What makes a person truly great?: Alexander the Great; an analysis of a life

By Ana Borcoman

When we discuss history, we ponder the effects certain figures have had on time and civilization, further categorising these figures into certain groups that range from irrelevant and monotonous to influential and great. A question that inevitably arises once these classifications have been established is: what makes a person truly great? 

In this article, I will try to justify a title, which has been bestowed upon Alexander by historians for centuries, as an attempt to portray the character of a truly incredible and astonishing individual. He was known for his conquests of Asia Minor, battles against the Achaemenid (Persian) Empire, and the sole person responsible for the subsequent Hellenization of the entire east Mediterranean up to the Indus River. To understand a historical figure, you must first turn your attention towards their childhood. The gradual development of one’s mind in prime years and the influential nature of it builds long-lasting memories and transposes these experiences subconsciously into the individual as an adult, memories affect rationality and build individuality.  

Alexander was born sometime in August 356 BC; his short life was full of impulsive actions and the brashness of youth. Growing up, Alexander admired his father Philip II, who had achieved so much for Macedon in the short span of his reign that he would have marked history forever if Alexander had not succeeded him as king. His tactical battle strategy and the reforms brought to the Macedonian army would aid as key factors in permitting Alexander’s military conquest to ensue. He further stabilized the Macedonian influence in Greece with the formation of the Corinthian League, a political alliance meant to unify Greek military force under Macedonian rule and stabilize the connection between the Greek city-states. Alexander’s mother, Olympias, was princess of Epirus and stemmed from royal blood. She was a fierce woman, often described as enchanting and elusive with piercing eyes and a fiery demeanor. She believed Alexander to be a gift from the gods, a divine being whose purpose was established long before his birth; when he was a child, she would continuously reinforce this idea, making him believe he was of divine heritage. Throughout his childhood, Alexander was subjected to a father whose long periodic absences caused by military campaigns would leave indelible marks, and a mother whose possessive love was strangling and often overwhelming. 

Plutarch, an ancient historian whose work is a reliable tertiary source, states that even as a young child he had a longing to excel, and philotimia, the need for superiority and love of honour. Alexander was mentored by Aristotle, an Athenian philosopher whose legacy is well renowned and who decisively taught Alexander everything he knew, building his awareness, intelligence, and expanding his cultural knowledge. As expected of Macedonian kings at the time, Alexander harboured certain vanity and pride, but it was opposed by his attitude and an infallible longing to meet his own standards, of which he never fell short. At sixteen, he was appointed regent of Macedon and helped devise battle plans alongside his father.  

A key event that marked Alexander’s childhood and his transition into adulthood was the taming of Bucephalus, a restless stead incapable of being subdued. When Philip was offered this horse, he refused vehemently eyeing its perturbed state, no other rider had managed to calm it but when Alexander’s hand caressed its mane the horse became instantly docile. Bucephalus would later be Alexander’s horse for the vast majority of his life. This tale particularly emphasized the “divine attributes” possessed by Alexander.  

In 336 BC Alexander’s reign began unexpectedly after his father was assassinated, he was only twenty at the time and his first task as king was to eliminate those who endangered his rule, he sought out and punished those responsible for his father’s death. He opposed the revolting Greek city-states and laid siege to multiple cities which brought him control over the whole of Greece. He appointed men as vassals and entrusted them with control over Macedonian territory as he set out on his lifelong dream of conquering Asia and reaching the furthest point on the maps. Alexander had gained popularity amongst Macedonian soldiers; he had a group of generals whose devotion was indubitable, and he trusted these men entirely. He was charismatic and brave, relentless but strategic and respected by his people. Once he reached the Hellespont and crossed into the Persian Empire, he began a series of sieges alongside the eastern coast of the Mediterranean, all of which he effortlessly completed. The Persian king Darius, had satrapies in those regions which were slowly yielding to Alexander. He grew worried and hired mercenaries for the brutal battles that would follow. One of the most famous battles between Alexander and Darius would be the one at the inlet bay of Issus, where Darius attempted to surprise Alexander and planned an offensive attack. Curtius, an ancient historian, states that Darius was lured by Alexander into moving the battlefield to a smaller more confined place, this proved to be to Alexander’s advantage as he charged into Darius’s battle lines and pierced a route through to his personal guard. The confidence Alexander showed and the determination his soldiers possessed while fighting mercilessly affected the Persian army and the traitorous mercenaries fled, Darius left in the midst of battle, afraid of death, and leaving his demoralized soldiers behind. Carnage ensued and the Persians were slaughtered by the Hellenic League, it was a decisive victory for Alexander.  

