📃 Alexander the Great
Born in 356 BCE, king of Macedon from 336 to his death in 323.
People used to maintain Astronomical Diaries to monitor positions of planets, and unusual phenomena like comets and eclipses. Some of them were seen as omens and used to decide how to protect the king. They are good texts that chronicle his deeds.
Later accounts lionize him as they were meant to serve as inspiration for their audience: the Roman elite. So they are not very reliable even if there are multiple accounts of the same story.
Coins printed with his portrait during his reign depict him with ram's horns, indicating he was the son of the Egyptian God Amun.
A Persian King, Darius I, around 513 BCE, led an army from Asia to Europe and established his territories there. Macedonia was given to Amyntas, who was succeeded by Alexander I. In the meantime Darius was succeeded by his son Xerxes. Alexander's great-great-great-grandson was Alexander III aka Alexander the Great.
The Achaemenid empire was established by Cyrus the Great, and passed on eventually to a distant relative Darius through a coup.
The kings led a nomadic life, traveling from one camp to another throughout the year, partly for war and partly to be in cooler climates.
The Achaemenid empire's peak was under Xerxes when most of northern and central Greece - including Athens - was conquered in 480. His fleet was defeated soon and his army driven back to Asia. An Athenian-led alliance slowly took control back. Then Persians again took control of the east Aegean coast. Increasing distrust between the Greek cities eventually led to the Peloponnesian War between Athens and Sparta and their allies (431-404), with both sides trying to win support of the Persian kings Artaxerxes and Darius II. Cyrus helped the Spartans with naval power forcing the Athenians to surrender. So the Spartans in return gave up the Greek cities on the Asian mainland to Persia.
After Darius II, relations broke down again. The Athenian writer Xenophon describes this in his Anabasis. Artaxerxes finally established a King's peace there.
Meanwhile in Macedon, Amyntas was succeeded by Alexander I. Kings were polygamous so they had a lot of heirs, leading to a period of instability whenever a king died. So his successor Perdiccas II took years to establish his power. A few kings later the throne came to Philip II, ALexander the Great's father.
Philip II transformed Macedonia's fortunes with diplomacy, military reorganization and skilled generalship. Eventually all the Greek cities except Sparta swore allegiance to him, establishing the League of Corinth. Philip next declared war on Persia.
Prince: Alexander in the Macedonian Court
Alexander was born in July 356. One of his historians, Plutarch, says he was educated by Aristotle. A lot of mythical stories around his birth and childhood have come up. He was attached to his horse Bucephalas.
He was attending the wedding of his sister Cleopatra to his uncle, Alexander of Epirus. His father Philip was assassinated there, the reasons are still unclear. So it came to him to seek revenge against the Persians for the destruction they'd caused earlier.
Warrior: Alexander's Army
Alexander dealt with uprisings in areas close to Macedonia, and later with Thebes. He then crossed into Asia and fought the Persians in 3 major battles. Then Porus. Then a bunch of cities on the west coast of Anatolia and the Levant. And a long insurgency in Afghanistan, and Pakistan.
The army was made up of:
- Cavalrymen with lances,
- The Macedonian phalanx, armed with pikes,
- Flanked by soldiers with swords, spears and round shields,
- Light-armed trooops with javelins, bows and slings.
A large number of camp-followers, attendants, slaves, hangers-on etc. were also present, pretty much outnumbering the soliders.
A siege train comprising catapults, battering rams, siege towers (that were dismantled and loaded into carts), also followed the main army.
Commander: Alexander and the Greeks
Would-be Greek leaders often looked to opposing kings (Philip, the Persians) for political funding. Rivalries and infghting often led to exiles. Philip II defeated Thebes and Athens. He exiled the Theban politicians and garrisoned the city but Athens was left in peace. So they allied with him.
A more formalized agreement was then made, known as the League of Corinth. This was a campaign led by Philip (the hegemon) against Persia. After his death, Alexader renewed the alliance but Thebes revolted. As punishment for the rebellion, Alexander attacked them. They were completely destroyed..
