Want to discover the story of Alexander the Great's vast conquest? To know how the son of the king of Macedon Philip II managed to triumph over the immense Persian empire of Darius III?
We have prepared for you an article retracing Alexander's journey from his first battles in Greece to his death after the conquest of India.
Alexander III or Alexander the Great is a Macedonian king, son of Philip II of Macedon. After his father conquered the entirety of Greece, Alexander will attack and defeat the Persia of the emperor Darius III. At its death, in -332, Alexander reigns on Greece, Egypt, Syria, Persia, and India (in addition to Macedon), from where his title of "the Great".
In this article, you will discover:
- The origins of Alexander the Great
- The seizure of power of Alexander in Macedon
- The conquests of Alexander the Great
- The end of the conquests of Alexander the Great
After this article, you will know everything about the life of the king with the best proportion of conquest per year of reign (if we stick to the immense territory acquired in only 12 years of conquest outside Greece, from -336 to -324!).
Let's start without further delay!
1) The origins of Alexander the Great
A) History of Macedon
Alexander the Great (or Alexander III) was born on July 21, 356 BC in Pella, the capital of the kingdom of Macedon.
His father is the king of Macedon Philip II of the dynasty of Argeads (a family reigning on Macedon since -700). His mother is Olympias, the third wife of Philip II and a princess of Epirus (a kingdom close to Macedon).
From an early age, one makes Alexander understand that he is different from the others:
- His father, Philip II, claims to descend from Temenus of Argos (the founder of the dynasty of Argeads considered a descendant of Heracles, the demigod son of Zeus).
- His mother, Olympias, claims to be descended from the demigod Achilles, one of the great heroes of the Trojan War of the poet Homer's Iliad.
- His mother claims that on the night of Alexander's conception, the god of thunder Zeus himself visited her in the form of lightning. Thus, according to Olympias, it is Zeus and not Philip II the father of Alexander, which makes Alexander a demigod.
- According to some Greek writers (especially Plutarch), Alexander was born on the same day as the criminal destruction of the "Temple of Artemis" at Ephesus. Indeed, the Greek Herostratus set fire to the temple on July 21, 356 BC so that history would remember him. Alexander would thus be the "reincarnation of one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World" that was the Temple of Artemis.
Alexander the Great considers himself as a son of Zeus from his childhood. It is thus hard for him not to want to exceed his mortal father Philip II by leaving to the conquest of all the known grounds of antiquity.
At the time of Philip II, Macedon is considered with contempt by the Greeks. Indeed, the Greeks consider all the people not speaking Greek as barbarians. Yet, the Macedonians speak the old Macedonian which a Greek dialect (but which is not regarded as "pure Greek"). Thus, the city-states of Athens, Thebes, Sparta, and Phocis consider the Macedonians as "half-barbarians".
Philip II dreams of uniting Greece. To achieve his ends, he will initially modernize the Macedonian army to gain several battles against the Greeks, in particular:
- The Battle of Thermopylae in -352 against the Athenians (this battle takes place well after the other "Battle of Thermopylae" opposing the Spartan king Leonidas to the Persian emperor Xerxes 1st in -480).
- The Battle of Chaeronea in -338 against a coalition linking the Athenians and the Thebans.
After these two successes, Philip II gains the respect of the Greeks and can join together the Greek city-states within the League of Corinth. Directed by Philip II and gathering the whole of the Greek cities, this league has for ambition to defend Greece against the Persian Empire.
Greece at the time of Philip II (336 BC)
B) Philip II of Macedon
At the request of Olympias, Alexander follows a hard training from the age of 7. His first tutor, Leonidas of Epirus, introduces him to physical and martial exercises, literature, music if you are a fan of ancient music maybe you will be interested by a Kalimba, and more general themes such as politics and economics.
From the age of 14 to 16, Alexander followed the teachings of the Greek philosopher Aristotle. Aristotle perfected Alexander's education along the lines of the teachings and values of Homer's Iliad. Based on this war story, Alexander forms a vision of what his reign should be: he sees himself at the head of a solidly unified Greece setting out to conquer neighboring lands.
Achilles dragging the remains of the Trojan prince Hector during the siege of Troy in the Iliad. The story of Achilles' life will greatly inspire Alexander.
Aristotle also transmits to Alexander his hostile feelings towards the Persians, in particular towards their emperor (Artaxerxes III) having killed Hermias of Atarneus (one of Aristotle's friends) in 341 BC.
