Eumenes of Cardia, His Rise & Fall

Robert Fabbri

One of the great generals of the Hellenistic period, Eumenes is not as well-known today as he should be.
17th century depiction of Eumenes.
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Plutarch chose him as the subject of one of his Lives. He began his career as secretary to Philip II. In the aftermath of Alexander the Great’s death, Eumenes of Cardia rose to prominence, and here novelist Robert Fabbri describes that rise, his fall and reminds us of how important the baggage train is to any commander of the ancient world.

Of all Alexander’s Successors, the Diadochi, Eumenes of Cardia was the odd one out: he was neither Macedonian – or at least of Mollosian or Eperiotic origin – nor was he martial. He was, instead, a Greek from Kardia of below average height and a secretary.

How Eumenes came to the notice of Alexander’s father, King Philip II, who eventually made him his chief secretary, is not certain; he either sought refuge in Macedon’s capital, Pella, having fled Kardia after a dispute with its ruler, Hecataeus, as there was, according to Plutarch, bad blood between them; or Philip noticed him as a youth whilst on a visit to Kardia; or – and this is Plutarch’s favourite – he was advanced by Philip because of a tie of guest-friendship with his father. Whatever way he came to royal notice, we may infer that Eumenes had a sharp and organised mind to be given such a position by, firstly, Philip and then Alexander. To be able to deal with the complex issue of the royal correspondence and the many staff he would have had working under him – he was, after all, chief secretary – to facilitate the smooth running of what was, in effect, a bourgeoning bureaucracy, shows the intelligence and clarity of thought that was to make him one of the great challengers in the wars of the Diadochi. Eumenes, though, did not fight for himself but, rather, for the existence of the Argead Royal House of Macedon to which he remained loyal to the end.

By the time of Alexander’s death at Babylon in 323BC, Eumenes had made the transition from pen-pusher to cavalry commander, having had a couple of low-key commands in India and then, after Hephaestion’s death, taking over Perdiccas’ cavalry when the latter was made Alexander’s second-in-command in place of the grieving king’s dead lover. That he should have benefitted from the death of Alexander’s lifelong companion with whom Eumenes had had at least two serious disagreements, if not a running feud, was due to his ability – as shown in his later career – to turn a bad situation to his own advantage: to deflect the grieving Alexander’s wrath as he lashed out at all who had cause to be pleased at Hephaestion’s death, and Eumenes was certainly one, he suggested to Alexander honours for Hephaestion that would embellish his memory, as well as lavishly and readily providing money for the construction of his tomb. Saved by well-timed sycophancy and with proof of Alexander’s favour by his marriage to Artonis, Alexander’s mistress’ half-sister, Eumenes found himself in a secure position as the politicking began with the great man’s final breath, having uttered the fatal words: “to the strongest” and the prophetic “I foresee great struggles at my funeral games”. This is supported by Neoptolemus, the commander of the shield-bearers, being laughed down by the Macedonian high-command when he claimed that they had all followed Alexander with shield and spear whereas Eumenes had only followed with pen and paper. Neoptolemus was to nurse that grudge.

It was now that Eumenes’ absolute loyalty to the Argead House swept him into the Wars of the Successors. Perdiccas had received the Great Ring of Macedon from Alexander, but the dying king had neglected to say who the strongest was, and thus division was sown. Two factions emerged: one supporting the, as yet, unborn son of Roxane, Alexander’s Bactrian wife, and the other supporting the claim of Alexander’s mentally retarded half-brother who became known as Philip III. As a non-Macedonian, Eumenes found himself able to remain neutral and acted as a mediator between the two sides. Once Roxane was delivered of a son, Alexander IV, a compromise was fudged whereby Perdiccas would act as regent for the co-kings – both as incapable as each other – and the empire’s satrapies and commands would be shared out amongst the generals to hold under Perdiccas’ sway until an unspecified moment when he would relinquish power back to one of the kings. This was, obviously, never going to work.

In the settlement Eumenes was given the unsubdued satrapies of Cappadocia and Paphlagonia with orders that Antigonos, Alexander’s satrap of Phrygia who had been left behind to complete the conquest of central Anatolia, should help him pacify the place and bring it under Macedonian control. Antigonos refused Perdiccas’ orders; as did Leonnatus, one of Alexander’s seven bodyguards who had been given Hellespontine Phrygia and also charged with aiding the Greek.

