Ghost on the Throne by James Romm

“Taking what until now had been a murky gray area of ancient history that was once the province of specialists—the eventful, convoluted, and bitter struggles for power immediately following the death of Alexander the Great—Romm has crafted a richly colored, expertly narrated page-turner. A wonderful book for anyone interested in history, power—or just an amazing tale.” —Daniel Mendelsohn

Alexander the Great, perhaps the most commanding leader in history, united his empire and his army by the titanic force of his will. His death at the age of thirty-two spelled the end of that unity.

The story of Alexander’s conquest of the Persian empire is known to many readers, but the dramatic and consequential saga of the empire’s collapse remains virtually untold. It is a tale of loss that begins with the greatest loss of all, the death of the Macedonian king who had held the empire together.

With his demise, it was as if the sun had disappeared from the solar system, as if planets and moons began to spin crazily in new directions, crashing into one another with unimaginable force.

Alexander bequeathed his power, legend has it, “to the strongest,” leaving behind a mentally damaged half brother and a posthumously born son as his only heirs. In a strange compromise, both figures—Philip III and Alexander IV—were elevated to the kingship, quickly becoming prizes, pawns, fought over by a half-dozen Macedonian generals. Each successor could confer legitimacy on whichever general controlled him.

At the book’s center is the monarch’s most vigorous defender; Alexander’s former Greek secretary, now transformed into a general himself. He was a man both fascinating and entertaining, a man full of tricks and connivances, like the enthroned ghost of Alexander that gives the book its title, and becomes the determining factor in the precarious fortunes of the royal family.

James Romm, brilliant classicist and storyteller, tells the galvanizing saga of the men who followed Alexander and found themselves incapable of preserving his empire. The result was the undoing of a world, formerly united in a single empire, now ripped apart into a nightmare of warring nation-states struggling for domination, the template of our own times.

View a timeline of the events in the book, along with a cast of characters:

James Romm is James H. Ottaway Jr. Professor of Classics at Bard College. He has received fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation, the National Endowment for the Humanities, and the Dorothy and Lewis B. Cullman Center for Scholars and Writers. He has written two books on the ancient Greek world, The Edges of the Earth in Ancient Thought and Herodotus, and edited Arrian’s Campaigns of Alexander, part of the distinguished Landmark series of works by ancient Greek historians.

Meet James Romm on his book tour

From our Q&A with the author:

Why has the time period following Alexander the Great’s death remained virtually untold?

Largely because Alexander is such a towering presence, and draws all the attention. Also, eras like that of Alexander, dominated by a single individual, are more attractive to historical authors than those that are not, because the structure of biography, a familiar and comfortable one, can be brought into play. The era following Alexander has an ensemble cast, with no dominant figure. That makes it a harder narrative for authors—but hopefully not for my readers!

Of Alexander’s many generals who vied for power following his death, who did you find most compelling to write about? Did anyone surprise you during the course of your research for this book?

Eumenes of Cardia completely won my heart, and he is in many ways the hero of the book. I had never quite understood why a Greek, who was originally Alexander’s secretary, played such a big part in the post-Alexander years. Learning the tangled tale of Eumenes’ rise to power was one of the great joys I had while researching this book. Also, Eumenes was extremely clever, smarter than most of the Macedonians, and I find smart people naturally interesting.

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