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.