Alexander the Great (356-323 B.C.)

More than any other world conqueror, Alexander III of Macedon, or ancient Macedonia, deserves to be called the Great. Although he died before the age of 33, he conquered almost all the then known world and gave a new direction to history.

Alexander was born in 356 BC at Pella, the capital of Macedon, a kingdom north of Hellas (Greece). Under his father, Philip II, Macedon had become strong and united, the first real nation in European history. Greece was reaching the end of its Golden Age. Art, literature, and philosophy were still flourishing, but the small city-states had refused to unite and were exhausted by wars. Philip admired Greek culture. The Greeks despised the Macedonians as barbarians.

Alexander was handsome and had the physique of an athlete. He excelled in hunting and loved riding his horse Bucephalus. When Alexander was 13 years old, the Greek philosopher Aristotle came to Macedon to tutor him. Alexander learned to love Homer's 'Iliad'. He also learned something of ethics and politics and the new sciences of botany, zoology, geography, and medicine. His chief interest was military strategy. He learned this from his father, who had reformed the Greek phalanx into a powerful fighting machine.

Philip was bent on the conquest of Persia. First, however, he had to subdue Greece. The decisive battle of Chaeronea in 338 BC brought all the Greek city-states except Sparta under Philip's leadership. Young Alexander commanded the Macedonian left wing at Chaeronea and annihilated the famous Sacred Band of the Thebans.

Two years later, in 336 BC, Philip was murdered. Alexander's mother, Olympias, probably plotted his death. Alexander then came to the throne. In the same year he marched southward to Corinth, where the Greek city-states (except Sparta) swore allegiance to him. Thebes, however, later revolted, and Alexander destroyed the city. He allowed the other city-states to keep their democratic governments.

With Greece secure Alexander prepared to carry out his father's bold plan and invade Persia. Two centuries earlier the mighty Persian Empire had pushed westward to include the Greek cities of Asia Minor‹one third of the entire Greek world.

In the spring of 334 BC, Alexander crossed the Hellespont (now Dardanelles), the narrow strait between Europe and Asia Minor. He had with him a Greek and Macedonian force of about 30,000 foot soldiers and 5,000 cavalry. The infantry wore armor like the Greek hoplites but carried a Macedonian weapon, the long pike. Alexander himself led the companions, the elite of the cavalry. With the army went geographers, botanists, and other men of science who collected information and specimens for Aristotle. A historian kept records of the march, and surveyors made maps that served as the basis for the geography of Asia for centuries.

In Asia Minor Alexander visited ancient Troy to pay homage to Achilles and other heroes of the 'Iliad'. At the Granicus River, in May, he defeated a large body of Persian cavalry, four times the size of his own. Then he marched southward along the coast, freeing the Greek cities from Persian rule and making them his allies. In the winter he turned inland, to subdue the hill tribes.

According to legend, he was shown a curious knot at Gordium in Asia Minor. An oracle had said the man who untied it would rule Asia. Alexander dramatically cut the Gordian knot with his sword.

Alexander's army and a huge force led by Darius III of Persia met at Issus in October 333 BC. Alexander charged with his cavalry against Darius, who fled. Alexander then marched southward along the coast of Phoenicia to cut off the large Persian navy from all its harbors. Tyre, on an island, held out for seven months until Alexander built a causeway to it and battered down its stone walls.

Late in 332 BC the conqueror reached Egypt. The Egyptians welcomed him as a deliverer from Persian misrule and accepted him as their pharaoh, or king. In Memphis he made sacrifices to Egyptian gods. Near the delta of the Nile River he founded a new city, to be named Alexandria after him. At Ammon, in the Libyan desert, he visited the oracle of the Greek god Zeus, and the priests saluted him as the son of that great god.

Leaving Egypt in the spring of 331 BC, Alexander went in search of Darius. He met him on a wide plain near the village of Gaugamela, or Camel's House, some miles from the town of Arbela.

Darius had gathered together all his military strength‹chariots with scythes on the wheels, elephants, and a great number of cavalry and foot soldiers. Alexander again led his cavalry straight toward Darius, while his phalanx attacked with long pikes. Darius fled once more, and Alexander won a great and decisive victory in July 331 BC. After the battle he was proclaimed king of Asia. Babylon welcomed the conqueror, and Alexander made sacrifices to the Babylonians' god Marduk. The Persian capital, Susa, also opened its gates. In this city and at Persepolis an immense hoard of royal treasure fell into Alexander's hands. In March (330 BC) he set out to pursue Darius. He found him dying, murdered by one of his attendants.

His men now wanted to return home. Alexander, however, was determined to press on to the eastern limit of the world, which he believed was not far beyond the Indus River. He spent the next three years campaigning in the wild country to the east. There he married a chieftain's daughter, Roxane.

In the early summer of 327 BC Alexander reached India. At the Hydaspes River (now Jhelum) he defeated the army of King Porus whose soldiers were mounted on elephants. Then he pushed farther east.

Alexander's men had now marched 11,000 miles (18,000 kilometers). Soon they refused to go farther, and Alexander reluctantly turned back. He had already ordered a fleet built on the Hydaspes, and he sailed down the Indus to its mouth. Then he led his army overland, across the desert. Many died of hunger and thirst.

Alexander reached Susa in the spring of 324 BC. There he rested with his army. The next spring he went to Babylon. Long marches and many wounds had so lowered his vitality that he was unable to recover from a fever. He died at Babylon on June 13, 323 BC. His body, encased in gold leaf, was later placed in a magnificent tomb at Alexandria, Egypt. (Encyclopaedia Britannica Article)