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Alexander the Great: Military Genius or God

Alexander the Great

Alexander the Great

Philip II of Macedon

Philip II of Macedon

The Son of King Philip II

Following the Persian Wars, Athens gained power in Greece. Nearly all of the city-states except for those in the Peloponnesian peninsula, following the lead of Sparta, were under the control of Athens. This led to tensions and eventually war between Athens and Sparta. The Peloponnesian Wars broke out across Greece.

In Macedon, a city-state north of Greece which most Greeks consider far inferior, King Philip II had been strengthening his own economic and military position. He eventually took advantage of the years of fighting between Athens and Sparta to lead a campaign against his Greek neighbors to the south. He left his then sixteen-year-old son, Alexander, home in Macedon to maintain the affairs of state. At eighteen, Alexander took his place in battle beside his father and led his fellow Macedonians to victory. At twenty, Alexander became king of Macedonia, which now included most of Greece. He would go on to conquer the entire Persian Empire and become ruler of most of the known world. A telling of the life of Alexander, however, cannot start with the beginning of his brilliant military career or his assent to the throne for the greatness that Alexander was to become, started well before he was even conceived.

Alexander and his mother Olympias

Alexander and his mother Olympias

The Birth of Alexander, Prince of Macedon

Philip II of Macedon, had many wives. Most of these marriages were political, as it was customary for a king to marry a daughter, sister, or niece of a neighboring king to form an alliance through marriage. Olympias of Epirus was no different. She was the daughter of Neoptolemus I, king of Epirus. It should be noted that Neoptolemus considered himself a descendent of the Greek, Trojan War hero Neoptolemus, son of Achilles and grandson of King Lycomedes of Scyros. This, of course, made his own children descendents of the Achilles and his goddess mother, Thetis, and by every account, Olympia was fiercely religious and loyal to the gods of Olympus.

Greek historian, Plutarch, the only known source of Alexander's childhood, tells that the night before Philip and Olympias were to be married, Olympias dreamed that her womb was struck by a thunderbolt, which started a great fire burning. Just after the wedding, Philip dreamed that he sealed his wife's womb with the symbol of a lion. Philip is also said to have witnessed his wife lying in bed with a huge snake that he assumed was Zeus, king of the gods, in disguise. According to Plutarch, Olympias was a member of the cult of Dionysus, god of wine, which included snake handling. Although Olympias remained Philip's principle wife and later bore him a daughter, Cleopatra, the two were never as close as they were before Philip came to believe that Zeus had seduced his wife.

When Alexander was born, which historians calculate to be July 20, 356 BCE, Plutarch notes that the Temple of Artemis in Ephesus was burned to the ground. Legend says this only occurred because Artemis, daughter of Zeus and a known goddess of childbirth, was away in Pella, Macedon, assisting in the birth of her half-brother, Alexander. Many believe that Olympias or Alexander himself may have started these rumors to build on his growing desire to be considered a god. Philip was off preparing for an invasion in Greece when he received a message from his wife that one of his generals had defeated two of his enemies in battle, his horses had won the Olympic Games, and she had given birth to his first son, Alexander. Philip was delighted with his good fortune.

Alexander riding Bucephalus while holding Nike

Alexander riding Bucephalus while holding Nike

The Education of Prince Alexander

As prince and heir to the throne, Alexander received the best education available in Macedonia. As a young boy, he was taught by Leonidas of Epirus, a relative of his mother, Olympias. It is said that Leonidas was hard on the boy even going so far as to check his bed at night to make sure his mother had not left any treats for her son. Another account tells of a time when Leonidas scolded Alexander for throwing too much incents on a sacrificial fire telling him not to use so much until he, Alexander, had himself defeated the people from where the incents were obtained. The story goes on to say that years later, after his conquest of Asia, Alexander sent his former teacher a great supply of incents and told him not to be so stingy in his offerings to the gods.

At ten, Alexander accomplished something that stunned even his own father. The king was looking to purchase a horse but upon watching the trainers try to control the animal, decided this particular horse was too wild to be tamed. Alexander requested a try, as he had noticed the horse seemed to be afraid of its own shadow. He turned the horse toward the sun and quickly mounted it. He proceeded to ride the horse with ease. Once he dismounted the horse, he returned to his father where, according to Plutarch, Philip wept and told his son that he must find a kingdom big enough for his ambitions as Macedon was far too small for Alexander. The hose in question, Bucephalus, was purchased by Philip and become the horse Alexander would always ride into battle. Despite his fierce pride, Philip was not convinced that he was, in fact, Alexander's father. He sent a messenger to the Oracle at Delphi with one question. Was Alexander, his son? The answer was not a direct confirmation. However, Philip took the meaning to be clear. Philip was instructed to make major sacrifices to Zeus above all others.

