During the time that Alexandria was being built, the Mesopotamian metropolis of Babylon was the biggest city in the world, with a population of at least 200,000. With its magnificent palaces, lush gardens, and soaring ziggurats, it was arguably the most beautiful city in the world as well. It was a meeting place of people and cultures, a cosmopolitan crossroads where businessmen and philosophers, politicians and poets rubbed shoulders with one another. It was, in other words, the prototype of what Alexandria would become.
When Alexander the Great wrested Babylon away from the Persians in October of 331 BC, it was one of the most triumphant moments of a life that contained little but triumph. The ancient historian Arrian tells that “all the Babylonians came out to meet him with their priests and rulers, each group of citizens bearing gifts and surrendering the city, the citadel, and their treasure.” Meanwhile the soldiers Alexander had led here from humble Macedonia gazed in open-mouthed wonder at glories the likes of which they had never dreamed could actually exist.
The mood was more subdued when Alexander returned to Babylon — now a relatively westerly outpost of his sprawling empire– at the beginning of May in 323 BC, having reluctantly agreed to allow his army to rest and regroup there after eleven years of near-constant travel and conquest. Legend says that the prophets who traveled with his army read in their auguries that death awaited him in Babylon, and that a group of Babylonian seers prophesied the same; these met his army just outside their city and begged him not to pass through its gates. But, being still a young man in the prime of life, probably at least half-believing himself by now that he was a god on earth, Alexander ignored them. Once inside the walls, he took up residence in the opulent palace built by Nebuchadnezzar II, one of the greatest of all Babylon’s erstwhile kings, while he planned the next stage of his campaign; his army was to march again on June 4, this time against the semi-nomadic Arab peoples of the Near East, who had yet to acknowledge his rule.
But Alexander fell ill on the first of June, whilst presiding over a religious ceremony, and had to be carried from the scene on a bier. Although his fever would ebb and flow over the next week and a half, he would never rise from his sickbed.
As the date when Alexander’s army was supposed to have left Babylon passed and the king failed to recover, the thoughts of those closest to him turned to the question of succession. Alexander himself had never groomed anyone for the role of his successor the way his own father had groomed him. In fact, he had never addressed the question even as a theoretical matter. The story goes that, when explicitly asked who should inherit his empire, he answered only “the strongest.” He had three wives, but only one legitimate child, still in the womb of his queen Roxana, a young girl in her teens whom he had met in the remote mountainous region of Bactria — a part of modern Uzbekistan — and taken a shine to. He had a half-brother named Arrhidaeus who was conveniently to hand — he had traveled with the army on its campaigns, and was thus now in Babylon with the ailing king — but he was mentally handicapped: he spoke and acted like a child of about eight years of age. Alexander was fond of him in a brotherly way, but had always kept him far from his councils of state.
The most interested of all parties in the question of the succession thus became the inner cabal of generals and advisors whom Alexander had dubbed his “Bodyguards” — i.e., the friends whom he trusted with his life. There were seven of them, a number fraught with symbolic import in ancient times. By all indications, every single one of them genuinely loved Alexander, but they were also ambitious to a man, keenly conscious of the prize of empire which he would leave behind upon his death. It’s almost impossible not to imagine them hovering over Alexander’s deathbed like a murder of crows, giving one another guileful sidelong glances, fingering the hilts of their real or metaphorical daggers. Dark insinuations drifted through their ranks, questioning the cause of their vigorous young king’s sudden illness. Had he been poisoned? If so, by whom?
Two of the Bodyguards will play important roles in our story. Their names are Perdiccas and Ptolemy.
Perdiccas was close to Alexander in age, and had grown up alongside him as part of the royal court of Macedonia. But he had not really caught the prince’s eye until that black day on which the latter’s beloved father was murdered: he was the man who had chased down and killed Philip II’s assassin, thereby making his reputation as a brave man of action in a flash. Since then, he had upheld that reputation repeatedly in battle, becoming the only subordinate whom Alexander occasionally allowed to make significant strategic decisions on his own. Two years before his army returned to Babylon, Alexander, leading a charge personally as was his wont, had had his chest pierced by an enemy arrow. Some sources claim that it was Perdiccas who stepped up to give him emergency surgery. While all of the other soldiers looked on in shock, he pried the arrow out of Alexander’s breastbone using his sword and bandaged the spurting wound himself. If true, this made Perdiccas not only the father’s avenger but the son’s savior. He was ruthless and clever, brave and guileful, a masterful planner and a superb improviser. He was not a man to be crossed lightly.
