A History of Europe
Chapter 2: CLASSICAL GREECE, PART III
1000 to 197 B.C.
This chapter is divided into four parts, which cover the following topics:
The Peloponnesian War
In 431 B.C. the Second or Great Peloponnesian War broke out between the Spartan League and the Athenian Empire. Though commercial rivalry between Athens and Corinth (Sparta's major ally) touched it off, the conflict is a classic example of how fear can generate a war unwanted by either side. The contemporary historian Thucydides wrote:
Two factions now competed to fill the vacancy left by Pericles. One group, led by the honest but timid Nicias, wanted peace with Sparta; the other was led by the fiery demagogue Cleon, who wanted to continue the war. Between them they kept Athens in a constant state of turmoil, where any debate could cause a sudden reversal in government policy. For example, in 428-427 the city of Mytilene, on the island of Lesbos, tried to secede from the Athenian Empire. Cleon put down the rebellion, and called for the execution of all adult males and the enslavement of all women and children. A ship was sent to the fleet surrounding Lesbos with orders to carry this out, but on the next day, the Popular Assembly had second thoughts, ignored Cleon's angry protests, and sent another trireme to countermand the first decree. Thanks to a prodigious effort from the oarsmen (they were promised free wine if they got there in time), the second ship arrived ahead of the first one. Still, the whole episode shows the self-proclaimed champion of democracy practicing the worst kind of imperialism.
In 425 B.C. Athenian forces, led by Nicias, occupied Pylos on the western Peloponnesus, and blockaded 120 Spartans on the offshore island of Sphacteria. The siege dragged on for months until Cleon declared to the Assembly that if he had been in command, he would have taken the island long ago. Nicias called the bluff, turned the command over to him, and told him to make good on his claim. Cleon didn't really want to go, but he had no choice, so he left with a promise to do the job in 20 days; to everyone's surprise, he did. The Spartans on Sphacteria surrendered, almost the only time they did in Greek history.
Next Athens captured Methone (near Pylos) and the island of Cythera, and won a victory against Megara (all in 424). At this point the pro-peace faction called for quitting the war while Athens was ahead, but Cleon thought he could do even better by continuing it. Instead, Athens began losing almost immediately. It lost the battles of Delium (in Boeotia) in 424, and of Amphipolis (in Thrace) in 422. Amphipolis was a battleground because both Athens and Sparta wanted control over the gold and timber of Macedonia. Cleon was among the six hundred Athenians killed at Amphipolis, and though the Spartans lost only seven men, one of them was their general, Brasidas. Thucydides told us that Brasidas was so likeable that even his enemies admired him, and his intelligence and manners convinced many in the Athenian camp that the Spartans might not be such bad folks after all.(43)
Alcibiades resumed the war in 419, on a charge that Sparta had not honored its obligations in the peace treaty. Sparta won the first round, though; at Mantinea it defeated Argos (the main ally of Athens) so handily that everybody on the Athenian side avoided facing the Spartans in a land battle for the rest of the war. Then in 417 the neutral island of Melos refused to join the Athenian Empire, and when the Athenians captured it, they carried out the genocide they had earlier promised against Mytilene. They killed every man of military age, sold the women and children into slavery, and settled 500 Athenians on Melos in place of the natives. Thucydides gave us the Athenian argument used to justify their naked aggression; not until Machiavelli wrote The Prince (1513 A.D.) would power politics again be so ruthlessly and candidly presented:
The antiwar party tried to stop the expedition with a gross act of sacrilege. Athens had hundreds of images called "herms" beside its houses and streets; these were short pillars (4-5 ft. tall), decorated with the face and genitals of the god Hermes, and regarded as good-luck charms. One morning Athenians woke up to find nearly every herm in the city emasculated and "defaced." This graphically showed that Athens had become impotent, unfaithful to its gods, and vulnerable to conspirators working at night.
People knew Alcibiades was irreverent, so somebody accused him of doing it. In response he demanded an immediate trial, but the Assembly didn't want to sabotage the expedition, so it told Alcibiades to go on to Sicily, while authorities investigated the matter at home. Athenians didn't fully trust Alcibiades, though, so they divided leadership of the expedition between him, Nicias, and a general named Lamachus. As the fleet left in 415, Thucydides wrote that "almost the entire population of Athens, citizens and foreigners, went down to Piraeus . . . and they came full of hope and full of lamentation at the same time, thinking of the conquests that might be made and thinking, too, of those whom they might never see again, considering the long voyage on which they were going from their own country."(46)
Alcibiades did not mutilate the herms (somebody else confessed to that later), but he was guilty of many other things. As soon as he arrived at Sicily, he was called back to Athens, to stand trial for a crime Greeks rarely charged anybody with--blasphemy (they accused him of profaning the Eleusinian mysteries, a religious rite of the goddess Demeter). Instead of giving them the chance to uncover any "skeletons in the closet," Alcibiades defected to Sparta, and the advice he gave to the Spartans did severe harm to Athens. Some of his ideas which the Spartans carried out included sending Sparta's best general, Gylippus, to Sicily, and building a fort at Decelea in northeast Attica; the latter put a Spartan army within striking distance of Athens and cut off access to the Athenian silver mines.
With hindsight, Alcibiades may have been the only Athenian with enough courage to lead the Sicilian expedition to victory. Without him, the Athenians got off to a slow start; Nicias cruised along the east coast of Sicily for much of the summer and fall before dropping anchor at the port of Catana. The following summer (414) saw the Athenians build a wall two-thirds of the way around Syracuse, hoping to blockade the city by land as well as by sea. Meanwhile, Lamachus was killed and Gylippus arrived; the Spartans cleverly built a two-kilometer counter-wall straight across the path where the Athenians planned to put the last stretch of their wall, preventing them from surrounding Syracuse completely. These events left Nicias so discouraged that he wrote back to Athens: "The time . . . has come for you to decide whether to recall us, or else to send out another force, as big as the first, with large sums of money, and also someone to relieve me of the command, as a disease of the kidneys has made me unfit for service."
