Alexander the Great

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Alexandros III Philippou Makedonon (July 10, 356 BCJune 11, 323 BC), commonly known in the West as Alexander the Great or Alexander III of Macedon, in Greek Μέγας Αλέξανδρος (Megas Alexandros), King of Macedon (336 BC-323 BC), was arguably the most successful military commander of ancient history, conquering most of the known world before his death. The name 'Alexander' derives from the Greek words "alexo" (αλέξω, refuge, defense, protection) and "aner" (ανήρ, man) - "defender of man".

Following the unification of the multiple city-states of Ancient Greece under the rule of his father, Philip II of Macedon, (a labor Alexander had to repeat - twice - because the southern Greeks rebelled after Philip's death), Alexander conquered the Persian Empire, including Anatolia, Syria, Phoenicia, Gaza, Egypt, Bactria and Mesopotamia and extended the boundaries of his own empire as far as the Punjab. Alexander integrated non-Greeks into his army and administration, leading some scholars to credit him with a “policy of fusion.” He encouraged marriage between Greeks and non-Greeks, and practiced it himself. This was extremely unusual for the ancient world. After twelve years of constant military campaigning, Alexander died, possibly of malaria, typhoid or a viral encephalitis. His conquests ushered in centuries of Greco-Macedonian settlement and rule over non-Greek areas, a period known as the Hellenistic Age. Alexander himself lived on in the history and myth of both Greek and non-Greek peoples. Already during his lifetime, and especially after his death, his exploits inspired a literary tradition in which he appears as a towering legendary hero in the tradition of Achilles.

Early life

Alexander was the son of King Philip II of Macedon and of 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. Plutarch (Alexander 2.2-3) 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.

Aristotle was Alexander's tutor; 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 Siwah, according to all five of the extant historians (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 (Alexander 2.1), his father descended from Heracles through Caranus and his mother descended from Aeacus through Neoptolemus and Achilles.

The ascendance of Macedon

When Philip led an attack on Byzantium in 340 BC, Alexander, aged 16, was left in command of Macedonia. In 339 BC Philip divorced Alexander's mother, leading to a quarrel between Alexander and his father which threw into question Alexander's succession to the Macedonian throne. In 338 BC, Philip created The League of Corinth. Alexander also assisted his father at the decisive battle of Chaeronea in this year. The cavalry wing led by Alexander annihilated the Sacred Band of Thebes, an elite corps previously regarded as invincible. Philip was content to deprive Thebes of her dominion over Boeotia and leave a Macedonian garrison in the citadel.

In 336 BC, Philip was assassinated at the wedding of his daughter Cleopatra to King Alexander of Epirus. The assassin was supposedly a former lover of the king, the disgruntled young nobleman (Pausanias), 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. However, in recent years Alexander's involvement has been questioned and there is some reason to believe that it may have been instigated by Darius III, the recently crowned King of Persia. Plutarch mentions an irate letter from Alexander to Darius, where Alexander blames Darius and Bagoas, his grand vizier, for his father's murder, stating that it was Darius who had been bragging to the rest of the Greek cities of how he managed to assassinate Philip.

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 sole 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 to secure the Danube as 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 vigour. But it was all useless; at the end the city was conquered with great bloodshed. But the worst had still to come for the Thebans: the city was razed to the ground and its territory divided between the other Boeotian cities, while all its citzens sold in slavery, sparing only the priests, the leaders of the pro-Macedonian party and the descendants of Pindar, whose house was the only one left untouched. The end of Thebes cowed Athens in submission which readily now accepted Alexander's demand for the exile of all the leaders of the anti-Macedonian party, Demosthenes first of all.

Period of conquests

The defeat of the Persian Empire

Alexander's army crossed the Hellespont with about 40,000 Greek soldiers. 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, the sister of Mausolus, whom Orontobates had deposed. 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, 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 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. It is difficult, perhaps impossible, to decide which story is correct.

