Collections: On the Reign of Alexander III of Macedon, the Great? Part II (2024)

This is the second and final part of our look at Alexander III of Macedon (Part I), who you almost certainly know as Alexander the Great. Last week, we looked at the sources for Alexander’s life, the historiography (that is, the history-of-the-history) of his modern reception and then he abilities as a military commander, both on his own and in the context of the army and officers that Philip II, his father, had built for him.

This week, we turn to Alexander the King rather than Alexander the General. After all, being a king meant more than just commanding armies in the field: it demanded the administration of kingdoms, the stewardship of subjects, the managing of subordinates and the leadership of men. So this week we will look at those tasks: Alexander as Administrator, Ruler and Leader. What were his priorities, which of these did he actually achieve and how well did he keep his promises to his most loyal followers?

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Alexander the Administrator

Now, just as with Alexander as a general, we can hardly cover every aspect of Alexander’s administrative decisions or non-decisions in a blog post, so I want instead to lay out the general character of Alexander’s administration and then assess the degree to which we might view him as a skilled administrator.1

Of course the first thing to note when it comes to Alexander’s administration of his empire is the king’s physical presence. Alexander almost never returned to any area he conquered, meaning that he generally made provisions for administration once and then immediately moved on. Alexander leaves Macedon proper in 334, never to return. He leaves Asia Minor in 333, never to return. he leaves Egypt in 331, never to return. He is in the Levant twice, a first stint in 333 that runs into 332 and a second in 331, after which he, again, never returns. Alexander heads into northern Iran, in hot pursuit of Darius, in 330, leaving at the end of that year, never to return. Alexander heads into Afghanistan in 330, and leaves in 327 – wait for it – never to return. He then enters and leaves India in 326, never to return, before spending 325 and 324 hiking back to Babylon (via Susa, one of the few places he visits twice), dying in Babylon in June, 323.

Collections: On the Reign of Alexander III of Macedon, the Great? Part II (1)

The second thing to note is that in nearly all of that movement, save for the time in Egypt and the return trip to Babylon, Alexander is leading an army into potentially hostile territory and the demands of the army, especially logistics, were primary. Part of how Alexander’s sweeping campaigns were possible was that cities surrendered to him as he approached, enabling him to extract cash and supplies as he moved, without needing to settle down to secure the area or engage in lots of time-consuming foraging. Pauses to settle in for a difficult siege are relatively rare and it is striking that both (Tyre and Gaza) occur in 332 after Issus in the Levant. Alexander’s treatment of both cities was reportedly brutal: he reportedly (Q. Curtius Rufus 4.4.14-17) ordered the whole population of Tyre save those who managed to flee into temples killed and crucified some 2,000 Tyrians on the beach outside the city, while at Gaza he had the garrison commander tortured to death (Q. Curtius Rufus 4.6.29) and sold all of the survivors into slavery (Arr. Anab. 2.27.7). I think we can understand this brutality as a product of the need to cow other settlements into submission; Alexander needed those ‘surrenders in advance’ to keep his army fed in the long run, he couldn’t afford to siege every town.

Though – and we’ll come back to this – it should put the lie to the popular notion of Alexander as always the genteel and merciful conqueror; Alexander was genteel to royalty. To everyone else, including, as we’ll see, his friends and companions, he could be shockingly ruthless and brutal.

But the point here is that many of Alexander’s initial administrative decisions are going to be made based on almost pure expediency. In most cases, Alexander’s policy was to leave the Persian administrative system as he found it, merely replacing the Persian satrap with a Macedonian (and later, in the East, with Iranian nobles, a policy he will then regret and reverse, but we’ll come back to that) and dropping off a portion of his Macedonian army to secure control. For most of the subjects of the Achaemenid Empire, then, the first, last and only administrative decision Alexander ever made concerning them was the decision of which of his companions to put in charge before moving on. Again, we’ll come back to the personnel decisions, but as Kholod notes (op. cit. 300-307), Alexander did not have anyone with local knowledge to drop off, nor does he generally seem to have chosen his best to drop off, but mostly who he could spare. We never get the sense he is giving it deep thought and indeed Bosworth notes (op. cit. 864), “It is hard to see any wider policy beyond the basic requirements that the satrapies should remain peaceful with the minimum of expense and that his kingship should be universally and unconditionally accepted.” Achaemenid taxes simply became Macedonian taxes.

Collections: On the Reign of Alexander III of Macedon, the Great? Part II (2)

One thing Alexander did do was found cities, some seventy of them if Plutarch (Mor 328E) is to be believed, though we cannot account for all seventy. These foundations, along with later Hellenistic ones, will have the effect of creating vast cultural interactions and thus the Hellenistic world; of course Droysen and Tarn imagined this was Alexander’s purpose, but the sources give no hint of this. Instead, as Bosworth notes (op. cit. 866) of the cities we can locate in our sources, the great majority of Alexander’s foundations were “military control centres, garrison points in unquiet territory.” In essence, a portion of Alexander’s army – that is, the Greek or Macedonian portion – was dropped off to create a garrison, with some of the local land seized to provide an income for those settlers and some of the local population seized to provide the labor. It is crucial to note, these are not greenfield settlements, but new military centers whose purpose is to impose a new, ethnically defined ruling class on a subject population, whose land and labor have been stolen for the purpose.

And in most cases, Alexander’s involvement was profoundly minimal; with but one real exception, you should not imagine Alexander sticking around for more than the opening formalities of these ‘foundations.’ As Bosworth notes (op. cit. 868), the excavations at Ai-Khanum, probably Alexandria on the Oxus, show that the key Greek-style public buildings belong to the third century, not the fourth, meaning they weren’t built in Alexander’s lifetime, much less while he was there. He stole some land, stole some people, dropped off the garrison and moved on before anything at all was really built. Diodorus gives some sense of the rudimentary, isolated and limited nature of most of these new ‘cities’ when he notes that the Greeks Alexander settled in Bactria and Sogdiana kept their head’s down for fear of the king while he was alive, but the moment he died rose in revolt because “they longed for the Greek customs and manner of life” (Diod. Sic. 18.7.1).

