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Life of Alexander
My intention is not to write histories, but lives. Sometimes small incidents, rather
than glorious exploits, give us the best evidence of character. So, as portrait painters are
more exact in doing the face (where the character is revealed) than the rest of the body, I
must be allowed to give my more particular attention to the marks of the souls of men.
By these, rather than the historical events they participated in, I try to portray their lives.
I leave the task of a more complete historical chronicle to others.
On the day that Alexander was born, the temple of Diana at Ephesus burned down, an
omen which the fortune-tellers of the East interpreted as a sign that on that day, the force
that would destroy Asia had entered the world.
Alexander had light skin, blond hair, and melting blue eyes. A sweet natural fragrance
came from his body, so strong that it perfumed his clothes.
Action and glory, rather than pleasure and wealth, were what Alexander wanted from
life. Fame was his passion. When he heard of the conquests of his father, King Philip of
Macedonia, Alexander was not happy about the additional wealth and power that he
would inherit, but instead was sad that there would be less left for him to conquer.
Alexander often lamented to his friends that the way things were going, nothing would be
left for him to do once he became king.
Alexander wanted a kingdom involved in trouble and war, where he would have an
ample field to exercise his courage and make his mark on history. He disdained a life of
comfortable sloth. This young warrior was always a great patron of the arts and of
learning. He enjoyed and encouraged hunting and the martial arts, except for boxing.
Bucephalus was Alexander’s horse throughout most of his career. Some horse traders
had brought this magnificent animal to King Philip and offered him for sale, but no man
could ride him. The traders were taking Bucephalus away when Alexander remarked that
it was a shame to lose such a fine horse just because no one knew the right way to
manage him. Philip at first ignored the boy, but Alexander persisted. Finally Philip
said: “Do you presume to criticize those who are older than you, as if you knew more,
and could do better?” Alexander boldly declared that he would ride the horse, and
everyone laughed. He bet the price of the horse, and got the chance to try.
Alexander had noticed that Bucephalus was afraid of his own shadow, so he turned the
horse to face the sun and settled him down, then walked him in that direction for a while,
stroking him whenever he became eager and fiery. Suddenly, Alexander jumped on his
back and drew in the bridle gently, but firmly, until all rebelliousness was gone. Then he
let Bucephalus go at full speed, urging him on with a commanding voice.
Alexander’s father and the others looked on nervously until they saw Alexander turn at
the end of his run and come back in triumph. “Oh my son,” said King Philip with tears
in his eyes, “find yourself a kingdom equal to and worthy of yourself, for Macedonia is
too little for you.”
After this, Philip sent for Aristotle to be Alexander’s tutor. Ordinary teachers would
not be enough for Alexander, who could easily be led by reason but refused to submit to
compulsion. All kinds of learning and reading interested him, but Homers Iliad was by
far his favorite book. He always took a copy, annotated by Aristotle, along on his
campaigns. Aristotle had a profound influence on Alexander, who said that he loved
Aristotle as much as Philip — his father had given him life, and his teacher had taught him
to use it.
When Alexander was sixteen, Philip left him in charge of Macedonia while he went
away on a campaign against the people of Byzantium. The Maedi rebelled while Philip
was gone, and Alexander led an army against their largest city. He moved out the Maedi
and renamed the city “Alexandropolis,” after himself.
Philip put Alexander in command of the cavalry at the Battle of Chaeronea, and
Alexander led the charge that broke the Theban Sacred Band. This early bravery made
his father so fond of him that Philip liked nothing better than to hear his soldiers say that
Philip was their general, but Alexander was their king.
Philip had a stormy home life with Alexander’s mother, Olympias. Philip had spied on
her once and seen a snake in her bed, and ever since then they had been estranged.
Philip’s new marriages enraged Olympias, who was a violent, jealous, and unforgiving
woman. The trouble in the women’s chambers spread to the whole kingdom. Olympias
even managed to turn Alexander against his father.
The breaking point came when Philip married Cleopatra, the very young niece of
Attalus. At the wedding feast, Attalus (who was drunk), in his toast, asked the
Macedonians to pray to the gods for a lawful successor to the kingdom through his niece.
