Ptolemy I stole the body of Alexander the Great while in transit to its burial place.
Alexander the Great died on 11 June 323 BC. For the next two years his embalmed body lay in state somewhere in Babylon, as his former adjutants dealt with troubles that stretched from Bactria to the walls of Athens and Cyrene. But Alexander’s corpse was only intended to remain in Babylon temporarily, as some of the finest craftsmen from across the Empire gathered to construct an elaborate funeral carriage.
By 321 BC, this carriage’s construction was complete and we’re very fortunate to have a long and detailed description of it surviving in Diodorus Siculus.The description evokes a Hellenic temple on wheels (Diodorus 18.26.6; Erskine 2002, p. 169):
On each corner of the vault on each side was a golden figure of Victory holding a trophy. The colonnade that supported the vault was of gold with Ionic capitals. Within the colonnade was a golden net, made of cords the thickness of a finger, which carried four long painted tablets, their ends adjoining, each equal in length to a side of the colonnade
The carriage combined “Greek” and Asian elements, perhaps Egyptian elements too (if you consider the lion statues to resemble pharaonic guardian statues). Depictions of ships, soldiers and beasts of war emphasised Alexander’s supreme military might; gold emphasised his empire’s wealth, The temple-like design reflected the conqueror’s (believed) divinity. The mix of Hellenic and Asian elements evoked an empire that crossed any Greco-Asian divide.
Control of the body
Nevertheless, for all its gold and its monumental design, it was what was housed within this carriage that was the true treasure: Alexander’s body. For contemporaries, and particularly those seeking legitimacy and authority in this new, highly-unstable post Alexander age, possessing the physical remains of the dead conqueror was extremely valuable. The Macedonian soldiery revered Alexander and his new divine status and that was emphasised by former subordinates. The remarkable successor Eumenes, for instance, would later meet with his commanders in an “Alexander Tent”, where offerings would be made to the dead conqueror and a throne left empty for him.
Alexander’s corpse, the body of a figure many now believed sat among the gods, quickly became a talismanic symbol of authority. According to one account, the seer Aristander stated that (Aelian, Various Histories 12.64):
the gods had told him, that the land which should receive the body in which his soul first dwelt, should be absolutely happy and unvanquishable for ever.
Whoever possessed the body held great sway.
Traditionally Macedonian kings were buried at the Royal Tombs of Macedon at Aigai, but Alexander had apparently expressed a wish to be buried at the Siwa Oasis, where he had been declared the son of Zeus Ammon (Quintus Curtius Rufus, History of Alexander 10.5.4). In the immediate aftermath of Alexander’s death, it’s more than likely that his former adjutants had agreed to comply with Alexander’s request, but, if we fast forward two years, much had changed.
Enter our two protagonists. Perdiccas and Ptolemy. Both had been senior adjutants of Alexander the Great. By the Spring of 321 BC, Perdiccas had risen to become regent of the two new kings – Philip Arrhidaeus III and Alexander IV, Alexander the Great’s half-brother and infant son respectively – and the most powerful figure in the empire.
Ptolemy, meanwhile, was the governor (satrap) of Egypt. Officially, this meant that Ptolemy was subordinate to Perdiccas’ authority, but between 323 and 321 BC Ptolemy had made clear his intention not to acknowledge Perdiccas’ superior position. He had behaved more like an independent monarch than a loyal underling, overseeing military expansion to wealthy Cyrenaica to the west, murdering his pro-Perdiccan deputy Cleomenes and increasing his own military forces.
Given the power of Alexander the Great’s body for any seeking authority and legitimacy in this new era, Perdiccas had no desire to see this corpse fall into the hands of Ptolemy – an outcome that had every chance of happening if he allowed the body to pass through Ptolemy’s territory on its way to Siwa. Perdiccas had his own imperial ambitions, and he was determined to use the body for his own purposes.
He therefore sent word to Babylon, ordering that the carriage be escorted to Pisidia in Central Asia Minor, where Perdiccas and the royal army were currently encamped. From there, Perdiccas would escort the cortege across the Hellespont and have Alexander’s body buried in the royal tombs at Aigai. Overseeing the burial of Alexander, alongside several members of the dead king’s immediate family, was a vital part of Perdiccas’ own imperial ambitions.
