- Perdiccas voted for Roxane because as the most senior officer in the army he had control of her.
- Nearchus voted for Heracles because he had married Barsine’s daughter, and so was Heracles’ brother-in-law.
- Ptolemy wanted the generals to rule because he knew no one man could rule the empire and because he himself was very popular with the men – very useful if the generals could not reach a consensus and needed a ‘nudge’ in the right direction.
- I don’t know enough about Aristonus to know why he chose to support Perdiccas. It may be that he genuinely thought that Perdiccas should be their leader on account of Alexander giving him his ring or maybe Perdiccas had promised him a reward for his loyalty. In 321/0, Aristonus was given command of a mission to defeat the kings of Cyprus who had allied themselves with Ptolemy.
- Meleager’s suggestion that the phalanx was Alexander’s successor was an irresponsible and ridiculous one; it was surely no more than a brazen attempt to grab power by Meleager himself. If this is correct, it is ironic that his plan was undone by a member of the infantry. But if we can fault Meleager for his lack of subtlety, we can’t fault his persistence. Though if he really turned to Arrhidaeos just to spite Perdiccas, he was a shallow and mean minded man.
30th September – One day until the 2,348th anniversary of the Battle of Gaugamela. I have a question to ask myself but I don’t yet have an answer for it so let’s have a little music instead. Thank you Oliver Stone, and thank you Vangelis for The Drums of Gaugamela. And thank you reader for reading these blog posts over the last twelve days. You deserve a rest!
Album Version: heroic all the way
Unreleased Version: Includes audio from the battle which gives it a tough, tough edge
29th September – Two days until the 2,348th anniversary of the Battle of Gaugamela. And not for the first time, but definitely the last, I am writing this a day late. In light of the heading to this post, today’s question will not be a surprise – ‘How did the Macedonian army perform in the battle?’
In answering this question we obviously come up against the same problem as when we looked at the Persian army (here) – our sources’ accounts of the Battle of Gaugamela are incomplete and biased.
There’s not much we can do about that, other than be wary of the texts rather than give all our trust to them. The same, by the way, applies to this post and, indeed, blog as a whole. I hope no one ever takes what I say as gospel. Let it be a springboard to your own research rather than a conclusion.
So, let’s jump in. As ever, I start with Arrian, who offers the best overall account of the battle.
How to rate the Macedonian army? 10/10, surely. It won the battle, after all; what more could we ask for?
A perfect performance, however, would have required a crushing victory; a victory with no setbacks and minimal casualties. Such triumphs only occur in fantasy novels.
Arrian comes close to going there. He presents Alexander’s victory as happening without any serious setbacks. The Persians put up stiff opposition but never for too long.
Thus, if the Scythian and Bactrian cavalry launch a counter-charge after being attacked by Menidas and the mercenary cavalry it only lasts until the arrival of Aretes and the Paeonians (Ar.III.13.3)
And if the Scythians and Bactrians start inflicting a greater number of casualties upon the Macedonians, the latter will stand up to them and ultimately break them (Ar.III.13.4).
And again, if Darius launches his scythed chariots against the Macedonian phalanx, the Agrianians and Balacrus’ javelin men will quickly dispose of them before the the scythes can do too much damage. And any chariot that makes it as far as the phalanx will quickly be dealt with there (Ar.III.13.5-6).
So it continues. Darius tries to envelope the Macedonian right wing (Ar.III.14.1) only for his cavalry to find itself under attack by the resourceful Aretes (Ar.III.14.3). And when the Persians break through the Macedonian phalanx and attack the enemy camp, they soon come under attack from the phalanx’ second line (Ar.III.14.5-6).
Persian Strike – Macedonian Counter-Strike is a common theme of Arrian’s account of the Battle of Gaugamela.
As it happens, Arrian breaks this thematic structure when he mentions how Simmias was forced to help the Macedonian left wing rather than join the pursuit of Darius (Ar.III.14.4). Arrian moves from Simmias straight to the Persian attack on the Macedonian camp, and Simmias isn’t mentioned again until his trial following the downfall of Philotas (Ar.III.27.1-3). If, that is, they are the same man.
However, insofar as Simmias and his battalion are forced to help the under pressure Macedonian left wing we can tie him not only to its near destruction but also to its eventual victory: Persian Strike – Macedonian Counter-Strike.
So, to go back to the question – the Macedonian army performed very well. It soaked up the Persian pressure and then hit back to achieve ultimate success.
A new question – which element of Alexander’s army performed the best of all?
