Dividing The Spoils
The War for Alexander the Great’s Empire
Another book review here – this time Dividing the Spoils by Robin Waterfield, published in 2011 by Oxford University Press. I thought this was a particularly interesting topic for a book – there’s often a bit of a gap left in history between Alexander conquering the world and the successor kingdoms that made up the world during Rome’s rise. How these kingdoms came to be is rarely filled in but it’s a fascinating tale, full of battles, intrigue, murder and all kinds of twists and turns. The book takes the narrative from Alexander’s death in 323 B.C. until ~280 B.C. when the founders of the successor dynasties conveniently die within a few years of each other, providing both a natural beginning and ending to the book. The book sets out to be accessible and enjoyable, focusing on the major personalities of that period of history. I gather that the study of history has moved on a bit from “the great man theory” (as the author acknowledges in his introduction) but this is perhaps one case where it may be a useful approach. The book does also have asides on economic and cultural developments during this period – though these could have been covered in a little more detail.
The story begins in Babylon on June 11 323 B.C. Alexander the Great had finally died after a week of illness, leaving his troops uncertain and a number of candidates poised to seize control of his empire. The author begins by summarizing Alexander’s conquests, style of kingship, and why exactly there was a problem with his succession. After succeeding his father, Philip, as king of Macedon Alexander went on to cross the Hellespont and rapidly conquer Persia, Egypt and as far as modern day Pakistan in the east. As he gained these lands, he became a new form of king – combining the role as king of Macedonia and more divine eastern varieties as “Lord of Asia”. Not all of these changes were popular and, towards the end of his life, the empire was very much in flux with many regional commanders (or Satraps) being purged or replaced. For the succession itself – there were several possible successors within his dynasty (the Argeads), but none of them convincing. His incapable half brother Arrhidaeus, a four year old son Hercules by a mistress, and an, as yet, unborn son from one of his wives.
To resolve the situation most of the leading figures of his empire met in a grand conference in Babylon; his bodyguards Perdiccas, Peucestas, Lysimachus, Leonnatus, Aristonous, Peithon, and Ptolemy; soldiers like Seleucus and Meleager; Eumenes of Cardias, Alexander’s secretary; Nearchus of Crete, a celebrated admiral. Noticeably missing from the meeting swere Antipater, at that time the governer of Macedonia, and Craterus, who was on his way to replace him by Alexander’s command. The result of this conference was an uneasy regency for Arrhidaeus (called Philip III), with the power divided between Perdiccas as regent in the East, and Antipater and Craterus in Europe. From here the story develops rapidly with numerous rebellions, alliances and political deals – with the initial triumvirate dissolving into civil war within a few years and local governors like Ptolemy building their own power bases. The outcome of all that was another conference and another power sharing treaty at Triparadeisos in modern day Lebanon, this time with a significantly changed list of attendees. This settlement didn’t last long either and more civil wars occur in 318 B.C. and 315 B.C. Finally in 311 B.C. we get the “Peace of the Dynasts”, but that peace doesn’t even last a year until Seleucus and Antigonus (now with his son Demetrius) go to war over Babylon.
I’m afraid that last paragraph seems like an incomprehensible list of names and dates, but I don’t want to give to much away! Rest assured that the author explains things better, characters are introduced organically in this initial chapter and filled in as they rise to power. The story moves rapidly but clearly, and slows down to give plot detail where necessary. Nothing is given away too early by the author – I had some idea that Ptolemy and Seleucus would be left standing, and that the Antigonid dynasty would be thereabouts, but the early stage of the book focuses on the big players at that time (Craterus, Perdiccas, Antipater) and leaves the novice reader (like me) to naturally find out about their downfall and the rise of the next wave. This lack of forward references leaves the reader in suspense, wondering at what point these characters would jump to the foreground of the story.
In among the main narrative, there are asides about the culture and economy of the empire and successor kingdoms. Despite the constant conflict throughout the period, these still played a huge role in the Hellenistic world and are not neglected in the book. These asides briefly cover topics like the growth of individualism, religion, taxation, military technology and many more, but they merely feel like glimpses into much larger topics and occasionally like distractions from the main thread of the book. I would perhaps have liked some of them to be fleshed out a little more, but that would perhaps make this a larger and somewhat weightier book (at barely 200 pages, it’s quite a light read).
There is another issue that should be mentioned. It’s not so much a problem with the book, more the topic itself, but the lack of historical information for some things can at times be a problem. The author acknowledges this and copes admirably, with a tendency to focus on better documented kingdoms and personalities when possible. Unfortunately this, and the pace of the story, does mean that some parts are quite slim – the character of Lysimachus fascinated me, defeating the other generals when they conflicted but penned up below Thrace where he couldn’t take advantage of his skills. However he’s just not central enough to the story and there’s just not enough evidence to really flesh out his corner of the empire.
To sum up, the book covers a neglected area of history in a style that is accessible and well written for a popular audience. The numerous characters and events are kept track of well, and paced in a very readable way. While I might have liked some parts of the post-Alexander world to be expanded on, the book in its current form gives a brief overview of all the factors that play into the story. I very much enjoyed this book and will definitely be looking out for others by Robin Waterfield in future, as well as attempting to find some further reading on the successor kingdoms.