The Athenians’ Last Stand (II)

Athens, Northern Greece, and the Hellespont



For the Athenian orator Hyperides, it was the best of times. After decades of urging war against the Macedonians, he had finally gotten his city to listen. His handpicked general, Leosthenes, had led the Athenians and their new allies, the Aetolians, to a stunning victory. Now, even though the Aetolians had left the field, Leosthenes had the foe cornered behind the walls of Lamia. Athens was in a festive mood, marking with celebrations and feasts the return of its lost power. Hyperides enjoyed feasts and all kinds of high living. He was known to stroll through the fish market every day in search of the choicest and rarest delicacies. Born into wealth, he could afford such pleasures, just as he could afford three high-priced courtesans, one in his city house and one each in his two country estates.

While Leosthenes was routing the Macedonian army, Hyperides, back in Athens, was ousting his political opponents. Demades, who had backed the motion making Alexander a god, had been assessed a crippling fine and then stripped of his citizenship when he could not pay. Two other pro-Macedonian orators had bolted and gone over to the enemy, gambling—foolishly, as it now seemed—that Athens would soon be defeated. The fall from grace of Phocion, “Do-good” Phocion, had been softer. Still esteemed by the city despite having opposed war, and valued for his military expertise, Phocion had been appointed to lead the home guard, troops patrolling close to Athens to defend against seaborne invasions. But that posting had effectively sidelined him. In the countryside Phocion could neither take part in meetings of the Assembly nor share Leosthenes’ glory at Lamia.

And what of Demosthenes, Hyperides’ longtime ally, then briefly his enemy, now his ally once again? The return of Demosthenes to favor, after only a few months in exile and disgrace, had robbed Hyperides of some of his limelight. But the two men seemed able to work together as they once had; Demosthenes showed no need to settle scores over his bribery conviction. The friendship of these political allies had proved resilient over the years, as all such friendships had to be in the volatile Athenian democracy. Once,when Hyperides was ill and in bed, Demosthenes unexpectedly came to call, only to find his friend composing a list of his ethical transgressions. Demosthenes howled with outrage, but Hyperides calmly invoked the logic of expediency. “If we remain friends, this list can never hurt you,” he said, “but if we fall out and become enemies, it’s my assurance that you won’t hurt me.

All through the winter of 323, Hyperides received encouraging letters from Lamia and had them read aloud in the Assembly. The war effort was on a slow but promising track. The Greeks had been unable to take Lamia by storm; the Macedonians had forced them back with artillery fire from torsion-propelled weapons mounted on the walls. But over time, the siege cordon had held. The Macedonians were hard-pressed by hunger. Old man Antipater, their commanding officer, had sent an offer of truce on terms favorable to Athens, but Leosthenes, holding out for unconditional surrender, replied: “The victors will set the terms.” The total collapse of Antipater’s position, it seemed, was only a matter of time. But then came a letter with news of a different kind.

One day, while Greek troops were digging the trench that formed part of the siege perimeter, a squad of Macedonians had rushed out from the walls and attacked. The digging crew had been overwhelmed, and Leosthenes, informed of the skirmish, rode up with reinforcements. As he came within range of the walls, he had been struck on the head by a catapulted stone and knocked unconscious. Carried back to the camp for treatment, he died two days later, the victim of a moment’s heedlessness and a fantastically lucky shot. The great mercenary captain and staunch Macedonian hater, the man who had given Athens its first battlefield triumph in a generation, was gone.

The Greeks still held the upper hand at Lamia, but their confidence was shaken. Through the rigors of a winter siege in open country, Leosthenes had inspired them with resolve as no one else could. Back in Athens, Hyperides mourned the loss of a friend and a huge political asset. He and Leosthenes had seen eye to eye on the need to destroy Macedonian power for good. With Leosthenes at his side in the Assembly, he had been able to face down even Phocion, the elder statesman whose long military career made him practically unassailable in discussions of strategy.

With Leosthenes dead, Hyperides feared the Athenians would choose Phocion, their most experienced general, to take command of the Lamia siege. But Phocion had opposed the war and had been skeptical of its chances. If given command, he might well come to terms with Antipater and let the Macedonians slip out of the Greek choke hold. To head off this danger, Hyperides and his party used a devious tactic in the Assembly. They hired an ordinary citizen, someone unknown in political circles, to stand up and claim he was a friend of Phocion’s and to urge the city not to send to Lamia a leader whose talents were needed at home. The crowd seemed to approve, when Phocion himself, who was unexpectedly on the scene that day, rose to speak. “That man is not my friend,” he said, “and I have never seen him before today; but,” he added, turning to the man who had spoken, “from this day I shall make you my friend, for the advice you have given is much to my benefit.” Hyperides and his partisans drew a sigh of relief. Phocion didn’t want the command, which went instead to a much younger general, Antiphilus.

Despite the huge setback of the loss of Leosthenes, Hyperides continued to show his old bravado in the Assembly. He even proposed state honors for Iolaus, Antipater’s son, once Alexander’s wine pourer at Babylon, thought by some to have poisoned the king’s drinking cup. It was a roguish move, designed to show confidence about the outcome of the war, for such a motion, which both spat on the memory of Alexander and implicated Antipater’s family in regicide, would incur the gravest retribution, were the city’s revolt to fail.


Among those watching the Hellenic War with interest, from her ancestral home in the far northern reaches of the Greek world, was Olympias, Alexander’s mother.

Her feelings at this moment must have been intense and complex. On the one hand, she despised Antipater, the Macedonian general. She had fought over turf with him for years after Alexander’s departure for Asia, and now she blamed him as well for poisoning her son in Babylon, using (as she supposed) his own sons Cassander and Iolaus as henchmen. But she also resented the Athenians. Their freethinking, upstart ways had given many slights to her son’s authority and her own. Once, when the Athenians had sent beautiful carved hands and a face, made of gold and ivory, to adorn a statue in nearby Dodona, Olympias had bridled, claiming they had no right to meddle in her territory. Her letters to Hyperides on the subject were filled with what the orator called “tragedies and accusations”—the shrill rhetoric of what today might be called a drama queen.

