The Testing of Perdiccas



In his last days of life, according to several ancient accounts, Alexander made his only attempt to deal with the power vacuum his illness had created. From his sickbed he passed to his senior Bodyguard, Perdiccas, the signet ring with which he sealed his executive orders. The significance of this gesture was clear. Alexander had given Perdiccas authority to oversee the army and the empire, until either Alexander recovered or a new king emerged.

Alexander’s army had no clear hierarchy that made one individual second-in-command, but the post of chiliarch, the head of the first squadron of the elite Companion cavalry, stood highest in rank. Until the previous autumn, Hephaestion had occupied it, but his death from illness had left it vacant. Alexander, grieved at the loss of his closest friend, at first decreed that no one else should lead this top cavalry squadron, so that it would forever bear the name of Hephaestion. But eventually he appointed Perdiccas to take Hephaestion’s place and put Eumenes, his own Greek secretary, into the cavalry command held by Perdiccas.

Perdiccas was a natural but not inevitable choice to succeed Hephaestion as top-ranking officer. Perdiccas had royal blood, from one of the now-obsolete dynasties that had ruled the mountainous regions outside central Macedon. His career of service was long and distinguished. He had become a Bodyguard some five years into the Asian campaign, a mark of his unstinting loyalty to the king. In India, Perdiccas led several critical operations, including the crucial task, shared with Hephaestion, of bridging the Indus River.One ancient source reports that it was Perdiccas who extracted the arrow from Alexander’s chest in India, a task that most were too terrified to perform for fear of causing the king’s death (others say it was a Greek doctor named Critodemus).

There were several Companions who must have been dismayed to see Perdiccas made chiliarch and not themselves. Of these, Craterus perhaps had the most grounds for envy. He was older than the rest, in his late forties, with an authority greatly revered by troops and officers alike. Alexander often relied on Craterus to bring up the phalanx, gear wagons, and elephant train while he dashed ahead with more mobile troops. But though Craterus had fulfilled every commission with distinction, he was known to oppose Alexander’s program of Euro-Asian cultural fusion, and that made him an outsider at court. Ultimately, Alexander had sent him home at the head of the veterans returning to Macedonia, with orders to assume command of Europe—an honorable discharge from the royal army.

Ptolemy, too, might have hoped to be marked as Alexander’s most favored. Ptolemy had risen to high rank only late in the Asian campaign but since then had progressed from strength to strength. He was among the king’s oldest and most trusted friends, and trustworthiness, more than any other factor, determined promotion at Alexander’s court. And what of Leonnatus, who had proved his trustworthiness by protecting Alexander’s prostrate body with his own after the king was wounded in India? Leonnatus too had dreams of higher station. For some time now he had patterned his clothes after Alexander’s and even his hair, flipping it back from his forehead on both sides in the king’s signature style.

In the end it was Perdiccas who succeeded Hephaestion as chiliarch, and to whom Alexander, in his last days of life, passed the signet ring. But in taking that ring from the king’s hand, Perdiccas took it away from all the others, even from Craterus, then hundreds of miles away on the march toward Macedon. Each was worthy, in his own eyes at least, of the highest honor the king could bestow. During his campaign Alexander had kept them in a careful equipoise, distributing marks of favor evenly so as not to give any (except Hephaestion) too great a sense of entitlement. “They were so equal in his honor that you might have thought each one a king,” writes Justin of Alexander’s top officers, though he misses the point by attributing to a malign Fortune, rather than to state policy, the balance of their strengths.

Perdiccas had shown on many occasions his ability to manage a crisis, and never more than in the panicky moments after Alexander was wounded in the Indian town—if it was indeed Perdiccas who performed emergency surgery on the king. Alexander had been dragged out of harm’s way with a three-foot arrow still protruding from his chest. The arrowhead was lodged in his breastbone, and no one dared saw off the shaft for fear the bone would splinter. Alexander, still conscious, tried to cut the shaft with his own dagger, but loss of blood had already sapped his strength. Some onlookers began to weep, and others drew back in terror, while Alexander rebuked them as cowards and traitors. To step forward at such a moment, as one source says that Perdiccas did—using his sword as a scalpel when there was no time to find proper instruments—took exceptional steeliness of nerve. Doctors, under the rough justice administered by angry Macedonians, could be killed for not saving the lives of their patients.

A medallion struck by Alexander depicting an Indian archer of the type who dealt him his near-fatal chest wound (Illustration credit 2.1)

Now a new crisis was at hand, and Perdiccas needed all his steadiness of nerve. He would be blamed in this case not for Alexander’s death but for not being Alexander. His every move would draw the jealousy and resentment of his rivals. The army in Babylon, perhaps six thousand Macedonian infantry, barely trusted him; only yesterday they had defied his orders and forced past him to see Alexander on his sickbed. Their behavior had become alarmingly headstrong in recent years, even toward Alexander. From whom would they take orders now that their only master was dead?

