detail of Alexander & Bucephalus at battle of Issus 
from mosaic found in house of the Faun at Pompeii
copied from classic Greek fresco by Philoxenos of Eretria (ca. 310
BCE);
mosaic now on exhibit at National Archaeological Museum in Naples 
 is widely considered to be the most reliable extant portrait of Alexander

Alexander III "the Great" [356 - 323 BCE]

Nineteenth king of Macedonia, who conquered the Persian Empire & initiated the fusion of Greek & oriental cultures known as Hellenism that dominated the eastern Mediterranean world for the next nine centuries.  Alexander was the first conqueror in history who planned not only to occupy enemy territory by military force but to colonize his conquests with new cities modeled on those of his own land.  His armies were accompanied by surveyors, engineers, architects, scientists, philosophers, statesmen & historians who established a string of Hellenistic cities at strategic locations throughout western Asia & north Africa, from Asia Minor to Egypt & from Syria to northern India. The fact that his own reign lasted just over a dozen years makes the lasting impact of his achievements all the more remarkable.

Alexander was born near the northwestern frontier of Greek culture, the son of Philip II of Macedon & Olympias of Epirus (Albania).  Though Alexander's parents claimed descent from Homeric heroes, Greeks from the city states to the south generally regarded them as "barbarians" (i.e., foreigners). Yet Alexander received the best possible Greek education from Macedonian tutors including Plato's independent-minded protégé, the peripatetic philosopher Aristotle of Stagirus. While his closest companions were drawn from the Macedonian court at Pella, from an early age Alexander's horizons were broadened by the universal worldview of his mentor & his father's vision of a Pan Hellenic empire. Thus, when Philip was assassinated (336 BCE) Alexander acted swiftly to launch his campaign to conquer & unify the world by spreading Greek civilization.

First, however, the 20 year old prince had to secure his succession to the Macedonian throne & gain recognition as leader of the league of Greek city states that saw Philip's death as an opportunity to assert their independence from Macedonian domination. His task was complicated by the fact that his parents recent divorce (338 BCE) had estranged him from his father. Yet he remained the favorite of his father's army. At age 12 he had tamed a horse (whom he named Bucephalus) that seasoned cavalry officers could not mount, simply by noticing that it was spooked by its own shadow. At 14 he quelled a rebellion while his father was away on a campaign. At 16 he had proved his leadership skills & courageous spirit in the decisive Macedonian victory over the combined forces of Thebes & Athens at Chaeronea. So when Philip was murdered, the army supported Alexander in quickly eliminating all rivals & reinstalling his Albanian mother as queen of Macedonia. 

This enabled Alexander to concentrate on enforcing his claim to Philip's role as leader of the Hellenic league. A rumor that he had been killed while fighting rebels prompted Thebes, with support from Athens, to declare itself free from Macedonian domination (335 BCE). Two weeks later Alexander arrived at the gate of Thebes. When barred from entry, Alexander responded by reducing the city to ruins (except for its temples & the house of Pindar) & selling survivors into slavery. Faced with this specter of devastation, all opposition to Alexander in other Greek city states collapsed.  

Instead of seeking to penalize other Greeks who had opposed him, Alexander rallied Greek support for a massive campaign against their old adversary, the Persian empire. In the spring of 334 BCE Alexander crossed the Hellespont into Asia Minor at the head of a combined Macedonian & Greek fighting force of 35,000 with a large civil corps as auxiliary. In less than two years he completely routed Persian forces & even took the royal family hostage--except for king Darius III himself--at the battle of Issus (fall 333 BCE). 

While Alexander acted swiftly & decisively to best any who challenged him, he repeatedly demonstrated graciousness & leniency to former opponents who acknowledged his suzerainty.  Thus, his campaign was not all relentless conquest.  Word of a few decisive Macedonian military victories over the Persian army prompted most of the cities of Asia Minor & Syria to welcome Alexander as their heroic liberator. He responded by accepting non-Greeks, even former Persian opponents, into his entourage.

