The First War of the Successors

WAR WAS ABOUT to break out among the Successors. No one can have been surprised. There had never been much of a chance that this particular succession crisis would pass without bloodshed. But perhaps no one can have foreseen quite how much blood would have to be shed before the dismemberment of Alexander’s empire was complete. The two decades from 321 to 301 saw four brutal wars—or rather, a more or less unbroken period of warfare, with each phase triggered by the concluding event of the previous one. It was civil war, Macedonian against Macedonian, but on such a scale that it truly deserves to be called a world war. First, the action took place all over the known world, shifting between the Greek mainland and islands, North Africa, Asia Minor, the Middle East, and Iran. Only the western Mediterranean was spared the Successors’ attentions, but it was no less disturbed.1 Second, the objective of a number of the participants was world domination. Thousands upon thousands of lives were lost on battlefields; our sources leave us merely to imagine the suffering and loss of life among civilians. One of the most savage periods of human history was ushered in by the ruthless ambitions of the Successors.


The causes of the first phase of this war, then, were Olympias’s scheming, Perdiccas’s manipulation of the Babylon conference and desire for supreme rule, and Ptolemy’s boldness. Having decided to attack Egypt, Perdiccas knew that Antipater and Craterus would try to invade Asia. They had approached Lysimachus and would be allowed safe passage through Thrace so that they could cross at the easiest point, the Hellespont. Perdiccas sent Cleitus with a fleet to the Hellespont to block their passage and control the Hellespontine cities, and gave Eumenes a land army of twenty thousand to protect Asia Minor. He also ordered Alcetas and Neoptolemus to place themselves and their forces at Eumenes’ disposal.

Things started badly for the loyalist cause. Antigonus, long familiar with Asia Minor, was sent ahead to test the loyalty of some of the satraps, and he won the immediate defection of Caria and Lydia. The satrap of Caria, Asander, was an old ally, and in Lydia Menander, as we have seen, felt himself to have been slighted by Perdiccas. These defections happened so quickly that Antigonus was almost able to catch Eumenes in a trap near Sardis, but Cleopatra warned her friend, and he escaped.

The rebels thus gained an enormous bridgehead in western Asia Minor. If they could not make the easier crossing from Thrace, they could land an army there. At the same time, Antipater continued a very successful campaign of subornation among Perdiccas’s senior officers. Eumenes stayed loyal, but Cleitus changed sides immediately, and Neoptolemus was drawn into secret negotiations. Moreover, Alcetas declared that he would not support Eumenes—that he would not lead his men into battle against Craterus. This was due not so much to any affection Alcetas might have had for Craterus as to his fears that, given Craterus’s popularity among the Macedonian troops, his men would simply refuse to fight. Alcetas stayed in Pisidia and waited to see what would happen. The loyalist defense of Asia Minor was falling apart before it had started. A lot would depend on the relatively untried Eumenes.

With western Asia Minor lying open, Eumenes fell back toward the borders of Cappadocia. Meanwhile, Perdiccas had marched south, taking the whole court with him, because there was no entirely trustworthy place to leave the kings and their presence legitimated his venture. He made Cilicia his first stop, where he deposed the satrap, who was known to be a friend of Craterus. Meanwhile, one of his senior officers was sent to do the same in Babylonia. The satrap there was close to Ptolemy and was suspected of collusion in the hijacking of Alexander’s corpse; in any case, Perdiccas did not want him on his left flank as he marched south toward Egypt.

Perdiccas assembled a fleet in Cilicia, and divided it into two. One section, commanded by Attalus, was to accompany the land army to Egypt; the other, under Aristonous, was sent to Cyprus. The island was important for its strategic location (its fortified ports made excellent bases), its naval expertise, and its natural resources (minerals and timber, especially), but it was ruled by princelings who, if they owed allegiance to anyone, had treaties in place with Ptolemy.

Meanwhile, thanks to Cleitus’s defection, Antipater and Craterus crossed the Hellespont unopposed. They divided their forces: Antipater headed for Cilicia, while Craterus marched to face Eumenes. The plan was for Craterus to annihilate Eumenes, while Antipater occupied Cilicia with all its resources of money and men. Then Craterus would link up again with Antipater, and together they would march south. Perdiccas would be trapped between their forces and those of Ptolemy. Antigonus was dispatched to deal with Aristonous in Cyprus.

