How Alexander the Great Was Saved from Certain Death at the Granicus

How Alexander the Great Was Saved from Certain Death at the Granicus

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Alexander the Great’s invasion of the Persian Empire was one of the most bold and ultimately decisive in history. Less than a decade after leaving Europe he had toppled history’s first great superpower and established a colossal empire of his own.

It all began with a battle on the Granicus River in modern-day Turkey, as his famous army faced its first major test against the Persians and their Greek auxiliaries.

An animated map showing the rise and fall of the Achaemenid Empire. Credit: Ali Zifan / Commons.

King Alexander III of Macedon

At the time of the battle of the Granicus Alexander was just twenty-two years old, but he was already a seasoned warrior. When his father Philip had come from the Macedonian north to conquer and subdue the Greek cities, Alexander had commanded his cavalry at the age of just sixteen, and he had been present when his father had declared an interest in attacking the Persians, who had been menacing the Greeks from across the Aegean for almost 200 years.

When Philip was assassinated in 336, his son was proclaimed King of Macedon, and decided to put his father’s dreams into action. Having learned war from his father and statecraft from the philosopher Aristotle, Alexander was already an impressive-enough figure for his new subjects to take this insane plan seriously, even though it was coming from a man barely out of his teens.

First, however, he had to keep hold of his European empire. With this boy-King now on the throne, Macedon’s dominions began to sense weakness, and Alexander had to put down revolts in the Balkans before doubling back and crushing Thebes, one of the old Greek cities.

After its defeat Thebes was razed and its old lands were divided between other nearby cities. The message was clear: the son was even more ruthless and formidable than the father.

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The invasion begins

The following year – 334 BC – Alexander brought an army of 37,000 men across the Hellespont and into Asia. His father had combined the armies of Macedon with those of the Greeks, forming what historians call the “Corinthian League” in a conscious throwback to the League lead by Sparta and Athens that had defeated the Persians at Marathon and Salamis.

As soon as he landed in Asia, Alexander thrust his spear into the ground and claimed the land as his own – this would be no punitive expedition but a campaign of conquest. The Persian Empire was so vast that here – at its westernmost extremity – the task of defending it fell to the local satraps rather than their Emperor Darius in the east.

They were fully aware of Alexander’s arrival, and began to muster their own forces of tough Asian cavalry, as well as a large number of Greek Hoplite mercenaries who could match the Macedonian infantry.

Both fought in tight phalanxes of men armed with a long spear and keeping a rigid formation, and the Persians hoped that they would cancel each other out while their strong cavalry dealt the killer blow.

The impenetrable mass of the Macedonian phalanx – these men were the nucleus of Alexander’s army at the Granicus River and remained so for the rest of his conquests.

Memnon’s advice

Prior to the battle, Memnon of Rhodes, a Greek mercenary commander in Persian service, had advised the satraps avoid fighting a pitched battle against Alexander. Instead he suggested they employ a ‘slash and burn’ strategy: lay waste the land and let starvation and hunger tear away at Alexander’s army.

It was a smart tactic – Alexander’s food reserves were already running low. But the Persian satraps were damned if they were going to devastate their own lands – lands the Great King had entrusted to them. Besides, where was the glory in that?

They thus decided to dismiss Memnon’s advice and to face Alexander on the field of battle much to the young Macedonian king’s delight.

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The Battle of the Granicus River

And so in May 334 BC the Persian and Macedonian armies faced each other on opposite sides of the Granicus River. The Persian army consisted predominantly of cavalry but it also had a substantial number of Greek mercenary infantry. In total it numbered nearly 40,000 men according to the Greek historian Arrian, slightly larger than Alexander’s 37,000-strong force.

Alexander’s experienced second-in-command Parmenion advocated attacking the next day, but his impetuous commander overrode him and decided to cross the river immediately, taking the Persians by surprise. His heavy phalanx was in the middle, while the cavalry protected the flanks – with the right taken by the King and his famous Companion Cavalry: Macedonia’s elite shock cavalry unit.

Battle commenced when Alexander mounted his horse and ordered the cavalry to cross the river, himself leading the Companions.

An intense cavalry fight followed:

…a tangled mass of horse against horse and man against man, as each side struggled to achieve its aim

Eventually Alexander and his cavalry, equipped with sturdy lances that were far more effective than the Persian spears, gained the upper hand. At the same time Alexander’s light infantry moved among the horses and created further panic in the Persian ranks.

A diagram of the Battle of the Granicus River.

Alexander’s dice with death

Alexander remained in the thickest of the action throughout the fight. Yet this very nearly cost him his life.

Midway through the battle, Alexander was set upon by two Persian satraps: Rhoesaces and Spitamenes. Rhoesaces struck Alexander on the head with his scimitar, but Alexander’s helmet bore the brunt of the blow and Alexander responded by thrusting his lance through Rhoesaces’ chest.

As Alexander was dealing this killer strike, Spitamenes appeared behind him and raised his scimitar to land the death blow. Fortunately for Alexander, however, Cleitus ‘the Black’, one of Alexander’s senior subordinates, sliced off Spitamenes’ raised arm, scimitar and all.

Cleitus the Black (seen here wielding an axe) saves Alexander’s life at the Granicus.

After Alexander recovered from his near-death experience, he brought his men and the Persian cavalry out to the left, where the latter were comprehensively defeated.

The Persian army collapses

The Persian cavalry’s demise left a hole in the centre of the Persian line which was quickly filled by the Macedonian phalanx, who engaged the enemy infantry and put the poorly-equipped Persians to flight before starting on the Greeks. Most of the Satraps had been killed in the cavalry duel with Alexander and their leaderless men panicked and left the Greeks to their fate.

Alexander’s victory at the Granicus was his first success against the Persians. According to Arrian, he lost just over a hundred men in the battle. The Persians, meanwhile, lost over a thousand of their cavalry, including many of their leaders.

As for the Greek mercenaries serving in the Persian army, Alexander labelled them traitors, had them surrounded and annihilated. The conquest of the Persian Empire had begun.

How Alexander the Great Conquered the Persian Empire

For more than two centuries, the Achaemenid Empire of Persia ruled the Mediterranean world. One of history’s first true super powers, the Persian Empire stretched from the borders of India down through Egypt and up to the northern borders of Greece. But Persia’s rule as a dominant empire would finally be brought to an end by a brilliant military and political strategist, Alexander the Great.

Alexander III was born in 356 B.C. in the small Kingdom of Macedonia. Tutored in his youth by Aristotle and trained for battle by his father, Philip II, Alexander the Great grew to become a powerful imperialist. His undermanned defeat of the Persian King Darius III at the Battle of Gaugamela is seen as one of the decisive turning points of human history, unseating the Persians as the greatest power in the ancient world and spreading Hellenistic culture across a vast new empire.

Alexander owed a tremendous debt to his father for leaving him a world-class army led by experienced and loyal generals. But it was Alexander’s genius as a leader and battlefield strategist that secured his victory against an imposing adversary deep in enemy territory.

Wars of Alexander the Great: Battle of the Granicus

Of the four great battles Alexander fought in the course of his brilliant military career, the Battle of the Granicus, fought in May 334 BC, was the first–and the one in which he came closest to failure and death. The Granicus is also worthy of note because it is one of the earliest battles on record that was decided largely by cavalry strength, though coordinated with infantry support. Although some of the tactical details of the fighting are reasonably clear, to this day one of the more puzzling aspects is Alexander’s strategy of opening the battle with a feint attack. Unfortunately, the three major ancient literary sources–Arrian, Diodorus and Plutarch–give very little real detail of the battle, focusing rather on Alexander’s heroic struggle. Nevertheless, by carefully reviewing those literary sources, a highly probable picture of the battle emerges.

After the death of his father, King Philip II, in 336 BC, Alexander III won the allegiance of the army and ascended to the throne of Macedon at age 20, only to find himself at the head of a rebellious kingdom. The sudden death of his father had encouraged the barbarians to the north and west–and several Greek cities to the south–to revolt against Macedonian rule. Within two years, Alexander had suppressed all internal opposition, crushed the barbarian revolts in decisive campaigns and subdued the Greek insurrection. Once he had consolidated his power at home, Alexander enthusiastically took on the project his father had planned but never carried out–an invasion of the Persian empire.

For well over a century, the Persians’ increasing interference in Greek mainland affairs, their oppression of Greek coastal cities in western Asia Minor and their repeated invasions of Greece had filled the Greeks with fear and loathing. In the spring of 334 BC, Alexander led a combined Macedonian, Greek and Balkan (historically referred to as Macedonian) army of 32,000 infantry and 5,100 cavalry on a 20-day march from Macedon to the Hellespont (today called the Dardanelles). Alexander knew that agents sent by King Darius III of Persia had had much to do with inciting the Greeks against him. To his personal desire for revenge, he now harnessed to his cause the Greeks’ grievances over Persian injustices done to them, past and present.

Prior to Alexander’s Hellespont crossing, the Persian satraps (provincial governors) and others in the Persian high command assembled their forces of about 10,000 cavalry and 5,000 infantry near the town of Zelea in western Asia Minor (present-day Turkey). A council of war–to which Memnon, a high-ranking Greek mercenary in Persian service, was admitted–was held to discuss strategy. Knowing that the Macedonian army would be a formidable adversary, Memnon advised the Persians to burn crops, farms and villages in the country through which Alexander would have to pass, thereby depriving him of provisions, while the Persian army withdrew eastward and avoided battle. The satraps, however, distrusted Memnon because he was a Greek, and they were reluctant to see their territories destroyed. Consequently, they rejected his sound advice and decided to stay to defend their provinces.

The Persian nobles believed themselves superior to the barbaric invaders and counted on a full array of western satraps, a numerically superior cavalry (which for generations was reputed to be the finest in existence), a formidable contingent of Greek mercenary infantry and a sound plan to stop the invasion at the onset. They seem to have had two major objectives. First, they would strategically force Alexander toward a carefully chosen position before he could move farther inland if he did not move toward that position, he would leave his rear unprotected and possibly lose his logistical support and lines of communication with the Hellespont. Second, the Persians hoped to find a strong defensive position that would not only compel Alexander to attack but also minimize his more than 2-to-1 advantage in infantry, while capitalizing on their 2-to-1 advantage in cavalry.

