Alexander the Great, king of the ancient country of Macedonia, led a great military expedition on which he defeated the Persian Empire and traveled as far east as India.
Alexander of Macedonia, better known as Alexander the Great, was one of the greatest military leaders of all time and one of the most charismatic figures in ancient history. He is credited with spreading Hellenism, or classical Greek ideals and values, throughout the civilized world. As a result of his conquests, he ruled over an immense empire, spanning more than three thousand miles from the Balkan Peninsula to the Indus River (in present-day Pakistan). He died at the age of thirty-three.
Conquests under his father's reign
Alexander was born in Pella, Macedonia, in 356 B.C. to the Macedonian king Philip II and his first wife, Olympias. Olympias had a strong influence on Alexander by introducing him to mysticism and art. Another important influence was Alexander's tutor, the Athenian philosopher Aristotle, who gave him a classical education.
Macedonia (or Macedon) was an ancient kingdom lying near the Aegean Sea on the Balkan Peninsula. Under Philip II the kingdom expanded to include the neighboring Greek city-states of Thrace, Chalcidice, Thessaly, and Epirus. By 338 B.C., with the battle of Chaeronea, Philip II had either conquered all the Greek city-states or forced them into an alliance. He was making plans to invade the Persian Empire when, in 336 B.C., he was assassinated at the wedding of his daughter to the king of one of his vassal states. According to some reports, Olympias (and possibly even Alexander) was involved in Philip's murder because he had neglected her for his other wives, but this story has not been proved.
Upon the death of Philip II, Alexander succeeded to the throne, though he was only nineteen years old. The unhappy Greeks revolted, but Alexander quickly put them down, demonstrating early his genius as a military leader. He also subdued uprisings in Thrace and Illyria, two other countries on the Balkan Peninsula. When people in the Greek city of Thebes revolted on a false rumor that Alexander was dead, he moved in and destroyed everything but the temples and the house of Pindar, the famous Greek poet. Having subdued the whole of Greece and intent on carrying out his father's plan to conquer the Persians, Alexander headed east on a march that was to become one of the greatest military conquests in history.
Early battles with the Persians
In the spring of 334 B.C. Alexander's army crossed the Hellespont—a narrow strait between Europe and Turkey now called the Dardanelles—and stopped at the site of the ancient Greek city of Troy. Alexander met the Persians in battle for the first time on the Granicus River where it flows into the Sea of Marmara in Turkey. His forces smashed the opposing army, although Alexander himself narrowly missed being killed. Following this victory Alexander pressed on through Asia Minor. His army again overcame the Persians, this time at Miletus, the most important of the twelve Ionian cities that had been seized by Persia around 547 B.C. Alexander also took Halicarnassus, the birthplace of the historian Herodotus.
Alexander then moved into Syria. He was near present-day Iskenderun, now in southern Turkey, when he learned that the newly crowned King Darius III of Persia and his army were at Issus, a town just twenty miles to the north. Alexander attacked Darius's army at Issus, cutting them off as they retreated to the sea in an effort to escape. Alexander's men inflicted a crushing defeat that left an enormous number of Persians dead. Darius fled to safety.
Following this victory Alexander turned south to take the Mediterranean ports where the Persian fleet was based. After a siege of more than eight months, he conquered the Phoenician city of Tyre, located on an island off the coast of Lebanon. During the final battle in July 332 B.C., eight thousand Phoenicians were reportedly killed, and thirty thousand were taken as slaves. Before the devastation had ended, Alexander received a peace offer from Darius. The terms were so favorable that Alexander's second in command, Parmenion, reportedly said that he would accept the offer if he were Alexander. "That," Alexander replied, "is what I should do were I Parmenion."
