© Dennis N. O’Brien, 2017
Alexander was born in Pella, the Macedonian capital, on the 20th or 21st of July 356 B.C.. His father was King Philip II and his mother, Olympias, a princess of Epirus and principal wife of Philip. As a youth he showed great promise; he was intelligent, courageous, and skilled in the military arts. He was educated by Aristotle amongst others, and showed wisdom beyond his years.
He was just twenty years of age when his father was assassinated. Philip had planned to invade the Persian Empire, at that time the greatest empire in the known world. With Philip gone, Alexander determined to go ahead with the invasion. He travelled to the Peloponnese where he convinced most of the Greeks from the various Greek city states to join him. The exception was Sparta; the Spartans would not fight under a foreign king. He then decided to secure the Macedonian borders by routing and then pacifying the rebellious tribes bordering Macedonia so that the homeland would not be threatened during his and his army’s absence in Asia Minor. During this campaign the Greek City of Thebes rebelled. The rebellion was put down with great loss of Theban lives and the complete destruction of the city.
In 334 B.C. Alexander, with an army made up of Macedonians, Greeks from the league of Corinth, mercenaries, and soldiers raised from Thrace, Paeonia and Illyria, crossed the Hellespont on his quest to conquer the Persian Empire. Over the next three years he would engage in three major battles against the Persian King Darius III and his allies.
At the Battle of the Granicus River in 334 B.C. Alexander defeated the forces of the Persian satraps of Asia Minor. This army included a large force of Greek mercenaries led by Memnon of Rhodes. At the Battle of Issus in 333 B.C. in southern Anatolia he defeated a much larger force under the direct command of Darius. At the Battle of Gaugamela in Mesopotamia in 331 B.C. he once again defeated a huge army commanded by Darius.
Darius escaped, and in 330 B.C. while being held captive by some of his own commanders, and when about to be captured by Alexander, was killed by his cousin, the satrap Bessus. Bessus was captured and executed by Alexander the following year.
Over the next 5 years the former empire of the Persians was secured, and in 326 B.C. Alexander invaded India, winning a major victory against King Porus at the Battle of the Hydaspes River. Alexander wished to press east but his men were exhausted and homesick, and fearful of possible defeat at the hands of the numerous Indian forces to the east. After consulting with his generals Alexander reluctantly agreed to limit the extent of the Empire to its then boundaries. The army then followed the Indus River to its mouth, where Admiral Nearcus and his fleet were despatched to survey the Persian Gulf. Alexander and his army then returned via the Gedrosian desert to Babylon, suffering huge losses from privation and hunger along the way.
Alexander married Darius’ daughter Barsine in Susa in 324 B.C. . He died, probably of malaria, in Babylon in 323 B.C. at the age of 32.
The Early Years:
The King of Macedonia was pleased,
For as he rested in a city seized;
At Potidaea in Chalcidice,
There came the news of a great victory:
The army under brave Parmenio
Had crushed Illyria, the western foe.
But even better news reached Philip’s ear;
Two messages the King was glad to hear:
At the Olympic Games his horse had won,
Olympius, his Queen, had borne a son.
That day at Ephesus a temple burned –
The shrine to Artemis; soothsayers turned
Their faces to the ruin, and in fear,
Exclaimed that what the future held was clear:
Calamity would surely come their way;
Such was the oracle divined that day.
King Philip watched as Alexander grew;
His qualities were fine, his faults were few.
The education of the prince was then
Entrusted to the Kingdom’s wisest men:
Leonadis, his mother’s near kinsman;
Lysimachus the Acarnanian.
The prince showed wisdom far beyond his years;
Impressed his elders and his youthful peers.
He tamed Bucephalus, the mighty horse,
With cleverness and guile, but little force.
He saw the shifting shadows on the ground,
So took the bridal – turned the horse around.
“That is what spooks him”, Alexander said,
As to the sun he turned the steed: “Ox-head.”
Then mounted, rode the horse that none could ride,
Thus swelled in the King’s breast, a father’s pride.
Observed Philip: “His qualities are great;
To rule a greater kingdom is his fate.”
The Persian embassy he entertained,
And from them knowledge of the East obtained.
While they, the youth’s intelligence admired,
Some useful Persian facts the prince acquired.
Now Aristotle at the court appeared;
No man was more admired or more revered.
His task: to further educate the youth;
In morals, politics, logic and truth.
