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AO Demetrius

AmblesideOnline: Plutarch's Life of Demetrius

This study represents a great deal of research, thought and work. We offer it to be used freely, and hope it will be a blessing to many students and parents. However, out of respect for this work, please honor our long-standing terms of use, and do not repost this or any of the AO curriculum anywhere else, in any form. This copyrighted material is free to use, not free to repost or republish. Please be conscientious in your desire to share AO, and link instead of copying.

study by Anne White

Introduction to Demetrius

"Then a mighty king shall arise, who shall rule with great dominion and do as he wills. And as soon as he has arisen, his kingdom shall be broken and divided toward the four winds of heaven, but not to his posterity, nor according to the authority with which he ruled, for his kingdom shall be plucked up and go to others besides these." --Daniel 11:3,4, ESV

"Following the death of Alexander the Great (323 B.C.), a power struggled ensued between his generals...." --Phillips World History Encyclopedia, page 370

The story of Demetrius comes in the aftermath of Alexander's death and the slicing up of his huge but short-lived empire. Think of one of those crime-family movies, and imagine that the big boss has suddenly died...imagine the power struggles between those closest to the top (in this case, the men closest to Alexander who were called the Diadochi). Although the empire was divided up and each general's piece of it should have been more than enough, there was continuous conflict between the leaders and their sons...and Demetrius was the son of one of those generals, Antigonus, the ruler of Phrygia. (Occasionally called Antigonus the One-Eyed or Antigonus Cyclops.) They shared a close and generous relationship, something that seems to contrast with the rest of Demetrius's life.

There are several other characters who will come up, mostly Alexander's "old boys":

Ptolemy, the ruler of Egypt (and his brother Menelaus)
Ptolemy's lieutenant Cilles
Cassander, the king of Macedon (and his sons Philip, Antipater, and Alexander)
Cassander's governor of Athens, named Demetrius the Phalerian
Lysimachus, "of all the kings of his time the greatest enemy of Demetrius"
Seleucus, and his son Antiochus-rulers of Syria
Pyrrhus, the king of Epirus
Stratonice, the daughter of Demetrius, who marries into the family of Seleucus

Important Cautionary Notes on the Version Used this Term

It is definitely not recommended that you let your students loose with an unedited version of Demetrius. Some events that Plutarch tells about are, frankly, too sordid even for most adults to want to read. Rosalie Kaufman's childrens' version of Demetrius, available on, covers most of the main events of his life. Our version is based on those events but uses the more adult Dryden/Clough translation. If you choose to use another version of the story, please use caution.


Many history books and encyclopedias will show maps of how Alexander's empire was divided up and the regions concerned in this story. Look for entries about Alexander, the Diadochi, or any of the main characters already mentioned.



(After reading the general introduction above)

Plutarch starts his story of Demetrius with some musings that we've skipped in our version (mostly for the sake of time). He mentions Antonius a couple of times (that is, Marc Antony), because after Demetrius he goes on to tell that story as a parallel. (We will not be doing a study of Antonius this year.) The story starts in a very traditional way: mention of the family background, a physical description of Demetrius (he was supposed to be too handsome to accurately portray), and two stories about his youth.

SECTION TO READ: In previous Plutarch studies, I have noted in each lesson what section was to be read. Since the edited text is already divided into twelve lessons, I will not repeat the information here. Some of the readings are longer than others; you may wish to split longer ones into two sessions, particularly if you are working with younger students.


vices - sins, weaknesses
amorous - fond of romantic love
intemperate - gluttonous, without self-control; usually refers to drinking
munificent - generous
belie - disprove, not match with
Bacchus - the god of drink but also, as Plutarch says, interested in war
forbore - forbade


Choose one of the two main events here to narrate. What is Plutarch trying to show about the character of Demetrius?

Why did Antigonus pay so much attention to his dream? Give other examples of unfounded fears that can lead to unreasonable behaviour. (Was his behaviour justified because of Mithridates' later success?) How would you have handled this situation if you were Demetrius?

Discuss this phrase: "Such an unsociable, solitary thing is power, and so much of jealousy and distrust in it...." What does Plutarch mean by this? Is he right?

LESSON 2: If at first you don't succeed...


