History is a child building a sand-castle by the sea, and that child is the whole majesty of man’s power in the world.
Heraclitus, Herakleitos and Diogenes
From atop the walls of the castle of Qaitbey in Egypt you can look across the rocky coast on which the castle stands to where fishing boats still ride at anchor in the bay and local children fling themselves from the rocks into the warm, clear sea that laps the shore. It is a sight familiar to perhaps thousands of shorelines around the Mediterranean, a timeless scene that, with only a few modifications, could come from just about any century. But few shores have seen as much history wash across them as this one has. The very stones of the castle you look out from once belonged to one of the seven wonders of the ancient world, and the shoreline beyond, boats, children, and all, was a scene that once reached the ears of the Greek poet Homer.
According to Plutarch of Chaeronea, it was through Homer that this place came to the attention of perhaps the greatest general in all history, who, over 2,300 years before you, stood on this same shore, his precious copy of Homer locked in a golden casket in his hands. But when he turned from the sea and looked south he saw only a narrow strip of water separating this island from the mainland, and beyond that an empty coast to which only the smallest of villages clung. When you turn, you will no longer find that scene, for in its place has risen the city founded there by that man, that dreamer—the huge, heaving metropolis of Alexandria.
At the time Homer wrote, there had been some sort of Bronze Age trading post here, almost certainly more impressive than the settlement Alexander found; but Homer’s words echoed through the centuries to Alexander, and the mention of this place changed his mind about a great project he was planning. Plutarch tells us that he had it in mind to build a great Greek city on this Egyptian coast, one which would receive the ultimate honor of bearing his name. His architects and surveyors had thus been dispatched and had selected a suitable site where work was just about to begin. Then, he had a dream:
. . . as he was sleeping, he saw a remarkable vision. He thought he could see a man with very white hair and of venerable appearance standing beside him and speaking these lines:
“Then there is an island in the stormy sea,
In front of Egypt; they call it Pharos.”
He rose at once and went to Pharos. . . .
Plutarch, Life of Alexander, in Parallel Lives, 26, 3-10
What he found here was a strip of land running east-west, with a large lake to the south and the Mediterranean Sea to the north. Just off that coast stood the island Homer had mentioned—Pharos—and it soon became clear to Alexander, or his architects at least, that by joining this island to the mainland with a causeway, two great harbors would be created, making the safest and largest anchorage on the whole of the north coast of Egypt. Alexander was delighted and “exclaimed that Homer was admirable in other respects and was also an excellent architect, and ordered the plan of the city to be drawn in conformity with the terrain” (Plutarch, Life of Alexander, in Parallel Lives, 26, 3-10).
And so, on this coast in early 331 BC, a strange sight could be seen. On what had once been the quietest of shores the cries of thousands of birds could now be heard. Anyone sailing down this coast might have seen the great flock wheeling in the blinding Egyptian sun and beneath them, on the beach, a small encampment. But these were not desperate, lost desert travelers, patiently circled by the ever watchful vultures; they were Alexander’s men, and the birds that dived again and again on them were not harbingers of a death, but of a birth.
Closer inspection might have shown the reason for the birds’ interest.
Crisscrossing the sandy shore were lines of barley flour, carefully poured out by workmen walking behind teams of surveyors who calculated angles and distances using tools unchanged since the days of the pyramid builders. The entire area now lay under a net of these white lines, attended to by countless small birds that did their best to eat them as fast as they were laid. Had we been able to see this work from on high, as the birds did when they flew up, we might have seen their purpose—to lay out a new harbor. And around this harbor they were to describe an entire city. It seemed like madness—but an inspired, perhaps even divine lunacy.
The idea to use flour had come from one who now stood among them. It was a practical solution to the lack of chalk in Egypt but, typically, an impulsive and perhaps not wholly thought-out one. As fast as the lines were laid, the birds descended and ate them. Some of the workmen muttered that it was an omen, and a bad one at that. What good could come from a city that the gods tried to eradicate the very moment it was first laid out? However, Alexander’s personal soothsayer, Aristander, countered that it simply showed that Alexandria would one day feed the whole world, and according to an ancient source known today as “the pseudo-Callisthenes” in the Alexander Romance, when the great man consulted the Egyptian gods himself on the matter, he was told: “The city you are building will be the food-giver and nurse of the whole world” (Arrian, Anabasis, book 3a, chapter 2).
