Alexander the Great

From New World Encyclopedia
Bust of Alexander III in the British Museum

Alexandros III Philippou Makedonon (July 356 B.C.E. – June 10, 323 B.C.E.), commonly known in the West as Alexander the Great or Alexander III of Macedon, in Greek Μέγας Ἀλέξανδρος (Megas Alexandros), King of Macedon (336–323 B.C.E.), was the most successful military commander of ancient history, conquering most of the known world before his death.

Alexander is known in Middle Persian literature as Alexander the Cursed due to his burning of the Persian capital and national library. He is also known in Eastern traditions as Dhul-Qarnayn (the two-horned one), because an image on coins minted during his rule seemed to depict him with the two ram's horns of the Egyptian god Ammon (it is believed by some that the Dhul-Qarnayn mentioned in the Qur'an is Alexander). In northeast India and modern-day Pakistan he is known as Sikander-e-Azam (Alexander the Great) and many male children are named Sikander after him.

Following the unification of the multiple city-states of Ancient Greece under the rule of his father, Philip II of Macedon, (a labor Alexander had to repeat—twice—because the southern Greeks rebelled after Philip's death), Alexander conquered the Persian Empire, including Anatolia, Syria, Phoenicia, Gaza, Egypt, Bactria and Mesopotamia, and extended the boundaries of his own empire as far as the Punjab.

Alexander integrated non-Greeks into his army and administration, leading some scholars to credit him with a “policy of fusion.” He encouraged marriage between Greeks and non-Greeks, and practiced it himself. This was extremely unusual for the ancient world. His conquests ushered in centuries of Greco-Macedonian settlement and rule over non-Greek areas, a period known as the Hellenistic Age. Alexander himself lived on in the history and myth of both Greek and non-Greek peoples. Already during his lifetime, and especially after his death, his exploits inspired a literary tradition in which he appears as a towering legendary hero in the tradition of Homer's Achilles.

Early life

Alexander the Great fighting the Persian king Darius (Pompeii mosaic, from a third century original Greek painting, now lost).

Alexander was the son of King Philip II of Macedon and of Epirus (Epirote) princess Olympias. According to Plutarch (Alexander 3.1,3), Olympias was impregnated not by Philip, who was afraid of her and her affinity for sleeping in the company of snakes, but by Zeus. Plutarch (Alexander 2.2-3) relates that both Philip and Olympias dreamt of their son's future birth. Olympias dreamed of a loud burst of thunder and of lightning striking her womb. In Philip's dream, he sealed her womb with the seal of the lion. Alarmed by this, he consulted the seer Aristander of Telmessus, who determined that his wife was pregnant and that the child would have the character of a lion.

Aristotle was Alexander's tutor; he gave Alexander a thorough training in rhetoric and literature and stimulated his interest in science, medicine, and philosophy. Aristotle taught that human life has a purpose and that all people need to realize that purpose and that everyone should use their abilities to their fullest potential. He believed that happiness is acquired through use of reason and by acting virtuously. Virtue, said Aristotle, lies in moderation in all things. The pursuit of moral excellence, and of truth, is natural.

After his visit to the Oracle of Ammon at Siwah, according to all five of the extant historians (Arrian, Quintus Curtius Rufus, Diodorus Siculus, Junianus Justinus, and Plutarch), rumors spread that the Oracle had revealed Alexander's father to be Zeus, rather than Philip. According to Plutarch (Alexander 2.1), his father descended from Heracles through Caranus and his mother descended from Aeacus through Neoptolemus and Achilles.

The ascendance of Macedon

When Philip led an attack on Byzantium in 340 B.C.E., Alexander, aged 16, was left in command of Macedonia. In 339 B.C.E. Philip divorced Alexander's mother, leading to a quarrel between Alexander and his father which threw into question Alexander's succession to the Macedonian throne. In 338 B.C.E., Alexander assisted his father at the decisive battle of Battle of Chaeronea. The cavalry wing led by Alexander annihilated the Sacred Band of Thebes, an elite corps previously regarded as invincible.

In 336 B.C.E., Philip was assassinated at the wedding of his daughter Cleopatra to Alexander I of Epirus. The assassin was supposedly a former lover of the king, the disgruntled young nobleman Pausanias, who held a grudge against Philip because the king had ignored a complaint he had expressed. Philip's murder was once thought to have been planned with the knowledge and involvement of Alexander or Olympias. However, in recent years Alexander's involvement has been questioned and there is some reason to believe that it may have been instigated by Darius III of Persia, the recently crowned King of Persia. Plutarch mentions an irate letter from Alexander to Darius, where Alexander blames Darius and Bagoas, his grand vizier, for his father's murder, stating that it was Darius who had been bragging to the rest of the Greek cities of how he managed to assassinate Philip.

After Philip's death, the army proclaimed Alexander, aged 20, as the new king of Macedon. Greek cities like Athens and Thebes, which had pledged allegiance to Philip, were not quick to pledge the same allegiance to a 20-year-old boy.

