When Alexander became king of Macedon in 336 BC, few expected the twenty-year-old youth to achieve much. The other Greeks saw the opportunity to break the chains that Alexander’s father, Philip, had put on them, while the Great King Darius III, scorned him as a boy-king who had foolishly strolled into his Persian Empire in search of glory only to find death. And death Alexander would indeed find, but also eternal glory. His eleven-year campaign brought him from his native Pella to Egypt, to west India across a myriad of territories and peoples of south Asia. His was an adventure unlike any the world has ever witnessed. The adventure of Alexander the Great, the greatest conqueror of the ancient world.
This is the second part of an article. To read the first click here.
1# From Gaugamela to the Persian Gates. Alexander’s only defeat
Although Darius had escaped once again, his defeat at the hands of Alexander at Gaugamela had done much damage to his prestige. Moreover, the rich cities of Mesopotamia and the royal treasuries at Babylon and Susa were open for Alexander to pick. Like the Egyptians, the people of Mesopotamia and Babylon had no lost love for their Persian overlord, who had destroyed their sacred temple of Bel-Marduk, and which Alexander cleverly restored with money from his own pocket. Nor was the Persian satrap of Babylon, Mazaeus, blind not to see that the wind had changed. He surrendered the city without a fight, and as a reward, he was confirmed as satrap under Alexander’s regime, which now encompassed Thracians, Lydians, Carians, Phyrgians, Cappadocians, Syrians, Phoenicians, Jews, Arabs, Egyptians, and Babylonians; with Medes, Elamites, Parthians, Bactrians, Scythians and Indians yet to come. The days of the greek kingdom of Macedonia were over. The international Macedonian empire had begun.
Like Babylon, Susa was spared destruction when its satrap surrendered without a fight, and more important for Alexander, the satrap handed the much-needed treasure to pay the army. On his way to Persepolis, Alexander knew that ahead he couldn’t expect the hero welcome that he had been given in Mesopotamia and Egypt. Too soon this proved true, when he had to sent his Macedonian and Thracian highlanders to deal with the Uxians. They were a mountain tribe which the Persians had never managed to subdue, and whom they even had to pay for safe passage across their territory. However, Alexander managed to subdue them in two days.
Nothwithstanding his natural instincts for war, it’s a myth that he never lost a battle. None decisive at least. The Persian Gates witnessed his first and only defeat, when his forces were repelled by Ariobarzanes. But luck is also a factor to account for in war as much as in anything else. Alexander’s own luck was a man called Lykios, a Greek prisoner from the Persian army who revealed the existence of an impossible trek across the mountains that would lead them to the back of Ariobarzanes. Undaunted by the bleach prospects of daring the dangerous pass in winter, Alexander took his best mountain troops and followed Lykios to surprise Ariobarzanes on the dawn, thus avenging his one and only defeat.
2# The murder of Darius
It had been almost four years since he and his troops left Europe and crossed into Asia, and they were at last at the heart of the Persian empire. Persepolis also surrendered before facing Alexander’s wrath, but it wasn’t his fury which should have worried about. The army grumbled, claiming―rightly so―that Philip and Alexander himself had advocated the war as the means to destroy the Persian empire which had always threatened the independence of the Greek city-estates. Persepolis was the soul of the Persian empire. It had to go away. Alexander feared a mutiny, and thought it best to slacken the leash on his army, who purged the city with sword and blood. Most likely the soldiers saw the unprecedented riches of Persepolis, and thought it a waste not to steal their foes’ houses and rape their women. And although Alexander forbade them of touching the royal palace, he inexplicably had it burnt during one of his famous drinking bouts. He regretted it immediately and tried to douse the flames, but too late.
