BMCR 1998.10.17

Antigonus II Gonatas. A Political Biography

, Antigonus II Gonatas : a political biography. . London: Routledge, 1997. viii, 188. ISBN 9781280323676.

1 Responses

While a new study of Alexander the Great occasions no surprise,1, it is nice to see that his successors can attract their share of attention. Since 1990 we have seen books on Seleukos Nikator,2 Antigonos Monophthalmos,3 Antigonos Doson,4 Lysimakhos,5 and Ptolemy I Soter,6 there is now even a book on the minor dynasts of Hellenistic Asia Minor.7 Plutarch aside, the granddaddy of the modern biographies of great Hellenistic kings is surely W.W. Tarn’s Antigonos Gonatas, originally published in 1913.8 Tarn’s book is biography on a grand scale; he aims not only to recount Antigonos’ political career, but to bring to life the man and his times, and there is no missing his genuine admiration for his subject. A lot has happened in the intervening 80 years. Much new material has come to light (more on some of this below), and new interpretations of old data have won the field.9 Moreover, Tarn’s book sprawls; with a text of 409 pages and appendices and addenda occupying 68 more, Antigonos Gonatas is hardly the kind of book one can assign even to advanced undergraduates taking Hellenistic history. It is high time for another attempt at Gonatas’ life, and this is what Janice Gabbert now offers, in 72 pages of text and seven of notes.10

The difficulties in dealing with the third century are well known. Sources are few, problems many. Antigonos’ long life — he was born around 319, became king of Makedon in 277, and died in 239 — spanned much of the century, and he was certainly one of the preeminent political actors of those eventful times. Tarn saw writing Antigonos’ life as a mechanism for lending structure to this sprawling time; under the guise of biography, Tarn produced a history of Greece and the Aegean in the third century, which in turn created a context for understanding Antigonos’ life and for supporting the interpretations he advanced. While one could justly complain that for many dozens of pages at a time the subject of Tarn’s book sinks from view in a complex analysis of Aitolian politics or a discussion of Ptolemaic objectives in the Aegean, Tarn not only always brings us back to his main interest, but also shows why his digressions are crucial to his understanding of Antigonos’ actions and policies. Again, if one can sometimes complain that in this way Tarn confects a false confidence that we know what Gonatas did and why he did it even when, in fact, we don’t, Tarn offers a structure within which one can argue against him. He holds back nothing that might be relevant.

Gabbert has taken a very different approach. Her focus is ostensibly entirely on her subject, his activities, his policies. She clearly intends her book as the starting point for a neophyte reader, who will find simple introductions to basic matters scattered throughout the text (for example, the warning against regarding the Makedonian monarchy as if it were governed by a constitution that starts the chapter on “The Nature of the Monarchy”). Yet, surprisingly, there are long sections where Antigonos disappears. The most frustrating of these for me came at the beginning, where she tries to sketch what Antigonos’ early life might have been like; since we know almost nothing about his experiences then and — most important — his relations with his father Demetrios Poliorketes, we are treated to an overview of Demetrios’ activities accompanied by some speculation as to Antigonos’ reactions to them. Like Tarn, Gabbert supposes that Antigonos spent much of his youth in Athens; for Tarn, this experience helped to explain what Tarn saw as his extraordinary love for the city and its philosophers. Gabbert does not seem to make much of it.

The most important characteristic of a book like this, however, is surely control of the evidence and the important secondary bibliography. There is no room in Gabbert’s design for extended discussion of controversial points; the reader must be confident that behind a brief sentence or two on such matters lies a considered judgment of all the evidence. This constraint makes it much harder to write a brief introduction like Antigonus II Gonatas than a massive tome like Tarn’s. Unfortunately, a review of her discussion of the Khremonidean War, a central event of Antigonos’ reign for which the evidence is especially rich (and especially biased) owing to the involvement of Athens,11 and to which she devotes nine pages as opposed to the 35 in Tarn, reveals a number of serious inadequacies on exactly this point.

