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Alexander the Great


In the spring of 334 BCE, less than two years after the assassination of his father, Philip II, Alexander invaded the Persian Empire with an army of nearly forty thousand — accompanied by secretaries, scientists and philosophers. Alexander was in his early twenties and with combat experience. In battle he was bold and quick in seeing sudden shifts in advantages and disadvantages. He was perhaps foolhardy about his own safety but not toward the safety of his troops. And because of his care and tactics his casualties would be lighter than his enemy's.

Crossing into Asia Minor at Hellespont, he found a few miles inland the army of Persia's Darius III waiting for him, on the opposite side of the Granicus River. Darius was not there. He was home in Persepolis.

Alexander, on horseback, led the charge across the Granicus against an army three times larger than his own. He emerged from the hand to hand combat victorious. Most of Darius's leader generals were killed. The disorderly ranks of the Persian infantry had been easy targets for the long spears and solid ranks of the Macedonians. Of Darius's 20,000 mercenary infantrymen — largely men who had run from Greece following the defeat of their cities by Alexander's father — only about 2,000 survived, and they were sold into slavery.

Alexander honored the dead Persian troops as well as his own. The historian who accompanied Alexander, Callisthenes (nephew of the famous philosopher Aristotle), described Alexander's victory as the work of the Greek goddess of revenge, Nemesis — a revenge for Persia's invasion of Greece more than a century before. At the news of Alexander's victory, Greek cities in Asia Minor began setting up democracies and opening their gates to Alexander. Various cities, awed by Alexander's success, proclaimed him a divinity.

As Alexander and his army moved farther into the Persian empire and met resistance, Alexander forbade reprisals against civilians. Where local people were accustomed to a Persian system of administration, Alexander accepted the Persian system, and he improved it by dividing what had been the powers of the local Persian governor into three different offices: civil, military and financial.

Alexander's former tutor, the philosopher Aristotle (now 51) had advised Alexander to make slaves of the non-Greeks that he defeated. Aristotle believed that superior people – Greeks – should rule inferior people. But Alexander was pursuing a policy of winning respect and cooperation from the Persians. He was not the racist that Aristotle was. Alexander accepted a Persian soldier into his entourage and he happily let himself become the adopted son of a Persian princess — soon to be queen — of the non-Greek royal house of Caria, in Asia Minor's southwest.

The following year, 333, Alexander fought his way to Egypt. (He bypassed Jerusalem, but it was now that Persian rule over the Jewish state was ending, while Alexander's entourage viewed it as an unimportant priest-state run by ineffectual stargazers.)

The Egyptians welcomed Alexander as a liberator. They had little choice. The Persians had destroyed their military and they no longer had the cohesion nor an army that could resist him. Egypt's priesthood hailed Alexander as pharaoh — as a king of kings. Like the pharaohs, Alexander was declared a god. He became the guest at the king's palace in Memphis. He stayed in Egypt two years. On the Nile delta he founded a city, Alexandria, soon to be Egypt's new capital, a city that would be populated by people from neighboring villages and towns and by retired Macedonian, Greek and Balkan veterans from Alexander's army.

Early in the year 331, Alexander moved with his army back into Mesopotamia (today Iraq), where Darius had been organizing a force for a showdown, including elephants from India. The rival armies met near what today is the city of Mosul, at the Battle of Gaugamela on October 1st. Alexander employed his troops well while Darius was slow in correcting his troop positions, and Darius failed to delegate enough command to subordinates. When Darius saw his army being overpowered he fled with his retinue.

To the south, on October 22, the governor of Babylon surrendered that city to Alexander and his army. Babylon's priesthood put on a show of welcome, and Alexander answered with a display of respect. He pleased the priesthood by ordering the restoration of temples that the Persians had long before destroyed as punishment for a revolt. Men of wealth in the area, wishing to make peace with Alexander, gave him sums of money. For Alexander's soldiers it was time for another rest, and they spent their pay on Babylonian women.

In December, Alexander and his army renewed their pursuit of Darius and his army. In Persepolis, Alexander took control of Darius's palace, seized money from the Persian treasury and then stooped to the vengeance that his father had planned — a vengeance for misdeeds committed some 150 years before. Alexander turned the city over to his troops, and they stormed through its streets, stripped women of their jewelry and slaughtered.

Alexander and his men pushed north to where it had been said that Darius and Persian troops were encamped, near the Caspian Sea. Darius was assassinated by one of his generals (and a cousin), and this disappointed Alexander. He had wanted to make Darius a subordinate king.

Alexander and his army pushed into Bactria (today northern Afghanistan. With reinforcements that arrived from Greece and Macedonia, Alexander fought local rulers and independent tribes whom the Persians had only barely managed to dominate. Hoping to establish a conquerer's peace, he encouraged tribal people to adopt a settled way of life, and he founded new towns.

Alexander marched into the mountains of Hindu Kush. (Aristotle is said to have believed that from its summit one could see the end of the world.) In these mountains, local people showed Alexander the rock where the mythical Prometheus was said to have been chained after he gave the gift of fire to humanity.

Darius's assassin was captured and executed, and Alexander now considered himself King of the Persians. He brought more Persians into his army, including a brother of Darius as his companion. He founded more towns, and he married a local chieftain's daughter, Roxana, who was to play a role in Macedonia's future.

Alexander began borrowing from the pomp of the Persian throne, and those who came to see him had to prostrate themselves before him in recognition of his divinity. This was easily accepted by the Persians and some others, but Alexander's Macedonian and Greek troops found it embarrassing and considered it part of the inferior way of Eastern peoples.

From Bactria, in 327, Alexander journeyed with his army 400 miles into the Indus valley. There he sided with petty kingdoms that wanted him as an ally against their enemies to their east. He hoped to advance to the Ganges River and make it his eastern border, but his troops refused to go farther east. Unable to persuade them to continue, and seeing what he thought were unfavorable omens, he and his men began their return to Babylon in September 325. It was a long and difficult journey. They arrived in the spring of 323

Alexander planned to make Babylon the capital of his great empire, an empire tied together by commerce. Already his conquests had broken down trade barriers. His warring had created a new demand for iron, and his confiscation of Persia's great treasury had put more money into circulation. He had stimulated economic activity by building new ports. Now he was planning for the building of docks along the Euphrates at Babylon, planning for the clearing and dredging of that river to the Persian Gulf and planning to colonize the eastern shore of the Persian Gulf.

Alexander was also laying plans to extend his conquests to Sicily and Italy (where the city of Rome was the leading power and expanding). But a fortuity intervened. Alexander became ill, and he died (June 13, 323 BCE), at the age of thirty-two – possibly from malaria.

The great drama that followed his death was about to unfold. Meanwhile, storytellers and scribes were spinning different interpretations of Alexander. Some described Alexander as having had godly powers. Persia's Zoroastrian priesthood described him as evil for having slain many Persian teachers and lawyers and having quenched many sacred fires. Some others in Persia would describe Alexander as a biological member of Persia's great royal family — the Achaemenids. In Egypt, Alexander would become known as the son of the last pharaoh, Nectanebus. Arabs would know Alexander as Iskander and would tell fanciful stories about him. And in centuries to come in Ethiopia, Christians would describe his father, Philip, as a Christian martyr, and they would describe Alexander as an ascetic saint.

CONTINUE READING: The Race Issue and Wars of the Diodachi

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