Alexander the Great didn’t enjoy a long life, but few people have had such a profound effect on the world. In an odd way, perishing so young was probably the best thing Alexander could have done for his legacy – he didn’t grow old and frail, and he wasn’t crushed by the unbearable weight of actually running such a vast and disparate empire. He perished almost as dramatically as he lived.
The empire he carved out through rapid conquest wasn’t built to last, and although the men who formed his inner circle were individuals of great ambition and talent, Alexander was an impossible act to follow. The soldiers who had won him such a vast empire found the one opponent they couldn’t easily best – each other. This list breaks down the fascinating story of Alexander’s passing and what actually happened to his body, his family, and his empire.
Alexander Had Planned A Campaign Against The Arabs
Alexander’s army might have forced him to turn back in India, but he was far from finished with conquests. While in Babylon, he received emissaries from surrounding kingdoms, but not from the Arabian Peninsula. Although they didn’t pose an immediate threat, the snub was enough to convince him to invade. The campaign had been thoroughly planned and was on the brink of launching before Alexander fell gravely ill.
If that wasn’t enough, Alexander had further plans to stretch his territory all the way to the Strait of Gibraltar and construct a gigantic road connecting the Pillars of Hercules with Egypt. His successors decided against pursuing such lofty ambitions; keeping control over what they had was trouble enough.
Alexander Attempted To Disappear Shortly Before His Passing
One interesting story to arise from the final days of Alexander is his alleged attempt to drown himself in the Euphrates River and not leave a body behind. The sources claim his heavily pregnant wife Roxana (also written as Roxanne) discovered him missing from his bed chambers and found the stricken king crawling toward the river.
Seeing what he had planned, the young princess persuaded her husband to return to bed, leaving the sickly king to lament, “You have robbed me of immortality.”
Although quite possibly an anecdote invented by writers, the story is very much in keeping with Alexander’s flair for the dramatic. One of the difficulties historians have, particularly scholars of the ancient world, is finding reliable contemporary information. Most of the historical accounts of Alexander were written centuries later, having drawn upon sources that are now lost.
A Babylonian Astronomical Diary Was Found From The Day He Passed
The exact day of Alexander’s demise, June 11 in 323 BCE, is known because of a clay Babylonian astronomical diary (pictured). This tiny piece of history is the only surviving contemporary account of Alexander’s passing.
The great weight of the great event that took place was almost comically understated by the tablet’s words: “Today the king died. Clouds.”
The Cause Of His Passing Is Still A Mystery
It will never truly be known what caused the premature demise of one of the most impactful people in all of history. There are several possibilities.
Alexander’s last difficult campaign in the Indus River valley would have brought exposure to unfamiliar diseases. He may never have truly recovered from the grievous wound he received during the siege of Multan. It’s also possible he succumbed to alcoholism; he was always a heavy drinker, but this habit may have taken a lethal turn in the wake of the passing of Hephaestion, a dear friend.
Another credible theory, one certainly widely believed at the time, was that Alexander had been poisoned by any one of his many enemies. One leading suspect was the Macedonian noble Cassander, sent to Babylon by his father, Antipater, the regent of Macedonia.
Another more outlandish theory was that Alexander’s old tutor Aristotle had a hand in his former pupil’s end. Alexander ordered the execution of Callisthenes for his involvement in a conspiracy against the king. Callisthenes was Aristotle’s great-nephew. Even the historian who mentioned the theory had a hard time accepting it as true, however.
Modern physicians have advanced a few other theories, but the continued absence of Alexander’s mummified remains means nobody can know for sure.
Alexander’s Body Didn’t Decompose For Several Days
According to ancient historians, Alexander’s body didn’t begin to decompose for several days.
[H]is body, although it lay without special care in places that were moist and stifling, showed no sign of such a destructive influence, but remained pure and fresh.
Was this tale a fabrication to craft a legend, or was there an explanation for this seemingly implausible situation? One modern theory offers an intriguing explanation: Alexander’s corpse didn’t decompose because it was not, in fact, a corpse at all.
Alexander’s agonizing final days may have been caused by a condition called Guillain-Barré syndrome, a rare disorder that causes the body’s immune system to target the nerves. One of the outcomes is paralysis, so he may have appeared deceased a few days before he actually passed.
There Was No Clear Heir To Alexander
When Alexander almost perished while on campaign in India, a major crisis was only narrowly avoided. Without a clearly identified second in command, the army’s cohesion almost broke down entirely when rumors of Alexander’s demise surfaced. None of his generals held sufficient sway over the rest of the army to take the reins of power.
