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The Motivations of Alexander the Great: What motivated the famous general as he was conquering the world?

Updated on May 24, 2013

Alexander at Issus

Alexander fighting Darius III at Issus, frrom the famous "Alexander Mosaic."
Alexander fighting Darius III at Issus, frrom the famous "Alexander Mosaic." | Source

"His Passion for Glory

Historians have offered many theories to explain what could drive Alexander the Great to so rapidly conquer much of the known world. Some suggest Alexander was an idealistic visionary who sought to unite the world, helping men of all races and religions live in peace and harmony. Others argue that Alexander was a self-promoting tyrant, a proto-Fascist, whose hunger for conquest drove him. However, both theories fall short in that they attempt to fit Alexander into a pre-constructed ideological framework. Such categorization is woefully inadequate for Alexander, a man who quite consciously sought to escape all boundaries.

.Alexander’s love of war and his vaulting ambition to become a supreme ruler motivated him to create a vast empire and dictated every aspect of his life.

Given the nature of studying Alexander the Great, it is very difficult to present an accurate and unbiased presentation of the man. Biased accounts abound because“…in the case of Alexander studies, the sources are so bad and in many cases so contradictory, that one tends to find the Alexander that one is looking for.”[1] Wishful thinking and personal bias often cloud historical thought. Two men whose theories stand out for their extreme bias are W. W. Tarn and F. Schachermeyr. Their theories show the diverse range of possible interpretations of Alexander. Schachermeyr presents Alexander as a proto-Nazi but Tarn treats the young conqueror as a thoughtful humanitarian.[2] Both views of Alexander fail to accurately present the conqueror, however.

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Alexander certainly fits Schachermeyr’s idea of a superhuman tyrant in some respects but his behavior as a ruler indicates he was not simply a power-hungry fascist. Alexander’s desire to rule a huge empire and his great personal ambition seems to confirm Schachermeyr’s thesis. However, Alexander proved, time and again, that he was more complicated than this. He loved fighting more than ruling. Plutarch says that Alexander was “more bent upon action and glory than either upon pleasure or riches, [and] he… would have chosen rather to succeed in a kingdom involved in troubles and wars, which would have afforded him frequent exercise of his courage, and a large field of honour, than to one already flourishing and settled.”[3] (804). Were he actually motivated by ego alone as Schachermeyr argues, such a description would not have fit. Alexander would have been a more “Hitler-like” ruler, lording it over his empire while other men expanded it for him. Instead, Alexander chose the thrill of battle over the tedium of rule. By focusing on only Alexander’s ambition, Schachermeyr gives an incomplete picture of Alexander.

Tarn’s view of Alexander as a social idealist similarly fails to accurately describe Alexander because it draws on only certain aspects of Alexander. While Alexander’s prayer for unity following the mutiny at Opis and the mass wedding at Susa indicate that Alexander desired his subjects to be united, Alexander’s career gives no indication that he desired unity for all mankind (unless he were their ruler). In Arrian’s account the prayer for unity was no more than“a tailpiece… of merely two sections to the Opis mutiny” rather than the ideological crossroads that historians like Tarn later made it out to be.[4] The marriages at Susa certainly helped foster unity but, apart from mixing of cultures, Alexander’s marriages to foreign women were also political.[5]

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Both the wedding and the prayer, popular among those who see Alexander as an idealistic visionary, were really motivated politically. Alexander believed that relying on “the good-will which might arise from intermixture and association as a means of maintaining tranquility, [was better] than upon force and compulsion.”[6] Alexander was motivated by a desire to better control his ethnically diverse empire rather than ideals of equality or brotherhood. There is no indication in Alexander’s actions that he wanted real universal unity except under himself and Plutarch’s biography, for example, does not present Alexander as a believer “in the brotherhood of man” in any novel way.[7] Had Alexander truly wished to promote unity among men for ideological reasons, it is unlikely he would have achieved it through warfare, especially, as was the case in the Persian War, one that was begun based on national differences.

Alexander certainly had unique ideas about philosophy and culture, but these sentiments are not so clear cut as historians like Schachermeyr and Tarn present them. Indeed, even among ancient histories of Alexander “often contain statements that are projections backward from Stoicism and other later thought.”[8] This system of “backward projection” persists to the present day with historians who attempt to make Alexander’s views conform to a philosophy formulated by others.

The interpretations of Alexander’s motives by modern scholars are no more biased than those presented by Alexander himself. Alexander, on various occasions, publicly declared nationalistic motivations for his actions but these professed motives were always carefully crafted to suit the needs of the young conqueror. From the very beginning of his career, Alexander proved an astute reader of the political climate.

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When Philip II died, his plans for a war of revenge on the Persian Empire on behalf of the Greeks passed to Alexander.[9] Therefore, it made perfect sense for Alexander to present himself as eager for vengeance on Persia in order to retain the loyalty of the Greeks through the Corinthian League. If Alexander wanted to conquer Persia purely for revenge, he would have had no reason to push into the Black Sea region or India. These later conquests prove Alexander acted more out of a love for conquest than for ideological or nationalistic reasons.