So the work on the shore opposite the little island of Pharos progressed, painfully slowly. Alexander, however, could not wait. Within a few days he had gone, perhaps a little bored by the daily drudgery of deciding where palaces and temples should go, but also tempted away by a new idea that had seized him while designing his city. It had been suggested to him by some Egyptians that he might not be a man at all, but a god, for surely only a god could achieve what he had done. It was flattery of course, but in a heroic age and on the lips of an ancient people perhaps it was more. Either way he set off with all speed to the desert shrine of Ammon to discover if it was indeed true.
Thus Plutarch describes the foundation of the city of Alexandria by its first and greatest son, Alexander the Great. As with so much about Alexander’s life, it can be difficult to separate fact from myth in a story filled with omens and peopled by gods. The ancient sources do not even agree on whether Alexander founded his city before or after he spoke to the oracle at the shrine of Ammon in Siwa, but what all do agree on is that he alone chose the place, and the choice was a spectacularly good one.
Lying on the Mediterranean coast west of the Nile, this was an area that had not been well integrated into the ancient Egyptian states of the Old, Middle, and New Kingdoms. This is not to suggest that the area was completely empty, however. Excavations have shown that a small fishing village called Rhakotis had existed here since the thirteenth century BC, and the value of the anchorage was indeed known to Homer, whether or not he appeared to Alexander in a dream to remind him, as he wrote in the Odyssey:
Now off Egypt,
About as far as a ship can sail in a day
With a good stiff breeze behind her
There is an island called Pharos
It has a good harbour
From which vessels can get out into open sea
When they have taken in water
Homer, Odyssey, book 4
Some evidence of the prehistoric harbor that Homer knew of has even been found off the shores of the island of Pharos. In the early years of the twentieth century Gaston Jondet, the chief engineer of ports and lights in Egypt, noted an extensive series of breakwaters beneath the present sea level which were unmentioned in classical texts. These had formed a Bronze Age harbor at a time when the Egypt of Rameses the Great and Tutankhamen traded extensively with the Minoan world, providing a port free from the choking silt of the delta. But they had already fallen into disuse and disappeared beneath the waves by the time Alexander arrived here. It is apposite, perhaps, that it should be Homer, a Greek source, who first makes mention of this place, for it was a Greek who was about to transform it.
Alexander was born in late July of 356 BC into the royal family of an ascendant Macedonian state. Under his father, King Philip II, the nation of Macedon, to the north of classical Greece, had extended its influence south and east across the Mediterranean, becoming a key player in Greek international politics. Greek culture mattered to Philip, and he ensured that his son received the very best Greek education available; indeed, Alexander’s personal tutor was Aristotle, one of the most influential philosophers in all of Western thought. The tales of Alexander’s promising childhood are legion, from his taming of the supposedly uncontrollable horse Bucephalus to his father’s exhortation that he should conquer a land suitable for his ambition, as Macedon was too small for him. Most of these legends grew up after the events, of course, to help explain the extraordinary rise of the young Macedonian. After the assassination of Philip by his bodyguard Pausanias at a wedding banquet (possibly at the instigation of the new king of Persia, Darius III), Alexander was quickly proclaimed king by the Macedonian army. He was clearly already held in high regard. And so, at just twenty years of age, began the most remarkable military career in history.
If Alexander’s father had been assassinated on Persian orders, Darius III would come to regret the decision. With an army of over forty thousand men Alexander first marched south to consolidate his hold over the city-states of mainland Greece and then crossed over the Hellespont into Asia to confront Darius in person. After defeating a Persian force at the battle of Granicus he stormed down the Ionian seaboard like an avenging angel, “liberating” the wealthy Greek trading ports that lined the coast on the way. He besieged Halicarnassus, then turned inland to the ancient Phrygian capital of Gordium, where, so legend has it, he chose to tackle the problem of “the Gordian Knot.”
