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Review of 'Ghost on the Throne,' by James Romm

Do We Really Need Another Book on Alexander the Great?

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Ghost on the Throne

Ghost on the Throne

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Even to those unfamiliar with ancient history, the name Alexander the Great will ring a bell. His spirit, strategies, and horse have inspired countless biographers and story tellers for children as well as adults. He slashed through the mysteriously tied Gordian Knot (or otherwise untied it). As a child, he bet grown men that he could tame an unmanageable black horse, and he won. Dozens of cities still bear Alexander's name; there are cities named for his famous horse (as "Bucephala").

Fans of Angelina Jolie may remember the 2004 Oliver Stone movie featuring the Irish Colin Farrell as the Macedonian Alexander. Viewers of that movie may know that Robin Lane Fox, a twentieth century biographer of Alexander the Great, served as historical adviser for the movie.

Fox, among many, many others, had written a popular biography of the illustrious king and military leader who expanded the Macedonian and Greek territory from Egypt through Persia to India. Others may know of the 12-year reign of the young leader through Michael Wood's 2010 book and documentary "In the Footsteps of Alexander the Great." Some may be familiar with the writings on Alexander the Great by British Classical scholar and occasional novelist Peter Green. Others, educated in ancient history, may have read Arrian or Plutarch.

Eyewitnesses in his own day and historians for centuries thereafter, have written about Alexander the Great. So the question of whether we need a new book on Alexander the Great would seem to require a negative answer, but that would be wrong. We do need a new book.

Obviously, at least to those familiar with the saga, if someone had discovered conclusive proof that Alexander had been poisoned by one of his companions or could convince the world that Alexander had masterminded the assassination of his father, King Philip II of Macedon, that would take a re-write of events, but that hasn't happened, and yet, we do need a new book on Alexander the Great, the one written by James Romm, Professor of Classics at Bard College -- Ghost on the Throne: The Death of Alexander the Great and the War for Crown and Empire.

We need it because although we know events of the career of Alexander the Great reasonably well, what happens next is a welter of challenges and challengers, alliances, broken alliances, battles, treachery, and even changing names. Typically, we refer to the men involved as the Diadochs, although Romm points out that the term is anachronistic for seven years following the death of Alexander (in 323 B.C.), because they weren't competing for the throne, just for power. He prefers to call them Alexander's generals.

James Romm has been working on Alexander and recently edited a Landmark edition of an English translation of Arrian's biography of Alexander. Without having been involved in so tightly edited and highly annotated a series as the Landmark editions are, I don't know how he would have been able to keep all the names and allegiances among the generals straight. All right, Romm could have, as could have other scholars who spend much of their lives working on it, and one could consult one of Romm's references, Waldemar Heckel's Who's Who in the Age of Alexander the Great: Prosopography of Alexander's Empire, but it is more than a matter of learning names. It is very confusing, with contradictory sources that Romm has waded through and weighed.

Ghost on a Throne is about the legacy, rather than the life of Alexander the Great, but don't worry if you need a refresher on the lifetime of Alexander III. It's included.

Romm turns reports of the nasty, squabbling, back-biting followers of Alexander into fascinating stories about real people, some heroic, some despicable. One of the greatest of the heroes is the ordinary Greek Eumenes, who should never have had a place in history books. Really. He should have died an unknown. As a Greek, in Romm's account, Eumenes was less significant than Alexander's Macedonian compatriots. Not only was there a point against him for his nationality, but he was a scribe, not a warrior; yet he worked his way up in Alexander's forces.

"A twisting path had brought Eumenes, a Greek from Cardia in the Chersonese (modern Gallipoli), to this isolated stand in western Asia. Plucked from obscurity by Alexander's father and placed in charge of royal paperwork, Eumenes did not seem destined for leadership. Alexander had promoted him to a cavalry command only late in the Asian campaign, in India, and even then used him sparingly. Changing times had forced Eumenes to adapt, to learn the ways of the battlefield, rather than archive and chancery. And he had learned them well. Eumenes had won his battles on behalf of Perdiccas, even while Perdiccas was losing his war against Ptolemy. The opposite outcomes of their campaigns made Eumenes a consigliere without a capo, the right arm of a regime that had got its head cut off." p. 178.

Then, when Alexander died, Eumenes, who passionately supported the royal family -- Romm says he is the last defender of the Argeads [Macedonian royal family] -- found himself in charge of substantial forces, including the veteran elite squad known as the Silver Shields. Through genius and cunning, the desk jockey won battles and might have won empire back for the Argeads had the army of the villain (or at least father of an evil son, Demetrius), one-eyed Antigonus, not stolen the baggage and women of the Silver Shields. The Shields hadn't followed Eumenes for personal loyalty, but for gain, and immediately after the theft, decided that since their reward was gone, they would no longer suffer the privations of year after year of life as a soldier.

So much rested on so little, time and again.

The body of Alexander found its way to Alexandria in Egypt thanks to a brazen heist by one of Alexander's generals, Ptolemy, who took Egypt and pretty much left Asia and Europe to the other contenders. The first known battle led by women was fought between Alexander's family's women.

"Meanwhile, in the hill country between Epirus and Macedonia, two armies advanced toward each other, each led by a queen. Only one description survives of the world's first known battle between female leaders. According to this no doubt sensationalized report, Olympias [Alexander's mother], on one side of the field, appeared in the fawn-skin wrap and ivy headdress of a bacchant.... On the other, Adea [married to Alexander the Great's mentally impaired half brother and her uncle, originally Arrhidaeus, but now Philip (III)] came forward in full Macedonian infantry gear." p. 242-243.

Rather than just the familiar black-eyed and flowing locks-type pictures of an equestrian, conquering Alexander the Great, Romm uses not commonly seen photos from a tomb believed to be that of Alexander's son and successor, Alexander, who was killed, in c. 309-8 B.C., by Cassander, son of Antipater (a pair possibly implicated in the possible poisoning of Alexander the Great). Cassander also killed Olympias, the youth's grandmother, and Rhoxane, his mother. When Alexander the Great died, he had handed his signet ring to his bodyguard Perdiccas, probably as a symbol that he should act as regent, but Perdiccas died before Alexander IV could take power.

As you can see from the passages quoted, Romm's writing has vigor and style, which help in what to me is a story of almost legendary, but actually real heroes fighting for supremacy in a vast new world they were shaping by their actions. By focusing on the individual figures, the chaos of the period subsides.

At the end of the book, in 315 B.C., the empire of Alexander was ruled by five sovereigns: Antigonus in Asia, Ptolemy in Egypt and areas on the east of the Mediterranean to Phoenicia, in Thrace, Lysimachus held power, and Cassander ruled Macedonia and most of Greece.

Although Heckels' book might help -- (list price $132.95) -- a two or three page quick list of who the people were, dates, countries of origin, etc., would have helped in reading Ghost on a Throne. I'm not sure how thorough the index is since I couldn't find Arrhidaeus or Diadochs using it. There aren't footnotes, a plus here, since they would interrupt the story's flow, but there is an extensive list of references. There are a couple of maps, black and white illustrations and photographs, an exceptionally useful pronunciation guide [see my derivative How Do You Pronounce Greek Names?], an explanation of the orthography, and useful chapter section headings.

 

Ghost on the Throne: The Death of Alexander the Great and the War for Crown and Empire
By James Romm
Publisher: Knopf, 2011
ISBN: 978-0-307-27164-8
368 pages

Disclosure: A review copy was provided by the publisher. For more information, please see our Ethics Policy.

Also see Romm's 2014 Dying Every Day: Seneca at the Court of Nero.

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