Hunger for Fame: The Extraordinary Life and Death of Alexander the Great


Alexander the Great is perhaps best known in popular literature as arguably the most accomplished military conqueror in world history. But he was far more than a conqueror.

He had his roots in the land of ancient Macedonia………..

The Early Setting 

Geographically speaking, ancient Macedonia was mountainous with lowlands,  highlands and thick forests. It spanned parts of what is today Northern Greece and the Balkan Peninsula. The ancient Macedonians were substantially influenced by Greeks to the south as well as the massive Persian Empire to the east, which had nearly conquered Greece. The Macedonians prayed to the same gods as other Greeks and sent a contingent to the Olympics. Their language was a dialect of Greek. Unlike the rest of Greece, the Macedonian nobility practiced polygamy. Greeks tended to prefer wine mixed with water (see the example of Plato’s dialogue on love, Symposium), whereas Macedonians drank undiluted wine. Many Greeks thought of Macedon as rough and barbarian – the proverbial country mouse compared to the more sophisticated city-states, such as Athens, Corinth, and Thebes to the south. 

Yet for all their Homeric impulses, the Macedonians did not have an early history of success: sometimes in battle or regicide their kings died before their time. But a revolution in warfare, a new paradigm, emerged in the persons of Philip and his son, Alexander. 

In ancient times, princes of one kingdom might live in another kingdom as hostages in order to maintain the collective peace. As a youth, Philip was sent to Thebes and was treated very well by the ruling family. It was his great luck and pluck to immerse himself in the revolutionary changes of King Epaminondas, who had accomplished the near-miraculous by defeating Sparta at the Battle of Leuctra in 371 BC (all dates herein are BC). Epaminondas was a genius at military innovations, such as increasing the rows of the phalanx to fifty and using an oblique attack, which broke the Spartan army – a shock and game-changer in military strategy. 

In 359, Philip’s older brother, King Perdiccas III, was killed in battle against the Illyrians. Philip served as regent to Perdiccas’s infant child, but he assumed the kingship (basileus) for himself. As usual, this change of kingship was accompanied by mayhem and murder. It was a fit start for Philip, a foreshadowing of his eventual demise. He was ruthless – he had to be. He increased the size of the Macedonian phalanx and the length of the sarissa (pike) to 18-20 feet, added more regular and elite units, such as the Foot Companions and Companion Cavalry. Not a tall or large person, what Philip lacked in physical stature he more than made up with brilliance, diplomacy, and fighting spirit. He was known as a philanderer with many wives and relationships. His body featured battle wounds and was blind in one eye, possibly from an Athenian arrow. Olympias became Philip’s fourth wife. She was from Epirus, a mountainous land now shared by Greece and Albania. She and Philip were possibly initiates of the cult of the Great Gods and, in addition, Olympias was a follower of the Dionysian Mysteries (the Bacchae of Euripides hints at the wildness of this religion). It was said that Philip was afraid of her because she slept with snakes and behaved ‘witchy’. But Olympias may have contended with bad press. Professor Kara Cooney, Chair of the Department of Near Eastern Languages and Cultures at UCLA and author of When Women Ruled the World, shared this applicable reflection: “Powerful women did not receive fair treatment from historians, not at all.”   

Alexander was born on 20 July 356 in Pella, the capital of Macedon. One tale relates that the goddess Artemis was so attentive at Alexander’s birth that she was not aware of a madman torching her temple at Ephesus. About Alexander there is much myth-making, a common practice among luminaries of world history. Olympias apparently instilled in Alexander the notion that Zeus visited her one night, which brought Alexander closer to divinity, conferring on him dual descent from Philip and Zeus. Alexander’s parents believed they were related to Dionysus (god of wine) and Herakles (divine hero). Alexander was thrilled by the exploits of Achilles. (He is said to have kept a copy of Homer’s Iliad annotated by Aristotle, and a dagger under his pillow at night.)

Alexander’s Youth and Aristotle as Teacher

When Alexander was twelve, Philip bought a Thessalian stallion, Bucephalus (oxhead), black with a white patch on its forehead. The horse proved unmanageable, but Alexander bragged that he could handle him. Legend says that father and son made a bet. Alexander realized Bucephalus was afraid of his shadow, so Alexander turned the horse’s head toward the sun. Alexander was able to gallop on the horse. “Find yourself another kingdom,” said King Philip. “Macedonia is not large enough.” This gift later carried Alexander across swaths of Europe and the Middle East, before dying in India. (In those times, horses did not have stirrups or much of a saddle.) 

Alexander had a circle of friends who later became important military and political luminaries: Hephaestion, Ptolemy, Nearchus, Harpalus, to name a few. Alexander was known as an excellent runner and hunter and very precocious. Being a successful hunter was one way a young Macedonian received special privileges. Alexander had two teachers, Lysimachus and the austere Leonidas (a relative), who early on trained him in war and physical education 

In 334, when Alexander was thirteen, Aristotle began teaching Alexander. There were political and educational reasons for this. Plutarch writes that they met in “the precinct of the nymphs near Mieza, where to this day visitors are shown the stone seats and shady walks of Aristotle. It would appear, moreover, that Alexander not only received from his master his ethical and political doctrines, but also participated in those secret and more profound teachings.” For three years Aristotle taught Alexander and his circle philosophy, politics, science, literature, geography, medicine (later Alexander sometimes helped the wounded after battle), and more. (In years to come, with both personal interest and financial support, Alexander often showed a love of the arts, music, and drama, especially the plays of Euripides. Apelles was Alexander’s favorite painter and court portraitist.) 

The emphasis on science, thinking, and logic surely had a hand in Alexander’s success. Aristotle’s Organon shows some of what concerned Aristotle and Alexander.  Alexander would bring scientists, historians, and philosophers on his conquests – just like Napoleon in Egypt two thousand years later. During his conquests, Alexander also sent back flora and fauna to Aristotle. 

Alexander was able to see larger than his brilliant teacher Aristotle, who wrote on every subject possible, but whose geographical knowledge was limited. The earth was much larger than Aristotle believed. Aristotle also believed in the kingship of the man with outstanding excellence who is like a god, and in the inferiority of non-Greeks:   Alexander believed in the first but not in the second, as we’ll see later with his politics and his marriages to three foreign princesses. Unlike most Greeks, Alexander rejected the notion that foreigners were to be treated as inferiors — like “plants and animals” (Aristotle). Over the coming years, Alexander developed a plan, a vision, larger than the independent polis and Greece itself; it would include foreigners at the highest levels. 


Map of the Kingdom of Macedon at the death of Philip II in 336 BC. Marsyas (French original); Kordas (Spanish translation), CC BY-SA 2.5, Wikimedia Commons


Philip’s Triumphs, 7 Wives and Assassination

Many Greeks, especially those such as the Athenian orator Demosthenes (384-322), were justly apprehensive about Philip’s ambitions. Demosthenes (like Churchill in the 1930s) warned Athens against the growing danger of the Macedonians, but there was a delay in others realizing this. Through war and diplomacy, the sly king was looming closer. At last, a coalition of city-states led by Athens and Thebes combined forces to stop Philip. 

