20  Alexander the Great



The reign of Athens finally came to an end when an unexpected enemy presented itself. The “barbaric” Macedonians had shaped up under the leadership of King Philip and destroyed the Greek army. To get the Greeks on his side, Philip decided to find a common cause. He planned to march together against Persia to liberate the Greek cities in Asia Minor. Before his departure, however, Philip was stabbed to death by one of his  bodyguards.

Taking advantage of the instability created by the transition of power, the Greeks saw their chance and retaliated. However, Philip’s son, Alexander (356–323 BC), turned out ready for his role as king and squashed the Greeks once more. Alexander had ambitions that even exceeded his father’s. With Achilles as his role model, he set out to create a legacy, conquering the known world all the way up to India in a series of unparalleled strategic victories.


King Philip of Macedon

The story of Alexander starts with his father King Philip (382–336 BC), who was not a king of Greece but of the neighboring country called Macedon. When Philip came to power, Macedon was an unstable kingdom with local leaders often disobeying orders from the king. Envying the success of the Greeks, the Macedonian court had adopted the Greek language and built roads and marketplaces after Greek example, yet the habits and language of the commoners remained more like those of their Balkan neighbors. As a result, the Greeks continued to see them as barbarians. When Philip came to power, he founded colonies, built roads, encouraged trade, and created a powerful army. With a smart incentive system, awarding aristocrats with estates for service in the cavalry, he encouraged nobles to become generals and fight for the national cause.

Philip loved his son and trained him as his successor to the Macedonian throne. To prepare him for this role, he sought out the finest tutors, most notably the Greek philosopher Aristotle. Philip had destroyed Aristotle’s hometown and offered to rebuild it in exchange for teaching his son. For three years, Aristotle instructed Alexander at the Shrine of the Nymphs. His fellow schoolmates included Hephaestion (c. 356–324 BC), who became his best friend, and also Leonnatus, Lysimachus, and Ptolemy (c. 367–282 BC). All these men would later become great generals under Alexander and Ptolemy would even become king of Egypt after Alexander’s death. During these years, Aristotle introduced Alexander to Homer. Impressed by his stories, he took a copy of the Iliad—including Aristotle’s notes—with him throughout his career. He even put it under his pillow when he slept.

During those early years, Alexander also acquired his horse, Bucephalus, who would serve him in many battles. The horse eventually died in Asia, where a city was built in its honor. According to the story, when Alexander first saw Bucephalus, his trainers were unable to ride it. Alexander soon figured out that the horse was afraid of its own shadow. He turned the horse away from the sun, leaped on it, and rode the horse without problem.

Fig. 320 – Alexander the Great (3rd century BC) (Jastrow, PD; British Museum)

Philip took great pride in his son’s early accomplishments. He even predicted his son’s greatness. He supposedly said:

My son, look out for a kingdom equal to and worthy of yourself, for Macedon is too little for you. [136]

In line with this sentiment, the young Alexander complained to his schoolmates after one of Philips great victories:

I shall have nothing left for me to conquer with you that is of any worth. [137]

Alexander’s mother, Olympias (375–316 BC), was of Greek descent. From early on, Alexander was proud of his Greek heritage and was impressed by Greek culture. He was especially devoted to the heroes of Greece and felt a “yearning to emulate his ancestors and to exceed them.” He was also told to be a descendant of Herakles on his father’s side and of Achilles on his mother’s. Olympias was very conscious of the fact that her power over Macedon was, to a large extent, dependent on her influence over her son. Some sources claim she even purposefully set Alexander up against his father, telling him he was truly the son of Zeus, who had come to her in the form of a snake (she was even known to keep snakes in her bed, which Philip was not happy with).


The League of Corinth and the death of Philip

With his army ready, Philip became determined to spread his territory and headed for Greece. In 338 BC, he defeated the allied Greek city-states at the Battle of Chaeronea. At this battle, Philip took command of the right wing of the Macedonian army, while his 18-year-old son, Alexander, was placed on the left wing, accompanied by a group of Philip’s experienced generals.

