Antigonus, Lord of Asia

FROM SUSA, ANTIGONUS journeyed west to Babylonia, with all his bullion and booty carefully guarded in the caravan, the moving equivalent of the strongholds that made up the empire’s treasuries. The size and strength of the army, and its voraciousness, were plain tokens of Antigonus’s naked ambition. Woe betide anyone who stood in his way, or who might even have the potential to stand in his way. Seleucus was the next to find this out.

When Antigonus reached Babylon, Seleucus honored him as a king, but it was not enough to appease the great man. The relationship deteriorated until Antigonus demanded from Seleucus, as though he were king and Seleucus a mere satrap, an account of his administration of the satrapy, and an audit of his finances. With considerable courage, Seleucus resisted Antigonus’s bullying. He said he had been awarded Babylonia legitimately at Triparadeisus (subtly reminding Antigonus that the Triparadeisus conference was also where he had received his commission), in recognition of his services to Alexander, and that Antigonus did not have the right to interfere. In effect, he claimed a kind of seniority to Antigonus, who had scarcely been involved in Alexander’s campaigns, since he had been posted in Asia Minor throughout. At the same time, Seleucus sensibly made plans to escape, and before long he fled for safety to Egypt with his family and a small escort.

In Egypt, Ptolemy welcomed Seleucus as a friend, but was no doubt also aware of the propaganda value of sheltering someone who could be portrayed as a victim of tyranny. When Seleucus reached Egypt, he told Ptolemy that Antigonus now wanted “the entire kingdom of the Macedonians”—sole rule of Alexander’s empire.1 It was the truth, and it meant that no one could feel safe from Antigonus. Ptolemy wrote to Cassander and Lysimachus, enlisting their support in the attempt to restore Seleucus, and at the same time Antigonus wrote to all his opponents, reminding them that they had all been allies for the war against the Perdiccans, and insisting that they honor that agreement. He was asking, in effect, that they connive at the deposing of Seleucus, but this act had already come to symbolize the insatiable scope of his ambitions. As he must have expected, his pleas fell on deaf ears.

From Babylonia, Antigonus marched to winter quarters in Cilicia. All the parties spent the winter preparing for the renewal of war; it was a good time to be a mercenary. In the spring of 315 Antigonus set out for Syria; on the way he was met by a delegation of representatives of Lysimachus, Ptolemy, and Cassander. They presented Antigonus with an ultimatum, which was a strange mixture of undisguised ambition and justified indignation. The justifiable part was that they demanded the return of Babylonia to Seleucus. The rest was no more than a demand that he share the spoils of his victory over Eumenes with them, on the grounds that it had been a joint war, triggered by agreement at Triparadeisus. Specifically, they wanted some of the fortune in bullion that Antigonus had brought back from the east. Lysimachus also wanted Hellespontine Phrygia (a big gain for him, since it would give him territory on both sides of the Propontis); Antigonus had seized it in 318, but none of them had any right to dispose of it as if it were private property. Ptolemy wanted official recognition of his annexation of Palestine and Phoenicia; and, for reasons that are obscure, Cassander wanted Cappadocia and Lycia.

Antigonus would have been left with severely reduced territories west of the Euphrates, but with mastery of the eastern satrapies. Communication would have been difficult between the two halves of his empire, and his hold on Asia Minor tenuous. The subtext of the allies’ demands was the suggestion that he take himself off east. But Antigonus had gone too far to do anything other than reject the ultimatum and accept the inevitability of war with his former friends and allies. He saw himself as Alexander’s heir, which made the others rebel satraps. And so began the so-called Third War of the Successors (315–311), pitting Antigonus and his son Demetrius against Lysimachus, Ptolemy, Seleucus, and Cassander.


Antigonus was surrounded by enemies, but he had the resources to mobilize sufficient means of violence to keep them at bay. His first priority was to dissuade Cassander from leaving Greece. He went about this both defensively and aggressively. For defense, he sent his nephew Polemaeus to Asia Minor, where Cappadocia had declared for Cassander. Polemaeus extinguished such thoughts of independence, and then continued northwest to the Black Sea coast. Having intimidated Zipoetes, the ruler of Bithynia, into neutrality and ensured that the Greek cities in the region would not cause trouble, he established himself on the Hellespont to guard against a possible invasion from Europe.

