The Triumph of Cassander

THE LIKELIHOOD THAT Greece would become a theater of war rapidly became a certainty, as Cassander and Polyperchon vied for control of the mainland cities. Political lines became clearly drawn, the only relevant issue being whether any given city would throw in its lot with the legitimate regent or the pretender. By and large, the poorer members of the cities and their champions lined up behind Polyperchon, while the wealthier classes found their interests best served by Cassander. But whichever side was in the ascendant, we can imagine the stress and the bustle as cities tried to determine how close they would be to the front line of the impending war and made their preparations accordingly, and as rival political factions, encouraged by one or the other of the contenders for supremacy in Greece, tried to gain or confirm their power.


In his proclamation, Polyperchon singled out Athens for favorable treatment: not only would the democratic exiles return, as everywhere, but the island of Samos would be restored to the city. It had been removed by Perdiccas just a few years earlier as a consequence of Alexander’s Exiles Decree. Somehow, Polyperchon’s promise of freedom for the Greeks did not include the Greeks of Samos, who were to be expelled once more from their farmland in favor of Athenian settlers. But the glittering jewel of Athens in his crown was worth a little inconsistency.

The Athenian democrats contacted Polyperchon early in 318 and requested help in changing the regime that had been imposed by Antipater after the Lamian War. Polyperchon sent his son Alexander south. With an army encamped just outside the city walls, the leaders of the oligarchy were deposed and executed in May 318. Athens thus became a protectorate of the official regime in Macedon, and democracy was restored. Jubilation was muted, however, by the continued presence of Nicanor and the garrison in Piraeus, which could still make a considerable difference to Athenian fortunes. Before long Cassander himself arrived, with men and ships loaned to him by Antigonus, to make Piraeus the launch point for his attempt on Macedon.

Polyperchon responded by coming south in force to join his son for the blockade of Piraeus, but they achieved very little, since they could not control the sea. The Athenians were also finding it hard to feed the army of twenty-five thousand that was encamped on their land. Polyperchon therefore left Alexander with enough men to dissuade Cassander from venturing out of Piraeus by land, and marched into the Peloponnese.

Most of the Peloponnesian cities bloodily evicted the Antipatrid oligarchs on Polyperchon’s orders. The most important exception was Megalopolis in Arcadia, and Polyperchon put it under siege. The battle was protracted and closely fought, but in the end the defenders were successful. They even foiled a final push by Polyperchon’s elephants through the collapsed wall by laying spikes in the breach.1 In frustration, Polyperchon left Megalopolis under siege (which was eventually broken off months later without having achieved its objective) and withdrew back to Macedon. Polyperchon’s failures at Piraeus and Megalopolis, despite the size of his army, drastically slowed the rate at which the cities threw in their lot with him. It now seemed more sensible for them to wait and see who would win the war in Greece.

With many of his troops tied up in the sieges of Piraeus and Megalopolis, Polyperchon turned his attention elsewhere. Still desperate for allies, he sent the naval expert Cleitus to relieve Arrhidaeus, under siege in Cius, and at the same time to guard against a possible crossing of the Hellespont by Antigonus, who was encamped not far from Byzantium. The expedition went well at first; Cleitus relieved Arrhidaeus and joined forces with him. And when Nicanor arrived from Piraeus with over a hundred ships to help Antigonus, Cleitus inflicted a severe defeat on him off Byzantium. But that very night Antigonus arranged an unexpected counterattack: while he set about Cleitus’s camp on land, Nicanor returned with the remnants of the fleet to disable the enemy ships as they lay beached or tried to escape. It was a complete victory. Arrhidaeus either died or surrendered. Cleitus’s flagship alone escaped, but when he landed in Thrace, he ran into a detachment of Lysimachus’s troops and was killed. It was a wretched end for the man who, after his earlier successes, had styled himself as Poseidon, the god of the sea, and had insisted on being treated as a god.2 Nicanor fared little better, since soon after returning to Piraeus he was killed on Cassander’s orders for being overambitious.

