The life of Alexander the Great: history, conquests and curiosities

Alexander the Greatalso known as Alexander III of Macedonia or Alexander the Great, was one of the greatest leaders of the ancient world. Numerous things are circulating about his life legends and curiosities. Alexander was born in 356 BC in Pella, capital of Fruit saladand he was the king’s son Philip II. When his father died, Alexander inherited the throne and undertook an extensive military campaign in Orient. He conquered the entire Persian empire, a centuries-old enemy of the Greeks, and pushed forward with his army up to India. Upon his death in 323 BC, the empire fragmented. Nonetheless, Alexander’s conquests facilitated the circulation of knowledge and cultural exchanges between East and West, starting a new era.

Who was Alexander the Great

Alexander was the son of King Philip II of Macedonia, who had ascended the throne in 360 BC. Macedonia was a peripheral region of the Hellenic world, but Philip was able to defeat the city-states of Greece and achieve a sort of unification of the territory: the city-states were not annexed to the Macedonian kingdom, but had to agree to be administered by rulers chosen by Philip and to reunite in an alliance, the league of Corinth.

Greece at the death of Philip (credits Marsyas)

Alexander was born in Pella, capital of the Macedonian Kingdom, when his father had already started his expansionist policy. As a child he had the philosopher as a tutor Aristotlewho was also born in Macedonia, and in 338 BC, at the age of 18, he was at Philip’s side in the battle of Chaeronea (a locality in the Peloponnese), which constituted the definitive victory of the Macedonians over the Greek city-states. Two years later Philip was murdered and Alexander inherited the throne. He immediately demonstrated his abilities by immediately repressing a rebellion that broke out in the Greek cities.

The attack on the Persian empire and the conquest of Egypt

After restoring control over the city-states, Alexander decided to face Greece’s centuries-old enemy: the Persian Empire, which extended over present-day Turkey and large areas of the Middle East and Central Asia. He thus gathered an army of forty thousand men and in 334 BC landed on the coasts of Asia Minor (now Turkey). Alexander’s army inflicted the first defeats on the enemy army, commanded by the Great King of Persia Darius IIIin the river battles Granic (334) and of Issus (333), both in the territory of present-day Türkiye.

Alexander riding his horse Bucephalus in the battle of Issus (mosaic in the Archaeological Museum of Naples)

After Issus, Alexander decided to make a “detour” towardsEgypt, part of the Persian Empire at the time, and easily conquered the country. During the expedition, he visited the oracle ofSiwa oasis, with the intention of obtaining “recognition” of his divine origin. The oracle satisfied him, declaring that Alexander, like the ancient Pharaohs, was son of Amunmain Egyptian deity.

The conquest of the Persian empire

Returning to Asia, in 331 Alexander again defeated the Persian army in his most famous battle, that of Gaugamela, near present-day Mosul, Iraq. Darius was forced to flee and was killed by his subordinates shortly afterwards. Alexander was able to easily occupy the main cities of enemy territory: Susa, Persepolis, Babylon. The Persian Empire had ceased to exist.

The Battle of Gaugamela in a painting by Jan Bruegel the Elder

Alexander also assumed the title of Great King of Persia and attempted to act as a peacemaker, marrying a Persian noblewoman, Rossane. He also made his own some characteristics of the style of government of the eastern monarchs, claiming to be worshiped as a deity. For the Greeks, who had never agreed to offer divine honors to a human being, the demand was unacceptable and strong discontent spread among the army.

The campaigns in Central Asia and India

Alexander, not satisfied with his conquests, decided to go even further east. He formed a new army, composed largely of Asian soldiers, and between 329 and 327 he occupied vast territories of the current states of Afghanistan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, reaching as far as northern India. He would have liked it continue furtherbut, since the army refused to follow him, he was forced to turn back.

Alexander's Empire (credits Generic Mapping Tools)

The last years and death of Alexander the Great

In 324 Alexander married a new wife, Starita, daughter of Darius, with the aim of consolidating the union between Greeks and Persians, and conducted some smaller military campaigns. In 323, while he was at Babylonhe fell ill (perhaps with malaria or cirrhosis of the liver) and after a brief agony died. There is a widespread suspicion – unproven but plausible – that he was poisoned.

Alexander’s legacy

Alexander had conquered a territory of enormous proportions, but had not had time to consolidate his dominion. When he died, the empire fell apart: his generals, known as diadochithey divided the territory among themselves, each assuming the kingdom over individual portions.

Alexander’s conquests, however, had consequences of fundamental importance for the history of civilization. In fact, they made it possible to consolidate ties and exchanges between Greece and the eastern world, giving rise to a new era, known as Hellenistic age. The combination of Greek rationality and Eastern cultures made enormous progress in science, technology and literary studies.

The kingdoms of the Diadochi in 301 BC (credits Luigi ChiesA)

Some curiosities about Alexander the Great: the “Alexandria” and the horse Bucephalus

During Alexander’s conquests he founded numerous cities, all with the name of Alexandria, among them Alexandria, Egypt the best known and most important. Many “Alexandria” still exist, although they have changed names over the centuries, such as Alessandria in Arachosia, today Qandahar, in Afghanistan (this does not include Italian Alexandria, which owes its name to Pope Alexander III, who lived around 1500 years after Alexander the Great). Furthermore, according to a legend, Alexander was the only Macedonian capable of riding a prodigious horse, called Bucephaluswho was his “companion” in numerous battles.