Asia and North Africa
SUMMER 323–SUMMER 322 B.C.
News of Alexander’s death traveled outward from Babylon like shock waves from an earthquake. In all likelihood, it was the fastest- and farthest-moving piece of news the world had yet received. Millions heard it within a week’s time. Recent discoveries of dated records near Idumaea, beside the Dead Sea, show that Alexander’s death was reported there only six days after it occurred.
The news went out along communications lines set up by the Persians and still functioning under Macedonian rule. Criers stationed on hilltops, spaced at the limits of earshot, called it to each other, sending it in one day’s time the distance of a month’s travel. Mounted couriers, called astandai in Persian, carried it at a gallop from one way station to the next, relaying it at each one to a fresh rider atop a fresh horse.
Swiftest of all were the fire beacons that raced along spoke-like lines to the main Persian capitals, Susa and Persepolis. By manipulating poles on which the fires were displayed, the relay crews could transmit coded messages. Almost certainly this system brought word of Alexander’s death to Susa during the night of June 11, for Alexander died not long before nightfall on that day, and Babylon was only a few hundred miles from Susa.
At Susa (as far as we know) dwelled much of what remained of the Persian royal family, including two princesses who were now Alexander’s widows, Parysatis and Stateira. Also there was Stateira’s grandmother, Sisygambis. All three had been captured by Alexander ten years earlier, after the defeat of Sisygambis’ son, Darius, at the battle of Issus. Following royal tradition, Darius had brought his family with him and parked them close to the battlefield but took no measures to secure their safety; the Persians had no experience of losing battles on their own territory. After Darius and his officers fled from Issus, Alexander coolly rounded up his royal prisoners, treating the women with a deference that became legendary and sending them to Susa to live as royalty once again. He was particularly kind to Sisygambis, addressing her as “Mother” and refusing to sit in her presence until asked, the same mark of respect a highborn Persian would pay to the woman who bore him.
When in his last year of life Alexander wed Stateira and Parysatis, the granddaughter and grandniece of Sisygambis, the old woman saw her family’s fortunes miraculously restored. Though once a prisoner who could expect enslavement or worse, she was again the matriarch of a ruling family. She had every hope of seeing a great-grandson inherit her son’s throne and rule Asia as Darius had done, along with much of Europe and North Africa—an empire that had been expanded, not diminished, by defeat.
That hope was dashed, however, by news of Alexander’s death. Now Sisygambis’ star was sinking again. She knew enough about dynastic politics to foresee what lay in store. Her widowed granddaughter would be easy prey for enemies and rivals (indeed, in Babylon, Perdiccas and Rhoxane would shortly murder Stateira, as we have seen). Without male relatives to look to for protection—purges within her own family had wiped these out—she would be little more than a household slave to the Macedonians. The prospect of facing old age in dishonor was more than Sisygambis could bear. On the night of Alexander’s death she stopped taking food and drink, a resolute, slow-motion suicide. In five days she was dead.
Elsewhere in Susa and other great cities of the Iranian plateau, the Persians began the solemn rituals of state mourning. Though Alexander had come as an invader, he was by this time the only king they had, and they marked his passing reverently. Men shaved their heads and donned funereal clothing. At altars across the land, the sacred fire of the Zoroastrian faith, fueled night and day by attendant priests, was extinguished, a sign that the energies that gave life to the cosmos had come to a halt.
The final rite in the Persian cycle of mourning was the slow passage of the king’s body through the kingdom, with stops along the way to allow subjects to lament. Alexander’s body too would be carried in such a procession, the generals in Babylon ultimately decided. Its destination, though, became a matter of dispute. Alexander had expressed a wish to be buried near the oracular shrine of the god Ammon, west of Egypt, but at some point his request was overridden by the governing regime in Babylon. In life, Alexander had exerted astounding control over his empire and those who ran it; in death, his corpse could again be an instrument of control to those who gave it burial. Such a precious resource could not be wasted in a remote North African desert.
The criers cried, the horses raced, and the beacons flared, bringing news of Alexander’s death across the two million square miles of the empire. The report eventually reached all the king’s men—satraps, garrison chiefs, and finance ministers who governed the realm’s two dozen provinces. Alexander had appointed these men, reshuffled them, and purged their ranks of those he considered disloyal. Now the loyalty of those who remained in power would be put to the ultimate test. Everything depended on their willingness to take orders from an uninspiring triumvirate: a regent, Perdiccas, who was only a man, not a myth like his dead commander, and two kings who were considerably less than that.
1. ANTIGONUS (PHRYGIA, SUMMER 323 B.C.)
The reports from Babylon quickly reached a man dwelling in Phrygia (now southwestern Turkey) who no one yet imagined would be a key player in the contest for Alexander’s empire—not even the man himself. Antigonus One-eye had spent the past ten years as satrap of Phrygia, governing this big, unruly province in Alexander’s name. But now Alexander was dead, and Antigonus was serving other masters. He soon received word from Perdiccas, the head of the new government in Babylon, that a division of satrapies had been held and that he had been reappointed to command of Phrygia.
No doubt Antigonus was glad to receive this news but less pleased by his first assignment. He was to help Eumenes gain control of his new province, Cappadocia. Antigonus had always liked Eumenes during their years together at Philip’s court, but in his eyes the man was a mere bookkeeper, and a foreigner to boot. Was Antigonus, a Macedonian of long service and high standing, really expected to aid such a man? Was the new regime really giving satrapies to Greeks?
