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Hellenistic Greece

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Hellenistic Greece

An Introduction to Hellenistic Greece

Macedonia had, thus far, played a small role in Greek affairs, but amidst the confusing conditions in the middle of 4th Century BC, the rising state of Philip of Macedon (359-336 BC) exhibited certain advantages. In 338 BC Philip defeated an army of Athenians and Thebans, and in 336 BC he was murdered.

After the assassination of his father Philip, Alexander succeeded him in the role of champion of Greece fighting against external enemies to unite the Greek city-states from the menace of Persia. History remembers Alexander the Great as one of the greatest generals and empire builders the world has ever known. He received his military training from his father Philip and his education from the great philosopher Aristotle.

In his campaign, which lasted only eleven years, Alexander created a Greek empire extending eastward as far as India, and southwards to Egypt and the Persian Gulf. In 334 B.C. Alexander crossed the Hellespont with 35,000 infantry and 4,500 cavalry, and swept across Asia Minor in a storm of glory. Within 6 years he had fully subjected the Persian Empire, Greece’s old enemy. Alexander had carried the seeds of Greek culture to the East, thereby introducing the Hellenistic age (323-43 BC), a new age in Greek history.

After Alexander’s death in Babylon in 323 B.C. at the age of 33, there emerged 3 great dynasties initiated by generals who had fought alongside Alexander. For 3 centuries the momentum of the Hellenistic Age continued, dominated by the highly sophisticated and cultural Hellene people. Alexandria remained a great center of Hellenistic culture, and its library attracted great scholars and men of learning. Also, the Greek language and philosophy spread over the near east and became an important factor in the political and religious history of this region. As for Alexander himself, his name passed into the legendary circles of Medieval European thought.

Philip II of Macedonia reigned from 359-336 B.C. Philip’s work with the Macedonian army and establishment of alliances with the Balkan region gave both himself and Alexander the resources necessary to carry out such conquests. Philip came to power in 359 B.C. The most important marriage for Philip was to Olympias, from the royal house of Molossia. By 357 B.C., they were married, and she gave birth to Alexander the immediate next year. He achieved several innovations that helped make Macedonia the power that it was at the time of his assassination in 336 B.C. Firstly, he increased the size of the group of Royal Companions, the hetairoi, giving more people influential positions and more of a sense of belonging to the kingdom.

We start with Alexander’s father, because of his crucial role both in Greek history and in Alexander’s own life. Philip united Macedonia, created a powerful army, grew wealthy, conquered Greece and almost immediately afterward died, leaving the young Alexander a magnificent inheritance.

Philip gained his military education under Epaminondas of Thebes, where he was a royal hostage for three years. There he learned the value of coordinating cavalry with infantry in battle. He also learned a good deal about how Greek politics worked. His father died young, and Philip became king at age 25 in the year 369.

Philip inherited a kingdom that was historically divided between towns and farmers in the lowlands, and powerful nobles in the hills. He eliminated his rivals with brutal efficiency, subdued all rebellions, and managed to unite all Macedonia under his leadership.

He was a masterful politician, playing one faction off against another. He was fortunate in that gold had been discovered recently under Mt. Pangaeus, which was in his realm (imagine what would happen if the U.S. suddenly discovered vast oil reserves that could be brought into production within a matter of months). And he was able to lead his nobles to a string of foreign victories.

The victory came not least because Philip created a new type of army, a standing army of soldiers who served year-round. The Macedonian soldier was thus far better trained than any other in the world and much better equipped.

Philip borrowed and further developed the tactic of combining cavalry with infantry. And he invented the famed Macedonian phalanx.

Macedonia, which the southern Greeks considered about a half-step away from barbarism, conquered Greece because Philip exerted a masterful combination of political wiliness and use of superior force. The Greeks lost because they failed to unite to face the threat until it was too late.

Philip first conquered Thessaly and Thrace, giving him sway from the Hellespont to Thermopylae. These actions made some Greeks nervous, but using the gold of Mt. Pangaeus Philip bribed generously and by the 330s had a party loyal to his cause in every Greek city.

Greek cities gave various concessions to Philip, or looked the other way as he gobbled up first this and then that opponent. In other cases, he posed as a disinterested arbiter of Greek quarrels, managing thereby to insert Macedonian interests and voice into matters completely outside his direct sphere of influence.

