Ancient History & Civilisation


Hellenistic Worlds

The reconstruction and transformation of the bureaucratic system of the East, according to a general plan and with a definite purpose, must be recognized as one of the most astonishing achievements of the Greek genius, and as evidence of its flexibility and adaptability.

M. I. Rostovtzeff, The Social and Economic History of the
Hellenistic World
, volume II (1941), 1080

Some historians have written of the equilibrium established by the early Ptolemies. The phrase will serve if analysed as follows: Egypt was a country of, say, seven million Egyptians and 100,000 immigrants. The latter class could not expect to maintain a claim to an equal, much less to a larger, share of the products unless they contributed (or were considered to contribute) a qualitatively much more important share. To create the illusion was the task of statesmanship. (Ptolemy I) Soter, and more surprisingly (Ptolemy III) Euergetes, succeeded in the task. (Ptolemy II) Philadelphus had every advantage in his favour, but pressed his successes too hard and frittered away his assets. After the battle of Raphia in 217 BC followed sterile stalemate.

Sir Eric Turner, in The Cambridge Ancient History,
volume VII part 1 (1984, 2nd edn.), 167


Alexander the Great

When King Darius sent him a letter asking him to accept 10,000 talents in return for the prisoners, all the land west of the river Euphrates, one of his daughters in marriage and friendship and alliance, Alexander put the terms to his companions. ‘If I were Alexander,’ Parmenion said, ‘I would accept these terms.’ ‘And so would I,’ said Alexander, ‘if I were Parmenion.’                  Plutarch, Life of Alexander 29.4

The rise of Macedon marked the end of the classical age by curtailing Greek freedom and placing kings and their courtiers at the centre of power and the city-states’ public affairs. Luxury, increased by conquest, now characterized the new ruling class and the big showy style of so much of their post-classical ‘Hellenistic’ art. Philip’s ‘Hellenic Alliance’ did proclaim the ‘freedom’ and the ‘autonomy’ of its members. It did also impinge on the conduct of justice: disputes between city-states were to be referred to arbitration, and, by a ‘letter’, the king could ‘advise’ the judicial treatment of ‘traitors’. But freedom and justice are not the explanation of his Macedon’s success. Philip and his men were not really fighting for Greek freedom: it was proclaimed as a means to an end, the advancement of their own power.

Philip’s rise is better explained by his military innovations, his personal skill as an absolute king and once again, by conquest and access to new sources of precious metal, the two great agents of economic growth in antiquity. By conquest, Philip increased his sources of military manpower and changed the social profile of his kingdom. Macedonians were settled on rich land taken from the free Greek cities on his eastern borders; they could then sustain horses and become his new cavalrymen. War captives were brought back into Macedon as slaves, a labour-force for the newly developed mines and, surely, for farms whose owners could then be recruited as a professional standing army, available throughout the year. There was also, as we shall see later at Rome, a motivating set of values. A Macedonian king grew up to admire glory won in war, as did his followers. If he won it, he continued to enjoy their support. In this post-Homeric world, there was no question of ruling by being peaceful. The more a king conquered, the more secure his personal kingship became, and the more his resources for yet more conquest.

These values were to be realized by Philip’s most famous memorial, his son Alexander the Great, who took the dynamic of glory, gain and conquest to unprecedented lengths. Born in July 356, Alexander succeeded his murdered father in 336; five years later, aged twenty-five, he had conquered the great armies of the Persian king in Asia and had taken over the palaces and treasures of the Persian Empire which were more than two hundred years old. Incomparably richer than anyone known in previous Greek history, he pressed eastwards into India, bound for the Outer Ocean, so he believed, which encircled the world. Nobody from Greece had ever seen India and, like his tutor Aristotle, Alexander underestimated its vast size and population. Like conquistadors, his troops entered the kingdoms of an unknown Indian world. They believed they were following the trail of the god Dionysus and the hero Heracles. They saw elephants and Brahmins, but they only heard of people who lived up in the high mountains, our Himalayas, and ran with their feet turned backwards. These people could not survive at low altitudes, they believed, and so they could not be brought into camp: Alexander’s troops were the first westerners to hear of the fabled yeti, the Abominable Snowman of these mountain-peaks. Forty years earlier, their fathers had been the playthings of warring Athens and Thebes.