The steps taken by Perdiccas to deal with the crisis of 323 are known only imperfectly, since ancient accounts vary widely. Indeed the week following June 11 in Babylon was so violent and chaotic that no two witnesses could have recalled it in quite the same way. The divergent reports in three ancient chronicles—Arrian’s Events After Alexander, Diodorus’ Library, and Justin’s summary of Pompeius Trogus—are like three strands from which a modern historian must weave a braid of likelihood. Complicating this task is a fourth source that, for these first days of the post-Alexander period, gives a highly detailed account of events but is often at variance with the other three. Quintus Curtius, a Roman statesman living under the early Caesars, continued his history of Alexander’s life for several weeks past the king’s death, fascinated, as a Roman of that era would be, by the perils of a power vacuum. But Curtius’ readiness to see Roman patterns in Macedonian history, or even to superimpose them, calls his reliability into question.

It is certain that on June 12, a council of high officers met in the room where Alexander lay in state, the throne room of Nebuchadnezzar’s palace. The seven Bodyguards were there, along with a handful of others, armed as if for battle to highlight the urgency of the moment. Perdiccas, according to Curtius, had prepared a startling backdrop for this meeting: Alexander’s empty throne, now decked with the king’s diadem, armor, and robes. It was as though he wanted Alexander’s ghost to preside over the deliberations. Curtius reports that Perdiccas even placed Alexander’s signet ring, his own great token of authority, among those relics—a remarkable gesture of humility, if true.

Perdiccas opened the proceedings by taking up the most pressing matter facing the generals, the selection of a successor to the throne. Alexander’s wife Rhoxane, he pointed out, was in her final weeks of pregnancy. If her child was male and survived, the Macedonians would have a legitimate heir. The best thing now, Perdiccas said, was for the army to wait and hope for both those outcomes.

Nearchus, Alexander’s top naval officer, spoke next. He was not among the Bodyguards, but Alexander had counted him a close friend. Nearchus now proposed that the child named Heracles, Alexander’s son by a mistress named Barsine, be proclaimed the new king. After all, he argued, here was a living, breathing heir—perhaps four years old at this time—not just an even chance at one. Nearchus was, however, interrupted by a disapproving din from the other officers. Not only had he proposed a child who was illegitimate and therefore not eligible for the throne, but, as a Greek in an assembly of Macedonians, he was speaking very much out of turn. Perhaps too he was suspected of self-interest, for in the Susa mass marriage he had wed a daughter of Barsine, so that Heracles was now his half-brother-in-law.

An infantry captain named Meleager spoke next, bluntly raising the problem of Euro-Asian fusion that had deeply troubled the army. Both Heracles and Rhoxane’s unborn child, he observed, had mothers who were at least part Asian (Barsine was half Greek) and who belonged to races conquered and ruled by the Macedonians. Perhaps Alexander had wanted such boundaries ignored, but not all could follow his lead, least of all Meleager and his infantry comrades. Why not an heir of purer blood, a son of Philip by a European wife, and one already grown to manhood: Alexander’s half brother Arrhidaeus? The man was right there in Babylon, accompanying the army, ready to take power in an instant.

Now it was Ptolemy’s turn to speak and to voice an awkward truth. Arrhidaeus was not mentally competent to rule. He could speak and function reasonably well, but his capacity was that of a child—in modern terms he was developmentally disabled—and like a child he would need a guardian or regent. Rather than hand power to such a surrogate, Ptolemy said, the Macedonians should appoint a board of top-ranking generals to govern instead of a king. These men could meet before Alexander’s empty throne, as they now were meeting, and take decisions by majority vote. In this way, Ptolemy reasoned, the Macedonians would gain leaders of proven talent, men who had already succeeded at exercising command.

Many no doubt cast sidelong glances at Perdiccas while Ptolemy spoke. It was Perdiccas, as Alexander’s chiliarch and the man who had received the ring, who, logically, would be guardian of an infant or a mental invalid. Ptolemy’s proposal to decentralize authority, even to eliminate the monarchy, was, by any reading, a hit at Perdiccas. Ptolemy himself must have known what impact his words would have. He had thrown the first gauntlet in what was to be a fight to the death between these two leading Bodyguards.

There may have been more speeches at that fateful meeting (Curtius reports a proposal that Perdiccas be crowned, but this seems a Roman fantasy imported into the Macedonian setting). In the end, Perdiccas’ plan was adopted. The army would wait for Rhoxane to give birth, and if she had a son, that boy would be king. The infant’s guardians (who also would presumably rule if the child was a girl) would be a board of four: Bodyguards Perdiccas and Leonnatus, plus Craterus, now in western Asia slowly leading his column of veterans homeward, and Antipater, the grand old man of Macedonian politics, who for the past twelve years had been in charge of the European home front. Ptolemy, who ranked not far below three of these men and higher than Leonnatus, was somehow left out of the arrangement. Probably he was already regarded as a dangerous rival by Perdiccas.

A rough division of sovereignty was laid out for these four regents: Craterus and Antipater would hold command in Europe, Perdiccas and Leonnatus in Asia. Craterus was accorded some vague executive status, entitling him to act as the king’s representative and therefore to draw on the royal treasuries. This was a sop to the well-loved older general who, with ten thousand decommissioned veterans under his command, possessed the greatest troop strength of any Macedonian leader. Craterus could easily storm into Babylon and seize sole power, once he learned of Alexander’s death, as he would do in a day or two.

