At the Deathbed of Alexander the Great
Josiah Ober is the Constantine Mitsotakis Professor in the School of Humanities and Sciences at Stanford University, where he holds appointments in Political Science, Classics, and Philosophy. After teaching at Montana State University, he joined the Classics Department at Princeton University in 1990, where he was the David Magie Professor of Classics from 1993 to 2006. Professor Ober has written extensively on military history, classical political thought, and ancient and modern democracy. He is the author of a number of books, including Mass and Elite in Democratic Athens, The Athenian Revolution, Political Dissent in Democratic Athens
, and, most recently, Athenian Legacies: Essays on the Politics of Going On Together
(2005). He is currently completing a new book on participatory democracy, knowledge organization, and innovation. He spends as much of his spare time as possible wading the streams near Bozeman, Montana, fly-fishing for trout.
To start this volume, he takes us back to the last days of the greatest conqueror in history.
***At the Deathbed of Alexander the Great
The last days of Alexander the Great have been obsessively studied since antiquity and much is known; the numerous Greek literary sources can be complemented by precious cuneiform texts and the evidence of archaeology. We know when and where he died: June 11, 323 b.c., between 4:00 and 5:00 p.m., on the banks of the Euphrates River in the fabled city of Babylon, in a palace built by the great and notorious Nebuchadnezzar a quarter millennium before. At the moment of his death, Alexander was surrounded by his lieutenants, soldiers, wives, and eunuchs; by Macedonians, Greeks, Persians, and Babylonians; along with petitioners, ambassadors, admirers, and gawkers from across three continents. The cause of death was fever. The symptoms began several days before, after a long night of heavy drinking. The fever abated briefly, then became increasingly severe. At the end Alexander could barely move and could not speak clearly, but he retained enough strength to press his signet ring into the hand of one of his generals. When asked to whom his spear-won realm should pass, the king, it was said, managed to whisper "to the strongest."
Few ancient death scenes are as well documented, yet so much remains mysterious. Upon Alexander's demise, a rumor circulated that he had been poisoned. Fingers pointed to Antipater, the veteran commander who had been left in charge of Macedon when the twenty-year-old Alexander set out to conquer Asia. Antipater's son Cassander arrived in Babylon just a few days before the onset of the king's fever and had quarreled violently with Alexander. Cassander's brother Iolaus was the king's cupbearer; the story held that Cassander had smuggled into Babylon a poison so deadly that it corroded all metal and could only be contained by a mule's hoof. Had Cassander passed a hoof-full of death to Iolaus, fearing that the king planned to strip Antipater of his command? But if so, what was the poison? Ancient and modern pharmacologists have struggled to correlate the reported symptoms with the action of poisons known in Alexander's day.
The rumors about the cause of Alexander's death are intertwined with reports of his plans for the future: Having conquered Greece, Egypt, and Asia as far east as India, what lands would the Undefeated God, as the king had recently designated himself, choose to conquer next? A massive fleet of warships had recently gathered at Babylon, and the rivers had been cleared of obstructing dams: The waterway was open to the Persian Gulf. At the least, it seemed, Alexander's plans included circumnavigation of the Arabian Peninsula. That would be a notable feat of navigation-and allow him to acquire the spice and incense-producing coastal zones of Arabia. But those in the know said that the king had his eye on restive city-states in Greece, and on fresh conquests in Africa, Italy, and even Spain. Close to hand, the city-state of Athens had recently (if only briefly) offered asylum to Alexander's onetime chief treasurer, Harpalus, who had absconded with thousands of talents of silver. Farther west, on the northern shore of Africa, lay the hugely wealthy Afro-Phoenician state of Carthage, and then there were the luxury-loving Etruscans of central Italy and their neighbor, the fast-rising state of Rome. Mineral riches were there for the taking in Spain. To the north lay Thrace and Scythia, rich in gold and grain. According to the rumor mill, no part of the civilized world lay outside the king's ambit of desire. Which of these rumors were true?
And by what system of governance and what social policies did Alexander intend to rule his vast kingdom? Would he continue to reign as his father Philip had before him, as king of the Macedonians and constitutional hegemon of the Greek city-states? Would he bring all of his realm under one government, lording over the world from Babylon as the legitimate successor of a long line of Persian Kings of Kings, on the model of Cyrus, Xerxes, and Darius? Had he reinvented himself as the greatest of the Central Asian warlords during the challenging Indo-Bactrian campaigns of the last several years? Would he return to Egypt, to rule as a divine conqueror-pharaoh on the model of Ramses the Great?
