The Death of Alexander
In the autumn of 325 b.c. Alexander began to march through the desert of Gedrosia on his way to Babylon.
The heat was terrible, and the soldiers were soon parched with thirst, while sinking sand added to the hardship of the march.
Alexander tramped by the side of his men across the dreary waste, sharing all their privations and cheering them by his presence. But before he left the desert of Gedrosia, the king had lost more than a fourth part of the army that had set out with him from India two short months before.
At length the exhausted soldiers reached Susa, and here the king allowed them to rest. He himself found much to do, for many of the satraps whom he had left in charge of different provinces had betrayed their trust. They had treated cruelly those who were in their power, and had formed plots to make themselves kings over their own provinces. It may be that they thought Alexander would never come back from his perilous journey in the East.
When he had punished those who had proved faithless, were they Macedonians or Persians, he turned to a matter on which his heart was set—the union of the peoples of the East and the West.
The king tried to accomplish this in different ways. He had already built cities in the East, and left in them Greeks and Macedonians along with the native Asiatics.
Now he himself wedded Statira, the daughter of Darius, Hephæstion married her sister, while several Macedonian generals, following the example of the king, took the daughters of Persian nobles to be their wives. Many of the soldiers, too, married women of the East.
Alexander hoped that little by little the two races would learn to know each other better and to have the same interests.
In the spring of 324 b.c. Alexander went to Ecbatana, where the Persian kings had been used to spend the summer months. Shortly afterwards he met his whole army at Opis, not far from Babylon, and discharged many of the Macedonian veterans who were no longer fit to fight because of old age or because of the wounds from which they had suffered. The king promised to provide for these old warriors for the rest of their lives. He expected them to welcome their dismissal and their reward.
But the Macedonians had been growing more and more jealous of the favours Alexander had been showing to the Persians, and now the feelings that they had been forced to hide found words.
They bade the king discharge not only the veterans but his loyal Macedonians. Some even dared to shout, "Go and conquer with Zeus, your father."
The king, in sudden anger, sprang from his seat, down among the angry throng, and ordered thirteen of the ringleaders to be put to death. He then bade the others go away if they wished. They had been only poor shepherds on the hills of Macedon, he reminded them, until his father Philip had made them rulers of Greece. He had shared with them the wealth of the East, and had kept nothing for himself, save his purple robe and his royal diadem.
Alexander then went to his palace, and in three days he sent for the Persian nobles, to whom he gave the posts of honour which until now had been held by the Macedonians.
Plutarch tells us that when the Macedonians, who had stayed in their quarters in spite of their dismissal, heard what Alexander had done, "they went without their arms, with only their undergarments on, crying and weeping, to offer themselves at his tent, and desired him to deal with them as their baseness and ingratitude deserved . . . yet he would not admit them to his presence, nor would they stir from thence, but continued two days and nights before his tent, bewailing themselves, and imploring him as their lord to have compassion on them. But on the third day he came out to them, and seeing them very humble and penitent, he wept himself a great while, after a gentle reproof spoke kindly to them and dismissed those who were too old for service with magnificent rewards, and with recommendation to Antipater that when they came home, at all public shows and in the theatres, they should sit in the best and foremost seats, crowned with chaplets of flowers."
During the summer which he spent at Ecbatana, a great sorrow befell the king. Hephæstion, his dearest friend, took ill, and in seven days he was dead. For three days the king would touch no food. No one could comfort him, for well the king knew that no one would ever fill the place that Hephæstion had held in his heart. The body of his friend the king ordered to be taken to Babylon, where it was burnt on a pyre adorned with great magnificence. Chapels were built in his honour in Alexandria and other cities.
In June 323 b.c. , a month after the funeral rites, Alexander, who was preparing for a great expedition by sea, went to the river Euphrates to inspect some new harbours which he had ordered to be built.
The place was unhealthy, because of the many marshes that lay round about the river, and the king was attacked by fever. He refused to take any care and daily he grew worse, until at length he was forced by weakness to stay in bed.
A rumour that he was dead reached the Macedonians, and they hastened to the palace, begging to be allowed to see their king once more.
Alexander was not dead, but he was too weak to speak, as one by one the soldiers were permitted to walk quietly past his bed. With an effort he looked at them as they passed, and feebly raised his hand in farewell.
"After I am gone will you ever find a king worthy of such heroes as these?" he murmured as they slowly filed out of the room.
Then he drew his signet ring from his finger and gave it to an officer, saying that he left his kingdom "to the best man." So the great king passed away at the age of thirty-three.