Antigonus was about sixty, a generation older than the generals in Babylon, a giant of a man with a booming voice and a gruff, boastful temperament. He had lost an eye while helping Philip, Alexander’s father, conduct a siege; a bolt fired from the walls of the besieged city had lodged in his eye socket, but with characteristic resolve he refused to have it extracted until the day’s fighting was over. To see this enormous figure charging the walls, blood streaming down one cheek and a piece of metal where his eye should have been, must have been terrifying indeed. After his wound healed, his mangled visage continued to inspire fear. Once a Greek orator who had displeased Antigonus, summoned to appear before him, defiantly told the guards who came to fetch him: “Go ahead, feed me to your Cyclops!”
While overseeing Phrygia, Antigonus had raised his only surviving son, Demetrius. Now, in early adolescence, the boy was turning out to be almost as big as his father, and far more dissolute. Antigonus doted on this staggeringly handsome boy and teased him about his appetites for wine and women, both of which were soon to become legendary. On one occasion he had gone to visit Demetrius in his quarters, where the boy had shut himself in, claiming a fever. As he approached his son’s bedroom, he spied a beautiful courtesan slipping away from it. Antigonus went in, sat down beside the boy, and pretended to take his temperature. “The fever has left me now,” Demetrius lied, to which Antigonus winkingly replied, “I know, I met it just now on its way out.”
On another occasion described by Plutarch, Demetrius one day came into the palace staterooms, fresh from a hunt, without bothering to first store his javelin. Antigonus was meeting with some foreign envoys, and Demetrius blithely seated himself next to his father, weapon still in hand. Antigonus proudly pointed out to his visitors that he trusted Demetrius to bear arms in his presence. The episode prompts Plutarch to offer a pointed comment: one can measure the perils of power, the great moralist remarks, by the fact that Antigonus could make a boast of not fearing his own son.
Service in Phrygia had not been Antigonus’ choice, for any general with his talent and temperament would have preferred to go east with Alexander. He had been sidelined here, the first high-ranking officer of the invasion to be left behind in a rear-guard post. Perhaps Alexander thought Antigonus too old for the rigors of the campaign; if so, the years to come would prove him badly mistaken. Perhaps, as one source reports, he mistrusted Antigonus’ love of power, a judgment far closer to the mark. Satrapal appointments were a tactful way for Alexander to neutralize ambitious men before they could become threats. Alexander later shucked off Cleitus, another senior officer, by making him satrap of Bactria, just before starting on the Indian leg of his journey of conquest. Cleitus took this as a slight and began grumbling bitterly during his departure banquet, finally becoming so strident that Alexander killed him with his own hands.
Whatever the reason for his stranding in Phrygia, Antigonus had been a good steward of his province. His small Macedonian army had won several battles against determined Persian resistance. He had maintained peace and stability, so much so that his wife, Stratonice, had left her wealthy Macedonian home to join him in the Phrygian capital, Celaenae. This courageous lady became one of the first European colonial wives in Asia, the forerunner of many later memsahibs.
For ten years Antigonus held sway in Phrygia as Alexander receded ever farther toward the horizon. Few orders came to him from the East, and he had gotten used to running his province his own way, with his own troops. But now, that autonomy was being compromised. He had received commands from Babylon, from a new government installed without his consent. The task Perdiccas had set him—helping little Eumenes win his way into power—was a humiliating one, in effect a demand for total submission.
For a man like Antigonus, the choice of how to respond was an easy one. Saying nothing about his intentions or his reasons, he simply declined to show up for the invasion of Cappadocia. It was a passive rebellion but unmistakable in its significance. Antigonus, the first man outside Babylon called upon to support the new regime, had become the first to defy it. One of the last of his generation, the older men thrust aside, left behind, or killed by Alexander, he was not ready to give up his prerogatives and make way for the triumph of the young.
2. THE REVOLT IN BACTRIA (NORTHERN AFGHANISTAN, UZBEKISTAN, TAJIKISTAN, SUMMER 323 B.C.)
More than two thousand miles east of Antigonus’ palace, in an opposite corner of Alexander’s realm, a different challenge to the new government was taking shape. In the dusty fortress towns of Bactria, the outposts set up by Alexander to secure his northeast frontier, squads of Greek garrison troops received the news from Babylon with keen anticipation. For a long time they had sought a way to leave their posts, landlocked, alien places they found cheerless and barren. Now, with word of Alexander’s death, that opportunity was at hand.
Similar news had arrived two years earlier, when the king’s lung wound in India was rumored to be fatal. The false report had spurred a mass exodus of the Greeks in Bactria. Longing for home and thinking themselves free of a harsh master, many threw off the chains of garrison duty and organized a march to the West. Three thousand Greeks had crossed most of Macedonian-controlled Asia—a journey fraught with perils, from which no account has survived—and returned to their European homes. News of their escape must have made its way back to Bactria, inspiring new discontent and homesickness among their former comrades. Now these men had a miraculous second chance.
There were more than twenty thousand Greek soldiers scattered across Bactria and its northerly neighbor, Sogdiana (the “upper satrapies,” as the Persians called them). Most were infantrymen of the hoplite class, armed with large shields, eight-foot thrusting spears, and metal breastplates and helmets. Some were draftees, forced into service by standing treaties; others were mercenaries, soldiers of fortune hoping to get rich under an invincible leader. Still others had been fighting for the Persians when Alexander launched his invasion, but had been allowed to save their lives by switching sides. Few considered Alexander their king or believed in his cause. To the mercenaries he was merely an employer, if a very well-paying one; to the recruits, brought along largely as hostages ensuring the loyalty of their home cities, he represented the war machine that had robbed Greece of its freedom.
