We all want to be remembered. We all want to leave a legacy. We all want to be great.
For a long time, history was all about the study of the great men and women throughout time and it was quite common to refer to someone as “the Great”. We are less prone to do this in modern times and we recognise that one man’s “the Great” is most probably another man’s “the Terrible”. There are also misogynistic interpretations that go along with the label as it is almost exclusively applied to men. There was no Cleopatra the Great, Elizabeth the Great or even a Hatshepsut the Great; sure, there was the Russian Tsarina Catherine the Great, but the price for her masculine title was that she has been saddled with the slanderous rumour that she died having sex with a horse. Just type “Catherine the Great” into one specific unnamed internet search engine’s search bar and the first hit to automatically appear is “Catherine the Great horse”.
But we are here to discuss the life and achievements of one man, and not the fairness of historical labelling. That man is, of course, Alexander III of Macedon. Better known to history as Alexander the Great.
Alexander of Macedon
Alexander was born in the ancient Macedonian capital of Pella in 356 BCE and died in the great city of Babylon in 323 BCE at the ripe old age of 32.
Tradition states that Alexander was born on the same day that the Temple of Artemis burned down, and Plutarch later remarked that Artemis was too preoccupied with the birth to save his burning shrine. The legends of Alexander – and there are plenty of them, as we will see – start from his very first day.
The young Alexander was tutored by no less than Aristotle who gave him an annotated copy of Homer’s Iliad which he later took on campaign. His father, King Philip II witnessed his 10-year-old son tame a horse, Bucephalus, that no one else could ride and was so impressed that he supposedly told the boy, “O thy son, look thee at a kingdom equal to and worthy of thyself for Macedonia is too little for thee.”
By the time that Alexander was 16 he had become an accomplished general in his father’s army, having put down revolts and even established a town called Alexandropolis; even at this early stage in his career the megalomaniacal streak was evident in the young man.
King Philip was assassinated by one of his bodyguards whilst at a wedding and Alexander was pronounced king on the spot by the nobles and the army. He was 20-years-old. Over the next decade, Alexander expanded his father’s empire with unprecedented speed and the man famously never lost a battle. Upon becoming king, Alexander quickly put down several revolts in his territory and consolidated his power within the Greek peninsula before setting out to conquer Asia. Upon landing with his army on the shores of Anatolia (modern Turkey) Alexander threw his spear into the soil and announced that he had come to accept Asia as a gift from the gods.
Alexander commenced his campaign very quickly and began winning battles and conquering cities throughout Anatolia. When he arrived at the ancient Phrygian city of Gordium he “undid” an unsolvable knot. Legend had it that the knot would be undone by the future King of Asia. How did Alexander untie the Gordian Knot? He thought outside of the box and simply cleaved it in two with his sword. Alexander continued his march through the Levant and into Egypt where he was regarded as a liberator and pronounced the son of the god Amun at the Oracle of Siwa in the Libyan desert. Next, he moved east into the ancient lands of Mesopotamia and the heartland of the Persian Empire.
Before the Battle of Issus, where Alexander’s army easily defeated the overwhelming numbers of the Persian king Darius’ forces, Alexander provided a speech that just oozed confidence in himself and in his army whilst simultaneously heaping utter scorn and disregard on his enemy:
“Our enemies are Medes and Persians, men who for centuries have lived soft and luxurious lives. We of Macedon for generations past have been trained in the hard school of danger and war. Above all, we are free men, and they are slaves. There are Greek troops, to be sure, in Persian service – but how different is their cause from ours!
“They will be fighting for pay – and not much at that. We, on the contrary, shall fight for Greece, and our hearts will be in it. As for our foreign troops – Thracians, Paeonians, Illyrians, Agrianes – they are the best and stoutest soldiers in Europe, and they will find as their opponents the slackest and softest of the tribes of Asia. And what finally, of the two men in supreme command? You have Alexander, they… Darius!”
After such a rousing speech it really is no wonder that his men followed him in battle after battle, extending his reach to the Indian subcontinent. But they would follow him no further. Alexander’s exhausted and homesick army convinced their king to turn back at the banks of the Beas River soon after the Battle of Hydaspes, where the Macedonians had defeated the Pauravan Kingdom.
Alexander’s Empire stretched from Greece in the west to the Indus River in the east, from Egypt in the south to Alexandria Eschate (literally translates to “Alexandria the Farthest”) in modern day Tajikistan in central Asia in the north. His empire was massive!! And he and his army had accomplished it in only a decade and he was not finished. Well he was, but you know what I mean: if he had not have died, he had plans to conquer the Arabian Peninsula.
Whether sieging an “impregnable” city, facing an “invincible” army, or solving an “impossible” knot, Alexander steadfastly refused to believe that he could not succeed. He was driven to win by any means necessary and he rarely played by the rules. It is one of history’s great “what ifs” but for better or worse this tenacious, young man died, and we shall never know what accomplishments the elder Alexander would have achieved.
But what exactly is it that made Alexander the Great so great? We will examine the man in three possible definitions of “greatness”.
Great due to Accomplishments
This is an extension to the idea that history truly is the deeds of great men. This notion is itself absolutely ridiculous on the face of it. For starters, half of the human population are women! Secondly, there are tons of incidents that no one person can claim responsibility for; just think of the Bubonic Plague or a natural disaster such as a tsunami.
That being said, Alexander did accomplish an astonishing amount in his short life. The father conquered Greece, but the son destroyed the Persian Empire, conquered all of the land that it held (including Egypt) and marched his armies into the Indian subcontinent, stopping only at the Indus River because his army had had enough.
