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Alexander the Great

Updated on October 31, 2009

Alexander the Great, King of Macedonia and of Egypt, General of Greece, and Emperor of Persia. Born Pella, Macedonia, 356 B.C. Died Babylon, June 13, 323 B.C.

Alexander was one of the great military leaders of all time. He never lost a battle and was never forced to retreat. He conquered the vast Persian Empire and established a new empire that stretched from the northwestern coast of Africa into India. In Alexander's empire, the civilizations of East and West were joined for the first time. Alexander's conquests greatly extended the influence of Greek culture and began a new period in history, called the Hellenistic age.

Early Years

Alexander was the son of Philip II, King of Macedonia, and Olympias, Princess of Epirus. As a boy, Alexander was an accomplished athlete and was skilled in the use of weapons. He proved himself an excellent horseman by taming Bucephalus, a horse no man had been able to mount. Alexander's education was supervised by the philosopher Aristotle, who taught him grammar, philosophy, and literature.

When he was 16, Alexander governed Macedonia for a short time while his father was warring against the northern barbarians. During Philip's absence, Alexander quickly put down a rebellion in Thrace and gained his first victory. Two years later, campaigning with his father against the Greek city-states, Alexander led the cavalry charge that broke the Greek lines at Chaeronea and won the battle for Philip.

Philip united Greece in the League of Corinth and had himself named general of the league. He then prepared to invade Persia. However, shortly before Philip was to leave Pella, the capital of Macedonia, he was assassinated. Alexander succeeded him as king in 336 B.C. Illyria, Thrace, and the Greek city-states revolted against Macedonian rule. Alexander first marched south to put down the Greek rebellion. His advance was so rapid that the city-states surrendered without a fight. The League of Corinth elected Alexander its general and named him supreme commander of the Greeks for the anticipated war against Persia. He then put down the Thracian revolt in the north. On his return to Macedonia, he learned that the tributary state of Illyria was about to invade Macedonia. At Pelion, on the border between Illyria and Macedonia, Alexander turned back the Illyrians.

While Alexander was fighting in the north, rumors that he had been killed swept through Greece. The city of Thebes was the first to revolt. Alexander left Pelion and less than two weeks later reached Thebes. He captured the city and leveled it, sparing only the house of the poet Pindar. The destruction of Thebes and the slaying or enslavement of thousands of The-bans ended all thought of rebellion in Greece. With his control of Greece and Macedonia established, Alexander completed his preparations for the war against the Persian Empire.

Invasion of Asia Minor

In 334 B.C., Alexander crossed the Dardanelles into Asia Minor with a Macedonian and Greek army of 30,000 infantry and 5,000 cavalry. He won his first great victory at the Granicus River where he routed the forces of the local Persian governors, temporarily ending Persian resistance on land. However, the ships of Persia controlled the sea, and Alexander's small fleet was useless against them.

Alexander decided to defeat the Persian navy on land by depriving it of its bases. He marched south along the Aegean coast, swiftly captured Miletus, and seized the great base at Halicarnassus. After the Lycian cities had submitted to him, he moved inland to Gordium, where fresh Macedonian troops awaited him. While he was in Gordium, Alexander cut the Gordian knot, which could be loosed, according to legend, only by one who was destined to rule Asia.

Battle of Issus

In the spring of 333 B.C., Alexander marched south through the Cilician Gates, the pass over the Taurus Mountains, and conquered western Cilicia in a campaign that lasted only seven days.

Across the mountains, the Persian emperor Darius III waited with an army of more than 100,000 men. Darius, in personal command of the Persian army, was determined to prevent Alexander from reaching Syria. Darius waited for more than a week, then impatiently ordered his army to attack at Issus.

Alexander was already south of Issus, marching toward the mountain passes leading inland. When he learned that Darius had abandoned his strong position and was now on the coastal plain, he turned back to meet him. The Persian troops were hemmed in, between the mountains and the sea. In this narrow corridor, Darius could not deploy his soldiers effectively and lost the advantage of his superior numbers.

After a hard-fought battle, Alexander won a decisive victory. Darius fled, leaving his mother, wife, and daughter, all of whom Alexander took prisoner.

