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Tough Act to Follow

Funeral Games

by Mary Renault
Pantheon, 335 pp., $14.50

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 takes the story only as far as 311/10 BC, when the simultaneous murder of Roxane and her son extinguished the direct line of succession, and encouraged several ambitious conquistadors to try for a crown and a new dynasty. What she does give us, though, is more than enough. One has just so much stomach for ultra-Jacobean intrigue and violence. We begin with Roxane poisoning Stateira and Stateira’s unborn child (the victim in her death-agony aborts the fetus) in order to clear the way for her own anticipated son’s claim on the throne. We end with her and that son being poisoned themselves by Cassander, the ambitious son of Alexander’s regent Antipater and Macedonia’s future king: the wheel has come full circle.

In between we follow the major bids for power: by Perdiccas, who fell to the daggers of his own officers after botching an attack on Ptolemy in Egypt; by Antigonus One-Eye, still powerful and unpredictable at the time of Roxane’s death but eliminated in 301 by a coalition of his rivals at Ipsus; by Alexander’s terrible mother Olympias, determined to preserve her son’s dynasty at whatever cost; and, most improbably, by Eurydice, a sixteen-year-old granddaughter of Philip II through his marriage to an Illyrian princess, a tomboy brought up by her mother to dress and fight like a soldier. Her royal ambitions led her, first, into marriage with the epileptic simpleton Arrhidaeus (acclaimed king, faute de mieux, by the Macedonian army as Philip III), and thence to a fatal confrontation with Olympias. Eurydice is a natural subject for Miss Renault, who describes subtly and with evident pleasure her shrewdness, sense of fantasy, courage, naïveté, and hard, sexless physicality.

In Funeral Games it is, indeed, historical truth that at times seems on the edge of destroying a good novel’s plausibility, though it never quite does so. Eurydice is made to sound like the invention of a Women’s Lib propagandist with a taste for athletics, yet every detail Miss Renault recounts has solid historical testimony to support it. So do practically all of the extraordinary stories she tells—about Perdiccas, who used elephants to execute Meleager’s mutineers, (a horrible scene marvelously told) and who fatally jilted Antipater’s daughter Nicea in favor of Cleopatra; about Antipater’s son Alexarchus, who “was learned, slightly mad, and mainly employed in inventing a new language for a utopian state he had seen in visions”; about Alexander’s chief secretary, Eumenes, who set up an empty throne, complete with crown, sceptre, and robe, so that Alexander dead could still preside in spirit over daily military staff meetings. Indeed, every murder and marriage in the book gets ample backing, often in great detail, from ancient sources. Miss Renault’s main problem has been to make these monsters and monomaniacs believable, and this, at times with disconcerting insight, she does.

It is not that she lacks occasional prejudices, and here (I suspect) we can detect the residual influence, direct or indirect, of the late Sir William Tarn, whose overidealized version of Alexander has been much criticized in recent years. Miss Renault evidently dislikes Cassander, the intriguing son of Antipater, who finally became Macedonia’s king. She finds Alexander’s ex-general Ptolemy (whose writings were the main source used by the Greek historian Arrian for his Anabasis) as generous, honest, objective, and guileless as Ptolemy himself claimed, and far more so than most contemporary historians would now concede. She has an unlikely scene in which the odious Cassander, smarting under remembered slights from Alexander, dictates, with obvious relish, outrageous anti-Alexander propaganda to the sedulous scribes of the Lyceum. It’s odd to find Tarn’s old fancies resurfacing in fictional dress.

At the same time Miss Renault believes that Alexander was poisoned by his cup-bearer Iollas, an improbable notion, even if it does have the testimony of antiquity behind it. But actual slips are few, though even in the Greek (as opposed to the conventional Latinized) spelling used by Miss Renault for her characters’ names, “Niarchos” is the modern shipowner rather than the ancient admiral.

