Authors: Robin Waterfield
Tags: #History, #Ancient, #General, #Military, #Social History
DIVIDING THE SPOILS
Ancient Warfare and Civilization
RICHARD ALSTON ROBIN WATERFIELD
In this series, leading historians offer compelling new narratives of the armed conflicts that shaped and reshaped the classical world, from the wars of Archaic Greece to the fall of the Roman Empire and Arab conquests.
Dividing the Spoils: The War for Alexander the Great’s Empire
The War for Alexander
the Great’s Empire
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Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Waterfield, Robin, 1952–
Dividing the spoils : the war for Alexander the Great’s empire/Robin Waterfield.
p. cm. — (Ancient warfare and civilization)
Includes bibliographical references and index.
1. Greece—History—Macedonian Hegemony, 323–281 B.C. 2. Macedonia—History—Diadochi,
323–276 B.C. 3. Generals—Greece—Biography. 4. Generals—Macedonia—Biography. 5. Greece—
Kings and rulers—Biography. 6. Macedonia—Kings and rulers—Biography. 7. Mediterranean Region—
History, Military. 8. Mediterranean Region—History—To 476. I. Title.
1 3 5 7 9 8 6 4 2
Printed in the United States of America
on acid-free paper
FOR MY FATHER
AND IN MEMORY OF MY MOTHER
This book tells the story of one of the great forgotten wars of history. It took more or less forty years after the death of Alexander the Great for his heirs (the
, the Successors) to finish carving up his vast empire. These years, 323–281
, were filled with high adventure, intrigue, passion, assassinations, dynastic marriages, treachery, shifting alliances, and mass slaughter on battlefield after battlefield. And while the men fought on the field, the women schemed from their palaces, pavilions, and prisons; this was the first period of western history when privileged women, especially from the royal families, began to play the kind of major political roles they would continue to play throughout the future history of Roman, Byzantine, and European monarchies.
My period has a natural starting point—the death of Alexander in June 323—and an equally natural end. The year 281 saw the violent deaths of the last two direct Successors of Alexander, those who had known and ridden with him. The next generation—the
, as Nymphis, a historian of the second century
, called them in a lost work—may have been just as ambitious as their fathers, but the world had changed. It was no longer realistic to aim for dominion of the whole of Alexander’s empire; instead, their first aim was to hold on to their core territories—Macedon for the Antigonids, Asia for the Seleucids, and Greater Egypt for the Ptolemies. Of course, they and their descendants would regularly attempt to take over some of a neighbor’s territory, but no individual any longer realistically aspired to rule the whole known world. There would never again be a time like the time
of the Successors, forty years of almost unremitting warfare aimed at worldwide domination.
In their day, the Successors were household names, because they held the fate of the world in their hands. If their fame has become dimmed over the centuries, that is a result of historical accident (the loss of almost all our sources for the period) and of our perennial obsession with Alexander the Great, in whose shadow they have been made to stand. My main purpose in this book has been to revive the memory of the Successors. A narrative account is enough on its own to demonstrate that the early Hellenistic period was not an anticlimax after the conquests of Alexander, and certainly not a period of decline and disintegration. In fact, Alexander had left things in a mess, with no guaranteed succession, no administration in place suitable for such an enormous empire, and huge untamed areas both bordering and within his “empire.” A detailed and realistic map of Alexander’s conquests would show him cutting a narrow swath across Asia and back, leaving much relatively untouched. So far from disintegration, then, the Successors consolidated the Conqueror’s gains. Their equal ambitions, however, meant that consolidation inevitably led to the breakup of the empire and the foundation of lesser empires and kingdoms.
Military narrative features prominently in the book, but has been broken up by “asides” on cultural matters. For, astonishingly, this period of savage warfare was also characterized by brilliant cultural developments, especially in the fields of art, literature, and philosophy. The energy released by world conquest was not all absorbed on battle-fields, and the culture the Successors brought in their train flourished, thanks especially to royal patronage. Although they were warlords, the Successors were not uncultured. Alexander himself was said to have slept with a copy of Homer’s
under his pillow—along with a knife.
