A Death on the Nile

Western Asia and Egypt


During the year since his death, Alexander’s mummified body had lain in a coffin of hammered gold, covered by a purple cloth embroidered with gold, in the palace of Nebuchadnezzar in Babylon. Throughout that year and most of the next, Arrhidaeus, the officer appointed by Perdiccas, oversaw construction of a magnificent hearse to bear the body to its final home.

Preservation of corpses was new to the Macedonians. Before Alexander, only Hephaestion had been embalmed, and only briefly, to keep his body from decay while an elaborate funeral pyre was made ready. Alexander’s case was different. As weeks stretched into months and then past a year, the purple-clad casket must have become an eerie fixture of the palace complex, inspiring comfort or fear in those who passed near it. It seemed to contain a god, yet gods were supposed to dwell beneath the ground or in the sky, not under the same roofs as men.

It was the custom of the Macedonians before Alexander’s day to inter their kings in chamber tombs in the royal city of Aegae, usually after cremation. That was the protocol for Alexander’s father, Philip, whose remains were found in one of the two tombsdiscovered at Vergina in 1977 (though just which one, Tomb 1 or Tomb 2, is still debated). It was to Aegae that Alexander’s body would finally be sent, not by the king’s own wishes but by the will of Perdiccas’ government, after the completion of his catafalque.

But Alexander’s corpse would never make it to Aegae. A different burial site was being arranged for it by Ptolemy, satrap of Egypt, even as the magnificent hearse was being built. Those arrangements were as yet a secret, and would remain so until the moment they were put into effect, for any disclosure might be reported to Perdiccas, head of the beleaguered Babylon government, and the consequences were sure to be severe.


It was not a funeral but a wedding—her own—that was on the mind of Alexander the Great’s sister, Cleopatra, as she journeyed from Macedonia to the city of Sardis (in what is now western Turkey). She and her mother, Olympias, had failed in their first bid to arrange a marriage, when Leonnatus, their chosen bridegroom, got himself killed in battle. Now the two royal women, Alexander’s closest kin, were determined to try again. This time, rather than lure a potential husband to Europe, Cleopatra herself came into Asia, where Alexander’s generals were thickest. Her family’s fortunes depended on her attracting one of these, and the sooner the better, for their nemesis, old man Antipater, was quickly cornering the marriage market. Craterus in Europe was already wed to Antipater’s eldest daughter, Phila; Ptolemy in Egypt was awaiting the arrival of his youngest, Eurydice; and to Perdiccas, the most powerful of them all, he had promised Nicaea. Antipater had thus gained sons-in-law on all three continents, dangerously isolating Olympias, his ancient antagonist.

But Olympias and her daughter still held the trump card in marital politics, the blood royal. Unlike Antipater’s daughters, Cleopatra, now in her early thirties, could beget a legitimate heir to the throne. And, as Alexander’s only full sibling, she herself stood closest to that throne. Marriage to Cleopatra would instantly elevate any bridegroom to royal status and might even make him a king. Kingship of Macedon had never before been obtained through marriage, but neither had there ever been joint rule by two kings, nor a king with half Bactrian blood, nor a royal seat in far-off Babylon. The new age ushered in by Alexander had brought unthinkable things to pass, and many routes to the throne might now be fair game.

Cleopatra thus went to Asia, to see whether one of the generals there might marry her. As it happened, the best catch of them all was promised but not yet wed—Perdiccas, guardian of the joint kings and head of the central government.

Cleopatra must have known that the arrival of Perdiccas’ bride was expected in Babylon at any moment. She may have been present in Pella when Iolaus, Antipater’s son, arrived from Asia to fetch Nicaea, or when the two siblings departed for the Hellespont, accompanied by that most trustworthy of Macedonian agents, Archias the Exile-chaser. If so, Cleopatra must have hastened her own departure in hope of forestalling the wedding. She must have either left in secret or given some pretext to Antipater, who had the means to prevent her departure. Perhaps she claimed only to want to see her infant nephew, the king in swaddling clothes, one-year-old Alexander—a request that Antipater, still a servant of the royals though locked in a desperate rivalry with them, could hardly refuse.

So Cleopatra said farewell to Europe, and the mother she would never see again, and arrived in Sardis, the city she would never leave.


To be simultaneously sought by two brides, one of them a princess, might seem to some men an enviable fate, but not to Perdiccas. The unexpected landing in Asia of Cleopatra, at the same time as the long-awaited arrival of Nicaea, posed a delicate political problem. To marry into one powerful family meant, inevitably, to disrespect the other. The question he now confronted was, which would be which?

Perdiccas could see why Alexander had wed no Macedonian women but a Bactrian and two Persians. Though Asian queens in the Argead house had offended the nobles back home, at least all had been equally offended. Alexander had caused no factional splits among the baronial families of Macedon, each seeking favor in the eyes of the king. Now Perdiccas, the closest thing the empire had to a ruler, was staring at a split that would have filled Alexander with dread. The dowager queen Olympias and the aging patriarch Antipater, mortal enemies to each other, both sought him as their son-in-law. He could not accept one without badly alienating the other.

Perdiccas’ choice was not just between wives and in-laws but also between two political futures: a limited, Asia-based sovereignty or dominion over the entire empire. Antipater had been given control over Europe in the settlement crafted at Babylon, together with Craterus, now related to him by marriage. Perdiccas had ceded this control because he had been too weak to contest it; merely managing Asia was challenging enough. If he were now to marry Nicaea and ally with Antipater, and by extension with Craterus as well, he would reaffirm that settlement and the division of the world it implied. Cleopatra, by contrast, represented a power that transcended continents and borders. As Cleopatra’s husband, Perdiccas could claim a throne in Pella as easily as in Babylon—or, for that matter, in Egypt, where Ptolemy was growing disturbingly strong willed.

Was he to take the lion’s share of Alexander’s empire, the Asian portion, or rule all three continents together? It was an agonizing dilemma, made worse by the divided counsels of his advisers. Eumenes the Greek, Alexander’s former scribe and now Perdiccas’ right-hand man, urged marriage to Cleopatra. Eumenes was a monarchist who saw the world in dynastic terms; power, in his eyes, came from a title and a scepter as much as from an army. Perdiccas’ younger brother Alcetas kept pulling him in the other direction. Marriage to Nicaea would bless the status quo with amity and concord, Alcetas believed. Antipater would live and let live, his ambitions fulfilled in Europe, while Perdiccas could stay in Asia and harvest its enormous wealth. Perdiccas was still weak, Alcetas argued; he could not afford to throw over Nicaea and risk a clash of continents.

