Perhaps no secular figure in history has a legacy to rival that of Alexander the Great. The esteemed conqueror of the Persian Empire who subdued the known world and won every battle he fought has achieved lasting fame that only the supposed prophets and sons of gods seem to rival. But why does Alexander have the legacy that he does? What makes him ‘the Great’ more than any other historical figure?
To answer that, we have to look not just at the man himself, but how his story came down to us and why it still resonates today. In doing so, we’ll have to face the most basic question of all: why do we even study history in the first place?
Alexander the Great, or Alexander III of Macedon, was born in 355 BCE. After being raised under the tutelage of Aristotle, he assumed power in 336 BCE after his father’s assassination, which Alexander may or may not have been involved with. His first act was to suppress rebellion against his rule in Greece, culminating in the burning of the Greek city of Thebes before he set his sights on the massive Persian empire.
The campaign against the Persian Empire was long and contained some of the most legendary battles in the ancient world: the Granicus, Issus, and ultimately Gaugamela. Included in his conquests was Egypt where he laid the foundations for the most famous of his many cities: Alexandria. The Persian king Darius III survived Alexander’s soldiers but was eventually betrayed and murdered by his own forces. Alexander then entered the capital at Persepolis and burned it to the ground.
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Alexander set up his own capital in Babylon. He continued to suppress revolts in Bactria and Sogdiana and from other Persian nobles. He also mounted a campaign into India, fighting a major battle at the Hydaspes against King Porus, before his men finally stopped at the Hyphasis River and refused to go further. After nearly 10 years of constant campaigning, it’s hard to blame them. Alexander was furious but returned to Babylon, having reached the furthest limits of his conquest.
By the time he was 32, Alexander had overcome incredible odds and built the largest empire the world had yet seen. His deeds alone are an obvious reason why we consider him to be ‘the Great’, but there is more to Alexander’s legacy than his ability to expand borders on a map.
Alexander the God
Alexander’s incredible conquests seemed nothing short of divine. The notion of Alexander’s divinity played an important part in his personal ideology and legacy, but it is difficult to determine where it first emerged.
One source was his mother Olympias. She’d allegedly claimed that Zeus was Alexander’s true father from a young age and on the night of his conception, she had a vision of a lightning strike starting a roaring fire that burned itself out as quickly as it appeared. Modern audiences are understandably skeptical of the claim that the Lord of Olympus was Alexander’s true father, but the belief certainly existed during Alexander’s lifetime.
In one famous anecdote of his life, Alexander traveled to the Oracle of Amun – equated to the Greek Zeus – at the Siwa Oasis in Egypt. Supposedly birds flew out to guide Alexander’s trek and rain fell in abundance in the middle of the desert, allowing him to reach the oracle where he was hailed as the son of Zeus-Amun.
Alexander was a proponent of his own divinity. Alexander’s coinage makes frequent references to his divine heritage and his links with other deities or heroes like Apollo, Heracles, and Achilles. In 327 BCE, he had some of his companions pay obeisance to him as if he were a living god. His official court historian, a man called Callisthenes, refused to do so and then miraculously found himself implicated in a conspiracy and either executed or imprisoned where he died of illness. It seems Alexander wasn’t just cultivating his special status, but actively persecuting those who denied it.
Death and Succession
By 323 BCE, Alexander was planning further campaigns into Arabia, North Africa, and possibly into mainland Europe. However, in June 323 BCE he fell ill and died a few days later. It might have been poison, malaria, meningitis, a form of cancer, or any number of other ailments. We’ll probably never know.
The empire was not ready for his death. There was no clear heir and soon the situation degenerated into a civil war. The story of the successor period is long and complicated, full of names and betrayal. Suffice to say, the empire ultimately split into separate Hellenistic kingdoms by 306 BCE, the most important being the Antigonids in Greece and Macedon founded by Demetrius Poliorcetes, the Seleucids in Asia under Seleucus, and Ptolemy’s Egypt.