Period of conquests

Map of Alexander's empire

The defeat of the Persian Empire

Alexander's army crossed the Hellespont with about 40,000 Greek soldiers. After an initial victory against Persian forces at the Battle of the Granicus, Alexander accepted the surrender of the Persian provincial capital and treasury of Sardis and proceeded down the Ionian coast. At Halicarnassus, Alexander successfully waged the first of many sieges, eventually forcing his opponents, the mercenary captain Memnon of Rhodes and the Persian satrap of Caria, Orontobates, to withdraw by sea. Alexander left Caria in the hands of Ada of Caria, the sister of Mausolus, whom Orontobates had deposed. From Halicarnassus, Alexander proceeded into mountainous Lycia and the Pamphylian plain, asserting control over all coastal cities and denying them to his enemy. From Pamphylia onward the coast held no major ports, so Alexander moved inland. At Termessus Alexander humbled but did not storm the Pisidian city. At the ancient Phrygian capital of Gordium, Alexander "undid" the tangled Gordian knot, a feat said to await the future "king of Asia." According to the most vivid story, Alexander proclaimed that it did not matter how the knot was undone, and hacked it apart with his sword. Another version claims that he did not use the sword, but actually figured out how to undo the knot. It is difficult, perhaps impossible, to decide which story is correct.

Alexander the Great battling Darius at the Battle of Issus.

Alexander's army crossed the Cilician Gates and met and defeated the main Persian army under the command of Darius III at the Battle of Issus in 333 B.C.E. Darius fled this battle in such a panic for his life that he left behind his wife, his children, his mother, and much of his personal treasure. Sisygambis, the queen mother, never forgave Darius for abandoning her. She disowned him and adopted Alexander as her son instead. Proceeding down the Mediterranean coast, he took Tyre and Gaza after famous sieges. Alexander passed near but probably did not visit Jerusalem.

In 332-331 B.C.E., Alexander was welcomed as a liberator in Egypt and was pronounced the son of Zeus by Egyptian priests of the god Ammon at the oracle of Ammon located at the Siwa Oasis in the Libyan Desert. He founded Alexandria in Egypt, which would become the prosperous capital of the Ptolemaic Dynasty after his death. Leaving Egypt, Alexander marched eastward into Assyria (now Iraq) and defeated Darius and a third Persian army at the Battle of Gaugamela. Darius was forced to flee the field after his charioteer was killed, and Alexander chased him as far as Arbela. While Darius fled over the mountains to Ecbatana (modern Hamadan), Alexander marched to Babylon.

Statuette of a Greek soldier, from a fourth-third century burial site north of the Tian Shan, at the maximum extent of Alexander's advance in the East (Ürümqi, Xinjiang Museum, China) (drawing).

From Babylon, Alexander went to Susa, one of the Achaemenid capitals, and captured its treasury. Sending the bulk of his army to Persepolis, the Persian capital, by the Royal Road, Alexander stormed and captured the Persian Gates (in the modern Zagros Mountains), then sprinted for Persepolis before its treasury could be looted. Alexander allowed the League forces to loot Persepolis, and he set fire to the royal palace of Xerxes, allegedly in revenge for the burning of the Athenian Acropolis during the Greco-Persian Wars. He then set off in pursuit of Darius, who was kidnapped, and then murdered by followers of Bessus, his Bactrian satrap and kinsman. Bessus then declared himself Darius' successor as Artaxerxes V and retreated into Central Asia to launch a guerrilla campaign against Alexander. With the death of Darius, Alexander declared the war of vengeance at an end, and released his Greek and other allies from service in the League campaign (although he allowed those that wished to re-enlist as mercenaries in his imperial army). His three-year campaign against Bessus and his successor Spitamenes took him through Medes, Parthia, Aria, Drangiana, Arachosia, Bactria, and Scythia. In the process he captured and re-founded Herat and Samarkand, and he founded a series of new cities, all called Alexandria, including one near modern Kandahar in Afghanistan, and Alexandria Eschate ("The Furthest") bordering today's Chinese Turkestan.

The army of Alexander the Great before the Battle of Gaugamela

The army of Alexander was, for the most part, that of his father Philip. It was composed of light and heavy troops and some engineers, medical, and staff units. About one third of the army was composed of his Greek allies from the Hellenic League.


The main infantry corps was the phalanx, composed of six regiments (taxies) numbering about 2,000 phalangites each. Each soldier had a long pike called a sarissa, which was up to 18 feet long, and a short sword. For protection the soldier wore a Phrygian helmet and a shield. Arrian mentions large shields (the aspis) but this is disputed; it is difficult to wield both a large pike and a large shield at the same time. Many modern historians claim the phalanx used a smaller shield, called a pelta, the shield used by peltasts. It is unclear whether the phalanx used body armor, but heavy body armor is mentioned in Arrian (1.28.7) and other ancient sources. Modern historians believe most of the phalangites did not wear heavy body armor at the time of Alexander.

