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A Macedonian Prince
Although Alexander’s achievements were extraordinary, in many ways his father, King Philip, was responsible for his success.
When Philip became king of Macedonia, he threw all his energy into increasing his power. He conquered the lands east of Macedonia, which were rich in gold. With this gold, he was able to pay for a full-time, professional army, which gave him a great advantage over the part-time armies of the Greek city-states to his south. It was a well-trained, well-organized army, and soon it had defeated all Macedonia’s neighbours. When he died, Philip’s empire covered most of modern-day Macedonia, Greece, Albania, Bulgaria and European Turkey.
In Macedonia, men were allowed to have more than one wife at the same time. Philip had six wives. His first wife, his queen and the mother of Alexander, was called Olympias. Olympias was a princess from the neighbouring state of Epirus. She had a strong character and a quick temper. If she had a serious argument with someone, that person was unlikely to stay alive for long. There were many stories about her wild behaviour and her love of the god Dionysus. In the Greek world it was normal to kill a few animals as gifts to the gods. But when Olympias organized religious celebrations, thousands of animals were killed as gifts to Dionysus; then Olympias and her friends drank the animals’ blood. They played with poisonous snakes too; it was said that Olympias liked to sleep with a snake in her bed.
It is not surprising, with parents like this, that Alexander was brave and adventurous. His teachers too helped to make him a strong and successful leader. His first teacher was a relative of Olympias - a man called Leonidas. Alexander hated him. Leonidas made Alexander exercise without having breakfast, and gave him only a small snack for his evening meal. He even checked Alexander’s school bags, so Olympias could not hide food in them.
Alexander loved music and literature, but his favourite hobby was hunting. He hunted with dogs, and he was always fond of them. Many years later he even named a city in India after his pet dog Peritas. A hunter also needed a horse, and Alexander’s horse was one of the most famous in history. A Greek friend of Philip bought it for an enormous sum of money and gave it to Philip as a present. Alexander, aged twelve, went with his father to see this gift. It was a powerful black warhorse, but it was wild. It jumped and kicked and turned. Nobody was able to ride it. When Philip ordered his men to take the horse away, Alexander asked his father to wait. He turned the horse towards the sun, so it could not see its own shadow. It immediately became less frightened. Whispering in its ear, Alexander gently climbed on the horse’s back and rode it proudly round the field. Everyone was full of admiration. Philip, it was said, had tears in his eyes as he watched his smiling son. Alexander kept the horse, which he called Bucephalas, and for the next twenty years man and horse were rarely separated.
As Philip became richer and more powerful, he hired philosophers, artists, musicians and engineers from all over the Greek world. His court at Pella was an exciting place for a young prince to grow up. Alexander could talk to people who had lived in Egypt, and made friends with a man who had been a governor in the Persian Empire. Macedonia was now well-connected in the wider world.
Philip was too busy leading his army to spend much time with his son. But he made sure that Alexander’s teacher during his teenage years would be the best that money could buy. When Alexander was thirteen, his father hired Aristotle, a student of the great philosopher Plato. At that time, Aristotle was an unknown teacher with thin legs and small eyes. He also had one of the sharpest and most questioning minds in history. Aristotle later wrote many important works of philosophy. He was one of the first people to use scientific methods to learn more about plants and animals. He studied the stars and the way that the sea shapes the land. He wrote about politics and literature. The list of his interests and achievements is extraordinary.
Nobody knows how much he taught Alexander. Aristotle later wrote that it was a waste of time teaching political science to a young man, because ‘he has no experience of life, and still follows his emotions’. Was he describing his pupil Alexander here? Perhaps. But as Alexander grew up, like his teacher he never stopped asking questions. Whenever Pella had visitors from other parts of the world, Alexander learnt as much as he could from them. Alexander, like Aristotle, had a hunger for knowledge.
Alexander was not Aristotle’s only pupil in Macedonia. Aristotle also taught the sons of leading noblemen, and among them were many of Alexanders future commanders: Ptolemy, Perdiccas, Seleucus, Nearchus, and Alexanders best friend Hephaistion. These friends, like the horse Bucephalas, followed Alexander loyally to the ends of the earth.
Alexander grew up quickly into a responsible and intelligent young man. When he was sixteen, he was allowed to take charge of the government while Philip was away with the army. Soon after this, a tribe to the east of Macedonia started to cause trouble, and Alexander himself led a small army to defeat it. Then, when he was eighteen, he commanded part of his father’s great army at the Battle of Chaeronea. In this battle the Macedonians finally defeated the Greek city-states and forced them to accept Philip as their leader.
Philip started to make plans to free the Greek cities in Asia from Persian rule. Alexander felt that he would have an important part to play in his father’s war against Persia. The future looked good. But then his father fell in love.
Eurydice was the daughter of a Macedonian nobleman. She was young and very beautiful. Soon Philip was planning their wedding.
Olympias was very angry because, as Philip’s new wife, Eurydice would be more powerful than she was. And if Eurydice had a son, he could be chosen as king instead of Alexander. At the wedding, there was a big argument. Alexander attacked his father, although no one was hurt. Alexander and his mother left the court immediately; Alexander soon returned, but his mother went to live in her home country, Epirus.
Without his mother, Alexander was very nervous about his position at court. Then he heard news that made him even more worried. In preparation for his war on Persia, Philip was in contact with the king of Caria, on the western edge of the Persian Empire, and the two rulers wanted to arrange a family marriage. As well as Alexander, Philip had another son, Alexander’s half-brother Arrhidaeus. He had learning difficulties and could never be given adult responsibilities. Philip suggested that Arrhidaeus should marry a Carian princess.
Alexander could not understand why his father wanted this royal marriage for Arrhidaeus and not for him. He sent friends to the Carian court to say that he would make a much better husband than his half-brother. The Carian king was pleased at first. But Philip was very angry when he heard what Alexander had done. He did not want to waste Alexander on a small country like Caria. Alexander’s friends were sent away from Macedonia, and soon the Carian king got worried and lost interest in a marriage with anyone in Philip’s family. Alexander had ruined everything. His position at court became even weaker than before.
As Philip sent part of his army into Asia to start the war against Persia, he planned another wedding. Cleopatra, Alexander’s sister, was marrying her uncle, the king of Epirus. All the local rulers in Philip’s empire were there. But Olympias, who was Cleopatra’s mother as well as the king of Epirus’s sister, was not at the wedding. Since he was joining the royal families of Epirus and Macedonia with this new marriage, Philip did not need Olympias and her Epirote connections.
After the wedding, Philip was walking to the celebrations with Alexander and his daughter’s new husband. His endless battles had left him with one eye and a bad leg, but he was still full of energy, dreaming of a successful war in Persia. Suddenly, a man moved towards them. It was one of Philip’s bodyguards. Without a word, he pushed a knife into Philip’s chest.
Then he ran. But he fell as he tried to get on his horse, and Philip’s other bodyguards soon killed him.
There was no hope for King Philip. He was dead.
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