Gateway to the Classics: Ancient Greece by Ellwood Wadsworth Kemp
Ancient Greece by  Ellwood Wadsworth Kemp

The Story of Alexander the Great

What do you think became of Athens, with all its beauty, which Pericles loved so well?

I will tell you. Just two years before Pericles died, that is, 431 years before Christ, Athens and Sparta and the other states of Greece began to fight each other as they often had done before, and for nearly a hundred years they quarreled most of the time. So many battles were fought that in the end all the states had become very weak and were without power, for they had lost a large number of their best men. Just then, for almost the first time, they began to hear of Macedonia.

Macedonia was a mountainous country about twice as far north of Athens as Sparta was southwest of it. Its people were Greeks, too, but in many ways they were not like the Greeks of Athens and Sparta.

Why had Macedonia not been heard of before? It was because its people still lived in country tribes and had not learned to live in cities. They did not have fine large temples for their gods until many years after the Athenians had. Great forests covered most of the country, and the people lived in rude houses and fed their few sheep on the mountain sides. They were fond of hunting, and often had to fight the wild beasts which came to steal away their sheep.

No boy could sit at the table with men until he had killed a wild boar, and every one that had not yet killed a foe must wear a rope around his body to show he was not yet free. Such wild life, and such struggles as these, made them brave and warlike, and they became most excellent fighters.

Once the Macedonians fought with Thebes and were overcome, and the people of Thebes made the king of Macedonia give them his little son Philip as a pledge that he would not trouble them again. While Philip was growing up at Thebes, he found out that the Greek cities were very jealous of each other, and kept fighting and trying to destroy each other.

When at last Philip's father died and Philip was allowed to go back home to be the king of Macedonia, he began to train his hardy, rough shepherds to fight. He taught them what he had learned at Thebes. He formed what was called a phalanx. Each soldier in the phalanx carried a light shield and a spear twenty one feet long. When they advanced, they were taught to place their shields together, somewhat like the scales on a fish, so as to form a wall, and they stood in rows, one behind another, sixteen men deep. Each soldier grasped the spear six feet from the front end, thrusting it forward just over the shoulders of those who stood before him; thus each man in the front row had four spears pointing before him.

Philip had seen how weak the Greek cities had become by their long wars, for they never learned to be true friends of one another; so he decided he would make war upon them, and in this way become ruler of all the Greeks.

Athens and Sparta and Thebes and all the rest of the Greek cities ceased quarreling for a little time, and united when they saw Philip coming; but in one great battle he defeated them all, and they were forced to choose him as their leader. So at last, you see, the Greek cities were no longer free, but all had become a part of Macedonia, and Philip was king over all of them.

Philip now asked them to join with him in making war on their old enemy Persia, who, you remember, had fought Greece, and burnt Athens to the ground about one hundred and fifty years before this time. He began to get his soldiers ready to start. Soon after this he was holding a great feast and games on his daughter's wedding day, and in the midst of the rejoicing he was murdered.

His son Alexander now became king. Alexander was only twenty years old, but he soon showed that he was even a greater king than his father had been. Two years before, when he was only eighteen, he had fought in the great battle in which the Macedonians had overcome the other Greeks, and his father had praised him for his bravery.

When he was thirteen, a beautiful but wild and fiery horse was brought to his father's court. None of the king's men could manage it, so King Philip had ordered them to take it away, when Alexander said, "I could manage that horse better than those men do." Philip, hearing him say it, let him try. Alexander saw the horse was afraid of its shadow. So he turned the horse directly toward the sun, in order that it might not see the shadow. He stroked it gently, and soon it became very quiet. Then he gave a quick leap and was on the horse's back. At first it tried to throw him off, but Alexander managed it so well that soon he was riding about as if it were an old and gentle horse. He was very fond of it, and named it Bucephalus. In later years Bucephalus carried him safely through many battles, and at last, when the faithful animal became old and died, Alexander built a city and named it Bucephalia.

Alexander was not only brave, but he was also studious. His father got for him the best teachers that could be found. He sent for Aristotle, the wisest man in all Greece. The boy loved Aristotle and studied hard. He thought there was nothing too hard for him to learn, but he liked the "Iliad" best of all, for it told of wars and the old Trojan and Greek heroes. It is said he knew it all by heart.

While he was yet a boy, the king of Persia sent some men to Philip on a matter of business, but Philip did not happen to be at home. So Alexander had to entertain the men. Although a boy, he surprised them by the intelligent questions he asked about Persia. He wanted to know how far they had come, and if the roads were good; how large was the king's army, and whether the people liked him, and many other things like these.

