Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2004.01.31

A.B. Bosworth, The Legacy of Alexander. Politics, Warfare, and Propaganda under the Successors.   Oxford:  Oxford University Press, 2002.  Pp. 307.  ISBN 0-19-815306-6.  £42.50.  

Reviewed by Rolf Strootman, Utrecht University (
Word count: 1831 words

After many publications about Alexander the Great, A.B. Bosworth has now written a book about Alexander's successors. The Legacy of Alexander contains six thematic studies of various historical and historiographical aspects of the first decades after Alexander's death. Both the author's previous work as well as the book's title -- on the cover the publisher has printed the word 'Alexander' twice as large as 'The Legacy of' -- may cause the expectation that this is a book about the tragic breaking up of Alexander's empire. Fortunately, B. -- in keeping with his consistent critical view of Alexander's achievements -- understands the turbulent period of the Diadoch Wars not as a disappointing epilogue to the history of Alexander, but as a formative period in which new empires came into being.

In the preface, B. stresses the lack of a comprehensive modern introduction to the era of the Diadochs. Although the mere absence of such a book provides enough legitimization for B.'s wish to write one, an additional reason may be the increasing availability of new evidence and subsequent new scholarship on the early Hellenistic east. At this point it should be stressed that the volume under review is not yet this 'extended and lucid ... historical coverage of the half century after Alexander', but a 'prelude to the larger project' [v]. However, The Legacy of Alexander rather looks like a series of extensive appendices to the intended larger project, aimed at specialist readers rather than students. Be that as it may, the six essays that make up The Legacy of Alexander offer important, and often fascinating, examinations of many aspects of the genesis of the Hellenistic kingdoms.

The book opens with an introductory chapter binding together the six miscellaneous chapters that follow. All deal with matters of politics, warfare, and historiography in the period between Alexander's death in 323 BC and the peace of 311 BC but can be read independently. Three chapters offer straightforward political and military history. These narrative chapters (2, 4, and 6) are characterized by detailed scrutiny of the written sources and often also address the problems of chronology which are so typical for this period. The first of these, 'The politics of the Babylon settlement', discusses the division of power among the Successors immediately after Alexander's death; the second is a lengthy study of Antigonos' war against Eumenes in Iran; and the third studies the establishment of Seleukos' power in Babylonia and his subsequent rise to prominence in the east. In the other three chapters (3, 5, 7) B. takes up selected topics: the demographic effect of Alexander's wars for the Macedonian population, ethnographic digressions in the writings of Hieronymos of Kardia, and the ideology of early Hellenistic kingship.

The 'Introduction' (Chapter 1) consists of three parts. First, B. gives some general characteristics of the period. The main contention is that Alexander failed as an empire builder because he neglected to create a central power base for his kingdom and because of his physical absence from potential power centers (notably Babylonia and Macedonia). Thus, the division of his empire after his death was the inevitable result of his own actions. The Successors were not semi-competent power-hungry heirs breaking up their inheritance. On the contrary, they were actually more successful in establishing viable territorial states than Alexander had been (they also had more time to do so). The second part is a brief, dense overview of the principal political and military developments until the year 318 BC, the starting point of chapters 4 and 6. In the last part B. discusses the difficult sources for this period: Diodoros, Arrian, Justin, and Plutarch's biographies of Eumenes and Demetrios, together with short notices of epigraphic and cuneiform documents and new numismatic evidence.

In Chapter 2, 'The politics of the Babylon Settlement', B. discusses the succession crisis in the year of Alexander's death and the eventual provisional settlement of the empire. B. points out that while our main source for this episode, Diodoros, provides much information for the events in Babylon, we know virtually nothing of what happened in the rest of the empire at the same time. As B. rightly says, the arrangements brokered at Babylon by Perdikkas and the other notables present there were not necessarily binding in Macedonia or in those parts of the empire where other powerful men were together with their troops. Having deemed the modern designation Babylon Settlement therefore 'a misnomer' (p. 33), B. proceeds to reconstruct as well as possible the complex process of diplomatic bargaining between the ones who happened to be present at Babylon in 323 (notably Perdikkas) and those who were not (notably Krateros).

