The Restoration of Seleucus

ANTIGONUS’S PLAN, on returning to Asia Minor, was not just to retake Caria. If he defeated Lysimachus, whose main job was to hold the straits against invasion from Asia, he could get to Macedon; if he defeated Cassander, Ptolemy would be isolated and he could finish him off at his leisure. He therefore left Demetrius a relatively small force—a mere twenty thousand, including two thousand Macedonian infantry, five thousand horse, and forty-three elephants—with which to hold Ptolemy at bay. He took the bulk of the army north, while his fleet sailed around Asia Minor to join him. After a tough crossing of the Taurus, Antigonus arrived only in time to winter in Celaenae, but his ships encountered a fleet of Cassander’s, originally sent to support Prepelaus in Caria, and captured every single vessel. Cassander’s Carian expedition had been a complete disaster.

Antigonus massively outnumbered Asander on both land and sea, and early in 313 the terrified rebel came to terms. He would be allowed to remain as governor of Caria, but strictly as Antigonus’s subordinate, with no troops under his personal command and no garrisons in the cities. He gave his brother to Antigonus as a hostage, but a few days later, realizing that he could not live as Antigonus’s pawn, he changed his mind, freed his brother, and wrote urgently to Ptolemy and Seleucus for help. Not surprisingly, Antigonus was furious. He broke up his winter quarters and attacked Caria by land and sea. It was an outstanding campaign, a true blitzkrieg with coordinated land and sea operations. In a matter of weeks all Caria—or the coastal regions, at least, which were all that counted—fell to Antigonus and his generals. Asander fled or was killed; we hear nothing of him again.

With Asia Minor once more secure, Antigonus could focus on Greece, which lay open to the might of his new fleet. Cassander felt the threat and was prepared to negotiate, but the talks came to nothing, and Antigonus put into effect his invasion plan. First, in an attempt to tie up Lysimachus’s forces, he fostered an uprising among the Greek cities within Lysimachus’s Thrace, which had never been content under Macedonian rule. The cities threw out their garrisons and entered into an alliance with the local tribes, Lysimachus’s constant enemies.

Lysimachus rose to the challenge. He advanced rapidly, and at the threat of siege all but one of the rebel cities capitulated. A joint Thracian and Scythian army failed to react quickly enough to help, and Lysimachus went to face them. He persuaded enough of the Thracians to desert, and then crushed the rest. The final rebel city, Callatis, held out and was intermittently under siege until 309, but the uprising was effectively over.

Antigonus sent help, but Lysimachus left a holding force at Callatis and went out to meet this new threat. The Odrysian king, Seuthes III, saw an opportunity to renew his bid for independence and reneged on the peace treaty he had negotiated a couple of years previously with Lysimachus. He occupied the mountain pass through which Lysimachus would have to march to meet Antigonus’s forces. But Lysimachus, fully living up to his reputation for military genius, repulsed first Seuthes and then the Antigonid army. Seuthes was forced to come to terms, and the renewed pact was sealed by an exchange of brides.

Lysimachus’s brilliance had foiled Antigonus so far, but would he be capable of halting a full-fledged invasion? Antigonus laid his plans carefully. He sent his nephew Telesphorus to the Peloponnese with a small fleet and a large army, with which he mopped up all the remaining Cassandrian garrisons in the northern Peloponnese except for Sicyon and Corinth, held for Cassander by Cratesipolis. But Telesphorus failed to prevent Cassander from securing the island of Euboea as his first line of defense against the imminent invasion. Antigonus dispatched Polemaeus with a substantial force. With the help of his Boeotian allies, Polemaeus as usual did brilliantly: he gained control of much of Euboea and, on the mainland, even briefly threatened Athens.

Once Polemaeus had established himself, Antigonus recalled much of the fleet from Greek waters and, as the winter of 313/312 ap proached, moved north toward the Propontis and Europe. Cassander had no choice but to withdraw to Macedon to face the threat of invasion via Thrace, leaving an insufficient force in Euboea, under the command of his brother Pleistarchus, to combat Polemaeus. Meanwhile, again at Antigonus’s instigation, the Aetolians and Epirotes continued to make trouble for Cassander, and he had to dedicate even more of his forces to a campaign in western Greece. He had barely enough troops in Macedon to offer resistance to Antigonus’s threatened invasion.

