An A-Z of the World – E. H. Gombrich on: Alexander the Great

As an aid to students, teachers and parents dealing with the challenges of home learning, we have constructed an A–Z of the World taken from E. H. Gombrich’s, A Little History of the World. Day by day, we will be sharing a bite size introduction to a historical figure, event or period – using Gombrich’s magical words – along with links to free resources, so that readers of all ages can discover more. Today, Gombrich covers Alexander the Great.


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Alexander the Great

Homelearning: Alexander the Great

E. H. Gombrich: Alexander inherited the whole of Greece, along with his native Macedonia in 336 BC, when he was barely twenty years old. He was no ordinary boy. From his youth, he had been impatient to be king. When he was little, he was said to cry whenever his father, King Philip, conquered another Greek city, saying: ‘Father won’t leave anything for me to conquer when I’m king!’

‘Father won’t leave anything for me to conquer when I’m king!’

Now Alexander wasn’t just a brave and ambitious warrior – there was much more to him than that. He was exceptionally handsome, with long curly hair, and he knew just about everything there was to know at the time. His tutor was the most famous teacher living: the Greek philosopher Aristotle. And if I tell you that Aristotle wasn’t just Alexander’s tutor but – in a manner of speaking – the teacher of mankind for 2,000 years, you’ll have an idea of what I mean.

Later, in Asia Minor, Alexander came up against the first Persian army. Although larger than his own, it turned out to be no more than a milling host of soldiers with no effective leader. The Persians were quickly put to flight, for Alexander’s army fought bravely, and Alexander most bravely of all in the heat of the fray.

It so happens that vanquished Asia Minor is the scene of the famous story of the Gordian Knot. It went like this. In the city of Gordium there was a temple, and in it an old chariot whose shaft was held fast by a strap that was tightly and intricately knotted. Now it had been foretold that he who could untie the enchanted knot would become master of the world. Alexander wasted little time fiddling with a knot that was clearly far worse than the sort you get in your shoelaces when you are in a hurry. He did something my mother never let me do: he took his sword and simply chopped it through. The story’s meaning is twofold: Alexander would conquer the world in fulfilment of the ancient prophecy, and he would do it with the sword. As indeed he did.

Discover more A-Z blogposts here.

Free Resources to Learn More about Alexander the Great and Ancient Greece

At the time of publication, these resources were free to use (some for a limited time only, during the COVID-19 pandemic).

BBC Bitesize (KS2)
Ancient Greece
How Did the Ancient Greeks Change the World?
Who Were the Ancient Greeks?

BBC Teach (KS3/GCSE)
The Legacy of Alexander the Great – Andrew Marr (video)

BBC History
Alexander the Great: Hunting for a New Past – Professor Paul Cartledge

BBC In Our Time
Alexander the Great

History.com
How Alexander conquered the Persian Empire
The Persian Empire
Macedonia
Eight surprising facts
How did Alexander die?

Khan Academy
Various resources

The Children’s University of Manchester
Ancient Greece

Education Quizzes (KS2)
Ancient Greece Quiz

This page provides access to a list of free online resources. It is not intended to endorse any particular resource.


A Little History of the World

All the descriptions in this A-Z are taken from E. H. Gombrich’s A Little History of the World.

Philip Pullman described the book as, “A brilliant piece of narrative, splendidly organised, told with an energy and confidence that are enormously attractive, and suffused with all the humanity and generosity of spirit that Gombrich’s thousands of admirers came to cherish during his long and richly productive life. It’s a wonderful surprise: irresistible, in fact.”

Discover More

The Little Histories are vivid storybook introductions for the young and old alike. Inspiring and entertaining, each short book lays out our greatest subjects in deceptively simple, engaging tones. With charming and personal insights each expert gently takes the reader from ancient times to the present through bite size chapters, ideal as bedtime reading or on the journey to work. Other Little Histories available include, Philosophy, Economics, Science, Literature, Language, Religion and Poetry. More details about the whole series can be found on the Little Histories website.

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