Wars of the Diadochi: Alexander the Great’s Generals Fight For Spoils
As Alexander the Great slipped away on his deathbed on June 10-11th 323 BC, the iconoclastic emperor, whose remarkable achievements would be imitated by countless impersonators throughout history, graced his trusty commanders surrounding him with his final words: “to the best.” It’s likely that Alexander, who had no clear heir to take his place, understood that his death would spark a war for supremacy over his conquests, which stretched as far as Alexandria Eschate in modern-day Tajikistan, as his once united empire crumbled into several separate warring realms. As one of the brightest military minds to ever live, he knew that it was only “the best” who could once again unify his domains, as numerous pretenders to the throne, the Diadochi, vied for mastery in the aftermath of his demise.
Hoping to carve out their own independent principalities the Diadochi included pharaoh Ptolemy I Soter of Egypt, Lysimachus, the former bodyguard of Alexander who settled in Thrace, as well as Antipater and later Cassander in Macedon and Greece. Elsewhere, Antigonius Monophatalmus, in Asia Minor, and Seleucus I Nicator, in the east, harbored even greater territorial aspirations, and in the decades after Alexander’s death they would both attempt to assume the place of Alexander the Great by welding together the cracks of his once great kingdom. It was a task that would lead to direct confrontation between the two contenders, the most dramatic and important of these engagements being fought over the eastern realms during the Babylonian War from 310 BC and the Battle of Ipsus in 301 BC.
The Diadochi who fought over the empire Alexander the Great unified under his rule were nearly all Macedonians. Paintings of Ancient Macedonian soldiers, arms, and armaments, from the tomb of Agios Athanasios, Thessaloniki in Greece, 4th century BC. ( Public domain )
The Emergence of the Diadochi: Alexander’s Possible Heirs
After Alexander the Great passed away in 323 BC, power was transferred to his loyal lieutenant, Perdiccas, whose initial aim was to choose a suitable successor to the illustrious conqueror. The first choice was Alexander’s half-brother, Arrhidaeus, the son of Phillip II and Philinna of Larissa, who was supposedly mentally handicapped. The second choice was the hereditary king, Alexander IV, who lived inside the womb of Alexander’s wife, Roxanne, eventually being born two months after Alexander’s death.
A great debate raged inside the royal house as Alexander’s commanders remained split over his successor. Many felt uneasy about the prospect of waiting for Alexander IV to be born, and others claimed that Roxanne and her child were not of pure Macedonian descent. Although Arrhidaeus was mentally challenged his bloodline certainly wasn’t, existing as the most direct relation to Alexander. As the discussion roared, royal intrigue would spill into open conflict as Meleager, an infantry commander, and his comrades, staged a coup aiming to forcibly launch Arrhidaeus to the throne as King Phillip III.
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This scene of the passing of Alexander the Great began a contest for his empire as the so-called Diadochi heirs battled each other and others for pieces of the empire. ( Public domain )
Perdiccas, who favored Alexander IV’s accession, brutally suppressed Meleager’s revolt, and in the aftermath the commanders decided to put aside their differences, at least temporarily, until the infant king Alexander IV was born. Alongside Arrhidaeus, Alexander and Roxanne were transferred to Macedon and put under the protection of Antipater I, a dedicated acolyte of Alexander the Great who had been looking after Macedon and Greece for him ever since 334, when the unstoppable warrior-king had started to carve up his eastern provinces in Persia.
It was at this point that Roxanne decided to eliminate minor competition, having Alexander’s other wife Strateria and her sister Drypetis murdered and their bodies thrown down a well. For now, Arrhidaeus, the other heir, remained unscathed, as the seeds of conflict spread.
Meleager’s revolt had set the tone, and soon after every prominent lord and magnate would be fighting for a piece of Alexander’s realm. The first was Leosthenes and his armies of Greek mercenaries, who returned from Bactria to seize the tantalizing opportunity to finally put a stop to Macedonian overlordship of Athens and Aetolia. The Lamian War was concluded when a combined force of Antipater and Craterus defeated the Greek renegades to reestablish authority at the Battle of Crannon.
Shortly after, the Partition of Babylon split the empire into five separate polities. Antigonius Monophatalmus, nicknamed “the One-Eyed,” and his son Demetrius received Asia Minor, Ptolemy I Soter claimed Egypt, Lysimachus was gifted Thrace, Antipater, his loyal general Craterus, and later Cassander, were given the heartlands of Macedon and Greece, and Eumenes gained Cappadocia. Over the next few decades, these select few of Alexander’s finest men would outlive and outfight almost everyone in their desire to be “the best.” The wars of these men, the Diadochi, extended through four separate wars across what had all been Alexander’s empire.
