The Wars of the Successors: plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose

A little while ago I read Robin Waterfield’s excellent Dividing the Spoils, an account of the forty-two year conflict between Alexander the Great’s successors for control of his empire. As I read, I kept a time line of events and it is this that forms the basis of my posts on the Successors’ battles. If you would like to catch up with the other posts in this series, then just click here. Waterfield’s book is available through Amazon but why not support your high street bookshop by buying it there?
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I trust that my timeline is accurate but if you spot any errors do feel free to let me know. It goes without saying that if there are any, they are mine and not Waterfield’s.
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315 – 311 The Third War of the Diadochi
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Year / Principle Combatants / Location / Victor
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315 Cassander vs Polyperchon – Peloponnese – Cassander wins
315/4 Antigonus vs the city of Tyre (siege) – Tyre – Antigonus wins
313 Asander vs Antigonus – Caria – Antigonus wine
313 Lysimachus vs Antigonus – Thrace – Lysimachus wins
312 Ptolemy & Seleucus vs Demetrius – Gaza – Ptolemy and Seleucus win
311 A Ptolemaic general (unnamed) vs Demetrius – Syria – Demetrius wins
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Outcome

  • Polyperchon loses his credibility as a successor
  • Seleucus is restored to Babylon
  • Antigonus loses Cassander as an ally but makes peace with him and Lysimachus
  • Ptolemy loses territory and is comes under threat from Antigonus

For the full story on how the third successor war started, see this post; below, I’ll give a quick recap of the events that lead most directly to it.
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After Antigonus had defeated Eumenes at the Battle of Gabene in the winter of 317/6 he returned west. Along the way, he stopped in Babylon. There, he tried to bully Seleucus into giving him an account of how he had run his satrapy. As Waterfield says, Antigonus acted ‘as though he were king and Seleucus a mere satrap’. Seleucus certainly was the latter, but Antigonus was no king, and had no right to make such demands of his former ally.
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Seleucus defended his position but was soon forced to flee the city. He, his family and their escort travelled to Egypt where they were welcomed by Ptolemy.
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Ptolemy had kept out of the second successor war but Antigonus was now too wealthy, and his army too large, to ignore. Therefore, he wrote to Cassander and Lysimachus to ask for their support in demanding Seleucus’ restoration as satrap of Babylon. At the same time, however, Antigonus reminded his fellow successors that they owed him their loyalty. Did he expect anyone to respond positively to his letter? Probably not, but in a world where political loyalty could change as quickly as the wind he must have thought it was worth sending anyway, just in case someone did decide to do so. However, not only did they not, but the other successors replied with a list of impossible demands (see the last post in this series here), that set the stage for the third war of the successors.
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315
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I
Divide and Conquer
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Polemaeus in Asia Minor
Antigonus’ first priority was to stop his rivals from joining up with one another. To this end, he sent his nephew Polemaeus to Asia Minor to prevent Cassander (and, for the matter of that, Lysimachus) from crossing the Hellespont.
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On his way to the Hellespont Polemaeus beat up the Cappadocians who had come out in support of Cassander and bullied Zipoetes, the king of Bithynia, into staying neutral.
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Aristodemus in the Peloponnese
While Polemaeus was seeing to Asia Minor, Antigonus sent Aristodemus of Miletus on a mission to buy Polyperchon, and his son Alexander’s, support. The mission was a success, and as well as money, Antigonus gave Polyperchon 8,000 mercenaries and a brand new title – General of the Peloponnese. His orders were to keep Cassander tied down in Greece.
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Tying up Ptolemy
Antigonus’ third action was to ‘persuade’ the island of Rhodes to build him a fleet that would be able to take on Ptolemy’s navy. That worked, but his attempt to turn Cyprus against the Egyptian satrap was less successful. Having said that, although the Cypriots remained loyal to Ptolemy, Antigonus’ overtures did force him – Ptolemy – to send men to the island to make sure it stayed in his hands; this had the knock on effect of meaning that Ptolemy had fewer men elsewhere to fight Antigonus with, so his efforts were not in vain.
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4. Palestine and Phœnicia
With Ptolemy busy in Cyprus, Antigonus moved south and put Tyre under siege. You’ll recall that it took Alexander seven months to storm the city. Was Antigonus able to outdo him? No. In fact, it took him fifteen months before the city finally fell. In the meantime, Antigonus was able to take control of the entire Phœnicia-Palestine region.
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II
Kings and Proclamations
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Antigonus – the second Alexander