The Phoenician city of Tyre was an exception. An ancient island fortress with seemingly impregnable fortifications & an excellent navy, Tyre prided itself as master of the Mediterranean.  It was not prepared to surrender to a foreign commander who had no effective navy. Not willing to tolerate such opposition, Alexander waged an innovative 7 month siege in which he constructed a causeway from the mainland to the island. In July 332 BCE Alexander's forces stormed Tyre's fortifications.  Men were slaughtered, women & children sold into slavery. 

This stunning victory, followed by one at Gaza, prompted Egypt to welcome Alexander as its liberator & king (November 332 BCE). After initiating plans for the construction of Alexandria, he set out on a pilgrimage to the sacred oasis of Siwa. There the oracle of Amun hailed him as "son of God" (the standard Egyptian greeting of a Pharaoh)--which Alexander & later Greeks, who equated Amun with Zeus, interpreted as proof of divine paternity.

The next year he reached the Tigris, routed Darius' forces & claimed control of Babylon & all Mesopotamia. Susa, the capital of Persia, surrendered to him without a fight, giving him access to its vast royal treasury. The Hellenic war of vengeance ended with his symbolic burning of Xerxes' palace at Persepolis, after which he dismissed his Greek allies. Alexander's Macedonian troops, however, pressed on into central Asia. When Darius, who had been reduced to a fugitive, was murdered by one of his own governors (330 BCE) Alexander laid claim to the Persian royal titles of "King of Kings" & "Lord of Asia." As he journeyed eastward he became increasingly influenced by oriental traditions of divine monarchy (including prostration) & less committed to the democratic principles of his Greek education.  Yet his personal inclinations towards absolutism were at least partially checked by his companions who were less inclined to adopt new customs.

After a long trek through Bactria & Afghanistan, Alexander reached northern India (327 BCE) where he won his last major battle & founded the city of Bucephala to honor his horse who had fallen in battle. Threatened with mutiny by a weary army if he went any deeper into India, Alexander returned to Susa (324 BCE) & began to reorganize the government of Persian provinces that were now under his control. In an effort to unify his vast domain, he staged a massive wedding of 10,000 of his Macedonian troops to Persian brides. But his desired fusion of cultures was thwarted by Macedonian reluctance to accept Persians as equals. He averted open mutiny among his troops only by threatening to dismiss them & replace them with Persians. 

Early in 323 BCE Alexander returned to Babylon to plan extensive construction. But in early June he fell ill at a lavish banquet & died soon after (age 33).  He was buried in Alexandria, Egypt & revered as a god both there & throughout Greece. The barbarian prince who had identified himself with mythic heroes became himself the focus of a heroic cult. Yet he failed to establish a lasting dynasty.

References: Josephus, Antiquities 11.305, 313-346; 12.1, 8,11
                   _____, War 2.360, 487-488; 5.465; 7.245
                   _____, Apion 1.183-185, 194, 200; 2.35-44, 72.
                  Arrian, Campaigns of Alexander.
                  Plutarch, Life of Alexander.                  

Even before Alexander's birth, his father's family (Macedonia's Temenid dynasty) had traditionally traced its lineage to a legendary descendent of the mythical hero Heracles, mortal son of Zeus who was granted immortality because of his prodigious feats. The coins issued by Alexander, like this silver tetradrachma, popularized his personal claim to embody that mythical heritage. The face of his coins regularly portrayed Heracles wearing a lion skin with a profile resembling Alexander's own. (Compare the prominent nose & chin on this coin minted shortly after Alexander's death with those on the Issus mosaic above). The other side regularly displayed an enthroned Zeus holding a scepter & eagle. The inscription reads simply Alexandrou ["of Alexander"].  Later coins added the title Basileos ["king"].  Alexander's coins set the standard for currency in the Hellenistic world & continued to be issued virtually unchanged (or imitated) by Macedonian rulers for 250 years after his death.

For high resolution images of this & other coins of Alexander see Ancient Coinage of Macedonia, Kings, Alexander III in David Surber's excellent ancient coins website: Wildwinds.

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