Alexander the Great

Unless Alexander was himself ultimately responsible for his father's assassination (an implausible view, but one already canvassed in antiquity), he cannot have foreseen the moment of his own succession to a father who, though grizzled, was in the prime of life. His reaction to the turn of events was remarkably swift and cool. Two highly placed suspects were killed immediately. Not many actual rivals had to be eliminated, however, because Alexander's succession was not in serious doubt. A son of Philip's brother Perdiccas, Amyntas, was still alive, but there was no reason for Alexander to see him as a threat; in any case, he was probably dead by 335.

Alexander the Great: Alexander's empire at its greatest extent.


Alexander and the Greeks


Alexander began his career of conquest in 335. He started with lightning campaigns against the Triballi and Illyrians, which took him across the Danube. Thebes was next: the Thebans had risen in the optimistic belief that Alexander had died in Illyria. He reached Thessaly in seven days and was in Boeotia five days later. Then followed the destruction of Thebes. The blame for this act is differently distributed in the two main literary traditions about Alexander, that of Arrian and that of the vulgate. Arrian, a Greek historian and philosopher of the 2nd century AD, relied on the works of two writers nearly contemporary with Alexander, Ptolemy (subsequently king of Egypt) and the historian Aristobulus. Arrian's tradition, which is regarded as the more "official" of the two, shifts the blame away from the Macedonians. The tradition of the vulgate, which is often fuller than that of Arrian, can be used to supplement or correct his. Although the vulgate tends toward the sensational, the greater reliability of Arrian can never be lightly assumed. For instance, on the Theban question, the vulgate more credibly puts the responsibility firmly on the Macedonians.

Soon after his accession, Alexander had been voted the leadership of the Persian expedition by the League of Corinth. He set out for Asia in the spring (334). Ancient writers sometimes speak in an implausible way of wars being planned by a father and executed by a son (such as the Macedonian king Perseus' war against Rome, allegedly planned by his father, Philip V). Alexander's invasion of Asia, however, is surely a clear case where a son does seem automatically to have taken over a great project, one which had been in the cards since the Battle of Cunaxa at the beginning of the century. Philip had created the army, the prosperity, and the human resources that enabled Alexander to embark on his Asian campaign. He left behind his general Antipater as governor of Greece, with 12,000 foot soldiers and 1,500 cavalry, while taking 40,000 foot soldiers (12,000 of them Macedonians) and more than 6,000 cavalry with him to Asia. To what extent Alexander needed to reorganize the army at the outset of the expedition is unclear. It is certain that he made changes during it; for instance, he incorporated Iranian troops to deal with special circumstances in his eastern campaigning and changed the structure of the cavalry so as to reduce the politically dangerous territorial affiliations of the individual brigades (ilai, squadrons of Macedonian cavalry, were replaced by hipparchies). From the first, however, he must have given thought to problems of reconnaissance and supply. Whereas Greek armies expected to live off the land to some extent, Alexander used wagons, despite a tradition that Philip had forced his soldiers to carry their own provisions and equipment. The core of the infantry was the Macedonian phalanx, armed with the long sarissa, or spear; the pick of the cavalry were the Companions, led by Alexander himself on the right wing. Philip's great general Parmenio commanded the Thessalian cavalry on the left. In addition, there were lighter armed troops, such as the scouts, and less-coordinated but highly effective contingents of slingers and other irregulars, usually from the parts of Greece where the concept of polis was imperfectly developed. This army was a formidable machine in the metaphorical sense. There also were literal machines--stone-throwing siege engines that could be assembled on the spot. The Thessalian siege engineers associated with Philip certainly continued into Alexander's reign and enabled him to conquer Anatolia and Phoenicia at comparatively high speed, given the fortified obstacles confronting him.

The Spartan Agesilaus may have hoped merely to construct a belt of rebel satraps, and Philip's ultimate aims are inscrutable. Alexander, however, as soon as he had crossed the Hellespont, cast his spear into Asian soil and openly declared that he laid claim to all Asia (admittedly a geographically fluid concept). At Troy he visited the tombs of the heroes Achilles and Ajax, paying them due religious honour; this was an early and emphatic statement that he saw himself and his expedition in epic, Homeric terms. The conquest of Asia (in the sense of the Persian empire) was more feasible than in 346: Artaxerxes III had died in 338-337, and the king now reigning was the much weaker Darius II (he succeeded in 336, after the brief reign of Arses, whom the trilingual inscription found at Xanthus in 1973 shows to have borne the title Artaxerxes IV).

