In This Chapter
Alexander assaults Thebes
‘… Alexander did not attack the city’ (Arr. I.7.11)
Perdiccas, however, had other ideas. Without seeking or waiting for permission from the king, he began an assault of the outer palisade.
At first, all went well. Perdiccas was able to break through the palisade and make a charge towards the Theban soldiers behind it. He was helped in this by Amyntas son of Andromenes who brought the men under his command into the fray.
Arrian doesn’t tell us when Alexander saw what was going on but when he did see the assault, he brought the rest of the army forward to prevent Perdiccas and Amyntas being cut off from the Macedonian forces.
Alexander ordered his archers and Agrianian soldiers through the first palisade. As this was happening, Perdiccas was doing his best to break through the inner palisade. This is where things started to go wrong for him, though, and in a serious way, for he was wounded and his injury was so bad, he ‘fell on the spot’. Fortunately, his men were able to drag him away to safety.
Perdiccas’ men seem to have been pushed back from the inner palisade because the fighting continued in the space between the outer and inner palisades, next to a temple dedicated to Heracles. At first, the Macedonian forces were able to push the Theban soldiers back to where the temple stood. But there, perhaps inspired by their devotion to the greatest of all warriors, the Thebans rallied. Now, it was the Macedonians who were being forced back.
Alexander watched as his men retreated. He didn’t panic, though, but instead took the time to observe the condition of the Thebans and he noticed that they were not in any order: easy pickings, therefore, for his phalanx.
Alexander ordered the phalanx forward. They advanced, as Arrian says, ‘in full battle-order’, and pushed the Thebans past the inner palisade and into the city. Alexander’s calmness had turned a potential defeat into a rout.
It got better. The Thebans were so desperate to escape the advancing phalanx that the city gates could not be closed in time to stop a Macedonian invasion.
The Macedonian troops now split up. Some went to break the siege of the Cadmea. Once that was done the reunited forces entered the lower city via the Ampheum (a shrine in the centre of the city). Others entered Thebes by climbing over the city walls (which were now in Macedonian hands) and made their way to the market place.
Theban soldiers put up a brave defence at the Ampheum but were fatally undermined by their own cavalry which decided to flee from the city. A general slaughter of the defenders now followed.
Who was responsible for the slaughter – not just of Theban soldiers, but women and children as well? Arrian names the allied soldiers – ‘Phoecians, Plataeans, and other Boeotians’. They even killed Thebans in their homes and, most heinously, ‘suppliants at the altars’.
At the start of this chapter, Arrian makes a point of telling us that his source for Perdiccas’ unauthorised attack on the outer palisade is Ptolemy. As the Notes say, ‘Ptolemy had good reason to take a hostile line on Perdiccas, after the latter’s bid, albeit unsuccessful, to wrest control of Egypt from him in 321/0’. This would seem to indicate that Ptolemy wrote his history during the early years of the Wars of the Successors, because why bother after Perdiccas had died? Of course, he could have remained bitter about what Perdiccas had tried to do or just triumphalist.
Another question that occurs to me is why Arrian mentions his source for this piece of information in the first place. I suspect he knew that what he was reading was unlikely to be true either in whole or in part: Perdiccas was too professional a soldier to do anything so rash and, as the reader would probably think the same, mentioned his source as a way of saying ‘If you have an argument, take it up with him’.
Arrian’s Alexander at Thebes is of a man who is patient and calm. It is quite a contrast to Diodorus’ Alexander who is wholly the opposite. We can add these virtues to the list that we created at the end of the Thracian campaign here. Of course, we need to remember that Arrian’s Alexander is informed by Ptolemy, Aristobulos and others who were favourable towards him. Is this the real Alexander? My answer is yes, though only in part.
I am also interested by the fact that Alexander brought his army forward to help Perdiccas and Amyntas. What was his motivation? Was it a policy of no one gets left behind? Or simply concern that defeat for Perdiccas and Amyntas would look bad for him? Probably a mixture, but I would lean towards the former as being the most important since throughout his career Alexander lived and suffered by his men; even later on when he grew more distant from them, he still shared their pains and sufferings on the march – see particularly the Gedrosian desert crossing.
One last thing – and related to what I said above – it is notable that Arrian names and shames Alexander’s allies for the slaughter of the Thebans. I wonder if the influence of Ptolemy can be seen here as well. Having bad mouthed (or penned) Perdiccas, he put the blame on the allies for the unnecessary bloodshed in order to protect his ‘virtuous’ Alexander.