«Tôi kratistôi». Diodorus of Sicily recounts in his Historical Library that this was the laconic response given by Alexander the Great on his deathbed to his friend Perdiccas when asked who he left as heir. The expression means “to the strongest”, but it was ambiguous – or very explicit, depending on how you look at it – because his generals did not rank hierarchically among themselves, all being equal and, in fact, the future diadochi ended up dividing the empire among themselves. Now, what if the phrase was misinterpreted? One hypothesis suggests that he did not say that but something phonetically similar but very different, which specifically singled out one above the others: «Tôi Kraterôi», meaning “to Craterus”, commander of the infantry.

The Alexandrian domains stretched from the Macedonian kingdom to northern India, passing through Greece, Anatolia, Cappadocia, the Syrian-Palestinian strip, Egypt, Mesopotamia, Persia, Armenia, Media, Khwarezm, Bactria, Sogdiana, Arachosia. That unstoppable campaign halted near the Ganges River, after defeating the army of King Porus; upon reaching the Hyphasis River (modern Beas) and facing the prospect of having to fight against a powerful force like the one the Kingdom of Magadha was likely to oppose them, the troops refused to continue and demanded to return to homes they hadn’t seen in years.

Plutarch says that Alexander attributed that to “the cowardice of the Macedonians before the Indians” and was booed, spending two days holed up in his tent. Finally, after consulting with Coenus, one of his trusted commanders, he decided to yield and start the return journey, leaving Peithon as the local satrap (who would remain there until 321 BC, the year the newly founded Maurya Empire expelled him). During the journey, Alexander was nearly killed by an arrow in the lung while fighting the Malians, but he survived, unlike Coenus and Hephaestion, his closest companions, both of whom died from illness.

What the Malians couldn’t achieve, the microbes did. It is not clear whether it was malaria or Nile fever, as the long agony of twelve days and the terrible pains also led to speculation that he suffered from acute pancreatitis, as well as spondylitis or meningitis. Classical authors even mention rumors of poisoning ordered by Antipater, regent of Greece, taking advantage of the fact that his son Yollas was the king’s cupbearer. The fact is that Alexander died between the evening of June 10 and the evening of June 11, 323 BC. The demise took place in the palace of Nebuchadnezzar II, in Babylon, fulfilling the prophecies of the Chaldean astrologers, who had warned him of the fate awaiting him if he entered the city.

He did not depart alone. Hundreds of thousands of lives are estimated to have been sacrificed in Alexander’s ambition, which Irene Vallejo equates to póthos (obsessive, unattainable, and fatal desire), among those fallen in battle, from disease, executed (like the two thousand defenders of Tyre crucified), and murdered (the entire population of the Malian city – including women, children, and the elderly – was exterminated by Macedonian soldiers when they believed that arrow had killed their leader), now adding Sisygambis (the mother of Persian King Darius III), who let herself die of starvation upon hearing the dire news because he had always been generous to her and her family.

To that vital hecatomb, we must add the cascade of crimes suffered by his mother (Olympias), half-brother (Philip III Arrhidaeus), wife (Roxana), sons (Alexander and Heracles), lover (Barsine), and other relatives of the Macedonian. Here we return to the main thread of the topic because those two mentioned offspring, one of them conceived with Roxana and the other with Barsine, had no capacity to be declared successors: the first, because he was a small child (he was born already orphaned) and the second illegitimate. Cassander, whose father was Antipater, the obscure general of Philip II, ended them and seized the Macedonian throne, founding the Antipatrid dynasty.

But before that, we need to go back in time and place ourselves in Malia, when Critodemus of Cos, Alexander’s surgeon, managed to heal his wounded patient and he sent most of his soldiers – more than ten thousand – to Carmania (a satrapy of the southern part of the Persian Empire) to build a fleet in which they would embark under the command of Nearchus to return to the Mediterranean, while Alexander himself led the march by land with the rest. The one designated to lead that troop to the Persian Gulf was Craterus.

Who was Craterus? He was a general, the son of the Macedonian nobleman Alexander of Orestis and brother of Amphoterus, the navarch (admiral) who led the fleet when it crossed the Hellespont in 333 BC. He was born around 370 BC, so he was about fifteen years older than Alexander the Great, with whose father, Philip II, he had begun his military life. He started the Asian campaign as a taxiarch, a rank that could be compared to that of a colonel because he commanded a taxis, that is, a battalion composed of ten lochoi or companies, each consisting of a hundred hoplites – although, in practice, the number depended on the levy – and led by a lochagos or captain.