The Battle of Chaeronea, a game-changer, broke out in Boeotia in August 338. Philip seems to have feigned a retreat to draw out the inexperienced Athenians. Alexander (eighteen years of age) led the Companion Cavalry. “This in itself speaks worlds both for Alexander’s prowess and for Philip’s faith in his command abilities,” Paul Cartledge, Emeritus A. G. Leventis Professor of Greek Culture, Cambridge University, writes in Alexander the Great (86). Alexander ruptured the wall-like phalanx that dispersed the opposition. Plutarch writes that Alexander was the “first to break the ranks of the Sacred Band of Thebans.” Even when the battle was lost, the perfect courage of the Sacred Band led to their annihilation. (Two hundred and fifty-four skeletons of the Sacred Band have been found in a mass grave in Chaeronea.)

In winning the battle, Philip ended the independent polis in Greece and upended the balance of powers. Now leader over most of Greece, he punished Thebes but spared Athens. Philip didn’t want to destroy his allies, since he needed them to fight Persia. Athens had a great navy – so why weaken Athens? Philip set up the Hellenic League (aka League of Corinth) whose purpose was to unify the Greeks and fight the Persian Achaemenid Empire. Philip conquered powerful neighbors, wisely used diplomacy, created buffer states, filled his coffers, and was in a powerful position. He now turned his eyes to the East, sending an expeditionary force across the Hellespont into Asia Minor.   

Philip, who had six wives, married Eurydice, the seventh. He was 46 and she was a full-blooded Macedonian teenager. This put Alexander and his mother Olympias at some risk. At the wedding feast, Eurydice’s intoxicated uncle, Attalus, spoke of the need for a legitimate heir to the throne. Alexander jumped up, saying, “Villain, you take me for a bastard?” Philip drew his sword but was so drunk that he fell to the floor. 

Alexander and Olympias mistrusted Philip, especially because Philip and Eurydice had a son, a full-blooded Macedonian prince. Alexander was half Macedonian. Alexander and Olympias ended up going into exile for six months. Still, Philip didn’t want to be on the bad side of his own family; he planned on having his daughter, Cleopatra, marry her uncle, Olympias’ brother, the King of Epirus. It was a wise strategy in this power equation. Everyone seemed reconciled, or so it seemed. 

It is easy to understand Olympias and Alexander’s mistrust and fear. In those times, it would be dangerous to be out of favor in any royal family. Over the years, Philip had often been away campaigning; perhaps Alexander was not very close to him and, in fact, had Oedipal leanings toward Philip. Did Olympias and Alexander want Philip dead? If true, the timing was exquisite, and fate seemed to join ambition. Historians suggest that Philip had humiliated Pausanias (one of the royal bodyguards), with whom he had a sexual relationship. In Alexander the Great, Robin Lane Fox points how that Pausanias was from Epirus, which was also Olympias’ homeland, “and she might not have found it hard to work on a nobleman whom Philip had recruited away from his local friendships” (22) 

At the wedding, in a white robe, alongside his daughter Cleopatra, Philip walked without his bodyguards. This was in a theater in Aegae (modern Vergina). Pausanias ran up and stabbed Philip between the ribs. Pausanias fled toward his horses stationed near the walls. But he tripped on a vine and was dispatched by guards, including Alexander’s friends. Diodorus writes: “Such was the end of Philip, who had made himself the greatest of the kings in Europe in his time, and because of the extent of his kingdom had made himself a throned companion of the twelve gods.” This has been an intriguing “who done it?” Just as in the assassination of John F. Kennedy, a looming question is, was anyone else involved? 


Philip II of Macedon, Roman copy after a Greek original of the 4th century BC. Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons


The Beginning of Kingship     

In late summer 336: Alexander, at the age of twenty, assumed the kingship. “The army signed off on this quickly, suggesting he had prepared the ground before the murder of Philip,” Prof. Jean Alvares, Classics Professor at Montclair State University, suggested to me. As usual, there was a purge of real and imagined rivals. Alexander also made sure that allies stayed faithful. He advanced into Thrace to secure his borders and to crush revolts, as well as the Danube region to defeat the Getae.  

Some Greek city-states (poleis) rebelled against the Macedonians. There was also a rumor of Alexander’s death. Thebes, suffering from the presence of a Macedonian garrison since the Battle of Chaeronea, revolted. Thebes needed allies and much assistance, but not much of anything arrived. Alexander and the Macedonians raced to Thebes before anyone joined the proud, beleaguered city. The Macedonian force was much larger, but the Thebans fought bravely. The Macedonians fought their way into the city. Thebans not killed were enslaved and the city was razed. The house of the great poet, Pindar, was spared. 

Diogenes the Cynic and the Oracle of Delphi

On a visit to Corinth, Alexander visited Diogenes the Cynic (Cynicism is a school of philosophy meaning “dog-like” in Greek). It is said that Diogenes lived in a barrel. While he was sunbathing, Alexander stopped by and asked if he needed anything. Diogenes requested that Alexander “could get out of the sun.” Alexander remarked that if he were not Alexander, he would like to be Diogenes. More likely and important was Alexander’s visit to the Oracle of Delphi. The Pythia (the visionary priestess-prophet on her tripod chair) was not meeting anyone that day, but Alexander forced her to do so. The Pythia uttered, “You are invincible, my son.” 


Remains at the Oracle of Delphi, Greece. Walkerssk, Public Domain, Pixabay


In the spring of 334, Alexander and his army, cavalry and ships crossed the Hellespont, the narrow straight that separates Greece from Asia Minor and the Persian Empire. He jumped off the ship and threw his spear into the soil, declaring Asia “spear won.” Alexander and his best friend Hephaestion ran around the walls of Troy and left offerings at the Tombs of Achilles and Patroclus. Homer’s heroes always loomed large in Alexander’s mind from childhood to kingship. Alexander’s plan was to defeat the Persian Empire — an incredible ambition. He claimed that it was retribution for when the Persians destroyed Athens. He wanted to free the Greek cities under Persian rule and replace the Persian king. Clearly, there were a few motivations of a political and personal nature. He wanted to see and conquer more than anyone, to be the Goat (Greatest of All Time), and to live on the lips of people.

The Persian Empire and Battle of the River Granicus 

The Persian Empire, a multicultural superpower, was the largest of its day, stretching across the Balkans and Middle East to the Indus Valley. Its origins go back further, but it was around 550 when Cyrus the Great founded the empire, larger than any other empire of his time or before. Cyrus had a positive reputation for respecting the customs and religions of others and for restoring the Israelites back to their homeland. He is revered in the books of Isaiah and Ezra in the Old Testament. Xenophon wrote that Cyrus was “most generous of heart, most devoted to learning.” 

