Alexander the Great
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Alexander ‘the Great’ (336-323 bc), son of Philip II and king of Macedon, was the greatest military commander of the ancient world; his achievements inspired envy and imitation from Roman generals such as Pompey, Caesar, and Trajan, and achieved legendary status in the Christian and Islamic worlds through the Romance of Alexander. The main surviving sources were written between 300 and 500 years after Alexander's death by the Greek authors Plutarch, who wrote a biography and also wrote two encomiastic essays; Arrian, whose history focuses on military action; and Diodorus and Curtius (Roman), whose interconnected accounts merit attention for preserving some darker aspects of Alexander's reign.
Aristotle was among his teachers and imparted a love for Homer as well as general intellectual curiosity. In 340 Alexander briefly served as royal regent, in 338 he led the decisive cavalry charge at Chaeronea and, in spite of dynastic tensions in 337-336, he was the only serious candidate to succeed when Philip was assassinated in 336. Alexander at once consolidated his hold with characteristic energy: an important Macedonian enemy, the nobleman Attalus, was murdered, the Thessalians elected him as leader, and the Greek states in the League of Corinth recognized his hegemony. In 335 Alexander marched north to impose his authority over Balkan neighbours, demonstrating strategic skill, tactical resourcefulness in response to sudden challenges, and a desire to surpass all previous achievements. Thebes rebelled during his absence, but his speed of movement disconcerted his Greek opponents; the Macedonians captured the city after fierce resistance and everything, except for temples and the house of the poet Pindar, was razed; survivors were sold into slavery. This severe treatment, which Alexander had his Greek allies confirm, cowed potential opponents such as Athens.
Alexander was now ready for the campaign against Persia which Philip had planned; Antipater remained in Macedon as regent and supervisor of Greek affairs. In 334 Alexander crossed the Hellespont with somewhat over 40, 000 infantry and 5, 000 cavalry; the crack troops were Macedonian, though there were also important units of Thessalian cavalry, and archers and javelin men from Crete and Thrace. His first undertaking was a pilgrimage to Troy, part of his heroic image building: Alexander was the new Achilles (a maternal ancestor), to whom his companion Hephaestion played Patroclus. Military matters then impinged, and the local Persians were overwhelmed at the Granicus. This allowed Alexander to dominate western Asia Minor, where the Greek cities welcomed their self-proclaimed liberator with mixed enthusiasm; Miletus attempted to remain neutral and was besieged, while the Persian garrison at Halicarnassus defended the citadel even after the loss of the lower town. As Alexander secured territory he ensured that Persian administrative arrangements were maintained, under Macedonian supervision, for financial and logistical reasons.
Alexander was now embarrassed by Persian supremacy at sea: his own naval forces were limited, since he could not rely on Athenian help; he focused on securing coastal cities but could do little to contain a Persian offensive in the Aegean during 333. The balance only shifted when the dynamic Memnon of Rhodes died and Darius recalled the Greek mercenaries to bolster his land army. In 333 Alexander rapidly traversed central Asia Minor, without imposing effective control on a marginal area, but was then detained in Cilicia by serious illness. The rout of Darius at Issus in November left the whole of the Levant open to Alexander, and 332 was spent securing the cities of Phoenicia: Tyre, apparently safe on its island, only succumbed after a six-month siege which demonstrated all Alexander's considerable determination and skill; Gaza too held out bravely, and the black side to Alexander's heroic character was revealed in the mutilation of the gallant enemy commander. Control of the Levant brought with it the submission of the last Persian naval contingents. Alexander's final action before leaving the Mediterranean world was to visit Egypt, where he was recognized as pharaoh; more important for his image was the trip to the oracle of Ammon, located in the desert at the Siwah Oasis—stories about miracles during the desert crossing and the welcome and responses he received at the shrine were all intended to elevate him above the normal run of humanity.
