Alexander the Great

Who was Alexander and why was he so great?

(Listen to the entire episode here!)


Alexander the Great was from a place called Macedonia just north of Greece. They were a military society, kind of like Sparta, and they had just successfully conquered Greece – weak from the Peloponnesian War. But Alexander’s dad Phillip still wanted to make sure he learned culture in addition to military strategy. So he did what any rich parent does, he hires a tutor. And not just any tutor, he hires freakin’ Aristotle to tutor his son.

This instills in Alexander a deep love for Greek culture. It’s really thanks to Alexander, a non-Greek, that Greek culture gets preserved and spread all around the region. Having one of the most famous philosophers of all time as his personal tutor also gives Alexander a pretty intense superiority complex.

After Phillip dies mysteriously (some think Alexander plotted his assassination to take over), Alexander becomes the leader of Macedonia and Greece. He is super young – he’s going to do all of this that I’m going to talk about in his 20s. He looks across the sea at Persia – this powerful, longstanding civilization – and thinks, “Yeah I can conquer that.” And the annoying thing is that he does. So Alexander comes to control Egypt, Greece, and all of the Middle East.

Alexander the Great | Anti-Social Studies: A History Podcast + Blog By George Willis Botsford Ph.D. (1862-1917) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Alexander the Great’s Empire By George Willis Botsford Ph.D. (1862-1917) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Alexander the Conqueror

He wanted to conquer India too, which in the Greek worldview would have meant he had conquered the entire world (the Greeks believed the world ended in India.) And he probably could have, but after years of marching his troops around the Middle East they were like, “Dude. Can we please go home?” So they stopped at the Indus River.

(Remember this for next episode – the threat of an Alexandrian invasion is going to be all the motivation India needs to get their act together and form a united civilization again.)

There are a lot of great stories about Alexander. His soldiers worshipped him – there is a document talking about how his troops had been marching without water for days. Alexander was given a canteen from some of the last reserves they had, he stood up in front of his army, and poured out the water. If his troops couldn’t drink, then neither would he. To me this just seems really wasteful but his message to his troops was that he was one of them. The only difference was that he got to name everything they conquered after himself.

Alexander named 70 cities after himself – the most famous being Alexandria in Egypt. He also named one city after his beloved horse Bucephalus who he had tamed at the age of 12. This is really nice for the horse and really frustrating to his generals who would have probably loved to have a city named after one of them.

Alexander’s Empire After His Death

Alexander’s strength as a conqueror made him weak as an empire builder – and this is something we’ll see throughout world history. Genghis Khan, Napoleon, Hitler, Danaerys Targaryen. They all find that conquering is the easy part – but building and maintaining an empire that lasts beyond your death is really tricky. (Again, can we just appreciate how good the Persians were at this? OK you get it. I’ll stop.)

When Alexander died he hadn’t put in place a succession plan. He was killing it and making plans to conquer Rome. And a combination of his superiority complex, being worshipped by his subordinates for so long, and the fact that he was only 32 made him think he would never die. Then he got a fever. And he died.

His empire fell apart with different chunks of it going to various generals – the most important for our story is Egypt which comes under the rule of Ptolemy (spelled with a silent P at the beginning). He starts a dynasty of rulers who are not actually Egyptian but rule as king/queen/pharaoh – and one of them, Cleopatra, is going to get herself very… uh… involved… in the affairs of the last major western civilization we’re going to talk about today. On to Rome!