The legend goes that at a time when Phrygia found itself without a king, an ancient oracle prophesied that the first man to enter the capital in an oxcart should be their next king. That man was the peasant Gordias, who, in return for his sudden change in fortune, dedicated his cart to the gods, tying its shafts to a post in an elaborate knot. The oracle then further prophesied that whoever could undo the knot would be king of all Asia. It had been a problem that had bothered would-be rulers of the world from that moment on. The knot was allegedly fiendishly complicated, without protruding ends and hence impossible to unpick. But Alexander found a simple solution. He drew his sword and sliced the knot in half, and as the oracle predicted, he did indeed go on to become master of all Asia. That at least is how Alexander’s friends and propagandists told it.
From Gordium he then passed through the Cilician gates—the high pass in the Tarsus Mountains of modern-day Turkey—and into central Anatolia to face the Persian Empire head on. At the battle of Issus in 333 BC, Darius III was defeated and fled the field, leaving his mother, wife, and children to be captured by Alexander. Also among the spoils was the golden casket, belonging to the Persian king, in which he placed his beloved copy of Homer.
Alexander chose not to pursue the fleeing Persian across the Euphrates, but instead continued south, besieging coastal cities as he went. Where he was heading became clear in 332 BC, when he was welcomed into Egypt as the nation’s liberator. Possibly with the connivance of the Persian governor of Egypt and certainly with the active support of the native Egyptian bureaucracy, the country was ceded to him without so much as a skirmish, and Alexander was king of Egypt at the age of twenty-three.
By the time Alexander first set foot on Egyptian soil, that civilization was already some three thousand years old. But this was not the Egypt of Khufu and Rameses. The pyramids of the Old Kingdom were already over two thousand years old, while the magnificence of the New Kingdom courts of Amenhotep III and Tutankhamen had faded and passed a millennium before.
Egypt’s recent history had been crueler. Since 525 BC it had been a subject nation of the Persian Empire and its nominal pharaoh (the Twenty-seventh Dynasty) was in fact the Achaemenid shah, currently Darius III. The proud and ancient nation of Egypt had not taken kindly to Persian rule, and throughout the period links between native Egyptians and Greek merchants had been growing, fostered by their mutual antipathy toward the occupying superpower. Some Egyptian cults had even taken root back in Greece. In 333 BC the Athenians had allowed Egyptian merchants to buy land for a temple to their goddess Isis, wife of the god of the underworld, Osiris. There were also Greek merchants living in Egypt and adopting elements of its religion, particularly the worship of Isis, which in the following centuries would spread across the Mediterranean and, under Roman rule, reach as far as Britain. There were even Greeks in the civil administration, and so, though Alexander was a foreigner, the Egyptians welcomed him with open arms, as a Greek and their nation’s liberator.
That Alexander wanted Egypt as part of his expanding empire was obvious. Despite the fact that so many of her glories were centuries if not millennia in the past, Egypt still retained a highly complex, literate culture with a wealth of esoteric knowledge, especially in astronomy, mathematics, and alchemy—knowledge which Greeks such as Pythagoras and Herodotus had sought out in the recent past. But more important for Alexander, Egypt was still a very wealthy nation with access to gold, slaves and exotic African imports from the south, and rich in grain. The irrigated fields around the Nile were a huge source of food that not only kept Egypt itself fed but also provided a surplus that could be exported for profit or used in military adventures. Then there was Egypt’s position, directly across the Mediterranean from Greece, with a major river navigable far into the south. A pharaonic canal cut between that river and the Red Sea would provide access to the Indian Ocean for a ruler with the ambition to attempt a conquest of India—a ruler with the ambition of an Alexander.
And so it was with these thoughts in mind that Alexander first came to the tiny village of Rhakotis. In the heyday of the Egyptian pharaohs, life had been concentrated on the Nile Valley, and while some New Kingdom rulers had ventured beyond her borders to carve out empires, Egypt was traditionally insular and inward looking. It focused on the Nile Valley, not the Mediterranean, and thus little effort had been spent on developing the northern coast outside the delta. But for Alexander things were different. The Mediterranean, not the Nile, bound his world together, and a port on this coast would provide the quickest way of supplying his army and controlling his empire.
