Alexander the Great conquered an enormous empire that stretched from Greece to modern-day Afghanistan. And he did it within 10 years! But after his death the empire, that Alexander had created, broke apart just as fast. There were three main reasons why his empire did not survive the death of Alexander the Great. One of these reasons is the lack of an heir.
But why did Alexander the Great not have an heir?
Alexander the Great died on 10 June 323 BC without a designated heir or any succession plan. He gave his signet ring to Perdiccas, his most senior officer. But that didn`t mean that he appointed Perdiccas as his heir. Instead, there were two potential heirs but both had defects preventing them from stepping into Alexander`s footsteps. Philip III Arrhideaus, Alexander`s half-brother, was mentally disabled and Alexander IV, Alexander`s son was only born 2 months after his father’s death.
Let`s take a closer look!
The Macedonian King’s Legitimacy rested on two pillars
Alexander the Great had died extremely young at the age of only 32. The actual cause of his death is unclear, but three causes seem likely to have caused the death of the Great king.
The rule of the Macedonian kings (just like the rule of the Persian kings) was legitimated by two pillars. First, the king had to be part of the Royal bloodline (the Macedonian Argead dynasty including Alexander the Great claimed Herakles as their primogenitor). Second, the king had to prove that he was capable of successfully ruling the state and commanding the army.
So the abilities as a general and warrior were just as important when claiming the succession of Alexander the Great as the affiliation of the Royal Macedonian family.
That second part should prove a problem for the Diadochi, the generals of Alexander the Great when they had to legitimize their claim for controlling parts of Alexander`s former empire. But especially Ptolemy, Alexanders general who took Egypt for himself, came up with a clever solution (that involved the corpse of Alexander the Great)…
Alexander the Great never had a problem legitimizing his position as the Macedonian king. Not only was Alexander the son of Philip II of Macedon but he had also already proven his abilities as a warrior and commander in the battle of Chaironeia. There, he successfully commanded the battle-deciding Companion cavalry (the so-called hetairoi) at only 18 years old and earned his first military glory.
Do you want to find out more about the hetairoi, how they were used on the battlefield, and why they were called „the companions“? Then I would like to recommend you my article here.
By the way, Alexander the Great would continue to command the Companion cavalry in most of his battles using it as the battle-deciding force.
Ok, so when Alexander the Great died on 10 June 323 BC at only 32 years old, he left enormous footsteps for his successor.
The problem was that Alexander himself had never named a successor since he at the age of 32 probably didn`t expect to die anytime soon. So the dying king handed his signet ring over to Perdiccas, his most senior officer. But that was not an appointment as his heir! It simply meant that Perdiccas was expected to keep things going until the succession was settled.
By the way, Perdiccas would govern the empire of Alexander the Great as regent until his death in 321/320 BC. And of course he – like most of the Diadochi – did not die a peaceful death.
But despite not naming an heir Alexander the Great still had two potential heirs. Unfortunately, both of them had defects that prevented them from truly becoming the successor of Alexander the Great.
Instead, they would both become game pieces in the fight over Alexander`s empire. But that fight was dominated by the Diadochi, the generals of Alexander, who abused both potential heirs to Alexander as pawns and as figureheads for their own ambitions. Here you can find out more about what happened to both potential heirs of Alexander.
Philip III Arrhideaus & Alexander IV: The potential heirs of Alexander the Great
Ok, but let`s now take a look at both potential heirs of Alexander the Great and see why they were unfit to inherit the rule over the empire from Alexander.
Philip III Arrhidaeus – the mentally disabled half-brother of Alexander the Great
The first potential heir of Alexander the Great was his half-brother Philip III Arrhidaeus. Philip Arrhidaeus had been born in 359 BC as the son of Philip II of Macedon and his second wife Phillina. (Alexander the Great was the son of Philip II of Macedon and his fourth wife Olympia).
Philip III Arrhidaeus had the big advantage of being present in Babylon when Alexander the Great died. And as Alexander`s half-brother, he also had a claim to the throne. But he was mentally disabled. And while Alexander had taken him with him on his campaigns, he had never given Philip III Arrhidaeus any military or civil position or command (probably because of his mental disability).
As mentioned. A Macedonian king had to be both a part of the Royal Macedonian family (the Argead dynasty) and also had to have a track record of being a capable soldier and successful military leader. The mentally disabled Philip III Arrhidaeus was missing the latter.
Nevertheless, Philip III Arrhidaeus was still proclaimed as king by the Macedonian infantrymen of the army that had assembled at Babylon in the months before the death of Alexander the Great.
By the way, it is no coincidence that the Macedonian army had assembled at Babylon in the spring of 323 BC. Ever since 324 BC, the same year Alexander and his army had returned from the East to Babylon, Alexander was already planning his next war. And in the spring of 323 BC, everything was ready for Alexander`s next conquest that would have led him west (if he hadn`t died only weeks before the campaign started).
Do you want to find out more about which western region Alexander the Great was ready to invade when he died in June of 323 BC? Then I would like to recommend you my article here.
However, while the Macedonian infantrymen in Alexander`s army had already proclaimed Alexander`s half-brother, Philip III Arrhidaeus, as king, Alexander’s generals and the companion cavalry didn`t support that. But their problem was that their favored solution for the succession of Alexander the Great had not been born yet. It came to severe disputes that almost turned into large-scale violence.
Let`s take a look at the unborn baby onto which Alexander`s generals and the companion cavalry projected their hopes.
Alexander IV – the son of Alexander the Great and Roxane
As mentioned, the generals of Alexander the Great and the companion cavalry didn`t support the proclamation of Alexander`s mentally disabled half-brother as king.
Instead, the generals of Alexander the Great as well as the men of the companion cavalry hoped that the pregnant first wife of Alexander the Great, Roxane (who by the way came from modern-day Afghanistan), would give birth to a boy who would then be Alexander`s heir.
Do you want to find out more about Roxane, where she and Alexander met, and why they married? Then I would like to recommend you my article here. And here you can find out more about why Alexander the Great married not one, but a total of three, Persian women.
In August or September of 323 BC, roughly 2 months after Alexander the Great had died, his first wife Roxane gave birth to Alexander IV, the son of Alexander the Great.
So technically Alexander the Great now had a legitimate son and heir.
The problem was that both Alexander IV and his mother Roxane were dependent on Alexander`s generals to enforce this claim.
And while Perdiccas might have had the intention of handing over the rule over the empire to Alexander the Great`s son, Alexander IV, when he was old enough (in the main time Perdiccas probably planned on ruling as a regent himself and making himself irreplaceable), the other generals had their own ambitions to not only govern but actually rule at least a part of Alexander`s empire for their own.
In the cause of these wars between the generals of Alexander the Great Alexander IV, just like Philip III Arrhidaeus, would become a figurehead behind which the generals could mask their own ambitions. But that is a different story. If you are interested in what happened to the empire of Alexander the Great after his death I would like to recommend you my article here.
And here you can find out more about what happened to the body of Alexander the Great (and where his body currently rests).
Take care of yourself because you deserve it. You really do.
Until next time
Peter Green, Eugene N. Borza: Alexander of Macedon, 356–323 B.C.: A Historical Biography (2013).*
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