It was in this region, at the Granicus River, that Alexander was confronted by a Persian army--not the central army of the Persian king but a very sizable force levied by the satraps from Anatolia itself. Alexander attacked in full daylight (the vulgate tradition of a "dawn attack" should probably be rejected); the Persians lined the opposite riverbank--impressively but suicidally. Alexander's victory was achieved in part by his own conspicuous example; he led the right wing with a battle cry to the god of battles. Such "heroic leadership" is, indeed, one of Alexander's main contributions to the history of generalship.

Alexander immediately appointed satraps in the parts of Anatolia thus acquired, thereby giving an early signal that he saw himself as in some sense the successor and continuator of the Achaemenid Persian kings, not merely as an outsider devoted to their overthrow. At the same time, he proclaimed democracy, restored law, and remitted tribute in the Ionian cities. This illustrates how seriously Alexander took the propaganda purpose of the war as revenge for the Persian impieties of 480: it is noticeable that the places he accorded specially favourable treatment in his passage through Anatolia often turn out to be places with a "good" record in the Ionian revolt or the Persian Wars; that is to say, they had been prominent rebels. Alexander felt no scruple about subjecting to direct satrapal rule the tracts of territory outside the poleis. Whether the Greek cities of Anatolia joined the League of Corinth is an intractable question. Some of the islanders certainly did, as, for instance, Chios, where an inscription recording the terms of Alexander's settlement proclaims bluntly that "the constitution is to be a democracy" and refers to the "decrees of the Greeks." As for Asiatic cities like Priene, there is no certainty, but the probability is that they joined the league.

Priene was a very old city indeed, one of the Ionian "Dodecapolis," but it was physically derelict. It is possible that Alexander in some sense refounded this and other western Anatolian Greek cities, such as Heraclea south of Latmus and Smyrna. (There is, however, an almost equally strong case for associating their physical reconstruction with the Carian Hecatomnids, the family of Mausolus). If Alexander was their founder, this would be the first good evidence of the urbanizing that was a marked feature of his policy for the conquered territories to the south and east. In this respect, however, as in others, credit should be given to Philip for his example: Philippi (the renamed Crenides) was not his only city foundation.

At Halicarnassus, Alexander met his most serious resistance so far from a defended city, in mid-334; Miletus had not delayed him long (nor was it punished very severely--it had after all been the leader of the Ionian revolt). The siege of Halicarnassus was a far tougher operation. The city had good defenses, both natural and artificial, and had been chosen as the local Persian military headquarters. The fighting was severe, though in the apologetic tradition used by Arrian the severity is minimized. At one moment Alexander was forced to the extremity of having to send a herald to ask for the bodies of some Macedonians who had fallen in front of the walls. After the city was taken--the citadels held out for another year or two--Alexander reappointed the native princess Ada as satrap (his earlier satrapal appointees had been Macedonians). She was the sister of the great Mausolus, and her reinstatement prefigures Alexander's shrewd subsequent policy of allowing local men and women to remain in post (though usually, like Ada herself, under the superintendence of a Macedonian troop commander). A romantic story makes her "adopt" Alexander as her son, a gesture graciously accepted by Alexander. That gesture of conciliation toward the native population was good politics.

After the conquest of Halicarnassus, Alexander moved east, meanwhile sending to Macedon for drafts of reinforcements. The scale of these demands through the whole campaign and their effects on the domestic situation in Macedon are not easy to estimate; the record of the literary sources is too fitful and episodic. According to one view, Alexander's legacy was one of lasting damage; he had exhausted the manpower of Macedon to such a point that the Macedon of Philip V and Perseus inevitably succumbed to the Romans with their almost infinite capacity for replacement. On the other hand, one must allow in the reckoning for a good deal of voluntary emigration by Macedonians to the armies and cities of the successor kingdoms in the Hellenistic period. Thus Alexander was not the only culprit; there were more intangible demographic forces at work.