This so irritated Alexander that he threw a cup at Attalus and shouted: “What am I then -a bastard?” Philip (who was also drunk) took Attalus’ side and came at Alexander with a
sword, but he slipped and fell down on the floor. Alexander derided his drunk and
clumsy father and then left Macedonia, along with Olympias.
An old friend of the family came to visit Philip, and Philip asked him if the Greeks
were at peace with each other. The visitor replied: “It is strange that you are so worried
about Greece when your own house is torn apart by so many wars.” Philip got the point,
and called Alexander home. But soon another matter came between Alexander and his
By yet another wife, Philip had a son named Arrhidaeus, who had been a healthy boy
until Olympias gave him some drugs that damaged his brains. The satrap of Caria asked
for a marriage between his daughter and Arrhidaeus, hoping to ally himself with Philip’s
family. Olympias, aided by a few of Alexander’s companions, filled Alexander’s head
with suspicions that Philip was preparing to hand over the kingdom to Arrhidaeus. So
Alexander sent Thessalus, an actor, to the satrap with instructions to disparage
Arrhidaeus and to offer a marriage with Alexander instead.
Of course the satrap was much happier with the prospect of Alexander rather than
Arrhidaeus as his son-in-law. But when Philip heard about Alexander’s proposal, he
emphatically told his son that it was unworthy of the power he was due to inherit to beg
for an alliance with a man who was no more than the slave of a barbarian king. Philip
had Thessalus sent to him in chains, and he banished some of Alexander’s companions
who had talked Alexander into this.
Shortly afterwards, Philip was was murdered. The assassin was Pausanias, who was
angry because Philip had refused to give him justice for some injury done to him by
Attalus. But it was Philip’s wife who was the instigator. Olympias took this enraged
young man and made him the instrument of her revenge against her husband. Once
Philip was out of the way, Olympias tortured her hated young rival, Cleopatra, to death.
So, at the age of only twenty, Alexander became king of Macedonia.
The neighboring states and the cities of Greece rebelled against Macedonian rule now
that they saw a boy on the throne. Alexander’s council advised him to give up trying to
subjugate the Greeks and to concentrate his resources on keeping the barbarian nations of
the north under control. Treat the Greeks kindly, they said, and that will dissipate the
first impulses of rebellion.
But Alexander rejected this advice. If any sign of weakness were perceived at the
beginning of his government, everyone would be encouraged to attack, so only in bravery
was there safety. First Alexander marched to the Danube and beat down all opposition
from the tribes in that area. When everything there was peaceful again, he turned south
and marched to Greece.
There had been a revolution in Thebes. The demagogues there were urging all of the
other Greeks to join Thebes and free themselves from Macedonian domination. Athens
also was being agitated by talk of war and rebellion, particularly from the demagogue
After a march of two weeks, Alexander appeared at the walls of Thebes and demanded
that the city send him the two leaders of the rebellion. To show how willing he was to
forgive what was in the past, Alexander offered a full pardon for all those that would take
it. The Thebans gave him an insulting reply, so Alexander killed six thousand of them,
demolished their city, and sold all of the surviving inhabitants as slaves.
This severe example would make the other Greeks think twice about the consequences
of disobedience. And soon the Athenians repented and reaffirmed their allegiance to
Macedonia. Whether Alexander’s new gentleness toward the Athenians was the result of
remorse over the horrible cruelty done to Thebes, or merely that his passion for blood
was satisfied, is not certain. However, from then on Alexander always showed kindness
to any Theban survivor he could find.
Soon afterwards, representatives of the Greeks assembled at Corinth and named
Alexander to lead them in a war against Persia. While Alexander was at Corinth,
politicians and philosophers came to congratulate him, but he noticed that the famous
philosopher Diogenes, who lived there in Corinth, did not come.
So Alexander went to visit Diogenes at his home and found him lying down, sunbathing. Diogenes raised himself up a little when he heard the crowd approaching, and
Alexander asked the philosopher very courteously if there was any favor a king could do
for him. Diogenes only said: “Yes, please take your shadow off me.” Alexander’s
companions, on the way back, were making fun of the simple-minded old man, but
Alexander told them: “Laugh if you must, but if I were not Alexander I would choose to
Between 30,000 and 43,000 infantry and between 3,000 and 4,000 horsemen followed
Alexander into Asia Minor [334 B.C.]. He had only 70 talents for their pay, and no more
than thirty days’ provisions. Alexander was 200 talents in debt, having spent everything
he had in making sure that his best men were able to provide for their families. When
one of his generals asked what he had kept for himself, Alexander answered: “My hope.”