The Persian army had grown demoralised after the sack of their capital, while their constant retreat, leaving behind undefended home and family to the Greeks, had stretched their patience with their king Darius to the breaking point. The dissatisfaction materialised into betrayal when some of the satraps, lead by a man called Bessus, put Darius in chains. It’s not clear what they wanted but most likely either to curry favour with Alexander’s new regime, or to preserve the independence of a shrunken Persian empire. They didn’t know Alexander had no intention of allowing the Persian empire to survive in any form or shape, and was even less inclined to allow men who betrayed their king to serve under him in any position. He pursued Bessus into Parthia, where the latter killed Darius in desperation. Alexander was furious. He had intended to capture Darius alive so he could ‘willingly’ bestow the crown on him, and thus create some sort of legitimacy for his rule. Alexander was magnanimous in victory, and gave Darius a royal burial with full honours before marching on towards Bactria on pursuit of Bessus.
3# Securing power
On the way there, he also had to deal with conspirators on his side. Apparently, a man called Dimnus had made plans to assassinate him, but was killed while he was being arrested. However, Alexander wasn’t convinced it was over. He had Philotas, the commander of The Companions and son of Parmenion, his second-in-command, arrested and tortured to confess. To the day it isn’t clear whether Philotas truly conspired against Alexander, but the Dimnus affair served as a sufficient pretext for Alexander to put the son of the second most powerful man in the Macedonian army―and thus the greatest threat to his life―to trial. Although beloved in the army, Philotas commited the error of addressing the soldiers who judged him in proper Greek, instead of the Macedonian dialect most of the rank-and-file soldiers used. This proved his undoing. And since Parmenion―commanding troops on the back of Alexander’s vanguard―wouldn’t have simply sat idle after learning of the execution of his son, Alexander sent Cleander to kill the old general before he received the news. Whether there was any truth in the accusations he later launched against Parmenion and his family, Alexander had removed the most immediate threat to his throne.
He marched across the Hindu Kush (again in winter) as far as Sogidana (modern-day Uzbekistan and Tajikistan) where he founded the remotest Alexandrias of his growing empire, populated by settlers with a generous grant of land under the arm and a chance to begin a new life. While there a warlord called Spitamenes sent Alexander a message saying he had captured Bessus, who had already exhausted his men’s patience. Alexander’s friend and general, Ptolemy, brought Bessus to him, and Alexander had him flogged, his ears and nose cut. Alexander’s punishment must have seemed a trifle, compared to what Darius’ family did to him after Alexander handed him over,
4# Greek vs Persian customs
Spitamenes was no Bessus, and soon he proved why. The Sogdians rose in rebellion under him, giving Alexander a hard time to put down the light and fast steppe horsemen. In addition to, his Macedonian and Greek soldiers watched with worry the late changes on their king. They disapproved of him adopting Persian customs and dressing in detrition to the Macedonian ways. The Persians knelt and kissed the earth (proskynesis) in front of the Great King almost as though he was a living god, while the Macedonians saw the king as the first amongst equals. This being a focal point of conflict which Alexander never managed to resolve, doing his best to keep a precarious balance between both positions. Without the Persian support he couldn’t hope to control Persia, but without his army he would hold nothing at all.
This discrepancies between Greek and Persian customs erupted violently in a dispute in 328 BC, between Alexander and Cleitus the Black, who had saved the king’s life in the Battle of Granicus, in 334 BC. Cleitus accused Alexander of turning the loyal Macedonians into second-class soldiers who had to beg the Persian chamberlains for an audience. Things escalated quickly between both men, as officers rushed to pull them apart. Alexander, out of himself, shouted for a spear and sword, and although his request was wisely ignored, he somehow managed to grab a javelin and skewered Cleitus in one throw. He immediately regretted his rash action. For three days he didn’t see anybody, crying and lamenting his friend’s blood on his hands, until his remaining friends and generals reminded him that he was still the king, and had special privileges that came with his duties.
The gods take with one hand and give with the other, as Alexander discovered when Spitamenes’ head was shortly after brought to him, either by his wife or by some of his followers, depending which version you choose to believe. Either way, Sogdian resistance collapsed, and Alexander was finally free for the last stage of his long journey of conquest: India.
