When Alexander the Great died at the age of thirty-two, his empire stretched from the Adriatic Sea in the west all the way to modern-day India in the east. In an unusual compromise, his two heirs—a mentally damaged half brother, Philip III, and an infant son, Alexander IV, born after his death—were jointly granted the kingship. But six of Alexander’s Macedonian generals, spurred by their own thirst for power and the legend that Alexander bequeathed his rule “to the strongest,” fought to gain supremacy. Perhaps their most fascinating and conniving adversary was Alexander’s former Greek secretary, Eumenes, now a general himself, who would be the determining factor in the precarious fortunes of the royal family. James Romm, professor of classics at Bard College, brings to life the cutthroat competition and the struggle for control of the Greek world’s greatest empire.
Excerpted from Ghost on the Throne by James Romm. Copyright © 2011 by James Romm. Excerpted by permission of Vintage, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
James Romm is James H. Ottaway Jr. Professor of Classics at Bard College. He has received fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation, the National Endowment for the Humanities, and the Dorothy and Lewis B. Cullman Center for Scholars and Writers. He has written two books on the ancient Greek world, The Edges of the Earth in Ancient Thought and Herodotus, and edited Arrian’s Campaigns of Alexander, part of the distinguished Landmark series of works by ancient Greek historians.
Why has the time period following Alexander the Great’s death remained virtually untold?
Largely because Alexander is such a towering presence, and draws all the attention. Also, eras like that of Alexander, dominated by a single individual, are more attractive to historical authors than those that are not, because the structure of biography, a familiar and comfortable one, can be brought into play. The era following Alexander has an ensemble cast, with no dominant figure. That makes it a harder narrative for authors—but hopefully not for my readers!
Of Alexander’s many generals who vied for power following his death, who did you find most compelling to write about? Did anyone surprise you during the course of your research for this book?
Eumenes of Cardia completely won my heart, and he is in many ways the hero of the book. I had never quite understood why a Greek, who was originally Alexander's secretary, played such a big part in the post-Alexander years. Learning the tangled tale of Eumenes' rise to power was one of the great joys I had while researching this book. Also, Eumenes was extremely clever, smarter than most of the Macedonians, and I find smart people naturally interesting.
The title of your book, Ghost on the Throne, refers to the great power Alexander’s persona had, even in death. How did the generals try to channel this power?
The specific reference is to a ploy devised by Eumenes, following the model of his senior commander, Perdiccas. Eumenes set up Alexander's throne in a special tent and placed Alexander's royal gear on it, then met with his officers only in front of that throne. They would not accept him as leader without the implied presence of this spectral Alexander. It's a fascinating image, one that reveals the power Alexander exercised on the imagination of the age.
Had Alexander lived, do you think he would have been able to maintain control of his empire? Or had it grown too vast even for his giant personality?
That's a very difficult question. Alexander's character was changing at the time he died. It seems likely he was increasingly autocratic in his behavior, often drunk, and mistrustful of those around him. In a way he was lucky in the timing of his death, as it cut short what might have been a total degeneration. He might not have been able to hold things together for long, though perhaps long enough to secure a viable plan for succession.
There were also many strong female characters who fought for access to Alexander’s throne through marriage or their children. Was this common for the time period? Who was the most successful in her bid for power?
You point to one of the features of this era that most appeals to me, the prevalence of strong women. The queens and princesses of the Argead royal family were remarkably scrappy and self-assertive. Ultimately none achieved her goals, but Olympias, Alexander's mother, came very close to success. Through sheer charisma and force of will, she got control of the throne and the Macedonian homeland, but failed to hold on, mostly due to her lack of good generals.
A major source of conflict involved racial relations, particularly in regards to Alexander’s policy of intermarrying with the ruling classes of the Asian nations he conquered. Was Alexander the first European to promote such practices? Did it continue after his death?
Yes, Alexander was a revolutionary in this regard, and the example he set—arranged marriages between European men and Asian brides, for instance—was largely discarded after his death. But there were a few who carried the experiment forward, in a limited way. In my book I make the case that Perdiccas, Alexander's senior officer at the time of his death, supported his racial policies, principally in his support for the succession rights of Alexander's half-Asian son. Peucestas, a minor character in my book, learned the Persian language and wore Persian clothes, for which Alexander cherished him.
