Story of the Greek People - E. M. Tappan

Alexander the Great

When the Greeks heard of the death of Philip and knew that a young man of twenty was on the throne, they were delighted. "Greece will again be free!" they said jubilantly. They would not have been so sure of their freedom if they had known what kind of youth it was who had become their ruler. They did know that at the battle of Chæronea, two years before, he had led the phalanx which had overcome the best troops of the Thebans. "But that was nothing," they said; "the oldest and most skillful generals were grouped around him to make sure that all went well." They might have guessed that he was no weakling if they had heard how, when he was a mere child, he had received some Persian ambassadors in his father's absence. They met him with proper deference, of course, but they expected him to talk like any other child. Behold, the little boy began to question them about their country. "What sort of man is your king?" he asked. "How does he treat his enemies? Why is Persia strong? Is it because she has much gold or a large army?" The Persians gazed at him in wonder, and said to one another, "Philip is nothing compared with that boy." Another story told of him is about his taming the famous horse Bucephalus. It had been brought to his father for trial, but it had snorted and bitten and kicked and Philip had ordered it taken away. Then the boy Alexander cried, "What a horse they are losing for want of skill and spirit to manage him!" "Young man," retorted his father, "you find fault with your elders as if you could manage the horse better." "And I certainly could," the prince declared boldly. "If you fail, what forfeit will you pay?" "The price of the horse." Probably the boy of ten or twelve years was no wiser in managing horses than the grooms, but he had noticed that they were leading the animal away from the sun and that his own moving shadow was startling and annoying him. Alexander turned the head of the horse toward the sun, stroked him and spoke to him gently, then sprang upon his back. The courtiers and the king had been amused at the boy's boldness, but now they were alarmed. Alexander, however, kept his seat, and after letting the horse prance and gallop as much as he would, rode up to the king. The father wept for joy. "Seek another empire, my son," he said, "for that which I shall leave you is not worthy of you."



Philip had provided tutors for his son, but he saw now that he had a boy to deal with who would not be satisfied with any ordinary teachers. The most famous philosopher of the day was Aristotle. He was a Macedonian, but had long been a student in the school of Plato in Athens. To him Philip sent the following letter:—

"Be informed that I have a son, and that I am thankful to the gods, not so much for his birth as that he was born in the same age with you; for if you will undertake the charge of his education, I assure myself that he will become worthy of his father, and of the kingdom which he will inherit." So it was that Aristotle became the teacher of the boy Alexander, and remained with him for at least three years, and possibly until he became king. Philip gave him a princely reward, for he rebuilt the philosopher's birthplace, the city of Stagira, which he had once destroyed, and brought back the inhabitants, who had either fled or been sold as slaves. Aristotle liked to talk with his pupils while they were walking about together; so for a schoolroom Philip made ready a large and beautiful garden with seats of stone and cool, shady paths. Alexander not only liked philosophy, but he enjoyed reading the old plays and histories, and used to send long distances for them. Most of all, he loved Homer. His mother often told him he was descended from Achilles, the hero of the Iliad; and when he was a small boy, he was delighted to have one of his tutors address him as Achilles. Philip saw that his son could be trusted, and when he went to Byzantium he left the kingdom in the hands of the boy of sixteen. On his return he was amused and not at all displeased to hear the Macedonians call him "the general," but speak of his son as "the king."

Such was the young man who was now ruler of Macedonia and all Greece. Demosthenes called him a "boy"; but much trouble would have been saved if all his subjects had known what an unusual boy he was. Some of them, the wild mountaineers, thought this an excellent time to throw off the royal authority; but Alexander marched against them without a moment's delay. He found that he would have to clamber up a difficult mountain road at whose top stood the rebels with heavy wagons ready to be rolled down upon him. It needed more than a few wagons to halt this quick-witted young commander. He ordered his troops to separate, leaving a clear path in the centre for the wagons. Where the road was too narrow for this, he had his men lie on the ground, holding their shields over their heads. The wagons rolled down slowly, then came faster and faster, struck the shields with a clatter and a crash, but went over them as if on a well-paved roadway, and tumbled harmlessly down the steep. It was not long before the rebels thought it best to surrender.

