Alexander the Great – God, Legend, Immortal on a Grand Scale

There has been a great deal written about Alexander the Great (356-323 BC) since his death. Hero, adventurer, King and conqueror Alexander has achieved legendary, ‘godlike’ and immortal status on a grand scale. If anyone was to ever find his lost resting place or the remains of the great ‘crystal’ sarcophagus he was reputedly laid to rest within following his death, then historians, archaeologists, movie makers and storytellers would have a field day.

Finding the lost tomb of Alexander must be surely one of the greatest of all the romantic quests left for anyone to pursue, although a lifetime would more than likely be not enough.

The main antique source for information about Alexander is the ancient Roman senator Quintus Curtius Rufus (†53 CE), the author of a History of Alexander the Great. The only thing we know about the life of Rufus comes from the writings of another senator and historian of the Roman Empire Cornelius Tacitus, Annals, 11.21. This brings us to the vexed question: what sources were used by Tacitus?

Gaining a pathway to the source often does not always mean getting to the facts, or the truth about what really happened. Following the death of his father Phillip II of Macedon (382 – 336 BC) and, on becoming Hegemon (leader) of the Greek League, its council entrusted Alexander III, like his father before him, ‘with unlimited powers’ for the ‘campaign of revenge against Asia’.

Possibly the face of Alexander's father - Phillip II of Macedon. It was reconstructed in the early '80's by forensic scientist Richard Neave. The damage to the right eye made by an arrow corresponds to a reported injury at the siege of Methone in 354 BCE 18 years before Phillip II's death.

The Persians had a history of invading Greek land and over the centuries orators had mooted the idea for a crusade against them through pamphlets. For the youthful Alexander, later called the Great, it was all part of a destiny he had been prepared for and aspired to during the attainment of his first twenty years. Phillip his father had contributed much to Macedonia’s expansion of her borders to the north, south and east. He had also established an elite disciplined and well trained army. Having it at his disposal enabled Alexander to move quickly to secure his position as Hegemon and to succeed his father as King and conqueror.

During his life as a result of his achievements Alexander would go from being considered great to being seen by many as a God. And his legend lived on in the many lands that he visited.

The remains of Alexander the Great's round temple at Olympia

Examination of the early formation of Alexander’s character, and its now renowned complexities, would provide further insight into the motives behind his aims. But that is beyond the scope of this piece.

What we are seeking to search for is Alexander’s aims in the east by examining the statements attributed to him, looking at the consequences of his actions, whether military, religious or personal. And, finally by traveling the route he took during his great conquest.

The decision to burn and slaughter all the inhabitants at Thebes in Egypt, who had been Persian collaborators, provided a powerful precedent to the other nations who were members of the Greek league. It also acted as a warning to Alexander’s enemies, prior to his crossing into Asia.

Ancient historian, biographer and essayist Plutarch (46 – 120) tells us that Alexander gave all the citizens of the great city of Thebes an opportunity ‘to repent of their actions’ prior to it being stormed, plundered and razed to the ground by his men.

Historian, public servant, military commander and philosopher of the 2nd-century Roman period, Arrian tells us ‘the rout became a panic’. However in a summary of the lost book one and two of Roman Senator and author Rufus (†53 CE), Alexander ‘referred the question of her fate to the representatives of the Greek council’. The decision was then taken to ‘raze the city’.

Alexander played a major diplomatic strategy here as he knew if he put it to the council they would vote for Thebes destruction, because of her betrayal of the smaller Greek states who had long sought revenge. Macedonia was a small country, especially in relation to the size of Asia. Phillip II and his general Parmenio had shared the view that the ‘Asian people were‘ by nature slaves’.

This was in direct contrast to the liberal ideas Alexander had, for that of aligning himself with Zeus’ son, Heracles. The Greeks believed that Heracles ‘was the benefactor of mankind’. This was a role Alexander, judging by his later handling of the conquered Persians, saw himself playing.

