Why was Alexander “the Great”?

Upon inheriting his father, Philip II’s, armies, Alexander aided the unification of the petty Greek states that had for so long warred against each other to fight a common enemy – Persia – and led his men, as a general, into an invasion of Asia. Not only was Alexander titled “great” by modern historians, but by the writers of Ancient Times, such as Arrian, Curtis and Diodorius. Born in 356 BC, Pella, Greece, “Alexander, being then about twenty years of age, marched into Peloponnesus, as soon as he had secured the regal power”.

His initial army of approximately forty-thousand men was actually inherited from his father. Just the same, it was his father, Philip, who had worked for the peace between Greek nations. Macedonia, one of these states, was not reckoned with as a large military power until the time of Philip II. Although Alexander had been taught in the sciences by Aristotle, he mainly learned the art of kingship and how to be a general from his father, who, towards the end of his reign, was organising his forces for an invasion of the mighty Persian Empire. He’d secured the water routes to Asia Minor and it was his plan to invade that way just before he was assassinated. Immediately upon his ascension in 336BC, Alexander ordered the execution of the Lyncestis Princes, who were believed to have been involved in the plot.

Many of the military reforms committed by Alexander where taken from the legacy of his father. These included the organisation of mixed units and the new sarissa phalanx formation. Sarissa units were specially trained and carried a double-length spear to deliver a strong blow to the enemy centre.

It was also Philip who left Alexander to deal with revolts and rebellions while he left for his attack on Byzantion. Therefore, Alexander became experienced in the art of fighting from a young age.

One argument for the selfishness of Alexander stems from the same time period, 340 BC, when he defeated the Thracian Maedi and built a city called Alexandropolis in their conquered territory. Twenty such cities named after him were built during his rule.

Although Alexander later resented his father for not spending enough time with him amongst his long military projects and campaigns, there were some occasions in which the son helped win his father’s battle. For example, in 338 BC, Alexander and Philip defeated a coalition of Athens and Thebes at the Battle of Chaeronea.

On a whole, however, Philip did not give his son enough attention or care. When he divorced Olympia, Alexander’s mother, Philip instead married Cleopatra Eurydice and the mother and son were forced to escape to Epirus. Alexander later made his own way to Illyria.

Apart from Sparta, all of the Greek states had been united by the time Alexander became King. Moreover, the nation was more or less prepared for major invasion of Asia Minor and the Persian Empire. To capture the territories of the Western empire, it was necessary for the Greeks to cross the Hellespont.

In an attempt to prevent the treacherous Greek armies from travelling too far into their lands, the Persian leaders in Anatolia suggested that all farms be burnt to the ground so that the enemy would eventually starve. Unfortunately for the Persians, this proposal did not go down too well and resulted in the two rivals meeting in a pitched battle at the Granicus River. The conflict that followed saw Alexander’s first main victory of the campaign.

Here we see how Alexander used the innovations of his father to his own advantage in the battle. Adrian says that he drew up “his heavy-armed troops in a double phalanx”. There was “cavalry on the rear“, commander by Hegelochus, and the baggage train followed behind the army.

Despite the banks of the river being “steep” and “abrupt”, and the opposing sides arming on each side, the mixed units and cavalry of the Greeks managed to secure some victories and allowed the main infantry formations to force the Persians from the battlefield, beneath heavy spear-fire.

“Moreover, I think that the Persians will regain courage, as being a match in war for Macedonians”

Not only does the Battle of the Granicus show examples of Alexander’s intelligent military strategy, Arrian’s account demonstrates how he was always in the thick of the fighting. This involvement in his battles caused Alexander to acquire several injuries across his lifetime. At the Granicus, he was almost killed by a couple Persian noblemen who had ties to King Darius.

Rhoesaces managed to strike Alexander on his head and broke a piece of his helmet off. Additionally, he forced him to the ground and hit at his chestplate. Spithridates, seeing this, attempted to make a fatal blow against the King but “Clitus, son of Dropidas, anticipated his blow, and hitting him on the arm, cut it off, scimitar and all”.

Following his victory at the Granicus, Alexander led his army south along the west of Asia Minor. After seeing the city of Sardis surrender and successfully besieging Miletus and Halicarnassus, the King turned his forces North and marched far inland until he arrived at Gordium. Allegedly, he struck the “Gordian Knot” with his sword, breaking the legend that whoever could untie it would rule all of Persia. Actions like this show us how Alexander placed brute force and military might before negotiations and peaceful, logical thinking.

It is at this time that we see the physiological effect on the Persians caused by Alexander’s cruel and relentless invasions. Many of the smaller towns and provinces simply surrendered to him after hearing tales of his previous victories in Persia. Perhaps this can be used against him – he did not conquer every region, but scared them until they were subdued. Therefore, maybe it is correct that he was “Alexander the Accursed”, to quote the Persians, instead of “Alexander the Great”.

Moreover, there is another point to consider on the behalf of Alexander’s strength. While he was campaigning in Anatolia, two Greek islands in the Aegean – Lesbia and Chios – were attacked and captured by Memnon. A demonstration of Alexander’s weakness in homeland Greece is seen here; whilst he had numerous successes in the Persian Empire and on campaign, Greece was never in a completely stable and protected condition.

As the King continued his journey, the army turned South again and headed towards the border of Asia Minor and the entrance to Syria. Unfortunately, the elite army of Darius III cut them off from behind whilst attempting to pass by the Nur Mountains. Forced into a battlefield only several miles wide, Alexander was in a tricky situation. He’d neither taken a safer route around the other side of the mountain range nor anticipated the sudden move by the enemy king.

