Demetrius the Besieger 
by Pat Wheatley and Charlotte Dunn.
Oxford, 496 pp., £100, April 2020, 978 0 19 883604 9
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Demetriusthe Besieger, son of Antigonus the One-Eyed and one of the generals who fought to succeed Alexander the Great in the late fourth century and early third century bce, had a career of mixed success, but constant intrigue. He won victories on land and sea, terrified cities into submission, married five times, was widowed twice, never divorced and died in captivity at the age of 54 from an illness apparently brought on by excessive drinking and idleness. As often as he was proclaimed a living god, a saviour or a king, he was rejected by his subjects and plotted against by would-be dynasts. His many affairs, the rumours that he was his father’s nephew rather than son and his ignominious escape from a wartime assignation fill the pages of Plutarch’s biographical account, in which he pairs Demetrius with Mark Antony as examples of men whose lives, brilliantly begun, ended in disgrace. But if Demetrius lived for the show, he died in silence. Shortly after he was captured, he bequeathed his empire to his son and cut off his family and friends.* Not only did he abdicate his reign and relinquish his divinity; he withdrew from the world altogether.

He was born in Macedonia in 336, the year Alexander came to the throne. Before he was six, his family moved to Celaenae (modern-day Dinar), the large and prosperous capital of Greater Phrygia. We have only snatches of information about his childhood – he was almost as big as his father, handsome and clever – but from the moment he stepped onto the battlefield as a teenager, joining the wars of succession that followed Alexander’s death in 323, Demetrius pursued his military ambitions with monomaniacal determination. He earned his epithet after a year-long siege of Rhodes in 304. He didn’t actually sack the city – his father ordered that both this operation and another two years earlier at Salamis be concluded prematurely – but after Rhodes, no city would resist him. In all, he led an astonishing 47 sieges, of which only six were called off. He often relied on huge, fortified siege towers called helepoleis, or ‘city-takers’: 45 metres tall, each one had eight wheels and was pulled by 3400 men. (The siege equipment Demetrius left in Rhodes paid for the building of the Colossus.) He was said to be just as effective in sea battles.

Yet he suffered staggering defeats, too. At the Battle of Gaza in late 312, he allowed Seleucus – the general who would end Demetrius’ and his father’s careers – to escape and found the Seleucid Empire. The losses intensified after Antigonus’ defeat and death at Ipsus in 301. By the early 280s, Demetrius had lost his kingdom, regained it and lost it again. It’s hard to imagine why he didn’t just give up. Eventually he had to: surrounded in the Nur Mountains of Turkey, abandoned by his men and dissuaded from taking his own life, he surrendered to Seleucus in the early days of 285. He spent his remaining years as a captive.

Demetrius may sound like a biographer’s dream. But he has often been dismissed as an ‘also ran’ among the big personalities of the Hellenistic era, a mercurial general whose excesses got the better of him, or as nothing more than a ‘mirror’ of his time. Pat Wheatley and Charlotte Dunn’s Demetrius the Besieger is the first biography written in English and the first comprehensive treatment of him in any modern language. (Wheatley is the primary researcher for the first half, Dunn for the second.) The product of their two doctoral dissertations and years of scholarship, Wheatley and Dunn’s book argues that Demetrius deserves to be taken seriously. It also shows, indirectly, why he has been so hard to pin down.

The main sources are two ancient historians, each difficult in his own way. The first, Hieronymus of Cardia, served with Demetrius, his father and his son from 316 until his death in the 260s. But his account, panned by one ancient literary critic for being so badly written ‘that no one could bear to make it to the end’, survives only in fragments. It was an important source for Diodorus Siculus, however, who wrote in the first century bce and provides a detailed narrative of Demetrius’ life up to the year 302. More accessible – but less reliable – is Plutarch’s Life, published nearly half a millennium after the events it describes. Plutarch covers the whole life, but his narrative of a dissolute and flawed man is manifestly shaped by his own agenda. On some matters, Wheatley and Dunn can turn to other sources: stone inscriptions, the coins that Demetrius and Antigonus both minted, other historians of the period. But they often find themselves in the position of a trial jury, having to decide whether the story they have been told is true and where it is most likely to be misleading.

