(This is the first part in a series on the militaries of the Macedonian Successor states; which grew out of the Wars of the Diadoci that followed the death of Alexander the Great. For the next century after his death, these kingdoms were defended by armies that represented the greatest fighting forces in the Hellenistic World. Each differed from the other in fascinating ways, as will be shown.)
Of all the Successors of Alexander the Great none came closer to reuniting his empire thanAntigonus Monophthalmus (“One Eyed”) and his son Demetrius Poliorketes (“the Besieger”). For a brief time (circa 315 BC) Antigonas controlled all of Alexander’s Asian Empire. This led his rivals to unite against him: Ptolemy in Egypt; Lysimachos , Satrap of Thrace; Seleucus, who from Babylon took over the eastern Satrapies while Antigonus was occupied in the west; and Cassander, son of the late Antipater “the Regent”, who ruled Macedon.
While Antigonas held his own in Asia, he dispatched Demetrius with an Army to Greece to establish control and to war against Cassander in Macedon and the Aegean. From Athens, where he was worshiped as a “Savior God” after reestablishing democratic governance, Demetius extended Antigonid control throughout central Greece. Using the excellent port of Piraeus as base for the large Antigonid fleet, he soon controlled all the Islands of the Aegean as well. Advancing into Thessaly in 302 BC, Demetrius was preparing for a final showdown with Cassander when he was recalled to Asia to support his father on the eve of the Ipsus Campaign. Demetrius left garrisons of mercenaries to hold the key fortresses. The bulk of his field army was brought to Asia to fight beside his father.
Tetradrachma of Demetrius Poliorcetes
The Battle of Ipsus (301 BC) was the perhaps the greatest battle of the Successor Wars (we have no figures for the number of combatants who fought at Corupedion in 281 BC, but it is likely to have rivaled the earlier battle). In this fight, Demetrius commanded his father’s right-wing cavalry; meant to deliver the decisive charge that would break the coalition left-wing cavalry, and attack its phalanx from behind. Antigonus was undone when Demetrius, after routing and pursuing Lysimachus’ horsemen from the field, was prevented from returning to the battle by Seleucus’ elephants; which interposed themselves between Demetrius and the battle. (Diodorus claims that Seleucus brought 480 elephants of the 500 he supposedly received from Chandragupta in return for ceding the Punjab (1). Bar-Kochva argues persuasively for a number closer to 150 elephants (2). In either case, the coalition used their elephant force to decisive effect.) The elderly Antigonas was slain amidst his crumbling phalanx, while Demetrius retreated with some survivors to Ephesus.
For the next 4 years Demetrius, reduced to a freebooter, relied upon the strength of his fleet. From Athens, he controlled nothing more than the islands of the Aegean. After Cassander’s death in 297 BC, however, Cassander’s sons fell out and civil war divided theAntipatrid family. Demetrius took advantage of the chaos by first supporting and then murdering one of the contenders; then making himself King of Macedon in 294 BC.
Over the next few years, Demetrius succeeded in making himself the dominant power in Greece, reestablishing strong garrisons at Corinth (the Acrokorinth, the mountain-top citadel towering over the city, was the strongest fortress in Greece); Chalcis on the Island of Euboea; and at his newly-built fortress in Thessaly, Demetrias (near modern Volos). These fortresses (which in the next generation came to be called “the fetters of Greece”) supported a network of lesser garrisons Demetrius established.
The Arcocorinth towers over the ruins of Ancient Corinth. In the Hellenistic era, it was the strongest fortress in Greece, and one of the key Macedonian garrisons during the early Antigonid period; one of the so-called “Fetters of Greece”.
Demetrius was an unpopular king with the Macedonians. Raised in Asia at the Imperial Court of his father, he was ill-equipped to deal with the prickly and plain-spoken Macedonians. In 288 BC a coalition of Pyrrhus of Epirus and Lysimachos of Thrace invaded the country; and the Macedonian soldiers deserted him. Demetrius fled, taking to the sea again for a time, raiding his enemy’s possessions. Then, while campaigning in Cilicia against the Seleucids he was captured (285 BC), and remained under “house arrest” until his death by natural causes three years later.
Demetrius left to his son, Antigonas Gonatas (possibly meaning either “Knock-Knees”, “Armored Knees”, or simply a man of Gonnoi in Thessaly) little more than a few loyal garrisons in Greece; his powerful fleet having deserted to Ptolemy in Egypt upon Demetrius’ capture. However, Antigonas proved an exceptionally patient and crafty statesman; exploiting every opportunity to his advantage. He had also learned his military lessons at the feet of his mighty grandfather and father, proving a very able general as well.(As a ruler and statesman, he perhaps owed even more to his mother, Phila, the wise daughter of Antipater; whom he resembled in both looks and farsightedness).
