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Alexander the Great (B.C. 356–323)

I am now going to tell you the story of the most wonderful man that ever lived, who in his short life of thirty-two years did a great deal more than most others have done in seventy or eighty years.

Though he was a Macedonian king, he must be counted as one of the great Greek heroes, for he spread Greek habits and manners all over Asia, and so made the Greek nation one of the most widely known in the world.

His father and mother were both remarkable people. His father was a great soldier, and still more a clever and cunning statesman, and in whatever his mother did she showed herself to be very much cleverer than any other woman of her day. But she had a violent temper, which was soon seen to be in her son, and as he was a young prince, he was not checked as other boys would have been.

The July day on which he was born was a very happy day for his father Philip of Macedon, who had just taken an enemy's city after hard fighting. Early in the day came the news that his chief general had won a great victory; later on he was told that his racehorse had won a prize at the great Olympic Games; and last of all, a messenger came at full speed from his palace at Pella to say that a baby boy was born to him.

The wise men told him that Alexander, as the baby was called, was sure to be a great man, born on such a day of victories. Alexander was a remarkable boy, though not very amiable, and he seems to have caused his father much trouble by his frequent outbursts of temper. But all the people about the Court spoiled him so completely that it was a wonder that he had any goodness left in him at all.

His mother Olympias used to tell him that he was sprung from Achilles, the bravest of the princes who fought against Troy, of whom Homer sang. She wished him to grow up like Achilles. And his first tutor, Lysimachus, pleased him by calling him Achilles, and himself Phoenix, because that was the name of Achilles' tutor.

His head tutor, Leonidas, was one of the few who did not spoil him. He made him rise early every morning, and take a walk before breakfast, so that he should have a good appetite for very simple food.

Leonidas used to look into Alexander's wardrobes and chests in which his clothes and bedding were kept, to see that the pillows were not too soft, or the covers too warm, or that the clothing was not too soft and fine. He was afraid that Alexander would grow fond of things soft and comfortable, if he were not watchful.

He must have been pleased with the result of his care; for until nearly the end of his life, Alexander always liked simple food best, and plain clothing, and just enough of it to keep him decently clad.

Alexander was very fond of all outdoor sports, hunting, racing, swimming, and riding. But he never could be persuaded to try wrest ling himself, nor to give prizes for wrestling at the games. His father, who was very proud of the handsome boy, with his deep-set blue eyes, and masses of curling golden hair,

"a sun that ray'd from off a brow,

Like hill-snow high in heaven,"

and his supple, well-made limbs, once said to him, "Alexander, will you not run in the Olympic races for a prize?" "Yes," said the boy quickly, "if I had kings to race with me, but not else."

Alexander must have been about fourteen years old, when one day a Thessalian came to the palace at Pella leading a very fine black horse. He asked 2600 for it. He hoped King Philip would buy it, and at first the King thought he would. That afternoon, with his grooms, some friends, and Alexander, he went outside the city to try the horse. But it had a dangerous temper, and would let none of the grooms nor the King nor his friends touch it. Philip was vexed, and told the Thessalian to take the horse away. Alexander had been looking on all the time, and had taken a great fancy to the horse. He now said loud enough for his father to hear, "What a horse to lose, just because they are not clever enough to manage him."

Philip pretended not to hear, but as Alexander kept repeating this in louder and louder tones, he said angrily, "Boy, do you suppose you could manage the horse better than your elders?"

"Yes, I could," said Alexander proudly.

"And what forfeit will you pay if you cannot?" said Philip, now laughing at the confident tone in which the boy spoke.

"As much as the horse is worth," Alexander answered quickly, at which every one laughed loud and long.

Alexander, more determined to manage the horse than before, went up to it, and turned it to face the sun, for he had seen that the creature was frightened by its own shadow. He patted and stroked it till it stood quiet, and then jumped into the saddle. The horse shied and tried to throw him, but Alexander set him off at a canter, which he soon turned into a hard gallop right across the country.

The King and his attendants were very anxious, and when Alexander came galloping back at full speed, all the crowd cheered. But when the boy suddenly stopped the horse, and jumped off, Philip burst into tears of joy at his safety, and cried out: "Macedon is too small to hold you and me any longer."

