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Architects of the Hellenistic Age Part I: The Legacy of Alexander’s Companions

The conquests of Alexander the Great should be understated. From 336 to 323 BCE, Alexander would usher in a new era in world history. To aid him in this immense task were his “Companions”. These were Alexander’s closest friends and confidants. Some were childhood friends, others had fought with his father Philip II or gained spotlight through their valor in Alexander’s campaigns (Arrian, 2005). In these articles, written by Will Stiklickas, we will focus on three of these men: Antigonus Monophthalmus (the one-eyed), Ptolemy I and Seleucus I.

Bust of Seleukos I, Napels Archaeological Museum

Antigonus, who had fought with both Philip II and Alexander, was a battle-proven veteran with political ambitions (Arrian, 2005). Ptolemy had been a childhood friend of Alexander but was sent away at a young age because he influenced Alexander to rebel against his father (Worthington, 2008). His exile would come to an end when Alexander became King. For most of Alexander’s reign, ancient writers are quiet about Ptolemy until the Indian Campaign in 326-325 BCE (Worthington, 2008). He seems to play a more influential role during the raids on some of the Indian tribes. The last and most enigmatic is Seleukos. Seleukos spent most of Alexander’s reign as a high ranking officer in the elite “Silver Shields”.

All three men were present in Babylon in 323 BCE when Alexander the Great died (Waterfield, 2011). His unexpected death and lack of a clear heir would plunge Eurasia into a series of wars over the next fifty years. These are commonly referred to as the Wars of Diadochi. Because the events of these wars are not pertinent to this topic so they will only be mentioned when context is needed. To settle the dispute of succession, the Diadochi would be split between Alexander’s half Brother Philip III Arrhidaeus who had a severe mental disability and eventually Alexander’s son Alexander IV.  Alexander conceived this baby with a foreign princess so his legitimacy was questioned as well (Romm, 2012).  In Babylon, the companions of Alexander decided to divide his empire into satrapies. A satrapy was similar to a province and each companion was to oversee them until Alexander IV came of age.

Bust of Ptolemy I, Louvre

Ptolemy was given Egypt and some of the neighboring areas. Antigonus received Asia Minor and Syria but with the aid of his son Demetrius, he eventually took control of Greece and Macedonia. Seleukos initially did not acquire land but due to his aid in the assassination of Perdiccas,  he controlled Babylon (Waterfield, 2011).  By 309 BCE, both Philip III and Alexander IV had been killed and It became very clear that the Diadochi had no plans of giving up their Satrapies (Romm, 2012). Around this time Ptolemy started minting coins with his own face instead of Alexander’s (Worthington, 2016). Each of the Diadochi started using the term “Basilieus” or king on their coinage and decrees. Thus began the Ptolemaic, Antigonid and Seleukid Kingdoms. 

Ptolemaic and Antigonid legitimization through Alexander and the Argeads:

Each of these Hellenistic kingdoms needed to legitimize and consolidate their newly formed empires. After Alexander’s death, many of these areas revolted and pushed for autonomy (Worthington, 2008). The Diadochi had the task of consolidating these territories and creating dynasties that would be respected and followed. The most productive way to do this was linking themselves to Alexander the Great and the Argead Dynasty as a whole. 

Both the Antigonids and Ptolemy’s utilized several different aspects to achieve this. Ptolemy I would go to great lengths to solidify his reign through Alexander and the Argeads. He did not have the military prowess of the Antigonids or other successor states. After Ptolemy acquired Egypt, he followed Alexander’s geopolitics and gave himself the title of Pharaoh. In addition to this, he would sacrifice to Egyptian gods and wear the traditional garb. Ptolemy was trying to emulate what Alexander had done when he arrived in Egypt. The goal was to be perceived as a new dynasty rather than a new occupier. Alexander had wanted the Egyptians to see him as a liberator from the Persians (Worthington, 2016).

