Alexander the Great

Alexander of Macedon.

Alexander the great

 “There is nothing impossible to him who will try.”

(20/21 July 356 – 10/11 June 323 BC)

Alexander of Macedon, Son of Philip II of Macedon and Olympias of Epirus, King of Macedonia, Pharaoh of Egypt,Proclaimed Son of Zeus, King Of Persia,and Hegemon, was a great king and the most successful military commander during his time. His empire, at its peak, stretched from Ionian Seas to the Great Himalayas and the Indus River. While many of the historical sources about Alexander are now lost to us, there are a few reputable sources from which much of his life can be gleaned. The Romance about the life of Alexander is great, and historians one and all alike, have poured themselves on texts to uncover his life and his successes. Many of his battle strategies are still taught in military academies around the world.

Birth and Youth

Alexander was born in 356 BC to Philip’s wife Olympias in Pella. Philip was campaigning in Potidaea, a city of the Chalcidic Peninsula, with the Macedonian Army. It is said that upon recieving the news, Philip is said to have begged fortune to do him some small disservice

to offset such an overwhelming favour. And so, the legend that would later become Alexander the great would begin.

Alexander was soon well accustomed to the intricacies of royal life. When Ambassadors arrived in the absence of his father, Philip, Alexander received them in his stead. He gained upon them greatly by his politeness and solid sense. He asked no childish or trifling questions, but inquired the distances of places, and the roads through the upper provinces of Asia. He further desired to be informed of the character of their king, in what manner he behaved to his enemies, and in what the strength and power of Persia consisted. The Ambassadors were struck with admiration, and looked upon the celebrated shrewdness of Philip as nothing in comparison of the lofty and enterprising genius of his son.

Bucephalus 

When Philonieus of Thessalian offered the horse named Busephalus in sale to Philip, at the price of thirteen talents the king, with the prince and many others went into the field to see some trial made of him. The horse appeared extremely vicious and unmanageable, and was so far from suffering himself to be mounted, that he would not bear to be spoken to, but turned fiercely upon all the grooms. Philip was  displeased at their bringing him so wild and ungovernable a horse, and bade them take him away. But Alexander, who had observed him well, said, “What a horse are they losing, for want of skill and spirit to manage him! ” Philip at first took no notice of this; but, upon the prince’s often repeating the same expression, and showing great uneasiness, he said, ” Young man, you find fault with your elders, as if

you knew more than they, or could manage the horse better.” “And I certainly could,” answered the prince. “If you should not be able to ride him, what forfeiture will you submit to for your rashness? ” “I will pay the price of the horse.”

Upon this all the company laughed, but the king and prince agreed as to the forfeiture, Alexander ran to the horse, and laying hold on the bridle, turned him to the sun; for he had observed, it seems, that the shadow which fell before the horse, and continually moved as he moved, greatly disturbed him. While his fierceness and fury lasted, he kept speaking to him softly and stroking him; after which he gently let fall his mantle, leaped lightly upon his back, and got his seat very safe. Then, without pulling the reins too hard, or using either whip or spur, he set him a-going. As soon as he perceived his uneasiness abated, and that he wanted only to run, he put him in a full gnllop, and pushed him on both with the voice and spur.

Philip and all his court were in great distress for him at first, and a profound silence took place. But when the prince had turned him and brought him straight back, they all received him with loud acclamations, except his father, who wept for joy, and, kissing him, said, “Seek another kingdom, my son, that may be worthy of thy abilities; for Macedonia is too small for thee.”

Education

Philip saw that Alexander’s education was a matter of too great importance to be trusted to the ordinary masters in music and the common circle of sciences. He therefore sent for Aristotle, the most celebrated and learned of all the philosophers, and gave him the charge of his son’s education, and provided the Temple of the Nymphs at Mieza as a classroom. In return for teaching Alexander, Philip agreed to rebuild Aristotle’s hometown of Stageira, which Philip had razed, and to repopulate it by buying and freeing the ex-citizens who were slaves, or pardoning those who were in exile.

