It was around 2300 years ago. Twenty-something blond king was standing on the coast of Mediterranean Sea. He was looking at a city on an island, located about one kilometer away. He hadn’t been let in there and he was furious about it. He was desperate to conquer it.
How was he going to do that? Well, he decided to build a causeway to link the land and the island and then use it to send his army. The construction of the causeway had already begun.
And then the young leader got a message from the great king of Persian Empire, who really wanted to make peace. He was making an offer. He would give 10,000 talents of gold (which today would be more than two billion dollars!), a possibility to marry one of his daughters and the control over the whole West part of Persian Empire. All this in exchange for freedom for his family, who was imprisoned by the young leader.
The leader who received that offer was Alexander the Great, also known as Alexander III of Macedon. Should he have accepted it? “For the ancient world this was a crucial moment,” writes historian Ulrich Wilcken. “Consequences of this decision were noticeable through medieval to contemporary times, and they’re visible both in the East and in the West.” Before I tell you about Alexander’s answer, let’s have a look at the events preceding this moment.
Alexander was born in 356 BC in a Macedonian city Pella. His father was Philip II of Macedon and his mother was Olympias. She was the once who inculcated him that Macedonian kings originated from Hercules, one of the sons of the Greek god Zeus.
According to Olympias, one of Alexander’s ancestors was Achilles, a hero from Homer’s “Iliad”. Young Alexander, whose parents instilled in him the will of victories and glory, didn’t have any other aspirations. When he was asked if he would take part in a race at the Olympics, he answered that he would do that only if this was a race of kings. His ambition was to do more than his father did and to be praised for his own achievements.
13-year old Alexander’s tutor was a Greek philosopher Aristotle. He managed to arouse young prince’s interest in philosophy, medicine and natural science. However, it’s difficult to decide what influence on Alexander had Aristotle’s philosophical views. “I can say that there were very few cases in which they both agreed,” said 20th century philosopher Bertrand Russell. “Political views of Aristotle were based on the outdated concept of a city-state”. And the idea of a small city-state couldn’t sound attractive for an ambitious prince who was dreaming to build an empire. Probably Alexander was also sceptical towards Aristotle’s rule of treating non-Greeks as slaves, as he had a vision of an empire based on fruitful partnership between the conquerors and the conquered.
There are no doubts however that thanks to Aristotle, Alexander developed his passion to literature and knowledge. For his whole life Alexander was an enthusiastic reader, especially of Homer’s. It’s said that he knew “Iliad” by heart. That’s quite impressive considering that this is 15 693 verses long piece.
Aristotle’s tutoring finished suddenly in 340 BC when 16-year old prince came back to Pella to rule Macedonia when his father was away. The throne successor quickly stood out in warcraft. He defeated a rebellious tribe of Medes, conquered their capital and named it Alexandroupoli. His father Philip was very proud.
In 336 BC king Philip was murdered and 20-year old Alexander succeeded the throne. In spring 334 BC he entered Asia via Hellespont (currently Dardanelles) and he started his victorious campaign. He was leading a small but efficient army of 30,000 infantry soldiers and 5,000 riders. They were accompanied by sappers, measurers, architects, scientists and historians.
By the Biga River in northwest part of Asia Minor (currently Turkey) Alexander won his first battle with the Persians. In the winter of the same year he conquered western part of Asia Minor. His second battle with the Persians was the battle of Issus in autumn 333 BC. He faced there Darius III, a powerful Persian king commanding half a million army.
Darius was so sure that he would win the battle that he took with him his mother, his wife and other members of his family, so that they could be witnesses of a spectacular triumph. The Persians however weren’t prepared for a sudden and violent attack of the Macedonians. Alexander’s troops completely smashed the Persian army. King Darius escaped, letting his family to get into Alexander’s hands.
Instead of chasing the runaway Persians, Alexander marched South alongside the Mediterranean coast and he took control over bases used by powerful Persian fleet. Only Tyre, a fortress on an island, didn’t surrender.
Alexander was desperate to get it so he started a seven-month siege. Then he received, as mentioned earlier, a peace offer from Darius. It sounded so attractive that Alexander’s trusted advisor Parmenion must have said “If I were Alexander, I would take the offer”. And the young leader answered “And so would I, if I were Parmenion”. Alexander rejected the negotiations. He continued the siege and in July 332 BC he conquered the proud fortress on the sea.
