Ancient History & Civilisation

Historical Events After the Death of Alexander (323–301 BC)

The events of the two decades which followed the death of Alexander can be particularly difficult to make sense of. Five of the subjects of this volume are involved in this epoch of Greek history – Demosthenes, Phocion, Eumenes, Demetrius and Pyrrhus – but Plutarch’s account of their individual lives necessarily leaves many blank spaces in the surrounding picture. This section and the Biographical Notes which follow it attempt to fill in some of the gaps and to provide some points of reference.

Alexander died in Babylon in June 323 without naming an heir. The choice of one thus devolved upon the Macedonian nobles and army, and it so happened that the court and the majority of the troops then in Asia were concentrated at Babylon when Alexander died. In the struggle for power which developed, the infantry and the cavalry, which broadly speaking represented the peasantry and the aristocracy respectively, were at first ranged on opposing sides. At the council of generals Perdiccas, the senior cavalry commander, proposed that they should await the birth of Alexander’s child by Roxane, his Bactrian wife, and that if this was a male he should be made king. But Meleager, one of the infantry generals, argued that the king should be a Macedonian, not the son of a barbarian woman. The only candidate who satisfied these conditions was Arrhidaeus, Alexander’s half-brother, but he suffered from some form of mental disability. A compromise was finally reached whereby Arrhidaeus was renamed Philip and proclaimed king without delay, and in late summer, when Roxane’s child proved to be a boy, the young Alexander was also proclaimed as joint king with Philip. Perdiccas assumed command of the empire and of the royal armies in the name of the two kings, with Meleager as his deputy. Meanwhile Antipater, who had been left behind in Macedonia as Alexander’s regent, had his powers there confirmed, and Craterus, who was in Cilicia with a veteran army, was given the vague title of protector of the kings. This arrangement left Perdiccas with the initiative and one of his first actions was to execute his rival Meleager.

The death of Alexander encouraged the Greek city-states in the hope that they could throw off the Macedonian yoke. A revolt of the Greek troops whom Alexander had settled in the eastern provinces was put down, but the rising on the Greek mainland was a more serious threat. It was led by the Athenians, who quickly mobilized a strong fleet and joined forces with their allies and other mercenary troops to besiege Antipater in Lamia. But this success was short lived. In the winter of 323/2 Leosthenes, the Athenian commander, was killed outside Lamia, and in the summer the Athenian fleet was defeated and lost control of the Aegean. This enabled Craterus to cross from Asia and relieve the beleaguered troops in Lamia. Thus reinforced, he and Antipater met the Greek army at Crannon in Thessaly, and although the battle was militarily inconclusive, its political consequence was that the anti-Macedonian coalition melted away. Thereafter, Antipater imposed garrisons and pro-Macedonian governments on many of the Greek cities and curbed the Athenian democracy by reforming the constitution and limiting the franchise.

Meanwhile, in Asia the struggle for power developed into a contest between Perdiccas, who aspired to hold Alexander’s empire together and impose a central authority, and those generals who believed that the empire must be broken up and wished to establish themselves as local dynasts. One of the most active of these was Ptolemy, who had begun to carve out a kingdom for himself in Egypt and the surrounding territories. In 321 or 320 Perdiccas marched against him, leaving Eumenes to contain the forces of Antipater and Craterus who were moving into Asia Minor from Greece against him. Eumenes carried out this task successfully and at their first encounter near the Hellespont Craterus was killed. Meanwhile, after Perdiccas had failed to force the crossing of the Nile and suffered heavy losses, his troops mutinied and murdered him. Antipater then succeeded in rallying the Macedonian army and imposing a settlement at Triparadeisus in Syria. Antipater became regent of the empire and guardian of the kings, and Antigonus was appointed senior commander in Asia Minor with orders to suppress Eumenes and the troops loyal to Perdiccas there. Antipater later returned to Macedonia, taking the kings Philip and Alexander with him; there he died in 319 at the age of seventy-nine.

Before his death Antipater had delegated his authority as regent to one of his generals, Polyperchon, but this arrangement was promptly challenged by Antipater’s son Cassander, who had expected to succeed his father. Polyperchon lacked the stature to dominate the difficult situation which he had inherited. He was unable to impose his authority over either Ptolemy or Antigonus, to whom Cassander at once appealed for help. In an effort to win the support of the Greek city-states, Polyperchon reversed Antipater’s treatment of them by removing the occupying garrisons, encouraging many of the cities to bring back those driven into exile by Antipater. Cassander, on the other hand, upheld his father’s repressive policy. This was the situation in which Phocion found himself. His friend Nicanor, the garrison commander of Munychia, was a supporter of Cassander, but it was the democrats encouraged by Polyperchon who succeeded in seizing power in Athens, and who took their revenge by putting Phocion to death.

In 317, however, Polyperchon’s fleet was defeated off the Bosphorus, and the Athenians, recognizing that they must come to terms with whoever controlled the seas, opened negotiations with Cassander. He came to Athens, reimposed Antipater’s limitation of the franchise and installed as autocrat Demetrius of Phaleron, whose rule lasted for the next ten years. Cassander then proceeded to Macedonia, persuaded King Philip to appoint him regent in place of Polyperchon, and went on to consolidate his control of the Greek mainland.

