Silver Shields: Alexander's Crack Troops Who Betrayed Their New Master
Could a ragtag team of elite troops in their later years, and a bureaucrat-turn-general take on the military powerhouse of the day? Eumenes, the Greek general, was tasked by Olympias (Alexander’s mother) to seek the aid of Alexander’s old troops, the Silver Shields, to assemble a force against the challenger to Alexander’s dynasty, Antigonus the One-Eyed. However, as Eumenes was to discover, common blood is thicker than blue blood. At the end of this amazing story, the Silver Shield troops chose their own families over Eumenes and his attempts to restore Argead dynasty.
The Macedonian phalanx or Silver Shields at the "Battle of the Carts" against the Thracians in 335 BC under Alexander. After Alexander died in 323 BC, the elite Silver Shields continued to fight for Eumenes as the Argead dynasty leader. ( Public domain )
An Unlikely Alliance: The Silver Shields Meet Eumenes
The Silver Shields were a unit of 3,000 battle-hardened soldiers who used to make up part of Alexander’s hypaspits, the elite units of the Macedonian phalanx. Their name came from the silver shields they wielded that shimmered in direct sunlight.
Diodorus in his Universal History tells us that the Silver Shields were the envy of the Hellenistic world for their military prowess. Plutarch, in his Life of Eumenes , also corroborates Diodorus by writing the Silver Shields were “athletes of war, undefeated and unfailing up to this time.”
- The Forgotten Renaissance: The Successes of the Macedonian Dynasty
- Discovery of twenty burials in Greece may be linked to Macedonian kings
Remarkably, when they met Eumenes, the Silver Shield soldiers averaged age 70, with some older, but none younger than 60. In his 2012 book, Alexander’s Veterans , Roismann concludes that by the time they crossed paths with Eumenes in 318 BC, the Silver Shields had met barely any opportunities to blemish their record.
Eumenes from Cardea (Thrace) started as Alexander’s personal secretary and then became the leader of the Silver Shields, an appointment made by Alexander the Great’s mother. A late 17th century illustration of Eumenes of Cardea by M. Burg. (M. Burg / Public domain )
Eumenes: From Alexander’s Secretary To Argead Leadership
Eumenes from Cardea (Thrace) started as Alexander the Great’s personal secretary, far from the grandeur of the battlefield. Then, in 324 BC, a year after Alexander’s death, he became a hipparchy commander.
Eumenes shared a close relationship with Alexander. Alexander had honored Eumenes for his friendship by offering him the hand of a sister of one of Alexander’s wives in marriage. It was with great loyalty then that Eumenes obliged, upon receiving his orders from Olympias requesting the protection of the Argead royal house. While the Macedonian monarchy was in full support of Eumenes, would the Silver Shields share the same sentiment for a non-Macedonian?
Our ancient sources tell us that the Silver Shield’s commanders “enthusiastically” accepted Eumenes’ leadership after reading the letters from Olympias. Roismann adds that the letters read like propaganda pamphlets that were designed to convince the reader that Eumenes was a capable general that should be followed. They legitimized the Cardean by styling Eumenes as the strong arm of the Argead (Macedonian) house.
However, as veterans, the Silver Shields were pragmatists. The letters furthermore informed the reader that Eumenes was to have access to the royal treasury in Cyinda (Anatolia).
In Cyinda, Eumenes was instructed by Olympias to take as much from the royal treasury as he saw fit. As the events that preceded Alexander’s death indicated, Alexander knew the loyalty of his men relied heavily on providing rewards. Up until then, Eumenes looked capable of providing for the Silver Shields. Eumenes’ financial incentives would have sweetened the deal for the members loyal to the Macedonian dynasty and convinced the ambivalent ones. Albeit sources tell us that Eumenes did not trust the Silver Shields completely.
Eumenes cleverly revived the Spirit of Alexander the Great to get the Silver Shields to stay the course against Antigonus. Alexander on a mosaic from Pompeii, an alleged reproduction of a Philoxenus of Eretria or Apelles' painting, 4th century BC. (Berthold Werner / Public domain )
Beware of Greeks: Eumenes’ Cunning Ploy to Secure Loyalty
The backdrop of this unlikely alliance was an incident where the Silver Shield had voted to execute the Eumenes the Cardean.
