Diadochi Wars, 323-280 BC

The Wars of the Diadochi were a series of conflicts that followed the death of Alexander the Great. They were fought between his most important generals, for control of all or part of his empire. The main issues were decided during the first twenty years of the conflict, ending at the battle of Issus in 301 BC. Alexander’s empire was split into three main successor states – Macedonia, Egypt and the Seleucid Empire. Conflict between the surviving successors continued at a less intense layer until the death of the last of the successors, Seleucus I, in 280 BC.

The successors can be seen as having fallen into two main camps – those who wanted to maintain Alexander’s empire intact, either for his descendants or for themselves, and those who wanted to establish their own rule over smaller parts of the Empire. Their first task was to establish a framework for the rule of the Empire after Alexander’s death. Their first attempt was made at Babylon in 323 BC. Officially the empire remained intact, to be ruled in the name of Alexander’s son, Alexander IV and his half brother, under the name Philip III. Real power was split between Perdiccas, as regent for the two kings, Antipater as the king’s representative in Macedonia, and the satraps, prominent amongst them Ptolemy, who was given Egypt and Antigonus One-Eye, who retained control of much of Asia Minor.

The ranks of the successors were soon thinned. The death of Alexander triggered a revolt in Greece (Lamian War, 323-321 BC), which saw the death of Leonnatus, satrap of Hellespontine Phrygia.

This revolt overlapped with the First Diadoch War (322-320), triggered by what may have been the first bid to success Alexander. Perdiccas decided to marry Alexander’s sister Cleopatra, almost certainly with an eye on the Macedonian throne. Alarmed, most of his fellow successors rallied against him. Only Eumenes stayed loyal. Ptolemy made the most dramatic of gestures, seizing the body of Alexander the Great and taking it to his capital of Alexandria. Leaving Eumenes behind in Asia Minor, Perdiccas led what was left of the main Imperial army to Egypt, to deal with Ptolemy. Once in Egypt the expedition went disastrously wrong. Perdiccas’s army failed to cross the eastern branch of the Nile, and Perdiccas was murdered by his own officers. Eumenes had more success. In a major battle somewhere on the border of Cappadocia he defeated an army sent against him, killing Craterus, the third of Alexander’s generals to die in two years. In response the main Macedonian army, now temporarily dominated by Ptolemy, condemned Eumenes to death.

This First Diadoch War ended with a second attempted settlement, at Triparadisus in Syria (320). This time the aging Antipater assumed the regency. Antigonus was made commander of the Macedonian army in Asia, and ordered to deal with Eumenes. Ptolemy of course retained Egypt. A new figure also appears on the scene, Seleucus, another of Alexander’s staff, who was appointed satrap of Babylonia.

For the next nineteen years events centred around Antigonus. As the ruler of Asia he was in the best position to reunite Alexander’s empire. He had the ability to do so, and it very soon became clear also had the intention to do so. He was prevented from doing so only by repeated coalitions containing most or all of his rivals.

At Triparadisus Antigonus had been given the job of defeating Eumenes. He was engaged in this when Antipater died (319 BC), removing the last source of stability in the Empire. He had appointed a minor general, Polyperchon, to replace him, and this triggered a new round of conflict (Second Diadoch War, 319-316). This ranged Polyperchon against Antipater’s son Cassander in Greece and Antigonus against Eumenes in Asia. By the time it ended, Cassander was virtual king of Macedonia, Alexander’s mother Olympias and his half-brother Philip III Arrhidaeus were both dead, and Antigonus had defeated and killed Eumenes, although only after chasing him all the way to Persia.

This left Antigonus as the most powerful of the successors, and he soon made it clear that he intended to reunite Alexander’s empire under his own rule. Over the next year he concentrated on securing his power in the Asian satrapies, placing his own supporters in positions of power. He also seized a vast fortune from the treasuries of Ectabana, Persepolis and Susa, said to be worth 25,000 talents. Early in 315 he turned his attention to Seleucus, satrap of Babylon. He fled to Ptolemy in Egypt, from where he was able to help create a coalition against Antigonus.

Third Diadoch War 315-311 BC
Third Diadoch War

That coalition contained Ptolemy, Cassander and Lysimachus. They delivered an ultimatum to Antigonus in which he was ordered to surrender large parts of Asia Minor, all of Syria and Babylonian, and much of his money. Unsurprisingly he refused, triggering the Third Diadoch War.