Meanwhile, Antigonus’s fleet succeeded in securing some of the Aegean islands. The first outcome of this was the formation, over the next few years, of many of the Cycladic islands into a league, allied to Antigonus. The sacred—and increasingly mercantile—island of Delos became the center of the league, and was therefore lost to Athens, which had controlled it for much of the fourth century; it remained free for almost 150 years, until the Romans restored it to Athens. The formation of the league was good for the islands, since it gave them self-government and greater bargaining power, and good for Antigonus too, since it simplified his dealings with them. In due course of time, Antigonus would form other groups of cities within his empire into leagues as well.

In addition to these defensive moves, Antigonus also took direct action against Cassander. He sent Aristodemus of Miletus, one of the Greeks in the inner circle of his court, to the Peloponnese with plenty of money and instructions to establish a working relationship with Polyperchon and his son Alexander. Eight thousand mercenaries were raised and Polyperchon was named “General of the Peloponnese” for the Antigonid cause, with the job of opening up a second front in Greece, to keep Cassander occupied there. Alexander sailed south for a meeting with Antigonus to confirm the arrangements—specifically, no doubt, the division of the spoils.

Along with these measures against Cassander, Antigonus took steps to challenge Ptolemy’s naval supremacy. As a first step toward gaining a fleet, he persuaded the Rhodians to build ships for him, from raw materials that he would supply. We can only guess what arguments were used to turn the Rhodians, who were theoretically neutral, although for commercial reasons they were closest to Ptolemy. Rather than argument, the decisive factor was probably fear of what would happen to them if they refused. Rhodes was not only an island state, and their possessions on the mainland opposite the island were vulnerable. Antigonus also sent agents to Cyprus, where the currently dominant king was an ally of Ptolemy. If Antigonus’s intention was to gain control of the island, he failed, because Ptolemy responded in strength, and was able over the next few years to make the island effectively his. But if his intention was simply to tie up some of Ptolemy’s forces, the plan worked perfectly, and Antigonus was able to move south against Ptolemy’s possessions in Phoenicia.

Given that Ptolemy’s annexation of Palestine and Phoenicia in 320 had been achieved relatively easily and that Eumenes’ visit in 318 was brief, the region had last seen major trouble in 332, when the prolonged resistance of Tyre and the lesser resistance of Gaza had provoked Alexander the Great to atrocities that were repellent even by his standards: a mass crucifixion on the seashore at Tyre and having the garrison commander of Gaza dragged behind a chariot. The garrisons that had been installed by Ptolemy now withdrew in the face of Antigonus’s overwhelming army and its reputation, taking Ptolemy’s Phoenician fleet with them.

City after city capitulated without resistance, but, probably gambling on Antigonus’s current naval inferiority, the garrison of Tyre chose to resist. Tyre was the most important city in the region, a major mercantile center (especially for the Arabian spice trade) with a good port. It had taken Alexander seven months to take the stubborn island city, and then only after he had demolished the mainland town and used the rubble to build a causeway across the few hundred meters separating the island from the mainland. It was to take Antigonus fifteen months, but until his control of the sea was as secure as his hold on the land, there was little he could do against blockade runners. Even so, the siege was curiously unadventurous. Alexander, for instance, had made use of a specialist naval siege unit for his assault on Tyre, but Antigonus preferred to establish a simple blockade rather than take the city by storm.

Antigonus badly needed this stretch of coastline. As long as he lacked a fleet that could challenge Ptolemy’s, his territories would be vulnerable to seaborne raids, or even invasion, and the merchants who left his shores would be harassed or worse. All the facilities and the expertise he needed could be found in Phoenicia’s flourishing shipyards and ports, and the raw materials, especially the famed (and rapidly diminishing) cedars of Lebanon, were not far inland. Antigonus’s propaganda, designed to terrify his enemies, let it be known that he was preparing a fleet of five hundred warships and, unrealistically, that they would be ready that very summer. For this purpose, he established three shipyards in Phoenicia and another in Cilicia; we have already seen that the Rhodians were building a few more for him. The whole eastern Mediterranean seaboard was dedicated to this one task. While maintaining the siege of Tyre, Antigonus also cleared the Ptolemaic garrisons out of cities as far south as Gaza, thus gaining another wealthy mercantile port.


