Warfare in Greece

THE PEACE WAS never stable; it only gave the contenders the opportunity to rally. Even while the treaty was being negotiated, Antigonus and Demetrius were already involved in the lengthy business of trying to evict Seleucus from Babylonia and prevent him from taking over the eastern satrapies. That in itself did not transgress the peace, because Seleucus was not included in it. But no more than weeks elapsed before Ptolemy helped his friend Seleucus by sending him fresh troops and by invading Antigonid Cilicia on the pretext that Antigonus had installed garrisons in Greek cities there and so had broken the terms of the peace agreement. As it happened, Demetrius was able to repulse Ptolemy’s general, but the fragility of the situation was already clear.

Cassander had the best reasons for relief. He had been on the ropes, but the peace gave him a respite, and then his recovery was enormously helped by the defection in 310 of Polemaeus from the Antigonid cause. Polemaeus was simply disgruntled. Perhaps he had expected the peace conference to name him as satrap of central Greece or something; perhaps he felt that Antigonus’s preference of Demetrius underrated the invaluable service he had provided in Greece and Asia Minor. At any rate, he declared his central Greek enclave independent, made Euboea his headquarters, and expanded his sway into Hellespontine Phrygia as well, thanks to his friendship with the governor there. Worst of all, he safeguarded his position by entering into an alliance with Cassander, thus depriving Antigonus of access to much of central Greece and opening it up for his enemy. Antigonus immediately sent an army to Hellespontine Phrygia to recover the province and its control of the easiest crossing to Europe, but for the time being ignored Greece.

The upshot of these partial enterprises was a slide to war. The Fourth War of the Successors has a dramatic ending in 301, but no clear beginning. It was to be the decisive war, or, rather, the decisive phase of the war that had in effect been going on since 320.


There was still a major obstacle to the Successors’ increasingly obvious ambitions. The Peace of the Dynasts had proclaimed, as had all previous general agreements, that the current administrations were temporary, and had named the expiration date: in five or six years’ time, Alexander IV would come of age and inherit the lot. Already there were murmurs in some quarters of Macedon that it was time for the boy to be brought out of seclusion and taught to rule. But of course in reality none of the Successors wanted to cede power to Alexander, now or in the future. They read the treaty clause “when Alexander comes of age” as “if Alexander should come of age.” They had risked everything to get where they were; they had not the slightest intention of handing it all over to the new king in a few years’ time. For years Cassander had kept him and his mother in comfortable custody in Amphipolis; in 310 or 309 he had the teenager poisoned, along with his mother Rhoxane.

There was a telling lack of protest or reaction from the others. Surely this, if anything, should have triggered war. From time to time, when it had made practical sense, they had all professed themselves loyal to the Argead line. Where was the Antigonus of 315, who had condemned Cassander for killing Olympias? Had he and the others given Cassander the nod at the 311 conference? Probably nothing needed to be said openly; they would all benefit from the freedom of no longer being constrained by the existence of a royal family to whom they owed nominal allegiance. “Since there was no longer an heir for the empire,” Diodorus observed, “all those who held nations or cities began to hope for royal power, and began to regard their subordinate territories as a spear-won kingdoms.”1 From now on, the Successors made less use of the magic of the Argead name to legitimate their positions; they were in effect kings in their own right, with kingdoms consisting of what they could gain and hold by force of arms. And, before long, they would all begin to style themselves kings.

The precise date of Cassander’s removal of the boy king is uncertain. His basic tactic was obfuscation; he already had him and Rhoxane in seclusion, and the killings were carried out in secret by a trusted agent. He may even have denied that they had died, or spread the rumor that they had escaped, because coins and documents from various parts of the empire still used the name of Alexander IV for a few years yet.2 Even though Cassander had been the one who ordered the murders, the victims were later buried in a suitably royal fashion (in Tomb 3, the “Prince’s Tomb,” at Aegae), and presumably by Cassander himself—a public act designed not just as a display of piety, but also as a brazen way of disassociating himself from their deaths. Moreover, by Macedonian tradition, the burial of a king was undertaken by the next king: Cassander was further staking his claim to Macedon.

