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The Ferocious Wars of Alexander the Great’s Successors After His Death

A map of the Diadochi, who fought over and carved up Alexander's empire into several kingdoms after his death, a legacy which reigned on and continued the influence of ancient Greek culture abroad for over 300 more years. This map depicts the kingdoms of the Diadochi c. 301 BC, after the Battle of Ipsus.
The Successors fought over and carved up Alexander the Great’s empire into several kingdoms after his death, a legacy which reigned on and continued the influence of ancient Greek culture abroad for over three hundred more years. This map depicts the kingdoms of the Successors c. 301 BC after the Battle of Ipsus. Credit: Historical Atlas by William R. Shepherd 1911. Courtesy of the University of Texas Libraries, The University of Texas at Austin, Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 3.0

The Wars of the Diadochi, or the Wars of Alexander’s Successors, were a series of conflicts that erupted among the generals of Alexander the Great. These were known as the Diadochi, which means “heirs” in Greek. These wars took place over who would inherit the vast empire Alexander left behind upon his death in 323 BC.

The historically significant conflicts, which spanned over four decades from 322 to 281 BC, were profound struggles for power, legacy, and the right to be seen as the legitimate heir to one of history’s largest empires. This means these civil war-like conflicts were not merely battles for territory of financial gains. The Diadochi, once united under the Macedonian sun of Alexander’s banner, turned against each other in a bid to control the vast empire. The empire stretched from the Adriatic and Ionian Sea in Europe to the borders of India.

Thus, this period marked the beginning of the Hellenistic era. It was a time when Greek culture spread across and influenced a vast portion of an ancient world once dominated by the mighty Persian Empire. The outcome of these wars led to the division of Alexander’s empire into several, smaller Hellenistic kingdoms. Each one of them was ruled by one of his former generals. This fundamentally changed the political landscape of the ancient Near East and the Mediterranean with profound consequences for centuries to come.

An AI depiction of Alexander the Great and his horse, Bucephalus.
An AI depiction of Alexander the Great and his horse, Bucephalus. Credit: MidJourney for the Greek Reporter.

The Successors’ bid for Alexander’s empire

The sudden death of Alexander the Great in Babylon left his empire without a clear successor. His generals, the Diadochi, were not prepared for such an eventuality. Initially, they attempted to govern the empire through a collective regency. However, this fragile arrangement quickly disintegrated due to personal ambitions and deep-seated rivalries amongst themselves.

The Partition of Babylon in 323 BC was meant to divide the empire among the most powerful generals. Unfortunately, however, this only managed to formalize the divisions and set the stage for the conflicts that were about to follow.

The immediate aftermath of Alexander’s death turned the empire’s vast territories into a luxurious and sought-after product that was about to go on sale. For the generals of Alexander, everything was now up for grabs. Each one of them seeks to carve out their own realm and enjoy the privileges of power.

Alexander’s son, Alexander IV, was still an infant, and his brother, Philip III Arrhidaeus, was considered unfit to rule. Hence, the lack of a universally recognized heir complicated the succession even further. This power vacuum led to a series of short-lived alliances and betrayals. The Diadochi were now ready for position and territory in what would turn into a series of wars in which Greeks would fight Greeks for power and status.

The World History Encyclopedia notes that, although the initial division of the empire was meant to be a temporary solution, it very quickly unraveled. This led to the first of many wars, as the generals broke their fragile alliances in pursuit of greater power.

Alexander the Great and Craterus in a lion hunt, mosaic from Pella, Greece, late 4th century BC
Alexander the Great and Craterus in a lion hunt, mosaic from Pella, Greece, late 4th century BC. Credit: Archaeological Museum of Pella, Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain

Alexander’s Successors wars explained

The Wars of the Diadochi did not happen overnight. They were fought in several phases, each marked by shifting alliances, royal drama, and a series of smaller battles that reshaped the territories under each general’s control.

