Alexander’s legacy extended beyond his military conquests. His campaigns greatly increased contacts and trade between East and West, and vast areas to the east were significantly exposed to Greek civilization and influence. Some of the cities he founded became major cultural centers, many surviving into the 21st century. His chroniclers recorded valuable information about the areas through which he marched, while the Greeks themselves got a sense of belonging to a world beyond the Mediterranean.
Alexander’s most immediate legacy was the introduction of Macedonian rule to huge new swathes of Asia. At the time of his death, Alexander’s empire covered some 5,200,000 km2 (2,000,000 sq mi), and was the largest state of its time. Many of these areas remained in Macedonian hands or under Greek influence for the next 200–300 years. The successor states that emerged were, at least initially, dominant forces, and these 300 years are often referred to as the Hellenistic period.
The eastern borders of Alexander’s empire began to collapse even during his lifetime. However, the power vacuum he left in the northwest of the Indian subcontinent directly gave rise to one of the most powerful Indian dynasties in history. Taking advantage of this, Chandragupta Maurya (referred to in Greek sources as “Sandrokottos”), of relatively humble origin, took control of the Punjab, and with that power base proceeded to conquer the Nanda Empire.
Founding of cities
Over the course of his conquests, Alexander founded some twenty cities that bore his name, most of them east of the Tigris. The first, and greatest, was Alexandria in Egypt, which would become one of the leading Mediterranean cities. The cities’ locations reflected trade routes as well as defensive positions. At first, the cities must have been inhospitable, little more than defensive garrisons. Following Alexander’s death, many Greeks who had settled there tried to return to Greece. However, a century or so after Alexander’s death, many of the Alexandrias were thriving, with elaborate public buildings and substantial populations that included both Greek and local peoples.
Alexander’s empire was the largest state of its time, covering approximately 5.2 million square km. Hellenization was coined by the German historian Johann Gustav Droysen to denote the spread of Greek language, culture, and population into the former Persian empire after Alexander’s conquest. That this export took place is undoubted, and can be seen in the great Hellenistic cities of, for instance, Alexandria, Antioch and Seleucia (south of modern Baghdad). Alexander sought to insert Greek elements into Persian culture and attempted to hybridize Greek and Persian culture. This culminated in his aspiration to homogenize the populations of Asia and Europe. However, his successors explicitly rejected such policies. Nevertheless, Hellenization occurred throughout the region, accompanied by a distinct and opposite ‘Orientalization’ of the Successor states.
The core of Hellenistic culture was essentially Athenian. The close association of men from across Greece in Alexander’s army directly led to the emergence of the largely Attic-based “koine“, or “common” Greek dialect. Koine spread throughout the Hellenistic world, becoming the lingua franca of Hellenistic lands and eventually the ancestor of modern Greek. Furthermore, town planning, education, local government, and art current in the Hellenistic period were all based on Classical Greek ideals, evolving into distinct new forms commonly grouped as Hellenistic. Aspects of Hellenistic culture were still evident in the traditions of the Byzantine Empire in the mid-15th century.
Some of the most unusual effects of Hellenization can be seen in Afghanistan and India, in the region of the relatively late-arising Greco-Bactrian Kingdom (250 BC-125 BC) in modern Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Tajikistan and the Greco-Indian Kingdom (180 BC – 10 CE) in modern Afghanistan and India. There on the newly formed Silk Road Greek culture apparently hybridized with Indian, and especially Buddhist culture. The resulting syncretism known as Greco-Buddhism heavily influenced the development of Buddhism and created a culture of Greco-Buddhist art. These Greco-Buddhist kingdoms sent some of the first Buddhist missionaries to China, Sri Lanka, and the Mediterranean (Greco-Buddhist monasticism). The first figural portrayals of the Buddha, previously avoided by Buddhists, appeared at this time; they were modeled on Greek statues of Apollo. Several Buddhist traditions may have been influenced by the ancient Greek religion: the concept of Boddhisatvas is reminiscent of Greek divine heroes, and some Mahayana ceremonial practices (burning incense, gifts of flowers, and food placed on altars) are similar to those practiced by the ancient Greeks. One Greek king, Menander I, probably became Buddhist, and was immortalized in Buddhist literature as ‘Milinda’. The process of Hellenization extended to the sciences, where ideas from Greek astronomy filtered eastward and had profoundly influenced Indian astronomy by the early centuries AD. For example, Greek astronomical instruments dating to the 3rd century BC were found in the Greco-Bactrian city of Ai Khanoum in modern-day Afghanistan while the Greek concept of a spherical earth surrounded by the spheres of planets was adopted in India and eventually supplanted the long-standing Indian cosmological belief of a flat and circular earth. The Yavanajataka and Paulisa Siddhanta texts in particular show Greek influence.
