Alexander III of Macedon, better known as Alexander the Great, didn’t get his nickname for no reason. He conquered the known world by an age when most people are just getting out of entry-level positions at work. Even thousands of years after his death Alexander is still fascinating to us. And it’s no wonder, when you get into just how incredible his life truly was.
10. Cleitus the Black saved his life at the Granicus River…
They say no man is an island, and Alexander was no exception. For all of his amazing feats, he had an army and many trusted advisors at his back. One figure that appears frequently in tales of his triumphs is a man known as Cleitus the Black.
Cleitus was an officer in the Macedonian army and is indirectly responsible for much of Alexander’s success because, if not for Cleitus, Alexander would have died in the year 334 BC.
It was at the Battle of Granicus when Alexander was squaring off against a pair of Persian warriors named Spithridates and Rhoesaces. While Alexander’s attention was on the latter, Spithrdates was about to strike him dead from behind with a hammer blow. As he raised his arm, presumably to crush Alexander’s head, Cleitus the Black swooped in and severed his hammer arm. It saved Alexander’s life and subsequently killed Spithridates.
9. … and Alexander later murdered him with a javelin
You’d think a trusted friend who literally saves your life in battle would be the kind of person that you would go to the ends of the Earth with. Unfortunately for Cleitus the Black, his friendship with Alexander was a short-lived one. Six years after he saved Alexander’s life at the Battle of Granicus, Alexander and his men were having a banquet in Marcandas. It was here that Cleitus took issue with an order from Alexander.
Word is that Alexander was ordering Cleitus to command an army of mercenaries and head to Asia. Cleitus began speaking openly about how Alexander’s father was a greater king than Alexander himself. Everyone had a few drinks, and Alexander was clearly not a man who accepted criticism easily.
The argument escalated and Alexander ordered Cleitus from the room. The details are a little sketchy but it’s believed that Cleitus was leaving the room, and then perhaps either didn’t fully leave or came back to get the last word. It didn’t work out in his favor as Alexander, sick of listening to the man, grabbed a javelin and hurled it across the room at him killing him almost instantly.
8. No one knows how he died
Alexander the Great is considered one of the greatest historical figures of all-time. Time magazine placed him as number nine on their list of the most significant figures in history. For a man of that great importance, who had conquered much of the known world, that he would die and no one even can tell us why is kind of bizarre.
Descriptions we do have indicate that Alexander fell ill when he was just 32-years-old. For 12 days he was apparently in agony, before death finally took him. And then, if reports are to be believed, it was six days before he even began to decompose. That part may be an exaggeration, but we’ll never know for sure. The belief that he was somehow more than a normal man has been supported by this apparent fact, however.
Whatever it was that killed Alexander has been the subject of debate for years, and will likely be impossible to figure out. It’s been suggested that everything from malaria, to typhoid, to straight up murder by a rival may have done him in.
At least one theory suggests that the reason Alexander showed no signs of decomposition for so long was that he wasn’t even dead yet. He may have been suffering from Guillain-Barre Syndrome.
7. He was taught by Aristotle
In addition to his prowess in battle, Alexander was no slouch as an intellectual either. When it comes to historical teachers you probably can’t get much better than one of Alexander’s earliest tutors, the great philosopher Aristotle.
For seven years, Aristotle taught Alexander until the younger man was ready to ascend to be king. Word is that even after Aristotle left Alexander’s side, the two stayed in touch through letters, and Aristotle’s influence was all over much of how Alexander conducted his business. From his diplomatic debate style to the fact that he could always be found with a book in hand has all been attributed to Aristotle’s teachings.
6. His horse was as famous as he was
History is rife with famous sidekicks, from Batman and Robin to Don Quixote and Sancho Panza. Alexander the Great could almost always be found with one sidekick at all of his triumphs, but it wasn’t a person. It was his trusted horse Bucephalus.
By all accounts, Alexander loved that horse more than most people will love any friend or spouse they have. A stallion from Thessaly in Greece, Bucephalus was alleged to have been absolutely enormous when Alexander first discovered him. In fact, the name Bucephalus means ‘oxhead’ as a reference to how large this horse was.
When he was 12, Alexander saw the horse and wanted it immediately. His father didn’t want to pay the outrageous sum being asked by the breeder because the horse seemed wild and it was thought to be untamable. Alexander wagered with his father that he would pay for the horse himself if he could not tame it, but if he could that his father would pay for it. Obviously, Alexander won that bet and the stallion became his companion until the year 326 BC, when he fell in the Battle of Hydaspes at nearly 30 years of age.
