Alexander the Great: A New World and a New Turning Point for Western Civilization



Alexander the Great on the mosaic from the House of Faun in Pompeii, c.100 BCE, possibly based on a lost Hellenistic painting by Philoxenos of Eretria, The Battle of Issus, c. 315 BCE, Museo Archeologico Nazionale, Naples. / From Steven Zucker at flicker, Creative Commons


Edited by Matthew A. McIntosh
Brewminate Editor-in-Chief

From a lecture by Dr. Frank Holt, Professor of Ancient History, University of Houston (10.15.2013)


Our imaginations often take us to aliens and outer space when we try to imagine a different place, a different kind of life.  We make most of them human-like.  What did the ancient Greeks do when they let their imaginations run wild?  Where did they create legends and what kinds of creatures did they imagine inhabited those places?  For the Greeks, this place was India.  This was about as far away as the Greeks could imagine, and they thought the world actually ended there.  They had no notion of the Far East and Southeast Asia.


Beings Spoken of by Greeks / Wikimedia Commons

Early Greeks who went to India c.500 BCE returned and told stories very much like our modern movies of outer space.  Above are some of the creatures they described encountering there.  Some that they described, such as elephants, were actually real.


The World map of the Classical Greeks from the 5th century BCE

The Greek map in the 5th century BCE showed only Europe and Asia with Africa as a part of Asia.  The dividing line was between Greece at the Black Sea.  The Greeks had not yet gone past the Strait of Gibraltar, which they called the Pillars of Hercules.  India took its name from the Indus River, and when the Greeks learned of the Ganges they would often confuse the two.  They described strange creatures and invented the Griffin – part eagle, part lion.  We think they got the idea for this creature by misunderstanding the skeletons of dinosaurs that could be found in the East.


Griffin / Wikimedia Commons

The 5th century BCE (500-401 BCE) was the century of navies and empire, particularly Athenian.  The 4th century BCE (400-301 BCE) was the century of mercenaries and Macedonians.  During the 4th century BCE, the Greeks had brought forth hegemonies that were under the thumb of the Persian Empire.  The Persians had stopped invading the Greek poleis (autonomous city-states) and let them fight each other while siding with the weaker to defeat the stronger.  This was an era of professional soldiers.  Many adult male Greeks had no livelihood left but to lease themselves as mercenaries, and they were in high demand.  Prior to this, each polis defended itself – Athenians defended Athens, Spartans defended Sparta, Thebans defended Thebes, and so on.  But now they could hire others to fight for them, and being driven by ideology in battle was lost as mercenaries fought for whoever paid the most.  The largest employer of mercenaries was Persia.  Greek poleis didn’t have nearly as much wealth as Persia and could only hire so many mercenaries and not the best.  The Persian army’s elite arm was its cavalry.  They never had a strong infantry, and now they could simply buy it.

Also in the 4th century BCE, Macedon, on the northern edge of the Balkan Peninsula, emerged as a major political and military force.  The Macedonians had always existed in a state of danger.  They always fought Barbarians to their north, consequently keeping them from the poleis to the south as well.  They couldn’t develop as well as other poleis because they were always fighting.  They never had a city-state (polis) system and remained an old Homeric state with a monarchy.  Very much like Achilles, the Macedonian king was expected to be first into battle – a warrior first and foremost.  He had to prove himself in battle on a regular basis or his troops would eliminate him.  Ancient Macedonian kings lived on the front lines of battle.  This quickly eliminated kings who made foolhardy decisions as they only had once chance to make a mistake.  He would be the first to die.  We know of kings 80 years old and leading battle charges because they were expected to do so.  If an infant king was elected, he still had to be tied to a horse going into battle.  There was also much palace intrigue as many kings were also assassinated for political reasons.  However, Macedon produced an extraordinary army that led to complete conquest of Greece and Persia.

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Philip II of Macedon (left) and Macedonian Expansion in 348 BCE (right) / Wikimedia Commons

Philip II ruled Macedon 359-336 BCE.  Macedon was being overrun by a tribe of non-Greeks, the Illyrians, and he had to fight them off.  He retrained his army and built the incredible army that his son would use to conquer the Persian Empire.  Philip was the first to have fully developed machines like catapults and battering rams.  He did all this by leading from the front as all kings had to do.  By the time he was assassinated in 336 BCE, he had seven wounds to his body.  One wound was an arrow gouging out of his right eye, and his leg was also so severely hurt that he limped the rest of his life.  Those who didn’t like him, such as Demosthenes of Athens, railed about the “one-eyed limping barbarian in the north” because they saw Philip as a danger to Greeks.  Many Greeks saw Macedonians not as true Greeks but as Barbarians themselves.  Thebes joined Demosthenes at Athens and declared war on Macedon.  They sent their armies north to confront Philip and make sure he knew that Greek poleis would remain independent.  Philip marched south and met them at the Battle of Chaeronea in 338 BCE.

Many say this was the turning point when the Greek city-state system gave way to a military monarchy – kingship once again – because Philip soundly defeated Athens and Thebes (including the Sacred Band of Thebes).  This sealed the deal for Philip as a major power in all of Greece.  He didn’t invade and occupy all of Greece but instead convinced them to join him and combine their resources in a great Panhellenic war against the Persian Empire.  He said Persia, not he, was the true enemy.  Only one polis, Sparta, did not join him, and he simply discarded them as unnecessary.  The Spartans were still great warriors but were severely weakened by the past.  They tried to revolt against Macedon while Philip was away, but the troops he left behind crushed the revolt.  The Spartans, having finally met what were now their military superiors, were no match for Macedon.

