What Made Alexander The Great So Great?

WORLD HISTORY | November 4, 2019

Alexander Mosaic (detail), House of the Faun, Pompeii. Source: (Wikimedia Commons)

Alexander the Great often features on lists detailing the most impactful figures in world history. Most people understand Alexander as a Greek conqueror who subdued the Persian Empire and brought about the Hellenistic period, where Greek culture spread over a wide area of Asia and Europe. What is most remarkable is that he achieved these things by the time he died at age 32. Admittedly, most of the sources on Alexander were written by the Greeks, so they are naturally flattering. Still, what made Alexander the Great so great?

Philip II of Macedon with Clock tower in background, Bitola, Macedonia. Source: (Wikimedia Commons)

Early Years

Alexander was born in 356 BCE the son of King Philip II and Queen Olympias of Macedonia. Macedonia, to the north of Greece, was considered semi-barbaric by citizens of city-states in Greece proper such as Thebes and Athens but had an excellent army that was developed by King Philip. He innovated, professionalizing the army and using the latest technical improvements such as longer spears and two-handed pikes made the Macedonian army one of the greatest fighting forces of the ancient world. Its calvary was the first to be a decisive force in Greek military history.

Philip, in fact, set about conquering the Greek city-states. As for Olympias, she’s been mostly maligned by historians as being associated with cults and power-hungry. This is a result of ancient historians typically being sexist. We’ll never know the full picture of Olympias, but she was strong-willed and imparted those qualities upon her son.

So too is it very difficult to get a full picture of Alexander. There are no contemporary, narrative accounts of his activities and Arrian, who is the most reliable historian on Alexander, wrote about him centuries later. Archaeological records tend to wax propaganda — this was due to Alexander’s own efforts to have a powerful public image.

Philip saw promise in Alexander from an early age, and he acquired the services of the famous philosopher, Aristotle to tutor his son at about the age of 13. Aristotle exposed Alexander to the works of Homer and it is recorded that the prince carried around a copy of the Iliad with him.

Domenico Maria Canuti - Alexander and Bucephalus. Source: (Wikimedia Commons)

“Macedonia is too little for thee”

It was during that period that the prince supposedly tamed the horse, Bucephalus. The anecdote tells how Bucephalus, a powerful black horse with a white star on his head, was brought to King Philip and offered by Philoneicus of Thessaly for a ludicrously expensive sum of 13 talents. But the horse was wild and would rear up if any man drew too near. King Philip sent Philoneicus away, but before he left, Alexander challenged his father. If he could tame the horse, then Philip would buy it for him. Philip, indignant, accepted. Alexander noticed that Bucephalus was spooked by his own shadow. With calm, he approached the horse and gently stating its name, turned the animal so that it faced the sun and could not see its shadow. Alexander mounted the horse and rode off. When he returned, Philip purportedly said, “O my son look thee out a kingdom equal to and worthy of thyself, for Macedonia is too little for thee.”

Bucephalus was the most famous horse in antiquity and was Alexander’s mount until he died in 326 BCE either of battle wounds or old age.

Battle of Gaugamela by Hans Holbein the Elder. Source: (Wikimedia Commons)

Alexander Becomes King

At 16, Philip brought Alexander to the battlefield and the King saw how his son was a natural leader, often charging at the front with the men. Philip soon took control of most of Greece under the trappings of the Hellenic League and announced his intentions to invade Persia ostensibly in revenge for the Persian Wars of the prior century. This was cut short, however, when he was assassinated in 336 BCE.

Alexander became King and after brutally suppressing revolts in 335 BCE he went to the famous Oracle at Delphi which told the young king that he was invincible. Alexander then set out in 334 BCE to conquer the enormous Persian Empire.

The Macedonians and the Persians met at three major battles, the Granicus River (334 BC), Issus (333 BCE), and Gaugamela (331 BCE). These were defeats of the Persian army led by Darius III and led to the collapse of the Persian Empire. Alexander, young, dashing, and brave, led from the front and inspired his father’s powerful army to victory after victory.

Alexander cuts the Gordian Knot by Jean-Simon Berthélemy (1743–1812) Source: (Wikipedia)

The Gordian Knot

During this war of conquest, there is another famous story of the young Macedonian king. When his armies came to the town of Gordian they found an ancient cart that had a complex knot system that held the yoke to the cart proper. Legend had it that anybody who could unravel the knots would be hailed the king. Alexander could not resist. In one version of the story, he used his sword to cut the ropes thus loosening the knot. Another version of the story has him removing the linchpin from the yoke. Either way, the story shows Alexander’s genius for different thinking.

Map of Alexander's empire and his route. Source: (Wikipedia)

The Empire Expands

Alexander took over the Persian Empire and either in revenge or in a drunken state (Alexander was most likely a chronic alcoholic), burned their ancient capital of Persepolis. Afterward was mopping up operations. He took control of Egypt as well as established there the famous city of Alexandria.

Alexander then turned his attention east and began to conquer lands outside of Persia. By this time, Alexander was said to have taken on more of the airs of a Persian-type of despot rather than a Greek King. Clearly, he was being influenced by Persian culture as much as he was conquering their realm — this was probably Alexander’s means of ingratiating himself to the Persians. In the meantime, he continued to march as far east as India, which was incredible considering the logistical challenges of supplying an army that far afield in the ancient world. There his troops fought exotic war elephants. It was at one of these battles in the Indus River Valley at the city of Multan that Alexander was pierced in the chest with an arrow. He managed to survive.

At the Battle of Gaugamela (18th cent. ivory relief, M.A.N., Madrid) Source: (Wikipedia)

Death and Legacy

His army by this time was mutinous for being so far from home and demanded at the Hyphasis (now Beas) River to turn back.  In 326 BCE they started their return march. Alexander by this point was chronically drinking and it is not known how he planned to consolidate his empire. He did attempt a mass wedding of his officers to Persian princesses which resulted in mutiny from his men. Evidence shows that in 323 BCE he was not thinking about consolidation as much as more conquest to lands he had overlooked such as Arabia. This never came to be for in 323 BCE he died suddenly of fever, possibly from malaria or typhus. Some accounts hold that he was poisoned. At the time of his death, his empire was the largest the ancient world would ever know.

Alexander the Great’s empire was eventually divided up among his generals after a period of civil war and assassinations. The time following Alexander’s death was called the Hellenistic period in which Greek cultural influence spread wide. While Alexander’s empire crumbled, his legacy lives. In fact, Alexander is considered along with Napoleon and Genghis Khan one of if not the greatest military generals in history. His personal courage, strategic gifts, and leadership qualities have made him an object of study for millennia.

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