MAY 31–JUNE 11, 323 B.C.
No one knew what was killing Alexander. Some thought he could not die; his conquests during his twelve-year reign had been more godlike than mortal. It was even whispered he was the son not of Philip, his predecessor on the throne of Macedonia, but of the Egyptian god Ammon. Now, as Alexander grew more sickly during the first week of June 323, it seemed that he could die, indeed, was dying. Those closest to Alexander, his seven Bodyguards, and the larger circle of intimates called his Companions watched his decline helplessly, and watched one another carefully. They were able commanders, leaders of the most successful military campaign ever fought, and were accustomed to managing crises. At this moment, to judge by later events, none knew what to do, what the others had in mind, or what would happen next.
Amid the gloom of the deathbed watch, their thoughts went back to the previous year and to an incident that had seemed unimportant at the time. Alexander’s army was then on the march, returning from India (eastern Pakistan today), the farthest reach of its conquests. (Maps at the beginning and end of this book show all the major regions of Alexander’s empire.) Accompanying the troops was an Eastern holy man named Calanus, an elderly sage who had become a kind of guru to some of the senior officers. But Calanus fell ill as the army reached Persis and, foreseeing a slow decline toward death, arranged to commit suicide by self-immolation. In a solemn ceremony he said farewell to each of his devotees, but when Alexander approached, he drew back, saying cryptically that he would embrace the king when he saw him in Babylon. Then he climbed atop a tall pyre before the entire Macedonian army, and all forty thousand watched as he burned to death, sitting calmly and still amid the flames.
Now they had come to the wealthy city of Babylon (in the south of modern Iraq), and Calanus’ words had begun to make sense. Other recent incidents, too, suddenly took on ominous meaning. A few days before Alexander fell ill, an interloper never seen before dashed into the palace throne room, put on the diadem and royal robes—left by Alexander when he went to take exercise—and seated himself on the throne. Under interrogation he claimed to have followed the instructions of an Egyptian god called Serapis, or perhaps (according to a different account) merely to have acted on a whim. Alexander, however, suspected a plot and ordered the man’s execution. Whatever its motives, the act seemed vaguely threatening, a portent of danger to the state.
The ancient city of Babylon, digitally reconstructed, seen from the north (as Alexander would have seen it on his first approach) (Illustration credit 1.1)
The throne room in which the bizarre episode took place was famous for such portents. The great Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar had built this room three centuries earlier as the grand central hall of his palace. It was here that Belshazzar, his descendant, held a vast banquet at which guests saw a disembodied finger write a mysterious sentence on the wall: Mene mene tekel upharsin. The message, decoded by a seer named Daniel (one of the Hebrew captives taken to Babylon from Jerusalem), was that Belshazzar had been weighed in the balance and found wanting; his empire would fall and be divided among the new powers contesting dominion in Asia, the Medes and the Persians. The prophecy came to pass that very night, according to the biblical version of the tale. Belshazzar was killed in a sudden invasion, and his throne was occupied by Persian kings—Cyrus the Great, Darius, Xerxes, and others—for more than two hundred years.
Now the Persians too had fallen, and the great throne room belonged to the new rulers of Asia, the Macedonians, and to their king, Alexander. And though the writing on the wall had long faded from view, this new omen, the stranger on the throne, seemed to hold a similarly troubling meaning. As all who witnessed the episode knew, there was no one in line to inherit that throne, no one to take command of an empire stretching from the shores of the Adriatic to the Indus River valley, three thousand miles in breadth. And there was no one fit to command the army that had won that empire, a terrifyingly destructive fighting force, other than Alexander himself. In the past two years even he had barely kept it controlled. What chaos might it unleash on a still-nascent world order without his leadership?
A legend found in several ancient sources tells that Alexander, on his deathbed, was asked to whom his power should pass. “To the strongest,” he replied. In some versions the conqueror added that he foresaw an immense contest over his tomb, referring with grim double meaning to the Greek custom of holding athletic competitions at the burial of a hero. Perhaps these words are apocryphal, but they nonetheless hold an essential truth. Lacking an obvious heir or a plan for succession, Alexander would, with his death, ignite a struggle for power such as the world had never seen, with the world itself—dominion over Asia, Africa, and Europe—the prize of victory.
The funeral games of Alexander were indeed to become one of the most intense and complex contests in history. In the years following the king’s death, half a dozen generals would box with one another in wars fought across three continents, while half a dozen members of the royal family would wrestle for the throne. Generals and monarchs would team up for mutual expediency, then switch sides and combat each other when that was more advantageous. The contest would become a generational relay race, with military leaders handing off their standards to sons, queens passing scepters to daughters. It would be nearly a decade before winners began to emerge, and these would be a wholly different set of contestants from those who stood at the starting line, in Babylon, at the side of the dying king.
Alexander’s return to Babylon in the spring of 323, when Chaldaean priests warned him he would incur doom by entering the city, posed a sober contrast to his first visit there seven and a half years before. Alexander was then twenty-five, with superhuman energy and ambition. A few weeks before, he had defeated the Persians in the largest battle the world had yet seen, personally leading a cavalry charge aimed right at Darius, the Great King of Persis, and putting him to flight. Alexander, still wary of his new Asian subjects, approached Babylon with his army deployed for battle, but the Babylonians welcomed him as a liberator from Persian rule, not as a new conqueror. They thronged the road to welcome him, strewing flower petals in his path, singing hymns, and lighting silver incense burners all along the approach to the great Ishtar Gate. If one had to choose the Macedonian army’s most triumphant day in the whole of its eleven-year march through Asia, the day in October 331 when it first entered Babylon would be a top contender.
