Alexander of Macedon

Alexander, general, conqueror, myth and god. Known as the great, still today there is an aura of mystique about the man. At 20 he inherited his father’s kingdom of Macedon and spent the rest of the 13 years of his life creating an empire. He had a massive army and entourage and even had his own historian, Callisthenes to follow him around. There were others that wrote about him, generals such as Ptolemy and Nearchus. There were more junior men such as Aristobulus and Onesicritus who also recorded the events. But we must be cautious, this ancient time was one of myth and the chief literary form was the Homeric Iliad. Facts were not as important, as propaganda was the main goal. Callisthenes wrote Alexanders history, but others wrote theirs for their own political reasons as the post-Alexander in-fighting began. So any evidence we have is based on biased accounts and some detective work that has had to be carried out by proper historians to get some sort of perspective on this great man.

His father Phillip was a warrior-king from the semi-barbaric kingdom of Macedonia. It lies to the north of Greece and contains marshy lowlands and wild highlands. Phillip had conquered neighbouring Greece, with its many City States and was planning an invasion of Persia. The Persians had been an enemy for many years, invasions and classic battles had kept them at bay, but they were still there, large and powerful. His mother was Olympias, one of seven or eight wives. She had been the favourite, but fell out of favour.

Alexander had an excellent military education and was commanding his father’s cavalry at 16. He was surrounded by some friends, when young, and together they were educated by some of Greece’s finest minds. He studied Homeric literature avidly. Agriculture, engineering and construction would come be useful for future city building. Philosophy and debate honed a keen mind. He believed that he was the son of Zeus, not an uncommon belief in the ancient Greek world. His hero was Achilles the great warrior god who fought at Troy and was immortalised in the Iliad.

Then in 336 BC Phillip was assassinated and Alexander took the throne. There is some doubt as there was not a clear succession, but on taking it he gathered his friends and dealt with his enemies politically and militarily. It was usual in Macedonian politics for there to be a bloodletting of his rivals and that is what happened. He had to secure his rule and he marched his army north to the mountainous regions to secure his border. In part this was a training exercise and he was preparing his men for the future adventures. While in the north Thebes rebelled, so he headed south and crushed them, razing their city to the ground. This demonstration of power and ruthlessness consolidated his power in Greece.

But soon his thoughts moved onto following his father’s plan to defeat the Persians. His army consisted of the Foot Companions who were a well drilled infantry unit armed with an 18 foot spear called a sarissa. They would line up in close order and if they could keep their cohesion were an awesome unit with tightly knit ranks of spears overlapping each other. They protected their left side with shields, but required the shield bearers to protect their right flank. These shield bearers were the elite infantry and were used for special operations. Peltasts were light infantry used for guarding flanks and mobile reconnaissance operations. The Companions were the heavy Cavalry, on the right side of the formation they were led by Alexander and were offensive, on the left by Parmenion and were more defensive. There were archers, slingers and javelin throwers.

In crossing the Hellespont, near the Dardanelles, Alexander set foot on an Odyssey that would mean he never saw his home again. He paid a visit to the suspected site of Troy and consolidated his power near the Hellenistic or Greek city states on the East coast of the Aegean. This was in modern Turkey and was owned by the Persians.


Alexander met the Persians, led by a Greek mercenary Memnon, at Granicus. The battle site was on a river bank. As Ptolemy feinted on Parmenion’s left, the Persians reinforced and held back the feint, then Alexander smashed into them from the right. Many Persian leaders were killed, and Alexander was stunned by an axe, as always leading from the front. As a gap opened up in the Persian line the Foot Companions exploited it and overran the weak Persian infantry. It turned into a rout. Greek mercenaries tried to come to terms but were executed.

After this victory, Alexander concentrated on securing the ports on the Western and Southern coasts of Asia Minor. Many were originally Greek and seizing the ports would hamper the superior Persian Navy. There was a Royal road that led to the heart of the empire deep in Iran, and Alexander followed it east taking Tarsus as the last goal in Asia Minor. Darius the Persian Emperor was coming with a vast army, but the two were unaware of each other. Alexander had turned south into what is now Western Syria and was heading down the coastal plain when he discovered Darius was behind him. He turned north and approached in a narrow coastal strip between beach and mountain, crossed by rivers the two rivals met at the battle of Issus.