Those in the throne room swore an oath of loyalty to the board of four, and then the entire cavalry, summoned to the courtyard outside the palace, took a similar oath. The generals hoped to get the cavalry in line behind the scheme and then present it to the infantry—by far the larger of the two branches of the army—as a fait accompli. But they badly misjudged their ability to win over the rank and file. For even while they were in session, reports arrived that the infantry, meeting separately, had made a different choice of monarch—Arrhidaeus, Alexander’s mentally impaired half brother. Perdiccas dispatched Meleager, the infantry officer who had already spoken in favor of Arrhidaeus in the council session, as emissary to the foot soldiers—the first error of the many he would commit as head of the new regime.

It is unclear how far the infantry was from the palace or how much the foot soldiers knew of the cavalry’s decisions. Justin implies the two groups had no contact, while Curtius puts the infantrymen right outside the throne room, listening to the speeches there and finally breaking in as a violent mob. Whatever their physical distance, the two groups were miles apart in outlook. The gulf that had opened in India, when the foot soldiers had nearly rioted against cavalry officers whom they thought were concealing Alexander’s death, had only grown wider in the intervening two years. Now the time for choosing Alexander’s successor was at hand, a task that by custom required a broad army assembly, but the army had not been convened. In the crisis atmosphere, it was easy for the infantry to assume the worst about their generals’ intentions.

Mistrust of superiors came easily to these foot soldiers. Alexander had routinely promoted those he cherished from infantry to cavalry, leaving the former feeling passed over and estranged from their higher-ups. The greatest estrangement had resulted from the king’s experiments in cultural fusion. Alexander had taken to wearing the purples of Persian royalty, had accepted the toadying of Persian courtiers, had even married a Bactrian and then two Persian women. Then he had moved, in the last year of his life, to mix Asian recruits into the ranks of his grande armée. He had formed a new phalanx, in their eyes a grotesque hybrid, made up of only one Macedonian for every three barbarians. (The cavalry too had been internationalized, but to a lesser degree; Macedonians and Greeks were still in the majority there.)

The foot soldiers had thus seen huge changes during their decade or more of service, and they had changed as well. Hardened by constant warfare, emboldened by their successful mutiny in India, they had become headstrong and intractable, demanding of pay and perquisites. They still revered the Argead monarchy and the towering figure of Alexander, but their reverence was more grudging than before, like that paid by a half-wild dog to a master who can hit it on the snout. The commander they loved, by contrast, was Craterus, the soldier’s soldier, who had given voice to their own feelings on several occasions when he had challenged Alexander’s Asianizing policies. In their eyes Craterus stood for a culturally pure past, when their identity, and that of their foes, had been both clear and morally gratifying.

Meleager, the top officer leading the infantry, had also criticized Alexander’s internationalism, and his plain speech had cost him dear. Years before, in India, Meleager had attended a banquet celebrating Alexander’s new alliance with Ambhi, a local raja. Alexander had lavished gifts on his Indian host, including the huge sum of one thousand talents of silver. Drunk, and embittered at seeing such wealth bestowed on a barbarian, Meleager let his irritation show. “How nice for you,” he sneered at the king in the hearing of all, “that finally in India you found a man worthy of one thousand talents.” Thereafter, Meleager’s career had languished. Of all those who started the Asian campaign as taxiarchs (captains of infantry brigades), only Meleager had stayed in that mid-level post, rather than moving up to the more distinguished cavalry.

It was no coincidence that Meleager, in the council session at the palace, had backed Arrhidaeus as successor at the same moment that his infantry battalions, meeting elsewhere, made the same choice. In both cases, the preference for Arrhidaeus over Rhoxane’s unborn child sprang from a longing for the past. Arrhidaeus, as a son of the great Philip, evoked the days before Alexander when Asians had still been enemies and slaves, not comrades-in-arms. The foot soldiers who anointed him left no doubt about their hopes for his reign. They took the step, unprecedented in their history, of changing the new king’s name, dubbing him Philip after his revered father.

Meleager knew why his infantry comrades had hailed Arrhidaeus as monarch and rejected Rhoxane’s unborn child, whose mixed blood embodied the hated program of Euro-Asian fusion. He shared their feelings, yet he had been sent to their camp to persuade them to reverse course. Perdiccas was counting on him to reconcile his men to the choice made by the cavalry. He was the perfect go-between, since his stalled career gave him unmatched credibility among the infantry; he was the one officer who had stayed in their ranks. He had a fair chance of quelling their revolt if he spoke in support of the generals and their fetal king.

But he also had a fair chance of leading that revolt to victory if he followed his own inclinations. As he entered the infantry camp, where the foot soldiers were hailing the newly renamed Philip, Meleager took stock of the opportunity before him. Here was an incompetent king who needed a guardian to tend him; here was an army that already regarded him as its chief, troops far more numerous than those of Perdiccas. Leading this army, championing this king, Meleager could grasp supreme power as easily as Perdiccas, indeed more easily, since he would stand beside a flesh-and-blood monarch, not a mere in utero hope. He took the dare Fortune offered. He put on armor and stood beside the former Arrhidaeus, now Philip—a gesture that signaled his acclamation of the king.

