- James Houser
June 10, 323 BC - The Death of Alexander the Great
Updated: Jun 12, 2021
June 10, 323 BC. The King is dying in the capital he conquered, and his followers wait on bated breath for his final will and testament. As his companions ask him to whom he leaves his enormous kingdom – a realm that stretches from Greece to Afghanistan, from Egypt to Central Asia – Alexander the Great says only one thing: “to the strongest.” This is obviously going to end well.
I have a couple more posts about everyone’s favorite psychopathic, alcoholic conqueror coming up this year, so I won’t delve too far into the backstory today. Today is my excuse, instead, to talk about the era that really, really needs an HBO adaptation: the Wars of the Diadochi, or the Successors. So I’ll start with Alex, but then we’ll move on to his death and see what happened after that.
In 336 BC, our hero became King Alexander III of Macedon at 18 years old after his father, Philip II (one of history’s great generals in his own right) was assassinated during a religious festival. Despite numerous conspiracy theories, some of which implicate Alexander himself, no satisfactory explanation has emerged for Philip’s death. Either way, Alexander was now king of a country that his father had made the dominant power in the Greek world.
At the climactic battle of Chaeronea in 338, Philip – with his teenage son leading the elite Macedonian cavalry – had crushed a coalition of the Greek cities, cementing his control over Greece. The Macedonian Army was the best fighting force the ancient world had ever seen, with truly great generals at its head such as Antigonus One-Eye, Antipater, and Parmenion. It stood primed to do anything it wanted.
So where some kids get handed the keys to the family car, Alexander was handed something greater. He had been told from birth that he was descended from TWO Greek Gods: Zeus on his mother’s side and Dionysius on his father’s. He had been educated by the best the ancient Greek world had to offer – his teenage tutor had been some guy named Aristotle. He had lived and worked with soldiers his entire life, had been at his father’s side on countless successful campaigns, read the Iliad like priests read the Bible, and saw himself as divinely appointed to punish the Kingdom of Persia for Xerxes’ desecration of Greek temples during the invasion of 480 BC. He was brilliant, handsome, stocky and short but compelling and charismatic, utterly ruthless and with something of a psychopathic touch to his behavior in battle. And he had just been handed the keys to the Ancient World’s version of the German blitzkrieg.
And, if it needs repeating, he was 18 years old. So what does this combination produce?
13 years later, Alexander the Great was the most successful conqueror the world had ever seen – by an exponential margin. He had smashed through Persian army after Persian army like they were made of Spam©, taken cities that could not be taken, defeated armies that could not be defeated, named truly too many cities after himself and – something no one else has ever really done – somehow won a guerrilla war in Afghanistan. (Fun fact: Kandahar in Afghanistan was originally “Alexandria,” later shortened by the locals to “Iskandar” and finally its current form.)
Having smashed apart the Persian Empire like a bully kicking over a kid’s sand castle, being proclaimed as Pharaoh in Egypt, taking the title “King of Kings” for himself and marching Greek and Macedonian armies to the limits of the known world, he couldn’t stop. He marched into India, a land of only rumor and mystery, and…immediately started knocking heads there too. It was only a mutiny of his own homesick soldiers that kept him from going farther, and forced him to turn back and devote his attention to the problem of trying to actually *rule* this maddening kaleidoscope of lands he had somehow conquered.
This makes it seem like Alexander was superhuman, and most people at the time seemed to think so. Of course, he wasn’t, and most of his success was due to chronically weak Persian leadership and his ability to assume roles meant for other people. Alexander’s behavior changed as time went on; he behaved more like a Persian than a Greek, to the displeasure of his colleagues and generals. This led to some tense moments in the last years of his life, including another near-mutiny by his army.
Alexander also had a drinking problem, and it definitely grew worse as the near-psychotic dream of living out his favorite scenes from the Iliad receded into the very real and unpleasant problems of managing an empire. As he relied on the bottle more and more, his behavior became erratic and often ended in violence, including against his own subordinates and generals. The drinking began to take a toll on his health as well. Even the pregnancy of his wife, Roxanne of Bactria, could not break him out of the stupor.
In May 323 BC, Alexander returned from a stay in Persia to take up residence at his new capital Babylon, the jewel of Mesopotamia. As he approached the city through the swampy terrain, it is likely that he contracted some bug before entering the gates of Babylon. What happened next differs based on the account, but the main thrust is pretty similar: after a night of truly apocalyptic binge-drinking (one of his favorite hobbies), Alexander woke up the next morning with a raging fever. Over the next two weeks, Alexander’s health declined slowly. His soldiers, anxious about his health, passed in review by his throne as he waved limply at them. It was clear he was on his death bed.
Given the Macedonian tendency for assassination (one of their favorite hobbies), the ancient historians all mention theories about possible murderers. Most dismissed it, though the most likely candidate was Antipater, the old general who had stayed back in Greece to manage Macedon after Alexander began his conquests. The strongest evidence against this is the apparently slow action of the poison, which none of the common Greek poisons were capable of.
Either way, Alexander was obviously on his way out. It was a very sudden occurrence; the King of practically all the known world was only 33 years old, and most people expected him to live at least another couple of decades. Instead, he lay dying in the capital he never really got to use. This posed a major problem: Alexander had no living heir. Roxanne was still pregnant, but her son would not be born for another two months. Sure, that would make him Alexander’s heir, but babies are notoriously bad at things like commanding armies, standing up, political maneuvering, and bowel control. Who was going to run this enormous empire – just recently put together, mind you, and very much NOT well-organized – when Alexander was gone?
When asked on his deathbed, Alexander had only one thing to say: “toi kratistoi.” Or maybe “toi Krateroi.” Most of his generals and staff heard the first one – possible because that is what they wanted to hear, because “toi kratistoi” means “to the strongest.” The second phrase – “toi Krateroi” – means something very simple: to Craterus. Craterus was Alexander’s infantry commander, a reliable middle-aged soldier with no ambition whatsoever.
