Ancient History & Civilisation

Chapter Seventy

Alexander and the Wars of the Successors

Between 336 and 272 BC, Alexander the Great makes most of the world part of one empire, which his generals then divide

AFTER THE DEATH of Philip of Macedonia, his son Alexander had taken his place as king of Macedonia and head of the Corinthian League. But with Philip gone, various Greek cities declared their secession from the League, Thebes and Athens among them; Athens even had an ill-judged festival day and bestowed a posthumous gold crown on Pausanias.1

Alexander marched straight for the rebels with his Macedonian troops, reconquering Greeks as he went. When he arrived at the gates of Thebes, he offered to reinstate the city in his favor if the Thebans would just hand over the two noblemen responsible for leading the secession. Thebes refused, and Alexander ordered his men to break down the gates. “The city itself, being taken by storm,” writes Plutarch, “was sacked and razed, Alexander’s hope being that so severe an example might terrify the rest of Greece into obedience…. Thirty thousand were publicly sold as slaves…. upwards of six thousand were put to the sword.”2

He then made the same offer to Athens, which agreed as quickly as possible. “Whether it were, like the lion, that his passion was now satisfied,” Plutarch adds, “or that, after an example of extreme cruelty, he had a mind to appear merciful, it happened well for the Athenians; for he…forgave them all past offences.”3 The Athenians did their best to keep his good opinion by sending off into exile all the men who had opposed joining the Corinthian League.

After this, the rest of the Corinthian League fell into line within two months. Alexander marched down to the Isthmus of Corinth and there held a gathering of the League in which (as his soldiers stood by) the League’s delegates hastily elected him to the position of leader in his father’s place.

This show of democracy, backed up by force, would be characteristic of Alexander’s dealings. Almost everything he did, he did by force of arms; yet somewhere in him there was a longing to be acclaimed by the free will of the conquered. The old idea of conquest by force, and the new idea that men could be bound together without coercion, by a shared loyalty or a joint identity, sat uneasily together in him.

ALEXANDER WAS NOW KING of the Greeks, which was something that no Spartan or Athenian hero had ever managed to pull off. He had behind him his elite Macedonian fighters, plus around forty thousand Greek troops; he was ready to brave the Persian lions.

Over in Persia, the eunuch Bagoas had come to a bad end. After the death of the prince Arses, Bagoas had chosen as his next puppet an impressive-looking (six and a half feet tall) but reputedly mild-mannered distant relative of Artaxerxes III, a man named Kodomannos.

Bagoas had not thought to get much resistance from Kodomannos, who had no experience of courts. He had underestimated his man, though. Once Kodomannos had been crowned under the royal name Darius III, he invited Bagoas into his throne room for a cup of wine. Bagoas, who knew what was coming, tried to beg off by pleading that he was getting sick, but the king suggested that, in that case, he’d better drink his medicine. An hour later Bagoas was dead, and Darius III was in control of Persia.4

In 334, Alexander marched over into Darius’s realm with thirty-two thousand men; Diodorus says that almost fourteen thousand of these were Macedonian, the rest drawn from subject cities.5 He had moved faster than the Persians expected, and the Persian army could not reach him in time to prevent this army from crossing the Hellespont.


70.1. Alexander the Great. Greek marble bust of Alexander the Great, King of Macedonia 336–323 BC. Museo Barracco, Rome. Photo credit Alinari/Art Resource, NY

Having lost their first advantage, the Persian commanders put their heads together for a new strategy (Darius III was not with them; he had just gotten rid of Bagoas and likely wanted to keep his royal eye on Susa a little longer). The Persian general Memnon suggested avoiding a land battle altogether. Instead, he said, the Persians should retreat while burning all of the supplies, luring Alexander’s army across land bare of food and water, and meanwhile send ships around to attack the Macedonian homeland.6

This was a good plan, a combination of the Roman strategy against the four-way alliance in Italy and the Scythian strategy which had defeated the first Darius. But he was shouted down. Instead, the Persian army moved to the banks of the Granicus river, near the old site of Troy, and made its stand.

