The Macedonian Army’s Formation

Daily Diodorus
Vol. VIII. Book XVII Ch. 56, 57 (Loeb Classical Library)
Read the other posts in this series here

The Headlines
Alexander Oversleeps
Macedonian Army Forms Up Against Persians

The Story

Chapter 56
That night, Alexander lay in his bed pondering the size of the Persian army and the ‘decisive nature of the impending battle’. Whichever army was the strongest would win the day, and win everything. But which would triumph? Alexander didn’t know and this uncertainty kept him awake until the early hours of the next day when his concern finally gave way to sleep.

Dawn came and went and Alexander slept on. This pleased his Friends who thought ‘that the king would be all the keener for the battle’ if he woke up well rested.

However, as the sun continued its rise in the east, Alexander continued to sleep. Parmenion used his authority as Alexander’s second-in-command to order the Macedonian army ‘to make ready for the battle’. The other Friends, meanwhile, entered Alexander’s bed chamber to try and rouse him. After some effort, it seems, they succeeded.

The Friends were astonished at Alexander’s ability to rest for so long. How could he be so unconcerned? Alexander replied that Darius ‘had freed him from all anxiety by assembling all his forces into one place’. This day would decide everything, ‘and they would be saved toils and dangers extending over a long period of time’.

No doubt after completing his toilette and eating, Alexander called his officers together and gave a rousing speech. By now his army was ready to move. He lead it towards the Persian line. As at the Granicus River and Issus, the cavalry rode ahead of the infantry.

Chapter 57
Diodorus dedicates this chapter to giving an account of the formation of the Macedonian army and a brief explanation of how it approached the Persian force.

Cavalry from Right to Left

  • Royal Squadron under Black Cleitus
  • Friends under Philotas son of Parmenion
  • Seven squadrons also under Philotas son of Parmenion
  • Peloponnesians and Achaeans under Erygius of Mitylene
  • Phthiotes and Malians also under Erygius of Mitylene
  • Locrians and Phocians also under Erygius of Mitylene
  • Thessalians under Philip

Diodorus states that Alexander placed Cretan archers and Achaian archers ‘next’ to the Thessalians.

Infantry from Right to Left

  • Silver Shields under Nicanor son of Parmenion (behind the Royal Squadron, Friends and seven squadrons)

Diodorus classes the following as battalions

  • Elimiotes under Coenus
  • Orestae and Lyncestae under Perdiccas
  • Unidentified battalion under Meleager
  • Stymphaeans under Polyperchon
  • Unidentified battalion under Philip son of Balacrus
  • Unidentified battalion under Craterus

The Persian army was much larger than the Macedonian; to prevent the enemy from outflanking him, Alexander ‘kept his wings back’ from the front line. His response to the threat posed by the scythed chariots was to order the infantry to clash their shields when the chariots approached in order to scare their horses into turning back.

If that didn’t work, the men were told to simply move to one side and allow the chariots to pass through the gap. The horses and their riders would then be sitting ducks (my phrase not Alexander’s!) for Macedonian sling and spear.

As usual for the king, Alexander himself rode on the right wing with the royal squadron.

Finally, Diodorus says that Alexander moved the army forward in an oblique (i.e. slanted) line – he wanted to get to the Persians first and ‘settle the issue of the battle by his own actions’.

First of all – I have had to guess at one or two of the proper nouns above. Apologies if you see any incorrect ones (let me know in the comments if you do and I’ll amend the post).

The story of Alexander oversleeping is a very good one. The fact that he couldn’t sleep for worry shows his humanity in a very simple and perfect way.

For me, Chapter 57 is notable for who it omits to mention for as much as who it does. For example, where is Hephaestion? He may have been Alexander’s closest friend but it seems that – according to Diodorus – at Guagamela he was not yet senior enough to command a battalion of the Macedonian army.

I was a little surprised that Diodorus didn’t give Parmenion’s location. It appears from Chapter 60, however, that he was fighting on the left wing next to the Thessalian cavalry. Being Alexander’s deputy he was probably in overall charge of the left wing.

