It’s a tough job looking out for the king at the best of times, but imagine what it must have been like having the back of someone with such little regard for danger as Alexander the Great. Only a select trusted few were granted the title of Somatophylake (“bodyguard”), but Alexander’s inner circle had far more responsibilities than his safety. In reality, the Somatophylakes weren’t just soldiers; they were commanders, diplomats, engineers, and governors all at once.
Traditionally only seven were permitted into the inner circle, so it must have taken something very special to become the eighth trusted bodyguard. This collection looks at those larger-than-life figures who protected Alexander and his massive empire. Some were great rulers in their own right, while others faded from history. Which of these men would you most want in your inner circle if you were Alexander?
- Photo: Alexander / Warner Bros. Pictures137 VOTES
Strengths: Command, organization skills
Weakness: Impatience, making enemies
Around the same age as Alexander, Perdiccas was his most trusted bodyguard after Hephaestion. He was with Alexander right from the beginning, helping to secure his kingdom after the slaying of Philip II. As an infantry commander, Perdiccas knew that in the Macedonian “hammer and anvil” strategy, it was the phalanx that provided the anvil for the cavalry to make the hammer blow. Infantry leaders, therefore, had to be strong and level-headed to pin the often large opposing army long enough for the cavalry to make the decisive attack.
Records of his early military career aren’t especially favorable; apparently Perdiccas's men were drunk at the siege of Halicarnassus, but because this account comes from his arch-nemesis Ptolemy, it may well be wildly exaggerated.
Perdiccas played an important role in keeping the phalanx together at Issus and Gaugamela, the latter being a particularly hard-fought affair for Macedonian infantry. In the campaigns in India, he assumed a cavalry command. His stock rose further still when Hephaestion suddenly perished and his only other senior, Craterus, was leading veteran troops back to Macedonia. He replaced Hephaestion as commander of the Companions and chiliarch (chancellor). Although he occupied a key position, several of his peers were loathe to see him as their superior - especially Ptolemy.
When Alexander fell gravely ill in 323, he left his chiliarch an almighty mess to clean up. Alexander had no legitimate heir, only the possibility of his pregnant widow Roxana having a son. Chaos erupted before Alexander’s body was even cold (he may have actually still been alive). While the initial friction was calmed, it wasn’t long before Alexander’s successors were at each other's throats. Perdiccas incurred even more ill will among the successors when he broke off an engagement to Antipater’s daughter to pursue Alexander’s sister Cleopatra. Had this marriage taken place, he would have had a legitimate claim to the throne itself, but the move created powerful enemies.
When Ptolemy snatched Alexander’s remains on the way back to Macedonia, Perdiccas rounded up the others to get them back. His forces never made it across the Nile, however; he was betrayed and stabbed in the back by Peithon and Seleucus.
- 230 VOTES
Strengths: A jack of all trades
Weakness: A master of none
Hephaestion is probably the best-known of Alexander’s trusted bodyguards, although that has more to do with the nature of his relationship with the king than his own achievements. He first surfaces in Arrian’s ancient biography when Alexander honored the tomb of Achilles while Hephaestion similarly decorated the remains of the Trojan hero’s lover Patroclus. And if there was any lingering doubt about the intensity of their bond, the aftermath of the Battle of Issus should extinguish that. The captured Persian queen mother mistook Hephaestion for Alexander and was deeply embarrassed when the error was pointed out.
But the king told her she had made no mistake, for Hephaestion was also Alexander.
He fought alongside Alexander in battle and was wounded at Gaugamela, but didn’t assume a command position until a conspiracy involving the head of the Companion Cavalry, Philotas, was uncovered in 330 BCE. Whatever the truth, Hephaestion and Clitus replaced Philotas as joint commanders of the elite cavalry unit.
Hephaestion’s responsibilities increased as Alexander pressed into the east. He helped oversee the construction of a bridge and negotiated an alliance with a local Indian ruler. He also played his part in the hard-fought victory at Hydaspes and oversaw the construction of a garrison town at the eastern edge of Alexander’s conquests. Generally speaking, Hephaestion performed each task asked of him competently rather than brilliantly.
