Summary of: Ghost on the Throne: The Death of Alexander the Great and the Bloody Fight for His Empire
Alexander the Great, perhaps the most commanding leader in history, united his empire and his army by the titanic force of his will. His death at the age of thirty-two spelled the end of that unity.
The story of Alexander’s conquest of the Persian empire is known to many readers, but the dramatic and consequential saga of the empire’s collapse remains virtually untold. It is a tale of loss that begins with the greatest loss of all, the death of the Macedonian king who had held the empire together.
With his demise, it was as if the sun had disappeared from the solar system, as if planets and moons began to spin crazily in new directions, crashing into one another with unimaginable force.
Alexander bequeathed his power, legend has it, “to the strongest,” leaving behind a mentally damaged half brother and a posthumously born son as his only heirs. In a strange compromise, both figures—Philip III and Alexander IV—were elevated to the kingship, quickly becoming prizes, pawns, fought over by a half-dozen Macedonian generals. Each successor could confer legitimacy on whichever general controlled him.
At the book’s center is the monarch’s most vigorous defender; Alexander’s former Greek secretary, now transformed into a general himself. He was a man both fascinating and entertaining, a man full of tricks and connivances, like the enthroned ghost of Alexander that gives the book its title, and becomes the determining factor in the precarious fortunes of the royal family.
James Romm, brilliant classicist and storyteller, tells the galvanizing saga of the men who followed Alexander and found themselves incapable of preserving his empire. The result was the undoing of a world, formerly united in a single empire, now ripped apart into a nightmare of warring nation-states struggling for domination, the template of our own times.
Review of: Ghost on the Throne: The Death of Alexander the Great and the Bloody Fight for His Empire
Very rarely does a work of popular history come along that combines the readability and excitement of popular history with the careful, accurate scholarship of a critical history. James Romm’s Ghost on the Throne is one of the best of those select few.
Ghost on the Throne begins in the last weeks of Alexander’s life and follows his would-be successors through several years of bloody in-fighting. Most histories of this period begin and end with Alexander, leaving the chaotic decades following his death either summarized or completely unexplored. It’s easy to see why–Alexander was an arresting personality who centered over a decade of politics and conquest on the single focal point of himself, while the generals who fell to squabbling for preeminence after his death were a hodgepodge of individuals of varying quality, and the ever more complex politicking among them makes for a potentially confusing narrative.
At Alexander’s death he had no clear heir. He had an illegitimate son, a Bactrian wife in her final trimester of pregnancy, and a clique of high-ranking generals of firm loyalty to himself but riven with strife among each other. He gave one general his signet ring, a clear mark of favored authority, but at his death the rivalries and suspicions among the generals and their distrust of the foreign elements in Alexander’s army–the Persian and Indian soldiers and generals, Alexander’s Bactrian wife–not to mention decommissioned veterans eager to return home after over a decade at war and rogue local commanders, fell apart without Alexander’s powerful center at the top. The empire fractured, fragmented, and finally collapsed into chaos.
James Romm takes this potential chaos of names, motives, loyalties, movements, battles, and betrayals and creates a compelling, highly readable history of the period. His treatment of the subject is really masterful–it’s easy to keep track of the scores of individuals populating the story, their relations to each other, and what’s going on at any given moment across the vast stage on which the story played out. At various times Romm will deal with Aristotle as he abandons Athens, mutinous Macedonian veterans in what is now Pakistan, Ptolemy in Egypt, and a half-dozen generals battling each other in Asia Minor, and, incredibly, it all makes sense. Ghost on the Throne is a masterpiece of organization.
But the story is also exciting. Romm does an excellent job of keeping the story moving, a virtue too often lacking in the work of modern historians. He never allows the story to bog down, especially in discussing the conflicting reports of sources. I’ve read many modern histories that repeatedly lose track of the narrative when discussing sources, but Romm deftly summarizes and evaluates such problems with not a wasted word. Ghost on the Throne moves at a brisk speed that successfully conveys how quickly and catastrophically Alexander’s empire collapsed.
I had a few very minor quibbles with the book. I found the system of end notes difficult to sort through (though Romm gives good reasons for preferring this system in the preface to the book) and there are a few sections that felt needlessly redundant. But those redundant sections were spaced well apart in the book and may be of service to readers who have a difficult time keeping track of all the ancient names and places mentioned in the book. Those readers should be few and far between, but passages like those should help reorient them if they get lost. Finally, like another reviewer on here, I found the epithet “old man Antipater” irritating after a while.
But these minor flaws in no way detract from the overall quality of the book. Romm’s gifts of organizing a complicated narrative and of making it exciting and readable have allowed him to produce one of the finest, most readable popular histories I’ve read.