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Alexander Post Mortem: How His Empire was Divided

August 16, 2010

Alexander the Great, Μέγας Ἀλέξανδρος (Alexander III of Macedon, 356-323 BCE), was one of the most successful commanders in military history, and is still one of the most discussed historical figures today. Just look at the thousands of books written, and many movies made about the Macedonian man who marched his soldiers east to India. There are some that dislike him as well, and call him a tyrant who lost his ‘Western ways,’ but no historian can deny that he changed world history forever by introducing Western culture to the Middle East and the Indian subcontinent. Everything from art (Buddha is sometimes sculpted in a Greek toga after the arrival of Alexander), to martial arts (pankration, the Greek version of the martial arts influenced Asia, within their brands of martial arts) are seen as modern evidence that Western civilization had an influence on Eastern civilization after the conquest of Alexander thousands of years ago.

Alexander the Great, thought to be one of the most realistic depictions of him

As I mentioned, Alexander is one of the most iconic historical figures within Western culture, but there are few people who know what happened after he died in Babylon in June of 323 BCE at the young age of 32. I will not go into too much detail of his life since it will be nothing new, but I will start with the basics.

Alexander was born in the town of Pella (Northern Greece, which was then called Macedon) in 356 BCE, and his father was Philip II of Macedon, and his mother was Olympias of Epirus (a territory on the coast of the Adriatic Sea). Philip had other wives and children, but many assumed Alexander would take his father’s place as king after his death because of his natural leadership abilities that were evident even when he was a child. One of the tutors of his youth was the philosopher Aristotle. His father was later assassinated (some say by Olympias, some say Alexander, some say both), but there is also a more solid theory out there by who actually assassinated Philip. I will let you look up that mystery yourself if you are interested.

So, Alexander takes over as the king (or basileus) of the Macedonian Argead Dynasty in 336 BCE. Alexander also inherits his father’s great army that had successfully been expanding their territory.

Alexander went on to dominate most of Greece, and built up his forces to complete his most ambitious mission yet, and that was the invasion of the Persian Empire. Alexander crossed into Asia Minor in the year 334 BCE, and started his long march towards immortality. He was usually outnumbered by the Persians and their allies, but Alexander won many large-scale conflicts like the battles of Granicus, Issus, and Gaugamela.

Alexander's Empire & route across Asia

For a decade, Alexander spread Hellenic culture for thousands of miles until he reached the shores of the Indian Ocean. Alexander’s original Macedonian and Greek men were battle weary, and Alexander turned his force around until they reached the ancient city of Babylon. Not long after reaching Babylon, Alexander became ill (under mysterious circumstances) and died.

This created a problem for the surviving diadochi (successors) of Alexander. Alexander did marry and have a son (Alexander IV of Macedon), but his child was not born yet when he died, and it was unclear if the child would be a boy or girl. According to the historian Diodorus, Alexander’s generals asked him who would lead the new empire and he said, “to the strongest.” This caused a series of conflicts between the diadochi, and the empire was forever broken into pieces.

Ptolemy I Soter, Alexander's former bodyguard and ruler of Egypt

The day that Alexander died, started the Hellenistic period of history. Basically, it describes the culture that flourished in the eastern Mediterranean, which was inspired by Greek culture, and thought. It lasted roughly until the Roman’s conquered much of Alexander’s former empire. Many of the more secluded areas of Asia have kept some Hellenistic influences to this day.

Some of the more popular names that hacked off their own chunks of the empire to survive are men  like Ptolemy I Soter, and Philotas, who were former commanders in Alexander’s army. Ptolemy I, was a childhood friend of Alexander, and later became one of his personal bodyguards. Philotas took part of Asia Minor called Cilicia. After the death of Alexander, Ptolemy took his body to Egypt and established an empire for himself and placed Alexander in a tomb in (of course) Alexandria. Ptolemy became a ‘Pharoah,’ and started the Ptolemaic Dynasty. A more famous member of his family line is Cleopatra VII Philopater, or more commonly known as ‘Cleopatra.’

All together there were four ‘Wars of the Diadochi,’ which lasted from 322 to 301 BCE. This finalized the carved up pieces of the empire, and made former Greek generals into emperors. As soon as the news of Alexander’s death reached Greece, many of the former city-states revolted against Macedonian rule, and this conflict was called the Lamian War. The Macedonian leader in Greece, Antipater, was responsible for quelling the revolt, and was initially outnumbered. Many of Antipater’s former allies soon became enemies, since a majority of the Macedonian forces were still in Asia. Eventually Antipater gained control of the situation, and won the first struggle for the control of Greece after Alexander’s death.

Another prosperous empire that resulted from the Diadochi wars was the Seleucid Empire. Seleucus had been a commander in Alexander’s army, and eventually gained a sizeable empire. The Seleucid Empire stretched from Western Turkey to India. But, because the empire was so vast, it was unmanageable and eventually fell apart after the death of Seleucus. The ancestors of Seleucus ran a smaller and more manageable sized empire.

Many of these empires lasted until the new upstarts from the west, the Romans, became the new superpower in the Mediterranean world. The Hellenistic empires filled the void from the time of Alexander to the succession of the Romans, but remains a little known time period today. We all know Alexander, and we are familiar with the Roman’s because of leaders like Julius Caesar, and Octavian (Augustus Caesar), but maybe the Hellenistic period needed an ‘Alexander’ type leader to be remembered? Although there was no leader that significantly stood out, the Hellenistic era was noted for the great scientific and philosophical accomplishments of the time. The Hellenistic period is pretty interesting if you ever get the time to look into it! Thanks!

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