THE WORD SPREAD rapidly through the city of Babylon and the army encampments around the city: “The king is dead!” Bewilderment mingled with fear, and some remembered how even the rumor of his death, two years earlier in India, had almost provoked mutiny from the Macedonian regiments. They had been uncertain as to their future and far from home; their situation was not much different now. Would the king stage yet another miraculous recovery to cement the loyalty of his troops and enhance his aura of divinity? Or was the rumor true, and was bloodshed sure to follow?
Only two days earlier, many of his men had insisted on seeing him with their own eyes. They were troubled by the thought that their king was already dead, after more than a week of reported illness, and that for complex court reasons the truth was being concealed. Apart from rumors, all they had heard were the bland bulletins issued by Alexander’s staff, to the effect that the king was ill but alive. Knowing that he was in the palace, they had more or less forced their way past his bodyguards. They had been allowed to file past the shrouded bed, where a pale figure waved feebly at them.1 But this time there was no contradictory report, and no waving hand. As time passed, it became clear that this time it was true: Alexander the Great, conquering king and savior god, was dead.
At the time of his death in Babylon, around 3.30 p.m. on June 11, 323 BCE, Alexander was just short of thirty-three years old. He had recklessly exposed himself to danger time after time, but apart from war wounds—more than one of which was potentially fatal, especially in those days of inadequate doctoring—he had hardly been ill in his life and was as fit as any of the veterans in his army.
How had such a man fallen ill? True, there had been a lot of drinking recently, both in celebration of the return to civilization and to drown the memory of Hephaestion’s death (which, ironically, had been brought on or caused by excessive drinking). This boyhood friend had been the only man he could trust, his second-in-command, and the one true love of his life. But heavy drinking was expected of Macedonian kings, and Alexander had also become king of Persia, where, again, it was considered a sign of virility to be able to drink one’s courtiers under the table. If anyone was inured to heavy drinking, it was Alexander, and his symptoms do not fit alcohol poisoning. Excessive drinking, however, along with grief and old wounds (especially the lung that was perforated in India), may have weakened his system.
The accounts of his symptoms are puzzling. They are fairly precise, but do not perfectly fit any recognizable cause. One innocent possibility is that he died of malaria. He had fallen ill ten years previously in Cilicia, which was notorious for its malaria up until the 1950s. Perhaps he had a fatal recurrence of the disease in Babylon.2 More dramatically, the reported symptoms are also compatible with the effects of white hellebore, a slow-acting poison. The incomprehensibility of Alexander’s death to many people, and its propaganda potential, led very quickly to rumors of poisoning, especially since this was not an uncommon event among the Macedonian and eastern dynasties. And, as in an Agatha Christie novel, there were plenty of people close at hand who might have liked to see him dead. It was not just that some of them entertained world-spanning ambitions, soon to be revealed. It was more that Alexander’s recent paranoid purge of his friends and officials, and his megalomaniacal desire for conquest and yet more conquest, could have turned even some of those closest to him.
Now or later, Alexander’s mother stirred the pot from Epirus, southwest of Macedon. For some years, Olympias had been in voluntary exile from Macedon, back in her native Molossia (the mountainous region of Epirus whose kings, at this moment in Epirote history, were the de facto rulers of the Epirote League). On his departure for the east, Alexander had left a veteran general of his father’s, Antipater, as viceroy in charge of his European possessions for the duration of his campaigns—Macedon, Thessaly, Thrace, and Greece. Unable to be supreme in Macedon, and irrevocably hostile to Antipater, Olympias returned to the foundation of her power. But she never stopped plotting her return to the center. She was widely known to have been involved in a number of high-profile assassinations, and was a plausible candidate for the invisible hand behind the murder of her husband, Philip II, in 336, since it seemed as though he was planning to dislodge her and Alexander from their position as favorites.
Olympias, then, knew exactly where to point the finger over her son’s death. And she had a plausible case: not long before his death Alexander had ordered Antipater replaced, largely on the grounds of his “regal aspirations.”3 Like many of Alexander’s actions in his last months, this order was not easily justifiable: already over seventy-five years old, Antipater had served three Macedonian kings and, despite limited resources, he had done a good job of leaving Alexander free to concentrate on eastern conquest. He had defeated the Persian fleet at sea and quelled a Thracian rebellion and a major Greek uprising (though even then, in 331, Alexander had sneeringly dismissed this as a “battle of mice”).4 Nevertheless, Antipater was to be relieved by Craterus, Alexander’s favorite since the death of Hephaestion, and was to bring fresh Macedonian troops out to Babylon.