For me, that answer is easy: the Thessalian cavalry. The Macedonian left wing, led by Parmenion, was not only under great pressure, but in serious danger of being destroyed by Mazaeus’ cavalry. The left wing was saved, and the inevitable Macedonian counter-strike was delivered, by the Thessalian cavalry.
The best in Greece proved themselves to be the best in the world by taking on their only rivals and, after the hardest of struggles, defeating them.
In so doing, the Thessalians not only saved the day but saved Alexander’s life, kingship, ambition, reputation and legacy. As a whole, they did what Black Cleitus did as an individual at the Granicus River.
The idea of Persian Strike – Macedonian Counter-Strike is surely a literary one. Real battles do not happen in such a neat fashion. However, because nearly all the sources refer to the Thessalian counter-strike that won the day for the Macedonian left I am confident that it really happened.
Here is what the sources say:
‘… the Thessalian cavalry had put up a brilliant fight which matched Alexander’s own success…’
[Parmenion rallies the fading Thessalians] ‘His words rang true, and fresh hope revived their drooping spirits. At a gallop they charged their enemy, who started to give ground not just gradually but swiftly…’
‘At this time Mazaeus, the commander of the Persian right wing, with the most and the best of the cavalry, was pressing hard on those opposing him, but Parmenion with the Thessalian cavalry and the rest of his forces put up a stout resistance. For a time, fighting brilliantly, he even seemed to have the upper hand thanks to the fighting qualities of the Thessalians… [Mazaeus, however, fought back and Parmenion sent messengers to Alexander to ask for help] … Parmenion handled the Thessalian squadrons with the utmost skill and finally, killing many of the enemy, routed the Persians’…
doesn’t mention the left wing
Plutarch Life of Alexander 33
‘[Alexander] learnt on his way [to help Parmenion] that the enemy had been utterly defeated and put to flight.’
As we applaud the Thessalians we should also applaud the one man who, if Curtius and Diodorus are correct, led and inspired them: Parmenion. It’s a shame Arrian doesn’t mention him but as I write these words I can think of no reason to doubt Curtius and Diodorus.
28th September – Three days until the 2,348th anniversary of the Battle of Gaugamela. Today, I am asking ‘How did the Persian army perform in the battle?’
This, of course, is an impossible question to answer fairly. Not only is our best record of the battle incomplete – Arrian tells us about key engagements on the left and right wings of the Macedonian army but too little about what happened in the centre – but all our records are biased in favour of Alexander and his men. And let’s not get started on the fact that we are reading the texts in translation.
So far, so not encouraging. But let’s not give up hope. Arrian is no sycophant. Just as he is not afraid to criticise Alexander when he feels the king deserves it, so also he recognises when the Persians did well at Gaugamela.
For example, he describes the cavalry battle between the Bactrians and Paeonians/mercenaries as an ‘intense’ one, and says that Darius’ men killed more Macedonians (Ar.III.13.4) than the latter did Persians.
Similarly, he admits that Simmias could not follow Alexander in his pursuit of Darius because of the pressure that that the Macedonian left wing was under. Simmias had to stay behind to help relieve the embattled battalions (Ar.III.14.4).
And again, he is not shy to mention how the Macedonian phalanx line was broken, thus allowing Persian cavalry to raid Alexander’s camp (Ar.III.14.5-6).
Finally, he gives witness to the calm-headedness of the Persian cavalry who ran into Alexander as he made his way to help Parmenion and who, despite their desperate situation, managed to form themselves up and fight ‘the fiercest cavalry battle’ of Gaugamela (Ar.III.15.1-2).
Arrian’s honesty shows us that the Persian cavalry fought hard and fought well. It did so, even to the point of victory – for as Alexander was destroying the Persian left wing, Mazaeus came within a stroke of doing likewise to the Macedonian left*. Arrian doesn’t have so much to say about this but Parmenion would not have sent a messenger to Alexander (Ar.III.15.1) had he not been in the direst straits.
So, in answer to the question of ‘How did the Persian army perform in battle?’ I would answer: I cannot speak to the infantry because Arrian doesn’t really tell us anything about it, but the Persian cavalry gave a pretty decent account of itself. Yes, they failed in the end but not for want of trying.
*If Mazaeus had destroyed the Macedonian left wing, he would have been able to envelope and destroy the Macedonian centre. And if he had achieved that, Alexander and the right wing would have been crippled and liable to be chased down before they could ever escape home. At that stage, even if they had managed to repulse Mazaeus’ attack, continuing on would not have been an option as there would have been too few of them
27th September – Four days to go until the 2,348th anniversary of the Battle of Gaugamela. Okay, three days as I am writing this on the 28th but if you don’t tell anyone, neither will I.
