Polyperchon: How an Unsung Hero Saved Ancient Macedonia | History Hit

Polyperchon: How an Unsung Hero Saved Ancient Macedonia

Two heads of ancient Greek soldiers. Drawing, c. 1793. Lavater, Johann Caspar, 1741-1801.
Image Credit: Wellcome Collection / Public Domain

Almost three years after the death of Alexander the Great, the first great civil war between the king’s former adjutants erupted. In the early spring of 320 BC, two stellar Macedonian generals, Antipater and Craterus, crossed the Hellespont, the strategically important strait that separates continental Asia and Europe. They travelled east with around 30,000 men, venturing to challenge Perdiccas, who then ruled as regent of Alexander’s empire.

A series of mighty clashes followed. In Asia Minor, Craterus waged a huge battle against Eumenes, Perdiccas’ chief lieutenant in the region. Perdiccas marched the mainstay of the royal army to the River Nile, hoping to cross and dislodge the Egypt’s governor Ptolemy and thereby retrieve Alexander the Great’s body. Another conflict raged outside the walls of Babylon, while more conflict took place off the shores of Cyprus.

But there was another danger threatening the heart of Antipater’s power in Greece itself. 

The Thessalian front

The Aetolians were fearsome warriors, capable both as hoplites and skilled light infantry, and they had already survived one recent Macedonian invasion. Emboldened, they took the offensive. Working in league with Perdiccas, who likely subsidised the Aetolian war effort, they launched an attack against Antipater’s allies in Thessaly. Some 12,000 soldiers marched north. They crushed a Macedonian army en-route and incited much of Thessaly to side with them against their northern neighbours. Even better news was to follow.

Among Aetolian ranks was a famous Thessalian exile called Menon. He was a dashing cavalry commander who had helped lead the anti-Macedonian war effort in the preceding Lamian War. Having sought safety as a fugitive in Aetolia, Menon now helped to persuade Thessalians to take up arms against the Macedonians once more. Thousands of mercenaries likely complimented their ranks.

The ancient regions of north and west Greece.

Image Credit: MinisterForBadTimes on Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 2.5

An awesome force was amassed: some 25,000 men in total, including 1,100 of the famous aristocratic Thessalian cavalry. Antipater’s Macedonians in Europe faced a grave threat. The enemy force far outnumbered the homeland defences, while Antipater and Craterus had taken the the best soldiers east. Macedon itself was weak and the Aetolians knew it.

The assault’s purpose was to distract Antipater, at that time engrossed across the Aegean. if they maintained pressure, Antipater would find himself with a dilemma: retreat to Europe and give up the march on Perdiccas, or advance deeper into Asia and risk losing Macedonian homelands. Perdiccas’ plan appeared to be working.

A new front

Polyperchon was the statesman in charge of Antipater’s forces in Europe. He was a sound diplomat. He knew his forces couldn’t take on the army that wreaked havoc further south. If he was to crush this threat, he needed to divide his enemy.

He found the perfect solution in opening a second front. He encouraged the Acarnanians, resentful neighbours of the Aetolians, to pillage the Aetolian heartlands. Just as the Aetolian-Thessalian army appeared ready to march into Thessaly’s northern reaches, word arrived of the Acarnanian invasion. The Aetolian soldiers were recalled straight away. In an instant, Menon was deprived of 10,000 hardened warriors.

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Divide and conquer

Polyperchon seized the moment. With breakneck speed, he gathered as many soldiers as he could and cut to pieces Menon’s army in one swift swoop. Menon himself was among the dead.

Polyperchon’s victory arrested the anti-Macedonian threat in Europe. Thessaly returned to Macedonian control, and the Aetolians did not venture from their homeland again. Neither did Polyperchon, lacking military resources to wage a campaign in hostile lands, attack Aetolia itself. The war had reached a stalemate, but Polyperchon was the man of the hour.

History has not treated the man kindly. Later failures in his military career diminished Polyperchon’s reputation, but his achievement against Menon and the Aetolians in 320 BC was profound. If not for his actions, Antipater may well have been forced to march back to Europe. This huge civil war is generally regarded as being centred around Egypt and Asia Minor, its major combatants the likes of Perdiccas, Ptolemy, Antipater and Eumenes.

But Polyperchon’s shrewd diplomacy and decisive attack saved the heart of Macedonian power. Polyperchon was the unsung hero of this seismic conflict.

Tristan Hughes