Alexander earned the epithet “the Great” due to his unparalleled success as a military commander. He never lost a battle, despite typically being outnumbered. This was due to use of terrain, phalanx and cavalry tactics, bold strategy, and the fierce loyalty of his troops. The Macedonian phalanx, armed with the sarissa, a spear 6 metres (20 ft) long, had been developed and perfected by Philip II through rigorous training, and Alexander used its speed and maneuverability to great effect against larger but more disparate Persian forces. Alexander also recognized the potential for disunity among his diverse army, which employed various languages and weapons. He overcame this by being personally involved in battle, in the manner of a Macedonian king.
In his first battle in Asia, at Granicus, Alexander used only a small part of his forces, perhaps 13,000 infantry with 5,000 cavalry, against a much larger Persian force of 40,000. Alexander placed the phalanx at the center and cavalry and archers on the wings, so that his line matched the length of the Persian cavalry line, about 3 km (1.86 mi). By contrast, the Persian infantry was stationed behind its cavalry. This ensured that Alexander would not be outflanked, while his phalanx, armed with long pikes, had a considerable advantage over the Persian’s scimitars and javelins. Macedonian losses were negligible compared to those of the Persians.
At Issus in 333 BC, his first confrontation with Darius, he used the same deployment, and again the central phalanx pushed through. Alexander personally led the charge in the center, routing the opposing army. At the decisive encounter with Darius at Gaugamela, Darius equipped his chariots with scythes on the wheels to break up the phalanx and equipped his cavalry with pikes. Alexander arranged a double phalanx, with the center advancing at an angle, parting when the chariots bore down and then reforming. The advance was successful and broke Darius’ center, causing the latter to flee once again.
When faced with opponents who used unfamiliar fighting techniques, such as in Central Asia and India, Alexander adapted his forces to his opponents’ style. Thus, in Bactria and Sogdiana, Alexander successfully used his javelin throwers and archers to prevent outflanking movements, while massing his cavalry at the center. In India, confronted by Porus’ elephant corps, the Macedonians opened their ranks to envelop the elephants and used their sarissas to strike upwards and dislodge the elephants’ handlers.
Greek biographer Plutarch (c. 45–120 AD) describes Alexander’s appearance as:
¹ The outward appearance of Alexander is best represented by the statues of him which Lysippus made, and it was by this artist alone that Alexander himself thought it fit that he should be modelled. ² For those peculiarities which many of his successors and friends afterwards tried to imitate, namely, the poise of the neck, which was bent slightly to the left, and the melting glance of his eyes, this artist has accurately observed. ³ Apelles, however, in painting him as wielder of the thunder-bolt, did not reproduce his complexion, but made it too dark and swarthy. Whereas he was of a fair colour, as they say, and his fairness passed into ruddiness on his breast particularly, and in his face. 4 Moreover, that a very pleasant odour exhaled from his skin and that there was a fragrance about his mouth and all his flesh, so that his garments were filled with it, this we have read in the Memoirs of Aristoxenus.
Greek historian Arrian (Lucius Flavius Arrianus ‘Xenophon’ c. 86–160) described Alexander as:
[T]he strong, handsome commander with one eye dark as the night and one blue as the sky.
British historian Peter Green provided a description of Alexander’s appearance, based on his review of statues and some ancient documents:
Physically, Alexander was not prepossessing. Even by Macedonian standards he was very short, though stocky and tough. His beard was scanty, and he stood out against his hirsute Macedonian barons by going clean-shaven. His neck was in some way twisted, so that he appeared to be gazing upward at an angle. His eyes (one blue, one brown) revealed a dewy, feminine quality. He had a high complexion and a harsh voice.
Ancient authors recorded that Alexander was so pleased with portraits of himself created by Lysippos that he forbade other sculptors from crafting his image. Lysippos had often used the Contrapposto sculptural scheme to portray Alexander and other characters such as Apoxyomenos, Hermes and Eros. Lysippos’ sculpture, famous for its naturalism, as opposed to a stiffer, more static pose, is thought to be the most faithful depiction.
