Alexander the Great (*356; r. 336-323): the Macedonian king who defeated his Persian colleague Darius III Codomannus and conquered the Achaemenid Empire. During his campaigns, Alexander visited a.o. Egypt, Babylonia, Persis, Media, Bactria, the Punjab, and the valley of the Indus. In the second half of his reign, he had to find a way to rule his newly conquered countries. Therefore, he made Babylon his capital and introduced the oriental court ceremonial, which caused great tensions with his Macedonian and Greek officers.
A Macedonian youth
Alexander was born in the summer of 356, probably in Pella, as the son of the Macedonian king Philip II (r. 360-336) and queen Olympias. Because the son later claimed to be the son of the supreme god, which he called Zeus or Ammon, stories about his procreation and birth were invented. (You can read them here.) In fact, these stories were unnecessary. Even without them, anyone would have known that the boy was born for greatness.
Ancient authors often maintain that Macedonia was a poor, backward country, and that Philip brought it to civilization. E.g., Alexander's biographer Arrian of Nicomedia writes that king Philip found the Macedonians wandering about without resources, many of them clothed in sheepskins and pasturing flocks in the mountains, defending themselves with difficulty against other tribes. Instead, Philip gave them cloaks instead of sheepskins, brought them down from the mountains to the plains, made them city-dwellers and civilized them. And he made them a match in war for the neighboring barbarians (text).
This may be a picturesque image, but it is simply incorrect. Earlier kings had founded cities in Macedonia, built roads, opened mines and invited Greek artists (e.g., the playwright Euripides) to come and live in Macedonia. However, the country, though potentially a superpower, was politically divided, and it is true that Philip, although technically an usurper, was the first to overcome the divisions and to realize Macedonia's potential.
It must be stressed that this was comparatively easy, because the traditional powers were all in decline. Persia had temporarily lost Egypt and had to reconquer the ancient country along the Nile. Besides, it faced a civil war after 353, when the satrap of Hellespontine Phrygia, Artabazus, rebelled. Eventually, this rebellion was suppressed (Artabazus was exiled to Macedonia), but it had seriously weakened Persia's western border, and Philip was ready to pick up the fruits.
The Greek powers were in decline, too. Sparta had lost Messenia, its economic base, and was still trying to recover. Thebes was fighting the Third Sacred War (357-346), which continued to drain its resources. Athens had founded a second empire, but was struggling to overcome some rebellious allies, who, worst of all, were invoking Persian help. Philip had free play. It would have been remarkable if he had failed to expand Macedonia.
The Macedonian army
Philip seized the throne in the winter of 360/359 and after a decisive victory over the northwestern tribes (358), he captured Amphipolis, a town that possessed gold and silver mines (356). His coins, known as philippeioi and bearing the head of Apollo on the obverse and a two-horse chariot on the reverse, have been found almost everywhere between Sicily, Egypt, and Scythia. From now on, Philip could think about organizing a professional army, which he used almost every year.
The following elements are important.
- The Companions (Hetairoi): 1,800 Macedonian noblemen, fighting on horse. One of the eight units was called agema: this was the royal bodyguard, when the king fought on horse. Philip and Alexander used these cavalry men as a crowbar to open enemy battle arrays.
- The phalanx (Pezhetairoi, lit. Foot companions): systematically trained infantry men in a densely packed battle array, carrying lances with a length of six meters. The six battalions of Foot companions, each 1,500 men strong, were the backbone of the army.
- The Shield bearers (Hypaspistes): In theory, the royal guard: three 1,000 men strong units of heavy infantry. Again, there was an agema: the royal bodyguard, when the king fought with the infantry men.
- The engineers. Although modern scholars are fascinated by the battles of Philip and Alexander, in Antiquity they were especially admired for their siege warfare. This was a type of total war - limitless, structureless, without morality - that often ended in the sack of a city, the massacre of the entire male population and the enslavement of all women and children.
Alexander grew up in a society that was permanently at war, and it is certain that Philip -when he was not fighting- encouraged his son to study the martial arts: fencing, wrestling, athletics, riding. The famous anecdote of Alexander's taming of the horse Bucephalus (text) shows that the young crown prince really liked equestrianism.
