Antigonos the One-eyed and Seleukos Nikator (Ptolemy Soter can go cry in the corner)

In his conclusions about Antigonos the One-eyed, Richard Billows throws out some highly subjective, albeit reasoned claims. In some ways this is what the conclusion is for. Throughout the book he portrays Antigonos as the larger than life figure he was, as well as the general, diplomat and administrator that he probably was, but which we have no documentation for. In short, the claim is that Antigonos was the greatest of the successors because he was the lynch-pin that bound Argead Monarchy with the Hellenistic age, both as the epitome of a Hellenistic king and the progenitor of the institutions.

Antigonos was essential for the early Hellenistic period and implemented a fairly typical Hellenistic monarchy, not so much because he developed it, but because the Hellenistic monarchy was effectively the same as the Macedonian one and the most notable changes made were those of necessity, not design. As for his generalship, he was better than most, but Seleukos also has a claim to that standing since he was the architect of the Battle of Gaza in 312, defeated all attempts to remove him from Babylon and then commanded at Ipsos where he defeated Antigonos. If that is not a claim to being the superior general, I am not sure what is, but I digress.

As an aside in the conclusion, Billows mentions that the Seleukid Empire overextended into the east, separating it from the Mediterranean and allowing Asia Minor to splinter off. This, he claims, brought about its fall as it was unable to suitably respond to Rome and to the Parthians of Iran. He is both right and wrong. It is true that the Seleukid Empire over-extended, and fell to those two new powers almost two hundred years later, but neglects to mention that Seleukos founded his kingdom more than any other Hellenistic successor on the use of native troops, and his levy was from Babylon eastward. At Ipsos Seleukos led a varied force of heavy and light cavalry from Iran and Media, elephants from India, and infantry of a disparate background. Yes, over-extension became an issue, and yes, Seleukos was a Macedonian1, but his power base was the eastern satrapies. Later he and subsequent rulers attempted to reassert the empire as Mediterranean in nature, but it really was not. The struggle between that perception and the reality led to the over-extension, though it clearly did not result in immediate implosion.


1 Or an Epirote, if you believe Strabo about the ethnicity of Orestians, and Grainger about Seleukos’ family origin (citing the appearance of the name Antiochos attested only in that royal family). He probably was somehow related to the royal family of Orestis, though likely settled in northern Lower Macedonia during the time of Philip, so Seleukos would have grown up Lower Macedonian, but still had close ties westward.

Murder at Babylon, the problem with pop-history, don’t trust everything you read!

The new book Murder at Babylon is atrocious. [an inserted note is that I have not actually read the book, just skimmed a couple of chapters at the bookstore] True enough, it is laudable to go about trying to solve one of history’s great mysteries in such a fashion (more on this presently), but troubling is how the information for the search was found, and this became more and more evident throughout.

I suppose that I should first comment on the methodology before proving why this is a mistake and to do this I should set the stage. The year is 323 BCE, sometime during the summer, the place is Babylon, which is Alexander’s new capital, the center of the empire and the staging ground for a new wave of campaigns. The Macedonians who are left have been with Alexander since his rise to power after the murder of Philip and have since marched for 13 years and well over 25,000 miles.

Alexander had not been himself since Hephaestion died, nay, even before when he was wounded in India by some native dart. Newly recovered from sickbed, Alexander stormed through and conquered more territory, then crossed the desert, before presiding over a mass marriage and more campaigning, during which he lost his closest companion and even lover. To alleviate the depression that accompanied this loss, Alexander resumed a campaign to punish rebels before crossing into Babylon. Some months Later, Alexander died.

What this book does is approach Alexander’s death the way a death in the modern world would be–first reaching the conclusion that it was an unnatural death, largely becuase “the symptoms” don’t match any known disease; they do, however, match a number of poisons. After determining that it was poison, the author tracks eight suspects, looking for motive and opportunity to commit such a deed, before concluding that it was Roxane who killed Alexander, not Antipater, Seleukos, Meleagros or any of the other ludicrous possibilities.

Of course poison could have been used–and as much is suggested in the existing sources, but frankly this is rubbish. Poison had a very low success rate unless it was self inflicted, so it is not likely on that account, but also the author discredits himself with his historical research and source use.

None of the existing sources were written within 400 years of Alexander’s life and all were based off of two accounts written shortly after Alexander died, by his contemporaries. This fact did not deter the author from using their testimony about symptoms as admissable, and creates an argument for poison based on which symptoms each author chose to use, discounting that any number of them could have been fictional and that there was noone taking down which symptoms were real when Alexander lay dying. As for the historical bent, his history is wrong. While reading the chapter on Seleukos, the author rewrites the plot against Philotas as a plot against Nikanor that was brought about by Seleukos, the second in command of the Hypaspists–with the other officers brought in at the last minute becuase Seleukos was low ranked. In the histories, however, Seleukos is nowhere mentioned, and Nikanor was six months dead by the time that the case against Philotas came to a head.

Rather than properly researching and coming up with suspects, the author has instead shoe-horned Seleukos and Nikanor into an unbelievable situation that is not based in fact while badly misportraying both. Though not to the same degree, he has done similar discredit to his work in the analysis of Meleager, who he judged a suspect because of his jealousy over being low ranked (which could be reasonable if that was not also the reason for his dismissal as a suspect), and Roxane who takes out her jealousy against Statiera and the son of Alexander by killing Alexander, instead of killing Statiera. I need to go back and review his arguments again, but it is much more feasible that if Alexander was poisoned by someone of note that it was done by Antipatros, but even then the most logical explanation is that Alexander was wounded a vast number of times, and that in the end he received an illness, be it malaria or pneumonia or something completely different, and his already weakened body, and lungs in particular, simply could not cope.

