Alexander the Great and the downfall of his dynasty

The forces driving world history are much clearer in some episodes than others. I’ve just been writing about Alexander the Great and his Successors, and have been struck by how blatantly their careers illustrate the hunger for power that impels people – and the tragedy that follows from this.

Throughout history probably the second most important motive driving kings along has been to place their own dynasty, their own ruling family, in a better position than they found it – holding the throne more securely, controlling more territory than before, bringing about the downfall of rival dynasties and so on. But this aim often conflicts with the MOST important motive that they feel, which is to gain and hold power for themselves.

Alexander sprang from a dynasty which had ruled his country, Macedonia, for centuries. Indeed, although the origins of the kingdom are obscure, it may well be that the dynasty almost single-handedly built up their kingdom around it, subduing tribal chieftains in the process and creating the institutions which enable a state to function. They had much to be proud of, and one of Alexander’s main motives was surely to turn his dynasty into one of the great imperial dynasties in the world, a match for the Achaemenids who had created and ruled the enormous Persian empire for two centuries.

So far as his dynasty was concerned, however, what he succeeded in doing was destroying it. On coming to the throne at the age of twenty, after his father’s assassination, he had a struggle on his hands to secure his position, and as well as fighting battles against Macedonia’s Greek enemies and facing down the Macedonian nobility, he eliminated rivals within his own family. Three princes of the family, Alexander’s cousins, were murdered (a fourth was spared only to be executed later).

The one close relative whom Alexander spared was his elder half-brother Arrhidaeus. He however was disabled and had some mental deficiency, and was manifestly unfit to be king. Alexander was fond of him and Arrhidaeus accompanied him throughout his wars against the Persians.

Alexander’s murderous actions made him the only member of his family who had any realistic claim to the throne. His early death (323 BC) at the age of 32 and the circumstances surrounding it, completed the elimination of his dynasty.

By then he had conquered the mighty Persian empire. At the time of his death he had no children, but his wife was pregnant with his child. If Alexander had been content to remain the king of a comparatively small country like Macedonia, the nobility would have felt it in their interests to keep the royal dynasty going, the alternative being instability and probable civil war. Given that Macedonia was surrounded by enemies on all sides, ready to take advantage of any weakness within the kingdom, this was not an attractive option. They would have appointed a regent, who would have ruled until the heir (if a son, which in fact the baby was) came of age (this is exactly what happened in Macedonia on a later occasion, when a nine year old inherited the throne).

In fact, the leading generals did appoint a regent, called Perdiccas. However, they also assigned themselves huge provinces to rule. This gave them an incentive to resist rule from the regent and to turn their satrapies into kingdoms; either that, or to use their satrapies as a power-base from which to launch their own bids to succeed Alexander as ruler of the entire empire.

Over the next fifteen years or so, some chose one course, some the other. The result was ferocious rivalry between the generals and continual civil wars, which was fought across a vast area from Greece and Macedonia to Iran. In the course of these wars, Arrhidaeus, now a puppet king (Philip III), and Alexander’s widow Roxanne and his child (also a puppet king, Alexander IV) fell into the hands of one general after another. But it soon became clear however that, as the only surviving members of the Macedonian royal family, inadequate though they were they attracted the loyalty of the Macedonian soldiers in a way that the generals could not hope to do. They therefore had to go;  Arrhidaeus was murdered in 317 BC, and Alexander’s wife and child a few years later, in 310 BC.

Thus the long-lasting Macedonian royal family, with which the country was so deeply associated, came to a sad end.  Alexander’s desire to conquer the world created the circumstances after his death which meant that no member of his family could live. His empire was divided amongst his generals, and the Macedonian throne became a football between several of them. In due course it fell into the hands of Antigonatus Gonatus, whose family would be kings of Macedonia until the coming of the Romans.

Alexander the Great’s ambitions and actions had directly led to the end of his own dynasty, and the deaths of those whom he most loved.

[For the historical background to these events, go to the Timemaps article, Alexander the Great and the Hellenistic World.]

By Peter Britton