The World in the 4th Century BC

The beginning is the most important part of the work – Plato, The Republic [1]

How do you sum up over 4,000 years of recorded human history in one short blog post? The answer is, you can’t.

If you think about it this way, you and I are a mere 2,375 years removed from the moment in time when Alexander drew his first breath. For people living in the 4th century BC, they were even more further removed from the past than that. Someone from that time period might be looking at the Pyramids of Giza, which were built around 2500 c. BC, as old crumbling relics of history no different than a local Roman might view The Colosseum today. It’s just always been there for as long as anyone can remember. The history of the world by the time of the Iron Age was vast, complex, and in some cases, already lost. The game board in which history had played out over centuries had already seen its share of blood and decay–but perhaps what we can do is look at the score card of the pieces already positioned, the ones primed for Alexander’s taking. Most of these players should already be well known to you.

Let’s start first with the world of the Greeks, of which Alexander’s home, Macedonia, is a part of. But perhaps not without some contention, which we’ll get into.

Battle of Marathon, Georges Rochegrosse (1859)

Most of the famous history of Ancient Greece had already come to pass. The legends of famous warriors and the tales of the Trojan War are of a time long ago. A hundred years prior, the Greek city states found themselves facing invasion from the Persians led by Darius the Great and then followed by Xerxes I. Many well-known stories came from these events. Athenians and their allies defended Greece in the Battle of Marathon in the first invasion. Spartan King Leonidas I and his army died failing to defend Thermopylae in the second. The wars eventually culminated in a resounding strategic victory for the Greek city-states lead by Themistocles in the Battle of Salamis and then the decimation of the Persian army in Platae by the Greek allied forces. During these wars, Macedon was a vassal kingdom of Persia, having pledged allegiance early on in Darius’ invasions when a general commiserated with the then king of Macedon Amyntas I. Prior to the invasions, according to Herodotus, there was already some sense of xenophobia when it came to recognizing the Macedonians as Greek–one of their athletes was unable to participate in the Olympic Games for this very reason. It wasn’t until the lineage of the Macedonian Kings was traced back to Argos, and thus the demi-god Heracles, were they accepted as one of their own and the athlete could compete in the Olympics. [2] Following Persia’s defeat in the Greco-Persian wars, however, Macedon became an independent kingdom once more.

Prior to the Persians being expelled from Greece, the Delian League had been established by Athens which formed an alliance between city-states in opposition to Persia and their continued incursions on Greek territory. This ended up giving Athens a considerable amount of power when they started collecting tributes and using the funds for their own purposes which prompted outcry from their rival Sparta. Soon the Greek world fell back into war but this time they fought against each other in the Peloponnesian War. Sparta sought assistance from the Persians, bringing them back into the foray. Though some parts of Macedonia were tributaries to the Delian League, the kingdom of Macedon ultimately sided with Sparta and waged war against Athens. After 27 years–a plague in Athens that killed Pericles and a disastrously embarrassing defeat in Sicily by Alcibiades–the war was officially over in 404 BC with the Spartans emerging victorious. [3]

File:Plague in an Ancient City LACMA AC1997.10.1 (1 of 2).jpg

Plague in Athens, Michiel Sweerts (c.1652-c.1654)

The Spartans, however, ruled with an iron and tyrannical fist. Their control was short lived when the Corinthian War broke out in 395 BC and those meddling Persians once again gave their assistance–this time to Athens and its allies. The Spartans were finally crushed by the end of 362 BC during the Theban-Spartan war. Again, the tides of power had shifted to another and the city-state of Thebes became top dog in Greece. [4] Constant years of war and destruction, shifts of hegemony, and broken alliances left the Greek world a smoldering landscape ripe for the taking. The slumbering lion of Macedon was about to emerge with Phillip II leading its charge…

