Alexander the Great

Ancient mysteries: The face of the western caryatid at the entrance to the tomb © PA

The finding of a vast, extravagant tomb in Greece has caused huge excitement. It dates from the time of Alexander the Great, conqueror of the known world, so Greeks are asking: could it be his?

  • What’s going on?

    An enormous tomb, dating back to fourth century BC has been discovered in northern Greece. Measuring 500 metres in circumference, it is the largest burial site ever discovered in the country.

    Archeologists have described their findings so far as breathtaking. The entrance is guarded by two sphinxes, and beyond them, the antechamber is flanked by two magnificent caryatids — female-shaped columns — each 2.27 metres tall, with their arms raised to ward off tomb raiders. Beyond that is the tomb itself, which is yet to have its secrets revealed.

  • Who’s buried there?

    The archeologists and the Greek people are very eager to find out. The tomb dates back to the period just after Alexander’s death in 323 BC. Its site is at Amphipolis, which lies in the territory of the ancient kingdom of Macedon once ruled by Alexander. Some say that these facts, coupled with the tomb's size and grandeur (nearly ten times the size of that of Alexander’s father, King Philip II), means it must be the final resting place of the king himself.

  • Who was he?

    Alexander the Great is one of the greatest military geniuses in history. He became king of Macedon and most of mainland Greece at the age of 20. Before his death in 323 BC aged 32, he defeated the Persian army, invaded Egypt and Asia, founded 70 cities and created one of the ancient world’s largest empires — from Greece to India, the greatest ever achieved by one man. He was never defeated in battle, and legend has it that on hearing there were no more known lands left to conquer, he hung his head and wept.

  • So is he buried there?

    Sadly academics think it is unlikely. Alexander died of a fever in Babylon at the age of 32. It has long been accepted that one of his generals, Ptolemy, kidnapped the body on its way back to Macedon and buried it in Egypt, first in Memphis and then later in Alexandria. His tomb there was visited by various Roman emperors, including Augustus, but details of its fate after 200 AD are hazy.

    Instead, experts believe the tomb in Greece is that of a member of Alexander’s family, possibly his mother, Olympias, or his wife, Roxana.

  • How is Alexander remembered?

    Historians are divided on Alexander’s reputation and legacy. Most accounts of his life were either written long after his death or were highly biased. During his lifetime, many regarded him as a living god — a hero who spread Greek influence, language and culture throughout the known world. His childhood tutor had been the Greek philosopher Aristotle and he was an avid reader and patron of the arts.

    Others argue that his military prowess has been exaggerated, and that he was obsessed with his image. More recent research suggests he was a bloodthirsty tyrant.

  • In what way?

    He has been convincingly portrayed as a ‘drunken juvenile thug’ by the historian Mary Beard. He oversaw appalling massacres after the sieges at Tyre and Gaza and the mass killing of the population in the Punjab. He also had a grim record of murdering his friends while drunk at the dinner table.

    From a Persian point of view, he was the outrageous villain who razed Persepolis — the ceremonial capital of the ancient Persian Achaemenid empire — after a night of drunken excess.

  • What do the Greeks of today think?

    The discovery of the tomb has given rise to a wave of Greek pride, and has allowed the nation to temporarily forget its economic woes. It is a reminder, according to the Greek Culture Minister, that Greece is the ‘cradle of an unsurpassed civilisation’.

Word Watch

Sphinxes
A sphinx is a mythical creature with the body of a lion and a female human head.
Persian army
The Persian Empire was perhaps the greatest empire of the ancient world, extending from Central Asia to Libya, and the Greeks greatly admired and feared it.
Economic woes
By the end of 2009, the Greek economy was in serious trouble. For years it had been living beyond its means, and the government had run up large debts. Widespread tax evasion also meant that not enough money was flowing into its treasury, and as a result it was forced to ask the EU for huge loans to pay its creditors. In return for this help, severe austerity was imposed on Greece, leading to poverty, social unrest and riots.

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Alexander the Great
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