In 331 Alexander turned east for the decisive confrontation with Darius at Arbela. Victory opened up the Persian heartland: the capitals and treasuries of Babylon and Susa were occupied, and before winter Alexander forced his way across the Zagros range to reach the upland capital of Persepolis. In Caria and Egypt Alexander had already appointed locals as provincial governors, and this policy was now extended to his former Iranian enemies, though usually with Macedonian garrison commanders as overseers. In spring 330 Alexander left Persepolis, after burning the palace—symbolic revenge for the Persian destruction of the Athenian Acropolis in 480, but also a product of the excessive consumption of alcohol in which Macedonians frequently indulged. Alexander closely pursued the fleeing Darius, who was deserted and killed by his entourage; Alexander honoured the corpse, and set about establishing his succession to Darius as Lord of Asia by securing the north-eastern satrapies: here Bessus, murderer of Darius, had proclaimed himself king and a protracted rebellion ensured tough campaigning in harsh conditions. Alexander was reasserting royal authority, but also exceeding the boundaries of predecessors' achievements, including those of his divine ancestor Heracles.
Alexander now encountered a series of challenges at court. In 330 Philotas succumbed to intrigue, and was adjudged guilty of treason for failing to report a conspiracy; his execution entailed the death also of his father Parmenio, loyal lieutenant of Philip and Alexander's second-in-command. Philotas may have been innocent, but his family had become disenchanted with the self-glorification of Alexander at the expense of other Macedonians; it also had jealous rivals at court. Macedonian resentment was increasingly fuelled by Alexander's progressive acceptance of oriental customs and dress. Tensions exploded in another drunken banquet after the 328 campaign season: Clitus the Black articulated the opposition of traditionalists to Alexander's innovations, and his increasing tendency to disparage Philip as his father in favour of divine parentage from Ammon. In drunken rage Alexander himself speared Clitus, but then collapsed in remorse. In 327 a further plot, this time involving the royal pages, was uncovered; the extension of oriental customs to include prostration was a key factor. The culprits were stoned to death and Callisthenes, the court historian, who was alleged to have encouraged them, was also killed.
In 326 Alexander advanced into India, again with a tenuous claim to reassert Persian control, with support from the ruler of Taxila. King Porus failed to prevent the crossing of the Hydaspes, and victory appeared to open the route eastwards towards the Ganges, but at the Hyphasis (Beas) the long-suffering troops eventually mutinied: monsoon rains and rumours of powerful kingdoms demoralized them, and Alexander was forced to abandon plans to reach the ocean via the Ganges. Reluctantly instead he turned south down the Indus and, in some of the most bloodthirsty campaigning of a gory career, overwhelmed various tribes. Among the Malli he received a serious chest wound, and the danger to his life produced an outpouring of loyalty from his troops.
From the mouth of the Indus Alexander returned west; part of the army was dispatched by a northern route, and Nearchus was appointed to sail the fleet up the Persian Gulf, while Alexander himself marched directly across the Gedrosian Desert (Makran) —rivalry with predecessors was again the spur: in a rare lapse Alexander's commissariat failed to respond to the enormous challenge, and there were severe losses, particularly among the camp followers. Back in the Persian heartland, Alexander turned to administrative matters neglected during his long absence, but also prepared for future campaigns: geographical discovery on the Caspian, conquest of Arabia because the inhabitants refused to worship him, and probably an attack on Carthage. His army was remodelled with the honorific discharge of numerous veterans and the incorporation of Persians trained in Macedonian ways: these developments provoked a fresh mutiny by the Macedonians, who felt they were being abandoned. Death anticipated full implementation of these developments. Hephaestion had already died in Iran in autumn 324, and Alexander succumbed at Babylon in June 323; circumstances prompted rumours of poisoning, but apart from repeated wounds his constitution had also been undermined by heavy drinking. There was no obvious successor, though his Bactrian wife Roxanne was pregnant and soon produced a son. Within two years the empire was rent by conflicts between the powerful successor generals, whose ambitions had only been repressed by their devotion to the authority of Alexander. The Macedonian army was the key to Alexander's success; his courage, endurance, and sharing of sufferings merited its loyalty. There were few breaks in the hard fighting, but the Macedonians enjoyed their profession and responded to their leader's talent and charisma.
- Bosworth, A. B., Conquest and Empire (Cambridge, 1988).
- Fuller, J. F. C., The Generalship of Alexander the Great (London, 1958).
