Gateway to the Classics: Alexander the Great by Jacob Abbott
Alexander the Great by  Jacob Abbott

The Reaction

T HE country which was formerly occupied by Macedon and the other states of Greece is now Turkey in Europe. In the northern part of it is a vast chain of mountains called now the Balkan. In Alexander's day it was Mount Hæmus. This chain forms a broad belt of lofty and uninhabitable land, and extends from the Black Sea to the Adriatic.

A branch of this mountain range, called Rhodope, extends southwardly from about the middle of its length, as may be seen by the map. Rhodope separated Macedonia from a large and powerful country, which was occupied by a somewhat rude but warlike race of men. This country was Thrace. Thrace was one great fertile basin or valley, sloping toward the center in every direction, so that all the streams from the mountains, increased by the rains which fell over the whole surface of the ground, flowed together into one river, which meandered through the center of the valley, and flowed out at last into the Ægean Sea. The name of this river was the Hebrus. All this may be seen distinctly upon the map.


The Balkan, or Mount Hæmus, as it was then called, formed the great northern frontier of Macedon and Thrace. From the summits of the range, looking northward, the eye surveyed a vast extent of land, constituting one of the most extensive and fertile valleys on the globe. It was the valley of the Danube. It was inhabited, in those days, by rude tribes whom the Greeks and Romans always designated as barbarians. They were, at any rate, wild and warlike, and, as they had not the art of writing, they have left us no records of their institutions or their history. We know nothing of them, or of the other half-civilized nations that occupied the central parts of Europe in those days, except what their inveterate and perpetual enemies have thought fit to tell us. According to their story, these countries were filled with nations and tribes of a wild and half-savage character, who could be kept in check only by the most vigorous exertion of military power.

Soon after Alexander's return into Macedon, he learned that there were symptoms of revolt among these nations. Philip had subdued them, and established the kind of peace which the Greeks and Romans were accustomed to enforce upon their neighbors. But now, as they had heard that Philip, who had been so terrible a warrior, was no more, and that his son, scarcely out of his teens, had succeeded to the throne, they thought a suitable occasion had arrived to try their strength. Alexander made immediate arrangements for moving northward with his army to settle this question.

He conducted his forces through a part of Thrace without meeting with any serious resistance, and approached the mountains. The soldiers looked upon the rugged precipices and lofty summits before them with awe. These northern mountains were the seat and throne, in the imaginations of the Greeks and Romans, of old Boreas, the hoary god of the north wind. They conceived of him as dwelling among those cold and stormy summits, and making excursions in winter, carrying with him his vast stores of frost and snow, over the southern valleys and plains. He had wings, a long beard, and white locks, all powdered with flakes of snow. Instead of feet, his body terminated in tails of serpents, which, as he flew along, lashed the air, writhing from under his robes. He was violent and impetuous in temper, rejoicing in the devastation of winter, and in all the sublime phenomena of tempests, cold, and snow. The Greek conception of Boreas made an impression upon the human mind that twenty centuries have not been able to efface. The north wind of winter is personified as Boreas to the present day in the literature of every nation of the Western world.

The Thracian forces had assembled in the defiles, with other troops from the northern countries, to arrest Alexander's march, and he had some difficulty in repelling them. They had got, it is said, some sort of loaded wagons upon the summit of an ascent, in the pass of the mountains, up which Alexander's forces would have to march. These wagons were to be run down upon them as they ascended. Alexander ordered his men to advance, notwithstanding this danger. He directed them, where it was practicable, to open to one side and the other, and allow the descending wagon to pass through. When this could not be done, they were to fall down upon the ground when they saw this strange military engine coming, and locking their shields together over their heads, allow the wagon to roll on over them, bracing up energetically against its weight. Notwithstanding these precautions, and the prodigious muscular power with which they were carried into effect, some of the men were crushed. The great body of the army was, however, unharmed; as soon as the force of the wagons was spent, they rushed up the ascent, and attacked their enemies with their pikes. The barbarians fled in all directions, terrified at the force and invulnerability of men whom loaded wagons, rolling over their bodies down a steep descent, could not kill.

Alexander advanced from one conquest like this to another, moving toward the northward and eastward after he had crossed the mountains, until at length he approached the mouths of the Danube. Here one of the great chieftains of the barbarian tribes had taken up his position, with his family and court, and a principal part of his army, upon an island called Peucé, which may be seen upon the map at the beginning of this chapter. This island divided the current of the stream, and Alexander, in attempting to attack it, found that it would be best to endeavor to effect a landing upon the upper point of it.

