‘How many are there facing us, Magas?’ Antipatros asked, his brow furrowed with concentration, as he tried with old man’s eyes to estimate the size of the rebel Greek army holding the pass of Thermopylae, banners flying and shields presented.
‘At least thirty thousand,’ Magas, his niece’s husband and second-in-command, mounted to Antipatros’ right, replied, shading his eyes. In his forties with the bearded, rough-hewn look of the Macedonian uplands, he had been, along with Nicanor, his military mainstay for his entire regency.
Antipatros spat. ‘Almost five thousand more than our number.’
‘But all Greeks,’ Iollas said, with the drawling arrogance of youth.
Antipatros turned to his younger son on his left, next to Nicanor. ‘Never underestimate your enemy. True, they may be Greeks, but many of them are experienced mercenaries having fought for Alexander and the Persians before him.’
‘But we are well supplied with cavalry, Father,’ Nicanor observed, indicating to the dust-swathed multitude of Thessalian cavalry forming up on the deploying Macedonian army’s extreme right, taking the higher ground. ‘They have very few.’
Thank Aries for the Thessalians. And so Antipatros had prayed since the rendezvous with the Thessalian cavalry and their supporting light troops, on schedule, five days previously at the River Peneios on the border between Macedon and Thessaly. Wild, javelin-armed horsemen, born to the saddle, five thousand of them in their wide-brimmed, leather hats and sleeveless dun and ochre tunics, matching the pelts of their mounts, they boosted not only his numbers but also his men’s morale for their bravado and prodigious skill in horsemanship inspired confidence. And it was full of confidence that Antipatros had led his army south through Thessaly, and then west, along the coast, with the fleet keeping pace with him to his left, past the city of Lamia and on to Thermopylae.
But now, nine days after setting out from Pella, marching at a blistering rate, Antipatros had arrived at his first objective only to find it already held against him. We shall need the Thessalians if we are going to break this army. He glanced at the sun, falling to his right and then addressed Magas and Nicanor. ‘We have four hours until sunset; once order of battle has been formed give the men something to eat and drink and then let’s get this thing over with.’
‘Your orders, sir,’ Magas asked.
‘Nothing special; we’ve the sea to our left and hills to our right. You take the phalanx, Magas, it will roll forward with archers, slingers and light-javelinmen covering the advance; place half the peltasts in the surf on the left preventing any outflanking.’ He looked out to sea to the fleet formed up, opposing the Athenian navy also ready for battle. ‘Let’s hope our lads can stop their fleet getting around behind us.’ He turned his attention back to his army. ‘The other thousand peltasts station on the phalanx’s right flank between it and the Thessalians. Nicanor, have our heavy cavalry in wedges behind them waiting for my signal to charge the break in their line. The Greek mercenaries I’ll keep in reserve, I wouldn’t like to test their loyalty unless absolutely necessary.’
Nicanor’s face clouded. ‘If it gets to the stage that it becomes necessary then I don’t think we’ll be able to count on them at all.’
Antipatros considered the thought. ‘You’re right. In which case have them sent back down the road a couple of miles; they could be a useful rallying point if it comes to it.’
Iollas’ eyes widened in astonishment. ‘You don’t think it would come to that, Father?’
Antipatros sighed with the weariness of one who would rest but was being constantly thwarted in that ambition. ‘I’m seventy-eight, my boy, I have seen most situations in war and the one common factor they have is that there is no predicting the outcome so, therefore, I try to plan for all possibilities.’
‘Including the enemy’s surrender?’ Magas asked, pointing.
Antipatros followed the direction of Magas’ finger to where the Greek line was parting to allow three horsemen through, one of whom carried a branch of peace. ‘Well, I can’t imagine that they have come all this way just to surrender; let’s go and hear what they have to say.’
‘My name is Leosthenes,’ the leader of the group announced as both parties drew up their horses midway between the opposing armies, ‘General of the free Greek army.’
