Ghost On The Throne: The Death of Alexander the Great and the War for Crown and Empire
By James Romm
Published by Alfred A. Knopf, Borzoi Books, New York, 2011 Buy this Book!
James Romm is the pen name of James H. Ottaway, Jr., a Professor of Classics at Bard College, New York. “The story of Alexander’s conquests is known to many readers,” writes the author in the Preface, “but the dramatic and consequential sequel to that story is much less well-known. It is a tale of loss that begins with the greatest loss of all, the death of the king who gave the empire its center … The era that followed came to be defined by the absence of one towering individual, just as the previous era had been defined by his presence. It was as though the sun had disappeared from the solar system… The brightest celestial bodies in this new, sunless cosmos were Alexander’s top military officers, who were also in some cases his closest friends. Modern historians often refer to them as ‘the Successors’ (or ‘Diadochs,’ a Greek word meaning virtually the same thing). But that term is anachronistic for the first seven years after Alexander’s death, when none of these men tried to succeed the king; they vied for his power but not his throne.” Members of the Macedonian royal family, the Argeads, could only have assumed the throne, although by 308 B.C. the era of the Argead dynasty was well and truly over.
Ghost on the Throne is a clear and accurate historical account that chronologically details the deadly conflicts among both the military generals who had been appointed by Alexander as satraps of huge regional areas (as well as Perdiccas, in charge in Babylon), and the members of the Macedonian royal family, which included Olympias, Alexander’s mother, and Rhoxane and her son, Alexander IV. Rhoxane and her son died around 313 B.C., probably from poisoning. On page 205 of the book the author summarizes the extent of the tragic account: “The pattern of mitosis that had beset the empire since Alexander’s death seemed to be recurring without end. First the royal family had split into two factions and designated two kings to take Alexander’s place; then the designs of Perdiccas had brought a split between two wives; finally all of Asia had been split by the falling-out of Perdiccas and Antipater, and by the war those two had handed down to their surrogates, Eumenes and Antigonus…”
For this history of the wars for Alexander’s crown and empire, author James Romm lists his most important sources in the Preface, beginning with the 2002 publication by Brian Bosworth, a “masterly study,” The Legacy of Alexander: Politics, Warfare, and Propoganda Under the Successors. The sources include the firsthand account of Hieronymous of Cardia (a Greek soldier of fortune) that was lost but “mined for information” by Arrian of Nicomedia in the second century A.D.; the first century B.C. account of Diodorus Siculus; the account of Pompeius Trogus, a Roman writer; the Lives of Plutarch from the late first and early second century A.D.; and the Notes of Photius, the ninth century A.D. patriarch of Constantinople. There is an extensive Bibliography, maps, illustrations, and 31 pages of Notes that will leave the reader confident in the accuracy of the outer or objective history. The author also writes that he has examined more unconventional or subjective accounts, such as those by “Athenaeus, collector of gossip and anecdotes, and the anonymous author of The Lives of the Ten Orators.” The Introduction that follows the Preface describes the great archaeological discovery by Manolis Andronikos in Vergina (Northern Greece) in 1977-79, a discovery that has been confirmed to be a Great Tumulus contemporary with Alexander, containing the remains of his relatives and close companions and possibly artifacts that belonged to Alexander himself.
In India, near the end of his conquests, Alexander had been seriously wounded by an arrow that penetrated into his lung, but he recovered and by the summer of 325 B.C. was able to lead his army out of India, through great deprivations in the desert region of Gedrosia (today Baluchistan in southern Iran) and finally to the city of Nebuchadnezzar, wealthy Babylon. “On the seventeenth of the Macedonian month Daisios, the first of June 323 B.C. by the modern calendar, the Macedonian troops at Babylon got their first sign that Alexander was ill.” In the midst of plans to lead his men on the Arabian campaign, Alexander, probably weakened by the punctured lung and the grueling march through the desert, died of a high fever on June 11, 323 B.C. at the age of 32. In the last days of his life, from his sickbed, “he passed to his senior bodyguard, Perdiccas, the signet ring with which he sealed his executive orders … Alexander had given Perdiccas authority to oversee the army and the empire, until either Alexander recovered or a new king emerged.” Perdiccas had the most distinguished service record of those in Babylon and “was perhaps a few years older than the king, one of the aristocratic youths who had grown up at the palace as pages of Alexander’s father, King Philip.” It was Perdiccas who, in India, had removed the arrow from Alexander’s chest with emergency surgery. Matters did not go well for this principal player in the series of tragedies, however, as he made serious errors both as a ruler and as a military commander. He had sent Alexander’s mummy on its highly public journey from Babylon to Macedonia in an elaborate funeral cart, and the mummy and cart were soon hijacked by Ptolemy, who brought them to his own province, Egypt, for burial, “… a brazen bid to steal power from Perdiccas and amass it for himself.” However, Alexander had “… asked that his body be buried in western Egypt, near the desert oracle of the god Ammon … he chose to spend eternity in one of the most inaccessible places in the world, today known as the oasis of Siwa.” Perdiccas met his end when he was stabbed to death by his chief officers for causing the drowning of his soldiers in the Nile. He had failed in one of Alexander’s most successful stratagems, the river crossing.