King Darius III, although he yielded the numerical advantage with his 100,000 men, waited for an attack behind the Pinarus River. Alexander used his right wing to deliver a smash blow to the Persians, but the Macedonian phalanx struggled to hold ground against the blood-thirsty Persian-Greek mercenaries. The Greeks regrouped, charged into the Persian centre and the sarissa soldiers began to make an advance after all. Darius III promptly fled the battlefield. There was a possibility that he Greek left wing might have been threatened by the Persian cavalry, but the fight was held strong until the enemy fled, realising that their King had left them on their own. These retreating troops were ran down and slaughtered by the Macedonians, and Darius’ wife and children were taken prisoner.

“Arrian mentions that Darius III has 600,000 soldiers, but this is almost certainly an exaggeration. If he did, Alexander would have won an insane battle, with the odds heavily stacked against him”

Following this immense victory, the Macedonians took a costal route through the Levant and, after a brutal siege, took Tyre, an important port on the Eastern Mediterranean.

Alexander then headed for Egypt, a nation that believed that he was the one who would liberate them from their Persian oppressors. Needless to say, the Egyptians immediately crowned him as their king, and worshipped him as the son of the God of all gods. Alexander himself believed that he was the son of Zeus, the Greek overlord God.

In the North of Egypt, the city of Alexandria was founded. Theories suggest that it was built to face the “rising sun on the day Alexander was born”. The invasion of Egypt in 332BC was relatively unopposed. After his death, the country became a Ptolomeic Kingdom, one of many Hellenistic regions that rose up following the disintegration of the Empire that Alexander had conquered.

Alexander left Egypt quietly and wouldn’t return until his death, when his corpse was carried to Memphis and buried in a tomb. We do not know where his body is, and it’s location remains one of the greatest mysteries of the Ancient World.

Darius III was now desperate to defend the heartland of the Persian Empire, and built an enormous army, bringing troops from all over the land and the Far East to construct a force that greatly outnumbered Alexander’s campaigning troops. Arrian says that his troops numbered about one million, but this is, of course, an exaggeration. Despite having limited accounts of the sizes of the army, it is still clear that Alexander had been swiftly outnumbered – and potentially outgunned, as well.

The Battle of Gaugamela was the final showdown between King Darius III and King Alexander of the Macedonians. If Darius was to keep his kingdom, then it was absolutely necessary that the enemy Greeks be destroyed on the spot, in a bloody, pitched battle. On the other hand, to conquer the entirety of the Persian Empire, Alexander would have to force Darius into suffering a severe defeat.

Darius had brought many new troops into contract, such as the “Indians” who had probably travelled from modern-day Pakistan. Gaugamela, meaning “the Camel’s House” was in Iraq, and, instead of heading towards Babylon, which has been Alexander’s intention, he redirected his forces towards Darius and the armies met on an open plane. As well as facing well training cavalry, the Persians also were in control of a small unit of war elephants.

The Greeks led their mixed units on the right and began an encirclement of the Persian left wing. Consequently, the Persians were forced to bring backup soldiers from their centre to deal with the threat of being trapped.

Immediately, Darius commanded the main chariot charge in the centre. They were instantly torn down by expert javelin fire and the Greeks suffered almost no casualties. Phalanx units then moved in to deal a powerful blow to the Persians.

On the other hand, Palmenion, in charge of the Greek left wing, came under fierce attack by the Indian cavalry. If his units broke, the Macedonian army would be encircled and possibly destroyed. A desperate request was sent to Alexander, who turned his units to charge the Persian right. A bloody slaughter followed, and eventually the Persians were routed. The battle was a bloodbath for the Persians, and the Greeks emerged victorious.


Alexander was promptly crowned in Babylon, accepted as the rightful ruler of the Persian Empire. However, he had not finished yet. The Macedonians, who had already travelled thousands of miles, set off on a winding route further East, defeating the usurper Bessus and continuing to the furthest reaches of the Empire. After a brutal battle at the Hydapses – where the Greeks suffered heavy casualties after being stomped by war elephants – they mutinied, and refused to go any further.

“Alexander was forced to lead his army back over land and sea until they arrived in Babylon”

Once at the capital of his new Empure, Alexander the Great became extremely ill and died.

During the ensuing night and day and the next night and day he was in a very high fever.

After conquering a huge slice of the East, defeating all his enemies and never losing a battle in his lifetime, Alexander died at age 32 to unknown causes. Some say it was poison and ancient writers have speculated that it was a deliberate assassination, but other men and friends in the army had died to fever, so it’s likely that there was a natural disease unknown to the Greeks in the Persian lands.

Alexander named countless cities after himself and travelled as Far East as his men would agree to go. Despite learning a lot from his father, it was his own perseverance, cooperation in battle and endless marching that led him to succeed in his conquest. There were multiple attempts to kill Alexander towards the end of his reign. Maybe it was because he began taking up Persian traditions, or he supporting the Greek-Hindu movement. It’s hard to tell. Alexander was merciless and brutal, used cruel means to achieve what he wanted – executions, blood-rages and running headlong into war.

Perhaps there are many things we do not know about the rule of Alexander the Great; but to ancient historians, modern spectators and most of the world, he was a fascinating general desperate to get his way, and a rewriter of history.


More Alexander the Great articles coming soon! (No, this isn’t the only one)

Quick! Get your articles written by me for £5+

History Article Writing from £5

Learn more about Alexander:

@theaugustusblog ON INSTAGRAM

Researching? Use these:





3 thoughts on “Why was Alexander “the Great”?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s