Western Humanities:  Alexander the Great and the Hellenistic Age

Text Box: discussion QUESTIONS:
What qualities made Alexander the successful man, general, and conqueror he was?
Which qualities may have led to his ultimate downfall?
Why have “later generations have tended to interpret Alexander's character in a romantic light?”  Historically speaking, is this a typical reaction to people whose accomplishments were similar to Alexander’s?
During his lifetime, Alexander earned the name “Alexander the Invincible.”  Was this an appropriate title?  What makes a man “great?”  Explain your answer.
Look at the images in this packet.  Describe how Alexander has been immortalized by artists throughout time.  What similarities / differences do you see in these depictions?
What are the lasting legacies of Alexander's rule?
What one question do you still have about Alexander?  Write it – we’ll address it in class.


Title: Alexander the Great

[Library of Congress]


Alexander the Great's meteoric conquest of Persia, excursion into India, military skill, vision for a unified people, and role as an agent of Greek culture changed the Mediterranean world in a multitude of ways.





The life of Alexander the Great has inspired people from antiquity to modern times. Such generals as Julius Caesar have looked to Alexander, compared themselves against his success, and copied his tactics. Alexander's meteoric conquest of Persia, his excursion into India, his military skill, his vision for a unified people, and his role as an agent of Greek culture changed the Mediterranean world in a multitude of ways, ushering in what historians have come to call the Hellenistic period. It is perhaps unsurprising that Alexander achieved all that he did given that his father, Philip II of Macedon, took obvious care in Alexander's upbringing and in laying the foundation for the conquest of the east, but the personality and ability of Alexander cannot be ignored.

Alexander III of Macedonia, later known as Alexander the Great, was born in 356 B.C. to Philip II, the king of Macedonia, and Olympias of Epirus. Ancient historians and biographers all agree that Alexander was bright and charismatic. He was fortunate to have the philosopher Aristotle as his teacher after Philip invited Aristotle to the Macedonian court in 342. Upon the assassination of his father in 336, Alexander became king. While the succession was not contested, Macedonia had long been a place of court intrigue and a kingdom at war with the barbarian peoples to its north. Alexander wished to carry out his father's plan of invading Persia, but before doing so, he first ensured that Macedonia would not be in chaos when he left by brutally suppressing a revolt in Thebes.

In 334, Alexander left Macedonia with a combined army of Macedonian and Greek soldiers from the League of Corinth (the confederation Philip had created after his victory at the First Battle of Chaeronea in 338) and crossed the Dardanelles into Asian Minor. The size of his army was relatively small. He had approximately 30,000 infantry and 5,000 cavalry. The inspiration for the Persian expedition was in part revenge for the Persian Wars more than a century earlier, but Persia also offered the Greeks land for new colonies and the plunder of a mighty kingdom. Alexander's first task was to liberate Greek cities along the Ionian coast from Persian control.

The Persian satraps (governors) of Asia Minor assembled an army to fight Alexander and waited for him on the east bank of the Granicus River. Alexander himself led his guard cavalry through the river into the Persian line, and the Macedonians achieved a stunning victory over the Persian force. The dramatic triumph established Alexander as a bold commander and inspired fanatical devotion in his troops.

After the Battle of the Granicus, what remained of the forward guard of the Persian army was forced to retreat, and Alexander could claim to have freed the Greek cities. Alexander then worked his way south towards Egypt, but met the bulk of the Persian army on his way. That engagement, the Battle of Issus, once again proved Alexander's reputation. The Macedonian infantry, arranged in phalanxes with long spears called sarissas, kept the Persian army busy, allowing the cavalry to outflank the enemy in a decisive victory. The Persians sued for peace, but Alexander refused, a decision historians have seen as signaling the conqueror's intent to march deep into Persia.

Alexander continued south into Egypt. While there, he visited the famous oracle of Amon at Siwa in 331 and was greeted by the priest as the son of Amon (whom the Greeks identified as Zeus, their own chief god). Egypt had long considered their rulers living gods, and Alexander, as the new "pharaoh," was thus entitled to such an address. It is difficult to estimate whether that event sparked Alexander's belief in his own divinity, if indeed he truly believed it. A good number of the sources for Alexander's life were written long after he had died, so it may never be known, but the majority of sources agree that he attempted to convince the Greek poleis to recognize his divinity in 324. Not long after visiting the oracle, Alexander left Egypt to continue the push into Persia.

Alexander and his army met with success after success, and at the Battle of Gaugamela, King Darius III of Persia lost a second army. That victory ended the Persian Empire, and when Darius was killed in 330 by members of his own court, Alexander became king. Alexander took his army as far as the Indus River, where after some very hard campaigning and another brilliant victory, his army forced him to return. Along the way, Alexander had founded such cities on the Greek model as Ai Khanum, with a town center, or agora, and gymnasia. Part of the populations of those cities was made up of Greek soldiers. Those new cities were emblematic of at least one of Alexander's plans—to spread Greek culture. Along with his troops, Alexander traveled with scientists and men of the liberal arts in an effort to spread Greek thought across the known world.

Back in Babylonia in 324, Alexander encountered mounting opposition. His adoption of Persian dress and custom upset the Greeks he had brought with him. In addition, Alexander had his generals marry the daughters of Persian nobles (he, too, married a Persian woman). Those marriages have been the subject of much speculation. Though there was no formal policy, most scholars believe that what Alexander wanted to do was create one people, and, by intermarrying with the Persians, he might not only form strong ties through marriage but also begin the process of fusing the two cultures. When he attempted to mix the army, however, some of his men revolted. In June 323, after a night of heavy banqueting, Alexander took ill for several days before dying in the city of Babylon on June 13. His empire quickly became a prize over which his generals fought.

