Uprising at Opis
Alexander left Susa in the spring 324. With his light troops he boarded the fleet of Nearchus and went down towards the sea, with the intention of exploring the Persian Gulf. In the meantime, Hephestion was to lead the main body of the troops to Opis, where Alexander planned to meet him at the beginning of the summer.
Opis owed its importance to its geographical situation, which is why Alexander had chosen it to be the centre of his military administration. He had built a gigantic camp which served as a depot, arsenal and war machine storage. Here the young recruits coming from Greece were enrolled; and from here they set off to join their garrison located on the borders of the Empire.
When Alexander reached there in July 324, he found the army in turmoil. The officers were unhappy, the soldiers exasperated. Their anger, for a long time repressed, burst out suddenly and rapidly into a general uprising.
Alexander had barely arrived at Opis before he had measured the gravity of the situation. A storm was coming. To bow down and let it pass was impossible.
Alexander convened all the soldiers in a general assembly. When they had gathered, he mounted a platform that stood in front of the troops and spoke thus:
— Macedonian officers and soldiers! I have good news for you! A large number of you are exhausted by long years of service, by wounds and ordeals. Some aspire to exchange arms, which they have carried so gloriously, against a well-deserved rest. I do not want to let them settle in the newly founded cities, as I have done for so many others. I know with what joy they will see their motherland again. I have then decided to send home all men who have become unfit for active service. Those who prefer to stay with me can let it be known. The fact that Asia is now subjected and pacified means that a large
number of soldiers can be dismissed. Ten thousand men may then return home.
At that moment, a wave of protestations cut off his speech. The shouts burst forth from every side:
— Alexander is trying to get rid of veterans!
— That is why he has recruited thirty thousand Epigones and introduced Asiatic horsemen to the hipparchy....
— This decision is a shame! It insults our honour.... Remonsirations1 and imprecations2 became more and more vehement. A soldier exclaimed:
— After having poured out the last drops of our blood, you fire us with contempt! You expel us old, exhausted; you send us back to our parents in very different conditions than those in which you took us.
The veterans, who had moved up to the platform, started to draw their swords. Feeling his life in danger Alexander climbed down the steps and advanced unarmed toward the unleashed crowd. His glance was terrifying. With a vigorous sweep he grabbed the nearest ringleaders and threw them to his guards. Then he pointed at the others and gave the order to arrest them. Thirteen were apprehended after a quick man-to-man fight.
— To death! yelled Alexander.
A dreadful silence followed these words. The veterans did not expect such a reaction from him. But Alexander was racked by a fury which sometimes swept over him with the violence of a hurricane.
The king had already climbed back onto the platform, surrounded by his guards, a few generals and a handful of hypaspists3 who ran to his aid. Beside himself, he looked at the army with daggers in his eyes and cried:
— It is not to prevent you from leaving that I am addressing
1 Remonstrarion: to argue in protest or objection; to remonstrate with the government.
2 Imprecation: curse, or blaspheme.
3 Hypaspist: a macedonian shield bearer.
You for the last time! You can go wherever you like, I do not care! But I want to remind you what you have become thanks to me! You complain of having been exploited, pressurized? Well! Listen to me:
"My father Philip made you accomplish great things. Formerly you were miserable and possessed only your flocks. You wandered through the mountains without a roof, without homes, exposed to the attacks of the Thracians and the Hyllirians. My father settled you in villages and cities. He replaced your animal pelts with warriors' uniforms. He made you the masters of the neighbourhing Barbarians. He opened to your industry the silver mines and allowed your ships to plough the seas. He put at your feet Thessalia, Thebes, Athens and the Peloponnese. He claimed and obtained supreme hegemony1 over all Hellenes to march against the Persians. All that Philip did. Great things indeed! Nothing, when compared to what has been accomplished since then. My father left me only a little silver and gold. I found only sixty talents in the royal treasury and five hundred talents of debts. I was obliged to borrow eight hundred talents to pay for the preparations for war. Although the Persians held the hegemony of the seas I opened the Hellespont for you. I vanquished the Great Ring's satraps at Granicus. I subjugated the rich satrapies of Asia Minor and let you enjoy the fruits of victory. I distributed to you the riches of Egypt and Cyrene; I gave you Syria, Babylon and Bactria; I gave you Persia's treasures, the precious objects of India! My satraps, my governors, my generals, I chose them from among you. What advantages did I get from all these battles besides the purple cloak and the diadem? I kept nothing for myself and no one could point out my treasures unless to show what belongs to you all. Why should I hoard wealth, since I eat and sleep like you? More than one of you leads a life more pleasant than mine, for after having fought the whole day, I
1 Hegemony: ascendancy or domination of one power or state within a league, confederation, etc., or of one social class over others.
