Alexander the Great Begins Expansion of Macedonia

Following the assassination of his father, Alexander the Great was proclaimed king of Macedonia, setting the stage for his military campaigns that would extend from Egypt to India and create the foundation of a vast empire.

Summary of Event

Philip II, during his reign of more than twenty years, consolidated the Macedonian kingdom and achieved hegemony over the Greek city-states of Europe, thus making possible the famous exploits of his son, Alexander the Great. Philip’s success was due in part to his skillful diplomacy, but even more important was his reorganization of the army into an effective killing machine. Rather than amateurs, Philip’s soldiers were well-paid and well-trained professionals. Fighting in phalanx formations of eight to sixteen rows, they were armed with the sarisa, a 15-foot-long (4.5-meter-long) wooden spear with a metal tip. Philip supplemented the phalanx with many archers and a large cavalry. When these components worked together as intended, Philip’s army was almost invincible. Alexander the Great
Philip II of Macedonia

After defeating Athens and Thebes in the Battle of Chaeronea in 338, Philip was the recognized master of all Greece. The following year, to preserve peace, he established the League of Corinth, which included all the Greek states except Sparta. As president of the league’s council of representatives, Philip influenced the decisions of its representatives and had the authority to execute their orders. Not long before Philip’s death, the council approved a joint invasion of Asia Minor (now Turkey) to drive out the Persians and further expand Macedonian hegemony.

Philip did much to prepare Alexander for future political and military leadership. Alexander’s first teacher was Leonidas, a strict disciplinarian who helped develop his ascetic nature. At the age of thirteen, his personal tutor was the famous philosopher Aristotle. In 340 b.c.e., when Philip led a campaign against Byzantium, he authorized his sixteen-year-old son to rule over Macedonia as regent in his absence. While regent, Alexander led the army to suppress a tribal revolt in northern Macedonia. Two years later, he commanded a decisive cavalry charge at Chaeronea, thus acquiring the reputation of a fearless warrior. These political and military experiences developed the young man’s leadership skills, and they also made him extremely popular among the soldiers, who exercised significant influence in governmental affairs.

Alexander was very close to his ambitious mother, Olympias, but he did not get along with Philip, who had seven wives and many concubines. In 337 b.c.e., a wedding between Philip and Cleopatra, the daughter of a Macedonian nobleman, was especially painful for Alexander and his mother. At a drinking party to celebrate the event, Cleopatra’s uncle and protector, Attalus, asked those present to pray for a legitimate heir to the throne, referring indirectly to the fact that Philip’s other wives, including Olympias, were of foreign birth. Alexander was so angry that he hurled his cup at Attalus. This act enraged Philip. However, when the intoxicated king tried to strike his son, he stumbled and fell on his face. Alexander then publicly ridiculed him. Within a few months, however, Alexander was reconciled with his father and was scheduled to be a commander in the invasion of Asia Minor.

As Philip was preparing for the campaign, he held a large celebration for his daughter’s marriage to Olympias’s brother. Delegations from most of the Greek states were gathered at Aegae for the occasion. When Philip was leaving the palace to go to the theater, he was fatally stabbed by Pausanius, a disgruntled young Macedonian nobleman (rumored to be Philip’s lover) who was furious about a personal injustice that Philip had ignored. Soldiers immediately killed Pausanius, which made it impossible to gain accurate information about a possible conspiracy. Because Alexander and Olympias had the most to gain from Philip’s death, some writers have suspected that one or both of them might have been involved, even though it appears unlikely that either would have risked cooperation with a person such as Pausanius.

The assassination of Philip created a condition of turmoil and uncertainty for the next several days. Alexander, only twenty years old, was not the only pretender to the vacant throne, but once the army recognized him as the legitimate successor, he quickly obtained the support of the most powerful noblemen of the country. Ancient historians, unfortunately, did not provide many details about the process and ceremonies for installing a Macedonian king. They did report that within a few weeks, Alexander promised the assembly at Aegae that he would continue the policies of his father.

Alexander’s first official act was to punish all those who were suspected of involvement in Philip’s murder. About a dozen alleged conspirators were quickly tried and executed before large crowds. The decision to execute these individuals publicly rather than secretly suggested that Alexander probably had no part in his father’s death. After these acts of vengeance were completed, the body of Philip was cremated and interred in a large royal tomb (excavated by Manolis Andronikos in 1977).

