The ordinary men of Alexander’s phalanx
by Murray Dahm
Most of the ordinary men of the phalanx of Alexander the Great remain anonymous. We know the names of the commanders of the six taxeis of the phalanx at almost every battle (sixteen in total are named – Craterus, Perdiccas, Meleager, Amyntas, Coenus, and others) and the men, like Cleitus, Hephaestion, Parmenion, Nicanor, and others who were commanders of cavalry units or more senior commanders. The individuals who made up the 9,000 plus men of the phalanx itself, however, remain largely nameless.
One exception to this general anonymity comes in a contest of military valour called for by Alexander after the battle of Gaugamela and leaving Babylon in the account of Curtius Rufus (History of Alexander the Great 5.2.4-5). There is no parallel account in Arrian, Diodorus, Plutarch or any other source of Alexander’s campaigns.
Contest of valour
According to Curtius, when Alexander had left Babylon and entered the territory of Sittacene, in order that the men might not be idle and lose spirit, he organised a contest of military valour. Accounts of bravery so far in the campaign would be delivered before witnesses and judges, and it would be decided which men had been bravest. And those judged the bravest would thereafter be given command of 1,000 men, a chiliarchy according to Curtius. Curtius tells us that a “great throng of soldiers had assembled to take part in this illustrious contest, both to act as witnesses of the deeds of each entrant, and to give their opinion” (5.2.4). The men themselves had, of course, seen the deeds being judged and so could attest to the accuracy or falsehood of any claims being made.
An ordinary phalangite from the tomb of Agios Athanasios, Thessaloniki, Greece
Curtius tells us that the first prize for valour was awarded to old Atarrhias (called senior but later senex “old”) “who before Halicarnassus, when the battle was abandoned by the younger men, had been chiefly instrumental in arousing them to action” (5.2.5). Since Curtius’ account in book 1 does not survive, we must turn to Diodorus’ account to see where this occurred. Diodorus tells us (17.27.1-2) that, during the fighting at Halicarnassus when the defenders had the upper hand:
“Just at that moment as the men from the city were prevailing, the tide of battle was surprisingly reversed. For the oldest Macedonians, who were exempt from combat duty by virtue of their age, but who had served with Philip on his campaigns and had been victorious in many battles were roused by the emergency to show their valour, and, being far superior in pride and war experience, sharply rebuked the faintheartedness of the youngsters who wished to avoid the battle. Then they closed ranks with their shields overlapping and confronted the foe, who thought himself already victorious.”
The siege of Halicarnassus
We can note that Diodorus does not name any individual in his account but identifies the “oldest Macedonians.” This account is different from the one found in Arrian (Anabasis 1.22.1-7) where he states that Alexander brought his siege engines against the walls of the city (his second attempt) and a mass sortie by the defenders was made. One contingent attacked where Alexander was near a breach in the outer wall, others attacked near the triple gate “where the Macedonians did not at all expect them” (1.22.1).
The men attacking near Alexander attempted to set fire to the engines but were repulsed and suffered many casualties, especially as it was difficult to retreat back through the breach in great numbers and many were caught there. The defenders who attacked at the triple gate were met by Ptolemy, a somatophylas o Basilikos (“royal bodyguard”) who had units of allied infantry commanded by Timander and Addaeus and some light psiloi troops. We are told that these men put the sallying defenders to rout but, as they fled, the bridge they had made over the ditch broke under their weight and many were killed; by the fall or by the Macedonians or the fact the gates were shut early and the men were stranded outside the city.
The city was nearly captured but Alexander called the army to withdraw to see if the city would surrender. Arrian’s account does not mention any Macedonian reversal at which Atarrhias (or the old Macedonians) could have performed his/their brave deed, nor does he name anyone other than commanders of contingents. He does tell us that the Macedonians lost forty men “among whom were Ptolemy, one of the king’s body-guards, Clearchus, the commander of the archers, Addaeus, who had the command of a thousand infantry, and other Macedonians of no mean position” (1.22.7). Arrian recorded officers who lost their lives but generally does not name anyone of lower rank.
