Alexander the Great: Conqueror or Disruptor?
Exploring Alexander the Great's multifaceted legacy.
In 31 BCE Augustus, the new Emperor of Rome visited Alexandria to pay homage to his hero. Augustus made this journey at the height of his power. At this point in 31 BCE, Augustus could have reasonably claimed to be the most powerful man in the world and possibly the most successful man in history as he sat at the head of the Roman Empire.
Yet Augustus visited Alexandria to pay homage and deference to the Tomb of Alexander the Great, the one man who was greater than any other in Roman eyes. Augustus refused to visit the Tombs of the Pharaohs and other Kings saying he “wanted to see a King, not some corpses”. Alexander’s conquests and image sat above mortal history and Roman ideology. This is because by Roman times Alexander had become a deified figure whose exploits were legendary and represented a template for conquering the world.
There is little doubt Alexander the Great was held as the highest power by the most powerful empire in the history of the world. This is the legacy of Alexander the Great.
Alexander was born to Philip II of Macedonia on 20th July 356 BCE at Pella, Macedonia. Philip had been King of Macedonia since 395 BCE, however, his reign had been marked by severe turbulence, intrigue and threat. Given this fact, Alexander’s destiny as the next King of Macedon was set from the day he was born.
Philip II was a legendary leader in his own right. His management of Macedon through the crisis years was miraculous. Philip also expanded and consolidated Macedon’s frontiers, an impressive feat given the threat from the Persian Empire. The nature of warfare was also transformed by him as he created the Phalanx formation that later allowed Rome to conquer Europe and Central Asia.
This is what Alexander had to live up to.
Alexander was sent away to a boarding school where he was tutored in reading, writing, hunting and riding. At school Alexander shared rooms with many of the boys who would later become his Generals like Ptolemy I. Alexander’s tutor was the philosopher Aristotle who nurtured Alexander’s intelligence and fostered Alexander’s lifelong love of literature and philosophy. This education lasted until Alexander was 16 and provided him with extensive skills to follow in his father’s footsteps.
The moment Alexander became destined for greatness was predicted by the Delphic Oracle. The Oracle told Philip that the man who could tame the crazed horse, Bucephalus, would conquer the entire world. Only Alexander was able to tame the horse. This was the horse that Alexander eventually rode across the world.
Alexander’s first moves as a general came when he was barely 16 years old. Alexander successfully conquered Thrace before helping his father invade the Peloponnese by 338 BCE. Philip II was assassinated in 336 BCE. Many conspiracy theories have suggested Alexander was complicit in his father’s death but there is no evidence to support this.
The newly enthroned Alexander III of Macedon immediately made his mark by conquering the League of Corinth in 335 BCE and invading Persia in 334 BCE. Alexander was only able to achieve this because Philip had constructed an army unrivaled in Classical Greece but it was Alexander who made the bold step to invade the formidable Persian Empire.
Alexander quickly conquered Tyre and then Egypt where he founded his first city, Alexandria which exists to this day. Alexander and his army then systematically pushed across the Persian heartlands of Central Asia pushing the Persian King Darius further back until he fled into the Hindu Kush of modern Afghanistan where he was killed by a usurper. At this point the Persian empire with all its riches, elites and territory fell into Alexander’s hands. Alexander captured Babylon in 331 BCE along with the Persian treasury containing 50,000 talents.
Amongst all of this campaigning, Alexander and his army killed thousands, upon thousands of innocent civilians in the local populations around Central Asia leaving an indelible mark of bloodshed in the Persian heartlands.
However, Alexander was not content as he targeted world domination. From Babylon, the army marched East towards modern Pakistan and India. However, Alexander’s ego took his army over the deadly Gedrosian desert in 325 BCE where scores of soldiers died from the harsh conditions.
It was at this point after 10 years of campaigning, unimaginable conditions and unfulfilled promises of riches, the soldiers of Alexander’s army revolted. This forced Alexander to leave the India-Pakistan frontier behind and return to Babylon where over 100 embassies were waiting for him with problems that he had neglected whilst on campaign.
