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AO Alexander the Great AmblesideOnline.org

AmblesideOnline: Alexander the Great

(summary of Plutarch's Lives by an AmblesideOnline student)

Plutarch says here that he is not trying to show what the people he writes about did, but who they were. He does not want to show, like a history, the things that they accomplished, but what kind of a person they were.

Alexander's father was Philip, he was in some way descended from Hercules.

Alexander was born on the same day that the temple of Diana in Ephesus was burned. He liked glory much more than was usual in other youths of his age. Once, he entertained some Persian ambassadors while his father was away, and he asked so many wise questions that the ambassadors admired him more than his father.

When his father took over another city, instead of rejoicing, he told his friends that his father wasn't going to leave them anything to conquer. He would rather succeed his father to a warring country than a peaceful one so that he could get honor in winning battles and such. He was schooled by a great many different people, as would be expected, and the main one of these was Lysimachus. Leonidas was often called his foster father, though it seems that he was supposed to be a teacher.

Once, Philip was going to buy a horse name Bucephalas, but when he went to try it, it reared and would not let him come close. Then he had it led off, but when Alexander saw this he exclaimed that it was a shame to let a good horse like that go to waste just because he didn't know how to ride him. When Philip heard this, he let Alexander try to ride him on the condition that if he could not, he would have to pay the price of the horse (13 talents). Alexander went up to the horse, and turned him around so that he faced the sun, because he saw that his own shadow frightened the horse. Then he walked beside it for a while, holding the reigns, then he quickly jumped on to his back. He walked him around for a while, calming him, and when he found that he was no longer trying to buck or something of that sort, he let him go around the course at full speed. When he came back, his father told him jokingly that he should find a country bigger than Macedonia, because Macedonia was too small for him.

His father knew that Alexander was destined for greatness, and should have a good teacher, and also that he had a temperament that made him so you couldn't make him do something, you had to persuade him. So he had Aristotle tutor him. Alexander learned not only his morals and basic schooling from Aristotle, he also learned something of philosophy. Once, when he heard that Aristotle had published some books on philosophy, he wrote to him, and was angry that Aristotle had published them, because if everybody could learn philosophy, than what would there be to make the philosophers greater than other people. Aristotle responded to this by saying that his books were so complicated, that only a very learned man could understand them. Also, doubtless, from Aristotle, he learned something of the art of medicine.

Alexander's favorite book was Homer's Iliad, revised by Aristotle. Many times he would sleep at night with it and a dagger under his pillow.

Once, Alexander's father was away on an expedition against the Byzantines, and had left Alexander in charge, Alexander took it upon himself to crush a rebellion, and so he took the town where the rebels were staying, put it into the hands of different people, and named it after himself. When his father came back and found this, he was pleased, and nothing pleased him more than hearing the people say that though he was their general, Alexander was their king.

His father being murdered by Alexander's brother, Alexander succeeded to the throne, and became ruler of a country beset on all sides by enemies.

When the Thebans rose up in rebellion, Alexander went to try to stop them. He asked that they hand over the two leaders of the rebellion, but they would not, so he took their city, and then destroyed it, hoping that this would terrify the rest of Greece into submission. Most of the inhabitants were sold as slaves.

A couple of soldiers broke into the house of a lady, and asked her if she knew of any money. She said she did, and showed them a well where she said she had thrown he most valuable possessions when the city was taken. When one of the soldiers leaned over the well to see it, she pushed in and then threw stones on him until she had killed him. When the other soldiers took her to Alexander, she told him outright that she was the daughter of a man who had been an enemy of Philip. He was so surprised at what she had done, and at her frankness in owning up who she was, that he let her and her children free.

Later, he brought the rebels into his favor. It seems that later he repented a little of being so harsh, and he was seen to be more merciful in later campaigns. Also, whatever any Theban who had escaped asked of him, he granted.

Soon after, the Greeks told Alexander that they would join him in a war against the Persians. He went to visit them, and looked forward to seeing Diogenes, a great philosopher. But when he came, Diogenes did not even come to meet him. Later, he met Diogenes when he (Diogenes) was basking in the sun. Alexander asked him if he wanted anything. "Yes--I wish you to move out of the sun!" he said. As Alexander left, he said that if he was not himself, then he would want to be Diogenese.

Alexander had about 30,000 foot soldiers, and about 4,000 horsemen. But he had only 70 talents to pay them with, and only enough provisions for 30 days. So, he divided up most of his own lands between his friends in return for their paying his soldiers, and feeding them.

When he came to Troy, he sacrificed to Minerva (Athena), in memory of the heroes who had fought here, in particular Achilles.

Meanwhile, King Darius of the Persians had been readying his troops, and had encamped on the opposite shore of the River Granicus. Alexander was advised not to attack him that day, because it was getting late. But he took no heed, and with 13 troops of horses attacked them. After long fighting, he won, and came out without a wound, though he had been attacked many times. One of the times, two Persian leaders attacked him, and he had a hard time fighting them, but one of his men dispatched one, and he took care of another.

Then the foot soldiers fought, but the enemy gave way under the first attack, all except some Greek mercenaries, who desired quarter. However, Alexander would not give them quarter, but instead charged them, and won, though with "great" loss of men (he lost 43 men, and the Persians lost over 22,000).

Then he took another city. After this he contemplated whether he should stay and establish himself as king, or leave and continue his campaign. While he was deliberating it, a stream in Lycia overflowed its banks of its own accord, and when it receded it had left a golden plate, which was inscribed with the words, "the time would come when the Persian Empire would be destroyed by the Greeks". So he decided to continue on his campaign. He defeated a couple of places, and in one city (where legend had it that Midas ruled) he found a chariot tied to a ceiling, and there was a legend that whoever could untie it would become the ruler of the city. He tried, and, unable to untie it, he cut it free with his sword.