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Hammer and Anvil / Wikimedia Commons

Philip planned a great expedition against the Persian Empire but was assassinated in 336 BCE before he could lead it, struck down at his moment of glory.  Philip’s army was composed of highly integrated forces of infantry and cavalry.  Greek armies always had cavalry, but the Hoplites were primarily infantry with only a few horsemen at their flank for protection.  But the Macedonian cavalry was numerous and effective.  Their cavalry was equal to their infantry.  Philip developed a military tactic called “hammer and anvil.”  This is still used today.

He used the infantry as an anvil (the iron forge on which molten metal is hammered into shape) to pin down the enemy.  When the enemy was engaged with long spears and locked in, the Macedonian cavalry would ride in led by the king himself and break them (the hammer).  Philip and later his son, Alexander, used this tactic with success against all sorts of enemies.

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Aegae ruins (left), Aegae theatre (center), Pella ruins (right) / Wikimedia Commons

Ancient Macedon had two capital cities, an old one at Aegae and a new administrative capital built by Philip at Pella.  Great ceremonies of state (such as crowning, royal marriages, royal burials) were held at Aegae.  We had no idea in the modern era where Aegae was located, but it has been found and excavated in northern Greece just beyond the foothills of Mount Olympus.  It had a great royal palace and a large theater.  We now know that Philip was assassinated as he walked from the palace into the theater.  He was preparing to lead armies to Persia.  He sent a procession into the theater of men carrying statues of each of the twelve major deities.  A thirteenth was brought in of Philip himself now being hailed as the thirteenth Olympian god.  As he stepped into the theater, one of his bodyguards broke rank and ran to stab him in the back, and he fell dead in a very public assassination.  Witnessing the event were Philip’s seven wives and three children (two sons and a daughter).  Below the theater and palace was a city, and near this a cemetery around which the modern town of Vergina developed in 1922.

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Tomb II at Vergina / Creative Commons

The most famous tomb discovered in 1977 was Vergina II.  This was the second tomb found underground.  It was built of stone with a marble façade and painted frieze depicting a hunting scene.  It had an antechamber and then a main chamber, both with marble doors.  The deceased was interred and then the tomb was immediately covered with Earth.  Manolis Andronikos found the tomb and dropped in through the rear portion where he saw the top of a marble sarcophagus (inside of which would be found a king’s remains).  Around the sarcophagus were items buried with this Macedonian king – armor, weapons, silver drinking vessels from the symposium (drinking party) celebrating him.  This is the main chamber.  In the antechamber was the burial of a queen as well in equal splendor.

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Golden burial box (left), ceremonial shield (center), and war helmet (right) / From Tomb II at Vergina, Creative Commons

The king’s body was cremated and his remains very carefully gathered and placed in a golden burial box in the marble sarcophagus.  The shield was purely ceremonial.  Macedonian kings harkened to the Homeric lifestyle.  They had to be warrior kings, quick to defend honor, and properly buried via cremation.  The remaining bones were scooped up, washed in wine, wrapped in a purple cloth, and placed in a gold burial box.  The box had the starburst on its lid, the symbol of the Macedonian state.

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Remains from Tomb II at Vergina / Creative Commons

Hundreds of pieces of bone found in the box were painstakingly put together as much as possible to reconstruct the king’s skeleton.  Bones crack and warp in the cremation process, and this warping has made it very difficult to identify the king.  If it is Philip II, we would expect to find evidence of the arrow injury to his right eye.  Some claim it is there while others claim this is the result of warping.  Some say it is Alexander’s half-brother, Philip III.  In any case, this is certainly a close member of Alexander’s family.  These tombs give us insight into how Macedonians treated their dead kings in Homeric fashion and how wealthy they were.


Bust of Alexander the Great from Alexandria, Egypt / British Museum

When Philip was assassinated, the Macedonians had to select a new king.  They gathered in the theater and proclaimed his son with Olympias, Alexander III, the new king.  The original name of Olympias was Myrtle, but when Philip won a chariot race at the Olympics he renamed her in honor of the event.  Alexander traced his lineage all the way back to Hercules on his father’s side and Achilles on his mother’s (rulers were find of divine ancestry).  Throughout his life, he openly competed not just with the reputation of his father but of these ancestors as well.  He wished to outdo all of these men and in doing so achieve divinity himself.

Alexander is indeed the stuff of legends.  He became king at the age of 29, and before his death at 33 he had conquered much of the world known to them.  He accomplished all of that in this short span of time.  Other rulers may have conquered more territory in other times, but none did it younger or faster than him.

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Greek bust of Alexander the Great, 2nd century BCE (left); Roman bust, 2nd century CE (right) / Creative Commons

Because of these accomplishments, he has been a hero to many ever since – Greeks, Romans, Egyptians, the medieval era as a pious purveyor of Christianity, and in modern times as well.  Such legends infiltrate every part of culture.  The Egyptians even claimed him as one of their own and believed that he actually descended from pharaohs.  It is rare for a conqueror to become so endeared to those he conquers.  It is true that he never lost a battle at which he was present, though other units were occasionally defeated in his absence.  He may well have been dethroned (likely assassinated if not killed in the battle) had he lost a battle leading the charge as expected.  Alexander has been portrayed on one extreme as a heroic youth dreaming of the unity and brotherhood of all mankind and on the other the most evil person to ever live.  In any case, his military genius cannot be denied.  He figured out under the most incredible range of circumstances what he had to do to win each battle, and even today military leaders are in awe of that kind of leadership.  At other times and in the Middle Ages he was given credit for having invented the first undersea vessels, the first flying machines, etc.  Credit had been given to him for already doing practically anything that could be imagined.