Yesterday’s question was ‘What would have happened if Darius III had won the Battle of Gaugamela?’
I’ll split my answer between Persia and Macedon.
If Darius had defeated Alexander, the Macedonian army would have been crushed. There would be no rematch. Any survivors would have been hunted down and only a handful of the 40,000 men who took to the field at Gaugamela would have made it home. Darius’ position as Great King would have been strengthened and in the end the Persian Empire would have survived him.
In the following months and years after 1st October 331, Darius would have taken back Alexander’s conquests – Egypt, Tyre, Phoenicia, Asia Minor etc. But I do not believe that he would have moved against Greece. Such a step would have been too bold for him. The Persians had spent the last 150 years interfering with Greek internal affairs with a far more effective weapon than men or swords: money. Darius, I think, would have been happy to continue that policy.
How long would the Persian Empire have lasted? I think it would have kept going until at least the rise of Rome. I say this because in real life the only serious challenger to any of the Hellenistic kingdoms before Rome was Chandragupta Maurya in India. But he was happy to make his peace with the Seleukids rather than seek their kingdom for himself. Had Darius won, and had he any contact with India, I think Chandragupta would have treated him in the same way.
Had the Macedonian army been defeated at Gaugamela, Alexander would surely have died with his men. If that had happened, the Argead dynasty would have either died with him or fallen in the years following. In the event of Alexander’s death in battle, I see Arrhidaeus being appointed king just as he was in 323, but also being controlled and then disposed of, just as he was in 317.
Thereafter, I think history would have taken the same course as it actually did: Arrhidaeus’ assassin would have made himself king. How long he would have survived is another matter. For had Gaugamela been lost, Macedon would certainly have lost its hegemony over Greece. Emboldened by Alexander’s death, the Greeks would have risen up just like they did in 323. And this time, it is unlikely that Craterus or Leonnatus would have survived to come to Antipater’s aid. And even if they had, they would not have brought much of an army with them.
So, the Greeks would have rebelled, thrown off the Macedonian yoke, and resumed the intercity rivalries that had riven them since the Persian invasion. Macedon would have been one more combatant in the arena but never more, and maybe a lot less, unless another man of genius rose to the throne, just like Philip II did.
26th September – Five days to go until the 2,348th anniversary of the Battle of Gaugamela. Today, I am asking ‘What could Darius have done to win the battle?’
As we saw a few days ago, the Persians lost the battle after (a) Alexander successfully drew its cavalry to the Macedonian right, creating a hole in the Persian centre. He then led his cavalry into the breach and fought his way closer and closer to Darius. Seeing this, the Great King fled from the battlefield, and (b) Mazaeus’ attempt to destroy the Macedonian left wing failed.
So, Darius could have won if a number ‘ifs’ had happened:-
- If Darius had been able to stop his horsemen from being pulled to their left and successfully enveloped the Macedonian right wing, or
- If his infantry had been able to withstand the Companion Cavalry’s attack and caught Alexander out during the close fighting, or
- If Mazaeus had successfully destroyed the Macedonian left wing and enveloped its centre
Then maybe – very likely in the case of (3) – Darius would have won the battle.
There’s more. On his way back to help Parmenion (or on his way back to camp, according to Curtius), Alexander was confronted by a fleeing Persian cavalry unit which, seeing him and his men blocking their way, engaged the Macedonians in a fierce fight.
Once Parmenion’s safety was assured, Alexander returned to the pursuit of Darius. As he and his men rode, they slaughtered any of the enemy in their way.
However, if the fleeing cavalry unit or one of the fleeing Persians had managed to kill Alexander this would almost certainly have led to the disintegration of the Macedonian army.
Admittedly, not at the battle itself as our question requires, but in the days following. Look at how worried the senior Macedonian commanders were when Alexander was badly injured against the Mallians in India (VI.12.1-2), and look at what happened in Babylon after he did indeed die.
The Macedonian army relied utterly on Alexander for its success. Without him, it was liable to break apart. This helps us appreciate what a precarious position the Macedonian army was in on 1st October 331 BC. If Alexander had been killed – and all it would have taken is a stray arrow – his army would have been destroyed either on the battlefield or in the days / weeks following as it splintered and came under the control of the various commanders, all of whom would be a weak opposition for a Persian king.
