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Alexander the Great

Alexander the Great
(356-323 B.C.)
Macedonian Conqueror

Alexander the Great never lost a battle during eleven years of fighting against mostly numerically superior forces. As the first military commander to attempt to conquer the known world, Alexander integrated infantry, cavalry, and engineers with logistics and intelligence support in a manner never before seen or experienced. Through his efforts to unite East and West he changed the world by introducing advanced Greek political, military, and economic practices throughout the regions he conquered.

Alexander was born in 356 B.C. in Macedonia to King Philip II and Queen Olympias. As a boy, Alexander received the best of everything, including private tutoring from the famed philosopher Aristotle. His father schooled him in the art of war, and Alexander commanded his first troops in combat at the age of sixteen. Two years later, in 338 B.C., Alexander commanded a large portion of his father’s army that won the Battle of Chaeronea and gave control of all of Greece to Macedonia.

While planning an invasion of Asia Minor, with the ultimate goal of conquering the Persian Empire, King Philip died at the hands of a bodyguard harboring a grudge. At twenty years old, Alexander assumed his father’s throne and quickly executed his father’s assassin and all others who opposed him.

Along with the throne, Alexander inherited a highly trained and disciplined veteran army organized around units of pikemen armed with sarissas, fourteen-foot-long pikes twice the length of normal spears. Supporting the sarissa units were highly mobile light infantry and cavalry troops prepared to attack the flanks or to exploit breaches of enemy defenses created by the pikemen. Units of engineers, capable of quickly erecting catapults and siege machines, supported the main force.

Shortly after Philip’s death, Alexander assembled thirty thousand pikemen, infantrymen, and engineers, along with five thousand cavalrymen, to execute his father’s plan to invade Asia Minor. The only obstacle to the invasion appeared to be Persian sea power, so Alexander, who had no navy worthy of mention, quickly neutralized the enemy’s advantage by attacking seaports from land and destroying the hostile fleet’s support bases.

As he advanced into Asia Minor along the Mediterranean Sea, Alexander encountered little resistance until he reached the Granicus River in 334 B.C., where he met the first major Persian force. Outnumbered by several thousand, Alexander nevertheless crossed the river undetected and made a bold surprise attack, quickly achieving victory and with the loss of fewer than a hundred men.

Alexander’s army continued southward unopposed until they reaches Issus, in what is now northeastern Syria. There they encountered the main Persian army under the command of King Darius III, which outnumbered Alexander’s men at least three to one – some accounts estimate as much as ten to one. The young Macedonian again ordered an attack. Alexander’s phalanx of pikemen were initially unable to break the numerically superior Persian front, and his cavalry failed in their flanking attempt. When the battle appeared in jeopardy, Alexander rallied his force and personally led a concentrated attack directly toward Darius. The Persian line folded to the superior Macedonian cavalry charge, and Darius hastily withdrew. His troops followed.

Darius and his soldiers fled so quickly that they left the king’s mother, wife and children behind. Alexander, who in earlier attacks had put entire villages to the sword for not surrendering, displayed a political acumen that gained the support of his former enemies. He ordered that the captured royal family be treated according to their station and gave captured Persian soldiers and their hired mercenaries the opportunity to change sides and join his forces rather than execution.

The following year, Alexander lay siege for seven months to the seaport of Tyre, on the coast of modern Israel, and built an earthen causeway across a waterway that protected the town’s primary defenses. Once Tyre fell, Alexander advanced southward to capture Gaza and then occupied Egypt. By the end of 332 B.C., Alexander had established the new city of Alexandria at the mouth of the Nile River, which quickly became the commercial, scientific, and literary center of the Greek world.

After a visit to the great Egyptian temples, Alexander came to believe in his own divine origin. His troops, who already worshiped him for his leadership and tremendous bravery in the midst of the fiercest fighting, seemed to have little difficulty in accepting his godliness.

In 331 B.C., Alexander resumed the offensive and crossed the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers. On October 1 (the date confirmed by accounts of a lunar eclipse), Alexander again defeated a Persian army much larger than his own. A short time late, he captured the Persian capital of Persepolis and looted the royal treasury.

By the end of 330 B.C., Alexander controlled all of Asia Minor and Persia. In less than five years he had formed the largest empire in the history of the world. Even though he had achieved all his father’s objectives, Alexander remained unsatisfied. Over the next three years he invaded Afghanistan, Central Asia, and northern India. During the campaign Alexander never lost a battle, including a bloody encounter with the Indian king Porus, who employed more than two hundred war elephants against the Macedonians in the Battle of the Hydaspes River.

Before Alexander, overall warfare planning and strategy were mostly unknown. Battlefield tactics were crude at best, the victor usually being the army with the larger, better armed force. Alexander introduced tactical maneuvers to envelop an enemy and coordinated the movement of infantry and cavalry. He also integrated his naval forces into his strategic planning and began ship-design improvements that led to large armed galleys which would dominate sea warfare for centuries. Before Alexander, warfare resembled a street fight; after Alexander, it more closely resembled a massive, albeit unrehearsed, stage production.

Alexander wanted to continue his offensive after defeating Porus, but his army, exhausted by eight years of fighting, pleaded to go home. The young king finally agreed. As he withdrew to Macedonia, Alexander left conquered territories in the charge of his own official and former enemies whom he trusted. His army trained captured Persian soldiers in the tactics of the Macedonians and integrated them into his army. To further the binding of East and West, Alexander had ten thousand of his officers and men marry Persian women. Alexander himself took a Persian wife.

Alexander, however, never made it home. Along the way he became ill and, despite his claims of divinity, died in 323 B.C. at the young age of thirty-three, in Babylon, from an illness suspected to be malaria. Perhaps because he believed he was immortal, Alexander had not groomed or named a replacement. His only guidance had been to leave his empire in the hands “of the strongest.” Unfortunately, no one had the strength of Alexander. Within a year, his empire and army broke into a multitude of warring factions, and Alexander’s empire ceased to exist.

Alexander changed the world through his organizational skill, strategic and tactical innovations, and personal bravery. He succeeded in establishing relationships between East and West and spreading Greek civilization throughout the vast regions while founding more than twenty new cities that became regional trade and cultural centers. His development of offensive tactics and siege warfare were the model for years to come, and his accomplishments established the standard for future empire building by the Romans and later by Napoleon.