Battle of Chaeronea

The famous Athenian orator, Demosthenes, tried to rouse his city to action. In a series of speeches that are still models of rhetoric, he warned the Greeks against the danger from the north. Even today, you might hear a political speech referred to as a philippic, for this word has come to mean any speech warning of dire danger.  By the time Philip was viewed as a real threat, however, it was really too late. The Greeks united and fought Philip, Spartans fighting alongside Thebans and Athenians at Chaeronea in 338. It was a hard-fought battle, but the Macedonians were completely successful.

Philip was now free to organize Greece as he saw fit, and the message he sent was quite clear. He destroyed the city of Thebes, though he gave orders to spare the house of the house of Pindar. Athens, too, he spared. He gave Sparta the opportunity to join his new alliance; when Sparta refused, he destroyed that city as well.

The battle at Chaeronea marks the end of the Greek city-state as a historic force. We’ll hear from Greece again, of course, but never will Greek city-states be a factor, only alliances or kingdoms.

Philip’s Death

According to the ancient source Diodorus, in 336 B.C. Philip was hosting a massive banquet as a farewell party before he left for Asia. At that very moment, however, a man named Pausanias (not the well-known geographer) rushed forward from the crowd and stuck a dagger in Philip’s chest. Other possible scenarios include Pausanias to have been bribed to commit his crime. Olympias might have turned his mind to think of Philip as his real enemy (she could offer him sanctuary in Epiros); that the King of Persia wanted Philip destroyed (because he had sent the vanguard of an invasion force into Asia) and had sent agents to seek out an assassin; Others suggest that Alexander had asked for Pausanias to kill “bride giver, bridegroom and bride” meaning Attalus, Philip and Cleopatra E’, his father’s love-bride, and the reason for his and Olympias’ quarrel with Philip the year before.

He was one of the great leaders of ancient Greece; had his son not been such an extraordinary legend, Philip would be considered a leading figure of Greek history. We know that he had designs on Asia, for he had sent his favorite general, Parmenio, to establish a camp across the Bosporus. It is likely that he intended no more than to secure Asia Minor for the Greeks, but we can do no more than speculate.

Without the innovations of Philip, the Macedonian army would have had a harsh time conquering an entire continent. His military innovations created the fighting power that Alexander inherited, making it a force to be reckoned with. Philip introduced the 12 cubits (6 meters) sarissa, a wooden pike with a metal tip, for use by his infantry in the phalanx. The sarissa (a long spear), when held upright by the rear rows of the phalanx (there were usually eight rows), helped hide maneuvers behind the phalanx from the view of the enemy. When held horizontal by the front rows of the phalanx, it was a rather brutal weapon. People could be run through from 20 feet away, giving quite an advantage to the phalanx in hand-to-hand combat. With all of these cooperating well, both Philip and Alexander rarely, if ever, lost any battle. The Phalanx was Philip’s creation, extended by Alexander.

The traditional strength of Macedonia was its heavy cavalry, and heavily-armed horsemen continued to be vital. Beyond these were the Cretan archers – among his fiercest warriors – and javelin throwers, slingers, and other infantry units, all fighting according to the style traditional to each city. And, of course, the excellent navies supplied by Athens, Corinth and other cities.

Beyond these elements were the support elements, which likewise Alexander brought to a condition much superior to any other army at the time. Most important was his adoption of a siege train, well organized and supported by engineers. Legend says Alexander himself invented the torsion catapult; certain it is that he used it. He was a master of logistics and strategy.

On the battlefield, Alexander typically placed the Macedonian heavy infantry (the phalanx) in the center. Parmenio commanded the left, Alexander the right, leading the Macedonian cavalry. He preferred an oblique order of attack, with Alexander’s wing leading the way. Parmenio’s job was the most thankless–he was to engage the enemy and hold. But Alexander’s battles are marked by his ability to mix all the elements of his army and bring to bear just what was needed at just the right time.

Qualities of Command In addition to all these factors, Alexander exhibited tremendous personal bravery. Generals in pre-modern times usually led their men rather than commanding from behind. This, of course, placed the great man in great jeopardy.

Alexander was wounded in the neck and head at the Granicus River, in the thigh at Issus, the shoulder at Gaza. He suffered a broken leg in Turkestan, was wounded on three occasions in Afghanistan, and, most seriously, had his lung pierced by an arrow in India. He more than once was the first man over the wall at the storming of a city.

