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Alexander the Great
Lessons from History's Undefeated General
By Bill Yenne
Palgrave Macmillan Copyright © 2010 Bill Yenne
All rights reserved.
In July 356 bc, a horse owned by Philip of Macedonia won its race at the Olympic Games. When the good news reached the monarch, it was just one element in a trifecta of glad tidings that arrived that day. Philip had also learned that his able commander Parmenio had triumphed in a great battle against the Illyrians, and that Olympias had finally borne him a son. This especially pleased him because his favorite soothsayer, Aristander of Telmessos, had earlier told him that the child within the womb of Olympias was a son who would be as bold as a lion.
Philip, who had just defeated the city of Potidaea, celebrated the good news that he had received, noting it was auspicious that there were three. "These things delighted him, of course," writes the Greek historian Plutarch in his Lives of Noble Greeks and Romans. "The seers raised his hopes still higher by declaring that the son whose birth coincided with three victories [including Potidaea] would be always victorious."
By the Athenian, or Attic, calendar, Philip's son, named Alexander, was born on the sixth day of the month Hekatombaion, or Hecatombaeon, which corresponds to July 21 on the modern calendar.
As Plutarch writes, Alexander was born "on the day the temple of Ephesian Artemis was burned." This particular temple of Artemis, the goddess known to the Romans as Diana, was located at Ephesus— near Selçuk in modern Turkey—and was no obscure religious site. It was one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. The fire certainly got the attention of all present on that dark July 21. Plutarch writes that "all the Magi who were then at Ephesus, looking upon the temple's disaster as a sign of further disaster, ran about beating their faces and crying aloud that woe and great calamity for Asia had that day been born."
Writing with twenty-twenty hindsight, Plutarch certainly saw the boy child of Olympias as the future manifestation of "woe and great calamity" for the Persian Empire in Asia.
Hindsight colors much of what has been written about Alexander's youth. The stories that were handed down orally, and later penned by his biographers, tend to seem more like allegories that support the better-documented facts of his later life. They paint a portrait of a smart, skillful boy, the kind of person that we would expect to grow into the man that Alexander became. Conversely, one can conclude that many of the stories must have a basis in fact because Alexander did indeed become that sort of man.
Some stories show a boy so sure of himself that his confidence borders on arrogance. For instance, when invited to run in the Olympic Games as a teenager, he replied that he would do so only if the other runners on the track were kings.
To educate the young prince, Philip hired some of the best minds in Greece. The Macedonians had defeated Athens militarily, but remained in awe of Athenian arts and sciences. In 343, Philip brought Aristotle to Macedonia from Athens to educate Alexander. Philip was so pleased with the results of Aristotle's tutoring that, as part of his tuition payment, he restored the city of Stagira—Aristotle's hometown—which he had destroyed during one of his campaigns.
The distinguished philosopher instilled a love of learning and literature in the boy, instructing him in science and healing arts. He also gave Alexander a copy of Homer's Iliad, which he kept with him through his travels as an adult. Some claim that Alexander loved Aristotle more than he loved his father. Philip had given him life, but Aristotle "taught him a noble life."
One of the best-known anecdotes of Alexander as a boy, and one that is considered to have a basis in fact, concerns the horse Bucephalas. This animal, who would be Alexander's favorite for most of his adult life, was brought to the court of King Philip when Alexander was about ten years old by a Thessalian named Philoneicus. Plutarch describes Bucephalas as "savage and altogether intractable, neither allowing any one to mount him, nor heeding the voice of any of Philip's attendants, but rearing up against all of them."
Considering the colt too wild to be of any use, Philip dismissed Philoneicus and told him to take Bucephalas away. According to Plutarch, at this point, Alexander piped up, observing "What a horse they are losing, because, for lack of skill and courage, they cannot manage him!"
Philip was naturally skeptical of the boy's impertinence, but Alexander proceeded to bet his father the sale price of the horse that he could ride him. Naturally, the story would not have been memorialized as part of the Alexander legend if Bucephalas had bucked him off. When Alexander dismounted after a successful ride, Plutarch tells that Philip told him "My son, seek thee out a kingdom equal to thyself; Macedonia has not room for thee."
As with the wails of the magi at Ephesus ten years earlier, it is a prophetic statement that may or may not have been spoken, but that illustrates the direction that young Alexander was headed.
* * *
Whatever notional kingdom Philip may have imagined for Alexander on that day in 346 BC, it is certainly true that Philip was still imagining a bigger kingdom for himself. It was in the same year that he successfully subdued the Phocians and that Athens finally succumbed to Philip. He was also consolidating his control over the regions to the north from Illyria to Thrace, planning attacks still farther afield against the ancient Greek city of Byzantium, and dreaming of eventually attacking the Persian Empire.