Mieza was like a boarding school for Alexander and the children of Macedonian nobles, such as Ptolemy, Hephaistion, and Cassander. Many of these students would become his friends and future generals, and are often known as the ‘Companions’. Aristotle taught Alexander and his companions about medicine, philosophy, morals, religion, logic, and art. Under Aristotle’s tutelage, Alexander developed a passion for the works of Homer, and in particular the Iliad; Aristotle gave him an annotated copy, which Alexander later carried on his campaigns.

Regent of Macedonia

When Philip went upon his expedition against Byzantium, Alexander was only sixteen years of age, yet he was left regent of Macedonia and keeper of the seal. The Medari rebelling during his regency, he attacked and overthrew them, took their city, expelled the barbarians, planted there a colony of people collected from various parts, and gave it the name of Alexandropolis. He fought in the battle of Chseronea against the Greeks, and is said to have been the first man that broke the “sacred band ” of Thebans.

Upon Philip’s return, he dispatched Alexander with a small force to subdue revolts in southern Thrace. Campaigning against the Greek city of Perinthus, Alexander is reported to have saved his father’s life. Meanwhile, the city of Amphissa began to work lands that were sacred to Apollo near Delphi, a sacrilege that gave Philip the opportunity to further intervene in Greek affairs. Still occupied in Thrace, he ordered Alexander to muster an army for a campaign in Greece. Concerned that other Greek states might intervene, Alexander made it look as though he was preparing to attack Illyria instead. During this turmoil, the Illyrians invaded Macedonia, only to be repelled by Alexander.

As Philip marched south, his opponents blocked him near Chaeronea, Boeotia. During the ensuing Battle of Chaeronea, Philip commanded the right wing and Alexander the left, accompanied by a group of Philip’s trusted generals. According to the ancient sources, the two sides fought bitterly for some time. Philip deliberately commanded his troops to retreat, counting on the untested Athenian hoplites to follow, thus breaking their line. Alexander was the first to break the Theban lines, followed by Philip’s generals. Having damaged the enemy’s cohesion, Philip ordered his troops to press forward and quickly routed them. With the Athenians lost, the Thebans were surrounded. Left to fight alone, they were defeated.

Exile

Philip married Cleopatra Eurydice, the niece of his General Attalus. In a celebration after, Attalus is said to have prayed to the gods for a pure blooded Macedonian heir, at which Alexander exclaimed if he was a bastard son. Philip, drunk, and taking exception to his remark went to attack him with his sword, but tripped against the table and fell down. Upon which Alexander said, “See there,the man who makes preparations to pass out of Europe into Asia, overturned in passing from one seat to another”. After this incident, Alexander took his mother Olympias and fled to Epirus. He then further moved to Illriya. However, the Exile was short lived, since only after six months, Alexander returned to Macedon.

Assassination of Philip and Rise to the throne

 

In 336 B.C., Philip was assassinated by Pausinias of Orestis, at a wedding celebration between his daughter and the brother of Olympias, Alexander of Epirus. While Olympia desired an improvement of her standing in the court of Philip with this wedding, and Alexander sought a rise in his standing in Philip’s eyes, neither of that could be achieved. It is highly speculated that Philip had developed a fancy for Pausinias, who was a very handsome man, then later had him abused by one of his courtiers. When Pausinias came to Philip and emplored him to punish his abusers, Philip was indifferent, which led to his assassination. Pausinias attempted to flee, but was killed in the escape attempt.

With Philip dead, Alexander was proclaimed king of Macedonia. He took the title of Hegemon, from Philip. Upon his Ascension, he went about eliminating his rivals to the throne. He had his half-brothers killed, and his mother Olympias had Cleopatra Eurydice burnt alive, as well as her daughter killed. He would then unveil his plan to conquer and dominate Persia and Asia, and thus left the kingdom to Antipater of Macedon, one of his father’s most trusted Generals as Regent.