Did Alexander, in his last moments, really tell his VERY ambitious little cadre of generals, captains, secretaries, and hangers-on “to the strongest?” Because that only meant one thing to them. That translated to: “Well, looks like ya’ll gonna have to see who wants it the most.” It was a recipe for complete disaster, since everyone of course thought HE was the strongest. Or did Alexander want to designate Craterus – loyal, reliable Craterus – as regent for his unborn son until the lad came of age? Did Alexander misspeak? Dying people are notoriously bad at things like speaking clearly, not rambling, and dictating a last will and testament on the fly.
Of course, this is only one version of the tale. There are multiple historical accounts of Alexander’s death. Diodorus Siculus, writing in the 1st Century BC, tells the above version. Arrian and Plutarch, generally the most reliable, report that Alexander died speechless – but that isn’t as good a story or as snappy a quote, so I didn’t use it as my attention-grabber at the top of this post. Plus, even if Alexander didn’t designate anyone as his regent or heir, that was basically the same as if he said, in effect, “Uh, I don’t know, why don’t you guys fight and figure it out.”
Whatever Alex said or didn’t say, that’s what happened. On June 10, 323 BC, Alexander the Great breathed his last. Before he died, though, he passed his signet ring to Perdiccas – leader of his household bodyguard – in front of a score of witnesses. Perdiccas seized on this to claim that he was now regent of the Empire! (So you guys have to listen to me. Dad left and now I’M in charge.)
Perdiccas used his new-found “power” to proclaim himself Regent for Alexander’s unborn son, with himself, Craterus, and Antipater as the three guardians of the Empire. Alexander’s army revolted, though, in favor of Alex’s mentally infirm half-brother Philip Arrhidaeus. The two sides ended up compromising, and after the birth of Alexander IV in August, proclaimed the two men joint kings. So one’s mentally incompetent, and the other’s a baby – so mentally incompetent. This just keeps getting better and better.
Perdiccas now had a new problem: Alexander’s many powerful generals and friends, all of whom commanded loyalties from some portion of the Empire. Perdiccas decided to deal with these guys by awarding them Satrapies, governorships based on the old divisions of the Persian Empire. This was a really terrible idea for lots of reasons, the main one being that it scattered a bunch of dangerous, combat-experienced generals all around the Near East, gave them all power bases, and made a bunch of people jealous when they didn’t get the good parts.
So now you have a bunch of guys who are pissed off at Perdiccas, and a bunch of generals scheming to somehow get the whole Empire for themselves. See, Alexander was dead, and his “idiot brother” and a little baby were not exactly inspirational figures. The powerful and ambitious generals were being asked to listen to Perdiccas, never a popular figure. Perdiccas soon got greedy and cruel, having one of Alexander’s wives (not Roxanne) assassinated and one of the top generals murdered.
All of Alexander’s loose family members – sisters, half-brothers, distant cousins, what have you – immediately started marrying and aligning themselves with various generals. Soon the powerful and respected satrap of modern Turkey, Antigonus One-Eye, was in open revolt against Perdiccas, joined by Antipater and Craterus. They began gathering armies to lead against the Regent.
In 321, Perdiccas sent Alexander’s embalmed body off to Macedon for burial. On its way there, the funeral convoy was raided and the Satrap of Egypt – Ptolemy, another of Alexander’s bodyguards and a top lieutenant – stole his former master’s body and brought it to Egypt. There he displayed it in the new city at the mouth of the Nile: Alexandria.
Perdiccas promptly decided to invade Egypt, but when he reached the Nile he found Ptolemy’s army waiting for him. Defeated by the Egyptian forces, Perdiccas was forced to retreat, and after multiple failed attacks at other parts of the Nile, the Macedonian troops finally had enough and killed Perdiccas themselves. His officers and the rest of his army defected to join Ptolemy.
And that’s where we’ll end this story for now: at the precipice of chaos. With Perdiccas’ death, the family of Alexander was permanently out of power as generals, kings, powerful women and weak princes, eunuchs and rogues and bandits all vied for power over the husk of Alexander’s Empire. Almost all would die violent deaths, and no one could ever stay satisfied with the territory he already had: they had to have it all. Even when this king held all of Persia, or that king held all of Greece, they couldn’t stop: they *had* to try and take the rest of the Empire back. Alexander’s legacy was conquest, and conquest unending. The Empire would never be reunited, and dozens of great names would rise and fall trying to have it all.
Except Ptolemy. He had Egypt, and he was happy with it. It would be Ptolemy’s Greek dynasty that would oversee the last era of Ancient Egypt, ruling not from the traditional Egyptian capitals but from the Greek city of Alexandria; his last descendant, Cleopatra, is possibly the most famous of all, and she would only fall at the hands of the only empire of the ancient world to ever rival Alexander’s – Rome.
Alexander’s body remained in Egypt for centuries, on vivid display in a mausoleum. We know it was there 300 years later, when Caesar and Augustus both visited it, and later when Caligula apparently stole Alexander’s breastplate. At some point after 300 AD, it stops being mentioned in the sources, and no one today knows where Alexander the Great lies in the city that bears his name.
For the next two centuries after his death, though, the Near East would be a whirlwind of chaos as his successors – in Greek, the Diadochi – struggled to repeat his accomplishments and reclaim his throne. It was a bitter legacy to possibly the greatest conqueror of all time – but what other legacy could you expect?
Alexander’s bequeathal of his empire “to the strongest” proved to be a curse. By seeking to prove they were the strongest, they destroyed themselves. There’s a lesson in that somewhere, maybe someone smarter could figure it out.