Meanwhile Polyperchon sought out Olympias, Alexander the Great’s mother, who was then in Epirus, and persuaded her that she must join forces with him if her grandson, Alexander, were to have any hope of the succession. Such was the magic of Alexander’s name that when she entered Macedonia the Macedonian troops at once deserted Philip and went over to her. Philip was executed and Olympias went on to order a massacre of Cassander’s supporters. But here she overreached herself and so alienated the sympathies of the Macedonians that, when Cassander returned, he was able to shut her up in the city of Pydna. In the spring of 316 she surrendered on an undertaking that her life would be spared, but soon afterwards Cassander, yielding to the pressure of the relatives of her victims, allowed the Macedonian army to sentence her to death. At the same time he kept Roxane and Alexander in close imprisonment, and thus, seven years after Alexander’s death, his heirs had effectively ceased to exist.

It remained to be seen whether any of Alexander’s military successors could take up his mantle, and the history of the next fifteen years is dominated by the struggle of the three most powerful of the Macedonian marshals, Ptolemy, Cassander and Antigonus. Of these, Ptolemy was comparatively weak in manpower and Cassander in financial strength. Both men lacked the expansionist outlook which the role required and were content to secure the possessions they already held; only Antigonus combined the resources and the ambition to reunite the empire under his rule.

While Cassander was campaigning against Polyperchon, Antigonus took the offensive against Eumenes, whom he rightly regarded as his most formidable opponent. Eumenes put up a gallant resistance first in Asia Minor and then further east in present-day Iran but he was betrayed by his troops, captured and executed. Strengthened by this success, Antigonus proceeded to assert his authority over the satraps of Asia and their troops, and took possession of a large quantity of Alexander’s treasure; in the process he drove out Seleucus, the satrap of Babylonia, who took refuge with Ptolemy. But the result of this action was to bring about an alliance between Ptolemy, Seleucus, Cassander and Lysimachus, the governor of Thrace. They demanded a redistribution both of territories and of the imperial treasure, and when these were refused they declared war in 315.

For this contest Antigonus by now possessed great financial resources and also the advantage of interior lines of communication. He invaded Syria, stirred up trouble for Cassander in Macedonia and for Lysimachus in Thrace and strove to win over the Greek city-states, as Polyperchon had done, by offering them self-government and freedom from Macedonian garrisons. However, on each of these fronts he was able to achieve only limited success and in 311 the five belligerents made peace: this settlement, it was generally recognized, served merely as a breathing-space to enable them to regroup and recover their strength. Cassander took advantage of this pause to end the long imprisonment of Roxane and her son Alexander by executing them.

The next four years witnessed a succession of minor campaigns and political manoeuvrings. But in 307 Antigonus’ son Demetrius suddenly seized the initiative: crossing from Ephesus to Athens he expelled Demetrius of Phaleron, Cassander’s autocratic governor, and restored to the Athenians the outward forms at least of their democratic freedoms. Many of the institutions abolished by Demetrius of Phaleron were restored, and the Athenians voted Antigonus and his son Demetrius extravagant honours.

The liberation of Athens dealt a serious blow to Cassander’s prestige in mainland Greece and accordingly Antigonus felt free to turn against Ptolemy. His first objective was the destruction of his opponent’s fleet, which since Ptolemy’s annexation of Phoenicia some years before had been built up to a formidable strength, and Demetrius was sent to attack its base on Cyprus. Demetrius, although outnumbered, won a decisive victory off Cyprus at the battle of Salamis in 306. Antigonus followed up this success by conferring the title of King upon himself and Demetrius: by this action he placed his family in the direct line of succession to Alexander, thus implying his intention of establishing a dynasty which would reunite the empire.

With Ptolemy’s fleet virtually annihilated, the way seemed clear for a combined invasion of Egypt by land and sea, and in the winter of 306/5 Antigonus marched with a large army. But this time the weather came to Ptolemy’s rescue. A succession of storms made it impossible for Demetrius to land, and Antigonus, unable to force the crossing of the Nile, was compelled to retire to Asia Minor. At this point and as a countermove in the diplomatic war, Ptolemy and the other rulers of the coalition followed Antigonus’ example and proclaimed themselves kings: this had the opposite effect to that of Antigonus’ action, namely of denying the existence of a single imperial house and affirming the rule of a group of lesser monarchies.

Soon afterwards in 305 Demetrius was despatched to besiege Rhodes. This operation was one of the most famous sieges of antiquity and earned Demetrius his title of Poliorcetes (‘the Besieger’). The object was to force democratic Rhodes, with her great shipbuilding capacity and strategic position, to abandon her neutrality in the war between Antigonus and Ptolemy. But Demetrius was unable to achieve quick results and the Rhodians finally obtained a negotiated peace. In 304 Antigonus resumed the strategic offensive and sent Demetrius to Greece. Here his campaign was so successful that he regained control of Attica, Central Greece and the Peloponnese and by 302 had compelled Cassander to sue for peace. Antigonus’ terms, however, were so harsh that Cassander appealed to his allies for help. The coalition was once more mobilized; Seleucus invaded Asia Minor from the East and Lysimachus from the west, and Antigonus in his turn was forced to recall Demetrius from Greece. The opposing forces met at full strength at Ipsus in Phrygia in 301. Here, thanks to Demetrius’ impetuosity, the cause of Antigonus was lost and the prospect of the reunification of Alexander’s empire under a single ruler was finally extinguished.

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