- Lane Fox, R., Alexander the Great (London, 1973)
— L. Michael Whitby
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(fl late 13th century). Poet-composer from south Germany. He was an important composer of secular song, mainly Sprüche and Minnesang. In some of his Sprüche he criticized the times in which he lived; his Minnesang poetry follows the classical theme of chivalry. His melodies are often individual and forward-looking.
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Alexander the Great
Alexander the Great (356-323 B.C.) was the king of Macedon, the leader of the Corinthian League, and the conqueror of Persia. He succeeded in forging the largest Western empire of the ancient world.
With his Macedonian forces Alexander subdued and united the Greeks and reestablished the Corinthian League after almost a century of warfare between the Greek city-states following the Peloponnesian War. Thus Alexander set the stage for his conquest of the Persian Empire, motivated both by personal ambition and by the Greeks' centuries-old hatred for their perennial Asian foes since the Persian Wars. His campaigns were not only wars of liberation of Greek colonies in Asia Minor but also revenge for Persian depredations in Greece in years past. Within 11 years Alexander's empire stretched from the Balkans to the Himalayas, and it included most of the eastern Mediterranean countries, Mesopotamia, and Persia. He died in Babylon contemplating the conquest of Carthage and perhaps Rome. His legacy was a fragmented empire, but he had inspired a new Hellenistic age of cosmopolitan culture.
Alexander was born in 356 B.C. to King Philip II of Macedon and Queen Olympias, the daughter of Neoptolemus, King of the Molossians. Alexander's sister was born the following year, and the two children grew up at the royal court in Pella. Since his paternal grandmother, Eurydice, was an Illyrian, Alexander was barely Macedonian in blood but clearly so in temperament. Of average height, he had deep-set dark eyes which shone out beneath a heavy brow, and a mass of dark, curly hair. As a youth, Alexander rarely saw his father, who was embroiled in long military campaigns and numerous love affairs. Olympias, a fierce and overly possessive mother, consequently dominated her son's early years and filled him with a deep resentment of his father and a strong dislike for women and wine, in which his father heavily indulged.
Education by Tutors
One of Alexander's first teachers was Leonidas, a relative of Olympias, who struggled to curtail the uncontrollable and defiant boy. Philip had hired Leonidas to train the youth in arithmetic, horsemanship, and archery. Alexander's favorite tutor was the Acarnian Lysimachus, who devised a game whereby Alexander impersonated the hero Achilles. This delighted Olympias, for her family claimed the hero as an ancestor. In Alexander's youthful mind, Achilles became the epitome of the aristocratic warrior, and Alexander modeled himself after this hero of Homer's Iliad.
In 343 Philip summoned the philosopher and scientist Aristotle from Lesbos to tutor Alexander. For 3 years in the rural Macedonian village of Mieza, Aristotle instructed Alexander and a small group of friends in philosophy, government, politics, poetry and drama, and the sciences. Aristotle prepared a shortened edition of the Iliad, which Alexander always kept with him. Aristotle believed in despotic control of the Persians, but Alexander agreed with the ideas expressed in Isocrates's Philip that Macedon should free the barbarians from despotism and offer them Greek protection and care.
Beginnings of the Soldier
The education at Mieza ended in 340. While Philip campaigned against Byzantium, he left the 16-year-old prince as regent in Pella. Philip's general Antipater cautiously but strongly advised Alexander, but other generals looked on Alexander as a pawn, more easily managed than Philip. Within a year Alexander undertook his first expedition against the Thracian tribes, and in 338 he led the Companion Cavalry and helped his father smash the Athenian and Theban forces at Chaeronea.
The brief relationship and military cooperation with his father ended soon after Philip had united all the Greek states except Sparta into the Corinthian League, over which Philip then governed as military leader. When Philip married Cleopatra, the daughter of his general Attalus, and expelled Olympias, Alexander with his mother and his closest friends fled Macedon and lived in Epirus with Olympias's family until Demaratus of Corinth brought about a reconciliation between father and son.
Alexander as King
In the summer of 336 at the ancient Macedonian capital of Aegai, Alexander's sister married her uncle Alexander, the Molossian king. In the festival procession Philip was assassinated by a young Macedonian noble, Pausanias. The reason for the act was never discovered.