Against the advice of his own commander, Parmenio, Alexander drew up his forces and charged across the river at the Persian line. The first Macedonians who came up out of the water were slaughtered, but the weight of Alexander’s attack soon pushed the Persians back. The Greek military historian Arrian chalks this up to the experience of Alexander’s men and “the advantage of the long cornel-wood spear over the light lances of the Persians,”1947 but Alexander’s presence undoubtedly had something to do with the Macedonian ferocity as well. Unlike Darius, he was right in the middle of the first charge and fought on the front line until the end. In fact, he survived having a spear driven into his breastplate, and lost his helmet to an axe-blow from behind. He was saved from losing his head by one of his commanders, Cleitus the Black, who managed to cut off the attacker’s arm at the shoulder before he could get his weapon up for a second blow.8

Ancient accounts record a Macedonian loss of around two hundred men, while the Persians lost something like four thousand; Darius’s son, son-in-law, and brother-in-law were among the dead. The surviving Persians fled, and Alexander declared the Ionian cities liberated (which mean that they were now under his rule). He marched on towards Sardis, but Arrian says that he was still “eight or nine miles away” when the city’s governor came out to surrender.9 Asia Minor was his.

On his triumphant march through it, he stopped at the city of Gordium, Midas’s old capital. There he saw, in the Temple of Jupiter, the cart that Midas’s father Gordius was said to have used when he first entered the country: “its remarkable feature being the yoke,” according to the Roman historian Quintus Curtius Rufus, “which was strapped down with several knots all so tightly entangled that it was impossible to see how they were fastened.” The locals said that the man who untied it would be king of all Asia, an irresistable challenge to Alexander. “For some time Alexander wrestled unsuccessfully with the knots,” Rufus says. “Then he said: ‘It makes no difference how they’re untied,’ and cut through all the thongs with his sword, thus evading the oracle’s prophecy—or, indeed, fulfilling it.”10


70.1 Alexander’s Empire

Darius, meanwhile, had grown worried enough to travel (with his wives, children, and most of his court) to Babylon, which would serve as his center of operations against the invader. Here he collected an absolutely mammoth army: over a quarter of a million Persians, Medes, and tribute fighters from various parts of his empire, according to Rufus. With this earth-shaking army, he then marched up from Babylon to open country in the old Assyrian heartland, where the Persian forces could spread out and crush the Macedonians.

But Alexander had grown ill with a high fever, and was delaying in Tarsus until it passed. Darius, impatient at his enemy’s constant non-appearance, decided (against the advice of a Macedonian deserter who had shown up at the Persian camp) to make straight towards Asia Minor. As a result, the armies met at the Issus river, in Syria, where the huge Persian numbers gave no advantage; the troops couldn’t all fit onto the smaller battlefield.11

Once again the Macedonian forces pushed through the Persian lines.195 Darius, seeing that the battle was going against him, took to his heels: “He even stooped to throwing off his royal insignia so that they could not betray his flight,” Rufus says.12 Bagoas had not been entirely mistaken in Darius’s mildness; he was frightened enough to leave his wife, his aged mother, and all his children behind. When Alexander arrived at the center of the Persian camp in victory, he found them all there, kept prisoner by the Macedonians in the royal tent to await his arrival. “They kept asking on which wing Darius had stood,” Rufus says; they were convinced that Darius must be dead, if he had given up defending them. The news of his flight was a shock.

Alexander, who was generally kind to captives as long as they hadn’t been part of a siege (which always put him in a bad mood), spared them. Darius got far enough away to make camp safely, and then sent a letter to Alexander offering to become Alexander’s ally, and also asking to ransom his wife and children.

By return letter, Alexander refused to make any treaties unless Darius came in person and addressed him as “Lord of the Continent of Asia.” “In the future,” his own letter ended, “let any communication you wish to make with me be addressed to the King of All Asia. Do not write to me as an equal.”13

This pretty much guaranteed that talk of a treaty was at an end. Darius remained east of the Euphrates; Alexander provided for Darius’s relatives to live in well-guarded comfort, and then began to campaign through Syria. In 332, he reached the city of Tyre, which refused to surrender and held out for seven months. When the siege finally ended, Alexander was so enraged by the delay that he allowed his men to massacre a good many of the thirty thousand people inside.