If he were to be the King of Asia he would have to be able to use his powers for the benefit of those he conquered, especially if they accepted his rule. His actions and alleged statement on landing on Trojan soil, hurling his spear into the ground, claiming Asia was granted by the Gods to him, indicates that he ultimately believed in his divine right to do so. As King a major part of his role was to safeguard the religion of his own people. So, it stands to reason that if he was to succeed in his role as King of Asia he knew he also needed to respect the religions of any peoples he conquered.

Accordingly at Troy, immediately following his crossing, he sacrificed to the Greek heroes and the King of Troy, King Priam. In so doing Alexander revealed his ability to use his traditional role as a powerful weapon of propaganda. It was important for him to gain respect and to convince the Asian people that here was a King, who not only honored the customs and beliefs so central to their existence, but one who could also accordingly be trusted to ensure they would be protected.

Alexander’s military strength lay with his cavalry and the superiority of his land forces. His victory over the Persians at the Battle of the Granicus River (May 334) was pivotal if he was to succeed. In his role as a benefactor, his decision not to plunder their land and to free the natives, meant that many other towns along his route surrendered to him immediately and he repaid them well. He established democracies and abolished the annual tribute paid to the Persian King. He appointed local high ranking Persians to govern or to hold ‘high administrative posts in his new Kingdom of Asia’.

Alexander and Darius depicted at the Battle of Issus - remains of a Roman mosaic recovered in the House of the Faun at Pompeii, Italy

All of these actions were popular with the people, adding to his power as the cities had long been ‘ cliques of the rich and powerful’ where ‘local tyrannies flourished’.

Susa as the Persian capital would have been part of his main objective. The route through Sardis and Gordian, to link up with the Persian Royal Road, may have also been intentional to indicate that this was his first objective to Darius, the Persian King.

By severing, or undoing the so-called Gordian knot at the ancient Phrygian capital of Gordium, Alexander guaranteed his fame would spread. He created his own legend as he proceeded. He ‘undid’ the hitherto unsolvable Gordian knot, a feat said to await the future “king of Asia”. Much like the legendary King Arthur had by pulling the sword out of a stone.

The historian Plutarch rebuked the claim that Alexander had sliced the knot with his sword. He related that according to another Greek historian, Aristobulus of Cassandreia (375-301) who had actually accompanied Alexander on his campaigns, Alexander had pulled the knot out of its pole pin, exposing the two ends of the cord. That then allowed him to untie the knot without having to cut through it.

Whatever really happened, following this achievement Alexander turned unexpectedly and moved quickly to the coast, a strategy central to his aims. By destroying Persian supremacy of the sea by taking their coastal ports, he opened up the avenue of continued supply of food and equipment necessary for his army. As well he ensured continuing prosperity to its cities through trade, which also ensured that they would develop and grow. His further activities along the coast indicate this was part of his set policy as well.

Campaigns of Conquest courtesy Bible History On Line

A victory at Tyre was another and completely central to the success of his policy. Tyre was the leading Phoenician city, and the Phoenicians an important part of the Persian fleet. Victory at Tyre would mean the fleet’s domination would be weakened. King Darius during the siege offered Alexander his daughter’s hand in marriage,  much treasure, lasting friendship, and an alliance, as well as the surrender of his empire west of the Euphrates, indicating he knew how important Tyre was to the retention of Alexander’s Empire.

If Alexander had only intended to seek revenge, for the Greeks his victory at Tyre would have been the point to finish his campaign. His father’s experienced adviser Parmenio tried to persuade him to do so. Alexander decided however that King Darius’s destruction was central to the achievement of his aims and integral to his set policy.

Arrian reports a letter from Alexander to Darius in which he supposedly stated ‘ I invaded Asia because I wished to punish Persia for this act – an act which must be laid wholly to your charge’- showing that he held Darius personally responsible for Greek suffering under Persian tyranny.