The loss of the fleet meant not just that Polyperchon was now cut off from Eumenes, but also that there was little to stop Antigonus crossing the Bosporus and coming at Macedon that way. But the deal the two allies had made assigned all Europe to Cassander, and Antigonus was not yet ready to leave Asia Minor. It was all under his control now—his personal control or that of allies such as Asander in Caria—from the Hellespont to the Taurus Mountains, but there was the matter of Eumenes just beyond the Taurus. He left most of his forces to protect Asia Minor, entrusted the war in Greece to Cassander, and marched southeast after the renegade Eumenes.


Naval warfare had not changed much since the Classical period. The methods were still the same: skillful maneuvering so that you were in a position to disable an enemy ship by ramming (with or without subsequent boarding by marines) or by breaking its oars and oarsmen. The main innovations or developments in the early Hellenistic period stemmed from the same love of gigantism that produced—to name just a few outstanding examples—enormous armies, the Colossus of Rhodes, the Lighthouse at Alexandria, and the temple of Apollo at Didyma. Ever-larger vessels were being built. Unlike the sleek triremes of the Classical era, larger ships could deploy artillery on their decks—joined together catamaran-style, they might even carry massive siege towers with which to assault a port from the sea—and they could also carry more men. So the two chief developments in the early Hellenistic period were a greater reliance on long-range offensive weaponry, and more direct action. Instead of maneuvering to take an enemy ship from the side, the primary objective of Hellenistic naval warfare became frontal ramming, followed by boarding.3

The increased sizes of Hellenistic warships hugely increased the expense of navies. A fleet of a hundred warships of varying sizes, from triremes upward, might employ around thirty thousand men as crew and marines. A single, enormous ship built toward the end of the third century BCE by Ptolemy IV had a crew of almost 7,500 men, including three thousand marines. This vessel was largely for show, but already in our period Demetrius the Besieger was building some lesser, sea-worthy monsters.

But even before the crews had embarked, ships were very expensive to produce. It was essential also to control the raw materials, or to have good trading relations with places that controlled them: wood for the hull, mast, and deck (preferably fir, cedar, or pine), for the keel (oak for warships), and for the oars (preferably fir); pitch for caulking and bitumen for coating the hull; hemp, esparto, or papyrus for the cordage; flax to make linen for the sailcloth. The cost of ships was such that enemy ships were extremely valuable booty for the enemy. Being made of wood, holed ships tended to founder rather than sink, and could then be captured and taken in tow.

It was essential also to have access to as many ports as possible, not just as dockyards but as havens. Ancient ships were very vulnerable to bad weather, did not ride comfortably at anchor in the open sea, and, given the sizes of their crews, needed to restock their provisions regularly. They also had a tendency to become waterlogged. This weakness of ancient warships—that they often needed to make land—made it desirable to control not just ports but whole stretches of coastline, as well as islands. Ships that were temporarily beached, away from the safety of a good harbor, were also vulnerable to attack from either land or sea, as Cleitus found to his cost.


In Athens, constant military and diplomatic pressure from Cassander took its toll. Despairing of any effective action from Polyperchon, the Athenians decided to surrender and opened negotiations. After only a few months, in the summer of 317, the restored democracy fell again, this time in favor of dictatorship by a puppet ruler of Cassander’s choice. Cassander gave the job to the Aristotelian philosopher Demetrius of Phalerum, highly regarded, but still aged under forty. Demetrius ruled Athens for the next ten years, with the backing of the Macedonian garrison, of course. Piraeus and Athens were reunited, and gave Cassander a secure base in southern Greece.

Demetrius of Phalerum’s rule, though benign, sealed the end of Athens’s world-famous experiment in democracy. Although in later years from time to time the term was used for the constitution, the democratic organs of the state were actually dominated by a narrow group of wealthy families. This, as I have already remarked, is the pattern that came to exist within all the great cities of the Hellenistic world: power devolved upon those citizens who were wealthy enough to support the city both materially and through their channels of communication with distant kings.