After this he marched down to Egypt and was proclaimed pharaoh in the place of Darius III, who had claimed the title as a matter of course when he reached the Persian throne. And then, in 331, he came back up to deal with Darius. Darius made another attempt to avoid war; he offered again to buy back his family, and also promised Alexander that he could have all the land west of the Euphrates without opposition, not to mention a Persian princess as wife, if Alexander would only agree to make a treaty of friendship. Alexander’s general Parmenio thought this was a perfectly good idea which would allow everyone to go back home. “I would accept, if I were you,” he told Alexander, to which Alexander retorted, “And if I were you, so would I.”14

The two armies met yet again in battle, this time at Gaugemela, all the way up on the north Tigris. Again the Persians were defeated; again Darius fled. Alexander’s men marched in triumph first to Susa, and then to Persepolis. Here, Alexander discovered a whole contingent of Greek prisoners of war, some of whom had been taken captive decades before in older wars, but all of whom had been made slaves. To keep them from escaping, their Persian masters had amputed whatever arms or legs they didn’t need to fulfill their tasks. Alexander, once again moved to fury, told his men to sack the city; they were allowed to burn, kill, and enslave, but he forbade them to rape any of the women.15 We have no way of knowing how far this order was followed, but the city was laid waste, and the palaces of Darius burned.

Darius himself ran towards Ecbatana. Alexander went after him with a small fast force, but before he could overtake the escaping Persian king, Darius’s own men turned against him. His cavalry commander and one of his satraps stabbed him, and left him in a wagon to die in the hot July sun.16

Alexander was now Great King, and his men hoped that their tour of duty was over.17 But Alexander was incapable of leaving land unconquered, and the northeastern satrapies, Bactria and Sogdiana among them, were not yet in his hands. He began campaigning farther and higher, above the high range that separated the Indian subcontinent from the central Asian lands. It was rough terrain, and over the next three years of fighting, his hold over his men’s loyalties began to slip. First Parmenio’s son was convicted of plotting against Alexander’s life; Alexander had him tortured to death, and then ordered his father put to death as well (a brutal but not uncommon practice in Macedonia).

Then he arranged to marry a princess of Sogdiana, the beautiful Roxane. This was an unusually late first marriage, for a man of his age; like his father, he had carried on affairs with both sexes, but he spent most of his energy in battle, with sex a secondary pleasure. Now his queen would be a girl from a tribe that the Macedonians thought of as slaves and barbarians. And combined with this was a growing resentment over Alexander’s increasing tendency to put on Persian dress and follow Persian customs. As far as they were concerned, he was becoming less and less Macedonian as he took more and more territory.

This resentment boiled out at a drunken dinner late in 328, when the very same Cleitus who had saved Alexander’s life at Granicus accused him of taking credit for victories won by the blood of loyal Macedonians. Alexander leaped up, searching for a weapon; Cleitus’s friends, who were slightly less drunk than he was, dragged Cleitus out of the room, but he insisted on returning by another door to taunt the king. Alexander grabbed a spear from his bodyguard and spitted his countryman.18

When he sobered up, he was horrified. But he did not give up his plans of campaigning farther east, even though his men were now following him with none of the joyful adoration that they had once shown. Whether or not they were fully with him, he intended to conquer India.

ON THE OTHER SIDE of the Indus river, the direct descendents of King Ajatashatru of Magadha (who had, so many years ago, conquered the surrounding kingdoms to make Magadha great) had lost their throne. In 424 BC, an illegitimate son of the royal line named Mahapadma Nanda had taken the crown of Magadha himself, and had gone on campaign.

He lived to be the greatest Indian conqueror yet. He was still fighting at the age of eighty-eight; and when he finally died, after decades of kingdom-building, he had pushed the territory of Magadha all the way down to the Deccan (the northern edge of the dry southern desert). He left the kingdom to his sons and grandsons. When Alexander came through the Khyber Pass into India, one of Mahapadma Nanda’s descendents, Dhana Nanda, was on the throne of Magadha.

