Ancient scandals and power struggles: Succession’s unexpected playfulness with ancient history

The hit TV show inevitably creates literary and historical resonances, but its classical references are always on the money.
Logan Roy in Succession
Brian Cox playing Logan Roy in the HBO series Succession, 2021, Credit: LANDMARK MEDIA / Alamy Stock Photo
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‘We’re looking at 323 BC, basically. Alexander is dead. I take Asia, you take Egypt, Shiv takes Europe, Con – the rest of the world. Separate divisions.’ So proposes Kendall Roy, second-eldest son of ageing media tycoon Logan Roy, in the third and latest season of the darkly comic TV series Succession, as he offers the prospect of dividing up the multinational company founded by his father between himself and his three siblings, Roman, Siobhan and Connor.

One can only imagine the surprise of classical historians as they contemplate the over-ambitious media heir recalling the date of Alexander the Great’s death, evidently on the assumption that his siblings will readily grasp the parallel with the subsequent division of his empire between Alexander’s generals, the so-called Successors. (The immediate response of younger brother Roman is a sarcastic ‘Oh. Yeah. Naturally.’). While Succession inevitably creates literary and historical resonances – one can detect, for instance, elements of Sophocles’ Oedipus Tyrannus, Shakespeare’s King Lear, and the history of Julius Caesar (whose death on the Ides of March in 44 BC might have provided an even more memorable date) – the allusion here to the fact that Alexander’s empire was only sustained after his death by its division into separate territories might be felt in this context to be as apt as it is unexpected.

The death of Alexander in 323 BC is, after all, not a wholly inappropriate parallel for Kendall to present to his siblings in an attempt to unite them against their father, as they jostle (both individually and in concert) to claim the prize of succession to the company’s leadership, a competition that forms the theme of the series. In an earlier episode, Kendall described his father’s corporation as ‘a declining empire inside a declining empire,’ the latter being the US. One cause of the corporation’s perceived decline is the explosive public revelation made by Kendall himself at the end of series 2 of the deliberate cover-up of years of criminal malfeasance by senior employees. However, this shocking disclosure turns out not to be the killer blow he hoped it would be. Not only is Logan Roy alive, he is more than ever determined to cling on to his power, and is implacably insusceptible to his childrens’ manoeuvring to remove, replace, or succeed him. His intransigence does not prevent Kendall pursuing plans for corporate parricide – he has ‘outsourced’ any filial feelings, he says, for his therapist to deal with – but there will be tricky consider­ations for the inheritor of any huge imperial legacy. Kendall cannot bring down the empire on his own nor, despite his hollow insistence to the contrary, lead it forward successfully without the support of his siblings and others.

The founder of the empire himself, however, will always appear to be a solitary and self-sufficient genius. Such was Alexander, king of Macedon in northern Greece. Born in 356 BC, he was 20 when his father Philip died, bequeathing to him the kingship. Over the following ten years Alexander undertook a series of unprecedentedly successful military conquests, leading his armies throughout Greece, Egypt, and Asia and creating an empire that eventually extended from his homeland to northern India. In a single decade he conquered and overtook the mighty Persian Empire, leaving commanders and troops settled in territories extending from the Adriatic Sea to the Indus valley. Some of these colonists inhabited newly-founded cities named Alexandria in his honour, of which more than 20 were established, the greatest by far being the Mediterranean port city in Egypt. But eventually Alexander reached the limit of his conquests, or at least the threshold of his loyal soldiers’ endurance. Abandoning his furthermost successes in India, he led his weary but undefeated army back to Babylon, planning on making it the centre of operations for a proposed invasion of the Arabian peninsula the following year. It was not to be. While in Babylon he fell victim to fever – malaria, typhoid and poison have all been proposed as its cause – and died.

His death left a power vacuum. No successor had been designated, and during Alexander’s lifetime a number of possible contenders had been despatch­ed to prevent any potential challenge to his leadership. There followed a tussle between Alexander’s military commanders, ending with a group under the overall direction of the senior cavalry general, Perdiccas, dividing up sections of the vast empire between themselves. The territory of Asia – land including the nations of Syria, Phoenicia, Phrygia, and Armenia – was parcelled out to half a dozen junior commanders; Egypt was allotted to Ptolemy; and Greece and Macedonia fell to the aged general Antipater, already in his late 70s.  An inevitable internecine struggle followed, ensuring that these arrangements were short-lived. A series of bloody wars between the successive claimants and their descendants raged for the next 50 years. When, eventually, a degree of stability emerged, the imperial domain forged by Alexander was mainly divided between three dominant rulers with dynastic claims and ambitions: Ptolemy in Egypt, Antiochus in Asia, and Antigonus in Greece. The division of power suggested by Kendall Roy to his siblings seems to mirror this eventual partition of Alexander’s world, neatly eliding half a century of conflict and shifting ascendancies.