In keeping with their plan, the Persians advanced from Zelea to the nearby Granicus River (today called the Kocabas Cay). The 60- to 90-foot-wide river, with its varying depth, strong current and steep, irregular bank, would pose a significant obstacle to Alexander’s cavalry and would make it difficult for his phalanxes to hold formation. The Persians established a strong defensive position on the eastern bank and placed all their cavalry in the front line, creating as wide a front as possible–approximately 7,500 feet, or 1.4 miles. There, they confidently awaited the Macedonian army’s arrival.

Diodorus is the only ancient author who provides even a partial Persian order of battle: Memnon of Rhodes, with a cavalry unit of unknown size and nationality, held the extreme left of the Persian forward line. To his right was Arsamenes, also with cavalry of unknown size and nationality then Arsites, with Paphlagonian cavalry of unknown size and Spithridates, with Hyrcanian cavalry of unknown size. The extreme right of the Persian forward line was held by 1,000 Median cavalry and 2,000 cavalry of unknown nationality, both under the command of Rheomithres, and by 2,000 Bactrian cavalry. The center was held by cavalry units of unknown size and nationality, probably under the joint command of Mithridates and Rhoesaces, and no doubt others not mentioned in ancient texts. Greek mercenaries, under Omares, made up the mass of the infantry and were placed at the rear of the cavalry on higher ground.

Some military historians have interpreted the Persian battle array as a tactical blunder. They argue that, by placing the cavalry so close to the steep riverbank, the Persians deprived it of the opportunity to charge and the infantry, in the rear of the cavalry, became mere observers of a struggle in which they could offer little assistance. One of the greatest of Alexander’s modern biographers, Sir William Tarn, disagreed, however, stating that ‘the Persian leaders had in fact a very gallant plan they meant if possible to strangle the war at birth by killing Alexander.’

In ancient times, the commander’s personal leadership and presence in the forefront of battle were so important that his sudden loss, especially at the beginning of the combat, would have a demoralizing effect, possibly causing his army to panic and flee soon after his death. Thus, it seems likely that, by placing their cavalrymen in the front, the Persian leaders intended to meet Alexander’s cavalry charge with their numerically–and, they believed, qualitatively–superior cavalry and simply overwhelm his horsemen.

While the Macedonian army was completing its crossing into Asia Minor, Alexander, accompanied by a portion of his royal guards, sailed ahead, steering south to visit the ruins of the nearby ancient city of Troy. There, he ceremoniously made sacrifices to the gods in honor of the legendary Greek heroes who had fallen nearly 1,000 years earlier in the Trojan War–Greece’s first known invasion of Asia.

Upon rejoining his main army, Alexander received intelligence that the Persian forces were some 50 miles to the northeast. He realized that his first objective could no longer be to move south to liberate the Greek cities under Persian control, since that would leave a substantial enemy force in his rear. Instead, he marched northeastward along the shore of the Hellespont and the Propontis (the present-day Sea of Marmara) with just more than 18,000 of his finest troops (13,000 infantry and 5,100 cavalry), ready to challenge the Persians to a pitched battle.

In midafternoon on the third day of marching, Alexander was not far from the Granicus when his scouts reported that the Persian army was drawn up on the east bank of the river. As the Macedonian army marched toward the river through open country, Alexander placed his heavy infantry in the center in two tandem columns, heavy cavalry on each flank and the baggage train in the rear he then advanced in semideployment behind a heavy screen of light cavalry and infantry.

When Macedonian General Parmenion, Alexander’s second-in-command, could see the enemy’s line, he studied their forces on the far bank, as well as the topography, and advised caution. He disagreed with Alexander about the battle plan, pointing out the difficulties in the river crossing and warning that an immediate attack invited disaster. Alexander, however, rejected Parmenion’s advice, perhaps wanting to capitalize on the Persians’ error in tactical deployment, and decided to deploy his army to attack at once.

In the center of his line, Alexander placed his six Foot Companion battalions of heavy infantry (historically referred to as phalanxes), arranged in the following order from left to right: Meleager’s phalanx with 1,500 infantrymen the phalanx of Philip, son of Amyntas, with 1,500 infantrymen the phalanx of Amyntas, son of Andromenes, with 1,500 infantrymen Craterus’ phalanx, with 1,500 infantrymen the phalanx of Coenus, son of Polemocrates, with 1,500 infantrymen and the phalanx of Perdiccas, son of Orontes, with 1,500 infantrymen. On the left of the phalanxes stood 150 Thracian Odrysian light cavalry under Agathon and 600 Greek allied heavy cavalry under Philip, son of Menelaus. On the extreme left of Alexander’s line were 1,800 Thessalian heavy cavalry under Calas, joined by Parmenion, who probably stationed himself at the head of the Pharsalian squadron. On the right of the phalanxes stood, in succession: 3,000 shield bearers divided into three phalanxes of 1,000 heavy infantrymen each, all under Nicanor, son of Parmenion a combined light mounted force of 600 Prodromoi cavalry and 150 Paeonian cavalry, commanded by Amyntas, son of Arrhabaeus one squadron of 200 Companion heavy cavalry under Socrates, whose turn it was to take the lead that day 1,600 Companion heavy cavalry (with Alexander stationed at the head of the royal squadron), under Philotas, son of Parmenion 500 Agrianian light-javelin men, under Attalus and, finally, 500 Cretan light archers, under Clearchus.

For the purpose of command, the army was divided into two wings. The right, commanded by Alexander, consisted of the three right Foot Companion phalanxes and everything to their right while Parmenion commanded the three left Foot Companion phalanxes and everything to their left.

As the Battle of the Granicus began, the Persian leaders, in keeping with their plan to kill Alexander, focused on the Macedonian commander in chief’s movements. The glitter of his magnificent armor, the white plumes on helmet and his entourage made him a conspicuous target. When the Persians observed Alexander at the head of the Companion cavalry on the right flank, they concluded that his intention was to attack their left. As a result, the Persians transferred some of their cavalry regiments from their center and left center and massed them on and above the riverbank opposite Alexander to meet what they expected would be his main assault.

Once the final Persian and Macedonian battle arrays were complete, the two armies paused a moment and faced each other in silence. Then Alexander opened the battle by sending forward an advance force under the command of Amyntas. Three contingents of cavalry–the combined Prodromoi and Paeonian force, along with Socrates’ Companion squadron–totaling 950 horsemen, and one phalanx of infantry (1,000 soldiers) made a feint attack on the Persians’ extreme left flank, with Socrates’ squadron leading the way.

Arrian, a 2nd-century Greek historian whose account of the battle is the most comprehensive and reliable, described the hard-fought cavalry action that ensued in the river and on its bank: ‘At the point where the vanguard under Amyntas and Socrates touched the bank, the Persians shot volleys on them from above, some hurling their javelins into the river from their commanding position on the bank, others going down to the stream on the more level ground. There was a great shoving by the cavalry, as some were trying to get out of the river, others to stop them, great showers of Persian javelins, much thrusting of Macedonian spears. But the Macedonians, much outnumbered, came off badly in the first onslaught they were defending themselves from the river on ground that was not firm and was beneath the enemy’s while the Persians had the advantage of the bank in particular, the flower of the Persian cavalry was posted here, and Memnon’s sons and Memnon himself ventured their lives with them. The first Macedonians who came to grips with the Persians were cut down, despite their valor.’

Although the relatively weak Macedonian advance force met with predictably intense resistance and suffered heavy losses, it succeeded in drawing the Persian left-flank cavalry out of their formations. Once that was achieved, Alexander, with trumpets blaring his commands, launched his main assault, leading his famous Companion cavalry, the elite of the army, forward toward the now-disorganized Persian cavalry. With Alexander at the head of the royal squadron, the six other Companion cavalry squadrons crossed the river and fought their way up its eastern bank, as the Persians hurled their javelins down upon them.

Arrian described the fighting at that point: ‘Though the fighting was on horseback, it was more like an infantry battle, horse entangled with horse, man with man in the struggle, the Macedonians trying to push the Persians once and for all from the bank and force them on to the level ground, the Persians trying to bar their landing and thrust them back again into the river.’ Meanwhile, the remainder of Alexander’s right wing–the Agrianian javelin men, Cretan archers, two phalanxes of shield bearers and three right phalanxes of Foot Companions–also advanced, with trumpets and battle cries resounding as they entered the river.

When the Persian leaders recognized Alexander, they rode to engage him in a fierce hand-to-hand struggle. The battle became a series of heroic duels between individuals rather than a fight between cavalry units. During the struggle, Alexander’s long Macedonian cavalry lance, or sarissa, was splintered, and he called upon Aretas, one of his Companions, to provide him with another. Aretas’ own weapon had suffered the same misfortune, so Alexander continued fighting bravely with the aftpoint (sauroter). He had no sooner received another sarissa from the Companion Demaratus than the Persian cavalry commander Mithridates appeared at the head of a squadron. Alexander rode forward and struck the Persian leader in the face with his sarissa, killing him instantly.

Rhoesaces, another Persian nobleman, rode up and with his scimitar sliced off part of Alexander’s helmet, causing a minor wound. Then Alexander drove his sarissa through Rhoesaces’ breastplate and into his chest, bringing him to the ground. A third Persian leader, Spithridates, was close behind Alexander and raised his scimitar to strike, but Cleitus, commander of the royal squadron to whom the king’s safety was entrusted, anticipated the blow and severed the Persian’s sword arm, saving Alexander’s life.

Although the Persians maintained a vigorous resistance throughout the bitter struggle, they failed to withstand the charge of the Companion cavalry and were continually pushed back. Arrian wrote, ‘The Persians were now being roughly handled from all quarters they and their horses were struck in the face with lances [sarissas], they were being pushed back by the [Companion] cavalry, and were suffering heavily from the light troops, who had intermingled with the cavalry.’ With the Companion cavalry’s fierce onslaught opening the way, the remainder of Alexander’s right wing crossed the Granicus. They slowly but steadily drove the Persians farther back, gaining the level ground above the steep riverbank.

