Book Review: Alexander the Great - The Death of a God


Dec 31, 2008
my crib
Alexander the Great: The Death of a God
What - or who - really killed the young conqueror of the known world.
Paul Doherty
Constable & Robinson Ltd., 2004.
236 pages.

My synopsis and comments:
Paul Doherty has written a number of works of historical fiction, including three mysteries around the life of Alexander and his times, but this is a scholarly treatment on the causes and actions leading to his death. It is not your typical biography but provides intriguing insights via many ancient sources, not just by what they say, but by what they omit.

The book opens with the intense rivalry that developed between Philip II and his ambitious son, in the often feud-riven Macedonian court. Philip is portrayed as a jovial warrior king whose accommodations and compromises masked his calculated ruthlessness on occasion. He appears to have loved and invested his son as a worthy successor, but Alexander wrankled under his father's leadership. He considered himself the descendant of Achilles, and this obsessive belief in his own pothos would dominate his life. In a revealing vignette, he asserts of a reclusive philosopher who made no deference to Alexander's visit; "Say what you will, but if I were not Alexander, I would want to be Diogenes". Under the baleful influence of his formidable snake-worshiping mother Olympias, Alexander became alienated from Philip and may have begun to question where his real parentage lie. After his services on the northern frontier, commanding the king's cavalry at Chaeronea, and embassy to Athens; the final breach came when Philip disavowed Olympias and married Cleopatra the niece of Attalus, who mocked Alexander at the banquet and had a drinking cup thrown in his face. Alexander and his mother went in to temporary exile in Epirus, and though he returned within a year at Philip's request, Doherty asserts this was not a genuine reconciliation. When Cleopatra gave birth to a son, Philip's murder followed soon after, in which "Alexander was, at the very best, a passive observer and at the very worst, an active participant". Olympias was almost certainly one of the organizers behind this assassination, but I don't accept that the apparent inactivity of Alexander and his uncle Alexander of Epirus, as honour guards of Philip on that occasion, indicates that they were in any position to prevent it. Regardless, there is a noticable lack of speculation in the sources about who the real perpetrators were other than Pausanias who carried it out. Alexander was quickly raised to the kingship with the support of Antipater, and made a show of searching out Philip's killers, but Olympias continued to enjoy her privileged position as queen mother. Doherty provides a compelling interpretation of Alexander's visit to the Temple of Ammon, when he questions the oracle whether "his father's killers still live". He was haunted by any hint of gossip that he was involved, but wasted no time in doing away with Attalus and the House of Aeropus. Cleopatra and her children were dealt with most brutally by Olympias, leaving Alexander's hands untainted. There is no doubt Philip left a lasting impression on Alexander, who would ever after strive to surpass his father.

Although the guilt of parricide is a serious charge against him if it be true, Doherty does not indulge in too much moralizing. He does however indict him for "plucking out one of the eyes of Hellas": Thebes. Under the circumstances, it is not difficult to see how Alexander lost his patience with the Greeks when they undermined his long frustrated ambition to lead the expedition against Persia, after he had twice guaranteed their autonomy. He spared Athens from a similar fate, despite their continued intransigence. The pattern of Thebes would be repeated at Miletus, Tyre and Gaza; the garrisons were executed and the people enslaved. Some would say these atrocities were unnecessary, but they were not extreme for his time, and they served their purpose; these cities posed a real threat in his rear while Memnon or the Persian fleet was still active. Doherty points out that Alexander's account includes many notable acts of individual mercy, but just as many mass acts of brutality. For the most part, Alexander's campaign up to and including Gaugamela displays the heroic conqueror at his best; and Doherty affirms his breathtaking courage and uncanny genius on the battlefield. The first hint of the dangerous mixture of drink with Alexander's own nature comes with the burning of Persepolis, egged on by the Athenian courtesan Thais, who later became Ptolemy's wife. All of Alexander's Macedonian officers, and Philip before him, were hard drinking warriors and these comus sessions were a ritual part of being a leader. Doherty rejects the notion that Alexander was overtly homosexual, though we may speculate on his relationship with Hephaestion, and later as he became more despotic, he fell under the spell of the vicious Persian eunuch Bagoas. Alexander had children from Barsine, Roxane, and one of the daughters of Darius III Codomanus. He kept his own sexual interests a private affair, and his priggishness on these matters sometimes offended his comrades who indulged their desires, and were chastised.

