The Succession Crisis at Alexander the Great’s Death

Farewell to Alexander the Great, painted by Karl von Piloty in 1886

From 336-323 BC Alexander the Great, king of Macedon, embarked on one of history’s greatest spans of thirteen years, conquering in that time the Persian Achaemenian empire to the east of the Greek world. In so doing he extended Macedonian and Greek influence to northwestern India, and inaugurated a new era in Greek political and cultural influence in the ancient world.

By June 323, Alexander had the whole known world at his feet. Nominally, his influence spanned all the regions from Southern Italy to India. As his weary army, lately returning from an odyssey across the Gedrosian desert in the southern Iranian plateau, approached Babylon, there was much reason to celebrate the heir to the Achaemenian Persians.

But just some days into his sojourn at Babylon – from where he had intended to invade Arabia – Alexander would be dead, overwhelmed by a fever brought about by excessive drinking. Most likely no one could have expected so early a passing (at merely 33), and the question of the succession almost immediately came to the fore. While the great cadaver of his empire would later be permanently divided, initially such an outcome would have seemed improbable – it was to be the events of the first few years that sealed the trend to separatism.

Who would be the next king?

The succession of the Macedonian kingship must have been the first pressing issue. At his death Alexander had several wives – Barsine and Roxane most notably. Roxane at Alexander’s death was expecting, and had he lived this child would have had an easier time at securing the succession. But in June 323 only one person could legitimately claim the kingship – this was Alexander’s half-witted half-brother, Philip Arrhidaeus.

The Macedonian monarchy had never had hard and fast rules of succession, with many kings before having had to endure succession issues from challengers within the royal house. Being part of the royal family, often, was enough to gain a following. With a posse of ambitious generals and companions, however, the royal Argead house seemed almost certainly doomed, at Alexander’s death, to subordination to peripheral players.

Of course, the subsequent thirty years of internal warfare which resulted in the irreparable dissolution of the unity of Alexander’s empire, and the formation of the Hellenistic world, was not entirely conceivable at his death. At this time in Babylon Perdiccas was chiliarchos, his chief military officer.

Alexander had settled various satraps – Antigonus in Phrygia, or Cleomenes in Egypt, for instance – in the course of his conquest, although in the west the dominant figure was Antipater, his father Philip II’s veteran commander who remained still as the regent of Macedonia. Without a legitimate king there was the possibility that Alexander’s empire would be divided in half between the forces of the regent in Macedonia, and the army of the east at Babylon.

Crisis at Babylon

Naturally the best hope for those in power, such as Perdiccas and Antipater, was to gain control of Philip Arrhidaeus, and particularly Alexander’s soon to be born son by Roxane. It is not possible to discern whether Perdiccas ever truly sought to usurp the Argead dynasty and succeed Alexander as king, although this would have resonated very badly with the Macedonian army. One cannot forget the significant influence of the army, which acted as the executive assembly in matters of the royal succession – their approval and acceptance had been crucial for Alexander, and would prove for any of his successors.

At Alexander’s death, as we are told by Curtius Rufus, who wrote the most detailed surviving account of the succession crisis, Perdiccas had been handed the king’s ring, denoting his regency over the empire. That Perdiccas cannot have instantly been considered the heir was due to his not being a member the royal house; Curtius, moreover, depicts a debate in which this very question of the succession was discussed.

Perdiccas is made to decline the burden of regency, that the issue be discussed among Aexander’s generals. Nearchus the admiral, interestingly, suggested that the son of Barsine (who was later to be named Heracles), be raised to the kingship. The rest, however, acquiesced in naming Perdiccas as regent.

At this point, however, Meleager, the leader of the phalangites (infantry), elevated Philip Arrhidaeus, who had been acclaimed, Curtius tells us, by one the soldiers; he was a half-wit, admittedly but yet the closest in blood to the living Alexander – for no-one would ever be found who could be anything like Alexander. Thence broke out a discord between the faction of Perdiccas, who as hipparch had by and large the support of the cavalry, and Meleager, leader of the infantry.

Curtius describes a brief episode of fighting, which was finally quelled by Philip himself, and compromise reached between Perdiccas and Meleager. But this was to be Perdiccas’ regency. Meleager was shortly afterwards eliminated, and Perdiccas the dominant regent (with Antipater in the west), ruling in lieu of Philip Arrhidaeus, who was mentally retarded, and Alexander’s unborn children.

The progeny of Alexander, who would have been the only ones who might exert the moral authority necessary for imperial unity, were by their father’s death robbed of any chance of legitimate succession. Instead, they were fated to be puppets in the hands of other ambitions – the empire of Alexander would not be an empire of the Argead dynasty, the royal house.

The End of Alexander’s Monarchy

Alexander’s sudden death in 323 had left gaping the unsettled question of the succession. The Greeks of his time could only have dreamed, just ten years before, of the conquests that he would acquire over this grand expedition; in the span of a decade the Macedonian kingdom, once simply the great northern threat of the Greeks, became the rulers of the known world.

The succession, then, was understandably a grave issue; however, much of the crisis is mediated in our principle source, the historian Quintus Curtius Rufus, through the events in Babylon. The ruler of the known world was a big issue. But the true kings – Philip Arrhidaeus, and his soon to be born co-ruler Alexander IV, were not to rule. Instead, almost instantly, the fact that no-one, practically, succeeded Alexander was to be galling for any attempts at continuing the single rule of his kingdom. Alexander’s empire, from the moment of the death of its creator, was destined for fragmentation.


  1. Quintus Curtius Rufus: The History of Alexander Penguin 1984