Son of Parmenion and commander of the Companion Cavalry
Philotas is, in many respects, one of the most controversial players in the Alexander ‘saga’: a successful cavalry commander, often thought of as being one of Alexander’s close friends, who is suddenly accused of taking part in a conspiracy on the king’s life that leads to his, and his father’s, executions. Some writers have asserted that the conspiracy was against, as opposed to by Philotas – to some extent this is probably true; but when we look at the facts of the case there must have been some reason for his elimination. The great difficulty is seeing through the propaganda and obfuscation to identify what that reason was.
We do not know exactly when Philotas was born, but he was probably a few years older than Alexander. He was the [eldest] son of Parmenion, Philip’s and Alexander’s popular and successful general. Philotas had two brothers that we know of, Nicanor and Hector, and at least one sister, who was married to one of the other commanders.
We don’t really know anything about Philotas before Alexander’s succession. We do know, from Plutarch, that when Philip confronted Alexander about his bungling of the Pixodarus affair, Philip brought Philotas with him. Opinion is divided over why Philotas should have been present – it might have been because Philip wanted to show Philotas off as a dutiful son (to point out where Alexander had failed); or it might have been because Philotas was the one that informed Philip what Alexander was up to – Alexander would have found it difficult to deny what he had done when his accuser was in the room. If it is therefore true, as some maintain, that Philotas had previously been close to Alexander, either of these reasons might explain a ‘cooling’ in their relationship.
But whatever the state of their relationship, Alexander appointed Philotas commander of the Companion Cavalry shortly after his succession (he acted in that capacity in the Thracian campaign of 335 BC), the highest-profile command in the army (after Parmenion and Alexander himself); and, at around the same time his brother Nicanor was made commander of the Hypaspists. These appointments were almost certainly made to keep Parmenion on-side after the relative chaos of the succession – Alexander had just executed two members of the Lynkestian royal house, and had Attalos ‘removed’ too, with Parmenion’s help. But the two new commanders cannot have been without considerable merit, for they continued in their commands up to 330 (when Nicanor died of natural causes shortly before Philotas’s arrest) and led their units in exemplary fashion in all the major battles and minor skirmishes. They were important members of the military command and as such members of Alexander’s council. Philotas might not have been a close friend of Alexander, especially if his ‘snitching’ over the Pixodarus affair is true. But there is nothing to indicate that Alexander hated him, or was constantly looking for an opportunity to get rid of him. So why was Philotas suddenly arraigned as a regicide at Phrada and his family obliterated, in 330 BC?
According to the vulgate there was a conspiracy against Alexander during the army’s stay in Egypt, which Philotas admitted under torture in 330 BC. It appears that Hegelochus, one of the ‘old guard’ was one of the conspirators and probably Parmenion, too – at least to the extent that Parmenion knew about it and cautioned the others to take no action at the time. With Darius not yet completely defeated, Parmenion was enough of a realist to know that they needed Alexander. If Parmenion was involved in the conspiracy, it is perfectly possible that Philotas was, too, although he did not admit to it, even though he admitted the conspiracy under torture. Hegelochus was killed at Gaugamela, so he was never brought to trial for conspiracy. But, even if Philotas was not involved in an actual conspiracy, he was accused of disloyal talk, at least as early as Egypt, belittling Alexander’s achievements and mocking his claims to be son of Ammon.
Philotas was unpopular with the other commanders in the army – in particular with Craterus, who usually took overall command of the Macedonian infantry battalions and who had proved himself in various other engagements. He is portrayed as being extremely arrogant and ostentatious – his hunting nets were said to enclose a twelve mile area (which, even allowing for obvious exaggeration, indicates that he wasn’t backward in advertising his wealth and power). Craterus was the rising star of the high command and it is certain that Craterus’ animosity was driven by jealousy (not only of Philotas’ high profile command of the Companions, but also of Parmenion, under whose general command Craterus fell during the great pitched battles). It was Craterus who informed Alexander that Philotas was speaking against him in Egypt, having secured Philotas’ mistress as his spy, to report back their pillow talk. At that time Alexander took no action, but requested that Craterus continue to gather information from the mistress. So from 331 BC at least, it seems that Alexander was alert to Philotas’ ‘disloyalty’ and was gathering evidence against him for up to a year before he was finally arrested.
But as for the conspiracy in which Philotas was finally implicated, there is little or no evidence that he was actually involved. Philotas’ fault was in not taking the threat seriously, and therefore not telling Alexander about it – that was his defence, anyway. The accusation would never stand up in a modern court of law, but if Alexander was looking for a reason to get rid of Philotas, as he must have been by that time, helped by Philotas’ enemies in the high command, his negligence gave Alexander and opportunity to secure his indictment.
Philotas was put on trial before the ‘Assembly’ (about 6,000 assembled troops). He attempted to defend himself against the charges but Alexander’s prosecution won the day. He was condemned to death (note: by the Assembly, not by Alexander) and executed. Almost immediately Alexander sent trusted messengers to where Parmenion was residing at Ecbatana, and the old general was killed. Alexander had practical reasons for eliminating Parmenion, once the general’s son was dead; but there is an indication that there were tangible charges against Parmenion, almost certainly stemming from the Egyptian conspiracy, as the executioners (or murderers, if you like) read out an open letter from Alexander to Parmenion’s troops, listing his crimes, and these were accepted, albeit grudgingly, by the men.