When the Celts invaded Macedon and Greece in 279 BC, they slew the Macedonian king,Ptolemy Keraunos (the murderer of Seleucus); leaving Macedon kingless and desperate. Antigonas led a force of mercenaries against the barbarians; ambushing and defeating a branch of the invading tribes at Lysimachia in Thrace (277 BC). After this victory, Antigonas was acclaimed king of Macedon; and held the throne against many threats and contenders for the next 38 years.
He found Macedon destitute and its manpower exhausted by losses and migration (Macedonian soldiers were highly sought-after mercenaries in the armies of the other Successor Kingdoms; and most who went abroad never returned, dying in service or settling down as kleruchs in their new homelands). Throughout his long reign Antigonas relied on mercenaries, allowing the Macedonian population a generation to replenish. He maintained his hold on Greece by establishment of client-tyrants in the various cities; and by strong garrisons at Athens, Corinth, Chalcis, and Demetrias. He also painstakingly rebuilt the Antigonid fleet, with which he drove the Ptolemies out of the Aegean with the naval victories at Kos and Andros, 258-248 BC. (Tarn suggests that the famed Winged Victory of Samothrace was a dedication by Antigonas following one of these two victories).
Antigonas left his successors a strong, stable, modest kingdom. Unlike the other Successor states, the Antigonids never aspired to empire; instead content to hold the Macedonian homeland, and to dominate Greece and the Aegean. The army that they fielded was relatively small (only in its last days attaining a measure of the strength it had enjoyed in the days of Philip II and Alexander, prior to the Asian conquests); though its quality was highly respected in the Hellenistic world.
The Macedonian phalanx of the Antigonid Kingdom was famed throughout the ancient world; and while other Successor kingdoms had their own “Macedonians”, these were primarily kleruchs, military settlers, descendants of the Graeco-Macedonian veterans of Alexander and his Diodachii and their Asian/Egyptian wives. The ancient world put great stock in blood, and only Macedon could field true Macedonians of pure blood. (The Macedonians were larger and heartier than the average Greek, an important factor when it came to the “push of pike” that was a feature of phalanx warfare.) Until finally defeated by the Romans, the Macedonian phalangite was considered the premiere heavy infantryman in the world.
Phalangite of Philip II and Alexander. Though his equipment differed in some particulars from the later Antigonid phalangite, his sarissa changed little over the ages, except for length (growing longer with time).
Unlike the armies of the other Successor Kingdoms (and of Alexander himself) in which cavalry and light troops comprised the majority of the army, the phalanx was the largest component of the Antigonid army. Against the Romans at Kynoscephalae, Philip V’s army was 62% phalangites (the phalanx never exceeded 40% of the troop totals in Alexander’s day). Under his son, Perseus, who took pains to reestablish a balanced force structure, the phalanx shrunk proportionately to 49% of the army; still a far higher proportion than in other Successor armies.
The phalanx was divided into three divisions, or Strategiai, each commanded by aStrategos. These divisions were the Peltastoi, the Chalkaspides, and the Leukaspides. The first provided the “standing army” for the kingdom; while the other two were “reserve” formations. The strength of each fluctuated on campaign (and these divisions may in fact have been ad hoc), but a “paper strength” of 5,000 has been suggested.
The Peltastoi (“Peltasts”, named for the small bronze shields they carried; not to be confused with the 4th century light troops of the same name) were the elite of the army. They were likely comprised of younger men, doing their “hitch” of regular army service before returning to civilian life and the ranks of one of the other two, reserve Strategiai.
Antigonid bronze infantry helmets
Within this body was an elite force, the Agema (which means “Vanguard”; and to whom Livy gives the colorful unit name of Nicatores, “The Conquerors”, “chosen for their strength and enduring energy” (3); though all of the Peltasts were crack troops. At Sellasia in 222 BC Antigonas Doson had 3,000 Peltasts. At Kynoskephalai in 197 BC Philip V had only 2,000 (though in 219 BC this unit had numbered 5,000; the difference in strength perhaps reflecting losses in earlier battles against the Romans). At Pydna in 168 BC the number had risen again to 5,000; of which 2,000 were the Agema, or “Conquerors”.
Unlike the army of Philip II and Alexander, their was no body of elite light infantry Hypaspists. The term “hypaspists” was used in Antigonid Macedon only for members of the King’s inner circle and bodyguards. It has been suggested, however, that either the Peltasts as a whole or the Agema within this corps could perform the same functions as the hypaspists of Alexander’s army. Which is to say, that they were a multipurpose force; capable of being dispatched on light infantry missions, or taking their place in the line of battle as a division of the phalanx.