Of course that real exception is Alexandria-on-the-Nile. There, Alexander sticks around long enough to mark out the location of the agora, major temples and the walls (Arr. Anab. 3.1.4-3.2.2). This too, however, seems to have been quite swift – Arrian reports a story that Alexander had to outline the city’s wall in barley meal because he didn’t have anything else to mark the surface of the ground with. Regardless of if we find the story credible – though Arrian explicit says he does – the implication is that Alexander was hardly there long (Arr. Anab. 3.2.1), perhaps days at most. He certainly doesn’t stick around for construction and once he leaves his unbuilt city with orders for, you know, other people to finish it he – wait for it – never returns.

What of the Greek cities under Achaemenid rule in Asia Minor? The liberation of these, after all, was supposed to be the reason for the entire campaign, so surely Alexander had a consistent administrative policy towards them, one founded in Greek freedom? Well, no. Unlike the Greek poleis in Greece proper, who existed in an alliance with Alexander, the Greek poleis of Asia Minor were conquered territories, ‘spear won land’ and as such had no rights which Alexander had not given them. The actual arrangements tended to depend on Alexander’s needs at the time; liberal settlements – Alexander does not make treaties with these poleis, but rather declares their new status by fiat – could clear the way for his army to march more easily, but they did not represent a consistent policy. Grynium, taken by Parmenio in the preparation-stage before Alexander’s full-scale invasion, was wholly enslaved (Diod. Sic. 17.7.9). Along the coast of Asia Minor, where Alexander needed to deprive the Persian fleet of safe anchorages to secure his own lines of reinforcement back to Macedon, he freed the Greek cities from tribute and ordered oligarchic governments (which tended to be preferred by the Achaemenids, as they were easier to manage) abolished, and democracies imposed, more from political expediency – the democratic factions will have been anti-Persian – than from a love of democracy (Arr. Anab. 1.18.1-2). On the other hand, when Alexander gets to Aspendos, Alexander evidently needed cash, so when the Greeks there asked not to have a garrison imposed, he demanded horses and fifty talents of silver, a considerable sum; when they tried to negotiate, he doubled the bill, took hostages and imposed tribute (Arr. Anab. 1.27.4). It’s also not at all clear these grants of autonomy to the Greeks who got them actually protected them much at all from Alexander’s satraps once he left.

Generally, the Greeks get a better deal from Alexander than anyone else. He only sometimes imposes a garrison, only relatively rarely imposes tribute and only sometimes overthrows their existing government (typically replacing them with more anti-Persian democratic regimes, but this is not a consistent pro-democracy policy either). But these arrangements, whatever they were, are not consistent, but generally crafted to suit Alexander’s needs in the moment.

Crucially, there is one thing Alexander does not do. As he conquers, Alexander’s system for legally constructing his rule was to adopt new titles – to wear more than one hat, as it were. This was a pattern he picked up from his father Philip II. Philip II, of course, was the King of the Macedonians (note: not Macedonia, the place, but the Macedonians, as a people, wherever they might be), but he also had controlled Thessaly by being the Tagus (‘leader/general’) of the Thessalian League, a technically elected position. Likewise, he secured Greece by being the hegemon (‘leader’) of the League of Corinth, an alliance he established after Chaeronea.

Alexander, unsurprisingly, added to this number. After Issus, Alexander insisted on being addressed as the ‘King of Asia’ (Basileus tes Asias) in his letter to Darius III (Arr. Anab. 2.14.9), an awkward title he seems to have adopted to try to encompass his conquests up to that point, given that the expedient of proclaiming himself the Great King of Persia (shahansah, literally ‘king of kings’) because he had neither captured nor killed Darius III, and indeed, would do neither, being beaten to the punch by Darius’ assassination at the hands of Bessus. On entering Egypt, he adds another hat: Pharaoh, conferred on him in Memphis. After Gaugamela, he entered Babylon and was proclaimed ‘King of the World’ which was the traditional title for the kings of Babylon.

Collections: On the Reign of Alexander III of Macedon, the Great? Part II (3)

Alexander’s rule is thus fragmented in the basis of its legitimacy, as his legitimacy comes from wearing six hats: King of the Macedonians, Tagus of the Thessalian League, Hegemon of the League of Corinth (which, note, the Asian Greeks did not join), King of Asia, Pharaoh of Egypt and King of the World (which he may have imagined covered the necessary remaining bases, but really just meant ‘king of Babylon). Alexander takes no concrete steps to merge these sources of legitimacy or the administrations beneath them. So he had a Persian-style administration in the East, but an Egyptian administration in Egypt and treaties with Greek cities in the West, while Macedon continued to be ruled as normal. You may ask how that is different from the local autonomy afforded by other, better administered empires – the Romans, say – and the difference is that those other, better administered empires at least hom*ogenized the administrative language, record-keeping, finances and staffing (read: governors) at the imperial level, and vest ruling legitimacy in a single, supreme title so that the empire cannot be casually fractionalized.2

Alexander achieves exactly none of that. Apart from efforts at cultural fusion (which we’re coming to), it’s not clear he attempted much of it, and what he did attempt failed.

Given that fairly minimal – one might, I think, fairly say ‘indifferent’ – approach to administration, much of Alexander’s administrative impact really lay with who, rather than what: not what he did, but who he chose as satraps and other officials. Which leads us to:

Alexander the Ruler

Alexander’s selection of subordinates was, I think, on the whole, quite poor. Early in his reign, this is concealed by the simple expedient that most of Alexander’s key subordinates weren’t selected by him at all: they were selected by Philip II. However, as the campaign wears on, Alexander opts to make two large categories of what we might regard as ‘staffing changes.’ First, he begins replacing most of Philip II’s old men with companions of his own generation, the syntrophoi, and second once he gets to Persia he begins assigning satrapies to Iranian nobles, alongside a program of trying to fuse his Macedonian elite and the Persian elite.

