Alexander the Great

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Ancient

Quick Facts:

Alexander the Great is known as the creator of one of the largest empires in the history of the world.

Name: Alexander III of Macedonia

Birth/Death: 356 BCE - 323 BCE

Nationality: Macedonian

Birthplace: Greece, Macedonia

Alexander the Great bust

Alexander the Great

Alexander the Great, NY Carlsberg Glyptotek.

(Credit: Gunnar Bach Pedersen)

Early Life

Alexander the Great was born in 356 BCE. His parents were Philip II of Macedonia and Olympias of Epiras, the king and queen of Macedonia. His mother, Olympias, encouraged Alexander to believe that he had extraordinary powers. Many people believed that Alexander was actually the son of a snake, who was really the Egyptian god Ammon in disguise. Other people claimed that the Greek god Zeus was his true father. When he was ten years old, he tamed a dangerous stallion that he named Bucephalus. He would ride this horse into all his battles. As a teenager, Alexander’s tutor was the great Greek philosopher Aristotle. When Philip was assassinated in 336 BCE, Alexander became king of Macedonia.

Conquest

In 334 BCE, Alexander invaded the Persian Empire with an army of Macedonians, Greeks, and other allies. He took control of the western half of Asia Minor (modern-day Turkey). Alexander later took complete control of the area after conquering Mesopotamia and defeating the Persian emperor, Darius III. Once he conquered the Persian Empire, Alexander continued to the east and north. He made it as far as Pakistan and India, but his men asked him to stop conquering lands and to return home.

By 332 BCE, Alexander the Great’s empire also covered Syria, Palestine and Egypt. In Egypt, he acted as a pharaoh. He named the great city Alexandria after himself. When Alexander died in 323 BCE, he was just 32 years old. It is still difficult for modern historians to say exactly how he died. It seems, however, that he caught a disease – either typhoid fever or malaria – that was complicated by dangerous living conditions, prior battle injuries, and maybe drinking too much alcohol.

The Voyage of Nearchus

Nearchus was an officer in the army of Alexander the Great. Probably born on the island of Crete, his family settled in Amphipolis in Macedonia during the reign of Phillip around 357 BCE. Older than Alexander, he served as friend and mentor to the young man. Nearchus was exiled by Alexander’s father Phillip, and recalled to Alexander’s side only after Phillip died. Alexander appointed him satrap (governor) of Lycia and Pamphylia (in modern-day Turkey) in 334-333 BCE, one of the new king’s earliest appointments.

In 328 BCE, Nearchus was recalled from his post to rejoin Alexander’s forces in Bactria (modern-day Afghanistan and Tajikistan) and was sent on a reconnaissance mission, mainly to learn about elephants. Then in 326 BCE, Alexander made him the admiral of a fleet of ships he wanted built at Hydaspes (modern-day India and Pakistan). In an interesting financial twist, Nearchus had to put up his own money to have the fleet built. While not an experienced sailor, Nearchus did have enough nautical knowledge to direct ship repairs when some of the ships in his fleet were damaged.

It was Nearchus’ job to take the fleet on a long voyage into the Persian Gulf. In a report of his adventure, Nearchus stated that Alexander’s army was to parallel the coastline of Baluchistan (modern Pakistan, Iran and Afghanistan) in order to provision the ships and men. After a while, though, the ship crews were forced to come ashore many times to search for food and water.

Monsoon gales caused a 24-day delay in September of 325 BCE as they began an expedition from Kachari. Sailing along the coast, three of the ships were lost in a storm, while their crews swam to safety. The remaining vessels were able to connect with one of Alexander’s officers who provisioned the ships, so the voyage continued. The explorers encountered inhabitants along the coastline, and many of them seemed primitive and savage. One group of natives was still hunting with wooden weapons and using stone tools, having no iron. Nearchus reported that they wore the skins of wild animals and fish. (These were probably porpoise or whale hides.)

He encountered a tribe he called ‘turtle eaters,’ who ate the meat of turtles and used the shells for hut-roofs, and he sailed along the coast of Gedrosia (part of modern-day Iran) where the ‘fish eaters’ lived. Further along on the journey, Nearchus and his ships came to an island reported to be uninhabited.

According to Nearchus:

“The natives said that this island was sacred to the Sun and was called Nosala, and that no man was willing to put to shore on it; whosoever came to land there in ignorance, vanished. Nearchus indeed says that one boat with a crew of Egyptians vanished not far from this island, and the chief officers of that ship strongly urged about this, that they vanished having put to shore on the island through folly. Nearchus sent a thirty-oared ship to sail in a circle round the island, with orders not to bring it to land, but to shout to the men as they sailed as close as possible, and to call out the name of the helmsman and any other well-known name. But as none heard, he says he sailed to the island himself, and forced the unwilling sailors to land; and that he stepped on shore himself and proved the story about the island to be a fable.”

Nearchus had found Astola, 12 miles offshore from Kalami and still the center of a sun-worshipping society.

Nearchus and his fleet met up with Alexander at Carmania after Alexander’s forces had crossed the Gedrosian desert. The ships continued on as far as the Euphrates River before rejoining Alexander at Susa in early 324 BCE.

After his voyage, Nearchus was married to the daughter of Barsine, the mistress of Alexander. He was given a crown in honor of his exploits on behalf of Alexander, and the king intended to make Nearchus Admiral of the Arabian invasion fleet. Alexander’s untimely death changed those plans and the last mention of Nearchus is as an advisor to Demetrius in 313-312 BCE.

Legacy

Alexander’s conquests changed the ancient world. As Alexander’s empire spread, it expanded trade between the East and the West. It spread Greek culture throughout the Middle East and ushered in the new Hellenistic era. Greek culture, language and knowledge became very important, especially among the new ruling class (a combination of Greeks, Macedonians, and Persians).

While he is usually referred to as “Alexander the Great,” some people think he should be called “Terrible” instead because of all the wars he fought. After his death, a power struggle divided his empire into four kingdoms: the Ptolemaic Kingdom of Egypt, the Seleucid Empire of the East, the Kingdom of Pergamon in Asia Minor, and Macedon. His long, excessive conquests led to a weakened Macedonian state, which was eventually conquered by the Romans.