And Homer’s Iliad the teacher gave
To Alexander – poem of the brave
Achilles, of the Greeks, the siege of Troy;
A story fascinating to the boy.
Achilles, he then saw himself to be;
In Asia he would set the Hellenes free.
When but a youth the King gave him his seal,
The Maedi then the prince attacked with zeal;
Reduced the rebels; burnt their ramparts down;
Alexandropolis, renamed their town.
And at Chaeronea, there in command,
Charged at the front the sacred Theban band;
Just sixteen with the courage of a man,
He bravely led the Macedonian van.
Now Cleopatra fair, did Philip wed.
Olympias was driven from his bed,
So turned her son against his royal sire,
And with her scheming raised King Philip’s ire.
His fury Philip barely could contain;
In his royal court the two could not remain.
And thus to Epirus, the Queen was sent,
While Alexander to Illyria went.
Now Demaratus the Corinthian;
A trusted friend and honourable man,
Prevailed upon the Macedonian King
To calm his temper and agree to bring
Back Alexander to the royal court;
Forgive Olympias, his Queen consort.
The King relented and the two returned,
But in both Queen and son resentment burned.
Royal daughter Cleopatra was now wed,
But on this same day would the King lie dead.
Pausanius, his bodyguard and friend,
The life of Philip, mighty King, would end.
Pausanius at once was caught and killed,
Then all was settled as the King had willed:
For one man would be King and one alone;
Ascended Alexander to the throne.
The New King:
So barely twenty, and his father dead,
The new King, to the south his armies led,
And called upon the Greeks to join the fight;
To cross the sea and smash the Persian might.
And all but Sparta pledged to fight for Greece;
For freedom, rather than a Persian peace.
For freedom, Persians could not understand,
As men were slaves under the Asian’s hand.
The Persian whipped his men to make them fight.
The hoplite fought because his cause was right.
Now Alexander’s plans moved on at pace,
And in the spring his army marched to Thrace.
The warring tribes he knew he must reduce.
There, after making sacrifice to Zeus,
He thrashed the Thracians, the Treballi too;
The Getae – at the Danube, scores he slew,
Until all sued for peace – laid down their arms,
And then he said: “Go tend your fields and farms,
Bury your dead – your armies are all wrecked –
Our lands we Macedonians protect,
So keep the frontier peace and be our friends,
So that this war’s not wasted – here it ends.”
Down south in Thebes the rumour mill had turned:
“The King is dead!” – soon Alexander learned
That, in Illyria they thought he’d died,
So falsely rose rebellious Theban pride,
And blood within the walls of Thebes was spilt.
Too late they saw their King, and cursed their guilt,
But closed to Alexander every gate,
Which raised his ire and guaranteed their fate.
So Thebes besieged by Greeks – that old disease,
That foulest wind, that dead divisive breeze
Blew over all the Hellenes, foe and friend,
And surely would this folly badly end.
But Alexander waited for a time;
Called on the Thebans to admit their crime;
Deliver up their leaders to his side;
Join him and not diminish or divide
The Greeks – all their rebellious talk recant;
But still their leaders were belligerent.
Then time ran out and so came the attack.
The Thebans held at first but then fell back
Behind tall walls, behind their palisade,
The people cowered uncertain and afraid,
Bemoaned their certain fate, their gods beseeched,
And well they might as their defences breached.
Their gates now open to the raging tide,
Defenders killed, their weapons swept aside,
And once again in Thebes Greek blood was spilled
As men and women, children, all were killed.
So tragically, was mighty Thebes attacked,
And devastated – all its treasures sacked.
To Macedon the victors then returned,
And it was there that Alexander learned
That Orpheus’ statue poured with sweat;
That all around its plinth was soaked and wet.
So he enquired of seers, what did this mean?
What could they from their divinations glean?
They ventured – poets would work hard and long
To celebrate his feats in verse and song.
And so the Macedonians that spring,
Advanced on Persia – at their head their King.
The Hellespont, that mother of all moats,
His army crossed upon a bridge of boats,
And he, the first upon the Asian strand,
Flung fast his spear into the silver sand,
Then sacrificed, the mighty gods to please,
To fair Athena, Zeus and Heracles.
Then on to Troy, and at Achilles’ grave
He laid a wreath, declared he thought the brave
Achilles lucky, for his tale was told –
Immortalized by that great bard of old,
The master – Homer of the golden times,
The storyteller – chronicler, in rhymes.
No bard of Homer’s great ability
Lived now – no Iliad or Odyssey
Would there by bards be writ, naught to record
In epic verse triumphs with shield and sword.
