Domination and Legitimacy in Early Hellenistic Basileia: The Rise of Self-Proclaimed Kings

Citation with persistent identifier:

Modanez de Sant Anna, Henrique. “Domination and Legitimacy in Early Hellenistic Basileia: The Rise of Self-Proclaimed Kings.” CHS Research Bulletin 1, no. 2 (2013).


§1  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 (ideal types, in particular) to Hellenistic basileia in particular. This, however, does not necessarily mean assimilating Weber’s theory on ancient monarchies.

§2  Not without reason, Gruen (1985: 256) stressed the common characterization of Hellenistic kings as personal or charismatic. As a matter of fact, in charismatic authority, the validity of the claims to legitimacy rested on “devotion to the exceptional sanctity, heroism or exemplary character of an individual person, and of the normative patterns or order revealed or ordained by him” (Weber 1978: 214). Weber further maintains that in primitive circumstances, this peculiar kind of quality – the extraordinariness of a leader – must have rested on magical powers, whether of prophets, leaders in the hunt, or heroes in war (Weber 1978: 240). Leaving aside any ethical or aesthetic judgments, which Weber insisted were unimportant for purposes of definition, the questions that remain important – and for which this paper will offer explanations as far as Hellenistic kingship is concerned – are how the individual is regarded by those subject to charismatic authority and how the problem of succession is overcome.

§3  In the case of Hellenistic kingship, proof and success assure royal power for at least the first generation; if the self-proclaimed king fails to benefit his followers (mostly his friends and to a lesser extent a part of his troops) by failing to be as generous or competent as expected, it is likely that his charismatic authority will vanish. If he succeeds, however, at some point in his career, his position will require him to lay out  criteria for succession. Indeed, some kings were able to radically change the purely transitory nature of their power by establishing dynastic principles that would appear legitimate to those subject to their authority (Gehrke 1982: 268).

§4  In what follows I will discuss Hellenistic kings’ identification with more ancient monarchical traditions (the strategy that follows the establishment of dynastic principles through designation), emphasizing the army as one of the main intended audiences of a self-proclaimed king.

The king and his army

§5  In a broader perspective, Hellenistic kings depended largely (though not only) on their military forces. In other words, when we begin to consider “the obedience of [at least] certain specific commands by a group of persons” as part of the Weberian definition of domination, it is inevitable to identify part of this group (abstractly speaking) in early Hellenistic monarchy as the armies at the kings’ disposal. Other members of the king’s circle of “friends” (philoi) include “advisers, teachers of the princes, good company in hunting and drinking parties, governors of districts and provinces [and] envoys”, as Chaniotis put it after Savalli-Lestrade and Virgilio (Savalli-Lestrade 1998: 335, 362-4, 378-80; Virgilio 2003: 15-6; Chaniotis 2005: 64).

§6  Some scholars (Gruen 1985; Chaniotis 2005: 57) have stressed the intentional “vagueness” of the royal title as an invitation to conquest, since without an ethnic name (e.g. “king of the Macedonians”) the king was not linked exclusively to one territory in particular. They were kings of “whichever land they could conquer” (Chaniotis 2005: 57), as demonstrated in many imperialist attempts to take power around the ancient Mediterranean. Indeed, after Antigonus Monophtalmos 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 consider their armies as one of the first intended audiences for their self-proclaimed status.

§7  Since Hellenistic kingship was in part rooted in Macedonian (as well as Egyptian and Persian) traditions, it is important to consider the significance of the “ritual of acclamation” (Chaniotis 2005: 62). The acclamation of a king by a Macedonian army assembly may have occurred in pre-Hellenistic Macedonia (as late sources suggest), when the soldiers supposedly played a more constitutional role through the assembly; in Hellenistic times, it certainly spread throughout the empire Alexander had created. Of course, acclamation remained common in Macedonia after Alexander’s death (see, for instance, the rise of Pyrrhus as king of the Macedonians in 288 BC), but it could now be found elsewhere in the Hellenistic world. The best evidence for the ritual of acclamation in Hellenistic regions other than Macedonia is that related to the accession of the underage Ptolemy V in 204 BC, since it casts light on the composition of the assembled army and its power to decide to whom the crown should be given:

Agathocles in the first place summoned a meeting of the Macedonians and appeared together with Agathoclea and the young king. At first he pretended that he could not say what he wished owing to the abundance of the tears that choked him, but after wiping his eyes many times with his chlamys and subduing the outburst, he took the child in his arms and exclaimed, “Take the child whom his father on his death-bed placed in the arms of this woman,” pointing to his sister, “and confided to your faith, you soldiers of Macedon. Her affection indeed is of but little moment to ensure his safety, but his fate depends on you and your valour. For it has long been evident to those who judge correctly that Tlepolemus aspires to a position higher than it behoves him to covet, and now he has actually fixed the day and the hour at which he will assume the diadem.” (Polybius Histories 15.26.1-4; trans. W.R. Paton)

§8  The importance of Hellenistic armies in the “ritual of acclamation” 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 mercenary troops during his African campaign, which has been recently proposed as the beginning of a change that ended in his self-proclaimed kingship (Consolo-Langher 2000; Zambon 2006: 77-94):

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. (Diodorus The Library of History 20.34; trans. R.M. Geer)

§9  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).

