The Puzzling Life Of Alexander I, The 5th-Century BCE King Of Macedonia

Alexander I (r. approximately 498-450 BCE) is said to have been the tenth Argead king of Macedonia. Although he was far from the founder of Macedonia (his dynasty began around 700 BCE), he was the first Macedonian king to be fairly well documented in history, and he set the Macedonian Kingdom on its course to greatness.

Alexander I’s reign was prominent enough for early historians, such as Herodotus, to mention the Kingdom of Macedonia (and its kings) in their writings. Yet, much of the information recorded about him was exaggerated into folklore or augmented by biases. What historians can all agree on is that Alexander I became the king of Macedonia around the start of the 5th-century BCE, after the death of his father, King Amyntas I. Alexander, like his father, was either an ally, or a subservient vassal, to the Persian Empire. As a result of this alliance, Alexander I joined Xerxes’ Persian invasion of Greece that occurred in 480 BCE. After the significant Greek victories at the Battles of Salamis (480 BCE) and Plataea (479), Alexander I was able to portray a sense loyalty to Persia, while also expanding his own personal domain to the Strymon River (modern Struma) and the silver-rich Mount Dysorus.

Despite siding with Persia against the Greeks, Alexander also strove to be accepted by the Greek states. His motives, mind-set and true allegiance are still debated, to this day, but Alexander I seemed to be able to exploit both sides of the Greco-Persian War. Either during his life, or posthumously, Alexander I gained the title “Philhellene,” which, when translated, resembles “friend of the Greeks.”  In efforts to associate himself with Greek society, Alexander I demanded that he be allowed to compete in the Olympic Games. Although he faced stiff opposition—Herodotus wrote that many Greeks considered the Macedonians to be non-Greek barbarians—Alexander eventually succeeded in gaining admittance by tracing his Argead Dynasty back to the Greek city of Argos and the hero, Heracles. Historically, the Argead Dynasty is thought to have originated from a location near the modern Aliákmon River in the northwest of modern Greece, yet Alexander’s Argos story worked, and he was allowed into the Olympics. The Macedonian King also is said to have donated a golden statue to Delphi, possibly funded by his subtle maneuverings against Persia.

This interesting clash between Macedonia’s welcomed benefits from their political alliance with Persia and Alexander I’s preference for Greek culture is particularly illustrated by one of the stories recorded by Herodotus. Like many of Herodotus’ tales, this account of Alexander I is more than likely just exaggerated myth and hearsay. Yet, this story should be retold for the glimpse it provides into what a 5th-century Greek man thought about Alexander I, if not simply for the sole purpose of entertainment.

The folktale about Alexander I that Herodotus told was set soon after Macedonia allied itself with Persia. Seven Persian warriors were sent to the court of Alexander’s father, Amyntas I, to receive gifts of earth and water, which would serve as ceremonial symbols of Macedonia’s submission to Persia. King Amyntas gave the Persians all the signs and symbols that they wanted, and he even invited the seven foreign soldiers to a magnificent feast.

The guests enjoyed their meals and were still partaking of the Macedonian king’s wine selection, when the Persian soldiers requested that local women to be brought into the dining room. To this, King Amyntas clearly stated that the Macedonian custom was to keep men and women separate while they dined. Yet, in a show of good will to the Persians, Amyntas called for women to be brought into the room.

The women were instructed to sit opposite of the Persian soldiers. The Persians, wrote Herodotus, were not content with looking. Exploring with their eyes quickly transitioned into fondling with their hands. King Amyntas was disturbed by the sight, but was not brave enough to take action. His son Alexander I, however, was infuriated by the actions of the Persians—if the king would not do something, he would. Eventually, Alexander insisted that his father, King Amyntas, retire early for bed. The old king assented to the idea, but not before warning his son against doing anything rash, foolish or dangerous.

Soon after King Amyntas departed from the room, Alexander announced that he would take the women to freshen up in a warm bath before they would return to please the Persians for the remainder of the approaching night. Once the women were outside of the dining room, he calmed them and told them to return to their quarters. Finally, Alexander gathered several sets of women’s clothing and secretly called together a meeting of his most trusted soldiers.