In Chapter 3, 'Macedonian Numbers at the death of Alexander the Great', B. returns to his famous article of 1986 in which he propounded a pessimistic view of the demographic consequences of Alexander's wars for Macedonia.1 The establishment of Macedonian hegemony in Egypt and Asia resulted in a decline of the country Macedonia itself. The number of free Macedonian males available for the Antigonid armies declined, and the country never again achieved political prowess in Greece and the Balkans as in the days of Philip and Alexander. In response to criticism by Hammond, Badian and Billows,2 B. now somewhat tempers his earlier conclusions but holds to his thesis that Macedonia was fundamentally weakened as a result of the wars fought by Alexander and the Diadochs. B. even finds support for this view in the conviction in modern scholarship that 'Macedonian' soldiers attested for the armies of the Diadochs and the Hellenistic kings are not necessarily 'real' (i.e. ethnic) Macedonians but may as well be others trained and equipped as Macedonian soldiers.

Chapter 4, 'The Campaign in Iran', is a detailed account of the war between Antigonos the One-Eyed and Eumenes of Kardia in Iran in the winter of 317/16 BC. This 'epic duel', with its two major battles, shaped the future of the Hellenistic world perhaps more than anything else in this period but has been relatively neglected in modern historiography. B. argues that the defeat and execution of the loyalist Eumenes demonstrated once and for all that dynastic legitimization was meaningless in the face of the realities of power. Although Antigonos' legitimacy was very questionable, military victory allowed him to assume royal pretensions and permitted the Persians to treat him as Great King (instead of Alexander's legitimate heirs).

In Chapter 5, 'Hieronymus' ethnography: Indian widows and Nabataean nomads', B. examines the merits of the main source underlying Diodoros' account of the Diadoch Wars, the Antigonid courtier Hieronymos of Kardia. B. shows Hieronymos to have been a complex and skillful historian.

Chapter 6, 'The rise of Seleucus', follows the extraordinary return of Seleukos to his satrapy of Babylonia, from which he had been driven by Antigonos. The establishment of his power in southern Mesopotamia allowed Seleukos to gain control of the Upper Satrapies, despite Antigonid efforts to prevent this. Access to Babylonian wealth and Iranian manpower gave Seleukos a decisive advantage over his enemy Antigonos.

In the last chapter about 'Hellenistic Monarchy' B. responds to Austin's influential assertion that Hellenistic kings went to war so often because they needed to obtain -- for practical as well as ideological reasons -- booty and military prestige.3 Using notably the career of Demetrios the Besieger after the Battle of Ipsos as an example, B. argues that reality was more complex. Military success was no prerequisite for the acceptance of one's royal status. Instead, a carefully cultivated 'royal persona' -- magnificence, courage, distinction -- could compensate for lack of military success and shortage of money. I found this the least convincing essay. In the end, the main characteristic of the regal image as cultivated by Demetrios turns out to be an 'heroic ethos', which is hardly at variance with Austin's concept.

There is one Appendix, containing a very helpful (though at times necessarily tentative) chronological table.4

The Legacy of Alexander offers careful and sophisticated analysis of a variety of subjects concerning the Diadochs. Some of these are given full treatment here for the first time, particularly the conflict between Eumenes and Antigonos in Iran. B.'s extensive account of that campaign with its frozen salt deserts, intrigue and treason, is not only detailed and insightful but entertaining as well. The same is true of B.'s search for meaning in Hieronymos' ethnographic digressions.

Throughout the book, but especially in the last chapter, B. argues that Alexander's principal legacy was his posthumous status as a role model. The Diadochs imitated Alexander's heroism in order to obtain legitimacy as imperialists. Thus, the shadow of Alexander is almost continually present in the text. One may doubt, however, whether all behavior of the Diadochs which resembled that of Alexander, for instance personal courage in battle, was really imitatio Alexandri.