Another important unit were the hypaspists (shield bearers), arranged into three battalions (lochoi) of 1,000 men each. One of the battalions was named the Agema and served as the king's bodyguards. Their armament is unknown; it is difficult to get a clear picture from ancient sources. Sometimes hypaspists are mentioned in the front line of the battle just between the phalanx and the heavy cavalry and seem to have acted as an extension of the phalanx fighting as heavy infantry while keeping a link between the heavily clad phalangites and the companion cavalry, but they also accompanied Alexander on flanking marches and were capable of fighting on rough terrain like light troops so it seems they could perform dual functions.

In addition to the units mentioned above, the army included some 6,000 Greek allied and mercenary hoplites, also arranged in phalanxes. They carried a shorter spear, a dora, which was six or seven feet long and a large aspis.

Alexander also had light infantry units composed of peltasts, psiloi and others. Peltasts are considered to be light infantry, although they had a helmet and a small shield and were heavier then the psiloi. The best peltasts were the Agrianians from Thrace.


The heavy cavalry included the "Companion cavalry," raised from the Macedonian nobility, and the Thessalian cavalry. The Companion cavalry (hetairoi, friends) was divided into eight squadrons called ile, 200 strong, except for the Royal Squadron of 300. They were equipped with a 12-14 foot lance, the xyston, and heavy body armor. The horses were partially clad in armor as well. The riders did not carry shields. The organization of the Thessalian cavalry was similar to the Companion Cavalry, but they had a shorter spear and fought in a looser formation.

Of light cavalry, the prodomoi (runners) secured the wings of the army during battle and went on reconnaissance missions. Several hundred allied horses rounded out the cavalry, but were inferior to the rest.

Hostility toward Alexander

During this time, Alexander adopted some elements of Persian dress and customs at his court, notably the custom of proskynesis, a symbolic kissing of the hand that Persians paid to their social superiors, but a practice of which the Greeks disapproved; the Greeks regarded the gesture as the preserve of deities, and believed that Alexander meant to deify himself by requiring it. This cost him much in the sympathies of many of his Greek countrymen. Here, too, a plot against his life was revealed, and his friend Philotas was executed for treason for failing to bring the plot to his attention. Although Philotas was convicted by the assembled Macedonian army, most historians consider this one of the king's greatest crimes, along with his order to assassinate his senior general Parmenion, Philotas' father. In a drunken quarrel at Macaranda, Samarkand, he also killed the man who had saved his life at the Granicus, Clitus the Black. This is sometimes called the "murder" of Clitus, but this is a misnomer, since legally "murder" applies only to killing with premeditation, not to unpremeditated manslaughter in drunken brawls. Later in the Central Asian campaign, a second plot against his life, this one by his own pages, was revealed, and his official historian, Callisthenes of Olynthus (who had fallen out of favor with the king by leading the opposition to his attempt to introduce proskynesis), was implicated on what most historians regard as trumped-up charges. However, the evidence is strong that Callisthenes, the teacher of the pages, must have been the one who persuaded them to assassinate the king.

The invasion of India

With the death of Spitamenes and his marriage to Roxana (Roshanak in Bactrian language) to cement his relations with his new Central Asian satrapies, in 326 B.C.E., Alexander was finally free to turn his attention to India. King Omphis, ruler of Taxila, surrendered the city to Alexander. Many people had fled to a high fortress called Aornos. Alexander took Aornos by storm. Alexander fought an epic battle against Porus, a ruler of a region in the Punjab in the Battle of Hydaspes (326 B.C.E.). After victory, Alexander made an alliance with Porus and appointed him as satrap of his own kingdom. Alexander continued on to conquer all the headwaters of the Indus River.

East of Porus' kingdom, near the Ganges River, was the powerful kingdom of Magadha. Exhausted and frightened by the prospect of facing another giant Indian army at the Ganges, his army mutinied at the Beas River, refusing to march further east. Alexander, after the meeting with his officer, Coenus, was convinced that it was better to return. Alexander was forced to turn south, conquering his way down the Indus to the Ocean. He sent much of his army to Carmania (modern southern Iran) with his general Craterus, and commissioned a fleet to explore the Persian Gulf shore under his admiral Nearchus, while he led the rest of his forces back to Persia by the southern route through the Gedrosia (present day Makran in southern Pakistan). Alexander's invasion of India resulted in the first strong central government/empire under Chandragupta, the Mauryan Empire in 321 B.C.E. and from then on Persia, especially, became a player in Indian affairs.