Later the center of the great Byzantine Empire, Byzantium, now Istanbul, is located on the Bosporus, which, along with the Dardanelles (known as the Hellespont in the ancient world), is one of the crossing points between Europe and Asia Minor, and a gateway on the water route between the Black Sea and the Mediterranean. As Justinus writes in his Epitoma Historiarum Philippicarum, or Epitome of Philippic History, this "noble city and seaport ... would be a station for his forces by land and sea."
In the same paragraph, Justinus adds that the ambitious Philip "made an expedition, too, into Scythia, to get plunder, that, after the practice of traders, he might make up for the expenses of one war by the profits of another." Scythia was the umbrella term used by the Greeks to describe the lands across the vast region of steppes north and east of the Hellenic enclaves on the Black Sea that stretches into Central Asia.
Having failed in his initial forays against Byzantium, Philip tried again in 339. While the Macedonian army may have been invincible on the battlefield, besieging fixed targets, such as fortified cities, were still a challenge. Though this Byzantine venture disappointed Philip in 339, his son was taking note of the need for a functional siege strategy. Alexander would never fail in a siege.
While Philip was away, Alexander had an opportunity to prove himself. As Plutarch writes, "Alexander, though only sixteen years of age, was left behind as regent in Macedonia and keeper of the royal seal, and during this time he subdued the rebellious Maedi [in southwestern Thrace], and after taking their city, drove out the Barbarians, settled there a mixed population, and named the city Alexandropolis."
It was also during the absence of Philip that Alexander, as regent, entertained envoys from the Persian king Artaxerxes. Plutarch, always keen to cite incidents from Alexander's early life that predicted future greatness, relates that Alexander "won upon them by his friendliness, and by asking no childish or trivial questions, but by enquiring about the length of the roads and the character of the journey into the interior, about the king himself, what sort of a warrior he was, and what the prowess and might of the Persians. The envoys were therefore astonished and regarded the much-talked-of ability of Philip as nothing compared with his son's eager disposition to do great things."
In any case, the highly regarded abilities of Philip had been successfully challenged at Byzantium, and this got the attention of the city-states, who began to conspire against him. They had submitted to the barbarian from Macedonia when he was powerful, but they saw his troubles in the north as an opportunity. It was a typical case of initially submitting to strength, but rebelling against the first perceived sign of weakness.
In August 338, the battle lines were drawn at Chaeronea in Boeotia, with Athens and Thebes joining forces against the Macedonian king and his Thessalian allies. Neither side wanted the other to be the power that defeated Philip, so they went in together. As Justinus writes, "The Thebans espoused their cause, fearing that if the Athenians were conquered, the war, like a fire in the neighborhood, would spread to them. An alliance being accordingly made between the two cities, which were just before at violent enmity with each other, they wearied Greece with embassies, stating that 'they thought the common enemy should be repelled by their common strength, for that Philip would not rest, if his first attempts succeeded, until he had subjugated all Greece.'"
If Chaeronea was make or break time for Philip and Macedonia, it was the coming of age moment for young Alexander, who had just turned 18 and was about to be tested in his first major battle.
* * *
Apparently impressed with his son's potential, Philip placed the teenager in command of the Companion Cavalry on the left flank of the Macedonian line, while Philip himself took charge of the right flank. As such, Philip faced the Athenians, while Alexander was opposite the more capable army of Thebes. Among the latter troops were the Sacred Band, the most recent incarnation of the elite force that had played a pivotal role in routing the Spartans at Leuctra in 371 BC.
Tactically, Philip lured the Athenians out of a defensive posture, making them more vulnerable and pulling them away from the Theban positions to their left. This in turn provided an opening for Alexander and the Companions to drive a wedge between the enemy contingents.
As Alexander attacked, the Theban forces collapsed into disarray—except for the Sacred Band, who held their ground. Nevertheless, the boy general attacked and pummeled them, killing more than three quarters of the Sacred Band before they were finally battered into submission. With this, Alexander and the Companions turned on the Athenian center, just as Philip finished off the Athenian cavalry.
Most ancient accounts agree that the Battle of Chaeronea was long and bloody, and that when it was over, any question regarding the primacy of the Macedonians was laid to rest. As for Philip's primacy, the only star that shone as bright over Greece that night was Alexander's.
Chaeronea confirmed what should have been understood throughout Greece at the end of the Third Sacred War eight years earlier. The old days were gone forever, and the new days were ruled by Macedonia.
With this, Philip began to make plans for a major campaign against the Persians in Asia Minor.