5# The invasion of India
During the times of Alexander, Persian control of the Indus valley was nominal at best. Moreover, Greek knowledge of India was awfully incomplete. Nobody, Alexander the least, imagined that India extended far beyond the Indus valley. Ancient Greek writers and chroniclers believed that the Indus River marked the end of the continent―roughly the border between modern India and Pakistan―and that afterwards only lay the Indian Ocean. That left 95% of India out of the map, but hey, no ancient cartographer was perfect.
One of first kingdoms Alexander encountered there was Taxila, whose king, Omphis, was presented with more than generous gifts. In fact, one of Alexander’s generals quipped that the king had them travel across half the world only to find such a worthy man of their treasures. But Alexander was practical if anything. He’d have given much more, if that meant securing his back with reliable allies in this new and hostile land, specially when he begun to suspect that India was much larger than they had believed. So did Omphis require allies, for he was in permanent war against his neighbour Porus. Unlike Omphis, Porus refused to be swayed by Alexander’s gifts or demands, and prepared for battle.
When Alexander and Porus’ respective armies finally met, they were separated by the Hydaspes River. Alexander knew, should they cross the wild river, Porus would charge his elephants against the weary and disorganised Macedonian line. But again, Alexander hadn’t gotten so far solely with foolhardiness or luck. He unexpectedly announced to his troops that they would wait two months to cross the river, and it wasn’t long before word reached the spies and informers that Porus had planted in the Macedonian camp. In absolute secrecy, Alexander divided his army, taking half and leaving the others under Craterus camped by the banks, who was to keep Porus distracted from the real attack. Under the cover of night, Alexander and his men crossed the Hydaspes several kilometres upstream before Porus realised about the ploy and swung to face him.
The Battle of the Hydaspes (May 326 BC) was the first major battle in the Indian subcontinent, with the Macedonian sarrissas (long spears) facing the dreadful war elephants, who were blinded by arrows and poked with the sarissas until they became mad and crushed foes and friends alike. It was a bloody business that saw Bucephalas, Alexander’s favourite horse that had been with him since childhood, mortally wounded. But Alexander was so impressed with the courage of Porus, that not only he didn’t punish him for Bucephalas’ death, but reinstated him to his kingdom and gave him extra lands. The poor Bucephalas had to contend itself with a city named to his honour: Alexandria Bucephalus, which was more than the tens of thousands of men who served and died under Alexander had ever received.
6# Leaving India
The Macedonian army had other worries that a city dedicated to a horse. The carnage of Hydaspes and Porus’ revelation that many other armies and large kingdoms awaited them across the Beas River (northern India), dampened the last of their warrior’s ardour. Their king was if anything, even more impatient to test his mettle against these unknown kingdoms, but the rank-and-file only longed to go home, to the wives and children they hadn’t seen in almost a decade. Sensing the mood, Alexander delivered another speech, playing on men’s thirst for eternal glory and riches, but then Coenus, Alexander’s most senior general, spoke what was in each man’s heart. He said they had been honoured to follow Alexander for so long and so far, but their spirits were broken, the losses of their companions in all these years of struggle weighting down their hearts. The army cheered at Coenus speech, and although Alexander was initially furious, he eventually accepted that his plan to march as far as the Ganges couldn’t be. They were going home.
Alexander intended to follow a southern route by the Persian Gulf, while on their way there, he secured the whole of the Indus Valley and founded a couple more cities. During the siege of the capital of the Malli Kingdom, Alexander suffered a serious wound on his lung, when he led the storm of the walls but was isolated in the melee. The fury of the Macedonian army when they found their dying king was only quenched with the blood of all citizens, men, women and children, no exceptions. Days later, these same battle-hardened, callous and blood-thirsty warriors, wept like children when Alexander miraculously slipped through the clutches of death.
Once on the Indus delta, Alexander divided his army in three. Veterans and elephants under Craterus returned to Persepolis along a northern route, while Nearchus was put in charge of a new fleet that was to follow and supply Alexander’s third force, as they marched across the inhospitable Gedrosian desert. Many have suggested this march was part of Alexander’s petty revenge on his army for bailing out in India, but the truth was simpler: no army had ever crossed the Gedrosian desert before, and Alexander had a penchant to try the impossible. Furthermore, he counted on the fleet to keep them supplied with fish, while they would dig freshwater wells for the sailors. It was a carefully coordinated operation.