Influence on Rome
Alexander and his exploits were admired by many Romans, especially generals, who wanted to associate themselves with his achievements. Polybius began his Histories by reminding Romans of Alexander’s achievements, and thereafter Roman leaders saw him as a role model. Pompey the Great adopted the epithet “Magnus” and even Alexander’s anastole-type haircut, and searched the conquered lands of the east for Alexander’s 260-year-old cloak, which he then wore as a sign of greatness. Julius Caesar dedicated a Lysippean equestrian bronze statue but replaced Alexander’s head with his own, while Octavian visited Alexander’s tomb in Alexandria and temporarily changed his seal from a sphinx to Alexander’s profile. The emperor Trajan also admired Alexander, as did Nero and Caracalla. The Macriani, a Roman family that in the person of Macrinus briefly ascended to the imperial throne, kept images of Alexander on their persons, either on jewelry, or embroidered into their clothes.
On the other hand, some Roman writers, particularly Republican figures, used Alexander as a cautionary tale of how autocratic tendencies can be kept in check by republican values. Alexander was used by these writers as an example of ruler values such as amicita (friendship) and clementia (clemency), but also iracundia (anger) and cupiditas gloriae (over-desire for glory).
Legendary accounts surround the life of Alexander the Great, many deriving from his own lifetime, probably encouraged by Alexander himself. His court historian Callisthenes portrayed the sea in Cilicia as drawing back from him in proskynesis. Writing shortly after Alexander’s death, another participant, Onesicritus, invented a tryst between Alexander and Thalestris, queen of the mythical Amazons. When Onesicritus read this passage to his patron, Alexander’s general and later King Lysimachus reportedly quipped, “I wonder where I was at the time.”
In the first centuries after Alexander’s death, probably in Alexandria, a quantity of the legendary material coalesced into a text known as the Alexander Romance, later falsely ascribed to Callisthenes and therefore known as Pseudo-Callisthenes. This text underwent numerous expansions and revisions throughout Antiquity and the Middle Ages, containing many dubious stories, and was translated into numerous languages.
In ancient and modern culture
Alexander the Great’s accomplishments and legacy have been depicted in many cultures. Alexander has figured in both high and popular culture beginning in his own era to the present day. The Alexander Romance, in particular, has had a significant impact on portrayals of Alexander in later cultures, from Persian to medieval European to modern Greek.
Alexander features prominently in modern Greek folklore, more so than any other ancient figure. The colloquial form of his name in modern Greek (“O Megalexandros”) is a household name, and he is the only ancient hero to appear in the Karagiozis shadow play. One well-known fable among Greek seamen involves a solitary mermaid who would grasp a ship’s prow during a storm and ask the captain “Is King Alexander alive?”. The correct answer is “He is alive and well and rules the world!”, causing the mermaid to vanish and the sea to calm. Any other answer would cause the mermaid to turn into a raging Gorgon who would drag the ship to the bottom of the sea, all hands aboard.
St. Augustine, in his book City of God, restated Cicero’s parable showing that Alexander the Great was little more than a leader of a robber band:
And so if justice is left out, what are kingdoms except great robber bands? For what are robber bands except little kingdoms? The band also is a group of men governed by the orders of a leader, bound by a social compact, and its booty is divided according to a law agreed upon. If by repeatedly adding desperate men this plague grows to the point where it holds territory and establishes a fixed seat, seizes cities and subdues people, then it more conspicuously assumes the name of kingdom, and this name is now openly granted to it, not for any subtraction of cupidity, but by addition of impunity. For it was an elegant and true reply that was made to Alexander the Great by a certain pirate whom he had captured. When the king asked him what he was thinking of, that he should molest the sea, he said with defiant independence: ‘The same as you when you molest the world! Since I do this with a little ship I am called a pirate. You do it with a great fleet and are called emperor’.
In pre-Islamic Middle Persian (Zoroastrian) literature, Alexander is referred to by the epithet gujastak, meaning “accursed”, and is accused of destroying temples and burning the sacred texts of Zoroastrianism. In Islamic Iran, under the influence of the Alexander Romance (in Persian: اسکندرنامه Iskandarnamah), a more positive portrayal of Alexander emerges. Firdausi’s Shahnameh (“The Book of Kings”) includes Alexander in a line of legitimate Iranian shahs, a mythical figure who explored the far reaches of the world in search of the Fountain of Youth. Later Persian writers associate him with philosophy, portraying him at a symposium with figures such as Socrates, Plato and Aristotle, in search of immortality.
The Syriac version of the Alexander Romance portrays him as an ideal Christian world conqueror who prayed to “the one true God”. In Egypt, Alexander was portrayed as the son of Nectanebo II, the last pharaoh before the Persian conquest. His defeat of Darius was depicted as Egypt’s salvation, “proving” Egypt was still ruled by an Egyptian.
The figure of Dhul-Qarnayn (literally “the Two-Horned One”) mentioned in the Quran is believed by some scholars to represent Alexander, due to parallels with the Alexander Romance. In this tradition, he was a heroic figure who built a wall to defend against the nations of Gog and Magog. He then traveled the known world in search for the Water of Life and Immortality, eventually becoming a prophet.
In Hindi and Urdu, the name “Sikandar”, derived from Persian, denotes a rising young talent. In medieval Europe he was made a member of the Nine Worthies, a group of heroes who encapsulated all the ideal qualities of chivalry.