“My boy, you must find a kingdom big enough for your ambitions. Macedon is too small for you.”
It started with the taming of the horse, and ended with rule over one of the largest empires the world would ever know. This is the story of King Alexander III of Macedon or, as he is most commonly known, Alexander the Great.
Alexander was born on the sixth day of Hekatombaion – roughly equating to the 20th of July on modern calendars – in the year 356BC. His mother, Olympias, was one of many wives of the Macedonian king, Philip II, but the birth of her son meant that she remained his so-called principal wife for some time to come.
Some context: Alexander lived during the time of classical antiquity – 50 years after the Peloponnesian War, 200 years before Hannibal marched his troops into Tunisia, and more than 300 before the death of Julius Caesar.
As is often the case with iconic heroes of the time, the early life of Alexander is mired in legend. These stories go back to even before his birth, with Olympias supposedly dreaming of a thunderbolt striking her womb on the night of consummation, inferring that Alexander’s true father was Zeus, head of the Macedonian pantheon.
During his childhood, Alexander was raised by Lanike, a nurse whose brother would later become his general, Cleitus the Black, and tutored by Leonidas, a strict and wise teacher, and Lysimachus of Acarnaia, who made up for in charisma what he lacked in knowledge.
Eventually, Alexander would study under the great Aristotle, but not before an event that many claimed proved he was destined for great things.
At the age of 10, a trader sold King Philip a horse, but it refused to be mounted. Alexander, upon realising that it was scared of its own shadow, refused to let his father’s men get rid of the horse, and instead managed to tame it himself. That horse was named Bucephalas, meaning ox-head in reference to its initial stubbornness, and would eventually carry Alexander all the way to India.
So great was the feat of taming the horse considered that Philip is said to have raced to his son, complimented his courage, patience, and ambition, and told him “my boy, you must find a kingdom big enough for your ambitions”.
Alexander studied under Aristotle from the age of 13, the latter only agreeing to take Philip’s son as a student when the king promised to rebuild his hometown and free the former citizens who had become slaves under his rule.
It was at this school that Alexander met his Companions; those who would come to be his closest generals and advisors. He also developed a love of reading, and could often be found reading an annotated copy of Homer’s epic The Iliad while campaigning.
By 16, Alexander was charged as regent of Macedonia while his father fought in Byzantium. Seeing an opportunity to revolt, the Thracians rose up and declared independence. Alexander responded by marching in and sending the Thracians fleeing. It was his first military victory.
Alexander would continue to campaign against Thrace upon his father’s return, before being charged with invading Greece in response to the farming of sacred land in Delphi. Knowing the strength of the combined Greek states, he feigned an assault on nearby Illyria, before pushing through to within a few days’ march of Athens and Thebes. He was just 17.
Within a year, the Hellenic Alliance was formed, with most Greek states pledging allegiance to Macedon and King Philip, who prepared to turn his attention to the Persian Empire.
It was a great victory, but soon after, Philip married a new wife whose Macedonian blood put Alexander’s position as heir to the throne in jeopardy. At the wedding, one of Phlip’s generals raised a toast in hopes that their bond would result in a ‘lawful successor’ to the kingdom. Alexander responded angrily, causing his father to rise up, sword in hand. He might have killed his son then and there, if he didn’t slip and collapse to the floor.
“See there,” cried Alexander, pointing at his drunken father, “the man who makes preparations to pass out of Europe into Asia, overturned in passing from one seat of another”.
He had little choice but to flee the country with his mother, but after living as a guest of the Illyrian king for six months, returned home for mediation with his father. A shaky peace was formed, one that threatened to fall apart when Alexander sent an actor to a Persian governor in an attempt to convince him to offer his daughter’s hand in marriage to him, rather than to his half-brother, Philip Arrhidaeus. When the king learnt of this treachery, he had the actor arrested, and exiled four of Alexander’s closest friends, who all played a part in the ruse.
