After the end of the Peloponnesian War (431 − 404 BC), the power of the Athenian Empire of the Delian League vanished and its nemesis Sparta in turn became the strongest city-state in the Greek world. The Spartans attempted to consolidate their dominant position but quickly made themselves unpopular: democracies were replaced with repressive oligarchies, populations were enslaved, tributes were imposed on the Greek city-states, revolts were crushed by the Spartan army and Sparta’s allies were bluntly denied their share in the victory they had helped to achieve. While the Athenian leadership of the Delian League had been heavy-handed at the very least, it became clear that Spartan hegemony would impose an even greater oppression upon the Greek world.
Athens, though weakened and humiliated, quickly cast off the Spartan yoke and restored its democracy already in 403 BC. Within a few years, the Athenians had rallied a coalition to avenge their defeat and oppose the fledgling Spartan Empire. Many city-states hostile to Athens during the Peloponnesian War joined forces with their former enemy, most notably Thebes. The Persian Empire now took its chance and interfered, initially helping the anti-Spartan coalition but then switching sides to Sparta in order to impose upon the Greek world the Peace of Antalkideios in 387 BC, which gained Persia all the Greek cities in Asia Minor and allowed Sparta to maintain its iron hold over the Greek motherland.
However, Thebes openly declared war on Sparta in 379 BC and Athens organised a new Delian League in 378 BC. In 371 BC, Thebes smashed the renowned Spartan army at the Battle of Leuktra, ending Sparta’s military dominance with a single blow. The Thebans then invaded the Peloponnesos, leading to the dissolution of Sparta’s Peloponnesian League and the liberation of the enslaved people of Messenia. Thebes in turn became the strongest Greek city-state but failed to create a permanent peace throughout Greece, bickering instead with Athens. The Athenian orator Isokrates called in vain for Pan-Hellenic unity, for the city-states to stand together against Persia, to undo the Peace of Antalkideios and liberate the Greeks of Asia Minor.
While the city-states warred amongst each other, they failed to take note of the rising power of Macedon in the north. For a long time, the Macedonian Greeks had been deemed ‘primitive’ by their southern counterparts and not really a factor to be considered. But in this supposedly backward land emerged a powerful kingdom with a more than capable army under the leadership of Phillip II (r. 359 − 336 BC), who dreamt of uniting Greece and overthrowing the Persian Empire once and for all. He first invaded neighbouring Thrace to the northeast and captured its gold and silver mines, securing sufficient funds for new campaigns against the Greek city-states to the south and subsequently perhaps Persia. Athens and Thebes realised too late the danger they were in and hurried to stop the southward advance of the armies of Phillip II. This was in vain: Macedon soundly defeated the Athenian-Theban forces at the Battle of Chaironeia in 338 BC and then organised the new League of Corinth, finally uniting the Greek motherland under one leadership – notably excepting Sparta. Phillip II could now prepare to realise his greatest dream: a war against the Persian colossus in the east. However, he was murdered in 336 BC, leaving the leadership of Macedon and the League of Corinth to his twenty year old son Alexander.
Nobody in the Greek world really knew what to think of this young man Alexander, officially Alexander III of Macedon, and many sought to profit from the situation – a weak leader would never be able to control Macedon, let alone the League of Corinth. But in 335 BC, Alexander smashed the erupting revolts in a lightning campaign, subduing the Thracians and Illyrians before dashing south to meet the renewed Athenian-Theban coalition. Alexander ruthlessly destroyed Thebes, massacred most of its inhabitants and redistributed its land and resources among its neighbours. Athens quickly surrendered and pleaded for mercy, which Alexander granted.
In the year 334 BC, Alexander was ready for what would become arguably the most legendary campaign in history. The Greco-Macedonian army marched upon the Hellespont, where they crossed into Asia and declared war on the Persian Empire. The satraps of Asia Minor assembled an army to face Alexander, who commanded some 40,000 infantry and 5,000 cavalry. The core of his forces consisted of the Greco-Macedonian phalanxes, which pinned down the enemy line and allowed the heavy Macedonian cavalry to smash into the weak points. At the Battle of the Granikos, the Persians were dealt their first crushing defeat, leaving nearly all of Asia Minor open to Alexander.
