The Closing of the Tombs

316–308 B.C.

More than six years after his death in Babylon, Alexander still held the world in thrall. In Europe, Olympias and the young Alexander had briefly been thrust to the peak of power, largely by virtue of their kinship with him. In Asia, Eumenes had won crucial allies by meeting with them in the presence of Alexander’s ghost. In Egypt, Ptolemy guarded Alexander’s corpse, the sacred object he would soon house in an enormous memorial called simply the Sema, or Tomb. The body would continue to attract pilgrims at this site until the third century A.D., after which it disappeared, perhaps destroyed in the religious riots that were then roiling the city.

Everywhere in the empire, veterans of Alexander’s campaign found they were regarded as heroes and supermen, and none were more heroic than the Silver Shields. The whole world knew of the trust Alexander had placed in them, the perilous assignments he had given them, the honor he had paid them by coating their gear with silver. Six years after the king’s death, they were the last unit of his veterans that remained intact, undiluted by more recent recruits. Their unity gave them political power. In army assemblies, the Shields made their voices heard loud and clear, all three thousand seeming to speak as one through their captains, Antigenes and Teutamus. Their privileges were beyond dispute. So was their devastating effectiveness in battle, the result of decades of fighting together as a corps d’elite.

By the time of the battle of Paraetacene, the Silver Shields were old men. Alexander had sent them home eight years earlier, along with the other veterans decommissioned at Opis, but they had not gotten far before the king died and the resulting power struggle brought them back into action. There was no longer any retirement in view for them, nor any home or family to return to. The army camp had become their home. It was their family as well, for many of them had wives or mistresses, and a few had children, accompanying them on their marches. These were toted along behind the army in a vast baggage train, which also held piles of treasure they had amassed from plunder, pay, and the rewards bestowed on them by commanders, some by Alexander himself.

The Shields had followed Eumenes for almost three years before the battle of Paraetacene, ever since Polyperchon first ordered them to do so. Their allegiance had withstood threats, bribes, and challenges, a striking example of constancy in a treacherous era. Some followed Eumenes out of reverence for the joint kings; others, because he paid well; others, because they thought he would win in the end and improve all their fortunes. But true loyalty was not among their motives. They revered no commander except the dead Alexander; indeed, they scorned others for failing to compare with him. Eumenes had resorted to flattery to control them, addressing them as “my protectors” and “the last hope for my survival,” and reminding them constantly of their glorious past. It wastheywho had made Alexander great, Eumenes told them. Above all he used the Alexander tent, the penumbra of the conqueror’s spiritual power, to bind their two senior officers, Antigenes and Teutamus, to his service.

By thus wheedling, fawning, and manipulating, Eumenes had retained the right, granted to him by Polyperchon, to lead the Silver Shields. But it was a strange sort of leadership, provisional and weak. It had to be reinforced by oaths of allegiance, administered by Eumenes to the Silver Shields at regular intervals. The bonds that tied Alexander’s greatest warriors to a Greek, a former bookkeeper, a man two decades their junior, were not adamantine. The bribes and threats of four Macedonian generals had thus far failed to break them. But the greatest of those, Antigonus One-eye, had not yet given up the attempt.


As he rested his army in Media, Antigonus looked back on the battle of Paraetacene with misgivings. He had been outfought and was now outnumbered as a result. His infantry phalanx had given way at its first contact with the Silver Shields and hereafter would be even more intimidated by them. Antigonus faced uncertain odds in another open-field battle—but perhaps that was a risk he didn’t have to run. He still had recourse to his favorite stratagem, already used against other foes to great effect: the surprise attack.

From Antigonus’ winter quarters to those of Eumenes was a march of almost a month through arable country but only nine days through a sulfurous wilderness where nothing grew or lived. No one could expect an army to come through that desert, and no one would expect an attack during winter, a piercingly cold season in these parts. Eumenes was so sure of his safety that he had divided his army into widely spaced camps stretching more than a hundred miles, as Antigonus had learned from his spies. If taken by surprise, the troops in these camps would never have time to combine forces. Unit by unit, they would surrender, until Eumenes, and his incomparable Silver Shields, could be ensnared.

Antigonus ordered the building of wooden casks and the gathering of ten days’ provision for the army. To avoid information leaks, he told his soldiers they were marching west to Armenia but then veered suddenly and led his men into the desert. His secret was then safe, since no spies or deserters could escape notice in an open, blasted plain. To further cloak his route, he ordered his troops to light campfires only by day, for the desert was surrounded by high hills from which night fires would easily be spotted. This order was obeyed for the first half of the march, but finally the troops could no longer stand the nighttime cold and cutting wind. Some of them kindled fires, and that gave their presence away.