Aristotle, Alexander’s tutor, had believed that the edge of the world lay just beyond the Hindu Kush mountains. In the pouring rains of a monsoon, Alexander’s troops refused to press far into India and investigate, not least because they were hearing reports of a massive unknown Indian kingdom which lay beyond them on the river Ganges. Alexander had to return, although he was now leading an army of more than 120,000 men, the biggest such force in Western history, the majority of whom were Indians, Iranians and barbarians, recently his enemies. At the mouth of the river Indus, in what is now Pakistan, he did manage to sacrifice to Outer Ocean as if at the southern edge of the world. It was a second-best, and he marched back towards Babylon, where he died less than two years later, aged thirty-two years and ten months. He was not poisoned, but perhaps he had caught malaria in the previous weeks. Inevitably, his officers blamed one another, or even the pupils of Aristotle, for having poisoned him, starting these rumours against one another in their struggle for his succession.

Like Alexander, the Emperor Hadrian also made a dedication to Outer Ocean, but his was made in the north of the world, at the mouth of the river Tyne in Britain, which Alexander never knew. Hadrian visited Alexander’s great city, Alexandria in Egypt, and our best surviving narrative of Alexander’s campaigns was written by one of Hadrian’s provincial governors, Arrian, a keen hunting man, like his hero. If he wished, Hadrian could certainly have found out much more about Alexander than we can, as many more histories were surviving in his day than in ours.

As a general, Alexander remained globally famous, but his conquests were essentially won with the army which Philip had created. His favourite battle-tactic was already Philip’s: an angled charge with the cavalry from one wing, drawing the enemy sideways to cover it, then a turn inwards in pointed formation towards the enemy’s centre, which this manoeuvre had unbalanced. It was followed up by the infantry in the centre, armed with the long pike, or sarissa, which was swished up and down like the quills, observers said, of a terrifying porcupine. Alexander’s crack troops were Philip’s Shield-bearers, hardened infantry who savaged the Indian armies and their elephants, even when many of them, Philip’s recruits, were already over sixty years old. They survived Alexander, and remained the world’s most lethal troopers, a refutation of our modern ideas of ‘old age’. Even the plan to invade Asia was Philip’s own, as were the Greek experts in artillery who added torsion-power to the stone-throwing catapults

and designed ever bigger machinery and siege towers for the assaults on city-walls.

Unlike Philip, Alexander interpreted ‘Asia’ to mean the world to its (supposed) eastern edge, not simply all or part of the Persian Empire. On the way east, unlike Philip, he was a supremely successful besieger. He never lost a battle and his minor campaigns were masterpieces of audacity and hardly credible stamina. He was lethal up an Indian mountain-peak or alone in a Lebanese forest. He led his men from the front, although this inspiring habit nearly killed him in 325 BC when he jumped down off a city-wall in India single-handedly into a terrified crowd of Indian archers. He took the island city of Tyre by building a mole across the sea; he flattened the rebellious city of Thebes, Philip’s uneasy ally, and sold the inhabitants into slavery (as Philip had done to many Greek cities in the north). In one spectacular evening, encouraged by wine, women and song, he and his men burned the Persians’ ceremonial capital, Persepolis, to the ground. Yet he was also extraordinarily canny. He could trick opponents by a series of stratagems; he was a master of what military theorists now teach as ‘dynamic manoeuvres’; he could split his forces and co-ordinate them in a planned campaign. He was cool enough to take huge risks, but intelligent enough to adapt them to the weak points of his ever-changing enemies. He also helped his progress by an appropriate political ‘spin’. Philip had given his Asian invasion an artful presentation as a campaign of revenge; Alexander publicized a ‘dossier’ of letters exchanged with the Persian king Darius in which he ‘justified’ his aggression in terms of previous Persian aggression and interference. After three years as the avenger of Persian outrages, he then recycled himself as the respectful heir of Cyrus, the first great Persian king. Behind the spin, he had been determined to rule and retain his conquests in Asia from the very start.