Alexander's army crossed the Cilician Gates and 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 children, his mother, and much of his personal treasure. Sisygambis, the queen mother, never forgave Darius for abandoning her. She disowned him and adopted Alexander as her son instead. Proceeding down the Mediterranean coast, he took Tyre and Gaza after famous sieges. Alexander passed near but probably did not visit Jerusalem.

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. 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 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.

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 (near modern Yasuj in the Zagros Mountains), then sprinted for Persepolis before its treasury could be looted. Alexander allowed the League forces 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. 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 at an end, 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 Samarkand, and he founded a series of new cities, all called Alexandria, including one near modern Kandahar in Afghanistan and Alexandria Eschate ("The Furthest") in modern Tajikistan.

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 Greek countrymen. Here, too, a plot against his life was revealed, and his Companion and friend Philotas was executed for treason for failing to bring the plot to his attention. Although Philotas was convicted by the assembled Macedonian army, most historians consider this one of the king's greatest crimes, along with his order to assassinate his senior general Parmenion, Philotas' father. In a drunken quarrel at Maracanda (Samarkand), he also killed the man who had saved his life at the 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 favor with the king by leading the opposition to his attempt to introduce proskynesis), was implicated on what most 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.

The invasion of India

With 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. King Omphis, ruler of Taxila, surrendered the city to Alexander. Many people had fled to a high fortress called Aornos. Alexander took Aornos by storm (see Siege of Aornos). Alexander fought an epic battle against Porus, a ruler of a region in the Punjab in the Battle of Hydaspes (326 BC). After victory, Alexander made an alliance with Porus and appointed him as satrap of his own kingdom. Alexander continued on to conquer all the headwaters of the Indus River.

East of Porus' kingdom, near the Ganges River, was the powerful kingdom of Magadha ruled by Nanda_dynasty. Exhausted and frightened by the prospect of facing the giant Indian army at the Ganges, his army mutinied at the Hyphasis (modern Beas), refusing to march further east. Alexander, after the meeting with his officer, Coenus, was convinced that it was better to return. Alexander was forced to turn south, conquering his way down the Indus to the Ocean. 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 Gedrosia (present day Makran in southern Pakistan).

After India

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 who were over-aged and the 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 Opis, 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. It is not certain that Alexander adopted the Persian royal title of shahanshah ("great king" or "king of kings"), but most historians think that he did.

After traveling to Ecbatana to retrieve the bulk of the Persian treasure, his closest friend Hephaestion died of an illness. Alexander was distraught. He conducted a campaign of extermination against the Cosseans to assuage his grief. On his return to Babylon, he fell ill and died.

While invading the ancient city of Mali along the shore of India he received a nearly fatal wound from an arrow in his chest. Many historians argue if this was the cause of his death.

Alexander's marriages and sexuality

Alexander's greatest emotional attachment is generally considered to have been to his companion, cavalry commander (chiliarchos), Hephaestion. They had most likely been best friends since childhood, for Hephaestion too received his education at the court of Alexander's father. Hephaestion makes his appearance in the histories at the point when Alexander reaches Troy. There the two friends made sacrifices at the shrines of the two heroes Achilles and Patroclus, Alexander honouring Achilles, and Hephaestion, Patroclus. As Aelian in his Varia Historia (12.7) claims, "He thus intimated that he was the object of Alexander's love, as Patroclus was of Achilles."

Many discussed his ambiguous sexuality. Letter 24 of those ascribed to Diogenes of Sinope, thought to be written in either the 1st century or the 2nd century, and probably reflecting the gossip of Alexander's day, exhorts him: "If you want to be beautiful and good (kalos k'agathos), throw away the rag you have on your head and come to us. But you won't be able to, for you are ruled by Hephaestion's thighs." To whet his appetite for the fairer sex, 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 one child, Alexander IV of Macedon, by Roxana shortly before his death in 323 BC; some historians have also claimed that in 327 BC he had a son ( Heracles ) by Barsine, the daughter of satrap Artabazus of Phrygia, but that relationship has never been verified.