From the distant mountains, herdsmen spotted strange lights in the desert and sent messengers on galloping camels to inform Peucestas, the nearest of the generals in Eumenes’ coalition. Peucestas was roused from sleep by the news and hastily summoned the other generals, convening an emergency council. Peucestas urged a retreat deeper into Gabene in order to buy time. Eumenes, again wrestling with Peucestas for control of strategy, countered that the army should stay where it was. He promised that by means of a trick, he would stop One-eye’s progress for at least three days, enough time to allow the scattered forces to assemble in one spot. His fellow commanders decided to let him try.

Eumenes immediately sent messengers to all the camps in Gabene, urging his men to join him on the double. Then he took a contingent of troops up to some high ground, measured off stations about thirty feet apart, and at each station posted a crew of fire tenders. Their orders were to light fires each night, letting them blaze up for a few hours but slowly die down toward dawn, just as the watch fires of an army on campaign would do. Eumenes knew how Antigonus, with his fear of deserters and moles, would react, and he was right. Seeing the fires on the ridge, Antigonus assumed that his plans had been divulged and that the entire coalition army was waiting for him. Disheartened, he turned aside from his desert route and took his men into country where they could rest and provision themselves. He assumed they would have not an ambush but an open-field battle ahead.

The stratagem bought Eumenes just enough time to assemble his units. The last to arrive, the slow-moving elephant herd, only barely made it, and Eumenes had to send troops to rescue it from attack, for Antigonus had by then discovered he had been tricked and had brought his troops to Gabene.

For the second time in six months, two great armies, each more than thirty thousand strong, came together for battle on the dry, dusty plains of what is now Iran.

Eumenes put himself and his best cavalry units on the left wing this time, facing Antigonus and Demetrius. He would confront his nemesis face-to-face. He put Peucestas directly on his right, perhaps as a way to ensure he could keep an eye on his troublesome colleague during the battle. It seems Eumenes realized that his fractious coalition was not in good repair. Plutarch reports that rival generals were plotting against his life and that Eumenes himself knew this, but the story lacks confirmation in other sources. In any case, Eumenes had tangled with Peucestas often enough to know not to trust him.

In front of his strong left wing, Eumenes placed a screen of his best elephants. They would attack the elephants of Antigonus while also fending off frontal cavalry charges, for horses were wary of the sight and smell of elephants and would not approach them. At the center of his line, Eumenes stationed his infantry phalanx, spearheaded by the Silver Shields, his greatest asset and best hope of victory. He kept his right wing weak and ordered it to stay out of the battle as long as possible. He would try to score a knockout blow from his own wing, aiming his best units squarely at the enemy leader. It was what Alexander had done in his battles against the Persians, and his model had already become the gold standard of military heroism.

As the two armies drew within a few miles of each other on the barren plain, Antigenes, the Silver Shields’ commander, ordered a lone rider to gallop forward and deliver a message. When this man came within earshot of One-eye’s lines, he shouted: “Villains! It is your own fathers you are wronging, men who marched with Philip and Alexander and conquered the whole empire!” The boast and the reproach had come, unmistakably, from the Silver Shields. The message unsettled Antigonus’ men, who had no great wish to fight the most revered—and most deadly—soldiers of their age. But it raised a cry of approval from Eumenes’ side, as a report of its content passed from unit to unit. Hearing that cry, Eumenes led his cavalry forward, and Antigonus, on his side, did the same.

The soil on which the troops were moving was dry and laden with salt. The tramp of horses, elephants, and tens of thousands of men raised a choking cloud of dust that quickly enveloped the field. As the two sides drew nearer to each other, Antigonus, a master at cloaking strategies, spotted an opportunity. He sent some light-armed Tarentine cavalry to ride past the flank of the oncoming army and attack the baggage train behind it. From within the shroud of dust, no one in Eumenes’ line saw them coming or noticed them passing by. The Tarentines easily overcame a few token guards and seized the whole train, including the families and worldly goods of the Silver Shields. These they led back around the line of battle to Antigonus’ side, still unseen.

Before Eumenes had learned of this setback, another blow landed, even more devastating for his chances. As the elephants engaged and began to gore one another, and Antigonus’ massive cavalry wedge began a flanking maneuver, Eumenes saw Peucestas, stationed immediately to his right, leave the field with his fifteen hundred horsemen. This was either an act of cowardice or, more likely, a prearranged move to sabotage Eumenes’ efforts and end his life. Eumenes was now stranded, cut off from his own line with only a small corps of elite cavalry. Peucestas, always an unwilling subordinate, had gone his own way at last.

