Alexander 2.16

Alexander the Great (*356; r. 336-323): the Macedonian king who defeated his Persian colleague Darius III Codomannus and conquered the Achaemenid Empire. During his campaigns, Alexander visited a.o. Egypt, Babylonia, Persis, MediaBactria, the Punjab, and the valley of the Indus. In the second half of his reign, he had to find a way to rule his newly conquered countries. Therefore, he made Babylon his capital and introduced the oriental court ceremonial, which caused great tensions with his Macedonian and Greek officers.

Death in Babylon

Evil omens

Map of Babylon

In February 323, Alexander ordered his men to prepare for the march to Babylon. When he reached the cultural capital of the ancient world, an astrologer of the Esagilatemple complex with the name Belephantes came to him, saying that there were evil omens. According to Arrian of Nicomedia, Alexander was not supposed to enter the town through the eastern gate, because in that case, the king would have to face to the west, or, to follow Arrian's colleague and contemporary Appian of Alexandria, the setting sun. (It may be noted that this Belephantes is also known from the Babylonian Astronomical Diaries; his real name was Bêl-apla-iddin.)

Alexander took this very serious. There are indications that the sun was the symbol of the Macedonian royal house. (Go here or here for the story and a discussion of the omen.) So, Alexander followed the advice of the astrologers and tried to enter the ancient city from the east, through the Royal Gate, but the terrain made it impossible to march as planned, and therefore, Alexander was forced to enter Babylon heading west. 

From now on, embassies came to do homage to the conqueror and to discuss politics. Many Greek towns complained about the decree on the exiles (above), and there were representatives from Carthage and several tribes in Italy. These people had very good reasons to visit the son of Zeus. Carthaginians had given aid to Tyre when Alexander had besieged this city (text), and Alexander had announced that one day, he would punish them. The Italian tribes had killed a brother-in-law of Alexander, Alexander of Molossis, and knew that they would receive a harsh treatment.

Among the embassies were also representatives of Rome, which was at that moment a strong state in central Italy and had been allied with Alexander of Epirus, but was not a world power yet. There has been some scholarly debate about the truth of Arrian's statement that there were Roman ambassadors, but the story is told by Cleitarchus, who was almost a contemporary and had no reason to flatter or belittle Rome (text).

During his first stay in Babylon in 331, Alexander had ordered restoration works at the Esagila complex, and the nearby temple tower Etemenanki, the "tower of Babel". Now, he saw that  not much progress had been made, and he ordered that the workmen should begin anew. This is told by several Greek authors and is confirmed by a cuneiform tablet (quoted here). Another cuneiform text, the Astronomical diary, indicates that the prizes of grain were sky high during the second stay of Alexander and his army.

New plans

An Arab

In the meantime, Alexander planned a new war, this time against the Arabs. The word "Arabia" referred to at least four centers of settlement on the Arabian peninsula: the Arabs of southern Mesopotamia, who had invaded Babylonia in 329 (above); those of Maka (modern Oman), an old satrapy of the Achaemenid Empire that had not recognized Alexander as king; those of Yemen, where incense was produced; and the Arabs of Jordan, who may have supported the invasion of 329. A large navy had been prepared to transport the expeditionary force - Nearchus' expedition had shown that it was possible to ship large armies to distant countries-, and reconnaissance operations had reached modern Bahrain. It seems that Maka was the first target, that the legendary incense country was next, and that Alexander wanted to sail through the Red Sea until he was in Egypt. The expedition was well-timed: a favorable wind would make it easy to reach Maka in the summer, and in the winter, the wind would assist their voyage to Yemen.

The conquest of Arabia was only the beginning, however. From Egypt, and with a new, even larger fleet (built in Cilicia), Alexander wanted to attack Carthage, Sicily, and Italy. The fact that in the weeks before his death, he was planning the construction of a military road to the Pillars of Heracles, shows the extent of Alexander's ambitions. They were not unrealistic. Carthage was, at that stage in its history, very weak. Twelve years later, it was to suffer a large and successful invasion by the Greek leader Agathocles of Syracuse.

The substitute king

The astrologers of Babylon were still afraid that something would happen to Alexander. It seems that in May 323, they organized a ritual to avert the danger, but that the Greeks and Macedonians failed to understand it. On a hot day, when Alexander was away from his throne to have a drink, a person of humble origins went to the throne. The eunuchs who guarded the object let him pass, and started to show all signs of mourning when he sat on Alexander's chair, although they did nothing to turn him off. (Go here and here for the story.)

The explanation of this incident is that the Asians believed that if an evil omen threatened the king, a substitute king could be appointed. If he sat on the throne, evil would hurt him, and the real king would remain safe. It is probable that the Babylonian astrologers organized this ritual to save Alexander, that the eunuchs understood, but that Alexander did not. If this interpretation is correct, the astrologers were the most loyal subjects any king could wish.



A few days later, the embassy that Alexander had sent to Siwa (above) returned: Zeus Ammon permitted that Hephaestion was to be venerated as a demi-god (heros). This news had to be celebrated with the usual drinking party. There were other reasons to be cheerful: within a few days, the expeditionary force would leave, and Alexander was looking forward to the first addition to his empire in more than two years.

After the party, he met his young friend Medius of Larisa, who invited him for an afterparty with more wine. What happened next, is variously reported, but it is a fact that next morning, Alexander was ill. During the following days, the king rapidly declined (text). At one moment, he was so desperate that he gave his ring to his vizier Perdiccas, saying that he left the kingdom in the hands of "the strongest one".

The son of Ammon died in the afternoon of 11 June 323 (text). Maybe the conqueror of the world remembered what the leader of the Indian sages, Dandamis, had once said: "You will soon be dead, and then you will own just as much of this earth as will suffice to bury you."