The suggestion that Alexander was homosexual or bisexual remains highly controversial and excites passions in some quarters in Greece and diaspora thereof. Greeks regard him as a national hero. They argue that historical accounts describing Alexander's relations with Hephaestion and Bagoas as "sexual" were written centuries after the fact, and thus it can never be established what the 'real' relationship between Alexander and his male companions were. Others argue that the same can be said about all our information regarding Alexander.

It has been proposed that Alexander was also a "cross-dresser," on the grounds that he was known to wear the "silvery dress" of Athena, which he received from priests at Troy. This idea, however, subsists upon a misunderstanding of "dress," used in the sense of "attire." In fact, it was Athena who was the cross-dresser, wearing armor when Greek women and other goddesses did not.

The army of Alexander the Great before the Battle of Gaugamela

The army of Alexander was, for the most part, that of his father Philip. It was composed of light and heavy troops and some engineers, medical and staff units. About one third of the army was composed of his Greek allies from the Hellenic League.


The main infantry corps was the phalanx, composed of six regiments (taxies) numbering about 2000 phalangites each. Each soldier had a long pike called a sarissa, which was up to 18 feet long, and a short sword. For protection the soldier wore a Phrygian-style helmet and a shield. Arrian mentions large shields (the aspis) but this is disputed; it is difficult to wield both a large pike and a large shield at the same time. Many modern historians claim the phalanx used a smaller shield, called a pelta, the shield used by peltasts. It is unclear whether the phalanx used body armor, but heavy body armor is mentioned in Arrian (1.28.7) and other ancient sources. Modern historians believe most of the phalangites did not wear heavy body armor at the time of Alexander.

Another important unit were the hypaspists (shield bearers), arranged into three battalions (lochoi) of 1,000 men each. One of the battalions was named the Agema and served as the King's bodyguards. Their armament is unknown; it is difficult to get a clear picture from ancient sources. Sometimes hypaspists are mentioned in the front line of the battle just between the phalanx and the heavy cavalry and seem to have acted as an extension of the phalanx fighting as heavy infantry while keeping a link between the heavily clad phalangites and the companion cavalry, but they also accompanied Alexander on flanking marches and were capable of fighting on rough terrain like light troops so it seems they could perform dual functions.

In addition to the units mentioned above, the army included some 6,000 Greek allied and mercenary hoplites, also arranged in phalanxes. They carried a shorter spear, a dory, which was six or seven feet long and a large aspis.

Alexander also had light infantry units composed of peltasts, psiloi and others. Peltasts are considered to be light infantry, although they had a helmet and a small shield and were heavier then the psiloi. The best peltasts were the Agrianians from Thrace.


The heavy cavalry included the "Companion cavalry," raised from the Macedonian nobility, and the Thessalian cavalry. The Companion cavalry (hetairoi, friends) was divided into eight squadrons called ile, 200 strong, except the Royal Squadron of 300. They were equipped with a 12-14 foot lance, the xyston, and heavy body armor. The horses were partially clad in armor as well. The riders did not carry shields. The organization of the Thessalian cavalry was similar to the Companion Cavalry, but they had a shorter spear and fought in a looser formation.

Of light cavalry, the prodomoi (runners) secured the wings of the army during battle and went on reconnaissance missions. Several hundred allied horse rounded out the cavalry, but were inferior to the rest.


On the afternoon of June 11, 323 BC, Alexander died of a mysterious illness in the palace of Nebuchadrezzar II of Babylon. He was only 32 years old. Various theories have been proposed for the cause of his death which include poisoning by the sons of Antipater, murder by his wife Roxana [1], and sickness due to a relapse of malaria he had contracted in 336 BC.

The poisoning theory derives from the traditional story universally held in antiquity. Alexander, coming to Babylon, had at long last disaffected enough of his senior officers that they formed a coalition against him and murdered both him and Hephaestion within a space of only a few months, intending on ending his increasingly unpopular policies of orientalism and ending any further military adventures. The original story stated that Aristotle, who'd recently seen his nephew executed by Alexander for treason, mixed the poison, that Cassander, son of Antipater, viceroy of Greece, brought it to Alexander in Babylon in a mule's hoof, and that Alexander's royal cupbearer, a son-in-law of Antipater, administered it. All had powerful motivations for seeing Alexander gone, and all were none the worse for it after his death.

