Cassander: Ruthless Macedon King in the Shadow of Alexander the Great
Cassander was a King of Macedon who lived during the 4 th century BC. He was a son of Antipater, one of Alexander the Great’s generals. During Alexander’s campaign against the Achaemenids in the East, Cassander most likely remained in Europe, since his father was serving as regent in Macedon. Following his father’s death, Cassander became one of the Diadochi, and fought for control of Alexander’s fragmented empire. Cassander was politically ruthless, and was successful in holding on to his territories. Unfortunately for Cassander, he was unable to create a dynasty. Shortly after his death, Cassander’s house, the Antipatrids, lost control of Macedon to Demetrius I Poliorcetes, a member of the Antigonid dynasty.
Illustration of the profile of Cassander, King of Macedon. (ArchaiOptix / CC BY-SA 4.0)
The Path to Becoming King Cassander of Macedon
Cassander was born around 358 BC, and was the son of Antipater, a Macedonian general who had served under Perdiccas III and Philip II, Alexander the Great’s predecessors. At the time of Philip’s assassination in 336 BC, Antipater had become one of the most important generals in Macedon. Along with Parmenion, another of Philip’s trusted generals, Antipater ensured that Alexander would succeed his father as King of Macedon. Two years later, Alexander began his campaign against the Achaemenids, and left for the East. Antipater was given the title strategos (general) of Europe, and left in charge of Macedon.
Whilst Alexander was away, Antipater was supposed to defend the kingdom’s northern frontier against hostile tribes, and to make sure that the Greek states remained loyal to Macedon. With regards to the latter, Antipater supported oligarchic governments, which made him unpopular. On the other hand, he was also working with the League of Corinth (known also as the Hellenic League), a confederation of Greek states that was created by Philip. Although Antipater was not with Alexander in the east, he contributed to his campaign as well. In 334/3 BC, for instance, he sent reinforcements to Gordium, where Alexander was spending the winter.
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In the following summer, the Achaemenids sent a naval force to Thrace and Macedon, with the aim of bringing the war to Europe. This expedition was led by Memnon of Rhodes and Pharnabazus. This was a serious threat to Alexander’s campaign, and Antipater had to prepare for the defence of Europe. Fortunately for Antipater and Alexander, Memnon died at the Siege of Mytilene. Memnon’s death, along with Alexander’s victory at the Battle of Issus in the same year, resulted in the dispersal of the remaining Achaemenid fleet. Had Memnon not lost his life at Mytilene, and brought the fleet to Europe, the course of history might have gone in quite a different direction.
The Battle of Issus, portrayed in this mosaic currently on display in Naples, took place in 333 BC between the Persian Empire led by Darius III and the Greeks led by Alexander the Great. (Magrippa / CC BY-SA 3.0)
His Father’s Son: Setting the Scene for Cassander’s Rise to Power
Antipater had to deal with yet another problem in 331 BC. In that year, the Spartans, under Agis III, revolted against the Macedonians. He had received large sums of money from Pharnabazus, built a large army, and formed an anti-Macedonian coalition. To counter this threat, Alexander sent large amounts of money back to Macedon to finance a war against the Spartans.
At that time, Antipater was dealing with a Thracian uprising. When the Spartans revolted, however, Antipater broke off the campaign in Thrace, and built a new army. The Macedonian army, which was twice the size of Agis’, defeated the Spartans at the Battle of Megalopolis. Plutarch, criticising Alexander’s reluctance to return to aid Antipater in the war with Agis, wrote that the king had mocked the war in Greece as “a battle of mice there in Arcadia.”
In spite of all that he had done, Antipater would soon lose favour with Alexander. This was caused by the conflict between the general and Olympias, Alexander’s mother. The latter began sending letters to her son to complain about Antipater’s misbehaviour. Initially, Alexander ignored these complaints, but eventually lost his temper. Therefore, in 324 BC, when the king returned to Babylon from India, he ordered Antipater to come to the East. Another general, Craterus, was sent with 11,500 veterans to replace him as strategos of Europe.
Antipater, however, did not obey Alexander’s summons. Instead, he sent his son, Cassander, to Babylon on a diplomatic mission. This may have been an attempt by Antipater to persuade Alexander to keep him in his position. Nevertheless, it was interpreted by the king as a confirmation of his mother’s complaints, which doomed the mission, and caused Antipater and his family to fall from grace.
