On 10/11 June 323 BC, King Alexander III of Macedon, better known as Alexander ‘the Great’, died in Babylon aged 32. In his lifetime, he had forged one of the largest empires the world had yet seen, theoretically stretching from Greece to the Punjab, from Egypt to Samarkand. What followed his death, however, was an imperial implosion.
Almost immediately following Alexander’s death, troubles began to erupt across his empire. Within roughly 48 hours of his death, vicious unrest had seized Babylon as the Macedonian soldiers and generals argued over the succession. Within a few weeks of Alexander’s death, news of his passing had reached the prestigious city-state of Athens, triggering its anti-Macedonian demagogues to launch the city into full-blooded revolt against their northern neighbours.
The Athenians commanded a powerful coalition of anti-Macedonian, Hellenic factions and city-states. Backed by their own rejuvenated army and navy, this Athenian-led revolt would prove a major test for those that outlived Alexander. Further afield, unrest sprang up in Thrace, Cappadocia and Bactra-Sogdia.
As soon as Alexander the Great died, the thin thread holding much of his empire together disintegrated. Here’s the story of the crisis that ensued after his demise.
As well as the Athenian revolt, trouble also brewed elsewhere after Alexander’s death. In Thrace (largely modern-day Bulgaria), the powerful Odrysian King Seuthes III had thrown off the shackles of Macedonian overlordship and proclaimed himself an independent monarch, possessing more than 30,000 soldiers. In Cappadocia, an independent Iranian warlord called Ariarathes reigned supreme, capable of fielding some 50,000 soldiers.
Meanwhile, in faraway Bactria-Sogdia (modern-day northern Afghanistan and southern Uzbekistan), more than 20,000 disillusioned, veteran, Hellenic hoplites – who Alexander had left to garrison this distant frontier 5 years earlier – were set to rise up and march several thousand miles back to their Mediterranean homelands.
Rebellion was rife in Alexander’s empire in the latter half of 323 BC. But who would have to deal with these revolts? Responsibility lay with Alexander’s former adjutants. These were the generals who had served alongside Alexander on his campaigns – figures such as Perdiccas, Ptolemy, Peithon and Craterus. These were the commanders who had played pivotal roles in Alexander achieving his conquests. From the elderly viceroy Antipater in Macedonia to the one-eyed veteran statesman Antigonus in Phrygia (central Turkey).
Following Alexander’s death, it was many of these figures who rose to the fore. Nominally, they were subordinate to the empire’s new king, Philip Arrhidaeus III. Philip Arrhidaeus III was the elder half-brother of Alexander the Great. Philip, however, had a condition. We don’t know what this condition was, but it resulted in him being unable to rule without help. A second king was later crowned alongside Philip Arrhidaeus. This was Alexander the Great’s infant son, King Alexander IV).
Because of Alexander’s young age, he too was incapable of ruling without aid. All of this meant that the monarchs were little more than royal figureheads. They did not hold true power; they were token monarchs. The real power lay with the leading statesmen nominally beneath them – the generals who had outlived Alexander the Great.
Having served alongside Alexander the Great and having played significant roles in numerous victories, these generals were highly confident individuals. They evoked Alexander the Great’s leadership style. They led from the front. They shared the risks of their soldiers. They were incredibly capable and charismatic leaders.
Never before, indeed, did Macedonia, or any other country, abound with such a multitude of distinguished men; whom Philip (II) first, and afterwards Alexander, had selected with such skill, that they seemed to be chosen, not so much to attend them to war, as to succeed them to the throne. Who then can wonder, that the world was conquered by such officers, when the army of the Macedonians appeared to be commanded, not by generals, but by princes?
– Justin 13.1.12-15 –
It was several of these ‘princes’ that were tasked with quashing the unrest that erupted across Alexander the Great’s empire following the king’s death. Antipater and Craterus would confront the Athenians; Lysimachus would oppose Seuthes III in Thrace; Peithon would block the Bactrian revolt; Perdiccas would fight Ariarathes. It was a period filled with conflict across the length and breadth of what was once Alexander’s empire.
The external threats to the Macedonian Empire were several in late 323 BC. But internal troubles were also emerging. The loyalty of these ‘distinguished men’ that Justin eulogises was questionable.
The generals that outlived Alexander the Great were extraordinary individuals. They were exceptional. But they were also arrogant and power-hungry. These generals had been willing to serve under Alexander the Great and his overarching aura. They were less willing to serve under one of their fellow commanders.
