Chapter Six

A Passing Thunderbolt

Three successors had stood proud in the wake of Demetrius being caged up in the Syrian Chersonese and by the time of his actual death this circumstance seemed even more pronounced. While that other unmanageable man Pyrrhus had been boxed up back in Epirus, Ptolemy I was well ensconced in his Egyptian core and had expanded into Phoenicia and Coele-Syria while making sure of a Thalassocracy that covered almost all the Eastern Mediterranean and had long been muscling into the south Aegean. This farsighted dynast had also solved the succession problem by making his son by Berenice joint monarch as Ptolemy II. Seleucus also ruled a massive realm that distance had forced him to divide into two halves, declaring his son and heir Antiochus sub-king in the eastern satrapies. Still, despite the achievements of these two, a case can certainly be made that Lysimachus had done the best of all those who had fought over the empire Alexander had conquered. His territory now included Macedonia, Thessaly, Thrace and much of Anatolia, representing a large yet compact kingdom with an excellent tax base in the rich cities of the Aegean coasts of Asia, the Black Sea littoral and including the riches to be drawn from the extensive transit trade passing through the Hellespont and Propontis. He had great military resources too, not just from his Macedonians-in-arms but from the numerous warriors of Thrace, the Greek and non-Greek peoples of Anatolia, all available to be directly enrolled or hired as mercenaries. His navy might not have been quite up to that of the Lagids, particularly since the Phoenician cities and the squadrons they supported were now all under Ptolemy’s control, yet he did have access to a maritime potential that might allow him in time to take on rivals such as Antigonus Gonatus or Seleucus.

This shrewd monarch also managed a trick that other rulers at Pella had found impossible: he stayed on excellent terms with the Aetolians, a people who named two towns after the king and his wife Arsinoe and indeed his reputation in the rest of central Greece was such that the Phocians felt so much confidence in his friendship that they drove an Antigonid garrison out of Elateia and his ties with the Athenians were strong since their dumping of Demetrius. However, this old king was not calling it a day just yet; what was left of a long life would be full of even more projects of expansion. Apart from ensuring against trouble in some problematic statelets in northern Anatolia and taking direct control of the important Black Sea port of Heraclea, he also had ambitions in Europe where forces of change were at work. Though high-toned hangers-on at court revelling in contacts with refined Athenians may not have been terribly interested in what was happening in semi-barbarous Paeonia, it was far from insignificant to their master, still driven by imperial imperatives. The country had long had associations with both Macedonia and Epirus, more powerful political entities situated along her southern border and Ariston, a leading cavalry commander in Alexander’s conquering army was Paeonian royalty, while his son was the long-lived monarch Audoleon, himself a considerable figure in the north Balkan arena. He was not only Pyrrhus’ father-in-law but had been recently noticed encouraging the Athenian attempt to reclaim Piraeus, though his dependence on Macedon had been highlighted back in 310 when he was required to go cap in hand to Cassander to bail him out when his territory was about to be overrun by the Illyrian Autariatae.1 These people were dangerously on the move after suffering biblical plagues of frogs and mice until Cassander solved his neighbours’ problem by settling all 20,000 of them near the mountain of Orbelus north of the Pangaion Hills.

In either 285 or 284 this Audoleon died, occasioning a succession crisis in which Lysimachus saw opportunity. The Paeonian king’s son Ariston was at that moment in exile in Thrace, driven out by an opposition faction, and when he heard news of his father’s death the ousted prince, gazing around for assistance, made a fatal miscalculation. He found Lysimachus willing and able to stump up the troops required to instate him but though he threw his decisive weight behind this contender, finally this prince’s patron proved that where he could assist, he could also threaten. When Ariston returned in state to his father’s kingdom Lysimachus accompanied him, apparently eager to supervise as the heir underwent the traditional coronation bath in the Arisbus River and to ensure the accession was celebrated by an appropriately sumptuous banquet. However, during these coronation revels Ariston was warned that his sponsor was contemplating treachery and had prepared armed guards to arrest him and, finding this kind of behaviour only too believable from a man with Lysimachus’ ruthless reputation, he jumped on the first horse he could find and fled over the border north-west to exile in the territory of the Dardani.2 Whether he really took control so soon after he had hoisted Ariston onto the throne is not clear. It may be it was the result of a contraction of time imposed by our informants with events really occurring after the prince, who was intended as a tractable puppet, started to appear inconveniently non-compliant. Yet it is also said3 that the lure of a royal treasure trove was part of the old king’s motivation when one of Audoleon’s long-standing advisors revealed its situation hidden beneath the bed of the River Sargentius. What is certain is that by the time of the conclusion of Lysimachus’ reign, Paeonia was part of European holdings that stretched from Macedonia, across Thrace to the Black Sea and Hellespont, south through Thessaly and included some north Aegean islands.

Yet this old king who had shown himself such a terrible neighbour to both Pyrrhus and Ariston was not destined to enjoy his pre-eminence for long. ‘The harder they come the harder they fall’ was something all too true in his case. Yet it would not be outside rivals or internal enemies that would be at the root of his difficulties, it would be two things that were almost impossible to guard against: the passage of time and his own personality. Not inappropriately, it was a product of a dysfunctional family who was the major actor in the events that were going to be central to the future of Macedonian Europe as another decade faded out. Around 319 a son had been born to Eurydice, daughter of Antipater and wife of Ptolemy I, the Lagid ruler of Egypt. This man, also christened Ptolemy, emerged in a short career as one of the era’s most dangerous characters and the shocking crimes laid at his door ensured that times were never calm in the places he came to settle. His father had not long remained content with just one spouse and soon took a fancy to one of Eurydice’s ladies-in-waiting called Berenice. She was the daughter of a Macedonian princess named Antigone and after her first husband had died, this high-born widow had joined the household of the queen of Egypt. Polygamy was not at all unusual for these Macedonian warlords, so when the king married her in 317, relations in the seraglio remained smooth enough until well into the new century. Then we know Eurydice and her daughter left Alexandria and had arrived in Miletus by 287 at the latest when Demetris, passing on his way to invade Asia, paused to marry the younger woman. During this period with King Ptolemy I flaunting his preference for Berenice’s progeny, Ptolemy lost his position of preeminence at the court of his father who by 282 had made his eldest son by his second wife co-ruler. Already long cut out of the running, the firstborn was bound to have potential as a focus for political opposition so it is no surprise to find him turning up in exile at the court of Seleucus, but this was but a staging post. Finding little in the way of opportunity at the court of the king of Asia, who perhaps perceived something of the iniquity of the man and at most saw him as a useful counter in his diplomatic game with Alexandria and not somebody to invest much in the way of resources, he packed his bags and made his way to Lysimachia, hoping pickings might be better there.