Before he had any chance of reaching this richest and most powerful Indian kingdom, Alexander had to pass through the lands that lay between them. But he never got quite far enough to face Dhana Nanda in battle.

The first Indian kingdom that lay between him and the northern kingdoms of India was Taxila, whose king took its name when he acceded. The current King Taxiles met Alexander with gifts and tribute soldiers as soon as he had crossed the Indus (perhaps using a pontoon bridge, although details of the crossing are unknown).19 Taxiles hoped to make an alliance with Alexander against the next kingdom over: Hydaspes, which lay on the Jhelum river and was ruled by the seven-foot-tall King Porus.

Alexander took the gifts and soldiers, and agreed to help Taxiles against his enemy. The joint force of Indians and Macedonians marched to the Jhelum river, where they could see Porus and his army (which included “squadrons of elephants,” Arrian says)20 on the other side. With four of his hand-picked personal guard, men named Ptolemy, Perdiccas, Lysimachus, and Seleucus, he led his army across the river (some swimming, some wading, some on hastily built boats) and attacked both the elephants and the seven-foot Porus.

Both the Macedonians and the horses were a little alarmed by these monstrous beasts, but fought forwards and drove Porus’s forces closer and closer together, until his elephants were trampling his own foot soldiers. Finally Porus was forced to surrender; Alexander, impressed by his courage, spared his life.

But Alexander’s victorious army had suffered heavy losses; and when they found out that Alexander now intended to lead them across the Ganges river, which was even wider than the Indus and had more hostile Indian troops and elephants on the other side, they refused to go on.

This time, neither Alexander’s fury nor his charm could persuade them. Finally, Plutarch says, he “shut himself up in his tent and lay there in sullen anger, refusing to feel any gratitude for what he had already achieved unless he could cross the Ganges as well.”21 He remained in his tent sulking for two days. And then, realizing that he had lost this particular battle, he emerged on the third day and agreed to turn back.22

But rather than marching back through the Khyber Pass, he led his soldiers along the Indus, south to the sea, and then to the west. This turned into a wretched, soul-and body-killing, seven-month voyage. The men had to fight their way through hostile riverside towns on their march down to the coast; in one of these attacks, on the town of the Mallians, Alexander was struck in the chest by an arrow and for some hours seemed to be dead. When they resumed the march he could barely sit on a horse, and the wound never completely healed. And once they were at the coast, the march west took them through salt desert: “through an uncultivated country,” Plutarch says, “whose inhabitants fared hardly, possessing only a few sheep, and those of a wretched kind, whose flesh was rank and unsavoury, by their continual feeding upon sea-fish.”23 The heat was unbearable. All the water was salty. His men began to died fom starvation, thirst, and disease. Out of an army of 120,000 infantry and 15,000 cavalry, barely 30,000 reached home. It was a dreadful end to a brilliant campaign.

Back in Susa, Alexander put the Indian campaign out of his mind, insofar as he could, and instead concentrated on his duties as king rather than conquerer. He married again, this time one of Darius III’s daughters, the princess Stateira (at least half a foot taller than he was). He also hosted a bizarre mass wedding between his Macedonian noblemen and hundreds of Persian noblewomen. To Hephaestion, his closest friend, his trusted general, and probably his boyhood lover, he awarded the privilege of marrying another one of Darius’s daughters: Stateira’s younger sister Drypetis.

