Parmenion - Veteran general and father of Philotas
Parmenion, son of Philotas, was born early in the fourth century, probably in 400BC (he is stated as being 70 years old in 330BC), and so he was already a young man when Philip was born. By the time of Philip’s death he was the foremost general in Macedonia (after Philip, of course) and he continued to be held in high regard in the same position under Alexander until his death in 330BC.
Parmenion first appears in the history of Alexander on the day that Philip heard of his son’s birth. According to Plutarch Philip had just captured Potidaea when he learned that Parmenion had defeated the Illyrians, that his race-horse was victorious in the Olympic Games, and that Alexander had been born.
Parmenion was sent by Philip to secure a bridgehead in Asia in 336BC. Along with Attalus and a force of around 10,000 men, Parmenion ‘liberated’ a number of Ionian cities, at least as far down the coast as Ephesus, before a Persian counter attack drove the Macedonians back to the Hellespont. It was probably here that Parmenion heard of Philip’s death, and where Hecataeus came with Alexander’s orders to arrest and/or execute Attalus for treason. Parmenion acceded to the order, despite the fact that Attalus was his son-in-law – or at least he did nothing to prevent Attalus from being killed. It is likely that it was at this time that Parmenion heard that his sons, Philotas and Nicanor, had been given command of the Companions and the hypaspists respectively – to help ease his conscience over Attalus, perhaps, and certainly to ensure his support for Alexander. Parmenion married his widowed daughter to Coenus, who commanded one of the battalions of pezhetairoi and who voiced the army’s grievances to Alexander at the Hyphasis in 326BC.
Parmenion’s strategic role was to command the left wing of the army, which included the superb Thessalian cavalry. This he did at the Granicus, at Issus and at Gaugamela: a pivotal role especially in the latter two battles.
Outside the major battles Parmenion’s main role was largely to secure the supply lines and take charge of the army’s supply train. While Alexander went gallivanting along the coast of Asia Minor the old general took the baggage train and the rest of the army onto the Anatolian Plateau to secure the hinterland until Alexander came to meet him at Gordium. After Issus Parmenion hurried to Damascus to secure the Persian baggage train – from where he sent Barsine, the widow of Memnon, to become Alexander’s mistress. And while Alexander besieged Tyre he remained in Syria to keep the coast clear and the supply lines open. His last command was to remain in Ecbatana while Alexander proceeded into Bactria, guarding this time not just the supply route but also the royal treasure taken from Susa and Persepolis.
It was while Parmenion was at Ecbatana that his son Nicanor died (of natural causes) and shortly afterwards his other son, Philotas, was accused of treason and executed. (A third son, Hector, had died in an accident during the army’s stay in Egypt.) As soon as Philotas was dead Alexander sent Parmenion’s friend Polydamus to Ecbatana, with sealed orders to the other commanders – Cleander, Sitalces, Agathon and Menidas – to kill the general. It would appear that Alexander’s excuse for having Parmenion killed was that he, along with Hegelochus (who died at Gaugamela) and Philotas had plotted against Alexander in Egypt, and that Parmenion had resumed plotting with Philotas more recently. Whether these accusations were true or not, the commanders slew Parmenion without any fuss and their explanation of the reasons for the murder, reading out a letter from Alexander to them, ultimately satisfied the troops at Ecbatana. Even if the accusations were false, Alexander felt he had to remove Parmenion when Philotas was executed, for Parmenion at Ecbatana controlled a large military force, a vast quantity of treasure and Alexander’s logistic lifeline. If the old general had decided to rebel, Alexander would in all probability have been finished. It is perhaps difficult to excuse Alexander for ordering the murder but to leave Parmenion alive would have been too great a risk. (There is some debate as to whether there really was an established custom in Macedonia of slaying all a traitor’s family to prevent repercussions, as has been asserted in the past.)
Parmenion’s reputation has come down to us rather tarnished in the sources, it appears thanks to Callisthenes and probably to Aristoboulos, too. Callisthenes probably ‘re-wrote’ his history to defame the general after the murder, to excuse Alexander’s actions further. Hence we find an account of a staid, unadventurous general who repeatedly gave Alexander advice which, if it wasn’t actually bad, at least went against the heroic image that Alexander wished to portray. So, for example, Parmenion advised Alexander not to attack too early at the Granicus – which was actually very sensible counsel; and he urged Alexander to “steal a victory” at Gaugamela by attacking the Persians at night. We also hear that Parmenion got himself into dire straits at Gaugamela and that his appeal for help prevented Alexander from following up the victory more thoroughly – a very unlikely story considering the general’s track record. Callisthenes’ denigration of Parmenion is belied, moreover, by the continued reliance Alexander put on him to protect the lines of communication including, especially, the posting at Ecbatana with the royal treasure. The smearing of Parmenion’s character was a cynical piece of media manipulation on the part of Alexander’s ‘press corps’.