Ghost on the Throne: The Death of Alexander the Great and the Bloody Fight for His Empire by James Romm
- Why do we not hear much about the ancient Macedonians after Alexander the Great? Who were these people, anyway? The answer is more interesting than you might think.
- 369 pages (278 pages of content, with the rest maps and resources)
Two weeks ago, I downloaded this book as a loan from the local library because I couldn’t have answered the questions posed in my first bullet point above. I won’t keep you in suspense if you just want to know the short answers. The Macedonians came from a tribe of shepherds in Eastern Europe, but they evolved into a highly militaristic culture with deep pride in their identity. In fact, there are people who identify themselves as Macedonians today. Alexander himself was born to their royal family, based in part of modern Albania. He went on to conquer much of Europe and Asia, not to mention part of northern Africa, including Egypt, and it is his military genius, not his royal heritage, that makes him one of history’s most celebrated leaders.
What you need to understand, however, is that Romm has not written a book about Alexander himself, but rather his generals and his family – the people who made a bid for power after his death – clever Ptolemy, royal Cleopatra (no, not that Cleopatra…she comes along much later from Ptolemy’s line), frightening general Antigonus One-Eye, and many more.
Other characters include formidable teenage Princess Adea, who makes her play for power by wedding Alexander’s mentally challenged brother. Neither her childlike husband, Philip, nor his nephew, Alexander’s young son Alexander, is competent to rule, and everyone knows it. Whoever serves as regent for these two effectively rules the empire. If Adea can bear a son by Philip, then she will have the best claim to power. However, Olympias, Alexander the Great’s mother, is a tough old bird and not one to be brushed aside lightly by some teenage tramp from a minor tribe. She assumes guardianship over her grandson, Alexander’s own son. The boy was born to a foreign woman none of the Macedonians take seriously, so Olympias can basically take over that side of the family.
While these two women are using the family tree as a path to power, Alexander’s generals take the military route. During his lifetime, Alexander carefully avoided creating a hierarchy among his generals, his Bodyguard, so that no clear second-in-command could take over. Consequently, any of them who want power in the vacuum created by his death will have to fight for it. Allegiances form and crumble among these men, and control over resources – like elephants or the cavalry – shift with victories and plots. Ptolemy realizes early that he can take over and defend his claim to Egypt, so he largely avoids the drama to come. Antipater, the crusty old general, heads to Europe, where he makes the Greeks of Athens miserable until his own death. And then there’s my own favorite of Alexander’s generals, Eumenes the Greek. He was a scribe for Alexander the Great, but the emperor liked him and made him a general. Eumenes proved a surprisingly worthy soldier and a clever leader, but the Macedonians always viewed him as an outsider despite proven loyalty to the crown.
There is a common thread among all these major characters: boldness. The Macedonians Romm describes are not a wishy-washy bunch, and they respect leaders who grab for the brass ring. Of course, grabbing the wrong ring or overreaching can get one killed, but it’s better than inaction. For example, Perdiccas, the bachelor general who holds Alexander the Great’s seal and sets himself up as guardian to the dual kings for much of this story looks like he’s on the path to assume control of much of the former empire. However, he paints himself into a corner by having to choose between two powerful brides: he delays making a choice and ends up ticking off everybody involved.
If you’ve read my blog before, then you already know that military details bore me. This story necessarily describes some combat, but Romm keeps to a discussion of strategy and the significance of particular battles. For example, he describes the Silver Shields, an elite military unit, carefully enough to make the value of their loyalties clear without detailing every piece of kit they wore into battle. It’s not possible to skip accounts of marches and battles in this book and still have any idea what’s happening; however, the strategic discussions illuminate the brilliance of generals like Antigonus One-Eye and Eumenes, friends who became well-matched opponents on the battlefield. There’s a definite payoff for sticking with the military bits.
If you want to learn about the Macedonians and life after their legendary warrior-king, then Romm’s book makes a fine choice. His writing style is clear and engaging, and he is careful to keep his readers aware of the story’s timeline. Perhaps the best strength of the work is the way in which Romm carefully differentiates the major characters which millennia have seemingly made flat and interchangeable. A tip if you read this gem yourself: don’t skip the beginning notes because the author explains there how a few individuals have similar or even identical names but are in fact different people.