The conquests of Alexander the Great form one of the most dramatic episodes in world history. They changed the course of history by brining a sudden end to the Persian Empire, and spreading Greek civilization far and wide across the Middle East and into India. Here it fused with other, more ancient civilizations to give rise to a new fusion, Hellenistic civilization.
Coming to the throne
In the years up to 338 BCE most of the city-states of mainland Greece had fallen under the hegemony of Macedonia, at that time ruled by its highly capable king, Philip II. In 336, however, just as he was about the lead the Greeks in an invasion of the Persian empire, Philip was assassinated. He was succeeded by his 20 year old son, Alexander.
By the time of his accession, Alexander had had a thorough military training, and was an experienced commander. He had a reputation for outstanding courage and leadership; and it seems that the Macedonian nobility immediately accepted him as their king. However, Alexander took immediate steps to eliminate any potential rivals within the royal family by having several relatives killed.
The death of Philip resulted in the Greek states throwing off their allegiance to the Macedonian king. Alexander swiftly moved south and, out-manoeuvring his opponents, secured the renewed submission of these states with barely any bloodshed. He then secured his northern and western borders against Thracian and Illyrian tribes in a series of lightening victories. Meanwhile, the Greek cities of Thebes and Athens had rebelled again. A furious Alexander rushed south and crushed the Theban army. He raised the famous city to the ground, its people he sold into slavery and its territory he shared out amongst its neighbours. Athens immediately sued for mercy, and the other cities of Greece were cowed into submission.
Invasion of the Persian empire
He was now in a position to take up the task which his father was about to begin at the time of his death. In 334 BCE Alexander invaded Asia Minor. He had with him an army of some 40,000 men, made up of Macedonians troops plus contingents sent from the Greek, Thracian and Illyrian states under Macedonian rule. There were also some mercenaries.
The army crossed the Hellespont, the narrow strip of water between Europe and Asia Minor, and marched north to meet an army which the local Persian governors (satraps) were gathering with which to defend the empire. The two forces met on the banks of the River Granicus; Alexander’s was much the larger army, but the Persian army (of some 25,000 men) was in a good defensive position, awaiting Alexander’s attack. In the ensuing battle Alexander showed his aggression by attacking the enemy head on, and his masterly generalship by a series of feints which caught the enemy off-balance and led to their rout. The Persians lost some 6,000 men that day, killed or captured, while Alexander lost about 400 men.
Alexander then marched his army southward along the coast of Asia Minor. He met stout resistance at the city of Halicarnassus, but after a four-month siege and some demoralising setbacks, some of his troops were able to make a breach in the city walls, allowing his army to enter and take the city.
The Battle of Issus
He then continued along the coast, receiving the submission of the cities there, before swinging northward into the interior. Marching through the centre of Asia Minor, all the tribes and cities here too surrendered to him; he then turned south-east, towards Syria.
Meanwhile, the king of Persia, Darius III, had collected a huge army from all parts of his empire (modern historians estimate about 100,000 strong), massed it at Babylon, and marched to meet Alexander (with his 40,000). In 333 the two armies approached each other on the narrow coastal plain of northern Syria, near the Gulf of Issus. The Persians out-manoeuvred Alexander to position their army between it and its supplies; this forced Alexander to abandon his prepared position and march to meet Darius. In the ensuing battle, Alexander was able to lead a cavalry charge which punched a hole in the left wing of the Persian line, swung round and attacked the Persian infantry (many of which were in fact Greek mercenaries) from the rear. The Persian army then lost its cohesion and fell apart. Its troops fled as best they could, Darius with them. The Persian king left behind his wife, daughters and mother to fall into Alexander’s hands.
The battle of Issus was a great victory for Alexander. Darius offered Alexander peace terms, but Alexander refused. However, he did not follow up this victory by marching east, into the heart of the Persian empire. He clearly felt that, given the Persian empire’s vast reserves of manpower, his comparatively small army could easily be isolated by enemy forces, and its lines of supply cut. He therefore headed south, to make sure that the lands bordering the Mediterranean were safely in his hands, and that their ports were open to ships supplying and reinforcing his army. Also, what may have been on his mind was the fact that Egypt, probably the wealthiest portion of the Persian empire, was also its most rebellious province. Perhaps he felt that the Egyptians would greet him as a liberator from the hated Persians, which would help to strengthen his position.
The cities of Syria hurried to acknowledge him as their lord, with the exception of the great Phoenician city of Tyre. Here the people, having withdrawn to an island a kilometre off shore, surrounded with strong walls, withstood a seven-month siege (332 BCE).
