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Alexander the Great: Military Genius or God

Updated on February 24, 2017
Alexander the Great
Alexander the Great | Source
Philip II of Macedon
Philip II of Macedon | Source

The Son of King Philip II

Following the Persian Wars, Athens gained power in Greece. Nearly all of the city-states except for those in the Peloponnesian peninsula, following the lead of Sparta, were under the control of Athens. This led to tensions and eventually war between Athens and Sparta. The Peloponnesian Wars broke out across Greece.

In Macedon, a city-state north of Greece which most Greeks consider far inferior, King Philip II had been strengthening his own economic and military position. He eventually took advantage of the years of fighting between Athens and Sparta to lead a campaign against his Greek neighbors to the south. He left his then sixteen-year-old son, Alexander, home in Macedon to maintain the affairs of state. At eighteen, Alexander took his place in battle beside his father and led his fellow Macedonians to victory. At twenty, Alexander became king of Macedonia, which now included most of Greece. He would go on to conquer the entire Persian Empire and become ruler of most of the known world. A telling of the life of Alexander, however, cannot start with the beginning of his brilliant military career or his assent to the throne for the greatness that Alexander was to become, started well before he was even conceived.

Alexander and his mother Olympias
Alexander and his mother Olympias | Source

The Birth of Alexander, Prince of Macedon

Philip II of Macedon, had many wives. Most of these marriages were political, as it was customary for a king to marry a daughter, sister, or niece of a neighboring king to form an alliance through marriage. Olympias of Epirus was no different. She was the daughter of Neoptolemus I, king of Epirus. It should be noted that Neoptolemus considered himself a descendent of the Greek, Trojan War hero Neoptolemus, son of Achilles and grandson of King Lycomedes of Scyros. This, of course, made his own children descendents of the Achilles and his goddess mother, Thetis, and by every account, Olympia was fiercely religious and loyal to the gods of Olympus.

Greek historian, Plutarch, the only known source of Alexander's childhood, tells that the night before Philip and Olympias were to be married, Olympias dreamed that her womb was struck by a thunderbolt, which started a great fire burning. Just after the wedding, Philip dreamed that he sealed his wife's womb with the symbol of a lion. Philip is also said to have witnessed his wife lying in bed with a huge snake that he assumed was Zeus, king of the gods, in disguise. According to Plutarch, Olympias was a member of the cult of Dionysus, god of wine, which included snake handling. Although Olympias remained Philip's principle wife and later bore him a daughter, Cleopatra, the two were never as close as they were before Philip came to believe that Zeus had seduced his wife.

When Alexander was born, which historians calculate to be July 20, 356 BCE, Plutarch notes that the Temple of Artemis in Ephesus was burned to the ground. Legend says this only occurred because Artemis, daughter of Zeus and a known goddess of childbirth, was away in Pella, Macedon, assisting in the birth of her half-brother, Alexander. Many believe that Olympias or Alexander himself may have started these rumors to build on his growing desire to be considered a god. Philip was off preparing for an invasion in Greece when he received a message from his wife that one of his generals had defeated two of his enemies in battle, his horses had won the Olympic Games, and she had given birth to his first son, Alexander. Philip was delighted with his good fortune.

Alexander riding Bucephalus while holding Nike
Alexander riding Bucephalus while holding Nike | Source

The Education of Prince Alexander

As prince and heir to the throne, Alexander received the best education available in Macedonia. As a young boy, he was taught by Leonidas of Epirus, a relative of his mother, Olympias. It is said that Leonidas was hard on the boy even going so far as to check his bed at night to make sure his mother had not left any treats for her son. Another account tells of a time when Leonidas scolded Alexander for throwing too much incents on a sacrificial fire telling him not to use so much until he, Alexander, had himself defeated the people from where the incents were obtained. The story goes on to say that years later, after his conquest of Asia, Alexander sent his former teacher a great supply of incents and told him not to be so stingy in his offerings to the gods.

At ten, Alexander accomplished something that stunned even his own father. The king was looking to purchase a horse but upon watching the trainers try to control the animal, decided this particular horse was too wild to be tamed. Alexander requested a try, as he had noticed the horse seemed to be afraid of its own shadow. He turned the horse toward the sun and quickly mounted it. He proceeded to ride the horse with ease. Once he dismounted the horse, he returned to his father where, according to Plutarch, Philip wept and told his son that he must find a kingdom big enough for his ambitions as Macedon was far too small for Alexander. The hose in question, Bucephalus, was purchased by Philip and become the horse Alexander would always ride into battle. Despite his fierce pride, Philip was not convinced that he was, in fact, Alexander's father. He sent a messenger to the Oracle at Delphi with one question. Was Alexander, his son? The answer was not a direct confirmation. However, Philip took the meaning to be clear. Philip was instructed to make major sacrifices to Zeus above all others.

Aristotle and his student Alexander
Aristotle and his student Alexander | Source

By the age of thirteen, Philip wanted the best education from all of Greece for his son. Philip considered many of the great teachers of the time finally deciding on Aristotle. Aristotle was himself a student of Plato who was a student of Socrates, the greatest philosopher of Greece. Philip gave Aristotle the Temple of Nymphs, an actual location where goddesses of nature were believed to dwell, for his teaching and rebuilt Aristotle's hometown, which Philip had destroyed in battle. In addition to Alexander, several of the sons of Macedonian nobility attended Aristotle's school. These boys would all play an important role in the life of Alexander. The education included not only philosophy but also music, religion, politics, and logic. It was under Aristotle's guidance that Alexander developed a love for the works of famed poet Homer. It is said that Alexander always carried into battle a copy of the Iliad, Homer's story of the heroics of Achilles during the Trojan War, a hero after whom Alexander tried to model himself as he considered himself a descendent.