With the capture of Phœnicia and Palestine Antigonus now controlled all of Alexander’s empire except for Greece north of the Peloponnese, Macedon, Thrace, and Egypt. ‘He [also] had capital reserves amounting to billions of dollars’ (Waterfield, p. 111). Only Seleucus would ever come close to equalling Antigonus’ achievement, but that would not happen until the 280s.
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Seleucus – Intimations of things to come
Yet even now Antigonus did not have everything his own way – as Seleucus proved when he sailed past Tyre as if to taunt Monophthalmus for his want of a fleet. His other purpose was to take the island of Cos for the Ptolemaic cause. Once that had been achieved, Seleucus indulged in a few raiding missions in Asia Minor until Polemaeus chased him off. Before returning to Egypt, Seleucus visited the sanctuary of Apollo in Didyma to consult its oracle. They told him that he was a “king”. The future had arrived.
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The Proclamation of the Macedonians
Antigonus was not a man to throw his pebbles into the sea while the siege of Tyre dragged on so he called together all the Macedonians under his banner and issued the Proclamation of the Macedonians (aka the Proclamation of Tyre). Under it, he had Cassander tried ‘in absentia’ for his crimes against the Argeads. Namely:

  • The murder of Olympias
  • Illegally imprisoning Roxane and Alexander IV
  • Forcing Thessalonike to marry him (Cassander, that is)
  • Rebuilding Thebes

The Proclamation also confirmed that Polyperchon’s new title of ‘General of the Peloponnese’ replaced his regency of Alexander IV, and that Antigonus was now the young king’s regent. Clearly, ‘Antigonus’ intention was to rule the entire Macedonian empire’ (Waterfield, p. 113).
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It is worth recording that the Proclamation ‘declared that the Greek cities were to be free, autonomous, and ungarrisoned’ (ibid). Hmm. To be fair to Antigonus, Waterfield does say that he did ‘his best to keep this promise of autonomy within his own realm’ (Waterfield, p. 114).
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Ptolemy Unnerved
Antigonus’ proclamation stung Ptolemy into issuing his own in which he too said he supported the freedom of Greek cities. But as Robin Waterfield says, it was a ‘doubly strange’ move by him. Firstly, he controlled several Greek cities so was making a hypocrite of himself. Secondly, his ally Cassander also controlled cities so he was putting unnecessary pressure on him. I think Antigonus panicked Ptolemy into speaking out when he should have kept quiet even though it meant that Antigonus appeared as the better man.
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III
Deeds of the Successors

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Cassander and the Peloponnese