Battle of Issus
Battle of Issus

Capture of Tyre

After his victory at Issus, Alexander did not pursue Darius. He continued his campaign against the Persian naval bases, and the island fortress of Tyre was his next goal. Alexander's army laid siege to Tyre for seven months. The first attempt to reach the city's walls failed when the Tyrians burned the causeway that the Macedonians had built to the island. The causeway was rebuilt, but Alexander changed his strategy. Using the ships of Cyprus and of the Phoenician cities that had come over to his side, he attacked Tyre from the sea. He mounted battering rams on his ships, breached the walls on the seaward side, and took the city. The capture of Gaza, in Palestine, completed Alexander's conquest of the Persian naval bases.


In 332 B.C., Alexander marched into Egypt. The Egyptians, who hated their Persian rulers, hailed the Macedonian king as their liberator. At Memphis, the capital of Egypt, Alexander was proclaimed King of Egypt. Soon afterward he sailed down the Nile, and at the westernmost mouth of the great river he ordered a new capital built. Alexander did not wait to see a single building rise in the city, which was named Alexandria in his honor.

With a few companions, Alexander then crossed the Libyan desert and reached the oasis of Siwa. In the oasis was a famous shrine, the temple of the god Zeus Amon. The priests of the temple hailed Alexander as son of the god, thus making him an equal of the pharaohs and worthy of the title King of Egypt.

Alexander returned to Memphis, where he established governments for Egypt and Libya. In the spring of 331 B.C., Alexander left Egypt to spend a few months at Tyre, organizing his army and preparing for the invasion of Persia itself.

Battle of Gaugamela

In August 331 B.C., Alexander with 40,000 infantry and 7,000 cavalry crossed the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. He led his forces toward the plain of Gaugamela, where Darius was encamped. Darius had raised a huge army. According to one tradition, he had 1,000,000 infantry and 40,000 cavalry, but this is certainly an exaggeration.

In October, Alexander arrived at Gaugamela and spent a day planning his attack. His generals knew that the Persian camp was unfortified and urged him to take advantage of darkness and attack that night. He rejected their advice, saying, "I will not steal a victory".

When the armies met the following morning, the Persian attack was at firs? successful. Then Alexander, with no regard for his own safety, charged into a gap in the Persian line, and was followed by his cavalry. After savage fighting the Persian army was routed, and once more Darius fled.

Alexander pursued Darius throughout the night and arrived the next morning at Arbela, about 60 miles from the battlefield. There Alexander discovered Darius' chariot and shield, which the emperor had abandoned during his flight. Instead of following Darius, Alexander turned south and easily captured Babylon and Susa.

In January 330 B.C., Alexander marched toward Persepolis, the ancient Persian capital. Crossing dangerous mountain passes, he surprised and defeated a remnant of the great Persian army that had fought at Gaugamela. The magnificent city of Persepolis fell to Alexander, and he avenged the burning of Athens by setting fire to the palaces and halls of the Persian emperors. He also seized an immense hoard of gold and silver in the imperial treasury. It is said that an army of mules and camels was needed to carry the treasure to Babylon.

Death of Darius

Having completed his conquest of the Persian cities, Alexander set out in search of Darius. The Persian ruler had fled to the mountains of Media, where he vowed to resist Alexander's advance. But when Alexander marched against him, Darius retreated farther east. After resting for a time at Ecbatana, the Median capital, Alexander resumed his pursuit of Darius.

However, before Alexander could overtake him, Darius was killed by Bessus, one of his officers. Bessus then seized the crown of Persia. Alexander viewed the body of the emperor and covered it with his own cloak. He ordered that Darius be buried in the tomb of the Persian emperors at Persepoh's.

Conquest of the Far East

Alexander continued eastward, now in pursuit of Bessus, who had sought refuge in Bactria, where he was governor. A rebellion to the south in Areia, however, forced a change in Alexander's plans. He overpowered the rebels in Areia, subdued the neighboring provinces, and continued south and east through what is now Afghanistan and northern Baluchistan, easily winning new lands for his empire.

Alexander then turned north and in the winter of 329 B.C. reached the foothills of the Hindu Rush (mountains). In the spring he made the arduous journey over the great mountains and entered Bactria from the southeast. Bessus fled before him and, after crossing the Oxus River (now the Amu Darya), attempted to raise an army in Sogdiana.