Peering through the whirling dust, Eumenes spotted the huge figure of Antigonus in the oncoming throng of cavalrymen. His chance for a masterstroke, a bold charge that would decapitate the enemy with one sword thrust, was at hand. Eumenes spurred his cavalry on toward Antigonus. But his numbers were too few to penetrate and give him a chance at single combat. The deed he desperately needed, the coup de grâce that would have made a Greek scribe into a second Alexander, was just out of reach. After watching his lead elephant fall, sensing his position was collapsing, Eumenes rode his troops out of the fray and around to the right wing, which had not yet come into contact with Antigonus’ left.

Meanwhile, the Silver Shields were moving forward in the center, wielding their eighteen-foot sarissas with customary resolve. They cut a deep swath into Antigonus’ ranks, quickly sending his infantry fleeing in a disordered mass. The resulting rout was total. Diodorus reports that the Shields inflicted five thousand fatalities without losing a man. Perhaps that is an exaggeration, but there is no doubt that here, in the last battle they were destined to fight together, the Shields proved their prowess once again. “Like athletes of war, without a defeat or a fall up to that time, many seventy years old and none less than sixty—the oldest of those who had served with Philip and Alexander,” Plutarch eulogizes them. Thanks to their victory in the center, the outcome of battle was once again hanging in the balance.

Eumenes sought to rally his cavalry and sent a message to Peucestas demanding he come back to the fight. Peucestas sullenly withdrew even farther, taking refuge by the banks of a nearby river. Meanwhile, Eumenes’ victorious infantry had come under attack by Antigonus’ horse, but had formed a hollow square with lances pointing outward, a sure defense for those who could hold to it unshakably. With consummate sangfroid they retreated to the safety of the river, where they began berating Peucestas for his desertion of the left wing. If not for that, it was clear, the battle would already be won and the army would be reclaiming its baggage—the loss of which had now been learned and was causing considerable anguish.

It was growing dark by the time Eumenes arrived at the river. Another in a long series of command conclaves was held, and as usual opinions were divided. Eumenes wanted to fight again the following day. His infantry was undamaged and totally victorious; his cavalry and elephants had held up well despite desertion by Peucestas. The coalition’s chances looked good, easily better than those of Antigonus. The satraps, however, wanted to retreat to home turf, the upper satrapies, and repair their losses.

In previous strategy disputes the Silver Shields had backed Eumenes, but now they were distraught at the loss of their families and fortunes. Eumenes told them they had every chance of recovering these, and seizing more besides, if they would make just one more effort. But their disappointment in him, the sense that they had been seduced by a false Alexander, turned them scornful. They shouted that Eumenes had led them on with false promises, had troubled their lives with constant wars, had brought them into the East when they could have gone home, and finally had lost all they owned, dooming them to an impoverished and lonely old age. The bonds between Eumenes and the Silver Shields had finally given way.

The conclave broke up without choosing a course of action. As soon as it did, Teutamus, junior captain of the Shields, took action on his own. Long dubious about Eumenes, only barely prevented from selling him out once before, Teutamus now secretly contacted Antigonus One-eye looking for a deal. This time he did not consult his senior partner, Antigenes, who had talked him out of betrayal the last time. A trade-off was easily arranged, Eumenes for the baggage train, with Antigonus also promising amnesty and cash rewards. The bargain was struck, and Eumenes’ fate was sealed, that very night.


It was no simple matter to arrest Eumenes. He had devoted followers, those whom he termed “companions” in imitation of Alexander, who might try to defend him. Word of Teutamus’ betrayal might have already leaked out—indeed there is some indication it had—and Eumenes might have an escape prepared. A group of Silver Shields surrounded Eumenes and distracted him with chatter, some complaining about their lost baggage, others telling him to be confident since he had clearly won the previous day’s engagement. When they had hedged him off from his supporters, they pounced, seizing his sword and binding his hands with cloth from his own garment. In a moment it was over. Peucestas and his ten thousand archers, who could have made trouble even for the Shields, saw which way the wind was blowing and declared allegiance to Antigonus. Other satraps did likewise.

Two days later, Antigonus’ officer Nicanor arrived to take possession of the prisoner. As he was being led out through the camp, Eumenes asked permission to address the Silver Shields, and this was granted. Eumenes, standing on high ground where he could be heard by all, holding out his bound hands, made his valedictory speech. He began as though to reproach his men but stopped himself; all he really wanted, he said, was their help. “By Zeus, who protects soldiers, and by the gods who enforce oaths—kill me yourselves,” he implored, according to the report of Plutarch. “Antigonus will not blame you … If you are reluctant to do it with your own hands, free up one of mine so that it can do the deed. If you don’t trust me with a sword, then throw me, bound as I am, under the elephants. If you do as I ask, I release you from all blame; I consider you to be the most reverent and most just of men in your treatment of your general.”