More recently, when the Athenians had taken in the renegade Harpalus and his embezzled money, both Olympias and Antipater had sent envoys to Athens demanding them back. The dowager queen and the aging soldier-statesman had briefly been on the same side, aligned against Athenian intransigence, even though they were bitter rivals. Now that the Athenians and Antipater were at war, it was unclear which side Olympias was on.

By birth Olympias was a princess of the Molossians, a Greek people inhabiting the region of Epirus (now largely in southern Albania). Her royal family claimed descent from heroes of the Trojan War, Neoptolemus, son of Achilles, and his captive bride, Hector’s widow, Andromache. The family advertised this heroic lineage with its choices of names: Olympias’ father was another Neoptolemus, and she herself was called Polyxena (among other names) up to the time of her marriage, after a Trojan princess famous for her sufferings. Her brother was called Alexander, after the fair-haired Trojan prince, also known as Paris, who stole Helen to start the legendary war. Later she was to give her son the same name.

Taking mythic names was more than just an affectation for the Molossian royals. Their lives and their culture resembled those of their Homeric namesakes. Unlike that of the urbanized Greeks to their south, theirs was a rural and tribal society, still under the ancient system of hereditary monarchy. Progressive government, literacy, free trade, and walled city-states, the achievements that had transformed the lives of their southern brethren, had passed them by. The Athenians and their ilk regarded the Molossians as throwbacks to an earlier age. They sneered at the lawlessness of these Northerners, who still carried daggers in public places, and shrank from their weird religious rites, especially those involving the god of ecstasy and abandon, Dionysus.

In her teens Polyxena, soon to become Olympias, was married off to the king of her powerful eastern neighbor, Macedonia. Philip was then just beginning his reign and was building power through marriage alliances; this was his fifth bride in three years’ time, and his palace was becoming crowded. Olympias quickly distinguished herself by bearing Philip a son, Alexander. The king had already sired a son by an earlier wife—Arrhidaeus, later to be called Philip—but somehow Olympias’ boy was considered heir apparent, perhaps after Arrhidaeus’ mental infirmity was recognized. As presumptive queen mother, Olympias gained great stature at court, as well as making great enemies, for she did not carry herself with the humility befitting a woman and a foreigner. Among those inclined to dislike her was Antipater. Two decades her senior, long Philip’s right-hand man, he was a natural rival for a woman who dared, as she did, to involve herself in politics.

As her son, Alexander, matured, Olympias saw to his upbringing and jealously guarded his succession rights. Rumors circulated that she had fed Arrhidaeus poisons that destroyed his mind. Other rumors, still believed by some today, made her complicit in the assassination of her husband in 336, when Alexander was just old enough to assume the throne. Whether or not she colluded in that murder, she soon afterward arranged the killing of Philip’s latest wife and baby girl, Europa, then only a few days old. There would be no new royal line that might someday, even decades hence, rival the claims of her son.

Now Alexander was dead, and the son he had left behind, another Alexander, was just as defenseless as the baby girl she had killed thirteen years before. Olympias knew dynastic politics well enough to know that her grandson was in grave danger. And if the child were not to survive, her own life, and that of her daughter, Cleopatra, would also be forfeit. By the stern code of Macedonian law, the relatives of those killed by the state were likely to be killed as well, to prevent their seeking revenge. Olympias’ passionate temper and iron will would make such a precaution essential.

Olympias realized she needed a male protector, and there were few to be found. Her brother Alexander, king of the Molossians, was dead, leaving her daughter, Cleopatra, a young widow (at her husband Philip’s behest, uncle had married niece), with two fatherless young children, a boy and a girl. Back in Macedonia, old man Antipater and his son Cassander had become her mortal enemies, foreclosing any hope of a safe haven there. She needed an alliance with one of the generals in Asia, those who controlled her son’s invincible army, if she were to survive long enough to get one of her two grandsons onto a throne.

Marriage and fertility were what had brought her power to begin with; now she needed to tap these resources again, through a surrogate this time, her daughter, Cleopatra. Cleopatra’s ability to bear children might rescue all three generations of royals. Mother and daughter together hatched a plan: Cleopatra would offer herself as bride to Leonnatus, a high-ranking member of Alexander’s Bodyguard and a nobleman of good pedigree. Leonnatus would be asked to return from Asia to Macedonia and take charge of affairs there. He would no doubt accept, lured by the prospect of gaining royal stature as soon as he fathered an heir to the throne.

A letter was sent to Leonnatus in the months after Alexander’s death, offering him Cleopatra in marriage and, implicitly, control of the royal house. Olympias played her trump card, indeed the only card she had. But just then, the Hellenic War broke out, Antipater became besieged, and Europe was thrown into confusion. It was no longer clear what would be left of Macedonian power there, even if Leonnatus did agree to return.


Olympias was not alone in hoping to lure Leonnatus back to Europe; her great adversary Antipater was also in urgent communication with him. For the first time in his half century of generalship, including the twelve years he had managed the troublesome Greeks on Alexander’s behalf, Antipater had lost control of events. He could only wait behind the stout walls of Lamia while his supplies ran thin, hoping that a rescuer, either Leonnatus or Craterus, would arrive in time. He had written to both men, promising each of them one of his marriageable daughters in exchange for alliance and support (a third daughter had been offered to Perdiccas and a fourth to Ptolemy).

