The Life Of A Conqueror: Alexander The Great

Alexander III of Macedon, commonly referred to as Alexander the Great, became the king of Macedon at the young age of 20. Although he only reigned for a short 12 years, during his time as king, he led a massive military campaign through Asia and northeast Africa. By the time he was 30, he had forged one of the largest empires in the ancient world that stretched from Greece to northwestern India. Known for his ambition and military prowess, he was never defeated in battle and is widely regarded as one of the greatest military commanders of all-time. Take a look to see what made Alexander so great and how he shaped the ancient world in just under a decade.

His Ascension To The Throne Was Bloody

Alexander consulting the oracle
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Stock Montage/Getty Images

Although Alexander and his father, King Phillip II, were close in Alexander’s youth, their relationship began to falter when his father married Cleopatra of Macedon. After his father was assassinated in 336 BC, many looked to Alexander and his mother as potential culprits.

With the throne now open, Alexander wasted no time and had his father’s last wife and children killed. Rebellions soon began to rise among the Thracians and Greeks, which Alexander swiftly put an end to, restoring Macedonian rule over the conquered states. Everything happened so fast that people had no choice but to knowledge Alexander as their ruler.

He Was Tutored By Aristotle

Alexander and Aristotle
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Stock Montage/Getty Images

As a young teenager, King Phillip II put Alexander under the tutelage of Aristotle, who would grow to be known as one of the greatest minds in history. At the time, Aristotle had yet to make a name for himself, although he was a known student of Plato.

His father and mother both had great admiration for Plato and saw it only fitting that their son learns from someone that Plato saw promise in. Under Aristotle, Alexander was trained in medicine, logic, mathematics, art, religion, philosophy, and more. All which had a great impact on Alexander’s later life. His education with Aristotle ended when he was 16.

He Named Dozens Of Cities After Himself, And One After His Horse

Alexandria Lighthouse
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Universal History Archive/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

During his military conquests, Alexander was known for commemorating his military successes by founding over 70 cities, which he named all Alexandria. The most famous of these was founded at the mouth of the Nile in 331 BC, which is currently the second-largest city in Egypt.

Other cities are sprinkled throughout the Middle East, which can act as a map of Alexander’s army’s movements. During his Indian campaign, Alexander founded the city of Bucephala, the name of his favorite horse that was mortally wounded during the campaign.

He Earned His Horse At A Young Age

Alexander the Great and horse
Leemage/UIG via Getty Images
Leemage/UIG via Getty Images

At the tender age of ten-years-old, a trader from Thessaly brought Phillip II a horse, which he offered to sell for an impressive 13 talents. However, the horse refused to be mounted, and to the king’s dismay, the trainers were at a loss. Yet, the clever Alexander discovered that the horse was afraid of his own shadow and asked if he could tame the horse himself.

Admiring his son’s courage, the king kissed his son, stating, “My boy, you must find a kingdom big enough for your ambitions. Macedon is too small for you” and bought the horse for him. Alexander tamed the horse himself and named him Bucephalus, meaning “ox-head.”

The Love Of His Life Was Originally His Captive

Alexander's wedding
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Sepia Times/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

In 327 BC, Alexander won an incredible victory when he captured Sodian Rock, which was assumed to be an impenetrable mountain fortress. Yet, Alexander succeeded. While looking over his captives, the 28-year-old Alexander’s eyes fell upon Roxana, the teenage daughter of a Bactrian nobleman.

Not long after, the two were married, and in a traditional ceremony, Alexander cut a loaf of bread in half with his sword and shared it with his new bride. Roxana would follow him on his India campaign and would give birth to their only son Alexander IV mere months after his death.

The Legend Of The Gordian Knot

Alexander cutting the Gordian Knot
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Art Media/Print Collector/Getty Images

The Gordian Knot refers to an intricate knot that was commonly used by Gordius, the founder of the city of Gordium. Legend said that whoever could untie the knot would become the leader of Asia, with many attempting to untie it, to no avail.

At the age of 23, and well on his way to conquering Asia, Alexander visited Gordium as part of his campaign and tried his hand at the Gordian Knot. According to the story, Alexander approached the knot, proclaimed that it didn’t matter how it was undone and hacked it apart with his sword.

His Death Remains A Mystery

Death of Alexander the Great
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Universal History Archive/Getty Images

In 323 BC, Alexander suddenly fell ill after drinking a bowl of wine at a gathering. Two weeks later, at the age of 32, the Macedonian king was dead. Considering that his father had been assassinated by one of his own personal guards, those close to Alexander were under suspicion, especially his General Antipater and Antipater’s son Cassander.