He gave Alexander the horse as a present, and it was Alexander's chief favourite till its death. Bucephalus, as he called it, lived nearly as long as his royal master.

That afternoon's doings made Philip think that Alexander was a very wonderful boy indeed, and that it would be worth while to take more trouble about his education.

So he invited a very wise man called Aristotle to be his tutor. Aristotle was quite willing to come. Philip gave the two a nice large garden all to themselves, where they could walk and talk together, and for the next few years, Alexander learned much from his famous tutor. Among other things, he learned a great deal about people who lived a long way off from Pella. When one day some Persians came to see King Philip on business, and found King Philip away from home, they were very much surprised at the lad of sixteen who came to welcome them. For he asked them all sorts of clever questions. He wanted to know what their king was like, and how he treated his friends and enemies. He asked what sort of roads they had, and which would be the best way to travel through Asia, and other things of the kind, which do not usually interest a boy of sixteen.

Alexander's friends noticed at this time that whenever he heard of his father's great victories he was not at all glad. He used to sigh and say, "If my father goes on conquering at this rate, there will soon be nothing left for me to do."

And while he practised all outdoor sports very eagerly, he did not neglect his books, but read poetry, history, and all words of wise men very eagerly. His Homer he knew almost by heart, and used to sleep with it under his pillow, beside his sword, both now and till the end of his life.

While his father was away just then, one of the hill tribes in Thrace rebelled, and he led an army against them. He conquered them, and built a new city in their land, which he called after himself,—Alexandropolis, which means Alexander's city.

King Philip was much pleased when he came home, and after that he took the boy with him in his expeditions. But at last they quarrelled, because Alexander thought that his father had ill-treated his mother Olympias, whom he loved very dearly. So he carried Olympias off to a safe place, and went off himself to another, and it was some time before he would go back to his father.

Meanwhile some of Olympias's friends who were angry with Philip for his treatment of her, met a young noble called Pausanias, who hated the king for some reason of his own. This man they egged on, until at a marriage feast he sprang out of a corner upon King Philip, and stabbed him to death.

So at the age of twenty, and when every one was panic-stricken at this horrid murder, Alexander became King of Macedon.

But the "stripling," as Demosthenes the great Athenian orator called him mockingly, had some very hard work to do at home, and near home, for the next year and a half. He was so proud and often so cruel that he soon made people forget that he was so very young.

When he started on his great march against Persia, the terror of his name had spread into many lands. The Greeks held a Council at Corinth to see how many soldiers they could send with him, and a great many famous men came there to meet Alexander.

While he was waiting there to learn what the Greeks would do, he went to see a wise man named Diogenes, who thought it wrong to have many possessions, because it wasted time to take care of them. He lived in a tub, to save himself the trouble of housekeeping. When Alexander came near, with many people crowding after him, Diogenes stared at him, but said nothing. At last Alexander said, very politely, "Is there anything I can do for you?"

"Yes," grunted Diogenes, "stand out of my light, so that I may get the sunshine on me." And not one word more would he say.

Alexander's attendants asked if they should not punish so insolent a fellow, but Alexander liked him so much, that he said, "If I were not Alexander, I should wish to be Diogenes."

Alexander and Diogenes

But he soon forgot all about Diogenes and his tub, in the hurry and bustle of preparing for his long march. As he said "good-bye" to his dearly loved mother, and the palace at Pella, on that bright spring morning before his twenty-second birthday, he knew that he was not likely to see Pella again. For he meant to conquer the whole of Persia, and to set up his throne far away from Pella, in some city which should be in the middle of the world when he had finished fighting.

By the month of April he had reached the spot where Troy had once stood, seven hundred years before. There he visited the tomb of his ancestor, Achilles, or what was thought to be his tomb.

And then with his head still full of Homer's stories of Achilles' bravery, he went forward to do battle with the Persians at the river Granicus. The Persians were across the river on flat land, and Alexander had to make Bucephalus swim the river before he could get at them. When he and his troops scrambled up the other bank, the Persians rushed upon them. Alexander was easily known by the white plume in his helmet, and by his splendid horse, and several Persian princes attacked him. One of them hacked the white plume off his helmet, and another was just going to stab him in the back, when he was cut down by Alexander's friend, Cleitus.

