Long before George R.R. Martin penned his tale of war, intrigue and treachery the ancient world was scene to its own version of The Game of Thrones.
(This is the second in a series concerning the Wars of the Diadachi. Part 1 can be read here, and includes comprehensive biographies of the players in this drama. It is strongly advised that you start there before reading on here. Stay tuned to this blog for future installments!)
TO THE STRONGEST
As Alexander’s corpse lay cooling in the palace at Babylon, his closest friends and senior general’s were already squabbling in the royal chambers. With no clear heir to the empire, who was to rule? Both of the queens were pregnant, and either might give birth to an heir. But the Macedonians were a tiny, conquering minority holding down a vast empire, created by the genius of one man, and that man was now dead. They needed a ruler, not an infant on the throne. And once the royal infants were born, which had the better claim?
Alexander had married Roxane, daughter of the Sogdian lord Oxyartes, first. But Stateira, daughter of the late Persian Shah-an-Shah Darius III was of vastly superior lineage. A son born of Alexander and Stateira (if son it be) would unite both peoples, Macedonian and Persian.
Babylon, here depicted in the 2004 film, “Alexander the Great”, was one of the oldest and most cosmopolitan cities in the ancient world when Alexander chose it as the capital of his empire. It was here that he died and where the struggle over the succession beganHowever, while the generals and grandees argued and brawled over the royal corpse, at least one in the palace kept a cold-bloodedly clear head.
We know little of the personalities of famous women in Greek histories. Plutarch wrote no biographies of the famous women of the ancient world. But the picture we have of Roxane, which seeps through the sources focused on the men around her and their deeds, is one of a passionate and, when necessary, ruthless young woman. Alexander had in fact married a Central Asian version of his own formidable mother, Olympias,
With her rival also carrying Alexander’s child and the succession in doubt, Roxane took swift action in the interest of her own unborn child. Before word of Alexander’s death had spread beyond the royal bedroom, she had one of the eunuchs of the palace summon Queen Stateira, in Alexander’s name, to an isolated wing of this sprawling, ancient palace of the Babylonian kings. There she found not Alexander, only Roxane and her henchman. The daughter of Darius was forced to take poison, and her body was dumped into a well. It was found on autopsy that she had indeed been carrying a son.
The succession question had just become simpler.
Interior set of the Palace of Nebuchadnezzar in Babylon, from the film “Alexander” (2004). It was to an interior courtyard such as this that Roxane lured Alexander’s royal Persian bride Stateira and murdered her.
Plutarch claims Perdiccas was a co-conspirator in this murder. Whether he was complicit in Stateira’s death we will never know. But very soon afterward he was calling for a regency in the name of Roxane’s unborn child (assuming it was a son). As the Chiliarch (vizier), Perdiccas had possession of Alexander’s signet ring, supposedly given to him by the king just before he died. Perdiccas claimed now that Alexander meant for him to bear the burden of regency until Roxane’s son was old enough to assume his duties and privileges.
Outside the palace the Macedonian rank-and-file were in ferment. Near-insane with grief over the death of their beloved leader, they received the rumors of Perdiccas’ proposals unhappily. Soon a mob formed, demanding a voice in the decision of succession, as was the ancient right of the Macedonian Army. Alarmed, Perdiccas sent the old taxiarch Meleager to calm and reassure the solders. Old salt-of-the-earth Meleager was “one of them”, after all (see Part One for a pocket bio of each of the leaders), and the one general the common soldier would trust and listen to.
Perdiccas, however, had misread his man.
Long ignored and taken for granted by Alexander and the young generation of leaders that had come to power with him, Meleager had been one of the original phalanx leaders at the start of Alexander’s conquests. He was the only taxiarch of those original six who had never received promotion. A natural envy and resentment against the “young coxcombs” of Alexander’s court may now have motivated his actions. For no sooner was he in the streets among the angry soldiers than he turned rabble-rouser, becaming their leader and spokesman.
According to the historian Quintus Curtius (who is not, perhaps, the most reliable of sources), the army then assembled in conclave outside the city. The Royal Pavilion was set-up, with Alexander’s throne set before it; and his crown, robes, arms and armor displayed upon the throne. This was a practice that would later be repeated, with counsels of war conducted before the throne and arms of the now dead conqueror.
The seven Bodyguards (Somatophylakes) took seats behind the throne; with the principle Companions (Hetairoi, the friends and advisers to the king, not the heavy cavalry corps of the same name) standing behind these. Perdiccas now made a peace-keeping gesture, removing Alexander’s signet ring from his finger and placing it on a cushion upon the throne. By this gesture he was symbolically returning it to the soldiers, the regency theirs to dispose.
