|home : index : ancient Greece : article by Jona Lendering ©|
Perdiccas on the Alexander sarcophagus (Archaeological Museum, Istanbul)
(c.360?-320): commander in the army of the Macedonian
the Great, after his death regent of his mentally unfit successor,
Arridaeus. He was the first of the Diadochi
Perdiccas was born as the son of a Macedonian nobleman named Orontes, in Orestis (the mountainous 'lake district' between modern Greece and Albania). His year of birth is unknown, but he seems to have been of about the same age as Alexander.
In his accession year (335), Alexander attacked a group of rebels in Illyricum (modern Albania). He used the phalanx battalions of Coenus and Perdiccas for a nightly attack on the Illyrian camp. This is Perdiccas' first-known military action, although he must have seen battle before, during the reign of Philip II.
A rumor that Alexander had died during the Illyrian campaign caused a rebellion in Greece, where the Thebans killed a Macedonian garrison. Almost immediately, Alexander went to the south. After a short siege, Thebes was stormed by the phalanx battalion of Perdiccas. In his history of Alexander's reign, Ptolemy wrote that this assault had not been planned, but was due to lack of discipline: Perdiccas' men broke the official line of command. This may be true -Perdiccas was not an experienced commander- but it may also be an invective. After all, Ptolemy and Perdiccas were enemies in 320 (below).
However this may be, the result of Perdiccas' attack was clear: the city was taken. Perdiccas himself was severely wounded. Thebes was razed to the ground, except for its temples and the house that had once belonged to the poet Pindar, who had once written an ode on an earlier Macedonian king named Alexander and had introduced to Greece the favorite god of Alexander, Zeus Ammon.
In May 334, Alexander launched his long-planned campaign against Persia. In June, he defeated the local levies of the Persian satraps of Asia Minor on the banks of the Granicus. During this battle, Perdiccas commanded his battalion of heavy phalanx infantry again.
During the summer, the Macedonians liberated the towns of the Ionian Greeks in western Asia. The largest was Miletus, but the most important city to capture was Halicarnassus. This was the Persian naval base, defended by the greatest army commander of that age, Memnon of Rhodes, a mercenary general who had sided with the Persians. Alexander took half of his phalanx with him, including Perdiccas' battalion, which suffered a big defeat when it tried to attack the walls. (The historian Arrian of Nicomedia, who uses Ptolemy as his source, writes that Perdiccas' soldiers were drunk; again, this may be an attempt to discredit Perdiccas.) Although in the end, Alexander was able to take the city, the Persian navy could sail away without having suffered great losses; unhindered, its commander Pharnabazus could continue a full-scale offensive in the Aegean Sea.
In the summer of 333, Alexander prepared for the march to the east, where he hoped to find and defeat the Persian army, settling the war in a big battle. He was not disappointed. In November, his army defeated the army of king Darius III Codomannus in the battle of Issus. Like all phalanx commanders, Perdiccas was there.
By now, he was important enough to take charge of an independent command. When Alexander had to leave the siege of the city Tyre, which had refused to surrender after the battle of Issus, Perdiccas was left in charge of the war.
It is not known whether Perdiccas was present during Alexander's Egyptian campaign. Phalanx units are not mentioned in the narrative of our best source, Arrian of Nicomedia. However, they played an important role during the battle of Gaugamela (1 October 331). Again, Perdiccas is mentioned as commander of one of the phalanx battalions. Like Hephaestion, Alexander's closest friend, and Coenus, he was almost mortally wounded.
The Persian gate:
entrance of the valley
After this battle, Alexander could easily subdue Babylonia and invade the heartland of Persia. However, he first had to take the mountain pass that was known as the Persian gate (January 330). According to Arrian, Alexander used Perdiccas' battalion to make the encircling maneuver that secured the pass (Quintus Curtius Rufus says that he used Coenus' battalion).
After this fight, Perdiccas disappears from our sources for almost two years. This is not surprising. The phalanx played no role during the pursuit of the Persian king Darius III, and after this, there was no real fighting action. Alexander's army moved through Aria, Drangiana, and Arachosia, crossed the Hindu Kush and marched through Bactria and Sogdia to the river Jaxartes, the modern Syrdar'ya. Here, seven towns had to be captured, and Perdiccas is mentioned during one of the sieges.
Perdiccas and his future enemy Ptolemy are mentioned several times as two of Alexander's seven bodyguards. This title is a bit misleading; in fact, these people are better called adjutants. However, sometimes, they were indeed bodyguards. They are known in this capacity from a tragic incident that took place during a dinner party in Sogdia.