Cassander’s response to Antigonus’ actions was to try and turn Polyperchon to his side. Given how hard he had struggled to find a friend after 319 the ageing general must have been very gratified indeed that people were now coming to him for his support. However, he didn’t let it go to his head, and he turned down Cassander’s advances.
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As a result of this, in the summer of 315, Cassander invaded the Peloponnese and succeeded in winning back some of Polyperchon’s territory for himself. At the end of his campaign, he returned to Macedon sending ‘his most trusted general Prepelaus’ (Waterfield, p. 115) to continue the war on his behalf.
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Prepelaus was clearly a talented man as he actually managed to persuade Polyperchon’s son, Alexander, to come over to Cassander’s side. On doing so, Cassander gave him his father’s title of General of the Peloponnese. I don’t know why I should be surprised at this development – it wasn’t as if Cassander was very supportive of Antipater’s wishes after he died.
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By the end of 315, Polyperchon’s territory had been reduced to Messenia. Sparta was still out of Cassander’s control but no one cared about that once powerful land anymore so it was let be.
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Asander in Caria
In the late summer of 315, while Cassander was waging war Polyperchon, Asander declared for the Argead loyalists. This was bad news for Antigonus as Caria would make a good platform for Ptolemy to attack Asia Minor. So, he sent Polemaeus to deal with the new threat. Polemaeus arrived late in the year and spent all of 314 fighting Asander.
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314
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Aristodemus in Greece
Having brought Polyperchon into the Antigonid fold the previous year, Aristodemus worked hard in 314 to wrest Greece from Cassander’s hands. He formed an alliance on behalf of Antigonus with the Aetolians before bringing many cities in the Peloponnese back to the Antigonid side. Aristodemus was so successful that Cassander now only controlled northern Greece and Macedon.
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Black Sea and Grain
In the autumn of 314, Antigonus won control of the islands of Lemnos and Imbros. This gave him control of the grain route from the Black Sea to Greece.
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A Mysterious Death
Around the same time as Antigonus secured the grain route, Polyperchon’s son, Alexander was assassinated in Sicyon. As a consequence of his death, however, Cassander lost both Corinth and Sicyon. These cities were taken over, and ruled with a fair degree of independence, by Alexander’s wife, Cratesipolis for the next few years.
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Prepelaus’ Disaster
As I mentioned above, Asander and Polemaus fought each other through 314. During the year, Asander found time to visit Athens to give the city money to raise an army. For his part, Cassander sent the reliable Prepelaus to help Asander only for the former’s army to be destroyed. Prepelaus escaped but disappears from the historical record until the turn of the century.
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Antigonus’ Fleet
In the latter half of the year, Antigonus’ siege of Tyre finally came to a successful conclusion. At the same time, his fleet finally emerged from its Phœnician dockyards. Antigonus didn’t make immediate use of it, though, choosing to leave his son Demetrius in charge of Tyre and march north into Caria where he wintered at Celaenae.
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At Celaenae, Antigonus captured and destroyed Cassander’s fleet.
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313
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IV
Battles Between the Successors
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Asander vs Antigonus
The arrival of Antigonus in Caria forced Asander to give up his fight against Polemaeus. He came to terms with Monophthalmus, and, as part of the deal, was allowed to remain as satrap, albeit in a much diminished capacity. Perhaps it was that emasculation which made Asander rebel almost immediately and write to Ptolemy and Seleucus asking for their help.
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Before they could do anything, perhaps even before they received Asander’s letter, Antigonus discovered what had happened. He launched a lightening strike (Waterfield calls it a blitzkrieg) on Asander and overthrew him. Asander was either killed or fled; his ultimate fate is not known.
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Antigonus vs Lysimachus
The loss of Asander must have frightened Cassander for he then tried to seek a negotiated settlement with Antigonus. The talks, however, ended without resolution. Meanwhile, Antigonus lent his weight to an uprising in Thrace. Lysimachus was more than equal to the task of putting the Thracians in their place, however; more than that, after defeating a joint Thracian-Scythian army went on to defeat an Antigonid army as well. Just for the lulz. At this point, I should say that I don’t know where Lysimachus met Antigonus’ army; I have said Thrace above as it doesn’t appear Lysimachus crossed into Asia Minor.
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Telesphorus and Polemaeus in Greece
While Antigonus engaged Lysimanchus, his nephew Telesphorus waged a successful campaign to take the Peloponnese for the Antigonid cause. Did I say successful? It wasn’t quite for Corinth and Sicyon still held out under the rule of Cratesipolis.
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Telesphorus’ other failure was that he did not stop Cassander from taking the island of Euboea. So, Antigonus sent Polemaeus to get the job done, and get the job done he did, taking most of Euboea and for a moment managing to scare Athens as well.
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Antigonus and Cassander prepare for Invasion
Late in 313, Antigonus encamped in the Propontis for the winter. Knowing that he intended to invade Macedon, Cassander left Euboea to prepare for the invasion. This was bad news for Cassander’s brother, Pleistarchus, who was in command of the Cassandrian forces in Euboea as he was left with a much diminished army with which to defend that part of the territory that was still under their control.
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At Antigonus’ behest, the Aetolians and Epirotes also made trouble for Cassander forcing him to commit men to fight them. It was, therefore, with an even smaller army than he intended that he arrived back in Macedon. It was looking very bad for Antipater’s son.
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Antigonus and Byzantium