Antipatros gave a wan smile. ‘That’s a novel way of terming a mercenary army; I’ve never heard of a mercenary fighting for free.’
Leosthenes laughed, it was genuine and infectious; dark eyes glinted with amusement. Although battered by many campaigns and extremes of weather, his bearded face remained handsome in a scarred and rugged way. ‘Very good, old man; you have the better of me on that point. Although there are some Athenian citizens and four thousand Aetollian’s in our number, I grant you that most of my men don’t give a horse’s arse for Greek freedom; so long as they have the money to freely plough their own furrows and drink wine freely, they are happy.’
‘Men of conscience; admirable.’
Leosthenes shrugged. ‘Men of business, certainly. And, right now, their business is to prevent you from passing, which, when you look at the positions, I would have thought a man of your experience could see as being quite likely. So what I propose, Antipatros, regent of Macedon, is this: you take your army back north, leave the Greek cities to govern themselves. I have already defeated your only allies, the Boeotians, three days ago so you’ll find no friends south of here apart from a few Macedonian garrisons holed up in their citadels and now under a state of siege. If you go now, then Hyperides and the Athenian assembly will guarantee those garrisons’ safe passage home. If you fight, they will all die even in the unlikely event that you triumph on this field. What do you say?’
Antipatros looked across to the rebel army and then up and down the length of his line, as if counting numbers. ‘I would say, Leosthenes, that I have more cavalry than you, a lot more, in fact, seeing as you have hardly any. That, along with the superiority in the quality of my infantry, gives me the edge.’
Leosthenes face brightened as if he were pleased to be reminded of something that had almost slipped his mind. ‘Ah, yes, I was going to come to that.’ He signalled to one of his companions who raised a horn and blew a series of rising notes.
Out to Antipatros’ right there was a stirring and then, to the jangle of thousands of harnesses, multiple equine snorts and the stamp of many hoofs, the Thessalian cavalry began to move forward.
Leosthenes looked at Antipatros, a picture of surprise and innocence. ‘Oooh, and how did that happen? It looks like I’ve got the most cavalry now.’
Antigonos took a few moments to comprehend just what was occurring, before turning back in fury to Leosthenes. ‘You treacherous bastard!’ he spat as the Thessalian cavalry crossed the field followed by their supporting light troops.
Leosthenes looked wounded. ‘Come, come, Antipatros; it’s not my treachery we are witnessing here, surely you can see that? It’s the Thessalians’; they’re the ones changing sides, not me. I merely negotiated with their general, Menon, and he seemed to see the logic of my argument. I’m sure it will please you to know that had I not garrisoned the pass in time to block you they would have remained loyal to your cause. At least, that’s what they said. But, well, that’s Thessalians for you. If you want loyalty, get a dog, I always say. Still, I should know because I’ve been a mercenary ever since I killed my father when he raised a hand to me just one too many times when I was fifteen. Now, enough of pleasant reminiscences and back to business: if your army is still here in an hour, I’ll sound the attack.’ With a cheery wave he spun his horse around and trotted back to his lines with one hand on his hip.
‘Well, what do we do?’ Magas asked as Antipatros turned his mount in grim silence. ‘The bastard’s got us by the scrotum and is working up to quite a vigorous squeeze.’
‘We attack,’ Iollas insisted, ‘with or without the cavalry.’
‘No we don’t,’ Nicanor said, looking about the field, ‘the Thessalians will get around our flanks and take the phalanx in the rear and that will be the end of us.’
Antipatros sighed his deepest sigh of the day. I really am too old for all this; all I want is to lie with my wife on a rug in front of the fire with a jug of wine and the knowledge of a fine meal being prepared and instead, what do I have: a crisis. ‘So what can we do? We’re five days’ march from Macedon through now hostile territory and then a further four days to the safety of Pella. We have no supporting cavalry and they now have five thousand to harry us with all the way; we’ll lose hundreds, if not thousands and our retreat will be a shambles and a humiliation. And then at one point, Leosthenes will force us to fight, tired and outnumbered. It’s unthinkable.’