Some of Alexander’s strongest personality traits formed in response to his parents. His mother had huge ambitions, and encouraged him to believe it was his destiny to conquer the Persian Empire. Olympias’ influence instilled a sense of destiny in him, and Plutarch tells us that his ambition “kept his spirit serious and lofty in advance of his years.” However, his father Philip was Alexander’s most immediate and influential role model, as the young Alexander watched him campaign practically every year, winning victory after victory while ignoring severe wounds. Alexander’s relationship with his father forged the competitive side of his personality; he had a need to out-do his father, illustrated by his reckless behavior in battle. While Alexander worried that his father would leave him “no great or brilliant achievement to be displayed to the world”, he also downplayed his father’s achievements to his companions.
According to Plutarch, among Alexander’s traits were a violent temper and rash, impulsive nature, which undoubtedly contributed to some of his decisions. Although Alexander was stubborn and did not respond well to orders from his father, he was open to reasoned debate. He had a calmer side—perceptive, logical, and calculating. He had a great desire for knowledge, a love for philosophy, and was an avid reader. This was no doubt in part due to Aristotle’s tutelage; Alexander was intelligent and quick to learn. His intelligent and rational side was amply demonstrated by his ability and success as a general. He had great self-restraint in “pleasures of the body,” in contrast with his lack of self control with alcohol.
Alexander was erudite and patronized both arts and sciences. However, he had little interest in sports or the Olympic games (unlike his father), seeking only the Homeric ideals of honor (timê) and glory (kudos). He had great charisma and force of personality, characteristics which made him a great leader. His unique abilities were further demonstrated by the inability of any of his generals to unite Macedonia and retain the Empire after his death – only Alexander had the ability to do so.
During his final years, and especially after the death of Hephaestion, Alexander began to exhibit signs of megalomania and paranoia. His extraordinary achievements, coupled with his own ineffable sense of destiny and the flattery of his companions, may have combined to produce this effect. His delusions of grandeur are readily visible in his testament and in his desire to conquer the world.
He appears to have believed himself a deity, or at least sought to deify himself. Olympias always insisted to him that he was the son of Zeus, a theory apparently confirmed to him by the oracle of Amun at Siwa. He began to identify himself as the son of Zeus-Ammon. Alexander adopted elements of Persian dress and customs at court, notably proskynesis, a practice of which Macedonians disapproved, and were loath to perform. This behavior cost him the sympathies of many of his countrymen. However, Alexander also was a pragmatic ruler who understood the difficulties of ruling culturally disparate peoples, many of whom lived in kingdoms where the king was divine. Thus, rather than megalomania, his behavior may simply have been a practical attempt at strengthening his rule and keeping his empire together.
Alexander married twice: Roxana, daughter of the Bactrian nobleman Oxyartes, out of love; and Stateira II, a Persian princess and daughter of Darius III of Persia, for political reasons. He apparently had two sons, Alexander IV of Macedon of Roxana and, possibly, Heracles of Macedon from his mistress Barsine. He lost another child when Roxana miscarried at Babylon.
Alexander also had a close relationship with his friend, general, and bodyguard Hephaestion, the son of a Macedonian noble. Hephaestion’s death devastated Alexander. This event may have contributed to Alexander’s failing health and detached mental state during his final months.
Alexander’s sexuality has been the subject of speculation and controversy. No ancient sources stated that Alexander had homosexual relationships, or that Alexander’s relationship with Hephaestion was sexual. Aelian, however, writes of Alexander’s visit to Troy where “Alexander garlanded the tomb of Achilles and Hephaestion that of Patroclus, the latter riddling that he was a beloved of Alexander, in just the same way as Patroclus was of Achilles”. Noting that the word eromenos (ancient Greek for beloved) does not necessarily bear sexual meaning, Alexander may have been bisexual, which in his time was not controversial.
Green argues that there is little evidence in ancient sources that Alexander had much carnal interest in women; he did not produce an heir until the very end of his life. However, he was relatively young when he died, and Ogden suggests that Alexander’s matrimonial record is more impressive than his father’s at the same age. Apart from wives, Alexander had many more female companions. Alexander accumulated a harem in the style of Persian kings, but he used it rather sparingly; showing great self-control in “pleasures of the body”. Nevertheless, Plutarch described how Alexander was infatuated by Roxana while complimenting him on not forcing himself on her. Green suggested that, in the context of the period, Alexander formed quite strong friendships with women, including Ada of Caria, who adopted him, and even Darius’s mother Sisygambis, who supposedly died from grief upon hearing of Alexander’s death.