Alexander's path took him from Carian Halicarnassus to Lycia and Pamphylia. At about the Lycian-Pamphylian border a strange natural phenomenon occurred that allowed Alexander and those with him to enjoy a freak dry passage along the coastline. This was greeted by his supporters as a portent and a recognition of Alexander's divinity (the sea "doing obeisance" to the great man). It was the first believable suggestion that special religious status could be claimed for Alexander.

In early 333 Alexander moved through Pisidia, where the nearly impregnable mountain city of Termessus, a remarkably well-preserved site 21 miles northwest of the modern Antalya, managed to hold out (even Alexander's early years in Asia were not an uninterrupted success story). Morale and self-esteem had to be satisfied with the taking of Sagalassus and some minor places. Thus it was high time for a piece of propaganda and political theatre, especially since the Aegean he had left behind him was not altogether quiet. A Persian counteroffensive was achieving some notable reconquests (but eventually troop drafts were required by Darius for the campaign that finally took shape at Issus, and the Aegean war shriveled to nothing).

Alexander found his opportunity for propaganda some distance farther north in the Anatolian interior at Gordium, the old capital of the Phrygian kings (themselves, as stated, ultimately of Macedonian origin). There occurred the famous episode of the "cutting of the Gordian knot." The old prophecy was that whoever unloosed the knot or fastening of an ancient chariot would rule Asia. Alexander cut it instead--or perhaps pulled out the pole pin, as one tradition insisted. Either way, he solved the problem by abolishing it.

The visits to Pisidia and Phrygia had been a huge detour, evidently designed to show that Alexander had conquered Anatolia. This statement raises problems of definition; "conquest" was a relative term when there were large tracts of Anatolia, such as Cappadocia, that Alexander had scarcely touched, not to mention the mixed achievement at Pisidia.

A more obvious way of achieving conquest was to defeat the king in open battle. The time had come to face Darius, whose army was already in Cilicia. In fact, Darius got ahead of Alexander, occupying (after a protracted delay) a position to the north of the Macedonians. The numerical advantage at the ensuing Battle of Issus, fought toward the end of 333, was heavily with the Persians, but they were awkwardly squeezed between the sea and the foothills of a mountain range close by. Alexander's Companion cavalry punched a hole in the Persian infantry, making straight for Darius himself, who took flight. The Persian mercenaries were routed by the Macedonian phalanx. After the battle, Darius' wife and mother both fell into Alexander's hands. In an exchange of letters Alexander grandly offered that Darius could have them back--"mother, wife, children, whatever you like"--if he recognized his own claim to be lord of Asia and addressed him as such for the future. Darius, of course, refused the offer.

Alexander did not immediately follow Darius eastward; instead he continued southward in the direction of Phoenicia and eventually Egypt. The Phoenician cities of Byblos and Sidon submitted willingly, but Tyre was a major obstacle. Its walls were not finally breached until summer 332, after various contrivances had been tried, including a huge and elaborate siege mole. The siege of Gaza occupied much of the autumn; when the city at last surrendered, Alexander dishonoured the corpse of Batis, its commander, in the way that Achilles in the Iliad had treated the corpse of Hector. Alexander's imitation of Homeric heroes had its less attractive side.

This was the part of the world in which the Jews might have encountered Alexander. No doubt there was some contact, but virtually all the available evidence is unreliable and romantic or even fabricated to give substance to later Jewish claims to political privileges. Alexander's effect on the Jews was indirect, but no less important for that: he surrounded them with a Greek-speaking world.


Alexander in Egypt
Alexander the Great: Alexander's empire at its greatest extent.Egypt was taken without a struggle, an indication of the dislike the subject population felt toward Persia. (Even though Egypt had been reconquered by Persia hardly more than a decade before, it is possible that there had been yet another revolt since 343.) Alexander's period in Egypt was marked by two major events, the founding of Alexandria and the visit to the oracle of the god Ammon at Siwah in the Western Desert. Although the sources disagree about which event came first, the foundation probably preceded the visit to the oracle.