Here then he found a unique location on a dangerous coast. To the south of the site lay Mareotis, a 100-square-mile lake; to the east was the mouth of the Canopic branch of the Nile and the rest of the delta, offering access to Egypt’s wealth and connections on to the Red Sea. To the north, just offshore, stood the island known as Pharos. Aside from the two harbors created by a causeway from Pharos to the mainland, canals could connect the Canopic Nile to the lake and the lake to the sea. In terms of trade it was simply a perfect location. The geographer Strabo, who visited the city some three hundred years after its foundation, also noted another great benefit:
. . . and in addition to the great value of the things brought down from both directions, both into the harbour on the sea and into that on the lake, the salubrity of the air is also worthy of remark. And this likewise results from the fact that the land is washed by water on both sides and because of the timeliness of the Nile’s risings; for the other cities that are situated on lakes have heavy and stifling air in the heats of summer, because the lakes then become marshy along their edges because of the evaporation caused by the sun’s rays, and, accordingly, when so much filth-laden moisture rises, the air inhaled is noisome and starts pestilential diseases, whereas at Alexandria, at the beginning of summer, the Nile, being full, fills the lake also, and leaves no marshy matter to corrupt the rising vapours. At that time, also, the Etesian winds blow from the north and from a vast sea, Alexandrians pass their time most pleasantly in summer.
Strabo, Geography, book 17, chapter 1
This might seem like little more than a pleasant conceit, but finding a healthy location away from the slow-moving and polluted waters of the delta, where disease was rife in the summer, was a masterstroke. The site was cool, clean, and accessible from abroad, and that in Egypt was rare. It must have seemed to be the perfect location for a provincial capital, and so, with the decision made, Alexander moved off again.
There was one further place the Macedonian king had to visit while in Egypt, and this visit would have profound implications both for Alexander and for the dynasty of Greek pharaohs that would soon be established in his city of Alexandria. As he rode through the Western desert toward the shrine of Ammon at Siwa, he could hardly have imagined that he would never return alive to the city he had just founded. He had left behind a capital of sand and flour—just a preliminary sketch—before dashing off once more in his endless, restless pursuit of yet greater achievements.
But what he did next would help secure the future of that sketch and ensure that this city would be his home in death if not in life.
Even today the oasis of Siwa is an extraordinary site. Standing lost between the Qattara Depression and the Great Sand Sea, it lies in one of the most remote and inhospitable parts of the country. Legend has it that when King Cambyses II of Persia first conquered Egypt his entire army of fifty thousand men vanished somewhere in the emptiness of the surrounding desert as they marched in search of the oasis. Under Roman rule its very remoteness made it famous as a place of banishment.
It is only after mile upon mile of dunes and dry rock that the oasis suddenly appears, a great swath of green, filled with a forest of palm trees, over which towers the old fortress of Shali. Here also, in the now nearly abandoned village of Aghurmi, stand the remains of what brought Alexander and perhaps Cambyses to this place—the temple of Ammon.
In the temple was an oracle popular among the Egyptians (although no pharaoh had ever visited the site) and widely respected in the Greek world. The deity worshipped here was clearly Egyptian, as Diodorus Siculus’s description makes clear:
The image of the god is encrusted with emeralds and other precious stones, and answers those who consult the oracle in a quite peculiar fashion. It is carried about upon a golden boat by eighty priests, and these, with the god on their shoulders, go without their own volition wherever the god directs their path. A multitude of girls and women follows them singing paeans as they go and praising the god in a traditional hymn.
Diodorus Siculus, Library of History, book 17, chapter 50
But if the god was worshipped here in a particularly Egyptian form, the spread of the cult across the Mediterranean to Greece, where it was known as the cult of the Libyan Ammon, made this a perfect bridge between Alexander’s Greek roots and an Egypt he needed to rule in a manner Egyptians would accept.