After that the situation steadily deteriorated for the Athenians. Since it couldn't either surround Syracuse or break through its defenses, most of the Athenian army sat in its camp. The campsite was next to a marsh, so many men got sick. In August of 413, the reinforcements requested by Nicias finally arrived, led by Demosthenes. However, the entrance to the harbor of Syracuse was still in Syracusan hands, allowing them to trap both the original fleet and the reinforcements. Nicias should have withdrawn immediately when he realized the trap was closing, but instead he delayed for a month because he saw a lunar eclipse and was superstitious about moving at such a time. By the time they tried to move, it was too late. The Syracusans demolished the triremes, and in a confused night battle, the Athenians killed more of their own men than they did of the enemy. Nicias and Demosthenes surrendered and were executed; most of the surviving Athenians were worked to death in Sicilian stone quarries. Altogether Athens lost 45,000 men; it was the turning point of the war.
After this debacle it is remarkable that Athens continued the war for nine more years. New ships and men replaced those lost at Sicily, and they won some battles necessary to keep the vital Black Sea grain ships coming in. At home Athenians wondered if something might be wrong with their democracy, and in 411 they experimented with an oligarchy, putting a council of 400 in charge of the city. It didn't inspire much confidence, though, and three months later the traitorous Alcibiades returned to Athens. He fled Sparta when he was caught fooling around with a Spartan queen, and incredibly, the Athenian navy, which was still full of democrats, welcomed him back. Together they restored democracy in Athens, and Alcibiades became a general, but when he lost a battle, the fickle Athenians turned against him, so he wasn't reelected. After this disgrace he fled again, this time to the Persians.
Next came three events which made sure that Athens would lose the war. The first was a political shift in Sparta's favor following the Sicilian expedition; in 412 and 411 several previously neutral states joined the Spartans, and many Athenian allies (Chios, Miletus, Mytilene, Rhodes and Abydos) switched sides. The second was Sparta's decision to break tradition and normalize relations with Persia. Since Athens was still anti-Persian, the Persian kings generously gave gold to Sparta. The third critical event was what Sparta did with the gold; it built a fleet to challenge Athens at sea, ending the fish-and-fox game which had marked the war to this point.
For Athens, the end came suddenly. In the summer of 405 B.C., 180 Athenian ships were anchored at Aegospotami, in the Hellespont (Dardanelles), while the crews were ashore eating a meal. A Spartan fleet, commanded by an admiral named Lysander, caught the Athenians off guard and destroyed or captured 171 of those ships. This battle not only eliminated the last Athenian fleet, but cut off access to the Black Sea. Faced with starvation, Athens surrendered in April of 404 B.C.. In the peace treaty that followed, Athens gave up her empire and all but twelve triremes, agreed to tear down the "Long Walls" between Athens and Piraeus, and to become an ally of Sparta.
Elsewhere the Spartans proved themselves unable to take advantage of their newly-won dominance. Their generals, trained only for war, were easily corrupted by the wealth in the areas where they now commanded garrisons (see footnote #11). The governments they set up were brutal, bloodthirsty, and incompetent. When Sparta invaded the Persian Empire, the Persians switched sides and paid Athens to build a new fleet. Then Thebes and Corinth, which had been on Sparta's side in the Peloponnesian War, formed a coalition with Argos to wage war against Sparta (the Corinthian War, 395-387). Sparta had to bargain with Persia, and the Persians dictated the so-called King's Peace, which restored Persian rule over Ionia in exchange for acknowledgment of Spartan supremacy in Greece.
In 382 the northern city-state of Olynthos got in a territorial dispute with three neighbors: Akanthos, Apollonia and Macedonia. Thebes and Athens announced they would aid Olynthos, while the king of Macedonia called on Sparta for help. All Greece could have been drawn into a war by proxy at this point, but the Spartans got there first and won the conflict quickly. On his way north the Spartan general, Phoibidas, helped a pro-Spartan faction seize power in Thebes, and left some troops to garrison the citadel of Thebes, the Cadmeia. This success was short-lived, though; only a year later a Theban named Pelopidas liberated the Cadmeia and slew the tyrants (379). Since Athens had aided the Thebans in this venture, Athens and Thebes made an alliance against Sparta, and the Athenians formed the Second Athenian Confederacy, a naval alliance of 60 independent members, in 377. The confederacy was too decentralized to permit Athens to become an empire again, though; twenty years later it disintegrated. The restored Athens would become a spiritual and intellectual center, the "school of Hellas," but not a political center.
Sparta invaded Boeotia three times between 379 and 377, but the Thebans repulsed each invasion. Following that, the Theban leader, Epaminondas, felt confident enough to end the alliance with Athens, and declare war on Sparta by himself. Another Spartan army came to Boeotia in 371, and Thebes slaughtered it in the battle of Leuctra. Epaminondas followed this up by driving into the Peloponnesus and liberating Messenia from Sparta in 369--a devastating blow to the Spartans.
The next nine years (371-362) saw Thebes reign as the dominant city-state in Greece. Sparta never recovered from its defeats, because its dominant caste of warrior-citizens, which numbered around 10,000 at the time of the Persian Wars, had been steadily decreasing since then. Leuctra emphasized the problem--out of 700 Spartiates who took part in that battle, 400 were killed. The home city refused to enlist new blood from immigrants or the lower classes, so Sparta never recovered its strength. In that sense, Sparta is the first nation we know of that died from depopulation. In its place, the Thebans enrolled most of Greece (but not Sparta or members of the Athenian Confederacy) into a Theban-led Boeotian League. The 300 men of the Theban Sacred Band became the toughest military unit in Greece, until Philip of Macedon destroyed them in 338 B.C., at the battle of Chaeronea.
Theban supremacy collapsed with the deaths of the two leaders who established it. Pelopidas spent most of his time in the north, meddling in the affairs of Thessaly and Macedonia; in 364 he was killed at Cynoscephalae, but the Thebans won the battle and forced Macedonia into their League. Epaminondas fell in another battle, at Mantinea, against Athens and Sparta (362), and Theban power was broken. This time neither Athens nor Sparta was strong enough to replace Thebes. While most Greeks worried about the Persians, intellectuals--including Plato and Aristotle--lost faith in democracy and joined with the wealthy in looking for "a champion powerful in action" who would bring order and security to Greece. They soon found him in the person of the king of Macedonia.