The new city of Alexandria, the first as well as the most famous and successful of many new Alexandrias, was formed by joining a number of Egyptian villages (April 331). Alexander supervised the religious ceremonies of foundation, including Greek-style athletic and musical games (an indication of his intentions to Hellenize these foundations, at least as far as their cultural life was concerned); he thought that the site was an excellent one and hoped for its commercial prosperity. It is quite certain, from an inscription, that early Hellenistic Alexandria possessed a civic council; this and other self-governing institutions such as an assembly probably go back to Alexander's time. Not all Alexander's foundations were run on this liberal model, though some were inaugurated with similar symbolic gestures in the direction of Hellenism. One hears of "satraps and generals of the newly founded cities," a phrase that does not imply much self-government. No doubt some of Alexander's "new foundations" were little more than military camps; and one should assume that in all the far eastern Alexandrias the native population was forced to perform menial or agricultural tasks.

The oracle of Ammon at Siwah, to which Alexander now made a pilgrimage, was already well known in the Greek world. Pindar had equated Ammon with Zeus, the oracle had been consulted by Croesus in the 6th century and Lysander in the 5th, and there was a sanctuary to Ammon at Athens in the first half of the 4th. Alexander had a pothos, or yearning, to visit Ammon (the word pothos is often used by the sources to describe his motives and is appropriately suggestive of far horizons, even if it does not reflect a usage of Alexander's own). He wanted to find out more about his own divinity, the implication being that he already had an inkling of it. He was told what he wanted to hear; more than that (some sources offer a great deal more) was probably speculation to fill a gap.

To the Persian Gates
Alexander then crossed Phoenicia again to meet Darius for the second and last time in the open field at Gaugamela (between Nineveh and Arbela) at the beginning of October 331. The tactic was to be the usual one--a leftward charge by Alexander from the right wing toward the centre, while Parmenio held the left wing firm. Parmenio seems, however, to have encountered unusual difficulties and had to summon help from Alexander, who was already in victorious pursuit of Darius. The mechanics of this "summons" are not clear, and the story may be a fabrication intended to discredit Parmenio. Alexander and his troops won the battle, sealing the fate of the Persian empire, but Darius managed to escape. Alexander then moved to Babylon, where in another gesture of conciliation toward the Iranian ruling class he reappointed Mazaeus as satrap, with Macedonians to supervise the garrison and the finances.

This kind of gesture has been much discussed; it can be both overinterpreted and unduly minimized. Ideas that Alexander, then or ever, planned to forge a harmony between nations at a mystical level have no solid basis in the evidence. There is nothing odd, however, in supposing that his intentions toward Persians like Mazaeus (or Abulites, confirmed in the Susa satrapy about the same time) were positive. Also, the idea of such "fusion" was not entirely new. Greeks such as Xenophon earlier in the century had by their writings and actions anticipated Alexander's policy of fusion, and the cooperation of Cyrus and Lysander was just the most famous example of mutual understanding between Persian and Greek. Nor is it convincing to interpret Alexander's policy of integrating army and satrapy as a repressive device. Macedonians like Peucestas (appointed satrap of Persia) learned Persian and were rewarded for it; and Hephaestion's position of favour with Alexander is largely to be explained by his support of Alexander's Orientalizing policies. Admittedly, after leaving Iranian territories, Alexander returned to employing Macedonians as, for instance, in the Indus lands; but even there one finds native appointees like the Indian king Porus. Military integration--the use of Iranian horse-javelin men--is first firmly attested soon after the battle of Gaugamela. This is to be explained in purely military terms: the Companion cavalry on their own were not entirely suited to the more disorganized warfare lying ahead against the fierce opponents waiting to the east and north of Iran proper.

After some spectacular campaigning in Persis proper, Alexander occupied the palace of Persepolis, where the strong defensive position known as the "Persian Gates" was taken only after an unsuccessful and costly initial assault. The palace of Persepolis was looted and burned (spring 330). The less creditable tradition of the vulgate maintains that the fire started when a drunken Athenian courtesan called Thais led a revel that got out of hand, and this may well be right. The event, however, could be exploited afterward as a signal to dissident Greeks at home that the "war of revenge" was complete.