Alexander was not just significant for his military brilliance and impressive conquest of much of the known world. His reign also ushered in a new era, one in which Greek culture spread to new areas. The Hellenistic kings who followed him adopted similar court practices, emphasis on their relationship to divinity, and continued Alexander's Hellenizing policy.


ID: 575648

Further reading

Bosworth, A.B., Conquest and Empire: The Reign of Alexander the Great, 1988; Bosworth, Albert, Alexander and the East: The Tragedy of Triumph, 2001; Daskalakis, A., Alexander the Great and Hellenism, 1966; Green, Peter, Alexander of Macedon, 1974; Hammond, N.G.L., Alexander the Great: King, Commander, and Statesman, 1981; Lane Fox, Robin, Alexander the Great, 1973.

Citation: MLA style

"Alexander the Great." World History: Ancient and Medieval Eras. 2008. ABC-CLIO. 6 Oct. 2008 <http://www.ancienthistory.abc-clio.com>.



ALEXANDER THE GREAT:  The Man and His Legacy

Alexander the Great is one of the great heroic figures of European history. The extent of his conquests, his brilliance, his association with Greek culture, and his early death all seem to suggest a larger-than-life figure. But who was the man behind the legend?

Youth and Early Career
Alexander's achievements were built solidly on the foundation laid by his father, Philip II of Macedon. After uniting Macedonia, Philip used a combination of military force and diplomacy to gain control over Greece, with the goal of ultimately leading a united Greece against the Persian Empire. However, just as he was preparing to lead a campaign into Asia Minor, he was assassinated in 336 BC.

At the time of Philip's death, Alexander was about 20 years old. He had been tutored by the Greek philosopher Aristotle, and at the age of 16, he had been left in charge in Macedonia and was responsible for a military victory. At the age of 18, he had commanded part of the army in the First Battle of Chaeronea.

Military Campaigns
On gaining the throne, Alexander first had to put down several uprisings, including a revolt in the Greek city of Thebes. When he arrived, the Thebans refused to surrender. Alexander leveled the city and sold all the survivors into slavery, but after that show of force, he was more moderate in his responses to the other cities that had supported Thebes.

Alexander spent the next several years conquering the territories of the Persian Empire. In 334, he crossed into Persian territory with an army of about 35,000 men. He met and defeated his first Persian army at the Battle of the Granicus and then liberated the Greek cities along the coast of Asia Minor. He then proceeded into central Asia Minor, where he supposedly cut through the Gordian knot, which according to tradition could be untied only by the person who would rule Asia. At the Battle of Issus, he defeated the Persian Army again in 333, moved south into Syria, and then besieged the city of Tyre for more than six months before taking it in 332.

From Tyre, Alexander advanced south into Egypt, which the Persian governor surrendered to him. He spent the winter reorganizing the Egyptian government and then moved back north through Syria and Mesopotamia. In 331, in the Battle of Gaugamela, Alexander decisively defeated the Persian Army, seized the Persian treasure at Susa, entered the ceremonial Persian capital of Persepolis, and burned the palace of Xerxes I in retaliation for Xerxes' conquest of Athens 150 years earlier.

In 330, Persian emperor Darius III was assassinated. From that point on, there was no barrier to Alexander's taking over the remaining territories of the Persian Empire. He continued east and fought his last major battle, the Battle of the Hydaspes, against the Indian ruler Porus in 326.

Alexander was eager to continue his explorations and conquest. However, before long, his army refused to go farther east, so Alexander set off down the Indus River and then west, back to the center of the empire. In 324, he was back in Susa, where he set to work reorganizing the government administration. On June 13, 323, he died in Babylon, apparently of illness; he was only about 33 years old.

Civil Administration and Government
Alexander's administrative strategies were a combination of appointing Greek and Macedonian administrators and attempting to rule through native officials, both in Persia and in Egypt. However, many of the native officials whom he appointed or kept in power later had to be replaced. Generally speaking, Alexander adapted existing administrative structures rather than imposing new ones, although he did establish a new coinage system.

In areas where Greek cities had been under Persian rule, Alexander often claimed to restore democracy by allowing some degree of self-government by the cities. In fact, Greek cities throughout the realm of Alexander often had some degree of self-rule through the Hellenistic period.

During Alexander's lifetime, the only common thread among the territories he controlled was his own personal power, which contributed to the breakup of his empire after his death.

Personal Characteristics
Alexander is widely praised for his military genius, his energy and courage, his flexibility in changing circumstances, and his generosity and devotion to his friends and to the people and causes he supported.

At the same time, contemporaries of Alexander also noted his faults. He was ruthless and capable of acting without mercy against both enemies in the field and those among his own followers who had lost his trust. Over time, he became more autocratic in his ideas of what a king should be—more like the absolutism practiced in Persia, as opposed to the egalitarian ideals of Greece. In about 324, Alexander apparently even demanded that he should be acclaimed as a god. Alexander also was highly religious (or perhaps superstitious); he consulted oracles and offered sacrifices in the cities through which he passed, and he seemed to identify himself with such Greek mythical heroes as Achilles and Heracles.

Later generations have tended to interpret Alexander's character in a romantic light, according to the ideals of their own culture and times. At the same time, it cannot be denied that his fame is well merited. His accomplishments were extraordinary, and he had an undeniable impact not only on his own time but also on the future course of history.


ID: 1185181

Citation: MLA style

"Alexander the Great." World History: Ancient and Medieval Eras. 2008. ABC-CLIO. 6 Oct. 2008 <http://www.ancienthistory.abc-clio.com>.