Alexander sought the acclamation of the Macedonian army for his bid for kingship, and the generals, Antipater, and Alexander's own troops which had fought at Chaeronea proclaimed him king. Alexander then systematically killed all possible royal claimants to the throne, and Olympias murdered the daughter of Philip and Cleopatra and forced Cleopatra to commit suicide.
Although elected feudal king of Macedon, Alexander did not thus automatically gain command of the Corinthian League. The southern Greek states rejoiced at Philip's assassination, and Athens, under the staunch democrat Demosthenes, sought to lead the League. Throughout Greece independence movements arose. Immediately Alexander led his armies southward, and Thessaly quickly recognized him as leader. Alexander summoned members of the League to Thermopylae and received their recognition of his command. At Corinth in the autumn of 336 Alexander renewed the treaties with the member states. Sparta refused to join. The League entrusted Alexander with unlimited military powers to campaign against Persia.
A Panhellenic Leader
A spirit of Panhellenism ruled the first stages of Alexander's career. A united Greece free of petty wars would bring to the barbarian worlds the Hellenic culture. As the descendant of Achilles, Alexander would correct the ills Persia had created for Greece and remove Persian intervention in Greek affairs. Although he became a Panhellenic leader, he nevertheless remained a Macedonian king bent upon conquering new territories.
Alexander did not prepare for war with Persia immediately. In the spring of 335 he conquered the Thracian Triballians south of the Danube. He secured Macedon and its northern borders without the help of the general Parmenion, who was already in Asia Minor, and Antipater, who governed as Alexander's regent in Macedon.
Destruction of Thebes
In Asia, Darius III, King of Persia, had become aware of Parmenion's presence in Asia and of Alexander's future plans. Darius attempted to bribe the Greek states to revolt, but only Sparta accepted the gold. However, when a rumor spread that Alexander was dead, Demosthenes prodded the Athenian assembly to unilaterally consider the Corinthian League defunct and Athens independent. Thebes at once rejoiced and slew its Macedonian garrison. Alexander, very much alive, raced southward and besieged Thebes. In the name of the League, Alexander waged war against the rebellious members but still attempted to negotiate peace. When Thebes rejected Alexander's demands, he leveled the city, killed the soldiers, and sold the women and children into slavery, sparing only the temples and the house of the poet Pindar. Alexander destroyed the city to warn others of the price of rebellion. Athens revoked its declaration of withdrawal from the League, honored Alexander, and offered to surrender Demosthenes.
In October 335 Alexander returned to Macedon and prepared his Asiatic expedition. In numbers of troops, in ships, and in wealth, Alexander's resources were markedly inferior to those of Darius. Parmenion was recalled to Pella to be Alexander's chief aide. The army was not Panhellenic but essentially Macedonian, led by a Macedonian king, and the expedition quickly became the royal Macedonian's personal campaign for aggrandizement and empire.
In the early spring of 334 the army crossed the Hellespont (modern Dardanelles) to Abydos, and Alexander visited ancient Troy. There he sacrificed and prayed, dedicated his armor to Athena, and took an antique sacred shield for his campaign. Not far away at the Granicus River, Alexander met Darius's army in May, employed for the first time his oblique battle formation, and defeated the Persians. To commemorate the victory, Alexander sent 300 sets of Persian armor to the Parthenon in Athens with the dedicatory inscription: "Alexander the son of Philip, and the Greeks, all but the Spartans [dedicated these] from the barbarians who inhabit Asia." Alexander thus maintained the official propaganda that he was not only a king but the Panhellenic leader.
Western Asia Minor and Darius's capital at Sardis fell easily, followed by Miletus and Halicarnassus. The territories Alexander conquered retained their satrapal administrations, continued to pay the same taxes as before, and formed the foundations of his Asian empire.
By autumn Alexander had crossed the southern coast of Asia Minor, and Parmenion had entered Phrygia. Both armies spent the winter at the Phrygian capital of Gordium. Divine portents and miracles were ascribed to Alexander by the local peoples, Greeks, and barbarians. When Alexander cut the famous Gordian Knot to fulfill a prophecy, he himself started to believe the myths circulated about him.
