1902 Encyclopedia > Alexander the Great

Alexander the Great
King of Macedon and world conqueror
(356-323 BC)





ALEXANDER III, commonly called "Alexander The Great," son of Philip II, of Macedonia, and Olympias, daughter of the Molossian chied Neoptolemus, was born at Pella, 356 B.C. His father was a man of fearless courage and the soundest judgment; his mother was a woman of savage energy and fierce superstition. Alexander inherited the qualities of both his parents, and the result was the combination of a boundless ambition with the most sober practical wisdom.

The child grew up with the consciousness that he was the heir of a king whose power was rapidly growing; and the stories told of him attest at the least the early awakening of a mind formed in the mould of the heroes of mythical Hellas. Nay, the blood of Achilles was flowing, as he believed, in his veins; and the flattery of his Acarnanian tutor Lysimachus, who addressed him as the son of Peleus, may have strengthened his love of the immortal poems which told the story of that fiery warrior. By another tutor, the Molossian Leonidas, his vehement impulses were checked by a wholesome discipline.

But the genius of Alexander, the greatest of military conquerors, was moulded in a far greater degree by that of Aristotle, the greatest conqueror in the world of thought. At the age of thirteen he became for three years the pupil of a man who had examined the political constitutions of a crowd of states, and who had brought together a vast mass of facts and observations for the systematic cultivation of physical science. During these three years the boy awoke to the knowledge that a wonderful world lay before him, of which he had seen little, and threw himself eagerly, it is said, into the task of gathering at any cost a collection for the study of natural history. While his mind was thus urged in one direction, he listened to stories which told him of the great quarrel still to be fought out between the East and the West, and learnt to look upon himself as the champion of Helas against the barbarian despot of Susa.

Alexander the Great bust

Alexander the Great

(Bust in the Louvre, Paris)


340 B.C.

The future conqueror was sixteen years of age when he was left at home as regent while his father besieged Byzantium and Perinthus.


338 B.C.

Two years later the alliance of Thebes and Athens was wrecked on the fatal field of Chaeronea, where Alexander, now eighteen years of age, encountered and overcame the sacred Band which has been foremost in the victories of Leuctra and Mantinea (see EPAMINONDAS); but the prospects of Alexander himself became now for a time dark and uncertain. Philip had divorced Olympias and married Cleopatra, the daughter of Attalus. This act roused the wrath not only of Olympias, but of her son, who with her took refuge in Epirus. Cleopatra became the mother of a son. Her father, Attalus, rose higher in the king's favour, and not a few of Alexander's friends were banished. But the feuds in his family were subjects of serious thought for Philip, who sought to counteract their ill effects by a marriage between his daughter and her uncle, the Epirot king Alexander, the brother of Olympias. The marriage feast was celebrated at Aegae. Clothed in a white robe, and walking purposely apart from his guards, Philip was approaching the theatre when he was struck down by the dagger of Pausanias.

It is certain that Alexander, if he mourned his father's death at all, deplored it only as involving himself in political difficulties; but he took care to act as if he were grieved by it, and he revenged it, we are told, by putting out of the way some whose claims or designs might clash with his own. The Greeks of Thebes and Athens knew little what sort of man had taken the place of Philip. Demosthenes, who, although he was mourning for the death of his own daughter, appeared in festal attire to announce the death of the Macedonian king, held up Alexander to ridicule as a bragging and senseless Margites. But they had to reckon with one who could swoop on his prey with the swiftness of the eagle. Barely two months had passed from the death of his father before the youth of twenty years stood with his army on the plains of Thessaly. The argument of the Macedonian phalanx was not to be resisted. The Thessalians recognized him as the Hegemôn or leader of the Greeks; and the young king passed on to Thebes, the citatel of which had been held by a Macedonian garrison since the fight at Chaeronea. Thence he took himself across the isthmus to Corinth. Here he was met by Athenian envoys, who brought him apologies more abject and honours more extravagant than any which had been paid to his father. He received them in an assembly, from which he demanded and obtained the title of supreme leader of the Hellenic armies, and to which he guaranteed, at the utmost with a feigned reluctance, the autonomy or independence of every Hellenic city. No one knew better than Alexander that from the whole armoury of weapons which might be employed to reduce Greeks to slavery, none could more effectually do his work than a theory of freedom which meant dissension, and of self government which meant endless feud, faction, and war.