Cassander’s protection ushered in a decade of relative peace for Athens. No wars were fought on Athenian soil, though of course the city took a keen interest in events elsewhere. Theophrastus (Demetrius of Phalerum’s teacher) wrote his Characters, light-hearted vignettes of different kinds of people, around this time, and his sketch of a rumor-monger shows him spreading the alarming (and untrue) report that “Polyperchon and King Philip have won a battle and Cassander has been taken prisoner”4—a situation that would certainly have spelled trouble for Demetrius of Phalerum’s pro-Cassandrian Athens. But Athenians watched from the sidelines rather than being involved in the action, and this was a major change for a city that had been at the center of Greek affairs for almost two hundred years, until the Lamian War.

The relative disempowerment of Athens in the Hellenistic period shows, above all, in the fact that it never again built monumental buildings out of its own resources, without the help of kings and wealthy individuals. It also shows in its literature and art, and most clearly in the comedy that was popular at the time. In the days when Athens had been a major power in the Aegean, comedy had blended farcical fantasy with satire, or even direct criticism, of contemporary figures, especially political figures and their policies. Aristophanes, the main comic playwright at the end of the fifth century, assumed that his job was to instruct his audiences as well as entertain them.5 By contrast, it is clear that Menander of Athens, the chief surviving representative of the kind of comic plays that were being shown at the end of the fourth century (conventionally called “New Comedy”), was concerned more or less entirely with entertainment. The rural setting of most of his comedies contrasts with the way Aristophanes set his plays in the heart of the city, where the political action was.

Menander’s plays are delightful, but they are light, soap-operatic situation comedies. The protagonists are recognizable types, but not political types; they are, for instance, clever slaves, young women with illegitimate children, grumpy old men, braggart soldiers, and worthless young men-about-town, all depicted with great skill and psychological insight. The plots invariably center on a thwarted love affair, which comes out well for the young lovers in the end. Where Aristophanes was engaged in contemporary events, Menander (who was a friend of Demetrius of Phalerum) and his peers do no more than refer to them as a kind of backdrop. Women might be abducted by pirates, or sold into slavery, or captured in war, or have children by foreign soldiers. Men contemplate enlisting as mercenaries, or are assumed to have died abroad on service, or return with a “spear-won” concubine. Menander was writing at a time when thousands of lives were being lost on the battlefields of Asia and Europe, but, not surprisingly, he felt it was his job to distract his audience’s attention from such harsh realities, not to comment directly on them. He was writing escapist literature. He drew attention not to large-scale events but to the personal problems of individuals and their families. And so he kept step with the emphasis on the individual that we have already found to be a dominant feature of early Hellenistic culture.

Escapism is apparent too in the new craze among rich town-dwellers for commissioning pastoral paintings to adorn their domestic quarters—the first manifestation of the long European tradition of landscape painting. None of these paintings has survived from the Hellenistic period, but they are known through later imitations, especially those preserved in the ruins of Pompeii and Herculaneum in southern Italy (though of course Roman artists were never merely imitative). Vitruvius, writing in Rome in the first centuryBCE, described typical scenes as “harbors, headlands, woods, hills, and the wanderings of Odysseus.”6 Such scenes were considered relaxing—which is to say that they took one’s mind off current affairs. The men who commissioned these paintings were increasingly cut off from the countryside, and so they idealized it. It is telling that the Greek word boukolikos, meaning “bucolic” or “pastoral,” also came to mean “soothing,” “ distracting.”

Of course, it is somewhat facile to describe any works of art or literature just as “escapist.” They are works of art in their own right, and many of the productions of the Hellenistic era have stood the test of time well. The degree of skill and the quality of the attention paid to works of art make it clear that both the artists themselves and their patrons shared the concept of art for art’s sake. The fact that they may have served escapist purposes is important from a social-historical point of view, but it falls far short of any kind of assessment of their worth as artistic productions.