His pleas went unheard. The Shields yelled to the guards to lead Eumenes away, and as he passed by, they vented their scorn. “Don’t listen to his drivel,” they muttered. “Why should we care for the sufferings of a pest from the Chersonese, who vexes the Macedonians with endless wars—when we, the best of Alexander’s and Philip’s soldiers, are stripped of the rewards of our labors and forced to depend on handouts, while our wives are about to pass a third night in the beds of our enemies?” Their losses had filled them with hate, and Eumenes’ foreign origins, so often touted by Eumenes himself as a reason the Macedonians should trust him, was the focus of that hate. In the end, Eumenes remained an outsider, an alien who had connived his way into their power structure. He could be more easily demonized when branded a “pest from the Chersonese.”

The guards pushed Eumenes forward and prodded him toward Antigonus’ camp. A huge throng of onlookers went behind, so great a number that Antigonus, seeing them approach, called up a column of elephants and Median spearmen to disperse them. The two armies were still in a state of war, even if a negotiated stand-down was clearly in the offing. Then Eumenes was put in chains and thrust into a cell under close watch. Antigonus insisted on maximum security—“Guard him as you would a lion or an elephant”—fearful that the man of many wiles would somehow manage another escape. But after a few days he relented and ordered the chains removed. Eumenes’ personal servant was allowed to attend him in the cell and his friends to enter and offer comfort.

Antigonus himself did not visit Eumenes. He avoided laying eyes on his adversary after the arrest. Both Plutarch and Justin attribute this to “respect for former friendship,” which might mean either that he did not want to shame Eumenes or that he did not want his own compassion stirred up by a face-to-face encounter. For the truth was, now that he had Eumenes in his power, he was finding it hard to destroy him. Though his officers demanded immediate execution, several days went by while Antigonus remained undecided. Antigonus’ son, Demetrius, ever his father’s closest confidant, stepped forward to plead for Eumenes’ life, as did Nearchus of Crete. It seemed entirely possible Antigonus might grant amnesty as he had before, at the siege of Nora, and take Eumenes on as consigliere—an extremely talented one too, as Demetrius no doubt pointed out.

As the debate continued, Eumenes grew perplexed. He asked his keeper, a man named Onomarchus, why Antigonus did not either kill him or set him free. Onomarchus spitefully replied that if Eumenes was so impatient for death, he should have sought it on the battlefield. It was an undeserved reproach, as Eumenes hastened to point out. Whatever else he may have been in his long and morally complex career, he was no coward.

Antigonus turned the question of Eumenes’ fate over to his council of senior commanders. These men were adamant in their judgment: if Antigonus pardoned Eumenes, they would no longer fight in his service. Even after receiving this ultimatum, Antigonus spent another week in indecision. His army grew seditious. The soldiers, fearing they might be cheated of vengeance, threatened mutiny.

Finally, after more than two weeks, Antigonus made his choice. Perhaps, as the sources represent, he felt compelled by the demands of his soldiers; more likely, he opted for what he thought safest, knowing that a dead Eumenes could never harm him and the message he would send with the execution might do considerable good. He sealed off Eumenes’ cell and began denying the prisoner food and water, claiming he did not have the heart to order a violent death. After several days, though, when it was time for the army to break camp and Eumenes had not succumbed, he sent a man to kill him by a silent, and merciful, strangulation.

Thus ended the strangest, longest-odds, least likely bid for power of all those mounted by Alexander’s generals. Through sheer talent Eumenes had risen through the ranks; despite his Greek origins, he had come desperately close to gaining supreme power. Few Macedonians liked him or trusted him, but those who did, including Perdiccas, Olympias, and Alexander the Great, had done so with all their hearts. In the end, even Antigonus One-eye seemed to revere him, granting him an honorable cremation and returning his ashes to his widow. It was just what Eumenes himself had done for Craterus, whose death he had indirectly caused five years earlier. Eumenes had kept Craterus’ ashes ever since, a burden as heavy as the Macedonian hatred they had brought him, and as his own death approached, he arranged for the ashes to be given to the widow Phila, now remarried to Demetrius, Antigonus’ son.