The removal of Alexander IV did not quite end Cassander’s problems with the Argead dynasty. Waiting in the wings was Heracles, the bastard son of Alexander whose claim to the throne had been half-heartedly defended by Nearchus at the original Babylon conference. Since then he had been more or less ignored; no one needed a third possible king, and especially one with dubious credentials. But the death of the last legitimate king brought Heracles, who had now almost come of age, out of the shadows. He was resident in Pergamum, and in 309, presumably with Antigonus’s compliance, Polyperchon summoned him to the Peloponnese. It was a good time to play this trump card, since Cassander had just been further weakened by a major invasion by tribes from the northwest.

Seventy-five-year-old Polyperchon revived his dreams of glory, after a miraculous year or two of relative peace on the Greek mainland and a hiatus of four or five years in his own activities, and marched north toward Macedon with an army of twenty thousand to proclaim Heracles king. He had prepared the way over the previous months by soliciting as much support as he could from the Greek states (the most important gain was realliance with the Aetolians) and within Macedon itself. He established himself in the canton of southwest Macedon of which he was the hereditary ruler, and prepared to do battle with Cassander.

Cassander defused the threat. He avoided combat (in case his men were tempted to desertion by the prospect of an Argead king) and used diplomacy instead, offering the old soldier peace, the restoration of his estates in Macedon, and the great gift of several thousand Macedonian troops, if he would consent to be his military governor of the Peloponnese—the generalship Polyperchon had once held for Antigonus. Polyperchon accepted this grant of semi-independent rulership. The betrayal of Antigonus was easy, because for some years Polyperchon had been pursuing an independent course in the Peloponnese. One hopes that he at least hesitated over the other consequence of his rapport with Cassander, the removal of Heracles. Polyperchon had him and his mother Barsine strangled during a banquet. It was a terrible act, and became a paradigm of the evil consequences of moral weakness.3

It was the end of the Argead line, which over three hundred years of rulership had produced some remarkable Macedonian kings, culminating in Philip and Alexander. Though Argead blood still flowed in the veins of Cleopatra’s children by her Epirote first husband, there were no remaining children of male Argeads. The Successors were now truly free to divide among themselves the spoils of Alexander’s empire.


Cassander’s position in Greece was greatly strengthened by his alliances with Polemaeus and Polyperchon. He had given Polyperchon enough troops to make serious trouble for the Antigonids in the Peloponnese, and he could hope that in central Greece Polemaeus could contain the Aetolians. His road to recovery, however, was fated to be less smooth. Polemaeus, acting with unusual fickleness even in these days of tested loyalties, seems to have become rapidly dissatisfied with his alliance with Cassander. Perhaps the elevation of Polyperchon disturbed him, or perhaps he had come to see Cassander’s cause as hopeless in the long run. At any rate, he made the momentous decision to abandon Cassander when he responded positively to an approach by Ptolemy.

Demetrius’s repulse of Ptolemy’s army from northern Syria in 311 did not dampen the Egyptian ruler’s ambitions. In the years 310 and 309, he continued to attack Antigonus, his only rival at sea. He brutally reestablished his hold over Cyprus, against Antigonus’s intrigues there, and continued to make war on Antigonid territory in Lycia and Caria from his bases on Cyprus and Cos. Demetrius did what he could to defend southwest Asia Minor while his father was tied up in Babylon. He saved Halicarnassus, for instance, when it was being besieged by Ptolemy’s troops in 309. But Ptolemy’s gains were considerable, and, given Rhodian neutrality, he effectively dominated the approaches to the Aegean.

The usual picture of Ptolemy makes him only moderately ambitious, at any rate compared to an Antigonus.4 He was certainly cautious: he refused the regency in 320, and meticulously created buffer zones around his core territory, as if he entertained no ambitions beyond securing Egypt. But, by hijacking Alexander’s corpse, he had declared himself Alexander’s heir—and Alexander’s heir should inherit Alexander’s aggressiveness.