These pastoral paintings quite often occupied panels that were displayed in a room in such a way that they could be read as a continuous narrative. Around the middle of the third century, poets such as Theocritus began to echo the trend by writing pastoral or bucolic vignettes. Not all of Theocritus’s Idylls are on pastoral themes, but all of them display the typical Hellenistic focus on everyday men and women rather than heroes. In Idyll I, the most famous of the pastoral idylls, a shepherd and a goatherd pipe and sing for each other, for entertainment and competition, and their exchanges are filled with details of country life: the music of the breeze in the pines, the playful sound of a waterfall, the flora and fauna, tasks such as milking, and lore such as that the meat of an unweaned kid tastes better. All the pastoral Idylls are imbued with escapism in the form of “the nostalgia, or hope, for simple virtues, uncomplicated living, plain home-grown food, basic country values.”7 Of course, country life never has been as ideal as this fantasy, produced for an urban elite by the court poet of Ptolemy II’s Alexandria. Theocritus instigated the pastoral dream that led, via Virgil, to Poussin’s Arcadia.

The evidence for the kind of tragedies that were being written in Athens and elsewhere at the time is exiguous, but bears out these generalizations about escapism. As far as we can tell, they tended to emphasize technical and musical virtuosity over the depiction and problematization of ideal civic values, as their fifth-century predecessors had. The fifth-century masterpieces of Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides were commonly revived, but only as great works of literature; we watch a Shakespeare production in much the same way nowadays, missing the copious references to contemporary events.

The new emphasis on the individual also informed sculpture and painting. While kings and commanders were still portrayed in propagandist ways that distinguished them as players of critical roles, a considerable gap opened up between this kind of public idealism and the increasingly large numbers of privately commissioned works of art, which aimed at the perfect execution of less weighty subjects, depicted as realistically as the writer or artist could manage. Coin portraits bridged the gap, with their subtle combinations of ideal and real.

Earlier in the fourth century, sculptors and painters had already begun to strive for a closer imitation of nature than the classical ideal allowed. Lysippus of Sicyon had introduced a new proto-Mannerist canon for the human figure, with longer legs and smaller heads, and positioned so that more than just the front of the body was visible. On this basis, sculptors began to experiment with more sensuous poses of the human form. The full range of emotions could now be expressed on face and body together—a satyr turning to look at his tail, a dancer dancing free. Realism—or at least the appearance of realism, as Lysippus is said to have quipped8—was the name of the game. Just as Lysippus was Alexander’s court sculptor, so Apelles of Colophon (died ca. 295) was the only painter he allowed to do his portrait, and Apelles too was at the forefront of developing a new realism in painting—so much so that, as the story goes, Alexander’s horse Bucephalas whinnied at its own image in one of his paintings.9

A new aesthetic was emerging. Poetry and the visual arts focused on technique and subtle displays of learning, and reflected each other. What was assonance in poetry and repeated motif in music became the periodic placing of color and form in painting; poetry in particular was full of such devices, designed to enhance its musicality, playfulness, and suggestiveness. Techniques such as filigree, chiaroscuro, and gilding were the visual counterparts of the wit and refinement of Hellenistic poetry. Poets returned the favor by valuing vividness, the ability to bring a matter directly before the mind’s eye. The subjects of all media were similar: pets, plants, children, ordinary people, domestic scenes, comic characters, tragic characters—all portrayed with vigor, a love of detail, and psychological insight. In some cases, artists chose to make their emotional point by grotesquery and caricature (here we find hunchbacks, dwarfs, and cripples, for instance); in others, by pathos or a gentle eroticism. Realism or caricature were the goals. It was all a far cry from war.