No royal court was ever lacking in internal divisions, but now events conspired to push huge wedges between the contending parties at Lysimachus’ headquarters. While ensconced with his new host Ptolemy discovered family affairs becoming increasingly toxic as the king had by this time also found a new spouse, having around 300 married Arsinoe, another daughter of Ptolemy I of Egypt and one of the extraordinary characters of the age. She had been about 15 and he was already near 60, but this infusion of young blood had not apparently upset the household for almost twenty years until the inevitable occurred when the younger wife’s children approached the age of majority only to find that the heir to the throne, their mature, experienced, capable and popular half-brother, looked set to block any chances they might have of succeeding a declining father. However this might be dressed up, few were under any illusion that the issue of succession could be extremely complicated, with the court likely to prove too small to accommodate the ambitions of all concerned. Later it was alleged that political tremors had started to build not long after a destructive earthquake, a portent of disaster that struck Lysimachia in 287, but if all this was not sufficient to ensure turbulent times ahead, gossip gave it out that Arsinoe, tired of the old king, made sexual advances to this same heir Agathocles and it was his rejection of her that motivated her policy. However, the bursting of this salacious scandal to dramatically seal Agathocles’ doom is not required to explain what is, after all, an even more hoary topos than the vindictive malice of a frustrated woman, that of a mother prepared to risk all to win the great prize for her child. Anyway, with motive enough Arsinoe managed to convince her husband that his eldest son and the prop of his throne was really an ingrate, a traitor, who tired of waiting for nature to take its course, was plotting to remove his father and seize the throne for himself. In these intrigues Arsinoe found a willing assistant in her own half-brother, the reckless and cynical Ptolemy, who was happy to execute the design against a man from whom, despite Agathocles being married to his own full sister, he expected little once he had succeeded to the throne of his father.

How the filicide was accomplished is not certain, but one lurid account has it that in 283 the paranoid old king, wracked by his destructive obsession, tried to poison ‘the oldest and best of his sons’,4 but initially failed because on tasting the tainted offering, he spat it out. The reprieve was only temporary, as claiming he was plotting against him, Lysimachus had Agathocles flung into prison where Ptolemy, his fingerprints over the whole intrigue, ‘slew him with his own hand, an act that won for himself the name of Ceraunus, the thunderbolt’. In the early days of the Diadochi Wars Antipater had distributed his daughters like confetti to the great men of the age and now one grandson, the offspring of Eurydice, wife of Ptolemy, had slaughtered another grandson by another daughter Nicaea who had been married to Lysimachus. There are certainly contradictory opinions on old Lysimachus: he is either a classic tyrant, hands dripping with the blood of his child, or a feeble ancient putty in the hands of his young wife, all coming from a range of primary sources from Hieronymus to Duris of Samos and various historians from Pontic Heraclea. Because of partiality here, we cannot be sure how much is credible, although we can certainly surmise that the bloody murder was followed by a purge of those who stood close to the assassinated man. Agathocles had been a real force in the realm with plenty of clients and supporters in important posts and it is likely there was an attempt to neutralize this group by a king now desperate to smooth the path for his new heirs. Circumstances that made it hardly a surprise that many felt at risk and this in a state where anyway, if many reports are believed, most in the Greek cities regarded Lysimachus as an unforgiving and oppressive tyrant. The terrible act soon turned out to be a catalyst for the beginning of a real political unravelling and the question must be why he risked everything by this precipitate and hazardous disposal? Surely his age must be the key: that at nearly 80 years of age, only immediate and drastic action would solve the succession problem to his satisfaction. It is clear that by 283 he no longer intended Agathocles as his heir; there would certainly be no dual kingship here as with the Seleucids and the Ptolemies despite his son being a popular, able general and administrator who had shown his worth over more than two decades. Perhaps this was part of the reason. In decline, Lysimachus was overcome with a lethal cocktail of jealousy and resentment against a man that he realized so many saw as the future and who represented a brighter and more popular prospect than any he could offer. This and that his eldest son in unfettered power would almost inevitably represent a threat to the young family he fathered by Arsinoe meant that Agathocles had to go and from that certitude, settled upon some time in 283, all else followed.

A cavalcade of discontent led by Lysandra, Agathocles’ wife, was soon appearing over the Taurus Mountains asking for refuge at the court of Seleucus. Most significantly Alexander, another son of Lysimachus by an Odrysian spouse, took the same road, worried that he too might be marked down for an identical fate to his half-brother. This fragility in the ruling elite of such a proximate and wealthy neighbour could not help but entice the still ambitious ruler at Antioch. Here was an enterprise indeed, to finally reassemble the whole of Alexander’s empire outside of Africa. We do not know whether Seleucus had already been meddling in his neighbours’ business waiting for his opportunity, but when it came knocking he was not about to spurn it. As the exiles poured reassuring words in his ear about the weakness of Lysimachus’ administration, the Seleucid military was mobilized, settler soldiers from Syria, elephants from their permanent stables at Apamea and a myriad of auxiliaries from the wide lands under the great king’s control. Late 282 saw Seleucid armies swinging into action, moving west through Cilicia and into the heart of Anatolia with agents going ahead sowing dissention in a population already disturbed by the deep fissures showing among their rulers. Alexander, son of Lysimachus, headed one of the columns of soldiers in the hope that his credibility with those who had been attached to Agathocles would be greater than that of some outside invader. Certainly something made a difference as we know plenty of towns opened their gates, including Pergamon where Philetaerus, the later founder of the Attalid dynasty, defected to the Seleucid cause with a treasury of 9,000 talents and the keys to one of the most important strongholds in western Anatolia. Lysimachus soon awoke to the fact that this threat was not just alarmist exaggeration on the part of his most nervous councillors and with so much of his kingdom seeming on the point of slipping away, he steeled his nerves and, like another ruler two decades earlier, opted to confront an implacable opponent, to risk all on the lottery of battle.

