In August 324 BC, Alexander the Great faced a mutiny by his troops. By this time, Alexander had already conquered the Persian Empire and was master of much of the known world.
Nevertheless, Alexander now faced a serious challenge to his authority posed by the very men who had loyally followed him into battle for over a decade. The mutiny stemmed from growing sentiments held by his troops that Alexander no longer behaved in the proper fashion for a Macedonian monarch, but had instead been seduced by the customs of the peoples he had subjugated in conquest.
Ultimately, through the power of his words and some cunning politicking, Alexander was able to reconcile with his army and introduced measures to harmonize relations between the Greeks and Persians under his rule.
What caused Alexander’s men to mutiny at Opis
Our main source on how Alexander confronted the mutiny at Opis, an ancient Babylonian city near the Tigris river, is the Greco-Roman historian Arrian. Although Arrian wrote The Anabasis of Alexander hundreds of years after the legendary Macedonian king’s death, his account of Alexander’s life is regarded by historians as one of the most reliable accounts.
According to Arrian’s account of the mutiny, it was sparked by Alexander’s announcement to his men that he would be sending home the Macedonians who had sustained injuries or were too old for continued service.
Alexander meant for this to please his men. Indeed, he planned to send home these men who were no longer fit for service with great gifts. However, the Macedonians perceived his announcement as an insult and took offence.
In truth, tensions had been simmering in Alexander’s army for some time. His growing adoption of Persian customs, such as a preference for more ostentatious garments than any ancient Greek would typically wear, was beginning to agitate his men.
Moreover, the introduction of “barbarian” (non-Greek) men into units of his army, particularly the elite Companion cavalry, caused resentment. That foreigners had been trained to wield the sarissa in the phalanx formation, in the Macedonian style of warfare, had the same affect.
For the Macedonians, this latest announcement was the last straw, and Alexander had a mutiny on his hands. The men who were to be sent away refused to leave, and some of the most vociferous mutineers openly mocked Alexander.
According to Arrian, the mutineers shouted to Alexander that he should discharge them all and continue the campaign with his father, in this case referring to the god Zeus-Ammon, not Alexander’s earthly father, Philip II.
Alexander initially responded to the mutiny by imposing severe consequences on its ringleaders. He ordered the Hypaspists, an elite infantry unit, to arrest thirteen of “the most conspicuous troublemakers” and execute them.
The army were stunned into silence by this action, which gave Alexander a chance to exercise his rhetorical talents and attempt to rally his men with a rousing speech.
According to Arrian, Alexander’s speech was as follows:
“Macedonians, my speech will not be aimed at stopping your urge to return home; as far as I am concerned you may go where you like. But I want you to realize on departing what I have done for you, and what you have done for me.
Let me begin, as is right, with my father Philip. He found you wandering about without resources, many of you clothed in sheepskins and pasturing small flocks in the mountains, defending them with difficulty against the Illyrians, Triballians and neighboring Thracians. He gave you cloaks to wear instead of sheepskins, brought you down from the mountains to the plains, and made you a match in war for the neighboring barbarians, owing your safety to your own bravery and no longer to reliance on your mountain strongholds. He made you city dwellers and civilized you with good laws and customs.
Those barbarians who used to harrass you and plunder your property, he made you their leaders instead of their slaves and subjects. He annexed much of Thrace to Macedonia, seized the most favorable coastal towns and opened up the country to commerce, and enabled you to exploit your mines undisturbed.
He made you governors of the Thessalians, before whom you used to die of fright, humbled the Phocians and so opened a broad and easy path into Greece in place of a narrow and difficult one. The Athenians and Thebans, who were permanently poised to attack Macedonia, he so humbled (and I was now helping him in this task) that instead of you paying tribute to the Athenians and being under the sway of the Thebans, they now in turn had to seek their safety from us.
He marched into the Peloponnese and settled matters there too. He was appointed commander-in-chief of all Greece for the campaign against the Persians, but preferred to assign the credit to all the Macedonians rather than just to himself.
Such were the achievements of my father on your behalf; as you can see for yourselves, they are great, and yet small in comparison with my own. I inherited from my father a few gold and silver cups, and less than 60 talents in the treasury; Philip had debts amounting to 500 talents, and I raised a loan of a further 800. I started from a country that could barely sustain you and immediately opened up the Hellespont for you, although the Persians then held the mastery of the sea.
I defeated the satraps of Darius in a cavalry engagement, and annexed to your rule the whole of Ionia and Aeolis, both Phrygias and Lydia, and took Miletus by storm.
All the rest came over to our side spontaneously, and I made them yours for you to enjoy.
All the wealth of Egypt and Cyrene, which I won without a fight, is now yours, Coele Syria, Palestine and Mesopotamia are your possession, Babylonia and Bactria and Elam belong to you, you own the wealth of Lydia, the treasures of Persia, the riches of India, and the outer ocean. You are satraps, you are generals, you are captains. As for me, what do I have left from all these labors? Merely this purple cloak and a diadem.”
After the speech, Alexander retired to his tent for two days and refused to see anyone. On the third day, he invited the most senior Persian members of his retinue to his quarters and granted them command over each unit in the army.
This was a risky ploy, since it risked turning the Macedonians, who formed the elite core of his army, entirely against him. However, it worked and the Macedonians, who were alarmed by the sudden rise of the Persians above them, came to Alexander and promised to deliver the ringleaders of the mutiny to him.
According to Arrian, one of Companion cavalry commanders came before Alexander and said, “Sire, what grieves the Macedonians is that you have already made some Persians your ‘kinsmen’, and the Persians are called ‘kinsmen’ of Alexander and are allowed to kiss you, while not one of the Macedonians has been granted this honor.”
Alexander replied to the officer, saying, “I make you all my ‘kinsmen’ and henceforward that shall be your title.”
Alexander marked this reconciliation with his men by sacrificing to the gods. He then held a great banquet, which 9,000 guests are said to have attended. The Greeks and Persians were encouraged to feast and drink together to cement their new bonds within Alexander’s empire.
To further bind the Persians and Greeks, Alexander staged a mass marriage between his Macedonian officers and Persian noblewomen. He intended for the offspring of these unions to be the children of both the Greek and Persian civilizations, in effect acting as the glue which would hold his new empire together in the generations to come.
Ultimately, this strategy failed and the Macedonian officers divorced their Persian brides after the death of Alexander. The empire itself also fell apart and was split between the successor kingdoms led by his generals, most notably the Seleucid, Ptolemaic, and Antigonid kingdoms.
Nevertheless, Hellenistic civilization continued to interact and evolve alongside the other cultures Alexander had incorporated into his empire. In the Ptolemaic Kingdom for instance, the syncretic relationship between Greek and Egyptian gods endured and evolved. Similarly, within the Kingdom of Pontus, the Greek, Persian, and Anatolian cultures fused together in unexpected and interesting ways.