For example, Gabbert continues to prefer her “shorter chronology” for the war first championed in an article in 1987.12 This chronology dates the archon Peithidemos, under whom Khremonides proposed the decree declaring war,13 to 265/4, rather than 268/7, and Antipatros, under whom it ended, to 263/2 instead of 262/1. In a note Gabbert admits (77 n. 43) that “In the final analysis there is equally good reason to place Peithidemos in 268/7 or 265/4, and Antipater in 263/2 or 262/1.” Her preference for the shorter chronology is governed by her belief that the relatively few attested events of the war fit better in two or three years than in six or seven. But it is no longer true that “there is equally good reason” to choose 268/7 or 265/4 for the start of the war and 263/2 or 262/1 for its end. For Peithidemos’ archonship the only real objection to 268/7 followed from the restoration in IG II 2 1534B145 of the name of Peithidemos as archon; his appearance there would have required his archonship to fall in 265/4.14 Sara Aleshire has now removed this objection by removing Peithidemos,15 and the testimony of IG II 2 665.8 that a state of war already existed in 267/6 BC can prevail: there is no doubt that Peithidemos was archon in 268/7, and that the war began in that year.16 At the other end of the war, T. Dorandi has now shown that the argument for dating Antipatros to 262/1 rather than the traditional 263/2 rests on a misreading of a papyrus; he can now be securely placed in 263/2, the date favored by Gabbert (but on insufficient grounds).17 None of this appears in Gabbert’s discussion.

Gabbert hardly notices the very important Athenian decree honoring Epikhares, throughly studied by Heinz Heinen and recently augmented by new discoveries.18 In a crucial recent study Denis Knoepfler has shown that Antigonos’ troops were already in Attike by the spring of 267, necessitating the guarding of the crops during harvest. A very important further implication, which is supported by other evidence, is that by 268 Eretria had revolted from Antigonos. The loss of this city, so long a loyal Makedonian supporter under its leading citizen Menedemos, would have changed dramatically the strategic situation northeast of Attike, and may help explain why the Athenians thought the summer of 268 an appropriate time to revolt.19

Following Stanley Burstein’s argument that Arsinoe II cannot be credited with a policy designed to reconstruct Lysimakhos’ kingdom,20 Gabbert discounts strongly the view that she influenced Ptolemaios II’s policy with regard to this war (p. 51).21 The evidence of IG II 2 687.17,22 declaring explicitly her role in this policy, has recently found new support in the redating of her death from 270 to July 1 or 2, 268.23 This redating itself has been challenged on grounds that I am not competent to judge,24 but the reader deserves to be pointed to this controversy — the matter is less clear-cut than Gabbert leads one to believe.

Finally, Gabbert inserts into her brief chapter on the war a lengthy digression on the value of naval warfare. Her purpose is to explain why Antigonos refused to meet the Ptolemaic fleet in battle: “What [she asks] could a naval battle have accomplished? In a purely military sense, nothing. Not territory; the winner does not maintain possession of the battlefield. Certainly not ‘control of the sea.’ This is difficult enough in the modern period, and something no ancient navy could seriously hope for…. The value of a strong fleet, and the value of a naval victory, was primarily psychological.25 This extraordinary proclamation sounds very strange to me, and no doubt it would have sounded equally strange to the victors (and vanquished) at Salamis (by Athens or at Kypros). But even in the context of the Khremonidean war, it seems especially hard to understand. Ptolemaic connections with their Greek allies were maintained by the fleet, on which also depended Ptolemaic projection of power in the war. The Ptolemaic forts in Attike depended on the ability of Patroklos to supply them by sea, and the protection their troops provided to the Athenians seeking to gather the harvest in the spring of 267 would have ended for good had Antigonos simply cut off communications by beating the Ptolemies at sea. That he did not face the Ptolemaic fleet till the end of the war, or some years later (depending on what date is accepted for the battle of Kos),26 says volumes about the real risks he would have run after a naval defeat.27

