Alexander the Great

Alexander was one of those small number of people whose character left so large a print on Western history that he seems more myth than man. All his life he believed he was destined to be one of the great Greek heroes, and by the time he died, he half believed that he was a god. He slept with a copy of the Iliad under his pillow, and in ways both good and bad he came closer to being like Achilles, than most men before or since. No one would have called him Alexander the Good, but there are good reasons why people call him Alexander the Great.

From when he was a little boy, Alexander was raised to be a soldier and a king. When he was seven years old, his parents put him under the charge of a tutor named Leonidas, who raised him like a young soldier. As well as reading, writing and mathematics, he taught Alexander to ride, fight, and live under harsh conditions. Although Alexander's father Philip was now a very rich king, Leonidas would not allow Alexander any luxuries. Even during the coldest days of winter he would allow Alexander no more than a soldier's cloak and blanket. Like any strong-willed boy, Alexander often broke his teacher's rules, but he was proud of the soldiers' skills that he learned.

By the time that he was ten years old, Alexander was already as good a rider as any man in Philip's army. One day a horse trader from Thessalonia brought King Philip a beautiful, giant black horse named Bucephalus. No one could tame the horse. Whenever someone approached him, Bucephalus reared and kicked, and so Philip had no interest in buying him. But Alexander had been watching the horse very carefully thought he knew how to tame him.

"Buy the horse, Father, and I will tame him," Alexander told King Philip.

"And what if you cannot tame him?" Philip asked.

"I will pay you for him," Alexander replied.

Philip paid the horse trader, and Alexander approached the horse slowly. When he got near, he took off his cloak and laid it on the ground. Then he took the horse's reigns and turned him so that he was facing the sun. He spoke gently in the horse's ear for a moment, then leaped smoothly onto his back. The horse startled, took a few steps, but then stopped. Alexander had seen that what startled the horse was the rider's cloak blowing in the breeze, and the sight of the rider's shadow when he mounted him. Facing the sun, Bucephalus could see no shadow. Alexander looked back at his father and grinned.

"My son," said the king. "You will have to find yourself a kingdom big enough for your ambitions."

It was not the last time that Alexander would see, in a moment, how to defeat an adversary that others thought invincible. Alexander loved Bucephalus, and the horse would allow no other man to ride him. On his back, Alexander lead his men into countless battles, and when the horse finally died of old age, Alexander had him buried with full military honors and named a city after him, Bucephala. (Bucephala was near the modern city of Jhelum, Pakistan.)

As Alexander became a young man, he often helped lead his father, King Philip's, troops into battle. Still, Alexander was only twenty years old when Philip was assassinated, and many of the tribes and city states Philip had conquered did not believe such a young man could hold the Macedonian kingdom together. They rebelled as soon as they heard the king was dead. The could not have been more wrong. Alexander was immediately declared king by Philip's army of veterans, and within two years Alexander had crushed every rebellion and gathered a huge army of Greeks and Macedonians. He was going to complete his father's plans and attack Persia, the largest and most powerful empire in the world.

In 334 BC, Alexander led his army of Macedonians and Greeks across the Hellespont [hell-ez-pont] (the narrow straight between Europe and Asia-Minor south of the Sea of Marmara from modern Istanbul) and into the lands controlled by the Persian Empire. His army of 40,000 infantry and 5,000 cavalry was one of the largest that had ever been gathered in the Greek world, but it was only half the size of the Persian army that had fought the Greeks at Marathon 160 years earlier. King Darius of Persia would be able to gather much bigger armies, but Alexander was confident that his soldiers were the best in the world.

The first stop that Alexander made was at the site where Troy had stood. The Greeks who lived along the coast of Asia-Minor had built a temple there to Achilles. Alexander prayed to Achilles for victory in battle and everlasting fame, and then took from the temple a sword and breastplate that were believed to have been carried by the great Greek hero. Alexander often carried them into battle himself to bring him luck.

Luck certainly seemed to be with Alexander a few days later when he fought his first battle against a Persian army on the banks of the river Granicus. At the end of a long day's march, Alexander saw the Persian army drawn up on the other side of the river. His generals advised him to make camp and attack in the morning when the soldiers were rested. But Alexander would not wait. He gathered his cavalry and charged straight across the river, attacking the Persians so fiercely that their army broke and fled. Alexander was badly wounded from a sword blow to his head, but he had won his first victory against the Persians.

For the next two years, Alexander led his army through Asia Minor, and then down the coast of Syria and Lebanon. Many cities threw open their gates and welcomed him, eager to be rid of the Persian empire. And when cities tried to resist him, he destroyed them and sold the citizens into slavery. At last he reached the ancient land of Egypt, which the Persians had ruled for the last two hundred years. The Egyptians too were happy to accept Alexander as a ruler instead of the Persians. Alexander, for his part, was very impressed with the temples and monuments of the Egyptians, and he made plans to build a beautiful new city there, which he named after himself: Alexandria.

After spending a year in Egypt, Alexander knew it was time to lead his army back into the heart of Persia, but first he rode far off into the desert to a shrine of the Egyptian god Ammon where there was an oracle -- a man who was believed to talk to the gods and see the future. The oracle greeted Alexander as the son of a god. This was exactly what Alexander had wanted to hear. From then on, Alexander called Philip "my so-called father" and insisted that Zeus was his true father.

