The Seleucid Armies Part I


Battle of Gabiene, artwork by J. Shumate. Battle of Gabiene (316 BCE; located in modern-day Iran) was a second great battle (after Paraitakene) between two of Alexander the Great’s successors and ended the Asian part of the Second Diadoch War. It had been fought between Eumenes of Cardia, representing the forces loyal to the Macedonian dynasty, and Antigonus One-Eye, who was determined to establish his own power.


When Alexander died, he had no obvious heir to inherit his empire. When his generals crowded around his deathbed and asked to whom he left his empire, all he said was, “The strongest”; though prophetic, this was not much help. A civil war was about to begin that ultimately would decide the question. Alexander’s generals and their descendants would fight for nearly five decades to control all or part of Alexander’s empire. During this time, the nature of Greek warfare changed significantly. Three major battles, Paraitakene (317), Gabiene (316), and Ipsus (301), demonstrated how dramatically military operations had evolved from the old Macedonian army created by Philip and perfected by Alexander, and especially from the old polis armies of the fifth and fourth centuries.

In the summer of 317, Antigonus Monophthalmos (“The One-Eyed”) and his army moved south from Media; Eumenes in Persia moved north toward Antigonus. The armies encamped barely a mile from each other, but they were separated by a river and a ravine, which neither army wished to cross. For five days, the two armies sat tight, living off the land until the neighborhood had been exhausted. Antigonus decided on a retreat into Gabiene, which possessed unplundered territory with which to support his men. Deserters, though, went to Eumenes and told him of Antigonus’s plans to evacuate, so Eumenes decided on a ruse; he paid mercenaries in his camp to pretend to defect to Antigonus and to tell Antigonus that Eumenes was going to launch a surprise night assault against his camp. Believing the defectors, Antigonus waited for the expected attack rather than have his men begin the march toward Gabiene. Instead, it was Eumenes who got away first and moved quickly to Gabiene. Realizing he had been tricked, Antigonus chased after Eumenes with his cavalry while the rest of his army, commanded by Pithon, followed as quickly as it could. Antigonus’s cavalry eventually caught up to Eumenes on the plain of Paraitakene, and Eumenes prepared for battle. Fortunately for Antigonus, the rest of his army appeared in the nick of time to form a battleline.

The two armies that fought at Paraitakene in December 317 were now highly diversified. In the past, there was the heavy infantry phalanx, sometimes with cavalry support on the wings. Now, there were highly specialized units on both sides of the field, including both the heavy infantry of the phalanx and lightly armed troops that used bows and arrows, javelins, and slings, among other weapons. There were both heavy and light cavalry. There were numerous elite units, including the veteran argyraspides, or “Silver Shields,” and the various cavalry guards.

Newest of all was the incorporation of elephants into the battles of the Epigoni. There had been 15 elephants in the Persian army at Gaugamela, but they had played no role in the fighting. It was not until India and the Battle of the Hydaspes in 326 that the Macedonians had seen elephants in action. Drivers called mahouts rode the elephants into battle. Horses that had not previously trained with the elephants would not go near them. Elephants were often very difficult to control; they panicked in battle and would then either flee or trample their own men. When Alexander was in India (327-324), he received a large number of elephants as gifts from the various princes he had conquered or who had submitted willingly. By the time he was back in Babylon in 324-323, he had a squadron of 200 elephants fully incorporated into his army. After his death, his successors did everything they could to secure elephants for their armies. The successors also imported new elephants from India. Eumenes received 120 elephants brought from India by Eudamus, a Macedonian left there by Alexander in 324 who now returned to the west to sell his elephants to the highest bidder; Eumenes paid 200 talents. Antigonus had 65 elephants.