The Greek city-states had fallen, but Philip knew that the Greek cities greatly valued their freedom and, therefore, would not easily be subjugated by a foreign conqueror. To avoid this problem, he did not present himself as a king but instead established the Hellenic League (also called the League of Corinth), of which he became the supreme general. Philip also made friendly gestures to the Athenians by sending Alexander and General Antipater (c. 400–319 BC) with the ashes of the perished Athenians at no cost. The Athenians were also allowed to retain their democracy but were required to hand over their fleet. To further get the Greeks on his side, Philip announced a plan to liberate the Greek cities in Asia Minor from their Persian occupiers.

In 337 BC, an argument between Philip and Olympias escalated, leading him to divorce and exile her. This obviously upset Alexander. To make things worse, Olympias told Alexander she preferred him as a king over her husband. This was an obvious attempt to set Alexander up against Philip. The relationship between Philip and his son reached a low point when Philip married the niece of one of his generals. During their wedding, this general made a toast, stating, “To the health of the king and his wife and to their legitimate children.” Alexander took this to mean the general didn’t accept him as a true heir because of his Greek descent. He responded: “Then, sir, I believe you regard me as a bastard.” Philip, having had a lot to drink, was enraged at Alexander and called for a weapon, yet he stumbled on the floor because of a wound on his leg. Alexander responded:

See here the man who makes preparations to pass out of Europe into Asia, overturned in passing from one seat to another. [136]

In response, Alexander was exiled. Not long after, his father made up his mind and invited Alexander back home. At a ceremony of reconciliation between father and son, Philip was struck down by his body guard. There are many speculations about the motivations of the assassin. Was Olympias behind it? Or Alexander? Or perhaps the Persians? Or did the assassin have personal grievances with Philip? We will likely never know.


Alexander takes over

The Greeks saw the death of Philip as an opportunity to regain their freedom. In Athens, the democratic orator Demosthenes called for a rebellion against the Macedonians, calling for the “freedom of the Greeks.” Yet Alexander, at the age of 21, was ready for his new role and managed to reconquer Greece in less than two years. The war ended when Alexander savagely destroyed Thebes. This was such a shock to the Greeks that it kept them from messing with the Macedonians any further. Later, Alexander regretted his attack on the city and allowed the city to be rebuilt. The Greeks, however, never forgot this act of barbarism.

Around that time, Alexander also visited the famous Oracle of Delphi. Alexander, being very curious about his future, wanted to know what she had to say. She was at first reluctant to tell him anything, but when she saw Alexander was ready to pull her off her seat, she said:

You are invincible.

This was proof enough for Alexander that he would be the first to conquer the entire ancient world.

When visiting Corinth, Alexander is said to have met the eccentric Greek Cynic philosopher Diogenes (410–323 BC). At some point in his life, Diogenes had been captured by pirates and was sold into slavery, after which he became tutor to the sons of his owner. This is where Alexander met him. Alexander was thrilled to meet the famous philosopher and asked him if there was any favor he might do for him. Diogenes replied, “Yes, stand out of my sunlight.” Alexander then declared, “If I were not Alexander, then I should wish to be Diogenes,” to which Diogenes returned, “And if I were not Diogenes, I too would wish to be Diogenes.” [138] In another account, Alexander came to him and said, “I am Alexander, the great king,” to which Diogenes replied, “And I am Diogenes, the dog. [131] The word “cynic” is derived from the word “kynikos,” meaning “dog-like,” for he apparently liked the carelessness with which dogs lead their lives. When asked why people called him a dog, he supposedly said: “because I wag my tail at those who give me something, bark at those who refuse, and because I bite the wicked.”


The invasion of Egypt

Alexander’s next move was to follow his father’s footsteps and march against Persia. To many Greeks, this seemed like a futile effort. The army of the Persian king Darius III (c. 380–330 BC) was much larger than that of Alexander.

Alexander invaded Asia Minor in 334 BC. At his first encounter with the Persians, he did not have to deal with Darius himself. Instead, he came up against the governor who oversaw Asia Minor. Their first clash is known as the Battle of the Granicus, which led to a stunning victory for Alexander, who was assisted by Philip’s leading general Parmenio (c. 400–330 BC). The cavalry battle lasted only minutes, and within less than an hour, the army had been destroyed. The Greeks in Asia Minor welcomed Alexander as their liberator.