Alexander was motivated not by pure ego, ideology, or nationalism but by his ambition and his love of battle. Alexander’s ambition led him to struggle against and overcome all limits that were placed upon him. He sought to make himself the first in every sense of the word.

Alexander’s ambition caused friction between himself and his father, Philip II, and a desire to “one-up” his father may have fueled his early imperial aspirations. Philip proved a strong leader at a young age; at 27, he was the head of a superior army of seasoned and dedicated troops.[10] Alexander followed his father’s example and achieved momentous victories while he was still in his twenties. Even earlier than this, Alexander showed signs of ambition and a desire to surpass Philip. According to Plutarch, when Alexander “heard that Philip had taken any town of importance, or won any signal victory, instead of rejoicing at it altogether, he would tell his companions that his father would anticipate everything, and leave him and them no opportunities of performing great and illustrious actions.”[11] Alexander was clearly eager to surpass Philip in personal achievements on the battlefield. This was hardly the behavior of a young man who wanted to rule a great empire. Rather it was the behavior of a young man who wanted to build a great empire.

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The distinction between ruling a peaceful empire and fighting to build an empire was important for Alexander, because the glory won in battle meant more to him than simply the honor of being a ruler. Alexander’s love of the glories of battle would be an ongoing theme in his life and a driving force in his struggle for world conquest.

Alexander’s love of battle was exhibited throughout his short life in numerous cases. Alexander loved to fight and also to pit himself against the great rulers of his day like Darius III. During his campaigns, Alexander “exposed himself to many hazards in the battles which he fought, and received many severe wounds.”[12] Surely, this proximity to his troops boosted Alexander’s popularity, but later conquerors found safer ways of keeping their soldiers’ loyalty. Alexander’s active participation in battle showed that he enjoyed fighting. Alexander’s love of battle made him restless to conquer more and, combined with his ambition to rule even larger territory, led him farther afield. After conquering Persia, Alexander became obsessed with a scheme to capture India which would make him ruler of Asia.[13] These desires combined with Alexander’s experiences to shape his philosophy.

As Alexander conquered deeper into “barbarian” territory, he was forced to reconsider the “Hellenistic-supremacist” viewpoint that dominated Greece and was espoused by his tutor Aristotle. Alexander, although not Greek-born himself, would likely have considered Asians “barbarians” incapable of the cultural achievements of Greece and weakened by despotic rule. However, as Alexander witnessed the splendor and power of the Persian Empire, his views clearly shifted. A lack of Macedonian and Greek troops forced Alexander to begin to rely on Asian troops who soon proved effective and trustworthy fighters. The fact that he was willing to use them was a major step in his new thoughts on unity among his subjects.[14]

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However, this new equality degraded the superior status previously enjoyed by the Greeks and Macedonians in Alexander’s force. “Alexander decided to abandon the comradely relationship with his officers, which had long characterized the Macedonian monarchy, and to put an end to wavering support and possible plots by becoming an autocrat.”[15] Rather than risk displeasure of his generals, Alexander proved he could do just as well without them by taking on foreign troops. In any case, this new arrangement was completely utilitarian, more about what the “barbarians” could do for Alexander than what Alexander could do for the “barbarians.”

Although Alexander sought to promote equality among his new Persian subjects and his old Greek allies, there is no reason to believe establishing equality or promoting Greek culture were his goals when he began his conquest. This viewpoint has unfortunately become adopted by some modern historians, among whom Alexander’s conquests are “frequently justified in a rather unthinking way by appealing to the spread of Hellenism.”[16] Alexander certainly would not have given the spread of Greek culture as one of his reasons for world conquest. Indeed, Alexander took on some elements of Persian culture.

Alexander became fascinated with the Persian treatment of their monarchs and sought to imitate Persian kings, promote unity in his empire, and fulfill his own ambition. After conquering the Persians, Alexander began to dress as a Persian king. In part, this was Alexander’s way of saying “that he proposed to become king of the barbarians as well as of the Macedonians.”[17] However, Alexander likely had more than merely unity in mind. He also clearly saw the possibilities that dressing as a Persian created.

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By dressing as a Persian ruler, Alexander could expect to be treated as a Persian ruler, enjoying all the prestige and privileges that went with it. Plutarch proposes that Alexander donned Persian garments “with the view of making the work of civilising [the Persians] easier” but he also suggests it “may have been as a first trial, whether the Macedonians might be brought to adore as the Persians did their kings, by accustoming them by little and little to bear with the alteration of his rule and course of life in other things.”[18] Since Alexander did indeed expect his Greek and Macedonian followers to “adore” him in the obsequious manner of the Persians and since Alexander did little to “civilize” the Persians, the latter seems a more likely explanation. Rufus, however, is far less charitable toward what he describes as Alexander’s choice “to ape the Persian royalty with its quasi-divine status” and his desire that men “who had conquered scores of nations… lie prostrate on the ground and venerate him.”[19]Alexander’s ambition certainly attracted him to the Persian way of showing respect for their monarchs. It was the Persian custom of treating their kings as the Greeks treated their gods that led Alexander to one of his most infamous excesses.