Alexander’s army was forced to build a causeway across the sea to reach the island; and it was only when he had built up a large fleet, mainly provided by the other Phoenician cities, which had come under his control, that he was able to closely blockade the island and put a stop to the destructive attacks on his men and siege engines. Eventually these were able to breach the walls, and the city fell to him.
Tyre’s long resistance was a cause of great frustration to Alexander, and in his wrath he ordered the famous city be destroyed and its inhabitants killed or enslaved.
The cities to the south, on the road to Egypt, all hurried to open their gates to him, until he reached Gaza. Here Alexander had to conduct another major siege. The experience gained at Halicarnassus and Tyre, however, stood his troops in good stead, and this siege, though bitterly fought (and during which Alexander was wounded in the shoulder), was not as long. On Gaza’s fall, the way to Egypt lay open.
Egypt accepted Alexander as a liberator, as he had hoped, and the priests acclaimed him as the son of their chief god, Ammon. During his stay there he founded the city of Alexandria, on the Mediterranean coast; this would soon blossom into the largest and wealthiest city in the Mediterranean, and probably in the entire world.
Meanwhile, Darius, king of the Persians, had been trying to persuade Alexander the give back his family members, leave his territory, or at least be content with what he had already conquered, in return for which Darius would pay him an enormous ransom. Whilst these attempts at diplomacy were taking place, Darius was raising a second army from around his empire. Estimates of its size have been hard to arrive at, but it was probably about the same strength (c. 100,000 men) as the one defeated at Issus.
The Battle of Gaugamela
In 331 BCE, Alexander at last marched (still with an army of c. 40,000 men), first north to Tyre, and then east, into northern Mesopotamia. Darius advanced into northern Mesopotamia to meet him, and awaited Alexander at Gaugamela, near the city of Mosul. Darius chose this spot because it was a wide, flat plain, which would give his larger army, with its much more numerous cavalry (including elephants) the chance to outflank Alexander’s.
In the battle which followed, the long experience and tight discipline of Alexander’s army enabled him to execute an amazing battle plan. Alexander essentially used the Persians’ strength against them by encouraging their cavalry wings to fight ever further from their centre. The Macedonian phalanx then charged an over-extended centre, which broke and fled. Darius fled the battlefield, which was the signal for his entire troops to do likewise.
The natural and dangerous corollary of this concentration on the centre was that the cavalry wings were put in jeopardy by the superior numbers they were fighting. Alexander was unable to follow up his victory in the centre by pursuing the Persian king, therefore, and had to turn back and come to the aid of one of the wings, which was particularly hard pressed. A period of fierce fighting ended in the defeat of the Persian cavalry here, and a complete victory for Alexander.
Nevertheless, Darius had been allowed to escape, and the eastern half of the Persian empire remained unconquered. Alexander marched on Babylon, which he entered without a fight, and from thence on Susa, one of the two royal capitals of the Persian empire, which also fell to him with ease.
The Death of the King of Persia
The other capital, Persepolis, lay a considerable distance to the east, and the safest road to it lay along the long road which skirted the Zagros mountains to the south before heading east to the capital. More direct routes lay through the Zagros mountains themselves, through narrow valleys which could be easily defended by Persian forces.
Alexander divided his army, with the bulk heading along the longer but safer route, while he himself led a smaller force along the more direct but harder route.
At first, Alexander met no resistance, and, lulled into a false sense of security, he seems to have let his guard down. At the narrowest point along the route, with the valley sides rearing almost vertically up from the road, his troops were ambushed by a numerically much smaller Persian force. They took many casualties before they were able to extricate themselves to the wider section of the valley through which they had come. They then dug themselves in, and a stand off followed over the following few weeks, with indecisive and desultory actions between the two sides. In the meantime, Alexander was acutely aware that Darius, who was somewhere in the eastern parts of his empire, was actively raising yet another army (or so he thought).
Eventually, Alexander’s scouts, perhaps aided by local shepherds or Persian deserters, were able to find a path which took them above the Persian positions. Alexander was thus able to turn the tables on them, assaulting them from above. The Persians fought a desperate battle, but sheer numbers overpowered them. Alexander was at last able to proceed on his way. He reached Persepolis, which like Babylon and Susa opened its gates to him. He and his army remained there five months, but their time there was disfigured by a major fire which destroyed the royal palace and much of the city.