Antigonus had an easier time doing this, because he now controlled his homeland. Antigonus and his successors continued the Macedonian throne as if his rule was part of the Argead dynasty. Many Antigonid rulers took similar throne names such as Philip and Alexander. In terms of the military, the early Antigonids followed the traditional structure of the Macedonian Army as well. Ptolemy also used Greek mercenaries in his armed forces primarily. Antigonus, his son Demetrius and grandson Gonatus would follow Alexander’s imperialistic foreign policies (Waterfield, 2021). In battle, all three were known for leading their armies directly into combat just like Alexander and Philip II had done. Antigonus supposedly died in a hail of arrows during the battle of Ipsus in 301 BCE (Romm, 2016). Regardless of how unrealistic this story is, (Antigonus was well into his 80s and extremely overweight) the importance lies in the story itself. 

Alexander the Great’s burial becomes another key point linking back to his Argead royal family. In 321 BCE, Alexander’s body was on its way by caravan of royal fashion to Agae. Agae was the traditional burial spot for Argead rulers. While in Damascus, Ptolemy hijacked Alexander’s body and took it to Egypt’s capital of Memphis (Waterfield, 2011), eventually ending up in Alexandria. Ptolemy’s daring mission had a major goal. It was Macedonian tradition for a king to bury his predecessor. By burying Alexander, Ptolemy was fastening himself as Alexander’s successor. For the rest of the Ptolemaic dynasty (306 BCE – 31 BCE) almost every Ptolemy would be buried in Alexandria with Alexander (Manning, 2010).

Another subtle but important piece of evidence can be found in Ptolemy’s wives. Ptolemy practised polygamy. The Antigonids often followed this as well. Demetrius Poliorcetes had four known wives. Although Antigonus Monophlathmus and Gonatus seem to have been monogamous (Waterfield, 2021). Polygamy was an extremely common and encouraged practice for Macedonian Kings. Philip II was known to have many lovers, both male and female (Goldsworthy, 2020). Another small Argead tradition was a king’s ability to outdrink his court during Symposiums. Antigonus and Demetrius were well known heavy drinkers (Romm, 2022). This could be simply be a case of Antigonid rulers following Alexander and Philip’s drinking habits. 


Coin showing Alexander/Hercules on the obverse and Zeus on his throne on the reverse, minted postumously.

The connection to the Argead dynasty is also strongly evident in the coinage of both the Ptolemaic and Antigonid kingdoms. In the ancient world, coinage was a very important medium for a ruler to communicate with their people. It is evident through the Ptolemies’ coinage that they wanted to be seen in connection with Alexander. First we will analyze the silver tetradrachm. This was a very popular denomination for trade throughout Eurasia. However, it’s important to note that there are exceptions to the upcoming analysis, including contemporary medallions and coins minted for specific royal celebrations (Thompson, 2011).  Between 323 BCE to 305 BCE, Ptolemy exclusively minted tetradrachms with Alexander/Herakles on the obverse and throned Zeus on the reverse. This coin is nearly exactly similar to the silver tetradrachms that Alexander had minted from 336 BCE to 323 BCE (Thompson, 2011), the only difference being their size. Alexander’s tetradrachms range from 22 mm in diameter to 28 mm while Ptolemy’s range from 26 mm to 30 mm (Holt, 1997). Early Antigonid kings followed this coin type as style as well.

In 305 BCE, Ptolemy I began minting a tetradrachm with his own portrait on the obverse and the Ptolemaic eagle on the reverse. Although this is a breakaway from the traditional Argead quality of only placing laureate heads of gods on their coinage, these coins were still a minority. For the remainder of his reign, he would mint the traditional Alexandrian tetradrachm with some variations. Three major variations lie in the deified Alexander headdress. Some tetradrachms featured Alexander with a lion headdress to parallel him to Herakles. Other tetradrachms had Alexander with an elephant headdress or ram’s horns in connection with the Egyptian god Amun on them. These types of tetradrachms were common until Ptolemy III around 240 BCE (Thompson, 2011). Ptolemy I would be the only Ptolemaic king to mass produce tetradrachms with his own face on them. After his death in 283 BCE, the remainder of the Ptolemaic kings would use his defied laureate profile and the Ptolemaic eagle as the design for their tetradrachms. The practice of featuring gods instead of living rulers on coinage was a distinct Argead tradition (Holt, 1997). As Ptolemy I was deified, these coins fit in with that pattern. In addition to this, the reverses always feature the Ptolemaic eagle clutching a lighting bolt. This was to display Zeus’s favor of their rule. Zeus was the main deity that the Argead dynasty claimed legitimacy from. Alexander is said to have been the son of Zeus.

