Why is Alexander III of Macedon so often referred to as “Alexander the Great”? Some say he earned the title by his military victories, and others say that Alexander was great because he built a large empire. The most enduring legacy of Alexander, though, was not political or military. Alexander’s greatness comes from the establishment of a culture, called “Hellenistic,” that has shaped civilization and history for the last two dozen centuries.
Alexander’ father, Phillip II of Macedon, managed (through a combination of military and diplomatic maneuvers) to bring all the Greek city-states under his control, a feat no leader before him had accomplished. When Phillip was assassinated, a teen-aged Alexander inherited his father’s kingdom. Needing a task significant enough to maintain the unity of Greek and Macedonian entities, Alexander completed his father’s plans to conquer the Persian Empire. Phillip and Alexander could have chosen to expand to the west. They could have controlled the Mediterranean world, overthrowing Rome and Carthage and other Mediterranean cities. Their choice to expand instead to the east was already significant for future world history. But Persia had more wealth and power to grant its conquerors, and it was ripe for the picking. Moreover, Phillip and Alexander could point to the past Persian invasions of Greece—although they predated the birth of anyone alive at that time, and although the Persians lost—as reason enough to return the favor and invade Persia.
Alexander’s conquests took him into Anatolia (now the country of Turkey) and south along the Mediterranean coast. He accomplished the extremely difficult task of laying siege to Trye and capturing that powerful Phoenician city. He also fought the Philistine city of Gaza and razed it. Ancient sources say that Alexander visited Jerusalem and was welcomed into the city, although the accuracy of their accounts has been doubted by some researchers. Then Alexander was welcomed into Egypt, where he was treated not only as a conqueror but also as one of the gods.
Alexander and his army, having stripped the Persian Empire of its western lands, now set out against the Emperor, Darius III. Eventually, Darius was captured and killed. (Alexander married one of his daughters to solidify Alexander’s claim to the Persian throne.) Moving further east, Alexander first laid claim to the eastern parts of the Persian Empire, then tried to expand his power even beyond what the Persians controlled. Eventually, his army resisted the continuing adventure of conquest. One of his contemporary biographers depicts Alexander standing at a river in India, gazing across the river and weeping because land and people existed that he would never rule. Accepting the will of his soldiers, Alexander turned back to the west.
Stopping in Babylon, Alexander fell ill and died. Strong evidence suggests that he drank himself to death. Some historians, both ancient and modern, think he may have been poisoned. Others think he died of illness—malaria, botulism, and meningitis have all been proposed. Alexander had an infant son who should have inherited the empire. The generals of Alexander’s army agreed to divide the empire among themselves and rule it on behalf of Alexander IV until the lad was old enough to wield power himself. Mysteriously, the boy died before he could receive his inheritance, and the kingdoms of the generals remained in place for hundreds of years, until Roman power eventually picked them off, one by one.
With Alexander and his armies came Greek philosophy, mathematics, and science. Alexander ordered cities to be built in his conquered lands, bearing his name. Alexandria in Egypt, and other cities elsewhere, became centers of Greek culture surrounded by older African and Asian cultures. The family of Ptolemy in Egypt and of Seleucus in Syria maintained Greek culture while ruling over non-Greeks. Blending Greek thought with older patterns produced a civilization called Hellenistic. This civilization preserved the ideas of Plato, Aristotle, Pythagoras, and other Greeks without erasing the religions, traditions, and cultures of western Asia and northern Africa. Even the Jewish people were transformed by Hellenistic culture, as groups like the Pharisees examined the writings of Moses and the prophets in the fashion of the Axial Age, seeking how to please God through personal obedience and piety, overlooking the more relationship-oriented words of God who had based his covenant on the proposition, “I will be your God, and you will be my people.”
Other nations have produced leaders whom they called “Great.” Few have done more than Alexander, in his brief lifespan, to alter the course of history and to shape the thinking of many peoples and cultures. J.