335 B.C.

Alexander was not eager to carry out his great design against Persia; but he could not do so with safety until he had struck a wholesome terror of his power into the mountain tribes which hemmed in his dominions. His blows descended swiftly and surely on the Thracians of Mount Haemus (the Balkan), on the Triballians, and on some clans of Getae, whom he crossed the Danube to attack. But these expeditions led him away from the world of the Greeks. Silence led to rumours of his defeat, and the rumours of defeat were followed by more confident assertions of his death. At Thebes and at Athens the tidings were received by some with eager belief. The covenant made with Alexander was made only with him personally.

The Theban exiles at Athens were anxious to repeat the attempt which half a century earlier had been made against the Spartan garrison of the Cadmea by Pelopidas. With help in arms and money from Demosthenes and other Athenians, they entered Thebes, and summoned the Macedonian garrison to surrender. The answer was a blunt refusal, and a double line of circumvallation was drawn around the citatel, envoys were sent to call forth aid from every quarter; but these efforts could not affect the issue. The belief in Alexander's death was to be dispelled, by no gradual reports of his escape from the barbarians, but by his own sudden appearance at the Boeotian Onchestus. He had just defeated the Illyrians when he heard of the revolt, and he determined to smite the rebels without turning aside to take even a day's rest at Pella. In little more than a fortnight his army was encamped on the southern side of Thebes, thus cutting off all chances of aid from Athens. It was his wish to avoid an assault, and he contented himself with demanding the surrender of two only of the anti-Macedonian leaders.

The citizens generally were anxious to submit, but the exiles felt or feared themselves to be too deeply committed; and the answer took the form of a defiance, accompanied by a demand for the surrender of Antipater and Philotas. They had sealed their own doom. Personal bravery was of no use against the discipline, the numbers, and the engines of the enemy. The defenders were driven back into the city; the invaders burst in with them; and the slaughter which followed was by no means inflicted by the Macedonians alone. The Plataeans, Thespians, and Orchomenians felt that they had old scores to settle. To these and to the rest of his Greek allies Alexander submitted the fate of the city. The sentence was promptly pronounced. The measure which the Thebans had dealt to Plataeae, and would have dealt to Athens, should now be dealt out to themselves. The whole town was razed to the ground, the house of the poet Pindar being alone spared from demolition, and his descendants alone allowed to retain their freedom.

Alexander had gained his end. The spirit of the Greeks was crushed; a great city was blotted out, and the worship of its gods was ended with its ruin. These gods, it was believed, would in due time take vengeance on the conqueror; but for the present the only hindrance to his enterprise was removed from his path. Without turning aside to Athens, he went on to Corinth to receive the adulations of the independent Greeks, and to find, it is said, a less courtly speaker in the cynic Diogenes. From Corinth he returned to Macedonia, having left Greece for the last time.


334 B.C.

Six months later he set off from Pella, crossed the Helles pont at Sestus, to appease at Ilium by a costly sacrifice the wrath of the luckless Priam; and them marched on, with not more perhaps than 30,000 infantry and 4000 cavalry, and with a treasure-chest almost empty, to destroy the monarchy of Cyrus. With him went men who were to be linked with the memory of his worst crimes and of his most astonishing triumphs -- Clitus, Hephaestion, Eumenes, Seleucus, Ptolemy the son of Lagos, and Parmenion, with his sons Philotas and Nicanor.

The effects of Macedonian discipline were to be seen at once on the banks of the Granicus, a little stream flowing to the Propontis from the slope of Ida. Losing, it is said, only 60 of his cavalry and 30 of his infantry, he annihilated the Persian force, 2000 out of 20,000 foot soldiers being taken prisoners, and nearly all the rest slain.

The terror of his name did his work as he marched southwards. The citadel of Sardis might with ease have been held against him: before he came within eight miles of the city, the governor hastened to surrender it with all its treasure. At Ephesus he found the city abandoned by its garrison. Miletus he carried by storm. Before Halicarnassus he encountered a more obstinate resistance from the Athenian Ephialtes; but the generalship of the latter was of no avail. Alexander entered Halicarnassus, and the Rhodian Memnon remained shut up in the citadel.

Alexander the Great mosaic

The victorious Alexander the Great in the Battle of Issus against Persian King Darius in 333 B.C.
(Source: Roman mosaic found in the House of the Faun, Pompeii, Italy.)



