ALEXANDER III ('the Great') of Macedon, 356-323 BC


Son of Philip II and Olympias. As crown prince he was educated by Aristotle (from 342); he was his father's deputy in Macedon (340) and fought with distinction at the battle of Chaeronea (338).

Philip's last marriage created a serious rift, but a formal reconciliation had been effected by the time of his death (autumn 336), and Alexander was proclaimed king against a background of dynastic intrigue, in which his rivals (notably Amyntas, son of Perdiccas, and the faction of Attalus) were eliminated.

A show of force in southern Greece saw him acknowledged Philip's successor as hegemon of the League of Corinth; and in 335, when the Thebans took advantage of his absence campaigning over the Danube and rebelled, he destroyed the city and enslaved the survivors. The exemplary punishment enabled him to leave the Greek world under the supervision of Antipater with little fear of revolt, while he turned to the war of revenge against Persia.


In early 334 Alexander led his grand army across the Hellespont. In all some 43,000 foot and 5,500 horse (including the expeditionary force under Parmenion), it was the most formidable array ever to leave Greek soil.

The Macedonians were its indispensable nucleus. The infantry phalanx, c.15,000 strong and armed with the fearsome six-meter (19.5-foot) pike (sarisa), comprised a guard corps (hypaspists) and six regionally levied battalions (taxeis); and the cavalry, originally 1,800 strong, was also divided into regional squadrons (ilai). In pitched battle the phalanx, in massed formation, was practically unbreakable on level ground, and Alexander was able to generate a cavalry charge from the flank which had decisive momentum. The men of the hypaspists, usually supplemented by Agrianian javelin-men and the corps of the archers, were deployed in rapid-moving columns along with the cavalry, and were an irresistible combination in mountain warfare. These units were far superior to any they encountered (except arguably the armoured cavalry of Baktria), and supplemented by a large reserve of secondary troops (Thracians, Illyrians, and the hoplites of the Corinthian League), they gave Alexander an overwhelming military advantage.


Alexander's superiority was immediately asserted at the Granicus (334), where a composite satrapal army was outmanoeuvred and its large mercenary phalanx exterminated. That allowed him to march directly to occupy Sardis, Ephesus, and Miletus.

The most serious threat came from a superior Persian fleet, which sustained the stubborn defence of Halicarnassus, and Alexander took the gamble of demobilizing his own fleet and abandoning the coast.

He moved east via Lycia, Pamphylia, and Phrygia (where he 'cut' the Gordian knot fulfilling a presage of empire), and largely ignored a major counter-offensive in the Aegean, which -fortunately for him- the Great King (Darius III) crippled by withdrawing a large segment of the fleet to swell his royal army (summer 333).

Alexander made Cilicia his base for the critical campaign and lured the vast Persian army into the narrow coastal plain south of Issus, where its numbers were ineffective. He disrupted the front line with his standard cavalry charge from the right and gradually forced the entire Persian army into panic retreat. This overwhelming victory (c. November 333) gave him control of the near east as far as the Euphrates.

There was some resistance, notably at Tyre and Gaza, which he crushed in exemplary fashion, preferring protracted and costly sieges (seven months at Tyre) to diplomacy and negotiation. All challenges he met directly, whatever the human cost.


After a winter (332/1) in Egypt, which was surrendered peacefully, he invaded Mesopotamia and won his crowning victory at Gaugamela (1 October 331). Darius' forces were outmanoeuvred again, on chosen ground and unrestricted plain; Alexander sacrificed his left wing, leaving it to be enveloped while he extended the enemy line to the right, created a gap and drove inwards at the head of his cavalry. Again a general rout ensued, and Mesopotamia in turn lay open to him. Babylon and Susa fell without resistance, and he forced the Persian Gates against determined opposition to occupy the heartland of Persis (winter 331/0).

At Persepolis he acquired the accumulated financial reserves of the Persian empire and incinerated its great palace during (it would seem) an orgiastic symposium, subsequently representing it as the final act of the war of revenge. That in effect came during the summer of 330 when Darius fled from his last refuge at Ecbatana, to be murdered by his closest entourage (led by Bessus, satrap of Bactria). Alexander honoured his rival's body and closed the war by discharging his Hellenic troops en masse.


A new challenge arose when Bessus, who had withdrawn to his satrapy, proclaimed himself King of Kings under the regnal name Artaxerxes V. He appointed counter-satraps in central Asia and fomented revolt.