To make this attempt, he collected all the boats and vessels which he could obtain, and embarked his troops in them above, directing them to fall down with the current, and to land upon the island. This plan, however, did not succeed very well; the current was too rapid for the proper management of the boats. The shores, too, were lined with the forces of the enemy, who discharged showers of spears and arrows at the men, and pushed off the boats when they attempted to land. Alexander at length gave up the attempt, and concluded to leave the island, and to cross the river itself further above, and thus carry the war into the very heart of the country.

It is a serious undertaking to get a great body of men and horses across a broad and rapid river, when the people of the country have done all in their power to remove or destroy all possible means of transit, and when hostile bands are on the opposite bank, to embarrass and impede the operations by every mode in their power. Alexander, however, advanced to the undertaking with great resolution. To cross the Danube especially, with a military force, was, in those days, in the estimation of the Greeks and Romans, a very great exploit. The river was so distant, so broad and rapid, and its banks were bordered and defended by such ferocious foes, that to cross its eddying tide, and penetrate into the unknown and unexplored regions beyond, leaving the broad, and deep, and rapid stream to cut off the hopes of retreat, implied the possession of extreme self-reliance, courage, and decision.

Alexander collected all the canoes and boats which he could obtain up and down the river. He built large rafts, attaching to them the skins of beasts sewed together and inflated, to give them buoyancy. When all was ready, they began the transportation of the army in the night, in a place where the enemy had not expected that the attempt would have been made. There were a thousand horses, with their riders, and four thousand foot soldiers, to be conveyed across. It is customary, in such cases, to swim the horses over, leading them by lines, the ends of which are held by men in boats. The men themselves, with all the arms, ammunition, and baggage, had to be carried over in the boats or upon the rafts. Before morning the whole was accomplished.

The army landed in a field of grain. This circumstance, which is casually mentioned by historians, and also the story of the wagons in the passes of Mount Hæmus, proves that these northern nations were not absolute barbarians in the sense in which that term is used at the present day. The arts of cultivation and of construction must have made some progress among them, at any rate; and they proved, by some of their conflicts with Alexander, that they were well-trained and well-disciplined soldiers.

The Macedonians swept down the waving grain with their pikes, to open a way for the advance of the cavalry, and early in the morning Alexander found and attacked the army of his enemies, who were utterly astonished at finding him on their side of the river. As may be easily anticipated, the barbarian army was beaten in the battle that ensued. Their city was taken. The booty was taken back across the Danube to be distributed among the soldiers of the army. The neighboring nations and tribes were overawed and subdued by this exhibition of Alexander's courage and energy. He made satisfactory treaties with them all; took hostages, where necessary, to secure the observance of the treaties, and then recrossed the Danube and set out on his return to Macedon.

He found that it was time  for him to return. The southern cities and states of Greece had not been unanimous in raising him to the office which his father had held. The Spartans and some others were opposed to him. The party thus opposed were inactive and silent while Alexander was in their country, on his first visit to southern Greece; but after his return they began to contemplate more decisive action, and afterward, when they heard of his having undertaken so desperate an enterprise as going northward with his forces, and actually crossing the Danube, they considered him as so completely out of the way that they grew very courageous, and meditated open rebellion.

The city of Thebes did at length rebel. Philip had conquered this city in former struggles, and had left a Macedonian garrison there in the citadel. The name of the citadel was Cadmeia. The officers of the garrison, supposing that all was secure, left the soldiers in the citadel, and came, themselves, down to the city to reside. Things were in this condition when the rebellion against Alexander's authority broke out. They killed the officers who were in the city, and summoned the garrison to surrender. The garrison refused, and the Thebans besieged it.

This outbreak against Alexander's authority was in a great measure the work of the great orator Demosthenes, who spared no exertions to arouse the southern states of Greece to resist Alexander's dominion. He especially exerted all the powers of his eloquence in Athens in the endeavor to bring over the Athenians to take sides against Alexander.

While things were in this state—the Thebans having understood that Alexander had been killed at the north, and supposing that, at all events, if this report should not be true, he was, without doubt, still far away, involved in contentions with the barbarian nations, from which it was not to be expected that he could be very speedily extricated—the whole city was suddenly thrown into consternation by the report that a large Macedonian army was approaching from the north, with Alexander at its head, and that it was, in fact, close upon them.

It was now, however, too late for the Thebans to repent of what they had done. They were far too deeply impressed with a conviction of the decision and energy of Alexander's character, as manifested in the whole course of his proceedings since he began to reign, and especially by his sudden reappearance among them so soon after this outbreak against his authority, to imagine that there was now any hope for them except in determined and successful resistance. They shut themselves up, therefore, in their city, and prepared to defend themselves to the last extremity.