Very quickly, many of these adjutants began to realise that the greatest threats to their imperial ambitions in this new post-Alexander world came from their former brothers-in-arms. It came from their fellow adjutants, many of whom were willing to defy official commands in pursuit of their own power in the immediate years that followed 323 BC. Several examples of this are evident. One of the best is the deadly rivalry that quickly erupted between Ptolemy and Perdiccas.
Who was Perdiccas?
When Alexander the Great died, Perdiccas was the king’s most senior subordinate in Babylon. According to the Roman historian Quintus Curtius Rufus, it was to Perdiccas that Alexander bestowed his signet ring before he died. By doing this, Alexander was not naming Perdiccas as his successor. More likely Alexander was designating Perdiccas as the man to oversee the succession.
Regardless of the event’s meaning, Perdiccas’ high status when Alexander died ensured that he played a pivotal role in the turbulent events that subsequently gripped Babylon, when the Macedonian veteran infantry and the generals found themselves at odds with one another over the succession.
Perdiccas ultimately emerged a clear victor of this ‘Babylon Crisis’. Through a mixture of persuasion, compromise and brutality, he played a significant role in quelling the unrest. Consequently, he emerged from the crisis as the most powerful figure in the empire. He was named prostates, effectively the regent. It was Perdiccas that effectively ruled the Macedonian Empire on behalf of the impotent King Philip Arrhidaeus III.
But very quickly, Perdiccas’ authority was challenged – especially by a figure called Ptolemy.
Who was Ptolemy?
Like Perdiccas, Ptolemy was another general who had served with Alexander the Great. He too was present in Babylon when Alexander died and played a role in the crisis that immediately ensued in the city. His support for Perdiccas during this crisis, however, had been conditional. Ptolemy was wary of Perdiccas and his ambitions.
In return for his support, Ptolemy had demanded a particular posting in the Macedonian Empire. He demanded governorship over the wealthy province of Egypt. Perdiccas agreed, but only on the condition that the previous governor of Egypt, Cleomenes, served as Ptolemy’s deputy. Cleomenes appears to have been an informant for Perdiccas, keeping checks on Ptolemy.
Ptolemy, however, had no intention of abiding by the agreement. Very soon after he reached Egypt in 322 BC, he had Cleomenes assassinated. Ptolemy then began building up his military. He hired mercenaries, built up defences along the River Nile, made diplomatic agreements with nearby kings and expanded his territory by taking over opulent Cyrenaica. Ptolemy achieved all this without the permission of Perdiccas. Ptolemy was transforming Egypt into a powerful base of operations. The region was becoming a powerful nucleus for a future ‘Ptolemaic’ empire.
Perdiccas and Ptolemy clash
By 321 BC, a showdown between Perdiccas and Ptolemy looked all but inevitable, and conflict was quick to follow. In late 321 BC, Ptolemy orchestrated an extraordinary provocation when he and his allies hijacked Alexander the Great’s talismanic body and funeral carriage from Perdiccas’ control in one of the most bizarre heists in history.
Alexander’s body was more than just a corpse. It was an incredibly powerful symbol of authority in this new post-Alexander world. Whoever possessed it held great sway in the empire. For Perdiccas, Ptolemy’s stealing of the body from his grasp was a provocation he could not ignore. The corpse was also a keystone in Perdiccas’ own imperial ambitions. He needed to get the body back. It was the trigger for the First Successor War.
Barely two years after Alexander the Great’s death, the first of the tumultuous ‘Successor Wars’ loomed. External threats to the Macedonian Empire had proven several and significant in the immediate aftermath of Alexander the Great’s death. Ultimately, however, the threats they posed have been overshadowed by the bloody rivalries that simultaneously erupted between ambitious Macedonian commanders.
For the next 40 years, what was Alexander’s empire would be engulfed by titanic, intermittent, Macedonian-led civil wars – the so-called ‘Wars of the Successors.’ The hostile relationship between Ptolemy and Perdiccas is just one of many deadly rivalries that epitomise this chaotic period. There are many more: Eumenes vs Neoptolemus, Peithon vs Peucestas, Perdiccas vs Antigonus, Polyperchon vs Cassander and so on.
Perdiccas and Ptolemy’s deadly rivalry was a symbol of things to come. The ‘Successor Wars’ became an ancient ‘Game of Thrones,’ as former brothers in arms became the most hated of enemies in their desire to gain the most in this unstable, post-Alexander world. One thing is certain, however. The period’s chaos makes for great, if not terrifying, reading.
Tristan Hughes is a producer and presenter at History Hit, the host of The Ancients history podcast and an author. His 2022 book, The Perdiccas Years, 323–320 BC: Alexander’s Successors at War, covers the imperial implosion that ensued after Alexander the Great’s death.