333 B.C.

Leaving Ptolemy with 1000 men to blockade it, he spent the winter in conquering Lycia, Pamphylia, and Pisidia, ending his campaign at Gordium, on the river Sangarius. Here was preserved the ancient waggon of Gordius, the mythical Phrygian king. Whoever could untie the knot, curiously twisted with fibres of the cornel tree, which fastened its pole to the yoke, was, so the story ran, to be lord of Asia. Alexander, as much at a loss as others to unloose it, cut it with his sword; but the prophecy was none the less held to be fulfilled.

If he was thus favoured by sentiment, he was still more favoured by the infatuation which led Darius to abandon the policy of defense by sea for offensive warfare by land. From all parts of his vast empire was gathered a host, numbering, as some said, 600,000 men; and the despot was as much elated at the sight as Xerxes, when he looked down on his motley multitudes at Doriscus. Like Xerxes he had one (the Athenian Charidemus) by his side to warn him that Asiatic myriads were not to be trusted in an encounter with the disciplined thousands of Alexander; but he lacked the generosity which made Xerxes dismiss Demaratus with a smile for his good-will. Darius seized the exile his own hand, and gave him over to the executioner. "My avenger," said Charidemus, "will soon teach you that I have spoken the truth."

The Persian acted as though he wished to bring about the speediest fulfillment of the prediction. The Greek mercenaries were withdrawn from the fleet to be added to the land forces; but although a hundred of these could have effectually barred the passage of Alexander across the range of Taurus, and the passes of the Amanian, Cilician, and Assyrian gates, the invader was suffered to cross these defiles without the loss of a man. Nay, so great was the contempt of Darius for the few thousands of the enemy, that he wished to give them a free path until they reached the plain from which he would sweep them away.

But he could not wait patiently for them in his position to the east of the Amanian range. Alexander had been ill, and he had work to do in subjugating western Cilicia. When at length he set out on his march to the southern Amanian pass, Darius, with his unwieldy train, crossed the northern pass, and entered Issus two days after Alexander had left it. He had placed himself in a trap. In a space barely more than a mile and a half in width, hemmed in by the mountains on the one side and the sea on the other, Darius, in his royal chariot, in the midst of multitudes who has scarcely room to move, awaited the attack of Alexander, who fell suddenly on his right wing. The first onset was enough. The Persians broke and fled. Darius, thinking himself in danger, fled among the foremost. The Persian centre behaved well; but it mattered little now what they might do. Even the Greek mercenaries were pushed back and scattered. Four thousand talents filled the treasure-chest of the conqueror, and the wife, mother, and son of Darius, appearing before him as prisoners, were told that they should retain their royal titles, his enterprise being directed, not against Darius personally, but to the issue which was to determine whether he or Alexander should be lord of Asia.

The true value of armed Asiatic hordes was now as clear to all as the sun at noonday. Parmenion advanced to attack Damascus but he needed not to strike a blow. The governor allowed the treasure in his charge to fall into his hands, and then surrendered the city. Alexander himself marched southward to Phoenicia.

At Marathus he replied to a letter in which Darius demanded the restoration of his family and reproached him for his wanton aggression. His answer repeated what he had already said to his wife, adding that, if he wrote again, Darius must address him, not as his equal, but as his lord. "I am now master of Asia," he wrote, "and if you will not own me as such, I shall treat you as an evil-doer. If you wish to debate the point, do so like a man on the battlefield. I shall take care to find you wherever you may be."

The island city of Aradus was surrendered on his approach. Sidon opened her gates. From the Tyrians he received a submission which demurred only to his entering their city.


332 B.C.

A siege of seven months ended in its fall; and Alexander hanged 2000 of the citizens, it is said, on the sea-shore. The survivors, with the women and children, were sold as slaves. Before the catastrophe of the great Phoenician city he had received a second letter, in which Darius offered him his daughter in marriage, together with the cession of all lands to the west of the Euphrates. "Where I Alexander," said Parmenion (if we may believe the story), "I should take these terms, and run no further risk." "So should I," answered Alexander, "if I were Parmenion; but as I am Alexander, I cannot." "You offer me," he wrote accordingly to Darius, "part of your possession, when I am lord of all. If I choose to marry your daughter, I will do so whether you like it or not."

