My history hero: Alexander the Great (356-323 BC)

Chosen by BBC television presenter Gregg Wallace

A coin showing the head of Alexander the Great.
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 died aged 32, probably of typhoid fever…

When did you first hear about Alexander the Great?

While enjoying the 1963 classic Antony and Cleopatra, starring Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton. It was by watching the film that I discovered that the great Egyptian queen Cleopatra was, in fact, a member of the Ptolemaic dynasty of Macedon that ruled Egypt after the death of Alexander the Great. Intrigued as to how a Greek family came to rule Egypt, I set about trying to find out more about where it all began: with Alexander himself.

What sort of person was he?

To be honest, to have done what he did I think he must have been a complete and utter lunatic! To take a small kingdom like Macedon and conquer the Persian empire is a bit like Wales taking on the US, but he did it. Not only that, he kept on going once he’d achieved his goal, despite not knowing what was beyond the frontier. His ambition, self-belief and achievements were incredible. He is surely the world’s greatest over-achiever.

What made him a hero?

The fact that he took a dream and achieved it, but didn’t stop there. Alexander wanted to know what was beyond the horizon; he didn’t just want to explore it, he wanted to conquer and own it.
His fame was widespread: on visiting Alexander’s sarcophagus, Julius Caesar supposedly wept at the realisation that he would never come anywhere near the former’s exploits, most of which had been achieved before the Macedonian had reached the age of 30.
I’m an ambitious man myself, and that sort of single-mindedness intrigues me. No one else has ever come anywhere near his achievements.

What was his finest hour?

Most would say the subjugation of the Persian empire and the battle of Issus (in modern-day Turkey), the second great clash in his conquest of Asia. Few dispute that this was an incredible feat, but I believe his greatest achievement was keeping together the alliance of Greeks that his father formed during his reign. One of Alexander’s first acts as king was to quell a revolt in Thebes, eventually destroying the city by force, thereby giving a clear message of what he was capable of. He set the scene early for an incredible reign.

Do you see any parallels between his life and your own?

It’s very difficult to judge bygone people by today’s standards; what to us seems cruel was standard practice back then. I’d say we’re both ambitious men. Like Alexander, I have a burning desire to succeed – though his isn’t a career path that is open to me!

If you could meet Alexander the Great, what would you ask him?

I’d question what he wanted to achieve and what continually drove him on. Alexander never wanted to give up campaigning; it was the refusal of his troops to advance further east into India that forced him to return home. If that hadn’t happened, when would he have felt he’d reached the end of his journey? Would it have been only his own death that could have stopped him? Probably.
Gregg Wallace was talking to Charlotte Hodgman. Gregg is a presenter best known for his love of all things sweet on BBC’s MasterChef, and was historical consultant on the BBC One series Turn Back Time: The High Street
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