The Death of Alexander the Great and the War for Crown and Empire
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No one knew what was killing Alexander. Some thought he could not die; his conquests over his twelve-year reign had been more godlike than mortal. It was even whispered he was not the son of Philip, his predecessor on the throne of Macedonia, but of the Egyptian god Ammon. Now, as Alexander grew more sickly during the first week of June 323, it seemed that he could die, indeed was dying. Those closest to Alexander, his seven Bodyguards, and the larger circle of intimates called his Companions watched his decline helplessly, and watched one another carefully. They were able commanders, leaders of the most successful military campaign ever fought, and were accustomed to managing crises. At this moment, to judge by later events, none knew what to do, what the others had in mind, or what would happen next.
Amid the gloom of the deathbed watch, their thoughts went back to the previous year and to an incident that had seemed unimportant at the time. Alexander’s army was then on the march, returning from India (eastern Pakistan today), the farthest reach of its conquests. Accompanying the troops was an Eastern holy man named Calanus, an elderly sage who had become a kind of guru to some of the senior officers. But Calanus fell ill as the army reached Persia and, foreseeing a slow decline toward death, arranged to commit suicide by self-immolation. In a solemn ceremony he said farewell to each of his devotees, but when Alexander approached, he drew back, saying cryptically that he would embrace the king when he saw him in Babylon. Then he climbed atop a tall pyre before the entire Macedonian army, and all 40,000 watched as he burned to death, sitting calm and still amid the flames.
Now they had come to the fabulously wealthy city of Babylon (in the south of modern Iraq), and Calanus’ words had begun to make sense. Other recent incidents, too, suddenly took on ominous meaning. A few days before Alexander fell ill, an interloper never seen before had dashed into the palace throne room, put on the diadem and royal robes—left by Alexander when he went to take exercise—and seated himself on the throne. Under interrogation he claimed to have followed the instructions of an Egyptian god called Serapis, or perhaps (according to a different account) merely to have acted on a whim. Alexander, however, suspected a plot and ordered the man’s execution. Whatever its motives, the act seemed vaguely threatening, a portent of danger to the state.
Excerpted from Ghost On The Throne by James Romm. Copyright © 2011 by James Romm. Excerpted by permission of Alfred A. Knopf, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Review by Jeremy Rutter
During the 1,500 years spanned by Classical antiquity, when empires took at least decades (Persian) if not centuries (Assyrian, Roman, Parthian) to build, Alexander the Great’s astonishing achievement in creating the largest western empire ever known in less than a dozen years (334-323 BCE) has been the subject of countless historical narratives for well over two millennia. The equally rapid fragmentation of his Macedonian empire, accompanied by the total annihilation of its 400-year-old Argead ruling house, is by comparison a story seldom told, not least because of how many different characters it involved. One reason for the large number of personalities that populate this history is their generally short life expectancy once they became prominent players in the unfolding drama: what many of Alexander’s generals and would-be successors (the so-called Diadochoi) envisioned as a struggle for supremacy often enough became a fight for mere survival.
James Romm succeeds brilliantly in bringing to life the seven-year period (323-316 BCE) that is his focus by presenting his large cast of characters through a series of relatively brief episodes (3-6 months at a time) in the careers of interacting clusters of his principals. Each chapter, sequenced in chronological order, deals with just a few of these groups, the characters within which are constantly shifting. The result is an interleaved, multi-person biography told synchronically in bite-sized increments that are each coherent and complete narratives. What is usually considered to be an almost impenetrable period for historians to present intelligibly to new readers is converted into a continuous series of dramatic episodes in the lives of half-a-dozen major figures competing in an extremely fast-paced politico-military contest stretching from Greece to Pakistan.
The range of personality types in this complex web of tales is broad, and Romm delineates them sharply enough so that most readers will soon enough have picked their favorites. Some will be comparatively well known to history buffs—for example, the Athenian orator Demosthenes, the crafty one-eyed Macedonian general Antigonos or Alexander’s bloodthirsty mother Olympias—but most, including Romm’s clever and ultra-loyal hero Eumenes of Cardia, will be familiar only to specialists. One consequence of this relative anonymity of his principal characters is that Romm’s saga of the tumultuous years immediately following Alexander’s relatively sudden death in Babylon at the age of 33 becomes something of a thriller: which of Alexander’s seven official Bodyguards (Somatophylakes), his innermost circle of trusted generals, and which of the ever-shrinking numbers of his wives, mistresses, children and relatives will survive until the next chapter in this roller coaster of an imperial succession story?
Hardcover Book : 368 pages
Publisher: Alfred A. Knopf, Inc./Random House ( October 11, 2011 )
Item #: 13-396777
Product Dimensions: 5.625 x 9.25 x 0.92inches
Product Weight: 17.0 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
The book does an excellent job of discussing the dissolution of Alexander's empire post-demise, but there is a fair amount of assumption that the reader is familiar with Arrian's Campaigns of Alexander the Great and Xenophon's Hellenika as prologue to knowing the players and knowing the vast extent of territory and wealth involved in the struggle. The discussion of Eumenes' relationship with the other players is extensive, although I would have liked to see more discussion of Ptolemy's actions. Very well written (almost novel-like in places), and impeccably researched, although you should read Arrian immediately before this book to get the most out of it.
Reviewer: David B
I purchased Ghost on the Throne having just finished Philip Freeman's Alexander the Great. I found that both books retell their historical epochs in a way that was meaningful and interesting to me, well written and worth reading.
That being said, I add that I am a lover of maps. I like to follow the action. Both books fall short. The Alexander volume has one key map, the most essential part of which is lost in the binding. The Ghost volume has no maps at all--though it does have a number of interesting B&W illustrations.
So, yes, I recommend that good maps be included. And perhaps these two volumes could be marketed with a good discount for purchasing both.
Reviewer: John R