From Alexander to Jesus, by Ory Amitay, claims that Alexander was actually the model for Jesus.  Modern scholars even draw this close connection.  Other countries are also attempting to claim that they were actually Alexander’s origin and Macedonians weren’t really Greek.  Macedonians were certainly Greek – there is no daylight between Greeks and Macedonians in the gods/goddesses they worshipped and many other facets.


Location of Pella

Alexander was born in 356 BCE in Macedon at Pella to Philip II and Olympias.  His parents were at odds from time to time as he grew up.  Philip had seven wives, and there was competition as to who would produce the next generation of kings.  Olympias obviously wanted Alexander to be the heir.  She occasionally fled with him but was always brought back to Philip.  When Philip was assassinated in 336 BCE, Alexander was proclaimed king at just 20 years of age.  The army gambled on him as the rightful king.  His greatest rival would have been his half-brother Philip III, but he was deemed unfit for military command having been born with severe physical and mental disabilities.  After Alexander died, Philip III was made king for a while because no one was left in the royal family.


Alexander the Great’s Conquests and Empire

We know some of what Philip planned when uniting Greek poleis to invade Persia, but we don’t know how far he planned to go.  Alexander’s intent was to take every piece of Persian soil, which was a huge ambition for such a young man.  He could have launched the invasion immediately after Philip’s death as the army had been prepared and was ready to go, but he had to re-secure the position of Macedonian Greece in 336-335 BCE campaigning in the north against Barbarian tribes.  He was making sure things were safe at home before leaving, showing patience in that regard.  He was very calculating instead of being impetuous and rushing rashly into engagements.  While he was conquering northern territories, some Greeks did rebel, such as the city of Thebes who had already been defeated by his father in 338 BCE.  They heard wrongly that Alexander had been killed in battle and renounced their allegiance to Macedon.  Alexander marched to Thebes and ordered their surrender.  They underestimated him as a young man and refused.  He stormed and captured Thebes, and the Macedonian army destroyed the city.  All survivors were sold into slavery and all buildings burned.  The temple was spared as was the life and home of Pindar, a poet who had written well of Macedonian kings.  This event made the point that while he was away, rebellion was not wise.  Even Demosthenes in Athens, who outwardly loathed Philip II, congratulated Alexander on his victory.  Alexander began his move into the Near East in 334 BCE.


Darius III from the House of Faun mosaic in Pompeii, c.100 BCE, possibly based on a lost Hellenistic painting by Philoxenos of Eretria, The Battle of Issus, c. 315 BCE, Museo Archeologico Nazionale, Naples. / From Steven Zucker at flicker, Creative Commons

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Battle of Granicus River (left) and Battle of Issus (right) / Wikimedia Commons

There would be four major engagements in Alexander’s life.  The first was in 334 BCE at the Battle of the Granicus River.  The Persian king, Darius III, was not there.  His grandfather, Darius I, had invaded Greece in 490 BCE.  Now Darius III would face Alexander III.  Darius knew that Philip had died and that young Alexander was in charge.  He saw him as no threat and sent an army to confront the young Alexander and send him home, basically teaching him a lesson.  He remained in Persepolis as his army went to meet Alexander, feeling that it was not worthy of his attention.  Alexander soundly won this battle.  The Persian commanders did not use their cavalry effectively.  Accounts of the battle describe Alexander riding headlong into the charge and almost being killed, as a Macedonian king would be expected to do.  The crest of his helmet was chopped off, and as the enemy soldier was about to deliver the killing blow, Clitus rode up and in the last second chopped off the soldier’s arm to save Alexander.  He defeated the Persians here and captured Asia Minor (Anatolia, modern Turkey).  Darius then knew he had to personally lead an army against Alexander, whom he had underestimated.  He gathered forces far exceeding Alexander’s in number.  In 333 BCE, they both marched and met at a second great battle – the Battle of Issus.  Alexander again used the hammer and anvil tactic in this battle and personally led the charge of the cavalry.  Darius was sent fleeing in a chariot to leap to a waiting escape horse.  Darius escaped, but the Persian army was defeated.


Siege of Tyre / Wikimedia Commons

Alexander captured Darius’s traveling tent, and his troops were amazed at the wealth and luxuries they saw.  The family of Darius (mother, wife, and children) was waiting at the tent for his victorious return and were instead greeted by Alexander.  As ruthless as Alexander could be when necessary, he treated Darius’s family well and allowed them to live in the luxury to which they were accustomed.  Darius’s mother eventually admitted that she was fonder of Alexander who took better care of her than her own son.  Darius himself fled to regroup.  Alexander did not chase him down but instead decided that he could not advance into Mesopotamia until his supply line was secure.  He knew he had to control the coastline along the Mediterranean Sea, and he knew it was wiser to let Darius go and focus on this instead.  He waited to march on the Persians after his father’s death and here he waited to follow Darius, and this patience in strategy was typical of him.

