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Alexander The Great: Conquest and Hellenization

Updated on April 24, 2017
Lloyd Busch profile image

Lloyd Busch is the author of "Passive Resistance", a book on non-violent action, and has been published in the "Journal of Theoretics".

The Birth of Western Culture

In this paper I discuss Alexander the Great and his conquests, I also analyze how his conquests spread Greek culture throughout the known world in a process known as Hellenization. Hellenization is the process of spreading and adoption of Greek culture upon other cultures either voluntary or by force. Most scholars agree that Ancient Greece is a major foundation of western civilization, the spread of Greek culture played a vital role in shaping the world and the eventual replication of Greek culture throughout the western world. Elements of Greek culture have also been observed in eastern cultures as well.

Alexander was born in 356 BC, son of King Philip of Macedonia. King Philip claimed to be a descendant of Hercules and Zeus while Alexanders mother claimed a bloodline of Achilles. With both parents claiming such bloodlines it is easy to see why Alexander became so obsessed with greatness and power, I believe he felt it was his undeniable and assured destiny to become one of the greatest conquers in history. In fact Alexander was raised to believe that he was no ordinary human being. When Alexander was 24 years old he was crowned Pharaoh of Egypt and worshiped as a living God. The priest greeted Alexander as son of Ammon who was the most important Egyptian God, Alexander believed Ammon was another name for the Greek God Zeus. These events and beliefs clearly showed the deification of Alexander from childhood throughout his life giving him the drive to conquer and sheer perseverance beyond normal men.

Macedon was a small kingdom that lay north of Greece. The role of Macedon in world affairs was relatively minor until Alexanders father Philip inherited the throne. Macedonians spoke Greek but were less civilized in their arts, the citizens were mostly farmers and herders living in small rural communities. The Greeks considered the Macedonians as barbarians due to their culture when compared to the Greek culture of arts and science. The Hellenization of Macedon began during the reign of Alexanders father King Philip. Alexander may not have achieved what he did if it was not for the foundation that Philip laid. When Philip was still sixteen and the prince of Macedon he was handed over to the Thebes as a diplomatic solution and as a security measure between the two countries until a lasting peace deal could be reached. Upon Philip's three or four year stay he became educated at Greek schools and received military training from the Theban general Epaminondas. After these four years in Thebes Philip returned to Macedon as King at the age of twenty due to the deaths of his father and eldest brother.

After Philip's accession to power he quickly formed Macedon into a major military force which the Greeks respected and feared. Two years after taking over the monarchy Philip invaded Thrace and seized the gold rich mines, it was with this gold that Philip raised and supported his massive and well trained army. Philip absorbed most of Greece over the next twenty years through various tactics. The final defeat of Greece came in 338 B.C. When Athens, Thebes, and several other smaller city-states were defeated in battle by the Macedonian army. The Greek city-states remained autonomous but were expected to contribute contingents to the Macedonian army. Within a year Philip had formed the Hellenic League and announced his intention to go to war against Persia. This marked the end of city-states as the primary organization for societies. From this point on city-states declined while societies were either voluntarily or forcefully united into larger empires, states, and alliances.

The Hellenization of Macedon began in the 8th century B.C. when Greek colonies were founded along the shoreline of Macedon. The first political leap came at the hands of Alexander I, who promoted policy of imitating Greek culture. With little cultural identity themselves the Macedonians embraced and absorbed Greek culture with enthusiasm. With the adoption of Greek culture the Macedonians under Alexander would spread Hellenistic thought throughout the eastern world.

Mosaic of Alexander The Great

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Alexander's Rise to Power

The influence of Greek culture upon Alexander was profound, having been raised at the hight of Greek thought within Macedon. Alexander learned his Greek soldering tactics from his father, though most of his education would come from the famous Greek philosopher Aristotle. Aristotle taught Alexander about many subjects from botany to literature, indeed Alexander had an immense love of learning. For three years Alexander and Aristotle studied daily in a quite retreat in Mieza. Years later while on military campaigns Alexander collected and studied hundreds of plant and animal specimens.