The period of the first generation of successors had been fabulous and extraordinary with sources for some events being detailed and accurate, but unfortunately regarding the denouement that transpired in February 281 on the wide plains of Corupedion there are hardly any reliable details, only a plethora of improbable stories around this final bout in the struggles of the original Diadochi. Inland of modern Izmir and not far from Magnesia by Sipylos, where ninety years later Rome would burst bomb-like into the Asian world, the king of Thrace determined on his last throw of the dice. Presumably taking as few chances as he could, mobilizing all the soldiers available and calling on his allies and auxiliaries, was to no avail as heading west the invading Seleucid hosts were brilliantly coordinated and after joining battle their success ensured that Lysimachus’ broken old body, despoiled of its finery, was found among so many others on the field of blood; their extravagant pretensions ended in dust. He had been sent tumbling from his horse when a soldier from Pontic Heraclea called Malacon struck him with a lucky throw of his spear while only a faithful dog guarded the body against the ravages of carrion birds. This is surely far more probable than the tradition that has him dying in a personal duel with Seleucus, a desperate brawl between old men that is far too elegant a conclusion to be credited. It was even touch and go as to whether the royal corpse of the penultimate Diadochi would end up mutilated by the vengeful wife of Agathocles before his less vindictive son Alexander forestalled the desecration and ensured his father got some sort of burial.5

If the last but one of Alexander’s companions was dead, another man came through the bloody contest intact. Ptolemy Ceraunus was among the prisoners rounded up by Seleucus’ victorious warriors as Lysimachus’ army crumbled and the men laid down their arms in anticipation of switching to the Seleucid military roster or tried to save themselves by flight. In double-quick time, this chancer wheedled himself into his captor’s good books. Seleucus was in a forgiving mood anyway; for him there was no better place to be the last of the first successors of Alexander standing with no real focus of opposition after the death of his rival to worry him. After all, his dead antagonist’s adult offspring were already committed to his cause and Arsenio’s brood were children, so in the happy atmosphere of a triumphal parade Ptolemy Ceraunus, who Seleucus had briefly known before, could make himself agreeable, suggesting to his new sponsor that he could be a useful chip in his ongoing poker game with the rival administration at Alexandria. So Ptolemy Ceraunus was there in the winter of 281–80. ‘He was not despised like a prisoner, but given the honour and consideration due to the son of a king…. However, though he was honoured with so much attention, these favours failed to improve the disposition of an evil man.’6 Taking in the spectacle in a great sweep as long lines of armoured men accompanied by the sounds of animals, either meat on the hoof or carrying packs in the army’s trains, sumpter traders and other camp followers prepared to embark for a short trip across the Hellespont. After hours and hours of ferrying there would have been elephants noticed in the cavalcade that Seleucus was leading over the narrow straits; after all, they advertised power like nothing else in the post-Alexander world of ostentatious monarchs. At the head came the old king himself, the last of a breed with his bull’s horn and anchor insignia showing on the banners of those close companions, councillors and administrators surging after him, leading Asia into Europe, though none taking part or gawping from a roadside could have conceived that this glorious cavalcade would finally be the reagent for an apocalypse. This army he had concentrated was not anticipating opposition. There had been no reports of any Lysimachid stalwart busying up a defence to block the Hellespont or raise Thrace and Macedonia against what the invaders considered spear-won land, earned by the spectacular victory at Corupedium. Soon the road that led past the modern-day Dardanelles was crowded with warriors and their beasts kicking up great clouds of dust as they marched towards Lysimachus’ old capital.

Now an utterly unscrupulous man took his opportunity. He might be short of a power base in a foreign land but he was not short on daring, and being an exiled son of the ruler of Egypt must have given him some cachet. Devious and dangerous, this man who was probably the murderer of Agathocles determined on another bloody coup in a world where almost anything seemed up for grabs. So he jumped at the chance when Seleucus decided to cross over to Europe. A ruler in a sedentary court would be surrounded by impenetrable security, but on the road there might be openings. Why Seleucus was so solicitous to this man whose unsavoury reputation he must have known is a mystery. He perhaps had considerable personal charm and this ensured he was beside the last first-generation Diadochi when he decided to indulge in some sightseeing as rest and relaxation. Near Lysimachia there was ‘a splendid great altar’ that locals called Argos because the claim was it had been built by Jason and his Argonauts as they sailed to Colchis to find the Golden Fleece, though there was another story that it was constructed by the Achaeans on the way to or coming back from assaulting Troy and named from the home town of the sons of Atreus.7 Seleucus had had his warnings. Years before the great oracle at Didyma in the Asian Aegean had declared ‘Do not hurry back to Europe; Asia will be much better for you’, and another even more specific portent had told him to stay clear of Argos. There was nothing too cryptic here and whatever questions had been put to the fortune-tellers, the sense should have made the old conqueror call a halt at the Hellespont. However, if his advisors were alarmed over the implications, either Seleucus did not make the connection or did not share the alarm of these soothsayers, so this blithe monarch-turned-tourist hurried surrounded by friends and courtiers to see the local attractions and if in the ranks of his companions he recognized Ptolemy his presence raised no concerns. Some time during the day Seleucus’ bodyguards were distracted or had been subverted and with the ruler of the world vulnerable, Ptolemy, playing for the highest stakes, acted. Having armed himself beforehand, he cut his over-trusting host down in cold blood. It had not been difficult to deal with a man enfeebled by many years, but the limit of the conspiracy did not terminate with the bloody corpse spread-eagled on the ground; the assassin wanted what his victim had had and in concluding that by beheading the administration of the greatest power in the world he would leave his followers bereaved and alarmed, he was right.

In late summer 281 the thunderbolt had struck and now he intended to reap the rewards. He had had a horse ready and, leaping aboard, galloped at full tilt towards Lysimachia. Once there, after finding a diadem to wear and surrounded by supporters and a ‘splendid bodyguard’, he met the army in assembly. They were like a deer in a car’s headlights. There was no plan of what to do after such an occurrence; there was an heir but he was thousands of miles away and there was no deputy present in the army or among the courtiers caught cold on the road to Pella. Ambitious men in both the officers’ quarters or the regimental tents might have indulged in heated talk, but nobody had a formula except the murderer. So the eyes of many who just wanted to be told what to do inevitably turned to him; the grim reality was that he seemed to be the only person who was offering any alternative to complete disorder. Accepted with no record of any reluctance, this again, like the fact that no one seems to have attempted to arrest him after the murder, suggests he had been hard at work subverting important officers before he took such decisive action. There had to be an audience for such talk, ambitious people again worried by the imperative of time passing and conscious that well into his 70s, Seleucus could not remain at the helm much longer. Soldiers, many of whom had come north with Seleucus and others who had joined from Lysimachus after his defeat, accepted the new king as a fait accompli. He had qualities that appealed, despite the universal verdict of him being treacherous and murderous; that he was decisive no one could deny and this may have been enough for many with really no other candidate near to hand.

In a few bare months so much had happened; the demise of Seleucus at the age of at least 73 after a reign of forty-two years had seen an epoch of ancient marshals contending for Alexander’s diadem ending in an extraordinary sequence of events, from the thunderous heroics at the Battle of Corupedium to a seedy murder conducted during a daytime sightseeing excursion. An implosion of familial relationships had destroyed the Macedonian state contrived by Philip and sustained by Antipater and his son Cassander and now another poisoned polity had been thrown into chaos and foundered. In the Europe that had emerged out of the blood-soaked world of Alexander’s successors, perhaps appropriately the man who climbed into the saddle in the aftermath was the gory man who had wielded the sword that ended the life of Seleucus I Nicator. If most of the dead ruler’s Asian lands would fall smoothly into the hands of his son Antiochus west of the Hellespont there was a vacuum, but could Ptolemy Ceraunus fill it?

