Long before George R.R. Martin penned his tale of war, intrigue and treachery the ancient world was scene to its own version of The Game of Thrones.
(This is the third in a series concerning the Wars of the Diadochi. Part 1 can be read here, and includes comprehensive biographies of the players in this drama. Part 2 can be found here. It is strongly advised that you start there before reading on. Stay tuned to this blog for future installments!)
THE LAMIAN WAR BEGINS
Greece had long been under the thumb of Macedon, ever since Philip II’s victory over the Athenian and Theban alliance at Chaeronea in 338 BC. Upon Philip’s assassination two years later Thebes had revolted, but there had been no general rising, and one of Alexander’s first campaigns had been to crush the Theban revolt. The City of Heracles was stormed by Alexander’s forces, sacked and destroyed and its citizens sold into slavery, a grisly warning that kept the other Greek states in line for the rest of Alexander’s reign. Marching off to his conquest of Persia, Alexander compelled the Greek cities (with the notable exception of Sparta, which had never submitted to either Philip or Alexander) to furnish men or ships.
Many of the most bitter anti-Macedonians left Greece (or were forced into exile), and a large number had taken service as mercenaries with the Persians. Defeated along with Darius at Issus, some had returned home to Hellas and enlisted under the Spartan king Agis III to fight against Alexander’s regent in Greece, Antipater. Others had followed the defeated Darius east, to fight again at the Battle of Gaugamela. After that crushing defeat, they had accompanied the fugitive Darius into the Upper Satrapies. There the last Achaemenid “King of Kings” was ultimately assassinated by his own disgruntled nobles. Following this, Alexander settled many of them (along with Greek mercenaries who had served in his own army) in these Upper Satrapies, particularly in Bactria in one of the many Alexandrias that he founded. Meanwhile, back in Greece, the Spartan revolt was defeated by Antipater at Megalopolis in 331.
When the conqueror died in Babylon in June of 323 confirmation was slow to arrive back in Greece. Initially, many doubted the news (this was not the first time that Greeks had heard unfounded rumors of Alexander’s death: it was just such a rumor that had inspired the Theban revolt of 335, leading to that city’s destruction). Demades, the Athenian statesman, quipped, “If Alexander were (truly) dead, the stench would fill the world!” But by September that year the King’s death was confirmed.
In Athens, this was the signal for revolt.
Greece was at that time rife for upheaval. Antipater had installed pro-Macedonian oligarchies (and in some cases garrisons) in many of the cities. But Alexander’s Exile Decree of 324 had the unintended consequence that many of the returnees were men exiled by Antipater’s clients, and who had strong ant-Macedonian sentiments. The Exile Decree was particularly upsetting to Athens and Aetolia for other reasons. The former had seized the island of Samos, once base to the Athenian navy and a colony; the latter had taken the city of Oeniadae, expelling the inhabitants and settling their own citizens within. Now the exiled former inhabitants were to be allowed to return, and their property restored. This was the final straw of Macedonian meddling that broke the camel’s back.
The leader of the radical anti-Macedonian faction in Athens was the orator, Hyperides. He seems already to have been in close contact with Leosthenes, an Athenian exile and mercenary commander of some renown. This staunch anti-Macedonian was camped at Cape Taenarum at the end of the Mani Peninsula with some 8,000 mercenary soldiers. Taenarum was the main emporium for Greek mercenary soldiers in the Hellenistic World. Some of his men had fought against Antipater at Megalopolis, and after their defeat had come here to find employers, all the while nursing their grudges against the Macedonians. Others had been dismissed from the service of the Macedonian satraps in Asia in the last months of Alexander’s reign, when he had ordered the disbanding of the private armies raised by his governors during his absence in India. These troops were likely hoplites, heavy infantry spearmen, still the most common and sought after Greek troop-type. However, some or all may alternately have been of the troop-type known as “peltasts”, lighter than hoplites but heavier than light infantry skirmishers (psiloi).
With the confirmation of Alexander’s death Leosthenes now came to Athens, and along with Hyperides persuaded the Assembly that the time was ripe to cast off their shackles. The Assembly voted war, with the grand purpose of attaining the freedom “of all Hellas”. The soldiers at Taenarum were contracted, and Athens put on a war footing. 200 triremes and 40 quadremes were to be mobilized, along with all citizens under 40. The experienced Leosthenes was chosen to command the Greek forces of a new Hellenic League.
The appearance of the Greek hoplite had changed greatly since the Classical Age of Marathon and Thermopylae. By the last decades of the 4th century citizen hoplites were increasingly augmented or replaced altogether by mercenary hoplites. In his battles against Darius, Alexander’s most dangerous foes were Greek mercenary hoplites serving in Persian service. During the Lamian War, many Greek soldiers returned home to fight against the Macedonian overlords. This image is one such hoplite. His equipment is not very much different than that of the Macedonian phalangites he opposed, save for his the shorter spear (dori) instead of the longer Macedonian sarissa.