In an effort to bring this full circle to the title, there are two reviews of this book on Amazon. They both give the author five stars, though one person admitted that she didn’t know what historians would say–that she started with the Oliver Stone movie of Alexander did not bode well for her, though. The other person considered himself an Alexander buff, owning every book made (I call bull on that, by the way, and I have problems with his type, but that is neither here nor there), but the point is that both of them chose this book for readability, not accuracy. I cannot talk about readability since I did not truly read it (though I shuddered at some of the organization), but it was inaccurate.

Hammond: Still wrong, but with some good points

So I have come down off of my high horse and realize that Hammond actually has a point when talking about the Macedonian aristocracy as though it did not exist, just that it did exist. The following is now a piece of my thesis, but could be an entire book/thesis/article on its own and may seem odd, so bear with me.

Philip II caused the creation of the Hellenistic kingdoms. Alexander’s father died in 336 BCE, Alexander followed in 323, and when Alexander’s heirs finally died in 305, members of the Macedonian Aristocracy took the title of basileus (king). Even then, the final shape of the kingdoms was not established until around 280 BCE when Seleukos Nikator defeated Lysimachos, which allowed Demetrios Poliorketes (then Antigonos Gonatos) retake Macedonia. So the real question is how did Philip, who had died 31 years before the coronation and 56 years before the final shape of the kingdoms was established cause their creation?

Prior to Philip the aristocracy was quite independent, especially in Upper Macedonia, but they never seriously threatened the king beyond an occasional assassination because the Argead family had so much more power. The king controlled a monopoly on all metal mines (gold, silver, iron, tin, copper, etc), as well as timber resources. With these resources firmly in his grasp, the king was the state, plain and simple. Further, the king was the military commander at every battle and there was an instance of an infant king arriving at the battlefield for no other reason than that the the king had to be there.

The Macedonia Philip inherited (or stole from his nephew, however you want to read that), was weak, surrounded by enemies and not in control of all its own territory. Early in his reign Philip won victories militarily, but also diplomatically and financially (one of his most famous sayings was that no fortress is impregnable if he could get a donkey cart full of gold into it). Previously the kingdom had been small enough that the king was able to command every military venture, but as Philip expanded it and campaigned elsewhere, he was no longer able to lead all of the soldiers. Gradually more and more aristocrats rose to command segments of the army. Alexander continued this trend since he campaigned even further afield than did Philip, and had to leave troops behind to protect areas, such as half of the available military remained in Macedonia with Antipatros.

Another of Philip’s policies that strengthened the aristocracy was that as the kingdom expanded, he also increased the number of aristocrats and strengthened the ones already in existence by giving out land grants in the conquered territories, and incorporating the Upper Macedonian noble families. While Philip kept the usual monopolies of the Macedonian aristocracy, expanding land grants meant that other families grew in strength vis a vis the Argead dynasty. Alexander then took a massive leap by giving away all land owned by the king in Macedonia in favor of whatever he could take in Asia, though he probably kept the mines and timber monopolies intact. Then in Asia land, treasure and honor was given to various aristocrats in the same way that Philip had distributed such prizes.

Finally in 305 the token fealty given to Alexander IV evaporated and the young man was killed. Afterwards the aristocracy took the provinces that they ruled and declared themselves kings over that territory. The obvious answer is that Alexander caused this divide by not providing an heir before leaving on campaign–if he had, the young man would have been around 12 when Alexander died and may have been old enough to grow into the kingship while loyalty to Alexander still existed, considering that it took nearly 18 years without a proper heir.

My contention, however, is that Philip caused the eventual creation of the Hellenistic kingdoms because he strengthened the aristocracy. Even for a 12 year old things could have easily degenerated into the same situation because there was no other Argead and the Macedonian aristocracy was so strong. Going down a contrafactual thread, even if the Hellenistic kingdoms didn’t immediately emerge, the moment the Argead king suffered military setbacks the aristocracy could have killed him, or the first heir could have done well, but would have needed the aristocracy that they would have grown increasingly in strength until they removed the king in a generation or two.

Partly this is the nature of the Persian state Alexander transformed Macedonia into because the empire was so expansive that aristocrats had virtual autonomy in most places, but Alexander also tried to incorporate Persians who were used to the system. Philip started the trend of empowering the nobility and with so much of what he did, Alexander was not so much innovating as continuing the policies of Philip.

The spotlight effect

For two years now my greatest complaint about studying ancient history is a spotlight effect. This effect is that in the primary sources certain “great” men dominate the attention and it is impossible to know what else goes on. The best example of this is Alexander III who has at least three ancient works dedicated to him and another that covers him extensively, yet it is nigh impossible to know what some of his officers, in particular the more junior ones, are doing at a given time. Alexander has a spotlight on him that follows wherever he goes and we mostly know what the other men were doing as they entered the spotlight.

Of course there are other problems with the histories, not least of which is that their source was mostly Ptolemy who in turn rewrote history to slander his opponents and make himself show up more often, but Alexander also hogs the spotlight. Some of the time what Alexander ordered and the sparse information from elsewhere does provide adequate knowledge, but other times men who are not immediately around him disappear entirely.

With Alexander I can somewhat understand it because in terms of pure charisma he was by far the most dynamic person of his time, but it is a disservice to the men who served under him who were often brilliant military commanders (Parmenion likely had a better grasp of strategy, if not tactics than did Alexander, Krateros and Seleukos were each defeated but once, etc), fiery personalities (Krateros and Hephaestion fought each other at one point and only Alexander stepping in prevented a battle), and so on.

Still, this is a recurring trend in ancient scholarship, and really before there was information commonly available for what pretty much everyone did, and is one of the difficulties of scholarship at such a great length.