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Very few historical figures can boast of the conquests of Alexander the Great. Alexander was able to conquer vast territories in just four years between 334-330 BC. His empire stretched from India to Greece and mixed various cultures including Central Asia, Egyptian, Near Eastern and Indian Cultures. One of the greatest questions on the minds of historians is how Alexander was able to achieve these great conquests. This paper seeks to answer the question of how Alexander was able to achieve his great conquests.
Alexander the Great’s conquests at home were enabled by the weakening of the Greek city-states following the Peloponnesian war. The Greek poleis were bankrupt and divided allowing for easy conquest by the Macedonians who had consolidated their fiefdoms into a strong power (Carney and Ogden, 4). At the height of the Greek power, the Macedonians were considered a backward people and their territory was regarded as source of timber and pasture for sheep. The Macedonians were a centralized monarch although the state consisted of semi-autonomous clans. Phillip II of Macedon was among the most powerful monarchs.
Phillip II set the stage for his Son’s great conquest of Asia and beyond. In 259 BC, Phillip took over a weak monarch with an undisciplined and ineffective army (Carney and Ogden, 8). In just a few years he developed this army into one of the most disciplined and fearsome fighting forces. Phillip set out to conquer and subdue the territories surrounding Macedonia including most of Greece. These early conquests set the stage for Alexander’s later conquests of vast regions (Matthews, 17). Phillip in his own right was an accomplished politician who used warfare, threats and bribery to secure the Macedonian Kingdom and expand it. It can easily be concluded that Phillip’s great determination and insight cleared the path Alexander would take to greatness.
Alexander’s initial conquests were based on his father’s plans to invade Persia. Alexander’s first conquests were the Balkans and the Greece territories that allowed him to consolidate power at home (Matthews, 26). He followed his father's master plan and crossed into Asia Minor with 30,000 to 50,000 troops in 334 BC. Alexander excelled in the use of speed and surprise and he easily won his first major battle at Granicus using these tactics. Success at Granicus meant Alexander easily took the western half of Asia Minor (Freeman, 26). He followed this victory with the siege of Sardis city which was an important center of trade and commerce in Asia Minor at the time. After the conquest of Asia Minor, Alexander turned his attention to Syria. At the battle of Issus against King Darius III of Persia, Alexander outflanked the Persian king using his cavalry. Again, Alexander's military tactics proved too superior for his opponents whom he would also defeat in later battles.
Alexander also took advantage of widespread political instability across the territories he conquered. From Greece to Egypt, the nations conquered by Alexander were experiencing some level of political instability (Freeman, 26). His ability to maintain his grip over the conquered territory also contributed to his success. Instead of dismantling and recreating administrative systems, he adapted the existing administrative systems for his purposes. Unlike other unsuccessful rulers, Alexander did not attempt to impose his religious, academic and social ideas on the conquered societies (Bowman, 21). He rarely interfered with the conquered nations as long as they did not interfere with his supply lines. Access to the field of operation was important as it enabled him to keep his troops well equipped and fed. However, Alexander was also known for being ruthless and vicious against his opposition.
Alexander’s competency as a political leader was also essential to the conquest of a vast empire. Alexander had also taken the coastal Mediterranean cities and the Levant following the battle of Issus (Bowman, 22). He used these cities to accumulate the wealth that he used to fund his army and build a navy that he hoped to use in the conquest of Egypt. The sieges of Gaza and Tyre were won easily as the ruler had superior resources to his opponents. In Egypt, Alexander’s political prowess saw the population easily accept his rule as they perceived him as a conqueror that would provide new leadership (Bowman, 22).
In Egypt, Alexander used his political acumen to advance his military goals. The Egyptians considered Alexander to be a son of the Egyptian Pantheon and was an exalted figure in the Egyptian nation (Bowman, 22). He also founded the politically strategic city of Alexandria on the Mediterranean coast. Alexandria signified the infusion of western and Egyptian trade and culture into one (Bowman, 23). The political tactics in Egypt clearly show that Alexander was a strategic thinker who sought to integrate his empire culturally and trade wise.
Alexander’s superior military tactics were also a great factor in his success, especially against the Achaemenids. At the battle of Gaugamela, the Achaemenids lost a great chance to defeat Alexander’s armies (Wilcken and Borza, 60). Alexander used a decisive tactic by attacking into Darius’ forces using a wedge-shaped attack. Alexander tore through Darius’ center forcing the latter to flee. Success at this battle set the stage for the fall of Mesopotamia beginning with the Great city of Babylon. Alexander swept into Babylon without a fight. Again, Alexander made the strategic decision to convert Babylon into his capital; he rightly thought Babylon would closely unite the Greek and the Near Eastern worlds (Wilcken and Borza, 60). Alexander closely followed by conquering Susa; Persia’s old capital and also Persepolis; the ceremonial capital of Persia.