Clearly he had discovered enough of a constituency in the royal army camped on the Chersonese as they swiftly acclaimed him their king; particularly he had been able to count on troops from Lysimachus’ army who had joined Seleucus after Corupedium, who saw his act as revenge for the death of their old chief, while he guaranteed complicity from some others of the chief men by the simple expedient of allowing them to plunder Seleucus’ treasury. Not that all concerned were quite so egregiously venal: decency and propriety could be found as was discovered when Philetaerus of Pergamon handed over good money to procure Seleucus’ corpse so as to render him the proper rites before sending his ashes to Antiochus in Seleucia by the sea, where a temple named the Nicatoreum was built to house them. What is clear is that this prince from Egypt must have had a silver tongue to both insinuate himself into a place where he could murder Seleucus and garner sufficient support to replace him at the army’s head. No doubt many surrounding the just acclaimed king thought the chalice that Ptolemy had grabbed so energetically was pretty poisonous, as potential rivals and enemies abounded. A world of striving contenders was in situ, from Pyrrhus still a power in Greater Epirus, Arsenio and Lysimachus’ sons holed up in Cassandreia and kin of Cassander still around as well.

While these vicissitudes of fortune were playing out at the hinge of Europe and Asia, most immediately someone else was sweeping open horizons with acquisitive eyes. Antigonus Gonatus had registered the news from the north with real interest. If he was a considerable downgrade from his forebear in terms of glamour and ambition, he had still proved capable enough in the years since his errant father had left him in charge of the family’s interests. His kingdom by the sea on the map looked an unimpressive patchwork, but from the start he showed he was of a new generation, a new strain of ruler who valued stability over adventure, consistent fidelity over extravagant talent and his realm had enjoyed a considerable period of administrative continuity where loyalties had been fostered and interests reinforced. Now from many parts of Macedonian Europe where the very opposite of these qualities were prevalent, this must have looked increasingly impressive, so if the realm Ceraunus was claiming was a chaotic mess, a nest of competing interest where nothing approaching persistent stability had been on offer for years, many must have looked south and noted the contrast. Particularly in Epirus Pyrrhus, who while he had played an expanding hand for over a decade, now had his eyes fixed steadily west towards Italy and was not inclined to be delayed by any number of opportunities elsewhere. A key question for the strategists in Antigonus’ camp was to what extent Ceraunus had been able to establish himself in Macedonia since his bloody intervention at Lysimachia. In the weeks since the demise of Seleucus there was much conjecture as to whether this interloper would have had time to find many powerful adherents. How many of the great men of Macedonia would have scurried to adhere to the new incumbent? Surely not such a large number. Many were bound to be disturbed by the reputation of this murderous prince whose life since leaving his father’s court had seemed to consist of one outrage after another.

The resource Antigonus disposed of might not have looked so impressive when weighed against peers like Ptolemy II or Antiochus I, yet even so he controlled thousands of experienced mercenaries garrisoning many of the great fortresses in Greece and could field a marine of substantial size and quality. It was not quite the navy that Demetrius had led over to Asia in his last adventure, but it was considerably more than a mere rump. Antigonus’ father is recorded building a huge fleet of 500 ships to attack his hated rival Lysimachus and shipwrights had surpassed themselves by constructing fifteens or sixteens, warships that even outshone the Sea King’s earlier efforts at gigantism. Whether there had been exaggeration or not and plenty of the giant armada were probably transports required for the huge army of invasion he was mobilizing, a considerable navy had been created, much of which would have remained available for the son of its architect. Nor was it just mint new vessels; there were plenty of veteran warships that had been in his service for years. After all, when Demetrius had visited Seleucus in 299 his flagship is noted as having thirteen banks of oars. The evidence we have suggests that the warships of this period were serviceable for at least twenty years if not longer, so it is possible some of the ships that had fought in the triumph at Salamis in 306 might have still been available.

However, only a proportion of the armament Demetrius had taken across the Aegean had returned. The warships had been left first in the great harbour of Miletus when he had struck inland, waiting there for their commander’s return. As the months went by officers and crews would have been bound to have considered their options, particularly when the place eventually opened its gates to Agathocles on his way to driving Demetrius inland into Seleucus’ unwelcoming arms. The question was how would the great adventurer’s matelots respond? They had been loyal for decades and bonds were not easily broken as most of the war fleet slipped its moorings and sailed south to Kaunos, leaving just a few to stay put and take service with the greatest power in Anatolia.

Still the great majority awaited the arrival of the man they had followed so long, and only when definite news arrived that he had been ensnared by Seleucus’ hunters while trying to make his way back to them did tough choices finally have to be made. Many again stayed loyal to the dynasty, setting sail to return to Gonatus waiting anxiously in Demetrias to discover what he might recover from the wreck of his father’s fortunes, but for others there was another offer on the table. Philocles, prince of Sidon, the commander of the Phoenician squadrons whose homeland produced some of the best fighting galleys, received an irresistible proposition from the court at Alexandria. So swiftly turning his coat, he secured the port of Kaunos in Egyptian interests and took the vessels raised from Tyre and the other Phoenician port cities over to Ptolemy. So Antigonus would have seen with disappointment that key components had not returned to him; those vastly experienced and expert squadrons that had made the Persian and later the marine of the Antigonid kings so formidable had jumped in a different direction. Such a step would advance the career of the man who led them even more than he could have hoped. The fruits of Philocles’ betrayal included becoming the Lagid commander over the league of Aegean islands that was in the process of being appropriated from the crumbling Antigonid realm.

Numbers are unknown, but it is difficult to believe that many more than half of Demetrius’ ships returned to his son, but still sufficient to give him confidence in dealing with most local maritime rivals. Antigonus was not the natural risk-taker his father had been, so we may assume this more modest ruler would have had very good reason to think that if he acted swiftly to intervene in Macedon, any opposition might be inconsiderable. He would have heard that Ptolemy Ceraunus was at Lysimachia trying to win over the key players in the army and at court, though to judge his success at such a distance would have been difficult; he almost certainly expected the murderer of Seleucus to have trouble in winning sufficient adherents to his side. After all, the soldiers in the murdered man’s army would surely be reluctant to take orders from the butcher of their old commander, even if there was no obvious alternative to hand. Even if Ceraunus was blessed with charisma and people skills in abundance before these events, he had hardly been a major figure in the power firmament; indeed, not long before he had been languishing as a prisoner of war. Antigonus could have reasonably expected he would have trouble enough gaining the necessary influence in the army to make a sustained effort for the crown, never mind being able to immediately appropriate and deploy the military and naval resources of the Macedonian kingdom as warships in particular never came cheap. The fruits of his reflection would be war, but in assuming a naval superiority Antigonus, it turned out, would be wrong and in the time it took for him to organize his own fleet and embark his troops his opponent was not only able to persuade Lysimachus’ old naval establishment over to his side, but he had been reinforced by a substantial fleet from Pontic Heraclea.

