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The Making of a King

Antigonus Gonatas of Macedon and the Greeks

In the third century BCE, the ancient kingdom of Macedon held dominion over mainland Greece, but it was rapidly descending into chaos. After Alexander the Great’s death, several of his successors contended for the Macedonian throne, and amid the tumult the Celts launched a massive invasion, ravaging and plundering Macedon and northern Greece for years. The Celts finally met their defeat at the hands of Antigonus Gonatas, son of one of Alexander’s successors. An exceptional statesman and artful strategist, Antigonus protected Macedon and its Greek territories against aggressors coming from every direction. After almost fifty years of chaos brought on by Alexander’s death, Antigonus stabilized Macedon and Greece and laid the foundation for a long but troubled reign. 

In this book, distinguished historian Robin Waterfield draws on his deep understanding of Greek history to bring us into the world of this complicated, splintered empire. He shows how, while Antigonus was confirming his Macedonian rule through constitutional changes, the Greeks were making moves toward independence. Two great confederacies of Greek cities emerged, forming powerful blocs that had the potential to resist the power of Macedon. The Making of a King charts Antigonus’s conflicts with the Greeks and with his perennial enemy, Ptolemy of Egypt. But Antigonus’s diplomatic and military successes were not enough to secure peace, and in his final years he saw his control of Greece whittled away by rebellion and the growing power of the Greek confederacies. Macedon’s lack of firm control over Greece ultimately made it possible for Rome to take its place as the arbiter of the Greeks’ future.
The Making of a King is Waterfield’s third volume about the Greeks in the era after Alexander the Great. Completing the story begun in his previous two books, Dividing the Spoils and Taken at the Flood, it brings Antigonus and his turbulent era to life. With The Making of a King—the first book in more than a century to tell in full the story of Antigonus Gonatas’s reign—this fascinating figure finally receives his due.

296 pages | 16 halftones, 8 maps | 6 x 9 | © 2021

Ancient Studies


Biography and Letters

History: Ancient and Classical History


"Waterfield wisely takes the city states of European Greece as the backdrop for Antigonus’ life and the arena where his influence was principally felt. The Making of a King is only in part a biography of Antigonus. It also details the decline, economic devastation and political fragmentation of post-classical Greece, and makes plain why the Stoic and Epicurean schools, both founded during Antigonus’ youth, became so central to Greek intellectual life."

James Romm | London Review of Books

"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."

Bryn Mawr Classical Review

"Noting the relative dearth of sources for the Hellenistic period, Waterfield deftly (and candidly) infers what may have happened when those records go mute. His limpid prose makes a confusing plot and rapidly changing cast of characters accessible for experts and general readers alike."

Michigan War Studies Review

“General, patron of the arts, votary of the god Pan, generous king, and occasional tyrant, Antigonus Gonatas ruled the legendary Kingdom of Macedon, and Waterfield’s The Making of a King is the perfect introduction to this eccentric and exciting figure. Waterfield’s fame lies in is his ability to make sense and write enthralling accounts of the most perplexing periods of Greek and Roman history. The life and times of Antigonus Gonatas are such a labyrinth, rendered by Waterfield’s fierce intelligence and vibrant prose into a smooth road for the rejoicing reader.”

J. E. Lendon, author of Soldiers and Ghosts: A History of Battle in Classical Antiquity

“Not merely an impressive biography of Antigonus Gonatas but also an excellent introduction to the whole early Hellenistic era. The author combines meticulous research with an accessible writing style to bring to life an oft-neglected period of ancient history.”

Philip Matyszak, author of Forgotten Peoples of the Ancient World

“With a wealth of information, elegant prose, and wit, Waterfield presents a colorful image of Antigonus alongside other men and women of the era's royal families. He engages readers with anecdotes from Plutarch's Moralia and highlights comparisons with modern powers, bringing this rich ancient story to a new audience.”