A month of feasting and celebration gave Alexander’s troops their first taste of the wonders of the East. The Macedonians had been a provincial people, shepherds and farmers for the most part; few had ever left their rocky land before Alexander brought them into Asia. They were astounded by the great palaces and towers that were Nebuchadnezzar’s legacy; by the Hanging Gardens atop one palace’s roof, watered by an elaborate system of buckets and pulleys; and by the massive triple walls ringing the city, adorned with reliefs of lions, bulls, and dragons. The commanders Alexander billeted in the great Southern Palace found themselves in a labyrinth of more than six hundred rooms, many facing onto vast, echoing courtyards. At the center of the maze was the great throneroom of Nebuchadnezzar, its walls of glazed brick depicting palm trees and lions against a dark blue background. There they watched as Alexander first took his seat upon an Asian throne.
Babylon’s Ishtar Gate, rebuilt today in Berlin’s Pergamon Museum (Illustration credit 1.2)
Alexander had done what he had set out to do. After becoming king of Macedonia at age twenty, he wasted no time picking up where his father, Philip, assassinated just as he prepared to lead an invasion of the Persian empire, had left off. Taking a force of forty-five thousand across the Hellespont (now known as the Dardanelles), Alexander fought the Persians three times over three years and won resounding victories each time. Amid these battles he made a six-month excursion into Egypt, where he was hailed as a liberator and claimed by the god Ammon as a son (according to some reports of his visit to the god’s oracle in the North African desert). Perhaps he began to believe himself he had sprung from Ammon, for he had won power and wealth beyond mortal measures. His defeat of the Persians unleashed a cascade of gold and silver, tribute amassed for centuries and hoarded in the great palaces of Susa and Persepolis. His seeming invincibility attracted powerful allies, including many former Persian enemies, to his side.
Alexander might have stopped there, in Babylon, content with his already epochal achievements, but he was only halfway done. He led his army north and east, into Bactria and Sogdiana (what is now Afghanistan, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan), pursuing the refugee king Darius and others who tried to claim the throne. He spent two years among the unruly nomads of these regions, suffering worse losses in ambushes and traps than in any of his open-field battles. Undaunted, in 327 he crossed the Hindu Kush into India (now eastern Pakistan), ascending the seven-thousand-foot passes in early spring, when the troops starved and horses floundered in chest-deep snow.
Another two years were spent in India, years that exhausted the stamina of his troops. Those who had savored the wonders of the East on their entry into Babylon had by now seen its terrors: zealous guerrilla fighters, duplicitous tribal leaders, intense desert heat, and, most fearsome of all, trained Indian war elephants, a devastating weapon they had never before encountered. Finally, at the easternmost of the Indus tributaries, the river Hyphasis (modern Beas), they reached their breaking point. Alexander ordered his troops to advance but was met, for the first time, with rebellion. His men wanted no more worlds to conquer and would not cross the river. Alexander grudgingly led them back toward the West. But, angered by the mutiny, he threw his troops into tough battles against entrenched Indian resisters, battles his men were barely willing to fight.
At one rebel town in India, Alexander spearheaded an assault himself, with catastrophic consequences. He scaled a siege ladder his men were reluctant to climb and, as if shaming them, stood atop the wall exposed to hostile fire. A brigade of infantry sprang up after him, but the ladder broke under their weight. Unfazed, Alexander leaped down off the walls and into the town, accompanied by only three comrades. In the ensuing melee, an Indian archer sent a three-foot-long arrow right through Alexander’s armor and into his lung. His panic-stricken troops burst open the gates to the town and dragged his body out; an officer extracted the arrow, but fearsome spurts of blood and hissing air came with it, and the king passed out.
Panic seized the army as rumors spread that Alexander had been killed. When a letter from Alexander was circulated a short while later, the men denounced it as a forgery devised by the high command. Order began to break down, until Alexander recovered enough strength to show himself to his men. He was carried by ship down a nearby river and past the assembled army, feebly lifting an arm to show he was conscious. When his ship put in at the riverbank, he ordered attendants to bring his horse and prop him up on its back, causing a scene of mass ecstasy: as he dismounted, soldiers thronged him on all sides, throwing flowers and clutching at his hands, knees, and clothing.
Alexander’s close call in India was a dress rehearsal for his death, and it did not go well. Alexander had trained a superb senior staff but had made no one his clear second; he had divided top assignments among many lieutenants, deliberately diffusing power. Without his centering presence, the rank and file had become despondent and mistrustful and had looked in vain for a clear-cut chain of command. Only the king’s reappearance had prevented total collapse.
Alexander gradually recovered from his lung wound. In the summer of 325 he took his army out of India, sending some by land across the mountains and others by ship through what is now the Arabian Sea. He led his own contingent through the desert region called Gedrosia (today Baluchistan in southern Iran), exposing them to horrors of privation and heat as supply lines and support networks failed. A depleted and diminished column emerged from this grim wasteland and reentered the fertile lands at the center of the old Persian empire. Restored and reunited with their comrades, they followed Alexander back to the scene of their glorious celebration seven years earlier, the city of Nebuchadnezzar, the home of the Hanging Gardens, wealthy Babylon.