As in connecting the corpse with eternity in the quotation above, the author tacitly skirts around the seeming imponderables regarding the subject of divinity in the life and death of Alexander. What could be the reason for Alexander’s belief that he was a “son” of the Egyptian Sun-God Amun-Ra? What inspired his decisions and actions that stemmed, not from a warped mentality, but from a certain assurance in the rightness of his power over life and death in individuals, groups and civilizations? What drove him on his campaigns and conquests of the known civilized world? His motives could not have been militaristic only, since he respected and even adopted many of the cultural and spiritual values of the civilizations he conquered. Could Alexander’s motives have been sourced in anything other than divine power, other than the will of the gods, however imperfectly he was able to fulfil this destiny during the transitional times in which he lived? What could the last plans of Alexander have truly signified? — the plans that Perdiccas read to Alexander’s army that included a temple to Athena at Troy and the movement of European peoples into Asia and Asians into Europe, “with the goal, as Diodorus transmits it, of ‘bringing the two major continents, by way of intermarriages and family bonds, into a common harmony and a brotherly affection.’” The author concludes, “It is a vision that inspires both wonder and terror from a distance of twenty-three hundred years, for it anticipates both the Christian New Jerusalem and the warped utopias of Fascist dictatorships.” But this twenty-first century analogy is weak, for the plans only barely allude to the Christian New Jerusalem of Revelation and have nothing in common whatsoever with recent Fascist dictatorships.
In the photographs on page 5 of the ivory portraits of Alexander’s companions that were found in one of the tombs discovered by Manolis Andronikos, compassion and awareness of divinity and divine will can be perceived in the eyes of the companions. Ancient art again surpasses, in depth of understanding, the materialistic world views of modern scholasticism, including the error of disallowing, historically, for the evolution of consciousness. The content of Rudolf Steiner’s 1924 lecture series, World History in the Light of Anthroposophy, can answer many questions raised by author James Romm, questions regarding divinity and spirituality, yet which the author — concerned as he is with outer history only — consigns to extraneous notes. In place of judging Alexander’s plans and deeds in terms of modern life, studies of the evolution of consciousness can cast a far different light on the realities of ancient wars, conquests and death. The evolution of consciousness, as elucidated by Rudolf Steiner, casts the role of death in an entirely different light, for without death there could be no consciousness.
“The Greeks needed to come into a right relation with what they felt and experienced of death, they needed to find the inner living mystery of death. And this led to that great conflict between the Greeks and the people in Asia from whom they had originated. The Trojan war is a war of sorrow, a war of apprehension and fear. We see facing one another the Greeks, who felt death within them but did not know, as it were, what to do with it, and the Oriental races who were bent on conquest, who wanted death and had it not. The Greeks had death, but were at a loss how to adapt themselves to it. They needed the infusion of another element, before they could discover its secret. Achilles, Agamemnon — all these men bore death within them, but could not adapt themselves to it. They look across to Asia, and there they see a people who are in the reverse position, who are suffering under the direct influence of the opposite condition. Over there are men who do not feel death in the intense way it is felt by the Greeks themselves, over there are men to whom death is something abounding in life.
“All this has been brought to expression in a wonderful way by Homer. Wherever he sets the Trojans over against the Greeks, everywhere he lets us see this contrast. You may see it, for instance, in the characteristic figures of Hector and Achilles. And in this contrast is expressed what is taking place on the frontier of Asia and Europe. Asia, in those olden times, had, as it were, a superabundance of life over death, and yearned after death. Europe had, on the Greek soil, a superabundance of death in man, and man was at a loss to find his true relation to it. Thus from a second point of view we see Europe and Asia set over against one another.
“In the first place, we had the transition from rhythmic memory to temporal memory; now we have these two quite different experiences in respect of death in the human organisation. Tomorrow we will consider more in detail [this] contrast … and so approach a fuller understanding of the transitions that lead over from Asia to Europe. For these had a deep and powerful influence on the evolution of man, and without understanding them we can really arrive at no understanding of the evolution we are passing through at the present day.” – Review by Martha Keltz
Reference: World History in the Light of Anthroposophy, Nine Lectures given by Rudolf Steiner in 1923 and 1924.