The stability of the Greeks’ imperial dispensation was not to last. In the second century BC, the expanding might of the Romans, already masters of the Italian peninsula and soon to be the scourge of Carthage in north Africa, brought the power of the Greek dynasties to an end. That of Ptolemy in Egypt lasted, at least nominally, until the suicide of his last descendant Cleopatra in 31 BC.

The transition in the ancient world from Greek to Roman dominion affords the opportunity for more mischievous allusion to classical history in Succession. In particular, incidences of perverse sexuality that recur in relation to Roman Roy, acted with cocky brilliance by Kieran Culkin, might have encouraged script­writers to engage with stories about cruel or degenerate Roman emperors. (The nickname ‘Romulus’ that Logan affectionately gives Roman reminds one of the conflict between brothers Romulus and Remus, legendary founders of Rome, which led to a dispute that ended with Remus’ death).

The most degenerate of the Caesars was Nero who, like Alexander, died aged 30, though his accomplishments were hardly of similar magnitude. In his Lives of the Caesars, the Roman historian Suetonius recounts a number of incidents that marked Nero’s decline into destructive madness. One such anecdote is recalled in detail by Shiv’s husband Tom, whose half-bullying, half-solicitous relationship with his protégé, the naïve younger cousin Greg, is regularly on display. ‘What do you know about Nero and Sporus?’ Tom asks Greg: ‘Sporus was a young slave boy, he was Nero’s favourite. You know what Nero did to him?’ Grinning uncomfortably, Greg admits his ignorance in typically off-target corporate-speak: ‘This is not IP I’m familiar with.’ ‘Well,’ explains Tom, ‘Nero pushed his wife down the stairs. Then he had Sporus castrated, and he married him instead, and he gave him a ring, and made him dress up like his dead wife.’ ‘Wow!’ exclaims Greg, ‘Plot twist – I didn’t see that coming.’ It can be of little reassurance to Greg that Tom goes on to assure him, in a tone of stifled mock-passion, that he would castrate and marry him ‘in a heartbeat.’

The global reach of entertainment media means that the once relatively obscure story of Sporus may now well be the best known of the grisly anecdotes from Suetonius’s Life of Nero. The historian’s account is sparer than that recounted by Tom: ‘Nero had the testicles cut off a boy named Sporus,’ he writes, ‘and attempted to transform him into a woman, marrying him with dowry and bridal veil and all due ceremony, then, accompanied by a great crowd, taking him to his house, where he treated him as his wife. Someone made a rather clever joke which is still told that it would have been a good thing for humanity if Nero’s father had taken such a wife.’ (Suetonius Life of Nero 28, translated by Tom Holland). Suetonius goes on to report that Sporus was by Nero’s side when the emperor killed himself in despair.

Unlike Kendall’s knowledgeable allusion to Alexander and his successors, Tom’s unusually detailed familiarity with the story of Nero and Sporus needs to be accounted for. The answer is swiftly forthcoming. Living in fear after offering himself up to Logan as the fall guy for the company’s previous wrongdoings, Tom has made preparations for the jail sentence he expects to serve. ‘I bought a book on the Romans to read in prison,’ he explains to Greg. ‘Big book.’ ‘Is it a good book?’ inquires Greg innocently. ‘Decent book, yeah,’ mutters Tom. Perhaps he is referring to Suetonius’s Lives of the Caesars (although that is not a particularly big book). More likely, the dialogue’s creators had in mind a larger volume on the ancient times of Greece and Rome – a sweep of history that, with all its glory, tragedy, and scandal, can still provide, as Succession shows, a never-failing source of allusion, illumination, and entertainment. 

Armand D'Angour

Armand D'Angour is a Professor of Classics at the University of Oxford and fellow of Jesus College, Oxford. He is the author of numerous articles and chapters on the literature and culture of ancient Greece and (as a former professional cellist) has conducted innovative research into reconstructing early Greek music. His books include 'The Greeks and the New' (Cambridge: CUP, 2011) and 'Socrates in Love: The Making of a Philosopher' (Bloomsbury, 2019). His latest book 'How to Innovate: An Ancient Guide to Creative Thinking' was published by Princeton University Press in September 2021.

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