(This is the final installment in a series on the militaries of the Macedonian Successor states which grew out of the Wars of the Diadochi, following the death of Alexander the Great. For the next century 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 than Antigonus 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, Cassander son of the late Antipater “the Regent”, and Seleucus, who from Babylon took over the eastern Satrapies while Antigonus was occupied in the west.
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. He departed Greece leaving 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 I Poliorcetes (“The Besieger”)
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 commanded by the son of Lysimachus; and then to attack the coalition phalanx from behind. Antigonus’ plan was undone when Demetrius, after routing and pursuing Lysimachus’ horsemen from the field, was prevented from returning to the battle by Seleucus’ numerous elephants, which witing in reserve 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 the Antipatrid family. Demetrius took advantage of the chaos by first supporting and then murdering one of the contenders; making himself King of Macedon in 294 BC.
Over the next few years Demetrius worked to make 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 Acrocorinth towers over the ruins of ancient Corinth. In the Hellenistic Era it was the strongest fortress in Greece, one of the key Macedonian garrisons during the early Antigonid period. It was one of the three 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 an alliance of Pyrrhus of Epirus with 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, the powerful Antigonid 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 (who had seized the throne after murdering Seleucus) when he foolishly took the field against them without calling up the Macedonian levy. The Celts swept south with Keraunos’ head decorating a spear, leaving Macedon plundered and without a ruler. 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. He would hold the throne against many threats and contenders for the next 38 years, firmly establishing a dynasty.
Antigonas 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.(3)
Antigonas left his successors a strong, stable, modest kingdom. Unlike the other Successor states, the Antigonids never aspired to empire, content instead to hold the Macedonian homeland, and to dominate Greece and the Aegean. The army they fielded in time of war was relatively small, and only in its last days attained a measure of the strength it had enjoyed in the days of Philip II and Alexander, prior to the Asian conquests. But the quality of the Macedonian army was highly respected throughout 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 kleruch military settlers, descendants of the Graeco-Macedonian veterans of Alexander and his Diadochi 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.
Phalangites of Philip II and Alexander. Though his equipment differed in some particulars from the later Antigonid phalangites, the sarissa changed little over the centuries except for length.
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 and successor, 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 a strategos. These divisions were the Peltastoi, the Chalkaspides, and the Leukaspides. The first provided the core of 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.
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” (4); 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 skirmishes 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 Peltastoi 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.
The second and third strategiai in seniority was the Chalkaspides (the “Brazen/Bronze shields”), and the Leukaspides (“White Shields”). The Brazen Shields are often seen on distant expeditions, while the White Shields only appear in major wars of the Kingdom. It has been inferred from this that the Chalkaspides were more of an “active reserve”, comprised either of younger men who had recently served in the Peltastoi or were those younger men not selected for service in that elite corps (a more likely possibility). The Leukaspides may have been the older veterans, kept in reserve and called-up only when necessary. (It should be noted, however, that historian Nicholas Secunda doubts the existence of the Leukaspides as a unit of the Macedonian phalanx, suggesting instead that the many references in multiple ancient sources refers to a unit(s) of thureophoroi. (5)
All Macedonian phalangites were armed much alike from the royal arsenal at Amphipolis. Cuirasses of bronze (for officers and front-rankers) or quilted linen (the Ptolemaic Egyptians called this type of linen cuirass a kothybos) was augmented by a bronze helmet and greaves. Their shields, called alternatively aspai or peltai, were bronze (or bronze-faced) and relatively small, not more than 22” – 24” diameter and slightly concave. This was slung on a baldric over the shoulder till needed, and when advancing to contact in battle they swung these over their shoulders and into position, while leveling their pikes.
The main weapon of the phalanx was a two-handed pike, called a sarissa. This varied in length over time; from an estimated 15-18’ at the time of Alexander to an impressive 21’ at the time of Pydna (there was even experimentation with 24” sarissa during the mid-2nd century, but this extreme length was apparently found to be unwieldy). It was composed of two sections of cornel (wild cherry) wood or perhaps ash; the two half-sections joined by a 6” tubular metal sleeve. The two halves could be broken down, allowing for ease of storage or carry on the march, and allowed the phalangite to use a half section as a spear when the longer pike was impractical (such as when climbing a siege ladder or fighting aboard ship). The sarissa sported a 20” iron spear head at one end, and an 18” iron buttspike/counterweight at the back end. The head was narrow, allowing for great penetration.
The sarissa was a heavy, sturdy weapon, not easily broken or severed. There are several accounts of these pikes punching into the face of Roman “scutum” shields, and pushing the legionaries backwards as the phalangites steadily advanced. There are also accounts of Roman soldiers attempting to cut the heads off of sarissai with their gladius (short swords), with limited success. They were even capable of punching through light shields and armor, as seen in several incidents during Alexander’s reign.
