Ancient History & Civilisation


From the Peloponnesian War to Alexander the Great

The tragic outcome of the Peloponnesian War did not stop the long-standing tendency of the prominent Greek city-states to battle for power over one other. In the fifty years following the war, Sparta, Thebes, and Athens struggled militarily to win a preeminent position over their rivals. In the end, however, they achieved nothing more than weakening themselves and creating a vacuum of power in Greece. That void was filled by the unexpected rise to military and political power of the kingdom of Macedonia during the reign of Philip II (ruled 359–336 B.C.). Philip’s reorganization of the Macedonian army saved the kingdom from invasion by northern enemies and gave him the power to extend his influence eastward and southward into Greek territory. His victory over an alliance of Greek city-states in the battle of Chaeronea in 338 B.C. led to his forming and commanding the League of Corinth, whose forces of Greeks and Macedonians he planned to lead in a war of invasion against the Persian Empire as retribution for the Persians’ attacks on mainland Greece 150 years earlier.

Philip never achieved his goal of conquering Persia, because he was murdered in 336, before he could begin that quest. It was his son, Alexander the Great (ruled 336–323 B.C.), who astonished the world by making Philip’s dream come true. Alexander’s awe-inspiring conquests reached from Greece to the western border of India and convinced him that he had achieved the status of a god. Alexander died unexpectedly in 323, before he had a mature heir to succeed him as king of Macedonia and without having put into place a permanent restructuring of governance in Greece to suit the new political conditions of the world in the late fourth century B.C. Thus, his brilliant success as a conqueror left unresolved the problem of how to structure international power in a Greek world in which the citizen-militias of the city-states could not withstand the mercenary armies of the ambitious commanders from Alexander’s army who made plans to rule the world as self-appointed kings. The long-term consequences of Alexander’s expedition simultaneously brought the Greek and Near Eastern worlds into more direct contact than ever before, while also demonstrating that the city-states of mainland Greece, the Aegean, and Anatolia were no longer strong enough to set their own foreign policy. In international affairs, they were from now on going to be ultimately subordinate to monarchs.

c. 400–380 (early fourth century) B.C.: Plato founds his school, the Academy, in Athens.

395–386 B.C.: The Corinthian War between Sparta and other Greek states.

390s–370s B.C.: Spartans campaign first in Anatolia and then in Greece.

386 B.C.: King’s Peace between Sparta and Persia.

377 B.C.: Athens reestablishes a naval alliance.

371 B.C.: Spartans defeated at battle of Leuctra in Boeotia.

370 B.C.: Jason, tyrant of Pherae in Thessaly, assassinated.

369 B.C.: The Theban army commanded by Epaminondas liberates Messenia from Spartan control.

362 B.C.: Spartans defeated by Thebans in the battle of Mantinea in the Peloponnese; the great Theban general Epaminondas is killed.

359 B.C.: Philip II becomes king of Macedonia.

357–355 B.C.: Athenian-led naval alliance dissolves in internal war.

338 B.C.: Philip II defeats Greek alliance at Chaeronea in Boeotia and founds League of Corinth.

336 B.C.: Philip murdered; his son Alexander (“the Great”) takes over as king.

335 B.C.: Aristotle founds the Lyceum at Athens.

334 B.C.: Alexander begins attack against the Persian Empire; wins victory at the Granicus River in northwest Anatolia.

333 B.C.: Alexander wins victory at Issus in southeastern Anatolia.

332 B.C.: Walled city of Tyre (on an island off the coast of Lebanon) falls to Alexander’s siege.

331 B.C.: Alexander takes Egypt and founds Alexandria; victory over Persian king at Gaugamela.

329 B.C.: Alexander reaches Bactria (modern Afghanistan).

327 B.C.: Alexander marries the Bactrian princess Roxane.

326 B.C.: Alexander’s army mutinies at the Hyphasis River in India.

324 B.C.: Alexander returns to Persia after difficult march through the Gedrosian Desert (in modern southern Iran).

323 B.C.: Alexander dies in Babylon (in modern Iraq).


Athens after the Peloponnesian War never regained the level of economic and military strength that it had enjoyed at the height of its prosperity in the fifth century B.C., perhaps because its silver mines were no longer producing at the same level. Xenophon wrote an essay offering a plan for increasing the production of ore by investing in more publicly purchased slaves, but it was never adopted, perhaps because the city-state no longer had the funds to invest in the up-front capital cost of the purchases. Nevertheless, following the reestablishment of democracy in 403 B.C., Athens did recover enough of its previous strength to became a force in Greek international politics once again. In particular, Athens and other city-states reacted with diplomatic and military actions meant to counteract Sparta’s blatant attempts to extend its power over other Greeks in the decades following the Peloponnesian War. But even their initial hostility to Sparta could not keep these city-states unified. Therefore the first half of the fourth century saw frequently shifting alliances among the numerous city-states in Greece. In short, whichever city-states found themselves weaker at any point would temporarily join together against whichever city-state happened to be strongest at that moment, even if that meant allying with Sparta, only to lose their unity once the common enemy of the moment had been humbled.

Shortly after the war, in 401 B.C., the Persian satrap Cyrus hired a mercenary army to try to unseat the current Persian king, Artaxerxes II, who had ascended the throne in 404. Cyrus was the son of a previous Great King, and he wanted that position for himself. Xenophon, the Athenian author and, it turned out, adventurer, enlisted as an officer on the side of the rebel satrap in this civil war. Xenophon’s narrative (Anabasis) detailing the story of his adventures offers an exciting account of the challenges of the long march and many battles of the Greek soldiers paid to fight in Cyrus’s army. Disastrously defeated at Cunaxa, near Babylon in Iraq, and left without a commander or sponsor because Cyrus had been killed, the now unemployed and leaderless Greek mercenaries had to organize themselves as a city-state on the move to fight their way out of the enemies surrounding them in the desert, and then make the skirmish-filled trek home through hundreds of miles of hostile territory, even pushing their thinly clad bodies through chest-high snow as they crossed the mountains into Anatolia. The demonstration of the Greek hoplites’ skill and courage in surviving reminded the Persian king, if a reminder was needed, that Greeks could form a fearsome threat to his army if they ever found a way to unite their forces. He took away the lesson that it was in his interest to do what he could to keep the Greeks fractured and fighting one another so that they could never focus their ambitions on his empire and riches.

That threat almost materialized in the 390s B.C. During that period, the Spartan general Lysander and the Spartan king Agesilaus tried to capitalize on Sparta’s victory in the Peloponnesian War by pursuing an aggressive policy in Anatolia and northern Greece; other Spartan commanders tried to extend their city-state’s power in Sicily. Agesilaus, the most successful commander that Sparta ever fielded, was so successful that he was poised to continue on to conquer the Persian Empire. He had to give up this dream, however, when the political leaders at Sparta called him home to defend the homeland against its Greek enemies. As a loyal Spartan, he obeyed. If he had been allowed to keep going in Asia, we might today talk about “Agesilaus the Great” instead of Alexander as the conqueror of the Persians.