The oracle, we are told, had news for Alexander about his lineage—news that not only would cause ructions in the Greek world but would begin the process of turning Greek conquerors into Egyptian pharaohs. We are told that as Alexander approached the temple the priest welcomed him, calling him “Child of the God.” He then invited him into the adytum—the interior of the temple usually reserved exclusively for the priests. The rest of the king’s entourage had to wait in the courtyard. Just what Alexander asked the oracle in the darkened silence of the temple of Ammon is disputed. According to Plutarch, citing an anonymous source, the king asked two questions:
He inquired whether any one of his father’s murderers had escaped, to which the priest answered that he must not ask such questions, for his father was more than man. Alexander now altered the form of his inquiry and asked whether he had punished all the murderers of Philip: and then he asked another question, about his empire, whether he was fated to conquer all mankind. On receiving as an answer that this would be granted to him and that Philip had been amply avenged, he made splendid presents to the god, and amply rewarded the priests.
Plutarch, Life of Alexander, in Parallel Lives, 27
But even Plutarch is suspicious of this story, though he is happy to repeat it. He and many other ancient authors felt that what passed between Alexander and the oracle was almost certainly kept secret. But what mattered to the Greeks in the king’s party and what would matter to later generations of Egyptians is that from this meeting grew the idea that Alexander was not the son of Philip of Macedon but the son of the god Ammon himself.
The idea that Alexander was a living god was treated with great skepticism by the ancient Greeks, who generally thought only the dead were worthy of deification. Indeed, by the time of Plutarch there was even a story current that the whole idea of Alexander’s immortal ancestry came about through a misunderstanding at Siwa. Plutarch tells us that some believed that the priest who emerged from the temple to greet Alexander mispronounced the Greek “O paidion” (Oh, my child!), and instead called out “O paidios,”which could to a Greek ear sound like “O pai Dios” (Oh, child of the god!).
By the second century AD the author Lucian found the idea of the divine Alexander humorous enough to make fun of him in one of his Dialogues of the Dead (13), in which Alexander discovers in the underworld, somewhat to his surprise, that he is not a god:
DIOGENES: Dear me, Alexander, you dead like the rest of us?
ALEXANDER: As you see, sir; is there anything extraordinary in a mortal’s dying?
DIOGENES: So Ammon lied when he said you were his son; you were Philip’s after all.
ALEXANDER: Apparently; if I had been Ammon’s, I should not have died.
DIOGENES: Strange! There were tales of the same order about Olympias too. A serpent visited her, and was seen in her bed; we were given to understand that that was how you came into the world, and Philip made a mistake when he took you for his.
ALEXANDER: Yes, I was told all that myself; however, I know now that my mother’s and the Ammon stories were all moonshine.
DIOGENES: Their lies were of some practical value to you, though; your Divinity brought a good many people to their knees.
Lucian, Dialogues of the Dead, 13
And in that last line from Diogenes lay Alexander’s genius. While the Greeks could not easily accept that they were ruled by a living god, the Egyptians had kept this central to their beliefs for three thousand years. Herodotus said that the Egyptians were the most religious of all peoples, and their beliefs imbued every element of their society. Egypt was a theocracy where the majority of the large agricultural estates were owned by temples and managed by an elite caste of priests whose positions were often hereditary. The power built up by these institutions had grown century by century as the god-kings of the three ancient Egyptian kingdoms had granted them more and more land and rights. Between the pharaoh and the temples not only was the economy organized, but, in Egyptian eyes, the relationship between humans and gods was also managed. The ruler of Egypt was seen as Horus, the son of the god Osiris and the mediator between the worlds of the everyday and the divine. Through his interaction with the temples and his performance of the kingly rites in those temples, a state of harmony (maat) was maintained in the world—the stars would continue to circle in the heavens, the Nile would flood once a year, and so life in Egypt would go on as it had for thousands of years.
While the Greeks sneered at men who called themselves gods, the Egyptians actively required it of their rulers, so it served Alexander well to be considered divine in their eyes. Whether he believed it to be true himself is another and perhaps unknowable matter.
God or not, the oracle of Ammon inspired Alexander to keep up his relentless pace of conquest. Leaving Egypt, he finally and comprehensively defeated the Persians at the battle of Gaugamela before striking out east, through Medea, Parthia, and Scythia, on through Afghanistan and into India. His fleet crossed the Indian Ocean, from west to east and then back again—restless, relentless, and as unstoppable as the ever-shifting mind that drove it onward.