Sparta was the only city outside of these happenings. They were not part of the League and had lost a lot of territory and dominance. They chose to side with Darius instead.
Athens was Alexander's favoured city. The politicians were divided in their support of Alexander.
One of Alexander's acts was to order the cities to take back their exiles. This was a bit problematic as individuals were not allowed to own land in cities that they didn't belong to. So exiles had to find other ways of supporting themselves, e.g. fight as a hoplite or cavalryman. When Alexander returned to Greece and disbanded his army, these were the ones who needed somewhere to go, hence the order to allow them back to their cities.
This order challenged the autonomy of the cities that had enforced these exiles initially. Exiles had to be accommodated alongside other citizens who had taken over their lands, and disputes arose.
Pharaoh: Alexander and Egypt
With Greece sorted out, Alexander now came to Egypt in late 332. Egypt had gone through quite a bit of churn, with multiple transfer of power. Two events that happened in Alexander's time there are:
- The foundation of the city of Alexandria
- his visit to the oracle of Amun at Siwa
Through trade, had become the largest city in the world at that time. Joined the Mediterranean world to the East. The Library gathered all of Greek literature. After Alexander's death, Ptolemy took control of Egypt and proclaimed himself King. He used Memphis as his capital though. He and his successors made Alexandria the cultural hub that it's famous for, not Alexander. Also, Alexander founded many other cities called Alexandria during his conquests. So overall it is not very clear that he had very large plans for the famous one in Egypt.
Stories of omens surrounding the City's foundations are probably whitewashing by future rulers to associate the city with Alexander.
The Oracle of Amun
Apparently a turning point in Alexander's perception of himself. At major festivals, the image of the God would be carried by eight priests and people could ask questions. The image swaying would indicate an answer. Or they'd keep two pieces of paper in front and the image swaying towards one of them would indicate that decision.
Amun / Ammon / Zeus Ammon. Depicted as a man with a ram's horns.
Greek narratives tended to have a spoken exchange between the enquirer and priest (e.g. the Oracle at Delphi), and this makes for a better story than swaying idols. So past writers have written accounts where Alexander asked questions about (a) his father's murders being punished and (b) whether he'd rule the world. The response was that his father could not be harmed by mortals (i.e. he had divine parentage) but Philip's death had been avenged. And yes he would go on to rule the world.
Memphis was the administrative center of Egypt. Alexander traveled to several cities across the kingdom where the allies renewed their alliance with him. His travel concluded at Memphis where he was crowned as the Pharaoah. Greek authors apparently skim past this, as their narrative was more around Alexander's gradual corruption and adoption of 'barbarian' practices. The Egypt bit seems to be too early for that plot.
King of the World: Alexander and Persia
At Gordium, the old capital of Phrygia, is where the Gordian Knot story happens. Whoever could undo a knot connecting a cart to a yoke it would be the King of the World. He fulfilled the prophecy by cutting it (in other tellings, he pulls a peg that held the knot together).
Alexander started adopting Persian clothes and customs around this time, which disturbed his Macedonian companions. There is a possibility he saw himself as Darius's successor, and wanted to move his capital from Maceondia to Susa and Babylon.
The Burning of Persepolis
The palace of Persepolis had been built by Darius and Xerxes. Alexander had it burned as symbolic revenge for their attacks on Athens.
Dressing as a Persian
Similar to how he adopted Egyptian customs and the role of Pharoah, he started doing the same in Persia as well. Moralists claim that this was where his decline started. Depending on how you read, they either say that his companions were suspicious and hostile towards this, or that the companions were getting into luxurious living while Alexander was the one practising frugality and self control.
There is some controversy around whether or not he expected people to prostrate themselves in his presence, an act that historians claimed normal in Persian courts (it was not; it was only required of defeated enemies).
