Poseidon Head, Apollo on a ship, commemorating a naval victory over the Egyptian fleet
Antigonus II Gonatas () (c. 319 BC239 BC) was a Macedonian king, the son of , king of Epirus, Macedonia's Western neighbour, was a general of mercurial ability, widely renowned for his bravery, but he did not apply his talents sensibly and often snatched after vain hopes, so that Antigonus used to compare him to a dice player, who had excellent throws, but did not know how to use them. When the Gauls defeated Ptolemy Ceraunus and the Macedonian throne became vacant, Pyrrhus was occupied in his campaigns overseas. Hoping to conquer first Italy and then Africa, he got involved in wars against Rome and Carthage, the two most powerful states in the Western Mediterranean. He then lost the support of the Greek cities in Italy and Sicily by his haughty behaviour. Needing reinforcements, he wrote to Antigonus as a fellow Greek king, asking him for troops and money, but Antigonus politely refused. In 275 BC, the Romans defeated Pyrrhus at the Battle of Beneventum and so he was forced to give up his ambitions and return to Epirus.
Pyrrhus's defeat, however, proved very unlucky for Antigonus. Returning to Epirus with an army of eight thousand foot and five hundred horse, he was in need of money to pay them. This encouraged him to look for another war, so the next year, after adding a force of Gallic mercenaries to his army, he invaded Macedonia with the intention of filling his coffers with plunder. The campaign however went better than expected. Making himself master of several towns and being joined by two thousand deserters, his hopes started to grow and he went in search of Antigonus. attacking his army in a narrow pass and throwing it into disorder. Antigonus's Macedonian troops retreated, but his own body of Gallic mercenaries, who had charge of his elephants, stood firm until Pyrrhus's troops surrounded them, whereupon they surrendered both themselves and the elephants. Pyrrhus now chased after the rest of Antigonus's army which, demoralised by its earlier defeat, declined to fight. As the two armies faced each other, Pyrrhus called out to the various officers by name and persuaded the whole body of infantry to desert. Antigonus escaped by concealing his identity. Pyrrhus now took control of upper Macedonia and Thessaly while Antigonus held onto the coastal towns.
But like the dice player who wasted his good fortune, Pyrrhus now wasted his victory. Talking possession of Aegae, the ancient capital of Macedonia, he installed a garrison of Gauls who greatly offended the Macedonians by digging up the tombs of their kings and leaving the bones scattered about as they searched for gold. He also neglected to finish off his enemy. Leaving him in control of the coastal cities, he contented himself with insults. He called Antigonus a shameless man for still wearing the purple, but he did little to destroy the remnants of his power.
Before this campaign was finished, Pyrrhus had embarked upon a new one. In 272 BC, Cleonymus, an important Spartan, invited him to invade Laconia. Gathering an army of twenty-five thousand foot, two thousand horse, and twenty-four elephants, he crossed over to the Peloponnese and occupied Megalopolis in Arcadia. Antigonus, after reoccupying part of Macedonia, gathered what forces he could and sailed to Greece to oppose him. As a large part of the Spartan army led by king Areus was in Crete at the time, Pyrrhus had great hopes of taking the city easily, but the citizens organised stout resistance, allowing one of Antigonus's commanders, Aminias, the Phocian, to reach the city with a force of mercenaries from Corinth. Soon after this, the Spartan king, Areus, returned from Crete with 2.000 men. These reinforcements stiffened resistance and Pyrrhus, finding that he was losing men to desertion every day, broke off the attack and started to plunder the country.
The most important Pelopennesian city after Sparta was Argos. The two chief men, Aristippus and Aristeas were keen rivals. As Aristippus was an ally of Antigonus, Aristeas invited Pyrrhus to come to Argos to help him take over the city. Antigonus, aware that Pyrrhus was advancing on Argos, marched his army there as well, taking up a strong position on some high ground near the city. When Pyrrhus learned this, he encamped about Nauplia and the next day dispatched a herald to Antigonus, calling him a coward and challenging him to come down and fight on the plain. Antigonus replied that he would choose his own moment to fight and that if Pyrrhus was weary of life, he could find many ways to die.
