A 'Great' Story

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01 - From man to myth

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Nearly 2500 years ago, 20-year-old Alexander III from the ancient kingdom of Macedon embarked on a military campaign. Within a decade he ruled the known world and held unparalleled power. He didn’t live long enough to appreciate it, dying tragically young.

His ‘life’ never ended. His conquests dramatically shaped history with the effects still felt today. History too – from ancient sources to medieval legends and modern biographies – shaped Alexander. Propaganda and personal agenda created many ‘Alexanders’ through the ages, few of whom would be recognisable to those who knew him. He has been a ruthless destroyer, chivalrous liberator, military genius and visionary statesman, even an alcoholic, god, megalomaniac and murderer.

Alexander’s life was what legends are made of – gods and heroes, love and war, murder and betrayal, adventure and conquest. Such glorious concepts feature extensively in later art and literature; these 17th century French engravings are a superb example. It’s no wonder his deeds were used to inspire or terrify, his name was invoked to achieve glory and his face became an artistic ideal.


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02 - Alexander the man

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Despite the myths surrounding Alexander, he was a real man. Like anyone, he had dreams and a childhood and was influenced by friends and culture. Born to Philip II and Olympias in 356 BCE, he inherited his mother’s intuition and temper and his father’s talent for war and leadership. He also acquired the rationality of his teacher Aristotle.

The heroes and gods of Greek mythology, whom he saw as real, were inspirational to Alexander. His ultimate dream was to emulate them, perhaps even surpass them. In the same way he looked back in awe on these figures, he hoped one day for us to look back on him.

We know about Alexander’s achievements, but it’s harder for us to understand his motives and personality. The earliest surviving accounts of his life were written centuries after his death*. Although they use lost eyewitness sources, they contain bias, alterations and many contradictions. Different portraits of Alexander had not taken long to appear.

[*The most complete, and considered most accurate, is by Greek writer Arrian (2nd century CE). Others include Plutarch and Curtius (both 1st century CE), Diodorus (1st century BCE) and Justin (3rd century CE).]

03 - His father’s son?

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Alexander owed a lot to his father Philip, who revolutionised his army and made Macedon a superpower. He provided his son with the model of Macedonian kings – fierce ruthless warriors but also diplomatic and charismatic leaders. Philip’s court was also an ‘education’ with its man-centred world of politics, sex, fighting and murder. His habit of acquiring wives and male lovers, although not unusual, would be his downfall.

Alexander was Philip’s second son, born to the non-Macedonian princess Olympias. She was a significant influence throughout her son’s life and, no doubt, some of his ruthless and ambitious nature came from her. Philip and Olympias came to despise each other. She taunted Philip by denying Alexander was his son – whether from spite or belief – and claimed the god Zeus was the father.

When he was 18, Alexander was forced to take sides between his parents. Philip claimed Olympias was an adulteress and married for the seventh time. After arguing with Philip at the wedding, Alexander and Olympias fled. Alexander returned after a year’s exile, but his future looked shaky. Philip was preparing for war against Persia – Alexander’s dream – and their relationship was tense. Some sources mention Philip’s new son, a possible rival for Alexander.

04 - Between the Greeks and barbarians

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If you were an ancient Macedonian, you would consider yourself Greek, although with some differences. You would have spoken a Greek dialect, practised aspects of Greek culture and, if a noble, imagined yourself a descendant of Heracles and Zeus. Mt Olympus, home to the gods, also lay within Macedon’s borders. Alexander himself idolised Dionysus, Heracles and Achilles, whose achievements he dreamed of outdoing.

If you were an ancient Greek, however, you would have seen Macedon as a remote primitive region. Although Greece was not yet a nation, the independent city-states shared a common culture and language. Those who differed were ‘barbarians’. Macedonians, with their kings, polygamy and strange habits, although Greek, bordered on the barbaric.

These differences were not so important when Macedon was weak. Philip’s success changed things. With their independence threatened, Athenian politicians like Demosthenes called on the city-states to resist Philip. They were soundly defeated in 338 BCE and Philip formed the Greek League of Corinth with himself as leader. The League agreed to Philip’s plan of war against Persia – the enemy of Greeks for centuries – but their support was short-lived. Rebellion flared when Philip died and again while Alexander was on campaign in Asia. Some cities even allied with Persia in order to remove Macedonian control.