Not content to be treated as a mere mortal, Alexander demanded to be worshipped as a god. Here, Alexander’s ambition led him to seek to transcend even humanity. Plutarch supports this view, writing that it was “apparent that Alexander in himself was not foolishly affected, or had the vanity to think himself really a god, but merely used his claims of divinity as a means of maintaining among other people the sense of his superiority.”[20]

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This desire for superiority has led some scholars to claim that Alexander actually thought he was a god. Rufus concurs with Plutarch on this point, agreeing that Alexander “wished to be believed… the son of Jupiter.”[21] Alexander did not believe he was divine, but he wanted others to believe it. Alexander’s claims to divinity were made in carefully arranged situations to strengthen his rule and enhance his reputation. This was evidenced by the fact that he changed his manner and bearing depending on the situation. While Alexander “carried himself very haughtily, as if he were fully persuaded of his divine parentage” when among “barbarians,” he treated the “Grecians more moderately, and with less affectation of divinity.”[22] This alteration in Alexander’s behavior showed that he exaggerated his “divinity” when it could influence “barbarians” but played it down when he was among the Greeks who it might offend. Alexander’s belief in his divinity was merely a pose to exalt his status.

Alexander sought to create an empire which was a unified body with him as its head. Alexander did not intend to impress any culture on another and probably expected most subjects to continue their lives as normal but “there was to develop a new life based on an interchange and mixture of customs and blood. Here was to be the driving force of the empire, a new attitude toward the world.”[23] This new idea of unity made Alexander a stronger ruler since he was no longer, at least in his own mind, a Macedonian ruling Greece and Persia but a ruler of a new empire composed of diverse peoples. The merging of Persian and Greek and Macedonian cultures were critical to Alexander’s imperial strategy.

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Alexander was certainly not an idealistic humanitarian seeking to free Asia from the shackles of tyranny, nor was he simply a self-worshipping egomaniac. When Alexander began his Asian campaign, he did not “come as a mere marauder and seeker after loot.”[24] He wanted to rule the largest empire in the world as evidenced by his remarks before venturing into India. Wearing Persian clothes, marrying foreign women, praying for harmony, and setting himself up as a god were merely the means to an end. However, to say that Alexander wanted to rule the largest empire in the world oversimplifies Alexander’s motivations and hovers dangerously near Schachermeyr’s fallacious thesis. Alexander enjoyed battle and wanted to have the glory of personally bringing the world into his empire. His love of battle and glory superseded everything else, including his love of ruling, and his ambition pushed him to raise himself ever higher above others. These were the true motives of Alexander.

[1] Michael Flower, “Not Great Man History: Reconceptualizing a Course on Alexander the Great,” The Classical World 100.4 (2007): 418-419.

[2] Edmund M. Burke, “Philip II and Alexander the Great,” Military Affairs 47.2 (1983): 67.

[3] Plutarch, “The Life of Alexander,” in The Lives of the Noble Grecians and Romans, trans. John Dryden and Arthur Hugh Clough (New York: Random House, Inc., 1932): 804.

[4] E. Badian, “Alexander the Great and the Unity of Mankind,” Historia: Zeitschrift für Alte Geschichte 7.4 (1958): 428.

[5] C. A. Robinson, Jr., “The Extraordinary Ideas of Alexander the Great,” The American Historical Review 62.2 (1957): 336-337.

[6] Plutarch, 834-835.

[7] Robinson, 427.

[8] Ibid., 343.

[9] Robinson, 328.

[10] Burke, 68.

[11] Plutarch, 804.

[12] Plutarch, 842.

[13] Robinson, 336.

[14] Ibid., 335.

[15] Robinson, 341.

[16] Flower, 422.

[17] Robinson, 338.

[18] Plutarch, 833.

[19] Quintus Curtius Rufus, The History of Alexander, trans. John Yardley (New York: Penguin Books, 1984): 128.

[20] Robinson, 821.

[21] Rufus, 187.

[22] Plutarch, 821.

[23] Robinson, 337.

[24] Robinson, 328.


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    • Robert Levine profile image

      Robert Levine 8 months ago from Brookline, Massachusetts

      I don't quite get your distinction between Alexander's "ego" and his "ambition." Also, why does "Vera" separate the article's sections?

    • rebelogilbert profile image

      Gilbert Arevalo 3 weeks ago from Hacienda Heights, California

      I thought you wrote a very interesting article. It's fascinating that Alexander thought of himself as a God, it seems to tie-in with Greek mythology. He had a huge ego.

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