This pan-Hellenic alliance took months to finalize. But the rapidity of events and the far-sweeping nature of the rising against Macedon would seem to indicate an underpinning conspiracy that may have dated to before Alexander’s death. Aetolia immediately joined in the war, along with Elis, Messenia, Argos and Sicyon. Other states were frozen in place by Macedonian garrisons (such as Corinth and Chalcis), or the near proximity of such (Megara, over-awed by Antipater’s garrison in Corinth). More indicative of a long-planned rebellion was that in far-off Bactria an army of those Greek mercenaries settled there by Alexander now banded together and began marching west towards home.
Antipater in Macedon found himself in a difficult position. Macedonia had been bled of troops, as so many had been sent east to reinforce Alexander’s army and provide garrisons in the conquered territories. He had on hand only 13,000 foot and 600 horse. He sent word to the nearest of the Macedonian satraps, Leonnatus in Hellespontine Phrygia (See Part 2), for help. He also sent off to more distant Craterus, marching to Macedonia with 10,000 discharged veterans of Alexander’s wars. After delaying as long as he could, Antipater took what he had on hand and marched south into Thessaly. There he was joined by 2,000 superb Thessalian heavy cavalry, many of whom had served under the long-dead Parmenion in Alexander’s early campaigns. These were commanded by Menon of Pharsalus (the maternal grandfather of the great Epirote king and conqueror, Pyrrhus).
The reputation of the horsemen of Thessaly was second only to that of the Macedonians themselves.
Meanwhile, Leosthenes had not been laggard. If he had learned anything from Alexander, it was that in war bold and rapid action usually paid high dividends. Soon after the declaration of hostilities, Leosthenes had crossed the Corinthian Gulf to Aetolia, where he had shipped the 8,000 mercenaries that had been with him at Taenarum. He was joined there by another 7,000 Aetolians, excellent-quality light infantry. With this combined army he marched overland to Thermopylae .
From there he learned that the Athenians had gathered a force of 5,500 citizens (presumably hoplites) and 2,000 mercenaries, and were on route to join him at Thermopylae; but had been held up in Boeotia by a pro-Macedonian army of Boeotians and Euboeans. Not all Greeks supported the rebellion: the Boeotians feared that the Athenians would rebuild Thebes (which in its day had dominated and bullied the other Boeotian cities) as a bulwark against the Macedonians. Leosthenes hastened south into Boeotia from Thermopylae, defeated the Boeotians and united with the Athenian expedition. His forces united, he now reversed his march, and arrived back at the “Hot Gates” in time to meet Antipater’s army coming from the north.
Athenian citizen infantry preparing for battle.
We don’t know where the subsequent battle actually took place. It was in the vicinity of Thermopylae, though it is unlikely the armies engaged within the pass itself. To the northwest is a broad alluvial plain watered by the Spercheios, Dyras (the modern Gorgopotamos) and Asopus rivers. It was on this plain that Xerxes’ army assembled before attempting to force the pass of Thermopylae in 480 BC., and where the Bulgarians were defeated by the Byzantines in 997. I suggest it is on this plain that the battle likely took place.
The plain can be entered from Thessaly at Lamia, a town situated at its northern extremis, perched on the edge of the foothills of the Othrys mountains. It is likely that Antipater’s 15,500 man army came south from Thessaly through the pass here at Lamia, entering the plain. We can only speculate, but it is easy to imagine that he then deployed for battle, north of the Spercheios River; and awaited Leosthenes’ advance. With Menon’s 2,000 Thessalian horsemen and the 600 cavalry he had brought from Macedon he was confident of having a cavalry advantage in the coming fight; and would have wanted to give battle where there was room for maneuver. Leosthenes may have had some cavalry of his own, as Athens could historically field as many as 1,000 horsemen by itself, and Aetolia a few hundreds of their own. But these could not be expected to stand up to the Thessalians and Macedonians in battle. (The Aetolians in the 3rd century became renown for the quality of their cavalry, but by that period the Aetolian League encompassed most of Thessaly, always able to field superb horsemen.)
(Battle diagram not to scale.)
In any case, Antipater’s expectations were confounded and the battle took a disastrous turn when Menon switched sides in the middle of the battle, bringing his Thessalians over to join Leosthenes and their fellow Greeks. It is a testament to both Antipater’s generalship and the steadiness of the second-class Macedonian home levies he commanded that he was able to extricate some portion of his army from the resulting debacle. Retreating back north across the plain, no doubt with his erstwhile Thessalian allies slashing at his heals, he found refuge for the remnants of his army in Lamia.
