Fictional Greeks play while empire falls; Funeral Games, by Mary Renault. New York: Pantheon Books. 335 pp. $14.50.
''I foresee great contests at my funeral games,'' Alexander the Great predicted from his deathbed. Twenty-three centuries later, Mary Renault's new novel presents this prophetic statement as understatement: The ''great contests'' Alexander's successors engaged in at his death - the ''Funeral Games'' of the novel's title - tore apart one of the greatest empires in world history.
The crumbling of post-Alexandrian Asia becomes proof of Alexander's importance as the kingdom's political and emotional keystone. His successors failed, she believes, because only Alexander could make his subordinates excel as individuals while they coordinated as a group. ''He was a man touched by a god,'' King Ptolemy reflects at the story's end, ''and we were only men who had been touched by him.''
Admittedly, these are not groundbreaking insights into the past, for ''Funeral Games'' sacrifices the excitement of controversial views of history for the safety of solid scholarship and traditional perspective. The power of epic drama is a part of Greek history, and Renault's storytelling uses its energy to best advantage.
After all, this latest foray into the ancient world takes Renault on a path she has traveled often. Hellenic history is her specialty, and Alexander remains a favorite subject.
As a re-creation of history, the novel must be considered a success. Renault captures the barbarity and the splendor of a complicated point in Western development and embellishes it with the flourishes of a novelist's imagination.
As a novelist, however, Renault sometimes bites off more history than she can chew - or at least, more than the reader can digest. The endless court intrigues , royal murders, and armed combat among the 44 principal figures often clutter the story with a dizzying complexity. Individual characters and scenes go underdeveloped as Renault rushes around keeping several stories running at once.
Even a lesser work by Mary Renault would remain well ahead of most of her competitors. The nagging problems with convoluted plot threads and unimaginative descriptive passages cannot obscure the basic appeal of this briskly paced book. The liberal sprinkling of murder and execution spices up the larger-than-life dynastic struggles. In fact, given the savage realities of ancient life and the vivid excesses of modern fiction, Renault's restraint in dealing with Hellenic sex and violence is unexpectedly refreshing.
The occasional splashes of gore are not at the heart of ''Funeral Games''; it is the natural drama of the political free-for-all that keeps Renault's work in motion - and, in its finest moments, brings it brilliantly to life.