In both cases, Alexander’s choices are hardly without fault. Some of the younger men he chooses to pull into positions of high authority are less capable than those they replace, when they aren’t simply corrupt, though some of the replacements do prove quite capable. Meanwhile, Alexander attempts to select Iranian nobles of secure loyalty to handle his eastern satrapies and largely fails to select loyal Iranian nobles, forcing him to reverse the policy. And of course, his program to fuse the two elites is, broadly speaking, a near-complete failure. As a manager of people – distinct from a leader – I would argue Alexander does not impress, particularly when compared to his far more capable father.

On the Macedonian side of the equation, beginning in 330, Alexander begins, one by one, moving out many of Philip II’s old men and replacing them with companions of his own generation. The spark here seems to have been an actual conspiracy involving one of Alexander’s bodyguards (Demetrios) and another companion, in which Philotas, son of Parmenio, was implicated (the affair is Arr. Anab. 3.26-27, but Arrian’s coverage is circ*mspect, see Badian, “The Death of Parmenio” TAPA 91 (1960)). Alexander has Philotas tried – with no real evidence that Philotas was in on the plot, but that he knew about it and failed to report it – and executed him. Knowing this would mean a breach with Parmenio, he had the old general – who to be clear, had done nothing at all, he was away from the army at the time – assassinated (Arr. Anab. 3.26.4).

Alexander replaces Demetrios with Ptolemy – to be Ptolemy I Soter, who you will recall is one of our sources (which may explain why Arrian’s account is so circ*mspect; his hey source benefited greatly from the event) – as one of the bodyguards. Ptolemy would later get field commands and turned out to be relatively effective at them, but his key qualification was having been a close friend of Alexander’s in his youth; before being picked by Alexander for his loyalty, he had not distinguished himself. Hephaestion, a boyhood friend of Alexander almost exactly his age, was made one of the two commanders of the companion cavalry, despite by all evidence being a quite mediocre military man. Alexander also preferred Perdiccas, another syntrophos, though unlike the other two, Perdiccas had distinguished himself; Perdiccas would end up as regent after Alexander’s death and catastrophically fail at that role, though it is not clear to me that anyone could have succeeded. So Alexander’s choices are not all bad.3

And then there is Harpalus.

You may have noticed that I haven’t yet really brought up finance so far. Part of the reason for that is simply that Alexander’s sweeping conquests provided so much loot – he is, after all, cashing out the entire Achaemenid treasury – that for much of the campaign finance doesn’t really matter. There is disagreement as to if this windfall lasted all the way to Alexander’s death, with the traditional view being that the lack of money awards to the army and staggering accumulating debt amongst the soldiers (Q. Curtius Rufus 10.2.9-11) were indicators that Alexander had, in fact, managed to mostly run out, whereas F.L. Holt has recently argued in a book on the topic that Alexander was likely running out, but had not yet actually run out of money when he died.4 Apart from the spending – on soldiers, gifts, religious festivals, city foundations, temples, rewards to officers and so on5 – Alexander doesn’t seem to have been very concerned with finance, which is why I didn’t delve into it in the administration section. He delegated it to others.

In particular, he delegated that job to Harpalus. Harpalus had been a boyhood friend of Alexander: along with Ptolemy, Nearchus and a few other of Alexander’s close friends, he had been exiled by Philip II for a plot to have Alexander marry the daughter of the powerful satrap of Caria (Pixodarus) which would have undermined Philip (Plut. Alex. 9-10); Alexander recalled them from exile and made Harpalus his treasurer sometime before the Battle of Issus (Arr. Anab. 3.6.6). In 333, shortly before Issus, Harplus then stole some meaningful chunk of the treasury and ran off with a fellow named Tauriskos to Greece, ending up in Megara (Arr. Anab. 3.6.7). Alexander persuaded Harpalus to return, promising not to punish him, and indeed Harpalus did return and was not punished.

Now, we might already call this a case of bad judgment: Alexander, early in the campaign, appointed a boyhood friend as treasurer who ran off with the money at the first sign of trouble. That’s not good rulership. But here’s the kicker: after Harpalus returns from exile Alexander makes him treasurer again, in 330 (Arr. Anab 3.6.7, 3.19.7). Alexander’s judgement was so incredibly poor that when he was first told about Harpalus’ first flight, he imprisoned the two men bearing the news, thinking they were lying (they were not, Plut. Alex. 41.8).

So of course the most predictable possible thing happens: with Harpalus ‘guarding’ the treasury in Babylon and Alexander off in Persia and later India on campaign, Harpalus embezzles the money, living in staggeringly lavish style, importing fish from the Red Sea, having famous courtesans sent from Athens, apparently abusing local women and so on (Diodorus 17.108.4-6). In 324, when Alexander was on his way back from India and was clearing house among his satraps (we’ll get to that in just a second), Harpalus panicked, embezzled even more money, hired a small army with it, then packed up five thousand talents of silver (approximately 145 tons) and fled to Greece, attempting to raise an anti-Macedonian force in Athens. When that failed, he fled to Crete, where he was assassinated by one of his officers. One wonders if Harpalus’ assassination was the only thing that kept Alexander from pardoning his old friend and finding him a new job, presumably as treasurer, again.

This was, in fact, an endemic problem of Alexander’s financial officials. Surveying what he know, Holt (op. cit., 136) concludes that all of Alexander’s hand-picked financial officials, “suggest a pattern of rampant corruption and abuse.”

