Alexander III of Macedon (356 BC – 323 BC), commonly known as Alexander the Great, succeeded his father Philip II to the Macedonian throne at the age of 20 and ruled Macedonia until his death at age 32.
Alexander III spent most of his ruling years carrying out a military campaign through Asia and northeastern Africa, creating one of the largest empires of the ancient world. When he was 30 years old, his lands stretched from Greece in the West to northwestern India in the East.
Alexander’s conquests generated a great cultural diffusion and syncretism, promoting the development of things such as Greco-Buddhism. Also, his habit of creating Greek colonies helped spread Greek culture in the east, sometimes with long-lasting impacts. As late as the 1920s, there were communities of Greek speakers in far eastern Anatolia.
In the years following his death, Alexander’s empire was broken up by a series of civil wars.
Childhood and youth
Alexander was the son of King Philip II of Macedon and his wife, an Empirote princess named Olympias.
Growing up, Alexander had the renowned philosopher Aristotle as his teacher in science and the political arts, while the great Macedonian generals Antipater and Permenion thought him military tactics and strategy.
While still a young boy, he received the ambassadors of Persia in his fathers absence.
At the age of 18, he led the Macedonian cavalry in a charge that won the Battle of Chaeronia.
When Alexander was just 20 years old, his father was assassinated, and Alexander became King Alexander III of Macedonia.
Alexander becomes king and Thebes revolts
When King Philip II was murdered, he was just about to lead an army of Macedonians and Greeks across the Hellespont to fight the Persians who had subjugated the Greek states in Asia Minor. The Greeks were allies of Macedonia, but now – when King Phillip II was dead – many Greek leaders were hoping that they might be able to renegotiate with the new young king and get more favorable conditions. In 335 BC, a revolt against Macedonia broke out in Thebes.
It quickly became clear that the new young king weren’t interested in renegotiating, and that he had no patience with rebels. Instead of using soft diplomacy, he rapidly moved his army to Thebes, where the Macedonians breached the walls and overpowered the population. To discourage the other Greek states from rebelling, Alexander let his army wreck enormous havoc on Thebes, though he spared the temples.
When the other Greek states saw this, they decided to back the new king rather than go against him, and when Alexander announced that he was planning to attack the Persians in Asia Minor, the Greeks got ships and men ready to follow him.
Attacking the Persians in Asia Minor
Alexander crossed the Hellespont in the spring of 334 BC. At the Granicus River, the Macedonian-Greek Army, also known as the Hellenic League, defeated a strong Persian force, making it possible to march on southward along the coast, freeing both Aeolis and Ionia – two large Greek cities – from the Persians.
In 335 BC, Alexander moved the Hellenic League eastward across Phrygia to Gordius. According to legend, this is where he “untied” the Gordian Knot by destroying it with his sword. An oracle had foretold that the person who untied the knot would become the ruler of Asia.
The Persians failed to keep Alexander’s army from passing through the Cilician Gates, a pass through the Taurus Mountains connecting the low plains of Cilicia to the Anatolian Plateau, by way of the narrow gorge of the Gökoluk River. With his army, Alexander crossed the Taurus Mountains and reached northern Syria, where a large Persian force led by King Darius III of the Achaemenid Empire was waiting for them. On 5 November, 333 BC, the large Battle of Issus took place near the mouth of the Pinarus River. The Hellenic League was victorious, and Darius himself fled before the battle was over.
Founding the city Alexandria in Egypt
In 332-331 BC, Alexander founded a city along the Nile in Egypt and named it after himself.
King Darius wanted to make peace with Alexander, offering him to keep the conquered lands, get 10,000 talents in cash and marry Darius daughter. Alexander refused, and continued his advance into Asia instead.
The Hellenistic League moved through Syria, reached the Euphrates & Tigris area, and entered Assyria where Darius tried once again to resist them. Just as before, the Hellenistic League won and Darius fled.
Alexander did not meet with much resistance as he entered Babylonia, and in 330 BC he conquered Persia’s capital Persepolis. In the spring of that year, the Hellenistic League marched north to take on Darius again – this time at Ecbatane. As Darius fled to Bactria, a Persian province located north of the Hindu Kush mountains, he was assassinated by his own officers.
Alexander was now King of Persia.
Becoming King of Persia was not enough for Alexander. Initially, he focused on securing his position by conquering the remaining Persian provinces located east of the Indus River, but soon he set his eyes on new goals. With great success, he campaigned across what we today know as Afghanistan and Turkestan, and eventually the Hellenistic League marched into India. From there, the army refused to continue eastward, so Alexander and his men returned to Babylon in 325 BC.
Maintaining the empire
Conquering lands is one thing; ruling them is another. Alexander the Great was now the emperor of a wast region inhabited by people of various ethnicities, religions, languages and lifestyles. Also, the way people saw Alexander and treated him varied greatly from one place to another. To the Hellenistic League, he was a commander-in-chief. In Egypt, he was worshiped as a kind of divinity. In former Persia, he was an absolute monarch and his subjects would bow to the ground to show him their utmost respect. The fact that Alexander tolerated and even seemed to approve of this behavior angered the Greek and the Macedonians, who were disgusted by anyone who tried to “make himself a god”. Still, Alexander – who had picked up many Persian customs and habits – seemed to enjoy the Persian way of doing things and wanted to model his whole government after the Persian absolute monarch system.
Illness and death
On either 10 or 11 June 323 BC, Alexander died in the palace of Nebuchadnezzar II in Babylon.
According to Plutarch, Alexander had been partying pretty hard roughly two weeks before his death; first entertaining the admiral Nearchus and then spending the night and following day getting drunk with Medius of Larissa. Alexander developed a fever, and instead of recovering he got progressively worse, until he wasn’t even able to speak. Soon thereafter, he died.
Diodorus has left an account where he claims that Alexander was struck with pain after drinking a large bowl of unmixed wine in honor of Heracles. According to this version of the story, Alexander did not develop a fever, but was nevertheless ill for eleven days before dying.
Naturally, Alexander dying before even turning 33 gave rise to suspicions of foul play, and plenty of rumors of him being poisoned. Throughout the millennia, various slow-acting poisons have been suggested as a possible cause, along a rather large row of diseases that may have killed him.
At his death, his empire reached from the Straits of Gibraltar to the Indus River, and included parts of three continents: Europe, Africa and Asia.