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Polyperchon: The Unsung Macedonian Hero of the First Successor War


A Macedonian warrior, emblematic of the military tradition that Polyperchon exemplified. (Image: Wikimedia Commons)

In the turbulent years following the death of Alexander the Great in 323 BC, his vast empire was plunged into chaos as his generals, the Diadochi, vied for supremacy. One of the most critical but often overlooked campaigns in the First Successor War of 320 BC was the struggle for control of Greece, where the Macedonian general Polyperchon won a decisive victory that secured the Macedonian heartland and changed the course of the conflict.

The Fracturing of Alexander‘s Empire

Alexander‘s untimely demise left his empire without a clear successor, as his half-brother Philip III Arrhidaeus and infant son Alexander IV were unable to assert effective control. Into this power vacuum stepped Alexander‘s top commanders, each with their own ambitions and powerbases:

  • Perdiccas, the leading regent and commander of the royal army in Asia
  • Ptolemy, the satrap of Egypt who seized Alexander‘s body for himself
  • Antipater, the seasoned regent of Macedonia and Greece
  • Craterus, Antipater‘s chief lieutenant and one of Alexander‘s most respected generals
  • Antigonus, the powerful satrap of Phrygia who would later become Polyperchon‘s nemesis

As tensions rose between these larger-than-life figures, open warfare became inevitable. In 320 BC, Antipater and Craterus crossed the Hellespont into Asia Minor with 30,000 men to challenge Perdiccas‘ regency. It would be a fateful campaign, but not just for the clashes in Anatolia and Egypt that would follow.

Polyperchon: Defender of Macedonia


A modern statue of Polyperchon in his hometown of Tymphaeia, Greece. (Image: Wikimedia Commons)

With Antipater and Craterus occupied in the east, responsibility for safeguarding Macedonia and Greece fell to Polyperchon, a general in his 60s who had long been one of Antipater‘s most reliable subordinates. A native of Tymphaeia in Epirus, Polyperchon had distinguished himself in Alexander‘s campaigns and was known for his bravery, loyalty, and shrewd judgment.

Despite his age, Polyperchon remained an energetic and capable commander, entrusted by Antipater to hold the fort in Europe while he dealt with Perdiccas. It was a daunting task, as Macedonia and Greece were seething with unrest and old enmities. Many Greek city-states chafed under Macedonian hegemony and dreamed of regaining their independence, while nearer to home, opportunistic neighbors eyed the chance to settle scores and expand their territories at Macedonia‘s expense.

The Aetolian-Thessalian Invasion


Map of ancient Greece, showing the key regions involved in the Aetolian-Thessalian invasion of 320 BC. (Image: Wikimedia Commons)

The gravest threat to Macedonian control of Greece came from an alliance between the Aetolian League and the Thessalians under the command of Menon, a prominent general. The Aetolians, based in central Greece, were renowned for their martial prowess and had a long history of resisting Macedonian domination. The Thessalians, situated to the north, boasted a famed cavalry and had only recently been brought to heel by Alexander after rising in rebellion.

Seizing the opportunity presented by Antipater‘s absence, Perdiccas reached out to the Aetolians and encouraged them to attack Macedonia‘s allies in Thessaly, sweetening the deal with financial subsidies. The Aetolians needed little convincing, and in the spring of 320 BC, they assembled a formidable host under Menon‘s command:

Troop Type Number
Aetolian infantry 10,000
Thessalian infantry 6,000
Thessalian cavalry 1,100
Mercenaries 8,000
Total 25,100

Estimated troop strengths of the Aetolian-Thessalian invasion force. (Sources: Diodorus Siculus, Plutarch)

This powerful army swept into Thessaly, quickly crushing Macedonian resistance and sparking widespread defections among the Thessalian cities. Even more significantly, Menon‘s forces were poised to march north into Macedonia proper, threatening to cut off Antipater‘s lines of communication and supply. If left unchecked, the Aetolian-Thessalian offensive could force Antipater to abandon his campaign against Perdiccas and rush back to Europe to save his power base.

Divide and Conquer: Polyperchon‘s Strategic Coup


Map of Acarnania, the region Polyperchon incited to invade Aetolia and divide his enemies. (Image: Wikimedia Commons)

Faced with this dire situation, Polyperchon demonstrated the strategic acumen that would make him one of the most effective Macedonian commanders of the age. Recognizing that he was badly outnumbered by the invading forces, Polyperchon eschewed a direct confrontation in favor of a more subtle approach: dividing his enemies and defeating them in detail.

Reaching out to the Acarnanians, a people who lived to the west of Aetolia and nursed longstanding grudges against their neighbors, Polyperchon convinced them to launch a retaliatory raid into Aetolian territory. The Acarnanians, eager for plunder and payback, readily agreed, and soon the Aetolian heartland was in flames.