In response to the Spartan efforts to win dominance in Greece, the city-states of Thebes, Athens, Corinth, and Argos had put aside their usual hostility to one another to form an anti-Spartan military coalition; they were naturally fearful that this expansionist Spartan policy threatened their own security at home and their interests abroad. In a reversal of the alliances of the end of the Peloponnesian War, the Persian king initially allied with Athens and the other Greek city-states against Sparta in the so-called Corinthian War, which lasted from 395 to 386 B.C.; he was betting that the anti-Spartan city-states had less of a chance to threaten his territories in the long run than the Spartans did. His goal was to create a stalemate in Greece and thereby remove any potential danger to Persia. This alliance fell apart, however, when his Greek allies realized that he was not going to help them crush Sparta. The war ended when the Persian king imposed a settlement that acknowledged his right to control the Greek city-states of Anatolia but guaranteed autonomy for the mainland Greeks. The Spartans tried to make this treaty sound like a defense of Greek freedom, which they had promoted, but in reality they looked forward to the king’s promise as a way for them to win a free hand pursuing dominance in Greece. The King’s Peace of 386, as the agreement is called, effectively returned the Greeks of Anatolia to their status as Persian subjects from a century earlier, before the Greek victory in the Persian Wars of 490–479 B.C. had freed them from Persian domination. Sparta, as at the end of the Peloponnesian War, had cut a deal with Persia for support against its enemies in Greece, blatantly ignoring their long-standing claim to be the liberators of the Greek city-states and the defenders of Greek political independence.

Spartan forces attacked city-states all over Greece in the years following the King’s Peace of 386. Athens, meanwhile, had restored its invulnerability to invasion by rebuilding the Long Walls connecting the city and the harbor. The Athenian general Iphicrates also devised effective new tactics for light-armed troops, who were called peltasts, from the name of the smaller shield they carried. To enable these mobile soldiers to fight longer and more effectively against heavy infantry, he lengthened their weapons, replaced metal chest protectors with lightweight but tightly woven linen vests, and designed better battlefield footwear. Athens also rebuilt its navy to a substantial level, and by 377 the city had again become the leader of a naval alliance of Greek states. This time, however, the members of the league had their rights specified in writing and posted in public inscriptions for all to see; they wanted to prevent the high-handed Athenian treatment of allies that had characterized the so-called Athenian Empire in the fifth-century B.C.

Spartan hopes of achieving lasting power in these decades of turmoil after the Peloponnesian War were crushed in 371 B.C., when a resurgent Theban army commanded by the great general Epaminondas defeated the Spartan army at Leuctra in Boeotia. The Spartans lost the battle when their cavalry was pushed back into their infantry ranks, disrupting the phalanx, and then their king and battlefield commander Cleombrotus was killed. So many Spartan hoplites were killed and wounded that their army finally had to retreat. The victors then invaded the Spartan homeland in the Peloponnese, a fate that Laconia had never before experienced. At this point, the rampaging Thebans seemed likely to challenge Jason, tyrant of Pherae in Thessaly and an ambitious commander, for the position as the dominant military power in Greece.

The threat from Thessaly disappeared suddenly with Jason’s assassination in 370 B.C., but in 369 Epaminondas led another invasion of Spartan territory. Following up on what he had started after the battle of Leuctra, he succeeded in freeing Messenia from Spartan control. This was a turning point in Spartan history: Being deprived of the economic output from the helots of that large and fertile region struck a devastating blow to the Spartan’s strength, from which they would never fully recover. The Thebans now seemed likely to seize the position of the most powerful mainland city-state, so the former enemies Sparta and Athens now allied against Thebes; this conflict culminated in the epochal battle of Mantinea in the Peloponnese in 362 B.C. It became famous because Thebes won the battle but lost the war when Epaminondas was killed there. His death seriously compromised the quality of the Theban military leadership. Over the next two decades Thebes saw its power decline as it continued to fight neighboring Greeks and then the rising power of Macedonia under Philip II. In this same period, Athens and Sparta once again became openly hostile to one another. When the naval alliance led by Athens dissolved in the mid-350s B.C., after its member states rebelled and the Athenians proved too weak to compel them to obey, this loss of power shattered any dreams that Athenians clung to about dominating Greece as they had in their Golden Age a century earlier.

Xenophon bleakly summed up the situation in Greece as it developed in the aftermath of the battle of Mantinea: “Everyone had supposed that the winners of this battle would become Greece’s rulers and its losers would become their subjects . . . but there was only more confusion and disturbance in Greece after it than before” (Hellenica 7.5.26–27). He was right: All the efforts of the various major Greek city-states to extend their hegemony over mainland Greece in the first half of the fourth century B.C. ended in failure. By the 350s and 340s, no Greek city-state had the power to rule more than itself. The struggle for supremacy in Greece that had begun eighty years earlier with the outbreak of the Peloponnesian War had finally ended in a stalemate of military and political exhaustion on the international level. In the midst of this violent impasse, Greece remained culturally productive, however; this period saw some of the most famous and influential intellectual developments in all of ancient Greek history.


The most famed Greek in the first half of the fourth century B.C. was not a general or a politician but Socrates’ most brilliant follower, the philosopher Plato of Athens (c. 428–347 B.C.). His writings are without doubt the most influential intellectual legacy of this period for later times. Although his status as a member of the social elite propelled him into politics as a young man, he withdrew from Athenian public life after 399. The trial and execution of Socrates had apparently convinced Plato that citizens in a democracy were incapable of rising above narrow self-interest to cultivate knowledge of universal truth, the goal of a worthwhile life in his view. In his works theorizing about the best way to organize human society, Plato bitterly rejected democracy as a justifiable system of government, calling it the “worst form of rule under law” (Statesman 303a). He said that Pericles’ establishment of pay for service in public office, the linchpin of broad citizen participation in democracy, had made the Athenians “lazy, cowardly, gabby, and greedy” (Gorgias 515e). As he portrayed Socrates saying at his trial, Plato concluded that an honorable man committed to excellence could take no part in Athenian public life without incurring hatred and mortal danger (Apology 32e).

Against the background of this fierce criticism of his own city-state, Plato went on to describe an ideal for political and social organization headed by leaders nurtured and guided by philosophical wisdom. His utopian vision had virtually no effect on the actual politics of his time, however, and his attempts to advise Dionysius II (ruled 367–344 B.C.), tyrant of Syracuse in Sicily, on how to rule as a true philosopher ended in utter failure. But political philosophy formed only one portion of Plato’s interests, which ranged widely in astronomy, mathematics, and metaphysics (theoretical explanations for phenomena that cannot be understood through direct experience or scientific experiment). After Plato’s death in the middle of the fourth century B.C., his ideas continued to remain influential even as philosophers moved in new directions; they later became vitally important to Christian theologians contemplating the nature of the soul and other complex ideas about the relationship between human beings and God. The sheer intellectual power of Plato’s difficult thought and the controversy it has engendered ever since his lifetime have won him fame as one of the world’s greatest philosophers.

Plato did not compose philosophical treatises based on abstractions of the kind familiar from more-recent academic study of philosophy; instead, he composed works called dialogues from their form as conversations, or reported conversations. Almost as if they were plays or scripts, the dialogues have particular settings and casts of conversationalists, often including Socrates, who talk about philosophical issues. Divorcing the philosophical content of a Platonic dialogue from its literary form is surely a mistake; a dialogue of Plato demands to be understood as a whole, and any interpretation of a dialogue has to take into account both its form and its content. The plots, so to speak, of the dialogues and their often indirect and inconclusive treatments of their philosophical subjects were intended to provoke readers into thoughtful reflection rather than to spoon-feed them a circumscribed set of doctrines.

Furthermore, Plato’s views seem to have changed over time, and he nowhere sets out in one place a unified set of ideas. He does seem to have disagreed with Socrates’ insistence that fundamental knowledge meant moral knowledge based on personal experience and reflection. Plato concluded that knowledge meant discovering truths that are independent of the individual or the observer of the visible world and can be taught to others. In the early fourth century he acted on this belief by establishing a school at a site called Academy, just outside the walls of Athens, a shady location named after the legendary hero Academos, whose shrine was nearby (fig. 9.1). Plato’s school, referred to as the Academy, was not a college or research institute in the modern sense but rather an informal association where adults interested in studying philosophy, mathematics, and theoretical astronomy could gather, exercise, and spend time talking, with Plato as their guide. The Academy became so famous as a gathering place for intellectuals that it continued to operate for nine hundred years after Plato’s death, with periods in which it was directed by distinguished philosophers and others during which it lapsed into mediocrity under lackluster leaders.