The wedding festival was Alexander’s attempt to deal with the ongoing hostility between the Persians, who found Macedonians uncouth, and the Macedonians, who found Persians effeminate. He also rounded up thousands of Persian boys and put them under the command of Macedonian officers, to be trained in Macedonian fighting. Both experiments backfired. Most of the mass marriages fell apart with speed, and the Macedonian foot soldiers hated the Persian youths with such vehemence that they threatened to go back to Macedonia. “They desired him to dismiss them one and all,” Plutarch writes, “now he was so well furnished with a set of dancing boys, with whom, if he pleased, he might go on and conquer the world.”24

Meanwhile, the idea that a joint Greek identity might somehow pull all of Alexander’s subjects together had almost disappeared from view. But not completely. Alexander made an emotional appeal to the Persians (“Foreign newcomers though you are, I have made you established members of my force: you are both my fellow-citizens and my soldiers”) and another to his old Macedonian comrades (“Everything is taking on the same hue: it is no disgrace for the Persians to copy Macedonian customs nor for the Macedonians to imitate the Persians. Those who are to live under the same king should enjoy the same rights”).25

When he had managed to convince both Macedonians and Persians to coexist a little longer, he travelled from Susa to Ecbatana, where he intended to host a great festival in Greek style. He hoped that this might smooth out the very visible joints in his kingdom. But at Ecbatana, in mid-festival, Hephaestion grew ill. He probably had typhoid; he was beginning to recover when, against the advice of his physicians, he had a huge meal of chicken and wine which perforated his stomach. He died just hours later.

Alexander never completely recovered from Hephaestion’s death. He left Ecbatana and went to Babylon in deep mourning. Here, he too grew ill. Plutarch says he had a fever, which began on the eighteenth day of the month and grew continually worse. Ten days later, he was dead. The year was 323; he was thirty-three.

His body lay in his bedchamber unburied for several days, while his commanders argued over who would take control of the empire; he had never named a successor, and as he had learned not long before that Roxane was pregnant with an heir, had dismissed any need to do so. “During the dissensions among the commanders,” Plutarch writes, “which lasted several days, the body continued clear and fresh, without any sign of such taint or corruption, though it lay neglected in a close sultry place.”26 Some took this as a miraculous sign; in all likelihood, Alexander was in deep coma for two or three days before finally dying. The delay saved him from being still alive when the embalming process finally began.

ALEXANDER’S CONQUESTS, made in a white heat of energy, had produced an empire with no administration to speak of, no bureaucracy, no organized tax system, no common system of communication, no national identity, and no capital city; Alexander himself, peripatetic, died in camp. It had been created at hyperspeed, and it did in hyperspeed what other ancient empires held together by dynamic personalities had done: it fell apart.

The disintegration began with Roxane. Five months pregnant, in a strange country, and familiar enough with Persian customs to feel entirely unsafe, she had just heard that Alexander’s Persian wife Stateira, still in Susa, was also pregnant. She had probably also heard Ptolemy’s remark that her own child, even if male, would be half-slave, and that no Macedonian would want to submit to him.27 Stateira, on the other hand, was the daughter of a Great King.

Roxane wrote her a letter in Alexander’s hand, under Alexander’s seal, inviting her to Babylon. When Stateira arrived with her sister, Hephaestion’s widow Drypetis, Roxane offered them both a cup of poisoned wine. Both were dead before night.28

Alexander’s only heir was now Roxane’s unborn child. But an unborn child could not rule, even through a regent. The empire needed a king before the news of Alexander’s death spread through all those hard-conquered lands. The Macedonian army, which had gathered outside Alexander’s bedchamber waiting for him to die, did not want to see anyone but a blood relative claim Alexander’s title. They began to shout for Alexander’s half-brother: the feebleminded child Philip, son of old Philip’s mistress, known as Philip Arrhidaeus. This boy, now in his early thirties, was easily deceived, easily persuaded, and easily guided. He was also in Babylon, where Alexander, who was fond of him, had brought him in order to keep him safe.

When the army began to shout for him, one of Alexander’s generals ran and got Philip, brought him out with a crown on his head, and managed to keep him quiet long enough for the army to acclaim him king. “But destiny was already bringing civil war,” writes Quintus Curtius Rufus, “for a throne is not to be shared and several men were aspiring to it.”29 The men who wanted a piece of Alexander’s conquests were the men who had spent the last decade fighting at his side: Ptolemy, a Macedonian who was rumored to be a bastard son of old Philip himself; Antigonus, one of Alexander’s trusted generals; Lysimachus, one of his companions on the Indian campaign; and Perdiccas, who had served as commander of cavalry and then, after Hephaestion’s death, as second-in-command.