Meanwhile, Parmenion’s left wing had also advanced and secured a footing. According to Diodorus, the Thessalian cavalry ‘won a great reputation for valor because of the skillful handling of their squadrons and their unmatched fighting quality.’ Although there are no details about the role of Parmenion’s left wing in the battle, its advance was probably delayed until Alexander’s attack was well underway. At the later great battles of Issus and Gaugamela, the Macedonians used a strong defensive left wing at the onset of the battle to balance and safeguard their bold offensive operations on the right.

As a result of the loss of so many of its leaders, the opposition offered by the Persian cavalry deteriorated rapidly. The Persian line first began to give way at the point where Alexander was engaged then the whole center collapsed. Once the center had caved in, both wings of the Persian cavalry–Memnon among them–panicked and fled. The Macedonians could not pursue the fleeing cavalry very far, however. The Persian Greek mercenary infantry, who up to that point had taken no part in the battle, still held their ground and stood in Alexander’s path. The mercenary contingent (perhaps 3,000 troops) presented Alexander with terms under which it would surrender, but he rejected them and ordered his phalanxes to attack the mercenaries in the front, while his cavalry assaulted them on their unprotected flanks and rear. With the exception of 2,000 prisoners–and possibly a few others who threw themselves on the ground and concealed themselves among the dead–the mercenaries were cut down.

The ancient historians’ accounts vary widely as to the losses on both sides. In view of the swiftness of the battle, Arrian probably provided the most credible statistics, although the Macedonian figures are suspiciously low and the Persian numbers perhaps slightly elevated. According to him, Macedonian losses totaled 115 killed󈟁 cavalry (including 25 Companions from Socrates’ squadron, who fell in the advance force) and 30 infantry. No doubt the number of wounded was considerably higher. Persian losses amounted to 4,000 killed–about 1,000 cavalry and perhaps 3,000 Greek mercenaries–along with 2,000 taken prisoner.

Among the Persian high command known to have died in the attempt to slay Alexander were: Spithridates, satrap of Ionia and Lydia Mithrobuzanes, satrap of Cappadocia Mithridates, son-in-law of King Darius Arbupales, grandson of King Artaxerxes II Phranaces, brother-in-law of King Darius Rhoesaces, brother of Spithridates Omares, commander of the Greek mercenaries Niphates, perhaps a cavalry commander Petines, perhaps a cavalry commander and Arsites, satrap of Hellespontine Phrygia (the province in which the battle took place), who fled and later committed suicide, according to Arrian, ‘because the blame of the present blunder seemed to the Persians to lie at his door.’

By Alexander’s order, all who had fallen in the Battle of the Granicus, including the Persian leaders and Greek mercenaries, were buried with military honors. To the surviving relatives of his fallen soldiers, Alexander granted immunity from taxation and public service. He ordered Lysippus, considered perhaps the greatest sculptor of the day, to make bronze statues of the 25 Companion cavalrymen who fell in the initial feint attack. The statues were eventually set up in Dium, a city in Macedon at the foot of Mount Olympus. Alexander visited his wounded, examined their injuries and, according to Arrian, gave every soldier an opportunity to recount–and perhaps exaggerate–his deeds.

The Persian commanders had not kept pace with military developments in Greece, including the tactics and quality of the Macedonian army, in the two decades prior to Alexander’s invasion. Believing themselves to be a match for Alexander in the field, the Persians, who failed to use their professional infantry, simply counted on their numerically superior cavalry and their personal bravery to secure a victory. The resulting lack of coordination between horse and foot violated a principle of integrated armies that even the Persians had long understood.

According to historian E.W. Davis, however, the Persians’ greatest weakness was that the ‘Persian army seems to have been commanded by a committee [and] it may be that we do not have a Persian battle-plan at all, only a blotched compromise between several rival plans.’ The Persian defeat, resulting in the loss of so many satraps and others in the Persian high command, was so overwhelming that no other army could be reassembled to challenge Alexander in all of Asia Minor.

On the other hand, the Battle of the Granicus highlighted Alexander’s remarkable insights into the development of the battle, his anticipation of the enemy’s reactions, his sense of timing, and especially his coordination of heavy infantry, heavy cavalry, light cavalry and light infantry in a single attack. Alexander calculated that, although his cavalry was outnumbered 2-to-1, it was superior in skill and discipline. His cavalrymen were shock troops, armed with long sarissas, and were more accustomed to strong hand-to-hand fighting than were the Persian cavalrymen. The latter were armed with short javelins (designed more for throwing than for thrusting) and scimitars, both of which were ineffective against the Macedonian sarissas.

Alexander also realized that his attacking cavalry had a great advantage over its Persian counterpart, whose defensive role forfeited its mobility and whose faulty deployment negated its advantage in numbers. Alexander’s light infantry archers and javelin men, interspersed among his Companion cavalry, also inflicted much damage and further helped to offset the Persian cavalry’s numerical superiority.

Alexander’s heroic leadership, as he fought in the thick of battle and narrowly escaped death, earned him what Diodorus called the ‘palm for bravery’ and gave him his first great victory over the Persians, opening the way to western and southern Asia Minor. From the spoils of that success, Alexander sent 300 suits of Persian armor to the Parthenon in Athens, to remind the Greeks that this victory was part of the war of revenge against the Persians and to stir Greek enthusiasm. With the triumph at the Granicus, the Greek cities of Asia Minor were liberated from Persian rule–and the beachhead was established for later campaigns deeper in Persian territory.

This article was written by John R. Mixter and originally published in the December 1997 issue of Military History magazine.

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Alexander the Great: the big questions answered

Paul Cartledege, AG Leventis Professor of Greek Culture Emeritus at the University of Cambridge, gives us his take on Alexander the Great…

What made Alexander the Great such a brilliant military leader?

He combined immense personal charisma and bravery (he often led his troops from the front). Plus he had a priceless ability to identify the key moment in a battle and act decisively to ensure he won that moment.

Where does Alexander the Great stand in the pantheon of great commanders?

Up there in Division 1, with Napoleon and Genghis Khan. He won the four key battles of his great campaign: at Granicus, Issus, Gaugamela and, for me the most impressive, Hydaspes. While Darius III of Persia commanded a motley crew of multi-ethnic forces, at Hydaspes Raja Porus led largely Indian ethnic forces fighting on their own terrain for their own terrain. And, of course, they had elephants!

What was Alexander the Great’s greatest failing as a leader?

One criticism is that he didn’t invest enough time and energy in the peaceful administration of his diverse empire. One symptom is that, at his death in 323 BC, he had three wives but no male heir yet born. In addition, he was too impetuous, too prone to believe alleged conspiracies against his life and too trusting in subordinates who let him down.

Was Alexander the Great gay?

As he had sex with both males and females, he was what we’d call bisexual. He married three times and sired at least two sons, one legitimate (born to his first wife, Roxana, after his death). Possibly his closest and warmest personal relationship was with a man – his near-contemporary Hephaestion, a noble Macedonian who, like him, was taught by Aristotle.

A brief history of sex and sexuality in Ancient Greece

Paul Chrystal explores the many layers of sex and sexuality in various Greek societies – from prostitution to pillow talk…

What motivated Alexander the Great to undertake his extraordinary campaign in the east?

It probably never occurred to him not to carry on where his father had been forced to leave off. Probably, too, his Greek-style education and his love of Homer’s writings gave him the notion of trying to emulate his boyhood hero, Achilles (the mythical Trojan War was, after all, a battle between Greeks and Orientals).

Did Alexander the Great truly believe he was a god?

Without doubt he believed he was descended literally from more than one god, and he almost certainly demanded to be worshipped by his subjects as if he were himself a living god. Was he a megalomaniac? Yes, inevitably. No one but a megalomaniac could possibly have conceived, let alone pulled off, his greatest feats.

Philippi was an important city in eastern Macedon which flourished in the Hellenistic, Roman, and Byzantine Periods. Site of the famous Battle of Philippi at the end of the Roman Republic, the city prospered in the Roman imperial era and, after a visit from St. Paul, became an important centre of early Christianity.

Paul, Timothy, Silas (and perhaps Luke) first visited Philippi in Greece (Macedonia) during Paul’s second missionary journey from Antioch, which occurred between approximately 49 and 51 AD. In the account of his visit in the Acts of the Apostles, Paul and Silas are accused of “disturbing the city”.

Was Alexander the great good at fighting?

I know that he was a great commander but I was wondering how he would fare actually fighting and if he ever did. Thanks.

Good at fighting? No, he was great at it by all accounts. In addition to commanding the Macedonian army he commanded his own cavalry, the most elite combat unit in the world during his lifetime and one of the greatest military units ever assembled in terms of combat effectiveness. This wasn't just a son of the king/king himself honorary appointment. Cavalry units are notoriously difficult to manage and Alexander led from the front, charging into enemy formations repeatedly with his men following willingly. The closest modern equivalent would be if Barack Obama led Seal Team 6 into combat and shot Osama bin Laden personally.

If you want more detail on this Robin Lane Fox's biography of Alexander (titled Alexander the Great) gives a decent picture of Alexander's effectiveness as a cavalry officer.

How do we know this actually happened? Isn't it highly probable that for whatever reasons people would flaunt Alexander while he was alive and keep flaunting his legacy after he died?

Simply put, yes. I'll provide two excerpts.

This was exhibited from an early age. The Battle of Chaeronea was a major proving ground for the young Alexander. The battle was the final major force that stood between Philip of Macedonia and his goal of conquering/uniting Greece. Plutarch, in his Lives recounts that Alexander was placed in charge of the left flank of the field and that he was "the first to break the Theban band."

