Perdiccas, Ptolemy, and Alexander’s Corpse

AT THE BABYLON conference, everyone pretended that the settlement they put in place would bring peace and stability to Alexander’s empire, once a few rebellions had been put down and some trouble spots pacified. But after three years of tension, intrigue, and civil war, another conference and an entirely new dispensation would be needed. Only the pretence would be the same.

Cracks began immediately to appear in the edifice. It had been agreed in Babylon that Eumenes would take the satrapy of Cappadocia, once Leonnatus and Antigonus had subdued it for him. Much of the region was still in the hands of one of the last Persian holdouts, who had never fully acknowledged Macedonian dominion. But Leonnatus, who had been willing to help Eumenes, had died in Greece, and his forces had been lost to Antipater and Craterus; and Antigonus simply refused to help. Apart from resentment of Perdiccas’s high-handed manner, Antigonus may not have relished his chances on his own against the formidable enemy forces in Cappadocia. At any rate, it is clear that sides were already forming, and that Antigonus would not be taking Perdiccas’s part. The weakness of Perdiccas’s plan to divide and conquer was that some of those he divided might unite against him.

In the spring of 322 Perdiccas himself left Babylon at the head of a substantial army, with all the trappings of the royal court, and traveled to Asia Minor, arriving in the early summer. Since Leonnatus could not and Antigonus would not help Eumenes, he would do the job himself; in any case, he needed a show of force in Asia Minor, to counteract the buildup of troops in Europe. His approach was, as we have already seen, the trigger for Craterus to leave Cilicia and join Antipater in Greece.

Perdiccas and the royal army invaded Cappadocia in the summer. It took two battles, but the Macedonians were finally victorious. The rebel Persian ruler was captured and suffered mutilation and impalement, while his entire family was annihilated. This was the usual penalty for rebels against the Persian throne,1 which was now represented by Perdiccas, but following his treatment of Meleager’s gang and the Bactrian rebels, the act highlighted Perdiccas’s cruelty and ruthlessness. His enemies took note.

Eumenes took over the administrative reins in Cappadocia, but there was still plenty of work to be done in the area, and Perdiccas stayed near at hand. First, having opened up the Royal Road by conquering Cappadocia, he did the same for the main southern artery to Syria, which ran through arid Lycaonia, a land more of nomads than settlers. It was another brutal campaign, in which the inhabitants of one town preferred mass suicide to mass execution. Then he moved south to winter quarters in Cilicia, and early the next year continued the work of pacification in eastern Pisidia, another region that Alexander had bypassed. But Armenia remained troubled: the remnants of the rebel Cappadocian army rallied there, and Neoptolemus, the general Perdiccas had sent to the province, began behaving more like a satrap than a general. He was, after all, a proud scion of the Molossian royal house. Perdiccas instructed Eumenes to help Neoptolemus pacify Armenia, and at the same time to check his ambitions. There was no reason for him to doubt the wisdom of such a move, but within a year the personal animosity between his two lieutenants would bear bitter fruit. Nevertheless, Perdiccas could be pleased with his work; by the summer of 321, Asia Minor was a tidier bundle than it had been before.

The tensions between the major players, however, were only getting worse. Perdiccas’s breach with Antipater and Craterus was now almost irreparable, with only the prospect of his marriage to Nicaea to redeem the situation. And over the past few months news had been arriving of disturbing events in Egypt. Ptolemy had been instructed to retain the former satrap, Cleomenes, as his second-in-command, but instead he had him killed, on the charge of embezzlement, while presenting the killing to his new subjects as the removal of a harsh and hated administrator. This was sheer propaganda, since Ptolemy kept all the money Cleomenes had raised, and would prove to be just as exploitative of Egypt’s resources. More to the point were his suspicions that Cleomenes had been in touch with Perdiccas, hoping to retain Egypt for himself, or at any rate that he was “a friend of Perdiccas and therefore no friend of his.”2