On the seventeenth of the Macedonian month Daisios, the first of June 323 B.C. by the modern calendar, the Macedonian troops at Babylon got their first sign that Alexander was ill. The king appeared outside Nebuchadnezzar’s palace to lead that day’s sacrifice to the gods, his duty as head of the Macedonian nation, but had to be carried on a bier. He had been drinking at a private party the night before with his senior staff, and after returning to his quarters, he had become feverish. By morning he was too ill to walk.
After this brief and disquieting appearance, Alexander withdrew into the palace and rested. In the evening his officers were summoned to his quarters to discuss a campaign against the Arabs that was scheduled to begin three days later. There was as yet no change in the plans for this campaign, no suggestion that Alexander’s condition would be a hindrance.
The men who attended that meeting were Alexander’s inner circle, above all, his seven Somatophylakes, or Bodyguards. Far more than a security detail, these were his closest friends, the sharers of his counsels, and, in battle, the holders of his top commands. Most were about his own age, and several had grown up with him. Not all were great generals or tacticians. They didn’t have to be, since Alexander devised tactics for them. But all were distinguished by their rock-solid loyalty to Alexander and his cause. They understood the king’s goals and backed them unstintingly; they supported him through every crisis, against all opposition. Alexander could trust them implicitly, even though they did not always trust, or like, one another.
Ptolemy was there, a close comrade of Alexander’s since boyhood, a man perhaps a few years older than the thirty-two-year-old king. Ptolemy had been with the Asian campaign from the start but for years had held no command post; his nature and temperament were not obviously those of a warrior. Alexander had made him a Bodyguard midway through the campaign based purely on personal ties and thereafter began giving him combat assignments as well. In India he assigned Ptolemy his first critical missions, thrusting his old friend into ever-greater dangers. In one Indian engagement, Ptolemy was struck by an arrow said to be tipped with poison; legend later reported that Alexander himself administered the antidote, after extracting juice from a plant he had seen in a dream. Ptolemy was hardly the most skilled of Alexander’s officers, but perhaps the cleverest, as his subsequent career would prove.
Perdiccas, by contrast, had been in the army’s top ranks from the start of the campaign and had by now accrued the most distinguished service record of those in Babylon. It was he who had taken charge, probably on his own initiative, when Alexander’s lung wound was healing in India. Perdiccas was perhaps a few years older than the king, one of the aristocratic youths who had grown up at the palace as pages of Alexander’s father, King Philip. Indeed, his first act of prowess had come in his teens, when, as an honorary attendant to Philip in his final public appearance, he chased down and killed Philip’s assassin. Perdiccas belonged to one of the royal families that had once ruled independent kingdoms in the Macedonian highlands. These families had been stripped of power as Philip’s empire grew, but their offspring retained a privileged place at Alexander’s court so long as they were loyal, and Perdiccas was certainly that.
Leonnatus was another of Philip’s former pages, also sprung from royal blood, and had helped Perdiccas dispatch the king’s escaping assassin. He had risen to top commands late in the Asian campaign but in India had covered himself in glory at the siege where Alexander was shot. Leonnatus was one of the three men cut off with the king in the besieged town; he had incurred serious wounds while using his own body to shield the fallen Alexander, a signal display of heroism and devotion. Another soldier, Peucestas, had done likewise in that same action; Alexander had rewarded him with promotion to the Bodyguard, creating an unprecedented eighth slot.
Also present was Nearchus, a Greek, one of Alexander’s oldest and closest friends, but not a member of the Bodyguard (Greeks were a kindred but foreign race in Macedonian eyes and not permitted into the charmed circle of seven). Alexander had summoned Nearchus from a rear-guard post and brought him to India, eventually assigning him to captain the huge fleet that sailed down the Indus and back to Persis. It was the hardest assignment any subordinate ever received. The voyage went awry from the start, and Nearchus’ ships endured long stretches without food or water. When the fleet and the land army linked up once again, Alexander at first failed to recognize his wasted and weatherworn friend, then took his hand, shedding tears of relief.
There was another Greek at that meeting, Eumenes, thirty-seven years old with a boyish face and a slender build, who also had known Alexander from childhood but whose services to him had been of a different kind. Alexander’s father had long before made Eumenes royal secretary, a new post created to handle the complex paperwork of a growing empire. According to one report, Philip had simply liked the look of the boy when he spotted him winning a pancration, a no-holds-barred wrestling match, and hired him on the spot. During the Asian campaign, other Companions smirked that Eumenes followed Alexander with pen and writing tablet rather than with sword and shield, and sometimes forcefully put him into what they saw as his place. In India, Eumenes received a painful slight when Hephaestion, Alexander’s favorite, took away his designated quarters and reassigned them to a common flute player. Eumenes complained bitterly to Alexander, who at first took his scribe’s part and scolded Hephaestion but later changed sides and railed at Eumenes for demanding royal protection. No one knew quite where to rank a Greek foreigner, and a noncombatant, in a Macedonian hierarchy based on military valor.
Ultimately, Alexander decided that Eumenes, too, might possess that valor, or might be allowed to earn it. In India Alexander entrusted his scribe with a minor cavalry command, assigning him to lead a troop of horsemen to two rebel towns and demand their submission. As it turned out, the townspeople had fled before Eumenes arrived, but the mission nonetheless allowed Eumenes to lead men in hostile territory and demonstrated that Macedonian cavalry, if ordered by Alexander, would accept a Greek as their captain. Then, in the last year of his life, Alexander made a much more dramatic move, appointing Eumenes commander of an elite cavalry unit formerly headed by lofty Perdiccas. No Greek had held such a distinguished post in Alexander’s army before. Little Eumenes had risen high, indeed—and was destined to rise still higher.