Darius had a huge navy, and as long as he controlled the coast they would easily cut Alexander’s supply line.  Alexander began to capture various cities, making his way down the coast until he came to Tyre in January 332 BCE.  Tyre was a huge city on an island about a half mile off the coast.  He sent a boat to order them to surrender, and they refused when they saw that he had no navy and no way to advance on the island.  He gave them another chance to surrender, and again they refused.  His army then put the city under siege and spent nine months building a causeway to the island.  This was one of the greatest sieges in human history.  By the time he had reached the wall, the people of Tyre had accumulated nine months’ worth of excrement which they mixed in boiling vats to dump on the Macedonian soldiers.  When Alexander finally captured the city, he was in no mood for lenience and wiped out tens of thousands of people.  Alexander’s ancient army had forever transformed the topography by reconfiguring the coastline to reach the city.



Macedonian Phalanx / Wikimedia Commons

Soldiers marched in the Macedonian phalanx with a thrusting spear help upright in both hands.  They each carried a long spear, called a sarissa, a long spear usually 16’ to 18’ long with a spike on the end.  This spear was unique to the Macedonian army and required both hands to be held low.  The cavalry also had sarissas.  The forward ranks would hold their sarissas down marching into the enemy, and the rear ranks would hold theirs up and lower them when needed.  Their spears engaged the enemy before the enemy engaged them, and the advantage in battle always goes to the side with the greatest range.  Alexander did use chariots but not as much as the Persians.  He had also seen elephants and was impressed by them but determined that they could do more damage to who was using them (which was actually correct).  He used catapults as well, and all soldiers had a sword as a secondary weapon to their primary sarissa.

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Charioteer (left) and soldier being speared (right) from the mosaic from the House of Faun in Pompeii, c.100 BCE, possibly based on a lost Hellenistic painting by Philoxenos of Eretria, The Battle of Issus, c. 315 BCE, Museo Archeologico Nazionale, Naples. / From Steven Zucker at flicker, Creative Commons

The Alexander Mosaic, made of colored tesserae (individual small square tiles), was on the floor of the House of Faun in Pompeii.  It endured the Vesuvius eruption in 79 CE and was damaged, but much of it has been preserved.  It depicts Alexander in battle (probably the Battle of Issus), and is probably based on a painting done during his life or immediately following his death.  Sarissas are seen in the background, and they look like there are being wielded by Persians.  The actuality is that the Macedonians have outmaneuvered the Persians and surrounded them.  Darius is in a quadriga, and his charioteer realizes Alexander is going to win.  His job is to save the king.  Alexander’s helmet has been knocked off, and he is riding his great warhorse, the famous Bucephalus.  He always went into battle on this horse until it died in India.  Alexander’s sarissa penetrates the body of a Persian soldier, that soldier’s horse already fallen.  Darius reaches out with an open hand, and we believe this is an emotional response to that soldier being killed to spare the king’s life.  Alexander seemed to have a clear shot at Darius, but this loyal soldier ran in at the last moment and took the spear himself to save his king (perhaps even grabbing the spear – his hand shown around it – and redirecting it into himself).  Darius jumped on the escape horse in front of him and fled.  We don’t know if the dead tree in the background symbolizes the destruction and desolation of war or something else.  Alexander wears elaborate military gear, and modern scholars see the look on his face as sneering.  The artist also represents him with a large eye, perhaps to signify his divinity as a man or to show that his blood has been worked up in the heat of battle.


Alexander’s Routes and Major Battles / Wikimedia Commons

Alexander had reduced Tyre to part of the mainland with the causeway he constructed while holding them under siege for nine months.  After Tyre, he moved on and captured Gaza.  He fought no battles when moving into Egypt because they welcomed him as a heroic liberator.  They manufactured a story that he was really Egyptian and descended from pharaohs.  He was in Egypt from 332-331 BCE and founded the city of Alexandria on the coast.  He actually founded or renamed many cities and named them all “Alexandria,” but this is the one with the renown as it became a leading intellectual center even greater than Athens.  After his death, one of his generals, Ptolemy, would retain control of and start a new dynasty in Egypt.

By this time, Alexander had defeated Darius twice – at Granicus in 334 BCE and at Issus in 333 BCE – and Darius was still alive and once again gathering strength.  However, Alexander took time to go into the Libyan desert for religious reasons to see the oracle at the Oasis of Siwa.  The Greeks took seriously what they were told by oracles, and this was the most famous oracle outside of Greece.  The god at the oracle was Amun, called Zeus by the Greeks.  He asked the oracle if he had punished all those responsible for the death of his father in 336 BCE.  The answer was, “Be careful when saying your father is dead.  I am your father.”  This would be Zeus speaking through the oracle.  Legends began to grow that Alexander was not simply the son of Philip and Olympias but was in fact sired by Zeus, which meant that he had divine blood.  He aspired to divinity anyway by his achievements, and this simply boosted his claim.

After consulting the oracle, Alexander marched back toward Memphis in Egypt.  The war in Persia resumed in 331 BCE as he was now ready to locate and fight Darius again.  He crossed into Mesopotamia where Darius was waiting for him.  Darius had been regrouping and had chosen a battlefield on which to face Alexander that suited his army best.  The Macedonians needed to fight in a confined space where the Persian army could be brought to bear in entirety while disadvantaging the Macedonians, and Darius chose Guagamela.  He had the ground leveled and stones removed to clear a broad, flat area.  He outnumbered Alexander five to one and had only to encircle and crush the Macedonians.  Alexander’s advisors told him to find another place to fight, but he said he was not afraid and would fight on Darius’ terms (undoubtedly now with the confidence of a confirmed god).  We still can’t explain why he won the Battle of Guagamela in 331 BCE.  He used the standard hammer and anvil tactic, pinned down the Persian army with his infantry, and led the cavalry charge.  Darius again escaped on horse.  Alexander somehow won the third great battle of this war that by all rights he should have lost.  Darius fled hoping to reach Bactria (modern Afghanistan).