But he was chasing a desert mirage. By the time he was thirty-two years old his vast empire was already tottering, weighed down by self-interest and riven with factional infighting. As he returned to Babylon, omens of his impending death began to appear. Just outside the city a Chaldean astronomer appeared before him and warned him that entering the city (or in some versions of the story, entering the city from the east) would bring about his death. Alexander lived in a world of omens and oracles, and the prophecies of the celestial seers of Babylon, the “writers of the Book of Heaven,” were not lightly cast aside. Their Astronomical Diaries had proved so accurate that Alexander had ordered them translated into Greek and sent to his old tutor Aristotle for inspection. This led within a year to the complete reform of the Greek calendar. So powerful, so widely believed, were the prophecies of these men that they could easily become self-fulfilling. Their predictions of Darius’s doom may have helped to unsettle his army and hence put Alexander on the Persian throne in the first place. Now those prophecies were aimed against Alexander himself.
Alexander did, however, finally enter the city and in doing so embarked on the last days of his life, just as the astronomers had predicted. In these final moments legends begin to crowd in even more thickly around the man. The ancient sources now tell a strange tale. According to Arrian, Alexander went to inspect his soldiers, and while he was away from the throne room an escaped convict broke in, put on the insignia of the king, and sat on his throne. When discovered and asked why he was doing this he made no reply (or according to Plutarch he claimed he had been released by the supreme god). Alexander was troubled and consulted the wise men in Babylon, who advised that the man should be put to death so that the bad luck this foretold might fall on his shoulders and not the king’s. Recent research suggests, however, that this peculiar legend may be the surviving echo of an eyewitness account of an ancient Babylonian ritual which neither Alexander nor later classical writers understood. When Babylonian astronomers predicted inauspicious times it was the custom for the priests to release a convict and place him on the throne as a “substitute king” in place of the real ruler. Then, any bad luck that befell the kingdom during this ominous time would fall on the shoulders of the criminal, not the king and hence the state. When the danger passed, the criminal would be executed, taking his ill fortune to the grave with him.
This was then perhaps the scene that Alexander stumbled upon, but its resolution did not ease his foreboding. He now fell into a dark mood, mistrustful of his friends and fearful for his future. Plutarch says that the Babylonian palace soon filled with soothsayers and sacrifices and that the slightest strange thing would be taken by Alexander as an omen, and a bad omen at that. And he had every right to worry.
Alexander’s final illness came on during a drinking party, and his decline was then rapid. Diodorus Siculus takes up the story:
There he drank much unmixed wine in commemoration of the death of Heracles, and finally, filling a huge beaker, downed it at a gulp. Instantly he shrieked aloud as if smitten by a violent blow and was conducted by his friends, who led him by the hand back to his apartments. His chamberlains put him to bed and attended him closely, but the pain increased and the physicians were summoned. No one was able to do anything helpful and Alexander continued in great discomfort and acute suffering.
Diodorus Siculus, Library of History, book 17, chapter 117
He died in the palace of Nebuchadnezzar II on the afternoon of June 10, 323 BC. He was thirty-two years old. The cause of Alexander’s death has been disputed since the moment he breathed his last, and a full investigation is outside the scope of this book. Some ancient authors maintain he died of an illness, perhaps malaria or typhoid; others report that he was poisoned, perhaps with belladonna, since Plutarch states that he was unable to speak shortly before the end, and paralysis of the vocal cords is a symptom of poisoning with deadly nightshade. He further suggests, as does Arrian, that some thought the poisoning to have been carried out at the instigation of Aristotle, who feared that the king’s imprisonment of the chronicler Callisthenes for complaining about the king’s growing arrogance signaled that Alexander’s success had made him uncontrollable. In this version of events Aristotle procured a poison which was conveyed to Alexander’s court in the hoof of a mule. These possibilities have since been elaborately embroidered by centuries of storytellers until the astonishing tale of Alexander’s death has become filled with weeping horses, total eclipses, and speaking birds.