Alexander never lost a battle. As the victories accumulated, his men came to believe that he was invincible. So did his enemies.

He knew and loved his soldiers and officers and remembered their names and deeds, calling them by name when he would speak to them before a battle, citing their exploits. His veterans he sent home for a rest to Greece, allowing them to visit their families. He was liberal in his gifts and honors.

All of these factors created an army that simply could not be stopped.

Philip saw that his only son had the best education. Alexander and his compatriots studied for three years under Aristotle, who was hired because he was the most renowned philosopher of his day. Alexander also received the very finest education in warfare and politics—his daddy taught him.

Alexander was a bundle of contradictions and extremes. He was capable of planning grand strategies, yet paid attention to the details of supply and logistics while on the march. He paid careful attention to his image and it is very difficult for us to separate fact from propaganda.

His soldiers adored him, as did most who met him. He was handsome, courageous, and intelligent. He was tireless in the field, able to out-work most everyone around him. Yet, he was also a dreamer, given to fits and moods. He had visions. His mother told him that he was not the son of Philip but the son of Apollo. In short, he was everything a legend should be.

    But, of course, Alexander did not conquer Asia by himself.

Alexandros Philippou Makedonon (Alexander the Great, Alexander III, King of Macedonia – 356-323 B.C.) was born at Pella in Macedonia in the late July of 356 BC, on the same day as the famous Temple of Artemis at Ephesus, one of the 7 ancient wonders, was burned. It was the same date on which his father heard the news of Parmenio’s success in Illyria and the victory of his horse at the Olympic Games. Olympias was initiated to Dionysian and Orphic cults. Within Alexander’s own lifetime, it was widely believed that Olympias had conceived him through the agency of one of the Gods, namely Zeus. Not the ordinary Zeus of the Greek homeland, however, but the exotic version of Zeus-Ammon, whose world-famous shrine was in faraway Siwa, Cyrene, deep in the Sahara desert. Writing some four hundred years after his death, Plutarch records the generally accepted account concerning Alexander’s true divine origin, but he also included the skeptical minority viewpoint.

    Plutarch, Parallel Lives, Alexander 2.1-3.2:

“Alexander was a descendant of Heracles, on his father’s side, through Karanos; on his mother’s side he was descended from Aidos through Neoptolemos; this is universally believed. It is said that Philip [Alexander’s father] was initiated into the mysteries at Samothrace with Olympias [Alexander’s mother]. He was still a youth and she was an orphan. He fell in love with her and conjoined a marriage, with the consent of her brother, Arumbas.

The bride, before the night in which they were to join in the bridal chamber, had a vision. There was a peal of thunder, and a lightning bolt fell upon her womb. A great fire was kindled from the strike, then it broke into flames which flashed everywhere, then they extinguished. Later, after the marriage, Philip saw a vision: he was placing a seal on his wife’s womb; the engraving on the seal was, as he thought, in the image of a lion. The men charged with interpreting oracles were made suspicious by this vision and told Philip to keep a closer watch on his marital affairs. But Aristander of Telmessus said [the vision meant that] her husband had impregnated her, for nothing is sealed if it is empty, and that she was pregnant with a child whose nature would be courageous and lion-like.

On another occasion, a great snake appeared, while Olympias was asleep, and would coil itself around her body. This especially, they say, weakened Philip’s desire and tenderness toward her, so that he did not come often to sleep with her, either because he was afraid she would cast spells and enchantments upon him, or because he considered himself discharged from the obligation of intercourse with her because she had become the partner of a higher being.

. . . After the vision [concerning the snake], Philip sent Chairon of Megalopolis to Delphi [to learn its meaning]. He brought an oracle to Philip from Apollo: Philip was henceforth to sacrifice to Zeus-Ammon and worship that God especially. Furthermore, he was to put out the eye, which spied on God through the crack in the door, the God who, in the form of a serpent, had lain with his wife. And Olympias, as Erastosthenes says, when she sent Alexander on the campaign [against the Persians], told him alone the forbidden secret of his conception, ordering him to act worthy of his birth. But others say that she just dismissed him remarking [to her friends], “Alexander never stops lying about me to Hera” [i.e., by claiming Zeus had been unfaithful to Hera, his wife].

