Alexander the Great and the Birth of Hellenism
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- 0:06 Philip of Macedon
- 2:40 Alexander's Conquest
- 6:22 Hellenization
- 8:08 Lesson Summary
This lesson describes Alexander the Great's mighty empire. Beginning with a brief account of his father Philip, the lecture then turns to an enumeration of Alexander's conquests. Next, Alexander's methods are explored. Finally, we will discuss Alexander's legacy of Hellenization.
Philip of Macedon
Meet Alexander the Wee. His father, Philip II of Macedon, was king of Macedonia. Macedonia was a large, relatively empty kingdom to the north of Greece.
For decades Macedonia had been in decline. Yet, Philip was about to change all that. Macedonia had long been under the thumb of the Greeks. During his youth, Philip himself was kept as a hostage by the Greek city of Thebes. After the Peloponnesian war, Greece's main power players, Athens and Sparta, were weakened and exhausted. The time was ripe for Philip to thrust his backwater kingdom into the civilized world. Phillip began by conquering his neighbors, first Thessaly, then Thrace, then Molossia were added to the Macedonian empire.
Yet, things did not go so well in Greece proper. The Athenians and Thebans both still held sway over large territories. As Philip slowly dismantled their empires, they fought back fiercely. The Greeks might be all too willing to kill one another, but when a foreign enemy appeared, they generally united to protect themselves from the invaders.
Yet, Philip was more than just a conqueror. Rather than attempting to invade wholesale, Philip used the wealth of his new empire to begin establishing his own league of allies, forming a Macedonian party. As more and more key city-states joined his cause, Philip was able to pressure the remaining Greek city-states into submission. The end result was the League of Corinth, an alliance that included most of Greece with Philip of Macedon at their head.
The lone holdouts were the warlike Spartans. Philip the Spartans sent an emissary saying, 'You are advised to submit without further delay, for if I bring my army into your land, I will destroy your farms, slay your people, and raze your city.' The Spartans replied with just one word, 'If.' So, Philip decided to leave the Spartans alone.
Nevertheless, rather than having to conquer the Greeks, Philip sought to lead them, and after a brief period of resistance, they fell into line. The Greeks respected Macedon's martial prowess, and the Macedonians respected the cultural and intellectual achievements of the Greeks. With the Macedonians leading the charge, Greek culture was poised to conquer the world.
Yet, just as everything was looking so grand, Philip was assassinated in a lovers quarrel with his ex-boyfriend, Pausanias. The rule of the empire fell to Philip's son, Alexander.
So, much has been made of Alexander's greatness that we often forget that Alexander inherited much from his father. Philip left Alexander a wealthy empire around the Aegean Sea. Alexander received the combined power of the Macedonian army and its many allied Greek states. Alexander also received a top notch education from the greatest mind of his time, Aristotle, who returned to the Macedonian court after years spent studying and teaching in Athens. Finally, Alexander had watched his father turn a cultural backwater of a kingdom into the most powerful empire in Europe. With these advantages, Alexander began a lightning campaign of conquest.
Alexander's campaign is noteworthy for its speed, its breadth, its tactics and its strategy. The same Phalanx formation, which had so frustrated the Persians invading Greece, was now mobilized and brought to the enemy with devastating effectiveness.
First Asia Minor was ripped from Persian control. Next, the Levant and Syria fell to the Macedonians. Alexander pressed south into Egypt, which welcomed him as a liberator and showered him with gifts. Doubling back, Alexander drove his army through the old kingdoms of the Fertile Crescent. Alexander then pressed on to the heart of the Persian Empire and smashed it to bits, dissolving an empire, which had once been the largest in the world and adding it to his own. Yet, Alexander was not finished. He pressed further east than even the Persians had dared to tread. He invaded modern day Pakistan and subjugated its peoples, and even pressed across the Indus into the Indian subcontinent.
