Perdiccas Storms Thebes

Celebrating the tough deeds of the tough men who once ruled the world.
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You can read about more acts of hardness here

Even without arms this Spartan could stab you to death

Even without arms this Spartan could take you down

Date 335 BC Place Thebes
The One Man Phalanx
PERDICCAS

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The Background
Alexander was now king of Macedon. Next on his list was to be elected Hegemon of Greece. Persuaded by his campaign promises (AKA The Macedonian army) the Greeks duly voted him to the leadership of both the League of Corinth and the Amphictyonic League.
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With the poleis dealt with, Alexander went north to pacify the troublesome tribes on his northern border. He was still in Thrace when he heard that Thebes had, rather stupidly, revolted. A fast march to the Boeotian city followed.
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Alexander of Macedon is one of the hardest men who ever lived. If there was ever a fight to be had, he was there to have it. We must give him his due, though; when he arrived at Thebes he didn’t get stuck into the Thebans straight away. No, he parked his army outside the city and the cadmeia (a citadel, where a Macedonian garrison was trapped behind two palisades and sundry Theban soldiers), and tried to reach a peaceful settlement with them first.
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Don’t mistake this for softness; Alexander wanted to save his men for the bigger and better fight-to-come agains the Persian army.
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Unfortunately for the Thebans, their leaders refused to surrender. What kind of idiots were they? Anti-Alexandrian ones, that’s what. But enough of them, it’s time to turn to Perdiccas and his act of conspicuous hardness.

Alexander on horseback

Alexander on horseback

Army? Where I come from, I don’t need an army
While Alexander was still deciding what to do next, Perdiccas decided he had had enough of waiting for the action to begin. He walked out of his tent, and took a good long look at the palisades ahead of him.
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It couldn’t have been nice to see the sharpened stakes rising claw-like out of the ground, and the gleaming armour behind them; well, if Perdiccas had given a fig, that is, but he was Macedonian. Where you and I would see impossibility, he saw a challenge; so he considered his options. Would he,

  • Lure the troops out from behind their stakes where his battalion could more easily fight them on open ground?
  • Soften the Thebans up with a volley of missiles before marching forward?
  • Simply strap on his armour, grasp his spear and shield, and charge forward himself?

Guess what, he took the third.
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Without waiting to ask Alexander’s permission for his attack, because that would have been far too sensible, Perdiccas called his men together and charged forward. What a sight it must have been for the Thebans, seeing several hundred Macedonian soldiers bear down on them. But surely the palisade will stop these lunatics long enough for us to cut them down with sword, spear and arrow?
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Er, no.
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Perdiccas and his men ran into the palisade and forced their way through it before falling on the defenders. Behind him, Amyntas son of Andromenes saw what was happening and decided that he wanted some of the action, so he came up behind Perdiccas with his own men to give additional support. I daresay Perdiccas would have told him to bugger off had he been able to, but he was too busy liberating limbs from bodies and dealing death to any Theban stupid enough to come close to him.
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By now, Alexander had been alerted to what was going on. Determined not to let Perdiccas get trapped behind the Thebans’ lines he ordered his archers and Agrianes forward. Meanwhile, Perdiccas had successfully slashed and stabbed his way to the second palisade; it was here that he got himself so seriously injured that after he was brought back to the Macedonian camp it was touch-and-go as to whether the doctors would be able to save him.
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But not only did Perdiccas survive his one man assault of Thebes, he survived the whole of Alexander’s expedition. Indeed, when he was finally killed, it wasn’t an enemy sword or spear that got him but traitors in his own camp. Bastards.
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Devil’s Advocate
My main source for this post is Arrian; and his principle source was Ptolemy who, in the wars following Alexander’s death, would be Perdiccas’ implacable enemy. He may even had a hand in Perdiccas’ assassination. Either way, he certainly had no interest in portraying Perdiccas in a positive light* but as an impetuous, arrogant and maverick general whose actions compromised as much as helped Alexander.
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Also, Diodorus says that Perdiccas attacked the Theban palisade on Alexander’s orders which, if true, reduces the manliness of his action substantially as it introduces elements of organisation, planning, and sensible behaviour into the equation.
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Rating of Hard: 8/10
Pro: Acting without orders, high chance of failure, survived serious injury
Contra: Had back-up, wore armour, withdrew from field due to injury
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J. R. Hamilton, in his introduction to my edition of Arrian (Penguin Classics, 1971), refers to Ptolemy’s ‘apparent systematic denigration of Perdiccas

Categories: Muscular Macedonians | Tags: , | 3 Comments

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3 thoughts on “Perdiccas Storms Thebes

  1. I like your ideas of looking at Alexander’s and post Alexander’s times from so many different perspectives.

    Of course it gladdens my heart that you started this particular topic with my most favorite (after Hephaistion) of Alexander’s generals. As you pointed out, we don’t know for sure whether Perdiccas attacked Thebes on Alexander’s orders or it was his own initiative but I wonder if you have a personal opinion on the matter?

    If you ask me, I am undecided but the fact that Perdiccas didn’t suffer any reprisals (that we know of) from Alexander, tilts it a little in favor of prearranged matter. No doubt in my mind that Ptolemy used any opportunity to belittle and denigrate Perdiccas but was is possible that he simply wasn’t aware of that arrangement? As they say, need-to-know basis and Alexander didn’t consider that Ptolemy needed to know?

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  2. Hi Delos,

    Thank you! I’m glad to have begun with someone you like 🙂 I’ll be returning to Perdiccas in the Sources Speak posts in due course.

    In regards your question: In my view, the Macedonian army was very disciplined but only for its age. Compared to today’s armies, it was still very undisciplined, and the soldiers were capable of exhibiting very maverick behaviour. It would not surprise me, therefore, if Perdiccas did act of his own accord.

    However, as the story comes from Ptolemy and not Diodorus I do have doubts as to its truthfulness. To the best of my knowledge, Perdiccas displayed no further impulsive behaviour during Alexander’s life (and certainly not afterwards) so, unless I do read of any, I think I will lean on the side of ‘he acted on Alexander’s orders’.

    AOS

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  3. PS: I think you are right about Ptolemy not necessarily knowing whether the attack was authorised, as he was still a junior officer, then. I’m sure he could have found out later the truth behind the matter, though.

    PPS: I personally wouldn’t use the fact that Perdiccas was not censured by Alexander for attacking the palisades without telling him as proof that this is how it happened; As Alexander rewarded his enemies who fought bravely against him, I don’t think he would have found it hard to reward his officers who fought with courage even if they had done so against his wishes, or rather, without telling him.

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