Alexander the Great! His name still echoes in the corridors of time. Deified and vilified, his legend exists in nearly every language on earth and in the four major religions. We know he was born in Pella in 356 BC and succeeded his father Philip II to the throne at the age of twenty. Ten years later, he’d created one of the largest empires of the ancient world. He was undefeated in battle and is widely considered one of history’s most successful military commanders, and he died just before his 33rd birthday. But do we really know him?
Alexander the Great
1- Alexander played polo. Legend has it that when Alexander the Great was about to invade Persia in 334 BC, Persian King Darius III sent him a polo mallet and ball. Either he was inviting the Macedonian to a game or suggesting that he stick to games and avoid war. Whatever the intention, Alexander is said to have replied, “I am the stick and the ball is the Earth,” before going on to conquer Persia. But since polo had been around for at least a thousand years and Alexander was no stranger to Persia, he most likely saw polo games, and perhaps he even played the “sport of kings”.
By Arifi (d.1449) – The Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery of the Smithsonian Institution, Public Domain.
2- He may have been in a glass diving bell, his fleet was hit by a tidal wave, and he struck oil. Almost immediately after his death in 323 BC legends began to accumulate about his exploits and life which, over the centuries, became increasingly fantastic as well as allegorical. Collectively this tradition is called the Alexander Romance and some stories feature such episodes as Alexander ascending through the air to Paradise, journeying to the bottom of the sea in a glass bubble, and journeying through the Land of Darkness in search of the Fountain of Youth.
It’s possible that he saw, or was in, a glass diving bell. There are several accounts of him going to the “bottom of the sea” in a glass bell. Aristotle describes sponge divers using a diving bell in his Problematum as early as 360 B.C., so it is concievable that Alexander, who was curious to learn about everything, tried it himself.
As for the tidal wave, according to some accounts, the Macedonian fleet (of Alexander the Great) was anchored for some time in the Indus river delta. The fleet was damaged by a tsunami generated by an earthquake off the Makran Coast in 325 BC.
He could have found an oil well. In another story, supposedly taken from a letter to his mother, he speaks about a fountain of olive oil that sprang from the ground although there were no olive trees nearby! He also mentions trees that sing. Most likely the oil was mineral oil, but the singing tree was from too much wine…
Underwater diving of Alexander the Great, painted by Flemish illuminator Jehan de Grise, 14th century.
3. We know what he looked like: the Azara herm is a Roman copy of a bust of Alexander the Great that was almost certainly made by the Greek sculptor Lysippus. Thanks to its original antique inscription, this figure can be definitely identified as Alexander the Great, son of Philip II of Macedon. It’s in the Louvre in Paris. Now, since this is a Roman copy, it was made a few centuries after Alexander’s death, and because it was a copy, it’s most likely not as precise as the original. According to Plutarch (more about him later…) Alexander made Lysippus his “official” portrait artist. Now exhibited in the Louvre, this bust was unearthed in 1779 during an excavation at Tivoli organized by Joseph Nicolas Azara, the Spanish ambassador to France. Azara gave the sculpture to Napolean Bonaparte. For a time, this was the only known portrait of Alexander the Great. It is most likely the surviving portrait that looks the most like him.
Portrait of Alexander the Great. Pentelic marble, Attic copy of the 1st-2nd century AD after a Greek original
4- Plutarch’s writings about Alexander are mostly fiction. Plutarch wrote a whole book about Alexander, but he had some major faults. He lived 400 years after Alexander, and by that time, even contemporary writings were scarce. He was Greek – and the Greeks would always see Alexander as an upstart barbarian. He starts off his book by saying he’s not writing “history”, but rather “a life story”, because, as he goes on to explain, it’s better to get to know a guy from his jokes than from the endless battles he’s fought and won. He pretends to glorify Alexander beyond reason, saying things like, “On his father’s side, he was descended from Hercules.” However, since Alexander had claimed the title of “son of Zeus-Amun”, this was definitely taking him down a peg. He he has some fascinating tidbits of information, such as the battle of Gaugamela was fought during an eclipse, and that Alexander spent the night before in his tent with his diviner Aristander, performing certain mysterious ceremonies and sacrificing to the god, Fear.
5. Alexander’s favorite weapon was the phalanx. The phalanx was developed by Alexander’s father, Philip, and was a formidable fighting machine. No other army had such thing. It was uniquly Macedonian. According to Arrian’s Anabasis, “Alexander drew up his army in such a way that the depth of the phalanx was 120 men ; and […] he ordered them to preserve silence, in order to receive the word of command quickly.” The spears were 5 meters long (18 feet!) and made of sharpened wood or metal-tipped wood. Interestingly, Polyaenus (in Stratagemata) says that Alexander spitefully armed his men who had previously fled the battlefield with the so-called hemithorakion – a half armor system that only covered the front part of the body. This punitive experiment made sure that the soldiers wouldn’t turn their backs on the enemy. But, the soldiers in a phalanx would not require much armor, since coordinated, fast movement was what made the phalanx so effective. So Polyaenus was probably exagerating somewhat. In fact, the soldiers were lightly armored with only helmets (kranos), light shields (pelte), greaves (knemides) and a long pike (sarissa). I think the shields were more like leather plastrons, and I have a feeling most of the men fought naked (despite the drawing below of the men wearing cheerleading skirts).