Although it is risky to try to summarize Plato rather than to read his dialogues as complete works, it is perhaps not too misleading to say that his dialogues as a whole indicate that human beings cannot define and understand absolute excellences, such as Goodness, Justice, Beauty, or Equality, by the concrete evidence of their experience of those qualities in their lives. Any earthly examples will in another context display the opposite quality. For instance, always returning whatever one has borrowed might seem to be just. But what if a person who has borrowed a weapon from a friend is confronted by that friend who wants the weapon back to commit a murder? In this case, returning the borrowed item would be unjust. Examples of equality are also only relative. The equality of a stick two feet long, for example, is evident when it is compared with another two-foot stick. Paired with a three-foot stick, however, it displays inequality. In the world that human beings experience with their senses, every example of the excellences or of every quality is relative in some aspect of its nature.

Plato refused to accept the relativity of the excellences as reality, and his spirited rejection of relativism attacked the doctrines of the sophists. Plato developed the theory that the excellences cannot be discovered through experience; rather, excellences as qualities are absolutes that can be apprehended only by reasoning and that somehow exist independently of human existence. In some of his dialogues, Plato refers to the ultimate realities of the pure excellences as “Forms” or “Ideas.” The Forms, he says, are nonmaterial universals that exist separately and are not perceptible by direct human experience. They are invisible, invariable, perfect, and eternal entities located in a higher realm beyond the empirical world of human beings. Among the Forms are Goodness, Justice, Beauty, and Equality. The Forms are, according to Plato, the only true reality; what humans experience with their senses are the mere shadows or imitations of these archetypes. Plato’s concept of nonmaterial Forms requires the further belief that knowledge of them comes not through the human body but rather the soul, which must be immortal. When a soul is incarnated in its current body, it brings with it from its former existence knowledge of the Forms. The soul then uses reason in argument and proof, not empirical observation through the senses, to recollect its preexistent knowledge. Plato was not consistent throughout his career in his views on the nature or the significance of Forms, and his later works seem even distant from the theory. Nevertheless, Forms provide a good example of both the complexity and the depth of Platonic thought.


Fig. 9.1: This later mosaic from the Roman town of Pompeii imagines a scene at the Academy of Plato in Athens, where male students gathered to discuss that philosopher’s difficult ideas about the true nature of reality and knowledge and how human beings should live as a result. Plato’s “school” apparently did not charge tuition, relying instead on his private wealth and contributions from members. Wikimedia Commons.

Plato’s idea that humans possess immortal souls distinct from their bodies established the concept of dualism, positing a separation between spiritual and physical being. This notion of the separateness of soul and body would play an influential role in later philosophical and religious thought. In a dialogue written late in his life, the Timaeus, Plato says the preexisting knowledge possessed by the immortal human soul is in truth the knowledge known to the supreme deity. Plato calls this god the Demiurge (“craftsman”) because the deity used knowledge of the Forms to craft the world of living beings from raw matter. According to this doctrine of Plato, a knowing, rational god created the world, and the world therefore has order. Furthermore, its beings have goals, as evidenced by animals adapting to their environments in order to flourish. The Demiurge wanted to reproduce in the material world the perfect order of the Forms, but the world as crafted turned out not to be perfect because matter is necessarily imperfect. Plato suggested that human beings should seek perfect order and purity in their own souls by making rational desires control their irrational desires. The latter cause harm in various ways. The desire to drink wine to excess, for example, is irrational because the drinker fails to consider the hangover to come the next day. Those who are governed by irrational desires thus fail to consider the future of both body and soul. Finally, since the soul is immortal and the body is not, our present, impure existence is only one passing phase in our cosmic existence.

Plato employs his theory of Forms not only in metaphysical speculation about the original creation of the everyday world in which people live, but also to explain how an ideal human society should be structured. One version of Plato’s utopian vision is found in his most famous dialogue, The Republic. This work, whose Greek title (Politeia) would more accurately be rendered as System of Government, primarily concerns the nature of justice and the reasons that people should be just instead of unjust. Justice, Plato argues, is advantageous; it consists of subordinating the irrational to the rational in the soul. By using the truly just and therefore imaginary city-state as a model for understanding this notion of proper subordination in the soul, Plato presents a vision of the ideal structure for human society as an analogy for understanding what the individual should do to have a just and moral soul. Like a just soul, the just society would have its parts in proper hierarchy, parts that Plato presents in The Republic as three classes of people, as distinguished by their ability to grasp the truth of Forms. The highest class constitutes the rulers, or “guardians” as Plato calls them, who are educated in mathematics, astronomy, and metaphysics. Next come the “auxiliaries,” whose function it is to defend the city-state. The lowest class is that of the “producers,” who grow the food and make the objects required by the whole population. Each part contributes to society by fulfilling its proper function.

In Plato’s utopia, women as well as men qualify to be guardians because they possess the same excellences and abilities as men, except for a disparity in physical strength between the average woman and the average man. The axiom justifying the inclusion of women—that excellence is the same in women as in men—is perhaps an idea that Plato derived from Socrates. The inclusion of women in the ruling class of Plato’s utopian city-state represented a startling departure from the actual practice of his times. Indeed, never before in Western history had anyone proposed—even in fantasy, which the imaginary city of The Republic certainly is—that work be allocated in human society without regard to gender. Almost equally radical were the specifications for how guardians are required to live: To minimize distraction from their duties, they can have neither private property nor nuclear families. Male and female guardians are to live in shared houses, eat in the same mess halls, and exercise in the same gymnasiums. Their children are to be raised as a group in a common environment by special caretakers. Although this scheme is meant to free women guardians from child-care responsibilities and enable them to rule equally with men, Plato fails to consider that women guardians would in reality have a much tougher life than the men because they would have to be pregnant frequently and undergo the strain and danger of giving birth. At the same time, he evidently does not believe that they should be disqualified from ruling on this account. The guardians who achieved the highest level of knowledge in Plato’s ideal society would qualify to rule over this ideal state as philosopher-kings.

To become a guardian, a person must be educated from childhood for many years in mathematics, astronomy, and metaphysics to gain the knowledge that Plato in The Republic presented as necessary for the common good. Plato’s specifications for the education of guardians in fact make him the first thinker to argue systematically that education should be the training of the mind and of character rather than simply the acquisition of information and practical skills. A state based on such education would necessarily be authoritarian because only the ruling class would possess the knowledge to determine its policies. They would determine even the nature of reproduction by deciding who is allowed to mate with whom, with the goal of producing the best children.

The severe regulation of life from work to eugenics that Plato proposed for his ideally just state in The Republic was a reflection of his tight focus on the question of a rational person’s true interest and his identification of morality as the key to answering this question. Furthermore, he insisted that politics and ethics are fields in which objective truths can be found by the use of reason. Despite his harsh criticism of existing governments, such as Athenian democracy, and his scorn for the importance of rhetoric in its functioning, Plato also recognized the practical difficulties in implementing radical changes in the way people actually lived. Indeed, his late dialogue The Laws shows him wrestling with the question of improving the real world in a far less radical, though still authoritarian, way than in the imagined community of The Republic. Plato hoped that, instead of ordinary politicians, the people who know truth and can promote the common good would rule because their rule would be in everyone’s real interest. For this reason above all, he passionately believed that the study of philosophy mattered to human life.


