The slow-motion execution of Alexander the Great’s family required one or two more years to complete. Once the death of the young Alexander was known for certain, two surviving members of his family, both long sidelined from the succession struggle, suddenly came into prominence once again. It was clear now that they preserved the last, slim hopes of the survival of the Argead house.

The boy named Heracles, fathered by Alexander the Great perhaps a decade before his death but never acknowledged by him, had grown up untouched by politics. He lived a quiet life with his mother, the half-Persian, half-Greek noblewoman Barsine, in the city of Pergamon. Only once had he been mentioned as a possible heir to the throne, in Babylon on the day after Alexander’s death, and that suggestion had been quickly dismissed. But as Alexander’s only living descendant, he could not have stayed out of the power struggle forever. It was only a matter of time before one of the generals used him to advance his cause. As luck would have it, the first to do so was the one least apt to succeed, the hapless former regent Polyperchon.

Polyperchon had survived the defeat of his coalition partners, Olympias and Aristonous, and had gone to Asia to join with Antigonus One-eye. In 309 or 308, Polyperchon, now past seventy, made one final bid to knock his old enemy Cassander out of power in Macedon. He summoned Heracles, then in his late teens, from the seclusion of Pergamon and brought him to Europe, after writing ahead to his former allies to revive the royalist cause. They lined up an army of more than twenty thousand in Europe to await Heracles’ arrival.

The power of the Argead name was still strong in Macedonia, and Cassander had reason to be concerned. He took his own forces to meet Polyperchon’s on Macedonia’s borders, and there, as the armies prepared for battle, he offered a bargain to his enemy: if Polyperchon would murder Heracles, Cassander promised to make him a firm ally and bestow high honors and office upon him. Polyperchon accepted the deal.

Plutarch records a chilling account of the assassination, though there is no way to gauge its veracity. Polyperchon invited Heracles to a dinner party, an ominous move on the eve of a battle. Heracles was suspicious and came up with a pretext to avoid attending. Polyperchon sent a message that he knew could not fail to sway the boy: “Young man, the first thing you should learn from your father is how to be adaptable, and how to oblige your friends.” Heracles came to the dinner, ate well, and was strangled to death.

Cassander had Heracles’ body buried secretly so as not to arouse an outcry. Then he gave Polyperchon an inglorious position as major general in the Peloponnese. It was a small prize Polyperchon had won in return for the irrevocable extinction of the Argeads. Presumably, he did little in his new post or did not live much longer, for our sources know nothing more of him.

At around the same time as Heracles’ death came that of Cleopatra, Alexander the Great’s sister. She had remained at Sardis, a widow separated from her children, for more than a decade following her journey there in pursuit of marriage to Perdiccas. Her adoptive home had long since come under the control of Antigonus, a general whose interests were not served by her survival. Even so, she lived on, perhaps under some kind of house arrest, a mere spectator of the struggle to dominate her brother’s empire. She and Antigonus seem to have struck some sort of bargain, for she had not attempted to marry any of his rivals, nor had he attempted to marry her.

While she remained a virtual prisoner in Sardis, Cleopatra’s fertile years slipped away. At the time her two nephews, Heracles and the young Alexander, were killed, she was already in her late forties. She was past childbearing but could still perhaps lend royal stature to any general she married. It was this prospect that led Ptolemy, lord of Egypt, to seek her hand, and in 308, for some unknown reason, she accepted his offer and attempted to leave for Alexandria.

Alexander wearing elephant-skin headgear, as depicted on Ptolemy’s coinage, starting in 321 B.C. (Illustration credit epl.1)

A city official in Sardis reported her plans to Antigonus. One-eye immediately sent his agents—women in this case, perhaps to avoid arousing Cleopatra’s suspicions—to kill her. Then, just as Cassander had done for the young Alexander, he provided her with a magnificent funeral and tomb, and executed the assassins he himself had hired.

The end of the Argeads brought the first era of the post-Alexander world to a close. The contest for power among Alexander’s generals would continue and would be passed on to their sons and grandsons. But the question of succession had at last been answered. Legitimate monarchy was dead; sovereignty henceforth would indeed belong “to the strongest,” to those who had the military muscle and bravado to make themselves kings. Within a few years Antigonus, Ptolemy, Lysimachus, Seleucus, and Cassander had done just that, placing crowns on their own heads, creating five royal dynasties to replace the one they had lost.

The diaspora of Alexander the Great’s power became irreversible with the near-simultaneous deaths of Eumenes and Olympias. The empire broke up into parts that were kept in balance by the jealousies and suspicions of the men who ruled them. Whenever one seemed to be gaining in strength or ambition, the others banded together to counterweight him. A new political order had emerged, not at all the world-state that Alexander had hoped for and planned but a multipolar world marked by rivalry, shifting alliances, and long-running small-scale conflicts—in many ways, a world like our own.

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