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On this day, October 1st, 331 BC, Alexander of Macedon won the battle of Gaugamela against the Persian king Darius and his army. That was pretty much the end of armed Persian resistance to Alexander’s takeover. From that point on, Darius was a fugitive, and Alexander ruled the Persian Empire.

Who was Alexander of Macedon?
Who were the Persians?
Darius and Gaugamela

Alexander fights Darius at Issus (mosaic from Pompeii)

Alexander fights Darius at Issus (mosaic from Pompeii) – this is a different battle!

Traditional views of Alexander

Europeans’ traditional view sees this battle as a big turning point where Westerners – Europeans – civilized people – conquered Persian barbarians and brought freedom, science, and art to the world. But of course people in SW Asia see it differently: there people remember Alexander as Sikandar, a terrible demon who brought destruction and ruin.

Both of these views of Alexander are colored by people’s ideas about later British colonialism. British people loved Alexander’s story because they wanted to be like Alexander and conquer SW Asia themselves. Iranians hated Alexander because they wanted to keep their independence.

Iran and British colonialism
Colonization and Empire

Newer ideas about Alexander

A Persian ally

small gold model of a chariot drawn by four horses

A horse-drawn chariot from the Oxus Treasure (British Museum, thanks to Mary Harrsch)

Does looking at Alexander this way keep us from seeing other interesting things about Alexander’s conquests? I think it does. First, Alexander’s almost Persian himself. Macedon was under Persian control from 512 BC until the end of the Second Persian War in 480. Even after that, Macedon was still very closely tied to Persia. As Alexander was growing up, Macedon still imported Persian fashions and had visits from Persian noblemen. Alexander was very familiar with Persian culture and did not grow up as the enemy of the Persians.

Macedon under the Persians
The Second Persian War

Khyber pass from Afghanistan into Pakistan

Khyber pass from Afghanistan into Pakistan

It might make more sense to think of Alexander’s attack on the Persian Empire as a coup – an inside job. He’s not really an outsider, even if he is from the very edge of the empire. Here he is, an ambitious and talented young man with an army he has to keep occupied. And the new Persian king, as Alexander knows, is a feckless sort of chump with no real support. Why not try to take over for himself?

The Silk Road and Central Asia

gold coin with a man's head on one side and a standing nude man on the other side

Gold coin from Sogdiana in the Hellenistic period

Maybe we also remember how awful a time the British had in Afghanistan, because most histories of Alexander come down hard on what a terrible idea it was to head into the snowy mountains of Afghanistan and fight the mountain people there. And for what? Some poor mountain forts?

But remember Alexander married Roxane, a woman from a ruling family of Central Asia. Why would he do that, if it wasn’t important? And why risk his army there? Central Asia was no backwater in Alexander’s time. It was the center of world trade, the core of the nascent Silk Road. It may have been the richest part of the Persian Empire.

(Also, what’s this nonsense about the snow? It snows in Macedon too. Alexander’s soldiers may not have liked marching in snow, but they were not surprised by it.)

The Silk Road
The Sogdians

Alexander in India
Alexander dies in Babylon

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