Alexander and more common Macedonian soldiers on the Alexander Sarcophagus.
There is no reversal in Arrian’s account, and we can note that he only names commanders of units of men. Diodorus does mention the reversal and its correction by the elderly soldiers although he, too, does not name Atarrhias. Their actions and his, however, suggest that they were the men in the rear rank of the phalanx which later Tactica manuals tell us were the ouragoi the “file closers” who oversaw the whole syntagma and made sure that the men of the unit did not desert their posts and, if they did waver, forced them back into their positions (Aelian Tactica 14.8). Aelian states that “it is a great source of strength to a unit to have a senior commander not just in front but also in the rear” (Tactica 14.9).
Both Curtius and Diodorus’ accounts make it possible, even probable that Atarrhias was an ouragos. Atarrhias lived and fought on, and is brought up again in the fateful speech by Cleitus just before Alexander struck him down (Curtius 8.1.36): “You scorn the soldiers of Philip, forgetting that if old Atarrhias here had not called back the younger men when they shrank from battle, we should still be lingering around Halicarnassus.” Arrian’s account of the argument (4.8) and Cleitus’ death is much truncated (although he followed Aristobulus at this point) but he does not mention Atarrhias.
Second award for valour went to Antigenes (later, one of the commanders of the argyraspides “Silver Shields” and given the satrapy of Susiana after Alexander’s death). Next was Philotas of Augaea (possibly Aegae), a man otherwise unknown, and we are not given details of when he performed his heroic deed, but he may have been a common soldier, possibly a cavalryman, or commanding a section of a siege (see below).
The frescoes of Agios Athanasios' tomb, dating to the fourth century BC, show ordinary Macedonian soldiers and various items of kit and uniform.
Fourth place in valour was Amyntas. Curtius has eight individuals named Amyntas in his account (it was a very common Macedonian name) and he does not tell us which one of them this was. He may have been the taxis commander Amyntas who led his unit at all of Alexander’s battles until his death in 430 (Arrian 3.27.3). He was the most prominent Amyntas, so may be meant. Fifth was Antigonus, commander of Alexander’s allied infantry (and already one-eyed) and who had commanded under Alexander’s father, Philip (he was the same age as Philip), and would contest for Alexander’s empire after his death.
The last three men awarded prizes for valour give us a further glimpse into the everyday men of Alexander’s army.
In sixth place was ajudged Lyncestes Amyntas (his name occurs nowhere else), in all likelihood from the region of Lyncestis. Most likely, therefore, he was a pezhetairos of the taxis of Orestae and the Lyncestae. There were six taxeis in the Macedonian phalanx, one each from a region (or regions) of Macedon, commanded by officers also from the same region. We do not know all the regions, however.
Diodorus Siculus gives us the names of three of the territorial divisions: the taxis of Elimiotis, the taxis of the Orestae and the Lyncestae, and the taxis of Stymphaeans (Diodorus 17.57.2–3). Curtius too (4.13.28) mentions the Orestae and Lyncestae. As such we might guess at the other regional taxeis. The regions of Upper Macedon included Elimiotis with Tymphaea, Lyncestis, Orestis, Pelagonia with Derriopus, Eordaea, Antintania and Dassaretis (Lane Fox (2011): 95). The reasonable assumption that this Amyntas was in the taxis of Orestae and the Lyncestae, means we can tell he was in the taxis commanded by Perdiccas (Diodorus tells us that he commanded the taxis of Orestae and the Lyncestae at 17.57.2).
