A Festival Interrupted: Antigonos Monopthalmos and the First Royal Agōnes

Hello! As you can see from our information pages, each of us on the project is focusing on a different aspect of Greek festival culture and its transformations from the Hellenistic period onwards. I’m looking at the interactions between festivals and a new, defining feature of that period – the kingdoms that emerged across the eastern Mediterranean (and further east) in the wake of the death of Alexander the Great.

The ruling elites of these states – initially mainly Makedonians – were interested in Greek civic culture to a far greater extent than their precursors in the Achaemenid Persian empire. Their engagement with the network of competitive festivals spanning the Greek world would change it considerably – the institution of the Ptolemaia at Alexandria by Ptolemy II in 280 BC, for example, played a key role in the surge of “Panhellenisation” of festivals in the Hellenistic era. Before diving into the evidential morass of the third century, however, we might consider an intriguing note from the late Hellenistic Sicilian historian Diodorus, describing what could very well be the first “royal” festival ever organised, but one that never even took place. This ghost of a festival throws a certain spectral illumination on one of the key questions our project seeks to answer – what were rulers trying to achieve when sponsoring agōnes?

First, some context: in 306 BC, following a spectacular naval victory off the coast of Cyprus, Antigonos Monopthalmos (“the One-Eyed”) had himself and his son Demetrios crowned as kings. Antigonos was at the time the most powerful of the Makedonian generals who had carved up Alexander’s empire between them, and was the first openly to declare himself a king. Shortly before this he had founded a new city, named Antigoneia, on the Orontes river in northern Syria, which he had controlled since 317. This was a region which had been relatively sparsely populated and lacking in urban centres since the Assyrian terror campaigns of the 8th-7th centuries, and Antigonos planned to create a number of new settlements, granting land in return for tax payments and military service. The settlers were largely drawn from the Greek world – those at Antigoneia were a mixture of Makedonians and Athenians.

In 302 this new city was to play host to a grand festival. Diodorus’ description is worth quoting here:

“Antigonos, who had made preparations to celebrate great games (agōnes) and a festival (panēgyris) in Antigoneia, had collected from all sides the most famous athletes and artists to compete for great prizes and fees. But when he heard of the crossing of Lysimachos [into Anatolia] and the desertion of his own generals, he abandoned the games but distributed to the athletes and artists not less than two hundred talents as compensation.” (Diodorus Siculus, 20.108.1)

This brief note raises many questions. To what god or gods was the festival dedicated? Was it intended to be a regular institution, as was common in Greek cities? Where, exactly, did the competitors come from, and were they satisfied with their abrupt (albeit generously compensated) dismissal? Unfortunately, the campaign to which Antigonos was now called would be his last, and upon his death in battle in 301 northern Syria was seized by Seleukos, one of his rivals. Antigoneia was depopulated and abandoned, with its people and cults transferred to Seleukos’ own new urban foundations. Whatever plans Antigonos had for this festival died with him, and we are left with very little evidence to go on.

Yet, while the festival never amounted to anything more than intentions, intentions themselves are crucial in studying royal policy. In this case, certainly, Antigonos’ publicised decision to hold agōnes at his new foundation would have been just as politically significant as the festival itself. Festive agōnes played an important role in Greek civic culture, binding together worship, civic identity, aristocratic conceptions of human excellence and inter-civic relationships into repeated public rituals. By organising such contests at his eponymous city, Antigonos signalled to the Greek world his willingness to act as a sponsor and benefactor of the Greek cities – his philhellenism. From 319 he had increasingly portrayed himself as a champion of Greek cities against the despotic exactions of his rivals, expelling Makedonian garrisons from occupied poleis and proclaiming their “freedom and autonomy”. The announcement of a festival at Antigoneia mirrored in the cultural sphere the intentions he had already demonstrated in the political, encouraging Greeks concerned about the ramifications of Makedonian hegemony to look to Antigonos as their friend.

Greek civic culture, however, had many easily-replicable elements – why an agonistic festival? The answer here would seem to be connection. Antigoneia had been established as a polis in Greek fashion, populated with Greeks and Makedonians. Yet it lay very much on the margins of the Greek world of the Classical period. A festival which drew competitors “from all sides” (by which Diodorus can only mean from across the Greek Mediterranean, athletics not yet having become popular beyond the Greek world) would create connections between his fledgling city and those competitors’ home poleis. The “great prizes” would be taken away by the victors and displayed across the Mediterranean, establishing Antigoneia firmly as part of a Greek network of competition. It was crucial for Antigonos that this city and the Greek and Makedonian settlers in the surrounding area not feel cut off from the old Greek world, as had the Greek settlers in Iran who had revolted against royal rule in 323. The festival network would not only facilitate Antigonos’ self-representation as a patron of the Greek cities and a respecter of their inter-civic connections, but ensure that his new settlements could benefit from those connections as well.

A final point to note is that these objectives clearly mattered to Antigonos very much. His payment to the disappointed competitors after the cancellation of the festival was extremely large at 200 talents – approximately five tonnes of silver and enough to finance a small fleet for a campaign season. Antigonos was hardly lacking in funds – he took with him a mobile treasury of 3,000 talents for the campaign of 302/1 – but he would not have spent such a sum out of mere embarrassment. Rather he sought to ensure the gratitude of the athletes and artists involved, and to encourage more competitors to travel to any future agōnes he might sponsor. Effectively Antigonos was investing in the competitive festival network as a means of managing his carefully-constructed relationship of benefaction with the Greek cities.

Antigonos’ festival was never celebrated, and nothing is known of it beyond Diodorus’ short passage. Yet it points to some of the themes which we will see recurring throughout the history of royal engagement with festivals – the need for rulers to communicate their power, wealth and philhellenism to the Greek world, and the efficacy of the festival network as a connecting tissue of common institutions and cultural practices that tied together Greek cities across their extensive kingdoms. It’s all pretty fascinating, and we hope you enjoy reading about it as much as we do researching it!


Further Reading

Billows, Richard, Antigonos the One-Eyed and the Creation of the Hellenistic State (Berkeley, 1990).

Capdetrey, Laurent, Le pouvoir séleucide (Rennes, 2007), esp. pp. 60-76.

Cohen, Getzel, The Hellenistic Settlements in Syria, the Red Sea Basin, and North Africa (Berkeley, 2006), esp. pp. 76-79.

Mann, Christian, “Cash and Crowns: A Network Approach to Greek Athletic Prizes”, in Mirko Canevaro et al (eds.) Ancient Greek History and Contemporary Social Science (Edinburgh, 2018), pp. 293-312.