Arriving in Gordion, Alexander got yet another prophetic foresight of his future. In the Temple of Zeus, there was an old battle chariot with a knot that could not be untied, the Gordion Knot. An oracle had said that whoever could untie the knot would become Lord of Asia. According to the story, Alexander tried for a while to untie the knot but was not successful. However, this was not going to stop Alexander. He picked up his sword and cut the knot loose.

At the next clash with the Persians, known as the Battle of Issus, he confronted Darius himself, who showed up with an army of around 200,000 men. Alexander, riding his horse, spoke to the various factions of his army. To the Greeks, he said that he knew of their heroism and their past deeds and that they were going to avenge the burning of the Temple of Athens by the Persians, and to the Macedonians, he reminded them of their loyalty to Philip and told them they were the greatest soldiers in the world.

The battle was another tactical masterpiece. The armies clashed at a narrow coastal strip, which prevented Darius from deploying his much larger army. Alexander quickly got the upper hand, forcing Darius to flee and leave behind his treasury and his harem, which included his wives, daughters, son, and queen mother.

When the queen was brought to Alexander, she accidentally addressed Hephaestion as Alexander due to his greater height. When the mistake was pointed out, she feared for her life, but Alexander just responded with, “Hephaestion is Alexander too.” All sources agree that Alexander treated the Persian royals well.

Instead of following Darius to Babylon, Alexander first took a detour to Persian-occupied Egypt. Despite giving Darius some time to rebuild his army, it prevented Alexander’s army from being attacked from two sides.

To enter Egypt, Alexander first had to take the cities of Tyre and Gaza. Tyre required a five-month siege, and Gaza was taken in two months. After these victories, the Persians in Egypt surrendered. Once in Egypt, he was hailed as a liberator and crowned pharaoh by the Egyptians at the age of 24.

Alexander had great respect for Egypt, which was considered the most ancient civilization in the world. To gain their trust, he even performed the rituals expected of a pharaoh. He also restored various Egyptian temples and shrines. All this was a breath of fresh air for the Egyptians, who were fed up with Persian rule.

During his stay in Egypt, Alexander consulted yet another oracle, this time the Oracle of Zeus-Ammon (a fusion between a Greek and an Egyptian deity), located in the Libyan Desert. The sources differ on what the oracle prophesied, but they agree that Alexander returned claiming to be a descendant of Zeus. It is unclear whether Alexander actually believed this. Some sources claim that he did, feeding a narrative of increased megalomania. Others claim he used it more as a political tactic.


Alexander, Lord of Asia

Alexander’s victories made Darius increasingly anxious, causing him to send letters with peace offerings on at least three occasions. In the last of these letters, Darius offered lots of money, all of the Persian Empire west of the Euphrates, and his oldest daughter’s hand in marriage. However, nothing would stop Alexander. He had set his mind on world conquest. He responded with:

Your ancestors invaded Macedonia and Greece and caused havoc in our country, though we had done nothing to provoke them. As supreme commander of all Greece I invaded Asia because I wished to punish Persia for this act—an act which must be laid wholly to your charge. You sent aid to the people of Perinthus in their rebellion against my father; […] my father was killed by assassins whom, as you openly boasted in your letters, you yourselves hired to commit the crime; […] you sent the Greeks false information about me in the hope of making them my enemies; you attempted to supply the Greeks with money […]; your agents corrupted my friends and tried to wreck the peace which I had established in Greece—then it was that I took the field against you; but it was you who began the quarrel. First I defeated in battle your generals; now I have defeated yourself and the army you led. By God’s help, I am master of your country, and I have made myself responsible for the survivors of your army who fled to me for refuge: far from being detained by force, they are serving of their own free will under my command.

Come to me, therefore, as you would come to the lord of Asia. Should you fear to suffer any indignity at my hands, then send some of your friends and I will give them the proper guarantees. Come, then, and ask me for your mother, your wife, and your children and anything else you please; for you shall have them, and whatever besides you can persuade me to give you.

