Demetrius I Poliorcetes (336-283 BC)

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Demetrius I Poliorcetes was one of the great generals of the Hellenistic era. He was the son of Antigonus I Monophthalmus, serving his father as a general and deputy. He first appears in his teens, when he was married to Phila, daughter of Antipater (321 BC). This marriage would stand him in good stead in later life, when his wife’s popularity would help him gain the throne of Macedonia.

His first military experience came during his father’s campaign against Eumenes of 317-6. This left Antigonus as the most powerful of the successors, and roused the hostility of his former colleagues. He was faced with a war on two fronts, against Ptolemy in Egypt and Cassander and Lysimachus in Asia Minor. Accordingly he left Demetrius in command in Coele Syria and Palestine, and concentrated on the war in Asia Minor.

Third Diadoch War 315-311 BC
Third Diadoch War

Demetrius’s first independent command did not end well. He was badly defeated by Ptolemy at Gaza in 312, forcing Antigonus to settle with Cassander and Lysumachus. Faced with the prospect of facing Antigonus alone, Ptolemy also joined the peace, which was formally agreed in 311. Antigonus regained possession of Coele Syria.

An important part of Antigonus’s policy was to stir up opposition to Cassander in Greece. Up until 308 he had relied on Polyperchon, briefly successor to Antipater as regent, to keep Cassander busy. In 308 Cassander finally came to terms with Polyperchon. After a short-lived intervention by Ptolemy in the same year, Cassander came close to having a free hand in Greece.

Fourth Diadoch War
Fourth Diadoch War
Antigonus responded by sending Demetrius to Greece, to win support amongst the Greek cities. In 315 Antigonus had issued a declaration from Tyre in which he promised to support the liberty of the Greek cities. In contrast Cassander had imposed an oligarchy on Athens (317 BC), which had endured for ten years but was unpopular. Demetrius was hailed as a divine liberator in Athens, despite his somewhat excessive lifestyle (he famously installed his harem at the back of the Parthenon).


Cyprus in 306 BC
This first visit to the Greek mainland would be short lived. In 306 he was called away by his father and given the job of conquering Cyprus. He won a naval battle at Salamis (Cyprus), defeated an Egyptian fleet, and took control of the island. In the aftermath of this victory, Antigonus finally declared himself to be king, almost certainly with the aim of claiming all of Alexander’s inheritance. Demetrius became his co-monarch.

From Cyprus, Demetrius was sent against Rhodes. He gained his nickname, Poliorcetes (“besieger” or “taker of cities”, after the siege of Rhodes. The siege lasted for a year (305-4 BC), and despite his best efforts, and the best siege equipment then available, ended in failure.  Ptolemy cleared possessed some sort of fleet, despite the defeat at Salamis, for he was able to keep the city supplied. The siege ended with a compromise peace, with Rhodes agreeing to ally herself with Antigonus against anyone other than Ptolemy.

The siege was ended after Cassander began to seriously threaten the Antigonid position in Greece. Demetrius was dispatched back to the mainland, where he soon restored the situation, gaining control of much of central Greece. In 302 he founded the League of Corinth, a federation of Greek cities, based at Corinth, and designed to be used to attack Macedonia.

The league was short lived. Demetrius’s successes in Greece forced his father’s enemies to act together. Cassander lent most of his army to Lysimachus, who crossed into Asia Minor, where he hoped to meet with Seleucus, who was coming from the east with another large army. Antigonus responded by summoning Demetrius back to Asia to fight a decisive battle. The two armies met at the Battle of Ipsus (301 BC). Demetrius led a successful cavalry charge, but like so many cavalry commanders got carried away by the pursuit. Back on the main battlefield the allied army crushed Antigonus’s force, with Seleucus’s elephants playing an important role on the battlefield. Antigonus was killed during the battle.