Perdiccas had been weak when he first asked for Nicaea’s hand, in those desperate days when he had cast his own troops under trampling elephants. But much had changed since then. Perdiccas had led a campaign in Cappadocia on behalf of Eumenes—Antigonus One-eye and Leonnatus both having spurned their assigned commands there—and had prevailed in a tough fight. Ariarathes, leader of the Persian holdouts looking to undo Alexander’s conquests, had put an army of thirty thousand in the field, including large cohorts of Greek mercenaries, but Perdiccas had defeated them in two major battles, and impaled Ariarathes as a lesson to his supporters. Then he had gone to Cilicia and added to his forces the magnificent corps of veterans left there by Craterus, the Silver Shields. This crew of three thousand, led by an oak-hearted captain named Antigenes, were thought to be the best infantry soldiers in the known world. Indeed they had beaten virtually every foe in that world, during three decades of active service.

Perdiccas’ strength had increased, and along with it the stature of Eumenes, who had shown he could wield a cavalry lance every bit as well as his secretarial stylus. When trouble had arisen in Armenia from unruly troops, and the regional commander there,Neoptolemus, was making a hash of things, Perdiccas dispatched little Eumenes to set things right. With judicious grants of free horses and tax amnesties, Eumenes quickly raised a decent Cappadocian cavalry force. He drilled and trained these horsemen to fight like Macedonians, and using this cavalry, he soon set Armenia in order. Perdiccas found he had gained not just a devoted ally and wise counselor in Eumenes but a fine field commander as well. Eumenes, for his part, found he had gained a new enemy—for Neoptolemus did not like being upstaged on his own turf by a Greek.

Recently, Perdiccas had claimed yet another victory, over troublesome Pisidian tribesmen who had long defied authority. It was the Pisidians who had killed Balacrus, the first husband of Antipater’s daughter Phila, a few years earlier, and now Perdiccas made them pay the price—though in the end they robbed him of the full satisfaction of vengeance. There were two main towns in Pisidia, and after Perdiccas captured the first, he imposed summary punishment, executing all male inhabitants and enslaving women and children. Those in the second city resolved on a more dignified end. As Perdiccas’ army attacked, they collected their families into a few houses and set the buildings on fire, then threw into the flames all their possessions. Defenders manning the walls held off Perdiccas’ men until this mass immolation was complete, then leaped into the conflagration themselves. The next day the Macedonians entered the smoking ruin and picked through charred bones for puddles of congealed gold and silver.

Despite this dismaying conclusion, the campaign had been a success, making three victories for Perdiccas in the past year. His hand had been greatly strengthened in the contest for Alexander’s power, since, to the soldiers on whom power depended, good generalship—and the booty it provided—meant everything. Perdiccas had even begun to plan how he would answer the challenge thrown at him by Antigonus One-eye. That man’s refusal to obey orders could not be overlooked. A summons would be sent to Antigonus to appear before an army assembly in Babylon. If Antigonus would not come, he would be attacked; if he fled to Europe, Perdiccas would be rid of him for good.

Perdiccas had other irons in the fire as well, though few as yet knew of them. He had received secret letters from Athens, from Demades, a politician who had long collaborated with Antipater but who was now seeking to change masters. Demades, for reasons unknown—perhaps because Phocion, his partner in the puppet government at Athens, had the lion’s share of power—urged Perdiccas to cross the Hellespont and oust Antipater, claiming he would have the support of the Greeks if he did so. “Our cities are held together only by an old and rotting rope,” Demades wrote to Perdiccas, referring contemptuously to Antipater. A vigorous new leader, a man like Perdiccas, could easily wrest Europe from that aging and detested warhorse.

Then, too, Perdiccas had control of the body of Alexander, his greatest political asset, and the fabulous hearse that would soon transport it back to the Macedonian homeland. What if Perdiccas were to accompany that hearse, riding at the head of the Companion cavalry, and lead the burial rites of the great king? What if he brought the new kings, the imbecile Philip and the infant Alexander, along with him, like followers in his train? Would it not be clear to all that he, not Antipater, represented the leadership of the empire? Might not even Craterus, who had staged his own heroic homecoming the previous year, acknowledge his supremacy?

Then why should he not also wed Cleopatra and make the triumph complete with an open claim on the throne? The question haunted Perdiccas, even as Nicaea drew nearer. How great was the danger in taking Eumenes’ advice, clasping Alexander’s sister by the hand and joining the ranks of the royals? It was the same choice Leonnatus had faced when Cleopatra promised to marry him. Leonnatus had seized what was offered, thinking a royal bride worth the cost of universal mistrust.

But Perdiccas, on the brink of a similar leap onto ambition’s summit, found he could not make up his mind. He could not break with Antipater and declare a civil war, even if it was a war he was likely to win. But neither could he let slip the chance offered him by Cleopatra. The counsels of Eumenes and Alcetas both had their hold on him; neither could be dismissed.

So Perdiccas married Antipater’s daughter Nicaea but also sent Eumenes to Sardis with a covert message for Cleopatra, that he intended to reject his new bride and marry her instead. He would bide his time and keep both his options open. The best choice for now was no choice at all.


Just after the arrival of Cleopatra in Sardis, a new entrant in the marital lists landed in Asia, quite unexpectedly. The stratagems of Olympias had pointed the way for another royal mother, Cynnane, to seek power by way of another daughter, a girl in her early teens named Adea. But this mother-daughter team had set their sights even higher than Olympias and Cleopatra. They aimed not to marry a general to a princess but to marry a princess to a king. Cynnane had chosen Philip, the mentally impaired half brother of Alexander (and her own half brother as well), as bridegroom for her daughter (also Philip’s niece).

Cynnane knew well the politics of dynastic marriages; she was the product of one. Her mother, a princess of Illyria (today part of Albania), had come to Macedonia to wed Alexander’s father, Philip, and seal an alliance between two contentious nations. Cynnane grew up at the Macedonian court but stayed true to her maternal traditions, for Illyrian women were famously tough, capable of going to war as men did. In her teens Cynnane is said to have accompanied the Macedonian army on a campaign into Illyria and to have slain a queen of that country—perhaps one of her own relatives—in hand-to-hand combat. Unfortunately, no account survives of that encounter between two armed female leaders, the first such encounter known to European history—though it would soon be followed by another.

When she came of age, Cynnane was given in a politically arranged marriage to her cousin Amyntas, an Argead in direct line of succession. She bore him a daughter, Adea. After the assassination of her father in 336 left the throne vacant, Cynnane might easily have become queen, had her husband acted quickly to make himself king, but instead his cousin Alexander seized the throne and had Amyntas done away with. Cynnane became a widow in her early twenties and stayed a widow thereafter, despite other offers of marriage. She focused her attention on Adea, rearing her after Illyrian fashion to be a huntress and warrior who could hold her own among men.

