Alexander the Great: A 13-Year Emperor With an Eternal Legacy

Alexander the Great established an empire that stretched from Greece to what is now northwest India.

Alexander the Great (356-323 BC), one of history’s most successful conquerors, ruled over ancient Macedonia for 13 years. Alexander was a Greek king, explorer, and general. From the time of his first victory at the age of 18, he always moved his soldiers quickly into battle before the enemy lines were ready. He never lost a battle throughout his career. During his 13 years as King of Macedonia, Alexander the Great established an empire that stretched from Greece to what is now northwest India.

Alexander, King of Macedon

Detail of Charles Le Brun's painting "Alexander and Porus" depicting Alexander the Great; it is located at the Louvre in Paris, France.
Detail of Charles Le Brun’s painting “Alexander and Porus” depicting Alexander the Great; it is located at the Louvre in Paris, France.

Alexander became King in 336 BC following the assassination of his father, Philip II, and was educated by the scholar Aristotle. In 336 BC, after crushing multiple uprisings, Alexander launched a massive invasion into Persian territory. Alexander started with repeated wins, eventually taking over almost the whole Persian Empire. Following his victories at Babylon, Susa, and Persepolis, Alexander set his sights on India next. He went as far as the foothills of the Himalayas, after which he returned to Babylon to rule over his conquests. The cultural legacy that his dominion spread to the East, however, did outlive him.

In general, knowledge of ancient Macedonia’s past is poor. During the Neolithic Era, several migratory peoples made their way there (c. 6200 BC). After 3000 BC, the mountainous areas between Mount Olympus and Mount Pindus were settled by people who spoke Greek. It was amid the fertile alluvial plains of Haliacmon and Axios that Perdiccas I of Macedon founded his empire in the 7th century BC. Philip II led his nation to new heights of success and growth in the 4th century BC. In 338 BC, he achieved victory against the Greeks and united Greece and Macedonia into a single kingdom.

The empire of Alexander the Great.
The empire of Alexander the Great. (Credit: W. Commons, Generic Mapping Tools)

Alexander, the son of Philip II and Olympias, the Princess of Epirus, became King of Macedonia at the age of 18 (336 BC) after his father’s assassination. He was a student of Aristotle, who provided him with a rigorous education that helped cultivate his intrepidity, bravery, and innate disposition for battle. His whole upbringing had been shaken by tales of Hercules and Achilles, mythical forebears of the Macedonian throne. He had already made his mark in his father’s army as a young man, showing great skill in battle. Because of his magnetic charisma, Alexander was unrivaled in his ability to inspire his troops to victory in the face of adversity. Not only did the young prince learn to ride very well (his horse’s name was Bucephalus), but he also helped his father in the Battle of Chaeronea in 338 BC, where he gained invaluable experience in the art of combat.

Alexander the Great and his horse Bucephalus by Domenico Maria Canuti (1645-1684).
Alexander the Great and his horse Bucephalus by Domenico Maria Canuti (1645-1684).

Philip II of Macedon, who had recently conquered the Greek towns, was just getting ready to attack the Persian Empire when he passed away. Although Alexander was determined to carry out his father’s plan, he postponed it while he put down a rebellion in his nation. It had been 150 years since the Persians had made another effort to conquer Greek land. Since then, the Persian Empire’s decline continued unabated. However, King Darius III was able to raise significant troops in all four corners of his immense realm, from the Mediterranean to the Indus. His riches greatly surpassed that of Alexander.

This massive size, though, may end up being a hindrance. It took weeks for the messages to travel throughout the Persian Empire and months for the warriors to assemble into their regiments. Although they outnumbered their enemies, the Persian army was so disorganized and disparate that it was difficult to keep them under control. Conversely, the legendary Macedonian phalanx, although well-equipped and over-trained, demonstrated mobility and brittleness when faced with military tactics. Unlike his contemporary Darius, who was weak and unimaginative, Alexander was a strong and inspiring leader.