For their part, however, the Persians could have afforded to lose Darius. For example, had he been killed and Mazaeus been victorious on the Persian left wing, a successor would have been named and the Persian Empire continued.
25th September – Six days to go until the 2,348th anniversary of the Battle of Gaugamela. Today, I am asking ‘What happened in the aftermath of the battle?’
As we saw yesterday, Darius fled from the battlefield. Arrian states that Alexander pursued him only to turn back when he received a message from Parmenion informing him that the Macedonian left wing was in trouble ‘and needed help’ (Ar. III.15.1).
As the king and his men rode back towards the battle, they came across some fleeing Persian cavalry. Arrian tells us that this enemy unit was made up of Parthyaeans, Indians, ‘and the largest and best section of the Persian cavalry’ (Ibid).
The Persians were in flight but they had not lost their heads. Rather than try to flee from Alexander and his men, they engaged them. ‘What ensued was the fiercest cavalry battle of the whole action’ (Ar. III.15.2). We have to give the Persians a lot of credit here. The battle was lost. What were they fighting for? Survival, sure, but I like to think honour as well. Either way – they fought bravely. Who dares say that the Persians were soft?
This cavalry battle saw some significant figures in Alexander’s army wounded. Hephaestion was struck in the arm by a spear (Curtius IV.16.32) and ‘Perdiccas, Coenus and Menidas were almost killed by arrows.’ (Ibid).
The engagement ended when finally the Persians fled. Alexander let them go and returned to Parmenion. By the time he arrived, however, the Thessalian cavalry had shown their quality and turned the battle in Macedon’s favour (see Ar. III.15.3).
Seeing this, Alexander did not decide to relax. Instead, he returned to the pursuit of Darius. It was inevitable that he would do this. For as long as Darius was alive he had the ability to draw support to himself and build another army: he was still a threat. If there was any chance – any chance at all – of capturing/killing him, Alexander had to take it.
The new Lord of Asia made his way to Arbela. On the way, he crossed a river – the Lycus (modern day Great Zab) – where he stopped to give the men and horses a rest (Ar. III.15.4). Behind him, Parmenion took control of the Persian camp.
At midnight, Alexander led his men on. By the next day, he had entered Arbela. There was no sign of Darius, but his treasure and other possessions were still in situ (Ar. III.15.5).
From what Arrian says, it looks like Alexander remained in Arbela until the rest of his army caught up with him. Then, he began the journey to Babylon. He approached the city in battle order – just in case its governor, Mazaeus, who had fled to the city from the battlefield, had decided to resist him – but the Babylonians were not interested in fighting. They greeted Alexander as their new master (Ar. III.16.3).
So, that’s Alexander. As for Darius, he rode east until he came to Ecbatana. Calculating that Alexander would march south to claim the wealth of Babylon and Susa (Ar. III.16.2), he remained there until Alexander came after him having taken not just Babylon and Susa, but Persepolis as well, However, the two kings would never see each other again after the Battle of Gaugamela as Darius was betrayed and murdered by his captains during the flight from Ecbatana to Bactria.
Curtius agrees with Arrian that Alexander rode after Darius (C. IV.15.32) but turned back after receiving Parmenion’s message (C.IV.16.2). He writes that when Darius reached the Lycus river, the Great King considered tearing down the bridge, but despite the risk did not do so for the sake of his fleeing men (C. IV.16.8).
Curtius tells a sorry story of the fleeing Persians drinking muddy water to quench their thirst and drowning in the Lycus river as Alexander rode towards them. He also includes the story of the cavalry attack on Alexander as he returned – not to Parmenion, for in Curtius’ account, the Macedonian king’s deputy has already told him of the left wing’s victory – but to camp (C. IV.16.20-25).
Curtius has Darius arrive in Arbela at about midnight where he paused to hold a conference with his men (C. V.1.3-9). Alexander arrived in Arbela ‘shortly afterwards’ (C.V.1.10). According to Curtius, his camp must have still been near Gaugamela as he states that Alexander moved it quickly due to the outbreak of disease as a result of the decomposing bodies on the battlefield.
Three days after the battle, Alexander arrived at a town or village named Mennis, where – Curtius says – ‘is a cave with a stream that pours forth huge quantities of bitumen’ (C.V.1.16), of which the walls of Babylon are made.
And speaking of Babylon, Curtius agrees with Arrian again that Alexander approached the city in battle formation but that the city – led by Mazaeus – surrendered itself to him without a fight (C.V.1.17-19).
