Alexander the Great

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Alexander the Great

Alexander the Great or Alexander III, 356–323 B.C., king of Macedon, conqueror of much of Asia.

Youth and Kingship

The son of Philip II of Macedon and Olympias, he had Aristotle as his tutor and was given a classical education. Alexander had no part in the murder of his father, although he may have resented him because he neglected Olympias for another wife. He succeeded to the throne in 336 B.C. and immediately showed his talent for leadership by quieting the restive cities of Greece, then putting down uprisings in Thrace and Illyria. Thebes revolted on a false rumor that Alexander was dead. The young king rushed south and sacked the city, sparing only the temples and Pindar's house.


Greece and the Balkan Peninsula secured, Alexander then crossed (334) the Hellespont (now the Dardanelles) and, as head of an allied Greek army, undertook the war on Persia that his father had been planning. The march he had begun was to be one of the greatest in history. At the Granicus River (near the Hellespont) he met and defeated a Persian force and moved on to take Miletus and Halicarnassus. For the first time Persia faced a united Greece, and Alexander saw himself as the spreader of Panhellenic ideals. Having taken most of Asia Minor, he entered (333) N Syria and there in the battle of Issus met and routed the hosts of Darius III of Persia, who fled before him.

Alexander, triumphant, now envisioned conquest of the whole of the Persian Empire. It took him nearly a year to reduce Tyre and Gaza, and in 332, in full command of Syria, he entered Egypt. There he met no resistance. When he went to the oasis of Amon he was acknowledged as the son of Amon-Ra, and this may have contributed to a conviction of his own divinity. In the winter he founded Alexandria, perhaps the greatest monument to his name, and in the spring of 331 he returned to Syria, then went to Mesopotamia where he met Darius again in the battle of Guagamela. The battle was hard, but Alexander was victorious. He marched S to Babylon, then went to Susa and on to Persepolis, where he burned the palaces of the Persians and looted the city.

He was now the visible ruler of the Persian Empire, pursuing the fugitive Darius to Ecbatana, which submitted in 330, and on to Bactria. There the satrap Bessus, a cousin of Darius, had the Persian king murdered and declared himself king. Alexander went on through Bactria and captured and executed Bessus. He was now in the regions beyond the Oxus River (the present-day Amu Darya), and his men were beginning to show dissatisfaction. In 330 a conspiracy against Alexander was said to implicate the son of one of his generals, Parmenion; Alexander not only executed the son but also put the innocent Parmenion to death. This act and other instances of his harshness further alienated the soldiers, who disliked Alexander's assuming Persian dress and the manner of a despot.

Nevertheless Alexander conquered all of Bactria and Sogdiana after hard fighting and then went on from what is today Afghanistan into N India. Some of the princes there received him favorably, but at the Hydaspes (the present-day Jhelum River) he met and defeated an army under Porus. He overran the Punjab, but there his men would go no farther. He had built a fleet, and after going down the Indus to its delta, he sent Nearchus with the fleet to take it across the unknown route to the head of the Persian Gulf, a daring undertaking. He himself led his men through the desert regions of modern Baluchistan, S Afghanistan, and S Iran. The march, accomplished with great suffering, finally ended at Susa in 324.

Discord and Death

At Susa Alexander found that many of the officials he had chosen to govern the conquered lands had indulged in corruption and misrule. Meanwhile certain antagonisms had developed against Alexander; in Greece, for instance, many decried his execution of Aristotle's nephew, the historian Callisthenes, and his other acts of seemingly senseless murder; and the Greek cities resented his request that they treat him as a god. Alexander's Macedonian officers balked at his attempt to force them to intermarry with the Persians (he had himself married Roxana, a Bactrian princess, as one of his several wives), and they resisted his Eastern ways and his vision of an empire governed by tolerance. He was also distrusted for his extremely heavy consumption of alcohol. There was a mutiny, but it was put down. In 323, Alexander was planning a voyage by sea around Arabia when he caught a fever and died at age 32. After his death his generals fell to quarreling about dividing the rule (see Diadochi). His only son was Alexander Aegus, born to Roxana after Alexander's death and destined for a short and pitiful life.


Whether or not Alexander had plans for a world empire cannot be determined. He had accomplished greater conquests than any before him, but he did not have time to mold the government of the lands he had taken. Incontestably, he was one of the greatest generals of all time and one of the most powerful personalities of antiquity. He influenced the spread of Hellenism throughout the Middle East and into Asia, establishing city-states modeled on Greek institutions that flourished long after his death. There are many legends about him, e.g., his feats on his horse Bucephalus and his cutting of the Gordian knot. The famous Greek sculptor Lysippus did several studies of Alexander.


Arrian and Plutarch wrote biographies of him in ancient times, and the literature of the Middle Ages romanticized his life. See also modern biographies by C. B. Welles (1970), R. L. Fox (1974), N. G. L. Hammond (1981), A. B. Bosworth (1989), and P. Freeman (2011); studies by D. W. Engels (1978), A. B. Bosworth and E. J. Baynham, ed. (2002), and P. Briant (rev. ed. tr. 2010); E. Badian, Collected Papers on Alexander the Great (2012).