In combat these Greek troops had played only a minor role. The Macedonians, with their longer pikes and lighter, more mobile divisions, regarded them as second-raters, throwbacks to an outmoded style of warfare. All the same they were valuable to the army as cultural capital. Steeped in literature and learning that Macedonians lacked, revered for progressive political traditions, these Greeks offered Alexander a potent propaganda weapon. His rule over Asia would be not another Persian-style despotism but a Hellenic regime, with a king who exercised wise and just (though absolute) power. The presence of Greek contingents in his army, and a few Greek officers among his Companions, helped Alexander maintain his enlightened image.
In the upper satrapies Alexander’s Greek troops were especially important as cultural signposts. This was Asia’s wild frontier, a rugged, mountainous realm where tough nomads lived by the arrow and the sword. Raiding and counter-raiding had been rife for centuries, and boys learned to ride and shoot almost before they could speak. Attacks by Scythian warlords to the north kept the region unsettled and violent. If Hellenism could plant its flag even here, if the Greek polis could be imported from the Aegean to the Oxus and Jaxartes rivers, then Alexander’s campaign of conquest could be seen as a civilizational crusade.
Thus Greek squadrons were culled out of Alexander’s army and scattered through the Bactrian wilderness, like seeds from which city-states could grow. That at least is the metaphor invoked by Alexander’s admirers through the ages, from Plutarch in Roman times—who in a rapturous pair of speeches imagined plays of Sophocles being staged on the banks of the Oxus—to Sir William Tarn, the great British champion of Alexander in the mid-twentieth century. Alexander’s critics, whose views have become predominant in recent decades, have of course taken a different view. To them the new settlements were not beacons of enlightenment but mere bunkers, ensuring control by predators of their prey. The truth of the matter surely lies between these poles. Cultural and economic nurture goes hand in hand with hegemonic exploitation even today, when Western powers once again struggle to tame the wild energies of Bactria.
In any case, the “Athens on the Oxus” glorified by Plutarch was a far cry from the lot of Alexander’s garrison troops. Many had spent six years in parched mud-brick towns like Zariaspa and had seen very little else of Asia. At first their duties had been not only toilsome but dangerous. Through the surrounding desert rode fast-moving bands of guerrillas, and these tribesmen drew the garrison troops into several deadly ambushes. Alexander had finally pacified the region, in part by marrying Rhoxane, the daughter of its most powerful warlord, but its climate and landscape remained as forbidding as ever. From the walls of Zariaspa the Greeks saw only treeless wastes and arid mountains shimmering in the heat. There was no glimpse of their surest ally and quickest route back home, the sea.
In southern Afghanistan, the kind of landscape that drove many Greeks to flee the East (Illustration credit 4.1)
It was the sea the mutineers now sought to reach. Twenty thousand infantry and three thousand cavalry set out westward in the months after Alexander’s death, choosing as their captain a certain Philo, otherwise unknown. Probably they were aiming for the ports of Phoenicia or Asia Minor, where ships could be commandeered for the voyage to Greece. They counted on their numbers and weapons for security, and on Alexander’s absence. Perhaps they judged that none of the ruling generals, men who had once suffered the rigors of Bactria as they were now suffering, would care enough about that blasted, barren province to stop them from leaving it. If so, they judged wrong.
3. CRATERUS (CILICIA, SUMMER–WINTER 323 B.C.)
Meanwhile, in Cilicia (today southeast Turkey), Craterus, Alexander’s most revered general, was contemplating the paths that lay before him. The news from Babylon reached him en route to Europe as he marched at the head of the ten thousand veterans sent home from the army the previous year. Now that his king was dead, Craterus could foresee a change of masters and a change of political destiny, but first, the change from which all the others would flow, a change of wives.
Craterus, almost fifty and the oldest of Alexander’s top staff, was married to a highborn Persian named Amastris. Cousin and best friend of Alexander’s own bride Stateira, Amastris was one of the most distinguished women Alexander had bestowed in the mass wedding at Susa, a mark of what he owed to the loyal, dutiful Craterus. But the apparent honor also carried a sting. Craterus, as everyone knew, disliked Alexander’s embrace of Persian ways. He loved his king—indeed, no one had done more to protect and strengthen Alexander—but he hated the king’s policy of fusion, by which the ruling elites of Europe and Asia were being grafted together like shoots from two trees, and several times told him so to his face. Marriage to Amastris meant participating in this fusion plan.
Shortly after the mass wedding Alexander sent Craterus home to Macedonia, perhaps out of dislike of the old soldier’s traditionalism. Craterus’ assignment was a formidable one. He had to oust Antipater, staunch public servant for nearly half a century, from his position as guardian of the homeland, and install himself instead. The task would be even harder if Craterus brought along his barbarian wife. Alexander himself had recognized that difficulty, for he had forbidden the ten thousand veterans to bring their own Asian wives or mixed-race children home with them. Among the army at Babylon, such hybrid families were common enough, but back in Europe they would cause shock and dismay. Small wonder that Craterus had not hurried to complete his assignment. He had been ill when he departed Babylon, and that slowed his progress, but more recently he had come to a dead stop. Almost a year after leaving, he was still in Cilicia, only about halfway to the Macedonian capital, Pella.
