Alexander the Great

2008/9 Schools Wikipedia Selection. Related subjects: Military People

Alexander the Great
Basileus of Macedon, Hegemon of the Hellenic League, Pharaoh of Egypt, Shahanshah of Persia

Alexander fighting Persian king Darius III. From Alexander Mosaic, from Pompeii, Naples, Museo Archeologico Nazionale.
Reign 336-323 BC
Born July 20, 356 BC
Birthplace Pella, Macedon
Died June 10, 323 BC (aged 32)
Place of death Babylon
Predecessor Philip II
Successor Alexander IV
Consort Roxana of Bactria
Stateira of Persia
Offspring Alexander IV
Father Philip II of Macedon
Mother Olympias of Epirus

Alexander the Great ( Greek: Αλέξανδρος ο Μέγας or Μέγας Aλέξανδρος, Megas Alexandros; July 20 356 BC – June 10 323 BC), also known as Alexander III of Macedon ( Greek: Αλέξανδρος Γ' ο Μακεδών) was an ancient Greek king ( basileus) of Macedon (336–323 BC). He was one of the most successful military commanders in history, and was undefeated in battle. By the time of his death, he had conquered most of the world known to the ancient Greeks.

Alexander assumed the kingship of Macedon following the death of his father Philip II of Macedon. Philip had conquered most of the city-states of Greece and incorporated them into his Macedonian Empire (the so-called League of Corinth). After reconfirming Macedonian hegemony by quashing a rebellion of southern Greek city-states, and staging a short but bloody excursion against Macedon's northern neighbors, Alexander set out east against the Achaemenid Persian Empire, which he defeated and overthrew. His conquests including Anatolia, Syria, Phoenicia, Judea, Gaza, Egypt, Bactria, and Mesopotamia, and extended the boundaries of his own empire as far as Punjab, India.

Prior to his death, Alexander had already made plans for military and mercantile expansions into the Arabian peninsula, after which he was to turn his armies to the west ( Carthage, Rome, and the Iberian Peninsula). His original vision had been to the east, though, to the ends of the world and the Great Outer Sea, as described by his boyhood tutor Aristotle.

Alexander integrated many foreigners into his army, leading some scholars to credit him with a "policy of fusion." He also encouraged marriages between his soldiers and foreigners; he himself went on to marry two foreign princesses.

Alexander died after twelve years of constant military campaigning, possibly as a result of malaria, poisoning, typhoid fever, viral encephalitis or the consequences of alcoholism. His legacy and conquests lived on long after him, and ushered in centuries of Greek settlement and cultural influence over distant areas. This period is known as the Hellenistic Age, and featured a combination of Greek, Middle Eastern and Indian culture. Alexander himself was featured prominently in the history and myth of both Greek and non-Greek cultures. His exploits inspired a literary tradition in which he appeared as a legendary hero in the tradition of Achilles.

Early life

Alexander fighting a lion with his friend Craterus (detail). He wears a chlamys cape, and a petasus hat. 3rd century B.C. mosaic, Pella museum.
Alexander fighting a lion with his friend Craterus (detail). He wears a chlamys cape, and a petasus hat. 3rd century B.C. mosaic, Pella museum.
World view at the time of Alexander: reconstruction of Hecataeus' ancient world map, 5th century BC.
World view at the time of Alexander: reconstruction of Hecataeus' ancient world map, 5th century BC.

Born in Pella, capital of Macedon, Alexander was the son of King Philip II of Macedon and of his fourth wife Olympias, an Epirote princess. On his mother's side, he was a second cousin of Pyrrhus of Epirus, who himself would go on to become a celebrated general; thus, there are notable examples of military genius on both sides of his family. According to Plutarch, his father was descended from Heracles through Karanus of Macedon and his mother descended from Aeacus through Neoptolemus and Achilles. Plutarch relates that both Philip and Olympias dreamt of their son's future birth. In Philip's dream, he sealed her womb with the seal of the lion. Alarmed by this, he consulted the seer Aristander of Telmessos, who determined that his wife was pregnant and that the child would have the character of a lion. Another odd coincidence is that the Temple of Artemis in Ephesus was set afire on the night of his birth. Plutarch's explanation is that the Gods were too busy watching over Alexander to care for the temple.

According to five historians of antiquity ( Arrian, Curtius, Diodorus, Justin, and Plutarch), after his visit to the Oracle of Ammon at Siwa, rumors spread that the Oracle had revealed Alexander's father to be Zeus, rather than Philip. In support of this, Plutarch (Alexander 3.1,3) claims that Philip avoided Olympias' bed because of her affinity for sleeping in the company of snakes.

In his early years, Alexander was raised by his nurse Lanike, who was Cleitus' older sister. Later, Alexander was educated by a strict teacher: Leonidas, himself a relative of Olympias. Leonidas' frugal ways are known to us through the extant record: reportedly, when Alexander threw a large amount of sacrificial incense into a fire, Leonidas reprimanded him, telling him that he could waste as much incense as he wished once he had conquered the spice bearing regions. Years later, following Alexander's conquest of Gaza, a city directly on the Persian spice trade route, the young king sent back over 15 tons of myrrh to Leonidas as a retort. It was Aristotle, though, who was Alexander's most famous and important tutor. The famous philosopher trained Alexander in rhetoric and literature, and stimulated his interest in science, medicine, and philosophy. Aristotle's gift to Alexander, a copy of the Iliad, was purportedly among the young king's most prized possessions—and was kept under his pillow, along with a dagger.

When Alexander was ten years old, a Thessalian brought a horse of such quality to sell to Philip that it was labeled a prodigy. As it turned out, though, the horse was so wild that no man could mount him. Young Alexander, recognizing that the horse's own shadow was the source of its fear, went to the steed and turned him towards the sun. Upon doing so, the horse calmed down, and the young king easily mounted and rode him. His father and other people who saw this were very impressed; Philip kissed him with tears of joy and said "My son, seek thee out a kingdom equal to thyself; Macedon has not room for thee." This horse was named Bucephalus, meaning "ox-headed"—though there is the possibility that the name refers to the brand that denoted the horse's origin. Bucephalus would be Alexander's companion throughout his journeys, and was truly loved: when the horse died (due to old age, according to Plutarch, for he was already 30; other sources claim that Bucephalus died of wounds sustained in a battle in India), Alexander named a city after him called Bocephia or Bucephala.