Recently, however, such summonses had acquired the habit of turning into traps. Antipater had good reason to think that he would be executed on some charge or other, just as other powerful and seemingly loyal officials had been. Unhinged by Hephaestion’s death in October 324, Alexander had instigated a veritable reign of terror against even incipient signs of independence among his marshals. Moreover, to strengthen Olympias’s case, two of Antipater’s sons had long been in Babylon—and one of them, Iolaus, was well placed to act as a poisoner, since he was Alexander’s cupbearer. And Alexander’s fatal illness had begun immediately after a heavy drinking session. Indeed, shortly after news of Alexander’s death reached Athens, the anti-Macedonian politician Hyperides proposed honors for Iolaus precisely for having done away with the king. Yet another of Antipater’s sons, Cassander, had arrived only a few weeks earlier, presumably to plead for his father’s retention in Macedon. His mission had not gone well. Unfamiliar with the changes that had recently taken place in Alexander’s court, he had fallen out with the king over his insistence on obeisance from his courtiers, and Alexander had publicly humiliated him in return.5
Whatever the facts, it was a perfect opportunity for Olympias to sow mischief against her chief enemies. Antipater was compelled to respond: before long, someone in his camp published an account of Alexander’s last days that was supposed to be the official diary of the king’s secretary, Eumenes of Cardia. The document downplayed the idea that the king had died an unnatural death, and stressed the heavy drinking, while appearing to suggest that this was nothing unusual; it hinted at Alexander’s grief over Hephaestion, and at an unspecified fever that carried him off.6
But even if Olympias was wrong about Antipater and his sons, there were plenty of others who could feel uncomfortable if people started speculating and looking for motives. And even if she was wrong that Alexander’s death was part of a power play by certain individuals, she was right that his death would free the ambitions of those who had been closest to her son—those, at any rate, who were still alive after thirteen years of hard campaigning and ruthless purges. As it turned out, even bloodthirsty Alexander would have been proud of the scope of their ambitions: they embroiled the known world in decades of war.
THE CONQUESTS OF ALEXANDER
Philip II came to the Macedonian throne in 359. Within four or five years, by a combination of diplomacy, assassination, and military force, he had warded off internal and external threats and united the various cantons under his autocratic rule. It became clear that the Greek states to the south were his next target. He improved on Greek infantry tactics and developed the army until he had a stupendous fighting force at his personal command. He could call on two thousand cavalry and thirty thousand soldiers trained to high professional standards and equipped with superior weaponry. Many Greek states would have to unite in order to field an army of comparable size. Their failure to do so meant that he could pick them off one by one, or league by league.
Athens became the focus of what little resistance there was to Macedon, but it was the last gasp of traditional Greek city-state autonomy. War, financed in part by Persia, was waged in a ragged fashion by Athens and its allies against Philip, until in 338 he marched south. Alongside Boeotian troops, Athenians faced the Macedonians at Chaeronea in Boeotia. Numbers were almost equal. The battle was so hotly contested that the elite Theban Sacred Band died nearly to a man, and the Athenians too suffered crippling casualties.
Almost the first action Philip took as ruler of southern Greece was to form the conquered states into a league, the Hellenic League or League of Corinth, with himself at its head. Interstate conflict was outlawed, and so Philip, a Macedonian king, took the first step toward Greek statehood, finally attained over two thousand years later. In return for votes on the league council, every state was obliged, when called upon, to supply troops for military expeditions. He next got the league to appoint him supreme commander for the long-promised “Greek” war against Persia, in retaliation for a century and a half of Persian interference in Greek affairs and two destructive invasions, in 490 and 480 BCE. Though that was distant history, the Greeks had never forgotten or forgiven; Persia was the common enemy, and public speakers ever since had fanned the flames of Greek supremacism and revenge.