Alexander left his satraps to cope with the insurgency, while he moved in a great swathe through Areia, Drangiana, and Arachosia (east Iran and west Afganistan) and crossed the Hindu Kush to invade Bactria (spring 329). Bessus was soon gone, arrested in his turn by his nobles and surrendered to Alexander for exemplary punishment.

Shortly afterwards, when Alexander reached the north-eastern limit of the empire (the Syr-Darya), a new uprising began in Sogdiana (Uzbekistan), rapidly spreading south to Bactria. One of Alexander's (non-Macedonian) columns was ambushed by the insurgents' nomad auxiliaries west of Marakanda (Samarkand), a military and moral reverse which impressed the need for slow, systematic pacification. The conquest of the area fortress by fortress witnessed deliberate massacre, enslavement, and transplantation of recalcitrant populations, and, when the revolt ended (spring 327), the north-eastern satrapies were left exhausted under a large garrison of mercenaries and a network of new city foundations, in which a Hellenic military elite was supported by native agrarian work-force -the invariable model for the dozens of Alexandrias he founded in the eastern empire.


From Bactria Alexander moved into India at the invitation of the local dynasts of the Kabul valley and Punjab. He was nothing loath to reaffirm the traditional Achaemenid claims to the Indus lands.

Resistance was treated as rebellion, and his progress through Bajaur and Swat was marked by massacre and destruction, as in Sogdiana. Even the remote rock-fortress of Aornus (Pir-sar) was reduced by siege at the cost of prodigious hardship, to demonstrate that there was no escape from his dominion.

The spring of 326 saw him at Taxila, east of the Indus, poised for a campaign against Porus, who held the Jhelum (Hydaspes) against him. After a series of diversionary manoeuvres he crossed the river under cover of spring thunderstorm and defeated Porus, whose war elephants could not compensate for his cavalry inferiority. The victory was commemorated in two city foundations (Bucephala and Nicaea), and a remarkable issue of silver decadrachms depicts Alexander (crowned by victory) in combat with Porus and his elephant.

Alexander continued eastwards, crossing the rivers of the Punjab in the face of an increasing monsoonal deluge, until his troops' patience was exhausted. They refused to cross the Hyphasis (Beas) and invade the Ganges river system, and Alexander reluctantly acceded.

A river fleet (commissioned in the summer) was ready at the Hydaspes by November 325, and the army proceeded by land and water to the southern Ocean. The journey was marked by a singular vicious campaign against the Malli, unprovoked except for their failure to offer submission, and Alexander's impetuousness cost him a debilitating chest wound. Further south the kingdoms of Sambus and Musicanus were visted with fire and slaughter when their allegiance wavered, and, as he approached his base in the Indus delta (Patalene), the natives fled in terror (July 325).


Alexander now returned to the west, deputing Nearchus to take his fleet across the southern coastline while he led the main army through the Gedrosian desert (Makran), in emulation -so Nearchus claimed- of Cyrus and Semiramis. The horrors of heat and famine which ensued were considerable, but perhaps exaggerated in the sources, which attest no great loss of life among the Macedonian army.

Reunited with the fleet in Carmania (c. December 325), he returned to Persepolis and Susa (March 324), where some 80 of his staff joined him in taking wives from the Persian nobility.

For the next year there was a lull in campaigning (except for a punitive expedition against the Cossaeans of the Zagros), but there were grandiose preparations in the Levant, where he commissioned a war fleet allegedly 1,000 strong, some which was conveyed to Babylon in summer of 323.

The first stage of conquest was certainly the Persian Gulf and Arabian littoral, which Alexander intended to conquer and colonize, but the sources, in particular the memoranda (hypomnemata) reported by Diodorus Siculus, refer to projects of conquest in the western Mediterranean aimed at Carthage and southern Italy -and plans are even alleged of a circumnavigation of Africa. The reality perhaps beyond verification, but it is likely enough that Alexander conceived no practical limit to his empire.


Alexander's monarchy was absolute. From the outset he regarded Asia Minor as liberated territory only in so far as he displaced the Persians, and he announced the fact of possession by imposing his own satraps upon the erstwhile Persian provinces.

By 332 he regarded himself as the proper ruler of the Persian empire, and after Gaugamela he was acclaimed king of Asia.