B.'s skeptical view of Alexander's part in the creation of the Hellenistic world is in accordance with new scholarship. In the past two decades one school of Hellenistic scholars have focussed on continuities from the Achaemenid Empire to the Hellenistic kingdoms5 whereas others have emphasized the important roles of the Successors as empire builders.6 Both approaches have led to a reappraisal of Alexander's achievements, but they are difficult to integrate. B. adheres to the latter view. Although it is certainly refreshing to hear such a distinguished and devoted Alexander historian describe the years after Alexander as a 'big bang' (p. 246), B. perhaps underestimates the element of continuity in the transition from Achaemenid to Macedonian rule in Egypt and the Near East. For instance, Alexander's use of preexisting (Achaemenid) institutions of empire will have been a matter of pragmatic statesmanship rather than of failure (p. 2), especially since the Seleukids later took over the same institutions from him. On the same grounds there may be doubts as regards the central premise that Alexander ultimately failed as an empire builder because of his pattern of action. B. claims that the absence of Alexander from the centre of the empire -- 'being in constant movement, and between 329 and 325 on the very periphery of the old Achaemenid lands' -- led to instability and satrapal insubordination, a process which was only accelerated by his sudden death (p. 2), a thesis similar to the one recently propounded by C. Blackwell.7 The behavior of both the Achaemenids and the Successors is contrasted to the mobility of Alexander, who is rendered 'wholly atypical, an absolute monarch without a fixed capital'. But, although the presence of the king in one place no doubt caused problems for his authority elsewhere, this seems inherent in ancient Near Eastern kingship before and after Alexander. Alexander's pattern of action was not fundamentally different from that of Kyros the Great or Antiochos the Great, and it cannot be contrasted with the behavior of Alexander's principal heirs in the East, the Seleukids. The Seleukid royal court was a peripatetic court if there ever was one; the Seleukid Empire in the second century BC did not have one fixed capital either.8


1.   A.B. Bosworth, 'Alexander the Great and the decline of Macedon', JHS 106 (1986) 1-12; cf. id., 'Macedonian Manpower under Alexander the Great,' AM 4 (1986) 115-22.
2.   N.G.L. Hammond, 'Casualties and Reinforcements of Citizen Soldiers in Greece and Macedonia', JHS 109 (1989) 56-68; E. Badian, 'Agis III: Revisions and reflections', in: I. Worthington ed., Ventures into Greek History (Oxford 1994) 258-92, esp. 261-68; R.A. Billows, Kings and Colonists: Aspects of Macedonian Imperialism (Leiden 1995) 183-212.
3.   M.M. Austin, 'Hellenistic kings, war, and the economy', CQ 36 (1986) 450-66.
4.   A.B. Bosworth, 'Philip III Arrhidaeus and the Chronology of the Successors', Chiron 22 (1992) 56-81 and P.V. Wheatley, 'The Chronology of the Third Diadoch War, 315-311 B.C', Phoenix 52 (1998) 257-81, both at variance with the chronology usually encountered in recent literature.
5.   See generally A. Kuhrt and S. Sherwin-White, eds., Hellenism in the East (London 1987); H.W.A.M. Sancisi-Weerdenburg et al., eds., Continuity and Change. Proceedings of the 8th Achaemenid History Workshop, April 6-8, 1990, Ann Arbor, Michigan (Leiden 1994); A. Kuhrt and S. Sherwin-White, From Samarkhand to Sardis. A New Approach to the Seleucid Empire (London 1993).
6.   For instance R.A. Billows, Antigonos the One-Eyed and the Creation of the Hellenistic State (Berkeley, Los Angeles, London 1990); H.S. Lund, Lysimachus. A Study in Hellenistic Kingship (London 1992); J.D. Grainger, Seleukos Nikator. Constructing a Hellenistic Kingdom (London 1992); J.J. Gabbert, Antigonus II Gonatas. A Political Biography (London 1997).
7.   C.W. Blackwell, In the Absence of Alexander: Harpalus and the Failure of Macedonian Authority (New York 1999).
8.   B. acknowledges that the Achaemenids traveled 'from palace to palace', though mainly in their core territories (the Persis; southern Mesopotamia); but the Persian kings were probably more mobile than that. On the peripatetic nature of the Achaemenid court: P. Briant, 'Le nomadisme du Grand Roi', Iranica Antiqua 23 (1988) 253-73.

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