And in the future let any communication you wish to make with me be addressed to the King of all Asia. Do not write to me as to an equal. Everything you possess is now mine; so, if you should want anything, let me know in the proper terms, or I shall take steps to deal with you as a criminal. If, on the other hand, you wish to dispute your throne, stand and fight for it and do not run away. Wherever you may hide yourself, be sure I shall seek you out.


The defeat of Darius III

Alexander was one of history’s greatest military strategists. When entering the battlefield, he could immediately understand the battle plan of the enemy, spot its weaknesses, and change his plan accordingly. On top of that, his army traveled unusually fast, often arriving on the battlefield days ahead of schedule, catching their enemies by surprise. Alexander’s secret was that he didn’t use carts. This had the disadvantage that his soldiers had to carry their own supplies, but they were not delayed by rough terrain.

Another crucial factor was that Alexander always led from the front. During every battle, he led by example, putting himself in as much danger as his men. As a result, he had wounds from every major battle, and in several battles, he was nearly killed. This made his army very devoted to him.

Alexander was also very close to his men. He truly knew them, remembering details about their lives and often reminding them of their greatness. He not only trained with them but also met with them after battles and allowed them to show their wounds and tell of their bravery. On some occasions, Alexander would also show his own wounds to point out that he, too, bled like a mortal.

Because of Alexander’s detour to Egypt, Darius had two years to raise a new army, which came to consist of between 200,000 and 250,000 men. Alexander, in contrast, had only 50,000 men at his disposal, so he was outnumbered four to one. Preparing for Alexander’s attack on Babylon, Darius had leveled the ground in front of the city, giving his chariots the advantage. It is said that when Parmenio saw the Persian army for the first time, he was in awe. Alexander, however, had a plan. He set up camp just outside the leveled ground, knowing he was safe there. He then allowed his men a good night’s sleep. Darius’s troops, however, had to stay awake all night in case of a sudden attack. The next morning, Alexander deliberately overslept.

Fig. 321: The Battle of Gaugamela (331 BC). Alexander’s right flank moved to the right, where it forced Darius’s left flank off the leveled ground. With their chariots paralyzed, the right flank shifted course and headed into the gap that had opened in the Persian line. Meanwhile, some Persians sneaked into Alexander’s camp in order to find the queen. (Frank Martini, CC BY-SA 3.0; The Department of History, United States Military Academy)

The battle that followed, called the Battle of Gaugamela, became one of the greatest victories in military history. Both armies started out with foot soldiers in the middle and cavalry on the flanks. Alexander took the initiative with his right flank, which charged forward to force Darius’s cavalry off the level ground. With their cavalry immobilized, Alexander took advantage of the gap that had opened in the Persian line and redirected his right flank towards it (see Fig. 321). This put immediate pressure on Darius himself, who was forced to flee once more. The losses of the Greeks were only a few hundred to a thousand, while the Persian side lost tens of thousands of men. It was a remarkable victory.

In the meantime, some Persians did manage to reach Alexander’s camp to free the queen. The queen, however, had no desire to go back to her husband after he had left her at the Battle of Issus. She had also become devoted to Alexander. Alexander even referred to her as “mother,” and her granddaughter was already in preparation for marriage to Alexander.

Darius fled east, and Alexander chased after him. It didn’t take long before Darius was assassinated by a family member named Bessus. In an attempt to gain the acceptance of the Persians, Alexander chased Bessus and his army. A little later, Bessus was crucified by his own men.

Alexander did find the body of Darius, which he sent back to his mother for burial, but when called upon to mourn his death, she was reported to have said, “I have only one son, and he is king of all Persia.”

In Babylon, Alexander did a lot to keep the Persians on his side. For instance, he was willing to award loyal Persians with high positions in civil administration and allowed much of the Persian nobility to keep their elite status. Persians could also join the army, though Alexander would not allow them to command them. He also made great efforts to integrate Greek and Persian culture. He would, for instance, on occasion, wear Persian costume. He also encouraged his men to marry Persian wives, hoping their children would grow up bicultural.