After India

Alexander and Porus by Charles Le Brun, 1673

Discovering that many of his satraps and military governors had misbehaved in his absence, Alexander executed a number of them as examples on his way to Susa. As a gesture of thanks, he paid off the debts of his soldiers, and announced that he would send those who were over-aged and the disabled veterans back to Macedonia under Craterus, but his troops misunderstood his intention and mutinied at the town of Opis, refusing to be sent away and bitterly criticizing his adoption of Persian customs and dress and the introduction of Persian officers and soldiers into Macedonian units. Alexander executed the ringleaders of the mutiny, but forgave the rank and file. In an attempt to craft a lasting harmony between his Macedonian and Persian subjects, he held a mass marriage of his senior officers to Persian and other noblewomen at Opis. Not all of the intercultural marriages that Alexander arranged for his soldiers lasted. However, some did. For example, the marriage between Alexander's General, Seleucus and the daughter of Spitamenes, the Sogdian chief, did. This helped to break down the old distinction between “barbarians” (non-Greeks) and Greeks in the territory surrounding modern-day Syria that Seleucus inherited on Alexander's death.

Alexander's attempts to merge Persian culture with Greek culture also included training a regiment of Persian boys in the ways of Macedonians. It is not certain that Alexander adopted the Persian royal title of shahanshah ("great king" or "king of kings"), but most historians think that he did.

After traveling to Ecbatana to retrieve the bulk of the Persian treasure, his closest friend and probable lover Hephaestion died of an illness. Alexander was distraught. He conducted a campaign of extermination against the Cosseans to assuage his grief. On his return to Babylon, he fell ill and died.

While invading the ancient city of Mali, India, along the shore of India, he received a nearly fatal wound from an arrow in his chest. Many historians argue that this might have been the cause of his death.


On the afternoon of June 10-June 11, 323 B.C.E., Alexander died of a mysterious illness in the palace of Nebuchadrezzar II of Babylon. He was only 33 years old. Various theories have been proposed for the cause of his death which include poisoning by the sons of Antipater, murder by his wife Roxana, and sickness due to a relapse of malaria he had contracted in 336 B.C.E.

The poisoning theory derives from the traditional story universally held in antiquity. Alexander, coming to Babylon, had at long last disaffected enough of his senior officers that they formed a coalition against him and murdered both him and Hephaestion within a space of only a few months, intending on ending his increasingly unpopular policies of orientalism and ending any further military adventures. The original story stated that Aristotle, who'd recently seen his nephew executed by Alexander for treason, mixed the poison, that Cassander, son of Antipater, viceroy of Greece, brought it to Alexander in Babylon in a mule's hoof, and that Alexander's royal cupbearer, a son-in-law of Antipater, administered it. All had powerful motivations for seeing Alexander gone, and all were none the worse for it after his death.

However, many other scholars maintain that Alexander was not poisoned, but died of natural causes, malaria being the most popular. Various other theories have been advanced stating that the king may have died from other illnesses as well, including the West Nile virus. These theories often cite the fact that Alexander's health had fallen to dangerously low levels after years of overdrinking and suffering several appalling wounds (including one in India that nearly claimed his life), and that it was only a matter of time before one sickness or another finally killed him.

Neither story is conclusive. Alexander's death has been reinterpreted many times over the centuries, and each generation offers a new take on it. What is certain is that Alexander died of a high fever in early June of 323 B.C.E. On his death bed, his marshals asked him who he bequeathed his kingdom to—as Alexander had only one heir, it was a question of vital importance. He answered famously, "The strongest." Before dying, his final words were "I foresee a great funeral contest over me." Alexander's “funeral games,” where his marshals fought it out over control of his empire, lasted for nearly 40 years.

Alexander's death has been surrounded by as much controversy as many of the events of his life. Before long, accusations of foul play were being thrown about by his generals at one another, making it incredibly hard for a modern historian to sort out the propaganda and the half-truths from the actual events. No contemporary source can be fully trusted because of the incredible level of self-serving recording, and as a result what truly happened to Alexander the Great may never be known.

According to legend, Alexander was preserved in a clay vessel full of honey (which acts as a preservative) and interred in a glass coffin. According to Aelian (Varia Historia 12.64), Ptolemy I of Egypt stole the body and brought it to Alexandria, where it was on display until Late Antiquity. Its current whereabouts are unknown.

The so-called "Alexander Sarcophagus," discovered near Sidon and now in the Istanbul Archaeological Museum, is now generally thought to be that of Abdylonymus, whom Hephaestion appointed as the king of Sidon by Alexander's order. The sarcophagus depicts Alexander and his companions hunting and in battle with the Persians.

