Roxane (c. 345–310 BCE)

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Roxane (c. 345–310 bce)

Bactrian warrior-princess. Name variations: Roxana; Roxané. Born around 345; murdered in 310 bce (some sources cite 311); daughter of Oxyartes, a Bactrian noble; married Alexander III the Great (356–323 bce), king of Macedonia (r. 336–323 bce), in 327 bce; children: Alexander IV, king of Macedonia.

Probably in October 331, after his great victory over the Persian king Darius III at the battle of Gaugamela, Alexander III the Great, king of Macedonia, proclaimed himself "King of Asia" (not a Persian title). Yet, the war against Darius was not over, for the twice-beaten Persian king fled farther east to try to mobilize an effective defense against the Macedonian. In July 330, however, a group of generals led by Bessus, the satrap (governor) of Bactria and Sogdiana (parts of modern Pakistan, Afghanistan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan), lost faith in Darius, murdered him, and proclaimed Bessus king of Persia in Darius' stead. Alexander's official position vis-a-vis Darius shifted after the latter's execution: once an adversary, in death Darius became Alexander's honored predecessor, and his murder and the elevation of Bessus became acts of usurpation. Alexander announced his intention—since he had "rightly" won Darius' throne through honorable combat, not murder—to avenge Darius' murder and punish Bessus' treachery in the traditional Persian manner.

Bessus retired to his satrapies and prepared for Alexander's coming. In late 330, after consolidating his power in modern-day Iran, Alexander followed him, but by a somewhat more circuitous route. During the winter of 330–29 bce, he crossed the Hindu Kush from the southwest by way of the region of Kabul, and attacked the valley of the Oxus River (Bactria proper) from the south during the spring and summer of 329. At first, Alexander's audacity and strategic insight carried the day. Bessus was captured, physically mutilated—the customary Persian punishment for regicides—and put to death. Next, Alexander moved north into the flood plain of the Jaxartes River (Sogdiana), on which he founded a city as a start to a general regional reorganization. It then became obvious to the locals that Alexander was going to attempt to regulate this frontier, which abutted the vastness of central Asia, more closely than the Persians had. Such a plan implied a degree of centralization which the Persians had never imposed, and it also threatened to wreak havoc with the local economy which depended to a significant extent upon the trade route which traversed Asia all the way to China. This realization sparked a widely popular and hard-fought guerilla war (from autumn 329 through spring 327), confronting Alexander with the most difficult fighting he had faced in Asia.

The geographical and human obstacles Alexander encountered in Bactria and Sogdiana were so daunting that he came to realize that he would never secure the region by physical force alone. He therefore turned to tact and diplomacy in an attempt to win over the trust of influential local leaders. One of the most important of these was Oxyartes, who had supported Bessus and who was a participant in the uprising against Alexander. The sources are not in agreement about the timing of the capture of Oxyartes' family, but it is most likely that Alexander apprehended Oxyartes' wife and daughters in 328, and that he flaunted their good treatment so as to entice Oxyartes to surrender, which the latter did in the spring of 327. Soon thereafter, Alexander completely won over Oxyartes by marrying Oxyartes' daughter Roxane. Some of our sources report that Alexander fell in love with Roxane at first sight, and indeed, she apparently was beautiful. At the heart of this marriage, however, was high politics, for Oxyartes (and, through him, his formerly hostile nation) was being offered an intimate alliance with the most powerful man of his time. Moreover, this was Alexander's first marriage and thus his request for Roxane constituted a very special compliment to all associated with her—a fact neither missed nor appreciated by the many within the Macedonian aristocracy who would have killed to have been so honored. It should be noted that when Alexander married Roxane, he had already been king for almost a decade, he had no viable heir, and he had put himself in harm's way many times. Responsible monarchs took care of their succession. Whether Alexander's prolonged bachelorhood was a matter of irresponsibility, a matter of sexual preference, a matter of politics (that is, he had not previously selected a bride so as not to anger all of those whose daughters had not been selected), or some combination of all three, his marriage to Roxane is a testament to the military resistance offered by her people. This latter point becomes especially poignant when it is realized that Alexander's "orientalization" (his occasional adoption of Asian dress and etiquette, and increasingly his readiness to employ Asian manpower to fill military and political posts) was already a growing problem for his Macedonians.

Alexander rewarded Oxyartes first by making him an advisor and then by naming him as the satrap of Paropamisus, the strategic region in the Hindu Kush (around Kabul) which dominated the passes between Bactria and ancient India. Oxyartes would continue to serve in that capacity until the wars which arose after Alexander's death. Roxane accompanied her husband to India where, probably in 326, she delivered a child which died soon after its birth. Little else is known about Roxane during Alexander's lifetime except that her status was threatened when Alexander married (324) two additional wives (Statira III and Parysatis II ), who were both products of the Achaemenid royal house. When Alexander died near Babylon in June 323, Roxane was again pregnant. It was probably more to protect the interests of her unborn child than simple jealousy which induced Roxane to connive with the Macedonian general, Perdiccas, to secretly murder both Statira and Parysatis soon after Alexander was dead.