However, many other scholars maintain that Alexander was not poisoned, but died of natural causes, malaria being the most popular. Various other theories have been advanced stating that the king may have died from other illnesses, as well, including the West Nile virus. These theories often cite the fact that Alexander's health had fallen to dangerously low levels after years of overdrinking 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.

Neither 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 in early June of 323 B.C. On his death bed, his marshals asked him to whom he bequeathed his kingdom - as Alexander had only one heir, it was a question of vital importance. He answered famously, "The strongest." Before dying, his final words were "I foresee a great funeral contest over me." Alexander's 'funeral games', where his marshals fought it out over control of his empire, lasted for nearly forty years.

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 armor, 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. 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.

Legacy and division of the empire

After Alexander's death his empire was divided among his officers, first mostly with the pretense of preserving a united kingdom, later with 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 Greece, Lysimachus in Thrace, Seleucus I Nicator ("the winner") in Mesopotamia and Iran, and Ptolemy I in the Levant and Egypt. Antigonus I ruled for a while in Asia Minor and Syria, but was soon defeated by the other four generals. Control over Indian territory was short-lived, ending when Seleucus I was defeated by Chandragupta Maurya, the first Mauryan emperor.

By 270 BC, Hellenistic states consolidated, with:

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.

Alexander's character

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 the ancient world's equivalent of Napoleon I of France or Adolf Hitler, a megalomaniac bent on world domination. Such views tend to be anachronistic, however, and the sources allow 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 leveller 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 pointed to, as is his execution of Philotas and his general Parmenion for failure to pass along details of a plot against him, though this last may have been prudence rather 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, Egypt, 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. As a result, Alexander's character is skewed depending on which way the historian's own culture is, and further muddles the debate of who he truly was.

One undeniable characteristic of Alexander is that he was extremely pious and devout, and began every day with prayers and sacrifices. From his boyhood he believed "one should not be parsimonious with the Gods."

Stories and legends

According to one story, the philosopher Anaxarchus checked the vainglory of Alexander, when he aspired to the honours of divinity, by pointing to Alexander's wound, saying, "See the blood of a mortal, not the ichor of a god." In another version Alexander himself pointed out the difference in response to a sycophantic soldier. A strong oral tradition, although not attested in any extant primary source, lists Alexander as having epilepsy, known to the Greeks as the Sacred Disease and thought to be a mark of divine favour.

Alexander had a legendary horse named Bucephalus (meaning "ox-headed"), supposedly descended from the Mares of Diomedes. Alexander himself, while still a young boy, tamed this horse after experienced horse-trainers failed to do so.

Foreign views of Alexander

Alexander is known in Middle Persian literature as "Alexander the Cursed" due to his destruction of the Persian Empire and its capital Persepolis. He is also known in Eastern traditions as "Dhul-Qarnayn" (the two-horned one), because an image on coins minted during his rule seemed to depict him with the two ram's horns of the Egyptian god Ammon (it is believed by historians that the Dhul-Qarnayn mentioned in the Qur'an is Alexander). In north-east India and modern-day Pakistan he is known as Sikander-e-Azam (Alexander the Great) and many male children are named Sikander after him.

Ancient sources

The ancient sources for Alexander's life are, from the perspective of ancient history, relatively numerous. Alexander himself left only a few inscriptions and some letter-fragments of dubious authenticity, but a large number of his contemporaries wrote full accounts. These included his court historian Callisthenes, his general Ptolemy, and a camp engineer Aristoboulus. Another early and influential account was penned by Cleitarchus. Unfortunately, these works were lost. Instead, the modern historian must rely on authors who used these and other early sources.

The five main accounts are by Arrian, Curtius, Plutarch, Diodorus, and Justin.