Alexander had crossed into Asia to liberate the Greek cities there and punish the Persians for the destruction they had wreaked upon Greece about 150 years earlier. Or such was the official propaganda. The hardly less official version called for Greek colonisation of Asia Minor in order to neutralise the Persian threat to Greece, expand the Greek culture sphere and relieve the heavily populated motherland. Yet for Alexander himself, everything was about his voracious desire to discover and explore the unknown reaches of the world and subsequently make it all his. He was a dreamer in love with the legends he had been told as a child, a soul bordering on megalomania yet possessing superb political insight at the same time. However, Alexander was before anything a military genius, a commander who stood undefeated in battle and successfully led the largest army in Antiquity over untold distances, numbering close to 100,000 soldiers by the end of his reign. Intensely loved and feared, his name was the subject of legends already during his short life and after his death, his legacy and personality cult became immortal to survive down to the present day.
Having defeated the Persians at Granikos, Alexander marched to take the Greek cities on the west coast of Asia Minor. These were governed by pro-Persian oligarchs and tyrants whom usually fled their city before the invaders arrived. Alexander subsequently took the inlands of Asia Minor in 333 BC. Meanwhile, the main Persian armies gathered in northwestern Syria under the personal command of the ‘King of Kings’, Darius III. Initially refusing to take Alexander seriously, Darius by now recognised the Greco-Macedonian threat and moved to drive Alexander’s invasion back to Greece. The massive Persian host descended into the narrow coastal stretch near Issos, where its numerical advantage was largely undone. From his side, Alexander manoeuvred masterfully to give his cavalry the space required to play a decisive role in the ensuing Battle of Issos. The Persians were defeated once more and Darius fled the field when Alexander himself led a charge to capture him. Overrunning the Persian camps, Alexander not only seized a huge treasury but also Darius’ mother Sisygambis, his wife Stateira and his daughters. Alexander treated them well, in the knowledge that gaining the support of the Achaemenid royal family would further isolate Darius and help to cement a degree of Greco-Macedonian legitimacy in Persia itself.
Instead of immediately advancing east, Alexander led his forces south along the Syrian coast but lost nearly half a year at the Siege of Tyros (332 BC), which ultimately shared the fate of Thebes: the city was destroyed and the inhabitants murdered or sold into slavery. Alexander proceeded to invade Egypt and entered Memphis, where he was welcomed as a long-awaited liberator and formally recognised as the new Pharaoh. At the Nile Delta, Alexander chose the location for the first of many cities founded by and named after him: Alexandria. He then moved west and visited the famous Siwa Oasis where the oracle of the god Amon-Zeus was located. What he heard there exactly remains unknown but fact is that Alexander henceforth portrayed himself as a half-god, a living son of Zeus. That such a young man had accomplished so many colossal feats on such short notice indeed implied that he might be more than merely human. Based on this and sheer political opportunism, most Greco-Macedonians were willing to accept Alexander as a deity, at least for the time being.
In 331 BC, Alexander sought to defeat the Persian armies once and for all. Darius III resided in Babylon at the time and waited for Alexander to advance further into the empire. He had offered Alexander a peace treaty, a military alliance and all the lands already under Greco-Macedonian control. However, Alexander outright refused this proposal, no longer concealing his intention to overthrow Darius and claim the Persian Empire for himself.
The Persians, once more under Darius’ personal command, faced the Greco-Macedonian army on the plains near Gaugamela. There was fought one of the largest battles in Greco-Persian history. Darius turned to flight when Alexander himself smashed into the Persian lines with his bodyguard unit. Persian successes elsewhere on the immense frontline prevented Alexander from pursuing Darius immediately but regardless, it was clear who the victor was. The King of Kings had fled a second time, not so much out of cowardice but in the knowledge that without him, the Achaemenid dynasty would collapse and any organised resistance would become impossible. He therefore rushed to the Persian heartland to secure the loyalty of his remaining satraps, raise new armies and continue the war. Meanwhile, Alexander triumphantly entered Babylon and appointed Darius’ mother Sisygambis as his regent before marching east.