Most of the men in the room with Alexander had waded through rivers of blood in the course of winning their commands. The Indian campaign had been particularly harsh: Alexander had slaughtered civilians, even prisoners of war, hoping that this distant province could be terrorized into subjection. His generals followed such orders because they believed a greater good justified them. With the Persians subdued and tribes beyond the Caspian Sea and the Hindu Kush cowed into nonaggression, Alexander felt he was close to melding the whole known world into a single state. Religious and cultural freedom, economic development, and even (where possible) local autonomy would make the empire’s peoples willing sharers rather than grudging subjects. Alexander himself, his image carefully crafted to project tolerance, harmony, and progress, would be the banner under which the nations would unite.
All that was needed to bring this brave new world into being was the obliteration of those who threatened it, either by attack from without or by rebellion from within. The generals who helped conduct Alexander’s massacres were not butchers but loyal supporters of his driving vision. They had agreed to pursue his multiethnic world-state, certain they would one day share in rule over it. Indeed, Alexander had made clear how large a role they would have. In the royal pavilion he set up in Persis in his final year, a magnificent tent surrounded by thousands of elite troops in concentric rings, he stationed the Bodyguards on silver-footed couches directly around his own golden throne—the innermost orbit of the cosmos of which he formed the center.
Now these trusted generals were preparing to move against the Arabs, a people that had not directly threatened their empire. But after the army’s return to Babylon, when many unconquered peoples sent embassies to Alexander offering submission, the Arabs sent none. Their silence was worrisome because of their geographic position, astride the waterways connecting the empire’s Asian heartland to Africa and Europe. As foes, they could rob Alexander’s cities of trade revenue or limit the range of his warships. Under Macedonian control, conversely, their coasts offered harbors and anchorages for the ships that would sail, in Alexander’s plans, between the Mediterranean and the East.
The discussion that first night of Alexander’s illness focused on strategy and logistics. The army was more than adequate for the job ahead. The infantry phalanx, a massive block of warriors wielding eighteen-foot-long spears called sarissas, would form the anchor of the expeditionary force. The elite Companion cavalry, the army’s principal striking arm, would also be brought forward, and siege weaponry of all kinds—massive wheeled towers housing battering rams and drawbridges, catapults and artillery weapons newly designed by crack engineers—would be broken down into pieces and carried aboard ship. The fleet would also store provisions for the land army and materials for building the garrison towns that would dot the Persian Gulf coast, once the Arabs were subdued.
Alexander no doubt appointed the generals who would lead each unit. Perdiccas, as senior officer present, would have received command of the land army, since Alexander himself planned to travel with Nearchus’ fleet. Eumenes would assume his crucial new position at the head of a troop of Companion cavalry. No one could be sure how well a Greek would fill this role, never mind a Greek with no real combat experience, but Alexander seemed determined to find out.
When the meeting concluded, Alexander was carried out of the palace, placed aboard a ship, and taken up the Euphrates River, probably to the little Summer Palace in Babylon’s northern quadrant. Here there was what the Persians called a paradeiza (paradeisosto the Greeks, the root of “paradise”), a nature preserve and game park designed for the pleasure of Achaemenid kings, as well as cool breezes to temper the choking Mesopotamian heat. Alexander was seeking relief from the fever that had raged for a full day now, but also, in all likelihood, he wanted secrecy. After what had happened when he was near death in India, it was important that few people know how ill he was.
The senior staff who met with Alexander that first day convened again two days later, this time in the secluded quarters of the Summer Palace. The king’s condition was somewhat improved. His fever had come and gone intermittently, and he had at times been able to eat and converse. The Arabian campaign, now only two days away, was going ahead as planned.
During these days the generals must have talked about what they would face should Alexander’s condition worsen. They had reason to be anxious. The previous autumn a top officer, Hephaestion, then at the peak of health and strength, had succumbed in seven days to a fever much like Alexander’s. Moreover, both men had fallen ill after a bout of drinking, which raised the question of poison. At some point the generals must have acknowledged, to one another or to themselves, the possibility that Alexander was the victim of an assassination plot.
There were many who would be glad to see Alexander dead. The conquered Persians bore him little love, though on the whole they seemed a passive lot, content with the share of rule—a rather large share—Alexander had allotted them. Alexander’s Greek subjects, however, were feistier and less easily appeased. From their city-states in Europe they had mounted two rebellions already and were at that moment, as would soon be revealed, preparing to launch a third. Alexander had been taught by Greek tutors, including the philosopher Aristotle, and tried to show a commitment to Hellenic ideals, but his style was often that of an autocrat rather than a philosopher-king. Indeed, a Greek philosopher had stood against him when he proposed a plan that his courtiers should bow down to him in Persian style, and he had later found a pretext to have the man arrested or even (some sources say) executed. That man was Callisthenes, Alexander’s court historian, who happened to have been a relative and protégé of Aristotle’s. Was it possible that Aristotle, then living in Athens, had taken revenge by arranging the poisoning of his former student?