But soon all plans blew away with the strong winds that prevented the fleet from keeping along. Very soon Alexander lost all contact with them, and blamed himself for their deaths. To this guilt, soon it would add the deaths of half of his fifty thousand soldiers and almost all the followers’ camp, when food and water ran out. Once, when a soldier managed to scoop a single cup of water on his helmet, he offered it to Alexander, who threw it away without a second thought: “I won’t quench my thirst until all my soldiers can”. It was these actions, deliberately planned or not, that had made the soldiers follow him to the confines of the world. Not his birthright or his martial skill. They eventually made it to Persepolis, where much to Alexander’s surprise, he encountered Nearchus, who revealed that the fleet was safe and sound, news at which Alexander wept in relief.
7# Dreaming to conquer the world
As winter approached, Alexander decided to move back to Mesopotamia, the heartland of his empire. He decided to make Babylon his capital, and along the way he purged his administration of corrupt satraps and officials. But good administrator and fair ruler that he was, Alexander hadn’t been born to die of old age. Like his hero Achilles, he had contemplated between the choice of a long life and peaceful death with family around, or a short life that would earn him eternal glory. The choice must have come all too easy to him. He was already making plans to conquer the Scythian tribes, Arabia and all of the northern African coast, including Carthage, and of course he didn’t forget about India. In addition to, he listened with growing interest at the news of the rising power on the Tibet River, the future Roman empire, which one day would surpass him.
But before conquest must come consolidation, and so he married two Persian brides, Stateira, the daughter of the late Darius, and Parysatis, the daughter of the former Great King Artaxerxes. Alexander was already married to Roxana, a Sogdian princess; and in a failed attempt to ingratiate his Macedonian nobility with the Persian one, he married them off with Persian, Bactrian and Median women in a deliberate Persian ceremony. His rank-and-file were more open-minded in this issue, for many had already taken native women during the campaigns, and even fathered children, which Alexander insisted in giving Greek education and training. He paid all his soldiers’ debts as a gift even when his treasury could barely afford it, but still they grumbled when 30.000 non-Macedonian soldiers from other parts of the empire were brought forward to replace them. The veterans were finally being sent home, Alexander told them, into a well-deserved retirement to enjoy the fruit of their service with their families.
Even thought they had been adamant to go home while in India, the Macedonians understood their replacement by some foreign youths as an insult, and shouted at the king to send them all home since he didn’t need them. Alexander towered into rage at this shameless ingratitude, and apparently the instigators were arrested and probably executed. He then locked himself in his tent until the men came to beg for his forgiveness. Just as he knew they would.
8# The death of Alexander the Great
The reconciliation was soured while in Ectabana, Hephaestion, Alexander’s closest friend and probably the person whom Alexander loved the most in the world, fell suddenly sick and died. Alexander was so consumed with grief that he had the doctor crucified, and refused to eat or drink for several days. When he came back to his senses, he ordered an ostentatious funeral for his friend, with further future monuments to come, and even intended to elevate the dead Hephaestion into a god. Their relationship was akin to that of Achilles and Patrochlus, and like them, Alexander didn’t have to wait much to be reunited with his beloved friend. In Babylon, after another Macedonian heavy drinking bout, he also fell sick. The fever worsened and Alexander, who had cheated death in the battlefield countless times, knew he couldn’t hope to defeat this foe.
He gave his signet rign to Perdiccas, to act as regent until his unborn son with Roxana would be of age. But that would be years, and there was no guarantee that the Macedonians would accept a half-barbarian as king. Alexander was no fool, he must have known his generals would bicker for his empire and legacy as soon as he was cold and stiff. Perhaps that was the reason why when they asked him on his last moments: “to whom do you leave the kingdom?”, he replied with a whisper: “to the stronger”. Did Alexander change his mind on his last breath? Or did he understand that his unborn son had no hopes to safely inherit? Be as it may, Alexander the Great died in Babylon, at the age of thirty-three, in 323 BC.
