California Literary Review

Book Review: Dividing the Spoils: The War for Alexander the Great’s Empire by Robin Waterfield

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May 3rd, 2011 at 3:14 pm

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Dividing the Spoils
Dividing the Spoils: The War for Alexander the Great’s Empire
Robin Waterfield
Oxford University Press — USA, 304 pp.
CLR Rating: ★★★★☆


Whom the Gods Would Destroy

The opening lines of the famous 18th century military march, “The British Grenadiers,” recall heroes from ancient Greece:

Some talk of Alexander, and some of Hercules
Of Hector and Lysander, and such great names as these.

Very few people, by contrast, ever sang the praises of “such great names” as Cassander, Antigonus, Perdiccas, Ptolemy and Lysimachus. These forgotten war lords from antiquity were the commanders and staff officers of Alexander the Great. Known as the Diadochi or “Successors,” Antigonus, Perdiccas and company launched a bloody civil war, lasting four decades, to determine who would control Alexander’s vast dominions after his death in 323 B.C.

The Diadochi are the protagonists of a new historical work, Dividing the Spoils, by Robin Waterfield. The story that Waterfield relates is surprisingly little known. Until now, the best book on the subject was the historical novel Funeral Games by Mary Renault, the third in her trilogy on Alexander. Using the very fragmentary records from the fourth and third centuries B.C., Waterfield aimed to “make sense of a very difficult period of history” by writing a unified narrative account of the dynastic free-for-all following Alexander’s death.

Alexander’s generals, with one exception, were Macedonians. Greek-speaking though the Macedonians were, their kingdom located to the north of the famous city-states of Athens and Sparta was a very different society from that of classical Greece. In many ways, Macedon was a throw-back to the age of Homer. Macedon’s warriors were aristocrats and peasants, bound to their king by mutual ties of loyalty and obligation. The Argead dynasty that ruled Macedon was much-married, the polygamy of its rulers, along with the influence accorded to its royal women, adding further fuel to the flames of discord.

Unfamiliar customs cannot explain why the “Wars of the Successors” remain uncharted territory by comparison with Alexander’s career of conquest. There are several answers to this but the first must be the scale and complexity of the decades-long conflict. The number of participants, changing alliances more frequently than clothing, was very big indeed. Readers will thank Waterfield for including a “Cast of Characters” along with his cogent narrative.

The vast range of the Wars of the Successors, which was essentially a single conflict interrupted by an occasional truce, was staggering. The fighting ranged from modern-day Libya to Asian provinces now part of Afghanistan and Pakistan. Even by modern standards, that was a big battleground.

The size of the engagements, likewise, dwarfed anything known before. When Alexander defeated the Persians at the Battle of Issus in 333 B.C., his forces numbered 35,000 infantry and 5000 cavalry. By comparison, the Battle of Ipsus, fought in 301 in present-day Turkey, pitted Antigonus and his son, Demetrius, nicknamed the “Besieger,” against Lysimachus and his ally, Seleucus. Each army deployed close to double the strength of Alexander’s forces at Issus. Both armies fielded squadrons of war elephants as well. The 400 elephants brought by Seleucus from his eastern territories bordering India over-matched the mere 75 commanded by Antigonus.

Size or scale, however, does not determine the importance of events. Alexander’s victory at Issus gave him control of much of the Middle East, including Egypt. Issus fatally undermined the Persian Empire to which Alexander gave the coup de grace, two years later. The Battle of Ipsus, though Antigonus died “in a shower of javelins,” settled nothing. The “Forty Years War” of the Diadochi, like Europe’s Thirty Years War during the 1600’s, was notable only for its length and futility.

As befits a polygamous society, the Wars of the Successors were fought on the marriage bed, as well as the battlefield. This was the first time in recorded Western history that women played an active part in determining policy. Alexander’s unfortunate wife, Rhoxane, was limited to the ill-fated role of trying to raise his posthumously-born son to manhood amid all the carnage. But there were a number of major female “players” in the great game of controlling the leaderless empire. Alexander’s formidable mother, Olympias, his sister, Cleopatra, and Arsinoe, the daughter of Ptolemy, to name but a few, made daring strategic moves during the course of the struggle — and not a few of these women warriors met violent deaths.

Perhaps, if a queen like Ptolemy’s descendant, Cleopatra VII — the Cleopatra immortalized by Shakespeare — had emerged as a clear-cut winner, even for a brief period, the age of the Successors would be better known and appreciated today. But there were no clear-cut winners, male or female, in this Forty Years War. What is more, the Successors were a cast of cut-throat scoundrels, most of whom met deaths of poetic, if not political, justice. With but a single exception, not one of the fallen Diadochi merits even a moment’s reflection, much less remorse, in the constant round of murders, executions and battlefield fatalities that figure so prominently in Waterfield’s narrative.

The exception is Eumenes of Cardia.

Eumenes was the Greek-born official who served as secretary and archivist to Philip II of Macedon and his world-conquering son, Alexander III. When Alexander died in 323, Eumenes’ vast knowledge and administrative skills were essential in helping Perdiccas broker a deal whereby the leading commanders received provinces to govern, ostensibly until Alexander’s and Rhoxane’s son came of age to take over the unified empire. Perdiccas, a duplicitous schemer, with a sadistic streak to his unsavory character, had a vested interest in keeping the infant heir under his control. But then, none of the Successors really wanted a new Alexander or a unified Macedonian Empire, unless they could control it.