Alexander's character

Equestrian statue of Alexander the Great, on the waterfront at Thessaloniki, capital of Greek Macedonia

Modern opinion on Alexander has run the gamut from the idea that he believed he was on a divinely-inspired mission to unite the human race, to the view that he was the ancient world's equivalent of Napoleon Bonaparte or Adolf Hitler, a megalomaniac bent on global domination. Such views tend to be anachronistic, however, and the sources allow a variety of interpretations. Much about Alexander's personality and aims remains enigmatic. He wanted to be revered as the descendant of Achilles, and took a copy of Homer’s Iliad (annotated by Aristotle) with him wherever he went. He appears to have deliberately chosen a life of adventure and wanted to be remembered in heroic terms. He always led his troops from the front. He treated the conquered with respect, including Darius before his murder. He loved hunting, martial arts (except boxing), and was a patron of the arts. Whether his attempt at cultural fusion was purely pragmatic, or whether he wanted to combine Hellenism with what he regarded as the best in other cultures will remain a matter of speculation. Tripolitis (2001) comments that scholars have tended to argue that Alexander “was not motivated solely by the desire for territory…but also by the goal of establishing a common world” (9). More recently, though, attempts have been made to prove otherwise and to argue that Alexander was motivated by the desire for personal glory (10).

Alexander appears to have attracted some criticism from more traditional Greeks and Macedonians that he was too willing to assimilate the cultures of defeated, subject peoples. What he did achieve, however, was opening up many people's horizons to a world outside their own polis (city). However, the fact that he built cities wherever he went suggests that he wanted to leave behind him an enduring legacy. The fact that he attempted cultural fusion wherever he went could well have been intended to become part of that legacy. Some surmise that Alexander really did dream of universal brotherhood. Debate continues on this issue and partially in response to the ubiquity of positive portrayals of Alexander, an alternate character is sometimes presented which emphasizes some of Alexander's negative aspects. Some proponents of this view cite the destructions of Thebes, Egypt, Tyre, Persepolis, and Gaza as examples of atrocities, and argue that Alexander preferred to fight rather than negotiate. It is further claimed, in response to the view that Alexander was generally tolerant of the cultures of those whom he conquered, that his attempts at cultural fusion were severely practical and that he never actually admired Persian art or culture. To this way of thinking, Alexander was, first and foremost, a general rather than a statesman.

There is evidence that, as a result of his exploits, Hellenistic art forms and architecture impacted the world as far as Java. As a result of his conquest, a common language (Greek) and many common beliefs and customs united a great many people, laying cultural foundations on which the Roman Empire later built and creating an environment that would prove conducive to the spread of Christianity. Hellenic influence on the religion of the Hebrews was also a major factor in the development of Christian thought. There could not have been a Paul of Tarsus without an Alexander the Great. Hellenistic Judaism engaged with Greek thought, and developed the notion that Judaism had a contribution to make to the whole of humanity. It has been suggested that Alexander brought about a type of primitive globalization. A type of oikoumene emerged, which “altered the patterns by which the people of the Mediterranean and Near East lived their lives” (Tripolitis, 10). Increasingly, Greek was used as the medium of education, thus more and more people who had previously looked at the world through different cultural lenses began to see it through the same lens. Some started to think of themselves as citizens of the world (that is, of the world as they knew it at the time). At least one of Alexander's successor-generals, Seleucus, continued not only to build but also to repair cities in his domain, as did his son, Antiochus 1. Seleucus (ruler from 312 B.C.E. to 281 B.C.E.) also repaired the temple of E-Sagila, and did much to revive Babylonian culture as well as to extend Hellenistic influence, a process continued by his successors. After 198 B.C.E., Palestine became part of their territory and had an impact on the religion and culture of the Hebrews. The more universal outlook of certain elements in Second Temple Judaism, especially in Diaspora (see Philo) and of Christianity, as suggested above, may therefore be a fruit of Alexander's policies. Tripolitis (2001) points out that the literature of Hellenistic Judaism saw God as the God of all people and addressed all people, not just the Jews, thus “there was a tendency away from nationalism towards universalism” (146). The world left behind by Alexander was one in which the teachings of Aristotle on ethics and virtue spread widely and arguably impacted for good on many lives.

Alexander is remembered as a legendary hero in Europe and much of both Southwest Asia and Central Asia, where he is known as Iskander or Iskandar Zulkarnain. To Zoroastrians, on the other hand, he is remembered as the destroyer of their first great empire and as the leveler of Persepolis. Ancient sources are generally written with an agenda of either glorifying or denigrating the man, making it difficult to evaluate his actual character. Most refer to a growing instability and megalomania in the years following Gaugamela, but it has been suggested that this simply reflects the Greek stereotype of a Medes king. The murder of his friend Clitus the Black, which Alexander deeply and immediately regretted, is often pointed to, as is his execution of Philotas and his general Parmenion for failure to pass along details of a plot against him, though this last may have been prudence rather than paranoia.

Alexander's character also suffers from the interpretation of historians who themselves are subject to the bias and idealisms of their own time. Good examples are W.W. Tarn, who wrote during the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century, and who saw Alexander in an extremely good light, and Peter Green, who wrote after World War II and for whom Alexander did little that was not inherently selfish or ambition-driven. Tarn wrote in an age where world conquest and warrior-heroes were acceptable, even encouraged, whereas Green wrote with the backdrop of the Holocaust and nuclear weapons. As a result, Alexander's character is skewed depending on which way the historian's own culture is, and further muddles the debate of who he truly was.

