The Life Of Lysimachus, The Elite Bodyguard Of Alexander The Great
Alexander the Great is without a doubt one of history’s greatest and most famous figures. His deeds and the enormity of the empire he created were certainly a hard achievement to surpass. However, upon his death, his closest associates and generals began a bitter rivalry and a fight over territory and power in the vacuum that remained. Lysimachus was one of these generals, known as the diadochi, and also one of the most loyal and trusted bodyguards of Alexander. Lysimachus’s story is one of success and struggle and makes him one of the crucial figures of Classical Antiquity.
From Humble Origins to Great Heights: Who Was Lysimachus?
There are two theories regarding Lysimachus’ birth. Some ancient sources place his birthplace at Crannon, a city state in Thessaly, while others place it at Pella, the historical capital of Macedonia. Either way, the year of his birth is widely attested to be around 360 BC.
Born into a family of Thessalian Greek stock, he was the son of a nobleman named Agathocles of Pella. The latter was not just a contemporary of Phillip II of Macedon, but also a high-ranking nobleman who was close to the king and a prominent figure in the royal court. Thus, although Lysimachus’ family roots were Thessalian Greek, both he and his brothers had Macedonian citizenship and grew up as Macedonians. Together, they were educated at the Macedonian court in Pella, in the highest social circle, and quickly became friends with young Alexander.
A marble bust of Lysimachus. (© José Luiz Bernardes Ribeiro)
How Lysimachus Became Alexander’s Favorite
Some ancient accounts preserve several versions of a unique story about Lysimachus and how he became Alexander’s favorite. The ancient Roman historian, Justin, writes that Lysimachus was at one point punished by Alexander for disobeying by being thrown to a lion. However, it is said that Lysimachus managed to overcome the lion and kill it with his bare hands, greatly impressing Alexander who immediately liked him.
Another, similar account is attributed to the famed Greek writer Pausanias, who likewise states that Lysimachus angered Alexander and was thus locked in a room with a lion, but somehow managed to prevail and kill the beast. The deed gained him utmost respect and favor of Alexander. However, whether it is true or not, remains a mystery. Still, some ancient coins issued during the appointment of Lysimachus bear a depiction of a lion on one side, pointing to the possibility of this account being true.
By 328 BC, Lysimachus is noted as one of Alexander’s trusted bodyguards. After his high education at Pella’s royal court, he steadily rose in the ranks and became Alexander’s somatophylax . These were the elite bodyguards of high-ranking people in Ancient Greece. Some historic sources push the date of him becoming somatophylax to even before 328 BC, during the rule of Phillip II.
Nevertheless, during the Persian campaigns undertaken by Alexander the Great, Lysimachus is reported as one of his closest bodyguards. But even so, little is known of his exploits in these early campaigns, his presence in them is merely noted. However, by the time of the Battle of Hydaspes, his prominence is well known.
The Battle of Hydaspes. Lysimachus’s successful exploits in this battle are well noted. (André Castaigne / Public domain)
Rising To Prominence At The Side Of Alexander The Great
The Battle of Hydaspes took place in the modern-day Punjab region of Pakistan, on the Indian subcontinent. It pitted the forces of Alexander the Great against those of King Porus, an ancient Indian king of the famed Paurava dynasty and kingdom. The battle is known as one of Alexander’s “masterpieces” and was a decisive victory.
Lysimachus’s exploits in this battle were are well noted. It is stated that he was instrumental during Alexander’s key crossing of the Hydaspes River, and later during the siege of the Indian city of Sangala, when he was reportedly wounded. This fact was later stated by the Greek historian Arrian of Nicomedia. In his key work, The Campaigns of Alexander, he writes:
“Throughout the siege [of Sangala] Alexander lost a little under 100 men; the number of wounded, however, was disproportionately large – over 1,000 - among them being Lysimachus - of Alexander's personal guard, and other officers…”
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For these exploits in the service of Alexander the Great, Lysimachus would later be appointed as the governor or strategos of Thrace. This was an important and strategically valuable region, widely considered as the geographical bridge between Asia and Europe. Most sources state that he was appointed (“crowned”) in 324 BC, in the city of Susa, one year before the death of Alexander. Others state that he was appointed in 323, after the King’s death.