You might be wondering about another spunky, imperial up-start lying in wait across the Ionian Sea. The Romans at this time were still playing as a Republic and were busy conquering their neighbors and expanding their military power. They had yet to even see the start of the famous Punic Wars, beginning in 264 BC, which pitted them against Hannibal and his Alps conquering elephants. That reminds me though, Carthage must be destroyed. [5]

Taking a journey now to the Anatolian peninsula (or modern day Turkey), we quickly see the far reach of the Achaemenid Persian Empire. The Greeks weren’t the only people these conquerors had been antagonizing–by this time in the mid-4th century BC, the Persian Empire had taken control over the entirety of Western Asia. This included Anatolia, the Levant, Mesopotamia, the Sinai Peninsula (though Egypt having recently rebelled, became temporarily free from Persia’s grasp), the Caucasus, and, of course, the Iranian Plateau. Many Kingdoms and Empires had fallen to the Persians–from the Medians (who toppled the Assyrians), to the Phrygians, and the Babylonians. The Achaemenid empire was the largest the world had ever yet seen and set the stage for other expansive empires like the eventual Roman one centuries later. In fact, what many credit as successes for the Roman Empire at the height of its power, were modeled after the Achaemenid Empire’s practices. With many different cultural backgrounds and religious faiths in its borders, the empire incorporated all of them with the freedom to continue practicing but unified under an official language with an intertwining system of road ways and an ancient postal service. It became the template for a successful massive empire and by this time, despite any losses in war or recent rebellions, was still incredibly strong and centralized. Prior to the birth of Alexander, the current king of the Achaemenid Empire was Artaxerxes II–who was involved with a number of the conflicts with the Greeks noted above, in particular, the Theban-Spartan war in which he ultimately sided with Thebes. [6]

Queen Tomyris and the Head of Cyrus the Great, Mattia Preti (1680’s) This legendary founder of the Achaemenid Empire is said to have met his end to the equally legendary Scythian queen Tomyris.

Moving past the borders of the Achaemenid Empire lay powers unfamiliar to some in the western world. The Indus valley had already seen thousands of years worth of human history, Siddhartha Buddha had already walked the earth, and, hell, they were so advanced at this time, they had already invented plastic surgery centuries earlier. [7] In this region, there were 16 kingdoms and republics that were known as the Mahājanapadas and the Vedic orthodoxy was falling out of fashion with the rise of Buddhism and Jainism. But there wasn’t exactly a sense of unity between them, as the kingdoms frequently warred with each other for dominance. One of these kingdoms, the Magadha, were perhaps the most imperial out of the bunch, conquering swaths of territory and forming a dynastic rule. It was within this kingdom that Siddhartha Buddha was said to have lived and gained enlightenment. The Magadha were a fiercely devout people with a penchant for using early examples of tanks in the form of mace-wielding chariots to get their way and, as usual, marked the end of a dynasty with a bloody affair. For our purposes now, we see the Shaishunaga Dynasty at the seat of power having emerged victorious among the Magadha with King Mahanandin as their leader. [8] However, a certain bastard son named Mahapadma Nanda was ready to make his violent claim…

If we look a bit further, the Chinese were too busy partaking in the epic Warring States period to pay too much attention to the potential of a dashing Macedonian conquering around next door..

With the stage set and the match lit, what is about to befall all of this territory and history other than something spectacular and shocking? A Macedonian King will soon sweep across the land like a raging fire but, first, we start with his maker.

For a man is nothing without his father.

On to Part 2

Fact Check it, yo!

[1] Plato, The Republic. Book I. 377-B [x]

[2] Herodotus, The Histories. Book 5. 22

[3] Thucydides, History of the Peloponnesian War

[4] Xenophan, Hellenica Book 7, ch. 5 [x]

[5] Beard, M. (2016). SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome.

[6] Axworthy, M. (2016). A History of Iran: Empire of the Mind.

[7] Sushruta Samhita, Book 1, Ch. 9 [x]

[8] Singh, Upinder. (2008) A History of Ancient and Early Medieval India: From the Stone Age to the 12th Century [x]