Alexander the Great

2007 Schools Wikipedia Selection. Related subjects: Military People

Alexander the Great
July, 356 BC– 11 June 323 BC

Alexander the Great fighting Persian king Darius III (not in frame)
( Alexander Mosaic from Pompeii, from a 3rd century BC original Greek painting, now lost)
Place of birth Pella, Macedon
Place of death Babylon (Most probable)
Wars of Alexander the Great
Chaeronea – Granicus – Issus – Tyre – Gaugamela – Hydaspes River

Alexander the Great ( Greek: Μέγας Ἀλέξανδρος, Megas Alexandros; July 356 BC– June 11, 323 BC), also known as Alexander III, king of Macedon ( 336– 323 BC), was one of the most successful military commanders in history. Before his death, he conquered most of the world known to the ancient Greeks; he is regarded as one of the greatest military strategists and tacticians who ever lived. Alexander is also known in the Zoroastrian Middle Persian work Arda Wiraz Nāmag as "the accursed Alexander" due to his conquest of the Persian Empire and the destruction of its capital Persepolis. He is known as Eskandar in Persian, Dhul-Qarnayn (The two-horned one) in Middle Eastern traditions, al-Iskandar al-Kabeer in Arabic, Sikandar-e-azam in Urdu, Skandar in Pashto, Alexander Mokdon in Hebrew, and Tre-Qarnayia in Aramaic (the two-horned one), apparently due to an image on coins minted during his rule that seemingly depicted him with the two ram's horns of the Egyptian god Ammon. He is known as Sikandar in Urdu and Hindi, a term also used as a synonym for "expert" or "extremely skilled".

Following the unification of the multiple city-states of ancient Greece under the rule of his father, Philip II of Macedon, (a labour Alexander had to repeat twice because the southern Greeks rebelled after Philip's death), Alexander would conquer the Persian Empire, including Anatolia, Syria, Phoenicia, Judea, Gaza, Egypt, Bactria and Mesopotamia and extend the boundaries of his own empire as far as the Punjab. Before his death, Alexander had already made plans to also turn west and conquer Europe. Also he wanted to continue his march eastwards, in order to find the end of the world, since his boyhood tutor Aristotle, told him tales about where the land ends and the Great Outer Sea begins. Alexander integrated foreigners (non-Macedonians, non-Greeks known as the Successors) into his army and administration, leading some scholars to credit him with a "policy of fusion." He encouraged marriage between his army and foreigners, and practiced it himself. After twelve years of constant military campaigning, Alexander died, possibly of malaria, typhoid, or viral encephalitis. His conquests ushered in centuries of Greek settlement and rule over distant areas, a period known as the Hellenistic Age, a combination of Greek and Middle Eastern culture. Alexander himself lived on in the history and myth of both Greek and non-Greek cultures. After his death (and even during his life) his exploits inspired a literary tradition in which he appears as a legendary hero in the tradition of Achilles.

Early life

Alexander the Great was the son of King Philip II of Macedon and of his fourth wife, Epirote princess Olympias. According to Plutarch (Alexander 3.1,3), Olympias was impregnated not by Philip, who was afraid of her and her affinity for sleeping in the company of snakes, but by Zeus Ammon. Plutarch relates that both Philip and Olympias dreamt of their son's future birth. Olympias dreamed of a loud burst of thunder and of lightning striking her womb. In Philip's dream, he sealed her womb with the seal of the lion. Alarmed by this, he consulted the seer Aristander of Telmessus, who determined that his wife was pregnant and that the child would have the character of a lion. Another odd coincidence is that the Temple of Artemis in Ephesus was set on fire the same night of his birth. Plutarch claimed the gods were too busy watching over Alexander to care for the temple.

Aristotle was Alexander's tutor and he gave Alexander a thorough training in rhetoric and literature and stimulated his interest in science, medicine, and philosophy. After his visit to the Oracle of Ammon at Siwa, according to five historians of antiquity ( Arrian, Curtius, Diodorus, Justin, and Plutarch), rumors spread that the Oracle had revealed Alexander's father to be Zeus, rather than Philip. According to Plutarch, his father descended from Heracles through Caranus and his mother descended from Aeacus through Neoptolemus and Achilles. Aristotle gave him a copy of the Iliad which he always kept with him and read frequently.

As Alexander was walking with his father one day, they came across a few men attempting to tame and mount a wild, black horse. Alexander immediately took a liking for the horse, and begged his father if he would buy it for him. Philip laughed and told him if he could mount the horse, he would. Alexander watched the horse's behaviour, and soon realized that it was merely afraid of its own shadow. He walked over to the horse and faced it towards the sun to hide its shadow, and immediately was able to mount it. His father bought the horse, and he named it Bucephalus (which means "ox-head"), whom would be his loyal steed for the next two decades until it would die in battle.

Ascent of Macedon

Sardonyx cameo representing Alexander the Great. Thought to be by Pyrgoteles, engraver of Alexander, around 325 BC. Cabinet des Médailles, Paris.
Sardonyx cameo representing Alexander the Great. Thought to be by Pyrgoteles, engraver of Alexander, around 325 BC. Cabinet des Médailles, Paris.

When Philip led an attack on Byzantium in 340 BC, Alexander, aged 16, was left as regent of Macedonia. In 339 BC, Philip took a fifth wife, the Macedonian Cleopatra. As Alexander's mother, Olympias, was from Epirus (a land in the western part of the Greek peninsula and not part of Macedon), and Cleopatra was a true Macedonian, this led to a dispute over Alexander's legitimacy as heir to the throne. Attalus, the uncle of the bride, supposedly gave a toast during the wedding feast giving his wish for the wedding to result in a legitimate heir to the throne of Macedon; Alexander hurled his goblet at Attalus shouting "What am I, a bastard then?" Alexander's father apparently had drawn his sword and moved towards Alexander, but then had fallen in a drunken stupor. Alexander remarked "Here is the man planning on conquering from Greece to Asia, and he cannot even move from one table to another." Alexander, his mother, and sister (also named Cleopatra) then left Macedon in anger.

