Book Review: Dividing The Spoils

Dividing The Spoils:  The War For Alexander The Great’s Empire, by Robin Waterfield

As someone who has read a great deal of the history about the Hellenistic era from one perspective or another [1], it is immensely pleasing to be able to read a book that tackles the period of Greek history between the death of Alexander the Great and the final division of the Eastern Mediterranean into a few competing kingdoms that have given up the ambitions for ruling over the whole area.  These wars were immensely important, not least because of the misery they inflicted upon the Eastern Mediterranean from Greece to Egypt and Persia, but also because of the ways that they fulfilled biblical prophecy and also made it possible for Rome to consolidate rule over the Hellenistic world given the division and continual conflict of the various Hellenistic states.  The author shows an admirable grasp of military and political matters as well as the larger cultural impact of the times, and does not stint on any of the various complicated elements in the period of consolidation that followed the untimely death of Alexander, which included at least six different wars for succession and numerous double crosses and the death of many of the contenders for the overall or regional control of different parts of the Hellenistic world.  It was not an enviable time for anyone in the area.

This book is mostly organized into chronological fashion with various digressions, taking up about 230 pages or so of material when one includes vital supplementary materials like genealogies and chronologies and a list of the important people involved.  The book begins with some context into the origins of the Hellenistic period by looking at the changes and the growing autocracy of the Macedonian kingdom under Phillip III and Alexander III, and the way in which Alexander himself preferred conquest to the more mundane task of consolidation.  The authors then discuss the period of Alexander’s death, the scheming among the various successors, whether bodyguards or satraps or other officers, demonstrating the inner clique of power and the way that the various plotters were almost all Macedonians, even if they were fighting over massive territories inhabited by alien peoples.  The book, though it focuses on areas of political and military history, does not in any way stint the importance of diplomacy or of larger cultural and religious trends, including the spread of individualism, the rise of escapist fiction, realistic portrayals in art and literature, and the rise of mystery cults, all of which would be of great importance in the future, some of those trends important down to our own day.  The history reads in many ways like a Greek tragedy, showing the downfall of both egotists as well as more or less decent and honorable people (like the tragic Eumenes) who get ensnared in the tricks of others, and there is a more or less wearisome finale to the period as the four decades of war settle down into something approaching an equilibrium as small states like Pergamum and Rhodes and Bithynia attempt to retain their independence among the constant squabbling and warfare and treachery around them.

Ultimately, though, despite the tragic and bloody events this book describes in considerable detail, the author has an optimistic conclusion, contrary to all expectations.  One could have scarcely guessed the author would find an optimistic conclusion given the horrors that were inflicted upon the people of the Middle East in the decades after Alexander’s death as the strongest contenders sorted out their core territories and boundaries, with the Attalids taking Pergamum as a secure base to start a solid kingdom in Asia Minor, the Antigonids recovered from their defeats to secure Macedonia, the Ptolemeic dynasty secured Egypt and Cyprus, and the Seleucids claimed Syria and a large chunk of the rest of Asia before the power of all of them eventually ebbed and finally crumbled in the face of Roman expansion.  Nevertheless, the authors sees individual life and philosophy and art survive despite the horrors, and ends up with the conclusion that no matter how bad governments are, human life endures.  Perhaps that is meant to cheer us, but given how epic and inept the rulers of our own contemporary states are, perhaps this is a point that the author feels it necessary to impress given how pessimistic it is easy to feel in light of the failures of our own leaders.

[1] See, for example:

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
This entry was posted in Biblical History, Book Reviews, History, International Relations, Middle East, Military History and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

8 Responses to Book Review: Dividing The Spoils

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