Macedonia, once regarded by other ancient Greek cities as a backwater kingdom of uncivilised barbarians speaking unintelligible Greek. All that radically changed after its king, Alexander III, marched with his army into Asia and conquered the mighty Persian Empire―the largest at the time―an extraordinary adventure that took him from the mountains of Macedonia, to Egypt and as far as India. Although his immense empire collapsed shortly after his untimely death, his deeds earned him immortal fame as Alexander the Great, one of the most famous characters of all time. His adventures have inspired kings, emperors, statesmans, and generals henceforth, from Julius Caesar to Napoleon Bonaparte; all trying but few having succeeded, in emulating the great Greek conqueror.
1# The Greek kingdom of Macedonia
When Alexander was born in July 356 B.C., in Pella, the capital of the kingdom of Macedonia, the latter was as un-Greek as one could imagine. Separated from the southern Greek state-cities by Mount Olympus, the highlands of Macedonia were harsh, uncivilised, and inhospitable to the former, such as Athens, Thebes, Corinth, Sparta, or Pydna. The Macedonians spoke a dialect unintelligible to the other Greeks, and under the rule of their chieftains, which descended from the mountain clans, they showed little interest in philosophy, arts, laws, assemblies, and the culture which characterised the rest of the Hellenic world.
The change begun with king Philip, father of Alexander, who begun training the Macedonian army like the Theban hoplites, then the best Greek soldiers, after they had destroyed the myth of Spartan invincibility at Leuctra. Putting his troops under intense training, and with the development of the Sarissa, a longer spear than any of the other Greek infantry, the Macedonian army under Philip became the tool with which he unified the fractured Greek city-states into the League of Corinth, a confederation in which he was the undisputed hegemon, leader. Alexander might have conquered half the world, but it was his father who built the strong foundations for that to happen.
2# Childhood, tutors, and the horse Bucephalas
Alexander’s mother was Olympias, the niece of the king of Epirus, one of Macedon’s allies. Olympias was no meek woman and she fought with teeth and nails to secure his son’s inheritance, as a result of which both remained ever close. She was a member of the snake-worshipping cult of Dyonysus, and was said to hint that the god Zeus was Alexander’s true father. Alexander would believe this all his life, and sought to emulate the demi-gods and heroes Achilles and Hercules. Macedonia was a land of warriors first and foremost, and for that purpose he was trained from tender age by Leonidas in the arts of war, and also like all young aristocrats in Macedon, he was educated to read Greek literature (specially Homer’s Ilyad) and poetry, by no other than Aristotle. From young age he demonstrated boundless ambition, when he complained to his friends that his father was conquering everything and leaving nothing to him. These friends, like Cassander and Nearchus, would also become his generals, and some even rulers after his death, like Ptolemy. But Hephastion always remained his closest friend.
The most famous episode of Alexander’s youth was the taming of Bucephalas. A peddler tried to sell the wild stallion to Philip, but regarding it too unruly to be tamed, Philip declined. Alexander scorned his father’s lack of vision and presumed to be able to tame the horse. He had noticed that Bucephalas became fidgety on seeing its own shadow. He soothed and rode Bucephalas in front of his father and the whole Macedonian court, to Philip’s immense pride, who kissed him and declared that he shall seek a kingdom equal to him, for Macedonia was too small. Philip’s words turned out to be quite prophetic.
When Alexander turned sixteen, he was made regent by Philip while the latter campaigned in Greece. He tasted the bile of battle for the first time against the Thracians tribes, whom he subjugated and where he founded the first of many cities that would bear his name: Alexandropolis. Meanwhile, Philip secured his grip on Greece and announced his intention to take on the Achaemenid, or Persian Empire, the largest and most powerful of the world at the time. The Persians had unsuccessfully invaded Greece in the past, being defeated and repulsed in the Battle of Marathon in 490 BC, and Platea in 479 BC.
Father and son’s relationship deteriorated in this critical juncture when Philip divorced Olympia and married Cleopatra (not to be confused with the future queen of Egypt), the niece of Attalus, one of Philip’s most influential generals. During the wedding, Attalus insulted Alexander when he toasted for the queen and the future, legitimate heir. Alexander rose to the obvious bait and threw his cup at Attalus in response: “what am I? A bastard?” he shouted at him. Philip rose in anger and drew his sword to struck at his impertinent son, but he was so drunk that he tripped and fell. “See all, the man who wants to cross into Asia cannot even leave his seat”, Alexander mocked him. After this, he and Olympias went into exile to Epirus, his mother’s native land.