Whether the choice of Battlefield was by fortune or design, Alexander had narrowed the field which suited him against a foe that was probably about double in numbers. The Persian cavalry attacked Parmenion on the left and were held. The right flank skirmished to prevent being flanked and Alexander leading the Shield Bearers punched a hole in the centre. He joined his cavalry, and crashed into the Greek Mercenaries so decisively that Darius turned and fled. There was another rout and the Macedonians slaughtered the fleeing Persians as long as there was light. Darius had abandoned everything, even members of his own family who were then protected by Alexander. It was decisive and Darius was weakened militarily and politically.

Alexander continued to capture ports along the Levantine coast. He reached Tyre, the centre of the Phoenician culture and asked for surrender, but none was forthcoming. Tyre was an island with a harbour and a strong fleet. Alexander never mastered naval tactics partly because he had little in the way of navy. But never backing down he resolved to build a land bridge in the shallow water to reach the island one kilometre from land,


The land bridge was successful and it allowed his artillery to bombard the recalcitrant City. But closer to the island the water deepened and the inhabitants were fighting back at disrupting the siege work. He realised he could not win without a navy, but he had inherited some eighty Persian vessels and the Cypriots wanted to join in with 120. This allowed him to blockade the harbour and fight off the Phoenician fleet. He was able to bring battering rams on ships to attack the walls, and spreading his attack to various points he was able to form a breach in the south. Leading the attack they quickly captured the city. Some of the Tyrians were spared, many executed and 30,000 sold into slavery. As throughout history the result of the end of the siege was brutal. Although savage, assaulting a walled citadel is very expensive in casualties for the attacking troops. The bloodlust that follows is inhuman but serves as a warning to those who refuse to surrender.

He followed down the coast and had another siege at Gaza and on into Egypt. The Egyptians had little military strength and sought a political settlement. Marvelling at the ancient architecture and culture, Alexander spotted an unused piece of coast and built a city named after himself, Alexandria. He founded it as a centre of Hellenistic culture, there was a vast library and wonders such as the lighthouse and was the centre of the culture for 1000 years until Muslim invasion.

At this point Alexander decided on a pilgrimage to the oasis city of Siwah deep in the Western desert. He was seeking the oracle from the god Zeus Ammon. He believed he was the son of a god and this was not an unusual thing in the Greek world especially for a leader, especially for one with such proven abilities. He marched through the desert and sought the priests. It appears that they told him what he wanted to hear and always had close allegiance to the deity. He always would seek guidance by offering sacrifices, particularly before battle. He was always mindful of the Greek spirituality and paid attention to it.

But Darius had not been defeated and was forming another great army closer to his homeland of Iran. Alexander marched east on the royal road and had two options for crossing the mighty rivers of the Euphrates and the Tigris. The direct route was burned, but a conversation between Hephaestion, Alexander’s long term lover, and Mazeus a Syrian commander may have taken place here. Mazeus could have defected during the forthcoming battle and was appointed to rule the province. The northern route was easier to supply and did not mean marching through the scorching desert. The two sides met on the plains at Gaugamela and after some initial manoeuvring battle commenced.


The large, flat plain was ideal for cavalry and chariots. But it was dusty and almost immediately vision was obscured. The Persians had Scythian mounted cavalry who had a massive battle with the Macedonian right. The Companions and the light troops held them off decisively and Darius unleashed his chariots, but they were attacked with javelin troops and gaps opened up to marshal them to the rear where they were defeated. The foot companions had engaged in the centre and with a gap opening up Alexanders flying cavalry wedge struck. Smashing the Greek mercenaries and those around Darius the end was near. Darius turned and fled again, but in the dust and confusion the message came through that Parmenion on the left was being encircled and the baggage train was threatened. Alexander had to withdraw and rescue the left and leave Darius to flee.

The empire was divided. Alexander marched to glory in Babylon and Darius was eventually murdered. His generals would continue to resist in the northern mountains, but for now Alexander would receive fame and fortune in Babylon and then onto the Persian heartland of Susa and Persepolis where the cultural centre was destroyed in flames during a drunken orgy.

