Alexander the Great

Contributor: Nathan Murphy. Lesson ID: 13836

What made Alexander great: the vast land he conquered, his luck in battle, his schooling from Aristotle, or his attitude toward foreign people? Or is it a combination that creates his lasting legacy?


People and Their Environment, World

learning style
Auditory, Visual
personality style
Grade Level
High School (9-12)
Lesson Type
Dig Deeper

Lesson Plan - Get It!

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You have undoubtedly heard of Alexander the Great, and he is referred to as great mainly because of his territorial expansion.

  • Do you know how great his empire was?

Print the Empire of Alexander the Great Map found under the Downloadable Resources in the right-hand sidebar.

Without searching online, mark how big you think the Greek Empire was under Alexander the Great. [Hint: The black dot near the Mediterranean Sea is a good place to start.]

Hold on to this map as you complete the lesson to find out how close you were.

Alexander might just surprise you!

Philip II of Macedonia

After the Athenian Golden Age in the 400s B.C.; there was no primary power in Greece, and Persia continued to be a major threat to the entire peninsula.

Philip II of Macedonia only controlled a small empire in the north of Greece.

Macedon Empire

Image by MaryroseB54, via Wikimedia Commons, is licensed under the CC BY-SA 4.0 license.

However, Philip II was able to hire the Greek philosopher Aristotle to teach his son Alexander in philosophy, Greek literature, and many other subjects. This was important to Philip because he wanted an educated son who would be able to rule once he was gone.

  • Why was having Aristotle as a teacher so important?

statue of Aristotle

Aristotle had been the student of the Athenian philosopher Plato, who had been a student of Socrates. Aristotle represented a concentration of thought from the Athenian Golden Age.

Watch this short clip from Aristotle and Alexander, from Sun of Antiquity, to see how Aristotle taught the boy who would one day be King:

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Aristotle taught Alexander about democracy and the philosophical debates people like Plato had.

He taught Alexander that the only way he could be better than democracy, as a king, was if he were more intelligent than the average person. Only then could he justify his rule.

  • Do you think it is a good idea to educate leaders as much as possible if they are going to be the ones affecting our lives?

It was particuarly important in Alexander's case because he wanted to go far beyond the borders of Greece in pursuit of glory.

Alexander the Great

Alexander the Great statue

Philip II of Macedon was assassinated when Alexander was 20, and so he asserted himself as the heir to his father's throne.

He immediately began his Balkan Campaign; within a year, the entire Greek peninsula was consolidated under the Kingdom of Macedonia.

Against Aristotle's advice, Alexander was determined to push east and expand his empire.

He used creativity and ingenuity to capture vast swaths of land that had been previously impenetrable.

As you watch a portion of How Alexander the Great Conquered the World | Engineering an Empire | Full Episode | History, watch for all the different techniques he implemented:

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Macedonia and the Greek allies had a small navy compared to Persia, and it could not help with conquest. However, even as far as Tyre, Alexander was able to get around this fact by building a causeway and utilizing massive siege towers to capture the "impenetrable" city.

  • Do you see why people at the time thought Alexander was "Great"?

He was able to do what nobody had ever done before. After sieging Tyre, Alexander quickly made it to Egypt where he has crowned Pharaoh of Egypt.

Over the next decade, Alexander would never return home, deciding instead to keep pushing east.

From 333 B.C. to 323 B.C., Alexander continued his campaign to push his kingdom's borders beyond Greece. Eventually, he reached the Indus River in India.

Take a look at this map showing the Empire of Alexander the Great and note the dates on the arrows showing where and when Alexander traveled to each city:

Alexander the Great Empire

Image by Generic Mapping Tools, via Wikimedia Commons, is licensed under the CC BY-SA 3.0 license.

By around 326 B.C., Alexander reached the edge of the Indus River and decided that was far enough. He started on his way back home; however, he fell ill on the way and eventually died in Babylon. Some suggested he was poisoned, but most historians agree he likely just got malaria.

Was He That Great?

From 336 B.C. to 323 B.C., Alexander the Great dramatically changed the eastern Mediterranean coast and the Middle East.

During his long campaign, he befriended Ptolemy I who eventually became Pharaoh of Egypt decades after Alexander passed away.

statue of Ptolemy I

Image, via Wikimedia Commons, is in the public domain.

Listen to Ptolemy discuss whether Alexander really was that special in this clip of Alexander (2004) - Opening | The Story (HD) from Captain Darrow:

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Ptolemy recognized that Alexander was an idealized figure even in his own time. He was simply a lucky general with some good ideas. There was nothing superhuman about him.

However, one of Alexander's new ideas did make expansion well beyond Greece feasible.

Alexander the Great statue

Alexander the Great is considered to have been a cosmopolitan ruler because he never held animosity for the foreign people he conquered. This may have been a result of Aristotle's influence.

This acceptance of and integration with foreign cultures is best illustrated by the three wives Alexander had in his lifetime:

  • Roxana of Bactria (Central Asia)
  • Stateira II of Persia
  • Parysatis II of Persia

As the leader of a powerful Greek kingdom, Alexander married foreign women and encouraged all his soldiers to marry women while on the campaign as well.

  • Why might this practice have been useful?

For Alexander, it could cement his claim to rule over that land since he was married to a woman from the region.

If Greeks soldiers intermingled with the subjects of the empire, there was a much higher chance that people would continue to accept Greek rule as the cultures merged.

Whether his accepting attitude toward cultural interaction was a calculated strategy or a byproduct from his worldly education, Alexander was great in that he changed what it meant to rule over a vast empire.

Alexander the Great bust

Continue on to the Got It? section to review Alexander's journey and consider how much of his legacy might simply be the result of luck.

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