From Regent to General

When Alexander turned sixteen, Philip left to attempt the overtake of the city of Byzantion, the city at the only entrance to the Black Sea from the Marmara Sea. In his absence from Macedon, he left Alexander in charge as regent or temporary ruler. Neighboring Trace, knowing that Philip was away at war, attempted a revolt. Alexander quickly fought them not only from Macedon but from some of their own land as well. He founded a Greek city there named Alexandropolis, the first of many cities to be founded by and named after the future king.

Battle of Chaeronea
Battle of Chaeronea | Source

Alexander was then named a general in his father's army and successfully fought other battles leading up to the two joining forces in Greece to take Thermopylae from Thebes. The Macedonians continued into Greece defeating smaller city-states while attempting to reach a peaceful surrender of Athens. When it was clear that Athens had no intention of submitting to King Philip, peacefully or otherwise, Philip prepared for battle against Athens and Thebes at Chaeronea in Boeotia, a territory just north of Attica where Athens ruled. Alexander had never fought in a battle so large but was vital to his father's victory there. After leading the main phalanx, the line of soldiers fighting in a rectangular mass, against the Athenians, Philip drew back his troops bringing the Athenians with him. Alexander led his troops, at the Thebans then broke through an opening between the enemy lines. Philip then went back on the attack trapping the Athenians between Philip's troops and Alexander's. The key to Philip and later Alexander's success was the use of the sarissa, a very long spear. The length allowed the Macedonians to attack from a distance destroying enemy troops before they were close enough to attack with their shorter weapons. Philip's men had mastered the use of this difficult weapon and Athens was quickly defeated.

Troops in Phalanx Formation with Sarissa
Troops in Phalanx Formation with Sarissa | Source

With the Macedonians now free to march on Athens, the citizens feared the worst, but Philip did not attack. He wanted the Greeks to fight with him and make no attempt to go against Macedon when he left to conquer Persia. For the most part, every city-state with the exception of Sparta quickly agreed to Philip's terms. When Sparta still refused, Philip and Alexander attacked the smaller cities in Lacedaemon, the territory for which Sparta was the capital. In the end, all of the city-states except Sparta agreed to join the League of Corinth. The terms were that each was free to continue as they had before but agreed to defend one another and Macedon. They also agreed to send support to help Philip in his fight against Persia. Alexander learned from his father's example.

Father and Son Clash

Though successful in battle, the relationship between father and son would be tested when they returned home to Pella. As Philip seemed to do after major military victories, he decided to take another wife. This time it was the niece of one of Philip's generals, Attalus. Unlike the other wives of Philip, Cleopatra Eurydice was from a Macedonian family. Any children of their marriage would be a full Macedonian where Alexander was only half-Macedonian blood. Olympias and her son both feared that a male heir might replace Alexander as his father's heir to the throne. During the wedding feast, the men, as was customary in Macedon, became completely drunk. This practice of drinking to the point of madness would become a weakness of Alexander's. On this night, Attalus, in a drunken rage raised a toast to his king in hopes that this union would produce a "legitimate heir." Alexander threw his drink at the general and shouted, "What am I, a bastard?" His father stood and drew a sword to go after his son but fell on his face, because he too was drunk. Alexander, now angry that his father would even consider killing him said, "See there, the man who makes preparations to pass out of Europe to Asia, is overturned passing from one seat to another." - Plutarch. Alexander, fearing his father's response grabbed his mother and fled to Epirus.

Once Philip regained his senses, it took him six months to convince his son to return having no intention of disowning him. The relationship continued to be strained, however, as a year later when a Persian governor offered his daughter in marriage to Alexander's half-brother, under coaxing of Alexander's friends from school, Alexander sent word to the governor that he should not give his daughter to an illegitimate son of Philip but to Alexander. When his father leaned of what happened, he angrily told Alexander that he deserved much better than this girl and called off talks with the Persians. He then banished his son's friends and punished the messenger Alexander had sent with the message.

In 336 BCE, Philip and his family were attending the wedding of Philip and Olympias's daughter Cleopatra to Alexander I of Epirus, Olympia's brother. While there, a bodyguard of King Philip, Pausanias, angry over a punishment he had received, stabbed Philip killing him. Two of Alexander's friends quickly caught Pausanias killing him. With the assassin now dead, there was no way to know if there was more to the plot to kill the king. Many thought Olympias or even Alexander were behind the assassination to insure Alexander's place as king. Regardless of any involvement, Alexander became king of Macedon at age twenty.

Tetradrachm with Alexander III King of Macedon
Tetradrachm with Alexander III King of Macedon | Source

Young King Alexander

Following his ascent to the throne, Alexander, for the first time, starts to show his capacity for brutality. He had a male cousin and two sons of a former king killed but spared another, Alexander Lyncestes because he genuinely praised Alexander as the new king. He was seeking to eliminate anyone who posed a threat to his claim to the throne under the pretense of eliminating those suspected of murdering his father. He also spared his half-brother Arrhidaeus, the one whose marriage he had previously ruined with the Persians. It was said that his brother was mentally disabled as a result of Olympias's attempt to kill him when he was young, and Alexander did not see him as a threat.