The imagery on the Apadana walls at Persepolis show that the concept of many people (vispadana) was significant to a multicultural empire. The official religion of the Persians was Zoroastrianism, which had a god of wisdom and light (Ahura Mazda) and a god of darkness (Ahriman), featuring fire altars under the open sky. Zoroastrianism influenced Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. 

During Alexander’s time, the Great King, the King of Kings, was Darius III (reigned from 336-330). Like the empire itself, the military consisted of many peoples, including Greek mercenaries such as Memnon of Rhodes. Memnon was a crafty leader and was married to Barsine, daughter of a satrap. Unfortunately, Darius did not follow Memnon’s advice. Memnon had recommended an attack on Greece and also a scorched earth policy – to wear down Alexander’s Hellenic League and avoid them for the time being. It can be effective against a powerful invader. Starve it, tire it out, look for a better position, wait for luck to turn. “He will win when he knows when to fight and when not to fight,” writes the Chinese military genius Sun Tzu.   

Darius objected to Memnon’s strategy. In fact, Darius had other worries and was not present at the battle. He did not know Alexander yet. In May 334 Alexander, in a white-plumed helmet and medusa-adorned breastplate, atop Bucephalus, led the Hellenic League against the Persians at the Battle of the Granicus, the first of three earth-shattering battles.

Parmenion (aka Parmenio) commanded the forces on the left, while Alexander commanded the Companion Cavalry on the right. Memnon commanded the Greek mercenaries fighting for Darius. Memnon was one of the many Greeks who hated and feared Alexander. (More Greeks fought against than with Alexander.) With the blare of trumpets, Alexander led his forces across the river and encountered the Persians. There were many parts to both armies including allies, infantry, cavalry, slingers, archers, and others. 

At one point, a Persian commander, Rhosaces, struck Alexander on his helmet and was killed by Alexander. Spithridates, another Persian commander, attacked Alexander from behind. Spithridates was about to dispatch Alexander when Cleitus the Black cut off his arm, saving Alexander and the whole campaign. 

As the Persians retreated, Alexander attacked the Greek mercenaries who were not used to best effect in the battle, as they were kept back. They were surrounded by Alexander’s men; thousands were killed and enslaved, to be sent to work in the mines in Greece. Alexander’s cruelty was a warning to others – this was not the first nor would it be the last time. 

The Persian army retreated without massive losses, but the situation was precarious. They realized their foe was something very dangerous. Alexander took over Sardis, Ephesus, and Miletus. (Miletus was the center of the Ionian philosophers/scientists like Thales.) Alexander retained Persians and other natives as satraps or governors and generally respected the Persian structure of governance. 

Memnon went on the offensive. He planned to reconquer the Aegean islands and join forces with the Spartan king to liberate Greece from Alexander. However, by a stroke of good luck for Alexander and the Hellenic League, Memnon suddenly died at the siege of Mytilene. He seemed to be one of the last great hopes for Darius. 


Battle of the Granicus. Painting, 1665. Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons


The Battle of Issus, November 333

For the Battle of Issus, King Darius III was present and led his enormous war machine. Modern historians estimate the number of the Hellenic League at 40,000 and the Persian forces at 50,000 – 60,000, though ancient sources record that there were over 250,000 Persians (ancient sources can be unreliable). Darius was so eager to destroy this young interloper that he gave up a superior defensive position. 

The set-piece battle unfolded on a narrow plane with mountains in the distance. Alexander led the Companion Cavalry on the right, with Parmenio leading the forces on the left. Alexander’s youth, zeal and unclouded confidence were balanced by Parmenio’s maturity and general caution. At one point, Alexander and the Companion Cavalry crashed through the Persian line and headed right for Darius on his chariot.

The battleground was red with blood and cluttered with the wounded and dead. Darius had made a huge miscalculation and fled in order to fight another day. Alexander was a lightning bolt into the body of the Persian Empire. Alexander was proving something that others suspected: the Persian Empire had fault lines, weaknesses. The Persian Wars (in 490 and 480) won by Greece, as well as the Ten Thousand Greek mercenaries in 401 (recounted by Xenophon) who returned home safely, were solid indications. The gods and luck seemed to be on Alexander’s side. it all added up to morale, though soldiers do not always feel so confident before battle. In BBC Radio’s In Our Time (hosted by Melvyn Bragg), Prof. Paul Cartledge said that Napoleon viewed the morale factor as decisive in battle.

I asked Professor Cartledge to share more about Alexander’s mindset:  

A combination of luck, bravery, charisma and inspired leadership – and that’s only Alexander. Behind him he had, to start with, his dad’s army, the best in Greece then, mainly because of its combo of superb cavalry with infantry and different grades of infantry fused into a harmonious interlocking whole. The luck came in when Alexander was NOT killed as he might well have been at the first major set piece battle, The Granicus River of 334. 

Darius III left behind his family, including Queen Stateira and the Queen-Mother Sisygambis. Darius expected the opportunity to ransom them. He may have been the Great King, but he was losing the kingdom. Alexander was kind and befriended the family. Many historians note that there is much evidence that Alexander was kind to women — perhaps a reflection of his closeness to his Olympias, his mother. Alexander referred to Sisygambis as “mother.” Both sides were wise to play this game. Darius made an offer: Alexander would get the western half of the empire, his daughter in marriage, and a huge ransom for his family members if Alexander would stop his juggernaut. Parmenio said that if he were Alexander, he would accept the offer. Alexander replied, “If I were Parmenio, that is what I would do. But I am Alexander and so will answer it another way.”

The long sarissa made the enlarged phalanx especially effective, and the cavalry was a major shock. Alexander was flexible and creative even under the strains of battle and could predict his foes well. He read a battlefield better than anyone. This would bode poorly for his next foe, the island-fortress of Tyre. 


Reconstruction of a mosaic depiction of the Battle of Issus after a painting supposed to be by Apelles or Philoxenus of Eretria found in the House of the Faun at Pompeii. Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons


The Siege of Tyre

In January of 332, Alexander reached Tyre (coast of today’s Lebanon), the largest Phoenician city and the stronghold of the Persian fleet. He could not bypass it and have the fleet threatening his advance. So, Alexander sent envoys, but they were tossed from the walls into the sea. Surrounded by blue seas and high walls, the city was imposing, possibly impregnable. Alexander decided to build a half-mile causeway 200 feet wide, along with siege engines 150 feet high (fireproofed with battering rams), with catapults on top. This machinery was a leap forward in military ingenuity. There were also ballistae to hurl rocks from below. At one point, the Tyrians sent a burning ship into the causeway to destroy the siege towers – it worked, but it would not be enough to save Tyre. Alexander, who before had disbanded his own navy, now got hold of many ships from Phoenician city-states he had conquered. He used these ships to blockade the island city. 