5. He smelled great
For a man who was reputed to be a masterful tactician, an unprecedented partier, an intellectual, and an equal opportunity lover, of all the curious things written about Alexander the Great, few are as unusual as stories of his hygiene.
You can see in modern times that there are sycophantic writers who will heap flowery praise upon celebrities and politicians in an effort to curry favor, and it’s entirely possible that this was just a curious form of that habits from the 3rd century BC. Whatever the case, however, people would write that Alexander the Great just smelled wonderful.
Plutarch wrote of Alexander that “a very pleasant odor exhaled from his skin and that there was a fragrance about his mouth and all his flesh.” In the 16th century Michel de Montaigne wrote that Alexander had a suave odor… whatever that means.
Both of those accounts were written years after Alexander’s death, and there aren’t any contemporaneous accounts of Alexander’s delightful smells. It could just be part of the legend that grew after the fact, but it still dates back at least as far as Plutarch, which gives it a couple thousand years of history.
4. He held a drinking competition and everyone died
History has been full of epic drinkers, and also epic mistakes that were caused by epic drinkers. Alexander the Great was known for over-imbibing in alcohol on more than one occasion, but perhaps his worst drinking mistake was one that ended in widespread death.
In Macedonia, they did not drink their wine the same way they did in Greece. While Greeks diluted their wine with water — because it was considered the cultured thing to do — Macedonians just pulled back on the wineskin and drank it undiluted.
In the year 324, Alexander learned that one of his advisers by the name of Calanus was ill and expected to soon die. In his honor, Alexander decided to hold a great party complete with a drinking contest. So, 41 men entered the competition, and the prize was to be one talent of gold — which in modern terms is 57 pounds, or about $1.4 million. Not bad for drinking some wine. Or at least, that’s probably what everyone thought.
The contestants proceeded to drink undiluted wine in the Macedonian fashion. Unaccustomed to alcohol, especially that much alcohol, many of them fell ill fairly quickly. The winner was one of Alexander’s soldiers, who managed to drink four gallons. All told, 35 of the contestants died on the spot, while it took a few days to kill the rest of them… including the winner.
3. He was famous for thinking outside the box
One of the most famous tales of Alexander the Great is his overcoming the Gordian Knot. The Gordian Knot is a term that still exists today to describe a puzzle that is so complex it’s impossible to untangle.
Legend has it the name of the knot comes from Gordium, in what is now Turkey. There was a literal knot tied in a rope, attached to a wagon at the entrance to the city. It had been there for ages and no one had ever been able to untie it. The legend said that should any man ever figure out how to unravel it, they would become the ruler of all of Asia. Consider it like a slightly less popular version of The Sword in the Stone.
Upon arriving in Gordium, Alexander saw the knot and gave it a try. No magical powers intervened to allow him to untie this knot, which had been pulled so tight that no one could hope to undo it. Alexander failed like everyone else had. Perhaps demonstrating how it was that he became so successful at all of his campaigns, he didn’t let one unsuccessful attempt stop him. Instead, he pulled out his sword and cut the knot in two, solving the problem and showing that there’s more than one way to reach your goals.
2. He was preserved in honey
Modern-day funeral rituals are fairly limited. You can have your loved ones buried, cremated, and if you’re really feeling exotic there are ways that you can melt down and liquefy a body. Things were a little different back in the day. For instance, Alexander the Great ended up being preserved in honey.
Though he was interred in a sarcophagus, it was filled with honey as a method of preserving his body after death. Honey has antibacterial properties of a high acid content, which is believed to make it an acceptable medium for preservation and mummification. Obviously, not a lot of people research that, but it was a not uncommon belief at the time.
Interestingly enough, bodies that have been subjected to this practice in the past have been discovered by archaeologists and, while the honey is missing, there’s been a lot of pollen and bee legs stuck to them.
1. He founded around 20 cities
When he wasn’t busy drinking or murdering close friends, Alexander the Great was busy conquering. Far and wide he took over cities and made them his own. For better or worse he laid the foundation for what was essentially a new world, and what gave us the world we have today. The result of which was dozens upon dozens of cities named in his honor.
Before he died, Alexander had founded no less than 20 cities, and many others have been named for him since. The most notable city he set up was Alexandria in Egypt. Others include various cities in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Lebanon, Iraq, Turkey, and more. There’s even a city in Pakistan named after his horse, Bucephalus.