We could frame an answer to these questions if only we could observe how Alexander chose to dress in public and in private. Dress mattered a lot in the ancient world: How you dressed was an indication of who you were. It is certain that the king had taken to wearing selected items of Persian garb, at least on certain occasions: gorgeous purple robes, but not trousers; the diadem, but not the tiara. How often and in what circumstances did Alexander choose to costume himself as Persian royalty? As Macedonian soldier or rough-riding warlord? How widely and deeply were oriental court customs being adopted by his Macedonian followers? Some were happy to adopt Persian protocol by prostrating themselves before the king. Other men, who openly scorned the Persian custom of proskinesis
, had recently lost their lives: Callisthenes, the philosopher and nephew of Alexander's teacher Aristotle, died in prison. Cleitus the Black, whose quick work with a sword had saved Alexander's life at the start of the Asian adventure, had been stabbed to death by Alexander in a drunken quarrel. The squabble had been over the king's growing passion for the trappings of what Cleitus despised as orientalism. How important was it to the son of Philip of Macedon that he be humbly acknowledged by one and all by obsequies traditionally accorded the Persian Great King?
Even more pressingly: How would he treat his subjects-and how would they relate to one another? A few months before his death, Alexander had held a military review of thirty thousand Persian youths who had just completed four years of training in the arts of fighting in the Greek style. Apparently Macedonians and Greeks would no longer hold a monopoly on military service; Persians were being incorporated into the cavalry and into the infantry phalanx. Were these the first moves toward a unified empire, whose diverse ethnic groups would be equal in the eyes of their king?
Perhaps the key to understanding the king's intentions lay with the new cities populated by mustered-out veterans, recently founded by and named for Alexander. Many new cities had been planned, but were they to be culturally purely Greek, as the king's old tutor, Aristotle, advised? Or semi-Greek? Or some exciting hybrid form as yet unknown? The port city of Egyptian Alexandria was becoming a cosmopolitan center of trade, culture, and government. But what of the others? At the farthest northeast frontier of the empire, at the modern site of Ai Khanoum on the Afghan border, archaeologists were amazed to discover a major town featuring a startling mix of Hellenic and Asian cultural features; it was apparently founded by Alexander during his Afghan campaign. How many other new cities had been planned for the lands between Egypt and India? What role were they to play in the king's schemes for governing his vast realm?
The answers to at least some of these questions must have been known and recorded. For modern historians, some of the most tantalizing mysteries about the last days of Alexander concern documents. What records were being kept and by whom? Authors of the Roman era believed that Royal Diaries were maintained by Alexander's official staff. The diaries supposedly recorded the details of what the king did and said day by day, from the beginning of his reign to the end. What would a modern historian give to travel back in time, to study those records at leisure, perhaps with a helpful archivist nearby to pull the papyrus scrolls from their cedarwood cabinets? Did Alexander have the foresight to prepare a final testament that would clarify the succession and the distribution of power among the many ambitious and able men who had fought by his side and who must now manage the gigantic and diverse empire? A detailed version of Alexander's will has come down to us, but it is attached to the fantasy-filled Romance of Alexander
. The will seems to be earlier than the rest of the Romance
, but does it have any bearing on the king's actual intentions?
Every historian wants to know what really happened in the past. That means-at a minimum-gaining access to records, the more detailed and accurate, the closer to the actual events, the better. But in our hearts we always want more than we can ever have: We want to read documents that are lost forever; to interview people long dead; to be eyewitness to the great events that changed the course of history. We want that in part because we want to solve mysteries, we do want to know the truth about the past. But in honesty, the search for the truth about events and historical trends is only one of the reasons I would choose to experience this
moment of past time above all others. What I really want to know is what it felt like
to be at the center of the world, at a moment when human history had reached one of its great turning points.
A turning point it certainly was: Thirty years before, when the baby Alexander was just beginning to walk and talk, the world had seemed set in its course. The Greeks would fight endless wars over the meaningless question of which city-state would exercise brief hegemony. An ossified but operational Persian Empire would continue to dominate an extensive core. People at the fringes of the empire-western Anatolia, Egypt, and India-would continue to find ways to avoid Persian domination, and ambitious local governors would periodically assert a tenuous independence. Macedon would continue in its role as underperforming giant with great human and natural resources, but lacking effective central government.