Then too there were the conservatives among the king’s Macedonian subjects, those opposed to his strange visions of shared empire and cultural fusion. Many such reactionaries had been purged, though one remained in power: old man Antipater, at this point past seventy, who had loyally guarded the Macedonian home front on Alexander’s behalf for twelve years, with help from his son Cassander, a man just Alexander’s age. But the king had resolved to unseat Antipater, either by retirement or a more extreme method. Alexander sent orders for him to surrender his post and report to Babylon, but for unknown reasons the senior general stayed put in Macedonia, sending his son in his stead. Cassander, who was known to dislike Alexander and to scorn the newly Asianized ways of the court, had arrived in Babylon only just before Alexander fell ill. Might he and his father, either out of hatred for what Alexander had become or out of fears for their own safety, have conspired to murder their king?
Many Greeks and Macedonians answered yes to these questions, in particular the latter. Rumors circulating at the time of Alexander’s death claimed that a lethal drink, collected by Aristotle from a spring that supposedly gave rise to the river Styx, had been brought to Babylon by Cassander at the behest of his father. The numbingly cold toxin, according to these rumors, had been transported inside a mule’s hoof, since it was said to eat through any other vessel, even solid iron, with its corrosive power. Then it had been slipped into Alexander’s cup by Cassander’s brother Iolaus, who, all too conveniently, was at that time the king’s wine pourer. The theory made sense from the standpoint of motive, means, and opportunity. It was so widely believed that Alexander’s mother, as will be seen, had Iolaus’ buried remains dug up and scattered as punishment for his presumed part in the plot.
How much credence should be given to these rumors is unclear. Those who stood by Alexander in his final days would go on to control his image and to vie for his power; they manipulated the published records of his death (and indeed of his entire reign) to suit their own purposes. They were even capable of circulating false accounts to implicate rivals. (The stories in the so-called Liber de Morte or Book About the Death, a lurid narrative purporting to reveal the poisoning conspiracy, seem to have arisen in this way.) In the years following 323, the question of who killed Alexander, or whether he died of natural causes, would be spun one way and another for political advantage, making the truth very hard to recover.
One document has particularly bedeviled modern interpreters. The Ephemerides, or Royal Journals, is now lost but was drawn on by both Plutarch and Arrian in their accounts of Alexander’s last days. The Journals depicted Alexander as gradually succumbing to a long fever, not at all the quick, violent demise of a poisoning victim, and makes no mention of a suspicious detail reported by other sources, that Alexander cried out from a stabbing pain in his back after drinking a huge goblet of wine. The document is thought to have been composed by Eumenes, Alexander’s Greek scribe, a witness to the events it records and therefore, in some eyes, a sound authority. But it also might have been forged, or Eumenes himself might have tampered with it to cover up a plot. Further complicating the question are the differences, some of them significant, between the summaries Arrian and Plutarch give of the Journals. Clearly one of the two writers was looking at an altered copy—or both were.
The disputes among Alexander’s contemporaries over the cause of his death make it hard to accept any evidence on its face. This is a hall-of-mirrors world where the more convincing an account seems, the more it might be suspected to be the work of clever assassins concealing their crimes. But historical research has to begin somewhere; if nothing can be trusted, nothing can be known. The events described here are based on Arrian’s summary of the Royal Journals, but with an awareness that none of our sources has an absolute claim on truth.
After the meeting on June 3, Alexander passed the night racked by fever but managed the next day to conduct the morning’s sacrifice and meet with his senior staff. On June 4 his condition was worse, but the next day he met again with the high command and continued to plan for the Arabian expedition (apparently postponed from its original launch date). So far, Alexander refused to admit that his condition might endanger the enterprise. In the past he had regarded campaigning as a kind of restorative. After the death of his closest friend, Hephaestion, had sent him into a prolonged depression, Alexander finally roused his spirits by charging off into the mountains of Media (now northern Iran), through deep snowdrifts, to attack a stiff-necked people called the Cossaeans, “using warfare to console his grief, as though going off on a hunt—a hunt of men,” as Plutarch says.
In the private quarters of the palace, meanwhile, at least one woman helped look after the ailing Alexander, if we can place any credence in the sources that mention her. Alexander’s wife Rhoxane, or Rauxsnaka (Little Star) as she was known in her native tongue, was much younger than Alexander, perhaps in her late teens, and as far removed from him in culture as Pocahontas from Captain John Smith. She came from a place (probably modern Uzbekistan) in the rugged, mountainous region the Greeks called Bactria. Alexander’s army had slogged through two tough years of guerrilla warfare there, and Rhoxane’s father, Oxyartes, had been one of its most determined enemies. After securing his surrender, Alexander had made him an ally, cementing the tie by marrying his daughter.
Rhoxane had become pregnant within a year of her marriage to Alexander, but the child either was stillborn or died in infancy. In June 323 she was in the third trimester of her second pregnancy. What passed between her and her dying husband during his illness is almost totally unknown, except that the Liber de Morte and the Alexander Romance, two works that contain much unreliable material, do record a bizarre and moving story involving the couple. According to their account, no doubt fictionalized but perhaps based on some real incident, Rhoxane entered the king’s sickroom one night to find his bed empty. Seeing a secret passageway standing open, she crept out of the palace in pursuit of her husband, catching up to him as he crawled feebly toward the Euphrates. There the two embraced, and Rhoxane, weeping, convinced her husband to give up what she realized was his plan to drown himself. “You have robbed me of immortality,” Alexander lamented as he obediently returned to the palace. He had been trying to make his body disappear, so that his followers might suppose he had really been a god.