One undeniable characteristic of Alexander is that he was extremely pious and devout, and began every day with prayers and sacrifices. From his boyhood he believed "one should not be parsimonious with the Gods."

Alexander's marriages and sexuality

Alexander's greatest emotional attachment is generally considered to have been to his companion, cavalry commander (chiliarchos) and most probably lover, Hephaestion. They had most likely been best friends since childhood, for Hephaestion too received his education at the court of Alexander's father. Hephaestion makes his appearance in the histories at the point when Alexander reaches Troy. There the two friends made sacrifices at the shrines of the two heroes Achilles and Patroclus, Alexander honoring Achilles, and Hephaestion, Patroclus. As Claudius Aelianus in his Varia Historia (12.7) claims, "He thus intimated that he was the object of Alexander's love, as Patroclus was of Achilles."

Many discussed his ambiguous sexuality. Letter 24 of those ascribed to Diogenes of Sinope, thought to be written in either the first century or the second century, and probably reflecting the gossip of Alexander's day, exhorts him: "If you want to be beautiful and good (kalos k'agathos), throw away the rag you have on your head and come to us. But you won't be able to, for you are ruled by Hephaestion's thighs." And Quintus Curtius Rufus reports that "He scorned [feminine] sensual pleasures to such an extent that his mother was anxious lest he be unable to beget offspring." To whet his appetite for the fairer sex, King Philip and Olympias brought in a high-priced Thessalian courtesan named Callixena.

Later in life, Alexander married several princesses of former Persian territories: Roxana of Bactria; Statira, daughter of Darius III; and Parysatis, daughter of Ochus. He fathered at least two children, Heracles (Macedon) born in 327 B.C.E. by his mistress Barsine, the daughter of satrap Artabazus of Phrygia, and Alexander IV of Macedon by Roxana in 323 B.C.E. This would be in keeping with the ancient omnivorous approach to sexuality.

Curtius maintains that Alexander also took as a lover "... Bagoas, a eunuch exceptional in beauty and in the very flower of boyhood, with whom Darius was intimate and with whom Alexander would later be intimate" (VI.5.23). Bagoas is the only one who is actually named as the eromenos—the beloved—of Alexander. The word is not used even for Hephaestion. Their relationship seems to have been well known among the troops, as Plutarch recounts an episode (also mentioned by Athenaios and Dicaearchus) during some festivities on the way back from India, in which his men clamor for him to openly kiss the young man. "Bagoas [...] sat down close by him, which so pleased the Macedonians, that they made loud acclamations for him to kiss Bagoas, and never stopped clapping their hands and shouting till Alexander put his arms round him and kissed him." (Plutarch, The Lives). At this point in time, the troops present were all survivors of the crossing of the desert. Bagoas must have endeared himself to them by his courage and fortitude during that harrowing episode. (This Bagoas should not be confused with Bagoas the former Persian Vizier, or the Bagoas, son of Pharnuches, who became one of Alexander's trierarches.) Whatever Alexander's relationship with Bagoas, it was no impediment to relations with his queen: six months after Alexander's death Roxana gave birth to his son and heir Alexander IV. Besides Bagoas, Curtius mentions yet another lover of Alexander, Euxenippos, "whose youthful grace filled him with enthusiasm." (VII.9.19)

The suggestion that Alexander was homosexual or bisexual remains highly controversial and arouses passionate reactions in some quarters in Greece, the Republic of Macedonia, and diasporas thereof. People of various national, ethnic, and cultural origins regard him as a national hero. They argue that historical accounts describing Alexander's relations with Hephaestion and Bagoas as sexual were written centuries after the fact, and thus it can never be established what the “real” relationship between Alexander and his male companions were. Others argue that the same can be said about all our information regarding Alexander. Some scholars claim that such debates are anachronistic, suggesting that homosexuality was regarded differently in Greco-Roman antiquity. Despite this politically driven debate among scholars, it is not contested that his personal life clearly was not a happy one. This may account for why he often became debauched, spending days with heavy hangovers.

Alexander's legend

Alexander was a legend in his own time. His court historian Callisthenes portrayed the sea in Cilicia as drawing back from him in proskynesis. Writing after Alexander's death, another participant, Onesicritus, went so far as to invent a tryst between Alexander and Thalestris, queen of the mythical Amazons. (When Onesicritus read this passage to his patron, Alexander's general and later King Lysimachus, Lysimachus quipped "I wonder where I was at the time.")

