Alexander the Great - Jacob Abbott

Crossing the Hellespont

On Alexander's arrival in Macedon, he immediately began to turn his attention to the subject of the invasion of Asia. He was full of ardor and enthusiasm to carry this project into effect. Considering his extreme youth, and the captivating character of the enterprise, it is strange that he should have exercised so much deliberation and caution as his conduct did really evince. He had now settled every thing in the most thorough manner, both within his dominions and among the nations on his borders, and, as it seemed to him, the time had come when he was to commence active preparations for the great Asiatic campaign.

He brought the subject before his ministers and counselors. They, in general, concurred with him in opinion. There were, however, two who were in doubt, or rather who were, in fact, opposed to the plan, though they expressed their non-concurrence in the form of doubts. These two persons were Antipater and Parmenio, the venerable officers who have been already mentioned as having served Philip so faithfully, and as transferring, on the death of the father, their attachment and allegiance at once to the son.

Antipater and Parmenio represented to Alexander that if he were to go to Asia at that time, he would put to extreme hazard all the interests of Macedon. As he had no family, there was, of course, no direct heir to the crown, and, in case of any misfortune happening by which his life should be lost, Macedon would become at once the prey of contending factions, which would immediately arise, each presenting its own candidate for the vacant throne. The sagacity and foresight which these statesmen evinced in these suggestions were abundantly confirmed in the end. Alexander did die in Asia, his vast kingdom at once fell into pieces, and it was desolated with internal commotions and civil wars for a long period after his death.

Parmenio and Antipater accordingly advised the king to postpone his expedition. They advised him to seek a wife among the princesses of Greece, and then to settle down quietly to the duties of domestic life, and to the government of his kingdom for a few years; then, when every thing should have become settled and consolidated in Greece, and his family was established in the hearts of his countrymen, he could leave Macedon more safely. Public affairs would go on more steadily while he lived, and, in case of his death, the crown would descend, with comparatively little danger of civil commotion, to his heir.

But Alexander was fully decided against any such policy as this. He resolved to embark in the great expedition at once. He concluded to make Antipater his vicegerent in Macedon during his absence, and to take Parmenio with him into Asia. It will be remembered that Antipater was the statesman and Parmenio the general; that is, Antipater had been employed more by Philip in civil, and Parmenio in military affairs, though in those days every body who was in public life was more or less a soldier.

Alexander left an army of ten or twelve thousand men with Antipater for the protection of Macedon. He organized another army of about thirty-five thousand to go with him. This was considered a very small army for such a vast undertaking. One or two hundred years before this time, Darius, a king of Persia, had invaded Greece with an army of five hundred thousand men, and yet he had been defeated and driven back, and now Alexander was undertaking to retaliate with a great deal less than one tenth part of the force.

Of Alexander's army of thirty-five thousand, thirty thousand were foot soldiers, and about five thousand were horse. More than half the whole army was from Macedon. The remainder was from the southern states of Greece. A large body of the horse was from Thessaly, which, as will be seen on the map, was a country south of Macedon. It was, in fact, one broad expanded valley, with mountains all around. Torrents descended from these mountains, forming streams which flowed in currents more and more deep and slow as they descended into the plains, and combining at last into one central river, which flowed to the eastward, and escaped from the environage of mountains through a most celebrated dell called the Vale of Tempe. On the north of this valley is Olympus, and on the south the two twin mountains Pelion and Ossa. There was an ancient story of a war in Thessaly between the giants who were imagined to have lived there in very early days, and the gods. The giants piled Pelion upon Ossa to enable them to get up to heaven in their assault upon their celestial enemies. The fable has led to a proverb which prevails in every language in Europe, by which all extravagant and unheard-of exertions to accomplish an end is said to be a piling of Pelion upon Ossa.

Thessaly was famous for its horses and its horsemen. The slopes of the mountains furnished the best of pasturage for the rearing of the animals, and the plains below afforded broad and open fields for training and exercising the bodies of cavalry formed by means of them. The Thessalian horse were famous throughout all Greece. Bucephalus was reared in Thessaly.