Early precedent is great and all but let's have a look at some badassery. This is the map I always use when talking about the campaign. Look up near the famous Hellespont and you'll see Granicus marked by the crossed swords. This is an imprecise guess but it is in between modern Bardirma and Bursa. Leaving out a lot of detail, suffice it to say that because the Persian forces under Darius III dragged their feet and Alexander marched at a blistering pace, making it from Macedon to the Hellespont in 20 days, Alexander made it further inland than the Persians would have liked. There are differing accounts (see Diodorus) on how Alexander carried the day, but we'll use Arrians' here for the theme of badassery. The Persians took up a favourable, uphill position on the other side of the Granicus river, which had steep banks. Despite his advisors telling him to delay, Alexander rushed headlong into the river on horseback, fully armoured, and up the bank. Alexander led his cavalry in a wedge formation, not unlike how he broke the Theban lines. In this attempt to break the Persian line and spirit, Alexander took an axe to the head from the satrap of Lydia. With Alexander stunned and helmet-less, the Persian closed in to deliver the death blow. At the moment before the Persian's momentum shifted downward, Cleitus, Alexander's childhood friend, severed the arm and disposed of the Persian. This would make Cletus' later death at Alexander's enraged and drunken hands all the more tragically telling. The death of the Persian leadership so early on in the battle (many at the hands of Alexander) and the inferiority of the Persian infantry led to a rout. Granicus was the first major victory of Alexander's campaign against the Persians.

Another one to look up is the the battle of Taxilia and the defeat of king Porus who was 215cm/7ɱ.

It all sounds larger than life, but then again, so does conquering all of Asia by the time of your death at 33.

Alexander 3.2 The Vulgate

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.

Diodorus of Sicily

The oldest surviving Greek source on the conquests of Alexander is book seventeen of the Library of World History by the Sicilian author Diodorus, who was active between 65/60 and 35/30 BCE and worked in both Alexandria and Rome.

Diodorus' Library consisted of forty books, of which 1-5 and 11-20 survive. (The other volumes are known from Byzantine excerpts.) After some legendary subject matter, Diodorus essentially retells Greek history with digressions on contemporary events in Rome and his hometown Agyrium. Book seventeen deals with Alexander the Great.

As a historian, Diodorus is as good as his sources:

  • The History of Ephorus of Cyme on Greece until 356
  • An unknown author on the years 359-336, i.e. the reign of the Macedonian king Philip (Diodorus' sixteenth book an example is the description of the battle of Chaeronea) ' History on the conquests of Alexander (book seventeen an example is the account of the sack of Persepolis)
  • The book by Hieronymus of Cardia on the wars after Alexander's death (an example is the description of Alexander's last plans).

Modern scholars have severely criticized Diodorus, who was, in their vision, uncritical. This is exaggerated and the latest research offers something of a rehabilitation: the Sicilian author wanted to write an easily accessible world history, and knows how to tell a story. His theme, how disunited cultures were growing to one Mediterranean civilization under Roman rule, is well-worked out and was certainly appreciated by his contemporaries.

Alexander played an important role in the Library. After all, he brought Egypt, the Achaemenid Empire, Libya and Greece in closer contact with each other - four civilizations that Diodorus has already introduced in books 1-4, long before he begins to write about Alexander himself.

Diodorus' source for his book on Alexander was Cleitarchus, a secondary source that will be discussed below.

Q. Curtius Rufus

Disregarding some minor authors, Quintus Curtius Rufus is the only Roman writer whose work, the History of Alexander the Great of Macedonia, on Alexander has survived. The author was probably a military commander who rose to a senatorial position under the emperor Tiberius, who parried criticism on Curtius' lowly birth (son of a gladiator) with the quip that here at last was a man who owed his career to himself. Between 31 and 41, Curtius composed the History of Alexander, which he published under the emperor Claudius. note [Main source: Tacitus, Annals, 11.20-21.]

Originally, the History of Alexander consisted of ten books, and although the work was very popular in the Middle Ages (it is known from more than a hundred manuscripts), the two first books are now missing. They contained the events between the accession of Alexander and the death of the Persian commander Memnon of Rhodes. Our manuscripts start when the Macedonian army marched through Phrygia, in the spring of 333 the last book ends with the burial of Alexander's body in a golden sarcophagus, which was later brought to Egypt (321).

Taken as a whole, it is a very fascinating book, although it contains many errors. Both can be explained from the fact that it has Cleitarchus as its source: the author of this secondary source had, as we will see below, written a fine history that focused on Alexander's presumed psychological development - from a brilliant young conqueror to a paranoid despot. This psychological dimension makes Curtius' History of Alexander good reading and the Roman readers must have seen through it: of course, the real subject was not Alexander, but their tyrannical emperor Caligula. Curtius also copies Cleitarchus' mistakes, although he is not an uncritical imitator: he has read other sources (Ptolemy, Aristobulus) and sometimes corrects his model. Curtius may not have been a great historian, but he certainly tried to be critical, and - as we shall see below - he offers many interesting stories that we do not find in our best source, Arrian, to which he is a valuable addition.

The "vulgate": Cleitarchus

Q. Curtius Rufus and Diodorus of Sicily are tertiary sources, who based themselves on a secondary source, the History of Alexander by Cleitarchus. According to one source (Pliny the Elder, Natural History 3.57-58), this author was in Babylon when Alexander received an embassy from Rome it may be true, but it is a bit strange that Curtius does not mention the presence of Roman envoys, although he and his audience must have liked this detail from Cleitarchus' history. On the other hand, Curtius Rufus' texts contains lacunas. There are no other indications that Cleitarchus met Alexander.

What is certain, however, is that Cleitarchus lived in Alexandria and was the son of a historian named Dinon of Colophon, who was the author of a Persian history (now lost). Cleitarchus may have started his research after Ptolemy, one of Alexander's generals and the future king of Egypt, had ordered Alexander's dead body to be brought to Egypt the History of Alexander was finished between 310 and 301. (Probably in the first part of this period, because there is one clue that Ptolemy's account of Alexander's wars, which appeared after the History of Alexander, was published before 301.)

His main source may have been the work of Alexander's court historian Callisthenes of Olynthus (to be discussed below). However, this work only covered the period until 329, and Cleitarchus added information from other sources among these were the memoirs of Onesicritus of Astypalaea and Nearchus, Alexander's helmsman and his fleet commander. Another source of information was available in Alexandria: there were many Macedonian and Greek veterans living in this city, and they must have told Cleitarchus about their adventures.

His book was - if popularity is an indicator - the most entertaining history of Alexander's conquests. It offered many vivid descriptions and eyewitness accounts, usually from a soldier's point of view. Although Cleitarchus' own books are now lost, we know his stories from Diodorus' Library of World History and the History of Alexander the Great of Macedonia by Curtius Rufus. Because these authors retell the stories in often almost identical words, we have a good idea of the History of Alexander. The following texts are examples:

  • Curtius' description of the fall of Tyre, including a description of a mass crucifixion
  • Diodorus' account of the destruction of Persepolis
  • Curtius' report about the surrender of Babylon
  • Curtius' story of the Babylonian women, which may, in its ethnographic detail, be influenced by the Persian history of Dinon
  • Curtius' account of the crossing of the Hindu Kush.

These stories all go back to eyewitnesses a man like the court historian Callisthenes would not write about the mass crucifixion at Tyre, and the history of Ptolemy - which was written from a commander's point of view - would not deal with the difficulties that the soldiers experienced in the Hindu Kush. To modern historians, the value of Cleitarchus (that is: Diodorus and Curtius) is the presence of these details, which would otherwise be unknown.

Another aspect of Cleitarchus' work that deserves to be mentioned, is the psychological portrait of Alexander, which is painted in dark shades. In Cleitarchus' opinion, the young king was corrupted by his constant good fortune and became an alcoholic, a tyrant, and a murderer. Modern scholars do not deny the facts that Cleitarchus mention, but tend to give another interpretation. For example, according to Curtius/Cleitarchus, Alexander started to change after the death of his opponent king Darius III of Persia from then on there was no check on Alexander's vices. But many incidents that should prove this psychological development, can better be explained from the fact that Alexander had to behave as a Persian king if he wanted to be accepted by his new subjects.

Summing up, we can say that Cleitarchus' work combined vivid descriptions, eyewitness accounts and a dark psychological portrait of Alexander. He also delights in fantastic tales and he sometimes sacrificed historical reliability to keep the story entertaining and to stress the psychological development. Therefore, Cleitarchus' History of Alexander contains many errors (some serious).

Cleitarchus' work is often called "the vulgate" (Diodorus and Curtius Rufus being "the vulgate tradition"). It is indeed a popular story: its contains romantic details, a convincing (but perhaps incorrect) psychological portrait, fantastic stories. It is certainly not a bad source, but as we shall see below, modern historians prefer the account of Arrian.

7 Reasons Alexander the Great Was, Well, Great

When Alexander III of Macedon died in Babylon at just 32 years old, he ruled a territory that spanned three continents and covered nearly 2 million square miles (5 million square kilometers). Not only was he the king of his native Macedonia, but he was also ruler of the Greeks, the king of Persia and even an Egyptian pharaoh.

So, did he deserve the title Alexander the Great? Absolutely.

"It's hard to imagine another human being whose personal choices had an impact on more people's lives for many centuries than Alexander," says historian Elizabeth Carney, an Alexander scholar from Clemson University in South Carolina.

"Because of the decisions Alexander made, hundreds of thousands of people died, any number of political entities disappeared or were replaced. And perhaps most importantly, he helped launch this vast cultural enterprise that combined aspects of the Greek and Macedonian world with aspects of the various worlds he conquered."

With that in mind, here are some other big things about him.

1. Aristotle Was His High School Teacher

OK, there was no such thing as high school in the fourth century B.C.E., but young Alexander was famously tutored from the ages of 14 to 16 by none other than Aristotle, one of the fathers of Western philosophy and arguably the greatest intellectual mind of Ancient Greece.

Aristotle would have been around 40 years old when he was hired by Alexander's powerful father Phillip II as a court philosopher. Aristotle, a student of Plato, wasn't yet a philosophical superstar and would have taught the prince science and math in addition to literature and philosophy.

What exactly was Aristotle's influence on the man Alexander would become? Historians can only guess. One clue is that Alexander loved the works of Homer and is rumored to have slept with a copy of "The Iliad." And Alexander didn't forget his geography lessons when he marched his army across the known world.

