Corupedium, the battle that ended the long war between Alexander’s successors


It is curious that one of the most extensive empires of antiquity had such a weak foundation that, in reality, it was only based on the charisma of its builder. We’re talking about Alexander the Great. That giant with feet of clay that he formed with his military genius fell apart as soon as his binder, which was himself, died, originating a fratricidal war between his generals for keeping the spoils. A strange and practically unknown battle took place there, that of Corupedium, which closed the contest without being of any use.

Alexander the Great, continuing the work begun by his father Philip, not only took over Greece but also made the continental leap and extended his power to the Persian Empire, Egypt, Phoenicia and continued to advance unstoppably until he reached India. There he had to give in and turn back when his troops refused to continue, as they had been campaigning for a dozen years already, but his hypomnemata (notebooks) revealed plans for further conquests in North Africa when death surprised him in 323 BC.

Alexander’s empire at its widest / Image: Mircalla22 on Wikimedia Commons

He did not have a designated successor, since the disease that caused his death (malaria, typhoid, poisoning?) presented itself as suddenly as fatally fast in its resolution, just over a week. His wife Roxana was pregnant but was still several months away from giving birth, and many did not like the idea that the heir had barbarian blood. His son Heracles had been sired by a concubine and lacked legitimacy.

Neither was the deceased’s half-brother, Philip Arrhidaeus, a viable option as he was intellectually disabled, so, faced with the power vacuum, several options emerged, each defended by a pressure group: on the one hand the philoi (friends), on the other the somatophylakes (bodyguards), here the diadochoi (generals), there the soldiers…

Alexander’s catafalque in a 19th century engraving / photo public domain on Wikimedia Commons

There was no way to reach an agreement, so a distribution of posts was made without an express leader. Perdiccas was appointed chiliarch (a kind of prime minister) and epimeleta (governor), while Crateros became prostates (guardian) of Philip Arrhidaeus, Seleucus was appointed hiparch (head of the cavalry), Antipater retained the regency of Greece and Macedon, and the offspring of the latter, Cassander, assumed command of the hypaspists (semi-heavy infantry).

In addition, the satrapies were distributed among the members of the Council of Babylon, so that Egypt was for Ptolemy, who founded a dynasty that would reach Cleopatra; Babylon for Arcon; Lycia, Phrygia and Pamphylia for Antigonus I; Thrace for Lysimachus; Phrygia helespontica for Leonate; Media for Peyton; Persia for Peucestas; Cilicia for Philotas; Caria for Asander; and Atropatene for Atropates. Finally, Eumenes of Cardia received the right to conquer Cappadocia and Paflagonia.

Distribution of the satrapies of Alexander’s empire / Image: Josecapozar on Wikimedia Commons

There were territories that took advantage of the turmoil to revolt, such as Bactria and a part of Greece gathered around Athens, the latter being crushed by blood and fire. The situation was so turbulent that everyone tried to take advantage of it for their own benefit and ended up openly confronting each other only three years after Alexander’s death. Ptolemy had annexed Cyrenaica and Perdiccas, who was negotiating his marriage to a daughter of Olympia (Alexander’s mother), and mobilized against him, thus starting the so-called First War of the Diadochi.

First because there were not just one but four, who for more than two decades stained with blood, pacts and betrayals what had once been a united army. The third of these battles began in 314 B.C. because of Antigonus’ demand for a new division of the satrapies. Antigonus had become the most powerful diadochi after defeating Eumenes and Seleucus and taking over Asia Minor. This led Ptolemy, who had been prudent until then, to react and confront him. Both had victories and defeats but none decisive, so they opted for a truce in 311.

The division of Alexander’s domain among the Diadochi / Image: Rowanwindwhistler on Wikimedia Commons

That same year Cassander murdered Alexander IV together with his mother Roxana, thus disappearing the only figure that could have put an end to the discord. The next victim was Heracles and everything fell apart again.Selecucus, who kept Babylon, extended his dominion to the east while Ptolemy did the same for Chiprey the Aegean through an agreement with Antigonus to keep the islands and he with the Greek mainland. This directly confronted them with Cassander, who, after ending Alexander’s dynasty, aspired to establish his own.

In fact, Antigonus expelled Cassander from Greece and proclaimed himself basileus (king). The other diadochi did not want to be left behind and also proclaimed themselves in this way in their respective domains, originating new dynasties (the lager or Ptolemaic, the Seleucid…) and putting an end once and for all to the Alexandrian idea of a united Hellenic empire. Cassander’s counterattack plunged Greece into four years of conflict but as he was unable to defeat Antigonus, he was helped by Ptolemy, Lysimachus and Seleucus, who finally achieved victory at Ipsos, where Antigonus not only lost the battle but also his life.