Which in turn brings us to Alexander’s choices of satraps and local officials (which is going to overlap with the former, if anyone is wondering why I haven’t brought up Cleomenes of Naucratis yet). As noted, we have to divide these fellows into two major groups, as before Guagamela, Alexander almost exclusively appoints Macedonians at satraps in conquered territories, whereas afterwards, he often appoints Persian nobles, particularly in Persia. Of course in both cases, Alexander is dropping these new satraps off and then moving on, so it is no surprise that he only has an opportunity to assess the success of his selections beginning in 325 when he starts making his way back towards the core of his empire from India. What we see does not suggest good judgement in people.

The experiment in finding trustworthy Persian satraps does not begin well, as Satibarzanes, whom Alexander confirms as the satrap of Areia in 330, revolts against Alexander…in 330 (Arr. Anab. 3.25.1-5; he literally revolts five lines after being confirmed as satrap). Alexander replaces Satibarzanes with another Persian noble, Arsaces (Arr. Anab. 3.25.7), who he then has arrested the next year (Arr. Anab. 4.7.1) and replaced with a Macedonian, Stasanor, also removing the Persian satrap of neighboring Drangiana at the same time and putting Stasanor in charge of both (Q. Curt. 8.3.17) and perhaps around the same time also sacked and imprisoned the satrap of Hycania, Autophradates or Phradates, replacing him with Phrataphernes (Arr. Anab. 4.18.2; Q. Curt. 8.3.17).

Then we have to deal with Alexander’s actions with the satraps after his return, which Ernest Badian understands as effectively a mass purge. Badian (“Harpalus” JHS 81 (1961)) compiles the list of Alexander’s actions in this regard from 325 to 323, and when I rattle this off, please keep in mind that Alexander had but 25 or so satrapies total6 We can start with the non-Macedonians: Tyriaspes, satrap of Parapamisadae is arrested and executed, replaced by Oxyartes. Astaspes, satrap of Carmania, suspected of planning revolt, is deposed and executed. Orxines, satrap of Persia after the death of his predecessor Phrasaortes, is executed, replaced by Peukestas. The satrap of Susiana, Abulites and his son are executed as well, replaced, at least eventually, by Coenus. Badian also places the execution of (Auto)Phradates here. That is a not inconsiderable number of fatally disloyal satraps.

Nor were all of the Macedonian picks winners, though they did tend to get better treatment from Alexander. Apollophanes, satrap of Gedrosia was deposed for failure to follow orders. Alexander also opts at this point to recall Antipater (to be replaced by Craterus, one of the few of Philip’s old men, alongside Eumenes, that Alexander seems to have trusted), who had been managing Macedonia and Greece this entire time; Antipater, perhaps wisely, sends his son Cassander in his stead. Antipater instead stalls, with his army. As an aside, many folks love to theorize – often without a lot of the details – about what might have happened if Alexander hadn’t died when he did, and I never see, “civil war against Antipater” mooted as a possibility, despite it appearing, to me at least, to be very much on the table in early 323. It is not at all clear to me that a longer reign by Alexander would have resulted in the consolidation of his reign, given his quite evident problems with loyalty among both Macedonian and Persian key supporters (see below) one wonders if he would have faced further coup attempts and even open civil war.

In Egypt, at this point, the key figure was Cleomenes of Naucratis, a local Greek from the Greek polis in Egypt (Naucratis), who had primary supervision over the (very considerable) revenue of Egypt. The sources are profoundly negative towards Cleomenes, who seems to have manipulated grain sales from Egypt to enrich himself at the cost of inflicting shortages in other parts of Alexander’s empire, particularly Greece, while also extorting bribes from the Egyptian priesthood and generally embezzling funds. Alexander opts to pardon this fellow (Arr. Anab. 7.23.8), to Arrian’s dismay, a staggeringly poor decision made in the immediate aftermath of Harpalus’ second flight which ought to have given Alexander some wisdom about the treatment of embezzlers. Ptolemy, who ends up in charge of this region after Alexander’s death, is not so forgiving and promptly has Cleomenes killed.

The picture that emerges of Alexander’s choices in subordinates is not good: he appoints unqualified boyhood friends to key posts, repeatedly places his trust in loyal Persian nobles who turn out not to be loyal and repeatedly fails to punish close friends caught in manifest wrong-doing. Nor should we assume that Alexander’s late-in-life purges had ‘fixed’ the problem of troublesome subordinates. After all, the men Alexander left behind are exactly the men who will, in the 13 years after his death, murder every single one of Alexander’s relatives, including his half-brother Philip Arrhidaeus, Philip’s wife Eurdice, Alexander’s mother Olympias, Alexander’s wife Roxane and her son by him, Alexander IV. The men that Philip II handpicked, helped his son, Alexander, conquer the Persian Empire. The men Alexander handpicked exterminated the entire Argead royal house.

But we should also discuss Alexander’s program of cultural fusion and his more personal relationship with his officers and soldiers, which leads us to:

Alexander the Leader

Any discussion of Alexander’s leadership capabilities has to begin, I think, with an acknowledgement that Alexander was clearly an incredibly charismatic figure. He could be generous (often unwisely so), composed in extreme situations, gracious when it served him and had an easy wit that comes through in many of the anecdotes of his life. He was also, brave, fit, young and good-looking, which couldn’t have hurt. In short, Alexander clearly had a natural charisma to him that inspired loyalty and devotion. Which makes it all the more remarkable that he seems to have largely spent down much of that inherent goodwill that his talents and skills generated.

Collections: On the Reign of Alexander III of Macedon, the Great? Part II (4)

We can start with Alexander’s clear policy – one of his few definite policies – of trying to merge the Macedonian and Persian elite once it became clear that he had won the Persian Empire. On the one hand, you can see the clear logic: having taken over the Achaemenid Empire, Alexander sought to incorporate Persian court ritual and the Persian administrative machinery. This is a way for Alexander to try to put his regime on firmer, more traditional footing in the areas he had conquered. So the basic idea makes sense; the problem was that it failed miserably, though it can be hard to untangle all of those failures from the strong anti-Persian bias in our ancient sources.

