ANTIGONUS II GONATAS
By J.P. Anderson
Antigonus II Gonatas was a worthy successor to Alexander’s throne. Born in 319 BC, 4 years after Alexander’s death, Antigonus II had to survive numerous rivals during his methodical rise to power. As was typical with the Macedonian rulers of the time, it was thought that one could only trust close relatives or those connected through marriage. This trust was often misplaced, as ambition and lust for power proved stronger than familial ties for many.
Son of Demetrius Poliorcetes and grandson of Antipater through his mother Phila, Antigonus II could claim kinship with most of Alexander’s generals, He was the grandson of Antigonus I Monophthalmos (The one-eye), son-in-law to Seleucus I and nephew of Ptolemy I, Lysimachus, Perdiccas, Cassander and Pyrrhus. With so many powerful and ambitious relatives as rivals, Antigonus must have possessed some significant skills to survive their intrigues and remain in power for 44 years.
The Antigonid dynasty, begun by Antigonus I, lasted from 306 BC, with his claim of the title of king, to the death of Perseus in 166. The defeat of Perseus in 167 BC by the Romans led to Macedon becoming a Roman province.
Following Alexander’s death in Babylon on 323 BC, the successors (Diadochi), Craterus, Perdiccas, Phillip III, Seleucus, Ptolemy, Lysimachus, Antipater, Antigonus I and others, would fight 4 “Diadoch wars” and numerous battles, as they competed for control over their territories. Antigonas I died in battle at the age of 81 at Ipsus in 301 BC and Lysimachus died at the age of 79 during the battle of Corupedium in 281. Perdiccas, Phillip III and Seleucus were murdered by rivals. Of the original successors of Alexander, only Antipater and Ptolemy were fortunate enough to die of natural causes in their late seventies and early eighties respectively.
Demetrius Poliorcetes (the besieger) was just 18 years old when his son Antigonus II Gonatas was born, possibly at Gonnoi in Thessaly. The origin of his nickname “Gonatas” in uncertain, and may be related to his birthplace. Demetrius’ father, Antigonas I, was 46 when Demetrius was born. At the age of 19, Demetrius accompanied his father on campaign against Eumenes in 317 BC, and their successes in the second and third Diadoch wars resulted in Antigonus I gaining the greatest share of power and territory. It appears that Antigonus I intended to re-build and unify Alexander’s vast empire. Triumph in Cyprus in 306 BC prompted Antigonus I to accept the title of Basileus (King), and to proclaim Demetrius as co-ruler. The death of Alexander IV at the hands of Cassander in 310 BC left the Macedonian throne vacant for the preceding 4 years.
The power imbalance created by Antigonus I resulted in cooperation between Ptolemy, Lysimachus, Cassander and Seleucus, who combined forces to re-assert control over their territories. The result was the 5 year long 4th Diadoch war, from 306 to 301 BC. The death in battle of Antigonus I in 301 BC, and the narrow escape of Demetrius, led to Seleucus gaining control over much of the eastern territories previously under Antigonid rule.
Demetrius retained control over much of his father’s territory in Greece and Asia Minor. Following the death of Cassander in 297 BC, and the death and exile of Cassander’s sons, in 294 Demetrius was again proclaimed King by the Macedonian army. Unsuccessful attempts by Demetrius to gain territories from Lysimachus led to the loss of control over Macedonia in 288 BC. In despair, Antigonus Gonatas’ mother Phila took her life by poison in 287 BC. Demetrius’ invasion into Lysimachus’ Asia Minor territory in 286 BC resulted in his capture by Seleucus in 284, and his death in captivity in 283.
Antgonus II Gonatas learned much from his father and grandfather. During the first 36 years of his life he had witnessed great victories, stalemates, and major defeats, both on the battlefield and in the council chambers.
During the siege of Thebes c. 295 BC, Antigonus II questioned his father on the unnecessarily high casualty rate amongst his solders attacking the fortifications. Demetrius’ response was rather callous; “I don’t have to feed the dead”, yet he did alter his tactics, and treated the city leniently when it was eventually taken.
With the death of his father Demetrius, Antigonus II found himself King of very little territory and influence. Much had changed in the 22 years following the death of his grandfather.
Fortunately, continuing rivalries and ambitions of others soon resulted in gains for Antigonus II. Lysimachus died in 281 BC during the battle of Corpedium against Seleucus. Seleucus was then murdered the following year by his brother-in-law Ptolemy Ceraunus. The same year, 280 BC, saw Pyrrhus leave Greece to begin his 6 year campaign against Rome in Italy.
These events did not mean that Antigonus II could enjoy a time of peace. In the summer of 280 BC three large groups of Gauls invaded Macedonia intent on plunder. The Gauls were accustomed to dealing with strong Macedonian rulers, such as Phillip II and his son, and recognized an opportunity with the present political instability. Ptolemy Ceraunus, the assassin of Seleucus, was killed during battle with the Gauls, along with many other Macedonian nobles.
Once Antigonus II re-asserted his control over the Greek cities in his domain, in the summer of 277 BC he annihilated are large force of Gauls in battle and was proclaimed “The savior of the Greeks”. Coins of Antigonus II depict the demi-god Pan, figures 3 and 4, and some sources claim that his victory over the Gauls was attributed to help from the demi-god Pan.
A detailed account from the author Pausanius, writing during the reign of Hadrian, describes how earthquakes, lightning storms and landslides occurred during an attack by the Gauls on Delphi. The effect of these forces of nature, coupled with a relentless attack from the Greeks, resulted in mass confusion amongst the Gauls when they were encamped after nightfall. Thinking they were under attack in the darkness, the Gauls began fighting each other, with major casualties. The Greeks who witnessed this spectacle concluded that the demi-god Pan, who instills panic in his adversaries, had responded to their appeals for divine aid.
In contrast with his father Demetrius, who had a well-earned reputation of high risk behavior, Antigonus II was more diplomatic and methodical. While his father was on the Macedonian throne in the early 3rd century BC, Antigonus II spent much of his time in Athens, where he gained respect and enjoyed the support of many leading Athenians. Antigonus II’s choice of images of Athena on the majority of his coinage may be a reflection of this relationship with Athens.
In 274 BC Pyrrhus returned to Greece from Italy. Unhappy with the lack of support he received in Italy from Antigonus II, Pyrrhus sought to claim the Macedonian throne for himself. Recognizing the superior strength of Pyrrhus’ experienced army and Gallic mercenaries, Antigonus II avoided a major confrontation, and ceded portions of western Macedonia to Pyrrhus. Pyrrhus, always seeking opportunities for battle, responded to a request by the exiled Spartan king Cleonymus and led a large force of 25,000 soldiers to attack Sparta. With Antigonus II supporting the Spartan King Areus, Pyrrhus was repelled and retreated to Argos. Pyrrhus died in 272 BC, during a skirmish in the streets of Argos, after being felled by a roof tile thrown by an elderly woman. Antigonus II honoured his 49 year old nemesis with a royal burial, and placed Pyrrhus’s son Helenus on the throne in Epirus.
Antigonus II reigned for another 33 years after the death of Pyrrhus, contending with numerous revolts from the Greek cities, and attacks from Ptolemy II. He died of natural causes in his eightieth year, and was succeeded by his son Demetrius II. According to the ancient author Aelian, Antigonus II Gonatas described his monarchy as “a glorious servitude.”