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The Death of Alexander the Great and the War for Crown and Empire

by James Romm

Pub Date: Oct. 12th, 2011
ISBN: 978-0-307-27164-8
Publisher: Knopf

Scholarly but colorful account of the toxic fallout from the untimely demise of a continent-striding conqueror.

Alexander the Great dreamed of “a single world-state stretching from the Atlantic to the Indian Ocean,” but died of a mysterious fever (possibly poisoned) on the eve of his campaign against the Arabs in 323 BCE. His inner circle of trusted military men were soon dividing the empire among them; Perdiccas, the senior officer to whom Alexander had passed his signet ring, hoped that he could maintain an equilibrium by giving grizzled veterans Craterus and Antipater control of Europe, while he oversaw Asia from Babylon, sidelining his main rival Ptolemy in Egypt (to which Ptolemy deftly hijacked Alexander’s legacy-imprinting corpse). Alas, writes Romm (Classics/Bard Coll.; Herodotus, 1998, etc.), “Alexander had…nurtured in his staff an endless appetite for command and conquest.” Allegiances changed rapidly, and the leaders’ fortunes depended largely on the erratic loyalty of Alexander’s soldiers, in particular the famed Silver Shields, who were capable of fighting a battle on one side, then abandoning their general to join the victor. To this volatile mix were added several strong-minded women: Alexander’s mother Olympias, scheming to marrying his sister Cleopatra to a general who could protect them, and his niece Adea, wife of his mentally deficient half brother Philip. As soon as word of Alexander’s death got out, Greek city-states led by Athens revolted, war-weary troops in Bactria (northern Afghanistan) mutinied and chaos threatened everywhere. The names can be as hard to keep straight as the marital and military maneuvers, but Romm paints a vivid portrait of ancient politics, which were highly personal and extremely deadly. The murders of Olympias, Cleopatra, Philip and Adea, as well as Alexander’s Bactrian widow and their son, put an end to Macedonia’s Argead dynasty and signaled the arrival of “a multipolar world marked by rivalry, shifting alliances, and long-running small-scale conflicts—in many ways, a world like our own.”

Best appreciated by readers with some grounding in ancient history, but lively enough to engage newbies as well.