Ascent of Macedon

Sardonyx cameo representing Alexander the Great. Thought to be by Pyrgoteles, engraver of Alexander, around 325 BC. Cabinet des Médailles, Paris.
Sardonyx cameo representing Alexander the Great. Thought to be by Pyrgoteles, engraver of Alexander, around 325 BC. Cabinet des Médailles, Paris.
Bust of Alexander (Roman copy of a 330 BCE statue by Lysippus, Louvre Museum). According to Diodorus, the Alexander sculptures by Lysippus were the most faithful.
Bust of Alexander (Roman copy of a 330 BCE statue by Lysippus, Louvre Museum). According to Diodorus, the Alexander sculptures by Lysippus were the most faithful.

In 340 BC, Philip led an attack on Byzantium, leaving Alexander, now aged 16, to act as regent of Macedon. Shortly after, in 339 BC, Philip took a fifth wife, Cleopatra Eurydice. While Alexander's mother Olympias was from Epirus, Cleopatra Eurydice was a true Macedonian; this led to political machinations over whether Alexander was the best heir for the Agead throne. During the wedding feast, Attalus, the uncle of the bride, supposedly gave a toast for the marriage to result in a legitimate heir to the throne of Macedon. Alexander responded by hurling his goblet at Attalus, shouting "What am I, a bastard then?" In response, Phillip drew his sword and moved towards Alexander, but fell in a drunken stupor over the drinking couches. Alexander then famously remarked: "Here is the man planning on conquering from Greece to Asia, and he cannot even move from one table to another." Following this episode, Alexander and his mother left Macedon; his sister (also named Cleopatra) remained.

Eventually Philip and Alexander would reconcile; the son returned home, but Olympias remained in Epirus. In 338 BC Alexander fought under his father at the decisive Battle of Chaeronea against the city-states of Athens and Thebes. Phillip entrusted Alexander with the left wing of his army, which entailed facing the Sacred Band of Thebes, an elite hoplite corps hitherto regarded as invincible. Though few details of the battle survive to us, what is known is that Alexander annihilated this corps. After the battle, Philip led a wild celebration; Alexander is notably absent from the accounts describing it. It is speculated that Alexander personally treated Demades, a notable orator of Athens, who had opposed Athenian alignment against Philip. He went on to draw up and present a peace plan, which the assembled Athenian army voted on and approved. Philip was content to deprive Thebes of its dominion over Boeotia and leave a Macedonian garrison in the citadel. A few months later, the League of Corinth was formed, and Phillip was acclaimed Hegemon of the Hellenes.

In 336 BC Philip was assassinated at the wedding of his daughter Cleopatra to her uncle King Alexander of Epirus. Theories abound regarding the motives behind the killing, but a common story presented the assassin as a disgraced former lover of the king—the young nobleman Pausanias of Orestis. He held a grudge against Philip because the king had ignored his grievances regarding an outrage on his person. Some believed that Philip's murder was planned with the knowledge and involvement of Alexander, Olympias, or both. Still other theories pointed to Darius III, the recently crowned King of Persia. Regardless, after Philip's death, the army proclaimed Alexander, then aged 20, as the new king of Macedon.

Greek cities like Athens and Thebes, which had been forced to pledge allegiance to Philip, saw in the relatively untested new king an opportunity to regain full independence. Alexander moved swiftly and Thebes, which had been most active against him, submitted when he appeared at its gates. The assembled Greeks at the Isthmus of Corinth, with the exception of the Spartans, elected him to the command against Persia, which had previously been bestowed upon his father. The next year (335 BC), Alexander felt free to engage the Thracians and the Illyrians in order to secure the Danube as the northern boundary of the Macedonian kingdom. While he was triumphantly campaigning north, the Thebans and Athenians rebelled once again. Alexander reacted immediately and while the other cities once again hesitated, Thebes decided this time to resist with the utmost vigor. The resistance was useless; in the end, the city was conquered with great bloodshed. Thebes was razed to the ground and its territory divided between the other Boeotian cities. Moreover, the Thebans themselves were sold into slavery; Alexander spared only the priests, the leaders of the pro-Macedonian party, and the descendants of Pindar, whose house was the only one left standing.

The end of Thebes cowed Athens into submission. According to Plutarch, a special Athenian embassy led by Phocion, an opponent of the anti-Macedonian faction, was able to persuade Alexander to give up his demand for the exile of leaders of the anti-Macedonian party, most particularly Demosthenes.

Period of conquests

Fall of the Achaemenid Persian Empire

Map of Alexander's empire.
Map of Alexander's empire.

Alexander's army crossed the Hellespont with approximately 42,000 soldiers from Macedon, various Greek city-states, and mercenaries and tribute soldiers from Thrace, Paionia, and Illyria. After an initial victory against Persian forces at the Battle of the Granicus, Alexander accepted the surrender of the Persian provincial capital and treasury of Sardis and proceeded down the Ionian coast. At Halicarnassus, Alexander successfully waged the first of many sieges, eventually forcing his opponents, the mercenary captain Memnon of Rhodes and the Persian satrap of Caria, Orontobates, to withdraw by sea. Alexander left Caria in the hands of Ada, who was ruler of Caria before being deposed by her brother Pixodarus. From Halicarnassus, Alexander proceeded into mountainous Lycia and the Pamphylian plain, asserting control over all coastal cities and denying them to his enemy. From Pamphylia onward, the coast held no major ports and so Alexander moved inland. At Termessos, Alexander humbled but did not storm the Pisidian city. At the ancient Phrygian capital of Gordium, Alexander "undid" the hitherto unsolvable Gordian Knot, a feat said to await the future "king of Asia." According to the most vivid story, Alexander proclaimed that it did not matter how the knot was undone, and he hacked it apart with his sword. Another version claims that he did not use the sword, but simply realized that the simplest way to undo the knot was to simply remove a central peg from the chariot—around which the knot was tied.