The kings of Macedonia claimed descent from Hercules, and often gained the throne by dagger or spear--a real-life version of the tragedies told by Athenian playwrights. Such a case occurred in 359 B.C. when King Perdiccas III died in battle, and his brother Philip II was put in charge of the dead king's son. Shortly after that, Philip bought off or eliminated three half brothers who wanted his job, and defeated more invasions from the Illyrians and Thracians. In the middle of all that scuffling, the royal infant conveniently vanished, so Philip persuaded the army to declare him king.
The discovery of gold deposits allowed Philip to build his army into the largest in Greece; a childhood spent as a hostage in Thebes, coupled with a lifetime of military experience, showed him how to make it an efficient force as well. For example, he introduced the sarissa, a 15 to 18-foot-long spear that outreached any pike the other Greeks had.(50) His hoplites needed both hands to hold spears this heavy, so Philip gave them smaller shields that were slung around their necks; this allowed him to create a phalanx with twice as many men in it as an older formation the same size. He also wasn't afraid to go into battle; the archaeologists who found his bones in an intact tomb in 1977 noted that he lost an eye in one battle, had his shoulder smashed in another, and had his thigh so badly wounded by a lance that he walked with a limp afterward. Yet he was always willing to use nonviolent methods, like bribery or diplomacy, as a first resort. "The credit for a military victory," he once said, "I share with my soldiers; for a diplomatic victory, it is all mine." Another time he was told that the walls of a city were so impregnable that he could never get past them, and he responded: "So impregnable that even gold can't scale them?"
Philip's first conquests were in the north: the Paionians (an Illyrian tribe) in 358, and Amphipolis in 357. In central Greece, Athens, Thessaly, and Thebes were fighting over the temple of Apollo and its Oracle at Delphi (the so-called Sacred War, 355-346). Philip used this opportunity to move south and annex Thessaly in 352, but an Athenian force kept him from passing through Thermopylae to get at Thebes and Athens. He then turned around and grabbed the Chalkide district, the three peninsulas on Macedonia's eastern frontier. When he returned in 348, Phocis, an ally of Athens, overran Boeotia, but confusion in the Athenian ranks allowed Philip to get through the Thermopylae pass. This meant southern Greece was wide open to his force; he conquered Phocis, scooped up the Athenian outposts in his way, and imposed a treaty that gave Delphi to him.
This ruler of a "hillbilly" state was now the most powerful man in Greece. The established powers of Greece got their warning, but they put off forming an anti-Macedonian coalition until the last possible moment. That came while Philip was busy conquering Thrace (340). When he moved toward Byzantium, Athens prepared for war, seeing a threat to the Athenian grain supply at its most vulnerable point--the Bosporus. Too late, Philip was now unstoppable. At the battle of Chaeronea, he and his eighteen-year-old son Alexander III vanquished a combined Athenian-Theban force (338). Then Philip bypassed Athens, marched south to the Peloponnesus, subdued it without a struggle, and called all Greek cities to send representatives to an assembly at Corinth (but Sparta did not send anyone, take note of that). There he announced the rules by which Greece would now be governed. No Greek could make war on another Greek; cities would be allowed to manage their local affairs, and no taxes or tribute would be sent to Philip, except whatever men and ships he might need in wartime. However, all Greek city-states would now be enrolled in an alliance, called the Hellenic League, with Philip in charge of it.
Now that Greece was his, Philip declared war on Persia, prepared for an invasion of Asia, and sent an advance force across the Hellespont. He never joined it, though, due to one thing he could not control--his family life. Philip met his chief wife, Olympias, shortly after becoming king; she was the sister of Alexander I, the king of Epirus. Plutarch tells us that both love and politics persuaded them to get married, but it wasn't a happy marriage for long. Philip married five more foreign princesses (something ancient kings often did when they signed treaties), and had a habit of coming home drunk at night. Olympias was interested in a mystery religion which had a thing for snakes, so she kept the reptiles at home, even in her bed. This was a major turn-off for Philip; he had bedtime companions of his own, but at least they were warm-blooded! As their son Alexander grew up, she persuaded Alexander to love her and hate his father; her main goal in life was now making sure that Alexander would inherit the throne.
Plutarch tells us a sad story of what happened in 337 B.C., when Philip took yet another wife, a Macedonian lady named Cleopatra. Not the Cleopatra you're thinking of; her story is covered here. At the wedding banquet, everyone was drinking, until Attalus, the father of the bride, declared that he hoped this marriage would give King Philip a truly Macedonian heir. This was a slap at Olympias and Alexander, so the enraged Alexander shouted, "What then am I?" and threw his cup at Attalus. Philip stood up and drew his sword to stop the brawl he expected, but his bad leg and the effects of the wine caused him to stumble and fall. Alexander then taunted his father by saying, "Macedonians, see here the general who would go from Europe to Asia! Why, he cannot get from one table to another!" After that, the queen and prince moved to Epirus; Philip eventually persuaded Alexander to return, but Olympias stayed away for the rest of his life.
A year later Philip arranged a marriage which should have ended his domestic problems: a match between his daughter and Olympias' brother, the king of Epirus. Instead, when Philip entered the theater where the ceremony was to take place, a bodyguard named Pausanias stabbed him. Pausanias then tried to make a getaway on horseback, but the horse tripped on a vine and threw him, allowing the pursuers to catch up and kill him. Nobody could prove whether the assassin worked alone or was part of a conspiracy; some suspected Olympias was behind it because she insisted that the killer receive a funeral as honorable as Philip's. Then she did away with the woman who had stolen her husband's affection, Cleopatra, along with her newborn baby. Alexander was shocked by this, but when he went off to become "Alexander the Great," he still exchanged letters with her regularly, and sent her a sizeable share of the loot he captured from the Persians.
(He Became Great Later)
If there was ever a man supremely confident of his destiny, it was Alexander. He had a magnetic personality, and made himself even more popular among his soldiers by treating them as equals. Still, he had an ego to match his generosity; Olympias told him that his real father was Zeus, not Philip, so he started believing that he was a god before long. He also knew how to act when he saw an opportunity. This showed when he was about twelve years old, and a fine stallion was brought for Philip to buy. The horse was so wild that nobody could control it, so Alexander asked if he could try to tame it. The adults chuckled, but they failed to notice something that Alexander spotted; the horse was afraid of its own shadow. Alexander calmed the horse by turning its head to the sun; then he mounted and started riding around. Philip broke down and exclaimed, "My boy, you must find a kingdom big enough for your ambitions. Macedonia is too small for you." The steed became Bucephalus, Alexander's favorite horse and companion in many battles.
