IV. Joint-Command of the Companion Cavalry
Read the other posts in this series
Alexander split the Companions into two separate divisions and appointed, respectively, Hephaestion son of Amyntor and Cleitus son of Dropidas to command them.
The appointment of Hephaestion and Black Cleitus as joint-commanders of the Companion Cavalry was necessitated by the death of its previous leader – Philotas.
Waldemar Heckel takes a cynical view of Hephaestion’s appointment, calling it ‘a blatant case of nepotism involving a relatively inexperienced officer’. This is why, according to him, Hephaestion was only given command of half the Companion Cavalry.
For his part, Arrian is quite clear about why Alexander split the command between the two men. ‘The reason for this step’, he says,
was that he did not think it advisable that one man – even a personal friend – should have control of so large a body of cavalry – especially as the Companions were the most famous and formidable of all his mounted troops
Arrian’s view makes perfect sense. Philotas was dead. Whether or not he died a traitor or an innocent man doesn’t matter; he was dead and Alexander had to consider the possibility that the next commander of the Companion Cavalry might take advantage of his men’s anger and grief at the loss of his predecessor, and use it to launch a second conspiracy.
The way Arrian presents the story, Alexander split the Companion Cavalry to protect himself against treachery even from Hephaestion. Given what we know of their friendship, it seems hardly creditable that Alexander should have such a fear, but who knows what the state of his mind after the Philotas affair was. Maybe he really was sufficiently unnerved to want to guard against every – no matter how unlikely – eventually.
Either way, I am not convinced by Heckel’s assertion a. To the best of my knowledge, Alexander was not given to acts of nepotism b. Hephaestion was not ‘a relatively inexperienced officer’. How could he having been part of the expedition since its beginning?
What do the other historians say about Hephaestion’s appointment? Actually, nothing. Unless I have missed a reference (do let me know if I have!), Arrian is the only person to mention it. That is a little surprising as the division and the reason for it were surely very significant matters.
Finally, the absence of this information from the other historians suggests to me that it comes to us via Ptolemy and the royal diaries, where it would have been recorded. As a general himself, Ptolemy would have been perfectly aware of the importance of Alexander’s decision to split the Companion Cavalry and recorded it accordingly.