But Philip was murdered in 336, on the eve of his journey east, at his daughter Cleopatra’s wedding party. It is a sordid tale, but worth repeating for the insight it affords into the Macedonian court. The killer, Pausanias, was one of Philip’s Bodyguards and his lover. He had aroused the ire of Attalus, one of Philip’s principal generals, and Attalus allegedly arranged for Pausanias to be gang-raped.7 Philip refused to punish Attalus at this critical juncture, when he was about to lead a division of the army of invasion. Pausanias therefore killed the king. The water is further muddied by the fact that Attalus was a bitter enemy of Olympias and Alexander; it is not implausible to suggest that Olympias encouraged Pausanias’s desire for revenge.
In any case, both the Macedonian throne and the eastern expedition devolved on Philip’s son, Alexander III, soon to be known as “the Great.” In 334, Alexander crossed the Hellespont into Asia. His first act was to cast a spear into the soil: Asia was to be “spear-won land,” his by right of conquest. In a series of amazing and closely fought battles, he crushed the Persians and took control of the empire.
The battle at the Granicus River in 334 took care of the Persian armies of Asia Minor; four satraps (provincial governors), three members of the king’s family, and the Greek commander of the Persians’ mercenaries lay dead on the battlefield. The remnants of the king’s western army were ordered to fall back to Babylonia, where a fresh army was mustering. In 333 Alexander annihilated the Persians near Issus, not far from the border between Cilicia and Syria. It was a notable victory: not only were Persian losses serious, but eight thousand of Darius’s mercenaries deserted in despair after the battle, the Persian king’s immediate family were captured, and Alexander enriched himself with the king’s war chest.
Alexander returned to Phoenicia and protected his rear by taking Egypt in 332. By the time he returned from Egypt and marched east again, Darius had had almost two years in which to gather another army. Battle was joined near the village of Gaugamela, close to the Tigris, on October 1, 331. As usual, in addition to the formidable Macedonian fighting machine, both luck and superior strategy were on Alexander’s side, and despite its vastly superior numbers the Persian army was eventually routed. It was the end of the empire; it had been ruled by the Achaemenid house for over two hundred years. The king fled to Ecbatana in Media, and Alexander proclaimed himself Lord of Asia in Darius’s stead. Babylon and Susa opened their gates without a fight, and the rest of the empire lay open to his unstoppable energy. A minor defeat near Persepolis hardly delayed his taking the city, the old capital of the Persian heartland. In the summer of 330 he marched on Ecbatana. Darius fled before him with a scorched-earth strategy, but was killed by some of his own satraps and courtiers.
The conspirators fought on, in a bloody and ultimately futile war, basing themselves in the far eastern satrapy of Bactria. By 325 Alexander had pacified Bactria and extended the empire deep into modern Pakistan (ancient “India”), but his troops had had enough and he was forced to turn back. An appalling and unjustifiable desert journey decimated his ranks and undermined his popularity, which was further weakened by measures that were perceived as an attempt to share power with native elites. In Susa, in April 324, he and all the senior Macedonians and Greeks in his retinue took eastern wives. Alexander, already married to a Bactrian princess called Rhoxane, took two further wives, daughters of the last two Persian kings. But to many Macedonians and Greeks, all non-Greeks were by that very fact inferior beings.
By the time of his death, Alexander’s empire of about five million square kilometers (roughly two million square miles) stretched patchily from the Danube to the Nile to the Indus. Modern terms show immediately the extraordinary nature of his achievement: the empire incorporated Greece, Bulgaria, much of Turkey, Lebanon, Syria, Israel/Palestine, Egypt, Iraq, Kuwait, Iran, Afghanistan, western Pakistan, and parts of Turkmenistan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan, and he had received the submission of further kings and chieftains within and on the borders of the empire.