When Alexander passed in Babylon, there was no obvious living successor. He had possibly fathered an illegitimate son, Heracles, with a Persian woman named Barsine. The disputed parentage of the boy and the fact he had Persian blood made him an unlikely successor. Similarly, although Roxana carried Alexander’s legitimate child, her Bactrian heritage would not be looked upon kindly by many Macedonians.
That left Arrhidaeus (coin pictured), the living half-brother of Alexander who wasn’t mentally competent enough to rule. Alexander was evidently quite fond of his impaired brother, as he was left alive when Alexander took the throne and systematically eliminated all potential rivals. Some Macedonians thought Arrhidaeus, despite his disabilities, should take the throne anyway. In either case, a regent would be necessary to oversee the administration of Alexander’s vast empire.
Among the closest generals, Alexander had striven to treat them with equal favor so none would bear him ill will or attain the influence to challenge his rule. As a mechanism for protecting his grip on power, it was quite effective, but also sowed the seeds for disaster upon his demise; because the generals were regarded as equals, none felt compelled to answer to the other.
Perdiccas was considered the most senior of Alexander’s bodyguards. He held the position of chiliarch and had been handed Alexander’s ring, and it was he who convened a meeting in Babylon to consider the matter of succession. The meeting started out cordially enough, but soon descended into chaos when sharp disagreements arose over exactly who should succeed Alexander.
The Struggle Over His Body Began Within Hours Of His Passing
The all-conquering Macedonian army was barely held together by Alexander, and the division between the infantry and cavalry boiled over in India when the infantry simply refused to go any further. Even Alexander couldn’t force them onward; the veteran infantry was an essential component to Alexander’s victories, and they knew it. They were a formidable fighting force, hardened by decades of warfare first under Philip II and then Alexander, but they were increasingly difficult to handle.
Alexander’s efforts to fuse the cultures of his empire angered the foot soldiers who’d played such an important role in winning it. They resented the inclusion of local troops into the phalanx while the cavalry remained almost entirely Macedonian. If even Alexander had found his infantry difficult to manage toward the end, it was an impossible task for any of his successors.
The infantry captain Meleager saw an opportunity and called for the ascension of Arrhidaeus. Meleager arrived at the room where Alexander’s body lay, joined by the impaired prince and a few hundred followers to proclaim Arrhidaeus the new king. Mayhem had broken out not even 24 hours after Alexander’s passing – if he had actually perished at all.
The outnumbered Macedonian nobles were forced to flee the royal quarters via a hidden passage. Men were sent to detain Perdiccas, but the chiliarch managed to talk them out of it by shaming them into leaving. Not wishing to push his luck any further, Perdiccas and the Macedonian nobles left Babylon that evening, but they would not be gone for long.
A Compromise Was Reached Between Infantry And Cavalry
After fleeing the city, the Macedonian nobles blocked the supply routes into Babylon. With the situation rapidly spiraling out of control, a compromise was worked out between the two factions to avoid open civil war. The succession dispute was resolved by proposing a system where, if Roxana’s unborn child turned out to be male, he would rule alongside Arrhidaeus, who had now assumed the regnal name of Philip III.
Perdiccas would remain regent as chiliarch, effectively the commander of the army, and would be regent to the unborn king. Meleager would act as his deputy, while other matters involving the European and Asian portions of the empire were worked out. The pact avoided open war but did not prevent further bloodshed.
Mutineers Were Trampled By Elephants
After the dust of the initial hostilities had settled, the time for reckoning had come. Perdiccas arranged for a cleansing ritual called lustration to be performed outside the city walls by the Macedonian army. The act saw a dog slain and its body cut in half, with the two pieces dragged to either side of the battlefield. The army would then march between the pieces in an act of symbolic purification. Ostensibly to ease the recent tensions between the two factions of the Macedonian army, Perdiccas had other intentions.
Outside the city walls, the infantry gathered only to find their chosen king had been brought forward to demand the ringleaders of the recent troubles, who had placed Philip on the throne, were to be handed over. The infantry found themselves confronted with a fully armed force of cavalry complete with armored war elephants from the Indian campaigns. In an open field, resisting such a force was futile and the demands were met – around 30 leaders were apprehended and bound.
They were laid out in front of the army and fatally trampled by the war elephants in an awe-inspiring – if rather gruesome – show of strength by the nobility. Meleager escaped with his life but was soon tracked down to a temple where he wrongly assumed the taboo against violence in a holy place would ensure his safety. He was dispatched on the spot, bringing an ignoble end to his brief flirtation with great power.