Greece in the later fourth century B.C. produced a second thinker whose intellectual legacy achieved monumental proportions. Aristotle (384–322 B.C.), Plato’s most brilliant follower, earned his enduring reputation in science and philosophy from his groundbreaking work in promoting scientific investigation of the natural world and developing rigorous systems of logical argument. The enormous influence of Aristotle’s works on scholars in later periods, especially in medieval Europe, has made him a centralfigure in the history of Western science and philosophy, rivaling—or, in the opinion of some, even surpassing—the achievements of Plato.

The son of a wealthy doctor from Stagira in northern Greece, who worked at the royal court of Macedonia, Aristotle came to Athens at the age of seventeen to study in Plato’s Academy. In 335 B.C., Aristotle founded his own philosophical school in Athens, named the Lyceum, later called the Peripatetic School after the covered walkway (peripatos) in which its students carried on conversations while strolling out of the glare of the Mediterranean sun. Aristotle lectured on nearly every branch of learning: biology, medicine, anatomy, psychology, meteorology, physics, chemistry, mathematics, music, metaphysics, rhetoric, political science, ethics, and literary criticism. He also worked out a sophisticated system of logic for precise argumentation. Creating a careful system to identify the forms of valid arguments, Aristotle established grounds for distinguishing a logically sound case from a merely persuasive one. He first gave names to contrasts, such as the universal versus the particular, and premise versus conclusion, which have been commonplaces of thought and speech ever since. He also studied the process of explanation itself, formulating the influential doctrine of four causes. According to Aristotle, four different categories of explanation exist that are not reducible to a single, unified whole: form (defining characteristics), matter (constituent elements), origin of movement (similar to what we commonly mean by “cause”), and telos (aim or goal). The complexity of this analysis exemplifies Aristotle’s concern to never oversimplify the nature of reality.

Apparently an inspiring teacher, Aristotle encouraged his followers to conduct research in numerous fields of specialized knowledge. For example, he had student researchers compile reports on the systems of government of 158 Greek states. Much of Aristotle’s philosophical thought reflected the influence of Plato, but he also refined and even rejected ideas that his teacher had advocated. He denied the validity of Plato’s theory of Forms, for example, on the grounds that their existence separate from the world that Plato postulated for them failed to make sense. This position typified Aristotle’s general preference for explanations based on logical reasoning and on observation rather than derived from metaphysics. By modern standards, his scientific thought paid relatively limited attention to mathematical models of explanation and quantitative reasoning, but mathematics in his time had not yet reached the level of sophistication appropriate for such work. His method also differed from that of modern scientists because it did not include controlled experimentation. Aristotle believed that investigators had a better chance of understanding objects and beings by observing them in their natural setting than under the artificial conditions of a laboratory. His coupling of detailed investigation with perceptive reasoning served especially well in such physical sciences as biology, botany, and zoology. For example, as the first scientist to try to collect all the available information on the animal species and to classify them, Aristotle recorded information about more than five hundred different kinds of animals, including insects. Although his human gynecology was particularly inaccurate, many of his descriptions represented significant advances in learning. For example, his recognition that whales and dolphins were mammals, a biological fact that later writers on animals overlooked, was not rediscovered for another two thousand years.

In his research on animals Aristotle set forth his teleological view of nature—that is, he believed organisms developed as they did because they had a natural goal (telos), or what we might call an end or a function. To explain a phenomenon, Aristotle said that one must discover its goal—to understand “that for the sake of which” the phenomenon in question existed. A simple example of this kind of explanation is the duck’s webbed feet. According to Aristotle’s reasoning, ducks have webbed feet for the sake of swimming, an activity that supports the goal of a duck’s existence, which is to find food in the water so as to stay alive. Aristotle argued that the natural goal of human beings was to live in the society of a city-state, and that the city-state came into existence to meet the human need to live together, since individuals living in isolation cannot be self-sufficient. Furthermore, existence in a city-state made possible an orderly life of excellence for its citizens. The means to achieve this ordered life were the rule of law and the process of citizens’ ruling and being ruled in turn.

Some of Aristotle’s most influential discussions concentrated on understanding qualitative concepts that human beings tend to take for granted, such as time, space, motion, and change. Through careful argumentation he probed the philosophical difficulties that lie beneath the surface of these seemingly familiar concepts, and his views on the nature of things exercised an overwhelming influence on later thinkers.

Aristotle was conventional for his times in regarding slavery as natural, on the argument that some people were by nature bound to be slaves because their souls lacked the rational part that should rule in a human being. Thinkers supporting the contrary view were rare but did exist; one fourth-century B.C. orator, Alcidamas, argued that “god has set all men free; nature has made no one a slave” (Fragment 3 = scholium to Aristotle, Rhetorica 1373b). Also in accordance with the majority view of his times was Aristotle’s conclusion that women were by nature inferior to men. His view of the inferiority of women was based on faulty notions of biology. He wrongly believed, for example, that in procreation the male with his semen actively gave the fetus its form, while the female had only the passive role of providing the baby’s matter. His assertion that females were less courageous than males was justified by dubious evidence about animals, such as the report that a male squid would stand by as if to help when its mate was speared, but that a female squid would swim away when the male was impaled. Although his erroneous biology led Aristotle to evaluate females as incomplete males, he believed that human communities could be successful and happy only if they included the contributions of both women and men. Aristotle argued that marriage was meant to provide mutual help and comfort, but that the husband should rule. In his views on slavery and women, it seems necessary to say, Aristotle failed to meet the high standards of reasoning and observation that he taught his students. It seems to me a humbling warning to everyone who cares about justice that even such a brilliant scientist and philosopher as Aristotle could fall short in analyzing hot-button issues concerning which human differences can be used to justify treating people differently and which cannot.

Aristotle sharply departed from the Socratic idea that knowledge of justice and goodness was all that was necessary for a person to behave justly. He argued that people in their souls often possess knowledge of what is right but that their irrational desires overrule this knowledge and lead them to do wrong. People who know the evils of hangovers still get drunk, for instance. Recognizing a conflict of desires in the human soul, Aristotle devoted special attention to the issue of achieving self-control by training the mind through habituation to win out over the instincts and passions. Self-control did not mean denying human desires and appetites; rather, it meant striking a balance between suppressing and heedlessly indulging physical yearnings, of finding “the mean.” Observing the mean was the key to a properly lived life, he taught. Aristotle claimed that the mind should rule in determining this balance in all the aspects of life because intelligence is the finest human quality and the mind is the true self, indeed the godlike part of a person. He specifically warned young people to be extraordinarily careful about how they habituated themselves to live: There will probably come a time later in life, he said, when you will want to accomplish new things or behave differently, but it will be almost impossible to change at that point if in your youth you developed habits that are now holding you back.

Aristotle regarded science and philosophy not as abstract subjects isolated from the concerns of ordinary existence but rather as the disciplined search for knowledge in every aspect of life. That search epitomized the kind of rational human activity that alone could bring the good life andgenuine happiness. Some modern critics have charged that Aristotle’s work lacks a clear moral code, but he did the study of ethics a great service by insisting that standards of right and wrong have merit only if they are grounded in character and aligned with the good in human nature and do not simply consist of lists of abstract reasons for behaving in one way rather than another. An ethical system, that is, must be relevant to the actual moral situations that human beings continually experience in their lives. In ethics, as in all his scholarship, Aristotle distinguished himself by the insistence that the life of the mind and experience of the real world were inseparable components in the quest to define a worthwhile existence for human beings.

