Alexander the Great


Alexander the Great : biography

20 July 356 BC – 10 June 323 BC

After death

Alexander’s body was laid in a gold anthropoid sarcophagus that was filled with honey, which was in turn placed in a gold casket. According to Aelian, a seer called Aristander foretold that the land where Alexander was laid to rest "would be happy and unvanquishable forever". Perhaps more likely, the successors may have seen possession of the body as a symbol of legitimacy, since burying the prior king was a royal prerogative.

While Alexander’s funeral cortege was on its way to Macedon, Ptolemy stole it and took it to Memphis. His successor, Ptolemy II Philadelphus, transferred the sarcophagus to Alexandria, where it remained until at least late Antiquity. Ptolemy IX Lathyros, one of Ptolemy’s final successors, replaced Alexander’s sarcophagus with a glass one so he could convert the original to coinage.

Pompey, Julius Caesar and Augustus all visited the tomb in Alexandria. The latter allegedly accidentally knocked the nose off the body. Caligula was said to have taken Alexander’s breastplate from the tomb for his own use. In c. AD 200, Emperor Septimius Severus closed Alexander’s tomb to the public. His son and successor, Caracalla, a great admirer, visited the tomb during his own reign. After this, details on the fate of the tomb are hazy.

The so-called "Alexander Sarcophagus", discovered near Sidon and now in the Istanbul Archaeology Museum, is so named not because it was thought to have contained Alexander’s remains, but because its bas-reliefs depict Alexander and his companions fighting the Persians and hunting. It was originally thought to have been the sarcophagus of Abdalonymus (died 311 BC), the king of Sidon appointed by Alexander immediately following the battle of Issus in 331. However, more recently, it has been suggested that it may date from earlier than Abdalonymus’ death.

Division of the empire

Alexander’s death was so sudden that when reports of his death reached Greece, they were not immediately believed. Alexander had no obvious or legitimate heir, his son Alexander IV by Roxane being born after Alexander’s death. According to Diodorus, Alexander’s companions asked him on his deathbed to whom he bequeathed his kingdom; his laconic reply was "tôi kratistôi"—"to the strongest".

Arrian and Plutarch claimed that Alexander was speechless by this point, implying that this was an apocryphal story. Diodorus, Curtius and Justin offered the more plausible story that Alexander passed his signet ring to Perdiccas, a bodyguard and leader of the companion cavalry, in front of witnesses, thereby nominating him.

Perdiccas initially did not claim power, instead suggesting that Roxane’s baby would be king, if male; with himself, Craterus, Leonnatus, and Antipater as guardians. However, the infantry, under the command of Meleager, rejected this arrangement since they had been excluded from the discussion. Instead, they supported Alexander’s half-brother Philip Arrhidaeus. Eventually, the two sides reconciled, and after the birth of Alexander IV, he and Philip III were appointed joint kings, albeit in name only.

Dissension and rivalry soon afflicted the Macedonians, however. The satrapies handed out by Perdiccas at the Partition of Babylon became power bases each general used to bid for power. After the assassination of Perdiccas in 321 BC, Macedonian unity collapsed, and 40 years of war between "The Successors" (Diadochi) ensued before the Hellenistic world settled into four stable power blocks: the Ptolemaic Kingdom of Egypt, the Seleucid Empire in the east, the Kingdom of Pergamon in Asia Minor, and Macedon. In the process, both Alexander IV and Philip III were murdered.


Diodorus stated that Alexander had given detailed written instructions to Craterus some time before his death. Craterus started to carry out Alexander’s commands, but the successors chose not to further implement them, on the grounds they were impractical and extravagant. Nevertheless, Perdiccas read Alexander’s will to his troops.

The testament called for military expansion into the southern and western Mediterranean, monumental constructions, and the intermixing of Eastern and Western populations. It included:

  • Construction of a monumental tomb for his father Philip, "to match the greatest of the pyramids of Egypt"
  • Erection of great temples in Delos, Delphi, Dodona, Dium, Amphipolis, and a monumental temple to Athena at Troy
  • Conquest of Arabia and the entire Mediterranean Basin
  • Circumnavigation of Africa
  • Development of cities and the "transplant of populations from Asia to Europe and in the opposite direction from Europe to Asia, in order to bring the largest continent to common unity and to friendship by means of intermarriage and family ties."