The First Diadochi War, which took place between 322 and 321 BC, had its origins in the mutual dislike of Perdiccas and Egyptian overlord Ptolemy I Soter. (Stella / CC BY-SA 4.0 )
The First Diadochi War
The First Diadochi War, which took place between 322 and 321 BC, had its origins in the mutual dislike of Perdiccas and Egyptian overlord Ptolemy I Soter. Perdiccas wanted to wait for Alexander IV to be born, but the impatient Ptolemy I Soter wished to divide the kingdom up as quick as possible. The other Diadochi also despised Perdiccas, who harbored his own territorial ambitions, after his attempted incursion into Asia Minor. Antigonius had refused to help Eumenes maintain his territory at Cappadocia, forcing Perdiccas to hit back at him.
As a result, the Diadochi, united in their distrust of Perdiccas, banded together to depose the troublesome successor. Ptolemy I Soter would make the opening gambit, stealing Alexander the Great’s body from Perdiccas and whisking it away to his citadel at Memphis.
Perdiccas’ counter-invasions of Egypt did not go well, and after three failed crossings of the Nile and the deaths of 2000 of his men following defeat at the Fort of Camels in Egypt, he was ousted and murdered by his disenchanted army on the banks of the Nile River. The Diadochi were left relatively unharmed by the skirmish, and only Craterus, Antipater’s steadfast general, would meet his end, dying after falling off his horse.
Ptolemy I Soter had been invaluably aided by Antipater, Lysimachus, Antigonus, as well as Seleucus, Alexander’s eastern commandant, who was given the eastern territories of Babylonia as a reward. As a result, Seleucus would enter the fray as another global player intent on possessing Alexander’s vast lands.
At the Treaty of Triparadeisus, the boundaries of the Diadochi’s territories were once again confirmed under the stewardship of Antipater. In Babylonia, Seleucus’ rule was established at the same time that the territories of Ptolemy in Egypt, Lysimachus in Thrace, and Antigonius in Asia Minor were settled. It was only in Macedon and Greece that internal strife simmered following the death of Antipater in 319. Overlooking his son, Cassander, who he didn’t think was strong enough to rule, Antipater named Polyperchon his successor, unwittingly setting in motion a civil war for the Macedon and Greek dominions.
The borders of Alexander's empire in black lines, and Diadochi realms (colored). (History of Persia / CC BY-SA 4.0 )
The Second and Third Diadochi Wars
The Second and Third Diadochi Wars, from 318 to 311, was a period of intense conflict as the Diadochi fought themselves to the brink of exhaustion in their efforts to expand and defend their holdings.
In Macedon and Greece, Cassander finally ousted Polyperchon with the help of Antigonius, establishing strongholds at Piraeus and on the islands of the Peloponnese as well as legitimizing his power through marriage to the daughter of Phillip II of Thessalonica. Polyperchon, who had aligned himself with the king of Epirus, Olympias, had also been protecting Roxanne and Alexander IV. Roxanne had continued to butcher potential rivals, having Arrhidaeus assassinated in 316, and had joined Polyperchon and his coalition for the sake of her son’s birthright.
Cassander, realizing that Roxanne and Alexander IV remained a pertinent threat, had them both killed in 310 alongside Olympias, who was stabbed to death by his own soldiers. As a result, Cassander now exercised unbridled power in the former heartlands of Alexander’s empire as all of his heirs were finally removed from the picture.
Elsewhere, Antigonius defeated the lord of Cappadocia, Eumenes, who was executed in 316 after being betrayed by his own men, consequently establishing sovereignty over the majority of Asia Minor.
Brimming with confidence, Antigonius launched another attack, this time against Seleucus at Babylonia, successfully depriving the Persian monarch, who fled to the protection of Ptolemy I Soter, of his eastern satrapies at the Battle of Gabienne.
In 312 Seleucus once again re-entered Babylonia, this time with the armies of Ptolemy, resulting in Seleucus’ reclamation of Babylonia at the Battle of Gaza.
In addition, Lysimachus, the master of Thrace, who up to this point had avoided the Diadochi conflict, was also drawn into the alliance against Antigonius in 311 following the Asia Minor ruler’s incursion into the coastal areas of the Black Sea.
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A brief spell of peace in the same year, named the Peace of the Dynasts, was a welcome reprieve for the shattered armies of the Diadochi, who utilized the respite to further mobilize their armies. However, trouble was brewing in the east, as Antigonius drew up plans to take back Babylon from Seleucus in a conflict that would be known as the Babylonian War.
In 310, Antigonius invaded Babylon, commencing a guerilla-style campaign on the streets of the mythical eastern bastion, before plundering and pillaging the surrounding towns and countryside. With Seleucus weakened, In April 309, Antigonius gained the upper hand after his capture of the strategically important settlement of Cuthah and his appointment of an official governor of Babylon. As Antigonius systematically ravished Babylonia, Seleucus, based at the town of Borsippa and low on men, waited for reinforcements from the east as he prepared to come to a head with his foe.