As the siege wore on, Antipater sent a second message to Leonnatus, the nearest of the generals, reiterating the marriage offer and the urgent plea for relief. He sent Hecataeus, the puppet ruler of Cardia, as his messenger, somehow getting word to this useful Greek from behind the siege curtain that he must cross the Hellespont and find Leonnatus. It was not the first time Hecataeus had crossed into Asia as a Macedonian errand boy. When Alexander had first claimed the throne, it was Hecataeus who carried into Asia, and then executed, an order to rub out one of the king’s political enemies.

Hecataeus found Leonnatus across the straits, conferring with Eumenes, Alexander’s former Greek scribe, over the coming campaign to pacify Cappadocia. The encounter was an awkward one for Eumenes, since he and Hecataeus, both natives of Cardia, had a long history of enmity. Eumenes was also uncomfortably aware Hecataeus was now working for Antipater, with whom he had also had poor relations during their days together at Philip’s court. These old tensions hung in the air as Hecataeus relayed Antipater’s plea to Leonnatus.

For Leonnatus, this was the second stunning message to arrive from Europe in the short time since Alexander’s death. A letter from Cleopatra and Olympias had already come, inviting him to marry into the Argead family and assume control of its destiny. He had kept that invitation secret as he pondered his response. Now another trophy bride was being offered him and another chance to return home as hero and savior. To Leonnatus, the ironies of his position must have seemed amusing. Slighted by Perdiccas in Babylon, done out of his role in administering the empire, he was now sought as son-in-law by two powerful leaders, the iconic mother and father figures of the Macedonian state.

Leonnatus now saw a way he could advance himself by aiding both these leaders. First, he would cross the Hellespont and, with a dashing cavalry assault, break the siege of Lamia. Then he would return in triumph to Pella, the Macedonian capital, and claim the hand of the waiting princess, Cleopatra. That would mean rejecting Antipater’s proffered daughter, for he could not marry both (only a king had the privilege of polygamy). But the slight would mean little once he had rescued the entire army from near-certain destruction and put himself very near the Argead throne, if not actually upon it.

Having resolved on this plan, Leonnatus decided to recruit Eumenes as his accomplice, a man he esteemed as a clever and loyal subordinate. Keeping hidden for the moment his true aim, to seize control of the Argead house and thus the empire, Leonnatus urged Eumenes to go with him to Europe to respond to Antipater’s summons. He offered to help reconcile Eumenes with Hecataeus, the messenger who had brought the summons to their camp, so that the two old enemies could work together and prosper in Antipater’s service. Eumenes, however, felt the rift could not be healed and feared that Antipater would have him killed as a favor to Hecataeus. Perhaps too he had doubts about Leonnatus, who, like many Macedonian nobles, showed a worrisomely high self-regard and an inordinate fondness for wrestling and hunting.

Stymied in his first approach, Leonnatus took Eumenes fully into his confidence, revealing his letter from Cleopatra and his plan to join the royal family. This disclosure, which clearly implied disregard of the orders framed by Perdiccas in Babylon, was fraught with perils for Eumenes. He had to choose sides. He must either become Leonnatus’ confederate, by concealing from Perdiccas what he had learned, or become his enemy by reporting it. Eumenes knew what path he would choose but for the moment contrived to say nothing. That night, however, Eumenes slipped away. He took with him a small corps of five hundred men and a chest of gold coins, money meant for hiring mercenaries to fight in Cappadocia. He made straight for Perdiccas’ headquarters in Babylon.

When Leonnatus woke and found Eumenes gone, it was clear that the die had been cast. The secret of his plans to seize control in Europe would soon be out, and a showdown with Perdiccas was surely coming. But as the favorite of Olympias and Cleopatra, the man they had selected to father the next heir to the throne, he had good hopes of prevailing in that contest. He made haste to cross the Hellespont and return to Europe, where his destiny, and his queen, were waiting.


While this fissure was opening in the ranks of Alexander’s Bodyguards, the philosopher Aristotle died in his adopted home on the island of Euboea. Throughout his life he had suffered from a stomach ailment, and this had grown more severe after his departure from Athens. Perhaps the change of diet and routine hastened his demise. He was sixty-two years old.

Aristotle’s wife, Pythias, had died long before, while the family was in Athens. Thereafter, Aristotle had shared his bed with Herpyllis, a former slave to whom he had given freedom. Perhaps it was Herpyllis who bore his son, Nicomachus, still a youth at the time Aristotle died; his daughter, Pythias, was also young, not yet in her teens. In his will—a document that survives complete, quoted by the ancient biographer Diogenes Laertius—Aristotle placed both children in the care of his adopted son, Nicanor, the man who had read aloud the Exiles’ Decree to the Greeks at Olympia. The will instructs Nicanor to look after Aristotle’s children as though he were both their father and their brother, but, in a shift of roles not uncommon in the Greek world, to marry Pythias as soon as she came of age.

The will contains detailed arrangements for Aristotle’s property, including his slaves, many of whom were to be freed. For Herpyllis, the ex-slave who had become his consort, Aristotle made generous provisions. He instructed Nicanor to look after her well, “because she cared for me sincerely,” and to provide her with a home, new furnishings, and, should she choose to marry, a dowry and a staff of servants. At the same time he asked that the bones of his wife, Pythias, interred long before at Athens, be exhumed and reburied beside him. This, he points out, had been Pythias’ instruction in her own will.

As chief executor of these arrangements Aristotle appointed Antipater, the great Macedonian soldier-statesman whose friendship had been so important to him. He had paid dearly for that friendship, losing his home of twelve years and his precious Lyceum largely because of it. Now, in his last days, he relied on it as a safeguard for the family he was leaving behind. He seems to have been unconcerned that Antipater, at that time penned up in Lamia with supplies running out, had scant hope of living much longer himself, unless one of Alexander’s generals returned from Asia in time to save him.


