BMCR 2021.11.38

The making of a king: Antigonus Gonatas of Macedon and the Greeks

, The making of a king: Antigonus Gonatas of Macedon and the Greeks. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2021. Pp. 296. ISBN 9780226611372 $27.50.

When Alexander the Great died in 323 BCE, chaos soon emerged in all corners of his new empire. While several kings from different dynasties ruled Macedonia in the decades after his death, it was not until the reign of Antigonus Gonatas (276–239), the next in line in the Antigonid dynasty, that Macedonia went through a visionary process of reformation and modernization. Unfortunately, this is a story not often told. When students think of Greek history, they tend to think of cities like Athens and Sparta and persons like Leonidas and Pericles, and not the achievements of regents and generals in the Hellenistic world.

The book under review therefore addresses an urgent need. It is the third installment in an unintended trilogy on the Hellenistic period written by Robin Waterfield, the two first being Dividing the Spoils (2012), which focusses on the successors of Alexander, and Taken at the Flood (2014), which addresses the Roman conquest of Greece. Waterfield’s purpose in this new study is “to open up even for general readers an obscure period of ancient Greek history,” since “no one has tried to pull it all together in a single volume” (xi). As the title suggests, Waterfield uses Antigonus Gonatas (ca. 320–239 BCE) as a way into the third century, thus ending up with a great biography of a pivotal figure in the Antigonid dynasty and the historical period in which he operated.

The book’s 296 pages are structured into two parts: the first five chapters focus on the historical background of Antigonus’ reign, i.e., the six decades between the 320s and 270s. The chapters are allocated to the historical background of those enemies who would later challenge Antigonus’ throne: Sparta, Athens, the Aegean League and the Aetolian League, and Ptolemy’s Egypt. The remaining five chapters cover Antigonus’ reign and his relationships with allies, city states, monarchies, and enemies around him.

Waterfield begins with an introduction of the major themes of the book (i.e., the contradistinction between city states and kings and the phenomenon of confederacies) and by addressing the elephant in the room: is it even possible to write a history of the third century BCE when all we have is poor and scattered material, and no narrative from the period survives? The only possible strategy, as Waterfield notes, is to piece together the jigsaw puzzle which gives us the broad picture and, occasionally, also the details.

Chapter 1 focuses on Macedonia from the death of Alexander to the expulsion of Demetrius I by Lysimachus and Pyrrhus, and on Antigonus’ education and his youth at the Macedonian court. The underlining stories here are the rapid downfall of Antigonus’ grandfather and father when all their enemies decided to line up against them at Issus, and the fact that Antigonus found himself without a realm at the beginning of his journey.

Chapter 2 covers Sparta and her decline through the fifth and fourth centuries, ending with Cleonymus’ bid for the throne in the 270s. Chapter 3 centers on the development of Athens, which shows her deeply felt resistance to any oppression enforced from outside. In fact, Athens and Sparta were always restless and ready to rebel throughout these years, as can be seen in the manner in which Athens took initiative in the Lamian War. We must imagine that Antigonus saw these warnings (and perhaps learned from them) very early on.

Chapter 4 treats confederacies in general (including a clarification of the concepts of polis and koinon) and Achaean and Aetolian leagues more specifically. Chapter 5 deals with Ptolemy’s Egypt and circles around the failed attempt to conquer Greece, the thinking behind Ptolemaic foreign policy (which often included the Aegean Sea and Coele Syria), and the phenomena of sibling marriages, the Ptolemaieia, and the cultural flagship, Alexandria.

The second part of the book covers Antigonus’ reign from 276 to 239 and begins with a chapter on his quest to establish a foothold as a king without a kingdom. This includes his victory over the Celts which he used to secure his kingdom, the important pact with Antiochus, the battle at Lysimachia, his marriage to Phila, and the challenges caused by the ambitions of Pyrrhus. The chapter also contains a great treatment of the reforms and modernization of the administrative structures in Macedonia that Antigonus initiated to bring the land into a more durable state, most notably decentralizing measures that delegated powers from the crown to local officials and a stabilization of the financial situation.

Chapter 7 concerns Antigonus’ relationship with the Greeks. In general, his aim was double-sided: Antigonus wanted to ensure that the Greek city states were closely attached to the Macedonian throne, but at the same time he also needed to ensure them that Pella would not interfere. Yet, it was exactly this issue of freedom (and likely also Ptolemy’s ambition to undermine Antigonus’ influence in the Peloponnese) that was the cause of the Chremonidean War. Ptolemy, Sparta, Athens, and a few other cities joined together but ended up losing to the triumphant Antigonus at the battle of Cos in 261, which consolidated the latter’s power.

Chapter 8 treats with the aftermath of the Chremonidean War, which saw the Greek city states heavily penalized and the beginning of an economic and cultural decline in Athens. The influence of confederacies in the region, namely the Achaean League, made it vital to control Corinth, and while Antigonus defended the city with a strong garrison, Aratus of Sicyon managed in 243 to take the supposedly impregnable Acrocorinth with a sneak attack. Chapter 9 tackles the theme of Hellenistic courts, where Waterfield again uses the example of Antigonus to reflect on the wider development of this matter throughout the third century.

In the final chapter, the narrative takes the reader to the turn of the century, covering among other things the reigns of Demetrius II and Antigonus Doson as well as the coming of Rome. It all ends with some concluding remarks on Antigonus’ legacy: according to Waterfield, his greatest achievements were the unification and consolidation of Macedonia, his non-aggression pact with Antiochus, his visionary reforms of the kingdom, and his victory in the Chremonidean War. However, Antigonus’ fondness for garrisons as a tool to control the Greeks made him permanent enemies and perhaps provides an important key to understanding why such strong and successful confederacies were formed, and also why the Romans were later able to attract many of the Greek city states to their fight against Macedonia.

Using Antigonus as an entry into the century works extremely well. The book becomes both a biography of Antigonus and a historical study of the third century, and Waterfield is surely right when he regards the relationship between Antigonus and the Greeks as one of the keys to explain how and why the century unfolded as it did. We only fully understand the character and motives of persons when presented against the right background, and Waterfield has convincingly provided the reader with both elements.

All scholars are prisoners of the available evidence, and the third century is one of the least covered periods of Greek history. Yet, Waterfield has done a remarkable job in making these years accessible for the general reader. The book provides an excellent starting point before digging into broader treatments on the Hellenistic period, e.g., the Cambridge Ancient History or Peter Green’s masterful Alexander to Actium from 1990 (rev. 1993).

In sum, Waterfield succeeds in putting forth a brilliantly written account of one of the least known and most underestimated figures in Greek history alongside the third-century historical context out of which he emerged. Both the general reader without any prior knowledge and the student who already knows his way around these issues will gain from this study. The third century needs more attention, and Waterfield has taken some very important steps to wake this period to life.