Diodorus has Darius flee and Alexander pursue him (XVII.60). He also has Parmenion struggle against Mazaeus and send for help to Alexander (Ibid). However, Unlike Arrian, Curtius and Plutarch, the messengers do not reach Alexander, who is too far away. It doesn’t matter, though, for Parmenion eventually gains the upper hand and leads his men to victory (Ibid).
The injuries to Hephaestion, Perdiccas, Coenus and Menidas are mentioned (XVII.61). Diodorus then breaks to describe events back in Greece before coming back to Darius. As with Arrian, he makes his way to Ecbatana where he starts collecting men for a new army (XVII.64).
As for Alexander, he buries his dead and makes his way to Arbela where he finds so much Persian treasure. From there, he goes to Babylon where ‘the people received him gladly’ (Ibid). There is no mention of Mennis, or bitumen/naphtha.
As might be expected, Justin’s account of the aftermath is very short. He agrees with Curtius (IV.15.30) that Darius considered killing himself. But whereas Curtius suggests that Darius decided instead to flee, Justin (XI.14) has the Great King’s officers persuade their lord to escape.
During Darius’ flight, Justin brings him to the Cydnus river. Given that the Cydnus is in Cilicia (Asia Minor) this must be a scribal error. Justin also introduces the idea of the bridge being destroyed. But whereas Curtius says that Darius thought about doing it (IV.16.8), Justin has some of his officers recommend that the Great King order its destruction. As with Curtius, however, Darius declines for the sake of his men to carry out the operation (Ibid).
And that’s that. Justin doesn’t cover Alexander’s pursuit of Darius or his march on Babylon.
Plutarch’s account of the aftermath of the battle is much truncated. Nevertheless, we see Darius fleeing and Alexander being forced to end his pursuit after Parmenion’s men come to him for help. By the time Alexander arrives on the Macedonian left wing, however, Parmenion has led his men to victory (Life 33).
Plutarch does not cover Alexander’s arrival in Babylon. He does, however, seem to tell a different version of Curtius’ Mennis story. Instead of Mennis, however, Plutarch has Alexander march through Babylonia until he arrives in Ecbatana. As this is in Media a later scribe has surely mixed the names up – just like one of Justin’s scribes.
Anyway, in ‘Ecbatana’, Alexander is ‘impressed by the fissure in the earth… from which fire continually poured fourth’ (Life 35). The cause of the fire is naphtha. What follows is the rather amazing story of one of Alexander’s attendants, an ‘ugly’ man named Stephanos, who agrees to be coated in naphtha in order to demonstrate how flammable the liquid is. Needless to say, the story does not end well, although Stephanos appears to survive.
One Final Point
The Times today ran an interesting story about the discovery of a ‘lost city’ of Alexander’s. You can read the report here.
The connection to Alexander is flimsy at best. It appears to be based upon the idea that he founded the city during his pursuit of Darius after the Battle of Gaugamela.
Well, it took Alexander nearly a month after the battle to reach Babylon so perhaps he did found a fort that then became a city later on but no source mentions this and I don’t get a sense from reading the texts that he tarried long enough anywhere to found a settlement during the journey.
That is just a thought. I await further details of the archaeological dig with interest. Maybe the archaeologists know more about the Alexander connection than the report let’s on.
24th September – Just one week to go until the 2,348th anniversary of the Battle of Gaugamela. You can see today’s question in the title above. So, what about it? Did he?
Arrian (III.13.1–15.5) offers the most coherent account of the battle. Let’s break down the sequence of events that led to Darius’ flight.
