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