Pursuit of Darius
Alexander proceeded farther south, again claiming victory after a two-month-long battle at the fortress in Gaza, which housed a Persian garrison. Having taken Gaza, Alexander had now conquered all of Syria, so he then crossed over into Egypt. The Egyptians welcomed him as a liberator from the hated Persians; they also proclaimed him the son of Amon-Ra, the supreme Egyptian deity. Historians speculate this may be one reason Alexander considered himself divine. The following winter he founded the city of Alexandria on the site of the old Greek trading port of Naucratis. The largest of the seventy cities Alexander founded during the course of his conquest, Alexandria would become a lasting monument to his achievement. While in Egypt he visited the ancient oracle of Siwa. Although Alexander did not reveal the oracle's prophecy, his soldiers spread the rumor that Alexander was said to be destined to rule the world.
In the spring of 331 B.C. Alexander returned to Syria with an army of four hundred thousand foot soldiers and seven thousand cavalry. Crossing the Euphrates River into Mesopotamia, he once again met Darius, this time at the village of Gaugamela. Although his army was smaller than that of the Persians, Alexander's superior tactics won the field, and Darius was forced to flee once more. Pursuing Darius, he moved on to Babylon and then to Susa and Persepolis, where he burned the palaces and ransacked the city. Because of this victory, Alexander considered himself the conqueror of the Persians, although the Persian Empire would not disappear entirely for another three years.
Having penetrated this far into modern-day Iran, Alexander's army was now in territory that had not been mapped by the Greeks and was therefore virtually unknown to them. Still in pursuit of Darius, Alexander turned northwest to Ecbatana, or modern Hamadan, which he seized in 331 B.C. He moved on to Rhagae (modern Rhages), one of the great cities of antiquity, and then to Bactria, where he learned that Darius had been taken captive by Bessus, a cousin of Darius and the ruler of Bactria. Bessus executed Darius and declared himself king of Persia. In the meantime, Alexander had Darius body taken back to Persepolis to be buried in the royal tombs. Now that the king of Persia was dead, Alexander adopted the title Lord of Asia, the name given the ruler of the Persian Empire.
Growing despotism and cruelty
When Alexander learned that Bessus was also calling himself king and was leading a revolt in the eastern provinces of the empire, he led his army toward Bactria. Alexander's army crossed the Hindu Kush, a great mountain range, north of Kabul near the Khawak Pass in present-day Afghanistan, which lies more than 11,500 feet above sea level. Descending into Bactria, they discovered that Bessus had devastated the countryside and fled north over the Oxus River, now known as Amu Darya. By the time Alexander's men overtook him, he had already been deposed. Alexander had Bessus formally tried for the murder of Darius and then had his nose and ears cut off before sending him to Ecbatana to be publicly put to death by crucifixion.
By this time Alexander had become increasingly despotic, and his men were beginning to show dissatisfaction. He killed his own foster brother, Clitus, in a drunken brawl after Clitus insulted him. He antagonized his Greek and Macedonian followers by marrying a Bactrian princess, Roxana, and adopting Persian manners and dress. In 330 B.C. he learned of a conspiracy to murder him. Finding that the son of his general Parmenion was implicated, he not only had the son put to death but also executed Parmenion, who was innocent.
Alexander further alienated his soldiers by his treatment of the historian Callisthenes, a nephew of Aristotle, who had joined Alexander's expedition as official historian. At first Callisthenes portrayed Alexander as a godlike figure in his reports, but he became more and more critical of his leader's Persian garb and despotic behavior. Charging Callisthenes with being involved in the conspiracy against him, Alexander ordered his execution.
Campaign in India
After subjugating Bactria in 328 B.C., Alexander again crossed over the Hindu Kush and in 327 B.C. headed toward India. Sending half of his army ahead through the Khyber Pass with orders to build a boat bridge across the Indus River, Alexander fought his way to the river through the hills north of the pass. He and the forces who remained with him spent the winter fending off local hill tribes. His greatest accomplishment during this campaign was the scaling and taking of Mount Aornos (now called Pir-Sar), which was supposedly unconquerable, in 326 B.C. Following this victory, Alexander led his army to the banks of the Indus, where they rested until spring. Crossing the river, they marched for three days to the city of Taxila and then into India, where they were generally well received by the princes. As Alexander and his army continued to the Hydaspes River—the present-day Jhelum—they were met by the army of King Porus.