In the first centuries after Alexander's death, probably in Alexandria, a quantity of the more legendary material coalesced into a text known as the Alexander Romance, later falsely ascribed to the historian Callisthenes and therefore known as Pseudo-Callisthenes. This text underwent numerous expansions and revisions throughout Antiquity and the Middle Ages, exhibiting a plasticity unseen in "higher" literary forms. Latin and Syriac translations were made in Late Antiquity. From these, versions were developed in all the major languages of Europe and the Middle East, including Armenian, Georgian, Persian, Arabic, Turkish, Hebrew, Serbian, Slavonic, Romanian, Hungarian, German, English, Italian, and French. The "Romance" is regarded by most Western scholars as the source of the account of Alexander given in the Qur'an (Sura The Cave). It is the source of many incidents in Ferdowsi's Shahnama. A Mongol version is also extant.

Some believe that, excepting certain religious texts, it is the most widely-read work of pre-modern times.

Stories and legends

According to one story, the philosopher Anaxarchus checked the vainglory of Alexander, when he aspired to the honors of divinity, by pointing to Alexander's wound, saying, "See the blood of a mortal, not the ichor of a god." In another version Alexander himself pointed out the difference in response to a sycophantic soldier. A strong oral tradition, although not attested in any extant primary source, lists Alexander as having epilepsy, known to the Greeks as the Sacred Disease and thought to be a mark of divine favor.

Alexander had a legendary horse named Bucephalus (meaning "ox-headed"), supposedly descended from the Mares of Diomedes. Alexander himself, while still a young boy, tamed this horse after experienced horse-trainers failed to do so.

Alexander's legend in non-Western sources

Alexander was often identified in Persian and Arabic-language sources as "Dhû-'l Qarnayn," Arabic for the "the Two-Horned One," possibly a reference to the appearance of the Hercules head that appears on coins minted during his rule. Islamic accounts of the Alexander legend, particularly in Persia combined the Pseudo-Callisthenes material with indigenous Sasanid Pahlavi language ideas about Alexander.

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Alexander the Great was called "the Two-Horned One" in Islamic and Arabic-language sources and "Alexander the Cursed" in Zoroastrian literature

Pahlavi sources on the Alexander legend devised a mythical genealogy for him whereby his mother was a concubine of Darius II, making him the half-brother of the last Achaemenid shah, Darius III, probably in order to justify his domination of the old Persian Empire. Alexander is also blamed for ending the golden age of Zoroastrianism by seizing and destroying the original golden text of the Zend Avesta by throwing it into the sea.

Despite his supposed sins, by the Islamic period the adoption of Pseudo-Callisthenes' accounts meant that the image of Alexander was on balance positive. By the twelfth century such important writers as Nezami Ganjavi were making him the subject of their epic poems, and holding him up as the model of the ideal statesman or philosopher-king, an idea adopted from the Greeks and elaborated on by Muslim philosophers like al-Farabi.

The traditional non-Western accounts differ from what we now know about the life of Alexander on a number of points. For example, he is held to be the companion of Aristotle and the direct student of Plato.

Legacy and Division of the Empire

After Alexander's death his empire was divided among his officers, first mostly with the pretense of preserving a united kingdom, later with the explicit formation of rival monarchies and territorial states.

Ultimately, the conflict was settled after the Battle of Ipsus in Phrygia in 301 B.C.E. Alexander's empire was divided at first into four major portions: Cassander ruled in Greece, Lysimachus in Thrace, Seleucus I, Nicator ("the winner") in Mesopotamia and Iran, and Ptolemy I of Egyptin the Levant and Egypt. Antigonus I ruled for a while in Asia Minor and Syria, but was soon defeated by the other four generals. Control over Indian territory was short-lived, ending when Seleucus I was defeated by Chandragupta Maurya, the first Mauryan emperor.

By 270 B.C.E., Hellenistic states consolidated, with:

  • The Antigonid dynasty, centered on Greece
  • The Seleucid Empire in Asia
  • The Ptolemaic Kingdom in Egypt and Cyrenaica

By the first century B.C.E., though, most of the Hellenistic territories in the west had been absorbed by the Roman Republic. In the east, they had been dramatically reduced by the expansion of the Parthian Empire and the secession of the Greco-Bactrian kingdom.

Alexander's conquests also had long-term cultural effects, with the flourishing of Hellenistic civilization throughout the Middle East and Central Asia, and the development of Greco-Buddhist art in the Indian subcontinent.

Main towns founded by Alexander

Around 70 towns or outposts are claimed to have been founded by Alexander. Some of the main ones are:

Why “the Great”?

History has dubbed Alexander as “Alexander the Great.” Should this title be preserved? If he is regarded as “great” merely because he acquired a vast empire, and killed thousands in the process, many people may regard preserving such a title as condoning imperial ambition and the loss of peoples' independence. In comparison with the exploits of Mahatma Gandhi or Martin Luther King in more recent years, he may not be thought “Great.” If, however, his efforts at bridging cultural and racial barriers and the legacy of a more unified and inter-connected world is taken into consideration, he may qualify to keep his title. If the standards of his personal conduct are taken into account, some people may question the appropriateness of the appellation. For example, the possibility of homosexuality will condemn him in some people's estimation. Others may see his life more in terms of that of a tortured soul wrestling with different impulses and motives but think that, on balance, his positive achievements still merit the title.