In May of 334 BC, Craterus participated in the Battle of the Granicus, being part of Parmenion’s force occupying the left flank. He also fought in Issus the following year and in Gaugamela in 331 BC. His good performance led to Alexander entrusting him with a corps with permission to operate on his own, something that proved to be a success as demonstrated in the campaigns through Bactria, Sogdiana, and India, where the level of trust became so high that sometimes he conducted expeditions alone, sometimes he stayed guarding the camp offering full guarantee.

Craterus was in charge of securing the elevated areas northwest of Persepolis and consequently was second in command during the battle of the Persian Gate. Likewise, he took charge of the bulk of the army while Alexander pursued Darius III, and in 329 BC, he was wounded during the siege of Cyropolis, recovering and dealing with crushing the rebellion of the Median region of Paraitacene. By then, he had become one of Alexander’s trusted men, to the point that he often delegated to him when dealing with the soldiers.

That trust was reinforced in the trial opened in 330 BC against Philotas, the son of the general Parmenion, who was the commander of the Hetairoi (the Companions, the cavalry serving as Alexander’s personal guard) and with whom he had a bad relationship that led to personal confrontation. Craterus accused him of conspiracy, ordered his arrest, and tortured him to extract a confession. It is possible that it was all a purge to get rid of him because of his arrogant and confrontational character, which displeased Alexander; although he was in what is now Afghanistan when the events unfolded, he could have ordered it from a distance.

The fact is that Philotas was reproached for being aware of a plot that Dimnus, one of the members of the Hetairoi, had organized to assassinate Alexander and thus be able to return to Greece. The plot was uncovered because Dimnus had confided the names of those involved to Nicomachus, his eromenos (adolescent partner, generally of an erastes or adult) and his brother, Cebalinus, told it to Philotas and a royal page named Metro, who informed his superiors. Philotas was put in a bad position by his silence and was thus implicated. But even if he wasn’t, it wasn’t the first time he had been considered suspicious, and his own brother-in-law, Coenus, took sides against him.

Cassander and Olympias, by Jean-Joseph Taillasson. The widow of Philip is accompanied by Thessalonica, Roxana, Alexander IV, and Deidameia
Cassander and Olympias, by Jean-Joseph Taillasson. The widow of Philip is accompanied by Thessalonica, Roxana, Alexander IV, and Deidameia. Credit: Public domain / Wikimedia Commons

Once the prisoners, including Philotas, were executed, his father Parmenion could not continue to lead the army and was first dismissed and then assassinated by two assassins sent by Alexander. Craterus may have urged him to finish off his former superior because he ended up the most benefited: he then took over the command of the infantry, leaving the cavalry under Hephaestion’s orders… and both became rivals as well. That’s why, as Plutarch narrates, Alexander said that Craterus loves the king, but Hephaestion loves Alexander!

Both led the Indian campaign separately while Alexander was with the river fleet. Later, as we saw, he was ordered to take charge of the withdrawal of the eleven thousand five hundred veterans, pacifying the regions that should be crossed on the way, and then he met with the king in Harmozeia, facing the Strait of Hormuz.

From there they went to Susa, where in 324 BC, after his intervention in resolving another mutiny in Opis, he was rewarded with a wife for his services; not just any, of course, but a full-fledged Achaemenid princess: Amastris (or Amastrine), daughter of Oxathres, the brother of Darius III, and the first woman to mint coins with her name as ruler of Heraclea.

That marriage was part of Alexander’s policy of marrying his men to Persian women to strengthen the foundations of the new empire, and indeed, he himself married Stateira, the daughter of Darius. However, Craterus had no children with her, and later he would divorce to take a new wife, Phila, one of the daughters of Antipater (remember, regent of Macedonia), who besides having a reputation for virtuous and wise brought him closer to power, as he aspired to succeed his father-in-law in the position. For now, he was busy gathering a fleet in Cilicia to transport the veterans to Greece when he was summoned by Alexander to Babylon to help him deal with some issues that had arisen.

Among them was the flight of treasurer Harpalus to avoid the expected justice that Alexander would bring upon him for his frivolous and scandalous behavior. Harpalus took part of the fleet, six thousand mercenaries, and five thousand talents with him, landing in Athens where he encouraged an uprising that did not happen; he only convinced Demosthenes, a declared enemy of the Macedonian king. The Athenians imprisoned him, but he was elusive and managed to escape to Crete before being killed by one of his mercenaries.

That saved Craterus some trouble, who could not be present at Alexander’s death and therefore did not participate in the division of the empire, carried out, according to Diodorus of Sicily, even though the monarch had left instructions on how to proceed in case of his absence. Those provisions were considered extravagant by the others, and they refused to apply them. There are even those who think that Perdiccas (the chiliarch or chief minister, a general who was in charge of the Hetairoi after Hephaestion died a few months earlier and who received the king’s ring), with cunning Machiavellianism, exaggerated them precisely for that because his scale reached almost global dimensions.