Aristotle believed that human happiness, which was not to be equated with the simpleminded pursuit of pleasure, stems from fulfilling human potentialities. These potentialities can be identified by rational choice, practical judgment, habituation to excellence, and recognition of the value of choosing the mean instead of extremes. The central moral problem is the nearly universal human tendency to want to “get more,” to act unjustly whenever one has the power to do so. The aim of education is to dissuade people from this inclination, which has its worst effects when it is directed at acquiring money or honor. In this context Aristotle was thinking of men in public life outside the home, and he says that the dangerous disorder caused by men’s desire for “getting more” occurs both in democracies and oligarchies. Like Plato, he criticized democracy because he saw it as rule by the majority and the poor, not by the educated and elite. Athens served as Aristotle’s home for many years, but its radically direct democracy never won his approval. The goal of democracy, he said, was living exactly as one likes, which could never be a valid principle for organizing the best government. True freedom, he stressed, consisted in ruling and being ruled in turn and not always insisting on fulfilling one’s desires.


Despite his interest in subjects relevant to politics, such as the history of the constitutions of states and the theory and practice of rhetoric, Aristotle remained a theoretician in the mold of Plato. He was opposed to the kind of democracy open to all male citizens that distinguished Athens, in which persuasive public speaking was the most valued skill. These characteristics set him apart from the major educational trend of the fourth century B.C., which emphasized practical wisdom and training with direct application to the public lives of male citizens in a democratic city-state. The most important subject in this education was rhetoric, the techniques of public speaking and argumentation. Effective rhetoric required not only oratorical expertise but also knowledge of the world and of human psychology.

Influential believers in the value of practical knowledge and rhetoric were to be found even among the followers of Socrates, himself no admirer of democracy or rhetorical techniques. Xenophon, for example, knew Socrates well enough to write extensive memoirs recreating many conversations with the great philosopher. But he also wrote a wide range of works in history, biography, estate management, horsemanship, and the public revenues of Athens. The subjects of these treatises reveal the many topics that Xenophon considered essential to the proper education of young men.

The works of Isocrates (436–338 B.C.) did the most to emphasize the importance of rhetoric as a practical skill. Born to a rich family, he studied both with sophists and Socrates. The Peloponnesian War destroyed his property and forced him to seek a living as a writer and teacher. Since he lacked a strong enough voice to address large gatherings and preferred quiet scholarly work to political action, Isocrates composed speeches for other men to deliver and sought to influence public opinion and political leaders by publishing treatises on education and politics. Seeing education as the preparation for a useful life doing good in matters of public importance, he strove to develop an educational middle ground between theoretical study of abstract ideas and practical training in rhetorical techniques. In this way, Isocrates as an educator staked out a position between the unattainable ideals of Plato as a theorist and the sophists’ alluring promises to teach persuasive oratory as a tool for individuals to promote their own private advantage. Isocrates on occasion criticized Athenian democracy because it allowed anyone at all to participate, but his pride in his city-state never waned. In his nineties he composed a long treatise, Panathenaicus, praising Athens for its leadership in Greece and insisting on its superiority to Sparta in the cutthroat arena of international politics.

Rhetoric was the skill that Isocrates sought to develop, but that development, he insisted, could come only through natural talent honed by practical experience of worldly affairs. This experience was necessary to train orators both to understand public issues and the psychology of the people whom they had to persuade for the common good. Isocrates saw rhetoric therefore not as a device for cynical self-aggrandizement but as a powerful tool of persuasion for human betterment, if it was used by properly gifted and trained men with developed consciences. Women were excluded from participation because they could not take part in politics. The Isocratean emphasis on rhetoric and its application in the real world of politics won many more adherents among men in Greek and, later, Roman culture than did the Platonic vision of the philosophical life, and it had great influence when revived in Renaissance Europe two thousand years later.

Throughout his life Isocrates tried to recommend solutions to the most pressing problems of his era. He was particularly worried by the growing social unrest created by friction between the rich and the poor in communities throughout Greece. Athens was more fortunate than many city-states in avoiding conflict between social classes in the fourth century B.C., perhaps because its democracy required wealthier men to spend money on benefactions to the community as a whole, especially through the liturgical system. Such men from the elite had to fulfill liturgies by paying for and sometimes also personally participating in activities that supported the city-state, such as buying the equipment for warships and serving on them as commanders, or financing the costumes and training of choruses for plays produced in the public dramatic festivals. These benefactions won their sponsors public gratitude (charis, the source of the modern word charity) on the grounds that they were putting their wealth to use in an appropriately democratic fashion. Any rich man involved in a court case would try to win sympathy from the jury, which as a randomly selected group would include many men of moderate means, by citing all the liturgies that he and his family had performed. Indeed, in all their public speaking wealthy citizens had to signal their allegiance to democratic principles in order to win popular support. The politics of charis, then, helped to lessen tensions between rich and poor in Athens.

Elsewhere in Greece hostility between rich and poor was evidently worse. The tension was only heightened by the city-states’ traditional tendency toward hostility and rivalry toward one another; they rarely could find ways to cooperate to solve their social problems. For Isocrates, the state of affairs in Greece had become so unstable that only a radical remedy would do: Panhellenism—political harmony among the Greek states—which would be put into action not by Greeks but under the leadership of Philip II, king of Macedonia. Philip would unite the Greeks in a crusade against Persia, recalling the glorious success of the wars of a century and a half earlier. This alliance, as Isocrates imagined it, would end war among the city-states and also relieve the impoverished population by establishing new Greek colonies on conquered land carved out of Persian-held territory in Anatolia. That a prominent and proud Athenian would openly appeal for a Macedonian king to save the Greeks from themselves reflected the startling new political and military reality that had emerged in the Greek world by the second half of the fourth century B.C.


The rise to international power of the kingdom of Macedonia filled the power vacuum that had been created by the fruitless wars of the Greek city-states with each other in the early fourth century B.C., the void that Xenophon had so acutely summed up at the end of his Hellenica with his bleak assessment of the consequences of the battle of Mantinea. Macedonia was a rough land of mountains and lowland valleys just to the north of Greece, and everyday life there was harder than in Greece because the climate was colder; it was more dangerous because the Macedonians’ western and northern neighbors periodically launched devastating raids into Macedonian territory. The Macedonian population was especially vulnerable to such raids because they generally lived in small villages and towns without protective walls. Macedonia had more natural resources than Greece did, especially in timber and precious metals, but that this formerly minor kingdom become the supreme power in Greece in the 350s and 340s B.C. and then conquered the vast Persian Empire in the 330s and 320s ranks as one of the major surprises in ancient military and political history.

The power of the king of the Macedonian state was limited by the tradition that he was supposed to listen to his people, who were accustomed to addressing their monarch with a blunt freedom of speech. Above all, the king could govern effectively only as long as he maintained the support of the most powerful families in Macedonia, whose leaders ranked as his social equals and controlled large bands of followers. Fighting, hunting, and heavy drinking were the favorite pastimes of these men. The king was expected to demonstrate his prowess in these activities to show that he was a man’s man capable of heading the state. Macedonian queens and royal mothers received respect in this male-dominated society because they belonged to powerful families of the Macedonian social elite or the ruling houses of lands bordering Macedonia and they bore their husbands the male heirs needed to carry on royal dynasties. In the king’s absence, these royal women could compete with the king’s designated representative for power at the royal court.

Macedonians had their own language related to Greek, but the members of the elite that dominated Macedonian society routinely learned to speak Greek because they thought of themselves, and indeed all Macedonians, as Greek by descent. At the same time, Macedonians looked down on the Greeks to the south as a soft bunch unequal to the adversities of life in Macedonia. The Greeks reciprocated this scorn. The famed Athenian orator Demosthenes (384–322 B.C.) lambasted the Macedonian king Philip II (382–336B.C.) as “not only not a Greek nor related to the Greeks, but not even a barbarian from a land worth mentioning; no, he’s a pestilence from Macedonia, a region where you can’t even buy a slave worth his salt” (Orations 9.31). Barbed verbal attacks like this one characterized Demosthenes’ speeches on foreign and domestic policy to the Athenian assembly, where he consistently tried to convince his fellow Athenians to oppose the expansion of Macedonian power in Greece. His exceptional rhetorical skill also made him the foremost man of his time in the writing of speeches for other men to deliver in court cases.

