Alexander The Great: 11 Facts on the Greatest Conqueror

Should Alexander the Great, the great conqueror of the 4th century BCE, really be called “the Great?” Here are 11 reasons among many why he deserves this title.

Jun 26, 2020By Marian Vermeulen, BA History and Philosophy
Bronze head alexander the great
Hellenistic Bronze Head of Alexander the Great, Metropolitan Museum of Art, with  Alexander the Great by Andy Warhol, 1982, Private Collection


Most people have heard of Alexander of Macedonia, the young Greek warlord who became king at the age of twenty and had conquered the ancient world by the time of his sudden death at thirty-two. That achievement is itself an impressive feat, but the story of Alexander the Great is an incredibly rich and complex one. These are 11 further reasons why he deserves to be called great.


1. Alexander the Great Was the Son of Philip II

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Ancient Thracian coin depicting Philip II and commemorating his win at an Olympic horse race, 305-281 BCE, Middlebury College Museum of Art, Vermont


Alexander the Great’s father, Philip II of Macedonia, did not expect to ever become king. Yet, after the unexpected deaths of his two older brothers, Philip suddenly found himself the king of a struggling nation. Situated to the north of the frequently warring Greek city-states, Macedonia became the target of frequent raids. In only one year, Philip drastically reformed the Macedonian army and turned the fortunes of the once-backwater nation. In 356 BCE, Philip’s fourth wife, Olympias, gave birth to a son.


2. He Tamed Bucephalus

alexander taming bucephalus painting
Alexander the Great (356-323) Taming Bucephalus by Benjamin Robert Haydon, 1826-27, Petworth House, England


Alexander the Great was reportedly an intelligent and precocious child. He charmed foreign ambassadors and won a bet with his father that he could ride an unruly stallion. He was only ten at the time and won the horse, which he named Bucephalus. The horse became his trusted companion and warhorse. When Bucephalus passed away in India, Alexander named a city after his beloved friend.


3. He Was Tutored by Aristotle

bust of aristotle
Bust of Aristotle, the Acropolis Museum, Athens


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As the presumptive heir, Philip spared no expense to give his son the best education possible. He set his heart on Aristotle himself, but there was a rift there. Philip had razed Aristotle’s hometown of Stageira to the ground in an earlier campaign. Philip offered to fund the comprehensive rebuilding of Stageira, and Aristotle agreed to tutor Alexander. He taught the young heir from the ages of thirteen to sixteen and instilled in Alexander a love of philosophy, literature, science, and naturalism. While on campaigns to foreign lands in later years, Alexander frequently sent letters and specimens to his old tutor.


4. He Proved His Leadership Potential at Sixteen

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Alexander the Great Founding Alexandria by Placido Costanzi, 1736-37, The Walters Art Museum, Baltimore


People grew up faster in ancient times than they do today. When Alexander was only sixteen years old, his father left on a campaign against the great city of Byzantium, leaving his teenage son in charge of Macedonia. While Philip was away, a tribe of Thracians to the north called the Maedi rebelled against Macedonian control. Alexander wasted no time in gathering the soldiers left under his command and marching against the rebels. He succeeded in crushing the revolt, drove the Maedians out of their chief city, and recolonized it with Greeks. He even christened his new city Alexandropolis. It would be the first of many settlements named in his honor, such as the great city of Alexandria in Egypt.


5. He Won Battles While Outnumbered

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“The Alexander Mosaic” depicting the Battle of Issus, Naples Archaeological Museum, discovered in Pompeii


Alexander the Great fought two pitched battles against the Persians, the Battle of Issus and the Battle of Gaugamela. In both encounters, he faced at least 10,000 more men and may have been outnumbered by two to one or more. Alexander’s strategy in each case was to launch a targeted attack against Darius, the Great King of Persia. If he could capture, kill, or force the king to flee, the Persian army would likely collapse. He succeeded in driving the king from the field on both occasions. As expected, the Persians soon broke and ran, taking devastating casualties as the pursuing Macedonians cut them down.


