Marble bust of Demetrius I Poliorcetes. Roman copy from 1st century AD of a Greek original from 3rd century BC.


The grail was his: Demetrius was king of Macedon. Immediately after the murder of Alexander V, the nobles present—members of Alexander’s court, now surrounded by Demetrius’s forces—agreed to his kingship, and he was duly acclaimed by the assembled army. But there were still hearts and minds to be won in Macedon itself, and Demetrius went about this by the traditional combination of action and words. He quelled an uprising in Thessaly and took steps to improve the security of central Greece, where the alliance between the Boeotians and Aetolians had been renewed in response to Demetrius’s and his son’s conquests in the south. In the Peloponnese, only the Spartans now held out against him, and they were no more than a nuisance.

At home, he played all the cards that supported his claim to the throne. He stressed his father’s loyal service to the Argeads and the illegitimacy of the Antipatrid regime, and missed no opportunity to recall Cassander’s murder of Alexander IV. His long marriage to Phila helped as well; as Cassander’s sister, she provided an appearance of continuity, now that Cassander had no surviving descendants. Ironically, through Phila, Demetrius was the heir of those to whose ruin he and his father had devoted so much time and energy.

In order to help secure Thessaly, and to give himself another port, one of Demetrius’s early acts as king was to found the city of Demetrias. The site, at the head of the Gulf of Pagasae (near modern Volos), was well chosen. The city was hard to assault, and served successive Macedonian kings for decades as one of the “Fetters of Greece”: as long as they controlled the heavily fortified ports of Demetrias, Chalcis, and Corinth (Piraeus was desirable too), they could move troops at will around the Greek mainland and restrict other shipping. And most commercial traffic in those days was seaborne.

A sign of how critical all this was for him was that he ignored what was going on elsewhere in the world—or maybe he just did not have the forces to cope. He had already, I think, effectively ceded the Asiatic Greek cities, and Lysimachus completed his takeover there by the end of 294. In the same year, Ptolemy, to his huge relief, regained Cyprus. The defense of the island had been in the hands of Phila, but in the end she was pinned in Salamis and forced to surrender. Ptolemy courteously allowed all members of Demetrius’s family safe conduct off the island and back to Macedon, laden with gifts and honors. The Ptolemies would now retain Cyprus until the Roman conquest of the island two hundred and fifty years later.

Lysimachus, as already mentioned, was chiefly occupied with a war against the Getae in northern Thrace, around the Danube. In 297 the warlike Getae had taken advantage of the fact that Lysimachus’s attention was focused on Asia Minor to go to war. Lysimachus sent his son Agathocles to deal with the Getae, but it had not gone well: Agathocles had been captured, and Lysimachus had been forced to come to terms, which included marrying one of his daughters to the Getan king and returning territory he had occupied. But in 293, once he had more or less settled his affairs in Asia Minor, Lysimachus took to the field to recover the territory he had been forced to give up. Again, the war went badly; we know no details, but it is surely to the credit of the Getan king Dromichaetes that he was able twice to defeat as brilliant a general as Lysimachus. This time, it was Lysimachus himself who was taken prisoner. He was held at their capital, Helis (perhaps modern Sveshtari, where a tomb has been discovered which might be that of Dromichaetes and Lysimachus’s nameless daughter). It was the best part of a year before his captors were induced to let him go, and again Lysimachus lost territory to them, and had to leave hostages to ensure that he would not attack again. It was the last of his attempts to gain control of inner Thrace.

In 292, while Lysimachus was tied up, Demetrius, short on gratitude to the man who had so rapidly recognized his rulership of Macedon, took an expeditionary force into Asia Minor and Thrace. It was a sign of his future intentions, a declaration of war. Fortunately for Lysimachus, a united uprising by the central Greek leagues, backed by his friends Pyrrhus and Ptolemy, recalled Demetrius to Greece. As it happened, before he got back his son Antigonus Gonatas had succeeded in defeating the Boeotians and putting Thebes under siege (it fell the following year). But Demetrius was unable to return to his abandoned campaign, because Pyrrhus chose this moment to invade Thessaly. Demetrius advanced against him in strength; Pyrrhus, his work done, withdrew.

Pyrrhus’s retreat was tactical; he had no intention of giving up his attempt to expand the frontiers of Epirus at Demetrius’s expense. Two years later, in 290, he inflicted a serious defeat on Demetrius’s forces in Aetolia (the victory was so spectacular that he was hailed as a second Alexander), but lost the island of Corcyra (Corfu). The island was betrayed to Demetrius by Pyrrhus’s ex-wife Lanassa (whose domain it was), allegedly because she was irritated at being ignored by her husband. She married Demetrius instead. In 288, while Demetrius was laid low by illness, Pyrrhus seized the opportunity to invade Thessaly and Macedon. Demetrius hauled himself out of bed and drove Pyrrhus out.

