Argyraspides at War

Johnny Shumate illustrations


Unlike the pezhetairoi and asthetairoi, the hypaspists (and the later Argyraspids) did not normally carry the sarissa. This (in Alexander’s time) fifteen- to eighteen-foot pike was far too unwieldy for the types of maneuvers required of the hypaspists. Instead, their weaponry and armor was similar to that of the Greek hoplite. The helmet was of the Phrygian variety, with cheek pieces (which the pezhetairoi did not need) and a tapering crest that cushioned and deflected blows from above. The cuirass was the linothorax, which gave ample protection but afforded greater mobility; at the bottom of the linen corselet, below the waist, were pteruges, which shielded the groin and upper thigh, but also gave the hypaspists the flexibility to mount a horse if called upon to do so. (Such activity is attested in Illyria and in the pursuit of Darius III south of the Caspian.) Hypaspists carried the larger hoplon (some three feet in diameter, as compared with the smaller shield of the pezhetairoi: see Heckel and Jones 2006 for details and literature) and the regular spear favored by hoplites (dory), keeping in reserve the thrusting and slicing sword (xiphos), instead of the cleaver (kopis) of the cavalryman. Greaves were probably also used in battle and sieges, though one suspects that these might have been discarded in mountain warfare. The infantrymen thus depicted, interspersed with the cavalrymen, on the Alexander Sarcophagus are undoubtedly the king’s hypaspists. Later, at Paraetacene, the Argyraspids fight against the mercenaries in Antigonus’s army, the latter almost certainly hoplites, and there is no suggestion that their success was owed in any way to the use of the sarissa; here again the former hypaspists of Alexander appear to have fought as hoplites.

Thus equipped, the hypaspists could fight in regular hoplite formation, disperse among the cavalry and serve as hamippoi, proceed more nimbly in broken terrain (unencumbered by the sarissa and the weight of leather or metal cuirasses), and scale the walls of cities under the protection of their larger shields.


In 324 it seemed that the Argyraspids had seen the end of an extremely long tour of duty. Antigenes and his men were sent home from Opis with the other demobilized forces under the command of Craterus, reaching Cilicia no earlier than the beginning of winter 324/3. But their return to Macedonia was preempted by events in Cilicia itself and, later, in Babylon and Greece. When Craterus and the veterans reached Cilicia, the satrapy was in disarray. Its governor, Balacrus son of Nicanor, had been killed in battle with the Pisidians (Diod. 18.22.1; contra Bosworth 1980: 219; Billows 1990: 44–5), and in the absence of authority the Imperial Treasurer, Harpalus, who had fled Babylon when he learned of Alexander’s impending return from the East, had paused for some time in Tarsus. When Craterus arrived, Harpalus was already in Athens. But the satrapy was in urgent need of reorganization and defense; furthermore, it may be the case that Craterus and his veterans turned their attention to Alexander’s fleet-building program, which looked ahead to his North African campaign (Ashton 1993: 127–9). Whatever their activities in Cicilia, these were thrown into further confusion by Alexander’s unexpected death at the beginning of June, and the outbreak of the Lamian War in Europe.

Torn between the need to secure his own authority in Babylon, where his supporters had secured for him the prostasia of the inept new king, Philip III Arrhidaeus (Arr. Succ. 1.3), and Antipater’s appeal for reinforcements in Europe (Diod. 18.12.1), Craterus eventually put the affairs of the homeland ahead of his personal ambitions. Craterus now resumed his march to Macedonia, leaving a certain number of his troops (probably around 1,000) with Cleitus, who had taken charge of the fleet and was preparing to bring it out of Levantine waters and into the Aegean. The three thousand Argyraspids under Antigenes’s command remained in Cilicia for the time, presumably guarding the treasures in Cilicia in his absence. When the Argyraspids were assigned the task of transporting the treasures from Susiana (Antigenes’s satrapy) to Cyinda in Cilicia soon after the settlement of Triparadeisus, they may have been reprising their earlier assignment, for it is clear that they could not have accompanied Perdiccas to the Nile in 320 unless they had remained behind in Cilicia. Guard duty appears to be the most plausible explanation. Craterus augmented his army with new recruits from Asia Minor.

Diodorus (18.16.4) describes the force that returned to Europe in the following words: “As far as infantry were concerned, he took six thousand of those who had crossed into Asia together with Alexander, and another four thousand whom he picked up along the march.” Some scholars have taken the Greek to mean that Craterus’s infantrymen were composed of two groups: those who had crossed the Hellespont with Alexander in 334 and those who joined him in the course of the campaigns. But would a historian actually be capable of making such a distinction. For it is unlikely that, after eleven or twelve years of service, the troops would have been distinguished in such a way. It is more likely that those who were picked up “along the march” were new recruits or satrapal units enlisted by Craterus on his way to Macedonia. The Argyraspids remained in Cilicia, entrusted with the protection of the satrapy, its new ruler (Philotas), and the treasury at Tarsus. Disappointed in their hopes of returning with their accumulated booty and their new families to Macedonia, they may still have found solace in the belief that guard duty in Cilicia promised them a condition of semiretirement in the company of their dear ones. But this was not to be.

