How Alexander the Great’s Death Sparked History’s Greatest Succession Crisis

Tristan Hughes

5 mins

09 Jul 2019

News of Alexander the Great’s death sparked chaos throughout his empire. In Athens a significant revolt immediately erupted. Meanwhile in the far east some 20,000 Greek mercenaries abandoned their posts and headed home.

But it was in Babylon, the new, beating heart of Alexander’s empire, that the first sparks of conflict occurred.

Rivalry

Not long after Alexander’s body was cold, trouble was a’foot in the Empire’s new capital.

Just prior to his death, Alexander had entrusted Perdiccas, his highest ranking subordinate in Babylon, to supervise his succession. But several of Alexander’s other closest generals – Ptolemy especially – resented Perdiccas’ newfound authority.

Deathbed of Alexander, illustration in Codex 51 (Alexander Romance) of the Hellenic Institute. The figure in the centre is Perdiccas, receiving the ring from the speechless Alexander.

In their eyes they were some of the most formidable men of the age. They had ventured with Alexander to the edges of the known world, and then further, leading significant portions of the all-conquering army and gaining the great affection of the troops:

Never before, indeed, did Macedonia, or any other country, abound with such a multitude of distinguished men.

Perdiccas, Ptolemy and the rest of the generals were all highly-ambitious and confident young men. Only Alexander’s extraordinary aura had kept their own aspirations in check. And now Alexander was dead.

The meeting

On 12 June 323 BC Perdiccas and the rest of the bodyguards summoned a meeting of the highest-ranking commanders to decide the fate of Alexander’s empire. Things, however, did not go according to plan.

Alexander’s veteran Macedonians in Babylon – some 10,000 men – quickly filled the courtyards of the Royal Palace, eager to hear what the generals would decide.

Impatience quickly swept through the force; soon they stormed the commanders’ conclave, demanding they have their voices heard and refusing to leave. Perdiccas and the rest were forced to continue the discussion in front of this audience.

What followed was terrible indecision: a series of proposals, rejections and hesitations occurred as the Macedonian generals attempted to find a solution that would please the soldiery and suit their own agendas.

In the end the rank and file clamoured for Perdiccas to take the Macedonian purple, but the chiliarch hesitated, knowing full well such a move would catalyse the ire of Ptolemy and his faction.

A 19th century depiction of Perdiccas.

Seeing Perdiccas refuse the kingship almost-anarchical scenes ensued as the soldiery took matters into their own hand. Spurred on by a Macedonian infantry commander called Meleager, they soon clamoured for Arrhidaeus – Alexander the Great’s half-brother – to be named king.

At first Arrhidaeus appeared the obvious choice – he was related by blood to the dead Alexander, not an infant, and was currently at Babylon.

There was, however, one major problem: although we do not know what he had exactly, Arrhidaeus suffered from a severe mental illness that ensured he could not make decisions on his own.

Nevertheless Meleager and the soldiers dressed Arrhidaeus in Alexander’s royal robes and crowned him King Philip Arrhidaeus III. Meleager, manipulating the king’s weak mental state, soon made himself the king’s chief adviser – the real power behind the throne.

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Coming to blows

Perdiccas, Ptolemy and the rest of the generals opposed the coronation and finally decided to put aside their differences until they had crushed Meleager’s insurrection. They proposed they wait for Alexander’s unborn child by his wife Roxana to be born and establish a regency in the meantime.

The infantry however, seeing the generals’ unwillingness to accept their choice of king, attacked their former superiors and chased them out of Babylon.

Perdiccas attempted to stay and quell the insurrection, but a failed assassination attempt on his life forced him to withdraw from the city also.

The tables started to turn. Outside the walls of Babylon, Perdiccas and the generals gathered a huge force: the Asian infantry and cavalry in Alexander’s army stayed loyal (including 30,000 men trained in the Macedonian style of warfare) as did the powerful and prestigious Macedonian cavalry. With this large force they started to besiege the city.

An illustration of a Macedonian cavalryman.

Talks

It was not long before the infantry inside the city began to consider negotiations. Meleager proved an inadequate leader while Perdiccas’ agents inside the city quickly spread dissent within the ranks.

Eventually concrete negotiations emerged between the besieged and the besiegers and, after Perdiccas showed some remarkable courage walking into the jaws of the army assembly and pleading his case for a cease to the bloodshed, both sides reached a compromise.

They named Craterus, another high-ranking general then far away to the west, as regent to Arrhidaeus and the unborn child of Roxana, if it were a son. Arrhidaeus and the son would rule as joint-kings. Perdiccas would remain chief of the army with Meleager as his second.

Agreement, it seemed, had been reached. The siege was lifted and the army united once more. To celebrate the end to hostilities Perdiccas and Meleager agreed to hold a traditional reconciliation event outside Babylon’s walls. Yet it had one devastating twist.

A 256-strong Macedonian phalanx.

Betrayed

As the army assembled, Perdiccas and Philip Arrhidaeus III rode up to the infantry and demanded they hand over the ringleaders of the past insurrection. Faced with overwhelming odds the infantry handed over the ringleaders.

What followed was brutality to the extreme as Perdiccas ordered these troublemakers to be trampled to death by the army’s powerful Indian Elephant division.

Meleager was not among the ringleaders to face such a cruel fate, but he could only watch on as he saw his former comrades trampled underneath the beasts’ hooves.

He realised Perdiccas and his fellow officers had only agreed to the compromise so they could regain control of the king and the army, while at the same time isolating Meleager and his companions.

Meleager knew he would be next. He fled to a temple seeking sanctuary, but Perdiccas had no intention of letting him get away. Before the end of the day Meleager lay dead, murdered, outside the temple.

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Dividing the spoils

With Meleager’s death, the insurrection in Babylon came to a close. Once again the generals gathered to decide what was to happen to Alexander’s empire – this time there was no rude interruption from the now-placated rank-and-file.

Perdiccas’ leading role in quelling the insurrection, combined with his re-established authority among the soldiers, ensured the conclave soon chose him as regent for Philip Arrhidaeus III and the unborn child of Roxana – the most powerful position in the empire.

Coin of Philip III Arrhidaios struck under Perdiccas in Babylon, circa 323-320 BC. Image Credit: Classical Numismatic Group, Inc.  / Commons.

Yet although he may have won this contest, his power was far from secure. Ptolemy, Leonnatus, Antipater, Antigonus and many other equally-ambitious generals all eyed their chance for more power in this post-Alexander world. This was merely the beginning.