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Peucestas, the eighth bodyguard

We first meet Peucestas (sometimes Peucestes) in action as he scrambles up a siege ladder at the Indian city of the Malli, holding the shield of Achilles, which Alexander had taken from Troy eight years previously. He is following Alexander, who has pushed on up the ladder in order to shame his troops, themselves slow to make headway against the defenders. Behind Peucestas is Leonnatus; and within moments the three of them stand on top of the walls, clearing a space among the Indians to allow others to come up behind them. From another ladder a veteran named Abreas leaps up to join them. (Arr. VI.9.3; also Diod. XVII.99.4)

The Macedonians swarm up the ladders behind them, but the weight of bodies is too great and the ladders break, leaving the four men stranded on top of the wall. Alexander, not prepared to wait for back-up, leaps down to the ground inside the city, and is immediately surrounded by defenders, all of them eager to slay him. The other three, seeing the danger, jump down to defend him. Abreas falls dead, shot in the face with an arrow. A moment later Alexander himself is shot, an all but mortal wound as it turns out; and Peucestas stands astride his body, protecting him with the sacred shield until the Macedonians, fearing for their king, break into the city and sack it (Arr. VI.10.1-2). Peucestas himself was wounded, pierced by three javelins according to Curtius (QC IX.5.12-18 for the whole story; see also Pl. ‘Alex.’ 63.3 and ‘Itinerarium Alexandri’ 115).

We might receive our first sight of Peucestas in action at a relatively late date in the campaign, but it is possible to construct some small amount of background information. Plutarch provides the first reference, mentioning a letter that Alexander wrote to him, which confirms that he was clearly a good friend of the king’s: ‘He found fault with Peucestas by letter because, after being bitten by a bear, he wrote about it to the rest of his friends but did not tell him. “Now, however,” said he, “write me how you are, and tell me whether any of your fellow-huntsmen left you in the lurch, that I may punish them.”’ (Pl. ‘Alex.’ 41.2) He is mentioned by Arrian as being made a trierarch of the fleet at the Hydaspes (‘Indica’ 18.6), which clearly indicates that he was of high standing; and the fact that he followed Alexander up the ladder at the Mallian city, carrying nothing less than the shield of Achilles, makes it clear that he was one of the foremost of the Royal Squadron of the hypaspists (see Heckel, ‘Marshals’, p.264).

When the army returned to Persia Peucestas was enrolled as an unprecedented eighth somatophylax for his valour at the Mallian city, and later received a gold crown as an additional reward for his gallantry (Arr. VI.28.3-4, VII.5.4-5). His fame for his action against the Malli must have been great, for he had a statue made of him by Tisicrates of Sicyon, a pupil of Lysippus’ son Euthycrates – presumably this was later in his life, however, and we don’t know whether he commissioned it himself or was honoured by another (Pliny NH. 34.66-67).

By this time Alexander had already decided to appoint him as satrap of Persia, and when the incumbents were arraigned for treason his appointment was enacted (Arr. VI.28.3 for the intention, VI.30.2 for the appointment). He entered into his new role with zeal, adopting Persian dress and learning the language, to the extent that the other Macedonians took umbrage at his Medising (Arr. VII.6.3). The Persians, however, appreciated his gesture (Arr. VI.30.3) and he found no difficulty in bringing a large force of Persians, Tapurians and Cossaeans to Babylon in 323BC, to be integrated into the army in preparation for the projected campaign in Arabia (Arr. VII.23.1 says 20,000 Persians; Diod. XVII.110.2 says 10,000). But the campaign never got under way, and Peucestas was still in Babylon when Alexander became ill: according to Arrian he was one of the officers who stood vigil in the temple of Serapis (VII.26.2; Pl. doesn’t name him).

After Alexander’s death Peucestas was confirmed in his satrapy (Diod. XVIII.3.3; Justin XIII.4.23) and, although we hear nothing of him for the next three years, he was confirmed as satrap again at the Triparadeisos settlement (Diod. XVIII.39.6; Arr. ‘Successors’ 1.35). During the following years of strife the Persians remained loyal to him, and he accepted joint leadership of Eumenes’ force (Pl. ‘Eumenes’. 13) before attempting to usurp the position of sole commander-in-chief of the army (Diod. XIX.21.2ff; Pl. ‘Eumenes’. 14.5). Eumenes gradually undermined his authority and regained the command; but in the final battle against Antigonus Peucestas and his Persian soldiers abandoned Eumenes (who died in the battle). Antigonus removed him from his satrapy, but kept him alive, and it seems that he was active at the court of Demetrius after the battle of Ipsus, although what happened to him after that is unknown (Heckel, p.267).

Written by marcus