Darius sent no more letters. The issue, he saw, must be determined by the sword. For the present he was left to himself. Alexander's face was turned towards Egypt. Gaza dared to resist; but a siege of two months was followed by a ruin as complete as that of Tyre. From Gaza a march of seven days brought him to Pelusium. The Persian governor opened its gates to receive him; and the Egyptians expressed their delight at exchanging a Persian for a Macedonian master. Marching in triumph to Memphis, he offered solemn sacrifice to the calf-god Apis; and then, with the true instinct of the ruler and the statesman, he hastened to found for his new kingdom a new capital, which, after more than two millenniums, remains a highway for the commerce of three continents.

Success thus unparalleled was, it would seem, already producing its effects upon him. Calmly reviewing the course of his march from Sestus and Ilium to Memphis, he could explain it only the supposition that he was no child of a human father, and he determined to obtain from the oracle of Ammon, in the Libyan Oasis, a solution of this mystery. The response greeted him as the son, not of Philip, but of Zeus; and he returned, it is said, with the conviction that the divine honours paid to Hercules and Perseus were his own by indubitable right.


331 B.C.

Marching back through Phoenicia, he hastened to Thapsacus and then crossed the Euphrates. Thence turning northwards, he made a sweep which brought him to the Tigris below Nineveh (Mosul), and there, without opposition , crossed a stream where the resistance of a few hundreds might have destroyed his army. After a few days' march to the south-east, he received the news that Darius, with all his host, was close at hand. Still convinced that mere numbers must, with ample space, decide the issue of any fight, and attributing his defeat as Issus only to the cramped position of his troops, he had gathered a vast horde, which some represent as more than a million, on the broad plain stretching from Gaugamela eastwards to Arbela. His hopes were further raised by changes made in the weapons of his troops, and more especially in the array of his warchariots. For the Macedonians it is enough to say that they were led by a man whose consummate generalship had never shone more conspicuously than in the cautious arrangements which preceded the battle of Arbela, or rather of Gaugamela. All went as he had anticipated. As at Issus, Darius fled; and the bravery and even gallantry of the Persians opposed to Parmenion were of no avail when the main body had hurried away after the king. So ended the last of the three great battles (if such they may be termed) which sufficed to destroy the Persian empire, or rather to make Alexander king of Persia; and so ended the first act in the great drama of his life.





The victory of Gaugamela opened for the conqueror the gates of Babylon and Susa. The treasures found in the former furnished an ample donation for all his men: those of Susa amounted, it is said, to nearly twelve million of pounds sterling. The Persian king had wasted men on the battlefield; he had hoarded coin which, freely spent in getting up a Greek army under Greek generals, might have rendered the enterprise of Alexander impossible.

From Susa the conqueror turned his face towards Persepolis, the ancient capital of Cyrus. Before him lay the fortresses of the Uxii, to whom the Persian monarchs had been accustomed to pay tribute when they went from the one capital of their kingdom to the other. The same demand was now made of Alexander, who told them to come to the pass and take it, and then, following a new track which had been pointed out to him descended on their villages, and taught them that they had now to deal with a sovereign of another kind. With Persepolis, Pasargadae, the city containing the tomb of Cyrus, opened its gates to receive the avenger of the iniquities of Xerxes. As such, he determined to inflict on Darius a signal punishment. Five thousand camels and a crowd of mules bore away the treasure, amounting, it is said, to nearly thirty millions of pounds sterling, and then the citadel was set on fire. The men in the city were killed, the women made slaves.


330 B.C.

For a month Alexander allowed his main army to rest near Persepolis; for himself there could be no repose. With his cavalry he overran, and, in spite of the rigours of winter, subdued, the whole region of Farsistan. Then returning to Persepolis, he set forth on his march to Media, where the fugitive king had hoped to be safe from his pursuit. Darius had left Agbatana (Ecbatana) eight days before his pursuer could reach it. In this ancient fastness of the Median and Persian sovereign Alexander deposited his treasures, exceeding, we are told, forty millions sterling in amount, under the charge of a strong Macedonian garrison headed by Parmenion. He then hastened on towards the Caspian gates, and learnt, when he has passed them, that Darius had been dethroned, and was now the prisoner of the Bactrian satrap Bessus. The tidings made Alexander still more eager to seize him. His efforts were so far successful that Bessus felt escape to be hopeless unless Darius could be made to leave his chariot and fly on horseback. He refused to obey, and was left behind, mortally wounded. Before Alexander could reach him, he was dead.

