8 Lesser-Known Facts About Alexander the Great

Alexander the Great is one of the most famous figures in history. But how much do you know about the renowned conqueror on the ancient world?

Feb 19, 2023By Vedran Bileta, MA in Late Antique, Byzantine, and Early Modern History, BA in History

alexander great bust hubert achilles alexander painting


Alexander III of Macedon, better known as Alexander the Great, became king at the age of twenty and had conquered most of the known world by the time of his sudden death at 32. During his brief but eventful reign, he created a vast Empire that stretched from Greece and Egypt all the way to India. Yet, the young ruler’s dreams of further conquest were cut short by his unexpected death in Babylon in 323 BCE. Following the conqueror’s passing, his huge Empire disintegrated in the wars waged by his successors. Even so, Alexander’s lasting legacy — the Hellenistic World — endured, influencing virtually every society and culture up to the present day. Much is known about his life, his reign, and his legacy. But there is always more to unpack. Here are eight lesser-known facts about the king, general, conqueror, and legend — Alexander the Great.


1. Alexander the Great Was a Member of an Ancient Dynasty

Marble portrait head of Alexander the Great, 2nd century – 1st century BCE, via the British Museum


Alexander the Great’s name is widely known. Few, however, know that before he became immortalized in history as “the Great,” the young ruler was known as Alexander III of Macedon. Alexander was born in 356 BCE to king Phillip II of Macedon, and his fourth wife, Olympias. Philip was a member of the ancient Argead dynasty, which traced its origins to a mythical period in ancient Greece. According to tradition, the dynasty’s founder, king Caranus, was one of the descendants of Heracles.


While she was not a Macedonian herself, Olympias too was a member of ancient royal lineage. Alexander’s mother was the daughter of the king of the Molossians, an ancient Greek tribe from Epirus. Olympias’ illustrious lineage did not stop there. Her family claimed relation to none other than the Trojan War hero, the legendary Achilles (!). Thus, Alexander could trace his origins to some of the most famous figures from Greek history and mythology. No wonder the young prince felt he was predestined for greatness.


2. Alexander’s Father Paved the Way for His Military Success

Macedonian phalanx with sarissa deployed, as imagined by Angus McBride, via 300spartanwarriors.blogspot.com


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Although his son’s legacy nowadays overshadows his name, King Phillip II of Macedon laid the foundation for the army that would help Alexander conquer the known world. Under Phillip’s reign, Macedonia grew from a peripheral kingdom to a military powerhouse, becoming the leading power in ancient Greece. To achieve such a feat, Philip II used diplomacy, marriage alliances, and, most importantly, he reformed the army, making it the deadliest military force of the period.


At the center of the Macedonian military was an infantry formation known as the phalanx. It was a block of infantry packed tightly together, with each soldier in the formation carrying a 4 to 6.5-meter-long (13-21 feet) pike called a sarissa. Roughly twice the length of the pikes used by the Greeks, sarissa gave the Macedonian infantry an extra reach before the pike blades of the opposing force could reach them. The phalanx was deployed to hold off hostile infantry while the cavalry (another of Phillip’s inventions) went on the offensive. The Companion cavalry, elite mounted troops formed by the Macedonian aristocracy, was one of the first shock cavalry units in history.


3. Aristotle Was His Tutor 

Aristotle teaching young Alexander, 19th-century wood engraving, via Historytoday.com


Phillip did not only teach his son the art of war. As a Macedonian prince, Alexander was given the best possible education in history, philosophy, literature, algebra, and other important subjects. The royal court at Pella (in present-day Greece) was filled with the brightest minds of the age, brought to teach the future conqueror. Among them was none other than Aristotle, the famous philosopher. Aristotle had yet to make a name for himself at that time, but he was known as Plato’s pupil. Thus, Phillip II invited Aristotle to teach his son, promising to rebuild the philosopher’s home in Stagira. Three years of Aristotle’s teaching left a lasting impact on young Alexander, inspiring a life-long love of philosophy.


According to a legend, Alexander, while still a prince, met Diogenes the Cynic, an ascetic philosopher known for his rejection of worldly possessions and for sleeping in a large clay jar. Alexander asked the philosopher if there was anything he could do for him. “Yes,” Diogenes replied, “stand aside. You’re blocking my sun.” Apparently, the meeting made such an impression on Alexander, who was quoted as saying, “If I were not Alexander, I would be Diogenes.” Alexander’s interest in philosophy never faded. While in India, he took a respite from war, engaging instead in lengthy discussions with the gymnosophists, “naked philosophers” from the Hindu or Jain religions, who, like Diogenes, rejected human vanity — and clothing.


4. Alexander’s Favorite Book Was the Iliad

Alexander the Great at the Tomb of Achilles, by Robert Hubert, 1750-1775, via The Louvre


Considering his illustrious ancestry and high education, it is not surprising that Alexander was an avid reader of the great classics. He was particularly fond of Homer’s works — the Iliad and the Odyssey. According to the first-century Greek biographer Plutarch, Alexander carried a copy of the Iliad, annotated by his tutor Aristotle, wherever he went. Plutarch said that Alexander considered the Iliad a “perfect portable treasure of all military virtue and knowledge.”


Allegedly, Alexander slept with the Iliad under his pillow. His favorite hero was Achilles, the legendary warrior. After all, Achilles was one of his ancestors from his mother’s side. And like his childhood hero, Alexander, too, would take the Greeks into a fight against the East. Unlike Achilles, who perished in the Trojan War, Alexander would triumph, toppling one of the mightiest empires of the East and creating a new and powerful realm.


