Cassander  [ca. 358 - 297 BCE]

Ambitious son of Antipater whose efforts to succeed his father as ruler of Macedonia doomed the family of Alexander the Great. In 319 BCE the dying Antipater, who had been caretaker of the homeland during the Alexander's conquest of Asia (334-323 BCE) & regent for the royal family after Perdiccas' defeat, entrusted the regency for Alexander's royal heirs to Polyperchon, a fellow senior officer. As true loyal soldiers, both men understood their offices as a mandate to serve the legitimate ruling dynasty, not to try to usurp power & establish a dynasty of their own. Though himself a ranking officer, Cassander -- who was almost Alexander's exact contemporary -- lacked these old soldiers' sense of duty & code of honor. True to Alexander's dying word, Cassander firmly believed that the right of succession belonged "to the strongest" (kratistoi). So, rather than respect his own father's dying act, he refused to recognize Polyperchon's authority, expelled him from Macedonia & claimed the regency for himself (317 BCE).

To try understand the role that Cassander played in the history of Alexander's successors fairly, one must keep in mind that he had long suffered in the shadow of two stronger men: a stern father who did not trust his own son's ability to take command & and a self-confident monarch whose string of stunning victories only fed his growing megalomania. When the former was summoned by the latter to Babylon (324 BCE), he sent Cassander in his place. It was not Antipater but his filial representative who had to bear the full brunt of the wrath of an autocratic king not accustomed to having his orders countermanded.  

To make matters worse, Cassander was totally unprepared for the spectacle that confronted him when he arrived in Babylon.  Having claimed the throne of the Persian "King of kings" for himself, Alexander had introduced the Persian custom of proskynesis (full prostration in the presence of a master) into his court. Witnessing this practice -- men flat on their face with their butts in the air -- for the first time in his life, Cassander broke into uncontrollable laughter. This outburst so enraged Alexander that he grabbed the startled Cassander & bashed his head into the wall. While the latter was not seriously wounded physically by such a painful royal reception, his subsequent actions prove that he bore the psychological scars of this incident for the rest of his life. After this, Cassander probably not only felt no guilt in defying his dead father's last order but no regrets when he finally got the chance to execute Alexander's closest relatives: both his mother (316 BCE) & son (310 BCE).

But annihilation of the Argead dynasty was not Cassander's initial intention.  Rather, when he first seized control of the Macedonian homeland (317 BCE), he sought to use the royal family to solidify his right to be de facto regent. With Polyperchon gone & the nominal king -- Philip IV (Alexander's half-witted half-brother) -- his compliant hostage,  Cassander now felt secure enough to complete the conquest of Greece, leaving Macedonia in the hands of an early supporter: Philip's ambitious queen, Eurydice. 

Polyperchon, however, -- having found refuge with Alexander's 6 year old son in the neighboring kingdom of Epirus (modern Albania) where he joined forces with Alexander's mother (Olympias) -- took advantage of Cassander's absence to launch a counter-attack. Confronted with the forces of their own dowager queen & the legitimate son of the legendary conqueror, the whole Macedonian defense crumbled. King Philip was taken prisoner & ordered executed by Olympias to guarantee that her grandson would be the sole legal claimant to his father's throne.

Such an unanticipated complete debacle must have convinced Cassander that as long as any member of Alexander's bloodline was alive his own claim to be the legitimate ruler of Macedonia could never be secure.  Having to reconquer his power base inclined him to show no mercy to those who had tried to evict him. Trapped by Cassander's superior forces, Olympias was executed almost as soon as she was captured (316 BCE).  Then, to  integrate himself into the royal family, Cassander married Alexander's half-sister, Thessalonica (the child of one of Philip II's lesser wives). To celebrate this union he founded the cities of Thessalonica & Cassandreia (316 BCE) just as Macedonian rulers before him (Philip & Alexander) had founded cities bearing their own names.

For the time being, however, Cassander spared young Alexander IV, since --- with king Philip dead -- physical custody of the 7 year old heir apparent was his only hope of getting other Macedonians to grant his claim to be royal regent, especially since the aged Polyperchon (the prince's legal guardian) tried to undermine Cassander's claim by transferring the regency to his powerful rival Antigonus (315 BCE). As long as Antigonus pursued this claim, the prince's life was secure.  In 311 BCE, however, having failed to defeat his challengers, Antigonus agreed to a détente with Cassander & Ptolemy that recognized their autonomy & relinquished any claim to be regent of a unified Macedonian empire.  Once that truce was formalized, physical custody of the young Alexander -- who had just reached puberty -- was not only unnecessary to secure Cassander's rule, it increasingly jeopardized his position with each passing year.  For when the nominal king reached 18, he would no longer need a regent & as Alexander's heir could win popular support to rule on his own.  After all, if  the father had won the undying loyalty of the Macedonian army despite his youth, so might his son. The prospect of that scenario proved totally unacceptable to Cassander, who had spent almost a decade trying to secure his own right to rule Macedonia.  So, rather than wait for the prince to mature further, Cassander ordered the execution of both him & his mother (310 BCE).

Although the Macedonian throne was now vacant for the first time in three centuries, Cassander -- whose own right to rule had been formally recognized by other senior Macedonian rulers -- still did not initially claim to be king.  When Antigonus presumed to adopt that title for himself (306 BCE), however, & other regional rulers followed suit, Cassander finally decided it was safe to don the diadem (305 BCE).

Yet the extent of Cassander's Macedonian kingdom had been greatly reduced.  As a calculated symbolic gesture of a new era in Macedonian-Greek relations, he had ordered the rebuilding of Thebes, which Alexander had razed when he became king. But Polyperchon's strategy of promising full autonomy to Greek city states -- which was echoed by Antigonus, Ptolemy & other rulers -- cost Cassander control of much of the rest of Greece & eventually ended any chance of him establishing a dynasty of his own.  Though he retained control of Macedonia & Epirus until his death, he was effectively isolated. Other Macedonian rulers (Lysimachus & Seleucus) benefited from Antigonus' defeat (301 BCE) by dividing his Asian domains between them. This led Antigonus' vigorous son, Demetrius Poliorcetes, to seize control of Greece & use it as a base for the conquest of Macedonia (394 BCE), just three years after Cassander's death.

References: Josephus, Antiquities 12.2.
                  Diodorus of Sicily, Historical Library 18-20.
                 
Justin, Epitome 14-15.
                  Pausanias, Description of Greece 1.6.4, 7; 11.4-5.

Other resources on line:

Bronze coin minted between 305 & 297 BCE with the inscription Basileo[s] Kassan[dros] -- "of King Cassander" on the reverse & the image of Heracles wearing a lion skin on the face.  The fact that Cassander issued the image of the legendary hero -- elsewhere commonly associated with Alexander -- on coins minted in his own name may have been pro forma. But given Cassander's personal history, one suspects a deliberate attempt to obscure memory of his heroic predecessor on the Macedonian throne. Tellingly, like his father, throughout his tenure he continued to issue more valuable gold & silver coins bearing the image & name of Philip II rather than those of Alexander. For high resolution images of this and other coins of Cassander's see:

Perspective on the World of Jesus

Copyright © 1999-2017 by Mahlon H. Smith
All rights reserved.

an American Theological Library Association Selected Religion Website
OCLC catalog no.: 62046512