In 336 B.C. Philip was assassinated leaving Alexander King of the Macedon empire at the age of twenty. The Macedonian Army quickly recognized Alexander as their leader. Though enemies inside Greece and within Macedon were quick to take advantage of the situation, Alexander had to effectively assert himself as King by squashing any rebellion and murdering any rivals. While Alexander was fighting in the north rumors spread that Alexander had been killed in battle, Thebes had rebelled forming a treaty with Persia, Thebes began to form an army to battle the Macedonians. Upon hearing the news Alexander marched his army 300 miles in two weeks, an amazing pace at the time, arriving at the gates of Thebes. When Thebes refused to surrender Alexander ordered the city destroyed except for a few religious buildings, the ensuing battle was a massacre, some 6,000 Thebes were killed and another 20,000 enslaved. Considering Alexander's generosity towards Thebans years later it is possible he regretted the destruction of Thebes, Alexander often regretted many of his brutal actions.

After securing the homeland from further rebellion Alexander set his eyes on Persia. In 334 B.C. Alexander marched towards the Persian Empire with an army of 37,000 men. Alexander marched on Egypt, Tyre, Babylonia, and Persopolis. Most nations willingly surrendered to Alexander, those that did not were usually destroyed. The highlight of his campaign came in 331 B.C. when Alexanders army defeated Darius in battle at Gaugamela, Alexander had been outnumbered at least 4 to 1 but his victory was decisive leaving Alexander King of Persia.

Alexander established numerous cities during his conquest. The colonist would then impose laws and rules upon the local population promoting Hellenization. Gymnasiums and theaters, prominent features in Greek cities, were also established in the cities conquered and founded by Alexander. In fact Alexander founded 17 to 20 cities named after himself and founded approximately seventy in all.These served dual purposes, first they aided in Alexanders conquest by giving Alexander key points of defense and a safe route of travel, also many soldiers lived in these cities after the war.

The reach and impact of Hellenization from Alexanders conquests cannot be overstated. For example a statue of Buddha “carved in the Greek style with idealized features of Alexander”. Coins from Bactria (modern day Afghanistan) engraved with the images of Greek and non-Greek deities, here Alexander created a multi-ethnic, multinational community. The impacts of Alexander helped create the line of Grecian-Buddhist art.

Alexander was not merely contempt at conquering for the sake of mere power, his plans were far more grandiose and much more involved. Throughout his conquests “Alexander abolished oligarchy and established democracy” releasing these cities from the bondage of the Persians and setting the tone for future democracies. Egypt welcomed Alexander as a liberator, while in all conquered countries instituting tolerance for all religion and the acceptance of free speech and thought. Consider these statement Alexander made in a speech during 324 B.C. at Opis.

“Consider the world as your country, with common laws, governed by men of merit, regardless of race. May all mortals live from now on in harmony, as one nation, for the sake of common prosperity. I wish you to be my partners and not just members of our commonwealth. God should not be viewed as an authoritarian ruler, but as our common father”-Alexander the Great.


The Empire of Alexander The Great

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One Nation & One People

“I do not distinguish between Greeks and barbarians, as do the narrow-minded. I am not interested in the country or race of origin of people. I only distinguish people according to their virtues. To me every virtuous foreigner is Greek and each non-virtuous Greek is worse than a barbarian. As for myself, I consider all persons, black or white, as equals”-Alexander the Great.

Although Alexander may have been one of the greatest Hellenizers known he was respectful of other cultures and encouraged people not necessarily to adopt Greek culture but to respect it as he respected their culture. Interesting is the fact that Alexander began to adopt Persian culture and encouraged his officers to do the same upon. Other than marrying a Persian, Princess Roxane of Bactria, he arranged a mass wedding of 80 of his Macedonian officers to Persian women in an attempt to help unify the two cultures. In another mass wedding Alexander arranged 10,000 of his men to marry Persian women. His plan was by no means short term, his actions indicate he wanted his kingdom to last longer than himself.

