In the year 356 BC, a son was born to the King of Macedon, Philip II, and his wife, Queen Olympias.
While no one could have known it at the time, that boy would grow up to fundamentally change the map of the ancient world. Multiple ancient kingdoms and empires would fall to his armies.
However, just as he reached the zenith of his success, he died, leaving chaos and confusion in his wake.
Learn more about Alexander the Great and how he changed the map of the ancient world on this episode of Everything Everywhere Daily.
I’ve done several episodes where I have mentioned Alexander the Great. He casts a long shadow over Ancient history in Greece, Egypt, Persia, the Levant, Turkey, Central Asia, and even India.
So, I figured it was time to talk about the man himself rather than just addressing him obliquely, and let me say that this is a very difficult thing to do. There have been large biographies written about Alexander and entire podcasts, lasting over a hundred hours, going into detail about Alexander and his accomplishments.
So this is just going to be a brief overview of the life of Alexander, touching on the things that you should know if you are going to know about Alexander the Great.
Alexander was born on July 20, 356 BC, in Pellas, the capital of the Kingdom of Macedon. Macedonia was located in what is today Northern Greece and the country of North Macedonia.
The Macedonians were culturally Greek, but it was not the center of Greek civilization. They were considered the hillbillies of the ancient Greek world, far from the centers of civilization like Athens, Corinth, or Thebes.
Alexander was given an education that was befitting a royal heir. His tutor was none other than the philosopher Aristotle, who taught him ??philosophy, literature, geometry, medicine, and military strategy.
The big thing to take away from the early life of Alexander is that Alexander was the son of Philip II, and Phillip did something that prior to his doing it, had been thought to be impossible. He conquered and unified Greece.
Ancient Greece had always been a collection of city-states. They were small, independent, and often warred with each other. Many of the city-states, like Athens, weren’t conquered per se, and that is for another episode, but suffice it to say that Phillip was the hegemonic power in Greece.
In many ways, Phillip did the hard part.
Phillip was assassinated in the year 336. Needless to say, there was a great deal of controversy surrounding the assassination and the conspiracy behind it. Nonetheless, Alexander found himself King Alexander III of Macedon at the age of 20.
Alexander probably had a big chip on his shoulder. He was the son of Phillip, one of the most successful military commanders in history. He had to do something to distinguish himself from his father.
His first order of business in 335 BC was putting down revolts among Thracian tribes to the north of Macedonia.
Once that was done, he set his sights on an incredibly audacious goal. He was going to take on the Persian Empire.
Greece and Persia had a history with each other. The Persian Empire was the largest empire in the world at the time. It expanded from Egypt to India, and the King of Persia ruled a large, diverse population, which resulted in a very large army.
The Persian Empire, also known to history as the Achaemenid Empire, was established under Cyrus the Great and subsequently attempted and failed to conquer Greece. If you remember back to my episodes on the Battles of Marathon and Thermopylae, in both battles, the Greeks managed to repel the invading Persians despite being vastly outnumbered.
Phillip had dreamed of conquering Persia but died before he could put his plan into play. Alexander would fulfill his father’s dream.
In 334 BC, he and his army crossed the Hellespont, now known as the Dardanelles, and marched into Asia Minor, or modern-day Turkey. His army at this time was estimated to be approximately 48,000 infantry and 6,100 cavalry, along with a fleet of 120 ships and 38,000 sailors.
At this time, Asia Minor was culturally Greek, and Persia had conquered the Greeks in this region.
Alexander saw immediate and stunning success. His first big win against the Persians was at the Battle of the Granicus River. Alexander had about 18,000 infantry in the field, with about 4,200 heavy cavalry. The Persians had 40,000 infantry and possibly as many as 20,000 cavalry.
Despite being massively outnumbered, Alexander’s army routed the Persians. Persian losses are estimated to be between 5000 and 6000 dead, whereas the Macedonian army lost only 115.
Alexander was a military savant. I don’t think there is any other way to put it. He was able to adapt and devise strategies on the fly, which had never been done before.
Alexander was the right person, at the right place, at the right time. It is something that seldom happens in history.
Let’s say there was someone in history who, for some reason, was better than Alexander at understanding and developing strategies in ancient warfare. The odds are highly unlikely they would have an army at their disposal, and even rare that they would be the son of a king who had just unified a group of squabbling city-states.
On top of that, the odds are slim that they would even be born in an era that had ancient warfare.
After the Battle of the Granicus River, Alexander laid siege to the city of Halicarnassus.
Around this time, he entered the city of Gordium and encountered the Gordian Knot. It was said whoever could solve the puzzle of the knot would become the ruler of Asia. Legend has it he solved it by cutting it in half with his sword.