4# King of Macedonia
In time, Philip was made to see the error of his ways. It would be a long time before Cleopatra could give him a boy of age to succeed him, so it was unwise to leave for Persia with no heir behind. Alexander was called back, and his sister, yet another Cleopatra, was married off to Alexander of Epirus, the uncle of our Alexander, to streghten the alliance with Epirus. However, while entertaining the wedding guests, Philip was stabbed to death by one of his bodyguards and former lovers, Pausanias. (Men in many cultures of the ancient world preferred men as lovers over women).
Pausanias had been denied revenge by Philip when Attalus and his men sodomised him, although many speculate that Alexander might have been behind, or that Olympias gave the insulted Pausanias a little nudge in the right direction, to clear the throne for her son. So far no evidence has been found to prove either claim, and likely we won’t ever find any. She undisputably had Philip’s newest wife, Cleopatra, killed, only after forcing her to watch her infant daughter being roasted alive. If Alexander was shocked at his mother’s cruelty he overlooked it, too busy to secure his throne. First, he had another of the most influential generals, Parmenion, kill Attalus for the insults to his person in the past. Then he promised to repell all taxes for his soldiers, thus securing their loyalty for the upcoming fight. With Philip dead and an apparent boy sitting on his throne, the city-states of Thessalony, Thebes, and Athens couldn’t resist the allure to take their independence back from the hated Macedonians.
Soon Greeks and the Thracians (who also rebelled) were to learn that Alexander wasn’t to be trifled with. His response was swift and decisive, and in the instance of Thebes, brutal. When someone there called him tyrant, Alexander flew into a towering rage and had his army destroy the city completely. 6.000 were killed, many more sold into slavery, a massacre like no other Greek cities had ever experienced. When the gruesome news reached the rest of Greek polis (cities), they quickly towed behind Alexander, all except Sparta. But to Alexander, Sparta’s disobedience had its uses, for it made it seem as though the membership of the League of Corinth was voluntary, and not forced upon by Macedonian arms, as it really was. With Greece and Thrace pacified, and with Macedonian in the capable hands of the regent Antipater, the 21-year-old Alexander was finally free to heed his destiny: the invasion of the entire world.
5# The conquest of Persia
In 334 BC, Alexander and his army crossed the Hellespont (Dardanelles strait, modern Turkey), into Asia Minor, the westernmost provinces of the Persian Empire. Before Alexander begun the fight, he took a little detour to visit the ruins of Troy and the tomb of his idol, Achilles, whom he was determined to surpass. Apart from his core of Macedonian hoplites, his army also included a corps of engineers, auxiliary troops from Thrace, mercenary soldiers from Greece, the elite cavalry of Thessaly, and a small fleet to support them.
It’s a common belief that the conflict was Greeks versus Persians, but in reality there were more Greeks (excluding Macedonians) serving in the Persian army of the Great King Darius III than in Alexander’s. During most of the campaign, several Greek islands and polis from Asia Minor sided with Darius, and the tireless Demosthenes of Athens kept tirading against Alexander and rousing the people to overthrow his yoke. In time, Agis III of Sparta would also revolt while Alexander was far from home, but would be soundly defeated by Antipater in 331 BC.
The ancestors of these Greeks, who had laid their lives down to repulse the Persian invasions of 492 BC and 480 BC, would have been shocked to see their descendants making common cause with Persia against fellow Greeks. That the Greeks shelved their scorn for the Persians and sided with them against Alexander, shows how much they regarded the Macedonians as little better than barbarians.
6# The Gordian Knot
The most brilliant general of the Persians was Memnon of Rhodes, who having spent time in exile in the court of Philip, knew of the skill and discipline of the Macedonian troops. He declared that the best way to defeat the Macedonians was a scorched earth policy, to deny them fooder and food and thus break their spirit before engaging them on a pitched battle. Darius’ Persian generals scorned him: “our great king of kings fleeing from an untried boy-king? Unthinkable!” Had Darius heeded Memnon from the start, the world might have never heard of Alexander the Great. It was no coincidence that Alexander ordered his soldiers to leave Memnon’s states and property untouched, to made it look as though he was in league with him, hoping to drive a wedge between Darius and his best general.