Cynnane was in her early thirties, and Adea barely past puberty, when Alexander died and a new Philip, an imbecilic parody of the old, was put on the throne. Cynnane was herself young enough to marry Philip and bear children, but she handed this opportunity down to her daughter, whose royal pedigree was purer than her own. In the second year after Alexander’s death, she and Adea left Macedonia to make their way into Asia, accompanied by a hired band of armed men. Cynnane intended to find Philip and get Adea married to him, thereby advancing her branch of the royal family, the branch sprung from a warlike woman of Illyrian blood.

Such a move would deeply unsettle the already shaky power structure resolved at Babylon. It would add legitimacy to one of the two reigning kings and strengthen the monarchy as a whole, thus reducing the influence of the generals. Indeed it might eliminate the board of four custodians altogether, since Adea, once queen, would be able to speak and act for her royal husband. Antipater, one of the members of that board, determined he would stop the marriage from taking place. He sent troops to turn the two women back as they made their way eastward through Thrace, but in a skirmish at the river Strymon (in what is now Bulgaria) Cynnane and her forces prevailed. The bridal procession continued on its way and crossed the Hellespont into Asia.

Perdiccas was just as troubled as Antipater by the prospect of Adea’s marriage to Philip but for different reasons. It was unclear whether Philip, with his mental impairment, was capable of begetting an heir, but should he do so, a son of his by Adea would have far greater legitimacy than Alexander’s son by Rhoxane. One of the two branches of the royal family, now poised in a hard-won balance of power, would prevail over the other. Cynnane and Adea would rise in stature, as grandmother and mother of the new monarch; Olympias and Cleopatra, on whom Perdiccas was now resting his own hopes for a throne, would be cast down. Perdiccas determined he could not let that happen. Since Antipater had failed to stop the bridal convoy in Europe, Perdiccas sent his own squad, under command of his brother Alcetas, to intercept it in Asia.

Somewhere on the Asian side of the Hellespont, where Alcetas and his troops met Cynnane and hers, a tragedy occurred that showed how much trust had been lost since Alexander’s death. Alcetas and Cynnane were almost exactly the same age and had known each other from childhood. They had grown up together at the palace in Pella, where Alcetas (almost certainly) was one of King Philip’s page boys, Cynnane the eldest of Philip’s children. They had both come of age at the same moment, she becoming a mother (and soon thereafter a widow), he a soldier in Alexander’s army. Under different circumstances, they might have been glad to see each other again, but their paths had diverged greatly in the twelve years of Alexander’s reign. Alcetas advanced with his troops arrayed for battle.

Cynnane was outraged by this implied threat. As she came close enough to Alcetas to be clearly heard, she stepped forward and delivered a stinging reproach of his ingratitude and disloyalty. It was the first of several proud speeches delivered by Argead women to Alexander’s generals, as the royals defiantly resisted the new realities of their situation. The courtly world Philip had built for them, a world in which soldiers revered Argeads as superhuman beings, was gone. The meteoric impact of the Asian campaign had burst it to bits. Now that Alexander had built an omnipotent army, an army capable of defying its creator, it was no longer clear who was in control of whom.

Alcetas, in this case, was determined to exert not only control but domination. He ended the encounter between his forces and Cynnane’s—no account of which has survived—by having Cynnane killed, when he might have taken her prisoner or sent her back to Europe under escort. Perhaps he was stung to fury by Cynnane’s reproaches, or perhaps he acted on instructions given by his brother Perdiccas. Both armed columns and the young girl Adea looked on in horror. It was a brutal demonstration of resolve, more brutal even than the elephant-trampling executions Perdiccas had orchestrated two years earlier.

But its very brutality caused the move to backfire. When news of the killing arrived in Babylon, the Macedonian army recoiled from the murder of a daughter of Philip. As they had done in the days after Alexander’s death, they rebelled against Perdiccas’ leadership and rallied to the royal family. Perdiccas found his new-won military glory slipping away. To mollify the troops, he reversed course and had Adea brought to his camp. At his direction, she married her uncle, the half-wit king, Philip.

No older than fifteen, orphaned by two political murders, Adea claimed the prize her mother had died to obtain for her, a share of the Macedonian throne. She took her place amid a strange assortment of crowned heads: a grown man with the mind of a child, a Bactrian woman with strange manners and speech, and a two-year-old boy, her own cousin, only now learning to walk and talk. She quickly saw that she was the only one among them competent to wield power. She also must have seen, based on the army’s support for her marriage to Philip, that the rank-and-file soldiery could be won over to her side. It was they who had put Philip on the throne and given him his name, hoping to reclaim the glories of a greater Philip, his father. They might now embrace Adea, granddaughter of that greater Philip, for the same reasons.

As though to gratify these longings for the past, Adea too changed her name, becoming Eurydice as she took her place on the throne. It was a name with good Argead pedigree, one that had belonged to her grandfather Philip’s mother. It was better suited to her new station than Adea, which was (probably) an Illyrian name. She too, like the Philip who had once been Arrhidaeus, was now a standard-bearer of the old Argead traditions, the generations before Alexander’s move into Asia. The heritage of her mother and grandmother, Illyrian warrior-women, was put aside in favor of the legacy she had through her grandfather.

But though she might advertise herself as native-born royalty, Adea still retained the warlike ways in which Cynnane had raised her. Her Illyrian roots had not been severed with a mere change of name. Alexander’s top generals were about to tangle with one of history’s toughest teenage girls.


Cynnane’s murder held particular significance for a man who had been keeping a close eye—the one eye he still had—on Perdiccas’ doings.

Proud Antigonus, satrap of Phrygia, had already ignored Perdiccas’ orders concerning the reconquest of Cappadocia. That set him at odds with the Babylon government, and since then antipathy on both sides had grown. Perdiccas had issued a summons to Antigonus to appear before a judicial proceeding, intending to settle the question of hierarchy once and for all. But Antigonus was contemplating a different plan. News of Cynnane’s death helped further that plan and guarantee its success.

Somehow, Antigonus had learned of Perdiccas’ intention to swap wives, trading Nicaea for Cleopatra, Antipater’s daughter for Alexander’s royal sister. Courtship of Cleopatra was strong evidence of the ambitions of Perdiccas, and the murder of Cynnane—which certainly looked to Antigonus like Perdiccas’ handiwork, even if Alcetas had performed it—sealed the case. Antigonus could not stand by and watch one man raise his head above the heads of the other generals, especially above his own. Departing covertly with his family aboard Athenian ships, Antigonus slipped away from the coast of Asia and headed for northern Greece. He made his way to the two generals who would be most alarmed to hear his news, the commanders of Europe, old man Antipater and his son-in-law Craterus.

He found them in Aetolia, hunkered down in snowy mountain camps as they prosecuted the last, grim phase of the Hellenic War. The Aetolians had helped start that war two years earlier, banding together with the Athenians, but had left the front lines before the war’s conclusion and had never formally surrendered. They had since retreated to high hills in their native territory, but Antipater and Craterus followed them there and cordoned them off, maintaining pressure even during harsh winter months. The Aetolians were just running out of food, and options, when Antigonus arrived in the Macedonian camp with word of events in the East.