Actor Neil Jackson played the under-written role of Perdiccas in Alexander (2004)
Perdiccas spoke first. He reminded the assembly that they were an island in a sea of conquered foes. That if they wanted to hold onto the power and riches they had won, they must choose a leader; and that an army without a chief “is a body without a soul”. He concluded by reminding them that Roxane was late in her pregnancy, and that if the gods were kind a boy would be born, a legitimate heir to Alexander’s empire. That in time he would be ready to assume his place as their king. But, in the meantime, they should choose a leader.
Nearchus, Alexander’s Admiral and boyhood friend, spoke next. He agreed that it was only fitting that one of Alexander’s blood should rule them. But he wondered why they should wait for the birth of Roxane’s son when a half-grown son of Alexander’s was alive and suitable? He meant Heracles, the son of Alexander’s mistress, Barsiné. But Alexander had never acknowledged the boy, an odd thing in a Macedonian culture that attached no onus to children born out of wedlock. Philip, his father, had several children by various mistresses, and had acknowledged them all equally. That Alexander had not done so with this son of Barsiné is suspicious, casting doubt on his paternity.
Nearchus was known to have personal reasons for advancing Heracles’ claim to the throne: he had married a daughter of Barsiné by her first husband, Mentor of Rhodes, during the great mass wedding at Susa; making Heracles his half-brother by marriage. Nearchus was no disinterested party. None of the leaders supported his suggestion, and the Macedonian rank-and-file, no doubt mindful of the personal connection, jeered at his nomination. Nearchus continued to argue for Heracles, and the meeting nearly degenerated into a brawl, when the popular Ptolemy son of Lagos stepped forward and spoke for the soldiers.
Neither a son of Barsiné or of Roxane’s was a suitable king for Hellenes, he told them. Had their ancestors thrown back the hordes of Asia under Darius and Xerxes, just to now hand the rule of Hellas over to a half-barbarian brat? He (Ptolemy) suggested instead a counsel of leaders, comprised of those who had been Alexander’s most trusted advisors. These would meet before the dead king’s empty throne, as they were that day. Then, together, they would decide on matters of concern to all, and let their dead leader’s spirit inform and guide their decisions.
Actor Elliot Cowan as Ptolemy in 2005’s “Alexander”
This suggestion caused a new round of argument, some for and some against. No doubt it appealed to many of the superstitious soldiers who had yet to come to terms with the death of their beloved king, or with a world in which his will did not guide them.
Aristonus the Bodyguard rose next to speak.
“As Alexander lay dying”, he said, “he gave his kingdom to “the strongest” (tôi kratistôi); and he himself adjudged Perdiccas that man, by handing him his signet ring. Others here were there in that room; and he could have chosen any one of them. But, no, comrades: after looking around it was Perdiccas he chose. We should respect his choice.”
Aristonas’ words swayed many in the assembly; perhaps because he was known to be an honest soldier, devoid of personal ambitions. There were calls now for Perdiccas to take back the signet ring.
However, at this critical juncture Perdiccas hesitated. Were they offering him the throne? Or merely the regency till a king of the Royal House could be decided upon? While he hesitated the moment (temporarily) slipped away.
Meleager now stepped forward, spokesman for the most disgruntled faction among the solders.
He denounced Perdiccas’ as a man scheming for the throne. That Perdiccas had only suggested regency for Roxane’s unborn son because he knew that he, as regent, would be the true ruler of the empire. And why should they wait for Alexander’s “barbarian” bride to give birth when a true-born Macedonian heir was here among them?
He meant Arrhidaeus, Alexander’s half-brother. This prince was a son of Philip II by a Thessalian dancing girl. He was mentally disabled, perhaps autistic (and may have had bouts of epilepsy, not unusual in autistic children). Alexander had been fond of his brother, who appears to have been a gentle, child-like soul; and Alexander had brought Arrhidaeus with him on campaign as part of his household. Now in his mid-thirties Arrhidaeus physically reminded many of the Macedonian soldiers of his late father, Philip II; who they remembered nostalgically as a “Macedonian of the Macedones”, free of the odious Medizing that had tainted their beloved Alexander in his last years. Looking at Arrhidaeus, many of the old soldiers shed tears, imagining the king of their youth returned.
Meleager and those soldiers who agreed with him now demanded that as Alexander’s closest male relative Arrhidaeus not be disinherited; but instead be proclaimed king. This was a popular suggestion with the rank-and-file, at least those of the infantry. The confused Arrhidaeus was produced, and escorted to the Royal Tent; where he was dressed in Alexander’s royal robe (and likely crowned as well). They proclaimed him King Philip (III), perhaps to further remind all that he was the son of their late king, and he is hereafter referred to as Philip Arrhidaeus.
The Macedonian soldiers gathered in conclave. Many had grown old on campaign, yet continued to serve their king. At Babylon, they demanded Arrhidaeus as their king.