His territory was so vast that it helps to think of it in terms of a few major blocks of territory, defined not just by the geographical features such as mountain ranges or seas that formed their borders, but also by the fact that ripples spread by events within one block did not necessarily reach neighboring blocks. The European territories—Macedon, Greece, and Thrace—constitute one such block, separated from Asia by the narrow and critical Hellespont; Asia Minor is another, bordered to the east and southeast by formidable mountains. With its natural defenses of desert and sea, Egypt always considered itself a separate unit, and even under Achaemenid rule often strove for independence. Syria west of the Euphrates was caught between Asia and Egypt, and was long a bone of contention. Finally, east of the Euphrates the eastern satrapies stretched all the way to the Indus River in Pakistan.8
The astonishing energy of the campaigns was due entirely to Alexander’s character. He was a driven man, and world conquest was his focus. He slaughtered by the thousands those who stood in his way. He thinned the ranks even—especially—of those closest to him at the slightest suspicion of conspiracy, or even disagreement with major policy decisions. One erstwhile close friend he ran through with a spear in a drunken rage. He exposed himself recklessly to danger on numerous occasions, not as a calculated way to win his troops’ devotion (though it certainly did that) but because he was sure of his destiny, and certain that the king of the gods, Zeus, would protect him until that destiny had been fulfilled. No wonder he was so furious when his troops mutinied in 325 in India and his will was for once thwarted.
Such rage, feigned or not, was part of Alexander’s new image. Shortly after the victory at Gaugamela in 331, Alexander was proclaimed “Lord of Asia,” but this did not mean that he felt he was merely replacing the Achaemenids. That would have been tactless, and poor propaganda, since he had come to eliminate the hated Persian rulers, not to replace them. In fact, in styling himself Lord or King of Asia, he was marking a break between himself and the Achaemenids, whose title had been “King of Persia.” By the same token, he adopted at this time the diadem—a plain hair band—as the symbol of his kingship, not the Persian upright tiara.
In addition to these symbolic differences, Alexander took practical steps to present himself as a different kind of king, not quite in the Persian or the Macedonian mold. He adopted at least some of the regalia of Achaemenid kingship, and took over other Persian practices as well, such as limiting access to his presence, having his subjects salaam or make obeisance before him, and seating himself on a golden throne (totally unfamiliar to Macedonian tradition) for official meetings. This was all cunningly done. He adopted enough Persian customs for him to be acceptable to his new subjects (and it helped that, at least as a temporary expedient, he allowed some easterners privileged positions in his court), while at the same time sending a clear message to the Macedonians: I am no longer quite a Macedonian king. They could only see him as an eastern king—that is, a despot—and that is exactly what he intended. He was deliberately developing Macedonian kingship toward a more autocratic model, in how he presented himself and how he expected his subjects to respond to him.9
It is hard to avoid the conclusion that power and success had gone to his head. He began to present himself as Heracles, the ancestor of all the Argeads, and he chose to blaze like Achilles, from whom he was descended on his mother’s side. Both these heroes had carried out legendary missions in Asia, and he saw himself also as an avatar of Dionysus, who was said to have single-handedly conquered India. Alexander allowed himself to be called the son of Zeus, and Olympias had encouraged him from an early age to think of his true father as Zeus, not the mortal Philip, so that he would have the same dual mortal and immortal parentage as Heracles of legend. There is no doubt that Alexander exploited the idea of his godhood for political reasons, but there can also be little doubt that he found the idea attractive in itself.
The practice of obeisance (proskynsis) was particularly infuriating to his Macedonian and Greek courtiers. They bowed to no one except the gods—but that was the point: Alexander now felt himself to be a god. To say that Alexander was larger than life is to state the obvious, but he broke the bounds of both humanness and humaneness because he was convinced that he was on a god-given mission. Many of his subjects were also ready to acknowledge his godhood, not just because they had a tradition of regarding kings as gods or the gods’ instruments, but because Alexander’s achievements were incredible, and incredible achievement was precisely the mark of divinity. The petty worldview of the Greek states with their pocket handkerchief–sized territories and focus on “our sea,” the Aegean, was exploded forever. Alexander opened up the whole known world and tore down barriers. Boundless opportunities emerged for Greeks to improve their lives of poverty.
The world would never be the same again, and such total transformation was naturally taken to be the work of a god—not just in Alexander’s case but, as we shall see, in the case of his Successors too. The gods brought benefits, as Alexander, for instance, freed the Greek cities of the Asia Minor seaboard from the threat or reality of Persian rule, and so the Asiatic Greeks were the first to worship him as Savior. Not long before his death, Alexander himself had also ordered the Greek cities of the Balkan peninsula to follow suit; Athens and others complied. Alexander’s deeds made everything about him talismanic. The history of the next thirty or forty years is, from certain perspectives, the history of his influence, of the lingering presence of his ghost.