Alexander never got along well with his father, although Philip was proud of Alexander for the Bucephalus incident. Alexander had always been closer to Olympias, his mother, than Philip and everybody knew it. Philip and Olympias also were in a bad relationship with each other, owing primarily to Olympias’ less-civilized heritage of Epirus.

The family essentially was split apart irreparably when Philip married a woman named Cleopatra, a Macedonian. At the wedding banquet, Cleopatra’s father made a remark about Philip fathering a “legitimate” heir, i.e., one that was pure Macedonian. Alexander took exception and threw his cup at the man, and some sources say Alexander killed him. Enraged, Philip stood up and charged at Alexander, only to trip and fall on his face in his drunken stupor. Alexander, rather upset at the scene, is said to have shouted:

    “Here is the man who was making ready to cross from Europe to Asia, and who cannot even cross from one table to another without losing his balance”.

Alexander then moved Olympias back to Epirus, and he went to Illyria. He returned when Demaratus of Corinth, a close friend of Philip, asked how Philip could care so much for his troops abroad and so little for his family at home. From then till the assassination of Philip, they remained a family in name only.

Alexander ascended to the Macedonian throne after the murder of his father, and the kingdom was found immediately in trouble. Alexander’s advisors suggested that he let Athens and Thebes loose and to treat gently to the barbarians to prevent a revolt. However, Alexander felt that the best choice was to be decisive and swift. The historian Arrian related the story of how Alexander dealt with Thebes and Athens. Instead, in the fall of 335 B.C., Alexander marched up to the gates of Thebes, and let them know that it was not too late for them to change their minds. The next day, Alexander’s general, Perdiccas, seiged the gates and the battle had begun. Athens then reconsider the decision to abandon Alexander. He came to terms with them that maintained the status quo as under Philip. That was all that Alexander wanted to hear, and he departed, in the spring of 334 B.C., for Asia.

Alexander’s specific goals in Asia were several. Alexander, however, conquered lands outside of the Persian Empire because he had a personal longing to see the Ocean that was believed to encircle Europe and Asia at the edge of the Earth. When he crossed the Hellespont with his army in 334 B.C., Alexander threw his spear from his ship to the coast and it stuck in the ground.

Macedonian Empire map

Alexander set out in spring 334, after having had to re-settle affairs in Greece and Macedonia after his father’s murder. One of the many puzzles about Alexander is whether he intended from the beginning to conquer the world. We know that he brought with him artists, geographers, historians, botanists, geologists and other scientists — something quite beyond the normal scope of a military expedition. Ever the politician, his first act was to visit Troy — the site of the great victory of the Greeks over Asia. The visit was also due to personal interest, for he greatly admired Homer and the heroes of the Trojan War. It was a brilliant propaganda gesture, and he followed it with astute diplomacy. As he marched down the Ionian coast, he liberated the Greek cities, restoring democracy, rather than conquering them. By posing as a liberator and savior, he won allies and gained many recruits here.

This battle was in some ways the most important of Alexander’s career, though others are more famous. It was important because it was his first real battle in Asia; it was really rather a mad gamble, one that his generals argued he should not have made. But the circumstances of the battle reveal not only his courage and confidence, but also his fine political sense and his enormous good fortune. In the town was a wagon tied to a post. It was a very ordinary post and a very ordinary wagon with one exception: the yoke was fastened to the pole with a complex of knots so thoroughly tangled that it was impossible to unravel. The legend was the anyone who could loose the knot would be the conqueror of Asia. Alexander the Great naturally had to try his hand at this fabled knot, since he was in town anyway. He had announced his intention of conquering Asia, and to leave Gordium without testing the knot was unthinkable.

The Gordian Knot was an especially difficult one in that there were no loose ends showing. Alexander tried for a while but was completely stumped. His attendants were concerned, for failure here would make poor propaganda. At last, Alexander cried out, “What difference does it make how I loose it?” He pulled out his sword and cut the knot through. Thus did Alexander reveal that he was the one prophesied. It was a lovely play on words, for the Greek word was luein, which can mean “untie” but can also mean “sunder” or “resolve.” From that story of Alexander came a phrase that is still used occasionally. To “cut the Gordian knot” means to slice through a problem that appears hopelessly complex by some simple, bold stroke. But the true test would come when he faced not a provincial but an imperial Persian army.