In their first two encounters, the Macedonians defeated the Persians at the battles of Granicus River, and the Siege of Halicarnassus. Knowing the Persian fleet was too large to engage, he decided instead to decommission his ships and put all stakes on his army alone. Luckily for him, Memnon died shortly after. Everytime he and his troops entered a new territory, he allowed the locals a considerable degree of self-government, often leaving a satrap (governor) of his own, or even a Persian one, if they surrendered to him. More than anything, he wanted to give a feeling of continuity, adopting Persian titles, and in time even their customs and gods. Nonetheless, in private Alexander remained very dutiful to the Greek gods, and punctiliously performed the daily sacrifices to them. When not marching or resting, he was fond of reading Homer, Herodotus, Xenophon, Sophocles and Euripides. He also enjoyed hunting, organising games entertainments and games for his men, and more than anything, he sought their adulation, for Alexander was a vain man.
Around this time, he visited the city of Gordion, in the ancient kingdom of Phyrgia. A local legend said that whomever undid the legendary Gordian Knot tied to a cart, would rule Asia. Nobody had managed it before, and the Macedonians watched anxiously as their leader unsuccessfully tried, and tried. Then, drawing his sword, Alexander cut the know in two, declaring that it didn’t really matter how the knot was undone.
7# The Battle of Issus
Alexander and Darius finally clashed personally at the Battle of Issus in 333 BC, where the Persians marched into a narrow plain between the gulf and the mountains, thus denying themselves the advantage of their greater numbers. Alexander soundly defeated them, almost capturing or killing Darius himself, but in the end he had to content himself with other royal prisoners: Darius’ wife Stateira, his daughters, Stateira and Drypetis, and his mother: Sisygambis. Conscious of the need to be perceived as a legitimate ruler, and not some heartless conqueror, Alexander confirmed their royal status and provided dowries for the daughters, thus paving the way to be seen as a natural successor of Darius.
At that stage, most of the Macedonian army would have been happy to settle with what they had achieved, but not Alexander. He hid from his generals a letter from Darius, confirming all his gains if he was to sue for peace, and instead showed them a forged one in which Darius arrogantly insulted him, thus stirring his army to continue the war. Enjoying the benfit of hindsight, we know that Darius was only trying to buy time, while he assembled an even larger army to crush Alexander. This would be the first of many times that Alexander would have to persuade and cajole his men to further, ceaseless conquest.
8# The sieges of Tyre and Gaza
On reaching the Cilician gates to Levant, Alexander left a token force to protect his new territory of Asia Minor from Darius, while he marched to conquer the Persian satrapies of the Levantine coast and Egypt. Although he easily pocketed most of the Phonecian cities on the former, the city-island of Tyre stubbornly resisted him. Since he lacked a fleet, he had an artificial causeway built to reach the city, which was splintered several times by sabotage and storms. But Alexander wouldn’t accept a defeat, nor from the arrogant people of Tyre nor from the gods, specially when Tyre was the last Persian port in the Mediterranean. He redoubled his efforts, bringing catapults across the causeway to bombard them with hell, but it still wasn’t enough. Fortunately for him, the Greeks had begun to see him as the winning horse, and several of them including Rhodes, Cyprus, Soli, and Mallus, sent their ships to aid him. Together with a fleet freshly arrived from Macedonia, and another Phonecian squadron that had deserted the Persians, he now had more than two-hundred vessels at his disposal, which he used to blockade Tyre’s ships inside their own harbour.
Six months ebbed without Tyre showing signs of surrender, but on his twenty-fourth birthday, the Macedonian king yet again redoubled his efforts. The final assault took place both on sea and on the causeway, and when the Macedonians and their allies finally broke the defenders, they spilled an ocean of blood and gore on the streets. Next came the people of Gaza, who also resisted and as a result fared no better than Tyre, with several tens of thousands of them sold into slavery after the Macedonians took their cities. Those who submitted to Alexander could expect clemency and were even allowed to retain office and property. But those who opposed him, could only expect death and slavery.