THE SUCCESSION PROBLEM
Succession to the Macedonian throne was often an untidy business, littered with coups and corpses, but even by Macedonian standards this one was far from straightforward. Succession depended on birth into the royal house, nomination by the outgoing king (if he had time), the agreement of the king’s inner circle or council of Companions, and the approval of the citizen or army assembly.
In the first place, there was no obvious heir. It was unthinkable that the next king should not be an Argead, born from a male Argead, for the house had ruled Macedon for over three hundred years, but there were few candidates. Alexander had left few rivals alive. He had a half brother Arrhidaeus, roughly the same age as himself, from another of Philip’s many wives, but Arrhidaeus suffered from some mental defect—not enough to incapacitate him, but enough to make him liable to embarrassing behavior on public occasions.10 We will never know all the details, but that he was defective in some way is clear from the facts that Alexander had let him live and that, even though he was an adult, the question of his succession to the throne was always accompanied by debate over who should be his “protector.” He seems never to have acted of his own accord rather than being manipulated by those close to him.
Then there was a four-year-old boy called Heracles, a good Argead name, since Heracles of legend was supposed to be their remote ancestor. His mother was Alexander’s former mistress, Barsine. No one doubted that Heracles was Alexander’s son, but Alexander had never married Barsine or formally acknowledged the boy as his own, and so he was an unlikely candidate. Besides, he had the black mark against him of being not fully Macedonian, since his mother was half Iranian. Of Alexander’s three wives, Rhoxane was pregnant, and due to deliver in a couple of months’ time. If she came to term—she had already miscarried once—and if the child was male, he would become a serious claimant to the throne, though again he would be a half-breed.
In the second place, Alexander left no will, or rather failed to make his will known. A will appeared some years later, but it was certainly a forgery, cleverly designed for propaganda purposes.11 But why did he not write one in those last days, when he must have suspected that he was dying? Either he was too weak (he seems to have lost the power of speech, but he was able, as already mentioned, to gesture at his men), or it was suppressed by schemers close to him, or he was just irresponsible. But in his dying moments he silently passed his signet ring to his second-in-command in Babylon, Perdiccas, as though to assign him the responsibility for whatever would happen next.
In the third place, the crisis had blown up in Babylon, but Babylon was only one of three centers of power. Roughly the same number of Macedonian troops were to be found in mountain-girt and mineral-rich Cilicia and in Macedon itself. Craterus was in Cilicia, where he had an army of more than ten thousand veterans and the armament that Alexander had been building up for his next world-conquering project. He also had access to the financial resources of one of the main treasuries of the empire, secure in the mountain citadel of Cyinda (location unknown). And then, scarcely less wealthy in natural resources than Babylonia, there was Macedon itself, where Antipater ruled supreme. Whatever solution was found to the succession problem was going to have to take account of many disparate interests.
THE THREAT OF CHAOS
Even apart from the specific problem of the succession, which urgently needed to be addressed by the senior officers and courtiers assembled in Babylon, there was the general background problem. Alexander’s “empire” was an unstable and unformed entity. As it stood, it was an artificial aggregate of the twenty satrapies (often nation-sized in themselves) of the Achaemenid empire and a multitude of minor principalities, tribal unions, confederacies, city-states, and so on, with varying relationships and strategies toward the central power. If it was to be a whole, it was critically in need of organization, or at least official endorsement and maintenance of the status quo, but Alexander’s exclusive focus on campaigning and conquering had precluded his doing much beyond a little tinkering. For instance, while taking over the existing satrapal structure of the Persian empire, he divided administrative from military functions within the satrapies, so that each could check the other and there would be at least one senior Macedonian in each place. But, generally speaking, Alexander’s empire had not advanced beyond the stage of military occupation; there was no capital city, little civil service, and little administration beyond the emergency preparations any commander takes to protect his rear while he continues on campaign.
Alexander did, however, have a loyal and intelligent secretary, Eumenes of Cardia. The Greek had also served Philip II in the same capacity for the last seven years of the great king’s life. All the official correspondence of the empire came through his office. He could keep the empire running, short of emergencies, but he could not make the critical decisions, which needed a king’s attention. Alexander had also created a central finance office, run by his long-trusted friend Harpalus. But when Alexander returned from the east, Harpalus absconded. He had been setting himself up almost as a king in Babylon, and he saw how Alexander was treating even those whom he merely suspected of independent ambitions. Harpalus took with him five thousand talents (with the spending power of about three billion dollars)12 and six thousand mercenaries. Even worse, he took his expertise. For all intents and purposes, then, there was no administration beyond the will of the king himself. L’état, c’est moi, as a later absolute monarch was to claim; Alexander was the administration, but he was dead.
