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The Persian empire falls to Alexander of Macedon (356 -323 BC)

Alexander becomes king of Macedon

Before Philip could get his project underway he was murdered. Macedonian monarchs, like the Achaemenids, were frequently assassinated - Philip's murder was very much in the tradition. His son was 20 years old, but already battle-hardened and ruthless - as soon as he was acclaimed, as king Alexander III, he too set about violently eliminating his rivals.


The truth about Alexander has always been obscured by myths, legends and misconceptions - there is hardly anything in his story which is not controversial. What is not in doubt, though, is that he was the world's first true international celebrity.

Persian sources

For once we have a Persian source for a Greek king's reign - a refreshing change. The Shahnameh, a verse epic written in Persian by Firdowsi iat the turn of the 10th century AD includes the story of Sekander, a handsome Greek prince, grandson of Filqus. A foal was born in the royal stables the very same night. He was taught wisdom by a great teacher Arestalis. He fought three great battles against the Persian king Dara, who happened to be his half-brother. When Dara was mortally wounded by two of his own courtiers after the third battle, Sekander was angry. He promised to bring the attackers to justice and protect Dara's family. Dara asked Sekander to marry his daughter Roshanak - with whom he would have a son to preserve the Zoroastrian religion and the Avestan scriptures, the fire temples and the festival of Now Ruz. Dara died, and Sekander gave him a royal funeral.

Shahnameh battle scene

A battle scene from one of the exquisite editions of the Shahnameh (15th century AD. One version was pulled apart by its American owner - and its individual pages sold, at a price of around $1,000,000 each.)

Sekander ruled from the Persian capital at Istakhr. Later he fought against Foor, king of India, and travelled the world righting wrongs, having magical encounters and adding peoples to his empire - he died in Babylon and his body was taken to Alexandria in Egypt. Firdowsi sums up:

Sekander departed and what remains of him now is the words we say about him. He killed 36 kings, but look how much of the world remained in his grasp when he died. He sought things that no man has ever sought, and what remains of him is words. Words are the better portion, since they do not decay as an old building decays in the snow and rain.

Firdowsi had no access to Greek and Roman sources, only traditional Persian stories - and there was a great tradition of story-telling in Persia. Many Persian tales eventually found their way into the collection of Persian, Arabian, Egyptian, Syrian and Indian tales known as The Thousand Nights and One Night (or, misleadingly The 'Arabian' Nights).

It's quite remarkable - as you will see - how the Shahnameh gets a lot about Sekander pretty much right. This shows how Alexander became a part of the story of Persia: Sekander's story is the bridge between the stories of the early kings (based on folktales from eastern Iran, that became popular during the Parthian era) and the later historically based stories beginning with Ardashir I, who founded of the Sasanian dynasty in AD 224: very much a real person. Apart from Dara (Darius III), there is no trace of the Achaemenids in Firdowsi's book. Nor is there much hostility towards Sekander - his story is used to show how fate favours some people and not others, and how the conqueror is conquered by death - "and what remains of him is words". See also The Kayanian Kings in the National History Section.

Greek and Roman sources

The good news: several of Alexander's friends and companions wrote eyewitness accounts of the invasion of Persia, including:

  • Ptolemy, a childhood friend and trusted lieutenant, who became ruler of Egypt after Alexander's death. Good on the military material, but a bit of a whitewash of Alexander the man.
  • Callisthenes - probably a cousin of Aristotle -the "official" historian to the expedition.
  • Nearchus - a boyhood friend, and later admiral.

The bad news: we only know them at second or third hand from random references in authors who used them 400 years or more later. Some of those we've met already: the superficial Diodorus, and the orientalist Plutarch. Two writers wrote specifically about Alexander: the Roman Quintus Curtius (possibly around AD 40 - he likes gossip and anecdotes) and the Greek Arrian (about AD 150), whose account is full and conscientious (ie dull). There's also a work called The Alexander Romance - which is first known from a Greek MS of 3rd century AD: this almost "comic-book" version of the Alexander story is the source of many of the fanciful legends which attached themselves to Alexander (some of which found their way into the Shahnameh). But, as Mary Beard has pointed out, the "historical" Alexander is known to us largely from a Roman perspective - and numerous Roman leaders tried to model themselves on him.

