In 316 BC, seven years after the death of Alexander the Great, one of the most extraordinary rivalries of antiquity reached its climax, when the generals Antigonus and Eumenes, both former officers of Alexander, fought each other one final time at the Battle of Gabene in modern Iran. Antigonus emerged the victor; Eumenes was captured and executed. Antigonus cemented himself as the uncontested chief power in Asia. But it wasn’t long before another war erupted, with its climax occurring four years later on plains near the city of Gaza.
Aftermath of Gabene
Having defeated Eumenes, Antigonus set about deciding the fate of Eumenes’ army. He incorporated much of it into his own force, although there were some exceptions. He executed Eudamos, who had come to aid Eumenes from India, as well as Antigenes, the captain of the Silver Shields – an elite infantry unit that had supported Eumenes in the previous war. The Silver Shields themselves were sent to the harsh, mountainous region of Arachosia, where they were subtly disposed of fighting against hostile mountain tribes.
Antigonus proceeded to stamp his mark on the Asian provinces. Peithon, Antigonus’ ally and a former bodyguard of Alexander the Great, was the first casualty. Having discovered he intended to revolt, Antigonus had Peithon executed in Media. More upsets followed as Peucestas, who had deserted Eumenes at Gabene, was removed as the satrap of Persia.
Although a Macedonian and one of Alexander the Great’s best fighters, Peucestas had been widely-liked by the Persians, having embraced their culture in many aspects. Nevertheless, Antigonus quickly confirmed Peucestas’ removal and continued west, taking the ‘Persianised’ Macedonian with him.
In the Autumn of 316 BC, Antigonus reached Babylon. At that time, Babylon was controlled by a Macedonian governor named Seleucus. Another of Alexander’s former commanders, Seleucus had been a leading instigator in the murder of Perdiccas and had aided Antigonus greatly in his war with Eumenes. Yet this friendship soon turned sour. A dispute erupted and Seleucus, fearing a similar fate to Peithon, fled. Leaving almost everything behind except his horse, he headed to Egypt. Uniting with Ptolemy, the Macedonian governor of Egypt, Ptolemy informed him of Antigonus’ increasingly despotic behaviour.
Alarmed at Antigonus’ increasing power, Ptolemy reached out to his fellow governors in the west – men such as Lysimachus in Thrace and Asander in Caria. They sent an envoy to Antigonus as he reached Syria. They claimed they had been invaluable allies in the war against Eumenes and now demanded large swathes of Antigonus’ territory for themselves. They also demanded he reinstate Seleucus and Peucestas. Antigonus bluntly refused and prepared for war.
The Third War of the Successors
Antigonus found himself opposed on multiple fronts. He then discovered that Cassander, the victor of a bloody civil war in Macedonia, had also joined the ranks of the opposing coalition. Determined to strike first, he lead his armies south, taking over Phoenicia and many of the petty kingdoms of Cyprus from Ptolemy.
Antigonus knew his greatest weakness was his lack of ships; Ptolemy’s undisputed naval control of the Eastern Mediterranean would prove deadly if his forces could not contain it. Using his vast finances, Antigonus charged his newly-acquired Phoenician cities with the building of a great armada. At the same time, Antigonus dispatched several generals to fight enemies on key battlegrounds. He sent his nephew Ptolemaus to fight against Asander in Asia Minor; and Aristodemus to Greece, to aid Polyperchon’s remaining forces against Cassander.
Taking the offensive
As for Antigonus himself, he pressed south through the Levant, capturing the cities of Gaza and Joppa from Ptolemy. Fresh from this success, Antigonus fortified the two captured cities and returned to Tyre in Phoenicia, which had been resisting defiantly with the aid of Ptolemy’s navy. By then, however, a large portion of Antigonus’ new fleet was ready. Under the command of Dioscurides, Antigonus dispatched his ships to the Aegean, intending to gain mastery by sea.
Antigonus remained at Tyre until its eventual fall in the summer of 314 BC and news then reached him of events in Asia Minor: his nephew Ptolemaeus, had fought a very successful campaign in Caria against the forces of both Asander and Prepelaus, a general of Cassander. Further good news followed. He learnt that his navy now dominated the Aegean. Antigonus sensed a great opportunity; this was the time to crush Cassander, Asander and the rest of his western rivals for good.
In the meantime, to keep control of his holdings in the Levant, Antigonus placed his son in control of a substantial force. His name was Demetrius.
Demetrius had been by his father’s side ever since the death of Alexander back in 323 BC. He had lead the companion cavalry at both Paraetacenae and Gabene and had also wanted his father to spare Eumenes’ life. In the summer of 314 BC, his father Antigonus departed Phoenicia, styling himself as the rightful regent of Macedonia and leading the main army north across the Taurus mountains to fulfil this goal.