His integration plan was met with a lot of criticism from his own men. The Macedonians didn’t like that Alexander made so many concessions to the Persian nobility. He made a particular blunder when he introduced the Persian custom of prostrating oneself before someone of higher authority. To Greeks and Macedonians, this honor only belonged to a god.

With the vast cultural differences in his empire, Alexander’s role had become more and more complicated. To the Macedonians, he was their king, to the Greeks, the general of the Hellenic League, to the Egyptians, he was pharaoh, and to the Persians, he was Lord of Asia.


The invasion of India

Alexander’s mission to defeat the Persian Empire was finally over, yet he already had bigger plans. He marched with his army to India, which he believed to be on the edge of the world.

The army started the journey in high spirits. They were confident in their abilities and believed that after conquering India, they would have conquered the world and could finally go home. The journey, however, turned out more difficult.

On his way to India, Alexander invaded Bactria and Sogdiana, which became a three-year-long battle. On top of this, diseases broke out among the troops, and the winters were cold. Being such a long way from home, the Macedonians also began to feel culturally isolated. In the end, however, they were victorious.

In Sogdiana, Alexander married Roxane (c. 340–310 BC), the daughter of his former enemy Oxyartes, which gained him the acceptance of the Sogdian nobles. He also allowed Oxyartes to stay in charge of his newly conquered land. Although the marriage had great political value, Alexander had instantly fallen in love with her and regarded her as his “real wife.”

Around this time, the criticism against Alexander also grew. His men were still upset about his adoption of Persian customs, and they were increasingly disturbed about his occasional denial of his father (in favor of Zeus), who was obviously well respected among the Macedonians. On top of this, his generals felt that Alexander was starting to rule in a more distant and autocratic manner, while it was Macedonian custom for the king to rule with the consent of his generals.

These problems were intensified by a number of incidents. In 330 BC, Philotas, son of general Parmenio, neglected to report on a conspiracy. As a result, the army voted for his execution. Parmenio, by this time, had honorably retired and had taken charge of the treasury of the Persian city of Ecbatana. To prevent him from hearing about his son’s execution, Alexander sent assassins to kill him. Although no one dared to openly speak about the incident, it clearly shocked many Macedonians, especially since Parmenio had been the best commander of the army and had fought with great courage.

Another incident took place at a drinking party. Cleitus (c. 375–328 BC), who had saved Alexander’s life at the Battle of Granicus, openly criticized Alexander. On what exactly happened, the sources disagree. Some say Cleitus opposed Alexander’s adoption of Persian customs, while others say he criticized Alexander’s divine pretenses and his dismissal of Philip. Other sources state he was simply angry about being repositioned to a less significant position. Whatever the case, Alexander grabbed a spear and threw it at Cleitus, killing him. Alexander was shocked, dropped to the floor, and, reminiscent of Achilles, withdrew to his tent in grief (see Fig. 274).

Despite these setbacks, Alexander moved on. In India, he clashed with a local leader named Porus at the Battle of Hydaspes. Porus had at his command 4,000 cavalry, 30,000 infantry, 300 chariots, and about 100 elephants. Each elephant had on top of it a rider and a couple of soldiers with bows and javelins, and they were used to effectively crush through infantry. This time, Alexander outnumbered his enemy with an army of about 65,000 men.

Fig. 322 Alexander attacking King Porus on an elephant (c. 322 BC) (World Imaging, CC0 1.0; British Museum)

To get to Porus, Alexander had to cross the Hydaspes River. Alexander led him to believe he was attempting to cross the river at an obvious crossing. In the meantime, however, Alexander had sent out men to look for a second crossing further upstream. Leading this part of his army across at night, he caught Porus by surprise.

When the army attacked, Porus himself was in the center, riding an elephant. When the elephants started marching into their infantry, the troops fought back by shooting at the riders and wounding the knees of the elephants. Some of the elephants, confused and without their riders, walked straight back into the Indian army. Meanwhile, part of Alexander’s cavalry had secretly moved around the army and attacked Porus from behind.