Aristotle and his student Alexander

Aristotle and his student Alexander

By the age of thirteen, Philip wanted the best education from all of Greece for his son. Philip considered many of the great teachers of the time finally deciding on Aristotle. Aristotle was himself a student of Plato who was a student of Socrates, the greatest philosopher of Greece. Philip gave Aristotle the Temple of Nymphs, an actual location where goddesses of nature were believed to dwell, for his teaching and rebuilt Aristotle's hometown, which Philip had destroyed in battle. In addition to Alexander, several of the sons of Macedonian nobility attended Aristotle's school. These boys would all play an important role in the life of Alexander. The education included not only philosophy but also music, religion, politics, and logic. It was under Aristotle's guidance that Alexander developed a love for the works of famed poet Homer. It is said that Alexander always carried into battle a copy of the Iliad, Homer's story of the heroics of Achilles during the Trojan War, a hero after whom Alexander tried to model himself as he considered himself a descendent.

From Regent to General

When Alexander turned sixteen, Philip left to attempt the overtake of the city of Byzantion, the city at the only entrance to the Black Sea from the Marmara Sea. In his absence from Macedon, he left Alexander in charge as regent or temporary ruler. Neighboring Trace, knowing that Philip was away at war, attempted a revolt. Alexander quickly fought them not only from Macedon but from some of their own land as well. He founded a Greek city there named Alexandropolis, the first of many cities to be founded by and named after the future king.

Battle of Chaeronea

Battle of Chaeronea

Alexander was then named a general in his father's army and successfully fought other battles leading up to the two joining forces in Greece to take Thermopylae from Thebes. The Macedonians continued into Greece defeating smaller city-states while attempting to reach a peaceful surrender of Athens. When it was clear that Athens had no intention of submitting to King Philip, peacefully or otherwise, Philip prepared for battle against Athens and Thebes at Chaeronea in Boeotia, a territory just north of Attica where Athens ruled. Alexander had never fought in a battle so large but was vital to his father's victory there. After leading the main phalanx, the line of soldiers fighting in a rectangular mass, against the Athenians, Philip drew back his troops bringing the Athenians with him. Alexander led his troops, at the Thebans then broke through an opening between the enemy lines. Philip then went back on the attack trapping the Athenians between Philip's troops and Alexander's. The key to Philip and later Alexander's success was the use of the sarissa, a very long spear. The length allowed the Macedonians to attack from a distance destroying enemy troops before they were close enough to attack with their shorter weapons. Philip's men had mastered the use of this difficult weapon and Athens was quickly defeated.

Troops in Phalanx Formation with Sarissa

Troops in Phalanx Formation with Sarissa

With the Macedonians now free to march on Athens, the citizens feared the worst, but Philip did not attack. He wanted the Greeks to fight with him and make no attempt to go against Macedon when he left to conquer Persia. For the most part, every city-state with the exception of Sparta quickly agreed to Philip's terms. When Sparta still refused, Philip and Alexander attacked the smaller cities in Lacedaemon, the territory for which Sparta was the capital. In the end, all of the city-states except Sparta agreed to join the League of Corinth. The terms were that each was free to continue as they had before but agreed to defend one another and Macedon. They also agreed to send support to help Philip in his fight against Persia. Alexander learned from his father's example.

Father and Son Clash

Though successful in battle, the relationship between father and son would be tested when they returned home to Pella. As Philip seemed to do after major military victories, he decided to take another wife. This time it was the niece of one of Philip's generals, Attalus. Unlike the other wives of Philip, Cleopatra Eurydice was from a Macedonian family. Any children of their marriage would be a full Macedonian where Alexander was only half-Macedonian blood. Olympias and her son both feared that a male heir might replace Alexander as his father's heir to the throne. During the wedding feast, the men, as was customary in Macedon, became completely drunk. This practice of drinking to the point of madness would become a weakness of Alexander's. On this night, Attalus, in a drunken rage raised a toast to his king in hopes that this union would produce a "legitimate heir." Alexander threw his drink at the general and shouted, "What am I, a bastard?" His father stood and drew a sword to go after his son but fell on his face, because he too was drunk. Alexander, now angry that his father would even consider killing him said, "See there, the man who makes preparations to pass out of Europe to Asia, is overturned passing from one seat to another." - Plutarch. Alexander, fearing his father's response grabbed his mother and fled to Epirus.

Once Philip regained his senses, it took him six months to convince his son to return having no intention of disowning him. The relationship continued to be strained, however, as a year later when a Persian governor offered his daughter in marriage to Alexander's half-brother, under coaxing of Alexander's friends from school, Alexander sent word to the governor that he should not give his daughter to an illegitimate son of Philip but to Alexander. When his father leaned of what happened, he angrily told Alexander that he deserved much better than this girl and called off talks with the Persians. He then banished his son's friends and punished the messenger Alexander had sent with the message.

