How the Antigonids Became an Ancient Superpower | History Hit

How the Antigonids Became an Ancient Superpower

History Hit

15 Aug 2023
Ptolemy, left, and Demetrius, right.
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Throughout history, control of the strategic island of Cyprus has proved critical for any power seeking naval supremacy in the eastern Mediterranean. In 306 BC, its waters were the scene for one of the most important naval clashes in the bloody series of wars that followed Alexander the Great’s death – the Wars of the Successors.

The background in 312 BC

In 312 BC, two of the most powerful leaders controlling Alexander’s former empire were Antigonus and Ptolemy. Antigonus had risen to rule over most of Alexander’s Asian territories; meanwhile Ptolemy controlled Egypt and neighbouring lands in Syria and coastal Libya. That year, these two figures had clashed in a decisive land battle at Gaza, where Ptolemy defeated an Antigonid army commanded by Demetrius, Antigonus’ son.

The aftermath of Ptolemy’s victory at Gaza, 312 BC. Ptolemy now pressed his advantage, reclaiming territories as far north as Tyre.

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With his army shattered following the debacle at Gaza, Demetrius retreated north to Cilicia. Ptolemy then pressed his advantage, reclaiming territories as far north as Tyre. He also permitted Seleucus, the former governor of Babylon and Ptolemy’s ally at Gaza, to head east and reassert his authority in Babylon, providing him with a small army.

Down but not out

News reached Ptolemy, then in Coele Syria, that Demetrius had returned and was stationed in northern Syria with a small army. Believing he had conclusively beaten Demetrius, Ptolemy ordered one of his generals, Cilles, to lead an army north and crush the remnants of the Antigonid’s forces. But this proved careless. Near a town named Myus, Demetrius successfully ambushed Cilles’ army, capturing 7,000 troops and much wealth in the process.

Buoyed, Demetrius returned to his base and requested reinforcements from his father, Antigonus. At that time, Antigonus was residing hundreds of miles away at Celaenae in Anatolia. He had recently defeated the forces of Ptolemy’s allies in Caria and taken control of Asia’s Aegean coastline. On receiving Demetrius’ letter, however, Antigonus once again headed east.

The Nabataean War

In late 312 BC, the one-eyed general Antigonus – now nearly 70 years old – arrived in Syria. Joining with Demetrius, he recaptured all the lands that his son had lost, forcing Ptolemy to retreat his forces to Egypt. Antigonus pursued him, arriving at Ptolemy’s border with over 80,000 men. Yet his gaze would be quickly diverted to the South-East, where the Nabataeans – an Arab nation with an important node at Petra – were hostile to him.

As a precursor to the invasion of Egypt, Antigonus thus decided to launch a campaign against these people. Things didn’t go to plan. Although Demetrius managed to besiege Petra, the campaign proved costly and time-consuming. In the end the two sides reached an agreement. Neither Antigonus nor the Nabataeans made any real gains from the treaty. Yet for Antigonus, it was undoubtedly humiliating.

The rise of Seleucus

It was then however, in the fall of 311 BC, that news reached Antigonus which changed his plans completely. In the east, Seleucus had successfully recaptured Babylon and defeated the Antigonid army in Iran. Upon hearing this, Antigonus shelved any plans to invade Egypt; the threat of losing his eastern provinces to Seleucus was too great. Antigonus therefore proposed peace-talks with his fellow Successors – most notably Cassander in Macedon (northern Greece) and Lysimachus in Thrace (Bulgaria). Ptolemy was later also included. In the end, peace was agreed.

The ramifications of this peace would be far-reaching. At that time in the Macedonian homeland, Alexander the Great’s son, Alexander IV, was 14 years old and many now thought him old enough to take full control. Yet the authoritative Cassander had no intention of allowing this. Cassander had Alexander IV, along his with mother, Roxane, assassinated. Soon afterwards, the Macedonian regent also had Heracles, a bastard child of Alexander the Great, similarly executed.