Some of the states of Greece also had supposed that the death of Philip would give them a good opportunity for a revolt, but Alexander made a quick march into Thessaly. A mountain was in his way, but he cut steps up the precipices and pushed on. The states yielded, and now Demosthenes called him a "stripling." While Alexander was among the mountain tribes, a rumor arose that he was dead. Thebes and her friends thought that now if ever she could get rid of her Macedonian garrison. "I will show Demosthenes before the walls of Athens that I am a man," declared Alexander, and marched to the south. Thebes would not surrender until she was forced to yield. Athens had sent arms to the Thebans, but she did not attempt to resist a commander who could march at the rate of twenty miles a day through a wild and rugged country and over jagged mountain-ridges. "What shall be the punishment of Thebes?" Alexander asked the congress of states at Corinth. Either because they were afraid of him, or because Thebes had many enemies among them, they decreed that she should be destroyed. The walls were razed and every house torn down save one, the old home of the poet Pindar. Even in the midst of warfare, Alexander still loved the old Greek poetry and remembered the honor due to the poet. Pindar's descendants, too, were safe, though thirty thousand Theban citizens were sold into slavery. The Theban lands were divided among the smaller towns of Bœotia.



There is a tradition that the philosopher Diogenes was then living in Corinth, and that Alexander had a curiosity to see him, which is not strange if half stories told of Diogenes are true. One is that he was once seen in broad daylight carrying a lantern and apparently searching for something. "What are you looking for?" he was asked, and he replied, "An honest man." Another story is that when Plato was giving an elaborate dinner, Diogenes pressed his way in and walked over the carpets with bare and muddy feet. "Thus I trample on the pride of Plato," he growled. "But with greater pride, O Diogenes," Plato responded. When the king and his retinue drew near, Diogenes was lying in the sun and hardly took the trouble even to glance at the ruler of his country. "Is there anything in which I can serve you?" asked Alexander. The ungrateful philosopher replied, "Only stand out of my sunshine." The courtiers laughed, but Alexander said thoughtfully, "If I were not Alexander, I would be Diogenes."

He was Alexander however, and he was even more ambitious of conquest than his father had been. Two years had passed since the death of Philip. Macedonia was quiet, Greece was subdued. There was no reason why he should not set out on the expedition whose object was to avenge the invasion of Xerxes, to conquer the kingdom of Persia, and to get the control of all Asia. He did not make the mistake of Xerxes and assemble an army so large that it was difficult to feed and move it; he led across the Hellespont only between thirty-five and thirty-eight thousand men, but they had been trained and drilled until they were almost invincible. In all his preparations for the invasion Alexander had not forgotten that he was a descendant of Achilles, and he went first to the site of Troy, to pay honor to his ancestor. He offered a sacrifice to Athene and hung a wreath on the pillar of Achilles's tomb. "He was a happy man," declared the king, "in that he found a faithful friend while he lived, and such a herald as Homer to set forth his praise."

[Ilustration] from Story of the Greek People by E. M. Tappan


If Alexander did not have a Homer to set forth his praise, he had at least the most celebrated painter of ancient times to paint his portrait, and, moreover, he carried his painter to Asia with him. This was Apelles, and it is said that Alexander was so pleased with his work that he was unwilling to be painted by any one else. Apelles was quite as independent as the king himself, and, if we may trust the old stories, was far less courteous than his monarch. It is said that, when another artist was boasting of his rapid work, Apelles retorted, "The wonder is that you do not produce more of such stuff in the time." Another story is that he thanked a shoemaker most cordially for pointing out a mistake in a shoe latchet in one of his paintings. The man was so elated at having his advice accepted by the great Apelles that he went on to make more criticisms. Then Apelles said disdainfully, "Stick to your last, cobbler, stick to your last."



