The Last Successors

THE THRACE THAT Lysimachus took over in 323 resembled Thessaly, the most backward of the Greek districts, about a hundred years earlier: it was split up by its terrain and history into separate cantons, each ruled by its own dynasty of chieftains, but tended toward some kind of unification whenever one chieftain got the better of his neighbors. Lysimachus’s governorship happened to coincide with the peak of power of one such chieftain, Seuthes III, the Odrysian leader, who ruled from a richly endowed citadel at Seuthopolis.1

Seuthes held most of the immediate inland, reducing Lysimachus, on his arrival, to the coastline, where the Greek settlements were, and to fortresses on riverbanks as far upstream as possible. In theory, there was a nonaggression pact in place, but the news of Alexander the Great’s death prompted Seuthes to full-scale rebellion. This was the first thing Lysimachus had to deal with when he took up his appointment. It was a serious conflict—serious enough to make it impossible for Lysimachus to help Antipater in the Lamian War. Lysimachus won, and forced Seuthes once again to recognize Macedonian suzerainty in Thrace, but it was not a decisive victory, and Seuthes retained much of the Thracian hinterland. Ten years later, encouraged by Antigonus the One-Eyed, he rose up again, only to be defeated once more by Lysimachus.

But Seuthes was only one of Lysimachus’s recurrent problems. Beyond the Odrysians and the Haemus mountains, farther north around the Danube, were the Getae, a warlike tribe who made frequent incursions into Lysimachus’s territory, with or without Seuthes’ connivance and the help of other tribes. When Philip II had annexed Thrace around 340, he had left the Getae unconquered and had simply come to some accommodation with them. For Lysimachus too, negotiation proved to be more effective than warfare.

Even the local Greeks were unfriendly. They inhabited outposts of the Greek world, and had long been accustomed to making their own way in a hostile environment; few felt the need to pay for protection, and anti-Macedonian politicians found a receptive audience. But taxing their wealth—earned chiefly from the trade in slaves and grain—was his only reliable source of revenue. Lysimachus had no choice but to use force to establish control, and to maintain it with garrisons. It was not a popular strategy.

The old picture, willfully perpetuated by the Greeks themselves, of the Thracians as primitive tribes ruled by warrior chieftains is a huge simplification. They certainly had a martial culture, but then so did the Macedonians—who also, like the Thracians, used Greek as their administrative language, employed Greek craftsmen and artisans, and were extremely wealthy in natural resources. If Seuthes had not been curbed by Lysimachus, he might have done for Thrace what Philip II did for Macedon. It is an index of Thracian martial prowess and resourcefulness that, although sandwiched between the Persian empire to the east, the equally expansionist Greek cities to the south, and the warlike Scythians to the north, they carved out and maintained their own culture and territory.

The constant warfare and his inability to dominate the inland tribes left Lysimachus perennially short of resources. He never fully controlled the interior, and essentially his province consisted of the Chersonese and the coastlines. But archaeology, so often our only resource for areas Greek writers were less interested in (as with Ai Khanum, we would not otherwise even know of the existence of Seuthopolis), has shown that, despite Lysimachus’s failure to conquer the Thracian tribes, there was considerable cultural influence. The Macedonian presence nurtured rapid change, in terms of urbanization, monetization, and the exploitation of natural resources. Ironically, all these developments helped Seuthes defend his land against the very intruders who had brought them about.


By around 310, however, Lysimachus had won sufficient security for him to focus on consolidation, as represented by his building his new capital, Lysimacheia; within a few years he was styling himself king, which also suggests that he felt he had subdued his core territory. By 302, he was free enough to devote time and energy to wider concerns than just Thrace. The rewards were immediate and impressive. He led the coalition forces to victory against the Antigonids at Ipsus, and added Asia Minor to his realm.