The Bibliotheca Alexandrina (Alexandrian Library) at Alexandria in Egypt is a wonderful reincarnation of the famed ancient library. The original library held the largest collection of manuscripts in the world and was a center of learning for 600 years until it burned down in the 3rd century. The dramatic new library, resembling an angled discus or a great sundial, was designed recently by a Norwegian architect and cost about $200 million

Travelling to Egypt was also part of this policy, if, when justifying an attack on Tyre his reported words to his companions and officers are correct ‘I do not see how we can safely advance upon Egypt, so long as Persia controls the sea’ and Arrian indicates it was the original object of his southerly march.

In Egypt, where he was proclaimed Pharaoh, his successes in Persia gave him the opportunities to further expand Greek trade links, through the establishment of the city of Alexandria, where the gods gave auspicious signs for its prosperity.

His journey to Siwah to consult the oracle although one of his aims was a personal act, one of symbolic religious significance through his own belief he was the son of Zeus Ammon. The completion of this particular activity was made possible through his successes in Persia and the consequent peaceful conquering of Egypt.

The encounter with the ravens along the way, the reports of his visit all significantly enhanced his image of being divine, while providing succeeding generations with a mystery for all time. The oracle’s prediction, one that he would have held as a sign of his future success, remains a secret, which died with him.

He was personally reckless; secure in the knowledge that he was beloved by all of the Gods. He showed incredible determination in winning his campaigns throughout Persia.

His extraordinary military feats set examples for his men to follow, never asking them to perform physical feats he himself could not, completely winning their devotion. This devotion was proved when they covered 250 miles in the desert during mid summer in an attempt to finally bring about the end for Darius, only to be thwarted when Darius was murdered.

His words as recorded by Arrian “King Alexander having mastered Darius in battle and having become Lord of Asia” following Darius final defeat meant that he would have known at this point he had completely succeeded in his duty as Hegemon of the Greek League, avenged the Greeks and secured their freedom from Persian tyranny.

Again he appropriately sacrificed to Athena as befitting his rank and status to mark his success.

Following Darius’ death, on his way to Bactria in pursuit of his murderers, he was informed the Persians under Bessus and Satibarzenes,. two of the conspirators, were mounting a campaign against him. So he quickly changed his plans marching 75 miles in two days to quell the revolt.

These activities highlight his ability to make quick judgments and to react in order to suit the requirements of the moment.

His victory over and burning of the ceremonial capital of Persia, Persepolis, was a turning point where those close to him perceived he began to change his character and with it his aims. Alexander collected vast treasures along the way.

Persepolis was the ceremonial capital of the Persian Achaemenid Empire. It is situated 70 km northeast of the modern city of Shiraz in the Fars Province of modern Iran. These are the remains of the main hall at Persepolis

His liberal ideas, which included forbidding his soldiers to loot and pillage except under his orders, caused dissention.

He dismissed the Greek allies replacing them with fresh Macedonian troops, adopted Persian dress and began wearing the ‘ diadem’ the symbol of Persian kingship, sealing his letters home with Darius ring.

These actions, along with the deaths of Clitus and Calisthenthes severely disturbed many of his senior officers, who were also unhappy with him for bringing Asians into all ranks of the army, particularly his elite the Companions. He also encouraged intermarriage with Asian women. His marriage to Roxanne, a daughter of Bactria is symbolic of his desire to integrate the Greek and Persian worlds into one, with himself as absolute ruler.

He added to the wealth of Macedonia’s treasury and glory, but his decision to try and reconcile Macedonia and Asiatic customs to establish goodwill indicates that he was now responding to fresh ideas and changing his aims to suit the requirements of the moment. This was part of his growing desire to rule absolutely, and were not part of his commission from the council as Hegemon ‘for the campaign of revenge against Asia’, which would have meant the territories ruled over by King Darius.

Little was known of India’s geography beyond the peaks of the Hindu Kush. Alexander’s desire to establish what lay beyond its known boundaries was a challenge he would have relished, following on from the successes of his original quest. It was not an integral part of his original set policy for the destruction of Darius but part of his changing aims.