The phalanx arrayed and advancing was apparently a terrifying sight. Livy writes of Aemelius Paulus, the Roman general who defeated the Macedonians at Pydna:
“Aemilius the consul, who had never seen a phalanx until this occasion in the war with Perseus, often confessed afterwards to certain persons in Rome that he had never seen anything more terrible and dreadful than a Macedonian phalanx, and this although he had witnessed and directed as many battles as any man.”
Each man would swing his shield from over his shoulder into position, the sun no doubt gleaming off of their bronze face. The sarissa would come down, the first four ranks level, the next four angled over the heads of the comrades ahead of them, and the pikes of the last eight ranks upright. To attack or withstand attack from this dense hedgehog of points must have demanded supreme confidence and courage. It is not surprising that the phalanx was the most feared fighting force of the ancient world for two hundred years.
Cavalry had been a major component in the armies of Philip II and Alexander, both the elite Companions and Thessalian cavalry, and contingents of ethnic light horse from various Balkan allies. However, immigration by much of the Macedonian nobility to the new conquests in the east had depleted the ranks of the ethnic Macedonian cavalry to a few hundred.
The proportions of cavalry in the Antigonid army averaged a mere 5%; compared with that of 20% in the army of Alexander. Whereas at the start of his reign Alexander had at his disposal 3,900 cavalry (3,300 of which were aristocratic Companion heavy horse), at the Battle of Sellasia in 222 BC, a century after Alexander’s death, Antigonus Doson had only 300 Macedonian cavalry. A generation later, at the Battle of Cynoscephalae, Philip V had 2,000 Macedonian and Thessalian horse. Perseus, with the benefit of a generation of peace and deliberate policies to grow the population, could raise 3,000 horse from Macedonia alone; the closest the Antigonid Kingdom was to come to the numbers enjoyed under Philip II and Alexander.
Within these numbers were a body of “Household” cavalry, called by the sources the Sacred Squadron (“hiera ile”). Philip V had 400 in 219 BC, and the 300 horsemen Doson had at Sellasia may have been this unit.
Philip V (1) armed with lance (“xyston”); followed by javelin-armed members of the “Sacred Squadron” (Hiera Ila) (2)
Unlike Macedonian cavalry of Alexander’s day, who were lance-armed shock cavalry (using the 12’ long xyston), these later Macedonians were skirmish cavalry. Though wearing armor and bearing a large, Celtic-style shield, they appear to have been armed with javelins. Livy describes their consternation when charged by Roman cavalry, being unaccustomed to close-quarter battle. The same author describes Philip V as fighting on horseback, throwing javelins.
Auxiliary cavalry provided by Balkan allies and mercenaries could mildly inflate the number of cavalry on campaign. At Sellasia, 300 mercenary and 600 allied horse augmented Doson’s forces. For the Pydna campaign, Perseus had 1,000 “elite” Thracian/Bastarnae cavalry.
Balkans light horsemen served as auxiliaries in the Macedonian army
From the beginning the Antigonids relied upon mercenaries to both spare the limited (and, at times, exhausted) Macedonian population and to augment them on campaign. Mercenaries also formed the bulk of the garrisons of the major fortresses (though Acrokorinth was guarded by a mixed force including 500 Macedonians, presumably because such a key fortress required troops whose loyalty was assured). After the Celtic invasion, Antigonas Gonatas made wide use of Celtic Galatians; at one time hiring a whole tribe! These were plentiful, fierce in battle, and relatively cheep. Later Antigonids primarily relied on Greek and Balkan mercenaries, particularly Illyrians and Thracians.
Thracian tribesmen made fierce light infantry and were common in Macedonian armies
At Sellasia, Doson had 1,000 Agrianians, as well as 1,600 Illyrians, 1,000 Galatians, and some number of Cretan archers. At Kynoskephalai Philip V had 2,000 Trallians (an Illyrian tribe) mercenaries, as well as 2,000 Thracians. For the Pydna campaign, Perseus raised 3,000 Cretan archers, 1,000 assorted Greek mercenaries (mostly spear-and-javelin armed thureophoroi), 2,000 Galatian infantry, and 3,000 “free” Thracians (earlier in his reign, Perseus had settled a mixed force of some 3,000 Agrianians, Paionian and Thracian skirmish infantry in Macedonia, and these may be that same force).
Thracian auxilia showing Philip V the heads of Romans killed in an earlier skirmish
Interestingly, Philip V’s garrison in Sikyon in 198 BC included Italians. These were both deserters from the Roman fleet, and former Italian veterans of Hannibal’s army who dared not return to their homes in Italy.
