Friday, March 21, 2014

The Glory and the Death of Alexander the Great

Funeral procession of Alexander the Great

In his return to Babylon after his military campaigns in India Alexander the Great was suddenly afflicted with a fever after drinking sprees with an officer and a friend. His condition deteriorated as days passed and he later became speechless and in the throes of death. His officers and soldiers anxious to see their king and commander for the last time were granted of their request to file past him at his deathbed. With what remained of his last strength Alexander acknowledged them with nods of his head or movements of his eyes as they passed by him. The king died on the 10th or 11th of June 323 BC after about 10 days of sickness at age 32. 

Egyptians and Chaldean embalmers were brought to the royal palace to treat and preserve the remains of the great king and conqueror. They had to use their skill to make the body sweet smelling and incorruptible. Alexander’s remains was placed in a golden sarcophagus and submerged in vat of honey. 

Alexander the Great had not given clear instruction as to who should succeed him. He only gave a vague statement that after him his throne should go to the strongest. Just before he died, he however, gave his signet ring to Perdiccas, a commander of the cavalry and one of his most trusted generals. That was a gesture that Perdiccas would play a significant role on matters regarding succession and the running of the affairs of the empire after Alexander’s death. 

When Alexander died, his Bactrian wife, Roxanne, was pregnant, and a royal custom had it that Alexander’s male offspring would be his successor. And Roxanne indeed bore a son who was named Alexander IV. Perdiccas, and Antipater acted as guardians and co-regents of the child. However, some of the troops led by Meleager, mutinied since they were not included in the agreement. The conflict was settled when it was agreed upon that Philip III the mentally handicapped half brother of Alexander  the Great and Alexander IV would be joint kings. 

It was decided that the remains of Alexander the Great had to be brought back to Macedonia, the place of his birth. A funeral cart that was adorned with gold and jewelries to carry the body took about two years to complete. When it was ready a funeral procession all the way to Macedonia was started. The well built and beautifully designed funeral cart was drawn by a team of mules and was escorted by an army of honor guards who were commanded by an officer. Road builders smoothed the road ahead of time for the cortege to move along. As it passed by, thousands of people lined up along the roads to witness the greatest funeral procession in all of history.

Ptolemy I Soter, one of Alexander’s general who was satrap and future king of Egypt brought with him a sizable army and forcibly diverted the remains of Alexander in Syria. He then brought it to Egypt and built a mausoleum in Memphis. Ptolemy’s action was motivated by his desire to be the king of Egypt and its surrounding areas. It was also in reaction to Alexander’s soothsayer named Aristander prophecy that the land where Alexander would be buried would be happy and unconquerable forever. Ptolemy thought that his possession of the remains of Alexander the Great would legitimize his rule of Egypt. 

Perdiccas the regent of joint kings Philip III and Alexander IV was assassinated in 321 BC, and soon thereafter Olympias, the mother of Alexander the Great, his son Alexander IV, Roxanne, his wife and his half brother Philipp III were murdered during the course of the wars of succession by the generals of Alexander the Great. The empire left by Alexander was partitioned by his generals into four:  Ptolomy- Egypt, Seleucus- Mesopotamia and Syria, Lysimachus- Asia Minor and Thrace, Cassander- Macedonia and Greece.  

The remains of Alexander the Great was transferred to Alexandria, Egypt by Ptolemy II Philadelphus, the son and successor of Ptolemy I Soter and it stayed there until late antiquity. Another king of the dynasty, Ptolemy IX Lathyrus removed the golden sarcophagus to be minted into coinage and replaced it with a glass one. Alexander’s mausoleum was visited and viewed by some notable personalities of antiquity who included Roman Emperors such as Pompey, Julius Caesar and Augustus. It was said that Julius Caesar accidentally knocked the nose off Alexander’s face during that Roman Emperor’s visit. Caligula took away Alexander’s breastplate for his own use.  At around 200 AD Roman Emperor Septimus Severos closed Alexander’s tomb to the public. During the role of the Romans the resting place of Alexander was no longer known.

The Ptolemaic dynasty buried its kings and members of the royal family beside the tomb of Alexander which was a shrine that was visited by many people who some of them even considered Alexander as a god. During his lifetime Alexander believed that he was the son of Zeus and even proclaimed himself as god. The power of the Greek/Macedonian kings eventually declined and the mighty Roman Empire took over most of their territories. During the Roman era Jesus Christ founded a religion which spread like wildfire in the Roman Empire after His death. The Egyptians converted to the religion and pagan practices and rituals were gradually discarded. It was probably for that reason why the visit to Alexander’s shrine later lost its importance and the upkeep of his tomb was neglected. A myth had it that the tomb of Alexander lay under an early Christian church dedicated to Saint Athanasius, an early Christian bishop. This church was in turn converted into the mosque of Prophet Daniel during the Arab conquest.                                                                       
In 640 AD the Arabs conquered Egypt, Persia and other neighboring countries. The rise of Islam saw the conversion of Christians, Zoroastrians and pagans to the Islamic faith, and Arabic culture and language were introduced to conquered lands. The Muslim conquest after the fall of the Greek and Roman empires has a profound influence on the culture, religion and demographics of their former possessions which are now Iran, Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Egypt, Jordan, Israel, Turkey, among other places today. 

Alexander the Great is one of history’s most famous personalities. He was a legendary king and a military commander par excellence. His daring and recklessness in battles on which he sustained life threatening wounds awed his soldiers. Personally leading his men in his campaigns, he shared with them their pains and hardships in battles and also cherished with them the joys of their victories. As a commander his mere presence was enough inspiration for his men to readily give up their lives in battles. However, like all mortals there were negative sides of him. He was said to be moody and was an excessive drinker. There were even insinuations that he was a homosexual. But undoubtedly Alexander was a very courageous warrior, a charismatic leader and an astute politician. He won all the battles that he engaged in and created the biggest empire known to the ancient world, and united the different peoples in it under his leadership. None of his generals could match his exploits or his ability to hold the empire together as one. When Alexander died his empire quickly fell apart and its territories fought over and divided by his generals.