Chapter 5 The Hellenistic World

Section 2 The Rise of Macedonia and Alexander the Great

The growing disunity of the Greek city-states during the 4th century B.C. soon opened the door to a new invader, the Macedonians. As with so many civilizations, the Greeks too became victims of invasion by these less civilized neighbors on their borders.

The Rise of Macedonia

Macedonia was strategically located on the land route between the Balkans and Asia, and between the civilization in Greece and the warlike nomadic peoples further north. Its people were related to the Greeks and spoke a Greek dialect. The Greeks considered them semi-barbarians, however, since the Macedonians did not live in cities but in villages under a kind of aristocratic feudal society.

            Having to fight constantly with their more nomadic neighbors to the north, east, and west, the Macedonians were vigorous and warlike. In order to survive constant raids they became excellent horsemen and perfected the use of cavalry. Living on the borders of Greece, however, they also learned from their southern neighbors. Greek influence became particularly important after 359 B.C., when a new king, Philip II, came to the throne of Macedonia.

Philip II. As a youth, Philip II had spent many years as a hostage in the Greek city of Thebes. There he had studied Greek military techniques under the brilliant Greek strategist, Epaminondas. In particular, Philip learned the discipline and uses of the Greek phalanx. After he became king, he drew on this knowledge to implement major innovations in the Macedonian methods of warfare. Philip established a permanent professional army with which he tamed the independent Macedonian nobles and created a strong, consolidated kingdom. Reorganizing the Macedonian cavalry, the new king also drafted peasants into new infantry units, organized into heavy phalanx formations. Philip also made good use of archers. By combining these three elements, cavalry, phalanx, and archers, the Macedonian army became one of the most formidable fighting machines in the world.

            Philip's obsession with these military reforms reflected his growing ambitions. He soon began to carry out an aggressive foreign policy. His first targets were in Thrace, where the Athenians controlled important gold and silver mines. Moving even further east, the Macedonian king eventually came to the shores of the Hellespont, where he was able to dominate the flow of trade between the Athenian colonies of the Black Sea region and the Aegean. Since Athens relied on these colonies for its grain supplies, Philip's expansion directly threatened Athens' interests. From Philips' perspective, such expansion was essential in order to pay for his reforms in Macedonia. His real target, however, was the Persian Empire.

            Although the mainland Greeks tended to consider the Macedonians as “semi-barbarians,” the Macedonians themselves felt both an admiration and a kinship with their Greek-speaking cousins to the south. Recognizing that their own circumstances were rougher and cruder than that of the Athenians, for example, the Macedonians nevertheless saw themselves as natural allies of the Greeks against a common, alien foe—the Persians.

            In the 300s, some Greeks also began to feel the same way. Isocrates, for example, not only warned his fellow Greeks of the Persian threat, but also saw Philip of Macedon as the potential leader of pan-Hellenism. “I maintain that you should be the benefactor of Greece,” he wrote to the Macedonian king, 

"and gain to the greatest possible extent the empire of the non-Greek world. If you accomplish this, you will win universal gratitude: from the Greeks for the benefits they gain, from Macedonia if your rule of them is kingly and not tyrannical, and from the rest of the world if it is through you that they are liberated from Persian despotism and exchange it for Greek protection."[1] 

Despite such sentiments, however, others among the Greek cities feared Macedonia’s growing power.

Macedonia and the Greeks. Perhaps stirred by Isocrates’ letters, perhaps just unwilling to engage Persia in war with a hostile Greek world behind him, Philip soon turned his gaze south, towards the cities of mainland Greece. Realizing the threat, many among the Greeks particularly in Athens, which rejected Isocrates’ pan-Hellenism, called for a united front against the Macedonians. In particular, Demosthenes, the great Athenian orator, harangued his fellow citizens to wake up and defend Greek liberty. 

"Consider the facts, gentlemen, consider the outrageous lengths to which Philip has gone. He does not offer us a choice between action and inaction. He utters threats…in overbearing terms. He is not content to rest upon his laurels but is continually adding to the haul he collects in the net in which he ensnares our hesitant, inactive country."

Unwilling to give up their primary loyalties to their own cities, however, most Greeks held aloof. Eventually only Athens and Thebes stood against the Macedonian invaders.

In 338 B.C., at the battle of Chaeronea, Philip’s cavalry broke the Greek phalanx ­- and thereby put an end to the political independence of the Greek city-states. With no further opposition, Philip forced all the Greek cities except Sparta into a new League of Corinth, with himself at their head. The following year, he began to plan for a new pan-Hellenic war against Persia. Before he could carry out his plans, however, a disgruntled Macedonian noble murdered the ambitious king.

Alexander the Great


Philip was succeeded by his son Alexander. Although only 20 years old, Alexander proved even more ambitious than his father. Philip had trained his son as a youth in the arts of war. He had also insisted that his son receive a good Greek education. The prince's tutor was the great philosopher Aristotle, the son of Philip’s physician. Despite his youth, Alexander had already proven his worth on the battlefield. He had led the cavalry wing of his father's army at Chaeronea. The experience stood him in good stead. As news of Philip's death spread, Alexander had to face rebellions among the Greek city-states. Over the next year, he campaigned from Thrace to Illyria, to mainland Greece, restoring his control. After forcing the Greeks back into submission, Alexander felt free to carry on his father's great enterprise, the conquest of Persia.