Shortly after Alexander’s death, Eumenes gave Perdiccas Alexander’s “Last Plans,” sketched out over the past few months—at any rate, before Alexander knew he was dying, since all the plans had him at their helm.13 The only important one, militarily and politically speaking, was the plan to conquer all of North Africa, including the flourishing Phoenician-founded city of Carthage (and then Spain, Sicily, and southern Italy); this involved not just amassing a huge army and solving its supply problems, but the construction of a vast fleet of one thousand warships in Cilicia and Phoenicia and laying a trans-African road along the north coast from Egypt to Carthage and beyond. Other plans focused on piety: grand temples were to be constructed, an enormous pyre was to be raised in honor of Hephaestion, a pyramid was to be built for Philip II. A final set of plans involved the foundation of further cities. Alexander had already founded a number of cities—Alexandria in Egypt being the most important, but there were others in the eastern provinces14—but this time there was a new twist: any city founded in the west of the empire was to gain a portion of its population from the east, and vice versa, to encourage intermingling and intermarriage, and presumably also to break up potentially troublesome populations.
None of these plans seems to have as their purpose the stabilization of the empire. On the contrary, the most significant of them would, in the short term, destabilize it. What provisions would Alexander have taken for the administration of the notoriously rebellious satrapies of the east while he was thousands of miles away attempting to conquer the western Mediterranean? How would he persuade people to move from their homes and populate his new foundations? The movement of native populations would surely have required military force, or its threat, just as Adolf Hitler’s Lebensraum program of the displacement of native populations in Eastern Europe by Germans was predicated on German military superiority. It seems that Alexander had chosen to conquer the world rather than consolidate his vulnerable gains.
The brilliant youth who had set out to conquer the east in 334 had, as we have seen, come to adopt a more autocratic, Persian style of kingship. Perhaps the most immediately disruptive of the new acts of autocracy was the so-called Exiles Decree.15 The league of Greek cities that Philip had put in place in 338 was hardly a league of equals, since Philip himself was the leader and arranged things so that his wishes would be carried out. Nevertheless, the setup was that every member state had a voice, and decisions were reached by consultation and approval at one of the league’s regular meetings. This may have been a charade, but it was one which all the parties were prepared to work with. Despite this, early in 324 Alexander took a unilateral decision that would have a drastic effect on a number of Greek states.
All the Greek states were to take back their exiles. This would create, at the very least, administrative and judicial chaos, and possibly even political turmoil, since a lot of the exiles had been banished for political reasons. Many had been working abroad as professional soldiers. Moreover, Alexander threatened recalcitrant states with military action: “We have instructed Antipater to use force in the case of cities that refuse to comply.”16 Alexander was behaving like a tyrant toward the very cities in whose interests he had claimed to conquer the east, and was riding roughshod over the conditions of the league. The decree was an attempt to address a genuine problem: there were large numbers of rootless men, who threatened disorder all over the Greek world. But it would also ensure that every Greek city had people within it who had reason to be grateful to Alexander personally.
Alexander was right to anticipate trouble. It was not just the high-handed manner in which he issued the directive, but also the fact that at least two states would be particularly severely affected by the decree. The Aetolians had forcibly taken over Oeniadeae, a port belonging to their Acarnanian neighbors, expelled its inhabitants, and repopulated it with their own people; the Athenians had done the same with the island of Samos, over thirty years previously. Not only would they have to find some way to accommodate their returning citizens, but they would lose these important gains. When, during the course of his flight, Harpalus arrived in Athens (where he was an honorary citizen), the mood, as a result of the Exiles Decree, was ripe for rebellion, and he immediately offered to finance their war effort.
