Book Review: Ghost on the Throne
by James Romm
For all its unbelievability, there’s a burnished simplicity to the story of Alexander the Great that makes it potent mythology. The simplicity is elemental: the story is Alexander – not the claims of a brotherhood of mankind, not the litany of conquered armies and nations, and not even the brutal gallantry of that superb Macedonian army marching its way across the known world – not any of those things but rather Alexander himself, the living hero-narrative, this beautiful, valiant young man bending fate to his command. The story had the pull of legend even while it was still unfolding, and the story was: what would Alexander do next?
This explains the super-abundance of Alexander the Great books at the library – biographies, sociological studies, military histories, plays, fiction. And it likewise explains why James Romm’s new book Ghost on the Throne, about the immediate aftermath of Alexander, has virtually no competition: the story feels pointless once Alexander himself has left the stage, dead suddenly at age 32 in Babylon, on the eve of a proposed campaign to the Arabian peninsula. Alexander had no single recognized heir, no carefully-nurtured chain of inheritance for this vast empire he’d built up in less than five years. He had survived wounds, fevers, epic battles, and assassination attempts, and he was still young and vital – probably a cautiously documented succession didn’t strike him as a priority. When death came upon him in Babylon, there was no time to fix the oversight, and suddenly that enormous string of conquests was just sitting there, in the awful vulnerability that comes when charisma has disappeared.
Alexander’s closest friends and most powerful generals and admirals – many of whom were gathered around him when he died – were presented with a sprawling banquet and an empty space where their iron-willed host had been only two days before. These men, without exception, neither knew nor cared about any universal brotherhood of man – they looked on that banquet, immediately dismissed its higher potentials, and lunged at the trestle-tables to grab as much as they could. The elemental simplicity of Alexander’s story splintered overnight into half a dozen stories of greed, deceit, and posturing. The messiness of it all has challenged some of the best classicists of the age (Brian Bosworth and Peter Green have both made worthwhile studies of it), and it actually defeated Mary Renault, whose book about the aftermath of Alexander is the only failure among her historical novels.
A daunting subject, but James Romm (editor of the magnificent Landmark Campaigns of Alexander) dives right in with the conviction that although these might be messier tales, they’re still really good ones and well worth telling. The effort lives or dies according to the author’s abilities not just as a detail-sifting historian but as a storyteller.
Romm succeeds marvellously. He’s mastered the knack that all classicists should have: he can get inside the sources and bring them alive for a non-specialist audience. When he talks about the Somatophylakes, Alexander’s elite Bodyguards (hard, pragmatic men like Ptolemy, Perdiccas, and Leonnatus), soldiers who’d “waded through rivers of blood” in their pursuit of Alexander’s conquests, he’s being as literal as figurative speech can get, and he’s quick to establish the tension behind the dizzying stakes of the youthful conqueror’s last days, when almost every one of the men around him saw himself as the sole best suited to take over:
All that was needed to bring this brave new world into being was the obliteration of those who threatened it, either by attack from without or by rebellion from within. The generals who helped conduct Alexander’s massacres were not butchers but loyal supporters of his driving vision. They had agreed to pursue his multiethnic world-state, certain they would one day share in rule over it.
“And so the generals at Babylon,” Romm tells us, “like gods claiming chunks of the cosmos, took charge of the pieces of Alexander’s empire that best matched their power, temperament, and rank.” One of the earliest ironies of Ghost on the Throne (and the book is full of ironies – Romm doesn’t partake of the soft-focus romanticism that governed most writers on Alexander’s life and times in the early 20th Century) is that Alexander himself was responsible for the very efficiency with which his adjutants dismantled his legacy:
Alexander the Great had taught his disciples well. During his twelve-year Asian campaign, his officers had watched him manage with surgical skill the world’s most complex army. They had seen him orchestrate the phalanx bristling with spears, the cavalry strike force, and the quick-moving Hypaspists, or Shield Bearers; draw on one force or another, or combine the three, depending on terrain and opponent; synchronize their rates of travel; and keep them fed and provisioned by despoiling the route of their march. In India they had seen him master the only known war machine his army then lacked, the trained elephant. Alexander had brought some two hundred of these fortresslike beasts out of India, to terrorize the enemies he never got to fight – Arabs, Carthaginians, and other targets historians can only guess at.
Necessarily, his canvas is broad. He needs to cover not only dissent at the end of the world but also scheming and power-playing all the way back at the heart of Alexander’s power, his native kingdom of Macedon, where successors from the line of Alexander’s blood lost no time in claiming his mantle. It’s another mark of Romm’s narrative skill that he makes these stories of court intrigue every bit as fascinating as his more Homeric stories of contesting generals and admirals. As with that brief suggestion of Alexander fighting Carthaginians, much of the power of these segments comes from Romm’s powerful imagination, always alert for might-have-beens:
Adea [crowned Eurydice, temporary queen of the Macedonians] had nearly pulled off a coup that would have given her control of the kings and the army. With just a few more soldiers on her side, she might have outdone Eumenes, victor over Neoptolemus and Craterus, and brought down three top generals – Antipater, Antigonus, and Seleucus – in a single day.
In the end, the imperial unity Alexander dreamed of died with him, and the next three centuries of West Asian history were dictated by the factious kingdoms set up by his warring successors. Although the story has less visceral allure than the golden myth of Alexander’s swath across the world, it’s easily a more important story nevertheless – and in James Romm it has a teller well worthy of your attention. This is history every reader should know, and this is exactly how it should be written.