What is more, Perdiccas commanded that taxis in all the battles up to Gaugamela and beyond, so we know where this Lyncestes Amyntas probably fought in each of those battles. Although his moment of bravery is not singled out, there are ample opportunities in the accounts of each battle where he may have performed his heroic deed. Perdiccas’ taxis was stationed in the vital position on right of the phalanx at the Granicus (Arrian 1.14.2–3) and second from right-most at the Issus (Arrian 2.8.3–4) and Gaugamela (Arrian 3.11.9–10, Diodorus 17.57.2-3).
A compilation of the frescoes from the Tomb of Agios Athanasios.
More events at Halicarnassus
In seventh place for valour was Theodotus, but we do not know where he served or why he won a prize. In eighth place was Hellanicus although, again, no details are given of his deeds. A Hellanicus is mentioned by Arrian in his account of the siege of Halicarnassus (1.21.5) and this may be the same man. He tells us that, at Halicarnassus, two (unnamed) men from Perdiccas’ taxis quarrelled while drinking about which of them was the braver. As a contest to decide the issue, they agreed to go armed against the citadel of the city.
Since there were only two of them, men in the city attacked them but the Macedonians killed the first men who came against them. More and more men came from the city to attack and the two Macedonians were forced back. Other men from Perdiccas’ taxis had seen them, however, and came to reinforce them and this escalated into a larger contest near the wall of the city. This resulted in the city very nearly being captured.
The day following this incident, Alexander brought his siege engines up to the wall and the men from the city made a sally to set fire to them. The engines were protected by two men, Philotas and Hellanicus “to whom the charge of them had been committed” (1.21.5). It is unclear if this is the same Hellanicus (or indeed if the Philotas of Augaea is this Philotas) as Curtius mentions. This was the first attempt and the siege of the city continued as detailed above (although, as we saw, Curtius’, Diodorus’ and Arrian’s accounts differ). We can note that Arrian does not name the two men of Perdiccas’ taxis and gives Hellanicus and Philotas positions of command. It is not clear in Curtius if these men were commanders of any kind. What is more, it would seem peculiar after Gaugamela if three of the awards for valour were given for actions at the siege of Halicarnassus, unless that was considered some of the hardest fighting the Macedonians had faced.
Recounting the same incident, Diodorus does not name Hellanicus but does name the loss of one Neoptolemus: “some of the Macedonians were killed at the very gates, among them an officer Neoptolemus, a man of distinguished family” (17.25.5).
Diodorus uses hegemon (“one who leads”) of Neoptolemus so he was probably a junior officer, possibly a file-leader (a lochagos). This is, however, an entirely different account than that which Arrian gives (1.20.10). Neoptolemus was the brother of Amyntas, son of Arrabaeus (another of the many men named Amyntas), who eventually deserted to Darius - 1.12.7; 1.14.1; 1.28.4). Diodorus’ version is often rejected since Amyntas had not yet deserted but continued to serve Alexander without coming under suspicion – unlikely if his brother had already deserted – and so Arrian’s account is favoured). Arrian does tell us that Neoptolemus died at Halicarnassus but that he was “one of those who had deserted to Darius” (1.20.10). If Diodorus’ version is right, however, and even though we do not know what command position Neoptolemus held, he is one of the few men named who held one of the command positions below that of taxiarch. There seems reason to trust Diodorus’ version in that, even when Amyntas, son of Arrabaeus, deserted (Arrian 1.25.3), Alexander of Lyncestis (the brother of Arrabaeus) continued in his king’s service without mishap after his brothers had been executed for treason.
These five named men: Atarrhias, Philotas of Auegea, Lyncestes Amyntas, Theodotus and Hellanicus, (possibly a sixth in Neoptolemus) therefore, are among the only individual ordinary soldiers we hear about in all the campaigns of Alexander. To these we can add the two anonymous members of Perdiccas’ taxis at Halicarnassus mentioned by Arrian. The thousands of others remain anonymous although the deeds they contributed to live on.
Lane Fox, R.J. (ed.), Brill's Companion to Ancient Macedon: Studies in the Archaeology and History of Macedon, 650 BC-300 AD. Brill: Leiden (2011)