It remains one of the most successful and significant thefts in history. 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, designed as a miniature and gold-adorned mobile temple, and the conqueror’s talismanic corpse housed within.
Provoking war: landing the first strike
Ptolemy and Perdiccas were at loggerheads. The former was the new governor of Egypt. The latter was the all-powerful regent of Alexander’s empire, whose authority theoretically stretched from Afghanistan to the Aegean.
Both knew that war between them was all-but-inevitable. Rather than wait, Ptolemy aimed to provoke it on his terms – a pre-emptive strike. It was a huge risk, but one the governor believed he had to take if he would have any chance of victory.
Diverting the carriage
At the end of 321 BC, Alexander the Great’s funeral carriage was heading west from Babylon to the Mediterranean. Perdiccas, who was then stationed in Pisidi, central Anatolia, with the royal army, wanted to take the body back to Macedonia. Returning with the dead king’s body to his homeland, and with the royal army in tow, was a key part of his grand plan to seize the throne.
But Ptolemy had other ideas. He wanted the body to come to Egypt, and he had prepared for this in advance. Colluding with Arrhidaeus, the general in command of the cortege’s escort, and Archon, the governor of Babylonia, they arranged to hijack the body and fatally damage Perdiccas’ grand imperial plans.
In late 321 BC they put the plan in motion. Upon arriving in Syria, Arrhidaeus and the funeral cart turned south towards Egypt. The theft was on.
‘Race’ to Egypt
The thieves had a head start, but speed was not a luxury afforded to them. Even with the best suspension the ancients could create, the progress of the great carriage was painfully slow.
It was not long before Perdiccas received word of the cart’s new course and sent a special light-armed task force in pursuit. Its purpose: to retrieve the carriage and its precious cargo – by force if necessary. The chase was on.
In the southern Levant, the pursuing force caught up with the carriage, but they were to be disappointed. Blocking their way were hundreds of heavily-armed mercenaries. Having anticipated that Perdiccas would attempt to retrieve the funeral cart, in the meantime Ptolemy had arrived with an army to reinforce the escort and deter any enemy force.
Later sources claim Ptolemy did this merely to give the carriage a military welcome worthy of the great conqueror; in fact he did it to ensure that the theft went smoothly.
The arrival of Ptolemy’s army proved crucial to the success of the theft. Despite their best efforts, Perdiccas’ retrieval force proved inadequately-equipped to tackle their heavier-armed foe. They returned to Perdiccas to inform them of their failure.
Ptolemy, Arrhidaeus and the catafalque proceeded to Egypt; Alexander’s body was interred at Memphis, perhaps in the vacant sarcophagus of the last Egyptian pharaoh Nectanebo II. It would never leave Egypt again.
Ptolemy knew his actions would provoke retaliation. And it did. His grand plan scuppered, Perdiccas vowed vengeance on Ptolemy. Plans were immediately drawn up to reclaim the body by force. It was the spark for the First War of the Successors.