The Bloody Battle for Babylon in 320 BC | History Hit

The Bloody Battle for Babylon in 320 BC

Detail from "Entry of Alexander into Babylon", a 1665 painting by Charles LeBrun.
Image Credit: Shutterstock / History Hit

Within three years of Alexander the Great‘s death in 323 BC, the First War of the Successors erupted. It saw fighting in several theatres across the eastern Mediterranean. Thessaly, Asia Minor, Cyprus and Egypt all witnessed varying levels of conflict as the armies of Antipater, Craterus, Perdiccas, Ptolemy, Antigonus and Eumenes struggled for supremacy.

At the same time, another campaign was being waged further to the east. This time, in the old heartlands of the Achaemenid Empire: Babylonia. This is the story of the fight for Babylon.

The greatest heist in history

In the autumn of 321 BC, Ptolemy, the governor of Egypt, and several accomplices initiated a famous abduction. They captured Alexander the Great’s body as his funeral carriage made its way westward towards the regent Perdiccas in Asia Minor.

Its successful outcome helped ignite the First War of the Successors. It was one of the driving forces behind Perdiccas’ invasion of Egypt. The regent was determined to retrieve the symbolically-powerful body of the deceased Alexander.

Three of the four main ‘plotters’ that had helped orchestrate the heist were already in Egypt: Ptolemy, Arrhidaeus (the suborned officer who had diverted the funeral carriage to Egypt) and Laomedon (the governor of Syria who almost certainly was in on the heist). Perdiccas presumably aimed to deal with all three during his campaign in Ptolemy’s home province.

The empire of Alexander the Great.

Image Credit: Shutterstock

The fourth conspirator

There was, however, a fourth conspirator. A seasoned Macedonian statesman who at that time resided far away from Egypt, but who still needed to be punished for his participation in the heist. That man was Archon, the governor of Babylonia.

While Alexander the Great’s funeral cart was still in Babylon, it was Archon who almost certainly had (at the very least) turned a blind eye to Ptolemy’s collusions with Arrhidaeus. Directly or indirectly the governor had been complicit in the planned heist of the body.

Rightly suspecting the governor of involvement in the great heist, Perdiccas could not let Archon remain unpunished. As the regent and the royal army set forth for Egypt, he dispatched a small but powerful expeditionary force eastwards to remove Archon from power.

Docimus, a relatively unknown Macedonian officer, commanded this expedition. He had the orders to assume the role of governor by all means necessary. He also had the means to see this through by the spear if need be.

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When Archon heard that Docimus was approaching, in approximately April of 320 BC, the Macedonian governor chose defiance. He was himself a former prestigious commander who had served with Alexander the Great in India. Archon was damned if he was going to let Docimus take control of this wealthy province without a fight.

He gathered his generals in Babylonia. There he informed them of Perdiccas’ decision to demote him. In Archon’s eyes this relegation was in complete breach of the Settlement the generals of Alexander the Great had struck at Babylon two years earlier, where the governorships had been decided and agreed upon.

He was right to think that. Perdiccas had been provoked into tearing up the Babylon Settlement, but even so he wanted an ally in charge of Babylonia. This was the wealthy gateway to the eastern provinces. Docimus, who owed his rise to the regent, was a man Perdiccas could trust. Archon, who had betrayed the regent, was not.

19th century impression of “The Walls of Babylon and the Temple of Bel (Or Babel)” by William Simpson.

Image Credit: Public Domain

The fight for Babylonia

It would take Docimus roughly two months to reach Babylonia. Archon used this time to prepare a resistance. The governor lacked enough high quality soldiers to face Docimus in a pitched battle, so he decided upon a guerrilla campaign. Skirmishes and fortified bases would be his key to victory.

Babylonians, mercenaries and perhaps even a few Macedonians filled the mainstay of Archon’s force. Meanwhile, Docimus had a small core of Macedonians, reinforced by a substantial number of mercenaries.

When Docimus duly arrived in Babylonia, he was greeted by a province dominated by pockets of resistance. But the Macedonian general remained undeterred. He made a beeline for Babylon and quickly took control of the regional capital. From there, he pressed on to confront Archon’s guerrilla army. He hoped to cut the head off the resistance.

What followed was remarkable success. Docimus proved more than capable against his veteran opponent. Stronghold after stronghold succumbed to the Perdiccan army; slowly Archon’s resistance withered.

Hammer blow

Yet Archon continued to fight, launching fleeting attacks against portions of Docimus’ army. But then his enemy landed the hammer blow.

In one skirmish, presumably a cavalry clash, Archon’s luck ran out. During the fighting, the commander was overwhelmed and suffered several severe wounds. He succumbed to his injuries soon after the battle.

He experienced a similar fate to both Leonnatus and Craterus: he was veteran commander of Alexander the Great who fell while fighting alongside his men in a relatively small-scale confrontation. Yet its outcome decided the course of the campaign.

Seleucus led the Royal Hypaspistai during Alexander’s Persian campaign.

Image Credit: Public Domain

Short-lived success

Resistance to Docimus disintegrated with Archon’s death. When the victorious Macedonian general returned to Babylon, the native population welcomed their new governor. This wealthy province was now in the hands of a loyal Perdiccan.

Docimus’ success in Babylonia would be one of the only great successes for Perdiccas during the First War of the Successors. Like Eumenes in Asia Minor, however, ultimately this victory would count for little.

Perdiccas’ subsequent death in Egypt resulted in Docimus being condemned to death in absentia by the victors. The newly-instated governor was stripped of his posting and forced to flee from Babylon barely months after taking control.

In his stead the victors of the First War of the Successors instated a new governor. He was another former Perdiccan who had opportunely decided to switch sides near the end of the conflict. His name? Seleucus. Arriving in Babylon within months of Docimus’ flight, this general would go on to experience one of the most remarkable careers of the Successor Wars. 

Tristan Hughes