Alexander the Great: From Education to Kingship and Conquest

Category: Culture, Greece
Last Updated: 26 Apr 2023
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Born into royalty of King Philip II of Macedonia and Olympias, daughter of King Neoptolemus of Epirus, alexander was educated during his early teenage years by the Greek philosopher aristotle (Stoneman 1). although tutor and pupil later differed on political matters such as alexander's decision to downgrade the importance of the city-state, aristotle performed his assigned task of preparing his young charge for undertaking campaigns against the Persian Empire as well as inculcating in him a love of learning so vital to Hellenic (that is, Greek) culture (O'Brien 27).

In 340, at age sixteen, alexander's formal training ended with his appointment to administer Macedonia while Philip was absent on a campaign. Young alexander won his first battle against a force of Thracians and in 338 distinguished himself as commander of the left wing during Philip's crushing victory over the combined Greek army at Chaeronea (Stoneman 17-18). a break with his father over the latter's divorce and remarriage led alexander to flee with his mother to Epirus.

although father and son reaffirmed their ties, alexander feared for his status as successor. Philip's assassination in 336, along with the army's support of alexander, eliminated all doubt of his kingship, and he had the assassins and all of his apparent enemies executed (Stoneman 18-19). at the age of twenty, alexander proceeded to fulfill Philip's planned attack on Persia and thereby to free Greeks living under Persian rule in asia Minor (Turkey). Soon, however, he determined to place himself on the throne of Persia.

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anxious to represent all Greece at the head of a Panhellenic union, he first received the approval and military support of the Greek League at Corinth and the endorsement of the oracle at Delphi as invincible. (The Romans later called him “the Great”) (O'Brien 30-31). In order to consolidate his rear guard in Europe before crossing into asia, he spent the year 335 subduing restive peoples north and west of Macedonia and crushing an athenian-endorsed revolt of Thebes by taking and razing the city of Thebes, killing six thousand and selling the rest as slaves.

His harsh policy had the desired effect of discouraging further attempts by the Greeks to undermine his authority. alexander therefore had no need to punish athens, center of Hellenic culture, source of the largest navy available to him, and vital to the financial administration of the territories he would conquer. Nevertheless, he remained sufficiently suspicious of the athenians to decline employing their fleet against Persia. The only Greek city-state openly disloyal to alexander was Sparta, but it was isolated and later brought into line by alexander's governor of Greece.

alexander crossed the Hellespont (Dardanelles) into asia Minor with his army of thirty-five thousand Macedonians and Greeks in the spring of 334 intent on humbling the Persian army and gaining spoils adequate to restore the strained Macedonian treasury. The army was a superbly balanced force of all arms, based on the highly disciplined maneuvers of the Macedonian phalanx and cavalry. With its offensive wing on the right, the infantry phalanxes would advance steadily, using their longer spears and supported by light-armed archers and javelin throwers.

That was in reality a holding force, however, for while it moved forward, the cavalry attacked the enemy's flank and rear. If that did not succeed, then the infantry would institute a skillful fighting withdrawal to open a gap in the enemy's line and to gain the higher ground. This difficult maneuver thus created a flank, upon which alexander's men would then rush. The key to success was timing, and alexander's great ability was knowing where and when to strike decisively. Then he pursued the retreating enemy, who could not regroup.

alexander's tactical skills triumphed almost immediately when he met and crushed a Persian army at the river Granicus, largely as a result of his realization that victory was possible only after an interceding river was crossed (Heckel 68-69). No less a genius as a strategist, alexander neutralized the Persian fleet by marching down the coasts of the Eastern Mediterranean, taking the enemy's seaports by land. To establish himself as a liberator, he dealt harshly only with those cities which opposed his advance, and he installed Greek-style democracies in those which yielded without a fight.

Indeed, he retained local governors, customs, and taxes, insisting only upon loyalty to himself instead of to King Darius III of Persia. This political policy had the additional logistical benefit of making available supplies crucial to keeping his army in the field. To provide balanced governments of occupation, however, as at Sardis, he appointed a Macedonian governor with troops, a local militia officer as fortress commander, and an athenian overseer of monies.

also, the fact that the army was accompanied by scientists, engineers, and historians is evidence that he planned a long campaign to conquer all Persia and to gather new knowledge as inspired by aristotle (Burn 12-14). The conquest of asia Minor was completed in the autumn of 333 when alexander crushed Darius' army at Issus on the Syrian frontier, then advanced down the coast, receiving the submission of all the Phoenician cities except Tyre. Enraged by its defiance, he besieged Tyre for seven months, building a long mole (causeway) with siege towers and finally assaulting the city in July, 332.