This fusion-policy was two-pronged itself, with a fusion both of court manners on the one hand and personnel – the Macedonian and Persian aristocracies – on the other.7

In terms of combining court customs, the first step was the introduction by Alexander of a limited form of Persian royal dress, though here Arrian exaggerates the degree of the change and muddles the timing (for instance, Alexander never ditched the Macedonian diadem for the high Persian kitaris as Arrian implies, Arr. Anab. 4.7.4-5; cf. Plutarch, Alex. 45.1-4). Alexander seems to have first tried this out when interacting with non-Macedonians and some of his closest companions before employing it more broadly. Alexander tries to introduce the deep bowing of the Persian court, proskynesis late in 328; according to Arrian, Callisthenes, the court historian objects and Alexander has him imprisoned, but drops the effort to introduce the deep bow generally (though Persian members of his court continued to do so). Part of the problem here was that the Achaemenid Great King was absolute in a way that the King of the Macedonians wasn’t, and Alexander’s companions evidently feared finding themselves with the former kind of king, rather than the latter.

Arrian also presents other habits of Alexander as a product of adopting Persian customs, but we really do need some caution here, as Arrian’s deliberate pattern of presenting Alexander’s failings as a product of Eastern, Persian influence and not of, say, his character or the impact of power, fits into Arrian’s own agenda in writing. Thus, Arrian claims that Alexander’s brutal execution of Bessus was a ‘barbarian’ custom (Arr. Anab 4.7.4) and so was Alexander’s drinking (4.8.2).8 The latter point seems more than a bit stretched – Macedonians were already known as a hard-drinking culture by the Greeks and Alexander had a reputation as a hard drinker among the Macedonians.

On the personnel side, Alexander enrolled thirty thousand boys from elite families (probably in 327), who will come to be known as the Epigonoi (‘the offspring’) in the eastern parts of his empire to taught Greek, clothed in the Macedonian fashion and trained in the Macedonian manner. These are presumably the sons of high-born elites, so they serve to bind those families to Alexander and – he might hope – provide the basis for a culturally fused elite class in the future. In 324, he famously arranged marriages for some eighty of the Companions with elite Persian and Bactian women and then also follows it up by offering dowries to any of his common soldiers who married local women (Arr. Anab. 7.4.6-8). Alexander also moved to incorporate Persian cavalry into the Companion cavalry (Arr. Anab. 7.6.4-5).

The response seems to have been fairly immediate and quite strong, fueling discontent in the Macedonian portion of the army (still he largest and core component) which explodes when Alexander tries to send a number of aging veterans home on reaching Opis (in Mesopotamia) in 324 (Arr. Anab. 7.8-7.11.7). Alexander’s Macedonians mutiny en masse, mocking his claim to divinity (Arr. Anab. 7.8.3) and refusing to fight. Alexander tries to crack down on the leaders and then use a mix of charisma and threats (to further prefer Persian troops) on the rest, at which point Alexander’s troops surround his tent and plead with him (Arr. Anab 7.11.3-5). On the one hand, I think this speaks to Alexander’s hold, by 324, on his veterans, who clearly love him dearly, but they also, in their supplication demand concessions from him. Alexander responds by reassuring them and then holding a banquet, in which he seats his followers in concentric circles by closeness to the king: the Macedonians in the center, the Persians outside of them, and all of his other subjects outside of them (Arr. Anab. 7.11.8). Alexander, at last able to send the veterans home does so – but they go home without their Asian wives or children (Arr. Anab. 7.12.2), hardly a ringing endorsem*nt for fusing the Macedonian and Persian military classes.

The program is also, fundamentally, a failure. Alexander’s efforts certainly do not seem to buy the loyalty from his Persian subjects that he had initially hoped for: by the end of his reign, Alexander has removed and mostly executed all but three of his non-Macedonian Eastern satraps. Their discontent might not be hard to understand: for all of the signifiers of fusion, Alexander was always clear who were the conquerors and who were the conquered: Macedonian men married Eastern women, not the other way around, for instance. Macedonians sat at the center of the banquet. Alexander was offering the Persian nobility a chance to keep some of what they had, but not the opportunity to share in the spoils of conquest; they were, after all, the conquered.

Meanwhile, what steps Alexander does take still infuriates his companions and his soldiers. As much as this has to do with anti-Persian sentiment, I suspect this is also a product of the changing nature of Alexander’s rule, as noted above – concerns about which must have only been intensified by Alexander’s obviously increasing self-image. Notably, of those marriages Alexander arranged with the companions, we know of only one to have held after his death: the marriage of Alexander’s bodyguard Seleucus to Apame, a Bactrian noblewoman, from which would spring the Seleucid royal line. Otherwise, as far as we know, the other companions abandoned their Asian wives shortly after Alexander’s death.

And that leads us to the second part of Alexander the Leader: how Alexander treated his followers. Did he keep his promises and treat his followers well? On the one hand, Alexander could be stunningly generous and forgiving to the point of folly for certain key companions. There is a distinct impulsivity to Alexander’s generosity which tends to mean it is not very evenly shared. On the other hand, a great deal of Alexander’s devoted followers didn’t end up rewarded, they ended up dead.

