Behind Tomb Connected to Alexander the Great, Intrigue Worthy of “Game of Thrones”

12 Dec

“Behind Tomb Connected to Alexander the Great, Intrigue Worthy of “Game of Thrones”

by Heather Pringle via “National Geographic

Detail of Alexander the Great from a mosaic.

Suspense is rising as archaeologists sift for clues to the identity of the person buried with pomp and circumstance in the mysterious Amphipolis tomb in what is now northern Greece. The research team thinks the tomb was built for someone very close to Alexander the Great—his mother, Olympias; one of his wives, Roxane; one of his favorite generals; or possibly his childhood friend and lover, Hephaestion.

Over the past three months, archaeologist Katerina Peristeri and her team have made a series of tantalizing discoveries in the tomb, from columns sculpted masterfully in the shapes of young womento a mosaic floor depicting the abduction of the Greek goddess Persephone. The tomb’s costly artwork all dates to the tumultuous time around the death of Alexander the Great, and points to the presence of an important person.

Alexander himself was almost certainly buried in Egypt. But the final resting places—and the rich historical and genetic data they may contain—of many of his family members are unknown. The excavation at Amphipolis is bound to add a new chapter to the history of Alexander the Great and his family, a dynasty as steeped in intrigue, conspiracy, and bloodshed as the fictional Lannisters in the popular television series Game of Thrones. Among Alexander’s family, “the king or ruler who ended up dying in his bed was rare,” says Philip Freeman, a biographer of Alexander the Great and a classical historian at Luther College in Decorah, Iowa.

Palace Intrigues

To understand these palace intrigues, one must begin with Alexander’s father, Philip II, who ascended the throne of ancient Macedonia in 359 B.C. At the time, Macedonia was a modest mountain realm north of ancient Greece, but Philip had big dreams. He transformed Macedonia’s army from a band of ragtag fighters into a disciplined military machine, and he armed it with a deadly new weapon, thesarissa, a long lance designed to keep enemy troops from closing in on his phalanxes.

Map of Greece and surrounding countries, showing the town (Amfípoli) where the tomb is located

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A natural-born conqueror, Philip led his army to the west, crushing and intimidating the major Greek city-states until all had surrendered to his rule. “Philip II was a traditional warrior king,” says Ian Worthington, author of By the Spear: Philip II, Alexander the Great, and the Rise and Fall of the Macedonian Empire. “He was always in the thick of battle.”

By custom, Macedonia’s kings married multiple wives, often for the purposes of sealing political alliances with powerful neighbors. Alexander’s mother, Olympias, was a daughter of the king of Molossia, a realm that encompassed part of modern Albania, and she claimed descent from the legendary Greek hero, Achilles. She was one of Philip’s many wives, and according to ancient historians, she schemed relentlessly at court to put her son on the Macedonian throne. Some historians even suspect that she poisoned Alexander’s older half-brother, impairing his mental faculties.

For a time, her intrigues seemed to succeed. Philip groomed the young Alexander as his heir, providing the boy with a first-class education from a renowned tutor, Aristotle, and encouraging his prowess as a warrior.

But important Macedonian nobles at Philip’s court viewed Alexander as half foreign and possibly illegitimate. By the time Alexander reached his late teens, Philip seemed to share these doubts. He took a new Macedonian wife, and during a drinking party, Philip allowed Alexander’s legitimacy to be publicly questioned. Then Philip drew his own sword on Alexander, a mortal insult.

Photo of the two sphinxes found at the tomb.

Two guardian sphinxes sit on a marble lintel at the entrance to the tomb at Amphipolis.
PHOTOGRAPH BY THE GREEK CULTURE MINISTRY, EPA

Philip later tried to patch things up, but he had created a dangerous enemy. Exactly what happened next is the subject of debate, although the bare facts are well known. In 336 B.C., Philip threw a lavish public wedding for one of his daughters and invited members of neighboring royal houses to attend this state occasion.

As part of the festivities, Philip planned to stage public games at daybreak in the theater at Aigai, his capital city. He strode into the stadium, wearing a white cloak over his shoulders. On one side was Alexander; on the other was his new son-in-law. Philip waved away his bodyguards, and as he stood at the center of the theater, the large crowd began to roar with approval.

“That was the last thing he ever heard,” says Worthington. An assassin stepped out from the crowd and stabbed Philip to death as the guests watched in disbelief. In the ensuing bedlam, the murderer, a man named Pausanias, bolted from the theater toward a spot where horses were tethered and waiting for him. But just as Pausanias was about to escape, he tripped and fell, and three of Philip’s bodyguards speared him to death.

Conspiracy Theory

Did Pausanias act alone? Some ancient texts suggest that he did, assassinating Philip in a jealous rage. Many of the ancient Macedonian nobles were bisexual, and Philip was no exception. He had taken Pausanias as his lover, and when he tired of him, he discarded the young man and even allowed others to sexually abuse Pausanias. So Pausanias may have murdered Philip in an act of revenge. . . .”

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