The Argives, fearing that their territory would become a war zone, sent deputations to the two kings begging them to go elsewhere and allow their city to remain neutral. Both kings agreed, but Antigonus won over the trust of the Argives by surrendering his son as a hostage for his pledge. Pyrrhus, who had recently lost a son in the retreat from Sparta, did not. Indeed, with the help of Aristeas, he was plotting to seize the city. In the middle of the night, he marched his army up to the city walls and entered through a gate that Aristeas had opened. His Gallic troops seized the market place, but he had difficulty getting his elephants into the city through the small gates. This gave the Argives time to rally. They occupied strong points and sent messengers asking Antigonus for help.
When Antigonus heard that Pyrrhus had treacherously attacked the city, he advanced to the walls and sent a strong force inside to help the Argives. At the same time Areus arrived with a force of 1.000 Cretans and light-armed Spartans. These forces attacked the Gauls in the market place. Pyrrhus, realising that his Gallic troops were hard pressed, now advanced into the city with more troops, but in the narrow streets this soon led to confusion as men got lost and wandered around. The two forces now paused and waited for daylight. When the sun rose, Pyrrhus saw how strong the opposition was and decided the best thing was to retreat. Fearing that the gates would be too narrow for his troops to easily exit the city, he sent a message to his son, Helenus, who was outside with the main body of the army, asking him to break down a section of the walls. The messenger, however, failed to convey his instructions clearly. Misunderstanding what was required, Helenus took the rest of the elephants and some picked troops and advanced into the city to help his father.
With some of his troops trying to get out of the city and others trying to get in, Pyrrhus's army was now thrown into confusion. This was made worse by the elephants. The largest one had fallen across the gateway and was blocking the way, while another elephant, called Nicon, was trying to find its rider. This beast surged against the tide of fugitives, crushing friend and foe alike, until it found its dead master, whereupon it picked him up, placed him on its tusks, and went on the rampage. In this chaos Pyrrhus was struck down by a tile thrown by an old woman and killed by Zopyrus, a soldier of Antigonus. Thus ended the career of the most famous soldier of his time.
Alcyoneus, one of Antigonus's sons, heard that Pyrrhus had been killed. Taking the head, which had been cut off by Zopyrus, he rode to where his father was and threw it at his feet. Far from being delighted, Antigonus was angry with his son and struck him, calling him a barbarian and drove him away. He then covered his face with his cloak and burst into tears. The fate of Pyrrhus reminded him all too clearly of the tragic fates of his own grandfather and his father who had suffered similar swings of fortune. He then had Pyrrhus's body cremated with great ceremony.
After the death of Pyrrhus, his whole army and camp surrendered to Antigonus, greatly increasing his power. Later, Alcyoneus discovered Hellenicus, Pyrrhus's son, disguised in threadbare clothes. He treated him kindly and brought him to his father who was more pleased with his behaviour. "This is better than what you did before, my son," he said, "but why leave him in these clothes which are a disgrace to us now that we know ourselves the victors?" Greeting him courteously, Antigonus treated Helenus as an honored guest and sent him back to Epirus.
This was not the end of Antigonus' problems with Epirus: shortly after Alexander II, the son of Pyrrhus and his successor as king of Epirus, repeated his father's adventure by conquering Macedonia. But only a few years after Alexander was not only expelled from Macedonia by Antigonus' son Demetrius, but he also lost Epirus and had to go into exile in Acarnania. His exile didn't last long, as the Macedonians had at the end to abandon Epirus under pressure from Alexander's allies, the Acarnanians and the Aetolians. Alexander seems to have died about 260 BC leaving his country under the regency of his wife Olympias who proved anxious to have good relations with Epirus' powerful neighbour, as was sanctioned by the marriage between the regent's daughter Phthia and Antigonus' son and heir Demetrius.