The two would later go on to murder Alexander’s widow and son. Today, researchers assume that Alexander may have succumbed to malaria, lung infection, liver failure, or possibly typhoid fever.

His Body Was Preserved Using Honey

Sarcophagus of Alexander the Great
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Universal History Archive/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

Upon his death, Alexander’s body was laid in a gold sarcophagus filled with honey that was then placed inside of a gold casket. According to Aelian, a seer named Aristander once prophesized that the leader Alexander would be laid to rest and “would be happy and unvanquishable forever.”

His body was then sent back to Macedon where it was intercepted and sent to Egypt by Ptolemy I, one of Alexander’s general. Since burying the former king was a royal prerogative, he saw it as a sign of his succession to the empire.

He Never Lost A Battle

Alexander fighting
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Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Getty Images

To this day, Alexander’s incredible military tactics and strategies are studied by military theorists. Winning his first victory at just 18-years-old, Alexander made a name for himself for his courage, wits, and ability to personally lead his men into the thick of battle quickly and efficiently. Throughout his campaign, he never suffered a loss.

After securing Macedon in Greece, Alexander crossed into India and what is now modern-day Turkey, where he won a series of battles against the Persians under the rule of Darius III. One of his keys to success was the use of the military formation of a Macedonian phalanx, in which the swords of the Persians stood little chance against the shields and 20-foot-long spears of his army.

He Embraced Persian Culture

Marriage at Susa
Pinterest/Real Macedonia
Pinterest/Real Macedonia

After six years of campaigning in Persia, in 330 BC, Alexander conquered Persepolis, one of the main centers of Persian culture. However, upon conquering the city, he came to the realization that the only way to rule over the Persians was to adopt certain aspects of their culture.

So, he began wearing Persian attire, including royal Persian accessories despite the opposition of many Macedonians. In order to further integrate Macedonian and Persian culture, in 324 BC, he held a mass wedding in the Persian city of Susa, in which 92 leading Macedonians took Persian wives, including Alexander who married two.

He Supposedly Smelled Great

Statue of Alexander on a horse
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Universal History Archive/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

In Plutarch’s “Lives of the Noble Greeks and Romans,” which was written 400 years after Alexander’s death, it was stated that Alexander had “a most agreeable odor,” and that “his breath and body all over was so fragrant as to perfume the clothes that which he wore.” Supposedly.

This was a rumor that circulated when he was still alive and that his godlike characteristics made him smell better than any mortal man. Alexander even once claimed that he was the Son of Zeus, a notion that his mother supported.

He Was Only Half Macedonian

Relief of Alexander
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The Print Collector/Getty Images

When Alexander’s father, King Phillip II, fell in love and married one of his general’s niece, Cleopatra, it put Alexander’s claim to the throne of Macedon at risk. This is because Alexander was only half Macedonian on his fathers’ side, and his father’s child with Cleopatra would be full Macedonian, therefore having a better claim to the throne.

So, after having a falling out with his father and his assassination, Alexander and his mother fled from Macedon With the help of a family friend named Demaratus, Alexander was able to return to Macedon and claim his crown just six months later.

He Refused Peace

Siege of Tyre
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Stock Montage/Getty Images

After taking over the cities of Marathas and Aradus while campaigning in Persia, King Darius begged Alexander for peace, although Alexander refused. Instead, he attacked the island of Tyre but lacked the navy needed to reach the city.

So, he decided to build causeways in order to reach Tyre. While the citizens of Tyre were distracted by the construction of the causeways, Alexander managed to acquire a navy and take the city by surprise. In 332 BC, he broke through the city walls and either enslaved or executed those who had defied him.

The Location Of His Tomb Remains Unknown

Sarcophagus
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Ann Ronan Pictures/Print Collector/Getty Images

Unfortunately, the exact location of Alexander the Great’s tomb remains a mystery to this day. After his death, there was much discussion about where to bury his body, as many of his generals favored different places. However, according to the Parian Chronicle, Alexander was originally buried in Memphis, Egypt.

Yet, in the late 3rd or 4th century, his body was then transferred to Alexandria. Pompey, Julius Caesar, and Augustus are all said to have visited the tomb in Alexandria, although the accounts are varied.

His Eyes Were Different Colors

Statue of Alexander
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Ann Ronan Pictures/Print Collector/Getty Images

According to historians, Alexander the Great possibly had an eye condition called heterochromia iridium, a condition in which a person’s eyes are two different colors. This is caused by a lack of pigmentation in the iris of one of the eyes.