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Remains of Persepolis (left) and Stairway to Persepolis Palace (right) / Wikimedia Commons

Alexander again showed patience and strategy, and instead of pursuing Darius, chose to focus on the heartland of the Persian Empire in Mesopotamia now laid open to him following the Battle of Guagamela.  He moved south to capture cities like Babylon, Susa, and Persepolis (among the empire’s capitals).  When he reached the great ceremonial city of Persepolis (in modern Iran), he found a great palace with a great treasury.  He burned the city in 330 BCE, and the columns still bear the burn marks.  Some believe he burned it after following advice during a drunken party.  Others say he burned it to avenge the destruction of Athens on this 150th anniversary of that event at the hands of Xerxes in 480 BCE.  This was after all a war of revenge, and burning down Persepolis to avenge Athens showed success in accomplishing what he set out to do.  Alexander took all of the treasure before burning down the treasury, and it was one of the largest hauls of treasure in human history.  We are told that when Alexander packed all the wealth from this single city (other treasuries would be taken at Babylon and Susa), 20,000 mules and 5,000 camels were required to carry it.  This would be an extremely long uninterrupted train of treasure, equal to a distance of between seventy and eighty miles.  He was at that point without question the richest man in the ancient world, having the wealth of Greece, Egypt, and Persia.


Tetradrachm of Alexander the Great / Creative Commons

The plunder of Persia amounted to 213,000 Talents.  A Talent is a unit of weight in silver equal to 6,063 tons of silver today, enough to mint 320,000,000 Tetradrachms.  A contemporary Athenian to Alexander could live twelve days on one Tetradram (a single Tetradrachm).  That Athenian, if somehow still alive today spending one Tetradram every twelve days, would still be wealthy and would have enough for another 10.5 million years.  Alexander’s personal wealth just from Persia would have met the needs of a single man for over 10 million years.  This is who literally “owned the world” at the time thanks to his successful army.  Alexander was not a businessman and actually had little interest in economic matters.  His interests were military and political – he gained his wealth by battle, not by business and trade.

Alexander had now captured the heartland of the Persian Empire, and Darius was still on the loose.  So Alexander set out toward Bactria to capture him.  But Darius’s own generals turned against him and killed him before Alexander could get there.  Alexander thought himself the hegemon of Greece, pharaoh of Egypt, and great king of Persia.  But one of the generals who killed Darius, Bessus, proclaimed himself the new king of Persia.  Alexander’s army, now with him in northern Iran, had thought the war was thus done and they could head back to Greece with a new empire.  But Alexander told his men they needed to capture Bessus.  The army was not pleased.  They had been away from home a long time and were now headed even further toward Bactria.  But here at by the age of 25, Alexander had conquered the equivalent of what are now ten modern nations – Greece, Syria, Turkey, Lebanon, Israel, Jordan, Egypt, Kuwait, Iran, Iraq, and parts of still others.

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Map of Aghanistan (left), Satellite image of Afghanistan in summer (center) and winter (right)
Maps courtesy of Daniel Feher at

This is where things began to break down for the Macedonian army.  The region of Afghanistan, even today, is not to be invaded lightly.  Many, including us, have tried.  It took longer for him to conquer this than the world he had captured from Greece to India, and he never truly had it completely under control.  There are only four major cities in Afghanistan today, and most of them are closer to another country than they are to each other.  All four were those that he either founded or captured, naming all of them Alexandria as well – modern Herat, Kandahar, Kabul, and he crossed the Hindu Kush mountains to take Bactra (Balk today, capital of ancient Bactria).  The Hindu Kush Mountains are snowcapped even in the summer, but he crossed them in deep snow and invaded Balk in the winter.  His army had to kill and eat their own baggage animals raw because there was no wood for fire, and many died.  They finally reached Balk and then had to cross a desert to get to the river.  That desert crossing, only about sixty miles, was so devoid of water that 3,000 of those who had barely survived the mountain crossing did not survive the desert crossing.  The environment killed more of Alexander’s men than any enemy ever did.

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Hindu Kush Mountains (left) and Amu Darya River (right) / Wikimedia Commons

Bessus had fled across the river to modern Uzbekistan.  But his army turned against him, stripped him naked, and left him on the side of the road for Alexander to find.  Alexander’s army used bloated animal skins to cross the river (this is still done today).  When they came across Bessus, Alexander decided to punish him for the crime of murdering his king, Darius.  The punishment would be done in a Persian manner.  He was literally ritually defaced.  His nose was sawed off his face, his ears cut off his head, and then – still alive – he was tied between two bent trees that tore his body apart when tension was released.  Alexander’s army marched between the pieces of the body as purification against the crime of Bessus killing his king.  Alexander believed, no matter what, a king’s army acted dishonorably when turning against him and should pay for the treason in their native manner.

Alexander now felt in control with no one else claiming to be king.  But this was still an inhospitable area, and local tribes rose against him.  There was no real unity among them, but insurgencies everywhere would occupy his army for years.  These still present problems today when forces occupy the region.  The locals still believe Alexander built a golden dam on the lake and that flakes can still be found washing down.  They also believe Bucephalus at certain times flies out of the lake and plunges back in.  Alexander’s name is still magical to these people today.  A skull was found by an archaeologist.  He took it to a museum claiming it to be the skull of Alexander the Great and they immediately purchased it and put it on display.  He later found a younger skull and took it to the same museum claiming it to be the skull of a younger Alexander, and they even bought that!