Eventually Philip reconciled with his son, and Alexander returned home; Olympias and Alexander's sister remained in Epirus. In 338 BC Alexander assisted his father at the decisive Battle of Chaeronea against the Greek city-states of Athens and Thebes, in which the cavalry wing led by Alexander annihilated the Sacred Band of Thebes, an elite corps regarded as invincible. After the battle, Phillip led a wild celebration, from which Alexander was notably absent (it is believed he was treating the wounded and burying the dead, both of his own troops and of the enemy). Philip was content to deprive Thebes of its dominion over Boeotia and leave a Macedonian garrison in the citadel. A few months later, to strengthen Macedon's control over the Greek city-states, the League of Corinth was formed.

In 336 BC, Philip was assassinated at the wedding of his daughter Cleopatra of Macedonia to King Alexander of Epirus. The assassin was supposedly a former lover of the king, the disgruntled young nobleman Pausanias of Orestis, who held a grudge against Philip because the king had ignored a complaint he had expressed. Philip's murder was once thought to have been planned with the knowledge and involvement of Alexander or Olympias. Another possible instigator could have been Darius III, the recently crowned King of Persia. After Philip's death, the army proclaimed Alexander, then aged 20, as the new king of Macedon. Greek cities like Athens and Thebes, which had been forced to pledge allegiance to Philip, saw in the new king an opportunity to retake their full independence. Alexander moved swiftly and Thebes, which had been most active against him, submitted when he appeared at its gates. The assembled Greeks at the Isthmus of Corinth, with the exception of the Spartans, elected him to the command against Persia, which had previously been bestowed upon his father.

The next year, ( 335 BC), Alexander felt free to engage the Thracians and the Illyrians in order to secure the Danube as the northern boundary of the Macedonian kingdom. While he was triumphantly campaigning north, the Thebans and Athenians rebelled once again. Alexander reacted immediately and while the other cities once again hesitated, Thebes decided this time to resist with the utmost vigor. The resistance was useless; in the end, the city was conquered with great bloodshed. The Thebans encountered an even harsher fate when their city was razed to the ground and its territory divided between the other Boeotian cities. Moreover, all of the city's citizens were sold into slavery; Alexander spared only the priests, the leaders of the pro-Macedonian party, and the descendants of Pindar, whose house was the only one left standing. The end of Thebes cowed Athens into submission and it readily accepted Alexander's demand for the exile of all the leaders of the anti-Macedonian party, Demosthenes first of all.

Period of conquests

Map of Alexander's empire.
Map of Alexander's empire.

Fall of the Persian Empire

Alexander's army had crossed the Hellespont with about 42,000 soldiers—primarily Macedonians and Greeks, more southern city-states of Greece, but also including some Thracians, Paionians and Illyrians. After an initial victory against Persian forces at the Battle of Granicus, Alexander accepted the surrender of the Persian provincial capital and treasury of Sardis and proceeded down the Ionian coast. At Halicarnassus, Alexander successfully waged the first of many sieges, eventually forcing his opponents, the mercenary captain Memnon of Rhodes and the Persian satrap of Caria, Orontobates, to withdraw by sea. Alexander left Caria in the hands of Ada, who was ruler of Caria before being deposed by her brother Pixodarus. From Halicarnassus, Alexander proceeded into mountainous Lycia and the Pamphylian plain, asserting control over all coastal cities and denying them to his enemy. From Pamphylia onward, the coast held no major ports and so Alexander moved inland. At Termessus, Alexander humbled but did not storm the Pisidian city. At the ancient Phrygian capital of Gordium, Alexander "undid" the tangled Gordian Knot, a feat said to await the future "king of Asia." According to the most vivid story, Alexander proclaimed that it did not matter how the knot was undone, and he hacked it apart with his sword. Another version claims that he did not use the sword, but actually figured out how to undo the knot.

Alexander Mosaic, showing Battle of Issus, from the House of the Faun, Pompei
Alexander Mosaic, showing Battle of Issus, from the House of the Faun, Pompei

Alexander's army crossed the Cilician Gates, met and defeated the main Persian army under the command of Darius III at the Battle of Issus in 333 BC. Darius fled this battle in such a panic for his life that he left behind his wife, his two daughters, his mother Sisygambis, and much of his personal treasure. Proceeding down the Mediterranean coast, he took Tyre and Gaza after famous sieges (see Siege of Tyre). Alexander passed through Judea near Jerusalem but probably did not visit the city.

In 332 BC–331 BC, Alexander was welcomed as a liberator in Egypt and was pronounced the son of Zeus by Egyptian priests of the god Ammon at the Oracle of the god at the Siwa Oasis in the Libyan desert. Henceforth, Alexander referred to the god Zeus-Ammon as his true father, and subsequent currency featuring his head with ram horns was proof of this widespread belief. He founded Alexandria in Egypt, which would become the prosperous capital of the Ptolemaic dynasty after his death. Leaving Egypt, Alexander marched eastward into Assyria (now northern Iraq) and defeated Darius and a third Persian army at the Battle of Gaugamela. Darius was forced to flee the field after his charioteer was killed, and Alexander chased him as far as Arbela. While Darius fled over the mountains to Ecbatana (modern Hamadan), Alexander marched to Babylon.

