CJ Online Review: Alexander’s Successors (Review-Discussion)

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Review–Discussion: Alexander’s Diadochs and their Destructive Wars

Dividing the Spoils: the War for Alexander the Great’s Empire. By Robin Waterfield. Ancient Warfare and Civilization. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2011. Pp. xv + 273. £18.99/$27.95. ISBN 978-0-19-957392-9 (UK); 978-0-19-539523-5 (US).

Ghost on the Throne: The Death of Alexander the Great and the War for Crown and Empire. By James Romm. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2011. Pp. xxii + 341. US$28.95/CAD$35.00. ISBN 978-0-307-27164-8.

Alexander’s Veterans and the Early Wars of the Successors. By Joseph Roisman. Fordyce W. Mitchell Lecture Series. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2012. Pp. xiv + 264. $55.00. ISBN 978-0-292-73596-5.

Reviewed by Carol J. King, Grenfell Campus Memorial University (cking).

The approach to the early Hellenistic period has long tended toward “individual” studies: studies of the individual Successors, of the separate dynastic kingdoms they formed, and of thematic topics. Sorely missing has been a historical synthesis of the Diadochs and their virtually uninterrupted warfare in the generation after Alexander. In the preface to his influential study, The Legacy of Alexander: Politics, Warfare, and Propaganda under the Successors (Oxford 2002), Brian Bosworth rightly expressed the “urgent need for a full historical coverage of the half century after Alexander” (v). But coverage of that half century, the confusion of shifting alliances, daring bids for power, and mounting regal ambitions that raged across three continents, ultimately until no Successor was left standing, is indeed a daunting task, especially given the paucity of sources and surplus of biases. Now, after nearly a decade, the three recent monographs under review here attempt to fulfill the urgent need. These books shed welcome light on this “neglected” period of history.[[1]]

At first glance the book titles suggest works near alike in content. Yet these are three very different approaches to the legacy of profound consequences of Alexander’s death without an heir and of the dozen years of unrelenting world conquest that left his seasoned veterans hankering for more, and his skilled generals in bitter rivalry. Discussion of Alexander himself is minimal, for these books aim to bring to light less famous men, such as Craterus and Eumenes, and the almost entirely anonymous veterans known collectively as the Silver Shields. Waterfield covers some forty years in a balanced military and cultural overview, aiming for a broad scope of readership by downplaying scholarly debate while at the same time serving up an erudite narrative that will engage scholars as much as non-specialists. Romm offers a detailed synthesis mainly of the military action of the Successors and the impact of their early wars on the Greek world—namely Athens—in a fast-paced narrative aimed at the general reader. Roisman’s thought provoking coverage centered just on the movements of the veteran heavy infantry and its role in the early Successors’ wars, with a strong emphasis on source analysis, is aimed at the specialist who already knows the players, events, and sources.

Waterfield covers the time period 323 to 281 bce, from the death of Alexander to the death of the last of Alexander’s successor generals, Seleucus, defining this span of time as the “natural parameters” of the wars for Alexander’s empire. His stated main purpose is “to revive the memory of the Successors” by focusing on individuals in keeping with the notion of the “great man” in history (xii). To this end ten of the book’s sixteen chapters include the name of one or more of the Successors. As one would expect, this is an account of military action, yes, but it is also “an outline of its cultural impact” (x). His cultural excursuses almost seamlessly lead the reader away from the main military narrative to offer that all too rare “breathing space in war”: “Menander was writing at a time when thousands of lives were being lost on the battlefields of Asia and Europe … It was all a far cry from war” (86–8). While this approach necessitates abandonment of strict chronology, the narrative nevertheless flows smoothly from Successor to Successor and from one theater of war to another.