After a siege of seven painful months, during which the Hellenic League was attacked with rocks and fire, the city fell. It was reported that Alexander enslaved thousands of Tyrians; even worse, he ordered 2,000 of them to be crucified along the shore.

After Tyre, Alexander lay siege to Gaza in the autumn of 332, which also had a horrible ending for the inhabitants. In emulation of Achilles dragging Hector’s corpse behind his chariot, Persian General Batis was dragged behind a chariot whilst still alive.


Map of the Siege of Tyre. Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons


Egypt Welcomes Alexander and the Famous Visit to Siwah

Egypt was a rich civilization with a long history going back thousands of years before Persian control. The fourth century was a burgeoning period for Egypt under native rule. Egypt’s power and prestige had been declining for centuries and included foreign rule by Libyans, Kushites, Assyrians, and Persians. Many Greeks including Herodotus (who wrote that “Egypt was the gift of the Nile”) and Plato had visited Egypt. 

The Persians were harsh overlords and disrespectful of Egyptian religion. The Egyptians were eager to toss out the former. “Here,” writes Prof. Paul Cartledge, “Alexander found himself gifted with an advantage only rarely on offer in other parts of the Persian Empire: a friendly native upper class” (Alexander the Great 150). Alexander was welcomed by the Persian governor Mazaces (with 800 talents and the royal furniture). In Memphis, Alexander was pronounced “son of Ammon” and given the double-crown of Egypt. It is highly likely that Alexander was in awe of the gleaming pyramids, rich land, life-giving Nile, and temples.

In the winter of 332, Alexander was “seized with a longing to visit” an important, far-off oracle 300 miles into the hot desert. “His intention was to consult the god, as the oracle of Ammon was reputed to be truthful,” wrote the historian Arrian. 

With some companions, Alexander headed into the desert to find the Oracle of Ammon at the Siwah oasis. Arrian, Plutarch and Rufus offer differing accounts. Alexander got lost and nearly perished from thirst. Arrian writes that “travellers lose their bearings like sailors at sea.” Either two crows or snakes (Ptolemy’s lost account apparently introduced the snakes) led them to the oasis oracle with its abundant water and date palms. Alexander went into the sanctum sanctorum and perhaps asked the oracle priest about his origins and destiny. There are differing accounts of this and what he learned will never be known. Prof. Paul Cartledge argues that after Siwah, Alexander “claimed a close relationship, possibly even physical filiation, with non-Greek Ammon” (244).

In the spring of 331, Alexander founded what would become one of the greatest cities of the ancient world: Alexandria. Plutarch writes that “since there was no chalk available, they used barley-meal to describe a rounded area on the dark soil…” Alexander wanted harbors for trade, greater control over his growing empire, and a Greek city on the coast that bore his name. Alexander left the area after a few months. His friend and a leader in his army, Ptolemy (and his family), would in the coming years transform Alexander’s vision and plans into an incredible city. 

The Battle of Gaugamela

The third great clash with the Persians, the Battle of Gaugamela (literally the Camel’s House; near today’s Arbil, Iraq) happened days after an eclipse of the moon: 1 October 331. The Persian force may have been as much as twice Alexander’s 47,000 soldiers. Darius’s force included cavalry, scythed chariots, elephants, the Immortals (his bodyguard), Greek mercenaries, and others. Mazaeus (satrap of Babylon) commanded the right flank of Persia’s infantry and cavalry, including Parthians, Syrians, Cappadocians, Armenians, Mesopotamians, and Indians. Bessus, the satrap of Bactria and a relative of Darius, commanded the left flank. The night before the battle, Darius and Alexander were of course very nervous. Darius, aware of the danger of a night attack, had his soldiers armed and ready, which had to be exhausting. Alexander met with Aristander, his seer. Plutarch writes that Alexander’s army saw the Persian camp “agleam with the watch-fires of the barbarians.” Alexander disagreed with Parmenio’s suggestion of a night attack, saying, “I will not steal my victory.” As usual, Alexander led from the right with the Companion Cavalry; on the left Parmenio commanded infantry and cavalry. Alexander was aware of the danger of envelopment by the much larger Persian force. There is much to say about geography, plans, the battle itself and the aftermath, but in short Alexander created and took advantage of a gap in the Persian side, allowing the Companion Cavalry to pour in like killer T-cells.

It was reported that when Darius saw that his military was being defeated, that his bodyguard got beat back, and that his chariots wheels were clogged with dead bodies, he fled. Darius, escaping by horseback with a small force, lived to fight another day. But it was a disaster for the Great King who, in a short time, lost it all and (soon) his life. Alexander continued onto Babylon (and Susa and Persepolis). 

According to Quintus Curtius Rufus, Alexander was welcomed to Babylon by Mazaeus and his children, as well as chanting Magians, Chaldeans, Babylonian priests, and musicians. The storied city was surrounded by an enormous wall, and the Euphrates River passed through the city, over which bridges connected the two halves of the city. Rufus wrote that two chariots could pass each other atop the walls and described the loveliness of the Hanging Gardens, known today historically as one of the Wonders of the Ancient World. 

Susa, located in the lower Zagros Mountains, was the capital of the Achaemenid Persian Empire. (It has been extensively examined and excavated beginning in the 1800s with Henry Rawlinson, A. H. Layard, and others recently). Alexander found an enormous amount of gold and silver and sat on Darius’ throne. He was too short for the throne, so one of the attendants provided a footstool. 

Next, the city of Persepolis, the ceremonial capital of the empire, with its ornate and lofty temples and palaces, was torched. Why? Were the young Macedonians just drunk and goaded by the Athenian prostitute Thais (Ptolemy’s mistress), or had this been a planned revenge? There is no way to know. It was unusual for Alexander to destroy temples. Taking after his mother, he was religious and, as a military man, superstitious. 

Meanwhile, Darius refused to surrender the throne: his courtiers, led by Bessus, arrested Darius and fled. Alexander and his men followed in hot pursuit. Arrian tells us that with Alexander “close upon them,” two satraps stabbed Darius and fled, leaving him to die. The new king of Persia, Bessus, did not have much success in that position. Most of the satraps declared their allegiance to Alexander. 

Alexander gave orders for Darius to be buried with full honors at Persepolis “like the kings before him” (Arrian). Darius’ death signaled the end of the Achaemenid Persian Empire.


Darius’ flight at the Battle of Gaugamela. Relief inspired by Charles Le Brun’s painting Battle of Arbela (1669). Photograph: Luis García (Zaqarbal), 3 December 2008. GNU Free Documentation License, version 1.2. Wikimedia Commons


Alexander’s New Clothes and The Philotas Affair

Alexander inherited a huge harem and plenty of eunuch servants, as well.  He often wore a purple and white chiton, a royal diadem, sometimes a Macedonian cavalry hat, which had a swagger to it. Sometimes he wore pants, a Persian mode of dress at that time. Many Macedonians did not like his new habits and beliefs. 