The two armies approach each other
Alexander leads his unit of Companions to the right of the Macedonian phalanx
The Persian left wing moves left to ensure that Alexander doesn’t outflank them
The Scythian cavalry engage the advance Macedonian cavalry units
Alexander continues riding to the right and comes to the border of the levelled ground
Seeing Alexander approach the border, Darius orders his advance cavalry on his left wing to block Alexander’s way
In response to Darius’ blocking move, Alexander orders Menidas – who commands the mercenary cavalry – to charge the Persian advance cavalry
Seeing Menidas’ attack, the Scythian and Bactrian cavalry (who are part of the Persian advance cavalry) launch a counter-charge. Their superior numbers force Menidas back
Seeing Menidas’ retreat, Alexander orders Aretes – who commands light cavalry – and the Paeonian cavalry to help Menidas and the mercenaries. The Scythians and Bactrians are pushed back
Not all of the Bactrian cavalry were involved in the counter-charge. Those who had held back now ride forward to confront the Paeonians and mercenaries (Aretes has, presumably withdrawn from the confrontation – see III.14.1, below)
As the remainder of the Bactrian cavalry advance to the battle, they force their comrades who were withdrawing from it to turn back
The battle between the Scythians and Bactrians and Paeonians and mercenaries is ‘intense’; the Macedonian side takes the greater number of casualties. Despite this, Alexander’s men still manage to break the Scythians’ and Bactrians’ formation
At the same time as the above mentioned cavalry battle is happening, Darius orders his scythed chariots forward
The Agrianians and Balacrus’ javelin-men have been posted in front of the Macedonian cavalry. They successfully attack the charioteers and their horses
Some of the scythed chariots make it past the Agrianians and javelin attack but the Macedonian soldiers simply move out of the way. The charioteers pass by them are either brought down by grooms or royal shield-bearers
Presumably at the same time as the above mentioned cavalry battle and scythed chariot attack are taking place, Darius moves his phalanx forward
Alexander orders Aretes and his light cavalry to charge the Persian cavalry as it attempts to envelope the Macedonian right wing
Alexander continues to advance in oblique formation
Aretes engages the Persian cavalry. In so doing, he appears to draw so many Persian cavalry to himself that a hole opens in the Persian centre*
Alexander sees the hole and turns towards it
He forms a wedge made up of Companion Cavalry and infantry. Together, they drive through the hole and approach Darius
A short period of hand-to-hand combat takes place between the Macedonian Companion Cavalry/infantry and Persian phalanx
Darius flees. He is the first to do so
The Persian cavalry trying to envelope the Macedonian right wing is ‘thrown into panic’ apart by Aretes and the light cavalry
* At the Battle of Gaugamela, the Persian cavalry stood in front of the less experienced and skilled infantry. The hole, therefore, is of cavalry and exposed the infantry behind it to attack
So, did Darius flee the battlefield too quickly?
First of all, I ought to say, please don’t put too much store in this question. It is one of those that occasionally occurs to me as a result of having read something once upon a time. It may be that the author accused Darius of fleeing too fast, or, just as likely, it may be that I am remembering what they said inaccurately. I’m not too bothered about which it is as it has given me a morning of reading Arrian and co’s accounts and the opportunity to write and share the above sequence.
Anyway, with that proviso, let’s move on. Unlike the other sources, Arrian presents a proper battle taking place before Darius flees. On the basis of what I have read and outlined above, I don’t think he does present Darius as fleeing too quickly. What in all probability he does do is distill the action for the sake of the narrative. Within that limit, reading and re-reading what Arrian says, I could easily imagine the battle unfolding as he writes it and Darius legitimately deciding to escape when Alexander got too close.
This is not to say that Arrian treats Darius very fairly, however. For example, he all but accuses Darius of cowardice. The Macedonians and Persians are fighting hand-to-hand all around him,
… the already fearful Darius could only see danger multiplied all round, and he was the first to turn and run.
Already fearful? The first to flee? This is the man who is supposed to have defeated an enemy in a duel and had the strength of will to take on the powerful eunuch Bagoas (not the Bagoas who became Alexander’s lover) at his own game of assassination. I am sure he had fear in him during the battle, but all things considered I would be surprised if it was any worse than any other soldier’s. And while he could have been the first to run, so could any Persian. The Darius of Arrian’s statement, above, would surely not have lasted long enough as Great King to ever fight Alexander.
23rd september – Eight days to go until the 2,348th anniversary of the Battle of Gaugamela. Today, I am asking ‘How did Alexander win the battle?’
That is not a simple question to answer as many factors were involved. For example, we can say that Alexander won the Battle of Gaugamela after creating a hole in the Persian centre, penetrating it, thus forcing Darius III to flee. But did he create the hole by his own skill or was a Persian mistake involved? And could that hole have been created, whether inadvertently by the Persians or by Alexander, if Parmenion hadn’t kept the Macedonian left wing intact or without the efforts of the phalanx, or even without the deserter who – just before the battle – warned Alexander about the traps that Darius had laid on the ground for him?
Most of these are questions we will never be able to answer. So let’s go back to the hole. It is the most direct reason why Alexander won the day. What happened that led to its creation?
In The Generalship of Alexander, J. F. C. Fuller offers some suggestions.
… instead of most of the cavalry of the Persian left wing being directed against Alexander’s Companions, and the others sent to the support of Bessus, the whole galloped towards Bessus. This may have been due to a misunderstanding of verbal orders, or to the instinctive urge of masses of horsemen to follow those in the lead, or again – assuming that part was ordered to charge the Companions – it may have been because it was met by such a hail of missiles from the javelin-men and archers who were posted in front of the Companions that the horsemen instinctively swerved to their left to avoid it and then joined those galloping toward Bessus.