These deficiencies are worrying in a book that purports to give a judicious overview, and that is aimed at the uninitiated reader. Tarn’s Antigonos Gonatas is, of course, beset by other vices. Aside from the considerable technical problem of updating his references, it is not always an easy task to see where his argument rests not on evidence, or even on generally accepted postulates about the Hellenistic world, but on his own preconceptions. His genuinely compelling, unified vision of his subject, fashioned out of the conviction that he truly understood Gontas, even — or especially — where our sources fail us, is surely one of the most dangerous aspects of Tarn’s book, simply because (I would argue) he is wrong. On the other hand, as I remarked above, Tarn gives us everything he had to hand when he wrote, and a discerning reader can use Tarn’s own material to argue against him. The absence of important material from Gabbert’s treatment prevents the same reader from conducting the same kind of argument with her. The final result is a book that, though well intentioned, cannot be put in the hands of its intended audience and will not satisfy the expert. For all its faults, its bias, its woeful obsolence, there is still nowhere to turn for a biography of Gonatas but Tarn’s old book, and no option but to do the work to bring him up to date and do battle with his Antigonos.

1. The latest known to me is N.G.L. Hammond, The Genius of Alexander the Great (Chapel Hill 1997). Others may well have appeared before this review.

2. John D. Grainger, Seleukos Nikator. Constructing a Hellenistic Kingdom (London and New York 1990).

3. Richard Billows, Antigonos the One-Eyed and the Creation of the Hellenistic State (Berkeley 1990).

4. Sylvie Le Bohec, Antigone Dôsôn. Roi de Macédoine (Nancy 1993).

5. F. Landucci Gattioni, Lisimaco di Tracia. Un sovrano nella prospettiva del primo ellenismo (Milan 1992); Helen S. Lund, Lysimachos (New York 1992); C. Franco, Il regno di Lisimaco (Pisa 1993).

6. Walter M. Ellis, Ptolemy of Egypt (London and New York 1994).

7. Jörn Kobes, “Kleine Könige.” Untersuchungen zu den Lokaldynasten im hellenistischen Kleinasien (323-188 v. Chr.), Pharos 8 (St. Katharinen 1996).

8. By Oxford University Press. P.M. Fraser tells the wonderful story of being inspired to study Hellenistic history by reading Tarn’s masterpiece to while away idle time on a gun emplacement in Britain in World War II; see Cities of Alexander the Great (Oxford 1996) viii.

9. To give just one well-known example: Tarn’s view of the political character of many of the so-called “vase foundations” on Delos has been radically modified. The basic studies are Philippe Bruneau, Recherches sur les cultes de Délos à l’époque hellénistique et à l’époque impériale (Paris 1970) 515-583 and Kostas Buraselis, Das hellenistische Makedonien und die Ägäis (Munich 1982) 141-151.

10. I have not seen Gabbert’s 1982 dissertation “The Greek Hegemony of Antigonos II Gonatas” (U. Cincinnati).

11. For a good recent account from an Athenian perspective, see Christian Habicht, Athens from Alexander to Antony, tr. Deborah Lucas Schneider (Cambridge, Mass., 1997) 142-149, on which my account relies heavily.

12. J. Gabbert, “The Anarchic Dating of the Chremonidean War,” CJ 82 (1987) 230-235.

13. IG II 2 687 + 686. Gabbert cites only 687, but these two texts belong together: see K.K. Smith, “A New Fragment of the Decree of Chremonides,” CP 9 (1914) 225-234.

14. See B.D. Merrit, “Mid-Third-Century Athenian Archons,” Hesperia 50 (1981) 83-84.

15. Sara Aleshire, The Athenian Asklepieion (Leiden 1989) 293-301.

16. Admirably summarized by Stephen V. Tracy, “A Fragmentary Inscription from the Agora Praising Ephebes,” Hesperia 59 (1990) 545; see also Habicht, Athens 142. Hostilities are also attested in IG II 2 667.7, see also 666. For the dates of the archons Menekles and Nikias (267/6 and 266/5) see B.D. Meritt, “Athenian Archons 347/6-48/7 B.C.,” Historia 26 (1977) 174 with references.