Alexander the Great in Egypt

When he arrived in Egypt in 331 B.C. after his journey down the Phoenician coast, Alexander faced no resistance. The Egyptians were glad to be rid of the Persians, who forced Persian gods and customs upon them, and to welcome the Greeks, who liberated them and restored their liberties — provided, of course, that they become allies of Alexander. When he arrived, he ordered a city to be designed and founded in his name at the mouth of the Nile. He was inspired to choose its site by his personal interpretation of a scene from Homer’s Odyssey.

While in Egypt, Alexander took another of his detours that became legendary. He visited the shrine of Zeus Ammon, a site sacred to the Egyptians and Greeks alike, at the oasis of Siwah, well into the desert in Libya. There, while visiting the Egyptian priests, he was proclaimed a god by the Egyptians — an honor he did not decline. They knew he was no god. Alexander reassured them that he was merely bowing to local customs, but not everyone was convinced by this. He knew he must eventually face Darius for the final struggle, but he knew also that he could not afford to be so far from Greece without being absolutely certain of his lines of supply. At last, however, he set out. His army had grown, despite having to leave garrisons everywhere he went, for he gathered new recruits in each nation.

He exchanged letters with Darius while he was in Egypt, and the Persian offered a truce with Alexander escorted by a gift of several western provinces of the Persian In the middle of 331 B.C., Alexander marched back to Persia to find Darius.

Battle of Gaugamela

After departing from Egypt, Alexander conquered the lands between the rivers Tigris and Euphrates and found the Persian army on the plains of Gaugamela. The Macedonians spotted the lights from Persian campfires one night, and the encouraged Alexander to lead his attack under cover of darkness. The two armies met on the battlefield the next morning, and the Macedonian forces swept through the Persian army unleashing an overwhelming slaughter.

Alexander nearly captured Darius, but he was prevented from doing so by strategic bungling on the part of Parmenion, the Macedonian general on the right wing. After this decisive victory, Alexander was named King of Asia, and sent letters to all of the Greek cities proclaiming that he had rid Asia of tyranny. Some historians say that this was done to avenge the Persian invasion of Greece in 490 B.C., but others hold that the fire was set at the suggestion of an Athenian woman, Thais, at one of Alexander’s drinking parties, immortalized in poetry by John Dryden.

In 330 B.C., a series of allegations were brought against some of Alexander’s officers concerning a plot to murder him. This incident contributed greatly to the arrogance that grew in Alexander throughout his career. Later in the same year, after a long evening of feasting and heavy drinking, a fierce argument arose between Alexander and his lifelong friend and companion, Cleitus. Although he mourned his friend excessively and nearly committed suicide when he realized what he had done, all of Alexander’s associates thereafter feared his dangerous temper. Alexander had adopted the Persian style of dress, rather than his traditional Macedonian clothing, and his troops started to become displeased with him.  He established training programs to teach Persians about Greek and Macedonian culture, and he even married a Persian dancer named Roxane.

The Pursuit of Darius and the End of the Persian Empire   

Darius had engaged Alexander in a narrow mountain valley, where he was unable to bring to bear his numerical superiority. This time, he chose his own ground.

Gaugamela is located in northern Iraq, on open plains. Here, Darius was able to deploy the full force of his 200,000 men. Alexander had only about 40,000. Darius was sure of victory.

His soldiers, however, were less sure. Alexander did not even try to out-flank such a superior force. Instead, he attacked the Persian center, where Darius was, and relied on the cavalry to protect his flanks.

Alexander was gambling that if he broke the Persian center, the rest would dissolve, and he was calculating that his soldiers were superior enough to deliver the blow.

He was right, of course. Once again Alexander led the charge on Darius himself and again Darius panicked and ran away, and once again the rest of the Persian army evaporated. And, once again, Darius escaped, despite a furious pursuit of Alexander that lasted three days.

Babylon welcomed him as a liberator. Alexander ordered the city burned. He went on to occupy Persis, the capitol city and at last sat on the Persian throne of Darius.

Alexander now ruled the largest empire the Western world had ever seen, but he could not rest secure, for Darius was still a threat. As long as Darius remained alive, Alexander would not be able to claim his titles.

After arranging affairs in Persia, Alexander set off in pursuit. Darius fled, keeping a few steps ahead of the Greeks. He entered Bactria and sent word ahead to its king, asking for aid.