§10  The need for an army was in part justified by the imperialist impulses of Hellenistic kings, and there is a strong connection with the idea of employing military forces to exercise domination over spear-won lands. Bikerman (1938: 15) states that the Seleucids never got tired of saying their domination was grounded on the right of conquest (le droit de la victorie), recalling the words Diodorus ascribed to Seleucus I immediately after the battle of Ipsus (301 BC): “it was only just that those who were victorious on the battlefield should dispose of the spoils”. He also quotes some thinking supposedly done by Antiochus IV while struggling to defend the territory inherited from his father: “possession by force of arms was the surest and best”.

§11  The right of conquest, however, did not apply unconditionally (Chaniotis 2005: 182). Besides the several ways properties could be kept, there is the matter of determining who has a legitimate claim on a piece of property. According to Chaniotis, the claim would depend “on the historical moment which had been determined as the basis for the discussion”. For instance, Ptolemy II, “who as a good king cares deeply for the preservation of his fatherly inheritance” (Theocritus 17.95), would not accept another contemporary king as being as legitimate as himself in Egypt because his rule was based on the earlier military victory of Ptolemy I and then the establishment of a hereditary power. Similar was the case of Antiochus with regard to the territory previously subject to Philip V when the Romans asked him to withdraw from the territory they had just taken from Philip. According to the ancient sources (Polybius 18.49-51), Antiochus was “making use of his right” in his attempt to regain the territory claimed by the Romans, since in earlier times Seleucus “won the entire kingdom of Lysimachus by spear” before Ptolemy and Philip took advantage of the fact that Antiochus’ ancestors “had their attention deflected elsewhere”. Therefore Antiochus changed the occasion that assured  legitimate domination over the claimed territory, but he did not question the principle itself (Chaniotis 2005: 182).

§12  The rise of Hellenistic kings to power (or even the right to it) depended primarily on dominion over a professional army, but their relationship with the men-at-arms did not end there. There were mutual expectations that had to be satisfied during their lives. In other words, a so-called good king could count on faithful and effective military service from the troops while an incompetent and defeated king would have to deal with mutiny and desertion – sometimes as a result of bribery. In exchange, kings would promise all sorts of rewards, such as material gains (booty or land) and promotion.

§13  With that in mind, let us look at a selected part (the oath sworn by the soldiers) of the inscription related to Eumenes I and his mercenaries (ca. 260 BC):

“I swear […] I settle with Eumenes, son of Philetairos, from the best motives, and I shall bear good-will toward him and his offspring, and I shall not plot against Eumenes, son of Philetairos, nor shall I take up arms against him nor shall I desert Eumenes, but I shall fight on his behalf and on behalf of his state as long as I am alive and until I die. And I shall provide other service with good-will and without hesitation, with all zeal to the best of my ability; and if I perceive anyone plotting against Eumenes, son of Philetairos, or otherwise acting against him or his state, I shall not allow (him) to the best of my ability, and I shall, immediately or as quickly as I am able, announce the one doing any of these things to Eumenes […] And I shall preserve, if I take anything over from him, either city or garrison or ships or money or anything else that may be handed over to me, and I shall return (it) correctly and justly to Eumenes […] I shall not accept letters from the enemy, and I shall not receive an ambassador nor myself send (such) to them […] but if I should break the oath or transgress any of the agreements, may I and my line be accursed. (OGIS 266; Bagnall 1981 no.23)

§14  Faced with this mercenary revolt at some point between 263 and 241 BC, Eumenes I brought an end to it after four months by making concessions such as payment for the time those who had rendered the full number of campaigns and who were not in service anymore had served. Inscribed on four stone stelae (one of them sent to Pergamum in the sanctuary of Athena), it contains the oaths sworn by Eumenes and the soldiers – one of the best examples of the mutual expectations between the sovereign and his men-at-arms in Hellenistic sources. The case of Eumenes also has significance because it is reasonable to assume that he and other Hellenistic kings probably shared the same expectations regarding their mercenary troops.