Of course the king of the Persians, Darius III, had heard what Alexander was about, and he had brought a great army to Asia Minor. The proper place to meet the audacious young man was at the Hellespont, the very entrance to Asia. Therefore, when Alexander came to the little river Granicus, he saw the farther bank crowded with Persian soldiers. The river was apparently deep and swift, and the banks were as slippery as they were steep. The Macedonian officers objected to crossing at once; they said it was too late in the day, and, moreover, it was the wrong month, and they would surely be unlucky. But Alexander plunged into the river, and at his word the cavalry followed the great white plumes on his crest. Up the slimy bank they clambered, full in the face of the storm of Persian arrows. Meanwhile the phalanx was crossing the river, and after that came the infantry. Alexander won the day. Of the spoils of this, his first victory in Asia, he made many presents. First of all, however, he ordered a brazen statue to be made in honor of every man who had fallen in the battle. He gave lavish gifts to the Greeks, and to the Athenians, who seemed to be his favorites, he sent a special present of three hundred shields. To his mother at home in Macedonia, he dispatched the purple furnishings and the gold and silver dishes that were found in large numbers in the tents of the Persians.

[Ilustration] from Story of the Greek People by E. M. Tappan


Alexander marched south, followed the line of the coast a little way, then marched north to Phrygia, taking cities as he went. Not much real warfare was necessary, for most of the cities near the coast surrendered promptly when they heard of his approach. In one of the temples of Gordium in Phrygia he found a celebrated knot, made of cords cut from the bark of a tree. There was an ancient prophecy that the empire of the world would fall to the man who could untie that knot. Many had tried their luck, but it was so cunningly tangled and twisted that no one had succeeded. Alexander, too, tried for a little while, then drew his sword and cut it. That is why, when one has discovered a short, bold way out of a difficulty, he is said to have "cut the Gordian knot."

Toward the sea went Alexander and his men again, zigzagging through Asia Minor. At Issus he met the hosts of the Persians, who still thought that an army was sure of victory if it was only large enough. But they certainly learned better at Issus. Darius had unwisely allowed Alexander to meet him on a narrow plain where there was no room for his hosts. The Persians fled, their king taking the lead. Darius threw away his shield, his bow, his purple mantle, and even sprang from the royal chariot and leaped upon the back of a horse in order to get away faster. No one but the king had a right to give orders, and the whole Persian army tumbled over one another in their wild scramble to escape.

[Ilustration] from Story of the Greek People by E. M. Tappan


After the battle a most exquisite golden casket was brought to Alexander from the spoils of Darius. "What is most worthy to put into it?" he asked his friends. They proposed one thing and another, but the king shook his head. At last he said, "It is the Iliad that most deserves a case like this." Darius's mother and family had been captured by the Macedonians. Alexander sent a message to them that they had nothing to fear from him, and treated them with the utmost courtesy and thoughtfulness. Darius wished to ransom them and offered his alliance; but Alexander bade the Persian monarch address him "not as an equal, but as lord of Asia," and he should have whatever he chose to ask.

[Ilustration] from Story of the Greek People by E. M. Tappan


Where a city was situated or how it was defended seemed to make little difference to this young conqueror. Tyre was on an island, but he soon made the island into a part of the mainland by building a causeway with vast mounds of earth from which he could attack it with his engines of war. After Tyre had fallen, nearly all the cities of the country east of the Mediterranean surrendered, but he had to fight for Gaza. From that city he sent to a former tutor of his great quantities of frankincense and myrrh. It seemed that when he was a boy the tutor had told him not to burn incense by handfuls until he had conquered the country where spices grew. Now he wrote, "I have sent you frankincense and myrrh in abundance, that you may no longer be a churl to the gods."

Thus far Alexander had only begun his invasion. He had planned to go far, far to the eastward; but he meant to make sure that no enemies were left behind him. This was why he had marched back and forth through Asia Minor until he was certain that there would be no opposition in that part of the land. Before he struck out for the east, however, he wanted to make sure of Egypt, and thither he marched. Egypt rejoiced in the hope of being free from Persia. The Egyptians threw their gates wide open and came in throngs to bid him welcome. Near the mouth of the Nile he chose a site for a city, Alexandria, to which goods from the east and from the west might be brought. He ordered his men to draw a line on the black soil, marking out the plan of the place. They had no chalk, and so they marked it out with flour. Suddenly, a cloud of birds alighted on the new city and ate up the flour. Alexander was troubled, fearing this might signify ill luck; but the soothsayers said, "No, this is a sign that the city will be blest with such plenty as to furnish a supply to those that shall repair to it from other nations," and the king was comforted.

