Ghost on the Throne by James Romm: Summary & Notes

Front cover of Ghost On The Throne by James Romm.

In short

According to the legend, when Alexander the Great died he said his kingdom (stretching form Greece to India) would be given “to the strongest.” Not surprisingly this meant a bloody war between Alexander’s generals and heirs which lasted for many years. Ghost on the Throne narrates these struggles and shows how each general or heir tried to carve out a section of the empire.

An amazing piece of history, and it’s obvious that Ghost on the Throne is well-researched and clearly written. Recommended!

Book Summary & Notes


“According to the legend, Alexander predicted on his deathbed that a great funeral contest would be held over his tomb. But even he might not have believed that, within a day of his demise, the two main branches of the army would draw weapons on each other over his very corpse. The speed of the unraveling, the scale of the breakdown of trust and order, was breathtaking. The saving grace for the Macedonians was that events at Babylon were moving faster than the messengers reporting them to the world. Provinces that might have profited from the disorder, subject peoples that might have rebelled, did not yet even know that Alexander was dead.”

“There is a verb, phthanō, in ancient Greek that denotes the taking of preemptive action, especially where one harms an enemy to prevent that enemy from doing harm. […] The safety of the monarch justified the elimination even of anticipated threats. But the murder of the Persian princesses by Roxanne and Perdiccas took this logic to a new extreme. Heirs to the throne had been rubbed out before, but killing women to prevent them from bearing hears was unprecedented.”

“Once this logic of prophthasia was invoked, it was hard to limit how it was applied. The violence is seemed to license would, in years to come, claim the lives of all the women who shared Alexander’s blood or who had shared his bed.”

“The Hellespont had always been a vital strategic asset for Athens or for its enemies. In 480 B.C., King Xerxes of Persia, en route to attacking Athens, had bridged the straits with a chain of more than three hundred warships and brought his army into Europe on a road laid across their decks. Rumor had it that when a storm broke apart his bridge, Xerxes flogged the Hellespont and flung shackles into its water as though to make them his slave.”

“Alexander had brought his army across the Danube, the Oxus, and the Indus, three of the world’s largest rivers, and finally, in India, had pulled off a brilliant crossing of the Hydaspes despite a determined foe on the other side. For weeks Alexander had unbalanced this foe, the raja Porus, by moving in plain sight up and down the bank, making feints and sallies, all the while scouting for a crossing point that would be hidden from Porus’ view. When he finally made his move, he marched the army all night through torrential rains and deafening thunder, then led through the roaring Hydaspes in the dark, with men and horses only barely keeping their heads above water – but got onto dry land and into formation before Porus’ forces arrived. Speed and secrecy, as in so many of Alexander’s operations, had secured victory.”

“Ptolemy, however, knew a lot about the Jews, enough to use their own religious practices against them. He had learned that their calendar was divided into seven-day weeks, each on containing a Sabbath on which all labor, including the bearing of arms, war forbidden. Ptolemy therefore planned his entry into Jerusalem to coincide with a Sabbath day. The Jews stood by their ancient code and did not raise their hands against him. Ptolemy gained a bloodless victory and a rich new addition to his territory.”

“There is a legend that circulated in the ancient world, that while Alexander the Great was alive, a captured pirate was brought before him punishment. Alexander was outraged by the man’s depredations and asked what right he had to trouble the seas. “The same right you have to trouble the world,” the pirate replied. “Only since I do so with a small ship, I’m called a robber; you use a great fleet and are called a ruler.”

Death of Phocion:
“Quantities of poison had been prepared by bruising the leaves of the hemlock plant; the foul-smelling juice induced a creeping paralysis that started at the feet and finally froze the heart and lungs. Phocion was the last of the five condemned to drink the poison, and there as an agonizing delay when it was found that not enough had been prepared. In a last, grim act of public service, Phocion himself arranged the payment of twelve drachmas to the state poison master, who had not been given enough money to purchase more hemlock leaves.”

Defeat of Eumenes & Victory of Antigonus:
“Thus ended the strangest, longest-odds, least likely bid for power of all those mounted by Alexander’s generals. Through sheer talent Eumenes had risen through the ranks; despite his Greek origins, he had come desperately close to gaining supreme power. Few Macedonians liked him or trusted him, but those who did, including Perdiccas, Olympias, and Alexander the Great, had done so with all their hearts. In the end, even Antigonus One-eye seemed to revere him, granting him an honorable cremation and returning his ashes to his widow.”


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