In August 309 Seleucus caught Antigonius’ camp by surprise just before dawn, and in the disarray Antigonius was forced to surrender and come to terms. From this point on, the aging Antigonius, who was in his seventies, gave up on his dream of an eastern wing to his empire, and Seleucus’ possessions would finally be confirmed at the Battle of Ipsus nearly a decade later.
The Battle of Ipsus was the ultimate showdown between the squabbling Diadochi factions, as Antigonius and Demetrius faced off against Lysimachus, Cassander, and Ptolemy. (James D. McCabe / Public domain )
The Fourth Diadochi War and the Battle of Ipsus
For Ptolemy, Seleucus, Lysimachus, and Cassander, The fourth Diadochi War, from 308 to 301, was fought mainly to contain the territorial expansionism of Antigonius and his emerging son Demetrius, who out of all the Diadochi, were most interested in reviving Alexander’s original domains. Antigonius’ base in Asia Minor and Demetrius’ attacks on Greece illustrated empire-building aspirations as the father-son duo tried to establish a western and eastern nucleus of power.
To achieve their aims, Demetrius, Antigonius’ rising son, would initially focus his efforts on conquering Greece, and in 307 he was successfully able to snatch the ancient city of Athens from Cassander’s governor, Demetrius of Phalerum. In 306, Demetrius was again victorious, effectively routing Ptolemy’s navies to establish control over the island of Cyprus which had the added benefit of relieving pressure on Antigonius in Asia Minor.
In 305, Demetrius continued his assaults, this time at the siege of Rhodes. Demetrius bombarded the city with a deadly weapon called the “City-Taker,” a multiple storied wooden tower with protected port-holes that launched deadly-sharp darts and enormous boulders at the city walls. Despite Demetrius’ military superiority, Ptolemy, seeking revenge for his past embarrassments, was able to effectively cut off and intercept Demetrius’ supply lines in the Mediterranean, forcing Demetrius to end the siege and enter into negotiations.
Demetrius remained unperturbed, continuing to harry Cassander’s possessions in Greece throughout the years of 303 and 302. Cassander found himself so outmaneuvered by Demetrius’ consistent attacks that his only option was to implore Lysimachus for military support. Consequently, the Thracian ruler marched his armies into Asia Minor, and Demetrius was forced to give up on Greece to come to the aid of his struggling father. During this period, following the reclamation of his provinces in 309 after the Babylonian War, Seleucus had quietly been consolidating his eastern borders. It was here that Seleucus had come into contact with the great Indian emperor Chandragupta, who had gifted Seleucus 500 war elephants to solidify their friendship. Unbeknownst to the wider world, the fruits of Seleucus’ inconspicuous diplomacy would determine the course of history, as the climax to the Diadochi Wars unfolded.
The Battle of Ipsus in 301 was the ultimate showdown between the squabbling factions, as Antigonius and Demetrius faced off against Lysimachus, Cassander, and Ptolemy. As the battle commenced, Seleucus and his son Antiochus unexpectedly appeared with an enormous battery of men and the squadron of war elephants gifted to them by the Indian maharajah, and suddenly the armies of both parties were made equal as Demetrius charged towards Antiochus to initiate the bloodbath. Demetrius successfully drove Antiochus from the battlefield, but his over eagerness would prove to be his downfall. With Demetrius’ contingents far away, Antigonius flank was left unprotected and pounced upon by Seleucus, resulting in a large swathe of surrenders. Next, Seleucus blocked Demetrius’ path back to his father with his war elephants, and Antigonius was left without sufficient support. A volley of spears tore Antigonius to pieces, and Demetrius, realizing all was lost, retreated, taking with him only a few thousand men.
The Legacy of the Babylonian War and the Battle of Ipsus
The Battle of Ipsus paved the way for the establishment of the two major dynasties which would dominate much of history for the next few centuries. In Egypt the Ptolemaic dynasty would cement its grip on power until 30 BC, and under Seleucus, the Seleucid Empire, the mortal enemy of the early Romans, was birthed.
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Demetrius, who became a vagabond king without a kingdom, was not so lucky, and although becoming king of Macedon in 297 after the death of Cassander, he was ousted only a few years later by a coalition of Lysimachus and Seleucus, dying ignominiously in captivity in 283.
After dispatching Lysimachus in 281 at the Battle of Corupedium, Seleucus became the last surviving Diadochi, but his dreams of an empire spanning two continents were soon dashed when he was stabbed to death by Ptolemy Ceraunus, the son of Ptolemy, later that year. Despite this, the foundations of the Seleucid Empire had already been established through Seleucus’ victories during the Babylonian War and the Battle of Ipsus, a series of engagements that finally toppled the ascendancy of Antigonius and Demetrius.
Top image: The Pathenon Athens, a city that was hotly contested and won by Demetrius in the Fourth Diadochi war. Source: scaliger/Adobe Stock
By Jake Leigh-Howarth
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