Alexander the Great – Empire builder on a global scale

The culmination of power in the ancient Aegean gave birth to the Greek city states that would become the Athenian empire, one that gave the world Western philosophy and ‘the cradle of civilization’ with its rational tradition and freedom of thought. Herodotus and Thucydides and their quest for inquiry and the causes of warfare, and the Western intellectual tradition were a key contribution to global civilization. The Greek philosophers have been dubbed ‘immortal teachers’ because of their contributions to knowledge, and the legacy of names such as Socrates, Aristotle, Plato, and Demosthenes, teachers, orators, and men of renowned talent and analysis, the root of rational inquiry, who were not impressed by material possessions or worldly treasure, but understood that their strength came from a peculiar political tradition – one based on freedom, unity, and individual achievement.

The Peloponnesian war and incessant infighting among Greek city states was a necessary precursor to the emergence of Philip of Macedon. Philip was a master of propaganda who would exploit the idea of a campaign of vengeance upon the Persian Empire, as an excuse to subjugate and unite the Greeks. His son Alexander III, who would challenge and conquer ancient Persia, sought to create a world empire where subjects and cultures would come together under one grand civilization. His lust for power and appetite for conquest was rarely insatiable, as the manner in which his empire divided immediately upon his death attests. His moniker, the Great, also shows the continued respect that is given to him and that highlights the paradox of admiration and heroic gloss that historians apply as they examine power. Alexander wished to adopt the kneeling tradition of the Persians (proskynesis – kneeling in submission), much to the disgust of his soldiers, who followed him willingly up to that point. Most scholars consider it probable that they began to plot his assassination once he became too high-minded and began to model himself as a demi-god in the tradition of the Oriental despots. Thus the constant struggle between power and the ideal of equality.

The exercise of power has evolved a great deal since the era of Alexander the Great and his Macedonian Phalanx and complementary use of heavy cavalry. His armies used military power with devastating effect on early civilizations in the region to carve out the first great Western empire, a vast section of Asia, the Mediterranean and Northern Africa. Their power was in mobilizing and organizing violence. Alexander was reliant on a mix of vengeance (for the previous Persian wars), the promise of booty, and national pride to motivate his army and stimulate their morale to fight, without which they may not have fought so many lengthy campaigns and marched to unknown distant lands over an extended seven-year campaign.

The historical narrative is one where the West had to contend against and protect itself from outside enemies such as Persian, or nomadic Steppe invaders. Those empires and the civilizations from which they sprang were also seen as ideological opposites or hostile barbaric forces who could have threatened the development of the course of history and the modern comforts and freedoms which are a hallmark of Western civilization.

The legacy of Alexander was a military dynamism and a pragmatic style of administering other societies once they had been conquered. Alexander slept with a copy of Homer’s Odyssey under his pillow, and adapted the narrative of the contemporary epic and integrated it with his own identity and military campaigns, seeing himself as a hero destined to leave his stamp on the world, regardless of the aspirations or desires for independence of the peoples he conquered. He was the first Western leader to set out to conquer what was then the known world.

His expedition into Persia was not merely one of vengeance or honor, or lust for wealth and glory. Alexander intended to lay the cultural foundations of the greatest empire in history. Encyclopedia Britannica states that his “army was accompanied by surveyors, engineers, architects, scientists, court officials, and historians; from the outset Alexander seems to have envisaged an unlimited operation.” (1981 edition, p. 469).

For further resources on Alexander the Great, an outstanding video can be found at Epic History TV. We give it our highest recommendation.