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The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.

Alexander the Great


Born July 356 B.C. in Pella; died June 13, 323 B.C., in Babylon. King of Macedonia from 336. One of the greatest military leaders and statesmen of the ancient world. Son of the Macedonian king Philip II. From 343 his tutor was the philosopher Aristotle; his father directed his military training.

Alexander first showed his courage and military gifts in 338 in the battle at Chaeronea, which completed the Macedonian conquest of Greece. He began his reign in 335 with a campaign against the neighboring northwestern tribes of Illyrians, Triballi, Getae, and others; he routed them and forced them to acknowledge Macedonian hegemony. The incipient anti-Macedonian uprising of Greek cities (335) forced Alexander to move by rapid march to central Greece to subdue the rebellious cities. In the spring of 334, a Greek and Macedonian army under Alexander crossed the Hellespont (now the Dardanelles) into Asia Minor, beginning a war with Persia. This war was prompted by increased antagonism within the Greek city-states and by the consequent necessity of conquering new markets. Alexander’s army consisted of 30,000 infantry and 5,000 cavalry in addition to auxiliary lightly armed detachments. Such experienced and able commanders as Antipa-ter, Ptolemy Lagus, Parmenio, Philotas, and Perdiccas led Alexander’s army. Although the Persian army was considerably larger than the Macedonian force, the latter’s superior fighting abilities, organization, experience, and technical equipment (pontoons, battering rams, and scaling towers) compensated for its relative smallness. In May 334, Alexander’s army routed the Persian force at the Granicus River. Alexander then occupied Asia Minor, where the Greek cities (except for Miletus and Halicarnassus), striving to free themselves from the Persian yoke, opened their gates without resistance. The cities were declared free and autonomous, and the pro-Persian oligarchs were driven out. In the autumn of 333, the Persian king Darius III attempted to defeat the Greco-Macedonian army at Issus. Although the Persians had three times as many troops, they were defeated, and Darius himself fled. Breaking the resistance of the Phoenician cities of Tyre and Gaza, Alexander seized all the ports on the eastern shore of the Mediterranean Sea. This action deprived the Persian fleet of bases, guaranteed Alexander’s domination on the sea, and secured his lines of communications. In the winter of 332–331, his army occupied Egypt. The Egyptian priests officially recognized Alexander as the son of the god Amon and as pharaoh of Egypt. Alexander used his “deification” for political purposes, effecting a rapprochement with the Egyptians and gaining the religious consecration of his authority.

From Egypt, Alexander’s army moved to Mesopotamia, where on Oct. 1, 331, near Guagamela, it decisively defeated the Persian forces, which significantly outnumbered the Macedonian army. Darius fled once more; in 330 he was killed by one of his satraps. Alexander occupied the Persian rulers’ capitals of Babylon, Susa, Persepolis, Ecbatana. The exploitation of anti-Persian feelings furthered Alexander’s successes: the peoples of a number of states under Persian domination (Egypt and Babylonia) greeted him as a liberator. Darius’ death gave Alexander the grounds to declare himself the “lawful” heir. He was transformed from a “Hellene-liberator” into an Eastern monarch, head of a vast Greco-Macedonian-Persian power.

By inducting representatives of the local Eastern nobility into the army and administration, Alexander initiated a policy of bringing the Greco-Macedonian nobility closer to that of conquered countries. The aim of the policy was to broaden the social base of his monarchy. He surrounded himself with Persian nobles, recruited Eastern contingents for the army, and introduced splendid ceremony at court. This produced discontent among the Greco-Macedonian circle surrounding Alexander and led to a series of conspiracies against him, which he suppressed with great cruelty (the execution of the able military commander Philotas, the murder of Alexander’s personal friend Cleitus, and the “conspiracy of pages”).

Continuing his campaign to the East, Alexander occupied the central part of the Iranian highlands in 330 and invaded Central Asia in 329. He began establishing strongly garrisoned fortress cities—named Alexandria—very intensively in order to consolidate his power. According to tradition, a total of about 70 were established. In the spring of 327, Alexander, taking advantage of the war between the Indian ruler Porus and the sovereign of the city of Taxila, undertook a campaign into western India (Punjab). At the Hydaspes River (a tributary of the Indus), he managed to defeat, with difficulty, the army of Porus, which included 200 fighting elephants, never before encountered by Macedonians. Alexander intended to continue his campaign into the valley of the Ganges River, but he met open resistance from his army, which was exhausted by the campaigns and illness. The fact that the majority of the troops were recruited from conquered areas also had some effect. On the Hyphasis River (eastern tributary of the Indus), Alexander was forced to give the order to return (326). The army was divided into two parts. One was dispatched by land, part of which was led by Alexander through Gedrosia and part by the general Craterus through Arachosia. The other—Nearchus’ fleet—was dispatched by water to the west. Alexander made Babylon his capital; there, in the height of preparations for new campaigns, he died. The vast power created by his conquests stretched from the Danube to the Indus. It was the greatest state of the ancient world. Without firm internal links, however, it disintegrated after the death of its creator, and a number of Hellenistic states arose on its territory.

