The Empire that Alexander the Great created through his conquests has fascinated people throughout history. Not only did Alexander the Great create an empire that stretched from Greece to modern-day Pakistan and from northern Afghanistan to southern Egypt, but he also did all of that within 10 years!
But that giant empire would not outlive Alexander the Great for long. Shortly after Alexander had died at the young age of 32 the empire would break apart. There were 3 main reasons why the empire of Alexander the Great quickly broke apart after his death.
Alexander the Great died without a designated heir. His generals would not only argue over his successor but also whether or not the empire should be maintained as a whole or broken up into individual kingdoms that would each be ruled by Alexander`s generals. The Partition of Babylon of June of 323 BC, which aimed at solving the succession by making both the son and half-brother of Alexander joint kings, failed at providing a qualified king and ultimately opened the door to the disintegration of Alexander`s empire.
Let`s find out more!
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- 1 Alexander the Great died without naming an heir
- 2 Disagreements between Alexander`s generals regarding the future of the empire
- 3 The Partition of Babylon as a destabilizer
- 4 Sources
Alexander the Great died without naming an heir
A general rule of thumb is that whenever a ruler dies without either naming an heir or having a legitimate son the future of his kingdom is in danger since there is usually no lack of men who want to inherit the rule from the deceased king.
And that was exactly what happened after the death of Alexander the Great!
But before we talk about the death of Alexander: Are you also interested in the life of Alexander the Great? Then you might want to check out the biography of Alexander that was written by the ancient Roman writer Plutarch (and that is still one of the most important sources for our knowledge about Alexander). You can find a translated version here* on Amazon.
The death of Alexander the Great
A dying Alexander had handed his signet ring over to a man called Perdiccas. But that was not an appointment as an heir, Perdiccas was just the highest-ranking officer within the army of Alexander the Great. And as such he was given the responsibility of finding a solution after the death of Alexander.
Alexander the Great died at the age of 32 on 10 June 323 BC (according to our calendar) and on 11 June 323 BC between 4:00 and 5:00 PM (according to the Babylonian astronomical diaries) without naming an heir or having a legitimate son.
By the way, the cause of his death is just as unclear as the location of his grave. I will go into more detail about the 3 most likely scenarios that caused his death (including assassination) in my article here.
It is said that Alexander`s answer to the question of who should be his heir was „κράτιστος“ which could be translated as „the strongest“ or „the best“.
And that pretty much sets the stage for the wars and changing coalition in the decades after Alexander`s death that will be explored in my article here.
One theme during these wars was that the two potential heirs of Alexander who were eventually crowned as joint kings did effectively not become Alexander`s heirs but would merely be marginal figures in the wars of the Diadochi (= successors) for control over Alexander`s empire.
Let`s now look at the potential heirs of Alexander the Great.
Potential heirs of Alexander the Great
Alexander the Great did not have a legitimate son when he died. There were however several candidates who had at least a loose claim to the succession of Alexander. But all of these potential candidates had crucial flaws that made them not the ideal solution.
Heracles was born in 327 BC as the illegitimate son of Alexander the Great and his Persian mistress Barsine. The problem was that Alexander had never legitimated the boy as his son. So Heracles was never taken into account as an heir of Alexander. He would be assassinated in either 310 or 309 BC shortly after his half-brother Alexander IV was also assassinated.
And that leads us to the second potential heir, Alexander IV.
As Heracles and his Persian mother Barsine shows, Alexander the Great seemed to have had a thing for Persian women. Not only did he have several Persian mistresses, but he also married 3 Persian women (two of them being daughters of the last Persian king). Here you can find out more about the Persian wives of Alexander the Great and why he married them.
Alexander IV was the son of Alexander the Great and his Persian wife Roxane. He was born in August or September of 323 BC, approximately 2 months after his father’s death. While he would be crowned as joint king together with Philip III Arrhidaeus he would not have any real power and would be murdered in either 310 or 309 BC.
The already mentioned Philip III Arrhidaeus is the last potential heir we have to talk about.
Philip III Arrhidaeus
Just like Alexander the Great himself, his father Philip II of Macedon had also married several women. Both men used marriage to gain control over newly conquered areas, more on that here.