In 321 BC, Eumenes along with the Silver Shields, fought on the side of Perdiccas, the regent of the Argead dynasty, in a war to regain territory lost to Ptolemy of Egypt . During the campaign, however, Perdiccas was assassinated. The coalition, of which the Silver Shield made a part of, voted unanimously to execute Eumenes. Despite this condemnation, Eumenes managed to escape to Phrygia where he went into hiding.
Against Antigonus, Eumenes thought the Silver Shields would finally finish what they had voted for in Egypt.
To placate any lingering resentment, the shrewd Eumenes devised a cunning way to win the favor of the Silver Shields. He began by declining money from the royal treasury and rejecting the position of supreme command over the Silver Shield altogether. This was designed, as Roismann analyses, to pacify any generals who thought themselves more capable than Eumenes. To top it off, he invoked a figure that was revered by all the Greek veterans of the Persian war, Alexander the Great.
- A Wealth of Macedonian Treasures Overlooked By Looters
- The Floating Warhorses of Alexander the Great: The Menacing Mount of the Macedonians
Eumenes reported he experienced an auspicious dream where Alexander was sitting on a throne in full royal garb, commanding his empire. Inspired by this premonition, Eumenes erected “Alexander’s tent” to house an empty golden throne, among other royal paraphernalia, in which the commanders could offer sacrifices to Alexander and strategize under his spiritual guidance .
The Macedonians, like other members of the Greek world, believed in life after death. Furthermore, Plutarch tells us that Eumenes at that point had a reputation for communicating with Alexander through dreams. Finally, much to the chagrin of their Greek cousins, the Macedonians embraced the Persian custom of proskynesis (leader worship). This made the worship of a dead king, in this case Alexander the Great, acceptable to a Macedonian contingency.
Even so, Roismann postulates that Eumenes’ respect for Alexander’s memory was as much homage as Eumenes’ attempt to ingratiate himself with the Silver Shields themselves. Justin in his Epitome of Pompeius Trogus writes that Eumenes used flattery to woo the Silver Shields. He reminded them that they surpassed the feats of Dionysus and Herakles, and that they were the jewel of Alexander’s army.
Whether by divine honors, aggrandizement, pay, or all three, sources tell us Eumenes won the respect of the Silver Shields, at this at this stage of the alliance.
Antigonus was also a clever man, and he mentally and militarily got the best of Eumenes and “his” Silver Shields in the very end of their epic conflict. ( Praefectus Coins )
Antigonus’ Tries to Bribe the Silver Shields
In addition to supplying pay for the Silver Shields, Eumenes stored bags full of money to recruit mercenaries across the Hellenistic world. The allure of good pay enabled Eumenes to gather a force of 10,000 infantry, 2,000 cavalry, 2,000 infantry, along with the 3,000 Silver Shields. Eumenes’ formidable force made his arch enemy, Antigonus, nervous. But Antigonus was still busy in his affairs in Asia Minor to directly do battle with Eumenes.
Instead, Antigonus sent out bounties for Eumenes’ head, along with emissaries to the Silver Shields, who he thought was the chink in Eumenes’ armor. Eumenes’ troops were primarily made up of hard-core supporters from Cappadocia and paid mercenaries, while the Macedonians formed a unified group of independent-minded men. Antigonus offered the Silver Shields’ commanders, Antigenes and Teutamus, handsome gifts and greater satrapies in return for their plotting against Eumenes.
Diodorus writes that Teutamus was sold on the offer, but Antigenes did not trust Antigonus’ future loyalty. As Antigenes saw it, unlike the non-Macedonian Eumenes, Antigonus will continue to expand his empire under the pretense of a Macedonian claim to Alexander’s spoils. Inversely, Eumenes’ ambitions would likely end under his current office. Teutamus was persuaded to stay loyal to Eumenes for now. With the commander unconvinced, Antigonus’ emissaries turned to the soldiers.