05 - Destined for greatness

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When Alexander was about 10 he tamed a horse that had refused to be mounted. He named the stubborn horse Bucephalas (meaning ‘ox head’) and they became inseparable. This story, although likely exaggerated, is one of the few real episodes from Alexander’s childhood. Most others, like the burning of the temple in Ephesus, are propaganda created when he became king.

The Bucephalas story reveals to us a highly confident, risk-taking boy with exceptional skill. Alexander’s upbringing was designed for this. As a child, he learned to ride, fight and hunt. His tutors, including Aristotle, taught him medicine, philosophy, politics, science and geography. They also encouraged his love of Homer and desire for glory. As was custom, Alexander shared this education with others. These friends, including Ptolemy, Philotas, Seleucus and Hephaestion, rose to fame and fortune with him. Hephaestion became his closest friend and assumed lover. Philotas had a much different fate.

Alexander’s childhood ended at 16 when he became regent during Philip’s war against Byzantium. Over the next two years, he put down revolts in Thrace, campaigned in Greece, and commanded the cavalry to victory against the Greek city-states in 338 BCE. His ability to fight and to inspire professional soldiers was already obvious.

06 - The road to kingship

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Philip was assassinated in 336 BCE by his bodyguard and ex-lover Pausanias. Alexander was just 20 years old. Although Pausanias had reasons for killing Philip, it is highly unlikely he acted alone. Suspicion immediately fell on Olympias, whose ruthlessness was well known, but some also fell on Alexander. Whether involved or not, he benefitted enormously.

Alexander’s accession was not guaranteed as others also had claims to the throne. Fortunately, he gained the army’s support. He then started his reign in the traditional way by removing any threats. Cousin Amyntas and Attalus, guardian of Philip’s new wife, were killed. Olympias later removed the wife and child, although not on Alexander’s orders. His older brother Arrhidaeus, deemed ‘simple-minded’, was left unharmed.

His throne secure, Alexander turned to his kingdom. Many Greek cities, and Thracians to the north, revolted after Philip’s death. Thinking him, as Demosthenes said, ‘a mere stripling’ they discovered instead a leader as sharp as his father. In less than two years, he put down the revolts and assumed leadership of the League of Corinth. With the Greeks now supporting him, and Philip gone, his dream of defeating the Persians was in his grasp.

07 - Forging an empire

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In 334 BCE, Alexander set out for a war of revenge against the Persians and liberation of the Greeks in Asia Minor. He took with him almost 50,000 Greek-Macedonian soldiers and mercenaries plus historians, botanists, geographers and engineers.

Imagine being part of this: journeying 28,000 kilometres across the world’s toughest and most exotic regions where fighting is constant, so too is disease; plundering cities; meeting strange people; living in harsh army camps and luxurious cities. Home is a distant memory – but this is adventure beyond your wildest dreams.

Although supported by the League to continue Philip’s campaign, Alexander had his own motives. This was his chance to surpass his father and achieve eternal glory. He fought in the thick of battle, was an outstanding leader and military genius. He inspired affection and worship from his men and from many whom he conquered. But, as the stress of the campaign continued, his darker side emerged more often.

08 - Liberation of Asia Minor 334–333 BCE

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Alexander’s first task was to free the former Greek cities of Asia from Persian control. He made his intentions clear on landing. Legend says he stood on the bow of his boat and threw a spear into the soil, thereby accepting Asia as a gift from the gods. He also prepared for war, and the quest to outdo his heroes, by visiting Troy with Hephaestion to sacrifice to Achilles and his lover-comrade Patroclus.

Conquering Asia Minor was relatively easy. Within days of landing he defeated a provincial Persian army at the Battle of Granicus. Most coastal cities then surrendered. Those that didn’t were often treated harshly for being disloyal to the Greek cause. Meanwhile, Alexander’s general Parmenion had subdued the centre and north. They met up at Gordium, where Alexander disbanded his fleet and focussed on a land war.

Gordium was a defining moment for Alexander. News reached him that Greece was on the brink of serious revolt. If he returned to fight it was unlikely he would finish his campaign. Alexander may have staked his decision on the famous Gordian knot. Legend said whoever could undo it would be king of Asia, but no-one had yet succeeded. Alexander ‘undid’ it with his sword, sent money to help fight any revolt, and stayed.