Alexander follows the teachings of Aristotle in the company of his future principal generals. Indeed, by the tradition of raising the sons of high nobility together, Alexander meets Hephaestion (his future best friend), Ptolemy, Eumenes, Callisthenes, Perdiccas, Philotas, and Seleucus.
According to his legend, it is also at this time that Alexander meets his war horse, Bucephalus. Bucephalus would be at that time an indomitable horse that Alexander succeeds in controlling by following the wise teachings of Aristotle. Seeing that Bucephalus was afraid of his own shadow, Alexander moves the horse to the shelter of the Sun so that the animal can calm down and he can ride him.
2) Alexander's seizure of power
A) First battles of Alexander the Great
At the Battle of Chaeronea in -338, Philip II entrusts Alexander with the command of the left wing of his cavalry. During this battle, Alexander will make a name for himself by charging and massacring the entirety of the elite Theban unit called the "sacred battalion".
In -336, Philip II decides to take for new wife a Macedonian woman to consolidate his popularity towards his people. Olympias, the mother of Alexander of extra-Macedonian origin, makes understand to the latter that if Philip II has a son with a Macedonian woman, this son will be his new heir. Thus, Alexander opposes this union and disputes violently with his father.
Olympias is afraid that her son is made assassinate by Philip II. Fortunately, Alexander and Philip II are reconciled when Alexander saves the life of Philip at the time of an attack of invaders coming from Persia.
B) Death of Philip II
During the summer of the year -336, Philip II is assassinated during the marriage of his daughter Cleopatra of Macedon. The murderer of Philip II, the young noble Pausanias of Orestis, kills him to avenge his inaction towards an injustice. Indeed, Pausanias of Orestis underwent an injustice on behalf of one of the generals of Philip II of whom he had mocked and who raped him to punish him.
Today, most historians agree on the fact that this assassination was not supported by Alexander.
It is more likely that Pausanias of Orestis was sent by Olympias (wanting to take revenge on a husband who repudiated him) or by Darius III (the new Persian emperor who would like to warn himself of an enemy capable of federating all the Greeks).
C) Alexander the Great in Greece
With the death of his father, Alexander becomes king of Macedon. He must however face the old Greek allies of his father, who revolt against him.
In -335, Alexander carries out a great operation against the rebel Greek cities. On the edge of the Danube, he crushes the army of the Thracian rebels. With his return in Macedon, close to the Lake Prespa, he defeats the Illyrian and Dardanian separatists.
Still in -335, wanting to make an example, Alexander razes completely Thebes and reduces in slavery the totality of the survivors (that is to say 30,000 slaves). In front of this proof of force, no more Greek city dares to dispute the authority of Alexander on the whole of Greece unified by Philip II.
3) The conquests of Alexander
A) The War against the Persians
At the beginning of the year -334, Alexander directs the whole of the armies of Greece and Macedon. He decides to pursue the dream of his father: to attack and conquer the Persian territory of the emperor Darius III.
The Persian empire is immense. It extends from the Mediterranean Sea to the Indus (the river at the western edge of current India). Yet, the Persian empire of Darius III is no longer the great conquering nation that it was in the time of his great Persian conquering ancestors like Xerxes I. Indeed, no new conquest has been added to the Persian territory for 150 years when Darius III acceded to the Persian throne.
Darius III is very rich and can raise huge armies that would be much larger than all those that Alexander could gather. However, the Persian empire is so large that it takes several weeks for a messenger on horseback to deliver a request for reinforcements and several months for a battalion on foot to arrive at a battle area.
On the military level, the Persian soldiers and generals do not make the weight facing their Macedonian and Greek counterparts. The Macedonians and Greeks are over-trained and well equipped. They are led by generals experienced in the art of war (with at their head the charismatic Alexander). On their side, the Persian generals fought very few battles and are based especially on their theoretical knowledge of war.
The Persians particularly fear the Macedonian phalanxes forming "impenetrable iron walls". Each phalanx is made up of 16 rows of combatants (called phalangites) heavily protected by armor and shields. The lances of the soldiers of the phalanx vary from 5 to 7 meters according to their position in the phalanx. The wall of peaks which they form makes the phalanx unassailable of front.
B) The Conquest of Persia
In -334, perceiving himself as the Achilles of Macedon, Alexander is ready to begin the story of his own Iliad. With an army of 35,000 soldiers and his generals Ptolemy, Seleucus and Antigonus, Alexander begins the invasion of Persia by crossing the Channel of Hellespont (today called Strait of Dardanelles).