The era of Alexander the Great, famed as a legendary military commander who forged one of the largest empires in history, was filled with conquest and bloodshed. During his time away conquering the world, Alexander was criticised by Plutarch (on the left) for his reluctance to return to fight the wars taking place in Greece. (Left: Public domain. Right: Public domain)
Bloodbath After the Death of Alexander the Great
In 323 BC, Alexander suddenly died in Babylon. Due to the bad blood between Alexander and Antipater, Cassander has been accused of being sent by his father to poison the king. In any event, Alexander’s death meant that Antipater’s replacement by Craterus as strategos of Europe did not take place. Alexander’s death was also seized by the Greeks as an opportunity to rebel against Macedonian rule. Led by the Athenians and Aetolians, the Greeks fought against Antipater in the Lamian War. Despite initial successes against the Macedonians, the Greeks lost the war in the end, following their decisive defeat at the Battle of Crannon in 322 BC.
The most severe consequence of Alexander’s death, however, was the fragmentation of his empire. As soon as Alexander was dead, his empire broke up, and the Diadochi, or “successors,” began to wage war on each other for supremacy. During the First War of the Diadochi, Antipater, Antigonus, and Craterus revolted against Perdiccas, who ruled as regent, since the new king, Philip III Arrhidaeus, was mentally disabled. Perdiccas was killed by his own officers during his invasion of Egypt in 321 BC, after which Antipater was appointed as the new regent.
Late 15 th century depiction of the poisoning of Alexander the Great. (National Library of Wales / CC0)
Antipater died in 319 BC of old age. Instead of appointing Cassander as his successor, however, Antipater handed over the regency to an old officer, Polyperchon. Apparently, Antipater felt that Cassander was too young to serve as regent. Consequently, the Second War of the Diadochi broke out in 318 BC. During this war, Cassander allied himself with Antigonus and Ptolemy, the ruler of Egypt against the regent. Polyperchon was defeated in 317 BC, and Cassander was appointed as the new regent. Polyperchon, however, managed to escape to Epirus, along with Roxane, Alexander’s widow, and her son, the infant Alexander. There, the former regent formed an alliance with the King of Epirus, Aeacides, and Olympias. Since Alexander was the legitimate son of Alexander the Great, Polyperchon and his allies planned to use the infant to regain power.
As Cassander was campaigning in Greece, Polyperchon was met by Philip’s army. The latter, however, defected, and Philip was executed in 317 BC. In spite of this initial success, the invasion was ultimately a failure. Cassander besieged Olympias at Pydna, and promised to spare her life if she surrendered. Polyperchon and Aeacides both tried to aid Olympias, but were unsuccessful. Eventually, Olympias surrendered to Cassander, but the latter reneged on his promise, and had her executed in 316 BC.
For the time being, Roxane and her son were spared, and imprisoned in Amphipolis. In 310/09 BC, however, both mother and child were executed by Cassander. Around the same time, Polyperchon began to throw his support behind Heracles, who was supposed to be an illegitimate son of Alexander the Great. Instead of going to war with Polyperchon, however, Cassander negotiated with him, and persuaded him to murder Heracles.
Cassander and Olympias in a painting by Jean-Joseph Taillasson. (Public domain)
Ruthless Elimination of the Family of Alexander the Great
The deaths of Philip, Olympias, Roxane, Alexander, and Heracles meant that the Macedonian royal house was almost destroyed. Apart from Philip, the rest of these individuals were victims of Cassander. Apart from his political ruthlessness, Cassander may have harboured a personal grudge against Alexander’s family. This is supported by the fact that he oversaw the rebuilding of Thebes, which had been razed to the ground by Alexander as punishment for rebelling against his rule. In any event, the only surviving member was Alexander the Great’s half-sister, Thessalonica, who was married to Cassander. Therefore, he was now the only person who could claim a connection to the royal family. In fact, in 305 BC, Cassander proclaimed himself King of Macedon.
