Warfare After Alexander – The Armies of the Early Hellenistic Era

After the death of Alexander the Great, Macedonian generals carved their own kingdoms out of the conquered Persian territories. Many of these “Diadokhoi” (or successors) led armies against one another. (Image source: WikiCommons)

“By the time of the Diadokhoi, Hellenistic warfare had become a multi-national, multi-disciplined, complex affair.”

By David Grant

ANY APPRECIATION OF warfare in the Hellenistic Era requires an understanding of the military prowess of Alexander the Great’s father, Philip II. After all, it was Phillip’s army that became the instrument the young Alexander used to shatter the Persian Empire. But credit must also go to the remarkable generals who succeeded Alexander after his death, the Diadokhoi. For the legendary conqueror’s 11-year campaign, which changed the Graeco-Persian world forever, was the training ground of the Diadokhoi who showed their particular brand of Macedonian statecraft in the wars that followed for a share of a now-vast empire.

The Diadokhoi kingdoms a century after the death of Alexander. (Image source: WikiCommons)

The Face of the Hellenistic Army

By the time of the Diadokhoi, Hellenistic warfare had become a multi-national, multi-disciplined, complex affair. The exotic lineups within the opposing ranks, as evidenced in the 317 BCE Battle of Paraetacene, employed every resource the empire provided. The ranks of the competing armies, which were led by Eumenes of Cardia and Antigonos the One-Eyed, included more than just classic hoplites arranged into simple phalanxes. There were specialist mounted lancers and light skirmishers, heavy shock cavalry under their regiment commanders, swift light mounts, sarissa-bearing heavy infantry, bowmen, javelin-throwers, slingers, scouts, mercenaries and even armed slaves. All were commanded by a mix of Greek, Macedonian and Asiatic officers. In front of the armies and at the wings stood armored, but unpredictable, elephants ridden by their mahouts.

The Diadokhoi relied on diverse armies that were a far cry from the hoplites of the ancient Greek city states. (Image source: WikiCommons)

Generals employed supernumeraries to distribute their orders through the ranks. Dispatch riders would have been galloping behind the lines with tactical revisions as the opening gambits developed and as formations advanced and collapsed, revealing opportunistic or vulnerable gaps in the line. Flags would have been waved to signal the orders and units were given instruction through the infantry, cavalry and mercenary commanders, some of them understood and others potentially confused as Greek, rural Macedonian, Aramaic, and the languages of the Asian satrapies were passed through the ranks.

Strategically placed throughout each army were buglers who heralded the order to advance and the set piece moves of the intricate battle on the bronze and reed salpinx. The sheer numbers amassed were a challenge to communication so that a herald and signalman, an aide and a file closer, had been added to the phalanx formations of Alexander. This was highly developed, high-stakes, complex warfare.

Elephants were certainly fearsome on the battlefield, but the fodder they consumed on a daily basis beggared their armies.

The Challenges of Provisioning Armies

The logistics involved in provisioning these armies were intricate and daunting, and the quantity of food needed was enormous.

Asian elephants could consume up to five per cent of their 11,000-plus-lb bodyweight per day, and they regularly consumed 330 lbs. of vegetation, while drinking 70 pints of water. And yet an elephant march might only cover 10 miles from dawn to dusk, the rest of the army could average 15.

The 6,000 to 8,000 warhorses required high-starch fodder and the 30,000 men needed victualing with at least 3,600 calories and food containing 2.5 ounces of protein. Packhorses and mules, able to carry some 200 lbs. (camels could porter 300 lbs.) also needed 10 lbs. of grain and eight gallons of water per day, though the beasts (camels in particular) could be eaten on the march once their loads were expended.

In the desert regions, 10,000 water casks had to be readied for just a ten-day march. Although the Persian administration did have a system of well-stocked official storehouses, we have no idea whether the Macedonians replenished them.

A passing army of the sizes recorded in the Successor Wars would have devoured a 25-square-mile wheat crop and drained 100,000 gallons of water. Foragers could collect supplies from a 60- to 80-mile radius or a four-day journey from a stationary camp; this was reduced to 15 to 17 miles when on the move. So the strategic value and the scarcity of well-provisioned quarters, especially in winter, was appreciated.

A mosaic of a Hellenistic army. (Image source: WikiCommons)

A Moving Military City

Besides troop numbers, many non-combatant camp followers were retained in some capacity: the interpreters, metal smiths, cooks, herders, tanners, porters, wagon-drivers, hunters, slave traders, clerks, doctors, paymasters, guides, map-makers and engineers; most of a soldier’s pay would in fact have been ‘reinvested’ in the camp economy. There may have been one camp follower for every two combatants, and in addition, each file of infantrymen would have had a servant in charge of a mule or a camel laden with their goods, including tents.

This extravagant early Hellenistic warfare was heavy on cost and consequences, and it was only made possible by depleting the treasuries accumulated by the Persian kings under a complex network of tax levies they had established over centuries. Such expenditure could not be sustained for long in the absence of administrative stability.

Ancient Macedonian soldiers. (Image source: WikiCommons)

Fighting for the Baggage

One factor above any other appears to have turned the tide of early Hellenistic warfare: seizure or loss of the baggage.

In their earlier campaigns Philip, and Alexander had resisted using wagons, preferring an agile army that carried its own panoply (helmet, shield, breastplate/cuirass, fabric-lined greaves, spear) and even hand mills for grinding grain. Each soldier carried his load in a backpack that might have weighed as much as 80 lbs. Diadokhoi armies used wagons in regions immediately devoid of forage and livestock to carry consumable provisions, war prizes and even pay (thus mobile banks).

‘Baggage’ is an insufficiently weighty terminology for a wagon train that also carried wives and children, mistresses, slaves, gold and silver, along with the accumulated possessions of a decade or more of campaigning.

The Hellenistic armies of Alexander’s successors managed to rivet Asia, Egypt and Macedonia together as never before. That is until Rome’s legions arrived with a discipline and nationalism the Hellenistic armies had lost, and turned the Alexander’s former empire into Rome’s own eastern domain.

David Grant is the author of In Search of The Lost Testament of Alexander the Great. Grant now resides in London and is embarking upon his next book about Alexander’s campaigns in the Persian Empire.

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