Meanwhile, Darius’ attempts to raise another army had met with failure, as his satraps, seeing the way the wind was blowing, were now deserting him. In 330, arriving in the far eastern province of Bactria, Darius was murdered on the orders of the local satrap, Bessus, who then proclaimed himself king of the Persians.
On hearing of Darius’ death, Alexander, who was leading his army in pursuit of Darius, and who had come to respect his opponent, was deeply angered. Bessus was forced to flee, and in 329 Alexander set out in pursuit. He and his army traversed a huge area of what had been the eastern Persian empire; as he went, Alexander received the submission of the local satraps, and planted a series of colonies at strategic locations, composed of his Macedonian and Greek veterans (these could be spared because Alexander’s army was constantly being replenished by new recruits from Macedonia and Greece).
Eventually Bessus was betrayed to Alexander by one of his underlings, and executed.
Alexander in India
During this period, dissensions began to appear within Alexander’s close circle of senior officers. Alexander seems to have had become more autocratic, and less tolerant of disagreement. He had left important Persian satraps in possession of their provinces, thus limiting the rewards available to his senior officers. For a time he insisted that anyone who approached him should abase themselves before him, as had been the case with the Persian kings. This had aroused the anger of many in his inner circle, whom he had hitherto treated on fairly equal terms and for whom the gods alone could claim such adoration, and he had reluctantly abandoned the demand. Some also bitterly opposed his marriage to Roxana, the daughter of a central Asian nobleman, in 327. Plots against him, real or imagined, began to surface. The resulting tensions, along with his drunken bouts of violence, led to the deaths of some of his longest-serving officers.
In 327-6 BCE, Alexander invaded western India. He defeated several kings, and confirmed others as local rulers under his suzerainty. Eventually, however, his troops mutinied on the banks of the Hyphasis river, homesick and daunted by rumours of a huge empire to the east (which were true: the Mauryan empire was beginning to take shape at this time). They demanded to return westward. Only with great reluctance did Alexander agree. Dividing his army into two, he ordered one portion to return by a northern route, retracing their steps through central Iran to Babylon; while he himself led the rest along a southern route, through the harsh deserts of Balochistan and southern Iran. He is thought to have lost more than half his men to hunger, thirst and heat stroke on this march.
In the last years of his life, whilst based in Susa and then Babylon, Alexander increasingly dressed and behaved in the manner of a Persian king. He also began appointing Persians to senior positions in his army and the provinces, which naturally caused jealousy amongst his Macedonian and Greek veterans. Most dramatically, he organized a mass marriage between his senior Macedonian officers and Iranian wives.
In 323, Alexander fell ill with a fever, and died eleven days later. He was just 32 years old.
Alexander the Great left behind a huge empire, stretching from Greece to India; but with his death it was an empire without a ruler. His young widow Roxana was pregnant with an unborn child, who would, if a male, become his heir, but he would not be able to take on Alexander’s mantle for many years.
The high command therefore appointed one of their number, Perdiccas, as Regent. They then divided Alexander’s empire up amongst themselves, each taking a major province (satrapy) to rule as governor (satrap).
They, plus their sons and one or two others who would come to prominence in the years ahead, have gone down in history as the “Successors”, because they succeeded to the rule of Alexander’s conquests.
One aspect of the period immediately following Alexander’s death was that some of his policies which had been particularly dear to him were abandoned. Many of his senior officers set aside the Persian wives he had forced them to marry, and Alexander’s moves towards creating a single Macedonian/Greek/Persian ruling class came to nothing.
The wars of the Successors
There began almost 50 years of wars, coups, alliances, counter-alliances, betrayals, assassinations and mutinies. In all these complex goings-on, a pattern developed by which any one of the Successors who attained a pre-eminent position amongst the rest would attract an alliance of the others to bring him down.
In 321, the regent Perdiccas was faced with such an alliance. In the ensuing war he was murdered by his own lieutenants.
A general named Antigonus emerged from this situation as the pre-eminent Successor. The others therefore joined forces against him. The resulting wars dragged on for the next two decades, with many twists and turns. At different times it was waged in Macedonia, Greece, Asia Minor, Syria and Mesopotamia; the city-states of Greece tried to regain their independence but failed, becoming the impotent playthings of different Successors.
Alexander’s widow and son were caught up in the violence and murdered in 310. From 307 onwards the surviving Successors began proclaiming themselves as kings: Antigonus in Asia Minor and Greece; Ptolemy in Egypt; Lysimachus in Thrace, Cassander in Macedonia and Seleucus in the east.
