Why Was Alexander the Great’s Corpse so Important to His Successors? | History Hit

Why Was Alexander the Great’s Corpse so Important to His Successors?

Alexander demonstrating his faith in his physician, Giuseppe Cades, 1750-1799
Image Credit: Wellcome Collection

He had conquered the superpower of the time and formed the greatest empire ever seen, yet on 11 June 323 BC Alexander the Great passed away in Babylon and triggered a profoundly chaotic and enduring succession crisis. Central to the fate of the empire in the minds of its claimants would be the role of his corpse.

Yet so great was the quarrelling in the immediate aftermath that Alexander’s body was reportedly left unattended for many days in the Babylonian heat. Legend has it that upon returning to the corpse, everyone found it untouched by decay. Perdiccas, the highest-ranking officer in Babylon, then ordered Alexander’s body to be embalmed and placed in a golden coffin. It remained in Babylon for the next two years as Perdiccas oversaw the construction of an elaborate funeral carriage. This was to be no ordinary hearse.

Intent on rendering Alexander as a man who now sat among the gods, his carriage was designed to resemble a great temple. Beautiful Ionic column, paintings depicting Alexander and his army, and plentiful gold adorned the carriage. It was supposed to be pulled by 64 mules, each of which bore a golden crown and bell. Upon its completion, Perdiccas ordered that Alexander’s body be escorted to Aegae in Macedonia, the traditional resting place of Macedonian kings. The plan went horribly wrong.

Legitimacy in a post-Alexander world

Ptolemy, the Macedonian governor of Egypt, was not on good terms with Perdiccas. Aware of the great wealth and potential of Egypt, Ptolemy soon sought to break away from Perdiccas’ overbearing control. He believed he might achieve this by taking possession of Alexander’s body. For Perdiccas, Ptolemy and the other successors, Alexander’s body was much more than just a corpse: it was a talisman representing authority and legitimacy in this new post-Alexander world. Whoever controlled the body held great sway in his empire. Ever since Alexander’s death, Alexander had thus been sure to keep the body in his hands.

Ptolemy realised that if he could gain control over Alexander’s body, his claim and right to rule in this post-Alexander era would greatly increase – the first critical step towards creating his own kingdom. At the same time, he knew it would greatly damage the reputation of his rival, Perdiccas. Ptolemy hatched a plan. In 321 BC, Alexander’s elaborate funeral cart left Babylon for Macedonia. Yet as the procession was making its way through Syria, Ptolemy made his move, bribing the escort, seizing the body and diverting it to Egypt, where he had it housed in Memphis, the traditional Egyptian capital.

In late 321 BC, a carefully-constructed plot was put into operation that would spark years of bloody conflict between rival warlords. The target of the operation was Alexander the Great’s elaborate funeral carriage and the conqueror’s talismanic corpse housed within.
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Upon hearing of Ptolemy’s hijacking of the body, Perdiccas was furious. His authority as regent had been severely tarnished. The opposite was true for Ptolemy. Apparently drawn by the body, soldiers who had once-served under Alexander came from far and wide to swell the ranks of Ptolemy’s army. Perdiccas marched on Egypt with his army, his aim to regain control of the body and restore his authority. In the ensuing war, Ptolemy emerged victorious and Perdiccas was murdered.

Ptolemy’s propaganda

Ptolemy quickly proclaimed the link between himself and Alexander. Not only was he the first of the Successors to put Alexander’s image on his coinage, but in his famous account of Alexander’s campaign Ptolemy regularly emphasised his closeness to the king as a firm favourite. Ptolemy also cultivated a local legend of Alexander. Rather than being the son of Philip of Macedon, Egyptian tales soon became widespread that Alexander was the son of the last Egyptian pharaoh Nectanebo II.

In 343 BC, the Persians had deposed Nectanebo, who had then died in exile. His pre-made sarcophagus in Memphis had therefore remained empty. It is likely Ptolemy had first placed Alexander in this empty coffin and it was from here that this fabulous story took root. A pharaoh of Egypt could only be legitimate if he was related to his predecessor, so this tale helped portray Alexander as Nectanebo’s rightful heir. It also established a connection between the Macedonian and Egyptian dynasties – a connection that only helped Ptolemy’s cause. At the same time, Ptolemy began spreading the rumour that he was in fact an illegitimate son of Philip II and thus the half-brother of Alexander and Alexander’s rightful heir in Egypt. Both fabulous stories spread rapidly and undoubtedly helped Ptolemy secure his rule in Egypt.