Demosthenes spoke so forcefully against Philip II because he recognized how ambitious was this king, the person most responsible for making Macedonia into an international power and doing so against heavy odds. For one thing, strife in the royal family and disputes among the leading families had always been so common that Macedonia before Philip’s reign had never been sufficiently united to mobilize its full military strength. So real was the fear of violence from their own countrymen that Macedonian kings stationed bodyguards at the door to the royal bedroom. Moreover, Macedonian princes married earlier than did most men, soon after the age of twenty, because the instability of the kingship demanded the production of male heirs as soon as possible.

Macedonian royal politics therefore reached a crisis in 359 B.C., when the Macedonian king Perdiccas and four thousand Macedonian troops were slaughtered in battle with the Illyrians, hostile neighbors to the north of Macedonia. Philip was only in his early twenties. Despite his relative youth, in this moment of national emergency he had the charisma to persuade the most important Macedonian leaders to recognize him as king in place of his infant nephew, for whom he was now serving as regent after the death of Perdiccas in battle. Philip soon restored the army’s confidence by teaching the infantrymen an unstoppable new tactic. He convinced Macedonian troops to carry thrusting spears sixteen to eighteen feet long, which they had to hold with two hands. Philip drilled his men to handle these long weapons in a phalanx formation, whose front line bristled with outstretched spears like a lethal porcupine. With the cavalry deployed as a strike force to soften up the enemy and protect the infantry’s flanks, Philip’s reorganized army promptly routed Macedonia’s northern enemies—and also suppressed local rivals to the young new king.

Philip next embarked on a whirlwind of diplomacy, bribery, and military action to make the states of Greece acknowledge his political superiority. He financed his ambition by prodigious spending of the gold and silver coinage he had minted from the mines of Macedonia and those that he captured in Thrace. Not even a grave battlefield wound that cost him an eye could stop Philip (fig. 9.2). A Greek contemporary, the historian Theopompus of Chios, labeled Philip “insatiable and extravagant; he did everything in a hurry. . . . A soldier, he never spared the time to reckon up his income and expenditure” (Athenaeus, The Learned Banqueters [Deipnosophistae] 4.166f–167a = FGrH 115 F224). Philip achieved a great political coup in the 350s B.C. by convincing the most powerful leaders in Thessaly, the prosperous region of central Greece just over the mountains south of Macedonia, to elect him hegemonial commander of their confederacy, thereby investing him with legitimacy as a leader of Greeks chosen by consent. The Thessalian barons apparently justified the choice of a Macedonian to lead their alliance by asserting that Philip was their kin as a descendant of the legendary Heracles and therefore qualified for the post by his famous ancestry.


Fig. 9.2: Forensic anthropology has produced this reconstruction of the head of Philip II, king of Macedonia and father of Alexander the Great. Philip had an eye destroyed by an arrow shot by a defender stationed atop the fortification wall of the city of Methone, which the Macedonian ruler was besieging in 354 B.C. The Manchester Museum, The University of Manchester / Created by Richard Neave.

In the mid-340s B.C. Philip intervened militarily in a bitter dispute over alleged sacrilege at the oracle of Apollo at Delphi, committed by the Phocians, the Greeks located just south of the Thessalians and their traditional bitter enemies. This so-called Sacred War pitted Philip and his Greek allies against the Phocians and their allies, among whom were the Athenians. Philip and his side gained the upper hand in this conflict, and by the late 340s Philip had cajoled or forced most of northern and central Greece to follow his lead in foreign policy. His goal then became to lead a united Macedonian and Greek army in his quest to defeat the Persian Empire. His announced reason sprang from a central theme in Greek understanding of the past: the need to exact retribution for the Persian invasion of Macedonia and Greece of 480. Philip also feared the potentially destabilizing effect on his kingdom if his reinvigorated army were left with nothing to do. To launch his ambitious invasion, however, he needed to strengthen his alliance by adding to it the forces of southern Greece.

At Athens, Demosthenes used his stirring rhetoric to scorch the Greeks for their failure to resist Philip: They stood by, he thundered, “as if Philip were a hailstorm, praying that he would not come their way, but not trying to do anything to head him off” (Orations 9.33). The Athenians were divided over whether to resist Philip or collaborate, and they were unable to form a consensus to direct all their now-limited public financial resources to military preparedness. Finally, however, Athens joined its traditional enemy Thebes in heading a coalition of southern Greek states to try to block Philip’s plans by pooling their armies. It was not enough. In 338 B.C., Philip and his Greek allies trounced the coalition’s forces at the battle of Chaeronea in Boeotia.

The defeated Greek states retained their internal political freedom, but they were compelled to join an alliance under Philip’s undisputed leadership, called by modern scholars the League of Corinth, after the location of its headquarters. Sparta managed to stay out of the League of Corinth, but its days as an important power in its own right were over because its population had shrunk so dramatically. The battle of Chaeronea was a decisive turning point in Greek history: Never again would the states of Greece make foreign policy for themselves without considering, and usually following, the wishes of outside powers. This change marked the end of the Greek city-states as independent actors in international politics, although they unquestionably retained their significance as the basic economic and social units of the Greek world. They had to fulfill a subordinate role now, however, either as subjects or allies of the kingdom of Macedonia or, after the death of Alexander the Great in 323 B.C., of the kingdoms subsequently created by Alexander’s former generals. The Hellenistic kingdoms, as these new monarchies are called, like the Roman provinces that eventually replaced them as political masters of the Greeks, depended on the local leaders of the Greek city-states to collect taxes for the imperial treasuries and to insure the loyalty and order of the rest of the citizens. In this way, the city-states remained important constituent elements of the political organization of the Greek world and maintained a vital public life for their citizens, but they were never again to be fully in charge of their own fates.

Whether the Greeks could have avoided this degradation if they had acted differently is a question worth asking. Were they simply overcome by the accident of facing an enemy with better leadership and more access to natural resources to finance its power? Or could the Greek city-states have turned back Philip if they had not been weakened and divided by spending so many decades and so much treasure fighting one another? Could they have done better at compromising with other city-states when disputes arose, or would doing so have been a slippery slope leading to “slavery,” as Pericles had argued to the Athenians in persuading them not to compromise with Sparta even if it meant war? These questions, which certainly have their analogues in our history today, seem to me to mark one of the numerous places where ancient Greek history is “good to think with.”


A Macedonian holding a grudge for a violent insult assassinated Philip in 336 B.C. Unconfirmed rumors circulated that the murder had been instigated by one of his several wives, Olympias, a princess from Epirus to the west of Macedonia and mother of Philip’s son, Alexander (356–323 B.C.). When his father was killed, Alexander promptly liquidated potential rivals for the throne and won recognition as king while barely twenty years old. In several lightning-fast campaigns, he subdued Macedonia’s traditional enemies to the west and north. Next, he compelled the city-states in southern Greece that had rebelled from the League of Corinth at the news of Philip’s death to rejoin the alliance. (As in Philip’s reign, Sparta remained outside the league.) To demonstrate the price of disloyalty, Alexander destroyed Thebes in 335 as punishment for its rebellion. This lesson in terror made it clear that Alexander might claim to lead the Greek city-states by their consent (the kind of leader called a hegemon in Greek) but that the reality of his power rested on his superior force and his unwavering willingness to employ it. Alexander would always reward those who acknowledged his power, even if they had previously been his enemies, but he ruthlessly punished anyone who betrayed his trust or defied his ambitions.