Alexander's conquest of Persia. In the spring of 334, Alexander crossed the Hellespont with an army of about 35,000 infantry and 5,000 cavalry. With this relatively small force, Alexander set out to conquer the greatest empire in the world at the time. The Persian king of kings could field an army of over half a million men and draw on the resources of an empire stretching from Central Asia to Egypt. In addition, he controlled the Aegean with the largest fleet in the eastern Mediterranean. Alexander, on the other hand, had less than a hundred thousand men and no fleet at all. Despite these disadvantages, the Macedonian king had several things going for him.

            Although the Persian army was enormous, it was drawn from the various provinces of the empire, and each contingent had its own method of fighting. The Greeks on the other hand were all trained alike and fought together as a single coordinated force. Not least, Alexander himself was a more charismatic leader than his opponent, the Persian king, Darius III. Even more importantly, the Persians pursued a reckless strategy that soon led to their defeat. Darius ignored the advice of some of his generals, who were Greek, to lure Alexander deep into the empire where his supply lines would be exposed, while at the same time attacking Greece with the Persian fleet. Instead he accepted the views of his Persian nobles that he should challenge Alexander in open combat.

            In May 334, Alexander routed a Persian army at the battle of Granicus in northern Asia Minor and then moved south to take full control of the coast. The following winter, he visited Gordium in central Asia Minor, where an ancient prophecy had foretold that whoever untied the knot left by king Gordias in the harness of his royal chariot would become king of all Asia. Alexander solved the puzzle by cutting the knot in two with his sword. With this good omen, he continued on to the key strategic pass of Issus, which controlled the road south into Phoenicia and Egypt. There, in November 333 the Greeks once again defeated Darius's armies. As the Persian king fled the field of battle, Alexander's troops captured his camp including his wife and children.

            The victory at Issus opened the road to Egypt, and after taking control of Syria and Phoenicia along the way, in 332 Alexander arrived on the Nile. As the priests of Amon-Re proclaimed that he was indeed the son of Amon, Alexander founded a new city, which he modestly called Alexandria. Still anxious to defeat Darius, however, Alexander stayed only a little while in Egypt and then marched north towards the heart of the Persian Empire. In October 331, at Gaugamela in Assyria, the Macedonian king once again routed the Persian army. Darius again fled the field. Such incompetence and cowardice discredited the king, and in 330 he was murdered by one of his own nobles.


            After this final victory, Alexander took control of the great cities of the Persian Empire. When news came of Darius's death, he took for himself the title of king of kings. Still not satisfied, however, the world conqueror undertook still more campaigns. Between 330 and 327 he conquered Central Asia. Form there he pushed his tired men on to the Indus River. There at last, after 12000 miles of marching and fighting, his soldiers finally had had enough. As they rose in rebellion, Alexander reluctantly agreed to go no farther. After a long return march, in which much of his army died while crossing the Gedrosian desert in southern Iran, he returned to the Persian summer capital at Susa. In ten years he had conquered the largest empire yet seen in western Asia. He was only thirty-two years old.

Alexander's legacy

Alexander of Macedon, who became known as Alexander the Great, died of a fever, probably malaria, in Babylon on 10 June 323. He was not yet 33 years old. In later generations many scholars have disputed his personality and motivation. Some have seen him as a wise philosopher, others as a drunken megalomaniac, bent on world conquest. Still others have paid tribute to his genius as a military conqueror, though lamenting his lack of any moral vision. The legends of his career even during his own lifetime make any evaluation difficult for historians. What we do know is that he conquered more territory more rapidly than almost anyone on history. We also know that he was a master of military tactics and strategy regardless of the conditions and terrain in which he fought.

            Although we know little about his policies as a ruler, there are at least some indications of how Alexander thought the empire should be run. First, he deliberately spread Greek culture wherever he went. He established many new cities, most called Alexandria, in which he settled many of the veterans of his campaigns. Second, he did his best to integrate the new peoples he had conquered, especially the Persians, into his armies. He realized that he could not hope to rule such a vast empire without the help of the old Persian imperial administration, and the collaboration of the Persian elite. Consequently, he encouraged efforts to intermingle his Greek and Macedonian followers with his new Persian subjects. In 324, for example, after his return to Susa, he organized a mass marriage between 80 of his senior commanders and the daughters of Persian noble families, and 10,000 of his ordinary troops and local Persian women. Alexander himself took the daughter of Darius as one of his wives.

            No longer simply a Macedonian king, Alexander became an oriental monarch with the status of a living god. Although such practices did little to endear him to his own Macedonian and Greek troops, he adopted Persian styles of dress and court ceremony. His death, however, left the process of integration unfinished. Nevertheless, Alexander's conquests had opened a new era in cultural interaction and the flow of ideas and peoples from the eastern Mediterranean to the borders of India and Central Asia. In this larger world, the fertilization of Greek civilization with elements from the civilizations of the Persian Empire would produce a new culture among the ruling elite. No longer purely Hellenic, or Greek, the new culture would become known as Hellenistic, or Greek-like.

[1]Ibid, pp. 166-167.