Realizing that the mood of the army was against any one of them becoming supreme head of Alexander’s empire, these men accepted a compromise. Feebleminded Philip would continue as nominal king, and if Roxane’s baby was male, Philip and the infant would be co-rulers. Both would need a regent, and the man who took the job was Perdiccas.

He would stay in Babylon, which would serve as the center of the empire. The other men agreed to take positions as satraps, in imitation of the Persian system. Ptolemy would govern Egypt; Antigonus, most of Asia Minor (“Lycia, Pamphylia, and greater Phrygia,” Rufus says); Lysimachus got Thrace; Antipater, a trusted officer who had served Alexander as regent of Macedonia during the king’s absence, would continue in Macedonia and also keep tabs on Greece; Cassender, who was Antipater’s son, got Caria (the southern Asia Minor coast). Five other officers were granted control of other parts of the empire.

This division of Alexander’s domain into satrapies (the “Partition of Babylon”) was a direct path to war. “Men who had recently been subjects of the king had individually seized control of huge kingdoms,” writes Rufus, “ostensibly as administrators of an empire belonging to another, and any pretext for conflict was removed since they all belonged to the same race…. But it was difficult to remain satisfied with what the opportunity of the moment had brought them.”30 Neither their shared race nor their shared loyalty to Alexander could stave off the inevitable drama. The “Wars of the Diadochi,” or “Wars of the Successors,” broke out almost at once.


70.2 The Partition of Babylon

Scene One

Perdiccas’s power as regent was increased when Roxane’s baby, safely born, proved to be a boy: the infant Alexander IV of Macedonia. But Egypt had the potential to be the greatest military power of all the “satrapies” Ptolemy had marched down to take charge with only two thousand men, but when word spread that he was offering generous pay, Greek mercenaries flocked to him. When his strength was great enough, Ptolemy made his intentions clear by kidnapping Alexander’s body, which had been bound for Macedonia, and burying it in Egypt as though Alexander had been his ancestor.

Perdiccas knew that this was a move for control of the empire. He assembled his army and marched down to fight against Ptolemy. The attack was a disaster; Perdiccas’s forces were embarassed. After the retreat, Perdiccas’s officers banded together—led by the young officer Seleucus, who had also been with Alexander in Egypt—and assassinated him.

One general was now off the scene. Ptolemy ordered both Philip and the baby Alexander IV removed from Babylon and taken back to Macedonia, where they would be under the protection of Antipater. He rewarded Seleucus, who had gotten rid of Perdiccas, by giving him Babylon to rule—but as satrap, not as regent.

Scene Two

In 319, not long after, Antipater of Macedonia died. He left Macedonia not to his son Cassender (who already had Caria), but to another Macedonian. So both Ptolemy and Antigonus agreed to ally themselves with Cassander to help him capture his father’s territory.

But fierce old Olympias, Alexander’s mother, was still very much alive. She had her grandson Alexander IV brought to her own house at Pella, the royal capital of Macedonia, along with his mother Roxane. Then she rounded up supporters of her own to fight for control of Macedonia. Cassander’s victory would have meant the establishment of a new royal house, and Olympias was too accustomed to being the mother of the king to watch that happen.

Olympias didn’t manage to keep off the three powerful satraps for very long, but before they overran Macedonia, she did manage to get her hands on the feebleminded Philip. She had always hated him, and she loathed the idea that he would be co-king with her grandson. She had Philip stabbed to death before Cassander and his allies could arrive to rescue him. When Cassender did make it into Pella in 316, he arrested Olympias and ordered her stoned to death for murder. He put Roxane and young Alexander (now nine) under house arrest, theoretically for their own safety, in a castle called Amphipolis, overlooking the Strymon river.

Now the map had shaken itself out into five kingdoms: Cassender in Macedonia, Lysimachus in Thrace, Antigonus (nicknamed the One-Eyed, since he’d lost the other in battle) in Asia Minor, Seleucus controlling Babylon and the Persian heartland, and Ptolemy in Egypt.196

Scene Three

Up in Macedonia, in the castle of Amphipolis, the fate Roxane had feared ever since her husband’s death came on her. Sometime around 310, the cup of wine at dinner had poison in it; and both Roxane and Alexander IV died. Alexander’s only son was twelve years old, around the same age that his father had been at the taming of Bucephalus.