Alexander further demonstrated his ruthlessness by eliminating all his major rivals as well as the faction that opposed him. Attalus, who was in Asia Minor, desperately tried to reconcile with Alexander, but it was too late. Alexander ordered the assassination of both Attalus and his close relatives. However, Alexander limited the executions to those persons considered a threat to his rule. Philip’s only other surviving son, Arrhidaeus, who was mentally disabled, was allowed to live. Olympias, however, was determined to get revenge. She personally engineered the death of Cleopatra and her infant daughter. Although Alexander expressed horror about their deaths, he took no action to protect them or to punish his mother.

After consolidating his power in Macedonia, Alexander then asserted his authority over the League of Corinth. The city-states of Thebes and Athens, not wanting to be ruled by a twenty-year-old youth, decided that the time was ripe to declare their independence. Without delay, Alexander marched to Thebes with thirty thousand troops. When Thebes rejected his ultimatum, his soldiers stormed the city, killed about six thousand Thebans, burned most of the buildings, and sold thousands of the population into slavery. Faced with this cruel example, Athens wisely ceased its revolt. Shortly thereafter, the council of the league appointed Alexander commander (hegemon) of Greek forces for the anticipated war against Persia.


Alexander the Great was primarily a warrior, and during his thirteen-year reign, he achieved unprecedented military conquests that included much of the known world. Between 335 and 327 b.c.e., he established control over Asia Minor, Syria, Egypt, Mesopotamia (now Iraq), and Persia. During the next two years, he took control over much of Afghanistan and several small kingdoms of India. His commanders, however, forced him to return to Mesopotamia in 325. After Alexander died two years later, his kingdom was divided into several Hellenistic (or Greek-like) empires. For the next three hundred years, three of these empires achieved great accomplishments in science, technology, art, and literature.

Historians disagree about whether Alexander’s legacy was primarily good or bad. Those who admire Alexander argue that he was tolerant of different races and cultures and that he spread the blessings of Greek civilization, including government based on the rule of law, the practice of political representation, and Greek ideas of rationality and science. They insist that the Macedonian Empire promoted relative peace, stability, and prosperity. Critics of Alexander, on the other hand, tend to concentrate on the bloodshed and the cruel reprisals associated with his conquests. They maintain that almost none of the conquered peoples joined the Macedonian Empire voluntarily and that the Macedonians exploited the peoples with oppressive taxes. They further argue that the science and technology of the Hellenistic era was the result more of the impact of peaceful trade and cultural contact than of Alexander’s military expansionism.

Further Reading

  • Bosworth, A. Brian. Conquest and Empire: The Reign of Alexander the Great. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1988. A scholarly work with detailed footnotes referring to ancient sources; takes a moralistic and negative view of Alexander’s conquests.
  • Curtius, Quinntus. History of Alexander. New York: Penguin, 1984. Classic work of the first century that is filled with controversy, scandals, and intrigues.
  • Fox, Robin Lane. Alexander the Great. New York: Viking Penguin, 1997. A scholarly and extremely readable book, which takes a skeptical approach to the ancient historians.
  • Green, Peter. Alexander of Macedon: A Historical Biography. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1991. A scholarly and very interesting book that frequently accepts sensationalist stories of questionable validity, including the assertion that Alexander was involved in the murder of his father.
  • Hammond, Nicholas. Philip of Macedon. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1994. A scholarly and detailed work arguing that Alexander’s conquests were possible only because of his father’s achievements.
  • Plutarch. “Alexander.” In Lives of Noble Grecians and Romans, edited by Arthur Clough. New York: Modern Library, 1992. Although Plutarch uncritically accepted sensationalist stories and wrote four hundred years after Alexander’s time, he had access to sources no longer available.
  • Renault, Mary. The Nature of Alexander. New York: Pantheon Books, 1975. A readable and generally dependable work of medium size, with many beautiful illustrations.
  • Tarn, William. Alexander the Great. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1948. A dated but standard biography that takes a very favorable view of Alexander’s achievements.

Related Articles in <i>Great Lives from History: Ancient World</i><br />

Alexander the Great; Philip II of Macedonia; Olympias. Alexander III (the Great)
Macedonia;Alexander the Great’s expansion of