Rather than having moderate aims, it is more reasonable to think that he was just being patient. And there is no way to explain his actions at this time except as indicating a sustained program to gain control of Greece. First, he softened up the Greek cities under Cassander’s and Lysimachus’s control in 310 by asking them not to be tempted by the Antigonid promise of freedom, and to join his alliance instead—a move that was designed to undermine not just his old enemy Antigonus but also his former allies, Cassander and Lysimachus. Then he gained control of the southern approaches to the Aegean, and then he detached Polemaeus from Cassander. Moreover, he even approached Cleopatra, resident in Sardis, to ask for her hand in marriage. She agreed; they saw themselves soon being enthroned as the king and queen of Macedon.

Polemaeus sailed to Cos to discuss the terms of the pact with Ptolemy. The island had entered into an alliance and trading agreement with Ptolemy, and was currently Ptolemy’s advance post in the Aegean. Ptolemy’s son, the future Ptolemy II, was born there in 309, where his mother could get the best medical attention then available. Praxagoras of Cos was still alive, and laying the foundation for the remarkable anatomical work of the next century: the discovery of the nervous system and of the diagnostic value of the pulse, and the differentiation of the functions of the inner organs. While Polemaeus was there, however, Ptolemy forced him to kill himself. The pretext given out to the public was that Polemaeus was intriguing with Ptolemy’s army officers to divert their loyalty from Ptolemy to himself, but it is just as likely that Ptolemy wanted to eliminate a future rival in Greece. Yet another great general was undone by dreams of empire.

Greece was in considerable turmoil, then, when Ptolemy set sail, toward the end of 309, with an invasion-sized force. On the way, he detached the island of Andros from Antigonus’s Cycladic League. Greece was ripe for invasion: Cassander was in recovery, Lysimachus’s focus was still restricted to his own province, Antigonus was battling Seleucus in Babylon, and Demetrius was in Syria. Even Polyperchon was helpless; on his way back from Macedon the previous year, after the assassination of Heracles, he had been pinned in central Greece by the Boeotians, and he had not yet arrived in the Peloponnese. He may even have returned to his mini-kingdom in Macedon.

Ptolemy landed unopposed at Corinth. Since as a matter of policy Antigonus had not installed garrisons in the Peloponnesian cities under his control, Polyperchon’s absence meant that there was no effective force in the Peloponnese. Cratesipolis was terrified into surrendering Corinth and Sicyon. Making Corinth his base, Ptolemy planned “to free the other Greek cities as well.”5 It is likely that he intended to revive the old Hellenic League, or League of Corinth, that had been founded by Philip II.6 All the Successors competed with one another for Greek manpower; the revival of the league, with Ptolemy at its head, would compel member cities to provide him with troops when he needed them, and deny them to his rivals. Ptolemy would have complete control of the sea.

It was indeed a great opportunity for Ptolemy—an opportunity for grand imperial power—but it came to nothing. The response to Ptolemy’s appeal by the Greek cities was less than tepid. The Peloponnesian cities were already free, and felt no need to exchange one overlord for another; the mainland cities that might have been interested were simply too few to make a difference, and too vulnerable to Cassander, now that Polemaeus was dead, to be able to respond positively. And then new crises loomed for Ptolemy elsewhere. First, Antigonus returned to Syria at the end of his unsuccessful war with Seleucus. Second, Ptolemy’s governor of Cyrenaica launched a bid to take over the whole North African coast from Cyrenaica to Carthage as his own independent empire. As it turned out, the rebellious governor was assassinated by his allies before his plans had come to fruition. But it was clear that the extent of Ptolemy’s commitment in Greece would make him vulnerable elsewhere, and he was concerned about his enemies’ ability to exploit this.

So he came to terms with Cassander and returned to Egypt, leaving garrisons in Sicyon and Corinth. He may even just have rehired the mercenaries Cratesipolis had been using to protect her enclave. Of course, garrisons and his talk of Greek freedom were somewhat incompatible, but with conditions as they were in the Peloponnese, the cities may even have asked for them. Ptolemy had had a fleeting glimpse of supreme power, but in the end he gained little. He even lost Cleopatra. On Antigonus’s orders, she was prevented from leaving Sardis to join her future husband, and was soon killed.