This general then refused the pension that Alexander offered him, saying: “Your soldiers
will be your partners in that.”
With such desire and determination, Alexander and his army crossed the Hellespont
into Asia and came to Troy. At the tomb of Achilles, who was his ancestor on his
mothers side, Alexander anointed the gravestone with oil and then ran around it naked
with his companions, according to the ancient custom. Achilles, he said, was a lucky
man to have had a good friend while he was alive and a good poet to preserve his
memory after he was dead.
Meanwhile, the Persians had camped on the other side of the Granicus River to prevent
Alexander from crossing. The Persian force numbered 20,000 infantry and 20,000
cavalry, and their position was strong. The river was deep, and its banks were high. The
task of assault seemed to be impossible, but Alexander immediately led thirteen
squadrons of horsemen across under a shower of arrows. With frenzied persistence they
managed to get up the muddy banks and close with the enemy.
Alexander’s white plume and brilliant armor made him easy to pick out, so the bravest
Persians clustered where he was, and that is where the fight was most furious. One
Persian chieftain knocked Alexander dizzy with a battle-ax, but Clitus saved Alexander’s
life by spearing the assailant before he could finish the kill.
The Macedonian phalanx, meanwhile, had managed to get across the river and form up
on the other side. The Persians could not stand up against their push, and soon the whole
Persian army was running for their lives. The losses on the Persian side were 20,000
infantry and 2,500 cavalry, but Alexander lost only 34 men.
This first victory changed everything. All of the cities on the coast surrendered to
Alexander, except for Halicarnassus and Miletus, which he had to take by force.
Now Alexander faced a difficult decision: whether to consolidate his conquests, in
order that their resources could provide a secure base for later operations, or to move
immediately against the Persian king Darius in the heart of his empire. Consolidation
was Alexander’s choice, so he moved down the coast to take control of Lycia, then turned
north to Phrygia.
There, in the city of Gordium, he accepted the challenge of the Gordian Knot. A very
intricate knot tied together the yoke of an ancient chariot, and there was a legend that
whoever could undo the knot would become the master of the world. Alexander pulled
out his sword and chopped through the Gordian Knot, instead of involving himself in its
King Darius of Persia was on the way from Susa with an army of 600,000 men. For
some time, Alexander stayed in Cilicia, which Darius and his advisors attributed to
Alexanders fear of encountering the overwhelmingly large Persian force. The real
reason for Alexander’s delay was that he was getting over a serious illness.
All of Alexander’s attendants were afraid to try any remedies, because if their remedy
failed, and Alexander died, the Macedonians might blame the physician. But there was
one, Philip the Acarnanian, who dared to try, and he risked his own life to save
Alexander’s. Alexander received a letter from Parmenio, warning of treachery by this
physician, who, said the letter, had been bribed by Darius to give poison instead of
medicine. Alexander read the letter, then put it under his pillow, showing it to no one.
When Philip came in with the potion, Alexander took out the letter and handed it to him,
and while Philip read the letter, Alexander drank the potion with a smile. In a short time,
Alexander was well.
The Persians had camped in flat and open country, where they could take advantage of
their superiority in cavalry. But as weeks passed with no sign of Alexander (who was
recovering from his sickness), Darius’ flatterers convinced him that the Greeks were
afraid to fight, and therefore Darius should move his army to Issus to cut off their escape.
Darius marched to Issus at the same time that Alexander marched into Syria to meet him,
and the two armies passed each other. When Alexander heard that the Persians were
behind him at Issus, he immediately turned back and hurried to fight there.
Darius was in an equal hurry to get out of Issus, because when he saw the rough
terrain, which made his cavalry useless, and split up his army, he realized that the Greeks
could have the advantage. Before Darius could escape from his own trap, Alexander had
arrived. Alexander personally commanded the right wing, which crushed the Persian left.
Darius panicked and rode away, leaving behind his chariot, his bow, his shield, his
mantle, his army, and 110,000 Persian casualties.