We know from a local historian8 that Dionysius the Good, the ruler of this city on the south shore of the Pontic sea, prospered when a passing Alexander the Great dented Persian power in the region. Not that the conqueror’s impact was all advantage, as once he had become the dominant power in the region some exiled democrats looked like they might persuade him to remove the tyrant until Dionysius enrolled the king’s sister Cleopatra on his side. Later Perdiccas also looked for a while like he might sponsor the émigrés, but he had far too much else on his plate so ‘Dionysius enjoyed prosperity in all his undertakings’.9 A golden age was enshrined when he wed Amastris, who had not only been married to the great Craterus before an amicable separation but was a niece of Darius III and cousin of Stateira, one of Alexander’s wives. This kind of connection and the dowries they brought placed the city on the world stage and its ruler ensured it stayed there by befriending Antigonus the One-Eyed and marrying one of his daughters to his nephew Ptolemaeus, even taking the diadem of royalty after a reign of thirty years before leaving Amastris as regent for his three children. Some time before the Battle of Ipsus, the Heraclean chancery changed diplomatic tack, offering support to the anti-Antigonid coalition and arranging for the regent to marry Lysimachus. Success in that combat ensured that the city was something less of a priority for the king of Thrace, and his new queen ‘took control, she revived the place by her presence, and created the new city of Amastris’. Meanwhile, Dionysius’ sons kept well in with their stepfather. For a time both stood high in royal favour, lavished with honours and confirmed in prominent military posts, with Clearchus, the eldest, even suffering capture alongside his stepfather after defeat by the Getae. This close relationship remained until this loyal vassal with his brother fell out with their mother. Rumour had it that they arranged for her to be shipwrecked and drowned ‘by a terrible and evil device’, prefiguring a similar but unsuccessful attempted matricide by the Emperor Nero by 350 years.

Unfortunately for this fraternal duo, the fate of his ex-wife had refocused Lysimachus’ attention and now ensconced as king of Macedon there was no gainsaying his diktat. He apparently even visited the city and personally ordered the death of the brothers before taking direct control, establishing a man called Heracleides of Cyme who took charge on behalf of his queen Arsinoe in the years leading up to the implosion of the Lysimachid state. So Lysimachus had long been a dominant presence in this part of the world through marriage into the ruling family or direct control, and it is no surprise that there was some residual affection for the man and that in these circumstances Ptolemy Ceraunus, being perceived as his avenger after he bloodily disposed of Seleucus, found himself heir to considerable goodwill. Beyond that, the strategists in control at Pontic Heraclea, knowing that the greatest threat to their new-found independence was from Seleucus’ heir Antiochus, recognized Ptolemy Ceraunus as a natural ally and counterweight to this threat, motives enough to make them content to fight in tandem with the putative king of Macedon.

This city had long been a crucial conduit for Black Sea trade on the north Anatolian coast and a significant naval power, so was easily able to dispatch a squadron to the Aegean to support Ceraunus. The fleet included as flagship an eighter ‘of extraordinary size and beauty’ that was named ‘the lion-bearer’ and the contention is that it was manned by a total of 1,600 oarsmen with two steersmen while 1,200 soldiers filled the decks. This is difficult to credit as it would mean there would be 100 rowing sections along the hull, more than three times as many as was usual for a trireme, and is contrary to the evidence that these larger vessels, if much broader, were not much longer than the smaller ships. Whatever the truth, it showed that they could deploy a real maritime giant as well as a significant number of sixers, fivers and transports that added their weight to the Macedonian navy. Indeed, they came in sufficient strength that Ceraunus, from the very brink of catastrophe, now found himself in command of a fleet of such potency that he was prepared to risk confronting the expeditionary force that he learned Antigonus Gonatus was leading against him.

Great sea battles were rare enough in the east Mediterranean in the Hellenistic period. The celebrated victory at Cypriot Salamis had set the tone for a generation and only with the fragmentation of the Antigonid marine, after Demetrius’ defeat and capture in 285, did the Egyptians complete a sea-power comeback in the region. Now the potential effects of the coming contest could have been almost as climactic with either the prospect of Antigonid ambition coming to a shuddering halt or in the case of victory Demetrius’ son being well-positioned to contest for his father’s old throne of Macedon, where once ensconced he would be able to combine that country’s naval potential with his own already considerable maritime resources. A victory at sea was the prerequisite against a man who was always a gambler and who, while considering the odds around the cooking fires of his men encamped with their beached warships, had no idea of doing anything but challenging his rival head-on. Antigonus’ fleet, well-equipped from the arsenals at Corinth, Demetrias and Chalcis, had approached past the north shore of Euboea, funnelling through the bottleneck between the mainland and the island of Skiathos rising out of the sea, north along the coast of Magnesia, with Mount Olympus showing above the coastal plain on the left, his warships entered the Thermaic Gulf aiming to appear off the coast of Macedonia before the enemy could respond. Yet there would be no welcome as he appeared in these tranquil waters; the incumbent intent on defending his new-won realm was sailing to take up the challenge, so as the prow of Antigonus’ flagship cleaved the waves, it was battle he was driving towards, not a hospitable homecoming.

When intelligence initially arrived that Antigonus was preparing to move, Ptolemy Ceraunus would have considered that the timing could hardly have been less convenient, but with the arrival of the ships from Pontic Heraclea everything had changed and now he considered himself handily placed to not just face the danger but just perhaps wreak havoc among the intruder’s fleet. His captains, after debating stratagems between themselves in council as they waited, acted when scout cutters or the distant pinnacle of a fire beacon warned of the enemy’s approach. Knowing now where they were heading, they launched their beached vessels into the sand and pebbly shallows to ready themselves for battle. Soon the enemy hove in view, stretching ahead their line of warships struggling to get in proper position to not foul their neighbours or get in each other’s way. Veiled in spray, various contingents breasted the shoreline gliding to their stations; neither side would have been far from the land and both had a wing hugging the coast to ensure they could not be outflanked on that side. It was somewhere in the Thermaic Gulf that in the spring of 280 the two fleets clashed in a moment of truth: a panorama where warships, sleek galleys and high-sided fours and fives and more were sashaying into position, massing out in the open sea, and a great contest between some of the largest vessels of the age was in the offing.