But Antigonus’s northern feint came to nothing. He approached the independent city of Byzantium for an alliance. That would give him a foothold in Europe and a chance to establish himself there over the winter. But, at Lysimachus’s prompting, the Byzantines preferred to stay neutral, and Lysimachus had both the time and the manpower (his army had been swelled by the mercenary troops he had defeated) to prepare his defenses. Antigonus decided against forcing a crossing, in uncertain winter weather, into well-defended territory, and distributed his troops to winter quarters in the region of the Propontis. The invasion was planned for the following year, across the Hellespont, as soon as the weather improved.


The months of the winter of 313/312 brought respite for Cassander, but his situation was still desperate. For the first time since the Lamian War in 322, little of southern Greece, with the notable exception of Athens, was under Macedonian control, and Antigonus’s assurances of freedom had revived a militant spirit of independence among the Greek cities. It would take a miracle to stop Antigonus. The most obvious move would be for him to come at Macedon via Thrace while Polemaeus marched north from central Greece, and that was surely what Antigonus had in mind for 312. But nothing is certain in war.

First, the Antigonid impetus was blunted by internal squabbling. Polemaeus had succeeded in Euboea, where Telesphorus had failed. Not unnaturally, Antigonus gave Polemaeus overall responsibility for Greece. But Telesphorus, in the Peloponnese, took himself off in a huff at this, and created a separate enclave for himself in Elis. His behavior there, such as robbing sacred sites to pay his mercenaries, was winning the Antigonid cause no friends, and demanded attention. Polemaeus soon brought his brother (or cousin) back into their uncle’s (or father’s) fold, but in the meantime he was not available to support Antigonus’s invasion. Fortunately for Antigonus, neither Polyperchon nor Cratesipolis seems to have been in a position to exploit the situation further; they rarely had the manpower for more than defensive work.

Ptolemy proved to be Cassander’s second savior. He had been distracted in 313 and for the first part of 312. He had had to quell a rebellion by the cities of Cyrenaica, and he finally secured the last cities in Cyprus that held out against him. The only anti-Antigonid action he and Seleucus took was to raid Cilicia on their way back from Cyprus; Demetrius rushed to the rescue from Syria, but arrived too late. But by the autumn of 312 Ptolemy’s preparations were ready, and he launched a massive invasion of Palestine by land and sea. His purpose was to recover Palestine and Phoenicia for himself, and to ease the restoration of Seleucus to Babylon.

It was late in the autumn, and if Demetrius had known about the buildup of enemy forces at Pelusium, he had assumed that nothing would happen until the following spring. After his Cilician expedition, he had dismissed his men to winter quarters, and he now had to reassemble them to meet the invasion. As Ptolemy and Seleucus advanced north from Egypt, they were intercepted by Demetrius at Gaza. The town bore twenty-year-old scars from the time when Alexander had razed it to the ground and massacred its inhabitants, but it was still the final destination of major caravan routes from the east, and spices left its harbor for destinations all over the Mediterranean. Antigonus had left Demetrius with a cluster of senior advisers, who urged caution, but Demetrius was young and hot-headed, with extraordinary good looks and charm that led him to believe that he could get away with anything. He imagined, perhaps, the fame that would accrue to him if he defeated two of Alexander the Great’s generals. The armies deployed for battle on the plain south of the town.

In the center, where the infantry phalanxes were deployed as usual, Demetrius was outnumbered. This did not overly concern him, however, since he planned for his cavalry to sweep all before them. He massively bulked up the cavalry contingent on his left wing; the right wing was correspondingly weaker, but if things went well, it would not be used at all. Given its weakness, he had it “refuse”—deploy at an angle back from the main line of battle—so that it would be harder to outflank. He posted his elephants along the whole front of the line at its weak points. Ptolemy and Seleucus had also bulked up their left wing, so when their scouts brought back information about Demetrius’s disposition, they had to make some hasty adjustments. They had no elephants themselves, but they knew how to deal with Demetrius’s beasts: they sowed spiked caltrops, like a minefield, in front of their line, and posted their light-armed troops out in front with plenty of javelins.

