Alexander's Youth


At this point the syllabus suddenly becomes extra-exciting because we move from understanding to interpretation.



Plutarch's account of Alexander's Youth    

Plutarch - who is our only source in this on our syllabus - gives us 14 stories about Alexander's youth:

  2a   Alexander’s ancestry
 2b   Olympias’s wedding and her conception of Alexander
 2c   Olympias’s religious fanaticism
 3a   How Philip lost his eye
 3b   Alexander’s birth – Ephesus – Philip’s three successes
 4a   Lysippus and Apelles – Alexander’s appearance (and fragrance)
 4b   Alexander’s self-restraint and love of honour
 5a   Alexander and the Persian ambassadors
 5b   Alexander’s early education – Leonidas and Lysimachus
 6     Alexander and Bucephalus
 7     Philip appoints Aristotle – so-called acroamatic and epoptic teaching
 8     Alexander’s learning – his interest in medicine and books – Dandamis and Calanus
 9a   Alexandropolis and Chaeronea
 9b   Philip, Cleopatra, Olympias and Alexander



The following websites will help you complete the task:

This document collects the relevant sections of the set
OCR Textbook.

Mr Clare's Commentary on Plutarch's account of Alexander's childhood

A pupil's short summary of Alexander's youth


 1.   Discuss with a partner or in a small group: if you had to choose just ONE of these stories as illustrative of the whole nature of Alexander's childhood, which would you choose,and why?

 2.   Using Plutarch, Chapters 2-9 (especially using Mr Clare's Commentary on Plutarch's account of Alexander's childhood) complete the 'Alexander's Youth' worksheet, noting:
       a. which sections of the Plutarch would provide appropriate evidence for each question,
       b. any ideas which you would draw from Plutarch's account to answer the question.




Interpretations of Alexander's Youth    

Different people have interpreted Alexander's childhood in different ways:

  1.   When I was a child, I read the stories in Newnes Pictorial Enclyclopaedia, which focussed on the Bucephalus story and portrayed Alexander as a remarkable child with exceptional abilities ... abilities which would then carry him on to become ruler of the world (can you see why a children'sbook would adopt such an approach?)

 2.   Robin Lane Fox, in his 1971 biography, explained how Alexander HAD to be 'Achilles', HAD always to be right, and HAD to be able to awe and terrify his subjects ... or else he would lose their obedience and loyalty.

 3.   My pupils and I agreed that Richard Burton in the 1956 film Alexander the Great portrayed Alexander as a strutting, rather pompous public-school kind of chap.

 4.   Plutarch's emphasis was upon Alexander as a 'philosopher-in-arms' ... yes a warrior-conqueror, but much more than that - at heart a cultivated man who enjoyed history books, plays and poetry.
 5.   Plutarch's description - although he himself qualified it with an 'it-is-said' - makes it clear that many people at the time absolutely believed that Alexander was the son of Zeus, and a divine being.



Read the following passages from Plutarch.  Choose one, and write an answer to the question which follows:

But the disturbances in the Royal household, brought about by his marriages and his love affairs, caused problems in his kingdom very similar to those in the women's quarters of the palace and resulted in great quarrels between Alexander and his father, which the bad temper of Olympias, an envious and sullen woman, made still worse, as she encouraged the young man.
The most obvious quarrel was brought about by Attalus at the time of Philip's marriage to Cleopatra; Philip fell in love with a young girl, even though he was too old for her. Attalus was her uncle and when he was drunk at a banquet he called on the Macedonians to ask the gods for a legitimate inheritor of the kingdom from Philip and Cleopatra. Stung by this remark Alexander said, "Do I appear to you to be a bastard, you fool?" And he threw a cup at him.
Philip drew his sword and stood up to face Alexander, but fortunately for both of them because of his anger and the wine he tripped and fell over. Alexander insulted him and said, "Look at this man, my friends, who is preparing to cross to Asia from Europe, who comes a cropper crossing from one couch to another." After this drunken brawl he took Olympias and put her in Epirus, while he spent time amongst the Illyrians. .

In what way does this passage help us understand Philip’s relationship with Alexander? [14]


Philoneicus the Thessalian brought Boucephalas to sell to Philip for 13 talents. They all went down to the plain to inspect the horse, and he appeared to be difficult and completely unmanageable, not allowing anyone to ride him or responding to the voice of any of Philip’s men, but rearing at all of them. Philip was annoyed and ordered them to take the horse away as it was completely wild and untrained.
Alexander was there and said, “What a horse they are losing when they cannot handle him through lack of skill and patience.” At first Philip kept quiet, but when Alexander said the same thing many times and was in great distress, he said, “Do you find fault with your elders because you know more than they do or are better able to handle a horse?” Alexander replied, “I could certainly manage this horse better than anyone else.” “And if you don't, what penalty should you pay for your recklessness?” Straightaway Alexander said, “By Zeus, I will pay the price of the horse.” This made everybody laugh, and then father and son made an agreement about the penalty.
At once Alexander ran up to the horse and, taking the reins, turned him towards the sun, as he had noticed that the horse was disturbed by seeing his own shadow falling in front of him and dancing around. Then he calmed the horse a little by doing this and stroked it, and when he saw that it was full of spirit and energy he took off his cloak quietly, leapt up and seated himself safely. Then gently directing the bit with the reins without striking the horse or tearing his mouth, Alexander held the horse back. When he saw that the horse had stopped misbehaving and was eager for a run, he spoke more boldly, kicked with his heels and gave the horse his head.

In what way does this passage help us understand Alexander’s nature as a youth? [14]