Still have to stay awake at night so that you may sleep peacefully. Those who bear wounds, show them! And I will show mine. There is no part of my body which has not been wounded and no type of weapon from which I do not bear the scar. I have received blows from swords and knives, from stones and clubs, from arrows, from javelins and catapults, while I fought to shower you with glory and wealth, and led you from victory to victory, through mountains and deserts, forests and rivers, continents and seas! I have contracted the same marriage as you and I have promised that your children will be the parents of mine. I have settled your debts without asking how you had incurred1 such heavy ones, with such high pay and such enormous booty. Most of you have received golden crowns as reward for bravery and, by admiration for them, I have immortalized their names. As for those who have perished during the battles, their death was glorious and their sepulchre2 honourable. Their bronze statues stand in the fatherland's temples to commemorate their memory. Their parents are venerated and exempted from income tax. And last, as long as I commanded you, none of you died turning his back to the enemy. Now I had the intention to send back home those among you who are weary of fighting, that they may be the pride of their fathers and the admiration of their children. But you all want to leave? Never mind. Leave! And when you arrive home, say that your king Alexander, who defeated the Uxians, the Archosians and the Dragians; who rallied the Parthians, the Chorasmians and the Hycranians who live in the areas bordering the Caspian sea; who climbed the Caucasus; who crossed the Oxus, the Liaxarte and the Indus — that only Dionysus had reached before him; who crossed the Hydaspes and the Acesines, and who crossed the Gedrosia desert which no one had crossed before him at the head of an army, and whose fleet has opened the shipping
1 To incur: to make oneself subject to (something undesirable); bring upon oneself.
2 Sepulchre: a burial vault, tomb, or grave.
Route which leads from the Indus to Persia, say that this king, you abandoned him and left him alone under the protection of Barbarians. These things, when you tell them, will no doubt make you glorious in human eyes and make the Gods love you! Go!
Having pronounced this terrible word "Go!" Alexander went back to the city. The king's speech had rooted his audience to the spot. Appalled, the Macedonians did not know what to do. Should they leave or stay? To whom should they ask advice?
Two days passed, Alexander had still not reappeared. On the third day, the tension had reached an absolutely unbearable level. The king called the Persians. He informed them of his decision; he bestowed some of them with the honorific title of "King's parent". Then he distributed the Asian troops in squadrons and phalanxes. He created a Persian escort, an infantry phalanx of loyal Persians, a hypaspist Persian cohort with silver shields, hipparchy of loyal Persians from the cavalry, and a royal escort of Persian riders. He removed the Macedonian sentries from the castle entrances and replaced them with Persian sentries. He assigned the Persian ephebes to his personal service. Then he sent the Macedonians the order to leave the camp and to go wherever they wished.
At last on the third day he came out, and when he saw them reduced to such a forlorn1 and pitiful state, he himself wept for a while. He reproached them gently for their behaviour and finally spoke to them kindly: afterwards he dismissed those who were no longer fit for service and gave them generous gratuities.2 Besides this he sent instructions to Antipater that at all public contests and in the theatres these men should occupy the best seats and wear garlands on their heads. He also gave orders that the orphaned children of those who had died in his service should continue to receive their fathers' pay.
1 Forlorn: miserable and sad.
2 Gratuity: a gift or reward, usually of money, for services rendered.