Alexander, as king of Macedon, possessed extensive estates and revenues, which were his own personal property, and were independent of the revenues of the state. Before setting out on his expedition, he apportioned these among his great officers and generals, both those who were to go and those who were to remain. He evinced great generosity in this, but it was, after all, the spirit of ambition, more than that of generosity, which led him to do it. The two great impulses which animated him were the pleasure of doing great deeds, and the fame and glory of having done them. These two principles are very distinct in their nature, though often conjoined. They were paramount and supreme in Alexander's character, and every other human principle was subordinate to them. Money was to him, accordingly, only a means to enable him to accomplish these ends. His distributing his estates and revenues in the manner above described was only a judicious appropriation of the money to the promotion of the great ends he wished to attain; it was expenditure, not gift. It answered admirably the end he had in view. His friends all looked upon him as extremely generous and self-sacrificing. They asked him what he had reserved for himself. "Hope," said Alexander.

At length all things were ready, and Alexander began to celebrate the religious sacrifices, spectacles, and shows which, in those days, always preceded great undertakings of this kind. There was a great ceremony in honor of Jupiter and the nine Muses, which had long been celebrated in Macedon as a sort of annual national festival. Alexander now caused great preparations for this festival.

In the days of the Greeks, public worship and public amusement were combined in one and the same series of spectacles and ceremonies. All worship was a theatrical show, and almost all shows were forms of worship. The religious instincts of the human heart demand some sort of sympathy and aid, real or imaginary, from the invisible world, in great and solemn undertakings, and in every momentous crisis in its history. It is true that Alexander's soldiers, about to leave their homes to go to another quarter of the globe, and into scenes of danger and death from which it was very improbable that many of them would ever return, had no other celestial protection to look up to than the spirits of ancient heroes, who, they imagined, had, somehow or other, found their final home in a sort of heaven among the summits of the mountains, where they reigned, in some sense, over human affairs; but this, small as it seems to us, was a great deal to them. They felt, when sacrificing to these gods, that they were invoking their presence and sympathy. These deities having been engaged in the same enterprises themselves, and animated with the same hopes and fears, the soldiers imagined that the semi-human divinities invoked by them would take an interest in their dangers, and rejoice in their success.

The Muses, in honor of whom, as well as Jupiter, this great Macedonian festival was held, were nine singing and dancing maidens, beautiful in countenance and form, and enchantingly graceful in all their movements. They came, the ancients imagined, from Thrace, in the north, and went first to Jupiter upon Mount Olympus, who made them goddesses. Afterward they went southward, and spread over Greece, making their residence, at last, in a palace upon Mount Parnassus, which will be found upon the map just north of the Gulf of Corinth and west of Bťotia. They were worshiped all over Greece and Italy as the goddesses of music and dancing. In later times particular sciences and arts were assigned to them respectively, as history, astronomy, tragedy, etc., though there was no distinction of this kind in early days.

The festivities in honor of Jupiter and the Muses were continued in Macedon nine days, a number corresponding with that of the dancing goddesses. Alexander made very magnificent preparations for the celebration on this occasion. He had a tent made, under which, it is said, a hundred tables could be spread; and here he entertained, day after day, an enormous company of princes, potentates, and generals. He offered sacrifices to such of the gods as he supposed it would please the soldiers to imagine that they had propitiated. Connected with these sacrifices and feastings, there were athletic and military spectacles and shows—races and wrestlings—and mock contests, with blunted spears. All these things encouraged and quickened the ardor and animation of the soldiers. It aroused their ambition to distinguish themselves by their exploits, and gave them an increased and stimulated desire for honor and fame. Thus inspirited by new desires for human praise, and trusting in the sympathy and protection of powers which were all that they conceived of as divine, the army prepared to set forth from their native land, bidding it a long, and, as it proved to most of them, a final farewell.