Despite all that he had in his favor, Alexander looked vulnerable, because he was only twenty when Philip's crown passed to him. First Thrace revolted, so he moved north to reconquer it. While he was there, he also successfully attacked the Illyrians, expanding the borders of Macedonia to the Danube River and the Adriatic Sea. Finally he established friendly relations with the Gauls, a group of Celtic tribes that had moved into the middle Danube valley recently. These brave warriors boasted to Alexander that they only had one fear, and when Alexander asked what that fear was, expecting them to say his name, they said they only feared that the sky might fall on their heads!
Back in Greece, a rumor spread that Alexander had died in battle, so several city-states, led by Thebes, rose in rebellion. Alexander rushed from Illyria to Thebes in just twelve days; his troops sacked the city, killed 6,000 and sold 20,000 into slavery. This seems to have been the only time Alexander expressed regret for anything; the destruction so troubled him that he made a pilgrimage to Delphi. Then he continued on to Corinth and revived his father's Hellenic league.
Philip had done extensive recruiting for the upcoming war with Persia, so Alexander found himself with an army so big that only an empire the size of the Persian one could pay for it. Accordingly, once he had peace in Europe he was ready to march into Asia. The story of his campaign against the Persian Empire (334-323 B.C.) is one of the great epics of history. Because most of the activity took place in Asia, I have posted it in Chapter 6 of my Middle Eastern history. Philip's most trusted general, Antipater, had served as regent in Pella while Philip was off fighting wars, and he did a good enough job for Alexander to keep him as regent while he was away conquering the Persians. However, Olympias remained so influential that she frequently overruled the regent. Considering the size Alexander's empire would soon reach, very few women classified as the "power behind the throne" ever held as much power as Olypias did, even when they were legal regents or empresses.
So far we have covered how two of the major players in Greece, Athens and Thebes, resisted Philip and Alexander without success. The Spartans also loved their freedom, so what were they up to? Well, since their defeats at the hands of the Thebans, the Spartans had kept to themselves, going back to the old isolationist mentality which said that whatever happened outside the Peloponnesus wasn't very important. That lasted until Agis III (338-331) became one of the kings of Sparta. Because Philip did not stay in southern Greece long enough to fight anybody, Agis never got to meet him in battle. Still, he knew that Macedonia was a potential threat, so in 333 B.C., after Alexander had been crowned and went off to fight the Persians in Asia, Agis personally sailed to the Persian commanders on the east shore of the Aegean, to ask them for money and arms to be used against Alexander in Greece. Unfortunately for Agis, all they had to give him were thirty talents and ten ships. Alexander's victory at the battle of Issus in the same year, and his subsequent march down the Mediterranean coast meant that the Persians would not be sending any more aid. Nevertheless, the Greek mercenaries that had fought on the side of the Persians at Issus soon came home, and because they were now unemployed (Alexander didn't want to hire former enemy Greeks), Agis recruited 8,000 of them, and went ahead with his Plan B, sending the mercenaries on an expedition to Crete. They succeeded in conquering that island and securing its resources for Sparta.
In 331 B.C. Thrace revolted again, and Agis inflicted a defeat upon the Macedonian troops stationed in the Peloponnesus, encouraging some city-states (former allies of Sparta) to join him in an anti-Macedonian coalition. Realizing he had a full-scale rebellion on his hands, Alexander ordered Antipater to put it down. We already noted that Sparta was past its prime, and because of that, Thrace looked like a more serious threat, prompting Antipater to go after Thrace first. Meanwhile, Agis led a force of 20,000 against the Peloponnesian town of Megalopolis (sounds like the name of a superhero's home city, doesn't it?), because it had refused to join the Spartans.
Antipater quickly reached a peaceful settlement with the rebellious governor of Thrace, persuading him to stop fighting with a promise to let him keep his job and even enlarge the size of his territory. Then he hurried into Greece with 40,000 men, catching up with Agis while he was still besieging Megalopolis. The resulting battle looked a lot like the battle of Thermopylae; again the Spartans fought like madmen, inflicting very heavy casualties before superior numbers brought them down. Agis took so many wounds that at one point his soldiers thought he was dead, and put him on his shield to carry him off the battlefield. Nope, this treatment was not for him! Though he was too badly injured to even stand, Agis ordered his men to retreat while he would stay to buy time for them, holding off the enemy--by himself. From his knees, Agis managed to strike down some more Macedonians until somebody threw a javelin at him to finish him off.
The battle of Megalopolis was one of the largest battles ever fought on Greek soil, but in the big picture it only had a minor effect on Alexander's empire. Still, Alexander seemed jealous that Antipater won it instead of himself; according to Plutarch, the king wrote this about it in a letter: "It seems, my friends that while we have been conquering Darius here, there has been a battle of mice in Arcadia." And the Macedonians had enough admiration for the valiant Spartans to give them lenient terms of peace; they only had to pay a fine of 120 talents and join Philip's Hellenic League, which we saw they avoided doing previously. For the rest of Alexander's lifetime, Greece gave him no trouble.
Agis had proved himself the worthy heir of Leonidas, anyway.
Because Alexander is such an important figure in world history, we need to remember that he has gotten a very favorable press, but has not always been seen as a larger-than-life hero. On the one hand, he is very popular among those who like to conquer and/or spread civilization; Napoleon Bonaparte imitated him on his Egyptian campaign (see Chapter 12), and the European imperialists of the nineteenth century felt they were following in his footsteps when they established colonies in the rest of the world. On the other hand, he was not a big favorite among the leaders of the American and French Revolutions, who felt freedom and human rights were more important. Likewise, Athenians detested him because his father took away their independence (this explains the remark in footnote #49); in his Outline of History, H.G. Wells viewed Alexander's career as nothing but a big waste, implying that the world is only worth uniting if it can be united peacefully.