To securely establish the propaganda value of the burning of Persepolis would require a more precise chronology for the phases of that Greek dissidence than is ever likely to be achieved. The last fling of 4th-century Sparta was a revolt led by its king Agis III. It was probably still going on in 330 when it culminated in a narrow victory by the Macedonian general Antipater over the Spartans at Megalopolis. If this is right, the burning of Persepolis at about this time makes good propaganda sense. Athens had not participated in the revolt. The quiescence of Athens in the early years of Alexander's campaigning is to be explained partly by the policy of civic retrenchment associated with the name of Lycurgus (a phase of Athenian history that included a remarkable building program, the first since the 5th century) and partly by a well-attested grain shortage in Greece, which may have sapped the will to fight.

The conquest of Bactria and the Indus valley
By the middle of 330 Darius had been killed--not by Alexander but by his own entourage. Alexander now adopted symbolic features of Persian royal dress, but one of Darius' noble followers (and murderers), Bessus, the satrap of Bactria, also proclaimed himself king. The reckoning with Bessus, however, had to be postponed until the middle of 329. Alexander, who had initially followed Darius north, now moved steadily east, through Hyrcania and Areia, where Satibarzanes was confirmed as satrap; Alexander planned an invasion of Bactria and the elimination of Bessus. Satibarzanes, however, revolted almost instantly, and Alexander turned south again to deal with this rebellion. Having done so (though without taking the satrap himself), he maintained direction southward, toward Arachosia and Drangiana, home satrapies of Barsaentes, another of Darius' murderers. Barsaentes, however, fled to India.

At Phrada, capital of Drangiana, occurred the most famous conspiracy of Alexander's expedition, that of Philotas, the son of Parmenio and a commander of the Companion cavalry. There was little solid evidence for the prosecution to go on, but it is clear that Alexander's Orientalizing tendencies and the ever more personal style of Alexander's kingship had begun to irk his Macedonian nobility, accustomed as they were to express themselves freely, as in the outspoken court of Philip's day. Philotas had no doubt spoken very incautiously on some sensitive subjects, such as Alexander's visit to Ammon. The execution of Philotas entailed the execution of his father Parmenio as well, not because there was any serious suggestion that he too had been plotting but as a matter of practical politics; the family group of Parmenio, which can be elucidated by means of prosopography (the investigation of family ties with the help of proper names), had considerable power.

The year 329 saw the final elimination of Satibarzanes and the capture of Bessus in Sogdiana, north of the Oxus River from Bactria. In Sogdiana, Alexander founded the city of Alexandreschate, "Alexandria the Farthest," not far from the site of Cyropolis, a city of Cyrus II the Great, whom Alexander highly admired. This is a reminder that Persian urbanization in Central Asia had not been negligible. (At the interesting Bactrian site of Ai Khanum, which cannot definitely be identified as an Alexandria, there is evidence of Achaemenid irrigation.) Alexandreschate was a prestige foundation, designed, as explicitly stated by Arrian, for both military and commercial success. Alexander had already planted a number of new Alexandrias in central Iran, including Alexandria in Areia (Herat), Alexandria in Arachosia, and almost certainly Qandahar, on the exciting evidence of a metrical inscription found there by a British excavation team in 1978. There was another major foundation called Alexandria in the Caucasus at an important junction of communications in the Hindu Kush. How far Alexander intended these places to be permanent pockets of Hellenism is not clear. That Hellenism could survive in these regions is shown by the case of Ai Khanum, which had many of the features of a Greek polis, including gymnasia and an agora with an oikist (city-founder) cult; there are even inscribed Delphic religious precepts. Nonetheless, many of Alexander's Greek colonists in Bactria tried to return home to the mainland immediately after his death out of pothos, or yearning for their Greek way of life.