But Ptolemy was well aware of Perdiccas’ grand designs and was desperate to ensure they did not come to fruition. Months before the carriage left Babylon, Ptolemy therefore colluded with the commander of its escort, a Macedonian commander called Arrhidaeus who, according to our sources, had been given responsibility for the body since Alexander died (e.g. Justin, Epitome 13.4). Archon, the governor of Babylon, also seems to have been privy to the plot; both proved amenable to Ptolemy’s proposal that the body not be taken to Perdiccas in Asia Minor.
Sometime around September 321 BC, the funeral carriage and its precious cargo left Babylon. Up towards Syria it headed, where Arrhidaeus crossed his Rubicon and turned the procession south towards Damascus, Gaza and Egypt beyond. The “heist” was afoot.
Given the size of the monumental funeral hearse, progress must have proven very slow (a very bizarre heist indeed), and the escort would not have marched very far before Perdiccas received word of its new direction. Quickly Perdiccas sent out a lightly-armed retrieval force in response, with orders to catch up to the carriage and redirect it to Pisidia.
Somewhere south of Damascus, Perdiccas’ squad caught up with the carriage and its escort. But they were too late. Ptolemy, once again, had predicted Perdiccas’ reaction. In the meantime he had marched up to Damascus to greet Arrhidaeus and the funeral carriage with an army. According to Diodorus, Ptolemy’s martial greeting was simply to give the revered Alexander a welcome worthy of a conqueror (Diodorus 18.28.3):
Ptolemy, moreover, doing honour to Alexander, went to meet it with an army as far as Syria, and, receiving the body, deemed it worthy of the greatest consideration
In reality he was reinforcing the escort with experienced soldiers, intended to drive off Perdiccas’ retrieval force. It worked. Unable to overwhelm the reinforced escort, Perdiccas’ army was forced to return to the regent empty-handed.
This story was exaggerated and added to over time. The most farcical being the one by Aelian, who gives a remarkably elaborate account where Ptolemy used a decoy body to trick Perdiccas (Aelian, Various Histories 12.64, trans. Erskine 2002):
Ptolemy put a stop to Perdiccas’ attack. For he made a dummy of Alexander and fitted it out with royal clothes and an especially fine shroud. Then he laid it on one of the Persian carriages and constructed a magnificent bier on it with silver, gold, and ivory. Alexander’s real body was sent ahead in a simple and ordinary manner, following secret and rarely- used tracks. Perdiccas, after he had seized the replica of the corpse with its specially- prepared carriage, came to a halt, thinking that he had gained possession of the prize. When he realized that he had been deceived, it was too late to resume the chase.
Perdiccas’ worst nightmare had come true. The body of Alexander the Great, this symbol of legitimacy and authority in this new unstable post-Alexander world, was now in Ptolemy’s hands. He would ultimately launch a war against Ptolemy with the aim of retrieving the body, a key theatre during what we today call the First Successor War.
The burial of Alexander the Great
As for Alexander’s body, Ptolemy had it escorted to Memphis, where it was given the necessary rites (Pausanias 1.6.3):
and the Macedonians who had been entrusted with the task of carrying the corpse of Alexander to Aegae, [Ptolemy] persuaded to hand it over to him. And he proceeded to bury it with Macedonian rites in Memphis
According to Pausanias, the body was the taken to Alexandria in the early third century BC (Pausanias 1.7.1):
He [Ptolemy II] it was who brought down from Memphis the corpse of Alexander
Here the body remained until its disappearance at the end of the fourth century AD.
Ptolemy stole Alexander’s body because of its talismanic importance. A shining symbol of authority, captured by a figure determined to attain – and retain – significant power in the tumultuous aftermath of Alexander’s death. Seized by a successor who was determined that such an important object of legitimacy enhanced his own position and not his arch rival. Ptolemy’s stealing of Alexander’s body was a massive gamble. But, as Perdiccas’ subsequent disastrous invasion of Egypt and death proved, it was a gamble that paid off.
- E. Anson, Eumenes of Cardia (2015), pp. 101-111.
- A. Erskine, “Life after Death: Alexandria and the Body of Alexander”, Greece and Rome 49.2 (2002), pp. 163-179.
- S.G. Miller, “Alexander’s Funeral Cart”, Ancient Macedonia 4 (1986), pp. 401-412.
- N.J. Saunders, Alexander’s Tomb: The Two Thousand Year Obsession to Find the Lost Conqueror (2006), pp. 33-48.