Alexander Mosaic, showing Battle of Issus, from the House of the Faun, Pompeii
Alexander Mosaic, showing Battle of Issus, from the House of the Faun, Pompeii

Alexander's army crossed the Cilician Gates, met and defeated the main Persian army under the command of Darius III at the Battle of Issus in 333 BC. Darius was forced to flee the battle after his army broke, and in doing so left behind his wife, his two daughters, his mother Sisygambis, and a fabulous amount of treasure. He afterwards offered a peace treaty to Alexander, the concession of the lands he had already conquered, and a ransom of 10,000 talents for his family. Alexander replied that since he was now king of Asia, it was he alone who decided territorial divisions. Proceeding down the Mediterranean coast, he took Tyre and Gaza after famous sieges (see Siege of Tyre).

During 332–331 BC, Alexander was welcomed as a liberator in Persian-occupied Egypt and was pronounced the son of Zeus by Egyptian priests of the deity Amun at the Oracle of Siwa Oasis in the Libyan desert. Henceforth, Alexander often referred to Zeus-Ammon as his true father, and subsequent currency depicted him, adorned with ram horns as a symbol of his divinity. He founded Alexandria in Egypt, which would become the prosperous capital of the Ptolemaic dynasty after his death.

Leaving Egypt, Alexander marched eastward into Assyria (now northern Iraq) and defeated Darius once more at the Battle of Gaugamela. Once again, Darius was forced to leave the field, and Alexander chased him as far as Arbela. While Darius fled over the mountains to Ecbatana (modern Hamedan), Alexander marched to Babylon.

From Babylon, Alexander went to Susa, one of the Achaemenid capitals, and captured its legendary treasury. Sending the bulk of his army to the Persian capital of Persepolis via the Royal Road, Alexander stormed and captured the Persian Gates (in the modern Zagros Mountains), then sprinted for Persepolis before its treasury could be looted. It was here that Alexander was said to have stared at the crumbled statue of Xerxes and decided to leave it on the ground—a symbolic gesture of vengeance. During their stay at the capital, a fire broke out in the eastern palace of Xerxes and spread to the rest of the city. Theories abound as to whether this was the result of a drunken accident, or a deliberate act of revenge for the burning of the Acropolis of Athens during the Second Persian War. The Book of Arda Wiraz, a Zoroastrian work composed in the 3rd or 4th century AD, also speaks of archives containing "all the Avesta and Zand, written upon prepared cow-skins, and with gold ink" that were destroyed; but it must be said that this statement is often treated by scholars with a certain measure of skepticism, because it is generally thought that for many centuries the Avesta was transmitted mainly orally by the Magi.

Statuette of a Greek soldier, from a 4th–3rd century BC burial site north of the Tian Shan, at the maximum extent of Alexander's advance in the East (Ürümqi, Xinjiang Museum, China) (drawing)
Statuette of a Greek soldier, from a 4th–3rd century BC burial site north of the Tian Shan, at the maximum extent of Alexander's advance in the East ( Ürümqi, Xinjiang Museum, China) (drawing)

Alexander then set off in pursuit of Darius anew. The Persian king was no longer in control of his destiny, having been taken prisoner by Bessus, his Bactrian satrap and kinsman. As Alexander approached, Bessus had his men murder the Great King and then declared himself Darius' successor as Artaxerxes V before retreating into Central Asia to launch a guerrilla campaign against Alexander. With the death of Darius, Alexander declared the war of vengeance over, and released his Greek and other allies from service in the League campaign (although he allowed those that wished to re-enlist as mercenaries in his army).

His three-year campaign, first against Bessus and then against Spitamenes, the satrap of Sogdiana, took Alexander through Media, Parthia, Aria (West Afghanistan), Drangiana, Arachosia (South and Central Afghanistan), Bactria (North and Central Afghanistan), and Scythia. In the process of doing so, he captured and refounded Herat and Maracanda. Moreover, he founded a series of new cities, all called Alexandria, including modern Kandahar in Afghanistan, and Alexandria Eschate ("The Furthest") in modern Tajikistan. In the end, both of his opponents were defeated after having been betrayed by their men—Bessus in 329 BC, and Spitamenes the year after.


During this time, Alexander adopted some elements of Persian dress and customs at his court, notably the custom of proskynesis, a symbolic kissing of the hand that Persians paid to their social superiors, but a practice that the Greeks disapproved. The Greeks regarded the gesture as the province of deities and believed that Alexander meant to deify himself by requiring it. This cost him much in the sympathies of many of his countrymen. Here, too, a plot against his life was revealed, and one of his officers, Philotas, was executed for failing to bring the plot to his attention. The death of the son necessitated the death of the father, and thus Parmenion, who had been charged with guarding the treasury at Ecbatana, was assassinated by command of Alexander, so he might not make attempts at vengeance. Most infamously, Alexander personally slew the man who had saved his life at Granicus, Cleitus the Black, during a drunken argument at Maracanda. Later in the Central Asian campaign, a second plot against his life was revealed, this one instigated by his own royal pages. His official historian, Callisthenes of Olynthus (who had fallen out of favour with the king by leading the opposition to his attempt to introduce proskynesis), was implicated in the plot, however, there never has been consensus among historians regarding his involvement in the conspiracy.

Invasion of India

Campaigns and landmarks of Alexander's invasion of Southern Asia.
Campaigns and landmarks of Alexander's invasion of Southern Asia.

After the death of Spitamenes and his marriage to Roxana (Roshanak in Bactrian) to cement his relations with his new Central Asian satrapies, in 326 BC Alexander was finally free to turn his attention to the Indian subcontinent. Alexander invited all the chieftains of the former satrapy of Gandhara, in the north of what is now Pakistan, to come to him and submit to his authority. Ambhi (Greek: Omphis), ruler of Taxila, whose kingdom extended from the Indus to the Jhelum (Greek:Hydaspes), complied. But the chieftains of some hill clans including the Aspasioi and Assakenoi sections of the Kambojas (classical names), known in Indian texts as Ashvayanas and Ashvakayanas (names referring to the equestrian nature of their society from the Sanskrit root word Ashva meaning horse), refused to submit.

