Alexander the Great was one of the most influential people of all time. Conquering the Achaemenid empire with his small force of loyal Macedonians made him one of the best generals of all time.
While it is widely known that after conquering the Persian empire Alexander adopted many of the Persian customs the reasons why Alexander adopted these Persian customs are usually less well known.
Alexander adopted Persian customs to gain the support and assistance of the Persian noblemen that he needed to secure his conquests. The process of adopting more and more Persian customs is called Medismos.
Let`s take a closer look.
- 1 Why did Alexander the Great adopt Persian customs?
- 2 Did Alexander the Great adopt the title of Persian king?
- 3 Did Alexander the Great adopt Persians into his army?
- 4 Were there alternatives to adopting Persian customs?
- 5 Sources
Why did Alexander the Great adopt Persian customs?
After conquering the Persian empire and encountering massive resistance in its eastern provinces Alexander realized that he could no longer only rely on the relatively small numbers of his Macedonian army.
Do you wonder how large (or rather how small) Alexander’s invading force really was? You can find the answer here in my article.
Alexander knew that in order to strengthen his rule and his dynasty he would not only have to integrate Persian soldiers into his army but also have to gain the support of the Persian noblemen.
By adopting Persian customs and offering high positions in his army & administration to Persian noblemen Alexander the Great successfully gained the support of his former enemies.
Please check out my article here for more information on what Persian customs Alexander adopted.
But now let`s find out how Alexander concluded that, even though the campaigns between 334 BC and 330 BC had gone really well, he could not only rely on his Macedonian army.
What made it necessary for Alexander to adopt Persian customs?
After Alexander had started his campaign against the Persian empire in the spring of 334 BC he had managed to conquer the Achaemenid (=persian) empire at a rapid paste.
The battles at the Granicos (May of 334 BC), at Issos (November of 333 BC), and the last battle against the Persian king Dareios III at Gaugamela (in Oktober of 331 BC) had put Alexander in a position to declare himself king of Asia.
The problem was that even after the death of Dareios III in July of 330 BC there were still areas of the Achaemenid empire that were fighting against Alexanders` claim for kingship over the Achaemenid empire.
Even after Alexander officially released the troops of his Greek allies in the May of 330 BC at the city of Ecbatana the east of the Persian Empire still had to be taken by force.
Here in the east of the Persian empire, in the provinces of Bactria and Soctria, Alexander had to realize that the war could not be won with brute military strength but with a political solution.
Several warlords, the most important one being Spitamenes (who also claimed to be the rightful king of the Persian empire), caused Alexander massive troubles.
The campaigns from 330-327 BC with the goal to gain control over the east of the Persian empire had been the lossiest jet.
After Alexanders` rival, Spitamenes was assigned by his own men at the beginning of 327 BC Alexander knew that he had to find another, less militaristic way, to gain the support of the Persian noblemen.
How did the adoption of Persian customs help Alexander?
The most important nobleman that Alexander needed to control the east was called Oxyartes, the governor of the provinces Bactria and Soctria.
Oxyartes had been an important general and support to both Dareios III and Spitamenes and had fought against Alexander on multiple occasions. For example at the battle of Gaugamela in October of 331 BC.
And he was exactly the man that Alexander needed to gain the support of other Persian noblemen.
But in order to integrate the proud soctrian governor Alexander had to take unusual measures (that his father had also taken before, more on that here)
Alexander married Roxana, the daughter of Oxyartes, in the spring of 327 BC following Persian marriage customs!
Roxanas` father, Oxyartes, was integrated into the closest circle of Alexanders` advisors while her brothers joined the Hetairoi-cavalry. That was a huge deal since the Hetairoi, the royal companions had previously only been recruited from the noble families of Macedonia!
Do you want to learn more about the Hetairoi, who probably were the first shock-cavalry in history? You can find more information in my article here.
And the integration of Roxanas` brothers into the Hetairoi was only the first step that would open the way for the integration of the Iranian elite cavalry.
While Persians really liked the marriage between Alexander the Great and Roxana the Macedonians, especially the officers and noblemen, were less enthusiastic. A Persian woman as the first wife of the Macedonian king didn`t sit well with them!
The marriage with Roxana, you can find much more information about her and the other Persian women Alexander would eventually marry here in my article, was the climax of an evolution during which Alexander became more Persian.
For more information on what Persian customs, for example, the diadem, Alexander adopted I would like to recommend you my article here.
Alexander adopted Persian customs to gain the support and assistance of the Persian noblemen that he needed in order to secure his conquests.