Statuette of a Greek soldier, from a 4th–3rd century BC burial site north of the Tian Shan, at the maximum extent of Alexander's advance in the East (Ürümqi, Xinjiang Museum, China) (drawing).
Statuette of a Greek soldier, from a 4th–3rd century BC burial site north of the Tian Shan, at the maximum extent of Alexander's advance in the East ( Ürümqi, Xinjiang Museum, China) (drawing).

From Babylon, Alexander went to Susa, one of the Achaemenid capitals, and captured its treasury. Sending the bulk of his army to Persepolis, the Persian capital, by the Royal Road, Alexander stormed and captured the Persian Gates (in the modern Zagros Mountains), then sprinted for Persepolis before its treasury could be looted. After several months Alexander allowed the troops to loot Persepolis. A fire broke out in the eastern palace of Xerxes and spread to the rest of the city. It was not known if it was a drunken accident or a deliberate act of revenge for the burning of the Athenian Acropolis during the Second Persian War. The Book of Arda Wiraz, a Zoroastrian work composed in the 3rd or 4th century AD, also speaks of archives containing "all the Avesta and Zand, written upon prepared cow-skins, and with gold ink" that were destroyed; but it must be said that this statement is often treated by scholars with a certain measure of skepticism, because it is generally thought that for many centuries the Avesta was transmitted mainly orally by the Magians.

He then set off in pursuit of Darius, who was kidnapped, and then murdered by followers of Bessus, his Bactrian satrap and kinsman. Bessus then declared himself Darius' successor as Artaxerxes V and retreated into Central Asia to launch a guerrilla campaign against Alexander. With the death of Darius, Alexander declared the war of vengeance over, and released his Greek and other allies from service in the League campaign (although he allowed those that wished to re-enlist as mercenaries in his imperial army).

His three-year campaign against first Bessus and then the satrap of Sogdiana, Spitamenes, took him through Media, Parthia, Aria, Drangiana, Arachosia, Bactria, and Scythia. In the process, he captured and refounded Herat and Maracanda. Moreover, he founded a series of new cities, all called Alexandria, including modern Kandahar in Afghanistan, and Alexandria Eschate ("The Furthest") in modern Tajikistan. In the end, both were betrayed by their men, Bessus in 329 BC and Spitamenes the year after.

Hostility toward Alexander

During this time, Alexander adopted some elements of Persian dress and customs at his court, notably the custom of proskynesis, a symbolic kissing of the hand that Persians paid to their social superiors, but a practice of which the Greeks disapproved. The Greeks regarded the gesture as the preserve of deities and believed that Alexander meant to deify himself by requiring it. This cost him much in the sympathies of many of his countrymen. Here, too, a plot against his life was revealed, and one of his officers, Philotas, was executed for treason for failing to bring the plot to his attention. Parmenion, Philotas' father, who had been charged with guarding the treasury at Ecbatana, was assassinated by command of Alexander, who feared that Parmenion might attempt to avenge his son. Several other trials for treason followed, and many Macedonians were executed. Later on, in a drunken quarrel at Maracanda, he also killed the man who had saved his life at Granicus, Clitus the Black. Later in the Central Asian campaign, a second plot against his life, this one by his own pages, was revealed, and his official historian, Callisthenes of Olynthus (who had fallen out of favour with the king by leading the opposition to his attempt to introduce proskynesis), was implicated on what many historians regard as trumped-up charges. However, the evidence is strong that Callisthenes, the teacher of the pages, must have been the one who persuaded them to assassinate the king.

Invasion of India

After the death of Spitamenes and his marriage to Roxana (Roshanak in Bactrian) to cement his relations with his new Central Asian satrapies, in 326 BC Alexander was finally free to turn his attention to India. Alexander invited all the chieftains of the former satrapy of Gandhara, in the north of present-day Pakistan, to come to him and submit to his authority. Ambhi, ruler of Taxila, whose kingdom extended from the Indus to the Hydaspes ( Jhelum), complied. But the chieftains of some hilly clans including the Aspasios and Assakenois sections of the Kambojas (classical names), known in Indian texts as Ashvayanas and Ashvakayanas (names referring to their equestrian nature), refused to submit.

Alexander personally took command of the shield-bearing guards, foot-companions, archers, Agrianians and horse-javelin-men and led them against the Kamboja clans—the Aspasios of Kunar/ Alishang valleys, the Guraeans of the Guraeus ( Panjkora) valley, and the Assakenois of the Swat and Buner valleys. Writes one modern historian: "They were brave people and it was hard work for Alexander to take their strongholds, of which Massaga and Aornus need special mention." A fierce contest ensued with the Aspasios in which Alexander himself was wounded in the shoulder by a dart but eventually the Aspasios lost the fight; 40,000 of them were enslaved. The Assakenois faced Alexander with an army of 30,000 cavalry, 38,000 infantry and 30 elephants. They had fought bravely and offered stubborn resistance to the invader in many of their strongholds like cities of Ora, Bazira and Massaga. The fort of Massaga could only be reduced after several days of bloody fighting in which Alexander himself was wounded seriously in the ankle. When the Chieftain of Massaga fell in the battle, the supreme command of the army went to his old mother Cleophis (q.v.) who also stood determined to defend her motherland to the last extremity. The example of Cleophis assuming the supreme command of the military also brought the entire women of the locality into the fighting. Alexander could only reduce Massaga by resorting to political strategem and actions of betrayal. According to Curtius: "Not only did Alexander slaughter the entire population of Massaga, but also did he reduce its buildings to rubbles." A similar manslaughter then followed at Ora, another stronghold of the Assakenois.