The conqueror now regarded, or professed to regard, himself as the legitimate heir and successor of Xerxes. His course of conquest was still unbroken; but successful forays against the Mardians on the northern slopes of Mount Elburz, against the Arians of the modern Herat, and the Drangians of the present Seistan, were followed by an exploit of another sort.

He had heard that a conspiracy against himself had been revealed to Philotas, who for two days had kept the secret to himself. On being asked why he had done this, Philotas answered that the information came from a worthless source and deserved no notice. Alexander professed himself satisfied with the explanation; but Philotas, it seems, had spoken freely to his mistress Antigone of the large share which he and his father had had in the conquests of Alexander, and Antigone had in her turn become an informer. Of real evidence against Philotas there was none; and a letter from Parmenion to his sons, found when Philotas was treacherously arrested, could tell against them only in the eyes of one who was resolved that Philotas should die.

But Alexander could not rest content with his death alone. There had been nothing yet, even in the way of shadowy slander, to criminate Parmenion, and he resolved that the needful charges should be drawn by tortures from his son. Hidden by a curtain, the conqueror of the world watched the agonies and scoffed at the screams of the friend who had fought by his side in a hundred fights. The issue was, or was said to be, what he desired. Philotas had confessed; and Alexander sent off to Ecbatana a man bearing two dispatches, one to cheat Parmenion into a false security, the other carrying to the officers next to him in command the real order for his assassination. The old man was reading the lying letter of the despot when he received a mortal stab in his back. The soldiers, on hearing of what had been done, furiously demanded the surrender of the murderers, and were with difficulty withheld from taking summary vengeance on seeing the written orders of Alexander. The command of Philotas, who had been at the head of the companion-cavalry, was shared between Clitus and Hephaestion; and Alexander turned from private murder to public war.


329 B.C.

The autumn and winter were spent in overrunning parts of the modern Afghanistan and Cabul [Kabul], in the formation of the Caucasian Alexandria, and in the passage of the Hindu-Kush. He was now in the satrapy of Bessus. The surrender of Aornus and Bactra was followed by the passage of the Oxus and by the betrayal of Bessus, who was sent naked and in chains to the city which had been his capital.

His next exploit (there is but slender ground for calling in into question) was the slaughter, in Sogdiana, of the descendants of the Milesian Branchidae, who, having incurred the hatred of their fellow Greeks by surrendering to Xerxes the treasures of their temple, had followed the despot on his retreat, and by him had been placed in these distant regions. Five generations had passed away since that time, when Alexander gave the order that not one of them, man, woman, or child, should be left alive.

From the ruined city, by way of Maracanda (Samarkand), he reached the Jaxartes (which he believed to be the Tanais or Don), and having laid on its banks the foundation of another Alexandria, he crossed the river to chase some Scythians who had shown themselves on the further side. The end of this chase marked the northernmost point reached in his campaigns.


329-328 B.C.

The winter was spent in the Bactrian city of Zariaspa, where Alexander, summoning Bessus before him, had his nose and ears cut off, and then sent him to be killed by his countrymen at Ecbatana.

In the following summer his army was gathered again at Maracanda. Repose from field-work left room for the display of the overbearing pride to be expected from one who had convinced himself that he was a god, and for the boundless flattery of those who found their interest in keeping up the delusion. But there were not wanting others to whom this arrogance and servility were intensely disgusting, and whose anger was the more fierce from the necessity of avoiding all open expression of it; and in the banquets of the divine son of Ammon there was always a risk that these pent-up feelings might burst forth like a winter torrent.

The catastrophe was not long in coming. In a feast at Maracanda, Alexander, boasting of all that he had done since the death of his father, took credit further for the victories of Philip in the later years of his reign. The patience of Clitus had long been severely taxed, and in the heat of the revel all thought of prudence was cast aside. He spoke his mind plainly, telling Alexander that all his exploits taken together were not equal to those of the man who had found Macedonia a poor and distracted country, and had left it a mighty and coherent state; and that his own greatest victories had been won through the aid of Philip's old soldiers, some of whom he had murdered. Stung to the quick, Alexander gave utterance to his rage; but his retort only led Clitus to remind him of the battle-field of the Granicus, where he had saved him from death by cutting off the arm of the Persian whose sword was raised to smite him, and to warn him that, if he could not bear to listen to the words of truth, he should confine himself to the society of slaves.

