Why Is Alexander the Great’s Legacy So Remarkable?

Tristan Hughes

4 mins

04 Apr 2019

Alexander the Great is one of history’s most influential figures. From a relatively small domain he conquered the superpower of the time and then went even further. He marched his armies from Europe to the Beas River in India, achieving feats that everyone believed impossible and creating one of the largest empires the world had yet seen. And all by the age of 32.

Although the empire quickly crumbled following his death, he left one of history’s most remarkable legacies. Here are several examples of the significant imprint Alexander left on the World.

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The legend that was Alexander

Stories relating to Alexander’s conquests soon became the stuff of legend. His young age, his divinity, his charisma and his megalomania were romanticised into fictional stories that remained popular down into medieval times.

“Arthurian” tales of Alexander emerged in several different cultures, each supplementing Alexander’s conquests with many fictional stories that suited their own ethnic agendas.

Jewish versions of the Alexander Romance, for instance, claimed that Alexander the Great visited the Temple of Jerusalem; meanwhile in Ptolemaic Egypt, stories spread that the Macedonian king was actually the son of the last Egyptian pharaoh Nectanebo II.

Alexander is also mentioned in the Quran as Dhul-Qharnayn – literally ‘the two-horned one.’

Romanticised versions of Alexander’s conquests became abundant. They include him venturing to far-flung mythical places, using a flying machine, learning about his death from a talking tree, going to the depths of the sea in a submarine and fighting mythical beasts in India with his army.

Arthurian tales of Alexander shone throughout Europe and the Near-East until the Renaissance period.

Divine Alexander

An illustration of Alexander the Great’s elaborate funeral carriage. A description of it survives in detail thanks to the historical source Diodorus Siculus.

After Alexander died and his body ran cold, his corpse became a symbol of divine power and legitimacy. Whoever possessed the corpse secured great sway in a post-Alexander world. A war was even fought over its possession, such was the impact he left on the world.

Following the climactic battle of Ipsus in 301 BC Ptolemy, the Successor king ruling Egypt, had Alexander’s body moved to the centre of his new capital at Alexandria and placed in a magnificent tomb.

From far and wide for the next 600 years visitors journeyed to Alexander’s city to see the tomb.

In 47 BC Julius Caesar, following his triumphant entry into Alexandria, visited the tomb in homage to his hero.

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Caesar proved the first of many prominent Romans to pay such homage. To those Romans who desired great power, Alexander was an immortalised conqueror who epitomised world conquest – a man to admire and emulate.

Throughout the Roman Imperial period, many emperors would visit Alexander’s tomb – emperors including Augustus, Caligula, Vespasian, Titus and Hadrian. For them all, the body symbolised the zenith of imperial power.

Many would thus associate themselves with Alexander – some more obsessively than others. The mad emperor Caligula for instance looted Alexander’s corpse of his breastplate.

Alexander’s body remained a place of pagan pilgrimage in Alexandria until 391 AD, when the Eastern Roman Emperor Theodosius officially banned paganism throughout the Empire. It is likely Alexander’s tomb was either destroyed or converted during this crisis.

To this day the whereabouts of Alexander’s body and his tomb remain shrouded in mystery.

Augustus visits the tomb of Alexander the Great.

Setting the military bar

Throughout the rest of antiquity many generals revered Alexander the Great as the ideal military commander. This was especially true of his ‘Successors.’

Alexander the Great’s demise unleashed chaos onto his empire as various ambitious generals waged wars to become his true successor. Over the next forty years many formidable figures would rise and fall in antiquity’s version of Game of Thrones.

During this period many generals sought to emulate the leadership of Alexander the Great. The man who perhaps came closest was Pyrrhus, the leader of the most powerful tribe in Epirus and famous for his campaign against Rome.

It was said of Pyrrhus that, of all the generals that came after Alexander, he was the one who most resembled the great conqueror:

They saw in him shadows, as it were, and intimations of that leader’s impetuosity and might in conflicts.

Later notable commanders such as Hannibal Barca and Julius Caesar similarly revered Alexander as a man to admire and emulate on the battlefield.

Upon meeting Hannibal at Ephesus in 193 BC, Scipio Africanus, the victor of Zama, asked his former foe whom he considered to be the greatest general of all time, to which Hannibal replied:

“Alexander … because with a small force he routed armies of countless numbers, and because he traversed the remotest lands.”

Hannibal placed himself third in the list.

As for Caesar, he held similar adulation for the Macedonian conqueror. A story goes that while a 31-year-old Caesar was travelling in Spain, he noticed a statue of Alexander the Great. Seeing the statue Caesar wept, lamenting how Alexander had forged a huge empire by the age of 31, while he himself had accomplished nothing.

Alexander the Great’s generalship thus inspired many of history’s most outstanding generals, including Pyrrhus, Hannibal, Caesar and, more recently, Napoleon Bonaparte.

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Creating the Hellenistic World

Alexander’s conquests spread Greek culture far and wide. During his campaigns he established Hellenic-style cities throughout his empire to improve administration, communication and trade.

Several of these cities remain prominent to this day. Both Kandahar (Alexandria-Arachosia) and Herat (Alexandria-Ariana) in Afghanistan and Khujand in Tajikistan (Alexandria-Eschate) were originally cities Alexander the Great founded as is, of course, Alexandria itself.

Following Alexander’s death Hellenistic kingdoms emerged across the length and breadth of Asia – from the Alexandria-based Ptolemaic kingdom in Egypt to the Indo-Greek kingdoms in India and Pakistan and the Greco-Bactrian Kingdom in Afghanistan.

A portrait of King Demetrius I ‘the Invincible’, a Greek king who ruled a large empire in modern day Afghanistan at the start of the 2nd century BC. Credit: Uploadalt / Commons.

From these areas, archaeologists have uncovered fascinating Greek-influenced art and architecture, perhaps most remarkably from the Greek-styled city of Ai Khanoum in northeastern Afghanistan.

The Hellenic art and architecture discovered at Ai Khanoum is some of the most beautiful in antiquity and provides a valuable insight to the Greeks in the East. Yet none of these fascinating Greek kingdoms would ever have existed if not for Alexander’s conquests.