Alexander would also defeat the Persians at the battle of the Persian Gates. The Persian gates were a strategic crossing. The defeat of the Persians led to an internal revolt that led to the assassination of Darius III by one of his generals (Wilcken and Borza, 64). However, the Persians continued a guerilla uprising against Alexander with skirmishes arising in parts of the kingdom. By easily defeating the Persians, Alexander made his way into Central Asia. On his way, he founded many new cities including Kandahar in Afghanistan (Roy, 26). His armies would make their way to present-day Tajikistan and almost reach Tibet. At its height, Alexander’s Empire was so vast that he’d conquered as far East as India.
Alexander also proved he was as courageous as he was skilled in military tactics. In the battles for the conquest of Central Asia and India, Alexander’s army first encountered war elephants (Roy, 29). These beasts of war caused fear and panic among his men, but their courage enabled them to overcome. Alexander ensured that his men were brave and courageous and did not panic against great odds in battle. However, Alexander’s long war of conquests over vast territories meant his men would become exhausted at some point. Eventually, Alexander was forced to pull back his forces and retreated as far as Babylon (Roy, 30). By the time his campaign had finished, Alexander had established the greatest Empire of all time: it covered almost all of Europe and vast swathes of the Asian continent.
Alexander integrated the Achaemenid kingdom into his own instead of dismantling it or burning it to the ground; a path usually taken by past conquerors (Bose, 12). Before the conquest by Alexander, the Achaemenid Empire was a vast and cohesive empire with an extensive trade network serviced by well-maintained roads. The success of the empire was based on its tolerant policies which Alexander adopted throughout his empire. To further integrate the Achaemenid kingdom into his own, he married into the Persian royal family and eventually clothed himself in Achaemenid royal regalia. He also appointed Babylon as the capital of his empire as it was a prominent capital and center of the Achaemenid Empire (Bose, 26). By settling in Babylon, Alexander was able to take advantage of trade and commerce as the main glue binding the conquered regions together.
Alexander died before he could achieve his dreams of an empire that comprised all of Asia and Europe. However, Alexander’s ideas of integration enabled him to hold onto this vast kingdom where many others had failed (Bose, 18). His ideas of integration lived on, and many of his generals settled in the conquered lands after his death. Greek populations also migrated into the Near East during his reign and after his death. The new integration of previously separate societies led to a boom in trade and facilitated the rise of new scientific knowledge in physics, astronomy, and mathematics (Bose, 72). Therefore, Alexander's great achievements and conquests can be linked to his visionary and farsighted thinking that saw his ideas continue to thrive many years after the decline of his vast empire.
Alexander’s great conquests were enabled by many factors that influenced his rise to become history’s greatest conqueror. First, the path was set by his father’s (Philip II) plan to conquer Asia. Philip had developed the Macedonian army into a disciplined and fearsome fighting force. He also conquered and subdued the territories surrounding Macedonia. Alexander’s initial conquests were based on his father’s plans to invade Persia. Secondly, Alexander’s military tactics proved to be superior to his opponents in multiple instances. Alexander also proved he was as courageous as he was skilled in military tactics. Thirdly, Alexander took advantage of widespread political instability across the territories he conquered. Moreover, Alexander’s competency as a political leader was also essential in the conquest of the vast empire. Alexander skillfully used his political acumen to advance his military goals. In Egypt, Alexander was considered a son of the Egyptian Pantheon and was an exalted figure in the Egyptian nation. In Persia, he married into the Persian royal family and eventually clothed himself in Achaemenid royal regalia.
It can be concluded that Alexander’s success is mainly owed to his military genius and his political acumen. Alexander's use of troops and cavalry proved decisive in many battles. In many instances, Alexander came close to defeat but used ingenious military tactics to entrap opponents and defeat them. Alexander’s men were also well-trained in fighting tactics and also well-motivated. On the other hand, Alexander's ability to make farsighted political decisions allowed him to conquer and maintain his hold on the vast Kingdom.
Bose, Partha Sarathi. Alexander the Great’s Art of Strategy: Lessons from the Great Empire Builder. London: Profile. 2004.
Bowman, Alan K. Egypt after the Pharaohs: 332 BC-AD 642 ; from Alexander to the Arab Conquest. 2. paperback printing. Berkeley, Calif.: Univ. of California Press. 1996.
Carney, Elizabeth, and Daniel Ogden, eds. Philip II and Alexander the Great: Father and Son, Lives and Afterlives. Oxford University Press, 2010.
Freeman, Philip.. Alexander the Great. New York: Simon & Schuster. 2011
Matthews, Rupert. Alexander the Great at the Battle of Granicus. Stroud: Spellmount. 2008.
Roy, Kaushik. India’s Historic Battles: From Alexander the Great to Kargil. Delhi : Bangalore: Permanent Black ; Distributed by Orient Longman. 2004.
Wilcken, Ulrich, and Eugene N. Borza. 1967. Alexander the Great. Norton Library. New York: Norton.
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