Alexander the Great v Parmenion

Alexander conquered the whole Persian empire in record time but did it with the help of many capable generals. The most experienced of them was Parmenion. Yet the king of Macedon decided to reject a piece of well-meant advice coming from this man more often than to accept it and ended up ordering his murder. Did he have a good reason to act this way?

Parmenion and Attalus

When Alexander inherited the Macedonian throne, he knew a war was coming. The assassination of his father Philip II. happened just before the late king could lead his army to invade the Persian (Achaemenid) Empire. The preparations had started long ago. Philip had successfully subdued almost whole Greece in a series of military and diplomatic victories. Philip also eliminated the threat coming from the northern border – the Illyrians. Of many grave Macedonian soldiers and devoted generals, one stood above all others – Parmenion.

Parmenion was a member of a noble family and played a crucial role in Philip’s conquest. Philip used him in many military and diplomatic missions. One of those missions required Parmenion to cross the Hellespont and enter the Persian territory in Asia Minor with a small army. Here, he was supposed to help the Greek cities fight against the Persians and thus prepare a safer ground for the upcoming Macedonian invasion of Phillip’s main forces. He was already in Asia when the news of Philip’s assassination and Alexander’s instant succession reached him. The soldiers didn´t take it too well at first and the worries about the unknown future probably contributed to a defeat of Parmenion’s army in a battle against the Persians. Nevertheless, Parmenion got out of the battle alive, and he still commanded a reasonable force. Moreover, a significant member of the royal family stayed with him – Attalus, a close relative of Cleopatra (a.k.a. Eurydice), the last wife of Philip.

Attalus was a popular general and posed a serious threat to Alexander’s claim on the throne. Not that long before, Philip and Alexander had found themselves in a very public conflict started by an act of provocation coming from Attalus. During the wedding of Philip and Cleopatra, Attalus made a speech where he wished the couple a child who would become a legitimate successor to the throne. Those words infuriated young Alexander – what was he if not a legitimate successor?  He immediately attacked Attalus and demanded Philip to defend his rights, but the king didn’t take any such action and Alexander, offended by the lack of support, left the palace.  He eventually made peace with Philip just shortly before the king’s death.

This situation put Parmenion in an interesting position. He could support Attalus and lead his army in the inevitable civil war, or he could side with Alexander. The second option undoubtedly required immediate action and physical elimination of Attalus. This could be tricky, (according to historian Quintus Curtius Rufus) Attalus was not just his companion, but also his own son-in-law. Parmenion eventually stayed loyal to Alexander and killed Attallus before that man had a chance to create any problems for the new king. Alexander rewarded this loyalty by keeping Parmenion in his position as the highest general outranked only by the king himself. Little did Parmenion know that Alexander would be more than willing to pull rank and act in a way completely opposite to the old general’s wishes.

The Discord

Parmenion now held a leading position in the Macedonian army again, and as such, he was often asked to provide an opinion when potentially difficult decisions were being made. Having decades of experience under in the service of the late king, and with Alexander only in his twenties, Parmenion must have thought that his opinions would be respected and acted upon. The reality couldn’t be more different. The historians recorded many occasions when Alexander’s actions sharply contrasted with the piece of advice given by Parmenion.

The first such incident happened when Alexander first encountered a larger Persian force in Asia – when crossing the Granicus river. The Macedonian army proceeded into Persian territory when they discover the enemy on the opposite bank of the river. Parmenion advised Alexander to wait on the bank where they were standing and try to surprise the Persians in the morning. Alexander disagreed. He felt strong enough to attack right away, even if it meant a disadvantage (attacking through the river and then fighting up the hill). He ignored Parmenion’s advice and did as he thought was right. At the end of the day, Alexander’s bravery indeed brought victory to his army in what was the first major battle of his conquest.

The next opportunity when Parmenion could put his experience in Alexander’s services presented itself shortly after the Battle of Granicus. The Persian forces on the land were defeated for now, but their navy emerged. The Greek navy was anchored on the coast of Asia, helping in the siege of Miletus, but the Persian ships sailed close to them and provided Alexander an opportunity to fight a naval battle. Parmenion eagerly advised him to fight. He was aware of the strength of the Persian sailors, who had both more ships and more experience in naval combat. However, in Parmenion’s eyes, there was nothing to lose. A victory would greatly help in eliminating the threat of the navy and even a defeat wouldn’t diminish their chances to conquer Persia on the land too much. Alexander disagreed. Being outnumbered and having to fight a more experienced opponent didn’t seem like a good prospect. He only used his ships to keep the Persians from interrupting the siege and after he took hold of the city, he continued his conquest on land.

