Did you know that following Alexander the Great’s death in Babylon in 323 BC, his body was laid in a gold sarcophagus filled with honey and placed inside a gold pavilion on wheels to be pulled by 64 mules for its journey back to Macedonia?
Alexander the Great, regarded as one of the greatest military leaders of all time, changed the nature of the classical world in the 13 years between succeeding his father as king of Macedon and his death at the age of 32. The empire he had created extended across most of the “known world” of his day, ranging from the Mediterranean Sea in the west to India in the east.
A photorealistic representation of Alexander the Great (r. 336-323 BCE) as he may have appeared in life. By Arienne King.
When Alexander was just 13 years old, his father, King Philip II of Macedon, hired Aristotle, one of the most famous Greek philosophers and scientists, to become his personal tutor. Aristotle became a mentor and guide to the young prince, teaching him subjects ranging from philosophy and ethics to politics and military strategy.
Alexander was a diligent student, and he quickly developed a close relationship with Aristotle. The philosopher was impressed with the young prince’s intelligence, curiosity, and enthusiasm for learning. Years later, when Alexander had become king and embarked on his legendary conquests, he remained in contact with Aristotle, sending him letters and seeking his counsel on matters of governance and philosophy. Aristotle remained one of the most important intellectual influences on Alexander throughout his life, and his teachings helped shape the young prince into the visionary leader and conqueror he would become.
In 336 BC, at the age of 20, Alexander took control of a federation of Greek states following the assassination of his father, Philip II of Macedon, and set about making preparations for a military campaign to conquer Persian territories.
Alexander had inherited a strong kingdom with a powerful Macedonian army, and in 334 BC, his forces crossed the Hellespont (ancient name of the Dardanelles) into Asia Minor (modern-day Turkey) to confront the armies of the mighty king of the Achaemenid Empire, Darius III. Alexander's army consisted of 48,100 soldiers and 6,100 cavalry, accompanied by a fleet of 120 ships, manned by a crew of 38,000.
Alexander Mosaic (detail), House of the Faun, Pompeii, c.100 BC.
The Macedonian army won a number of decisive encounters as it advanced into Persian territory, sacking cities and capturing coastal settlements along the way. In the summer of 333 BC, the two leaders went head to head at Issus in southern Anatolia (modern-day Turkey).
Despite being heavily outnumbered, the Macedonians, encouraged by Alexander bravely leading from the front, routed the Persian army, leaving tens of thousands dead on the battlefield.
A second confrontation between Alexander and Darius at the Battle of Gaugamela in northern Iraq proved to be a decisive victory for the young Macedonian, whose battle tactics again outwitted his Persian adversary and marked the beginning of the end for the Achaemenid Empire.
By the end of 331 BC, at the age of 25, Alexander was king of Persia and ruler of Asia Minor. He had conquered the ancient kingdom of Egypt, secured the eastern Mediterranean ports, and his armies remained undefeated.
A map of Alexander the Great’s empire at its largest extent c.323 BCE (2,000,000 sq mi or 5,200,000 sq km).
In 326 BC, Alexander launched a campaign to conquer what the Greeks believed to be the end of the known world, India, and marched his ever-loyal army eastward into the Indus Valley.
The Battle of the Hydaspes River against King Porus of the Paurava Kingdom in northwest India would turn out to be Alexander’s last major battle. Despite meeting fierce resistance, including 200 war elephants, Alexander again outwitted the enemy as he led his army across the monsoon-swollen river to take the enemy forces by surprise.
In his insatiable quest for more territory, Alexander exhorted his troops to carry on moving eastward towards the river Ganges, but his battle-fatigued soldiers had had enough, and he was persuaded to turn back by his generals.
After a long and grueling return journey from India to the Persian Gulf, Alexander and his decimated army finally made it back to Susa in Iran in 324 BC.
19th century depiction of Alexander’s funeral procession based on the description of Diodorus.
Alexander the Great died in Babylon the following year after suffering a high fever for 10 days. There are many theories as to the cause of his illness, including malaria and bacterial infection, some historians suspect he may have been poisoned.
On his death, his vast empire—one of the biggest in the ancient world—was divided among four of his generals.
During his campaigns, Alexander renamed or founded many towns and cities that bore his name, one of which, Alexandria Bucephalus, was named after his beloved horse.
The empire he created became an enormous trading network that extended into three continents and unified a vast array of people through the spread of Greek (or Hellenistic) culture and language.
“I am not afraid of an army of lions led by a sheep; I am afraid of an army of sheep led by a lion.” —Alexander the Great
“There is nothing impossible to him who will try.” —Alexander the Great
“A tomb now suffices him for whom the whole world was not sufficient.” —Alexander the Great
“Through every generation of the human race there has been a constant war, a war with fear. Those who have the courage to conquer it are made free and those who are conquered by it are made to suffer until they have the courage to defeat it, or death takes them.” —Alexander the Great
Sara Novak. What to Know About Alexander the Great and his Mysterious Death. Discover Magazine, 2022.
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