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demetrius bust

Photo by Fabrizio Garrisi on Wikimedia Commons

How the Wars of the Successors Began

James Romm

On a long winter night in 322 BCE, a one-eyed man and his teenage son made their way to the coast of what is now Turkey, traveling west from a point far inland. Probably they followed the river Meander, whose winding course has given the English language a word for slow wandering. But their movements were anything but slow or indirect. They hastened toward a fleet of Athenian vessels, a convoy waiting for them at a rendezvous point. Boarding those ships under cover of dark, they set sail for Greece—in secret, for their journey was made in defiance of standing orders, an act of insurrection against the ruling regime.

The man was Antigonus One-Eye, otherwise known as Cyclops, so named for his mangled face. He had lost an eye in his younger days, hit by artillery fire while fighting under King Philip of Macedon. A metal bolt from a crossbow-like weapon had lodged in his eye socket, but the big, bearish man had refused to withdraw or seek medical aid until after the battle was won. His son was Demetrius, by now nearly as tall as his father, but very different in looks: unscarred, smooth cheeked, and extraordinarily handsome—so much so that later in life he was followed around in the streets by gawking admirers trying to get a good look.

The lands through which the pair traveled were astir with unease and confusion. Alexander the Great had died some months earlier in Babylon, quite suddenly and without a viable heir. The empire he had ruled, stretching from modern Albania to eastern Pakistan and south to Egypt—two million square miles in extent—was up for grabs, and numerous hands seemed to ready to grab it. His empty throne had supposedly been filled, but by two kings, his son and his half-brother—the former an infant born after his death, the latter a man in his thirties but, due to a disability, mentally unsound. Neither could exercise power of any kind, certainly not the iron-fisted control needed to hold such a vast realm together. Four regents were governing on their behalf, in a complex arrangement that seemed likely to produce discord and invite defiance.

Indeed, it was defiance that had sent Antigonus and his son westward, across the Aegean toward Greece. The chief of the four-man board, a general named Perdiccas, had ordered Antigonus to move east with a contingent of troops to support one of his close allies—a servile task and an affront to dignity. Antigonus had ignored the order, and Perdiccas, incensed, demanded that he stand trial. His demand, along with a piece of alarming news Antigonus had received, had prompted the hasty departure. Perdiccas, it had been learned, though officially just a caretaker for the two kings, was planning to marry Alexander’s sister Cleopatra—a move that suggested a bid for the throne on his own part.

The time had not yet come when kings could be created ex nihilo from outside the Argead family, the dynasty that had ruled Macedon from its earliest days. Strangely enough it would be Antigonus himself and his son Demetrius who would assert this prerogative, becoming, in modern terms, Antigonus I and Demetrius I, crowned heads of state—though of what state, no one was certain. But that day was as yet more than fifteen years off, after many a battle had been fought, many leaders had fallen, and the empire had fractured and split, with war zones at all of its seams. Amid that carnage, Demetrius would rise high on a surge of humanity’s hopes. He would seem like—or would try to become—a new Alexander, restoring wholeness and peace to a broken world.

Perhaps Antigonus had already glimpsed that his fortunes might rest on the tall, athletic boy with exquisite features. Why else did he take his son along on this dangerous journey? His own generation, men in their sixties with bushy beards and battle-scarred faces, was quickly losing ground in the world Alexander had built. Those who now held the reins of the empire, the Babylon clan, were in their forties or even their thirties, clean-shaven after the fashion of Alexander. Smooth cheeks, flowing hair, and a melting, faraway gaze—that was how Alexander was always depicted, a portrait he had carefully curated during his life. Even in death, that image held people in thrall. All who sought power over the next centuries would try to conform to the template.

Or perhaps Antigonus meant this midwinter voyage on storm-tossed seas to be an apprenticeship for his son, a lesson in autonomy and pride. If the family had been slighted—as clearly it was by the orders Perdiccas issued—then the family must seek out those who would give it respect. In Europe were men of Antigonus’s stamp who shared his mistrust of Perdiccas and the Babylon regime. Chief among these were Antipater, by now nearly eighty years old, guardian of the Macedonian homeland and its Greek vassal states, and Craterus, formerly one of Alexander’s officers, now working hand in glove with Antipater and married to his eldest daughter, Phila. With these two as allies, Antigonus and his son need not bow before Perdiccas or stand for his rumored marital power play.

So father and son climbed aboard an Athenian ship, accompanied by a few loyal friends and by soldiers. Their trans-Aegean voyage is the first event recorded in the life of Demetrius—a fitting start to his tempestuous career. Over the next four decades, he would cross those seas many times, as the fates drove him from coast to coast and from continent to continent, tossing him down on one shore only to lift him up on another. He would never have peace, nor allow any others to have it, as the crazy zigzags of his life brought turmoil to much of the globe. The wars of the Successors—the men who sought to control Alexander’s empire—had begun.

Anson, Edward. Eumenes of Cardia: A Greek Among the Macedonians. Leiden: Brill, 2004.

Billows, Richard. Antigonos the One-Eyed and the Creation of the Hellenistic State. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1990.

Ogden, Daniel. Polygamy, Prostitutes and Death: The Hellenistic Dynasties. London: Duckworth, 1999.

Plutarch. Parallel Lives. In Plutarch, The Age of Alexander: Ten Greek Lives. Rev. ed. Trans. Ian Scott Kilvert and Timothy E. Duff. Penguin Classics. London: Penguin, 2011.

Romm, James. Demetrius: Sacker of Cities. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2023.

Romm, James. Ghost on the Throne: The Death of Alexander the Great and the War for Crown and Empire. New York: Knopf, 2011.

Waterfield, Robin. Dividing the Spoils: The War for Alexander the Great’s Empire. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011. Wheatley, Pat, and Charlotte Dunn. Demetrius the Besieger. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2020.

From Demetrius: Sacker of Cities by James Romm. Published by Yale University Press in 2023. Reproduced with permission.

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.

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