Since then, he had managed to secure his new territory (not least by a vigorous program of city foundation or refoundation and military colonization) and had grouped the Asiatic Greek cities into leagues, under governors of his choosing, to simplify administration.2 In 284 he gained Paphlagonia and regained the independent city of Heraclea Pontica, where the ruler, his wife Amastris, had died under suspicious circumstances. In retaliation, Lysimachus killed his two stepsons as the alleged murderers, and reannexed the wealthy city. Most importantly, however, in 288 he added the eastern half of Macedon. He had a fabulous kingdom now, and it should have been enough, but for too long he had been kept busy in his miserable satrapy, fighting and negotiating with barbarians. For too long also, he had been no match for the other Successors in terms of wealth and ability to hire mercenaries, but he gained a fortune from the treasuries of Asia Minor, and was able to tap its resources for a generous annual income.

His rule was little harsher than that of his predecessors, but he maintained a firm control over the Greek cities within his domain. He did not want any trouble; he needed security. For by the middle of the 280s, Lysimachus, aged about seventy, was in a hurry. His building program included at least one Alexandria, and his coinage portrayed him as Alexander’s heir, hinting at a hunger for further conquest. Ptolemy II was secure in Greater Egypt; Seleucus was a neighbor, but not one it would have been sensible to attack in the first instance. Antigonus Gonatas, however, held little more than a fleet and the Fetters of Greece—like his father after Ipsus, he was down but not quite out, clinging on to his few possessions with the help of his mercenaries—and Pyrrhus’s possession of half of Macedon was an anomaly. Lysimachus’s attention was inevitably drawn west.

The partitioners of Macedon had a peace treaty in place, but that was mere expediency. Pyrrhus found that his former allies, Ptolemy and the Aetolians, drifted away. The Aetolians were effectively bought off by Lysimachus’s generosity, and Ptolemy was reluctant to antagonize Lysimachus, in case he ever needed his help against Seleucus in Syria. Lysimachus entered into an alliance with Athens, which completed Pyrrhus’s exposure on the Greek mainland, and launched a propaganda campaign within Macedon, crudely depicting the Epirote as a foreign interloper.

In one of those volte-faces that characterize the entire period, Pyrrhus accordingly allied himself with Gonatas, as if to try to unite the Greek mainland against Lysimachus. Pyrrhus received some of Gonatas’s mercenaries, but in 284, when it came to a confrontation, many of his men deserted to Lysimachus, who took over western Macedon and Thessaly. This not only restricted Pyrrhus to Epirus but drove a wedge between him and Gonatas. It was effectively the end of Pyrrhus’s attempts to expand within the Greek mainland. Before long he turned his attentions west instead—and achieved considerable success for a while against the up-and-coming Romans. Called in to help the Greeks of southern Italy against galloping Roman imperialism, Pyrrhus actually managed to defeat the Romans in three successive battles, but still lost the war. The Romans always had more men on whom they could call, while Pyrrhus had been bled dry. That is why we use the term “Pyrrhic” for a victory that amounts to defeat.


So Macedon had a new king, the fifth in ten years. Worse was to follow. In 287, Lysimacheia was badly damaged by an earthquake. It was soon rebuilt, but there were those who were inclined to read it as ominous that Lysimachus’s new capital should fall.3Alarmed by his awesome power and evident ambitions, mighty enemies were lining up against him. All that was needed was a catalyst.

In 300, Ptolemy I had given his then teenaged daughter Arsinoe to the sexagenarian Lysimachus; in 293 or so, he had given Lysandra (previously married to Alexander V) to Lysimachus’s son and heir Agathocles. Lysandra was a daughter of Ptolemy’s first wife Eurydice, Arsinoe of his second, and preferred, wife Berenice. Ironically, Berenice, Eurydice’s niece, had been in her retinue, and that is how she had come to Ptolemy’s attention.

Long before 285, when Ptolemy named Ptolemy II as his successor, Berenice’s faction at court had completely defeated that of Eurydice. It was a typical amphimetric dispute, the consequence of the Successors’ propensity for polygamy: sons born of the same father but different mothers became rivals for the throne. Eurydice’s son Ptolemy Ceraunus, who as the eldest son felt robbed of the Egyptian throne, was also currently resident at Lysimachus’s court. He was living proof that the eldest son does not necessarily succeed to the throne.

