Domination and Legitimacy in Hellenistic Monarchy: Some Remarks, Part 1

To think about types of legitimate domination in Hellenistic monarchy implies distinctions between the “probability that certain specific commands (or all commands) will be obeyed by a given group of persons” and the basis for the continuance of this domination (or how such commands rely on a belief in legitimacy to keep working). In other words, it is crucial to understand both the differences and associations between the concepts of domination and legitimacy in order to apply Weberian types of legitimate domination (particularly the one that is based on charismatic grounds) to Hellenistic monarchy. The aim of this first post is to briefly discuss the application of some Weberian tools to the studyof the ancient world and to present some remarks on the concept of domination as it is applied to Hellenistic basileia.

In principle, one might be reluctant to apply Weberian theory to understanding the ancient world since that would mean putting more emphasis on modern ideal categories than on ancient evidence. Such a “sociological approach” would also be problematic due to Weber’s well known theory of ancient oriental monarchies. Max Weber is the reference point for consolidating what appears to be a topos in earlier German academic thought: the dilemma between Asian monarchies and democratic states. The former would always include, among other things, the presence of an absolute ruler and a static society. The latter would be characterized as the last stage in the evolution of freedom. For Hegel, writing nearly a hundred years before Weber, the progression in freedom consciousness had three stages, beginning  precisely with the ancient Orient and its despots, who were still not free men.

Despite all these preliminary considerations, which might at first drive ancient historians away from using Weberian intellectual tools for the study of ancient kingship, there are good reasons for applying such categories to Hellenistic basileia in particular and at the same time to build on the work of H.-J. Gehrke [1]. This, however, does not necessarily mean assimilating Weber’s theory on ancient monarchies. In short, the very best reason for using a Weberian framework is that types of legitimate domination would help us to produce a comprehensive study of Hellenistic monarchy by emphasizing modes of exercising power and influence and creating charismatic authority.

When we start to consider “the obedience of [at least] certain specific commands by a group of persons” as part of the Weberian definition of domination, the first question that comes to mind is: who was this group (abstractly speaking) in Hellenistic monarchy?

Gruen [2] and Chaniotis [3] stressed the intentional “vagueness” of the royal title as an invitation to conquest, since the absence of an ethnic name (e.g. “king of the Macedonians” did not link the king exclusively to one territory in particular. They were kings of “whichever land they could conquer” (Chaniotis, p.57), as demonstrated in many imperialist attempts to take power around the ancient Mediterranean. Indeed, after Antigonus Monophtalmos had set a precedent of justifying royalty by a great (dramatized or not) military victory (Salamis, in the case of Antigonus and Demetrius), several self-proclaimed kingships followed. Having taken power by force, these conquerors would generally consider their armies as the first intended audience for their self-proclaimed status. The “group of persons” needed in a Weberian domination process applied to Hellenistic monarchy is generally the army, followed by a bureaucratic apparatus (like the one found in Ptolemaic Egypt) that supports the position of the king.

The importance of Hellenistic armies in basileiai was such that Agathocles (who proclaimed himself king as one of the Diadochi in 306) appeared in royal garb for the first time before his troops during his African campaign, which has been recently proposed as the beginning of a change that ended in his self-proclaimed kingship [4]:

The Carthaginians, on learning of the discord among the enemy, sent men to them urging them to change sides, and promised to give them greater pay and noteworthy bonuses. And indeed many of the leaders did agree to take the army over to them; but Agathocles, seeing that his safety was in the balance and fearing that, if he should be delivered to the enemy, he would end his life amid insults, decided that it was better, if he had to suffer, to die at the hands of his own men. Therefore, putting aside the purple (τὴν πορφύραν) and donning the humble garb of a private citizen, he came out into the middle of the crowd. […] When he was on the point of striking the blow [he was about to slay himself with a sword], the army shouted bidding him stop, and from every side voices clearing him from the charges. And when the crowd kept pressing him to resume his royal garb (τὴν βασιλικὴν ἐσθῆτα), he put on the dress of his rank, weeping and thanking the people, the crowd meanwhile acclaiming his restoration with a clash of arms. (Translated by Russel M. Geer) [5]

