Alexander and His Veterans I

Fearing his veterans, Alexander once more prepared his way with generosity. It was his oldest tactic, and one which had nearly saved him on the river Beas. The Susa weddings had been the most prodigal display of his career and none of the guests could have failed to enjoy it, but the common soldiers still needed more reward than the dowries for their mistresses. As a balance to his officers’ festivities Alexander announced that he was willing to pay off the debts of the entire army. Presumably, the soldiers were owed arrears of pay, as sufficient treasure could never have been carried in coin to keep them up to date in India, but it was not just the arrears that Alexander had in mind; they would also have lived on credit with the camp-traders, women and such quartermasters as were not paid in kind, and these debts remained to be paid to as many camp followers as survived to collect them. At first, the men suspected this astonishing offer as a means of prying into their debts, but when they were reassured that their names would not be taken, they presented themselves before the army accountants. ‘A king,’ Alexander is reported as saying, ‘must never do otherwise than speak the truth to his subjects, and a subject must never suppose that a king does otherwise than tell the truth.’ It was a revealing, but not a tactful, remark. Only one ancient monarchy ever stressed the virtues of telling the truth, and that was the Persians’ own. Besides the dress of Cyrus’s heirs, Alexander had openly picked up their ideals, and at a time when the Orient was too much in evidence, his veterans would not be pleased to hear his words.

The result of his promise was an enormous write-off of some 10,000 talents, or two-thirds of the annual treasure-income of the Persian empire in its prime. This largesse was accompanied by the usual rewards for competitive merit, for the value of medals was not lost on Alexander. Nearchus, now returned from the ocean, Peucestas and other bodyguards who had saved the king at Multan, Leonnatus who had routed the Oreitans, each were crowned with gold crowns as a public honour. The king was showing off his magnanimity; but then there arrived in camp a new crowd who at once undid his measured attempt at harmony.

From the Alexandrias and tribal villages of Iran, 30,000 young Iranians appeared at Susa, dressed in Macedonian clothes and trained in the Macedonian style of warfare. It was more than three years since Alexander, near Balkh, had ordered them to be selected and trained, and they could not have arrived at a more explosive moment. When they began to show off their military drill outside the city, word quickly spread that Alexander had named them his Successors, and there were facts to support camp gossip. The Companion Cavalry had marched through Makran in near entirety and had suffered the loss of almost half its horsemen. No new Macedonians were yet available, so Alexander had filled up the ranks with picked Iranians who had hitherto been serving in separate units. After the disaster the Companions’ newly mixed squadrons numbered four, and a fifth was now added, conspicuously oriental in its membership. Not even the king’s own Battalion was exempted. The most esteemed Asiatics, men like Roxane’s brother or Mazaeus’s and Artabazus’s sons, were enlisted into its exclusive ranks and equipped with Macedonian spears instead of their native javelins. Militarily, Iranian cavalry were more than equal to their king’s demands, but it was not their competence which was at stake. They had been given a place in the most Macedonian clique of all; it was as if a British general had opened the ranks of the Grenadier Guards to Indian sepoys, and like most high-minded changes, it was unpopular from the start.

The ordinary soldier hated what he saw. He had lived with hints of it for a long while: Alexander’s Persian dress, however moderate; his ushers; his Persian Companions and his proskynesis, at least from orientals, but as long as his own rank was assured, he did not mind these mild innovations enough to rebel against them; he enjoyed his Asian mistress, and whatever else, the East was a fabulous source of riches. But once he felt that he was being supplanted, all that the Orient stood for seemed dangerous and disgusting. His concubine had now become his legal wife; he did not like the look of the king’s Persian marriages; he forgot all logic and resented Peucestas for pandering to Persian ways in Persia’s home province as if they were something privileged. He began to grumble, fearing the Successors for the implications of their name; what did they know of starvation in the Hindu Kush, elephants in the Punjab or the sand-dunes of Makran?

For the moment, Alexander could escape a confrontation by moving westwards; his road, like the veterans’, still led in the general direction of home, and reports from the last stage of Nearchus’s voyage up the Persian Gulf, had aroused his interest in the river routes from Susa. He learnt he could sail down the river Pasitigris, venture on to the sea or a linking canal, and return up the mouth of the Tigris until he rejoined the Royal Road; the idea appealed to him, so he detailed his new brother-in-law Hephaistion to bring the troops in attendance by land, and he embarked on the fleet to carry it out. The Pasitigris was pleasantly navigable and allowed him to inspect the irrigation methods of the area, but the Tigris had been blocked by weirs ‘because the Persians, themselves poor sailors, had built them at regular intervals to prevent any ships sailing upstream and seizing their country’. Alexander ‘said that such devices did not befit a victorious army and he proved them to be worthless by easily cutting through what the Persians had been so keen to preserve’.