Moreover, in 322 Ptolemy also annexed the five cities of Cyrenaica (northeast Libya, in modern terms) as a province of Egypt, in order to control the caravan trade from the interior of Africa, and especially the export of silphium, a plant (now extinct), unique to the region, that was widely used around the Mediterranean for culinary and medicinal purposes, especially contraception. The constitution of the cities was changed and a pro-Ptolemaic oligarchy put in place, supported by garrisons and a military governor.3 This irritated Perdiccas. In the first place, it went against his abandonment of Alexander’s “Last Plans” and his general focus on consolidation rather than expansion. In the second place, Ptolemy did not ask anyone’s permission before attacking his neighbors; he just went ahead and did it, on the pretext that he had been invited by the oligarchic faction of the cities. Satraps were expected to protect their borders, and if pushed Ptolemy would have argued that that was all he was doing, but still, it rather looked as though he was flexing his muscles, as an equal rather than a subordinate of Perdiccas.


Olympias was still nervous about Antipater. Once he had finished settling affairs in southern Greece, he was bound to punish her for her support of the Greek rebellion. She came up with a bold ploy. Knowing that Nicaea was betrothed to Perdiccas and was even now on her way to Pisidia for the wedding, she simultaneously sent Cleopatra to Sardis, and wrote to Eumenes suggesting that Perdiccas might like to marry her daughter instead. She needed Perdiccas to be Antipater’s enemy, not his son-in-law. She needed Antipater to be distracted by war in Asia and unable to turn his attention to Epirus. The plan worked perfectly.

Olympias’s overall intention, now and in the following years, was to see her grandson Alexander IV gain the Macedonian throne, even though the chances of his attaining his majority must have appeared very bleak. Offering Cleopatra to Perdiccas was a major plank in the scheme. She wanted to see Perdiccas arrive in Macedon married to Alexander’s sister, welcomed by Alexander’s mother, with two kings and Alexander’s corpse in his train, and at the head of the army with which Alexander had conquered the east. Under such circumstances, Antipater would have had no future. Barring unforeseeable accidents, Perdiccas would have been the sole ruler of the empire until Alexander IV came of age, with Olympias by his side.

Perdiccas was tempted: marriage to Cleopatra would accelerate the fulfillment of his own wishes. While his brother Alcetas insisted on the prudence of marrying Nicaea, Eumenes pointed out the advantages of Cleopatra. The marriage to Nicaea went ahead, with due ceremony and courtesy, but before long Perdiccas sent Eumenes to Cleopatra in Sardis with gifts and an offer of marriage. He seemed prepared to put aside his new bride almost immediately. He obviously felt full of confidence and well able to handle all his rivals. There is no other explanation for his behavior. His marriage to Nicaea was the one chance for peace between himself and Antipater. He cannot have thought that he could be married to both Nicaea and Cleopatra: they were contradictory strategies. Marriage to Nicaea would make him Antipater’s equal; marriage to Cleopatra would be a springboard to the throne or regency of Macedon. He would rule not only Asia but Europe as well, all of Alexander’s empire. Perdiccas was at last declaring his hand, as if it had not been obvious from the start. Alcetas might argue that his peaceful return to Pella depended on a rapprochement with Antipater, and that Eumenes’ course meant war, but Perdiccas no longer cared, or was prepared to take the risk.

A puzzling incident, however, suggests that he had not secured the full loyalty of his army. Two more formidable Macedonian women were involved. Cynnane was the half sister of Alexander the Great and the widow of Amyntas, one of the possible rivals who had been assassinated on Alexander’s orders. Cynnane had fallen out with Antipater, and decided to take herself and her daughter off to Perdiccas in Asia Minor. Naturally, Antipater did not want to see Perdiccas’s court enhanced by yet another member of the royal family, and he tried, but failed, to use force of arms to stop Cynnane leaving.