Two other women besides Rhoxane must have monitored Alexander’s condition anxiously, for like Rhoxane they were totally reliant on him for their status, even their safety. These were Stateira and Parysatis, daughters of the last two Persian kings, who had become Alexander’s second and third wives about a year earlier. It is not clear whether the princesses were with their husband in Babylon, or had remained at Susa, one of the Persian royal capitals, where Alexander had kept them since 331 and where he had wed them in 324. Even at Susa, though, they must have known of Alexander’s illness within a day or two of its onset. News traveled quickly between the two cities, carried by the fleet Persian postal system and by fire signals.
Alexander’s marriages to the two Persian princesses were part of his effort to fuse his army’s leadership with the elites of Asia, to create a hybrid ruling class for his tricontinental empire. He had staged a mass wedding ceremony at Susa and had matched scores of his Companions with brides from the noble families of Persis and Bactria, carefully calibrating each bride with the favor he wished to bestow on the groom. He gave the greatest prize, the sister of his own bride Stateira, to Hephaestion, so that his children and Hephaestion’s would be first cousins. He singled others out as well for the high honor of inclusion in his extended family. Nearchus, Eumenes, and Ptolemy were each married to a relative of Barsine, a former mistress of Alexander’s and the mother of his only living child, a son named Heracles. Craterus, another of his top generals, was wed to a cousin of Stateira’s, a girl named Amastris. Like the other royal women, she had been captured in 331 and maintained in state ever since, learning high classical Greek from the tutors Alexander had appointed.
But Craterus was not happy with his new bride. He was older than other members of the king’s inner circle, in his late forties rather than his thirties, and his traditionalism put him at odds with Alexander’s Euro-Asian fusion. Though Craterus revered his king and was fiercely loyal, he felt entitled to tell him, on several occasions, that he had gone too far in embracing Persian ways. Alexander resented such interventions, especially since they made Craterus a hero to the rank-and-file soldiers, former peasants and farmers who, like Craterus, still regarded the Persians as vanquished enemies, not partners in rule. But Alexander needed Craterus’ talents too much to punish his dissent. By giving him highborn Amastris as bride, Alexander was perhaps making a last effort to enlist Craterus in a project he deeply mistrusted.
The mass wedding was held in the royal palace at Susa. A row of nearly a hundred richly wrought couches was laid out in a great hall, and the Companions reclined, holding cups of wine. A toast was drunk by all, and then, in a carefully choreographed movement, the Asian brides entered and each went to sit beside her groom. Alexander took his two brides by the hand and kissed them on the lips, the Persian custom for contracting a marriage; as though on cue, the rest of the Companions did likewise. A great feast was held, and each groom escorted his bride to a waiting bedchamber in the palace complex. How Alexander stage-managed his own double-wedding night has not been revealed by our sources.
Five days of festivities and pageantry followed, during which Alexander presented golden wreaths to those who had served with distinction in India. Leonnatus and Peucestas, the men who had saved him from enemy archers in the rebel town, received these glittering tokens of honor. Nearchus, the Greek admiral who had gotten the fleet safely through a terrible voyage, also got one, in just recognition of his sufferings. Ptolemy too was garlanded with gold, an acknowledgment that the king’s old friend had in India proved himself as a combat officer. The stalwart Craterus, however, perhaps having objected too often to Alexander’s fusion program, received no wreath at this ceremony. Neither did Eumenes, whose duties in India had still been largely those of a scribe, not a soldier.
By the end of the first week of June, in the bivouacs outside Babylon, the Macedonian army was growing uneasy. Alexander had not been seen for many days after first appearing on a litter at morning sacrifices. It was unusual for the king to be absent from view for so long, especially when he was about to lead his men into action. Nevertheless, they continued to prepare their weapons and gear for the Arabian campaign.
Most of these troops fought with the long infantry lance called the sarissa, as well as with short swords and shields. At the outset of his reign, Philip, Alexander’s father, had introduced the sarissa, a strong wooden shaft perhaps eighteen feet long tipped with a two-pound metal blade, and had recruited strong young men to wield it, forging a new kind of phalanx that changed the face of battle overnight. Now Philip’s recruits were past fifty but still fighting in the front lines, thrusting their sarissas with both hands as they advanced toward an enemy, their shields slung around their necks. The discipline gained through decades of fighting, in every terrain and tactical situation, had made these veterans unassailable to any enemy, except, as they would soon learn, one another.
Macedonian infantrymen, as seen in a tomb painting roughly contemporary with Alexander (Illustration credit 1.3)
Philip had also created an elite corps of infantry, the Hypaspists, or Shield Bearers, who carried lighter gear than the men of the phalanx and could move about more quickly. Selected for their strength, stamina, and loyalty to the king, the three thousand Shield Bearers were the first called in for difficult operations or when Alexander’s safety was threatened. They traveled up to forty miles a day over rough terrain, scaled cliffs and assaulted walls while under fire, endured desert heat and unthawed mountain passes without loss of morale. Alexander cherished these men and kept them close both on and off the battlefield. In India, where the Shield Bearers endured their greatest perils yet, he honored them by having their armor coated with silver, thus giving rise to their new unit name,the Silver Shields.