After a little more hard fighting, the Persians turned and ran, and the battle was won.

But Alexander still had much fighting to do before that summer was over, and his victories were not easily gained.

In the winter he reached Gordium, in which town there was a very old chariot. About this chariot a very interesting story is told.

Long, long years before Alexander was born, the people in Phrygia were in great trouble. They asked the Oracle for advice in their distress, and were told that soon an old waggon would come along the road to their city, carrying a man inside it. This man would be their king, and would save them from all their distresses.

Soon afterwards a man called Gordius came among them in a waggon, and they all hailed him as their king. Gordius then consecrated his waggon to Zeus, and fastened the pole of the waggon to the yoke by a knot of bark. This was called the Gordian knot. Gordius prophesied that whosoever unfastened that knot should be king over all Asia.

Alexander had heard of this saying, and he went to the old temple to look at the knot. He did not see how it was to be untied, as there seemed to be no loose end of bark to pull at; so he drew his sword, and cut it through. Hardly had he done this when a storm of thunder and lightning burst upon the town. This made the people think that the gods were glad that Alexander had cut the knot, and that he would be king of all Asia.

Soon after this Alexander fell ill, and was sick unto death. None of the ordinary doctors could do anything for him. He had been feverishly hot, and, wishing to cool himself, had bathed in the river Cydnus. This made his fever worse. At last, as he was not getting better, a doctor, named Philip, promised that if he would do exactly what he was told, he would cure him. Alexander promised, and Philip went away to get ready some medicine for him. While he was away, Alexander's chief general, Parmenio, sent him a letter, telling him not to trust Philip, who meant to poison him. Alexander hid the letter under his pillow, and when Philip came back, bringing with him a cup of medicine, he took the cup. Then he felt under the pillow, drew out the letter and gave it to Philip to read.

As Philip read, Alexander drank the medicine quite calmly. But Philip's eyes flashed with anger at the cruel things said about him, and flinging himself down by the side of the bed, he begged the king to trust him and the cure he meant to work.

The medicine was so very strong that it made Alexander speechless and unconscious for three days. A story spread to the camp where the soldiers were that the king was dying, and the men would not believe anything else until Alexander was able to rise on the fourth day, and go out to the door to let them all see him. Soon after his recovery he met Darius in battle near Issus. Alexander had been busy conquering the province of Cilicia, and Darius feared that Alexander would give him the slip. So he took his army away from the large open plain, in which it would have been very easy for so large an army to crush the much smaller force of Alexander, and followed him until the two met in the narrow rocky gorges of Issus. Alexander saw at once that the conditions favoured him, as there was not room for all the Persian army to be drawn up properly. In fact the lines of the Persian subject troops blocked the road for miles behind their front line. Alexander's men filled up the two miles only between the sea and the hills.

Alexander, as usual, led the cavalry on the right wing, and soon broke up the enemy's left wing by several brilliant charges. Then he made for the Persian centre, where King Darius sat in his chariot. Darius grew very frightened as Alexander and his horsemen drew near, and soon leapt from his chariot, mounted a mare which was kept ready for him, and fled. He hardly rested till he reached Thapsacus, on the Euphrates River.

When the Persians saw the King's chariot was empty, they thought he was dead, and that all was lost; and the flight became general.

Alexander, who had been wounded in the thigh, but not severely, was left in possession of the Persian camp, and the harem. In the harem were the mother and queen of Darius.

He was very kind to the Persian ladies, and took the greatest care of them, so that they hardly felt like prisoners.

Alexander had not lost more than four hundred and fifty of his own men.

After this great victory many tribes came to make friends with Alexander, for fear he might turn against them too.

Some conquerors would have followed Darius until he had been captured. But Alexander did not think him worth troubling about. Darius had shown himself to be such a coward that he could with safety be left alone for a time. For Alexander was very anxious to gain the submission of Syria and of Egypt. From Syria he met with little trouble except at Tyre. The people of Tyre were haughty, and accustomed to have their own way. So when Alexander demanded that they should let him enter their city to sacrifice to their chief god, they said "No." Alexander was so angry that he made up his mind to besiege the city and make the proud Tyrians admit him. It was, however, a very difficult city to besiege. It was built on a steep rock half a mile out in the sea; and the sea was very deep at the foot of the rock. But no difficulties ever discouraged Alexander from trying to do anything he thought he ought to do. At first he had no ships, so that he could not get close to the rock. So he began to build a great stone roadway, called a mole, out from the mainland. But as soon as the mole came close to the city walls, the Tyrians fired down on the workmen, and killed so many that the building could hardly go forward at all.