Having eliminated Darius, Alexander was still faced with the task of securing his new empire. Toward this end he engaged in numerous battles in Afghanistan and dealt with rebellions and plots in his conquered territories.

Internal Changes

Now that he was king of Persia, Alexander began to adopt Persian dress, at least when dealing with Persian subjects. With his Macedonians, he still dressed as a Greek, but this did not entirely quell the grumbling among his officers.

Other changes were more troubling. For the first time, the Greeks were made members of his empire, rather than the special allies they had been. The Macedonians were troubled not only by his adoption of Eastern customs, but even more by his appointment of Eastern officials. A number of plots and rebellions were hatched, but he dealt with each of them. Most of the trouble came from his officer corps; his troops were still intensely loyal.

Alexander launched two years of hard campaigning in Afghanistan, pressing as far north as the Oxus River. The further Alexander progressed, the further he seemed to want to go. At last, he announced his intention of crossing the Hindu Kush and conquering India.

Alexander the Great in India

Alexander entered India in 327, encountering some of the toughest fightings of his career in the crossing. He reached the Indus River in 326. Alexander’s geographers had assured him that just beyond India was Ocean, the great body of water that completely encircled the world. We do not know what in Alexander’s mind, but most historians guess that he had no idea of the true size of the subcontinent and that he truly believed he need make only one more push to bring all the eastern world under his dominion.

Defeat of Porus

Two factors combined to bring Alexander’s march to a halt: he began to realize that India was much bigger than he had thought and Porus was powerful both as a man and a king.

Worse yet, Alexander met Porus during the monsoon season and faced him across a river in flood. The land became dry, but the cities and kingdoms were formidable. At last, his men refuse to go any further. They had refused before, more than once. Each time, Alexander harangued and persuaded and sulked in his tent for days, and eventually the men, terrified of the prospect of being without their hero, had given in. Not this time.

This was no small task in itself. Going back by way of the Himalayas and Afghanistan was out of the question. The best course seemed to be working their way down the Indus River to the Indian Ocean. The Return It took a year to do it. The Greeks had to fight their way down the Indus, the lower course of which had many strong cities. In one of these, Alexander was wounded by an arrow that pierced his lung. Once at the Indian Ocean, the Greeks built a fleet of ships. Half the army travelled with Nearchus by sea, while Alexander took the other half by land along the coast, each army supporting the other. The return to Persian was a heroic accomplishment and is yet another testament to the strength of discipline among the Macedonians. Alexander reached Susa in 324. He had been on campaign continuously for five years.

Why did Alexander the Great turn back?

Upon his return, Alexander entered into a frenzy of administrative activity. This period of his life has exercised as much fascination for historians as his military exploits. A few examples will suffice.

He had already founded many Greeks cities and now founded many more, giving land to his veterans. He instituted a common currency throughout his lands. And he spoke of all his peoples being united under him.

These and other actions, combined with certain speculations and assertions made by ancient writers, have led some modern historians to believe that Alexander was somehow aiming at some sort of universal brotherhood – the famous phrase is “the intermingling of peoples.”

Not only are the sources for this slim and speculative, evidence from other parts of Alexander’s life show it to be most unlikely. That he aimed at world domination is undoubted. But he probably sought no more than to be king of it all, and sought only to govern as he thought best.


We have clear evidence of Alexander’s near-term plans. Even as he was implementing reforms he was planning new conquests.

How far would Alexander have gone? Into Arabia, certainly. Into Russia, probably. Possibly into Africa or Europe. But we cannot know this, for he never got further than Babylon. Before he could embark on his expedition into Arabia, Alexander died.

Even as early as the assembly of the Greek League at Corinth, Alexander was appointed the Strategos Autocrator (the supreme commander) of all Greeks for the expected invasion of the Persian Empire, previously planned and initiated by Philip. Thus had been enjoying a rare sense of omnipotence since the very beginning. Moreover, Alexander had on several occasions encouraged favorable comparison of his own accomplishments with those of Dionysus or Heracles.

The PanHellenic war was over, the Thessalians and the rest Greek allies were sent home; since then he has conducted a purely personal war. Since the Panhellenic war of revenge came to an end, Alexander’s political and ideological views on the empire were changing: He had come to the new political idea of two jointly ruling people: Macedonians and Persians. Those new politics created the opposition and misunderstanding between Alexander and Macedonians. The philopersian policy brought increasing friction to Alexander’s relations with them, who had no understanding for his new conception of the empire. Persian aristocracy had been accepted into the royal cavalry bodyguard.

