Alexander was born on July 20, 356 B.C., in Pella, capital of Macedonia. He was the son of king Philip II of Macedonia and Olympias, the king’s fourth wife. Physically, Alexander was of medium height for his time (short for today’s standard). He had straight nose, which followed the line of the forhead, and fair hair, with a ruddy tinge to his face and chest. Although Alexander liked drama, the flute and the lyre, poetry and hunting, what he truly wanted in life was glory and valor, rather than easy living and riches. When he was ten years old, Alexander was given a horse called Bucephalus, which he himself broke and tamed.
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 was a strict disciplinaria n who instilled in Alexander his ascetic nature which became famous during his Persian and Indian expeditions, where he would live simply, very much like his troops. Leonidas was replaced with Lysimachus who taught Alexander to play the lyre, and an appreciation for the fine arts of music, poetry, and drama. When he was 13, his parents hired Aristotle from Athens to be his personal tutor. The two of them spent time at Mieza, a temple about 20 miles from the palace at Pella. Under Aristotle, Alexander learned philosophy, ethics, politics, and healing, all of which became of the utmost importance for Alexander in his later life. The two later became estranged, due to their difference of opinion on the status of foreigners; Aristotle saw them as barbarians, while Alexander sought to merge Macedonians and foreigners.
Alexander As Boy Regent
In 340 B.C., when Philip went to Byzantium to fight rebels, Alexander, a mere 16 years old, was left in charge of Macedonia as regent, with the power to rule in Philip’s name in his absence. That Alexander was given such a position at such a young age indicates that he was already accomplished in battle, i.e., he had made his first kill and most likely several others. During his time as regent, the Maedi of northen Macedonia revolted. Alexander traveled up there, put down the revolt, captured the city, drove the survivors north, and established a Greek colony, naming it Alexandroupolis.
Ascent of Macedonia
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.
Philip’s military innovations created the fighting power that Alexander inherited, making it a force to be reckoned with. Philip introduced 6 meter sarissa, a wooden pike with metal tip, for use by his infantry in the phalanx. The sarissa, when held upright by the rear rows of the phalanx (there were usually eight rows), helped hide maneuvers behind the phalanx from the view of the enemy. When held horizontal by the front rows of the phalanx, it was a rather brutal weapon. People could be run through from 20 feet away, giving quite an advantage to the phalanx in hand-to-hand combat.
Philip made the military a way of life for many Macedonian men. In the past, soldiering had only been a part-time job, something the men would do during the off peak times of farming. When the fighting season ended at the start of the harvest, the men would return to the farms. Philip made the military an occupation that paid well enough that the soldiers could afford to do it year-round.
By making the military a full-time occupation, Philip was able to drill his men regularly, building unity and cohesion within the army. Alexander fought with the finest military machine that Asia or Greece had ever seen, primarily because of the amount of time and effort spent on maneuvers.
In addition to the basic phalanx, Philip and Alexander used light auxiliaries, archers, a siege train, and a cavalry. With all of these working well together, both Philip and Alexander rarely, if ever, lost any battle.
In 336 BC, Philip II was assassinated at the wedding of his daughter Cleopatra to her uncle King Alexander of Epirus. Thus, when he was twenty years old, Alexander took the crown of Macedonia.
Alexander’s Greek Conquests
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, driving the rebelling barbarians beyond the Danube River and out of the way. 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 end of Thebes convinced Athens to surrender.
Alexander’s Conquest of Persia
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.
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.
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. 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, 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.
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.
Alexander had adopted the Persian style of dress, rather than his traditional Macedonian clothing, and his troops were unhappy with him. They gradually became more reluctant to follow him, but his charismatic personality persuaded them not to abandon him. The change in Alexander’s attire was but one part of his grand effort to reconcile Greek and Persian culture. He established training programs to teach Persians about Greek and Macedonian culture, and he even married a Persian dancer named Roxane.
Alexander’s Invasion of India
In the spring of 327 B.C., Alexander and his army marched into India. Before Alexander crossed into India in 327 B.C.E., he felt the necessity to trim down the army that he had led through Persia to accommodate the different climate and terrain that they would face. He burned all of the baggage wagons of Persian booty that hindered his mobility, and he dismissed a large number of his soldiers, reshaping his army with several thousand Persian cavalrymen.
The most important battle fought in India was against Porus, one of the most powerful Indian leaders, at the river Hydaspes in July 326 B.C. Alexander’s army crossed the heavily defended river in dramatic fashion during a violent thunderstorm to meet Porus’ forces. The Indians were defeated in a fierce battle, even though they fought with elephants, which the Macedonians had never before seen. Alexander captured Porus and, like the other local rulers he had defeated, allowed him to continue to govern his territory. Alexander even subdued an independent province and granted it to Porus as a gift.
Alexander’s next goal was to reach the Ganges River, which was actually 250 miles away, because he thought that it flowed into the outer Ocean. His troops, however, had heard tales of the powerful Indian tribes that lived on the Ganges and remembered the difficulty of the battle with Porus, so they refused to go any farther east. Alexander was extremely disappointed, but he accepted their decision and persuaded them to travel south down the rivers Hydaspes and Indus so that they might reach the Ocean on the southern edge of the world. The army rode down the rivers on the rivers on rafts and stopped to attack and subdue villages along the way. During this trip, Alexander sought out the Indian philosophers, the Brahmins, who were famous for their wisdom, and debated them on philosophical issues. He became legendary for centuries in India for being both a wise philosopher and a fearless conqueror.
One of the villages in which the army stopped belonged to the Malli, who were said to be one of the most warlike of the Indian tribes. Alexander was wounded several times in this attack, most seriously when an arrow pierced his breastplate and his ribcage. The Macedonian officers rescued him in a narrow escape from the village. Alexander and his army reached the mouth of the Indus in July 325 B.C. and turned westward for home.
Back From India
Alexander found out that many of his satraps and military governors had misbehaved in his absence. So, he 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. Meanwhile, upon his return, Alexander learned some men had desecrated the tomb of Cyrus the Great, and swiftly executed them. For they were put in charge of guarding the tomb Alexander held in honor.
Death of Alexander
On June 11, 323 BC, Alexander the Great died in the palace of Nebuchadrezzar II of Babylon. He was just one month short of attaining 33 years of age. His death is still shrouded in mystery to this day. 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, 323 BC, 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.