So Cynnane arrived in Asia Minor along with her daughter Adea and a strong escort. So far from welcoming her, Perdiccas sent Alcetas to try to dissuade her. Whenever precisely the incident took place—it was not long after his marriage to Nicaea—he must still have been concerned not to anger Antipater. If he already had designs on Cleopatra, he was not yet ready to make them public. But Cynnane’s bodyguards resisted Alcetas, and in the fracas Cynnane was killed.4

Perdiccas’s Macedonian troops, still loyal to the Argead house, were outraged by the murder and rioted. Cynnane had intended for Adea to marry Philip III, and the only way Perdiccas could calm things down was by letting the marriage go ahead. The situation must have been truly desperate for him to agree. He knew that, even though still a teenager, Adea (who took the name Eurydice on her marriage) was not to be trifled with. Both she and her mother had been trained in the arts of war. This union of “an Amazon and an idiot”5 was sure to undermine Perdiccas’s control of the king, but at least he had restored order, for a while, among his troops.

In the meantime, his marriage to Nicaea afforded the world a breathing space from war. But it proved to be brief. In the autumn of 321, back in Sardis after his campaigns, Perdiccas summoned Antigonus, to question him about his failure to support Eumenes in Cappadocia. But Perdiccas had tactlessly insulted Menander, the satrap of Lydia, the capital city of which was Sardis. Cleopatra was used to wielding power: she had ruled Molossia as queen for a number of years after the death of her husband. In order to flatter her, Perdiccas had put her in charge of the province, and demoted Menander to be her second-in-command, responsible for the military but not for the administration.

Menander explained to Antigonus that Perdiccas’s and Antipater’s rapprochement was not going to last—that Perdiccas had accepted the inevitability of war and was actively courting Cleopatra. Antigonus had already decided that, if it came to war, he would not side with Perdiccas. He therefore ignored Perdiccas’s summons (which would probably have led to his death) and fled to Greece instead, abandoning his satrapy. He found Antipater and Craterus in the middle of their Aetolian campaign.

At the news that Antigonus brought, about the death of Cynnane and Perdiccas’s designs on Cleopatra, they immediately came to terms with the Aetolians and returned to Macedon to prepare for war with Perdiccas. The first thing they did was write to Ptolemy, to see where he stood. No doubt the reply they received was encouraging. They would be able to force Perdiccas to fight on two fronts. But many subsequent Macedonian kings would regret that the Aetolians had not been subdued once and for all; their inveterate hostility, combined with their dominance of central Greece, was a perennial problem.


Two factions, then, had emerged, both well equipped militarily. Perdiccas and his staff had the kings and all the resources of the royal treasuries of Asia; on the other side were Antipater and Craterus, along with their allies. Neither Antipater nor Craterus had been present at the Babylon conferences, and both felt that their dignity had not been properly acknowledged. Besides, it seemed that Perdiccas wanted war—the war that Olympias had hinted at when she offered Cleopatra to him. Now it was only a question of what would trigger it.

After Alexander the Great’s death, a Macedonian notable called Arrhidaeus had been put in charge of preparing the funeral cortège. The body was in Babylon, due to be transported to Macedon. Ptolemy had other plans, however, and he had already seeded the idea that Alexander had wanted to be buried at the oasis of Siwah, in remote northwestern Egypt (about 450 kilometers, or 280 miles, southwest of Alexandria). This was the location of an oracle of Zeus Ammon that Alexander felt had confirmed that his father was Zeus.6