By following the course of Alexander's expedition upon the map at the commencement of chapter iii, it will be seen that his route lay first along the northern coasts of the Ăgean Sea, He was to pass from Europe into Asia by crossing the Hellespont between Sestos and Abydos. He sent a fleet of a hundred and fifty galleys, of three banks of oars each, over the Ăgean Sea, to land at Sestos, and be ready to transport his army across the straits. The army, in the mean time, marched by land. They had to cross the rivers which flow into the Ăgean Sea on the northern side; but as these rivers were in Macedon, and no opposition was encountered upon the banks of them, there was no serious difficulty in effecting the passage. When they reached Sestos, they found the fleet ready there, awaiting their arrival.

It is very strikingly characteristic of the mingling of poetic sentiment and enthusiasm with calm and calculating business efficiency, which shone conspicuously so often in Alexander's career, that when he arrived at Sestos, and found that the ships were there, and the army safe, and that there was no enemy to oppose his landing on the Asiatic shore, he left Parmenio to conduct the transportation of the troops across the water, while he himself went away in a single galley on an excursion of sentiment and romantic adventure. A little south of the place where his army was to cross, there lay, on the Asiatic shore, an extended plain, on which were the ruins of Troy. Now Troy was the city which was the scene of Homer's poems—those poems which had excited so much interest in the mind of Alexander in his early years; and he determined, instead of crossing the Hellespont with the main body of his army, to proceed southward in a single galley, and land, himself, on the Asiatic shore, on the very spot which the romantic imagination of his youth had dwelt upon so often and so long.

Plain of Troy

Troy was situated upon a plain. Homer describes an island off the coast, named Tenedos, and a mountain near called Mount Ida. There was also a river called the Scamander. The island, the mountain, and the river remain, preserving their original names to the present day, except that the river is now called the Mender; but, although various vestiges of ancient ruins are found scattered about the plain, no spot can be identified as the site of the city. Some scholars have maintained that there probably never was such a city; that Homer invented the whole, there being nothing real in all that he describes except the river, the mountain, and the island. His story is, however, that there was a great and powerful city there, with a kingdom attached to it, and that this city was besieged by the Greeks for ten years, at the end of which time it was taken and destroyed.

The story of the origin of this war is substantially this. Priam was king of Troy. His wife, a short time before her son was born, dreamed that at his birth the child turned into a torch and set the palace on fire. She told this dream to the soothsayers, and asked them what it meant. They said it must mean that her son would be the means of bringing some terrible calamities and disasters upon the family. The mother was terrified, and, to avert these calamities, gave the child to a slave as soon as it was born, and ordered him to destroy it. The slave pitied the helpless babe, and, not liking to destroy it with his own hand, carried it to Mount Ida, and left it there in the forests to die.

A she bear, roaming through the woods, found the child, and, experiencing a feeling of maternal tenderness for it, she took care of it, and reared it as if it had been her own offspring. The child was found, at last, by some shepherds who lived upon the mountain, and they adopted it as their own, robbing the brute mother of her charge. They named the boy Paris. He grew in strength and beauty, and gave early and extraordinary proofs of courage and energy, as if he had imbibed some of the qualities of his fierce foster mother with the milk she gave him. He was so remarkable for athletic beauty and manly courage, that he not only easily won the heart of a nymph of Mount Ida, named înone, whom he married, but he also attracted the attention of the goddesses in the heavens.

At length these goddesses had a dispute which they agreed to refer to him. The origin of the dispute was this. There was a wedding among them, and one of them, irritated at not having been invited, had a golden apple made, on which were engraved the words, "TO BE GIVEN TO THE MOST BEAUTIFUL." She threw this apple into the assembly: her object was to make them quarrel for it. In fact, she was herself the goddess of discord, and, independently of her cause of pique in this case, she loved to promote disputes. It is in allusion to this ancient tale that any subject of dispute, brought up unnecessarily among friends, is called to this day an apple  of discord.

Three of the goddesses claimed the apple, each insisting that she was more beautiful than the others, and this was the dispute which they agreed to refer to Paris. They accordingly exhibited themselves before him in the mountains, that he might look at them and decide. They did not, however, seem willing, either of them, to trust to an impartial decision of the question, but each offered the judge a bribe to induce him to decide in her favor. One promised him a kingdom, another great fame, and the third, Venus, promised him the most beautiful woman in the world for his wife. He decided in favor of Venus; whether because she was justly entitled to the decision, or through the influence of the bribe, the story does not say.