Demetrius was briefly a refugee as he fled from the battlefield, but he retained a surprisingly strong position. Cyprus, Tyre, Sidon, the League of Islands and a string of Ionian cities remained loyal, as did Corinth. Athens expelled his garrison and returned his fleet, and attempted a period of neutrality. For the next four years Demetrius concentrating on consolidating his position in Greece, but his main strength during this period was his fleet. 

Events in Macedonia soon played into Demetrius’s hands. In 297 Cassander, king of Macedonia, died. The oldest of his three sons, Philip IV, died a few months later. His two remaining sons were too young to take the throne, and so a regency in the name of both children followed. This soon became a civil war between the two sons, which ended with the death of one and the exile of the other. Demetrius was proclaimed king by the army (294 BC).

The Besieger made a poor king. Macedonia needed a period of peace to recover from years of warfare. Instead, Demetrius made it clear that he intended to invade Asia. He made his first attempt in 293, attacking Lysimachus, despite having been recognised by him as king of Macedonia. This expedition had to be cancelled when Boeotia rebelled, with the help of Aetolia and Pyrrhus of Epirus (292 BC). The revolt was put down, but was followed by three years of war against Pyrrhus. That war ended in 289, by which time Demetrius was loosing ground in Asia and at sea. Ptolemy seized Sidon and Tyre in 288/7, and at some time lost the alliance of the Island League.

Demetrius lost Macedonia during 288 BC. Lysimachus attacked from the east, Pyrrhus from the west. Demetrius managed to hold off Lysimachus, but when he turned to face Pyrrhus his army deserted. Demetrius fled south, taking refuge at Cassandreia, in the Chalcidic peninsula. There his wife Phila committed suicide, possibly because of the loss of Macedonia.

Amazingly, Demetrius was still not defeated. He was able to raise some support in Greece, and still maintained a strong fleet. Athens revolted against his rule, and Demetrius began a siege (287), but soon agreed to a peace that re-established Athenian democracy (which lasted for about twenty years).

Demetrius then embarked on his last adventure. With a force of around 10,000 mercenaries he invaded Asia Minor, landing at Miletus. From there he invaded Ionian, without much success. In 286 Lysimachus sent his son Agathocles to deal with Demetrius, who retreated east, hoping to create a new power base in the eastern satrapies. He was too late to achieve this – Seleucus had secured his position in the east by sending his son Antiochus to rule there as co-king - and was forced into Cilicia. During 285 he managed to hold off Seleucus, and even came close to breaking into Syria, but at a crucial moment he fell ill, and his army fell apart. He made one final attempt to defeat Seleucus at the Amanus (285 BC). Escaping from this final defeat, he was eventually trapped and forced to surrender.

Unusually, Seleucus kept Demetrius alive. He was installed in a luxurious prison at Apamea on the Orontes, where he proceeded to drink himself to death (283 BC). Demetrius was one of the great generals of the Hellenistic era. However, he operated best as a second in command – for all his military skill he had limited political judgement. When he had a chance to enjoy a period of stability as king of Macedonia he wasted it. For all that, Demetrius did found a dynasty that ruled Macedonia from 277 BC, when his son Antigonus Gonatas seized the throne, until 168 BC, when Perseus of Macedon was defeated by the Romans.

Ancient Warfare Magazine: Volume III Issue 2: Alexander's Funeral Games. This issue focuses on the prolonged and intensive period of warfare that followed the death of Alexander the Great, when his generals fought for power, at first hoping to inherit Alexander's entire empire and later to preserve their new kingdoms. After a general overview of the wars the articles pick out some of the more interesting aspects of the wars, including the rollercoaster career of Demetrius Poliorcetes, and the important early battle at Gabiene. [see more]

Ancient Warfare Magazine: Volume III Issue 2: Alexander's Funeral Games
How to cite this article: Rickard, J (4 July 2007), Demetrius I Poliorcetes (336-283), http://www.historyofwar.org/articles/people_demetrius_I_poliorcetes.html

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