This incredible success allowed Alexander to extend his influence into Egypt, where he was welcomed as a liberator. In Egypt, he made many reforms, was venerated by the people, and regarded as the bringer of salvation. On the edge of the Mediterranean, where the Nile River forms a delta, Alexander decided to construct a city which would later prosper and become one of the most notable parts of his legacy. The city of Alexandria, the modern-day capital of Egypt, has existed since antiquity and marks Alexander’s prominent presence, it holds much cultural significance as the pivotal point and origin of Greek Hellenization. Not long after his arrival, in January 332 BC, he was enthroned pharaoh of Egypt, surviving cartouches describe Alexander as “Horus, the strong prince, he who laid hands on the lands of the foreigners, beloved of Ammon and selected of Ra, son of Ra, Alexandros” 

After securing Egypt, Alexander decided to continue his conquest and in October 331 BC he faced Darius at the infamous battle of Gaugamela. Greatly outnumbered yet again, Alexander set out with a determined spirit to meet Darius at his chosen battle plain. Alexander was fighting for the sovereignty of all Asia, and though immensely disadvantaged he managed to seize a major victory. Darius’s vast army which also encompassed war elephants and chariots was undeniably intimidating even for the strong and able Macedonians, but through strategic advancements and fierce opposition they managed to prevail. As was his custom, Darius fled the battlefield and was later assassinated by his men for showing cowardice and disdain. Taking over Darius’s role, Alexander was crowned king of Persia.   

The Persianization of Alexander is a subject greatly debated among historians. Alexander practiced a gradual implementation of Persian customs into his mannerisms and persona, it affected his connections with his men who saw it as degrading but strengthened his bond with the people, who acknowledged him as king and now had proof of his belonging. Alexander began wearing Persian attire, jewels and makeup, he practiced Persian customs such as proskynesis and even appointed Persians as generals, accepting them into his court. He encouraged his generals to marry Persian women to strengthen alliances and further secure his claim over the broad empire. He married two Persian princesses, Stateira and Roxana, but he would be incapable of siring an heir as the relationships were purely diplomatic and neither of the women accompanied him once he headed for India 

In 327 BC Alexander assembled a large army, and his most trusted generals, to start his march on India. Treading through land which was previously unknown to the Greek civilization he discovered new cultures, and possibilities for trade. He came across prosperous land and met the ambitious people of the Nanda empire. He led a battle against Porus, the king of the Paurava region, whose army was fortified and strong, his men brave and callous. A ferocious battle ensued from which Alexander emerged victorious yet again, but this left him with a mass of casualties and exhausted men. After this battle, the spirits of Alexander’s soldiers were low and they had become mutinous, starting a revolt against the further conquest of India, they longed to return to Babylon. Alexander was furious but forced to comply and he started on a long journey back home. Alexander was not defeated in India by a foreign army, he was defeated by the diminished morale of his own men. 

By 323 BC Alexander had accomplished such exceptional tasks, he had conquered an empire which stretched across three continents and approximately two million square miles, and had led impressive campaigns with no losses and limited casualties. He won against unfathomable odds, demonstrating his capability and composing such great military strategies that would inspire kings and generals for centuries to come. By summer his health had started to decline as he reached Babylon sometime in June, when the sun was alike scorching fire, Alexander experienced a delirious fever which led to his inevitable death. Left without an heir, Alexander conveyed a message that entailed an order, his land shall be given to “the strongest”. A series of succession wars were fought but the bloodshed was inconclusive and his broad empire unraveled, leaving behind a myriad of Greek cultural influences in Asia Minor. Alexander’s death was the beginning of something modern historians call the Hellenistic period, a term that stems from the Greek “Hellazein” which means to identify one’s self with Greek culture and language.  

Alexander’s death caused great uproar in the masses all across his empire, he is perceived and revered as one of the greatest kings and conquerors of antiquity. A description of his passing goes as follows:  

“A dark mist crossed the sky, and a bolt of lightning was seen to fall from heaven into the sea, and with it a great eagle. And the bronze statue of Arimazd in Babylon quivered; and the lightning ascended into heaven and the eagle went with it, taking with it a radiant star. And when the star disappeared in the sky, Alexander too had shut his eyes.” 

  • From Mary Renault’s [The Nature of Alexander] 

After many years of battle, valorous feats and heroism, Alexander’s accomplishments still echo throughout history and have influenced great leaders all around the world. His reputable achievements and innate drawing towards compassion have labelled him as someone who was truly great, a man whose legacy has become a modern legend, and who will be remembered for all time.