Alexander personally took command of the shield-bearing guards, foot-companions, archers, Agrianians and horse-javelin-men and led them against the Kamboja clans—the Aspasioi of Kunar/ Alishang valleys, the Guraeans of the Guraeus ( Panjkora) valley, and the Assakenoi of the Swat and Buner valleys. Writes one modern historian: "They were brave people and it was hard work for Alexander to take their strongholds, of which Massaga and Aornus need special mention." A fierce contest ensued with the Aspasioi in which Alexander himself was wounded in the shoulder by a dart but eventually the Aspasioi lost the fight; 40,000 of them were enslaved. The Assakenoi faced Alexander with an army of 30,000 cavalry, 38,000 infantry and 30 elephants. They had fought bravely and offered stubborn resistance to the invader in many of their strongholds like cities of Ora, Bazira and Massaga. The fort of Massaga could only be reduced after several days of bloody fighting in which Alexander himself was wounded seriously in the ankle. When the Chieftain of Massaga fell in the battle, the supreme command of the army went to his old mother Cleophis (q.v.) who also stood determined to defend her motherland to the last extremity. The example of Cleophis assuming the supreme command of the military also brought the entire women of the locality into the fighting. Alexander could only reduce Massaga by resorting to political strategem and actions of betrayal. According to Curtius: "Not only did Alexander slaughter the entire population of Massaga, but also did he reduce its buildings to rubbles." A similar slaughter then followed at Ora, another stronghold of the Assakenoi.

A painting by Charles Le Brun depicting Alexander and Porus (Puru) during the Battle of the Hydaspes.
A painting by Charles Le Brun depicting Alexander and Porus (Puru) during the Battle of the Hydaspes.

In the aftermath of general slaughter and arson committed by Alexander at Massaga and Ora, numerous Assakenians people fled to a high fortress called Aornos. Alexander followed them close behind their heels and captured the strategic hill-fort but only after the fourth day of a bloody fight. The story of Massaga was repeated at Aornos and a similar carnage of the tribal-people followed here too.

Writing on Alexander's campaign against the Assakenoi, Victor Hanson comments: "After promising the surrounded Assacenis their lives upon capitulation, he executed all their soldiers who had surrendered. Their strongholds at Ora and Aornus were also similarly stormed. Garrisons were probably all slaughtered.”

Sisikottos, who had helped Alexander in this campaign, was made the governor of Aornos. After reducing Aornos, Alexander crossed the Indus and fought and is believed to have won an epic battle against a local ruler Porus (original Indian name Raja Puru), who ruled a region in the Punjab, in the Battle of Hydaspes in 326 BC.

Silver coin of Alexander (336-323 BCE). British Museum.
Silver coin of Alexander (336-323 BCE). British Museum.

After the battle, Alexander was greatly impressed by Porus for his bravery in battle, and therefore made an alliance with him and appointed him as satrap of his own kingdom, even adding some land he did not own before. Alexander then named one of the two new cities that he founded, Bucephala, in honour of the horse who had brought him to India, who had died during the Battle of Hydaspes. Alexander continued on to conquer all the headwaters of the Indus River.

East of Porus' kingdom, near the Ganges River (original Indian name Ganga), was the powerful empire of Magadha ruled by the Nanda dynasty. Fearing the prospects of facing another powerful Indian army and exhausted by years of campaigning, his army mutinied at the Hyphasis River (the modern Beas River) refusing to march further east. This river thus marks the easternmost extent of Alexander's conquests:

As for the Macedonians, however, their struggle with Porus blunted their courage and stayed their further advance into India. For having had all they could do to repulse an enemy who mustered only twenty thousand infantry and two thousand horse, they violently opposed Alexander when he insisted on crossing the river Ganges also, the width of which, as they learned, was thirty-two furlongs, its depth a hundred fathoms, while its banks on the further side were covered with multitudes of men-at-arms and horsemen and elephants. For they were told that the kings of the Ganderites and Praesii were awaiting them with eighty thousand horsemen, two hundred thousand footmen, eight thousand chariots, and six thousand fighting elephants.

Plutarch , Vita Alexandri, 62
Ptolemy coin with Alexander wearing an elephant scalp, symbol of his conquests in India.
Ptolemy coin with Alexander wearing an elephant scalp, symbol of his conquests in India.

Alexander, after the meeting with his officer Coenus, was convinced that it was better to return. Alexander was forced to turn south. Along the way his army ran into the Malli clans (in modern day Multan). The Malli were the most warlike clans in South Asia during that period. Alexander's army challenged the Malli, and the ensuing battle led them to the Malli citadel. During the assault, Alexander himself was wounded seriously by a Mallian arrow. His forces, believing their king dead, took the citadel and unleashed their fury on the Malli who had taken refuge within it, perpetrating a massacre, sparing neither man, woman nor child. Following this, the surviving Malli surrendered to Alexander's forces, and his beleaguered army moved on.He sent much of his army to Carmania (modern southern Iran) with his general Craterus, and commissioned a fleet to explore the Persian Gulf shore under his admiral Nearchus, while he led the rest of his forces back to Persia by the southern route through the Gedrosian Desert (now part of southern Iran and Makran now part of Pakistan).

Alexander left forces in India however. In the territory of the Indus, he nominated his officer Peithon as a satrap, a position he would hold for the next ten years until 316 BC, and in the Punjab he left Eudemus in charge of the army, at the side of the satrap Porus and Taxiles. Eudemus became ruler of a part of the Punjab after their death. Both rulers returned to the West in 316 BC with their armies. In 321 BCE, Chandragupta Maurya founded the Maurya Empire in India and overthrew the Greek satraps.

