Alexander the Great is unquestionably one of the greatest warlords of all time. In 12 short years he marched his army to victory after victory across Europe, Asia, Africa and the Middle East, conquering every civilization he could reach, before dying at the age of 32. After his generals divided Alexander's empire amongst themselves, they were soon busy waging war against one another for more pieces of an ever-dwindling pie.
Alexander III of Macedon was born in 356 BCE to King Philip II, an extremely successful leader who had restored his kingdom from the verge of extinction. Philip led his people to triumph by conquering Athens, Illyria, and Thrace—the three powers who, a few short years before, had been on the verge of conquering Macedon. As the son of the most powerful monarch in the “civilized” world, Alexander got the best of everything, including education. The scholar Aristotle, one of the Hellenistic period's greatest philosophers, was hired as a tutor for the young prince.
Taught by his mother Olympias that he was descended from Hercules and Achilles, Alexander did not lack self-confidence, which is the polite way of saying his ego was bigger than the empire he would one day conquer. When Philip left him in charge of Macedon while he was away attacking Byzantion, a 14-year-old Alexander kept busy by crushing a Thracian rebellion, founding Alexandropolis, and settling it with Greeks—not the last time Alexander would name new cities after himself. Two years later he commanded the left wing of his father’s army during the battle at Chaeronea, in which Philip’s forces defeated the allied Greek states and subdued all of Greece.
The next year Alexander’s good fortune seemed to desert him. King Philip divorced Alexander’s mother and married Cleopatra Eurydice, leaving his ex-wife and son to flee Macedon. While Olympias sought refuge with her brother the king of Epirus, Alexander went into hiding in Illyria. Though father and son later reconciled, Alexander’s position as Philip’s heir was in grave jeopardy if Philip could produce another son.
Following the conquest of Greece and the Balkans, King Philip raised an army to invade and conquer Persia. But in 336 BCE Philip was assassinated by the captain of his own bodyguard, Pausanias, while attending his daughter’s wedding. (Alexander’s mother, Olympias—or indeed Alexander himself—may have been behind the assassination, but as Pausanias conveniently died during the murder, there was no actual proof.) In 336 BCE, at the age of 20, Alexander was proclaimed king by the Macedonian army and nobility.
The young king celebrated his victory by murdering all potential rivals to the throne, then resumed planning his father’s invasion of Persia. Although he was briefly distracted until 334 BCE with several revolts in the Balkans, Alexander and his army crossed the Hellespont into Asia. His force consisted of about 48,000 foot soldiers and 6,000 cavalry, a huge army for the day, accompanied by engineers, surveyors, scientists, and even historians to record his successes for posterity. In battle Alexander had amazing success against the Persians, repeatedly beating their best generals, and routinely fighting against daunting odds.
Alexander's accomplishments can be attributed to his military genius, to his soldiers' superb training and equipment, and to a magnificent esprit de corps, largely engendered by his army's faith in Alexander’s invincibility. This myth was so broadly believed because Alexander appeared to be charmed by the gods from whom he claimed a common lineage. He regularly led his elite “Companion Cavalry” into the thick of battle, and he received a number of dangerous wounds during his military career, none of which dampened his military ardor.
Once he secured most of Persia's surrender, Alexander then moved south to conquer Syria, the coast of the Levant, and eventually Egypt. He returned to Persia, by way of conquering Babylon, and destroyed the last of the Persian forces at the battle of Gaugamela. Rather than pursue the Persian king Darius III who fled the field, Alexander seized the treasury at Susa. He then captured the ancient Persian capital of Persepolis, which he allowed his men to loot for several days. Alexander remained in the city for five months until it burned down … supposedly by accident.
With this, Alexander returned to the campaign, chasing Darius and his disintegrating army into Media, and then Parthia. There Darius was taken prisoner by his kinsman Bessus, who had Darius killed before he himself retreated into the mountains to conduct a guerrilla war against the Greeks. But Bessus was himself betrayed to the Greeks in 329 BCE, and the Greek general Ptolemy had him executed. Alexander, it seems, was too busy defeating a Scythian host at the battle of Jaxartes to bother with a regicide-friendly Persian noble. As for the Scythians, the leader Spitamenes was killed by his own tribe, which promptly sued for peace.
All this had taken Alexander’s slowly eroding army through Media, Parthia, Aria and Bactria (modern Afghanistan), Drangiana, and Scythia. Along the way, the young king married the Bactrian princess Roxana to help placate the eastern fringe of the old Persian Empire. But soon enough, Alexander determined to try his hand at conquering the Indian subcontinent, which rumors claimed was even richer than Persia. Eventually Alexander came into contact with the great Indian King Porus, who fought him to a standstill. Alexander won the conflict, but at such a heavy cost that his men begged him to end the campaign and let them return to their families.
Alexander himself went to rule his empire from the captured city of Babylon. Apparently he found this quite boring, for “when Alexander saw the breadth of his domain, he wept for there were no more worlds to conquer."
Once back in Babylon, Alexander began an inexorable decline. Drinking heavily and engaging in all kinds of available debauchery (and there was much debauchery to be found in Babylon), he became subject to fits of anger and bouts of paranoia. In June of 323 BCE, his body weakened by his excesses, Alexander died.