The infantry went wild, clanging spears on shields to hail the new head of their mutiny. Meleager made a speech that fanned their anger into a demand for action. Armed and accompanied by a bewildered Philip, the rebellious mob marched on the palace. As they had done just two days before, they demanded admittance to the chamber where Alexander lay.

Forewarned, Perdiccas had assembled a few hundred picked troops in the throne room and barred the doors. He was hoping to hold the room and thereby preserve his tenuous grasp on power. Alexander’s corpse, and the empty throne decked with royal armor and insignia, were locked in with him, the talismans of authority. Whoever possessed these, it now seemed, controlled the empire.

The infantry forced the doors and spilled into the room, javelins at the ready. Meleager, at the head of the mob, confronted Perdiccas face to face. A full-scale battle loomed, but Perdiccas and his men saw they were outmatched. They made a tactical retreat and left the palace by a side door, then rode for the safety of the plains outside the city.

In one swift coup Meleager had gained control of the room, the throne, and the corpse. He and the infantry now set up their new government before Alexander’s still-untended body. Philip, their half-wit king, was installed as head of that government and invested with the royal garb left on the empty throne, Alexander’s robe and diadem.

Perdiccas and the other generals had vanished, all except one. Little Eumenes, Alexander’s former secretary, only recently promoted to cavalry commander, remained in the palace in hopes of mediating the conflict. Eumenes made the case that as a Greek with no interest in Macedonian politics and nothing to gain or lose, he could be trusted by both sides. This reasoning was quite likely advanced by Eumenes in perfect sincerity and was accepted by Meleager’s men—though events of years to come would make it seem laughably naive.

According to legend, Alexander predicted on his deathbed that a great funeral contest would be held over his tomb. But even he might not have believed that, within a day of his demise, the two main branches of the army would draw weapons on each other over his very corpse. The speed of the unraveling, the scale of the breakdown of trust and order, was breathtaking. The saving grace for the Macedonians was that events at Babylon were moving faster than the messengers reporting them to the world. Provinces that might have profited from the disorder, subject peoples that might have rebelled, did not yet even know that Alexander was dead.

Meleager’s first move was to order the arrest of his displaced rival, Perdiccas. He must have sensed that his time in power would be short if Perdiccas still lived. Despite the mistrust between cavalry and infantry, the army’s traditional leaders could still command the loyalty of many in the rank and file. Indeed Perdiccas seemed to be waiting to reclaim that loyalty, remaining inside Babylon while sending his fellow officers out. Meleager was determined to prevent him from doing so. It was a simple matter to obtain the requisite authority: Meleager explained to King Philip why Perdiccas posed a danger to the state, and the king’s befuddled silence was taken for assent. A squad was dispatched to arrest Perdiccas, or to kill him if he resisted.

Perdiccas responded to the bold attack with superb sangfroid. He was at his quarters with an honor guard of sixteen page boys, too few to defend him, when Meleager’s men approached. Showing no fear but only righteous anger, he appeared in his doorway in full armor and denounced his would-be captors as traitors and slaves of Meleager. The tactic worked. Shamed by the reproaches of their top general, the men slunk away without completing their mission. Perdiccas hastened to leave the city before other hit men could arrive.

Meleager’s failed strike at Perdiccas sparked a contrary swing of emotion in the mutinous army. The next day saw recriminations against Meleager and even a judicial inquiry into his abuse of power. King Philip himself was questioned and admitted he had approved the move against Perdiccas. But, he argued—apparently able to speak and reason to a limited degree—Perdiccas was still alive, so why make so much trouble? Meleager survived, but his position was much weakened. The throne room began to feel like a hollow sham of a government seat: envoys came and went, state business went on as usual, but those in attendance glowered silently at one another, afraid to admit their fears and doubts.

After three days of sullen anticipation, word arrived that the cavalry counterstrike had begun. The horsemen stationed outside Babylon had cut off the city’s food supply, threatening to starve the infantry into surrender. The mutineers became disturbed not only by their own plight but also by the restive movements of the city’s population, deprived as it was of provisions. Some troops went to Meleager and demanded that he either fight Perdiccas or arrange a deal. Eumenes, the Greek who had thus far remained on the sidelines, began intervening at last, urging the mutineers to reconcile with their former leaders before more harm was done.

Reluctantly but resignedly, Meleager opened negotiations with Perdiccas. The cavalry initially announced harsh terms, insisting that the heads of the mutiny be handed over for summary punishment. Then Perdiccas himself appeared before the infantrymen to sound a conciliatory note. Fearlessly walking into their midst, he delivered an impassioned speech about the dangers that now loomed. The Macedonians would inflict on themselves the defeat they had never suffered at the hands of their enemies; all their labors would be for nothing; they would appease with their own blood the ghosts of their slaughtered foes. The voice of familiar authority stirred the rebellious soldiers. They made clear they were prepared, under suitable terms, to take back Perdiccas as their leader.

The path to a compromise now lay open, though it was a bizarre compact that was struck. Perdiccas and the cavalry recognized Philip, formerly Arrhidaeus, as monarch, while Meleager and the infantry agreed that Rhoxane’s child, if a son, would become a second king. Philip would have first position in this dual monarchy under the fiction that he had the ability to rule, at least more ability than a newborn baby. Meleager was added to the board of guardians administering the empire in the kings’ names, replacing Leonnatus, who was mysteriously removed. Meleager would be subordinate to Perdiccas in Asia, while Craterus and Antipater would remain joint custodians of Europe. His mutiny had bought him a sizable share of control of the empire, though he was not destined to enjoy it for long.

