In 320 BC, barely three years after the death of Alexander the Great, several of his generals were engaged in a bloody struggle for power in a titanic war we today call the First Successor War. Fighting raged across the eastern Mediterranean. But the most gruesome clash took place on the banks of the River Nile between two brothers-in-arms turned enemies, Perdiccas and Ptolemy. And yes, it featured crocodiles.
Perdiccas’ invasion of Egypt
By mid-June 320 BC, Perdiccas’ Egyptian campaign was faltering. Already he had encountered two major setbacks whilst attempting to cross the Nile River: first at Pelusium, where he discovered the crossing was garrisoned, and then 10 miles upriver where he failed attempt to gain control of a frontier fort. Undeterred, Perdiccas led his army south. They marched for at least a couple of weeks until they reached the Nile’s eastern bank directly opposite the city of Memphis.
Here the Nile was wider and deeper, but a large natural island divided the River in two. The island was large and it was where Perdiccas intended to establish his base. From there, his army could make the second crossing without difficulty and proceed to conquer Memphis, the traditional capital of Egypt.
Most importantly, it was within Memphis where Ptolemy had buried the embalmed body of Alexander the Great. Perdiccas, fuelled by imperial ambition, was determined to recover the body. Though Memphis was within sight, he first had to reach the island.
Straight away, Perdiccas ordered the crossing to commence. His best troops, his Macedonian veterans, formed the vanguard. However as soon as these heavily armed soldiers began wading into the waterway, they encountered difficulty. At its centre the river was very deep, with the water coming up to the soldiers’ necks.
Perdiccas saw that his troops were experiencing difficulty navigating this deep part of the river. Fortunately, Perdiccas was able to draw upon a perfect precedent from his own distinguished experience to remedy this situation.
In 331 BC, Alexander and his army had encountered a similarly deep and troublesome obstacle in the River Tigris. To traverse this waterway, Alexander placed cavalry both upriver and downriver of the crossing point.
It worked exceptionally well. The move not only slowed the Tigris’ current, but allowed for soldiers who lost their footing to be caught by the cavalry downriver. In the end, Alexander managed to cross the Tigris with little difficulty and they progressed towards the great showdown with Darius at Gaugamela.
Between the banks of the Nile, Perdiccas hoped to replicate Alexander’s success. To collect swept away soldiers, he similarly placed cavalry downstream of the crossing point. But he decided he could go one better than his mentor. To stem the current upriver, rather than place a line of horses, Perdiccas placed his heavier elephants.
It was a sound strategy and at first it worked brilliantly. The current was significantly slowed by the elephant shield. Hundreds of elite Macedonian soldiers successfully completed the crossing, who formed a powerful position on the island. If Perdiccas could cross his whole army to this island, it would herald a positive conclusion for his Egyptian campaign.
Having the elephants placed upriver of the crossing had an unexpected consequence. As their hooves dug below the waterline into the sandy bottom of the Nile, this sand started to become displaced. The constant moving of soldiers between the two lines of animals further disrupted the sediment below. As a result, the water level gradually rose all around the soldiers, elephants and cavalry. Men and beasts were steadily appearing to sink into the river.
The water level continued to rise, much to the confusion of Perdiccas, his officers and soldiers. Very quickly the current began to strengthen with the deepening water. It soon became clear that there was no hope of continuing the crossing. Perdiccas called a halt. His army was divided, with a few thousand elite soldiers isolated on the island. But things were about to get a whole lot worse.
As Perdiccas and his officers contemplated what to do, a grave new threat appeared on the distant horizon. A huge dust cloud indicated the imminent arrival of a numerous force loyal to Ptolemy on the western bank. Its purpose: eradicating the Perdiccan force stationed on the island.
A gruesome end
Perdiccas panicked. Rather than see his elite corps overwhelmed by the new threat, he ordered the soldiers back without delay. The soldiers obeyed, throwing themselves into the Nile and doing their best to swim back to the main army. Many of these soldiers had successfully ventured across harsh geographies before: the Hindu Kush, the hinterlands of Bactria and Sogdia, the Gedrosian Desert. But the Nile and its fast flowing current was another matter.
The better swimmers, having discarded their arms and armour, completed the crossing. Many others did not. The poorest swimmers were dragged beneath the waterline; others were carried away by the current and deposited downstream at Ptolemy’s mercy on the Nile’s western bank.
But many more endured a more gruesome fate. After being carried far downstream, veteran soldiers found themselves prey to the Nile’s ferocious creatures: crocodiles and hippopotami (the latter can be carnivorous). It must have been a terrible sight. Macedonian veterans of campaigns to the far edges of the known world now met a dismal end as lunch for fearsome Egyptian fauna.
Perdiccas’ decision to recall his men from the island proved disastrous. By the time the return crossing had finished, more than 2,000 men had lost their lives. Half of these had been eaten by the river-dwelling animals. For Perdiccas, the losses his army suffered resembled a crushing defeat.
Moreover, the reason why Perdiccas had hastily recalled his troops proved a chimera. The huge dust cloud he had spotted in the distance was a ruse. On Ptolemy’s orders cavalrymen and herdsmen had driven forward hundreds of swine, goats and oxen dragging baggage behind them to create this great cloud of dust. Ptolemy had hoped that this would dupe Perdiccas into thinking a great enemy army was approaching. It worked.
The result was devastating for Perdiccas. He lost the support of his army and was assassinated that night. The Nile had claimed many victims that day, Perdiccas among them. With the regent’s death, another of Alexander the Great’s most prominent subordinates fell from power. A new political vacuum emerged.
Find out more in Alexander’s Successors at War: The Perdiccas Years 323 – 320 BC.