When news reached Alexander of Greek naval victories in the Aegean, he sped eastward to the passes of the Taurus and Syria. By the late summer of 333 Alexander was in Cilicia, south of Darius and his armies. At Issus the two kings met in battle. Alexander was outnumbered, but utilizing the oblique formations he rushed the Persian center line and Darius turned his chariot and fled. The Persian line crumbled. In November, Alexander attacked the Persian royal camp, gained hoards of booty, and captured the royal family. He treated Darius's wife, mother, and three children with respect. Darius's army was beaten, and the King became a fugitive. Alexander publicly announced his personal claim to the throne of Persia and proclaimed himself king of Asia.
But before he could pursue his enemy into Persia, he needed to control the seas and the coastal territories of Phoenicia, Palestine, and Egypt to secure his chain of supply. Aradus, Byblos, and Sidon welcomed Alexander but Tyre resisted. In January 332 Alexander began his long and arduous siege of Tyre. He built moles to the island city, employed siege machines, fought off the Tyrian navy and army, and 8 months later seized the fortress.
Darius now sought to come to terms with Alexander and offered a large ransom for his family, a marriage alliance, a treaty of friendship, and the part of his empire west of the Euphrates. Alexander ignored Darius's offer, planning to conquer all.
Campaign in Egypt
From Tyre, Alexander marched south through Jerusalem to Gaza, besieged that city, and pushed on into Egypt. Egypt fell to Alexander without resistance, and the Egyptians hailed him as their deliverer from Persian hegemony. In every country Alexander had respected the local customs, religions, and peoples. In Jerusalem he had retained the priestly rule of the Temple, and in Egypt he sacrificed to the local gods. At Memphis the Egyptian priesthood recognized him as pharaoh, offered him the royal sacrifices, and invested him as king on the throne of Ptah. They hailed Alexander as a god. When Alexander visited the oracle of the Phoenician god Ammon at Siwa, the priest greeted him as the son of Ammon. From this time he seems to have accepted the idea of his own divinity. All across his Asian empire, oracles confirmed Alexander's divinity, and the people paid him divine honors.
Alexander promoted Greek culture in Egypt. In 331 he founded the city of Alexandria, which became the center of Hellenistic culture and commerce. Devoted to science, Alexander dispatched an expedition up the Nile to investigate the sources of the river and the true explanation for its inundations.
Arbela, Babylonia, and Persia
In September 331 Alexander defeated the Persians at Arbela (modern Erbil); the event is also called the Battle of Gaugamela. The Persian army collapsed, and Alexander pursued Darius into the Kurdish mountains.
Abandoning the chase, Alexander systematically explored Babylonia, the rich farmlands, palaces, and treasuries which Darius had abandoned. In Babylon, Alexander celebrated the New Year's Festival in honor of the god Marduk, whereby the god extended his divine pleasure and confirmed the lawful monarchy. Alexander became "King of Babylon, King of Asia, King of the Four Quarters of the World."
The royal palace of Susa and its treasuries fell to Alexander in the summer of 331, and he set out for Persepolis, the capital of the Persian Empire. To prevent a royal uprising and to exact punishment for the Persian destruction of Athens in 480, Alexander burned Persepolis, a rash but symbolic act. In the spring of 330 he marched to Darius's last capital, Ecbatana (modern Hamadan). There Alexander left Parmenion in charge of the vast confiscated treasuries and all communications and set off in pursuit of Darius.
Darius had fled beyond the Caspian Gates with his eastern satraps. When Alexander caught up with them in July 330, the satraps had assassinated Darius. Alexander ordered a royal funeral with honors for his foe. As Darius's successor and avenger, Alexander captured the assassins and punished them according to Persian law. Now Persian king, Alexander began to wear Persian royal clothing and adopted the Persian court ceremonials. As elsewhere, Alexander employed local officials in his administration. He did, however, maintain his position of leader of the Corinthian League toward the Greek ambassadors.