Agathocles may have been disappointed that, while Ptolemy had abdicated in favor of his son and Seleucus had named Antiochus joint king, his own aged father had not seen fit to honor him in the same way. Even Antigonus had done as much for Demetrius. And Lysimachus, for his part, may have been concerned at Agathocles’ royal pretensions, since he had named a city after himself and wore a diadem on his coins. The fact that he had done these things without his father’s permission shows that he already had a semi-independent existence within Asia Minor, with his own treasury, mint, and presumably troops. His success in driving Demetrius out of Asia Minor had won him the allegiance of the Greek cities and of large numbers of prominent men, who formed, as it were, his court. But whatever the pretext—the occupation of the Egyptian throne by Arsinoe’s brother may also have had something to do with it—Lysimachus now chose to favor the sons Arsinoe had borne him over Agathocles, his only son by Nicaea.

Agathocles rallied his supporters and launched a coup. Our sources are so scant for this period that we do not even know whether it came to battle. But, whether as a result of conflict or intrigue, Agathocles fell into his father’s hands and was imprisoned. Before long, Lysimachus had him killed, possibly using Ceraunus as his hit man.4 This terrible act did Lysimachus’s cause no good, and he was faced with further unrest, which was brutally crushed. Those who survived the purge fled. Many found their way to Seleucus’s court, including Lysandra; she hated her half sister Arsinoe as much as her mother hated Arsinoe’s mother. Their appeals for help, sowing the seeds of renewed war, fell on fertile ground.

It was certainly a time for ambitions to be fulfilled. A man called Philetaerus, no friend of Arsinoe, was among those who found his way to Seleucus’s court. Originally an Antigonid officer responsible for Pergamum, he had gone over to Lysimachus not long before Ipsus, and after the battle Lysimachus had reappointed him to the governorship of the city. One of the most important things about Pergamum was its relative impregnability; both Antigonus and Lysimachus kept one of their main treasuries there. At the time in question, the treasury held nine thousand talents (somewhat over five billion dollars). Philetaerus offered to draw on this to hire troops for Seleucus, on the understanding that, once Lysimachus was defeated, he could rule over an independent Pergamum. Seleucus agreed—a sound short-term decision, perhaps, but one that his successors would rue, since the Attalid kingdom of Pergamum prospered and soon came to challenge the Seleucids for much of Asia Minor. Its wealth and splendor may be gauged by the extant remains, and especially by the astonishing Altar of Zeus in the Pergamum Museum of Berlin, dating from the first quarter of the second century.5 The kingdom survived until it was bequeathed to the people of Rome in 133 BCE.


The chaos within Lysimachus’s realm attracted Seleucus. He had spent the years since Ipsus stabilizing and securing his empire and he was now ready to extend it. Any of the Successors would have done the same if they had the resources of Seleucus and were handed such an opportunity—even if, like him, they were closer to eighty than seventy. As far as they were concerned, that was the whole point of having resources: to use them to gain more land and more resources. And Seleucus’s propagandists had paved the way for grand imperialism; he had been born in the same year as Alexander, they said, and he had once rescued Alexander’s diadem after an accident and briefly worn it. As well as spreading stories, he also had politicians promoting his interests in the Greek cities of Asia Minor.

Seleucus mustered his army, elephants and all (he had established a breeding farm at Apamea in Seleucis),6 and in July 282 set out for Asia Minor. Ptolemy II, nominally Lysimachus’s ally, did nothing, perhaps in the hope that Seleucus would at the same time rid him of his troublesome half brother. Seleucus crossed the Taurus well before winter set in and spent some time in winter camp on the Asia Minor side of the Taurus, within Lysimachus’s kingdom. This was a bold strategy, but seems to have met with no opposition. The area must have been dominated by men loyal to Agathocles.

At the end of January 281, Seleucus took to the field, and at the same time sent his fleet on ahead to the west coast to lend help to his supporters in the Greek cities. He had softened the cities up by means of generous benefactions, and he used the old Antigonid gambit that they would find him a more congenial king than Lysimachus. A few of the cities did indeed erupt into factional strife, though more of them waited for the outcome of the inevitable decisive battle before committing themselves.

