Kings, courtesans and war machines

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About Demetrios – destroyer of cities, son of Antigonus the One-eyed (Antigonus I Cyclops) – the Athenians were telling a lot of things. On the one hand, they were treating him as a god, descended among the poor mortals to liberate them from danger. A contemporary was worshipping Demetrios, reminding the fact that no other god cannot be seen by people; only Demetrios is among them and can be seen, heard and felt. On the other hand, the Athenians made fun of his erotic and bacchanal excesses. The Greeks, generally, and the Athenians, particularly, had and ambivalent attitude towards Demetrios. An ambivalent attitude they generally nourish towards tyrants, perhaps towards heroes: a mixture of awe, fear and irony.

The founder of the Antigonid dynasty

Along with his father, Antigonus, Demetrios was one of the fiercest competitors in The Wars of the Diadochi. Diadochus were Alexander the Great’s generals and successors, who fought for decades over the territories conquered by the son of Philip left without a chosen successor when Alexander, a month before his 33rd birthday, died of a high fever in a palace in Babylon, on June 13, 323 B.C.

Both Antigonus and Demetrius proclaimed themselves kings in 306 BC. For a while, they ruled over Asia Minor and Syria, as well as over the cities of Greece. Defeated in the Battle of Ipsos (301 BC), when Monophtalmos died, they lost most of their conquered possessions, but their descendants, the Antigonid Dynasty, were ruling over the house of ancient Macedonia from 306 to 168 BC, when the last representative of the dynasty, Perseus, was defeated at Pydna by the Roman army, commanded by Lucius Aemilius Paullus.

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Helepolis, the “Taker of Cities”

Demetrios was an outstanding general, nicknamed “Poliorketes” during the Siege of Rhodes in 305–304 BC, when he managed to isolate the city of Rhodes from its harbor, conquering the harbor using a huge war machine, called Helepolis (the “destroyer of cities”, or the “city-taker”), most likely named after “Elena”, from “Agamemnon”, Aeschylus’ greatest work.

According to “Historical Library” (XX, 92.1-8), written by Diodorus Siculus, Demetrios built a war machine, which far surpassed in size those which had been constructed before it. Each side of the square platform included about 50 cubits (in ancient Greece, one cubit measured approximately 0.46 m), framed together from squared timber and fastened with iron; the space within was divided by bars set about a cubit from each other so that there might be standing space for those who were to push the machine forward.

The whole structure was movable, mounted on eight great solid wheels; From each corner there extended upward beams equal in length and little short of a hundred cubits long, inclining toward each other in such a way that, the whole structure being nine storeys high.

Each of them had shutters, which were lifted by a special mechanism and which secured the safety of the men on the platforms who were serving the artillery; the shutters were composed of hides stitched together and were filled with wool, so that they would yield to the blows of the stones from the ballistae. 3,400 men who were to move the machine were selected from the whole army. Demetrios was called “Poliorcetes” by the Rhodians, which means “the grand master of siege”.

The reveler general, the invincible general

According to Diodorus Siculus, the author who provided us most of the details regarding these events, the Rhodians were impressed not only by the ingenuity and boldness of Demetrios in the siege of the cities, but also by his personal qualities. “Both in stature and in beauty he displayed the dignity of a hero, so that even those strangers who had come from a distance, when they beheld his comeliness arrayed in royal splendor, marvelled at him and followed him as he went abroad in order to gaze at him.

He was haughty in spirit and proud and looked down not only upon common men but also upon those of royal rank. But his most distinctive feature was that in time of peace, he spent most of the time spent drinking wine and partying, accompanied by dancing and revels, and in general he emulated the conduct said by mythology to have been that of Dionysus among men; but in his wars he was always active and sober, so that beyond all others who practiced this profession he devoted both body and mind to the task.” (DS XX 92.3)

Often mentioned by other sources as too enthusiastic participant at banquets, Demetrios is frequently mentioned not as a generous host, but rather as the beneficiary of some Bacchanal pleasures which were offered to him by his admirers – either individuals or whole cities. In the exchange of letters cited by Athenaios (Athenaeus) which we reproduced in a previous text, Lynceus replies to Hippolochos’s story about Caranos’ wedding by a letter about the feast of Demetrios offered by his beloved courtesan, Lamia of Athens.

Fish as the main course

Unfortunately, Athenaios hasn’t found his Lynceus’ account as surprising as that of Hippolochos and didn’t provided too many details related to Lamia’s banquet. In a passage from the 3rd book (101 e), he mentions that “Lynceus, describing the banquet given by Lamia, the female flute-player, when she entertained Demetrius Poliorcetes, represents the guests the moment they come to the banquet as eating all sorts of fish and meat; and in the same way, when speaking of the feast given by Antigonus the king, when celebrating the Aphrodisiac festival, and also one given by King Ptolemy, he speaks of fish as the main course; and then meat.”

Visiting the courtesans wearing a formal suit

In his famous writing, “Various Histories”, Aelian (5. 12, 17) provides us with some details about the relationship between Demetrios and the beautiful Athenian: “the king, lord over so many nations, went to the house of courtesan Lamia in his armor and wearing his diadem. To have sent for her home had been very dishonorable, but much more was it that he went amorously to her.

I prefer Theodorus the Player on the Flute before Demetrius, as Lamia invited Theodorus, but he refused her invitation. It’s pretty obvious that, in this situation, Demetrios is convicted. Not only because, unlike an individual like Theodorus (who was totally inferior to Demetrios, despite the fact that he was famous for his talent), the general is going to the house of a courtesan, but he’s doing this not only openly, but also formally dressed and particularly wearing his diadem – a ribbon that Olympic victors were tying around their head and that Alexander the Great hoisted as a royal insignia.

Soap tax

The connection between the king and courtesan Lamia seems to have tarnished the reputation of Demetrios in Athens. Plutarch, who has devoted to Demetrios of the most well documented biographies, says (Dem.27, 1-2): “Athenians felt deeply offended when Demetrios asked them to collect 250 talents in a very short time.

After they had levied the money rigorously and inexorably, when he saw the sum that had been collected, he commanded that it should be given to Lamia and her fellow courtesans to buy soap and cosmetics.” It is true that the biographer adds a note of doubt on this anecdote, writing that some say that those who received this treatment were the Thessalians, not the Athenians.

The other Helepolis

Plutarch continues with the banquet from which we start this debate: apart from this unpleasant tax, exacted money on her own account from many citizens when she was preparing that famous feast for the king.

And the costliness of this supper was so unusual and gave it so wide a renown that it was described in full by Lynceus the Samian himself. For the same reason, a comic poet of that time, full of humor, but also respect for the truth, called Lamia “another Helepolis, a veritable city-taker”.


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