It seems that Antigonus contemplated crossing into Thrace to conduct a winter campaign for he approached the city of Byzantium for an alliance. It listened to Lysimachus, however, and decided to decided to stay neutral. Rather than launch himself into Thrace without a base from which to strike at Lysimachus’ well prepared army Antigonus opted to winter in the Propontis.
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Ptolemy’s and Seleucus’ Raiding Mission
Late in 313 and early in 312 Ptolemy put down a rebellion in Cyrenaica and finally won full control of Cyprus. On his way home from the island, Ptolemy – together with Seleucus – raided Cilicia. Demetrius, Antigonus’ son, tried to stop them, but arrived too late and the generals went on their way.
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Alexandria
Before we move on to 312, let’s sail over the Mediterranean and into the port at Alexandria. Founded by Alexander in 331, it became in 313 the administrative capital of Ptolemy’s kingdom.  As Waterfield notes (p. 136) Ptolemy probably marked what was also the tenth anniversary of his arrival in Egypt by transporting Alexander’s body from Memphis to its final resting place in the Sema, the Tomb. It would remain on display there for nearly six hundred years before its loss, perhaps as the result of an earthquake, in the third or fourth century AD.
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312
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312 began with Telesphorus getting into a strop with his uncle over the fact that Polemaeus rather than him had been given control of the Antigonid army in Greece. Perhaps proving why Antigonus did not grant him command Telespohorus deserted in order to build an ‘enclave’ for himself in Elis. While there he earned the Greeks’ enmity with scandalous behaviour, such as robbing sacred sites; further trouble was averted, however, when Polemaeus managed to persuade him to return to his uncle’s army.
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V
The Battle of Gaza
Ptolemy & Seleucus vs Demetrius
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Autumn. Ptolemy’s army was now ready to invade Phœnicia and Palestine and take back the satrap’s possessions.
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Ptolemy advanced to Gaza where Demetrius was waiting for him.
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Ptolemy had the greater numbers, but Demetrius wasn’t worried as he intended to win the battle with his cavalry. However, in order for a cavalry to be able to charge, it needs space, which Ptolemy denied to Demetrius’ horsemen in a close fought battle. The advantage now lay with Ptolemy. Except that numbers don’t always guarantee success;…
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… however, it did on this day. The battle effectively ended when, realising how vulnerable they were to Ptolemy’s infantry, Demetrius’ cavalry fled the battlefield. To his great credit, Demetrius did not panic, but managed to beat an organised retreat back to Gaza.
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In the city, however, order broke down as the Antigonid troops split up to save their possessions. Demetrius had no choice but to ride north leaving Gaza, and Palestine, in Ptolemy’s hands.
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311
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VI
Setbacks for the Successors
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For Ptolemy
In early 311, Ptolemy sent one of his generals to confront Demetrius in Syria; there, his good fortune ran out. Demetrius, who had had time over winter to rebuild his army out of the local garrisons, won the battle.
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For Antigonus
In the spring of 311, having finally concluded a peace treaty with a weakened Cassander, and knowing that Lysimachus was too busy fighting recalcitrant Thracians to attack him, Antigonus came to Syria. Presumably he moved southwards as well because his arrival lead Ptolemy to abandon Palestine once more.
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Ahead of his projected battle against Ptolemy, Antigonus attacked the Nabataeans. Firstly, to stop them from threatening him on the flank when he did march to Egypt; secondly, for commercial motives – the Nabataeans’ trade in frankincense and bitumen was very profitable.
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Interestingly, Waterfield states that Antigonus’ desire to control the bitumen trade meant that his fight against the Nabataeans marks the first time that ‘a Middle Eastern petroleum product was the cause of warfare’ (Waterfield, p.123). How times change. Or rather, don’t.
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Antigonus launched three raids against the Nabataeans but failed to defeat them in each. He did plunder Petra (‘at this stage still little more than a sacred and safe haven, not yet a glorious rock-carved city’ Ibid) but was ambushed on the way back to his base.
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Seleucus bucks the trend
After his withdrawal from Palestine, Ptolemy gave Seleucus 1,000 men to take back to Babylon. As Waterfield states, Seleucus was very bold to take so few men across hostile territory, but his gamble paid off. Seleucus met no opposition along the way. Babylon’s governor had been killed at Gaza so taking the city itself was easy. There was an Antigonid garrison holed up in one of the city’s citadels but they soon surrendered after being placed under siege.
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VII
The Peace of the Dynasts
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Four years of intermittent conflict and one major battle. What had the successors achieved? It had gone badly for Antigonus in that he had lost Babylon and Cassander as an ally. On the plus side, he now had peace treaties with Cassander and Lysimachus that would help him focus on taking the fight to Ptolemy and, in due course, Seleucus.
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Seleucus had had a good war in that it had brought him back in Babylon. Ptolemy, however, had lost Phœnicia and Palestine while Polyperchon had lost almost all of the Peloponnese. Cassander had made peace (for now) with Antigonus but was still militarily weak.
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Lysimachus, though, appears to me to have been in much the same position as he was in 315 – secure in Thrace but still being attacked by Thracians who simply didn’t know when to quit. Of course, he was succoured by his peace deal with Antigonus.
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For various reasons, then, either of weakness (Cassander, Ptolemy), distraction (Lysimachus), and focus (Antigonus) the successors wanted or needed peace – for now. So, in the autumn of 311, their representatives met at an unknown location to hammer out a deal. The ‘peace of the dynasts’ is what emerged.
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Under the terms of the deal –