Sunset over Lamia, looking toward the southwest. In the distance is the mountains of Trachis. The modern city has spilled south into the plain; in ancient times it would have hugged the area around the modern castle, seen on the high ground to the right. The plain of the Sperchios River can be seen distantly, beyond the town on the left.
Here he was besieged by Leosthenes. Due to a lack of siege train, the Athenian could only blockade the Macedonians, not batter the place into submission. Antipater would be beleaguered throughout the winter, his only hope now lying in outside relief.
It goes without saying that none had taken Alexander’s death harder than his own mother, Olympias.
They had always enjoyed a close, though strained relationship. However much he learned of statecraft and the arts of war from his father, he was very much his mother’s son. From her he inherited his good looks, his flair for the dramatic, his dry wit and his passionate and sometimes violent temperament. For she was not only beautiful and passionate, she was also witty and highly intelligent, perhaps even borderline genius (as well as borderline insane!). Though Alexander’s military education was provided by his extraordinarily capable father, the genius with which he grasped the lessons and applied them was likely Olympias’ genetic.
Olympias as portrayed by Angelina Jolie in “Alexander the Great” (2004)
A princess of the Epirote royal house, Olympias had become queen of Macedon as a teenage girl after meeting the young King Philip at Samothrace, where both were initiated into the mysteries. It was both a love match and a political one, as the marriage sealed an alliance between the kingdoms. Olympias quickly bore Philip two children, Alexander and a younger sister, Cleopatra. But Philip’s ardor soon cooled (one tale being that queen’s keeping of sacred snakes in her bed disgusted her husband), and he took other women and even wives as the moment called for. Olympias, a woman who both loved and hated with equal passion, came to bitterly despise the husband who neglected her. She used their son against him, raising Alexander to be his father’s rival.
Macedon had known strong, passionate queens before. Philip’s own mother, Eurydice, had been such. But no queen before the dramatic and overbearing Olympias seems to have had ambitions to rule. Philip’s death left her in a very good position, and Olympias thought to rule through her son, in his absence. But in this she was to be greatly disappointed. When he departed for Asia, Alexander left Olympias in Pella, but not as his regent. Instead he picked Antipater, long his father’s right-hand-man, as his Regent and General in Europe. Over the next decade, as he swept through Asia like a forest fire, she burdened her son with a constant stream of invective-laced letters, vilifying the Regent and others she distrusted. She everywhere saw plots against Alexander and threats to his kingship, and wasted much parchment in warning him against this friend or that supporter. When he failed to take the actions she suggested/demanded, she would rail against him and his lack of faith in or love for her, his mother. After reading one such letter, he famously turned to Hephaistion (who alone of his inner circle Olympias, grudgingly, trusted) and observed, “Mother’s charge a heavy rent for nine month’s lodging!” But he never lost his love for her, and as they were much alike he understood her frustrations and always answered her violent letters with soft words of consolation.
Olympias was known for her intelligence and wit as well as her passionate nature. When she learned that Alexander (here depicted on one of his coins bearing the horns of ram-headed Zeus-Ammon) claimed Zeus as his true father, she shrugged it off, quipping, “Will Alexander never stop getting me in trouble with Hera?”
But he was equally deaf to Antipater’s correspondences concerning Olympias’ various and regular misdemeanors. After reading a letter from the Regent containing a long list of grievances against her, he said to Hephaistion (who regularly read over his friend’s shoulder) that Antipater failed to understand that a single mother’s tear washed away a thousand such letters. 
The old soldier, who had 10 children (three of which were daughters) and was obviously not averse to women in general, became in time an ardent anti-feminist. Worn down by his constant struggles with Olympias (and, later, the teenage Queen Eurydike), Antipater on his deathbed warned the Macedonians to “never let a woman rule them”!
By 331 BC, the year Alexander fought the decisive battle of Gaugamela, Olympias had made herself so detested at the Macedonian court that Alexander finally ordered her to refrain from further meddling in politics. She left Macedon, and returned to her native Epirus. There her 23 year old daughter, Cleopatra, was regent for her royal husband, Alexander son of Neoptolemus. This other Alexander (the Molossian) was both Olympias brother and her son-in-law, having married his niece. Like his more famous nephew he was away attempting to create an empire, this one in Italy. There he was battling the fierce southern Italian tribes of the interior as champion of the Greek coastal cities (particularly Tarentum). He was slain that winter at Pandosia by an Italian turncoat in his retinue. His death left Cleopatra regent for her 4 year old son, Neoptolemus.