Leonnatus’ entry into Pella, the Macedonian capital, must have been a magnificent event. Riding proudly in the vanguard of a splendid cavalry corps, his hair flipped back at the forehead, Leonnatus looked like a second Alexander—precisely what he hoped to be. His own horse, a rare Nesaean, had its bit and bridle cast from glittering gold and silver, testimony to the wealth won in the conquest of the Persian empire. The Macedonians must have gaped. This was the first great general, and some of the first troops, to return to the homeland, of all the tens of thousands that had left it over the past twelve years.

To Leonnatus, by contrast, the royal seat of the Macedonians must have seemed hopelessly provincial. The palace he hoped soon to inhabit was far smaller than the one he had slept in the previous summer, the Southern Palace of Nebuchadnezzar in Babylon, and that had been only one of several palaces in that grand metropolis. Pella was but a town by comparison with the great Asian cities, and the wealth won by Alexander had only just begun to filter back to it. Yet it was from this modest center that the Macedonians had gone forth to conquer the world. Leonnatus could rule that world, if he could gain control of this center.

The princess Cleopatra, Alexander’s sister, must have been among those welcoming Leonnatus home, but what passed between the prospective bride and bridegroom we do not know. There was little time for courtship, since Antipater’s position in Lamia had become desperate. Leonnatus mustered the overdrawn native troops and levied more from neighboring Balkan peoples, raising an impressive force of twenty thousand infantry. With cavalry, however, he had less success, since the Thessalians, who had most of the horses and trained riders in the region, were supporting the Greek side in the war. Leonnatus had to proceed with only fifteen hundred horsemen, less than half what the Greeks had at Lamia.

With these forces Leonnatus marched south, determined to break the Greek cordon and link up with Antipater. The Greeks, for their part, were determined to prevent any such link. They abandoned their siege and went to meet Leonnatus, hoping to deal with his army before it could join Antipater’s. They did not have enough manpower to maintain their guard over Lamia while also fighting Leonnatus. Several contingents had gone back to their home cities, wearied by the long winter siege or pressed by the needs of farms and businesses.

The Greeks hoped for a cavalry battle against Leonnatus to maximize their advantage, and they got what they hoped for. The horsemen from Thessaly, fighting now on the Greek side, came forward to meet Leonnatus, with a commander named Menon leading the attack. They drove Leonnatus’ cavalry into a marsh where his horses had little traction. Leonnatus fought fiercely, but cut off from his infantry and mired in swampy ground, he found his position hopeless. Wounded many times by the thrusts of Thessalian lances, he fell, and his comrades carried him back toward the baggage camp. He died before he got there.

Having prevailed in this cavalry engagement, the Greeks hoped also to defeat the infantry phalanx Leonnatus had brought south with him. But the trained Macedonian pikemen knew how to prevent a minor loss from becoming a crushing one. They drew back onto high ground difficult for cavalry operations, holding out their sarissas to form a barrier against a charge. The Thessalian horsemen made a few sallies but soon saw these were useless. The Greek infantry, with shorter spears and far less experience than their adversaries, did not even bother to engage. Thus the battle ended.

By any reckoning the day belonged to the Greeks, who collected their dead and set up a monument on the field, traditional markers of victory. But the huge Macedonian phalanx remained unvanquished and undiminished in numbers. The very next day, it linked up with the army of Antipater, which, while the Greeks were otherwise occupied, had broken out of Lamia. Together these two forces escaped north to Macedonia. The Greeks would have to face Antipater all over again.

With the retreating forces, almost certainly, went the body of Leonnatus, on its way to a state funeral instead of a royal wedding. In his glorious career as a cavalry officer, Leonnatus had beaten Persian noblemen, Indian mahouts atop elephants, and Scythians who could fire arrows backward while riding at a gallop, but he was finally unhorsed by his own former allies, the Thessalians. Perhaps he had gained too much confidence from sharing Alexander’s victories, for he accepted a fight against a corps more than twice the size of his own. Thus, from not having the brilliance of Alexander, perished the first of Alexander’s top generals.


While in the field at Lamia, the Greeks, following long-standing traditions, cremated their dead, then sent the ashes to the home cities of the fallen for burial. Many such shipments arrived at Athens during the Hellenic War, including the charred bones of Leosthenes, the great mercenary captain felled by a hurtling stone. According to their city’s unique custom, the Athenians chose a leading citizen to give a public oration honoring the courage of those who had died. The speaker they chose during the Hellenic War was Hyperides—fittingly enough, for this was his war, and Leosthenes had been his chosen general.

Hyperides’ speech was delivered outside the city walls, in a section of the Cerameicus, the Athenian graveyard, reserved for war dead. It was early spring, a time of rainy and gray weather in Athens. A sober procession of eleven wagons passed through the city and out the northwest gate; each wagon bore a cypress-wood chest containing commingled ashes of the dead, one for each of Athens’ ten tribes and an extra one, empty, for those whose bodies had not been recovered. Accompanying these wagons came the families of the fallen. Arrived at the Cerameicus, the chests were unloaded and interred in the earth, and the crowd gathered around a speaker’s platform to hear Hyperides. Grief over personal loss was combined with unease at the course of the war, for, with the siege at Lamia broken and a new Macedonian army in the field, Athens’ chances of victory, once so promising, were now no better than even.

Hyperides mounted the platform to give what was to be the last speech of the golden age of Athenian oratory. It was totally unknown to the modern world until 1858, when a copy was recovered, truncated, though otherwise intact, from the scrap papers used to wrap an Egyptian mummy.