In the alleged plot of Philotas, Doherty dispels any myth that Alexander was inherently virtuous. When the informant finally reported a planned attempt directly to Alexander, the king at first accepted the excuse of Philotas who did not convey this knowledge himself. It was Craterus, Hephaestion and others who most vigorously prosecuted Philotas. Later Alexander stood idly by while the torture of Philotas continued after a confession was extracted, and then dispatched racing camels to carry out the summary execution of the father Parmenio, a popular leader who represented the 'old guard'. Four of Philotas' friends, and some of Alexander's bodyguards, including another Attalus who had speared Philip's assassin, were also tried but acquitted. Some of them died within the year in 'accidents' that can't be proven one way or the other, along with two other sons of Parmenio. In Alexander's defense, he had entrusted Parmenio and Philotas with a substantial part of the army and treasury despite their connection to the house of Attalus; and there was no sign he intended to do away with them before the plot was revealed. Still, the whole episode of Philotas and its aftermath "reeks of that terror which so characterizes the great political purges of the 20th century". The loyalty of Alexander's officers was beginning to shift from a basis of love to fear. Back in Greece, Antipater summed up what others were thinking when he said "If Parmenio was guilty, who can be trusted ? If he was not, what is to be done ?" Doherty maintains that Alexander never forgot a slight, and harboured resentments for years, though the example given in Alexander's letter to his old tutor Leonidas seems rather weak. He sent a large shipment of frankincense and myrrh with the words "I have sent abundance, that you may no longer be a churl to the gods", to Leonidas, who had admonished him when he was a youth about squandering the precious incense.

The resentment may have been simmering slowly but after the hardships of Alexander's campaign in central Asia it found a focus in Cleitus 'the Black'. An old family friend who had served the father and saved the life of the son, he was more outspoken than the rest and grew enraged when they flattered Alexander and belittled Philip. Cleitus' response was honest but ill-worded and rewarded by Alexander with a spear, despite Ptolemy's efforts to bustle Cleitus out of the royal pavilion. Alexander's drunkenness is no excuse, but I am not convinced that the regret he felt at that moment was entirely play-acting as Doherty asserts. It did not behoove him to know he could no longer count on the friendship of his comrades. He often rejected blatant flattery and attempts to endow him with supernatural powers, but as time went on he was not opposed to being deified as a practical measure. When one of his officers mocked the oriental custom of prostration in his presence, Alexander violently forced him to the ground. In my opinion his anger is justifiable for the insult to a Persian envoy, as well as to Alexander himself in the envoy's presence, but it was a prelude to another plot. Five pages including Hermolaus, and Alexander's own biographer Callisthenes were tried and executed. The speech of Hermolaus (as related by Quintus Curtius), acknowledging his guilt and motives is a most telling account of the mood of his men at this time, which would have fed Alexander's paranoia. When Alexander's march to the east abruptly ended, so had his reputation for open-handedness. No amount of pleading, flattery, or bribery could change their minds. He seethed at the refusal of his troops to march further, but it is one of the few occasions an army mutinied en masse without forsaking its leader. Coenus advised him to accept it, with the face saving fact that he could return and raise a new army to carry out his other ambitions to the north and west. Alexander came to recognize their precarious situation himself, and the unbalanced state of his empire that could collapse in his rear. Accordingly his acceptance and announcement of their return was greeted with jubilation. These men were exhausted and their equipment in a poor state; most of all they longed for their homes again. Alexander completed the most difficult campaign of his life in the Valleys of the Indus, which his troops grudgingly supported until he was almost killed single-handedly assaulting the walls of Malli when they held back. Galvanized by the narrow survival of their lucky star, they crushed any remaining resistance with brutal intensity, eager to be done with the business.