Up until this point, Alexander was undefeated. It was in India, on the banks of the Hyphasis River, that Alexander first tasted defeat - not at the hands of enemies but from his own soldiers. Thousands of miles from home, exhausted and war weary and absolutely terrified of India's war elephants, Alexander's soldiers mutinied, and the progress of the Macedonian war juggernaut ground to a halt. Alexander was forced to turn back and lead his army on the long and dangerous journey home. Yet, no one could say that the campaign had failed. In just over a decade, Alexander had conquered an empire stretching from the Adriatic Sea to the Himalayas. This was, in essence, the entire known world of classical times.
Throughout his conquest, Alexander showed that, like his father, he was a keen politician as well as a powerful warrior. He burned the cities that resisted him, killing their men and selling their women into slavery. Yet, he showed remarkable leniency toward those who opened their gates to him. Moreover, he made allies of his fiercest opponents, expanding their kingdoms and making them his vassals. Along the way, Alexander wove himself into the mythologies and religions of the peoples he conquered. At Troy, he visited the tomb of Achilles, endearing himself to the Greeks. In Jerusalem, he respected their strange god and accepted a place in their prophesies. In Egypt, he took on the role of liberator, expanded the freedom of the Egyptian people, named himself the son of the Egyptian god, Amun, and took up the title 'king of the universe.' Alexander continued this process throughout his conquests, pardoning the weak, forming alliances with the strong and donning the regalia and trappings of authority from every culture he visited.
Yet, Alexander did more than just conquer and destroy. He also built. Alexander's empire spanned more barriers than just mountains and rivers. Cultural divisions, linguistic distinctions, religious differences - all these threatened to tear his empire apart.
To unify these disparate cultures into a single civilization, Alexander established Greek-style cities across his empire and installed clever Greeks to run his empire for him. These cities became administrative centers, run by imported Greeks. To make the new Greek administrators feel at home, each city strove to be more Greek than Greece. In a relatively short time, Greek went from an obscure language, spoken in a tiny corner of the world, into the official language of an empire spanning some two million square miles. This process of spreading Greek culture and language is known as Hellenization and marks the beginning of the Hellenistic period.
In the end, Alexander did not get to enjoy the fruits of his empire for long. He never even made it home. Alexander died in Babylon, though our sources are not clear whether it was from poison, sickness or pure exhaustion. With no clear heir, Alexander's empire was in danger of collapsing as soon as it was formed. Alexander himself was of no help. On his deathbed, he bequeathed his empire 'to the strongest.' As no one was sure who this meant, Alexander's generals and kin fell to fighting among each other. In the end, Alexander's empire was divided into four smaller kingdoms: the Kingdom of Macedon, the Kingdom of Pergamon in Asia Minor, the Ptolemaic Kingdom of Egypt and far to the east, the Seleucid Empire.
Alexander the Great's success was built upon the successes of his father, Philip II of Macedon. Alexander inherited an already rich empire with powerful vassals and allies. With this head start, Alexander conquered the known world. He was undefeated on the battlefield, yet also politically cunning. In ten years, he had conquered the known world. In his wake, he established Greek cities with Greek administrators, and thus began the process of Hellenizing (or Greekifying) the ancient world.
Alexander did not get to enjoy his empire though. He died on his way home, and his generals and family split his empire into four kingdoms: the Kingdom of Macedon, the Ptolemaic Kingdom of Egypt, the Kingdom of Pergamon and the Seleucid Empire of the East.
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Chapters in History 101: Western Civilization I
- 1. Prehistory (9 lessons)
- 2. History of the Ancient Near East (20 lessons)
- 3. History of Ancient Greece (16 lessons)
- 4. Hellenism and the Athenian Achievement (11 lessons)
- 5. The Rise of the Roman Republic (16 lessons)
- 6. The Fall of the Roman Empire (16 lessons)
- 7. The Dark Ages (14 lessons)
- 8. The Early Middle Ages (9 lessons)
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