Immediately after his death, Alexander’s legacy became a prize to be warred over. In the following years, all of the major successors would mint coins with Alexander’s iconography, casting themselves as his true heirs. Some like Cassander, who set up a short-lived kingdom in Macedonia, would marry one of Alexander’s sisters to try to establish a blood claim to him. Another successor Lysimachus claimed that he’d become Alexander’s favorite after beating a lion bare-handed and worked that into his propaganda. Ptolemy I took the nickname ‘Soter’ (savior) for supposedly saving Alexander’s life. Ptolemy also stole Alexander’s body and set it up in an elaborate tomb, now lost, in Alexandria, and claimed to be Alexander’s rightful successor by virtue of having the man’s body.
The greater Alexander was — and the stronger their connection to him — the greater his successors became by association. Whatever ‘greatness’ existed before his death, it was only amplified by the people who clambered over his legacy.
Inevitably, Alexander’s life attracted the attention of historians, but there is a remarkable caveat to this: none of the historians who wrote of Alexander during his life have survived.
We do know that such histories were written. Callisthenes, the ill-fated court historian, wrote of Alexander. Aristobulus, a military engineer who was close to Alexander, also wrote a history. The admiral Nearchus wrote an account of the eastern campaigns. Most notably of all, we know that Ptolemy wrote an extensive account that must have been among the first works entered into the Library of Alexandria.
The content of these works can only be inferred from later historians who use them as sources. From these later references, we can tell that the mythologizing and story-crafting around Alexander had already begun within a few years of his death. One anecdote that appeared in these sources described Alexander being visited by Thalestris, Queen of the mythical Amazon warriors, who wanted to conceive a new generation of elite warriors with him. Several historians repeated this story, but it was patently false: for example, we know that Ptolemy debunked it in his own history. One of these erroneous historians named Onesicritus included the story in a section of his history which he read out to one of the friends and successors of Alexander, Lysimachus, who jokingly asked “I wonder where I was at the time?”
These historians may be lost, but what little of them survives shows that Alexander was already subject to fantastical stories that affirmed his supposed greatness within the first few years of his death. By the time the historians that survived were writing, the myth of Alexander ‘the Great’ was already in full swing.
The Surviving Historians
There are five main ancient accounts that provide us with the story of Alexander. Quintus Curtius Rufus, a 1st century CE Roman military officer offers a serviceable history that offers practically nothing that the other sources don’t provide. The 1st century BCE Greek author Diodorus Siculus devoted several books of his Library of History to Alexander and his successors. Diodorus’ account of the successor period is the most complete one, although it has glaring gaps that still frustrate historians. The unfortunate runt of the historical litter is Justin. One scholar called him “a thorough bungler who does not deserve to be called a historian,” which might be too harsh, but my experience in these studies is that the only thing rarer than talking about Justin’s history of Alexander is reading it.
Then there’s Arrian. Arrian was a 2nd-century CE Greek who wrote two works: the Anabasis and the Indica. Most historians consider the Anabasis to be the most reliable account of Alexander’s conquests, while the Indica is the most detailed account of Alexander’s later Indian campaigns. Both works are informative and well-sourced, and most translations are quite readable for an ancient historian. He’s a favorite of historians because he talks through his sources and tells us where the discrepancies are between the writers that he relies on, which has allowed us to reconstruct these earlier lost sources.
All of these historians — certainly some more than others — have contributed to the ‘Greatness’ of Alexander. But there is one historian who deserves special attention for his role in crafting Alexander’s legacy.
That historian is Plutarch. Plutarch was a Greek priest of Delphi in the 2nd century CE and is one of the most prolific ancient writers to survive. As well as philosophical texts, he wrote over 40 biographies called the Parallel Lives, where he took a Roman and a Greek and set them beside each other while drawing out common life lessons from both examples. His Life of Alexander, alongside that of his Roman parallel, Julius Caesar, is a masterwork of historical biography.
Plutarch does not claim to be an historian, but rather a biographer. He’s not interested in battles and sieges and politics for their own sake. He’s interested in people. He likes thinking about what makes them tick, what makes them who they are, and what lessons and warnings people can get out of them. In the introduction to his Alexander biography, he tells us that often a joke at a dinner party or an episode while hunting can be more informative about a person than the grandest siege. He’s willing to skip over battles and sieges to devote time to things like childhood, appearance, and eating habits that help him build his portrait of his subject.