Nevertheless, Cassander’s fellow Diadochi were still powerful enough to constitute a threat to his rule. This was the case, for instance, with Antigonus. During the Second War of the Diadochi, Cassander and Antigonus had been allies. By the time of the Third War, however, the two were on opposite sides. This war began in 315 BC, and ended in 312 BC when peace treaties were signed between Antigonus and his enemies. In 307 BC, the peace treaties were broken, and the Fourth War of the Diadochi broke out. Antigonus had initially intended to incite a rebellion by sending Heracles to Polyperchon.
This plot came to naught when Heracles was killed by Polyperchon instead. Therefore, in 307 BC, Antigonus sent his son, Demetrius Poliorcetes, to seize Greece from Cassander. Demetrius gained the support of the Greeks by “liberating” them from Macedonian rule. He organised the Greek city states into a Greek League, which was aimed at opposing Cassander. By 302 BC, Cassander had lost all his territory south of Thessaly, and was willing to sue for peace.
The Antigonids, however, were confident that they would be able to finish off Cassander easily, due to all the victories they had won so far. Therefore, they demanded his unconditional surrender. Cassander, however, refused to consider this option, resulting in the break down of negotiations. As the war between Cassander and the Antigonids resumed, the latter sought help from his allies – Ptolemy, Lysimachus, the ruler of Thrace, and Seleucus I Nicator, the ruler of Babylonia.
Cassander oversaw the rebuilding of Thebes, which had been destroyed by Alexander as punishment for the city having rebelled against his rule. (Public domain)
The three generals were now in a stronger position than they had been at the commencement of the Fourth War. Therefore, they agreed to attack Antigonus. This was also partly due to the fact that the Antigonids were perceived by them as a mutual threat. Consequently, Demetrius was not able to continue the war against Cassander in Thessaly, and made a peace agreement with him. After this, he returned to the east to deal with the new threat. The first attack on the Antigonids came from Lysimachus, who invaded Turkey. Despite his making peace with the Antigonids, Cassander sent some troops to aid Lysimachus’ invasion of Turkey.
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Although Lysimachus’ made a bold move, his army was much weaker than that of the Antigonids. Therefore, he tried to, and succeeded in, postpone a large-scale battle, in the hopes that reinforcements would arrive. Ptolemy, who had invaded Syria, returned to Egypt, when he received a false report of the Antigonids’ victory. Whilst Antigonus and Demetrius were preparing to finish off Lysimachus, and to invade Europe once again, the army of Seleucus arrived. Up till that point of time, it looked as though Antigonus would have succeeded in reuniting Alexander’s empire. Ultimately, however, this was not meant to be, as Antigonus was defeated and killed at the Battle of Ipsus in 301 BC by the forces of Lysimachus, Seleucus, and Cassander.
After the Battle of Ipsus in 301 BC, Cassander became the undisputed ruler of Macedon. (Public domain)
The Short-Lived Reign of King Cassander of Macedon
Following the defeat of Antigonus, his kingdom was divided between Lysimachus and Seleucus. Cassander, on the other hand, was once again the undisputed ruler of Macedon. Nevertheless, he did not have long to enjoy his gains, as his time was running out. The few years after the Battle of Ipsus were relatively peaceful, but Cassander died in 298 BC of dropsy. Cassander was first succeeded by one of his sons, Philip IV, who died a year later. He was succeeded by two of his younger brothers, Antipater II and Alexander V, who ruled Macedon together until 294 BC. The two kings, however, proved to be weaklings, and eventually war broke out again amongst the Diadochi. The conflict this time centred around the control of Macedon.
In 294 BC, Macedon fell into the hands of Demetrius, the son of Antigonus. Alexander had sought his help to oust his brother. After overthrowing Antipater, however, Demetrius killed Alexander, and proclaimed himself King of Macedon. Thus, the Antipatrid dynasty, which was established by Cassander, lost control of Macedon. Unlike a number of the other Diadochi, such as Seleucus, Ptolemy, and Antigonus, Cassander failed to create a dynasty that would last long after his death. It is perhaps due to this failure that the significance of the Antipatrids in the long-term history of the Hellenistic Age is nowhere near that of the Seleucids or Ptolemies.
Top image: On the left a Greek coin showing the head of Cassander. On the right a Greek miniature depicting scenes from the life of Alexander the Great. Source: Left: ArchaiOptix / CC BY-SA 4.0. Right: Public domain
By Wu Mingren
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