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Dividing the Spoils: The frought era between Alexander and Rome

The period between Alexander the Great's death and the rise of Rome a century later was considerably more eventful than many people believe.

Dividing the Spoils: The War for Alexander the Great's by Robin Waterfield (Oxford University Press)
Dividing the Spoils: The War for Alexander the Great's by Robin Waterfield (Oxford University Press)

On his death in 323 BC, Alexander the Great had forged a vast empire, from the Danube in the west, through Asia Minor, Egypt, and Persia to the Indus in the East, reaching the shores of the Black and the Caspian Seas and the mountains of the Himalayas. The legend of the Macedonian warrior king proved so enduring that in the 15th century, the sultans of Malacca would claim descent from "Iskandar", and it lingered long enough in Afghanistan for Rudyard Kipling to draw on it for his 1888 short story, "The Man Who Would Be King".

In most general narratives of ancient history, however, after Alexander the focus suddenly skips. It is almost as though nothing of interest happened in classical antiquity until the rise of Rome over a century later.

Quite the opposite, says Robin Waterfield in his new book. In fact, once Alexander died most of the then "known world" was ravaged by a 40-year war between his would-be successors, during which cities were razed, armies massacred and provinces changed hands with a regularity that must have been terrifying for the officials and merchants who stood a good chance of being executed once the next lot took over. Rome did not feature in this maelstrom, because at that time it was of minor consequence; certainly less so than Carthage which, according to the "Last Plans" he drew up in his final months, would have been next to receive Alexander's martial attentions had he lived.

Moreover, while these never-ending battles and campaigns were going on, there was an extraordinary flourishing of Hellenistic culture. Two of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, the Lighthouse at Alexandria and the Colossus of Rhodes, belong to this era when the Greek arts spread so far east that "Sophocles was performed in Susa" (east of Babylon) and "Homer was read in Herat". It was a time, argues Waterfield, when the political climate both directly and indirectly led to new forms of philosophy, painting and portraiture; the invention of literary criticism and, more prosaically, shock absorbers; and an autocratic individualism that snuffed out Athenian democracy for good and is claimed as the ultimate origin of the 17th-century theory of the Divine Right of Kings.

It was also a period of such brutality and bloodshed that if Oliver Stone ever wanted to make a follow-up to his 2004 film about Alexander it would provide more than sufficient drama. The only difficulty might be in the length and nature of the dramatis personae. Pretty much every one of Alexander's bodyguards, companions and generals had a go at either carving out their own kingdoms or taking over his entire empire - Waterfield's cast of characters runs to six pages - but far from being cast in the heroic mould, they appear to have been a uniformly nasty crew. While this might not suit Hollywood's purposes, it makes for agreeably gruesome reading.

At the end of it all, three kingdoms emerged: Macedonian Greece, Ptolemy's Egypt and the Seleucid Empire in the East. On the way, however, the various claimants put aside the unity that had won so enormous a territory in the first place and enthusiastically vied with each other as to who could be the most greedy, unprincipled and ruthless. No treaty was more than a temporary arrangement, and family ties counted for little. Even an alliance sealed by marriage to one another's daughters was no problem; the women could either be put aside or married off to someone else. Seleucus, the victor in the East, passed his wife Stratonice on to his son Antiochus, for instance; perhaps a prudent move to ensure that she did not bear him sons who could rival his first-born, but an interesting take on "keeping it in the family", nevertheless. Ptolemy's daughter Arsinoe, on the other hand, married her half brother Ptolemy Ceraunus (Thunderbolt) after the death of her husband Lysimachus, King of Thrace. When Ceraunus butchered two of her sons by Lysimachus in front of her, she fled to Egypt - where she then wed her full brother, Ptolemy II. No doubt any discomfort she felt about these unions was compensated by her thus becoming a queen three times.

Lysimachus himself had his own son killed when he deemed him a threat, while one of Macedon's short-lived monarchs, Antipater, murdered his mother Thessalonice because she wanted him to share the throne with his brother.

The most sensible and level-headed of these colourful and vividly named figures - Antigonus the One-Eyed, Demetrius the Besieger, etc - was Ptolemy. While the fiction was maintained that the successors were merely satraps for Alexander's royal heirs (his infant son and his mentally challenged half-brother), Ptolemy settled for Egypt from the start and consolidated himself there.

He wisely turned down the poisoned chalice of becoming regent on behalf of the two cipher kings, and while he made a few attempts to grab land in Greece and the Levant he mostly kept to the sidelines of the conflicts in which his more ambitious old comrades-in-arms ended up wiping each other out. His was to be the longest surviving kingdom carved out of the Macedonian empire, continuing until the suicide of Cleopatra in 30 BC.

If the others perished more swiftly, it was partly because they were guilty of a sin earlier generations of Greeks knew better - hubris. Unlike previous rulers of the Grecian city states, the new kings were less constrained by the culture of commonality that had meant, for example, that Macedonian monarchs had to be acclaimed by the people and their powers were "tempered", as Waterfield puts it, by the legitimate demands of other office-holders and councils. Following Alexander's example, his generals invested their thrones with eastern notions of semi-divinity; and swallowed the idea of their own immortality a little too readily.

For none of them lasted: they all eventually fell to Rome. There is little evidence of them today, save the potsherds that archaeologists persist in finding where they once ruled. This was because the Hellenistic culture was exclusive; it spread with the Greeks, but was largely confined to them as well. Perhaps if they had emulated Alexander by marrying locals and bringing them into their courts, they might have kept their multi-ethnic states intact for longer.

This new account is valuable for reminding us of what became of Alexander's empire, and for its fascinating wealth of detail: an army elephant required 200kg of fodder per day; even then "petroleum products" were the cause of military intervention in the Middle East, when Antigonus tried to take over the Nabatean trade in bitumen.

It also illuminates and fills in many gaps. The story of the military adventures of King Pyrrhus of Sicily giving rise to the term "Pyrrhic victory" (he won the battles against Rome, but lost the war) is well-known, but how many who studied Latin and Greek ever learnt that he was also King of Epirus, one of the few Greek states to remain independent of Macedon, and was Alexander's second cousin?

Likewise, although I was aware that the inveterate letter writer St Paul had penned epistles to the Galatians, I had no idea they were originally a band of rampaging Celts who settled in Cappadocia only after cutting the Macedonian army to pieces and displaying Ptolemy Ceraunus's head on a spear. Neither did I realise that Demosthenes, whose stirring speeches warning of the dangers posed by Alexander's father Philip gave rise to the term "Philippic", managed to survive so long under Macedonian hegemony (he eventually took his own life in 335 BC).

Above all though, Waterfield deserves praise for bringing to life one of the great forgotten wars of antiquity. If history is made by great men, then the cast of his new book were such, too. They just had the misfortune to have laboured in the shadow of one of the most famous figures who has ever lived.

Sholto Byrnes is a contributing editor of the New Statesman.