After long, exhausting marches, Alexander finally overtook his enemy. The Sogdians, hoping to win Alexander's favor, surrendered Bessus to him. Alexander ordered that Bessus be tortured, then crucified. He probably resorted to these barbaric acts to impress his Eastern subjects rather than to obtain revenge for the murder of an emperor. But Alexander never hesitated to use cruelty if it helped his ambitions.

Instead of turning back to Babylon, Alexander decided to add Sogdiana to his empire. The local rulers offered stubborn resistance, and the Greek army was also menaced by Scythian tribes in the north. After almost a year of bitter fighting, Alexander made himself master of Sogdiana. During the long campaign, Alexander married Roxana, a Bactrian.

Policies as Ruler

Alexander did not force the conquered peoples of his empire to adopt Macedonian ways or forms of government. As a ruler he demanded their loyalty but permitted them to retain their customs and religions. He did, however, improve the Persian system of governing each of the imperial provinces. He usually appointed three men, an administrator of internal affairs, a military commander, and a treasurer. Especially notable was his use of native officials in many of these posts.

To win the loyalty of the Persians, Alexander at times adopted the dress and court ceremonies of a Persian emperor. Many of his Macedonian soldiers resented the new customs, believing their king was betraying them to gain the support of his Asian subjects. Several of his Macedonian officers plotted to kill him, but they were discovered and executed.

However, Alexander's officers continued to mistrust his adoption of foreign ways. During a banquet one night Alexander's foster brother Clitus taunted him repeatedly, claiming that Alexander had become a Persian. Alexander, enraged, seized a spear and killed Clitus. He was immediately overcome by remorse, and his attendants had to prevent him from killing himself with the same spear.

Campaign in India

In 326 B.C., Alexander led his troops south across the Hindu Rush, fought his way down the Rabul river valley, and marched into India. At the Hydaspes (now the Jhelum River), the warrior king Porus waited to prevent Alexander's passage.

Poms' army was shielded by a line of 200 elephants. Because this made a frontal attack impossible, Alexander led his cavalry in a flanking movement. The elephants could not be turned in time to meet the attack, and in the confusion of the battle they trampled to death both Greeks and Indians. After savage fighting the Indian army fled, but Porus, mounted on an elephant, continued to fight until he was badly wounded. Then he too retreated. Alexander, impressed with his bravery, allowed Porus to keep his kingdom, under Macedonian protection.

Having won his victory over Porus, Alexander ordered his men to march east to the Ganges River. His troops refused to obey. Many of them had been away from home for more than eight years and had marched more than 11,000 miles. Alexander finally agreed to return to Persia, but insisted on exploring the southern boundaries of his empire on the way. He led his forces down the Indus river valley, defeating all who opposed him. Turning west, Alexander marched across the desert of Gedrosia, where many of his men died. At last, in the winter of 324 B.C., he led his exhausted army into Susa.

Alexander learned that during his long absence many officials had used their power to enrich themselves and to oppress his subjects. He punished the guilty and restored order. He then set about reorganizing his army, placing Macedonian and Persian soldiers in the same units. The Macedonians mutinied against this policy. Alexander was firm, however, and the soldiers yielded. At a feast celebrating the reconciliation, Alexander presided over the "marriage of East and West," a mass wedding of 9,000 of his Macedonian and Greek soldiers to Persian women. As part of the ceremony Alexander took a daughter of Darius as a second wife.

Battle of Hydaspes
Battle of Hydaspes

Death of Alexander

In 323 B.C., while Alexander was organizing a new military expedition at Babylon, he was suddenly stricken with fever. When it appeared that he would not recover, his Macedonian troops filed past his bed to bid farewell to their commander. Less than two weeks after the fever had begun,Alexander was dead. In the 13 years of his reign he had conquered most of the civilized world. His body was taken to Egypt, where it was wrapped in gold and placed in a glass coffin. For hundreds of years, the body was displayed at the center of Alexandria, the city he had founded but had never seen.

After Alexander's death, his generals fought among themselves for control of his empire. The struggle lasted for 50 years. Three successor kingdoms emerged: Egypt under the Ptolemies, Macedonia under the Antigonids, and the bulk of the Eastern empire under the Seleucids.


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