One of the greatest conquerors and military leaders the world has ever known was born in Pella, the capital of Macedon. His father was the king of Macedon, Philip II, and he himself was Alexander the Great. The genealogies of his parents were not merely royal – Philip claimed descent from Heracles, while his mother, Olympias, claimed descent from Achilles – and Alexander’s second cousin was the noted general Pyrrhus of Epirus.
He was raised as a noble’s son, and taught the arts of his class and sex – which naturally included warfare. From the ages of 13 to 16, he was tutored by the philosopher Aristotle, after which he served as his father’s regent while his father was absent pursuing military conquests. After Philip’s death and Alexander’s own accession to the throne of Macedon at the age of 20, Alexander began what would become one of the greatest conquests the world had ever seen.
In the first of three major engagements during his Persian campaign, Alexander the Great and his forces defeated a numerically superior foe. The Persian forces were bolstered by the presence of Greek mercenaries, but hampered by their command structure, which consisted of feuding satraps – the Persian emperor Darius did not fight in this battle.
The battle took place on the road from Abydos to Dascylium (near modern day Ergili, Turkey), at the crossing of the Granicus River (modern day Biga Çay?) – near the site believed to have once been Troy. It was a near thing for Alexander, because the Persians had orders to specifically target him, their leaders having reasoned that Alexander’s forces would fall apart without his leadership.
In the short, glorious history of Alexander the Great’s empire-building, this victory was probably the most significant. The battle is variously known as either Arbela or Gaugamela, by either way, it was the decisive encounter of Alexander’s Persian campaign. On a battlefield that he chose, the numerically superior forces of Darius III’s Achaemenids were mowed down without mercy by the Macedonians and their allies.
Despite being outnumbered two to one, Alexander’s forces inflicted massive casualties – possibly as many as 90,000 Persians were killed – while losing less than 10% of their own number that day. Although Darius escaped, his defeat here ceded half of his territory to Alexander, and left the remainder in disarray. Darius would die in a subsequent battle the following year, disappointing Alexander who had wished to take him alive.
The reason for Alexander’s untimely end – he was one month short of his 33rd birthday – is unknown. The three leading theories are poisoning, a relapse of malaria or some sort of illness brought on by feasting on May 29. Alexander took ill right after that feast, and never left his bed again afterwards. He died on either the 10th or 11th or June.
Alexander’s death was also the death knell of his empire. Over the next five decades, the empire would fall into civil war, and by 270 BCE it would have devolved into three successor states, the Antigonid Empire in Greece; the Ptolemaic Kingdom in Egypt, Palestine and Cyrenaica; and the Seleucid Empire in Mesopotamia and Persia. The former two would be wholly absorbed by Roman expansion over the next three centuries, along with the western half of the territory of the Seleucid Empire.
Not many people in the world would be crazy enough or determined enough to invade the Italian peninsula by traveling over the Alps from what is now France. They certainly wouldn’t do it with an army traveling variously on foot, on horseback or on elephant-back. But the Carthaginian general Hannibal was that crazy, that determined – and that brilliant. Known as “the father of strategy”, Hannibal wasn’t just one of the greatest military tacticians of his age, he was one of the greatest of all time.
No one in Rome thought he’d be able to muster much of a force, having traveled overland fighting the Roman rearguard all the way from Spain. Hannibal led a force of 38,000 infantry, 8,000 cavalry, and 37 war elephants to the foot of the Alps, and crossed them with a massive loss of life, including almost all of the elephants. But the losses were not as high as his enemies had assumed they’d be. 20,000 infantry and 4000 cavalry survived, and the subsequent invasion of Italy was a bloodbath for the Romans.
The self-proclaimed First Emperor of China, Qin Shi Huang is one of the most important figures in Chinese history. Under his leadership, massive reforms to the legal and economic systems took place – and, not incidentally, numerous scholars and writers were outlawed or executed, and their books burned. He also decreed vast infrastructure projects, including a massive program of road-building, and the creation of the Great Wall of China.
Huang was not responsible for the entire wall, but rather, for the construction of links between pre-existing sections and extending the ends of the them. The project was a long one, and would be completed for centuries, but it sure kept thousands of peasants to busy to rebel for generations at a time, and may have even served some defensive purpose (which is usually considered to be the reason for its construction).