Near the ancient city of Troy where Achilles and his cousin Patroclus fought, Alexander faces an army of 40,000 Persians. Although superior in number, the Persians are massacred. Alexander and his generals attack brutally without developing the elaborate and complex strategies that the Persian generals had expected. The myth of this first battle on Persian territory tells that Alexander lost only 110 men at Granicus.
Despite Alexander's superiority on land, he was afraid of a maritime conflict. He thus makes move back his ships and decides to move towards Phoenicia where the Persian naval bases are located in order to deprive the Persians of the support of their ships.
The map of the conquests of Alexander the Great
C) The Battle of Issus
To arrive in Phoenicia, Alexander has to go along the coast of the Mediterranean Sea. It will be there his first confrontation against Darius III at the Battle of Issus.
In Issus, the forces of Alexander are much less numerous than those of Darius III. Alexander has 35,000 infantrymen against 100,000 for Darius III. In the same way, Alexander has only 5,850 horsemen against 11,000 for Darius III.
Alexander knows that he will have much difficulty to win the Battle of Issus with a normal strategy. He thus decides to attack directly Darius III with his cavalry to frighten the Persian army by quickly killing its leader. Thus, while his infantry resists the immense Persian army, Alexander pushes down the Persian left wing before falling back on Darius III posted on his war chariot in the center of his troops.
Although Darius III's close guard (the famous Persian "immortals") heroically resists Alexander's horsemen, Alexander's forces succeed in killing the horses of Darius III's chariot.
When Darius III changes war chariot, he panics at the approach of Alexander and leaves the battlefield with his cavalry. This panic gains the whole of the Persian troops who flee in their turn. Alexander takes advantage of it to massacre without mercy the disorganized Persian fleeing men.
At the end of the Battle of Issus, whereas the Persians were 2.5 times more numerous, 20,000 deaths are to be deplored on their side against 7,000 on the Greek and Macedonian side.
The "Mosaic of Alexander", dating from the 2nd century BC, representing the Battle of Issus. This mosaic was found in 1831 in the ruins of Pompeii. It is now exposed at the Naples National Archaeological Museum.
Alexander and his horse Bucephalus in the "Mosaic of Alexander"
Darius III on his war chariot in the "Mosaic of Alexander"
When Alexander's soldiers plunder the camp freshly abandoned by Darius III, they capture Darius' mother and wives. Alexander will choose to treat them well and protect them from his men.
Alexander will however use them as a means of pressure on Darius III who will not be able to counter-attack for fear of seeing his mother and wives executed by Alexander in reprisal.
D) The pharaoh Alexander the Great
Thanks to these precious hostages, Alexander has his hands free to pursue his conquests. However, knowing that Darius III still had many troops left, Alexander chose instead to seize Egypt to increase his military and financial resources.
However, on the way to Egypt, he faces resistance from the port city of Tyre, which refuses to open its doors to Alexander. Alexander besieged the city for 8 months without success. The walls and the garrison which protect the city do not seem to be able to yield.
Nevertheless, a joint attack by ground and sea overcomes the defenses of the city. 8,000 Tyrian defenders are killed. After the capture of Tyre, to show what it costs to oppose him, Alexander is ruthless: 2,000 young Tyrian men are crucified. All the survivors of the siege (30,000 men, women and children) are enslaved.
By his victory in Tyre showing his military superiority, all the cities that Alexander met afterwards opened their doors to him without discussion. The decision to enslave and crucify part of the defeated population of Tyre is certainly the greatest act of cruelty that Alexander the Great committed.
Arriving in Egypt, Alexander is welcomed as a liberator. He is thanked for having freed Egypt from the yoke of Persia that had oppressed it for 200 years. In Memphis, Alexander is proclaimed pharaoh.
In the oasis of Siwa, Alexander meets the oracle of the Greco-Egyptian god Zeus-Ammon (a god representing both the Egyptian god Amun-Ra and the Greek god Zeus). The oracle tells Alexander that his father is not Philip II but the god Zeus-Ammon.
With this revelation, many people begin to think that Alexander's victories are due to the fact that he is a god (which Alexander himself also believes). This revelation confirms to Alexander that his destiny is to rule the whole world.
E) The Battle of Gaugamela
After spending 3 years in Egypt, in 331 BC, Alexander consolidated his army and decided to finish off Darius III by heading for the capital of Persia: Persepolis.
Yet, Darius III waits for Alexander's army in the plain of Gaugamela (located in present-day Iraq). Darius has an army of 300,000 men. His army is so large that it spreads over 5 kilometers wide.