09 - Conquest of Syria 333–332 BCE

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With Asia Minor conquered and reports of King Darius now leading the Persian army, Alexander again prepared for battle. The armies met near Issus in November 333 BCE. Darius was soundly defeated and fled, leaving his wife, mother and children behind. His treasure was also captured, giving Alexander and his army their first taste of eastern luxury.

After Issus, Alexander was no longer liberating Greeks but invading parts of the Persian Empire. This changed the nature of the campaign. Propaganda was now used in the form of newly minted coins to create an image of authority. Rather than pursue Darius, he made the key decision to first secure the Phoenician and Syrian coast so as to defeat the Persian navy.

As news of Issus reached these coastal cities, many quickly surrendered. Tyre and Gaza, both besieged for months, were the exceptions. Alexander was seriously wounded at Gaza. Quite possibly in anger, he had the defenders slaughtered and women and children enslaved. He definitely made his point clear – co-operate and be treated honourably, resist and face the consequences.

10 - Entry into Egypt 332–331 BCE

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Egypt was a psychological turning point for Alexander. Here, Olympias’ claim about his divine birth came ‘true’. After the Persian governor surrendered, Alexander was welcomed as a liberator. In November 332 he was proclaimed Pharaoh, and became to the Egyptians god and king, son of Ra, beloved of Amun. His image still appears on temple walls at Karnak and Luxor.

This new-found divinity clearly affected Alexander. Whether he believed it or used it for political reasons is still debated. However, his trip to the remote oasis of Siwa, home of the Greek oracle of Zeus Ammon, seems related. We don’t know what he asked the oracle, but what he heard had impact. He soon began referring to himself as a son of Zeus Ammon, so it seems likely this was part of the oracle’s reply.

On return from Siwa, in April 331 BCE, the city of Alexandria was founded. This was to become the greatest of his many cities and still flourishes today. Also around this time, Alexander’s friend Philotas was accused of some unknown disloyalty. The charges were dismissed, but apparently not forgotten.


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11 - The invasion of Persia 331–330 BCE

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Alexander left Egypt knowing he was going to have to face Darius again – and finish the job. They met in battle at Gaugamela, in modern Iraq, in October 331 BCE. Alexander destroyed Darius’ much larger army but was unable to capture the king, who again escaped. Victory resulted in the surrender of key Persian cities, including Babylon, Susa, Persepolis and Pasargadae, and their treasuries, worth billions in today’s terms.

Invading Persia was one of Alexander’s greatest problems. He was no longer a liberator in any form and had to tread carefully. He needed the Persian nobles for military and administrative services and to support him as Darius’ legitimate successor. His Macedonian generals, however, saw the Persians as the barbarian enemy. Alexander’s efforts to integrate the two would cause serious conflict.

Alexander left Persepolis and headed north to Ecbatana after learning of Darius’ location. While there, he dismissed his troops from the Greek city-states. Although many re-enlisted as mercenaries, this ended the League’s official involvement in the campaign. This short stop was costly for Alexander. By the time he caught up to Darius, the Persian king had been killed by his own men.

12 - Conflict in the north east provinces 329–327 BCE

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Darius’ death did not end the Persian war. Bessus declared himself king and was leading a revolt in Bactria and Sogdiana, now Afghanistan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. He was soon betrayed by his own men, but resistance continued under local nobles. Alexander, like later commanders, was forced into a guerrilla war in inhospitable landscapes. He finally subdued the area by 327 BCE, marrying Roxana, daughter of a Bactrian noble, in the process.

Alexander made significant changes during this part of the campaign. He placed Persians in the army, wore parts of their dress, and adopted some of their court customs. He also sought more recognition as a god. These strategies had obvious political and propaganda value but caused major problems with some of Alexander’s men. Callisthenes, official historian and Aristotle’s nephew, was particularly vocal against them – a big mistake.

Issues came to a head when Alexander tried to formally introduce the Persian custom of prostration. To Persians it was a sign of respect. Greeks, however, only prostrated before gods. Alexander abandoned the idea, but the damage was done. His relationship with some of his officers continued to deteriorate as he increasingly became, in their eyes, a Persian despot.

13 - East to India 327–326 BCE

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In the summer of 327 BCE, Alexander led his largest army yet into the wilds of India and modern Pakistan. These places inspired him. To the Greeks, they were the end of the world and filled with curiosities and strange beasts. No ancient general, nor even Alexander’s heroes Achilles and Heracles, had ever ventured this far.