Alexander felt for his dagger: it had purposely been placed out of his reach. He called to his guards to sound an alarm: they hesitated to obey the orders of a raving drunkard. Some of the more sober and moderate of the party held him in their arms, praying him to do nothing hastily. By way of answer he reviled them for keeping him a prisoner as Bessus had kept Darius, and shaking himself free, snatched a pike from one of the guards, and thrust it through the body of Clitus, bidding him go to Philip and Parmenion.

The rage of the tiger was followed by a furious remorse, in which, with considerable truth, he denounced himself as unfit to live. For three days he would neither eat nor drink; and the army, alarmed at the threatened starvation of their king, voted that Clitus had been justly slain, and that his body should not receive the rites of burial.

By reversing this vote, Alexander seemed to feel that he had gone a long way towards acquitting himself; whatever might be yet lacking to restore his self-complacence was supplied by the prophets, who assured him that the disaster had been brought about wholly by the Theban wine-god Dionysus, to whom he had offered no sacrifice on the day of the banquet.


328 B.C.

A few weeks after this murder Alexander captured the Sogdian rock, a fastness from which common care would have sent him away baffled. Having next reduced the rock of Chorienes, he returned to Bactra to celebrate his marriage with Roxana, the daughter of Oxyartes, who had been among the captives taken on the Sogdian rock.


327 B.C.

The feast was seized by Alexander as an opportunity for extracting from his Greek and Macedonian followers a public acknowledgment of his divinity. It was arranged that the sophist Anaxarchus (or, as some said, the Sicilian Cleon) should make a speech, advising all to worship at once the man whom they would certainly have to worship after his death. The speech was delivered. The silence of most of the Macedonian officers showed their disgust; but none ventured to speak until the Olynthian Callisthenes, the nephew of Aristotle, insisted on the impiety of all attempts to confound the distinctions between gods and men. Conceding to the conqueror the highest place amongst military leaders and the first rank amongst statesmen, he rebuked Anaxarchus for making a suggestion which ought to have come from any one rather than from himself. The applause which his words drew from the Macedonians taught Alexander that open opposition would be useless; but he was none the more turned from his purpose, nor was it long before he found a pretext for carrying it out. A conspiracy was discovered amongst his pages. These unfortunate men were tortured (but without extracting from them anything to implicate Callisthenes), and then stoned to death, -- as Alexander would have it, not by his orders, but by the loyal impulse of his army. Callisthenes he was resolved, he said, to punish himself, together with those who had sent him, -- an insinuation, manifestly, against his uncle Aristotle, possibly also against all other Greeks, for whom freedom of speech and action had not yet altogether lost its value. The philosopher who had extolled Alexander as the greatest of earthly generals and statesmen was first tortured and then hanged; and the conqueror went calmly on to subdue the regions between the Hindu-Kush and the right bank of the Indus, and to storm the impregnable rock of Aornus.


326 B.C.

The next river to be crossed was the Indus. The bridge was constructed by Hephaestion and Perdiccas, probably near the present Attock. The surrender of Taxila left Alexander an open path until he reached the Hydaspes (Jhelum), where Porus was beaten only after a severe struggle. The Indian prince was taken prisoner, and treated with the courtesy which the family of Darius had received after the battle of Issus. Here died Alexander's horse Boukephalos (Bucephalus), and the loss was commemorated by the founding of Bucephalia.

The passage of the Acesines (Chenab), running with a full and impetuous stream, was not accomplished without much danger; that of the Hydraotes (Ravee) presented less formidable difficulties, but he was encountered on the other side by Indians, who entrenched themselves in their town of Sangala. Their resistance ended, it is said, in the slaughter of 17,000 and the capture of 70,000.

About 40 miles further to the south-east flowed the Hyphasis (Sutlej). Alexander approached its bank, the limit of the Panjab, in the full confidence that a few days more would bring him to the mighty stream of the Ganges; but he had reached the goal of his conquests. The order for crossing the river called forth murmurs and protests at once from his officers and his soldiers, who expressed plainly their refusal to march they knew not whither. Alexander in vain laid before his officers his schemes of further conquest; and when he offered the sacrifice customary before crossing a river, the signs were pronounced to be unfavourable. The die was cast. Twelve huge altars remained to show that Alexander had advanced thus far on his conquest of the world; and, in the midst of deluges of rain, the army set out on its westward journey.


Nov. 326 - Aug. 325 B.C.