In the aftermath of general slaughter and arson committed by Alexander at Massaga and Ora, numerous Assakenian people fled to a high fortress called Aornos. Alexander followed them close behind their heels and captured the strategic hill-fort but only after the fourth day of a bloody fight. The story of Massaga was repeated at Aornos and a similar carnage on the tribal-people followed here too.

Writing on Alexander's campaign against the Assakenois, Victor Hanson comments: "After promising the surrounded Assacenis their lives upon capitulation, he executed all their soldiers who had surrendered. Their strongholds at Ora and Aornus were also similarly stormed. Garrisons were probably all slaughtered.”

Sisikottos, who had helped Alexander in this campaign, was made the governor of Aornos.

After reducing Aornos, Alexander crossed the Indus and fought and won an epic battle against Porus, a ruler of a region in the Punjab in the Battle of Hydaspes in 326 BC.

After the victory, Alexander was greatly impressed by Porus for his bravery in battle, and therefore made an alliance with him and appointed him as satrap of his own kingdom, even adding some land he did not own before. Alexander then named one of the two new cities that he founded, Bucephala, in honour of the horse who had brought him to India, who had died during the Battle of Hydaspes. Alexander continued on to conquer all the headwaters of the Indus River.

East of Porus' kingdom, near the Ganges River, was the powerful empire of Magadha ruled by the Nanda dynasty. Fearing the prospects of facing another powerful Indian army and exhausted by years of campaigning, his army mutinied at the Hyphasis River (the modern Beas River), refusing to march further east. This river thus marks the eastern-most extent of Alexander's conquests:

"As for the Macedonians, however, their struggle with Porus blunted their courage and stayed their further advance into India. For having had all they could do to repulse an enemy who mustered only twenty thousand infantry and two thousand horse, they violently opposed Alexander when he insisted on crossing the river Ganges also, the width of which, as they learned, was thirty-two furlongs, its depth a hundred fathoms, while its banks on the further side were covered with multitudes of men-at-arms and horsemen and elephants. For they were told that the kings of the Ganderites and Praesii were awaiting them with eighty thousand horsemen, two hundred thousand footmen, eight thousand chariots, and six thousand fighting elephants." Plutarch, Vita Alexandri, 62

Alexander, after the meeting with his officer Coenus, was convinced that it was better to return. Alexander was forced to turn south. He sent much of his army to Carmania (modern southern Iran) with his general Craterus, and commissioned a fleet to explore the Persian Gulf shore under his admiral Nearchus, while he led the rest of his forces back to Persia by the southern route through the Gedrosian Desert (now part of southern Iran and Makran in southern Pakistan).

Alexander left forces in India however. In the territory of the Indus, he nominated his officer Peithon as a satrap, a position he would hold for the next ten years until 316 BC, and in the Punjab he left Eudemus in charge of the army, at the side of the satrap Porus and Taxiles. Eudemus became ruler of the Punjab after their death. Both rulers returned to the West in 316 BC with their armies, and Chandragupta Maurya established the Maurya Empire in India.

After India

Alexander and Porus by Charles Le Brun, 1673.
Alexander and Porus by Charles Le Brun, 1673.

Discovering that many of his satraps and military governors had misbehaved in his absence, Alexander executed a number of them as examples on his way to Susa. As a gesture of thanks, he paid off the debts of his soldiers, and announced that he would send those over-aged and disabled veterans back to Macedonia under Craterus, but his troops misunderstood his intention and mutinied at the town of Opis, refusing to be sent away and bitterly criticizing his adoption of Persian customs and dress and the introduction of Persian officers and soldiers into Macedonian units. Alexander executed the ringleaders of the mutiny, but forgave the rank and file. In an attempt to craft a lasting harmony between his Macedonian and Persian subjects, he held a mass marriage of his senior officers to Persian and other noblewomen at Susa, but few of those marriages seem to have lasted much beyond a year.

His attempts to merge Persian culture with his Greek soldiers also included training a regiment of Persian boys in the ways of Macedonians. Most historians believe that Alexander adopted the Persian royal title of shahanshah ("great king" or "king of kings").

It is claimed that Alexander wanted to overrun or integrate the Arabian peninsula, but this theory is widely disputed. It was assumed that Alexander would turn westwards and attack Carthage and Italy, had he conquered Arabia.

After traveling to Ecbatana to retrieve the bulk of the Persian treasure, his closest friend and possibly lover Hephaestion died of an illness, or possibly of poisoning.


On the afternoon of June 10–11, 323 BC, Alexander died of a mysterious illness in the palace of Nebuchadrezzar II of Babylon. He was just one month shy of attaining 33 years of age. Various theories have been proposed for the cause of his death which include poisoning by the sons of Antipater or others, sickness that followed a drinking party, or a relapse of the malaria he had contracted in 336 BC. It is known that on May 29, Alexander participated in a banquet organized by his friend Medius of Larissa. After some heavy drinking, immediately before or after a bath, he was forced into bed due to severe illness. The rumors of his illness circulated with the troops causing them to be more and more anxious. On June 9, the generals decided to let the soldiers see their king alive one last time. They were admitted to his presence one at a time. While the king was too ill to speak, confined himself to move his hand. The day after, Alexander was dead. The poisoning theory derives from the story held in antiquity by Justin and Curtius. The original story stated that Cassander, son of Antipater, viceroy of Greece, brought the poison to Alexander in Babylon in a mule's hoof, and that Alexander's royal cupbearer, Iollas, brother of Cassander, administered it. Many had powerful motivations for seeing Alexander gone, and were none the worse for it after his death. Deadly agents that could have killed Alexander in one or more doses include hellebore and strychnine. In R. Lane Fox's opinion, the strongest argument against the poison theory is the fact that twelve days had passed between the start of his illness and his death and in the ancient world, such long-acting poisons were probably not available.

