Helens: Empire of Alexander the Great
Empire of Alexander the Great
the Great was famous for his military power and is a legendary figure in
- Much of what we know about Alexander the Great is unreliable and
steeped in myth; a lot of these mythologies were used by Alexander’s
Kingdom of Thrace, during the reign of Lysimachus—a successor of
Alexander the Great who lived from 361 BCE to 281 BCE—an interesting
coin was issued. This coin, which featured the head of Alexander the
Great with ram’s horns on either side of his crown, was issued in the
ancient city of Parium, in the northwestern region of modern-day Turkey.
The horns were the symbol of the Egyptian god Amun—or Zeus, who is often
conflated with Amun—from whom Alexander claimed descent. Flanked with
these godlike horns, Alexander attained the status of a deity.
Surprisingly, Alexander himself did not issue coins with his own image;
his successors did. Why would his successors refer back to their
deceased predecessor as they established new empires? The reason is that
Alexander the Great was—and still is—a powerful symbol of power,
military genius, and conquest, whether or not this description of him is
historically accurate. His image, name, and legendary power remained
resonant—and politically visible—long after his death.
A history steeped in myth
So how do
we tell the history of Alexander, pulling apart the myths and legends
and reconstructing an accurate narrative? It’s a difficult task, but
it’s an important one, because the history of Alexander is a history of
the Greek empire, which had a massive influence on vast regions
stretching across Europe, Asia, and Africa.
We have ancient narratives of Alexander’s life, written between 30 BCE
and the third century CE—hundreds of years after his death. The earliest
known account is by the Greek historian Diodorus, but we also have
histories written by other historians, including Roman historians; these
writers are called the Alexander historians. They interpreted written
accounts from shortly after Alexander’s death, penned by those who
fought alongside Alexander on his campaigns.
It’s unclear how reliable these narratives are, however, as they are
mingled with the propaganda of various Greek and Roman states, who were
ruled by emperors that used Alexander’s image to cement their own power.
In order to get a fuller picture, historians interpret sources from
other regions of Alexander the Great’s empire, like Babylon. On one
Babylonian tablet, for example, Alexander’s death is recorded with an
inscription in Akkadian that reads “on the 29th day, the king died.”
that we can gather evidence about Alexander the Great’s life and
military campaigns from places so far away from one another paints a
picture of an expansive empire. We know that Alexander was a powerful
military leader. He led important campaigns and expanded his empire from
Greece to Persia, Babylon, Egypt and beyond, taking advantage of local
political contexts as he conquered new territory.
important to remember that history is not comprised simply of the
stories of great men. Alexander the Great’s empire developed not only
because of his military prowess but also because of his father’s
success, which took advantage of an unstable political context in
Greece. Alexander’s own conquests happened in very specific political
contexts as well, which facilitated his ability to expand his empire
rapidly and with little resistance.
Alexander’s reign was very short—only about a decade. Perhaps the
greatest effect of his empire was the spread of Greek culture through
the successor empires that long outlasted Alexander’s rule.
The rise of an empire
Peloponnesian war, the Greek poleis, or city-states, were divided and
had exhausted many of their resources. This set the stage for a takeover
by their northern neighbors, the Macedonians, whose leaders were gaining
strength and consolidating their power. Macedonia was generally regarded
by the Greeks as a backwards land, good for little more than timber and
pasture for sheep. The Macedonians spoke a Greek dialect and, unlike the
separate Greek city-states, were ruled by a monarchy and many
semi-autonomous clans. One of the most powerful monarchs was Phillip II
is often only remembered for being the father of Alexander the Great,
Philip II of Macedon—who reigned from 359 to 336 BCE—was an accomplished
king and military commander in his own right. His accomplishments set
the stage for his son’s victory over Darius III and the conquest of
Persia. Philip inherited a weak, underdeveloped society with an
ineffective, undisciplined army and molded them into an efficient
military force that eventually subdued the territories around Macedonia
and subjugated most of Greece. He used bribery, warfare, and threats to
secure his kingdom. Without his insight and determination, history would
never have heard of Alexander.
In 336 BCE,
after Philip was killed, Alexander was quickly crowned as the king.
After subduing any serious threats to his rule, and with the Greek
city-states now firmly under Macedonian rule following Charonea,
Alexander embarked on the great campaign his father had been planning:
the conquest of the mighty Persian Empire.
was able to take advantage of political instability in Persia, and he
expanded beyond Persia into Asia Minor, Syria, Egypt, Mesopotamia, and
Bactria. Alexander did not, however, drastically challenge existing
administrative systems. Rather, he adapted them for his purposes.
Alexander was not interested in imposing his own ideas of truth,
religion, or behavior upon conquered populations as long as they
willingly kept the supply lines open to feed and equip his troops, which
was an important aspect of his ability to rule vast areas. This does not
mean, however, that he did not ruthlessly suppress uprisings or hesitate
to viciously annihilate those who opposed him.
course of his conquests, Alexander founded some 20 cities that bore his
name, most of them east of the Tigris River. The first, and greatest,
was Alexandria in Egypt, which would become an important Mediterranean
urban center. The cities' locations reflected trade routes as well as
defensive positions. At first, the cities must have been inhospitable
and little more than defensive garrisons. Following Alexander's death,
many Greeks who had settled in these cities tried to return to Greece.
However, a century or so after Alexander's death, many of these
communities were still thriving and featured elaborate public buildings
and substantial populations that included both Greek and local peoples.
Alexander’s cities were most likely intended to be administrative
headquarters for his empire, primarily settled by Greeks, many of whom
had served in Alexander’s military campaigns. The purpose of these
administrative centers was to control the newly conquered subject
populations. This purpose was not realized during Alexander’s life,
however. Alexander attempted to create a unified ruling class in
conquered territories like Persia, often using marriage ties to
intermingle the conquered with conquerors. He also adopted elements of
the Persian court culture, implementing his own version of their royal
robes and imitating some court ceremonies. Many Macedonians resented
these policies, believing hybridization of Greek and foreign cultures to
be irreverent. Alexander’s attempts at unification also extended to his
army. He placed Persian soldiers, some of who had been trained in the
Macedonian style, within Macedonian ranks, solving chronic manpower
In 327 BCE,
with the Persian Empire firmly under his control, Alexander turned his
attention to India. He had some victories before reaching the Ganges
river, which he intended to cross in order to conquer more of India.
However, his exhausted troops mutinied and refused to go farther.
Shortly thereafter, as the troops headed back home, Alexander died in
323 BCE, likely due to disease.
Alexander's death was so sudden that when reports of his death reached
Greece, they were not immediately believed. Alexander had no obvious or
legitimate heir because his son, Alexander IV, was born after
Alexander's death (KA).
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