In Cilicia, in the summer and fall of 323, messengers from both east and west kept Craterus informed of the changing world picture. From Babylon came news that Alexander was dead; that the king’s last orders had been voided; that Perdiccas was in command of the joint kings; that Craterus had been made sovereign over Europe, along with Antipater, the man he had been formerly told to replace. Then, from Europe, came reports that Athens had revolted; that the Greeks were on the march; that Antipater was besieged in Lamia and desperately needed relief. Finally a letter arrived from Antipater himself. It was a plea for Craterus to cross the Hellespont and prevent the collapse of the homeland. Antipater offered Craterus one of his daughters—his oldest and most prized, the renowned Phila—as a bond of alliance.
Few women rivaled Phila for sagacity, nobility, and warmth. Even in her childhood Antipater reportedly conferred with her about matters of state. Later in life she had the self-possession to manage disputes in camps of armed soldiers, dealing out justice so as to win the trust of all. But Phila was no Athena, devoted only to warfare and statecraft. She had a keen interest as well in matters of the heart. She used her own wealth to subsidize marriages of poor women who lacked dowries, a private endowment in the service of love.
Phila was in Cilicia at the time of Alexander’s death, not far from Craterus’ camp, and was recently widowed. Her marriage to a Macedonian officer named Balacrus had brought her to Tarsus, capital of Cilicia, but Balacrus had been killed by the Pisidians, a stubbornly autonomous tribe, in a battle the previous year. Accidents of time and place seemed to be bringing Craterus and Phila together, the army’s most revered officer and one of Europe’s most admired women. The union suited Craterus far better than his arranged marriage with Amastris and also offered him a surer place in the imperial hierarchy. With Phila at his side, he would have a glorious homecoming; if he then rescued Antipater from Lamia, he would become not only the old man’s son-in-law but, soon enough, his heir.
Still, Craterus delayed. Month after month he stayed in Cilicia, despite the urgency of Antipater’s messages. What was keeping him? Probably he felt the pull of the power vacuum in Babylon, where Perdiccas’ regime, as he knew by report, was struggling. Craterus’ standing among the rank and file was highest of all Alexander’s generals; many no doubt whispered that he, not Perdiccas, should be their new commander. The forces Craterus was leading, more than ten thousand seasoned troops, including the matchlessSilver Shields, were more than enough to take on Perdiccas and his loyalists. Any move against Perdiccas, who had gone out of his way to give Craterus a high place in the new regime, would of course be a stab in the back, but one that would almost certainly succeed.
Would Craterus turn east or west, toward Babylon or toward Pella? The choice seemed to hinge on which wife he would have. Wed to Amastris as he now was, he could rule Asia and father children who were royal (in Persian eyes at least). But if he renounced Amastris and took Phila instead, the most powerful man in Europe would be his father-in-law. Each woman seemed to bring with her a continent as her dowry. One was well suited to Craterus’ temperament, while the other opened avenues to immense power and wealth, perhaps even an imperial throne.
For the moment, Craterus stayed where he was, in Cilicia. No one who was with him recorded his thoughts or motives, which consequently have remained one of the darkest mysteries of the post-Alexander era. But the competing forces acting on him were enough to paralyze even the most decisive leader. Paths of glory beckoned on either side of him, while right in the middle, only miles away, stood Phila, Antipater’s daughter, from whom he might gain sure success on one of these paths, and happiness to boot.
4. PERDICCAS AND PEITHON (BABYLON, AUTUMN 323 B.C.)
In Babylon, Perdiccas, head of the embattled new regime, was also seeking to become Antipater’s son-in-law. Perhaps he had gotten wind of the old man’s offer of Phila to Craterus and feared being isolated by this new marital bond. Antipater represented legitimacy, stability, and authority; Antipater’s blessing was vital to anyone who sought to take Alexander’s place. Thus, shortly after appointing himself regent for the joint kings, Perdiccas wrote to Antipater seeking the hand of his daughter Nicaea, and the old man wrote back agreeing to the match.
Now, as he awaited the arrival of his bride, Perdiccas contemplated the two rebellions on two extremes of Asia. To his west, Antigonus One-eye had rejected his orders, refusing to lend aid to Eumenes in Cappadocia. To his east, the Greek hoplites stationed in Bactria were on the move after abandoning Alexander’s garrisons. Perdiccas’ authority, reestablished at such high cost after the uprising of Meleager, was under grave challenge in both places. Leaving Antigonus alone for the present, Perdiccas moved to tackle the problem of the Bactrian Greeks. He sent for his onetime fellow Bodyguard and close ally, Peithon.
Peithon had been one of Perdiccas’ chief supporters during the tumultuous week after Alexander’s death. Too low in stature to vie for command, he had been content to second Perdiccas’ proposals for the complex structure of the new government. As a reward he had been appointed satrap of Media, a wealthy and important province. There, Peithon had begun to nourish larger ambitions: dominion over the empire’s cavalry-rich eastern sector, the upper satrapies of Bactria and Sogdiana, an ideal place to start an independent kingdom or build power for a takeover of all Asia. For the moment, however, he kept this longing hidden.