This war saw fighting in Greece, Asia Minor and Syria. Antigonus began by concentrating on Phoenicia and Palestine, besieging Tyre and capturing Gaza and Joppa. Late in 315 he issued a proclamation from Tyre, in which he laid out his own demands, and promised to maintain the liberty and autonomy of the Greek cities. This was mainly aimed at Cassander, who held most of central Greece and normally favoured oligarchies. Also aimed at Cassander was a reconciliation with Polyperchon, who Antigonus appointed strategos of the Peloponnese. Antigonus then left the defence of Syria in the hands of his son Demetrius and turned north, where he made a series of unsuccessful attempts to break into Europe.

Ptolemy finally made a move late in 312, attacking and defeating Demetrius at Gaza. In the aftermath Seleucus was able to return to Babylon, where he was welcomed back and was soon strong enough to defend his new territories. The defeat at Gaza forced Antigonus to conclude a peace agreement with Cassander and Lysimachus. Faced with the prospect of standing alone, Ptolemy also requested peace. The treaty restored the position before the war, with the exception of the position of Seleucus, who was not mentioned in the treaty.

One immediate aftermath of the peace of 311 was the death of Alexander IV, Alexander the Great’s son, who was now a child of 13. Cassander had been recognised as “general of Europe” until the child came of age. In order to prevent that, Cassander had him murdered in 310 BC.

The treaty of 311 was not followed by a period of peace. Antigonus made an attempt to re-conquer Babylon (Babylonian War), which ended when he was defeated in battle somewhere in Babylonian. Ptolemy took possession of Cyrus and made an alliance with Rhodes. Polyperchon, with some encouragement from Antigonus, made an attempt to place a bastard son of Alexander the Great on the throne, before being bought off by Cassander (309 or 308). In 308 Ptolemy sent an expedition to central Greece, but he failed to win support amongst the Greeks and soon retreated.

Fourth Diadoch War
Fourth Diadoch War

The disappearance of Polyperchon and the retreat of Ptolemy left Cassander without an opponent in Greece. Before he could strengthen his position too far Antigonus intervened, sending his son Demetrius to Athens, then ruled by dictator imposed by Cassander. Demetrius arrived in 307 BC, and was greeted as a divine liberator by the Athenians. The democracy was restored, and Athens prepared for another war with Macedonia (Four Years’ War, 307-304). Demetrius’s actions are also seen as starting the Fourth Diadoch War.


Cyprus in 306 BC

Despite starting in Greece, the early focus of this war came in the east Mediterranean. In 306 Demetrius was sent to Cyprus, which he conquered after winning a major naval battle at Salamis. In the aftermath of this victory, Antigonus finally took the title of king, which had been vacant since the murder of Alexander IV. Ptolemy, Lysimachus and Cassander would soon take the same title, while Demetrius was given it by his father. Antigonus clearly intended this move to demonstrate that he was now the successor to Alexander the Great. The others may have had more limited ambitions, at least for the moment.

This was the high-point of Antigonus’s career. An attempted invasion of Egypt (306) failed. It was followed by the famous siege of Rhodes (305-4), where Demetrius earned his nickname of “the Besieger”. Despite all of Demetrius’s best efforts, the city held out. Meanwhile, Cassander was beginning to re-establish his position in Greece. This was one of the reasons Antigonus ended the siege of Rhodes. Demetrius was returned to Greece, where he took control of most of central Greece. In 302 he formed a new League of Corinth, a league of Greek cities aimed against Macedonia. While Antigonus prepared for an offensive from Asia Minor, Demetrius began to pressure Macedonia from the south.

Cassander made an attempt to come to an agreement with Antigonus. When his peace offer was refused, he turned to Ptolemy, Lysimachus and Seleucus. Together they came up with the plan that finally defeated Antigonus. Lysimachus led an army that included a large contingent provided by Cassander out of Europe into Asia Minor. There they were to keep Antigonus in place until Seleucus arrived from the east, with an army that contained 500 elephants. Ptolemy was meant to take part in this campaign, but instead chose to invade Coele-Syria. The plan worked. Antigonus withdrew Demetrius from Greece, and the two armies came together at Ipsus, in one of the largest battles of the Hellenistic period.