At the meeting of the Greek states held in Corinth (the League of Corinth) at the end of the summer of 336 BC, Alexander established his position in Greece and obtained the leadership of the Greek armies. So the new king of Macedon handed over the regency to his mom, Olympias. In 335 BC, Alexander launched a great military effort on the outskirts of the Danube to suppress a revolt by the Thracians. Upon its return to Macedonia, he swiftly crushed the rebellious Illyrians and Dardanians at the Lake of Prespa and then made a beeline for the insurgent city of Thebes. He subjugated approximately 30,000 people to slavery and demolished the city, saving only the shrines to the gods and the house of the poet Pindar. Now that he was unburdened, Alexander was able to focus his attention eastward.

The Conquest of Persia

alexander the great gordian knot
Alexander cuts the Gordian Knot, painting date 1767.

After Alexander handed over power in Macedonia to one of his generals, Antipater, in the spring of 334 BC, he embarked on a military campaign against the Persian Empire, marking the beginning of a new “Iliad,” that of an aficionado of Homer. He led 35,000 warriors over the Hellespont (the present-day Dardanelles), accompanied by his top generals, Antigonus, Ptolemy, and Seleucus. According to legend, he fought 40,000 Persians on the banks of the Granicus near ancient Troy, losing just 110 men in the process. The myth claims that at that point Alexander failed to untie the mythical Gordian Knot during his walk in Phrygia. He then sliced it with his sword. He afterwards ruled over Asian nations all the way in Afghanistan to the east.

After his first major victory at the Battle of the Granicus in 334 BC, Alexander, at the age of 22, conquered Asia Minor and freed the Greek towns on the coast from Persian rule. But his fleet didn’t let him gamble on a naval battle since the Persians could turn the tables in a maritime battle at any moment. Refusing to make a further incursion inside, Alexander instead crossed Syria and traveled down the Mediterranean Coast to Phoenicia, where the Persian fleet was based. Along the way, he defeated Darius’s Persian army in the Battle of Issus (333 BC).

After then, the Persians offered Alexander little opposition. In return for their submission, these towns and regions saw this skilled leader as kind, since he promised not to increase taxes and kept his warriors from putting them into slavery. The strategy worked, as several towns capitulated rather than suffer devastation and looting. However, some cities, like Tyre, the largest Phoenician harbor, stubbornly held out. The Greek and Macedonian forces besieged the city for eight months before finally taking it. The city’s remaining inhabitants were then forced into slavery.

With the security of this key port in his grasp, Alexander turned his attention to Egypt, which for two centuries had been under the rule of the Persians. Memphis, the ancient capital, greeted him as a liberator and anointed him king. After establishing the city of Alexandria in the Nile Delta, Alexander the Great traveled to the oasis of Siwa in the desert, where he planned to see the oracle of Amon and learn that he was indeed the son of the Greek god Zeus, not Philip. Alexander’s fame became so large that even he started to see himself as a god.

Alexander the Great in the East

Francesco Fontebasso (1709-69), defeated Porus at the Battle of Hydaspes in 326.
Francesco Fontebasso (1709-69), defeated Porus at the Battle of Hydaspes in 326. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Alexander the Great left Egypt in October 331 BC to launch an assault on the core of the Persian Empire. Darius III suffered a second defeat at the Battle of Gaugamela, although his army outnumbered Alexander’s Macedonian army by a factor of six to one. Alexander took control of the Persian capitals of Babylon, Susa, and Persepolis, the last of which he burned as a symbol. Darius departed, having lost all hope. He died soon after being killed by relatives.

The Greek-Macedonian army continued their voyage in Central Asia for three years, finishing the conquest of the Persian Empire, which vanished forever in 327 BC. Then, Alexander headed in the direction of northern India. When Alexander reached the Himalayan foothills, he fought and won a decisive battle on the Hydaspes River (north of current Pakistan) in the Battle of the Hydaspes against the King Porus.