Seleucus’s progress was unimpeded. Lysimachus had chosen to wait for him in western Asia Minor. This may have been a tactical decision, in order to be able to maintain some kind of control over the Asiatic Greek cities, but at the same time Lysimachus seems to have been helpless, and plagued by desertion. The decisive battle of the sixth and final war of the Successors was fought at Corupedium, the “Plain of Plenty” west of Sardis, in February 281. No details are known, but it was a complete victory for Seleucus. Aged Lysimachus died on the field. His wife Arsinoe persuaded an attendant to dress as her, while she slipped away from Ephesus (which had briefly borne her name), dressed in rags. The attendant was indeed killed, and Arsinoe fetched up in Macedon, in Cassandreia, where her late husband had been worshipped as a god and she could expect refuge. She took with her a considerable fortune and some of the mercenaries left over from Lysimachus’s army, to improve the city’s chances of remaining independent of Macedonian rule. Seleucus was the last of Alexander’s Successors, and he was poised to fulfill the dream of empire on Alexander’s scale.


The end of Lysimachus’s rule in Asia Minor was widely welcomed by his former subjects—not so much because it had been especially harsh, but because, unluckily, it had seen almost constant warfare, after years of peace under Antigonus. Plutarch preserves a tale in which a peasant, digging a hole, is asked what he is doing; “Looking for Antigonus,” he replies.7 Lysimachus’s demise and replacement promised peace; naturally, the cities were effusive toward their new master. The island of Lemnos even awarded Seleucus cult honors.

From time to time throughout this book we have met with the worship of the Successors, not just after their death, but, as with Seleucus in this instance, while they were still alive. Leaving aside the fact that, as a pharaoh, Ptolemy was recognized by at least the traditionalists among his native subjects as a god, he was also worshipped as Savior in Rhodes, as were Antigonus and Demetrius in Athens. Antigonus also received divine honors at Scepsis in northwestern Asia Minor, and Demetrius ended up with three cults in Athens. Alexander the Great demanded at the Olympic Games of 324 that all the Greek cities recognize his divinity, as a few already had of their own accord. During the brief period of Cassandreia’s independence, Lysimachus was worshipped there, as he was also at Priene in Caria. Games were instituted in honor of Antigonus and Demetrius on the island of Delos. The awarding of divine honors to Alexander and the Successors was far from universal, but it was a widespread practice.8

Alexander and the Successors were not the first living individuals to be awarded divine honors. At the end of the fifth century, the Spartan general Lysander received cult honors as a savior for freeing the island of Samos from Athenian dominion. In the middle of the fourth century, Dionysius I, tyrant of the Greek city of Syracuse in Sicily, obliged his subjects to award him divine honors.9 All that we find in the Successor period is a huge acceleration of the phenomenon, and that is easily explained by the extraordinary nature of the times.

Homer’s Odyssey, written around the end of the eighth century BCE, was one of the foundation documents of Greek thinking about the gods. At one point Odysseus has been washed up on a shore, more dead than alive. He is rescued by the beautiful, fey princess Nausicaa, and he tells her that if he gets back home, “I will pray to you as a goddess for all my days, for you gave me life.”10 In a polytheistic world, the gods could take on all kinds of guises, and even appear as human beings. An embodied god was simultaneously divine and mortal. When an embodied god was recognized as such at the time (as opposed to with hindsight), it was, naturally, an intensely moving experience.

But how could you tell you were faced with a god? By his or her fruits, by the extraordinary, superhuman nature of what he or she was doing. The gods broke human barriers and saved people in extraordinary and unexpected ways. When Ptolemy saved Rhodes, or Demetrius Athens, they achieved something remarkable, even miraculous, and in so doing they proved that they were embodied gods, no less than Nausicaa in fiction. This is particularly clear in a decree from Scepsis, dating from 311: Antigonus is awarded divine honors precisely because he has brought peace and autonomy.11 In almost every case, the awarding of divine honors to a Successor followed his winning a major victory.

