Book review: After Alexander

James Romm, Ghost on the throne: The death of Alexander the Great and the War for Crown and Empire, Random House (2011). 368p. $28.95. ISBN: 978-0-307-27164-8.

The story of how Alexander of Macedon inherited the army that had conquered Greece and used it to conquer the world is known to us all.  Much less well known is what happened when, unexpectedly, Alexander died in Babylon in June 323 BC.  He left, as heirs, an unborn child and a half-wit brother, and a group of generals in command of his army.  As might be expected, these generals fell out among themselves, murdered each other, fought over the spoils and, as the memory of their king receded, murdered his heirs and made themselves into kings.  The Successor kingdoms, of the Seleucids, Ptolemies, and Antigonids, define the Hellenistic era.

James Romm has chosen to tell the story of how Alexander died, and how his generals fought and squabbled, down to the extinction of the Macedonian Royal family.  This he does with verve and imagination.  No-one could fault the enthusiasm with which he tells the story, and it should appeal to the general reader.  He also breaks up the narrative of the plotting by interleaving material from the archaeological discoveries at Verginia (ancient Aegae) in Macedonia, where, possibly, the splendid burials are actually those of Philip Arridhaeus and the child Alexander IV. 

The narrative is well plotted, and switches between one group and another are well-signalled and organised.  It would have been very easy to confuse the reader; but this is deftly avoided.  The action in Athens, and the downfall of Phocion and the attempts by the Athenians to regain their liberty are vividly depicted.

Each chapter has a respectable number of footnotes, gathered at the end.  Unfortunately an error in the proof omitted the numerals from the text, making it difficult for me to see how well distributed these were. 

An appendix gives the primary sources, and wisely adds links to online versions on sites such as Lacus Curtius and my own.  I learned from this, indeed, that Photius’ summary of Arrian’s Events after Alexander is online, which I had not known.  Earlier in the book, indeed, I learned that a leaf from the full version is extant in a palimpsest.  The book does not shy away from snippets like this, and is all the better for it.

The author discusses his approach to the historical record in the preface.  Basically he tells the story straight, just as they tell it, without invention, fiction, or needless imagination.  This is the right approach to take, and the discussion of the issues in the preface is itself a useful education for the sort of reader who will read this.  The bibliography at the end is well chosen to assist that same reader.  It is a book, indeed, that I would have found most interesting in my mid teens, when I was reading books by Leonard Cottrell, or Narrow Pass, Black Mountain.  It gives ordinary people access to history.  It will, undoubtedly, recruit young people to become scholars of the Hellenistic period.

The only problem that I foresee, though, is that, in a way, the story is a depressing tale.  There is no happy ending to all this.  At the end of it all, Alexander’s family are all dead, and most perish miserably.  This is not the fault of the author, of course, but it makes for less than cheering reading at the end of a busy day at work, or on a packed commuter train.  And that is the audience to which this book, surely, is directed.  I don’t feel drawn to read it again, for instance.  I reached the end and felt sad. 

The typesetting is professional, although the proof had various errors of formatting in it.  The maps and illustrations are good, well-drawn, and not distracting. 

The cover, on the other hand, is an unappealing piece of work.  The tired, stale old cliché of some ancient artefact on a coloured background — just like Narrow Pass, Black Mountain, of 40 years ago — is not even as good as that, for the colour is muddied and off-putting.  I am amazed that Random House would put a book out with that cover.  Try again, chaps.  This is a book about people and human interest.  Commission someone to paint a picture of a bunch of Greeks in armour in bright colours before the walls of Babylon, and let the book sparkle on the shelf.  This is a period of history that took place in bright sunlight — let the cover reflect it.

All in all, this is an excellent piece of work.  The scholarship is sound but not intrusive, and the story rattles along.  Recommended.

The tomb of Alexander the Great

You know how it is.  You’re slumped in front of the TV, and you turn it on and there’s something about Egypt.  In my case it was Secrets of Egypt: Alexander’s Tomb

Like everyone else, I knew that Alexander’s tomb was in Alexandria, and that it disappears in the confusion in the 3rd-4th centuries AD.  John Chrysostom can ask ca. 390 who knows where the tomb is.

I watched for a while, and then turned it off in disgust.  There was some crank being presented as a novel idea; his novel idea was that Alexander was buried near Cairo.  Naturally I wondered what ancient data demanded this, and how he could ignore the unanimous testimony of antiquity.  The programme makers simply ignored both issues.  Consequently they gave almost no ancient information on the subject at all.

This led me to wonder just what the collected ancient data amounts to.  I’ve been assembling a little dossier, and looking for links.  A reasonable list is here, although not comprehensive.  I may compile a little page of data myself.  What a pity, tho, that we know so little!