In Wheatley and Dunn’s account, Demetrius emerges as a savvy manipulator of his own image, especially during the crucial years at the turn of the century. In 306 he and his father became the first Hellenistic kings, asserting their moral (if not actual) claim to be Alexander’s true successors in a coronation ceremony at Antigoneia-on-the-Orontes in northern Syria. Their shared title signalled Antigonus’ dynastic intent. The event was made to look spontaneous, but had almost certainly been long in the planning. More impressive and, ultimately, problematic was Demetrius’ deification in Athens a year earlier, after he had ‘restored freedom’ to the city and reinstated its ‘ancestral constitution’. We can only imagine what effect being worshipped as a god had on his psychology – Plutarch writes that it ‘further corrupted someone who was otherwise not well in his mind’ – but in short order Demetrius came to dominate almost every aspect of Athenian life, from its civic institutions to its religious rites.

Even Alexander would have been jealous. Golden statues of Demetrius and his father were placed in the centre of the city next to those of Harmodius and Aristogeiton, the tyrant slayers credited with restoring democracy to Athens two centuries earlier. Demetrius and Antigonus were worshipped as Athens’ saviours, honoured by annual games and had their images woven into the sacred peplos, the garment presented to the goddess Athena at her festival each year. Plutarch records still more extravagant honours for Demetrius – an altar was erected at the site where he alighted from his chariot; his every utterance was treated as oracular – but these are omitted in other sources. The Athenians reorganised daily life around their new heroes. They created two new tribes, something that had not been done since the end of tyranny. Years, months and days of the week were renamed for Demetrius and his priests. An annual festival called the ‘Demetrieia’ was instituted in his honour, either connected to the festival for Dionysos or replacing it entirely.

To all intents and purposes, Demetrius made himself as central to Athens as Athena herself. It’s possible that some of the honours were only proposed, not enacted. (There’s little evidence that the new calendar was used, for example.) But it is also clear that in other cases the Athenians were happy to change their laws and rituals for Demetrius. His rapid initiation into the Eleusinian mysteries in 303 was accomplished through some creative accounting, a process that Plutarch disparaged as ‘unprecedented and unlawful’. Hermocles (or Hermippus) of Cyzicus won a prize for his paean – a religious song often dedicated to Apollo – to Demetrius and his father in 307. When Demetrius stayed in the city in the winter of 304-3 he was housed in the Parthenon.

The problem with being a god is that you have to live up to expectations. After his defeat at Ipsus in 301, Demetrius was officially expelled by the Athenians. They sent a delegation to Delos to inform him that he needn’t bother to return. (Official records from Delos suggest they were glad to be rid of him, too: ‘When the king sailed away, they removed the shit from the shrine with hired labour at a cost of 23 drachmas.’) In 295 he regained control of Athens after a long siege, apparently just in time for the Dionysia, at which he engineered a grand entrance in the manner of a tragic actor.

Around 290 the Athenians composed and performed a hymn to Demetrius. It’s so extraordinary that it’s worth considering in detail. After addressing him as the son of Poseidon and Aphrodite, the Athenians make their request:

Other gods keep far away, or they do not have ears, or they do not exist, or they do not pay attention to us, but we see that you are present, not made of wood or stone, but real. So we pray to you: first make peace, dearest one, for you are powerful. There is a Sphinx, who rules not over Thebes but the whole of Greece, an Aetolian Sphinx, who sits on a rock, like the one of old, capturing and carrying off all of our people. I cannot fight against her … I ask most of all that you, you yourself, punish this Sphinx. And if not, find an Oedipus who will throw her down a precipice or burn her into ashes.

The hymn is so over the top that some have been tempted to dismiss it, but the consensus is that it represents a conduit between divine ruler and mortal subjects. The Athenians assign Demetrius divine parentage and praise him for the immediacy and vitality of his holy presence. But they also remind him of his great responsibility. The hymn makes Demetrius’ divinity, for all its elevated heights, conditional: he is a god, so long as he acts like one.