Many courtiers were flattering Alexander. Some called him the son of Zeus Ammon and belittled Alexander's human father Philip, others made jokes about commanders who had been defeated and killed by the native leader Spitamenes. This was more than Clitus, a cavalry commander who had served under Philip and knew the dead commanders, could stomach. He started to praise Philip. Alexander felt offended, and in a drunken rage, he pushed aside Ptolemy and Perdiccas and run a lance through Clitus, who died on the spot.
In 326, Alexander invaded Gandara, the west of the Punjab. Perdiccas and Hephaestion were to bring the main force along the river Cophen to the Indus, where they had to build ships and make a bridge. Meanwhile, Perdiccas and Hephaestion captured an important city called Peucelaotis. (Alexander himself attacked the city states in the Swat valley and the rock Aornus.)
During the Indian campaign, we encounter Perdiccas as cavalry commander. For example, he commanded a squadron during the battle on the banks of the river Hydaspes (modern Jhelum) and during the siege of Sangala. In this aspect, his career was similar to that of Coenus.
Alexander continued to the east, but when he had arrived at the river Hyphasis (Beas), his men refused to go any further, and Alexander decided to march to the south, to the Indian Ocean, from where he wanted to sail back to Babylonia. During their homeward bound campaign, the Macedonians had to subdue the Mallians and the Oxydracans, two Indian nations that offered resistance. Perdiccas, now in command of his own squadron and that of Coenus (who had died), commanded one of the armies. Arrian tells that there was a tradition -he does not say whether he believes it or not- that Perdiccas was the only one who dared to help Alexander when he was wounded during the siege of the town of the Mallians (probably modern Multan).
As it turned out, Alexander decided not to ship all his troops across the sea to Babylonia, but divided his army in three parts. Craterus commanded a large army (and the elephants) across the Bolan Pass through Arachosia, Drangiana and Carmania, Nearchus commanded the navy along the shores of the Indian Ocean and Persian Gulf, and Alexander led his men through the Gedrosian desert and Carmania. Perdiccas and his squadron may have belonged to any of these three divisions. In any case, it is clear that at this stage Perdiccas, trusted as he was, was inferior in rank to Craterus and Nearchus.
When Alexander's armies united in Susa, the capital of Elam (March 324), he ordered his officers to marry Persian ladies (text). Perdiccas took as his bride a daughter of Atropates, the satrap of Media. The only ones to marry princesses from the ancient Persian royal house, the Achaemenids, were Alexander, Hephaestion and Craterus. Again, this illustrates the court hierarchy: first the king, then Hephaestion and Craterus, and after that, people like Nearchus and Perdiccas.
However, he was soon to rise. In August, Craterus was sent away on a very important mission: he was to bring back 11,500 veterans to Europe, where he would become the supreme commander of the Macedonians forces. Two months later, Hephaestion unexpectedly died. This meant that Perdiccas suddenly found himself as the highest ranking officer at Alexander's court. He was appointed in Hephaestion's functions: commander of the Companion cavalry and chiliarch (vizier).
In the afternoon of 11 June 323, Alexander died in Babylon. He had been ill for several days and had given his ring to Perdiccas, saying that he gave his empire kratistôi. This means 'to the strongest', but may also mean 'to Craterus'. The interpretation of Alexander's last will was to be the biggest problem of the next years. In fact, it was never solved.
Alexander's generals discussed the situation. Perdiccas proposed to wait until Alexander's first wife, Roxane, who was pregnant, had given birth. If it were a son, it would be logical to chose him as the new king. Everybody could see through this: if this proposal was accepted, Perdiccas would be in sole command until the boy had grown up. Nonetheless, he received support of the commanders of the cavalry.
The commander of the phalanx, Meleager, was the most important dissenting voice. He pointed out that Alexander had a brother, Arridaeus, who was the first in line of succession. The infantry agreed to this proposal, although they knew that Arridaeus was technically a bastard and was mentally incapable to rule. (Go here for the story of the conference at Babylon.)
The situation was tense as it seemed that Meleager's soldiers wanted to fight for Arridaeus against Perdiccas and his adherents. That would mean a war between the cavalry and the infantry. Although violence was used and Perdiccas ordered Meleager to be killed, the cooler heads on both sides improvised a compromise. Perdiccas was to be regent for king Arridaeus and Roxane's son (if the baby were a son, of course). Seeing that this was the only way to prevent civil war, everybody agreed. Arridaeus became king under the name of Philip, Roxane's baby turned out to be a son (Alexander), Alexander's second wife Statira was murdered, and Perdiccas could start his regency. One of his first acts was to appoint reliable generals as satraps (overview).
