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Wednesday, May 16, 2012

“Ghost on the Throne: The Death of Alexander the Great and the War for Crown and Empire”, by James Romm

368 pages, Alfred A. Knopf, ISBN-13: 978-0307271648

Ghost on the Throne begins in the last weeks of Alexander's life and follows his would-be successors through several years of bloody in-fighting. Most histories of this period begin and end with Alexander, leaving the chaotic decades following his death either summarized or completely unexplored. It's easy to see why: Alexander was an arresting personality who centered over a decade of politics and conquest on the single focal point of himself, while the generals who fell to squabbling for preeminence after his death were a hodgepodge of individuals of varying quality, and the ever more complex politicking among them makes for a potentially confusing narrative.

At Alexander's death he had no heir. He had an illegitimate son, a Bactrian wife in her final trimester of pregnancy, and a clique of high-ranking generals of firm loyalty to himself but riven with strife among each other. He gave one general his signet ring, a clear mark of favored authority, but at his death the rivalries and suspicions among the generals and their distrust of the foreign elements in Alexander's army (the Persian and Indian soldiers and generals, Alexander's Bactrian wife) not to mention decommissioned veterans eager to return home after over a decade at war and rogue local commanders, fell apart without Alexander's powerful center at the top. The empire fractured, fragmented, and finally collapsed into chaos.

James Romm takes this potential chaos of names, motives, loyalties, movements, battles, and betrayals and creates a compelling, highly readable history of the period. His treatment of the subject is really masterful – it's easy to keep track of the scores of individuals populating the story, their relations to each other, and what's going on at any given moment across the vast stage on which the story played out. At various times Romm will deal with Aristotle as he abandons Athens, mutinous Macedonian veterans in what is now Pakistan, Ptolemy in Egypt, and half-dozen generals battling each other in Asia Minor, and, incredibly, it all makes sense. Ghost on the Throne is a masterpiece of organization.

But the story is also exciting. Romm does an excellent job of keeping the story moving, a virtue too often lacking in the work of modern historians. He never allows the story to bog down, especially in discussing the conflicting reports of sources. I've read many modern histories that repeatedly lose track of the narrative when discussing sources, but Romm deftly summarizes and evaluates such problems with not a wasted word. Ghost on the Throne moves at a brisk speed that successfully conveys how quickly and catastrophically Alexander's empire collapsed.

I had a few very minor quibbles with the book. I found the system of endnotes difficult to sort through (though Romm gives good reasons for preferring this system in the preface to the book) and there are a few sections that felt needlessly redundant. But those redundant sections were spaced well apart in the book and may be of service to readers who have a difficult time keeping track of all the ancient names and places mentioned in the book. Those readers should be few and far between, but passages like those should help reorient them if they get lost. Finally, I found the epithet "old man Antipater" irritating after a while.

But these minor flaws in no way detract from the overall quality of the book. Romm's gifts of organizing a complicated narrative and of making it exciting and readable have allowed him to produce one of the finest, most readable popular histories I've read.

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