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Alexander advances towards the Granicus River
Alexander approached the Granicus ‘in battle-order’. He knew that the Persians were not far ahead. However, it wasn’t until his scouts returned that he discovered the satrapal army’s precise position, and formation: it was on the far side of the Granicus river, and was formed up ready for battle.
Arrian says that on receiving this news, Alexander ‘began to form his entire army for battle’. I take it, therefore, that marching ‘in battle-order’ is slightly different to actually being in battle formation.
At the same time that Alexander began doing this, Parmenion approached him. He proposed to the king that they make camp on the near side of the river. Doing this, he said, would make the Persians encamp further away as it had fewer infantrymen. Doing this would facilitate the army’s safe crossing tomorrow. Parmenion reckoned that if the Macedonian army crossed at daybreak, it would be able to do so before the Persian army had time to form up.
There is another reason why Parmenion advocated camping until the next day. As Arrian tells it, Parmenion did not think the army would be able to cross the river ‘on a wide front’ safely. The river looked deep and the banks on the far side, high; the army would find it hard to get out of the water – only being able to do so in the ‘weakest possible formation’, that of a column – and would be met by a cavalry charge. Defeat at the Granicus, Parmenion said, would put the entire expedition in danger.
Alexander ignored Parmenion’s concerns. According to Arrian he justified his decision to cross immediately on the basis of pride:
‘… I would be ashamed if, after crossing the Hellespont with ease, this little stream’ (this was his term to disparage the Granicus) ‘is to prevent us getting across just as we are.’
Waiting, Alexander said, would be ‘false to Macedonian prestige’ and his ‘own short way with danger’ and make the Persians think they could deal with them.
When Arrian says that the Macedonian army advanced ‘in battle-order’ he describes its formation: the hoplites were ‘in a double phalanx’ and the cavalry were ‘on the wings’. It sounds, therefore, like the army was ready to fight. I wonder, therefore, if when Alexander ‘began to form his entire army for battle’ he wasn’t preparing it from scratch – as I imagined when I wrote the first two paragraphs above – but just adjusting it according to the information he had received from the scouts. Just a thought.
Why did Alexander ignore Parmenion’s concerns?
Before answering that, we might ask if Arrian’s account of what happened is even accurate. According to Diodorus (XVII.19), Alexander camped on the near side of the river overnight and crossed the Granicus at dawn the next day – just as Arrian has Parmenion suggesting. By-the-bye, Diodorus doesn’t include this conversation between the king and general.
So, who to believe? Well, you pays your money and takes your choice. As the notes to The Landmark Arrian say,
There is no possibility of reconciling the two accounts, and no agreement among historians as to which is more credible.
As much as I like Arrian, I would actually be inclined to believe Diodorus. If the Persians were on the far bank, crossing it straight away would seem to be a reckless decision. When it came to battle, Alexander was very capable of being reckless with himself, but with his army – ? I can’t immediately think of any time when he was. He certainly hasn’t been so far. Alexander waiting until dawn, however, would be a cunning decision in keeping with his superior strategic skills.
But let’s say that Arrian is correct. Why would he ignore Parmenion? I think it would be because he wanted to do things the right, that is, the Homeric, way, and that meant riding into danger rather than steering clear of it.
Having said that, and because I don’t believe Arrian’s account is correct, let me say that I think it is Ptolemy who portrays Alexander in this way rather than Alexander himself. It is Ptolemy who wants to represent Alexander as the Homeric hero. This isn’t to say that Alexander was not that type of person but I suspect there is a bit of retconning going on here.