Among the captives taken in the Persian camp were the mother, wife, and daughters of
Darius. Alexander assured these women that they had nothing to fear from him or his
men, since he fought with Darius only for his empire, and not for personal spite. He
guaranteed that they would continue to be treated according to their rank and would have
everything they used to have from Darius. Alexander was always very chaste and
courteous in his relations with the opposite sex, and he had a great respect for the
institution of marriage. He used to say that two things reminded him that he was human,
and not a god: sleeping and the act of generation, as if to say that both weariness and lust
are produced by the same weakness and imbecility of human nature.
In eating, also, Alexander was totally in command of his appetite, and neither a glutton
nor a gourmet. When offered the services of some cooks who were said to have great
skill, he declined, saying that the best stimulus to a good appetite was a long march
before breakfast and a moderate breakfast to create an appetite for dinner. It was
generally believed that Alexander was addicted to wine, but that impression arose from
the fact that he liked to stay up late over wine talking.
When he had free time, Alexander would read, write, or hunt. He would not have
dinner until after dark, and this would be a very long meal because he loved good
conversation. Usually, his own talk was amusing and intelligent, but Alexander
sometimes would lapse into braggadocio. This gave his flatterers a chance to ride him,
and put his friends in the unpleasant position of choosing between shame and danger -they disdained to compete in flattery but were afraid not to join in.
After the Battle of Issus [333 B.C.], Alexander sent some men to Damascus to take
possession of the money and baggage that the Persian army had left there. Every soldier
in the Greek army became a rich man, with beautiful women for slaves. Alexander
allowed this because he wanted them to get a taste of barbaric luxury that would make
them more eager to conquer more territory. He considered it to be like giving
bloodhounds the scent.
Then Alexander proceeded down the coast to the city of Tyre, which refused to
surrender to him. While his army sat down for a siege at Tyre [332 B.C.], Alexander
went into Arabia.
One day, he fell behind the rest of his army because his old teacher, Lysimachus
(whom he used to compare to Phoenix, the guardian of Achilles) could not keep up.
Night found Alexander in a very dangerous position: far behind his army and without any
fire to combat the cold. He noticed some enemy campfires, so he ran over to one, killed
two soldiers with his knife, then carried back a burning stick to his men. This was typical
of Alexander — he was always encouraging his men by a personal example of readiness
to work and face danger.
During the seven months that it took before Tyre finally was sacked, Darius wrote to
Alexander and offered to pay ransom for the prisoners held by Alexander. Darius also
offered to give Alexander one of his daughters in marriage if Alexander would be
satisfied with dominion over all of the countries west of the Euphrates. Alexander told
his friends about the offer, and asked their advice. Parmenio said, “If I were you, I would
take it gladly.”
Alexander responded, “So would I, if I were Parmenio, but I am Alexander, so I will
send Darius a different answer.” This was Alexander’s answer to Darius: “All of Asia is
mine, including all of its treasure. This money you offer is already mine. As for your
daughter, if I want to marry her, I will do so, whether or not you approve. If there is
something you want from me, you may come in person and ask for it. Otherwise, I will
have to go to where you are.”
After Tyre and Gaza had been taken, Alexander went into Egypt. He founded the city
of Alexandria [331 B.C.] at the mouth of the Nile, pursuant to a dream he had. His
fortune-tellers predicted that Alexandria would become a great city that would feed many
strangers, and so it came to pass.
Then Alexander decided to take a long journey to an oasis in the middle of a vast
desert, to visit the temple of the god Ammon. Not only would water be scarce along the
way, but sandstorms had buried whole armies there before. All of these dangers and
difficulties did not matter to Alexander, who could not be diverted from his plan once he
had decided to do something. Alexander’s good luck made him firm in his opinions, and
his natural courage made him delight in overcoming difficulties, as if conquering armies
was not enough, and only Nature herself was a fit opponent for him.
Alexander’s good luck continued. Heavy rain solved the water problem, and also
prevented sand from blowing. When the Macedonians lost their way, some ravens came
to guide them. These birds flew ahead to indicate the right direction, and at night the
ravens’ calls kept them on the right path.
At the temple of Ammon, Alexander asked the oracle whether he would be allowed to
conquer the wo …
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