Later on, he saved Jerusalem as he liked the city and then he turned South and he took Gaza. In Egypt he was welcome as a liberator, because the Egyptians were tired of Persian rule. In Memphis he made a sacrifice for Apis, the holly bull, and by doing so he gained the favour of Egyptian priests. He founded Alexandria, a city which later competed with Athens as a centre of knowledge. It’s named after him until today.
Then Alexander went South-East through Palestine in the direction of the River Tigris. In 331 BC he fought the third great battle with the Persians. It was the battle of Gaugamela, close to the falling apart ruins of Nineveh. Alexander’s troupes counting 47,000 people smashed the reorganised Persian army of 250,000 soldiers! Darius escaped and later he was killed by his own people. Alexander, so pleased with the victory, went South and conquered the winter capital of Persia, Babylon. He took also Susa and Persepolis, where he gathered a huge treasury of Persians and later he burnt a big palace of Xerxes. At the end he conquered another capital - Ecbatana. After that the master of swift conquests took under his control the rest of Persian Empire and went further East to the River Indus in current Pakistan.
After crossing Indus in a region bordering with Persian Province of Taxila, Alexander met a powerful rival, Indian king Porus. In June 326 BC Alexander fought with him his fourth and last big battle. Porus had an army of 35,000 soldiers and 200 elephants, which startled Macedonian horses. The battle was fierce and violent, but Alexander’s troops got an advantage. Porus surrendered and became Alexander’s ally.
Macedonian soldiers felt tired and were missing their country as it had been eight years since entering Asia. Hard fight with Porus took their fortitude away and they just wanted to return home. Alexander, first reluctant, eventually gave in their demands.
Greece was then a world power. Thanks to colonies founded in conquered countries Greek language and culture spread across the whole Empire.
Through all these years of conquests, Alexander’s personality was the binder of the Macedonian army. After battles he used to visit the wounded, talk about their injuries, glorify their courage and give financial rewards according to their achievements. For those who died fighting he would make magnificent funerals. Their parents and children were exempted from all taxes. To make soldiers’ life more varied he would organise competitions after battles. And one time, men who had got recently married were given some time off to spend the winter in Macedonia with their wives. Thanks to all these things Alexander gained affection and admiration of his people.
Greek biographer Plutarch wrote about Alexander’s marriage to Roxana, a princess of Bactria: “Their relationship was both romantic and political. By marrying Roxana Alexander gained Persians’ trust and respect, because he was so honest and didn’t want an illegal relationship even with this woman, the only one whose charm he couldn’t resist”.
Alexander also respected other people’s marriages. Even though among his prisoners he had king Darius’ wife, he cared that her dignity was respected. And finding out that two Macedonian soldiers had raped wives of some foreigners, he sentenced them to die after proving their guilt.
Like his mother Olympias, he was very religious. He made sacrifices before and after battles. He also asked his soothsayers about meanings of different prophetic signs. He was taking advices of the oracle of Amun in Libya. In Babylon he was including Chaldeans’ instructions on making sacrifices, especially for Babylonian god Bel (Marduk).
Although Alexander was able to restrain from eating too much, with the time he started drinking a lot. With each chalice of wine he would make long speeches and brag about his achievements. Once in drunken madness he committed one of his worst crimes - he killed his friend Cleitus. Later on, tormented by pangs of conscience, he lied in bed refusing food and drink for three days. Finally his friends managed to convince him to eat something.
With the time passing by his lust of fame brought other bad qualities. Alexander started easily believe false accusations and ordering most severe punishments. When he let to convince himself that Philotas took part in a conspiracy, he sentenced to execute him together with his father Parmenion, an advisor he used to trust so much.
Soon after returning to Babylon, he got sick with malaria and he never returned to health. 13th June 323 BC being only 32 years and 8 months old Alexander was defeated by his worst enemy - death.
The words of Indian wisemen came true. They said: “King Alexander, each man takes only this much of the Earth as we’re standing on right now. And you, being a human like many others but interfering impudently in foreign affairs, came across a long way from your home, bringing yourself and others troubles and suffering. Soon you will die too and then you will take only this much of the Earth as much is needed to bury your body.”