Either way, it was certain that Lysimachus – being one of the chief and most loyal officers of Alexander – was now one of the diadochi, those who would compete for the rule of a vast empire. This happened after Alexander’s sudden death. He died in June 323 BC, after a brief and unexpected period of frail health. And as he did not name an heir, the chaos that ensued over his succession was inevitable.
The story of the struggle for Alexander’s throne is lengthy and complex. Each powerful king and general, friend and advisor to Alexander all struggled alike to make themselves the rightful heir. With everyone having an argument that went in their favor, a successful agreement could not possibly be reached amongst them.
Thus, it was that the main generals divided the empire amongst themselves, ushering in the start of the Wars of the Diadochi that would last from 322 to 281 BC. In the division, Lysimachus received the region of Thrace, Ptolemy I Soter received Egypt, Antigonus became the ruler of Asia Minor, and Antipater I the ruler of Greece and Macedon.
A mosaic of Alexander the Great in battle from the House of the Faun, Pompeii, Italy. (Public domain)
The Partition Of A Great Empire
From that point on, the instability and the friction between these rulers was constant. Alliances were made and broken, intrigues prevalent, and uncertainty over the fate of Alexander’s achievements dominant.
Lysimachus at first tried not to involve himself in the wars of the diadochi, or the wars of succession as they are also called. By becoming the ruler of Thrace, he gained control over a powerful and stable state, albeit with a weak military. Thus, he avoided getting drawn into conflicts and attempted to establish a strong power base and to solidify his army. Moreover, his duties in Thrace were not ideal: he first needed to subdue the numerous tribes of Thracians who were always somewhat hostile towards the Greeks. By 315 BC however, he was drawn into the conflicts of the diadochi.
To secure his position, Lysimachus entered into an alliance with Ptolemy I, Cassander, and Seleucus, against the armies of Antigonus. The latter tried to hamper Lysimachus’ efforts by turning the Thracian tribesmen against him by inciting revolts in Thrace. Lysimachus however managed to suppress these revolts and consolidate his power.
With conflicts all around him, Lysimachus was not idle. In 309 BC he proceeded to establish a new city at a strategically important location. He named it Lysimachia and placed it on a commanding site where the Gallipoli Peninsula connected to the mainland. He did this to effectively combat the threat of Antigonus’ forces and to safeguard the strait of Dardanelles. Some three years after this he rose further in power and was named basileus or King of Thrace.
In 302 BC, Lysimachus – now the ruler of a stable state with a reliable army – once more entered into an alliance with Ptolemy, Cassander, and Seleucus. And once again these leaders faced the increasing threat of Antigonus.
In this renewed conflict, Lysimachus commanded a large army, partly his own, and partly reinforced by troops of Cassander. He headed a campaign into Asia Minor, and was initially successful, meeting little to no resistance. During the winter of this campaign, he married a Persian princess. By 301 BC he joined his forces with those of Seleucus, and the combined armies of the allied diadochi faced those of Antigonus and his son, Demetrius.
In the Battle of Ipsus, Lysimachus and his allies decisively defeated Antigonus. (James D McCabe 1877 / Public domain)
Lysimachus Expands His Territories
What ensued was the decisive – and historically very important – Battle of Ipsus, in which Lysimachus and his allies decisively defeated their opponent Antigonus. The latter was 81 years old at the time but fought, nonetheless. He was killed by a javelin during the battle. After this major victory, and the quick destruction of Antigonus’ kingdom, the victors chose to divide his domain amongst themselves.
In the ensuing division, Lysimachus received the regions of Phrygia, Ionia, and Lydia, as well as the northern parts of Asia Minor. These gains greatly extended his kingdom and solidified his power. His state was now a major regional power, and the end of the threat of Antigonus allowed him to focus more on the internal affairs within his kingdom and his family.