But now within his heart ambition burned,
And so his retinue and he returned
To his great army by the Phrygian shore;
Summoned his generals – made his plans for war.
Meanwhile, the Great King of the Persians frowned.
He sent his orders: “Satraps, hold your ground.
Defeat this young usurper – drive him back,
But lie in wait for now – let him attack.”
So at the Granicus they chose to wait,
And there their battle strategy debate.
Memnon of Rhodes, the satraps he advised,
To quit the lands the Macedonians prized.
Beyond the Granicus withdraw, retreat;
Scorch bare the earth, and this great host defeat
In later battle – then, these warriors face,
On better terms, and at a better place.
But Memnon’s warnings fell upon deaf ears;
The satraps listened but to Persian seers.
So Memnon, with his sage advice now spurned,
Back to his waiting infantry returned,
As Alexander’s men marched rank on rank,
And massed upon the western river bank,
Then in formation faced the Persian horde.
Parmenio urged caution to his Lord:
To wait till morning and then cross with ease,
But Alexander thought the hour to seize,
So to his army’s rightmost flank he raced,
And there the foe across the river faced,
And they, on seeing him, were hushed and awed,
And prayed the Persian plans not badly flawed;
For to the God of Battle rose a shout,
The trumpets blared, and loud the cries rang out,
As men and horse into the river plunged,
And from the waters, at the Persians lunged
With pike and lance – beat back the Asian foe,
Then on the bank matched Persian blow for blow.
And so fought man on man, and horse on horse,
And soon was fixed, the battle’s final course,
For in the centre Alexander fought,
And by example soon a victory wrought.
As shattered Alexander’s spear in two,
A new spear, to him, Demaratus threw.
Then Mithridates, Alexander saw,
And with a spear thrust turned his face to gore.
The sword of Rhoesacas, with one hit,
The Macedonian leader’s helmet split,
But it was but a blow that sliced its crest
And Alexander’s spear pierced deep his breast.
Now Spithridates sought to kill the King,
But Cleitus swung his sword, a mighty swing
That severed with one stroke the satrap’s arm
Before his scimitar could work its harm.
And now the Persian centre failed to hold;
Their flanks of cavalry did reel and fold,
And as their army all were turned about,
The victory turned swiftly to a rout,
As most who had survived now fled the fight,
And in that moment, at their masters’ flight,
The mercenaries gazed on in dismay.
(The Greeks who served the Persian King that day)
For Alexander’s wrath they knew to fear
And Alexander’s message – it was clear:
That Greeks who fought against his men for gain,
Their blood, these foreign battlefields would stain.
For mercy for his men did Memnon plead,
But Alexander to these Greeks decreed
That to his mercy traitors had no right,
And then he called upon them all to fight,
And by the sword were eighteen thousand slain,
And thick their blood congealed upon the plain,
And just two thousand, not consigned to graves,
To Macedon, in chains, they went as slaves.
And thus the battle won, now of the lost
Did Alexander turn to count the cost.
The wounded he consoled and each he praised;
The dead unto the highest honour raised;
For of each dead Companion, first to last,
He ordered, be in bronze, a statue cast,
And all the dead be buried where they lay,
And with the arms they carried on that day.
And only then did Alexander rest
And ponder where he’d next, Darius test,
For well he knew Darius still was strong,
And so too, that the struggle would be long,
While in the east Darius shook with rage,
Which naught but retribution could assuage.
A year and more he waited for the chance
To stem the Macedonian advance.
Was autumn, and the King could wait no more,
So west the Persian army marched to war.
And thus to Issus did Darius lead
His shining army, and he there decreed
That of the weak and wounded soldiers there,
None of these Macedonians he’d spare,
And to the Persian King’s eternal shame
Did each and every stricken man he maim:
Struck of their hands so they could fight no more;
Thus settled, with his cruelty, a score.
Then Alexander sent his spies to find
If the Great King perhaps had lost his mind:
Superior his numbers and his might;
Why would he choose for battle such a site?
But King Darius listened but to those
Who thoughtfully, their words of wisdom chose,
For only sycophants would get his ear;
They told the King the words he wished to hear:
That he was strong, the Macedonians weak;
Upon them, would his army, havoc wreak.
So while his foe questioned his sanity,
In truth his weakness was his vanity.
So at this place he planned his strategy,
And with him, did his satraps all agree,
Should he, his mighty army here deploy,
These Macedonians he would destroy.