"Great advances in science, especially in geographical knowledge, were made as a result of Alexander's campaigns," wrote Michael Tierney in a 1942 study of Alexander and Aristotle, "and that they were possible is unquestionably due to Aristotle."

But both Tierney and Carney are unconvinced that Aristotle's political teachings on good government and good citizens shaped the way that Alexander operated as a leader.

"Is Alexander's political thinking affected by Aristotle?" asks Carney. "I would tend to say not at all."

2. His Father Was Pretty Great Too

The Kingdom of Macedonia was a political backwater before Alexander's father Phillip turned it into a military superpower. Tired of being pushed around by Greek city-states like Athens and Thebes, Phillip transformed the ragtag Macedonian army into a well-oiled fighting machine.

The pride of the Macedonian military was its well-trained cavalry and an unbreakable infantry formation called the Macedonian phalanx. Armed with elongated hunting spears called sarissas — 18-foot (5.5-meter) wooden poles with iron tips — Phillip's infantry would march in tight formations of eight men across and 16 deep. Each row would lower its spears in succession, impaling charging armies and horses.

When 20-year-old Alexander took the throne after Phillip was assassinated in 336 B.C.E., he inherited his father's army that had already crushed Macedonia's rivals on the Greek mainland and was rolling toward Persia.

Phillip is best remembered as the father of Alexander the Great, but Alexander may never have achieved his greatness if not for Phillip's huge head start. Historians still struggle to figure out who deserves the most credit for Macedonia's dominance.

"Rarely in history does somebody so able and famous have an equally able and famous successor," says Carney. "It makes it very hard to draw a line."

3. Alexander Knew How to Crush a Rebellion

After Phillip's death, several towns and territories under Macedonian control tried to break free. While young Alexander was busy getting the northern kingdoms of Thrace and Illyria back in line, the Greek leaders of Thebes heard a rumor that Alexander had actually been killed in battle.

No such luck. When Alexander received word that the Macedonian garrison in Thebes was under attack, he and his army flew to the fight, supposedly covering 300 miles (482 kilometers) in just 12 days. In the ensuing Battle of Thebes, Alexander decided to send a clear message. Anyone who crosses Macedonia will not only be defeated, but obliterated.

According to the Greek historian Diodorus of Sicily, 6,000 Theban soldiers and citizens were killed and 30,000 captured before the city was burned to the ground. He wrote:

The tactics were cruel, but the message was received. Alexander was the undisputed new ruler of the Greeks.

4. He Stomped the Persian Empire

The Persian Empire had ruled the Mediterranean for two centuries when Alexander marched his 50,000-man army across the Hellespont to face King Darius III, who reportedly commanded a total Persian army of more than 2.5 million men.

The pivotal battle came near the Persian town of Gaugamela, where Darius had the land flattened and cleared to give advantage to his horse-drawn chariots. The Persians numbered 250,000 at Gaugamela, a seemingly insurmountable five-to-one advantage over the Macedonians, but Darius ended up playing right into Alexander's hand.

In what's known as a "pawn sacrifice," Alexander sent in thousands of troops to draw Darius' resources to the right flank. The sacrificed troops were able to distract Darius long enough for Alexander to launch a cavalry attack through a weak link in the center of the Persian line. Darius turned and fled as the famed Macedonian cavalry, led by Alexander, steamrolled through the Persian defenses.

After Darius was murdered by one of his cousins (and his head presented to Alexander), Alexander was crowned the new king of all of Persia, extending the Macedonian empire from modern-day Israel through Iraq, Iran and Afghanistan.

5. He Was a Globalist

Alexander's conquests, not only of the Persian Empire, but also Egypt and parts of India, launched the Hellenistic period, during which elements of Greek culture and politics were spread throughout the vast Macedonian Empire.

Alexander wasn't a Greek nationalist, intent on imposing Greek customs on every land he conquered. Instead, he folded foreign customs and religious beliefs into the fabric of his growing empire, winning the loyalty of his newly conquered subjects. The result was a Greek-speaking network of trade and military power that ruled the Mediterannean and Near East for three centuries.

6. Alexandria Became the Intellectual Capital of the World

Alexander founded more than 70 cities during his eight-year, 11,000-mile (17,703-kilometer) march throughout the Middle and Near East, but none compared to the grandeur that was Alexandria in Egypt.

Although Alexander chose the spot for the coastal city that bore his name, he didn't design it nor live long enough to see it flourish. After Alexander's death, the Macedonian Empire was chopped into three and ruled by each of his generals. Egypt fell under the control of Ptolemy and became known as the Ptolemaic Dynasty.

The Ptolemies spoke Macedonian Greek and filled Alexandria with Greek-style public buildings, including the famous library, which once held an estimated 700,000 scrolls, the greatest repository of knowledge in the ancient world.

The brilliant Greek mathematicians and inventors Euclid and Archimedes called Alexandria home, and the Ptolemaic navy commanded a huge fleet that pushed Alexandria's discoveries out into the wider world.

When Alexander died suddenly in Babylon from a fever at just 32 years old, the Ptolemies intercepted his funeral procession on the way back to Macedonia and built a glass sarcophagus in Alexandria where subjects could pay tribute to Alexander's mummy for centuries.

7. He May Have Been the World's First Action Hero

Alexander's heroics were written up in a series of fictionalized adventure stories called the "Alexander Romance", some of which date back to within a century of his death in 323 B.C.E.. Medieval versions are chock-full of sexy escapades, narrow escapes and colorful illustrations.

Next to the Bible and Quran, it's argued that the "Alexander Romance" traveled further and was translated into more languages than any other ancient collection of stories.

Fourteenth-century texts include the tale of Alexander exploring the ocean depths using a diving bell. But when Alexander settles on the ocean floor, his mistress double-crosses him, eloping with her lover and leaving him stranded in the deep.

For Carney, the popularity of the "Alexander Romance" reflects the enduring allure of this world-changing figure.

"Alexander grabbed people's imagination," says Carney. "That he was so young that he wasn't defeated in a major battle that things happened so quickly he was such a risk taker and he went to all these places that seemed exotic."

Alexander's mother, Olympias, deserves credit for his rise to greatness, too. Greek historians report that she had several rival heirs to the throne murdered after Phillip's death.

Alexander (the Great) – Part II

CONTENT WARNING: this article contains some mild language, crude humor, and alcohol.

Alexander III of Macedon 356-323 BCE

Alexander vs the World

In 333 BCE, Alexander first earned his reputation. It was at the Battle of Issus where Alexander truly proved himself. Much like the President from ‘Independence Day’, Alexander fought alongside his men against unfathomable odds and came out on top. After his initial incursions into Persian territory, Darius III decided to deal with this Alexander punk personally. Much to his surprise, Alexander turned out to be more than a minor nuisance.

Against all odds, Alexander’s rag tag band of 40,000 Greek Hoplites took on an army of 100,000 Persians on their own turf and beat them into submission. It was as though Alexander had unlocked ‘God Mode’ IRL. Alexander (the Great) threw out the rule book and charged headfirst at the enemy line, like a hyped-up raccoon with Rabies.

Darius was absolutely shocked at the ferocious brutality that Alexander unleashed on his men. During the chaos, Alexander’s men managed to capture Darius’s mom, wife and two daughters, while Darius himself was forced to retreat to Babylon in desperation where he surrounded himself with a few thousand reinforcements. Alexander didn’t care, nothing would stop him now. Like a T-800 on a mission, Alexander could not be bargained or reasoned with. Drenched in the blood of their comrades and exhausted from their long journey, the only thing that kept the Macedonians going was Alexander’s sheer will.

Alexander’s goal was clear: to conquer the entire Persian Empire! He declared himself the “King of All Asia” – which is pretty baller, but also kinda funny when you consider that he didn’t even know that China existed. Following the crushing victory at Issus, Alexander the G followed it up with the Siege of Tyre before taking on (Persian-controlled) Egypt!

After conquering the fortified city of Gaza with ease, the Egyptians welcomed Alexander with open arms, glad to be rid of the Persians. The Egyptians crowned Alexander the new Pharoah of both Upper and Lower Egypt and even claimed he was the reincarnation of both Osiris and Ra! It was there that Alexander began plans to build the city of Alexandria – the first of many. (Seriously, the guy built a lot of cities that he named after himself, think Trump, but with sword and sandals)

After hanging out in Egypt for a while, he finally decided it was time for a rematch with Darius, so rallied his troops and marched through Syria toward the heart of the Persian Empire…

Alexander v Darius: Round 2

The year was 331 BCE. The armies of Alexander and Darius stared one another down across the plain. The two faced off at the Battle of Gaugamela. Alex’s army was split into three factions in an attempt to envelope his enemy from multiple angles, but Darius was ready for him with one of the largest armies the world had ever seen.

Darius had all of his men spread out in a long line with him at the center. Alexander had infantry on the left and led his cavalry on the right, while the rest of his army hung back. After defeating waves of Persian chariots, Alexander led a wedge formation straight for Darius himself in one of history’s craziest, most balls out charges! During the frantic fighting, Darius’s chariot driver was impaled by a javelin, which led to Darius’s army thinking their leader had been slain! The Persian line devolved into pure chaos as Darius fled the battle, barely surviving the onslaught as Alexander’s forces made quick work of what was left of Darius’s army.

Alexander vowed to chase Darius to the ends of the Earth. Darius planned to raise another army and strike back. Fate had something else in store entirely. Darius demanded loyalty, but his men ultimately betrayed him. After hunting Darius for months, Alexander found his body in a creek. Darius was dying – stabbed by one of his closest allies, chained to a cart and bleeding out all over his fancy robes. Alexander, pissed at Darius’s commanders for stealing his glory from him, swore to avenge his fallen enemy… that he had previously swore to kill.

In 330 BCE, Alexander the Great and his army marched into Babylon, the capitol of the Persian Empire, unopposed! It was there that Alex and his bros found more wealth than they ever thought possible! Alexander claimed that Darius had named him as his successor with his dying breath. As the new ruler of the Persian empire, Alexander gained an untold fortune of loot and became the wealthiest and most powerful man of the ancient world, over night!