Alexander handily defeated Porus and his forces, thus conquering the Indus Valley. Yet this was to be Alexander's last great battle. As he pushed east to the Hyphasis River, now called the Beas, his army rebelled and refused to go any farther. They were tired after years of fighting the long war, and they wanted to return to their families. Unable to persuade them to press on, Alexander sulked in his tent for two days before agreeing to lead the army back home. In determining the best route for the return trip to the Mediterranean, Alexander decided to test the classical theory that the Indus and the Nile were one river.
Alexander constructed a large fleet of boats for sending part of his army downstream on the Jhelum to the Indus delta. He divided the remainder of his forces into three groups that would make the journey by land. Departing down the river in November 326 B.C., Alexander engaged in constant warfare because the Indians would not provide supplies to his troops without a fight. According to one account, at the modern-day city of Multan Alexander climbed a ladder to lead an attack and was badly wounded. For several days, as he appeared to be near death, his men went berserk, destroying the city and killing its inhabitants. When Alexander recovered from his wounds, he continued the journey down the river, reaching the Indus delta in the summer of 325. He explored both arms of the river and proved it was not connected to the Nile.
Exploration of coastal areas
Before the expedition arrived at the Indian Ocean, Alexander sent Craterus, one of his senior officers, back to Persia with the largest part of the army. He instructed Nearchus, who commanded another part of the army, to wait until the monsoon season in October and then sail along the coast to the Persian Gulf, where he was to find a sea route back to the mouth of the Euphrates River in eastern Turkey. The object was to open a trade route from the Euphrates to the Indus.
Meanwhile, Alexander and the remainder of his forces would make their way on land along the unexplored Makran coast (now in Pakistan), where he intended to build supply depots for the ships. But the Taloi Mountains, which reach all the way to the coast, forced him to turn inland, thus leaving Nearchus and the fleet to find their own supplies on a desolate shore.
Death at banquet
Alexander had no alternative but to lead his party across a vast expanse of desert in Gedrosia, now part of Pakistan and Iran. This journey, which lasted through the months of August, September, and October in 325 B.C., was one of the most difficult of his campaign. Alexander marched his forces, which included women and children, at night in order to avoid the intense desert heat. They did not have enough food or water, and many people died before they reached Pura, the capital of Gedrosia. Alexander went to Kerman, a Persian province, to meet Craterus and his forces. It was another six months before Alexander and Nearchus met at the port of Hormuz on the Persian Gulf.
Alexander's army reached Susa in the spring of 324 B.C. By this time his men had become even more distressed by his having increasingly adopted the customs of an Asian despot. He had also taken another wife, and he had integrated Persians into his army. These measures so alarmed Greek and Macedonian veterans that they voiced their discontent. Alexander discharged them, and many set out for Europe. During this time, however, Alexander was planning future expeditions. He sent one of his officers, Heraclides, to explore the Caspian Sea to determine whether it was connected to the ocean that supposedly stretched across the world.
Alexander also planned to place Nearchus in command of a fleet that would sail around Arabia in search of a route between India and the Red Sea. Alexander apparently intended to conquer Arabia as well. These projects were abandoned, however, when Alexander became ill at a banquet on June 1, 323 B.C.; he died in Babylon on June 13 at the age of thirty-three. Most accounts list the cause of death as fever, although there has been speculation that he was poisoned. His only son, Alexander Aegus, was born to Roxana after his death.
- Bosworth, A. B., Conquest and Empire: The Reign of Alexander the Great, Cambridge University Press, 1988.
- Fox, Robin Lane, Alexander the Great, Dial Press, 1974.
- Fox, Robin Lane, The Search for Alexander, Little, Brown, 1980.
- Green, Robert, Alexander the Great, Franklin Watts, 1996.
- Stewart, Gail, Alexander the Great, Lucent Books, 1994.
- Wepman, Dennis, Alexander the Great, Chelsea House, 1986.