The Successors stirred deep emotions. “He sat [on his horse] in the full realization of all that soldiers dream of—triumph; and as I looked up at him in the complete fruition of the success which his genius, courage, and confidence in his army had won, I thought that it must have been from such a scene that men in ancient days rose to the dignity of gods.”12 This description of Robert E. Lee at Chancellorsville, by one of his aides, captures a similar emotional experience. We might describe it simply as a reaction to military charisma, but the ancient Greeks would have described it as the presence of a god.

The fact that in Greek religion it was possible to merge the subjective and the objective in this way—so that if Lee is perceived as embodying divinity, he does embody divinity—helps to explain why such cults tended to last only a short time. When the first rush of emotion had passed, and especially when geopolitical circumstances had changed, it became possible to see the deified human being as no more than a human being, and to listen to those who had been skeptical from the start. The god had passed out of his temporary vehicle.

The deification of the Successors, then, was in origin a spontaneous emotional reaction to a life-saving or otherwise astonishing event. Hence it was not just cities that instituted cults, but there is evidence even of private worship.13 All those who felt particularly touched by whatever remarkable event had just taken place were moved to give thanks. When a king himself ordered the institution of a cult, it was invariably the cult of a dead ancestor or of the dynasty as a whole, not of himself. It was others who recognized living kings as gods.

The kings played the part, however, in the ways they presented themselves. Hence, for instance, the array of headdresses we find on coins: lion scalp, elephant scalp, ram’s horns, bull’s horns, goat’s horns, rayed diadem, winged diadem. Each evoked particular divine associations.14 The very fact that some of them showed their own heads on their coinage was telling, since that was traditionally where a deity was portrayed. The Successors were well aware of the political advantages to be gained by their elevation to superhumanity, as were their ultimate heirs, the kings of early modern Europe, with their adherence to the belief in the divine right of kings.

The cult of rulers as gods was eased by a number of factors. First, there was hero worship; even successful athletes could receive cult honors after their deaths as heroes, to acknowledge that they had done something superhuman, even if not quite divine, and above all that they had benefited their community. Second, there was the long tradition, both in Macedon and the East, for kings to be regarded as especially favored by the gods and for majesty to be considered a reflection of divinity.15

Third, the basis of Greek religion was largely ritualistic, with little dogma involved. Long training in ritual had inculcated the essential attitude: you act “as if” the thing were real—as if the bread and wine were flesh and blood, as if the smoke of sacrifice really carried your prayers and petitions to the gods. Then the ritual acquires potency and emotional depth. It was only a small step to act as if a man were a god. It was not that he had to be one or the other; he could be both. Many readers may find this outrageous, and many scholars try to lessen its impact. Perhaps we should think of the Successors as receiving divine honors but not actually being thought of as gods. But in a religion founded on acts, the act of awarding divine honors is precisely a recognition of divinity.

Fourth, as mentioned also in the previous chapter, there was a certain weakening of and skepticism about the Olympian religion. A contemporary utopian writer, Euhemerus of Messene (a friend of Cassander), influentially revived the old fifth-century theory that the Olympian gods were no more than human beings who had achieved remarkable things—as Demeter, say, had discovered how to cultivate cereal crops, or Dionysus had discovered viticulture. In fact, he even specified “generals, admirals, and kings” as such gods in the making.16 In the hymn the Athenians sang for Demetrius when he entered the city in 297, the Olympian gods are said to be remote. In a world at war, such a view is unsurprising: despite all their sacrifices and prayers, the Athenians were still starving—until Demetrius came and saved them.

If we shed Judeo-Christian preconceptions (especially monotheism, with its corollaries of divine omniscience and omnipotence), it is not difficult to understand the deification of the Successors as a spontaneous reaction to their superhuman and lifesaving achievements, aided and abetted by more than a soupçon of the desire to appease a power that could as readily destroy the city as save it. Nor is it hard to understand such a reaction; even in our own sophisticated times, people have been known to regard as gods whoever or whatever gives them the greatest rush of emotion. In an era of disillusionment, the orthodox churches often fail to deliver such ecstasy, and so exotic gurus and Elvis Presley become gods. In any case, the early Hellenistic world did not subscribe to Judeo-Christian principles; the Successors stirred deep enough emotions to pass as gods.