To put that into context – Alexander and his Companions were riding to the right of the Macedonian centre (the phalanx); to Alexander’s right was his flank guard. This is where Bessus was heading. He was ignoring Alexander in favour of attacking the flank guard in its rear.
From the Persian perspective, what should have happened is that while Bessus attacked the flank guard, the Persian left wing enveloped Alexander and the Companions. What did happen is as Fuller describes above, with all the uncertainty that comes with it.
It would be easy to criticise the Persian cavalry for being unprofessional. Perhaps it was. Perhaps the horsemen should have slowed down when they realised they were riding instinctively or have been brave enough to take the hit and ridden the Macedonian javelin-men down so as to engage Alexander and the Companions. But if it is a case of misunderstanding orders – in the heat of battle no one can be blamed for that. Can they? Well, maybe, but surely before the battle Darius and his commanders would have considered the risk of a break in the line happening and agreed upon what to do in the event that it did.
Either way, the Macedonian army as a whole is to be congratulated for creating a situation whereby the Persians were forced into making an error. And as Alexander is its leader, the greatest praise must go to him.
22nd September – Nine days to go until the 2,348th anniversary of the Battle of Gaugamela (glossing over the fact that I am writing this a day late). In this post, I am asking ‘what kind of speech did Alexander and Darius give to their men before the battle?’
The answer to this question is to a greater or lesser degree unknowable. The speeches that our five sources give us are either their interpretation of what Alexander and Darius said or simple fictions.
So, let’s ask instead, ‘what speech do the sources put into Alexander’s and Darius’ mouths?’
The evening before the battle, Alexander reconnoitred the battlefield with some light armed troops and Companion Cavalry. Upon his return to camp, he spoke to his officers. Arrian doesn’t quote what Alexander said but gives a brief outline of his words, instead. The king’s speech can be broken down into three sections: Inspiration, Reminder and Instruction.
Alexander inspired his men by assuring them that, actually, ‘they had no need from him of encouragement’ – their past bravery and success had shown they were ready for the battle.
Alexander then asked the officers to ‘fire up’ the men underneath them. He asked them to do this in a very particular way, that is, by reminding their men ‘that in this battle they would not be fighting simply for Hollow Syria, for Phoenicia, or for Egypt, as before, but at issue this time was who should rule the whole of Asia’.
After briefly complimenting the the officers’ men, Alexander asked his officers to ’emphasize the importance of individual discipline’ so that the men knew when to be silent and when to issue the Macedonians’ terrible war cry, and so forth. The king concluded this part of his speech with another reminder – ‘that the whole outcome depended on individual performance’.
Arrian concludes by adding that Alexander addressed ‘a few more words of similar encouragement’ to his officers.
Alexander’s speech, as Arrian gives it, is a very practical one – first encouraging the officers so as to get them ready for the hard task ahead before diving into the why of the battle and then what needed to be done. If I was leading an army, I would definitely follow Arrian’s model for Alexander’s speech. It can be no surprise that Arrian’s probable source for this speech is Ptolemy, who would have heard it himself or from someone who was present.
What about Darius? Well, just as Arrian does not tell us what Alexander said to his men immediately before the battle (you’ll have noticed that the speech that I outlined above was given the night before) he does not mention whether Darius spoke to his men or not.
Curtius (IV.14.1-7) – Alexander
Curtius’ version of Alexander’s speech can be broken down into three categories, which are almost the same as Arrian’s: Inspiration, Contempt and Realistic.
Alexander inspires his men by reminding them of their previous successes and of how far they have come. Curtius has him flat out lying by telling them that ‘The Persians had been overtaken while running away, and would now fight only because escape was impossible.’ and cleverly turns Darius’ scorched earth policy against the Great King by saying that it was proof ‘that anything they did not spoil belonged to their foes’ – that’s a lot of land.
Alexander accuses the Persians of being disorganised. There must have been a fair amount of truth to this. Darius had pulled together an army from across his Empire but would not have had time to train every soldier adequately. Curtius adds to this by having the Macedonian king say that there ‘were more men standing on the Persian side, but more were going to be fighting on the Macedonian’ (italics in translation). That’s a great line.
