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Funeral Games Summary

(Critical Guide to British Fiction)

Beginning with the year 323 B.C., Funeral Games chronicles the disintegration of Alexander the Great’s empire following his death in Babylon at age thirty-two. Although it is generally believed that he died of a fever, the novel suggests that he was poisoned at the hands of Iollas, the brother of Alexander’s enemy, Kassandros. As he lies dying in the palace at Babylon, he is too ill to name a successor. Before his death, he manages only the ambiguous gesture of giving his ring to Perdikkas, the ranking commander among those on the scene.

The Macedonian custom being for the army to decide the succession when none is designated, the soldiers assemble to deliberate the question. They face a difficult decision because Alexander has left no descendants, though he has left two pregnant wives, Roxane and Stateira, whose children will have a claim to the throne. Another claimant, Alexander’s half brother Philip Arridaios, is mentally retarded and afflicted with epilepsy. Nevertheless, the common soldiers support him, largely because of his resemblance to his father, Philip II; they name him king, despite the opposition of Perdikkas. After some struggle and confusion, it is agreed that Philip will bear the title “King of Macedon,” at least until Alexander’s children are born; actual power, however, remains with Perdikkas, designated as regent.

This arrangement is imperiled when Meleager, an opponent of Perdikkas, gains the King’s signature on a document charging Perdikkas with treason. Having been forewarned, Perdikkas takes his cavalry outside the city and lays siege. Following overtures designed to patch up matters, Meleager emerges from the city with his followers onto the plain, where a ritual sacrifice to the gods has been arranged to promote concord. After the ceremony, Perdikkas, his force in battle formation, seizes thirty of Meleager’s followers, binds them, and has them trampled underfoot by a charge of elephants as a lesson to other potential traitors. Meleager, abandoned and shunned by his terrified followers, is assassinated in the temple where he seeks refuge, leaving Perdikkas without a rival.

Yet among the claimants to the throne, the rivalry intensifies. Roxane, Alexander’s Bactrian wife, sends a letter bearing Alexander’s seal to his Persian wife Stateira, summoning her to Babylon. Believing the summons to be from Alexander, she sets out in the company of her sister Drypetis, widow of Alexander’s closest friend, Hephaistion. Shortly after their arrival, Roxane poisons them and compels Perdikkas to conceal the bodies. Thus, when Roxane’s child is born, it is the sole descendant of Alexander. Thereafter, Roxane seeks to assure that her son Alexander IV will prevail over King Philip, who enjoys the army’s support.

Philip’s hand is strengthened when Eurydike, who has been betrothed to him by Alexander, travels to Babylon and marries him, in the hope that they will produce an heir for the Macedonian empire. Eurydike, however, becomes more a nurse and guardian than a wife. Furthermore, her bold attempts to encourage Philip to demonstrate leadership are thwarted at critical times by awkward displays from Philip that remind all who observe him of his unfitness for rule.

The return of Alexander’s body to Macedon is delayed for more than a year while artisans craft a magnificent bier, adorned with gold. Before departing for Egypt, Ptolemy convinces Bagoas, the Persian favorite of Alexander, that the tomb should be in Alexandria, not in Macedon. He reasons that contentions for the honor of burial among Perdikkas, the Macedonian regent Antipatros, and Alexander’s mother Olympias may lead to civil war. When Perdikkas takes his army to...

(The entire section is 900 words.)