§15  If the generations of Hellenistic kings (mostly from the so-called “period of stability, 276-221 BC) who tried to identify with local traditions were considering their armies as one of their intended audiences, a very important question must be asked: what would have been the composition of their armies? The Greek/Macedonian element certainly cannot be ignored, especially in the earliest times, nor can the indigenous element, even if we are considering the first half of the third century BC. Let us quote the words of Musti (CAH 7.1: 190), himself based on Polybius (5.79):

From the beginning, the Seleucid kingdom must have disposed of mixed forces, that is to say of armies in the composition of which a large part was played by local elements, drawn especially from regions whose social structures involved and encouraged strong warlike traditions, regions in short inhabited, or at least dominated, by warrior tribes. Thus in 217 B.C., besides a phalanx of 20,000 men (mainly Graeco-Macedonians), Antiochus Ill’s army comprised a nucleus of  5,000 Iranians and Cilicians armed like select troops, about 10,000 natives armed in the Macedonian manner, 2,000 Persian and Agrianian archers and slingers, 1,000 Thracians, about 5,000 Medes (and Iranians in general), distinct from the first group of Iranians in not being select troops, about 10,000 Arabs, 5,000 Greek mercenaries, 2,500 Cretans and Neo-Cretans, 500 Lydian lancers and 1,000 Cardacians. This was the infantry, divided, of course, into the heavy infantry (the first half) and the light. After that there was a strong cavalry force, comprising 6,000 horsemen and 102 ‘beasts’ (elephants).

§16  If Polybius’ account is right, this was the situation of the Seleucid army in 217 BC, and it was probably not so different (in terms of multi-ethnicity) some decades before. Along with the new “Seleucid setting”, a group of mercenaries in Ptolemaic service was mentioned in a Greek inscription in Syria (SEG 27.973bis) at some point in the second half of the third century (or maybe before). Their number will unfortunately remain unknown but they certainly were Greeks, which suggests that by then the Ptolemaic army had a strong Greek element. In fact, the Macedonian acquisition of Egypt was accompanied by a large influx of Greeks as settlers. (Lloyd 2011: 91). From these data, it seems reasonable to assume Hellenistic kings (at least from ca. 270) were dealing with a mixed military audience, which could not be culturally satisfied in its entirety. There were certainly sections of the army for which appeals to the traditions of ancient Babylonia or Pharaonic Egypt would not have had much meaning. It also seems reasonable that the combination of a dynastic cult (and its impact on how the Greek/Macedonian soldiers saw their kings) and the immersion of kings into more ancient monarchical traditions would satisfy at least a good portion (or an important one) of both elements (Greek and non-Greek) of this mixed audience.

§17  The dynastic cult (which did not exist in Macedonia and Pergamum) was mainly for the benefit of the Greek communities dwelling in non-Greek territories although it had already incorporated many features of local traditions. That is true for the cult of the dead and living Ptolemies (the Ptolemaic ‘sacred household’ or hiera oikia), which goes back to Alexander: though “bearing their Greek cult-titles, [they] also found a place in the native temples” (Walbank CAH 7.1: 98). References to the Ptolemies as synnaioi theoi, ‘shrine-sharing deities’, prove the impact of this cult on Egyptian temples. (Lloyd 2011: 92-3). Among the Seleucids, the dynastic cult started merely as a private cult; then evolved into “king and his ancestors” worship before including queen worship. In all those cases, there was a group of “displaced persons” (members of the royal family and their friends, soldiers and officials) who “no longer belonged to a Greek city with its gods and cults” and were lacking a “framework of religious observance necessary to a rounded life” (Walbank CAH 7.1: 96). The dynastic cult would serve them very well.

Fitting in with local traditions: the first generations of kings

§18  Seleucus I and Ptolemy I tried to make themselves appear as much like Alexander as possible. For example their portraits show many features in common, such as “the strong neck; strong round chin; wrinkles down from the corners of the mouth; which among other traits are responsible for the severe expression of the faces; deeply sunken eyes under strong brows, slanting down; protruding lower part of the forehead; curly hairstyle” (Fleischer 1996: 30). That does not mean that the first kings were not concerned about getting the assent of the ruled, which was Ptolemy I’s strategy for creating a new brand of kingship rooted in a Greek context: the ruler or dynastic cult (Lloyd 2011: 92).

§19  Seleucus I and Ptolemy I borrowed many traits from Alexander’s portrait (although they transposed them to a later age); the next generations of early Hellenistic kings would connect both with their ancestors (and by extension with Alexander) through the dynastic cult and with the type of ruler portrayed in local traditions. It is interesting to note that coin portraits of Ptolemy III (246-222/1 BC) and Seleucus II (246-226 BC) do not bear the same traits their ancestors did; instead of representing strength or tension, they are now shown with reserve, quietness and distance, traits that could be connected with the type of ruler portrayed in Egypt or Mesopotamia (Fleischer 1996: 31).