Ptolemy was 43 years of age, a decade older than both Perdiccas and the king they both served. But despite the age difference, he had been a close friend of Alexander since the king was a boy back in Macedonia; the two may even have studied together under the wise Aristotle. He stood out from Perdiccas and the other Bodyguards in that he was more a man of letters than a man of the sword, more a diplomat than a soldier by inclination and disposition. His friendship with Alexander was grounded in their mutual love of philosophy, literature, and history rather than the day-to-day vagaries of war. In many situations where the instincts of his king and the other Bodyguards bent toward violence as the quickest means to their ends, Ptolemy had been the voice of patience, tolerance, even compassion. He was mild in speech and unprepossessing in appearance. But, as we’ll soon see, one underestimated him at one’s peril; his diffident exterior concealed an ambition as ferocious as that of any of the Bodyguards, along with enough cunning to realize it.
Unsurprisingly given their differences in character, Perdiccas and Ptolemy didn’t like one another very much. They were constant rivals for Alexander’s attention when he was alive, and after his death they would become rival claimants to his legacy.
Some ancient sources claim that Alexander made a strange request when it became clear even to him that the end was near: he wished his body to be transported, not to the tomb of his father and forefathers in Macedonia, but rather to Egypt, a land where he had spent only a few months eight years before. Student of myth and history and dyed-in-the-wool egomaniac that he was, it seemed that the Egyptians’ anointing of him as a god on earth, the equal to any of their most legendary pharaohs of old, had made a profound impression on him. Now, he wished his final resting place to be with them. The truth of this supposed deathbed wish is, like so much about Alexander, impossible to determine with any confidence.
By the tenth of June, Alexander had lost even the ability to speak. But in his final hours, he made what appeared to be his first and last attempt to address the question of his successor, by wordlessly passing to Perdiccas his signet ring of command. And then he died, late in the evening of June 11.
The sun rose the next morning on a palace in turmoil. What had the mute Alexander really meant by giving his ring to Perdiccas? Had he meant to declare him the permanent heir to his throne and empire, or had he merely meant to appoint him caretaker until the question of the succession could be settled properly? Perdiccas had every reason to believe the former, while the rest of the Bodyguards, including Ptolemy, had just as much motivation to believe the latter. Still gathered around the body of Alexander, which had been moved to lie in state next to his vacant throne, the Bodyguards argued with one another over a fundamentally unanswerable question.
But the tension dissipated somewhat when Perdiccas convinced most of the others to agree to what seemed to them a reasonable, even selfless plan from his side. He and three of the other Bodyguards would rule jointly for the time being as a board of regents — two of them responsible for the parts of the empire west of Babylon, two for the parts east of the city. Hopefully Roxana, who was due to give birth in a matter of weeks, would soon produce a son who would become the true heir to Alexander’s throne.
Ptolemy saw no choice but to publicly support this plan, but he was not at all pleased by it in his heart of hearts, for he was not to be one of the four regents who were given governing authority. Of course, this was no real surprise, given his and Perdiccas’s mutual dislike. In light of the wiliness he displayed on many other occasions, it’s tempting to ascribe to him some precipitating role in what happened next.
Alexander’s army had been riven with more and more tensions of its own in recent years. Many of the Macedonian and Greek soldiers who had marched forth with him more than a decade before were nonplussed by their king’s determination to forge a multi-ethnic, multicultural empire. They loathed the foreigners who entered their ranks, labeling them one and all “barbarians,” that arrogant, all-purpose Greek dismissal of anyone who wasn’t Greek. Now, they were incensed by the idea that the heir to the pan-Grecian throne should issue from such a corrupted vessel as Roxana. They wanted Alexander’s brother Arrhidaeus to become king; better a half-wit than a half-breed, they reasoned.