Another dramatic change was not just the diversity of unit types but the diversity of ethnic groups now fighting in the “Macedonian” armies. The Macedonian army under Philip was mostly Macedonian, with some auxiliary contingents. At Gaugamela, roughly two-thirds of Alexander’s soldiers were Macedonian or Greek. The two “Macedonian” armies fighting at Parataikene had far different ratios. According to the sources, Eumenes had 44,300 men, of whom only 7,800 were Macedonian, roughly 18 percent. Antigonus’s army of 38,600 had 9,300 Macedonians, or 24 percent. Neither army had a significant number of Greeks fighting either as allies or as mercenaries. Macedonian or Greek “patriotism” was no longer a primary motivation for these soldiers, since all the commanders were Macedonian; money was now more important. To some extent, these armies were similar to the Persian army; instead of a core of Persians controlling a large army of many different ethnic groups, it was now a core of Macedonians doing the same thing. The list of units involved in the fighting is similar to those that fought for Xerxes at Platea or Darius III at Issus and Gaugamela. In Antigonus’s army were Medians, Parthians, Tarentines, Phrygians, Lydians, Thracians, Pamphylians, and various mercenaries. Eumenes’ army included Mesopotamians, Arachosians, Paropanisadai, Thracians, and Persians.

The actual battlelines were as follows. In Eumenes’ army, Eumenes was on the right along with the elite cavalry including the hetairoi (Companion Cavalry) and the agema (guard) units. On the left were the allied and mercenary cavalry. Altogether there were 6,300 cavalry. In the center was the elite infantry, specifically the 3,000 Silver Shields, by now the best of the Macedonian infantry. Mercenaries and Persian light infantry filled out the line. In front of the line were Eumenes’ 125 elephants acting as a screen to deter enemy infantry and cavalry attacks; the elephants were protected by light infantry.

On the opposite side were the forces of Antigonus. He was on the right with his best heavy cavalry, including the elite unit of the agema; also on the right was Demetrios, son of Antigonus, who was later known as “Poliocertes” (Besieger of Cities), fighting in his first major battle at the age of 21. On the left was the light cavalry. In the center were various mercenaries, and Pamphylian and Lydian hoplites; next to the right wing was Antigonus’s Macedonian phalanx. His 65 elephants were also placed in front of his battleline.

Antigonus and Eumenes had very similar plans of battle. Both men wanted to use their heavy cavalry on the right to crash through their enemy’s weaker left wing and then move to attack the hoplite phalanxes in the rear, where they were most vulnerable. Antigonus ordered his left to hang back and to avoid coming to grips with Eumenes’ superior force, but it disobeyed and immediately charged forward. Antigonus’s left wing was quickly defeated and was driven west off the battlefield by Eumenes. Meanwhile Eumenes’ center, anchored by the Silver Shields, was pushing steadily forward; Antigonus’s hoplites were unable to hold their ground against the hardened veterans and began to break and flee toward the safety of the hills. With both his left wing and his center in full retreat, defeat seemed imminent for Antigonus, until, literally at the last possible moment, he saw an opportunity. When the infantry of Eumenes in the center had moved over to the attack, it had become detached from Eumenes’ left wing, opening a gap. Antigonus seized his last chance and led a charge of his heavy cavalry, which not only defeated the light cavalry on Eumenes’ left wing but also made it through the gaps. Antigonus then wheeled westward to attack the phalanx in Eumenes’ center from behind. These units, especially the Silver Shields, were veteran units, and, whereas most hoplites faced with an attack from the rear would have broken and fled, these units were able to simply turn around to defend against Antigonus’s charge. However, Antigonus’s charge saved his army because Eumenes’ victorious right-wing cavalry and phalanx in the center were not able to follow up on their victories and destroy Antigonus’s left and center. Instead, these units, granted a respite by Antigonus’s charge, were able to regroup along the western hills that bordered the battlefield. Eumenes’ chance for a decisive victory was lost. Darkness brought an end to the fighting. Antigonus’s losses far surpassed those of Eumenes, but he and his army had survived to fight another day. Eumenes had been forced by his men to abandon the battlefield after nightfall and instead retreated to their camp where they had their supplies, property, and, most important, their wives and families. Antigonus therefore took possession of the field, despite his losses. In the traditional truce that followed, Antigonus promised to hand over Eumenes’ dead on the second day after the battle. Instead, Antigonus quickly buried his own dead so that Eumenes would not learn the extent of his losses, and that night he and his army marched away from the battlefield at high speed, trying to put as much distance as possible between his army and Eumenes’. Antigonus moved to Gabiene, and, when Eumenes realized that Antigonus was gone, he buried his own dead and followed. Both armies were distributed in winter quarters to wait for the start of the campaigning season and better weather.