With its interweave of military action and cultural developments this book, part of the Oxford University Press series “Ancient Warfare and Civilization,” serves as a solid introduction to the period for undergraduates and general readers. The inclusion of a convenient time line, list of “characters” and genealogy charts at the end of the book, as well as a center section of black and white plates along with ten prefacing maps, add to its suitability for Hellenistic history and civilization courses. Scholars and instructors may be disappointed, however, that Waterfield has chosen not to discuss scholarly controversies, although to the specialist it will be obvious where the author stands on many of these. For example, on the controversy over constitutional authority, throughout Waterfield refers to trials for treason as “show trials” (e.g. 64–5, 90–1, 113, 134, 159 with n.). The book is also short on notes, making it less edifying for upper level students and scholars. Yet Waterfield asks, and offers answers to, critical questions (e.g., “Why was Cassander … passed over [to succeed Antipater]?” (73), “Could a balance of power emerge … [following
the death of Eumenes]? (106)), and makes assessments that almost certainly will provoke scholarly responses. His final assessment, for example, of Alexander and the Successors as “forces of greed and destruction” (212) seems to disregard the author’s own excursus on the Museum of Alexandria (136–9) as “a vast extension of [the Macedonian] kingly function” of patronizing “Greek artists, philosophers, and scientists” (138). His claim that “[h]eredity was irrelevant to the Successors” (144) also finds contradiction in the prompt establishment by Antigonus, Ptolemy and Seleucus of hereditary monarchies through naming their sons co-rulers (not to mention almost every Successor’s bid to marry Cleopatra!). Provocative too is his statement that the attempt to emulate Alexander “died along with those who had actually known him” (210).

Romm covers the period from Alexander’s illness in Babylon in June 323 to the defeat and death of Eumenes in 317/16 in a vivid, dramatic narrative that is essentially a collation of Diodorus, Plutarch, Justin, and what fragments we have of Arrian’s Events After Alexander. The sources are introduced in the Preface, where Curtius is notably omitted; the explanation comes on p. 37: “Curtius’ readiness to see Roman patterns in Macedonian history … calls his reliability into question.” This is a curious statement, given that the reliability of Justin may just as well be called into question—Romm (following Bosworth) favors Justin over Curtius for events in Babylon—and the “unconventional” sources Polyaenus and Athenaeus are used without censure for the sake of “insights, however unverifiable, into the personalities that dominate this age” (xv). Also curious is the narrative shift from detailed annalistic chapters of the first seven years of warfare to condensed summary in the final chapter of the next eight years—arguably the “war for crown”—down to the death of the last Argead king Alexander IV c. 308 (a short Epilogue covers the deaths of Heracles and Cleopatra). Nowhere is the intended scope made explicit, although Romm does argue in the Preface that the term “Successors” is anachronistically applied to the “first seven years” after Alexander’s death because these men were vying for Alexander’s power only, not for his throne, being that they were not Argeads.[[2]] The death of Eumenes is in fact pivotal—the point beyond which the surviving Successors “owed no loyalty except to themselves,” according to Waterfield (102), and it is Roisman’s explicit terminus. To continue only in summary to the end of the Argeads, and not even to the crowns of the Successors, leaves the book unbalanced. Furthermore, two of the ten chapters are devoted to Athens’ relationship with Macedon. One cannot help but be moved by Romm’s description of the condemnation, sentencing, and death of Phocion (221–6!); however, this Athenocentric focus—apparent even in non-Athenian chapters—seems extraneous to the ghost on the throne.