Alexander’s bold, impulsive nature owed much to his extreme youth. It was enhanced, however, by two singular supports. His father Philip had given him a good Greek education, shared with the young sons of Macedonian nobles, Philip’s newly formed corps of Royal Pages, who became Alexander’s supporting officers. The pupil of Aristotle, Alexander read Greek texts, staged Greek dramas to entertain his army across Asia and shared his men’s fascination with the new world around them which seemed at times to recall the old myths of the Greeks. But he also modelled himself on the supreme hero of Homer’s epics, Achilles. He ran naked to the supposed site of Achilles’ tomb at Troy, while his male lover, Hephaestion, crowned the tomb of Achilles’s beloved Patroclus. He placed his copy of Homer’s Iliad, annotated by Aristotle, in the most precious casket captured from the Persian king. When the Athenians sent him an ambassador called Achilles, he granted them their request. In Alexander, Homer found his most avid over-interpreter.

In Macedonian society, this personal rivalry with a Homeric hero was not entirely misplaced. The king ruled by prowess among his Companions and, as Philip had shown, he had to bestow gifts and strive for personal esteem; the heroic world of Homer’s epics was not so remote from Macedonian values. Like a very special hero, Alexander also came to believe that he was the begotten child of a god. Again, there were Greek precedents, in the Spartan royal family, in the ruling family at Syracuse and even, admirers said, in Plato the philosopher, the ‘begotten son of Apollo’.1 Alexander publicized this personal claim after his visit to an oracle in the Siwah oasis on the borders of Libya and Egypt. Its god, Ammon, had often been consulted by Greeks before him and was understood to be Zeus; its priest greeted Alexander, Egypt’s new ruler, as ‘son of Zeus’. It was said that his mother Olympias had already hinted that Alexander’s father was more than human, a view which her eventual quarrels with Philip may have reinforced in her. Certainly, Alexander prized his divine sonship. He also honoured the god when he reached, as second-best, the ‘Outer’ Indian Ocean: his sacrifices here were announced as being ‘in accordance with Ammon’s oracular words’.2 It seems, then, that at Siwah in 332/1, he had already asked the god which gods to honour when he reached the Ocean, the edge of the world. When he asked the question, aged twenty-four, he had not yet defeated the Persians’ grand army. The question says much for his priorities and for the self-confidence which helped to realize them.

The role-model of a hero and the parentage of a god supported Alexander’s innate energy and boundless ambition. No doubt his edgy relationship with his own father, Philip, also accentuated his own endless wish to excel. The result was a conquest which changed the horizons of the Greek world. As a result, the army and military style of the Persian kings were replaced by Macedonian training and troops, as first mapped out by Philip. The festivals and ideals of Persian kingship were replaced by the Macedonians’ personal royal style. At least sixteen new cities were founded by Alexander at promising points across Asia, while tradition credited him, questionably, with many more. These cities were not just military outposts, a type of settlement which he also founded. They were meant to be famous, to their founder’s glory, and to that end they were placed, where possible, near accessible routes for trade and exchange. One city commemorated Alexander’s noble horse, Bucephalas, who carried him for more than seventeen years; typically, another commemorated his dog. The cities, with Greek settlers, were centres of Greek language and Greek entertainments, including athletic games and the inevitable theatre. But local non-Greeks were also settled in some of them. Once, in Sogdia, rebel prisoners were given to the residents of a new Alexandria as slaves, but elsewhere local non-Greeks were included as volunteers. Alexander’s close friend, his admiral Nearchus, explained that Alexander founded townships in Iran so that the nomads should become ‘cultivators of the fields and as they would have something for which they would be anxious, they would not do one another harm’.3 The plan may have failed, but it is certainly not anachronistic to ascribe a ‘civilizing’ vision to some of Alexander’s foundations. Previous Macedonian kings had had similar aims with their cultural patronage and new towns back in rough uncivilized Macedon itself.