Thus far, Alexander had come across peoples and regions which had been conquered centuries earlier by the Persians themselves. As a result, he was usually accepted as new ruler without much trouble or even welcomed as liberator. East of Mesopotamia lay the actual Persian heartlands, first of all the region around Susa and subsequently the Persian capital at Persepolis. Alexander’s soldiers successfully fought themselves into both cities, capturing untold riches but losing the famous Achaemenid palaces at Persepolis to the fires of war. In the spring of 330 BC, the advance turned north into Media, whence Darius had supposedly fled, though he moved further east before Alexander could catch up.
Alexander now officially ended the campaign – the campaign of the League of Corinth, to be exact. For indeed, Alexander himself refused to halt and soon announced he would continue the campaign as a personal one, inviting the League’s soldiers to go with him, which many of them did. Advancing north, Alexander’s first objective was to capture Darius alive. But not far from the Caspian Sea, a contingent of Macedonian cavalry discovered the deceased body of the last Achaemenid ruler by the side of the road. The eastern satraps had assassinated their Great King. To emphasise a degree of continuity between the fallen Achaemenid dynasty and himself, Alexander sent Darius’ body back to Persepolis and gave him a royal funeral. Darius’ assassins − led by Bessos, the satrap of Baktra – quickly moved to establish control of the remaining Persian satrapies, in the belief that Alexander would never advance that far. This would prove to be a fatal miscalculation. Enraged not only at the betrayal and assassination of Darius but most of all at the usurpation of the Persian throne, Alexander launched a massive offensive into the east. From now on, he considered himself the legitimate successor to Darius III and the Achaemenid dynasty, tolerating no pretenders. Still in 330 BC, Alexander’s armies advanced into modern-day Afghanistan, appointing new rulers everywhere. These were usually Greco-Macedonians, though sometimes Persians were allowed to keep their position if they professed allegiance to the conquerors.
Alexander now began to behave more and more like a King of Kings, like Cyrus the Great of old, an attitude which greatly increased tensions among the Macedonian generals and Alexander’s inner circle. Nonetheless, the expedition passed north over the Hindu Kush into Baktra without difficulties. The local people quickly handed Bessos over to Alexander, who had him executed for high treason and regicide. Alexander then entered Sogdiane and reached the Iaxartes. Here was the frontier between two worlds: the end of the agricultural and urban world, the beginning of the endless steppes of central Asia – the realm of the nomads. Alexander had no real intention to conquer here and retreated, receiving news of uprisings of the Persian nobility. From 329 until far into 327 BC, Alexander mercilessly crushed any remaining resistance in Sogdiane and Baktra, until at last everything had been either destroyed or conquered. Simultaneously, Alexander executed multiple members of his inner circle for defying both his behaviour as a deity and his wish to unite the Greco-Macedonian and Persian cultures into one multi-cultural empire. To emphasise this wish, he married a Bactrian princess, Roxana.
Before the end of 327 BC, Alexander passed over the Hindu Kush again, this time from north to south, and advanced through the Kabul Valley to the Indos in the spring of 326 BC. The army now entered a completely different world yet again: the Punjab in the heat of the tropics shortly before the summer monsoon. But Alexander advanced ever further, desiring now to reach the ‘Ends of the World’ and the ‘Great Outer Sea’, without really knowing where this was or when and if he could reach it. The first peoples and kingdoms of the Punjab surrendered willingly. Others resisted fanatically but were ultimately defeated. Increasingly frustrated at facing continued opposition and uncertainty as to what still lay before him, Alexander’s ruthlessness grew accordingly. Resistant tribes were exterminated, their villages destroyed and their lands burned. The campaign became nothing short of genocide. But far worse enemies than the local tribesmen were the tropical rains, the unknown diseases, the snakes, the war exhaustion and not in the least the rumours: India appeared to be far more extensive than Alexander had expected and tales reached him of mighty empires in the east. These empires had in turn heard rumours of the great conqueror from the west, who had come to destroy them. It was whispered that they were awaiting Alexander in the east with myriads of chariots and war elephants. Without the ‘Outer Sea’ even remotely in sight, Alexander’s soldiers demanded a halt to the advance at the Hyphasis in the summer of 326 BC. Alexander ultimately gave in and announced the expedition would return west, to the great relief of many.