Alexander thought he would make his men safe while they worked by building wooden towers, under which they could shelter from the enemy's missiles as they built the mole. But as soon as these wooden towers were set up, the Tyrians sent out fire-ships to set them ablaze. And as they were made only of wood, they were easily burned. Then to make matters worse, while Alexander's men were flying from the flames, the Tyrians in their ship broke down a great part of the mole.

This troubled Alexander very much, but still he would not lose heart or give up the attempt. He made two neighbouring cities give him their ships, and with these he kept the Tyrian ships away from the mole. At last it was finished, and then Alexander's men battered the city walls till they broke a hole through them.

Then they rushed in over the broken wall, and took possession of the city after their seven long months' hard work. Alexander held a thanksgiving service for his victory in the temple which he had wanted to visit some months before, and he consecrated to the god the war-machine by which the hole in the wall had been made, and placed it in the temple.

While the siege was still going on, Darius sent messengers to him to offer ten thousand talents of money, and his daughter as a wife, with all the land west of the river Euphrates as her dowry.

When Parmenio heard this offer, he said, "If I were you, Alexander, I should accept it."

"So would I," said Alexander smiling, "if I were you, Parmenio."

But the answer he sent to Darius was, that all these were his (Alexander's) already, so soon as he liked to take them.

From Tyre he marched south towards Egypt, but was delayed for three months at Gaza, where Batis the Governor held out very bravely for King Darius.

In Egypt Alexander founded the city that has since been known by his name, Alexandria; for the Egyptians received him gladly, as they had no love for the Persians.

And then after leaving Darius alone for almost two years, in which he gathered another huge force together, Alexander met him once more in the plains near Arbela.

This time Darius had chosen a plain in which he could give enough room for the movements of his enormous army of a million infantry, forty thousand cavalry, two hundred scythed chariots, and fifteen elephants.

Alexander's generals noted the great size of the Persian army with much anxiety, and Parmenio came and asked him to attack the Persians at night.

"I will not steal a victory," answered the king proudly, but he took care to make himself familiar with the kind of ground on which his men had to fight, before deciding to begin the battle.

Meanwhile Darius tired his men with too much outpost duty, for he was very nervous about the result of the battle.

The night before the battle Alexander slept so soundly and so long that Parmenio grew impatient as he waited for him to come out of his tent in the early morning. At last he went in, and stood at the king's bedside, and called him loudly. But he had to shake him before Alexander awoke.

"How is it," said Parmenio, when the king at last opened his eyes, "that you, who so often are up before all your soldiers, can sleep so soundly on such a morning as this?"

"I have followed Darius up and down through all Asia," the king answered, "and shall I not sleep now when he is given into my hand?"

Soon he was standing outside his tent, glorious in shining armour, and ready for the fight.

The battle was long and fierce, but was again settled in favour of the Macedonians, because Darius seemed to believe that

"He who fights and runs away

Will live to fight another day;"

and as at Issus, he leapt out of his chariot when he saw Alexander fighting his way. He caught a stray horse, mounted it, and rode away as fast as he could. He could not have escaped from Alexander so easily this time, however, if Parmenio had not sent a messenger asking Alexander for help. The messenger said that Parmenio was in very great danger. Some think that Parmenio lost courage in this battle, but as Alexander had stiff work to do when he went to his rescue, his danger must have been real enough.

Alexander was so full of the excitement of battle that he gave chase to Darius through the night after the battle. When at last he turned back to his own camp, with a mere handful of followers, he met a large troop of flying Persians. They recognised him at once, and charged against him.

But with bravery as great as his recklessness, he spurred first at the leader of the party, and cut him down; then at the next, whom he soon killed; and the next, until at last they thought they must be fighting "with devils, not men," and broke away, flying in terror. Alexander then went back to his own camp.