The news hit home and hit hard, as Antigonus intended it to do. Perdiccas’ secret pact with Cleopatra spelled betrayal of Antipater in both political and personal terms; it meant the alignment of the Babylon regime with Olympias, Antipater’s bitter rival, as well as the insulting rejection of a father’s daughter. The additional fact of the murder of Cynnane showed that Perdiccas’ regime had lost its bearings and would do anything to strengthen itself. Antipater was livid, and, together with his son-in-law Craterus and Antigonus the bearer of bad tidings, he decided to throw the arrogant, ambitious Perdiccas out of power. Now in his late seventies, having barely prevailed in the Hellenic War the previous year, Antipater steeled himself once more for full-scale conflict. He resolved to invade Asia, a continent he had never set foot on before.

The bond of faith between two great blocs of Alexander’s empire was broken. Perdiccas had tried to avoid a showdown by sharing sovereignty, giving Antipater and Craterus control of Europe while he confined himself to Asia. Perhaps this division could have remained stable had Perdiccas not made a play for the whole, or perhaps it was doomed to break down in any case. The blow that destroyed it seemed almost banal, a piece of gossip about a man’s interest in a woman other than his wife. But where royal women represented legitimacy, and marital alliance security, the personal and the political had become fused. A bridegroom’s change of affection now had the potential to embroil the empire in civil war.

His tale-telling mission accomplished, Antigonus sailed back across the Aegean to rally the satraps of Asia Minor. Their support of the invasion forces, and willingness to abandon Perdiccas, would be crucial. Antipater and Craterus, meanwhile, concluded a hasty truce with the Aetolians. Punishment of the last Greek rebels would have to wait for a more opportune moment. Right now the generals’ course was set for Asia, and they began gathering troops for a crossing of the Hellespont.

Antipater appointed a subordinate named Polyperchon, an Alexander veteran who had come west with Craterus, to mind matters in Macedonia while he and Craterus headed east. A mid-level officer with an undistinguished record, now taking up his first command in his sixties, Polyperchon was destined to play a larger role in Macedonia than anyone knew or might have wished. Antipater also sent a messenger south, to Egypt, to firm up his alliance with Ptolemy. He needed to make sure that the two would collaborate, uniting Europe and Africa against Perdiccas in Asia, in the coming war.


In Babylon, meanwhile, a team of craftsmen had finished the funeral cart of Alexander. The magnificent vehicle was now ready for its journey through the Asian countryside, bearing Alexander’s mummy back to his homeland.

The hearse was built in the shape of a box, about twelve feet wide and eighteen feet long, with a barrel-vaulted roof. This roof was covered in gold plates overlapping like shingles, with precious stones set between them. At each of its corners stood a statue of Nike, the winged goddess personifying victory, also covered in gold. Atop its peak, fashioned from gold leaf, stood an enormous olive wreath, the crown of victory given at Greek athletic contests, glittering so brightly that observers compared it to a flash of lightning.

The roof of the chamber was supported by golden columns in imitation of a Greek temple, except that spaces between columns were not left open but bridged by a meshwork of golden ropes. Each column had a bas-relief acanthus vine climbing up it. Atop this colonnade, where a Greek temple might carry a sculptural frieze, four painted panels displayed the military might Alexander had wielded in life. One portrayed ships ready for combat; another, a squad of cavalry waiting to charge; a third, elephants clad in war gear, leading an infantry phalanx. The fourth panel showed Alexander himself, seated in a chariot ornamented with bas-relief, holding a scepter and surrounded by attendants and honor guards.

Alexander’s funeral cart. A model built by the archaeologist Stella Miller-Collett based on the description by Diodorus (Illustration credit 6.1)

Under this image of Alexander, at the rear wall of the chamber, a doorway opened. Golden lions sat on either side, their heads turned as though to watch those entering. Who, if anyone, was allowed inside the hearse at its stopping points has not been recorded, but the space could not have admitted many. Perhaps only the Macedonian elite, the satraps and garrison commanders in each western province, went inside to commune once more with their former commander. Certainly it would have elevated their stature to enter the chamber and stand beside the casket, while their subjects watched from outside, peering through the veil of golden netting.

Below the main chamber, the undercarriage was fitted with a sophisticated suspension system to absorb the shocks of the road. Axles extended out to four iron-rimmed wheels with golden spokes and, at each hub, a golden lion’s head holding a spear between its teeth. Four great bells hung from ropes at the cart’s four corners, so that its motion created a tremendous sound, broadcasting its approach to the villages of Asia. At the front the cart was fitted with four poles, and to each pole were tied four teams of four mules, sixty-four animals in all, each with a golden crown, two gold bells hanging from its headpiece, and a gold collar set with precious stones.

Accompanying the cart on its journey was an escort of soldiers, engineers, and a road crew, to smooth its path and keep it from harm. The way was long from Babylon to the Hellespont, and then to Aegae in Macedonia, the burial ground of the Argead kings. This was where Perdiccas had instructed Arrhidaeus to bring the magnificent hearse, bedecked with a sizable portion of the empire’s wealth. But soon after the convoy left Babylon, it became clear to Perdiccas that something was wrong. Either Arrhidaeus had left too soon, before Perdiccas was ready to lead the funeral procession, or he was headed in the wrong direction, or both. Sensing betrayal, Perdiccas sent a contingent of troops to bring Arrhidaeus into compliance.

These agents caught up with the funeral train in Syria but were confronted there by another armed squadron—one arriving, quite unexpectedly, from Egypt.

Ptolemy had made his move. In a hijacking that was no doubt coordinated with the leaders of the convoy, he seized control of Alexander’s corpse, the most potent political symbol on any of the three continents, and brought it to his own province, Egypt, for burial. It was a brazen bid to steal power from Perdiccas and amass it for himself. Ptolemy would add to his collection of Alexander memorabilia—the coins he had minted, the historical memoir he may already have begun to write—the mummy of Alexander himself, to be displayed in a splendid monument where it could awe the world.

Now it was Ptolemy, not Perdiccas, who marched into his capital city—Memphis, for the newly founded Alexandria was still under construction—at the head of Alexander’s funeral cortege. To any who inquired why Alexander’s body had ended up in Memphis, not in Siwa as Alexander had requested nor in Aegae with his ancestors, Ptolemy’s propaganda machine had an unchallengeable response. A legend was fabricated saying that Ptolemy, during the weeks after Alexander’s death, had asked the oracle of Bel-Marduk, the chief god of Babylon, where the king should be interred. “I tell you what will be of benefit to all,” the priest responded. “There is a city in Egypt named Memphis; let him be enthroned there.” The gods themselves had decreed this change of venue, the legend declared. Ptolemy had merely been their pious servant.