After India

Statuette of the young Alexander astride a horse, Begram, Afghanistan.
Statuette of the young Alexander astride a horse, Begram, Afghanistan.

Discovering that many of his satraps and military governors had misbehaved in his absence, Alexander executed a number of them as examples on his way to Susa. As a gesture of thanks, he paid off the debts of his soldiers, and announced that he would send those over-aged and disabled veterans back to Macedonia under Craterus, but his troops misunderstood his intention and mutinied at the town of Opis, refusing to be sent away and bitterly criticizing his adoption of Persian customs and dress and the introduction of Persian officers and soldiers into Macedonian units. Alexander executed the ringleaders of the mutiny, but forgave the rank and file. In an attempt to craft a lasting harmony between his Macedonian and Persian subjects, he held a mass marriage of his senior officers to Persian and other noblewomen at Susa, but few of those marriages seem to have lasted much beyond a year.

His attempts to merge Persian culture with his Greek soldiers also included training a regiment of Persian boys in the ways of Macedonians. Most historians believe that Alexander adopted the Persian royal title of Shahanshah (meaning: "The King of Kings").

It is claimed that Alexander wanted to overrun or integrate the Arabian peninsula, but this theory is widely disputed. It was assumed that Alexander would turn westwards and attack Carthage and Italy, had he conquered Arabia.

After traveling to Ecbatana to retrieve the bulk of the Persian treasure, his closest friend and possibly lover Hephaestion died of an illness, or possibly of poisoning. Alexander mourned Hephaestion for six months.


Alexander's Empire at his death in 323 BC.
Alexander's Empire at his death in 323 BC.

On the afternoon of June 11, 323 BC, Alexander died in the palace of Nebuchadrezzar II of Babylon. He was just one month short of attaining 33 years of age. Various theories have been proposed for the cause of his death which include poisoning by the sons of Antipater or others, sickness that followed a drinking party, or a relapse of the malaria he had contracted in 336 BC.

It is known that on May 29, Alexander participated in a banquet organized by his friend Medius of Larissa. After some heavy drinking, immediately before or after a bath, he was forced into bed due to severe illness. The rumors of his illness circulated with the troops causing them to be more and more anxious. On June 9, the generals decided to let the soldiers see their king alive one last time. They were admitted to his presence one at a time. Because the king was too ill to speak, he confined himself to moving his hand. The day after, Alexander was dead.


The poisoning theory derives from the story held in antiquity by Justin and Curtius. The original story stated that Cassander, son of Antipater, viceroy of Greece, brought the poison to Alexander in Babylon in a mule's hoof, and that Alexander's royal cupbearer, Iollas, brother of Cassander, administered it. Many had powerful motivations for seeing Alexander gone, and were none the worse for it after his death. Deadly agents that could have killed Alexander in one or more doses include hellebore and strychnine. In R. Lane Fox's opinion, the strongest argument against the poison theory is the fact that twelve days had passed between the start of his illness and his death and in the ancient world, such long-acting poisons were probably not available.

Coin of Alexander the Great, depicting Athena in profile, and a standing Nike.
Coin of Alexander the Great, depicting Athena in profile, and a standing Nike.

The warrior culture of Macedon favoured the sword over strychnine, and many ancient historians, like Plutarch and Arrian, maintained that Alexander was not poisoned, but died of natural causes. Instead, it is likely that Alexander died of malaria or typhoid fever, which were rampant in ancient Babylon. Other illnesses could have also been the culprit, including acute pancreatitis or the West Nile virus. Recently, theories have been advanced stating that Alexander may have died from the treatment not the disease. Hellebore, believed to have been widely used as a medicine at the time but deadly in large doses, may have been overused by the impatient king to speed his recovery, with deadly results. Disease-related theories often cite the fact that Alexander's health had fallen to dangerously low levels after years of heavy drinking and suffering several appalling wounds (including one in India that nearly claimed his life), and that it was only a matter of time before one sickness or another finally killed him.

No story is conclusive. Alexander's death has been reinterpreted many times over the centuries. What is certain is that Alexander died of a high fever on June 10 or 11 of 323 BC.


A diary from the year 323–322 BC that records the death of Alexander. Located at the British Museum, London
A diary from the year 323–322 BC that records the death of Alexander. Located at the British Museum, London

On his death bed, his marshals asked him to whom he bequeathed his kingdom. Since Alexander had no obvious and legitimate heir (his son Alexander IV would be born after his death, and his other son was by a concubine, not a wife), it was a question of vital importance. There is some debate to what Alexander replied. Some believe that Alexander said, "Kratisto" (that is, "To the strongest!") or "Krat'eroi" (to the stronger).

Alexander may have said, "Krater'oi" (to Craterus). This is possible because the Greek pronunciation of "the stronger" and "Craterus" differ only by the position of the accented syllable. Most scholars believe that if Alexander did intend to choose one of his generals, his obvious choice would have been Craterus because he was the commander of the largest part of the army (infantry), because he had proven himself to be an excellent strategist, and because he displayed traits of the "ideal" Macedonian. But Craterus was not around, and the others may have chosen to hear "Krat'eroi" — the stronger. Regardless of his reply, Craterus does not appear to have pressed the issue. The empire then split amongst his successors (the Diadochi).

Before long, accusations of foul play were being thrown about by his generals at one another, and no contemporaneous source can be fully trusted.


Alexander's body was placed in a gold anthropoid sarcophagus, which was in turn placed in a second gold casket and covered with a purple robe. Alexander's coffin was placed, together with his armour, in a gold carriage that had a vaulted roof supported by an Ionic peristyle. The decoration of the carriage was very lavish and is described in great detail by Diodoros.

A rare coin of Ptolemy I, showing himself on the obverse at the beginning of his reign, and on the reverse Alexander the Great triumphantly riding a chariot drawn by elephants, a reminder of his successful campaigns with Alexander in India.
A rare coin of Ptolemy I, showing himself on the obverse at the beginning of his reign, and on the reverse Alexander the Great triumphantly riding a chariot drawn by elephants, a reminder of his successful campaigns with Alexander in India.