Greek historian Arrian describes Alexander’s eyes stating, “[T]he strong, handsome commander with one eye dark as the night and one blue as the sky.” Although this condition is more common in animals than humans, it doesn’t negatively affect the individual.

His Final Words

Painting of Alexander the Great
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Ann Ronan Pictures/Print Collector/Getty Images

Because Alexander’s legitimate child had not been born while Alexander was on his deathbed, there was a lingering question about who would succeed as the new leader of the kingdom. When the generals supposedly asked Alexander who should succeed him, he responded saying “Kratisto,” which means “to the strongest” in Greek.

However, there was some debate about his final words with others claiming he said “Krater’ oi” meaning to Craterus, a leader in his army. Yet, Craterus was never selected as ruler and the generals would fight among themselves for power.

A Philosopher Prophesized His Death

Painting of Alexander sitting down
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Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Getty Images

Calanus was an Indian philosopher that Alexander met in Taxila and followed him during his travels. When he fell ill in what is now Southwest Iran, Calanus informed Alexander that he planned to take his own life by self-immolation.

However, before he entered the fire, Calanus allegedly told Alexander that he would meet him again in Babylon where he would salute him. At the time, nobody gave Calanus’ last words much thought, until Alexander died in Babylon, and it was assumed that Calanus had foreseen Alexander’s death.

He Was Deeply Interested In Philosophy

Alexander talking to Aristotle
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Stock Montage/Getty Images

Although Alexander had always had a sharp mind and an interest in philosophy, his education under Aristotle certainly helped expand his horizons. While he was known for his successes as a warrior and a general during his campaign, he also made several stops during his travels to speaks with the great minds of the regions he was in.

One of the most notable of these stops took place when he was in India where he had lengthy discussions with the gymnosophists or “naked philosophers” in the Hindu and Jain religious traditions.

He Inherited His Highly-Trained Army

Coin of Phillip II
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CM Dixon/Print Collector/Getty Images

While Alexander the Great is considered to be one of the greatest military tacticians and conquerors in history, he owes a lot of his accomplishments to his father. It was actually King Phillip II that put Macedon on the map and trained what would become one of the deadliest fighting forces of its time.

Phillip II helped to develop his infantry’s phalanx fighting style, bred a devastating cavalry, as well as built siege equipment. Although Alexander did most of the conquering himself, he likely wouldn’t have been nearly as successful without his father.

His Army Mutinied Against Him

Alexander with his soldiers
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Stock Montage/Getty Images

In 326 BC, Alexander and his armies fought against King Porus, the King of the Pauravas. Although he was victorious, the battle was costly, yet he still had intentions of marching his army further east into the Indian subcontinent.

However, after years of campaigning, his army feared that they would be pushing their luck by fighting against larger and more refreshed armies. So, they mutinied at the Hyphasis River, refusing to march any further east. Although Alexander tried to convince them otherwise, he failed in doing so.

He Wasn’t Always An Obedient Student

Statue of Alexander
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Prisma/UIG/Getty Images

Prior to being tutored by the legendary Aristotle, Alexander had other tutors, as his parents both believed education was quite important. Alexander’s first tutor was Leonidas, who was a relative to his mother.

Leonidas was successful in teaching Alexander the basics of mathematics, horsemanship, and archery, but had a hard time controlling the young boy. Supposedly, Alexander’s favorite tutor was Lysimachus, who made up a game in which Alexander would pretend to be Achilles.

News On Alexander’s Birthday

Coin of Philip II
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Ann Ronan Pictures/Print Collector/Getty Images

On the day of Alexander’s birth, in July 356 BC, his father King Philip received both good and bad news. The good news was that his general Parmenion had defeated the Illyrian and Paeonian armies, as well that his horse had won at the Olympic Games.

On the other hand, he was notified that the Temple of Artemus, one of the seven wonders of the world, had burned down. There was no telling if Alexander’s birth was a good or bad omen.

He Was A Successful Warrior At A Young Age

Alexander listening to news
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Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Getty Images

When Alexander was just 16 years old, King Philip II instigated a war against the Byzantion. With Alexander as the heir apparent and Prince Regent, he was given command of a large number of troops to prove his worth as a young soldier.

In Philip’s absence, Alexander defended Macedonia against a revolt led by the Thracian and Maedi, successfully driving them from the territory. After his victory, he settled the surrounding area with the Greeks and named established the city of Alexandroupolis.

Alexander And Diogenes The Cynic

Alexander and Diogenes
Universal History Archive/Getty Images
Universal History Archive/Getty Images

A popular story about Alexander the Great has to do with his encounter with Diogenes the Cynic. Supposedly, as a teenager, Alexander set out to find Diogenes, who was known for his rejection of social norms and for sleeping in a large clay jar.

