Friday, 21 April 2017

The Power Paradox

The last blog was loosely inspired by the shock decision by Theresa May to hold a General Election, since voted for by Parliament, and this one has a similar theme.

There have been some calls from people like Nicola Sturgeon for, in her words, a progressive alliance between Labour, the SNP, Lib Dems and so on, in order to oppose a Conservative Party which appears to be electorally formidable.

Of course, this wouldn’t be the first time a seemingly predominant power caused an alliance of rivals to oppose it.

After Alexander the Great died, there was a period of phony peace for about three years. Perdiccas was regent, but ended up getting killed by his own men after a failed invasion of Egypt, to punish Ptolemy for stealing Alexander’s corpse.

Theoretically, the remaining Diadochi (Successors) were still loyal to the two kings: Philip Arrhidaeus (Alexander’s mentally disabled half-brother) and Alexander IV (Alexander’s young son). In practice, they were all jockeying for position.

Ptolemy retained Egypt, wealthy and defensible land that it was. Antigonus Monopthalmus acquired substantial power, from modern day Syria to (roughly) the western border of Iran. Lysimachus got Thrace (Romania), strategically vital but also not the easiest land to tame. Antipater, the ageing viceroy who had held the reins in Macedon whilst Alexander conquered the world, retained his place there and became regent.

It wouldn’t last.

Antipater died a few years later and his chosen successor Polyperchon was not recognised by the other Diadochi. Cassander, Antipater’s overlooked son, toppled Polyperchon and taking Macedon, which ended up having terminal consequences for Alexander IV (Philip Arrhidaeus had already been murdered by Alexander’s mother Olympias).

Antigonus had steadily expanded his power, taking even more territory and becoming dominant on the seas, surpassing Ptolemy’s Egypt which had previously held sway. Then came a critical turn. Antigonus’ young son Demetrius (later nicknamed Poliorcetes – the Besieger) fought Ptolemy at the Battle of Gaza. Demetrius lost. It wasn’t catastrophic in itself, but for the ultimate consequence.

Ptolemy had been sheltering Seleucus, another of Alexander’s former generals. After the death of Perdiccas, he had been made satrap (regional king) of Babylonia, but Antigonus had wrested the large and wealthy satrapy from him. Following victory at Gaza, Ptolemy gave money and some troops to Seleucus, who returned to Babylonia, surprisingly managed to defeat Antigonus’ forces, and was welcomed by the local population. From there, he expanded east, and entered into marriage with the daughter of the Indian ruler Chandragupta, which included a wedding present to Seleucus of several hundred elephants.

All the kings, as they now openly titled themselves, held great power. Cassander in Macedon had the critical resource of top notch Macedonian infantry. Ptolemy’s Egypt was brimming with wealth and very hard to invade. Lysimachus held the gateway between Europe and Asia. Seleucus ruled vast lands and had more elephants than the rest combined.

But it was Antigonus Monopthalmus and Demetrius Poliorcetes, co-ruling now that Antigonus was in his eighties, who were still predominant. If anyone could reunite the whole Macedonian empire, it was them.

And the others knew it.

At certain times in history, it’s remarkable just how idiotic leaders can be, or how one-sided a war can seem. This was not one of those times. All Alexander’s generals were ruthless, bold, cunning and extremely capable. And the other kings realised their salvation only lay in alliance.

Cassander, Lysimachus and Seleucus agreed to face Antigonus together, at the Battle of Ipsus. Ptolemy himself did not take part, perhaps preferring to keep his forces fresh to take advantage of the situation afterwards.

Demetrius was campaigning in Greece and was rapidly called back by his elderly father. Had Antigonus been younger, he probably would’ve destroyed Lysimachus’ forces, the first to arrive, but they managed to slip away from under his nose. Later, foot soldiers from Cassander and Seleucus’ men (as well as 400 elephants) completed the alliance army.

Even so, it was only an even match for Antigonus and Demetrius’ forces. The two armies lined up, and battle commenced. Demetrius led a strong cavalry attack and drove back the opposing horsemen (he was accompanied in this by Pyrrhus, a cousin of Alexander). But it was a trap. The retreating horsemen led Demetrius far from the battle, and when he tried to return, he founded Seleucus’ elephants arrayed against him. Cavalry, quite understandable, won’t charge elephants. Demetrius tried to find a way through as his father, on the other side of the battlefield, kept faith that his son would return to rescue the situation.

He couldn’t. Antigonus Monopthalmus died under a hail of javelins, and his son was forced to flee the field. Territory was carved up between Lysimachus and Seleucus, with Cassander regaining the parts of Greece that had succumbed to Demetrius previously.

Demetrius himself was eventually captured by Seleucus, and treated well, but ended up drinking himself to death. Unusually for this period, he had a very good relationship with his father, and it’s not hard to imagine how terrible he felt after the Battle of Ipsus. His descendants would go on to rule Macedon for generations to come, but the dream of reuniting Alexander’s empire had gone.

Antigonus, in his pomp, had almost all the advantages imaginable. Yet it wasn’t sufficient for victory. He didn’t make severe mistakes, and came very close to ultimate victory. But it was his very strength that led to his defeat because it forced his rivals, individually weaker by far, to unite against him.

To return to British politics, in 1997 Tony Blair won a historic landslide for Labour, and got a second in 2001. In 2007, Prime Minister Gordon Brown was contemplating a snap election and there was genuine speculation that the Conservative Party could not withstand another defeat. He did not call one. Now, the Conservatives are (if polling is accurate, and we know, from the 2015 election, the British public aren’t above fibbing for six months...) on the brink of increasing their majority and Labour look down and out.

Whether that makes you gleeful or despondent, it won’t last. Things can change quickly in politics, and they have.

If you liked the sound of the Diadochi era, I can recommend two books on the subject (links to reviews):


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