The young Demetrius was now in charge of protecting his family’s lands in the Levant from an increasingly active Ptolemy. Antigonus did not leave him completely unaided. He left some of his greatest military advisers to aid his son: Nearchus, the revered admiral of Alexander and Peithon, the son of Agenor, who had been Alexander’s last Macedonian official in India. With a force of 18,000 men and 43 elephants, Demetrius remained in Coele Syria, awaiting news of any attack by Ptolemy.
In 313 BC, Ptolemy made his move. Crossing from Cyprus, he raided the coastline of Cilicia with a small force. Demetrius, expecting an attack from Egypt, was caught unawares. He quickly marched his lighter forces north to Cilicia. Yet before he could arrive, Ptolemy had already left for Egypt. This was just the start.
Ptolemy was encouraged by Seleucus to reconquer Coele Syria. With Antigonus far away in Asia Minor, Ptolemy was easily persuaded, and he gathered a large army of Macedonians, Egyptians and mercenaries. In the early spring of 312 BC, Ptolemy led his army out of Egypt towards Gaza.
Demetrius was waiting for him, ignoring the advice of his counsellors to avoid open battle against two of the greatest generals of the time. On a large plain somewhere between the city of Gaza and the Besor river, the forces clashed.
Demetrius’ army was smaller than that of Ptolemy’s, his 18,000 men compared with Ptolemy’s 22,000. Demetrius deployed his forces for battle. On his left-wing, Demetrius deployed almost 3,000 of his strongest cavalry along with himself and his advisors. Among these horsemen were 800 of the elite Companion cavalry and 100 specialised Tarentines, lightly-armed with javelins and swift mounts.
In front of his left wing, Demetrius deployed 30 elephants with 1,500 light infantry, armed with javelins and bows, spaced between the beasts. In his centre, Demetrius deployed his phalanx, 11,000 men strong. 2,000 of them were Macedonians with the rest mainly mercenaries. He placed his remaining elephants in front. The rest of his army, some 1,500 cavalry, Demetrius placed on his right wing.
Meanwhile Ptolemy and Seleucus initially placed their strongest cavalry on their left wing, but quickly reorganised after seeing Demetrius’ deployment. They placing themselves and 3,000 of their strongest cavalry on their right, directly opposing Demetrius. In front of them, Ptolemy placed his engineers, armed with large, metal spikes, designed specially to counter any elephant charge. These they placed at regular intervals, upright in the ground in front of Ptolemy’s left wing. Light-armed javelin men and archers were also stationed behind these traps. In the centre, he deployed his 18,000 infantry, consisting of Macedonians, mercenaries and Egyptians, with his remaining 1,000 cavalry on his left.
The Battle of Gaza 312 BC
The battle commenced with a cavalry charge on the extreme left of Demetrius’ wing. At first Demetrius’ cavalry managed to get the better of their opponents and caused Ptolemy’s horsemen to retreat. Yet Ptolemy and Seleucus then led the rest of the cavalry on their right wing into battle, riding around Demetrius’ left flank and charging in with their lances.
In the first charge, the fighting was with spears, most of which were shattered, and many were wounded; then, rallying again, the men rushed into battle at sword’s point, and, as they were locked in close combat, many were slain on each side.
The very commanders, endangering themselves in front of all, encouraged those under their command to withstand the danger stoutly; and the horsemen upon the wings, all of whom had been selected for bravery, vied with each other since as witnesses of their valour they had their generals, who were sharing the struggle with them.
Diodorus Siculus, 19. 83
Finally, Demetrius ordered his elephants forward, hoping to panic Ptolemy’s infantry and win the battle. It was not to be. As they advanced towards Ptolemy’s right, they came under a hail of javelins and arrows from Ptolemy’s light infantry. Under fire, many of their handlers now desperately charged their beasts forwards, right into the spikes Ptolemy’s engineers had deployed. Carnage ensued. The handlers were shot down and almost all the elephants were captured or killed.
Demetrius’ army panicked. Horsemen peeled off and fled towards Gaza. Reluctantly, Demetrius was forced to order his army to retreat. His infantry phalanx, however, which had never even engaged the enemy, had different ideas. Many threw down their arms, deserting their formations. In one move, Ptolemy’s army captured over 8,000 of Demetrius’ infantry.
The Antigonid army had suffered a crushing defeat. Gaza fell to Ptolemy’s forces soon after the battle; Demetrius had been humiliated. With the remnants of his army he withdrew into Phoenicia, while Ptolemy would march further into the Levant, as far as Tyre. Thanks to Gaza, the fortune of the Antigonids appeared to have turned.