* * *
However, even as Philip was now Greece's unquestioned king, he was about to have his share of trouble within his own house. As Plutarch writes, "the disorders in [Philip's] household, due to the fact that his marriages and amours carried into the kingdom the infection, as it were, which reigned in the women's apartments, produced many grounds of offence and great quarrels between father and son, and these the bad temper of Olympias, who was a jealous and sullen woman, made still greater, since she spurred Alexander on. The most open quarrel was brought on by Attalus [a member of Philip's court and an officer in his army] at the marriage of Cleopatra [Attalus's niece], a maiden whom Philip was taking to wife, having fallen in love with the girl when he was past the age for it."
Olympias had known that Philip was a polygamist when she married him, and she probably would have acquiesced to his marrying Cleopatra as a second wife had Philip not had the audacity to repudiate Olympias at the same time. In so doing, Philip would also have to repudiate the legitimacy of Olympias's son, Alexander, as his heir.
As Justinus writes, an understandably spiteful Olympias taunted Philip with the well-known, albeit mythical, story of Zeus having been Alexander's true father, but that she had actually conceived Alexander, not by Philip, but "by a serpent of extraordinary size."
Philip turned the taut back on Olympias, using it as an excuse to accuse her of adultery, which gave him grounds for the divorce that he sought. If they had ever been a happy family, those days were over. Philip's repudiation of Olympias had the presumably unintended consequence of his also repudiating Alexander.
"But what of me, base wretch?" Alexander asked Philip, according to Plutarch, during a drunken argument. "Dost thou take me for a bastard?"
At this point, Plutarch reports that Philip rose up against his son with drawn sword, but, fortunately for both, his anger and his wine made him trip and fall. Mocking him, Alexander said, "Look now, men! Here is one who was preparing to cross from Europe into Asia; and he is upset in trying to cross from couch to couch."
The most powerful leader in Greek history and the sovereign of the peninsula, Philip had lost the respect and allegiance of his son and protégé. After the angry exchange, Alexander took Olympias to Epirus, where her brother Alexander I was now ruling as a sort of vassal king under Philip. About a year later, Philip and Olympias apparently reconciled—up to a point—and she moved back to Pella, the capital city of Macedonia. Her relations with Philip remained strained, as she continued to insist that his famous son had actually been fathered by Zeus.
* * *
By the time of his marriage to Cleopatra and his repudiation of Olympias in 337 BC, Philip was preoccupied professionally with preparations for his ultimate military campaign against Persia. It is unclear whether he intended to conquer all of the Persian Empire or merely that part of it in Asia Minor, but having united Greece, Philip was ready to launch what was probably the biggest operation against the Persians in their longstanding state of war with the Greeks. Philip had even sent Parmenio with an advance contingent to cross the Hellespont and hold the crossing point from Europe into Asia Minor.
In October 336, Philip threw a party for the wedding of his daughter by Olympias, Alexander's sister Cleopatra. The bridegroom in this marriage was her uncle—Alexander I of Epirus. It was at the wedding banquet that Philip was knifed by one of his own personal bodyguards, a youth named Pausanias of Orestis.
There are various theories as to motive. Although both had their motives, most historians agree that Alexander was not among the conspirators, and that Olympias was probably not involved in plotting the assassination either. Parenthetically, Olympias later did engineer the murders of Europa and Caranus, the infant children of Philip by his young wife Cleopatra—and thus potential rivals for Alexander's throne.
In a further search for motives, the first-century BC Greek historian Diodorus Siculus (Diodorus of Sicily) reports that Pausanias was one of Philip's former male lovers and killed him in a fit of jealousy. Aristotle, in a contemporary account, says that followers of Attalus, the uncle of Cleopatra, had offended Pausanias. Justinus agrees that Pausanias had "suffered gross violence at the hands of Attalus [and that Attalus had] rendered him the laughing-stock of those of his own age."
In any case, the assassin was caught and killed before he reached his horse. Alexander had the body of Philip's killer staked out on public display and later cremated along with that of his victim. Young Alexander also made quick work of any and all who were said to have aided or abetted Pausanias and his scheme.
As Justinus writes, "Philip died at the age of 47, after having reigned 25 years.... As a king, he was more inclined to display in war, than in entertainments; and his greatest riches were means for military operations."
With Philip's death, Alexander took the throne. The nineteenthcentury historian John Clark Ridpath writes that Alexander addressed the nobility of Macedonia, telling them that "the king's name has changed, but the king you shall find remains the same."
Excerpted from Alexander the Great by Bill Yenne. Copyright © 2010 Bill Yenne. Excerpted by permission of Palgrave Macmillan.
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