After paying his troops, Alexander sent a massive sum of money back home – six times the annual income of Athens! Meanwhile, Alex and his men were living large in Babylon. In fact, the burning of the Persian city of Persepolis may have actually been the result of a party that got waaay out of hand. Alexander embraced decadence and just generally stopped giving a crap all together.

During this time, Alexander’s new “King of Kings” title started to go to his head. After a couple years, flaunting around in Persian robes and adopting their customs, Alexander’s Greek troops started to whisper behind his back, worried that he was no longer the hero they’d worshiped, he’d gone native.

But things turned tragic at a particularly drunken banquet in 328 BCE…

Alexander kills his BFF

Alexander and his best friend, Cleitus the Black, got into an argument that turned violent. Alex told Cleitus he was going to send him in charge of a contingent of former Greek mercenaries to take care of some nomads in Central Asia. Cleitus (the man who saved Alexander’s life at the Battle of Granicus), was insulted at the thought of being sent to the middle of nowhere in charge of second-rate soldiers. Cleitus got all riled up and gave Alexander a piece of his mind.

Alexander ignored him and went on and on about how much better he was than his father. Cleitus shot back – saying he was half the man his dad was and that all his achievements were thanks to him. Alexander yelled for his guards in anger, but they decided to sit this one out. Alexander threw an apple at Cleitus’s head and then grabbed for his dagger. Alexander’s buddies confiscated the dagger and held him back. The party goers managed to separate the two angry drunks. Alex drunkenly attempted to sound the call to arms. Right as he managed to get his hands on a javelin, Cleitus popped his head back into the room with another come back ready, but before he could utter “And another thing!” – Alexander speared him through the chest.

After drunk stabbing his bestie, Alexander went into a deep depression and began to drink even more. All the while, Alexander’s army continued to party hard in Babylon until 327 BCE, when he finally pulled himself out of his drunken stupor and decided it was time to start conquering again…

Alexander goes to India

Alexander the Great marched his forces East towards the unknown, in an attempt to spread his rule to the furthest reaches of the world: India. This time however, he bit off a little bit more than he could chew. Alexander and his men faced off against war elephants, fierce warriors and a harsh tropical climate, far from home, in a strange new land they had no bearing on. During his campaign through India, Alexander got himself wounded on a couple of occasions: taking a dart to the shoulder and later an arrow to the ankle. During the Battle of Hydaspes, Alexander was nearly defeated and even lost his loyal horse.

After the battle, Alexander appointed the defeated Indian general, Porus, as governor of the region and then named a city after his fallen horse. When Alexander arrived at the edge of the Ganges River, ready to take on the powerful combined might of the Gangaridai Empire of Bengal and the Nanda Empire of Magadha, his men finally threw in the towel. Alexander’s army refused to cross the river and follow him any further. They were tired, some of them hadn’t seen their families in years, and they faced certain doom if they followed Alexander any further on his suicidal quest for grandeur.

Alexander’s general, Coenus, persuaded Alexander to change his mind and turn back, reinforcing that his men “longed to again see their parents, their wives and children, their homeland”. On the long 60-day march back through the Gedrosia Desert, Alexander lost three-quarters of his army to heat and exhaustion.

Alexander the Great Failure?

Alexander (the Great) was far ahead of his time championing progressive ideals like freedom, and education.

He also was responsible for the deaths of hundreds of thousands of innocent people in a vain conquest for glory…

Then, on June 11th, 323 BCE, Alexander the Great died unexpectedly, at the height of his power at just 32 years old. Unfortunately, he didn’t leave a proper successor to the throne…

Which meant that the those closest to him spent the rest of their lives fighting over the Kingdoms of Alexandria like hungry, hungry hippos fighting over the last chicken leg at the bottom of a bucket of KFC. Ultimately, Alexander himself was responsible for the eventual (inevitable) collapse of the vast empire he spent his entire life building. There’s a lot of speculation surrounding the death of Alexander the Great, some think he was poisoned, but more likely he poisoned himself with weeks upon weeks of binge-drinking.

Despite all his glorious conquests, it could be argued that Alexander was a colossal failure, ultimately leaving behind the world a more chaotic place than the one he was born into. Much of his legend can be attributed to egotistical self-promotion. Alexander had a vision of the future, but it never came to fruition. Although his Macedonian Empire may have had an early expiration date, from its ashes a new world power emerged that would forever shape the course of the future: Rome.


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Did Alexander the Great Visit Jerusalem?

Despite the tremendous number of studies and biographies of Alexander the Great, his life is difficult to reconstruct historically. Of the sources we possess, not one was written in his lifetime. All of the reports we have of this remarkable man and his extraordinary achievements were penned three hundred years or more after the events they relate. Eyewitness reports exist now only in fragmentary form or not at all. We know of them because they were quoted or drawn upon by later, secondary accounts.

The customary view of these secondary accounts distinguishes between the official tradition and the vulgate tradition. The official tradition is represented by Arrian’s Anabasis of Alexander. Though it was not written until the second century A.D., Arrian’s work draws upon eyewitnesses, primarily Ptolemy and Aristobulus, and is accorded greater legitimacy than other sources. The vulgate tradition is composed of works that draw upon sources that were not eyewitnesses. Two of the most prominent authors within this tradition are Diodorus Siculus (first century B.C.) and Quintus Curtius Rufus (first century A.D.).

But among the other surviving historical sources, there is an author who is rarely referenced except to be discounted. Josephus (A.D. 37-c. 100) was a Jewish statesman and soldier high in the esteem of the emperors Vespasian and Titus and the author of two historical works for a Roman audience: Wars of the Jews and Antiquities of the Jews. In Book XI of the latter work, Alexander emerges without preface, having crossed the Hellespont, won his first victory at the Granicus River, and subdued Asia Minor. Unlike other sources, Alexander is not the focus of Josephus’ work—not even of the small segment of it in which he appears. The great conqueror is woven into another story, taking center stage only when he intersects the history of the Jewish people. Among the historians, Josephus alone reports this interaction, and he alone records that Alexander visited Jerusalem.

Alexander in Josephus

The story in which Alexander intervenes is concerned with Jewish national and religious identity. At the time of Alexander’s advent in Asia, Jaddua is the high priest of the temple at Jerusalem. Jaddua’s brother, Manasseh, was married to a Samaritan woman, a people with whom the Jews had long had a problematic relationship. The elders of the city, concerned that such a union in close proximity to the highest office could renew intermarriage with foreigners, commanded Manasseh to divorce his wife. Rather than be deprived of sacerdotal dignity, he agreed. But his father-in-law—Sanballat, Governor of Samaria—sought to dissuade him. Sanballat promised to build a new temple upon Mount Gerizim and to make Manasseh the high priest. But this promise could only be fulfilled with the approval and support of Darius III, the Great King of Persia. In this way, the long-standing division between the Jews and the Samaritans comes into contact with the fresh conflict between Darius and Alexander.

Alexander’s victory at the Granicus River (334 B.C.) and march through Asia Minor roused Darius to check the invader’s advance, eventually offering battle at Issus in Cilicia (333 B.C.). Supremely confident of Persian victory and the celebratory generosity that would presumably follow, Sanballat renewed his promises to Manasseh, but the Persians were crushed at Issus. Alexander continued his forward march into Syria. While besieging Tyre, he dispatched a letter to the Jewish high priest, commanding him to send men and provisions and in the future to remit whatever taxes he had previously given Darius to himself. Jaddua responded boldly that he had given his oath to Darius to never oppose him and that he would not break his word. Angered by this response, Alexander threatened to teach the high priest the realities of the new situation. Tyre fell after seven months of siege, and Alexander attacked the city of Gaza, the last holdout along the coast.

Sanballat, perceiving opportunity, had renounced Darius and marched to Alexander at Tyre with seven thousand men and pledged his loyalty. Received kindly, Sanballat pressed the matter of the new temple upon Alexander, arguing that it would be to the conqueror’s benefit to have the Jews divided and so less troublesome. Alexander granted his request, and Sanballat returned to Samaria, built the temple and installed his son-in-law as high priest.

When Gaza fell, Alexander turned his attention to Jerusalem. Jaddua, the high priest, was in great fear because he had refused Alexander’s commands. He ordained that the people should make supplication to Alexander while beseeching God for His protection. God told him in a dream to be of good courage, open the city gates, and go forth with the priests to meet Alexander in all the trappings of their order.

As the conqueror approached, the priests and a multitude of citizens went forth to meet him. The Phoenicians, Chaldeans, and Syrians who accompanied Alexander expected the Jews to be punished for their disobedience, the high priest tortured, and Jerusalem given to them to plunder. They were amazed when Alexander saluted the high priest and adored the name of the Hebrew God. But only Parmenio, Alexander’s longest-serving general, dared to ask the king why he had done these things. Alexander explained that while still in Macedonia a man dressed exactly as the high priest had exhorted him in a dream to press forward boldly and that he would be granted victory.

Alexander entered Jerusalem and sacrificed at the temple according to the high priest’s direction. He was then shown the Book of Daniel and was told it indicated that a Greek would destroy the empire of the Persians, which he took to be a reference to himself. Thereupon Alexander granted the Jews favors: they would be governed by the laws of their forefathers (extended also to the Jews living in Babylon and Media) and would pay no tribute on the seventh year.

Though it is unique, there is nothing in Josephus’ narrative that contradicts what is found in other accepted Alexander accounts and much that is an accord with those accounts.

Timing, Strategy, and Policy

Despite Alexander’s irritation with Jaddua, going on to besiege Gaza instead of proceeding directly to Jerusalem lines up with what we know of Alexander’s strategy. As elaborated by Arrian, he intended to seize the coast, securing Greece against Persian interference and buttressing the march into the heart of the Persian Empire. Persian-controlled Gaza was the last city on the road to Egypt, which he was also determined to control.