The reality though is that Alexander was not a particularly great empire “builder”. He was good at tearing things down but not great at building up institutions to replace the things that he had torn down. This is one of the reasons that his empire split into four separate entities after his death; there was no centralising “glue” to hold the empire together other than Alexander himself. The Hellenistic Kingdoms that emerged after his death were led by four of his top generals known as the Diadochi:
• Ptolemy – Egypt
• Cassander – Macedon
• Lysimachus – Thrace & Anatolia
• Seleucus – Everything else
Great due to Impact
Alexander had an enormous impact on the world after his death. Much like Tutankhamun, Alexander was amazingly good at being a dead person.
Everyone loved him: from the Romans to Napoleon and even today his ancient battlefield tactics are still taught in modern military academies. Alexander of Macedon has proved to be an immensely important military model for numerous generals throughout history. The third century Roman Emperor Caracalla even went as far as to reintroduce Alexander’s by-then obsolete military tactics in his conquests of the Middle-East and Africa.
His main post-death legacy, however, may be that he introduced the Persian idea of absolute monarchy to the Greco-Roman world which, as we will see later, became a pretty big deal to the development of western history. Alexander also built several cities (over 70), some of which also became pretty big deals after his death. They are easy to spot on the map as he named most of them after himself and one was even named after his horse. Alexandria in Egypt became one of the main centres of learning in the Classical World and home to an incredible library (which Julius Caesar probably, accidently, destroyed, ironically, trying to conquer land to emulate his hero, Alexander the Great).
In death, Alexander also became a huge influencer on culture and gave the region a common tongue – Greek – which helped to facilitate conversations and commerce. Greek became so widespread that archaeologists have unearthed coins in Afghanistan with pictures of their kings but inscribed in Greek! Although Alexander was mostly conquering territory for the glory and heroism of it, in his wake emerged a more closely connected world that was able to communicate with more people, more efficiently than ever before. Alexander did not make these things happen, but they probably would not have happened without him either.
Great because of his Legend
Alexander may also be great due to his legend. There were no accounts of his extraordinary achievements written about him whilst he was alive and so embellishment was easy. Exaggeration of the truth can effortlessly lead to greatness.
The man died at the age of 32 and so never had the chance to grow old, he also never had the opportunity to lose any future battles. Alexander tenaciously pursued the Persian king Darius across modern Iraq and Iran for no other reason than he wanted to kill him. In response to an offer of peace and friendship from Darius, Alexander replied, “I am Lord of Asia. Come to me, and you shall receive all that you can ask. But if you deny me my right as your lord, stand and fight for your kingdom. I will seek you wherever you are.” That was his response to the dude who was offering him peace! In the end, Darius was betrayed and killed by one of his allies, Bessus. Alexander’s focus simply switched, and he chased Bessus around until he could kill him in Darius’ place.
These comical pursuits of glory are accompanied in the classical histories by stories of Alexander walking through the desert and it suddenly beginning to rain; another tale tells of the Amazon Queen bringing a harem of 300 women to Alexander so he could sire a race of children as strong and intelligent as he; and stories of his wife Roxanna, who still a teenager, engineered the assassination of many of Alexander’s fellow wives.
Even in death, people still attempted to make Alexander live up to the heroic ideal of him. Plutarch tells that Alexander died of a fever but this was in no way an appropriate way for such a masculine conqueror to die and so rumours began to explain how Alexander truly died: either from alcohol poisoning or from assassination poisoning. No great man could possibly die of fever!
Alexander’s Great Legacy
In Alexander the Great we have the story of a man whose birth was attended by the gods, who went on to conquer and unite the world whilst riding a horse that only he could tame across deserts where it magically rained for him as he chased down his mortal enemy and then left in his wake a more enlightened world and a murderous teenage bride.
It is not just the Assassin’s Creed and Call of Duty game franchises that celebrate the idea that ennobled violence can lead to a better world. That takes us to how I personally believe Alexander became immortalised as “Great”. In 1798 Napoleon invaded Egypt. Not because he particularly needed to (although he did argue that it would strengthen French trade interests and weaken British access to British India) but because he wanted to do what Alexander had done. Long before Napoleon, way back in antiquity, the Romans had practically worshiped Alexander, particularly Pompey “the Great” and Julius Caesar who is said to have lamented that he had achieved nothing with his life upon visiting the tomb of Alexander. In addition to copying his military tactics the aforementioned Caracalla also raised a Macedonian phalanx and an elephant division in honour of Alexander.
In short, Alexander became great because others decided that he was great. It was these others that chose to admire and emulate the man. Sure, Alexander was a great general and yes, he conquered a helluva lot of territory, but it was people that made Alexander great. Just as today we make people great when we choose to admire and attempt to emulate them.
Traditionally, history has been in the business of identifying and celebrating great men (and occasionally great women). But this obsession with greatness is a little disturbing. It wrongly implies that history is made, primarily, by men and almost always celebrated men at that. It’s only natural that we all want to be celebrities.
Thankfully, we have left behind the ideas that butchering people and taking others’ land is the best way to become an icon but the ideas that we have embraced instead are not necessarily worth celebrating either. It is us who decide what and who we care about and give attention to. It is us who decide to care about the Kardashians or reality television contestants.
But at the end of the day even Alexander the Great could not have made history in a vacuum: no one can. Fortune, circumstance, a highly trained army and a tenacious and strong character helped Alexander forge his name and glory into history.
The Rest is History
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