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Alexander’s Veterans and the Early Wars of the Successors

Alexander’s Veterans and the Early Wars of the Successors

This first focused analysis of veterans’ experiences in ancient Greece offers a fresh, “bottom-up” perspective on important military and political aspects of early Hellenistic history.

Series: Fordyce W. Mitchel Memorial Lecture Series

January 2012
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280 pages | 6 x 9 | 1 figure, 1 map |

From antiquity until now, most writers who have chronicled the events following the death of Alexander the Great have viewed this history through the careers, ambitions, and perspectives of Alexander’s elite successors. Few historians have probed the experiences and attitudes of the ordinary soldiers who followed Alexander on his campaigns and who were divided among his successors as they fought for control of his empire after his death. Yet the veterans played an important role in helping to shape the character and contours of the Hellenistic world.

This pathfinding book offers the first in-depth investigation of the Macedonian veterans’ experience during a crucial turning point in Greek history (323–316 BCE). Joseph Roisman discusses the military, social, and political circumstances that shaped the history of Alexander’s veterans, giving special attention to issues such as the soldiers’ conduct on and off the battlefield, the army assemblies, the volatile relationship between the troops and their generals, and other related themes, all from the perspective of the rank-and-file. Roisman also reexamines the biases of the ancient sources and how they affected ancient and modern depictions of Alexander’s veterans, as well as Alexander’s conflicts with his army, the veterans’ motives and goals, and their political contributions to Hellenistic history. He pays special attention to the Silver Shields, a group of Macedonian veterans famous for their invincibility and martial prowess, and assesses whether or not they deserved their formidable reputation.


Prose Awards: Honorable mentions in Classics

  • List of Abbreviations
  • Preface
  • Map of Alexander's Campaigns
  • Introduction
  • Chapter 1. Motives and Bias in the History of Hieronymus of Cardia
  • Chapter 2. Alexander and Discontent: The King and His Army in India and Opis, Mesopotamia
  • Chapter 3. The Veterans and the Macedonian Internal Strife in Babylon (323)
  • Chapter 4. The Dissolution of the Royal Army, I: The Veterans of Perdiccas and Craterus
  • Chapter 5. The Dissolution of the Royal Army, II: The Veterans of Eumenes, Neoptolemus and Alcetas, and the Meeting in Triparadeisus
  • Chapter 6. The Veterans, Eumenes, and Antigonus in Asia Minor
  • Chapter 7. Eumenes and the Silver Shields
  • Chapter 8. The Silver Shields in Battle and Eumenes' Death
  • Conclusion
  • Bibliography
  • Index

Joseph Roisman is Professor of Classics at Colby College. He has authored and edited numerous books and articles on Greek history, historiography, and oratory, including Brill’s Companion to Alexander the Great, The Rhetoric of Manhood: Masculinity in the Attic Orators, The Rhetoric of Conspiracy in Ancient Athens, A Companion to Ancient Macedonia (with Ian Worthington), and Greek History from Homer to Alexander.


In the spring of 319 BCE, Eumenes of Cardia and Antigonus the One-Eyed—both former commanders under Alexander the Great—fought at Orcynia in Cappadocia over the control of Asia Minor. Antigonus won the battle and Eumenes fled in the company of Macedonian troops who had served with Alexander.

Eumenes' biographer, Plutarch, relates that in the course of his flight Eumenes came across Antigonus's rich baggage but decided not to seize it. He feared that the heavy booty would slow down his men and make them too spoiled (lit. "softer," malakoteroi) to endure the wanderings and the long recovery required before he could defeat Antigonus in a second round. Knowing, however, that it would be hard to stop the Macedonian veterans from taking property within their reach, Eumenes told them to rest before attacking the enemy. He then sent a messenger to Menander, the man in charge of Antigonus's baggage, advising him to move it to a place inaccessible to cavalry. Menander heeded his advice, and Eumenes, feigning disappointment with the news, went away with his men. Plutarch adds that when the Macedonians in Antigonus's camp learned that Eumenes had spared their belongings and families, they were filled with gratitude and praise for him. But Antigonus quipped that Eumenes had acted not out of concern for the Macedonians but because he did not want to tie up his legs when in flight (Plut. Eum. 9.6–12).