So now his men on foot and those on horse,
At the Panaris lined the river’s course;
The cavalry in brightly coloured ranks,
The glinting pikes above the Greek phalanx.
And from his chariot the King could see
The Cardaces – his Persian infantry,
Spread like a swarm of locusts flank to flank;
A sea of spears along the river bank.
Then to the south the waiting Persians saw
The Macedonians march on to war,
And at their head did Alexander ride,
And rode his loyal Companions by his side.
Parmenio, on the left flank he led
The mounted Greeks, as to the right now sped
On charging horse, the Macedonian King,
And there, dismounted, faced the foe’s left wing,
While in the centre, in close ordered ranks,
There marched the Macedonian phalanx.
Was then the Persians struck an early blow
Against the warrior Parmenio.
Across the river came the charging hordes,
And in the sunlight flashed their shields and swords.
As the great general and his horsemen held,
So Alexander with his Long Shields felled
The Persian Cardaces, and beat them back,
Then launched at King Darius an attack.
Now all around their King the Persians died
As now the gaping breach had opened wide
And men, to save themselves, now broke and ran,
As surged the might of Alexander’s van.
And so Darius, seeing all the dead,
Turned back his chariot and eastward fled,
And Alexander watched and let him go,
Then turned to help the brave Parmenio.
A horse he mounted, riding at their head,
His cavalry, to charge the Greeks, he led.
Into the Greek phalanx the horsemen crashed,
And soon the mercenaries all were smashed.
Now was the rout complete, the victory sealed;
The Persian army fled the battlefield,
While Alexander and his horsemen chased,
And in his chariot Darius raced,
Until the way impassable, and King
Darius bade his guards, a horse to bring.
He mounted, quickly spurred the horse to flight,
And so did King Darius flee the fight:
His mighty army shattered and laid low,
His chariot, his shield and golden bow,
His treasure and his daughters and his wife,
All lost – The King now left with but his life.
So to Persepolis Darius rushed,
As did the remnants of an army crushed.
To Alexander then he sent a plea:
To set his wife and his two daughters free,
And offered up one half of his Empire,
But Alexander’s eyes flashed bright with fire:
“I am the King of Persia now!” he said.
“Your Empire and your glory – all are dead.
Your wife and daughters have their liberty,
But as an equal, don’t dare address me.
I’ll not accept a grain of your design,
For all of Asia that you held – is mine!”
As Alexander’s note Darius read,
A premonition filled his soul with dread:
He saw his Empire fall and turn to dust,
His men to corpses, and their swords to rust.
But with despair the Great King’s anger grew;
His army still was great, the foe – so few.
Might his Immortals and his cavalry,
Still from the ashes snatch a victory?
For two years would the Persians have to wait,
Before their King and they would know their fate,
While Alexander forced the fall of Tyre;
As spread the tentacles of his Empire;
As Gaza fell, the women sold as slaves,
The children too, the men sent to their graves.
As Egypt meek and servile joined his side.
To meet him where? – Darius must decide.
At Gaugamela, on that open plain,
Darius would a clear advantage gain.
How massive was his army? – More than twice
The Macedonians – this must suffice.
From every corner of his lands they swarmed;
At Gaugamela, so the great host formed.
There like a field of waving golden grain
The army of Darius clothed the plain.
Then Alexander’s army came in sight
And saw this spectacle of Persian might,
But Alexander ordered them to rest,
And on the morrow this great army test.
The council of his generals then he sought;
Those, who with him had many battles fought.
Parmenio urged him to strike at night,
But Alexander said that thus to fight
And steal a victory as would a thief,
Would stain his honour, such was his belief.
So in the early morning, clear and bright,
The two great armies took the field to fight,
And brightly flashed the sunlight from the mass
Of spear-points, from each shield and bronze cuirass.
The cries went up to heaven and their gods;
Each pike and spear was raised, unsheathed the swords.
Like waters raging free that once were dammed,
So the opposing armies rushed and slammed
Together in a clash of iron and flesh;
In an embrace so deadly did they mesh.
And in that chaos of the battlefield,
Who knew first who would triumph? Who would yield?
The battle raged along the heaving front.
At first the Macedonians bore the brunt,
But Alexander turned the battle’s tide,
And with his cavalry close by his side,
Charged at a breach, and with each slashing stroke,
The Persians faltered, wavered and then broke.