  • Anabasis Alexandri (The Campaigns of Alexander in Greek) by the Greek historian Arrian of Nicomedia;
  • Historiae Alexandri Magni, a biography of Alexander in ten books, of which the last eight survive, by the Roman historian Quintus Curtius Rufus;
  • Life of Alexander (see Parallel Lives) and two orations On the Fortune or the Virtue of Alexander the Great (see Plutarch: Other Works), by the Greek historian and biographer Plutarch of Chaeronea;
  • Bibliotheca historia (Library of world history), written in Greek by the Sicilian historian Diodorus Siculus, from which Book 17 relates the conquests of Alexander. The books immediately before and after, on Philip and Alexander's "Successors," throw light on Alexander's reign.
  • The Epitome of the Philippic History of Pompeius Trogus by Junianus Justinus, which contains factual errors and is highly compressed.

Much is recounted incidentally in other authors, including Strabo, Athenaeus, Polyaenus, and others.

The "problem of the sources" is the main concern (and chief delight) of Alexander-historians. In effect, each presents a different "Alexander," with details to suit. Arrian presents a flattering portrait, Curtius a darker one. Plutarch can't resist a good story, light or dark. All include a considerable level of fantasy, prompting Strabo (2.1.9) to remark, "All who wrote about Alexander preferred the marvellous to the true." Nevertheless, the sources tell us much, and leave much to our interpretation and imagination.

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, Lysimachus 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 most Western scholars as the source of the account of Alexander given in the Koran (Sura The Cave). It is the source of many incidents in Ferdowsi's "Shahnama". A Mongol version is also extant.

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

Main towns founded by Alexander

Around seventy towns or outposts are claimed to have been founded by Alexander. Some of the main ones are:

Alexander in popular media

  • A 1956 movie starring Richard Burton titled Alexander the Great was produced by MGM.
  • A 1941 Hindi Movie 'Sikandar' directed by Sohrab Modi depicts Alexander the Great's Indian conquest.
  • Bond's 2000 album Born includes a song titled Alexander the Great.
  • Oliver Stone's film Alexander, starring Colin Farrell, was released on November 24, 2004.
  • Baz Luhrmann had been planning to make a very different film about Alexander, starring Leonardo DiCaprio, but the release of Stone's film eventually persuaded him to abandon the project. [2]
  • Numerous television series about Alexander have been created.
  • The British heavy metal band Iron Maiden had a song entitled "Alexander the Great" on their album Somewhere in Time (1986). The song describes Alexander's life, but contains one inaccuracy: in the song it is stated that Alexander's army would not follow him into India.
  • Brazilian musician Caetano Veloso's 1998 album Livro includes an epic song about Alexander called "Alexandre."
  • From 1969 to 1981, Mary Renault wrote a historical fiction trilogy, speculating on the life of Alexander: Fire from Heaven (about his early life), The Persian Boy (about his conquest of Persia, his expedition to India, and his death, seen from the viewpoint of a Persian eunuch), and Funeral Games (about the events following his death). Alexander also appears briefly in Renault's novel The Mask of Apollo. In addition to the fiction, Renault also wrote a non-fiction biography, The Nature of Alexander.
  • A 1965 Hindi movie 'Sikandar-E-Azam' directed by Kedar Kapoor starring Dara Singh as Alexandar depicts Alexandar's Indian conquest with Porus.
  • A further trilogy of novels about Alexander was written in Italian by Valerio Massimo Manfredi and subsequently published in an English translation, entitled The Son of the Dream, The Sands of Ammon and The Ends Of The Earth.
  • David Gemmel's "Dark Prince" features Alexander as the chosen vessel for a world-destroying demon king. ISBN 0345379101.
  • Steven Pressfield's 2004 book The Virtues of War is told from the first-person perspective of Alexander.
  • An epic science fiction animated retelling of the story called Reign: The Conquerer by Peter Chung of Aeon Flux fame debuted on the Cartoon Network's Adult Swim block variety show in 2003.

External links

Primary Sources





Preceded by:
Philip II
King of Macedon
336–323 BC
Succeeded by:
Philip III & Alexander IV
Preceded by:
Darius III
Great King of Media and Persia
330–323 BC
Pharaoh of Egypt
332–323 BC