Alexander the Great and The Business of War – Part 2


“As Persepolis had exceeded all other cities in prosperity, so in the same measure it now exceeded all others in misery.”

Miseries along with poverty, for the people were raped of their land and their self. However, with such great turmoil came lasting hope that those affected would be redeemed. If Alexander felt that unity was close, the inhabitants of the Iranian plateau would not forget the sacking of Persepolis among other distasteful actions before and after.

Famous Alexander Mosaic, showing Battle of Issus. Alexander is depicted mounted, on the left

Famous Alexander Mosaic, showing Battle of Issus. Alexander is depicted mounted, on the left (Public Domain)

[Read Part I]

However, much in the accounts of the sacking and destruction of Persepolis by Alexander may be an exaggeration, but then again, much of it could very well be true, as this was a war of revenge to some extent, due to the Persians supposedly burning down Greek temples during the Greco-Persian War.

Sacrifices to the Gods and Cultural Unity

I only say ‘supposedly’ because the Persians were very respectful of other cultures’ religions. Xerxes himself during the Greco-Persian War was accompanied by not only Magi but also by Greek diviners and specialists. Xerxes even sacrificed a thousand bulls at Ilion to the goddess Athena, and speaking of Athena, he ordered the Greek exiles to make a sacrifice to Athena at the Acropolis. However, this could have been due to Xerxes making alms to his own gods as well as theirs as a sign of respect and sorrow for the burning of the Acropolis—but this still does not answer whether the burning did or did not happen.

A map showing the Greek world at the time of the invasion

A map showing the Greek world at the time of the invasion (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Now, this is just a small showing of Xerxes’ respect towards other cultural beliefs. But it should not go unnoticed, for it does provide a glimpse into events in Greece during the war. The Persian invasion did leave death, destruction, and looting for that is obvious with all nations in war, but one has to be careful suggesting that it was Xerxes’ intent to take direct aim at holy temples with the few sources provided without considering the nature of the Persian respect toward other gods as demonstrated by Xerxes. On the other hand, we have Alexander who invaded under the pretense of a just cause or just war to avenge the Greeks for Persian wrongs. However, if your intention is to invade and conquer, to bring about social harmony through cultural unity, burning down the Persian house is not a great start towards promoting peace.

Persepolis. Limestone. Reign of Xerxes, 486-465 BC

Persepolis. Limestone. Reign of Xerxes, 486-465 BC (CC BY-SA 2.0)

This harmony never materialized, not even during the Seleucid Empire, which controlled most of the former lands of the Persian Empire. Even with many Greek colonists settling in the former lands of the once mighty Achaemenid Empire, they never truly penetrated or absolutely influenced the indigenous peoples of the Iranian plateau with their Hellenistic culture. In time, the Greek settlements looked like mere islands spread out to far from one another to make a true cultural impact in the regions they settled. Many of the tribal societies in Iran and further to the east held on to their traditional ways, and looked at the Greeks settling in their areas as unwanted guests or in the modern sense, illegal aliens.

This demonstrates that Alexander the Greats grand strategy of united racial harmony through Hellenism was not even in the best interest of his successor to his eastern lands, Seleucus, or with the Greeks settling within the eastern lands. Because of this alienation imposed upon the indigenous people on the Iranian plateau, rebellion would soon rise out of this and attack the very masters who preached harmony.

Alexander the Not-So-Great?

The notion of Alexander being Μέγας “Great” is indeed a mistake written by those who romanticized the idea later on, which in turn created an argument based on western ethnocentrism that continues. If there is anything great that can be said about Alexander it surely was not his foreign or domestic policy, but rather his ability to innovate on the battlefield, which was in itself, was a marvel. However, a question remains, why did invade Persia?

Herma of Alexander (Roman copy of a 330 BC statue by Lysippus). According to Diodorus, the Alexander sculptures by Lysippus were the most faithful to his true appearance.