With the restoration of the territories captured by Pyrrhus, and with grateful allies in Sparta and Argos, and garrisons in Corinth and other cities, Antigonus securely controlled Macedonia and Greece. The careful way he guarded his power shows that he wished to avoid the vicissitudes of fortune that had characterized the careers of his father and grandfather. Aware that the Greeks loved freedom and autonomy, he was careful to grant a semblance of this in as much as it did not clash with his own power. Also, he tried to avoid the odium that direct rule brings by controlling the Greeks through intermediaries. It is for this reason that Polybius says, "No man ever set up more absolute rulers in Greece than Antigonus."
The next stage of Antigonus's career is not documented and what we know has been patched together from a few historical fragments: Antigonus seems to have been on very good terms with Antiochus, the Seleucid ruler of Asia, whose love for Stratonice, the sister of Antigonus, is very famous. Such an alliance naturally threatened the third successor state, Ptolemaic Egypt. In Greece, Athens and Sparta, once the dominant states, naturally resented the domination of Antigonus. The pride, which in the past had made these cities mortal enemies, now served to unite them. In 267 BC, probably with encouragement from Egypt, an Athenian by the name of Chremonides persuaded the Athenians to join the Spartans in declaring war on Antigonus (see Chremonidean War).
The Macedonian king responded by ravaging the territory of Athens with an army while blockading them by sea. In this campaign he also destroyed the grove and temple of Poseidon that stood at the entrance to Attica near the border with Megara. To support the Athenians and prevent the power of Antigonus from growing too much, Ptolemy II Philadelphus, the king of Egypt, sent a fleet to break the blockade. The Egyptian admiral, Patroclus, landed on a small uninhabited island near Laurium and fortified it as a base for naval operations.
The Seleucid Empire had signed a peace treaty with Egypt, but Antiochus's son-in-law, Magas, king of Cyrene, persuaded Antiochus to take advantage of the war in Greece to attack Egypt. To counter this, Ptolemy dispatched a force of pirates and freebooters to raid and attack the lands and provinces of Antiochus, while his army fought a defensive campaign, holding back the stronger Seleucid army. Although successfully defending Egypt, Ptolemy II was unable to save Athens from Antigonus. In 263 BC, the Athenians and Spartans, worn down by several years of war and the devastation of their lands, made peace with Antigonus, who thus retained his hold on Greece.
Ptolemy II continued to interfere in the affairs of Greece and this led to war in 261 BC. After two years in which little changed, Antiochus II, the new Seleucid king, made a military agreement with Antigonus, and the Second Syrian War began. Under the combined attack, Egypt lost ground in Anatolia and Phoenicia, and the city of Miletus, held by its ally, Timarchus, was seized by Antiochus II Theos. In 255 BC, Ptolemy made peace, ceding lands to the Seleucids and confirming Antigonus in his mastery of Greece.
Antigonus against Aratus
Having successfully repelled the external threat to his control of Greece, the main danger to the power of Antigonus lay in the Greek love of liberty. In 251 BC, Aratus, a young nobleman in the city of Sicyon expelled the tyrant Nicocles, who had ruled with the acquiescence of Antigonus, freed the people, and recalled the exiles. This led to confusion and division within the city. Fearing that Antigonus would exploit these divisions to attack the city, Aratus applied for the city to join the Achaean League, a league of a few small Achaean towns in the Pelopennese.
Preferring to use guile rather than military power, Antigonus sought to regain control over Sicyon through winning the young man over to his side. Accordingly, he sent him a gift of 25 talents, but, Aratus, instead of being corrupted by this wealth, immediately gave it away to his fellow citizens. With this money and another sum he received from Ptolemy III Euergetes, he was able to reconcile the different parties in Sicyon and unite the city.