According to one legend, Alexander was preserved in a clay vessel full of honey (which can act as a preservative) and interred in a glass coffin. According to Aelian (Varia Historia 12.64), Ptolemy stole the body and brought it to Alexandria, where it was on display until Late Antiquity. It was here that Ptolemy IX, one of the last successors of Ptolemy I, replaced Alexander's sarcophagus with a glass one, and melted the original down in order to strike emergency gold issues of his coinage. The citizens of Alexandria were outraged at this and soon after, Ptolemy IX was killed.

The Roman emperor Caligula was said to have looted the tomb, stealing Alexander's breastplate, and wearing it. Around 200 AD, Emperor Septimius Severus closed Alexander's tomb to the public. His son and successor, Caracalla, was a great admirer of Alexander, and visited the tomb in his own reign. After this, details on the fate of the tomb are sketchy.

The so-called " Alexander Sarcophagus," discovered near Sidon and now in the Istanbul Archaeology Museum, is now generally thought to be that of Abdylonymus, whom Hephaestion had appointed as the king of Sidon by Alexander's order. The sarcophagus depicts Alexander and his companions hunting and in battle with the Persians.


Some classical authors, such as Diodorus, relate that Alexander had given detailed written instructions to Craterus some time before his death. Although Craterus had already started to implement Alexander's orders, such as the building of a fleet in Cilicia for expedition against Carthage, Alexander's successors chose not to further implement them, on the grounds that they were impractical and extravagant. The testament, described in Diodorus XVIII, called for military expansion into the Southern and Western Mediterranean, monumental constructions, and the intermixing of Eastern and Western populations. Its most remarkable items were:

  • The completion of a pyre to Hephaestion
  • The building of "a thousand warships, larger than triremes, in Phoenicia, Syria, Cilicia, and Cyprus for the campaign against the Carthaginians and the other who live along the coast of Libya and Iberia and the adjoining coastal regions as far as Sicily"
  • The building of a road in northern Africa as far as the Pillars of Heracles, with ports and shipyards along it.
  • The erection of great temples in Delos, Delphi, Dodona, Dium, Amphipolis, Cyrnus and Ilium.
  • The construction of a monumental tomb for his father Philip, "to match the greatest of the pyramids of Egypt"
  • The establishment of cities and the "transplant of populations from Asia to Europe and in the opposite direction from Europe to Asia, in order to bring the largest continent to common unity and to friendship by means of intermarriage and family ties." ( Diodorus Siculus, Bibliotheca historia, XVIII)

Personal life

Alexander's lifelong companion was Hephaestion, the son of a Macedonian noble. Hephaestion also held the position of second-in-command of Alexander's forces until his death, which devastated Alexander. The full extent of his relationship with Hephaestion is the subject of much historical speculation.

Alexander married two women: Roxana, daughter of a Bactrian nobleman, Oxyartes, and Stateira, a Persian princess and daughter of Darius III of Persia. There is also an accepted tradition of a third wife- Parysatis whom he is supposed to have married in Persia though nothing is known about her. Another personage from the court of Darius III with whom he was intimate was the male eunuch Bagoas. His son by Roxana, Alexander IV of Macedon, was killed after the death of his father, before he reached adulthood.

Alexander was admired during his lifetime for treating all his lovers humanely.

Legacy and division of the empire

Coin of Alexander bearing an Aramaic language inscription.
Coin of Alexander bearing an Aramaic language inscription.
The Hellenistic world view after Alexander: ancient world map of Eratosthenes (276-194 BC), incorporating information from the campaigns of Alexander and his successors.
The Hellenistic world view after Alexander: ancient world map of Eratosthenes (276-194 BC), incorporating information from the campaigns of Alexander and his successors.

After Alexander's death, in 323 BC, the rule of his Empire was given to Alexander's half-brother Philip Arridaeus and Alexander's son Alexander IV. However, since Philip was apparently feeble-minded and the son of Alexander still a baby, two regents were named in Perdiccas (who had received Alexander's ring at his death) and Craterus (who may have been the one mentioned as successor by Alexander), although Perdiccas quickly managed to take sole power.

Perdiccas soon eliminated several of his opponents, killing about 30 (Diodorus Siculus), and at the Partition of Babylon named former generals of Alexander as satraps of the various regions of his Empire. In 321 BC Perdiccas was assassinated by his own troops during his conflict with Ptolemy, leading to the Partition of Triparadisus, in which Antipater was named as the new regent, and the satrapies again shared between the various generals. From that time, Alexander's officers were focused on the explicit formation of rival monarchies and territorial states.

Ultimately, the conflict was settled after the Battle of Ipsus in Phrygia in 301 BC. Alexander's empire was divided at first into four major portions: Cassander ruled in Macedon, Lysimachus in Thrace, Seleucus in Mesopotamia and Persia, and Ptolemy I Soter in the Levant and Egypt. Antigonus ruled for a while in Anatolia and Syria but was eventually defeated by the other generals at Ipsus (301 BC). Control over Indian territory passed to Chandragupta Maurya, the first Maurya emperor, who further expanded his dominions after a settlement with Seleucus.

By 270 BC, the Hellenistic states were consolidated, with

  • The Antigonid Empire in Greece;
  • The Seleucid Empire in Mesopotamia and Persia;
  • The Ptolemaic Kingdom in Egypt, Palestine and Cyrenaica
The Greco-Bactrian king Demetrius (reigned c. 200-180 BCE), wearing an elephant scalp, took over Alexander's legacy in the east by again invading India in 180 BCE, and establishing the Indo-Greek kingdom (180 BC - 10 AD).
The Greco-Bactrian king Demetrius (reigned c. 200-180 BCE), wearing an elephant scalp, took over Alexander's legacy in the east by again invading India in 180 BCE, and establishing the Indo-Greek kingdom (180 BC - 10 AD).

By the 1st century BC though, most of the Hellenistic territories in the West had been absorbed by the Roman Republic. In the East, they had been dramatically reduced by the expansion of the Parthian Empire. The territories further east seceded to form the Greco-Bactrian kingdom (250-140 BC), which further expanded into India to form the Indo-Greek kingdom (180 BC-10 AD).