With the annexation of Phoenicia and Palestine and the alliance of Polyperchon and Alexander, in 315 Antigonus was at the height of his power. In addition to the eastern satrapies, he controlled all Syria, all Asia Minor, and southern Greece. He had capital reserves amounting to billions of dollars (mostly left over from the treasuries of the Achaemenid empire), and a very healthy annual income from taxes. A slim volume wrongly included in the corpus of works by Aristotle gives us some idea of the range of taxes Antigonus employed, since it lists six forms of tax exacted by his satraps: on agricultural produce, on livestock, on natural resources, on profits from trade, on profits from the local sale of agricultural produce, and finally a poll tax.2 As the Achaemenids had done before him, Antigonus left it up to his satraps or governors to raise the taxes from their subjects and pass the revenue on to him for use and redistribution.

A preserved inscription affords us a window onto Antigonus’s economic intentions. The cities of Teus and Lebedus in Asia Minor had asked permission to import grain from abroad. In his reply Antigonus explicitly says that he does not usually allow this, since he would rather they took grain from within his own realm, but that in this case he magnanimously gives his permission.3 He wanted to be an exporter, not an importer of grain. But he also recognized that foreign grain was cheap; he himself had forced the price down by his embargo on it.

Mountains within his realm held minerals and metals, and grew every kind of timber he might need; there was no shortage of fertile river valleys and plateaus; he commanded almost all the overland and sea–river trade routes from the east to the Mediterranean; and he could call on enough manpower to meet any emergency. All the Successors did their best to make their lands self-sufficient, not just because this was the instinctive goal of ancient economic policy but because they did not want to help their rivals by paying them for imports. Antigonus even developed Syria’s native papyrus production, so as not to be so dependent on Egypt even for that.4 In Antigonus’s case, self-sufficiency was not an altogether unrealistic goal, and many communities within his empire made considerable profits from trading surpluses or exporting commodities that were unavailable elsewhere.

Antigonus now had a healthy slice of the grain market, and controlled almost all the main sources of timber. Just as his inroads into the grain market put commercial pressure on Ptolemy, since Egypt was by far the largest grain exporter in the eastern Mediterranean, so Ptolemy was also his target of his attempt to monopolize timber. This was precisely what the annexation of the Phoenician ports was for: to enable Antigonus to build a fleet and to deny Ptolemy access to timber. Egypt itself had no timber to speak of, and Ptolemy was forced to rely on imports from his ally in distant Macedon and on the less productive but closer forests of Cyprus, with their pine and cedar. Before long, Antigonus would make Cyprus a primary target.

This is not the last time we will see Antigonus using economics as a form of warfare against Ptolemy, his rival in the eastern Mediterranean. And he had good reasons to be money-minded. His realm could be approached by enemies from three directions. A vast army was needed to defend it—and if the opportunity arose, to expand it. Such an army was very expensive; Antigonus was simply making sure that he had the means.


In the early days of the siege, Antigonus was reminded of his naval weakness when Seleucus deliberately sailed past at the head of a Ptolemaic fleet. No doubt some of the ships peeled off to deliver supplies to the semi-beleaguered town before rejoining the main fleet. Its mission was to establish the island of Cos as a secure Ptolemaic base, and from there to raid Antigonid possessions in Asia Minor. When Polemaeus moved into the region in response to these raids, Seleucus withdrew. But first he stopped at the famous sanctuary of Apollo at Didyma near Miletus, where the shrine had recently been magnificently refounded by Alexander the Great, since it had proclaimed him a son of Zeus. The oracle reputedly hailed Seleucus as “king”;5 it was only a little premature.

Polyperchon’s son Alexander reached Antigonus at Tyre, and not long after his arrival, Antigonus launched a propaganda offensive against Cassander. He summoned an assembly of all the Macedonians he had under arms, or who had become military colonists in the area, and issued the “Decree of the Macedonians,” more commonly known as the “Proclamation of Tyre.”6 The first task of the assembled Macedonians was to try Cassander in absentia for all his anti-Argead crimes: killing Olympias (though, ironically, she had been condemned herself in just such a show trial by Cassander’s Macedonians), detaining Rhoxane and Alexander IV (whose release “to the Macedonians” Antigonus demanded), forcing Thessalonice to marry him, rebuilding Thebes, and so on. This was a more public version of the bullying tactic Antigonus had tried out with Seleucus the previous year. But Cassander was never going to submit; his war with Antigonus lasted another fourteen years.