  • Antigonus was recognised as ‘Lord of Asia’ and avoided being rebuked for his ‘kingly ways’ (Waterfield, p. 124)
  • Cassander was recognised as General of Europe and Protector of the King
  • Lysimachus kept Thrace but renounced his claim to Hellespontine Phrygia
  • Ptolemy kept Greater Egypt but renounced his claim to Phœnicia and Palestine

Note that neither Polyperchon or Seleucus are mentioned above. By losing his territory Polyperchon had lost his importance and, effectively, rôle as a successor. As for Seleucus, he was ignored by the allied successors because he was still technically at war with Antigonus. Having started the third war of the diadochi to help him they now in no small way betrayed him ‘by condemning him to the status of rebel’ (ibid). For the loyalist successors it was all a massive climbdown from the list of demands they had presented to Antigonus four years earlier – although I doubt they had expected many of them ever to be met. Despite this, the Third War of the Successors was over.
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Successors killed between 315-11
Alexander, son of Polyperchon – Sicyon 314
Asander (possibly lives; but no further mention in historical record) – Caria 314

Categories: The Wars of the Successors | 2 Comments

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2 thoughts on “The Wars of the Successors: plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose

  1. You know, I was reading this even more concise (than in Waterfield’s book) sequence of events and wondered, for the first time, frankly, how all those main participants of the Sussessors’ Wars managed to remain sane all that time? Many people interested in Alexander and his age hate the period and don’t dwell on it. I read brief information here and their, and also “Ghost on the throne”, which is mostly about Eumenus, but never thought about it.

    Somehow your summary, possibly precisely because it is summary, made me think – how on earth all those people dealt with all that? The alliances were shifting on monthly basis, every day brought news, in most cases negative, either about attack of their possessions or betrayal of one ally or another. The only mode of survival was to attack, to betray, to be constantly at least one step ahead everybody. No weekends, no holidays, no relaxing evenings in the family circle with friends. Marches with Alexander’s army might have been physically challenging at times, and new things filled everybody with wonder and occasional contempt, and the top vied for even more of Alexander’s favour, but still, that was normal life.

    I am not sure if I am getting my thought across, but do you know what I mean? May be all those generals were political animals and would laugh at my “concerns”, but for me it’s difficult to imagine living life like that and remain sane.

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  2. Delos,

    How did the Successors’ stay sane? That is a good question! Although, were they sane? One of the sources (I can’t remember which off hand) says that Cassander couldn’t pass a statue of Alexander without breaking down into tears; I have seen this described as an example of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder – presumably arising out of Cassander’s guilt at having assassinated the king.

    Cassander aside, I think that the Successors dealt with their fluctuating fortunes in the same way that we deal with ours (albeit on a more personal level) – by living one day at a time, living in the moment, taking the ups and downs none too seriously, etc.

    Having said that, I also think that the Successors were a lot tougher than we are. Not that I ever hope to see World War III but if it or another great conflict occurred I have great doubts as to whether we would be able to prosecute it like we did the first world wars. The West, it seems to me, has got softer since WWII and the 60s; proof of this in Britain (from where I write) is provided by the public reaction to Princess Diana’s death, which was so over the top as to represent a collective mental disorder.

    One other thing – while the Successors went through highs and lows I don’t think these always happened in such quick order as to make each general think ‘Will I be awake in the morning?’. When I have finished this Wars of the Successors series of posts, I would like to compile a very quick chronology of what each man did between 323 – 281 (or death if earlier). As I write this, I am writing up The Babylonian War and Ptolemy has attacked the Antigonids in Cilicia. I can’t remember when he first engaged anyone away from Egypt and the surrounding country. For a Successor he has long periods when he is not doing a great deal (he does virtually nothing in the Third War of the Successors, and again after losing half his army to Antigonus in 306). I say all this with the proviso that I am speaking from memory again so may be proved wrong, but we’ll see.

    AOS

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