Around this time — October, or at any rate autumn — of 330 B.C.E., Alexander the Great authored “one of the two greatest crimes of his life”* with the execution of his comrade-in-arms Philotas.
Philotas was one of Alexander’s “companions”, the elite cavalry who joined Alexander personally in battle. He had fought by Alexander’s side in the epic Battle of Gaugamela, which brought down the Achaemenid Empire and opened Persia to the legendary conqueror.
A year later, Alexander, and therefore also those companions, were winding down campaign season all the way on the other side of the late empire they had so stunningly dismantled. It’s the region of Drangiana on the present-day Iran-Afghanistan frontier. The Macedonians would name the city Prophthasia, Anticipation, in recognition of their chief’s narrow escape; we know it today as Farah, Afghanistan.
Unlike many of the “companions” who joined the young Macedonian king, Philotas wasn’t a bosom buddy of Alexander.
He was, instead, a bit of a political appointee who owed his position to the fact that his father Parmenion, a great Macedonian general, had backed the disputed succession of Alexander. Parmenion continued as one of Alexander’s generals; his kid — not particularly popular of himself but nevertheless a loyal and competent officer — got a plum gig in Alexander’s vanguard.
In this capacity so close to the royal person, Philotas was warned by a conscientious slave of an assassination plot going against Alexander. And rather incredibly, he didn’t bother to pass it on.
When the slave realized, a couple of days on, that the conspiracy hadn’t been busted, he proceeded to tell somebody else … and Philotas had some explaining to do.
For posterity, it’s as open a question as it was then: Philotas initially convinced Alexander that he had merely considered the whole thing so insubstantial as not to merit the king’s attention — but by the next day, Alexander had better inclined himself to the more damning reading, that Philotas was perfectly amenable to seeing Alexander eliminated.** If that were the truth, it would herald a conflict that would soon come to define the Macedonian’s coruscating and paradoxical career: the army’s rising discontent with its march so far from home, and its leader’s ever more visible habit of arraying himself in the alien habits of oriental despotism.
Philotas got a “proper” if farcically rigged trial before fellow-generals who were all too happy to be rid of him, and was tortured into confessing. He was executed either by stoning (actually the traditional Macedonian execution method, even for the likes of generals) or spearing.
(The scene is dramatized in the 2004 Oliver Stone film Alexander; the relevant bit can be viewed here.)
Parmenion, a greater character than his son, would also pay the forfeit of his son’s alleged misprision.
At the time of Philotas’s execution, Parmenion was commanding a large army several days’ ride from Alexander. Fearing that the torture and execution of his last remaining son (the other two had also died on campaign) might inspire the august general to do something rash, Alexander dispatched a few trusted officers to outrace the news: they murdered an uncomprehending Parmenion as soon as they reached him. Whatever one makes of the child, the father’s loyalty both to Alexander and his predecessor Philip II had never previously been impeached in a long and brilliant career. Alexander ought to have counted himself fortunate to have avoided any wider disturbance in the army from the rough handling of this beloved general.
The whole affair was sufficiently distasteful that it remained a sensitive matter of state security hundreds of years and hundreds of miles distant: An Elizabethan play about Philotas by Samuel Daniel earned its author some uncomfortable official scrutiny for its perceived commentary on the contemporaneous execution of the Earl of Essex … the fallen courtier whose prosecution of a Jewish doctor arguably informed Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice.
* The other — later and greater — crime was Alexander’s drunken murder of his friend and loyal commander Cleitus. (He’s the guy shown stabbing Parmenion to death in the clip from Alexander, a circumstance that plays better as drama than history.)
** It doesn’t help anyone’s fact-finding that the main alleged plotter committed suicide when they came to arrest him.