Demetrius: sacker of cities


The death of Alexander the Great in Babylon in 323 BC left the empire he had conquered without blood heirs ready to take up the heavy burden of governance. Thus, in the days following his passing, that task was left to a small group of Macedonian generals who had fought at his side.

Antigonus One-Eye had not been among them. Instead of following Alexander as he marched ever deeper into Asia, Antigonus had been left in the rear areas to put down lesser enemy forces in Asia Minor, and was made governor of Phrygia.

The senior generals who had taken control of the government predictably had their fallings out, and were soon enough fighting for control of the empire. They came to be known as Diadochi, or Successors, to the great Alexander. Antigonus had poor relations with Perdiccas, the leading Diadoch in Babylon, and cast about for better prospects in the west, far from the post-Alexander government in Babylon.

While Antigonus would prove impressive in his own right, his son Demetrius went much further, cutting a spectacular figure on the stage of history before flaming out, a glorious failure. Arguably, Demetrius, with his brazen adventurism and swings of fortune, is the most compelling of all the successors who warred in the years following Alexander’s demise. And though he is the subject of a short biography written by Plutarch, Demetrius nevertheless deserves to be better known. James Romm’s Demetrius: Sacker of Cities, one of the titles in Yale University Press’s Ancient Lives series, will go a long way towards accomplishing that.

Romm, a professor of classics at Bard College, writes that ‘Demetrius would rise high on a surge of humanity’s hopes. He would seem like – or would try to become – a new Alexander, restoring wholeness and peace to a broken world.’ We meet the young Demetrius for the first time as he accompanies his father to Greece in 322 BC. Antigonus had allied himself with Antipater – another of Alexander’s leading generals, but one who had stayed behind in Macedonia to look after Europe rather than accompany Alexander against Persia – by marrying Antipater’s daughter Phila to the 14-year-old Demetrius. This was an introduction to alliance politics at the highest level, via weddings, for Demetrius, who would marry more than once.

Demetrius grew up to be an extremely handsome man and would surely look the part of the dashing young general, so reminiscent of Alexander. But could he rebuild the empire, fracturing as rival Diadochi jockeyed for power, that had been left rudderless by Alexander’s death?

That would prove to be very difficult. Despite possessing considerable military ability, Demetrius’ battlefield fortunes were spotty. He was with his father at the battles of Paraetacene (317 BC) and Gabiene (316 BC), in modern Iran, in command of cavalry, as Alexander had once been for his own father Philip II at the Battle of Chaeronea back in 338 BC.

A marble bust of Demetrius. Despite possessing considerable military ability, his battlefield fortunes were mixed. Image: Wikimedia Commons

The campaign ended successfully for the Antigonids, as Antigonus and Demetrius are collectively known, granting them sway over huge tracts of the eastern empire. But at the Battle of Gaza, in 312 BC, Demetrius lost to Ptolemy, the ruler of Egypt, and in the aftermath saw thousands of his foot soldiers go over to the victorious enemy.

Besieger of Rhodes

Demetrius’ most-famous exploit was his siege of Rhodes, whence came his sobriquet ‘Besieger’, which would for ever after accompany his name. In 305 BC, he brought a massive expeditionary force to the island of Rhodes to besiege its main city, also named Rhodes. The Rhodians wanted to remain neutral in the struggles of the Successors, but Antigonus insisted on their allegiance. Demetrius went into action against the city’s walls with plentiful and ingenious siege machines mounted on his war galleys. The whole naval attack was a failure, however, despite Demetrius’ energetic assaults.

Demetrius next constructed a helepolis: a gigantic, 150ft-high, multistorey siege tower pushed forward by 3,400 men. The helepolis engendered terror, but it too failed to take the city. After a fruitless, year-long siege, it was left behind when Cassander, another Successor, started taking advantage of the preoccupation with Rhodes by seizing territory in Greece, forcing Demetrius to negotiate a settlement.

Antigonus One-Eye would die at the Battle of Ipsus in 301 BC, leaving Demetrius to continue the familial struggle for control over the empire. He was not equal to the task. In large part, Demetrius’ failures were his own fault. He would prove an arrogant, unenthusiastic King of Macedonia (on one occasion he callously rid himself of some of his subjects’ petitions by dropping them into a river), and his relations with the Athenians, among whom he dwelled at times, were too often strained by his personal excesses.

Worse, his own soldiers began to lose faith in him. ‘The general,’ Romm says, ‘who led them to wins and enriched them with plunder was the man they were glad to call king. Demetrius was increasingly falling short of this measure.’

Demetrius would never be another Alexander, nor take hold of the empire he had left behind. Though he showed so much promise in his youth, and displayed real talent when mature, Demetrius was undone by his character flaws as much as by external circumstances. He would die a prisoner of Seleucus, yet another Diadoch, in Syria in 282 BC.

However, in the epilogue, Romm notes the irony that, in the end, Demetrius was not wholly unsuccessful. ‘Though he had failed in his efforts as king and army commander, failed even in his role of besieger, Demetrius did not fail in the ultimate goal of a dynast: to have his children inherit kingdoms and thrones.’

Demetrius’ descendants, by various women, would sit on thrones in Macedonia and Asia long after his passing. In this way, the Antigonids had a victory, of a kind, in the wars of Alexander’s Successors.

Demetrius: sacker of cities 
James Romm
Yale University Press, hbk (£18.00)
ISBN 978-0300259070