The result was a victory for the allies. Antigonus was killed on the battlefield, and his Asian empire collapsed. Lysimachus was rewarded with most of Asia Minor, Seleucus with Syria. Ptolemy refused to surrender Coele-Syria, and Seleucus, in a rare show of gratitude between the successors, did not insist on its return. The issue would come to dominate relationships between the Seleucid empire and Ptolemaic Egypt, but only after the deaths of Seleucus I and Ptolemy I. 

The battle of Ipsus is seen as a major turning point in the struggle between the successors. Antigonus was the last of the successors whose entire policy was aimed at reunited all of Alexander’s empire. His son Demetrius would continue to threaten the stability of the Hellenistic world for some years, while both Lysimachus and Seleucus would be given a chance to unit large parts of the empire, but not as a result of consistent policy.

In the aftermath of Ipsus there were five power blocks in the Hellenistic world. Ptolemy was secure in Egypt, and began to recover his position on Cyprus and in the Aegean. Seleucus had a strong empire that stretched from the borders of India, through Iran, into northern Syria. Lysimachus now ruled in Thrace and Asia Minor and Cassander in Macedonia and parts of Greece. Surprisingly Demetrius remained powerful. He retained Cyprus for some time, had control of Tyre and Sidon in Phoenicia, as well as a series of cities in Asia Minor that remained loyal or didn’t like the prospect of rule by Lysimachus. Athens expelled his troops, returned a squadron of his ships and left the league formed in 302, which collapsed. He did retain control of Corinth, which became his base for the next few years.  

Over the next few years Demetrius can be found dashing backwards and forwards around Greece, trying to strengthen his position. His big break came in 297, with the death of Cassander. He was briefly succeeded by his son Philip IV, who died a few months later. Two younger sons remained, and a civil war soon erupted. In 294 BC Demetrius was apparently invited in by one of the brothers, but quickly established himself on the throne.

It would be a short reign. Rather than accept his good fortune and concentrate on Macedonia, Demetrius began to plan for a return to Asia. Lysimachus was his first target, but Demetrius’s preparations for conquest alienated the people of Macedonia. In 288 Lysimachus and Pyrrhus of Epirus invaded Maccedonia. Demetrius was expelled, and after a brief period of split control with Pyrrhus Lysimachus in turn became King of Macedonia.

Demetrius made one final bid for glory, invading Asia Minor with a small force of mercenaries in 287 BC. Despite some impressive victories, he was slowly pushed east, until he was finally forced to surrender to Seleucus in 285 in Cilicia. Again showing unusual behaviour for a successor, Seleucus kept him alive in luxurious imprisonment. Demetrius finally died in 283 BC.

Lysimachus would prove no more long lived as king of Macedonia. The time of the Successors was passing. In 283 Ptolemy died of natural causes, one of only three of the main successors to achieve that. Only Lysimachus and Seleucus were left of the generation who had fought with Alexander the Great. Lysimachus was not a popular king in Macedonia, but he was elderly and his son Agathocles had proved himself an able man. Unfortunately, he now fell foul of a dynastic squabble between his wife and his step-mother, both daughters of Ptolemy, and was executed on his father’s orders. Refuges from Lysimachus’s court flocked to Seleucus, offering support and begging him to intervene.

In 282 Seleucus invaded Asia Minor. The prize was the unification of all of Alexander’s empire outside Egypt. His progress through Asia Minor was something of a triumph. In 281 Lysimachus responded, leading an army into Asia Minor. The last battle between the Successors took place at Corupedium, near Sardis. Seleucus was victorious, Lysimachus was killed during the battle.

For a brief moment Seleucus was on the brink of reunited the empire. In 280 (or possibly late in 281) he crossed the Hellespont into Thrace, on his way to Macedonia. There he was murdered by Ptolemy Keraunos, a dispossessed son of Ptolemy I, who wanted Macedonia for himself.

With the death of Seleucus the Diadochi Wars came to an end. Alexander’s empire was split in three – Macedonia, Ptolemaic Egypt and the Seleucid Empire, which briefly held most of the area that had made up the Persian Empire in the years before Alexander’s invasion. After a period of frequent and dramatic changes, these three states would now gain a certain amount of permanence, and would form the basis of the Hellenistic World for the next century and a half.

How to cite this article: Rickard, J (5 July 2007), Diadochi Wars, 323-280 BC , http://www.historyofwar.org/articles/wars_diadochi.html

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