These are the remains of one of the grand palaces at Persepolis, the capital of the ancient Persian kingdom conquered by Alexander the Great. Alexander had the palace demolished by fire in 330 B.C., possibly as revenge for a Persian king’s destruction of Greek cities a century before.

Morteza Yousefi/


Common Core: RH.6-8.1, RH.6-8.2, RH.6-8.4, RH.6-8.7, WHST.6-8.4, RI.6-8.1, RI.6-8.2, RI.6-8.4, RI.6-8.7, W.6-8.4, SL.6-8.1

NCSS: Culture • Time, Continuity, and Change • Power, Authority, and Governance • Global Connections


Historical Map

Forging an Ancient Empire

More than 2,000 years ago, a young warrior set out to conquer a wealthy empire. In little more than a decade, he changed the world as he’d known it—and its map.

The year is 338 B.C.; the place, central Greece. Two armies are locked in combat when a unit of warriors on horseback thunders into the fray. That charge, led by the 18-year-old son of Macedonia’s king, helps win the battle—a triumph that seals his father’s control over most of Greece.

Within two years, that teen will himself become king. And within a dozen more, his tactical genius and mighty army will give him command over a vast empire of some 2 million square miles spanning three continents. History knows him as Alexander the Great.

DEA/G. Nimatallah/De Agostini via Getty Images

This section of a famous mosaic shows Alexander fighting in the Battle of Issus, his first against the king of Persia (now Iran).

A Drive to Conquer

Alexander was born in 356 B.C. As a boy, he was tutored in Greek culture—history, science, philosophy, and medicine—and military tactics. Meanwhile, his father, King Phillip II of Macedonia, waged war. Philip aimed to control Greece, then take over the much larger kingdom of Persia.

In 336 B.C., Philip was killed. Alexander took the throne and set out to finish what his father had started.

Victory after victory allowed him to seize territory through much of the Middle East and part of North Africa. In 331 B.C., he finally defeated Persia’s king—and won his empire.

But whatever drove Alexander—be it hunger for power, wealth, or fame—he wasn’t satisfied. He kept going, making it as far east as what today is India (see map, below).

Spreading the Wealth

Ancient Art and Architecture Collection Ltd./Bridgeman Images

This statue shows Alexander on Bucephalus, the horse he tamed at age 12 and rode as far east as India.

With each new area conquered, Alexander forged various kingdoms and city-states into a single empire. He expanded trade and set up a system of currency—coins stamped with an image of his face—that could be used throughout the empire, making it easier for merchants from far-flung places to conduct business.

Determined to spread Greek knowledge and culture, Alexander traveled with experts to teach people Greek history and art as well as math and science. At first, he often destroyed cities, including existing temples, art, and other signs of local tradition. Later, however, he let people retain many of their own customs—even adopting some himself, such as the robes and sashes of Persian-style royal clothing.

robertharding/Alamy Stock Photo

This royal tomb in Kandahar, Afghanistan, reflects a culture that arose after Alexander’s empire broke apart.

Turning Back

In 326 B.C., after a battle near the Indus River, Alexander’s exhausted army refused to go farther east. At last, the self-proclaimed “King of Asia” headed back toward Europe.

But the immense empire he so prized wasn’t his for long. In 323 B.C. in Babylon (near present-day Baghdad, Iraq), he fell ill and died. He was only 32.

After his death, his four top generals carved the empire into regions that each controlled. But over time, local interests, traditions, and rivalries proved a more powerful force, and those kingdoms split apart.

Today, nearly 20 nations consisting of diverse peoples, languages, and cultures make up what once was one man’s empire.

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