Despite his own killing spree, when Alexander found out what his mother had done to Cleopatra Eurydice and the daughter she bore to Philip, which was having them burned alive, he was extremely upset. This left him no choice but to kill Attalus, Cleopatra Eurydice's uncle, believing that he could not be trusted after the death of his niece. I am sure it did not help that Attalus and Alexander still held hard feelings as a result of the previous insults following Philip and Cleopatra's wedding.

King Alexander soon had other problems on his hands. When the Greeks learned that Philip II was dead, they quickly rebelled believing the young king would be powerless to stop them. Many of Alexander's adviser suggested he hold off an attack and send ambassadors instead, but Alexander knew that he had to prove his ability to rule immediately. He got the upper hand on the Thessalians and continued south to Corinth where he and his father had formerly reached an agreement with the Greeks. Along the way, he reached an agreement with the Athenians.

King Alexander and Diogenes
King Alexander and Diogenes | Source

Another story revealing the personality of Alexander occurred during his time in Corinth. The young king met with a philosopher named Diogenes. The story as told by Plutarch is as follows:

Upon reaching Corinth, many philosophers were quick to congratulate the young king. When Alexander learned of one who showed no such admiration, he sought out the old man. Alexander found him lying on the ground. When the old man raised himself up to look at the king, Alexander greeted him and asked if there was anything he, Alexander, could do for him. The old philosopher said, "Yes, stand over a little out of my sun." Alexander laughed at the boldness and lack of respect the old man showed the royal. Alexander is then said to have told his followers, "But truly, if I were not Alexander, I would be Diogenes."

While in Greece, Alexander sought advice from the Oracle at Delphi, but unlike his father who always sent a messenger, Alexander went in person. The oracle refused to speak with him, however, because it was winter. The young king continued to ask if he would succeed in conquering the Persian Empire. She continued to refuse his request. Alexander's temper flared again, and he dragged Pythia, the oracle, by her hair through the Temple of Apollo until she started screaming for him to let her go adding that he was unbeatable. Alexander did let her go because she told him just what he wanted to hear. As fate would show, Alexander was, in fact, unbeatable as he was never to be defeated in war.

Once Greece was controlled, Alexander secured his northern borders by swiftly defeating the kingdoms revolting against his rule there, including the Illyrian king. In the meantime, Thebes and Athens once again rebelled. As soon as Alexander headed south, the smaller city-states immediately agreed to Alexander's terms once again. When Thebes again decided to fight, Alexander destroyed them and their city. Athens, upon seeing what Alexander was capable of when pushed too far, agreed to the king's terms.

Alexander Takes Persia

With his father's original territory finally under control, Alexander set out to complete what Philip had dreamed of, taking control of the mighty Persian Empire. Persia had grown much larger than it was when the Greco-Persian wars occurred in the early 400s BCE. Alexander simply took control one battle at a time.

In 334 BCE, his troops crossed the Hellespont, the waterway dividing Europe from Asia. He defeated Persian troops at the Battle of the Granicus despite the Macedonians having to cross a swift running stream and fighting uphill to do it, which was not easy using sarissas. Sardis, the capital of the province, surrendered to Alexander. As he would do all along the way, Alexander took control by leaving one of his trusted friends in control of the government but allowed the Persians to maintain all of their customs. He also showed respect for the former rulers as well as the Persian warriors lost in battle. As his father had with the Thebans, Alexander gave proper funeral rites to all of the dead not just his own men.

As Alexander and his troops passed through Ionia, Caria, and Lycia gaining control of all the port cities along the Mediterranean, he fought and destroyed only the cities that refused to surrender in advance. Once all of the northern Mediterranean was under his control, he started inland accepting surrender and conquering holdouts along the way.

Alexander Cuts the Gordian Knot
Alexander Cuts the Gordian Knot | Source

The Gordian Knot

Another "Alexander the Great" moment took place at the city of Gordium. The city had once been the home of King Midas, he of the golden touch. The story goes that the city had been so long without a king that they sought an answer from an oracle who told them the next man to enter the city on an ox-cart should be king. As fate would have it, Gorias, the father of Midas, was the next such man to enter and named king. Midas dedicated the cart to Zeus and tied it with a knot, so complex that no one could figure out how to untie it as the ends were buried deep within the knot. Some say that an oracle had predicted that the man who could undo the knot would become King of Asia. Other say this "prophecy" only occurred after Alexander had conquered both the knot and Asia.

Alexander, upon arriving in the city, had to take up the challenge for himself. He studied the knot for some time but came upon the same problem as every other man who tired. Without the ends, there is no way to start. Alexander then drew his sword and sliced through the knot to the point where the ends were located then easily untied the knot. That night a terrible thunderstorm came over the city. Alexander took that as a sign that his father, Zeus, was pleased with his solution. Two metaphors came from the telling of this story, the "Gordian Knot," an impossible problem, and the "Alexandrian Solution," cheating or thinking outside the box.

Battle of Issus
Battle of Issus
Alexander's Decisive Move
Alexander's Decisive Move

Alexander Defeats Darius: Take One

Eventually, Darius III, the King of Persia, sought to deal with Alexander himself. The two met just outside of the city of Issus. One significant difference between the two kings is that Alexander always led his troops from the front, being the first into battle, while Darius led from the rear, staying out of harm's way. Despite the Persian's having significant numbers on the Macedonians, Darius soon found himself on the losing side. When Alexander spotted his rival in his chariot, the younger King went right for him causing Darius to turn his chariot around and run. The Persian king even ran past the city of Issus where his own mother, wife, and children waited for him. When Alexander leaned that Darius had left his own family behind, he declared that as Persian royalty, they were to be treated just as they were accustomed.