In early 320, Antipater and Craterus, who had effectively brought the Lamian War to an end and had been forced to cut short their campaign against the Aetolians, crossed the Hellespont to deal with Perdiccas. This man, now the de facto guardian of the two kings, sent Eumenes toward the Hellespontine region with a portion of the army, while he himself marched on Egypt with the remainder. To augment his forces, he picked up the Argyraspids in Cilicia and led them against his enemy, Ptolemy son of Lagus (Arr. Succ. 24.2; Justin 13.6.16). For the highly decorated veterans, the mission marked the renewal of service in Asia and the beginning of the long road to ruin. Whatever the unit had endured in the service of Philip and Alexander, it was to be rivaled and surpassed in the wars of the Diadochoi. The Egyptian campaign was badly managed by Perdiccas, and the toll on the men in the royal army was considerable. Diodorus’s description of the unsuccessful attempt on Kamelon Teichos gives special attention to the hypaspists, who led the attack on the walls. But these are presumably the new hypaspists of the Royal Army, a unit created by Alexander in India soon after the Argyraspids received their visible signs of distinction and, with them (most likely), the promise of demobilization. The siege lasted less than a day before Perdiccas led his troops south and attempted another crossing of the Nile near Memphis. But the river crossing proved more difficult at this point, perhaps because Ptolemy had opened the floodgates and elevated the level of the river, which had even before then been treacherous. Unable to move the entire force across, Perdiccas was compelled to bring that portion which had already accomplished the crossing back. The result was disaster, as many drowned in the river and others were killed by crocodiles. Some two thousand were lost, including many of the officer class (18.36.1). The losses incurred by the Argyraspids themselves are hard to estimate, since they are not specifically mentioned by Diodorus, but the impact on their morale cannot be discounted. When a cabal of officers murdered Perdiccas during the night, Antigenes, the Argyraspid commander, played a leading role (Arr. Succ. 1.35; Diod. 18.39.6; Nepos, Eum. 5.1 [adding Seleucus]; for Peithon’s role see Diod. 18.36.5.

It must be from this time onward that the Argyraspids began to show greater regard for their own interests, even if this put them at odds with their leaders. Philip II had selected and trained them, and they trusted his leadership just as he could count on their loyalty. With Alexander, too, there was the knowledge that they would not be thrown recklessly into peril, and that their general shared their dangers and tribulations. But they did not feel the same devotion to the great king’s successors, and they would not tolerate incompetence or arrogance. Hence they rebelled against the authority of Perdiccas, rebuffed the entreaties of Ptolemy, and followed Eumenes with a certain reluctance. They had become a pampered and self-centered unit, inclined to influence (and even usurp) authority as often as they obeyed it. In this regard they are precursors of the Roman Praetorian Guard or the streltsy of Tsarist Russia. No doubt the roughly three thousand disgruntled veterans who caused such trouble for the interim epimeletai at Triparadeisus were none other than the Argyraspids.

For the commander, the move against Perdiccas won him the satrapy of Susa, though he was not to spend much time in his territory or in an administrative role. He and the Argyraspids were instructed to convey the treasures from the Persian capital to Cyinda in Cilicia and to guard them there. Perhaps the Argyraspids viewed it as one final mission before they could enjoy the fruits of their long labors. Little did they realize that their retirement would once again be preempted by the political convulsions of the unstable empire. But by this time they were no longer the tools of any general who aspired to supreme power. They would serve again, but only, as they (somewhat naïvely) believed, in the service of the royal house.

The death of Antipater in autumn of 319 gave rise to further disunity, for the dying regent had named as his successor Polyperchon. This man had been a steady phalanx commander in Alexander’s Asiatic expedition, but he was little known in the Macedonian homeland and one might reasonably doubt his political acumen. That, however, was to be revealed in the years that followed, and it is dangerous to assume that others were fully aware of his weakness. Instead, it was a case of Antipater’s son, Cassander, resenting the promotion of Polyperchon to a rank that he regarded as his birthright. And Cassander was able to challenge the man’s authority with the aid of his hetairoi, the longtime followers of Antipater, who may have hoped for greater power and influence with the son. Ultimately it became a struggle not only between the two contenders for the regency but between the rights of Alexander’s son by Roxane and the son and granddaughter of Philip II, Arrhidaeus and his wife Adea-Eurydice.