When Alexander and his army marched north again, into Mesopotamia, King Darius knew it was his last chance to save his empire. He gathered a huge army with 100,000 soldiers, 200 scythed chariots and 15 war elephants. Some of Darius's soldiers were equipped like Greek hoplites, with heavy armor, large round shields, and spears nine feet long. However, most of them were armed in the traditional Persian fashion, with light armor, short spears, and bows.

The two armies met at the Battle of Gaugamela [gow-ga-mel-la] near the Tigris river in what is now northern Iraq. Although the Persian army was much larger, the bravery and discipline of Alexander's Macedonians served him well, as did Alexander's own abilities as a general. The Persians, with their much larger army, stretched out into a long line in order to surround Alexander's army, but Alexander carefully spread his army out as well, matching the width of the Persian army until he saw that their center had become dangerously thin. Then, Alexander and his picked cavalry, the King's Companions, smashed through the center, cutting the massive army in half and throwing them into confusion. The Macedonians charged straight towards Darius and his royal guard. Alexander hoped to fight in single combat with Darius, but a hurled spear killed Darius' chariot driver, and knocked the king himself to the ground. Both sides thought that Darius himself had been killed, and the Persians fled the battlefield. In the confusion, Darius found a horse and fled into the mountains with a few of his closest companions.

Alexander's victory was complete. The Persian army was scattered; Darius had fled into the mountains with a tiny force of soldiers; and Alexander had captured the Persian baggage train, which included huge amounts of Darius' treasure. Alexander led his men on to the ancient cities of Babylon, Susa, and the capital Persepolis, where they were amazed at the wealth of Darius' treasuries, and the ancient palaces and temples. Alexander rewarded his men generously, giving them each enough gold to equal several years pay, and he encouraged them to marry Persian women.

Many of the soldiers thought that now that Darius had been defeated, it was time to return to Greece, but Alexander wanted to remain and build an empire that spanned the entire known world. He moved into Darius' luxurious palace, and began to dress in royal Persian robes, and demand that those coming to see him bow low or kneel down. This angered the Greeks and Macedonians.

"Why should we bow before someone who is only a man, like us?" they asked. "Alexander is becoming more a Persian than a Greek!"

One night when Alexander was drinking with his generals, he began bragging as if he were the only one responsible for all their victories together and talking about how he was descended from the gods.

"Alas that such evil government has come to Greece," said Cleitus, one of his oldest generals. Alexander became so enraged that he grabbed a sword and killed Cleitus on the spot. The next day, he was sorry, and ordered a huge funeral for Cleitus, but many of the Greeks found it hard to forgive him.

Rather than allow his army to sit in Persepolis and become restless, Alexander decided to lead his army north into the mountains of northern Persia, Afghanistan and Pakistan in search of Darius and his remaining followers. Darius was hardly a threat to Alexander now; he had very few soldiers. But Alexander was also eager to go to the very edge of the known world, and perhaps beyond. For six years he led his soldiers through mountains and deserts and strange lands. When they heard that Alexander was coming, Darius' followers killed him, telling Alexander, "We have killed your enemy." But Alexander was furious at this and had them all put to death. "I can never trust someone who would kill his own king," he said. And he sent Darius' body back to Persepolis to be buried.

Even then, however, Alexander did not turn back. He led his army far into the mountainous north, modern Afghanistan and Uzbekistan. There he fell in love with Roxana, the beautiful daughter of a local king, Oxyartes. Alexander and Oxyartes formed a truce, and Alexander married Roxana, who accompanied him on the rest of his travels. Still not satisfied, Alexander lead his troops over the mountains into Pakistan and India. There they fought a huge battle against an Indian king named Porus who ruled the Punjabi region. Porus fought so bravely that when he was finally forced to surrender Alexander asked him to become his ally. Alexander placed him in charge of all his lands east the mountains.

Ever the explorer, Alexander wanted to keep going and discover new and stranger lands. But at last his men had had enough. They refused to go any further. Alexander tried to urge them on, and gave them a long a speech about the victories and strange sights and treasures that must lie ahead, but one of his soldiers stood up and said in reply, "Sir, if there is one thing above all others a successful man should know, it is when to stop."

Alexander went into his tent and would not speak to anyone for two days and nights, but at last he came out and ordered his priests to make sacrifices to the gods and ask the gods if he should continued. The priests offered sacrifices and said, "The gods decree it is time for you to return home."

Reluctantly, Alexander agreed. He led his men south along the Indus river, and then followed the coastline back to Persepolis and Susa. By the time they reached Susa, it was ten years since the army had left Greece.

On his return to Persia, Alexander set about organizing his empire. He made many of his generals governors, but he also kept the Persian noblemen who were willing to serve him loyally. Only a year later, though, in 323 he caught a fever, and after two weeks of illness he died. He had lived only 32 years.

As he lay dying, his generals gathered around the man who had led them to the edge of the known world and back again to ask him who should rule his empire when he was gone.

"The strongest," he told them. Always a man of war, these last words of Alexander's touched off a series of wars among his generals, until at last his empire was divided into three large kingdoms: Egypt, Greece and Macedonia, and Mesopotamia and Asia Minor. But although Alexander's empire lasted only a few years, his mark upon the world remained. For a thousand years, Greek language and culture remained the common heritage of Egypt and the eastern Mediterranean.

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