Philip III Arrhidaeus was born in 359 BC as the son of Philip II of Macedon and his second wife Phillina and was as such the half-brother of Alexander the Great (whose mother Olympias was the fourth wife of Philip II of Macedon). Even though Philip III Arrhidaeus was mentally disabled he was still acclamated as king by the Macedonian infantry.
Philip III Arrhidaeus would remain king (he and Alexander IV would be joint kings) until his death in 317 BC. But he, just like Alexander IV, would not have any real power and would only be a marginal figure in the wars of the Diadochi.
Who was favored as the successor of Alexander the Great?
So the existence of several potential, but no unambiguous, heir made things complicated. However, the generals and the Macedonian army that Alexander had assembled before his death for another campaign into Arabia had to find an immediate solution!
And that`s where the problems that would eventually lead to the disintegration of Alexander the Great`s empire began.
Perdiccas, the highest-ranking officer to whom Alexander had given his signet ring, proposed that a final solution should only be made after the birth of Alexander`s child. Until then, an interim solution should be put in place. But that proposal was refused by the other generals of Alexander. Especially Ptolemy, a close friend of Alexander, refused the idea, mostly because he rejected Roxane as a person.
But not only were the generals divided on the question of who would inherit the empire (and if the empire should even continue as a whole, more on that later).
The army was also divided in who to support.
Let me explain.
While the exact extent to which the Macedonian army assembly held power is not clear, historians still agree that the Macedonian army assembly was a powerful tool. The Macedonian kings had to at least consider the opinion of the army assembly. It seems likely that the Macedonian army assembly had an acclamatory character while not having any real constitutional competencies.
During the wars that would follow the death of Alexander, these army assemblies would be important at several points in time, for example when the different armies proclaimed several of Alexander`s generals as kings in 306 BC (More on that here).
The soldiers of the Macedonian phalanx now proposed that the closest living relative of Alexander the Great, his half-brother Philip III Arrhidaeus, should be crowned as king.
And even though Philip III Arrhidaeus was mentally disabled and as such unfit to rule, he was proclaimed as king and vested with the clothes of Alexander by the soldiers of the macediónian phalanx.
By the way, Alexander had adopted many of these clothes -just like many customs- from the Persian kings. Here you can find out more about his reasons for that.
So as you see, there were several potential heirs who, for different reasons, were all not capable of taking over the rule. And the already mentioned division between Alexander’s generals made the situation even worse and would lay the foundation for the disintegration of Alexander`s empire.
Let`s find out more!
Disagreements between Alexander`s generals regarding the future of the empire
Apart from the problem that Alexander`s generals couldn`t agree on an heir, there was another, even more, severe problem.
Alexander`s generals and friends didn`t even agree on whether or not the empire should be continued as a whole or broken up into several smaller kingdoms that would be separately ruled by the individual generals.
Perdiccas was a firm advocate of the idea of maintaining the empire as a unit even though finding a successor proved difficult. The potential candidates who could succeed Alexander have already been presented. The problem was that neither Alexander`s unborn child (if it was a boy), nor his half-brother Philip III Arrhidaeus were immediately fit to rule.
So no matter who of the two would follow in Alexander’s footsteps, he would not have the real power but would be a puppet king. Either the king would be a newborn baby or the mentally disabled half-brother of Alexander who had never held any sort of command or official position.
Ptolemy, a general and close friend of Alexander, proposed to dispense that kind of puppet kingship and instead separate the empire into several satrap-states that would only loosely be connected. His idea was that every general should get one of these satrap-states and that a council of the satraps would sporadically get together to make decisions on shared problems.
I think it will not surprise you to hear that these two opinions would eventually clash.
But for now, we are still in June of 323 BC, Perdiccas and his idea of maintaining the empire as a whole could prevail. However in the long-term, the solution of Ptolemy would prevail, but that is a story for another time. You can find out more about that development in my article here.
For now, a second army assembly was organized and a conference was held. Today that conference is called the Partition of Babylon. Let`s now find out why that conference would not bring a permanent solution and can instead be seen as the first step to dissolving the empire of Alexander the Great.
Why did Alexander the Great not have a last will?
After the death of Alexander, a testament would surface on the island of Rhodes. But since the content, for example, the distribution of the satrapies did not make any sense the testament has already been identified as a forgery during antiquity.