“Of the words about to be spoken over this tomb, concerning Leosthenes the general and the men who died with him in this war—words that will show they were good men—time itself will be the proof,” Hyperides began. It was an audacious move to name Leosthenes in his very first sentence, but Hyperides had written an audacious speech. Where other such orations dealt in hazy abstractions, or invoked age-old myths, Hyperides was going to extol a hero who was real flesh and blood. He would give the Athenians a Leosthenes to rival the Macedonians’ Alexander. He would fashion a cult of personality around Leosthenes, in hopes that, with this undemocratic style of rhetoric, he might inspire democratic Athens to win its stalemated war.

“I will start with the general, for that is only right,” Hyperides continued. “It was Leosthenes who saw Greece disgraced and cowering, undermined by those taking bribes from Philip and Alexander … It was he who saw that our city needed a man outstanding in leadership, just as the Greeks needed a leading city; it was he who gave himself to his city and the city to the Greeks, for the cause of freedom!” The cynics in the crowd might have balked at hailing Leosthenes as a champion of freedom—a soldier for hire who had spent his life in arms, who had no ideology but hatred of Alexander and love of victory, who had grown up among the Macedonians and once served under them, who had never even lived in the city for which he fought. But for others, who now thrilled as Hyperides retold the triumphs of the past year, these were overly nice calculations. Under Leosthenes, Athens had won, and where Athens won, so did the cause of Greek liberty.

“But let no one suppose I ignore other citizens and heap praise on Leosthenes alone,” Hyperides continued, aware of the danger of going too far. “For who would not be right to praise those who died in this war, who gave their lives for the freedom of the Greeks?…Through them, fathers have become respected and mothers admired…, sisters have made and will make fitting marriages; children will have, as their admission to the goodwill of the city, the virtue of these men”—he gestured toward the fresh-dug graves below him—“men who have not died, but have only exchanged life for an eternal battle line.” A strange and striking metaphor, well suited to a speech built around a mercenary captain—a picture of the dead as warriors stationed in a ghostly infantry phalanx.

With such words Hyperides sought to comfort Athens’ mourners and strengthen the city for the next phase of the war. Because our sole copy of the speech is incomplete, we do not know whether Hyperides acknowledged the difficulties that phase would bring. His one reference to the recent battle against Leonnatus suggests he regarded this as a victory but not one to celebrate; he did not even name its victorious generals, Menon and Antiphilus. He bent all his energy toward glorifying Leosthenes, which meant casting the new team of leaders as lesser men.

A skilled politician knows how to dodge blame by providing scapegoats, and Hyperides may have foreseen that scapegoats would soon be needed. All would be well, he seems to imply, if only his man, Leosthenes, were still in charge.


The hopes of the antagonists in the Hellenic War now rested on a narrow body of water, in places less than a mile wide. Across these straits, the Hellespont, the primary crossing point between Europe and Asia, reinforcements would need to come if the strategic balance was to be changed. Old man Antipater, now back in Macedonia preparing for a second assault on the rebel Greeks, could not win without more cavalry, and more cavalry could come only from the forces in Asia under Craterus. Antipater had to get control of the straits so Craterus could cross them, and Athens, if it hoped to beat Antipater again, had to prevent such a crossing. The theater of war now moved to the sea.

The Hellespont had always been a vital strategic asset for Athens or for its enemies. In 480 B.C., King Xerxes of Persis, en route to attacking Athens, had bridged the straits with a chain of more than three hundred warships and brought his army into Europe on a road laid across their decks. Rumor had it that when a storm broke apart his bridge, Xerxes flogged the Hellespont and flung shackles into its waters as though to make them his slave. In the end it was Athens, not Xerxes, that mastered the straits, using its formidable navy to patrol them; a large part of Athens’ food supply was shipped through them from the grain-rich lands of the Black Sea, and if those shipments were ever choked off, the Athenians would starve. Only once since the defeat of Xerxes had an enemy of Athens gained control of the straits, and on that occasion—after the capture of an Athenian fleet by the Spartans, in 404 B.C.—Athens had quickly been forced to surrender.

Maintaining mastery over the Hellespont was an expensive proposition. The Athenians kept up a large fleet of warships, over four hundred at times, paid for by boards of wealthy citizens. The burden was a heavy one, and many shirked it. Even more expensive than the ships were the crews needed to row them. Four hundred ships required eighty thousand crewmen, each drawing a daily wage. Athens could neither afford so many nor even find them, for the rapid maneuvers of a warship required not just strength from its rowers but skill and experience. In Europe at the time of the Hellenic War, men who possessed these were hard to come by.

Not so in Asia, however. The seafarers who had once served the Persian empire, in particular the Phoenicians, now served the Macedonians, and where money was needed to pay them, their masters could draw on a bottomless treasury. Persian gold had beaten the Athenians once before: funneled to Sparta during the Peloponnesian War, it had built the navy that denied them use of the straits. Now, in the hands of its new owners, Persian gold might beat them again.

Alexander, just before his death, had started spending that gold to build up his navy. Anticipating war in the West, he had sent a fleet of 110 warships to old man Antipater, along with a supply of cash. These ships had already given the Athenian navy a hard time while Antipater was at Lamia, but they were soon joined by a second fleet commanded by Cleitus the White, an officer who had accompanied Craterus out of Babylon. Sailing to the Hellespont in the spring of 322, Cleitus encountered the Athenians at Abydus, the best landing point for troops crossing into Europe, and soundly defeated them. Then he won a second victory at Amorgus in the Cyclades, intercepting an Athenian fleet sent to retake the straits. Though details of these battles are scant, their result is clear: control of the sea passed from Athenian hands into those of the Macedonians. For Cleitus—who took to standing in the prow of his vessel posed as Poseidon, with a trident in one hand—this was a triumph of heroic proportions.

