Over the course of the rise and fall of western civilizations, there have been countless leaders, factions, regimes and empires. There are those who take to power like water, accomplishing great feats, while imposing their will over the lands and peoples under their control. Although there have been several impressive emperors over the millennia, few can boast of the conquests of Alexander the Great. Alexander was able to conquer vast territories in just four years between 334-330 B.C.E. His empire stretched from India to Greece, and mixed various cultures including Central Asian, Egyptian, Near Eastern and Indian Cultures. What can account for the remarkable successes of Alexander’s imperial expansion, in such a short amount of time? To answer this question, it must be approached with the understanding that the success of Alexander’s conquests, and subsequent empire are not for one reason alone; rather, his accomplishments are the culmination of several key factors, both internal and external.
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Alexander the Great’s conquests could not have been possible if it were not for the weakening of the Greek city-states following the Peloponnesian war. The Greek poleis were bankrupt and divided allowing for easy conquest by the Macedonians who had consolidated their fiefdoms into a powerful group. At the height of the Greek power, the Macedonians were considered a backward people and their territory was regarded as source of timber and pasture for sheep. After the Peloponnesian war, however, Phillip II consolidated power into a centralized Mesopotamian monarchy, although the state consisted of semi-autonomous clans. (Carney and Ogden 4). In 259 B.C.E., Phillip took over a weak monarch with an undisciplined and ineffective army (Carney and Ogden 8). In just a few years he developed this army into one of the most disciplined and fearsome fighting forces. Phillip set out to conquer and subdue the territories surrounding Macedonia including most of Greece. These early conquests set the stage for Alexander’s later conquests of vast regions of land and peoples (Matthews 17). Phillip in his own right was an accomplished politician who used warfare, threats, and bribery to secure and expand the Macedonian Kingdom. It can easily be concluded that Phillip’s great determination and insight cleared the path Alexander would take to greatness.
Alexander’s initial conquests were directly related to his father’s unfinished plans to invade Persia. Alexander’s first conquests were primarily won in the Balkan and Greek territories, allowing him to consolidate power at home (Matthews 26). Utilizing Philip II’s grand scheme to conquer Persia, and the lands leading to it, Alexander crossed into Asia Minor with 30,000 to 50,000 troops in 334 B.C.E. Alexander’s forces excelled in the use of speed and surprise, easily winning Alexander his first major battle at Granicus using these tactics. Success at Granicus allowed Alexander to easily assert power throughout the western half of Asia Minor (Freeman 26). He followed this victory with the siege of Sardis city, an important center of trade and commerce in Asia Minor at the time. Following the successful conquest of Asia Minor, Alexander turned his attention to Syria. At the battle of Issus against King Darius III of Persia, Alexander outflanked the Persian king using his cavalry, securing a Macedonian victory. Again, Alexander’s astute military tactics proved far superior to his opponents’, as is evidenced in their defeat in later campaigns.
If it were not for Alexander’s innate ability to identify and capitalize opponents’ weaknesses, he would not have been so successful. Alexander’s creativity and governmental aptitude allowed him to fully take advantage of the widespread political instability across the territories he conquered. From Greece to Egypt, the nations conquered by Alexander were experiencing some level of political instability (Freeman 26). His ability to maintain his grip over these conquered territories relied on a system of adoption and assimilation. Rather than entirely dismantling the existing bureaucracy of a conquered nation, he instead decided to integrate these administrative systems with his own Greek ideals. Unlike other unsuccessful rulers, Alexander did not attempt to impose his religious, academic and social ideas on the conquered societies (Bowman 21). He rarely interfered with the conquered nations if they did not interfere with his supply lines. Access to the field of operation was important as it enabled him to keep his troops well equipped and fed. However, Alexander was also known for being ruthless and vicious against his opposition.
Alexander’s competency as a political leader was also essential to the conquest of a vast empire. Alexander had also taken the coastal Mediterranean cities and the Levant following the battle of Issus (Bowman 22). He used these cities to accumulate the wealth that he used to fund his army and build a navy that he hoped to use in the conquest of Egypt. The sieges of Gaza and Tyre were won easily as the ruler had superior resources to his opponents. In Egypt, Alexander’s political prowess easily convinced the population to accept his rule. Egypt had a new Pharaoh, one that would provide the much-needed leadership in the region. (Bowman 22).
In Egypt, Alexander used his political acumen to advance his military goals. The Egyptians considered Alexander to be a son of the Egyptian Patheon and was an exalted figure in the Egyptian nation (Bowman 22). He also founded the politically strategic city of Alexandria on the Mediterranean coast. Alexandria signified the infusion of western and Egyptian trade and culture into one (Bowman 23). The political tactics in Egypt clearly shows that Alexander was a strategic mastermind who sought to integrate his empire culturally and through trade .