Knowing well what difficulties stood to arise from this quarter, Perdiccas called in one Meleager, a general who was beloved by his men but who had never won sufficient favor with Alexander to join the ranks of the Bodyguards. He asked Meleager to speak to the soldiers, to try to sell them on the plan of regency and eventual succession which the Bodyguards had agreed upon.
But Perdiccas had badly misjudged his ambassador: smelling an opportunity for himself, Meleager fanned the flames of discontent rather than attempting to snuff them out. Dragging a befuddled Arrhidaeus up onto the speaker’s dais with him, he declared the deceased king’s brother to be the rightful heir to the throne, and gave him a new name: Philip, in honor of his father. Then Meleager knelt down before the man he now called King Philip III of Macedonia, while the soldiers shook the air with their hurrahs and clapped their spears together. Did Ptolemy perhaps whisper into Meleager’s ear that he should do these things? Again, it’s tempting to think so, but impossible to know.
At any rate, the soldiers charged for the palace. Perdiccas, Ptolemy, and the other Bodyguards were forced to beat a hasty retreat out a side door just seconds before the rebels burst through the front door to place their new king on the throne so recently vacated by the old one, whose body still lay next to it.
Meleager may have believed that he had won at this point, that he would rule Alexander’s empire henceforward as the power behind King Philip III. But if so, he had failed to take the full measure of Perdiccas. One report claims that Meleager’s men actually cornered Perdiccas in the city with only a tiny honor guard by his side — but the general looked so intimidating in the battle regalia he had donned, and gave his would-be captors a look of such withering contempt, that they stood meekly aside and let him walk past them.
If this story is true, the soldiers’ weakness proved disastrous to Meleager. Setting up camp just outside the walls of the city, Perdiccas gathered loyalists to his cause, including virtually all of the non-Grecian soldierly and the cavalry, the most elite element of the army and the closest to the inner circle of Alexander himself. Then he began a siege for which the city was utterly unprepared; although Babylon’s walls and gates were so high and imposing that they were sometimes labeled a Wonder of the World, there had been no time to lay in provisions. Within three days, hunger was already cutting into the morale of the soldiers trapped inside. They began asking themselves, then each other, then Meleager and the would-be Philip III, whether they hadn’t all been just slightly reckless. They might have made a close-run thing of it had they marched through the gates and attacked the besieging forces outside, but when push came to shove they lacked the will to kill the men who had been their comrades-in-arms until just a few days ago.
Bowing to reality, Meleager agreed to meet with Perdiccas, and the two struck a compromise. Arrhidaeus could continue to reign as King Philip III, but, if Roxana should give birth to a boy, the child would join his uncle as co-king. Such a system might sound strange at first blush, but it wasn’t unheard of: the Greek city-state of Sparta — ironically, the only one that wasn’t a part of Alexander’s empire — had been run under just such a system for centuries now. With this solution duly agreed upon, the siege ended as quickly as it had begun, and Perdiccas returned to the palace.
And where, you might ask, were Ptolemy and the other Bodyguards during this crisis? The answer is not entirely clear, but one does have to assume that, as at least ostensible supporters of Perdiccas, they joined him outside Babylon’s walls and then reentered the city at his side. If Ptolemy was scheming with Meleager to secure future power for himself under a weak king, his plot had failed.
At least a week had now passed since the death of Alexander, and yet his body still remained in the throne room to which it had been moved immediately after his passing. One would think it must have been getting decidedly ripe by this point, but the ancient writers claim this not to have been the case. Plutarch, for example, writes that, despite its lying in a “hot and close room,” the corpse “remained sweet and fresh,” as befit a god on earth. (In a 1996 article for The New England Journal of Medicine, a group of doctors concluded from this anecdote and other information that Alexander may not have actually died at all on the evening of June 11, but rather passed into a deathlike paralytic state that lasted for several days before his true passing.) At last, Perdiccas authorized the embalming of the body.