The Amorgus battle had a peculiar denouement at Athens. A prankster named Stratocles, getting wind while abroad of the Athenian defeat, hastened back to Athens before other messengers could arrive there. He falsely reported that Athens had won the engagement and gadded about wearing a garland and proposing grateful offerings to the gods. The people celebrated his news, then turned on him angrily after the truth finally emerged. Stratocles was unrepentant. “What harm have I done if for two days you have been happy?” he asked his fellow Athenians. Thanks to him the city had enjoyed one last, brief illusion that its 150-year-old naval supremacy was intact.

Remarkably, a huge number of Athens’ warships sat idle in the Piraeus docks during the pitched struggle at sea. The city had managed to build a vast fleet but lacked rowers and steersmen to man it. The financial windfall it had gotten from Harpalus had been spent on Leosthenes and his mercenaries. Athens had not been able to afford a land and sea war at the same time.


Craterus, roused at last from his long stasis in Cilicia, crossed the Hellespont with ten thousand infantrymen and a vital squadron of fifteen hundred cavalry. He met Antipater on the march in Thessaly and placed himself at the service of the older man, whom he now regarded not only as commander but as father-in-law-to-be. Craterus had made his choice of wives. He had brought Phila, Antipater’s daughter, with him from Cilicia as his intended bride. Amastris, the Persian princess whom Alexander had given him in marriage, he left on the Asian side of the Hellespont, after gallantly arranging her remarriage to a powerful ruler on the Black Sea coast. (The Turkish town of Amasra, on the site of a city she founded, still bears a corrupted version of her name.)

Antipater, having now absorbed the armies of both Craterus and Leonnatus, brought a force totaling almost fifty thousand to a place called Crannon on the Thessalian plain. He made camp a short distance from the Athenian-led coalition. Each morning, for the next few weeks, he made clear to the Greeks he was ready to fight, arranging his troops in formation in the plain between the camps.

Antiphilus and Menon, the Greek field commanders, debated whether to accept this offer of battle. Their twenty-five thousand infantry were badly outnumbered and outclassed in skill and experience, but their thirty-five hundred cavalry had better hopes of success. By waiting, they might increase their infantry numbers; messengers had been sent to the allied cities seeking new recruits and requesting the return of missing contingents, including those of the Aetolians. But the Greeks could not wait indefinitely. Morale was low. More contingents might head for home; their numbers might shrink rather than increase, as would their fighting spirit. Finally, near the beginning of August, the Greeks’ need for action overcame their need for reinforcement. Antiphilus and Menon brought their outnumbered army forward for battle.

All their hopes lay in the Thessalian cavalry, the same force that had beaten Leonnatus. As they had done before, the Greeks sent their cavalry out ahead and held their infantry back. But the Macedonians were not about to let the issue again be decided by cavalry alone. Antipater ordered his massive phalanx to advance. The approach of this mile-and-a-half-long wall of spearmen made a deeply unsettling spectacle, and at the first collision the Greeks began to falter. They drew back onto the high ground behind them, where they could defend themselves but could no longer provide protection for the cavalry. The Thessalian horsemen accordingly broke off their attack.

The day ended without a clear decision. The Greeks had prevailed with their cavalry before being bested in their infantry. Even then, their losses had been light, about five hundred killed, thanks to the orderly retreat of the phalanx. If reinforced by the Greek cities to their south, they still had good hope of prevailing in the end.

But somehow that hope was not enough to sustain them. The Athenian general Antiphilus and his Thessalian colleague, Menon, were not confident they could hold the army together until recruits could arrive. Plutarch says these commanders were young and, being epieikeis—a complex Greek word blending notions of fairness, rationality, and gentleness—could not retain the respect of their men. Whatever their qualities, they certainly did not measure up to their illustrious fallen predecessor, Leosthenes.

Antiphilus and Menon took counsel together, and on the day after the battle of Crannon, usually reckoned as August 6, they sent heralds to the Macedonian camp asking for terms of surrender. It was a quiet end to an otherwise climactic sequence of events. No bloodbath or rout had crushed the cause of Greek freedom, but simply a sense that with money and morale running low, there was no longer any point in fighting. The Hellenic War had come to an end.


The Greek generals hoped to arrange common terms of surrender for their entire alliance, but Antipater was in no mood to bargain. He demanded separate arrangements for each Greek city, clearly intending to deal most harshly with the Athenians. While the Greeks debated this matter, Antipater drove his point home by storming several Thessalian towns, then granting easy terms when they surrendered. The message was clear: he had Athens in his sights and would be clement to others if they broke with Athens—which all the Greek allies now hastened to do. Athens stood alone as Antipater, to enforce his demand for unconditional surrender, led his army into neighboring Boeotia and prepared to attack.

Inside the Athenian walls, a panicked Assembly cast about for direction. The political order of the city, violently overturned the previous year by news of Alexander’s death, had to be inverted once again. Hyperides was now discredited, along with his fellow advocate of revolt, Demosthenes. It was instead to Phocion, and the even more pro-Macedonian Demades, that the Athenians turned, hoping to find favor with Antipater and escape complete destruction.

But Demades had been stripped of citizen rights amid the war fervor of the previous year. He now played this irony for all it was worth, refusing to reply even when public officials called him three times to the speaker’s platform. The Assembly hastily restored his citizenship and removed his fines, and he came forward at last. He relied on a time-tested strategy and proposed that a negotiating party, led by him and Phocion, be sent at once to Antipater. Phocion, for his part, could not let pass an opportunity to point out he had been right about the war. “If you had trusted my advice before,” he told the Assembly, “we would not now be debating such proposals.” But he agreed to take part in the diplomatic mission.

Demades and Phocion—the same team that had been sent to Alexander thirteen years earlier, when the lives of ten orators were on the line—met with Antipater at Thebes, amid the remains of the city Alexander had destroyed. The setting was a pointed reminder of what might befall Greeks who defied Macedonian rule. Antipater had Craterus with him, clearly now his partner in command as well as his future son-in-law.