In the fall of 330, whilst in Bactria, there was an assassination attempt against Alexander known as the Philotas Affair. Some young Macedonian guards decided to kill Alexander. Philotas — Parmenio’s son and a commander of the Companion Cavalry — was accused of knowing about the murder plot but not informing Alexander. Philotas and the guards were tortured and executed. It is not known if the charges against Philotas were true. Philotas was arrogant and found himself in trouble with Alexander before. More executions were to follow, including Philotas’ father, the old and very successful general Parmenio. This was tragic for this family, and realpolitik for Alexander. The way was clear for Cleitus and Hephaestion to be co-commanders; such power could not be concentrated in one person. 

In the coming months, Alexander founded Alexandria-by-the-Caucasus. The Hellenic League crossed the Hindu Kush. Older men and some volunteers were sent back to Greece. The Hellenic League crossed the Oxus River. Bessus, satrap of Bactria and pretender to the Persian throne, was captured by Ptolemy and tortured and executed. Alexander and his military had to contend with revolts and fierce guerilla warfare.   

Dionysus’ Gifts and Headaches and the Murder of Cleitus 

In Alexander the Great: The Invisible Enemy, John Maxwell O’Brien focuses – through the symbol of Dionysus — on Alexander’s emotional decline, megalomania, and drunkenness. Wine drinking was common; parties and celebrations commemorated a festival or victory, announced a new campaign, honored someone, and so on. Participants told stories, bragged, drank wine. This eased the strains of war and served as a safety valve. But these events could erupt into violence. 

In November of 328, at the palace in Maracanda (Samarkand), Alexander organized a banquet during a feast dedicated to Dionysus. Cleitus, one of two commanders of the Companion Cavalry (and the brother of Lanike, Alexander’s nurse), was unhappy about his new orders and possibly about Alexander’s turn toward Persian customs. Alexander was drunk. They got into an argument: Cleitus saying Alexander’s conquests were possible because of his father Philip and reminding Alexander who saved him at the Battle of the Granicus – it was Cleitus. 

Alexander threw an apple at Cleitus’ head. The officers ushered Cleitus out of the room. When Cleitus returned, Alexander ran him through with a spear. Alexander immediately felt revulsion and grieved in his tent for days. The officers put together evidence of Cleitus’ treason, which helped Alexander move beyond the murder.

The Sogdian Rock

In the spring of 327, Alexander and his army encountered the Sogdian Rock, a fortress high atop the mountains (near Samarkand), ruled by Ariamazes. Another local ruler, Oxyartes, placed his wife and children, including Roxana, in what was believed to be an impregnable fortress. The Sogdians refused to surrender, telling the invaders that they needed wings to conquer the Rock. That only encouraged Alexander. During the night, Alexander sent up 300 climbers using tent pegs and rope; and “about thirty lost their lives during the ascent – falling in various places in the snow,” Arrian recounts. The following morning, the Sogdians looked up in shock, and surrendered.  

At the peace celebration, Alexander saw Roxana (little star) dancing. Roxana was said to be a very beautiful woman, second only to Darius’ wife. Alexander was smitten. Were there political motivations to add territory and unity to his empire? Was Alexander in love? Perhaps yes for all of those reasons. (See the fascinating and colorful wedding dramatization of Alexander and Roxana in Michael Wood’s BBC series, In the Footsteps of Alexander the Great.) 

The Page Boys Conspiracy

In the spring of 327, during a hunt with the king, there was a breach of protocol. One of the page boys, Hermolaus, shot a wild boar before Alexander had the chance. Alexander had him whipped. Hermolaus and a few of the other pages planned on killing Alexander, but their plot came to light. Callisthenes, the nephew of Aristotle, was implicated because he was the teacher of the page boys. Alexander was enraged: Callisthenes encouraged their independent thinking, and he didn’t believe in prostrating (proskynesis) himself before the king. It is unclear if Callisthenes had anything to do with the plot, though at the time he had fallen out of favor. Hermolaus, a few page boys, and Callisthenes were executed.

India: Rock of Aornus, the Naked Philosophers, and Battling King Porus

In the winter of 326, on the way to India, Alexander encountered a mountaintop stronghold called the Rock of Aornus (possibly Pir Sarai in Pakistan). It was a formidable place with a water supply and land for growing food – the defenders could not be starved out. Alexander accomplished the win by storming a nearby mountain and threatening the Rock with catapults. The path was now open to enter India. 

In spring 326, Alexander and his forces advanced into Taxila (Punjab), a city renowned for culture, education, and trade at the juncture of very important trade routes. (In the mid-19th century, Sir Alexander Cunningham identified Aornus, Taxila, and other places based, in part, on his reading of ancient chroniclers; Taxila is today a UNESCO World Heritage Site.) 

In a fascinating episode, Alexander made acquaintance with the naked philosophers (gymnosophists), who were possibly yogis, fakirs, or Brahmins; some scholars say Jains or Buddhists. (I think they were likely yogis or fakirs). A few criticized Alexander. One of them said he should stop his wanderings and settle in the center. Alexander rounded up ten of them and threatened to kill them if they got any of his questions wrong. Plutarch writes that Alexander asked the last philosopher how long a person should live. The reply was: “Until he does not regard death as better than life.” 

They all survived. Like so much of the Alexander story, the truth of this episode is open to speculation. But these gymnosophists are tantalizing. In fact, Alexander befriended one of them named Calanus, who was about seventy years old. Did Calanus and the others have a more compassionate and spiritual path that the invaders simply could not understand? Many from the Hellenic League were intrigued. As Professor Cartledge points out: the Greeks viewed foreign spiritual traditions through the lens or vocabulary of their own culture.

King Ambhi of Taxila supported Alexander against his rival, the larger-than-life King Porus. Porus led 30,000 soldiers, 2,000 cavalry, and many elephants. By now, Alexander’s army was completely battle hardened from dealing with all manner of foes. In May 326, Alexander’s last major battle was the Battle of the Hydaspes River (Punjab region of today’s Pakistan). 

It was monsoon season with fast swollen rivers. Porus’ elephants each had a mahout and about a dozen infantry – the ancient world’s version of a tank. The horses of the Hellenic League were afraid of elephants. Porus had many chariots, but the muddy conditions erased most of their menace. Alexander used feints and deceptions, some of which must have exhausted the Indians. They didn’t know when Alexander would attack across the river. Finally, Alexander’s forces crossed the river but ended up on a nearby island. Porus’ son attacked, but he was killed during the battle. 

Alexander had his men cross the river at night, a dangerous feat. Porus placed his war elephants in front of his vast infantry, with cavalry on both sides. Alexander’s infantry was smaller than Porus’ infantry, but his cavalry was larger than Porus’ cavalry. As many historians have noted: Alexander knew how to read a battlefield. The solution was to orient the battle toward his cavalry. 