The crisis had been defused. By creating a joint kingship, a peculiar arrangement at odds with the very notion of monarchy, the two sides pulled back from the abyss of civil war. Infantry and cavalry were reunited into one army, though the breakdown of trust was not so easily healed. Both sides must have known, despite the appearance of an amnesty, that there were still scores to be settled, once the traditional leaders were back in power.

Several days had passed since the death of Alexander. The king’s body lay in state in the palace throne room, mute witness to the struggle that had taken place in its awesome presence. Amid the tumult, there had been no opportunity to take measures against decomposition. But miraculously, according to Plutarch and Quintus Curtius, the corpse remained uncorrupted, still radiating the beauty, strength, and fragrant smell that distinguished the king in life. Indeed the embalmers who were now at last summoned feared to treat a corpse that still seemed alive. Perhaps they were right to be afraid: a panel of experts who analyzed Alexander’s death in 1996, and who published their findings in The New England Journal of Medicine, suggested that the king did not die on June 11 but rather entered a paralytic state that closely resembled death.

The Macedonians did not customarily use embalming, an Egyptian and Babylonian practice, to treat their dead. It must have been Perdiccas who decided Alexander’s body should be emptied of organs and mummified, then placed in a golden casket filled with aromatics, so that all could continue to gaze upon their king without revulsion. He designated an officer named Arrhidaeus (a different person from Alexander’s half brother, now known by his new royal name, Philip) to oversee the construction of a magnificent hearse and to take charge of the desiccated corpse until this was built. Arrhidaeus was instructed to convey the corpse to its final destination, which was still at this point, evidently, Alexander’s chosen burial ground, the shrine of Ammon in Egypt.

For Perdiccas, the past week had been damaging but not hopelessly so. Meleager’s betrayal had caught him by surprise; he had misjudged the infantry leader, had thought him reliable and sound, indeed had sent him on the very mission that gave him control of a hostile army. Perdiccas had been watching his cavalry colleagues for disaffection, especially Ptolemy, and considering ways to deal with his absent rivals Craterus and Antipater. The rebellion of the infantry had blindsided him. But Perdiccas had quickly regained his balance. He had made the troops listen to him and accept his authority. And the other members of the high command had stuck by him; even his rival Ptolemy had remained loyal. The traditional hierarchy of the army had been restored.

The question now was how the mutineers, in particular Meleager, should be dealt with. The best model Perdiccas could look to for an answer was Alexander. Alexander too had been challenged, despite his godlike power. Men had refused to obey his orders, had stood up to him in front of others and even jeered at him. In every case, those men were now dead.

First had come Cleitus, the one they called Cleitus the Black, a nobleman and commander of high rank. He had saved Alexander’s life in the first battle against the Persians, cutting off the arm of an enemy swordsman just as it was about to strike the king’s head. Years later, when drunk at a banquet in Bactria (in what is now Uzbekistan), Cleitus had begun to grumble that Alexander owed not only his neck but also his conquests to the efforts of others; that he wore his borrowed glory too proudly, decking himself out like a Persian fop; that he was less of a man than his father, Philip. Alexander finally could take no more and reached for a weapon. The Bodyguards grabbed hold of the king and restrained him while Cleitus was hustled out of the banquet hall. But a few moments later, when the Bodyguards had relaxed their grip, Cleitus returned with more taunts on his lips. Alexander grabbed a sarissa and thrust its massive blade into Cleitus’ chest, killing him on the spot. It was a rash and unpremeditated murder but perhaps one Alexander did not regret.

Callisthenes was next, the Greek literary light who accompanied the army as court chronicler. Aristotle’s grandnephew, an esteemed intellectual, Callisthenes lent respectability to Alexander’s campaign, especially since he was usually eager to exalt it. But suddenly, about a year after Cleitus’ death, Callisthenes balked. In an impromptu speech he attacked an idea, floated by the king’s agents, that courtiers should bow down before Alexander as the Persians did before their monarchs. This was confusing man with god, Callisthenes asserted, and swapping limited monarchy for despotism. Alexander abandoned the bowing ritual but simmered over Callisthenes’ defiance. A few months later, when some of Callisthenes’ young admirers were found to have plotted against the king’s life, a snare was easily set. Callisthenes died horribly, either tortured and hanged, according to some sources, or imprisoned in a stinking cage and dragged about with the army until lice and disease did him in.

The last challenge to Alexander’s authority had been the most serious. In Opis, where Alexander announced he was discharging ten thousand veterans and bringing in Persian replacements, his troops showed open contempt, mocking his high-handedness and delusions of godhood. Alexander responded instantly and brutally. Wading into the crowd, he clapped a hand on the shoulders of those who scoffed the loudest, marking them out for summary execution. Thirteen men, veterans with long and distinguished records, died without hearing or trial, but the muttering ceased. Alexander regained control.