As Craterus advanced, Neoptolemus set out to meet him—not as a foe but as a friend. He too had finally decided to change sides. But Eumenes found out what was going on and confronted him. This battle between the armies of supposed friends, late in May 320, was the first action in the civil wars that were to continue for the next forty years. Neoptolemus lost and fled to the enemy with a small cavalry force. Eumenes captured Neoptolemus’s baggage train and used this as a bargaining counter to persuade the rest of Neoptolemus’s men to join his camp. He had sufficient men to face Craterus, but their mood was uncertain.

The precise location of the battle on the borders of Cappadocia is unknown, but its outcome was a brilliant victory for Eumenes. As he advanced toward Craterus, he took pains to conceal from his men, especially the Macedonian troops, just whom they were going to face. He made out that Neoptolemus, a Molossian, was the enemy commander—and added that Alexander had appeared to him in a dream and promised him victory.

He was doing his best to raise his men’s morale, because he knew that he was at a disadvantage. The chances were that, if it came to a battle between the two infantry phalanxes, his Macedonians, most of whom had been on his side only since his defeat of Neoptolemus, would desert. But Eumenes had considerable cavalry superiority. He sent his Cappadocian horsemen into the attack before the phalanxes were fully deployed for battle, and they swept the enemy cavalry off the field. In the mêlée, Craterus’s horse stumbled and the would-be ruler of Asia was trampled to death. On the other wing, Neoptolemus was killed in hand-to-hand combat by Eumenes himself. Plutarch tells a story of mutual loathing, in which the two grappled on horseback before tumbling to the ground, where Eumenes dispatched his adversary. Even while he was stripping the supposed corpse of its armor, however, Neoptolemus managed one more feeble strike before expiring.2

The death of the two enemy commanders gave Eumenes the opportunity to wrap up the battle. He sent one of his staff officers to address Craterus’s phalangites. The message was “We won’t fight if you don’t,” and the enemy infantry surrendered and agreed to swell Eumenes’ ranks. But they slipped away by night a short time later and went to join Antipater. Despite his success, Eumenes was still a long way from securing Asia Minor. Now that Craterus was dead, however, Alcetas had little reason to withhold his support, and Eumenes probably planned, with Alcetas’s help, to contain the trouble spots until Perdiccas had defeated Ptolemy in Egypt. After that, he could expect his remaining opponents to surrender, or he could bring massive forces against them by land and sea.


In the early Hellenistic period, land armies consisted of two arms, cavalry and infantry, both of which came in heavy and light forms. Elephants were extra. The heart of the army was the heavy infantry phalanx, which would expect to bear the brunt of the fighting in any pitched battle. And at the heart of the phalanx were the Macedonian troops (either genuine Macedonians or soldiers trained and armed in the Macedonian fashion), as reformed by Philip II.3 Piled many ranks deep, and with its front a bristling line of sturdy pikes, each five meters long (over sixteen feet), it was, until the advent of the Roman legion, virtually impregnable in defense and terrifying in attack. Butt-spikes on the ends of the pikes fixed them firmly in the ground for defense, and could also be used as an offensive weapon should the need arise. For hand-to-hand fighting, phalangites also carried a short sword and a light shield. Next to the Macedonian phalanx fought an even larger phalanx of Greek hoplite mercenaries, armed with a heavier shield, a stabbing spear, and a sword.

As long as a phalanx remained solid, it was almost invulnerable. A direct assault even by heavy cavalry was rarely effective; the men knew how reluctant horses are to hurl themselves at a mass of men, and stayed firm. Elephants occasionally achieved some success, but they were a risky resource: when wounded they were as likely to run amok among their own lines as they were to trample enemy soldiers. A more consistent tactic was to try to outflank the phalanx, and for battle the cavalry were therefore invariably deployed on the wings.

Typically, then, the cavalry’s work was divided between attempting to outflank the enemy and defending against the enemy cavalry’s attempts to outflank their own phalanx. The phalangites normally faced forward, though in case of encirclement they could rapidly form a square. Given the enormous numbers of men in a phalanx, it consisted of smaller tactical units, each with its own officer, which were capable of independent action in an emergency and of rapid response to emerging situations. The main weakness of the phalanx was that it became very vulnerable if its formation was lost as a result of lax discipline, failure of nerve, or uneven terrain. It was rightly considered a sign of fine generalship to force a confrontation on terrain that gave his men the advantage.