Recently, though, the bonds between the king and his veterans had come under strain. Alexander had recruited Persians and Bactrians and trained them to fight in the Macedonian style, enrolling them in even his most elite units. This offended both the pride and the prejudices of his countrymen. They had accepted, grudgingly, his use of Persians as high officials, his adoption of Persian dress and court rituals, even the marriages of the king and his top staff to Asian women. But the integration of the armed forces was a more serious matter. When Alexander announced, at an army assembly in the Persian city of Opis, that he would send ten thousand of his Macedonian troops back home and install Persians in their place, the soldiers flatly refused.
Things quickly spiraled out of control during this mutinous assembly at Opis. The men became contemptuous, sneering that the king did not need any of them since his “father” would see him through—a mocking reference to the rumors tracing Alexander’s descent from the god Ammon. Alexander, enraged, waded into their midst, guards at his side, and picked out his most vocal opponents for summary execution. Then he retreated to his quarters and refused to admit his countrymen, receiving Persian officers instead. He took steps to replace his entire army, even the hallowed Silver Shields, with units recruited from Asia. He allowed his new Persian courtiers to greet him by kissing him on the mouth, an intimacy permitted by Persian kings to their favorites. He was taking his Macedonian troops at their word; he would show that he did not need any of them.
A more serious breach had opened between king and soldiery than the earlier mutiny in India. Then, Alexander had had no choice but to yield, since there were no other armies he could draw on. But the heartland of the Persian empire now regarded Alexander as a legitimate ruler, and the Asian chiefs who had once fought for Darius were prepared to fight for him. He was no longer hostage to the army’s will, and both he and they knew it. The troops held out for three days. When they could bear the separation no longer, they went en masse to Alexander’s tent and threw down their weapons before its entrance, begging the king to take them back into favor. Like jilted lovers, they bemoaned the kisses Alexander had given his Persians, kisses no Macedonian had yet received.
This show of remorse was enough to satisfy Alexander. Coming out to greet his countrymen, he invited them to kiss him as the Persians had done. He would restore them to favor and be their leader once again. The men became ecstatic with relief and, after giving their kisses, went back to camp singing a joyous victory song. Alexander held a huge banquet to celebrate the reconciliation, and his triumph. Then he sent away the ten thousand veterans as he had planned, assigning Craterus (not coincidentally the senior officer most resistant to his policies) to lead them home. Among them were the Silver Shields, long cherished by Alexander for their prowess and loyalty, now regarded, after the mutinies at the Hyphasis River and at Opis, as troublemakers.
The men departing for Europe received a discharge bonus of a silver talent each—many years’ pay, at standard rates—while those remaining behind, perhaps six thousand infantrymen, had their salary increased to several times starting levels. The raise was an attempt to forestall further mutinies, and to compensate the troops for the indignity of serving side by side with barbarians. It was also Alexander’s way of acknowledging that his army’s mission had changed. His troops had set out twelve years earlier to fight a war; now they were being asked to maintain an empire. They had become transformed, gradually and without consultation, into a permanent military class, the human infrastructure supporting Alexander’s world-state. They could never return to sheepcotes and farms even if they wanted to, and after twelve years of conquests probably few of them did. Like mercenaries, they had sold their lives, and Alexander felt they deserved a high price.
The Macedonian infantrymen who remained at Babylon, and who now prepared for the march to Arabia, were thus a privileged lot. In addition to their high pay, and their leadership roles in the new mixed-race phalanx, they formed what their countrymen revered as the royal army, the troops serving directly under the king. Under long-standing Macedonian tradition, it was the royal army’s privilege to assemble and to make certain decisions by a kind of voice vote, including their most weighty duty, the approval of a new successor to the throne. Some must have begun to wonder, as Alexander’s disappearance stretched out to a week or longer, whether they would soon be called on to perform that solemn task.
Among the Bodyguards gathered at Babylon’s Summer Palace, the pretense that Alexander would soon recover was by now hard to maintain. The king’s condition had not improved, and he was still carried on a litter when he performed each morning’s sacrifice. Yet he continued to hold councils of war to discuss the coming campaign.
After more than a week in seclusion, Alexander prepared to move back down the Euphrates to the Southern Palace, and he called for all battalion and unit commanders to stand ready there. Perhaps he was anticipating the start of the march against the Arabs. His condition was now very grave, and it seems beyond belief that he was prepared to board ship for barely known stretches of the Persian Gulf, but many of his feats of stamina surpass belief, such as his grueling march through the desert of Gedrosia only months after surviving a punctured lung. Alternatively, he might have realized he was near death and summoned his officer class to hear his directives for the coming transfer of power.
Whatever orders he meant to give were never given. By the next day Alexander had lost his power of speech. He was now in a constant high fever. A ship brought him down the Euphrates to central Babylon, and he was carried, by his Bodyguards, no doubt, back into the palace he had left a week earlier.
June 10 and 11 were dismal days for the Macedonians in Babylon. Alexander was unable to move or speak. Some of the Companions, desperate to help their king even by supernatural means, slept in the temple of a local deity after asking the god whether Alexander should be brought there. In dreams that night they received the reply: it would be better if he stayed where he was. Later, after Alexander died, this was interpreted to mean that in the eyes of the god, death was a “better” outcome than recovery.
Access to the king’s person was strictly controlled by the Bodyguards, and the soldiers began to chafe. Rumors spread that the king was already dead and that the high command was concealing that fact. Old mistrusts that the troops had felt in India began to resurface; their mood grew dark and violent. A crowd gathered outside the palace and demanded admittance, threatening the Bodyguards with force or, according to one report, breaking through a wall to defy their blockade. At last the senior staff bowed to necessity and let the troops enter the king’s chambers.