King Darius was, in the meantime, marching from Susa with 600,000 soldiers to attack Alexander. But Alexander was detained in Silicia by a sickness, which was so bad that none of the doctors dared to try to help him, fearing that if they failed and he died then the people would get mad at them and maybe even kill them. Finally, one of Alexander's friends, Philip, who was a doctor, gave him a potion to cure him. But before Philip gave it to him, Alexander had received a letter, telling him not to trust Philip, being bribed by Darius to kill him. But Alexander took the potion willingly, and while he drank it he gave the letter to Philip to read. He protested his innocence, and Alexander readily believed him. Soon after, with the help of Philip, he was up and about again.

Darius going to meet Alexander, and Alexander going to meet Darius (with their armies) they missed each other in the night, but soon turned around again and engaged in battle. He won, though he was wounded in the thigh (some say it was by Darius, but that is not proven).

Alexander went to chase Darius, but couldn't catch him. When he came back, he found his men engaged in plundering the Persian camp. However, they had left Darius's tent untouched, because that, they said, was Alexander's property. When Alexander went in and saw the magnificence and size of the pavilion, and smelt the perfumes, he said that this, truly, was royalty.

Then Alexander was notified that Darius's wife, mother, and two daughters, having been captured, were mourning Darius's death, not knowing that he was still alive. So Alexander sent someone to them to comfort them and tell them that Darius was not dead. They were treated with great respect, and given perfect privacy, though it is said that Darius's wife was the most beautiful woman then living, and her two daughters were as beautiful as would be expected.

It was said that Alexander's diet was a moderate one. Indeed, some say that he even had one of his friends search his wardrobe and other places, to make sure that no one had put some delicacy there.

Alexander was not so addicted to wine as many thought. It seems that the reason that people thought that he was addicted was because he would hold long conversations with people, and take that whole time to drink a cup. (It may have been believed that, since he always had the glass of wine in front of him, that he was refilling it many times, instead of it being the same cup.)

After he woke up, he would offer sacrifices to the gods, then have breakfast, and then employ himself for the rest of the day in reading, of hunting, or riding, or such like. He would usually have dinner very late, then bathe, and then sleep, sometimes till noon, and sometimes the whole day.

Among the things taken from Darius was a precious box, which Alexander's men gave to him. He used it to keep his beloved Iliad in.

One night, after he had taken Egypt, an old man appeared to him in a dream, and told him about an island named Pharos that lied off the land of Egypt. Alexander immediately went with his army and captured the island (for then it was an island). He was going to start a city there, and with the help of his men used flour (for they had no chalk, and the soil was black) to mark out a semi-circle to build the city on. After they were done, and he was contemplating it, a flock of birds came down and ate up all the flour! Alexander himself was uneasy at this omen, but some of his men quelled his fears, saying that it meant that not only would his city be prosperous, it would even be able to nurture and feed other nations!

The main battle fought between Alexander and Darius was at Gaugamela (Camel's House), so called because an ancient king from those parts once had his life saved by the camel he was riding on, and in his gratitude he gave a wonderful stable (and perhaps whole village) to it, and it was in this place that the battle was fought.

Some of Alexander's oldest commanders, seeing how many men the enemy had, came to him, and asked him to attack by night, because it was to dangerous to attack by day. But Alexander said that he, "would not steal a victory," which some think to be boyish, but many think that he did not want Darius to blame his loss, if Alexander should win, on the night, and so have a pretext to attack again. Having said this, he departed and went to bed, and surprisingly slept better that night then was usual with him.

The next day, the battle started. It was dubious for a while, because the horsemen of Darius threw the left flank of Alexander into confusion, while more of Darius's men attacked the camp, and the camp was so hard pressed that it asked Alexander to send them more troops from the front. But he refused, and then put on his armor. He tended to ride Bucephalas into battle, but used another horse when reviewing his men, or whatnot, because Bucephalas was getting old.

As Alexander was praying to the gods, one of his men rode by and pointed out an eagle that flew over his head, towards the enemy. The men were excited at this, and the cavalry charged, followed closely by the foot soldiers. Their charge was so terrible that they dispersed almost all of the enemy, only a few of the bravest ones staying, and dying. Darius, seeing all was lost, mounted a mare, and betook himself to flight. The battle being won, his men proclaimed Alexander the King of Asia.

Alexander then went through Babylon, and the Babylonians readily accepted him as their ruler. There was a spot, near the place Alexander was staying, where naphtha issued from the ground in a stream. (naphtha is a cross between petroleum and benzine.) They showed him how readily it took flame by sprinkling drops of it on the street and then lighting torches to it, just as the sun was going down so that the whole street was a blaze of fire.

Alexander then fought a battle with Porus, who used elephants in his battles. Porus placed his elephants in the center, and so Alexander attacked the left wing, while one of his captains attacked the right. They forced them to retreat for the center, and fought for hours before Alexander finally won. It is said that Porus was a large, 7 foot man, so that when he was mounted upon his elephant, it looked like a regular man mounted on his horse. His elephant showed many times how smart it was, including the fact that when he was overpowered by his wounds, and the darts thrown at him, the elephant knelt down, so as not to let him fall of, and used its trunk to pull the darts out. When Alexander had taken Porus prisoner, and asked him how he expected to be used, he answered, "like a king!" Alexander then gave him not only his own country to rule but some other places that he (Alexander) had conquered.

Not long after this battle, Bucephalas died. In his memory, Alexander built a city which he named Bucephalia.

There are a couple accounts of Alexander's death, but they both agree that he died of a fever.