The Reason Alexander the Great Never Conquered Arabia

Alexander the Great created an enormous empire that stretched from Greece all the way to modern-day Pakistan and Afghanistan and from Thrace to Egypt. But why did Alexander the Great not conquer Arabia? Afterall, the extremely profitable spice trade from India was running through Arabia, making the Arabian Peninsula an interesting target…

Alexander the Great had already started to prepare for an invasion of Arabia in 324 BC. New armies had been raised and trained in desert warfare and in May of 323 BC, everything was ready for the conquest of the Arabian Peninsula. But right before Alexander the Great left Babylon for his conquest of Arabia he caught a fever and died on 10 June 323 BC. So only the death of Alexander the Great prevented the conquest of Arabia.

After the death of Alexander and the lack of an heir his generals were no longer interested in expanding the empire but would soon start to fight for control over the empire of Alexander the Great.

Let`s take a closer look.

324/323 BC: Alexander the Great returns to Babylon

In 326 BC, the exhausted army of Alexander the Great mutinied at the Hyphasis river (today`s Beas river in north India) and refused to march further east into India. Alexander was forced to turn around so that the Hyphasis river in north India marks the eastmost extent of Alexander`s conquests.

During its march west, the army was split. One part took the easy route through Carmania while the other part, under the command of Alexander himself, crossed the Gedrosian desert (where, according to Plutarch, Alexander lost three-quarters of his army to the harsh desert conditions). Eventually, the survivors made it to Susa in 324 BC from where Alexander then continued on to Babylon.

While Alexander had crossed the border into modern-day India, he hadn`t conquered it yet. But it seems like due to the distance and the bad experience he had had at the Hyphasis river Alexander did no longer plan on returning to India.

Instead of returning to the East and trying to conquer the rest of India, Alexander decided to turn west for his future conquests since that was much closer afterall.

And the first of his targets was the Arabian Peninsula.

Why did Alexander the Great want to conquer the Arabian Peninsula?

Now one might ask why Alexander would first attack the Arabian Peninsula when there were supposedly more valuable targets like Italy and Rome not that much further away.

Well, there are two reasons.

The spice trade that brought spices like pepper from India into the Mediterranean ran through the Persian Gulf and the Arabian Peninsula. By conquering Arabia, Alexander hoped to redirect the spice trade onto the Nile river and through Alexandria (which would have made him a lot of money). The other reason was Arabian bedouins who regularly invaded the lands between Euphrates and Tigris (modern-day Iraq). By conquering the Arabian Peninsula, Alexander hoped to secure the heartlands of his empire from the raids of Arabian bedouins, an important duty of every ruler of Mesopotamia.

So let`s now look at what Alexander the Great did in preparation for his invasion of Arabia before we turn to why the invasion never happened.

Alexander the Great and his plan to conquer the Arabian Peninsula

While the war against Arabia had already been prepared since 324 BC, Alexander himself put all his efforts into making the last preparations in 323 BC. New troops were raised, trained in desert warfare, and massed at Babylon. Additionally, Alexander had also massed a large fleet close to Babylon at the Euphrates river.

Alexander`s new fleet for the invasion of the Arabian Peninsula

The fleet consisted of the ships of admiral Nearchus as well as of both Phoenician and Cypriot ships. These ships had been taken apart, transported through Syria on land, and then put together and set into the Euphrates river at the city of Tapsacos.

Additionally, colonists from Phoenician and Syrian cities had been recruited since it was said that the inhabitants of these cities were good at maritime trade. They were expected to settle on the coastal areas of the Persian gulf and secure these lands.

Alexander the Great hoped to create a maritime connection between the Persian Gulf and Egypt by colonizing the coastal areas of the Persian Gulf with Syrian and Phoenician colonists.

That would have given Alexander control over the spice trade from India aside from the already mentioned strategic value. By the way, that spice trade intensified over the centuries that followed Alexander`s death. Here you can find out more about what incredible amounts of spices Rome imported from India.

But not only a new fleet was raised. Alexander also initiated one last reform of his army. Here you can find more information about the different units of Alexander the Great`s army?

Spring of 323 BC: Alexander the Great reorganizes his army for one last time

In early 323 BC the satrap Peukestas, the man who had saved Alexander`s life at the siege of Multan in modern-day Pakistan, arrived at Babylon with another 20,000 Persian archers and javelin throwers. These men were recruited to reinforce the army of Alexander the Great.

But unlike in the years before 323 BC, Alexander reorganized his army into mixed Macedonian-Persian units. Alexander the Great reformed the organization and composition of his infantry units for one last time in the spring of 323 BC. From now on forward Macedonians and Persians would fight together in mixed units. Before 323 BC, Alexander the Great had already integrated Persians and especially Iranians into his army. But they had fought in their own purely Persian units next to purely Macedonian units.

The military reforms of 323 BC resulted in the infantry units of Alexander the Great’s army now being mixed. There were Macedonians and Persians in a ratio of 1:3 in the same unit and both were armed and armored in their own ways.


After the army reform of Alexander the Great in the spring of 323 BC all units consisted of both Macedonians and Persians in a ratio of 1:3. A Dekale was now made up of 4 Macedonians (armed with a pike) and 12 Persians (armed with bow and spear). The command over the Dekale was held by a Macedonian. That fulfilled Alexander`s vision of joining the Macedonian people and the Persian people together.

However, it also meant the end of the traditional Macedonian phalanx. Here you can find out more about the advantages and disadvantages of the Macedonian phalanx and how it could be defeated.

Ok, so everything was ready for the conquest of Arabia. But why didn`t it happen?

Why did Alexander the Great not invade the Arabian Peninsula?

At the end of May 323 BC, everything was prepared for Alexander the Great`s conquest of Arabia. Both the fleet as well as the newly organized army that was specially trained for desert warfare had been assembled at Babylon. But right before the fleet and the army could start their march Alexander the Great got sick.

First, he only had a fever that he basically ignored. But the fever got worse and worse until Alexander could barely talk anymore. And on 10 June 323 BC, Alexander the Great died after being unconscious for almost 3 days. And while the cause of his death is unclear (there are 3 theories on what killed Alexander the Great) one thing is sure.

Alexander the Great had not named an heir and the potential heirs that were left behind both had defects that prevented them from truly stepping into Alexander`s enormous footsteps.

As a result the generals of Alexander the Great soon started to bicker and fight over Alexander`s empire. What followed were the Wars of the Diadochi, a period of quickly changing alliances that would eventually reshape the entire eastern part of the Mediterranean, the Middle East, Egypt, and even the Far East.

But that is a story for another time!

So in the end one could say that only the untimely death of Alexander the Great on 10 June 323 BC at the age of only 32 years prevented the conquest of the Arabian Peninsula by Alexander. His successors, his generals and friends, were not interested in expanding the empire but were busy fighting each other for who would control the empire (or at least as much of it as possible).

Take care of yourself because you deserve it. You really do.

Until next time

Yours truly

Luke Reitzer


Peter Green, Eugene N. Borza: Alexander of Macedon, 356–323 B.C.: A Historical Biography (2013).*

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