Today's Reading

What killed the king was as uncertain as the future from which he was now excluded. Natural causes were assumed. However, after a while, circumstantial details of a plot to poison him emerged into the light of day. So the real question may have been who killed the king.

We have two explanations of Alexander's death, both decorated with data, opaque with cross-my-heart-and-hope-to-die verisimilitude. One gives a verdict of murder, and the other of a complicated natural death. Which are we to believe?

To tease out the truth, let us begin the story of this brief, incandescent life at the beginning. A little prince arrives at the
raucous, dangerous court of Macedonia.


July 20 in the year 356 B.C. was a great day for Philip, and it marked a high point in his life so far.

An intelligent and charismatic young man in his midtwenties, he had been king of Macedonia for the past two years. This was no sinecure, for he was surrounded by enemies. On the day in question, he was with his army on campaign; three messengers arrived one after another at his camp, each bearing wonderful news.

The first rider brought a report from his trusty and talented general Parmenion, who had scored a victory against Macedonia's hereditary foes, the fierce, wild Illyrians. Then came a dispatch from southern Greece, where the Olympic Games were being held. Philip had entered a horse in one of the equestrian events. Only the very wealthy could afford the training and upkeep of two- or four-horse chariots, but financing a competitor in a four-and-a-half-mile horse race was costly enough. Philip's investment had paid off, for his mount came in first. The publicity would give a shine to his embattled reputation.

But the last messenger arrived from Pella, his capital city. His wife Olympias had given birth to a healthy boy. The official seers or soothsayers said that the arrival of a son timed to coincide with these other successes augured well. When he grew up he would surely be invincible. For his father, there was the prospect of continuing the dynasty.

The infant's name was to be Alexander.

The baby crown prince faced the prospect of a daunting inheritance. He soon came to understand the realities of life and death as a member of the royal family. Being a clever and observant child, he remembered what he saw, and early lessons set the pattern of his adult attitudes.

Here are some of the things he must have learned.


The rocky and vertiginous geography of Macedon was hostile to good governance. The kingdom lay to the north of Mount Olympus, traditional home of Zeus and the other anthropomorphic divinities of the Hellenic pantheon. Its center was a fertile alluvial plain bordered by the wooded mountains of northern Macedonia. Its coastline was interrupted by the three-fingered peninsula of Chalcidice, which was peppered with Greek trading settlements.

Macedonia was inhabited by unruly tribes which devoted their time and energy to stock-raising and hunting. They regularly moved sheep to and from grazing grounds—the lowlands in winter and the highlands in summer. They paid as little attention as possible to central authority. There was a myriad of villages and very few settled urban communities.

The kingdom had one important raw material in almost limitless amounts—high-quality timber. Trade increased around the Aegean Sea, for travel or transport by sea was easier by far than to go by land. There was growing demand for merchant ships and war galleys and, it followed, for planking and oars. The tall trees of Macedonia were ideal for the purpose, unlike the stunted products of the Greek landscape. Pitch was also exported for caulking boats.

Life, even for despots, was basic. The "father of history," Herodotus, who flourished in the fifth century B.C., writes of the primitive Macedonian monarchy. His contemporaries would have recognized the simplicity of the royal lifestyle, which had changed little over the centuries. The king lived in a farmhouse with a smoke hole in the roof, and the queen did the cooking. Herodotus, who probably visited Macedonia, commented: "In the old days ruling houses were poor, just like ordinary people."

Up to Philip's day and beyond, the monarch adopted an informal way of life. At home he hunted and drank with his masculine Companions, or hetairoi. In the field he fought at the head of his army and was surrounded by a select bodyguard of seven noblemen, the somatophylaxes. His magnificent armor inevitably attracted enemy attacks.

He mingled easily with his subjects and eschewed titles, being addressed only by his given name or "King." He had to put up with impertinence from the rank and file, just as Agamemnon, commander- in-chief at Troy, was obliged to hear out Homer's Thersites, a bowlegged and lame troublemaker, whose head was filled "with a store of disorderly words."

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