Most of Eumenes’ coalition entered the service of Antigonus, giving the one-eyed general a fantastically potent army. Peucestas and Teutamus, who in different ways had secured Eumenes’ downfall, both received high appointments, though Peucestas—whose ambitions were transparent—was also stripped of his power base in Persis. Coalition leaders who could not be reconciled to Eumenes’ defeat were eliminated. Eudamus the elephant master was among these, as was another officer, otherwise unknown, named Celbanus. Antigenes, the captain of the Silver Shields, who had backed Eumenes on many occasions and had taken no part in betraying him, received the cruelest death of any who landed on the wrong side of the succession struggle. One-eye had him burned alive in a pit.

As for the Silver Shields, who had at Gabene shown all their qualities in high relief—arrogance, willfulness, and invincible combat prowess—Antigonus brought their illustrious history to a close. He felt that the empire, now practically his empire, would be safer without this ungovernable band of supermen. The platoon was broken up, and most of the men were dispatched to remote garrisons throughout Asia. The most unruly were sent to Arachosia, what is now eastern Afghanistan and western Pakistan. The satrap there,Sibyrtius, was given secret orders by Antigonus to send these men out, in ones and twos, on missions from which they would never return. Like the man they betrayed, they were denied the battlefield deaths that would have suited their glorious careers. Their strength merely seeped away into the dry sands of the East.


Though she was too far from Gabene to know yet what had taken place there, Olympias had suffered a huge setback with Eumenes’ defeat and death. During the days that Antigonus had wavered over the Greek’s fate, the fate of the royals too was hanging in the balance, for Eumenes was the last general in the field with the ability, and will, to defend them. Perhaps, had Antigonus leaned a hair further toward clemency and taken Eumenes on as consigliere, things might have turned out differently for the Argeads. Eumenes had a gift for argument and persuasion, as well as for deception and manipulation. He might have convinced Antigonus that the united empire could be sustained only under a thriving Argead house. He might have once again erected his magical tent and initiated Antigonus into the cult of Alexander, opening a path toward relief of the conqueror’s mother and son.

But as things were, relief was nowhere in sight. The royal family was beginning to starve. The grim logic of warfare by famine was making its inexorable progress through the city of Pydna. Olympias’ indomitable will meant that the entire population, combatants and civilians alike, was doomed to see the ordeal through to the end, and the end would be terrible indeed.

The town’s meager supplies were stretched to their utmost to permit the survival of the royals and their troops. Enlisted soldiers were allotted about a quart of grain each week, only a few mouthfuls a day. Irregular troops and civilians were given no grain at all. Some survived on butchered horses and pack animals, others on the flesh of those who had already perished. The fodder of the elephants proved the greatest challenge to Pydna’s defenders. Desperate not to lose a precious military resource, they sawed up wood and fed sawdust to the wretched beasts, then watched helplessly as they weakened and died.

At last there was no food at all for the soldiers, and with touching deference they asked Olympias for release from service in order to surrender to Cassander. The queen granted their request. There was not much for them to do anyway, except to hoist dead bodies over the walls when these became too numerous to bury.

What comfort could be offered now to the young Alexander as he stared out at the sea, watching for the masts of a rescue fleet? In theory, his power was such that he could command that sea to drain away, leaving a path of escape back to Asia, the place of his birth. But now his circle of empire had shrunk to a walled-up town filled with bloated, stinking corpses. He was surrounded by a thousand shapes of death, barely preserving his own life with a tiny ration of grain. He was not yet seven years old.

Communications with the royal family’s two principal generals, Polyperchon and Aristonous, were difficult to maintain behind the siege curtain. Aristonous was ably leading the defense of Amphipolis, a Greek city not far to the east, and had inflicted a severe defeat on Cratevas, the general sent by Cassander to attack him. At last, but too late, Olympias had found a soldier with real skill. Polyperchon, her less competent senior commander, continued to hold out in the mountains west of Macedonia but was unable to make headway. His son Alexander, whose name belied both his talents and his fortunes, was still battling fruitlessly in the Peloponnese, trying to enforce his father’s freedom decree. The royalist forces were thus widely scattered, unable to link up with one another or with the Argeads.

As the situation in Pydna grew desperate, Polyperchon devised a plan for the royal family to escape at night in a single warship. He sent a courier to sneak past Cassander’s cordon and deliver a letter to Olympias, informing her when and where the ship would land. This man either was caught or abandoned Polyperchon as so many had done; in either case, his message was intercepted and brought to Cassander. An adept at the use of disinformation, Cassander had the message resealed and delivered to Olympias but also seized the warship on its way to the rendezvous. He aimed not merely at preventing Olympias’ escape but also at destroying her will to resist. The queen went out at night to meet her rescuers, only to find the beach deserted. Her hopes were crushed. She no longer knew whether Polyperchon, whose seal was on the letter, had gone over to the enemy and was leading her into a trap.