Upon seeing him in a public square, Alexander approached him, asking if there was anything that he could do for the man with the riches that he possessed. Legend says that Diogenes replied, stating, “stand aside; you’re blocking my sun.” Alexander was so impressed by his response that he told his generals, “If I were not Alexander, I would be Diogenes.”

His Empire Fell Into Civil War After His Death

Sarcophagus relief
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Ann Ronan Pictures/Print Collector/Getty Images

With such a vast empire that spanned so many different cultures, and without a clear heir, Alexander’s once unified empire fell to pieces, with different people claiming the right to be king.

This turned into what is known as the Wars of the Successors, which would last for forty years, as warring parties tried to control the massive empire. Eventually, the empire would be divided into three parts known as the Seleucids in Asia, the Antigonids in Macedonia, and the Ptolemies in Egypt.

He’s Lucky To Not Have Died In Battle

Statue of Alexander
Universal History Archive/ Universal Images Group via Getty Images
Universal History Archive/ Universal Images Group via Getty Images

Considering the number of battles that Alexander fought in and how he personally led his armies, it’s a miracle that he was never killed in combat. However, that doesn’t mean he didn’t come close to death.

For example, at the Granicus River, his life was saved by Cleitus the Black, who cut off a Persian’s arm before he was able to kill Alexander with his scimitar. Yet, he did suffer multiple wounds throughout his campaigns. At one point during his Indian campaign, he even had his lung pierced by an arrow.

Alexander Had Some Requests Before His Death

Alexander entering Babylon
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Stock Montage/Getty Images

Before his death, Alexander left instructions to Craterus for things he wished to have accomplished. Some of these include military expansion into the southern and western Mediterranean. He also wanted the construction of an enormous tomb for his father, as well as great temples across India and Greece, and the circumnavigation of Africa.

Furthermore, his final instructions were for the European and Asian populations to create a “common unity.” Although Craterus began carrying out his wishes, the majority of Alexander’s wishes were abandoned.

He Held A Massive Drinking Competition

Alexander and Porus
Bettmann/Getty Images
Bettmann/Getty Images

After the death of his friend Calanus, Alexander ordered the organization of an Olympic Games in India to honor him. Not terribly educated in Greek games, Alexander decided to host an event of his own, turning it into a wine-drinking contest.

However, not many of the contestants had much experience in drinking alcohol, and the competition resulted in 41 of them dying from alcohol poisoning. The winner, a Greek named Promachus, ended up drinking an impressive 13 liters of wine before dying a few days later.

He Made Sure To Secure His Borders Before The Persian Campaign

Alexander in battle
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Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Before beginning his campaign in Persia, Alexander secured his Northern borders. In the spring of 335, he began putting down revolts in the east. He defeated Thracian forces at Mount Haemus, taking control and then marched to Triballi, where he defeated an army there as well.

He continued his conquest of the area, defeating every army that opposed him. By the time he was done, his Northern borders had all been secured, and Alexander could be at peace knowing his kingdom was under control.

He Was Saddened By The Death Of Darius

Alexander looking at Darius' dead body
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Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Getty Images

Alexander’s final battle with King Darius III of Persia was the Battle of Gaugamela. Fought in 331 in what is now modern-day northern Iraq, Alexander’s forces were outnumbered, yet Alexander relied on his skilled military tactics to win the day.

During the battle, Darius was betrayed by one of his satraps and was captured and murdered by his own men. Upon finding Darius’ body, Alexander was saddened, as he respected Darius as a leader. He then sent Darius’ body back to Persepolis for a proper royal burial.

He Killed One Of His Friends

Alexander in the temple of Jerusalem
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Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Getty Images

One of Alexander’s closest and oldest friends was Cleitus, who had become angry after Alexander began adopting Persian customs and dress. Once, when the two were drinking, Cleitus commented that Alexander should be following Macedonian traditions and not those of the Persians who were once his enemy.

Cleitus then brought up how he had saved Alexander in battle, stating, “this is the hand, Alexander, that saved you.” This infuriated Alexander, who then killed Cleitus with a spear. However, Alexander felt terrible for what he had done and never forgave himself for it.

He Uncovered A Plot To Take His Life

Alexander on his horse
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Ann Ronan Pictures/Print Collector/Getty Images

During his campaign in central Asia, Parmerio, Alexander’s second in command’s son, Philotas, allegedly failed to report a possible attack on Alexander’s life. Alexander decided not only to kill Philotas and the other men involved but Parmerio too, who supposedly had nothing to do with the assassination plot.