Seleucus now held all Asia from the Aegean to Afghanistan—almost all the old Persian empire, apart from Greater Egypt and the territories he had ceded to Chandragupta. The Egyptian king must have felt himself to be the next target, especially since Seleucus incorporated Ceraunus into his court, indicating that he looked with favor on his claim to the Egyptian throne. By and large, the Asiatic Greek cities opportunistically welcomed Seleucus, though Lysimachan garrisons at Sardis and elsewhere had to be driven out.

Seleucus spent only a few months settling the present and planning for the future of Asia Minor before taking the next logical step. In the summer of 281, he crossed the Hellespont and marched on Lysimacheia to lay claim to Lysimachus’s European possessions as well. With Thrace and Macedon, Seleucus would in effect rule the world. He was closer than even Antigonus ever got to emulating Alexander.

There was no army that could resist him—he was “the conqueror of conquerors”17—but even the leaders of vast armies are vulnerable as individuals. In September, while they were out riding together near Lysimacheia, Ceraunus treacherously killed Seleucus with his own hand. Ceraunus had decided to give up on Egypt—too tough a nut to crack—and take advantage of the current confusion to establish himself in Europe. Ironically, Seleucus had sheltered his own murderer. It was a wretched end for one of the most bold and enterprising of the Successors. At least, by making Antiochus joint king, he had left his empire as stable as it might be.

The last of the true Successors—the last of those who had known and ridden with Alexander the Great—both died in blood within a few months of each other. All four of the major post-Ipsus contenders had died within a few years: Ptolemy in 283, Demetrius in 282, Lysimachus and Seleucus in 281. The effect of this watershed would be the confirmation of the fundamental divisions of Alexander’s empire, but it took a few years to become apparent. It was as though the original Successors’ impetus continued by inertia for a few years, despite the fact that the kings of the next generation were more content to abide within their own borders. It was Macedon itself that bore the brunt of the final phases of the Successors’ warfare.

Ceraunus had himself acclaimed king of Macedon at Lysimacheia by the assembled army. Not a few of the troops had worked for Lysimachus before being incorporated into Seleucus’s army and felt no particular loyalty to Seleucus. Philetaerus bought Seleucus’s body from Ceraunus and, after ceremonially cremating it at Pergamum, sent the ashes to Antiochus. After all, he was setting up an independent kingdom in territory that nominally belonged to Antiochus now. Antiochus had the bones interred in Seleucia Pieria, where a temple was constructed over them and the cult of the Seleucid royal house began.

But such genteel acts lay in the future. For the present, Antiochus was racing west to restore order in Asia Minor, which had been left without overall administration and with only scattered garrisons to defend it. But he was delayed on the way by an opportunistic rebellion in Syria, and Ptolemy seized the chance to add to his Asia Minor possessions. Only in 279 was Antiochus in a position to send an army into Asia Minor to stop the rot. In the two years since Corupedium and the deaths of Lysimachus and Seleucus, Ptolemy’s forces had made major gains, and they now had effective control of a large slice of the Asia Minor coastline, from Lycia to Chios. Antiochus’s general managed to check further expansion, but no more, and he marched north instead. He honored Seleucus’s agreement with Philetaerus and left Pergamum alone, but invaded Bithynia, where Zipoetes was also taking advantage of the chaos to extend his borders. The repulse of the invasion did not bode well.

Meanwhile, in Europe, the quasi-pretender Gonatas tried to get to Macedon before the pretender Ceraunus, but was driven off. Ceraunus had already been proclaimed king by the army, and he now sought further legitimation. No doubt he reminded the Macedonians of his father’s claim to be the illegitimate child of Philip II, as though there were good Argead blood in his veins. He also invested Arsinoe, Lysimachus’s widow, in Cassandreia. The recovery of Cassandreia would demonstrate to the Macedonians his concern to pull the country back together again.