This book’s greatest appeal is Romm’s exhilarating prose. From the “bookend” brief introduction “The Opening of the Tombs,” in which Romm describes Andonikos’ exciting discovery of Tombs II and III at Vergina in the late 1970s, to the final Chapter 10, “The Closing of the Tombs,” when the very tombs opened by Andronikos were closed in antiquity, the pace is seldom less than breathtaking. As a taste of what the reader can expect in terms of narrative tension, the opening sentence gives a good indication: “‘Be as calm as possible,’ Manolis Andronikos told his assistants as he slowly widened a hole leading down into darkness” (3). Readers new to this period of history will surely appreciate Chapter 1 devoted to introducing the main players, Alexander’s “Bodyguards and Companions,” before being swept narratively along into the “living history” of their internecine wars. Romm’s endnotes will prove useful too for inquisitive readers and specialists, although more so for the former since many are merely general comments on scholarly consensus, often with references to the ancient sources but few citations of the scholarship. The book contains six maps, a couple of diagrams, and some sixteen black and white photos throughout. What seems lost in the breathtaking narrative in my view, however, is the ghost on the throne. “Little Eumenes” (e.g., 91, 141, 208, 252), one of many epithets employed for various main players (Antipater is “old man” passim), is Romm’s lead character, and Eumenes of course most directly evokes the ghost in that he devised the “Alexander tent” strategy after declaring Alexander had instructed him to do so in a dream. But apart from Romm’s discussion of Eumenes’ final eastern campaigns in 318–317 when the tent was employed (Chapter 9, “Duels to the Death”), “the spectral presence of Alexander” (245) is scarcely felt. Also problematic, I think, for scholars and students are Romm’s reconstructions for the sake of story telling: e.g. “I have somewhat expanded on Plutarch’s inferences about the thoughts of Leonnatus and Eumenes” (303). This makes for exciting narrative, but it does not contribute to our understanding of the period.

Roisman begins with reference to troop behavior in the Indian campaign in 326 and concludes with the dispersal of the Silver Shields following the death of Eumenes in 316. The title is apt and explicit: the book’s focus is on the Veterans, the heavy infantry phalanx, and in the Introduction the elite 3000 Silver Shields are singled out as having the most prominent role. Almost in polarization with Waterfield’s book, Roisman aims to counter the tendency of both ancient and modern historians to deal with “prominent individuals,” the careers, ambitions, and perspectives of Alexander’s great Successors, by illuminating the “overshadowed” veterans’ experience. To this end he examines the “behavior” of the veterans: in their relationships with their generals (Ch. 2 contrasts the non-confrontational behavior of the troops in revolt at the Hyphasis with their defiant mutinous reactions at Opis two years later); in army assemblies (Ch. 3 explores the veterans’ exploitation of internal strife in Babylon to promote Arrhidaeus as king in a wish to correct injustice); in battle (Ch. 5 discusses the reluctance of the veterans to fight other Macedonians and their changing sides); and on the march (Ch. 8 describes the “race for food and shelter [that] resulted in the battle of Paraetacene” (215))—all leading to the climax of the Silver Shields’ betrayal of their general Eumenes at Gabene. Despite the overall aim to downplay the great Successors, Eumenes’ name headlines in half the chapter titles as Hellenistic individualism becomes unavoidable even for Roisman: “It is by observing the fortunes of the individual commanders, tied by the sources to those of their troops, that we shall best be able to follow the veterans’ divergent paths” (145).

Roisman devotes the first of his eight chapters to source criticism: “Motives and Bias in the History of Hieronymus of Cardia.” This is critical for any serious scholarly assessment of the period, given that by consensus, and Roisman agrees (10–11), Hieronymus is “identified as the direct or ultimate source” not only for Diodorus Books 18 to 20, but also of Arrian’s Events After Alexander, Plutarch’s Eumenes, Nepos’ Eumenes, and Justin’s Epitome. Roisman argues that Hieronymus’ “elitist approach, which often privileges the perspectives and interests of leaders while devaluing those of their followers” (11), has not been adequately recognized. But when the sources describe the actions and reactions of the soldiers almost exclusively in the most general terms of mob behavior—shouting, banging spears on shields—in juxtaposition with the “individual, articulate voices” of the leaders (25), the scholar’s task of ferreting out the soldiers’ perspective seems impossible. Even so, I have come away from reading this book with a much better sense of the veterans’ experience than I had before: in assembly they were most powerful in a crisis situation, when their leaders were divided as at Babylon and Triparadeisus; their loyalty depended on multiple factors, both practical and moral; and despite their reputation for invincibility, they could not “decide a battle” (125, 216). The book has thorough footnotes and bibliography, one map but no illustrations or charts, and a couple of typos in dates (71, 215). As a book for specialists it makes a significant contribution to on-going debates, such as the nature of kingship and the power of army assemblies, and it should spawn further discussion.