Alexander ordered Coenus to bring extra cavalry to the left; this force galloped around Porus’ right side. Alexander’s Companion Cavalry attacked Porus’ frontline. The Indians soon found themselves being pushed into a smaller area with less room to maneuver. The soft ground didn’t help the Indian archers plant their bows (perhaps similar to the bow used by Arjuna in the Bhagavad Gita). The Indians fought bravely, but in the end the Hellenic League prevailed. Porus, preferring to die in battle, rebuffed the peace offerings. Alexander rode out to meet him. 

“How would you like to be treated?” Alexander asked.

“Like a king.” 

“Anything else?”

“All is contained in the first request,” replied Porus.

Alexander allowed Porus to retain his kingdom and he enlarged it. An intriguing story has come down to us from ancient accounts: Alexander was visited by a young noble, Chandragupta Maurya. He enticed Alexander with news of more kingdoms ahead. He was an ambitious young man and Alexander must have been intrigued. Later, Maurya founded the Mauryan Empire and defeated the Macedonian satrapies around twenty years after Alexander’s death. His grandson became the incredible King Ashoka who, after a terrible battle, became nonviolent and promoted Buddhism. 

Monsoons, Mutiny and Alexander Suffers an Arrow

Alexander’s soldiers became apprehensive over monsoons, giant snakes, and homesickness. Their armor rusted, they heard accounts of more immense armies ahead. Alexander’s men pondered: what’s the point of wealth and renown if you die so far from home? Like the Romans, the Greeks preferred to be in comfortable climates where olives flourished. Diodorus Siculus wrote that “his soldiers were exhausted with their constant campaigns.” The consensus: they wished to return home and see their families. Coenus, one of Alexander’s commanders, spoke for the army. 

The Hyphasis Mutiny made Alexander fume. He went into his tent and wouldn’t emerge for three days. Finally, he consulted Aristander: the answer was that the Hellenic League should return home. This gave Alexander cover, helped him save face. He would have been in a bad situation without these veterans and must have felt that he owed them. The fighting and hardship, however, were far from over.

November 326: the Mallians (Punjab)

The Mallians lived in a city with mud walls; there was some misunderstanding, as they did not pay obeisance to Alexander, who led his army to their city. Dissatisfied with the pace of the battle, Alexander climbed onto a wall, where he was open to all sorts of weapons thrown at him. His soldiers were frightened for him and they climbed up ladders, but their combined weight broke the ladders and they fell to the ground. Alexander fought furiously and one of his bodyguards was killed. Arrian tells us that “the arrow penetrated the corselet and entering his body above the breast.”

Michael Wood vividly reenacts this event — with the luck of an ambulance passing by — in his BBC series In Search of Alexander the Great. Alexander fainted. He owed his survival to Peucestas, Abreas and Leonnatus who placed over Alexander the Sacred Shield from Troy. Many feared that that the king was dead. His army, seized by panic, crashed through the walls and went on a killing spree. This was an example of the war crimes of which his army was capable. 

Alexander somehow survived. As soon as he recovered some of his health, he sailed down river so his troops could see him. When he disembarked, they were overcome with emotion and tears, crowding and touching him, tossing flowers.   

Tragedy in the Desert

In the fall of 325, Alexander’s army headed into the Gedrosian Desert (the Makran in Pakistan and Iran). Why? Perhaps Alexander was trying to prove his courage and ability. Perhaps he wanted to explore and map the region. Perhaps he was punishing his men for refusing to conquer more of India. We will never know for certain why he brought a huge army through the burning desert. It was a choice that ended in much suffering and death.  

It took about two months to cross. A third or more of his army and thousands of camp followers perished from thirst and starvation. As Arrian wrote: “Many died as if they had fallen overboard in a ship.” Not only did the desert swallow so many, for a flash flood drowned numerous soldiers and camp followers who had spent the night in what had been a dry riverbed. 

While Alexander and the army made their way through the desert, Admiral Nearchus (long-time friend), along with Onesicritus (a philosopher and helmsman of the fleet), sailed from the Indus River to the Persian Gulf. The admiral mapped the region and founded a city, reuniting with Alexander in Carmania (southern Iran) in December 325. About two months later, Alexander reached the old religious capital, Pasargadae, where he had Cyrus the Great’s Tomb repaired.  

Alexander Marries (Again), Susa Weddings and The Successors

In spring 324, there was a holiday spirit and much feasting; Alexander met officials, gave out awards like purple tunics and money, and paid off the debts of his army. Drinking contests heated up to the point where many participants died. 

And there were the famous weddings: Alexander married Stateira, the late Darius’ eldest daughter, and another Persian princess, Parysatis; and Hephaestion married Drypetis, another princess and daughter of Darius. And more was to come: Alexander encouraged 100 companions and 1,000 regular soldiers to marry Persian women. The marriage ceremonies were according to Persian custom and lasted five days, and performers even arrived from Greece. The marriages were part of Alexander’s unifying, big picture plan. (After his death, it seems that few of the marriages lasted.) Clearly, there was resistance to Alexander’s plans and overall vision. 

At Susa, the Epigoni or inheritors, who were some 30,000 Bactrians trained in Macedonian warfare, arrived; foreigners also joined the Companion Cavalry. Alexander’s orientalism caused much consternation among his troops – it was a massive change from what they were accustomed. (The Mutiny at Opis was only months away.) After this, Alexander explored the region by ship, while Hephaestion with part of the army headed to the Persian Gulf.   

Time is Always Against Us

In Susa, Alexander’s close friend and advisor, Calanus (one of the naked philosophers from Taxila), knowing that he was very sick, gave away his possession, including a horse to one of his Greek students. He climbed atop a funeral pyre which was then lit. The onlookers, especially Alexander, were horrified. Calanus proved that he was beyond pain — as tough or tougher than anyone could be. He is an invitation to wonder: how can this be possible? (We know of this kind of self-immolation by some Buddhist monks during the war in Vietnam.) 

Worse was to come. In Ecbatana (October 324), Hephaestion (Alexander’s closest friend and a Commander of the Companion Cavalry), recovering from sickness, drank much wine, relapsed, died. This devastated Alexander, who put the doctor to death. Plutarch says that Alexander’s “grief was uncontrollable.” Alexander petitioned the Oracle at Siwah, which granted him the status of divine hero. Hephaestion was given an expensive funeral and his ashes were brought to Babylon. (Alexander’s grief might remind us of Gilgamesh’s utter despair when his adventure-companion Enkidu died.) 