The negotiations were an exercise in humility for Phocion and Demades. They had little to bargain with except the goodwill they had earned in more than thirteen years of entente with the Macedonians. For Craterus, who had spent those thirteen years on campaign in Asia, that counted for nothing at all. When Phocion requested that the Macedonians stay where they were and not bring their army of fifty thousand into Attica, Craterus sneered; why should their Boeotian friends, and not their defeated enemies, bear the burden of feeding them? But Antipater took his new comrade by the hand and urged, “We must grant this as a kindness to Phocion.” There was a deep mutual respect between Antipater and Phocion, both now in their late seventies, veterans of six decades of combat and political upheaval.

When the Athenian envoys broached terms of surrender, however, Antipater turned icy. He spat back the words Leosthenes had once spoken to him: the victors would set the terms.

Unable to stomach an unconditional defeat, Phocion and Demades returned to Athens. The Assembly sent them out a second time but put a new team member in place: Xenocrates, an aged philosopher, a former friend and fellow student of Aristotle’s, and, at this time, head of Plato’s Academy. The city hoped to remind Antipater of its great intellectual traditions—a strong argument against its destruction—and also to play on his known friendship with Aristotle. But when the new team arrived in Thebes, Antipater ignored Xenocrates entirely and rudely spoke over him every time the man opened his mouth.

Though initially bent on surrender without terms, Antipater at last laid out steps by which Athens could avoid an invasion. The city was to hand over Demosthenes and Hyperides, along with other instigators of the revolt. It had to change its time-honored democracy into an oligarchy, accept a Macedonian garrison in Piraeus (Athens’ harbor), and repay all the costs Macedon had incurred in the war, plus a fine. This was better than Phocion and Demades had reason to expect, and they signaled approval. Xenocrates, who had been excluded from the discussion, was less reconciled. He delivered a bitter parting shot, telling Antipater he was treating the Athenians too generously for slaves but too cruelly for free men.

Installation of the Piraeus garrison was the harshest of Antipater’s terms, as far as Phocion was concerned. Other Greek cities had long before submitted to armed occupation, but Athens had always been spared; its proud history conferred special standing even under Macedonian hegemony. Phocion pleaded with Antipater to once again exempt Athens, but the old general replied, “Phocion, we are willing to grant you anything, except what will destroy you and us both.” This was a winking acknowledgment of the new realities Phocion faced as Antipater’s collaborator. Were the Athenians, left unguarded, to revolt again, Phocion would be as much their enemy as Antipater. Reluctantly, Phocion agreed to the garrison.

Under the command of a certain Menyllus, Antipater’s troops sailed into Piraeus a few weeks later, in mid-September, to take up guard duties on the fortified hill of Munychia. It was the very day that a sacred procession left Athens for nearby Eleusis as part of the local religious rites known as the Mysteries. The conjunction of this treasured ritual with the arrival of garrison troops distressed the Athenians, who felt the gods themselves had abandoned their city. Strange portents and visions were seen, giving the day dire significance. A worshipper taking part in the Mysteries, while washing a sacrificial pig in the harbor waters, watched in horror as a shark bit the animal in two and swam away with the lower half. Seers divined that Athens would forever lose the “lower part” of its city, meaning Piraeus, to Macedonian power.

Phocion and Demades became the leaders of an Athenian government refashioned as a broad plutocracy. Only those with property worth at least two thousand drachmas—a sizable upper-middle-class estate—were allowed to hold office or vote. The organs of the old democracy continued to function, but more than twenty thousand, well over half the citizen body, were now barred from participation. Many of these left the city and accepted new lands in Thrace, lands that old man Antipater graciously—and expeditiously—provided. It was in his interest to excise those he called “troublemakers and warmongers” and make Athens a city of the comfortably well-off, the class that had largely opposed the Hellenic War to begin with.

The disenfranchised poor who stayed in Athens chafed at their second-class status. In other Greek cities they would never have tasted power, but having grown used to it, they found its loss hard to bear. Their humiliation embittered them against their burgher neighbors, and especially the man whose aristocratic manner made him the perfect target of their rage—a former student of Plato’s, now seemingly Antipater’s puppet, Do-good Phocion.


Hyperides and Demosthenes did not wait to hear Antipater’s terms before making their escape from Athens. It had been clear for a long time that the old general would seek their lives if he won the war, and that this time, unlike in the showdown with Alexander thirteen years earlier, Athens would not protect them. In the end, Demosthenes’ nephew and protégé, Demochares, made a show of defending his uncle, rising boldly to speak in the Assembly with a sword at his waist. But the time for such defiance had passed. The Assembly soon voted, on the motion of Demades, to condemn both Demosthenes and Hyperides to death in absentia, and to forbid their burial on Attic soil. This last clause was an unusually harsh measure, an obvious sop to the wrath of Macedon.

Athens’ two greatest living orators, and two lesser ones condemned along with them, had little hope except sanctuary at the altars of the gods. In former days, when Asia still belonged to the Persians, an Athenian forced into exile could find safety there, among the enemies of his enemies. But now the whole known world was in Macedonian hands. There was nowhere to hide.

Together the party of fugitives went to the island of Aegina, where a vast marble enclosure sacred to the mythic hero Aeacus offered protection to suppliants. Close on their heels came a notorious Greek bounty hunter, Archias the Exile-chaser, with a squad of Thracian toughs. This versatile man had abandoned two earlier careers, as a tragic actor and as a rhetorician, to become Antipater’s bloodhound, no doubt in exchange for handsome rewards. (At some point he came a cropper in his new line of work, for Arrian, in a lost portion of Events After Alexander, told how he ended his life in poverty and despair.)