The light infantry, typically mercenaries and native troops, were usually posted (along with the elephants, if the army had them) in front of the entire line of infantry and cavalry at the start of the battle. Their job was to screen the deployment of the main army and do as much damage as possible before slipping back through their lines to take up a position in the rear. If they still had some missiles left, they could act as a reserve in case of an encircling or outflanking movement by the enemy; otherwise, their work was done. They were also useful as marauders, or to run down heavier armed fugitives. Only in rough terrain did they become a strike force. If elephants were involved, it was the job of the mobile troops in the opening stages of the battle to try to cripple the creatures, while protecting their own.

Light cavalry, archers and javelineers, were used mainly as scouts, skirmishers, and scavengers. A heavy cavalryman was typically well armored from head to foot and wielded a long lance. Macedonian and Thessalian horsemen were particularly highly regarded as shock troops, but by the time of the Successors they had been joined by formidable native contingents. On parade, or sometimes for formal battle, the heavy cavalry made a gorgeous display, worthy of their wealth and social standing. As in all eras (think of thehippeis of classical Athens, the equites of Rome, the chevaliers of medieval Europe), the cavalry contingents tended to consist of members of the social elite, because by tradition a cavalryman was expected to provide and look after his own horse, and horse rearing was expensive. Only the wealthy had spare pasturage and the time to acquire equestrian skills, especially in the days before stirrups and saddle. The cavalry usually went into battle in waves of squadrons consisting of perhaps fifty or a hundred horse, operating as semi-independent units.

Every army was followed by a host of noncombatants: slaves, wives, prostitutes, doctors, translators, priests, philosophers (the founder of Scepticism, Pyrrho of Elis, accompanied Alexander, for instance), dignitaries, diplomats, coiners, merchants, slave traders, bankers, entertainers, various artisans such as carpenters and blacksmiths, diviners, scribes and other civil servants, engineers, and sappers. Then there were the carts for the transport of food and drink, fodder, artillery and siege equipment, arms and armor, the wounded and sick, swathes of canvas for tents, cooking equipment and countless other utensils, spare timber, leather straps, and everything else that an early Hellenistic army might need by way of support.

One of Philip’s most important military innovations had been to slash the number of noncombatants and wagons and to decrease the individual soldier’s burden, to allow for greater mobility, but there was still a multitude of men and animals—horses, mules for the carts, elephants, plundered livestock—and the logistical problems were enormous. Every person required about 1.25 kgs (2.75 lbs) of food per day; every mule or horse about 9 kgs (20 lbs) of chaff and grain; every elephant up to 200 kgs (440 lbs) of fodder. Generally speaking, little water was carried (though plenty of wine was), and campsites were chosen for the availability of good water and fodder.

The baggage train would typically be parked some distance from the battlefield. The word “baggage” may give an inadequate idea of what was involved. For professional soldiers such as the Macedonians and mercenaries, their baggage was everything: their women-folk, families, and all their possessions. Some of the Macedonians in both Eumenes’ and other armies had been continuously campaigning away from home for twenty years; their whole lives were bound up in their “baggage.” And so it was a common tactic in ancient warfare to try to seize the enemy baggage, which could then be used as a bargaining counter. We have already seen Eumenes do this to Neoptolemus.

For a pitched battle, the troops were typically deployed in a long line. The phalanxes occupied the center, the cavalry was divided between the wings, and the light infantry and elephants were posted out in front. If there was broken terrain on one of the wings, mobile infantry might be posted there instead of cavalry. After the light infantry had expended their missiles, one side or both would make a general advance, either in a straight line or obliquely, favoring one wing or the other. Typically, it would be the right wing that was weighted with more shock troops than the other and would lead the attack. For Greeks and Macedonians, the right wing was the place of honor, and this was where the king or commander tended to take up his position. Ancient generals still fought from the front.