We may start with the companions. The problems start in 330 and simmer on for several years as Alexander frankly murders his way through the companions who expressed disquiet at his new court manners or his declaration that he was the son of Zeus-Ammon; after all, many of these men followed him precisely because he was the son of Philip II. As noted, Parmenio is the first to fall in 330, caught in the blast radius of Philotas being caught in the blast radius of a conspiracy by other companions against Alexander; one frankly wonders if Alexander had wanted an excuse to get rid of Parmenio. Plutarch understands this not as a plot by Philotas, but in fact as a plot against Philotas (Plut. Alex. 49.1) who had been open in his disquiet about the changes in Alexander’s rule, and as Badian notes, the assassination of Parmenio was hardly the only alternative available to Alexander after Philotas’ trial.9

Then we have a couple years of relative calm, followed by the boil of 328-7. In the fall of 328, Alexander gets into a drunken argument with Cleitus the Black (Arr. Anab. 4.8, who gives both Ptolemy and Aristobolus’ accounts of the event separately, cf. Plut. Alex. 50-51) who had saved Alexander’s life at the Battle of the Granicus in 334, with Cleitus objecting to Alexander’s claim that he had achieved his conquests by himself (not crediting his army) and belittling the achievements of his father Philip II. Finally, when Cleitus reminds Alexander that it was his hands that saved Alexander’s life, Alexander leapt up in a rage, grabbed a spear and flung it, killing him. Arrian, for his part, calls Alexander’s act savage but holds back a bit of his criticism, and its hard not to see his own politics in this: Arrian, after all, is a man at the court of the emperor Hadrian and it would not do to have Alexander the King appear too much a tyrant, too much a potential veiled mirror of a tyrannical emperor, in his history (thus, for instance, Arrian’s non-sequitor comment on drunken flattery in imperial courts in this no-flattery-involved story, Arr. Anab. 4.8.5).

Then in the winter of 327, Alexander tries to introduce proskynesis. His court historian, Callisthenes, argues against it, and is conveniently (and not particularly credibly) implicated in a plot against Alexander the following spring, is imprisoned and dies. The plot was one among the royal pages, the sons of Macedonian nobles who were enrolled in the service of the royal household; one Hermolaus felt he couldn’t take Alexander’s arrogance any longer (Arrian relates a pretty sharp public humiliation – a whipping – Alexander delivers to him because Hermolaus beat him at something, a boar hunt, Arr. Anab. 4.13.2 – if the anecdote is true, it speaks quite ill of Alexander’s character) and hatched a plot among the other pages. Alexander has the implicated pages stoned to death.

Later still, Badian notes10 the apparent destruction of the group of officers centered on Coenus and Cleander, who had been central to the downfall of Parmenio. Coenus, who had been a key unit-commander in Alexander’s army, commanding the right-most taxis of the phalanx, was the first senior officer to suggest to Alexander that he turn back from his campaign in India and then conveniently dies of illness shortly thereafter. Alexander then moves on Coenus’ friends in the return from India; Cleander, Sitacles and Heracon – all other companions of Alexander – are arrested and executed in 324.

In short then, among his companions, Alexander did not necessarily reward long and loyal service. Instead, he seems increasingly paranoid from 330 onward – in some cases he may have had reason to be – and ‘close to Alexander’ could be quite a dangerous place to be (unless you were actually embezzling royal funds, in which case you seem to have been rather safer). This is hardly to mean Alexander killed all or even most of his companions, but then many successful generals go entire careers without having their best commander (Parmenio) assassinated or murdering one of their better lieutenants in a drunken rage. I don’t think we should be too quick – as many are, it seems – to forgive Alexander for murdering his companions, on the grounds that he was a king.

As for Alexander’s soldiers, well, we have to talk at Gedrosia; this is generally omitted from the sort of single-lecture survey-course coverage of Alexander’s life because it occurs after the last of his victories, on his way back to Babylon. Arrian notes that every source save for Nearchus (who was not with Alexander for this leg of the trip) maintains that Alexander opted to take the difficult route through the Gedrosian Desert because he had heard how other famous rulers had attempted it and failed (Arr. Anab. 6.24.1-3), so this is a pure glory-hound mission. It goes poorly: the army runs out of food and water, the soldiers eat the pack animals (Arr. Anab. 6.25.1), the sick were left behind to perish (6.25.3), most of the women and children following the army – these are the families of the soldiers – are killed in a freak flood (since desert rains cause floods on the parched ground, 6.25.5). Arrian (6.24.4) reports that “many of the soldiers and the greater part of the pack animals were killed,” while Plutarch (Alex. 66.5) reports that only a quarter of the force he departed to India with ever returned. Diodorus says “many died of hunger” (17.105.6) while Quintus Curtius Rufus declares, “the plains were strewn with almost as many half-alive bodies as dead ones” (10.10.14). I don’t think we can trust Plutarch’s casualty report, but it seems clear that Alexander got a lot of his soldiers killed in that march back from India.

It is hard, then, to know how many of the soldiers Alexander departed Macedon with actually survived to the end of his campaigns: he both regularly dropped off parts of his army and regularly received reinforcements. But it seems clear that few of these men ever returned home: a relative few died in Alexander’s battles, far more died in the course of his campaigns and many more were dropped off in garrisons or settlements to hold down Alexander’s empire, from which they wouldn’t return. As a reminder, many of those settlers revolt immediately following Alexander’s death (Diod. Sic. 18.7), so we cannot necessarily assume they were happy about it, though some may well have been. Clearly Coenus seems to have been in the view that the promise was that they’d return home to parents, wives and children (Arr. Anab. 5.27.6); few would achieve that.

But from my perspective, it’s hard not to say Alexander broke faith with his soldiers too. As he campaigns beyond the Persian Empire, they begged him to turn back and head for home. It finally takes the famous mutiny on the Hyphasis (Arr. Anab. 5.25-28) to compel Alexander to turn back, at which point he grinds the army through the Gedrosian Desert, almost as a punishment for their mutiny, before threatening to replace them with Persians in the mutiny at Opis. I don’t think it is an accident, as an aside, that Alexander’s soldiers’ patience begins to run out in India: he had promised them a war against the Achaemenid Empire, so they could hardly have been upset at campaigning deep into Persia. But the moment Alexander, for his own glory and perhaps nothing else, was proposing to go so far beyond Persia…well, that wasn’t, quite literally, what he promised.