Wedding of Alexander and Roxanne, Fresco c.1517, Villa Farnesina, Rome, Italy / Wikimedia Commons

Alexander met and married Roxanne, his first wife, in this region in 327 BCE.  His father married seven times, and he was only now getting around to taking his first wife.  The Renaissance painting is of course tinged with romanticism, but it was a marriage for political reasons.  He was making little headway into the insurgency and the terrain was still killing his soldiers.  He could forge an alliance with local nobility in this manner.  This was common in the ancient and into the medieval world.


Graeco-Bactrian Kingdom / Wikimedia Commons

Alexander had been on a tremendously long march spending many years fighting.  After marrying Roxanne, he decided it was time to leave the region.  He left more soldiers behind in Bactria than were protecting his entire empire because of the multiple insurgencies that constantly arose – a massive concentration of about 30,000 Greek and Macedonian troops, and these were not happy Greeks (who would later revolt twice wanting to leave).  Alexander decided to move further east to the Indus Valley into India.  It is said that his childhood and teenage tutor, Aristotle himself hired by Philip, told him that he could see the end of the world from the Hindu Kush Mountains.

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Aornus (left) and the Khyber Pass into the Indian subcontinent (right) / Wikimedia Commons

In 323 BCE, he again crossed the mountains and invaded the Indian subcontinent.  Fighting there would be as costly as it was in Bactria.  He conquered and in many cases exterminated hill people to protect his supply line.  He made sure to impress upon local tribal people that they would be punished for interfering with him.  His campaign here took him to a hilltop fortress at Aornus that rises on the banks of the Indus River.  Aornus means “too high for the birds to reach” – a high mountain.

The Greeks had never heard of much less seen the monsoon rains that deluge India.  They happened to invade during the middle of the monsoon, and the men were complaining that their weaponry and armor were wet, dilapidated and rusting.  Huge snakes, larger than they had ever seen (Greece had much smaller snakes than boas), were blushing from the river.  His army had followed him to what they literally saw as the ends of the Earth, and they were becoming restless.  A local Indian king immediately joined Alexander, but another – Porus – would fight him.

This would be the fourth and final major battle of Alexander’s life – the Battle of the Hydaspes River in May, 326 BCE.  It would be fought in torrential rain and deep mud.  Porus rode an elephant like a horse – not the type that would come much later with large carriages on top.  Western Europe after this had forgotten what elephants looked like and depicted them as horse-like creatures.


Coin Depicting Alexander Fighting Porus / Wikimedia Commons

Alexander depicted this battle on coins in the way he wanted it to be seen, how he wanted to be remembered in battle.  Once again a servant is shown taking a spear for his king atop the elephant, just as Darius was saved by his soldier shown on the mosaic at the House of Faun in Pompeii.  Alexander was thus shown twice nearly killing the fleeing enemy but instead striking down a noble guard.  There was no arete in killing a fleeing coward – the enemy had to be seen as worthy as he.


Image on Vase of Zeus with Lightning / Wikimedia Commons

There is a coin (not pictured) depicting Alexander being crowned by the goddess Victory as he holds a sarissa in his left hand.  But most importantly, on the coin, in his right hand he grips a lightning bolt.  Ancient Greeks saw lightning as the iconic weapon of Zeus.  They saw it with a hand grip because he threw it, not how we picture it today.  In their minds, Zeus and only Zeus could hold and wield lightning.  But Alexander is pictured doing so on a coin, in his lifetime claiming divinity as the son of Zeus with the same power.  The coin symbolized him harnessing the power of the weather (which even today militaries say would be ideal) to bring the monsoon making victory possible by preventing the Indian chariots from moving in the mud.  He was declared “Lord of the Lightning.”

Alexander’s Death and His Empire Estate

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Alexander Gold Coin and Mir-Zakah Well

In the 1990s, in a well in the remote town of Mir-Zakah, the largest hoard of coins ever located in history was found.  Locals discovered coins in the well and hired large equipment to dredge it completely.  They found in total over three tons of ancient coinage (around 500,000 coins).  More coins were found in this one well than all of the coins ever found in all of Greece.  Among these was a single gold coin depicting Alexander as Zeus-Amun.  The coins were sold off to collectors around the world.  A noted expert on ancient coins was one of the first to find these coins being sold in sacks for $1 million each.  He went through the coins that were left, immediately realizing what they were.  All of the coins were never relocated to study.  This single coin itself is for sale at $1 million.  The coin features a ram horn on the side of Alexander’s head, snake horns on the neck, and Indian elephant on his head and a large eye – all symbolic of a god.  Interestingly, it seems to depict the same sneer seen in the Alexander Mosaic from the House of Faun in Pompeii.  This doesn’t seem idealized though and may be an actual close depiction of the way he really looked.  The back of the coin with the elephant and specific mint marks specifically puts it into a series of silver coins having a similar motif.  He was also said to be a short man.