The formulaic layout of the troops meant that, provided numbers were more or less equal, each type of contingent was most likely to clash first with its opposite number: cavalry fought cavalry, phalanx clashed with phalanx. Normally, it was only in the event of success or failure, or of ambush, that they would find themselves fighting dissimilar troop types. Commanders usually committed all or the vast majority of their troops at once, rarely holding any in reserve. One fundamental tactic, then, was for the winners of the cavalry engagement to try not to race so far off the battlefield that they were unable to return and support the central phalanx.

Elephants were newcomers to Greek or Macedonian battlefields in the early Hellenistic period. Alexander’s eastern conquests had first brought them to western attention, as he met them in battle against both the Persians and the Indians. They were as important and unreliable as the new armored tanks of World War I. Apart from serving as a potent symbol of a war leader’s might and raising the morale of men who felt secure that they had these awesome beasts on their side, they had two main military purposes. Their defensive purpose depended chiefly on the fact that their smell and sight upset horses, so that they could blunt a cavalry assault. Their aggressive purpose was to disrupt the enemy lines, either by trampling them or simply by terrifying them into falling back, while archers riding behind the mahouts fired down on their foes. If both sides had elephants, a terrifying spectacle followed, which was witnessed by one ancient historian: “Elephants fight by tangling and locking their tusks together, and then pushing hard while leaning into each other, trying to gain ground, until one overpowers the other and pushes its trunk aside, thereby exposing its opponent’s flank. The stronger elephant then gores its opponent, using its tusks as a bull does his horns.”4

Pitched battles were often decisive, and sometimes armies would maneuver for days or weeks before meeting in full battle, knowing that the outcome of the war, and the future of their state, might well depend on it. Battles were generally over within a few hours. In the event of a rout, casualties could be appalling, but in the era of the Successors mass surrender was common; defeated troops were likely simply to join the enemy army. After all, the opposing commander had just proved himself potentially a better paymaster than their previous commander had been.


Eumenes had won a notable victory—but the news did not reach Egypt in time to make a difference. Perdiccas was having a hard time of it. He had never managed to win the confidence of his men, and the expedition was plagued by desertion. Ptolemy undoubtedly had a very active fifth column within Perdiccas’s camp, and many of the officers as well as the rank-and-file troops were not convinced of the wisdom of attacking Ptolemy, or of the necessity for civil war. But Perdiccas stuck at the task and by May or June 320 was not far from the capital, Memphis. Then disaster struck.

Memphis was on the farther, western side of the Nile, but Perdiccas managed to find a place where he could cross the river unopposed. As it turned out, there was a good reason for its being undefended: it was not a true crossing. Many men forded the chest-high waters, with Perdiccas cleverly deploying his elephants upstream to lessen the force of the current. But their passage disturbed the sandy bed of the river and increased its depth, so that the rest were unable to cross. Those who had made it were too few to risk an attack on Memphis, and Perdiccas recalled them. Hundreds were swept away by the river and drowned.

The Nile has been forced only about a dozen times in history; even so, Perdiccas seems to have chosen an inept way to make the attempt. The ghastly episode added considerably to the disgruntlement in his camp. A failing Macedonian war-leader was always at risk, and a group of senior officers, led by Peithon and Antigenes (the commander of a regiment of Alexander’s veterans that Perdiccas had recruited in Cilicia), now took advantage of the troops’ despair. They entered Perdiccas’s tent under the pretext of official business and killed him. Given that Perdiccas represented legitimate authority and direct succession from Alexander, it was a momentous step.

The murder was certainly carried out with Ptolemy’s prior knowledge and encouragement, because within a few hours he had ridden into the enemy camp for a meeting with the senior officers. He was made welcome. They decided to convene the army and explain the situation to them. The assembly was in effect a kind of show trial of Ptolemy. He was found innocent of any crime, which meant that Perdiccas had no cause for invasion and therefore his murder was justified. Ptolemy also endeared himself to the troops by promising to supply them and send them on their way.