The military art of ancient Greece reached its height in the victories of the Macedonian army commanded by Alexander the Great. Like his father, Philip II, Alexander studied, mastered, and further developed the techniques of the armies of Athens, Sparta, Boeotia, and other ancient Greek states in army preparation, tactics, and strategy. Alexander’s strategy was characterized by a comprehensive and thorough study of the enemy’s country and army, a concern for lines of communications and the stability of the rear, a striving to destroy the enemy’s main force, and a persistence and consistency in carrying out the planned strategy. Alexander resolved the problem of winning supremacy at sea and guaranteeing the security of his army’s lines of communications in an original manner: advancing along the shore with land forces, he occupied the enemy’s naval bases and thus completely forced the Persian fleet out of the Mediterranean Sea.

In the area of tactics, Alexander completely utilized the fighting capabilities of his own forces and skillfully exploited his opponents’ weaknesses. A phalanx of heavy infantry, armed with swords and long spears (sarissas) was usually put in the center of the Macedonian army’s battle formation and made up its backbone. On one flank, usually the right, Alexander established a strong grouping of heavy cavalry and medium infantry, whose function was to deliver the main blow. The remaining cavalry and light infantry were employed as a cover for the other flank and for the initial engagement. A frontal assault by the phalanx was combined with decisive maneuvering actions of a strike force that broke through the flank or the rear of the enemy’s main force and brought the battle to a favorable conclusion. The principle of unequal distribution of forces along the front was developed to a considerable extent in Alexander’s army. In the estimation of F. Engels “. . . the economy of forces, in the form in which it was utilized in the battle formation of Epaminondas, was developed by Alexander into a combined use of different combat arms, which Greece with its negligible cavalry would never have been able to achieve” (Izbr. voen. proizv., 1956, p. 182). The success attained in battle was consolidated by relentless pursuit with cavalry. Alexander was generally able to maneuver his cavalry with singular success. Engels noted that “... Alexander has been recognized from that time as one of the best cavalry leaders of all time” (ibid., p. 207).

The authors of antiquity had different evaluations of Alexander’s personality and activities. His successes were explained by military genius or luck (fate)—for example, Plutarch’s On the Good Fortune of Alexander the Great. It was a characteristic of early Hellenic works, especially those written by Alexander’s associates—Ptolemy, Callis-thenes, Aristobulus, and others—to endow Alexander’s personality with heroic proportions and to view his activities as “great deeds” accomplished to liberate Greek cities and avenge the Persian devastation of Greece and defilement of its sacred objects. Ancient writers opposed to Alexander (Pompeius Trogus, Curtius Rufus, and others) viewed him as a cruel conqueror who enslaved and oppressed the peoples. Many legends and tales about Alexander took shape as far back as ancient times. One of the collections of such tales, Alexandria (in Greek)—ascribed to Cal-listhenes, a contemporary of Alexander, but actually composed considerably later (in the second or third century) as was its Latin translation in the fourth century by Julius Valerius—served as the source for the medieval literary works about Alexander. These works (the so-called Aleksandriia) made their way into Rus’ no later than the 12th century. Narratives of Alexander’s campaigns (known as Iskander in Arabic, Persian, and Turkic) were widespread in Eastern literature (Shāh Nama by Firdausi, Iskander-nama by Nizami, and others).


Kovalev, S. I. Aleksandr Makedonskii. Leningrad, 1937.
Kovalev, S. I. “Peregovory Dariias Aleksandrom i makedonskaia oppozitsiia.” Vestnik drevnei istorii, 1949, no. 3.
Kovalev, S. I. “Aleksandr i Klit.” Ibid.
Kovalev, S. I. “Zagovor ‘pazhei.’ “ Vestnik drevnei istorii, 1948, no. 1.
Kovalev, S. I. “Monarkhiia Aleksandra Makedonskogo.” Vestnik drevnei istorii, 1949, no. 4.
Trever, K. “Aleksandr Makedonskii ν Sogde.” Voprosy istorii, 1947, no. 5.
Bertel’s, E. E. Roman ob Aleksandre i ego glavnye versii na Vostoke. Moscow-Leningrad, 1948.
Radet, G. Alexandre le Grand. Paris, 1931.
Wilcken, U. Alexander der Grosse. Leipzig, 1931.

O. I. SAVOST’IANOVA and S. V. LIPITSKII (military science) [1–1195–29

The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.

Alexander the Great

(356–323 B.C.) Macedonian king and conqueror of much of Asia. [Gk. Hist.: NCE, 61]

Alexander the Great

looses the Gordian knot by cutting it with his sword. [Gk. Legend: Brewer Dictionary, 409]
Allusions—Cultural, Literary, Biblical, and Historical: A Thematic Dictionary. Copyright 2008 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.

Alexander the Great

356--323 bc, king of Macedon, who conquered Greece (336), Egypt (331), and the Persian Empire (328), and founded Alexandria
Collins Discovery Encyclopedia, 1st edition © HarperCollins Publishers 2005