§20  Inherited charisma implies that new rulers are legitimized by descent, so for a number of generations such a heritage was accompanied by a more consistent effort to fit in with local traditions. It is important to stress that an understanding with the local elites was fundamental to create a “new” and effective political body, in which a Greek/Macedonian elite was trying to survive. Lloyd (2002: 117) showed that a more traditional historiographical approach to Hellenistic Egypt characterized its administration as a “highly centralized organization in which power was resolutely and systematically confined to the Graeco-Macedonian elite whilst the indigenous ruling classes were firmly subordinated to their foreign masters”. This is a notion inherited from the European experience of colonialism and models developed since that time, but it was also “powerfully reinforced by an undue concentration on Greek papyri from a very atypical area, i.e. – the Fayum, taking little account of the demotic evidence and even less of the hieroglyphic material”. A more cautious approach, less focused on Greek papyri, would reveal, as Manning demonstrated, a system of control more “informal rather than centralized and regionally variable rather than uniform throughout Egypt” (Manning 1997: 101; Lloyd 2002: 117).

§21  Thus it seems reasonable to assume that many Egyptian elite families were still in existence in Hellenistic times and that their political aspirations would have remained “as powerful as ever as they took account of the new political and even social environment created by foreign conquest.” (Lloyd 2002: 118). It was then fundamental for a Ptolemaic king, as for most of the Hellenistic kings, to come to terms with local elites, since the need to deal with still confident and powerful elite families to assure stability and legitimacy would be a constant concern in territories that were formerly part of the Macedonian empire. The poems written by the Syracusan Theocritus (ca. 273 BC), very active at the Alexandrian court under the reign of Ptolemy II, are a good example of such a strategy. Composed under royal patronage, this official court poetry aimed to legitimize Philadelphus as both a Greek/Macedonian and an Egyptian ruler by merging Greek mythological and Egyptian conceptions of kingship. According to M. Heerink (2010: 402), who advocates the idea presented above, Theocritus not only associates Philadelphus with Zeus and the demigods but also “engages in several systematic ways of interpretatio Graeca of Egyptian pharaonic ideology”.

§22  That case illustrates an important part of the process that allowed the creation of a Hellenistic dynasty in a world of self-proclaimed kingships: the introduction of a legitimate domination that could prevail for more than one generation through inheritable charisma (since there are no legal or traditional grounds) and identification with some local traditions. It is worth stressing that Hellenistic kings made efforts to identify with local traditions by rebuilding temples, favoring local cities and immersing themselves in ancient monarchical traditions, but they did not emerge in a traditional way.


§23  As spear-won lands, Hellenistic territories were to be defended by the legitimate heir and general and his troops (mostly mercenaries). If the setting was the attack instead of the defense of a territory, it was also a king’s concern to present himself as a successful military commander seeking the reclamation of lost land or the conquest of territories like a new Alexander. It was this seeking for legitimacy – to establish a close association with Alexander – that motivated Ptolemy I to grab the body of Alexander when it was being transported from Babylon to Macedon and bring it to Egypt (Stewart 1993; Erskine 2002; Lloyd 2011: 92).

§24  Hellenistic kings needed to radiate the power of a “military hero”, even if their dominion over a land relied essentially on recently implemented dynastic principles. Here, one thing must be taken into consideration: troops needed to be convinced of their general’s capacity to lead them safely during a campaign or in battle. The power of a king relied on his excellence and that meant being as good a general as possible or expected. If a general’s capacity was doubted, the natural reaction was disobedience to his commands or even desertion, which for our purposes means opposition to domination. It is clear that the regent Perdiccas, during his invasion of Egypt, a clear attempt to punish Ptolemy and regain Alexander’s corpse, (Errington 1970), was not able to deal with his troops’ mutiny at the time of his disastrous crossing of the Nile (Diodorus 18.36). Although Diodorus and Arrian gave us a different account for the reasons why the army betrayed its general, both still insisted on the same idea. According to Arrian, Perdiccas was twice defeated and in other respects behaved in camp more arrogantly than became a general. Because of his attitude, he was murdered by his own cavalry during an engagement.

§25  As one of the main intended audiences of self-proclaimed kings, Hellenistic armies shared many short and long-term expectations with their sovereigns. Those mutual expectations, though assured by custom (royal patronage) or oaths, could be surprisingly volatile. Thus reciprocity became a very important aspect of Hellenistic kingship. Nearly every kind of interaction between the king and other groups (including his army) was related to war or the threat of war, and it was expected that the king, in order to “fulfill the expectation of others”, would offer “privileges, material gain, protection, and peace to those who supported his rule” (Chaniotis 2005: 74). That is not a position of a legal ruler; instead, it is a position that could be “invented” on the basis of  charisma.


In the U.S.: I am most grateful to the Center for Hellenic Studies for making this research possible and to Erich Gruen, Angelos Chaniotis, Joseph Manning and Michael Brumbagh for their valuable suggestions. In Brazil and Europe: I am grateful to Vicente Dobroruka, Andre Araujo, Hans-Joachim Gehrke, Mark Heerink and George Roberts.


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