Doherty hints but does not make the unequivocal assertion that Alexander's return march through Gedrosia was to punish his troops. The actual outcome could not have been foreseen, and many older veterans took the northern route or the fleet, while Alexander and his remaining friends suffered on the desert sands with the rest. He had enough motive to win glory by attempting a crossing that both Cyrus and Semiramis had failed in, and he had a plan to dig wells which eventually saved them; but it was a needless sacrifice by the soldiers who had carried him so far. Once back at his center of power, the purges started anew. Several officers and satraps he left behind, including Coenus' brother Cleander (who carried out the execution of Parmenio), were accused of embezzlement or refusal to send him aid in Gedrosia. They in turn were executed, sometimes by Alexander's hand. The troops who accompanied them were decimated as a brutal example to any others. One does not get the sense he was mentally unbalanced at the time, he continued to exhibit his personal charm on occasion, and carry on earnest discussions and plans with his officers. Yet he alarmed them further by requiring their marriage to Persian wives, and his insistence on choosing one himself as his official bride and mother of his succesor. It is on this point that historians are often wont to take the side of Alexander who was proselytizing the bigoted Macedonian warrior class to a policy of union with the Persians as equals. His appointment of 30,000 specially trained Persian youths to serve along and succeed the backbone of his army was seen as an attempt (by Doherty as well) to supplant them completely. He also dismissed the private armies of Greek mercenaries in the employ of his satraps, who returned to vex the ambivalent cities they came from. At Opis he dispatched Craterus with 10,000 discharged veterans to return to Greece, but this was greeted with such dismay and outrage, that Alexander jumped down to manhandle several ringleaders who were singled out for execution by his Persian guards. Afterwards he relented and tearfully accepted a delegation from his troops, though Doherty considers this a sham. The fact is when it came right down to it, they were not prepared to be discarded. Craterus eventually departed with secret instructions to remove Antipater. Although Alexander took Olympias' spiteful warnings with a grain of salt, his distrust of the old guard was surely growing, and he had physically assaulted Antipater's son Cassander. By the time he returned to Babylon after exploring the marshes of the Euphrates; there were more forebodings and ill omens than Caesar had before the Ides of March. Alexander, usually immune to such portents, felt a deep disquiet.

The death of Hephaestion and departure of Craterus left him feeling alone and vulnerable. Perdiccas, Nearchus and Seleukos were his current favorites, along with Ptolemy who had assumed the role as his chief bodyguard and food taster. But in the stifling atmosphere where Alexander commanded complete obedience it is doubtful whether any of them felt safe anymore. All were present at the feast where Alexander's last drinking binge began, but when he was about to retire for the night he was induced to join another comus led by Medius which lasted two days, during which he let out a gut wrenching cry after draining a large goblet. The recipient of multiple wounds and fractures over 10 years; he may also have ulcerated his stomach from overdrinking. It is equally plausible that he contracted malaria or typhus in the swamps, and weakened by dehydration in the heat, fatally succumbed after an illness of 10 days. However, I am led to accept Doherty's explanation that Alexander died in anguish from arsenic poisoning, after briefly rallying beside a pool in the kings' chambers. By the time the troops forced their way in to see him he was in a state of virtual paralysis, and breathed his last the next day. The reaction of the rank and file, including Persians, was an outpouring of genuine grief. Such was Alexander's impression on the troops, despite their complaints.

Examining the obvious suspects and who was tending him at the time, Doherty reaches the conclusion that it was in fact the smiling unassuming Ptolemy, acting in concert with Antipater and his son Cassander, who administered the poison. It is interesting that none of the contemporary accounts speculate on other causes of his death which would have implicated some of the diadochi in power; some later accounts such as Plutarch's mention rumours of the poison story but dismiss it. One puzzling weakness is that in no account does Alexander betray any suspicion of himself being poisoned, or Hephaestion who died in much the same way. Doherty asserts that Ptolemy may even have staged the fateful omens and drama surrounding Alexander's last days, as if the gods willed the great conqueror's death.

In the council of generals immediately after Alexander's death, Ptolemy took the fairly unpopular stance of rejecting Alexander's wife and progeny, and dismissing the appointment of Perdiccas as sole regent. Perdiccas and Ptolemy soon became bitter enemies and the former was also assassinated; while Cassander would eventually destroy any remnant of Alexander's royal bloodline. Antipater and Cassander certainly had the motive, and Ptolemy the opportunity. The three of them, also supported by Craterus, remained closely allied in the wars of the diadochi. Their subsequent behaviour might be consistent with that of assassins but there are still some inconsistencies in my mind. Ptolemy had been given no reason to fear Alexander personally, other than that the king planned more demanding and challenging campaigns, when Ptolemy wanted to settle down and govern Egypt, which after all Alexander did promise him. Ptolemy was 10 years Alexander's senior, one of the Macedonian traditionalists who resented Persian influence at court, and may have harboured a grudge for the Macedonian blood spilled on that account. The dramatic change in Ptolemy's attitude would have happened in a short time frame, since he was one of his childhood kinsmen who likely shared Alexander's exile from Philip, and Alexander had personally tended him while sick to the point of death after the crossing of Gedrosia. Ptolemy later seized Alexander's corpse after bribing the guards and substituting a fake; thus proclaiming his friendship with the deceased conqueror and conferring blessings on his land. Whatever their reasons, Doherty does not assign them the moral high ground in Alexander's assassination, even though Ptolemy may have considered it a matter of tyrannicide.

