(336-323 BC)

Head of Alexander from Pergamon in the Istanbul Archaeological Museum
Alexander, the son of king Philip II of Macedonia and Olympias of Epeiros, was born in 356 BC. As a youth he displayed great intelligence and charisma. These abilities were honed by his tutor, Aristotle.

Following the murder of his father in 336 (in which both he and his mother may have been implicated) Alexander succeeded to the throne of Macedonia. After ensuring the security of Greece and Macedonia he led his army into Asia Minor in an attempt to conquer the Persian Empire.

Near the Hellespont he met with the opposition of Persian satraps and fought the battle of the Granaikos River in 334 BC. The mercenary forces of the Persians were defeated, leaving most of Asia Minor open to Alexander's relentless advance.

Alexander on the Alexander Sarcophagus in the Istanbul Museum
As he passed through the major cities of Mysia and Ionia Alexander officially freed them from Persian authority and established democratic governments in them. The Persians had previously maintained control in the cities through the support of aristocratic oligarchies. Alexander also funded new building projects such as temples. At Priene he helped pay for the erection of the temple of Athene and at Ephesos he offered to assist with the rebuilding of the damaged Artemision, one of the Seven Wonders of the ancient world. The Ephesians, jealous of their temple, politely declined his help.

Having organized coastal Asia Minor, the Macedonian king moved on through the southern districts of Karia, Pisidia and Pamphylia. In the latter two regions Alexander met with the only major defeats of his short career. He was unable to take Pamphylian Sillyon by storm and was dissuaded from embarking on siege operations by a disturbance in recently pacified Aspendos.

The Pisidians of Termessos, although defeated in their initial skirmishes against Alexander and his local allies, managed to hold out thanks to the mountain fastness upon which their city was built. Again, not wishing to waste time with what would be a lengthy siege, Alexander failed to take Termessos and moved north through Phrygia to the city of Gordion.
After cutting the famous Gordian Knot which gave sanction to his overlordship in Asia, Alexander passed through the poorly defended Kilikian Gates in the south and entered northern Syria. Here he was met by the Persian king, Dareios III, and a large opposing army. Battle was given at Issos in 333 BC where Alexander's phalanx and cavalry held the field. Dareios fled the scene with the remnants of his forces to fight again another day.

Now no serious Persian opposition remained in the Levant, allowing Alexander to march through Syria, Phoenicia and Koile-Syria unhindered. His only real difficulties took place at Tyre and Gaza. The Tyrians barricaded themselves in the Old City (a virtual island) and withstood a long siege until Alexander built a mole and took the place by storm. Angered by this resistance the Macedonian king permitted the plunder of the city and the enslavement of its inhabitants. At Gaza, the local ruler, Batis, with an army of Arab mercenaries blocked Alexander's path, but was unable to hold out against the Macedonian siege engines. In October of 332 BC the heavily fortified city of Gaza fell and Batis was killed. In a fit of rage Alexander is said to have dragged the body around the walls of the city behind a chariot in emulation of Achilles with the body of Hektor.

With the exception of some further guerilla fighting in Samaria Alexander continued his march south unopposed. He entered Egypt as liberator and a new Pharaoh to the cheers of the Egyptians, freed from their Persian enemies. Here the king planned the greatest of his many foundations, Alexandreia. This city was destined to be the seat of empire for the descendants of his general, Ptolemy, and the center of Greek literary culture for centuries.

In the winter of 331 BC Alexander led an expedition to the Oasis of Siwah in order to visit the famous oracular shrine of Zeus Ammon. This march was said to have been assisted by groups of snakes and birds who showed the way through the sandy wastes. Upon his arrival Alexander was hailed as the son of the god (a normal greeting for Pharaohs). The king either misunderstood or purposely misconstrued this salutation and began to claim divine parentage even among his Greek and Macedonian troops. Embassies from various Asian cities quickly affirmed the declaration of Zeus Ammon, adding to Alexander's growing megalomania.

Later that year the Macedonian army left Egypt and moved north to Assyria for the decisive battle against Dareios at Gaugamela. The conflict ended in total victory for Alexander and Dareios was forced to escape to the eastern satrapies where he was ultimately murdered by his own adherents. Alexander was now master of the old Achaimenid capitals and all of the western Persian Empire. For most of 330 BC Alexander and his army remained in Persepolis where they enjoyed the fruits of their victory. This period of rest was marred by the burning of the Persepolitan palace in May of that year. It was claimed that this act of arson was instigated by Alexander in revenge for the destruction wrought by the Persians in Greece in the fifth century BC. On the other hand ancient authorities have also charged that Alexander did it in a drunken rage at the recommendation of an Athenian courtesan.

As Persepolis lay smoking in ruins the king led his army east in order to claim the rest of the Achaimenid Empire as his own and to explore the furthest reaches of the known world. After crossing the Hindu Kush in 329 BC Alexander defeated the Skythian tribes north of the Jaxartes River and moved against native resistance in Baktria and Sogdiane. During this period he began to disturb the conservative elements in his army by wearing Persian costume and insisting on the act of proskynesis (prostration) from those who wished an audience with him. The further east that he went, the more obsessed he became with his own divinity, for he believed that he was close to surpassing the deeds and travels of such well known gods as Herakles and Dionysos.

Alexander the Great as Herakles on a coin of the Macedonian Koinon
It became dangerous even for long-time friends of Alexander to oppose his new divinizing and orientalizing policies. A murder plot was only narrowly averted after the king killed both 'Black' Kleitos and Kallisthenes, a nephew of Aristotle.