The deal with Polyperchon and Alexander became clear too. The appointment of Polyperchon as “General of the Peloponnese” was meant to replace, not supplement, his regency. Antigonus now declared that he had himself “taken over responsibility for the monarchy,” so that, in addition to being “Royal General of Asia,” he was now also the self-proclaimed legitimate regent. Antigonus recognized that Polyperchon’s claim to the regency was empty, and that by virtue of his control of the king, Cassander had usurped it. It was Cassander, then, who was named as the pretender. There could hardly be any doubt that Antigonus’s intention was to rule the entire Macedonian empire.

The final article of the proclamation declared that the Greek cities were to be free, autonomous, and ungarrisoned. Antigonus had already begun to foster such autonomy in the cities within or just outside his reach, but now he was making it official policy. It was good propaganda and good sense. He needed the goodwill of the cities, so that they would supply him with Greek manpower and expertise, and it was cheaper to manage the cities without garrisons.

In the short term, however, the chances of Greek freedom were remote, even within Antigonus’s own domain, since he must have garrisoned many of the cities of Asia Minor and the Cycladic islands in case of invasion. But of course, as well as being a manifesto, the declaration was aimed, as Polyperchon’s had been a few years earlier, at his enemies. He was still trying to secure the loyalty of the Greek cities of Cyprus, by encouraging those that were ruled by princelings loyal to Ptolemy to throw them out, and he needed to undermine Cassander’s hold on the cities of Greece. The proclamation economically served more than one purpose.

Cynicism is easy, but Antigonus does seem to have done his best to keep this promise of autonomy within his own realm—as well as using it as a sweetener for potential allies. It was not always possible, however. I have already referred, a little earlier, to a couple of letters from Antigonus, written around 303 BCE to the cities of Lebedus and Teus. Antigonus wanted to unite the two communities at or near the site of Teus, while Lebedus was to be altogether abandoned. It is clear from the tone of the letters that Antigonus was pushing this plan through against the will of the inhabitants, and that his intention was to ensure that his coffers would continue to be filled by taxes from the new joint city. In practice, the cities’ “freedom” was often an illusion.

But Antigonus’s declaration worried Ptolemy enough for him to respond immediately with a proclamation of his own, affirming his commitment to the freedom of the Greek cities. Coming from Ptolemy, this is doubly strange: in the first place, he was already master of Greek cities, in Cyprus and Cyrenaica, in which he had installed garrisons, and so the speciousness of the propaganda was self-evident; second, Cassander had cities on the Greek mainland under his sway, just as Antigonus did in Asia Minor and Greece, so Ptolemy risked damaging the interests of his ally as much as those of his enemy (supposing anyone took his manifesto seriously). It is hard, then, to know what to make of Ptolemy’s declaration. But if, as is likely, he had his Macedonian troops approve the proclamation, as Antigonus had done, then at least part of the point was not to let Antigonus get away with claiming to be the official spokesperson for Macedon. Whoever controlled Macedon and the king in theory controlled Egypt, as one of the satrapies of the king’s empire.

As they often do in times of war, the abstract generalizations of these manifestos disguised horrors. Antigonus was encouraging, and Ptolemy was in danger of encouraging, the democratic elements within the Greek cities controlled by Cassander to rise up against their administrations. Any who did so would embroil their cities at the very least in the banishment of prominent citizens, and very likely in assassination and even civil war. Old feuds were refreshed, and in a number of Greek cities atrocities were carried out in the name of one political system or the other. In the summer of 315, for instance, very shortly after the Declaration of Tyre, five hundred democratic rebels were rounded up and massacred at Argos by Cassander’s garrison commander.7


In response to Antigonus’s proclaimed usurpation of power in Macedon and to his rapport with Polyperchon and Alexander, Cassander needed to act quickly to stabilize his core territories in Greece. An attempt to win Polyperchon over to his cause failed, and in the summer of 315, while Antigonus was busy at Tyre, Cassander reinvaded the Peloponnese with the help of a Ptolemaic fleet of fifty ships. A swift and successful campaign netted him a number of new possessions, including Corinth’s southern port.