The two kings had pummeled each other to exhaustion, and they made a peace which recognized the status quo in respect of Demetrius’s possession of Corcyra and Pyrrhus’s of the Macedonian dependencies given him by Alexander V in his hour of desperation. Demetrius was left in a powerful position. Macedon, though slimmer, was united under his rule; there was a treaty in place with his most formidable enemy; in central Greece, only the perennial hostility of the Aetolians remained; and he had done enough to secure the Peloponnese for the time being. He had the best fleet, and could call up a massive army. It was quite a turnaround for the Besieger, and he began to dream his father’s dreams. Perhaps Demetrius was his own worst enemy.


The style of Demetrius’s kingship was typically flamboyant, and he demanded obsequiousness from his subjects. An incident from 290 is particularly revealing. It was the year of the Pythian Games—the quadrennial festival and athletic games held at Delphi, second only to the Olympics in prestige. But the Aetolians controlled Delphi, and restricted access to the festival to their friends. A few weeks later, then, Demetrius came south to host alternate games in Athens.

He and Lanassa entered the city in a style that reminded many of Demetrius’s outrageous behavior a dozen or so years earlier, when he had made the Parthenon his home and that of his concubines. They came, bringing grain for ever-hungry Athens, as Demetrius, the aptly named savior god, and his consort Demeter, the grain goddess. They were welcomed not only with incense and garlands and libations, but with an astonishing hymn that included the words: “While other gods are far away, or lack ears, or do not exist, or pay no attention to us, we see you present here, not in wood or stone, but in reality.” Obsequiousness indeed, but the point became clearer as the hymn went on to request of the king that he crush the Aetolian menace.

Many Athenians regretted such excesses, and all over the Greek world resentment built up against the new ruler. It was impossible for Demetrius to present himself as the leader the Greeks had been waiting for when he had to crack down hard on incipient rebellion and tax his subjects hard to pay for yet more war. Talk of the freedom of the Greek cities faded away, and between 291 and 285 Ptolemy deprived Demetrius of the Cycladic islands and the rest of his Aegean possessions, thus regaining the control over the entrance to the Aegean that he had lost in 306 and furthering his aim to control as much of the Aegean seaboard as he could. The promise of relief from taxes and a measure of respect for local councils was just as important in this enterprise as military muscle. Dominance in the Aegean was to serve successive Ptolemies well, both strategically and commercially.

Ptolemy also confirmed his control of Phoenicia by finally evicting Demetrius’s garrisons from Sidon and Tyre. But these were pretty much Ptolemy’s last actions; in 285, feeling the burden of his seventy-plus years, he stood down from the Egyptian throne in favor of Ptolemy II. Maybe he had a terminal illness, because only two years later he died—in his bed, remarkably enough for a Successor. But then “safety first” had been his motto, for most of his time as ruler of Egypt.

Despite these losses, Demetrius might have hung on in Macedon. But he was a natural autocrat, and that was not the Macedonian way. Demetrius never managed the kingly art of finding a balance between being loved and being hated, or at least feared. His subjects came to resent his luxurious ways and his unapproachability. Macedonian kings were supposed to make themselves available to petitions from their subjects, yet Demetrius was rumored on one occasion to have thrown a whole bundle of them into a river—or at least to be the sort of person who might. This kind of talk, charging him with eastern-style monarchy, did his reputation no good. Nor did the fact that he wore a double crown, indicating rulership of Asia as well as Europe.

Ignoring the rumbles of discontent, Demetrius began to prepare for a massive invasion of Asia. But the proud Macedonian barons resented their country’s being thought of as no more than a launching point for eastern invasion; they did not want to be on the periphery of some vast Asian kingdom. It was all right when Philip and Alexander had done it, because that was for the greater glory of Macedon. But this war would be fought against fellow Macedonians, for the greater glory of an unpopular king. The idea of taking thousands more Macedonians east, following the tens of thousands who had already gone, did not go down well either, since the country was already somewhat depopulated.

But Demetrius was no Cassander, content with Macedon alone; he was as addicted to warfare as Alexander the Great. Just as Alexander had set out from Macedon and seized all Asia from the Persian king, so Demetrius intended at least to deprive Lysimachus of Asia Minor. But whereas Alexander had invaded Asia with about thirty-seven thousand men and no fleet to speak of, Demetrius was amassing a vast army, over a hundred thousand strong, while a fleet of five hundred warships was being prepared in the shipyards of Macedon and Greece. In typical Besieger style, some of these ships were larger than any vessel that had ever been built before, and he used the best naval architects available. The precise design of these ships is a matter of intelligent guesswork, but it will give some idea of their scale to say that, whereas a normal warship had three banks of rowers in some arrangement (hence its name, “trireme”), Demetrius was having a “ fifteen” and a “sixteen” built.

Naturally, Demetrius’s preparations involved propaganda as well. Above all, he wielded the old, potent slogan of Greek freedom against Lysimachus. At a local level, a prominent public building in Pella displayed symbolic paintings, copies of which formed the wall paintings of a later Roman villa.10 One of the panels of the painting depicted Demetrius’s parents as king and queen of Asia, the idea being that he had inherited a natural claim, while other panels showed Macedon as the ruler of Asia by right of conquest. But history is littered with failed promises of manifest destiny.

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