The Ptolemy dynasty persisted in Egypt until the epoch of the queen Cleopatra, best known for her alliances with Julius Caesar and Mark Antony, just before the Roman republic officially became the Roman Empire.

Alexander's conquests also had long term cultural effects, with the flourishing of Hellenistic civilization throughout the Middle East and Central Asia, and the development of Greco-Buddhist art in the Indian subcontinent. Alexander and his successors were tolerant of non-Greek religious practices, and interesting syncretisms developed in the new Greek towns he founded in Central Asia. The first realistic portrayals of the Buddha appeared at this time; they are reminiscent of Greek statues of Apollo. Several Buddhist traditions may have been influenced by the ancient Greek religion; the concept of Boddhisatvas is reminiscent of Greek divine heroes, and some Mahayana ceremonial practices (burning incense, gifts of flowers and food placed on altars) are similar to those practiced by the ancient Greeks. Zen Buddhism draws in part on the ideas of Greek stoics, such as Zeno.

Among other effects, the Hellenistic, or koine dialect of Greek became the lingua franca throughout the so-called civilized world. For instance the standard version of the Hebrew Scriptures used among the Jews of the diaspora, especially in Egypt, during the life of Jesus was the Greek Septuagint translation, which was compiled ca 200 BC by seventy-odd scholars under the patronage of the Macedonian ruler Ptolemy II Philadelphus. Thus many Jews from Egypt or Rome would have trouble understanding the teachings of the scholars in the Temple in Jerusalem who were using the Hebrew original text and an Aramaic translation, being themselves only acquainted with the Greek version. There has been much speculation on the issue whether Jesus spoke Koine Greek as the Gospel-writers, themselves writing in Greek, don't say anything decisive about the matter.

Influence on Ancient Rome

A mural in Pompeii, depicting the marriage of Alexander to Barsine (Stateira) in 324 BC. The couple are apparently dressed as Ares and Aphrodite.
A mural in Pompeii, depicting the marriage of Alexander to Barsine (Stateira) in 324 BC. The couple are apparently dressed as Ares and Aphrodite.

In the late Republic and early Empire, educated Roman citizens used Latin only for legal, political, and ceremonial purposes, and used Greek to discuss philosophy or any other intellectual topic. No Roman wanted to hear it said that his mastery of the Greek language was weak. Throughout the Roman world, the one language spoken everywhere was Alexander's Greek.

Alexander and his exploits were admired by many Romans who wanted to associate themselves with his achievements, although very little is known about Roman-Macedonian diplomatic relations of that time. Julius Caesar wept in Spain at the mere sight of Alexander's statue, when asked to see other great military leaders Ceaser said Alexander was the only great one. Pompey the Great rummaged through the closets of conquered nations for Alexander's 260-year-old cloak, which the Roman general then wore as the costume of greatness. However, in his zeal to honour Alexander, Augustus accidentally broke the nose off the Macedonian's mummified corpse while laying a wreath at the hero's shrine in Alexandria, Egypt. The unbalanced emperor Caligula later took the dead king's armor from that tomb and donned it for luck. The Macriani, a Roman family that rose to the imperial throne in the 3rd century A.D., always kept images of Alexander on their persons, either stamped into their bracelets and rings or stitched into their garments. Even their dinnerware bore Alexander's face, with the story of the king's life displayed around the rims of special bowls.

In the summer of 1995, during the archaeological work of the season centered on excavating the remains of domestic architecture of early-Roman date, a statue of Alexander was recovered from the structure, which was richly decorated with mosaic and marble pavements and probably was constructed in the 1st century AD and occupied until the 3rd century.


Modern opinion on Alexander has run the gamut from the idea that he believed he was on a divinely-inspired mission to unite the human race, to the view that he was a megalomaniac bent on world domination. Such views tend to be anachronistic, and the sources allow for a variety of interpretations. Much about Alexander's personality and aims remains enigmatic. There were no disinterested commentators in Alexander's own time or soon afterward, so all accounts need to be read with skepticism.

Alexander is remembered as a legendary hero in Europe and much of both Southwest Asia and Central Asia, where he is known as Iskander or Iskandar Zulkarnain. To Zoroastrians, on the other hand, he is remembered as the conqueror of their first great empire and as the destroyer of Persepolis. Ancient sources are generally written with an agenda of either glorifying or denigrating the man, making it difficult to evaluate his actual character. Most refer to a growing instability and megalomania in the years following Gaugamela, but it has been suggested that this simply reflects the Greek stereotype of an orientalizing king.

The murder of his friend Cleitus, which Alexander deeply and immediately regretted, is often cited as a sign of his paranoia, as is his execution of Philotas and his general Parmenion for failure to pass along details of a plot against him. There is also the view that this may have been more prudence than paranoia.

Modern Alexandrists continue to debate these same issues, among others, in modern times. One unresolved topic involves whether Alexander was actually attempting to better the world by his conquests, or whether his purpose was primarily to rule the world.

Partially in response to the ubiquity of positive portrayals of Alexander, an alternate character is sometimes presented which emphasizes some of Alexander's negative aspects. Some proponents of this view cite the destructions of Thebes, Tyre, Persepolis, and Gaza as examples of atrocities, and argue that Alexander preferred to fight rather than negotiate. It is further claimed, in response to the view that Alexander was generally tolerant of the cultures of those whom he conquered, that his attempts at cultural fusion were severely practical and that he never actually admired Persian art or culture. To this way of thinking, Alexander was, first and foremost, a general rather than a statesman.

Alexander's character also suffers from the interpretation of historians who themselves are subject to the bias and idealisms of their own time. Good examples are W. W. Tarn, who wrote during the late 19th century and early 20th century, and who saw Alexander in an extremely good light, and Peter Green, who wrote after World War II and for whom Alexander did little that was not inherently selfish or ambition-driven. Tarn wrote in an age where world conquest and warrior-heroes were acceptable, even encouraged, whereas Green wrote with the backdrop of the Holocaust and nuclear weapons.