It had taken Arrhidaeus almost two years to prepare the casket and the catafalque, which was as elaborate and expensive as one might expect—and far more gaudy. Within a golden coffin, the embalmed body rested on precious spices, and a pall of gold-embroidered purple covered the casket. Around the coffin a miniature golden temple had been built, whose entrance was guarded by golden lions. Ionic columns, twined with relief sculptures of climbing plants, supported a barrel-vaulted roof of gold scales set with jewels; the roof was topped with a golden olive wreath. At each corner of the roof stood a golden Victory holding a battle trophy. The cornice of the miniature temple was embossed with ibex heads from which hung, on each side, a multicolored garland, looped through gold rings. From the tasseled ends of the garlands hung bells, which tinkled as the catafalque moved. On each side of the temple, under the cornice, were friezes. One showed Alexander in a stately chariot with a scepter in his hand, surrounded by Macedonian and Persian bodyguards; another showed a procession of Indian war elephants; the third portrayed the Macedonian cavalry in battle array, and the fourth a fleet of ships. The open spaces between the columns were hung with golden nets to shade the casket but allow spectators a glimpse inside. The catafalque was pulled by sixty-four mules, each with a gilded headpiece, a golden bell on either cheek, and a collar set with gems.7

So in the late spring of 321 Alexander’s corpse began its leisurely, glittering, tinkling journey from Babylon, under the command of Arrhidaeus. A considerable body of cavalry supplied by Perdiccas escorted it, and workmen were sent ahead to repair the roads as necessary, though the carriage was fitted with a new invention: shock absorbers.8 Thousands lined the route to witness the temple on wheels, the temple of a god. When the cortège reached southern Syria in July, it was met by a troop of Ptolemy’s soldiers, who drove off Perdiccas’s escort and hijacked the corpse. Ptolemy had decided that Egypt was to be the final resting place of Alexander’s body. He understood how important the issue of legitimacy would be to him and his fellow Successors. Whoever buried the dead king made himself, by that very act, the legitimate successor of the king. Besides, one of the aristocrats present at the Babylon conferences is said to have prophesied that “the land that received the corpse would remain for ever blessed and unravaged.”9

The theft of the body was more or less an act of war. On top of Ptolemy’s appropriation of the Egyptian treasury (the contents of which, strictly speaking, belonged to the kings, and were therefore Perdiccas’s by right of regency) and annexation of Cyrene, it was extremely provocative. Of course, Perdiccas (still in Pisidia at the time) sent an army to try to recover the body, but it was too late. The theft of the corpse made Ptolemy Perdiccas’s prime target; when war broke out, he would attack Egypt first.

Ptolemy probably never intended the corpse to rest in remote Siwah. He wanted it by his side. Alexandria, the projected capital of Egypt, was still a vast building site, and so Ptolemy kept the body first in the old capital of Memphis and moved it some years later, when the palace compound at Alexandria was ready. He celebrated the arrival of the body in Memphis with games, and instigated a cult of Alexander as founder of Alexandria. He also began at much the same time to issue coins with Alexander’s head, the first of the Successors to do so.

When the body eventually moved to Alexandria, a new national cult was initiated of the deified Alexander. Close to the palace he constructed a kind of tomb-cum-shrine—a most un-Macedonian miscegenation, an invention of Ptolemy’s to emphasize the divine blessing his rule was receiving. Henceforth Alexandria, not Memphis, would be not only Ptolemy’s capital, but also implicitly the center of the empire Alexander had created.

In due course of time, Alexandria became famous for four prominent statues of Alexander, as well as a number of paintings: the cult statue; an equestrian statue of Alexander as founder; a nude (the most common form of statue for Hellenistic kings); and an ensemble, housed in the sanctuary of Fortune, showing Alexander being crowned by Earth, who was in turn being crowned by Fortune, who was flanked by two statues of Victory.10 The Greek and Macedonian communities of Alexandria were not to forget that the Ptolemies were Alexander’s heirs. Fortune had blessed Alexander, and now Alexander’s Fortune blessed the Ptolemies. Their possession of the body let the world know that they and Alexander were inseparable.