Who would now be regent of the kings? The post was offered to Ptolemy. He was a senior man, who had the necessary cachet of having served Alexander long and well, and the added prestige of having been a boyhood friend. But, in a momentous decision, he refused. Why? Subsequent events showed that he was not short of ambition, so perhaps he felt the time was not yet right, that matters were too fluid and unstable. Most probably, he did not want to fall out with Antipater and Craterus (not yet knowing that Craterus was dead), and wanted more than anything to be left alone. He did not want to become a target, and thought he could build Egypt into a powerful stronghold for himself and his heirs. He was right, but there was a long way to go yet before such visions could be fulfilled. But at least he had gained a powerful argument to wield against anyone who challenged his rule of Egypt: he had not just been granted it by a committee but had won it by conquest. It was now his “spear-won land.” But, since there had been little actual fighting, apart from the defense of a fortress, this was close to an admission from Ptolemy that he had been behind P erdiccas’s death.5

Instead of Ptolemy, then, Peithon and Arrhidaeus were made temporary guardians, tasked with protecting the kings and the court until a new settlement could be reached. A few days later, when the army heard about the popular Craterus’s death, the officers conducted another show trial, at which Eumenes, Alcetas, Attalus, and about fifty others were condemned to death as traitors. This signaled a commitment to war, not reconciliation. Perdiccas’s court was purged of his most loyal friends, and even his sister, Attalus’s wife, was slaughtered. A minor incident, but a foretaste of a brutal future.

A week earlier, Eumenes and the rest had been on the side of the angels, protected by Perdiccas’s legitimate regency; now the loyalists were the outlaws. Attalus took the fleet back to the Phoenician city of Tyre, where Perdiccas had left a war chest of eight hundred talents, and made it a haven for loyalist survivors. Thousands gathered there; with Eumenes and Alcetas in Asia Minor, the Perdiccans were still a force to be reckoned with. On Cyprus, however, Aristonous made peace and was allowed to live. He returned to Macedon, on the understanding that he would retire quietly to his baronial estates—or so I interpret his temporary disappearance from the historical record.


Within three years of Alexander’s death, two members of the triumvirate that succeeded him were dead. The Babylon settlement had plainly already been superseded, and a new dispensation was now needed. The anti-Perdiccan allies arranged a conference for the late summer of 320 at Triparadeisus in Syria (perhaps modern Baalbek).6 A paradeisos was a playground for the Persian rich, a large, enclosed area combining parkland, orchards, and hunting grounds—a “paradise” indeed. Triparadeisus, as the name implies, was extra special, a suitable location for such a summit meeting. Under the command of Seleucus, Perdiccas’s former army, with two kings, two queens, and two regents, moved north from Memphis through Palestine and Phoenicia to the tripleparadeisos. In due course, Antipater arrived from Cilicia, and Antigonus from Cyprus.

Sixteen-year-old Adea Eurydice clearly felt that Perdiccas’s death was an opportunity to agitate for greater power for herself. She accepted that there had to be a regency, but wanted the regent or regents to consult her as an equal, since she could speak for the only adult king. She achieved half her objective relatively easily: Peithon and Arrhidaeus could not handle her and resigned the regency in favor of the still absent Antipater. For a few days, before Antipater’s arrival, the field was clear for Adea. The young warrior queen was popular with the troops, and she exploited the fact that some of Alexander’s veterans were pushing for a generous bonus that had been promised them. These were the three thousand veterans commanded by Antigenes, who had been incorporated into Perdiccas’s army as he passed through Cilicia. Craterus had paid the rest of the veterans when he took them back to Macedon and joined Antipater, and Antigenes’ men were resentful at the delay in their case. Perdiccas had perhaps promised to pay them as a peaceable way of persuading them to join his Egyptian campaign.

Adea’s next action showed how far she was prepared to go: she invited Attalus, officially an outlaw, to come and address the troops. Since Attalus’s presence would have been intolerable to many if not most of the officers and men, the fact that he came and went with impunity demonstrates the extent of the disarray in the camp, with different units acting independently of any central command. His control of the treasury at Tyre made him a powerful ally. He and Adea presumably tried to induce the veterans to change sides. Adea seems to have been prepared to take her husband Philip III back over to the Perdiccans. They would regain the legitimacy they urgently needed, and she would gain the power she desired.7

When Antipater arrived empty-handed, then, he was greeted by simmering unrest. But with Attalus occupying Tyre and its treasury, no money was immediately foreseeable, and all Antipater could do was prevaricate. The veterans became angry, and Adea continued to inflame their anger, until they came close at one point to lynching the old viceroy. Antigonus and Seleucus, however, managed to calm the situation down. They must have promised money, but there was also the implied threat of conflict, with the rest of the army lined up against the veterans. Adea backed down to avoid bloodshed and her own certain death, and peace was restored.