It is also important to note that Ophellas, to whom Agathocles sent Orthon the Syracusan as an envoy, “was ambitious for a greater realm” because at the time he was  master of the cities of Cyrene and of a strong army. Moreover, according to Diodorus (20.40), Agathocles was planning to leave Libya to Ophellas while he himself would exercise dominion over Sicily and Italy (by extension). Hence Hellenistic monarchy (or even the right to it) depended primarily on dominion over a professional army, the right uses of such an army (“the defense of a patrimony, the reclamation of a lost land, and the conquest of new territories”, as Chaniotis put it after Bikerman) and the general’s relationship to Alexander the Great, himself a successful general par excellence. [6]

The second question worth asking here is why this new kind of domination was accepted by the troops. It is easier to obey a general than follow a self-proclaimed king. So why did the new kings succeed among their troops? What is the chief element to consider in the acceptance of such dominance?

Two things must be taken into consideration. The first is the professional nature of  men-at-arms. As professional soldiers, they tended to follow a successful general rather than the causes they were fighting for. The second thing is a consequence of the first: mercenary troops needed to be convinced of their general’s authority (the capacity to lead them safely during a campaign or in battle, the right to give orders etc). If a general’s authority (kingly or not) is doubted, the natural reaction is massive disobedience to his commands, which for our purposes means opposition to domination. Eumenes for example was not able to deal with the mutiny of his troops after Antigonus had taken his army’s  supplies of his army during battle, as recorded by Plutarch:

After the battle, Teutamus sent a message to Antigonus to demand the baggage. He made answer, he would not only restore it to the Argyraspids, but serve them further in the other things if they would but deliver up Eumenes. Upon which the Argyraspids took a villainous resolution to deliver him up alive into the hands of his enemies. So they came to wait upon him, being unsuspected by him, but watching their opportunity, some lamenting the loss of the baggage, some encouraging him as if he had been victor, some accusing the other commanders, till at last they all fell upon him, and seizing his sword, bound his hands behind him with his own girdle. (Translated by John Dryden) [7]

Something similar had previously happened to Perdiccas at the time of his disastrous crossing of the Nile during the invasion of Egypt [8]:

Since more than two thousand men were lost, among them some of the prominent commanders, the rank and file of the army became ill disposed toward Perdiccas. […] the Macedonians with Perdiccas became much more exasperated with him, but they turned with favour toward Ptolemy. When the night came, the encampment was filled with lamentations and mourning, so many men having been senselessly lost without a blow from an enemy, and of these no fewer than a thousand having become food for beasts. Therefore many of the commanders joined together and accused Perdiccas, and all the phalanx of the infantry, now alienated from him, made clear their own hostility with threatening shouts. […] some also of the cavalry conspired together and went to the tent of Perdiccas, where they fell on him in a body and stabbed him to death. (Translated by Russel M. Geer) [9]

In the specific circumstances of the two cases described above, lack of authority led to the end of domination. Eumenes showed himself incapable of protecting his men’s supplies; Perdiccas forced his men into a fiasco. Although a decisive victory was necessary for a Hellenistic kingship to be proclaimed, Hellenistic generals first needed to deal properly with their armies and emanate authority to keep their domination over the army and spear-won territory.


[1] Gehrke, H.-J. (1982) Der siegreiche König. Überlegungen zur hellenistischen Monarchie, Archiv für Kulturgeschichte, 64: 247-277.

[2] Gruen, E. (1985) The coronation of the Diadochoi, in J. W. Eadie and J. Ober (eds) Essays Ch. G. Starr, Lanham, New York, London: 253–71.

[3] Chaniotis, A. (2005) The interactive king: war and the ideology of Hellenistic monarchy, in Chaniotis, A. War in the Hellenistic World: a social and cultural history, Malden, Oxford, Carlton: 57-77.

[4] Zambon 2006

[5] Diod. 20.34

[6] That is the reason why Ptolemy II was considered a “good king” by Theocritos (17.105-6).

[7] Plut. Eum. 17-18.

[8] The aim of Perdicas’ invasion of Egypt was to punish Ptolemy and regain Alexander’s corpse, as put by Errington (1970), From Babylon to Triparadeisos: 323-320 B.C., The Journal of Hellenic Studies, 90: 49-77.

[9] Diod. 18.36. Arr. recorded that Perdiccas was twice defeated and “in other respects behaved in camp more arrogantly than became a general”, being killed by his own cavalry during an engagement.