Ioanna Kralli, Ionian University in Greece

“Waterfield blends biography and history to give a layered account of the events of the third century through the life, times, and character of Antigonus, one of the most successful of the Antigonid kings of Macedon. Antigonus’s rule of the Greeks is a defining feature of this period, but it has rarely been treated in such depth. Waterfield has done commendable work in opening third-century Greece and the Antigonid kingdom to a general audience."

Shane Wallace, Trinity College Dublin

Table of Contents

List of Illustrations
Preface and Acknowledgments
General Maps
Time Line and King Lists

Introduction: A Time of Transition

Part One
The Wilderness Years (319–276)
1. The Disarray of Macedon
2. The Pride of Sparta
3. The Democratic Spirit of Athens
4. The Vigor of Confederacies
5. The Empire of the Ptolemies

Part Two
Kingship (276–239)
6. King of Macedon
7. Antigonus and the Greeks
8. The Wheel of Fortune
9. Court and Culture
10. A Glimpse of the Future



It was the fate of Macedon in the decades immediately following the death of Alexander the Great in June 323 to be the prize that every ambitious Macedonian generalissimo wanted to win. Even if these generals succeeded in taking for themselves some slice of Alexander’s eastern empire, they still longed for Macedon. It was the homeland, and they felt that the legitimate ruler of Macedon would automatically command a greater degree of respect than any other king, however great his empire. They all wanted the prestige of being able to call themselves “King of the Macedonians.”
In the less than fifty years between Alexander’s death and Antigonus’ gaining the throne in 276, Macedon had twelve rulers— eleven kings and one queen. Five kings were assassinated, and the single queen was put to death after a show trial, precisely for having assassinated one of the kings. Two kings died in battle; two died of tuberculosis; and two were ousted from the kingdom by rivals and died abroad. Two more of Alexander’s successors, Ptolemy of Egypt and Antigonus Monophthalmus (“One- Eye”), the grandfather of Antigonus Gonatas, made unsuccessful attempts on the throne in the course of these years, or threatened to do so. In the fi final years of complete chaos, the early 270s, when Macedon was being overrun by belligerent Celtic migrants in search of new lands, several pretenders to the throne emerged, and there was a period when there was no king at all.
This, in a nutshell, is the turmoil that beset Macedon after Alexander’s death. An account of these events will afford us perspective on the achievement of Antigonus: after over four decades of turmoil, it was he who stabilized the country. He ruled for almost forty years without palace intrigues, and his Antigonid successors retained the throne for another seventy years, until the dissolution of the monarchy by the Romans in 167. To put this in perspective, the dynasty Antigonus founded lasted longer than any single dynasty of Roman emperors. Rulership was a delicate business; Antigonus had to deal with other kings, with the power- possessors of the kingdom of Macedon, with his army, and with the Greek states, and he seems to have made a good job of it. The lack of evidence (see the introduction) makes it hard to know how to judge him, but these facts alone suggest that he deserves recognition as a strong and successful king.
Macedon was attractive to Alexander’s successors not just because of the prestige to be gained by ruling the country, but also because of its wealth. It was far less wealthy than the other major Hellenistic kingdoms (Egypt and Syria), but that comparison hardly made it poor. Philip II, the father of Alexander the Great and king of Macedon from 360 until his assassination in 336, enormously expanded and enriched the country. It had always had the potential to be wealthy from its natural resources, but it had been held back by the fact that it was divided up into separate cantons, each with dominant baronial families, and by frequent warfare with its enemies to the west, north, and east— the Illyrians, the Central Balkan tribes, and the Thracians.
It had long been the job of the Macedonians, possessors of a frontier state, to keep these warlike tribes at bay. For centuries— as was recognized by intelligent men such as the Roman general Titus Quinctius Flamininus— Macedon had been a buffer, absorbing or repelling waves of attackers, and preventing them from reaching the southern Greeks. Hence the military nature of the Macedonian monarchy. It was Philip’s foundational achievement to unite the cantons of Upper Macedon (the mountainous inland) with Lower Macedon, under central government from Pella, so that they could present a solid front and discourage such raids. Previously, Macedonian kings had had to be content with alliances with the rulers of the upper cantons.
