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Alexander the Great - Early Life

Alexander the Great was born in summer 356 BC in Pella, the ancient capital of the kingdom of Macedonia, and died thirty- three years later in the month Daisios (June) 323 BC. The exact date is not known, but it was probably 20 or 26 July. He was the son of the Philip II (382- 336), the king of Macedon, a fertile and predominantly pastoral region lying in northern Greece. Alexander the Great was born on the very day that the temple of Diana at Ephesus was burned to the ground. It is said that all the magi who were at Ephesus, looked upon the fire as an emblem of a much greater misfortune, and ran about the town beating their breasts, and crying out, "This day has brought forth the scourge and destroyer of Asia." Whether the forebodings of the magi were real or feigned, Asia had good reason to tremble when he who was destined to subdue her ancient lords, and water her plains with the blood of her sons, entered upon the stage of life.

Alexander mixed the craziness of his mother Olympias, in her passion for religious mysteries, with the sanity of his father Philip and the teachings of Aristotle. The land abounded with religious cults of a darker and more ancient kind, aboriginal cults with secret initiations. Olympias was an expert and an enthusiast, and Plutarch mentions that she achieved considerable celebrity by use of tame serpents in these pious exercises. The snakes invaded her domestic apartments, and history is not clear whether Philip found in them matter for exasperation or religious awe. These occupations of his wife must have been a serious inconvenience to Philip, for the Macedonian people were still in that sturdy stage of social development in which neither enthusiastic religiosity nor uncontrollable wives were admired. When in 337 BC Philip, after the fashion of kings in those days, married a second wife who was a native Macedonian, Cleopatra, "of whom he was passionately enamoured," Olympias made much trouble.

When Philip became king of Macedonia in 359 BC, his country was a little country without a seaport or industries or any considerable city. It had a peasant population, Greek almost in language and ready to be Greek in sympathies. Philip made this little barbaric state into a great one; he created the most efficient military organization the world had so far seen, and he had brought most of Greece into one confederacy under his leadership at the time of his death.

Philip planned the succession of Alexander, and was eagerto thrust fame and power into the boy's hands. He was thinking of the political structure he was building. Alexander was, as few other monarchs have ever been, a specially educated king; he was educated for empire. Aristotle was but one of the several able tutors his father chose for him. Philip confided his policy to him, and entrusted him with commands and authority by the time he was sixteen. He commanded the cavalry at Chseronea under his father's eye. He was nursed into power — generously and unsuspiciously.

While Alexander was yet a boy, there was sent from Thessaly to Philip a noble war-horse, called Bucephalus, which, upon trial, proved so strong and fiery that no one dared to mount him. Philip gave orders that the unmanageable creature should be sent back again, when Alexander interposed, and besought permission to try his skill. It was granted. Alexander went up to the horse, spoke kindly to him, and, perceiving that he was frightened at his own shadow, turned him about, vaulted upon his back, and rode him round the circle of admiring courtiers with the greatest ease and address. When he alighted his father embraced him, exclaiming, "My son, seek a kingdom more worthy of thee, for Macedon is below thy merits." Bucephalus was ever after the favorite horse of Alexander, and the animal became so attached to his master that he would permit no one else to mount him.

Philip, before his accession, had spent some years as a hostage in Greece. He had had as good an education as Greece could give at that time. He was, therefore, quite familiar with what may be called the idea of Isocrates—the idea of a great union of the Greek states in Europe to dominate the Eastern world; and he knew, too, how incapable was the Athenian democracy, because of its constitution and tradition, of taking the opportunity that lay before it. For it was an opportunity that would have to be shared. To the Athenians or the Spartans it would mean letting in a "lot of foreigners" to the advantages of citizenship. It would mean lowering themselves to the level of equality and fellowship with Macedonians—a people from whom "we" do not get "even a decent slave." There was no way to secure unanimity among the Greeks for the contemplated enterprise except by some revolutionary political action. It was no love of peace that kept the Greeks from such an adventure; it was their political divisions.

Both Philip's and his son's victories followed, therefore, with variations, one general scheme of co-operation between these two arms. The phalanx advanced in the centre and held the enemy's main body; on one wing or the other the cavalry charges swept away the enemy cavalry, and then swooped round upon the flank and rear of the enemy phalanx, the front of which the Macedonian phalanx was already smiting. The enemy main battle then broke and was massacred. As Alexander's military experience grew, he also added a use of catapults in the field, big stone-throwing affairs, to break up the enemy infantry. Before his time catapults had been used in sieges, but never in battles. He invented "artillery preparation." With the weapon of his new army in his hand, Philip first turned his attention to the north of Macedonia. He carried expeditions into Illyria and as far as the Danube; he also spread his power along the coast as far as the Hellespont.