The ease and efficiency of the heist made a mockery of the Babylon regime. After two years of costly preparation, the hearse had spent only weeks, perhaps days, on the road before getting snatched away in broad daylight. Ptolemy had neatly picked Perdiccas’ pocket, humiliating the regent before the eyes of the world. Such a brazen insult, added to Ptolemy’s earlier provocations—his move against Cleomenes and his expansion into North Africa—was practically a declaration of war. The mistrust between Alexander’s two top Bodyguards had widened into a schism that could never be healed.


Perdiccas found himself facing a strategic nightmare, war against two continents at once. Ptolemy’s seizure of Alexander’s corpse, together with his murder of Cleomenes and his occupation of Cyrene, declared the secession of Africa from the government of the joint kings. The opposition of Europe quickly revealed itself also, as messengers reported Antipater and Craterus were crossing the Hellespont to attack, and Antigonus was already raising support for their cause on the coast of Anatolia. Perdiccas would have to fight on two fronts if he was to stay in power. He stood between the hammer and the anvil, uncertain in which direction to turn first.

His situation was dire, but the example of Alexander—that beacon of strategic success that stood before him always—inspired hope. Alexander too had faced war on two fronts, the rising of Balkan tribes to his north and the revolt of Thebes to his south, soon after ascending the Macedonian throne. He had led his army on a whirlwind campaign, storming the Balkans with terrifying force, then dashing south at unheard-of speed to counter the rebellion of Thebes. The Thebans thought it impossible he could arrive so quickly at their gates; they assumed that it must be Antipater, not Alexander, leading the attack against them. Alexander annihilated their city, a cruel riposte designed to rescue the empire from the double threat it had faced. Subjects on two of his borders had defied him almost simultaneously; he had delivered lightning blows in both directions and prevailed.

Perdiccas resolved likewise to strike in quick succession against two foes, Ptolemy to the south and Antipater to the north. His central position at least meant that his enemies could not combine forces. He had the luxury of dealing with them singly, one after the other. His army was strong enough to hold its own against either: he controlled the majority of Alexander’s veterans, including the matchless Silver Shields, whom Craterus had foolishly left behind in Asia. This corps of three thousand, though famous for its headstrong spirit, was fiercely devoted to the royal cause. It would fight under the banner of the joint kings, even against fellow Macedonians, perhaps even against its own former commander, the revered Craterus.

Perdiccas could also count on Eumenes the Greek, his staunch supporter and close confidant, to bring the battle-tested Cappadocian cavalry into the field. Some might take offense at a Greek commander leading Asian horsemen to defend a Macedonian empire against Macedonians, but these were paradoxes Perdiccas had to accept; this was the world Alexander had created. National and ethnic boundaries had dissolved as Alexander’s empire advanced, until all that remained to unite it was the Argead royal house. Perdiccas represented that house, by controlling its two male members. He would take these monarchs with him on his campaign, to bind his armies to him even as he led them against their countrymen.

At an urgent conference in Pisidia (southern Anatolia), Perdiccas and his staff resolved to move first against Ptolemy, perhaps because Ptolemy was the lesser general and had fewer troops. Also, Perdiccas was enraged by the theft of Alexander’s body and eager to get it back. Once Ptolemy was defeated, Perdiccas could gain control of his troops, and the Egyptian treasury, and move back northward with cash and forces augmented. Meanwhile, Eumenes would stay in Anatolia to counter the invasion from Europe. He would guard the Hellespont, first and foremost, then fall back into the interior if the Hellespont was crossed. Eumenes would be outmatched by Craterus and Antipater, but he would only need to slow their progress until Perdiccas returned, not fight them head-on. Timing would be critical. Eumenes had to prevent the European forces from reaching Perdiccas while he was still engaged with Ptolemy, or else the hammer would come down on the anvil and smash the royalists to bits. Perdiccas delegated his brother Alcetas and another high officer, Neoptolemus, to support Eumenes in this holding action.

There was one further strategic card to be played, one Perdiccas now saw he should have played already: Cleopatra. Using Eumenes once again as his go-between, Perdiccas sent word to Cleopatra, still residing in Sardis, that he was ready to repudiate Nicaea and marry her instead.

Sardis was dangerous territory for an agent of Perdiccas, now that Antigonus One-eye was in the region rallying the western satraps. Eumenes almost got caught when Antigonus, informed of the Greek’s presence in Sardis, set out with a detachment of three thousand to ambush him as he departed. But warned by Cleopatra, Eumenes left the city by an unexpected route, ordering his horsemen not to blow the trumpet or make any sound that would reveal their position. This was the first time Eumenes and Antigonus, former friends at the Macedonian court, had met as enemies, and it set a template for what would follow. There were to be many close calls and covert escapes in the long, tense duel between them.

Eumenes proceeded on to the Hellespont, sending back word to Perdiccas that his proposal had been spurned. Alexander’s sister would not now marry him, though she had come to Asia with that very goal in mind. Perdiccas’ position had become more tenuous and his future more uncertain; Cleopatra would await the outcome of the coming wars. Meanwhile, Antigonus One-eye, informed by his ally Menander about all that went on in Sardis, sent word of Perdiccas’ renewed contact with Cleopatra to Antipater and Craterus. Already enraged by his first report, these two were goaded into fury by the second and went forward to war with renewed determination.

Hapless Perdiccas had twice paid the price for wooing an Argead princess, yet both times had failed to win her. He might well have reflected ruefully on the perils of the middle path. Caught between Olympias and Antipater, he tried to alienate neither but ended by alienating both. His indecision at a crucial moment, when Eumenes and Alcetas were whispering contrary counsels in his ears, had cost him dear.

But there was scant time for such reflections; the empire was collapsing around him. He gathered up his troops and subcommanders—including Antigenes, captain of the Silver Shields; Peithon, his agent against the Bactrian rebels two years earlier; and a junior officer, Seleucus, his second in command at Babylon—and hastened south, toward Egypt.


Eumenes’ defense of the Hellespont would have been an easy matter with support from the fleet, but the fleet deserted to Antipater. Suborned by messengers and perhaps by bribes, the Macedonian navy eased the invaders’ crossing into Asia rather than barring it. Their admiral was probably Cleitus the White, victor over the Athenians in the Hellenic War, but we know little of what led him to abandon Perdiccas’ cause. Perhaps after helping rescue Antipater from Greek rebels the previous year, he could not stomach the thought of helping Eumenes, a Greek, against Antipater, the most iconic of old-guard Macedonians.

