Of the novel’s thirty-eight characters, thirty-five are based upon historical personages. Mary Renault freely expands upon her sources, adding motivation, speeches, and conflicts in order to develop both the characters and the narrative. Two factors, however, limit the depth of characterization within the novel. First, the large number requires that few characters are memorably detailed or well-rounded. The novel does little to demonstrate development of character over theme. Second, for most characters, the motivations and conflicts are the relatively simple ones of power, assertiveness, and self-advancement. Idealism, vision, and deeply emotional experiences are absent. With but few exceptions, notably Eurydike, the women characters are either fully mature or aged. Even Eurydike—bold, attractive, possessed with aplomb and a quick intellect—seeks to establish a Macedonian dynasty primarily to settle grudges against Alexander for the death of her father. She marries the simpleton Philip Arridaios only with this purpose in mind.
Few characters rise above the crime, violence, cruelty, and ruthlessness that mark the plot. Those who do are endowed with memorable human qualities or cling to some ideal. Ptolemy views with disapproval the excessive violence of Perdikkas but is powerless to prevent it. He returns to Egypt, where he rules with magnanimity, gaining the loyalty of the Egyptian people. His piety toward Alexander persists, and in the end, his wisdom enables him to place the events of many years into perspective.
Insofar as piety and loyalty are concerned, the Persian boy Bagoas represents another memorable example in the novel. He reads the thoughts of the dying Alexander and afterward remains devoted to his memory. In matters of policy, he thinks not of himself but of Alexander.
Perhaps the most poignant characterization is that of Philip Arridaios, the essentially harmless and childlike half brother of Alexander. Renault details his activities, such as arranging his collection of rocks on the floor, with subtlety and tact. Manipulated first by Meleager, then by Eurydike, he faces public meetings that confuse and bewilder him. Left to his own preferences, he would rather remain under the care of his devoted servant, Konon. Unwittingly, he becomes a helpless and pathetic pawn in struggles beyond his understanding and dies at the instigation of Olympias. When Renault shifts the point of view to him, as she often does, his limited understanding, perplexity, confusion, and childlike trust are affective and memorable.