Parmenion was the son of a nobleman from Upper Macedonia called Philotas. The initial stages of his career are unknown to us, but he is known to have served under king Philip II (360-336). In 356, Parmenion defeated the Illyrians in a great battle (remembered because Philip received the news on the birthday of his first-born son, Alexander). Ten years later, Parmenion destroyed Halos, a strategic town in southern Thessaly. Philip II is said to have remarked that during his reign, he had found only one trustworthy general, Parmenion.
In 336, Philip sent Parmenion and an army of 10,000 men to Asia, as the vanguard of a larger army that was to liberate the Greeks living on the western shore of what is now Turkey. This operation served to unite the Greek towns that Philip had subjected in 338. The moment of the invasion was well-chosen: the news had arrived that the Persian king Artaxerxes IV Arses had been murdered by his courtier Bagoas and was succeeded by his relative Darius III Codomannus (text).
At first, the expeditionary force did very well. The Greek towns in Asia revolted during the spring, but there was a big setback during the autumn when bad news arrive: Philip had been murdered and had been succeeded by his young son Alexander. The Macedonians were demoralized and suffered a humiliating defeat near Magnesia. The commander of the Persian mercenaries Memnon of Rhodes was able to push back Parmenion and his demoralized troops. Nonetheless, they remained in Asia.
Although Alexander was recognized as king in Macedonia in October 336, he was not the only candidate. One of his enemies was a man named Attalus, who was in the army of Parmenion. However, the general put him to death. This was remarkable, because Parmenion was related to the victim. However, it was a necessary act if Alexander's succession was to be smooth. As a consequence, the new king owed something to his most experienced general and had to do something in return, especially since Parmenion commanded a large army.
Alexander knew what he was expected to do, and in the next years, we find many relatives of Parmenion in key positions in the Macedonian army. His youngest son Nicanor became commander of the infantry regiment that was known as the Shield bearers, his son-in-law Coenus commanded a phalanx battalion, and another relative named Nicanor was admiral of the navy of the Greek allies. Parmenion's friend Amyntas and his brother Asander received other honorable positions. Parmenion himself became Alexander's second in command - holding the position he already had under Philip.
The most important appointment, however, was that of his oldest son Philotas: he was the commander of the Companion cavalry, a unit of eight squadrons (of 225 horsemen each) that was Macedonia's most effective weapon in any battle
In May 334, king Alexander joined Parmenion with reinforcements. The campaign against Persia, which had had a bad start, could now really begin. During three great battles, Parmenion commanded the left wing (12,000 heavily armed Macedonians, 7,000 allies, and 5,000 mercenaries), while Alexander himself commanded the right wing, where Philotas was his right-hand man.
Meanwhile, the Persian satraps of Cilicia, Lydia, Hellespontine Phrygia and other territories had assembled at Zelea, near Dascylium. Alexander and Parmenion moved in their direction, convinced that it would be an easy battle: after all, the Macedonians were superior in numbers and equipment. In June, the two armies met near the river Granicus (the modern Biga Çay). The Persians had occupied strong defensive positions on one of the banks, which forced Alexander to attack from a difficult angle. Most ancient sources agree that Parmenion advised Alexander not to attack and that it was Alexander's own idea to attack at once.
Our sources disagree on what happened next. Diodorus of Sicily writes that Alexander accepted Parmenion's advise and attacked at dawn;note[Diodorus, World History 17.19.3.] all other authorities agree that the Macedonians attacked immediately. The difference between these sources is that Diodorus uses the now lost History of Alexander by Cleitarchus as his source, and the others are based on the Deeds of Alexander by Callisthenes of Olynthus, Alexander's court historian. Because Callisthenes had - as we shall see below - reasons to be hostile to Parmenion, Cleitarchus' description of the battle is to be preferred. The Macedonian king followed the instructions of the experienced general.
After the battle, Parmenion captured the Persian stronghold Dascylium, the capital of Hellespontine Phrygia. Our sources say that it fell without struggle, but this is contradicted by the archaeological evidence. Later, he seized Magnesia and Tralleis. Asander, a brother of Parmenion, became satrap of Lydia.
Meanwhile, Alexander conquered the Greek towns in Asia: Sardes, Ephesus, Miletus, Halicarnassus. During the winter, the king moved through Lycia. At the same time, Parmenion invaded Central Turkey from the west, drove out the remaining Persian troops and occupied the region. The two forces met each other in April 333 at Gordium, the capital of Phrygia, eighty kilometers west of modern Ankara.
After a short stay, the united army moved to the east, to Cilicia, where Parmenion captured Tarsus and Alexander fell ill. Parmenion, who was not present, had information that the king's doctor Philip was unreliable, and sent him a letter. He wrote that the new Persian king Darius III Codomannus had bribed the doctor to kill the king. However, Alexander used Philips' medicine, and gave the letter to Philip. As it turned out, the doctor was innocent (text).