Others in Perdiccas’ camp also disliked the strange alignment that put them with Eumenes, a Greek and a former scribe, against two of the greatest Macedonian generals. Alcetas, Perdiccas’ brother, loser to Eumenes in the debate over whom Perdiccas should marry, was one of those who found this repugnant. Neoptolemus, who still nursed his wounded pride after being upstaged by Eumenes in Armenia, was another. Sensing noncooperation, Perdiccas wrote to both men, restating that they must support Eumenes with all their forces. Alcetas refused, claiming that his troops would not fight Antipater and were so fond of Craterus that they would more likely defect than attack. Neoptolemus, for his part, feigned compliance with Perdiccas’ orders but in fact planned to betray Eumenes at the first opportunity. He was in contact with Antipater and Craterus, who had persuaded him to take their side, the side of established Macedonian authority, against an upstart Greek.

Eumenes too had received secret communications from Antipater and Craterus. They offered him complete amnesty, plus rewards and new powers, to join them and abandon Perdiccas. Antipater took a soothing tone in his messages, knowing that Eumenes had always feared him; Craterus, for his part, vowed to help heal this breach. Eumenes replied that friendship between himself and Antipater was no longer possible, but he appealed to Craterus to reconcile with Perdiccas, offering to play peacemaker himself. These probes tested the firmness of alliances on both sides but came to nothing. In the end Craterus and Eumenes both stood by their new masters. There was no hope that those masters, Antipater and Perdiccas, could be reconciled with each other.

Eumenes somehow learned that Neoptolemus, his supposed ally, was conspiring with his enemies. So he put Neoptolemus to the test by summoning him to move his army forward. Neoptolemus responded by forming up troops for battle, rather than bringing them into camp. His target was clearly not Antipater and Craterus but Eumenes.

Abandoned first by Cleitus and then Alcetas, now facing Neoptolemus as an enemy, with Antipater and Craterus not far off, Eumenes could be forgiven had he reconsidered the offer to switch sides. It was a tight spot for a former bookkeeper, surrounded by generals who mistrusted or scorned him and by their powerful infantry phalanxes. Yet he had confidence in his Cappadocian cavalry and his own strengths as a commander, strengths only recently developed but proved in the field. And he believed in the cause he was fighting for, the sovereignty of the Argead house. He would stick by that house, and by Perdiccas, and fight.

The battle at first went in favor of Neoptolemus but slowly turned. His infantry prevailed over that of Eumenes, as it was sure to do given the excellence and experience of these Macedonians. But Eumenes used his cavalry to get around Neoptolemus’ lines and seize the baggage train in their rear. It was a strategy that had been used against Alexander at his greatest battle, Gaugamela, but Alexander ignored the penetration until he had secured victory, thus regaining his troops’ lost gear. Not many leaders could keep their men fighting once their goods had been plundered and their wounded comrades put to death. Loss of baggage usually led quickly to loss of the battle.

The basic unit of the Macedonian phalanx, the syntagma of 256 men (Illustration credit 6.2)

For a while, Eumenes’ coup went unnoticed by Neoptolemus’ infantry. The foot soldiers were advancing rapidly and sloppily, sure of imminent victory. Eumenes’ cavalry was well behind them now, unseen—until it charged the unprotected rear of their phalanx. There was a devastating shift of momentum. Many of Neoptolemus’ men were killed in the charge, while many more laid down weapons and surrendered. Neoptolemus himself fled with three hundred cavalry to the nearby camp of Antipater and Craterus, abandoning his troops to their fate. These now swore fealty to their new commander, Eumenes.

Eumenes had gained a crack infantry to balance his cavalry and had gained enormously in stature as a general. But his foes were unimpressed by his win. Neoptolemus gave a disparaging account of Eumenes to Antipater and Craterus, who had now been joined by Antigonus One-eye, and the four allies decided to split their vast army into halves. Craterus and Neoptolemus would take one portion to use against Eumenes, while Antipater would take the other east and south, to counter Perdiccas. A critical factor in their strategy was the allegiance Craterus could command from the troops who would face him. These men had not seen Craterus since before Alexander’s death. Neoptolemus was sure that at the mere sight of Craterus’ distinctive cap, or at the sound of his voice, they would know their true master and switch sides. The luster of Craterus, still bright in the minds of the soldiers, would turn the tide of battle, as though Alexander himself had returned to take command.

Antipater left the war council and set off south with ten thousand men, enough to form a barricade against Perdiccas should he return from Egypt successful. Antigonus One-eye, meanwhile, set sail for the island of Cyprus, where another theater of war had opened up. Neoptolemus, for his part, prepared to face Eumenes a second time, this time backed by Craterus with twenty thousand infantry and two thousand cavalry. The coalition against Perdiccas went into action on land and sea, determined to liberate Asia from the regime forged in Babylon.


As the army of Craterus approached his camp, Eumenes awoke from a curious dream. He dreamed that two Alexanders were arrayed to fight each other, each at the head of an infantry phalanx. The goddess Athena appeared and gave aid to one of them, the goddess Demeter to the other. After a long struggle the Alexander aided by Demeter prevailed, and the goddess wove a crown for her champion out of stalks of grain.

Eumenes looked outside his tent at the rich stands of grain on nearby hills. He felt certain the dream pointed to his victory in the upcoming battle. When he learned from his spies that Craterus had adopted “Athena and Alexander” as his army’s password, he felt even more sure. He made his own password “Demeter and Alexander” and ordered his men, as they prepared for combat, to bind grain stalks around their arms and heads.

One Alexander fighting another—Eumenes dared to think this image referred to his looming fight against Craterus. A few years earlier, when Eumenes was a humble scribe and Craterus the greatest of Alexander’s generals, he would never have framed such an interpretation. But those years had raised Eumenes ever higher within the king’s inner circle. He had been assigned by the king to command a squadron of Companion cavalry, a post no Greek had ever before held. He had been close to Alexander during the king’s last months, closer than Craterus, who had been sent home to Macedonia and ordered to remain there. And now it was he, Eumenes, a Greek of obscure origins, first recruited to keep track of royal papers, who fought to protect the rights of Alexander’s kin. He would not let Craterus alone invoke Alexander in a slogan to inspire his troops; he too claimed the right to fight in Alexander’s name.

But Eumenes did not allow his men to learn whom they would be fighting. He could not, for he knew as well as Neoptolemus that they still revered Craterus as no other and would join his ranks the moment they spotted him. So Eumenes gave word that the new commander who accompanied Neoptolemus was a barbarian warlord named Pigres. To ensure his secret would hold, he stationed only Asian horsemen opposite Craterus’ position, on the far right wing, and ordered them to charge the moment the enemy came in view. He kept his Macedonians in the center, well away from Craterus, and bade them hold back during this cavalry charge. He did not want them to engage the enemy’s expert phalanx or to find out, from a chance word or cry, who it was that commanded it.

Eumenes stationed his own cavalry facing that of Neoptolemus, on the opposite end from Craterus of the attacking line. This would give each general a chance to charge the other. Eumenes wanted to resolve the conflict begun by Neoptolemus’ betrayal some ten days earlier. The animosity between these two generals had made the upcoming battle a grudge match.