In the aftermath of these sobering events Alexander and his army spent the next two years quelling the resistance of the Baktrian and Sogdian freedom fighters organized by the Iranian noble, Spitamenes. The struggle came to a head when local forces garrisoned the virtually impregnable fortress known simply as the Sogdian Rock against Alexander's troops. Despite the sheer face of the cliff the Macedonian king detailed a group of mountaineers to climb behind the citadel by night and to signal to the rest of the army when they had arrived. The Sogdians were so surprised and horrified at the unexpected appearance of Alexander's men that they immediately surrendered. Among the captives was Roxane, the daughter of Oxyartes, who became the wife of Alexander and would give birth to his only heir.

With operations in Sogdiane brought to a successful conclusion the king marched his army into India, the very edge of the world from the Greek point of view. In this new and fantastic land Alexander faced his worst enemy. At the battle of the Hydaspes River he and his army faced and defeated the terrifying war elephants of the local Raja, Poros, and at Sangala the Macedonians with Poros as an ally managed to overcome a massive Indian army. Alexander's greatest enemy was no foreign force of soldiers, but his own insatiable need (pothos in Greek) to explore and conquer. At last in the autumn of 326 BC, his soldiers had had enough of marching through uncharted territory, waging war with unknown peoples and never knowing if they would ever return home again. In total exasperation the army mutinied and forced Alexander to begin the long trek back to his capital at Babylon and then, many hoped, back to Macedonia.

The return journey was not as simple as might have been hoped. Alexander, still thirsty for new exploration embarked part of his forces on ships commanded by Searches and ordered them to chart the north western coast of the Indian Ocean and the Persian Gulf as they sailed home. He personally led the rest of the army on a route directly through the deadly wastes of the Gedrosian desert. According to Plutarch the waterless desert along with starvation claimed the lives of almost three quarters of Alexander's troops. It is no wonder that once the Macedonian remnant reached supplies in Karmania they are said to have spent the rest of their journey in a state of ecstatic joy and revelry reminiscent of a Dionysiac procession. Alexander's happiness was, however, tempered by reports that his governors had been mismanaging the territories that he had placed under their control. These he executed for crimes against their subjects. Many had believed that he would not survive the Gedrosian desert to bring them to account.

When he reached Susa, Alexander further amazed his people by holding a mass wedding at which over 10, 000 Macedonians were married to Asian women. Alexander had apparently intended to create a new ruling class composed of Macedonians and Persians. Of the 80 officers involved in this marriage ceremony, including such men as Ptolemy, Lysimachos and Perdikkas, only Seleukos did not repudiate his wife after Alexander's death. The king also freely forgave the debts of all his men at this time and began to recruit a phalangite unit composed of Persian youths. This latter act further aggravated the Macedonians who were already upset about Alexander's penchant for orientalizing.

Their annoyance came to a head when they reached Mesopotamian Opis in 324. Here the soldiers mutinied and in response Alexander threatened to dismiss them all and replace them with Persians. He also reminded them of all the great deeds that they had accomplished under his leadership. Suddenly ashamed at their actions, the soldiers begged him to take them back. In his usual melodramatic way Alexander rushed out of the palace to the assembled army and recognized each man as his fellow kinsman. He also returned thousands of old and incapacitated veterans to Greece and Makedonia with Krateros who had been ordered to take command there. Antipater, the governor whom Alexander had left in Makedonia in 336, was ordered to recruit replacement troops and to lead them to Babylon.

After a night of heavy drinking Alexander's closest friend, Hephaistion, the Patroklos to his Achilles, fell ill and after seven days died.

Hephaistion on the Alexander Sarcophagus in the Istanbul Archaeological Museum

Alexander was overcome with grief at Hephaistion's death and filled up an entire day weeping over the body. It is said by some ancient authorities that he even had the doctor executed for failing to prescribe the proper medicine for his ailing friend. An impressive funeral pyre was prepared for the corpse of Hephaistion and funeral games were instituted in his honor.

Alexander eventually drowned his sorrows in a campaign against the nearby Kossaians and by spring of 323 BC he returned to Babylon. As he reached the gates of the ancient city Chaldaian priests warned him that he approached from an ill-omened direction and that he should enter the city from the east. The king brushed them aside and entered in triumph.

Further omens of disaster soon followed. The seer, Peithagoras, discovered a lobeless liver in a victim that he was sacrificing. During a sight-seeing tour of the Assyrian tombs in the marshes around Babylon the wind blew the royal diadem from Alexander's head. It was returned to him by Seleukos who carried it back from the reed upon which it had landed. The fact that he carried it back on his head to avoid getting it wet foretold his future authority over much of Alexander's empire.

Not much later Alexander fell ill during a drinking party thrown by Medios. Within a few days he began to be tormented by a high fever which affected his daily routine of sacrifice and administration. Soon the king was no longer able to move from his bed and giving the royal signet ring to Perdikkas stated that his successor should be "the best man."

Alexander from Aphrodisias, Turkey

On 10 June 323 Alexander the Great died, leaving behind his wife Roxane and his unborn son. His illness has been variously ascribed to malaria or typhus aided by exhaustion and poorly healed wounds. In antiquity another school of thought held that the young king was poisoned by Antipater through the agency of his son Kassander, fearing the loss of his position in Macedonia. Regardless of the cause, Alexander died at the age of 33, having conquered most of the known world and having created a legend that was destined to outlive the very gods with whom he had vied in life. Even with the death of the old gods and the rise of Christianity and Islam his greatness was still remembered. His story was recounted throughout the European Middle Ages in a variety of Alexander romances and is included as a hero in the Qu'ran. Even in modern times his fame endures, for hardly a year passes in which a scholar does not write an article or publish a book on the great Macedonian.

See the following coins of Alexander the Great:

A posthumous silver tetradrachm
A bronze unit
A modern forgery of a silver drachm

 All coins are shown actual size and are fully described. For an enlargement and a brief discussion of each coin's historical and iconographic importance please click on the appropriate coin picture.

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