The death of Alexander the Great

In the summer of 325 B.C., Nearchus was put in command of a fleet that would take the sea route west rather than marching through the desert. Alexander, on land, lost nearly three quarters of his army to starvation and the harsh conditions of the desert. When the survivors reached the region called Carmania, their fortune changed dramatically as they were welcomed into the prosperous land. Then the whole army marched inland to Persis to rest.

In 324 B.C.E, Alexander furthered his mission to assimilate Macedonian and Persian cultures when he arranged thousands of marriages between the Greek soldiers and Persian women in Susa.  The omens were so frequent that Alexander feared that he had fallen out of favor with the gods. The trip to Babylon was meant to be his last.

It seems hard to believe that a 33-year-old man could die of natural causes out of the blue, and consequently, modern historians have made several attempts to explain exactly what happened.

His wounds, plus overwork, weakened him. He went on a boating trip while at Babylon, in summer, when the marshes of the river were full of fever. To add to all this, he had engaged in another of his notorious drinking bouts the night before.

Alexander the Great died of a fever 13 June 323. For four days there was silence in Babylon, in shock and mourning. His body was conveyed to Alexandria in Egypt, where it was buried.

As he lay dying, his comrades and generals came to him. Alexander had made no provision for his succession, for what reason we do not know. In any case, it now was clear that he would die, the issue had become pressing.

According to the ancient historian Plutarch, the events leading up to his death are as follows:  

    “To whom do you leave the kingdom?”

     And he replied:

    “To the best (the strongest)”.

These were his last words. Thus, three days later (on June 10, 323 BC) Alexander the Great died at the age of 33. Predicca has received from the king before he died, his ring, as the symbol of his regency.

The Collapse of the Macedonian Empire

His empire fell apart almost immediately. It was, perhaps, too vast and too diverse for any political system to rule; it was most certainly beyond the capabilities of Macedonian monarchy.

Alexander’s empire did not go to the strongest, after all. Instead, pieces of it fell to various individuals, each of whom chose to be strongest in his own neighborhood. Most of these were Alexander’s generals.

Thus, Seleucus won a reduced portion of the Persian Empire. Certainly the largest in terms of physical size, yet his prize was the least likely to prosper. The Antigonids would rule until the coming of Rome.

The richest prize, Egypt, went to Ptolemy. The last descendant of Ptolemy, and the last direct inheritor of Alexander’s legacy, was a Macedonian princess who was also Pharoah: Cleopatra.

Lesser states, especially in Asia Minor, were also ruled by Greeks. Alexander had founded Greek cities all over the Near East (there are over 20 Alexandrias), so that Greek culture was not merely spread but was deeply embedded within the cultures of the region. This created no little tension with the local cultures, as Greek language and art, etc. vied with and sometimes overwhelmed the indigenous cultures.

Evidence of this tension can be seen in the split in Jewish culture in the 200s and 100s, between the Pharisees and the Sadducees. The one group represented “progress” and openly adopted Greek habits. The other group opposed this, holding out for traditional Israelite values. This pattern was repeated elsewhere, although not all peoples were able to retain their native traditions in the face of Greek influence.

The Near Eastern cultures, in turn, influenced Greece.

So deeply was Greek embedded that it became the dominant culture throughout the Middle East. It was inherited, preserved and perpetuated by the Byzantine Empire and by the Moslems as well.

This is the true legacy of Alexander–the dissemination of Greek culture.


No heir had been appointed to the throne, and Alexander’s generals adopted Philip II’s illegitimate son, Philip Arrhidaeus, and Alexander’s posthumous son by Roxane, Alexander IV, as kings, sharing out the satrapies among themselves, after much negotiation… Both kings were murdered, Arrhidaeus in 317 and Alexander IV in 309 and Alexander IV and his mother Roxane were assassinated by Cassander who then usurped the throne of Macedonia and married Thessaloniki (Alexander the Great’s sister) in order to legitimize his position. The parts of former Alexander’s empire became independent monarchies, and the generals, following Antigonus’ lead in 306, took the title of the monarch. The turbulent years from 323 to 301 B.C. saw endless conflicts among Alexander the Great’s generals which ended with the parceling out of Alexander’s empire and the creation of the first Hellenistic kingdoms. Alexander generals known as Diadochs had established their own kingdoms on the rests of Alexander’s empire:

    Ptolemy Lagus, Alexander’s half bother (Egypt and Palestine);

    Seleucus Nicator (Mesopotamia and Syria);

    Cassander (Macedonia and rest of Greece);

    Antigonus (Asia Minor)

    Lysimachus (Thrace).

