Nearchus, son of Androtimus
In some respects Nearchus is the most misunderstood of Alexander’s officers. Frequently (in novels for the most part, admittedly; but also it is implied in non-fiction works) he is described as a seaman – because he originally came from Crete, and because of his most famous command on the Indus and Indian Ocean fleet – but in fact there is nothing to suggest that he had any particular skills in this area.
It is true that he came from Crete originally. His family settled in Amphipolis at some point during Philip’s reign (we must assume after Philip took the city in 357BC), at which point Nearchus was probably a young boy – Heckel has argued that he was almost certainly older than Alexander, as were Ptolemy, Erigyius and the others of the ‘boyhood friends’ (‘Marshals’ p.228); so depending on when Androtimos came to Macedonia Nearchus was quite possibly born on Crete.
Nearchus, along with Ptolemy, Erigyius and Laomedon, and Harpalus, was one of Alexander’s ‘mentors’ – as Heckel explains it, “older advisers of the Prince” – and he was exiled by Philip as a result of the Pixodarus affair (Arr 3.6.5; Pl Alex 10.4). We don’t know where the exiles went, but they were recalled only after Philip’s death, on Alexander’s accession.
Plutarch says that, after their recall, these mentors were held in the highest honour. We next hear of Nearchus at his appointment as satrap of Lycia and Pamphylia in 334/3BC (Arr 3.3.6), one of the earliest of the satrapal appointments, no less. He disappears from the record after that, until 328BC, when he is relieved of his post and rejoins Alexander in Bactria, bringing with him reinforcements (Arr 4.7.2 – the reinforcements are mentioned by Curtius 7.10.4, but Nearchus’ arrival is not). The sources are quiet about him after that until after the siege of Aornus, when Nearchus is sent at the head of a reconnaissance mission – Alexander was particularly keen to find out about elephants, we are told (Arr 4.30.5-6).
Up until now, therefore, Nearchus has not in any way been associated with the sea. He is not mentioned as having any part in commanding the fleet that took the army across the Hellespont, nor does he appear to have been part of the Aegean fleet before it was disbanded. His satrapal appointment was, of course, land-based.
In 326BC, however, Nearchus was made admiral of the fleet that Alexander had built at the Hydaspes (Arr 6.2.3; Indica 18.10). It is interesting to note, however, that his trierarchy was a financial responsibility – that is, Nearchus put up the money for the boats (Heckel, p.229); and there were plenty of other trierarchs in the Indus fleet who were not natural born sailors. So, at this point, Nearchus’ Cretan birth appears to have no bearing on his appointments and actions.
During the voyage some of the ships were damaged, and Nearchus was instructed to remain behind to oversee repairs, before continuing down the river. This perhaps indicates some knowledge of shipbuilding, but he could hardly have been the only one qualified – I am more inclined to believe that someone of rank had to remain with the fleet, and Nearchus, who is not recorded as having had any military command, was the one Alexander could most easily spare.
However, he did remain in command of the fleet for the voyage from the Indus to the Persian Gulf, which he recorded in detail (and which was used extensively for Arrian’s Indica). Again, though, he was the admiral, in command of the fleet, but great seamanship was not required – the naval responsibilities were Onesicritus’ (see Heckel, p.230).
After many adventures (for which see Indica), Nearchus arrived in Carmania, meeting up with Alexander after the latter’s disastrous crossing of the Gedrosian desert. Alexander sent him off to complete his voyage – he went as far as the Euphrates before turning back to rejoin Alexander at Susa, in early 324BC.
Nearchus was rewarded well for his adventures with the fleet. He married the daughter of Barsine and Mentor (Arr 7.4.6), and received a crown as recognition of his exertions (Arr 7.5.6). He then took the fleet up to Babylon, where he gave Alexander the Chaldeans’ warning not to enter the city (Pl Alex 73.1-2).
Nearchus had a place in Alexander’s final plans, as he was to be the admiral of the Arabian invasion fleet; but the plans were cut short by the king’s death.
In the initial arguments over the rule of the empire Nearchus supported Heracles, Alexander’s son by Barsine – which is understandable as the king’s mistress was now his mother-in-law. Once order broke down he joined Antigonus’ camp, where he commanded light-armed troops for the general. His last mention is as an adviser to Demetrius in 313/2BC (Diod 19.69.1); what happened after that we don’t know, although he probably retired to write up his account (Heckel, p.233). (He had already written a version, though, because Plutarch recounts him reading it to Alexander! Alex 76.3.)