How Alexander the Great really built his empire

The stories of antiquity are filled with great generals. Pericles, Pyrrhus of Epirus, Hannibal Barca, Scipio Africanus, Pompey Magnus, Julius Caesar — all leaders of men whose names inspired fear and respect across the known world. But of all the great heroes of the classical period, none conquered as much or as quickly as Alexander the Great.

Alexander III was born in 356 BCE, a prince from the Hellenized Kingdom of Macedonia. He was tutored by Aristotle and renowned for his bravery and strength. According to lore, he mounted a wild stallion at the tender age of 12, an act his statesmen took as a sign that he was destined for greatness. Seems as good a way as any to identify talent. Maybe recommend it to your boss at the next morning rundown.

Alexander ascended suddenly to the Macedonian throne after his father, Philip II, was assassinated by a trusted bodyguard, Pausanias. Only 20 at the time, Alexander acted quickly to kill all his rivals for the throne, including his father's duplicitous guard. With his house in order, Alexander moved to quell budding unrest in northern Greece both to consolidate his kingdom and to send a message to any aspiring aggressors: Macedonia was under Alexander's control.

A 13-year campaign

Not all of the Greek world got the memo. Demosthenes of Athens saw opportunity in Philip II's death. He wanted to push for Athenian control of the Corinthian League, even though the King of Macedonia had traditional feudal stewardship over the Greek political alliance. Soon after Demosthenes began his push for Athenian supremacy, Thebes forced out its Macedonian garrison, further inflaming tensions on the peninsula. Alexander wasn't having any of it. He had just finished putting down his rivals in the north. Understandably, the behavior of Athens and Thebes had him pretty pissed off. He soon began a brutal campaign across Greece that wouldn't conclude until Alexander the Great of Macedonia controlled the largest empire in the world.

Alexander's march to supremacy led his army through the Balkans, across northern Africa, and deep into Asia minor, including parts of Syria and Persia. His unchallenged military might even threatened two ascendant powers of the time: Rome and Carthage. At its peak, Alexander's empire covered 3,000 miles. Even more impressive, he amassed these conquests in a mere 13 years. That's right, by 33 Alexander was the unquestioned authority in the classical world. What have you done lately?

Don't mess with the phalanx

So how did he do it? How did a young man with no specific experience at warcraft manage to storm the mediterannean with such incredible speed? The answer apparently lies in the Macedonian phalanx. The phalanx was a military formation designed by Philip II and perfected in the field by Alexander the Great. A phalanx describes a densely packed group of pikemen organized into 8 rows, each 16 men deep. The soldiers at the front of the formation were physically held in place by the pressure of the ranks behind them. When one man fell, the next in line could seamlessly take his place. A well-trained phalanx was like a mobile fortress, able to topple hoplite infantry and even mounted cavalry without sustaining significant casualties.

The Macedonian phalanx would be the gold standard of military formations for the next 300 years, until it was eventually toppled by the Roman legion.