Antigonus was troubled by the rising power and popularity of Aratus. If he were to receive extensive military and financial support from Ptolemy, Aratus would be able to threaten his position. He decided therefore to either win him over to his side or at least discredit him with Ptolemy. In order to do this, he showed him great marks of favour. When he was sacrificing to the gods in Corinth, he sent portions of the meat to Aratus at Sicyon, and complimented Aratus in front of his guests: "I thought this Sicyonian youth was only a lover of liberty and of his fellow-citizens, but now I look upon him as a good judge of the manners and actions of kings. For formerly he despised us, and, placing his hopes further off, admired the Egyptians, hearing much of their elephants, fleets, and palaces. But after seeing all these at a nearer distance, and perceiving them to be but mere stage props and pageantry, he has now come over to us. And for my part I willingly receive him, and, resolving to make great use of him myself, command you to look upon him as a friend." These words were readily believed by many, and when they were reported to Ptolemy, he half believed them.
But Aratus was far from becoming a friend of Antigonus, whom he regarded as the oppressor of Greek freedom. In 243 BC, in an attack by night, he seized the Acrocorinth, the strategically important fort by which Antigonus controlled the Isthmus and thus the Pelopennese. When news of this success reached Corinth, the Corinthians rose in rebellion, overthrew Antigonus' party, and joined the Achaean League. Next Aratus took the port of Lechaeum and captured 25 of Antigonus's ships.
This setback for Antigonus, sparked a general uprising against Macedonian power. The Megarians revolted and together with the Troezenians and Epidaurians enrolled in the Achaean League. With this increased strength, Aratus invaded the territory of Athens and plundered Salamis. Every Athenian freemen whom he captured was sent back to the Athenians without ransom to encourage them to join the rebellion. The Macedonians, however, retained their hold on Athens and the rest of Greece.
Relations with India
Antigonus is mentionned in the Edicts of Ashoka, as one of the recipients of the Indian Emperor Ashoka's Buddhist proselytism, although no Western historical record of this event remain:
"The conquest by Dharma has been won here, on the borders, and even six hundred yojanas (5,400-9,600 km) away, where the Greek king Antiochos rules, beyond there where the four kings named Ptolemy, Antigonos, Magas and Alexander rule, likewise in the south among the Cholas, the Pandyas, and as far as Tamraparni (Sri Lanka)." (Edicts of Ashoka, 13th Rock Edict, S. Dhammika).
Ashoka also claims that he encouraged the development of herbal medicine, for men and animals, in the territories of the Hellenistic kings:
"Everywhere within Beloved-of-the-Gods, King Piyadasi's [Ashoka's] domain, and among the people beyond the borders, the Cholas, the Pandyas, the Satiyaputras, the Keralaputras, as far as Tamraparni and where the Greek king Antiochos rules, and among the kings who are neighbors of Antiochos, everywhere has Beloved-of-the-Gods, King Piyadasi, made provision for two types of medical treatment: medical treatment for humans and medical treatment for animals. Wherever medical herbs suitable for humans or animals are not available, I have had them imported and grown. Wherever medical roots or fruits are not available I have had them imported and grown. Along roads I have had wells dug and trees planted for the benefit of humans and animals." 2nd Rock Edict
Death and appraisal
In 239 BC, Antigonus died at the age of 80 and left his kingdom to his son Demetrius II, who was to reign for the next 10 years. Except for a short period when he defeated the Gauls, Antigonus was not an heroic or successful military leader. His skills were mainly political. He preferred to rely on cunning, patience, and persistence to achieve his goals. While more brilliant leaders, like his father Demetrius, and Pyrrhus his neighbour, aimed higher and fell lower, Antigonus achieved a measure of mediocre security. By dividing the Greeks and ruling them indirectly through tyrants, however, he retarded their political development so that they later fell an easy prey for the Roman conquest. It is also said of him that he gained the affection of his subjects by his honesty and his cultivation of the arts, which he accomplished by gathering round him distinguished literary men, in particular philosophers, poets, and historians.
His surname "Gonatas", the meaning of which is lost, was usually derived by later Greek writers from the name of his supposed birthplace, Gonni (Gonnus) in Thessaly. More recent philologists suggest that it means "knock-kneed".
Janice J. Gabbert, Antigonus II Gonatas: A Political Biography (1997)
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