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Alexander Reaches His Limits by Arrian

by Jim Jones, West Chester University of Pennsylvania (c.2013)
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Flavius Arrianus (90-160 CE) was a Roman citizen and member of a Greek noble family resident in Nicomedia (modern Turkey). He was a friend of Emperor Hadrian who appointed him governor of Cappadocia (northeastern interior of the modern country of Turkey), a border province which he successfully defended against barbarian invaders. He wrote a history of Alexander of Macedonia, one of the most successful conquerers in history. This reading describes the arguments employed by Alexander and his generals as they debated whether to continue their conquest beyond the Indus River. Besides describing further opportunities, Alexander listed everything they had already conquered, including all of the Persian empire.



Someone once defined an empire by saying "A king rules his people; an emperor rules his peoples." This is a good way to understand the kind of political unit that the Persians created, and which inspired imitators for centuries to come. It also suggests the second challenge faced by an empire -- how to administer an empire after conquering one. Kings lead people who are all connected to each other in some way, so kings can rely on their loyalty to family and ancestors, as well as a common language and system of beliefs, to obtain obedience. Emperors enjoy those advantages with their own people, but they have to find ways to obtain loyyalty and obedience from conquered peoples who once had their own kings.

As we have already learned, the Persian Empire started to form around 550 BCE when a group of nomadic pastoralists, led by Cyrus, defeated their neighbors. The Persian Empire grew quickly and much larger than earlier states like those in the Nile Valley and Mesopotamia, and eventually conquered Greek colonies along the Mediterranean Coast. The Greeks fought back, the Persians invaded, and Greek society was transformed as a result. Greek records portray the Persians as an "evil empire," and Greek leaders used the threat of a Persian invasion to justify military alliances, taxation, and other actions.

That continued until 339 BCE, when Philip of Macedonia assembled an army that invaded the Greek city-states from the north and conquered them all. Citing the threat of a new Persian invasion (even though more than 140 years had passed since the last one), Philip organized the Greeks into a new defensive "league," but unlike the Delian League, Philip's league openly had a single leader -- him. After Philip was assassinated in 336 BCE, his son Alexander took over and continued the military campaign, conquering everything from Greece to as far east as India. In the process, Alexander's forces conquered the entire Persian Empire by 326 BCE.

Macedonian landscape
Macedonian landscape
Map showing the limits of the
empire created by Alexander of Macedonia
The Empire of Alexander "the Great" of Macedonia

Alexander died suddenly in 323 BCE, before he could make arrangements to transfer power to a successor. His death started forty-three years of civil war between armies led by his generals, and by the time the fighting ended, the Macedonian empire was divided into smaller empires led by descendants of four generals. Ptolemy and his heirs ruled over Egypt, Palestine and Phoenicia; Seleucus controlled Persia, Syria and Mesopotamia; Lysimachus got control over Anatolia (Asia Minor) and Cassander headed the dynasty that ruled Macedonia itself. Despite fighting among themselves, the four empires of the Hellenistic Greek world survived until the Romans conquered them all between 146-30 BCE.

As a consequence of the Macedonian conquests, the Hellenistic Greeks completed the mixing of Eastern and Mediterranean ideas by spreading Greek culture, especially architecture and language, throughout the Persian Empire as far east as India. The conquest of the east also advanced the Greek study of the physical world through science and philosophy. Politically, the victory over the Persians ended the expansion of empires from the inter-communicating zone to the west. Instead, new centers of power developed in the Mediterranean region that eventually rivalled the eastern centers. The Hellenistic Greek period ended when the Macedonians were conquered by the Romans in 148 BCE.


  1. How did Alexander treat conquered territory?
  2. What arguments did Alexander make for continuing the campaign of conquest?
  3. What arguments did Coneus make for ending the campaign of conquest?
  4. Why was Arrian interested in this subject? What would his friend Hadrian have concluded from this reading?
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