All this time Paris remained on the mountain, a simple shepherd and herdsman, not knowing his relationship to the monarch who reigned over the city and kingdom on the plain below. King Priam, however, about this time, in some games which he was celebrating, offered, as a prize to the victor, the finest bull which could be obtained on Mount Ida. On making examination, Paris was found to have the finest bull, and the king, exercising the despotic power which kings in those days made no scruple of assuming in respect to helpless peasants, took it away. Paris was very indignant. It happened, however, that a short time afterward there was another opportunity to contend for the same bull, and Paris, disguising himself as a prince, appeared in the lists, conquered every competitor, and bore away the bull again to his home in the fastnesses of the mountain.

In consequence of this his appearance at court, the daughter of Priam, whose name was Cassandra, became acquainted with him, and, inquiring into his story, succeeded in ascertaining that he was her brother, the long-lost child, that had been supposed to be put to death. King Priam was convinced by the evidence which she brought forward, and Paris was brought home to his father's house. After becoming established in his new position, he remembered the promise of Venus that he should have the most beautiful woman in the world for his wife, and he began, accordingly, to inquire where he could find her.

There was in Sparta, one of the cities of Southern Greece, a certain king Menelaus, who had a youthful bride named Helen, who was famed far and near for her beauty. Paris came to the conclusion that she was the most lovely woman in the world, and that he was entitled, in virtue of Venus's promise, to obtain possession of her, if he could do so by any means whatever. He accordingly made a journey into Greece, visited Sparta, formed an acquaintance with Helen, persuaded her to abandon her husband and her duty, and elope with him to Troy.

Paris and Helen


Menelaus was indignant at this outrage. He called on all Greece to take up arms and join him in the attempt to recover his bride. They responded to this demand. They first sent to Priam, demanding that he should restore Helen to her husband. Priam refused to do so, taking part with his son. The Greeks then raised a fleet and an army, and came to the plains of Troy, encamped before the city, and persevered for ten long years in besieging it, when at length it was taken and destroyed.

These stories relating to the origin of the war, however, marvelous and entertaining as they are, were not the points which chiefly interested the mind of Alexander. The portions of Homer's narratives which most excited his enthusiasm were those relating to the characters of the heroes who fought, on one side and on the other, at the siege, their various adventures, and the delineations of their motives and principles of conduct, and the emotions and excitements they experienced in the various circumstances in which they were placed. Homer described with great beauty and force the workings of ambition, of resentment, of pride, of rivalry, and all those other impulses of the human heart which would excite and control the action of impetuous men in the circumstances in which his heroes were placed.

Each one of the heroes whose history and adventures he gives, possessed a well-marked and striking character, and differed in temperament and action from the rest. Achilles was one. He was fiery, impetuous, and implacable in character, fierce and merciless; and, though perfectly undaunted and fearless, entirely destitute of magnanimity. There was a river called the Styx, the waters of which were said to have the property of making any one invulnerable. The mother of Achilles dipped him into it in his infancy, holding him by the heel. The heel, not having been immersed, was the only part which could be wounded. Thus he was safe in battle, and was a terrible warrior. He, however, quarreled with his comrades and withdrew from their cause on slight pretexts, and then became reconciled again, influenced by equally frivolous reasons.



Agamemnon was the commander-in-chief of the Greek army. After a certain victory, by which some captives were taken, and were to be divided among the victors, Agamemnon was obliged to restore one, a noble lady, who had fallen to his share, and he took away the one that had been assigned to Achilles to replace her. This incensed Achilles, and he withdrew for a long time from the contest; and, in consequence of his absence, the Trojans gained great and continued victories against the Greeks. For a long time nothing could induce Achilles to return.