Now it was Perdiccas’ turn to face down a mutinous army. Clearly those who had challenged him had to pay the price and pay it in full view of others. But his power to punish was nothing like what Alexander’s had been. An immediate attack was out of the question; his authority was still too shaky, and besides, how could he succeed amid Babylon’s streets and palaces? Cavalrymen needed level plains on which charges could be mounted. And so Perdiccas, together with his fellow cavalry leaders, hatched a plan.

From its earliest days, the Macedonian army had practiced a ritual called lustration to purify itself in sight of the gods. A dog was killed and cut in two, and the halves were dragged to two sides of a field. The entire soldiery then marched between them in full armor. Sometimes a feigned battle between cavalry and infantry took place after this march was concluded. Perdiccas now ordered that such a lustration be held in the fields outside Babylon, to cleanse the armed forces of the taint of mutiny. All would gather in one place for the ritual, cavalry ranged opposite infantry.

Meleager no doubt suspected Perdiccas’ intentions, but a further stratagem secured his cooperation. Perdiccas planted agents to mutter loudly against Meleager’s elevation in the power-sharing deal. Getting wind of these grumbles, Meleager complained to Perdiccas that the malcontents must be punished. Perdiccas proposed that the upcoming lustration, when the cavalry would be deployed in an open field with full tactical advantage, would offer a good opportunity to make arrests. Meleager agreed to the plan, hoping it would result in the destruction of his opponents. In fact it was aimed at his supporters.

The infantry marched outside Babylon’s walls, into the stronghold of the cavalry, to enact the solemn rite of lustration. From the opposite side of the field, the cavalry came forward in full armor, led by a wedge of war elephants. This exotic weapon had terrified the Macedonians when they first encountered it in India, but they had quickly learned how to check it, then mastered it themselves. Elephants had since become an accustomed sight in Macedonian camps, but to see them marching in a lustral procession was strange and, no doubt, disquieting.

As the distance between ranks closed, Perdiccas sprang his trap. He sent King Philip over to the infantrymen with a prepared speech demanding surrender of the leading mutineers—the very men who had put him on the throne and given him his name—and to threaten a devastating cavalry charge if they refused. Meleager had been double-crossed but could do nothing about it. His thirty staunchest supporters were handed over, bound, and, as the assembled infantry looked on, cast under the feet of the elephants and trampled to death. With a single macabre stroke, the army was purged of its most troublesome members. But Perdiccas’ duplicity was not without its costs. From this point on, the chiliarch became “suspected by all and full of suspicions,” says Photius, summarizing the view of Arrian in the lost Events After Alexander.

Meleager himself escaped the lustration, but a few days or perhaps a few hours later his own reckoning with Perdiccas arrived. When officers appeared accusing him of treachery, Meleager did not bother to defend himself. He fled to a nearby temple, trusting in the ancient taboo against harming those seeking sanctuary at altars of the gods. But such taboos were a luxury that could not be afforded in the current crisis. Perdiccas ordered his troops to enter the enclosure and drag Meleager away. King Philip, indifferent to or barely cognizant of his change of masters, signed the order for Meleager’s execution as compliantly as he had earlier signed a similar writ against Perdiccas.

• • •

Having literally stomped on the spirit of sedition in the army, Perdiccas plotted a second purge of a very different kind. We know almost nothing about this plot because only one ancient chronicler, Plutarch, mentions it, and only in a single, short, confusing paragraph. But there is no reason to doubt that it took place. In this case Perdiccas had an unusual collaborator, a woman unaccustomed to political murders: Alexander’s pregnant young widow, Rhoxane.

Rhoxane must have realized, during the days after Alexander’s death, that she had become presumptive queen mother. But she also knew that her lofty status was a fragile thing. Alexander’s two other widows, Stateira and Parysatis, were daughters of the two most recent Persian kings. Alexander had intended to beget children by them, children who, with both European and Asian royal blood, would be ideal rulers of the Perso-Macedonian empire. Now these two Persian princesses offered an opportunity for someone else, one of Alexander’s generals presumably, to sire sons who were royal at least on their mother’s side. In the new political landscape, with Europe and Asia forced together by Alexander’s titanic will, it was unclear whether such children could become candidates for the throne. A more confusing possibility was that one or both princesses were already pregnant by Alexander or would claim to be—a claim that would pose great perils for Rhoxane and her unborn child.

So Perdiccas and Rhoxane, acting together, resolved to murder at least one, more likely both, of the Persian princesses. A letter, tricked up to look as though it came from Alexander, was brought to Stateira. Since Perdiccas had control of Alexander’s signet ring, it is tempting to think he used it to seal the forged letter. Whatever Stateira read in that letter drew her to a spot where Rhoxane was waiting for her, and where Rhoxane had her killed, together with another woman, probably Parysatis. Then the bodies were secretly cast down a well and the well was filled in with earth. Rhoxane and Perdiccas meant no one to learn what had happened; they simply made the two women disappear. If not for a single sentence in Plutarch, derived from some unknown informant, the crime would have remained hushed up to this day.