Alexander had also inherited from Philip the aim of freeing the Greeks of Asia. Within a year, he had largely done so, and was encouraging democracies as the alternative to Persian-backed oligarchies. Tribute from the Greek cities was abolished, a unique favour in these cities’ history of relations with greater powers. Freedom, in consequence, became equated with democracy in the Greek city-states. Elsewhere, in non-Greek Asia, in Babylon or Egypt or Cyprus or Sidon, Alexander could capitalize on recent grievances against Persian rule and offer ‘freedom’, in the sense of self-government (‘autonomy’) as an alternative. But he also inherited here the Persian king’s system of taxation and claims to ultimate control. Outside the territories of Greek cities, the ‘land’, as one of his early rulings proclaimed, ‘I recognize as mine’.4 His governors oversaw it, while troops were kept strictly in the hands of Greek and Macedonian governors. Tribute continued to be paid as before, but in return, his troops and governors kept the peace (or so he hoped) and in India stopped the existing local wars.

In Asia, therefore, there was a real increase of freedom for most of the Greek cities, but for other people there was peace after slaughter and a subtle change of master: in Arabia or in India, no less than in Greek Asia, Alexander did persuade himself, at least, that he was granting ‘autonomy’, even to non-Greeks. In Greece, meanwhile, Philip’s well-armoured peace between the Greek allies remained in force. Those Greeks who sought justice under its terms could turn, as always, to local arbitrators or to the courts of their home city-states: in theory there was no limit to the penalties, except exile, which these local courts could impose. To settle disputes between Greek cities, the League in Greece might also appoint arbitrators. ‘Justice’, therefore, had a new framework in Greece, although the freedom of local ‘leagues’ and city-states was restricted by it. In Asia, meanwhile, Greek cities continued to operate their own courts, but there was always the possibility of sending an embassy to the king himself for a higher ruling. Alexander had not put the eastern Greek cities into his father’s Hellenic Alliance. He personally had freed them, and after constitutional upheavals in such cities he himself might prescribe a new political settlement by letter. In summer 334, he implied to the restored democracy on the island of Chios that he personally would read through their proposed new law-code so as to check that nothing in it was contrary to their democratic future. In these cities, the question of exiles and their peaceful restoration remained the object of his personal intervention; he even specified, by letter, that their cases should be judged by jurors using a ‘secret ballot’. Inevitably, within the local framework of a ‘free’ city’s laws, Alexander’s own edicts by letter did acquire an irresistible power.

Outside the Greek cities, aggrieved parties throughout Asia could appeal to a local governor or to one of Alexander’s underlings in the hope of an enforceable ruling. They might even gain access to the king himself and aspire to a judgement in their favour (they would need an interpreter to present the case). In Asia, therefore, justice remained at the dispensation of a king’s local officials, as before. There were no judicial reforms or new constitutions for his non-Greek subjects, but here and there (where a tradition of local laws existed) Alexander did publicize a return to pre-Persian rulings.

His conquests also multiplied the scope for gain and luxury beyond any Greek’s wildest dreams. Whereas Philip’s income had hardly sufficed to mount an invasion of Asia, Alexander’s allowed him the most lavish displays in Greek history. Ten thousand talents, about ten times the yearly income of Pericles’ Athens, were expended on a single celebration, a royal wedding or banquet. His Companions dined on couches with silver feet; individual officers were said to own fine hunting-nets a mile or more in length; even the staid elderly officer, Polyperchon, one of Philip’s men, was said to dance in a saffron cloak and slippers.5 Drink had always flowed freely at the Macedonian court, and it came to flow very freely in Alexander’s later years. There were nights when Alexander sat up drinking until dawn. At the funeral celebrations of an Indian wise man at his court, the winner in a drinking contest drained several gallons, while the runners-up included several Indians, who died in the aftermath. When Alexander married two more brides from the Persian royal houses near the end of his life, the occasion was celebrated with lavish gifts and his audience-tent was enlarged into the most magnificent marquee. Even the big curtain-poles were made of gold.