The action began, as Demetrius had intended, on his left, Ptolemy’s right. Thanks to Ptolemy’s last-minute adjustments, the two wings were closely matched in numbers and commitment, and the overwhelming charge that Demetrius had hoped for became bogged down in a fierce and close-fought struggle. In the center, his elephants were foiled by the caltrops and became vulnerable to the skill of Ptolemy’s skirmishers. Most of the mahouts were shot down, and the elephants were captured. When Demetrius’s cavalry realized that their infantry phalanx was now vulnerable to Ptolemy’s superior numbers, many of them turned to flight. Demetrius, left almost isolated, had no choice but to break off as well. A retreating army was vulnerable to massacre, but they kept due order and made it safely back to Gaza. At that point, discipline broke down as the men poured into the city to rescue their baggage, and when Ptolemy’s troops came up they were able to take possession of the city. Demetrius fled by night farther north, abandoning Palestine to Ptolemy.

It was the decisive battle of the war. Demetrius lost only a few hundred, mainly cavalrymen, on the field of battle, but almost all his foot soldiers surrendered and were incorporated by Ptolemy into his own forces. The loss of the entire Syrian army in the east was bound to draw Antigonus from Asia Minor. He had taken up winter quarters in Phrygia, but it was clear that, as soon as he could, he would march south, back across the Taurus Mountains—to see, it was said, how Ptolemy would fare against an adult adversary, rather than a beardless youth.1 The invasion of Greece was postponed indefinitely. The miracle for which Cassander had been praying had taken place.


Ptolemy was briefly triumphant. He had recovered Palestine and was hungry for the rest. Early in 311, before Antigonus could arrive, he sent one of his generals north to see to the final eradication of Demetrius from Syria. But Demetrius had stripped all the available towns of their garrisons, and put together enough of a force to dare to meet Ptolemy’s army in battle, and this time it was he who won the decisive victory, and augmented his army with captives and his treasury with booty. Perhaps Antigonus’s trust in his son was not misplaced after all. And so, when Antigonus arrived in the spring, Ptolemy retreated to Egypt, abandoning all his gains.

Before leaving Asia Minor, Antigonus had negotiated a truce with Lysimachus and Cassander. Both of them were ready to talk terms, Cassander because the war was going so badly for him and Lysimachus because, as so often, he needed to focus on the hostile tribes of the Thracian interior. Ptolemy’s withdrawal therefore introduced a lull in the fighting. Antigonus chose to use it for an attack on the Nabataeans.

These seminomadic Arabs would make dangerous enemies on his flank when he chose to invade Egypt, but profit was on Antigonus’s mind more than strategic considerations. War was always the Successors’ chief source of income, and as well as short-term plunder, Antigonus probably intended to try to take over the Nabataean trade in frankincense and bitumen. Nabataean business had made Gaza wealthy, and now that he controlled Gaza, Antigonus wanted to cut out the middlemen. Ptolemy’s lands were otherwise the main source of bitumen (which was used as a cement and for waterproofing wood), and Antigonus naturally had no desire to enrich his enemy by paying for it. For the first time in history a Middle Eastern petroleum product was the cause of warfare. But three successive raids by Antigonid forces either came to nothing or ended in disaster. At one point, they succeeded in plundering Petra (at this stage still little more than a sacred and safe haven, not yet a glorious rock-carved city), only to be ambushed on the way back.2

Seleucus, meanwhile, had also taken advantage of the lull in the fighting. One of the casualties at Gaza had been the Antigonid satrap of Babylonia; Seleucus’s realm was available and relatively undefended. In the spring of 311 he was given a thousand men by Ptolemy and set out from Palestine to Babylonia. Given the small size of his force, and the hostility of the lands through which he journeyed, this was an incredibly bold move. He had to encourage the faint-hearted, who must have thought he had taken leave of his senses, by reminding them that Apollo had already hailed him as king, which implied that he would be successful in this venture. And in fact the loyalty he had won in Babylon as satrap from 320 to 315 served him well, and he was able to recover his province and double the size of his army with relative ease. The Antigonid garrison of the city took refuge in one of the city’s two citadels, but soon surrendered to Seleucus’s siege. The date of his return—1 Nisan 311, in Babylonian terms; some time in April of that year, in ours—became the foundation date for his reign, and remained the standard chronological marker in the east until the Roman period.