At the mouth of the Tigris, he was able to lighten his load. Where the Dur-Ellil canal meets the eastern edge of the river estuary, the Persian kings had founded a royal garrison two hundred years before and stocked it with Carian settlers, fellow countrymen of Scylax the sea captain and thus well suited to naval work on the Persian Gulf. The garrison had fallen into disrepair and Alexander felt inclined to replace it; now that Nearchus had explored the Persian Gulf, a city at the mouth of the Tigris could resume the Carian sailors’ duties and serve as the port for India’s shipping and traders. The descendants of the Carians’ garrison were recruited as settlers and combined with as many army veterans as could decently be shed. Once again, an Alexandria took its cue from an ancient oriental outpost, and again it would live up to its founder’s hopes. The new Alexandria lasted barely a hundred years before being ruined by floods, but the site was twice restored by Greek and Parthian kings and became the main port for near-Asian trade with India, visited by the Roman Emperor Trajan and still maintained by the Arabs a thousand years after Alexander’s foundation. Its neat parallelogram of streets and houses, designed as if it were a military camp, has recently been found by an English air survey. Alexandrias, as their founder recognized, were his surest claim on posterity.

Rid, therefore, of a few hundred veterans, Alexander left his new city to be built and sailed up the Tigris, removing weirs and allowing his surveyors to measure the length of the river. At Opis, on the river bend south of modern Baghdad, he paused to meet Hephaistion and the land army. He knew now that there was no escaping his problem. From this point onwards, his route and the veterans’ would have to diverge, for it was impossible for boats to sail up the Tigris any further, and at Opis the road system offered an alternative; he could either strike west for Babylon or else follow the great eastern highway into Media and Hamadan. The late summer weather would make Babylon intolerably hot, so like the Persian kings, Alexander opted for a visit to Media and the cool of the hunting-lodges of Hulwan. But if the veterans followed him, they would be doubling back and veering away from home. They had to go west, and at Opis the issue was brought out publicly.

Ever since Susa and the sight of the Successors, the troops had been sullen and discontented. Now Alexander called them together and told them that the aged and infirm were to be discharged and returned to Macedonia; they would be handsomely rewarded ‘both to the envy of their friends back home and to the emulation of those who stayed in service’. It was the least well-received suggestion he had ever made. The troops rioted and shouted him down. ‘Go on campaigning,’ they said are to have told him, ‘in the company of your father,’ meaning Ammon, not Philip, ‘but if you dismiss the veterans, you must dismiss us all.’ Other reports differed, as the taunts of mutineers are never recorded with accuracy, but whether or not men had referred to Ammon, their disobedience was curtly treated. Alexander jumped down from his platform attended by his closest officers, and pointed out the trouble-makers whom he wished them to arrest. Thirteen men were seized and marched away to their death: Alexander remounted the platform and launched into one of his powerful speeches. Then he strode away to the royal quarters, where he shut himself in, refusing to see any of his Companions or attend to his personal requirements. Only his intimates were allowed inside. None of his officers is known to have described the mutiny, but there is no mistaking the points at issue. Nobody complained that Alexander had lost his sense of proportion or his ability to rule the empire, yet many officers, even a Hipparch, had sided with the veterans, a rare split between Alexander’s commanders and his close friends. They booed him, not because he had led them into Makran or because he was likely to lead them into further battles, but because he was trying to exclude them from the future they knew he still offered. It was not a mutiny of men who wished to go home, for after ten years in Asia, a home in the marches of Upper Macedonia had lost its very few attractions: former hill-shepherds had seen and plundered a vastly richer world and they meant to stay at the top of it. They did not intend to leave it to a corps of oriental Successors and a mixed brigade of Persian Companions, when there were perfectly good Macedonians, or so they felt, to carry on instead. It was a mutiny of men who wanted to stay firmly put; had they lost their faith in Alexander, they could have murdered him the moment he jumped off his platform, bodyguards and all. They did nothing, because they needed him.

But Alexander saw it differently. Many of the men he wished to disband were over sixty, or even seventy, years old; they were often unfit and generally resistant to change. Had he known how they were to return and dominate the battlefields after his death, he might have hesitated, but at Opis, he was thinking of his own future and for that, old men were too short-term a liability. His ambitions would strain Macedonia’s manpower, a source on which he had not been able to draw for the past seven years, and it made sense to call on his large oriental reserves to replenish an army which had been humbled by Makran. The province of Persia alone had more fighting men than his father had ever commanded in his new Macedonia, and by recruiting them, he could involve them in the profits and responsibilities of conquest. His weddings at Susa, his Iranian Companions and Successors were proof, to his great credit, that he knew where the loyal governing class of the future should be made to lie. He did not want a court which was recruited exclusively from Macedonians any more than he wanted the equality or the brotherhood of man; he wanted, rightly, to ‘draw on the best recruits, whether Greek, Macedonian or barbarian’. There was no better guard against inflaming the national feelings of the peoples he had conquered than to invite their governors to share in his court.

The army had threatened him with what they believed he would never do, but being Alexander, it was not long before he announced that he would do it all the same. They had told him that if any veteran was dismissed they would all desert and leave him to his new Iranian friends; after an ominous silence from the royal tent, news came that the Iranians were his perfect and sufficient army of the future. There were to be Iranian Shield Bearers, Companions, Foot Companions and Royal Squadrons; the army commands were to be held by picked orientals, who would be treated as the king’s equals and therefore allowed the traditional privilege of greeting him by a kiss. For two days after the announcement, Alexander remained in his tent, seen only by his Iranian officers, close Companions and Bodyguards. He was bluffing boldly, but if the troops had been stubborn, he would no doubt have carried on with his design.

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