It was not until 301 that the other Successors were able to defeat Antigonus, at the battle of Ipsus. Here Antigonus was killed, and in the aftermath his enemies divided his territory between them: Cassander (king of Macedonia) took Greece; Seleucus (king of the East) took Syria and parts of eastern Asia Minor; and Lysimachus (king of Thrace) took the rest of Asia Minor. Ptolemy (king of Egypt, who had not been at the battle) was confirmed in his position in Palestine and in parts of southern Asia Minor.
The next Successor to attain a dangerous eminence was Lysimachus, who, starting as king of Thrace and western Asia Minor, soon gained control of Macedonia (Cassander had died in 297) and much of Greece. With Ptolemy and his successor (also called Ptolemy) focussing on their Egyptian realm, the final round of the Successors was fought between Lysimachus and Seleucus. Seleucus defeated and killed Lysimachus at the battle of Corupedium, in Asia Minor, in 281 BCE.
This left Seleucus with a huge kingdom stretching from Bactria in the east to Asia Minor in the west. He apparently had even wider ambitions, to recreat Alexander the Great’s empire; however he was assassinated very shortly after his victory over Lysimachus as he crossed over to Macedonia.
In Greece and Macedonia
In 279 a powerful group of Gauls, who had migrated from France to the Danube region and thence down into the Balkans, invaded Thrace, and then Macedonia and Greece. Many cities were sacked as the Gauls rampaged through these lands. Macedonia was thrown into anarchy, from which it was eventually rescued by a general called Antigonus Gonatus (in 277), who founded the Antigonid dynasty which ruled Macedonia until its conquest by the Romans.
The Gauls then crossed over to Asia Minor. Here they were defeated by the forces of Antiochus, the son of Seleucus (275), who had succeeded his father to rule a vast stretch of Asia. He settled the Gauls in central Asia Minor, in a region henceforth known as Galatia, under his overlordship. From this base they continued to menace neighbouring lands from time to time, until in 238 BCE they were severely defeated by Attalus, a vassal of the Seleucids whose family had controlled a local city, Pergamum, for a couple of generations. From then on the Gauls confined themselves to their own territory of Galatia.
Attalus, meanwhile, declared his independence of the Seleucids by proclaiming himself king of Pergamum. This kingdom would gradually expand its territory in western Asia Minor, but would always remain quite small. However, it was extremely wealthy, and was able to punch above its weight in the international affairs of the region.
By then, the divisions of Alexander the Great’s former empire had solidified around three main kingdoms, each ruled by one of the Successors or their descendants. Ptolemy had early gained control of Egypt, and his descendants (the Ptolemies) now ruled that country, plus Palestine, Cyprus, and some territories on the south coast of Asia Minor. The Seleucids (the descendants of Seleucus) ruled a vast area of Asia stretching from Asia Minor to Bactria, taking in Syria, Mesopotamia and Iran; Macedonia was under Antigonus and his descendants, and who also exericised a considerable influence in Greece.
The city-states of Greece
Some of the city-states of Greece had come under the control of the kings of Macedonia, but many of the smaller ones had banded together to form two leagues, the Aetolian League and Achaean League, to resist the power of Macedonia and the other kingdoms. These leagues expanded over time as they gained more and more members.
One other city-state which achieved prominence in this period was the island state of Rhodes. This had resisted the power of the Successors through skilful diplomacy and the strength of its fleet. Rhodes prospered during the Hellenistic period, and became a centre of maritime commerce. Its coins were widely circulated and its philosophical school became one of the most highly regarded in the Mediterranean. In 280 BCE the Rhodians built the Colossus of Rhodes, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, to commemorate a victory.
Alongside the three major kingdoms which dominated the Hellenistic world, and the Greek cities mentioned above, there were also some smaller kingdoms. In northwest Greece the kingdom of Epirus had played an important role in the struggles between the Successors under its valiant king Pyrrhus. Indeed it won wider fame: in 281 Pyrrhus crossed over to southern Italy to aid Greek cities there against the expanding power of Rome. Despite winning some battles he soon withdrew, claiming that these victories were not worth the cost (hence our phrase, “Pyrrhic victory”). After the death of Pyrrhus, Epirus was dominated by its more powerful neighbour, Macedonia. In 233 BCE a revolution replaced the monarchy with a federation called the Epirote League.
In Asia Minor, apart from Pergamum (see above), the kingdoms of Bithynia and Cappadocia had been semi-autonomous provinces within the Persian empire and had successfully fought off attempts by the Successors to annex them; and Pontus had been founded by a Persian adventurer called Mithridates in 291 BCE. These were all loosely affiliated to the Seleucid kingdom, but later became completely indpendent.