Parmenion didn’t make any fuss about the discord with Alexander after all the king’s decisions turned out to bring success to their efforts. He even proved his loyalty once again when he captured a Persian spy, authorized to make contact with one of Alexander’s cavalry generals, who was ready to betray his king in exchange for the royal crown of Macedon. Parmenion informed Alexander immediately and the traitor was swiftly punished. It is therefore even more surprising that when a similar situation occurred once again, Alexander didn’t listen to Parmenion. When passing Tarsus, Alexander became really ill and he decided to rely on a doctor called Philip. Parmenion, having heard rumors about the bribes this man received from the Persians, wrote a letter to Alexander asking him to be careful and not to trust his medicine. Alexander handed the letter over to the doctor and asked him to read it. Philip read the message quite calmly and that convinced Alexander of his innocence. Right there and then, Alexander drank the potion prepared by Philip and very soon, he defeated the illness.

A letter played a crucial part also in the next disagreement between the two Macedonians. This time, the letter came from the Persian king Darius himself. After another catastrophic defeat, Darius tried to convince Alexander to finally make peace. He offered him as much as half of the Persian empire and the hand of his daughter in marriage. Parmenion promptly advised Alexander to accept the offer, but Alexader disagreed. He refused the terms and decided to continue his conquest, try to once again defeat the Persians in battle and conquer the Persian empire in its entirety.

The decisive battle was destined to be fought near Gaugamela. When the Greeks marched close to the Persian force, Alexander called his generals into his tent and asked them whether they should attack the Persians right away or slow down and explore the surroundings first to discover potential traps. While a vast majority of soldiers preferred a swift attack, Parmenion asked for caution. This time, his opinion prevailed. However, after the scouts returned, Parmenion didn’t see any reason to delay the attack and urged Alexander to surprise the enemy before sunrise. Alexander disagreed. Stealing a victory at night was below him. He wanted to make the Persons run in a fair open battle and he did just that the very next day.

Parmenion commanded the left flank of the Macedonian army and fought bravely. He managed to hold up the Persians for quite a long time, but eventually, after Alexander’s victory was becoming inevitable, it was the necessity to help out on that flank that prevented Alexander from pursuing the fleeing Persian king and ending the war definitely.

After this victory, the Macedonian phalanx captured Persepolis, the Persian capital and its royal palace. Seeing such a luxurious property newly acquired, Parmenion advises Alexader to spare it from destruction. One again, Alexander disagreed. He saw this as an act of fair revenge for the damages that Persians had caused when they had invaded Greece a century and a half before.

The Revolution

As Darius was still on the run, Alexander pursued him and his ways parted from Parmenion’s. The general was sent away on a mission. His two sons, Nicanor and Philotas, stayed with the king, but it didn’t bring them any luck. Nicanor soon died of a disease and Philotas’s fate was even worse. He was accused of conspiracy against Alexander. One of his peers allegedly planned to kill Alexander, but he told his lover, the lover told his bother, the lover’s brother was terrified of such a plan and told Philotas everything. Philotas didn’t warn Alexander, in fact, he did nothing. The brother then approached Alexander directly and accused both the original conspirator and Philotas. A trial was held and Philotas, who served as one the cavalry generals, was unable to prove his innocence. Even if his direct participation in the conspiracy remained far from definitely proven, it was clear that he had been at least aware of it and failed to report it. For that crime, he was convicted and executed.

Alexander still stood before a problem that needed to be solved. What to do with Parmenion? Did his most important general really betray him? Did he conspire with his son? No one knew for sure. However, Alexander was positive about one thing – even if Parmenion was indeed innocent, he wouldn’t approve of the execution of his own son. That alone would make him a devoted enemy. Devoted and dangerous – let us not forget about his experience and an army at his hand. Taking all this into consideration, Alexander made a hard decision and send men to Parmenion with instructions to inform the general about the betrayal and death of Philotas and to kill him immediately after that. The order was carried out and Parmenion died in 330 BCE.


Arrian – The Anabasis of Alexander

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