A meeting was organized by one of Antigonus’ emissaries, Philotas, with all the Macedonians of Eumenes’s army. In it, Antigonus threatened the Silver Shields that they would be met with a heavy hand if they didn’t punish Eumenes following his sentence in Egypt.
According to Diodorus, Eumenes delivered an eloquent speech to the Silver Shields, imploring them to heed the instruction of the Argead house, which he presented, rather than the rebel Antigonus. The commanders and the troops were conflicted between accepting Antigonus’ retribution and staying loyal to Alexander’s family.
More programmatically, Antigonus’ future rewards and punishments were more abstract than Eumenes’ tangible financial incentives at the moment. The Silver Shield remained on Eumenes’ side for now. All things considered the Macedonians’ indecision illustrated just how easily they could be manipulated.
Eumenes also gained allies in Mesopotamia in his quest to gain more troops for his ultimate battles with Antigonus. Apadana Hall, 5th-century BC carving of Persian archers and Median soldiers in traditional costume. (Arad / CC BY-SA 3.0 )
The Calm Before the Storm: The Months Before the Battles
After this, Antigonus marched on to Phoenicia to engage Eumenes where he was currently stationed before he could further expand. Eumenes, evaded a confrontation, instead moving eastward to gather more support.
While in Mesopotamia, Eumenes gained support from its satrap, Amphimachos. Amphimachos then marched onwards to northern Babylonia where Eumenes’ army wintered. During that time, Eumenes attempted to gain the support of Seleucus, the satrap of Babylonia, and Antigonus’ rival, as well as Peithon, the Median satrap, but to no avail. Failing to secure their support, Eumenes marched on to Susa where a sizable royal treasure was located. While there, Eumenes sent out letters to local satraps ordering their support at the behest of the Argead dynasty. A considerable number joined Eumenes, giving him the confidence that he could take on Antigonus.
In the summer of 316 BC, Antigonus moved swiftly towards Eumenes. And they eventually met in southern Media. At one day’s march apart, Antigonus once more attempted to defeat Eumenes by bribing his army. This time instead of attempting to sway the Silver Shields to kill him, he enticed them to desert him. Aside from their military prowess, Roismann elucidates that Antigonus wanted the Silver Shields on his side to legitimize his claim to Alexander’s empire. He promised them safe harbor to Macedonia, free land, and wealth.
Once more Eumenes performed a rousing speech. Speaking in parables, he described a lion who fell in love with a maiden and asked her father for her hand. The father, though, was concerned that the lion would lose his temper and maul her to death. Hearing of this, the lion removed his claws and teeth. Seeing his opportunity, the father clobbered the lion to death.
Just like the lion, Eumenes explained, Antigonus would remain faithful until he became the master of the army, then he would execute their leaders. The crowd unanimously exclaimed, “right on!”
The Battle of Paraitakene between the Silver Shields and Antigonus was the final battle for Eumenes. ( Albanopedia)
Flawed Victories: The Battles of Paraetacene and Gabene
In one of the largest military encounters of the Hellenistic age, Eumenes faced off against Antigonus to decide who would be the master of Alexander’s Asian empire in the Battle of Paraetacene. Like Alexander, Eumenes put his elephants and light-armed troops in the front, and his cavalry on his right and left wings, with the infantry in the center. Antigonus mirrored Eumenes. Thus, infantry fought against infantry, and cavalry against cavalry, without much overlap.
Antigonus’ archers inflicted great casualties on Eumenes’ war elephants. Meanwhile, two phalanxes fought each other for a considerable length of time, with the Silver Shields defeating anyone who stood in their way. The Silver Shields and the rest of the phalanxes then routed the enemy, putting them to flight. This advance exposed Eumenes’ left-wing, which Antigonus exploited by attacking and defeating Eumenes’ left wing. Both generals then called back their armies. The fighting was over with no decisive winner. Roismann concludes that Eumenes inflicted more causalities than Antigonus. However, Eumenes had to recall his army from its pursuit since Antigonus won on his left-wing. Eumenes’ victory was flawed.