The bronze coinage saw greater variation, with the first three Ptolemies minting coinage with generally Heracles/Zeus Amon or a deified Alexander. Bronze coinage that was minted in respect to the queens, usually depicted Isis. The turning point seems to be under Ptolemy III’s reign around the 240s BCE (Thompson, 2011). He increased the minting of coins with his own face on them. This is evident on his hemiobols.  Simultaneously, diobols minted during this period showcased the same Zeus portrait seen on Philip II’s bronze coins. The Antigonids show more variety in their coinage. Demetrius Poliorcetes is the last of the Antigonids to follow the Alexandrian style tetradrachm. During his reign, the style of tetradrachms drastically changed. Two very interesting types are worth mentioning. It is important to note that neither had large quantities minted. The first actually had a contemporary depiction of a youthful Demetrius and the reverse displayed Posiedon. The other tetradrachm displayed Nike on a ship’s prow on the obverse and Poseidon on the reverse. There were no laureate heads on this coin which definitely veered from traditional Argead coinage. 

Through exploring the significant roles of Antigonus Monophthalmus, Ptolemy I, and Seleucus I, we’ve seen their profound impact on the Hellenistic era following Alexander the Great. Their methods for securing power, from territorial consolidation to symbolic coinage, highlight a transformative period of cultural and political development. Our next piece will dive into the Seleucid Empire’s unique approach, distinguishing itself from its Hellenistic counterparts. We’ll explore the dynasty’s efforts to forge a distinct identity, from mythological origins to strategic governance and military tactics. Stay tuned as we uncover the Seleucids’ innovative legacy and their role in shaping the Hellenistic landscape.

Will Stiklickas is a global history and classics teacher in New York City. His main areas of interest are Greco-Roman history with a focus numismatics and its influence on antiquity. You can follow him on Instagram at Orbis Sine Fine.

Further reading:

Arrian. Anabasis. Translated by John Smith. Edited by Jane Doe, Penguin Classics, 2005.

Romm, James. Ghosts on the Throne: The Death of Alexander the Great and the War for Crown and Empire. Vintage, 2012.

Waterfield, Robin. Dividing the Spoils: The War for Alexander the Great’s Empire. Oxford University Press, 2011.

Thompson, Margaret. Ptolemaic Coins: An Introduction for Collectors. University of Texas Press, 2015.

Worthington, Ian. Athens after  Empire. Oxford University Press, 2008.

Worthington, Ian. Ptolemy I: King and Pharaoh of Egypt. Oxford University Press, 2016.

Romm, James. Demetrius the Besieger. Oxford University Press, 2016.

Plutarch. Greek Lives. Translated by Robin Waterfield. Oxford University Press, 2009. 

Manning, J.G. The Last Pharaohs. Princeton University Press, 2010.

Waterfield, Robin. The Making of a King: Antigonus Gonatas of Macedon and the Greeks. University of Chicago Press, 2021.

Taylor, Michael. Antiochus the Great. Pen and Sword Military, 2013.

Everitt, Anthony. Hadrian. Random House, 2009.

Hoover, Oliver D. Coins of the Seleucid Empire in the Collection of Arthur Houghton, Part II. ANS Publishing, 2007.

Herodotus. Histories. Translated by John M. Marincola. Penguin Classics, 2003.

Holt, Frank L. Studies in the Macedonian Coinage of Alexander the Great. Numismatic Studies, 1997.

Kosmin, Paul J. Land of the Elephant Kings: Space, Territory, and Ideology in the Seleucid Empire. Harvard University Press, 2014.

Goldsworthy, Adrian. Philip and Alexander: Kings and Conquerors. Basic Books, 2020. 

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