Roxana: The Light and Dark Sides of An Eastern Beauty
Roxana was the daughter of the Bactrian noble Oxyartes, born around 340 B.C.E. She became the first formal wife of Alexander III “the Great” in the spring of 327.
The circumstances surrounding Roxana’s marriage with the Macedonian invader are unclear. It may be that, before the marriage, Roxana, along with her mother and sister were captured by Alexander’s forces before her father Oxyartes surrendered to the Macedonians. In this sense, Alexander’s possession of Roxana and the other family members of Oxyartes precipitated the latter’s surrender to Alexander. Roxana’s captivity was, however, cordial, with her receiving proper treatment and respect.
Love in Times of War
Alexander’s motivation behind his decision of marrying Roxana has been a subject of debate among both ancient and modern scholars. According to most classical sources, Alexander fell in love with Roxana pretty much at first sight, because of her great beauty and majestic conduct. Yet, other sources do not disregard political and geostrategic factors. At the time, Alexander found it difficult to occupy and maintain control of Sogdiana (the current valley of Zeravshan River in Uzbekistan) where Roxana’s father had much political influence. Through the marriage with Rozana, Alexander pacified the region while still establishing his authority there. Indeed, after the Indian campaign (327-325), Alexander appointed Oxyartes as the satrap of Paropamisadae in the Hindu Kush (in between current Afghanistan and Pakistan). In this sense, “the marriage to Roxana represents, in terms of marriage policy, yet another example of Alexander the improviser. He needed something to conciliate remaining resisters and (paradoxically) symbolize his victory; marrying Roxana served to do both” (E. D. Carney).
Love and power politics are, however, not mutually exclusive; thus, we can reconcile all accounts by accepting that Alexander had a genuine attraction to Roxana which he then materialized into a convenient political marriage. According to Curtius, this marriage was done according to the Macedonian custom. Others have claimed somewhat convincingly that the marriage followed the Persian customs instead. Either way, (or a mixture of both cultural customs), the marriage concluded almost a decade of Alexander as a royal bachelor.
Public vs Private Affairs
During the rest of Alexander’s reign, Roxana remained in the shadows, playing no noteworthy public role. She likely followed Alexander in his campaign to India, thus breaking, with her husband’s approval, the Macedonians’ custom of not bringing wives with them on military campaigns. Wives following husbands on military campaigns were, however, a Persian custom; Roxana’s venture with Alexander was thus part of the increased Persian cultural influence within the Macedonians.
Then, there is the question of the intimate relationship: much has been discussed on Alexander’s sexual orientation and preferences. However, there is no reason to surmise that Roxana and Alexander had no sexual relation before the late 324. In fact, Roxana may have borne Alexander a child while in India who did not survive past infancy, as recorded only in the Metz Epitome (LXX).
In 324, in Susa (current Shush, Iran), Alexander married two new wives, both daughters of previous Persian kings; notably Stateira II, eldest daughter of Darius III, and Parysatis II, youngest daughter of Artaxerxes III “Ochus”. These marriages no doubt affected Roxana’s status in a negative way. As Curtius (VIII. IV. XXV) implied, the new wives, as members of the royal Achaemenid line, had a higher regal status compared to Roxana’s more modest descent. The Bactrian would have noticed the problem these new wives posed to her position in the royal court.
Problem of Succession
Unlike Alexander’s other wives, Roxana was with him when he lost his life to malaria in Babylon in June 323. At the time, she was either six months or eight months pregnant with Alexander’s child. Meanwhile, there were several, opposing factions to the problem of succession. The decision-makers were all Macedonians so Roxana, even though she was expecting a potential son-heir, had no say on the matter.
It was clear that most Macedonian aristocrats and high-profile generals wished no real successor to Alexander; the empire was too vast for them to leave under the control of one man. Meanwhile, among the ordinary Macedonians, used with an Argead in charge, there was uniform support for Philip III Arrhidaeus as successor, Alexander’s half-brother. Another proposal put forward was that of Nearchus who suggested Heracles, Alexander’s alleged son by Barsine, his mother-in-law, as the rightful heir. Nearchus’ proposal was met with no support and dismissed outright, likely also because Heracles was not a true son of Alexander.
The derecognition of Heracles was good news for Roxana who could now claim to bear the only true heir to Alexander. Yet, she needed a high-profile Macedonian to champion her interests and found one in the figure of Perdiccas. The latter was recognized as the effective ruler of the empire during this transition as he was the one whom Alexander had handed his signet ring. Indeed Perdiccas was the only one who suggested that all should wait for Roxana to give birth to her child; if proved to be a boy then all were to accept both the newborn and Philip III Arrhidaeus as the new kings. Perdiccas’ proposal was accepted as a compromise that pleased all factions.