It was the ancient right of the Macedonian Army, as the living embodiment of the Macedonian people-in-arms, to select their king. The convention was that their choice had to come from one of the ancient Royal House (the Argeadae); and Arrhidaeus, as son of one king and brother to another certainly qualified. But this choice did not sit well with any of the leaders.
Peithon the Bodyguard decried the choice, and the uproar that followed forced Perdiccas and his adherents to retreat back into the city and palace, where they barricaded themselves in Alexander’s chambers. Meleager and a party of soldiers, now armed-and-armored, attempted to force their way in and seize Perdiccas as a traitor. Cooler heads prevailed, and Meleager and his men withdrew. However, Perdiccas realized his life was in danger with Meleager in control of the king. He ordered the cavalry (who, as aristocrats by-and-large, felt little sympathy with the commoners who made-up the infantry) to draw-up for battle on the plain outside the city. To these Perdiccas and many of the leadership fled. They then blockaded the approaches to the city, preventing the daily arrival of food from the countryside.
Macedonian Companion Cavalrymen. These were the elite strike force of Alexander’s army. At his death in 323 BC they numbered some 4,000 strong, and included noble Persians as well as Macedonians and Greeks. Supported by some 200 elephants brought back from India, they gave Perdiccas a strong trump-card to play against Meleager in the power struggle that developed.
What followed was nearly a battle between the Macedonian cavalry (which included some 200 elephants Alexander had amassed in his later years) and the infantry; Perdiccas against Meleager. The two arms (horse vs foot) deployed against each other, prepared for battle. It is a sign of how dominant and effective the cavalry-arm had become under Alexander (and perhaps how feared the elephants were) that at the eleventh hour the infantry backed down and bloodshed was avoided.
The Macedonian phalanx, shown here prepared for battle
A compromise was instead arranged through the diplomatic efforts of Eumenes, the wily Greek who was Chief of the Secretariat. Philip Arrhidaeus was to remain king, with the popular (and absent) Craterus as his guardian. Antipater, another popular old leader from Philip’s days, was to remain as General in Europe. Perdiccas was to be his counterpart, General-in-Command of the army in Asia and confirmed as Vizier (Chiliarch). Though given executive authority, Perdiccas’ effective power (and ambitions) would be checked by Craterus, who as guardian of the King would (theoretically) have to counter-sign any of Perdiccas’ orders. Should Roxane give birth to a son, Perdiccas would share guardianship of the infant heir with another of the Bodyguards, Leonnatus.
Meleager, who can not have been pleased by these turn of events, was partially mollified by being appointed Second-in-Command of the army in Asia. However, the old solder was playing out of his depth, checkers to Perdiccas’ chess.
To dispel the evil that had almost caused the army to war against itself, the troops now paraded, and were marched between the severed halves of dog (a strange and ancient custom in Macedon). At the conclusion of this parade Perdiccas, acting as Vizier and in the King’s name (with Philip Arrhidaeus beside him on the reviewing platform), ordered the arrest of the men who had instigated the discord of the previous days. Some 300, all supporters of Meleager, were seized by the Guard (commanded by Seleucus). Perdiccas had these unfortunates tied down, and then trampled to pulp by the elephants.
This unexpected coup and the barbaric punishment meted out to his supporters seems to have terrified and disheartened Meleager, who fled to a Temple, seeking refuge. Here he was dragged out by Perdiccas’ orders, and murdered.
When you play the game of thrones, you win or you die.
Throughout this all, King Philip Arrhidaeus made no effort to save the men who had placed him on the throne. Mentally he was simply incapable of dealing with the situation he’d been thrust into. From this point until his eventual death he was no more than another piece on the chess board, moved about by one player or another.
First blood had been spilled. It was just the beginning of what was to come.
Meanwhile, Alexander’s body was prepared for transport back home Macedonian, to be interred in the royal tombs at Aigai (modern Vergina). The best Egyptian and Chaldean embalmers worked on the king, “to make the body sweet-smelling and incorruptible.” It was said Alexander’s body showed no signs of decomposition, despite having been left for days untended in the Babylonian summer heat. If true this may indicate that Alexander had not died when he was assumed to have; but instead have slipped into such a deep coma that no vital signs were evident, dying perhaps days later from neglect.
To transport the body, a fortune was spent creating an amazing and elaborate funeral cart that would bear the sarcophagus on its journey. It was made of gold and decorated with precious gems; and would take two years to complete.
It was a symbolic duty of one ruler to bury his predecessor. By administering this preparation, Perdiccas was signaling to all that he was now the true power behind the throne, whatever else may have been agreed to.
