Why Did Alexander's Army Mutiny in Opis?
Posted: 23 Apr 2010
Date Written: April 22, 2010
Among the questions that complicate the reconstruction of the mutiny of Alexander’s army at Opis in 324 BCE is the puzzling conduct of the troops. All sources agree that the mutiny was occasioned by Alexander‘s announcement that he was going to discharge home the old, the weak, and the disabled soldiers. They also largely concur that all the rebellious troops demanded to be sent home. What, then, were soldiers who had already been discharged doing among the rebels? It is to the Roman historian Curtius Rufus’ credit that he is the one source to raise this question. In Alexander’s speech to the seditious soldiers, the king claims that those discharged are just the first ones to go home, and then wonders: “… I see as much opposition from those who are going to leave as from those with whom I have decided to follow the advance party. What is going on? You all join the uproar, but for different reasons. I should dearly like to know whether the complaints about me are coming from those leaving or those being kept back” (Curt. 10.2.16-17; Yardley translation). What was going on, indeed?
Scholars largely follow Arrian’s account of the mutiny (7.6.1-5, 8.1-12.4, and see the bibliography). Yet a close examination of his narrative shows that when he gives the troops a voice, they insult or defy Alexander but make none of the grievances against the king that Arrian ascribes to them. Other sources offer an assortment of reasons for the troops’ conduct that are not always in agreement with one another. The reason is that our sources, and their informants, are typically much more interested in, and knowledgeable about, the king than the troops, and so had to puzzle out what stood behind the mutiny. In other words, the ancient historians surmised, rather than knew, what led the troops to rebel.
The aim of the paper is to admonish against the scholarly tendency of emphasizing long-term grievances at Opis as the main cause of the revolt. It argues instead that the dismissal of the veterans was not, as is often thought, the last straw that broke the soldiers’ backs but the real cause of the mutiny. Similarly, the paper suggests that Alexander’s Asian policy was not at the root of the revolt but that it played a central role in it only later and because of Alexander’s response to the soldiers’ outburst.
Selected Bibliography Bosworth, A.B. 1988. From Arrian to Alexander: Studies in Historical Interpretation. Oxford, 101-13. Carney, E. 1996. “Macedonians and Mutiny: Discipline and Indiscipline in the Army of Philip and Alexander.” CP. 91.1, 19-44. Nagle, D. B. 1996. “The Cultural Context of Alexander's Speech at Opis.” TAPhA. 126, 151-172. Wüst, F. 1953-54a. “Die Rede Alexanders des Grossen in Opis.” Historia. 2, 177-88. Wüst, F. 1953/54b. “Die Muterei von Opis (Arrian VII, 8; 11.1-7).” Historia 2, 418-31.
Keywords: Alexander, Mutiny, Opis
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