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Coenus, son of Polemocrates

Coenus, son of Polemocrates, was one of Alexander’s staunchest officers, yet his reputation with his king was stained at the end of his life, due to his willingness to oppose Alexander’s will.

As with many of the prominent Macedonians of the time we don’t know exactly when he was born, although by his own testimony (in his speech at the Hyphasis) he was no spring chicken by 326BC. Heckel reasonably suggests that he was born no later than 367BC, so at the time of his death was around 40/41 (Heckel, ‘Marshals’, p.59).

He was clearly already a proven officer when Alexander came to power, as he is recorded as leading the Elimiote battalion of pezhetairoi in the Illyrian campaign (Arr. I.6.9). He was to lead this battalion at the Granicus (Arr. I.14.2), at Issus (Arr. II.8.3; QC III.9.7) and at Gaugamela (Arr. III.11.9; QC IV.13.38; Diod. 17.57.2). He clearly fought hard, and is specifically mentioned (alongside Perdiccas and Hephaestion) as being badly wounded in the last action at Gaugamela (Arr. III.15.2; QC IV.16.32; Diod. 17.61.3). At Tyre he boarded a ship with his battalion, alongside that containing the hypaspists and Alexander, for the final assault on the city (Arr. II.23.2, 24.3).

As the campaign progressed Alexander clearly saw Coenus as a most reliable officer. In Sogdia he was appointed to lead an independent division, most notably alongside Artabazus; which suggests that Coenus, though one of the ‘old guard’ Macedonians, was not so die-hard that he objected to the acceptance of Persians at court (Arr. IV.16.2). With Artabazus he was sent on an extremely important mission – to root out Spitamenes, who had recruited the Massagetae to help his rebellion (Arr. IV.16.3, 17.3-7). He besieged Bazira in India (Arr. V.27.5-8; QC VIII.10.22; ‘Itinerarium Alexandri’, 48); and at the Hydaspes he commanded the division charged with attacking the Indians’ right flank (Arr. V.16-17; QC VIII.14.15-17; Plutarch, ‘Alexander’, 60.5-6).

Coenus was obviously a good, reliable and successful officer, for Alexander to trust him so much. This is also borne out by his important logistical activities: twice we hear that he was sent on foraging missions – in Parthia, during the pursuit of Darius in 330BC (Arr. IV.20.4; although he was left behind when the pursuit became more frantic – Arr. IV.21.2); and in India (Arr. V.21.4). He was also charged with supervising the army’s crossing of the Acesines (Arr. V.21.1).

A telling incident is another such non-military command, when Coenus was one of the officers sent back to Macedonia after the siege of Halicarnassus. He led back the men who had married in the months before the crossing of the Hellespont, for a spot of well-deserved furlough; and he was chosen because he himself had married at that time (Arr. I.24.1-2). The furlough was worthwhile for Coenus at least – his son, Perdiccas, was born within the year (Heckel, p.59)! It was this marriage that made him the son-in-law of Parmenion and brother-in-law of Philotas, thereby leading us to one of the darker incidents of Coenus’ life.

Curtius is the only writer who goes into the Philotas conspiracy in detail, so only from him do we hear of Coenus’ actions. During the initial indictment of Philotas, Coenus spoke up against his brother-in-law, and even tried to stone the prisoner until he was stopped by Alexander (QC VI.9.30-31). Later he was one of the three (the others being Craterus and Hephaestion) who argued that Philotas be put to torture (QC VI.11.10-11). We have to ask ourselves what Coenus’ motivation was for siding against his family-by-marriage. Did he dislike Philotas (and perhaps Parmenion), despite marrying into the family? If so, then his marriage must have been a calculated one, entered into because of the tie he thereby gained to such a powerful family. Or was he a realist, and spoke out against Philotas so vehemently in order to remain above suspicion? (He might have remembered how Alexander of Lyncestis avoided the fate of his brothers by supporting Alexander so publicly, and so immediately, after the death of Philip.) This wouldn’t mean that his marriage was anything but a political move, of course, but it does allow for more altruistic reasons for the match.

Be that as it may, he did remain above suspicion, and after the death of his in-laws his career moved ever upwards.

So secure had Coenus become in the following three to four years, that when Alexander proposed crossing the Hyphasis and marching on towards the Ganges, Coenus was the only one who ventured to dissuade him. Both Arrian and Curtius accord him a long speech – both of which are undoubtedly fictitious (indeed, Arrian himself purports only to record what he said “or some such”). The arguments in both are different; but both serve the same purpose: to make Alexander realise that his soldiers are not prepared to go on, have had enough, and want to return to the West (Arr. V.27; QC IX.3.3-18).

A short while after the army turned back, Coenus died of sickness. The timing of this has led one scholar to a conviction that Alexander had him murdered in a fit of pique (purely to fit his poorly argued character assassination of Alexander, as far as I can see). Others have talked of his “inopportune” death, thereby raising perhaps the spectre of suspicion; but none ascribe his death to anything other than natural causes. As it is, exactly when he died is not clear – it is mentioned as happening straight after the speech in Curtius, but that is for dramatic effect; and according to Arrian it was back at the Hydaspes, so cannot have been so soon after defying his king. If Curtius is to be believed, Alexander did allow himself to make one catty comment, in the midst of his grief at Coenus’ death; although, of course, that is no proof of guilt: “Alexander grieved for his death but nonetheless added the comment that it was merely for the sake of a few days that Coenus had made his long speech, as if he were the only one who would see Macedonia again.” (QC IX.3.20; for Coenus’ death see also Arr. VI.2.1.)

It was an untimely death, and we can only speculate about how far Coenus might have gone had he lived to return to Babylon.