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Book Review: Ghost on the Throne: The Death of Alexander the Great and the Bloody Fight for His Empire by James Romm

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Alexander the Great’s life ended abruptly, leaving in his wake a power vacuum that his generals and other high-ranked rivals tried to fill during a long struggle for power. At stake was the world’s largest empire, straddling three continents, an unfinished project whose ultimate fruition would see the creation of an empire that stretched from the Atlantic to the Indian Ocean. No one was ready for the eventuality of Alexander’s death, including Alexander himself, for even as he became mysteriously ill, Alexander was planning an assault on the Arab world. But the campaign as well as his dream of a world state spanning continents would die with him, victim of a power struggle among lesser men.

It is this power struggle, its characters and political machinations, that is the subject of James Romm’s Ghost on the Throne. Romm’s history of the years immediately following Alexander the Great’s passing presents a panoramic look at the effects of the death of a great king upon the political order of his great kingdom. We are privy not only to the plots among the top generals but also the events in distant places such as Athens and Egypt, having a first row seat on the struggles that Alexander’s death unleashed near and afar. And we get the stories of men like Aristotle whose lives are upturned by a changing political landscape. Romm also recovers the fates of the women in his story, and an unhappy lot theirs was: wives were murdered or starved themselves for their existence depended entirely on the fate of their men. But the world of Alexander was unenlightened in many ways, not merely in its treatment of women, which made Alexander’s vision of a new world order, one defined by a culturally homogeneous world state, so startling.

Regardless of Alexander’s motives–and his project has been called megalomaniac and, more cynically, merely a cover for empire building–the work on his project has made him enemies. While he lived, these forces that could threaten his vision were maintained, through the power of his charisma and skilled political manipulation, in balance. And his authority was such that enemies could be eliminated. Yet even Alexander had problems, for the Macedonians grew increasingly weary of the quest for expansion. If order was maintained, it was an order of the uneasy and fragile kind. While he was a spectacular figure of almost mythical proportions, in the end, what he managed to build in his lifetime was quite brittle, for without Alexander, the tensions that remained suppressed under his rule would erupt to shatter what he labored to accomplish in a long, bitter struggle between numerous factions that ultimately ended only when Rome conquered the Hellenic world.

Another of Alexander’s legacies that would haunt and vex those left in the wake of his passing, besides leaving no heir or arranging for succession, was his request to be buried in Egypt, for he considered himself the son of the Egyptian god Ammon. But this request was unprecedented to the Macedonian mind, and it went against the Argead tradition of keeping the tradition of royal burial at Pella. Consequently, it would only add to the troubles that began right after he took his last breath.

The man who was named by Alexander to take charge had other worries in addition to the problem of Alexander’s burial. He faced rebellion by the foot soldiers, even after the cavalry swore its allegiance to the new masters, a board of four comprised of Perdiccas, Lonnatus, Crateus, and Antipater. One reason for the rebellion had been Alexander’s cultural fusion experiments, which saw not only mass wedding ceremony but also the inclusion of Asian recruits into the army. But the army had also evolved, growing more entitled and unhappy about its status even during Alexander’s life. Conquest had changed the conquerors.

One man who would use this troublesome attitude of the army was Meleager, one of the top infantry leaders who supported the candidacy of Alexander’s mentally impaired half-brother in an transparent plot to make himself the real ruler of empire. Meleager had a history of critical regard for Alexander’s projects. Years before Alexander’s death, Meleager bitterly criticized Alexander during a feast in India during which Alexander bestowed one thousand talents of silver on Ambhi, the local raja with whom Alexander made alliance. When Alexander was dead, Meleager opposed the plan put forth by Perdiccas and incited revolt as two main branches of Alexander’s army drew swords upon each other. The first struggle for power ended when Perdiccas found a way to eliminate Meleager. Having rid of himself of the challenger, Perdiccas turned his sights to Alexander’s wives, the Persian princesses, who were probably also pregnant and whose children would complicate the succession plans even more, and caused them to disappear. Then he partitioned the empire among his supporters. But his reign was brief, coming to an end in the bloody morass of a failed Egyptian invasion. If it was true that Alexander left his empire to the strongest, Perdiccas proved unworthy.

His death solved nothing of the central problem, for the reality was that the ghost of Alexander still reigned and no one could vanquish this specter and make the demigod’s creation his own realm. Ultimately the war between would-be kings was ended by Roman conquest, a testament to the greatness of Alexander and the flaws of the men who surrounded him as they struggled against his afterimage, trying to prove that they were worthy while circumstance mocked their efforts.

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A. Jurek is one of the editors at Blogcritics. Contact me at: a.jurek@blogcritics.org