In the final engagement of the Punic Wars, the Roman forces brought to war to the very doorstep of Carthage. From 149 BCE until the spring of 146 BCE, they laid siege to the city itself, which is located near the site of modern Tunis. The Romans could probably have won sooner, but incompetent commanders hamstrung their efforts. By the time they finally breached the walls and poured into the city, the Carthaginians had turned every building into a fortress, and armed every citizen.
However, the battle was never seriously in doubt. Although both sides suffered terrible losses, a Roman victory was inevitable once the city itself was invaded. The fall of Carthage represented the demise of the last organised opposition to Roman expansion in the Mediterranean, as the Carthaginians were their major rivals in the early days of Roman civilisation.
Although it is commonly taught that the Romans plowed Carthage under and sowed salt in the new fields, this claim does not appear in any contemporary sources, and appears to be an invention of nineteenth century historians.
“Crossing the Rubicon” is now an expression for passing the point of no return: this is the original incident from which it derives. In 49 BCE, Gaius Julius, at that time just a general and not yet Caesar, led his army across the Rubicon river, which marked the border of Rome: to cross it marked him as a treasonous leader of a revolt against the Roman state. Famously, he is said to have quoted the Greek playwright Menander, saying “alea iacta est” – “the die is cast.”
Julius would be successful in his quest for the leadership of Rome and its empire (much of which, particularly Gaul, added by his own military genius): which is why history knows him best as Julius Caesar.
To the modern mind, the word Dictator has all sorts of unpleasant associations, and it’s true that most of the ones you’re likely thinking of right now also applied to the rule of Gaius Julius Caesar over Rome and its empire. But that’s not to say that he didn’t achieve good things as well. His rewriting of the Roman constitution created a more unified empire and suppressed revolts in the provinces. On the other hand, it also decreased the power of most Roman institutions while increasing that of the dictator, creating an inherently unstable system – at least, when the dictator was himself unstable, as several of Julius’ successors were (like Nero or Caligula).
The ancient feast of the god Lupercus, Lupercalia was an annual three day festival that ran from February 13 – 15 each year. It was intended to avert evil spirits and purify the city, releasing health and fertility. It is the ancient predecessor of the Christian festival of St Valentine, which is now better known as the more secular Valentine’s Day.
According to Shakespeare, when Julius Caesar attended this particular one, he was offered the crown of a monarch three times and refused it on each of those times. Nonetheless, the reason why he was stabbed to death a month later was apparently his limitless ambition.
Shakespeare’s verion might be better known, but the best historical account of the death of Big Julie was written by imperial biographer (and obsequious toady) Seutonius. It is from Suetonius that we have Caesar’s famous last words (asking Brutus ‘even you, my child?’, which Shakespeare rendered as ‘et tu, Brute?’) – although curiously, Seutonius himself reports those words as claimed by others, and for himself believes that Caesar said nothing.
This is somewhat hard to believe, given that Seutonius also recounts that Caesar was attacked by 60 or more men, and received a total of 23 stab wounds from his assailants – it appears that the proximate cause of death was loss of blood. (Fun fact: Caesar’s autopsy report is the earliest one to have survived to the present day.) In a larger sense, the cause of the death of Gaius Julius Caesar was political ambition – his own, and that of others.
Cleopatra VII, reputedly one of the most beautiful women ever to have lived, was the eleventh and last Ptolemy ruler of Egypt. A cunning politician who had co-ruled with her brothers Ptolemy XIII and XIV until the friction grew to the point where she was deposed and exiled.
She returned to Egypt and reclaimed the throne with the aid of Julius Caesar, with whom she had a son. After the death of Caesar, she manipulated his successors, Octavian and Marc Antony. When the tensions between the two Romans erupted into civil war, she threw in with Antony – who lost the war. Finally, in August 30 BCE, as Octavian invaded Egypt and Antony’s troops defected to the winning side, she and Antony each committed suicide – legend has it that Cleopatra provoked an asp (a poisonous snake native to Egypt) into fatally biting her.
The nephew and chosen heir of Gaius Julius, Caesar before him, Augustus was the first Emperor of Rome and the architect of the Empire. His accession was not a simple one, though – it’s worth noting that it took 17 years from the death of the divine Julius for him to ascend to the throne in his own right.
He first formed a triumvirate with Mark Antony and Marcus Lepidus, but it was never a smoothly running system. Before long, war broke out between the three, with Lupidus and Antony battling Octavian (as Augustus was then known). Unfortunately for them, Octavian was better general than either of them, which is why he wound up being Emperor Augustus and they wound up being dead.