The young Alexander

Like a character in the Iliad, he was led to believe he was descended from the gods: on his father's side from Zeus and Heracles, and from Achilles (and Andromache, Hector's widow) on his mother's. It was important to him later to believe that he had Trojan as well as Greek blood. He was always close to his mother, but his relationship with his father, a brilliant warrior, and a tough hard-drinking womaniser, was often difficult. When his parents fell out, his mother told him he wasn't Philip's son at all, but a son of Zeus. Later, after he'd conquered Egypt, he visited the oracle of Zeus (identified with the Egyptian Amun or Ammon), 500 km into the desert, at the oasis of Siwa. He never revealed what the god told him.

The Oasis at Siwa

The lake at Siwa Oasis in the Egyptian desert

At the age of twelve, Alexander met the other two influences, which, along with his mother, were to affect the rest of his life. They were a horse and a philosopher. The horse, exactly the same age as Alexander, was called Bucephalas (bull-head), and was to carry him thousands of miles across Asia. No one else could ride him. When Bucephalas died, aged 26, Alexander was heartbroken. The philosopher was Aristotle, who became Alexander's tutor.

Coin of Alexander

As with the Achaemenids, the arrival of a new ruler was a signal for rebellion: Alexander had to crush moves for independence to the north, and, more seriously among members of the League of Corinth. After defeating them easily, it was time to send the Greeks a clear message: he had the ancient city of Thebes wiped from the map - its citizens were slaughtered, and all its buildings flattened. Now he was ready to undertake his father's unfinished business.

Into the Persian empire

In 334 BC Alexander crossed into Asia, little knowing that in eleven years he would be master of territory stretching from Greece to the Punjab. Nor could have have known that he would never see Greece again and be dead at 33, having changed the world for ever. His first act after crossing the Hellespont was to sacrifice at the tomb of his hero and supposed ancestor, Achilles, outside Troy.

Three times Darius III tried to stop his relentless progress: three times his armies were defeated - at Granicus, Issus and Gaugamela. After the third defeat, Darius fled towards central Asia, leaving his capital cities exposed to the young conqueror.

Battle of Issus

The Battle of Issus. Mosaic in the House of the Faun, Pompeii

Babylon and Susa

The Babylonians came out to meet Alexander en masse, with their priests and rulers, each section of the population bringing gifts and offering to surrender the city and the treasure.Arrian, Anabasis 3.16.3
Alexander received a letter promising that the people of Susa would hand over the city, and that all the treasure [50,000 talents] was safe for Alexander.Arrian, Anabasis 3.16.6-7

The Greek historians all agree that Alexander's entry to Susa was peaceful and welcomed by its citizens. In that case who used the statue of Darius outside the royal palace for target practice before defacing it?


The main target had always been Persepolis. All through the long trek, and the tough battles, Alexander's men had been looking forward to reaching Persepolis. Like Homeric heroes, they fought for two things - fame and plunder. Alexander took the contents of the king's treasury - more gold than today in Fort Knox - for himself. Everything else was turned over to the soldiers. Everything that could be taken was carried off. And then they set fire to it. There's a romantic story about Alexander getting so drunk he was persuaded to torch it by a young Athenian prostitute, in revenge for the burning of Athens by Xerxes in 480 BC. Diodorus puts it this way:

Persepolis was the capital of the Persian kingdom. Alexander described it to the Macedonians as the most hateful of the cities of Asia, and gave it over to his soldiers to plunder, all but the palaces. It was the richest city under the sun and the private houses had been furnished with every sort of wealth over the years. The Macedonians raced into it slaughtering all the men whom they met and plundering the residences; many of the houses belonged to the common people and were abundantly supplied with furniture and wearing apparel of every kind. Here much silver was carried off and no little gold, and many rich dresses gay with sea purple or with gold embroidery became the prize of the victors. The enormous palaces, famed throughout the whole civilized world, fell victim to insult and utter destruction.

The Macedonians gave themselves up to this orgy of plunder for a whole day and still could not satisfy their boundless greed for more. Such was their exceeding lust for loot withal that they fought with each other and killed many of their fellows who had appropriated a greater portion of it. The richest of the finds some cut through with their swords so that each might have his own part. Some cut off the hands of those who were grasping at disputed property, being driven mad by their passions. They dragged off women, clothes and all, converting their captivity into slavery.