In 318, on the instructions of Polyperchon, the Argyraspids entered the service of Eumenes of Cardia, whom Antipater and his supporters had outlawed two years earlier. When he met them in Cilicia, Eumenes was careful to appeal to their loyalty to the family of Alexander. He depicted himself as the servant of the deceased king, and pretended to be the equal of the other commanders. The appeal to the authority of Alexander (who was offered proskynesis as a god: Diod. 18.61.2) and the Argead house won over the Silver Shields, who regarded Eumenes “as a man worthy of the solicitude of the kings” (Diod. 18.61.3). Subsequent attempts by agents of Ptolemy (Diod. 18.62.1–2) and Antigonus’s envoy, Philotas, the former satrap of Cilicia, failed to induce the Argyraspids to defect, for, although there were some who were tempted, Antigenes won them back to the cause of the royal house (18.63.1–4). Philotas had persuaded the second-in-command, Teutamus, to change his allegiance, but ultimately it was the forcefulness of Antigenes that prevailed, as well as the fact that “the kings and Polyperchon their guardian, and also Olympias, the mother of Alexander, had written to them that they should serve Eumenes in every way …” (Diod. 18.62.1). This decision proved to be the beginning of untold hardships and a commitment to the Second Diadoch War, which would lead ultimately to their destruction. Eumenes decided not to deal immediately with Antigonus in Asia Minor but instead to win over to his side the satraps of the Middle East and Central Asia. Indeed, these were easily recruited and ready for service, since they had mobilized their troops to meet the threat of Peithon son of Crateuas, who styled himself strategos of the Upper Satrapies and, together with his brother, Eudamus, was to assert his false authority. Eumenes thus became their champion by default, and Antigenes, whose satrapy of Susiana was equally threatened, now found a personal reason for throwing in his lot with the Cardian.

The power struggle between Cassander and Polyperchon in Europe and Antigonus and Eumenes in Asia constituted the Second Diadoch War, and it drew the Argyraspids away from Cilicia and Phoenicia to Mesopotamia and eventually to Susiana, Antigenes’s own satrapy. There he had left the loyal gazophylax Xenophilus, and from the treasures that he guarded the Argyraspids drew pay for six months. But eventually, with Antigonus and his army in pursuit, Eumenes and his supporters made their way to Persepolis and finally the region of Paraetacene (somewhere in the vicinity of Isfahan). There the two armies confronted each other for the first time. We can see in the deployment of Eumenes’s troops the changed role of the Argyraspids. The left side was anchored by six thousand mercenaries, and next to them were stationed five thousand foreign troops equipped and trained in the Macedonian fashion (something that was to become common in the armies of the Hellenistic kings), and next to them the Argyraspids themselves. But instead of forming the articulating force between the infantry and cavalry, as they had done in the battles of Alexander, they now found on their right a new unit of hypaspists (once again three thousand strong), which was entrusted with the responsibility of maintaining contact with the cavalry on that wing. The years had taken their toll on the veterans’ bodies, and they were no longer nimble enough to provide that vital link between phalanx and cavalry; for that purpose a younger force was required. While Eumenes’s horsemen on the right parried the attack of Peithon’s cavalry, the Argyraspids confronted and overpowered Antigonus’s mercenaries, the two units most likely fighting as hoplites versus hoplites. Some historians (cf. Billows 1990: 95) would suggest that “[o]pposite the formidable Silver Shields, Antigonos placed his relatively expendable mercenaries…” But rather than concede defeat at this point in the battle line, Antigonus was probably placing opposite the vaunted veterans his most experienced hoplites (cf. also Griffith 1935: 50).

Although Antigonus’s losses were undoubtedly greater, the battle proved indecisive (for the battle see Devine 1985a; Billows 1990: 94–8; Kromayer and Kahnes 1931; also Delbrück 1990: 1.238–40). We are told that Antigonus, short of supplies, sent the wounded and the heaviest part of the baggage train ahead to a neighboring village (Diod. 19.32.1). Eumenes, drawing on the resources of the satraps in his coalition, is unlikely to have separated the Argyraspids, even temporarily, from their women and children. Diodorus, in the section that follows, speaks of the rivalry of two Indian wives for the honor of performing suttee (on which see Heckel and Yardley 1981), a clear indication that the camp followers remained. Furthermore, the Argyraspids’ later concern for the loss of their dearest possessions makes it unlikely that they would have given up their only remaining comforts at this time.

The final engagement fought by the Argyraspids in the service of the Argead house came in Gabiene, and in the lead-up to the battle Antigenes sent a horseman to bring a message to the Macedonians in Antigonus’s army. It forms a thumbnail sketch of their careers and summarizes their high standing among the Macedonians, to say nothing of their own inflated sense of self-worth.