Porus fought until he was captured. When Alexander asked how he wanted to be treated, he responded, “Like a king.” Alexander then restored him to his kingdom.

Alexander had thought Porus would be his last enemy at the edge of the world, but he soon found out he had only discovered the first part of the much larger Indian subcontinent. This was a great disappointment to Alexander and also to his men, who hoped to be able to finally go home after eight years of war.


The return home

But Alexander was not willing to quit. He pushed his army further into India, but at some point, his men became so tired, weary, and homesick that they refused to go any further. General Coenus (died 326 BC) tried to bring the news to Alexander as respectfully as possible. Alexander reacted with surprise and attempted to encourage his men to continue, but he could no longer convince them. Coenus suggested returning home, raising a new army, and returning later to conquer the rest of India.

Again, Alexander retired to his tent, and this time, he didn’t wish to speak to anyone for three days. When he finally came out, he ordered a return home, for as a Macedonian king, he had to listen to his men. Alexander then ordered the building of altars and statues to mark the farthest limit of his expedition.

The path home, however, wasn’t easy either. They first faced another year of fighting against the tribes of the area. During one of these battles, Alexander ordered his men to climb a city wall. When his men were too frightened to go, Alexander took the initiative by going first. As a result, he was pierced by an arrow in his chest. He lost a lot of blood and was carried away unconscious, yet he survived. When he greeted his soldiers after recovery, they were filled with joy.

For the return home, Alexander separated his army into three groups: Officer Nearchus would take part of the army by ships, Alexander would cross the Gedrosian desert, and General Craterus would take the longer route back through the forests from which they had come. Craterus took well over half the army and did not suffer much hardship. Alexander, however, suffered many losses. Nearchus was supposed to meet him on the way for supplies and water, but the boats were delayed by the monsoons. Running short on water, many of his men died.

It took Alexander six months to cross Gedrosia. Alexander, also tormented by thirst, marched on foot, ahead of his men. The sources tell us that when one of his men found some water, and brought it to Alexander in his helmet, he thanked the soldier and, in full view of his troops, poured the water on the ground. The water wasted by Alexander was worth the same as a drink for every man in the army.

Some sources claim that Alexander took the desert road either to test himself or to punish his men for their refusal to march further. However, his return was well-planned, and the way through the desert was the shortcut. We shall probably never know what his actual motivations were, but in any case, he finally returned to Babylon.

It had been six years since he had been in Babylon, and ten years since Macedonia. All this time, he had been conquering, and now, finally, it was time to lead his empire. One of his first tasks was to replace ineffective leaders and those who had abused their roles in his absence. He also paid off his veterans, adding large bonuses, and discharged unfit veterans. To his surprise, his men did not respond with appreciation, but with complaints. The event even led to a mutiny. Their main complaints were about the Persians. Why had Alexander adopted Persian rituals? Why had he appointed Persian officials? Why had he restored the tomb of the Persian king Cyrus? On top of this, the discharged soldiers felt Alexander believed they were no longer fit for service.

This time, the criticism was not respectful, and Alexander ordered the execution of a number of critics. He then ascended a platform and spoke as follows:

Macedonians, my speech will not be aimed at stopping your urge to return home; as far as I am concerned you may go where you like. But I want you to realize on departing what I have done for you, and what you have done for me.