It took a little time after the initial alarm and anxiety for the lines to properly deploy and make contact as the arching oars rose and dipped with water droplets caught sparkling in the sun and hammer blows prepared against the advancing opposition. Gaudy craft with decorated figureheads showed in awful advantage towards the vessels approaching them and, gazing across to the lines of these enemy craft, Antigonus Gonatus may, as he paced the deck of his flagship, have had some inkling of the trouble he was in. He had no great experience of naval combat and far from being the most inspirational war leader, he depended on his veteran naval officers and from the start it looked like they might have failed him. He was suckered into a deadly confrontation, a contest in the warm blue waters of the Aegean that were black with ships of his enemy, naval squadrons manned by Macedonian and Heraclean seamen who looked the equal or more of the crews manning his own craft, matching them when it came to manoeuvring at ramming speed and equally adept at grappling and boarding their high-sided opponents.

When soon enough the lines had engaged, the boldest captains would have been seen darting ahead of the line while their more jittery comrades held their places bobbing on the sparkling water; slim, ram-headed triremes escorting fully-decked cataphracts, ponderous ancient dreadnoughts, all came on as war songs and the cheers of the crews filled the air. With bronze-clad beaks pushing forward, there was no option but to fight. The classic tactics in such naval warfare were either periplus or diekplous, to run in between the enemy ships before turning to ram them in flank or rear, or to turn the flank of the line, going around to again attack the side and ends of the enemy vessels. The usual response to the periplus was to have a second line that could counter enemies thrusting between the ships of the front line, but this of course meant that the formation itself would be curtailed and so more susceptible to the diekplous. Combat became general with confusion and terror the order of the day as light but deadly craft sped across the open water bearing down on each other with hands clammy, nerves taut and stomachs lurching in the final moments of wild uproar or silent prayer before contact, when bronze rams sheared off enemy oars or shattered planking to let the seawater rush in as galleys locked together in a fragmenting of timbers.

Rowers’ aching muscles flexed as they quickened their oar strokes in the stinking bowels of creaking leviathans, suffering in sweltering heat that reeked of the sweat exuded by hundreds of men, not to mention the stench of those whose bowels and bladders had been loosened by the terror of combat. On their cushioned benches cut off from the sights around, with the water lapping inches away it would have been a nervous time, listening for any noises that might tell them what was happening above them on the decks. Officers’ orders would have given some indication and the men by the planking might just see something, while for others it was just the tunnel vision of sweating backs and wood-framed benches reaching in front along the line of the hulls they were propelling, all to the music of drums thumping and war chants voiced by the more ferocious matching those of the marines on deck who were gripping their shields, javelins, bows and swords in preparation for crunching contact. After brutal bond was made, the crews and marines stampeded down the deck, stumbling over the hand rails to reach the enemy, hacking at the limbs of the men opposing them or finding themselves pitched back overboard.

Losses were considerable on both sides with desperate fighting the order of the day as captains and squadron commanders tried to keep control, but it would have been almost impossible in the heat of battle where glamorous deeds of heroism were particularly celebrated among the fighters manning the great Heraclean flagship ‘the lion-bearer’, a high-sided eighter with its hundreds of marines shooting arrows, throwing javelins from her decks and aiming catapults at any enemy that came in range. We do not know how long the Antigonids maintained themselves, with officers and men shouting encouragement across the roiling waters, but in the face of the numbers their rivals threw against them, vessels with timbers creaking were gradually driven back by macerating force until formations began to dissolve with the vulnerable rammed and the rest no longer able to hold. Captains in one part of the line did not have a view of the whole milling prospect, so it was not possible to reinforce where the ranks were fractured and no directing hand was able to stem the inevitable outcome. The only consolation for Antigonus, seeing his fleet crumble into chaos around him, was that it was not a complete disaster as after hours of bloodletting even his enemy’s aggression gradually petered out with both sides bone-weary and the water, illuminated by burning wrecks, was filled with bobbing corpses and debris, while a few wounded clung on to any spars they could find, desperate for help from victorious crews intent on gathering prizes from a dreadful contest.

The reason for Ptolemy Ceraunus’ success is not made clear, though he may have caught the Antigonids unprepared. Comprehensively ensnared, they would have still had their masts and rigging raised when they found the great line of enemy vessels filling the horizon, while Ptolemy’s craft had been able to ship these impediments, leaving spars and sails beached under guard, ensuring their warships were considerably more manoeuvrable than their alarmed and frantic prey. There was a downside as the presence of masts and sails would have given the Antigonids the advantage when, after recognizing defeat, they made a dash for safety. Antigonus had lost the fight and lost it comprehensively, but despite his vexation at the failure of his plans, he cosseted and encouraged the survivors as they regrouped out of danger of pursuit; it would not have been politic to vent any resentment against followers who were his only shield against a dangerous and rampant enemy. There are no precise numbers for the lost or disabled in this fleet that made its escape bid through the billows of a darkening gulf, but if battered and scarred it remained a fighting force and we know that a considerable number evaded the chasing pack. Once there were no more sightings of pursuing vessels, the battle-scarred remnants limped away to the shipyards at Demetrias, Chalcis and Piraeus where gangs of expert craftsmen put in the hours to repair and overhaul them, sufficient indeed for Antigonus to be able to deploy a substantial naval presence in only a few years’ time.

Antigonus’ intervention had turned out a fatal miscalculation, though perhaps even in hindsight hardly surprising considering how chaotic was the power balance at the time. Having been taught a lesson concerning overreach, the defeated party now withdrew to Boeotia10 to lick their wounds and try to keep a lid on the boiling discontent in Greece that would be bound to arise after such a rebuff to their putative hegemon, while Ptolemy Ceraunus considered how best to exploit his success. In truth he had defeated what had been a real existential threat and could celebrate against a backdrop of flickering night-time fires where his soldiers and sailors were spitting animal carcasses on impromptu grills or building funeral pyres for their comrades alongside their beached ships. Yet the fuming effects of victory party wine did not affect what had been his intention from the start. His had been a defensive strategy and nothing had changed; what was required was to move might and main to secure control of Macedonia itself. There were, after all, plenty of others around with claims who might cramp his style: a nephew of Cassander who would have his fifteen minutes of fame soon enough, and the rump of Lysimachus’ family including a son of Agathocles and even a name from way back, one Arrhidaeus who may have been the offspring of Alexander the Great’s brother and his queen Eurydice who reigned briefly until disposed of by Olympias in 317.