Once Darius had made his escape, he sent an offer to Alexander. Darius would give Alexander all of the land Alexander had already successfully taken along with 10,000 talents, a form of measurement, for his family's return. Alexander's reply was a classic in my opinion. As he, Alexander, was now the King of Asia, he would be the one to divide his territories.

Alexander and Hephaestion

No complete telling of the story of Alexander the Great can ignore Hephaestion, the son of Macedonian nobility and Alexander's lifelong best friend. The two boys attended Aristotle's school and were the closest of companions. Hephaestion may have even been one of the boys banished from Macedon when Philip learned of Alexander's attempt to steal his brother's Persian finance. Many historians believe that Hephaestion and Alexander were lovers as homosexual relationships were common in Macedon and Greece at the time of Alexander, but the relationship was greater than even that.

Alexander and Hephaestion compared themselves to Achilles and Patroclus as was shown when Alexander was close to Troy, just after entering Asia. He and Hephaestion visited the site of the Trojan War where Alexander placed a wreath on Achilles tomb while Hephaestion placed one on Patroclus's tomb. Aristotle was quoted as saying the boys were "...one soul abiding in two bodies." In many cases, it was shown that Hephaestion was the one person Alexander most trusted.

In addition to being the best friend of Alexander, Hephaestion was his bodyguard, commander of the Companion cavalry, just as Alexander had been for his father. Hephaestion supported Alexander in every way and eventually became second in command to Alexander.

The Family of Darius III before Alexander and Hephaestion
The Family of Darius III before Alexander and Hephaestion | Source

I selected this point of the story to introduce Hephaestion, despite the fact that he had always been by Alexander's side, because an event that took place when Alexander met with the family Darius left behind, explains exactly how Alexander felt about his dear friend. When Darius's family was brought before Alexander and Hephaestion, the Persian king's mother knelt before Hephaestion to beg for her family's lives. Hephaestion was said to be the taller of the two young men, and since they were dressed the same, she assumed he was Alexander. She became embarrassed when she learned of her mistake, but Alexander then said, "You were not mistaken, Mother; this man too is Alexander." - Diodorus.

Siege of Tyre
Siege of Tyre | Source

Alexander Takes Tyre, Eventually

The story of Alexander's siege of the Phoenician city of Tyre, off the coast of what is Lebanon today, is a prime example of Alexander's determination. Tyre consisted of two individual city centers, one on land and one a walled island just off coast. Alexander realized that the island was important to the safety of the harbor, though it would be nearly impossible for the island to maintain its independence if all of the surrounding area were to fall to the Macedonian king. He approached the gates of the island city and requested to make a sacrifice at the temple of Heracles inside the city. Knowing that allowing the king to do as he requested would be the same as submitting to his rule, they told Alexander there was a perfectly good Temple to Heracles in the mainland city and refused him entrance. When he made another attempt at diplomacy, his representatives were killed and thrown into the sea.

It soon became apparent that telling Alexander the Great he could not do something, was the wrong thing to do. Alexander knew that the only way to take the walls of the city was to have a land base outside of the 200-foot walls. Unfortunately, the city walls extended into the waters leaving no land anywhere outside of them. This did not stop Alexander who decided his men would build a one-kilometer mole, or land bridge, from the mainland to the island. His men worked for months carrying large rocks, timber, and earth to slowly building up and extend the mole out to the island city. When the men were getting close, a siege tower was built to help protect the men who were completing the project. The leaders of Tyre finally sent out ships carrying burning pots of oil, which they used to burn Alexander's bridge, men, siege towers and all. This, however, did not stop Alexander. He ordered his men to start rebuilding the bridge immediately, but this time he obtained ships and created his own navy to protect the bridge.

Upon hearing of his continued victories, the cities of Alexander's past conquests were more than happy to supply him with whatever he needed to defeat Tyre. He amassed a fleet of ships, more than 200, large enough to cut Tyre off from all contact with land. Some ships were fitted with battering rams that pounded the walls of the city. Once a small breach in the wall was created, Alexander's men destroyed the entire city and taking the citizens hostage, sold many into slavery. Alexander, of course, found the temple and made his sacrifice to Heracles. The entire assault is said to have taken about seven months.

Alexander at the Temple of Jerusalem
Alexander at the Temple of Jerusalem | Source

Alexander in the Holy Lands

After all the effort put into proving a point at Tyre, Alexander marched most of the way to Egypt with very little fighting required. City-by-city, the people all submitted to their new king voluntarily. Word was spreading that acceptance of the king resulted in very little change for the citizens while resistance always resulted in complete annihilation, as Alexander the Great never lost a battle. When he reached Gaza, however, the walled city stood firm against the successful Macedonian. Despite insistence by some of his generals that the walls could not be taken because the city sat atop a hill, Alexander devised a plan. Alexander determined that the south wall would be the easiest to take and had his men start building up the earth around the city, thereby giving the Macedonians a level playing field while they waited for the siege equipment to be shipped from Tyre.