What Miss Renault creates, from the very first page, is a wholly credible, and cumulatively oppressive, atmosphere. She achieves this partly by her skill (which indicates a careful use of under-statement) in describing character, partly through her brilliant sense of historical detail. The past illustrates the present: Alexander was so potent a ruler that his death is a watershed, dividing old order from new chaos. No one escapes metamorphosis (or, too often, destruction) in the wake of that enormous event. It might be argued that Funeral Games lacks a dominant central character. In fact the true center is the empty throne, and it is Alexander himself who, in death as in life, commands the scene absolutely. Even his poor half-brother Arrhidaeus, playing with his stones and shells, building toy forts on the floor, terrified and hypnotized by the half-comprehended surge of public events, follows the talismanic rules that Alexander once gave him. “Only a few days back,” Ptolemy reflects, “we were all alike the Friends of Alexander, just waiting for him to get up again and lead us. What are we now, and what am I?” The same bleak question confronts them all. Later Ptolemy concludes: “No man alive can wear the mantle of Alexander, and those who grasp at it will destroy themselves.” So they did, and the survivors had to settle for smaller dreams.

With the possible exception of The Persian Boy, this is Miss Renault’s best historical novel yet. Not a word seems wasted, the narrative moves swiftly, with undercurrents of growing complexity. Knowing the story as a historian, I still read on into the small hours, unable to stop until I’d finished. How does she induce the reader’s extraordinary suspension of disbelief? Not (as with so many historical novelists) through her power to evoke people or places visually. She may describe Alexandria, but not so that you see it. Antigonus is a one-eyed giant and nothing more; one glance at, say, Ptolemy’s coin-portraits will give you a better notion of how that hooknosed, jovial, and devious old crook actually looked than anything in Miss Renault’s prose. She is best at showing character in action: Meleager’s resentment of superior brilliance, the flawed bluster of Perdiccas, Eurydice’s fatal blend of exaltation and hysteria when she appears before the troops.

What gives these characters their particularity is, precisely, the atmosphere that surrounds them. Miss Renault may not see the world of fourth-century Greece and Anatolia vividly, but one suspects she can feel it, even smell it. We are acutely conscious in this novel of heat and humidity, claustrophobia, dirt, excreta, closed casements, inadequate drainage, the stifling air of the harem, the goatish smells wafting up from a tight-packed Macedonian assembly. This is a world without hygiene, anaesthetics, or refrigeration, in which a scribe not only drips sweat on his papyrus as he writes, but also keeps his writing tablets in a tub of cold water to hold the wax firm. Bodies crackle and stink as the fire consumes them, the stench of charred flesh invades men’s dreams.

It was (as Miss Renault so well shows), a primitive world still, despite the fine Greek rhetoric, the gold-trimmed armor, the cutthroat ambitions for imperial glory. Disease was rampant (the Antigonids seem to have been congenitally tubercular) and medical progress fitful. Licenses to dissect cadavers in Alexandria were of no help with viral or bacterial infection. Cheap labor inhibited technological development; royal patrons commissioned clever toys or siege-engines. Literature went academic. The long agony of Alexander’s funeral games led to a static, authoritarian world of self-perpetuating dynasties and bureaucratic extortion.

All this is foreshadowed, for those with eyes to see it, in Miss Renault’s novel. Alexander’s heritage was essentially booty won at spear-point and fought for as such. All the successor monarchs, Ptolemy included, ran their kingdoms on the basis of exploitation for a governing elite. Miss Renault’s implication is that things would have been very different had Alexander lived. I wonder. Conquest always appealed to him more than administration. At best, the inevitable process of fragmentation might have been postponed, but not for long. Alexander never wept because he had no more worlds to conquer, but he certainly died just as the one he had conquered was beginning to get dangerously out of hand. Lesser men inherited his dilemma, but could see no further than the glittering prizes. Could he? Miss Renault’s art brilliantly revivifies such a question. “To bring the dead to life,” Robert Graves once wrote, “is no great magic.” He was wrong: it is a rare skill, and we are lucky to have had Graves himself and Miss Renault to raise these blood-hungry ghosts for our delight.

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