While Alexander was in Cilicia, Parmenion and a small army were ordered to occupy the Assyrian gates. This was the pass between the coastal plain of Cilicia and the plain of the river Orontes in Syria; the main road from the Persian heartland to Cilicia went through this pass. He must have been puzzled by the fact that the enemy did not show up, but was not alarmed until he received word that Darius' huge army was at Sochi, only two days away. A courier was sent to Alexander's army, which covered 120 kilometers in forty-eight hours and joined the king's army near Myriandrus.
The two commanders were planning to attack Darius in Sochi, when they discovered that the Persian army was no longer there and was, in fact, facing into their rear. With his enormous army, the Persian king had crossed the Amanus Mountains, had captured Issus, and cut off the only Macedonian line of supply. Darius had trapped Alexander.
Not much later, battle was joined south of Issus (text). Although the Macedonians had been outmaneuvered by an army that was superior in numbers, they were victorious (November 333), not in the least because Parmenion had been able to counter the Persian attack. This gave Alexander a chance to launch a counter-attack.
The most impressive action of Parmenion's career took place after the battle: he rushed to Damascus (350 kilometers through enemy territory) and seized Darius' treasure. The surprised Persian garrison gave him almost 55 ton gold, a great quantity of silver, 329 female musicians, 306 cooks, 13 pastry chefs, 70 wine waiters, 40 scent makers, and the women who had lived at Darius' court. Small surprise that Parmenion needed 7,000 pack animals to bring the booty to Alexander.
After this raid, Parmenion encouraged Alexander to take a Persian wife. After all, the age to have a male lover (Hephaestion), was over. The king followed the generals' advice and started an affair with Barsine.
Shortly after the battle of Issus, a messenger arrived, delivering a letter from king Darius, who offered a huge ransom for his mother, wife and children. Alexander refused. In the next months, there were several diplomatic exchanges, which culminated in Darius' offer of all countries west of the Euphrates to Alexander.
"I would accept it," said Parmenion after reading the proposal, "if I were Alexander."
"So would I," replied Alexander, "if I were Parmenion."
The anecdote may be true, but it must be noted that many stories show Parmenion as a very cautious man, especially in comparison to his brave king Alexander. The trouble with these anecdotes is that Parmenion was not that cautious as all: his lightning raid on Damascus was a very bold action indeed.
During the next year, 332, the Macedonians pacified Syria and Palestine. Again, Parmenion had important commands, while his king went to the south to add Egypt to his empire.
To the east
In the summer, the Macedonian army returned to Syria and invaded Mesopotamia and Assyria. On 1 October 331, the decisive battle took place at Gaugamela. Again, the Persians outnumbered the Macedonians. What happened next, is unclear: the Greek and a contemporary Babylonian source contradict each other (the Greeks state that Darius fled, the Babylonians say that he was left alone by his soldiers) (text). However this may be, it is certain that the commander of the Persian right wing, Mazaeus, attacked Parmenion and the Macedonian left. In fact, the cavalry on the Persian extreme outflanked the Macedonians. However, Parmenion was able to keep the fighting spirit of his men high, so that they stood their ground. This enabled Alexander to lead the decisive charge.
After the battle of Gaugamela, Babylonia surrendered and Alexander moved to the east, to Susa (where Parmenion received the palace of Bagoas, the eunuch who had made Darius king) and hence to Persepolis, the capital of the Achaemenid Empire. The heartland of Darius' kingdom was surrounded by the Zagros mountains, and Alexander and a small force captured a narrow pass, the Persian gate. Meanwhile, Parmenion was sent out with the main force, entering the plain of Persepolis from the south (330).
From now on, king Darius was on the run, and Alexander followed his enemy in the early summer. The conquest of Ecbatana, another capital of the Achaemenid empire, was left to Parmenion. The veteran general, almost seventy years old, was also responsible for reinforcements and the pacification of the mountain country of the Cadusians.
He was therefore, not with Alexander when Darius was hunted down and murdered, and he was not present during the advance to Aria and Drangiana. Consequently, he was unaware of the fact that his son Philotas had been accused of treason and was executed (December 330).
After Alexander had killed Philotas, the murder of his father was inevitable. In Ecbatana, he controlled the road from the Mediterranean to the East, possessed large sums of money and commanded many troops. Parmenion was too powerful to remain alive, especially since he would be angry when he heard of the execution of his son. Therefore, Alexander accused him of treason and sent an express messenger to Ecbatana, whose duty it was to be there before the news of the death of Philotas reached his father. The courier gave letters to the commanders of the reinforcements (a.o. Atropates), and they killed the old general, who never knew why.
This was - and is - a dark stain on Alexander's reputation. His court historian, Callisthenes of Olynthus (c.370-327), had to tidy up the mess. In his book on the Deeds of Alexander, he portrayed Parmenion as incompetent and overcautious. In this way, the victim received the blame, not the executioner. Nearly all ancient sources have copied this idea, which explains the hostile tradition on Parmenion.
Sabine Müller, Maßnamen der Herrschaftssicherung gegenüber der makedonischen Opposition bei Alexander dem Großen, 2003 Frankfurt am Main.