A few of today's historians, like Victor Davis Hanson and Dan Carlin, have compared Alexander the Great with Adolf Hitler, and found they have a lot more in common than you might think. Indeed, the main difference between those two conquerors is that Alexander was more successful; he never lost a battle. Both had a vision of a world united politically and culturally, with themselves in charge of it. If Alexander had been defeated by Darius, his name would not be a household word today; if Hitler had captured Moscow and gone on to destroy communism, he would probably be viewed more favorably by us. And while Alexander didn't kill as many people as Hitler did (he couldn't have, with both technology and world population being lower in his day), he racked up his own dreadful score by massacring the Thracians, and destroying Thebes and Tyre; the passage of twenty-four centuries makes it easy to forget ancient holocausts. Perhaps when it comes to last words on Alexander, the best are those of Will Cuppy: "Alexander's empire fell to pieces at once, and nothing remained of his work except that the people he killed were still dead."(51)
or, The Funeral Games
In the job of empire-building, the one area where Alexander failed badly was in preparing his new empire to survive past his lifetime. Some think he was planning to bequeath the throne to his best friend, Hephaestion, but Hephaestion ruined the plan by drinking himself to death in 324 B.C. One year later Alexander died. He left two sons; one son, Heracles, was illegitimate, and the other, Alexander IV, was born posthumously to Roxane, his wife from Afghanistan. The only other possible heir in the family was Alexander's brother, Philip III Arrhidaeus, but this Philip was mentally retarded. Both Philip and the younger Alexander were crowned, while power went to three Macedonian generals:
1. Antipater. He continued to manage the home front, the way he had for both Philip II and Alexander the Great. He didn't believe in retirement, though he was now seventy-four years old.
Meanwhile, Alexander's other generals established themselves as governors of the provinces they were in.
Before I continue, let me ask: Is anyone reading this a fan of "Game of Thrones," either the George R. R. Martin novels or the TV show? If so, did you ever wish you could read or hear about a real-life story like that? Well, here it is; the two generations following the death of Alexander were a time of on-and-off war in the empire he had so recently conquered, commonly called the Wars of the Diadochi (Successors). Like the free-for-all in "Game of Thrones," this was a struggle with lots of violence, sex, and even strange religion/magic, if you include what Olympias practiced. To tell this story properly, quite a few characters need to be introduced to the reader, and (spoiler alert) almost everybody will die violently. Also, to get the "big picture," I recommend that readers visit Chapter 6 of my Near Eastern history for more about the part of the conflict beyond Europe, and Chapter 4 of my African history for more on Ptolemy I, arguably the most successful of the players involved here. Now if everyone is ready, let's go:
Uprisings broke out almost immediately after the above arrangements were made. In 323 B.C. the Athenians revolted, thinking that Alexander's death would free them of Macedonian decrees. Antipater found himself besieged by the Athenians at Lamia (giving this conflict its name, the Lamian War), until Macedonian reinforcements arrived to rescue him. Then the Greek allies of the Athenians deserted them, causing Athens to lose a sea battle and a land battle. One year after the rebellion started, it was over; Athens surrendered unconditionally, became an oligarchy, paid a huge indemnity, and saw Macedonian troops occupy the port of Piraeus.
Despite the best of intentions, the arrangement between the generals could not last. In 321 Ptolemy, the general in charge of Egypt and Libya, captured Alexander's body and took it to Egypt, for burial there instead of in Macedonia. Since Perdiccas already had Alexander's crown, throne and signet ring, Ptolemy figured that the royal corpse was the most valuable relic he could take to stake his own claim. This theft started a war which soon killed Craterus and Perdiccas. As for Antipater, he lasted until he died of old age in 319, but his colleague and successor, Polyperchon, was run out of Macedonia and Greece by Antipater's son, Cassander. The royal family did no better; in 317 Olympias returned from Epirus and murdered Philip Arrhidaeus, leaving her grandson Alexander as the only ruler on the throne. This prompted Cassander to besiege Olympias, Roxane and Alexander IV in Pydna. When he captured the royal family, Cassander executed Olympias, gave Philip III a proper funeral, and married Alexander the Great's half-sister, Thessalonica. Now hailed as the liberator of Macedonia, Cassander looked like the most legitimate heir. In response, Antigonus I, the general who controlled Asia Minor, declared himself Alexander IV's guardian, leading to several fierce battles between Antigonus and Cassander.
Alexander IV and Roxane died in 310, putting an end to the royal dynasty. Some thought Cassander killed them; whether or not he did, he kept the deaths secret until 306. Meanwhile he founded Cassandraeia as his capital, on the site of Potidaea, and built another city named Thessalonica, in honor of his wife (modern Salonika, the largest city of present-day Macedonia). By now the Greek-speaking world was in a state of perpetual warfare, so he formed an alliance with Ptolemy and Lysimachus, the governor of Thrace, to keep Antigonus I from conquering them all. Antigonus won the first round; he persuaded the Hellenic League to switch sides, enrolled most of the Aegean islands in a second league (Rhodes was strong enough to ignore it, though), and drove Cassander from the Macedonian throne in 306 B.C. Nevertheless, the alliance defeated and killed Antigonus at the battle of Ipsus, in 301 B.C.
The fall of Antigonus ended all efforts to reunite the empire. The remaining generals expanded the frontiers of Greek civilization slightly (Cassander went around Epirus to reach the Adriatic, while Lysimachus advanced until the Danube became his northern frontier), but most conquests were made at some rival's expense. Though Macedonia was poorer than Egypt and the Asian provinces, the fact that it was the heart of Alexander's empire gave its owner more prestige than any other territory. Moreover, the Antigonid family was down but not out. Demetrius, the son of Antigonus, still had the most powerful Greek fleet; he had used it as early as 307 to restore the Athenian democracy. Now he used it to capture Greece, and when Cassander died, he conquered Macedonia too, removing Cassander's three sons and the regent who ruled in their name (297-294). Nevertheless, that was as far as he could go; before he could invade Asia his best admiral and the fleet deserted to Ptolemy, taking the Island League with them. Then Lysimachus and Pyrrhus, the new king of Epirus (297-272), teamed up against him. In 288 they attacked Macedonia from opposite directions, forcing Demetrius to flee to Asia Minor. Eventually he gave himself up to Seleucus, the general who had conquered Asia in the meantime, and died of drinking in 283. Ptolemy died in the same year, (remarkably) of natural causes.
