Ghost on the Throne – James Romm

The death of Alexander the Great and the war for Crown and Empire

Alexander the Great’s sudden death in 323 BC left his infant Macedonian Empire in an impossible position.  There was no clear military heir but several candidates, and no heir of the blood but more than one candidate for a figurehead – a simpleton half-brother of Alexander and an infant child.

This book is less of a straight history than an episodic one.  This give a more scope for some of the anecdotes recorded by ancient historians to come out, but does make the flow of the wars harder to understand.  This book is more a people story than an army story.

It isn’t strange that war broke out, as some generals that were left out of the initial division of the Empire into districts found themselves decided to make their own way.  Some decided to opt out of the empire entirely – the most successful, Ptolemy, not only managed to claim Egypt for his very own but also steal Alexander’s corpse away from the others on its journey back to Macedon.

Some Greek cities, also, tried to take advantage of the supposed weakness of the Macedonian empire and reclaim their independence.  This turned out to be a mistake, as even the rump fragments were able to turn on these city-states and defeat them between contests with each other.

But for the most part, the remaining generals and Macedonian royals continued contending for a unified empire under one or another legitimate ruler for a long time. They tried to pick each other off in battles or plots like a Greek “Game of Thrones”.

But in the end the single Empire split back into European Kingdoms and an Asian Empire, with Egypt independent.  A multilateral “Hellenistic” age had begun.

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Twilight of the Hellenistic World – Roberts and Bennett

Since Alexander rewrote the map of the eastern Mediterranean and the near East in the 330s BC, the history of that region was a story of contending states – Egypt under the Ptolemies, Syria, Macedonia – under Greek leadership.  Little in the 220s predicted that it would all be swept away and be replaced by a universal empire under Rome.  Histories of the period often get ahead of themselves and write the history as if this future was apparent from the start, or they just avoid the period and move on to a history of Rome from a Roman point of view.

At this time. Rome was looking to italy and the West, as the second Punic War versus Hannibal was in full swing.  The cities and states of Alexander’s successors had divided up his empire, but no one thought that matters were settled and anyone who thought they could have the power made attempts to carve out an empire of their own.  In Greece, Sparta was finally crushed as a power, and the other city-states formed leagues to attempt to keep up with the power of the states around them.  This was soon found to be a case of too-little, too-late and these leagues would fall under the domination of more powerful neighbors – such as Rome.

There were some major battles – Raphia, where Syria failed to defeat Egypt.  Instead Syria under Antiochus the Great moved East and subdued many of the provinces in Persia as Alexander had done.  Macedonia tried to put Greece under its heel with mixed success, and also tried to create an Empire to the north in the Balkans.

None of these states had any idea that within the next thirty years Rome would change the dynamics entirely – and neither did Rome itself.  It all goes to show that there usually isn’t a master plan for history.

Roman Conquests: Macedonia and Greece – Philip Matyszak

This is the third book in the Pen and Sword series on the growth of Rome that I have read..it is a bit hard to figure if they are in an exact sequence.  Probably not, as the Gaul book has parts that are fairly early in history – the taking of Provence, and ends with the campaigns of Caesar in the late Republic.

This book is more cohesive in time, as aside from some interludes for the Punic Wars these actions took place in a relatively close sequence.  The first shots came in response to piracy in the Adriatic rather than any desire for lands.  An embassy was sent to an Illyrian Queen, Teuta, to demand she stop her state-sponsored piracy. She not only refused, but had one of the blunt-speaking Roman ambassadors assassinated.  This was probably a mistake.

Teuta’s forces had just taken Corcyra when the huge Roman fleet and army arrived.  Her general, after counting the size of the arrivals, switched sides and became the Roman’s base.  After punishing the Illyrians, the Romans went home, but now this city was an enclave on the Greek mainland going forward.

Macedon was the strongest state in the region, if not as strong as when Alexander conquered Persia.  It wanted to regain its power in the area, and with Rome involved in the Second Punic War against Hannibal it seemed like a good time to start.  Rome managed to deflect most of the damage with alliances with other Greek cities.  But when Hannibal was defeated it was time for a little payback.

But even after this, Rome did not go for all out conquest at first.  But the Greeks viewed war as more a sport than a serious business and tried to involve Rome in the game.  The Romans were not playing around, and showed it in how they conducted the wars.

Eventually the entire region was incorporated into the Roman state, after a series of wars against Macedon and finally against the Greek ‘allied’ leagues that had a different idea of their standing in the area than the Romans did.

This is an excellent recounting of the information on these wars all combined into one book.  I’ll be getting more books in the series for sure.

Dividing the Spoils – Robin Waterfield

This is a pretty interesting book on the period just after the death of Alexander the Great, when his successors fought it out to see who, if anyone, could claim the his entire empire.

This is a period of history that I’m not all that familiar with, and this short but comprehensive treatment was rewarding if a bit confusing with the large number of players involved.  There are a dozen or so generals, two or three puppet-king heirs, a few conniving women powers behind the throne, and even a guest shot by Alexander the Great’s corpse, which gets stolen by one of the claimants on the way to Macedon to be buried.  It was an interesting time

I was a bit distracted with illness as I read this so a second reading might help with the cast of thousands.

An interesting take that the author has is how Alexander’s personal influence seemed to keep those that knew him tied to the dream of unification of the entire empire through war with the other successors.  When the next generation came to power, the contest was pretty much at once settled by dividing the land up between them.  But nobody who knew Alex was satisfied with half a loaf, even though many lost it all by reaching for the entire thing and ended up with nothing.