Welcome to the second episode of the “Faces of Greece”, a video series that covers the lives of some of the most prominent Greek figures. The previous episode was dedicated to Queen Cleopatra who was recently put in the spotlight due to a controversial docudrama. Today, we explore the life of Alexander III of Macedon, known around the world as “Alexander the Great”. If Cleopatra’s death marked the end of the Hellenistic period, the death of Alexander started it.
Facts about Alexander the Great:
- Birth: 20/21 July 356 BC
- Death: 10/11 June 323 BC
- Reign: 336-323 BC
- Son of Philipp II and Olympias
- Wives: Roxana, Stateira, Parysatis II
Who was Alexander III of Macedon?
Alexander was a Macedonian Greek king who conquered an enormous region spanning from the Eastern Mediterranean Sea to India. He is attributed with imparting the hellenic spirit to the known world and forever changing the course of history. As a result, he is also known as simply “Alexander the Great” or “Megas Alexandros” (Μέγας Αλέξανδρος), as the Greeks call him. He is still remembered as one of the greatest military commanders to have ever existed and as the leader who unified the Greeks.
Alexander’s family & Macedonia
It all started when a young princess became the fourth wife of a mighty king. Princess Olympias of the Molossians was married to Philipp II of Macedon in 357 BC, during what many believed to be an initiation ritual to a mystery cult of that time. As the Greek historian Plutarch has written, Olympias worshiped serpents and would often sleep with them. On her wedding night, the young princess saw a weird and unexpected dream. A lightning striked her womb – which terrified her. Ancient and contemporary historians, however, describe this dream as a type of prophecy. The thunderbolt is the symbol of Zeus with many believing that the god impregnated the mortal woman on that night.
On July 20 356 BC in the city of Pella, Olympias gave birth to her first child, a baby boy who was destined to change the world. His name was Alexander which, in Greek, translates to “the one who repels men” and not “the one who protects men”, as many believe.
His family’s ancient kingdom was founded by the mighty Argead dynasty that descended from the Peloponnese and later established a kingdom in the northern part of what we now call Hellenic Republic of Greece. The region at that time surpassed the current borders of the country; Greeks resided in regions that are now the grounds of foreign nations.
The name of the kingdom was “Macedon(ia)” (Μακεδονία) and its capital was originally Vergina and later Pella, two Greek towns you can still visit today. The royal family of Macedon was believed to have near-mythical blood, descending from the brave hero named Heracles, who was the son of Zeus and a mortal. Thanks to their diplomatic skills and brave army, known for establishing the Macedonian phalanx, the royal family started acquiring immense power over the years.
Once Philip II became a king, they put even greater focus on forming marriage alliances with foreign powers and coalitions with Greek city-states. At that time, Greeks were not united under one leader. Although they shared the same language and culture, they often fought against each other. Whenever a foreign army, for example the Persians, threatened them, they would unite, joining their forces to defeat the “barbarians”, as they called anyone who did not speak Greek. This soon changed, when the kingdom of Macedon eventually conquered the Greek city states.
From a young prince to a mighty king
The prince of Macedon showcased his bravery and intelligence since his childhood. Between the ages of 13 and 16, he had the great privilege to be tutored by Plato’s student, Aristotle, in the beautiful Temple of the Nymphs. This was a boarding school near the town of Naoussa in Macedonia and Alexander was able to meet his lifelong friends and generals there.
The Greek philosopher made sure to enlighten the future monarch. He taught him reason and justice; how to be a virtuous man and leader. It is believed that he also introduced him to Homer’s Iliad, an epic poem about the Trojan War, featuring legendary heroes like Achilles, who was one of Alexander’s role-models. According to Plutarch, the Greek prince kept the Iliad under his pillow, since he believed it contained “all military virtue and knowledge”. Alexander was indeed expected from an early age to become a great general who could reach unknown parts of the world.