“Cloak and Dagger”
As far as Perdiccas was concerned, in the scenario he proposed he would remain the effective ruler of the whole empire while still keeping that empire united; both Arrhidaeus and an infant son were incompetent to rule without a regent, the first because of a mental handicap and the second due to age. Perdiccas “support” for Roxana also steamed from the fact that she, unlike Barsine, was near him in Babylon, thus under his control, while Barsine was far away.
Roxana’s child was indeed a son, Alexander IV. The birth of this son created a dual kingship in which neither of the two kings with none of them competent. As such, Perdiccas retained practical authority as he had envisioned. Now that Perdiccas had delivered to Roxana it was her time to return the favor. With Perdiccas’ abetting, Roxana went into eliminating all contenders based in Asia. According to Plutarch, Roxana forged a letter sent to Stateira II, Alexander’s other wife, in Alexander’s name as if he was still alive. When the letter lured Stateira where Roxana had planned, the Bactrian “killed her and her sister and threw their bodies into a well” (LXXVII. VI).
Stateira as a victim of Roxana makes sense but the murder of her sister Drypetis, the widow of Hephaestion, does not. Instead, the second victim of Roxana seems to have been Parysatis II. Only by killing both Stateira and Parysatis could Roxana get rid of any Achaemenid woman who could claim to be pregnant with Alexander or contest her in other ways. Hence, it follows that Plutarch or his source made an error, meaning Stateira and Parysatis as the two victims of Roxana’s fever for power.
From Babylon to Macedon
Roxana and her son accompanied Perdiccas and the mobile court to Cappadocia and Asia Minor in 322-321. Then, in 320, they had to venture in to Egypt against Ptolemy where Perdiccas was killed by his own soldiers. At the next settlement, Antipater was appointed as Perdiccas’ successor in the regency thus bringing Roxana under his control. Out of suspicion for Antigonus, Antipater decided to bring the Bactrian and her child into Macedon, along with Philip Arrhidaeus and his new wife, Adea/Eurydice. Upon arrival in Macedon in early 319, Roxana fell under the control of yet another regent, Polyperchon, the successor of Antipater, whose appointment triggered the civil war within the Macedonian homeland; the faction opposing Polyperchon led by Antipater’s son Cassander.
With the accession of Polyperchon, Roxana could hope for much more influence in the Macedonian court; she could use the help of Polyperchon’s ally and her mother-in-law, Olympias of Epirus, to seal Alexander’ IV kingship position. Indeed, Polyperchon invited Olympias to come from Epirus into Macedon and gain custody of young Alexander in a move to counter Cassander’s influence. While the invitation promised tangible results for Roxana it also illustrated the Macedonians’ disregard for her. For the Macedonians, Roxana was no more than a foreigner who lacked both the power and prestige of Olympias as well as Olympias’ contender, Adea Eurydice.
From Execution to Execution
In late 317, Olympias, acting on Polyperchon’s offer, moved quickly into Macedon in charge of an army of Epirotes. For Olympias, her involvement was the only way to ensure that Alexander IV would live to reach maturity, assume kingship, and continue Alexander’s legacy. Olympias swiftly defeated Adea/Eurydice and Philip Arrhidaeus and then had them executed; a move that resembled Roxana’s previous eliminations of her Asian contenders. With Philip Arrhidaeus disposed of, the six-year-old Alexander IV became technically and formally the sole ruler of the Macedonian empire.
Cassander moved against Olympias and besieged her and her retinue in Pydna. There, Olympias, apart from Roxane, was also accompanied by her stepdaughter Thessalonica and her young niece, Deidameia (daughter of Aeacides, sister of the famous Pyrrhus). While resisting the siege in the hope of reinforcements from abroad, a betrothal or even a royal marriage was arranged between the two young royals, Alexander IV and Deidameia. However, this arrangement was short-lived as by 316, after enduring strenuous famine, Olympias had to surrender to Cassander and face execution. Yet again Roxana and her child fell under the custody of yet another regent, this time the most ruthless, Cassander. After the latter took control of Macedon, he sent Roxana and Alexander IV into Amphipolis under the tight security of Glaucias, Cassander’s trusted commander there.
From Diodorus, we can infer that Alexander IV, and by extension Roxana, were treated in Amphipolis as prisoners, deprived of royal privileges and any other signs of royal status. The peace of the Successors and Alexander IV approaching adulthood in 311, prompted Cassander to eliminate Roxana and her son as well. In 310, Roxana and the last heir of Alexander were executed on Cassander’s order at Amphipolis.
Arrian. Anabasis of Alexander, IV; VI; VII.
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Carney, E. D. (2000). Women and Monarchy in Macedonia. University of Oklahoma Press: Norman.
Diodorus. Bibliotheca Historica.
Lyngsnes Ø. W. (2018). The Women Who Would Be Kings. Trondheim.
Plutarch. Life of Alexander.
Wasson, D. L. (2012). Roxanne.