Now acting in King Philip’s name, Perdiccas divided the empire, deciding who would govern which province. There must, of course, have been much bargaining and compromise to build a base of support among the ambitious men surrounding him.
Ptolemy was given the Satrapy of Egypt, no doubt his first and only choice. Leonnatus, whose ambitions, as we shall see, looked to the homeland of Macedon and a royal marriage was given the province of Hellespontine Phrygia: the Asian lands closest to Europe across the Dardanelles strait. Antigonus, the already too powerful satrap of Phrygia had his authority expanded with the addition of Lycia and Pamphylia; territories he had likely already conquered after Alexander passed on to the east, leaving him there to keep communications open with the Macedonian base. This formalization of the “facts on the ground” was a bone thrown to (temporarily) appease an old and hungry wolf.
In Europe, Thrace was taken from Antipater’s control and made into a separate satrapy, which was given to Lysimachus. Perhaps this was a move to weaken Antipater’s power, which in Europe was absolute and a potential threat to Perdiccas’ position. Craterus was on the way to Macedon with 10,000 veterans. His original orders from Alexander had been to replace Antipater. Perdiccas had not rescinded or addressed Craterus’ orders, and it is possible he was waiting to see how events would shake out once Craterus arrive in Macedon; hoping perhaps that Craterus would eliminate his rival without him having to lift a finger. In the meantime, Lysimachus could establish himself in Thrace, restoring order to a region which had thrown off Macedonian rule and perhaps be an ally against whoever ultimately came to rule in Macedon.
Finally, Perdiccas rewarded four men who had helped him in the last few, trouble-filled days, and whose loyalty and support he hoped he could count upon. Peithon was looking to the Upper Satrapies (eastern Iran, Turkmenistan, and Afghanistan), and from the strategically-located Media he would be in position to keep an eye both an them and events in the capital, Babylon. Perdiccas perhaps realized that this would make Peithon too powerful by half, and be raising up a potential rival. So he granted him his wish, though he divided the large satrapy of Media into two, giving northwestern mountainous portion to his own father-in-law, Atropates. As a Persian he could be no rival, and as family he could be trusted to keep an eye on his ambitious neighbor, Peithon. A neat solution all around. (Later, during the chaos of the wars that were coming, Atropates would found the independent kingdom of Atropatene out of his satrapy, a region known today as Azerbaijan).
Eumenes, whose diplomatic skills had prevented an early outbreak of civil war, was given the satrapy of Cappadocia. Alexander had left a satrap in charge as he passed through, early in his Persian campaign. However, Ariarathes, son of a former Persian satrap of Cappadocia and a general of Darius had seized power there sometime around 330 BC; perhaps while Alexander was occupied in the pursuit of Darius after Gaugamela. He had declared himself king, and had even expanded his realm in the intervening years. It was now time to restore Macedonian authority to this strategic region in the heart of Anatolia; and Eumenes was given the mission to defeat Ariarathes and subdue the satrapy. He was to be aided in this endeavor by both Leonnatus and Antigonus, from their respective satrapies. Ultimately, each of these two had their own agendas, and Perdiccas would have to take a hand himself.
Finally Seleucus, commander of the “Silver Shields” (the Argyraspides, which included the Foot Guard, the Agema), who must have been instrumental in the arrest of Meleager and his followers, was promoted to command of the Companion Cavalry corps. (A nearly hollow honor, as it turned out: many of these soon dispersed to enlist in the cavalry guard of various Macedonian satraps, as these grandees enlisted private armies for the coming struggles.) His place as commander of the Argyraspides was taken by the senior taxiarch of the phalanx, Antigenes.
Then, in or around September of 323, two events occurred that would shake-up and reset the board.
Roxane gave birth to a son. He was named for his father, and ultimately minted coins as Alexander IV. The royal infant was presented to the army, and was acclaimed by the soldiers as co-king with his uncle, Arrhidaeus. Now there would be two royal pawns upon the board to manipulate.
From Greece came much more disturbing news: the Greeks, led by Athens and Aetolia, had proclaimed themselves free of Macedonian rule. Worse, Antipater had moved against them and been defeated near Thermopylae. The old general had retreated north, to Lamia at the edge of the Malian plain. Now he was held up inside, blockaded by a Greek army.
The domination of Greece, a cornerstone of Macedonian power, was in jeopardy of crumbling.
- It was the right of the Macedonian army, as representatives of the “Macedonian people in arms” to elect the next king on the death of the previous ruler. The candidate was usually the oldest male heir. But on other occassions the Macedonians had selected someone else from the royal family, particularly when the son of the recently deceased monarch was a minor. The king was first-and-foremost the leader of the Macedonians in time of war; and a child-monarch could not fulfill that duty to his people.
- Quintus Curtius Rufus, 10.6.8
- 2. Ibid, 10.6.16-17