But then he had a better idea. Instead of trying to take Cassandreia, he offered to marry his half sister. This would not only gain him Cassandreia, but allow him to claim to be Lysimachus’s heir and avenger. She finally agreed to the alliance—a fact that even the ancient authors found puzzling, since the marriage was so obviously doomed from the start. The tradition tells a chilling tale of a woman who wanted nothing more than to be queen of Macedon, and of an evil man foreswearing himself before the mightiest gods to persuade her of his sincerity when he said that he would recognize her sons as his heirs.18

Before long, the newlyweds fell out when Ceraunus butchered two of Arsinoe’s three sons by Lysimachus, “in their mother’s arms.”19 Arsinoe must have been foolish, or desperate, to believe that he would acknowledge them as his heirs; they were rivals. The eldest son had already fled, and soon his mother did the same. She went to Samothrace, and then to Egypt, where she later married her brother Ptolemy II, thus becoming a queen for the third time and introducing the Macedonian royal family to the pharaonic tradition of brother-sister marriage.

Ceraunus, free now to rule Macedon as he wished, did a good job of appeasing Pyrrhus and Ptolemy II. He loaned Pyrrhus troops for his imminent Italian campaign, and assured his half brother that he no longer had any designs on the Egyptian throne. Outside interference was the last thing he needed, since he had enough troubles from within, dealing with unruly barons and rival claimants to the throne. But Celtic tribes were on the prowl for land. They had been making a nuisance of themselves on the borders for many years; Cassander had had to deal with incursions or threatened incursions on several occasions. But recently the massive movement of land-hungry Celts had become a far more serious problem; they had already more or less brought to an end Odrysian rule in Thrace, for instance. Now, in 279, a monstrous band approached Macedon. Ceraunus thought he could handle the situation. They expected to be given a lot of money and sent to look for land elsewhere, but Ceraunus chose to face them in battle. The Macedonian army was cut to pieces, and Ceraunus’s head displayed on a spear.

The Celts went on the rampage, but they lacked siegecraft. People huddled in terror in towns and fortresses while their land was plundered and spoiled. Cassandreia seized the opportunity to secede once again from Macedonian authority. Some of the Celts penetrated down into central Greece, but they were driven off by a combined Greek army led by the Aetolians. The massive horde dispersed; some established themselves in Thrace, while others, after ten years of brigandage on a grand scale in western Asia Minor, turned parts of Cappadocia and Phrygia into an independent kingdom called Galatia that lasted well into the Roman period.


Ceraunus had reigned for only two years and left no clear successor. Macedon descended into anarchy; five pretenders vied for the throne, and anyone who got it held it for no more than a few weeks. One of them, another Antipater (a nephew of Cassander), was derisively nicknamed “Etesias,” because his reign lasted no longer than the season of the etesian winds (the modern meltemi)—about four months at the most, from late May.

Antiochus himself left Syria and came west. In return for acknowledging Ptolemy’s possessions in Asia Minor and the Aegean, his fleet met with no opposition as it sailed to link up with his army in Sardis. Fortunately for Antiochus, Zipoetes had died, and his two sons were fighting over the kingdom. In fact, the Celts first entered Asia Minor at the invitation of one of the Bithynian brothers, to help him in his struggle. But even if Bithynia could be ignored for the present, the Celts were at large in Antiochus’s kingdom—and so was Antigonus Gonatas.

In view of his precarious position in Greece, where he had few possessions and many enemies (including a newly resurgent Sparta), and in view of the chaotic situation in Asia Minor, in 279 Gonatas decided, like his father before him, to extend into Asia Minor. The plan worked well, but perhaps not in the way he expected. When Antiochus arrived, they skirmished for a while, but then came to terms. The deal was that Gonatas would leave Asia to Antiochus, and Antiochus would not interfere in European affairs. This was a significant moment; if Gonatas could gain the throne, there would be, for the first time since Alexander’s death, a balance of power, with none of the three kings inclined to try to take over the kingdom of one of the others. Gonatas and Antiochus sealed the peace between them by becoming double brothers-in-law: Antiochus was already married to Stratonice, Gonatas’s sister, and Gonatas now married a sister of Antiochus.