At his death, Alexander was planning further conquests in Arabia (whose scale he perhaps underestimated) and then possibly a march into the West against Carthage and north Africa. His aims, of course, are disputed, but in my view he had decided early on to march to the eastern edge of the world; when he was denied it, he went down to what he thought was a southern edge (the Indian Ocean); at his death he was exploring a possible northern edge (the Caspian Sea) and surely, therefore, thinking of conquering to the western edge (the Atlantic Ocean). His ‘geography’ was only slightly less mistaken than Aristotle’s, but it set his ambitions.

What was his sexual nature? He was not a one-way homosexual. During eleven years on the march, he married the Bactrian Roxane and two Persian brides, taking three wives as opposed to Philip’s seven. He also fathered a child on another Persian mistress, and perhaps one on an Indian chieftain, and was said in court gossip to have slept for twelve days with a visiting ‘Queen of the Amazons’ near the Caspian Sea. Since early boyhood he had also loved Hephaestion, whose death before his own drove him to extreme grief. Plainly, there was a homo-erotic sexual element to his love for his ‘Patroclus’, but their love was more than just sex. In Asia, Alexander also had sex with a Persian court-eunuch, Bagoas, who joined him in 330 and was made one of the ship-captains, the only foreigner, when Alexander’s fleet turned for home down the river Indus in 326. The fairest modern label for his sex-life is ‘bisexual’: Philip was said to have behaved likewise, and homoerotic sex was part of the lifestyle of his Royal Pages. As in contemporary Athens, so in Macedon a sexual love for a boy was something which a man could profess openly, without discredit. We do not know what his accompanying Indians thought of it.

As a passionate man, Alexander had his drunken moments and his outbursts of rage; they culminated in the dark evening in late 328 BC when he personally killed one of his father’s veteran Companions, Cleitus, at a party. His life was emphatically not lived without moral blots and stains; his ambition also killed tens of thousands of Indians who refused to surrender and be his subjects rather than subjects of their existing kings, and his army plundered the goods and supplies of countless families in order to feed themselves as they crossed Asia. However, after the initial conquest, further looting and violence were not Alexander’s idea of ruling his subjects. He had a magic which was personally exercised for the troops who loved him, and we must do justice to it too, and the accompanying extravagance of his youth. Such were his feats, his benefactions and his capacity for favours that some of the Greek cities spontaneously offered him ‘honours equal to those for the gods’. Sometimes they were offered in admiration or gratitude, at other times as hopeful flattery. Benefaction, in the sense of material favours, was central to Greek ideas of a god; Alexander was as capable of it as almost any Olympian god, while his prowess, as far as India, rivalled most Olympians’ known deeds. There had been divine cults previously for Greek men of power and achievement, but they only became an established practice among Greeks because of Alexander’s exceptional prowess. But he himself knew very well that he was mortal, and he continued to honour the immortal gods and to obey their oracles. His own religious life remained traditional, rooted in Greek practice and precedent.

Above all, Alexander had an emotional bond with his men, maintained through storm and desert, wounds and hardship and the many moments when he and his commanders had no idea where they were on the map. They had marched on foot against vastly bigger armies and they had seen deserts, cities, mountains and elephants which none had ever imagined in his youth. Some of them had ridden without stirrups and without saddles, forming into pointed formations for the sudden shock of battle-charge, those moments of ‘all or nothing’ which are the moments for glory, to be won at the expense of enemies and sustained, for years, with ever-enlarging stories. When Alexander lay dying, ‘his soldiers longed to see him, some of them so as to see him alive, others because… they thought his death was being concealed from them by his bodyguards. Most of them were driven to see Alexander by grief and longing for their king. As the army processed past him, he was unable to speak, but he gestured to each of them, lifting his head with difficulty and signalling to them with his eyes.’6 Like us, they were left unsure exactly what their king had in mind.

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