Cavalry commander at age eighteen, king at twenty, conqueror of the Persian Empire at twenty-six, explorer of the Indian frontier at thirty, Alexander the Great died before his thirty-third birthday: neither the ancient sources nor the modern literature take sufficient note of this brilliant commander’s extreme youth. What permanent accomplishments resulted from this whirlwind of activity?
Alexander’s defeat of the Persian Empire removed the bloc that had prevented the spread of Greek settlements into the East. Although no surviving evidence suggests that Alexander himself promoted a policy of Hellenization, Greek culture undoubtedly penetrated into western Asia as the result of his conquests, and western Asia, up to the Mesopotamian frontier, became for the first time a part of the Greek world. This is Alexander’s most certain, though unintended, historical achievement.
Alexander’s military genius is undisputed. He improved the fine army inherited from his father, Philip, by the addition of allied forces; he strengthened the cavalry arm, utilized weapons specialists, and employed a corps of engineers; he was invincible in both siege warfare and set battles. His movements were marked by speed; his logistical, intelligence, and communications operations were flawless; and his ability to improvise was unrivaled. Yet he was careful in strategy: rather than strike deep into Asia immediately, he spent nearly two years securing the coastal areas of Asia Minor and the Levant in order to ensure that Persian naval forces would not interdict his lines to Europe. Bit by bit he wore away the western sections of the Persian Empire before driving into Mesopotamia and the Iranian plateau.
Only three setbacks checked his progress. Along the Indian frontier his officers refused to march farther east, and, after his return to Babylonia, his Macedonian troops mutinied against the integration of Asian troops into the ranks. The third episode was the horrible loss of personnel in the Makran desert on the return march from India to the Persian Gulf, where lack of water and food accomplished what no enemy army had been able to do.
Alexander’s conquests created a legend that would provide the standard by which other leaders measured their careers. Kings, generals, and emperors discovered that they were unable to compete with the legend and turned to emulation— Antiochus the Great, Pompey the Great, Nero, Caracalla, Severus Alexander, and Charlemagne, to mention a few—and Alexander’s career as a metaphor for achievement has reached even into modern times.
But the ruler who is arguably the most famous secular figure in history was little admired in his own lifetime. Although we lack sufficient details about his character, there was no doubt that he was an inspiring leader and personally a very brave soldier. He was ruthless toward those who opposed him—even from within his own ranks—but fair and honest toward those who exhibited courage and skill. He probably suffered from an overwhelming ambition and an uncontrollable temper that often arose from drinking excessive amounts of wine. He was widely despised by many of the subject Greeks, whose attitude might best be summed up by the comment attributed to one Athenian orator who, when informed of Alexander’s death, replied, “What? Alexander dead? Impossible! The world would reek of his corpse!” In the end, his achievement appears to have been a grand adventure tied to his own personal ambitions—conquest for its own sake.
The Reader’s Companion to American History. Eric Foner and John A. Garraty, Editors. Copyright © 1991 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.