Hunger, despair, and isolation finally conquered the proud will of Olympias. Shortly after the night of the missing warship, she sent envoys and opened negotiations with Cassander for surrender. She had nothing to bargain with yet insisted on receiving a guarantee of her own safety. What arrangements she sought, if any, for the young Alexander are not mentioned in our sources. Perhaps she thought her grandson’s chances already so meager that there was no point.

Cassander granted the queen’s demand, presumably swearing an oath that she would not be harmed. Despite all the treacheries of the previous six years, the Macedonians still stood by the value of oaths, fundamental buttresses of the social contract. After his recent victory outside Amphipolis, Aristonous had released his defeated enemy, Cratevas, on the strength of his oath that he would not fight again for Cassander. Even Eumenes, master of deceptions and ruses, prided himself on fidelity to oaths; to win release from the fortress at Nora, he had rewritten the oath of Antigonus rather than swear falsely to the original. Olympias thus had reason to trust that Cassander’s promise would preserve her life. The same could be said of Aristonous, who, after Cassander likewise guaranteed his safety, agreed to surrender Amphipolis.

But the pledges made to these two prisoners were short-lived. Cassander moved quickly to eliminate Aristonous, fearing that the prestige of a former Bodyguard might stir up resentment against him. He turned Aristonous over to the relatives of Cratevas—ironically, the very man whom Aristonous had spared—for judgment. A death sentence was easily obtained and carried out. This aged veteran, the only one of Alexander’s generals who had sought a return to private life, had in the end been drawn back into the power struggle and destroyed by it. There were to be no peaceful retirements for any of Alexander’s top staff.

The fate of Olympias proved harder to resolve. In two recent cases where royal women had been killed—Alcetas’ murder of Cynnane, and the suicide forced on Adea by Olympias—their murderers had paid a steep political price. Cassander was determined to get a jury to condemn Olympias rather than execute her outright. But he took the precaution of arranging the trial such that Olympias could not speak in her own defense; the relatives of her victims were allowed to address the jury unanswered. Even then, a guilty verdict did not seem assured. In the midst of the proceedings Cassander grew anxious and tried to lure Olympias into an escape attempt, hoping the queen could be killed while fleeing. Olympias, however, did not take the bait.

Finally, after a second trial, or perhaps a resumption of the first, Cassander obtained the death sentence he sought. The question now was how to enforce it. Cassander sent no fewer than two hundred armed troops to the royal residence where Olympias was under house arrest. But the queen put on her finest attire and appeared before them in regal splendor, seemingly unafraid. The men were so awed by the grandeur of the mother of Alexander that they were unable to use their weapons. Cassander found a more hardened crew of assassins, as Justin reports, to run her through with their swords, or else, according to Diodorus, turned her over to the families of her victims for punishment. A third source concurs with Diodorus’ version and adds the chilling detail that Olympias was stoned to death.

Olympias died at age fifty-six or fifty-seven. She had exercised more power than any woman in Europe up to her time, with the possible exception of her rival and victim Adea. It was power attained through her son and grandson but exercised, in the final chapter of her life, in her own name and by her own adamantine will. Her hatred of Antipater and his sons had driven her to grotesque acts of violence. In the end her nemeses had won. Cassander took a final revenge on her corpse, casting it out unburied to be ravaged by carrion beasts.


The death of his grandmother meant that the young Alexander was entirely without guardians. His mother, Rhoxane, now his fellow prisoner, could provide nurture but no protection, for she was powerless, as much a hostage to Fortune as her ill-fated son. They were now in custody of Cassander, and we can only guess at how these two regarded him, or he them, during their brief time together. To him, they embodied the most perverse and dangerous tendencies of Alexander the Great: acceptance of things Asian and alien, mixing of races and cultures. To them, he was the murderer of a husband and father, the man who had brought Antipater’s poison to Babylon contained in a mule’s hoof. It is hard to say which side felt greater hatred for the other.

If it had been risky for Cassander to act against Olympias, the young Alexander was an even more delicate case, a helpless boy and the last slender thread on which the future of the monarchy hung. Apart from the high political cost of killing him, Cassander had reasons for wanting him alive. He did not yet know the outcome of the battle in the East between Antigonus and Eumenes. If Eumenes had won, Cassander would need a hostage to deter an invasion of Europe, or a pawn to trade in some grand, transcontinental power-sharing deal. So for the moment Cassander kept the boy and his mother safe, but stripped them of their entourage and privileges and sent them to Amphipolis under guard of a man named Glaucias. He ordered Glaucias not to treat them as royalty and hoped that his countrymen would cease to so regard them. He had his own plans for the continuation of the Argead house.

