Alexander the Great died suddenly in 323 BCE without leaving an heir. What he did leave was a group of wildly ambitious generals who came to be known as the Successors.
When Alexander the Great died suddenly in 323 BCE power was not yet consolidated in his young empire. It lacked structure, but most of all it lacked an heir. Alexander had not produced and groomed a legitimate son to succeed him.
Who was Alexander’s Heir?
It stood clear that the new king must come from the royal lineage of Alexander, but when it came to a decision the Macedon camp was divided. The cavalry and generals desired a king directly from Alexander’s line. Luckily, his wife Roxane was pregnant. The infantry, however, were uninterested in the child of a barbarian princess. They wanted Alexander’s half brother, another son of Philip II, Arrhidaeus, though Arrhidaeus was reportedly both mentally and physically handicapped.
Until the matter was resolved the man with the power, the holder of the royal signet ring, was Perdiccas, Alexander’s first in command. To appease the infantry he agreed to a compromise: Arrhidaeus would become king and rule jointly with Alexander’s unborn son, while Perdiccas act as guardian of both. To his aid, he would have infantry leaders at his side, but it did not take long for the generals to murder them.
Those generals who had supported Perdiccas were well rewarded with governorships. Antipater and Craterus shared the power of Macedon and Greece. Lysimachus was given power over Greater Thrace. Leonnatus was given Lesser Phrygia, Antigonos got Greater Phrygia, and Ptolemy received Egypt. Eumenes, the only Greek in this Macedonian affair, was given Cappadocia, a province not yet even under Greco-Macedonian control.
For himself, Perdiccas had a promotion in mind. By appointing the officer Seleucus to his own official position, commander of the elite cavalry, he showed the world that he was now something more.
Early Hellenistic Power lay in Controlling the Royal Lineage of Philip II
With the taste of power still fresh in their mouths, everyone started grappling for more.
Leonnatus in Lesser Phrygia made plans to marry Alexander’s widowed sister, Cleopatra, in order to become part of the royal family and march his army on Macedon. When he tried to get the support of Eumenes, the Greek ran straight to Perdiccas in Babylon. Meanwhile, Leonnatus conveniently died in battle.
Perdiccas in turn silently shared Leonnatus’s ambitions to become a legitimate part of the royal household. He too tried to marry Cleopatra, but unfortunately he was already married to a daughter of Antipater, governor of Macedon. This was Antipater’s way of ensuring his own power. He also married a daughter each to Craterus, who shared power with him in Macedon, and Ptolemy in Egypt.
But Alexander’s family knew more ambitious women who wanted a share of the power their lineage should have provided for them. Alexander’s half-niece Adea married her half-uncle Arrhidaeus and proceeded to make herself a powerful meddler.
The Fall of Perdiccas and the Rise of Ptolemy
When Perdiccas decided that Antigonus was getting too powerful and tried to imprison him, Antigonus fled to Antipater and Craterus in Macedon. They, along with Lysimachus in Greater Thrace, allied themselves with him and marched on Perdiccas. They were met by Eumenes. Perdiccas himself was busy dealing with the very ambitious Ptolemy in Egypt.
Ptolemy was clearly bidding for Macedon power. He was expanding his Egyptian territory towards the west and spreading rumours that he was really an illegitimate half-brother of Alexander’s. What truly was a shocking display of royal ambitions, however, was how he stole the corpse of Alexander.
The funeral of a Macedon king was customarily ordered by the new king. Now, Ptolemy intercepted the body, ordered the embalming and put it on display in a city under his control. He clearly had royal ambitions. Perdiccas amassed an army and marched on Egypt, but his own officers, including Seleucus, his first in command, were aligned with Ptolemy and murdered him.
Meanwhile, Eumenes had managed to kill Craterus but failed to stop Antigonus, Antipater, or Lysimachus. As a result, Antipater took Perdiccas position as guardian of the two kings, Arrhidaeus and Roxane’s son Alexander IV, and Eumenes had nothing but the small army he fled with.
The Rise of Cassander
Antipater did not particularly trust his ally Antigonus, so he left his son Cassander to keep an eye on Antigonus while he himself took the two kings back to Macedon. But Antipater was old and sickly and soon died, leaving a fellow officer of Philip II’s, Polyperchon, in charge. Cassander did not take the insult well and allied himself with Antigonus, Lysimachus and Ptolemy.
With their help, and the support of Adea, Arrhidaeus’s wife, he proclaimed himself king of Macedon and Greece. Thus Alexander’s mother, Olympias, entered the scene. She attacked Macedon from her homeland Epirus and clashed into war with an army personally lead by Adea. The Macedon army readily surrendered at the sight of Alexander’s mother. She had Adea and Arrhidaeus were promptly killed.
Cassander gave chase and eventually besieged Olympias and had her executed. Showing his own royal ambitions, he ordered the funeral of the former king, Arrhidaeus, and his wife and took Roxane and Alexander IV. He also married a half-sister of Alexander’s, to ensure his legitimate place in the royal family.
The Rise of Seleucus
Antigonus was in control of the eastern part of the empire, but he underestimated the ambition of his governor Seleucus. With the help of Ptolemy in Egypt, Seleucus raised an army to take Babylon, Media and Susia from Antigonus. But while Seleucus was busy in the east, Antigonus pressed on Ptolemy who had to retreat and the successors of Alexander met for a peace treaty.
It was decided that Cassander was to rule Europe until Alexander IV came of age, Lysimachus would have Thrace, Ptolemy would continue to rule Egypt, and Antigonus would be supreme leader of Asia. It was an attempt to legitimise his plans to kill Seleucus and retake his territory. He failed terribly and had to sue for peace.
The Final Division of the Hellenistic Kingdoms
In 306 BCE, 17 years after Alexander’s death, all the possible legitimate heirs had been murdered and the generals started outright calling themselves “kings”. Antigonus, however, was still bidding for power of Macedon. He died in battle, trying to depose Cassander.
The remaining “kings” split the empire of Alexander between them: Cassander was king of Macedon and Greece, Lysimachus was king of Asia Minor, Ptolemy was king of Egypt, and Seleucus was king of Syria and Mesopotamia.