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Alexander the Great

Alexander the Great

“I am not afraid of an army of lions led by a sheep, I am afraid of an army of sheep, led by a lion.” – Alexander the Great.

Alexander the Great was a member of the Argead dynasty and was the third king of the ancient kingdom of Macedon to bear that name.

He was born in Pella, the capital city of Macedon around 20 July, 356 BC, although the exact date is not known. The ancient Greek biographer Plutarch described that Olympias, Alexander’s mother, dreamt that her womb was struck by a thunderbolt on the day of Alexander’s conception leading to him theorising that Olympias had been impregnated by Zeus.

He was raised by a nurse called Lanike and was brought up in the tradition of many Macedonian youths of noble decent at the time, learning to play the lyre as well as learning to read, ride, fight and hunt.

At the age of 10, Philip II gave Alexander a horse after his son had shown great courage in taming it, stating “My boy, you must find a kingdom big enough for your ambitions. Macedon is too small for you”. Alexander named the horse Bucephalus, which means ox-head and the animal stayed with Alexander until it died of natural causes at the grand old age of 30 according to Plutarch.

Philip II looked to further Alexander’s education and sought out a suitable tutor when the boy turned 13. Many applied for the job, but Philip settled on Aristotle, who in turn for teaching the king’s son would see his home town of Stageira rebuilt and repopulated by its ex-citizens who had been enslaved following the town being destroyed by Philip years before. For the next three years, Aristotle taught Alexander art, morals, logic, religion, philosophy and medicine. The teaching took place at the Temple of Nymphs at Mieza, which was operated like a boarding school and Alexander made several friends who would one day become his generals and are often referred to as Companions.

In 336 BC, Philip II was assassinated by Pausanias, the captain of his bodyguards who was killed by pursuers, including two of Alexander’s companions, who there and then declared him king, resulting in Alexander the Great taking his father’s throne at the age of 20. He immediately set about consolidating his claim to the throne and had several rivals executed.

He also acted quickly to put down several revolts in places such as Thebes and Thessaly and was ultimately awarded the generalship of Greece by the League of Corinth which had been formed by Philip II to unify Greece against the Persians. Alexander used this authority to lead an experienced and unified Greek army and in 334 BC he invaded the Persian empire.

Alexander’s first target was Anatolia, a large peninsula within the boundaries of modern Turkey which forms the westernmost protrusion of Asia. There followed a series of battles, two of which, the Battle of Issus, which is in the southern part of Anatolia, and the Battle of  Gaugamela which took place near the modern city of Dohuk in Iraqi Kurdistan, were ultimately decisive in overthrowing Darius III, the King of Persia and in Alexander conquering the Persian Empire. Following the death of Darius III, Alexander met and immediately fell in love with Roxana, the daughter of a Bactrian nobleman. The couple were married in 327 BC.

Although initially motivated by the need to conquer the Persians, Alexander didn’t stop once he had achieved this. He left Roxana behind in a safe place in the city of Susa and invaded India in 326 BC stating that he wanted his empire to reach the “ends of the world and the Great Outer Sea”.

Although he wanted to press on further east, Alexander the Great was eventually forced to turn back at the behest of his troops who were becoming desperate to see their homelands again, so reluctantly, he turned south. On the way, Alexander journeyed to Ecbatana to retrieve a large amount of Persian treasure, but whilst there, in October 324 BC, his closest friend and someone who many agree was also his lover, Hephaestion died as a result of either a mysterious illness or poisoning. This left Alexander devastated, and an expensive funeral pyre was built in Babylon, and a period of public mourning was ordered.

Eventually, Alexander made his way to the palace of Nebuchadnezzar II to plan the invasion of Arabia. However, whilst there, Alexander the Great fell ill and died 11 or 12 days later on around 10 June at the age of 32.

There have been different theories put forward for what caused his death including poisoning, malaria, typhoid fever and even spondylitis and meningitis. It is also possible that Alexander’s health had been deteriorating anyway due to his excessive drinking and numerous severe wounds received in battle. The death of Hephaestion also didn’t help.

Since he had not named an heir, and his only child had not yet been born, it was not clear who would succeed Alexander the Great at the head of his empire. A compromise was initially reached whereby Perdiccas, commander of the elite Companion cavalry would reign as king with the title being shared with Philip III of Macedon, (Alexander’s feeble-minded half-brother), albeit a title that had no power as far as Philip was concerned. This arrangement was meant to last until Roxana gave birth and if the child was a boy, he would become king, with Perdiccas continuing as regent. In August, 323 BC, Roxana gave birth to Alexander IV.

Three years later, following military failures and the mutiny of his troops, Perdiccus was assassinated by his senior officers. The Macedonian general and statesman Antipater then became regent, but he died the following year after having named one of his officers, Polyperchon as the new regent, passing over his son Cassander, who subsequently went to war with the regency.

As a result, Alexander the Great’s empire was torn to pieces resulting in several states being created which were ruled by some of Alexander’s surviving generals. Four decades of war followed between these states until four stable powers emerged, those of Egypt, Mesopotamia and Central Asia, Anatolia and Macedon. In the process, Alexander the Great’s wife, Roxana and their son, the 13-year-old Alexander IV were murdered.

Alexander the Great’s legacy is substantial and includes the founding of 20 cities that bear his name, the most notable of which is probably Alexandria in Egypt. Alexander ultimately achieved legendary status and became a classical hero in much the same way as Achilles had done in Homer’s Iliad featuring in many historic and mythical traditions in both Greek and non-Greek cultures alike.

He has also become a yardstick by which military leaders are measured by many, having never been defeated in battle, and inventing tactics that are still taught by military academies throughout the modern world to this day. 

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