Once, when he heard that his father had captured another city, he said to his playmates, "My father will go on until he has conquered all the cities, and there will be none left for us to take when I am king."

But as I have said, Philip was killed when Alexander was only twenty. Alexander soon showed that he could manage a state as well as he had managed Bucephalus. Because he was so young, the Greeks whom his father had conquered thought they could easily win back their freedom. But Alexander marched swiftly from one end of his kingdom to the other, overcoming them everywhere, and soon things were quiet again. Then he decided to take up his father's plan of conquering Persia.

Very soon he had gathered an army of about thirty thousand and was ready to start. Soon they had reached the Hellespont and were ready to cross into Asia. Here is where Xerxes had crossed into Europe on his bridge of boats one hundred and fifty years before, when he came with a million men to conquer Greece. Alexander is now crossing to conquer Persia.

But can he do it? Persia is fifty times as large as Macedonia, including all Greece, and has an army more than twenty times as large as Alexander's. But you remember the Macedonian phalanx. We are now to see if a small army with a brave leader like Alexander is more powerful than a large army with a poor leader like Darius, the king of Persia.

Soon they crossed the Hellespont. Alexander himself guided one of the vessels, and when they came near the shore he hurled his spear into the bank, to show his men how he aimed to conquer Persia. He was the first one to jump ashore; and how he must have felt, for now he was in the land of Troy,—the land of the hero Achilles, the warrior whom he had worshiped from childhood, and whom he loved to think he was like,—the land of Paris and Helen and old King Priam, the heroes of whom Homer had sung.

He went to the spot where the proud city of Troy had stood so long ago. He found the places where it was said Achilles had fought and where he lay buried. In order to show him honor, Alexander told his men to celebrate the games. So all the warriors put aside, for a few days, thoughts of war and danger, and enjoyed themselves as they used to do in the gymnasium at home. Through all the years of marching and fighting Alexander never forgot the games his soldiers knew and loved, and often they laid aside the dangers of war, and by hunting, the theater, and the gymnastic sports, enjoyed themselves in the camp. But Alexander did more than this, for he ordered a new city to be built where Troy had once stood, and he named it Ilium in honor of the old city and his most treasured book, the "Iliad."

Alexander longed to fight as the ancient Greeks at Troy had fought. He wanted to win a glorious victory. His wishes were soon to be granted, for he had not gone far eastward when he came to the Granicus River, in Asia Minor, where the Persian army was placed, so that he must drive them away if he wished to cross.

The Macedonian king did not hesitate. He mounted his horse and asked the men to remember how well they had fought for his father. The command was given for the battle to begin, when on they went, through the valley and river, singing the battle hymn. Alexander was in the thickest of the fight. His lance was broken. He was hit on the head by a sword, and a piece of his helmet was broken. He would certainly have been killed, had not his friend Clitus rushed to his aid and saved his life. In spite of the size of the Persian army, he completely scattered all of it and won a great victory. By one battle he had freed all of the Greek cities in Asia Minor.

Marching on, Alexander came to the city of Gordium, once the home of greedy, rich King Midas, who wanted everything he touched to be turned to gold. In a temple the people showed him a wagon to which the yoke was fastened by a knotted cord, and they told him that whoever would untie it should become ruler of all Asia. Alexander tried to unfasten it as many others had done; but when he found it was very difficult, he drew his sword and cut the string, and so it came off.

Soon he reached the Issus River, near the northeast angle of the Mediterranean Sea, and found out that Darius himself was coming with a large army to fight him. This is just what Alexander wanted.

What a splendid sight the Persian army made as it marched along! First came the silver altar, bearing the sacred fire; then came youths, one for each day in the year, in front of the chariot of the sun, drawn by white horses. On the chariot sat the king, wearing a fine purple mantle, containing many precious stones. Around him on every side were his soldiers, many of them wearing robes glittering with gold and carrying silver-handled lances.

Then they began to fight. The battle was sharp and Alexander was wounded; but as usual he won the victory. Darius soon saw that the Persians were beaten, so he jumped on a horse and hurried away to escape with his life, leaving behind his wife, his mother and children, as well as his purple mantle. But Alexander was not cruel to his fair prisoners, and Darius' own mother said she was treated better by her kingly captor than she had been by Darius himself.

That night Alexander ate the supper which had been prepared for Darius, and slept in Darius' tent. He and his plain Macedonian soldiers were surprised at the many fine things they had captured. There were dishes and pitchers and bath-tubs of solid gold, wondrously made. The odors of spices and myrrh sweetened the king's tent. Fine carpets and rugs were there in great abundance; and, what pleased the soldiers greatly, they found a large pile of Persian money.

