The Macedonian Empire was one of the world’s largest but, without doubt, its most ephemeral. It attained its greatest extent in 325 B.C. with Alexander the Great’s invasion of the Indus valley (today eastern Pakistan), at the end of a ten-year campaign of conquest in Europe, Asia, and North Africa. But it began to collapse in 323 following Alexander’s sudden and unforeseen death. It existed in a full and relatively stable form for only two years.
The story of Alexander’s conquests is known to many readers, but the dramatic and consequential sequel to that story is much less well-known. It is a tale of loss that begins with the greatest loss of all, the death of the king who gave the empire its center. “He died just when men most longed for him,” writes Arrian, one of the ancient historians who dealt with this era, implying both that Alexander’s talents were needed to keep the empire together and that the king had become an object of adoration, even worship, in the last years of his life. The era that followed came to be defined by the absence of one towering individual, just as the previous era had been defined by his presence. It was as though the sun had disappeared from the solar system; planets and moons began spinning crazily in new directions, often crashing into each other with terrifying force.
The brightest celestial bodies in this new, sunless cosmos were Alexander’s top military officers, who were also in some cases his closest friends. Modern historians often refer to them as “the Successors” (or “Diadochs,” a Greek word meaning virtually the same thing). But that term is anachronistic for the first seven years after Alexander’s death, when none of these men tried to succeed the king; they vied for his power but not his throne. During the entire span I cover in this book, there were living Argeads (members of the Macedonian royal family) who alone had the right to occupy that throne. Hence I refer to those often termed Successors simply as Alexander’s generals; they were contestants for military rather than royal supremacy. Many of them would eventually occupy thrones, but only after 308 B.C., when it became clear that the Argead era was well and truly over.
The conflicts of these generals took place across a huge swath of Alexander’s empire, often with clashes occurring simultaneously on two or even three continents. I have used snapshot-like frames, starting in the third chapter, to organize disparate but interconnected events, each headed by a rubric to remind readers of the place, time, and principal characters involved. It should be noted that the dates I have used in the rubrics are contested and may differ by a year from those found elsewhere. Historians are divided over two rival schemes, the so-called high and low chronologies; the dates I have given here belong to the high chronology, endorsed most recently by Brian Bosworth in his masterful study The Legacy of Alexander. It is Bosworth’s authority that has decided this matter for me, since I think both schemes have sound arguments and valid evidence behind them, as does a recently proposed hybrid that blends elements of the two.
The ancient record of this era is frustratingly incomplete, even though two talented Greek historians wrote studies of it, and one of them was a witness to its major events. Hieronymus of Cardia was a Greek soldier of fortune who found himself at the center of the post-Alexander power struggle. His firsthand account, sometimes known by the title History of the Successors, was probably one of the great historical narratives written in antiquity, but it became extinct in the Darwinian process whereby widely copied school texts survived the end of the ancient world while other works did not. Before its disappearance, however, it was mined for information by Arrian of Nicomedia, an intelligent Greek writer of the second century A.D., as he prepared his own detailed chronicle of the years between 323 and 319. This work too has been lost, but one reader, Photius, the patriarch of Constantinople, took notes on its contents in the ninth century A.D. Photius’ sparse outline of Arrian, made for personal use and without regard for the needs of posterity, survives today under the title Events After Alexander, in essence a dim reflection, at two removes, of Hieronymus’ account.
There is, however, one Greek narrative of the post-Alexander period that brings us closer to the lost primary sources, and it survives intact. In the first century B.C., Diodorus Siculus compiled a universal Greek history usually known as the Library. Diodorus, who was a middling good writer but no historian, gave artistic shape to the material he found but muddled its chronology, reduced its detail, and omitted events that did not fit his plan. His shortcomings are many, but in treating the struggle for control of Alexander’s empire, in books 18 through 20 of the Library, he produced his best work, largely because he relied heavily on Hieronymus.
Around the same time as Diodorus, a Roman writer, Pompeius Trogus, compiled a general survey of the Macedonian empire titled Philippic History, but this work has utterly perished. Like Arrian’s Events After Alexander, it is known through a thin and reductive summary, compiled probably in the third century A.D. by another Roman, Justin.