The people of Gaza did not simply sit back and wait to be attacked. They made attempts to destroy Alexander's equipment but he quickly lead a counterattack while his men continued their work. Alexander was wounded in the shoulder while providing protection for his men. This was the first reported significant wound reported to the king, but it proved to be more of an agitation to his temper than a deterrent to his efforts. It took three attempts to take Gaza, but when the Macedonians finally did, they killed every man and sold every woman and child into slavery. A Roman historian, Rufus, claimed that Alexander, in a fit of rage at being insulted, dragged Batis, the highest-ranking commander at Gaza, around the outside walls of the city just as his hero Achilles had with Hector after defeating him in the Trojan War. The rest of the trip to Egypt was, as they say, a cakewalk. Even Jerusalem opened their doors freely to the new king.

Amun-Ra
Amun-Ra | Source

The Son of Amun-Ra

Not only did the Egyptians now know that it was far better to bow down to King Alexander than to fight him, they were tired of Persian rule. They looked forward to what the young Macedonian had to offer them. As soon as he and his troops arrived, Alexander was named Pharaoh of Egypt. Knowing he considered himself the son of Zeus, the Greek king of the gods, they also claimed he was the son of their own king of the gods, Amun-Ra.

While in Egypt, Alexander reportedly made a trip through the desert to visit the Oracle of Ammon at Swisa Oasis. Alexander was the first pharaoh of Egypt to make the trip across Egypt, but this sanctuary was considered very important to the Greeks, so Alexander was determined to go despite the fact that it was summer and very hot. A few days into the trip, the traveling party had depleted their supply of water and was in grave danger. It started raining and solved their thirst problem, something Alexander attributed to Zeus. It is also told that they had no idea how to get where they were going as sandstorms were prone to cover any and all road markings. Aristobulus, a traveling companion of Alexander and long-time friend of his father, Philip, claimed that crows guided Alexander's way.

When they reached the temple of the oracle, the high priest welcomed Alexander as the son of Zeus. Some say this was a mistake due to the priest's poor Greek translation. He then allowed Alexander to enter the temple, something only allowed to priests, making his travel party wait outside of the temple. It is said that Alexander asked three questions; Have all of those responsible for my father's death been punished? Will I conquer all of the world? Am I the son of Zeus/Ammon? Sources citing Ptolemy, a friend of Alexander's from his time at Aristotle's school and the general left behind to control Egypt when the Macedonians moved on, stated that Alexander was told yes to all three answers. Most believe that this is a myth since no one was with him when he received his answers, and Alexander's personality was such that he would not have told anyone with the exception of his mother, Olympias, and perhaps Hephaestion. Plutarch stated that Alexander sent a letter to his mother telling her that he would reveal what he was told when he returned home. Alexander, however, would die before ever returning to Macedon and Hephaestion died months before Alexander.

Before leaving Egypt, Alexander commissioned a city built where the Nile River met the Mediterranean Sea. In less than a year after Alexander founded his city, Alexandria became the largest city in the world. It became the major seaport in the Mediterranean, a center for learning, held the largest library in the world and was the sight of the world's first lighthouse, started by Ptolemy I, Alexander's boyhood friend. Alexander never lived to see Alexandria built, but his body was entombed there by his dear friend Ptolemy.

Alexandria, Egypt
Alexandria, Egypt | Source
Battle of Gaugamela
Battle of Gaugamela | Source

Alexander Defeats Darius: Take Two

With Egypt now securely in the hands of his long-time friend, Ptolemy, Alexander once again set out to find Darius II. The Macedonians marched into Mesopotamia. In the two years since they fought at Issus, Darius had sent three requests to settle the matter peacefully, even going so far as to offer his oldest daughter in marriage. Alexander accepted none of them. He reportedly sent Darius a letter telling him that if he wanted to dispute the right to the Persian throne, he should fight for it like a man instead of running away. Darius and his troops were waiting at Gaugamela.

As many losers do, Darius claimed that he lost because he had been trapped on a narrow battlefield at Issus. This time they would be fighting on flat land. Darius had also been building his military over the two years. Historians calculated Darius's forces numbered at 250,000 soldiers while Alexander marched in with 47,000, though some historians have claimed as many as a million Persians. The Persians also had something the Macedonians had never seen in battle before, elephants. Darius once more sent a note to Alexander offering half of Persian to stop fighting. Alexander refused despite Parmenion, a general who had served as Philip's second in command and was respected by Alexander, stating that if he were Alexander, he would gladly accept the offer. Alexander's reply was that he would too if he were Parmenion.

The night before the battle, many of Alexander's general pleaded with him to attack using the benefit of the darkness. Some say this was suggested so the men could not see the elephants and run in fear. Alexander refused to make it clear that he would not give Darius any other excuses for losing to the Macedonian. He did make a sacrifice to Phobos, the son of Ares and god of fear, however.

Alexander stayed awake late that evening trying to determine the best strategy for victory, but once it came to him, he went to bed and right to sleep. Darius, on the other hand, was so afraid Alexander would pull a sneak attack, he made his troops stay on guard all night. This made the Macedonian's well rested while the Persians were tired. Alexander actually overslept that morning and had to be woken by his generals.

Starting Formation and Opening Movements of the Battle of Guagamela
Starting Formation and Opening Movements of the Battle of Guagamela

By every indication, Alexander should have lost the battle, but he used strategy to force Darius's hand. Though the Macedonian infantry started the battle, Alexander forced Darius to start the cavalry, horseback, attack. As Alexander wanted, all of the cavalry from both sides engaged in one battle, and despite the fact that the Macedonians were extremely outnumbered, Alexander had planned for reinforcements and held long enough for the young king's next move.