Alexander, the Great?

Finally, I think we need to talk briefly about Alexander’s character and his immediate impact in all of this. As I noted above, Alexander was charismatic and even witty and so there are a number of very famous anecdotes of him doing high-minded things: his treatment of Darius’ royal household, his treatment of the Indian prince Porus, his refusal to drink water in Gedrosia when his soldiers had none, and so on. These anecdotes get famous, because they’re the kind of things that fit into documentaries and films very neatly and making for arresting, memorable moments. But there is a tendency to reduce Alexander’s character to just these moments and then end up making him out – in a very Droysen-and-Tarn sort of way – into the ‘Gentleman Conqueror.’

And that’s just not a reading of Alexander which can survive reading all of any of our key sources on him. The moment you read more than just the genteel anecdotes (“for he, too, is Alexander,” – though note that Alexander’s gentle words do not keep him from trying to use Darius’ family to extort Darius out of his kingdom, Arr. Anab. 2.14.4-9), I think one must concede that Alexander was quite ruthless, a man of immense violence. I mean, and I want to stress this, he killed one of his closest companions with a spear in a drunken rage. I do not think there is a collection of polite-but-witty one-liners to make up for that. But Cleitus was hardly the only person Alexander killed.

Alexander had Bessus, the assassin of Darius, mutilated by having his nose and ears cut off before being executed (Arr. Anab. 4.7.3). He has 2,000 survivors of the sack of Tyre crucified on the beach (Q. Curtius Rufus 4.4.14-17). Because he resisted bravely and wouldn’t kneel, Alexander had the garrison commander at Gaza dragged to death by having his ankles pierced and tied to a chariot (Q. Curtius Rufus 4.4.29). Early in his reign, Alexander sacks Thebes and butchers the populace, as Arrian notes, “sparing neither women nor children” (Arr. Anab. 1.8.8; Arrian tries, somewhat lamely, to distance Alexander from this saying it was is Boeotian allies who did most – but not all – of the killing). Of the Greek mercenaries enrolled in the Persian army at Granicus – a common thing for Greek soldiers to do in this period – Arrian (Anab. 1.16.6) reports that he enslaved them, despite, as Plutarch notes, the Greeks holding in good order and attempting to surrender under terms before they were engaged (Plut. Alex. 16.13). Not every opponent of Alexander gets Porus’ reward for bravery and pride.

Meanwhile, Alexander’s interactions, as noted above, with the civilian populous were self-serving and generally imperious. That’s not unusual for ancient armies, but I should note that Alexander’s conduct towards civilians was also no better than the (dismally bad) norm for ancient armies: he foraged, looted what he wanted, occasionally burned things (including significant parts of Persepolis, the Persian capital), seized land and laborers for his colonies and so on. Alexander’s operations in Central Asia seem to have been particularly brutal: when the populace fled to fortified settlements, Alexander’s orders were to storm each one in turn, killing all of the men and enslaving all of the women and children (Arr. Anab. 4.2.4, note also 4.6.5, doing the same in Marakanda).

And this, at least, brings back to our original question: Was Alexander ‘Great’? In a sense, I think the expectation in this question is to deliver a judgement on Alexander, but I think its actual function is to deliver a judgment on us.

The Alexander we have in our sources – rather than in the imperialistic hagiographies of him that still condition so much popular memory – seems to have been a witty, charismatic, but arrogant, paranoid and violent fellow. As I joke to my students, “Alexander seems to have enjoyed two things in life, killing and drinking and he was only good at the former.” He could be gentle and witty, but it seems, especially towards the end of his reign, was more often proud, imperious and murderous.

He was at best an indifferent administrator and because he was so indifferent to that task, most of his rule amounted to questions of the men he chose to do the job for him, and those choices were generally quite poor. He made no meaningful preparations for the survival of his empire, his family or his friends upon his death; Arrian (Anab. 7.26.3) reports famously that his last words were, when pushed by his companions to name a successor, τῷ κρατίστῳ (toi kratistoi), “to the strongest.” Translation: kill each other for it. And they did, killing every member of Alexander’s family in the process.11

He was not a great judge of men – for every Perdiccas, there is a Harpalus – or a great military innovator. He largely used the men and the army that his father gave him, and where he deviated from the men, the replacements were generally inferior. That said, he was an astounding commander on campaign and on the battlefield, manging the complex logistics of a massive operation excellently (until his pride got the better of him in Gedrosia) and managing his battles with unnatural calm, skill and luck. He was also, fairly clearly, a good fighter in the personal sense. Alexander was a poor ruler and a lack-luster king, but he was extremely good at destroying, killing and enslaving things.

Collections: On the Reign of Alexander III of Macedon, the Great? Part II (5)

To the Romans – who first conferred the title ‘the Great’ on Alexander, so far as we know (he is Alexander Magnus first in Plautus’ Mostellaria 775 (written likely in the late 200s)) – that was enough for greatness. And of course it was enough for his Hellenistic successors, who patterned themselves off of Alexander; Antiochus III even takes the title megas (‘the Great’) in imitation of Alexander after he reconquers the Persian heartland. Evidently by that point, if not earlier, the usage had slipped into Greek (it may well have started in Greek, of course; Plautus’ comedies are adapted from Greek originals). It should be little shock that, for the Romans, this was enough: this was a culture that reserved their highest honor, the triumph, for military glory alone. And it was clearly enough for Droysen and Tarn too: to be good at killing things and then hamfistedly attempt – and mostly fail – to civilize them, after all, was what made the German and British Empires great. It had to be enough, or else what were all of those Prussian officers and good Scottish gentlemen doing out there with all of that violence? To question Alexander might mean questioning the very system those men served.

