King empire

meet the most outrageous king in history, Demetrius the Besieger

Alexander the Great was a successful conqueror, but a poor planner. He is dead with no acceptable heir to inherit the empire, just a soon-to-be-born baby, and a not quite up to par stepbrother.

And as Game of Thrones fans know, such circumstances can lead to all the power struggle, with poisoning plots, dramatic marriages, incest and lots of fights. We find all of this and more in the Hellenistic period, which is what we call the period 323 BCE-31 BCE, beginning with the death of Alexander and ending with the famous snakebite of Cleopatra.

These circumstances began the career of Demetrius the Besieger, one of the most scandalous rulers of the time. Like many others who fought for part of Alexander the Great’s empire, Demetrius was never meant to be king. But he and his father Antigone le Borgne did not let the lack of royal blood get in the way of ambition. The two have spent many years battling each other, stealing territory and eliminating rivals.

In 306 BCE, they both claimed the title of king. They were pioneers in this field, and soon self-made kings appeared everywhere, dividing Alexander’s empire into their own smaller kingdoms. But even during this period of royal misbehavior and a multitude of rival kings, Demetrius still managed to earn an unparalleled reputation.

The siege of Rhodes (305-304 BC), led by Demetrius. Painting by Edmund Ollier.
Wikimedia Commons

Work hard, play harder

Demetrius’s biographer, the ancient author Plutarch, tells us that Demetrius had a policy of working hard and playing harder. He was famous for his ingenuity and extravagance in siege equipment and his skill in this type of warfare earned him the name besieging.

His repertoire included the use of a monstrosity called the Helepolis (city-taker), a type of mobile tower estimated between 30 and 40 meters high, with a base of 21 meters.

Model of a siege tower of Helepolis, at the Science Center and Museum of Technology in Thessaloniki.
Wikimedia Commons, CC PER

This terrifying creation was filled with soldiers and howled as it slowly moved towards its target city. It was such an amazing sight that, according to Plutarcheven the besieged had to admit they were impressed.

Currencies and calendars

It can be difficult to tell fact from fiction in history, and ancient writers certainly tell us strange stories about Demetrius.

He is said to have manipulated the weather by changing around calendar months, all so that he could complete his initiation into the Mysteries (a religious cult) faster than was legal.

He put his own portrait on his coins and was probably the first living person to do so in the western world. Prior to this bold move, the obverse side of the coin was normally reserved for images of gods or honoring important (deceased) people.

The Athenians even ended up addressing Demetrius as a living god in a special hymn, calling him the son of Poseidon and Aphrodite.

Parties and polygamy

Demetrius’ feast earned him an even more notorious reputation.

He had a handful of wives (Demetrius was a polygamous king, and ended up marrying at least five wives), but his favorite companion was the courtesan Lamia, whose name refers to a flesh-eating monster.

There are many stories of the two of them frolicking together, sometimes rather sacrilegious. For example, the Athenians attempted to honor Demetrius by allowing him a symbolic marriage to their patron goddess Athena – but the besieger did not think too much of marrying a statue. In place, he and Lamia entered the temple and did various acts that would be rather shocking to the virgin goddess.

Demetrius is even accused of having taxed the city with 250 talents (about 6,000 kilos of silver or gold), to give them to Lamia and his other mistresses so that they could buy beauty products.

A silver coin (tetradrachm) of Demetrius besieging him.

Popularity and public relations

All this irreverent behavior can only get you this far. Royalty, like many careers, requires a certain amount of paperwork. Demetrius’ Macedonian subjects were appalled at their king’s disinterest, but on one occasion they gained some hope.

Demetrius actually took their petitions as if he intended to read them. They followed the king on his walk in great excitement, only to watch in horror as Demetrius then threw all the petitions over a bridge, into the river below.

Read more: Pornography, the Devil and Baboons in Disguise: What Happened at the Infamous Historic Hellfire Club

He was driven out of Macedonia soon after, ancient proof of the importance of public relations. This kind of reversal of fortune was something Demetrius was familiar with, having won and lost multiple times throughout his career. So he simply continued his campaign until he was abandoned, mowed down and fell into the hands of one of his enemies.

It was a sad end for such a colorful character, but during his captivity Demetrius applied himself as vigorously to leisure and drink as he had once had to besiege and lovemaking. He may not have retained his throne, but he certainly deserved his place in history, an outrageous and fascinating individual, and a true king.