying his father on diplomatic missions. Alexander most likely saw polo games on his many forays into Persia, and perhaps even played the “sport of kings”.
He may have gone underwater in a diving bell
Almost immediately after his death in 323 BC, legends began to spread about Alexander the Great’s exploits and life which, over the centuries, became increasingly fantastic as well as allegorical. Collectively, this tradition is called the Alexander Romance and the stories feature such episodes as Alexander ascending through the air to paradise; journeying to the bottom of the sea in a glass bubble; and voyaging through the “Land of Darkness” in search of the “Fountain of Youth”.
Writing attributed to the Greek philosopher Aristotle references a diving bell, describing a cauldron forced straight down into water, thus keeping the air within it. In fact, it’s possible that Alexander the Great saw, or was perhaps even in, a glass diving bell. There are stories about him visiting the bottom of the ocean in a glass ball during his famous siege of Tyre (Lebanon), where it is said Alexander used divers to remove underwater obstacles from the harbour, and that the divers used crude glass diving bells. These may very well be just legends, but it is conceivable that Alexander, who was curious to learn about everything, had a go in a glass diving bell himself.
We almost certainly know what he looked like
The Azara herm is a Roman copy of a bust of Alexander the Great that was almost certainly made by the Greek sculptor Lysippus. According to the Greek writer Plutarch, Alexander made Lysippus his ‘official’ portrait artist during his reign. Thanks to its original inscription, this figure can be definitely identified as Alexander the Great, son of Philip II of Macedon.
Since the Azara herm is a Roman copy made centuries after Alexander’s death, it is likely not as precise as the original. The bust was unearthed in 1779 during an excavation at Tivoli, Italy, organised by Joseph Nicolas Azara (1730–1804), the Spanish ambassador to the Holy See (and, later, to France). Azara presented the sculpture to Napoleon Bonaparteas a diplomatic gift. Today it resides in the Louvre museum in Paris.
For a time, this was the only known portrait of Alexander the Great, and it is generally regarded as the surviving portrait that looks the most like him.
Much of Plutarch's famous writings about Alexander the Great can be considered fiction
The Greek writer Plutarch wrote Parallel Lives, his series of biographies of famous Greeks and Romans, in pairs: his famous biography of Alexander is paired with Julius Caesar.
However, Plutarch’s reliability as a biographer is questionable. He lived 400 years after Alexander the Great and contemporary writings were scarce. Plutarch was also Greek and the Greeks saw Alexander as an “upstart barbarian”: firstly, because of historic snobbery (anyone non-Greek was considered a “barbarian”); and secondly, because the Greeks still resented the Macedonians who, under Alexander’s father, had conquered Greece through battles and diplomacy.
Plutarch begins his biography by saying he’s not writing “history”, but rather “a life story”, because, he goes on to explain, it’s better to get to know a person from his character and his jokes than from endless battles fought and won. He pretends to glorify Alexander beyond reason, writing: “On his father’s side, he was descended from Hercules”. However, since Alexander himself had claimed the title of “son of Zeus”, Plutarch was definitely trying to take him down a peg.
Nevertheless, Plutarch’s biography does include some fascinating titbits of information, such as his claim that the battle of Gaugamela (the decisive battle Alexander the Great fought against Persia in 331 BC) was fought during an eclipse. He also describes how Alexander the Great spent the night before the battle in his tent with his diviner, Aristander, performing certain mysterious ceremonies and sacrificing to the god Fear.
Alexander's the Great's favourite military tactic was the phalanx
The phalanx – a rectangular mass military formation made up of closely ranked troops – was a formidable fighting machine. The spears used by soldiers in a phalanx were long – sometimes as long as five metres – and made of sharpened wood or metal-tipped wood. The tactic was perfected by Alexander’s father, Philip, who first learned of it after observing Greek armies.
According to the Greek historian Arrian’s Anabasis written in the second century AD: “Alexander drew up his army in such a way that the depth of the phalanx was 120 men; and […] he ordered them to preserve silence, in order to receive the word of command quickly.”
Macedonian author Polyaenus (in Stratagemata, also in the second century AD) says that Alexander spitefully made his men who had not fought bravely enough in battle wear the so-called hemithorakion – a half armour system that only covered the front part of the body. This punitive experiment made sure that the soldiers wouldn’t turn their backs on the enemy.
However, in reality the soldiers in a phalanx would actually not require much armour – coordinated, fast movement was what made the phalanx so effective. Polyaenus describes the Macedonian infantrymen of the phalanx as being armed with helmets (kranos); light shields (pelte); greaves (knemides) and a long pike (sarissa) – notice that armour is conspicuously missing from this list.
