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Although junior to the commanders of the infantry and cavalry, the commander of the Shield Bearers now had direct control of discipline throughout the entire Macedonian and allied army.  Placing so much power in the hands of one man may have been a mistake that Alexander eventually paid for with his life.  In Babylon in June 323 BC, the one person best placed to seize control in a military coup was Seleucus – which is exactly what he may have decided to do.  Fearing that they had gained too much influence, Alexander had a habit of replacing senior officers between campaigns.  The conquest of the Persian Empire was over and Alexander was already planning an invasion of Arabia: a re-shuffle in the high command was almost inevitable.  In June 323 BC, if Seleucus had his eyes on Alexander’s crown, it may have been a case of now or never.

Left: The Shield Bearers were the elite special forces of Alexander’s army.

About the same age as Alexander, Seleucus was a common soldier who rose through the ranks to become one of the most senior Macedonian officers.  He was by far the most ruthless and successful general in the civil war that followed Alexander’s death and took control of much of what had been Alexander’s empire.  His dominion became the Seleucid Empire, named after him, and lasted for almost two-and-a-half centuries until it was conquered by the Romans.  Had this ambitious professional officer assassinated Alexander to seize his empire for himself?

By the late summer of 330 BC all that remained of the Persian Empire was its eastern
province of Bactria – roughly what is now Afghanistan.  Its governor, Bessus, refused to surrender and Alexander was forced into a protracted campaign in unfamiliar desert and mountainous terrain.  It was during the Bactrian campaign that Seleucus proved himself to be one of Alexander’s most able officers.

When the war was finally over in 327 BC, he was promoted to commander of the Shield Bearers, an elite unit of heavy infantry whose purpose it was to protect the king.  They were in effect the royal guard, such as the praetorians were to the later Roman emperors.  However, the death-toll had been high and Alexander was forced to draft in foreign reinforcements.  The Shield Bearers were doubled in size and were now to be used as a military police force to maintain order within the new, multi-national army.
The Bactrian wilderness in eastern Iran and Afghanistan.  It was due to his military success in this hostile environment that Seleucus became the commander of Alexander’s royal guard.
(Photograph: Mark Cockle)