We shall reexamine this incident in its historical context later in this book (chapter 6). Here I wish to draw attention to how the story is told. The focus is on the generals and their perspective, and even when Antigonus's troops think that they and their affairs are important, he hastens to bring them back to reality. Generally, the role of Eumenes' veterans in Plutarch is to highlight the merits of their general. The narrative contrasts Eumenes' foresight with the Macedonians' shortsightedness, his self-control and superior manliness with their corruptibility and almost Pavlovian greed at the sight of potential gain. For Plutarch the incident illustrates (once again) Eumenes' brilliant resourcefulness, which resulted in his duping both his own troops and those of Antigonus.

But the troops' point of view and interests are ignored by both the generals and the biographer. The Macedonian veterans expected to be given booty, both as an important supplement to their irregular wages and as their due reward. Moreover, Eumenes' veterans had just lost their possessions to Antigonus, and capturing his baggage would have allowed them to recover their losses. Eumenes' plan to wage a prolonged war against Antigonus also typically assumed that his interests overrode the veterans'. Yet Plutarch approves his cheating of his troops of their reward and options. This biographer is known for focalizing his heroes, but other authors share his viewpoint. When the troops and their leader are in conflict, the sources as a rule take sides with the latter.

The history of the events following Alexander's death is in many respects the history of the leaders who succeeded him. This circumstance is the legacy of our sources, which deal primarily with prominent individuals, as well as of the scholarship that is dependent on these sources. Indeed, many historians of the Hellenistic age focus on the careers, ambitions, and points of view of Alexander's great successors. This book endeavors to deal with the Macedonian masses rather than the elite of the post-Alexander era. By tracing the histories of Alexander's Macedonian veterans in the armies of his successors, I hope to illuminate their experience, along with the military, political, social, economic, and cultural conditions that shaped it.

Such an examination is justified, because modern investigations of the period tend to give only cursory attention to the veterans' story or to treat it as an addendum to their leaders' careers, except when the troops earn the generals' and the sources' reprimand (and many scholars') by disobeying orders. In addition, scholarly analysis of the troops' conduct tends to adopt the ancient sources' elitist view of them as primarily interested in material gains or guided by basic needs while denying them moral and other nonmaterial considerations. In an attempt to go beyond the sources' tendentious depictions, this book examines the veterans' behavior in the army assemblies, on the march, and on the battlefield, as well as their volatile relationships with their generals and other related themes, all from the troops' perspective. I hope that such a "bottom–up" view of early Hellenistic history will shed new light on the period. To the best of my knowledge, no attempt has yet been made to examine this era from the viewpoint of the soldiers who had served with Alexander and later fought for his successors.

There is an additional advantage to investigating Alexander's veterans. Like the Athenian fighters at Marathon, Alexander's former troops were deemed the standard-bearers of martial heroism and patriotism. They stood for military experience and success as well as for Macedonian pride and identity, and they were even accorded the right to grant power to leaders. Their importance justifies an examination of their image and the reality behind it. The veterans' story also shows how soldiers responded to the demands of marching and battle, how they transferred loyalty from one authority to another, and how, in spite of their minority status, they dominated a much-larger army.

The bulk of this book deals with the Macedonians who served in Alexander's infantry and then with his successors. It is hard to extend the investigation to Alexander's non-Macedonian veterans, because they largely disappear from the record after his death, and even his Greek troops have been called a "silent majority." Alexander also used Macedonian cavalry, the Companions (hetairoi), who played a crucial role in his campaign. Yet they retained their separate group identity only for a short time after his death, and are seldom mentioned afterward, probably because of their relatively small initial numbers (ca. 1,700–2,000 men), which facilitated their disappearance into the Successors' armies.

