Athens and Alexander the Great

Almost universally viewed as the greatest conqueror of the ancient world, Alexander the Great probably needs little introduction. The son of Philip II of Macedonia, one of history's great military leaders and conquerors in his own right, Alexander quickly secured his father's power base upon assuming the throne at age 20, then set about building the largest empire the world had ever seen.

Because ancient Athens was the center of Greek culture and Alexander the most famous of the ancient Greeks, many people mistakenly assume Alexander was Athenian himself. His relationship to Athens was actually much more complicated than that.

Prince Alexander and Athens

Until the time Alexander was given the regency of Macedonia in his father's absence at age 16, he was tutored by Aristotle, who had himself been the prize student of Plato at the latter's famous Athenian Academy. From this tutelage he gained a passion for Homer, and in particular the Iliad, as well as some appreciation for Athens as a center of learning.

For the most part, however, young Alexander viewed Greece as part of his father's empire, joining Philip in 338 BC as he conquered Greece. Philip sought a separate peace with Athens, which the Athenian general Phocion argued for. Hotter Athenian heads prevailed, however, as the statesman Demosthenes persuaded the Athenian Assembly to reject Philip's proposal. The Athenians proved Philip's greatest obstacle in combat, though they, too, were utterly defeated in the end. Afterward, the rest of Greece, with the exception of Sparta, which neither fought Philip nor accepted his rulership, was welcomed into a Hellenic Alliance created by Philip, which essentially made Greece a favored part of his empire.

Alexander vs. the Greeks

After Alexander's father Philip was assassinated by the captain of his own bodyguards in 336 BC, Alexander assumed the leadership of Macedonia at the age of 20. Most of Greece celebrated the death of their conqueror, but even without being certain of who would step into Philip's place, Phocion stopped Athens from joining in, reminding his fellow Athenians that the Macedonians were still a powerful force, and it would be unwise to anger them.

Once Alexander gained control and slaughtered all likely challengers to his authority, Demosthenes and many other Athenian orators publicly mocked him as a young idiot incapable of following in his father's footsteps. Upon hearing of revolt in Athens and the rest of Greece, Alexander quickly rode south with the Macedonian cavalry, and either cowed or sufficiently outflanked most of the Greek city-states into suing for peace.

Thebes was an exception, however, and many Greeks rallied to them. Most of the more prominent Athenians wished to join Thebes, still believing Alexander was not a particularly fearsome enemy. Phocion saved the city much sorrow by refusing to prosecute the war, quoting Homer when he said, "Foolhardy man, why provoke one whose temper is already savage?" and adding, "Why provoke this Macedonian who is full of limitless ambition? When there is a holocaust on our borders, do you wish to spread the flames to our city as well, by provoking him further? My whole object in taking up the burdens of this office is to prevent this, and I shall not allow my fellow citizens to destroy themselves, even if they wish it."

Despite the lack of support from Athens, Thebes resisted until their city's destruction, and the decimation of the combiend Greek forces there. When the Athenian Assembly sent envoys with offers of peace, Alexander refused to meet with them, replyig that he would only grant Athens peace if they turned over Demosthenes and the others who had most strongly urged rebellion. The Assembly rejected this notion, and Phocion went to him personally to beg for his city, stating that he had no wish to fight Alexander but could not in conscience turn over anyone without the consent of the Assembly, even if it meant his doom.

Alexander was persuaded by Phocion's earnest integrity and plain speaking. He not only relented in his demand for the lives of those urging rebellion, but asked Phocion's advice for what he should do next. Told that he should refrain from war and return home to consolidate his empire if he wished peace and prosperity, or to invade Persia rather than running roughshod over Greece if he wished glory, Alexander took the latter course and made the Persian empire part of his own.

But Phocion had won his respect, and Athens remained a favored part of Alexander's empire for the remainder of his rule.

An Accidental Ambassador

There is one final element to Alexander's relationship with Athens. Because of Aristotle's direct influence on Alexander, and the general Athenian influence on all of Greek thought and culture, including the thought and culture of Macedonia, Alexander, with his creation of a far-flung empire, did more to spread Athenian values in philosophy and art than any other single individual. Conqueror he may have been, but he was also the foremost ambassador of Athenian culture to the rest of the world.