As he mounted a hill that separated the two armies, Craterus rode toward battle confident of victory. He trusted assurances from Neoptolemus that the Macedonians serving Eumenes would switch sides as soon as they recognized him. Then he could easily take down Eumenes, whose Asian cavalry would be stripped of the protection of the phalanx. It was a grim surprise when he saw these very horsemen coming at him in battle formation, no Macedonians among them and no one seeming likely to desert. Muttering curses against Neoptolemus, he ordered his men forward to meet the charge. It was the last order he would ever give.

There are three divergent descriptions of Craterus’ death. Plutarch says he fought bravely from horseback and slew many foes, until he was speared by a Thracian and fell from his horse. Arrian says likewise that he fought against all comers without care for his own safety, removing his wide-brimmed kausia cap to make his face more visible, but was finally killed by Paphlagonians who cared little for his identity. Diodorus gives the least heroic account: Craterus fell to the ground when his horse stumbled and was trampled to death in the melee. All three accounts agree that Craterus lay unrecognized as he breathed his last. Few of the Asians who charged him had ever seen him before, and no one expected him to be there, thinking it was Pigres they were attacking. Plutarch reports that a certain Gorgias, one of Eumenes’ officers, recognized Craterus expiring on the ground and dismounted to guard him from the hooves of the horses.

Eumenes’ horsemen may not have realized how important a leader had fallen, but those of Craterus certainly did. They broke off attack and rode for the protection of their phalanx, causing the collapse of their army’s right wing.

On the left, meanwhile, Neoptolemus and Eumenes were stalking each other amid crowds of clashing horsemen. At last each recognized the other, and an intense single combat was joined. While still on horseback, each dropped rein in order to grab the other’s helmet and tear it off. During this wrestling match the horses started from under them, and both tumbled to the ground with a clattering of armor. Though stunned by the fall, Eumenes got to his feet and stabbed Neoptolemus in the back of the leg, a wound that prevented his adversary from standing. Nonetheless, Neoptolemus rose to his knees and slashed Eumenes three times on his arms and thigh. Had he been able to stand, he might have struck a fatal blow. Eumenes, however, was not badly wounded, and with one powerful thrust to the neck he drove Neoptolemus to the ground.

Even then the duel was not over. Eumenes, supposing his opponent killed, began stripping off his armor, the traditional right of a victor. But Neoptolemus still had strength for one sword thrust and, reaching up under Eumenes’ cuirass, stabbed him near the groin. It was not a grave wound but, with the others, caused considerable loss of blood. Then Neoptolemus breathed his last.

Having dispatched one of two great opponents, Eumenes now learned the fate of the other. He may even have had a last exchange of words with Craterus as the half-dead senior general was brought into camp. It was an almost unimaginable outcome—a Greek scribbler had vanquished two of the greatest Macedonian warriors in a single day, one by a stratagem, the other by swordsmanship and main force.

The day belonged to Eumenes, but the issue of Craterus’ powerful phalanx was as yet unresolved. This block of twenty thousand men remained at full strength, having never joined battle at all. It was still in formation and could repel any attack, even a charge by spear-bearing cavalry. Eumenes sent a Macedonian messenger, Xennias, to offer the leaders of the phalanx a deal. The infantrymen could join Eumenes’ side under a blanket amnesty; otherwise, he would surround them with his cavalry and block their access to food, forcing a less advantageous surrender. This bold stroke appeared to succeed when the foot soldiers disarmed and swore to follow Eumenes. But a short while later, when they were allowed to wander about local villages to buy supplies, they broke their oath and struck off to the south, racing to catch up with Antipater. Eumenes was too depleted to lead a pursuit and let them go.

Thus concluded a battle that bears no name, since none of our sources records where it took place. A message was sent to Perdiccas in Egypt, telling of the victory but also of the two potent armies that had slipped past Eumenes and were now heading south.

As he buried his dead, Eumenes had the body of Craterus cremated with all due rites and ceremony. He could not afford to stint the honors for this hero, for many, even in his own camp, were grieved by his fall. Perhaps Eumenes himself felt remorse. There had never been antipathy between the two men; they had merely become enmeshed in the war between their masters, Perdiccas and Antipater. Eumenes would keep the cremated remains with him and saw that they eventually reached Craterus’ widow, the noble Phila.

Eumenes had triumphed as tactician and soldier, but had also learned his limitations as leader. In this new kind of war, where allegiances were unclear and a general’s best strategy was to draw defections, Eumenes had been on the defensive. Though some Alexander veterans, like those serving under Neoptolemus, might switch to his side in defeat, troops fresh from Europe had refused to do so, even at peril to their lives. And Eumenes’ need to conceal Craterus’ identity showed how much lower he stood in the soldiers’ affections. Had Eumenes not denied him the chance, Craterus could have won the battle simply by revealing his face.

Dream though he might, Eumenes was no Alexander. He never could be, given the deficit of his birth. He had the talent of a first-rate general but none of the stature. His origins barred him from the heights of Macedonian power, certainly from the throne, and he knew that. When, in the aftermath of the battle, he took horses from the royal herds to replenish his losses, he gave receipts for them to the stablemen; he claimed the right only to borrow, not seize, the property of the crown. The humility of the gesture raised a laugh from old man Antipater—a rare moment of levity in what had become an intense and bitter civil war.


While Eumenes was winning glory in Anatolia, Perdiccas and his army were approaching the delta of the Nile. At the apex of that seven-stream triangle was Memphis, and in Memphis was Ptolemy, who had troubled Perdiccas’ regime from the start, mocking his authority and defying his orders. In Memphis too was Alexander, now a mummified corpse but still emanating a power that could hold three continents in awe.

The Nile delta had repelled many invaders over the centuries. Perdiccas was determined to penetrate it by crossing its easternmost branch, the Pelusian. Once across, he could march south to Memphis, bring Ptolemy to heel, and recover the body of Alexander. That talisman of royal might could yet repair his losses and restore his waning ability to exert control.

Perdiccas’ control had eroded during the past months at an alarming rate. The treachery of Cleitus at the Hellespont, the defections of the western satraps, the refusal of his officers (his own brother!) to follow orders, the theft of Alexander’s corpse—these challenges had come at him simultaneously and from all corners of western Asia. Now even the royal army, the six thousand or so crack veterans he had brought to Egypt, was showing signs of insubordination. When he had convened an assembly near the borders of Egypt to charge Ptolemy with rebellion, the soldiers had listened to Ptolemy’s defense and then voted to acquit. They were not willing to give Perdiccas the political cover he so obviously wanted. Perdiccas had been forced to distribute bribes to top officers, buying their commitment to the invasion when he could not inspire it.