Demetrius "grows up" in this passage: he is given military responsibility that some might have thought too much for his young age, and it seems, at first that they would be right: his army is badly (and embarrassingly) defeated. However, he is his father's son, and decides to learn from his defeat—and his chance to redeem himself comes very quickly.

The second part of this passage deals with the notion that Demetrius and Antigonus suddenly get to go and help out the Athenians, who are being tyrannized by one of Alexander's other "old boys." This action is almost unbelievably successful, and its effects on the lives of Demetrius, his father, and the others of the old gang are far-reaching.


reducing - wrecking
essay - attempt
heat - energy
in Alexander's school - under Alexander the Great
his private effects - his personal belongings
dominion - sole power over something
replenishing his magazines - this, obviously, does not mean updating his National Geographic collection; it means restocking his weapons and ammunition
acceded - agreed
the wealth they had gained while humbling, with Greek assistance, the barbarians being thus employed - even for Plutarch, this is an awful mess of a sentence to figure out. It's not the barbarians who are thus employed; it's the wealth they had gained (while humbling (with Greek assistance) the barbarians) that is being thus employed (used).
they must keep it safe in their own hands - in other words, they must exert control over it themselves, since it was such a valuable and strategic acquisition
stood in directly - came right in with his ships
made signals from his ship, requesting a peaceable hearing - he indicated that he wanted to make a speech from the ship
to expel the garrison - to break down whatever fortifications were being used by the enemy, and expel the soldiers who were still "holding the fort"


Show how Demetrius developed as a leader between his first defeat at Gaza and the battle afterward against Cilles. What do you think he would have considered the most important lessons he learned during this period?

Was the "generosity" that these leaders showed to each other true generosity? What was the real message that they were sending?

How do you explain the sudden idea that Demetrius acted on (to liberate Athens)? What made the difference between just saying that something needed to be done, and making it happen?

Although Demetrius (and his father) were not exemplary in many areas of their lives, they did show an almost astonishing amount of goodwill when they "liberated" Athens, and, at least at first, a great deal of restraint. Why do you think they chose not to set themselves up as dictators there? How did Demetrius treat the Phalerian (the former governor of Athens)? Is there anything you understand of Greek culture that would explain this kindness to an enemy?



How would you like to be a Tutelary Divinity? How about having your face woven into the Pattern of the Great Robe? Or having a tribe named after you? Or maybe even a month?

These are just a few of the thank-you gifts the Athenians offer to Demetrius and Antigonus. The whole thing becomes a kind of contest to see who can come up with the most outrageous, outlandish way to exalt a human being.

But in the midst of the fun, Demetrius is sent off...perhaps reluctantly?...on military business. After all, you don't get to be a god-on-earth without doing a little work for it.


their popular institutions - this refers to the Athenian democratic form of government (popular = of the people)
lineal descendants - direct family descendants
Tutelar or Tutelary - comes from the Latin word for guardian; it means a person, deity or saint with tutelary (guarding) powers
archon - the chief magistrate in ancient Athens
deputation - people acting on behalf of others
Ceres and Bacchus - the goddess of agriculture and the god of wine
an interchange of menaces - some back-and-forth taunts and threats
potentates - powerful leaders


Explain how "the excessive honors which the Athenians bestowed, for these noble and generous acts, upon Demetrius, created offense and disgust." At what point do you think they went too far in honoring their deliverer?

If you were being bathed in such honors as the Athenians were showing Demetrius, how would you feel about being ordered to go and fight Ptolemy in Cyprus? What does Demetrius's obedience to his father's orders show about his relationship with his father? About his character? Discuss how Demetrius shows his understanding of the need to advance his kingdom over taking time for his own enjoyment? (Luke 2:49; Psalm 90:12)

Discuss this sentence: "And not they alone, but all the other potentates and princes of the time, were in anxiety for the uncertain impending issue of the conflict; as it seemed evident, that the conqueror's prize would be, not Cyprus or Syria, but the absolute supremacy." What is really at stake here? Do you think Demetrius sees the seriousness of this situation?



There was a T.V. commercial awhile back that showed a boss stomping in and calling employees into her office as if something of the worst kind was going on. Were they all going to be fired? Was the company going bankrupt? After they were all in, with the door closed, she screamed, "We won! We won the lottery!" And they all screamed and jumped up and down too.

