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Poseidon Head, Apollo on a ship, commemorating a naval victory over the Egyptian fleet



Antigonus II Gonatas (Αντίγονος Β’ Γονατάς) (c. 319 BC—239 BC) was a Macedonian king, the son of Demetrius I Poliorcetes, and grandson of Antigonus I Monophthalmus.

On the death of his father (283 BC), he assumed the title "king of Macedonia", but did not obtain possession of the throne until 276 BC, after it had been successively in the hands of Pyrrhus, Lysimachus, Seleucus, and Ptolemy Ceraunus.

Antigonus II Gonatas (Greek Αντίγονος B΄ Γονατάς ca. 319 BC—239 BC) was a powerful ruler who firmly established the Antigonid dynasty in Macedonia and acquired fame for his victory over the Gauls who had invaded the Balkans. His political leadership in Greece slowed political development and made Greece fall more easily to the Romans.

Greek stamp of the Antigonus II coin, International year of the ocean 1999

Birth and family

Antigonus Gonatas was born around 319 BC, probably in Gonnoi in Thessaly. He was related to the most powerful of the Diadochi (the generals of Alexander who divided the empire after his death in 323 BC). Antigonus's father was Demetrius I Poliorcetes, who was the son of Antigonus I Monophthalmus, who then controlled much of Asia. His mother was Phila, the daughter of Antipater. The latter controlled Macedonia and Greece and was recognized as regent of the empire, which in theory remained united. In this year, however, Antipater died, leading to further struggles for territory and dominance.

Antigonus Gonatas with his mother Phila, left the Philosopher Menedemus

The careers of Antigonus's grandfather and father showed great swings in fortune. After coming closer than anyone to reuniting the empire of Alexander, Antigonus Monophthalmus was defeated and killed in the great battle of Ipsus in 301 BC and the territory he formerly controlled was divided among his enemies, Cassander, Ptolemy, Lysimachus, and Seleucus.

Demetrius's general

The fate of Antigonus Gonatas, now 18, was closely tied with that of his father Demetrius who escaped from the battle with 9.000 troops. Jealousy among the victors eventually allowed Demetrius to regain part of the power his father had lost. He conquered Athens and much of Greece and in 294 BC he seized the throne of Macedonia from Alexander, the son of Cassander.

Because Antigonus Gonatas was the grandson of Antipater and the nephew of Cassander, through his mother, his presence helped to reconcile the supporters of these former kings to the rule of his father.

In 292 BC, while Demetrius was campaigning in Boeotia, he received news that Lysimachus, the ruler of Thrace and the enemy of his father had been taken prisoner by Dromichaetes, a barbarian. Hoping to seize Lysimachus's territories in Thrace and Asia, Demetrius, delegated command of his forces in Boeotia to Antigonus and immediately marched North. While he was away, the Boeotians rose in rebellion, but were defeated by Antigonus, who bottled them up in Thebes.

After the failure of his expedition to Thrace, Demetrius rejoined his son at the siege of Thebes. As the Thebans defended their city stubbornly, Demetrius often forced his men to attack the city at great cost, even though there was little hope of capturing it. It is said that, distressed by the heavy losses, Antigonus asked his father: "Why, father, do we allow these lives to be thrown away so unnecessarily?" Demetrius appears to have showed his contempt for the lives of his soldiers by replying: "We don't have to find rations for the dead." But he also showed a similar disregard for his own life and was badly wounded at the siege by a bolt through the neck.

In 291 BC, Demetrius finally took the city after using siege engines to demolish its walls. But control of Macedonia and most of Greece was merely a stepping stone to his plans for further conquest. He aimed at nothing less than the revival of Alexander's empire and started making preparations on a grand scale, ordering the construction of a fleet of 500 ships, many of them of unprecedented size.

Such preparations and the obvious intent behind them, naturally alarmed the other kings, Seleucus, Ptolemy, Lysimachus, and Pyrrhus, who immediately formed an alliance. In the Spring of 288 BC Ptolemy's fleet appeared off Greece, inciting the cities to revolt. At the same time, Lysimachus attacked Macedonia from the East while Pyrrhus did so from the West. Demetrius left Antigonus in control of Greece, while he hurried to Macedonia.