However, the warrior culture of Macedon favoured the sword over strychnine, and many ancient historians, like Plutarch and Arrian, maintained that Alexander was not poisoned, but died of natural causes. Instead, it is likely that Alexander died of malaria or typhoid fever, which were rampant in ancient Babylon. Other illnesses could have also been the culprit, including acute pancreatitis or the West Nile virus. Recently, theories have been advanced stating that Alexander may have died from the treatment not the disease. Hellebore, believed to have been widely used as a medicine at the time but deadly in large doses, may have been overused by the impatient king to speed his recovery, with deadly results. Disease-related theories often cite the fact that Alexander's health had fallen to dangerously low levels after years of heavy drinking and suffering several appalling wounds (including one in India that nearly claimed his life), and that it was only a matter of time before one sickness or another finally killed him.

No story is conclusive. Alexander's death has been reinterpreted many times over the centuries, and each generation offers a new take on it. What is certain is that Alexander died of a high fever on June 10 or 11 of 323 BC.

On his death bed, his marshals asked him to whom he bequeathed his kingdom. Since Alexander had no heir (his son Alexander IV would be born after his death), it was a question of vital importance. There is some debate to what Alexander replied. Some believe that Alexander said, "To the strongest!" It should be taken into note however that he might have said, "To Craterus". This is possible because the Greek pronunciation of "the strongest" and "Craterus" is different only by accent. The phrase and name are in fact, separated by only one letter in the ancient Greek language. Most scholars believe that if Alexander did intend to choose one of his generals, his obvious choice would have been Craterus because he was the commander of the largest part of the army (infantry), because he had proven himself to be an excellent strategist, and because he displayed traits of the "ideal" Macedonian. Regardless of his reply, Craterus was eventually assassinated before he could organize a coup with the infantry and Alexander's empire was split into four kingdoms.

A diary from the year 323-322 BC that records the death of Alexander. Located at the British Museum, London
A diary from the year 323-322 BC that records the death of Alexander. Located at the British Museum, London

Alexander's death has been surrounded by as much controversy as many of the events of his life. Before long, accusations of foul play were being thrown about by his generals at one another, making it incredibly hard for a modern historian to sort out the propaganda and the half-truths from the actual events. No contemporary source can be fully trusted because of the incredible level of self-serving recording, and as a result what truly happened to Alexander the Great may never be known.

Alexander's body was placed in a gold anthropid sarcophagus, which was in turn placed in a second gold casket and covered with a purple robe. Alexander's coffin was placed, together with his armour, in a gold carriage which had a vaulted roof supported by an Ionic peristyle. The decoration of the carriage was very rich and is described in great detail by Diodoros.

According to legend, Alexander was preserved in a clay vessel full of honey (which acts as a preservative) and interred in a glass coffin. According to Aelian (Varia Historia 12.64), Ptolemy stole the body and brought it to Alexandria, where it was on display until Late Antiquity. It was here that Ptolemy IX, one of the last successors of Ptolemy I, replaced Alexander's sarcophagus with a glass one, and melted the original down in order to strike emergency gold issues of his coinage. The citizens of Alexandria were outraged at this and soon after Ptolemy IX was killed. Its current whereabouts are unknown.

The so-called "Alexander Sarcophagus," discovered near Sidon and now in the Istanbul Archaeological Museum, is now generally thought to be that of Abdylonymus, whom Hephaestion appointed as the king of Sidon by Alexander's order. The sarcophagus depicts Alexander and his companions hunting and in battle with the Persians.

Alexander's testament

Some classical authors, such as Diodorus, relate that Alexander had given detailed written instructions to Craterus some time before his death. Although Craterus had already started to implement Alexander's orders, such as the building of a fleet in Cilicia for expedition against Carthage, Alexander's successors chose not to further implement them, on the ground they were impractical and dispendious.

The testament, described in Diodorus XVIII, called for military expansion into the Southern and Western Mediterranean, monumental constructions, and the intermixing of Eastern and Western populations. Its most remarkable items were:

  • The completion of a pyre to Hephaestion
  • The building of "a thousand warships, larger than triremes, in Phoenicia, Syria, Cilicia, and Cyprus for the campaign against the Carthaginians and the other who live along the coast of Libya and Iberia and the adjoining coastal regions as far as Sicily"
  • The building of a road in northern Africa as far as the Pillars of Heracles, with ports and shipyards along it.
  • The erection of great temples in Delos, Delphi, Dodona, Dium, Amphipolis, Cyrnus and Ilium.
  • The construction of a monumental tomb for his father Philip, "to match the greatest of the pyramids of Egypt"
  • The establishment of cities and the "transplant of populations from Asia to Europe and in the opposite direction from Europe to Asia, in order to bring the largest continent to common unity and to friendship by means of intermarriage and family ties." ( Diodorus Siculus, Bibliotheca historia, XVIII)

Personal life

Ancient historians have written extensively on Alexander's love affairs and sexual appetites. Diodorus Siculus writes, "Then he put on the Persian diadem and dressed himself in the white robe and the Persian sash and everything else except the trousers and the long-sleeved upper garment. He distributed to his companions cloaks with purple borders and dressed the horses in Persian harness. In addition to all this, he added concubines to his retinue in the manner of Dareius, in number not less than the days of the year and outstanding in beauty as selected from all the women of Asia. Each night these paraded about the couch of the king so that he might select the one with whom he would lie that night. Alexander, as a matter of fact, employed these customs rather sparingly and kept for the most part to his accustomed routine, not wishing to offend the Macedonians "

A number of ancient sources have reported on Alexander's attachments to both males and females. While the object of his affection may have varied, he was admired for treating all his lovers humanely. Plutarch has argued that Alexander's love of males took an ethical approach, inspired by the teachings of his mentor, Aristotle. He gives several examples of Alexander's morality in this domain:

When Philoxenus, the leader of the seashore, wrote to Alexander that there was a youth in Ionia whose beauty has yet to be seen and asked him in a letter if he (Alexander) would like him (the boy) to be sent over, he (Alexander) responded in a strict and disgusted manner: "You are the most hideous and malign of all men, have you ever seen me involved in such dirty work that you found the urge to flatter me with such hedonistic business?"