And what could inspire them to attack their own countrymen or to make war on Ptolemy, whom they had respected and heeded only two years earlier? Perdiccas had brought the joint kings with him as a reminder of their cause, but these hardly commanded reverence: the vacant Philip with his sharp-tongued teenage wife, the toddler Alexander with his babbling barbarian mother. It was a pathetically shaky platform on which Perdiccas rested his authority, yet it was the only source of legitimacy in the post-Alexander world. It would have to be enough, for Perdiccas was already here at the delta, accompanied by infantry, cavalry, siege equipment, and war elephants—enough armed force to take Ptolemy down, if he could only get across the Nile.

Fortunately, Perdiccas had superb training in river crossings, for these had been Alexander the Great’s choice stratagem. Alexander had brought his army across the Danube, the Oxus, and the Indus, three of the world’s largest rivers, and finally, in India, had pulled off a brilliant crossing of the Hydaspes despite a determined foe on the other side. For weeks Alexander had unbalanced this foe, the raja Porus, by moving in plain sight up and down the bank, making feints and sallies, all the while scouting for a crossing point that would be hidden from Porus’ view. When he finally made his move, he marched the army all night through torrential rains and deafening thunder, then led it through the roaring Hydaspes in the dark, with men and horses only barely keeping their heads above water—but got onto dry land and into formation before Porus’ forces arrived. Speed and secrecy, as in so many of Alexander’s operations, had secured victory.

Perdiccas too needed secrecy for his crossing of the Nile, but he did not have time for the cat-and-mouse games Alexander had played with Porus. His troops were becoming unsteady in their loyalty. Some had already defected to Ptolemy after Perdiccas tried, but failed, to draw off water from the Pelusiac Nile and render it more shallow. Others, he suspected, were passing along information to Ptolemy’s forces. When Perdiccas chose a crossing point, opposite a fort called Kamelonteichos, or Camels’ Rampart, he told no one of his destination. He could not trust his own men. He marched the army to this spot under cover of darkness, hoping he would get there unobserved.

At first light Perdiccas’ troops began fording the river but were only halfway across when, on the other bank, Ptolemy’s forces could be seen streaming toward the fort. The element of surprise had been lost during the night. There was no choice now but to slug it out with Ptolemy’s men, and with Ptolemy himself, who had entered the fort and was making ready to lead its defenders in person.

Perdiccas mounted a determined effort to capture the fort. His crack infantry troops, the Silver Shields, were sent up scaling ladders under barrages of spears and arrows. Elephants were brought forward to batter the mud-brick walls with their heads. Ptolemy apparently speared one of these beasts in the eyes and blinded it, then killed its driver, and began boldly knocking men off the ladders into the river below (though this account, like all tales of Ptolemy’s heroics, may be the invention of his propaganda machine). Perdiccas’ men hurled themselves at the fort for much of the day, but finally, toward evening, Perdiccas gave up. He ordered his troops back across the river to base camp. The Camels’ Rampart had held.

Though his men were exhausted, Perdiccas gave them only a short rest before again ordering an all-night march, south along the Nile’s bank. He was desperate now to find a way over, or he would face mass defections. His reconnaissance had revealed a spot opposite Memphis where the Nile was split by a midriver island. Both sides appeared to be fordable, and the island was large enough for his entire army to make camp. The opposite bank would not be guarded; no one would expect a crossing upstream from the delta, where the Nile’s waters were united in a swift, deep current. It was a daring stroke, much in the manner of Alexander, for Alexander had succeeded, time after time, by suddenly appearing where no one thought he could be.

For the second day in a row, Perdiccas sent his men into the Nile at first light. The first contingents reached the island in safety, though the current was strong and the water came up to their chins in midchannel. Perdiccas tried a new tactic to ease the passage: he sent elephants across upstream of the wading troops to break the force of the current, and had mounted horsemen cross downstream to catch any soldiers who lost their footing. This was a fatal error. The heavy tread of the animals dislodged silt from the riverbed,causing the channel to suddenly deepen. The bewildered soldiers, thinking that Ptolemy had opened a new sluiceway to flood them, could no longer keep contact with the bottom. The crossing was halted. Only half the men had reached the island—too few to defend themselves once Ptolemy arrived, as he no doubt soon would. Perdiccas had no choice but to call them back.

The men on the island cast away their weapons and armor, companions of more than a decade of campaigning, and dove into the swirling current. Stronger swimmers could make it across, but others were pulled downstream, tumbling and flailing as they were swept out of sight. Perdiccas’ situation had become nightmarish, but the worst horror was yet to come. The thrashing of drowning men attracted Nile crocodiles, which arrived in swarms and began to feed on both the living and the dead. More than two thousand men were lost, either to the rushing waters or to the snapping jaws of the beasts.

In camp that evening, the surviving infantrymen raised loud, hoarse lamentations for their comrades and shouted curses at Perdiccas. Perhaps a third of their number had been lost that day, comrades who had served beside them for thirteen years or more, without so much as an inch of progress. The Egyptian campaign had come to nothing; and Asia too had been lost, or so the troops feared, for word had not yet arrived of Eumenes’ stunning victory over Craterus and Neoptolemus. Had this victory been known, Perdiccas would instantly have seen his authority restored, but in this, as in much else, the gods seemed to be against him. The news arrived just one day too late.

Ptolemy could now be seen on the opposite bank, doing his best to increase Perdiccas’ disgrace. His troops were gathering the bodies of the drowned and cremating them with honorable rites. With unerring instincts for self-promotion, Ptolemy was sending a message that he held the soldiers’ lives sacred, unlike Perdiccas, who had so recklessly thrown them away. Perhaps he also meant to show he was clement to his enemies and would treat well any who deserted. Almost certainly, he was already spreading that message by way of agents in Perdiccas’ camp.

Perdiccas had proved a false Alexander. He had failed at the very maneuver at which Alexander had so brilliantly succeeded. He had hurled more lives into the river than Alexander had lost in all his great battles. Not even Perdiccas’ senior officers, paid off with gifts and favors to support the Egyptian invasion, could countenance its disastrous outcome. Three of these—Peithon, Antigenes, and Seleucus—backed by a hundred followers, went to the tent of Perdiccas that very night and stabbed him to death. First to strike was Antigenes, leader of the Silver Shields. He understood the soldiers’ code of loyalty to an officer, but also understood the officers’ code that forbade the squandering of soldiers.

So ended the brief reign of Perdiccas, Alexander’s top-ranking Bodyguard and inheritor of his signet ring. He had begun his time in power by killing his own men under the feet of elephants and ended by killing them in the maws of crocodiles. The compromise government he had forged at Babylon, designed to preserve the balance and unity of the continents, had been smashed to ruins; the empire was utterly divided and leaderless and spattered with the blood of the generals who had founded it. These men had made all of western Asia their battleground. Soon the violence would spread to Europe as well, engulfing Athens, the Greek world generally, and the Macedonian homeland itself.

The reign of the joint kings went on into its third year.

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