Trouble was looming, then, in Greece. In fact, it is possible that one of the reasons for Alexander’s displeasure with Antipater was that, nine months later, he had not yet shown much interest in enforcing the Exiles Decree. Antipater was a hard ruler of Greece, and had preferred to see oligarchic administrations in the Greek cities, backed up where necessary by garrisons. In one sense, then, the Exiles Decree undermined Antipater, since a number of the returning exiles would be precisely men who had been sent into exile by his puppets. One of the tasks Craterus had been given, once he had replaced Antipater, was to ensure the freedom of the Greeks; a strategy of noninterference meant that he would be able to stand on the sidelines and watch as rival factions and feuds tore the cities apart.
But Greece was likely to be only one trouble spot. Alexander’s despotism also created the conditions for the brutal and divisive warfare that followed his death. By Macedonian tradition, the main check on the absolute power of the king was his entourage of Companions (or “Friends,” as subsequent kings called them), noble or ennobled Macedonians and a few Greeks; Alexander had added a few easterners. They acted as his advisers, and carried out whatever administrative duties were required of them; they served as staff officers in time of war, ambassadors, governors of provinces, representatives at religious festivals, and so on. In other words, they formed the basic structure of the Macedonian state. At the very least, then, one might have expected Alexander to have ensured that his Companions formed a tightly knit and harmonious cabinet. Instead, he sowed dissent.
One aspect of the problem was that, in acting autocratically, he left his Companions with less responsibility, and was beginning to make flattery rather than friendship the criterion for inclusion in the inner circle of his court. Any given decision would therefore meet with approval from some of the court and disapproval from the rest. The most divisive issue was Alexander’s increasing orientalization. Many, including Craterus, agreed with Cassander and did not think it right that Alexander should demand the humiliating rite of obeisance from Macedonians and Greeks, even if his eastern subjects were prepared to go along with it. Many more were disturbed by his explicit demand that he should be accorded divine honors.
Then there was the purge. Of the twenty satraps of the empire, Alexander had just killed six and replaced two more within a few months. Four more conveniently died, of illness or wounds; two more provinces had changes of governor, without our knowing the circumstances. Those who replaced the dead or deposed satraps were often yes-men.
By the end of the purge, only Egypt, Lydia, and Phrygia had long-standing governors. Alexander had left an old Egyptian hand, Cleomenes of Naucratis, in charge of the province in 331, where he had proved an effective milker of its resources, and in 334, on his way east, he had entrusted Phrygia, and protection of the route back to Macedon, to Antigonus. Known as Monophthalmus, the One-Eyed, for an old war wound, Antigonus was a sixty-year-old former Companion of Philip II. He had served Alexander well, by protecting his rear as he advanced east, and above all by repelling a Persian counteroffensive after Issus. As the years went by, his governorship of Phrygia had expanded into a supervisory role over all Asia Minor. But if Antipater could be replaced in Macedon, neither Cleomenes nor Antigonus, nor Menander in Lydia, could be sure of his position. Alexander had made every man of power in his empire afraid of his peers and envious of others’ success. At the time of his death, a number of satraps, old and new, were either in Babylon or on their way, summoned by Alexander to bring fresh troops or for other, unknown purposes—to act as judges, perhaps, in Antipater’s case.
Like all despots, Alexander was showing signs of living in fear of effective men, in case they should turn against him. But despite the purge and the war losses, there were still men of destiny around him. Naturally so, for they had conquered the east with him, and many had been with him from the start. Most of them had grown enormously wealthy; many had courts and courtiers of their own. They had no desire to lose either their wealth or their power, and they had become used, in the manner typical of courtiers, to competing with one another for power. “Never before that time did Macedon, or indeed any other nation, produce so rich a crop of brilliant men, men who had been picked out with such care, first by Philip and then by Alexander, that they seemed chosen less as comrades in arms than as successors to the throne.”17 Many of these men had known each other since childhood; all of them had bonded in the way soldiers do in the course of a long, hard campaign. But such sentiments could be crushed by personal ambition.
So Alexander sowed the seeds of the civil wars that followed his death. Later, a rumor arose that on his deathbed he invited a deadly struggle over his empire by bequeathing it to “the strongest” and, punning on the tradition of holding an athletic competition to commemorate a great man, by saying, “I foresee funeral contests indeed after my death.” Though capturing the spirit of macho Macedonian culture, the story is hardly likely to be true. But it was written by someone who saw clearly that the hounds of the wars that followed had been unleashed by Alexander.18