As Doherty points out, Alexander's commanders were dangerous company to keep; panthers who turned on their weakerned members in mafiosi style slayings. Alexander adopted a paternalistic attitude towards these men, intervening personally and physically in their squabbles. He often berated them for their love of luxury and on one occasion burned their treasure wagons along with his own, which must have incensed those of simpler ambitions. These Lords of the Purple, as the Roman historian Justin pointed out, "were men of such ability and authority, that each of them might have been taken for a king." Alexander's last words " the strongest" were not a declaration of his heir, but a prediction of what was to come. It was more like a curse that eventually destroyed every commander who served under him, except Ptolemy, who died peacefully in Alexandria above the Great Conqueror's tomb. There is still some question whether Alexander's increasingly autocratic behaviour was the cause of his own demise, or whether we should be amazed he survived as long as he did. My conclusion is that Alexander was not merely a self-serving tyrant, but he certainly had human failings. Groomed from childhood for virtual godhead by his mother, and still young at the time of his death. Can we blame his impatience at the opposition of his men, when he had so often defied their best advice, and emerged triumphant ? Sooner or later the aura of power and invincibility that surrounded him would go to his head. Alexander was consumed by his pothos, intolerant of any negative self-image reflected in the eyes of his friends, to the point of inhibiting their free speech. There is a temptation to attribute his transgressions to his times and upbringing, but the one thing I can not reconcile with my admiration for Alexander, is his apparent indifference towards the men who endured such hardships and laid their lives down to make him the legend he is.
Well ladies and gents, I hope you don't feel my synopsis here spoils the plot for you, since the outcome can be inferred from the chapter titles. Doherty's book makes for a very entertaining yet detached read on a subject many have speculated on; I encourage it. I've inserted my own interpretation of some of the events in this synopsis - I would be happy to see some comments.
I'll give you a bit of encouragement by posting it back... nice job, now I wont have to read this book :p

Seem to me (and it's might be the 2004 release: same has the movie) that this book reopened several debate that scholars has close some time ago. Not that I'm an Alexander expert in any means, but the ideas that he seems to propose are old ones:

-Did Alexander killed Philip?
-Was he poison?

Truth is we wont know for sure, but for the former, my guess is that is liver blew up! It doesnt look like a planned assasination mainly because of the aftermath, no real imidiate powerstruggle... but "sharing" the territory: Looks to me like they were simply not prepare to see him die. Otherwise someone would have made the move to further himself up the ladder, moreover at this levels their arnt that many room for "sharing", unless no one knew what to do next has Octavian-Marc Antony and Lepidus did.. the old WTH are we gonna do next factor. They did actually end up warring with each other... later on. Has it turn out most of them did suffer the same faith has he did... partying their empire away, except for Ptolemy who landed the richest and more stable part of them all. The storyline goes that he succombed to the east temptation, but all of his successor did no better afterall!
Thanks, though i must still recommend the read, as recognition to the author. :)

There were a few assertions that I could not buy into; Doherty plays the blame game a bit more than I would, but the logical outcome is still the same. It could have been an 'exploding' liver or ulcerated stomach, but the timing did favour Ptolemy and Cassander. The rest were at eachother's throats before Alexander's body started to decompose (another symptom of arsenic poisoning). Oliver Stone's movie was a bit ambiguous on the subject of Philip's death, as if maybe Alex expected it to happen but regretted it, and chastised his mother afterwards. But I do remember the distinct impression in the film that Alexander's cup was poisoned - by whom we dont know. Maybe his shade can finally rest in peace with the publication of this book !
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