Alexander was possibly the first person to attempt globalization in the true sense, his goals were not world domination but a world united in a common goal of prosperity. His goal was not riches and wealth but to unite the world through communication, by removing barriers such as self-indulgent kingdoms and cultural misunderstandings. The world was united in open trade and understanding as Greeks and Persians lived together. Alexander did not plunder the public treasuries of the conquered people and severely punished his men that abused their powers. Reconciliation was a prime goal for Alexander, rather than treat the conquered peoples as inferiors or force them into slavery as many nations did at the time, Alexander considered them as equals and as new citizens in the empire encouraging them to take part in politics. Alexander often used Persian administrators, these people were not only the best suited since they knew the customs and procedures but by including Persians into his kingdom Alexander had hoped to create a sense of belonging. By creating an interconnected world society Alexander had hoped for a measure of stability and dreams of a kingdom united not by force but by the will of its people. He seems to have wanted the fervent nationalism associated with the Polis except on a world scale, for the world was their nation.

Recognizing other cultures were often reluctant to change Alexander continued many practices of those cultures. In Egypt Alexander sacrificed to the Egyptian God Apis as was customary for the Pharaoh. Upon reaching Israel Alexander exhibited great respect for the Jewish people. A fifteenth century painting depicts Alexander as leading the life of an Indian king in both dress and custom. It is also likely that Alexander adopted the Persian title Shahanshah (Great King or King of Kings). Many of Alexanders attempt at cultural fusion were met with great opposition by the Macedonians who viewed the Persians as barbarians. Even Aristotle viewed non-Greeks as worthy of nothing but slavery.

Alexander exhibited great understanding, after capturing his defeated rival Darius's family he treated them as royalty even marrying Darius's daughter Statira. When Alexander came upon Darius's body, who had been killed by his own guards, out of respect Alexander gave Darius a royal funeral at the capital of Persia, Persepolis. Alexander then set out to avenge Darius's murder, culminating in the execution of Darius's murderer Bessus.

Alexander created a school and recruited 30,000 Persian boys to lean the Greek language and culture. Alexander had hopes this would help unite Greek and Persian cultures as we will see was his goal. These Persian boys were also trained in military tactics and upon the age of eighteen were enlisted in the Macedon army replacing 10,000 older Greek and Macedonian soldiers. Although the Macedonians initially resisted this attempt Alexander had hoped it would help create a kinship between the Persians and Greeks in the sense they were fighting together and not against each other.

Alexander built roads to create new trade routes and help transportation between countries and cities. Alexander also established a common currency within his kingdom to promote commerce. He established harbors to promote shipping, his most famous being the city of Alexandria, Egypt. Cities were often built along important roads and trade routes in order to better promote travel, commerce, and trade. As many as seventy cities may have been built by Alexanders orders, six of which remain today. By taming the tribes of the Middle East and Western Asia Alexander created safe passages for traders who were constantly harassed by these tribesmen. The Increase in trade was profound, grain from Egypt, silk from China, and spices from India. The creation of international businessmen based out of major cities such as Alexandria, and increasing trade created a situation where kings now had new control over trade and commerce. Leaps in navigation aided commerce, ships and ports alike were built larger to handle the increased loads, lighthouses were erected. The most famous of lighthouses was the Pharos built in Alexandria, Egypt. All subsequent lighthouses were built as a model of this one. By raising the world economic condition Alexander seems to have hoped to reduce dissent by ensuring the free-flow of resources throughout the empire. This would a two effects, first by connecting the nations together through trade it would make nations less likely to war against each other since each nation has a natural resource which it needs, whether it be grain or silk, the nations don't want interruption in the flow of goods since that may mean hardships and eventual dissent of the people. This bring us to our second factor of commerce; With increased trade and commerce Alexander seems to have wished to raise living conditions making his popularity rise and the possibilities of dissent unlikely.

Bust of Alexander The Great

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An Immortal Legacy

Alexander introduced Greek as the official language of the kingdom, this united the people under a common language with benefits in both social and economic areas. People now had a common language to communicate, which in the past had hindered growth and discouraged understanding. Greek quickly became the international language much like Latin was in the fifteenth century or English today. With a common language and open travel “scholars were able to collaborate on the mathematics and sciences”, as well as allow oriental knowledge to flow to the west. With the new-found and widespread love of learning came drastic changes in scientific thought, science and philosophy became different subjects in their own right. Science became an impersonal objective, for the first time in history science was not dependent on the Gods or the interpretation of religious leaders. This period marks the true first separation of church and science, although not always lasting due to zealous religious intervention it was the model of separation that modern science is deeply rooted. While philosophy became more concerned with “morality and ethics”. Scientists began a relentless attempt to collect, classify, quantify, and catalog every known element and phenomenon in nature. This collection was passed on to the scientists of the Medieval Era.