The Argead dynasty had been wiped out; the consequences would soon be clear for all to see.

The Babylonian War, 308 BC

Back in Syria, with the treaty agreed, Antigonus was free to focus on Seleucus. He dispatched Demetrius with 19,000 men to tackle his new foe. In the beginning of 310 BC, Demetrius and his army reached Babylon. Yet Seleucus, on his arrival, had already departed with most of his forces, leaving Demetrius free to capture most of the city without a fight. One citadel however remained in Seleucus’ control and defiantly resisted.

Not able to afford a lengthy siege, Demetrius left 6,000 of his troops under the command of his general, Archelaus, to continue the siege while he returned west, to his impatient father. Seleucus proved a dogged opponent. Later that year, with the issue still not settled, Antigonus himself was forced to lead an army east to fight this enemy. Our knowledge of this war, dubbed the Babylonian War, is almost non-existent.

Yet we do know that following Antigonus’ sacking of Babylon, Seleucus defeated Antigonus in a major battle in 308 BC and a peace was agreed. In this act, Antigonus’ hold on the East was severed and the ageing general returned west.

The Fourth War of the Diadochi erupts

Meanwhile, a new threat had been growing for Antigonus: his old adversary Ptolemy had been secretly intriguing against him while he was fighting Seleucus, gaining territory and influence in the Aegean. Determined to reassert his power, Antigonus ordered his son Demetrius to cross over from Ephesus and conquer the forces of Cassander and Ptolemy in Greece.

Demetrius landed at Athens in 307 BC, quickly gaining control from Cassander. Further successes were to follow for the young Antigonid at both Megara and Munichya. It was then however, that Demetrius received very different instructions from his father, who had remained at his new capital, Antigoneia, in Syria.


Antigonus had been eyeing one of Ptolemy’s most-prized possessions: the island of Cyprus. He ordered Demetrius to leave Greece with his army and return east. Demetrius promptly obeyed and early in 306 BC, he departed Athens with most of his army and headed towards Cyprus. On his way, Demetrius stopped at Rhodes, hoping to acquire use of the formidable Rhodian navy. The Rhodians however, refused, claiming neutrality.

Demetrius continued east and soon reached Cilicia, where more troops awaited him, sent from his father. Reinforced, Antigonus’ son crossed over to Cyprus, landing on the Karpass peninsula with 15,000 infantry and 400 cavalry in the Spring of 306 BC. He also had 110 triremes, 53 heavy warships and many troop transports. Demetrius solidified their position on the island, capturing the towns of Carpasia and Ourania. He then turned to his main goal: the city of Salamis.

Having secured the Karpass Peninsula, Demetrius’ army and navy headed to the Menelaus’ capital at Salamis.

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The Siege of Salamis, 306 BC

As Demetrius approached Salamis, the Ptolemaic forces stationed there – some 12,000 infantry and 800 cavalry, under the command of Ptolemy’s brother, Menelaus – were awaiting his arrival on a nearby plain. Battle ensued, and Demetrius won the victory, killing 1,000 and capturing 3,000 of Menelaus’ forces. With his remaining forces, Menelaus retreated to Salamis.

Demetrius besieged the city on both land and sea. He had previous expertise of sieges, most notably at Munichya, and he therefore had many siege weapons in his army – mechanical engines such as catapults and ballistae, designed especially to help assault a settlement.

The ‘Helepolis’

To aid him further, Demetrius also ordered the construction of some formidable siege engines, including two battering rams and a siege tower. This was no ordinary siege tower however. Nine-stories high, it was the largest the world had yet seen. They called it the helepolis, the ‘taker of cities.’ The attackers needed over a month to construct the engines. When completed, Demetrius ordered the assault. Both the rams and helepolis succeeded in clearing the walls; soon, the city appeared to be on the brink of defeat.