Plutarch also wrote:

When Philoxenus, the commander of his forces on the sea-board, wrote that there was with him a certain Theodorus of Tarentum, who had two youths of surpassing beauty to sell, and enquired whether Alexander would buy them, Alexander was incensed, and cried out many times to his friends, asking them what shameful thing Philoxenus had ever seen in him that he should spend his time in making such disgraceful proposals.

His moral approach towards sexual relations also extended to relations with prisoners of war: "But as for the other captive women, seeing that they were surpassingly stately and beautiful, he merely said jestingly that Persian women were torments to the eyes. And displaying in rivalry with their fair looks the beauty of his own sobriety and self-control, he passed them by as though they were lifeless images for display."

The above quotations would be in line with the thoughts laid about before him by Aristotle, who regarded relationships based purely on carnal relations to be shameful.

Many have discussed Alexander's sexual leanings. Curtius reports, "He scorned sensual pleasures to such an extent that his mother was anxious lest he be unable to beget offspring." To encourage a relationship with a woman, King Philip and Olympias brought in a high-priced Thessalian courtesan named Callixena.

Later in life, Alexander married several princesses of former Persian territories, Roxana of Bactria, Statira, daughter of Darius III, and Parysatis, daughter of Ochus. He fathered two children, ( Heracles), born by his concubine Barsine (the daughter of satrap Artabazus of Phrygia) in 327 BC, and Alexander IV of Macedon, born by Roxana shortly after his death in 323 BC.


Alexander's greatest emotional attachment is generally considered to have been to his companion, cavalry commander (chiliarchos) and childhood friend, Hephaestion. He studied with Alexander, as did a handful of other children of Macedonian aristocracy, under the tutelage of Aristotle. Hephaestion makes his appearance in history at the point when Alexander reaches Troy. There the two friends made sacrifices at the shrines of the two heroes Achilles and Patroclus; Alexander honoring Achilles, and Hephaestion honoring Patroclus. Aelian in his Varia Historia (12.7) claims that Hephaestion "thus intimated that he was the eromenos ["beloved"] of Alexander, as Patroclus was of Achilles."

No contemporary source states that Alexander and Hephaistion were lovers. However, the historian Paul Cartledge has written: "Whether Alexander's relationship with the slightly older Hephaestion was ever of the sort that once dared not speak its name is not certain, but it is likely enough that it was. At any rate, Macedonian and Greek mores would have favoured an actively sexual component rather than inhibiting or censoring it." Robin Lane Fox says that "In youth, his great friend was Hephaestion, and surely the sexual element (frequent between young males, or an older and younger male, in Greek city-states) developed already then." Alexander and Hephaestion remained, in Fox's words, "exceptionally deep and close friends" until Hephaestion's untimely death, after which Alexander mourned him greatly, and did not eat for days.


Campaspe, also known as Pancaste, mistress of Alexander and possibly the first woman Alexander had a sexual relationship with. She was thought to be a prominent citizen of Larisa in Thessaly; Aelian surmised that she initiated the young Alexander in love.

Campaspe was painted by Apelles, who enjoyed the reputation in Antiquity for being the greatest of painters. The episode occasioned an apocryphal exchange that was reported in Pliny's Naturalis Historia (35.79-97): seeing the beauty of the nude portrait, Alexander saw that the artist appreciated Campaspe (and loved her) more than he. And so Alexander kept the portrait but presented Campaspe to Apelles. Modern historian Robin Lane Fox says "so Alexander gave him Campaspe as a present, the most generous gift of any patron and one which would remain a model for patronage and painters on through the Renaissance".

Campaspe does not appear in the five major sources we have for the life of Alexander. Robin Lane Fox again, traces her legend back to the Roman authors Pliny the Elder, Lucian of Samosata and Aelian's Varia Historia.

Campaspe became a generic poetical pseudonym for a man's mistress.


Barsine was a noble Persian, daughter of Artabazus, and wife of Memnon. After Memnon's death, several ancient historians have written of a love affair between her and Alexander. Plutarch writes, "At any rate Alexander, so it seems, thought it more worthy of a king to subdue his own passions than to conquer his enemies, and so he never came near these women, nor did he associate with any other before his marriage, with the exception only of Barsine. This woman, the widow of Memnon, the Greek mercenary commander, was captured at Damascus. She had received a Greek education, was of a gentle disposition, and could claim royal descent, since her father was Artabazus who had married one of the Persian kings daughters. These qualities made Alexander the more willing he was encouraged by Parmenio, so Aristobulus tells us to form an attachment to a woman of such beauty and noble lineage." In addition Justin writes, "As he afterwards contemplated the wealth and display of Darius, he was seized with admiration of such magnificence. Hence it was that he first began to indulge in luxurious and splendid banquets, and fell in love with his captive Barsine for her beauty, by whom he had afterwards a son that he called Hercules." Plutarch writes that his relationship with Barsine produced a son named Heracles.