The invasion met with mixed reactions. Some rulers readily surrendered but many others refused. Bloody battles and massacres resulted as Alexander tried to terrify the locals into submission. Once successful, the army crossed the Indus into territory untouched by the Persian Empire. Here they defeated King Porus in an epic battle at Hydaspes in 326 BCE. Alexander founded two cities in commemoration, naming one Bucephala for his horse that recently died from a wound.

Alexander continued to push east through terrible conditions. We can understand why his soldiers – exhausted, diseased and soaked from months of monsoonal rain – refused to go further. We can also imagine Alexander’s disappointment when they did. For the army to have followed him so far showed tremendous devotion and he did not treat this as a mutiny. Rather, after his pleas were ignored, he gave the order to turn back in July 326 BCE. The Indian region was lost soon after.

14 - The return journey 326–324 BCE

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These years – with their disasters and tragedies – were the worst of Alexander’s life. He nearly died from an arrow wound received during one of many skirmishes on the journey to the Arabian Sea. He then led part of his army on a terrible 60-day journey west to Persia across the Gedrosian desert. This coastal march was to help supply the rest of the army who were returning by ship. At least half may have died from heat and starvation.

Alexander tried to compensate for the recent disasters. However, many of his decisions proved unpopular. After reaching Susa in 324 BCE, he married Darius’ daughter Stateira as part of his forced mass weddings between Macedonians and Persian women. He provided dowries for all, but few of these unions lasted. His efforts at self-promotion, which included the pomp of the Persian court, further alienated his men. The troops mutinied against his decision to send veterans and the injured home, although were eventually appeased and left with huge pay bonuses. The one popular decree was the payment of all the soldiers’ debts.

In October 324 BCE Hephaestion died. We don’t know the cause, but both poison and illness have been suggested. At the time of his death, he was essentially the second man in the empire. Alexander was devastated. He had the unlucky doctor crucified and spent a fortune on an elaborate funeral.

15 - Death in Babylon 323 BCE

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To his hopeful officers, the return to Persia marked the end of the campaign. To Alexander, it was breathing space to prepare for the next venture. They entered Babylon in 323 BCE, where plans were laid for an Arabian expedition. How far Alexander wanted to go remains anyone’s guess. At the height of preparations, on 10 June 323 BCE, he died.

Accounts of his death vary. Plutarch and Arrian say he developed a fever which worsened over many days. Diodorus says he was struck with pain after drinking unmixed wine. Given the history of Macedonian kings, rumours of assassination also spread. Modern views include malaria, fever or typhoid, combined with years of hard toil, injuries and drinking. Interestingly, the manner of his death was very similar to Hephaestion’s.

Alexander’s campaign resulted in the largest empire ever created by a single man who led in all the battles. His unique ability to unite this vast territory and control his powerful generals was made clear after his death. Troubles were already apparent when Ptolemy stole his body, on route to Macedon, and carried it to Egypt. Alexander’s mistake of dying without naming an heir would soon tear his empire apart.

16 - The Wars of the Successors

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With a decade of war in Europe and Asia over, another half-century was about to begin. The army finally agreed on a successor and a tenuous division of power. Alexander’s half-brother and his son (who was born after his death) became joint kings Philip III Arrhidaeus and Alexander IV. Given the age of one and mental weakness of the other, Perdiccas was made regent. The other generals became governors of various parts of the empire.

Fights soon broke out among the generals. Many of these were the same men who had been friends since childhood and made brothers in arms alongside Alexander. However, they were also the generals of history’s most successful army and had never lost in battle. The struggle for power would be long and messy. Even Olympias, not one to sit on the sides, made her play. By the end, both kings were murdered and Alexander’s empire fractured into smaller kingdoms.

17 - Alexander’s legacy

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As we reflect on Alexander’s journeys, a different legacy from war and bloodshed emerges. Alexander’s campaign created an empire through which all things Greek spread – from religion, science and government, to language, art and architecture. This era – which lasted about 300 years – would later be called the Hellenistic period.

Aspects of Greek culture were known in parts of the east before Alexander. However, they became far more wide-reaching afterwards and of a slightly different form. Classical Greek ideals became influenced by local cultures, and vice versa. The degree of influence varied across the empire and was far stronger in the cities.

His empire may have crumbled – and the years been marred by war – but the cultural impact lasted long after his death. Individuals really can change history. Indeed, if Alexander had failed in his conquest, western civilisation with its many Greek influences would be very different today.