This was followed by Ptolemy, reputedly Alexander’s bastard half-brother, the new satrap of Egypt defying Perdiccas and hijacking Alexander’s funeral cortege to bring it to Memphis.

With the empire fragmenting, civil war was brewing and Eumenes would be forced to choose a side and so it was, naturally, Perdiccas and the kings he supported. War came soon enough as the eighty-year-old Antipatros, Alexander’s appointment as regent of Macedon crossed into Asia with Krateros, Alexander’s most successful general and the darling of the army, to challenge Perdiccas’ increasingly high-handed rule.

With Perdiccas planning an invasion of Egypt to retrieve Alexander’s body, it was left to Eumenes to guard the north; Neoptolemus, now the satrap of Armenia, was ordered by Perdiccas to support him. And so Eumenes and his grudge-nursing ally marched to face the invaders; as the two armies neared one another, Neoptolemus, unwilling to take orders from a Greek and still smarting from the humiliation of Eumenes being supported by Macedonians when he had tried to denigrate him, took his force on towards Antipatros and Krateros and then turned to face the man he was meant to be supporting. And thus, betrayed and outnumbered, Eumenes was about to command his first battle. This is where his being a Greek, a short one at that, and a former secretary aided him, for Antipatros and Krateros severely underestimated Eumenes and held their army back to allow Neoptolemus to deal with the upstart, watching on from a hill.

And so Neoptolemus would have done had not Eumenes surprised everyone with cunning use of his cavalry. With his phalanx hard-pressed, Eumenes sent his Cappadocian cavalry around the infantry struggle to capture Neoptolemus’ baggage and then take his phalanx in the rear, forcing it’s surrender. This is the point where Eumenes rise and subsequent fall becomes intertwined with the baggage-train: in order to retrieve their belongings, including their women and children, the men of Neoptolemus’ phalanx swore loyalty to Eumenes of Cardia whilst their erstwhile leader fled in further humiliation to Antipatros and Krateros.

Despite his army now being almost double in size, Antipatros and Ktrateros still continued to underestimate the little Greek, after he refused to join them in return for keeping his satrapy: they divided their force. Antipatros went south leaving Krateros and Neoptolemus to deal with Eumenes who, surely, could not be lucky twice. But it had not been luck that had won Eumenes the battle as he proved when drawing up his line to face Krateros and Neoptolemus. Knowing that Macedonians would baulk at fighting Krateros, who stood out due to the distinctive hat, the kausia, he always wore, Eumenes placed non-Macedonian troops opposite where the popular general was stationed on the right wing of his army; meanwhile, Eumenes, attacked Neoptolemus on the left wing, leaving the two phalanxes in the centre to slug it out. Now we see another side of Eumenes: his bravery. Fighting hand to hand with Neoptolemus, tearing him from his horse, Eumenes vanquished the man who had betrayed him, stripping his armour from his corpse. As Eumenes was proving himself to be the most martial secretary, Krateros fell to the eastern cavalry sent against him. With Krateros dead the battle was won; Eumenes had announced himself as a general to be reckoned with. However, because he had not secured the enemy’s baggage the capture soldiery slipped away back to Antipatros with their belongings as soon as they were able.

Had news of his victory reached Perdiccas before he attempted to cross the Pelusium Nile into Egypt, history might well have been different; however, two days after Eumenes’ victory, Perdiccas fell to the assassin’s blade after his attempted invasion proved to be a disastrous failure appreciated only by the crocodiles.

With Perdiccas’ death a new settlement was made at the conference at the Persian Royal Hunting Lodge, Triparadisus; satrapies were redistributed or reconfirmed to the victors. Eumenes was declared outlaw. Leaving Antigonos to prosecute the war against the Greek, Antipatros returned to Macedon, taking the kings with him.

With the kings in Europe under Antipatros’ control and Antigonos now chasing him, Eumenes reinforced his cavalry from the Royal herds pasturing around Mount Ida, proving his continuing loyalty to the Argead Royal house by itemising everything he had taken as they were the kings’ property – Antipatros was greatly amused when he received the written statement. Superior now in cavalry, Eumenes was keen to confront Antigonos on the plains of Lydia around Sardis; Alexander’s sister, Cleopatra, currently in residence in the city, not wishing to give Antigonos cause to move against her should he consider her to be too involved with the outlaw, persuaded him to fall back east for the winter – Eumenes could not refuse an Argead.