However, this is not where Lysimachus expansion stops. Like the other diadochi, he too learned to exploit any and all weakness that his rivals displayed. Likewise, their abrupt rise in power was also a thing to try and contain. That was why Lysimachus was careful about his alliances. After the fall of Antigonus, it was Seleucus’ turn to rise as the biggest and most powerful ruler. Seeing this, Lysimachus allied himself with Ptolemy I Soter. To seal this alliance, he married Ptolemy I Soter’s daughter, Arsinoe II. However, this would later prove to be a grave error: Arsinoe would eventually orchestrate the assassination of Lysimachus first son, Agathocles.
The conflicts continued. Demetrius, the son of the late Antigonus, was still alive and became a threat once more in 297 BC when he renewed hostilities and once more stepped up against the killers of his father. Lysimachus managed to conquer some of his territories in Asia Minor, but later agreed to peace with Demetrius and recognized him as a ruler of Macedonia.
Around 292 BC, Lysimachus experienced his first major crisis as the ruler of Thrace. In an over-ambitious attempt to expand his territories northwards across the River Danube, Lysimachus overplayed his hand and suffered a major defeat against the Getae. Their king, Dromichaetes, managed to capture Lysimachus alive and subsequently negotiated with him.
Dromichaetes apparently had to convince his own people that Lysimachus was worth more alive than dead. The result of their negotiations ensured that the Getae would have their territories returned to them, several highborn hostages would be taken by them, and the daughter of Lysimachus would marry King Dromichaetes. After this was ensured, Lysimachus was freed. Interestingly, Diodorus Siculus wrote an account of this event in which Dromichaetes tries to emphasize the futility of Lysimachus’s campaign against the Getae by showing him the barbaric customs of his men and their relative poverty:
“Why then, forsaking such ways, a splendid manner of life, and a more glorious kingdom as well, did you desire to come among men who are barbarous and lead a bestial existence, and to a wintry land deficient in cultivated grains and fruit? Why did you force a way against nature to bring an army into such a place as this, where no foreign force can survive in the open?”
Clay head of Queen Arsinoe II. In order to position her sons for the throne, she had Lysimachus's first son, Agathocles, killed on account of treason. (Tilemahos Efthimiadis from Athens, Greece / CC BY 2.0)
Lysimachus’s Rapid Downfall After The Murder Of His Son
However, this was just the first in a series of unfortunate events that plagued the final years of Lysimachus’s life. Internal strife within his family was what dominated and plagued his later life. His wife Arsinoe II, as we mentioned, wanted her own sons to succeed to the throne after Lysimachus was dead. However, Lysimachus’ heir, Agathocles, his son from his first marriage, stood in the way.
Arsinoe succeeded in tricking Lysimachus and accusing his son of conspiring against him, which resulted in Lysimachus killing his own son. Alas, this heinous act greatly divided the people in Thrace and Lysimachus’s close courtiers. Several cities began revolting soon after, and the widow of the slain Agathocles fled to Lysimachus’s rival, Seleucus.
Seleucus exploited the situation and promptly invaded Lysimachus’ territories in Asia Minor in 282 BC. Lysimachus, now roughly 79 years old, marched his armies to meet him. They clashed in the region of ancient Lydia at the Battle of Corupedium which was the final and decisive battle of the Wars of the Diadochi.
This was also the end of Lysimachus, the renowned bodyguard of Alexander the Great: he suffered a major defeat and was killed on the field of battle, reportedly by a javelin. Several days later, his dead body was discovered on the battlefield, guarded from the birds of prey by his faithful pet dog. And such was the end of this great Macedonian nobleman.
His life and his deeds, as well as the Wars of the Diadochi, give us an important insight into the power vacuum and the inevitable struggle that emerges after a powerful ruler – such as Alexander the Great – dies without naming an heir.
Top image: Though this mosaic shows Alexander the Great fighting a lion with a companion it also relates to how Lysimachus gained Alexander’s attention early on by killing a lion with his bare hands! Source: Public domain
By Aleksa Vučković
Cummings, L. 2004. Alexander the Great. Grove Press.
Lund, H. 2006. Lysimachus: A Study in Early Hellenistic Kingship. Routledge.
Wasson, D. 2016. Lysimachus. Ancient History Encyclopedia. [Online] Available at: https://www.ancient.eu/Lysimachus/