Demetrius I, also called Demetrius Poliorcetes.
At this point the remaining contenders were Lysimachus, Pyrrhus, and Seleucus. The aged Lysimachus held Thrace, Macedonia, Thessaly and northwestern Asia Minor, so he was the man to beat. But before the battle came, his family was twisted and undone by two unwise marriages. In 299, Lysimachus had married Arsinoe II, a daughter of Ptolemy, and at the same time, his son from a previous marriage, Agathocles, married Lysandra, a half-sister of Arsinoe. Technically this wasn't incest or adultery, but you could say the resulting relationship was too close for comfort. And that's not all; another member of the Ptolemy family, Ptolemy Keraunos ("Thunderbolt"), a brother of the two women, was also hanging out in the court of Lysimachus, because the family throne in Egypt had gone to a younger brother (also named Ptolemy!) instead of to him. Because Agathocles was heir to everything belonging to Lysimachus, Arsinoe grew concerned that she and her three children would be in mortal danger, on the day that Agathocles succeeded his father. To keep this from happening, Arsinoe started to slander Agathocles, and Lysimachus believed her accusations, until he felt compelled to order the execution of his own son. This caused Lysandra and Ptolemy Keraunos to flee to Asia, where they took refuge with Seleucus (282). They persuaded Seleucus to invade Thrace on their behalf; since this gave Seleucus an opportunity to put the son of Agathocles and Lysandra, or maybe even himself, on the throne of Lysimachus, he eagerly accepted. And because Ptolemy Keraunos was there, with a bit of luck, Seleucus might become a kingmaker for the Ptolemies, too.
Before marching west, Seleucus crowned his son Antiochus I, so the Seleucid throne would remain in the hands if his family of he didn't come back, which is precisely what happened. Lysimachus and Seleucus met with their armies at Corupedium, in western Asia Minor, in 281. We have no account of what happened at the battle, except that Lysimachus was killed. Because both commanders were senior citizens (Lysimachus was eighty years old, while Seleucus was seventy-seven), I'm tempted to say the battle was decided when Lysimachus fell and couldn't get up! Afterwards, Seleucus thought he was going to reunite the European and Asian parts of the empire, but when he crossed the Hellespont to claim Europe, he was stabbed to death by Ptolemy Keraunos. It's not clear what caused this Ptolemy to turn against Seleucus; relations between them may have turned sour, when Ptolemy realized that Seleucus was about to take everything.
With both Lysimachus and Seleucus out of the game, the soldiers in Europe readily accepted Ptolemy Keraunos as their new king, so he claimed Thrace and Macedonia for himself. At this point, it looked like he might pull it off: Antiochus could not avenge his father because he was distracted by a new conflict with the other King Ptolemy (the one in Egypt); Pyrrhus dropped his claim to Macedonia; two other rivals, a son of Demetrius named Antigonus II Gonatas and yet another Ptolemy (this one was another son of Lysimachus), challenged him and were easily defeated. Then he asked his half-sister Arsinoe to marry him. She accepted, because this would make her a queen again, but Keraunos did not marry for love; he did it to kill her children, so they would not challenge him some day. Needless to say, the marriage did not last long. Arsinoe returned to Egypt, where she eventually married her brother Ptolemy II, showing that she didn't really learn anything from her first two marriages.
Ptolemy Keraunos was brought down in 279 when a new challenge appeared from an unexpected direction -- the north bank of the Danube. We saw in Chapter 1 that the Celts dominated most of Western and Central Europe in the third century B.C., and now they were expanding into the Balkans. When the Celts began raiding into Thrace, the Thracian tribes asked Keraunos for help, he foolishly refused, and his Thracian subjects joined the invaders; Keraunos went forth to fight the Celts in Macedonia, only to be defeated, captured, and killed by them. After that, the crown of Thrace rapidly passed to Keraunos' brother Meleager, a non-relative named Antipater, and another man named Sosthenes, and then the Thracian kingdom disintegrated completely. Now the Celts could go wherever they pleased (one tribe raided as far as central Greece), until Antigonus defeated them in the battle of Lysimacheia (277). The Celts moved on into Asia Minor, where they became known as the Galatians, while Antigonus became the undisputed ruler of Macedonia (277-239); the throne remained in his house thereafter.
A balance of power now emerged, allowing some stability to come to the Greek-speaking world; the Wars of the Diadochi were finally over. The Ptolemies controlled the sea, and in wartime they could raise Greece against the Antigonids or Ionia against the Seleucids, but none of the three kingdoms had the power to destroy its rivals. Other Greek states worth remembering were Epirus, the Kingdom of the Cimmerian Bosporus in the Crimea, Tarentum in southern Italy, and Syracuse, which under a tyrant named Agathocles (317-289) ruled most of Sicily and successfully attacked the Carthaginian empire. In Asia Minor several Greek-speaking states (Bithynia, Pontus, Cappadocia and Pergamun) broke away from Seleucid rule, and these were very successful at spreading Greek culture to the east.
Antigonus II was a very different man from his father. He had a snub nose, and his nickname, Gonatas, meant "knotted knees"; by contrast, the flashy Demetrius I would have won the "sexiest man alive" contest if there had been such a thing in ancient times. Furthermore, Demetrius was interested in little besides fighting, while Antigonus had a fondness for philosophy, poetry and history.