Responding to Perdiccas’ summons, Peithon arrived in Babylon. There he received an expeditionary force of three thousand infantry and eight hundred cavalry, chosen by lottery from Perdiccas’ own forces. Peithon was also given letters allowing him to levy more troops from the other satraps of the East and to serve as strat¯egos, or “commander in chief,” of the whole region. Such letters, sealed with the signet ring Perdiccas carried, were the standard instruments by which the empire was managed. On their directives, troops or funds were moved here and there across its vast expanse. A satrap who received them was obliged to obey or other letters would be sent to the local garrison ordering his arrest, or worse.
The letters given to Peithon were a necessary means of dealing with one rebellion, but Perdiccas worried that they would spawn another. Somehow, Perdiccas had begun to mistrust Peithon, the man he had just appointed to a prestigious command. He feared that the mission to the upper satrapies would place Peithon beyond the reach of central authority. Were Peithon to collaborate with the Greek rebels rather than subduing them, he could easily control the East. Perdiccas decided to take no chances. He gave instructions to Peithon’s army that the Greek rebels were not to be taken prisoner but killed, and he granted the right to plunder their possessions as a reward for compliance. None of over twenty thousand former comrades was to be left alive. It was a desperately cynical strategy—the preemptive destruction of an entire army to prevent its use by a rival. The upper satrapies would be largely stripped of colonists, but at least they would not threaten the empire as a whole. If Perdiccas had to cut off a limb to preserve the rest of the body, that was a price he was willing to pay.
And so he sent Peithon off to the East, while he waited for an envoy to arrive from the West with Antipater’s daughter Nicaea, his bride-to-be.
5. PTOLEMY (EGYPT, AUTUMN 323–SUMMER 322 B.C.)
Meanwhile, in the south of the empire, in Egypt, yet another of Alexander’s generals, Ptolemy, was also about to marry a daughter of Antipater—the old man’s youngest, Eurydice. Ptolemy had sought this woman’s hand as part of a pact with Antipater, whose support he badly needed. For upon his arrival in Egypt he had taken steps that were sure to bring a momentous consequence, war with Perdiccas.
Ptolemy already had two remarkable women by his side. For years he had kept a famous mistress, the beautiful Athenian courtesan Thais. According to one account, it was Thais who, while drinking and carousing with Ptolemy and other generals in the Persian palace at Persepolis, impishly suggested that they all set the place on fire. Alexander, drunk as well, took the dare and threw a torch at the roof timbers of the palace, starting a conflagration that left it a ravaged shell (the ruin still standing today in southern Iran). Perhaps the fire really did start this way, or perhaps, as a different account suggests, it was a deliberate move by a sober Alexander. But even if Thais was the instigator, she had not thereby lost Ptolemy’s affections. The couple had three children born during the Asian campaign, two boys and a girl, now settled with them in their new home in Egypt.
Ptolemy also had a wife, the Greco-Persian noblewoman Artacama, given to him by Alexander at the mass wedding in Susa the previous year. She was the daughter of Artabazus, a great Persian warrior-chief, and sister of Barsine, Alexander’s former mistress and mother of his son Heracles. By marriage to Artacama, Ptolemy had been taken into Alexander’s extended family, and into the hybrid Euro-Asian elite destined to rule the brave new world.
It was an odd combination of consorts, a highborn Persian princess and a high-priced Athenian courtesan, but then Ptolemy was a man for all seasons, versatile and rangy. Alexander had given him a variety of commands, diverse and sensitive missions, and he had always succeeded. Not by nature a military man—at least he played no major role in the Asian invasion during its first five years—he had learned the art of war from those around him. Perhaps he did not have as much boldness as Perdiccas, nor as much authority as Craterus, nor as much cleverness as Eumenes the Greek. But he had a balance of all three qualities that was stronger than any single one by itself.
Ptolemy was going to need his versatility now that he had arrived in Egypt. His new satrapy was a land of strange and powerful religious passions. In his capital city of Memphis, a glittering temple housed a black-and-white bull calf worshipped as a divine being called Apis. Worship of animal deities was peculiar to Egypt and often hard for foreigners to stomach; once a Persian king had brutally stabbed the Apis in the thigh, calling it a silly god worthy of silly people. The beast later contracted sepsis and died. Alexander had taken the opposite approach: upon entering Egypt, he offered sacrifices at Memphis to gods that conspicuously included the Apis bull. Ptolemy had learned much on that occasion about adaptability, tolerance, and openness to change.
Ptolemy was by nature a tolerant person, not charismatic like Alexander, but reasonable and fair-minded. In years to come his benevolence would earn him the epithet Soter, or Savior, by which he has been known ever since. And the Egyptians desperately needed a tolerant ruler, for in the past few years they had once again, as in the days of the Persians, been oppressed by a cruel foreigner—in this case a conniving Greek named Cleomenes.
Appointed by Alexander as finance minister in Egypt, Cleomenes had come to control all the levers of power and had also become spectacularly wealthy. A record survives of the gangland-type schemes by which he amassed his riches. He extorted money by taking away age-old priestly privileges and then selling them back; he manipulated the price of grain, Egypt’s chief export, by cornering the market; he shook down the Egyptians by thuggish bullying. Once, when sailing along the Nile in a region where crocodiles were sacred, Cleomenes lost a slave to an attack by one of these beasts. He promptly declared a roundup and slaughter of crocodiles. The local priests averted this sacrilege only by bringing Cleomenes heaps of gold. He had held their very gods for ransom.
