At the Battle of Corupedium in 281 BC, former allies faced each other as enemies. Almost 40 years had passed since Alexander the Great breathed his last that fateful day in 323 BC. In his lifetime this Macedonian had forged one of the largest empires the world had yet seen.
But following years of vicious infighting between Alexander’s former generals, the Macedonian Empire had gradually become divided. Vying for dominance, many of these former brothers-in-arms had transformed into the most vicious of enemies. And by 285 BC, Alexander’s empire looked very different.
From the plains of Iran to the mountains of Northern Greece, these aspiring ‘Successors’ engaged each other in great battles, risking everything for power in this post-Alexander era. Gradually, after many famous leaders had perished in the struggle – men such as Antigonus, Eumenes and Polyperchon – the crisis seemed to be abating.
By 285 BC, the great climax to these wars appeared to be over. Having successfully weathered the storm, strong kingdoms had emerged from the struggle and established themselves over various parts of Alexander’s Empire. In Asia, the lion’s share of Alexander’s empire now lay in the hands of two powerful empires: the Ptolemaic and the Seleucid Kingdoms. And in the west too, following years of struggle, the clear winner had finally arisen as the dominant power.
Having originally served in the army of Alexander the Great, Lysimachus had been one of the great survivors of the Diadochi Wars. For almost 40 years, he had first governed, and then ruled, the vitally-important frontier region of Thrace, fighting against numerous enemies. It was no easy task.
From leading ill-fated campaigns across the Danube River against the Getae to suppressing major Thracian uprisings from the hinterland, maintaining his authority on this peripheral land through military force proved a constant challenge for Lysimachus. After years of fighting, Lysimachus’ perseverance paid off. He forged a strong, stable kingdom. Free from the threat of barbarian incursions, many in the Aegean turned their energies away from war, embracing trade and opportunities for wealth and prosperity.
All this was thanks to Lysimachus and the strong northern frontier he had created – no small achievement.
Lysimachus and the Diadochi
Preoccupied with this constant threat, for years Lysimachus played a relatively minor role in the great struggle following Alexander’s death. He watched on as former colleagues perished – men such as Perdiccas, Eumenes and Craterus.
Only in 302 BC did he finally allow himself to become greatly involved, leading the Grand Coalition army to victory over Antigonus at Ipsus. From then on his territory only increased. By 285 BC no longer was this Successor simply king of Thrace; now he controlled an empire stretching from the banks of the Danube to the Cilician Gates in Asia Minor.
By 285 BC, however, this period of stability was nearing an end.
Lysimachus was nearing 80 years old in 285 BC. Naturally, questions arose about who was to be his successor. Yet the choice seemed obvious. Lysimachus’ clear heir was his eldest son Agathocles, a victor of many battles. From leading forces on the banks of the Danube to campaigning in the heartlands of Asia Minor, Agathocles appeared well-suited to succeed his father in this time of almost-constant war.
But for reasons unknown, Lysimachus hesitated from officially naming Agathocles as his successor. Speculation continued to grow, and for Agathocles agitation no doubt followed. He had been waiting a long time to rule his father’s kingdom. Now, as he saw his elderly father appearing to hesitate, fear of being overlooked began to take root in his mind. He was not wrong to think this way: Agathocles was not the only person with eyes on the succession.
Lysimachus had taken multiple wives during his reign for political reasons, a common practice of the time. One wife was Arsinoe, the daughter of Lysimachus’ fellow successor in Egypt, Ptolemy I. Despite being 45 years younger than Lysimachus, Arsinoe had sired three children for the elderly king and by 285 BC, the eldest was nearing adulthood.
Desiring her eldest son to become the next ruler, Arsinoe now tried to turn the elderly Lysimachus against Agathocles. Realising the competition for the succession, a tense rivalry between the factions of Agathocles and Arsinoe erupted at Lysimachus’ court – each vying for the favour of the elderly king. Yet within Arsinoe’s faction was one man who would have worried Agathocles more than most.
His name was Ptolemy, nicknamed ‘Ceraunus’ (the thunderbolt) because of his impetuous nature. Being the half-brother of Arsinoe, Ceraunus was the eldest son of King Ptolemy I in Egypt and to many, his rightful successor. Yet in 285 BC, the elder Ptolemy had thought otherwise.