[Ilustration] from Story of the Greek People by E. M. Tappan


Meanwhile Darius had been gathering men from the north, south, east, and west to oppose the invader. The best of them were a number of Greeks whom he had hired. He had also fifteen elephants and two hundred scythed chariots, savage-looking vehicles with sword-blades stretching out from the yoke and the hubs of the wheels. The two armies met at Arbela. The evening before the battle one of Alexander's generals proposed to him to attack the Persians in the night. "Persian armies are almost helpless at night," he urged. But Alexander was too proud to do this. "I will not steal a victory," he replied; "I can beat Darius by open daylight, and I will." And he did: Again Darius led the retreat. The fugitives were so many and raised such a dust that in the confusion he escaped. For this battle Darius had brought together the greatest number of troops possible, had managed them as well as he could, and had been beaten. He could never do any more than he had done to drive out the Greeks. Therefore, although there were many long marches and no little fighting still before Alexander, his victory at Arbela really decided that Persia was in his hands.

The capitals of the Persian empire were Babylon and Susa. Alexander expected a determined resistance in these places, for they were the treasure houses of the empire. Instead of that, the satraps came to meet him bearing the keys of the gates. The citizens scattered flowers in his way and thronged about him to offer their gifts. When he entered the cities, his wildest dreams of wealth came true; for in Susa alone there was more than $57,000,000, and in Persepolis, his next conquest, there was more than three times as much.

Before he came to Persepolis he saw a pitiful sight: hundreds of Greek captives, some of whom had lost a leg, some an arm or an eye, and some who had suffered so severely that they were utterly helpless. This was the work of the Persians. Many of these captives had been kept in Persia for years. Tears came into Alexander's eyes and he urged them to return to Greece. "I will send you home," he said, "and see that you are well cared for as long as you live." But they told him they could not bear to return to their friends in such condition. Then he gave them land and slaves and many cattle. And yet, after the siege of Tyre, this sympathetic monarch had hanged two thousand men; and after the surrender of Gaza he had pierced with brazen rings the feet of the town's brave defender, tied him to a chariot, and dragged him about, still living, in view of the army. So it was that Achilles had treated the body of his enemy Hector at Troy, he declared. It was a pity that from the Iliad in the golden casket he had learned no better lesson. After the overthrow of Persepolis, he gave the town to his soldiers to pillage. He slew the men of the city and sold the women as slaves. The destruction of Athens was avenged.

The first object of Alexander now was to capture Darius. The Persian king was fleeing, but he was really a prisoner in the hands of his own general, Bessus. Some of the Persians were planning to make Bessus king; but unless he could keep Darius as his prisoner, others would always have it in their power to plot to restore him to the throne. They were especially anxious that he should not fall into the hands of Alexander alive. When, therefore, they found that Alexander was at hand, and that they could not escape and take Darius with them, the treacherous Bessus and his friends hurled their javelins at him and left him for dead. It is said that a Macedonian soldier found him just alive, and that he expressed his gratitude to Alexander for having treated his wife and family so kindly. "Tell him I gave him my hand," he said. Alexander threw his own mantle over the body of the king and gave him a funeral with royal honors.

Alexander was master of the Persian empire, but he seemed to be seized with nothing less than a frenzy for conquest. Onward he went with his invincible army,—north toward the Caspian Sea, south toward the Arabian, north again, winding and turning and zigzagging from the country far north of the Hindu-Kush Mountains down to India and the mouth of the Indus. He planned to go on and on to the most distant east; to make an expedition against Arabia by sea; to go far to the westward and conquer Italy, Spain, and northern Africa; in short, to unite the world in one vast empire of which he was to be the ruler. He returned to Babylon to meet his new troops and vessels. The preparations were all made and he was on the point of starting, when he was suddenly taken ill and died.

[Ilustration] from Story of the Greek People by E. M. Tappan


Alexander was thirty-two years of age. He had been on the throne for twelve years. In that time he had given peace to Macedonia and to Greece, he had destroyed cities and built cities, eighteen of them named for himself, and one for Bucephalus; he had made such marches and won such victories as no general had ever dreamed of accomplishing; he had ended the enmity between Persia and Greece, and he had gained an empire.