At first the greatest danger to Antigonus was Pyrrhus of Epirus. A huge, red-haired man with a deformed mouth, Pyrrhus saw himself as a great conqueror, like his ancestor Alexander the Great. He was a talented military leader and succeeded in taking away Macedonia's western territories, but he had a bad habit of not finishing what he started. In 281 he went to Italy to fight the Romans, giving Antigonus the relief he needed. First he marched on Rome, then decided that he liked Sicily better, and went after the Carthaginians instead. We'll cover those battles in more detail in the next chapter of this work. Failing to conquer Sicily, he returned to Italy, and this time the Romans managed to defeat him. That persuaded him to go home and teach Antigonus another lesson, so he overran Macedonia in 274. Finally Pyrrhus decided to try his luck in southern Greece, having been invited by Cleonymus, a Spartan king looking to regain his throne. He thought this would be easy, because the current king of Sparta was away, fighting a war with Crete. However, the queen of Sparta, Arachidamia, was an old-school Spartan woman, up to the job of defending the city. Arachidamia chose to stand her ground, had the men and women of Sparta dig a trench in front of the camp of Pyrrhus, and when Pyrrhus attacked, they fought so hard that Pyrrhus, true to character, decided this battle wasn't worth the effort, and abandoned the siege. He moved on to Argos next, tried to sneak in at night, but his war elephants got stuck in the city gate, raising the alarm. An old woman on a roof stunned him by throwing a tile at his head, and a Macedonian soldier beheaded him (272). Only then were Antigonus and the bewildered Romans sure they had won.(52)
The Macedonian kings had never ruled central & southern Greece directly, finding it easier to let the city-states run their own affairs, so long as they supported Macedonia in wartime. Macedonian garrisons were set up in a few well-placed forts, the main one located at Corinth, to keep the Greeks of Attica, Boeotia, and the Peloponnesus on their side. However, their chief political tool, the Hellenic League, had disappeared during the wars between Alexander's successors, so around 280, two new leagues arose, the Aetolian and Achaean, that were less friendly to the Antigonids. The Aetolian League was based in a part of central Greece that didn't even have city-states, just mountain villages and primitive towns. It had an ingenious federal government, with a flexible constitution, a bicameral legislature, and an annually elected president. They gained much prestige when they singlehandedly defended Delphi against the Gauls (279), and in 245 they subdued Boeotia, making them the second most powerful organization in Greece. The Aetolians opposed the Macedonians constantly, and initially supported the Romans when they got involved in Greek politics. Rome did not act grateful for the Aetolians' help, though, so in 192 they invited the Seleucid king Antiochus III to invade Greece. Once the Romans drove out Antiochus, they stripped the League of its members outside Aetolia, and forced it to accept a treaty that ended its independence.
The Achaean League was a confederation of 10-12 city-states in the northern Peloponnesus. Like the Aetolian League, it had a mixed constitution run by delegates from the member communities, and held elections every year. However, it had no headquarters--each session met in a different place. Otherwise it was more centralized; the president was the League's commander in chief, though he could not serve for two consecutive terms. In fact, around 190 the League members gave up their separate laws and coinages, making them a single state without a capital.(53)
The Achaean League's most important leader was Aratus of Sicyon, who was president nearly every other year from 245 until his death in 213. Under Aratus the League saw its greatest successes, taking Corinth from Macedonia in 243, adding Megalopolis eight years later, and acquiring Argos in 229. Like Pericles, he was a persuasive speaker who devoted his life to opposing autocracy, particularly those of Macedonia and Sparta. He successfully oversaw the reduction of Sparta, so the successors of Aratus alternated between resisting Macedonia and resisting Rome. The most important of the latter presidents, Philopoemon, incorporated Sparta into the League in 192, followed by Elis and Messenia. This gave the League control over nearly all of the Peloponnesus. When the Romans finished their conquest of Greece in 146, they disbanded the Achaean League, but gave its name to the new province they created there (Achaia).
In the past the Persians had paid Greeks to fight Greeks; now Egypt's King Ptolemy did. Ptolemy II used both money and grain to form an anti-Macedonian coalition in Greece. Besides Egypt, the main members of the alliance were Athens, Sparta and Epirus. The Athenian leader, Chremonides, felt ready enough to declare war on Macedonia in 267, but Antigonus II was up to dealing with this challenge; he struck first, before the allies could all attack him at once. For most of the Chremonidean War (267-262) Antigonus had his way on the battlefield. When the conflict ended, the opposing alliance was broken and Macedonia was dominant in Greece again. After that Antigonus retaliated by supporting the Syrian-based Seleucids in the wars between the Seleucids and the Ptolemies for control of the Middle East. He defeated the fleets of Ptolemy in both the Second (260-255) and Third (246-241) Syrian Wars, but he could not dislodge them from the Aegean.
The next Macedonian king, Demetrius II (239-229), spent his whole reign fighting the Aetolian and Achaean Leagues. Though he did better than his opponents, the slow progress on Demetrius' part showed that Macedonia was beginning to come apart. His successor, Antigonus III Doson (229-221), faced a reviving Sparta. By the time of Alexander the Great, Sparta looked little like the Sparta of earlier times. The old austerity of Lykurgos had disappeared: the ancient rigorous training and the mess clubs were abandoned, and the Spartans switched from speaking Doric to the common Greek dialect (Koine). The first king of the Hellenistic era, Areus (309-265), encouraged trade by replacing the iron bar currency (which had been used to discourage trade, remember) with silver coins. One hundred men and women were very rich and owned all the land, meaning that everyone else was in debt to them. Sparta's King Agis IV (244-241) wanted to solve this crisis by bringing back as many of the old ways as possible. To do this, he proposed cancelling the mortgages, promoting some of the second-class perioikoi to full-citizen status, and dividing the land into 4,500 equal parts, to redistribute the wealth. To the ephors and the other king, Leonidas II, this sounded like a communist revolution, so they had Agis killed before he could put his program into action. The son of Leonidas, Cleomenes III (235-219), married the widow of Agis, and that made him an admirer of Agis.
Cleomenes found that the reform program had much support from lower-class Greeks beyond Sparta's frontier. Accordingly, in 229 he moved north and occupied much of the Arcadia district, which had been disputed territory between Sparta and the two leagues in recent years. The Achaean League's Aratus declared war; the Spartans won the first two battles, and then Cleomenes abruptly returned home. He did this because he felt the need to recruit the largest army he could get. To get such a force he executed four ephors and abolished their office; then he carried out Agis' ideas for debt cancellation, land reform, and citizenship for non-Spartiates. Finally he gave the helots the right to buy their freedom, a move which alarmed slave owners all over Greece. When Cleomenes returned to fight the Achaeans, he won another big victory, this time at Hecatombaeum. Aratus was so concerned that he ended his lifelong anti-Macedonian policy, calling on Antigonus III for help. Together they inflicted a decisive defeat on the Spartans at Sellasia (222). The Spartan force was almost completely destroyed, Sparta fell to the invaders, and Cleomenes fled to Egypt, where he later committed suicide.