This man, riding up alone to within earshot opposite the place where the phalanx of Antigonus’s Macedonians were stationed, shouted: “Wicked men, are you sinning against your fathers, who conquered the whole world under Philip and Alexander?” and added that in a little while they would see that these veterans were worthy both of the kings and of their own past battles. At this time the youngest of the Silver Shields were about sixty years old, most of the others about seventy, and some even older; but all of them were irresistible because of experience and strength, such was the skill and daring acquired through the unbroken series of their battles. (Diod. 19.41.1–2, trans. R. Geer)

In the battle that followed they confirmed these words with deeds, and they routed the opposing phalanx, killing over five thousand without a single loss of life on their part (so Diod. 19.43.1). Even when they found themselves deprived of cavalry support—for which they laid the blame on Peucestas—they nevertheless formed a fighting square and extricated themselves from the danger of Peithon’s onrushing horsemen. It might have been regarded as one of their finest achievements on the field of Mars, were it not for the fact that the success they enjoyed was ruined by the loss of their families and possessions.

History remembers them for what happened next. Long-serving and long-suffering defenders of the royal house, the Argyraspids had seen retirement and homecoming taken from them in 323 and 320. Now the only thing of value that remained to them—their wives, their children, and their meager possessions—were in the possession of the enemy. Their loss was too high a price to pay for their loyalty to the inept kings who had become little more than the pawns of Alexander’s marshals. They entered into negotiations with Antigonus and ultimately agreed to exchange their commander for their captive families. Even in this difficult predicament there were those who remained true to the cause, among them their commander, Antigenes. Plutarch (Eumenes 18) makes it clear that the betrayal of Eumenes was the work of Teutamus, but the reputation of both commanders and all the Argyraspids suffered. Our primary source for these events is Hieronymus of Cardia, kinsman and admirer of Eumenes, and not surprisingly the extant sources are uniform in their condemnation of the Argyraspids, as are some modern historians (e.g., Bennett and Roberts 2008: 76).

… [Eumenes] turned from entreaty to anger. “You accursed scoundrels,” he said, “may the gods who punish perjury take note of your conduct and bring you to the end you yourselves have given your leaders. Yes, it was you who a short time ago bespattered yourselves with the blood of Perdiccas and also devised the same fate for Antipater. You would have killed Alexander himself, had Heaven willed that he could die at a mortal’s hand; you did your worst and bedevilled him with mutinies. Now I am the last victim of your treachery and I call down on you this infernal curse: may you spend all eternity exiled to this camp, poverty-stricken and homeless, and may you be destroyed by your own weapons with which you have more often destroyed generals of your own side than those of your enemies. (Justin 14.4.9–14, trans. J. C. Yardley)

Eumenes’s concluding remarks betray Hieronymus’s knowledge of what fate had in store for the majority of the Argyraspids, something that Eumenes himself could not have known. For Antigonus was to hand them over to Sibyrtius, satrap of Arachosia, ordering him to wear them out and destroy them in endless campaigning. Justin further remarks on their extradition of Eumenes as the action of “an army which, through the betrayal of its leader, was itself captive and was now conducting towards the victor’s encampment a triumphal procession in victory over itself” (14.4.16, trans. Yardley).

Antigenes, so often regarded as the villain of this episode, was seized by Antigonus, who placed him in a pit and burned him alive. Such was his reward for opposing Teutamus and the other Silver Shields who were desperate to recover their property. He does not deserve the condemnation of posterity. But, by the same token, it is probably wrong to fault the Silver Shields themselves for their action. If Eumenes did, in fact, curse them and hope that they “spend all eternity exiled to this camp, poverty-stricken and homeless,” he was merely enunciating what had been their lot for these past six or seven years. Cheated of their just rewards, the Argyraspids now clung to the little that was left to them, and they put their families ahead of the leaders who had rendered a lifetime of loyal and difficult service all but meaningless. They responded to Eumenes’s words as follows:

[I]t was not so dreadful a thing, they said, that a pest from the Chersonesus should come to grief for having harassed the Macedonians with infinite wars, as that the best of the soldiers of Philip and Alexander, after all their toils, should in their old age be robbed of their rewards and get their support from others, and that their wives should be spending the third night now in the arms of their enemies. (Plut. Eumenes 18.1, trans. B. Perrin)

As Roisman (2011) observes, it was not at all certain that the betrayal of Eumenes would result in his execution. Antigonus had a number of options and, although Plutarch claims that the general was murdered without Antigonus’s approval (an unlikely scenario), those who surrendered him could not have known what fate awaited Eumenes. So too the claim that the Argyraspids’ future service in the East was meant to destroy them may be wishful thinking on Hieronymus’s part. If nothing else, garrison duty in the solitudes of Asia allowed them to spend time with their families. The remoteness of Central Asia may not have been entirely unappealing to the Argyraspids. One wonders what kind of reception Alexander’s veterans would have received had they returned with Asiatic wives and children of mixed blood.

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