The city of Athens is a major character in Ghost on the Throne. How did the fallout after Alexander’s death influence the development of the city state in the years to come?
The story of Athens after Alexander is a painful historical tragedy. The city had avoided a direct clash with Macedon for fifteen years, saving up its resources and training its youth in anticipation of the right moment. With Alexander's death, the moment had arrived. The Athenians staked everything on the rebellion of 323-322 and came agonizingly close to success. There would never be another moment for Athens with similar possibilities.
Not all Readers may be aware that Aristotle was Alexander’s teacher as a boy. How was his life affected by the turbulence in Athens?
This is one of the murkier and more surprising elements of the post-Alexander story. Aristotle was in cahoots with the Macedonians for most of his life, though just how active he was on their behalf is not clear. Still, he was, in Athenian eyes, on the side of the enemy. His flight from Athens in 323, and possibly an earlier departure in 347 as well, were direct results of anti-Macedonian bias.
With the intense drama of this time period, one can easily picture an HBO series or motion picture being made. Have any films about Alexander touched on the time following his death?
No, but the final segment of Oliver Stone's film Alexander conducts a quick wrap-up of the fates of the principals, narrated by an aged Ptolemy, who had survived them all. I'm pleased by your mention of an HBO series because I was in fact influenced by the series Rome when I wrote Ghost on the Throne. I tried for the same vividness, panoramic scope, and depth of character portrayal that made Rome so successful, though of course the techniques are different when the story's on the printed page.
The circumstances of Alexander’s death are still contested (including whether or not he was murdered). Has any new evidence in this “case” been discovered?
No new evidence, but an important new theory, which I am writing about now for Smithsonian Magazine. Recent toxicological studies have suggested that hellebore poisoning may explain Alexander's symptoms. Since hellebore, in low doses, was used as a medicinal purgative by Alexander, it's entirely possible he died from a drug overdose, or from medical malpractice. The research on this question is so new that I didn't deal with it in Ghost on the Throne, and in fact I make no effort there to identify the cause of Alexander's death. I was interested in the effects rather than the cause.
Are there any shadows of this conflict to be found today in the countries that were part of Alexander’s empire?
There are many, especially following the fall of the Hussein regime in Iraq and the departure of Mubarak from Egypt. These dictators ruled the territories that Alexander once ruled, by way of a cult of personality similar to his. It remains to be seen how the region will develop after their departure, but the contemporary Middle East has the benefit of a democratic superpower exerting its influence. Alexander's empire was the world's superpower, so the power vacuum created by his death was much more damaging.
From the Hardcover edition.
“Romm charts all the reversals and alliances with the skill of a great detective.” —Los Angeles Times
“Thrilling. . . . But Ghost on the Throne is [also] a careful work of fine scholarship.” —The New Criterion
“Offering well-paced and often-dramatic narratives, up-to-date research, and thorough documentation. . . . [Romm] lends a vividness and passion to his narrative.” —The Wall Street Journal
“Romm is a gifted storyteller as well as a respected scholar.” —Choice
“[Romm has] mastered the knack that all classicists should have: He can get inside the sources and bring them alive. . . . This is history every reader should know, and this is exactly how it should be written.” —Open Letters Monthly
“Romm’s saga of the tumultuous years immediately following Alexander’s relatively sudden death . . . becomes something of a thriller: [Who] will survive until the next chapter in this roller coaster of an imperial succession story?” —History Book Club
“Romm . . . is one of a few historians worldwide who can be numbered among the Alexander experts.” —Westfair Online
“Written more as a thriller than a history tome.” —The Daily Freeman
“Fast-paced and absorbing . . . Captivating . . . A sterling account of a little discussed era in ancient history.” —Publishers Weekly
“Lively. . . . [A] scholarly but colorful account of the toxic fallout from the untimely demise of a continent-striding conqueror. . . . Romm paints a vivid portrait of ancient politics.” —Kirkus Reviews