Marriage was used as a means to maintain friendly relations with neighboring kingdoms. His first wife Rhoxane had his next 2 wives killed soon after Alexander's death, to protect the claim to throne of her unborn child.
Traveller: Alexander in Afghanistan and Pakistan
He spent five years starting 330 on a new campaign. Most preachy historians of the time dwell on this period. This was also the point where his soldiers refused to go further on.
Alexander's plan in Afghanistan was to defeat Darius III. But the latter was killed by his general Bessus, so Alexander claimed that, as king, he was avenging Darius's death instead.
There are multiple stories around Alexander crossing the river Jaxartes. He married Rhoxane in this camppaign, which consolidated his control of the region.
To the Indus Valley
From Afghanistan he now went to the Hindu Kush into what is now Pakistan. Four tributaries flowing into the Indus from the Himalayas were controlled by a number of rival Indian princes. Rather than appointing satraps here, he confirmed those princes if they accepted his authority. One ruler, Taxiles, accepted. His neighbour, Porus, did not. Alexander defeated Porus in a major battle.
He continued eastwards. On the banks of the Hyphasis, his soldiers refused to continue. Alexander shut himself in his tent and refused to come out. He then claimed he'd go alone, but the soldiers didn't relent. Finally he submitted to their will and turned back. Current historians think this is apocryphal too, like a lot of the stories around Alexander. He next turned south towards the ocean rather than turnin back the same way he came.
To the Ocean
No texts from India survive, so we're stuck with the unreliable Alexander historians again. He faced fierce resistance in Punjab. Chandragupta Maurya visited him here, and would take over most of India after Alexander left.
The Gedrosian Desert
His final campaign, notorious and misunderstood. He wanted a naval route to reach Mesopotamia from Afghanistan. But for this the fleet that he had readied should have been supplied as it sailed along the inhospitable Iranian coast. This was why he led his land force through the region of Gedrosia in southern Iran on his way from the Indus back to Pasargadae. This would make sure fresh water, supplies and grains were available to the fleet as it followed.
The stories here tell of Alexander losing most of his army in the arduous desert journey.
Doomed to die: Alexander in Babylon
Final chapter of his life. The scholars who produced astronomical diaries were also chroniclers of the kings. So we have good records of the events without the moral commentary.
Eight years earlier, in September 331, there had been a lunar eclipse that foretold that the king would die, his son would not succeed him, and the new ruler would come from the west and rule for eight years. Darius indeed did die, and Alexander succeeded him. And those eight years were up.
A few months before he entered, there was a lunar and solar eclipse, again a bad omen, that the King of the World would die.
At the age of 32, he caught a fever and spent the last few days of his life lying on his couch, mainly conducting the religious rituals required of him as a king.
Later on, stories circulated about him being poisoned, most likely to damage the reputation of the accused.
Another story is about his last words. Some report that he lost his speech in the last few days of his life. But the story is that when asked to whom he wanted to leave the kingdom, he apparently said, "to the strongest."
There was in-fighting in the next few decades to control his empire or carve out parts of it. His body was sent back to Macedonia but intercepted by Ptolemy in Egypt to legitimize his rule.
Caesar was often compared to Alexander. The Senate voted to put up a statute of him titled 'The invincible god'. Similar to a supposed letter written by Aristotle to Alexander, Cicero attempted to caution Caesar. So story tellers / historians liked to portray Alexander's journey as a descent into tyranny.
As Rome went from one king to another, portrayals of Alexander changed accordingly. Under Caligula's rule he was portrayed negatively; under Hadrian and Trajan, positively.
In medieval times, stories around Alexander became more fanciful.
More scrutiny happened in the Enlightement Age with new translations and editions. His 'civilizing mission' was used to justify British rule in India, and events in America led to publications that showed the dangers of democracy and the superiority of constitutional monarchy.
Basically he has taken a role of hero or villain based on the narrative the historians of that time wanted to create.