The winners divided up the domains of the deceased, but his son Demetrius still lived, later nicknamed Poliorcetes because of the siege he subjected Rhodes to. He was a good general, but too impulsive, who knew how to wait for what was inevitable: dissension among the winners. Then, also coinciding with the death of Cassander by dropsy, he reconquered part of Greece and proclaimed himself king of Macedon. Unfortunately, he lacked popular support and had to flee before the push of Lysimachus’ army, helped by Pyrrhus, the ruler of Epirus. He still had the strength to fight but finally had to throw in the towel and take refuge with Seleucus, who kept him prisoner for the rest of his life.

Lysimachus was the great beneficiary of the events, since he kept the south of Macedon, Thrace and a good part of Asia Minor, while Ptolemy was satisfied with securing Egypt, and Seleucus with an extensive territory that covered from the eastern part of present day Turkey to Persia, passing through Syria and Phoenicia. However, the final episode of that mess was still missing. Ptolemy Ceraunus, son of the Egyptian king who had been disinherited because of his temperament, first went into exile with Lysimachus, but the latter, induced by his wife Arsinoe (Ceraunus’ sister), who wished to favour the succession of one of his sons instead of the heir, Agathocles ( born to another previous wife), had him executed. The widow also feared for her life and sought refuge with Seleucus. And she convinced him to try to snatch Macedon from Lysimachus.

Busts of Seleucus and Lysimachus / Image 1: Massimo Finizio on Wikimedia Commons – Image 2: José Luiz Bernardez Ribeiro on Wikimedia Commons

The two armies clashed at Corupedium, a name that refers to the Koros plain in Lydia, western Anatolia. It was 281 BC, and the truth is that there are hardly any references to that battle. Some sources point out that Lysimachus had 51,000 infantry soldiers, 8,300 cavalry and 25 elephants of war, against which Seleucus opposed 31,500 infantry, 9,500 horsemen and 60 elephants, plus 15 falcate chariots. Tradition says that, despite being very old, both diadochi fought personally and a Heracleian soldier named Malacon killed Lysimachus with a spear.

This is what the writer Memnon of Heraclea tells us in his work History of Heraclea Pontica (a city located on the coast of Bithynia), although it has been lost and we only know it through references from Photius I of Constantinople in an anthology that reviewed almost three hundred books under the heading Library (or Myriobiblos), as early as the 9th century: 

By murdering his son, Lysimachus justly earned the hatred of his subjects. So Seleucus, on learning about this and how easily the kingdom could be overthrown, now that the cities had revolted against Lysimachus, joined battle against him. Lysimachus died in this war, after being struck by a spear which was thrown by a man from Heracleia called Malacon, who was fighting for Seleucus. After Lysimachus’ death, his kingdom was merged as part of Seleucus’ kingdom

Memnon, History of Heraclea V.3

There are no more details, except one that seems more literary than anything else but is exciting: after the defeat and disbandance of the defeated troops, Lysimachus’ body would have remained several days abandoned on the battlefield and when they could finally return to bury him they could only recognize him because his faithful dog remained beside him, protecting him from the carrion birds.

As can be deduced from the text, it turned out that most of Alexander’s domains, except for Ptolemaic Egypt, were finally in the hands of Seleucus, forming what has gone down in history as the Seleucid Empire. They were multi-ethnic territories but under the rule of a Macedonian caste that left considerable Greek influence until it disintegrated in the midst of civil wars at the end of the 2nd century BC. Interestingly, Macedon was not part of their domain.

Development and expansion of the Seleucid Empire / Image: Rowanwindwhistler on Wikimedia Commons

This was because Seleucus could hardly enjoy his success when he was killed shortly after the battle of Corupedium by Ptolemy Ceraunus, who wanted to marry Arsinoe to Pyrrhus (although she ran away and married his brother Ptolemy II Philadelphus). Ceraunus died fighting a Gallic invasion and was succeeded by his brother Maleager, who only lasted two months on the throne. After several ephemeral successions, Antigonus II Gonatas, son of Demetrius I Poliorcetes and grandson of Antigonus, founded the antigonid dynasty.


Sources

Biblioteca histórica (Diodoro de Sicilia) / History of Heracleia (Memnon) / Vidas paralelas: Demetrio (Plutarco) / Historia de Alejandro Magno (Quinto Curcio Rufo) / El mundo griego y el Oriente II. El siglo IV y la época helenística (Édouard Will, Claude Mossé y Paul Goukowsky) / El mundo griego después de Alejandro 321-30 a.C. (Graham Shipley) /Wikipedia