18 - A common language

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With Greek kings, officials, settlers and traders, it was inevitable that Greek became the empire’s ‘official’ language. All kinds of documents, from trade agreements to legal contracts, were written in Greek and economic and political success relied on knowing the language.

However, languages evolve. This Greek was not one of the ancient dialects but a new form called koine or ‘common’ Greek that probably arose as the shared tongue of Alexander’s diverse army. Many old dialects, ironically including the Macedonian, disappeared during this period. Koine Greek remained the language of business and government until late antiquity. It was eventually replaced in the west by Latin, but endured in the east where it evolved into medieval then modern Greek.

Greek had a huge advantage over most of the empire’s local languages. Its simple alphabet had about 20 characters with generally one character corresponding to one sound: some local languages had up to 700 characters, many with numerous meanings. Written Greek was also more convenient than the Aramaic used in Persia, in which there were no special characters for vowel sounds.

19 - Government under kings

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Alexander left behind an empire initially under a single ruler. Many provinces had officials to represent the king, but also had a degree of political independence. Institutions were modelled on Greek democratic principles and included councils, assemblies and magistrates. This remained the model for government throughout the Hellenistic period, long after Alexander’s death.

In reality, democracy declined during this period. The huge wealth of kings, shared with favoured officials and cities, led to the rich dominating political life. Being non-Greek was a disadvantage as Greeks occupied most official positions. Individuals wanting to participate in politics had to adopt the new culture. For cities, a Greek connection was also vital; we know of hundreds that suddenly ‘discovered’ Greek gods and heroes as their founders.

Warfare and the cities were essential to Hellenistic government. For many kings, their position and legitimacy was tied to military prestige. Cities were the main source of their income, which was used to help finance the frequent wars. Destroying a city and enslaving its people became an increasingly popular way of removing a ruler’s power base.

20 - Being like Alexander

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None of the generals, or later kings, who fought over Alexander’s kingdom were related to him. They needed to justify their claim to rule, and win the loyalty of soldiers, through some other close association. Ptolemy led the way. He had already stolen Alexander’s body, a powerful symbol. He also encouraged rumors he was Philip’s son and founded a cult in Egypt with Alexander as the object of worship.

Others couldn’t claim such close links but could use Alexander’s image, symbols or titles. As the most widespread ancient media, coins were essential propaganda tools. By continuing to use Alexander’s popular coinage, kings connected to his power and reinforced their right to rule. More importantly, they also put his portrait on coins. Portraits, in any form, portrayed ideals rather than exact appearance. Rulers, often judged against Alexander as the model for kingship, had their portraits created to look like him.

It wasn’t just rulers that used Alexander’s image as an ideal. Artists transformed his standard portrait, created by sculptor Lysippus, and used it to depict gods, warriors and heroes. His features appeared across regions and centuries to an extent never repeated for any other person.


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21 - New ideas in religion

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Greek settlers brought their gods with them. However, isolated from their traditional worship centres, and with tolerance of local religions generally encouraged, interesting blends and new beliefs emerged. These transformed both local and Greek religion, and even impacted on later Roman and medieval beliefs.

In many cases, Greeks happily adopted local versions of their gods who simply had different names to their own. They also created new ones that combined aspects of various gods. In this way Serapis, a blend of Greek-Egyptian deities, became incredibly popular. Foreign gods were also worshipped, including Isis and mother-goddess Cybele. Although these gods also made their way to Greece, they remained on the fringes.

A striking feature of the period is the worship of rulers. Previously rare in the Greek world, many kings now received semi-divine status. In most cases, the kings themselves set up their statues, altars or festivals – occasionally even temples – to win loyalty from subjects. However, some resourceful cities also founded ruler cults to win favour.

22 - Innovations in art

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Alexander’s favourite sculptor Lysippus, creator of his widely-copied portrait, was one of the dominant Greek artists of the times. Like most others, he worked by commission. The many new cities required images of Greek gods and heroes for temples and public places. Wealthy families wanted art to decorate their homes and gardens. Artists followed the work so style became considerably uniform around the empire.

Hellenistic style differed from the previous Classical period. Some of the changes came from artists like Lysippus, who experimented with new proportions, movement and realism. Local eastern traditions influenced other changes. Sculpture became less about physical perfection. Figures from all aspects of daily life, not just gods and heroes, now appeared. New techniques and styles emerged in pottery. Greek art also influenced local traditions – pieces as far east as India and China show Greek ideals.