Adding it all up — the risks and battles, injuries and assassination attempts, desert journeys and so on – makes one wonder how Alexander lived as long as he did. Amidst the splendor of the palaces and hanging gardens, the end for Alexander arrived in Babylon months later. The historian, Arrian, following eyewitness accounts, relates it:. Alexander came down with a fever and lost his voice. He couldn’t move. He had to be carried in a litter. The men insisted on seeing him and broke down the doors. Perhaps it was malaria or typhus, the various injuries, along with alcoholism. It is possible that Alexander, before reaching Babylon’s famous gates, contracted some disease in the swamps. 


Remains of the ancient city of Babylon, Iraq. Osama Shukir Muhammed Amin FRCP(Glasg), CC BY-SA 4.0, Wikimedia Commons


Alexander died on 10 June 323, just before reaching 33. He was king for twelve years and eight months. Some authors suspect that Alexander was poisoned: perhaps by the Mallian arrow that had lodged in his lung, or by a devious Macedonian. Suspects include Antipater, his sons Cassander and Iollas (a cupbearer for Alexander); this family quite reasonably feared Alexander’s return. (A few years later, Cassander killed Alexander’s mother Olympias, Roxana, and Alexander IV.) Another suspect, Medius, had invited Alexander to the party just before Alexander got feverish. 

Dying Alexander, marble copy of the 2nd century BC work by unknown Greek sculptor. National Art Museum of Azerbaijan. Urek Meniashvili. CC BY-SA 3.0, Wikimedia Commons

In Joseph Campbell’s formulation of the hero’s journey, heroes separate from their homeland, initiate (transform and journey), and return home. Alexander never achieved the homecoming – another missing part of his life. Alexander was not too young to die (for that era), but it was far too soon before he could accomplish all that he desired.

Alexander was a figure of epic proportions, who helped determine history. He was one of only a few military leaders never defeated. Through conquest and creating cities, Alexander spread Greek culture and unified an immense area, which lasted centuries after his birth, paving the way for Roman and Islamic expansion, and much else; he encouraged intermarriage and unity; founded dozens of cities including Alexandria, Egypt; encouraged trade between East and West; held women in higher regard than his contemporaries; spread Greek culture (Hellenization). In the final chapters of Alexander the Great, Robin Lane Fox covers many of the details of the East/West cross-fertilization. 

There was a unique vastness and panache to Alexander’s accomplishments and dreams. If Alexander were in competition with his real father Philip or Homer’s Achilles, there was no competition. Alexander wins. Had he lived longer, the course of history would be different, for he had plans to conquer far and wide. Perhaps Alexander would have stopped Rome before it became so mighty. About Alexander there are utopian or romantic views. Historian William Tarn believed that Alexander would have unified the world and brought peace. Historian Arnold Toynbee believed that the world would be a better place had Alexander lived twice as long. 

From my vantage point I ask, at what price? A vast number of soldiers and civilians, and many horses and elephants, died during the dozen years of conquest. Cities were flattened. But there exists no alternate history in which there’s no Alexander. He existed in a big way and had a big afterlife; to varying degrees, we live in the world that Alexander helped determine. We benefit from the changes and evolution that Alexander put into motion. Many people live in cities he founded. It is a paradox because his plans required much conquest. His life brings us into the realm of imagination with its own light and dark qualities. 

Prof. Paul Cartledge offered this assessment:

Astonishing military commander – right up there in the all-time first division with Genghis Khan, Napoleon and very very few others. Partly but not only because he was a simply superb leader of men in the field and against the odds, but also because he effected quite extraordinary sieges in seemingly impossible circumstances – Tyre, the Rock of Aornos…

However, on the debit side of the ledger, what exactly was he aiming to achieve – beyond unique personal renown? And was it really necessary to massacre quite so many non-Greek persons?  (I’m thinking esp. of the Malloi here) or to treat defeated enemies quite so brutally (the Phoenicians of Tyre – crucified; the eunuch Arab governor of Gaza – killed by being dragged behind a chariot – at least Hector was already dead when Alexander’s epic role model Achilles dragged his corpse behind his chariot!)

Professor Michael Scott, author and Professor of Classics and Ancient History at University of Warwick, stated: 

I believe he would have gone as far as he could, but he would have not been able to conquer China (at this time in the final stages of developing into a Unified nation during their Warring States period). And yes, I think if he had lived, he would then have turned west as well…

As Michael Wood says at the end of his program, In the Footsteps of Alexander, the gods gave Alexander multiple signs. Alexander felt that the gods were on his side. 

Alexander was a man of his time — not ours. His time had continuous warfare, slavery on a massive scale, infanticide, much starvation and disease and early death, limited medicine, animal sacrifice, routine torture, plague, god-kings, and more. 

Kings and Philosophers, Biology and Opportunity

It is said that Prince Siddhartha could have been either Buddha or world conqueror. Could Alexander have been a philosopher rather than a king? His parents had worldly ambitions in mind for Alexander and he did, too. It was natural for him to accept the challenge and ride that wind. The Roman emperor, Marcus Aurelius, was also a philosopher, but philosophy did not take up the better part of his time, and could not. The emperor fought to keep Rome’s enemies away from the empire, whereas Alexander fought to create an empire (mostly an overlay of the Persian Empire), with plans for enlargement.      

Alexander had incredible parents, opportunity, and boundless ambitions. Whatever luck he had at birth, he always endeavored to add to it. Anyone who reaches for the stars must make their own luck. Opportunity knocked; Alexander stepped through the doors, or actually kicked them open, one could say. He was a blend of biology and opportunity: the will to power across the continents. Yet Alexander paid a high price for his desires. He died young, and he foolishly did not choose a successor, hence the exhaustive Wars of the Successors leading to his family’s demise. The aftermath helped leave Greece vulnerable to Rome’s relentless military might. With empires, the center cannot hold, entropy settles in, no matter how solid the dreams of myth-drenched leaders.  

Would it have been better if Alexander stayed home? That was Siduri’s advice for Gilgamesh in the world’s first book. The Roman Senate wanted Julius Caesar to cut short his conquests and return to Rome. Gilgamesh failed two tests and returned to Uruk, finally pleased to be a good king. It was not in the nature of Alexander or Caesar or Napoleon, for that matter, to return home and have a peaceful life. They were crazy for conquest. 

One tradition continues to imagine Alexander long after his death: The Alexander Romance. Alexander goes to the bottom of the sea, flies through the air, and so on. The great Persian poet, Ferdowsi (born 940 ACE), applauded Alexander’s unification of East and West and for being King Darius III’s half-brother.

Moreover, Alexander, at times associated with or depicted with horns (on coins, for example), and may have ended up in the Koran:

1) The Egyptian god Amun had curled horns. Alexander was crowned pharaoh.  2) The two horns represent the two horizons – Alexander’s immense accomplishments and ambitions. 3) In the Koran, Alexander is quite possibly “the horned one.”   

