In the British Museum sits a little clay tablet, six centimeters long and five centimeters wide. Ancient Babylonians were the first to use such tablets as a way of recording political and celestial events, and the tradition continued through the Hellenistic age. Whoever drew the watch on the night that produced the one in Bloomsbury—June 11, 323 B.C.—must have expected the heavens to display something fierce. Earlier that day, Alexander the Great died. But the heavens did not care. The scribe could see nothing. His entry for that night reads simply “Clouds.”

The observation could not have been more prescient. Alexander had not appointed a successor, and the fate of the empire that stretched some three-thousand miles from the Indus River valley to the shores of the Adriatic was, well, cloudy. Alexander had said only that his rule should pass “to the...


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