Plutarch’s writing is characterized by memorable asides and anecdotes that interrupt the text — the taming of the horse Bucephalus, the cutting of the Gordian knot, the meeting with the famous Cynic Diogenes, to take some examples for Alexander. All are famous tales of Alexander’s life, almost certainly fictional, yet more people are familiar with them than they are with, say, the Siege of Tyre or the Battle of Gaugamela. These anecdotes are myth-making through and through, designed to dramatize his life in ways that amplify themes and lessons rather than convey historical truth. They’re not so much about ‘Alexander’ as they are about ‘the Great.’
Plutarch’s goal is always to offer his biographies as educational tools. The virtues of its subjects are to be emulated, their vices to be avoided. His focus on individuals and their qualities gives character to the people he writes about and these characters resonate in a way that other ancient historians cannot capture. Take any of the figures that show up in Plutarch’s biographies — Alexander, Caesar, Marc Anthony, or Cleopatra as some examples — and pop culture’s impression of them is almost always Plutarch’s. It is Plutarch’s anecdotes that people remember and Plutarch’s characterizations that, for better or worse, shape the average person’s understanding of ancient history’s most famous figures.
The vast amount of Plutarch’s writing that survives, the easily consumable size of his biographies, and the characters that jump from the pages of his work have made him an enduring favorite for centuries. Through his work, Plutarch has carried Alexander’s ‘Greatness’ through the millennia, infused with the author’s unique brand of vivid characterization and story-telling.
A Lasting Legacy
Alexander’s achievements, the scrambling of his successors, and the survival of ancient histories created and propagated the ‘Greatness’ of Alexander. Successive generations absorbed, emulated, and expanded on this legend. In the medieval period, countless regional and cultural versions of the Alexander Romance purported to retell Alexander’s life, each injected with different elements that appealed to the creating cultures’ biases. Later historical figures from Julius Caesar (or so Plutarch’s biography of him claims) to Napoleon cited Alexander as an inspiration and an example.
We introduced the question earlier: why do we study history? Plutarch has a clear answer: to learn from those that came before.
Plutarch, perhaps more than any other ancient historian of Alexander, is conscious of the myth of Alexander that he’s engaging with. Plutarch openly acknowledges that stories such as his being guided through deserts by flocks of birds are absurd, but it doesn’t matter. The myth of Alexander was so much more important than the man, even in Plutarch’s time.
It’s true that Alexander wasn’t perfect. He failed to establish stability or succession in his empire and it crumbled into bickering kingdoms too quickly. He was wrathful, paranoid, and known to strike down his own friends. He burned great cities like Thebes and Persepolis, committing cultural vandalism that historians lament to this day. Not to mention he was a murderer, slaver, almost certainly a rapist, and a colossal megalomaniac. But removing the ‘Great’ from Alexander at this point is hopeless.
Modern historians like to see themselves as seekers of truth. However, Plutarch’s view that history is about people and the lessons we learn from them still holds currency, especially with the general public. Knowing the precise number of troops at Gaugamela, their commanders, positions, and maneuvers can be interesting, but it’s not where history’s value lies. To many, history’s value lies in the possibility of self-reflection, of aspiration, and rejection towards the people that came before.
One historian described Alexander as “a vessel into which any and all vintages can be poured.” Alexander the Great is a potential moral lesson on so many fronts: on arrogance, violence, indulgence, power, sexuality, tolerance, leadership, responsibility, honor, and more. Even if the stories used to teach these lessons can’t be verified, is it more valuable for someone to ponder Alexander’s treatment of the defiant Callisthenes or for them to strain to remember the number of Thracian cavalry at the Battle of the Granicus?
The purely historic Alexander is long gone from us and we’ll never get him back. All of the material we have is written in the context of centuries of myth-making around Alexander that had already begun immediately after his death. All we have now is ‘the Great’ that has emerged around him and become a cultural touchstone and a lesson for so many who came after.
Whether or not one agrees with Plutarch’s approach to Alexander or any of his biographies, this approach has resonated for almost 2,000 years. Every day far more people flick through the pages of his works than will ever read 99% of the modern scholarly literature about Alexander. The Alexander of popular culture is Plutarch’s Alexander who slices the Gordian knot, who tames untameable Bucephalus, who conquers to the edges of the world and slips out of it before his time, and who leaves the greatest men weeping in inadequacy at his feet. Alexander might be long dead, but his greatness still lives on.