Alexander and His Veterans II

Macedonian Cavalry

With their leaders dead and their wages in danger, the troops hesitated, struck by Alexander’s new announcement. It was a very different situation from the mutiny at the Beas. There too, Alexander had threatened to march on without them, but they had known they were indispensable. This time, they had challenged him to disband them and he had shown every sign of being prepared to do so. Many officers heard their rank was passing to Iranians, a hint that they too had sympathized with the mutiny. Alexander’s close friends stood against them, and this they could not break. Threatened men, they took fright:

They ran to the royal quarters and threw down their weapons before the doors, as a fervent entreaty to their king; then they stood and began to shout to be allowed inside; they promised they would give up the instigators of the mutiny; they would not depart from the doors, day or night, until Alexander took pity on them.

Not for the last time in history, a group of agitators had led a majority where it wished it had never gone.

Alexander ‘came out rapidly, and when he saw their imploring attitude and heard how many were crying and lamenting, he too began to shed tears’. An elderly Hipparch of the Companion Cavalry came forward to voice the men’s entreaties. Persians, he said, had been made Alexander’s Royal Kinsmen with the traditional right to kiss the King, but ‘no Macedonian has yet sampled such an honour’. Alexander replied that from that day onwards, he called them all his kinsmen, widening a title to please them in the best tradition of the Macedonian kings, whereupon ‘the Hipparch came forward to kiss him, as did any others who wished to do likewise. Then they took up their weapons, shouted and raised the song of victory on the way back to camp.’ Master of the moment, Alexander followed up his success with a judicious festival: he offered sacrifice to the usual gods, Ammon, therefore, included, and announced a public banquet for the senior members of the court and army.

This banquet was planned with all Alexander’s inimitable sense of style. A feast was laid out on the grass and around him sat his senior Macedonians; in a circle outside sat Iranians: outside again, sat distinguished representatives of other tribes in the empire. It was a scene of merriment and ritual on the grandest scale: Greek priests and magi led the ceremonies in their own distinctive manner and presided over the libations which Alexander and those around him poured together, ladling their wine from the same huge bowl. Those outside followed suit, until shared conviviality was rounded off with a common prayer. Alexander, in their midst, prayed for ‘other blessings and for concord between the Macedonians and Persians and a sharing of the rule of the empire between them’. All the guests, to the number of 9,000, poured a common libation and accompanied it with a shout of triumph.

At this memorable moment the triumph was Alexander’s.

Soon afterwards, all such Macedonians as were too old or disabled to fight departed from him, but now, as volunteers; they numbered more than 10,000. Alexander gave them their full pay not only for their past service but also for the length of their journey home; in addition, he presented them with a talent’s bonus.

On reaching Macedonia, they would be rich enough on this alone to occupy a higher social position than they could ever have imagined possible ten years before; a talent’s bonus meant more than fifteen years’ combined wages for an ordinary soldier, and bonuses took no account of Indian plunder and oriental jewels. ‘If they had any children by their Asian wives, they were to leave these with him so as not to import quarrels and strife into Macedonia between foreigners and foreign children and the native families and wives they had already left there.’ These strays would be dependent entirely on Alexander as their mothers would no longer be recognized wives and by Greek law, children of unrecognized mothers were regarded as illegitimate. They had also been brought up to life in camp, where Alexander promised to see that they were educated in Macedonian fashion and trained especially for war; ‘when they were grown up, he would bring them to Macedonia and hand them over to their fathers’. The promise of a Macedonian education was a careful sop to the veterans’ feelings, but the arrival of several thousand bastard Asians in the life of long-neglected Macedonian women was one of the more unenviable meetings which history was spared through Alexander’s death. Small wonder that ‘his promise was vague and uncertain’.

But his handling of the mutiny had been masterly throughout. His speech, his rapid arrest of the leaders, his complete acceptance of his men’s overhasty threats, his two days’ silence and his banquet of reconciliation: no man could march an army through Makran and remain unchanged by the experience, but it is sequences like these which show that the change had not cost Alexander his astonishing flair for leading men. He showed none of the indecision or the meanness which attaches to the declining despots of fables and sermons; being a politician, he was of course ruthless, but being a great politician, he had the far rarer gift of making his purpose convincing. He could never have reduced his mutineers to abject pleading unless he had first been a man of extraordinary personality; the same blunt tactics from a mere tyrant would have ended in a war in the camp, or his execution by the bodyguards. His succeeding generals learnt that soon enough.

The banquet, however, was his master-stroke. He managed to seat Macedonians and Iranians together, the Macedonians around him in the position of honour, the Iranians in an outer circle, and he coaxed men who only two days before had been deriding any such pretensions to join with one accord in common libations and a prayer for concord and participation between their two peoples. Concord was a catchphrase of the time, but the emotions of the audience were brilliantly managed, and this effect was not forgotten: the form of the feast at Opis was to be copied eight years after Alexander’s death by an officer who had witnessed it, again at a moment of friction and crisis. The gift of commanding a crowd can be a dangerous one, but at Opis it had been applied to the most commendable of ends; in the emotion of a common banquet, those who had refused to share their empire with its high oriental families and abundant soldiers were rightly and properly routed.