Gonatas’s first invasion of Macedon from Asia was a failure. But then in 277, apparently by sheer chance, he met a force of eighteen thousand Celts in Thrace on their way out of Greece. He lured them into an ambush near Lysimacheia and wiped them out. The rout was so thorough that Gonatas attributed his victory to Pan, the god of, among other things, panic. He later had his court poet write a hymn to Pan, and struck coins with the god’s head on the obverse. Macedon lay open for Gonatas, now that he had eliminated the Celtic menace and could present himself as a successful warrior and their savior. In 276 (having expanded his army by hiring some of the defeated Celts) he drove out the last pretenders, regained Cassandreia and Thessaly, and had himself declared king. He took the year 283, when his imprisoned father had abdicated in his favor, as the official start of his reign. He died in 239, aged eighty, still on the throne of Macedon.


It is striking testimony to the endurance of Alexander’s influence over the Successors that the attempt to emulate him died along with those who had actually known him. Of course, there was warfare to come, but it was limited. Successive Seleucids certainly wanted to take southern Syria from successive Ptolemies, but generally they did not expect to take Egypt as well; Pyrrhus drove Antigonus Gonatas out of Macedon for a couple of years, but the conflict was confined to the Greek mainland. The pattern of the three great Hellenistic kingdoms was fixed: Ptolemy had Greater Egypt, Antiochus had Asia, Gonatas had Macedon, and no one seemed to want the lot anymore. In the past, a frontier had been only temporary, as each king expected to try to expand his territory; now, greater respect was paid to natural borders of sea, river, mountain, and desert. Alexander’s dream of a single Greek empire remained unfulfilled. In the end, the empire that spanned east and west was Roman.

The timetable of the Roman takeover tells its tale of ruthlessness. In 167, after long hostility, the kingdom of Macedon was replaced by four republics subject to Rome; twenty-one years later, the southern Greeks were finally quelled and the city of Corinth destroyed. In 133 Attalus III of Pergamum, fearing the consequences of Roman interest in Asia Minor, bequeathed his kingdom to the Roman people as a way of avoiding massive bloodshed. In 74 Nicomedes III of Bithynia followed suit. By 62 the last champion of Greek freedom, Mithradates VI of Pontus, had been forced to commit suicide, and the former Seleucid kingdom was split up into provinces of the burgeoning empire. In 58 the Romans annexed Cyprus, having already taken Cyrenaica from the Ptolemies about forty years earlier. In 30 the love affair of Cleopatra VII and Mark Antony doomed Egypt to following the other Successor kingdoms into extinction as a Roman province.

But even after the Roman conquest, there was still something essentially Greek about these eastern Roman provinces, and in due course of time (in 285 ce, and then more formally in 364) the Roman administration recognized this by dividing the empire into a western and an eastern half. The east, governed from Byzantium (now renamed Constantinopolis), outlasted the west by a thousand years, and came into conflict with successive powers from farther east: the Sasanians, the Arabs, and finally the Ottoman Turks. All these world-changing events were the legacy of Alexander and the Successors, since it was their energy and ambition that had created the Greek East.

But their legacy did not always involve conflict and loss of life. Much of the youthful energy of the new world they created was, it is true, absorbed by warfare, but there was still enough left to build on the past and create new ways of thinking about humankind and its role in the world, about how individuals might perfect themselves, about what counted as art and literature. Philosophy reached new heights of sophistication, while at the same time reaching out to ordinary people; artists worked with new canons of realism; science and technology progressed at a furious rate, often driven by the interminable wars. The irony is that the Hellenistic age, which saw all this brilliance and high culture, was ushered in by the cynical brutality of Alexander and his Successors. But perhaps, for that very reason, this period of history can teach us to hope that even when things seem at their darkest, the forces of greed and destruction will not entirely win.

If you find an error please notify us in the comments. Thank you!