Arrian records that from Gaza Alexander started directly for Egypt, a march which took six days. There is no mention of any intervening journeys in Diodorus or Curtius either—though these descriptions are very terse. We are left with a seeming open contradiction between the accepted writers and Josephus. But when did this six-day journey begin. Immediately? The journey to Jerusalem from Gaza is only fifty miles. Alexander could have easily gone and returned during the period necessary to prepare his forces for the desert march. Further, side missions with smaller, specialized units apart from the main army were common in Alexander’s campaigns.

Alexander would have seen the journey as valuable, even necessary. He was concerned not merely with conquering but with setting up a sustainable governing structure in Asia. He intended no mere hit-and-run raid, but a steady, ordered conquest that replaced the rule of the Great King with his own. As a result, he was concerned to transfer the loyalties of the people he encountered to himself. When they resisted, he subdued them by force, but it should not be forgotten how often Alexander tried to avoid battle and destruction through forceful diplomacy. If Josephus is rejected, how do we explain Alexander exhibiting no concern for Jewish acceptance of his rule?

Further, Alexander’s concessions to the Jews described by Josephus are similar to his treatment of other peoples. As he marched through Asia Minor, the liberated Greeks were freed from taxes paid to the Great King, but many of them still had to pay tribute to their new Macedonian satraps. The cities in Carian Magnesia, Aeolia, and Ionia were permitted to retain their own laws. The Sabbath-year exception is unique but in conformity with Alexander’s willingness to work within established religious traditions.

Finally, Parmenio’s questioning of Alexander’s actions matches up with his behavior in other sources. Parmenio was the most able of his generals, whose talents were crucial to Alexander’s victories. He was also the one commander who dared to question or challenge Alexander. He advised against crossing the Granicus River in the face of the enemy, he urged a naval engagement along the Ionian coast, he recommended a night attack before the decisive battle of Gaugamela, and he counseled against the burning of the palace of the Persian kings at Persepolis.

Dreams and Wonders

Alexander’s explanation that he had seen the high priest before in a dream that prophesied his success has parallels in other Alexander accounts. One expects Plutarch’s inclusion of Alexander’s parents’ portentous dreams indicating the exceptional nature of the future child. But even the hard-headed Arrian reports that Alexander’s determination to conquer the city of Tyre was fortified by a dream in which Heracles led him by the hand into the city, and that divine influence over the conqueror’s life was indicated by dreams prophesying his death. Alexander sought favorable signs from the gods before all his major actions and decisions, and the final year of his life was heavy with omens.

The prophecy of Daniel would have been very attractive to Alexander he was always looking for propaganda points to advance his agenda. Alexander’s propaganda offensive had two prongs. First, he maintained that his conquest was a Panhellenic crusade to avenge the wrongs done to the Greeks by the Persians and sought out means to reinforce this idea. One example in particular illustrates this: Alexander sent three hundred sets of Persian armor captured at the Granicus as a votive offering to Athena to remind the Athenians of the burning of their temples by the Persians in 480 B.C.

The second prong of Alexander’s propaganda campaign was aimed at encouraging the idea of the inevitability of his rule among the inhabitants of Asia. This was the purpose that led him to seek out opportunities like the Gordian Knot which, attended by a prophecy that whosoever should undo it would be lord of all Asia, was a propaganda point that could hardly be neglected. Alexander would certainly have welcomed the idea that the sacred book of the Jews prophesied his inevitable victory.

Alexander was not hesitant to exploit religious belief to secure power. Throughout the sources, he exhibits an easy-going polytheism that allowed for the acceptance of foreign gods and played a prominent a role in the absorption of the conquered people into a vast, multi-ethnic empire. He repeatedly accepted, gave material support for, even entered into the worship of whatever gods he came across. In Egypt, he was proclaimed “beloved of Ammon and selected of Ra.” In Babylon, he restored the worship of Bel-Marduk, sacrificing and undergoing the rite of investiture that proclaimed him divinely-sanctioned ruler. Alexander’s sacrifice at the Jewish temple falls easily in line with these.

Josephus Restored

Why then is Josephus not accepted? The primary objection is that the visit to Jerusalem appears nowhere else and is therefore suspect. But is this consideration definitive? The sources are fragmentary. Arrian selected from primary sources we no longer have. No doubt he did so according to his own interests and design. Jerusalem may well have been discussed by Ptolemy or Aristobulus and not adopted because it departed from Arrian’s narrative purposes.

The charge is also made that Josephus is poisoned by bias against the Samaritans. While they do not behave particularly well, rejecting a report of bad behavior as necessarily false seems incompatible with even a cursory survey of history or human nature. The essential question is whether bias led to fabrication. But none of the events Josephus describes have been conclusively disproven.

Finally, there is disagreement about the date of composition of Daniel and whether its inclusion is an anachronism. This is the elephant in the room: those who do not accept the divine inspiration of Scripture cannot accept that a book describing Alexander’s conquest of the Persian Empire was written centuries before he was born. It must have been written after the events it relates. In that case, Alexander could not have been shown a book that was not written yet, and Josephus is discredited. If this doubt is the driving force behind the rejection of Josephus’ account, it has less to do with the reliability of Josephus than with the rejection of the Bible as the divinely inspired and revealed word of God—raising important questions about the role that presuppositions play in deciding what is accurate in historical sources.

But even from a purely historiographical view, should such a consideration invalidate the entire account? Arrian’s invented Alexandrian speeches and unverifiable letters have not seriously damaged his reputation as a reliable historical source. Without a new manuscript discovery, the sources for Alexander’s life are fixed. No one holds that any of them are completely reliable. Why should an author of respectable antiquity and reasonable historical pedigree be simply discounted? It is time that the visit to Jerusalem took its place in the story of Alexander the Great.

Alexander 3.3 Arrian's Sources

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.

Official propaganda: Callisthenes

In Alexander's company was a professional historian named Callisthenes of Olynthus (c.370-327), who had already published a Greek history of the years 387-356. The two men may have met as members of the circle around the Macedonian philosopher Aristotle of Stagira, who was an uncle of the historian and the teacher of the future king. During the campaign, Callisthenes' main duty was to write the Deeds of Alexander, but he was also sent on scientific missions. When Alexander was in Egypt, he sent his historian to Nubia, where he discovered the cause of the Nile flood and in Babylon, Callisthenes supervised the translation of the Astronomical diaries, which were used by Callipus of Cyzicus to reform the Greek calendars.

In the summer of 327, Callisthenes voiced protests against the introduction of proskynesis (an aspect of the Persian court ritual) among the Macedonians, and lost Alexander's favor (more. ). It is not clear what happened to Callisthenes: Aristobulus and Ptolemy, officers who were present and wrote histories of the campaign, gave different accounts - he either died in prison or was crucified.

The book of Deeds of Alexander is now lost, but underlies much of what was written later. It seems to have been the work of a professional flatterer. For example, it contained many allusions to Homer's Iliad, a calculation of the date of the fall of Troy (exactly thousand years before Alexander's visit to the sacred city), and references to towns mentioned by Homer and visited by Alexander. Callisthenes stressed Alexander's manly behavior and the effeminate weakness of the Persians. Another story that Alexander must have appreciated is that of the sea doing obedience to the new Achilles (text). One thing is certain: Callisthenes did not object to Alexander's claim to be the son of Zeus.

It is not clear when the book of Deeds of Alexander was published, but secondary authors do not quote it to describe the events after 329, and it is possible that Callisthenes considered the death of Bessus, the last leader of the Persians, to be a fitting climax of his history: after all, Alexander had now conquered the whole of Persia, had reached the Jaxartes, had founded Alexandria Eschatê, and seemed to have triumphed after exactly five years of fighting.

Be this as it may, it is certain that the work was not published in yearly installments to inform those remaining at home (as Julius Caesar was to publish his Gallic War). It was published as a unity, which can be shown from the fact that it consistently portrayed Alexander's right hand man Parmenion as overprudent. Before 330, there was no reason to describe Alexander's most trusted and capable general like this however, in November, he had been executed because his son Philotas was suspected of a coup (text).

It seems that later historians had access to a sequel to Callisthenes' Deeds of Alexander. This work was perhaps based on the Royal Diary that is quoted by several authors who describe the death of Alexander (text). That would explain why we have detailed information about chronology and appointments. However, this is not certain.

Callisthenes' book on the Deeds of Alexander and the Royal Diary are primary sources. They are now lost, but were used by secondary authors like Cleitarchus and Ptolemy, who are at the beginning of the "vulgate" and the "good" tradition. Therefore, they share the same chronology and mention the same officials. Their works are now lost too, but can be reconstructed from tertiary sources: Diodorus of Sicily and Curtius Rufus, Arrian, and Plutarch.

Arrian of Nicomedia

Lucius Flavius Arrianus - or Arrian, as he is usually called in the English language - was born in Nicomedia, one of the Greek towns in the Roman empire, in c.87 CE. He read philosophy in Nicopolis, where the famous philosopher Epictetus had a small school, which counted the future emperor Hadrian among its students. Arrian joined the army, was stationed in Bavaria, must have visited Germania, and took part in the Parthian war of the emperor Trajan (114-117). When his friend Hadrian became emperor, Arrian was rewarded with a seat in the Senate. In the following years, he served as governor of Andalusia, became consul (129 or 130) and was governor of Cappadocia, where he fought a brief war against the Alans, a nomad tribe from Kazakhstan. Later, Arrian settled in Athens, where he died after 145.

Arrian may not have been a king like Alexander, he knew courtly life, civil administration, and war. Moreover, the war against the Parthians had offered him an opportunity to visit Mesopotamia, and he probably visited places like Gaugamela and Babylon. This makes his Anabasis (Journey Up-Country) a very good source. In fact, it is the most important source on the reign of Alexander. In the prologue, Arrian explains which sources he has used:

Few modern scholars will be impressed by the last remark, but all of them agree that Arrian chose the right sources for the right reason: Ptolemy and Aristobulus had been eyewitnesses. However, Alexander had read more than these two authorities and offers sometimes stories that he had not found in these authors.

