Chaos in Central Asia After the Death of Alexander the Great

Tristan Hughes

4 mins

24 Sep 2019

Alexander the Great’s death marked the start of a period of tumultuous upheaval, as his fragile empire quickly began to fragment. In Babylon, Athens and Bactria, insurrection erupted against the new regime.

This is the story of the Greek revolt in Bactria.

Alexander conquers Central Asia

In the spring of 329 BC, Alexander the Great crossed the Hindu Kush and arrived in Bactria and Sogdia (modern Afghanistan and Uzbekistan today), both home to ancient civilisations.

Alexander’s two-year long campaign in the land proved arguably the toughest in his whole career. Where he won a resounding victory, elsewhere detachments of his army suffered humiliating defeats.

Ultimately, Alexander did manage to restore some sort of stability to the region, seemingly cemented by his marriage to the Sogdian noblewoman Roxana. With that, Alexander departed Bactria for India.

Alexander the Great, depicted in a mosaic from Pompeii

Alexander did not leave Bactria-Sogdia lightly-defended however. Hostile bands of Sogdian-Scythian cavalry still roamed the province’s countryside, so the Macedonian king left a large force of Greek ‘hoplite’ mercenaries to serve as a garrison in the region.

For these mercenaries, being stationed on a far edge of the known world was far from satisfactory. They were confined to an arid landscape, hundreds of miles away from the nearest sea and surrounded by enemies; resentment was bubbling up among their ranks.

In 325 BC, when rumour reached the garrisons that Alexander had died in India, a revolt had erupted among the mercenaries, culminating in 3,000 soldiers leaving their posts and commencing a long journey home towards Europe. Their fate is unknown, but it was a signal of things to come.

Alexander is dead, time to revolt

Two years later, when concrete confirmation of Alexander the Great’s death reached the frontiersmen that still remained in Bactria, they saw this as their time to act.

They submitted while the king was alive through fear, but when he was dead they rose in revolt.

There was great upheaval all across the region. Garrison posts were emptied; soldiers began to assemble. In very little time the assembled force numbered in the thousands, readying themselves for the journey back to Europe.

In command they selected a well-reputed mercenary general called Philon. Little is known of Philon’s background, except that he came from the fertile region of Aeniania, west of Thermopylae. His assembling of this great host was a notable logistical achievement in itself.

Fresco in Greece showing soldiers in Alexander’s army.

Retaliation

Gathering this force and the necessary supplies took time, and it was time that Perdiccas’ new regime in Babylon were sure to take advantage of.

The regent knew he had to act. Unlike in the west, where several forces commanded by famous generals stood ready to oppose the rebel Athenians, no sizeable army stood between Philon and Babylon. Quickly, Perdiccas and his generals mustered a force to march east and crush the revolt.

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3,800 reluctant Macedonians were chosen to form the nucleus of the army and equipped to fight in the Macedonian phalanx. Aiding them were some 18,000 soldiers mustered from the eastern provinces. In command, Perdiccas placed Peithon, another of Alexander the Great’s former bodyguards.

Peithon’s force, numbering some 22,000 men, marched east and reached Bactria’s borders. It wasn’t long before they were confronted by Philon’s force – the site of the battlefield is unknown. By then Philon’s force had grown to a remarkable size: 23,000 men in total – 20,000 infantry and 3,000 cavalry.

For Peithon the upcoming battle would not be easy. The enemy army surpassed his own force in both quality and quantity. Nevertheless battle loomed.

A swift conclusion

Fighting commenced, and Philon’s force soon started to gain the advantage. Just as victory seemed near, the mercenaries saw 3,000 of their comrades peel off from the battle line and retreat to a nearby hill.

The mercenaries panicked. Had these 3,000 men retreated? Were they about to be encircled? In a state of confusion, Philon’s battle line crumbled. A full rout soon followed. Peithon had won the day.

So why had these 3,000 men deserted Philon when victory was within grasp?

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The reason was Peithon’s clever diplomacy. Prior to the battle Peithon had used one of his spies to infiltrate the enemy camp and make contact with Letodorus, the commander of these 3,000 men. The spy relayed to Leotodorus the unimaginable wealth Peithon promised him if the general defected to them mid-battle.

Letodorus defected, and swung the battle in the process. Peithon had earned a remarkable victory, but a large force of mercenaries survived the fight and regrouped away from the battlefield. Peithon therefore sent a messenger to their camp, offering a peaceful solution.

He offered them safe passage back to Greece, if only they would cast down their weapons and join his men in a public ceremony of reconciliation. Delighted, the mercenaries agreed. The fighting was at an end… or so it seemed.

Betrayal

As the mercenaries intermingled with the Macedonians, the latter drew their swords and started slaughtering the defenceless hoplites. By the end of the day, the mercenaries lay dead in their thousands.

The order had originated from Perdiccas, who had wanted to send a harsh lesson to those mercenaries who remained in service around the empire: there would be no mercy for traitors.

It is also said that he suspected Peithon’s ambitions, but this seems unlikely. If Perdiccas had doubted his lieutenant in the slightest, he would not have given him such an important command.

Having brutally extinguished the threat from the east, Peithon and his Macedonians returned to Babylon.

Letodorus and his men were presumably richly rewarded; Philon almost certainly lay dead somewhere on the plains of Bactria; those mercenaries that remained in Bactria accepted their fate – in time their descendants would forge one of antiquity’s most remarkable kingdoms.

The Greco-Bactrian Kingdom at its height in the early 2nd century BC.

For Perdiccas and the Empire, the threat in the east had been quelled. But trouble in the west remained.