No biography would be complete without the gossipy stories that attached to Demetrius’ personal life: his trumped up ‘illnesses’ to mask late nights of drinking and carousing; the dramas of his multiple marriages; his many affairs. Like other Macedonian royals, Demetrius practised polygamy. He married five women – Phila, Eurydice of Athens, Deidameia, Lanassa and Ptolemaïs – though not all of them enthusiastically. As a teenager, Demetrius vehemently protested against his first marriage, to Phila, who was twenty years older than him and twice widowed. She provided diplomatic clout and political connections, however, both through her family and her earlier marriages. Plutarch relishes describing the bad start to the marriage, but a more complex picture soon emerges. Phila was the first Macedonian woman known to hold the title ‘queen’; she was associated with Aphrodite and a temple was dedicated to her in Athens. She may have supplied Demetrius with crucial intelligence that helped him reclaim Macedonia in 294. A decade earlier, during the siege of Rhodes, he had been furious when the letters, royal robes and other personal effects Phila had sent him were captured by the enemy and handed over to Ptolemy. She took her own life after Demetrius’ defeat at Beroea in 288, six years before his death.

Demetrius was closest, however, to a woman he never married, Lamia, the daughter of Cleanor of Athens. He first encountered her in 306 among the prisoners of war captured from Ptolemy. Plutarch describes her:

Among them was the famous Lamia, initially esteemed for her skill – she was thought to play the aulos [a reed pipe] without fault – but later illustrious in the realm of love. At that time, she was already leaving behind her youth. Finding Demetrius much younger than herself, she ruled over and possessed him with her charms so that he was a lover for her alone, but he was a beloved for all other women.

The ancient sources are full of stories about Demetrius and Lamia, not all of them credible. Plutarch is just a little too smug when he tells us that he has omitted the most salacious details of their relationship to save Athens’ reputation. Not everyone had the same scruples. Among the most outrageous claims is the accusation by the Christian writer Clement of Alexandria that the couple had sex in Athena’s bridal chamber on the Acropolis.

Lamia divides Wheatley and Dunn. (In fact, she divides Wheatley from himself, as he observes that he has become far more alert to the biases of Plutarch and other ancient authors over the last two decades.) Wheatley does not give much credence to Clement, but he generally follows, with scepticism, the rather negative, and sometimes ribald, tradition about Lamia. He considers some anecdotes ‘exaggerated’ or ‘dubious’, even if ‘not wholly unbelievable’. Occasionally, however, he goes further than the sources, speculating, for instance, that Demetrius was angry that his communications with Phila were intercepted because the theft of his armour and regalia ‘hindered’ his ‘bedroom games’ with Lamia. This is a stretch. It’s true that in the second century ce Aelian reported disapprovingly that Demetrius would visit Lamia wearing his crown and full armour. But Aelian’s concern is with power and appearances, not what happened behind closed doors. And anyhow, losing his royal regalia and correspondence to his enemy would be reason enough for anger. More important, the book slips too easily into innuendo at this point. There’s no question that Demetrius drank to excess and pursued many lovers – of all ages and genders – but Wheatley, despite his efforts to avoid his sources’ manipulations, at times falls into their trap. Dunn takes a different approach in the second half of the book and offers a new reading of the stay on the Acropolis. Rather than rejecting Clement outright, she suggests that the ‘sacred marriage’ that so scandalised him could have been part of an established Greek fertility ceremony. This approach requires reading the sources against the grain, but it gives coherence to what would otherwise have been a remarkably brazen act.

Whatever happened that winter on the Acropolis, Clement’s story tells us something about the challenge and fascination of trying to understand Demetrius. It’s frustrating to think we might have known more. There is a suggestion that Demetrius wrote his memoirs while in captivity in the final years of his life, but nothing of them survives. Cavafy thought of him as ‘an actor … who, when the performance is over,/changes his attire and departs’. He was rarely first or best among Alexander’s successors, but he had a flair for shaping institutions and public opinion, and his battlefield victories became the stuff of legend. The empire he ruled didn’t fall to Rome until a century after his death. Yet what survives of Demetrius might be better measured not in acres of territory or in battles lost and won, but in the tremendous oscillations of his fortune and his tireless determination.

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