Cassander’s takeover of Athens was a major blow to Polyperchon, but worse was to follow. In the summer of 317, Polyperchon was in Epirus, with Alexander IV, negotiating with the Aetolians to the south and arranging for Olympias’s return to Macedon. She had finally agreed to take up his offer of being the official guardian of her grandson. One wonders what the first meeting was like between Olympias and the boy king—and his Bactrian mother. Taking advantage of Polyperchon’s absence, and his lack of success as a military leader, Adea Eurydice had her husband (a pawn, as throughout his life) write to all the major players, announcing that he was ordering Polyperchon to resign the regency and his command of the armed forces in favor of Cassander. At last she was operating with the degree of freedom she had tried to win at Triparadeisus. She was defeated then by Antipater, but clearly did not hold a grudge against his son. And now she was insisting that, in these troubled times, legitimacy lay with her and her husband, rather than with Alexander IV and Olympias.

The existence of two kings had always been anomalous, and potentially explosive. Now the two courts formed separate camps, and there could be no doubt in anyone’s mind that the final showdown had begun. Only one of the kings would survive this crisis. Cassander made a flying visit to Macedon to formalize his assumption of the regency, but then returned to his campaigns in the Peloponnese, where he was trying to recover the cities that Polyperchon had gained the year before. He expected to wrap things up soon, and then return to Macedon, but in the event he got held up at the siege of Tegea.

It did not take Polyperchon long to gather his forces to attack Adea Eurydice in Macedon, with Olympias at the symbolic head of an army that consisted largely of troops lent by the Molossian king. With Cassander tied up in the south, Adea came out to meet them at the head of her troops. Her bid for power came to an abrupt end when she was deserted by her men, who had no desire to fight the mother and son of Alexander. They had to choose between two Argead kings, and the presence of Olympias tipped the scales away from the half-wit. Besides, Philip had not and was presumably not likely to father any heirs.

Adea Eurydice and Philip III fell into Olympias’s ungentle hands, and found Polyperchon disinclined to interfere in her vengeance. She imprisoned them in tiny, windowless cells in Pydna, and set about a purge in Macedon. While removing dozens of potential enemies among the Macedonian nobility, she focused particularly on Antipater’s family, claiming that she was avenging the poisoning of her son. She had Nicanor killed and scattered the ashes of another of Antipater’s sons, Iolaus, who had been Alexander’s cupbearer and therefore the prime suspect in the alleged poisoning. If Heracles and Barsine were in Macedon, this is presumably when they fled to Pergamum, where they took up residence under Antigonus’s protection.

Olympias’s purge sped to its inevitable conclusion, and she took the momentous step of killing Alexander’s half brother, the legitimate king, and his royal wife. Reputedly, she sent nineteen-year-old Adea hemlock, a noose, and a sword, for her to choose. Adea chose the noose, but spited Olympias by using her own girdle.10 The fact that Philip was a king, and had been for over six years, did not deter Olympias; it was more relevant that he was the rival to her grandson, in whose name she was now the effective ruler of Macedon.

But this was her last stroke; Cassander had abandoned his war in the Peloponnese against Polyperchon’s son Alexander, and was on his way north. He knew he could expect support from the same factions in Macedon that had allowed Adea to declare for him, but his enemies raised three armies against him, and must have been confident of victory. The situation was critical; it would make or break either Polyperchon and Olympias, or Cassander.

Cassander displayed tactical genius. First, he bypassed the Aetolians, who were holding the pass at Thermopylae against him, by transporting his army by boat around them. He then split his army into three: one division checked the Molossian king in Epirus, another did the same to Polyperchon on the southern border of Macedon, and while these two enemies were occupied, he marched with the rest of his forces on Macedon itself, where Aristonous, perhaps with little more than his baronial forces, gave in more or less without a fight and retreated to Amphipolis. Polyperchon’s army was bribed away from him and he fled, ultimately to join his son in the Peloponnese, where a few cities remained loyal. One of Cassander’s first moves as the new ruler of Macedon was to foment rebellion in Epirus against the Molossian king and install a puppet on the throne in his place. His victory was swift and overwhelming. He was perhaps a little over thirty-five years old, and he would rule Macedon for almost twenty years, until his death in 297.