Herma of Alexander (Roman copy of a 330 BC statue by Lysippus). According to Diodorus, the Alexander sculptures by Lysippus were the most faithful to his true appearance. (CC BY-SA 3.0)

A Lucrative Adventure

So why did Alexander invade the Persian Empire? If you said it was in revenge against the Persians, you are right. But there is another reason— and that was money. Alexander invaded Persia not only to get some payback, but also he needed the money and Persia had vast amounts of wealth that could whet his appetite and pay for the armies and debts.

Entry of Alexander into Babylon

Entry of Alexander into Babylon (Public Domain)

The looting began once he was on the move. At Babylon, the amount Alexander confiscated is unknown. But given that it was Babylon, one can assume the amount plundered was indeed great. When he took Susa, he acquired 50,000 talents; Persepolis 120,000; Pasargadae 6,000; Ecbatana 26,000. From these cities alone, 202,000 talents (excluding Babylonia) of gold and silver were now in his hands. From the amount of money taken, Alexander handed out bonuses to his men totaling 12,000 talents, with another 2,000 going to Thessalain soldiers. Moreover, many of Alexander’s men, and including Alexander himself, likely came across gold and silver coins that the Persians had looted from the Greek treasuries during the Greco-Persian Wars. Understand that the amount of money mentioned only pertains to the area of western Iran and a portion of Mesopotamia. Moreover, consider the amount of wealth his soldiers looted during the campaign as many lose coins would have been everywhere. When considering the reminder of his conquests, Alexander may have looted 400,000 talents before he died.


250,000 Talents – looted from Persia

400,000 Talents – total loot during Alexander’s career

A rough valuation of the Talents plundered in dollars:

Persia – $7,000,000,000,000, or $7 trillion

Grand total, including Persia – $11 trillion

When considering the amount taken by his men, the number only increases.

Head of helmeted Athena right. Obverse of a gold stater minted in Babylon during the reign of Philip III or Philip IV of Macedon.

Head of helmeted Athena right. Obverse of a gold stater minted in Babylon during the reign of Philip III or Philip IV of Macedon. (CC BY 2.5)

The Truth Comes Out

The Roman historian Arrian tells us that Alexander set out to conquer Persia as an act of revenge for past wrongs. Alexander addresses this in his letter to Darius stating, “Your ancestors came into Macedonia and the rest of Greece and treated us ill, without any previous injury from us. I, having been appointed commander and chief of the Greek, and wishing to take revenge on the Persians, crossed over into Asia, hostilities being begun by you.” But was it really all about revenge or was there something more to it— is it possible that Alexander needed money?

Most books discussing Alexander’s invasion of Persia tell of revenge as the motivator, of course, due to the Greco-Persian Wars of the past. But it is rather odd that Alexander would all of a sudden decide to mount his horse and lead his army into the lands of Persia even though the war had been over for more than one hundred years.

However, Arrian provides another passage. Alexander gave a speech at Opis 324 BCE when his men mutinied for a second time, the first being at Hyphasis River a few years back. Arrian provides an interesting statement as to why Alexander declared war on Persia: “I inherited from my father a few gold and silver cups, and less than 60 talents in the treasury; Philip had debts amounting to 500 talents, and I raised a loan of a further 800.”

[Top] Gold vessels, Achaemenid; 5th century BC (CC BY 2.0) [Bottom] and with twelve-petaled rosettes - Achaemenid gold, Persepolis, 550-330 BC

[Top] Gold vessels, Achaemenid; 5th century BC (CC BY 2.0) [Bottom] and with twelve-petaled rosettes – Achaemenid gold, Persepolis, 550-330 BC (Public Domain)

Alexander’s father Philip had already set his eyes on Persia and was preparing an invasion force but was assassinated before he could carry out his objective. With his death, Alexander was left with a semi-professional army. They were a paid fighting force paid directly by the king himself.

In order for Alexander to pay for this army if he wished to keep it, either he has to disband a portion to save money, which was unacceptable, or go on the march to save his kingdom. It would seem he had little choice but to save his kingdom and pay the bills by conquering and confiscating from other lands – Persia.