The main objective, the restoration of Seleucus to Babylonia, had been attained, and the war lost energy. Ptolemy was ready to join his allies in making peace with Antigonus; he had already been chased back to Egypt, and the armistice Antigonus had in place with Lysimachus and Cassander left him critically exposed. Antigonus too wanted peace: he had to do something about Seleucus’s recovery of Babylonia, but that would be difficult as long as he was still at war elsewhere. All the main parties, then, desired peace. In the autumn of 311 their representatives met (we do not know where) and terms were agreed. After four years of warfare, nobody had gained much, and the “Peace of the Dynasts” more or less recognized the status quo from before the war. Cassander was recognized as General of Europe and Protector of the King until Alexander IV attained his majority; the fiction that all this was happening for the good of Alexander’s heir was still being maintained. Lysimachus kept Thrace but renounced his claim to Hellespontine Phrygia; Ptolemy kept Greater Egypt (by now Egypt, Cyprus, Cyrenaica, some subject towns in Arabia, and a few possessions in the Aegean) but renounced his claim to Palestine and Phoenicia.

This was all a serious climbdown from the provocative demands they had presented to Antigonus in the spring of 315, in the ultimatum that triggered the war. Moreover, the Lord of Asia was confirmed in his title: all Asia was explicitly reserved for Antigonus. You could say that Antigonus won; at any rate, he certainly did not lose, except in so far as his further ambitions had been thwarted. He regained the territory that Ptolemy had taken after Gaza, and he had won some new allies and territories in Asia Minor, the Aegean islands, and Greece. He was not rebuked for his kingly ways. He effectively controlled all Asia from the Hellespont to Gaza, and east into Mesopotamia; he was also nominally in control of the eastern satrapies, though Seleucus’s return to Babylon made it more difficult for him to maintain the connection.

The lack of mention of Polyperchon in the treaty is understandable, since he was by now a spent force, and was pursuing an independent policy in the Peloponnese without (for the moment) seeking alliances with any of the others. The lack of mention of Seleucus is also readily comprehensible; this was a meeting for peace, and Seleucus was still at war. In ceding all Asia to Antigonus, the war-weary players were betraying Seleucus by condemning him to the status of rebel. They were saying, in effect: “Let Antigonus and Seleucus sort it out between them.” It took another few years for them to do so.

Of course, no one believed that this was the peace to end all wars. Warfare was so central to the Successors’ ideology that all their treaties should be regarded as temporary truces rather than as treaties as we understand them. Never has Ambrose Bierce’s definition of peace as “a period of cheating between periods of fighting” been more appropriate.3 Antigonus undoubtedly retained his desire for universal dominion, and they would all be looking out for the others’ weaknesses, but the peace brought a brief respite. This phase of the war—the so-called Third War of the Successors—had been particularly intense.

The treaty also reaffirmed the right of the Greek cities to autonomy—which is to say that it affirmed the right of any of the Successors to wield the slogan against any of his rivals, since all of them had Greek cities in their territories. Not long after the treaty came into force, Antigonus sent a letter to the cities under his control, which was also meant to be read further afield, within his enemies’ territories.4 In this letter, he expressed his abiding concern for their welfare and suggested that those cities that were not already organized into a league (as the Cycladic islanders were) should contemplate doing so. Despite the fact that he was a tax-hungry ruler, always trying to finance new ventures (warfare and the foundation of cities were the two most expensive), Antigonus had a good record with the Greek cities. Now he was trying to capitalize on this goodwill to gather more cities into his alliance. At the same time, his rather crude purpose was to provide himself with an excuse if he ever felt the need to make war on any of the others, especially Cassander, who had a record of garrisoning the cities under his control. The respite provided by the Peace of the Dynasts would indeed be brief.