There was a strong party of Greeks, it must be understood, a Pan-Hellenic party, in favor of the Greek headship of Philip. The chief writer of this Pan-Hellenic movement was Isocrates. Athens, on the other hand, was the head and front of the opposition to Philip, and Athens was in open sympathy with Persia, even sending emissaries to the Great King to warn him of the danger to him of a united Greece.

The Athenian orator Demosthenes was a republican, not only by birth and education, but from inward conviction. From the moment that he perceived Philip's enterprises entertained designs upon the liberties of Greece, he made it the aim of his life to defeat him in his memorable Philippics. He had carefully studied the history of his country and of the neighboring nations, and had seen Greece, and particularly Athens, under the vivifying influences of free government, attain such an eminence in civilization, and in every thing which was then thought to constitute a people's greatness, that all other lands became contemptible in comparison. He clung to civil liberty as the supreme good and the parent of all the blessings that made life desirable. Hence his unremitted watchfulness for its preservation, and his hatred of all that could undermine it at home or assail it from abroad.

Demosthenes had in effect exalted himself to the station of prime-minister of the republic; viceroy of that sovereign assembly which met to decide upon the fate of thousands; and his voice "was still for war" against Phillip. To discharge the duties of his arduous office, he applied himself to every kind of business with untiring vigilance, and watched an opportunity to bring all the states of Greece into a confederacy to overthrow Macedonian supremacy. For this purpose, he did not scruple to receive money from the Persian king.

It was through an accident that Alexander was brought into contact with the one other man of his time whose genius was destined to move the world. Aristotle's father had been court physician of Aristotle, Amyntas II., and Aristotle was meant to follow his father's profession. At the age of seventeen he went to Athens, where he was under the guardianship of a certain Proxenus, to whose son Nicanor —the same Nicanor who made public Alexander's edict at Olympia— he afterwards betrothed his only daughter. At first Aristotle studied in the school of Isocrates, but when Plato returned from Sicily he came under the influence of that philosopher's idealism, and this decided him for the "life of speculation," which he regard s —and it is the deliberate judgment of his mature years — as the only life that is perfectly happy.

After Plato's death Aristotle spent some years on the north eastern coasts of the Aegean, at Assos and Mytilene, and then in 343 BC he received the call from Philip to undertake the education of the crown prince. As yet he had won no eminent reputation for wisdom or learning, and Philip probably chose him because his father had been reconnected with the Macedonian court. The instruction which Aristotle imparted to Alexander was perhaps chiefly literary and philological; he came as a tutor, not as a philosopher.

Nothing is known of the mutual relations between the brilliant master and his brilliant pupil; they were men of different and hardly sympathetic tempers; possibly Aristotle was fainer to curb than spun the ardent straining spirit of Alexander. Certainly the episode led to no such maintenance of intimacy afterwards as it might have led to if Plato had been the teacher. On his return to Athens, c. 335 BC Aristotle founded his school of philosophy, and the Lyceum soon took the place formerly occupied by the Academy, which ever since the discomfiting adventures in Sicily had withdrawn itself more and more from the public attention. He taught for twelve or thirteen years — and these years were doubtless the time of his most effective philosophical activity — and died not long after the death of Alexander.

An exchange, reported originally by Plutarch, took place between Alexander and Philip prior to Alexander's tutorship with Aristotle. Purportedly, Philip enjoined his son to study hard and pay close attention to all Aristotle said "so that you may not do a great many things of the sort that I am sorry I have done." At this point, Alexander "somewhat pertly" took Philip to task "because he was having children by other women besides his wife." Philip's reply was: "Well then, if you have many competitors for the kingdom, prove yourself honorable and good, so that you may obtain the kingdom not because of me, but because of yourself."

In 338 BC the long struggle between division and pan-Hellenism came to a decisive issue, and at the battle of Cheroneia Philip inflicted a crushing defeat upon Athens and her allies. He gave Athens peace upon astonishingly generous terms; he displayed himself steadfastly resolved to propitiate and favour that implacable city; and in 338 BC a congress of Greek states recognized him as captain-general for the war against Persia.

At the marriage of his daughter to her uncle, the king of Epirus and the brother of Olympias, that Philip was stabbed. He was walking in a procession into the theatre unarmed, in a white robe, and he was cut down by one of his bodyguard. In Greece there were great rejoicings over this auspicious event. No sooner did Demosthenes hear of the death of his great enemy, than he assembled the Athenian people, and persuaded them to offer a sacrifice as upon news of a splendid victory; and though he was at that time in mourning for his only child, he put on a festal robe, and attended the ceremony crowned with flowers.

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Page last modified: 25-11-2019 10:15:11 ZULU