The Magazine

A World Divided

You can’t take it with you, and here’s why.

May 27, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 35 • By J.E. LENDON
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Eventually, the several winners of the Wars of the Successors would rule as kings the parts of Alexander’s empire they had governed as marshals. And, eventually, they would learn to fill the gulf of authority left by Alexander’s death. But in the years when the impossible empire remained, in the minds of all, a shining unity, they fought without cease to control that unity’s fate, intriguing like the barons of the Wars of the Roses to control, or kill, possible heirs. 

Cassander’s company was particularly unhealthy for Alexander’s sons, real or suppositious: Two died at Cassander’s hands, along with Alexander’s mother, the formidable Olympias. The ideal of unity, and the fact of division, shed blood. Like towering clockwork automata, set into heedless motion by a dead artisan, the successors swept up satrapies and cities, armies and elephants, in their train, and crashed into each other, the tearing-metal shrieks of their collisions rising over the moans of the world.  

Something of the same problem of imposing unity on chaos confronts the historian who attempts the irresistible subject of these Wars of the Successors. For this is a period that violently resists being reduced to a single story. There is almost an exhaustion of high deeds: too many great men, acting in too many places; and tremendous new cities founded, it seems, every month, in imitation of Alexander’s many Alexandrias. (Antioch and Thessalonica are among the most famous today.) Interleaved with such tremendous acts are developments in science, art, philosophy, literature, and war.  

A successful history, like Robin Waterfield’s, creates unity where the events allow: Beginning in Babylon around the corpse of Alexander, he holds the story together for as long as possible. And he artfully makes the end of Dividing the Spoils the tragedy of Demetrius Poliorcetes, “the Besieger,” the doomed warlord of manic energy who carried on fighting into the 290s and ’80s. But for the time between—well, Waterfield does all a historian can do: He makes sure all the characters are identified, provides good maps, and then gets out of the way of the events, standing in open-mouthed awe with his reader to watch the passing of titans and snails. 

J. E. Lendon, professor of history at the University of Virginia, is the author of Song of Wrath: The Peloponnesian War Begins and Soldiers and Ghosts: A History of Battle in Classical Antiquity.