Perhaps believing his eldest son too unstable for the role of king, at the turn of 285 BC, Ptolemy I instead proclaimed another of his sons – also called Ptolemy – to be co-ruler of his lands and heir-apparent. Ceraunus had been blatantly overlooked.
Publicly rejected by his father and fearing for his life, Ceraunus quickly boarded a ship on hearing the proclamation and fled Alexandria. He sailed across the Mediterranean to Lysimacheia, where he was welcomed by Arsinoe and soon became one of her closest confidantes.
Backed by Ceraunus and many other supporters, Arsinoe attempted to secure her son’s succession to Lysimachus’ kingdom. The scenes at court must have been tense. Both knew that death at the hands of the other likely awaited the loser of this struggle.
The demise of Agathocles
Scholars debate what followed as the sources are unclear. Yet Agathocles, clouded by the fear of being overlooked for the succession, made a decision that would decide his fate.
Having founded his own city, which he called Agathopolis, Lysimachus’ eldest son introduced a new bronze coinage that possibly depicted himself wearing a diadem, the symbol of kingship. Of course, this is merely a theory – tentatively suggested by Helen Lund, who also rightly points out that the image on the coinage may not be Agathocles at all. But if the coin does portray a crowned Agathocles, it may have sparked cause for concern with his father.
Whatever Agathocles’ actions, they proved one step too far; charges of treason became widespread towards Agathocles at Lysimachus’ court. Thanks to his previous indecisiveness, Lysimachus now found himself in a great dilemma. Would he concede joint-kingship with his formidable son and in doing so officially designate him his successor? Or would he throw his empire into an even greater succession crisis with his execution? His choice would decide the future of his empire.
In 282 BC, Lysimachus made the fateful decision. Believing himself compelled to judge his son guilty of treachery, he ordered Agathocles’ execution. It would prove Lysimachus’ greatest mistake.
Upon hearing of Agathocles’ death, Lysimachus’ subjects were aghast. Many had loved the young prince and in rage they turned against their ruler. The army especially, having loved Agathocles for his military prowess and daring, soon descended into turmoil. As for Agathocles’ family, afraid of the atrocities they knew they would suffer if they remained, the wife and children of the murdered prince fled Lysimacheia in all haste along with Agathocles’ brother Alexander.
From there they sailed to the one man they knew could still rival Lysimachus’ power in Alexander’s empire.
Arriving at Seleucus’ court in Antioch, Lysandra and Alexander informed him of the events in the West: Agathocles had been executed and Lysimachus’ great empire was now in turmoil. More intrigue followed.
Great dissatisfaction towards Lysimachus boiled over in Asia Minor and many – most notably Philetaerus, the ruler of Pergamum – now actively encouraged Seleucus to invade, promising him their support. Seleucus was keen to accept.
Although events had led him to create a great Asian empire, Seleucus had always harboured ambitions for control in the West. Having his capital on the farthest west point of his great domain was no coincidence; neither the riches of India, nor the fertile plains of Egypt would attract him as much as the opportunity for conquest in Europe.
Now, with Lysimachus’ empire seemingly collapsing in on itself and its army in complete disarray, Seleucus knew that this was the time to strike.
The march to war
Gathering his forces, Seleucus headed west at the head of a formidable army to confront Lysimachus. Yet despite the reports Seleucus had heard, Lysimachus’ support was not as weakened as he had expected; rather than defecting many cities remained loyal to the King of Thrace and he crossed over from Europe with a similarly mighty army to confront the invader in Asia Minor.
20 years before, it had been the combined arms of these two kings on the battlefield that had transformed their empires into the two most powerful kingdoms of the time. Yet that old friendship had long-since evaporated. In 281 BC, at Corupedium, these former allies once again met on the battlefield, only now as enemies.
The Battle of Corupedium 281 BC
Almost nothing survives to tell how the battle itself played out; yet one major event ensured its result would prove decisive. As the fight raged on, the elderly Lysimachus met his end, transfixed by a spear thrown by a Heracleian called Malacon.
Lysimachus was dead, and the victorious Seleucus now controlled an empire almost as formidable as that of Alexander the Great. The last of Alexander’s generals to remain standing with an empire. The last of the original successors.
Bathing in his success, Seleucus would boast that,
..this was not the work of man, but a favour from the gods.
Such boasting would soon come back to haunt him. Because within a year, he too would be dead – murdered by none other than Ptolemy Ceraunus.