Alexander the Great accomplishments

Alexander had the iron will and capacity to lead his men; he knew when to with a draw and to modify and adapt his policy. Alexander had an imaginative fantasy of genius which was driven by the strong romantic figures like Achilles, Heracles, and Dionysus. He was sometimes cruel and autocratic. The only psychologically clear motive is the pursuit of glory: the urge to surpass the heroes of myth and to attain divinity. His financial policy was centralized with collectors independent of the local governors, the establishment of a new coinage helped trade everywhere and a vast amount of the Persian treasuries, have created a desperately needed impact to the economy of the Mediterranean.

Alexander has founded over 70 new cities. After his death, nearly all the noble Susa marriages were dissolved.

He had adopted new tactics and created innovative forms of warfare (battles against the Shaka nomads, or against Porus with his elephants). His strategy was genial and imaginative and he knew how to use the opportunities that occurred in every battle that was decisive for the victory. He initiated the era of the Hellenistic monarchies, and created, if not politically, at least economically and culturally, a single market extending from Gibraltar to the Punjab, open to trade, social and cultural exchange.

Finally, Alexander’s expedition brought significant improvements in geography and natural history. His achievements mark a decisive moment in World history.


His legends, true and false, appear in 80 languages, from Iceland to Malaya.

In Central Asia he is Iskander. His red silk banner is still displayed in Ferghana, in Turkestan. Chiefs claim descent from him, their people claim descent from his soldiers, their horses from Bucephalus.

He appears in the Koran as Dulcarnain. In legend, he explored as far as the Ganges, the Blue Nile, and Britain. He traveled to the heavens and to the underworld. In legends, he went indeed to the end of the world, and even to the bottom of the sea, where the very fish paid him homage.

He was the son of Apollo, according to his own mother, and there are signs that he believed this. At Gordium, he cut the fabled knot.

He tamed the wild horse Bucephalus with a word and a touch. That story is as good as any to tell in some detail.

One day, when Alexander was a boy, his father and some of his companions were trying to break a horse. This horse was a magnificent black stallion, of such size and fierce spirit that no one had been able to ride him.

The men stood around the horse, each trying his hand and each being thrown or even being unable to approach the huge beast. None could manage it. Finally, Alexander asked that he be allowed to try. The men thought it would be a grand joke to let a mere boy (he was about 10 years old) attempt to ride the black stallion, so they let him.

Alexander approached the horse, who stood and regarded him. Alexander leaped onto the horse’s back and it bore him away.

The horse was Alexander’s from that day on. He named it Bucephalus and it was his war horse and he rode it in all his major battles. Bucephalus served Alexander faithfully and died at last on campaign in India, where Alexander named a city in his honor.

In paintings, Alexander is always represented as riding a black horse. Like his master, Bucephalus entered into legend and became a creature of mythic abilities. There is a nice re-telling of the story of Bucephalus at the beginning of the movie The Black Stallion. Everything about Alexander was larger than life, both his real exploits and his imagined ones. Throughout the ancient world, great generals would dream that they could imitate Alexander. In the Middle Ages, he became a figure encrusted in legend.

What are the differences between Hellenistic and Hellenic periods ?

Alexander’s career marks a watershed not only in Greek history, but in the history of the entire Near East. Before Alexander, we speak of the Hellenic era (Hellas is the Greek word for Greece). After Alexander, we speak of the Hellenistic era. In the former era, Greece is more or less isolated or at least contained. The primary characteristic of the Hellenistic era is the spread of Greek culture across the entire Near East, and the mixing of Greek and Oriental currents.

Alexander also marks the end of the threat of the East. One constant theme from the 6th century to the end of the 4th is the danger posed by various eastern kingdoms, especially Persia. Alexander ended this. Even after the Roman legions came, much of the Near East continued to regard Greek culture as the highest form and the one most worth imitating.