The Greeks now entered Phoenicia, the land where stood the city of Tyre. You remember that earlier you learned how the merchants from Tyre sailed over all the seas trading with the different countries, carrying the goods from one place to another. In this way the people became very rich and proud and had built around the edge of their island-city a wall one hundred and fifty feet high, made out of large stones, accurately joined and tightly cemented. On the shore, a half mile away, stood the old city. They thought they would be forever safe behind the walls of their new city; and well they might, for once Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon, with a great army, had tried thirteen years to capture it and had failed. But Nebuchadnezzar was not an Alexander.

The Tyrians did not wish the Greek army to enter their city, so they left all the houses on the shore in the old town and shut themselves behind the great walls on the island-city. Alexander had no fear that he would not be able to capture it, but how was he to get over the half mile of water which extended between the coast and the city?

He decided to build a road out through the water to the island. So he tore down the houses on the shore and brought down trees from Mt. Lebanon near by, and tumbled rocks, wood, dirt and all—a whole forest and a whole city—into the sea, making a path two hundred feet wide, reaching from the shore to the walls. The Tyrians tried to tear up the way, but the Greek soldiers quickly repaired it every time it was torn down.

But how will the Greeks break down the walls when they get to them? Will they use cannon to break them to pieces, as we would? No, indeed, they will not; for in that day, and for almost two thousand years afterward, there were no cannon, and gunpowder was not known.

They tried to dig holes under the sides of the wall so as to cause it to fall, but the Tyrians threw down stones and poured kettles of hot oil upon the men who were digging and drove them away. Then the soldiers built huge battering-rams with which to batter the walls to pieces. A battering-ram is a large pole, thicker and longer than the largest telegraph pole, the end of which is covered with a head of hard iron. The pole is hung on a chain in a frame, so it may be moved back and forth lengthwise, heavily battering against the solid wall. Day after day for seven long months they beat at the strong walls and hurled immense stones and sharp bars of iron at them with another machine, called a catapult, till at last they broke through a hole large enough for some of the soldiers to enter. Alexander was one of the first inside, and soon the city was captured. What do you think became of the people? Well, some of them were killed, but most of them were sold as slaves, and some of them were cruelly crucified. Thus the city of Tyre completely lost the importance which it had so long held as the queen city of the eastern Mediterranean. After Tyre is destroyed, there is for fifty years or more no great city on the eastern Mediterranean coast.

Alexander next went to Egypt, and the people there who were tired of being ruled by Persia gladly welcomed him. He spent the winter there and started a city at the place where the Nile empties into the blue Mediterranean. He named this Alexandria, after himself, just as we named our capital after Washington, our first president. He divided the city into three main parts, one for the Greeks, one for the Hebrews, and one for the Egyptians, but he wanted all nations of people to come there to live. I will tell you more of Alexandria by and by, but now I must finish about Alexander's great conquests.

When spring came, Alexander again set out, for he had not yet come to the Persian capital. Eastward he went over rivers and hills, through green valleys, and then over hot burning deserts. King Darius, after running away in the last battle, had by this time collected another large army,—larger than the one before. This time, besides the enormous army of soldiers, he had more than two hundred war chariots with sharp swords and scythe blades fastened to the end of the tongue, and to the ends of the axle. He expected to mow down Alexander's army as a farmer would cut his grass and wheat.

Alexander came up with him near the town of Arbela, in the rich valley of the Tigris, and fought here his third and last great battle with him; but like the others, Alexander won it. King Darius again escaped, but Alexander now entered the capitals of Babylon, Susa and Persepolis. Here he found the hoarded wealth of the king, and great it surely was, for it took five thousand camels and a whole host of mules to carry away the treasure. Some of it he sent back to Greece, and the rest he kept for his own use and to divide among his soldiers.

He had now really gone as far as he at first intended, but, you see, he had not yet taken Darius. So allowing all his soldiers who cared to do so to go back home, where they would tell of the riches they had found and thus induce others to come to help him, and leaving men to take care of the captured cities, he again started after Darius. Many days he followed him. Sometimes he was almost up with him, but still Darius kept ahead. At last Darius' own men saw it was of no use to try longer to escape, so they tried to kill the king to keep him from being captured; and when Alexander at last overtook him, he was dying. Sorry to see him treated so cruelly, Alexander ordered the body to be taken back to the capital, and there buried in the beautiful tomb of the Persian kings.