Alexander having only 50,000 men, he must be cunning. To do this, he leads his cavalry in such a way as to bypass the Persian army and attack it from behind. The generals of Darius III react by launching their troops in pursuit of Alexander and his horsemen. However, Alexander's maneuver is a feint: he turns his cavalry, which attacks head-on with all his other forces.
The Persian army is then badly positioned for a frontal attack: Darius III is exposed and has only his close guard to protect him from Alexander. As in the Battle of Issus, Darius III must flee to escape Alexander's horsemen. And, as in the Battle of Issus, the army of Darius III flees, demotivated by the abandonment of the battlefield by his sovereign.
Charles Le Brun, "The Battle of Arbela", 1669 (the Battle of Arbela is the other name given to the Battle of Gaugamela in reference to the closest city to the battlefield on the Gaugamela plain: Arbela).
After the Battle of Gaugamela, the Persian army is completely dispersed. The great Persian metropolises did not seek to fight Alexander and welcomed him unconditionally. Alexander and his men triumph successively in the cities of Babylon and Susa.
However, Persepolis, the capital of the Achaemenid dynasty (the dynasty of Darius III) knows a fate less enviable than Babylon and Susa.
Indeed, in -331, Alexander set fire to the city. This act can be seen as a means of welding the Greeks and the Macedonians by showing that Alexander avenged all Greece victim of Persian invasions whose culminating point was the fire of Athens by Xerxes I in -480.
At the conclusion of the fire of Persepolis, Alexander pursues Darius III in the mountains of current Afghanistan to ensure a total victory on this last. However, Darius III is killed by his generals wanting to appropriate the favors of Alexander. According to the rumor that Alexander's generals spread, Alexander found Darius III dying and asked him to avenge him (which Alexander did by having the officers responsible for the assassination of Darius III killed).
4) The end of Alexander's conquests
A) Conquest of Asia
In -327, Alexander put an end to the resistance of the last loyalists of Darius III. Alexander thus has under his control Macedon, Greece, Syria, Egypt, and Persia. He decides to continue his conquest by attacking the heart of Asia: the India of the king Porus.
In July of the year -326, Porus tries to stop the progression of the troops of Alexander at the time of the Battle of the Hydaspes (the Hydaspes river is a river at the foot of Everest today called the Jhelum river).
During this battle, Alexander and Porus will each have about the same number of men (34,000 infantrymen and 5,000 horsemen for Alexander against 30,000 infantrymen and 4,000 horsemen for Porus). However, Porus has an advantage of size against Alexander: he is accompanied by 300 mounted war elephants.
During this battle, Alexander knows that his cavalry will be of no use against the elephants (because the horses will be too frightened to charge such large animals). Alexander thus decides to oppose the elephants to his Macedonian and Greek phalanxes provided with spades and bows. The phalangists succeed in routing the elephants but undergo enormous losses.
Above: a medieval representation of the Battle of the Hydaspe.
Elephants defeated, king Porus, wounded during the fight, surrenders to Alexander. Alexander still wants to continue his conquest towards the east. However, this time, his Macedonian and Greek soldiers, exhausted after an expedition of conquest having started in -334 (that is to say 8 years earlier), refuse to follow him and threaten to revolt. Alexander is forced to listen to them. He resumes the way of the return.
After having crossed the desert of Gedrosia (in current Iran), Alexander arrives in -324 to Babylon, his new capital. Alexander dies one year later (probably of his alcoholism according to the majority of historians).
B) The death of Alexander the Great
In only 12 years (from -336 to -324), Alexander built himself an immense empire going from Macedon to India. With his death (at the 32 years age), on June 11 of the year -323, his heirs are not old enough to control his empire and are quickly assassinated.
The principal generals of Alexander fight between them to preserve the territory of which they were each one named governors. From 322 to 281, wars called "Wars of the Diadochi" (or "Wars of Alexander's Successors") take place. These wars lead to the break-up of Alexander's empire in the hands of several great kings:
- The general Cassander reigns on Macedon and a part of Greece (on the "Antigonid empire"). It is Cassander who made assassinate the legitimate heir of Alexander the Great, Alexander IV.
- The general Ptolemy reigns over Egypt of which he becomes the pharaoh. Ptolemy founds the "Ptolemaic dynasty" (which will last until the suicide of his descendant Cleopatra VII in -30).
- The general Seleucus reigns on the Persia of Darius III. He founds the "Seleucid dynasty" (which will reign until -64 on Persia).
Alexander the Great
This article finished, the life of Alexander has no more secrets for you! Alexander occupied an important place in the history books of all eras because his rapid conquest of an important part of the world in a very short time is a fascinating story.
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