Plutarch at the Granicus

Before beginning his Life of Alexander, Plutarch warns us that he is not concerned with the ‘great exploits and battles’ of the Macedonian king but rather ‘those details which illuminate the workings of the soul’. He can hardly ignore the great moments of Alexander’s life, though… or can he? Let’s find out by looking at his account of Alexander’s four great battles. If you are already familiar with Plutarch’s account, you may want to skip forward to ‘Some Thoughts’ below.
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The Battle of the Granicus River
In chapter 15 of the Life Plutarch tells us that when Alexander left Macedon his army was between 30,000 – 43,000 infantry and 4,000 – 5,000 cavalry in size. We must get used to these figures as he does not provide any more ahead of his account of the Battle of the Granicus, which begins in chapter 16.
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According to Plutarch, ‘Darius’ generals had gathered a large army’. When Alexander arrived at the Granicus, however, it was not the size of the Persian force that alarmed ‘[m]ost of the Macedonian officers’ but ‘the depth of the river and… the rough and uneven slopes of the banks on the opposite side’.
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Tradition was also on the mind of some of his officers for it was not the Macedonian custom to wage war in the current month (Daesius). According to Timothy E. Duff in his Notes, Daesius was roughly our May/June and the custom ‘may have’ arisen out of ‘the need to gather the harvest’. Alexander dealt with this objection by declaring the new month to be the last one (Artemisius) repeated.
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The issue of the month was not the only objection that Alexander had to deal with. The Macedonians arrived at the Granicus late in the day and Parmenion, not unreasonably, counselled against attempting a crossing at such an hour. Alexander was having none of that, though and ‘declared that the Hellespont would blush for shame’ if he held back now.
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Reservations and objections dealt with, Alexander plunged into the river with thirteen cavalry squadrons. Despite the swiftly running water and Persian missiles raining down on him the king and his men made it to the opposite bank – ‘a wet treacherous slope covered with mud’ – where they engaged the enemy.
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Plutarch tells us that as the horsemen fought one another, Alexander was picked out by ‘many’ of the Persian cavalry ‘for he was easily recognizable (sic) by his shield and by the amazingly tall white feathers which were fixed upon either side of the crest of his helmet’.
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The Persians’ attention was not in vain. As the battle raged, Alexander was struck by a javelin. Fortunately, it only pierced the joint of his breast plate rather than him. However, when a Persian nobleman named Spithridates struck him on the head with his sword – splitting the helmet and ‘grazing’ Alexander’s hair – it must have looked like his life was about to come to an early end.
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Fortunately, just as Spithridates raised his sword for the coup-de-grace, Black Cleitus ran him through with his spear. For his part, Alexander killed another Persian named Rhoesaces with his sword. It seems that his helmet not only saved his life but stopped him from being stunned.
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The Macedonian phalanx now made it across the river. Its presence made the difference. Plutarch says that ‘[t]he Persians offered little resistance, but quickly broke and fled’. The rout was not total, however; Darius’ Greek mercenaries – as well trained and disciplined as the phalanx – stood their ground. The mercenaries asked Alexander for quarter. ‘[G]uided by [his] passion’, however, he refused to give it and led a charge against them. During this battle, Alexander lost his horse to a spear thrust.
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Plutarch puts the Persian losses a 20,000 infantry and 2,500 cavalry. As for the Macedonians, he cites Aristobulos who says they lost only 34 men, of whom 9 were members of the infantry. Timothy Duff notes that, according to Arrian, Macedonian losses were ‘somewhat higher’ and that 25 men died in the initial charge. Turning to Arrian, I note that he says (in addition to the 25) ‘rather more’ than sixty cavalry were killed. I am not sure what he means by that. He is more specific in regards infantry saying that ‘about’ thirty died.
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However many Macedonians died, both Plutarch and Arrian agree that Alexander honoured his dead (in part or whole) by ordering his official sculptor, Lysippos, to make bronze statues of them.
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Having paid his respects to the Macedonian dead, Alexander turned to Greece. He was ‘anxious’ for the Greek poleis to share in his victory so had 300 Persian shields sent to Athens with the famous inscription, ‘Alexander, the son of Philip, and the Greeks except the Spartans won these spoils of war from the barbarians who dwell in Asia’. Other plunder – luxury items – was sent to his mother in Macedon.
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Some Thoughts
Plutarch’s account of the battle at the Granicus, its lead-up and aftermath, is very brief and focuses on key moments, which may be summarised, thus:

  1. The Macedonian officers’ reaction on arriving at the river
  2. Alexander Crosses the River
  3. The Persian and Macedonian cavalry engage
  4. Black Cleitus saves Alexander’s Life
  5. The Macedonian Phalanx’s arrival
  6. The Greek Mercenaries’ Last Stand
  7. Alexander honours the dead

Having said that, there is certainly enough here for us to make the following observations.
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Plutarch gives us a fascinating insight into the mind of the Macedonian officers before the battle. And while I can understand why they were worried by the strength of the river and the ‘rough and uneven’ bank on the far side, the idea that they shouldn’t fight because it was the wrong month takes more getting used to. What we appear to be seeing here is a tradition that had lost its reason for being and now got in the way of legitimate progress. When I put it that way it does not seem so alien a moment, after all.
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The other thing that jumps out at me is how quickly the battle concludes. I am guessing this is because the Persians fought in a loose and fundamentally disordered fashion, which was never going to be strong enough to resist the phalanx’s tight formation and superior weaponry (i.e. the sarissa). I can’t wait to read Arrian’s account of the battle for more details.
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What might we say of Alexander? At first glance he comes across as thoroughly impatient in his desire to fight the battle and reckless for crossing the river before his men are ready join him. Is it really impatience, though, if you arrive at the battlefield, and – believing your men to be ready to fight – decide to get on with it?
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As for his recklessness, well, he did not cross the river alone and it is not as if he did so intending to fight the entire Persian army. He must have felt that he had a good chance of cutting into it, if not defeating it, before the rest of his cavalry and infantry arrived. Alexander did not have a death wish.
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So, for patience and recklessness could we not read confidence? After all, it is not as if Alexander was not capable of being patient and careful when need be. A case-in-point would be when he offered Thebes terms in 335 B.C. rather than just go straight ahead and attack the city (See Plutarch, chapter 11).
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The other aspect of Alexander’s character that Plutarch draws out is his ruthlessness in dealing with the Greek mercenaries. Not even I can justify that. The battle was won. Giving the mercenaries quarter would have been not only a merciful act but also a politically clever one.
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Finally, when Alexander sent the 300 shields back to Greece he was surely referencing the Spartans’ last stand at Thermopylae. If so, he was surely engaging in a very sly piece of historical revisionism – giving the shields to Athens makes it seem (to me, anyway) like he was crediting the Athenians for what Leonidas, his men and allies did rather than the Spartans.

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