Poor Cleopatra, always on the edge of greatness. Her brother’s death in 323, when she was already a royal widow in her early thirties, condemned her to become a pawn in the Successors’ bids for legitimation. She was the perfect catch, a queen in her own right and the sister of the Conqueror; she held the key to all the Successors’ ambitions. Leonnatus had accepted her, but died before the marriage; then Perdiccas too had prematurely died. At one time or another other Successors had sounded her out with a view to marriage. Finally, aged about forty-five and past the age for child-bearing, she awarded herself to Ptolemy, only to be thwarted by Antigonus’s determination not to allow such a prize to fall into anyone else’s hands.7 But he tried to disassociate himself from the murder by a show trial of the killers and by awarding Alexander’s sister a noble funeral. He remembered the trouble that the killing of Cynnane had given Perdiccas.


In the west, with Polemaeus out of the way and fresh alliances in place with Ptolemy and Polyperchon, Cassander could look forward to building up his strength again in Greece. However, he was unlikely to receive much help from his allies, who were obliged to help him in emergencies only.8 Besides, for the foreseeable future Lysimachus was engaged as usual with freedom-loving tribes within his province; he was also in the process of building a new capital city, Lysimacheia, on the neck of the Thracian Chersonese. And Seleucus, who had also been a member of the anti-Antigonid coalition in the last phase of the war, was for the present too focused on the east to jump into this affair. He was in the early phases of the protracted campaign to subdue and stabilize the eastern provinces.

Antigonus decided in 307 that the time was right for a preemptive strike against Cassander, with the immediate purpose of reestablishing a solid base in Greece and the longer-term purpose of making Greece his once and for all, now that it had been abandoned by Ptolemy. We could take this as the true start of the Fourth War of the Successors, in the sense that intermittent warfare was replaced by a fight to the finish. At any rate, as if we can isolate affairs in Greece from what was happening elsewhere, it was the start of what is called the Four-Year War on the Greek mainland.

Perhaps the most blatant transgression of the supposed freedom of the Greeks was the presence of Cassander’s tyrant Demetrius of Phalerum in Athens—not because there were not tyrants or oppressive regimes elsewhere, but because Athens was Athens. Continuing to proclaim the freedom of the Greeks, Antigonus sent his son Demetrius, with a fleet of 250 ships and a purse of 5,000 talents (around three billion dollars), to restore democracy in Athens. It was clear that the Antigonids meant business.

While the main fleet sheltered at Cape Sunium, at the beginning of June 307 Demetrius took twenty ships and sailed north up the Saronic Gulf. Little notice was taken of such an unthreatening flotilla; the ships were assumed to be Ptolemy’s, heading for Corinth. At the last minute, Demetrius turned and sailed straight into Piraeus. Cassander’s garrison commander chose inaction, and within a few days Demetrius of Phalerum’s position in Athens had become untenable. He was granted safe conduct out of the city to Thebes, where he lived for the next ten years. By then it was clear that he was never going to get back to Athens, and he made his way to Alexandria in Egypt. He might have been pleased to know that his grandson would hold a position of authority in Athens in the 260s.9

In the short term, however, Cassander could send no help, because he was tied up with a campaign in Epirus, and the loss of Athens was compounded by the loss of Piraeus, where the garrison fell rather rapidly in August 307 to Demetrius’s assault. At the next assembly of Athenian citizens, through his agents Demetrius declared the city free, and guaranteed not to impose a garrison. He razed to the ground the Piraeus fortress, the hated symbol of foreign occupation. He also promised them timber, grain, and cash, all vital commodities of which Athens was always short and often starved. He returned the islands of Lemnos and Imbros, which his father had taken from them seven years earlier. Most importantly, he restored the democratic constitution that had been suspended ten years earlier.