Each of the Successors exploited the image and memory of Alexander to legitimate his bid for power. Ptolemy’s hijacking of the corpse and subsequent adornment of Alexander’s city with statues of its dead founder were simply the most blatant and outrageous.11 Perdiccas, as we have seen, preferred not to manage the Babylon conferences in his own name, but in the presence of Alexander’s throne. Before long, we will find Eumenes doing much the same, in response, he said, to instructions received from Alexander himself in a dream. Seleucus too claimed that Alexander had appeared to him in a dream and predicted future greatness. Just as it was well known that Olympias claimed to have conceived Alexander by Zeus, so Seleucus let it be known that his true father was Apollo.12

All the Successors did their best to ally themselves as closely as possible with members of the Argead house; all of them, if they could, made sure that everyone knew how important a role they had played in the eastern campaigns. Ptolemy even wrote an account of the campaigns, which emphasized his own role, of course,13 and he or someone in his court later spread the story that he was actually an illegitimate child of Philip II, and so Alexander’s half brother. Craterus marked the end of the Lamian War with a large monument at Delphi, sculpted by the best artists of the day, that showed him saving Alexander’s life during a hunt, and he dressed in Alexander’s style. Leonnatus too dressed and wore his hair like Alexander. Cassander commissioned a huge picture showing Alexander and Darius in battle, which may have been the original of the famous Alexander Mosaic in the Naples Archaeological Museum. Alcetas’s tomb was adorned with Alexander motifs.14 All those who came to establish kingdoms founded cities bearing Alexander’s name and minted coins with Alexander’s head in the place of divinity (the obverse, or “heads” side), to announce to their subjects and to the world at large their allegiance to his memory and protection by his ghost. When they portrayed themselves on their coins, there were still significant echoes of Alexander—his distinctive clean-shaven face, the tilt of his head, the longer hair that helped to mark him out as superhuman.

It is easy to see the motive behind these moves: to win the support of actual or potential subjects. In much the same way, American presidential candidates from time to time subtly model themselves on the talismanic John F. Kennedy or Ronald Reagan. Alexander was talismanic in the first instance simply because of the enormous pride that everyone involved felt at having been associated with a man who had achieved so much. The particular magic of his name and image was due to the fact that, for his achievements, he was recognized after his death as a god. The Successors did not invent the use of propaganda, but they made more extensive use of it than anyone in western history had before. The evocation of Alexander’s spirit was an important element.15


Another aspect of Alexander’s postmortem influence was less subtle. It did not stem so much from what one might call his “ghost”—all the ways in which he was evoked as an archetype (a practice that continued for centuries among holders of power in Rome and Byzantium)—but was a consequence of the changes he brought about in the world. One of the most striking aspects of the Hellenistic period, by comparison with what came earlier, is its focus on the human individual. Social historians agree with historians of philosophy, art, and literature that this phenomenon is characteristic of the age. Quite why it happened, however, is less commonly observed. It was a consequence of the era of absolute rulership that was ushered in by Philip II’s conquest of Greece and confirmed by Alexander’s conquest of the east and incorporation of all the Greek poleis (cities) of Asia Minor into his empire.

Strange though it may seem, a citizen of a Greek polis of the Classical period—the period that Alexander’s conquests brought to an end—would have struggled to understand the value of individualism. We use the term to describe part of a spectrum of political possibility, ranging from absolute individualism (or anarchy) at one end to absolute collectivism (communism, perhaps) at the other. We think of ourselves as individuals by contrast with the soulless, faceless apparatus of state control. But the Classical Greek polis was not soulless and faceless; it was animated by and wore the faces of each generation of its citizens.

The most accurate, but somewhat awkward, translation of the ancient Greek word polis is “citizen-state,” because the citizens of a polis were, by direct participation, responsible for the running of the state. And this was true whatever the state’s constitution; in a democracy such as Athens more men were involved in the running of the state than in an oligarchy like Sparta, but in both cases, and in all intermediate cases, citizens were by definition those who ran the state. It was just that there were more enfranchised citizens in Athens than there were in Sparta. There was no power set over the citizens that one could call “the state”; the citizens were the state. By directing citizens’ energies toward the good of the state, the system allowed poleis to flourish, but the price was a higher degree of collectivism than most of us would find acceptable today.16 By contrast, we consider ourselves free the more we are able to avoid or ignore the state apparatus and remain within our private lives. A citizen of a Classical Greek polis had a far more restricted sense of privacy. Almost everything he did, even fathering sons and worshipping gods, was done for the good of the state—that is, for the good of his fellow citizens.