Where these potential rivals were based or the magnitude of their support is not reported and there is no suggestion that they were able to put up any resistance when Ptolemy marched into Pella to inherit an administration that had so recently functioned at the behest of Lysimachus. He might claim the role of that king’s avenger when he entered the capital but there remained a major problem: this was Arsinoe, his half-sister ensconced in Cassandreia with her sons, looking to many people as the only contenders with a rightful claim. Hearing of her presence, Ceraunus knew he needed to act quickly before his recently-won support began to erode away in her direction. This queen, experiencing the bitter fruit of her own sowing, had apparently escaped from the debacle of her husband’s last war disguised as a beggar and reached her city of Ephesus, designated for her upkeep years before. Feeling the pressure of Seleucus’ officers as they took control in spear-won Anatolia, she had taken ship to Macedonia, finding refuge in Cassandreia, a place that stood at the top of the most western of the three legs of the peninsula of Chalcidice. Cassander’s foundation had long been home of a cult to Lysimachus and once established there, the widowed queen looked to many like the real representative of the rightful line. Ceraunus could not help but know that many of high and low rank, despite having accepted him as their ruler, would still feel the draw of her young family, innocents freighting a legitimacy that made that won by the man whose only claim to their loyalty was that he had butchered Seleucus look poor and paltry. So from the beginning he was left with the conundrum of his half-sister.

There is no doubt about the reputation this man had acquired and the next episode only confirms earlier impressions: ‘Having thus freed himself from the fear of foreign enemies, he turned his impious and unprincipled mind to the perpetration of wickedness.’11 To try to assail Cassandreia would inevitably pollute the start of his reign; attacking other Macedonian royalty just would not look good in what was anyway a very difficult location to overrun, but could intrigue be made to work? To make the attempt, trusted envoys were dispatched down to the coast to open a line of communication with his half-sister. We can disregard Justin’s contention that the marriage offer came with a claim to be in love with her; the nuptial arrangements on offer were political, as everybody involved would have been well aware. From the start Arsinoe’s concerns were for the safety of her children and if such an agreement was to even be considered, she would be looking for sacerdotal guarantees. She eventually sent a partisan named Dion to obtain binding oaths from her wooer and he was amenable, so at the Temple to Zeus he

took hold of the altar, and, touching the images and couches of the gods, vowed, with unheard-of and most solemn imprecations, that he sought a marriage with his sister in true sincerity, and that he would give her the title of Queen, nor would, to her dishonour, have any other wife, or any other children than her sons.12

Ptolemy Ceraunus had never had trouble in offering easy assurances, but what is extraordinary is that this intelligent and remarkable woman, who had a fascinating and impressive career in front of her, believed this man she knew well and whose perfidious past was so recent and so palpable. Yet this half-sibling who seldom showed herself naïve or foolish in her life listened eagerly to these assurances so transparently insincere. During furious discussions at the queen’s council not all were taken in; her eldest son, another Ptolemy, knew his uncle too well and exclaimed that ‘there was treachery at the bottom’. In fact he was so trepidatious that he fled to Illyria to the court of a king who later backed him with soldiers in an attack on Ceraunus that, though unsuccessful, still led to even more destructive fighting in the Macedonian homeland. This eldest son departed, leaving his mother sufficiently convinced that she travelled to Pella and wed her dangerous fiancé in front of a court and army where many would have taken comfort from the junction of two parties that they had previously felt themselves torn between. With calculated duplicity, Ceraunus appeared the perfect groom, putting the diadem on Arsenio’s brow and proclaiming her queen of Macedonia in front of the assembled army, stressing that he was raising her again to the status she had when wed to Lysimachus.

The inevitable was not long in coming after she allowed her new husband’s officers to take control of Cassandreia while ‘she appointed a festival in the city against his arrival, ordering the houses, temples, and all other places, to be magnificently decorated, altars and victims to be everywhere kept in readiness’.13 Entering a town decked in festival bunting, the bridegroom was no longer concerned about hiding his intentions and sent troops into the citadel and once in complete control the handsome 16- and 13-year-old princes, who had met him with their mother outside the city gates and who he had sworn to protect and raise to the throne, were unceremoniously dispatched. All was conducted over the desperate protestations of his new wife who, finally realizing what she had done, tried to deflect with her own body the blows aimed at her offspring. Of no avail, the half-crazed mother ‘with her garments torn and her hair dishevelled’ was pitched into a ferry and taken to exile on the offshore island of Samothrace with only two servants to console the bereaved woman. She was soon on her way to Alexandria to become a sister queen of Ptolemy II and where she would re-encounter her eldest son who became for a period co-regent of the Egyptian kingdom after his mother’s death before continuing in Lagid service as governor of Telmessos in Lycia.14 There is something odd in this story, suggesting that we are missing a dimension. Why would this man, though certainly capable of such butchery, risk alienating so many of his new subjects with Lysimachian sympathies by so causelessly, blatantly and precipitately murdering that dead king’s ex-wife and children? There may have been a trigger. At some stage Arsenio’s eldest son Ptolemy who had escaped to the court of a neighbouring monarch returned backed by Illyrian swords and if Ceraunus interpreted this threat as a component of his new wife’s plotting, such a potentially destabilizing disposal of his relatives becomes more understandable.

The kingdom Ptolemy Ceraunus had stolen may have looked like a comforting whole, stretching from the cantons of upper Macedonia to the eastern marches around Philippi and Amphipolis and coastal Thrace that would have been secured on the march from Lysimachia. Also from still-held Paeonia down to the Thermaic Gulf with the Greek towns settled on the coast that ran to the Vale of Tempe and the twin and rival foundations of Thessaloniki and Cassandreia were now well held. The latter place became home for Eurydice. This man may have been a vicious murderer but he looked after his mother, allocating the local revenues for her sustenance. So apart from a few pretenders of little account and perhaps Antigonus trying to reassert his presence in Thessaly, the new king was looking pretty safe as he came to terms with both Pyrrhus and Seleucus’ heir Antiochus not long after coming to the throne. The question was how solid were the foundations of this most recent incumbent? Would his tenure at the Palace of Pella turn out more lasting than the last two? Both Pyrrhus and Lysimachus had been great figures, but neither had endured more than a few years. Would this new edifice be found fragile and where might the test come from that would determine it?