Agis IV and Cleomenes III had failed to bring back old-fashioned Spartan militarism because a lot of third-century Spartans didn't want it. Nevertheless, one more Spartan king attempted to save the city through reform. This was Nabis (207-192), who seized the crown for himself after the death of Pelops, the youthful king he had acted as guardian for. Like Cleomenes, he formed a new army (this time from mercenaries, Cretan pirates, and ex-slaves), ruthlessly worked to clean house in Sparta, and used his popularity among the poor to spread these ideas abroad. At first he clashed with the Achaean League, now led by Philopoemon, but changed sides to support the Romans when they attacked Macedonia. The Romans, however, considered Nabis an unreliable ally, and did not object when an Aetolian officer struck him down. After his death, Sparta was bundled into the Achaean League, and its last effort to become a major power ended. This also meant that the Achaean League now ruled the entire Peloponnesus.
The main opponent of the next Macedonian king, Philip V (221-179), was not a Greek rival but the Roman Republic, which began to get involved in the Balkans during his reign. Philip opposed Roman expansion at every opportunity; when the Romans moved into Illyria he tried to occupy it too (219); during the Second Punic War he supported Carthage. However, he could not get the Greeks to cooperate with him, and present a united front against the Romans when it was needed the most. His attack against the Aetolians (214-205, commonly called the First Macedonian War) resulted in the League calling for Roman intervention to save it. Not long after this Philip formed an anti-Egyptian alliance with the Seleucid king, Antiochus III. Together they cleared the Ptolemies out of the Aegean and the Levant (Philip took Samos and Miletus, Antiochus took Israel, Lebanon and southern Syria), but they also made enemies of Pergamun and Rhodes, the two remaining independent states in the war zone. The Pergamenes and Rhodians joined the Aetolians in petitioning the Roman Senate for action. The Senate felt it couldn't act while it was fighting Hannibal in Italy, but shortly after the Second Punic War ended, Rome declared a new war against Macedonia (200).
Philip marshaled his phalanx for the Second Macedonian War, but the legions he faced were full of veterans, and far more sophisticated than the ones Pyrrhus had defeated in the previous century. The decisive battle was fought at Cynoscephalae ("the dog's head"), in 197; here the Roman commander realized that the big pikes and shields of the Macedonians kept them from turning around very fast, so he attacked them on both the flank and the rear. Rome's triumph marked both the end of the hoplite, and the end of Macedonian supremacy in Greece. The Romans took nothing but a bit of land bordering their Illyrian province, and they announced they had no intention of becoming the new rulers of Macedonia and Greece. However, they insisted that from now on all Greeks must respect the interests and wishes of the Roman Senate; if they do not know what those wishes are, they must ask.
From a political standpoint, the Roman Republic had more in common with classical-era city-states like Athens, than did the Macedonian kings who took over most of the Greek-speaking world in the fourth century. The Romans had gotten started as a city-state, had a representative government with checks and balances, and in progress toward equal rights, the Republic began to resemble a democracy during its best years, the late fourth and third centuries B.C. Some of this came from their own experience, but it is no coincidence that the Greeks who taught them the latest cultural developments came from southern Italy, Sicily and Massilia, places that maintained the city-state system of government after Alexander conquered everything to the east. Consequently, one could argue that Rome, and not the Hellenistic kingdoms, was the true heir of Greek civilization in its purest form.
Despite the pleasant words exchanged by the Greeks and Romans at this point, Cynoscephalae was the end of Greek independence. From that time on Greece came increasing under Roman domination. When we hear about Greece in the next chapter, it will be part of the Roman Republic. Thus, here is a good place to end the political discussion of Greek history. The last part of this chapter will focus on the most important cultural development of classical Greece, philosophy.
41. Ibid, II, 65. George Grote tells us that when Pericles was on his deathbed, his friends were there discussing his great accomplishments. They thought he was unconscious and insensible, until he interrupted them by remarking: "What you praise in my life belongs partly to good fortune--and is, at best, common to me with many other generals. But the peculiarity of which I am most proud, you have not noticed--no Athenian has ever put on mourning through any action of mine."
42. Ibid, II, 53.
43. Thucydides commanded the relief force sent to Amphipolis, but it failed to arrive in time. This provoked Athens to banish one of the world's greatest military historians for the rest of the war.
44. Thucydides, V, 105.
45. Ibid, VI, 90.
46. Ibid, VI, 30.
47. Athenians were so concerned about a person's freedom of choice that they made condemned criminals commit suicide, by drinking a cup of hemlock.
48. Both the Illyrians and Thracians had fearsome reputations: the Illyrians as pirates, the Thracians as warriors. The Illyrians were united under a queen named Teuta in the third century B.C., until the Romans conquered them. The Thracians apparently were never united at all. In the 1990s, archaeologists began excavating Thracian grave sites, so only recently have we come to appreciate the fine craftsmanship that went into their gold and silver work.
49. Athenians claimed they could not understand the Greek dialect spoken by the Macedonians, and modern Greek historians have taken that to mean the Macedonians weren't really Greeks. George Grote, for example, snobbishly remarked that the Persians had more Greeks in their army than Alexander did! This is unfair, because in the early fifth century King Alexander I (495?-452 B.C.) somehow persuaded the president of the Olympic games that he was a descendant of Heracles; this meant he was a Greek, so it was legal for a Macedonian prince to compete. Also remember that both Philip and his son Alexander promoted Greek culture--not Macedonian--wherever they went, to bring peace and unity.
50. After the Peloponnesian War, many Greek states, starting with Athens, introduced a light infantry of peltasts (javelin throwers) and slingers, to make their armies more flexible than one made up solely of hoplites.
51. Cuppy, Will, The Decline and Fall of Practically Everybody, New York, Barnes & Noble Books, 1950, pg. 45.
52. Ambitious kings tried the resources of Epirus too far and in 231 their kingdom broke up. The ruling dynasty, the Molossians, lasted until 167, when it made the fatal error of supporting Macedonia's last king, Perseus, against the Romans.
53. Two thousand years later, the founding fathers of the United States would study the constitutions of both leagues for ideas on how federalism should work.
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