The hypaspists were a type of infantry soldier who served as a vital part of the Macedonian armies of both Philip II and his son and heir Alexander III, better known to most as Alexander the Great. They became an invaluable piece of an infantry that helped conquer Greece and defeat the Persian forces of Darius III, aiding in the establishment of an empire that stretched from the Peloponnesian peninsula northward through Macedon and Thrace, across the Hellespont into Asia Minor, and southward into Syria, Mesopotamia, and Egypt. Although their exact origin and function have been called mysterious, the historian Stephen English in his The Army of Alexander the Great referred to them as being “among the most capable and heavily worked troops in the Macedonian order of battle…” (28).
Although they are credited for their valiant role in the conquest of Asia, many modern historians are unsure on the evolution and exact role of the hypaspists - even their equipment is in question. This confusion was also evident in the writings of early historians who could not agree on something as simple as whether or not they carried the eighteen-foot sarissa of the phalangites, a much shorter double-edged sword (the xiphos) or a javelin. Most agree, however, that they were hand-picked not only for their speed and endurance but also for their strength and courage. Some claim they served as a select but separate unit of the phalanx, possibly a commando-type light infantry. Most agree that they formed a link between the heavy infantry in the center and the Companion Cavalry and Alexander on the right. Others suggest that they may have served on particular occasions or during specials events as part of a guard (police force), an agema. Their mobility, far better than that of the old pezhetairoi, allowed them to fight on rough terrain, in siege warfare, and in close hand-to-hand combat, in fact, anywhere where the sarissa was useless.
Another area of dispute is their origin. Most agree that they evolved from the pezhetairoi of Philip II. Philip had totally transformed the Macedonian army when he became king. Both he and his son believed in training and discipline, and the hypaspists received far more than anyone else. However, before anyone could be trained, the Macedonian soldier was given a new look. For protection he wore a Phrygian helmet which allowed for better hearing and visibility. He wore greaves to cover his calves, a molded cuirass that shielded his torso as well as a long, pleated tunic that protected his abdomen and groin. Again, the hypaspists may or may not have been dressed in this manner. It was a question of mobility. The hypaspists may have needed a uniform that allowed for better movement. And, concerning his choice of weapons, the sarissa would have been far too cumbersome. Together with the rigorous training, these new uniforms gave each man a sense of unity and solidarity —- he would no longer be loyal to a particular province or town but loyal only to the king. Whatever their appearance, Philip took a poorly disciplined group of men and turned them into a formidable army. After his father's death, Alexander would fulfill Philip's dream and take this remarkable force into Asia and battle Darius.
Three-thousand hypaspists - three units of one-thousand each - crossed the Hellespont with Alexander. They would be by his side at Granicus, Issus, Gaugamela and against King Porus in India. Like every other soldier, many of them came from the peasantry and so there would be no regional or tribal affiliation and thereby, like all others, they would be loyal only to the king. They initially served under the command of Nicanor, son of Parmenio, from 334 to 330 BCE and later under Neoptolemus.
There were three types of hypaspists:
- The royal hypaspists were from an aristocratic background and initially under the command of Hephaestion and later Seleucus, functioning as a bodyguard to the king (some had been royal pages).
- The regular hypaspists.
- The argyraspides who came into existence in 327 BCE and were composed mostly of veterans. The argyraspides would eventually become the “silver shields” and fought during the Wars of the Successors. In 318 BCE they joined Eumenes in his battle against Antigonus the One-eyed. Eventually, they surrendered him in exchange for their wives and baggage.
Historians, both ancient and modern, disagree on many facets of the hypaspists. There are conflicting interpretations on their origin. There is even disagreement on their equipment - sarissa or javelin. Were they even dressed the same? And, lastly, there is inconsistent information on their role: were they considered light or heavy troops. Oddly enough, putting aside whatever may cause contention; they all agree that the hypaspists were an integral part of the army of Alexander - an army that crushed the Persian forces of Darius III. There is little dispute on the basics - they were well-trained, stationed between the heavy infantry of the phalanx and the Companion Cavalry, and fought on rough terrain and in hand-to-hand combat. Whether or not historians agree, the hypaspist was a unique soldier, specially trained and invaluable to the king.