Ghost on the Throne: The Death of Alexander the Great and the War for Crown and Empire by James Romm
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
“There are no more worlds to conquer!”
― Alexander the Great
Mosaic of Alexander the Great discovered at the House of the Faun in Pompeii
In 323 BC when Alexander the Great died, (from what some believe to be poison, but a growing number of others think from ingesting bacteria filled water from the River Styx), his great empire was held together by his charisma and his force of will. The power vacuum left in his wake was too large for any man (he was a god after all, a very mortal god as it turned out) to fill. His soldiers were the best fighting men on the planet, but were weary of war, and ready to start enjoying the plunder they had accumulated from their victories. His generals were well trained and most would have made good governors of provinces. Everything was in place to begin to make the transition from war to governing during peace except that Alexander died before that transition could be accomplished.
There would be no rest for anyone.
There is something missing, a second in command, a person respected by all who could assume the mantle and continue Alexander’s plans. It goes back to the previous year, 324 BC, when Alexander’s lifelong friend Hephaestion died. Alexander looked on him as more than just a friend, some speculate they were lovers, but there is no documentation from the period to support that. Maybe that says something about us that we assume that people who are that close have to be sexually involved. Here is an example of how Alexander felt about Hephaestion.
”When Alexander and Hephaestion went together to visit the captured Persian royal family. Its senior member, the queen Sisygambis, knelt to Hephaestion to plead for their lives mistaking him for Alexander because he was the taller and both young men were wearing similar clothes. When she realized her mistake she was acutely embarrassed but Alexander reassured her with the words, "You were not mistaken, Mother; this man too is Alexander." Wikipedia quoting Diodorus, Arrian, and Curtius.
Hephaestion a Prado bronze sketch
Hephaestion was second-in-command and was well respected by the tight knit group of generals whom he would have been commanding if he had lived. Alexander had taken Stateira a daughter of Darius, as his wife, to ally himself more firmly with the Persian ruling class. He also had all of his generals take Persian wives with the idea that their offspring would be the perfect hybrids of East and West to continue to rule the world. This was extremely controversial. His Macedonian commanders still had difficulty accepting Greeks as officers in the army and they are basically cousins genetically. The idea is sound, a true attempt to create peace for generations if it could be accomplished. Creating blood alliance is not a new concept, but actually intentionally doing it with a race of people that don’t look like you and don’t even worship the same gods is truly radical for the time. With an eye to the future Alexander had Hephaestion marry Stateira’s sister Drypetis. The hope was those cousins from those unions would be able to rule Eurasia together.
When Hephaestion died Alexander mourned so deeply and so fervently that his loyal friends worried he would ever recover. It was impossible for Alexander to even think about naming Hephaestion’s successor. So maybe Hephaestion, who believed so zealously in Alexander’s plans for the future of the empire, could have held together those capable commanders that Alexander had so carefully nurtured into leaders. He certainly would have had a better chance than poor Perdiccas.
Alexander, unfortunately, was so sick that he was unable to speak from his death bed. He pressed his signet ring into the hands of Perdiccas, and by so doing elevated him from a distant third-in-command position to; ultimately, upon Alexander’s final rattling breath, control of the empire.
Alexander the Great’s death is a thunderbolt heard by the entire known world. Men who had accepted their fate to being ruled by Macedonians suddenly felt the stirring winds of opportunity. Athenians and tribes people all over Asia and Europe rose up in revolt. Perdiccas dispatched his armies to suppress these outbreaks, and by doing so gave the Generals, who commanded them, the means (an army) by which to challenge his authority.
Perdiccas depicted on Alexander’s sarcophagus.
Alexander had trouble more than once with rebellion in his own ranks, and so it is no great surprise that these proud goat herders turned soldiers, these Macedonians, start to feel that they have as much right to rule as Perdiccas. Perdiccas does his best to reward these men with provinces rich with plunderable assets, but soon he finds himself killing men who were once his friends in a continuingly desperate attempt to keep control of the empire. One night he is set upon in his tent by his own knife wielding soldiers and his brief stint as ruler of the world ends.
Alexander’s older half brother, Arrhidaeus, later renamed Philip III after their father for political purposes, is proclaimed King of Macedonia, and becomes one of the many pawns passed around amongst the generals to legitimize their own ambitions. He is mentally handicapped, so severely, that he is barely functioning. Perfect candidate for some 300 BC era Karl Rove. Alexander also had three sisters. Cleopatra was a full sister. Cynnane and Thessalonice were half sisters. All attempted to find husbands amongst the leadership staff of the Macedonian army, but these men tended not to live long. As the civil war raged with changing alliances the sisters all eventually end up backing the wrong candidates and become casualties of their own bid for power. Adea, daughter of Cynnane, marries Philip III. Yes, that would be her uncle. When the royal couple are no longer useful they are both forced to take poison. The Argead line is disappearing quickly.
Alexander did have two sons. Heracles by a mistress is the oldest. Alexander IV is the son of his wife Roxana of Bactria. Once they reach their teens they become too dangerous and are strangled.
