Sunday, July 22, 2007

Alexander the Great (356-323 BCE)

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I am not afraid of an army of lions led by a sheep; I am afraid of an army of sheep led by a lion.


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Alexander the Great (356 BC - 323 BC) was King of Macedon; he unified Greece and conquered Persia, Egypt and several other kingdoms. He was born Alexander III, son of Philip, King of Macedon, and Olympias. According to several legends, Olympias was impregnated not by Philip, who was afraid of her and her affinity for sleeping in the company of snakes, but by Zeus. Alexander was himself aware of these legends, and was wont to refer to his father as Zeus, rather than Philip. Macedon was a country to the north and east of classical Greece. Most Greeks regarded it as foreign and semi-barbarian, but the Macedonians were proud of being Greeks. Olympias was from Epirus, another semi-Greek state to the northwest of the Greek peninsula. Alexander was a high-spirited youth, a wild horseman, and a favorite captain of his father's army. Aristotle was his private tutor during youth, but their relationship soured, ultimately to be severed by Alexander. In 336 BC, he succeeded his father on the throne. Philip's assassination was rumored to have been planned with the knowledge and possible instigation of Alexander and Olympias. Having established his political power in Greece, he set off in 334 on his famous conquest of Persia. Within two years, he had conquered the eastern Mediterranean coast, entered Syria, and at Issus defeated the great Syrian king Darius III. In 332-331, he conquered Egypt and, returning to Persia, occupied Babylon. He proceeded to Medea and Scythia, captured Herat and went on to India. He adopted some elements of Persian dress and customs at his court, including notably the custom of proskynesis, a symbolic kissing of the hand that Persians paid to their social superiors, but Greeks reserved for their gods. This cost him much in the sympathies of many of his Greek countrymen. His attempts to merge Persian culture with his Greek soldiers also included having his officers marry Persian wives en masse, and training up a regiment of Persian boys in the ways of Macedonians. Many of his soldiers died when he drove his army further and further east, through deserts and other hostile landscape. Having fought in India, he returned west through Makran trying to consolidate his empire.He invaded India in 326 BC & fought with King Purushotthama or Porus. According to one story, the philosopher, Anaxarchus, checked the vainglory of Alexander, when he aspired to the honours of divinity, by pointing to his wounded finger, saying, "See the blood of a mortal, not of a god." In another version Alexander himself pointed out the difference in response to a sycophantic soldier. On June 10, 323, before he had returned, he died of a sudden fever, in the palace of Nebuchadnezzar II. Alexander the Great was only 32 years old. He left a huge empire of Persio-Greek culture to his successors (the Diadochi or Diadochoi), who jostled for supremacy over portions of his empire. When the dust settled, virtually all of his officers had disposed of their Persian wives, and all but two of his top officers, his mother, his wife Roxane, his son Alexander IV, his illegitimate son Heracles, his sister Cleopatra, his half-sister Euridice, and his half-brother Philip Arrhidaeus, were dead, only one of whom (Antipas) died of natural causes. His empire was divided at first into four major portions: Cassander ruled in Greece, Lysimachus in Asia Minor and Thrace, Seleucus I Nicator in Mesopotamia and Syria, and Ptolemy I (or Ptolemy Lagus) in the Levant and Egypt. Soon, Lysimachus obtained Cassander's portion, and the empire was divided into three major portions, controlled by the descendants of Ptolemy Soter in Egypt, Antigonus Monopthalmos (literally "One-eye") in Greece, and Seleucus in the Mideast.

By about 281 BCE, only two dynasties remained in Alexander's old empire -- the Selucid dynasty in the north and the Ptolemaic dynasty in the south. Many eponymous towns remained: Alexandrias, Alexandropolises and other Alexvilles dotting the landscape of this odd cosmopolitan mish-mash he had conquered. Whatever dreams he might have had of some kind of merging of Greek and Persian cultures died shortly after he did, with the Macedonians and Greeks edging the Persians into less powerful positions -- although there were Greek Diadochoi (Eumenes in particular) none of the Diadochoi were Persian. Alexander is remembered as a folk-hero in Europe and much of western Asia. In Iran, on the other hand, he is remembered as the destroyer of their first great empire and as the leveller of Persepolis. Ancient sources are generally written with an agenda of either glorifying or slandering the man, making it difficult to evaluate his actual character. Most refer to a growing instability and megalomania in the years following Gaugamela, but it has been suggested that this simply reflects the Greek stereotype of a medizing king. The murder of his friend Cleitus in a drunken rage, something Alexander deeply regretted, is often pointed to, as is his execution of Philotas and his father Parmenio for failure to pass along details of a plot against him, though this last may have been prudence rather than paranoia. Modern opinion is strongly divided as to whether he was a heroic empire-builder or an ancient Hitler. Modern historians treat the death of Alexander the Great and the birth of the successor kingdoms as the event that divides Hellenic civilization from Hellenistic civilization. Alexander's conquests and the administrative needs of his Greek-speaking successors promoted the spread of the Greek language and Greek culture across the eastern Mediterranean and into Mesopotamia. [This article is licensed under the GNU Free Documentation License and uses material adapted in whole or in part from the Wikipedia article on Alexander the Great.]

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