As with all great characters of history, for long it has been debated, what or who killed Alexander. Many had a reason to, none more than Antipater, his regent in Macedonia who had been recently asked to renounce by Alexander. He and other of his closest generals would greatly benefit from the untimely death of the great conqueror as we will see. His many wounds during the campaigns and unhealthy drinking bouts severely weakened him, with malaria, lung infection, liver failure or typhoid fever classed as more likely causes than poisoning.
9# Son, successors, and the downfall of the empire
With his body not cold yet, his generals predictably begun to argue over the spoils. Some enthroned Alexander’s mentally impaired half-brother, Philip, as king, but eventually, after the birth of Alexander’s son, both were crowned together as Philip III and Alexander IV. However, this arrangement―known as the Partition of Babylon―also saw the division of the empire into areas of influence between the most powerful generals, which only served to sow the seeds of doom. Macedonia and Greece proper were allocated to Antipater and his son, Cassander; Alexander’s bodyguard, Lysimachus, took over Thrace and half of Asia Minor; Ptolemy received Egypt; while Seleucus, a friend of Perdiccas, held the bulk of Asia. Within a year, the diadochi, or successor kingdoms as we know them, were fighting each other.
Alexander’s own family fell also prey of the same power-lust and mistrust that gripped the diadochi. Roxana murdered Stateira, her late husband’s second wife. In turn, Roxana would be later murdered in Macedonia by Cassander, together with her son, Alexander IV, Alexander’s mother, Olympias, and his illegitimate son: Heracles. Thus ended the line of Alexander the Great. Perdiccas died fighting Ptolemy in Egypt while Seleucus and Ptolemy’s lines would hold to their fiefs until both were conquered by Rome. The last territories of the Seleucid Empire (barely left with the Levantine Coast) in 63 BC, while the last Ptolemaic ruler of Egypt, the famous Cleopatra, commited suicide in 30 BC after her lover Mark Anthony decisively lost to Octavian, the future Augustus.
10# His tomb and legacy
Alexander’s embalmed body would yet survive them all a bit longer. On its way to Macedonia, it was stolen by Ptolemy and brought to Egypt, first to Memphis and then to Alexandria, to be ultimately buried there. His tomb became a tourist attraction for Greek and Romans, including several emperors, until its location was forever lost, presumably around 5th century AD. But although his mortal remains are missing, his influence can be felt to our days like the shockwave of an earthquake. Some of the cities he founded still endure, most famous Alexandria, but several others like Iskenderun in Turkey, or Iskandariya in Iraq. In the Middle East, Alexander the Great is known as Iskandar, and survives as sort of boogeyman to scare the naughty children.
Thanks to Alexander, Hellenic culture spread fast and wide, with Greek becoming a language of learning and prestige henceforth, specially amongst the Romans, whose higher classes were educated in Greek language, philosophy, and literature, just like Alexander. More than five hundred years after Alexander’s death, the New Testament would be written in Greek, not the native Aramaic of Jesus or the Latin of the Romans, even though all the empire of Alexander and its successors had long been gone. And because Greek was still taught in the territories of his former empire, the Greek Gospels could be read everywhere, thus a key factor in the rapid spread of Christianity to become the world’s major religion.
For centuries Alexander has been looked upon by great, ambitious, men and women, eager to emulate his deeds. It’s no coincidence that as today, Alexander remains a very popular name, both for men and women. Others will feel sick at the tens of thousands of people he killed―and many more enslaved―during his campaigns, but we mustn’t forget that Alexander didn’t live in the 21st century. He was no different than all of his contemporary warlords and kings, and to look at his life under the scope of our modern values and judge him according to our laws, is wrong. Regardless of the different conclusions we might elaborate on the man, we could make a case that the most important legacy weren’t his conquests, but the galvanising effect his memory had in future generations, all desperate to emulate and surpass the unique Alexander the Great.