Towards the end of the period, there was a return to the Classical style in sculpture. The Romans, emerging as a power, loved the old masterpieces and commissioned copies. In fact, most of our knowledge about Classical Greek sculpture comes from these Roman copies. The original works were usually in bronze and many were melted for the metal.

23 - Architecture and city-scapes

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Alexander founded many cities, imaginatively naming quite a few after himself. He also rebuilt or repopulated numerous more. Later kings continued this trend, including the naming of cities after themselves – there were almost as many Seleucias and Antiochs as Alexandrias.

Cities were originally created as trade centres or military outposts. Many later became urban centres with a Greek look and feel. City streets were built using the Greek chequerboard grid plan which allowed for rapid building and future expansion. Greek institutions such as temples, theatres, gymnasia and agoras were erected. Architectural design was generally uniform across the empire and included Greek decorations and colour.

If you were an architect, builder or engineer, this was a boom time for your business. Kings and officials were busy using their wealth to create public and religious buildings in order to glorify themselves and their cities. The skills of talented workers were needed everywhere.

24 - Markets and merchandise

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Alexander’s campaign stimulated economic progress on a massive scale. The captured Persian treasury, previously hoarded but now shared, created an influx of wealth and money to spend. More markets and opportunities existed and the volume of trade increased. New roads, sea routes and settlements also helped make transport and travel far easier than before.

Trade and commerce became standardised. Business methods, laws and language were based on those of the Greek world and its traders. Alexander’s coins were widespread and continued to be used and minted by many later Hellenistic kings, making it much easier to transact business.

Those with money – which rarely included native populations – could enjoy new luxuries. Items like expensive silverware provided opportunities to flaunt wealth. Trade with the Far East and southern Arabia brought exotic items like spices and foods. It also brought improvements including better soaps, scents, wheats and grains.

25 - Extending the legacy

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The Hellenistic period ended when its last kingdom, Egypt, fell to the Romans in 30 BCE. However, Greek culture continued, and still continues, to have enormous influence. Much of this is due to the Romans, whose vast empire consciously preserved elements of Hellenistic thought, art and city life.

Roman admiration for Alexander brought him back into vogue. New books appeared based on original sources and his image and myths were reworked. By the end of the Roman period the Byzantine or Eastern Roman emperors regarded themselves as successors of Alexander. They reinterpreted his iconography to suit their needs.

Early Christian art also preserved and reworked Alexander’s legend. Egyptian or Coptic Christians, in particular, used the ‘pagan’ subjects as allegories. Christianity itself, which originated in the Roman period, owed much to processes begun under Alexander. Missionaries used the Greek language and Hellenistic cities to spread their message to gentiles. The Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible, created centuries earlier for Hellenised Jews in Egypt, became the Christian Old Testament.

26 - Reinventing Alexander

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The journey from man to myth is a short step. Tales of Alexander spread quickly in the decades following his death. In the east, kings and storytellers were busy expanding his legend. In the west, the Greeks and Cassander, ruler of Macedon and no fan of Alexander, were ruining his reputation. The Romans later saved it and made him fashionable again.

Alexander’s fame moved further afield in later times, propelled by the highly popular fictional work the Alexander Romance. This collection of fantasy stories and myths was compiled, in Greek, around the third century CE. It spread like wildfire, appearing in the east and west in many languages and different versions. For centuries, particularly in Europe, this was the Alexander people knew.

From medieval times, European royalty and generals used his legends for their own agendas. The Christian Church made Alexander an example of virtue and piety. Writers and artists around the world were inspired by his deeds. In many ways, Alexander achieved his ‘immortality’.

27 - Alexander in the east

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Two conflicting versions of Alexander existed in the east after his death, and still do today. One recalls the intelligent, tolerant liberator. The other focuses on the brutal invader who was an enemy of the people. Such duality is not unexpected – Alexander showed both sides in his campaigns and was a man of extremes.

Early Islamic writers, based in Persia, listed Alexander as one of their kings and made him a prophet. In the Koran the figure Dhul Qarnayn, ‘the Two-Horned One’ given power by Allah, is believed to represent Alexander. Islamic versions of the Alexander Romance portray him as the hero Iskander who destroyed heathen temples. These references breathed new life into traditions, with tales widely retold by writers and poets. Such heroic images of a conqueror by the conquered are without comparison.