Roisman’s book originated in conference participation and an invited lecture series, and it is at least in part a response to the arguments of Bosworth’s Legacy. In his thorough discussion and source analysis of the Babylonian conflict and settlement Roisman challenges Bosworth (Legacy, Ch. 2) foremost by favoring Curtius over Justin, and also by offering several convincing counter arguments on points of textual interpretation. His focus precludes, of course, coverage of “the half century after Alexander.” Like Bosworth, Waterfield considers the history of the forty years following Alexander’s death to be, to a large degree, the history of Alexander’s influence (9). His “chronological thrust” (xii) begins with Alexander’s immediate legacy (Ch. 1), “the seeds of the civil wars that followed his death” (15), and continues through the Babylon conferences (Ch. 2) and rebellions in various outposts as well as in Athens and Aetolia (Ch. 3), to Ptolemy’s abduction of Alexander’s corpse (Ch. 4) and then the first civil confrontations on two fronts, between Ptolemy and Perdiccas in Egypt and Craterus and Eumenes in Asia Minor (Ch. 5). From there he covers Polyperchon’s brief moment in the limelight (Ch. 6) before, in another civil war, being overshadowed by Cassander’s rise to dominance in Macedonia (Ch. 7). He moves on to the “pivotal” civil war between the loyalist Eumenes and the brutally ambitious Antigonus (Ch. 8), “one of the great forgotten campaigns of world history” (93). He continues with Antigonus’ subsequent dominance in Asia (Ch. 9) and ongoing rivalry with Seleucus (Ch. 10), and then with the “increasingly obvious ambitions” (129) of the Successors and the elimination of the last of the Argeads—Alexander IV and Cleopatra—who stood in the way of their own kingly aspirations (Ch. 11). Waterfield views the assumption of kingship by the Successors c. 305—here making reference to Bosworth’s “big bang” (143)—as “the beginning of the model of absolute kingship that was inherited, via the Roman principate, by medieval and early modern European kings,” thus a long-term legacy of Alexander’s “autocratic blend of eastern and Macedonian kingship” (144). The climax of the clash of imperialist ambitions at Ipsus (Ch. 12) “was the greatest battle of the Successors numerically, and the most significant” (154) in that Ptolemy and Seleucus were able to solidify control in their respective kingdoms (Ch. 13). The source dearth post-Ipsus does not deter Waterfield from assessing Demetrius’ rise and fall (Chs. 14 and 15): “[he] was as addicted to warfare as Alexander the Great” (190); or from narrating the final of final showdowns between the long-in-the-tooth Lysimachus and Seleucus, as well as the subsequent murder of Seleucus and prelude to the rise of Gonatas (Ch. 16). In historical coverage, if not in analysis and detail, Waterfield has come closest to fulfilling the need for a synthesis of the Diadochs.


[[1]] Several edited collections of essays have also appeared: P. Wheatley and R. Hannah, eds., Alexander and his Successors: Essays from the Antipodes (Claremont, CA: Regina Books, 2009); H. Hauben and A. Meeus, eds., The Age of the Successors (323–276 b.c.) (Studia Hellenistica 53; Leuven: Peeters, 2011); E. M. Anson and V. Alonso, eds., After Alexander: The Time of the Successors (323–281 bc) (Oxford: Oxbow Books, 2012). Also B. Bennet and M. Roberts, The Wars of Alexander’s Successors 323–281 bc, Vol. 1: Commanders and Campaigns; Vol. 2: Battles and Tactics (Barnsley: Pen & Sword, 2008/2009).

[[2]] My italics. Successors or Diadochs: διαδοχή and διαδέχομαι are frequently used in a military context to indicate successive, in turn, relieving of a guard; by no means are the terms restricted to royal “inherited” succession.

[[3]] In the Preface Romm explains his citation (or not) method, and for his readers “who want to carefully trace the evidence” (xvi) he refers them to W. Heckel’s Who’s Who in the Age of Alexander the Great (Malden, MA and Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 2006). Readers will benefit also from reference to source commentaries and criticism, a few of which are listed in Romm’s bibliography p. 323.

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