The Athenians were jubilant—and obsequious. They silenced politicians who were opposed to the Antigonid cause, awarded Antigonus and Demetrius divine honors as savior gods, instituted an annual festival in their joint names, and appointed a priest for their cult; even Phila, Demetrius’s first wife, gained cult honors as Aphrodite, the goddess of loving marriage. They addressed both Antigonus and Demetrius as “kings,”10 and two new civic tribes, named after them, were added to the ten that had stood since the beginning of Athenian democracy two hundred years earlier. They even wove Antigonus’s and Demetrius’s features into the sacred robe with which the cult statue of Athena, the city’s goddess, was ceremonially draped. When a freak storm burst on the procession bearing the robe toward Athena’s temple, the robe was ripped.

There were of course those who chose to see this incident as ominous, but there was a sense in which Antigonus and Demetrius were truly Athens’s saviors (though Demetrius of Phalerum’s regime had scarcely been harsh), and deserved at least some of the honors they received. By restoring the democracy, they restored Athenian pride. It also helped that Athenian shipyards were soon busy rebuilding the fleet that Cassander had repressed. No longer would all that Athenian naval expertise go to waste. But the restoration of democracy was more symbolic than real, and rearmament was not meant to help Athens itself. During his periods of residence in the city, Demetrius treated it as the capital of his kingdom, and expected his orders and even his whims to be carried out. Athens, under Demetrius, was to be the western capital of the Antigonid empire.


By the early 290s, Demetrius of Phalerum found himself, as I have just said, in Egypt. Until his death some dozen or so years later, he was Ptolemy’s right-hand man for one of the most ambitious projects undertaken by any of the Successors—the establishment in Alexandria of the Museum (literally, a shrine to the Muses, the goddesses of art, literature, and culture) and its library.11

Alexandria became Ptolemy’s administrative capital in 313, the tenth anniversary of his regime.12 The occasion was probably marked by the removal of Alexander’s body from Memphis to its new home, the shrine known merely as the Simagema, the Tomb. Most of the city had been built by then, and it was already a thriving center of commerce. The city was divided into three sections, according to population: Greek, Egyptian, and other (chiefly Jewish). The first of these was by far the most magnificent, especially since a great deal of it was occupied by the palace compound, strikingly visible on the shoreline as one sailed into the harbor. All the buildings Ptolemy valued most were in close proximity to one another: the palace itself, the Simagema, the barracks, the harbor and its warehouses, and the most important temples, including the Museum. No expense was spared on these and other great buildings. Alexandria was designed to display the majesty of the Ptolemies, as Versailles was built by Louis XIV for the Bourbon dynasty. Absolute monarchs have always spent enormously on such displays.

The Museum functioned both as a temple of learning (literally, since its director was also its high priest) and as a residential college for scholars, focusing particularly on science and literature. All expenses were covered by the king. Their major resource was to be the library. This was not a separate building; the book-rolls were stored on shelves in the Museum itself.

Ptolemy’s intentions in establishing the library were typically ambitious: first, to collect a copy of every single book ever written in Greek, wherever possible in original editions, and second, to translate into Greek the most important books written in other languages. The second aim led, most famously, to the translation within the Museum of the Old Testament into Greek. The work was undertaken by a group of about seventy Jewish scholars, which is why the Greek Old Testament, still considered the definitive version, is called the Septuagint, or “Translation of the Seventy,” septuaginta being the Latin for “seventy.” The project was begun under Ptolemy I—the first five books of the Bible were perhaps already translated in Alexandria during his time—and was completed about 150 years later. The Septuagint then became the body of law for the Jewish community of Alexandria.13

It is impossible to estimate the number of papyrus rolls the library contained at any given time, and many books occupied more than one roll. If each roll held about thirty thousand words, this book, for instance, transcribed onto papyrus, would make three rolls. It is possible that it came to hold well over half a million rolls, little enough by today’s standards (the Library of Congress holds more than thirty-three million books and sixty-three million manuscripts, let alone other forms of media), but an incredible achievement in the ancient world. Even during the reign of Ptolemy I, it probably held about fifty thousand. By the end of the third century the catalogue alone ran to 120 volumes; it contained not only the title of the work, but the name and a brief biography of the author, listing all his other works, the opening line of every work, and the number of verses if the work was poetry. It was an inventory of Greek literature and thought. The library was finally burnt to the ground in 641 ce, but by then it had long been sadly neglected; apart from anything else, the city (and especially the palace compound by the sea) had been devastated by a severe tsunami on July 21, 365 CE.14