A few minutes later, the inebriated Persian warriors were still drinking wine in the dining room when the objects of their desire marched into the room, with Alexander I leading the formation. The Persians were much too drunk to notice the increased muscle mass on these Macedonian “women,” nor the hidden daggers they were carrying. Nevertheless, Alexander cheerfully matched each Persian soldier with a Macedonian partner. When the Persian hands began, once again, to creep and wander, the disguised Macedonian soldiers pulled out their concealed daggers and stabbed the Persian soldiers to death.

With the deed done, all that was left to do was to dispose of the evidence. After the bodies were hidden, Alexander I destroyed anything and everything connected to the Persian envoy. According to Herodotus he killed the Persian servants…and destroyed their carriages…and even made their luggage disappear. To ensure that the Persians continued to see Macedonia in a favorable light, Alexander (again, according to Herodotus) paid a large sum of money to Bubares, the Persian official tasked to investigate the missing envoy. As a final assurance of loyalty, Alexander arranged a marriage between his own sister, Gygaea, and Bubares.

Even without sensational stories such as the one narrated above, the reign of Alexander I was undeniably significant. He played both sides of the Greco-Persian Wars against each other, and made his kingdom of Macedonia powerful and rich. Even though Alexander I’s exact motivation and ideology remain a puzzle, his reign in the 5th-century BCE was a vital stepping-stone toward the successes of later rulers of the Argead Dynasty, most notably Philip II and Alexander the Great.

Written by C. Keith Hansley.

Top picture attribution: (Coin believed to depict King Alexander I of Macedonia (modified), c. 498-450 BCE, [Public Domain] via Creative Commons and the Classical Numismatic Group).



  1. 1) In antiquity, the term 'philhellene' (Greek: φιλέλλην, from φίλος – philos, “dear one, friend” + Έλλην – Hellen, “Greek” was used to describe both non-Greeks who were fond of Greek culture and Greeks who patriotically upheld their culture.

    “It is honorable in one who is a #Greek to be a friend to the #Greeks” – “καλὸν Ἕλληνα ὄντα φιλέλληνα εἶναι” Xen. Ages. 7.4 thus in setting up his ideal state, Plato prescribes that the citizens are to be both Greek and Philhellenes (Republic 470E) or in other words, Greek and patriots.

    Evagoras of Cyprus and Philip II were both called “philhellenes” by Isocrates

    2) The River Strymon that runs through historical Macedonia is still called the River Strymon and its in Greece. “Strumica” is the unrelated Slavic name.

    3) In ancient Greece, the term “barbarian” had a dual meaning.

    Primarily it signified foreigners, such peoples as the Persians and Egyptians, whose languages were unintelligible to the Greeks, but it could also be used of Greeks who spoke in a different dialect, with a different accent or who were considered uncouth and backwards.

    Aristophanes, 'Clouds' line 491

    SOCRATES aside –
    Oh! the ignoramus! the barbarian!


    I greatly fear, old man, it will be necessary for me to have recourse to blows. Now, let me hear what you do when you are beaten.

    4) Re: Olympics: The Hellanodikai (judges and administrative tool of the Greeks) had already accepted Alexander I. It was only when Alexander chose to compete did the Greeks who were to run against him resort to trickery to bar him from the race saying that the contest should be for Greeks and not for foreigners.

    (Herodotus 5.22)
    “or when Alexander chose to contend and entered the lists for that purpose, the Greeks who were to run against him wanted to bar him from the race, saying that the contest should be for Greeks and not for foreigners. Alexander, however, proving himself to be an Argive, was judged to be a Greek. He accordingly competed in the furlong race and tied step for first place”.

    The Hellanodikai merely had to investigate the claim as a mere formality. When Alexanders Temenid origins were announced the other Argives and Peloponnesians did not protest because they knew of the common ancestry that they shared.

    To quote John Whitehorne: “In the race itself, Alexander came in equal first (Herodotus 5.22) making the entire issue even more suspect to the ground that the original protest by his rivals may well have a claim to be regarded as one of the earliest recorded examples of those “dirty tricks” which so beset modern sport.”

    Did Athletes in ancient Olympics employ “dirty tricks” in order to exclude an athlete's participation in Olympic games?? Answer: Yes! There are a few examples. In one of these, Themistocles urges the exclusion of the tyrant Hieron of Syracuse in the Olympic games, accusing him that he neglected to help militarily against Persians. (Lysias also urged the exclusion of Dionysious a century later) and many more…


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