Word of this new threat quickly reached Menon and his Aetolian allies in Thessaly, who now faced an agonizing choice. As Diodorus Siculus recounts:

"The Aetolians, learning that their own country was being laid waste by the Acarnanians, abandoned their alliance with the Thessalians and marched to the defense of their homeland."

With the Aetolians departing to meet the Acarnanian menace, Menon was left with only his Thessalian forces and mercenaries, numbering around 15,000 men. Polyperchon now had the opening he needed.

The Battle of Thessaly: Polyperchon‘s Finest Hour


A speculative reconstruction of the Battle of Thessaly in 320 BC, showing Polyperchon‘s decisive defeat of Menon‘s forces. (Image: Author‘s own work)

Moving with lightning speed, Polyperchon gathered his available Macedonian troops, likely no more than 10,000 strong, and force-marched to confront Menon. The exact location of the battle is unknown, but it probably took place somewhere in northern Thessaly, perhaps near the strategic city of Larissa.

Caught off guard by Polyperchon‘s rapid advance, Menon hastily deployed his forces to meet the threat. The Thessalian cavalry, so vaunted in earlier wars, now found itself outmatched by the superior tactics and discipline of the Macedonian horse, which had been honed to a sharp edge under Alexander‘s tutelage.

In a fierce clash, Polyperchon‘s cavalry routed their Thessalian counterparts and turned the tide of battle. Menon‘s infantry, deprived of cavalry support and perhaps demoralized by the loss of their Aetolian allies, soon broke and fled. Menon himself was among the slain, and Thessaly was brought firmly back under Macedonian control.

The victory was total, and its impact profound. In one fell swoop, Polyperchon had neutralized the most serious challenge to Macedonian power in Greece and secured Antipater‘s rear. The Aetolians, their territory ravaged and their allies crushed, sued for peace and withdrew from the conflict. The Thessalians, bereft of their charismatic leader, fell back into sullen submission.

The Implications of Polyperchon‘s Victory


A rare silver tetradrachm depicting Polyperchon, minted during his later regency. (Image: Classical Numismatic Group)

Polyperchon‘s successful defense of Macedonia and Greece had far-reaching consequences for the First Successor War and the future of the Hellenistic world. Most immediately, it allowed Antipater to continue his campaign against Perdiccas without fear of being stabbed in the back.

While Antipater‘s ultimate victory was by no means assured, Polyperchon‘s actions gave him the breathing room he needed to confront Perdiccas on his own terms. As the historian A.B. Bosworth notes:

"Antipater‘s position would have been untenable if Polyperchon had not acted with such decision and dispatch… The Macedonian homeland was secured, and with it the manpower and resources Antipater needed to prosecute the war in Asia."

Indeed, the First Successor War would end with Perdiccas‘ death at the hands of his own men and Antipater in a stronger position than ever. He would go on to reorganize the Macedonian Empire at the Partition of Triparadisus in 321 BC, with himself as the leading regent and Polyperchon as his second-in-command.

Polyperchon‘s Legacy: An Underrated Macedonian Hero


An artist‘s impression of the Partition of Triparadisus in 321 BC, with Polyperchon (left) and Antipater (right) presiding. (Image: Wikimedia Commons)

Despite his critical role in shaping the course of the First Successor War, Polyperchon has often been overshadowed by his more illustrious contemporaries. His later career, marked by military setbacks and political intrigues, has tended to obscure his earlier achievements and contributions.

But as the man who saved Macedonia at its hour of greatest need, Polyperchon deserves to be remembered as one of the most capable and consequential generals of the early Hellenistic period. His victory over the Aetolians and Thessalians in 320 BC was a masterclass in strategic thinking and tactical excellence, showcasing the best of the Macedonian military tradition.

In many ways, Polyperchon embodied the qualities that had made Macedonia the dominant power of the Greek world: toughness, adaptability, cunning, and an unerring instinct for the jugular. He may not have had the panache of a Demetrius or the ruthless ambition of an Antigonus, but he knew how to get the job done when it mattered most.

As we continue to unravel the complex and dramatic history of the Successor Wars, it is figures like Polyperchon who remind us that the story of Alexander‘s fractured empire was not just one of titanic clashes between larger-than-life kings and conquerors. It was also a story of unsung heroes and forgotten battles, of men who stepped up to shoulder impossible burdens and changed the course of history through sheer grit and determination.

In that sense, Polyperchon‘s finest hour in 320 BC deserves to be celebrated and studied as a pivotal moment in the birth of the Hellenistic age, and the grizzled old general from Tymphaeia as an exemplar of the Macedonian virtues that had once conquered the world.