Alexanders Hellenic conquest spread Greek culture throughout the Middle East, Hellenism was preserved there by Arabians and Islam. When Rome finally fell Greek culture was nearly lost, though through Arabian translations of famous Greek texts Hellenic thought lived to be rediscovered during the Renaissance period. The Hellenism did not end with Alexanders death, Hellenism continued to thrive and grow long after Alexander had died. Although Alexanders kingdom was divided into four kingdoms by his successors, there was much fighting between the kingdoms, cultural ties and travel continued to grow. Alexander's successors also continued his policy of founding new cities and attracting Greeks to come settle in the cities. The cultural center of the Hellenic world was no longer a city in Greece, namely Athens, it was in the city Alexander founded and designed himself, Alexandria, Egypt. It was here where the famous library and museum was built. The museum was founded by Ptolemy who had gained control over the Egyptian province after Alexander's death carrying on many of the same tasks. The library was the largest in the world, containing hundreds of thousands of scrolls from all over the world. Literary scholars would pour over thousands of texts in order to translate, “determining authorship, deciding on correct editions, and compiling dictionaries”. The task was tremendous, the translation of the Old Testament into the Greek language took the work of 72 Rabbis. The museum was not just a library but a research center were scholars would meet to discuss mathematics, physics, and astronomy. The museum also housed a zoo which contained many exotic animals. This surge in the sciences is truly a foundation of modern science. Inspired by philosophers such as Plato and Aristotle the sciences became a world pursuit, not infringed by politics and nationality but considered as a human right gaining its ground on the arts.

The new culture of cosmopolitan replaced localism, tribal societies, and nationalistic attitude with awareness of the outside world. People were no longer contained within their communities but were able to travel freely, cities grew, trade expanded, prejudice and stereotypes began to give way to cultural understanding and individualism. The schools began to teach philosophy based on the idea cosmopolitan and individualism, Stoicism was one popular school of thought. It was these new philosophy which greatly influenced the Roman Empire as well as Christian thought. The adoption of Greek culture was most evident among the upper class who would learn the Greek language, wear Greek clothing, and study Greek philosophy. The age of the Polis and direct Democracy was gone and replaced with cosmopolitanism, democracy gave way to bureaucracy.

Conclusion

After marching thousands of miles and conquering vast territories as far as India Alexander died at the age of thirty-three. The exact cause of death is still unknown, there were many disease and often the medicine of the days were more dangerous than the disease itself. In his journey Alexander had conquered almost the entire known world and had changed the history of man-kind. After Alexander's death there was nobody strong enough to rule the vast territory, the kingdom was divided into four parts. Though this was not the end of the process of Hellenization, it was merely the beginning. With Alexandria quickly growing into the center of the Hellenic world, the worlds Kings may have been in constant feud but the people were united their culture.

In conclusion of this paper I find that the effects on western civilization and civilization in general were profound indeed. His conquests opened up communications between people and with a common language of Greek, learning and education grew by leaps and bounds. Tolerance and inter-cultural relations took on a newer friendlier meaning, setting the stage for future growth in understanding. The Hellenization process preserved Greek culture in the Middle East during the stagnation of Europe when Greek culture was forgotten. In addition the culture was not merely a continuation of Greek life but evolved into a new culture. This Graeco-Oriental culture was the combination of Greek, Persian, and Oriental cultures.

Alexander made the first attempt at globalization, by this I do not mean global domination by sheer force and military control. I mean globalization through inter-cultural understanding and mutual interest. It was this ideal which Alexander dreamed of and partially succeeded at that know is being realized today. With our increasing globalization of the world though global commerce, widespread and easy communication, such as the Internet, and mutual understanding and interest for mankind and not just for a single nation, race, or religion. Alexander removed the concept nationalism and fighting which plagued the Greek city-states and gave the world cosmopolitan, he replaced the terms Greek and Barbarian with one word man-kind.

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© 2016 Lloyd Busch

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