When Alexander the Great, still only thirty-two years old, lay dying in Babylon in the summer of 323 BC, he was asked to whom he bequeathed his empire. The question was crucial: though he had left two wives, the Bactrian Roxane and Darius III’s eldest daughter Stateira, pregnant, he had no obvious living heir. The only other surviving son of his father Philip II was an epileptic and mentally retarded half-brother, Arrhidaeus. At stake were all Alexander’s treasures and eastern conquests; his marshals, ruthless veterans whose ambitions matched his own, kept vigil by his deathbed. Famous last words are notoriously suspect, and Alexander’s may well have been invented after the event by some interested party or propagandist with hindsight. But there is a convincing irony about them. Pressed to name an heir, he whispered: “The strongest.” His last recorded words were: “I foresee great contests at my funeral games.” When beyond speech, he gave his ring to a prominent Macedonian general, Perdiccas, and with this ambiguous gesture he died.
The “funeral games” which he foresaw and which provide Mary Renault with the title for her new novel were the prolonged and indescribably bloody struggles of his senior commanders and blood relatives to win mastery over the enormous legacy he left behind. Two signs of Alexander’s greatness are that no one man in the end could grasp that legacy whole (though several, like Antigonus One-Eye, Seleucus, and Lysimachus, came close to doing so), and that so many of those who during his lifetime had been no more than loyal staff officers or cavalry commanders emerged, after his death, as great generals, empire-builders, kings, and founders of dynasties in their own right.
It took a full half-century for the “funeral games” to run their course. Not until 276, with the final (though still precarious) establishment of Antigonus One-Eye’s grandson Gonatas on the throne of Macedonia, could they be said to be over. Alexander’s empire was at last redefined as the three great imperial dynasties of the Hellenistic age, the so-called “successor kingdoms,” each set up by one of Alexander’s generals—Antigonus in Europe, Seleucus in Asia, and Ptolemy in Egypt and the eastern Mediterranean. To achieve this uneasy balance of power men—and women—contracted alliances and marriages of dubious convenience and, often, unwelcome consequences. Above all, they murdered. Stabbed, starved, stoned, poisoned, hanged, burned alive, or trampled to death by elephants, the victims in this grim power game nevertheless arouse little sympathy, since most of them (except the very young, the naïve, or the feebleminded) had, while clawing their way up the ladder, given as good as they finally got.
Miss Renault, not normally one to ration bloodletting, has been forced to omit more than a few deaths, including that of Alexander’s sister Cleopatra (killed by Antigonus when Ptolemy showed signs of importing her to Alexandria to enhance his dynastic pretensions). Even so, apart from a brief retrospective epilogue set in 286, she …