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Was Alexander the Great Really Greek?

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ata1515 is a student of ancient and modern European history. Join me over at the Roman Republic on Quora to ask questions.

Bust of Alexander the Great

Bust of Alexander the Great

Classical Greece

One giant looms over the entire ancient world. This man casts a shadow across history and changed the development of the Mediterranean world forever, but even today people are confused by what ethnicity this man was. Alexander the Great was king of Macedon, but many people believe him to be a Greek. His Greek contemporaries didn’t see him as Greek, but his own men did, as did the survivors of his campaigns. Alexander was a Greek to some degree, not by birth, but through culture.

Alexander was a member of the Argead dynasty of Macedon. Allegedly the Argead dynasty descended from Greeks that had migrated from the city of Argos, a once powerful city on the Peloponnese. His ancestors had taken over the region of Macedon and subjugated the local tribes but to maintain power they would have inter-married with the leading families, and eventually the Greek blood would have been greatly diluted.

To the Greek city-states this intermingling meant that he was no longer a proper Greek. Those who lived outside the enlightened realm of the Greeks were considered barbarians, and the Thracians of the north were no different. Living outside of the Greek system meant giving up ones Greekness.


Greek States During the Pelopennesian War

Greek States During the Pelopennesian War

The Mediterranean World

By the time Alexander ascended to the throne of Macedon the world of the Greek city-states had ended. There had been a time when Greece was divided by powerful city-states and territories grouped under self-defense leagues, in which Sparta and Athens were the most famous of the two city-states and led the most powerful alliances in Greece.

During the Greco-Persian Wars the Greek city-states united to throw off Persian rule in the Greek colonies in Anatolia. After the Greco-Persian Wars Greece descended into chaos. Sparta led the Pelopennesian League in to war with the Athenian led Delian League. This war became known to history as the Pelopennesian War, though to the Greeks it was the world war of their time. This war lost all of the gains of the Greco-Persian War and restored Persian power to Anatolia.

After these devastating non-stop wars the Greeks were weak. King Philip II seized the throne of Macedon from his nephew and began the conquest of Greece. He used diplomacy to weaken the Greeks, and those who would not submit were destroyed. Philip trained a powerful army and developed the phalanx soldiers, which made Macedon one of the strongest kingdoms in the western world.

Macedonian Empire

Macedonian Empire

Conquest of the East

As Philip II prepared to march east, he was assassinated, and his son, Alexander the Great took up the throne. Alexander was given the greatest army in the world, and he employed it to destroy the Persians. This is why Alexander is known to history and not the man who had set the groundwork for the conquest, his father.

Alexander spread Hellenism, Greek ideas, throughout the Persian Empire, from the Mediterranean to the border of India. He brought Greek ideas of liberty, architecture and religion east. Throughout his conquests Alexander founded Alexandria's, cities bearing his own name, which were populated with Greek Settlers and given Greek buildings, like the Gymnasium, a type of educational center.

But Alexander was also changed by his march east. In Egypt he took on the role of Pharaoh. In Persia, he took the title King of Kings. He married a Bactrian wife, and took two of King Darius's Persian relatives as wives. Once in Asia Alexander began a policy of hybridization of Greek, Persian and Egyptian cultures, one that was wholly rejected by successors.

Alexander's premature death ended his project of hybridizing his many subjects, but he left behind a plethora of Greek settlers bearing Greek culture in a foreign land. This cultural impact affects the world even today, from city names to ethnic conflicts. Alexander's conquest changed the cultural and political landscape of Asia forever after.

Ethnicity Vs Culture

As a member of the Argead dynasty Alexander would have had Greek ancestors, but not many. Alexander was born in Macedon, he spoke a dialect of Greek, and aspired to Greek ideals. He saw himself as the defender of Greek ideals and equal to his southern neighbors, but many Greeks did not see him as Greek. The dialect that the Macedonians spoke made other Greeks see them as barbarians. Furthermore Macedon was a kingdom, not a polis, or city-state. To the Greeks this further showed them to be outsiders with no connection to Classical Greek ideals.

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Alexander may have saw himself as a Greek. He spread Greek ideals across the eastern Mediterranean and beyond to the borders of India. But he also took on the customs and ideals of his newly conquered subjects. He became Persian in Persia, and Egyptian in Egypt. He claimed to be the son of Zeus Ammon, establishing himself as a semi-divine individual in his own right. Alexander tried to surpass being just a Greek and in doing so created a first wave of global identity.

Alexander's Macedonian and Greek followers saw themselves as Greek. They rejected his hybrid culture, and restored Greek ideals to the forefront after his death. Alexander reshaped the Greek world, and he believed in the ideals of being Greek, even though his ancestry was not entirely Greek.

Sources and Further Reading

  • “Alexander the Great Comes to Jerusalem: The Jewish ... - Jstor Home.” Accessed May 22, 2022. https://www.jstor.org/stable/43044120.
  • Borza, Eugene N. “Athenians, Macedonians, and the Origins of the Macedonian Royal House.” Hesperia Supplements 19 (1982): 7–13. https://doi.org/10.2307/1353964.
  • Green, Peter. Alexander of Macedon, 356-323 B a Historical Biography. University of California Press, 2012.
  • Lendon, J.E.. Soldiers and Ghosts: A History of Battle in Classical Antiquity
  • Waterfield, Robin. Dividing the Spoils: The War for Alexander the Great's Empire



This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2012 A Anders

Comments

James Kenny from Birmingham, England on November 05, 2012:

Yes that's right. I remember mentioning Caesar's inspiration in a series of articles I wrote some time ago. Apparently he wept in front of the statue, bemoaning the fact that he had accomplished nothing in his life up to that point. Napoleon was another admirer of Alexander's and it was his conquests that inspired Napoleon to try and conquer Egypt.

A Anders (author) from Buffalo, New York. on November 04, 2012:

Thanks for the comment JKenny. As well as Pompey, Julius Caesar was said to have been inspired by a statue of Alexander the Great while he was quaestor in Spain.

James Kenny from Birmingham, England on November 03, 2012:

Interesting hub ata. Its strange how people seem to automatically associate Alexander with Greece. I'm not quite sure why this is, but I think that Roman historians may have played a role in this, as they were both great admirers of the Greeks and Alexander, and perhaps felt that Alexander was a Greek by virtue of his actions, rather than his birth.

Pompey admired him so much, that he even cut his hair in the same way as Alexander.

A Anders (author) from Buffalo, New York. on November 03, 2012:

Thanks for stopping by. The Greeks and Romans both liked to see themselves as people apart from the rest of the world, and this led to both envy and emulation by their contemporaries.

Suzette Walker from Taos, NM on November 02, 2012:

Very interesting article. Yes, I have known that Alexander was a Macedonian, however when you are conquerer, I think you can say just about anything you want. He certainly had close enough ties to Greece to be called Greek, but being called Alexander the Great, is a fitting moniker too.

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