Statue of Alexander the Great, Alexandria

Arrian attributes his rejection of the envoys from Scythia and the invitation for an expedition to the Black Sea from the King of Iberia,  to his desire to proceed to India as ‘once India was his he would be master of all Asia’, although it would take him a year before he began.

During the course of Alexander’s Persian expedition he had heard that the country of India extended past the limits of the world about which his teacher Greek philosopher Aristotle had informed him.  This included ‘the outer sea’ .

His letters to Aristotle reveal for the first time he was unsure of what his actions should be.  Plutarch tells us in a letter to Antipater, his General in Greece Alexander said ‘he was seeking to conquer the whole inhabited world for the Macedonians’. Plutarch goes on to state ‘ these are almost the exact words’ which he obviously re-arranged to justify Alexander’s decision to proceed. Being invited to invade by the King at Taxila, which today is a city in the Punjab province of Pakistan.

Then it stood at the crossroads of three major trade routes, which would have been a great temptation for Alexander, flush as he was with his successes in Persia.  He could not resist, particularly in light of his belief of his role as a son of Zeus. And, the prospect of following in the footsteps of his predecessor Hercules his own hero, would have been irresistible. Rufus tells us he had to use guides because he was unaware of the territory.

It is interesting to note at Peucelaotis, the first city he encountered in India, as at Thebes, the inhabitants were butchered to a man and its buildings destroyed. By re-using this tactic he was announcing to the Indians he was now campaigning to include its territories within his kingdom.

Gold Coin, Alexander

Realization and awareness of the growth of his own personal power as he proceeded and the subsequent extension of his ego where he sought personal gratification through obeisance, was now impacting on the rational decisions that he made the further he ventured.

The decision of his officers at Sangala to mutiny was exacerbated by their experiences at Chenab: the violence of the monsoon, invasion of houses they were sheltering in to escape flooding by snakes, sickness through eating foods foreign to them, and the fact that they were fearful he was exceeding his authority. Alexander was now dangerously journeying into the unknown realm, that of personal gratification and glory.

His speech, where he endeavored to encourage them all to continue, recorded by Arrian, made them well aware that no matter what disasters befell them he would continue to change his aims accordingly as each new challenge was overcome and each new horizon presented itself, and that they in fact may never reach home.

Contemporary Head of Alexander the Great

Arrian’s observation of his reason for sailing down the Euphrates and Tigres into the Persian Gulf further illustrates this point perfectly.

“As for the exact thoughts in Alexander’s mind” he said  “I am neither able nor concerned to guess them. But this I think I can state, that nothing common or mean would have been his intention; he would not have remained content with any of his conquests, not even if he had added the British Isles to Europe; he would always have searched beyond for something unknown, and if there had been no other competition, he would have competed against himself”.

Alexander’s activities and actions in the East following Darius death indicate that from that time onward he was definitely changing his aims and that they were no longer part of the earlier set policy he had made for Persia and Egypt and for Greek revenge against Asia. He was an individual whose visions and aims changed as his horizons expanded and whose successes ultimately brought with them the prospect of greater opportunity and power.

There is no documented journal of his expedition remaining, only fragments which have been re-interpreted by the many who have followed. Unless a miracle happens and new evidence presents itself Alexander the Great’s achievements and his aims and policies will always be argued and discussed, remaining as he himself has, as part of a legend for all time.

Carolyn McDowall, The Culture Concept Circle 2010 – 2013


Rufus Q.C.   The History of Alexander, England, Penguin, 1984
Hammond N.G.L. Alexander the Great, England, Bristol Press, 1989
Wilken, U. Alexander the Great, New York, Chatto and Windus Ltd., 1967
Arrian. L.F. The Campaigns of Alexander, London, Penguin, 1971
Hammond N.G.L. The Macedonian State, London, Oxford University Press, 199
Plutarch, The Age of Alexander, London, Penguin, 1973
Fox, R.L. Alexander the Great, London, Penguin, 1973
Bosworth A.B. Conquest and Empire, Great Britain, Cambridge Press 1988

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