Eumenes vs Antigonus: The Fight for Alexander the Great’s Empire | History Hit

Eumenes vs Antigonus: The Fight for Alexander the Great’s Empire

Image Credit: History Hit

Alexander’s death far away from home in 323 BC, at the age of just 32, sent shockwaves through his empire. Almost instantly, infighting and quarrels exploded; his domains were promptly divided among his former confidantes. Egypt, Syria, Macedonia and Asia Minor (modern day Turkey) became spoils of war. Some had hoped that the empire could be held together, but what followed was the complete opposite.

Within three years of Alexander’s demise, political rivalries and ambitions to match the achievements of their predecessor resulted in chaos. Commanders and colleagues drew arms against each other in a deadly fight for dominance. Among them were Eumenes and Antigonus.

Eumenes and Antigonus

Regarded as one of the most fascinating generals of the period following Alexander’s death, Eumenes was a Greek of a non-aristocratic background who gained renown as the personal secretary of Alexander. Although not a military commander in this role, his was one of the most important in the kingdom. Eumenes wrote the letters and correspondence of the conqueror himself. Eumenes acquired prestige, becoming a key player in a world mainly ruled by aristocratic Macedonians.

Following Alexander’s death, Eumenes faced challenges from the aristocrat generals. On multiple occasions they would try to have him murdered by his own soldiers. Eumenes defied all such attempts; he deployed cunning and brilliance as a private secretary turned-commander.

The fight of Eumenes against Neoptolemus, Battle of the Hellespont (321 BC). 1878 engraving.

Image Credit: Public Domain

Antigonus, meanwhile, embodied the stereotype of Alexander’s successors: a Macedonian aristocrat who had served as a general in the conquest of Persia. Like other claimants to Alexander’s succession, Antigonus desired power in the reconfigured empire.

The fight for the empire

By 318 BC, five years after Alexander’s death, a crucial war for control raged between these capable men. To date Eumenes had defied the odds, despatching opponents in Craterus and Neoptolemus. He had been so successful that he took the title of ‘King’s General in Asia’, an eminent position for only the most successful and loyal of generals.

Antigonus travelled from the west to extinguish Eumenes’ success. On hearing of Antigonus’ arrival, Eumenes in turn hastily marched his forces east. What followed was a cat and mouse campaign: whenever Antigonus thought he had Eumenes cornered, this Greek would somehow escape his grasp.

An end in sight

Eumenes’ military genius paid off, however. By 316 BC, Antigonus was on the brink of total defeat. Having followed Eumenes all the way to modern day Iran with a large army of infantry, cavalry and elephants, the two forces repeatedly collided. In each engagement, Eumenes’ army inflicted heavy losses on Antigonus, and lost few men. In the final battle at Gabiene, Antigonus’ army was soundly beaten by Eumenes.

Most historians agree that Eumenes was in a position to almost certainly defeat Antigonus. But this did not happen. On the brink of victory, Eumenes was handed over to Antigonus and executed.

Tristan Hughes travels to Egypt to explore this land's extraordinary links to Alexander the Great.
Watch Now

Won the battle, lost the war

Eumenes appeared to have won the battle, yet one action during the fight damned him. In Eumenes’ army was an infantry unit called the Argyraspids (literally meaning, the ‘Silver Shields’). In 316 BC, these men were the most famous soldiers in the world. They had served alongside Alexander on his epic conquest, and fought for famous victories at Issus, Gaugamela and the Hydaspes River. Sources such as Diodorus emphasise that these famed veterans also won Eumenes his military achievements.

Though the most famous soldiers in the world, these veterans also proved the most difficult to control. They had followed Alexander to the ends of the world. They worshipped almost like a god. Who, they thought, could be as worthy as Alexander to command such a prestigious fighting force? Thus, even with Eumenes’ tactical brilliance and command, maintaining control of these troops proved almost impossible.

The baggage train problem

It was the actions of this unruly elite force that ultimately doomed Eumenes. Antigonus, although soundly beaten at Gabiene, had one saving grace. With his cavalry, Antigonus managed to capture Eumenes’ baggage train: the portable camp where all the booty was located, as well as the wives and children who travelled with the army. The problem here was the Argyraspids – the Silver Shields. As Edward Anson highlights, the baggage train’s capture,

included their families and the loot of a decade’s service in Asia […] the sources are very clear that the Argyraspids’ only concern was to retrieve their possessions and families […] their camp had become their home.

Edward Anson, Eumenes of Cardia (2004)

In one act, Antigonus had taken everything these veterans held dearly. Now, they wanted it back. The baggage train incident was actually just the tip of the iceberg. Underlying dissatisfaction towards Eumenes by the Silver Shield commanders and other generals was already present. If we are to believe Plutarch, the Argyraspid commander, Antigenes and a few other generals, had already been planning to betray Eumenes before the battle had even started.

The result

Instead of finally destroying Antigonus and his army, Eumenes woke up to be handed over to his adversary. Antigonus treated his new found captive with respect, having come to admire his captive’s formidable skill. He therefore pondered over the Greek’s fate for a few days. In the end, however, Antigonus decided not to be merciful. Having been starved for three days, Eumenes was executed. Thus ends the tale of Eumenes. A man whose superb, albeit short, military career was ended by an inglorious act of treachery by his own men.

Antigonus went on to have a wealthy and highly ambitious career that culminated at the climactic Battle of Ipsus in 301 BC. Ultimately his family would end up establishing its own dynasty that would rule over Macedonia for the next 100 years; eventually confronting an expansionist Rome in 168 BC.

Meanwhile the treachery of the Argyraspids led Antigonus to condemn them. He ordered his troops to throw the Argryraspid general, Antigenes, into a pit where they had him burned alive. The rest of the veterans were reportedly sent to a far-flung corner of the known world, where they might perish fighting in dangerous missions; a brutal end to the men who helped forge Alexander’s Empire.

Tristan Hughes