Macedon had also been held back by the fact that it was Greeks, not Macedonians, who had made themselves the middlemen and brokers of the country’s natural resources. As early as the seventh century, Greeks had started to settle in the northern Aegean, on land that lay within the geographical boundaries of Macedon, or in nearby Thrace. It was only once Macedonians began to manage these resources properly that they were able to dictate to the Greeks, whereas previously it had been the other way around. Philip was only taking this program to its logical conclusion when he ruthlessly drove the Greeks out of the area and took over their settlements. The wealth of Macedon was for Macedonians, not Greeks.
Macedon is a mountainous country, with a Mediterranean climate on the coast (supporting olive- oil production, for instance) and a continental climate inland. The mountains of Upper Macedon were covered in forests, and the broad plains of Lower Macedon were well watered all year round by rivers and streams fed by prolific snowmelt and adequate rainfall. Extensive wetlands helped to put food on tables, and the country was capable of growing a great surplus of wheat for export. Large estates specialized in cereal crops or viticulture or stock breeding, so that, as well as local markets, there was a flourishing international market economy, dependent on imports and exports. There was land to spare for luxury enterprises such as breeding horses for the cavalry elite of the country, and urban craftsmen supplied everything from everyday tableware to silverware, high- end jewelry, delicately carved furniture, tapestries, carpets, and clothing. In terms of its daily needs, the kingdom was more or less self- sufficient.
The mountains and highlands of Upper Macedon provided an apparently never- ending supply of timber, much of which was of a good enough quality to be used for ships and house- building. “The best timber that arrives in Greece for the use of carpenters is Macedonian, since it is smooth, straight- grained, and resinous,” claimed Theophrastus of Eresus, Aristotle’s successor as head of the Lyceum, who had visited the country. The king owned all the natural resources of his country (and as much of its land as was not otherwise in private hands), and he came to do a roaring trade in this commodity. Few regions of the Mediterranean could rival Upper Macedon’s timber forests. Several of the rivers were wide and deep enough to float logs down to the coast. Good roads aided communication, transport, and the movement of armies.
As well as timber, the mountains contained minerals, especially gold and silver, in large quantities, but also copper and iron (and a small amount of tin), and another of Philip’s great achievements was to hugely expand the country’s potential in this respect, until he had stabilized its revenues at a very high level. According to the historian Diodorus of Sicily, the gold mines of Philippi alone (newly discovered in Philip’s day) produced an annual income/weight of over 1,000 talents— though whether he meant 1,000 talents of gold, or gold worth 1,000 silver talents (the usual standard for currency) is not clear. A talent weighed perhaps thirty kilograms (sixty- six pounds). Then again, Herodotus of Halicarnassus, writing in the 420s, said that in his day the silver mines near Lake Prasias produced a talent’s weight of silver every day. Whatever the details, it is clear that the Macedonian mines were a significant resource, at a time when ownership of property worth three or four talents made a private individual a member of the wealth elite. A Macedonian king’s revenues dwarfed those of any other Greek state.
Macedon had a population of perhaps fi ve hundred thousand in Antigonus’ time; it was the most populous state in Greece by quite a wide margin. Proportionate to the population, there were far fewer slaves in Macedon than their southern neighbors in Greece considered normal. A good percentage of the population were pastoralists, breeding sheep, goats, and cattle, selling animal products such as leather and wool, and hiring oxen out for transport; meat constituted a higher proportion of the Macedonian diet than it did farther south. Many others were small- scale agriculturalists, but there were also large estates and a number of conurbations. As in all premodern societies, there was a great gulf between the wealthiest landowners, traders, and craftsmen, who could think about surpluses, selling to markets, and leisure pursuits, and the majority of the population, subsistence farmers who could focus on little else than putting food on the table.
This was the Macedon that Antigonus fought to make his own—a place that for him was pregnant with the sentiment surrounding a lost homeland, but a place also that, with good management, could satisfy the extravagant desires of most princes.

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