Depiction of Olympias on a gold medallion found at Abukir
Alexander’s mother Olympias staved off several attempts to kill her. She was so regal that Macedonian soldiers found it impossible to fight against her and wouldn’t even think about harming her. She took full advantage of the pageantry of her position.
”Olympias, on one side of the field, appeared in the fawn-skin wrap and ivy headdress of a bacchant, as though leading an ecstatic procession for the god Dionysus, and marched to the beat of drums.”
Ptolemy made the leap from Macedonian general to Pharaoh of Egypt
Ptolemy, yet another Macedonian general, takes his portion of the Alexander army to Egypt. When Alexander’s sarcophagus is travelling back to Macedon for burial Ptolemy intercepts, and steals it. He brings it back to Memphis.
Alexander's body was laid in a gold anthropoid sarcophagus that was filled with honey, which was in turn placed in a gold casket.According to Aelian, a seer called Aristander foretold that the land where Alexander was laid to rest "would be happy and unvanquishable forever".Perhaps more likely, the successors may have seen possession of the body as a symbol of legitimacy, since burying the prior king was a royal prerogative.
Absconding with Alexander’s body is a pretty good trick, but Ptolemy did something else that had an even more lasting impact on world history.
”Ptolemy rejoined his burgeoning household with its two trophy women. Thais, the beautiful Athenian courtesan who had already borne him three children, and now a new bride, Antipater’s youngest daugher, Eurydice. One brought him pleasure and the other power, but Ptolemy was still vulnerable to a third impulse, love. By this time he had taken notice of his bride’s young cousin and lady-in-waiting, a widow by the name of Berenice. Soon he made this woman his mistress, and ultimately his wife. She bore him his two heirs, Ptolemy II and Arisnoe, a brother and sister who following an old Persian royal custom, married each other. Through his children by Berenice Ptolemy founded a dynasty that ruled Egypt for almost three centuries, until their great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great granddaughter, Cleopatra VII, the lover of both Julius Caesar and Marc Anthony, killed herself by the bite of an asp.
Berenice was the original “it” girl and whatever she had, that mystical quality that made her irresistible, was also alive and well in her descendent Cleopatra VII.
There is one more general that I want to bring up. He started out life as a clerk for Alexander’s father. His name was Eumenes and he was a Greek. Alexander’s generals cared very much about the fact that Eumenes was of inferior origin, but Alexander recognized intelligence and natural talent. He promoted him from his clerk duties to leadership of a cavalry unit. After Alexander died Eumenes should have had the lifespan of a fruit fly, but the wily clerk came up with some unique ways of keeping himself alive. He won his battles, even as Perdiccas was losing his battles with Ptolemy. As his Macedonian troops began to grumble about being led by a Greek he had a shrine to Alexander built where he and the soldiers could worship.
It was bloody brilliant.
He was able, with this shrine, to give the impression that he was still being lead by Alexander and that he was not the man in charge making decisions. As long as his men felt that Alexander was still having influence over Eumenes they would follow him. He also discovered a plot by one of the other Macedonian commanders to have him killed by his own officers. Eumenes had each of his officers loan him a large sum of money. It diffused the plot because nobody wants to kill the guy that owes them money.
Eumenes was a well read, well educated individual, and obvious his intellect was far superior to even the better educated Macedonian commanders. He had observed and absorbed the very best of Alexander’s tactics and showed true brilliance on the battlefield. If Alexander had lived Eumenes would have achieved fame and would have proved to be a valuable asset not only to Alexander, but to his heir as well.
I’ve read several books on Alexander the Great, but it has been a long time since I’ve ventured back into 300 BC. This is the first book that I’ve read that covers the results of the aftermath of Alexander’s death. The commanders are brought vividly to life. James Romm also spends a significant amount of time covering the events in Athens as well. Unfortunately, due to space concerns in this review I did not discuss those wonderful segments.
It would have been curious to see if Alexander would have proved as adept at ruling a peaceful, but geographically large empire as he was conquering the world. He was very good at recognizing talent and developing men into very able commanders. He had progressive ideas about race and knew for the empire to survive that those they conquered would have to become followers and not just people to be subjugated.
It was often a point of frustration to his soldiers, and his officers that he never set up a hierarchy. Even with a solid chain of command in place the empire might have still crumbled into civil war, but without the certainty of knowing who was expected to be in charge, if the unexpected happened, there was simply no chance. All his commanders felt as equally qualified to rule as any other. Alexander trusted Hephaestion with his life, but he didn’t have that relationship with any of his other commanders and may have felt that keeping everyone else on a relatively equal footing might have kept someone from becoming too ambitious. The very type of ambition that might initiate a regime change. Without his presence the empire did not survive him.
This book is so well researched, so full of great information, so compellingly written that I would wake up in the middle of the night thinking about Craterus, Antipater, Eumenes, Olympias, Perdiccas, Antigonus One-Eye, Ptolemy, and wonder about the fate of the boy that was born to rule an empire. So let James Romm take you on a little tour of the 300 BC era. You might find yourself as enamored with these Macedonians as the kids touring Jurassic Park were with dinosaurs. Books may be theme parks for me, but with one advantage, when the electricity goes out you won’t be facing Macedonian warriors, but will be looking for a candle so you can keep reading.
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