As Persepolis had exceeded all other cities in prosperity, so in the same measure it now exceeded all others in misery.Diodorus Siculus 17.70. 3-5. Loeb Classical Library 1963

The whole massive site, though, was not destroyed. Archaeology has revealed that only three areas were burned - the three areas most closely associated with Xerxes. There ash to the depth of three feet was found. The fire was deliberate, and is still regarded by many as one of the most extreme examples of vandalism in world history. But it was a symbolic act. It said two things: Xerxes' destruction in Greece had been avenged, and the rule of the Achaemenids was over.

The new Cyrus?

Alexander had completed his father's plans. He had overthrown the Persian empire as commander of a Greek army. Job done. He sent most of the Greeks home, laden no doubt with plunder. From now on he was no longer the avenger of Greece: increasingly he began to see himself as the new Cyrus.

He did not think of turning back. There was still Ecbatana to capture, the fourth of the great Persian centres . He duly marched north and took it with ease, and there was yet more unimaginable wealth to help himself to. King Darius III was still alive, though a fugitive. The Greek historian Arrian sums up his career:

His life was one series of disasters ... A homeless refugee in his own kingdom, at last he was betrayed by his own guards and shamefully murdered by plotters whose duty was to protect him. These were the tragedies of Darius' life. His fate in death was a royal tomb, his children brought up and educated by Alexander as if he were still king, and Alexander for his daughter's bridegroom.

Alexander continued his march eastwards: note especially

  • The conquest of Afghanistan (perhaps the last successful western military invasion of that country), and his march through the Khyber Pass into Pakistan.
  • His war with king Porus in the Punjab, the first European to face elephants in battle, ending in mutual respect, and with Porus given back his kingdom, and confirmed as satrap of India.
  • Since Persepolis and Ecbatana, Alexander's interest was just as much in exploration.
  • The mutiny. Alexander's Macedonians simply refused to cross the Beas, last of the five rivers of Punjab.
    Would Alexander otherwise have reached the Ganges and possibly China? He'd wanted to reach the ocean the other side of India, which he thought was not much further. But Alexander had to listen to his men, and they turned for home, down along the Indus, some in boats, some marching. Some of his hardest fighting was on this journey. Leading his men in an attack on one city, his lung was punctured by an arrow: a wound which was eventually to contribute to his death.

There and back again

Wherever he could, he settled some of his men and founded a city, always called Alexandria (Kandahar in Afghanistan is an example of one that is still very much there). He even founded a city in memory of Bucephalas, now Jhelum in Pakistan. Frequently, he left Persians in charge of their former satrapies. He adopted Persian dress, and was happy to encourage those who looked upon him as a god. Near the mouth of the Indus, the force was split. Some sailed led by Nearchus, while Alexander led a march to explore the route by land. They got lost in the desert and suffered the most appalling hardships. Eventually the two groups met up, and Alexander marched towards Babylon, which he intended to be the heartland of his empire.

Alexander and Hephaestion

Alexander and Hephaestion

At Susa, he married Stateira, a daughter of king Darius III, symbolically uniting the Macedonians and the Persians. 80 of his officers married Persian brides, and 10,000 of his men married their Persian girlfriends. Arrian tells of a prayer that Alexander made:

Alexander prayed for the other good things, and for the unity of all men, and for partnership in the empire between Macedonians and Persians.

But by now he was a wreck physically. Fighting, marching, administration, wounds and sickness had taken their toll. In 323 BC, as a result of the old lung problem, a chill, and probably some polluted water (rather than poison as many thought) he died, at Babylon. Some sources say he had plans for further conquest, of north Africa, and even Rome. This is almost certainly nonsense: we do know he planned to explore the Arabian peninsula (Saudi Arabia and the Gulf), and the sea route from Persia to Egypt. He left no clear successor. His last words seemed to be “to kratisto” (to the strongest), though it could have been “to kratero” - to Craterus, who had been his trusted second-in-command since India.

Alexanders funeral

A 19th century engraving of Alexander's funeral procession, based on the description in Diodorus.

Alexander's gold coffin and the special vehicle which was to take it back to Alexandria in Egypt (1000 miles away) took two years to build. On its journey, the wagon, pulled by 64 mules was the sight of a lifetime for those through whose countryside and cities it passed. The tomb itself took a further two years to construct, but Alexander's embalmed body could still be visited 500 years later, and was by a succession of Roman emperors. The last known visit was in 215 AD. What happened to it after that is one of the great mysteries.