Perhaps the greatest military genius of the ancient world, the warrior-king Alexander III of Macedon (356–323 B.C.)—better known as Alexander the Great—conquered territories stretching from Greece to Egypt and through present-day Turkey, Iran and Pakistan. Combining battlefield successes with kingdom-building strategy, Alexander spent his 13-year reign working to unite East and West through military force and cultural exchange. Alexander’s reputation grew so quickly that by the time of his death at age 32 he was viewed as having godlike aspects. It isn’t always possible to separate fact and fiction from the stories told about Alexander over the centuries, but here are eight great nuggets from Alexander’s life.
Alexander’s father, Philip II of Macedon, hired Aristotle, one of history’s greatest philosophers,, to educate the 13-year-old prince. Little is known about Alexander’s three-year tutelage but presumably by the end of it Aristotle’s wise but worldly approach had sunk in. According to legend, while still a prince in Greece, Alexander sought out the famed ascetic Diogenes the Cynic, who rejected social niceties and slept in a large clay jar. Alexander approached the thinker in a public plaza, asking Diogenes if there was anything he in his great riches could do for him. “Yes,” Diogenes replied, “stand aside; you’re blocking my sun.” Alexander was charmed by Diogenes’ refusal to be impressed, stating, “If I were not Alexander, I would be Diogenes.”
Years later, in India, Alexander paused his military conquests to have lengthy discussions with the gymnosophists, “naked philosophers” from the Hindu or Jain religions who eschewed human vanity—and clothing.
Alexander the Great’s military tactics and strategies are still studied in military academies today. From his first victory at age 18, Alexander gained a reputation of leading his men to battle with impressive speed, allowing smaller forces to reach and break the enemy lines before his foes were ready. After securing his kingdom in Greece, in 334 B.C. Alexander crossed into Asia (present-day Turkey) where he won a series of battles with the Persians under Darius III. The centerpiece of Alexander’s fighting force was the 15,000-strong Macedonian phalanx, whose units held off the sword-wielding Persians with 20-foot-long pikes called sarissa.
Alexander commemorated his conquests by founding dozens of cities (usually built up around previous military forts), which he invariably named Alexandria. The most famous of these, founded at the mouth of the Nile in 331 B.C., is today Egypt’s second-largest city. Other Alexandrias trace the path of his armies’ advances through present-day Turkey, Iran, Afghanistan, Tajikistan and Pakistan. Near the site of the battle of the river Hydaspes—the costliest victory of his Indian campaign—Alexander founded the city of Bucephala, named for his favorite horse, which was mortally wounded in the battle.
After his spectacular capture in 327 B.C. of Sogdian Rock, a seemingly impregnable mountain fortress, the 28-year-old Alexander was surveying his captives when Roxanne, the teenage daughter of a Bactrian nobleman, caught his eye. Soon after, in a traditional wedding ceremony, the king sliced a loaf of bread in two with his sword and shared it with his new bride. A few months after Alexander’s death, Roxanne gave birth to the couple’s only son, Alexander IV.
Plutarch’s “Lives of the Noble Greeks and Romans,” written 400 years after Alexander’s death, reports that “a most agreeable odor” exuded from Alexander’s skin, and that “his breath and body all over was so fragrant as to perfume the clothes which he wore.” The olfactory detail was part of a tradition, begun during Alexander’s lifetime, of ascribing godlike attributes to the conquering king. Alexander himself openly called himself Son of Zeus during a visit to Siwah in 331 B.C.
After six years of ever-deeper incursions into the Persian empire, in 330 A.D. Alexander conquered Persepolis, the longtime center of Persian culture. Realizing that the best way to maintain control of the Persians was to act like one, Alexander began to wear the striped tunic, girdle and diadem of Persian royal dress—to the dismay of cultural purists back in Macedonia. In 324 he held a mass wedding in the Persian city of Susa, in which he forced 92 leading Macedonians to take Persian wives (Alexander himself married two, Stateira and Parysatis).
In 323 B.C. Alexander the Great fell ill after downing a bowl of wine at a party. Two weeks later, the 32-year-old ruler was dead. Given that Alexander’s father had been murdered by his own bodyguard, suspicion fell on those surrounding Alexander, most notably his general Antipater and Antipater’s son Cassander (who would eventually order the murders of Alexander’s widow and son). Some ancient biographers even speculated that Aristotle, who had connections with Antipater’s family, may have been involved. In modern times, medical experts have speculated that malaria, lung infection, liver failure or typhoid fever may have done Alexander in.
Plutarch reports that Alexander’s body was initially treated in Babylon by Egyptian embalmers, but leading Victorian Egyptologist A. Wallis Budge speculated that Alexander’s remains were immersed in honey to stave off decay. A year or two after Alexander’s demise, his body was sent back to Macedonia only to be intercepted and sent to Egypt by Ptolemy I, one of his former generals. By controlling Alexander’s body, Ptolemy aimed to be viewed as the successor to his empire.