Map 7. Alexander’s Route of Conquest, 334–323 B.C.

With Greece cowed into peaceful if grudging allegiance, Alexander in 334 B.C. led a Macedonian and Greek army into Anatolia to fulfill his father’s plan to obtain retribution for Greece by subduing Persia. Alexander’s astounding success in the following years in conquering the entire Persian Empire while still in his twenties earned him the title “the Great” in later ages. In his own time, his greatness consisted of his ability to inspire his men to follow him into hostile, unknown regions where they were reluctant to go, beyond the borders of civilization as they knew it, and his genius for adapting his tactics to changing military and social circumstances as he marched farther and farther away from the land and people that he knew from his youthful years. Alexander inspired his troops with his reckless disregard for his own safety; often he plunged into the enemy at the head of his men and shared the danger of the common soldier in the front of the battle line. No one could miss him in his plumed helmet, vividly colored cloak, and armor polished to reflect the sun. So intent on conquering distant lands was Alexander that he had rejected advice to delay his departure from Macedonia until he had married and fathered an heir, to forestall instability in case of his death. He had further alarmed his principal advisor, an experienced older man, by giving away almost all his land and property in order to strengthen the army, thereby creating new landowners who would furnish troops. “What,” the advisor asked, “do you have left for yourself?” “My hopes,” Alexander replied (Plutarch, Alexander 15). Those hopes centered on constructing a heroic image of himself as a warrior as glorious as the incomparable Achilles of Homer’s Iliad.Alexander always kept a copy of The Iliad under his pillow, along with a dagger. Alexander’s aspirations and his behavior represented the ultimate expression of the Homeric vision of the glorious conquering warrior striving “always to be the best” and to win the immortal reputation that only such achievements could convey.

Alexander cast a spear into the earth of Anatolia when he crossed the Hellespont Strait from Europe to Asia, thereby claiming the Asian continent for himself in Homeric fashion as territory “won by the spear” (Diodorus Siculus, Library of History 17.17.2). The first battle of the campaign, at the Granicus River in western Anatolia, proved the worth of Alexander’s Macedonian and Greek cavalry, which charged across the river and up the bank to rout the opposing Persians. A Persian came within a split second of cutting Alexander’s head in two with a sword as the king led his cavalry against the enemy, but a Macedonian commander saved the charging king by slicing off the attacker’s arm. Alexander went on to visit the legendary King Midas’s capital of Gordion in Phrygia, where an oracle had promised the lordship of Asia to whoever could loose a seemingly impenetrable knot of rope that was tying the yoke of an ancient chariot preserved in the city. The young Macedonian, so the story goes, cut the Gordion knot with his sword. In 333 B.C.the Persian king Darius finally faced Alexander in battle at Issus, near the southeastern corner of Anatolia. Alexander defeated his more-numerous opponents with a characteristically bold strike of cavalry through the left side of the Persian lines, followed by a flanking maneuver against the king’s position in the center. Darius had to flee from the field to avoid capture, leaving behind his wives and daughters, who had accompanied his campaign in keeping with royal Persian tradition. Alexander’s scrupulously chivalrous treatment of the Persian royal women after their capture at Issus reportedly boosted his reputation among the peoples of the king’s empire.

When Tyre, a heavily fortified city on the coast of what is now Lebanon, refused to surrender to him in 332 B.C., Alexander employed the assault machines and catapults developed by his father to breach the walls of its formidable offshore fortress after a long siege. The capture of Tyre revealed that walled city-states were no longer impregnable to siege warfare. Although successful sieges remained difficult after Alexander because well-constructed city walls still presented formidable barriers to attackers, Alexander’s success against Tyre increased the terror of a siege for a city’s general population. No longer could its citizens confidently assume that their defensive system could indefinitely withstand the technology of their enemy’s offensive weapons. The now-present fear that a siege might actually breach a city’s walls made it much harder psychologically for city-states to remain united in the face of threats from enemies like aggressive kings.

Alexander next took over Egypt, where hieroglyphic inscriptions exist that scholars have suggested are evidence the Macedonian presented himself as the successor to the Persian king as the land’s ruler, not as an Egyptian pharaoh. This conclusion is not certain, however, and in Egyptian art Alexander is depicted in the traditional guise of rulers of that ancient state. For all practical purposes, Alexander became pharaoh, an early sign that he was going to adopt whatever foreign customs and institutions he found useful for controlling his conquests and proclaiming his superior status.On the coast, to the west of the Nile river, Alexander in 331 B.C. founded a new city, named Alexandria after himself, the first of many cities he would later establish as far east as Afghanistan. During his time in Egypt, Alexander also paid a mysterious visit to the oracle of the god Ammon, whom the Greeks regarded as identical to Zeus, at the oasis of Siwah, far out in the western Egyptian desert. Alexander told no one the details of his consultation of the oracle, but the news got out that he had been informed that he was the son of the god and that he joyfully accepted the designation as true.

In 331 B.C., Alexander crushed the Persian king’s main army at the battle of Gaugamela in northern Mesopotamia, near the border of modern Iraq and Iran. He subsequently proclaimed himself king of Asia in place of the Persian king; never again would he be merely the king of the Macedonians and hegemon of the Greeks. For the heterogeneous populations of the Persian Empire, the succession of a Macedonian to the Persian throne meant essentially no change in their lives. They continued to send the same taxes to a remote master, whom they rarely if ever saw. As in Egypt, Alexander left the local administrative system of the Persian Empire in place, even retaining some Persian governors. His long-term aim seems to have been to forge an administrative corps composed of Macedonians, Greeks, and Persians working together to rule the territory he conquered with his army. Alexander was quick to recognize excellence when he saw it, and he began to rely more and more on “barbarians” as supporters and administrators. His policy seems to have been to create strength and stability by mixing ethnic traditions and personnel. As he had learned from Aristotle, his tutor when he was a teenager in Macedonia, mixed natures were the strongest and best.


Alexander next led his army farther east into territory hardly known to the Greeks. He pared his force to reduce the need for supplies, which were difficult to find in the arid country through which they were marching. Each hoplite in Greek armies customarily had a personal servant to carry his armor and pack. Alexander, imitating Philip, trained his men to carry their own equipment, thereby creating a leaner force by cutting the number of army servants dramatically. As with all ancient armies, however, a large number of noncombatants trailed after the fighting force: merchants who set up little markets at every stop; women whom soldiers had taken as mates along the way and their children; entertainers; and prostitutes. Although supplying these hangers-on was not Alexander’s responsibility, their foraging for themselves made it harder for Alexander’s quartermasters to find what they needed to supply the army proper.

An ancient army’s demand for supplies usually left a trail of destruction and famine for local inhabitants in the wake of its march. Hostile armies simply took whatever they wanted. Friendly armies expected local people to sell or donate food to its supply officers and also to the merchants trailing along. These entrepreneurs would set up markets to resell locally obtained provisions to the soldiers. Since most farmers in antiquity had practically no surplus to sell, they found this expectation—which was in reality a requirement—a terrific hardship. The money the farmers received was of little use to them because there was nothing to buy with it in the countryside, where their neighbors had also had to participate in the forced marketing of their subsistence.