After attending the famous athletic games at Nemea, Cassander returned to Macedon, but he had not finished with the Peloponnese. Almost immediately, he sent his most trusted general Prepelaus back south, and Prepelaus succeeded in detaching Polyperchon’s son Alexander from the Antigonid cause. He was appointed “General of the Peloponnese” for Cassander. We are told that Alexander’s reason for changing sides was that this position was all he had ever wanted,8 but this is implausible, since he could expect to inherit the Antigonid title before long from his elderly father. He must have reckoned Cassander’s position stronger in the Peloponnese. The decisive factor was probably that Alexander’s chief stronghold was Corinth, and Cassander now controlled the more important of its two ports.

By the end of 315, all the northern Peloponnese was under Cassander’s control. Polyperchon was reduced to holding Messenia in the southwest with his mercenary forces, and Sparta in the southeast was currently too trivial for anyone to bother with. The Ptolemaic fleet had no more work to do in the area and it sailed for home, defeating on the way a small Antigonid fleet and army as it passed through Caria.

Cassander had defused the immediate threat to his realm, but had not done enough to enable him to carry the war into Antigonid territories in Asia Minor. The next year, 314, started disastrously for him when Aristodemus first persuaded the Aetolians to make an alliance with Antigonus, and then, on his way back to the Peloponnese, undid much of the good Cassander had done there the previous year. The Aetolian alliance was important not just in itself, but because the Aetolians were allies of at least some of the Boeotian states, who had lost land and power when Cassander refounded Thebes and had accordingly allied themselves with Macedon’s most implacable enemies. Central Greece effectively became a no-go area for Cassander, and he was cut off from the Peloponnese. He had no choice but to trust his General of the Peloponnese, the renegade Alexander, to take care of matters there, while he himself was restricted to campaigning against the Aetolians and the Illyrians.

Eliminating the threat of the Illyrians on the western borders of Macedon was a solid gain, but otherwise things were not going well for Cassander. Aristodemus had done a brilliant job for the Antigonid cause in the Peloponnese. In the autumn, Antigonus succeeded in detaching the islands of Lemnos and Imbros from Athens, which helped him to command the grain route from the Black Sea region to Greece; the islands were also good sources of grain themselves. And then the Peloponnese, already a powder keg, had its fuse lit by the assassination of Alexander under mysterious circumstances. His general-ship and alliance with Cassander had lasted less than a year. Cassander immediately lost the vital strongholds of Corinth and Sicyon, which were taken over by Alexander’s wife, the formidable Cratesipolis, in a bid for semi-independence. She did manage to hold her little realm together for a few years—but then the Acrocorinth, the craggy hill overlooking the plain of Corinth and commanding the isthmus, has proved its strategic importance time and again over the centuries.


Asander had been appointed to the governorship of Caria immediately after the death of Alexander the Great and confirmed in the post at Triparadeisus. For years, he had apparently been a loyal friend of Antig-onus, but something had happened to make that change. Wealthy and cultured, Caria had a history of spawning independent dynasts, and perhaps Asander had ambitions in that direction—ambitions that would justly make him afraid of retaliation by Antigonus. Perhaps his only crime was, like Seleucus, to fail to submit to Antigonus’s assumption of seniority. At any rate, late in the summer of 315 he declared for the anti-Antigonid alliance.

This was, of course, intolerable to Antigonus. Apart from his obvious desire to keep Asia Minor as a unified whole, Caria would make a perfect bridgehead for an invasion of Asia Minor from Egypt or Cyprus, where Ptolemy was concentrating his forces. Antigonus ordered Polemaeus into the region. Polemaeus arrived late in 315, in time to winter on the borders, but for much of the following year Asander managed to keep him at bay, with his own not inconsiderable army supplemented by a mercenary force donated by Ptolemy. Toward the end of 314, perhaps in response to a personal visit we happen to know that Asander made to Athens, when he provided the city with money to raise troops, Cassander sent Prepelaus to Caria with a force that might have broken the deadlock.9 But it was wiped out by the indispensable Polemaeus, who was emerging as one of the best generals of the time.

The stalemate in Caria continued, but Polemaeus had done his job. He had contained the situation in Asia Minor long enough for Antigonus to wrap up affairs in Phoenicia. The fleet was built, and with its help Antigonus finally brought the siege of Tyre to an end, so that the whole Phoenician seaboard was under his control. The precariousness of Cassander’s position in Greece also made the timing right. And so Antigonus decided to leave the Middle East in the hands of his relatively untried son Demetrius, now aged twenty-two, while he marched to Caria to deal with the traitor himself—and then to see what could be done about Cassander.

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