His weary army, on the brink of a coup, asked him to turn around. Although he would have happily pushed on to the east forever, Alexander conceded and turned back. With his army in tow, he followed the Indus to the Gulf of Oman and then began the arduous trek over the Gedrosian Desert (in Iran). In 324 BC, he was back in Babylon, his new capital.

"Alexander Entering Babylon" by Gérard Audran (1640-1703).
“Alexander Entering Babylon” by Gérard Audran (1640-1703).

In June 323 BC, at the young age of 32, Alexander the Great died abruptly in Babylon, most likely as a result of his alcoholism. He had been preparing for further conquests in the Persian Gulf and the East. He had become a dictator after concluding that he was a god. Due to his failure to establish a strong central administration, his kingdom soon disintegrated into chaos.

The descendants of Alexander were quickly eliminated while still infants. Alexander’s generals, to whom he had committed the administration of the conquered provinces, fought amongst themselves in a series of conflicts, eventually dividing the territory between them to form separate sovereign kingdoms. Only Ptolemy in Egypt (the Ptolemaic Kingdom, founded 305 BC) and Seleucus in Persia (the Seleucid Empire, founded 312 BC) established long-lasting dynasties.

Alexander the Great’s lasting impact

Alexander the Great had conquered much of Asia, including the Indus Valley, and brought with him the culture of the Greeks. Greeks flocked by the tens of thousands to the new towns built in the conquered lands, many of which were named after Alexander. Alexander’s conquests encouraged economic transactions and the movement of individuals and ideas, both of which contributed to the spread of Greek culture and language among the people he conquered.

This time of dominance in the Mediterranean and Near East is known as the Hellenistic period. Stunning metropolises like Alexandria, Pergamon, and Seleucia supplanted Athens as the cultural capitals of the Hellenic world. Arts and sciences thrived, and scientists, mathematicians, and astronomers like Archimedes, Euclid, and Eratosthenes helped to define the era. However, only the upper classes were exposed to Greek culture, with the masses sticking to their traditions.

alexander the great

Due to Rome’s rise to dominance, the Hellenic World inevitably declined. Midway through the 2nd century BC, the kingdoms of Greece and Macedonia submitted. For them, the fall of the Seleucid and Ptolemaic dynasties in 64 and 30 BC was decisive. The Greek civilization, particularly in architecture, science, literature, and mythology, was much respected by the Romans, who seamlessly assimilated the legacy of Alexander. The Bible and the Quran both refer to his deeds.

Alexander served as an example for countless conquerors throughout history. Even today, aspiring military strategists research the illustrious wars of Alexander the Great, who, with a small army of a few thousand men, successfully extended the recognized frontiers of his era.

Frequently asked questions regarding Alexander the Great

Which philosopher has often been credited for training Alexander the Great?

The Greek philosopher Aristotle got young Alexander interested in science, medicine, and philosophy. He also taught him a lot about rhetoric and literature.

Which empire did Alexander the Great conquer?

Persepolis served as the primary capital of the Persian Empire, which was established by Cyrus the Great in the 6th century BC. After Alexander the Great beat Darius III in the Battle of Issus in 330 BC, he took over the Persian Empire.

How did Alexander the Great die?

In the spring of 323 BC, Alexander the Great returned to Babylon after a campaign that had taken him to the Indus River’s borders. The sickness he had in June ultimately proved fatal. His mysterious absence left his huge empire in shambles, with his top generals fought amongst themselves for control.


  1. Bill Yenne, (2010), Alexander the Great: Lessons from History’s Undefeated General.
  2. David George Hogarth, (1897), Philip and Alexander of Macedon: Two Essays in Biography.
  3. Peter Green, (2007), Alexander the Great and the Hellenistic Age.

By Hrothsige Frithowulf

Hrothsige works at Malevus as a history writer. His areas of historical interest include the ancient world and early Europe, as well as the history of modern culture.