Some of those assumptions began to change as Alexander's father, Philip, consolidated royal power in Macedon, brought the mainland Greeks under his control, and laid plans for an Asian expedition that would add the rich provinces of western Anatolia to his burgeoning Macedonian Empire. But in the dozen years since Alexander had inherited the throne of Macedon, the pace had accelerated wildly. So much had changed for an unimaginable number of people across Europe and Asia, as long-entrenched systems of government had been suddenly overturned. The treasure-houses of the Persian Empire, packed with the carefully hoarded loot of two centuries of plunder and efficient taxation, had been thrown open. Tons of silver and gold spilled into the Euro-Asian economy. The Greek language, and the rich cultural heritage it brought with it, was becoming the new lingua franca. Everything, it seemed, would be made anew.
In the days before the news of Alexander's death was broadcast, everything was still possible. I want to experience the vertigo of gazing at the unlimited horizons that had opened virtually overnight. Alexander had done the unthinkable by toppling the greatest empire in the Mediterranean and western Asian world in three great battles. He burned down the great Persian capital of Persepolis, giving the Greek world revenge for all the temples burned by Xerxes during the Greco-Persian wars of a century and a half past. Then he ruthlessly hunted down the killer of his enemy, Persia's last Great King. He went on to defeat the bellicose tribes of Central Asia and honored the pride of the Afghans, his toughest opponents, by taking as his first wife Roxane, daughter of a local warlord. Alexander had met the challenge of the giant rajah Porus's war elephants on a tributary of the Indus River, and then survived the extraordinary rigors of a desert crossing upon his return east.
I want to hear the war stories of soldiers who had answered the call of a teenage king, marched out as raw recruits from their home villages in the Macedonian highlands, and were now wealthy, weary, battle-scarred veterans of the greatest expedition in human history. By their terrifying prowess with spear and sword, many tens of thousands of Greeks and Asians had died. But, meanwhile, once-insular worlds of thought were opened to one another as Indian religious adepts, priestly Egyptian temple archivists, Babylonian astronomers and mathematicians, and Greek historians and philosophers rubbed shoulders in the imperial capitals. I want to listen to their conversations, to attend the birth of a new and cosmopolitan world of knowledge.
The conviction that everything had changed and anything might be possible was intensified by the blurring of the boundary between the realm of the gods and mortals. After his conquest of Egypt, Alexander had been welcomed as a divine son by the great god Ammon in the desert oasis Siwa. He had enthusiastically been adopted by the native populace of Egypt as a legitimate successor to the dynastic god-kings of the Old, Middle, and New Kingdoms. Shortly before his death, Alexander sent a request (which was taken as an order) to the Greeks assembled for the games at Olympia: They were to offer their king divine rights, as if he were a living god. The divinity of the man Alexander was only one new religious idea among many now cascading through the world. The Greeks, long used to offering sacrifices to a wide pantheon of anthropomorphized deities, found themselves confronted by highly sophisticated philosophical-religious traditions founded by the Persian Zarathustra and by the Indian Gautama Buddha; they were astonished by the practices of the Indian "naked philosophers" and by the complex ritual rules of Hinduism. Bold new religious syncretisms were blossoming; new ways were being found to explore and honor the unseen world of the divine. I want to hear tales of enlightenment, conversion, and spiritual rebirth. I want to be in Babylon in the spring of 323 b.c. to breathe in the potent atmosphere of hope mixed with dread. The hope was stimulated by the miraculous return of Alexander from the dead. Along with most of the Macedonian army, he had set out from his base in India with the plan of crossing what he supposed would be a reasonably well inhabited zone to the west. Instead he had found the nightmarish Gedrosian Desert. Coordination between Alexander's land army with his fleet broke down as the desolation of the coastal zone became apparent; both fleet and army were cut off, assumed lost. With the king's disappearance, imperial order began to break down: Men Alexander had set up as local governors began, tentatively, to consolidate authority in their own names. Without Alexander they knew there could be no unified empire, but only spoils. Each was positioning himself to grab his share.
Copyright © 2008 by Byron Hollinshead. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.