Meanwhile Meleager was learning much too late about the dangers of meddling in the affairs of his betters. Perdiccas had started working on the pliable King Philip as soon as he returned to the palace. Soon he produced a writ of execution for Meleager, signed by the very king whom that unlucky man’s efforts had elevated to the throne. Meleager fled to a temple with the executioners at his heels, counting on the traditional taboo against violating a holy house to save him. But Perdiccas couldn’t have cared less about tradition by this point; he ordered his men to enter the temple and drag Meleager away, then to kill him like a dog right there in the street.
The killing didn’t end there. Perdiccas was close to Roxana, who was nervous about Alexander’s two other queens, Persian princesses both. If one of them should remarry to a high-born Macedonian or Greek and produce a male child, a case might be made for his elevation to the throne in lieu of Roxana’s son. She and Perdiccas resolved this problem by murdering the two other widows and casting their bodies down a well.
Some weeks later, Roxana gave birth to a healthy boy. As per the agreement for which Meleager had paid with his life, the baby immediately became the co-king of Macedonia and co-heir to his empire, under the name of Alexander IV. It had been touch and go at times, but all seemed to have worked out perfectly for Perdiccas in the end. He had killed or neutralized all of his rivals, and stood now as the true power behind the thrones of a mentally handicapped man and an infant boy; he was the true leader of the Macedonian Empire, at least until Alexander IV came into his own. He judged that he could afford to be magnanimous to the other Bodyguards — even to Ptolemy.
He decided that he would make each of them a satrap, a royal governor of one region of his empire. Ptolemy desperately wanted Egypt, and this Perdiccas deigned to grant him. He must have taken some satisfaction in the knowledge that this man whom he now regarded as his defeated rival would not have an easy time of it there — for Egypt already had a leader who had claimed the title of satrap, in the form of Cleomenes, whom Perdiccas ordered Ptolemy to keep on as his treasurer and deputy. He knew that a man of such ruthless vanity as Cleomenes would not take his demotion easily. Let the two of them battle it out for supremacy in Egypt, Perdiccas thought. He had an empire to rule.
So, Ptolemy departed for Egypt, with who knows what nascent schemes of his own already running through his mind. Whatever challenges he was to face there, the prize that Perdiccas had so generously given him was a fine one by any standard; Egypt was arguably the most valuable region of the entire empire, what with the dependable agricultural bounty of the faithful Nile. And the emerging crown jewel of Egypt was the new city of Alexandria which Dinocrates’s acumen for architecture and Cleomenes’s talent for finance had so effectively joined forces to build.
Alexandria was a young, vigorous city in an old, listless land. Ptolemy found it delightful, the obvious location for his capital in lieu of frumpy old Memphis, which positively groaned under the weight of the preceding three millennia of Egyptian history. A thoroughgoing progressive, he hoped to make the rest of Egypt resemble Alexandria someday. For as a port city, Alexandria looked outward on the world, standing in marked contrast to the traditionally insular culture of Egypt.
Ptolemy wasn’t, however, a democrat in any sense of the word: he intended to make Egypt his and his alone. Thus he announced one day that he had discovered evidence that Cleomenes had personally embezzled enough money from the imperial coffers to build five more Alexandrias. Cleomenes was immediately arrested, given a showy trial, and executed, all in blatant defiance of Perdiccas’s orders to keep him on as a deputy. The historian James Romm goes so far as to call this action a tacit “declaration of independence from Perdiccas and the regime of the joint kings” on the part of Ptolemy. He soon found a use for the staggering hoard of money his erstwhile treasurer had left behind: he raised an army — an army that would be loyal to him alone, not to some far-off royal court of Macedonia.
Alexander had now been dead for more than a year, but the aforementioned court still remained in Babylon along with his body, even as the empire he had forged was threatening to crumble around its supposed seat of power. Not only Ptolemy in Egypt but several of the other Bodyguards-turned-satraps were showing little interest in the dictates which Perdiccas attempted to pass down through the mouthpiece of his two kings. Perdiccas thus decided that it was time to return to Macedonia with said kings and with Alexander’s body, to vividly demonstrate to the world who the great leader’s real heirs were.