Darius in his chariot then fled;
Left on the field, his wounded and his dead,
While all about, there fled the battlefield,
The Persians who survived, and thus was sealed
The victory – the Great King’s Empire lost;
Dishonour, death, destruction were the cost.
Darius’ fate, the last tale left to tell –
Was by a scheming satrap that he fell:
Struck down by one he’d trusted as a friend;
Defeated by a Persian in the end.
And Alexander, when he saw him dead,
He spread his cloak upon him and he said:
“I did not wish that thus would end his reign;
That by his own, he would be cruelly slain,
And for this treachery we see this day,
His murderers most surely soon will pay.
Now to the east his bloodied body bear;
In a royal grave – entomb Darius there.”
So to Darius his respects he paid,
As at Persepolis the King was laid,
And Alexander took his daughter’s hand;
Proclaimed his kingship over all the land.
The Caucasus now Alexander crossed,
And many were the men and horses lost.
The Scythians, by Spitamenes led,
Held Bessus captive – Spitamenes said:
“This man who killed the mighty Persian King,
To Alexander’s army we must bring.
No need for Bessus to be hunted down;
Do as you wish with he who claimed the crown!”
And thus did Bessus the usurper die;
Darius’ death avenged – eye for an eye.
But Spitamenes soon had other plans –
He would attack the Macedonians;
Raise Sogdiana in a mass revolt,
And Marakanda with his troops assault.
To Marakanda Alexander raced,
And there once more the Scythians he faced.
These horsemen of the plains threatened his flank,
So at the Jaxartes – the southern bank,
He set his catapults and drove them back,
Then crossed the river, blunted their attack,
Defeated them, and put them all to flight.
But Spitamenes carried on the fight –
At Gabai he would face a sound defeat;
The Scythians in panic and retreat
Would turn upon their leader – take his life,
And thus for Sogdiana end this strife.
And Spitamenes’ head they sent to show
No longer were they Alexander’s foe.
And so a day of celebration called,
And wine flowed red within the city walled,
But Cleitus, arrogant and in his cups,
Against the King’s new Asian ways erupts –
The man who had saved Alexander’s life
Slanders his King, his friends, and too his wife;
Drunk – Alexander snatches up a spear
And launches it to kill his friend most dear –
Cleitus the black, who struck that telling blow
Beside the Granicus so long ago.
And Alexander, mighty King, he weeps,
As now his gallant friend forever sleeps.
On India the King now set his eyes.
Came back intelligence from distant spies,
That Porus, King beyond that mighty stream,
The Indus, with his allies now did scheme,
To at the Hydaspes stop his advance.
That Porus thought this was his only chance
To bring King Alexander to his knees –
Defeating him beside the Hydaspes.
But by an island Alexander crossed,
And thus advantage, by Porus was lost.
Then in the battle, by the water course,
Fell dead, Bucephalus, beloved horse
Of Alexander – by the King’s son struck –
The son of Porus, but ran out his luck,
And soon upon the bloody ground he bled.
His troops, all those not killed, in panic fled.
Now Alexander and his van advanced
And Porus’ elephants were stoned and lanced.
They trampled underfoot both friend and foe;
Their riders shot with bolts and soon brought low.
And Porus now could see the end was near.
Unlike Darius though, he showed no fear
Despite his wounds – the blood flowed from his arm,
And Alexander cried: “Save him from harm!
He is a king, and as a king I’ll treat
This Porus, so courageous in defeat.”
And thus was Porus safe to him conveyed.
Said Porus then: “Great King, you’ll be obeyed,
But treat me simply as a great king ought;
You’ve won the battle and it was well fought.”
And Alexander said: “Your kingdom’s yours.
With you I wish to wage no bloody wars.
Just pledge to me your loyalty this day
And all your subjects may but you obey.
And thus did Porus to the great King bend
And evermore was Alexander’s friend.
And Alexander there a city built,
Beside the Hydaspes – upon its silt:
Bucephale, a horse’s name it bore;
No greater friend the King had lost in war.
Towards the Ganges:
Now east did Alexander wish to push;
Towards the Ganges and the Hindu Kush.
But soon his men, exhausted, sick and tired,
By wounds weakened and by privation mired,
Said: “No! To see our families once more –
To see our homeland’s all we ask – this war
Seems endless – though you are our mighty King,
And all of us with joy your praises sing,
We beg of you – is this not far enough?
Must we endure more suffering? Though tough,
And warriors, but mortal men we are;
King Alexander – we have come so far!”