Visit to the Oracle of Delphi

 Alexander chose to consult the oracle about the event of the war, and for that purpose he went to Delphi. He happened to arrive there on one of the days called inauspicious, upon which the law permitted no man to put his question. At first he sent to the prophetess, to entreat her to do her office but finding she refused to comply, and alleged the law in her excuse, he went himself and drew her by force into the temple. Then, as if conquered by his violence, she said, “My son, thou art invincible.” Alexander hearing this, said, “He wanted no other answer, for he had the very oracle he desired.”

Historical battles

While Alexander fought many battles, it will take many more pages to Describe them all, and so two of his landmark battles will be covered here.  The Battle of Issus, in which Alexander led a heroic battle crossing the river Pinassus at the town of Issus. And next, the battle of Gaugamela, in which Alexander routed the forces of Darius III, killing at least a hundred thousand persian troops even while being  outnumbered.

 The battle of Issus

Fought in the town of Issus on the banks of the river Pinassus, the battle of Issus is the second greatest battle fought by Alexander on his path to the conquer Asia. It is considered a great battle by many historians, including Plutarch, who describe it in detail in their texts. The battle is fought against the forces of Darius III, and defeated him in this battle. It is here, that Alexander’s decided to subjugate Darius, and chased him vehemently through battles.

The battle of Issus was strategically important, for Darius had cut off the supply lines of Alexander from behind, occupying the town of Issus. This move would starve Alexander’s army, and they had to make a stand against Darius’s Army. This opportunity came at the banks of River Pinarus, either side of which the two armies assembled. Alexander had the advantage in terrain. In this, as in most battles Alexander fought, he had inferiour numbers. While the texts of Plutarch and Arrion put the numbers at 600,000, Modern historians believe that this number is highly exaggerated. Darius could have had no more than a 100,000 troops, while Alexander’s troops numbered at 40,000.

At the dawn, Alexander marched his army through the river and attacked the army of Darius. While Darius had companies of Greek mercenary Phalanx, the macedonian Phalanx was superior. Alexander had placed his Cavalry on the right flank, and was stationed with them, while Darius had assembled his most experienced Infantry and was directing the battle from there. Alexander cut through Darius’s Cavalry, and then proceeded to attack Darius himself, who then fled. But the Macedonian right flank was in trouble, and Alexander rode to rescue them with his cavalry. Seeing their king defeated, the mercenaries ran, and Alexander routed them, and the rest of the Persian Army dispersed, thus ending the Battle of Issus.

The Battle of Gaugamela

 Shortly before the Battle of Gaugamela, Darius offered Alexander a peace treaty, where he would cede half his empire to Alexander, and give one of his daughters to be married to him. However Alexander rejected the offer, and proceeded on to fight Darius at Gaugamela, defeating the Persian Empire for good. The battle would take place at the plains of Gaugamela, which Darius chose to deploy his regiment of chariots, the wheels of which were armed with big knives to cut through the Macedonian army. The rest of his army, was likewise outfitted with assortments specifically designed to fight against the celebrated Macedonian Phalanx.The disadvantage however, rested with the Persian Army as they were not as experienced as the Army of Alexander which was battle hardened in the campaigns of Egypt and other territories.

The initial dispositions of the forces were traditional, with the Persian Army assembling in two straight lines, with Darius standing in the center with his best infantry, and the chariots standing in the front. Alexander’s main Phalanx was in the center, while his cavalry and infantry was stationed at either side to protect their flanks. Alexander had a reserve cavalry behind the phalanx, which would be the centerpiece of his strategy.