Hyperides and his two comrades chose to stay on Aegina and await their fate, while Demosthenes went on to the tiny island of Calauria, where he had lived in exile the previous year. The sanctuary of Poseidon there was said to be inviolable. Before his departure, he and Hyperides said their final farewells. Their forty-year partnership had been briefly severed amid the turmoil of the bribery scandal, but it had been miraculously restored in the last few months, when Athens had come agonizingly close to the liberation both men had sought. Now, at the doorway of death, Hyperides apologized for his prosecution of Demosthenes, and the two men parted as friends. Perhaps they paused to consider that, were it not for the chance arc of a stone at Lamia, they might together have become the greatest heroes in Athenian political history.

Archias the Exile-chaser arrived in Aegina not long after Demosthenes left. Undeterred by religious scruple, he had the three proscribed orators dragged out of the sacred enclosure and sent to Antipater, who was then at Cleonae, near Corinth. All three were executed, and Hyperides’ tongue, the tongue that had delivered so many speeches against Macedon, was cut out of his head. His corpse was cast out unburied as a warning to his sympathizers and as punishment for his support of the Hellenic War.

Later, though, Hyperides’ body was given to a kinsman named Alphinous, thanks to the intervention of a Greek doctor who had influence at the Macedonian court. After honorable cremation, the ashes were secretly interred near the Hippades Gate at Athens, in Hyperides’ native soil, in defiance of the Assembly’s decree.


About a week after Hyperides’ death, in the grove of Poseidon at Calauria, Demosthenes awakened from a strange dream. He dreamed that both he and Archias the Exile-chaser were actors in competing tragic dramas, and Demosthenes’ performance, being much the better, won the greater share of applause. Nonetheless, because his production lacked expensive scenery and fine costumes, the prize was given to Archias. Perhaps Demosthenes took comfort from this dream, in which mere victory was distinguished from intrinsic worth. The moral standing of his cause, Athenian freedom, might after all remain undamaged, despite the triumph of Macedonian power.

His return to Calauria only a few months after leaving it showed how quickly Fortune’s wheel could turn. First had come word of the death of Alexander, bringing with it Athens’ move toward war. Then Demosthenes’ return to favor at Athens—sudden, exhilarating, and maddeningly brief. The failure of the revolt had forced him back into exile, this time under a sentence of death. Athenian politics had never been more stormy or unpredictable than in the past year and a half, but politics was the life Demosthenes had chosen, for better or worse. Once, when some young men had sought his advice about careers, he had wearily observed that if two roads had been shown him as a youth, one leading to the speaker’s platform and the Assembly, the other to an early grave, he would have chosen the path to the grave. Now it seemed the other path would lead there as well.

That very morning, a day in mid-October, Archias the Exile-chaser was crossing over to Calauria accompanied by his Thracian spearmen. The search party soon made its way to Poseidon’s shrine and, for some reason unwilling to enter, hailed Demosthenes from outside. Archias told his quarry to come peacefully and promised that neither he nor Antipater would do him harm. Demosthenes retorted that he had never before found Archias’ acting convincing and did not now. He had surely learned what had befallen Hyperides a week earlier and was determined to make a better end.

When Archias began threatening to use force, Demosthenes, as though acknowledging defeat, asked to compose a letter to his family. Withdrawing into an enclosed part of the temple, he put the end of a reed pen to his mouth as he often did when writing and stealthily sucked out some poison he had hidden there. Then he covered himself with his cloak and put his head down, waiting for death to arrive.

The Thracians looking on from outside mistook his posture for supplication of the god and began to taunt him for cowardice. Archias entered the room and tried once again to convince Demosthenes that his life would be spared. But by now the poison had begun to work. Demosthenes uncovered his head and, with another barb at his captor’s former career, suggested that Archias could now play the part of Creon in Sophocles’ Antigone, the tyrant who exposes the corpse of his enemy for dogs to devour. Then he turned to the statue of Poseidon at the center of the shrine. “Good Poseidon, I will leave your temple still alive, though Antipater and the Macedonians would not have let it stay undefiled,” he said, and asked for help getting to his feet. He wanted to avoid polluting the holy precinct with his death, but as he staggered past the altar, he fell and groaned his last.

Plutarch, who like other Greeks regarded Demosthenes’ suicide as a heroic act of defiance, notes that there were various descriptions of the event. According to one, Demosthenes took poison not from the end of his pen but from a little cloth bag he wore tied to his waist. Another claimed the venom was contained in a hollow bracelet. Demochares, the nephew of Demosthenes who had tried to rally support in the Assembly, claimed that his uncle had not taken poison at all but had been delivered from his enemies by divine will; some god had sent him a painless death at the most opportune moment. It was comforting to think that after so much neglect of Athens’ fortunes, the gods had intervened to spare the dignity of the city’s last free man.

It took decades for Demochares to rehabilitate his uncle’s reputation, but he finally succeeded, near the end of his life, in persuading Athens to erect a commemorative statue. The portrait was done in bronze by Polyeuctus, a famous Athenian sculptor of the day; it survives in several Roman-era stone copies. Demosthenes is shown standing erect but with head downcast; his careworn face wears a pensive expression; he holds in both hands a papyrus scroll, no doubt a speech to be delivered in the Assembly. The portrait gives a vivid impression of strength, conviction, and seriousness of purpose, but also of tragic futility. It depicts a man whose goals are doomed never to be achieved.

Demosthenes, as depicted in a Roman copy of the commemorative statue by Polyeuctus (Illustration credit 5.1)

The statue’s original was set up in the Athenian market square, with a rueful verse inscription on its base:

               If only your strength, Demosthenes, had been equal in force to your judgment,

               Greece would have never been ruled by Macedonian Ares.

You can support our site by clicking on this link and watching the advertisement.

If you find an error or have any questions, please email us at admin@erenow.org. Thank you!