Apart from marrying Roxana Alexander also tried to merge the Macedonian and the Persian kingship. More on that in the next paragraph.
And in 327 BC Alexander started recruiting Iranians for his infantry. More on that later.
Did Alexander the Great adopt the title of Persian king?
According to legend, Alexander was still standing on the battlefield of Gaugamela when he claimed the Achaemenid throne of the Persian empire for himself.
Alexander did not only adopt Persian customs, he also adopted the Achaemenid (=persian) kingship that he tried to merge with the Macedonian kingship.
It wasn`t until 330 BC when Alexanders’ evolution to adopting more and more Persian customs (the so-called Medismos) became evident.
But that didn`t mean that Alexander left his Macedonian roots. He only added Persian attributes to the Macedonian attributes of a king.
After 330 BC Alexander made it very clear that he saw himself both as the Macedonian king, who based his power on the acceptance of the army, AND the Persian king of kings!
In order to archive that Alexander adopted parts of the Persian kings’ cloth, the Proskynesis, and the diadem. You can find out more about that in my article here. There you can also find out why the misunderstanding over the Proskynesis almost led to disaster for Alexander.
Alexander also kept most of the Persian governors to a. ensure an efficient administration and b. show the continuation of the Persian kingship in his person.
Did Alexander the Great adopt Persians into his army?
In the early summer of 327 BC, Alexander recruited 30.000 Iranians for his army who would be trained in the Macedonian style of war.
Please check out my article here for more information on the different units that made up the army of Alexander the Great and how they interacted during the battles.
By the way, these men were not only recruited to reinforce the Macedonian forces. They were also recruited to serve as hostages and to reduce the potential for rebellions in their home provinces.
Just think about it. You take 30.000 young men away from their homes and send them into another part of the empire where they are constantly surrounded by Macedonians.
First of all. If a rebellion starts at the home of these 30.000 men then these men can not partake.
And the thought that their relatives are surrounded by loyal Macedonians would also stop people from thinking about rebellion because they feared what would happen to their relatives in Alexanders’ army.
By the way, the same strategy was also used by the Romans. But that is a story for another time.
In 324 BC these 30.000 Iranians were integrated into the infantry of Alexander the Great. But not in separated purely Iranian units but mixed ones.
These 30.000 Iranians that had been recruited in 327 BC and had trained in the Macedonian style of warfare were called the Epigonoi (=the descendants).
The declaration of these Iranians as descendants made the Macedonians that had accompanied Alexander from the beginning in 334 BC (there were still 2000 horsemen and 13.000 infantrymen left, 1/3 of them being Macedonians) nervous.
These Macedonian veterans feared that they should be replaced after 10 years of loyal service.
After 324 BC the days of the mostly Macedonian army of Alexander the Great were over. Now the Macedonians only provided around 10% of the total troops that Alexander could use.
By the way, even though the campaign into India had failed Alexander was already planning new adventures for which he needed the new army. If Alexander the Great would not have died at the 10. June 323 BC, the goal of his next military adventure would have been Arabia. But that is a story for another time.
Were there alternatives to adopting Persian customs?
Now after reading all of that you might ask yourself if there were any alternatives to adopting Persian customs. I actually asked myself that question and really thought about it.
Unfortunately, I was not able to find any literature on that so my own thoughts will have to do.
I think that there were no alternatives to adopting Persian customs for Alexander the Great.
Think about it, he had somewhere between 35.000 to 45.000, more on the size of Alexanders’ army here in my article, but had to control an area that stretched from Greece to modern-day Afghanistan&Pakistan.
Do you want to find out more about how far east Alexanders empire reached and if he really reached India? You can find the answers here in my article.
Without the support of the Persian noblemen like Oxyartes and the integration of Iranians into his armies, Alexander the Great would have not been as successful as he was.
Because even though he adopted Persian customs and integrated Persian noblemen into his close circle Alexander still had to deal with rebellions on a regular base.
So in conclusion: Alexander adopted Persian customs to customs to gain the support and the assistance of the Persian noblemen that he needed to secure his conquests.
And that worked until his death. But the lack of an heir and the hunger for power that guided his generals would lead to the end of Alexanders’ empire and the war of the Diadochi. But these Wars of the Diadochi are a story for another time.
I hope you enjoyed our trip into the world of Alexander the Great.
Take care of yourself because you deserve it. You really do.
Until next time
S. English: Army of Alexander the Great (2009).
L. Burckhardt: Militärgeschichte der Antike (München 2008).