Alexander's Winning Strategy at the Battle of Guagamela
Alexander's Winning Strategy at the Battle of Guagamela
Darius Fleeing the Battle of Guagamela
Darius Fleeing the Battle of Guagamela | Source

Alexander took command of a smaller number of troops who easily worked their way through Darius's chariots then the center of the Persian line and Darius's own guards. Darius himself was now in Alexander's sights. The Persians were being slaughtered by the Macedonian sarissas, long spears. When Darius saw Alexander heading straight for him, he turned and ran, again. The Persian line then ran after him, though some dispute who ran first Darius or the line. Alexander started to give chase until receiving word from Parmenion that the left flank was in trouble. Knowing only he could champion his troops to continue fighting, Alexander turned back to the battle letting Darius escape again. Once Hephaestion and the Companion Cavalry got the Persian right flank to pull back, the battle was done.

Alexander Finds Darius
Alexander Finds Darius | Source

After the Fall of Persia

After securing Babylon and Susa, Alexander headed for Persepolis, the capital of the Persian Empire. Having to fight his way past the guards at the city gates, he secured the treasury of the Persian's and had it sent to Ecbatana for safe keeping then he allowed his army to loot the rest of the city. Things got out of control for some time and Alexander himself started drinking heavily. One night, during a drinking party with friends, someone suggested that they burn down the palace where they were sitting, the Palace of Xerxes, as payback for the Persian's burning Athens during the Second Persian War. Alexander, drunk out of his mind, not only agreed but grabbed the first torch. The next day, after sobering up, he regretted the destruction but the deed was done. After five months at Persepolis, Alexander set out to find Darius once and for all.

Darius had escaped but he did not get far. Once the Persian survivors, including Bessus who had led the final assault with the right flank, caught up to him, he was already making plans to raise another army for a third try at Alexander, but the local governors refused to help. It was now much more desirable to come to terms with Alexander, who would let them keep their jobs not to mention their lives. Bessus took Darius hostage, but when Alexander and his men closed in, Bessus killed his former king . Alexander, upon finding Darius dead, placed his own cloak over his enemy's body and returned the former king to his capital city, Persepolis, for a proper funeral.

Alexander, having taken care of business with Darius, soon went after Bessus to punish him for killing Darius and taking away Alexander's chance to make the Persian king submit defeat to him. Along the way, Alexander took control of much of Central Asia leaving cities named Alexandria in places like modern day Afghanistan and Tajikistan.

Alexander Kills Cleitus
Alexander Kills Cleitus | Source

Alexander's Military Turns

Now that Alexander was doing more ruling than fighting wars, many of his Macedonian generals were becoming upset by his actions. In an attempt to become a little more Persian and bring unity to his new empire, he was dressing in Persian robes, placing Persian military commanders in key roles, and worst of all in the minds of his generals, requiring proskynesis, kissing of the hand or kneeling to the ground at the feet of superiors.

Alexander learned of a plot against his life by Philotas, a Macedonian officer and the son of Parmenion. Alexander ordered the execution of Philotas, and as was customary in such a case to prevent retaliation, his father Parmenion was also killed.

During another night of drinking, Cleitus, who had once saved Alexander's life by cutting off the arm of a Persian before he could bring his blade down on Alexander, made some drunken complaints about his being sent back to Macedon and away from the service of his king. Alexander, also drunk, then claimed that he was a better leader than his father had ever been prompting Cleitus to respond that Alexander would be nothing without his father, Philip, and he was not even the legitimate king of Macedon. Alexander tried to get the guards to remove the man but nothing happened. Alexander then threw an apple at Cleitus and called for a weapon. Now things were clearly getting out of hand between the two old friends. Cleitus was pulled from the room but somehow broke free and returned to shout more insults at Alexander. Alexander then grabbed a spear and hurled it at Cleitus striking him in the heart. Once Alexander regained his senses, he was devastated that he had killed his long time friend, according to most. Others believed that Alexander had started killing off the old guard who had been loyal to his father and Cleitus was just one more oldtimer.

In another incident, Callisthenes, Alexander's own historian and the nephew of Aristotle, who was one of the leaders against the practice of proskynesis and even refused to bow before the king, was accused of another plot against Alexander's life. Many historians believe the accusation was manufactured as an excuse to order his execution. Regardless of the truth, Callisthenes was killed.

Alexander and Roxana
Alexander and Roxana | Source
The Weddings at Susa Alexander and Hephaestion Marry Daughters of Darius III
The Weddings at Susa Alexander and Hephaestion Marry Daughters of Darius III | Source

Alexander Takes a Bride, or Three

During Alexander's campaigns in Bactria, what today is in Afghanistan, a teenage girl named Roxana caught the eye of the king. She was the daughter of Oxyartes, a Bactrian chief who had accompanied Bessus on his run from Alexander. The chief, trying to protect his wife and daughters, left them at Sogdiana during his flight. Alexander soon took control of Sogdiana, but as he had in the past, treated everyone with respect. When the chief learned that his family had been taken by Alexander and the king was seeking to marry his daughter, Oxyartes turned himself in to Alexander and swore his allegiance. Alexander accepted him and placed him in a position of honor then married his daughter in a lavish wedding in 327 BCE. By all accounts, Alexander, though so taken with Roxana's beauty and his determination to have her, honored her youth and innocence by agreeing to marry her before taking her to his bed.

