What Made Alexander The Great So Great?

By | October 16, 2019

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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?

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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.