17. Tiziano Dorandi, Ricerche sulla cronologia dei filosofi ellenistici, Beiträge zur Altertumskunde 19 (Stuttgart 1991) 24-26. The mistaken case was worked out by Heinz Heinen, Untersuchungen zur hellenistischen Geschichte des 3. Jahrhundert v. Chr., Historia Einzelscshrift 20 (Wiesbaden 1972) 182-186.

18. Heinen, Untersuchungen 152-154 (text), 154-159 (analysis), with B.Ch. Petrakos, Praktika 1985 [1990] 13-14 ( SEG 40 [1990] 135). Gabbert cites only the editio princeps (as SEG 24 154 at 77 n. 46, which reprints B. Ch. Petrakos, AD 22.1 [1967] 38-52), even though Heinen is in her bibliography.

19. D. Knoepfler, “Les kryptoi du stratège Épicharès à Rhamnonte et le début de la guerre de Chrémonidès,” BCH 117 (1993) 327-341; see also “Les relations des cités eubéennes avec Antigonos Gonatas et la chronologie delphique au débat de l’époque étolienne,” BCH 119 (1995) 141-144; G. Reger, “Athens and Tenos in the Early Hellenistic Age,” CQ 42 (1992) 376-377.

20. Stanley Burstein, “Arsinoë II Philadelphus: A Revisionist View,” in Philip II, Alexander the Great and the Macedonian Heritage, eds. W.L. Adams and E.N. Borza (Washington, DC, 1982) 197-212.

21. See the views of Tarn, AG 290-291, 313.

22. Rightly emphasized by Christian Habicht, “Athens and the Ptolemies,” CA 11 (1992) 72 (reprinted in Christian Habicht, Athen in hellenistischer Zeit [Munich 1994] 144): “the role of the queen … must have corresponded to something very real.”

23. Erhard Grzybek, Du calendier macédonien au calendier ptolémaïque. Problèmes de chronologie hellénistique, Schweizerische Beiträge zur Altertumswissenschaft 20 (Basel 1990) 103-112.

24. G. Hölbl, “Bemerkungen zur frühptolemäischen Chronologie,” Tyche 7 (1992) 117-122.

25. P. 49, Gabbert’s emphasis.

26. I have championed a date at the end of the war (“The Date of the Battle of Kos,” AJAH 10 [1985] (1993) 155-177; I accepted the conventional date for the end of the war, which must now be moved up one year) against Kostas Buraselis’ date of 255/4: Das hellenistische Makedonien 141-144, 146-151, 162. Gabbert is agnostic.

27. Here are a few further details in want of correction or amplification. The inscription IG II 2 1217 is now to be completed with Praktika (1991) 37-39 no. 13. IG II 2 677 should be read with the emendations of W.S. Ferguson, “Lachares and Demetrius Poliorcetes,” CP 24 (1929) 13 n. 1, and A.N. Kondoleon, in Akten des internationalen Kongresses für griechischen und lateinischen Epigraphik (Vienna 1964) 196-197. Stephen V. Tracy, Attic Letter-Cutters of 229 to 86 B.C. (Berkeley 1990) 52, has shown that IG II 2 1281 cannot be used as evidence for Antigonos’ control of Sounion (see Gabbert 38-39, 76 n. 37) because the document dates to after 229 BC. Diogenes Laertios’ life of the Eretrian philosopher and statesman Menedemos must be read in Denis Knoepfler’s new improved text, La vie de Ménédème d’Erétrie de Diogène Laërce. Une contribution à l’histoire et à la critique du texte des Vies des philosophes, Schweizerische Beiträge zur Altertumswissenschaft 21 (Basel 1991). In his commentary Knoepfler lays out many of his new findings about third-century Eretrian history which will be presented in final form in his long-awaited study La cité de Ménédème.