The reinforcements which he found on reaching the Hydaspes might, if they had advanced as far as the Hyphasis, have turned the scale in favour of progress to the east; they enabled Alexander to undertake with greater ease a voyage down the Hydaspes to its junction with the Indus after receiving the waters of the Acesines, Hydraotes, and Hyphasis, and thence onwards to the Indian Ocean.

From the mouth of the Indus he ordered his admiral Nearchus to take the fleet along the shores of the ocean and the Persian Gulf to the mouth of the Tigris. The army marched by land through the Gedrosian desert, suffering more from thirst and sickness than they had suffered in all their battles and forced marches. At length he reached Pasargadae, to find the tomb of Cyrus broken open and plundered, and to avenge the insult offered to the man whom he now regarded as the founder of his own dynasty.

Early in the following year he entered Susa, and there, celebrating his marriage with Statira, the daughter of Darius and of Parysatis the daughter of his predecessor Ochus, he offered to pay the debts of those soldiers who would follow his example by taking to themselves Persian wives -- a strange mode of inviting sober and steady men who had no debts, but an effectual argument for the spendthrifts and ruffians of his army.

His new levies of Persian youth, armed and disciplined after the Macedoanian fashion, had now made him independent of his veteran soldiers; and his declared intention of sending home the aged and wounded among them called forth the angry remonstrances of their comrades, who bade him complete his schemes of conquest with the aid of his father Ammon. Alexander rushed into the throng, seized some and had them executed, and then disbanded the whole force.

For two days he shut himself up in his palace; on the third he marshaled his Persian levies (Epigoni, as he called them) into divisions bearing the Macedonian military titles, under Persian officers. The spirit of the veterans was broken by this ignoring of their existence. They threw down their arms at the palace gates, and begged forgiveness with cries and tears. Alexander accepted their contrition, and the restoration of harmony was celebrated by a sumptuous sacrifice.

But for Alexander past victories were only a stimulus to further exploits. Arabia still remained unsubdued, and for this conquest a large addition was needed to his fleet.


324 B.C.

Orders were sent to Phoenicia for the construction of ships, which were to be taken to pieces and sent overland to Thapsacus on the Euphrates, while others were to be built at Babylon.

His journey to Ecbatana was marked by a violent quarrel between Eumenes and Hephaestion. Their reconciliation was soon followed by the death of the latter from an attack of fever. The grief of the conqueror was as fierce as that of Achilles, if we may not set it down as a manifest imitation of it. For two days he neither ate nor drank; he cut his hair short, and ordered that the horses and mules in his army should have their manes docked also. Human blood could scarcely be shed with prudence on his pyre; but he was resolved that his friend should begin his life in the unseen world with unstinted wealth, and the precious things destined to be consumed on his funeral pile represented, it is said, a sum of nearly two millions and a half pounds sterling. Messengers were sent to the Egyptian oracle to ask if the dead man might be worshipped as a god, and Eumenes, with many others, took care to anticipate its answer by offering him such honours as might fall in with the humour of the divine mourner. His grief seemed only to render his bursts of passion more fearful. None dared to address him except in language of the most grovelling flattery; and, in the words of Plutarch, his only concolation was found in his old habit of man-hunting.


323 B.C.

The diversion was this time furnished by some mountain tribes between Media and Farsistan. His march to Babylon steeped him still more in the intoxication of success. As he advanced on his road he was met by ambassadors not only from Illyrians and Thracians, from Sicily and Sardinia, from Libya and Carthage, but from Lucanians and Etruscans, and, as some said, from Rome itself. The lord of all the earth could scarcely look for wider acknowledgement or more devout submission; but his self-gratulation may have been damped by the warning of the Chaldean priests that it would be safer for him not to enter the gates of Babylon.

For a while he hesitated, but he had more to do than to heed their words. The preparations for his Arabian campaign must be hurried on; all that might be needed must be done to improve the navigation of the Euphrates, and a new city must be built to rival, perhaps, the Alexandria which he had founded by the banks of the Nile. More than all, he had to celebrate the obsequies of Hephaestion, whose body had been brought to Babylon from Ecbatana. The feasting which everywhere accompanied the funeral rites of the ancient world was exaggerated by the Macedonians, as by other half rude or savage tribes, into prolonged revelry.