After burying his dead, Antigonus retreated with his men under the cover of night to a safe area of Media to rest his troops. Likewise, Eumenes buried his dead and wintered in neighboring Gabene. At a point during the winter (317-15 BC), Antigonus led his army to where Eumenes was camped to attempt to surprise and capture Eumenes. But Eumenes was warned of this attack by an informant and so he sent men to light up fires on high grounds to fool Antigonus into thinking Eumenes was lying in wait. This allowed Eumenes to prepare his forces for battle the next day.
The two sides drummed up their forces for a second time. Diodorus tells us that the formations hadn’t changed from the Battle of Paraetacene. What was different, however, was the size of Antigonus’ army. Antigonus increased his force from 8,500 to 9,000, while Eumenes had 300 horsemen less than at Paraetacene, bringing his total to 6,000. Like the Battle of Paraetacene, each battalion fought its counterpart: cavalry, infantry, and elephants.
The confrontation took place on a salty arid plain that quickly enveloped the battlefield in a plume of dust. Cloaked by the cloud, Antigonus sent a cavalry unit to capture the baggage of Eumenes’ army less than a kilometer away (0.62 miles). The baggage comprised the belongings of Eumenes’ army, including their wives and children.
Unbeknownst to them, the Silver Shields closed ranks and charged the enemy killing 5,000 enemy troops and defeated a 22,000 man–strong phalanx all by themselves, without losing a man. Albeit Eumenes suffered heavy losses. Eumenes’ wing was decimated by Antigonus’ elephants and superior cavalry, in part, helped by the great screen of dust. Seeing this, the Silver Shields retreated in perfect formation. Justin blames Eumenes for the defeat while Plutarch and Diodorus write that Eumenes had won the battle if not for a betrayal in the eleventh hour.
This is what the Silver Shields looked like in their last battles with Eumenes until they just couldn't do it any more! The Phalanx Attacking the Centre in the Battle of the Hydaspes by André Castaigne. (André Castaigne / Public domain )
Common Blood Over Blue Blood: The Betrayal of Eumenes
Eumenes attempted three times to motivate his men to march back to what he thought to be a winning battle. However, his men, including his formidable Silver Shields, were not in a position to entertain any winning strategy since they were dampened by the capture of their belongings.
Uncharacteristically, Eumenes erred in a speech to his men about the baggage, perhaps knowing that his victory was slipping away from him. He tactlessly trivialized the loss of the men’s belongings saying that it consisted of a mere 2,000 women and a few children and slaves, who could more easily be recovered by fighting than by forfeiting victory.
- The Achaean League’s Struggle and Beginnings of Federalism
- Macedonian Game of Thrones Eurydice The Matriarch and Eurydice the Rebel
Being in their later years, the Silver Shields expressed regret that they had even agreed to fight for Eumenes since they were at the cusp of retirement and living in peace back home. They now risked it all thanks to a defeat that was brought about through no fault of their own.
The Silver Shields offered Eumenes up to Antigonus for the return of their belongings, and Eumenes was later executed. During his capture, Eumenes reminded them of the oaths they had taken to serve him and the Argead house. The Silver Shield, nevertheless, were resolute: their family and wealth were valued over all grand Argead causes.
Top image: The legendary Silver Shields of Alexander the Great went on to serve Eumenes as the house of Argead battled the Macedonian forces of Antigonus but in the end family trumped loyalty. Source: Honga
By Thanos Matanis
Diodorus, Charles Henry Oldfather, Charles Lawton Sherman, C. Bradford Welles, Russel M. Geer, and Francis R. Walton. 1933. Diodorus of Sicily . Harvard University Press
Justinus, Marcus Junianus, John Yardley, Pat Wheatley, and Waldemar Heckel. 2011. Epitome of the Philippic History of Pompeius Trogus . Oxford University Press
Plutarch, John Dryden, and Arthur Hugh Clough. 1992. Plutarch: the lives of the noble Grecians and Romans . Modern Library
Roismannn, Josef. 2012. Alexander's veterans and the early wars of the successors . University of Texas Press.