(This is the seventh in a series concerning the Wars of the Diadachi. Part 1 can be read here, and includes comprehensive biographies of the players in this drama. It is strongly advised that you start there before reading on here. Stay tuned to this blog for future installments! Special thanks to Michael Park for his indispensable help in filling in the gaps in the sources and putting-up with my incessant questions!)
The First War of the Diadochi had begun. It pitted Perdiccas against an alliance of Antipater, Craterus, and Ptolemy.
In light of Ptolemy’s actions, seizing Alexander’s body and allying with his enemies in Europe, Perdiccas was forced to reassess his plans. Though he had at his command the Royal Army, and could defeat any other force brought against him by any coalition of satraps; he was now forced to fight on two fronts.
Moving into Europe as he’d planned, and declaring himself king, was out of the question. For one thing, his enemies Antipater and Craterus had a powerful fleet, commanded by White Cleitus; which could block passage across the Hellespont or (further east) at the Bosporus. Even were he to be able to bring a fleet from Phoenicia to aid in crossing into Europe, Craterus and Antipater were supremely skilled generals, with a large and experience army. They knew the land more intimately than did he (Perdiccas had not seen Macedon or Greece since 334, when he’d crossed into Asia with Alexander’s invasion force), and had long-established relations with (or garrisons in) most all of the Greek and Macedonian cities.
They could be expected to maneuver and delay a decisive encounter till it was in their favor; or to buy time while their ally, Ptolemy, sallied forth from Egypt and created chaos and disaffection deep in his rear. Ptolemy, left to his own devices to run amok throughout the empire, might even sway more-and-more satraps in the heart of the empire to rise against Perdiccas as well.
Perdiccas’ (in consultation with his Synhedrion Philoi, his Counsel of Friends) decided to let Antipater and Craterus come to him in Asia for now; while eliminating the weakest member of the coalition, Ptolemy. This made good strategic sense. Let the “Europeans” cross into Asia, which would take time; while he secured his rear and the empire’s heartland by destroying Ptolemy. Then, gathering to his side the eastern satraps, he could return to Anatolia to deal with his other enemies.
Meanwhile, to delay Antipater and Craterus he gave his loyal philos, Eumenes (partial author of most of the current discord) instructions to interfere with Antipater and Craterus’ crossing into Asia; and delay them if they did. The wily Greek, still in Sardis, was given authority over the satrapies that had belonged to Leonnatus and Antigonas (Hellespontine and Greater Phrygia), Asander (Caria), and Menander (Lydia). The first of these satraps was dead; the rest either unreliable or openly in rebellion. This commission gave Eumenes command over most of western Anatolia.
However, Eumenes forces were limited to a small (unknown) number of Macedonians and what he could raise locally, from his own newly conquered satrap of Cappadocia and the Antatolian satrapies loyal to Perdiccas. To help Eumenes maintain their position in Anatolia, Perdiccas further instructed his willful and hotheaded brother, Alcetas, satrap of Pisidia; and Neoptolemus (possibly satrap of Armenia, though that is uncertain) to obey Eumenes, and join their forces to his.
Perdiccas also opened negotiations with the Aetolians; in an attempt to open a second front for his enemies in western Greece. In this he was successful: the following year, they would break the peace they’d made with Antipater and invade Thessaly; overpowering a Macedonian garrison along the way at Amphissa.
PERDICCAS’ EGYPTIAN CAMPAIGN
In early spring of 320, the Royal Army marched first to Cilicia, where Perdiccas arranged the government; removing partisans of Craterus. While there he learned that the various petty-kings of the island of Cyprus had made alliance with Ptolemy, and were besieging the loyal town of Marium. He arranged an expedition to go over to Marium’s relief, and take over the island; comprised of 800 infantry and 500 horse. Sosigenes of Rhodes was appointed as admiral of the fleet of 200 Phoenician ships that would convey the force to Cyprus; Medius of Larissa (who’d been a friend of Alexander’s, and at whose drinking party the late king had first become ill) to command the mercenary foot; and Aristonus the Bodyguard (who we have not heard of since Babylon following the death of Alexander) over-all commander of the expedition.