According to Quintus Curtius, Alexander ordered a man named Plydamus to slay Parmerio, ordering him to give him a letter that looked like it was from his son. While Parmerio was reading the letter, a general named Cleander murdered Parmerio with his sword.

His Father Was A Huge Influence On Him

Statue of Philip II
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Universal History Archive/Getty Images

Although his father, Philip II, was often away during Alexander’s youth, conquering neighboring territories and putting down rebellions, he remained one of Alexander’s most significant role models.

His father knew what it would take for his son to be a great leader, so he spared no expense when it came to his education and training. Alexander also saw how his father was with his troops, such as fighting alongside his men, a practice he would adopt as the king.

He Had A Unique Yet Paradoxical Personality

The Queens of Persia at Alexander's feet
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Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Getty Images

According to Susan Abernethy of The Freelance History Writer, “The personality of Alexander the Great was a paradox […] “He had great charisma and force of personality but his character was full of contradictions, especially in his later years (his early thirties).”

One thing he was adeptly skilled at was motivating his troops, even in the direst of circumstances. Abernethy describes him as a visionary whose ability to strategize under enormous pressure led him to win so many battles, even when he was greatly outnumbered.

He Had A Fascination With Greek Heroes

Siege of Troy
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Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Getty Images

Growing up and into adulthood, The Iliad and The Odyssey were two of Alexander’s favorite books. He was inspired by the heroes written about by Homer and was known to keep a copy of The Iliad under his pillow.

Of all the characters in the novels, he was most obsessed with the Greek warrior Achilles, who fought at Troy. Furthermore, his biggest idol was Hercules. He identified with the hero to such an extent that he even proclaimed that he was the son of Zeus, like Hercules himself.

He Threw A Massive Funeral For His Friend

Funeral pyre of Hephaestion
DE AGOSTINI PICTURE LIBRARY/Getty Images
DE AGOSTINI PICTURE LIBRARY/Getty Images

Hephaestion was a member of Alexander’s army, one of his personal bodyguards, his best friend, and right-hand man. When he died suddenly in Ecbatana, Alexander made the decision to honor him as a hero.

According to The Library of History, compiled by Diodorus Siculus, Hephaestion’s funeral pyre was several levels, with each more decadent than the last. The height of the pyre was more than “one hundred and thirty cubits.” Few kings had funerals such as this.

Many Of Plutarch’s Writings About Alexander The Great Are Most Likely Fictitious

Picture of Plutarch
Edward Gooch Collection/Getty Images
Edward Gooch Collection/Getty Images

The Greek writer Plutarch wrote Parallel Lives, which is a series of biographies about Greeks and Romans in pairs, including Alexander and Julius Caesar. However, living 400 years after Alexander, it is assumed that his reliability as a biographer is questionable.

He was also Greek, and Greek people didn’t see Alexander the same life as others, considering many of them resented the Macedonians. He was also questioned for clearly stating that his writings are not a history but a “life story” because it’s more interesting to read about.

Questions About His Sexuality

Relief of Alexander the Great
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CM Dixon/Heritage Images/Getty Images

When he was alive and after his death, history has taken an interest in Alexander’s sexuality. Although he had three wives during his life, he was also rumored to have been involved with at least one man.

However, this wouldn’t exactly have been taboo back then, especially in Ancient Greece, where sexuality wasn’t viewed the same way that it is today. Plenty of men had intimate relations with other men and were known to still take wives and have children as well.

The Alexander Romance

Alexander being lowered in ancient submarine
Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Right after his death in 323 BC, legends began to spread across the world about many of Alexander the Great’s exploits, many of which were nothing more than fables.

This tradition is known as the Alexander Romance. These are stories about him journeying to the bottom of the sea in a glass bubble, or going through the “Land of Darkness” in search of the “Fountain of Youth.” Of course, many of these were mere legends, but considering Alexander’s extraordinary life, they weren’t exactly unbelievable at the time.

He Had A Major Influence On Rome

Augustus visiting Alexander's tomb
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Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Getty Images

Alexander and his successful campaigns caught the eye of the Romans, who greatly admired him. Roman leaders began to see him as a role model, with some even taking on Alexander’s hairstyle and searching for articles of his clothing across his conquered lands.

Julius Caesar dedicated a statue to Alexander, although he replaced its head with his own while Octavian changed his seal from a sphinx to Alexander’s profile. It is also noted that he was especially admired by emperors Trajan, Nero, and Caracalla, with some making pilgrimages to his tomb.