He had a magnificent funeral carriage constructed, a portable vault made of gold inlaid with precious stones, with golden figures of the goddess Nike (personifying Victory) at each of the corners, with a golden wreath on its roof, with painted panels showing some of Alexander’s most extraordinary exploits mounted on its golden sides, with large bells made of gold to announce its passing, with even its wheels gilded with pure gold. Inside was placed Alexander’s embalmed corpse in its coffin of solid gold.
The carriage set out on the long journey home with only a small escort of soldiers. Perdiccas and his two kings planned to set out later and catch up to it near its destination, for its progress must be very slow indeed. Wheels of gold were not, after all, the most practical means of travel; in fact, a work crew had to move ahead of the procession, to smooth out the roads over which the carriage would travel. So, the carriage inched across the landscape with its four bells tolling the passing of the greatest conqueror the world had ever known. “From every city into which it came,” writes the ancient historian Diodorus, “the whole people went forth to meet it and again escorted it on its way out, not becoming sated with the pleasure of beholding it.”
Meanwhile back in Egypt, Ptolemy was formulating an audacious plan. Some said that Alexander had asked to be buried in Egypt rather than his homeland of Macedonia. Why shouldn’t he be granted his wish?
Somewhere along the way, probably just after the funeral procession had turned to make its way northward along the Mediterranean coast of Asia, it was met by an Egyptian army that may have been led by Ptolemy himself. We don’t know whether the army killed the escort or coerced or bribed them into surrendering their precious cargo — or, for that matter, whether they had been bribed before ever leaving Babylon. But we do know that the army returned to Egypt with Alexander’s corpse. Because no suitable resting place had as yet been prepared in the new capital of Alexandria, it was mummified and entombed for the time being in the old one of Memphis, next to some of the pharaohs of yore whom the priests there had so obligingly declared to be Alexander’s only peers, during his life and now after his death.
The political import of this act of body-snatching can hardly be overstated. Ptolemy insulted and humiliated Perdiccas at the same time that he told the world that he considered himself and his land of Egypt to be the most worthy heirs to Alexander’s legacy — so much so that the great leader’s body deserved to reside with him. Perdiccas, for his part, knew that he had no choice: before he could march back to Macedonia in triumph, he must assemble an army to take back from Ptolemy the land of Egypt and the body of Alexander.
But raising the army proved more complicated than expected. The supposed Macedonian Empire was looking more and more like a sham, led as it was by an idiot and an infant. Other insurrections were breaking out all over its territory, and what remained of the soldiers who had accompanied Alexander to Babylon were looking upon Perdiccas with a jaundiced eye. By no means were they all pleased by the prospect of attacking Ptolemy, a well-liked man who had until recently been one of their own. Perdiccas was forced to bribe many of the top officers to convince them to join the campaign. Even after they agreed to do so, he remained so doubtful of their loyalty that he kept his war plans secret, out of fear that they would give or sell them to the enemy.
Nevertheless, Perdiccas seemingly still had much going for him. Certainly his reputation as the finest of all Alexander’s generals was not unearned. And the army he led to Egypt was still daunting on the face of it, both well-seasoned and well-equipped. At its head walked one of the most awe-inspiring sights in the history of warfare: a van of immense armored elephants, the tanks of ancient warfare, which the Macedonians had recruited along with their human handlers from the peoples of the East after experiencing first-hand the terror they could provoke.