Death of a Man, Death of an Era

It seems reasonable to assume that Alexander used Persia in order to pay for the troops his father left behind. One might think this would be ludicrous but why would it? Alexander was given a well-trained and organized fighting force. His youth may have also played a part, as history has often been written by young people willing to take on a challenge or great risk, since the life expectancy during this period was short. Because of this, Alexander felt that Persia was a grand prize if he could take it. Once he took the Persian Empire, the cold, hard reality soon set in and the new problem was then how to deal with two cultures.

Alexander the Great and physician Philip of Acarnania.

Alexander the Great and physician Philip of Acarnania. (Public Domain)

How unified were the two cultures after the fall of Persia? In a sense, it makes relatively no sense to say “two cultures.” However, for clarity, we shall keep it as two cultures. It was really one culture (Hellenism) versus a smorgasbord of various Oriental cultures.

Those living on the Iranian Plateau did seem to be, for the most part, followers of the Zoroastrian religion, but religion does not indicate ethnic or tribal affiliations and allegiances. Instead, the various tribes that dotted the landscape had many different customs and practices that came with diverse languages. This division of cultures was, in and of itself, a huge obstacle for the Greco-Macedonians. Hellenism would take root and thrive much more in western Asia; whereas, in the east it had little effect. It was present, but not always noticeable. This does not mean that Hellenism in Iran was not present, nor hadn’t an effect on the local population, but rather that it was established, yet minuscule, like the military force assigned to protect the vital trade arteries of the eastern empire.

The unity quickly ended with Alexander’s death. It looked hypocritical of Alexander to promote unity in life, when on death his men asked, “To whom do you leave the kingdom?” and he replied: “To the strongest.” This would not be the case, however. Seleucus and those who ruled after were never able to establish a loyal political base of influential proportions, nor were they capable of centralizing the entire empire effectively, at least not in the east. Furthermore, they never truly penetrated or influenced the indigenous peoples on the Iranian plateau with their Hellenistic culture.

Dr. Richard Frye says, “The Seleucids controlled the main trade routes in Iran but little else.” This may indicate that Alexander controlled not much more after proclaiming the land as his and moving on.

Alexander’s dream became a reality that ultimately overtook him in death. Before Alexander died, he was approached concerning who the successor would be. Alexander replied, “To the best man; for I foresee that a great combat of my friends will be my funeral games.” His statement concerning that his empire went to the “best man” suggests that even he had no confidence in any of his men and why not. Alexander saw himself to be a god; What mortal among them could be his equal? He knew that none of his men could do what he did and that is why he foresaw conflict.

The empire Alexander left was too complex to be governed by one man. Had he lived to be very old his empire may have stayed intact, but this is conjecture. He took on the customs of those he conquered to show love and appreciation for all things eastern but in reality, it was just a political maneuver. Once Alexander died, his Macedonian men divorced their Iranian wives; Cassander, the son of Antipater the general, who supported both Philip and Alexander, murdered Alexander’s widow Roxanna and son Alexander around 310 BCE; and all of the Iranian satraps were removed from power. The Macedonians wanted only revenge and nothing to do with anything eastern, for it was barbaric. However, this did not help, for even the Macedonians fought amongst themselves over the glory and riches Alexander provided as they did at Persepolis in 330 BCE.

Top Image: Detail of the Alexander Sarcophagus located in the Istanbul Archaeology Museum. (CC BY-SA 2.5) Gold coins (Public Domain), Deriv.

By Cam Rea


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Bourne, Randolph. War and the Intellectuals: Collected Essays, 1915-1919. New York: Harper & Row, 1964.

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Ulvog, Jim. “Guess on the Value of All Loot Taken by Alexander the Great.” July 15, 2016. Accessed January 3, 2017.

Yarshater, Ehsan. “Iranian National History.” In The Cambridge History of Iran, Vol. 3 (1): The Selecuid, Parthian and Sasanian Periods, by Ehsan Yarshater, 359-477. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1983.

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