That night however, Menelaus sallied out from Salamis and burnt down Demetrius’ siege engines. With them destroyed, the city gained the respite they had needed: the siege continued.

Ptolemy heads to Cyprus

Menelaus had meanwhile sent word to his brother Ptolemy of the situation. Ptolemy had quickly taken action; he was determined not to lose control of Cyprus – an island so critical to his naval power. Gathering a large army and navy, Ptolemy sailed over to Cyprus, arriving at Paphos with a fleet of 140 warships and 200 troop transports carrying 10,000 infantry. As Ptolemy then proceeded along the south coast of the island, his Ptolemaic allies situated on Cyprus further bolstered the army.

Reinforced, the armada quickly reached Kiton. There, Ptolemy sent word to Menelaus. He knew that if they could combine their naval forces together, then their force would have a great numerical advantage over their Antigonid foe. He thus ordered Menelaus, under the cover of night to sneak the 60 ships he had in Salamis out of the harbour to join with his forces before Demetrius could become aware. Demetrius, however, got word of Ptolemy’s plans.

That night, Demetrius placed both his siege equipment and best men aboard his ships, and sailing around to the harbour of Salamis, ensured any attempt by Menelaus to sneak past his lines would prove impossible.

After Demetrius had foiled Ptolemy’s plan, Ptolemy sailed around Cape Pedalium with his navy and confronted Demetrius’ navy off the coast south of Salamis.

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As Menelaus’ forces failed to arrive, Ptolemy realised his plans had been foiled; nevertheless he sailed round Cape Pedalium with his armada and prepared for battle. On seeing Ptolemy’s arrival, Demetrius quickly reorganised. He left ten ships to blockade the narrow exit of Salamis’ harbour, preventing Menelaus’ sally. The rest of his navy, he placed facing Ptolemy.

On his left, Demetrius deployed his greatest ships in a double line, hoping to quickly crush Ptolemy’s right. Demetrius stationed himself in the front ranks of this wing, although he himself was not to be in command. Realising his inexperience at naval warfare, he had sensibly deferred command to his most experienced admiral, Medius of Larissa. For the rest of his ships, Demetrius deployed them in a single line. Adopting a similar strategy, Ptolemy strengthened his own left wing, hoping to quickly break through his opponent’s right.

The Battle of Salamis, 306 BC

The battle commenced with an advance by Demetrius against Ptolemy’s right. Very quickly, Demetrius’ most powerful warships, aided by siege engines they had attached, destroyed his opposing forces. Medius now ordered the ships starboard and to start folding up Ptolemy’s line with Demetrius himself being in the thickest of the action. Meanwhile, Ptolemy had successfully overcome Demetrius’ right flank. His attack proved too slow however and as he began to envelop Demetrius’ centre, he saw with dismay that the enemy had already routed the rest of his fleet.

Believing the battle lost, Ptolemy retreated. Meanwhile, Menelaus successfully managed to break through Demetrius’ 10-ship blockade, but it would prove too late. By the time Menelaus had entered the battlefield, Ptolemy was already in flight.

Ptolemaic humiliation, Antigonid supremacy

The engagement had been a disaster for Ptolemy. His adversaries had captured over 40 of his ships as well as 100 supply vessels, along with their crews and possibly one of Ptolemy’s sons, Leontiscus. As for Demetrius, only 20 of his ships had been damaged, although scholars now debate whether Demetrius lost more on his right wing.

The implications of this victory were far reaching. Salamis surrendered to Demetrius and Menelaus retreated to Alexandria. As Salamis fell, all other Ptolemaic holdings in Cyprus followed suit. In total, Demetrius reportedly captured 16,000 infantry and 600 cavalry – many of whom then joined the Antigonid army. For Ptolemy, the battle had been a disaster, losing control of Cyprus, one of his most cherished possessions.

Yet for the Antigonids, Demetrius’ victory meant that their power was now unmatched on both land and sea; they were the period’s superpower.

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