Here you can find out more about how the Partition of Babylon would distribute the administration of the satrapies over the different generals of Alexander the Great.
The Partition of Babylon as a destabilizer
In June of 323 BC, still in the same month that Alexander had died, a second Macedonian army assembly gathered at Babylon and managed to work out the Partition of Babylon. That compromise was literally worked out in front of the body of the deceased king. Please check out my article here for more information on what happened to the body of Alexander and where that body is today.
Interestingly the high Persian officials of the empire that Alexander had put in place as, for example, satraps of several satrapies (= provinces) were no longer considered by the Partition of Babylon.
The Partition of Babylon of late June 323 BC made Philip III Arrhidaeus and Alexander IV joint kings, gave the administration over the individual satrapies (= provinces) to the generals of Alexander the Great, and tasked Perdiccas with overseeing the satrapies and the position of caretaker (= epimeletes).
Unfortunately, the Partition of Babylon should not prove as a permanent solution. The reasons for that will be presented at the end of the article.
The situation before the Partition of Babylon
As mentioned, there was a division within the Macedonian army during the first army assembly over the question of Alexander`s heir.
While the infantry backed Philip III Arrhidaeus, the half-brother of Alexander the Great, the cavalry and the generals favored the as-of-then still unborn child of Alexander and Roxane and that Perdiccas should remain as interim ruler of the empire until the child was born.
That disagreement intensified when the infantry simply proclaimed Philip III Arrhidaeus as the new king and drove the opposing generals out of the palace. So now the infantry was controlling the palace while the cavalry and the generals controlled important positions within the city like the grain reservoirs.
The stage was set for a violent escalation.
But to prevent such an escalation, a second army assembly was organized to find a compromise that would satisfy everybody.
The solution presented in the Partition of Babylon
As a result, the Partition of Babylon took place in late June of 323 BC, still in the same month that Alexander had passed away.
The Partition of Babylon came to the following solution:
- The administration (only the administration, not the possession!) of the individual satrapies (= provinces) was handed over to Alexander’s most trusted companions who had to obey both the king and Perdikkas.
- Perdikkas was given the position of caretaker (epimeletes) and was tasked with the administration of Asia and the supervision of the satrapies
- Both Philip III Arrhidaeus, Alexander`s half-brother, and the as-of-then still unborn child of Alexander and Roxane (under the condition that it would be a boy) were acknowledged as joint kings.
Simultaneously the future of the latest plans of Alexander was also put to a poll. The army assembly decided that the already completely prepared campaign into Arabia just as the idea of a future campaign west to Carthage should be abandoned.
It seems pretty clear that Perdiccas did not want to further expand but to maintain the empire. And that should prove to be hard enough…more on his struggles that would be the first phase of the wars of the Diadochi in my article here.
But even with that solution, there was still one imminent problem.
Yes, both Philip III Arrhidaeus and Alexander IV, who was born around 2 months after his father’s death either in August or September of 323 BC were officially acknowledged as kings. But that didn`t make them fit to rule…
While both of them were acknowledged as kings neither of them would actually become the heir of Alexander the Great. Instead, a college of 3 men would take over the interim government of Alexander the Great`s empire.
Who ruled immediately after the death of Alexander the Great
After the death of Alexander the Great in June of 323 BC the Partition of Babylon provided a solution within the same month of the death of the king.
But while a successor in the person of Alexander`s mentally disabled half-brother Philip III Arrhidaeus was assigned (and Alexander`s son Alexander IV would also be acknowledged as king with equal rights to Philip III Arrhidaeus after he was born in August or September of 323 BC) the true power was in the hands of a college of 3 men.
The 3 men who would rule the empire immediately after the death of Alexander the Great were Perdiccas, Antipater, and Craterus. All three were experienced and trusted generals of Alexander the Great.
Let`s look at them individually.
Perdiccas was a general of Alexander the Great who lived between 355 and 321/320 BC. As Chiliarch (= vizir) and highest-ranking officer at the time of Alexander´death he received the signet ring by Alexander.
Following the Partition of Babylon, he became regent, supreme commander of the imperial army, administrator of the imperial treasury, guardian of the as-of-yet unborn child of Alexander and Roxane, and the first Diadochi (= successor) to fight for control over the Empire of Alexander the Great.