Eumenes was not a Macedonian and he did want to preserve the empire for Alexander’s heir. Unpopular with the Macedonian rank and file, Eumenes quickly showed that he was more than a stylus-pushing Greek bureaucrat. Initially supporting the unlovable Perdiccas, Eumenes built a sizable military command which he used to counter the ambitions of Macedonian generals, like Cassander, who had custody of Rhoxane and the young Alexander IV. Convincing his troops that the ghost of Alexander had visited him in his dreams, the wily Eumenes also showed an unexpected ability as a battlefield commander, making him a force to be reckoned with on all fronts.

The defining moment of Eumenes’ life, and indeed of the Wars of the Successors, came in 317 B.C. at the Battle of Gabene. In terms of the number of combatants, the clash nearly matched the Battle of Ipsus. Eumenes gained an improbable victory — at first — by repulsing the veteran army of Antigonus. In the latter stages of the fighting, however, several cavalry squadrons of Antigonus raided Eumenes’ camp, making off with the families, baggage and pay of his troops. It was a serious loss, but Eumenes planned a quick counter-attack. Most of his officers, unaccountably, refused to budge.

Waterfield contends that Eumenes’ officers were planning a coup against him, whether he won or lost the battle with Antigonus. They seized Eumenes and handed him over to Antigonus, receiving their families and funds back. Most joined up with Antigonus, switching uniforms without a second thought. Eumenes and several loyal officers were brutally murdered by Antigonus.

This moment of rank treachery sealed the fate of Rhoxane and Alexander IV. A year later Cassander, allied for the moment with Antigonus, murdered Olympias. Then, in 309, as the young king approached manhood, Cassander poisoned Alexander IV and his mother. Had Eumenes survived the Battle of Gabene, Cassander’s murderous hand would have been stayed. Waterfield writes movingly of the betrayal and death of Eumenes:

Ever loyal to Olympias, Alexander IV and the legitimate Argead cause, Eumenes had proved himself an excellent general and the most successful of the loyalists. His death ushered in a new era, in which, rather than working for the surviving king, Antigonus and his peers would strive to establish their own rights to kingship. The deaths of Olympias and Eumenes left the world in the hands of men who owed no loyalty except to themselves.

Waterfield’s account of these depressing events raises the question of why Alexander’s generals plunged into this orgy of self-destruction. Were the Diadochi merely saber-rattling militarists who succumbed in classic Greek-style to hubris and nemesis?

Waterfield presents some intriguing speculation that Alexander’s blood lust may have triggered his own death and the ensuing civil war. In 328, Alexander personally murdered Cleitus, the stalwart warrior who had saved his life in battle. He had previously ordered the execution of his second-in-command, Parmenio, when the latter’s son was suspected of disloyalty. Shortly before his death, Alexander ordered his loyal general, Antipater, to come to Babylon after years of trustworthy service “holding the fort” in Macedon and in Greece. Such a summons was not intended as an occasion for presenting Antipater with a medal for meritorious service.

With Antipater’s head on the block, none of Alexander’s officers were safe. So it is plausible that Perdiccas or another commander on the spot in Babylon poisoned Alexander. But that does not explain why battle-tested veterans, who had known and trusted each other since childhood, should have turned upon one another with such venom. Nor does fear of Alexander’s paranoia justify the murder of Rhoxane and Alexander IV years after his death. There were plenty of lands, treasure and honors, the “spoils” of conquest, for Alexander’s generals to divide among themselves. But conquerors are never satisfied.

It did not take long before most of the Diadochi were gripped by a lust for power nearly as manic as had possessed Alexander. Ptolemy, however, showed a greater restraint. Though he launched several offensive campaigns, Ptolemy largely contented himself with ruling Egypt. Moreover, his policy decisions were marked by an astute blend of urban and economic development, along with encouraging the arts and sciences. Where Demetrius squandered vast sums on siege towers and Dreadnought-sized warships, Ptolemy built Alexandria into a cultural center whose brilliance eventually surpassed Athens.

Unlike Perdiccas and Antigonus, Ptolemy died in bed, leaving a secure dynasty that would survive every threat and every enemy until the rise of Rome. Ptolemy’s success, however, is not just an isolated success story amid the corpse-strewn debacle of the Wars of the Successors. There was a parallel development of cultural achievement and social progress during these tumultuous years, which Waterfield traces to a widespread reaction to the deeds and misdeeds of the Diadochi.

The period following Alexander’s death in 323 saw the emergence of individualism in Western consciousness. Alexander’s conquests and the political repressions which he and the Diadochi implemented crushed the public spirit of the Greek city states. With their political liberty diminished, the people of Greece found new scope for their amazing talents. Now they looked inward, finding emotional satisfaction in a host of creative expressions. But they did so as individuals. Formerly, the citizens of Athens, Sparta and Corinth had functioned in close-knit social settings, serving phalanx-style in the political and military institutions of their city states. This growing individualism, Waterfield contends, was a positive, if largely unintended, legacy of the Diadochi:

Much of the youthful energy of the new world they created was, it is true, absorbed by warfare, but there was still enough left to build on the past and create new ways of thinking about humankind and its role in the world, about how individuals might perfect themselves, about what counted as art and literature. Philosophy reached new heights of sophistication, while at the same time reaching out to ordinary people; artists worked with new canons of realism; science and technology progressed at a furious rate, often driven by the interminable wars.

Reading Waterfield’s upbeat verdict on these ancient events, we can only hope, amid the interminable wars of the current age, that history will repeat itself in a similar fashion.

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