There is little doubt about the general view of this man who found himself facing the first major barbarian incursion for generations hardly eighteen months since he had come to the throne. ‘Hurried on by the madness that distracted him for his unnatural crimes, went out to meet them with a few undisciplined troops’,15 here was no suggestion of a martyr suffering to defend his people when he came to a sticky end. It was just deserts for a man with a rare talent for mischief whose hands were red with blood of family members with inconvenient connections as well as monarchs who had been unlucky enough to find themselves hosting this dangerous exile driven out by a father who perhaps had some inkling of his egregious character. This universally reviled character had hardly begun to settle on his throne when in 279 storm clouds were suggested by an embassy arriving from the Dardanian kingdom situated on Macedon’s north-western border on the cusp of Illyrian influence in the west and Thracian in the east. Monunius I was the royal head of a people who may have had some connection with those close relatives of the Trojans mentioned by Homer and who gave their name to the Dardanelles. Savage fighters, his people were famous for only bathing three times in their lives – at birth, on their wedding day and after death – though a condescending Greek geographer16 suggests that if dirty, they were at least musical. A king called Bardylis reigning during most of the first half of the fourth century made them a power that even dominated Macedonia through quisling stooges in part of the 390s and 380s and terrorized the Molossians as well. As recently as 359 they had defeated and killed a king of Macedon and one of Philip’s first marital forays was to wed a Dardani princess, to establish an entente that allowed him the time to turn the tables on a people who were still able to worry Alexander’s Macedon in tandem with some other Illyrians in 334.

Monunius was a considerable figure himself, the first of his line to strike chinking bright, silver coins, he dominated part of an Adriatic shore necklaced by Greek colonies and was sufficiently credible that Pyrrhus was happy to form an alliance with him. Relations with Macedon had seldom been happy even in recent times, but the menace from northern invaders had served to concentrate his mind. Understanding the big picture and realizing that a united front was the best hope, the Dardanian monarch sent emissaries offering to assist Ptolemy Ceraunus in defending his borders with 10,000 or even 20,000 of his best men, but this offer of solidarity against the emerging threat was thrown back in his teeth with insults. The Macedonian ruler, a lot more relaxed than he should have been, spurned the offer, adding in insulting language that

the Macedonians were in a sad condition if, after having subdued the whole east without assistance, they now required aid from the Dardanians to defend their country; and that he had for soldiers the sons of those who had served under Alexander the Great, and had been victorious throughout the world.17

If this reflected the arrogance of a people who had so recently been masters of the world, it also highlighted their recklessness. In such a circumstance, Monunius might well, on hearing this response, have said that ‘The famous kingdom of Macedonia would soon fall a sacrifice to the rashness of a raw youth’,18 a comment that if actually made showed considerable prescience.

This failure to accept proffered help in itself was bad enough, but having no prospect of making a common front the Dardanians, with little option, joined the Gauls, showing their new friends the easiest invasion routes leading between Illyria and Paeonia that followed the Pena River west of modern-day Skopje and down past Kichevo north of Lake Ohrid and into Macedonia by the Monastir Gap. Then it would follow a corridor of grass running down from the pass to where in Roman times the Via Egnatia would run, near modern-day Florina, east into the heart of Lower Macedonia. It was probably early spring 279 when, without waiting for many of his men who were still working their farms and against advice, the volatile ruler left Pella and marched into upper Macedonia to face an invasion army that now included thousands of Dardanians. All Ptolemy Ceraunus’ career may have borne witness to an aptitude for infamous intrigues, but he was inexperienced in military matters. There is no evidence that he had ever led troops in battle before. That he had been captured fighting for Lysimachus in no way implies that he was in any position of command; he could just as easily have been at his monarch’s side as an aide or even been scooped up when Seleucus took over his opponent’s court. So it was a military tyro who found himself facing an existential menace but one who saw himself as representing the invincible royal line of Philip and Alexander, though the reality was that hardly secure on his throne, surely cursed by the murderous impiety of his recent past, he took up the perilous commission of hurling back the invaders while disdaining advisors who stressed the importance of assembling as much of the national levy as was possible. These characters, the elite of a marcher kingdom, could draw on generations of experience of combating wild men from the north, but the man who made the decisions was not listening and marched with many of his crucial phalangites still absent.

Nor was this his last chance to avoid disaster as the warlord at the head of the invading horde, on nearing the defenders’ camp, sent agents to open negotiations. Putting their cards on the table, they made it clear that they were open to an arrangement; even at this late stage they would leave the Macedonians in peace for a price. However, this man who had rebuffed the emissaries of a neighbour with offers of succour was hardly going to find appeasement coming easily and anyway convinced himself that this embassy carrying a proposal to leave him alone if he paid up betrayed the intruders’ weakness. So for him any agreement could only be on his terms and the answer flung back in their faces was belligerent: he would only grant them peace if their commanders surrendered themselves as hostages and their followers gave up their weapons. These untamed men were unimpressed and, laughing at this foolishness, prepared to pounce on an opponent apparently determined to tweak the lion’s tail. The predictable occurred and only days after these diplomatic passages, the invaders brought on decisive battle. The defending army in this moment of truth proved not only unskilled but undisciplined too, and ‘the Macedonians were defeated and cut to pieces’ with their king conscious at last of the effects of his temerity, finding his soldiers routed, slain or captured and himself attacked and wounded several times before finally being taken. He died hard, pulled bloody and suffering from the back of his injured elephant that had unseated him while he had been directing the battle, but with his captors hardly in a forgiving frame of mind there was going to be no mercy for this man who had insulted them. Pressed to his knees, a swordsman struck off his head and hoisted it high on a spear point to encourage their comrades and dismay any of the Macedonians who still showed fight. In the end the dead king had plenty of company in his misfortune as very few of his followers escaped the rout: ‘the rest were either taken or slain.’ The intruders had brought ruin to the new man who had just established himself on the throne after disposing of most of his local rivals. These challengers he had shown himself capable of dealing with, but not when a new and different menace had appeared on the horizon.

Nobody had any doubt that the man got his comeuppance, ‘killed in a manner befitting his own cruelty’. It had been an extraordinary vision of the king dragged wounded off his fallen elephant, but is it really credible? There is no tradition of Hellenistic rulers commanding their armies from elephant-back; they usually fought with the cavalry or if this arm was absent or less relevant, with the infantry. No other examples exist, and if it was not some copying mistake, it is perhaps just an irresistible desire for the dramatic by some chronicler cognizant of King Porus confronting Alexander at the Hydaspes River from the back of such a beast. These events that had doomed Ceraunus to ignominy had now made it clear that the Macedonians were facing one of the greatest threats they had ever confronted. Not since the death in battle of Perdiccas III at the hands of Bardylis in 360 had they experienced such disaster, and if the tremors from this catastrophe would soon reverberate around the whole Balkan world, even those immediately experiencing them could not have imagined how far-reaching and damaging the upheavals that would follow were going to be. The impact would reach far south in Greece and even across the Hellespont into the heart of Asia Minor, ensuring that the happenings of the few years after 279 would be etched in dread on the Hellenic psyche.

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