The First War of the Diadochi set the precedent for the conflicts that would follow. In these wars, key figures such as Ptolemy, Antigonus, Cassander, and Seleucus emerged as the principal players in this deadly game of thrones. The Battle of Ipsus in 301 BC was one of the most decisive confrontations. It resulted in the death of Antigonus and a significant realignment of power among the Diadochi.

The complexity of these wars cannot be overstated. Each phase saw the Diadochi use a mix of military and strategic might, careful diplomacy, and treachery to gain the upper hand. Heritage History highlights the second war of the Diadochi. This began in 318 BC, when Antigonus, the Strategos—Greek for Commander—of Asia, moved to assert his dominance over the territories in Asia Minor and the eastern provinces.

The conflict was the beginning of decades of warfare. During this period, the Diadochi and their successors fought over what was left of the once massive empire of Alexander. These wars were also characterised by their brutality and the often shifting fortunes of the combatants. With each victory or defeat, these battles would reshape the political landscape of the entire Hellenistic world.

The cultural and economic links of the Hellenistic kingdoms

As one can imagine, the Wars of the Diadochi had profound implications for the cohesion of Alexander the Great’s empire. The relentless conflicts among his former generals led to the gradual disintegration of the unity of the empire. As a result, separate, smaller and weaker Hellenistic kingdoms emerged.

However, although they were politically divided, these entities continued to be linked culturally and economically. This happened as Greek education, language, and traditions continued to spread throughout the regions. The Hellenistic period was characterized by a remarkable synthesis of Greek as well as local cultures, leading to advancements in art, science, and philosophy. Despite the constant wars, these kingdoms were a melting pot of a new, emerging Hellenistic identity that combined different customs and traditions.

Greek education, or paideia, became the focal point of Hellenistic society. It managed to preserve the sense of “Greekness” even after it was influenced by non-Greek cultures. This educational focal point, which included the promotion of philosophy, politics, arts, and physical training in local schools, was not only a means of cultural progress. It became a tool for social cohesion among the Greek-speaking elite, offering a much-needed sense of unity.

The Greek language became the lingua franca of the Hellenistic world. It facilitated trade and communication across vast distances, offering a common way of expression to millions of people. The spread of Hellenism also had a significant impact on trade. The interconnectedness of the Hellenistic kingdoms facilitated an increase in the exchange of goods, ideas, and technologies. This era also saw the establishment of new trade routes that extended from the Mediterranean all the way to India and Central Asia. These routes would endure for centuries, connecting the Roman Empire with the East.

Paintings of ancient Macedonian soldiers, arms, and armaments, from the tomb of Agios Athanasios, Thessaloniki in Greece, 4th century BC
Paintings of ancient Macedonian soldiers, arms, and armaments, from the tomb of Agios Athanasios, Thessaloniki in Greece, 4th century BC. Credit: Ancient painters of Rome Italy, Pinterest, Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain

Speculations on Alexander the Great’s untimely death

One cannot help but speculate on what might have happened if Alexander had not died young. It’s possible that the empire would have maintained its unity for a longer period. Alexander’s vision of a truly multicultural society, in which conquered peoples were integrated and Hellenistic ideas were adopted alongside local customs, might have led to a more stable and cohesive empire.

The early death of Alexander left his empire without the strong leadership it needed. The empire could no longer continue on with his policies of cultural integration and expansion. This led to detrimental consequences for its cohesion. As a result, the empire fractured. However, the spread of Hellenistic culture continued on, shaping the ancient world in ways that would be visible even to this day.

In conclusion, the Wars of the Diadochi did break Alexander’s empire into pieces. However, this fragmentation also facilitated the spread of Greek culture as well as Greek education across the then-known world.

The Hellenistic kingdoms that emerged from these wars became the epicenters for a new, cosmopolitan culture. This culture blended Greek and local elements, leaving a legacy that would influence subsequent generations to this day.

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