The Macedonian empire, however, changed the rules. Although poleis retained a great deal of their vitality, the inescapable fact was that they had become greater or lesser cogs in a larger system. Cities were still ruled by democracies or oligarchies made up of their own citizens—to that extent nothing had changed—but these local administrations had relatively little power. All major foreign-policy decisions were out of their hands, for instance. And a great deal of the apparently political maneuverings of the cities were merely “ceremonial and repetitive.”17 They still clung to the ideal of autonomy, and some cities tried to regain their freedom by armed rebellion, but as the years passed and successive rebellions were crushed, the ideal came to be seen as no longer feasible. A pancake model, in which all citizens of a polis were theoretically equal, was inevitably replaced by a pyramidal model, with kings at the top and local magnates ruling the civic roosts.

The relative disempowerment of citizens as political agents made it possible for them to see themselves, to a greater extent, as individuals, rather than just as contributors to the greater good. Of course, people had chosen not to play a part in the public life of their cities before—they were known as idiimagetai, the remote origin of our word “idiot”—but as the Hellenistic period progressed, fewer citizens played a significant part in the political life of the city and larger numbers gained more of a private life, and hence the context within which the value of the individual might be recognized.

It is not surprising, then, that the ultimate idiimagetai, Cynic philosophers, flourished in the period. Believing that human happiness lay in shedding conventions and possessions, they lived as tramps and preached asceticism as the road to moral integrity. As wandering beggar preachers, they could be found all over the empire, an integral part of the mobility of the period. There was a long tradition of Greek praise of poverty, but the first true Cynics began to appear in the middle of the fourth century; the most famous of them, Diogenes of Sinope (who was said to live in a large jar), was admired by Alexander the Great.18 Crates of Thebes, contemporary with the Successors, wrote of a Cynic utopia, where there was no need for work or politics because the soil itself produced all that was necessary for a simple life.19 The first Epicureans were scarcely less “idiotic,” since they lived apart from society in a commune, and Epicurus recommended avoiding the hurly-burly of public life as detrimental to the goal of inner tranquility.20

The most popular philosophers of the period were precisely those who appealed to the new sense of individual worth. The same goes for religion, too: there was a surge of interest in the mystery cults. These were not new; they had been around for centuries. But larger numbers than ever before turned to them, because initiation into these cults, a profoundly emotional experience, was supposed to bring individual salvation. By the same token, small-scale, more personal forms of worship flourished in increasing numbers alongside the great civic cults.

In terms of factual history, scholars are justified in looking back and finding a pretty clean break between the Classical and Hellenistic periods, marked by Alexander’s conquest of the east and the Successors’ struggles. But it would be a distortion to try to find the same kind of break in literature or art or religion or philosophy. There was no sudden revolution; we are talking about a trend that became markedly more prominent in the Hellenistic period.

The trend is as apparent in art as in philosophy and religion. Sculptors earlier in the fourth century had already begun to lose interest in representing only famous men or in portraying them merely as bearers of civic virtues, but this trend rapidly accelerated. Its most striking fruit lay in portraiture, where artists—catering now for the private market that developed quite early in the Hellenistic period—soon excelled at expressing their subjects’ characters and feelings, and found ordinary people of interest for their individuality. Every such portrait is a minibiography, and it is not surprising that the literary genre of biography also gained momentum in this period. This focus on the accurate depiction of individuals is modern enough to invite the thought that the hundred years from the middle of the fourth century to the middle of the third was the period when art as we understand it was born.