By now the Macedonians had come to resent the extravagance and arrogance of Demetrius, and were not prepared to fight a difficult campaign for him. In 287 BC, Pyrrhus took the Macedonian city of Verroia and Demetrius's army promptly deserted and went over to the enemy who was much admired by the Macedonians for his bravery. At this change of fortune, Phila, the mother of Antigonus, killed herself with poison. Meanwhile in Greece, Athens revolted. Demetrius therefore returned and besieged the city, but he soon grew impatient and decided on a more dramatic course. Leaving Antigonus in charge of the war in Greece, he assembled all his ships and embarked with 11,000 infantry and all his cavalry to attack Caria and Lydia, provinces of Lysimachus.

By separating himself from his son and departing into Asia, Demetrius seemed to take his bad luck with him, but in reality it was the fear and the jealousy of the other kings. As Demetrius was chased across Asia Minor to the Taurus Mountains by the armies of Lysimachus and Seleucus, Antigonus attained success in Greece. Ptolemy's fleet was driven off and Athens surrendered

In the wilderness

In 285 BC, Demetrius, worn down by his fruitless campaign, surrendered to Seleucus. At this point he wrote to son and his commanders in Athens and Corinth telling them to henceforth consider him a dead man and to ignore any letters they might receive written under his seal. Macedonia, meanwhile had been divided between Pyrrhus and Lysimachus, but like two wolves sharing a piece of meat, they soon fought over it with the result that Lysimachus drove Pyrrhus out and took over the whole kingdom.

Following the capture of his father, Antigonus proved himself a dutiful son. He wrote to all the kings, especially Seleucus, offering to surrender all the territory he controlled and proposing himself as a hostage for his father's release, but to no avail. In 283 BC, at the age of 55, Demetrius died in captivity in Syria. When Antigonus heard that his father's remains were being brought to him, he put to sea with his entire fleet, met Seleucus's ships near the Cyclades, and took the relics to Corinth with great ceremony. After this, the remains were interred at the town of Demetrias that his father had founded in Thessaly.

In 282 BC, Seleucus declared war on Lysimachus and the next year defeated and killed him at the battle of Corupedium in Lydia. He then crossed to Europe to claim Thrace and Macedonia, but Ptolemy Ceraunus, the son of Ptolemy, murdered him and seized the Macedonian throne. Antigonus decided the time was ripe to take back his father's kingdom, but when he marched North, Ptolemy Ceraunus defeated his army.

Ptolemy's success, however, was short lived. In the Winter of 279 BC, a great horde of Gauls descended on Macedonia from the northern forests, crushed Ptolemy's army, and killed him in battle, starting two years of complete anarchy in the kingdom. After plundering Macedonia, the Gauls invaded Greece. Antigonus cooperated in the defence of Greece against the barbarians, but it was the Aetolians who took the lead in defeating the Gauls. In 278 BC, a Greek army with a large Aetolian contingent resisted the Gauls at Thermopylae and Delphi, inflicting heavy casualties and forcing them to retreat.

The next year (277 BC), Antigonus, sailed to the Hellespont, landing near Lysimachia at the neck of the Thracian Chersonese. When an army of Gauls under the command of Cerethrius appeared, Antigonus laid an ambush. He abandoned his camp and beached his ships, then concealed his men. The Gauls looted the camp, but when they started to attack the ships, Antigonus's army appeared, trapping them with the sea to their rear. In this way, Antigonus was able to inflict a crushing defeat on them and claim the Macedonian throne. It was around this time, under these favorable omens, that his son and successor, Demetrius II Aetolicus was born.

King of Macedonia

Antigonus against Pyrrhus

Pyrrhus, 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.

Chremonidean War

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.


References

  • Plutarch, Parallel Lives, "Demetrius", "Pyrrhus", "Aratus"
  • Justin, Epitome of Pompeius Trogus, xxiv. 1, xxv. 1-3, xxvi. 2
  • Polybius, Histories, ii. 43-45, ix. 29, 34
  • Gabbert, Janice; Antigonus II Gonatas: A Political Biography (1997)
  • Thirlwall, Connop; History of Greece, vol. viii. (1847)
  • Smith, William (editor); Dictionary of Greek and Roman Biography and Mythology, "Antigonus Gonatas", Boston, (1867)
  • Encyclopædia Britannica, "Antigonus Gonatas", (1911)

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".

Chremonidean War

Preceded by Demetrius I Poliorcetes
Antigonid King 283 - 239 BC
Succeeded by Demetrius II Aetolicus

Preceded by Sosthenes
King of Macedon 277–274 BC
Succeeded by Pyrrhus

Preceded by Pyrrhus
King of Macedon 272–239 BC
Succeeded by Demetrius II Aetolicus

Janice J. Gabbert, Antigonus II Gonatas: A Political Biography (1997)

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