From 330 his status was displayed in his court dress, which combined the traditional Macedonian hat (kausia) and cloak with the Persian diadem, tunic, and girdle. He used Persian court ceremonial and promoted Persian nobles, but there is no evidence of a formal 'policy of fusion' with Persians and Macedonians assimilating into a single ruling class. Except for a brief moment at Opis the Macedonians were entrenched in a position of superiority.

The Susa marriages would indeed give rise to a mixed offspring (as would the liaisons of his soldiers with native women), but in both cases the ultimate aim was probably to counter regional and family loyalties which had been the curse to both Persian and Macedonian monarchs. At another level he had cut across the traditional regional basis of his army and introduced Iranians even to the elite Companion cavalry. There was to be a single loyalty -to the crown.


Alexander naturally experienced opposition in various forms. His Macedonian troops proved increasingly reluctant to be enticed into further conquest. He gave way once, at the Hyphasis, but at Opis (324) he confronted their contumacious demands for repatriation with summary executions and devastating threat to man his army exclusively from Persians. He had deliberately made his Macedonians dispensable and demonstrated the fact.

The same ruthlessness marked his reaction to opposition at court. He isolated and struck down Parmenion because of his resistance to imperial expansion, and the adolescent pages, who seriously threatened his life for reasons which are obscure (but probably based on antipathy to the new absolutism), were tortured and stoned to death.

Insubordination was as intolerable as conspiracy. Alexander's return to the west in 325/4 witnessed a spate of executions of satraps who had exceeded their authority or arrogated powers (e.g. Astaspes in Carmania, Orxines in Persis). Misgovernment as such was a secondary consideration, as is shown by his remarkable offer to pardon Cleomenes.

Relations with the Greek world became increasingly strained. At first the machinery of the Corinthian League was effective; and the challenge by Agis III had limited support as was quickly crushed (? Spring 330). But Alexander undermined the provisions of the league by his Exiles' Decree (324), which threatened Athens' possessions of Samos and gave almost every city the problem of repatriating long-term exiles. The last year of his reign was punctuated by tense and heated diplomacy, and his death was the catalyst of general war in southern Greece.


Given Alexander's uncompromising claims to sovereignty it can be readily understood how he came to conceive himself divine.

A Heraclid by lineage, he believed himself the descendant of Heracles, Perseus, and (ultimately) Zeus, and by 331 he had begun to represent himself as the direct son of Zeus, with dual paternity comparable to that of Heracles. He was reinforced in his belief by his pilgrimage (in 331) to the oracle of Ammon (recognized as a manifestation of Zeus at Siwa), and thereafter styled himself son of Zeus Ammon.

But divine sonship was not divinity, and by 327, after conquest had followed conquest, Alexander was encouraged (particularly in the liberated atmosphere of the symposium) to believe that his achievements deserved apotheosis at least as much as Heracles'. Proskynesis, the hierarchical prostration of inferior to superior, was de rigueur at the Persian court, but Alexander attempted to extend it to Macedonians and Greeks, for whom the gesture was an act of worship.

The experiment failed, thanks to the resistance of Callisthenes, but the concept remained, and there is anecdotal (but probable) tradition that he wrote to the cities of Greece in 324, suggesting that it would be appropriate for divine honours to be voted him along with a hero cult for his deceased favourite Hephaestion.

Cults were certainly established, predominantly in Asia Minor, and persisted long after his death, eclipsing the largely ephemeral worship of his successors.


Portraits of Alexander tend to follow the model created by his favourite sculptor, Lysippus, who perpetuated the leftward inclination of his neck and the famous anastole (hair thrown back from a central parting). His profile, first illustrated on the 'Alexander sarcophagus' (311), appears repeatedly on coins, most strikingly on the commemorative tetradrachms of Lysimachus. His personality is far more elusive, thanks to the tendency in antiquity to adduce him as a moral example of good or evil and the propensity of moderns to endue him with the qualities they would admire in themselves.

His reputation for invincibility, which he studiously fostered, has been a source of fascination (notably for Pompey, Trajan, and Napoleon), mostly for ill. The process begun when he died (10 June 323) after a ten-day illness (which contemporaries ascribed to poison), and the marshals who sought to emulate him rapidly dismembered his empire.



Oxford Classical Dictionary, 3rd ed. (1996), pp.57-59