ancient coins depicting Demetrius

Photo by Magnus Manske on Wikimedia Commons

Demetrius, The First Celebrity Politician

“We are very excited to add Ancient Lives to Yale’s successful series of interpretive biographies as a fresh way of telling history. Imagining ancient lives is a way to recapture not only the wisdom and humanity but the guidance of our deep past.”—John Donatich, Director of Yale University Press

Ancient Lives unfolds the stories of thinkers, writers, kings, queens, conquerors, and politicians from all parts of the ancient world. In this original piece, series editor James Romm discusses the self-created mythology of Demetrius (337–283 BCE), one of the ancient world’s first political celebrities.

James Romm—

Politics and celebrity increasingly march hand in hand today, but the pattern in fact goes back to the ancient Greeks.  Alexander the Great (323–282 BCE) achieved cult-like status with his youthful vigor and charisma, but in the next generation another young Macedonian leader, Demetrius ‘the Besieger,’ took Alexander’s formula even farther.  Capitalizing on his physical beauty, which was said to turn heads wherever he walked in the street, he tried to follow in Alexander’s footsteps and hold together an empire that was rapidly falling apart.  His story provides a lesson in both the power and the perils of personality cult as a force in politics.

Demetrius, the son of a top commander known as Antigonus One-Eye, was in his teens when Alexander died without an heir and left his vast empire leaderless.  He helped his ambitious father in several attempts to get control of that realm, and eventually both proclaimed themselves kings (though of what, no one was quite certain).  After Antigonus was killed in battle, still fighting in his mid-eighties, Demetrius took over the effort to control Alexander’s lands, a task that required eliminating his rivals.  His life became a see-saw series of battles and political struggles, including a year-long siege of the island of Rhodes and several invasions of Athens and other Greek cities.

Though he lacked Alexander’s military prowess, Demetrius made the most of his personal assets.  Coin portraits and busts displayed his good looks to the world.  His high-profile sexual liaisons, including some scandalous romps held in the very Parthenon itself, boosted his sex appeal and his reputation for youthful vigor.  His enormous ships and siege engines, including a nine-story rolling tower over one hundred and fifty feet high, gave the impression of enormous ambition and might—even though, in practice, the campaigns in which they were used often ended in failure.  Image was as important to Demetrius as actual achievement, at least in his efforts to exert control over Athens, a democratic city where public opinion was famously easily swayed.

Athens in fact fell hard for this charming chancer.  In a series of measures passed by the popular Assembly, the Athenians voted Demetrius and his father the altars and honors due to gods, and had two months of the calendar named after them.  Official pronouncements declared Demetrius to be the son of Poseidon and Aphrodite, explaining both his naval power and his apparent sexual prowess.  For a time, there was nothing the city would deny him.  When he wanted to be admitted to a religious order, but the month in which the initiation took place had just passed, the Assembly obligingly decreed that the month would be repeated a second time.  In the service of their “savior,” as they termed him, they made time itself stand still.

Not all Greeks went along with such adulation.  Defenders of Athens’ democratic traditions recognized that a deified Demetrius posed a grave threat, and a few sought to limit his power.  And on each occasion when he met with military reverses, his popularity fell precipitously.  On two occasions the Athenians turned against Demetrius and kicked him out, but both times he forced himself back in, relying on his loyal and brutal land army.   Many Athenians came to hate him, yet he retained a core of fanatical support.  A hymn that survives from one of his re-entries into Athens celebrates him as a god in the flesh, superior to the traditional gods who are only carved in stone or cast bronze.

In the end Demetrius believed too much in his own self-created mythology.  At age fifty, with his army diminished by defections and his foes united against him, he nonetheless launched an invasion of Asia meant to rival that of his model, Alexander the Great.  A corps of some eleven thousand adventurers followed him there but very few of these were destined to return home.  His expedition turned into a desperate quest to keep his troops fed and loyal while constantly running from the rulers of the lands he had invaded.  In any sane analysis, his final venture had no chance of success, but he seems to have thought he could set the Near East on fire with adoration, as he had once done in Athens.  

Like all cult figures, Demetrius fascinates us with his power to stir hearts and minds, even as we recoil from the death and destruction he caused.  Plutarch made him the subject of one of his longest and richest Lives, clearly absorbed, as all of his readers will be, by the rise and fall of the Alexander who wasn’t.

James Romm is an author, a reviewer, and the James H. Ottaway Jr. Professor of Classics at Bard College. His reviews and essays appear regularly in the Wall Street Journal and the New York Review of Books. He is the series editor for the Ancient Lives Series at Yale University Press and author of Demetrius: Sacker of Cities.

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