A Babylonian clay tablet recording the death of Alexander on a date corresponding to June 11, 323 B.C. (Illustration credit 1.4)
A long line of soldiers and Companions filed past the wasted figure on the deathbed, who summoned enough strength to shift his eyes or move his head in greeting to each man. It was clear to all that death was inevitable. This was their last farewell, unless, asCalanus had hinted before his fiery suicide, they might embrace again in some world beyond the grave.
The end came on June 11, toward evening. On this day a nameless Babylonian scribe made a note in his astronomical diary, a log used by seers to correlate political and celestial events. Pressing a wedge-shaped stylus into a clay tablet, fragments of which are now in the British Museum, he created the most toneless and indifferent, but in some ways the most powerful, of the records that survive from the age of Alexander. In the entry for that date, Aiaru 29 according to the Babylonian calendar, he wrote: “The king died.” Then, explaining his inability to make observations of the night sky, he added, simply, “Clouds.”
Some three and a half centuries earlier, a different Macedonian king, Alexander’s great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-grandfather, lay on a different deathbed, and gave instructions to his son regarding his burial. That son, named Argaeus, about to become king in his own right, was told to found a royal cemetery in the city where he then lived, Aegae. The kings of Macedon must all be buried there, Argaeus was warned, for the dynasty would end if any were entombed elsewhere.
Aegae was at that time the royal seat of the Macedonians. The name of the town reveals much about the humble origins of the people, for it closely resembles the Greek word meaning “goats.” Herdsmen for much of their history, the Macedonians suddenly, almost miraculously, transformed themselves into warriors and conquerors under Philip and Alexander. A legend recorded by the Roman historian Justin speaks of this transformation as something foreseen, if not decreed, by the gods. An ancient oracle declared that goats would lead the Macedonians to a great empire. One of their early kings, recalling this oracle, founded Aegae where he saw a herd of wild goats and thereafter always led his warriors into battle with goats depicted on his standards. Thus the name of Aegae came to stand for the imperial destiny of this world-conquering people, rather than their goat-herding past.
The name of King Argaeus, too, carried mythic weight for the Macedonians, for it seemed to trace their monarchy to the Greek city of Argos. Argaeus’ father had been an exile from Argos, according to legend, and had won control of Macedonia by force of arms, thus establishing a Greek royal house in a non-Greek region. No one in the Greek world knew whether to credit this myth (though it was accepted around 500 B.C. by a panel screening out non-Greeks from the Olympic Games), and modern scholars tend to regard it as propaganda. But the Macedonian kings took pride in the link to Argos that Argaeus’ name seemed to imply, along with the name of an even more remote ancestor, Argeas, said to be a grandson of Zeus. The royal family came to call themselves by a collective name, the Argeads, that stressed their connection to this ancestor and to the Argive Greeks.
For three and a half centuries before Alexander, the Argeads formed the central pole of Macedonian political life. They were the sole legitimate government, for all appointments and offices were at the discretion of the king. In a land divided by geography into fractious cantons, the royal house defined national identity; one was Macedonian if one was ruled by an Argead. The monarchy became a hallowed institution in the eyes of its subjects, their principal way of understanding who they were. They arranged themselves into concentric rings around the reigning king; the highborn styled themselves his “friends” and “companions,” drank with him at riotous banquets, joined him on boar hunts, and sent their young sons to the palace to serve as “the king’s boys.”
But the Argeads were not an easy lot to revere. Lacking a system for selecting heirs, they easily fell into fratricide or civil war to decide dynastic disputes. Their polygamy generated multiple family lines that competed, sometimes viciously, over succession. Winners of such contests often wiped out rivals; Alexander did this when he succeeded his father, Philip, leaving the royal house perilously short of heirs. In the end, the Argead who took the throne was the one who could take it, and the people hailed their new ruler by vocal acclamation, a rite performed by an assembly of armed soldiers.
For three and a half centuries this quarrelsome family had ruled the Macedonian nation and buried its dead at Aegae, as Argaeus had been taught. Even when the royal seat was moved to Pella, a more outward-looking locale with easier access to the sea, the ancient capital continued to house their tombs. It was as though the family believed the prophecy Argaeus heard from his father, that their dynasty would endure only so long as they kept the royal burial site. The Argeads had clung to the tradition, and they had endured.
But now Alexander had chosen to break the chain. In some of his last instructions, he asked that his body be buried in western Egypt, near the desert oracle of the god Ammon. He had visited this shrine eight years earlier and consulted it about his origins; some said he was told he was Ammon’s son, not Philip’s. Whatever he heard there, he chose to spend eternity in one of the most inaccessible places in the world, today known as the oasis of Siwa. His corpse would dwell in splendid isolation, surrounded by trackless and forbidding wastes, rather than in the bosom of his ancestors at Aegae. It was as though he wanted only a god as his kin.
The problem of whether to grant Alexander’s bizarre request was one of many the Bodyguards faced on the night of June 11. They would not be able to address it for some time, since more pressing problems were soon to demand their attention. Two years hence, it was to be resolved in a way none of them, or Alexander himself, could have foreseen. Alexander’s corpse, like his dynasty and his empire, was about to embark on a perilous and unprecedented journey.