Fugitives from Perdiccas’ army, led by his brother, Alcetas, met with Eumenes over the winter wanting to join forces with him with the Greek, naturally, subordinate to them; they were sent away, no doubt with a clear idea of what Eumenes thought of Macedonian arrogance; they were defeated by Antigonos the following year. Before Antigonos moved on Eumenes, he offered a considerable reward for his head; Eumenes’ men’s response was to give him a bodyguard of a thousand, such was their loyalty to the Greek. And Eumenes repaid that loyalty after the ensuing battle with Antigonos. Comprehensively defeated outside the town of Orcynii in Cappadocia, Eumenes decided to take refuge in the Fortress at Nora with just five hundred of his cavalry and two hundred infantry; pursued by Antigonos he managed to circle around and return to the battle site to give the dead the funeral rites gaining admiration for so pious a deed from friend and foe alike. Now behind Antigonos, Eumenes came within sight of his baggage-train and for once decided not to take advantage of it for he knew that if he let his men plunder it, they would be too weighed down to be able to travel fast so he sent a message to Menander, the commander of the baggage warning him of his danger; after the temptation had been moved to safety Eumenes led his men to their mountain refuge.

Eumenes and Neoptolomus clash at the Battle of the Hellespont.

While Eumenes was besieged in Nora, Antipatros died, leaving the Regency not to his oldest son, Cassandros, but to his second-in-command, the aging Polyperchon; Antigonos now saw his opportunity to be the strongest and take the whole empire for himself; for this he preferred to have Eumenes as a friend and so he sent a message suggesting an oath that the Greek could swear to secure his release. But Eumenes’ loyalty to the Argead house held firm and he made the suggestion to officer administering the oath that he should add in his loyalty to Alexander’s mother, Olympias, and the kings. Eumenes took the oath with the new wording and was released with his men, much to Antigonos’ fury when he found out. Eumenes began to reassemble his army.

Once again, Eumenes’ fortune changed. Olympias wrote to him asking him to come to Macedon to take charge of the young Alexander, whilst Polyperchon gave him permission, in King Philip’s name, to take five hundred talents from the Royal Treasury at Cyinda, currently being guarded by the Silver Shields, the elite unit of the whole army. Polyperchon had also written to Antigenes and Teutamus, the commanders of the Silver Shields, to place themselves under Eumenes’ command; as Macedonians they were not at all keen on the idea. Once again, Eumenes shows his ability to get around a problem by claiming that Alexander had come to him in a dream and told him to set up his throne in his tent and to hold council there and all decisions come to would be as if they were from the great man himself. It worked and thus Eumenes was able to control his Macedonian officers through this device and began to ready the army for transportation to Macedon. But disaster struck: his fleet was captured and went over to Antigonos, leaving Eumenes of Cardia stranded in Asia. Unable to face Antigonos’ growing army unsupported, Eumenes had only two options: join Antigonos and give up his loyalty to the Argead House or find a larger army. So Eumenes went east, taking the war with him.

The eastern satraps had recently successfully united against Peithon, the satrap of Media who had murdered the neighbouring satrap of Parthia and installed his own brother in his place, and it was this united army that Eumenes intended to add to his forces. But once again his Greek blood proved an obstacle to him: Seleukos, the satrap of Babylonia, refused to ally himself to Eumenes unless he was in command – a surprising request seeing as he had a tiny army in comparison, but illustrative of the Macedonian mindset. Unable, therefore, to guarantee his supply line, Eumenes divided his army into three columns, leagues apart, and stripped the satrapy of all he could find as he marched east, leaving little for Antigonos to forage as he chased him into Susiana, Antigenes’, the commander of the Silver Shields’ satrapy. Here, in the capital, Susa, he met the eastern satraps – including Peucestas of Persis and Eudamos of India – and, once again using the empty throne ploy, managed to unite the two forces into a single army with him as nominal head – after Alexander, of course. Having fortified Susa and the treasury therein he headed southeast to Peucestas’ capital, Persepolis. With Antigonos close behind, Eumenes once again showed his brilliance as a general by turning back and catching his enemy crossing a river, capturing four thousand of his men and filling the river with dead and causing Antigonos to head north to Ecbatana, the capital of Media, for the winter.