At length, however, though he would not go himself, he allowed his intimate friend, whose name was Patroclus, to take his armor and go into battle. Patroclus was at first successful, but was soon killed by Hector, the brother of Paris. This aroused anger and a spirit of revenge in the mind of Achilles. He gave up his quarrel with Agamemnon and returned to the combat. He did not remit his exertions till he had slain Hector, and then he expressed his brutal exultation, and satisfied his revenge, by dragging the dead body at the wheels of his chariot around the walls of the city. He then sold the body to the distracted father for a ransom.

It was such stories as these, which are related in the poems of Homer with great beauty and power, that had chiefly interested the mind of Alexander. The subjects interested him; the accounts of the contentions, the rivalries, the exploits of these warriors, the delineations of their character and springs of action, and the narrations of the various incidents and events to which such a war gave rise, were all calculated to captivate the imagination of a young martial hero.

Alexander accordingly resolved that his first landing in Asia should be at Troy. He left his army under the charge of Parmenio, to cross from Sestos to Abydos, while he himself set forth in a single galley to proceed to the southward. There was a port on the Trojan shore where the Greeks had been accustomed to disembark, and he steered his course for it. He had a bull on board his galley which he was going to offer as a sacrifice to Neptune when half way from shore to shore.

Neptune was the god of the sea. It is true that the Hellespont is not the open ocean, but it is an arm of the sea, and thus belonged properly to the dominions which the ancients assigned to the divinity of the waters. Neptune was conceived of by the ancients as a monarch dwelling on the seas or upon the coasts, and riding over the waves seated in a great shell, or sometimes in a chariot, drawn by dolphins or sea-horses. In these excursions he was attended by a train of sea-gods and nymphs, who, half floating, half swimming, followed him over the billows. Instead of a scepter Neptune carried a trident. A trident was a sort of three-pronged harpoon, such as was used in those days by the fishermen of the Mediterranean. It was from this circumstance, probably, that it was chosen as the badge of authority for the god of the sea.

Alexander took the helm, and steered the galley with his own hands toward the Asiatic shore. Just before he reached the land, he took his place upon the prow, and threw a javelin at the shore as he approached it, a symbol of the spirit of defiance and hostility with which he advanced to the frontiers of the eastern world. He was also the first to land. After disembarking his company, he offered sacrifices to the gods, and then proceeded to visit the places which had been the scenes of the events which Homer had described.

Homer had written five hundred years before the time of Alexander, and there is some doubt whether the ruins and the remains of cities which our hero found there were really the scenes of the narratives which had interested him so deeply. He, however, at any rate, believed them to be so, and he was filled with enthusiasm and pride as he wandered among them. He seems to have been most interested in the character of Achilles, and he said that he envied him his happy lot in having such a friend as Patroclus to help him perform his exploits, and such a poet as Homer to celebrate them.

After completing his visit upon the plain of Troy, Alexander moved toward the northeast with the few men who had accompanied him in his single galley. In the mean time Parmenio had crossed safely, with the main body of the army, from Sestos to Abydos. Alexander overtook them on their march, not far from the place of their landing. To the northward of this place, on the left of the line of march which Alexander was taking, was the city of Lampsacus.

Now a large portion of Asia Minor, although for the most part under the dominion of Persia, had been in a great measure settled by Greeks, and, in previous wars between the two nations, the various cities had been in possession, sometimes of one power and sometimes of the other. In these contests the city of Lampsacus had incurred the high displeasure of the Greeks by rebelling, as they said, on one occasion, against them. Alexander determined to destroy it as he passed. The inhabitants were aware of this intention, and sent an embassador to Alexander to implore his mercy. When the embassador approached, Alexander, knowing his errand, uttered a declaration in which he bound himself by a solemn oath not to grant the request he was about to make. "I have come," said the ambassador, "to implore you to destroy Lampascus." Alexander, pleased with the readiness of the embassador in giving his language such a sudden turn, and perhaps influenced by his oath, spared the city.

He was now fairly in Asia. The Persian forces were gathering to attack him, but so unexpected and sudden had been his invasion that they were not prepared to meet him at his arrival, and he advanced without opposition till he reached the banks of the little river Granicus.