After Alexander the Great

Alexander the Great at the battle of Issus

Book review of Dividing the Spoils: The War for Alexander the Great’s Empire by Robin Waterfield (Oxford University Press, 2011)

Alexander the Great conquered the Persian Empire and marched as far as modern Pakistan before reluctantly returning to Babylon. There, on June 11, 323 BCE, Alexander died at the age of 32. Whether the cause of death was wounds, disease, or poison will never be known. Nor had any preparation been made for the peaceful appointment of a successor. Alexander’s youth might have made him feel the consideration of a successor was unnecessary. Or perhaps it was his deification, his identification as a godly son of Zeus, that made him feel immortal and beyond the concerns of ordinary men. Or he may have simply felt that even he lacked the power to control what would come after his death.

Alexander’s vast empire could be ruled by agreement or by war with the winner taking all. Claimants to the throne by relationship included Arridaeus, Alexander’s older brother who was a halfwit, and Alexander IV, the halfblood (his mother was from an Afghan tribe) boy born after his father’s death. Other players with royal blood included Alexander’s mother Olympia, his sister Cleopatra, his illegitimate son Heracles, and his niece Adea among others. But the might to determine who would succeed Alexander resided in his fellow generals who had served him and now controlled armies and vast portions of his empire.

Efforts at peace failed quickly and were followed by a sequence of wars. By 311 BCE the “Peace of the Dynasts” confirmed the following division of territory—Cassander controlled Macedonia; Ptolemy controlled Egypt, Lysimachus controlled Thrace, Antigonus controlled Asia Minor, and Seleucus controlled eastern empire from Babylon to modern Pakistan. However, that peace quickly lapsed and another three decades of slaughter would follow before the boundaries of the various kingdoms took more permanent shape. All of Alexander’s blood kin were killed (including Olympia, Arridaeus, and Alexander IV). The generals became kings. Many of these kingdoms survived for centuries until an expansionist Rome absorbed much of the territory that had been Alexander’s.

The book has much to recommend it, but failed in one regard. The generals who occupy so much of its narrative never become more than names. They are one-dimensional, all violent, all determined to rule, all hungering after endless conquests. I’m not sure if the author had no interest in deepening his descriptions of the players or whether a paucity of sources made such humanizing impossible. So many of the ancient records were lost entirely or survive only as summaries compiled by later writers.

Merely to include all the personages and events of this unsettled era is an enormous effort. Certainly the chief characteristic of the military leaders was their willingness to battle, their emulation of Alexander who would have endlessly sought conquest. This human impulse remains with us today. The drive for power is a human constant. If human nature hasn’t changed vastly since Alexander’s day, at least the institutions that govern people and connect nations have undergone enormous change. Of course, our weaponry and collective issues (such as global warming, environmental degradation, depletion of ocean marine life, etc.) have also changed. Let’s hope that those who hold power today can be as ambitious in seeking peaceful solutions to shared issues as the ancient successors of Alexander excelled in the waging of their ambitious wars.

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