6 – The funeral pyre for his friend, Hephaestion, was astounding. When Hephaestion died, Alexander went into a frenzy of mourning. He wrote to the Oracle of Siwa and asked if Hephaestion should be honored as a god or a hero. The Oracle replied that he should be honored as a hero, and so Alexander went all out for a mausoleum/funeral pyre that would knock the socks off everyone. He settled on a simple monument. According to Diodorus, it was: “seven stories high […] The first story had 240 ships painted gold with red flags flowing in between. In the second one the columns resembled flaming torches surround by golden wreaths, serpents and eagles. Above mounted a hunting scene, towered by a battle of centaurs and mythological creatures. The fifth story was a golden jungle of lions, bulls and elephants, shining like planets in the dawning light. The next tier presented the arms of Macedon and Persian, while the seventh level bore sculptures of sirens with a hollow interior where women would chant in lament. On top of it all rose the sarcophagus of Hephaestion.” It was so huge that Aleander had to break down one of the walls of Babylon to get it into the city. Then he set it on fire, and it must have made life absolutely miserable for everyone as it smoked and smoldered. He plundered the treasories of all his cities to pay for the monstrosity, and it has been estimated to have cost the modern equivalent of two billion dollars! It was most likely the most expensive funeral in history.
7 – He’s associated with a prophecy about the end of the world. The Caspian Gates was the narrow region at the southeast corner of the Caspian Sea, through which Alexander actually marched in the pursuit of Bessus, although he did not stop to fortify it. Somehow, the Caspian Gates, Alexander the Great, the Caucasus Mountains, and the tale of Gog and Magog became mixed up in a fanciful romance of Alexander dating from the 6th century AD.
The tale of Gog and Magog is Biblical in origins with elements in Jewish, Christian and Islamic traditions. They will supposedly appear at the end of time to destroy humanity. Revelation 20:7-8: “… And when the thousand years are finished, Satan shall be loosed from his prison, and shall go out to seduce the nations which are in the four corners of the earth, Gog and Magog, and shall draw them to battle, whose number is as the sand of the sea…”
According to the legend, Alexander the Great, while conquering the world, came to the Caucasus Mountains where Prometheus the Titan had been chained long before. Here, the Macedonians discovered the evil hordes of Gog and Magog laying waste to the peaceable tribes around them. The country of these wicked raiders lay beyond two great mountains named Ubera Aquilonias, the Breasts of the North. Alexander forged gates of iron and brass to seal the narrow way. These Caspian Gates were further strengthened with a magic metal called asiceton, which was proof against fire and steel; steel shattered upon asiceton, and whatever fires which touched it were instantaneously quenched. And further, Alexander built a mighty wall spanning the entire Caucasus range, closing off the civilized south from the forces of darkness. This wall became known as the Alexander wall. But at the end of time, the gates will open and the wall will break down, and Gog and Magog will burst forth to destroy the world.
Alexander building the Caspian Wall (from a Persian manuscript)
Some further reading:
A Passion for Polo. The American museum of Natural History. https://www.amnh.org/exhibitions/horse/how-we-shaped-horses-how-horses-shaped-us/wealth-and-status/a-passion-for-polo/
Alexander the Great – Imact of the 325 BC Tsunami in the North Arabian Sea upon his fleet, George Pararas-Carayannis. Copyright © 2006. All Rights Reserved.
The Anabasis of Alexander or, The History of the Wars and Conquests of Alexander the Great, Arrian of Nicomedia, Translator: E. J. Chinnock. Project Gutenberg [EBook #46976]
Library of History, Book XVII, (Funeral for Hephaestion: Sections 114 – 115) Diodorus Siculus, Vol. VIII
of the Loeb Classical Library edition, 1963
Some Passages in Polyaenus Stratagems concerning Alexander, N. G. L. Hammond. (N.b.: Polyaenus or Polyenus was a 2nd-century Macedonian author, known best for his Stratagems in War, which has been preserved.)
A Discourse Composed by Mar Jacob upon Alexander, the Believing King, and upon the Gate which he made against Gog and Magog,” E. A. W. Budge (translator), ed. (1889). “, in The History of Alexander the Great Being, the Syriac Version of the Pseudo-Callisthenes (in Syriac).