Without the consolidation the Successors brought to Alexander’s gains, the spread of culture would have been impossible; there is no civilization without structure.
So as well as an account of the military action, this book also contains an outline of its cultural impact. A new world emerged from the dust and haze of battle—a world with distinct territories each ruled by its own king, but with a common culture. That common culture is what entitles us to speak generally of “the Greek east,” distinct from “the Roman west,” and it was the Successors, therefore, who set up the world-changing confrontation between these two power blocs. The result, of course, was Roman dominion over the entire Greek world. The takeover culminated in 30
with the annexation of Egypt, and
this date is generally taken to mark the end of what scholars call the “Hellenistic” period—the period, starting with the death of Alexander, when the Greek culture that the Successors fostered came to dominate the world from the Mediterranean to Afghanistan.
My main intention has been to write an accurate and enjoyable book—to make sense of a very difficult period of history. The over-arching story is implied by my title and subtitle. The spoils
divided. We see the emergence, out of Alexander’s single empire, of a multistate political order and of a developing balance of power. At one time or another, all the Successors tried to emulate their dead leader and conquer the entirety of the empire, but none of them succeeded. We witness what realist historians would describe as a law of history: contiguous powers with imperialist ambitions are bound to clash and so limit those ambitions. At the beginning of our forty-year period, grand imperialism was a possibility, but not at the end. The action of this law is the thread that runs through the book.
If an empire is the political, economic, and military domination of disparate populations by a distinct ruling class, with the whole administered from a geographically remote center, Seleucus won an empire (large chunks of the former Achaemenid empire of Persia), Ptolemy won an empire (Greater Egypt, as I call it from time to time in the book), and the Antigonids won a kingdom, as well as hegemony (the ability to command obedience on the basis of a real or implied military threat) over much of Greece. Very few, then, of the fifteen or so Successors succeeded in fulfilling their ambitions with any degree of stability or endurance. The law of history I mentioned just now plays itself out in various ways. Empires can be won or lost by caution, luck, treachery, military brilliance, megalomania. The forty years of the Successors display all of these dramas.
There had been empires in the world before. The Persian empire of the Achaemenids (550–330
) was the one of most significance for the neighboring Greeks; it was preceded in its turn, on a far smaller scale, by the Neo-Assyrian empire (934–610), which was preceded by the Hittite empire (1430–ca. 1200) and the Akkadian empire (late third millennium). Farther east, there may have been something describable as an empire in northern China during the Shang and Zhou periods (1766–1045; 1045–256), though the evidence is difficult to assess. But Alexander’s Successors created the first empires whose rulers and dominant culture were European; the so-called Athenian “empires” of the fifth and fourth centuries were not really empires, above all because subjects and rulers shared a common ethnic background.
Of course, Alexander himself was the conqueror in whose imperialist footsteps the Successors trod, but his empire was cut short by his death after a mere ten years, and can hardly be described as an empire anyway, for the reason I have already given: he was too busy conquering to give much thought to the perpetuation of his rule. It was the Successors who created the first stable empires with a European flavor. This was indeed a significant period of history, and it has been overlooked only because of the difficulties in recovering it. Historians of imperialism simply skip from Alexander to Rome; I aim to set the record straight.
In order to make the book as accessible as possible, I have chosen to focus on individuals; while maintaining a forward thrust, chronologically speaking, most of the chapters hinge on the adventures of one or two of the protagonists. To some readers, this may seem an old-fashioned approach. In emphasizing the role of individuals like this, am I not following the bias of ancient historians and writing “great man” history? History, it is said, is not driven by individuals so much as by economic, technological, and other, more abstract imperatives; individuals do not make society, but society makes individuals. There is truth in this, and I have tried to bring out at least some of the economic aspects of the Successors’ warfare. At the same time, however, it needs to be remembered that these men were absolute rulers, a hard fact that many critics of “great man” history tend to ignore. The Successors’ egos and desires could and did alter the course of history.