But what was to become of the empire? When Alexander lay dying, he was asked to whom he left his authority. "To the most worthy," he replied, and gave his ring to one of his generals named Perdiccas. No one but Alexander himself, however, could have held together the enormous empire. After many years of fighting and plotting, of confusion, uproar and violence, the mighty domain was broken into three parts,—Asia, Egypt, and Macedonia. Asia was governed by descendants of one of Alexander's generals, but one portion of it after another became a separate kingdom, until little but Syria and the lands lying immediately to the eastward of it remained united. A new power was rising in the west, the Roman, and Alexander's Asiatic possessions fell into the hands of Rome.

Egypt was ruled by another of Alexander's generals named Ptolemy. He made the country a naval power. He founded the famous Alexandrian Library; he invited large numbers of learned men and artists and poets to make Egypt their home; and he gave them most generous rewards. The line of Ptolemy ruled in Egypt for three centuries, but finally Egypt, too, fell into the hands of the Romans.

Macedonia was supposed to govern Greece, but Greece was by no means a quiet subject. As soon as the Greeks heard of the death of Alexander, they followed the lead of Demosthenes and tried to resist the Macedonian rule. They were not successful, and Demosthenes fled to a shrine of Poseidon on a little island just off the coast of Argolis. He was pursued even into the temple. "Give me but a few minutes," he asked, "that I may write a letter." The officer granted his request. He began to write, then bit the top of his reed as if thinking. He threw a fold of his mantle over his head and neither spoke nor moved. The soldiers drew aside the cloak and saw that the great orator was dying. His reed had been filled with poison, and he had taken it, preferring to die rather than to be a prisoner in the hands of his enemies.



After a time the Greeks formed two leagues, but they could not agree, and therefore they had no power to resist the Romans. Both Macedonia and Greece became only parts of the Roman Empire. So it was that before the coming of Christ the vast possessions of Alexander had become provinces of Rome.

[Ilustration] from Story of the Greek People by E. M. Tappan


So ends the history of ancient Greece, the story of a people who, whatever were their faults, loved beauty and learning and freedom. Nothing has ever surpassed the art of Greece, her literature, or her language. He who would discover perfection in art must go to her lifelike statues, her peerless edifices. He who would find in literature what is simple and grand and true and noble and eloquent, must read the writings of her poets and orators and historians and philosophers. He who would select a tongue in which every shade of thought and feeling may find adequate utterance must fix upon that of the Greeks. So it is that Greece, her statues shattered, her temples in ruins, much of her noblest literature vanished or known but in fragments, her language spoken, in modern form, by only a few thousands, is still the conqueror of her conquerors,—is still "immortal Greece."


Alexander's remarkable boyhood.

After coming to the throne, Alexander subdued the mountaineers, made conquests in Thessaly, and overcame the Thebans. There is a tradition that he visited Diogenes.

Alexander invaded Persia. The painter Apelles went with him. Alexander was successful at the Granicus. He cut the Gordian knot, captured many cities, and at Issus routed the whole Persian army. He took nearly all the cities east of the Mediterranean and founded Alexandria in Egypt. He overcame Darius at Arbela, took Babylon and Susa and many other towns. Darius was slain by his own men. Alexander continued to make conquests throughout Asia, but died just as he was starting for the most distant east.

After years of confusion the empire of Alexander was broken into Asia, Egypt, and Macedonia.

Asia was governed by descendants of one of Alexander's generals, but the limits of the province soon narrowed to Syria and the lands lying immediately to the westward.

Egypt was ruled by a general named Ptolemy and his descendants. He made the country a naval power and a centre of art and learning.

Macedonia was supposed to rule Greece, but the Greeks resisted her rule.

Before the coming of Christ Alexander's vast possessions had all become provinces of Rome.

Nothing has surpassed the art, literature, and language of Greece.

Suggestions For Written Work

What kind of boy was Alexander?

One of the rebellious mountaineers describes the descent of the wagons.

One of Alexander's soldiers describes the crossing of the Granicus.