What is greatness? Is it pure historical impact, absent questions of morality, or intent? If that is the case, Alexander was Great, because he killed an exceptionally large number of people and in so doing set off a range of historical processes he hadn’t intended (the one he did intend, fusing the Macedonian and Persian ruling class, didn’t really happen) which set off an economic boom and created the vibrant Hellenistic cultural world, outcomes that Alexander did not intend at all. This is a classic ‘great, but not good’ formulation: we might as well talk of ‘Chinggis the Great,’ ‘Napoleon the Great’ or (more provocatively) ‘Hitler the Great’ for their tremendous historical impact. Yet this is a definition that can be sustained, but which robs ‘greatness’ of its value in emulation.

One cannot help but suspect in many of these circ*mstances, ‘greatness’ is about killing larger numbers of people, so long as they are strange people who live over yonder and dress and pray differently than we here do. It is ironic that Tarn credited Alexander with imagining the unity of mankind, given that Alexander was in the process of butchering however many non-Macedonians was required to set up a Macedonian ethnic ruling class over all other peoples. One suspects, for Droysen and Tarn, it was ‘greatness,’ to be frank, because they understood the foot inside the boot Alexander was planting on the necks of the world, was European and white and so were they. In that vision, greatness is ‘our man’ as opposed to ‘their man.’ But that is such a small-minded, petty form of greatness, ‘our killer and not your killer.’

Does greatness require something more? The creation of something enduring, perhaps? Alexander largely fails this test, for it is not Alexander but the men who came after him, who exterminated his royal line and built their kingdoms on the ashes of his, who constructed something enduring. Perhaps greatness requires making the world better? Or some kind of greatness of character? For these, I think, it is hard to make Alexander fit, unless one is willing, like Tarn was, to bend and break the narrative to force it. Had Alexander, in fact, been Diogenes (Plut. Alex. 14.1-5), rather than Alexander, but with his character – witty, charismatic, but imperious, arrogant and quick to violence – I do not think we would admire him. As for making the world better, Alexander mostly served to destroy a state he does not seem to have had the curiosity or cultural competence to understand, as Reames puts, it, “not King of Asia, but a Macedonian conqueror in a long, white-striped purple robe” (op. cit. 212). He surely did not understand their religions.12

In a sense, Alexander, I think, serves as a mirror for us. We question the greatness of Alexander and what is revealed are the traits, ideals, and actions we value. Alexander’s oversized personality is as captivating and charismatic now as it was then, and his record as a killer and conqueror is nearly unparalleled. But what is striking about Alexander is that beyond that charisma and military skill there is almost nothing else, which is what makes the test so discerning.

And so I think we continue to wrestle with the legacy and value of Alexander III of Macedon.

  1. For those looking for more detailed coverage of the often quite scattered details of Alexander’s administration, you can get a good overview from A.B. Bosworth, “Alexander the Great: Greece and the Conquered Territories” in The Cambridge Ancient History vol 62 (1994; that is, volume 6 of the second edition of the CAH, which we’d usually abbreviate as CAH2 6) or from M.M. Kholod, “The Administration of Alexander’s Empire” in the recent Cambridge Companion to Alexander the Great (2024). Kholod generally takes a more positive view, on the balance of Alexander’s administrative decisions, erring on the side of attributing them to sound strategic decisions.
  2. By, for instance, running into a situation where the priests in Babylon and Egypt or the members of the Thessalian League or the nobility of Macedon disagree on who is now king after Alexander’s death, which is of course exactly what ends up happening with just a few year’s delay. Ironically, Crusader Kings players will immediately recognize Alexander’s mistake: as a king or emperor, you need to abolish all top-tier titles except your primary to avoid this very problem.
  3. There is a very solid summary on these fellows and their roles by W. Heckel and J. Romm, “Alexander’s Inner Circle” in the Landmark Arrian: Campaigns of Alexander, ed. J. Romm (2010), upon which I have leaned here.
  4. F.L. Holt, The Treasures of Alexander the Great: How One Man’s Wealth Shaped the World (2016). Notably, Holt’s chapter in the Landmark on this very topic, “Money and finance in the Campaigns of Alexander” – several years earlier than his book – presents something closer to the traditional view, noting that Alexander seemed to have been in debt at his death, so further review of the evidence clearly evolved his view.
  5. Holt, op. cit., has a breakdown, with a handy bar-chart; religious ceremonies and gifts are the largest expenditures by his reasoning.
  6. Listed by Kholod, op. cit. in table 18.2, but be wary of repeats for combined and divided satrapies
  7. Once again, the Landmark Arrian has a good overview appendix on this, J. Romm, “Alexander’s Policy of Perso-Macedonian Fusion.” J. Reames, “Changes and Challenges at Alexander’s Court” in The Cambridge Companion to Alexander the Great (2024) is useful to read in opposition, as it sets out challenges to the traditional, Arrian-focused narrative, suggesting not fused but parallel aristocracies, though frankly I am not sure I buy it. The institutions may have been parallel in 324, but surely the program of encouraged (or compelled) marriages and the education of larger numbers of epigonoi was designed to produce fusion, not two permanent parallel courts. Still, Reames chapter is very good and closes with, I think, an excellent observation that Alexander never seems to have actually understood the Persian court, to his considerable detriment.
  8. Arrian is, in fact, contorting the chronology to bring these events closer together, stopping his narrative in the Winter of 329/8 to run a story of Alexander’s ‘barbarian’ excess all the way through late 327, before picking back up again in Spring of 328, implying that all of these events happened in quicker succession than they actually did
  9. The classic reading indicting Alexander for this is, of course, E. Badian, “The Death of Parmenio” TAPA 91 (1960).
  10. In “Harpalus” JHS 81 (1961)
  11. I thus find it funny that every few years another ‘inspiring’ anecdote about Alexander’s wise last words filters around the internet that Alexander’s actual reported last words were so grim and heartless.
  12. On this, see F. Naiden, Soldier, Priest and God (2018)
Collections: On the Reign of Alexander III of Macedon, the Great? Part II (2024)


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