Alexander The Great

Learn how Alexander The Great created an empire that stretched across Persia and much of Asia through his excellent military and leadership skills.

There is a certain element of doubt about the truthfulness of much of ancient history and the story of Alexander the Great is no different. Because events occurred so long ago it is difficult to separate myth from fact. But perhaps that is what makes this story so appealing; an element of the fantastic adds spice to an already interesting tale. What is certain is that Alexander was one of the greatest leaders of men ever, serving as an inspiration to his people at the time. He created an empire through Europe and much of Asia comparable in greatness to the Roman Empire, although admittedly somewhat shorter lived.

Alexander the Great, named Alexandros at birth, was born around 356 BC, the son of King Philip I of Macedonia and his wife Olympias. Legend reveals though that Zeus, the Greek god, sired Alexander. Whatever the truth, the Macedonian would in future years gain the reputation of demigod through his marvellous exploits.

In his childhood he was tutored by the great Greek philosopher Aristotle and took to academic work well. He was also schooled vigorously in the art of battle. On one occasion his father challenged him to ride a horse, Bucephalus, which he wished for himself, but had decided was too wild. Alexander, astute in his observations of the bold black stallion, realised it was scared of its own shadow. When the horse was facing the sun (and thus unaware of its shadow) Alexander mounted him. Then, riding Bucephalus in such a way as to avoid its shadow, the youngster tamed the horse. As a reward, Philip gave Alexander Bucephalus and the pair would remain together for many years. Indeed, when the horse died around ten years later, Alexander honoured him with a state funeral and named the Indian city, Bucephala, after him.

Made regent of Macedonia in 340 BC, Alexander immediately began building a reputation as an excellent soldier. He routed his Thracian neighbours in battle and built his first city, Alexandropolis. These were the initial signs that he had the military and leadership characteristics to establish a substantial empire.

Two years later, Alexander the Great commanded a troop of cavalry at the Battle of Chaeronea. Under the guidance of King Philip, the Macedonian cavalry had become a fearsome unit, heavily armoured and well disciplined, and they easily beat their Greek enemy. Also in the Macedonian forces was the Royal Army, known as Hypaspists, an elite troop of mythical proportions. These, coupled with a well-drilled territorial and auxiliary body, as well as many weapons of siege, would help make Alexander's life as a leader less demanding than those of previous times.

On their victorious return to Macedonia, rumours began to circulate that Philip was being unfaithful to his wife, the mother of Alexander. The latter confronted his father and, after a heated argument, fled with his mother into hiding. The adulterous Philip himself had great aspirations of empire building across two continents. After all, he was the inspiration behind the revamping of the armed forces. But he never dare leave Macedonia for fear of Alexander taking control and turning against him. He knew his son was fast developing as a military leader who had a forceful personality and some support, so the risk was deemed too great.

Eventually Alexander did return and the pair agreed to set aside their differences. Shortly afterwards though, Philip was poisoned at a function, at which Alexander was present, and died. The name of the guilty party remained unknown and although Alexander had good reason to kill his unfaithful father, no evidence was forthcoming. Subsequently Alexander was named King.

In 336 BC Alexander set out with around 37,000 soldiers to build his empire. First they crossed the river Danube to fortify the northern frontier. Then they negotiated the strait at Hellespont (a narrow strait between the Aegean and Marmara seas) with the intention of taking control of Persia. The army marched towards Babylon, fighting along the way, until encountering the forces of Darius III at Issus (modern day Syria). Even though the Macedonians were heavily outnumbered they routed the Persian army after a fake retreat ordered by tactician Alexander. Darius and his men fled for their lives, but left behind a vast wealth, including his own wife and mother. One might expect Alexander to have them killed for being in league with the enemy. Instead he treated them with care, compassion and respect. This was the beginning of Alexander's attempts to integrate Persian and European lifestyles and customs, a move that the majority of his army resented.

Alexander urged his men onwards and two years later they laid siege to the island city of Tyre. When it became obvious that the Tyrean men wouldn't leave the safety of their fortress, Alexander had his men build a bridge to reach them. Once within reach, the foe capitulated before the attacking Macedonians. Later that same year they took the city of Gaza and Alexander was crowned Pharaoh in Memphis, Egypt.

A year later the great city of Alexandria had been founded and the quest continued. Darius III had rallied his troops and waited for Alexander the Great at Guagemala. Once more he was routed and his demise became complete when his own men, who wished to appease Alexander as their new ruler, killed him. That same year the King of Macedonia, and soon to be Persia, led his troops into Babylon (in modern day Iraq), which would become the capital of his empire. The last Persian defenders were killed attempting to shield their capital Persopolis, which was duly burnt to the ground to signal a new beginning.

The next step was to cross the inhospitable Hindu Kush mountain range into Asia. This they did with supreme skill and effort. Once in Asia they defeated the nomadic Scythians and arrested Bessus, usurper of the Persian throne. Subsequently, to gain a foot hold in Asia, the army had to split into several groups to quell minor uprisings. They then moved into Central Asia.

In the spring of 327 BC the troops stood before the Sogdian Rock, a cliff with a fortress at its summit. From the cliff, Oxyartes, the fortress overlord, taunted Alexander, boasting that he couldn't be touched. Alexander waited until nightfall, and sent a number of his troops skilled at climbing up the rock face. The next morning, the red faced Oxyartes was surrounded. He admitted defeat and became friends with Alexander. Later that year King Alexander married Oxyartes' daughter, Roxanne. After the ceremony, Macedonian troops invaded India.

After capturing an Indian stronghold, The Rock of Aornus, the Macedonians engaged in yet another famous conflict, the Battle of Hydaspes. The opposition leader was named Porus and had in his command two hundred elephants. The two armies stood off against each other across a river. Each night Alexander sent his troops across the river as if to attack, only to order them to retreat at the last minute. Eventually Porus and his men became sick of this ploy and went to bed regardless of whether or not the Macedonians were crossing. Inevitably, when they did attack, Porus and his soldiers were sleeping; they had no choice but to surrender.

Just as it looked as if Alexander's empire might envelope the whole of Asia, his men refused to cross the river Hyphasis in Northern India. Alexander reluctantly agreed to turn back - not that he had much choice. Most of the men had not seen home in over ten years and they were determined to return. In 325 BC they reached the Indian Ocean and that same year marched through the Gedrosian Desert. This may have been as a punishment, or the route may have been chosen to map out trade routes to India. Many soldiers died on the journey through the desert, such was its inhospitable nature, but it is a testimony to Alexander that he managed to lead them through.

In 324 BC the expedition force was back in the capital, Babylon. Alexander married again, to the daughter of Darius III, Statira. Later that year, his lifelong friend, Hephaestion died. He had travelled with Alexander and proved the perfect foil to the king's military leadership, as he was highly skilled in diplomacy. Months afterwards Alexander himself died after a lengthy banquet. The heavy campaigning of the previous twenty years had finally caught up with him. He was thirty-two years old.

There are several different accounts of the life and deeds of Alexander the Great, the first of which was written three hundred years after his death. It cannot be doubted that he created a huge empire with the excellent leadership of his elite forces. Some of the more outrageous claims may have grown with his legend but his deeds were obviously of such a magnitude to warrant such discrepancies.

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