From the heartland of Persia in 329 B.C., Alexander marched northeastward into the trackless steppes of Bactria (modern Afghanistan). When he proved unable to completely subdue the highly mobile locals, who avoided pitched battles in favor of the guerrilla tactics of attack and retreat, Alexander settled for an alliance sealed by his marriage to the Bactrian princess Roxane in 327. In this same period, Alexander completed the cold-blooded suppression of both real and imagined resistance to his plans among the leading men in his officer corps. As in past years, he regarded accusations of treachery or disloyalty as justification for the execution of those Macedonians he had come to distrust. These executions, like the destruction of Thebes in 335, demonstrated Alexander’s appreciation of terror as a disincentive to rebellion.

From Bactria Alexander pushed on eastward to India. He probably intended to march all the way through to China in search of the edge of the farthest land on the earth, which Aristotle had taught was a sphere. Seventy days of marching through monsoon rains, however, finally shattered the nerves of Alexander’s soldiers. In the spring of 326 B.C., they mutinied on the banks of the Hyphasis River (the modern Beas) in northwestern India. Alexander was forced to agree to lead them in the direction of home. When his men had balked before, Alexander had always been able to shame them back into action by sulking in his tent like Achilles in The Iliad. This time the soldiers were beyond shame.

Blocked from continuing eastward, Alexander now proceeded south down the Indus River. Along the way he took out his frustration at being stopped in his push to the east by conquering the Indian tribes who resisted him and by risking his life more flamboyantly than ever before. As a climax to his frustrated rage, he flung himself over the wall of an Indian town to face the enemy alone like a Homeric hero. His horrified officers were barely able to rescue him in time; even so, he received near-fatal wounds. At the mouth of the Indus on the Indian Ocean, Alexander turned a portion of his army west through the fierce desert of Gedrosia. He sent another group on an easier route inland, while a third group sailed westward along the coast to explore for possible sites for new settlements and harbors to connect Mesopotamia and India. Alexander himself led the contingent that braved the desert, planning to surpass earlier famous leaders by marching through territory that they had found nearly impassable. The environment along the way was punishing. A flash flood wiped out most of the noncombatants following the army when they camped in a dry riverbed that filled up after a sudden inundation. Many soldiers died on the burning sands of the desert, expiring from lack of water and the heat, which has been recorded at 127 degrees in the shade in that area. Alexander, as always, shared his men’s hardships. In one legendary episode from this horrible ordeal, a patrol was said to have brought him a helmet containing some water that had been found on their scouting expedition. Alexander spilled the water out onto the sand rather than drink when his men could not. They loved him for this gesture more than anything else, it is reported. The remains of the army finally reached safety in the heartland of Persia in 324B.C. Alexander promptly began plans for an invasion of the Arabian Peninsula and, to follow that, North Africa west of Egypt.

By the time Alexander returned to Persia, he had dropped all pretense of ruling over the Greeks as anything other than an absolute monarch. Despite his earlier promise as hegemon to respect the internal freedom of the Greek city-states, he now impinged on their autonomy by sending a peremptory decree ordering them to restore to citizenship the large number of exiles wandering homeless in the Greek world. The previous decades of war in Greece had created many of these unfortunate wanderers, and their status as stateless persons was creating unrest. Even more striking was Alexander’s communication to the city-states that he wished to receive the honors due a god. Initially dumbfounded by this request, the leaders of most Greek states soon complied by sending honorary delegations to him as if he were a god. The Spartan Damis pithily expressed the only prudent position on Alexander’s deification open to the stunned Greeks: “If Alexander wishes to be a god, we agree that he be called a god” (Plutarch, Moralia 219e).

Scholarly debate continues over Alexander’s motive for desiring the Greeks to acknowledge him as a god, but few now accept a formerly popular theory that he did not really think that he was divine and only claimed that status because he believed the city-states could then save face by obeying his orders because the commands originated from a divinity, whose authority of course superseded that of all earthly regimes. Personal rather than political motives best explain Alexander’s request. He certainly had come to believe that he was the son of Zeus; after all, Greek mythology told many stories of Zeus producing children by mating with a human female. Most of those legendary offspring were mortal, but Alexander’s conquest showed that he had surpassed them. His feats must be superhuman, it would have seemed to him, because they exceeded the bounds of human possibility. In other words, Alexander’s accomplishments demonstrated that he had achieved godlike power and therefore must be a god himself, even while still a man. This new kind of divinity achieved by Alexander emerged, in his view, as a natural consequence of his power and achievements. We have to take seriously the ancient evidence that Alexander believed he was a god and a man at the same time; that was an idea that, later history shows, was going to have a long future.

Alexander’s political and military goals can best be explained as interlinked goals: the conquest and administration of the known world, and the exploration and possible colonization of new territory beyond. Conquest through military action was a time-honored pursuit for ambitious Macedonian leaders such as Alexander. He included non-Macedonians in his administration and army because he needed their expertise, not because he had any dream of promoting an abstract notion of what was once called “the brotherhood of man.” Alexander’s explorations benefited numerous scientific fields, from geography to botany, because he took along scientifically minded writers to collect and catalogue the new knowledge that they encountered. The far-flung new cities that he founded served as loyal outposts to keep the peace in conquered territory and provide warnings to headquarters in case of local uprisings. They also created new opportunities for trade in valuable goods, such as spices, that were not produced in the Mediterranean region.

Alexander’s plans to conquer Arabia and North Africa were extinguished by his premature death in Babylon on June 10, 323 B.C. He died from a fever worsened by dehydration from drinking wine, which Greeks believed had medicinal qualities for the sick. He had already been suffering for months from depression brought on by the death of his best friend, Hephaistion. Close since their boyhoods, Alexander and Hephaistion are believed by some to have been lovers, though the major surviving ancient sources do not make this claim explicitly. They do suggest, however, that Alexander, like other men of his time and place, had a more expansive view of appropriate erotic desire and sexual practice for men than is usual today; for one thing, he is said to have had a beautiful eunuch who provided him with intimate services. In any case, when Hephaistion died in a bout of excessive drinking, Alexander went wild with grief. The depth of his emotion was evident when he planned to build an elaborate temple to honor Hephaistion as a god. Meanwhile, Alexander threw himself into preparing for his Arabian campaign by exploring the marshy lowlands of southern Mesopotamia. Perhaps it was on one of these trips that Alexander contracted the malarialike fever that killed him when he was only thirty-two years old. Alexander had made no plans about what should happen if he should die unexpectedly. His wife Roxane gave birth to their first child only some months after Alexander’s death. When at Alexander’s deathbed his commanders asked him to whom he left his kingdom, he replied, “to the most powerful” (Arrian, Anabasis 7.26.3).


Fig. 9.3: This gold medallion made in the time of the Roman Empire commemorates Alexander the Great, outfitted in decorated armor, though without a helmet so that his face could be clearly seen. His head is depicted gazing upward, with Alexander scanning the sky, a pose that the Macedonian conqueror was said to have chosen for his official portrait in sculpture. The Walters Art Museum, Baltimore.

The Athenian orator Aeschines (c. 397–322 B.C.) well expressed the bewildered reaction of many people to the events of Alexander’s lifetime: “What strange and unexpected event has not occurred in our time? The life we have lived is no ordinary human one, but we were born to be an object of wonder to posterity” (Orations 3.132). Alexander himself attained a fabulous level of fame that persisted in later times (fig. 9.3). Stories of awe-inspiring exploits attributed to him became popular folktales throughout the ancient world, even reaching distant regions where Alexander had never gone, such as deep in sub-Saharan Africa. The popularity of the legend of Alexander as the narrative of the height of achievement for a masculine warrior-hero served as one of his most enduring and powerful legacies to later ages. That the worlds of Greece and the Near East had been brought into closer contact than ever before represented another long-lasting effect of his astonishing career. Its immediate political and military consequences, however, were the violent struggles among his generals that led to the creation of the kingdoms of the Hellenistic Age.

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