At the age of 16, Alexander ended his studies to rule Macedonia while his father had waged war against the Thracians. It didn’t take long for him to become king himself. Four years later, at the wedding of his sister Cleopatra, his father was assassinated by his bodyguard and Alexander was proclaimed king on the spot at the age of 20. This change in power started many revolts in Greek city-states and the young king had to take his tamed horse, Bucephalas, and head to the south. He would use his diplomatic skills to appease the rebels. At Corinth, he had the opportunity to meet the cynical philosopher Diogenes, who, according to some sources, was not very interested in meeting him. A truly cynical move by a cynic. In the same city, Alexander took the title of “Hegemon” (leader) and became the appointed commander for a planned campaign against the Persians that was approaching. After stopping all the small local rebellions and secured the northern borders in Thrace, it was time for Alexander to head to the East and conquer the biggest threat for the Greeks: the Persians.
Between 336BC and 323BC, Alexander was involved in a series of military campaigns. In 334BC and 333BC, Alexander and the united Greeks crossed the Dardanelles, a narrow strait of the Hellespont, that is considered the continental boundary between Asia and Turkey. He defeated King Darius III at the Granicus River and conquered western Persia. In 332BC, the Greek king conquers Egypt and founds the city of Alexandria after his name.
A year later, he defeated Darius at Gaugamela – a victory that changeed the course of history. It didn’t take long till Alexander declared himself king of Asia. He never tried to force the hellenic culture upon the heterogeneous group of people he conquered. Instead, he adopted some of their customs and, at the same time, spread the Greek language wherever he travelled. His first wife, Roxana, was the daughter of a local nobleman.
Between 327BC and 325BC, Alexander the Great invaded India, reaching a part of the world that seemingly remained unknown to the Greeks up until that time. His last great battle is against King Porus at Hydaspes River. After that battle, his troops refused to go further and they began to march back to the west. For a reason that remains unspecified, Alexander chose one of the most dangerous paths to go home. He and his soldiers marched through the Gedrosia desert along the coast of Oman and 12.000 of his soldiers died due to the harsh conditions. Although no man could stop his army, the unfamiliar natural environment proved to be deadly to the Greeks.
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In 324BC, Alexander returned to Susa in the near East, where he conducted the mass marriage of Macedonian soldiers to Persian women to further unite the two cultures. Many of the Macedonian men spent the rest of their lives in Asia, raising families. It comes as no surprise that, even today, there are Greek-speaking villages in Iran, India, and Pakistan, with the locals paying tribute to Zeus and the Olympian gods. A great example are the village Malana in India and the tribe Kalash in Pakistan. The residents of both places claim to be descendants of Alexander and his generals.
In July 323BC, Alexander died at the age of 33 in Babylon, with his memory surviving through eternity. He is remembered across many centuries and many civilizations as one of the bravest and strategic kings and hegemons to have ever existed. His kingdom spanned from the Balcans to India, covering a broad, heterogeneous area.
It is believed that his death was the result of a disease he caught in Asia – perhaps malaria or typhoid fever. Due to his unexpected death, he never met his only legitimate child we know of. Alexander IV of Macedon was born shortly after his death by Roxana. He and his mother were both poisoned to death by Cassander, one of the rival generals who fought over Alexander’s empire. The latter are known as “Diadochoi”, meaning “Successors” in Greek. They were involved in a series of wars that marked the beginning of the Hellenistic period. Ptolemy, an ancestor of queen Cleopatra of Egypt, was one of these successors.
The mythical side of Alexander
The life of Alexander can be described as legendary. However, the Greek Macedonian king was a historical figure who was often seen as a god by those around him. His conception was marked by mythical stories, such as the one that wants Zeus striking the womb of Olympias with his thunderbolt. But so did his life.
There is a myth that wants Alexander to have found the fountain of immortality. It is said that he brought a flask of the water to one of his sisters. Princess Thessaloniki reportedly washed her hair with the immortal water and was cursed with the inability to die. After her brother’s death, she tried to drown herself in the sea, only to be transformed into a mermaid. Modern seafarers still fear Thessaloniki, since she is capable of destroying a ship, whenever someone informs her that Alexander is now dead. Another narration from Apostle Andreas, wants Alexander to have trapped some monsters under the ground near India. According to this story, if these monsters escape, humanity will be at risk.
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