Alexander, while he lived, despised the connivances of Cleomenes but was either unable or unwilling to stop them. Then, in his last year of life, the king bought a favor from Cleomenes at the price of a blanket amnesty. Distraught at the death of his friend Hephaestion, Alexander wrote to Cleomenes requesting that huge memorials be built in the new city then under construction, Alexandria—one in the city itself and another on an island offshore where it would be seen by all passing ships. “If I find,” said Alexander in the letter, “that the temples in Egypt and the shrines of Hephaestion are well built, I will pardon you for any wrong you have done thus far, and if you misbehave in the future, you will meet with no punishment from me.” Cleomenes continued his kleptocracy in Egypt, now with the blessing of the king himself.
In the settlement made at Babylon, Perdiccas had assigned Egypt to Ptolemy on the condition that Cleomenes serve as Ptolemy’s hyparchos, or “lieutenant.” It was a patent attempt to trim Ptolemy’s sails and keep a close watch on his behavior. But Ptolemy nullified this arrangement soon after his arrival, by arranging for Cleomenes himself to be nullified. Finding some legal pretext—a charge of fiscal malfeasance would have been fitting and all too credible—Ptolemy had the grasping Greek tried and executed, thus taking sole power in Egypt. It was a declaration of independence from Perdiccas and the regime of the joint kings.
Probably it was after this overthrow of Cleomenes that Ptolemy wrote to Antipater, asking to marry one of the old man’s daughters. A showdown with Perdiccas was surely coming, and Ptolemy would need help to hold his new seat. Alliance between Ptolemy and Antipater made possible a continental pincer strategy: Europe and Africa, working in tandem, could hold the vast forces of Asia at bay. Antipater, it seems, was happy to take part in this high-stakes triangulation, for he sent his daughter Eurydice to become Ptolemy’s wife. And with her he sent the girl’s cousin Berenice, a lady-in-waiting who, though no one yet knew it, was awaiting great things.
Cleomenes was not the only problem Ptolemy faced during his first year in Egypt. Another bold Greek with big ambitions, a Spartan soldier of fortune named Thibron, had begun an attack on Cyrene, a Greek city on the North African coast. Long independent and wealthy, not yet a part of the Macedonian empire, Cyrene made a tempting prize for a warrior with Thibron’s nerve. Though his plans did not threaten Ptolemy’s domain, they put him right on its borders, and his brashness seemed to endanger the stability of the whole region.
Thibron was among the many talented mercenaries who had become freebooters during Alexander’s last year. He had first shipped with Harpalus, the renegade treasurer of Babylon, as part of the hired army brought to Athens to foment revolt. He had watched as Harpalus’ efforts at Athens failed, not once but twice, and had then sailed with his hapless paymaster to Crete seeking refuge from Alexander’s retribution. There was still a fortune in silver and six thousand armed soldiers aboard Harpalus’ ships, enough cash and force to accomplish some bold mission—but what? Poor, lost Harpalus either didn’t know or didn’t seem likely to succeed. On Crete, Thibron took matters into his own hands by killing Harpalus and seizing command.
He sailed to North Africa and blockaded the harbor of Cyrene. He had the support of some exiles from the city and quickly won a settlement in which the Cyrenaeans agreed to pay him tribute and augment his army. But then things went awry. One of Thibron’s subordinates, a Cretan, rebelled against him, split off the other Cretans in the army, and defected to the Cyrenaeans. Thibron was kicked out of the city itself but still controlled the harbor, using confiscated trade goods to fund his war effort. He established a new base in the nearby town of Taucheira, while the Cyrenaeans, for their part, called in neighboring Libyans and Carthaginians for support. An all-out regional war began to take shape, right on Ptolemy’s western border.
Thibron, indefatigable like many Spartans, suffered dreadful reverses but would not give up. He lost control of the harbor of Cyrene after a successful Cretan raid; his men, forced to forage in open country, were routed by Libyan tribesmen; his ships, deprived of anchorage, were sunk or driven out to sea by a storm. His only remaining resource was his cash reserve, but this was formidable. Sending envoys to Taenaron, the still-crowded depot for unemployed mercenaries, he hired a new force of twenty-five hundred soldiers and attacked Cyrene again. He defeated a Cyrenaean army said to total thirty thousand—further testimony to the devastating effectiveness of trained veterans—and regained control of the city’s surroundings. The seesaw struggle now stabilized into an entrenched, grinding siege, with the fate of much of the region resting on the outcome.
Ptolemy watched this conflagration from the safety of his palace on the Nile. The twists and turns that had created the crisis were truly bewildering. Money that had been collected by the Persians, then captured by Alexander, then stolen by Harpalus and brought to Athens to subsidize a war against Macedonia, had changed hands one last time and landed on North African shores. Like a magnet, it had drawn to the region streams of jobless Greek mercenaries. Surplus cash had combined with free-floating military manpower to form a volatile and explosive mixture. The firestorm it had caused now threatened to spread to Egypt.
But Ptolemy too had a huge cash hoard, thanks to the depredations of his predecessor, Cleomenes. Upon inspecting the Egyptian treasury, he found a handsome sum of eight thousand talents, enough to hire a large army for many years of service, given the going rate of one-tenth of a talent per year per man. Ptolemy put this silver to work hiring a force that could outmatch Thibron’s, and when the opportunity came to intervene in Cyrene, he was ready. Called on for help by some Cyrenaean exiles, Ptolemy dispatched his newly purchased soldiers, under the command of his general Ophellas. Thibron was quickly defeated, captured, and turned over to the cities he had attacked for torture and crucifixion. Ophellas was put in charge of Cyrene, which henceforth became a dependency of Egypt—its fate a monument to the power of money.
