6 things you (probably) didn’t know about Alexander the Great

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?

The 'Alexander Mosaic' showing Alexander the Great

Here, author Jennifer Macaire shares six surprising facts about Alexander the Great…

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Alexander the Great’s name still echoes in time. Both deified and vilified, his legend exists in nearly every language on earth and in the four major religions. We know that he was born in Pella, the ancient capital of Macedonia, in 356 BC and succeeded his father, Philip II, to the throne at the age of 20, following his father’s assassination.

His strength and genius as a military commander is legendary: just 10 years after his succession, he’d created one of the largest empires of the ancient world, reaching across three continents and covering around two million square miles, from Greece to India. He was undefeated in battle and is widely considered one of history’s most successful military commanders.

Alexander the Great died just before his 33rd birthday in June 323 BC from unknown causes. But did you know…

1

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.

An illustration from the epic poem 'The Shahnameh'
An illustration from the epic poem ‘The Shahnameh’ by the Persian poet Ferdowsi, depicting a game of polo. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

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”.

‘Shock and awe’ tactics

From his first military victory aged 18, Alexander never lost a battle using his ‘shock and awe’ tactics. This was never seen better than at Gaugamela, when he took on the Persian army of Darius III in 331 BC.

Whereas Darius led 34,000 cavalry plus some 200,000 infantry, Alexander’s forces numbered only 7,000 cavalry and 30,000 infantry. Yet, despite being 1,000 miles from their homeland, Alexander’s men routed the Persians.

Some records state that 50,000 of Darius’s men were killed in battle, compared to just 1,000 Greeks.


2

He may have gone underwater in a glass 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”.

Illustration showing Alexander the Great in a diving bell lowered from a boat
A 14th-century illustration showing Alexander the Great in a diving bell lowered from a small boat. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

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.

Did you know?

Philosopher and scientist Aristotle tutored a teen Alexander, before he was king, for three years.

Although Alexander respected Aristotle, and was clearly influenced by him, their relationship soured. During his expedition, Alexander would complain about his former teacher for the inaccurate geography he had taught him.


3

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.

The Azara herm, a Roman copy of a bust of Alexander the Great
The Azara herm, a Roman copy of a bust of Alexander the Great, thought to be by the Greek sculptor Lysippus. (Photo by PHAS/UIG via Getty Images)

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.


On this podcast, ancient historian Paul Cartledge discusses Alexander the Great, ancient Greek democracy and what life was like for ancient Greek slaves:


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.

Who were the parents of Alexander the Great?

His father, Philip II, inherited a backward country in disarray when he became king in 359 BC, but his two decade reign transformed Macedon into a major power that spread over most of Greece. A master tactician, he built the world’s finest army, which used a formation he developed – the Macedonian phalanx – to ruthless effect.

It can be guessed that Alexander picked up a few tricks. Philip was actually on campaign when Alexander was born in 356 BC. He allegedly received three messages at the same time, all with good news – the birth of his son, a victory and his horse winning at the Olympics.

The latter led Philip’s wife, a princess from the Kingdom of Epirus, to take the name Olympias. It was from his mother that Alexander got his ambition, stubbornness and a somewhat highfalutin image of himself. She told him repeatedly he was descended from Achilles and, after her marriage broke down, how his father was not Philip, but Zeus.

Olympias went into exile, after Philip married yet another woman – he had seven wives in all. She fell under suspicion when he was murdered at a feast. She went on to outlive Alexander, but in the ensuing power struggle, could not avoid execution herself.


4

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.

Up in knots

Of all the heroics, real or mythical, attributed to Alexander, one of the most famous is how he loosened the Gordian Knot. This was a leather knot, of the most complex kind, found on an ancient ox cart around the Temple of Zeus in the city of Gordion (in modern-day Turkey).

A former king, Gordius, had left the cart there and legend foretold that whoever managed to loosen the knot would rule all of Asia.

Various sources claim that Alexander untied the knot but none makes it clear how he did so. Some believe he simply slashed it with his sword.


5

Alexander’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.”

A relief depicting a Macedonian phalanx, Thessaloniki, Greece. (Photo by DeAgostini/Getty Images)
A relief depicting a Macedonian phalanx, Thessaloniki, Greece. (Photo by DeAgostini/Getty Images)

Interestingly, 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.

The Alexander Mosaic
The Alexander Mosaic: a celebrated ancient mosaic which was found in the largest house in Pompeii. (Photo by DEA/G. Nimatallah/De Agostini/Getty Images)

Alexander the Great timeline

356 BC
Alexander is born at Pella, Macedonia, son of King Philip II and his fourth wife, the Greek princess Olympias

336
Alexander accedes to throne of Macedon: his role, if any, in the assassination of his father is unclear, but it is not unlikely that his mother has a hand in it

336
Philip had been about to embark on a Greek-Macedonian campaign against the Persian empire; Alexander as his successor has himself recognised as leader of the Persian expedition

334
Alexander wins the Battle of the Granicus River – the first of four major battles – against a coalition of the Persian Great King’s satraps (viceroys) in the Troad (NW Anatolia)

333
Wins the Battle of Issus (S Turkey). Darius III of Persia surrenders the advantages of surprise and numerical superiority to Alexander’s tactical genius and personal leadership

332
Accomplishes siege of Tyre (modern Lebanon) an island city that he reaches only by building a causeway from the mainland; defence is fierce. Victory costs many lives and takes seven months

331
Wins Battle of Gaugamela: the decisive battle against Darius is fought in northern Iraq; heavily outnumbered, Alexander again wins through tactical genius and personal leadership

328
A drunken Alexander kills “Black” Cleitus, a companion from childhood who had saved his life at the Granicus, for suggesting that his impressive victories were not entirely and solely due to him

326
Wins Battle of River Hydaspes (now in Pakistan). Fighting as king of Asia to extend his own empire, Alexander defeats the very tall rajah of the Paurava people and his war-elephants

326
Alexander’s troops mutiny at River Hyphasis (Beas): the footsore and homesick troops refuse to continue any further on Alexander’s military quest east

324
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
Dies at Babylon: his cause of death is a fever, possibly malaria or typhus, aggravated by an alcoholic bender; some theories suggest that he was assassinated by poison


6

When his friend Hephaestion died, 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 wereseven 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.


After a reign which had lasted 12 years and eight months, Alexander the Great was taken ill in June 323 BC. He died at the age of 33, having founded more than 70 cities, created an empire that stretched across three continents, and spread Greek culture and language into new regions.

He is remembered today one of the greatest military commanders in history.

Jennifer Macaire writes historical fiction and science fiction and is the author of a seven-book series about a journalist from the future who travels in time to interview Alexander the Great.

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This article was first published by HistoryExtra in June 2018