There is a verb, phthanō, in ancient Greek that denotes the taking of preemptive action, especially where one harms an enemy to prevent that enemy from doing harm. When Alexander had a high-ranking officer named Philotas tried and executed, on thin evidence of collusion in an assassination plot, he named the city founded at the trial’s site Prophthasia, the place where he had gotten the jump on danger. Prophthasia had always been the prerogative of Macedonian kings. The safety of the monarch justified the elimination even of anticipated threats. But the murder of the Persian princesses by Rhoxane and Perdiccas took this logic to a new extreme. Heirs to the throne had been rubbed out before, but killing women to prevent them from bearing heirs was unprecedented.

Once this logic of prophthasia was invoked, it was hard to limit how it was applied. The violence it seemed to license would, in years to come, claim the lives of all the women who shared Alexander’s blood or who had shared his bed. Somehow one unlikely survivor would escape the carnage to help beget a new royal line.

In either July or September—our sources are divided on the chronology—Rhoxane gave birth to a boy. Never before or since, one imagines, was the gender of an infant anticipated so keenly by so many. Most were no doubt relieved, but none more so than Perdiccas. The settlement he had masterminded was secure. His plan for the future of the empire, which, like Alexander’s, called for a center of power at Babylon rather than in Europe, could go forward.

The baby was named for his father, as was inevitable given that his counterpart had been renamed after his father. A new Alexander was now acclaimed as king alongside a new Philip. History knows the pair as Alexander IV and Philip III (sometimes called Philip Arrhidaeus).

The time had come for Perdiccas to give new assignments to the Bodyguards, since it did not suit their training or temperament to attend a mental invalid or a suckling infant. Perdiccas needed to reward those who had stayed loyal during the infantry uprising and also get rivals off the scene. It was resolved that each Bodyguard, Perdiccas excepted, would leave Babylon and become a satrap, or provincial governor (the Persian name for the office had already been adopted into Greek, and as a result survives today in English). Such appointments conferred power and status, and were strategically important as well, for satraps controlled small armies that could cement the unity of the empire—or, if used for revolt, destroy it. It was essential that the heads of the provinces be reliable men, strong but not too strong, who would follow orders issued by Perdiccas in the name of the joint kings.

The division of these posts, however, posed a complex problem in diplomacy. Perdiccas could not risk offending his comrades by giving them too paltry a province or emboldening them with one too powerful. In the end he made errors on both sides of this delicate balance, errors that would soon threaten the survival of his regime.

The biggest question Perdiccas faced was how to accommodate Ptolemy, the second most powerful Bodyguard. Ptolemy clearly disliked him yet had supported him during the infantry insurrection. Ptolemy wanted Egypt. It was a gem of a province, wealthy beyond measure and friendly to the Macedonians, with borders that were easy to defend—all too easy, in Perdiccas’ eyes. Ptolemy could not be denied Egypt without risking a severe breach, but he also could not be allowed to use it as a base for mounting revolt. A diplomatic solution was found: Ptolemy got his wish but was also assigned an adjutant, Cleomenes of Naucratis, an unscrupulous Greek who was already serving in Egypt as finance minister. Cleomenes was clearly meant to watch Ptolemy on Perdiccas’ behalf and keep him from misbehaving.

Astride the straits of the Hellespont (the Dardanelles), two other Bodyguards, Lysimachus and Leonnatus, took up new commands. This crossing point between Europe and Asia held enormous strategic importance, bridging the vast Asiatic portion of the empire and the Macedonian homeland. The western side of the divide, Thrace, was a rough place, home to many warlike tribes; Lysimachus was charged with the stern job of pacifying it. To the east, Hellespontine Phrygia, a small and only modestly wealthy province, went to Leonnatus. Leonnatus had already, as part of the bargain Perdiccas struck with Meleager, accepted demotion from the governing board of the empire. Perdiccas might have supposed—wrongly, as things turned out—that his longtime supporter would be content with such a paltry prize.

Positions assigned to the leading generals by the Babylon settlement, and the accidental position of Craterus, who was en route to Europe when Alexander died (Illustration credit 2.2)
Click here to view a larger image.

A big winner in this territorial lottery was Eumenes, Alexander’s Greek secretary and, recently, a cavalry officer as well. For his diplomacy during the infantry mutiny, and in recognition of the favor Alexander had shown him, Eumenes received cavalry-rich Cappadocia (in what is now eastern Turkey). This was a remarkable honor, for only two Greeks before this had become satraps, and both in the remote East. But there was a hitch. Cappadocia had not been fully subdued by Alexander and was now home to a feisty Persian warlord named Ariarathes. This man rejected Macedonian sovereignty and had an army of fellow resisters. Eumenes would need to fight his way into power, a tall order for a man who had never yet led troops in battle. Perhaps Perdiccas intended a test, to see if this clever Greek, an expert thus far only at paperwork, had the right stuff for armed combat.

To aid Eumenes, Perdiccas directed two neighboring satraps to bring their troops forward, Leonnatus from one side and Antigonus One-eye, satrap of Phrygia (today southwest Turkey), from another. Antigonus, a bear of a man who had lost an eye in battle in his youth, had long been sidelined from Alexander’s army, left behind to manage western Asia while the campaign headed east. He and the other generals had not seen one another in a decade, so it was no doubt with some uncertainty that Perdiccas now wrote to Antigonus, a man twenty years his senior, to issue his orders. Perhaps he counted on Antigonus’ fondness for Eumenes to ensure his support, for the two men, though opposites in size, rank, and power, had been friends long ago at the Macedonian court. Or perhaps this too was a test, for Perdiccas needed to know whether he could command the respect of existing satraps, who had been absent from the new regime’s founding and had not given it their assent.