There was another way to generate power from money, a way pioneered by Alexander but now exploited more fully by Ptolemy in Egypt. Coined money itself, bearing images struck at state-run mints, was a powerful propaganda tool. Alexander had used this tool all across his empire, striking coins showing Heracles, his legendary ancestor, on one side and bearing the legend “Alexander’s” on the other. Heracles was shown wearing a headdress made from the impenetrable skin of the Nemean lion, an emblem of Alexander’s own seeming invincibility. Ptolemy, during his first two years in Egypt, took this strategy one step further. He minted a coin depicting the profile not of Heracles but of Alexander himself. It was the first time that the image of a human being, rather than a god or a mythic hero, had appeared on any Western coinage.
In place of the lion skin formerly shown on the Heracles issues, Ptolemy’s coin showed Alexander wearing a fantastic headdress made from the flayed scalp of an elephant. The beast’s tusks protruded from the top of the king’s head, and the trunk reared upward like a bizarre, fleshy crest. From the side of the headdress curled a ram’s horn, symbol of the Egyptian god Ammon, who had supposedly claimed the king as son. It was not an image ever seen in life but a symbolic one conveying useful ideas. It connected Alexander to the non-European world, an important link for Ptolemy to display to his new Egyptian subjects. It especially evoked the invasion of India, Alexander’s greatest feat of power and daring. In India, Alexander had defeated the most fearsome weapon his army had faced, the trained war elephant, and even learned how to use it himself. He had met the wildness of the jungle and made it his own.
It was as though in the crucible of India a new kind of ruler had been forged, blending enlightened, rational Hellenism with something terrifying and monstrous. Ptolemy, by disseminating this ingenious icon on his coins, was investing Alexander with a new power, the power of the East.
6. CHANDRAGUPTA AND CHANAKYA (GANDHARA/INDIA, 323–318 B.C.)
The land of the war elephant, the region the Persians called Gandhara and the Greek world India (today eastern Pakistan), was the last province of Alexander’s empire to learn of his death. The news must have arrived there weeks later than in other regions of Asia. Messages that traversed the central satrapies by fleet horsemen or fire signals slowed to a crawl as they crossed the Hindu Kush, carried on foot over the Khyber and Khawak passes. Once the news reached the broad plain east of the mountains, it picked up speed once again, racing from garrison to garrison along the Indus River and its four tributaries. Eventually, it passed beyond the Hyphasis River, the eastern limit of the empire, and was heard on the banks of the Ganges, in the realm of the Nandas, rulers of the great Magadha kingdom.
The news aroused the keen interest of two men who were at that time plotting the overthrow of the Nandas and the expulsion of the Macedonians. Within only a few years they would succeed at both ventures and would join the Indus and Ganges valleys under one rule, founding an empire that ultimately encompassed nearly all of the Indian subcontinent. Together they would chase Alexander’s governors out of the region and ensure that they never came back. These men were Chandragupta Maurya (Sandracottus to the Greeks) and his brilliant teacher and adviser, a man who goes by two different names in Indian texts, the patronymic Chanakya and the surname Kautilya.
Almost nothing is known for certain about these two men, but legends abound in both Greco-Roman and Indian sources. Justin, in his summary of the Roman historian Pompeius Trogus, claims that Chandragupta was a commoner who offended the Nanda king and was then condemned to death. Somehow he broke away from his captors and outran them, collapsing in exhaustion when he reached the safety of the jungle. He slept where he fell, and as he slept, a lion came and licked the sweat off his face. He woke to see the beast calmly walking away; he knew then that he was destined for rule.
Chanakya, the sage who helped Chandragupta gain his empire, was also a man marked out for greatness, according to Indian legends. Chanakya had been born with a full set of teeth, a sign that local monks explained as an omen of future kingship. But Chanakya’s father feared that royal power would mean the perdition of his son’s soul, so he ground down the teeth with a file. The monks, seeing the infant’s new condition, proclaimed that destiny had been changed. Chanakya would not rule himself but would oversee one who ruled; he would be “a king concealed within an image.”
Grown to manhood, Chanakya searched for a youth worthy to be his avatar, finally recognizing Chandragupta by way of yet more omens and signs. Chanakya took Chandragupta with him and trained him in the science of conquest and rule—lessons preserved, perhaps, in the Arthashastra, a Sanskrit political guidebook that purports to be the work of Chanakya. The Arthashastra in fact dates from later centuries, but its core lessons, including dark teachings about assassination and espionage, may well go back to Chanakya himself.
Chandragupta was in his mid-teens during Alexander’s years in India and almost certainly living in Taxila, the university town that the Macedonians used as their base. Chanakya, perhaps thirty-five or forty at that time, had brought the boy here and enrolled him in one of the town’s religious schools. It must have been here in Taxila that Chandragupta met Alexander, if we believe the brief record Plutarch made of the encounter. How the two leaders crossed paths, one ending his campaign of conquest, the other not yet having begun, Plutarch does not say. But he reports that in later years Chandragupta was known to laugh when he thought of Alexander and how great an opportunity he had missed. Had the Macedonians kept going to the Ganges, Chandragupta scoffed, they would have found the conquest of the Nanda kingdom an easy matter. He knew whereof he spoke, having by then accomplished that deed himself.