Alexander advanced, and, passing round the city toward the southern side, established his head-quarters there, so as to cut off effectually all communication with Athens and the southern cities. He then extended his posts all around the place so as to invest it entirely. These preparations made, he paused before he commenced the work of subduing the city, to give the inhabitants an opportunity to submit, if they would, without compelling him to resort to force. The conditions, however, which he imposed were such that the Thebans thought it best to take their chance of resistance. They refused to surrender, and Alexander began to prepare for the onset.

He was very soon ready, and with his characteristic ardor and energy he determined on attempting to carry the city at once by assault. Fortified cities generally require a siege, and sometimes a very long siege, before they can be subdued. The army within, sheltered behind the parapets of the walls, and standing there in a position above that of their assailants, have such great advantages in the contest that a long time often elapses before they can be compelled to surrender. The besiegers have to invest the city on all sides to cut off all supplies of provisions, and then, in those days, they had to construct engines to make a breach somewhere in the walls, through which an assaulting party could attempt to force their way in.

The time for making an assault upon a besieged city depends upon the comparative strength of those within and without, and also, still more, on the ardor and resolution of the besiegers. In warfare, an army, in investing a fortified place, spends ordinarily a considerable time in burrowing their way along in trenches, half under ground, until they get near enough to plant their cannon where the balls can take effect upon some part of the wall. Then some time usually elapses before a breach is made, and the garrison is sufficiently weakened to render an assault advisable. When, however, the time at length arrives, the most bold and desperate portion of the army are designated to lead the attack. Bundles of small branches of trees are provided to fill up ditches with, and ladders for mounting embankments and walls. The city, sometimes, seeing these preparations going on, and convinced that the assault will be successful, surrenders before it is made. When the besieged do thus surrender, they save themselves a vast amount of suffering, for the carrying of a city by assault is perhaps the most horrible scene which the passions and crimes of men ever offer to the view of heaven.

It is horrible, because the soldiers, exasperated to fury by the resistance which they meet with, and by the awful malignity of the passions always excited in the hour of battle, if they succeed, burst suddenly into the precincts of domestic life, and find sometimes thousands of families—mothers, and children, and defenseless maidens—at the mercy of passions excited to phrensy. Soldiers, under such circumstances, can not be restrained, and no imagination can conceive the horrors of the sacking of a city, carried by assault, after a protracted siege. Tigers do not spring upon their prey with greater ferocity than man springs, under such circumstances, to the perpetration of every possible cruelty upon his fellow man. After an ordinary battle upon an open field, the conquerors have only men, armed like themselves, to wreak their vengeance upon. The scene is awful enough, however, here. But in carrying a city by storm, which takes place usually at an unexpected time, and often in the night, the maddened and victorious assaulters suddenly burst into the sacred scenes of domestic peace, and seclusion, and love—the very worst of men, filled with the worst of passions, stimulated by the resistance they have encountered, and licensed by their victory to give all these passions the fullest and most unrestricted gratification. To plunder, burn, destroy, and kill, are the lighter and more harmless of the crimes they perpetrate.

Thebes was carried by assault. Alexander did not wait for the slow operations of a siege. He watched a favorable opportunity, and burst over and through the outer line of fortifications which defended the city. The attempt to do this was very desperate, and the loss of life great; but it was triumphantly successful. The Thebans were driven back toward the inner wall, and began to crowd in, through the gates, into the city, in terrible confusion. The Macedonians were close upon them, and pursuers and pursued, struggling together, and trampling upon and killing each other as they went, flowed in, like a boiling and raging torrent which nothing could resist, through the open arch-way.

It was impossible to close the gates. The whole Macedonian force were soon in full possession of the now defenseless houses, and for many hours screams, and wailings, and cries of horror and despair testified to the awful atrocity of the crimes attendant on the sacking of a city. At length the soldiery were restrained. Order was restored. The army retired to the posts assigned them, and Alexander began to deliberate what he should do with the conquered town.

He determined to destroy it—to offer, once for all, a terrible example of the consequences of rebellion against him. The case was not one, he considered, of the ordinary conquest of a foe. The states of Greece—Thebes with the rest—had once solemnly conferred upon him the authority against which the Thebans had now rebelled. They were traitors,  therefore, in his judgment, not mere enemies, and he determined that the penalty should be utter destruction.

