Chapter Twenty: Alexander the Great
King of Macedonia, conqueror of Persia, and one of the greatest military geniuses of all time; Alexander the Great traveled further east than any European until Marco Polo, more than a thousand years later. He is the most famous person from the classical world, with the exception of Christ.
Physically, he was ideal: handsome, charming, and good at every sport. His boyhood tutor, Aristotle, had given him a love for Greek literature and philosophy which enriched his military career with true statesmanship. He liked hard work, dangerous enterprises, and never wanted to rest. Legend claimed he tamed an incorrigible horse, named Bucephalas, when he was only ten years old, apparently unaware of the danger of being trampled to death. He also introduced to Europe the custom of shaving, claiming that a beard was too easy for an enemy to grab during combat. In this little item, perhaps, he had his greatest influence on history.
When Alexander became king, he was faced with wide-scale rebellion through the rest of Greece. His father, Philip, had been assassinated, and the king of Persia believed it would be easy to defeat the immature twenty year-old who was now leading Europe's mightiest army. Meanwhile, there was unrest at home as well. Philip had been unpopular with his Greek subjects, many of whom had been brought into the empire by unwilling conquest. When news of his death reached Athens there was public celebration. Within Macedonia, a dozen factions conspired to kill the young king.
Alexander rose to the situation with an energy that ended all internal opposition, and set the tempo of his career. He arrested and decapitated all the plotters at home in Macedonia, then marched his army south to Greece, arriving at Thebes within a few days. The Greek city-states quickly renewed their allegiance, and sent a profuse apology for celebrating his father's death. Alexander, appeased, declared all dictatorships abolished and let each Greek city live in freedom according to its own laws.
His promptness in crushing the revolt and characteristic generosity in dealing with the defeated brought the other Greek cities into an instant and abject submission.
With Greece now secure, Alexander began his war against Persia in the spring of 334 BC, with an army of 35,000. At Troy he encountered a Persian force of 40,000 and soundly defeated them, losing only 110 of his own soldiers. Continuing his advance southward he encountered the main Persian army in northeastern Syria.
Ancient tradition claims that Darius' army contained 600,000 men, although this is now believed to be a wild exaggeration. In any case, the Battle of Issus, in 333 BC, resulted in a great victory for Alexander. Darius fled, abandoning his mother, wife, and children to Alexander, who treated them with all the respect due to royalty.
Before continuing his campaign, Alexander paused in 332 BC to secure the Mediterranean coastline. While here he founded, on the mouth of the Nile River, the city of Alexandria, which would become the literary, scientific, and commercial center of the Mediterranean world. The city hosted a magnificent harbor and a famous lighthouse, considered one of the Seven Wonders of the ancient world.
Here the Jews came into contact with Greek learning, which profoundly influenced later religious thought; and the Greek translation of the Old Testament, called the Septuagint, came into being.
Everywhere he went, Alexander founded Greek cities as part of his strategy of "conquest by civilization". Each city was designed along Greek lines with help from the king's architects and city planners. The vast network of new towns (about 70 in all) was the key to the Hellenization of the territory he had conquered.
Alexander had some impressive early victories, but the Persian King Darius was still at large, and the Macedonian army had yet to make a move into Persian territory beyond the Euphrates River. He wanted to defeat the Persian powers which had threatened Greek civilization for centuries. To do this he had to move his army into unknown territory.
To be continued...
Naturally, there are a lot of great books about Alexander. He's one of the most famous people of all time. My personal favorite is In the Footsteps of Alexander the Great: A Journey from Greece to Asia, by Michael Wood.
For my previous posts on the History of Civilization click here.