Tyre suffered the same fate as Thebes, and the rest of the coast lay open to alexander, save for a two-month standoff at Gaza. Then Egypt welcomed him as a deliverer, whereupon he established the port city of alexandria there. Returning to Syria, he advanced into Mesopotamia, where he routed the Grand army of Darius at arbela (or Gaugamela) in mid-331 (Heckel 50). One year later, Darius was killed by a rival as alexander advanced eastward, the same year that alexander burned down the Persian royal palace at Persepolis (Heckel 55).

alexander's vision of empire changed from 331 to 330 to that of a union of Macedonians and Persians under his kingship. He began to wear Persian dress, married the first of two Persian princesses after conquering the eastern provinces in 328, and later prevailed upon the Macedonian troops to do the same. as his men increasingly resisted such alien practices, alexander ordered the execution of some of the most vocal critics, notably his second in command, Parmenio, his late father's intimate counselor, who was the spokesman for the older opponents of assimilation.

In spite of such excesses, the army remained loyal and followed alexander into India to his last great victory-one over local rulers at the Hydaspes River in June, 326, using native troops and methods, as well as elephants (Heckel 79-80). Now his Macedonian troops, however, tired and homesick, refused to go on, and he had no choice but to end his offensive. His engineers thereupon built a fleet of more than eight hundred vessels which ferried and accompanied the army downriver to the Indus, then to the Indian Ocean and west again to Persia.

Heavy fighting, severe desert terrain, and unfavorable weather inflicted much suffering and heavy losses on his forces (Heckel 80-82). By the time he reached Susa, administrative capital of the Persian Empire, in 324, alexander had indeed fashioned a sprawling empire. He had established numerous cities bearing his name and had infused asia with the dynamic Hellenic culture which would influence the region for centuries to come. In addition, he now attempted greater racial intermixing, which led to another near-complete break with his fellow Macedonians.

alexander, ever more megalomaniacal, pronounced himself a god and had more of his subordinates put to death, usually during drunken sprees. These were so frequent in his last seven years that there is every reason to believe he had become a chronic alcoholic. as a result of one binge at Babylon in 323, he became ill and died ten days later; he was thirty-three years old. His empire was quickly divided among his successor generals, who eliminated his wives and two children (Heckel 84-85).

Inculcated by aristotle with the superiority of high Greek culture, alexander the Great undertook the political unification of the Greek world along Panhellenic lines, followed by its extension over the vast but internally weak Persian Empire. His tools were the superb Macedonian army inherited from his father and his own genius at command. as one success followed another, however, his horizons became broader. He identified himself with the religion and deities of each land he conquered, especially Egypt, and ultimately seems to have concluded that it was his destiny to merge most of the known world under common rule.

That vision possibly included Carthage and the Western Mediterranean, though death denied him further territorial acquisitions (Burn 15-17). Alexander's shrewd administrative skills enabled him to succeed in the five major facets of statehood. In religion, he began with the Greek pantheon but then recognized all faiths, with himself as the common godhead. Hellenic culture was also the intellectual power which drove his social ambitions and which prevailed in spite of his attempts to amalgamate it with Persian ways, leaving a predominantly Hellenistic world in his wake.

In the economic sphere, he followed the Greek practices of silver-based coinage, which with Persian gold brought about common commercial practices and general prosperity. as one of the greatest generals in history, alexander obtained victory with skillful tactics, flexibility, a keen sense of logistics, and superior leadership, followed by an effective system of garrisons with divided commands. His charismatic personality and vision combined all these elements into the final one-firm, dynamic, political rule.

Once alexander passed from the scene, however, the system could not be sustained. Nevertheless, his example of continental empire contributed to the eventual rise of the Roman Empire and the expansion of Christianity.

Works Cited

  1. Burn, A. R. Alexander the Great and the Hellenistic Empire. Macmillan, 1948.

  2. Heckel, Waldemar. The Wars of Alexander the Great, 336-323 B. C. Routledge, 2003.

  3. O'Brien, John Maxwell. Alexander the Great: The Invisible Enemy: A Biography. Routledge, 1994.

  4. Stoneman, Richard. Alexander the Great. Routledge, 2004.


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Alexander the Great: From Education to Kingship and Conquest. (2016, Jul 03). Retrieved from

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