Alexander the Great: Facts, biography and accomplishments

Alexander the Great’s empire stretched from the Balkans to modern-day Pakistan.

Alexander the Great was king of Macedonia from 336 B.C. to 323 B.C. and conquered a huge empire that stretched from the Balkans to modern-day Pakistan.

During his reign, Alexander the Great had a massive impact in his time and sent ripples into the future. “In a reign of 13 years Alexander shot across the Greek and Middle Eastern firmament like a meteor, transforming whatever he — often brutally — touched and ensuring the ancient world and so eventually our world could never be the same again,” Paul Cartledge, A.G. Leventis professor of Greek culture at Cambridge University, wrote in All About History magazine.

Alexander’s triumphs also made him a legendary figure and an inspiration for future generations. “Until the internet age, Alexander the Great was probably the most famous human being who ever lived,” Cartledge wrote. “His astounding career of conquest inspired not just Caesar and Augustus but also Mark Antony, Napoleon, Hitler and other would-be world conquerors from the West.”

Yet, despite his military accomplishments, ancient records say that he failed to win the respect of some of his subjects, wrote Pierre Briant, emeritus professor of history at Collège de France, in “Alexander the Great and His Empire” (Princeton University Press, 2010) and, furthermore, he had some of the people closest to him murdered.

“The personality of Alexander the Great was a paradox,” Susan Abernethy of The Freelance History Writer told Live Science. “He had great charisma and force of personality but his character was full of contradictions, especially in his later years (his early 30s). However, he had the ability to motivate his army to do what seemed to be impossible.”

Alexander was born around July 20, 356 B.C., in Pella in modern-day northern Greece, which was the administrative capital of ancient Macedonia. He was the son of King Philip II and Olympias (one of Philip’s seven or eight wives) and was brought up with the belief that he was of divine birth. “From his earliest days, Olympias had encouraged him to believe that he was a descendent of heroes and gods. Nothing he had accomplished would have discouraged this belief,” wrote Guy MacLean Rogers, a professor of classics at Wellesley College, Massachusetts, in his book “Alexander” (Random House, 2004).

Alexander’s father was often away, conquering neighboring territories and putting down revolts. Nevertheless, King Philip II of Macedon was one of Alexander’s most influential role models, Abernethy said. “Philip ensured Alexander was given a noteworthy and significant education. He arranged for Alexander to be tutored by Aristotle himself … His education infused him with a love of knowledge, logic, philosophy, music and culture. The teachings of Aristotle [would later aid] him in the treatment of his new subjects in the empires he invaded and conquered, allowing him to admire and maintain these disparate cultures.”

Alexander watched his father campaign nearly every year and win victory after victory. Philip remodeled the Macedonian army from citizen-warriors into a professional organization, wrote Ian Worthington, professor of history and archaeology at Macquarie University, in “Philip II of Macedonia” (Yale University Press, 2010). Philip suffered serious wounds in battle, such as the loss of an eye, a broken shoulder and a damaged leg, according to Worthington.

Philip decided to leave his 16-year-old son in charge of Macedonia while he was away on campaign, Cartledge wrote in his book “Alexander the Great” (Overlook Press, 2004). Alexander took advantage of the opportunity by defeating a Thracian people called the Maedi and founding “Alexandroupolis,” a city he named after himself.

“Alexander felt the need to challenge his father’s authority and superiority and wished to out-do his father,” Abernethy said.

Ancient records, such as Plutarch’s “Lives,” indicate that Alexander and Philip became estranged later in Alexander’s teenage years. “Alexander may have resented his father’s many marriages and the children born from them, seeing them as a threat to his own position,” said Abernethy. At one point his mother Olympia was exiled to Epirus in western Greece.

Philip was assassinated in 336 B.C. while celebrating the wedding of his daughter Cleopatra (not the famous Egyptian pharaoh). The person who stabbed him was said to have been one of Philip’s former male lovers, named Pausanias. While the ancient Greek historian Cleitarchus pointed to jealousy and betrayal as the motive, as outlined by Diodorus Siculus in “Library of History,” other ancient sources like Justin in “Epitome of the Philippic History Of Pompeius Trogus” suspected that Pausanias may have been part of a larger plot to kill the king — one that may have included Alexander and his mother.

At the time of his death, Philip was contemplating invading the Persian Empire, also known as the Achaemenid Empire, which at its peak stretched from the Balkan peninsula to modern-day Pakistan and had repeatedly attempted to conquer the Greek world. Philip’s dream was passed onto Alexander, partly via his mother Olympias, according to Abernethy. “She fostered in him a burning dynastic ambition and told him it was his destiny to invade Persia.”

Upon his father’s death, Alexander moved quickly to consolidate power. He gained the support of the Macedonian army and intimidated the Greek city states that Philip had conquered into accepting his rule. After campaigns in the Balkans and Thrace, Alexander moved against Thebes, a city in Greece that had risen up in rebellion. He conquered it in 335 B.C. and had the city destroyed.

With Greece and the Balkans pacified, he was ready to launch a campaign against the Persian Empire.

While Alexander may have had his own reasons for expanding eastward, “his official reason for wanting to conquer the Achaemenid Persian Empire… was to lead the allied Greeks in a war of liberation: to free forever from Persian control the Greek cities along the Anatolian coast and on the island of Cyprus, and in so doing also to exact revenge for the Persians’ invasion of Greece under Great King Xerxes in 480-479 BCE,” Cartledge wrote.

But ironically, Alexander often fought Greek mercenaries while campaigning against Darius III, the king of Persia. Even more ironically, Sparta, a city that had famously lost its king and 300 warriors in the Battle of Thermopylae during a Persian invasion attempt, also opposed Alexander, going so far as to seek Persian help in the Spartans’ efforts to overthrow him, according to Siculus.

Nevertheless, Alexander was hugely successful against Persia. The first major battle he won against the Perisans was in 334 B.C. at the Battle of Granicus, fought in modern-day western Turkey, not far from the ancient city of Troy. The ancient Greek historian Arrian wrote that Alexander defeated a force of 20,000 Persian horsemen and an equal number of foot soldiers. He then advanced down the coast of west Turkey, taking cities and depriving the Persian navy of bases.

The second key battle he won — and perhaps the most important — was the Battle of Issus, fought in 333 B.C. near the ancient town of Issus in southern Turkey, close to modern-day Syria. In that battle, the Persians were led by Darius III himself. Arrian estimated that Darius had a force of 600,000 troops (probably wildly exaggerated) and initially positioned himself on a great plain where he could mass his force effectively against Alexander, who hesitated to give battle.

Darius is said to have thought this as a sign of timidity. “One courtier after another incited Darius, declaring that he would trample down the Macedonian army with his cavalry,” Arrian wrote. So, Darius gave up his position and chased Alexander. At first this went well, and Darius’s soldiers got in the rear of Alexander’s force. However, Darius’s army had been led to a narrow spot where the Persians could not use their superior numbers effectively, and at that point Alexander moved his force against the Persians. Alexander’s experienced army proved too strong for the Persian force, and eventually Darius fled, along with his army.

In his haste, Darius left much of his family behind, including his mother, wife, infant son and two daughters. Alexander ordered that they be “honored, and addressed as royalty,” Arrian wrote. After the battle, Darius offered Alexander a ransom for his family and alliance, through marriage.

Arrian wrote that Alexander rebuked Darius in writing, saying “in the future whenever you send word to me, address yourself to me as King of Asia and not as an equal, and let me know, as the master of all that belonged to you, if you have need of anything.”


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