Among the prisoners brought out of the devastation at Pydna, Cassander had found Thessalonice, a half sister of Alexander the Great, a daughter of Philip by a Greek woman named Nicesipolis. Somehow Thessalonice had thus far stayed invisible during the succession struggle, despite being unwed and still of childbearing age. Cassander seized on this windfall and immediately married Thessalonice. The match could hardly have brought joy to a woman who, in the siege of Pydna, had stuck by Olympias to the last, but Thessalonice’s wishes did not enter into the equation. Olympias’ exposed corpse showed that Macedonia’s brief experiment with female power was at an end.

Cassander set about begetting heirs. He was determined the monarchy would continue through him, not through the line of his father’s hated rival Olympias and that of his own great enemy, the man whose portrait bust reportedly caused him to tremble with fear even twenty years later, Alexander the Great.

Cassander’s long winning streak held. Thessalonice would bear him three sons in years to come, boys who were at least marginally Argeads and are sometimes shown in the dynasty’s genealogical table (more often they are excluded). With the obvious goal of merging his own line with that of his country’s most renowned kings, Cassander named these boys Philip, Alexander, and Antipater. Meanwhile, he used his wife’s name to christen a city he had founded on Macedonian soil, a token of gratitude for her passivity and her fertility. Today it is the thriving city of Thessaloniki, in northern Greece.


The Macedonian civil war had ended, for a time. Cassander had eliminated his enemies and secured control of Europe; his ally Antigonus had likewise attained sole sovereignty in Asia. In just a year or two, old patterns of rivalry would reemerge, and these two would go to war with each other, but in the brief calm that followed the cataclysmic violence in the winter of 316, it seemed possible the post-Alexander world might stabilize and begin to heal.

During this hiatus, Cassander honored the dead monarchs Philip and Adea with a lavish royal burial. Olympias, their killer, had denied them proper rites and perhaps (our sources are unclear) had even exposed their corpses. Cassander now cremated their bodies, or what was left of them, according to time-honored rituals and had the ashes interred in a magnificent tomb in the royal cemetery at Aegae. According to one report, he reburied with them Cynnane, the mother of Adea, whose body must also have lacked royal honors following her murder years earlier. Cassander staged funeral games to honor the dead, including single combats between armed soldiers. He had sacrifices performed atop the sealed tomb, then covered it over with earth.

Many believe it is this tomb that the archaeologist Manolis Andronikos found in November 1977, buried at the center of the Great Tumulus in the Greek village of Vergina. With unintended ambiguity, Andronikos called his discovery “Philip’s Tomb,” thinking it belonged to Philip II, father of Alexander the Great; the young woman in the antechamber he identified as the last of that king’s seven wives. But others soon tried to correlate the tomb with a different Philip, Philip III, and his wife, Adea. They claim that the bones in the tomb had undergone “dry” cremation, after the collagen inside had already broken down—that is, after Cassander recovered the bodies from wherever Olympias had stowed them.

The attribution of the tomb to Philip III is far from certain. To accept it is to believe that Cassander buried awesome symbols of power with a king who, in life, was utterly powerless. For in Tomb 2 were found a silver diadem and a scepter, perhaps the very ones once used by Alexander the Great, and magnificent armor and weaponry of every kind—gear that Philip III could have wielded only in hollow mimicry. Indeed this very incongruity helped convince Andronikos that “Philip’s Tomb” could not belong to Philip III but must be that of his glorious father, Philip II. It strained credulity that a nonentity, a mentally disabled man who was the mere tool of Alexander’s generals and of his own wife, had received the most lavish burial ever uncovered in the Aegean world.

Perhaps, though, it was the monarchy itself that Cassander was burying, not merely the remains of a monarch. Scepters and diadems, after all, are normally not interred with their owners but passed on as dynastic emblems. Indeed this particular diadem wasdesigned so that its diameter could be adjusted, as though a series of kings, each with a differently sized head, was destined to wear it. But Cassander did not want such continuities, or links to Alexander the Great. Objects that evoked that dreaded specter were best hidden from view, or so it must have seemed to a man who had killed the king’s mother, who was suspected of killing Alexander himself, and who was now contemplating the murder of the king’s eight-year-old son, the last of the Argeads, Alexander IV.