In 324 BCE, Alexander, in an attempt to unite Persians and Macedonians through marriage, married Stateira II, a daughter of Darius III and her cousin, Parysatis, the daughter of Artaxerxes III who was King of Persia prior to his cousin Darius. Persia had recently been ruled by two different lines of a Persian family. Artaxerxes III was the King of Persia who gained control of Egypt in 343 BCE. Upon his death, his son Arses served as king for two years before being killed. As Arses was the last surviving son of Artaxerxes III, his cousin Darius III took the throne. It should be noted that Darius was not the one responsible to Arses death. By marrying a daughter of both Darius and Artaxerxes, Alexander gained support of both lines of the family.

Alexander encouraged many of his Macedonian generals to take Persian wives as he did. During a five-day celebration, as many as 90 other Macedonian and Greek leaders in Alexander's military married daughters of Persian nobles including Hephaestion, who married Stateira's sister Drypetis. It was important to Alexander that he be the uncle of Hephaestion's children. Marrying sisters, daughters of Darius, accomplished this. It should be noted that upon Alexander's death a year later, all of the Macedonians divorced their Persians wives.

Porus Surrenders to Alexander
Porus Surrenders to Alexander | Source

Alexander Sets His Sights on India

Alexander continued to look east in building his empire. He sent word to the local chieftains that they should submit to him. Some did in an attempt to avoid destruction of their territories by Alexander. Those who did not would soon face the king's wrath. Village after village was captured and destroyed despite two injuries to Alexander, on in the shoulder and one to his ankle.

Alexander then crossed the Indus River and fought King Porus of Paurava along the Hyphasis River. After the battle and Porus's surrender to the Macedonian, Alexander named Porus governor of an even larger territory than he had previously held. Alexander suffered a great loss, however, as his beloved horse Bucephalus died. To honor his long time companion, Alexander founded a city in the region and named it Bucephala.

Alexander then set his sights on territories along the Ganges River and beyond. His generals, however, had other ideas. They were tired of years of fighting and begged Alexander to take them home. They pointed out that they had accomplished what they had set out to do, which was conquer the Persians. They were also concerned with the continued use of war elephants, which were more than the men could handle. Alexander tried to convince the men to go on as his goal was now to conquer the entire world, but he eventually gave in and started back.

Alexander agreed to return to Persia but took control of the territory along the way. During a battle at Malhi, which took longer than Alexander had expected, he was injured when he was the first over the top of the wall. He alone fought off many fighters but took an arrow before his men could reach him. Despite his armor, the arrow pierced his chest and nearly cost him his life.

Alexander then split up his troops sending some north, some sailing along the Persian Gulf and he leading the final group through the Gedrosian Desert. On their way back to Susa, Alexander announced that he would send many of his soldiers home to Macedonian, which he believed was what they wanted based on the pleadings of some to halt the fighting into India. The men, however, took this as a sign that the Persians were taking their place and turned on Alexander. They began openly complaining about their Macedonian king dressing like a Persian and adding more and more Persians to important roles within the military. Alexander tried for days to ease the tension, but when that failed, he replaced the Macedonian leaders with Persians. This act prompted the Macedonians to take back their complaints and plead with their king to forgive them. It was at this point that Alexander arranged the marriages of his men to Persian women, including his own marriage to the daughter of Darius III.

The End of Alexander the Great

Alexander, now looking to establish his long-term rule of such a vast area, headed to Ecbatana to retrieve the Persian treasury he had previously sent there. While in Ecbatana, however, Alexander suffered the greatest loss of his life. Hephaestion became sick and, after several days, died. It was never determined what caused the illness but some suspected poisoning. Alexander was devastated. He spent a day grieving over Hephaestion's body then several more refusing to get out of bed or even eat. He had the doctor caring for Hephaestion executed and destroyed the shrine to Asclepius, the god of medicine. Alexander sent a messenger to the Oracle at Siwa Oasis requesting that Hephaestion be made a god. The oracle declared him a divine hero, which was acceptable to Alexander. He returned to Babylon with Hephaestion's body and planned a glorious tomb and funeral games for his lifelong best friend, but Alexander too would die before he could see it all completed.

The Death of Alexander
The Death of Alexander | Source

Only eight months after the death of Hephaestion, Alexander became sick after a night of heavy drinking. Much like Hephaestion, he came down with a fever. He continued to grow worse over the next eleven days. In the end, he could neither move nor speak. Fearing the king's death, his men were allowed to view him one last time. At the age of 32, the man who had never lost a battle and united most of the known world was dead.

To date, the exact reason for his death is not known. Some historians point to his developing an illness like typhoid or malaria. Others point to rumors of poisoning. For some time, people dismissed this possibility because of his eleven days of lingering illness, but today, scientists have identified toxic plants known at the time that could have caused the identified symptoms. Despite the initial cause of his illness, it is possible he simply lost the will to live now that Hephaestion was gone.

The Empire of Alexander the Great
The Empire of Alexander the Great | Source

Alexander's Empire Becomes Divided

With Alexander now gone, his kingdom was in turmoil. There was no natural heir as Roxana was pregnant with Alexander's first child. Alexander IV was born following his father's death. Though it was said that when Alexander, on his deathbed, was asks who should take over his kingdom he replied, "to the strongest" the fact that he was unable to speak at his death eliminates this as a real possibility. For a time, the regents/governors Alexander had left in place throughout his conquest maintained control of their respected regions with Perdiccas, one of Alexander's top generals, maintaining overall control as regent for Alexander's half-brother Arrhidaeus and unborn son as they were recognized as co-rulers.