At the other end of the Hellenistic world was Bactria, in modern-day Afghanistan, which had been founded by a Greek general, Diodotus. He was in the service of Seleucus but declared his independence in c. 250 BCE. Later, his kingdom was completely cut off from the other Hellenistic states by the expansion of the Parthians.
Wherever he conquered, Alexander had founded (or re-founded) cities, and the Successors continued this policy. These were modelled on Greek city-states, and were initially populated by veteran Macedonian and Greek soldiers. Later immigrants from Greece boosted their populations.
These city-foundations were partly to reward soldiers with land (which also had the effect of relieving land-hunger in the Greek homeland); partly they were to act as garrisons to keep in check local populations, and as administrative centres of local government; and partly they were to spread Greek culture around the known world, which the conquerors “knew” was the best of all possible cultures. Whatever the reasons, these numerous small islands of Greek civilization did indeed became major centres of the Hellenization throughout the Middle East and beyond. This was probably the most important outcome of Alexander the Great’s career.
Despite their sense of cultural superiority, however, it was not long before Greek and Macedonia settlers were accommodating themselves to their new cultural environments. In the Ptolemaic kingdom, we find Egyptianized Greeks by the 2nd century onwards, and the royal family used pharaonic iconography in presenting themselves to the people (though it was not until the time of the last Ptolemaic monarch, Cleopatra VII, that a ruler bothered to learn the Egyptian language). The Indo-Greek ruling class in Bactria and, later, in kingdoms within India itself, widely adopted Buddhism.
With the Greeks in Asia and Egypt adopting local customs, a hybrid culture, which modern scholars label ‘Hellenistic‘, emerged, at least among the upper echelons of society.
By the end of the 3rd century BCE a new power was beginning to cast its shadow over the Hellenistic world. The Romans had come to dominate Italy and then the whole of the western Mediterranean after two major wars with the powerful maritime power of Carthage.
Squeezed from West and East
Given Macedonia and Greece’s geographical proximity to Italy, it was naturally the first of the Hellenistic kingdoms to feel the impact of Rome. In 200 BCE the first of a series of hostilities opened in which Rome fought Macedonia along with varying combinations of Greek states (who sometimes also fought as allies of Rome). In all these wars Rome was victorious, and they ended in Greece and Macedonia being absorbed into the Roman empire (146 BCE).
At the other end of the Hellenistic world the Seleucids were having large chunks of territory torn from them by the expanding Parthians. By the end of the 2nd century BCE these had created a large empire in the east, and the Seleucids were confined to Syria.
In the west, Roman power continued its advance. In 133 BCE, when king Attalus III of Pergamum died without an heir, he handed his kingdom to the Roman Republic in his will to spare his subjects a civil war or invasion from neighbouring states. This became the Roman province of Asia.
In 88 BCE, the king of Pontus, Mithridates, threw off his alliance with Rome and expanded the borders of his kingdom, conquering Cappadocia, Galatia, Bithynia and the Roman province of Asia; and he instigated the massacre of up to 100,000 Romans and Italians across Asia Minor and the Aegean. Many Greek cities, including Athens, joined him in their opposition to Rome.
With the Romans repeatedly pre-occupied with their own political troubles, including civil wars, it was more than twenty years before Mithridates was finally defeated, in 65 BCE. The long war left the Romans completely dominant in the eastern Mediterranean, and their general, Pompey the Great, reorganized the lands of the region along lines which suited the Romans. Bithynia and Pontus were annexed as Roman provinces. Cappadocia and Galatia continued as kingdoms, but very much under the power of Rome. The Seleucids had collapsed entirely, so Pompey annexed what was left of their kingdom (i.e. Syria) and it too became a Roman province. Judaea was also absorbed into the Roman sphere, though a native ruler was left in place as a Roman puppet.
This left only Ptolemaic Egypt as the one Hellenistic kingdom still in existence (though hardly independent, such was the power of Rome across the region).
The most famous member of the Ptolemaic dynasty, Cleopatra, now came to the throne. With Roman armies now trampling at will around the lands of the eastern Mediterranean, she made the most of her personal physical assets by becoming the mistress of the two most powerful of the Roman commanders in turn, Julius Caesar and Mark Antony. Unfortunately for her, Julius Caesar was murdered (44 BCE) and Mark Antony was defeated by a rival Octavian (31 BCE). Cleopatra committed suicide (30 BCE) and Octavian annexed Egypt to the Roman empire.