The Punjab campaigns proved that Alexander was not content with the conquest of the Persian Empire alone and that he in fact desired to unite the entire world known to the Greeks under his rule. This ambition still seemed possible to him by following the Indos southwards and reaching the Indian Ocean. The peoples and kingdoms east of the Punjab he left to their fate, like the nomadic peoples of central Asia. Considered ‘inferior’ and unimportant, Alexander reconciled himself with their exclusion from his dominion, in the knowledge that it would not really taint the image of the empire which encompassed what he thought to be nearly the entire world.
In the summer of 325 BC, Alexander sent his general Krateros with about a third of his forces back to Persia via the Bolan Pass into Karmania. The bulk of the expedition reached the mouths of the Indos soon after, and Alexander decided to turn west along the coast. The fleet, commanded by Nearchos, was supposed to keep up closely by sea but because of the monsoon winds from the southwest, it could not set sail for a month. Facing a setback he could not explain, Alexander for the first time had little idea of what to do next. He then led his army on a dreadful march through the deserts of Gedrosia, where more of his soldiers died than in all his campaigns combined. Exhausted and decimated, Alexander’s forces finally reached Persis, where the fleet passed too before the end of 325 BC. Alexander then began consolidating the administration of his enormous empire, as well as planning a brand new expedition.
Upon his return to Susa in March 324 BC, Alexander organised a mass-wedding of Greco-Macedonians and Persian women and bestowed upon his soldiers immense gifts for their bravery and loyalty. It was Alexander’s ultimate wish to conciliate the conquerors with the conquered, in order to hold the empire together after his death. With this in mind, Alexander recruited new regiments of young Persians and intended to add them to his army, relieving his war veterans from service as gratitude for their efforts. However, this was misunderstood and sparked a mutiny at Opis in Mesopotamia, ultimately leading to a dramatic reconciliation between Alexander and his old comrades in arms. Throughout 323 BC, Alexander continued working on the administration of his empire and prepared for his new journey of discovery and conquest. This time, he intended to sail from Mesopotamia all the way around the Arabian peninsula. Numerous emissaries meanwhile arrived in Babylon from Greece to pay homage to Alexander and recognise him as supreme ruler. Western powers like Carthage and even Rome, which had just achieved a dominant position in central Italy, are also assumed to have sent representatives. But as the new campaign drew near, Alexander suddenly fell ill, suffering intense fevers. He died two weeks later, 11 June 323 BC, appointing no regent and leaving no heir, save for his unborn child with Roxana. Alexander’s death marked the end of all ‘unity’ between Greco-Macedonians and Persians and his generals immediately started bickering over who was to assume Alexander’s titles and power. Ultimately, none of them proved capable of holding the empire together – only Alexander could. His generals before anything wanted to prevent that one of them would become his sole successor. Alexander’s widow Roxana and his posthumous son Alexander IV were murdered and the empire descended into approximately four decades of quickly shifting alliances, bitter wars and betrayals. Thus emerged several ‘successor states’, ruled by the newly founded monarchies of the diadochoi (Greek: διάδοχοι), Alexander’s strongest generals. The most prominent of these were the Antigonid dynasty in Macedon, the Seleucid dynasty in Mesopotamia and Persia, and the Ptolemaic dynasty in Egypt.
The historical significance of Alexander the Great lies first of all in the enormous geographical spread of Greek culture and language, which helped to Hellenise the East but also orientalised the West, and created a unique multi-cultural identity in the form of Hellenism. Long after the fall of the successor states, flourishing Greek communities could be found as far east as Baktra. Furthermore, Alexander’s journeys stimulated economic development as he founded cities wherever he went, built road networks and harbours and massively increased monetary circulation by melting most of the Persian treasures into actual coins to fund his projects. Alexander also created the basis for a significant increase in scientific knowledge, particularly in the fields of mathematics, geography and biology. But perhaps most of all, the accounts of his campaigns and exploits have survived down to this day and continue to be studied, taught and even admired worldwide…