While studying at Taxila, Chandragupta and Chanakya watched the Macedonians devastate their homeland. Alexander’s campaign down the Indus to the sea, starting in the fall of 326, cut like a scythe through India’s proud, independent tribes, the Malli and theOxydracae (Sanskrit Malavas and Ksudrakas). Despite outnumbering the invaders many times over, these fierce warriors suffered horrific losses; hundreds of thousands were killed or enslaved. The Malli seemed for a time to have finished Alexander off, hitting him square in the chest with one of their fearsome arrows, but the king miraculously recovered. In the end the two peoples surrendered their ancient liberty to Alexander, lavishing him with gifts and offering their leaders—those few who had survived—as hostages.
Chandragupta and Chanakya learned to revere a man with the odd-sounding name of Philip as their new master. Alexander appointed this man (no relation to his father or half-brother) satrap of the region and left him a corps of hardened Thracian troops under a captain named Eudamus. Then Alexander and his men departed. They boarded ships in the Indian Ocean or marched back through the Hindu Kush; the least fortunate units followed Alexander himself into the deserts of Gedrosia. The Macedonians’ Indian adventure, which had turned the land of the five rivers red with blood for more than a year, was over.
The skeleton crew of Europeans left behind in the Indus valley were not nearly enough to hold it, and they weakened themselves further with internal dissension. Philip was already dead a few months after Alexander’s departure, killed by an uprising of his own troops. Eudamus took command in his place, but within a few years he would be pushed out of the region, as Chandragupta and Chanakya, who now had an army behind them, moved to take back the Indus valley (they had already, by that time, taken over the Ganges).
How did such an army materialize in a region depleted by near-genocidal war? Justin supplies our only hint when he says that Chandragupta used “outlaws” to attack Alexander’s garrisons. Some have guessed that this refers to the Malli and the Oxydracae, self-governing peoples whose independence might well have looked like lawlessness to a Roman like Justin. It is only a guess, but it suggests that Chandragupta’s conquests were fueled by the anger of Alexander’s most brutalized victims. The peoples of the Indus valley, in this scenario, rose up and reclaimed the land Alexander took from them, the only Asian nations to have done so. Perhaps Alexander, though he had horrifically reduced their numbers and forced their submission, did not break their proud spirit.
Eudamus fled west, toward the central satrapies of the empire, where we shall meet him again in due course. He took with him a herd of war elephants he had acquired after killing the raja Porus, once Alexander’s greatest enemy in the region, more recently his faithful vassal. Gandhara, the land of the five rivers, ceased to belong to Alexander’s empire and became part of Chandragupta’s. Within a generation the Macedonians would cede control permanently for the price of five hundred more elephants, the heavy weaponry they needed for their unending civil wars.
7. THE END OF THE BACTRIAN REVOLT (SUMMER 322 B.C.)
About a year after Alexander’s death Peithon, commander in chief of the East by order of Perdiccas, arrived in Bactria. His forces by this time had swollen to thirteen thousand infantry and eighty-eight hundred cavalry. This was the largest army seen in the East since Alexander had left there, except for the twenty-three thousand mutinous Greeks whom it had been ordered to destroy. Peithon, however, did not intend this order to be carried out. His plan was to absorb the rebels into his own ranks and amass an invincible aggregate force. With it he could hold the upper satrapies against any incursion while making ready for his next move—perhaps a showdown with Perdiccas, if Perdiccas’ troops would dare fight him.
Somewhere in central Asia, in a place too desolate to have a name—at least no name was recorded by Diodorus, our only complete source for these events—Peithon encountered the army of the mutinous Greeks. He had taken the precaution of cutting a deal with a Greek subcommander, Letodorus, bribing him to lead his three thousand troops off the field at the start of the battle. He was hoping to conclude the engagement with little bloodshed, since troops killed on either side were ultimately his losses.
The plan worked beautifully. As the two lines engaged, Letodorus moved off behind a nearby hill and appeared to abandon the Greek cause. The other twenty thousand mutineers lost heart and broke formation, allowing an easy Macedonian victory. Peithon ordered the Greeks to ground arms, promising that no harm would come to them in defeat. They would simply be returned to their posts in Bactria.
Encouraged by Peithon’s words, the Greeks disarmed and began mingling with the Macedonians. Many recognized comrades from the days of Alexander; many hands were extended in friendship and trust. But the Macedonians were thinking of the baggage train in the rear of the Greek lines, rich with the spoils of Persepolis and Susa, booty they had been promised would be theirs. Many were also mindful of the instructions issued by Perdiccas: Let no one be left alive.
Someone gave a signal, and the Macedonians struck. Each man thrust his javelin at the nearest Greeks, who, having put aside their own spears and armor, had no chance to defend themselves. Peithon did not stop the slaughter; he had no plausible reason for doing so. In a few minutes’ time an army exceeding twenty thousand—much of the military manpower of Greece, siphoned off into Asia over thirteen years by Alexander’s recruiting agents—was annihilated.
So ended the Bactrian revolt. Peithon led his troops back toward Babylon, restoring detachments to this or that satrapy on his way and finally returning the core force to Perdiccas. Peithon’s designs on the upper satrapies had been blocked, but he would be back. His bid for control of the East was not over.
For Perdiccas, head of the central government in Babylon, the episode was a grim sort of success. He had prevailed in the unspoken test of wills with Peithon and had headed off a threat before it could emerge. Control over Bactria had been seriously compromised. But the integrity of the empire had been preserved. The reign of the joint kings, in whose name Perdiccas wielded power, went on into its second year.