Print this page

Perdiccas, son of Orontes

Perdiccas, son of Orontes, comes across at times as being one of Alexander’s more irresponsible commanders. However, he is also distinguished as one of the most steadfast, and his ascendancy culminated in his taking the reins of government upon Alexander’s death, prior to his own tragic and ignominious end on the banks of the Nile.

Born probably around the same time as Alexander, it is reasonable to assume that he grew up with the prince and was almost certainly educated with him at Mieza. However, Perdiccas first gains distinction as being one of the few men who kept their wits about them when Philip II was killed. Along with Leonnatus and Attalus (son of Andromenes), he chased after the murderer, Pausanias, and stabbed him to death (Diod. XVI.94). This action surely placed Alexander in his debt, and was a signal for advancement.

So Perdiccas began Alexander’s reign as the commander of one of the battalions of pezhetairoi, that of Orestis. The way he is described at the time of the murder, in Diodorus, suggests that he did not hold this command under Philip, so his appointment must have been during the first months of Alexander’s reign. He is mentioned as commanding this battalion in the Illyrian campaign of 335BC (Arr. I.6.9), and in the major battles at the Granicus (Arr. I.14.2), Issus (Arr. II.8.3) and Gaugamela (Arr. III.11.9).

In two specific instances Perdiccas is portrayed in the histories as an impetuous and somewhat irresponsible commander. The first occasion was at the siege of Thebes, when it was Perdiccas’ battalion that rushed the Electra Gate, got into trouble, and had to be ‘rescued’ by Alexander at the head of the Companion Cavalry (Arr. I.8.1-3; Diod. XVII.12.3-4). The second occasion was at the siege of Halicarnassus, when two men of his battalion got drunk and precipitated a clash with Memnon’s defenders. The result of the fracas was a full-blown, moonlit battle, which only narrowly missed giving the Macedonians access to the city (Arr. I.21.1-3; Diod. XVII.25.5-6).

As with so much in Alexander’s history, it is difficult to know how far these descriptions of Perdiccas’ impetuosity are the result of propaganda (probably by Ptolemy) in the early stages of the Successor Wars. It is interesting to note that Aelian, admittedly writing around 550 years afterwards, noted that Alexander “hated Perdiccas because of his bellicosity” (Varia Historia 12.16). It is difficult to believe that Alexander hated him, but perhaps his warlike nature was well known; and that quite predictably could have led to impetuous actions – to which Alexander himself was no stranger, it’s fair to say. At the end of the day, his action at Thebes ultimately led to the fall of the city; and at Halicarnassus only narrowly avoided bringing the Macedonians an earlier victory than they ultimately achieved. It would be easy to turn his actions into heroics, rather than grounds for criticism; and the presence of negative propaganda is the more likely.

As it was, Alexander continued to trust him with major commands throughout the rest of the campaign. During the siege of Tyre he was left, with Craterus, to oversee the siegeworks while Alexander went to punish some insurgents (QC IV.3.-12); and during the campaign in Bactria/Sogdia he was entrusted with a variety of independent commands (eg. Arr. IV.16.2-3), before going with Hephaestion to secure the crossing of the Indus in preparation for Alexander’s arrival (QC VIII.10.2-4; Arr. IV.22.7-8).

Perdiccas’ ascendancy was clearly assured, at least from this time onwards. At some point Alexander appointed him a somatophylax, although it did not prevent him from assuming commands that took him away from his king. He was one of the seven bodyguards by 328BC, as he held the position when, with Ptolemy, he held Alexander back to prevent him attacking Cleitus (ultimately unsuccessfully, as it turned out); and by the time the army was in India he led a hipparchy of cavalry (eg. Arr. V.22.6; VI.6.4). There were some stories that it was he who removed the arrow from Alexander’s wound after the disaster at the city of the Malli (see Arr. VI.11.1); but this might have been a later addition to the history in order to glorify Perdiccas. However, on Hephaestion’s death it was Perdiccas who accompanied the dead man’s body from Ecbatana to Babylon (Diod. XVII.110.8), and he effectively took Hephaestion’s position for the final months of Alexander’s life. Alexander gave him his ring on his deathbed (QC X.4.3-4; Diod. XVII.117.3; Justin XIII.5), and he became the regent on the death of the king.

During the early struggles of the Successors Perdiccas, as regent, upheld the claim of Roxane for Alexander’s unborn son, while Meleager supported the claim of Arrhidaeus. It has been described as a division of the army between the Companions, led by Perdiccas, and the infantry, led by Meleager. Apparently he connived in Roxane’s murder of Stateira (Plutarch, Alexander, 77.4-5); and after apportioning out the empire among the Companions, he finally succeeded in ridding himself of Meleager, having had the infantry commander’s lieutenants trampled by elephants before the entire army.

However, events ran away with themselves. After Ptolemy hijacked Alexander’s body, which was en route to Macedonia, and took it to Memphis, Perdiccas attempted an invasion of Egypt. The weather held against him and his army became demoralised; until, eventually, a cabal of officers (probably including Seleucus) decided that the only way to get out of the situation they were in was to rid themselves of the regent. Perdiccas was stabbed to death in his tent, and the army returned eastwards for a final attempt at carving up the empire peacefully, at Triparadeisos.

It was an ignominious end for Perdiccas, who famously refused the land Alexander offered him at the start of the campaign. Instead he preferred to share in what his king intended to be the only thing he kept for himself: his dreams (Plutarch, Alexander 15.2; Moralia 342 D-E).

Written by marcus

Previous page: Pausanias the Assassin
Next page: Philip II