The most colorful but least straightforward accounts of this period come from the Lives of Plutarch, the great Greek essayist and biographer of the late first and early second centuries A.D. Plutarch too mined the historical treatise of Hieronymus, along with other primary texts, but did so mostly in search of insights into character rather than a record of events; his interests were ethical more than historical. Nonetheless, I have cited him frequently in this book, along with other unconventional sources: Polyaenus, compiler of military stratagems; Athenaeus, collector of gossip and anecdotes; and the anonymous author of The Lives of the Ten Orators. These writers give insights, however unverifiable, into the personalities that dominate this age, and I have used them to convey those personalities, for I believe, as Plutarch did, that historical action cannot be understood outside the context of character.
But judgment of character is a subjective affair. One has only to read the modern biographies of the players in the power struggle—in English alone there are recent lives of Lysimachus, Ptolemy, Eumenes, Phocion, Olympias, Seleucus, and Antigonus—to see how many questions of intention and motivation are open to dispute. It is a Rashomon-like experience, a witnessing of one set of events through many pairs of eyes. The perspective varies not only with changes of historical focus but with changes of author, for some interpreters are inclined to see the worst impulses in the figures they deal with, others, the best.
One figure in this group has proved especially controversial. Surviving accounts of the Greek general Eumenes are strongly positive, but they are also clearly influenced by the favoritism of Hieronymus, who was Eumenes’ friend and countryman, perhaps even his kinsman. Eumenes is shown not just as a brilliant tactician, full of tricks, inventions, and ruses, but as a man with a noble purpose—the protection of the Macedonian royal family, in particular Alexander’s imperiled young son. Modern historians have rejected this gallant portrait and painted Eumenes as a mere opportunist. I have in what follows taken the view of the ancient sources more seriously. I believe that Eumenes was the last defender of the Argeads, if only because they were his own best hope for political survival.
Where ancient authors are in agreement about the events described in the narrative, or where there is no reason to doubt the testimony of Diodorus (the fullest source), I have not troubled to explain in the Notes how each historical fact has been recovered. Those who want to carefully trace the evidence can best consult Waldemar Heckel’s Who’s Who in the Age of Alexander the Great, a book that combines a biographical scheme of organization with a clear and comprehensive system of citation. I do, however, provide references in the Notes for information derived from more obscure sources and for statements about the private lives and inner thoughts of historical figures. Such statements cannot be vouched for as true to the same degree as public events, so I have tried to assure readers that they were not simply made up, or at least not by me.
The names of people and places mentioned in this book are spelled in a Latinate form and hence will often appear differently in texts that transliterate directly from Greek. Craterus here is elsewhere Krateros, Aegae is elsewhere Aigai. Where there is dispute over the form or spelling of a name, I have followed Heckel in Who’s Who, for the convenience of those using that invaluable book as a reference. In cases where a person is known by more than one name, I have used the more distinctive one, to minimize confusion; Adea, who became Eurydice after her marriage, remains Adea here since there is another Eurydice in the story. In the case of Alexander’s half brother Arrhidaeus, who as king became Philip, it was impossible to avoid overlap, and I have simply called him Arrhidaeus before his accession, Philip afterward.
The bibliography is divided into segments based on the primary focus of the works listed, and these foci have been roughly organized so as to follow the sequence of the narrative. It is my hope that this system will partly take the place of the annotations that would be found in a more scholarly treatment. Readers can see at a glance the secondary works on which I have most relied, without wading through a mass of notes. The subdivisions will be a help to those following up on specific interests, but an inconvenience to those looking for complete citations of works referred to in the notes; such readers might have to look in two or three sections in order to find a single item. I hope, however, that the rubrics of these sections will make the task easier.
Finally, I have taken the unusual step of providing Web addresses in the bibliography for translations of the ancient sources, rather than citing the more scholarly texts I have used myself. Many of these texts are hard to find outside university libraries, and a crucial one, Arrian’s Events After Alexander, cannot be found in any book at all (except in Greek). Though the online translations are not all they could be, they are taken from reputable published books in the public domain. All translations from Greek and Latin that appear in this book are my own.