Portraiture shaded into more baroque forms of expression. Having discovered the beauty of the particular, artists also became fascinated by more outré experiences and states of consciousness, such as fear, sexual arousal, and drunkenness. Statues large and small struck theatrical poses expressive of emotional intensity. An epigram of Posidippus of Pella (first half of the third century BCE) explicitly draws a parallel between sculpture and the poems of Philitas of Cos, the teacher of Ptolemy II, on the grounds that both depict character with equal precision.21 Commemorative epigrams, a genre of poetry perfected in the Hellenistic period, focused poignantly on ordinary folk and their sentiments:

All Nicomache’s favorite things, her trinkets and her Sapphic
   conversations with other girls beside the shuttle at dawn,
fate took away prematurely. The city of the Argives
   cried aloud in lament for that poor maiden,
a young shoot reared in Hera’s arms. Cold, alas, remain
   the beds of the youths who courted her.22

Epigrammatists also used the form to express the same kinds of emotions as are found on sculptures. In this poem, Asclepiades of Samos (late fourth century) addresses the Erotes (gods of love) as his personified lust:

I’m not yet twenty-two and I’m sick of living. Erotes,
   why this mistreatment? Why do you burn me?
For if I die, what will you do then? Clearly, Erotes,
   you’ll go on heedlessly playing dice as before.23

The emphasis on ordinary people and ordinary emotions stands in striking contrast with the grandeur typical of Greek poetry, painting, and sculpture of earlier eras. It is hard to conceive that classical artists would have dedicated their skills to portraying social inferiors such as laborers and slaves, women and children, and even animals; but all of these subjects feature prominently in the early and later Hellenistic periods. It is equally hard to imagine that Jason, the heroic collector of the Golden Fleece, could have been portrayed as he was in the often tongue-in-cheek Argonautica of Apollonius of Rhodes (born ca. 295)—not as a mighty warrior, but as a team builder. Both heroes and gods tend to become reduced in Hellenistic poetry to the level of ordinary human individuals.

A stronger sense of the worth of the individual had social repercussions as well. It led, above all, to a less repressive regime for women. As reflected in the light comedies of Menander (342–291), men were exploring the possibility of marrying for love, not just for practical reasons. An appreciation of wives as individuals, rather than merely as bearers and rearers of the next generation of citizens, led to a greater appreciation of women in general as at least marginally more rational than they had previously been supposed or allowed to be. And so schools began to cater for the education of girls as well as boys, and we begin to meet more female writers.

The poems of Theocritus (first half of the third century BCE) and Herodas (a decade or two later), both of whom lived and worked in Ptolemaic Alexandria, include charming depictions of everyday life. They show women attending a festival, setting up a commemorative plaque in a temple, pushing their way through crowded streets, shopping, visiting friends—in short, living ordinary lives that were less restricted to the home. The goods that accompanied dead women in their graves began to be more nearly equal in value and kind to those found in male graves, suggesting greater equality.24 In due course of time, we find women being allowed privileges that would have been unthinkable in the Classical period, such as being benefactors of their cities in their own names, holding public office, and being signatories of their own marriage contracts (which had previously been contracts between her husband and her father or guardian).25 This is not to say that most women did not still live confined lives, in legal dependency on the male head of the household. But there could be exceptions, and there was overall improvement.

Every government has to find a balance between the demands of individual citizens and the demands of the state as a whole, for the greatest good of the greatest number. Otherwise individuals might express their sense of their own worth in ways that are neither attractive nor constructive. The Successors were untrammeled by any state apparatus, because they were the state apparatus. The Greeks had a word, pleonexia, which meant precisely “wanting more than one’s share” or “self-seeking.” In the Classical period, this individualist form of greed was invariably regarded as a particularly destructive and antisocial vice, and it was expected that the gods would punish it or that it would arouse fierce opposition from other humans. The historian Thucydides, for example, thought that Athenian overreaching was one of the main reasons that they were defeated in the Peloponnesian War.26 The Successors trampled on such views. For them, and for all the Hellenistic kings who came after them, greed was good. Individualism and egoism are close cousins.

If you find an error or have any questions, please email us at Thank you!