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In 336 BCE, Philip and his family were attending the wedding of Philip and Olympias's daughter Cleopatra to Alexander I of Epirus, Olympia's brother. While there, a bodyguard of King Philip, Pausanias, angry over a punishment he had received, stabbed Philip killing him. Two of Alexander's friends quickly caught Pausanias killing him. With the assassin now dead, there was no way to know if there was more to the plot to kill the king. Many thought Olympias or even Alexander were behind the assassination to insure Alexander's place as king. Regardless of any involvement, Alexander became king of Macedon at age twenty.

Tetradrachm with Alexander III King of Macedon

Tetradrachm with Alexander III King of Macedon

Young King Alexander

Following his ascent to the throne, Alexander, for the first time, starts to show his capacity for brutality. He had a male cousin and two sons of a former king killed but spared another, Alexander Lyncestes because he genuinely praised Alexander as the new king. He was seeking to eliminate anyone who posed a threat to his claim to the throne under the pretense of eliminating those suspected of murdering his father. He also spared his half-brother Arrhidaeus, the one whose marriage he had previously ruined with the Persians. It was said that his brother was mentally disabled as a result of Olympias's attempt to kill him when he was young, and Alexander did not see him as a threat.

Despite his own killing spree, when Alexander found out what his mother had done to Cleopatra Eurydice and the daughter she bore to Philip, which was having them burned alive, he was extremely upset. This left him no choice but to kill Attalus, Cleopatra Eurydice's uncle, believing that he could not be trusted after the death of his niece. I am sure it did not help that Attalus and Alexander still held hard feelings as a result of the previous insults following Philip and Cleopatra's wedding.

King Alexander soon had other problems on his hands. When the Greeks learned that Philip II was dead, they quickly rebelled believing the young king would be powerless to stop them. Many of Alexander's adviser suggested he hold off an attack and send ambassadors instead, but Alexander knew that he had to prove his ability to rule immediately. He got the upper hand on the Thessalians and continued south to Corinth where he and his father had formerly reached an agreement with the Greeks. Along the way, he reached an agreement with the Athenians.

King Alexander and Diogenes

King Alexander and Diogenes

Another story revealing the personality of Alexander occurred during his time in Corinth. The young king met with a philosopher named Diogenes. The story as told by Plutarch is as follows:

Upon reaching Corinth, many philosophers were quick to congratulate the young king. When Alexander learned of one who showed no such admiration, he sought out the old man. Alexander found him lying on the ground. When the old man raised himself up to look at the king, Alexander greeted him and asked if there was anything he, Alexander, could do for him. The old philosopher said, "Yes, stand over a little out of my sun." Alexander laughed at the boldness and lack of respect the old man showed the royal. Alexander is then said to have told his followers, "But truly, if I were not Alexander, I would be Diogenes."

While in Greece, Alexander sought advice from the Oracle at Delphi, but unlike his father who always sent a messenger, Alexander went in person. The oracle refused to speak with him, however, because it was winter. The young king continued to ask if he would succeed in conquering the Persian Empire. She continued to refuse his request. Alexander's temper flared again, and he dragged Pythia, the oracle, by her hair through the Temple of Apollo until she started screaming for him to let her go adding that he was unbeatable. Alexander did let her go because she told him just what he wanted to hear. As fate would show, Alexander was, in fact, unbeatable as he was never to be defeated in war.

Once Greece was controlled, Alexander secured his northern borders by swiftly defeating the kingdoms revolting against his rule there, including the Illyrian king. In the meantime, Thebes and Athens once again rebelled. As soon as Alexander headed south, the smaller city-states immediately agreed to Alexander's terms once again. When Thebes again decided to fight, Alexander destroyed them and their city. Athens, upon seeing what Alexander was capable of when pushed too far, agreed to the king's terms.

Alexander Takes Persia

With his father's original territory finally under control, Alexander set out to complete what Philip had dreamed of, taking control of the mighty Persian Empire. Persia had grown much larger than it was when the Greco-Persian wars occurred in the early 400s BCE. Alexander simply took control one battle at a time.

In 334 BCE, his troops crossed the Hellespont, the waterway dividing Europe from Asia. He defeated Persian troops at the Battle of the Granicus despite the Macedonians having to cross a swift running stream and fighting uphill to do it, which was not easy using sarissas. Sardis, the capital of the province, surrendered to Alexander. As he would do all along the way, Alexander took control by leaving one of his trusted friends in control of the government but allowed the Persians to maintain all of their customs. He also showed respect for the former rulers as well as the Persian warriors lost in battle. As his father had with the Thebans, Alexander gave proper funeral rites to all of the dead not just his own men.

As Alexander and his troops passed through Ionia, Caria, and Lycia gaining control of all the port cities along the Mediterranean, he fought and destroyed only the cities that refused to surrender in advance. Once all of the northern Mediterranean was under his control, he started inland accepting surrender and conquering holdouts along the way.