Not waiting for the outcome of this secondary campaign, Perdiccas and the Royal Army set-off from Cilicia to Damascus; and then south to the Egyptian frontier. With him were Peithon the Bodyguard, satrap of Media and Perdiccas’ senior sub-commander; Seleucus, commanding the cavalry (including the elephants); and Antigenes, who commanded the 3,000-strong Argyraspides (“Silver Shields”), the elite veteran unit of the phalanx. It was a vast force, both military and civilian. With the Regent came the Kings and the Court; a moveable city of courtiers and servants, carried by a vast number of draft animals. Horse, mules and oxen aside, the Royal Elephant herd added its great grey mass to the spectacle. Moving though Syria, the Royal Army passed Gaza; whose walls were still being repaired of the damage done by Alexander’s siege and capture twelve years earlier.
In Egypt, Ptolemy prepared to defend his satrapy. After executing Cleomenes of Naucratis and seizing the treasury he’d hired mercenaries to augment the garrison left in Egypt by Alexander. While he had no chance against the Royal Army in open battle, Ptolemy understood two underlying facts about the coming campaign.
First, that Egypt was essentially an island, protected on all sides by natural obstacles. Deserts protected her on three sides, and the Mediterranean defended it from the north. For the modern reader this mat seem less-than persuasive as measures of formability. After all, modern armies have traversed this very terrain in our memories; and with Perdiccas (and the other Diadochi) possessing fleets of warships and transports, the sea can hardly have been a barrier.
But whereas modern armies rely on petrol for their vehicles (which can carry water and food supplies sufficient to keep their soldiers alive and combat effective), ancient armies relied on water and forage for the draft beasts that carried their food supply. Neither of which were readily available in the desert. The sea approach to Egypt had its own risks. Ancient oar-powed fleets needed to hug the coast, where the crews beached and slept every night. The coast of Sinai, along which a seaborne invasion from Syria must come was rocky and formidable; covered by dangerous shoals and waterless beaches. Antigonas would discover this in 306 BC, when he in turn tried to eliminate Ptolemy from the competition. Once past the desert coasts an invasion force faced the labyrinthine marshes of the Nile Delta; which, as the Sea Peoples discovered when they attacked Egypt during the reign of Pharaoh Ramses III, were difficult to navigate and easy to defend.
Ptolemy, who had been in Egypt now for two years, seems to have understood all this. The only practical way for his enemy, Perdiccas, to gain entry into Egypt was to march by land along the northern coast of Sinai, to the outpost at Pelusium on eastern extreme of the Nile Delta; a fortress garrisoned by Ptolemy. Here he would have to sit down and siege the place, a difficult proposition considering the difficulties of supplying the great royal host in that inhospitable land. Or, he could at that point turn southwest, and arrive at the Nile further down.
The Nile itself posed yet another barrier. A force as large as Perdiccas’ could not cross on a few seized fishing boats. Perdiccas would need to find a ford to cross at; and these Ptolemy knew well and now defended with earthworks manned by well-paid garrisons.
What is more, he had secured all the most important points in Egypt with garrisons of considerable size, which had been well equipped with every kind of missile as well as with everything else.
We don’t have a complete picture of Ptolemy’s strategy for this campaign, but we can assume based on the events as they unfolded that he backed these strong points up with a mobile force led by himself; ready to march to any threatened sector.
At Pelusium the Royal Army halted and established a camp. Here Perdiccas experienced his first set-back: while clearing a canal (that assumedly blocked the army’s approach to the fortress) the “river broke out violently and destroyed his work”. This passage by Diodorus begs the question: was the canal deliberately flooded by the opening of a sluice gate upriver; a stratagem of Ptolemy’s? It was the first of several setbacks that began to erode the army’s confidence in Perdiccas’ leadership.
While Perdiccas was camped by Pelusium, Ptolemy sent men loyal to his cause to infiltrate the Royal Army at night. Wandering through the darkness between the soldier’s campfires, they called out to friends and comrades from better days, sitting around the fires. Being invited to join them, they shared drink with their fellow countrymen, remembered past glories, and quietly reminded them that they faced not enemies; but old friends. These partisans of Ptolemy mentioned how well they faired serving the son of Lagos, who paid on time and treated them not as subjects but as old comrades. This had become a common complaint against Perdiccas: after two years as Regent of the empire he had grown increasingly imperious and high-handed.
Diodorus tells us that men began to desert to Ptolemy in small numbers, including officers.
Macedonian war elephants in the late 4th century were without howdah; and sported a single sarissa-armed Macedonian soldier, along with the Indian mahout. Alexander sent 200 back from India; and most would have survived the journey to take part in the wars that followed.