As soon as the books began to arrive and to be studied, it was clear that there were many different versions even of well-known texts such as Homer’s epic poems, the first and foundational works of western literature. A certain amount of editorial work on Homer had taken place in sixth-century Athens, but it was clearly inadequate; and even though there were standard texts of the major Athenian tragedians, Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides, these texts were riddled with actors’ interpolations. The problem was compounded by the fact that librarians were prepared to pay well for texts, to the delight of forgers and the bane of future scholars. In any case, in Alexandria, the necessity of classifying every work for the catalogue had to be supplemented by the attempt to establish authentic texts of the work of every author, at least partly by drawing up rules for the use of the Greek language. Thus was literary scholarship born. This may be where we can distinguish the signature of Demetrius of Phalerum. He belonged to the Peripatetic school of philosophy, founded by Aristotle, and encyclopedic thoroughness was one of the hallmarks of the school.

The library of Alexandria was not entirely without precedent. It is just possible that scientific research had become institutionalized in Babylonian temples in the fourth century.15 Certainly, private collectors had begun to accumulate libraries; Aristotle’s in Athens was especially famous (the library in Alexandria went to considerable pains to acquire it), and there were others. What was unprecedented, however, was the sheer scale of the project. As the Hellenistic period progressed, other cities came to establish fabulous libraries—those of Antioch and Pergamum, especially—but none ever compared with the library of Alexandria. Ptolemy’s intention fell little short of an attempt to monopolize Greek literary and scientific culture.

It was always part of the Egyptian mirage that they were an old race, whose scribes kept records of the distant past,16 but more important to Ptolemy was the fact that Macedonian kings had long patronized Greek artists, philosophers, and scientists. From this perspective, the establishment of the Museum was simply a vast extension of this kingly function. Patronage was no longer to be governed by the particular whims of the king, but institutionalized and passed down from generation to generation of Ptolemies.

All over the Hellenistic world, royal patronage was the main engine of cultural development in science, mathematics, medicine, technology, art, and literature. Philosophers generally stayed away, in horror of the opulence of court life. The kings had the money, and their cultural gestures enhanced their prestige as tokens of the extent of their resources. The painted Macedonian tombs of Vergina and elsewhere, tombs for the rich from the late Classical and early Hellenistic period, vividly show the connection between wealth and the development of fine art.

Patronage was not just necessary but an honor, a sign that a poet or scientist had won or deserved international renown. Hence artists and writers were expected to pay for their privileged and comfortable lifestyles with the occasional work or passage in fulsome praise of the king.17 And nowhere were artists or scholars treated better than in Alexandria. In due course of time, there even came to be a daughter library in the city, for the use of scholars not settled by the Ptolemies themselves in “the birdcage of the Muses.”18

The erudition that the Museum fostered had a powerful impact on the kind of literature that was written in Alexandria. A lot of poems were so incredibly learned that only the author could be expected to get all the allusions. In addition to learned references, obscure words and neologisms abounded. Whereas in the past poems had been written for public performance and accompanied by music, they were written now also for private readers, who had the time to linger over texts and pick up at least some of the allusions and nuances. Shorter verse forms predominated, and so anthologies began to be put together, allowing readers to compare within specific genres. To a certain extent, Alexandrian literature was a kind of refined game between author and reader. It is not surprising that clever tricks such as the use of acrostics and the writing of concrete poetry (poems where the overall shape of the lines on the page make a specific shape—a cup, say, for a poem on a cup) first make their appearance in Alexandrian writers.

Overclever verse can of course be horribly frigid, and this would certainly be a fair description of some Alexandrian literature, but erudition and beauty are not necessarily incompatible, and there is plenty to charm and delight in Alexandrian literature. The best of it preserves the spirit of the Museum in which it was written in its attempt to honor the past by echoing, imitating, and parodying the old masters, while at the same time developing new forms and directions. A writer’s display of erudition mirrored in miniature the ostentation of the whole Museum. Wit, learning, experimentation, and technical mastery were the hallmarks of Alexandria.

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