Iran and India
At the Caspian Sea, Alexander became occupied with geography, the location of the Eastern Ocean, and its relation to the Caspian Sea. Consequently, he pushed eastward and for 3 years campaigned in eastern Iran. He secured the region, founded cities, and established colonies of Macedonians. In the spring of 327 he seized the almost impregnable high rock fortress of Ariamazes and captured the Bactrian prince Oxyartes. Alexander married Oxyartes's daughter Rhoxana to bind his Eastern empire more closely to him in a political alliance.
The Macedonians began to resent Alexander's Oriental customs and dress and his demand that they prostrate themselves before him. Parmenion's son Philotas conspired against Alexander, who executed the traitor according to Macedonian law and also ordered the death of Parmenion on false charges.
In the summer of 327 Alexander marched to the Punjab and the Indus Valley. The following year his first son died in India. In northern India, Alexander defeated the armies of King Porus. Impressed with his bravery and nobility, Alexander reestablished Porus as king and gained his loyalty. Continuing his progress eastward, Alexander reached the Ganges, where his armies refused to go farther, and after 2 days of struggle Alexander turned back. The army returned westward along the Indus, but when Alexander was seriously wounded while fighting the fierce Malli warriors, his army was overwhelmed with grief. They cheered his recovery, and all animosities were forgiven.
By July 325 the army and its fleet had reached the Indus Delta. The fleet continued north in the Persian Gulf, while the army began to march along the barren and inhospitable coast. Hardship and death brought havoc to the army, which joined up with the fleet weeks later. In January 324 Alexander reached Persepolis, which he had left 5 years earlier, and in February he was in Susa. But disorder had spread throughout the empire during Alexander's campaigns in the East.
Festival at Susa
Greatly concerned with the rule of his empire and the need for soldiers, officers, and administrators, Alexander attempted to bind the Persian nobility to the Macedonians to forge a ruling class. At Susa he ordered 80 of his Macedonian companions to marry Persian princesses. Alexander, although married to Rhoxana, married Stateira, a daughter of Darius, to legitimize his sovereignty.
When Alexander incorporated 30,000 Persians into the army, his soldiers grumbled. At Opis that summer, when he decided to dismiss his aged and wounded Macedonian soldiers, the angry soldiers condemned his Persian troops and his Persian manners. Alexander arrested 13 of their leaders and executed them. He then addressed the army and movingly reminded them of their glories and honors. After 3 days the Macedonians repented, and in a thanksgiving feast the Persians joined the Macedonians as forces of Alexander - but not as brothers.
In the spring of 323 Alexander moved to Babylon and made plans to explore the Caspian Sea and Arabia and then to conquer northern Africa. On June 2 he fell ill with malaria, and 11 days later, at the age of 32, he was dead. A few months later his wife Rhoxana bore him a son, who was assassinated in 309.
Alexander's empire was little more than a vast territory improperly ruled by the king and his bureaucrats. Nations and peoples did not blend harmoniously together but were governed by Macedonians for their King. The empire collapsed at his death, and nations and generals vied for power. The Greek culture that Alexander introduced in the East had barely developed. But in time, and under the "successor" kingdoms, the Oriental and Greek cultures blended and flourished as a by-product of the empire.
The most thorough study of Alexander, and perhaps the most accurate interpretation, is Ulrich Wilcken, Alexander the Great (1931; trans. 1932). Andrew R. Burn, Alexander the Great and the Hellenistic Empire (1947; 2d ed. 1962), is a delightful brief sketch and a fine interpretation of Alexander. W. W. Tarn, Alexander the Great (2 vols., 1948-1950), misrepresents Alexander's goals. Charles A. Robinson, Jr., has compiled a good general study of Alexander, The History of Alexander the Great (2 vols., 1953-1963). See also Kurt Emmrich, Alexander the Great: Power as Destiny (1965; trans. 1968). John W. Snyder discusses Alexander's military campaigns in Alexander the Great (1966). Margarete Bieber, Alexander the Great in Greek and Roman Art (1964), considers his portraits. A well-illustrated biography is Peter Bamm, Alexander the Great (1968). See also F. A. Wright, Alexander the Great (1934); Lewis V. Cummings, Alexander the Great (1940); and J. F.C. Fuller, The Generalship of Alexander the Great (1958).