Alexander’s Widow And Perdiccas Eliminated His Other Wives
Unwilling to even consider the possibility of potential rivals being born to Alexander’s two Persian wives, Roxana and Perdiccas arranged for their elimination.
Stateira II was the daughter of Alexander’s great enemy, Darius III, who was captured along with her mother after Alexander’s victory at Issus. Stateira and Parysatis, daughter of another Persian ruler, married Alexander as part of the mass weddings at Susa, a rather misguided attempt at cultural fusion where Alexander and his men took Persian wives. All but one of the marriages ended in divorce after Alexander’s passing.
When rumors of Stateira’s pregnancy reached Roxana, she and Perdiccas colluded to forge a letter from Alexander summoning the princess and her sister to Babylon. The letter arrived before the Persian women learned of Alexander’s passing. When the women arrived, they were immediately eliminated and their remains were unceremoniously cast down a well that was then buried by servants.
Although Parysatis was not named in the historical accounts, it’s likely she was either slain alongside Stateira or dispatched later. Roxana’s ruthlessness was born of necessity; her future was tied to her unborn child and no rival could be allowed to live.
The Empire Was Parceled Up Amongst His Successors To Act As Regents
The Partition of Babylon divided the empire into smaller regions to be governed by Alexander’s closest allies as regents. Antipater had been left in charge of Macedon when Alexander began his great conquest, and he and his son Cassander would remain in charge of the Macedonian homeland. Egypt was given to Ptolemy to look after, while the remaining lands in Asia were distributed among the generals, though the potentially lucrative province of Cappadocia had to be secured by force by Eumenes.
The outbreak of local revolts tested the skills and resolve of the successors, who found that claiming authority over Alexander’s empire was a great deal easier than actually enforcing it. Alexander’s lofty dreams of further expansion were swiftly abandoned by Perdiccas and the successors who had their hands full just holding on to the existing territories.
Relations between the successors were strained from the beginning; factions formed and dissolved as marriage contracts were made and broken. Alexander’s mother Olympias was no stranger to court intrigues, and much of her work in the wake of Alexander’s passing was aimed squarely at Antipater. One of the most sought-after women in the ancient world was Alexander’s 32-year-old sister, Cleopatra, widow of the late king of Epirus.
Alexander’s Funeral Cart Took Two Years To Build
Alexander’s untainted body was preserved by embalmers while a fitting vessel to carry him to his final resting place was constructed. Traditionally, Macedonian kings were entombed at the old capital of Aigai. Even after the capital was moved to Pella, the kings continued to be entombed at Aigai. A prophecy foretold that the Argead dynasty would fall if any king from that line were buried anywhere else.
The funeral carriage was one of the great wonders of the ancient world, pulled by 64 mules and intended to carry the king back to Macedon in a grand procession. At least that was the plan.
His Body Was Snatched By Ptolemy
Ptolemy was one of Alexander’s closest friends but had limited military experience, especially compared with the other members of Alexander’s personal bodyguard. However, what he lacked in battlefield prowess, he more than made up for with intellect. Widely regarded as the cleverest of the successors, Ptolemy would ultimately carve out a great empire in his own right in Egypt.
Knowing the symbolic value of Alexander’s body, Ptolemy schemed to have the king’s corpse transported to Damascus for safekeeping. Realizing a plot was afoot, Perdiccas arranged to take the body back only to learn Ptolemy’s men had spirited Alexander’s remains to Egypt where they would be housed for centuries at Alexandria.
Allegedly, Alexander had personally requested his remains be entombed at Siwa in Egypt, but scholars regard this as a fabrication on Ptolemy’s part to justify his brazen heist. The tomb of Alexander became a popular tourist destination and was visited by both Julius and Augustus Caesar (pictured), but its location was eventually lost and remains a mystery to the present day.
The act prompted Perdiccas to raise an army to invade Egypt and retake possession of Alexander’s remains to stop a potential rival from gaining too much power. Ultimately, the campaign was a disaster and Perdiccas was slain by his own officers, who then defected to Ptolemy.
With the demise of the regent Perdiccas, the unity of the empire unraveled after three years of precarious existence. Never again would Macedonian unity be achieved though such formidable empires as Ptolemy’s Egypt, and the Seleucids would endure for centuries. The struggles of the Diadochi (successors) had only just begun with the fall of Perdiccas.
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