‘What about the fleet?’ Magas asked.
‘The Athenians’ ships will prevent us from embarking; no, that’s not an option.’
Magas grimaced at the mental picture of the disaster. ‘So what to do then?’
‘We make a fighting retreat, step by step. I left a few trusted men in Lamia, three leagues back up the road; as I said: prepare for all eventualities. Although, I will admit that I did not really think that I would need spies to open Lamia’s gates for me; it was just a possibility that I foresaw.’
‘We’re going to take Lamia? What for?’
‘So we can tighten our belts and endure a winter siege until help arrives in the spring. This is going to cost me a lot of daughters; I had better get writing letters. They need to be on their way before we’re completely closed off.’
Alexander’s Legacy: To the Strongest: 4 February 2020
by Robert Fabbri (Author)
News of Alexander’s death spread quickly and widely, and created two major problems for the Macedonian rulers. Though the subject peoples of Asia, used to submission through two centuries of Persian rule, stayed quiet, and the Persians themselves had been too recently and thoroughly defeated to think of rebelling, the non-Macedonian Greeks in Alexander’s empire did not stay quiet. In southern Greece, the Athenians saw a chance to reassert their independence. Thanks to the disloyalty of Alexander’s treasurer Harpalus, the Athenians possessed a fighting fund of some five thousand talents of Alexander’s money; and thanks to Alexander’s distrust of his regional governors, which had led him to order the disbandment of the mercenary security forces they had recruited to police their provinces, thousands of unemployed mercenaries had gathered to seek employment at the great mercenary fair on Cape Taenarum in the southern Peloponnese.
The Athenians mobilized their citizen army and fleet, sent out a call for allies to join them in a war of liberation against the Macedonian oppressor, and despatched their general Leosthenes to Cape Taenarum, amply supplied with funds, to recruit mercenaries. Leosthenes had served as a mercenary commander before and knew these men: he had no difficulty in gathering a large and well-trained army to join the Athenians and greatly strengthen their forces. A number of Greek states responded to their call for allies, most importantly the Aetolians and the Thessalians: Aetolia provided thousands of highly motivated and disciplined light infantry, and the Thessalian cavalry was of as good quality as the Macedonian. Antipater in Macedonia found himself with a formidable war on his hands.
The crisis in the east was thus settled fairly quickly, and with great credit to Peithon and his boss Perdiccas; the situation in Greece proved much more tricky. When Antipater marched south with the home army to deal with the uprising, he was met in north central Greece by an Athenian and mercenary army commanded by Leosthenes, and defeated. Antipater barely managed to disengage his defeated army still intact, and took refuge behind the walls of the nearby city of Lamia, where he was obliged to stand a siege. As a consequence, this conflict is known to modern historians as the Lamian War. Antipater sent desperate messages to Asia Minor, to the Macedonian leaders there, calling for help. Two leaders heeded the call: Leonnatus in Hellespontine Phrygia ignored his orders from Perdiccas to conquer Cappadocia for Eumenes, and instead took the forces Perdiccas had given him for this purpose across the Hellespont into Europe and over into Macedonia. There he recruited additional troops and prepared to go to the rescue of Antipater. In addition Leonnatus established contact with Alexander’s full sister Cleopatra, widow of Alexander the Molossian. He proposed to marry her: he came of a princely house himself, and thought that with Cleopatra by his side he could make a play for the Macedonian throne. It all came to nothing when he moved south into Thessaly and was met by the Athenian army and defeated. Leonnatus died of his wounds, and Antipater-relieved from his siege at Lamia by Leonnatus’ entry into the fight-managed to collect the remnants of Leonnatus’ defeated force and retreat with them and his own army back to the safety of Macedonia.