I largely avoid two tangential scholarly controversies. One concerns the total number of veterans who survived Alexander, and the other revolves around the dating of key events in the years after his death. Oddly, the count of Alexander's Macedonian veterans has generated more recent interest than their careers, perhaps because of historians' disagreement over how much Alexander's campaign had depleted the human resources of his homeland. A. B. Bosworth launched the debate in 1986 by claiming that Alexander's expedition seriously reduced Macedonian manpower and left a relatively small number of veterans. Subsequent reassessments of the evidence by N. G. L. Hammond and R. Billows, with their more generous head count estimates, did little to dissuade Bosworth, who reiterated his basic assertions in 2002. I shall not join the debate between the minimalists and maximalists concerning the veterans' number. In spite of much scholarly ingenuity, no new evidence on the subject has been brought to light. Moreover, the ancients' difficulties in accurately counting or even estimating large numbers of men are practically ignored in the discussion. This book deals with the question of the veterans' number only when it is relevant to reconstructing their history.

The story of Alexander's veterans spans the period from his death in 323 to their last clear attestation in 316. The chronology of this period is as controversial as the question of the veterans' numbers. Since the publication of Eugenio Manni's challenges to the commonly accepted chronology of early Hellenistic history, scholars have been divided, between the advocates of the traditional "low chronology," which gives later dates to the events after Alexander, and a smaller group of historians who argue for the earlier "high chronology." The differences may range from months and seasons up to a year. Fortunately, this controversy has little effect on the issues discussed in this book, which adopts a recent attempt at compromise between the rival chronologies.

Somewhat less controversial than the veterans' number and chronology is the nature of their weapons and deployment. Here too the evidence is quite scanty. Written sources on the troops' arms and organization are much richer for earlier and later periods, while artistic and archaeological evidence informs us mostly on leaders and elites. The sources for Alexander's veteran rank and file tend to lump them in large groups, ignoring their equipment or smaller units and saying little about their battle or camp experiences. Such limitations justify settling for a only brief survey of the veterans' likely equipment and organization.

The Macedonian infantrymen of the period served mostly in the phalanx, and in battle wore helmets of the "Phrygian," the "Boeotian," and possibly even the pilos (conical) types. All three helmets left the face exposed, with the Phrygian protecting the cheeks and the pilos offering the least protection. It is not entirely clear if all infantrymen wore metal body armor, of which some versions were more protective (and heavier) than others. Leather or other nonmetal body armor was also used, although soldiers at the front and the back of the phalanx, as well as officers and high commanders, probably wore metal protective gear that distinguished them from the rank and file. Metal greaves and/or leather boots complemented the body armor. The infantryman's defensive weapon was the bronze shield. The phalangists may have used the "Macedonian shield," which was somewhat concave and about 65 cm in diameter; this relatively small shield allowed the soldier to hold the infantry pike (sarissa) by both hands. Enough evidence survives, however, to suggest they used shields of different size and shape, including the larger hoplite shield, when the infantry fought either in hoplite formation or in individual combat. The phalanx's major offensive weapon was the sarissa, which consisted of an iron head and a butt spike connected by a two-part shaft that was joined by a metal collar. The length of the sarissa could range from perhaps 4.5 to 5.5 m and even longer. For hand-to-hand combat the warrior used a thrusting or slashing sword or a dagger. The shields, body armor, and plumed helmets were painted and sometimes decorated with gold and silver. It is likely that the soldiers received their arms from their commander.

The sarissa gave the phalanx an advantage over troops with smaller spears, and staggered rows of sarissas made for an effective and intimidating attacking front. The infantry were arranged in rows of various depths, with sixteen men deep being the recommendation of ancient tacticians. The smallest unit, the dekas (decade or file), normally consisted of sixteen men, with the leader and the more experienced soldiers standing at the front or end of the unit and earning more money for their trouble. A number of decades formed the lochos, and a number of lochoi formed the taxies, a battalion of around 1,500 men, identified by its commander. The sources rarely mention units of veterans smaller than a battalion in the post-Alexander armies. The phalanx inflicted most damage and provided the best protection for its members when it remained in a compact formation. When the formation broke, the soldiers faced the enemy in hand-to-hand combat that did not discriminate among types of soldiers. One panel on the so-called Alexander sarcophagus (now in the Istanbul Archaeological Museum) provides a clue to the face of battle in spite of its artistic license. It depicts individual battles between Macedonians and Persians over a ground covered with fallen bodies, where cavalrymen, infantrymen, and archers fight soldiers of their kind and others.

