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The liberation of Athens

Few generals have received the honors that Demetrius I Poliorcetes, son of Antigonus Monophthalmus, received in 307 when he liberated Athens. It was an important event in the Fourth War of the Diadochi (the successors of Alexander the Great), because Demetrius and his father were called kings. A year later, they themselves assumed the title.

The story is told by Plutarch of Chaeronea in his Life of Demetrius (8-10). The translation was made by M.M. Austin.

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emetrius with bull's horns, the symbol of the sea-god Poseidon. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York (United States). Photo Marco Prins.
Demetrius with bull's horns, the symbol of the sea-god Poseidon (Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York)

As the glory of this achievement [1] was noised abroad, Antigonus and Demetrius were filled with a remarkable eagerness to free Greece, which was all under the sway of Cassander and Ptolemy. None of the kings [2] fought a fairer or more just war than that one. The abundant resources they had gathered together by humbling the barbarians they now spent in search of glory and honor on the Greeks.

As soon as they had decided to sail against Athens, one of their friends remarked to Antigonus that, should they capture that city, they must keep it for themselves, as it was the stepping-stone to Greece. But Antigonus would have none of it, and declared that goodwill was a fair and unshakable stepping-stone and that Athens, the watch-tower of the inhabited world, as it were, would quickly flash to all mankind the message of their glorious achievements [3]. Demetrius set sail for Athens with 500 talents and a fleet of 250 ships.

The city was governed on behalf of Cassander by Demetrius of Phalerum [4], and a garrison had been installed in Munychia [5]. By a combination of good luck and foresight he appeared before Piraeus on the 26th of Thargelion [6]; no one had spotted him beforehand and when his fleet was sighted off-shore, they all believed the ships were Ptolemy's and made ready to receive them.

The generals were late in realizing their mistake and coming to the rescue, and there was confusion as one would expect with a forced attempt to fight off an unexpected landing of enemies. Demetrius found the entrances to the harbor open and sailed in; he was now inside and in full view and signified from his ship that he was asking for quiet and silence. When this had been established, he proclaimed through the voice of a herald near him that his father had sent him with prayers for his success to free the Athenians, expel the garrison and restore to them their laws and ancestral constitution [7].

On hearing this proclamation, the majority at once cast down their shields at their feet and applauded, and shouted to Demetrius to disembark, calling him their benefactor and savior. Demetrius of Phalerum and his followers thought they had in any case to welcome the man who had force on his side, even if there was no certainty that he would keep his promises, but nonetheless they sent off a deputation to convey their requests.

Demetrius met them graciously and sent them back with Aristodemus of Miletus, one of his father's friends. Because of the change of government, Demetrius of Phalerum was more frightened of his fellow-citizens than of the enemy. Demetrius did not ignore him, but out of regard for the man's reputation and merits, he had him and his friends escorted safely to Thebes as requested. He himself declared he would not cast a glance at the city, despite his wish to do so, before he had freed it entirely and rid it of its garrison. 

He threw a palisade and ditch around Munychia, and sailed off against Megara [8], which was garrisoned by Cassander. [...]

Returning to Munychia he encamped, expelled the garrison and razed the fort. The Athenians now welcomed him and called for him, and so he came to the city, called the people together and restored to them their ancestral constitution. He added a promise that his father would send them 15.000 measures of grain and enough timber to build 100 warships. And so the Athenians recovered their democracy after fifteen years; in the intervening period since the Lamian War and the battle of Crannon [9] the constitution had ostensibly been oligarchic, but was in actual fact the rule of one man because of the power exercised by Demetrius of Phalerum.

Demetrius had shown his magnificence and greatness in his benefactions, but the Athenians proceeded to make him offensive and obnoxious through the extravagant honors they voted to him. They were the first to give the title of 'kings' to Demetrius and Antigonus, although they had otherwise avoided the name up till now, and it was the only royal prerogative still left to the descendants of Philip and Alexander which others could not touch or share in.

They were the only men to call them Savior Gods. They abolished the ancestral eponymous archonship [10] and elected every year a priest of the Saviors, and put his name on the prescripts of decrees and contracts. They also voted to weave their likenesses into the robe of [the statue of the goddess] Athena together with the gods, consecrated the spot where Demetrius had first stepped down from his chariot, placed an altar there and called it the altar of 'Demetrius the descending god'. They added two more voting districts to the ten existing ones, Demetrias and Antigonis, and raised the numbers of the Council from 500 to 600, since each one of the new districts was providing 50 counselors.

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Note 1:
Demetrius had lifted the siege of Halicarnassus by Ptolemy.

Note 2:
In fact, the Diadochi still had to accept the royal title.

Note 3:
This was less hypocritical than it may sound: Antigonus wanted the Greek towns as allies, which was in the realm of the possible, and not as subjects, which had proven to be an impossibility.

Note 4:
A pupil of the famous Macedonian philosopher Aristotle of Stagira.

Note 5:
A fortress on a hilltop in Piraeus, the port of Athens.

Note 6:
About 10 June 307.

Note 7:
The democracy.

Note 8:
At town to the southwest of Athens.

Note 9:
Immediately after the death of Alexander the Great, Athens had revolted against the Macedonians. In the battle of Crannon, Antipater defeated them (5 September 322); he had placed a garrison in Athens and put an end to the democracy.

Note 10:
The eponymous archon gave his name to the year.

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