The chief result of this battle was the surrender of the two great cities of Babylon and Sousa; and for many months Alexander was as busy as he could be in putting in order the mighty kingdom he had won. One of the most wonderful features in Alexander was his cleverness in governing and arranging large districts. A clever general is not often clever in this other way, but in Alexander the twofold skill was found.

There is a little sadness in the part of his story that follows. Alexander's great plans for conquering the world, and for teaching all nations the many noble lessons that the Greeks had to teach the rest of mankind, were too clever for his Macedonian soldiers and captains to understand. They were getting tired of marching ever on and on, further away from their dear old Macedonian hills and homesteads, and they began to murmur, and to wonder when Alexander would think it time to stop and rest. But Alexander had no thought of resting yet, for his work was not nearly done.

But the grumbling spirit in his army spread, until Alexander had to pay attention to it. He was told that his old friend Parmenio, and Parmenio's son, Philotas, had made with others a plot against his life; and he gave orders for their execution.

But at last even the common soldiers, who had always been devoted to him, said they would not go any farther. They were then in the Punjaub, in India, and though the King coaxed them and scolded them in turn, they would not move. "There they stood," as the old historian says, "looking hard at the ground, and with tears trickling down their cheeks" (so sorry were they to say their King 'nay'). "And so the King, at last, conquered by his soldiers, made up his mind to turn towards home."

But it was a miserable march. At the beginning, Alexander was so severely wounded while besieging a town, that he nearly died. It happened in this way. Alexander's men had no more than two ladders among them when making the attack on the town walls. And they did not want to engage the enemy until more ladders should be brought to them. But Alexander grew impatient, and seized one of the two ladders. Putting it against the wall, he scrambled up, followed by two men only, while a veteran used the other ladder to reach the top of the wall at the same time as the King.

At first the townsfolk thought the King was at the head of a large troop, and they drew away from the wall; but when they saw only three behind, they rushed upon him, and others at a distance pelted him with stones. His own men, still outside the town, saw his danger, and in their hurry to go to his help, all scrambled up the two ladders at once. As you might expect, the ladders broke under such a weight. Meanwhile Alexander, with the reckless spirit which we know of old in him, jumped down from the top of the wall inside the town. There indeed he had a terrible fight, with his back to the wall, against numbers of the enemy.

His men outside grew wilder and wilder as they guessed the danger threatening their King. Still there were no more ladders to be had. At last they made a human ladder, scrambling up on each other's shoulders, and reached their King's side only just in time. A stone that had fallen heavily on his helmet had nearly stunned him; then an arrow pierced right through his armour into his lung; and he fainted and fell. The veteran had been killed already, and the two other followers were able to protect the King's body till their comrades came over the wall to their help.

For many days Alexander lay sick unto death; and when he began to gain a little strength, many a scolding he received from his friends for running such risks when his life was so important to them all.


But though Alexander must have liked to be told that people could not do without him, I think he was most pleased with a blunt old soldier who said, "Ye have played the man; for in this world those that will take no pains will get no gains neither."

As soon as he was strong enough, the march was begun again. It was full of such misery that it is too painful to describe; but even that came to an end at last; and then Alexander spent two years or more in putting the government of his vast kingdom in order.

Yet he did not mean to be done with travelling: far from it. He was busily planning a great expedition, which was to be by sea this time; and in the spring of the year 323 B.C. he went down the river Euphrates to see about the building of a new harbour, and there he caught a malarious fever. He would not take care of himself, but said that it was just a slight chill, of which he would soon be better. He did not get better, but much worse, and on the eleventh day of the fever he was so weak that it was clear that he could not live much longer.

In the afternoon all the Macedonian soldiers who were with him asked to be allowed to see him. The officers let them come in and walk one after the other quietly round his bed. When he heard them he opened his eyes and said, "After I am gone, will you ever find a king worthy of such heroes as these?"

Just before the end he drew off his finger a large signet ring, and told the officer to whom he gave it that he left his kingdom "to the best man"; then sank back and died.

With the death of this hero ends Greek History in the strict sense of the word. Alexander had spread abroad the love for things good, glorious, and beautiful; and for this every nation in the world since his time owes him a debt greater than can ever be repaid.

Nowadays we name all that he stood for, Hellenism—a short word that means a very great thing.