Under Antigonas Gonatas Macedon became (once again, briefly) a naval power. Antigonas gathered or built a fleet of warships to challenge Ptolemaic supremacy at sea and dominance of the Aegean. Little is known about either the size of this fleet or the types of warships which composed it. W. W. Tarn has suggested they were the larger quadremes and penteres/quinqueremes, and that this fleet numbered roughly 150 ships. The flagship, whose original name is unknown, but which was later renamed the Isthmia (it was perhaps built at Corinth) was a wonder of its age; having supposedly 3 decks, two banks of oars with 9 rowers manning each sweep, and was thus called an “18er”. It was supposedly a fast and well built ship, leading the line of battle. Tarn further suggests that Antigonas won the Battles of Kos and Andros by manning his fleet with his excellent Macedonian infantry; and like the Romans at Cape Ecnomus against the Carthaginians a decade earlier, turned the battle into a boarding action, favoring his superior “marines”. (It is speculated that the Macedonian phalangites used javelins or the upper half of their sarissa as spears when operating on ship-board as marines.) These victories drove the Ptolemies out of the Aegean, rule over most of their islands passing to the victor, Antigonus.
Following these victories, Gonatas dedicated his flagship to Apollo at Delos.
After Gonatas’ reign, the fleet declined both in size of ships and overall number.
By the time of Philip V the main warship of the Macedonian state was the light Lemboi, an open-decked galley of 50 oars, smaller than the earlier pentekonter. In 219-215 BC, Philip manned this fleet of light galleys with his own phalangites, teaching these to row, and with this squadron campaigned in the Ionian Sea against the Western Islands.
In 201 BC Philip V brought a fleet of 200 warships to the Battle of Chios, of which only 53 were decked (cataphract) warships, while 150 were light Lemboi. Here his fleet was badly defeated by a coalition which included Rhodes (the master sea power of their day) and the Seleucid break-away state of Pergamon.
By the Roman Wars Philip was facing a coalition which included the naval power of Rhodes and Pergamon as well as the Romans, who, since defeating Carthage in the First Punic War, had become a preeminent naval power. Faced by such strength at sea, the Macedonian fleet was disbanded for all intents and purposes. Macedon would never be a major naval power again.
The Antigonid Kingdom was the dominant power in the southern Balkans and the Aegean throughout the 3rd century BC, until defeated and ultimately annexed by the Romans in the first half of the 2nd century. Throughout that time, its focus was in keeping its Greek possessions intact and the independent Greek states on its periphery weak and divided. Its chief rival was Ptolemaic Egypt in the first half of the 3rd century, till driving them out of the Aegean. Thereafter, their greatest opponents were the Achaean League and the Aetolian League. When the rising power of Rome in the west began to cast its dark shadow over Greece, Philip V attempted to forge a pan-Hellenic coalition to oppose this powerful threat. In this he had limited success, gaining the alliance of the Achaean League, but failing to bring into coalition the powerful Aetolian League. This latter power ultimately allied with and invited the Romans into Greece.
Macedon failed in its resistance against the Romans, with Philip defeated at Cynoskephalai in 197 BC. Following that defeat, he became a loyal ally of Rome while quietly rebuilding his kingdom’s strength. His son, Perseus, inherited a Macedonian kingdom and army stronger than it had been since the accession of Alexander the Great. He challenged Rome, but was also defeated at Pydna in 168 BC. After this, the last king of Macedon was sent in chains to Rome and Macedonia became a province of the Roman Empire.
The uneven nature of the ground at Pydna created gaps in the phalanx; which allowed the highly-experienced and aggressive Roman infantry to break into the Macedonian formation and defeat the phalanx at close-quarters. Here, led by a centurion, the Romans use a gully to infiltrate into the phalanx’s ranks. This image inaccurately depices the Antigonid phalanx as bearing silver shields. The “Argyraspides” were a Seleucid army formation, not an Antigonid. However, this might be meant to be white shields of the “Leucaspides” division.
If you enjoyed this piece, check out the other parts of this series:
Some of the artwork in this article has been reproduced with the permission of Osprey Publishing, and is © Osprey Publishing, part of Bloomsbury Publishing Plc.
1. Diodorus XX, 113
2. Bar-Kochva, Bezalel, “The Seleucid Army: Organization and Tactics in the Great Campaigns”; CambridgeUniversity Press, 1976. Page 75
3. Tarn suggests that the famed Winged Victory of Samothrace was a dedication by Antigonas following one of these two victories.
4. Livy 42.51.4-5
5. Secunda, Nicholas, Macedonian Armies after Alexander 323 – 168 BC; Osprey Publishing LTD, 2012. P. 36-37
Some of the artwork in this article has been reproduced with the permission of Osprey Publishing, and is © Osprey Publishing, part of Bloomsbury Publishing Plc.