By trying to secure his position, taking over the position of representative of the empire from Craterus, and maintaining control over the satraps he created a hostile coalition of several satraps including Ptolemy, the satrap of Egypt. Perdiccas marched his army into Egypt but wasn`t successful. He was assassinated by his own offices after he suffered several defeats in Egypt against Ptolemy.
The attempts of Perdiccas from 323 BC to 321/320 BC to maintain the empire as a unit, and find a compromise for the succession to Alexander`s throne that was both legitimate but also left the real power in his hands, is often described as the first phase of the establishment of the kingdoms of the Diadochi.
Antipater lived between 400 and 319 BC and served as general under both Alexander the Great and his father Philipp II of Macedon.
Following the death of Philipp II, Antipater would help Alexander establish his rule. And when Alexander started his attack on the Persian Empire in 334 BC Antipater would stay behind as regent and be also made „strategos (= a supreme military commander) of Europe“. As such he was responsible for governing Macedonia, Greece, and the territories on the Balcan.
After the death of Alexander the Great, Antipater was left in control over Macedonia, Greece, and the Balkan territories that he would now rule as the autonomous „strategos of Europe“. He was able to end several rebellions of Greek city-states (like the Lamian war) that sparked after the death of Alexander.
Following the death of the regent Perdiccas, more on his death here, Antipater would take his place and be named as the regent of the entire empire at the Partition of Triparadisus. He would remain in Macedonia where he would also act as the guardian of the two kings Alexander IV and Philipp III Arrhidaeus.
Antipater would only hold these positions for one year since he died in 319 BC at the age of 81.
Craterus was a loyal general of Alexander the Great who lived from 370 to 321 BC. He was also one of the Diadochi, the successors of Alexander the Great.
At the time of Alexander the Great`s death Craterus was in Cilicia, today southern Turkey. In 324 BC he had been tasked to bring several thousand veterans home to Macedonia where he would replace Antipater as „strategos of Europe“.
In return, Antipater and his son Cassander were tasked with leading fresh troops to Babylon where they would reinforce that army that Alexander had put together for future wars.
By the way. One of the rumors surrounding the death of Alexander the Great is that he was actually poisoned by Antipater. More on that rumor, why especially Alexanders’ mother Olympia would spread that rumor, and what else could have caused Alexander`s death in my article here.
After the Partition of Babylon, Craterus was appointed as representative of the empire, a position that would quickly be taken over by Perdiccas. Craterus was also named as the protector of the kingship of Philipp III Arrhidaeus and as such acted as the guardian of the mentally disabled king.
Craterus would join the coalition against Perdiccas but would die in a battle in Asia Minor in 321 BC.
The problem with the Partition of Babylon
The main problem of the Partition of Babylon was that it did neither solve the problems nor create a stable solution. Quite the contrary.
Over the next years, Perdiccas was able to accumulate more and more power, for example when he took over the position of representative of the empire from Craterus. So Perdiccas developed into a comprehensive regent, a situation that the other generals of Alexander who had been given the administration over individual satrapies could not accept.
That together with the already mentioned clash between the idea of Perdiccas to preserve the empire as a whole and the idea of the other Diadochi to not only govern but actually possess the satrapies they had been given by Partition of Babylon would quickly result in a war between Perdiccas and a coalition made up of Ptolemy, Lysimachos, Antigonos, as well as the already mentioned Antipater and Craterus.
But that war was only the first in a long line of wars, coalitions, and treaties. Because after Perdiccas was killed, the Partition of Triparadisus would result in the second phase of the development of the kingdoms of the Diadochi. That second phase would be dominated by the attempts of Antigonos to control the entire empire of Alexander the Great (or at least as much as possible).
But that process, that would lead to the simultaneous coronation of several kings, the establishment of several kingdoms, and that would eventually end in the battle of Ipsos in 301 BC is a story for another time.
Please feel free to check out that fascinating story (and how it would produce one of Rome`s most feared enemies) in my article here.
Take care of yourself because you deserve it. You really do.
Until next time
G.R Bugh: The Cambridge Companion to the Hellenistic World (Cambridge 2006).
R. Malcom Errington: A History of the Hellenistic World (Malden 2008).
G. Shipley: The Greek World after Alexander (London, New York 2000).