….and then met the Persian Emperor, Darius III, at the Battle of Issus in 333 BC.
Issus was one of one of Alexander’s masterpieces.
Alexander had about 40,000 troops at his command. Estimates of the size of the Persian army have varied throughout history, but they range from 250,000 to 600,000. Modern estimates place the number at about 100,000, just due to the logistics of feeding an army any larger.
Regardless, once again, Alexander was massively outnumbered and routed the Persians. Persian losses were in the tens of thousands of killed and wounded. Alexander’s only had 150 men killed.
More importantly, Darius fled the battle in full sight of his army.
With that, Alexander marched south along the coast of the Mediterranean. He laid siege to the Phonecian island city of Tyre by filling in the land between the island and the shore. Tyre is still not an island over 2000 years later.
From there, he and his army marched further south and laid siege to the city of Gaza, and then went into Egypt, where he found a population willing to embrace Alexander to be relieved of Persian rule.
There, he met with the oracle in the oasis town of Siwa, where he was told that he was the son of a god. He began identifying himself as the son of Zeus-Ammon.
While there, in 331 BC, he founded the city of Alexandria, something which he did in many of the lands he conquered.
Later, in 331 BC, he left Egypt and headed into what is today Iraq. Darius, at this point, tried to use diplomacy to dissuade Alexander. After several attempts, he basically offered to make him co-ruler of the empire, his daughter’s hand in marriage, and 30,000 talents of silver.
According to legend, he debated accepting the offer with his close friends. One of them, Parmenion, spoke up and said, “If I were Alexander, I should accept what was offered and make a treaty.’
Alexander then replied, “So should I if I were Parmenion.”
Soon after, he once again met Darius on the battlefield at the Battle of Gaugamela.
Gaugamela has gone down as one of the most important battles in world history.
To greatly oversimplify the battle, Alexander made the decision to attack Darius directly and personally. Darius ended up fleeing the battlefield again, and his army collapsed, seeing their leader flee.
Darius was soon killed by his own men, and Alexander became the new leader of the Persian empire.
Alexander began adopting Persian customs. He began dressing like a Persian and adopted the tradition of proskynesis, where people had to prostrate themselves on the ground before him in an audience.
He pursued the killer of Darius, a Persian named Bessus, as he felt that as the successor of Darius, it was his duty to bring a kingslayer to justice. His pursuit took him into Central Asia and modern-day Tajikistan.
When I visited Tajikistan, the legend of Alexander is something they still embrace and I actually spent several nights along a lake known as Isksanderkul, or Lake Alexander.
Along the way, he set up more cities named after himself.
Now, as the ruler of Greece and the Persian Empire, Alexander’s ambition was still not satisfied. He wanted to keep going east to the edges of what was the known world…..at least to the Greeks.
He eventually made his way into what is modern-day Pakistan. He continued his winning ways, establishing cities, laying siege to towns, and finding new allies.
What eventually stopped his advance wasn’t any formidable enemy. It was his own troops—the ones who had been with him from the start in Macedonia.
Far from home and not having seen their families for years, they didn’t want to continue any longer. Alexander agreed and began the trip back to Persia.
The march back did not go well. In one battle in India, Alexander was hit with an arrow that went through his armor and punctured his lung. It almost killed him.
He split his forces up, and one-half of them went through a desert in Iran, where many of them died from exposure and a lack of food and water.
On the way back, Alexander found that many of the men he left behind to run the empire abused their positions, and he had many of them executed.
He continued to try to merge Macedonian and Persian customs and peoples. In his most famous act, he conducted a mass marriage between his Macedonian generals and Persian women.
When he was back in Babylon, he began preparing for a new campaign, this time to conquer Arabia.
Along with the invasion of Arabia, he had plans to construct a massive fleet that would be used to establish harbors and cities along the coast of North Africa, with the eventual intent to take Carthage.
He also planned a circumnavigation of Africa and to build a tomb for his father that rivaled the Great Pyramid.
Supposedly, he also wanted to migrate a huge number of people from Asia to Europe and vice versa to physically create a single, unified people.
However, none of this ever happened.
On June 11, 323 BC, at the age of 32, Alexander died after a two-week illness. His cause of death had been debated for centuries. Some say he was poisoned, and others claim it was something more natural, like malaria.
However, he died he left no successor.
The only thing he supposedly ever mentioned when asked about succession was the phrase “to the strongest.”
Over a little more than a decade, Alexander had changed everything. He single-handedly….and with his army….. changed the landscape of the ancient world.
The Persian Empire was gone, and in its wake were four successor states that were run by his top generals. These states remained controlled by cultural Greeks for centuries. Greek culture was brought all the way to India and changed the culture throughout his empire in ways that can still be felt today.