Alexander’s Routes and Empire in 323 BCE / Wikimedia Commons

Alexander treated Porus with great dignity, giving him back his kingdom and even enlarging it.  He was seen as a magnanimous victor honoring Porus as a worthy opponent, and the Greeks saw this as good agon between two evenly matched opponents.  Alexander’s army continued east, still in the monsoon.  The Greek army had never been this far away from Greece.  They had never faced a contingent of war elephants or dealt with a monsoon.  The troops had grown restless, but Alexander seemed determined to march until there was no more land to conquer.  He became aware of the growing disaffection among the troops wanting to return home, and he finally relented.  But he took them back the “long way” instead of by a quicker route.  He would build a fleet, sail down the Indus River and conquer what he could of the Indus Valley, and then split his forces between land and water, with him leading them on land.  This kept his army in conquest mode as it entailed more fighting.  As they were moving down through the Indus Valley, they assaulted the town of Multan with a wall around it.  He crawled up a ladder to the battlement exposed to spears and arrows to inspire his troops, and then he jumped down into the town.  His troops knew of course they needed him to continue back to Greece and rushed behind him.  He took an arrow to the chest that collapsed his lung, but he slowly recovered and they continued their march.  In 323 BCE, Alexander split the forces between him leading them over land and others taking a fleet along the coast of the Indian Ocean – the first time Greeks had ever seen whales.  He took his land troops through the Gedrosian Desert, one of the most desolate places on the planet, where he lost tens of thousands of soldiers to dehydration and starvation.  He reunited his land/sea forces at Babylon.  He was now hegemon of Greece, pharaoh of Egypt, and great king of kings of everything out to India.  His teacher Aristotle had told him before all of this that Persians were animals and should be treated like cattle.  But he did not do that and instead tried to reconcile East and West – Greeks and Persians.  He incorporated them into his government and army, calling them his “children.”

Roxanne became pregnant, but before she gave birth Alexander died in June, 323 BCE from a raging fever after slipping into a coma.  This was an inopportune time for him to die with his army still in Asia (as they saw it) – in Babylon.  Roxanne gave birth to Alexander IV months after his death, but it would be some time before the infant could lead anyone.  The army voted for two kings – Alexander IV as an “infant king” and Alexander’s half-brother Philip III, who also could not lead an army due to physical and mental disabilities since birth.  The army, flooded with all of the treasures Alexander had amassed, was now led by generals who all wanted to be the next “Alexander.”  Even as Alexander was on his death bed, the army began to fight among themselves and divide.  His death created a new era – the Hellenistic Age.  The army agreed he should be buried back in Greece, and he was mummified and pulled in a hearse by 64 horses.  A special road was built from Babylon to Greece, but one of his generals decided to hijack the procession and steal the body – the body of a “god” was a great thing to have, so Ptolemy (his boyhood friend) took the body to Alexandria in Egypt for burial there.


The Hellenistic World after the Breakup of Alexander’s Empire, 310 BCE

The Hellenistic Age was the period from the death of Alexander in 323 BCE to the death of the last Ptolemy, and one of his most famous successors, Cleopatra II in 30 BCE (the period lasting 323-30 BCE).  It was a new world in 323 BCE.  The age of the city-states had passed with the rise of Alexander and given way to an amalgamation of cultures – partly Greek, Syrian, Persian, Egyptian and even Indian.  Different generals fought for and claimed different portions of Alexander’s empire.  Of all of the things Alexander achieved, his one great failure was dying without leaving a stable empire under the command of a competent leader, his son too young and his half-brother incapable.  Macedon and Greece created a new dynasty, another in Syria and Anatolia under the Antigones, another modern Iran/Iraq/Pakistan/Afghanistan under the Seleucids, and finally in Egypt under the Ptolemies.  The Greeks actually traded India back to the Indians for 500 war elephants, which were the “supertank” of the ancient world, the “Panzer Division.”  The word “Hellenistic” was invented in modern times meaning “Greek-ish.”  They would never be purely Greek again as they began to migrate around this new world.

A “Greek-ish” Civilization

  • 323-30 BCE
  • Monarchies
  • Ruler Cults
  • Cosmopolis
  • Trade/Currency
  • Syncretism

There were no more city-states.  Monarchies prevailed, modeling themselves after Alexander’s empire.  He had achieved a divine status in his lifetime, and his successors wanted to as well.  They established “ruler cults” in which they were obeyed as kings and worshipped as gods.  A sense of cosmopolis developed in the Hellenistic Age (“polis” plus “cosmos”).  Worldly, experienced, and highly-cultured people used to live in small city-states and not worry about the world beyond, but now they had seen and even ruled this world and began to say they were no longer citizens of Athens, Corinth, and so on, but instead citizens of the cosmic polis (cosmopolis), the world.  They were now well engaged beyond their own frontiers.  There was tremendous growth during this period.  His successors continued the currency he had developed and a vast system of trade grew between Greece and India facilitated by a uniform currency.  Syncretism also developed – bridging the divide where cultural similarities were sought.  The Greeks were confronting other cultures and civilizations and began studying things like Babylonian astronomy, assimilating all they found and learned.  When Greeks found other people with other gods, they instinctively drew a line of comparison such as Egyptian Amun being the same as the Greek Zeus – same gods, different names.  This age was more like our own than any other ancient period ever was – a cosmopolitan vast network of trade, syncretism, colonialism, etc.


Bust of Ptolemy I / Wikimedia Commons

The bust of Ptolemy is no different from others, except his had no beard.  Ptolemy I was born in Macedonia in the 4th century BCE and grew up with Alexander.  He simply would have thought he would always be subject to the Macedonian king and would never have imagined one day becoming not only a king but also regarded as a god ruling Egypt.  The changes wrought by Alexander’s success were incredible.  The Ptolemaic dynasty ruled Egypt for 300 years with a total of fifteen Ptolemies.