If you were sent to bring really good news, how would you do it? Would you arrive shouting and jumping up and down, causing everyone around you to do the same? Or would you keep it to yourself until the last minute? After a victory at sea, Aristodemus of Miletus decides to have a little fun with his assignment. He arrives in as serious a manner as possible, refusing an escort, refusing to answer peoples' questions. And when he reaches Antigonus, he says......

Of course Antigonus has a good reply for him, too.


to sally - to rush out
impetuosity - having great force
to enhance the welcome message - to make the most of his good news
forbear from - keep from
accosted - loudly greeted
diadem - crown
to bestow the style of king upon him - to refer to him as the king
superscription - how one was addressed (or signed one's own name) in correspondence
effected - caused


Narration suggestion: Describe (in the style of a reporter, if you like) what happened in the battle with Ptolemy. How did Demetrius manage to win?

Discuss this quote: "But that which added more than all to the glory and splendor of the success was the humane and generous conduct of Demetrius to the vanquished." For someone who, in the big picture, wasn't a role model of human decency, Demetrius seems to have showed a greater-than-average amount of generosity in situations like this. How is it possible to find both such good and such sinfulness in one person's character?

Explain how these events affected the lives of Antigonus, Demetrius, and the other leaders who had taken over Alexander's empire. What does this mean?-"A single pattering voice effected a revolution in the world."



Demetrius, the inventor, makes "great improvements in ship-building and machines." Demetrius, the warrior, routs Cassander, becomes master of Heraclea, and gives liberty to all the Greeks on this sideof Thermopylae. Demetrius, the hero, gets to sleep in the Parthenon, the "guest" of a goddess. What a life.


issue - outcome
intimated - hinted
without effecting anything - without any success
corpulence - large body size
whose luxury and expense and revelry - whose liking for these things
not to be satiated - he could never get enough of this
could not forbear - could not resist
engines - war machines, such as catapults and battering rams, and even a sort of tank (see Plutarch's description that follows)
impetus - force
the Rhodians should bind themselves - they should promise
in requital - as a reward
adulation - worship, adoration
the Parthenon - see any book or website about Athens for pictures of this temple
Minerva - another name for Athena, goddess of wisdom and the patron goddess of Athens


Describe the part that Antigonus takes in these events. Would it be unusual now for an eighty-year-old man to play such an active role in battle?

According to Plutarch, Demetrius showed ingenuity, a great mind, and a lofty purpose in designing and building his war machines. Discuss these quotes:

"The articles he produced....were such as a king might not only design and pay for, but use his own hands to make...." (Do most kings design and make their own weapons? What does this reveal about Greek culture and the way the Greeks viewed great leadership?)

"....and while friends might be terrified with their greatness, enemies could be charmed with their beauty; a phrase which is not so pretty to the ear as it is true to the fact." Would you use these words to describe any of the world's current weapons of war? Are there any historical weapons that might charm you with their beauty?



Plutarch introduces a change in direction here: "now the story passes from the comic to the tragic stage in pursuit of the acts and fortunes of its subject."

A lot happens in this section, and you might even want to divide it in half. Demetrius comes into this section fresh from his Parthenon accommodations, on top of everything-and ends it at the bottom, betrayed even by those he hoped would show him the most loyalty. Well, almost-on a more positive note, a former enemy becomes one of his in-laws, and his own daughter marries into the family of Seleucus. Now maybe they can end some of their feuds...


A general league of the kings - the other rulers got together to fight Antigonus
that belied his years - that you would not have expected in someone of his age
the confederacy - the coalition against him
the presentiments of Antigonus - his forebodings about what was going to happen
inauspicious - unlucky
Seleucus - the ruler of a large part of the Middle East (particularly Syria)
his wife Deidamia - his current wife, anyway; he had several at different times.
secession - a pulling away, going to the other side


After narrating, answer the following questions (or use them as narration ideas):

Tell about the death of Antigonus. Was it heroic, shameful, or neither?

Discuss the disappointment Demetrius felt when he was suddenly not welcomed by the Athenians. What was the reason they gave, and do you think it was valid? Or was it just that Demetrius was suddenly "too hot to handle?"

[This study is incomplete, but Anne is still working on it and plans to complete it.]