Alexander's body was to be returned to Macedonia, but Ptolemy intercepted the sarcophagus. Alexander was eventually entombed in Alexandria, Egypt, where Roman leaders like Julius Caesar, Caesar Augustus, and Caligula all viewed the body.

After giving birth to Alexander's son, Roxana had both of her husband's other wives, Stateira II and Parysatis II executed then fled to Macedon with her baby to the protection of Olympias. Fights soon developed over the position of regent. After several appointments and deaths, Cassander, a classmate of Alexander's at Aristotle's School, was named regent. In 321, Alexander's former generals started a battle over actual control of the territory. It would last forty years. In 317 BCE, Arrhidaeus was executed by Olympias and her followers. Cassander captured Alexander's family, and though Olympias was promised that she would be spared, she was tried and Cassander let the family of her former victims execute her in 316. Roxana, Alexander IV and Heracles of Macedon, a young man claiming to be an illegitimate son of Alexander, were all executed in 310 BCE.

Following the wars for power, Alexander's territory was divided into four separate kingdoms. Ptolemy won Egypt. Seleucus won Babylon and the surrounding area. Lysimachus won Thrace and Asia Minor, while Cassander got Macedon and Greece.

Conclusion

The story of Alexander the Great is both awe inspiring and sad. His drive led him to accomplish more than any man before or after him, but his death leaves one to wonder what more he could have accomplished had he lived far past 32 years. Could he have taken India and then China? What about Rome and Carthage, would there have been a Roman Empire if Alexander had lived? The entire world could have been a different place if Alexander III of Macedon had lived to old age.

He had his faults, fits of rage, drunken episodes, stubborn irrationality, but he also showed instances in kindness and respect, a love of knowledge, and undying loyalty. His ability to lead in wartime was obvious, and while he never got the chance to show his ability to lead in peacetime, he had taken steps to build long-term unity between his people through respect and marriage. While standing against the man in battle was certain death, living under his rule was better for some citizens than what they had experienced in the past.

While Alexander only lived to conquer the world, not rule it, he did leave a lasting impact on his people. His love for everything Greek spread not only to the lands he controlled but beyond. The Hellenization of the world can be laid directly on Alexander's shoulders, and the Roman Empire, starting with Pompey and Julius Caesar, began from the same inspiration future emperors took from Alexander the Great, the most amazing man of all time.

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    • ravi1991 profile image

      Ashutosh Tiwari 3 years ago from Lucknow, India

      @anitajsmith

      A great hub.

      I am an avid reader of ancient Indian history, and a great admirer of this man.But please! he was a man and do not compare him to god with whatsoever facts.

      He has an indelible blot on his character which I will outline below:

      While fighting with Ashwakas, after death of Asskenas in the battle of tumul, Alexander had promised a treaty with Bhritya(Indian) Warriors-- if they(Indians) came out of Massagg Fort peacefully-- but when they came out he ordered onslaught and massacred Indians by imposture.

      Rest is fine. I have written a story praising his military skills against Poros.

      Wishes and regards

    • Staffan Uhlmann profile image

      Staffan Uhlmann 3 years ago from Stockholm, Sweden

      Very informative!

    • anitajsmith profile image
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      Anita Smith 3 years ago from Burnside, Kentucky

      Thank you bethperry

    • bethperry profile image

      Beth Perry 3 years ago from Tennesee

      An epic Hub! This would make an excellent educational piece.

      I always thought Alexander was guided through life by some unearthly force, though I am not sure it was a benevolent force, considering the burning of the great library. But for one to have such foresight and at such an early age, it indeed lends weight to the idea someone or something lent a hand to his fate.

      Voting up!

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      Prosperity66 3 years ago

      This is an awesome piece of Historical work. Thanks for sharing your knowledge.

    • raymondphilippe profile image

      Raymond Philippe 3 years ago from The Netherlands

      This reads like a labor of love. Very interesting. Learnt a lot. Voted up.

    • alancaster149 profile image

      Alan R Lancaster 3 years ago from Forest Gate, London E7, U K (ex-pat Yorkshire)

      In an odd way Alexander's rise is mirrored in Hitler's, and his over-extension. But that's where the comparison ends, because Alexander was an accomplished military figure in his own right - perhaps more like John Churchill (Duke of Marlborough) or Arthur Wellesley (Wellington), Bernard Montgomery and - dare I say Rommel.

      [Hitler only achieved a corporal's stripes because his predecessors were shot by British snipers, as was Hitler himself but unfortunately survived].

      Yes Alexander of Macedon was a great man, but his weakness was within him. He believed the hype (which brings us back to Hitler) and in the end took no notice of his own generals.

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      Howard Schneider 3 years ago from Parsippany, New Jersey

      Wonderful historical Hub, Anita. Great analysis also.

    • panpan1972 profile image

      Panagiotis Tsarouchakis 3 years ago from Greece

      Great article! Well done!

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      anitajsmith 3 years ago

      Thank you lions44, it was a lot of work, but a labor of passion. Alexander is my favorite.

    • lions44 profile image

      CJ Kelly 3 years ago from Auburn, WA

      Great article. A real tour de force. I've always been interested in Alexander and I learned a lot. Thanks. Voted up.