Forcing his allied satraps to all lend him considerable amounts of money, Eumenes bound them to him as they feared they would lose their gold should he die. And thus, with his coalition reasonably secure, he headed north the following spring to face Antigonos.

Antigonos tried first to bribe Eumenes’ officers away from him but failed, firstly because of the money they would lose, and, more importantly, because they judged that Antigonos did not need them nearly as much as the Greek did; Eumenes, they argued, had few friends and was therefore unlikely to execute those he did have. Antigonos, however . . .

After a period of cat and mouse campaigning, the two armies eventually met in Paratacaene in what was the largest scale battle since Alexander’s time with close to a hundred thousand men in the field. Having tricked Antigonos by slipping away from his camp, Eumenes made a dash for the fertile region of Gabene; descending onto a plain he was a couple of leagues across when he saw Antigonos’ cavalry lining the hill whence he had descended. Whether the rest of the army was behind the cavalry or not, Eumenes did not know, but he had to act as if it were and thus turned to face the enemy. It was here that Eumenes made a terrible mistake, and yes, it involves the baggage: he ordered the train to carry on crossing the plain thinking it better for the slow-moving beasts of burden, women and children to keep going and the main army would catch up having seen off the enemy.

Antigonos had bluffed Eumenes, the main body of his army was not just behind the cavalry; eventually it arrived, and the reunited force descended onto the plain. For the remainder of the day they fought, and then well into the night for a full moon shone down upon the struggle. But the strength of the veteran Silver Shields as well as the Hypaspists, decided the infantry fight in Eumenes’ favour, but only just; as if by mutual consent the two sides parted and the fight ceased. And now Eumenes wanted to camp on the field of battle, the right of the victor, but his men – mainly the Silver Shields – had other ideas and turned to march off after their baggage. Thus, Antigonos could claim the victory, a propaganda coup; Eumenes was forced to seek permission to recover his dead despite losing less than a thousand men and Antigonos having almost a quarter of his army either killed or wounded. Unable to risk further conflict after suffering such losses, Antigonos retreated back to Media for the winter. Eumenes made it to the un-plundered fertile region of Gabane; but now the cracks began to appear in Eumenes’ alliance with Peucestas proving to be the most treacherous.

Braving the winter cold of a high desert, Antigonos launched an early surprise attack on Eumenes’ position, but his army’s refusal to comply with his no fires order after three nights in sub-zero conditions, meant Antigonos’ advance was noticed and reported to Eumenes. Needing time to reassemble his army, billeted across a wide area, Eumenes tricked Antigonos into thinking that his whole strength was awaiting him by having three thousand men light a few fires each across the line of Antigonos’ advance; falling for the ruse, Antigonos veered away from his path, allowing time for Eumenes to muster.

The battle itself, when it came, was a marked by tactical brilliance and treachery: choosing dry ground – perhaps a salt plain – Antigonos sought to use it to his advantage, knowing his infantry would never be able to withstand the Silver Shields and the Hypaspists; using the rising dust as cover, he got his cavalry behind the phalanx and captured – yes, you’ve guessed it – Eumenes’ baggage. At this point, Peucestas treacherously took his command from the field. The battle lost the bargaining for the baggage commenced; for the Silver Shields – none of them younger than sixty, Plutarch tells us – to reclaim the booty of a life under arms they, and the Hypaspists, delivered up Eumenes and the generals remaining loyal to him. Most were pardoned, but Eudamos was executed and then his body thrown into a fire pit and Antigenes was thrown in after him, alive. Antigonos hesitated before having Eumenes despatched for even though he had been defeated, Antigonos knew that the little Greek could still be a formidable ally due to his organisational ability, cunning and grasp of strategy. But eventually he had him garrotted.

And so passed one of the great generals of the age, a man who had won his first major victory by seizing Neoptolemus’ baggage and then brought down, in pleasing symmetry, by having the same done to him.

Robert Fabbri is a bestselling and acclaimed novelist. He was educated at Christ’s Hospital School, Horsham and London University. He is the author of Alexander’s Legacy, a series of novels set in the wake of the death of Alexander the Great, the latest of which is An Empty Throne.

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