In the summer of 336BC, while attending a marriage, Philip was assassinated by one of his bodyguards. At the age of 20, Alexander was proclaimed king.
His first task was removing competitors to the throne, including Attalus, the general who had spoken out against him at his father’s marriage. From there, he rode out to stifle revolts in allied cities in Greece and Thrace. While his advisors counselled on the need for diplomacy, Alexander took a more pragmatic approach by sending his cavalry to the rear of his opponent’s army while they occupied a mountain pass. When the soldiers woke to find themselves surrounded, they immediately surrendered their forces to Macedon.
An encounter between Alexander and Corinthian philosopher Diogenes the Cynic would follow soon after, highlighting the king’s ability to embrace words as quickly as swords. When Alexander asked Diogenes what he could do for him during his stay in Corinth, Diogenes disdainfully replied “you could stand a little to the side; you’re blocking the sunlight”. Alexander was so impressed by the wit that he announced “…if I were not Alexander, I would like to be Diogenes”.
With the rebels in check, Alexander planned to follow in his father’s footsteps by launching a war in Persia. Less than a year after his ascension, he traveled to the east in order to fortify his borders. Once again, the Greeks tried to stake their independence, but Alexander put a quick stop to their plans, bringing about a temporary peace, before finally heading into Asia Minor.
Alexander crossed the Hellespont into Persia in 334BC, with 48,100 soldiers, 6100 calvary, and 38,000 naval crewman on a fleet of 120 ships. After several major victories, and ensuring complete domination of coastal cities in order to cut off Persian naval support, it is said that Alexander ‘undid’ the Gordian Knot, a feat that was said to herald the arrival of the king of Asia. Apparently, Alexander reasoned that it did not matter how the knot was cut, only that it was cut, and so hacked it apart with his sword. The story continues to be told today as an example of ‘out-of-the-box’ thinking.
The Persians sent army after army to intervene in Alexander’s conquest. Though many were significantly larger than the Macedonian force, they lacked one key element: Alexander’s mind for strategy. Within the year, he had conquered much of the nation. 12 months later, he took over Egypt, where he was heralded as a liberator of the people. The year after that, he had Babylon. Then Persepolis. Modern Afghanistan and Tajikistan, and Syria.
He did not lose a single battle…however, he was starting to lose the support of his people, as Alexander embraced what many saw as a corrupt, eastern lifestyle. Two attempts would be made on his life unsuccessfully.
Finally, Alexander turned to India. He invited chieftains to submit to his rule, but many did not. He was forced to divide his army, and though the king received a serious wound to his ankle, he continued to claim victory after victory.
It would be his own army that would put Alexander on the retreat. After years of exhaustive campaigning, they faced great opponents in the modern-day Bengali region, and so refused to press on.
“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 war elephants,” wrote the historian Plutarch, several centuries later.
For all his power, Alexander could not persuade his soldiers to march. They returned to Persia in 324BC, a decade after first setting out into the Asian continent. The king thanked his army by paying off their debts and funding the transport of disabled veterans to their homes in Macedonia. Such an act of compassion was initially met with confusion and anger, but that was quelled when Alexander held a feast for several thousands of his men.
It wasn’t long after that Hephaestion, Alexander’s closest friend and rumoured lover, died of an unknown illness. This great loss would mark the beginning of the end for the great king.
In early June 323BC, after suffering from a painful malady over a fortnight, Alexander the Great died in his Babylonian palace, aged 32. Theories that he was assassinated still remain, though they cannot be proven.
Alexander’s body was placed in a golden sarcophagus filled with honey, and was being returned to Macedon, when it was seized and taken to Alexandria by the Egyptians, who had heard a prophecy that wherever Alexander laid “would be happy and unvanquishable forever”.
Alexander the Great left behind one of the greatest empires the world would ever see, but in his absence, it did not remain stable for long. Still, his legacy has resonated for millennia, and his name will remain emblematic of strength, power, and pride for many to follow.