When Alexander’s forces reunited in Susa after a hard trek through the Gedrosian desert, Hephaestion was among the recipients of golden crowns for his service. It was at this time he was appointed chiliarch, effectively Alexander’s second. At the mass weddings at Susa, he was given the second most illustrious marriage - Drypetis, the second daughter of Darius III. Alexander hoped that with his marriage to Darius’s eldest daughter Barsine, their future children would unite their families.
Unfortunately for Alexander, this dream was not meant to be. Hephaestion fell ill and passed suddenly in October 324 BCE. Alexander was devastated, and his outpouring of grief was characteristically dramatic. The poor doctor who treated Hephaestion was put to death, while Alexander fasted for days, cut his hair, and had the tails of the horses clipped. He wouldn’t long outlive his dear friend.
- 347 VOTES
Strengths: Diplomacy, construction, staying power
Ptolemy I Soter played his part in all three of Alexander’s key victories over the Persian Empire. He commanded the left flank alongside Parmenion at Issus and is supposed to have led the efforts to track down Darius III’s assassin, Bessus, after the battle of Gaugamela. He presented the king-slayer to Alexander naked in chains and wearing only a dog collar. He also accompanied Alexander to Egypt and India, although his exact role in the campaigns isn’t clear. Because much of the information comes from Ptolemy himself, historians have been accordingly skeptical. Still, his ascension to Alexander’s inner circle at this time suggests stellar service to the king. He was also appointed Alexander's edeatros ("taster") at Susa in 324 BCE.
However, it was after Alexander’s passing that Ptolemy really made his mark on history. He hated his fellow bodyguard Perdiccas and undermined the regent's efforts to oversee the tricky succession of Alexander’s empire. Ptolemy claimed and got the prized province of Egypt and cemented his rule, but stole Alexander’s remains while they were en route back to Macedonia. When Perdiccas arrived to take the remains back, he was betrayed by his fellow officers, including Ptolemy’s old friend Seleucus. It was quite likely that Seleucus made the coup de grace. He was offered the chance to take the regency for himself but declined, knowing the job was a poisoned chalice.
In the struggles that followed, Ptolemy navigated the choppy diplomatic waters skillfully. He was more cautious than the others, but this helped him in the long run. He lived long enough to establish his own dynasty that ruled Egypt for three centuries, and was one of the few to pass peacefully of natural causes.
- 420 VOTES
Strengths: Wrestling, defensive strategy
Weakness: Keeping his mouth shut
Leonnatus was distantly related to Alexander and grew up with the future king. He helped track down and slay Philip II’s assassin and was with Alexander from the outset of his great expedition to conquer the Persian Empire. He was elevated to the Somatophylakes after the passing of Arybbas in Egypt in 332 BCE.
He was apparently so fond of wrestling that he had sand carried where he traveled to keep up his training regime. He was also outspoken to the extent of causing a rift with Alexander when he vocally disdained the king’s intentions to introduce a Persian custom to the court. However, the two soon mended the discord between them.
In the Mallian campaign, he defended the wounded Alexander during a siege and was later trusted to hold newly conquered territory in Pakistan as the rest of Alexander’s army marched onward. When the armies reunited at Susa, Alexander presented golden crowns to his most gallant men; Leonnatus was one of the recipients. After Alexander perished in 323 BCE, Leonnatus lent his support to Perdiccas to oversee the partition of Alexander’s empire. He was appointed the satrap of Hellespontine Phrygia, a key province in the northwest of modern-day Turkey.
It was at this time the most eligible woman of the ancient world showed favor to Leonnatus. Cleopatra (no, not that one), the widowed sister of Alexander the Great shrugged off dozens of suitors and instead offered her hand to Leonnatus. Had the union taken place, he would have become a major player in the post-Alexander Hellenic world, but fate decided otherwise. He suppressed a Greek revolt successfully but did not survive the aftermath.