Cassander, who was acting as king of Macedonia, was undoubtedly the culprit. The other four generals knew exactly what had happened. But for the next half-decade, no one spoke of it. No one named himself king; no one abandoned the title of satrap. They all supported what they knew to be a lie: that young Alexander was still alive, in the fortress on the Macedonian river, and that they were all serving in his name. None of the five was willing to be the first to claim the title of king. Whoever first took it would find the other four allied against him.

Scene Four

Antigonus broke the balance, but only after two victories—both captained by his son Demetrius—had clearly demonstrated that he was the most powerful of the five. The first of these was the invasion of Athens in 307. Cassender, like Antipater before him, had been not only king of Macedonia but also the overlord of Greece. Demetrius marched into Athens and drove Cassender’s men out of the city; and then he directed a naval battle against Ptolemy’s ships which took place at Salamis. The Ptolemaic fleet was defeated.

After this, Antigonus—having triumphed over both Cassender and Ptolemy—took the title of king. Lysimachus (still in Thrace) and Seleucus (in Babylon) decided not to anger the one-eyed monster. Rather than allying against him, they began to call themselves kings as well. So did Ptolemy and Cassender. The death of Alexander IV, still unspoken, was now taken for granted.

Scene Five

All five kings then began to jostle at each other’s borders, a process that reached its climax at the Battle of Ipsus in 301 BC. Ptolemy, whose power was concentrated in the south, sat this one out. But Cassander, Lysimachus, and Antigonus fought a three-way engagement which remained undecided until Seleucus arrived from Babylon with an overwhelming force and threw his weight onto Lysimachus and Cassander’s side.

Antigonus, now eighty years old, fought until he died. His troops were scattered; his son Demetrius fled to Greece and set himself up as king there, abandoning the Asia Minor lands that had been the center of his father’s empire. Lysimachus took the western part of Asia Minor for his own, adding it to Thrace; Seleucus took most of the rest. Cassander, who had done the dirty work of getting rid of Alexander IV, made very little out of the engagement; he added almost no land to Macedonia. Five kings remained (Ptolemy, Lysimachus, Cassander, Seleucus, and Demetrius), but the borders had shifted.

Scene Six

While fighting with the other successors, Seleucus had also been carrying on negotiations, with an Indian king named Chandragupta.

This king had come to power, sometime between 325 and 321, in his own small kingdom of Maurya. Not long after his accession, he had turned to make war on the last Nanda king of Magadha. The brutality of the Nanda Dynasty had long made these kings unpopular; Chandragupta found plenty of support. His capture of Magadha turned his little Mauryan kingdom into an empire.

His rise to power was partly due to the savvy of his closest advisor, Kautilya. Kautilya is traditionally given credit for writing the ancient political handbook Arthashastra; much of this text was probably set down somewhat later, but Kautilya’s principles survive in it. The ruler, Kautilya taught, had two tasks. He was to enforce internal order, by making sure that his subjects properly observed the caste system:

The observance of one’s own duty leads one to svarga [Heaven] and infinite bliss. When it is violated, the world will come to an end owing to confusion of castes and duties. Hence the king shall never allow people to swerve from their duties; for whoever upholds his own duty, ever adhering to the customs of the Aryas, and follow the rules of caste and divisions of religious life, will surely be happy both here and hereafter.31

And he was to preserve outside order, by suspecting every neighbor of planning conquest, and taking the proper precautions.32

Whether or not Chandragupta’s neighbors were planning on conquest, Chandragupta himself certainly was. He wanted to extend his own reach beyond the Ganges—but this brought him into the sphere of Seleucus, who had claimed Alexander’s Indian territories along with his other gains.

Chandragupta proposed a bargain: he would give Seleucus war elephants, if Seleucus would yield the Indian territories to him. Seleucus, powerful though he was, realized that he would not be able to defend both the far eastern and far western borders of his kingdom. He agreed, and in 299 the two swore out a peace.