In some regions of the Far East, Alexander’s legend is poor. These are the regions where his brutality was worst and the Hellenistic influence weakest. To some his name is barely known. To others, especially Zoroastrians, he is despised for the destruction of their empire and cities and is called Iskander the Terrible.

28 - Alexander in western literature

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Alexander never set foot further west than Greece, but from the 10th century stories about him appeared in western Europe. Inspired by the Romance, many tales were filled with bizarre myths including his exploring the bottom of the sea. Stories were also transformed with Christian piety and moral lessons. Based on his treatment of Darius, Alexander became a man of virtue and generosity.

Chivalry, knights and great battles of the 14th and 15th centuries were great contexts for Alexander. To dukes, generals and even popes he became the ideal king, wise ruler and great conqueror. In contrast, Dante Alighieri’s 14th century poem the Divine Comedy places Alexander in the river of boiling blood with the murderers and warmongers.

The West discovered the historical Alexander after Constantinople fell to the Ottomans in 1453. Fleeing scholars arrived with their Greek works and Arrian’s in particular was popularised. Details of Alexander’s life, previously unknown, now inspired greater interest than his myths and battles. This interest lasted almost unchallenged until the 19th century when war and revolution led to a backlash against imperial ambitions. Alexander has yet to recover the popularity he once enjoyed.

29 - Alexander in western art

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Few people in history have appeared in western art to the extent of Alexander. He supplied painters and sculptors with subjects for miniatures, cameos, paintings and great set-pieces. Yet his imagery was changing and flexible – a political and allegorical tool for the artist and the owner of the work. We can see in his depictions an interesting reflection of the times.

Mythical scenes were popular in the Middle Ages. Later, the emphasis shifts to his courtly graces and chivalry. Alexander was the favourite historical figure of Renaissance and later Baroque royals, who decorated their palaces with paintings and tapestries of his stories. Popular subjects were those that taught a lesson or glorified the owner, such as the taming of Bucephalus.

As European nations extended their reach around the world, Alexander became the ideal conqueror. Christina of Sweden (1626–1689), Louis XIV of France (1638–1715) and Catherine the Great of Russia (1729–1796) carried his portrait so his fame would reflect on them. Napoleon (1769–1821) too was a fan. The changing attitudes of the late 19th century, which also affected his appearance in literature, saw his popularity in art decline.

30 - Alexander’s spirit in Russia

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The collection you have seen here comes from The State Hermitage in St Petersburg. Why does Russia’s largest museum have such an extensive Alexander collection?

Alexander made his first appearance in Russian art and literature around the 11th century. Byzantium traditions, particularly Orthodox Christianity and the Alexander Romance, greatly influenced his depictions. Rulers of the first Russian state, from the 10th to 13th century, adopted the religion and Alexander. He eventually became ‘their’ hero, as they were descendants of the Byzantine emperors who saw themselves as the successors of Alexander.

Russian interest in Alexander continued through the years. The Serbian Alexandria, an imitation of the Romance, was popular in the 14th and 15th centuries. He became more influential in art and literature in the 17th century. Western European views of Alexander also penetrated Russian culture in later periods.

New heights of popularity were reached under Catherine II, also known as ‘the Great’. Her reign, from 1762 to 1796, was the age of Russian Enlightenment and Neo-Classicism. Like Alexander, Catherine planned to create an empire uniting the west and east. She regarded Alexander as a role model, particularly for her grandsons Alexander and Constantine.

31 - Alexander today

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For over two thousand years Alexander was one of the most painted, written about, copied and revered people in history. He is probably less well known today than at any time since his death. Perhaps this is simply part of Alexander’s ‘cycle’ and a reflection of our times – two world wars and the rise of terrorism don’t really inspire the glorification of warriors and conquerors.

We feel it’s unfortunate that a man who’s had such an impact on human civilisation and history – for good or bad – isn’t better known. Modern historians still write about and debate over him, but for those who want to look, he is also part of modern popular culture. He features on YouTube, inspires numerous musicians and writers, was sung about by heavy metal band Iron Maiden and provides the subject for epic movies and games. What will the next millennium bring for Alexander?


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Thank you for taking the time to contact us here at the Australian Museum.

We hope you enjoyed your Alexander the Great Experience!


Want More?

The fully illustrated catalogue is in the gift shop now.