Ancient historians, as well as modern ones, have also written on Alexander's marriage to Roxana. Robin Lane Fox writes, "Roxane, was said by contemporaries to be the most beautiful lady in all Asia. She deserved her Iranian name of Roshanak meaning 'little star.' Marriage to a local noble's family made sound political sense. But contemporaries implied that Alexander, aged twenty-eight, also lost his heart. A wedding-feast for the two of them was arranged high on one of the Sogdian rocks. Alexander and his bride shared a loaf of bread, a custom still observed in Turkestan. Characteristically, Alexander sliced it with his sword." Ulrich Wilcken writes, "The fairest prize that fell to him was Roxane, the daughter of Oxyartes, in the first bloom of youth, and in the judgment of Alexander’s companions, next to Stateira the wife of Darius, the most beautiful woman that they had seen in Asia. Alexander fell passionately in love with her and determined to raise her to the position of his consort."

Roxana accompanied Alexander all the way to India, and bore him a child also named Alexander, six months after Alexander the Great died.


Some ancient sources suggest that Alexander had possibly another favorite, Bagoas; a eunuch (a castrated youth) exceptional in beauty and in the very flower of boyhood, with whom Darius was intimate and with whom Alexander would later be intimate." Plutarch recounts an episode (also mentioned by Dicaearchus) during some festivities on the way back from India) in which his men clamor for him to kiss the young man: "Bagoas...sat down close to him, which so pleased the Macedonians, that they made loud acclamations for him to kiss Bagoas, and never stopped clapping their hands and shouting till Alexander put his arms round him and kissed him."

The modern historian Robin Lane Fox, says that both direct and indirect evidence suggest a "sexual element, this time of pure physical desire" between the two, but as for the consummation of that passion he comments that "[l]ater gossip presumed that Bagoas was Alexander’s lover. This is uncertain." Mary Renault, author of The Persian Boy, a novel about the love between Alexander and Bagoas, claims that "No historian states plainly whether they were physical lovers." Whatever Alexander's relationship with Bagoas, it was no impediment to relations with his queen: six months after Alexander's death Roxana gave birth to his son and heir, Alexander IV.

Historical accounts describing Alexander's love for Hephaestion and Bagoas as sexual have been contested on the grounds that they were written centuries afterwards. On the other hand, as will be seen below, a great amount of our detailed information regarding Alexander comes from much later sources. It should be noted that the concept of homosexuality as understood today did not exist in Greco-Roman antiquity. If Alexander's love life was transgressive, it was not for his love of beautiful youths but for his persistent love of a man his own age.

Legacy and division of the empire

Coin of Alexander bearing an Aramaic language inscription.
Coin of Alexander bearing an Aramaic language inscription.

After Alexander's death, in 323 BC, the rule of his Empire was given to Alexander's half-brother Philip Arridaeus and Alexander's son Alexander IV. However, since Philip was mentally ill and the son of Alexander still a baby, two regents were named in Perdiccas (who had received Alexander's ring at this death) and Craterus (who may have been the one mentioned as successor by Alexander), although Perdiccas quickly managed to take sole power.

Perdiccas soon eliminated several of his opponents, killing about 30 (Diodorus Siculus), and at the Partition of Babylon named former generals of Alexander as satraps of the various regions of his Empire. In 321 BC Perdiccas was assassinated by his own troops during his conflict with Ptolemy, leading to the Partition of Triparadisus, in which Antipater was named as the new regent, and the satrapies again shared between the various generals. From that time, Alexander's officers were focused on the explicit formation of rival monarchies and territorial states.

Ultimately, the conflict was settled after the Battle of Ipsus in Phrygia in 301 BC. Alexander's empire was divided at first into four major portions: Cassander ruled in Macedon, Lysimachus in Thrace, Seleucus in Mesopotamia and Iran, and Ptolemy I Soter in the Levant and Egypt. Antigonus ruled for a while in Anatolia and Syria but was eventually defeated by the other generals at Ipsus (301 BC). Control over Indian territory passed to Chandragupta Maurya, the first Maurya emperor, who further expanded his dominions after a settlement with Seleucus.

By 270 BC, Hellenistic states were consolidated, with:

  • The Antigonid Empire centered on Macedon.
  • The Seleucid Empire in Asia
  • The Ptolemaic kingdom in Egypt, Palestine and Cyrenaica

By the 1st century BC though, most of the Hellenistic territories in the West had been absorbed by the Roman Republic. In the East, they had been dramatically reduced by the expansion of the Parthian Empire and the secession of the Greco-Bactrian kingdom.

Alexander's conquests also had long term cultural effects, with the flourishing of Hellenistic civilization throughout the Middle East and Central Asia, and the development of Greco-Buddhist art in the Indian subcontinent.

Influence on Ancient Rome

A mural in Pompeii, depicting the marriage of Alexander to Barsine (Stateira) in 324 BC. The couple are apparently dressed as Ares and Aphrodite.
A mural in Pompeii, depicting the marriage of Alexander to Barsine (Stateira) in 324 BC. The couple are apparently dressed as Ares and Aphrodite.

Alexander and his exploits were admired by many Romans who wanted to associate themselves with his achievements, although very little is known about Roman-Macedonian diplomatic relations of that time. Julius Caesar wept in Spain at the mere sight of Alexander's statue and Pompey the Great rummaged through the closets of conquered nations for Alexander's 260-year-old cloak, which the Roman general then wore as the costume of greatness. However, in his zeal to honour Alexander, Augustus accidentally broke the nose off the Macedonian's mummified corpse while laying a wreath at the hero's shrine in Alexandria, Egypt. The unbalanced emperor Caligula later took the dead king's armor from that tomb and donned it for luck. The Macriani, a Roman family that rose to the imperial throne in the 3rd century A.D., always kept images of Alexander on their persons, either stamped into their bracelets and rings or stitched into their garments. Even their dinnerware bore Alexander's face, with the story of the king's life displayed around the rims of special bowls.

