Of all the subordinates who outlived Alexander the Great, few matched the fame of the infantry commander Craterus. None, at any rate, could surpass him. Within three years of Alexander’s death, he had already returned to the battlefield in glorious style. Craterus sought power — and an authoritative position within the new regime to match his ambition.
When Craterus and Antipater crossed the Hellespont, heading east, in early 320 BC, they sparked a war with the regent Perdiccas, and his chief adjutant in Asia Minor, Eumenes of Cardia. As Perdiccas headed south to challenge another dissident satrap, Ptolemy, in Egypt, the invaders Craterus and Antipater, backed by an army of over 30,000 men, came face to face with Eumenes on a plain in ancient Phrygia.
The Battle of the Hellespont (321 BC)
Eumenes faced a huge challenge. His officer Neoptolemus, ‘the turncoat’, had fled to his enemies and convinced them to pursue Eumenes with a some of their forces. Neoptolemus helped lead this expedition against Eumenes. But most ominous was its ultimate command by Craterus, a paragon of military virtue well-liked by the Macedonian army.
Two years earlier, Craterus’ forces crushed an Athenian-led revolt threatening Macedonia at the Battle of Crannon. He had fought in the highlands of Aetolia, and he had also made his mark at Delphi, ‘the noticeboard of the ancient world’, commissioning a statue of himself there alongside Alexander the Great.
Eumenes faced a daunting task if he was to overcome Craterus, but his strategy proved highly effective. Fearing mass desertion, he concealed the name of Craterus from his army. He did not even tell his highest subordinates. Instead, writes Plutarch, “he gave out word, then, that Neoptolemus was once more coming against him, with Pigres”, another general.
Eumenes did not stop there. He refused heralds from the enemy camp that threatened the deception. He guided his army along unused paths, and he maintained up to date intelligence over his foe’s movements. His army, meanwhile, was kept in the dark. This was a remarkable deception, especially when you consider that Eumenes’ army numbered some 28,000 men.
When Craterus came to battle with Eumenes a few days later, the Eumenes’s soldiers still had a false impression of who they faced. They did not break and they did not desert. Craterus, standing distinct upon his horse, wearing ornate armour and a traditional kausia cap, was lured into the type of fight Eumenes had desperately desired: a cavalry clash. Confident that the enemy would desert in droves as soon as they saw his standout figure, Craterus advanced too far ahead of his main army with his mounted squadrons.
With his cavalry he became isolated. His enemy, unaware that they faced Craterus, did not “come to him with a rush, arms and all” as Neoptolemus had counselled. Instead the general cursed the air as he saw large squadrons of Asian cavalry charge at full speed towards him. Nonetheless, Craterus counter-charged. His armour made him a target; once the lines clashed, enemy horsemen attacked him again and again. Though he fought with courage worthy of his reputation, the enemy overwhelmed him.
Injured, he fell to the ground. He likely experienced the same gruesome fate suffered by many during frantic cavalry fights. Once a rider had fallen beneath the tide of horsemen, their bodies would be trampled upon. Though multiple descriptions of his death survive, it seems likely Craterus suffered a similar fate.
Eumenes went on to win the battle, killing his most hated foe Neoptolemus in the process in one of the most graphically described duels in the whole of antiquity.
Their horses dashed together with the violence of colliding triremes, and dropping the reins they clutched one another with their hands, each trying to tear off the other’s helmet and strip the breastplate from his shoulders. While they were struggling, their horses ran from under them and they fell to the ground, where they closed with one another and wrestled for the mastery.
Plutarch, Life of Eumenes
Eumenes provided the heroic Craterus a momentous funeral, supposedly mourning his former friend’s loss and taking great pains to see that future records of the battle pinned the blame primarily on Neoptolemus and his rotten advice. This ‘anti-Neoptolemus’ tradition has survived to this day. Eumenes is portrayed as a ‘reluctant victor’, Craterus the victim of a crooked adjutant’s misguided counsel.
Craterus’ death in battle against Eumenes was one of the most shocking events of the post-Alexander world. No-one had anticipated the defeat of Eumenes’ rag-tag force to pose a serious challenge. The most famous general alive should have crushed an enemy with such inferior military experience.
Craterus had appeared destined for a powerful future. Antipater, Craterus’ ally, had planned to instate the general as ‘Lord of all Asia’. Instead, he fell in the initial throes of a continental struggle that would continue blazing for some 40 years.