He had followed the trail of Darius and caught up only finding his corpse. He assumed the role of Persian emperor and had the dual roles of king of the two kingdoms, previously at war. Chasing Darius successors into Afghanistan and the Hindu Kush meant fighting in severe territory against an elusive enemy. Eventually the battle was won and Alexander set his sights on India. He wanted to reach the mythical eastern ocean and discover all the fabulous beasts, spices and riches it had to offer.

On the banks of the Jhelum in modern day Pakistan, Alexander fought Porus.


The monsoon swollen river Hydapses stood between Alexander and Porus. Alexander used feint and countermarching to deceive Porus who eventually relaxed as he no longer expected an attack across the mighty river. Alexander then secretly crossed upstream through the deep water and appeared on the southern bank. Porus marched forward with cavalry on the flanks, phalanx infantry in the centre with 200 war elephants in front. Scythian horse archers showered the left flank cavalry and then Alexander leading the Companions attacked the right. At this moment Coenus and his cavalry appeared in the rear. The Elephants trampled over the Foot Companions, but were eventually repulsed. The Indian infantry could not reorganise in the confusion and archery was difficult in the mud. The Indians were forced back and were confined by the Macedonian Phalanx. Indian losses were 23,000 to 1000 to the Macedonians.

Alexander was so impressed with Porus, that he spared his life and gave him back his kingdom under his rule. He wanted to continue to the edge of the world, but his troops wanted to go home. After sulking in his tent for a couple of days, he ordered a fleet to be built and they would sail down the Indus to the ocean. On the way they attacked Multan where leading the charge up some ladders he was cut off from his men and received a severe chest wound from a large arrow. He had a punctured lung and would never be the same. They reached the ocean and planned a return.

The plan was to march through the Makran desert of South West Iran and be supplied by ship. But the ships were stuck in port and his army was greatly reduced in size, due to death in the fierce desert. Meeting up later, Alexander and his friends eventually retired to Babylon where they feasted, spent their wealth and planned the next adventure. But he died in Babylon after a drinking bout. Possibly poisoned, but no one really knows. He had close friends and led from the front, but there were those that hated him. The infighting over his empire started and his generals fought over the spoils and divided it into four. Although Hephaestion was his favourite and Bagoas another highly favoured Iranian male lover, Alexander had a child with Barsine and his Afghan wife Roxane. They were infants on his death, and were soon to be murdered. The kingdom did not stand and would be replaced by the Romans a few hundred years later.

Alexander’s method was to install local leaders back into the provinces they had previously ran. But with the army elsewhere, most would rebel. The East returned to its roots, and the Seleucid Empire took hold in the west side of the empire, but it did not last. The legacy of Alexander was to export Greek culture in city building, government, philosophy, art, culture and language. These would prevail for many years until the fall of the Byzantine Empire in the 15th Century. Also there was a multicultural aspect as Greeks interbred with Persians.

There is much speculation about Alexander’s character and lifestyle and also what motivated him. People wonder about what drove him forward and what was his relationship with both his parents. But the history is written by those that followed him with the self-interest of those seeking to run a massive kingdom. Clearly none of them could lead on their own, and Alexander died too soon to prepare a future form of Government.

What I believe is that a son of a successful General was schooled in many things military, scientific and philosophical. In an ancient time where there are only stories about the fabulous worlds and creatures over the horizon, it is understandable that Alexander would seek to emulate Achilles his hero, as a son of Zeus Ammon, or so he believed and conquered the world in the same way his Homeric heroes had done. The speculation goes on and many books are written picking up on this rumour or that one, but to me the truth is that he was adventurer and very good at it. He had many skills not least man management and earned the loyalty and respect of his men by leading from the front. Although his antics do not translate in an ordered and well known world, he clearly was a man of immense ability and a brave and determined character.

But who knows what he was really like as a person. He wrote the book for the Roman Empire and explored the known world and more. Ultimately his legacy to us is he expanded the possibilities of multi-culturalism and made the world a smaller place.

Conway-Laird (2017)    

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