The army entered Egypt in the summer of 321 BC at the northeastern edge of the Nile Delta, crossing the border at a well-known natural ford in the first of the delta’s many tributaries. Just beyond lay a fort known as the Fort of Camels, which at first appeared to be all but undefended. But at the last moment the army of Ptolemy rushed in from the west to man its walls, having been alerted to Perdiccas’s movements in the end despite his best efforts. Diodorus describes the battle that followed:
Ptolemy and his troops did appear, coming at a run to the defence of the post. Although these got the start of the attackers, threw themselves into the fort, and made their arrival known by blasts of the trumpet and by shouts, the troops of Perdiccas were not frightened, but boldly assaulted the fortifications. At once the shield-bearers set up the scaling ladders and began to mount them, while the elephant-borne troops were tearing the palisades to pieces and throwing down the parapets. Ptolemy, however, who had the best soldiers near himself and wished to encourage the other commanders and friends to face the dangers, taking his long spear and posting himself on the top of the outwork, put out the eyes of the leading elephant, since he occupied a higher position, and wounded its Indian mahout. Then, with utter contempt of the danger, striking and disabling those who were coming up the ladders, he sent them rolling down, in their armour, into the river. Following his example, his friends fought boldly and made the beast next in line entirely useless by shooting down the Indian who was directing it. The battle for the wall lasted a long time, as the troops of Perdiccas, attacking in relays, bent every effort to take the stronghold by storm, while many heroic conflicts were occasioned by the personal prowess of Ptolemy and by his exhortations to his friends to display both their loyalty and their courage. Many men were killed on both sides, such was the surpassing rivalry of the commanders, the soldiers of Ptolemy having the advantage of the higher ground and those of Perdiccas being superior in number. Finally, when both sides had spent the whole day in the engagement, Perdiccas gave up the siege and went back to his own camp.
This account is doubtless romanticized; it’s more than a little difficult to believe this picture of the thoughtful, intellectual Ptolemy charging into the breach and turning the tide of battle like a latter-day Achilles. Still, it’s accurate enough in the broad strokes. Perdiccas’s army was driven back across the river after taking heavy losses.
Said army was now on the verge of outright desertion or worse. Perdiccas dared not wait; he had to win through quickly, before he lost control of his army and with it his empire. He led his men a short distance southward under the cover of night, intending to cross the river at another point, where the water ran swift but fairly shallow, at less than the height of a man. He believed he could ford the river here, where conventional wisdom said it was too dangerous, by placing his elephants just upstream of where the rest of his troops would cross, using them as a sort of dam against the current’s violence. Once across, his army would outflank its enemies manning the fort. It seemed a plan worthy of Alexander himself — brave, devious, and completely unprecedented.
But it turned out disastrously. The stamping feet of the elephants loosened the silt on the riverbed so that, when the soldiers tried to wade across, the ground started shifting beneath their feet. Many were drowned; others panicked and threw off their armor and weapons so that they could swim for safety. The chaos attracted the attention of the deadly Nile crocodiles. The water ran red as they pounced, tearing away arms, legs, and heads from living men and corpses alike.
Alerted by the commotion, Ptolemy’s army arrived to sit on the other bank of the river and watch the nightmarish farce unfold. Here again Ptolemy’s political instincts served him well. Throughout the next day, his men made a very public show of gathering up the remains of the dead that drifted to their side of the river and cremating them with all of the same funerary rights with which they would have honored their own dead. This had a powerful effect on those in Perdiccas’s camp. Many of them had, after all, marched with Ptolemy during the campaigns of Alexander. And now Ptolemy was demonstrating to them as explicitly as he could that he did not consider them his enemies; only their leader fell into that category. The implication was obvious.
Three soldiers entered Perdiccas’s tent that night and stabbed him to death. They may have secretly communicated with Ptolemy before doing so, although we cannot know this for sure. Likewise, history does not record the fate of Alexander’s signet ring, which Perdiccas still presumably wore on his finger. He had proved not to be up to the task which that gift implied: that of preserving the empire of his dead friend and king.
The next morning, in an act of not-inconsiderable personal bravery, Ptolemy sailed across the river in a boat, directly into the camp of the enemy army. Once there, he told them that he had no quarrel with them now that their leader was dead. They should return to Babylon and see to affairs there — or, if they wished, join him here in Egypt. There was no point in continuing this fight, he said. The demoralized soldiers readily agreed with him.
So, Ptolemy marched back westward toward his new capital of Alexandria with an army which may very well have been larger than the one with which he had set out. Perdiccas’s dream of forging a lasting, stable empire from the conquests of Alexander was as dead as the man himself, and Egypt was free to go its own way. And, in what must surely rank as one of the more improbable developments in all of Egypt’s long history, Ptolemy, this soft-spoken Macedonian Grecophile, was poised to become its next pharaoh.
(A full listing of print and online sources used will follow the final article in this series.)