9# The ruler of Egypt and the birth of Alexandria
Compared to the hostile reception of Tyre and Gaza, his entry in Egypt must have felt like a walk on a carpet of rose petals. Mazaces, the Persian satrap of Egypt saw wisdom in surrendering to Alexander, since the local Egyptians had no sympathy for their Persian overlord, who had disrespected the local gods too often. Alexander took a different approach, entering the temple of Ptah with great reverence, offering sacrifices and money, and thus greatly pleasing the priests. Soon statues and inscriptions showed him dressed with the garments of the lord of Upper and Lower Egypt, naming him Pharaoh of Egypt, son of Amun, and reincarnation of Ra. He also passed by the Pyramids of Gizah―the only one of the seven wonders of the ancient world to survive to our days―on his way to pay a visit to the famous Oracle of Siwa, whom he asked three questions: whether he would win the war, whether all his father’s assassins had been dealt with, and most important: whether Philip was really his father.
Olympia herself had hinted that Alexander’s father was no other than Zeus, and after all the wonders he had achieved, more than any man alive, could it truly be that he was the equal of Achilles and Hercules in blood, as he was in deeds? The Oracle of Siwa seemingly confirmed it. Let’s not forget that in an age of mythological creatures and gods pervading every aspect of people’s lives, to claim to be descendant from a god wasn’t as far-fetched or preposterous as it sounds to our modern ears.
Perhaps to celebrate his confirmed godly inheritance, Alexander founded a new city, and how best to name it but after himself? One of the twenty-five other towns and cities he founded in his life, all sharing his name. Alexandria in Egypt became the most famous of all, a centre of Greek culture and learning, with the largest library of the ancient world and the Lighthouse of Alexandria, another of the seven wonders of the ancient world. Now both are gone, but the child of Alexander still thrives in modern times, thanks to Alexander’s perseverance, and perhaps vanity too?
10# David vs Goliath
With the eastern Mediterranean coast secured, it was time to face Darius again, this time for good. Alexander retraced his steps back and entered Mesopotamia, the cradle of civilization now turned into another province of the Persian Empire. And it was on a borad plain there that Darius’ colossal army waited for the Macedonians. The plain was called Gaugamela (camel’s house), and was large enough to fit more than a hundred thousand Persians, the best troops Darius possessed, from Syria to India, including the fearsome war elephants. Alexander, on the other hand, had little less than fifty thousand, mostly Macedonians with Thracian and Thessalian auxiliaries, and other Greek mercenaries.
It was a risky gamble to take on a larger enemy army on an open plain, but Alexander was no man of half-measures. Either he would defeat Darius and win the war, or they’d all loose their lives trying. Ahead of him, the plain baked under the sun and clouds of dust lifted under the boots of the marching Persian army, the largest the world had ever seen. But Alexander had a plan. Plans are only as good as the person who executes them, and his turned to be as bold and daring as the man himself.
11# The Battle of Gaugamela
For starters, Alexander feigned a night attack, knowing Darius’ spies in his camp would report it. He had no intention to attack at night for the simple reason that night attacks were chaotic at best, and soldiers were as likely to gut their own comrades, as well as the enemy. By making Darius think he was about to attack, he kept the Persians awake all night, while he and his men grabbed a good night of rest. As good as it can be before a battle, that’s it. Alexander knew the much larger enemy army would eventually envelop or break through his thiner and smaller line, so the only shot at victory was to take on Darius himself. Leaving general Parmenion and the phalanx to held behind, he rode Bucephalas at the head of his elite cavalry body, The Companions, to do something nobody had attempted before.
He rode to his right flank, parallel to the Persian cavalry, who confident of their superior numbers, chased him. As Alexander himself had expected. Meanwhile, Parmenion and his phalanx held as best as they could, but it was only a matter of time until the Persians would break through. However, on sending his central cavalry after Alexander, Darius left his centre unprotected, just as Alexander had hoped for. Disengaging from the Persian cavalry, Alexander led The Companions into a wedge formation that punched through the Persian centre and threatened Darius himself. It was a brutal fight in which several Persian nobles acted as human shields for their king. However, Parmenion’s line was about to collapse, forcing Alexander to pull back and attack his opponents on the back, routing them all but thus allowing Darius to escape. It was one of the largest and most spectacular battles of ancient history, and even as today, Alexander’s perfect strategy at Gaugamela is studied in military academies around the world. A true masterpiece. The battle was won but the war was still far from over.