Alexander’s superior military tactics were a major factor in his successes, but especially so against the Achaemenids. At the battle of Gaugamela, the Achaemenids had the chance to defeat Alexander, and his army (Wilcken and Borza 60). Alexander, realizing he must scatter his opponents, orders and executes a bold maneuver. Utilizing a wedge-shaped attack, Alexander tore through Darius’s center, causing disarray among Darius’ forces and forcing them to retreat. Success at this battle set the stage for the fall of Mesopotamia beginning with the Great city of Babylon. Alexander swept into Babylon without a fight. Again, Alexander made the strategic decision to convert Babylon into his capital; he rightly thought Babylon would closely unite the Greek and the Near Eastern worlds (Wilcken and Borza 60). Alexander closely followed by conquering Susa, Persia’s old capital and Persepolis, the ceremonial capital of Persia.
Alexander would also defeat the Persians at the battle of the Persian Gates, a strategic crossing vital to the growth of his sprawling empire. The defeat of the Persians led to an internal revolt that led to the assassination of Darius III by one of his generals (Wilcken and Borza 64). However, the Persians continued a guerilla uprising against Alexander with skirmishes arising in parts of the kingdom. After several victories, and with Persia secured, Alexander made his way into Central Asia. On his way he founded many new cities including Kandhar in Afghanistan (Roy 26). His armies would make their way to present day Tajiksitan and almost reach Tibet. At its height, Alexander’s Empire was so vast that he’d conquered as far East as India.
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Alexander also proved he was as courageous as he was skilled in military tactics. In the battles for the conquest of Central Asia and India, Alexander’s army first encountered war elephants (Roy 29). These beasts of war caused fear and panic among his men, but Alexander’s fearlessness bolstered their courage, enabling them to overcome their fears and face any opponent without fear. Alexander ensured that his men were brave and courageous and did not panic against great odds in battle; he held himself to the same standard of his men as well. However, Alexander’s continual conquests over vast territories in such a short amount of time would eventually lead to his men becoming exhausted, fatigued, and ready for the return home. Eventually, Alexander was forced to pull back his forces and retreated as far as Babylon (Roy 30). By the time his campaign had finished, Alexander had established the greatest Empire of all time: it covered almost all of Europe and vast swathes of the Asian continent.
Alexander integrated the Achaemenid kingdom into his own instead of dismantling it or burning it to the ground; a path usually taken by past conquerors (Bose 12). Before the conquest by Alexander, the Achaemenid Empire was a vast and cohesive empire with an extensive trade network serviced by well-maintained roads. The success of their empire was based on their tolerant policies which Alexander adopted throughout his empire. To further integrate the Achaemenid kingdom into his own he married into the Persian royal family and eventually clothed himself in Achaemenid royal regalia. He also appointed Babylon as the capital of his empire as it was a prominent capital and center of the Achaemenid Empire (Bose 26). By settling in Babylon, Alexander was able to take advantage of trade and commerce which bound the conquered regions together.
Alexander died before he could achieve his dreams of an empire that comprised of all of Asia and Europe. However, Alexander’s ideals of integration and assimilation enabled him hold on to this vast kingdom where may others had failed (Bose 18). His ideas and practices lived on and many of his general settled in the conquered lands after his death. Greek populations also migrated into the near east during his reign and after his death. The new integration of previously separate societies led to a boom in trade and facilitated the rise of new scientific knowledge in physics, astronomy, and mathematics (Bose 72). Therefore, Alexander’s great conquests can be attributed to his governmental shrewdness, allowing his ideas to continue to thrive many years after the decline of his vast empire.
Alexander the Great’s conquests were enabled by many factors that influenced his rise to become one of history’s greatest conquerors. His path was initially paved by his father’s plan to conquer Asia. Phillip had developed his Macedonian army into a disciplined and fearsome fighting force, conquering the territories surrounding Macedonia, which Alexander was able to use to his advantage. Alexander’s men were also well trained in fighting tactics and well-motivated. Additionally, Alexander’s military tactics proved too superior for his opponents in multiple instances. Alexander proved on multiple occasions that he was as courageous as he was skilled in military tactics. Alexander also took advantage of widespread political instability across the territories he conquered, proving to be one of his best philosophies to rule by. Moreover, Alexander’s competency as a political leader was also essential in the conquest of the vast empire. He not only had the savvy to plan and execute such a massive conquest but was able to do so while maintaining order and stability over large swaths of land. Alexander skillfully used his political acumen to advance his military goals, developing an empire to be admired for centuries to come.
- Bose, Partha Sarathi. Alexander the Great’s Art of Strategy: Lessons from the Great Empire Builder. London: Profile. 2004.
- Bowman, Alan K. Egypt after the Pharaohs: 332 BC-AD 642; from Alexander to the Arab Conquest. Paperback printing. Berkeley, Calif.: Univ. of California Press. 1996.
- Carney, Elizabeth and Daniel Ogden. Philip II and Alexander the Great: Father and Son, Lives and Afterlives. Oxford University Press, 2010.
- Freeman, Philip. “Alexander the Great.” New York: Simon & Schuster. 2011
- Matthews, Rupert. Alexander the Great at the Battle of Granicus. Stroud: Spellmount. 2008.
- Roy, Kaushik. India’s Historic Battles: From Alexander the Great to Kargil. Delhi: Bangalore: Permanent Black; Distributed by Orient Longman. 2004.
- Wilcken, Ulrich, and Eugene N. Borza. “Alexander the Great.” Norton Library. New York: Norton. 1967.
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