Alexander the Great lived a short life even by the standards of his time. The former king of Macedonia died mysteriously at the age of 32, although by then he had already conquered and patched up much of the civilized world. He was among the greatest generals the world has ever seen – but beyond that, Alexander’s story is often based on legend, with stars such as Richard Burton and Colin Farrell portraying the leader of the silver screen. Yet the truth presents a much more nuanced view of what made Alexander so great.
Born in 356 BC in Pella, Macedonia, an ancient city located in present-day Greece, Alexander was exposed to the teachings of Aristotle throughout his childhood. According to a 2021 paper published in Advances in the Social Sciences, his father, Philip II, hired the famous tutor when Alexander was 13 to teach him ethics, politics, and debate. “During this period, Alexander received a significant theoretical foundation for his later conquest of the world,” the study’s author wrote.
At 20 years old, after Alexander’s father is killed, he immediately took over as king. Already a military victor with many battles behind him, the newly crowned monarch moved on – rallying rebellious Greek city-states such as Thessaly and Athens that had fallen out of control. He then set out to finish what his father had started: a war against Persia. According to an article published in Bulletin of the Institute of Classical Studies, Alexander used propaganda to sell the war to the ancient Greeks, advertising “the war of the continental Greeks as a campaign of revenge …. to avenge the wrongs done in the Persian Wars 150 years ago.”
With Greek support, he set out to overtake the great Achaemenid Empire, a nearly 200-year-old civilization founded by Cyrus the Great in modern-day Iran. By 330 BC, Alexander succeeded in bringing its king, Darius III, to his knees. According to Alexander’s Conquest“After defeating Darius III at the Battle of Gaugamela, Alexander proclaimed himself king of Asia, claiming the right to rule the Persian Empire.”
Building an empire
Among Alexander the Great’s most famous achievements is the founding of the city that bears his name. Alexandria, founded around 332 BC, was among the most complex cities in the ancient world. An important seaport and center of Greek culture, it contained numerous Greek statues erected during Alexander’s reign. Fifty years later, one of the Seven Ancient Wonders of the World, The Alexandrian Lighthousewas built there.
By the age of 26, with much of the Mediterranean and Persia under his rule, he set his sights on the Indian subcontinent. His army won several brutal victories; but they too were tired after years of campaigning and rebelled as a result in the ancient Babylonian city of Opis. “All sources agree that the rebellion was sparked by Alexander’s announcement that he would send home the old, weak, and infirm soldiers. [This angered] all rebel troops who asked to be sent home,” wrote the author of an article published in Social Science Research Network.
Alexander would eventually turn home—though he never completed the journey. The king died on the way to Macedonia from a mysterious illness. At the time of his death, he was known for his charisma and ability to motivate troops in battle. But he was also known for his brutality and desire to win at any cost.
Alexander’s cause of death is largely a mystery. We know that he fell ill and died in Babylon, an ancient city near modern Baghdad; and to this day scientists debate the cause. It is unclear whether he was a victim of malaria, typhoid, poisoning or some other cause.
A 2018 article published in Ancient History Bulletin speculated that it could be Guillain-Barré syndrome, a condition that causes paralysis and may be the result of a bacterial infection. Researcher Catherine Hall says this could explain why his body took so long to decompose. In fact, she says, he wasn’t dead at all, just paralyzed: “His death may be the most famous case of pseudothanatos, or false diagnosis of death, ever recorded,” she writes.
After he actually died, his empire almost immediately hesitated and was divided among his senior generals. Without Alexander’s leadership, it had no chance. While we may never know for sure how the great warlord fell, in the short time he ruled, his victories and the empire he built will forever be looked upon by historians.