Abandoning any attempt to secure Pelusium first, Perdiccas now ordered the army to break camp one evening and set out. He disclosed his plans to none. The army moved southeast, to the Nile in search of a crossing point. After marching all night, they came to a place called “The Fort of Camels”; which was defended by earthworks and a garrison. As dawn brightened the sky, Perdiccas ordered the army to force a crossing.
(With) the elephants in the van, then following them the shield-bearers and the ladder-carriers, and others whom he expected to use in the attack on the fort. Last of all came the bravest of the cavalry, whom he planned to send against the troops of Ptolemy if they happened to appear.
As his lead elements were crossing the river to attack the Ptolemaic earthworks on the opposite bank, Ptolemy did indeed appear with his main army. They threw themselves into the earthen fort, the fanfare of trumpets announcing Ptolemy’s arrival to all. Diodorus provides a rousing account of the fighting that day:
At once the shield-bearers set up the scaling ladders and began to mount them, while the elephant-borne troops were tearing the palisades to pieces and throwing down the parapets. Ptolemy, however, who had the best soldiers near himself and wished to encourage the other commanders and friends to face the dangers, taking his long spear and posting himself on the top of the outwork, put out the eyes of the leading elephant, since he occupied a higher position, and wounded its Indian mahout. Then, with utter contempt of the danger, striking and disabling those who were coming up the ladders, he sent them rolling down, in their armor, into the river. Following his example, his friends fought boldly and made the beast next in line entirely useless by shooting down the Indian who was directing it. The battle for the wall lasted a long time, as the troops of Perdiccas, attacking in relays, bent every effort to take the stronghold by storm, while many heroic conflicts were occasioned by the personal prowess of Ptolemy and by his exhortations to his friends to display both their loyalty and their courage. Many men were killed on both sides; such was the surpassing rivalry of the commanders, the soldiers of Ptolemy having the advantage of the higher ground and those of Perdiccas being superior in number. Finally, when both sides had spent the whole day in the engagement, Perdiccas gave up the siege and went back to his own camp.
Morale was understandably low following this reverse. Grumbling was widespread, and no doubt some openly questioned their purpose in attacking Ptolemy. Some even talked of changing sides. Arrian tells us that Perdiccas “treated those who were inclined to go over to Ptolemaeus with great severity, and in other respects behaved in camp more arrogantly than became a general”.
Perdiccas had never been well-liked: his aristocratic temperament grated on the average Macedonian; used to being treated as comrades even by their kings. He failed to comprehend what was becoming the underlying truth of the Successor Wars: that the Macedonian soldiers had no stake in who won these conflicts, and little loyalty to anyone but themselves. They fought because soldiering was all they knew, after a lifetime of campaigning under first Philip, and then Alexander. It was a life spent in marching camps; with only each other, their wives or mistresses and children for company. All they had in way of worldly wealth marched with them; a life-time’s accumulation of plunder and pay. Though they remained remarkably loyal to their native “Argead” dynasty as long as it lasted, they were growing increasingly indifferent to the pedigree of their commander; and even less to his ambitions (beyond his loyalty to the Kings). The successful general who promised great rewards and treated them with respect would be followed, so long as he was successful. But one that administered harsh discipline or demanded unquestioning obedience was risking desertion, mutiny or worse.
Perdiccas must have understood he needed to reverse the momentum of the campaign, which thus far had shifted to Ptolemy. His forces greatly outnumbered that of his enemy. If he could but cross the Nile and bring them to battle in the open field victory was assured. To this end, Perdiccas set out with a “flying column” at night, using the cover of darkness to conceal his movements from enemy observation. The size of his force is unknown, but must have been larger than what he expected Ptolemy to field against him; so perhaps 12-15,000.
Near Memphis, capital of the Egyptian satrapy, Perdiccas again attempted to cross. Here the broad river was divided into an east and a west channel by a broad island; large enough for his army to camp upon. To slow the current and allow the infantry to cross the east channel onto the island, Perdiccas used a trick Alexander had once employed (albeit with horsemen alone). Perdiccas placed his elephants upstream, in a line across the channel, to break the current. Downstream he had horsemen form another line, to catch those men who nevertheless got washed downstream.
By this expedient a vanguard of several thousand passed onto the island. However, the tramping of many feet progressively eroded the soft body of the river bed; causing it to grow deeper-and-deeper. What started as a waist-deep channel became deeper until it was over the heads of the men yet to cross.
Seeing that he could not get the bulk of his army across in this manner, Perdiccas ordered those already on the island to come back across and rejoin the army. The result was disaster.
