As historian Carol Thomas points out, writing an authoritative and accurate biography of a figure as ancient and as controversial as Alexander the Great poses significant challenges (9). While there is general congruence among biographies of Alexander the Great regarding the important dates, relationships, and accomplishments that defined Alexander’s life, Thomas notes that students of history and biography should be careful to understand that the nature of many historical accounts is fragmentary, so the work of compiling the history of his life involves the “reconciliation of… disparate evidence” (12).
Of equal importance to the task of forming a critical biography of Alexander the Great is understanding that the authors of biographies and histories always have varied motives for writing about their subjects (Thomas 9). Even the biography and biographical work of those authors who knew Alexander the Great personally should be considered thoughtfully, as Alexander might have exerted influence over the writer to paint a more flattering portrait of him to preserve for posterity and the sake of how he would be presented in history (Thomas 12). By piecing together the varied histories of Alexander the Great’s time into one succinct biography, place, and culture, one can begin to develop an understanding of the man himself and the forces that shaped him as a leader.
With these forethoughts out of the way, one should be begin a biography of Alexander the Great at the beginning; with his birth. Alexander the Great was born in Macedonia in 356 to the Macedonian king, Philip II, and his wife, Olympias (Thomas 12). Alexander’s early home life is believed to have been somewhat turbulent, as the relationship between Philip II and Olympias was neither an easy nor a harmonious one (Fredricksmeyer 300). According to Fredricksmeyer, Philip II was a typical Macedonian man, which is to say that he was a womanizer who viewed marriage not as a romantic commitment but as a political alliance and a strategy to advance his own interests and reputation (300). Despite the fact that the King, Olympias who was Alexander the Great’s father, behavior was not inconsistent with social norms, Olympias apparently found it difficult to accept that she was just one among Philip’s seven wives (Fredricksmeyer 300). The reader of these histories might well surmise that neither Olympias nor Philip was a stable parental figure for the young Alexander.
One reason that has been proposed to explain the jealousy and rage that Olympias exhibited frequently is her anxiety about the right of her son to succeed Philip II (Fredricksmeyer 300). Alexander was not the only potential heir to the throne; Philip had other sons who had an equal claim to stake for rulership. Knowing this, Olympias could hardly contain her fury; she wanted an assurance that Alexander would be the only contender for the royal seat (Fredricksmeyer 300-301; Thomas 92). While it would later become evident that Alexander was the only one of Philip’s sons who had the skills and intellect necessary to guide their people, this was not known at the time and the ambiguity of Alexander’s future was agonizing for Olympias, whose reason for living, it seemed, was to ensure the success of Alexander (Thomas 92).