This portion of Alexander’s speech is rather interesting as it is involves an acknowledgement that inspirational language only goes so far. A great fight is about to start and it will involve great suffering. How to ameliorate that? Perhaps wisely, Alexander avoids tackling the issue head on. Instead, he encourages the men to fight because they are such a huge distance from home and, well, have no choice if they ever want to go back there. Alexander must have been very confident that neither now or later his men would reply, ‘Well, whose fault is it that we are in such a precarious position to begin with?’.
Curtius (IV.14.8-26) – Darius
The Great King’s speech is twice as long as Alexander’s. I have broken it down into four categories: Realistic, Self-Justification and Contempt, Inspiration/Contempt/Philosophical, Pleading.
Curtius presents this portion of Darius’ speech as a kind-of mirror image of Alexander’s. The latter reminded his men of their past successes. Darius, in a manner of speaking, reminds his of their failures. “‘Recently,'” he says, “‘you were the masters of lands washed by the ocean on one side and bounded by the Hellespont on the other. But now it is not glory for which you must fight but for survival.'” Of course, it is actually just Darius who is fighting for survival but as we have already seen with Alexander’s speech, the truth is not an essential element of pre-battle exhortations.
Self-Justification and Contempt
Here, Darius pretty much says, I’ve done my bit (in gathering you all together and arming you), now you have to do yours. He then denigrates the Macedonians. Their ‘bravery is mere recklessness’, they are few in number (as compared to the Persians, of course, this was true), ‘their centre [is] weak and depleted’, the ‘rearmost ranks’ have turned away from the Persians as if ‘already starting their flight’ (another neat bit of rhetoric) and so forth.
Inspiration, Contempt, Philosophical
In a clever bit of role reversal, Darius tells his men that they are now what the Macedonians were. Once, therefore, the enemy was mobile but now has now grown heavy with loot and we – the Persians – are the mobile army. However, having compared his army to the Macedonian he then makes a second attempt to break through the latter’s reputation for being courageous. He does this by pointing out that though ‘Macedonian weapons are over there’, due to the amount of blood spilt in this war, ‘Macedonian bodies’ are not. Darius accuses Alexander of being ‘a headstrong and crazy’ person.
Finally, Darius muses that perhaps the reason the Persian Empire is in this position is because the gods want ‘to give it a good shock rather than to shatter it, in order to remind us of human frailty which is too often forgotten in times of prosperity’. I really can’t imagine any king diving into philosophy just before a fight. This portion of Darius’ speech, more than any other, feels like Curtius thinking aloud to his audience.
Darius concludes his speech in a rather desperate fashion, by pleading with his men to save the lives of the royal family. He has a legitimate concern here but would he really have used them to motivate his soldiers? Of course, he would not have been speaking to everyone but perhaps those closest physically to him, and they were his kinsmen, so perhaps they would have been motivated to help save the royal family’s lives.
Diodorus records only that ‘Alexander summoned his officers and encouraged them for the battle which they faced with suitable words’. He says nothing about what Darius might have said. In XVII.57 we do see him give instructions to the phalanx on how to deal with the scythed chariots but this is not presented as part of his pre-battle speech.
According to Justin/Pompeius Trogus, Alexander spoke to each nationality in turn in order to motivate them. Justin gives us some examples. Thus, Alexander ‘excited the Illyrians and Thracians by describing the enemy’s wealth and treasures’. And encouraged the Greeks by reminding them ‘of their wars of old, and their deadly hatred towards the Persians’. As for the Macedonians, they were reminded of their conquests and their desire to ‘subdue Asia’. Justin records that Alexander told his fellow countrymen that ‘this battle would put an end to their labours and crown their glory.’ Could he have really meant that?
Justin says just a few words about what Darius told his men. Like Alexander, he encouraged them; he did so by putting ‘them in mind of the ancient glory of the Persians, and the perpetual possession of empire vouchsafed them by the immortal gods.’
Plutarch (Life of Alexander 33)
So, whereas Justin has Alexander speaking to all the nationalities of his army, Plutarch states that Alexander ‘gave a long address to the Thessalians and the other Greeks’. They liked what they heard, he says, and urged the king to lead them into battle. Upon hearing this, Alexander raised his right hand and prayed to the gods ‘if he were really the son of Zeus, they should protect and encourage the Greeks’.
The idea that Alexander would speak only to his Greek Allies is not convincing, yet Plutarch names his source for this – Callisthenes. He would have known the truth, of course, but as court historian/propagandist he would also have known what to tell the Greeks to make Alexander look as good as possible. And in this case, that was the king speaking only, or at least first and foremost, to their fellow Greeks.
Plutarch doesn’t record what Darius said to his men.