Everyone at one time or another has heard of Alexander the Great. He was the man who conquered the ancient world and built an empire that stretched from Macedonia in Greece to India, and as far south as Egypt, where he founded the great city of Alexandria and became the first European Pharaoh. There are several epic films that tell the story of his amazing life, the best known of which is the 2004 Oliver Stone motion picture Alexander, in which he is played by Colin Farrell, along with Anthony Hopkins, Val Kilmer, Jared Leto, and Angelina Jolie. However, the film differs greatly from real life, as Hollywood productions often do. The real story of Alexander’s life is, though similar, quite different all the same. He carved out the greatest empire the world has ever known and died at the young age of thirty-two. His appetite for battle was insatiable, his influence boundless, his story extraordinary. Here is the truth as history knows it.
Alexander III of Macedon was born in the Macedonian capitol of Pella in modern Greece. The year was 356 BC, the exact date most likely on the 20th or 21st of July. Several written accounts from the day describe him as short, estimated as between 5’7” and 5’2” in terms of height (though without his physical body, this cannot be confirmed), clean-shaven with a fair complexion, dark blond hair, and it is even said by several sources that he had heterochromia iridum, which is a condition that causes the eyes to be two different colors, in this case, one dark brown and one light blue. His father was Philip II, who took seven wives in his lifetime, the fourth of which, Olympias of Epirus, was Alexander’s mother. He was born into a kingdom of warriors, his father perhaps the greatest of them all and his role model, winning battle after battle despite great injury – Philip even lost an eye battling the Athenians in 354 BC. Olympias taught her son to believe in himself, which he did absolutely. He was highly competitive and his temper was fierce, but he was an avid reader and loved philosophy, his thirst for knowledge nearly unquenchable. In fact, the great philosopher Aristotle was his tutor.
Alexander’s father, Philip II, was a polygamist, not unusual for the time, but it put a great strain on Philip’s relationship with Alexander’s mother. When Philip married his seventh wife, Cleopatra Eurydice, (not to be confused with Egypt’s legendary queen) a full-blooded Macedonian and niece to his trusted general Attalus, Alexander’s position as his successor was put into question; if the union between the two produced a son of pure Macedonian blood, Alexander would lose his status as heir apparent to this child, should one be conceived. Tensions ran high and finally spilled over during the wedding in a scene immortalized in the 2004 film. Historian Plutarch described the scene as follows;
“At the wedding of Cleopatra [Eurydice], whom Philip fell in love with and married … her uncle Attalus in his drink desired the Macedonians would implore the gods to give them a lawful successor to the kingdom by his niece. This so irritated Alexander, that throwing one of the cups at his head, “You villain,” said he, “what am I then, a bastard?” Then Philip, taking Attalus’s part, rose up and would have run his son through; but by good fortune for them both, either his over-hasty rage, or the wine he had drunk, made his foot slip, so that he fell down on the floor. At which Alexander reproachfully insulted over him: “See there,” said he, “the man who makes preparations to pass out of Europe into Asia, overturned in passing from one seat to another.”
For six months or more following the incident, Alexander left Macedonia. He returned when tensions between father and son had cooled, perhaps because Philip had no stomach to disown his son, who was a strong and military trained teenager. Philip was in his forties, in an era where the average life expectancy was only thirty-five years. Even if his new wife produced the desired heir, he would still be a child when he came to the throne. Whatever his reasons, the prince returned to Macedonia and when Philip was assassinated in 336 BC, Alexander became King of the Macedonians at the age of twenty. Eurydice gave birth to a girl, whom ambitious Olympias, to the repulsion of her royal son, ordered to be murdered, and as a result, Eurydice committed suicide. Perhaps as reprisal for what Alexander saw as a treasonous insult at Eurydice’s wedding, her uncle Attalus was executed.
Alexander reigned as King of Macedonia for thirteen years, which doesn’t seem like a long time, but in that short time period, he conquered most of the known world at the time, from Europe to Asia. He was declared King of Asia, Persia after the defeat of its previous king, Darius III, and Pharaoh of Egypt, the first European to hold the title. He took three wives, first Roxana, daughter of a baron in Bactria (modern day Afghanistan), then Stateira, daughter to his rival Darius III of Persia, and finally, Parysatis.
Some even say that despite his marriages, that Alexander was homosexual, though this has not been proven. Legends say that he fell for one of his generals and childhood friend, Hephaestion, whom also became his lover. At the time, this would not be considered as scandalous as it would be today, but it would certainly have caused tension within the king’s army; showing one man to be the favorite of all his men would have brought with it both strife and jealousy, if it is true, though there is no evidence that goes beyond the two men being good friends, unless you squint. After severely mourning his good friend’s death in 324 BC, Alexander slipped into a depression, though he still planned another invasion, this time in Arabia, however, this battle would never be fought. At a banquet in his palace in Babylon, the center of his great empire, he fell fatally ill with an ailment that is still being argued over by scholars and historians, and after twelve days of lingering in agony, he died on 11 June 323 BC. For centuries, it has been assumed that he was poisoned, perhaps without intention
His wife Roxana was pregnant at the time, which meant that there was no legitimate heir for the empire. The Macedonians supported his half-brother, Philip Arrhidaeus, though he was mentally ill and unfit to govern. A few months later, Roxana gave birth to a son, also called Alexander, who became the next king with Perdiccas as regent in his name until the boy reached adulthood. However, Cassander, another of the generals, had the boy and his mother murdered before he could exercise full power and Alexander’s mother Olympias was arrested for murdering Philip Arrhidaeus and executed shortly after. Thus with the bloodline gone, the empire was divided between his generals – this time became known as the War of the Diadochi, or Successors,and opened the Hellenistic Period.
Though his tomb has not been found, according to legend, Alexander’s body was placed in a coffin of pure gold and glass filled with honey to prevent decay, after which he was transported from tomb to tomb before finally being buried in his own city of Alexandria in Egypt, where kings to come would pay tribute to the man who ruled the world’s largest empire. His tomb would be lost during the reign of ancient Rome, though some say he lies beneath the city itself while others claim he was moved, and rests in the Valley of the Golden Mummies, hidden away from those who would seek to harm the sacred corpse.
Sorry for the sloppiness of this post. I was planning to go into greater depth on Alexander’s rule, but busy as I have been as of late, this was all I could get away with, which is why this past is labeled as Part One. You can look forward to Part 2, which delves into the years of his conquests, soon. Until then, this will suffice.