Antipater was duly acclaimed regent. He ran the conference that followed with the expected new broom.8 Vacant positions were filled, loyalty was rewarded, and his marriageable daughters passed around. Ptolemy finally married Eurydice, Lysimachus was given newly widowed Nicaea, and Antigonus’s seventeen-year-old son Demetrius received Phila, at least ten years his senior, who had been widowed by the death of Craterus.

Naturally, Ptolemy retained Egypt, but he was the hero of the hour, and he was also granted “any lands further west from Egypt that he may acquire with his spear.”9 This was both an acknowledgment that he had made Cyrenaica his and an invitation to expend his considerable energy on Carthage and the western Mediterranean rather than looking eastward. It was well known that he saw Palestine and Phoenicia as logical extensions of what he already had. And he had history on his side: Phoenicia had been under Egyptian control two centuries earlier, before the coming of the Achaemenids.

For their prominent roles in the assassination plot, Peithon was confirmed in Media and given general oversight of the eastern provinces, and Antigenes got Susiana. Seleucus was given Babylonia, though he first had to oust the Perdiccan incumbent by force of arms. Arrhidaeus was awarded critical Hellespontine Phrygia, the crossover point between Europe and Asia. Asander retained troubled Caria, but, oddly, Menander, who had been just as disloyal to Perdiccas, was replaced in Lydia by Cleitus, whose defection had eased the invasion of Asia. Menander himself was attached to Antigonus’s staff; perhaps he felt more comfortable there. Eumenes was replaced in Cappadocia by one of Antipater’s sons, called Nicanor. Others were rewarded by being made Bodyguards for the two kings. There were the traditional seven of them, but now they were divided between the kings: four for Philip III, and three for Alexander IV.

The greatest winners were the two oldest men present: Antipater, of course, and Antigonus the One-Eyed. Antipater did not really want anything to do with Asia, and had been happy with the prospect of Craterus’s taking Asia while he retained Europe. Now, with Craterus dead, Antipater effectively replaced him with Antigonus. Apart from retaining his long-held satrapy of Phrygia and subordinate territories (though at the time they were in Eumenes’ hands), he was also, at his own request, made “Royal General of Asia,” in the same way that Antipater was “Royal General of Europe.” Perhaps this was meant to be a temporary position, because the conference also gave him the job of dealing with the remnants of the enemy forces.

The spontaneous condemnation of the surviving Perdiccan leaders by the army in Egypt was now confirmed and ratified. Antigonus would have right on his side, even though right, as granted by possession of the kings, had been on the other side a few weeks earlier. Antigonus, then, for so long just outside the very center, had found his way right to the heart of matters. At an age when many of us are thinking of retirement, he was entertaining dreams of world dominion. His commission to mop up the remaining Perdiccans was just the instrument he needed.

Antigonus gained the bulk of Perdiccas’s former army, but not the three thousand unruly veterans. In what looks very much like a punishment for their near lynching of Antipater, they were sent off, under Antigenes’ command as usual, to Susa, to escort the bullion stored there west to Cyinda in Cilicia. Antipater’s son, Cassander, became Antigonus’s second-in-command. Cassander had argued against the appointment, on the grounds that he and Antigonus did not get on. Besides, with his father’s health beginning to fail, he did not want to be away from the center. But Antipater overrode his objections. He had taken the precaution of surrounding Antigonus in Phrygia with satraps who were loyal to himself, but he still felt he needed someone reliable on Antigonus’s staff. The relationship between the two most powerful men in the world was based on mutual distrust.

For the present, both the kings were alive and safe. The summit meeting at Triparadeisus carefully preserved the pretense that there was a single empire, the empire of Philip III and Alexander IV. But under the surface, the meeting had also come close to recognizing Ptolemy as a wholly independent agent in Egypt, and had, at least temporarily, abandoned all Asia to Antigonus. The broad outcome of the conference at the triple paradeisos was a foreshadowing of the future triple division of the empire.

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