Those of you who know Alexander’s army well will have noticed an anachronism in Diodorus’ desciption of it. According to the Footnotes, ‘Silver Shields’ only came into use as a term to describe the hypaspistae (Shield Bearers) during the diadoch period. It originated from the ‘introduction of silver and gold trappings in 327′ presumably on the soldiers’ shields.

From Alexander’s Crusade by Professor Tufton Frobisher-Smythe (OUP 1902)
The Battle of Gaugamela is sometimes referred to as The Battle of Arbela in deference to the village of that name, near which Alexander and Darius III clashed. However, Gaugamela is the more accurate name as that is where the two armies actually were.

That the battle should be called The Battle of Gaugamela is highlighted in certain early manuscripts of Arrian’s history where he refers to an another battle that really did take place at Arbela even as Alexander and Darius were fighting one another a few miles away. The combatants were a number of Macedonians and Persians. Arrian writes,

“The men on both sides were stragglers. Messengers had previously come from the main army of both kings and told them to make for Arbela ‘as that is where all would be decided’. So they did. Of course, the messengers meant Gaugamela but the men did not realise this. Thus, when they arrived outside Arbela and saw each other both assumed that the enemy in front of them were the sole survivors of a mighty battle that had already taken place. That there were no bodies nearby did not occur to anyone as reason to doubt this assumption. As a result of this mistake, the stragglers decided to fight each other for the honour of their late kings and country. The Macedonians won and claimed the Persian Empire for themselves. They were very disappointed when messengers from the main army reappeared to tell them what had happened at Gaugamela.”

An undeniably curious episode that no other ancient historian mentions. Did it really happen? Or was Ptolemy (or Arrian for that matter) drunk when he wrote it?

Categories: Diodorus Siculus | Tags: , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

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4 thoughts on “The Macedonian Army’s Formation

  1. I don’t remember this story of the straggles, it’s a curious one.

    You are right, Hephaistion is not mentioned among the commanders but neither is Ptolemy……Whatever the reason, it looks like Perdiccas alone, among Alexander’s friends who were more or less the same age as the king, had an early independent command (since Thebes). No wonder that Ptolemy, quite older, was resentful.

    I once read this explanation about “preferred” usage of Arbela vs Gaugamela. Gaugamela means “camels’ stables” which by some considered not heroic/poetic enough to be the name of such a major and decisive battle. This is why nearby Arbela was sometimes used instead.

    Noticing Nicanor’s name (son of Parmenion), I wanted to ask your opinion. It is sometimes said that Nicanor was “lucky” to die when he did or he would be the purged together with Parmenion after the trial of Philotas. My opinion is 180 degrees opposite. I think that if Nicanor was still alive (and of course not very obviously connected to Philotas’ betrayal/stupidity), Alexander not only wouldn’t touch him but also leave Parmenion alive. Impossible to know for sure, but what do you think?


    • Hallo Delos,

      As for the stragglers – I am sure you have kept in mind where in the post that ‘exclusive’ has been placed and what other types of writing in this series have proceeded it there!

      It really is interesting to see who is and isn’t mentioned. As I write this I don’t have my books in front of me so can’t speak with confidence; however, I’m going to stick my neck out and say that in my opinion, the list of names represents the last hurrah for Philip’s generation of officers.

      To be sure, the only person that I know for sure was one of Philip’s men is Black Cleitus, although I am pretty sure Polyperchon was as well. I could be completely wrong about the two Philips, Coenus, Meleager and Craterus but I am willing to say otherwise. If I have time later, I’ll look them up in Heckel’s Who’s Who to see if I’m right (if, that is, we know their ages).

      I would add Erygius to the otherwise short list of young officers. It wouldn’t surprise me if he was the only one to have his command on merit. There must be a chance that Perdiccas got his through his father.

      Why Alexander might have chosen Erygius over Hephaestion is a more interesting question for me than why he never picked Ptolemy who, I get the feeling, was a late bloomer as an officer. Perhaps Hephaestion really was a better diplomat than soldier but I don’t accept that; I think it is more likely that both were good but that at that moment, Erygius was better.

      I’m sure I have seen the same reason for the us of Arbela/Gaugamela. What you say does sound familiar.