Bust of Ptolemy I Soter, located at the Louvre.

Image Credit: Public Domain / Shutterstock

Ptolemy’s greatest act with the body was where he soon transported it. Following the climactic battle of Ipsus in 301 BC, Ptolemy had Alexander’s body moved to the centre of his new capital at Alexandria and placed in an elaborate tomb. The city had been founded by Alexander back in 331 BC but had only recently been completed. Immediately, Ptolemy set about promoting Alexander adulation. Not only did he have Alexander publicly honoured as the founder of his beloved Alexandria, but he also introduced a state cult of Alexander throughout Egypt. Statues of the great conqueror were erected far and wide while processions and festivals centred around him also appeared.

In 283 BC, Ptolemy I passed away. In his lifetime he had successfully established the closest links between himself and Alexander, depicting himself in both Macedonian and Egyptian eyes as the rightful guardian of Alexander’s tomb and his successor in Egypt. For the next 150 years Ptolemy’s descendants would rule Egypt. Although elsewhere the memory of Alexander slowly faded, for the Ptolemies the great king remained key to their dynasty. This was exceptionally evidenced by the behaviour of Ptolemy’s son and successor.

Ptolemy II Philadelphus

Almost immediately after his father’s death, ‘Philadelphus’, had him deified and worshipped alongside Alexander throughout Egypt. The message was clear: in both life and death these two kings were inseparable. And Philadelphus would not stop there. He also created a new religious festival in honour of his father: the Ptolemaia. Hosted every four years this festival attracted many thousands of visitors not only from Egypt, but all around the Greek World.

Dubbed, ‘the Grand Procession of Ptolemy Philadelphus’, It was an extremely lavish parade through the centre of Alexandria. Soldiers, animals, gems, gold and images of Gods – especially Dionysius – all featured, emphasising the unbounded wealth, splendour and power of Ptolemaic Egypt.

Yet the Ptolemaia also had another key purpose. In the middle of the procession was Alexander. First, his statue appeared seated on top of a great float accompanied by another statue of the now-deified Ptolemy I – both wearing gold diadems of ivy leaves. Behind this great float came a golden statue of Alexander in a chariot, towed by four elephants and surrounded by statues of the Gods.

Depiction of Alexander in his death bed.

Image Credit: Public Domain

As the procession passed the centre of Alexandria and Alexander’s tomb its purpose was clear. It reminded the onlookers not only that Alexandria was the home of Alexander’s body but also of the inseparable link between it and the Ptolemies.

A new tomb

For the next 50 years Alexander’s tomb continued to reside in the centre of Alexandria. But upon the accession of Ptolemy IV, ‘Philopator’, the history of the body experienced another twist. In c. 215 BC, desiring to further emphasise the close link between his family and Alexander, Philopator placed Alexander’s body in a new royal burial complex. Whether Ptolemy used Alexander’s original tomb as the basis for this complex or constructed it somewhere else is unclear, but the latter is more likely. The new complex soon became known as the Soma or ‘The Body’ – named after its main attraction.

Barely any evidence survives of what this new mausoleum looked like and scholars have touted various theories. It was almost certainly visually majestic – most likely inspired by the famed tomb of Mausolus at Halicarnassus. It is also possible the complex was circular-shaped and formed the inspiration for the great tombs of future Roman emperors Augustus and Hadrian – both of whom visited Alexander’s body.

Inside this new complex, Ptolemy IV placed Alexander’s body in an underground chamber. He also placed his Ptolemaic ancestors next to this chamber – once again emphasising the closest possible link between the Ptolemies and Alexander. Together with its famous lighthouse and library the Soma was an iconic feature of Alexandria. From far and wide, visitors would journey to Alexander’s city and see his marvellous tomb.

But no dynasty can last forever. By the beginning of the 1st century BC, the Ptolemaic dynasty had become a shadow of its former power. So great was its turmoil that in 89 BC King Ptolemy X had done the unthinkable: in desperate need of money to pay his mercenaries, he melted down Alexander’s golden sarcophagus, replacing it with one made of glass. Ptolemaic power continued to dwindle and within 70 years, a new power would be ruling Alexandria. A power that also had a keen interest in Alexander’s tomb – but for very different reasons: Rome.

Tags: Alexander the Great

Tristan Hughes