Alexander the Great (356–323 BC) was born in Macedonia, a mountainous kingdom in northern Greece, and educated by the famous Athenian teacher Aristotle. His father, King Philip II, had expanded Macedonia’s territory to include most of the ancient citystates of Greece, including Athens. Alexander inherited his father’s crown at age twenty, following Philip’s assassination at a theater.
As king, Alexander surpassed his father by engineering an amazing string of conquests, creating an empire that encompassed much of the Mediterranean world at the time. No other king had dominated such a wide swath of the ancient world. From his base in Macedonia, Alexander’s armies conquered Greece, Syria, Egypt, Mesopotamia, and the Persian Empire. In 330 BC, six years after he became king, Alexander defeated Darius, the king of Persia. Alexander eventually extended his kingdom as far as India. His reign ended abruptly when he died in the ancient city of Babylon at age thirty-three.
The empire Alexander created was divided among his officers, but it continued on for hundreds of years until it was conquered by the Romans. In the conquered territories, Alexander and his troops had encountered new civilizations with different customs. Rather than simply destroy the cultures of defeated nations, the Greeks absorbed them. A new, hybrid culture known as Hellenism emerged. For the first time in history, a large part of southeastern Europe and the Near East spoke the same language and shared a cultural background. Greek remained the lingua franca of the ancient world for centuries; the books of the New Testament were originally written in Greek. The cultural ferment caused by the arrival of Alexander’s armies remains perhaps his most meaningful legacy to the modern world.
Alexander remains of great interest today. Contemporary historians continue to examine his ruthless command of the army, his love for horses, and his study of philosophy. More recently, they have questioned his sexual orientation.
- When Alexander was a child, he was unhappy with his father’s conquests. According to Plutarch, the young Alexander was sad that there would be less left for him to conquer when he became king.
- After conquering Egypt, Alexander founded the city of Alexandria on the Mediterranean coast, one of a dozen cities he named after himself. In Alexandria, the Greeks built a gigantic library to house thousands of parchments. The library burned down a few centuries later, destroying a vast amount of knowledge about the ancient world.
- Alexander was an avid hunter, who reportedly hunted 4,000 animals, including lions, during a single hunt in what is now known as Uzbekistan. Ancient Greeks hunted game with a spear, a net, and little else.