Many drowned trying to get back. Those who did succeed were mostly those men who could swim, and had to abandon their armor and equipment to do so. Apparently the numbers washed down stream were too great for the horsemen to rescue. Nile crocodiles, larger and more ferocious than those the Macedonians had encountered along the Indus, devoured many of those struggling in the waters; a terrible and demoralizing site for their comrades watching on from the river bank, helpless to save them.
The death toll was over two thousand (half that many being devoured by crocodiles): more men than had been lost in any of Alexander’s battles; and perhaps as many as were lost in all of his four great battles combined. The army, already unhappy with the campaign in general, was now furious at what seemed an unnecessary loss of so many of their comrades.
Ptolemy, for his part, collected what bodies had washed up on his side of the river, and gave them a funeral; cremating the bodies and returning the ashes to their comrades. By this gesture he greatly increased the already high regard in which he was held by the Macedonians.
For the soldiers, this reverse turned out to be the final straw. That night the Royal Camp “was filled with lamentations and mourning, so many men having been senselessly lost without a blow from an enemy”. Greif turned to anger, anger to rage and mutiny; the officers as well as the rank-and-file turning against the Regent’s authority.
Perdiccas was in his tent when three of his senior officers, Peithon, Seleucus, and Antigenes, entered. They came with grim countenance and murder in their eyes. Whatever bodyguard normally defended his person had deserted him, and Perdiccas was left alone to face his killers. Perhaps he fought back, briefly and hopelessly; or perhaps he accepted the inevitable with stoic fatalism.
Detail from the so-called Alexander Sarcophagus from Sidon. For whom it was made is disputed; it was made shortly after Alexander’s death. It shows various scenes of Macedonian soldiers and courtiers. This panel shows the murder of a man by three soldiers. Could this depict the death of Perdiccas?
So died Perdiccas, to whom Alexander had passed his signet ring; and whom had ruled the empire for two years. He had played the “game of thrones” to win, gambling all against his rivals. He had failed through no great failing of generalship; in fact he handled the campaign correctly in many respects. But luck was not with him; and as Napoleon observed, luck plays a very great part in war. His greatest failing was in not understanding better the psychology of his soldiers, and in maintaining their loyalty and confidence.
The next day there was an assembly of the army, to which Ptolemy was invited. He was well received, and brought much-need food supplies for the now hungry soldiers. He refused to step into Perdiccas sandals, as guardian of the Kings (a move that would have instantly alienated his allies, Craterus and Antipater). Instead, he nominated Peithon and Arrhidaeus (the officer who’d aided in the bringing of Alexander’s corpse to Egypt) to be custodians of the Kings; and to command the Royal Army as it returned from Egypt. It is likely that all understood that with Perdiccas gone, primacy now belonged to Craterus or Antipater. As these two had already come to an agreement that Craterus should rule in Asia, the army would return north; and turn the Kings over to the universally popular Craterus, and itself over to his command.
The soldiers agreed enthusiastically to Ptolemy’s proposal. But before they could begin the long march back to Anatolia, word came that there had been a momentous battle between Craterus and Eumenes; that would shake up the chess board and reset the game once again.
NEXT: EUMENES AND CRATERUS
Recommended further reading:
Dividing the Spoils: The War for Alexander the Great’s Empire (Ancient Warfare and Civilization)
 We have no exact number of beasts, but Alexander left India with some 200. How many were lost since then is unknown, but likely few.
 Diodorus, xviii.33.3
 Diodorus may be referring to the “Silver Shields” (Argyraspides); who were originally, before Alexander’s Indian Campaign, called “hypaspists”, which means “shield bearer”. He may also be referring to a new corps of hypaspists that could have been formed to replace the aging Argyraspides in their old role as rapid-moving special purpose infantry. We are told in later passages that in 316 BC, just four years later, that “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.” While still extremely able in the phalanx role, their days as a “special forces” unit were behind them; and though no evidence exists it is very probable that a new unit of hypaspists (“shield-bearers”) had been formed to take their place; and it is these that Diodorus refers to as forming the assault force at the Fort of Camels.
 We have no good count of Ptolemy’s forces in 320, but he is unlikely to have had more than 8,000 under his banner to face Perdiccas’ (estimated) 15-25,000 strong Royal Army. Perdiccas would have had a crushing advantage in cavalry, and Ptolemy at this time had no elephants of his own to oppose the 150-200 in the Royal herd.
 Diodorus xviii.36.3