The Alexander Romance, in some sense, continues; there are many Alexanders in literature, media, and art, including Andy Warhol’s “Alexander the Great” images and Oliver Stone’s Alexander. Many people explore the story of Alexander. The word “essay” means to try – which is what I’ve done here. All we can do is try to understand Alexander from the perspective of his contemporaries and from the perspective of ourselves. There is much that is missing, contradictory, or imaginative in the ancient histories. Alexander and his army journeyed and fought across land and sea to the limits of the known world.  

Body Snatcher and the Next Pharaoh: Ptolemy and the Afterlives of Alexander  

Of the circle of friends still standing when Alexander died, Ptolemy may be the most astonishing and fortunate. He also had studied with Aristotle, rose in the ranks and partook of the military venture across the world, journeyed to Siwah, and was there in Babylon at the end. As Alexander lay dying, the royal ring was handed to Perdiccas: the empire would go “to the strongest,” uttered the dying king. It doesn’t seem like a good idea. Perdiccas was disliked, and who could replace Alexander? What Alexander created was destroyed when he died: a cohesive empire. Power for Macedonians was, to a large degree, of a personal nature. By accomplishing so much, Alexander made it impossible to replace him.   

Without Alexander, the leaders jockeyed for control. Would Alexander’s unborn child eventually be allowed to rule? Would someone else grab the empire? War was the reply. Didn’t Alexander the Great foresee these troubles? 

[I asked Professor Ikram, author of The Mummy in Ancient Egypt and Distinguished University Professor of Egyptology at the American University of Cairo, if it’s possible that Alexander’s body was preserved in honey.

“It was thus reported, and it make sense,” she replied.] 

Alexander was honored in the most magnificent way with much finery – a prolific amount of gold and purple. The cortege headed to Aegae (the location of Philip’s tomb) in Macedon where Alexander would be buried. It never arrived. Diodorus, the Sicilian historian, writes that Ptolemy “doing honour to Alexander, went to meet it with an army as far as Syria, and, receiving the body, deemed it worthy of the greatest consideration.” 

Claudius Ptolemäus: Picture of 16th century book frontispiece. Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

Ptolemy stole the body and brought it to Memphis. Ptolemy declared himself pharaoh in 305, beginning his family’s dynasty. (The last of the Ptolemies was Cleopatra VII who, with Mark Antony, lost to Octavian.) When the tomb was completed, Alexander’s body was interred in Alexandria. Under the Ptolemies, Alexandria would become one of the great cities of the world. Alexandria had a grid pattern, lighthouse (pharos), a multicultural population, and an incredible library and museum — a prototype of the modern university.

Many well-wishers, including Emperor Augustus Caesar, visited Alexander’s tomb. Emperor Septimius Severus closed the tomb to the public to preserve it. Prof. Frank Korn (Classics Department, Seton Hall University) related this to me about Julius Caesar’s admiration for Alexander: “The exploits of Alexander were well known by the military and political stars of Republican and Imperial Rome.” 

By 400 ACE, the trail goes cold, the tomb’s location a mystery. Polytheism was now persecuted. When John Chrysostom, an early Christian father, visited Alexandria and inquired about the tomb, he saw that “his tomb even his own people know not.” 

Might earthquakes and sea have destroyed Alexander’s tomb? Is Alexander the Great’s tomb somewhere below, like King Tut’s tomb before Howard Carter’s discovery? With well over one hundred attempts over the last century, archaeologists have been searching for Alexander. 

According to Arrian, Alexander could be buried at Siwah. Professor Ikram suggested that Alexander might be in Alexandria “possibly under the Elite Café or under the Baskin Robbins based on ancient geography.” 

Another researcher believes Alexander is buried in St. Mark’s in Venice. So, St. Mark is executed and buried in Alexandria. In the 800s AD, St. Mark’s corpse gets mistaken for Alexander and is brought by sea captains to Venice. Perhaps Alexander still creates myths. Wherever the tomb lies, its discovery would be an archaeological Holy Grail.  

Alexander and the Hellenic League constituted one of the wildest rides in history — to be debated in many ways and perhaps forever. We can know him as we know ourselves, at a distance. It seems that people with colossal ambitions and achievements have multiple masks and paradoxical personalities — and sometimes a huge shadow. Alexander wanted to see and conquer more than anyone, to be the Goat (Greatest of All Time), and to live on the lips of others. Toward the end of The Campaigns of Alexander, Arrian writes:

He had great personal beauty, invincible power of endurance, and a keen intellect; he was brave and adventurous, strict in the observation of his religious duties, and hungry for fame.


Partial bust of Alexander. Sushuti, Pixabay


About Me

Teaching myth inspired me to write this essay. I wanted to show students that myth was a big part of Alexander’s life and, in different ways, also makes us who we are. Alexander is both real and mythic – and sometimes the two aspects are seamlessly blended. Once I dived into the material, I realized that one needs facts and history and myth (and much more) to understand Alexander. Myth leads to the real, and the real leads to myth.  

I wish to thank Professors Jean Alvares, Paul Cartledge, Kara Cooney, Salima Ikram, Frank Korn and Michael Scott for their brilliant reflections on Alexander the Great and related material; and thanks to Prof. Jean Alvares and Tracey Paradiso (the latter is a fellow writer in Cranford Writers Group) for their excellent, much-appreciated editing. Any mistakes of language or thought are clearly my own, of course. I wrote this essay during three weeks in March 2022, one week of which was spent (with Renah and our child Inanna) visiting Gettysburg, PA. For me, it was a meditation on war, courage and human folly and got me thinking about Pickett’s Charge as well as Alexander’s cavalry charges. The shock of the Russian Invasion of Ukraine also unfolded over this period and tragically continues.       

As a child, I saw programs and read about Alexander in National Geographic and in picture books. The dream of travel into far-off lands was powerful, and I was too young to consider the dark side. Years later, I had a terrific semester with New York University in Greece sponsored by the late Prof. Mitchell Leaska. During a break, I went off to Egypt. 

In 2021, I was nominated for a Pushcart Prize for my short story in Coneflower Café; and my collection of interviews, stories, images – Speaking of the Dead – was accepted for publication by Blydyn Square Books in New Jersey. In 2022 I was accepted for the NEH summer seminar, Ritual Arts in Hinduism and Buddhism at College of the Holy Cross. Renah, Inanna and I (with our editor Alice Almiron, PCCC graduate and Rutgers film student) made a film, “Covid, a Child’s View,” which received honorable mention from the London Short Film Festival. It will be shown in late April at the Cranford Film Festival in New Jersey. I have been a writer and teacher for a long while, the latter culminating in a Fulbright to teach at LMU Munich. This past year, I published stories, essays, interviews, and poetry in Popular Archaeology, Parabola Magazine, The Raven’s Perch, Dash Literary Journal, Paterson Literary Review, and Minerva Magazine. 

Cover Image, Top Left: Alexander Mosaic (detail), House of the FaunPompeii. Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons


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