Alexander spent the whole night drinking in the house of his friend Medius, and the whole of the next day in sleeping off his drunkenness. Throughout the following night the same orgies were repeated. When he next awoke he was unable to rise. Fever had laid its grasp upon him, and each day its hold became tighter, while he busied himself incessantly with giving orders about his army, his fleet, his generals, until at length the powers of speech began to fail. When asked to name his successor, he said that he left his kingdom to the strongest. His signet-ring he took from his finger and gave to Perdiccas. Throughout the army the tidings of his illness spread consternation; old grudges were all forgotten; his veterans forced themselves into his presence, and with tears bade farewell to their general, who showed by signs that he still knew them. A few hours later Alexander died, after a reign of less than thirteen years, and before he had reached the age of thirty three.


Summing Up: The Life and Legacy of Alexander the Great

That the schemes of conquest with which almost to the last moment he had been absorbingly busied would, if he had lived, have been in great part realized, can scarcely be doubted, unless we suppose that causes were at work which at no distant period would have disturbed and upset the balance of his military judgment, and deprived him of that marvelous power of combination and of shaping means to circumstances in which Hannibal and Napoleon are perhaps his only peers.

It would be rash to say that such a darkening of his splendid powers might not have been brought about, even before he could reach middle age, by habits which, if we may judge from the history of his later years, were fast becoming confirmed. In truth, except as a general, he has lost the balance of his mind already. The ruling despot who fancied himself a god, who could thrust a pike through the body of one friend and sneer at the cries drawn forth from another by the agonies of torture, was already far removed from the far-sighted prudence of the politic statesman and ruler.

His conquests served great ends; and before he set out on his career of victory he may have had a distinct vision of these ends. Desire for knowledge; the wish to see new forms of human and animal life; the curiosity of traversing unknown lands, of laying open their resources, of bringing them all within the limits and the influence of the Macedonian, or, as he preferred to put it, the Greek world; the eagerness to establish over all known, possibly over all unknown, regions a mighty centralized empire, which should avail itself of all their forces, and throw down the barriers which rendered the interchange of their wealth impossible, -- may have mingled with his alleged or his real purpose of avenging on the Persian king the misdoings of Xerxes, Darius, and Cyrus.

But there is little evidence or none that these motives retained their power undiminished as he advanced further on his path of victory, while there seems to be evidence, only too abundant, that all other motives were gradually and even fast losing strength as the lust of conquest grew with his belief or his fancy of his superhuman power and origin.

During his sojourn with Aristotle he must have learnt that real knowledge can be reached and good government insured only where there is freedom of thought and speech, and where the people obey their own laws. A few years later he had come to look on Aristotle as an enemy to be punished with scarcely less severity than Callisthenes. But at the least it must be remembered that his work was left unfinished; possibly he may have regarded it as little more than begun.

Looking at it from this point of view, we can neither shut our eyes to the solid benefits accruing from his conquests both for the East and the West, nor, in spite of his awful crimes, can we place him in the rank of those scourges of mankind among whom Alaric and Attila, Genghiz [Genghis Khan], Timour, and Napoleon stand pre-eminent. Of the several accounts of his career which have come down to us, not one, unhappily, is strictly contemporary; and mere fairness calls upon us to give him the benefit of a doubt, when doubt can be justly entertained, in reference even to deeds which carry with them an unutterable horror and shame.

It is impossible to deny that with a higher sense of duty Alexander would better have deserved the title of Great; but the judgment which may be passed on some of his actions cannot affect his transcendent glory as the most consummate general of ancient times, and perhaps even of all ages.


Further Reading

For an examination of the sources of the history of Alexander the Great, see Freeman, Historical Essays, second series, essay v. The history itself is presented in various aspects by Thirlwall, History of Greece, chaps. xlvii-lv.; Grote, History of Greece, part ii., chaps. xci-xciv.; Niebuhr's Lectures on Ancient History, lectures xxiv.-lxxx.; Williams, Life of Alexander the Great; St Croix, Examen critique des Anciens Historiens d'Alexandre le Grand; Droysen, Geschichte Alexanders der Grossen. See also Finlay, Greece under the Romans, chap. i.; Arnold, History of Rome, chap xxx. For the geography of Alexander's Indian campaigns, see Cunningham's Ancient Geography of India; and for the scientific results of his conquests, Humboldt's Kosmos, vol. ii., part ii., section 2. (G. W. C.)






The above article was written by: the Rev. Sir George William Cox, Baronet, M.A.; Bishop of Bloemfontein from 1886; author of The Tale of the Great Persian War, The Crusades, A History of Greece, and many other historical works.



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