Alexander returned to Babylon but it was short-lived. During intense celebrations at Babylon in 323 BCE, Alexander attempted to drink wine from the cup of Heracles, all 12 pints of wine. After successfully downing the wine Alexander took ill and retired to his deathbed. Many theories about the illness Alexander suffered have been posited but malaria is the most likely.
Alexander lay on his deathbed surrounded by his generals and companions. However, Alexander had left no heirs; no dynasty to speak of and had not designated his successor among the generals. On his deathbed Alexander was asked who he would like to succeed him to which he responded “to the strongest”. However, the Greek for strongest is very similar to Greek for ‘Craterus’, the name of his principal deputy which has led historians to believe Craterus was the true heir but history was rewritten by others who wished to have the power themselves.
Amongst all this Ptolemy made a bold play for power and succession by stealing Alexander’s body from Craterus as it traveled in procession from Babylon to Macedon. Ptolemy intercepted the body and took it to Alexandria where he entombed it in a massive mausoleum that stood for centuries after. However, his only intention was to claim lineage to Alexander through his corpse. The only other options were his unborn son, Alexander IV and his half-brother Philip III who was mentally incapable.This speaks to the chaos Alexander left at his death.
Alexander may have conquered most of the known world by his death but he had singularly failed to consolidate his territory, govern his people and plan for the future. These failures led to nearly a century of bloodshed and civil war between his successors that lasted from 323 BCE to 276 BCE. Alexander did not leave a united world as he intended but a violent and fractured one.
When Augustus traveled to visit Alexander’s tomb he was not doing so solely for historical reasons but to capture some of Alexander’s spirit. The Romans believed they were Alexander’s successors and as such they retained the spirit and abilities of Alexander.
These abilities were clearly considerable. Alexander was never defeated in battle despite his army being consistently outnumbered and he conquered the Persian empire none of which was possible without significant skill as a commander.
However, Alexander has a side that is not often talked about – his shortcomings. Given the mess Alexander left and the turbulence that plagued the Hellenistic world after his death it is fair to reassess the brilliance of Alexander.
For example, Alexander allowed his megalomania to increase towards the end of his life with stories suggesting his deification was openly discussed. It was suggested that Alexander was the son of Zeus and that the Gods attended his birth. Alexander also allowed comparisons and depictions of himself as the Greek hero Achilles. This represented a descent from a strong nationalistic monarchy from Macedonia to a personality cult centered around one man, not one institution. Indeed, Alexander took the title Lord of Asia over his rightful title, King of Macedon.
This troubling megalomania was paired with Alexander’s volatile anger and predilection for drinking. Alexander and his entourage loved to party hard wherever they went; we have scores of evidence of Alexander getting drunk and doing something stupid. For example, Cleitus, a general, came to Alexander with a message of discontent from the troops of Alexander’s army; Alexander in drunken rage threw a spear through Cleitus’ chest, killing him.
Similarly, and most famously, Alexander and his friends got so drunk after capturing Persepolis, the ancient mega city, that they accidentally burnt it to the ground, according to our ancient sources. These actions don’t exactly square with Plutarch’s description of Alexander bringing ordered civilisation to the barbarian world…
Alexander left his home in Macedon with a desire to conquer and change the world. He certainly changed it, but conquer it, he did not. Instead, he left a world with no particular direction, just chaos and bloodshed.
At his death Alexander gave Craterus his plans for the future which indicate where Alexander intended to take the world. These plans included invading Carthage, setting up Temples across Europe and Asia, a conquest of Arabia, wholesale intermarriage and population merging across Europe and Asia and finally a full circumnavigation of Africa. Whilst these plans are so wild, they are often discounted for their historical accuracy, they still speak to Alexander’s imagination, inspiration and drive to advance his cause. This is the spirit that most lives on from Alexander, his ability to dream of things and then chase after them.
Amongst all this dreaming he still left a mark that we feel to this day. Alexander transported Greek culture and language across the world causing Hellenistic culture to be the cornerstone of European and Central Asian heritage. He also founded more than 20 cities that still stand today. And finally, he instigated a process of cultural and ethnic mixing that changed the face of European and Central Asian populations.
Even though it is not the world domination he wanted, it’s still quite some legacy.