Philip wanted his son to be educated in the arts of peace as well. The boy received an excellent education. In Antiquity, this meant that he had to read the legendary poet Homer, who was regarded as the father of scholarship and all sciences. As we will see ##below, several ancient authors believed that Alexander compared himself to the homeric heroes and developed a rivalry with Achilles (who was, according to the legends, Alexander's ancestor). Among the other authors whose books the young man read, must have been Herodotus of Halicarnassus (c.480-c.425) and Xenophon (c.430-c.355), both writers of books about wars against the Persians.
Plutarch of Chaeronea tells a strange anecdote about Persian envoys who visited Macedonia and were questioned about their homeland by the crown prince (text). Although it is likely that Persia and Macedonia exchanged ambassadors, the story about Alexander's questions is too good to be true. Besides, Alexander had other means to learn about Persia: he had met Artabazus, the Persian exile, and his children Pharnabazus and Barsine. In 342, Artabazus was recalled and appointed in high functions; he and his children were to play an important role in the next decades.
Between 343 and 340 Alexander's teacher was the famous Macedonian biologist and philosopher Aristotle of Stagira (384-322), who dedicated On the cosmos, to Alexander to the "best of princes". If this text is indeed written by the philosopher - after a century of disbelief, scholars are increasingly convinced that it is authentic -, Aristotle introduced the crown prince to several important sciences: physics, meteorology, geography, theology. (Go here for Aristotle's description of the Achaemenid empire in the days of Darius I the Great.)
It is interesting to note that Aristotle also taught (in the first book of the Politics) that slavery was a normal, natural institution and that there were people who were slaves by nature. As an example, he mentioned the barbarians, which also meant: the Persians. (Go here for Plutarch's account of Aristotle and Alexander.)
Macedonian, Greece, and Persia
Meanwhile, king Philip greatly expanded Macedonia. He had added Thrace, Chalkidike and Thessaly to his dominions, and made it clear that he wanted to unite Greece. Of course, the old city-states offered resistance, and in August 338, the Macedonians met the Athenians and Thebans in battle at Chaeronea in central Greece. For a long time, the outcome of the battle was unclear, until the Macedonian crown prince Alexander led a charge on the left wing, which decided the battle (text).
From now on, Greece was subjected to Macedonia and king Philip had to find a way to organize his territories. At Corinth, he called together representatives of all Greek cities - Sparta alone refused to attend - and forced them to become members of the Corinthian League. They were no longer to fight against each other; their armies would be commanded by Philip in an all-out war on Persia. Perhaps it was a bit far-fetched to retaliate for the attack of the Persian king Xerxes on Greece almost a century and a half ago, but the idea - which was not new - served to unite Greece. In 337, war was formally declared.
The moment was well-chosen: in Persia, king Artaxerxes III Ochus had recently died, and his successor Artaxerxes IV (also called Arses) had no firm grasp on the throne. Two Persian satrapies, Egypt and Babylonia, revolted. So, in the Spring of 336, the Macedonian general Parmenion and an army of 10,000 men crossed into Asia and captured several Greek towns on the western shore of what is now Turkey. Then, the news came that Artaxerxes IV had been murdered by his courtier Bagoas and was succeeded by a distant relative, Darius III Codomannus (text).
At about this time, king Philip, who wanted to join his troops in Asia, asked the oracle of Delphi about his prospects. The answer was clear: the prophetess said that the sacrificial victim was ready and the sacrificer at hand. In October, Philip celebrated his departure to what looked like an easy war (and the marriage of his daughter Cleopatra to the king of Molossis, Alexander). Unfortunately, he was murdered by one of his guards, for personal reasons, in the theater of Aegae (October 336; text). In a sense, the oracle had been right.
Alexander became king and inherited the war in Asia. Everything was ready: Macedonia had developed a strong economy and possessed a strong army; the boy had had a military education and knew something of the country he was about to attack. As stated on top of this article, Alexander was born for greatness. However, his first task was to secure his home base.