Detail of Alexander on the Alexander Sarcophagus.
Detail of Alexander on the Alexander Sarcophagus.

Alexander was a legend in his own time. His court historian Callisthenes portrayed the sea in Cilicia as drawing back from him in proskynesis. Writing after Alexander's death, another participant, Onesicritus, went so far as to invent a tryst between Alexander and Thalestris, queen of the mythical Amazons. When Onesicritus read this passage to his patron, Alexander's general and later King Lysimachus reportedly quipped, "I wonder where I was at the time." (Plutarch, Alexander' 46.2)

In the first centuries after Alexander's death, probably in Alexandria, a quantity of the more legendary material coalesced into a text known as the Alexander Romance, later falsely ascribed to the historian Callisthenes and therefore known as Pseudo-Callisthenes. This text underwent numerous expansions and revisions throughout Antiquity and the Middle Ages, exhibiting a plasticity unseen in "higher" literary forms. Latin and Syriac translations were made in Late Antiquity. From these, versions were developed in all the major languages of Europe and the Middle East, including Armenian, Georgian, Persian, Arabic, Turkish, Hebrew, Serbian, Slavonic, Romanian, Hungarian, German, English, Italian, and French. The "Romance" is regarded by many Western scholars as the source of the account of Alexander given in the Qur'an ( Sura The Cave). It is the source of many incidents in Ferdowsi's " Shahnama". A Mongolian version is also extant. Some believe that, excepting certain religious texts, it is the most widely-read work of pre-modern times.

Alexander is also a character of Greek folklore (and other regions), as the protagonist of 'apocryphal' tales of bravery. A maritime legend says that his sister is a mermaid and asks the sailors if her brother is still alive. The unsuspecting sailor who answers truthfully arouses the mermaid's wrath and his boat perishes in the waves; a sailor mindful of the circumstances will answer "He lives and reigns, and conquers the world", and the sea about his boat will immediately calm. Alexander is also a character of a standard play in the Karagiozis repertory, "Alexander the Great and the Accursed Serpent". The ancient Greek poet Adrianus composed an epic poem on the history of Alexander the Great, called the Alexandriad, which was probably still extant in the 10th century, but which is now lost to us.

In the Bible

Daniel 8:5–8 and 21–22 states that a King of Greece will conquer the Medes and Persians but then die at the height of his power and have his kingdom broken into four kingdoms. This is sometimes taken as a reference to Alexander.

Alexander was briefly mentioned in the first Book of the Maccabees. All of Chapter 1, verses 1–7 was about Alexander and this serves as an introduction of the book. This explains how the Hellenistic influence reached the Land of Israel at that time.

In the Qur'an

15th cent. Persian miniature painting from Herat depicting Iskander, the Persian name for Alexander the Great
15th cent. Persian miniature painting from Herat depicting Iskander, the Persian name for Alexander the Great

Alexander the Great sometimes is identified in Persian and Arabic traditions sources as Dhul-Qarnayn, Arabic for the "Two-Horned One", possibly a reference to the appearance of a horn-headed figure that appears on coins minted during his rule and later imitated in ancient Middle Eastern coinage. Accounts of Dhul-Qarnayn appear in the Qur'an, and so may refer to Alexander.

References to Alexander may also be found in the Persian tradition. The same traditions from the Pseudo-Callisthenes were combined in Persia with Sassanid Persian ideas about Alexander in the Iskandarnamah. In this tradition, Alexander built a wall of iron and melted copper in which Gog and Magog are confined.

Some Muslim scholars disagree that Alexander was Dhul-Qarnayn. There are actually some theories that Dhul-Qarnayn was a Persian King with a vast Empire as well, possibly King Cyrus the Great. The reason being is Dhul-Qarnayn is described in the Holy Quran as a monotheist believer who worshipped Allah (God). This, it is claimed, removes Alexander as a candidate for Dhul-Qarnayn as Alexander was a polytheist. Yet contemporaneous Persian nobles would have practiced Zurvanism, thus disqualifying them on the same basis.

In the Shahnameh

The Shahnameh of Ferdowsi, one of the oldest books written in modern Persian, has a chapter about Alexander. It is a book of epic poetry written around 1000 AD, and is believed to have played an important role in the survival of the Persian language in the face of Arabic influence. It starts with a mythical history of Iran and then gives a story of Alexander, followed by a brief mention of the Arsacids. The accounts after that, still in epic poetry, portray historical figures. Alexander is described as a child of a Persian king, Daraaye Darab (the last in the list of kings in the book whose names do not match historical kings), and a daughter of Philip, a Roman king. However, due to problems in the relationship between the Persian king and Philip's daughter, she is sent back to Rome. Alexander is born to her afterwards, but Philip claims him as his own son and keeps the true identity of the child secret.


Alexander is also known in the Zoroastrian Middle Persian work Arda Wiraz Nāmag as "Alexander the accursed", in the Persian language Guzastag, due to his conquest of the Persian Empire and the destruction of its capital Persepolis. He is also known as Eskandar-e Maqduni (Alexander of Macedonia") in Persian, al-Iskandar al-Makduni al- Yunani ("Alexander the Macedonian, of Greece") in Arabic, אלכסנדר מוקדון, Alexander Mokdon in Hebrew, and Tre-Qarnayia in Aramaic (the two-horned one, apparently due to an image on coins minted during his rule that seemingly depicted him with the two ram's horns of the Egyptian god Ammon), الاسكندر الاكبر, al-Iskandar al-Akbar ("Alexander the Great") in Arabic, سکندر اعظم, Sikandar-e-azam in Urdu and Skandar in Pashto. Sikandar, his name in Urdu and Hindi, is also a term used as a synonym for "expert" or "extremely skilled".

In ancient and modern culture

Around seventy towns or outposts are claimed to have been founded by Alexander. Diodorus Siculus credits Alexander with planning cities on a grid plan.

Alexander has figured in works of both "high" and popular culture from his own era to the modern day.

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