Olympias took the royal court to Pydna, where she holed up with a considerable and loyal army. After Polyperchon’s flight, she could pin her hopes only on her generals, but they had problems of their own. So, over the late autumn and winter of 317/316, Cassander besieged her forces in Pydna to the point of desertion and starvation, and Olympias was captured while trying to escape by ship. Pydna fell, and Cassander gained by force the right to be the protector and guardian of the young king. Aristonous held on to Amphipolis until ordered by Olympias to give up the unequal struggle, but both Olympias and he were promptly killed by Cassander, despite assurances of safety.

In Olympias’s case, Cassander felt the need to cover himself with a cloak of legality. He was no Argead, nor had he been a companion of Alexander the Great, and he was uncertain of his standing among the Macedonian troops and barons, even though he could claim that he was killing the killer of the joint king of Macedon. So he got an army assembly to condemn her on the basis of a show trial, and, in order to make sure that no Macedonian loyal to the Argead line got cold feet, he had her put to death by relatives of those she had killed during her purge.11 She was not quite sixty years old, and had been at or close to the center of Macedonian affairs since, as a teenager, she had become the bride of Philip II. Though the six-year-old king was too young to know it, the execution of his grandmother savagely reduced the chances of his full succession. She had been his principal and most influential champion ever since his birth.

Cassander’s military skills had endeared him to the army, who always responded to a strong general, and over the next few years he continued to make war on his enemies in the Peloponnese and central Greece and to secure Macedon’s borders. He was also generous in awarding his supporters positions of responsibility, where they could hold power and enrich themselves. But above all he chose the usual way to legitimate his rule—by associating himself closely with the Argead line. In the first place, he held elaborate state funerals for Philip III and Adea Eurydice, and even for Cynnane, six years dead. Philip and his wife are the probable occupants of the incomparable Tomb 2 at Vergina; on the hunt fresco that dominates the tomb, Philip was portrayed not as an imbecile, but as a Macedonian hero.12 In the second place, he took as his wife a half sister of Alexander the Great called Thessalonice, who had been a member of Olympias’s entourage.

Cassander was now de facto regent, even though, with Polyperchon still alive, there were delicate questions of legitimacy to be ignored by everyone. But no doubt he already envisaged his sons by Thessalonice occupying the throne of Macedon. He treated Rhoxane and Alexander IV badly, keeping them for years under house arrest on the citadel of the merchant town of Amphipolis, without pandering to their royal status. He gave out that their isolation in Amphipolis was for their own safety.

There is a fine line between regency and full kingship, as Philip II had found to his advantage. And Cassander very soon began to act like a king, above all by founding three cities within a single year, 316, the first full year of his reign. The two cities that were founded within Macedon—Cassandreia and Thessalonica—were Macedon’s first major urban centers. Apart from Pella, the country was still almost entirely rural; Cassander’s foundations represented a major step forward in Macedonian history.

Cassandreia was founded on the site of Potidaea, and incorporated other nearby villages, including the remnants of the once important town of Olynthus. Thessalonica, named to flatter his Argead wife, was founded by the amalgamation and incorporation of twenty-six small towns and villages at the head of the Thermaic Gulf; as the glorious future history of the city shows—it became joint capital with Constantinople of the Byzantine empire—the site was well chosen.13 These two ports hugely helped Cassander to develop a navy. He also refounded the Boeotian city of Thebes; he needed a bulwark of loyalty in central Greece against the unremitting hostility of the Aetolians.

As well as serving practical purposes, all three of these foundations or refoundations were symbolic. Philip II and Alexander the Great had been the first to found cities in their own names and those of their family members. Cassander was implying that he was at least their equal—and even their superior: Philip had reduced Potidaea and destroyed Olynthus, and Alexander had razed Thebes to the ground. Cassander now dared to undo these acts of his Argead predecessors. Whether or not Alexander the Great had been right to judge that Antipater had regal pretensions, Antipater’s son certainly did.

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