On June 11, 323 B.C./B.C.E., Alexander the Great died in Babylon after struggling with an unknown infirmity for over a week, abruptly ending his mercurial series of conquests that had built a Macedonian empire spanning Europe, Asia Minor, and Africa. The collection of nations and satrapies (sub-kingdoms) was, at the time of his death, one of the largest the world had ever seen. Although attempts initially were made to preserve the empire, the power vacuum left by Alexander’s demise ushered in a period of instability. The era of the Diadochi (Successors), marked by intrigue and war, was about to begin.
Uncertainty and mistrust took root immediately after Alexander died, since he lacked an heir. His Bactrian wife, Roxane, was well into her pregnancy, but it was impossible to know if their child would be male. Apparently, Alexander had attempted to make arrangements for the empire while on his deathbed, handing his signet ring to Perdiccas, his lieutenant and one of the Bodyguards (seven commanders who comprised Alexander’s personal entourage), in a gesture that seemed to make him regent. Still, all felt that regency was a weak measure at best. Alexander’s Bodyguards and Companions (close associates and commanders) desperately needed a permanent solution.
Recognizing that there was no time to lose, Perdiccas and Alexander’s other officials called a council on June 12 to discuss the succession issue. So great was their haste and their desire to resolve the matter that they chose to convene before their emissaries delivered news of Alexander’s death to two of the empire’s most powerful generals. The first was Antipater, Alexander’s eldest commander and viceroy of Europe. Since he was still reigning in Macedon on behalf of the dead king, the officials in Babylon believed delaying their decision until he arrived would further jeopardize the empire’s stability. The other absentee was Craterus, the commander most beloved by the Macedonian troops, who was traveling to Macedon with thousands of veterans to relieve Antipater of command. A decision couldn’t be postponed until his return, either. However, it’s possible that those in Babylon excluded these two men for more than the sake of expediency; both were so respected that their presence could have significantly swayed any decision of the council.
To settle the succession problem, the Bodyguards, the Companions, and dozens of the empire’s most distinguished generals and statesmen gathered around Alexander’s corpse in the throne room of Nebuchadnezzar II’s palace. Even though those present sought to preserve the empire, they also sought to acquire as much power as possible for themselves. The council was called to order, and the intrigues began.
As regent, Perdiccas proposed that the council wait the remaining weeks until Roxane gave birth. If her child were a boy, he would be the rightful king (and by implication, Perdiccas himself would remain regent). His proposal was challenged by Nearchus of Crete, Alexander’s admiral and close friend, who argued that waiting was foolish. Instead, he recommended that Alexander’s illegitimate son, Heracles, be crowned immediately. The others in the room derided the idea as an obvious attempt to seize power, pointing out that Heracles was Nearchus’ half-brother by marriage and that Heracles’ illegitimacy excluded him from inheritance.
As the clamor died down, an infantry captain named Meleager spoke up. He contended that neither Roxane’s unborn child nor Heracles should be king because they were both half-Macedonian. To him and his fellow infantrymen, the racial mixing was unacceptable. Let Alexander’s fully Macedonian half-brother Arrhidaeus be king, he argued. His proposal was countered by Ptolemy, a Bodyguard and Alexander’s childhood friend, who reminded the council that Arrhidaeus was mentally challenged and unable to rule on his own. Ptolemy posited that the councilors shouldn’t force themselves to select any of the undesirable options that had been proposed; instead, they should appoint a smaller council of generals to govern the empire (which would strip Perdiccas of the powers and privileges that came with being regent).
Most of the councilors favored Ptolemy’s plan, yet there were some who still sought another way. After more debate, the council decided on a compromise between Perdiccas’ and Ptolemy’s proposals: Roxane’s child, if a boy, would become king, but he would have a council of four stewards—two in Asia, two in Europe—who oversaw the empire until he came of age. Perdiccas and Leonnatus, another Bodyguard, were to govern Asia, while Antipater and Craterus were to govern Europe (a measure that simultaneously recognized the absent generals’ seniority, attempted to appease any desires for power they may have had, and sidelined them from actually influencing the child, who was to remain in Babylon). Despite his high rank and responsibility for half the agreement, Ptolemy was excluded from the council of stewards, a measure that initiated his lasting rivalry with Perdiccas.
Having accomplished the first major task before them, the councilors sent Meleager to inform the infantry and require them to swear fealty to the stewards and the unborn child. However, he arrived at their camp to find that they had been holding their own council.
And their plans had nothing to do with stewards or Roxane’s child.
This is the first post in a series on the death of Alexander and the First Diadoch War. The entire series can be found here.
- James Romm. Ghost on the Throne: The Death of Alexander the Great and the War for Crown and Empire. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2011.
- Robin Waterfield. Dividing the Spoils: The War for Alexander the Great’s Empire. New York: Oxford University Press, 2011.
My map used in this post is a significantly altered version of a map originally published by Fornadan under the Creative Commons: Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 license. My version of the map is published under the same license.