Bessus and Satibarzanes were not the last satraps of eastern Iran to offer resistance. It took fully two years (until spring 327) to suppress Spitamenes of Sogdia and other tribal leaders. The period was full of strain, culminating in the disastrous quarrel between Alexander and Cleitus, one of his senior commanders and the newly appointed satrap of Bactria at the end of 328. The quarrel ended in Alexander actually killing Cleitus with his own hands in drunken fury. The issue was a personal one, which, however, merged with a matter of principle: Cleitus had criticized Alexander's leadership (there had admittedly been at least one military reverse due perhaps to inadequate planning), comparing him unfavourably with his father Philip. Before the army moved in the direction of India, there were two more incidents that widened the gap between Alexander's conduct and traditional Macedonian attitudes. First, Alexander attempted to introduce the Persian court ceremonial involving proskynesis, or obeisance. Just what this entailed is disputed; perhaps it amounted to different things in different contexts, ranging from an exchange of kisses to total prostration before the ruler in the way a Muslim says his prayers. What is not in doubt is that for Greeks this meant adoration of a living human being, something they considered impious as well as ridiculous. It was the court historian Callisthenes who voiced the feeling of the Greeks. The proskynesis experiment was not repeated: Alexander did not in the end insist on it. It is difficult, however, not to connect Callisthenes' role in this affair with his downfall not long after, allegedly for encouraging the treason of a group of royal pages. This was the second of the two alarming incidents of the period.

India was the objective in 327, though Alexander did not reach the Indus valley until 326, after passing through Swat Cas from the district of the Kabul River. In 326, at the great Battle of the Hydaspes (Jhelum), he defeated the Indian king Porus in the first major battle in which he faced a force of elephants. How much farther east Alexander might have gone is a question that has fascinated posterity, but the curiosity and patience of his army was exhausted. At the Hyphasis (Beas) River he was obliged to turn back.

Alexander did not, however, retrace his path but took the route southward through the Indus valley toward the Arabian Sea and the Gulf of Oman. He narrowly avoided death at the so-called "Malli town," where an arrow seems to have entered his lung. The subsequent march westward in 325 through the desert region of Gedrosia (Balochistan) was a death march; its horrors emerge vividly enough from the literary narratives, but they are certainly understated. Alexander's motive for ordering the march may have been the desire to outdo the mythical queen Semiramis and the legendary Cyrus the Great; but the scale of the catastrophe does suggest that his judgment was by now badly impaired. Meanwhile, Nearchus led the fleet from the mouth of the Indus to that of the Tigris, a voyage recorded by Arrian in his Indica, using the account of Nearchus himself.

The final phase
In Carmania, to the west of Gedrosia, Alexander first staged a week-long drunken revel, in which he himself posed as Dionysus, as a release of tension after the preceding nightmare journey. Then he ordered his satraps and generals to disband their mercenary armies, like Artaxerxes III in 359 and perhaps for the same reason, namely, fear of insurrection. This was a period of punitive action against disobedient or negligent satraps. One official who in this atmosphere preferred to abscond rather than brazen out the inquisition was Harpalus, the royal treasurer, who made his way eventually to Athens. The exact fate of the money he took with him was and still is a celebrated mystery. The fact that Harpalus' activities as treasurer had evidently been quite unsupervised was typical of Alexander's short and impatient way with administrative problems. (It is most unlikely that he planned an ambitious financial restructuring of the empire, giving special responsibilities to men with the right expertise. One finds men like Cleomenes in Egypt or Philoxenus in Anatolia combining territorial with financial responsibilities, but no general conclusions can be drawn.)

At Susa in 324 Alexander staged a splendid mass marriage of Persians and Macedonians. He himself had already married a Bactrian princess, Rhoxane, in 327, but he now took two more wives, a daughter of Darius III called Barsine (or Stateira) and Parysatis, the daughter of Artaxerxes III. This and other demonstrations of "Orientalizing," including the brigading of Iranian units into the army, overcame a final mutiny at Opis near Babylon. After haranguing the troops, threatening them, and finally sulking, Alexander won back their affections; following this meretricious and emotional performance, he chose to heal the rift symbolically by a more organized piece of theatre, a great banquet of reconciliation (thus demonstrating for the last time in Archaic and Classical Greek history the usefulness of the banquet, or symposium, as an instrument of social control).

Other actions or schemes in this final phase were of the same megalomaniac type: a request for his own deification, sent to the Greek cities; a demand that they take back their exiles; a monstrous funeral pyre for his dear friend Hephaestion (never completed); and a plan of circumnavigation and conquest of Arabia. So much is well documented. Lists of other spectacular last plans survive, but they are hardly needed; the achievements of the last 13 years were extravagant enough. Alexander died at Babylon, after an illness brought on by heavy drinking, in the early evening of June 10, 323.