And Coenus, general, a friend and wise,
Said: “Alexander, Lord, open your eyes;
See men – your men who wish to see their wives,
Their children – on their farms to end their lives.
The great Hydaspes – river broad and deep,
Should be our ditch, and all before to keep.
Beyond the Ganges, swell the hordes of foe.
The river’s deep and wide, mighty its flow.
To cross it, then to fight, a move too bold;
The country we have gained we now must hold!”
Then Alexander, tears fell from his eyes:
“Coenus,” he said, “I think your council wise,
But disappointment, it is hard to bear;
Victory is sweet, but bitter fruit my fare.
Go tell the men I grant their wish, I know
Though still victorious, they are laid low.
They have fought hard and long – no battle lost,
But battles won with steel come at a cost.
Prepare to march now south unto the sea,
Let the Hydaspes be our boundary.”
Soon after, Coenus, general and friend,
Hetaeri officer, would meet his end;
By the Hydaspes, mighty stream and wide,
Wise councillor – the general Coenus died.
Now Alexander’s army headed south,
By water and by land towards the mouth
Of mighty Indus, fed by this great stream,
Hydaspes, with its waters all agleam
Under the sun by day – camp fires at night.
The natives all subdued by threat or fight,
Watched as the mighty host in ranks swept past,
Beside the Hydaspes, now flowing fast.
The Mallians now sought to stop the host.
These fighters were of all the foe the most
Determined, now they fortified their town.
They mocked the King and dared him “Bring us down!”
So two divisions – Perdiccas led one;
The other by the sovereign, Philip’s son –
The King, attacked the town, its walls to scale,
But darts and arrows in a deadly hail
Flew from the ramparts – with the fighting fierce,
An arrow loosened from a bow did pierce
The chest of Alexander, still he stood,
As from his lips with each breath foamed the blood.
“The King is hurt!” so rang the fateful cry,
So now would all the town’s defenders die:
The men, the women and the children too,
As spared were none and those who fled were few.
There Alexander lay, chest red and wet –
The bolt protruding from his mail corselet.
Yet who would draw the arrow from his wound?
Was Perdiccas – and Alexander swooned.
The blood came in a rush and then was still;
The haemorrhage stopped, but would the wound still kill?
So Alexander taken to his bed.
Would he recover? Soon the rumours spread:
“He’s died of wounds – our mighty King is dead!”
The troops were horrified and filled with dread;
So far from home, surrounded by the foe,
Dire was their fate – it was a crippling blow.
But when this news was brought to the King’s ears
He wrote a letter to allay their fears:
“This is your King – I tell you, despair not.
All is as was before the bolt was shot,
And I’ll return, the wait will not be long,
I’ve heard the rumours and they all are wrong.
Mallian arrows wound, and too they sting,
But it takes more than one to kill your King.”
The weeks they passed, then Alexander said:
“Fetch me a vessel, there prepare my bed.
The time has come that all the men must see
I am alive – it is the remedy
For what now ails them – to their camp we go;
Along the Hydraotes swiftly row.”
And when the men saw him, gone was their fear,
And from the camp went up a mighty cheer.
They crowded in to touch his hand, his cloak.
He left the boat, mounted his horse, then spoke:
“Your King he lives – you see that with your eyes.
Be not the prey of rumour or of lies.
Some seek to wound with words and not with bolts;
Be wise to such pretenders and their faults.”
And so once more the army journeyed on
And conquered every tribe they chanced upon,
Until they reached the Indus delta lands;
Then to the sea, its tides and sparkling sands,
Where Alexander sent his admiral,
Nearchus, out upon the ocean’s swell
To sail west and explore the sea and land;
To chart the waters and survey each strand.
So sailed Nearchus with his fleet to west;
All theories of geographers to test.
And Alexander marched along the coast,
And o’er the Arabius led the host,
Leaving his generals, Craterus, and friend
Hephaestion – too soon to meet his end,
To settle and secure these conquered lands;
To weld into the one, disparate bands.
Now west along the bitter coast they marched
Through desert lands where all the life was parched –
Gedrosia, unending arid plains
Where bakes the sun and seldom come the rains.
Where grew no fruiting tree, a land so cursed,
That strong men died from hunger and from thirst.
This was the way the army then returned,
Under all day the blazing sun that burned.
One day at noon when water had been found –
A tiny trickle seeping from the ground,
The men there scooped it in a brazen cup –
A helmet – gave it to the King to sup,
But Alexander poured it on the sand,
Thus showed humility – his even hand:
That he would not value his life above
His comrades – so grew for the King their love.