But while Alexander the Great led one of the most successful armies of all time, surprisingly little is understood about the main type of body armour that both he and many of his men wore – the linothorax – as there are no surviving examples. The linothorax was a type of body armour created by laminating together layers of linen. It wrapped around the torso and tied over the shoulder with two flaps. The most famous image of this kind of body armour is the Alexander Mosaic: a celebrated ancient mosaic which was found in the largest house in Pompeii – the House of the Faun – and depicts Alexander the Great’s defeat of the Persian king Darius.
When his friend Hephaestion, Alexander held a hugely expensive funeral
Hephaestion was a member of Alexander’s personal bodyguard and a general in his army. He was also Alexander’s best friend, right-hand man, and some say his lover as well. When he died suddenly in Ecbatana from unknown causes, Alexander wrote to the Oracle at Siwa in Egypt and asked if Hephaestion should be honoured as a god or a hero. The Oracle replied that he should be honoured as a hero, and so Alexander went all out for a mausoleum/funeral pyre designed to impress.
The Library of History, compiled by Diodorus Siculus, includes several accounts of the funeral pyre, of which there were seven levels – each level more lavishly decorated than the last.
Perched upon the bottom layer of 240 golden prows of ships and held up by palm tree trunks, Siculus says, there were: “Torches fifteen cubits high with golden wreaths about their handles. At their flaming ends perched eagles with outspread wings looking downward, while about their bases were serpents looking up at the eagles, […] a multitude of wild animals being pursued by hunters, […] a centauromachy rendered in gold, while the fifth [level] showed lions and bulls alternating, also in gold. The next higher level was covered with Macedonian and Persian arms, testifying to the prowess of the one people and to the defeats of the other. On top of all stood Sirens, hollowed out and able to conceal within them persons who sang a lament in mourning for the dead. The total height of the pyre was more than one hundred and thirty cubits.”
A cubit is an ancient measurement of length based on the distance from the elbow to the tip of the longest finger, so it varies. But the pyre, as described here, could have been more than 50 metres high. Alexander the Great plundered the treasuries of all his cities to pay for the monument – it has been estimated to have cost the modern equivalent of two billion dollars.
Alexander the Great had made his seat of government in Babylon, the capital of Babylonia (the alluvial plain between the Euphrates and Tigris), and he wanted to hold the funeral ceremony within the walls of the city. However, the monument was so huge that Alexander had to break down one of the city’s walls to get it inside. He then set the monument on fire, cremating the general’s body along with the magnificent pyre.
Spencer Day examines how Alexander left his mark on the lands he conquered...
According to Plutarch, Alexander the Great founded 70 towns and cities, including at least 16 that he modestly named Alexandria.
For centuries, historians and military strategists alike have extolled Alexander’s genius as a soldier, and rightly so. But, for all that, perhaps his greatest impact on human history derives not from his brilliance as a commander but as a supreme cultural ambassador.
Alexander didn’t simply wipe cities from the face of the Earth, before moving on to the next target – not all the time anyway. Instead, he left colonies of fellow Macedonians to administer conquered population centres, and they went about disseminating Greek methods of expression and thinking.
As a result, peoples from modern-day Turkey through Asia Minor all the way to India played Greek sports, watched Greek theatre, mimicked Greek art and adopted Greek scientific practices. In many cases, they continued to do so for centuries.
The cities of Ai Khanum in what is now Afghanistan and Philoteris in Egypt may have been separated by some 3,000 miles but they both boasted Greek gymnasiums. Ai Khanum was also home to an Acropolis, a theatre and library – a direct consequence of Alexander’s extraordinary conquests.
Alexander’s incursion into India was brief and bloody, but its impact on the subcontinent’s culture was significant. It inspired the anthropomorphic representation of the Buddha in Indian sculpture and the appearance of Greek mythological figures, including Herakles, in Buddhist literature. It may even lie behind Indian astrologers’ adoption of the signs of the zodiac.
It seems that Alexander’s cultural impact may even have spread beyond the borders of his massive empire, perhaps seeping into China. The theorem of Pythagoras reached the Chinese within decades of Alexander’s death, and it’s thought that the Terracotta Army may have been influenced by Greek models.
But perhaps Alexander’s most enduring cultural legacy was the fact that, for a thousand years, Greek became the ‘lingua franca’ of the near east. As a result, when the Christian New Testament was first recorded, it was written down in Greek, the very language that Alexander had himself spoken hundreds of years earlier.