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Relief depicting the Battle of Gaugamela, 18th century AD, National Archaeological Museum of Spain, Madrid


Alexander’s victory at Gaugamela was a skillful use of tactics and a testament to the independent competence of Alexander’s generals. While the main body of the line held ground against the main assault of the opposing Persians, Alexander and his companion cavalry drew the Persian left away from the battlefield, opening up a gap in their line. They then wheeled back and drove straight for Darius at the middle of the line. Although Darius escaped and hoped to mount another defense, he was unable to gather another army. Gaugamela effectively ended the domination of the Persian Empire, and Darius’s own officers eventually betrayed and murdered him. Alexander became the Great King of Persia at the age of twenty-six, ruler of the largest empire to date.


6. He Never Lost a Battle

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A modern view of the Persian Gate, possibly from the site of the Persian camp, 330 BCE


The two great battles with the Persians were far from Alexander the Great’s only military victories. As he moved across Asia Minor, he captured cities and engaged in minor battles with a variety of nations. Even after conquering Persia, he was far from finished and continued his advance into India. Altogether, Alexander campaigned almost constantly for fifteen years, and in all that time, he never lost a battle. Perhaps the closest he came to defeat was at the Battle of the Persian Gate. It was a narrow pass leading to the great Persian city of Persepolis. The Persian commander Ariobarzanes chose the site for his final stand.


persepolis unesco
The city of Persepolis UNESCO Site


The Persians occupied the heights above the pass, which was only about two meters wide at its narrowest point. Hurling boulders, javelins, and arrows down from above, they inflicted massive casualties on the trapped Macedonians and forced their retreat. The Persians held off the Macedonian advance for a month, but eventually, Alexander found a route around the pass. Leaving a small force to occupy the Macedonian camp, he led the rest on a treacherous, narrow path to attack the Persians from the rear. The surprised Persians did not even have time to seize their weapons, and the Macedonian forces massacred them.  


7. He Invented New Siege Tactics

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A Naval Action during the Siege of Tyre by Andre Castaigne, 1898-99


Siege warfare was a relatively new concept in the time of Alexander the Great. While surrounding a city to starve it out was relatively common, actual assaults with the aid of siege engines intended to breach fortified walls had only begun in earnest under Philip II. Alexander took his father’s tactics to another level as he conquered cities across the near east. In 332 BCE, he laid siege to Tyre, a heavily fortified city in modern-day Lebanon. Lying on an island offshore, the ancients considered it impenetrable. Historical sieges had all failed, including one by Nebuchadnezzar II of Babylon which lasted for thirteen years. 


city of tyre unesco site
City of Tyre UNESCO Site


Alexander and his men built a massive causeway across the harbor from scratch, creating large screens from animal hides to protect themselves from arrows. When the Tyrians began to hurl rocks into the water to impede their progress, the Macedonians mounted large winches on their ships to remove them. The Tyrians then swam out from their city and cut the ships’ anchor lines, leading to the first use of chains to attach anchors. In the final assault, Alexander even mounted siege towers on the ships to attack from multiple sides of the city wall. He took the unconquerable city after a siege of just over six months.


8. He Led From The Front

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Alexander the Great in His Conquest of Asia by Marzio di Colantonio, 1620, The Walters Art Museum, Baltimore


In the modern age, generals are never first on the battlefield, and for good reason. Keeping the most experienced, skilled tacticians safe ensures that they can continue to dictate movements on the field. Even the Romans and the Persians preferred not to put their generals and kings in the thickest part of the fight. Yet for many ancient states, the general’s rightful place was at the head of the army. Macedonian culture, in particular, demanded that the king lead from the front or risk losing the respect of his commanders and, subsequently his crown. Alexander the Great not only fulfilled this duty but seemed to revel in it. He was at the front of all the most critical charges in every battle.


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Alexander on the Lion Hunt by Charles La Fosse, 1672, Palace of Versailles, France


In the assault on Tyre, as his soldiers were flagging, he brought a ship with a siege engine close to the wall, threw down a rickety piece of wood, and ran across it alone to breach the wall, calling for his men to follow him. A similar situation occurred in a later siege of the stronghold of an Indian tribe known as the Mallians. When the spirits of his men flagged, he jumped up the siege ladders himself. Seeing their leader alone and exposed, the soldiers followed so quickly that they broke the ladders, leaving Alexander alone on the wall with only three or four other soldiers who managed to get up with him. Rather than withdrawing, Alexander chose to leap down into the heart of the citadel alone.


