When history bestows upon you the title of ‘the Great’, you must have done something quite special. Immediate examples include the last Empress of Russia, Catherine the Great, and the most famous of the Anglo-Saxon kings, Alfred the Great. In antiquity, no one stands taller than Alexander the Great - the young military genius who never once lost a battle and established a vast empire that heralded a new historical era.
The rise of Macedonia
Born in 356 BC in Pella, the ancient capital of Macedonia, Alexander’s father was King Philip II. Philip was the first ruler of Macedonia to put the kingdom on the map. Situated on the northeastern part of the Greek peninsula, for centuries the small kingdom of Macedonia lay in the shadow of the great city-states of Sparta, Athens and Thebes. That all changed when the militarily savvy Philip came to power.
Introducing sweeping reforms to his army, Philip took on the old powers of Greece and won, establishing a new hierarchy on the mainland with Macedonia on top.
A young ruler in the making
Educated by the great Greek philosopher Aristotle, Alexander proved his worth in the field of battle at the age of 18, fighting during his father's Greek campaign. At the Battle of Chaeronea in 338 BC, Alexander commanded forces that crushed the notoriously invincible Sacred Band of Thebes – a unit of well-trained and battle-hardened men consisting of 150 pairs of lovers.
In 336 BC, Philip was assassinated and Alexander ascended the throne. Before his death, Philip began to set his sights eastwards, dreaming of conquering Persia and bringing it within the realms of the Macedonian empire. That vision was inherited by Alexander who now looked to expand the borders of his kingdom far beyond the Greek mainland.
Alexander heads east
In the immediate aftermath of his father’s death, Alexander swiftly and mercilessly subdued any threats to his reign. He then re-asserted Macedonian control over Greece before turning his attention east in 334 BC. Lying before Alexander was the vast Persian Empire. The odds were overwhelmingly against the young ruler but as history will go on to remember, Alexander was no ordinary king.
A military genius
Continuing from the military reforms his father had brought in, Alexander established an army that would quite literally decimate everything it came in contact with. In fact, the tactics and strategies Alexander used are still studied in military academies to this day.
To start, Alexander commanded fierce loyalty from soldiers who were prepared to follow him to the ends of the known world. He often adapted his tactics to the task at hand, exploiting the local terrain in his favour and boldly leading from the front with speed and precision. Although frequently outnumbered, Alexander was known for catching his enemy off-guard, seizing the initiative and negating any numerical advantages his foes might have had.
The beating heart of the Macedonian army was the phalanxes – rows of tightly packed soldiers wielding a long spear known as the ‘sarissa’. Combined with Alexander’s military genius, the infantry formation was an unstoppably deadly force.
Persia falls to Alexander
The sword-wielding Persians did their best, but they couldn’t resist the onslaught of Alexander and his army. Without suffering a single defeat, Alexander led his men to victories across the Persian territories of Asia Minor, Egypt and Syria.
In 331 BC, his outnumbered army faced off against the Persian King Darius III at the Battle of Gaugamela. It would prove a pivotal moment in history, as by its end, Darius would be dead and Alexander the new King of Persia, at the age of 25.
The kingdom expands
Although Alexander’s victory over Persia was monumental, the insatiably ambitious young king wanted more. He looked to the east and marched his men onwards. In 327 BC, the Macedonians entered India and their conquest continued. Alexander’s new enemies wielded a weapon unlike anything seen before – war elephants. Although these proved a worthy foe, the Macedonians quickly found a way to exploit their weaknesses.
Alexander finally turns back
Alexander marched onward into India with the hope of subduing the entire subcontinent. However, after marching thousands of miles and years of fighting, his men had finally reached their limit. Although they'd followed him loyally to this point, they requested to go home and after days of deliberation, Alexander eventually yielded.
A lifestyle of notoriety
Known for his exuberant drinking habits, Alexander was said to never be far away from a glass of wine. His relationship with alcohol is well documented and often caused him a great deal of trouble.
One such example was the killing of his close friend Cleitus in 328 BC. After a heavy drinking session, Alexander grew tired of Cleitus’ less than subtle barbs and spontaneously killed him with a spear, an act that Alexander would instantly regret and haunt him for the remainder of his life.
Although his troops were fiercely loyal, Alexander’s relationship with them became more strained after the conquering of Persia, as the young king began to adopt Persian customs in the hope of winning favour with his new people. Alexander’s remarkable diplomacy with the various populaces he conquered is what earned him the title of ‘the Great’. However, as was seen in Persia, it was sometimes hard to please everyone.
Married three times, Alexander’s most famous relationship was with his male companion and fellow general Hephaestion, a supposed lover whose early death was said to have devastated Alexander and might even have contributed to his declining health.
Death of Alexander
The ever-restless Alexander began to make plans to conquer Arabia. However, no such thoughts were allowed to come to fruition as he passed away in 323 BC, at the age of just 32, in the city of Babylon.
The cause of his death has been much debated with some arguing it was natural causes. Multiple injuries sustained from war, combined with declining health due to alcoholism, could well have left Alexander’s body weak and susceptible to fevers and diseases. Others have suggested more sinister reasons for his death including poisoning, although the truth of the matter will never be known.
During his conquest, Alexander founded over 70 cities including the Egyptian city that still bears his name – Alexandria. His empire stretched over three continents, covering around two million square miles. By introducing Greek customs, language and culture to such a vast area, Alexander heralded a new era in antiquity known as the Hellenistic Period – ‘Hellenistic’ referring to that which is influenced by Greek culture.
As quickly as it came, the empire of Alexander went. Having named no successor, infighting and power struggles amongst the military elite tore apart the Macedonian kingdom.
However, the landscape of the ancient world had been altered for good. Alexander’s accomplishments cemented him as one of the most influential and successful leaders to have ever lived.