But Olympias was very soon the power in Epirus, and played the great lady. When Alexander sent rich gifts to both her and his sister, she used some of this wealth to dedicate golden crowns at Olympia, and to adorn temples as far away as Athens. It was said that Alexander planned on having her deified, as the crowning glory to his labors, upon his return. No doubt the notion mollified her thwarted ambition to rule in Macedon; and Alexander surely thought she could do much less damage as a goddess of her own cult than she could meddling in politics (a point made by Macurdy ).
It seems that she and her daughter were of one mind in opposition to Antipater and in looking after Alexander’s interest in Macedon. To this end, Cleopatra returned to Macedon in 325, leaving her children in their grandmother’s care. It was perhaps Cleopatra, corroborating his mother’s concerns regarding Antipater’s loyalty, that led Alexander to recall the Regent’s to Babylon in spring of 323, with plans to replace him with Craterus.
News of her brother’s death in Babylon reached Cleopatra in Pella, and Olympias in Epirus later that summer. It must have come as a terrible shock for Cleopatra, but for Olympias her son’s death was devastating. Gone was the son she loved and had devoted herself to. Gone too was the long-awaited fall of Antipater, and her own triumphant return to Macedon. Any prospect of deification was lost as well.
Her hatred of Antipater only increased, and very soon a rumor would spread, likely originating from Olympias (though possibly beginning in Babylon) that Alexander was poisoned by Antipater’s son, Iollus. He was Alexander’s Cup Bearer, and had given him (poisoned?) wine at both the fateful banquet of Medius where Alexander was first stricken down, and later on his deathbed. (See Part 1) It was a rumor that was apparently widely believed, and the Hyperides in Athens proposed a vote of thanks to Iollus in the Assembly for his part in Alexander’s death. Later, when once more in power in Macedon, Olympias would vent her hatred by desecrating Iollus’ grave.
For now, though, she was left powerless and exiled in Epirus by her son’s death. However, the outbreak of the Lamian War and Antipater’s confinement in Lamia gave her an opportunity to make a move of her own on the chessboard.
Sending to Cleopatra in Pella, she persuaded her daughter that their best chance was to make an advantageous marriage for the widowed princess, to one of Alexander’s emerging “Successors”. Thankfully, the nearest in proximity was also the most desirable to Cleopatra and Olympias.
This was Leonnatus the Bodyguard. A member of the Macedonian royal family (he was in some way kin to Philip II’s mother, Eurydice), he was approximately the same age as Cleopatra, and they had grown up together at the Royal Court in Pella. He was much like her dead brother in height and good looks, and since Alexander’s death had affected to increase the resemblance by wearing his hair long and keeping his cheeks closely shaved (a fashion aped by all Macedonians and men in general in the Hellenistic and Roman world for centuries after the conqueror’s death).
Like many of his Successors, Leonnatus affected the long locks and shaven face of Alexander
Leonnatus had lobbied in Babylon for his own appointment as satrap of Hellespontine Phrygia, to be near to Macedon and Cleopatra with just such a marriage in mind. It is not clear who initiated the proposal, Cleopatra, Olympias or he But in either case they were of one mind. As husband to Philip’s daughter and Alexander’s sister, along with his own royal family connections, he would be well positioned to claim the throne now held by a brain-damaged (autistic?) man and a newborn, half-Asian infant (to whom he was, in fact, an official “Guardian”).
What Leonnatus needed first was a military triumph, to convince the Macedonians that he was a worthy successor to Philip and Alexander. Fortune seemed to be smiling, for the Greeks had risen and Antipater was defeated and besieged at Lamia. The moment called for Leonnatus to cross the Hellespont, march into Europe and defeat the Greek rebels, and become the hero of the day.
NEXT: THE LAMIAN WAR ENDS
For more, read Great Captains: Alexander the Great
RECOMMENDED FURTHER READING:
- Though Leosthenes former services which brought him to prominence prior to the Lamian War are unknown. Hyperides, in his funeral oration after Leosthenes’ death, says of him only that Athens needed a man, and the man came. Tarn suggests he was a leader of mercenaries under Alexander himself; where he learned his trade and made for himself a reputation.
- Likely marching along the north shore of the Corinthian Gulf east to Amphissa, then north through the valley of Doris to Heraclea Trachis, and then arriving at Thermopylae from the west.
- Plutarch Alexander XXXIX
- Diodorus XIX, 11
- The Italian tribes were valiant and ferocious opponents. Though he did well for a time against them, Alexander of Epirus had his hands full. When told of Alexander’s victories against the Persians, he is supposed to have scoffed: “My nephew battles women; while I battle against men!” Livy 9.19.10-11; echoed by Curtius, 8.1.37
- Macurdy, Grace Harriet, Hellenistic Queens
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.