An artist’s rendering of Tomb 2 inside the Great Tumulus, Aegae (Illustration credit 10.1)


The Greek city of Amphipolis, in the wintry land of Thrace, was the last home Rhoxane and her son would occupy. Together this tempest-tossed pair had been conveyed through the whole of western Asia, into Egypt, across the Hellespont to Europe, and through many parts of Greece and the Balkan lands, in the care of seven successive guardians. In the end they became all too settled. For six years or more, they did not leave their castle keep. Under the fiction that they were merely sequestered until Alexander came of age, they had become Cassander’s prisoners.

Nothing is known of their life in Amphipolis, except that they were denied royal privileges. One would hope they enjoyed a peaceful and companionable retreat from the world, like that which Lear envisions for himself and Cordelia: “Come, let’s away to prison. We two alone will sing like birds i’ th’ cage.” Perhaps they were glad to be out of the power struggle, though the power struggle would not leave them be. Only a year after their sequestration, Antigonus One-eye, already at odds with Cassander and his other former allies, swore he would cross over from Asia to Europe, release the pair from Amphipolis, and restore their royal rights. Whether he really planned to champion the monarchy, or was only seeking a pretext for invasion, his vows came to nothing. Rhoxane and Alexander went on as before, living as private citizens rather than royalty, their guard Glaucias their closest companion.

Alexander grew up and reached puberty. The idea that he was king and would someday rule was still widely promoted, though how widely believed is hard to know. Four leading generals signed a treaty in 311, when Alexander was twelve, agreeing to give up power as soon as the young king took the throne. Scribes across Asia dated documents by the year of Alexander’s reign (though they sometimes shifted over to Antigonus, or later to Seleucus, as their reference points). Coins in certain Greek cities were minted bearing the legend “BASILEOS ALEXANDROU,” “King Alexander’s” currency.

What was Cassander waiting for? Or what prompted him finally to act? There were no known pressures on him, except that Alexander was getting ever closer to majority. Probably that alone was enough. An order was sent to Glaucias to do away with the mother and son but not to let their deaths or their bodies be discovered. Glaucias preserved his mission’s secrecy so well that the date of Alexander’s and Rhoxane’s deaths is not even known. The boy was either thirteen or fourteen at the time, Rhoxane perhaps thirty. According to a report, they were poisoned.

Cassander did not desecrate the remains of Alexander, as he had earlier done the body of Olympias, and as Olympias had done the remains of Cassander’s brother Iolaus. The enmity between the two most powerful families in Europe had at last run its course, though only after the total destruction of one by the other. Enough stability had returned to Macedonia that civilized norms could resume. After the death of the young king became common knowledge, Cassander prepared a fine chamber tomb in Aegae for his victim, the structure discovered by Andronikos in 1979 and labeled by him the Prince’s Tomb. An illustrated frieze, now entirely lost, was placed over the entrance, and a colorful scene of racing chariots was painted all around the walls of the antechamber. It was an apt motif, for what teenage boy does not love the sight of racing chariots?

The body of Alexander was cremated and the ashes placed in a silver vessel, a hydria, typically used for pouring water—an unusual ossuary, more modest than the two gold boxes in Philip’s Tomb. A purple cloth was draped over charred remains, and the vessel was sealed. Around its shoulders was hung a delicate wreath of oak leaves and acorns, all wrought of fine gold. Then the vessel was placed in a hollow space inside a kind of stone table, perhaps an altar. Gilded weapons, fine clothing, and silver tableware of all kinds were laid on the floor around the dead monarch. These were the trappings of royalty Cassander had stripped from him in life, now restored in death.

The silver hydria containing the last remains of Alexander IV (Illustration credit 10.2)

A marble door between the antechamber and main tomb was closed and sealed. A sacrifice was held on the roof of the building, as though to a god. Then the whole structure was covered with earth, just as the tombs adjoining it had been covered. The dead king would have no visitors, in contrast to his mummified father, by this time housed in the Sema at Alexandria, a shrine designed by Ptolemy for throngs of pilgrims to enter and stand amazed.

It was perhaps forty years later, after invaders had vandalized much of the royal burial ground, that the mound covering the Aegae tombs was itself buried under the Great Tumulus. Hundreds of workers heaped on thousands of tons of earth, clay, sand, and gravel, not to hide the tombs but to make them forever inaccessible. The Macedonians were resolved to protect the successors of Alexander the Great, even if that meant never seeing again the beautiful buildings that sheltered them. They would at least know that somewhere at the heart of the mound, wrapped in purples and encased in gold and silver, the bones of the last Argeads lay at peace, in darkness and silence. Absent the corpse of Alexander himself, these were all that remained to them of the monarchy that had made them masters of the world.

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