In the summer of 1995, during the archaeological work of the season centered on excavating the remains of domestic architecture of early-Roman date, a statue of Alexander was recovered from the structure, which was richly decorated with mosaic and marble pavements and probably was constructed in the 1st century AD and occupied until the 3rd century.

General timeline

  • Trace Alexander's conquests on an animated map

Alexander's character

Equestrian statue of Alexander the Great, on the waterfront at Thessaloniki, capital of Greek Macedonia.
Equestrian statue of Alexander the Great, on the waterfront at Thessaloniki, capital of Greek Macedonia.

Modern opinion on Alexander has run the gamut from the idea that he believed he was on a divinely-inspired mission to unite the human race, to the view that he was a megalomaniac bent on world domination. Such views tend to be anachronistic, however, and the sources allow for a variety of interpretations. Much about Alexander's personality and aims remains enigmatic.

Alexander is remembered as a legendary hero in Europe and much of both Southwest Asia and Central Asia, where he is known as Iskander or Iskandar Zulkarnain. To Zoroastrians, on the other hand, he is remembered as the destroyer of their first great empire and as the destroyer of Persepolis. Ancient sources are generally written with an agenda of either glorifying or denigrating the man, making it difficult to evaluate his actual character. Most refer to a growing instability and megalomania in the years following Gaugamela, but it has been suggested that this simply reflects the Greek stereotype of an orientalizing king. The murder of his friend Clitus, which Alexander deeply and immediately regretted, is often cited as a sign of his paranoia, as is his execution of Philotas and his general Parmenion for failure to pass along details of a plot against him. However, this may have been more prudence than paranoia.

Modern Alexandrists continue to debate these same issues, among others, in modern times. One unresolved topic involves whether Alexander was actually attempting to better the world by his conquests, or whether his purpose was primarily to rule the world.

Partially in response to the ubiquity of positive portrayals of Alexander, an alternate character is sometimes presented which emphasizes some of Alexander's negative aspects. Some proponents of this view cite the destructions of Thebes, Tyre, Persepolis, and Gaza as examples of atrocities, and argue that Alexander preferred to fight rather than negotiate. It is further claimed, in response to the view that Alexander was generally tolerant of the cultures of those whom he conquered, that his attempts at cultural fusion were severely practical and that he never actually admired Persian art or culture. To this way of thinking, Alexander was, first and foremost, a general rather than a statesman.

Alexander's character also suffers from the interpretation of historians who themselves are subject to the bias and idealisms of their own time. Good examples are W. W. Tarn, who wrote during the late 19th century and early 20th century, and who saw Alexander in an extremely good light, and Peter Green, who wrote after World War II and for whom Alexander did little that was not inherently selfish or ambition-driven. Tarn wrote in an age where world conquest and warrior-heroes were acceptable, even encouraged, whereas Green wrote with the backdrop of the Holocaust and nuclear weapons.

Alexander's legend

Alexander was a legend in his own time. His court historian Callisthenes portrayed the sea in Cilicia as drawing back from him in proskynesis. Writing after Alexander's death, another participant, Onesicritus, went so far as to invent a tryst between Alexander and Thalestris, queen of the mythical Amazons. When Onesicritus read this passage to his patron, Alexander's general and later King Lysimachus reportedly quipped, "I wonder where I was at the time."

In the first centuries after Alexander's death, probably in Alexandria, a quantity of the more legendary material coalesced into a text known as the Alexander Romance, later falsely ascribed to the historian Callisthenes and therefore known as Pseudo-Callisthenes. This text underwent numerous expansions and revisions throughout Antiquity and the Middle Ages, exhibiting a plasticity unseen in "higher" literary forms. Latin and Syriac translations were made in Late Antiquity. From these, versions were developed in all the major languages of Europe and the Middle East, including Armenian, Georgian, Persian, Arabic, Turkish, Hebrew, Serbian, Slavonic, Romanian, Hungarian, German, English, Italian, and French. The "Romance" is regarded by many Western scholars as the source of the account of Alexander given in the Qur'an ( Sura The Cave). It is the source of many incidents in Ferdowsi's " Shahnama". A Mongolian version is also extant.

Alexander is also a character of Greek folklore (and other regions), as the protagonist of 'apocryphal' tales of bravery. A maritime legend says that his sister is a mermaid and asks the sailors if her brother is still alive. Alexander is also a character of a Karagiozis play.

Some believe that, excepting certain religious texts, it is the most widely-read work of pre-modern times.

Alexander in the Qur'an

Alexander was often identified in Persian and Arabic-language sources as Dhul-Qarnayn, Arabic for the "Two-Horned One", possibly a reference to the appearance of a horn-headed figure that appears on coins minted during his rule and later imitated in ancient Middle Eastern coinage. If this theory is followed, Islamic accounts of the Alexander legend, particularly in the Qur'an and in Persian legends, combined the Pseudo-Callisthenes legendary, pseudo-religious material about Alexander. The same legends from the Pseudo-Callisthenes were combined in Persia with Sasanid Persian ideas about Alexander in the Iskandarnamah. Alexander built a wall of iron and melted copper in which Gog and Magog are confined. However, some Muslim scholars disagree that Alexander was Dhul Qarnayn.

Alexander in ancient and modern culture

Around seventy towns or outposts are claimed to have been founded by Alexander. Diodorus Siculus credits Alexander with planning cities on a grid plan.

Alexander has figured in works of both "high" and popular culture from his own era to the modern day.

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