What cannot be denied is that the world has never been quite the same because of the fact that Alexander lived, so any moral evaluation of his legacy has to decide whether, on his death, he left the world a worse or a better place. It can be argued that the world did become qualitatively better—more people could communicate with and trade with more people and many came to share a common world view that enabled ideas about the dignity of man, derived from Alexander's teacher, Aristotle, to flourish. Certainly, Alexander the Great left a huge impact on history and much of the world was transformed because of his life and work.

Ancient sources

The ancient sources for Alexander's life are, from the perspective of ancient history, relatively numerous. Alexander himself left only a few inscriptions and some letter-fragments of dubious authenticity, but a large number of his contemporaries wrote full accounts. These included his court historian Callisthenes, his general Ptolemy I of Egypt, and a camp engineer Aristoboulus. Another early and influential account was penned by Cleitarchus. Unfortunately, these works were lost. Instead, the modern historian must rely on authors who used these and other early sources.

The five main accounts are by Arrian, Curtius, Plutarch, Diodorus, and Justin.

  • Anabasis Alexandri (The Campaigns of Alexander) by the Greek historian Arrian of Nicomedia;
  • Historiae Alexandri Magni, a biography of Alexander in ten books, of which the last eight survive, by the Roman historian Quintus Curtius Rufus;
  • Life of Alexander (see Parallel Lives) and two orations On the Fortune or the Virtue of Alexander the Great (see Other Works), by the Greek historian and biographer Plutarch of Chaeronea;
  • Bibliotheca historia (Library of world history), written in Greek by the Sicilian historian, Diodorus Siculus, from which Book 17 relates the conquests of Alexander. The books immediately before and after, on Philip and Alexander's "Successors," throw light on Alexander's reign.
  • Epitome of the Philippic History of Pompeius Trogus by Junianus Justinus, which contains factual errors and is highly compressed.

Much is recounted incidentally in other authors, including Strabo, Athenaeus, Polyaenus, and others.

The "problem of the sources" is the main concern (and chief delight) of Alexander-historians. In effect, each presents a different "Alexander," with details to suit. Arrian presents a flattering portrait, Curtius a darker one. Plutarch can't resist a good story, light or dark. All include a considerable level of fantasy, prompting Strabo (2.1.9) to remark, "All who wrote about Alexander preferred the marvellous to the true." Nevertheless, the sources tell us much, and leave much to our interpretation and imagination.

Alexander in popular media

  • A 1956 movie starring Richard Burton titled Alexander the Great was produced by MGM.
  • A 1941 Hindi movie Sikandar directed by Sohrab Modi depicts Alexander the Great's Indian conquest.
  • Bond's 2000 album Born includes a song titled “Alexander the Great.”
  • Oliver Stone's film Alexander, starring Colin Farrell, was released on November 24, 2004.
  • The British heavy metal band Iron Maiden had a song entitled "Alexander the Great" on their album Somewhere in Time (1986). The song describes Alexander's life, but contains one inaccuracy: in the song it is stated that Alexander's army would not follow him into India.
  • Brazilian musician Caetano Veloso's 1998 album Livro includes an epic song about Alexander called "Alexandre."
  • From 1969 to 1981, Mary Renault wrote a historical fiction trilogy, speculating on the life of Alexander: Fire from Heaven (about his early life), The Persian Boy (about his conquest of Persia, his expedition to India, and his death, seen from the viewpoint of a Persian eunuch), and Funeral Games (about the events following his death). Alexander also appears briefly in Renault's novel The Mask of Apollo. In addition to the fiction, Renault also wrote a non-fiction biography, The Nature of Alexander.
  • A 1965 Hindi movie Sikandar-E-Azam directed by Kedar Kapoor starring Dara Singh as Alexander depicts Alexander's Indian conquest with Porus.
  • A further trilogy of novels about Alexander was written in Italian by Valerio Massimo Manfredi and subsequently published in an English translation, entitled The Son of the Dream, The Sands of Ammon and The Ends of the Earth.
  • David Gemmel's Dark Prince features Alexander as the chosen vessel for a world-destroying demon king. ISBN 0345379101.
  • Steven Pressfield's 2004 book, The Virtues of War: A Novel of Alexander the Great (NY, Doubleday, ISBN 0385500998) is told from the first-person narrative point-of-view of Alexander.

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Fox, Robin Lane. Alexander the Great. Penguin, 2004. ISBN 978-0143035138
  • Green, Peter. Alexander the Great and the Hellenistic Age. Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2007. ISBN 978-0297852940
  • Tripolitis, Antonio. Religions of the Hellenistic-Roman Age. Grand Rapids, MI: William B Eerdmans, 2001. ISBN 080284913X

External links

All links retrieved July 18, 2023.


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