None of the leaders was personally present at the peace conference. Antigonus and Demetrius, at any rate, still had pressing military matters on their minds. Babylon was vital for anyone wishing to control an empire that spanned all of Asia. It was rich in men and supplies, as well as being a meeting point for major overland and sea-to-river routes. The resources of the eastern satrapies would be less easy to exploit without control of Babylonia. Seleucus’s presence there struck at the heart of Antigonus’s empire, and he was bound to do something about it. Unfortunately, the details of the Babylonian War that ensued are extremely hazy, because no extant historian bothered to report it (except for a very brief mention of its first phase by Plutarch),5 and we have to rely on information gleaned from a very few cuneiform texts whose first purposes were not always historical, and which survive only in fragments.

Seleucus was of course extremely vulnerable in Babylon. His ally Ptolemy had withdrawn to Egypt, and Antigonid forces could have swept in from Syria if they had not been occupied in their futile attempts against the Nabataeans. Above all, Seleucus needed more men. He recruited a few Macedonian veterans, the remnants of those dispersed by Antigonus in 315, but he found his main opportunity when, despite being hugely outnumbered, in the autumn of 311 he beat off an attack by two of Antigonus’s eastern satraps. His victory, in a surprise night attack, was so complete that he was able to add ten thousand foot and seven thousand horse to his forces. By the end of 311 he had taken over the neighboring province of Susiana, and was making no attempt to disguise the fact that Media and then the satrapies farther east were his next targets.

Late in 311, fresh from his failure in Nabataea, Demetrius invaded Babylonia. Elsewhere, his father’s representative was signing the Peace of the Dynasts. The governor Seleucus had left in charge of Babylon while he was campaigning farther east evacuated the civilian population in order to concentrate on defending the two citadels, but half of the city, which was divided by the Euphrates, fell to Demetrius’s army. Demetrius left Babylon in competent hands and returned to Syria, but if he thought he had won the war, he was mistaken. Seleucus’s governor waged a guerrilla campaign in the countryside to impede the passage of supplies to the city, and Seleucus was already on his way back. After his arrival, it took him only a few days to recover the second half of the city.

In the summer of 310 Antigonus counterattacked from the west with a full-scale invasion, but although he came to occupy large areas of Babylonia for some months, Seleucus held him at bay. There was “panic in the land,” according to an astronomical diary for September 310,6 perhaps referring to the initial reaction to Antigonus’s invasion; a few months later, there was still “weeping and mourning in the land.”7 The cuneiform texts also bear witness to galloping inflation, as even the bare necessities of life became scarce and expensive.

The war seems to have seesawed. Antigonus had the early successes; his troops broke into Babylon and drove Seleucus out after fierce street fighting, and at another point he captured a nearby town and allowed his troops to plunder freely. At the end of August 309, Seleucus met Antigonus in an indecisive pitched battle, but surprised his troops in their camp at dawn the next day and inflicted a defeat on them. It must have been a decisive defeat, because Antigonus withdrew to Syria and refocused his energies on more peaceful pursuits, such as building his new capital city, Antigonea. Apart from anything else, he was now over seventy years old, and his great weight, we may guess, was putting a strain on his heart.8

Even in the absence of evidence, it seems safe to say that Antigonus and Seleucus must have entered into a treaty, because for a while afterward they each went about their separate businesses without infringing on each other’s territories. Antigonus abandoned the eastern satrapies, and over the next few years Seleucus gained control of them one by one, by conquest or by reaching a modus vivendi with the incumbent ruler. The troublesome Indian satrapies and some satellite territories were ceded to Chandragupta, as we have seen, probably in 304. Given the enormous size of the territories involved, and how few troops Seleucus had started with, this is a truly astonishing beginning for a kingdom that was to last, in some form or another, for 250 years. What is not surprising is that he was pleased to be invested with the honorific name that he bore for the rest of his life—Nicator, the bringer of victory, the only one to have successfully challenged Antigonus’s rulership of Asia.

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