Scene Seven

In that same year, Demetrius took Macedonia. Cassander of Macedonia had died the year before, and his sons fought over the succession until one of them appealed to Demetrius, down in Greece, for help. This was a mistake; Demetrius campaigned northwards, drove out both of Cassender’s heirs, and added Macedonia to Greece. The five kings had become four: Ptolemy, Lysimachus, Seleucus, and Demetrius in his father’s place.

This was a temporary victory for Demetrius. A face from the past appeared: Pyrrhus, grandson of the king of Epirus, whose kingdom Philip had absorbed decades before. Pyrrhus was the son of Olympias’s brother, and so the first cousin of Alexander the Great himself. As royalty in exile, he had had an unfortunate childhood (handed from relative to relative in an attempt to keep him out of harm’s way), and he had an unfortunate face: Plutarch says that it had “more of the terrors than of the augustness of kingly power,” since “he had not a regular set of upper teeth, but in the place of them one continued bone, with small lines marked on it, resembling the divisions of a row of teeth.”33 He was also rumored to have magical powers and could cure spleens by touching his right foot to the stomach of the afflicted person (his right big toe contained the magic).

Despite his personal disadvantages, Pyrrhus had made a smart marriage, to the stepdaughter of Ptolemy himself. He asked his father-in-law for help in getting his old kingdom of Epirus back again; Ptolemy was more than happy to attack Demetrius, who now had hold both of Greece and Macedonia. With Egyptian forces behind him, Pyrrhus took back Epirus. By 286, he had overrun the rest of Macedonia as well and driven Demetrius out.

Demetrius fled into Asia Minor and then, in an excess of hubris, decided to attack Seleucus in the east. He was likely an alcoholic and either suicidal or delusional by this time; Seleucus swatted him like a fly and put him under house arrest, where he drank himself to death.34

Pyrrhus’s rule of Macedonia lasted for all of two years before Lysimachus came down from Thrace and drove him out. (Lysimachus, Plutarch says, “had nothing else to do.”) Pyrrhus withdrew to Epirus, which Lysimachus—perhaps out of respect for Alexander’s cousin—allowed him to keep.

The four kings had now become three: Ptolemy, Seleucus, Lysimachus. The satrapies had become three kingdoms: the Ptolemaic, the Seleucid, and the much smaller combined Thracian-Macedonian domain.

THE FOOTNOTE to the Wars of the Successors took place over in Italy. Rome, carrying on its dreary annual campaigns against its neighbors, was attacking the city of Tarentum, a Greek colony in the south. Tarentum sent messengers to Greece, asking for help; the call was answered by Pyrrhus, who was penned up in Epirus with no other chance of extending his power or winning any glory.

Pyrrhus left Epirus and sailed for Tarentum. Once there, he bought and borrowed war elephants (probably from Carthage) and mercenaries (largely Samnite) for the defense of the city. When the Romans attacked, Pyrrhus inflicted heavy losses on them; they had never seen elephants before. Then he drove them back to within forty miles of the city of Rome itself.

In the following year, 279, he tried to follow up on this with another pitched battle, this one fought at Asculum. He won this encounter too, but in such hard fighting that he lost as many men as the Romans. When another soldier congratulated him on the victory, he answered, “Another such victory will utterly undo me.” “He had lost a great part of the forces he brought with him,” Plutarch says, “and almost all his particular friends and principal commanders; there were no others there to make recruits…. On the other hand, as from a fountain continually flowing out of the city, the Roman camp was quickly and plentifully filled up with fresh men.”35 By 275, Pyrrhus had had enough campaigning against Rome. He left Tarentum to its own problems and went back to Greece.

Three years later, the Romans finally managed to conquer and sack Tarentum. In that same year, Pyrrhus—still looking for glory—was fighting in a nasty little Spartan civil war when an old woman threw a tile at him from a rooftop and knocked him unconscious. He was at once killed by his opponent, and his corpse was burned. Only the magical big toe survived.


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