A brief look at those last plans is astonishing, to say the least: to build a fleet of a thousand triremes to invade the western Mediterranean, to invest fifteen hundred talents (an exorbitant fortune) in the erection of temples in various cities, to erect a mausoleum for Philip II the size of the Egyptian pyramids, to conquer Arabia, circumnavigate Africa, and transfer large populations from Europe to Asia and vice versa to mix the empire and foster its unity.

Despite the rejection, Craterus obtained the position of prostates (guardian) of the princes Philip III Arrhidaeus and Alexander IV (as we have seen, half-brother and unborn son). It remains in the realm of speculation whether the dying man’s last words were “Tôi kratistôi” or “Tôi Kraterôi“, which formally differ only in capitalization and in different accentuation when pronounced, although it should be noted that, according to Plutarch and Arrian, he had lost his speech and probably just handed his ring to Perdiccas symbolically.

Perdiccas himself, proclaimed regent, proposed Craterus, Leonatus, and Antipater as guardians of the heir to be born to Roxane; as others preferred to crown Philip III Arrhidaeus, the appointed ones should protect both, who would reign jointly. Perdiccas and Antipater planned to handle them as puppets, since Philip had an intellectual disability and Alexander would be a child. Ultimately, it was Olympias, Alexander’s mother, who pulled the strings by having Philip murdered and protecting Roxane, who in turn ordered the other wives to be killed: Stateira (and with her, her sister Drypteis, widow of Hephaestion) and Parisatis.

When Olympias, in turn, lost her life at the hands of Cassander (remember, Antipater’s son), Roxane and her offspring were also condemned. Nor did Perdiccas escape from that bloody whirlwind, being killed by two of his officers during a campaign he had started against Ptolemy’s Egypt. Perdiccas was the first diadochus to die in that definitively triggered fratricidal struggle. By the so-called Treaty of Triparadisus, the Alexandrian generals had divided the empire among themselves, and now they were fighting each other to increase their respective domains.

Athens and its allies also wanted to take advantage of the situation to shake off the Macedonian yoke and rose up in arms against Antipater in what is known as the Lamian War because the regent had to take refuge in Lamia, where he was besieged. Leonatus got him out of there, and then Craterus arrived by sea at the head of his army, prevailing in the battle of Crannon, Thessaly (322 BC). Macedonia thus maintained control of Greece, and Craterus was rewarded with the hand of Phila, becoming linked to Antipater. He would still have to fight more.

And it is because Perdiccas had shown himself so authoritarian that his declared intention to marry Cleopatra, one of Alexander’s sisters, made everyone suspect that he planned to succeed the deceased. Then they turned against him at Antigonus’ initiative, in what is called the Wars of the Diadochi, the first of four.

Leaving his ally Eumenes to hold them back in Asia Minor, Perdiccas personally headed for Egypt because Ptolemy, governor of that province, had seized Alexander’s mortal remains to prevent him from fulfilling an ancient tradition: that Macedonian kings cemented their legitimacy by burying their predecessors.

Perdiccas’ campaign ended in failure and resulted in his death. In fact, Ptolemy was almost the only diadochus—along with Antipater—who died of old age rather than violently, perhaps because only he understood from the beginning that no one could equal Alexander or seize the entire empire, therefore limiting himself to defending what had fallen to him. The others, Antigonus, Eumenes, Leonatus, Seleucus, Lysimachus, Neoptolemus… all fell in battle, were executed, or assassinated. Craterus did not escape that fatal destiny either.

While Perdiccas was crashing in his attempt to take Pelusium, he came to the aid of Neoptolemus and faced Eumenes in the battle of the Hellespont (321 BC). Surprised by a dazzling attack by the superior enemy cavalry, before he could form his men, the prostates fell shortly after starting, possibly crushed by his mount. His prestige was such that Eumenes, after defeating and executing Neoptolemus, had Craterus’ body sent to Macedonia to deliver it to the widow.

This article was first published on our Spanish Edition on February 26, 2024. Puedes leer la versión en español en Crátero, el general que pudo perder la sucesión de Alejandro Magno por un error fonético


Plutarco, Vidas paralelas: Alejandro-César | Diodoro de Sicilia, Biblioteca histórica | Lucio Flavio Arriano, Anábasis de Alejandro Magno | Quinto Curcio Rufo, Historia de Alejandro Magno | Justino, Epítome de las “Historias Filípicas” de Pompeyo Trogo | Edward M. Anson, Alexander’s Heirs. The age of the sucessors | Irene Vallejo, El infinito en un junco | Pierre Grimal, El mundo mediterráneo en la Edad Antigua. El helenismo y el auge de Roma | Wikipedia

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