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Alexander the Great

Alexander the Great conquered vast territories in the fourth century BCE, ushering in the Hellenistic Era to Eurasia.

Alexander Mosaic, ca. 100 BCE, House of the Faun, Pompeii. Original photograph by Berthold Werner, Naples National Archaeological Museum. Cropped.

Charismatic and commanding, Alexander the Great (356–323 BCE) became the stuff of legend by conquering vast swaths of the eastern Mediterranean and ancient Near East. During his brief lifetime he forever transformed Eurasia and left a lasting imprint on world history. While legends about Alexander the Great have abounded since antiquity, information from archaeological discoveries and ancient historiographies have allowed modern scholars to reconstruct a basic account of his life and activities.

Who Was Alexander the Great?

Alexander was a military leader from Macedonia, a kingdom to the north of Greece. His father, Philip II (359–336 BCE), had become the sole ruler of Macedonia and Greece by subduing the neighboring city-states. Alexander grew up in the Macedonian royal court and received the finest education. He was tutored by the famed Aristotle and had physical training befitting a warrior king’s son. After Philip’s assassination by a rival, Alexander was ready to claim the throne. He was only twenty.

Alexander fulfilled his father’s military ambition by leading his army across the Hellespont (the narrow passage between the Aegean Sea and the Sea of Marmara). This army was unprecedented, with 43,000 infantry and 5,500 cavalry. Alexander then far surpassed his father’s vision by launching a succession of triumphant military battles. He began with the Persian Empire of western Asia, first defeating Persian troops at Granicus in 334, then emerging victorious over King Darius III’s army at Issus in 333. His troops then plunged down the coast of the Levant and headed west toward Egypt. There, Alexander was acclaimed as a god, and the city he established, Alexandria, would become a power center for centuries. From Egypt, the troops stormed northeast into Central Asia. By 331, Alexander had destroyed the Persian capital Persepolis. Pressing ever eastward with his troops, Alexander reached as far as the Indus Valley. At that point, his army finally insisted they would go no further. Alexander turned back. On the way home, he succumbed to illness and died at the age of thirty-two.

In the span of ten years, Alexander had conquered an area home to the modern nations of Turkey, Syria, Lebanon, Israel, Jordan, Egypt, Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, and Pakistan. This was an astounding achievement. In the aftermath of his death, a power vacuum arose among his generals. Eventually two generals, Ptolemy based in Egypt and Seleucus in Antioch established their regional preeminence. The hegemonic influence of Hellenistic politics and culture would endure until the rise of the Roman Empire.

What is the significance of Alexander the Great for the Bible?

Alexander is not mentioned by name in the Hebrew Bible. The book of Daniel, however, refers to him in coded language. According to scholars, Alexander is the founder of the fourth empire that appears in the dream-vision of Nebuchadnezzar mentioned in Dan 2:40–43. In Dan 8:5–8, 21–22, he is represented as a large horn on a he-goat, and in Dan 11:2–4, he is described as a “warrior king.”

These references may be brief, but Alexander’s impact on subsequent biblical literature was substantial. A chief legacy of Alexander’s military conquest was the introduction of Greek political and cultural institutions. The Greeks founded cities throughout the region. They built temples devoted to Greek gods, theaters for the performance of classical plays, and gymnasia for physical fitness and social gathering. As a result, Greek became the common language of the eastern Mediterranean. Egyptian Jews who no longer understood Hebrew translated their scriptures into Greek. This translation, called the Septuagint, was used by Greek-speaking Jews throughout the ancient Near East, including Paul and other authors of New Testament books.

Many of the Apocrypha/Deuterocanonical books were also composed in Greek and reflect the influence of Greek philosophy, cultural mores, and literary genres. Wisdom of Solomon adopted the Greek genre of “protreptic discourse,” which argues for the superiority of a particular philosophy or way of life, in this case, Judaism. Ben Sira (Sirach), originally composed in Hebrew, was translated by the author’s grandson into Greek so that the Jews of Egypt could understand it. First Maccabees 1:1 even begins with a reference to Alexander’s victory over Darius the Persian in order to set the stage for the Seleucid Greek Antiochus IV Epiphanes’s second century campaign into Palestine. Antiochus’s imposition of Greek religious practices on Jerusalem would lead to the Maccabean resistance and the rejection of Greek culture by the city’s people. Alexander’s legacy was thus broad and long-lasting, far beyond his short lifetime.

Image Credit: Alexander Mosaic, ca. 100 BCE, House of the Faun, Pompeii. Original photograph by Berthold Werner, Naples National Archaeological Museum. Cropped.

  • Judith H. Newman

    Judith H. Newman is associate professor of Hebrew Bible and early Judaism at Emmanuel College and in the Department for the Study of Religion at the University of Toronto. Her research interests include the ritual performance of texts, formation of scripture, and early biblical interpretation. She is the author of Praying by the Book: The Scripturalization of Prayer in Second Temple Judaism (Scholars Press, 1999) and Early Jewish Prayers in Greek, co-authored with Pieter van der Horst (de Gruyter, 2008).