Now that Darius was dead, Alexander called himself king of Persia and began to dress and act something like the Persian kings. His plain Macedonian soldiers did not like this, but Alexander thought by doing so, it would be the best way to unite the Persians with the Greeks, so that he might truly rule over both.

Still Alexander went on. He fought many fierce, brave battles with tribes in Central Asia, and overcame them all. That he might easily hold all the country, wherever he went he built cities something like Alexandria, and left in them some of his soldiers who no longer cared to fight, or were worn out by the long marches. Many traders also who followed the army to sell their goods to the soldiers, saw that they could profitably remain to supply the people with what they needed. Some of the natives, too, were brought from the country and from little villages and placed in the cities.

In this way more than seventy cities were built, and you may be sure these Greek cities grew to be very much like those at home. The people spoke the Greek language and had their gymnasia, Greek sports, theaters and temples. They remembered their Homer and taught others to know it, and in their theaters they gave the plays of Æschylus, which had so often delighted the Athenians when Pericles lived. Do you begin to see how Alexander made Persia like Greece? And also how he was spreading over the old worn-out East a layer of rich soil of Greek beauty as farmers sometimes spread a fertilizer over their worn-out fields?

Do you think Alexander had forgotten his old teacher, Aristotle? No, indeed, he had not, for wherever he went he had many men to find out all they could about the people they met and the countries through which they passed, so they might send back this knowledge to Aristotle. He set many men to work also to gather all the different kinds of plants from mountain sides and woods and fields and deserts, and these he sent back to Aristotle, that he might study them. Alexander, too, furnished the great teacher of his boyhood all the money he needed in his work, and so made it possible for him to study and teach in Athens. Aristotle was one of the greatest men who ever lived, and by his study and writing people now know many things about Greece and the olden times which they never would have known had it not been for him.

But Alexander was not always so good as you might think, for he loved to have his men gather at his royal tent to drink wine with him, and sometimes he would even get drunk. Once, when he had drunk too much wine, he became very angry at his best friend, Clitus, who, you remember, had saved his life at the battle of the Granicus River. Before Alexander thought what he was doing, he threw his spear at Clitus and killed him. He was very sorry for his act and shut himself in his tent and would not see any one for many days. You surely think this should have taught him to let wine alone, but I am sorry to say it did not.

Alexander, still traveled eastward, coming at last to the Indus River, where a branch of the early Aryan people lived. His soldiers did not wish to go farther, so they begged him to return to Babylon, for it was now ten years since they had left Macedonia.

Alexander still wished to make Persia and Greece more like each other in customs and life, so he married the beautiful daughter of Darius and urged his Greek soldiers to marry Persian women also. Many did so, and they made a great wedding feast, which lasted five whole days. Thousands of Greeks and Persians were present to enjoy this feast—made rich with the wealth and luxury of Persia and beautiful with the art and culture of Greece. It was held in a great hall decorated in most expensive style. Elegant couches for those who dined to recline upon, costly Persian rugs, hangings of fine linen, tapestries of many colors interwoven with threads of gold, pillars overlaid with silver and gold, and precious jewels, tell us that this Alexander is quite different from the plain, simple, manly Macedonian king and soldier who had crossed the Hellespont only ten years before.

But in spite of his many successes, Alexander was not nearly so happy as he used to be when he was king of only little Macedon. He no longer had the fine health which had so often helped him to brave hardships, for he had become weakened by eating and drinking too much, and returning to Babylon, where he feasted much, it was not long until he became very sick.

The doctors crowded around his bed and did their best to save his life, but they soon saw that he must die. When the soldiers found this out, they were wild with grief and all wanted to see their loved leader once again. Silently and sadly they passed by his bedside and looked on his dying face, which they had so often seen bright and full of joy. It was sad that Alexander should die so young, for he was only thirty-three, and had just begun his great work of spreading Greek culture over the then known world and of uniting the many different people whom he had conquered.

Alexander had many faults, but the people loved him, for he really tried to do very much to help them. Both by war and by sowing broadcast the seeds of Greek life, he had well earned the title of Alexander the Great.

When Alexander died, his body was embalmed, laid in a golden coffin and taken, as is generally believed, to the city of Alexandria, where a fine tomb was built for it. And this brings us back to the wonderful city founded but a few years before at the mouth of the Nile. Alexandria grew very rapidly, and soon became the most important city in the world. Since Tyre was destroyed, the traders of the Mediterranean Sea must find a new city as a center, and it was to take the place of Tyre that Alexandria was built. It had such a fine harbor that ships from all countries came there to trade. Athens sent ships to get the grain from the Nile valley; camels brought ivory and lions' skins from southern Egypt; from Arabia and far-away India the caravans brought costly gems and spices; ships came with loads of furs and fish from the Baltic Sea; Spain sent its large amount of precious silver. As a spider sits at the center of its web catching food in its meshes from every direction, so Alexandria sat as the mistress of the Mediterranean, drawing trade from every quarter east and west.