5. Alexander the Great Adored His Faithful Steed Bucephalus 

Detail of the Battle of Issus Mosaic, showing Alexander the Great on his beloved Bucephalus, ca. 100 BCE, via Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Napoli


Plutarch’s biography of Alexander also tells us a famous story of love between man and beast. When Alexander was ten-years-old, his father was offered a large and magnificent horse. However, the animal refused to be tamed. Angered by his stubbornness, Phillip ordered the young horse to be taken away. However, Alexander was struck by the animal’s beauty and intervened, wagering that he could mount the fierce beast. Famously, the prince noticed that the horse feared its own shadow, and was able to subdue the stallion.


Alexander ended up keeping the horse, naming it Boukephalas (or Bucephalus), meaning “ox-head.” The two became inseparable, and when Alexander embarked on his legendary campaign against Persia, he chose Bucephalus as his war horse. Bucephalus accompanied Alexander through many battles, following his master on his quest to the end of the known world. Finally, in distant India, Bucephalus’ journey came to an end. Around 326 BCE, after the Battle of Hydaspes, Bucephalus died from battle wounds or possibly from old age (Alexander’s faithful steed was thirty years old). To honor his faithful companion, Alexander built a city on the banks of the Hydaspes River, naming it Alexandria Bucephala.


6. His Ascent to the Throne Was a Violent Affair 

Coin portrait of Alexander the Great, 305-281 BCE, via the British Museum


In 336 BCE, Phillip II was assassinated by one of his bodyguards, who was then killed while trying to escape. Soon after the king’s death, the 20-year-old Alexander was acclaimed as the new monarch by the aristocracy and the army. However, some questioned his claim, and to make things more complicated, some suspected both Alexander and his mother, Olympias, of being involved in Phillip’s assassination. After all, the relationship between Phillip and Olympias soured in recent years to the point that both she and her son were exiled from the kingdom.


But with the throne now vacant, Alexander wasted no time, and he was quick to eliminate all possible obstacles to his reign. Alexander ordered the execution of his cousin, two Macedonian princesses, and other royal family members whom he considered his rivals. Besides the purge at the court, Alexander had to deal with several Greek city-states, which used Phillip’s demise to revolt. In a swift and brutal campaign, the new king defeated the rebels, severely punishing their leaders and restoring order. The pacification of Greece allowed Alexander the Great to embark on his iconic Persian campaign.


7. Alexander Was Never Defeated in Battle

Detail from the relief of the so-called Alexander’s sarcophagus, showing Alexander the Great riding Bucephalus in the battle, late 4th century BCE, via Wikimedia Commons


Alexander spent most of his reign waging war against Greek city-states, Thracian tribes, or the armies of Persian and Indian kings. In his many battles, Alexander made full use of the phalanx formation, and the companion cavalry, further developing his army into the most powerful military force of the period. Alexander’s military tactics and strategies are still taught at the world’s most prestigious military academies. After all, during 15 years of warfare, Alexander the Great never lost a battle.


Alexander the Great in the temple of Jerusalem, by Sebastiano Conca, ca 1736, via Prado Museum


Why? Besides being taught the art of war from a young age, Alexander possessed immense personal charisma and bravery, combined with excellent leadership. His constant presence among his troops raised the army’s morale and solidified their will to fight. However, his custom of personally leading the troops led to many near-death encounters for the young conqueror and even more wounds. At the Granicus River, for instance, Alexander miraculously cheated death after Cleitus the Black saved his life from the Persian attacker in the last moment. But Alexander’s most severe wound was during the Indian campaign, when an enemy arrow pierced his lung.


8. He Named Many Cities After Himself (and One After His Horse)

Alexander the Great founding Alexandria, by Placido Constanzi, 1736-1737, via the Walters Art Museum, Baltimore


Alexander was more than a mere conqueror. He was also a builder and founder of cities. In fact, during his decade-long campaign in the East, he founded over seventy new cities. Unsurprisingly, the young conqueror named them all after himself, except for the one in India, which he named after his beloved horse, Bucephalus. Alexander’s towns trace the path of his armies’ progress through the areas of present-day Turkey, Iran, Afghanistan, Tajikistan, and Pakistan. Most of them are by now reduced to mere ruins or became the foundation of present-day cities.


The most famous of them is undoubtedly the city that Alexander founded in Egypt. Alexandria-ad-Aegyptum, was designed to be the capital of his Empire. Yet, it was not to be. Following Alexander’s death in Babylon, the Empire quickly collapsed in the wars of his successors – the diadochi. However, Alexandria-ad-Aegyptum retained its role as the capital of the mighty Ptolemaic Kingdom, one of many Hellenistic Kingdoms that emerged after the bloody wars. Alexandria outlived the Ptolemies, remaining the intellectual and economic powerhouse of Roman Egypt. Only in the Middle Ages did the place lose its importance. However, the town was revived in the nineteenth century, and today Alexander’s city is Egypt’s second-largest and one of the most important Mediterranean centers.

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By Vedran BiletaMA in Late Antique, Byzantine, and Early Modern History, BA in HistoryVedran is a doctoral researcher, based in Budapest. His main interest is Ancient History, in particular the Late Roman period. When not spending time with the military elites of the Late Roman West, he is sharing his passion for history with those willing to listen. In his free time, Vedran is wargaming and discussing Star Trek.