Marched on the army over stones and sands,
Till further west they reached more pleasant lands.
The desert crossed – they’d given of their best;
Now Alexander ordered all to rest,
Recuperate, to sleep and quench their thirst.
They’d crossed where Cyrus – King, had been the first.
The desert once again had struck a blow
And many were the men buried below
Its sand and rock, its shingle and its stones;
Gedrosia held fast their flesh and bones.
When rested, Alexander sought his horse,
And to Camania he set his course.
And Susa soon was reached, that ancient place
Where now he saw each comrade’s smiling face:
Nearchus, on this man he could depend,
Hephaestion the brave, his dearest friend,
And Craterus and Ptolemy were there,
Lysimacus – he of the golden hair,
And Perdiccas and Seleucus too.
Surrounded now by his old faithful crew,
And safe in Susa, Barsine he wed;
Darius’ daughter taken to his bed.
And wed as well were eighty of his best,
To royal Persian wives, and all were blessed
By Alexander, and he then decreed:
“For your loyalty it is my wish – all heed –
All debts are settled by the King this day.
Show now your paper, and the King will pay.”
Thus all the debts were cleared, the slates wiped clean,
To honest men and cheats, by fair and mean,
No coin was owed, none loaned or guaranteed;
Of debt and worry all his troops were freed.
And honours by the King were then bestowed:
On Peucestes, to whom his life was owed,
Leonnatus – he too had saved his life,
Hephaestion – loyal friend through peace and strife,
And Nearchus, great admiral of the ships;
To all the brave spilled forth praise from his lips.
But in the army rumblings were heard.
They did not doubt his promises – his word,
But his embrace of Persian ways they feared –
The men disliked the eastward course he steered.
And they were Greeks – they would not genuflect
To any ruler; now their tongues unchecked,
The soldiers begged their King – “Let us go home –
No more these barren Asian plains to roam.”
And Alexander’s face turned red with rage
That no apology would now assuage.
The leaders of the mutiny he killed,
And then he turned his face to the weak-willed:
“How do you now repay me? In what coin?
Leave if you must – your families rejoin,
But just remember, back in Macedon,
My father, Philip, it was he who won
For you your freedom, laws, your city life,
And safety for your children and your wife.
But I have won much more – silver and gold,
The wealth from booty – all the slaves I’ve sold;
The Great King’s Empire – all of it now Greek,
And Macedon so strong, that once was weak.
To discharge old and maimed was my intent,
But by this mutiny the contract rent!
Go if you wish, I will not do you harm.
Return if you desire to town and farm,
And each position Persian men will fill,
But leave if leave you must, you have freewill.”
The King then from the rostrum deftly leapt;
Went to his quarters, to his bed, and slept.
And silence fell on all assembled there;
The atmosphere was heavy with despair.
For each now knew the King had spoken true –
Before his conquests luxuries were few;
Now all was plentiful, unlike before,
And soon they could restrain themselves no more,
And so they hurried to the palace doors;
Cried out: “Oh King, triumphant in all wars,
We beg that you forgive our foolish doubts!”
And Alexander clearly heard their shouts;
Took pity on the men’s simplicity;
Forgave them all for their complicity,
And said: “To celebrate this pleasant change,
I’ll sacrifice, and then a feast arrange;
But first the gods, I must with flesh placate,
And then our appetites we all may sate.”
Nine thousand then the banquet did attend
To eat and drink, and all divisions mend.
And then ten thousand, the unfit and old,
Were discharged and payed off with coin of gold,
And Craterus was given charge of these;
Thus did the King the malcontents appease.
So Craterus, his orders were: “Escort
These men of Greece who have so bravely fought,
These warriors now lame, or old in years,
To home.” And every eye was wet with tears.
Said Alexander then to Craterus:
“When you reach home your orders, they are thus –
Of Macedon and Thessaly and Thrace
Take charge, and loyal Antipater replace.
He is my friend but mother likes him not;
Olympias the Queen, her temper’s hot.
She writes to me and warns me of his schemes.
I think perhaps my aging mother dreams
Of plots – but still a chance I cannot take;
So Craterus, take charge for mother’s sake.
Nine months I spent residing in her womb,
And now she takes her rent for that warm room.”
To Ecbatana Alexander rode,
Where would play out a tragic episode –
Hephaestion – was here his great friend died.