What did matter, regardless of the cause of his death, was that the largest empire on earth was now effectively leaderless, and there was a limited amount of time in which the king’s surviving family and generals could make their pitch for part or all of his inheritance. Exactly who should now rule in his place was not clear. Alexander had a half brother, Philip III Arrhidaeus, who was the son of Philip II and Philinna of Larissa, but he seems to have been simpleminded and incapable of taking on sole rule of so great an empire in anything more than name. Despite this he was the choice of the army in Babylon and hence nominally became Alexander’s heir. A few months after Alexander’s death his Bactrian wife, Roxana, gave birth to his son, who was immediately declared king and joined his uncle on the throne as Alexander IV of Macedon. So it came to pass that the heirs of the greatest ruler of the ancient world were a fool and a baby.
The vast empire he had held together with little more than the power of his own will almost immediately began to disintegrate. Infighting erupted among Alexander’s once loyal generals as each grasped feverishly for a piece of his crumbling inheritance. But there was little concrete to grab. For all his military brilliance, Alexander’s attempts at governing his empire had bred hostility and dissent. In Persia his willingness to take on Persian customs, both in government and in dress, might have helped him to hold on to those lands, as his adoption of a pharaonic style of government in Egypt ensured his popularity there, but both practices were highly distasteful to other Macedonians. They were the conquerors, and few saw why they shouldn’t rule the empire they had won in a Macedonian way. Their arrogance would ensure the fragmentation of Alexander’s world.
Only one man had realized the true nature of Alexander’s legacy—his childhood friend, confidant, and senior general, Ptolemy. He had been with Alexander from the start, and even accompanied him to the oracle of Ammon at Siwa. He was also present in Babylon when Alexander died, and a few days after the death called together the two other generals closest to Alexander. His view was that there was little hope in trying to maintain a leaderless single empire spanning Asia, North Africa, the Middle East, and the eastern Mediterranean. Better to divide it up into its three principal constituent parts, which each one of them could rule. He suggested they form a ruling council which would meet regularly to keep affairs on an even keel.
This extraordinarily farsighted proposal anticipated the inevitable frictions between what were at that moment the three most powerful people in the world, and offered a solution to the problem. But both the other generals dreamed of succeeding Alexander as sole supreme emperor. They rejected Ptolemy’s proposal outright, thereby setting the stage for the centuries of interfactional warfare which would follow. Ptolemy, realizing full well that it was now each man for himself, left immediately for Egypt, the richest and most self-contained part of Alexander’s empire.
Meanwhile, Alexander’s body, already taking on the attributes of divinity, was prepared for travel, as Curtius Rufus recounts (although he claims that he for one does not believe the story):
Although the king’s body had lain in the coffin for 6 days in scorching heat, there was no sign of decay when the Egyptians and Chaldeans came to embalm it. A golden sarcophagus was filled with perfumes, and on Alexander’s head was placed the insignia of his rank.
Quintus Curtius Rufus, Alexander
the Great, book 10, chapter 10
Diodorus adds that after the embalmers had made the body sweet-smelling and incorruptible with the embalming materials of the region—frankincense, myrrh, beeswax, and honey—the whole body was wrapped in linen and sealed in exquisitely beaten gold sheets, so finely figured to his form that his features were still recognizable through them.
It was widely assumed that his corpse would be returned home to his birthplace—Macedon, in northern Greece. But Ptolemy realized that this was no ordinary body. Alexander, if not a god himself, had certainly seemed to have been touched by the gods, and the magical aura that surrounded him in life might also remain in death, in much the way that the bones of saints held a remarkable power over living minds in the Middle Ages. Other than an empire which was already tottering on the brink of civil war, the most valuable thing of Alexander’s, for any successor, was not his lands or money or fame, but his body—the ultimate icon of the ultimate ruler. Here was an object whose value would only grow as the years passed and the myths evolved. This realization had not been lost on Alexander’s friends even during his lifetime, when, according to a legend retold by Aelian, Alexander’s favorite soothsayer, Aristander, had predicted “that the country in which his body was buried would be the most prosperous in the world” (Aelian, Varia Historia, 12.64).
Ptolemy knew what he had to do. He had to take for himself a part of Alexander’s empire he could rule and defend alone. And the jewel he would set in that new nation’s crown was the gold-clad body of Alexander himself.