Thus it was not long until Alexandria was doing the trading for most of the world and was even a greater city than Tyre had ever been. She was the halfway point between the rich and luxurious peoples living in the Indus and Tigro-Euphrates valleys in the Old East and the youthful peoples growing up on the western shores of the Mediterranean and on the western coast of Europe. I must briefly tell you something more about this greatest of all the cities founded by Alexander.

The governor of Egypt, who was one of Alexander's own Greek generals, built for himself a fine marble palace in the center of the city. Most of the people spoke the Greek language and learned the Greek ways. Soon they had a theater for the Greek plays and a gymnasium for the games. Near his palace the governor built a large library. He sent men to Athens and the other Greek cities to get copies of all their books. Others were sent to copy the clay bricks of Babylon. The Jews brought the Hebrew Bible which they loved so much, and it, too, was changed to Greek.

As we found in studying Egypt and bookmaking last year, the books were written on a kind of paper which they called papyrus. This was made from the thin coats of a reed-like plant which grew in Egypt. After the paper was made, strips of it were cut just as wide as a book was to be, and then a number of wide strips were glued end to end, thus making a strip of paper from eight to fourteen inches wide and just as long as was desired, fifty or a hundred feet, or even sometimes much longer. The pages were written down the sheets. On each end of the paper a stick, usually with fine knobs, was fastened, and on one of these sticks the whole was rolled, somewhat as we roll a map. When one wanted to read the book, he unrolled it from one stick to the other as he read. Each of these rolls came to be called a volume, for that was the ancient word for a roll; and you see we have kept the idea of books being rolls to this day, for we still call them volumes. So the work went on, and so eager was the governor to get a copy of every book for the library, it is said he even ordered persons to steal books in the various countries if they could not get them any other way. The library grew to be very large, and we are told that at one time it had more than seven hundred thousand volumes. How strange this library of papyrus rolls would have seemed to us; but we should be glad all this was done, for, by gathering so much of the learning together in one place, and by changing much of the old writing into the Greek, it made it much easier for many scholars to learn it, and hand it down, to all after ages, even to our own time.

The governor, too, built a large building, in which he gathered all the kinds of plants which could be found, and in another he placed a large collection of wild animals. Then he sent for the wisest men to study the books, the plants and the animals. From everywhere they came,—from Athens, from Babylon, from Jerusalem and from far-away Sicily and India. In order that they need not stay away if they were poor, he built large buildings in which they might live, and furnished them with board. It is said that at one time more than fourteen thousand people were there to study. What a fine school that must have been, in those olden days!

Thus you see that while many people in that far-away time were interested mostly in war and such things, yet some people were beginning to be great scholars, and gathered together the best that had been thought and said all over the world, and wrote it out in their own language. By this means they preserved learning and made it so that they and their people could better understand it, and not only teach it to their children, but add a few new thoughts to it, and their children in turn to their children, in this way making knowledge like a river which grows continually wider and deeper by the streams which flow into it. It is by work like this that knowledge has grown "from more to more," as Tennyson says.

Thus I hope you see that Alexander was not chiefly a rude warrior, selfishly overturning cities and countries, but he was more like a missionary who carries new thought to a people and thus lifts them to a higher life. Athens was not to have all of its art, its Homer, its Æschylus and its many other great things longer to itself, but they flowed out from Greece over Asia and Egypt, and some were left wherever Alexander's work extended. This out-pouring of Greece was much like the Nile River overflowing its banks and spreading out over the country, bringing moisture and fertile soil to every part of the valley. So Alexander's going out over the borders of little Greece caused the streams of beauty and truth, as sculpture and architecture and poetry and philosophy, which had become stagnant, to flow over and enrich the people of the old East. Thus Greece was able to pay back those old countries for the help they had given her, by giving her ideas and useful things, when she was a mere infant—just getting a start. In the study of Rome we shall see Greek life and art carried west and spread over the western Mediterranean; and as we study later we shall see how it goes on to Western Europe, and how finally its influence will be seen reaching out to every American home which has in it artistic mantle-pieces, or wall-paper, or linoleum, or beautiful patterns for chair or piano, or plate or picture. Thus the beautiful and true things which Greece worked out were not permitted to remain in that little country, but have been spread over much of the world to give it a taste for simple grace and artistic life.

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