Two other powerful men had to be accommodated by the apportionment plan, though they too were too far from Babylon when it was drafted. Craterus, making slow progress on his homeward journey, was camped in Cilicia with his supposedly decommissioned veterans, and in Europe old man Antipater, faithful guardian of the Macedonian homeland, remained in the post from which Alexander had sought to remove him. Already these two men were included in the executive council running the empire, but they had been largely relegated to Europe while Perdiccas managed Asia. In the final settlement, Antipater was confirmed as head of Macedonia, Greece, and the Balkan territories. Craterus’ assignment was less clear; Perdiccas no doubt left it vague, wary of offending a general who was both beloved of the soldiers and, by accident of timing, in control of a huge number of them. Probably he encouraged Craterus, as gently as he could, to proceed to Europe and share power with Antipater. He did not want such a talented general lurking in Asia with an army of ten thousand.

Perdiccas himself took no satrapy. His role was custodian of the joint kings and commander of the royal army, the two nodes of executive power now located in Babylon. He shored up his position by making a trusted subordinate, Seleucus, his second in command, appointing him to the post of chiliarch he himself had once held. Perdiccas was now the closest thing the empire had to a central authority, with power to disburse funds from the royal treasuries, great depots of precious metals housed in closely guarded forts throughout the empire. This power of the purse formed a crucial prop to Perdiccas’ leadership. The army had already made clear, while Alexander was alive, that it would fight only for rich rewards, either pay or plunder and preferably both. Any ruler who sought to retain its loyalty was going to need ready cash.

And so the generals at Babylon, like gods claiming chunks of the cosmos, took charge of the pieces of Alexander’s empire that best matched their power, temperament, and rank. The newly crowned king Philip—following Perdiccas around like a spear-carrier, a mute extra, in a play, as Plutarch wryly observes—gave his all-too-ready approval to the apportionment scheme.

Before the generals departed for their new posts, Perdiccas convened an assembly of the army to consider Alexander’s last plans. According to Diodorus, Perdiccas had found a document containing these plans among the papers in the royal chambers. It described a set of projects of such astounding scope and scale that some modern scholars believe it a forgery, though most accept it as genuine. Perdiccas wanted these plans quashed, but in the charged atmosphere at Babylon he could not contravene the dead Alexander without the support of the army. And so he had the document read aloud to an assembly of troops, revealing to them the intentions of their now-mummified monarch.

Alexander had wanted a thousand warships built, to be used in a campaign in the West. The coastal towns of western Asia were to supply lumber for these ships, all to be larger than the standard-size trireme with its three banks of rowers. The objective of the new fleet would be Carthage and the rest of North Africa, along with Sicily, the Iberian Peninsula, and the European coastline between them. To support the fleet, a road was to be built through North Africa as far as the Pillars of Heracles (Strait of Gibraltar), with ports and dockyards at intervals suitable for trade and naval operations. Alexander, if we believe the last plans to be genuine, was planning a second, western campaign of conquest as extensive as the first, eastern one.

Alexander further wanted the construction of vast, costly temples at sites in Greece and Macedonia. A temple to Athena, “not capable of being surpassed by any other,” was to be built at Troy, the place Alexander had made a monument to Greek aspirations of foreign conquest. Great sums were to be spent on memorials to those closest to Alexander in life, his father, Philip, and his best friend, Hephaestion. Philip’s tomb, the document specified, was to be built on a scale rivaling the Great Pyramid in Egypt.

Finally, and most ambitiously, Alexander’s plans called for the movement of European peoples into Asia and Asians into Europe, with the goal, as Diodorus transmits it, of “bringing the two major continents, by way of intermarriages and family bonds, into a common harmony and a brotherly affection.” It is hard to imagine what this plan entailed or how it would have been carried out. Clearly it represents a new and hugely ambitious stage of Alexander’s cultural fusion program, an expansion to global scale of the mixed marriages at Susa.

The reading of the document allowed those present to take the full measure of the leader they had lost. It was an astonishing vision that stood behind the plans: a single world-state stretching from the Atlantic to the Indian Ocean, its cultures severed from continental moorings, its expanses knit together by roads and sea-lanes and bestrode by colossal monuments. It is a vision that inspires both wonder and terror from a distance of twenty-three hundred years, for it anticipates both the Christian New Jerusalem and the warped utopias of Fascist dictatorships.

The troops who heard the last plans, however, felt neither inspiration nor revulsion but fatigue. They had already shown in India that their stamina was the weak link in their king’s dream of universal empire. Asked for its response, the army rejected the plans on the grounds that they were, in Diodorus’ words, “overly grand and difficult to achieve.” Most were never contemplated again.

By the simple expedient of a vote, Perdiccas brought the thirty-five-year expansion of the Macedonian empire to a halt. He would seek merely to preserve what had been won, and that task was already proving immensely difficult.

If you find an error please notify us in the comments. Thank you!