But, in carrying this terrible decision into effect, he acted in a manner so deliberate, discriminating, and cautious, as to diminish very much the irritation and resentment which it would otherwise have caused, and to give it its full moral effect as a measure, not of angry resentment, but of calm and deliberate retribution—just and proper, according to the ideas of the time. In the first place, he released all the priests. Then, in respect to the rest of the population, he discriminated carefully between those who had favored the rebellion and those who had been true to their allegiance to him. The latter were allowed to depart in safety. And if, in the case of any family, it could be shown that one individual had been on the Macedonian side, the single instance of fidelity outweighed the treason of the other members, and the whole family was saved.

And the officers appointed to carry out these provisions were liberal in the interpretation and application of them, so as to save as many as there could be any possible pretext for saving. The descendants and family connections of Pindar, the celebrated poet, who has been already mentioned as having been born in Thebes, were all pardoned also, whichever side they may have taken in the contest. The truth was, that Alexander, though he had the sagacity to see that he was placed in circumstances where prodigious moral effect in strengthening his position would be produced by an act of great severity, was swayed by so many generous impulses, which raised him above the ordinary excitements of irritation and revenge, that he had every desire to make the suffering as light, and to limit it by as narrow bounds, as the nature of the case would allow. He doubtless also had an instinctive feeling that the moral effect itself of so dreadful a retribution as he was about to inflict upon the devoted city would be very much increased by forbearance and generosity, and by extreme regard for the security and protection of those who had shown themselves his friends.

After all these exceptions had been made, and the persons to whom they applied had been dismissed, the rest of the population were sold into slavery, and then the city was utterly and entirely destroyed. The number thus sold was about thirty thousand, and six thousand had been killed in the assault and storming of the city. Thus Thebes was made a ruin and a desolation, and it remained so, a monument of Alexander's terrible energy and decision, for twenty years.

The effect of the destruction of Thebes upon the other cities and states of Greece was what might have been expected. It came upon them like a thunder-bolt. Although Thebes was the only city which had openly revolted, there had been strong symptoms of disaffection in many other places. Demosthenes, who had been silent while Alexander was present in Greece, during his first visit there, had again been endeavoring to arouse opposition to Macedonian ascendency, and to concentrate and bring out into action the influences which were hostile to Alexander. He said in his speeches that Alexander was a mere boy, and that it was disgraceful for such cities as Athens, Sparta, and Thebes to submit to his sway. Alexander had heard of these things, and, as he was coming down into Greece, through the Straits of Thermopylæ, before the destruction of Thebes, he said, "They say I am a boy. I am coming to teach them that I am a man."

He did teach them that he was a man. His unexpected appearance, when they imagined him entangled among the mountains and wilds of unknown regions in the north; his sudden investiture of Thebes; the assault; the calm deliberations in respect to the destiny of the city, and the slow, cautious, discriminating, but inexorable energy with which the decision was carried into effect, all coming in such rapid succession, impressed the Grecian commonwealth with the conviction that the personage they had to deal with was no boy in character, whatever might be his years. All symptoms of disaffection against the rule of Alexander instantly disappeared, and did not soon revive again.

Nor was this effect due entirely to the terror inspired by the retribution which had been visited upon Thebes. All Greece was impressed with a new admiration for Alexander's character as they witnessed these events, in which his impetuous energy, his cool and calm decision, his forbearance, his magnanimity, and his faithfulness to his friends, were all so conspicuous. His pardoning the priests, whether they had been for him or against him, made every friend of religion incline to his favor. The same interposition in behalf of the poet's family and descendants spoke directly to the heart of every poet, orator, historian, and philosopher throughout the country, and tended to make all the lovers of literature his friends. His magnanimity, also, in deciding that one single friend of his in a family should save that family, instead of ordaining, as a more short-sighted conqueror would have done, that a single enemy should condemn it, must have awakened a strong feeling of gratitude and regard in the hearts of all who could appreciate fidelity to friends and generosity of spirit. Thus, as the news of the destruction of Thebes, and the selling of so large a portion of the inhabitants into slavery, spread over the land, its effect was to turn over so great a part of the population to a feeling of admiration of Alexander's character, and confidence in his extraordinary powers, as to leave only a small minority disposed to take sides with the punished rebels, or resent the destruction of the city.

From Thebes Alexander proceeded to the southward. Deputations from the cities were sent to him, congratulating him on his victories, and offering their adhesion to his cause. His influence and ascendency seemed firmly established now in the country of the Greeks, and in due time he returned to Macedon, and celebrated at Ægæ, which was at this time his capital, the establishment and confirmation of his power, by games, shows, spectacles, illuminations, and sacrifices to the gods, offered on a scale of the greatest pomp and magnificence. He was now ready to turn his thoughts toward the long-projected plan of the expedition into Asia.

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