The man who’d fought great battles by his side
Was dead, and Alexander’s grief was deep –
He shunned his dearest friends, he could not sleep.
For days The King was ill – was comatose,
And then the illness cleared and he arose,
And had in Babylon a funeral pyre
Raised for Hephaestion, and when the fire
Consumed the body of his great comrade,
And general, so a decree he made:
“The mounted Hetaeri, Hephaestion’s Corp,
Will stay Hephaestion’s for ever more,
Forever by Hephaestion be led;
His image always carried at their head.”
Now on the army’s march to Babylon,
Wise men, Chaldaeans, there they came upon,
Who said unto the King: “Oh mighty Lord,
Great warrior with shield and spear and sword,
We warn you now – do not march to the west;
Turn eastward where the oracle is best;
Avoid old Babylon, it bides not well;
Foretold this is to us by our god Bel.”
But Alexander swept their fears aside:
Said to them: “Wise Chaldaeans, I must ride
To Babylon. It’s said that those who’ve guessed
The future – of all prophets, are the best!”
And Alexander with a laugh rode on
To meet his destiny in Babylon.
And soon in that famed city he arrived.
Twelve years of war the King had now survived.
The prophesy of doom had not come true,
And Alexander started work anew.
In the Euphrates, anchored, were his ships,
While new ones rose upon the harbour’s slips.
Canals were dug, wharves built and all was well;
Forgotten was the prophesy of Bel.
The King was fond of drink – one fateful night,
He drank with friends until the glow of light
Showed in the east, and dull through gathering cloud,
As over Babylon there fell a shroud.
The King fell ill and fever burned him up.
A rumour spread – was poison in his cup,
Put there by agents of Antipater,
And as time passes so the truth will blur,
But likely in his blood a parasite;
A tiny foe no warrior could fight.
The fever raged and soon the King grew weak.
He could not rise, and barely could he speak.
So by his bed his mighty army passed,
And each man met his gaze from first to last.
Each recognized with turn of head or nod,
And they in turn payed tribute to their god.
Then all his officers they gathered round,
And begged: “Who will succeed?” at first no sound
Sprang from his lips, but then he softly said:
“The strongest man must lead when I am dead.”
And then he said no more and closed his eyes,
And from his army rose the mournful cries.
His time was short to walk upon the Earth;
Just thirty two, the years passed since his birth.
King Alexander, conqueror, had died.
He’d spread his mighty empire far and wide.
But if he thought ‘twould last then he was wrong,
For no successor would be near as strong.
© Dennis N. O’Brien, 2017
A Guide to Pronunciation and Stress
Potidaea : Pot-i-dee-a
Chalcidice : Kal-sid-asee
Ephesus : Eph-esus
Artemis : Ar-temis
Leonadis : Le-on-adis
Lysimachus : Ly-sim-acus
Arcananian : Arcan-ain-ian
Bucephalus : Bue-sef-alus
Chaeronea : Kha-rone-ea
Epirus : Ep-irus
Demaratus : Dema-rah-tus
Pausanius : Paw-sane-ius
Getae : Get-ay
Treballi : Tre-bar-le
Orpheus : Or-pheus
Phrygian : Phyrg-ian
Granicus : Gran-icus
Rhoesacas : Rah-o-sar-cus
Spithridates : Spith-ri-day-tees
Mithridates : Mith-ri-day-tees
Cleitus : Cly-tus
Darius : Da-ri-us
Panaris : Pa-nar-is
Cardaces : Car-da-keys
Gaugamela : Gar-ga-mel-a
Persepolis : Per-sep-olis
Jaxartes : Jax-ar-tees
Sogdiana : Sog-di-ar-na
Hydaspes : Hy-das-pees
Hydraotes : Hydra-ot-ees
Coenus : Key-nus
Perdiccas : Per-diccus
Arabius : Ara-bi-us
Craterus : Krat-erus
Gedrosia : Ged-ro-sia
Hephaestion : Hef-iest-ti-on
Ptolemy : Tol-emy
Barsine : Bar-see-ne
Peucestes : Pew-kes-tees
Leonnatus : Le-on-artus
Nearcus : Nee-ar-cus
Camania : Ca-mane-ia
Ecbatana : Ec-ba-tarn-a
Seleucus : Sel-e-oo-cus
Antipater : An-tip-ater
Hetaeri : Het-te-ri
Chaldaean : Kal-de-an
© Dennis N. O’Brien, April 2017