Alexander the Great was born on the 20th or the 21st of July in 356 BC, probably as a result of his father Philip and his mother Olympias consummating their marriage. As Alexander became arguably the most famous person of his time (and possibly, of all time), his conception was later attributed to the thunder god Zeus, whose complete set of perceived offspring would be too arduous to list. Suffice it, for now, to say that Alexander most certainly had a mother and a father, and like all men, was influenced by their choices, decisions, mistakes, and ways of life. It happened to be so that Alexander’s father, Philip II of Macedonia, was a great king and leader of his men; his interests staunchly laid in making his kingdom a prosperous one. Philip had also unified many of the Grecian states into what was called the League of Corinth, and therefore had much influence on the politics of the time. His disposition was volatile, but at the same time he strongly believed in upholding the morals of the age, and thought that doing so was key in attaining glory. Philip’s rule, as we can now determine, was a successful one; most of his proposed reformations were met with unanimous praise, although some of his contemporaries criticised him for appropriating traditions originating from the Persian Empire, a sworn enemy state of the Macedonians. In general, however, Philip was an innovator in many a regard, and took special care in making sure that his army was both well-equipped and trained. Later on, Alexander would assume command of his father’s army, acquire for himself the generalship of the League, defeat the Persians, and conquer most of the then-known world, which I believe to be sufficient proof of the army’s excellence.
Alexander’s mother, the aforementioned Olympias, was eccentric by modern standards; she ardently affiliated herself with the cult of Dionysus, dedicated to serpent-worship among other things. It was, in those times, not unusual for important figures to take part in cults. However, it should be noted that her consorting with the cult caused many incidents, upon which I will not expand on for the sake of decency, in the palace of Philip. Olympias strongly believed her son was destined for greatness and oft reminded him of this – something that most likely fuelled the flame that was Alexander’s ambition for glory. And the flame did develop; Alexander, from a very young age, became fixated on surpassing his father as a conqueror, often lamenting that his future achievements could not possibly equal those of his father’s, for he feared there would be nothing left for him to do.
I will now recount the story of how Bucephalus, a horse unparalleled in fame throughout both human and equestrian history (although, Incitatus, the horse who nearly became a consul of the Roman Empire, comes near), and Alexander came to meet in 344 BC. It is said that Bucephalus was presented to Philip and that his owner, a Thessalian man called Philonicus, valued him at the high price of 13 talents. It was obvious to the spectating men that Bucephalus was a horse of exceptional breed and therefore fit for a king, but no man seemed able to tame him. Young Alexander, however, asked his father for permission to try and tame the reckless animal, and succeeded in doing so; Alexander immediately understood that the horse was frightened by its shadow, and by turning him so that he faced the sun, the animal was soon subdued. Philip was verily impressed by his son’s behaviour; he uttered many words of great joy and expressed his utmost desire for Alexander to conquer many a country, for he was an exceptional boy and therefore destined to be an exceptional king, well deserving of governing more than the mere lands of Macedonia.
Alexander was tutored in his youth by the philosopher Aristotle, who had left Athens following the death of Plato in 343 BC, and therefore was eligible to accept Philip’s invitation. Fascinatingly, his compensation for the work was as follows: earlier, Philip’s army had destroyed Aristotle’s hometown during a campaign. The philosopher had grown sentimental and simply requested that Philip rebuild the town; Philip complied and repopulated the town by graciously freeing its former citizens, who had been enslaved. Alexander and Aristotle only spent a couple of years together, but Aristotle’s teachings had a positive effect on Alexander, who would carry with him an annotated copy of Homer’s Iliad, provided to him by the renowned philosopher, at all times during his later military campaigns. Indeed, Alexander’s love of philosophy and literature was in stark contrast with his otherwise brash nature, and it was generally agreed that it had developed due to the years spent with the philosopher.
Due to their respective characters, Philip and Alexander had many disputes, as fathers and sons often do – Philip even went as far as to lead Alexander into believing that he was to bequeath his kingdom to another son. Nonetheless, after Philip was assassinated in 336 BC, Alexander succeeded his father without being contested. He promptly orchestrated the executions of all those he thought could challenge his right for the throne, sparing only his elder half-brother, Arrhidaeus, who was mentally disabled. As the news of the old king’s death spread, Alexander faced several uprisings as well as the challenge of keeping his newly-acquired kingdom together; he overcame these with unexpected swiftness and cruelty, consolidating his position as ruler. In 334 BC, only two years after becoming king, Alexander warred the Persian Empire (as his father had planned to, before his untimely death), and set his sights on defeating Darius III, the Persian King of Kings.
Darius severely underestimated the young king – it would appear that he was unable to grasp the true magnitude of Alexander’s passion to conquer, which seems to me the cause of his eventual demise. He effectively allowed Alexander to fight his way into the Persian Empire by charging his underlings with the early and unsuccessful attempts at defending against the would-be conqueror, instead of answering the threat personally. Oftentimes, as the two opposing sides clashed, the Persian troops far outnumbered those of the Grecians, but Alexander’s fearless presence at the front lines, the superior fighting experience of the Hellenic army, and several strategic factors such as efficient battle formations allowed the Grecians to, time after time, defeat the Persians, ultimately culminating in the destruction of Persepolis. But Alexander desired total victory and pursued Darius, who had fled and was planning to regroup his remaining forces. However, before Alexander could get his hands on the elusive king, one of Darius’ own subordinates slayed him, evidently in the hopes of usurping his position. What he did not realise was that Alexander had developed great respect towards Darius whom he had begun to perceive as a friend; therefore, for his slaying of a friend, Alexander had the assassin torn apart and added the Persian Empire to his own.
Alexander made, in my eyes, but a single mistake in his life. Whether his considerable military prowess truly was divinely ordained or simply the result of fortuitous circumstances combined with hard work is both difficult and uninteresting for me to ruminate upon; therefore I shall conclude my look at his life by examining the one time he failed. See, the Grecians of that time mistakenly (as we now know) thought that India formed the outer rim of the world. In 326 BC, seduced by the idea of bringing all of existence under his rule, Alexander thought it best to try and conquer India – but things did not reassume the state of smoothness they had taken during the previous invasion of the Persian Empire. His troops, home-sick, wished to turn back, but Alexander insisted that they cross the river Ganges. The final straw for the Grecians was learning that the Indians possessed vast amounts of elephants trained for war, and that the magnificent beasts were stationed on the other side of the river – something the Grecians were wholly unprepared to face. Alexander then chose to comply with the requests of his men; returning home for the first time not as a conqueror, but simply a king.
Undoubtedly uncoincidentally, Alexander shares his epithet with several great men of the past, but many consider it to fit him the best: he never lost a battle, his empire spanned the majority of the then-known world, and he ingeniously managed to keep it stable by means of cultural diffusion, even at the cost of his personal relations with several Macedonian friends worsening. Alexander’s early death, caused by illness, on the 10th or the 11th of June in 323 BC, at the age of 32, spared the world from his planned forays into Arabia and India, also preventing him from realising his ultimate dream: setting his gaze upon the ends of the earth. After Alexander’s death, none could uphold his empire, and it crumbled apart due to a number of civil wars. But Alexander’s legacy did not die, as he is yet remembered for his unbound ambition, as well as his endless desire to conquer all; traits that make him, in my opinion, a fine role model for any man. Furthermore, his name lives on in most European languages, and likewise cities bearing it continue to exist to this day. Finally, it seems to me that Alexander devoted all of his vigour into pursuing what he saw as his destiny; something that I think we can all learn from.
The account on Alexander’s life presented in this article is based on Plutarch’s Life of Alexander.