Let me begin, as is right, with my father Philip. He found you wandering about without resources, many of you clothed in sheepskins and pasturing small flocks in the mountains, defending them with difficulty against the Illyrians, the Triballians, and the neighboring Thracians. He gave you cloaks to wear instead of sheepskins, brought you down from the mountains to the plains, and made you a match in war for the neighboring barbarians, owing your safety to your own bravery and no longer to reliance on your mountain strongholds. He made you city dwellers and civilized you with good laws and customs. Those barbarians who used to harass you and plunder your property, he made you their leaders instead of their slaves and subjects. He annexed much of Thrace to Macedonia, seized the most favorable coastal towns and opened up the country to commerce, and enabled you to exploit your mines undisturbed. [...] The Athenians and Thebans, who were permanently poised to attack Macedonia, he so humbled that instead of you paying tribute to the Athenians and being under the sway of the Thebans, they now in turn had to seek their safety from us. [...] He was appointed commander-in-chief of all Greece for the campaign against the Persians, but preferred to assign the credit to all the Macedonians rather than just to himself. Such were the achievements of my father on your behalf; as you can see for yourselves, they are great, and yet small in comparison with my own. [...] I started from a country that could barely sustain you and immediately opened up the Hellespont for you, although the Persians then held the mastery of the sea. I defeated in a cavalry engagement the satraps of Darius and annexed to your rule the whole of Ionia and Aeolis, both Phrygias and Lydia, and took Miletus by storm. All the rest came over to our side spontaneously, and I made them yours for you to enjoy. All the wealth of Egypt and Cyrene, which I won without a fight, are now yours, Coele Syria, Palestine and Mesopotamia are your possession, Babylonia and Bactria and Elam belong to you, you own the wealth of Lydia, the treasures of Persia, the riches of India, and the outer ocean. You are satraps. You are generals. You are captains. As for me, what do I have left from all these labors? Merely this purple cloak and a diadem. [139]

After the speech, Alexander quickly retired to his royal tent. For two days, he would not let any of his companions see him, and he neglected his bodily needs. On the third day, he invited Persian elites into his tent and appointed them to command all the squadrons. When the Macedonians heard this, they ran to his tent, cast their weapons down in front of the door, and shouted to the king to come out. They were prepared to hand over those responsible for the mutiny and were not willing to leave until Alexander took pity on them.

Alexander quickly came out and was moved to tears. One of the Macedonians said, “Sire, what grieves the Macedonians is that you have already made some Persians your ‘kinsmen,’ and the Persians are called ‘kinsmen’ of Alexander and are allowed to kiss you, while not one of the Macedonians has been granted this honor.” Alexander replied, “I make you all my ‘kinsmen’ and henceforward that shall be your title.” [139] The crowd responded with joy. He then held a great banquet for several thousand of his men.


The end of the empire

Not much later, Hephaestion got a fever and died. Hearing the news, Alexander’s spirit was broken. Not much later, in 323 BC, Alexander himself became ill. His health quickly deteriorated, and at some point, he lost many of his bodily functions, including his ability to speak. When veterans visited, he could only greet them with his eyes, which often brought them to tears. Two days later, he fell into a coma, and a little later, he died at the age of 33 in the Babylonian palace of Nebuchadnezzar. Some sources suggest there might have been poison involved or that he had drunk too much, but others speak simply of an illness. What truly happened, we shall probably never know.

After his death, a number of wars broke out that destroyed the empire. In 323 BC, the Athenians declared war to secure their freedom, but they were defeated by an army led by Craterus and Leonnatus. Afterward, Antipater dissolved the League of Corinth, placing the Greek cities under direct Macedonian control and officially ending the Athenian democracy.

Further problems were caused because Alexander had no obvious heir. His son with Roxane was born just after his death. Some sources say that, on his deathbed, he was asked who should lead the empire after his death, to which he responded, “To the strongest.” Other sources rightfully doubt this as Alexander had lost his ability to speak at this point. They instead claimed that Alexander passed his signet ring to an old friend and the chief administrator of the empire, Perdiccas, thereby nominating him. In 321 BC, Perdiccas declared war on Antipater, Craterus, and Ptolemy. Perdiccas won, and Craterus was killed. He then invaded Egypt, where he was himself murdered. Antipater’s death in 319 BC prompted yet another civil war, which finally placed Cassander, Antipater’s son, on the Macedonian throne. After forty years of war, the empire had broken into four stable power blocks, run by the Successors (Diadochi). Ptolemy came to rule Egypt, Lysimachus took Anatolia, Cassander took Macedon, and Seleucus (another former general) came to rule Mesopotamia, Central Asia, and a part of India.

Alexander’s death marked the beginning of the Hellenic period (with “Hellenic” meaning Greek). With so many cultures interacting within the Greek sphere of influence—sharing ideas, culture, and merchandise—it propelled the world into a more international age, where many citizens moved from a polis- or nation-centered world to a more cosmopolitan outlook.