Like Cleitarchus, who stands at the beginning of the "vulgate" tradition, Arrian tried to give some sort of assessment of Alexander, but his opinion is the opposite of Cleitarchus', who had presented the Macedonian king as a young prince who had been corrupted by his constant success. Arrian, on the other hand, admires Alexander, although he is too much a philosopher to be completely uncritical. Sometimes, he condemns aspects of the conqueror's behavior, but as a whole, he is positive about Alexander's achievements. A typical part of the Anabasis is book 4, where Arrian places three painful incidents together and condemns Alexander's behavior: chronologically, two of them do not belong at this place, and by treating them together, he has prevented that the reader came up against the hard facts too often.

Arrian also published an Indikê, which is essentially an appendix to the Anabasis. This remarkable text probably tells less about India than about the literary tastes of Arrian's age. To start with, it is entirely based on the Indikê by Alexander's fleet-commander Nearchus (below). More recent descriptions of India are quoted by several Christian authors and Arrian's younger contemporary Philostratus, but Arrian chose to ignore these recent sources because they were written in "Koinê-Greek", which was considered ugly in the second century CE. Nearchus, on the other hand, had written decent "classical" Greek and even though the contents of his Indikê were outdated, Nearchus was to be preferred. A second point is that Arrian choose to write his own Indikê in the Ionian dialect. This was done because the classical text on geography, the Histories of Herodotus of Halicarnassus, were written in that dialect and contained no reliable information on India.

Another book by Arrian is the Events after Alexander. It is known from a summary by the Byzantine patriarch Photius (820-897), and breaks off rather abruptly. Maybe this work remained unfinished (more. ).

It is a tribute to the quality of these works and their author, that modern scholarship usually follows Arrian, who personifies the "good" tradition, and adds details from the authors of the "vulgate" tradition. It is only since the publication of the Astronomical Diaries (1988) that oriental texts are receiving attention.


Ptolemy was born in 367 and was a youth friend of Alexander. He took part in the battle of Issus, joined the journey to the oracle of Ammon, was present during the burning of Persepolis (his mistress Thais played an important role text), and had his first independent commands during the wars in Sogdia. He was never one of Alexander's main commanders, but remained one of his closest friends and bodyguards, a title that means something like adjutant.

Ptolemy rose to prominence immediately after the death of Alexander: he was appointed satrap of Egypt and started to behave as an independent ruler. Alexander's mentally deficient brother Arridaeus was unable to prevent it, and his regent, general Perdiccas, came with an army to Egypt to discipline Ptolemy, but he was defeated. A few months later, Ptolemy managed to obtain Alexander's dead body (320), which was interred in Mamphis and, later, in Alexandria. After this, he was recognized as an independent ruler, and had himself proclaimed king in 306. This, and not the conquest by Alexander, meant the formal end of the unity of the Achaemenid Empire.

Ptolemy wrote memoirs on Alexander's campaigns. They are almost entirely known from Arrian's Anabasis, but this is sufficient to come to some conclusions about their nature. In the first place, he uses Callisthenes' Deeds of Alexander and a sequel, because he has the correct chronology of the events and knows the names of the appointees. In the second place, Ptolemy sometimes exaggerates his own role. For example, he gave himself an important role in the battle near Issus. In the third place, the work was biased against Antigonus Monophthalmus, one of Ptolemy's rivals in the wars after the death of Alexander Antigonus' successful campaigns in what is now Turkey, are completely ignored. In the fourth place, Ptolemy concentrated on the war there are no indications that his memoirs contained digressions. A unifying psychological concept, like Cleitarchus' idea that Alexander's success corrupted him or Aristobulus' pothos-motif (below), seems to have been absent: in Ptolemy's view, Alexander had been a rational expansionist.

At one place, Ptolemy corrects Cleitarchus' account of Alexander's campaigns, and this proves that Ptolemy's history was published after the History of Alexander, which can be dated between 310 and 301. However, we can perhaps be a little bit more precise. There are indications that Ptolemy's memoirs were published before 301, because in that year, Antigonus was killed, which made Ptolemy's bias against his rival rather pointless. This argument, however, is not conclusive.

It is possible that Ptolemy started to write his memoirs in order to prove that he was worthy of the royal title he had assumed: for example, he wrote that he had killed an Indian king and had stripped him of his armor, an incident that must have reminded his readers of the behavior of the heroes of Homer, who had been kings.

Aristobulus and other officers

Aristobulus was probably one of the friends of Alexander's father Philip and accompanied Alexander on his war in the East. Since he is never mentioned as a participant to the fights, it has been assumed that he was either a military engineer or a non-military official. It is certain that Alexander ordered him to repair the tomb of Cyrus the Great, which had been neglected or intentionally desecrated (text). Aristobulus may have lived in Alexandria, published his memoirs of the Persian campaign at the age of eighty-four, and died at Cassandria in Macedonia after 301.

Aristobulus' account of Alexander's conquests - a primary source - is best known from Arrian. It is also quoted by other authors, but there are indications that not all quotations are authentic. He may have been Alexander's greatest admirer, because when there are more than one versions of the same event, Aristobulus usually gives the kinder version. For example: all authorities agree that Alexander was a heavy drinker, but Aristobulus explains that this was merely because he loved to be with his friends. And when a drunken Alexander killed Clitus, Aristobulus says that it was Clitus' own mistake. Another example: Ptolemy writes that Alexander ordered Callisthenes, who had criticized him in public, to be crucified, and Aristobulus says that the man died in prison.

/> Copy of Skopas' pothos, with the features of Alexander

It is likely that the motif of pothos was introduced to the Alexander literature by Aristobulus. Pothos means "longing", and this was believed to be a good way to describe Alexander's inner drive. So, our sources mention that Alexander was longing to cross the Danube, untie the legendary knot at Gordium, found an Egyptian city, go to the oracle of Ammon, visit Nysa, capture Aornus, sail the Ocean, or see the Persian Gulf. The word - or its Latin translation ingens cupido - became a standard description of Alexander, and perhaps one of the attractions of the idea was that pothos could also signify a desire to die: pothos was the name of the flower that Greeks placed on someone's tomb. An author who had used this word, could leave Alexander's behavior during battles and sieges and his drinking habits unexplained. Like Achilles, Alexander had chosen to be famous and die young.

Another officer who wrote memoirs, was Onesicritus of Astypalaea (c.380-c.305). He was a pupil of the famous philosopher Diogenes of Sinope, who had had a famous conversation with Alexander in Corinth (text). Onesicritus is not heard of during the first half of Alexander's campaign and makes his first appearance in our sources in 326, when he translated the conversation between Alexander and the Indian sages at Taxila.

During the voyage to the south, Onesicritus was the helmsman of Alexander's royal ship when a large part of the Macedonian army had to be shipped back to Babylonia, he was also present.

After his return, he published How Alexander was educated, a primary source that is now lost. It is certain, however, that in this book, he claimed to have been the commander of the fleet, which was not true and caused admiral Nearchus to write an account of his own.

This Nearchus was born on Crete but had grown up in Amphipolis in Macedonia he had befriended the crown prince Alexander and was appointed satrap of Lycia and Pamphylia in 334. In 329, he was recalled and brought reinforcements to Alexander, who was in Bactria. In India, Nearchus initially had some minor commands, but was made admiral of the Macedonian navy (326) in this quality, he was responsible for the transport of the army to the Ocean and - later - for the shipping of troops to Babylonia. In 324, he married to a daughter of Alexander's Persian mistress Barsine. After the death of Alexander, he backed Heracles, the son of Alexander and Barsine the boy was killed, however, and Nearchus retired to write a book called Indikê.

The Indikê is now lost, but its contents are well-known from several sources, especially the Indikê by Arrian. It seems to have consisted of two parts: the first half contained a description of India's borders, size, rivers, population, castes, animals - especially elephants -, armies and customs the second half described Nearchus' voyage home. It also contained some remarks about Onesicritus, who is portrayed as incompetent. (An example can be found here.) Nearchus' Indikê seems to have ended with a description of the last days of Alexander.

Plutarch of Chaeronea

It is not exaggerated to say that, together with Augustine of Hippo and Aristotle of Stagira, Plutarch of Chaeronea (46-c.120) is the most influential ancient philosopher. He may lack the profundity of Augustine - the most influential philosopher in the early Middle Ages - and the acumen of Aristotle - considered the master of all intellectuals of the late Middle Ages -, but the sage of Chaeronea is an excellent writer and from the Renaissance to the present day, his 227 moral treatises have found a larger audience than any other ancient philosopher. In his own age, he was immensely popular because he was able to explain philosophical discussions to non-philosophical readers, Greek and Roman alike. The fact that he was priest in Delphi will no doubt have improved his popularity.

His oeuvre consists of biographies and moral treatises, although his biographies are in fact moral treatises too: he describes the careers of a Greek and a Roman, and compares them to understand certain character traits. The result is not only an entertaining biography, but also a better understanding of a morally exemplary person - which the reader can use for his own moral improvement.

Plutarch writes in the prologue of his Life of Alexander/Life of Julius Caesar:

This is a good description of what Plutarch has to offer. He will not give an in-depth comparative analysis of the causes of the fall of the Achaemenid Empire and the Roman Republic, but offers anecdotes with a moral pointe. We should read his Life of Alexander as a collection of short stories, in which virtues and vices are shown.

The most important theme (one might say: Plutarch's vision on Alexander's significance in world history) is that he brought civilization to the barbarians and made them human Alexander is, so to speak, a practical philosopher, who improves mankind in a rather unusual but effective way. This theme is more explicitly worked out in a writing called The fortune and virtue of Alexander (example). Alexander's presumed philosophical interests are shown in stories like Alexander's conversation with Diogenes.

Plutarch has read many books on Alexander, and one cannot simply say that he belongs to the "vulgate" tradition (which follows Cleitarchus) or the "good" tradition (which follows Ptolemy). He tells his own, moral story and has taken elements from all traditions. His Life of Alexander is especially interesting because it contains a great many childhood stories, which he seems to have taken from a book called Alexander's education, written by a Macedonian named Marsyas, who went to school with the crown prince.

If the reader of this article has the impression that Plutarch is a boring moralist, he is mistaken. His sincere interest in Alexander and his men as human beings makes the Life the most readable of all publications on the Macedonian king - both ancient and modern.

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