When the infantrymen fought as the more traditional hoplites, they wore body armor, greaves, and (usually) Phrygian helmets. Their shield was larger than the phalangists', and they also carried ca. 2–2.5 m spear and a sword

The Macedonian cavalry plays only a secondary role in the history of Alexander's veterans, although as a fighting unit and a higher class of troops it enjoyed greater prestige and pay than the infantry. They wore Boeotian or Phrygian helmets, body armor, and leather boots, and carried the xyston, a spear shorter than the sarissa. It seems that they fought without a shield, and they probably got their horses from their commander. The operational cavalry unit was the ile (squadron) of probably 200 men, and generals might be accompanied by an agēma of 300 cavalrymen. During Alexander's time, two squadrons (ilai) made a hipparchy. A common offensive formation was the wedge, and the cavalry might find shelter during trouble behind the sarissas of the phalanx.

The evidence for the history of Alexander's veterans comes from a variety of sources, but especially from Diodorus of Sicily's Library, books 18–20. To different degrees and with varying levels of immediacy, Diodorus and other sources most likely relied on the Hellenistic historian Hieronymus of Cardia. Hieronymus accompanied some of the major actors in the early Hellenistic period and knew the veterans personally from his service at their side. He enjoys high repute among modern scholars, who have largely overlooked his elitist approach of underplaying the contribution to Hellenistic history of ordinary soldiers and non-Macedonians. Hieronymus seems also to prioritize utilitarian considerations in his treatment of events and historical actors, even when such a preference is unwarranted. My first chapter discusses Hieronymus's bias and methods and their impact on ancient and modern depictions of Alexander's veterans. Similarly problematical for the veterans' story are Plutarch's and Cornelius Nepos's biographies of Eumenes of Cardia, whose career is intertwined with those of the veterans. Biography's tendency to exaggerate its subjects' power to shape events warrants a reassessment of the troops' and leaders' contributions to the history of the period.

After Alexander's death, the veterans' service with him defined much of their identity and their relations with others. Less discussed are the patterns of behavior they exhibited in their confrontations with Alexander and the lessons they learned from them during his reign and its aftermath. In 326 the veterans opposed Alexander's wish to march farther into Indian territory, and in 324 they mutinied in Opis when he planned to discharge the unfit and send them home. These experiences influenced the veterans' later group behavior and taught them and their leaders how to conduct themselves in confrontations. Chapter 2 offers an analysis of the troops' clashes with Alexander, the similarities and differences between the two conflicts, the difficulties of reconstructing the veterans' positions, and the nature of their relationship with the king, including its emotional dimension.

The veterans made their greatest impact on Macedonian political history after Alexander's death in Babylon. Thanks to their intervention in the succession controversy, Philip Arrhidaeus, Alexander's half-brother, became a co-king of the realm. Chapter 3 examines the role of the veterans and the army assembly in the events attending Alexander's death and the reasons their achievement failed to give them significant political power in the affairs of the kingdom.

The rest of the book follows the diverse histories of the veterans in the armies of Alexander's successors. Chapters 4, 5, and 6 investigate the disintegration of Alexander's army into groups that served in the royal army led by Perdiccas till his death in Egypt, in Craterus's and Antipater's armies in Asia Minor and Europe, in the force of Eumenes of Cardia in Asia Minor, and in Antigonus's army in the same region. Of all Alexander's veterans, the 3,000-strong unit of the Silver Shields (argyraspides) occupied the most prominent role. Chapters 7 and 8 deal with this unit's character, its service with Eumenes in Asia, and its fate. We shall examine the Silver Shields as the Macedonian group par excellence and look at how they and their leaders defined their identity vis-à-vis other troops. These chapters also reassess the Silver Shields' claim to distinction and the way the sources privilege their military performance at the expense of other units. I conclude with the circumstances attending the Silver Shields' surrender of Eumenes to his enemy and the universal condemnation they received for this act. I hope that my investigation will shed useful light on men who were often overshadowed by the great individuals of the Hellenistic age.