Johnny Shumate illustrations


The Argyraspids are perhaps the most famous (and notorious) fighting unit in the history of Alexander’s Successors. They are hardened, and cantankerous, veterans, numbering three thousand and commanded by Antigenes and a previously unattested Teutamus. Robert Lock proposed that they were, in fact, newly formed at Triparadeisus in 320 and assigned the task of conveying the Susan treasures to Cilicia under the command of Antigenes (Lock 1977). But this argument fails on a number of counts. That the argyraspides are the former hypaspists of Alexander is clear, and it is perverse to think otherwise (see Heckel 1982, 1992: 309–10). Diodorus (17.57.2) and Curtius (4.13.27) refer to the hypaspists at Gaugamela anachronistically as Argyraspids, showing that their common source was aware of their later history. The nominal strength of the Argyraspids was, like that of hypaspists, three thousand, and both units were named for their shields (aspides). Antigenes, the chief commander of the Argyraspids, was also a hypaspist commander. And, finally, the troops of Antigenes were among those who returned with Craterus, first from India via the Mullah Pass (Arr. Anab. 6.17.3, where we find a large number of apomachoi) and then from Opis along with the demobilized veterans (Justin 12.12.8).

The exact point at which the hypaspists began to adorn their armor with silver and took the name argyraspides is uncertain. We do know that the change occurred in the Indian campaign, which began in the spring of 327. Curtius (8.5.4) says that, on the eve of the Indian expedition, Alexander “added silver-plating to his soldiers’ shields, gave their horses golden bits and ornamented their cuirasses with either gold or silver” because he had heard of the splendid arms found among the Indians. This remark is echoed by Justin 12.7.5) who says that the entire army was called argyraspides (exercitumque suum ab argenteis clipeis Argyraspidas appellavit). But this is nonsense: there would have been no point in calling a unit the “Silver Shields” if all soldiers carried shields plated with silver. Furthermore, it seems remarkable that, within a year and half, this splendid army should have found itself at Hyphasis “in rags” and Coenus, as the spokesman of the troops, could claim: “Our weapons are already blunt; our armour is wearing out” (Curt. 9.3.10). It may be, however, that the reference to the assumption of new armor is anachronistic. We are told that after the Hyphasis mutiny the army returned to the Hydaspes, where they found twenty-five thousand new suits of armor that had been brought from the west (Curt. 9.3.21; Diod. 17.95.4).

Finally, it is noteworthy that, after the creation of the Silver Shields, the Alexander historians continue to refer to hypaspists in the king’s army. This is exactly what we should expect, but we must be clear that these were the troops who replaced Philip’s veterans in this capacity. When Alexander took the army through the Gedrosian desert, he had with him the hypaspists, even though Antigenes (and one must assume that he was then leading the Argyraspids) accompanied Craterus into Drangiana via the Mullah Pass. Hence we find that, after the dismissal of the Argyraspids from Opis in 324, a full contingent of hypaspists remained with Alexander at the time of his death in the following year and continued to serve in the Royal Army under Perdiccas.


Command of the entire unit belonged, as we have noted above, to the archihypaspistes (Nicanor son of Parmenion from 334 to 330; Neoptolemus from 330 until 323). But Curtius 5.2.3–5 speaks of a reorganization of command in Sittacene in 331, claiming that new commanders of chiliarchies were selected on the basis of valor. The so-called contest was, however, not one in which individuals engaged in combat (as in the case of funeral games). Instead, it amounted to oral testimony given by others concerning the merits of certain individuals (particularly, notable accomplishments in the past), followed by the decision of judges. At this point, it is worth quoting Curtius in full:

Those adjudged to possess the greatest valour would win command of individual units of a thousand men and be called “chiliarchs.” This was the first time the Macedonian troops had been thus divided numerically, for previously there had been companies of 500, and command of them had not been granted as a prize of valour. A huge crowd of soldiers had gathered to participate in this singular competition, both to testify to each competitor’s exploits and to give their verdict to the judges—for it was bound to be known whether the honour attributed to each man was justified or not. The first prize of honour went to Atarrhias for his bravery; it was he who had done most to revive the battle at Halicarnassus, when the younger men had given up the fight. Antigenes was judged second, Philotas the Augaean gained third place, and fourth went to Amyntas. After these came Antigonus, then Amyntas Lyncestes, Theodotus gaining seventh…and Hellanicus last place. (Curt. 5.2.3–5; see further the textual problem in 5.2.2, noted by Atkinson 1994: 57; also Atkinson 1987)

But Curtius cannot be right in assigning to each of the nine victors the rank of chiliarches, nor is it plausible to assume that these reforms involved the phalanx battalions of the pezhetairoi (thus Milns 1967 and Atkinson 1987). To begin with, it is clear that the individuals in question are all men of relatively humble birth. Of the eight names that have survived only one is attested elsewhere with a patronymic: Atarrhias son of Deinomenes (Plut. Mor. 339b; Heckel 2006: 60). Those of this group who can be identified are all associated with the hypaspists, a unit which had been organized into chiliarchies since the beginning of the Asiatic campaign, if not earlier. And this was the very unit that was recruited on the basis of physique, fighting qualities, and merit. To put men of this social class in command of territorial levies, who had a long tradition of serving under their aristocratic leaders, would be unheard of and unacceptable to the troops themselves. Hence Curtius must have confused the nature of this reorganization. Instead of selecting chiliarchs to command enlarged formations, Alexander was now designating both chiliarchs and pentakosiarchs on the basis of merit.

In fact, the three chiliarchies of the hypaspists, each with two pentakosiarchies, would require exactly nine officers at these two levels. Hence we may conclude that Atarrhias, Antigenes, and Philotas the Augaean (possibly, “Aegaean”) were appointed chiliarchs. Not surprisingly we find that, in the following year, the most prominent individual associated with the hypaspists is none other than Atarrhias. And it was Antigenes who attains prominence in India and is the commander of the Argyraspids, the unit into which the hypaspists had been transformed (in India). About Philotas we know nothing, but it is unlikely that he is the famous infantry commander who later served briefly as satrap of Cilicia (Heckel 2006: 219; “Philotas [6]”). The remaining six served as pentakosiarchs under their respective chiliarchs.


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.

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