      Regarding Nicanor – I would agree with you. As you say, it is impossible to know for sure what would have happened, but we do have the example of Alexander of Lyncestis. Two of his brothers were executed for no less an offence than conspiracy to murder Philip II; Alexander Lyncestis himself had a claim on the Macedonian throne. King Alexander had, therefore, two very good reasons to eliminate him but didn’t. Admittedly, he did later but the fact that he let him live in 338 shows that simply to be related to criminals/people Alexander wanted out of the way wasn’t an automatic death sentence.

      I agree also – Parmenion only died because his last remaining son did. Had Nicanor lived there would have been no reason to kill his father.


      • Good point about Lyncestrian brothers as a proof for what we both agree would be Alexander’s decision regarding Nicanor/Parmenion if Nicanor had been still alive at the time of Philotas’ affair.

        I like your idea that Gaugamela was the last hurrah for Philip’s officers. However, I meant more age than the fact who appointed that or this officer. I think there was that generation between Philip and Alexander who were active military before Alexander became a king (though I course I assume all of Alexander’s friends were Chaeronea). Polyperchon for sure was Philip’s man. Erigyius was one of the “older” Alexander’s friends who got exiled after Pixodarus affair, Krateros, Meleagros, Philip son of Balacrus and Ptolemy are all some 10 years older than Alexander, Hephaistion, Perdiccas and Leonnatus. I presume Seleucus was still virtually unknown at the time.

        I think you know by now my weakness for Perdiccas, so I am not going to press further his advantage….:) but I am intrigued by your phrase that he got his assignments due to his father. I never heard his father mentioned except in the phrase, Perdiccas, son of Orontes. Am I missing something?

        I don’t think either that Hephaistion lacked military abilities but I think Alexander used his people where he considered them needed most. Even Hephaistion’s later appointment to the companion cavalry together with Kleitos was not simply because he could do it from military standpoint but more so because Alexander could trust him blindly.The king had a lot of talented generals but I guess few diplomats and organizers. Take example of Eumenus, he was stuck in secretary position from the end of Philip’s reign through all years of Alexander’s conquest and then after the king’s death managed to defeat Krateros, and that was not his only victory. But what was exactly Ptolemy’s area of expertize?…. Sorry, couldn’t restrain myself. 🙂


  2. Delos,

    I just had a quick look at Heckel and he says that Seleucus probably succeeded Hephaestion to command of the Royal Hypaspists in 330 when the latter was promoted to hipparch following Philotas’ death.

    The Royal Hypaspists were Shield Bearers. I wonder if they were a separate unit to the one lead by Nicanor or if he was Hephaestion’s commanding officer at the time?

    Either way, even though Diodorus and the other historians don’t mention Seleucus much before India, it’s safe to say he was not unknown to Alexander.

    I also just looked up Erygius and Heckel says he was probably born c. 380 so he definitely wasn’t a young officer at Gaugamela!

    When I said Perdiccas got his position through his father, that’s a mistake – sorry – I meant Philotas.

    I don’t believe Alexander had a blind faith in Hephaestion. I don’t believe the king was a sentimentalist when it came to appointments. I go with the idea that Hephaestion got the job, yes, because Alexander knew he could do it, but also because he represented the progressive wing of the Macedonian hierarchy just as Cleitus represented the traditionalists.

    Eumenes is an incredible figure. How can one go from secretarial role to being not just a good general but great one almost overnight?!

    As for Ptolemy – as his promotions in the east and Successor career showed he was a very good soldier. It is a mystery to me how someone with his ability can take so long to rise up; however, sometimes it can take people a while to prove themselves.

    If I can take your question seriously just for a moment I think his area of expertise was his charisma; I’ve seen him described as a straight down the line kind of man, perhaps a bit dull, but I think the opposite was the case. I’m basing this opinion on what I’ve read in Diodorus about him. I also think he had more political insight than any of the other successors.

    For me, Perdiccas is a frustrating case. He was obviously a very good general, perhaps even a great one, but he appeared to lack charisma and that cost him after the disaster on the Nile.



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