By the end of 329 BCE, or the beginning of 328 BCE, Alexander the Great had conquered a large territory, spanning from Greece and Egypt in the west of his empire all the way through Persia, Parthia and Bactria in the east. Alexander’s troops were also in Sogdiana, but the region was not yet pacified. Two Persian King of Kings had already fallen, including Darius III (330 BCE) and Bessus (229 BCE), but a former vassal of Persia, Spitamenes of Sogdiana, was still at large, keeping his homeland in open revolt against Alexander the Great.
Hellenistic forces rampaged through Sogdiana trying to subdue the population and capture its leader. Feeling the pressure, Spitamenes fled to the north, where he found shelter with the Massagetae tribe of Scythia. While Alexander’s forces terrorized Sogdiana, Spitamenes led his reinvigorated forces, along with Scythian reinforcements, down into Bactria, where he caught the unsuspecting garrisons off guard. In particular, Spitamenes targeted the town of Zariaspa, the place where Alexander had set up camp before renewing his campaign in Sogdiana. The city was fairly well fortified, but the garrison mostly consisted of injured or sick troops. Among the people in the town were some notable figures, most importantly Aristonicus, a talented harp player, and Peitho, the son of Sosicles. Since the town was guarded, albeit by sickly or recovering soldiers, Spitamenes decided not to attack, but he did manage to pull off an impressive theft of Zariaspa’s supply of livestock.
This was an insult that the rag-tag band in Zariaspa could not tolerate. Aristonicus and Peitho rallied the healing troops and managed to gather around eighty men fit enough to fight. With this small force, Aristonicus and Peitho marched out of the town, intending to pursue the enemy. Miraculously, the war band from Zariaspa caught up with a small detachment from Spitamenes’ army. Aristonicus and Peitho ambushed the isolated camp and actually recovered a large portion of the stolen livestock. After the victory, the Hellenistic fighters began driving the animals back toward town.
Unfortunately, Spitamenes had heard of the attack and had set up an ambush of his own somewhere along the route to Zariaspa. As Aristonicus and Peitho herded the animals home, their small force lost any semblance of order or discipline. Therefore, they were totally unprepared when they stumbled into Spitamenes’ trap. In the ensuing massacre, the majority of the Hellenistic troops were killed. According to the historian Arrian (c. 90-145+), sixty-seven of the original eighty Hellenic warriors died in the ambush. Peitho was one of the few who survived to be captured by Spitamenes, although what happened to him after his capture is uncertain. The harpist, Aristonicus, had a less fortunate fate, and was killed in battle after reportedly mounting a heroic last stand.
When word reached Alexander the Great about the battle, he was impressed by Aristonicus’ courage and resolve. In honor of the fallen warrior-harpist, Alexander the Great funded a monument in the musician’s memory. At Delphi, a bronze statue was erected, displaying Aristonicus holding a harp in one hand and clutching a spear with the other.
Written by C. Keith Hansley.
Picture Attribution: (Parnassus or Apollo and the Muses, by Simon Vouet (1590–1649) [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).
- The Campaigns of Alexander by Arrian, translated by Aubrey de Sélincourt. New York: Penguin Classics, 1971.
- Alexander the Great by Philip Freeman. New York: Simon & Schuster Paperbacks, 2011.
- Alexander the Great: The Story of an Ancient Life by Thomas R. Martin and Christopher W. Blackwell. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2012.