Another act was the cancellation of Alexander's last plans. Perdiccas still had to establish a power base and wanted to stay in the center of the empire. The naval expedition against Maka and the incense country Arabia that Alexander had planned would bring him to the periphery of the empire. Besides, in this new war, the infantry was to play an important role, and he did not trust these men. With Alexander's secretary Eumenes, he published the 'last plans of Alexander' (text). It has been assumed that they added several outrageous plans that were only meant to make sure that they were rejected.
To Perdiccas, it was important to connect the two centers of his empire, Macedonia and Babylonia. Therefore, it was necessary to conquer Cappadocia (central Turkey). Alexander had merely passed through this country, and the last Persian ruler, a man named Ariarathes, had created a state of his own. The Macedonian satrap of Greater Phrygia, Antigonus Monophthalmus ('one eye'), had grown accustomed to defending the road between Macedonia and the east against Ariarathes' attacks. However, when Perdiccas successfully invaded Cappadocia, Antigonus did not appear. It is not clear why. What is certain, however, is that when Perdiccas asked him to appear for a military court, Antigonus fled to Antipater's court in Macedonia. Eumenes was made satrap in Antigonus' place.
At this time, Perdiccas was engaged to Nicaea, the daughter of Antipater, who had been the supreme commander of the Macedonian forces in Europe; Alexander had sent Craterus to replace him, and they had joined forces to suppress the Greek rebellion known as the Lamian war. In the last months of 322, Perdiccas broke off the engagement with Nicaea, because Alexander's mother offered him Cleopatra, a full sister of Alexander. This marriage would make Perdiccas a member of the Macedonian royal house. Since Philip Arridaeus was an illegitimate son, and the baby of Alexander and Roxane was a half-breed, Perdiccas could claim more than the regency: the crown.
Antipater had excellent personal reasons to feel insulted. Craterus, who had been the most important general when Alexander was still alive, had been ignored when Perdiccas seized power in Macedonia. Antigonus Monophtalmus had reason to fear Perdiccas. So, the three agreed to revolt against the regent.
Ptolemy, the satrap of Egypt, was the first to act and provoked the conflict. In December 321, Perdiccas sent the remains of Alexander to the tomb that had been prepared in Macedonia's religious capital, Aegae. When it arrived in Damascus, Ptolemy convinced the leader of the convoy that Alexander had wanted to be buried in the temple of his heavenly father Zeus Ammon. Accordingly, the corpse was brought to Egypt, where it was to find its final resting place in Alexandria. This was a provocation that Perdiccas could not ignore. He was forced to organize a punitive action.
Perdiccas saw that a formidable coalition was being organized. He decided
to invade Egypt, and ordered Eumenes to defend Asia against the armies
of Antipater and Craterus. The satrap of Greater Phrygia had no experience
as a military commander and had to face Craterus, the most experienced
of all Macedonian generals. But Perdiccas knew that Eumenes was the only
one he could trust. Against everybody's advise, Eumenes accepted battle
(probably somewhere near the Hellespont), and defeated his opponent. Craterus
died fighting; what was left of his army managed to leave the battle field
and joined Antipater.
|Meanwhile, Perdiccas and king Philip
Arridaeus were on their way to Egypt. In May 320 they reached Ptolemy's
realm. Unopposed, Perdiccas crossed through the Sinai desert and reached
the Nile near Pelusium. However, Ptolemy prevented Perdiccas from crossing
the river. The invader moved to the apex of the Delta, and retried the
river crossing in the neighborhood of Heliopolis. However, his men were
carried away by the Nile. To all those present, it was obvious that Perdiccas
could never invade Egypt, and his soldiers -already resenting his harsh
discipline- revolted. Perdiccas sought the advice of his colonels Peithon,
Antigenes, and Seleucus.
They, however, decided to kill their commander, to put an end to the civil
Perdiccas' career had been dazzling. He had started as battalion commander and, due to his capacities as a general and his friendship with Alexander, had risen to the function of vizier. After the king's death, he had tried to become sole ruler, and he came very, very close to this. He was regent of a mentally unfit and a very young king, which made him virtually sole ruler. His successes in Cappadocia would have made him acceptable to many people: he was a worthy successor of the great Alexander.
His mistake was that he wanted the throne too fast. He insulted Craterus and Antipater, so that he felt himself isolated when he was challenged by Ptolemy.