As the battle commenced, Darius would direct his infantry and cavalry against both the left and right flanks of Alexander’s Army, while the scythed chariots would assualt the Macedonian Phalanx. The battle was fierce, with either side taking heavy losses. While the infantry battled the Persian troops in the center, Alexander began to ride all the way to the edge of the right flank, accompanied by his Companion Cavalry. His plan was to draw as much of the Persian cavalry as possible to the flanks. The purpose of this was to create a gap within the enemy line where a decisive blow could then be struck at Darius in the center. This required almost perfect timing and maneuvering, and Alexander himself to act first. Alexander would force Darius to attack (as they would soon move off the prepared ground) though Darius did not want to be the first to attack after seeing what happened at Issus against a similar formation. In the end Darius’ hand was forced, and he attacked.

While Alexander led his companion cavalry as a wedge against Darius’s main infantry, and defeated most of them, he came within fighting distance of Darius. Just as Alexander was beginning to take the fight to Darius himself, he recieved an urgent message from Parmenon, his general that his left flank had been in trouble. Alexander then left chasing Darius, and then proceeded to save his left flank, during which time Darius escaped for his life. Alexander claimed Darius’s Chariot, his bow, and other accessories.

The battle was won decisively, with Alexander’s Army killing at least a 100,000 of Darius’s troops. In the Aftermath of the battle, Alexander was given Darius’s tent, which was heavily adorned with expensive furniture, gold and silver. This was a victory that would engrave his name amongst the History’s great commanders.

The Indian campaign

After completely defeating Darius and taking over Persia, Alexander set his sights on the Indian subcontinent, and decided to fight there. He invited many of the satrapies in the region to submit to him, and while some did, King Porus did not. Alexander proceeded to fight against Porus who fielded War elephants against Alexander’s Cavalry, In the battle of Hydaspes in modern day Punjab. During this campaign, Alexander’s horse Bucephalus died, and Alexander buried him there and named a city Bucephala in his name. He was so impressed by Porus’s bravery that he made him an ally, and added to the territory he did not previously own.

Revolt and Return to Persia

East of the river Ganges, Alexander’s army, exhausted from years of campaign and faced with the prospect of facing enemies much more mightier than them, revolted against Alexander. His generals convinced him to return, and so he did, moving back towards the Indus and modern day Iran. Alexander then returned to Persia, and spent much of his remaining days there, adopting persian customs and held the title of Shah’n’Shah ( king of the kings ).

Death

In 323 B.C., Alexander died in the Palace of King Nebuchadnazzer II of Babylon. While the cause of his death has been debated widely, from Poisoning to Various diseases, Many historians believe he was asssassinated by his own generall and regent, Antipater. His body was enclosed in a Gold Sarcophagus, and filled with honey, and marked him undefeated in battle. It is said that before his death, he was asked the question who would inherit his kingdom, and He said ” to the strongest “.

Effect on the Macedonian Empire

Alexander sent back vast sums from his campaigns, leading the economy to flourish and further increased trade between east and the west.

However, his constant demands for troops for his campaign greatly weakened Macedon, which eventually led to its subjugation by Rome.

After his death, many of his successors fought over the legitimacy of an heir, and split the empire, which fell soon after. In the end, Alexander spread his empire too thin to remain cohesive enough after his death. During his reign, Macedonia was the largest empire in its time.

Alexander founded at least twenty cities bearing the name Alexandria, chief of which was Alexandria in Egypt, where he was crowned Pharaoh. Many greeks settled in these cities and they were the primary trade hubs within their respective regions. Alexandria of Egypt was especially popular, due to its central location in the region and harbour for trade.

There can be no doubt that Alexander was one of the most effective and celebrated commanders in the history of war. In his short life, he changed people and places as he went, conquered by both force and friendship and diplomacy, and set an example to the future generations. While he was not the best king, spending most of his rule in campaigns to conquer and expand his empire, he left forth a legacy which will forever give him his title, Alexander the Great.

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alexander the great 2

References:

  1. Alexander of Macedon, 356-323 B.C. : A Historical Biography, Peter Green
  2. Alexander the Great , Plutarch
  3. Alexander the Great , Robin Lane Fox
  4. Alexander the Great , Jacob Abott

– Beatrice Techawatanasuk (4G)

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