When Roxane gave birth to a son, Alexander IV, in September 323, he immediately came to share in the kingship with his mentally incapacitated uncle Philip III, under Perdiccas' regency. Joint kingship was unprecedented in Macedon, as (probably) was the installation of a non-Argead regent. The political ambiguities of the situation, coupled with the rivalries and ambitions current among Alexander's top generals, virtually assured the outbreak of civil war among the most powerful Macedonians. As such, Perdiccas jealously maintained possession of Roxane and the kings in the hope that he could consolidate his control over military rivals, in part by issuing edicts in the kings' names. This ploy failed to convince most of his peers, however, who considered Perdiccas' regency to be more the product of good luck than of merit: although there were older and more respected Macedonians alive when Alexander died, none of these were at Babylon when Alexander passed, a fact which gave Perdiccas a jump on his rivals. Civil war erupted when Perdiccas' authority was challenged, initially by Antigonus and Ptolemy. Both of these generals appealed to Antipater (the most senior and respected Macedonian then living), whom Alexander had left in charge in Europe when he invaded Asia, and Antipater joined the anti-Perdiccan coalition. In the struggle which followed, after an unsuccessful invasion of Egypt (where Ptolemy was encamped), Perdiccas was murdered by some of his own officers (321). Thereafter, Roxane and the kings (with Eurydice [c. 337–317 bce] in tow, since she was then the wife of Philip III) fell under the authority of Antipater, who brought them all to Macedonia, where they remained in security until the old general died in 319.

Just before he died, Antipater appointed Polyperchon, one of his adjutants, as the next regent. Why Antipater did not name his own son, Cassander, to the post has caused some debate, but undoubtedly the old Argead loyalist read the situation correctly: that is, if an Argead were ever to again rule in his own name—and that meant Roxane's son, who would not be old enough to rule for well over a decade—then a regency acceptable to all powerful Macedonians would have to be established. Perdiccas' biggest problem had been that he had neither the age nor the experience to convince his peers that it should be he and no other who should control the kings. Just as Perdiccas did not possess the reputation to be accepted by his peers, neither did Cassander, who had not even served under Alexander during the conquest of Persia, a fact which mattered greatly to those who had been with Alexander. (Antipater did not face the same criticism since he had long served the Argead house, since Alexander had trusted the homeland to him while the king was away, and since Antipater had fought during Alexander's lifetime, albeit in Europe, not Asia.) Antipater did miscalculate, however: although Polyperchon made a first-rate second in command, he lacked the talent to dominate at the next level.

Cassander, who felt betrayed by his father, rebelled against Polyperchon's regency. Others, who were jealous of Polyperchon's new status, followed suit. As Cassander made his move, he was approached by Eurydice (as the would-be power behind Philip III) to become her champion, so that she could end the joint kingship in favor of her husband. This development brought Olympias , the mother of Alexander the Great and grandmother of Alexander IV, into the fray, and the kingdom became factionalized behind the two kings. Roxane was unable to establish herself in Olympias' place because she was not intimate with individual Macedonian powerbrokers and their ways, and because the Macedonians generally still resented her foreignness. Olympias (aided by her cousin Aecides, the king of Epirus) made common cause with Polyperchon to save the life of her grandson, and took decisive action. In 317, both Philip III and Eurydice fell into Olympias' hands, and both were summarily executed.

During this time, the young Alexander was betrothed to Deidameia , the daughter of Aecides, a match which, had the marriage occurred, would have been another in a series which linked the political destinies of Macedon and Epirus. It was Olympias, not Roxane, who arranged this betrothal. The union never materialized, however, because Cassander took Pydna, a Macedonian seaport, had Olympias put to death, and seized Roxane and Alexander IV (316). Whether or not Cassander at that time began to map out the course which would elevate him to kingship (beginning in 306, he and several others all claimed that status), he did inaugurate a series of acts (including his marriage to the Argead princess Thessalonike , whom he captured along with Roxane and her son) which paved the way for his eventual assumption of the throne.

Of course, the existence of Alexander IV was a problem for Cassander and any other Macedonian with royal ambitions, because the memories of the young king's father and grandfather Philip II were revered among the general Macedonian population. Not wanting to provoke outrage through the mishandling of Alexander IV or Roxane, Cassander put both under whatever "protective" custody the fortified citadel in Amphipolis (under the command of a trusted supporter named Glaukias) could provide. Although Cassander claimed to act in Alexander's interests, he did deprive the young king of his pages and other royal perquisites. There Roxane and Alexander remained, probably knowing most of the comforts of life, until after a treaty was signed by Cassander, Ptolemy and Antigonus, one of the provisions of which was that each of them would retain their current authority until Alexander reached maturity. This treaty was a death sentence, because when Alexander reached puberty (310–09), many Macedonians began to question openly why Cassander had not yet begun the process of educating the prince in a manner befitting a future king. Both Roxane and Alexander were then murdered, although their deaths were kept secret for a time. Eventually the fact of their deaths was announced, but Cassander refused to admit that there had been anything sinister about their ends. Alexander seems to have been interred in one of the rich tombs recently excavated in the burial grounds of the Argead house, located at ancient Aegae. Where Roxane was laid to rest is unknown, but it certainly was far from her home. Perhaps Cassander's execution of Roxane was a kind of blessing, for once she left the security of her mountainous homeland, Roxane became little more than a pawn, tolerated only because she had given birth to the great Alexander's only legitimate heir.

William Greenwalt , Associate Professor of Classical History, Santa Clara University, Santa Clara, California