For, until these last years, Alexander had not fought to change but to take over. The royal scrolls of the Persian empire were still stored in the same files; the Royal Road still ran through the same post houses with the same immemorial threat of levies and requisitions. There were Honoured Friends at court, Royal Relations, Royal Fires, the royal harem, eunuchs, and a king who studiously wore the Persian diadem; gold brooches and purple robes were bestowed as marks of rank and even the daily outlay on the king’s and Companions’ dinners remained at the level long fixed by the Persian kings. In the provinces, there were satraps, Eyes of the King and treasurers under the same old Persian name: the Alexandrias were built, for the most part, on the sites of previous Persian outposts, however different their culture, street plans and constitutions. The one perceptible change in government, apart from minor alterations in the satrapal boundaries, was that satraps had gradually lost the right to issue their own silver coins. This continuity is not a criticism, for against the unalterable facts of time, distance and native tradition, deep change in the empire would have been either naive or irresponsible. But from a Greek point of view, such continuity was itself surprising; when taken to the lengths of Iranian brides and Successors, it broke completely with the slogans of the early invasion. To Greeks at home, Alexander’s most memorable change had been to be conservative of what he conquered, but this conservatism had changed shape during the expedition. He had begun, mistakenly, by reappointing Darius’s satraps; by the time he married Roxane, he was planning ahead, employing Iranians as separate army units and already thinking of younger Iranian recruits. Since coming out of Makran, he had shown an increasing keenness to treat all suitable orientals as equals in court and camp, if not in the satrapal commands; it is incorrect to explain this only in terms of replacing his heavy losses in the desert, as his 30,000 Iranian Successors had already been chosen three years before the attempt on Makran was considered. Like the Persian queen and her daughters, these new recruits were to be taught Greek and trained in Macedonian customs; the children of the Susa weddings, no less than the abandoned families of the returning veterans, were to be educated likewise, with the added asset of mixed parentage behind them.

Alexander’s policy of fusion did not extend to a new way of life. For political reasons he wished to recruit from and marry into his oriental subjects but he was not acting from a racial faith in the half caste or a belief in the mixed culture of new blood. All his courtiers and soldiers were to be given a Greek or Macedonian education, just as Barsine and her relations were brought up to Greek ways. The ideals of spreading Greek culture through cities and dignifying Asia with a Greek education were already much in the minds of Greek contemporaries; Alexander has been hailed as the founder of the brotherhood of man or criticized for betraying ‘purity’ of race, but it is as the first man to wish to westernize Asia that he ought to have been judged.

After the banquet, it was only natural that the disbanded veterans should be led home by the oldest and most conservative officers. Their command was entrusted to Craterus, a very close friend of Alexander, who was known for his doggedly Macedonian outlook: he was unwell, and so he received the seventy-year-old Polyperchon as his deputy. Poly-perchon belonged to the royal family of the most backward hill-kingdom attached to Macedonia and as an officer who had once ridiculed the Persians’ act of proskynesis, he would have little sympathy with Alexander’s future government. The departure of their 10,000 men would thin the army of its Macedonians, nowhere more so than in the infantry battalions, where the three thousand Silver Shields, mostly veterans of Philip’s corps of Shield Bearers, were leaving for home with their battle-scarred commanders. A mere 6,000, perhaps, of the 23,000 Macedonians recruited in the past ten years for Asia had survived or now remained in service in an army that wore an oriental look. Not that Alexander was unmoved to see their fellows go: ‘He took his farewell of them all with tears in his eyes and they too cried as they left him.’ Craterus, on arrival, was to take charge of Macedonia and ‘the freedom of the Greeks’, that specious slogan of Philip’s Greek alliance, ‘while Antipater was to bring out young Macedonians as replacements’. He had written to Antipater that the veterans and their families should enjoy seats of honour in the theatre for the rest of their lives; after ten years’ absence, he naturally wished to see his ageing marshal, now over seventy, in person, but whether Craterus’s appointment to Macedonia was to be temporary or permanent is uncertain. Camp gossip suggested that at last Antipater was to be supplanted after so much contention with Olympias the queen, but ‘nothing open is reported to have been said or done by Alexander which would imply that Antipater was not as high in his affection as usual’. There was little point in inviting the marshal casually to Asia through the orders of a departing general, unless Antipater was more than likely to agree. And yet the last had by no means been heard of the marshal in Alexander’s history.

As the veterans left Opis, many of them sick like Craterus and ill-suited to a rapid march home, Alexander was left to the diversions of his friends. After the high emotions of the past three months, it was a sudden and flattening moment and as for the first time there was not the prospect of immediate war, it is important to recognize who his friends would be. During the expedition, age, battles and conspiracy had accounted for half of his known officer class, or some fifty-five Companions and governors, but it is most remarkable how for the past three years his closest friends and camp-commanders had survived disasters almost to a man. Since the start of the Indian invasion, only two known generals had disappeared from court, one of whom was Coenus the Hipparch, a sick man; after Makran, the other great names still lived on, the same commanders of the Foot Companions, the Shield Bearers and five of the brigades of the Companion Cavalry. The seven royal Bodyguards remained unchanged, as close as ever to the man they protected, and they welcomed the favoured Peucestas as an eighth among them. Exclusively Macedonian, they were the nobles whom Alexander loved and trusted, whether tough like Leonnatus, famed for his gymnastics, or shrewd like Ptolemy, a friend from childhood; Hephaistion still predominated, faithfully inclining to the Iranian customs of his king and lover. Each had his family and favourites, none more so than the clique of Perdiccas, which included two of the leaders of the Foot Companions. Already, Alexander’s eventual successor had founded his influence among the men who mattered, but they were not a divided group. Unless they had supported their king, he could never have won the Opis mutiny, for rulers never fall unless they are divided amongst themselves.


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