Vol. VIII. Book XVII Ch. 53-55 (Loeb Classical Library)
Read the other posts in this series here
Darius’ Army Arrives Outside Arbela
Offer and Counter-Offer: Kings Reject Each Other’s Terms
Alexander Crosses the Tigris
Persian and Macedonian Armies Camp at Arbela
By the time Alexander arrived in Syria, Darius was ready to fight him. As mentioned in Chapter 39 (here) the Great King’s army was eight hundred thousand strong and he had what Diodorus now calls ‘no less than two hundred thousand cavalry’.
As well as great numbers, the new Persian army could also boast new and improved weaponry – longer swords, and lances, and scythe bearing chariots.
The chariots were two hundred in number and were designed ‘to astonish and terrify the enemy’. Each chariot had scythes attached to its yoke and axle housing. Diodorus doesn’t say how many scythes there were in total but I assume it was four – two on either side – if only for balance purposes.
The scythes attached to the yoke were ‘three spans long’, which the Footnotes say was twenty-seven inches. These scythes, and those attached to the axle housing were straight. If I read Diodorus correctly, the axle-scythes had separate, curved, blades attached to the scythe.
Darius gave his army ‘shining armour’. The regiments of men were led by ‘brilliant commanders’. So far so grand. The Footnotes query both the size of the army and use of scythes, though. They say that Curtius’ figure of two hundred thousand infantry and forty-five thousand horse is more reasonable, and that Diodorus’ positioning of scythes would only be possible if the chariots were pulled by two horses. Trace horses would make them impossible.
Where was Darius when he heard about Alexander’s arrival in Syria? He was already camped outside the village of Arbela in Mesopotamia.
Diodorus explains that after leaving Babylon, Darius marched north between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers, through ‘rich country capable of furnishing ample fodder’ for his animals and food for his men.
His aim, according to Diodorus, was to make for ‘the vicinity of Nineveh, as the large plains there were ideally suited for his army. Hence, his arrival outside the village of Arbela.
Once there, Darius drilled his men every day to make sure they were ‘well disciplined’. Diodorus notes that the Great King’s major concern was what confusion might ‘arise in the battle from the numerous peoples assembled who differed in speech’.
How big a concern was the language issue? As his men drilled, envoys from Darius rode at speed to Alexander bearing a new letter from the Great King. I suspect their journey was occasioned more by Darius’ concern that no matter how good his army was, it would not be able to defeat the Macedonians.
As for the envoys’ letter, it was Darius’ second to Alexander. We met the first in Chapter 39. Diodorus adds a little to his description of the original letter by stating that not only did Darius offer Alexander a peace deal and all Persian territory west of the Halys River (in Asia Minor) but also a ransom of ‘twenty thousand talents of silver’.
The second letter began with a compliment – Darius praised Alexander for the latter’s ‘generous treatment’ of the Queen Mother (Sisygambis) and the other captives. Diodorus says that Darius invited Alexander ‘to become a friend’.
Darius increased his offer to –
- All territory west of the Euphrates River
- Thirty Thousand Talents of Silver
- The hand of one his daughters in marriage
By offering Alexander the chance to become his son-in-law, Darius was also offering to make him his son with, I presume, all that that meant dynastically.
Whereas before, Alexander – so Diodorus claimed – forged Darius’ letter before taking it to his senior officers, this time he took the real thing to his council of Friends for their consideration.
‘He urged each to speak his own mind freely’. Perhaps knowing that Alexander already had a view and to speak – even accidentally – against it would imperil them, his men held back. Except, that is, Parmenion.
‘”If I were Alexander, [Parmenion said,] I should accept what was offered and make a treaty.” Alexander cut in and said: “So should I, if I were Parmenion.” He continued with proud words and refuted the arguments of the Persians, preferring glory to the gifts which were extended to him.”‘
It seems the other officers were wise to keep their opinions to themselves.
Alexander now turned to the envoys. He told them ‘that the earth could not preserve its plan and order if there were two suns nor could the inhabited would remain calm and free from war so long as two kings shared the rule’.
Alexander’s reply to Darius, therefore, was simple. If Darius wanted to reign supreme he had to fight Alexander for that honour. If he wanted to be king under Alexander, however, the son of Philip would grant him that privilege.
With the council concluded and the envoys dismissed, the Macedonians resumed their march to Arbela. ‘At this juncture the wife of Dareius died and Alexander gave her a sumptuous funeral’. The Footnotes state that (according to Plutarch) Stateira I died in childbirth carrying, I think it is reasonable to assume, Alexander’s child.
Upon receiving Alexander’s counter-offer, Darius once more ‘gave up any hope of a diplomatic settlement’ and continued to drill his soldiers. He ordered a Friend named Mazaeus to guard a ford on the Tigris River. Other troops were ‘sent out to scorch the earth’ on the Macedonians’ route.
When Mazaeus reached the Tigris, however, he decided not to bother guarding it – the river ran fast and seemed to him uncrossable. Instead, he took his men to join those setting fire to the countryside.
Mazaeus had, of course, acted unwisely. Arriving at the Tigris, Alexander didn’t run away from the problem but did his best to overcome it. Which, neither for the first or last time, he did.
It wasn’t easy, though. When Alexander ordered his men to wade across the river, the current swept many away. So, he told his men to lock arms. A bridge was then made ‘out of the compact union of their persons’.
The bridge enabled the Macedonian army to cross the Tigris but it had been a hard won passage. In acknowledgement of this, Alexander gave his men a day’s rest. The next day, they packed their tents and gear and began the journey to Gaugamela where they ‘pitched camp not far from the Persians’.
Why did Alexander show his officers the real letter this time? Did he know that they would all keep quiet? Probably, but I still suspect that Diodorus is just wrong about the forged letter.
By-the-bye, the Footnotes tell me that by offering Alexander all territory west of the Euphrates, Darius was offering him the same amount of land that would one day became part of the eastern Roman empire.
In Oliver Stone’s Alexander the Persian army is shown as a large and rather loose unit (in comparison to the tight-knit phalanx formation of the Macedonians) I think this has sometimes made me regard it being less well trained as well. Diodorus certainly makes it clear that that was not the case. What he says about the Persian army also speaks against the popular idea (among Greeks) that the Persians were effete etc.
I can’t remember which modern historian says this but I do recall reading once that Mazaeus may – may – have been bribed by Alexander. If that was the case, though, would he have joined the Persians putting the countryside to the torch? Perhaps he was permitted to do so as a cover – the Macedonians had food enough for their journey so it didn’t matter.
We all have our heroes. We must also have Men We Are Glad We Were Not. I’m going to nominate the first man to enter the Tigris either alone or with my arm locked to the chap’s behind me. I hope he got a reward to match the forceful current trying to drown him.
When I first read Diodorus’ account of the making of the Tigris bridge, I imagined a platform being placed on top of the poor men underneath it. I assume that this was not what happened! Rather, they kept the platform steady while engineers either drove pillars into the river bed or secured it on both banks.
The Last Thoughts of Perdiccas
Damn.. how did Alexander get away with it?