9. Alexander Survived Many Deadly Wounds

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Alexander the Great and the Fates by Bernardino Mei, 1667, Cincinnati Art Museum 


As might be expected, leading from the front comes with consequences, and Alexander the Great took numerous injuries throughout his campaigns. He was wounded in the shoulder, head, thigh, and chest in as many different engagements. He took arrows through the leg, shoulder, and ankle. His worst injury came during the incident at the Mallian stronghold, while defending himself alone from the enemy within the walls. He was so dangerous in a direct fight that the Mallians took to shooting at him with their bows, and one found its mark. A large arrow pierced his chest on the left side, driving into the thoracic cavity and damaging his lung.


alexander the great wounded
Alexander the Great Wounded by Francesco Albani, 1615-16, Private Collection


He fought on as long as he could, but eventually, loss of blood combined with the dizziness from a developing pneumothorax caused him to lose consciousness and collapse on his shield. The four men who had managed to scale the wall with him desperately defended their king, falling one by one to their own wounds. However, they managed to hold off the enemy just long enough for the Macedonians outside the walls, who were by now in frenzied fear for their beloved king, to claw their way over and through the walls. They cut the arrow out of Alexander’s chest, and amazingly he recovered.


10. He Endured All Hardships With His Men 

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Alexander the Great Refuses Water by Giuseppe Cadez, 1792, Hermitage Museum, Saint Petersburg


Perhaps the greatest mistake of Alexander the Great’s life was his decision to take the majority of his army across the great Gedrosian Desert, in the southern regions of modern Pakistan, on his journey back from India to Babylon. The ancient historians claim that he lost more men on the crossing than he had in all his years of campaigning. Yet Alexander distinguished himself once again, showing the leadership qualities that had won him the hearts of his men in the first place. He suffered all the hardships, famine, and lack of water alongside his men.


On one occasion, a small group of men foraging away from the main body found a tiny dribble of water. They collected it in a helmet and eagerly took it to present to their king. Alexander, in what the historian Arrian calls one of his finest gestures, would not drink water that his men could not have. After thanking the group for their trouble in bringing it, he dumped it out, thereby significantly boosting the morale of his entire army.


11. Alexander the Great Was Close With His Top Officers

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The Queens of Persia at the Feet of Alexander by Charles Le Brun, 1661, Palace of Versailles, France


While his exploits can certainly earn him his moniker, even more fascinating is his complex and passionate personality. Though he could be ruthless to enemies who did not surrender or friends that he felt had betrayed him, Alexander the Great was quite devoted to his closest commanders. Many of them served as royal pages in Philip’s court and had been friends from childhood. When Ptolemy was wounded by a poisoned arrow in India, Alexander sat by his bedside all night, despite being exhausted from battle himself. After he regained consciousness following the assault on Mallia, his friends came to his tent, weeping and begging him to be more careful and not put himself in such danger again. Alexander’s closest friend and possible lover, Hephaestion, died on the road back to Babylon, and Alexander went into deep mourning, refusing to eat or drink for days.


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The Death of Alexander the Great by Karl Theodor von Piloty, 1886, The Art Renewal Center, New Jersey


Yet this close relationship with so many of his top officers also worked against Alexander. The greatest failure of his life and achievements was his inability to organize a solid line of succession. Had Hephaestion survived Alexander, he would likely have been the de facto successor. Yet only a few months after Hephaestion’s death, Alexander was himself at death’s door with a fatal illness. His only child was not even born yet, and there was no clear second-in-command. His last words, when one of his men asked to whom he left the kingdom, are said to have been “to the strongest.” Alexander’s close relationship with so many of his commanders left every one of them convinced that they were worthy of the throne, and the subsequent wars for power and territory lasted over forty years and split Alexander’s great kingdom apart.


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By Marian VermeulenBA History and PhilosophyMarian has been a devoted student of the ancient world since primary school. She received her BA in History and Philosophy from Hope College and has continued researching and writing on topics of ancient history from the Assyrian Empire to the Roman Empire and everything in between. She enjoys dabbling in historical fiction, but generally finds the actual true individuals of history and their stories more fascinating than any fictional invention. Her other passion is horses, and in her spare time she enjoys starting young horses under saddle and volunteer training for the local horse rescue.