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Rosetta Stone (left) and Coin of Ptolemy V (right) / Wikimedia Commons

The Rosetta Stone served as the coronation decree of Ptolemy V on March 27, 196 BCE.  The translation reveals the words in the decree drawing from both Greek and Egyptian civilizations.


Coin of Macedonian King Demetrius

There were changes back in Greece as well.  The image of Demetrius on this coin has a horn from his head (not a ram’s) and a ribbon in his hair tied behind the neck – a diadem – that only a king could wear.  He was a divine king.  He actually went to Athens to live in the Parthenon.  It was built for a deity, so he took it.  The Athenians were not outraged, and they set up an inscription we call the “Hymn to King Demetrius Poliorcetes” in Athens in 291 BCE, which included, “Oh son of the most powerful god…not of wood or stone, but real.”  They addressed him as a god in a kind of sad desperation, seeming to not know what happened to the old gods – whether they didn’t really exist, didn’t care, or were busy with other things.  Demetrius however was real and actually there, and they just worshipped and prayed to him.  This was all brought about by the Hellenistic Age.

There were three major Hellenistic “superpowers” – the Antigonid dynasty in Macedon, the Seleucid dynasty in Syria, and the Ptolemaic dynasty in Egypt.  Alexander’s entire family – infant son, Roxanne, father, mother, sister, and half-brother – had all been assassinated.  By 305 BCE, his entire family was gone, all killed as others fought over his empire.  With no more blood relatives of Alexander left to claim the throne, others declared themselves kings and created these new dynastic monarchies.  They fought each other constantly, and each of these dynasties were later carved up into smaller states as new challengers arose.  Any person of ambition could aspire to become a king and a god, and there ensued a period of competition and war during this Hellenistic period of 300 years.

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Alexandria Lighthouse Coin (left) and Coin of Cleopatra II (right) / Wikimedia Commons

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Antikythera Mechanism and Diagram / Wikimedia Commons

There were other achievements in the midst of all of this.  The original Alexandria on the coast of Egypt continued to be built and under the Ptolemies became the intellectual center of the ancient world where many would gather.  The Ptolemies sought to gather copies of every piece of useful writing that had ever existed.  Ships coming into port that had manuscripts aboard were seized, copied and then returned.  They had hundreds of thousands of scrolls – all of the wisdom of the ancients – collected in this library.  The Ptolemies founded the Museum of Alexandria for the purpose of research.  In ancient times, a “museum” meant a place where the nine Muses were worshipped and inspired writing, singing, art, literature, and so forth.  They always had a senior scholar who was the head of the museum and had all of the research funds he needed.  They experimented with working steam engines and asked questions, such as whether the Earth was flat.  In fact, they determined that it was round and actually measured its circumference accurately, not only knowing the Earth was round but how round it was.  The lighthouse on the coin was one of the wonders of the ancient world and had its beacon constantly lit.  They actually created and used geared devices, such as the antikythera mechanism, to make a rudimentary kind of computer.  The last of the Ptolemaic rulers was Cleopatra II – a descendant of Macedonian Ptolemy I.  The dynasty ended with her death after the suicide of Mark Antony following their defeat by Octavian (Augustus, the first Roman emperor).


Silk Road, 300 BCE to 1000 CE / Wikimedia Commons

The Silk Road developed out of the Hellenistic Age.  During this period, the Greeks discovered there was more beyond India and went into China.  Recall that Alexander had left many Greek troops behind in Bactria.  The generals who took over the empire after him continued to force those soldiers to remain there.  There became a constant wonder later, and even now, as to what ever became of them.  Did they leave some legacy or were they simply swallowed up in time?  Rudyard Kipling’s The Man Who Would Be King was about someone who went to Afghanistan and found people still worshipping the memory of Alexander the Great.  He was eventually made a king and revered as a god, believed to be a descendant of Alexander the Great, until they found out he lied and turned against him.  It turns out there really was an actual man upon whom Kipling based his novel, a Quaker from Pennsylvania named Josiah Harlan.  He went to Afghanistan in the 1800s and was given the kingdom by the local people on the grounds that they thought him to be a descendant of Alexander the Great.  There are tribes of people that were found with European features still worshipping Greek gods in traditions dating back to those soldiers left behind.  A DNA test was done on the tribe but was inconclusive.

Effigies recently discovered in Chinese tombs, such as part-horse/part-man figurines, show ancient Greek art having infiltrated China.  There was one of what looks like a Hellenistic king wearing a diadem and holding a spear.  In Pakistan, an ancient Laocoon carving shows the replication of the fall of ancient Troy with the Trojan Horse – the story had reached as far away as this.  The question however still lingers as to what happened to the Greek forces that were left behind.


Coin of Eucratides

The first evidence of those Greeks surfaced in 1738 when Theophilus Bayer, working in St. Petersburg, was shown a silver coin that said “Eucratides the Great” on the back.  Bayer said this was a great king of ancient Bactria who was one of the soldiers let behind by Alexander the Great.  We know almost nothing of this king aside from the minted coin.  Afghan paper money today still commemorates that coin.


Like everyone else, Alexander’s lifetime was but a speck in cosmic time.  Unlike everyone else, his actions in his own time created an entirely new period of Western civilization that endures to this day.  His tomb has never been found, though it was written of well into the Roman Empire of emperors visiting it to pay honor (and in Caligula’s case take a couple of things).

Was Alexander the most successful general of all time?  The greatest ruler in land and wealth?  These questions can be argued endlessly.  What cannot be argued is that he earned the title “the Great” in any case, however one may define it.