Thoughts After Issus

In the UK we celebrate Bonfire Night on 5th November every year. Given the low esteem in which politicians are generally held this does seem a bit ironic, but there it is.

For my part, I don’t have much time for Bonfire Night, especially since 5th November marks the anniversary of the Battle of Issus.

On or around 5th Nov. 333 BC, Alexander confronted and defeated Darius III in the first of their two battles. It was a battle that shouldn’t have happened – at least, not on the narrow strip of coastland in the north-east corner of what is now Syria, where it ended up place. Darius should have listened to the Macedonian deserter, Amyntas (Arrian II.6.3), and kept his army in the open plains where he would have been able to make use of its superior size. Unfortunately for him, though, he didn’t. And as a result, Darius ended up boxing his men in between the Gulf of Issus and Amanus Mountains. The Great King didn’t lose the Battle of Issus because of this but not being able to use all of his men certainly did not help him.

Before continuing, I’ll acknowledge what you may well be thinking: given what happened at Gaugamela, Alexander would probably have beaten Darius even if they had met on a plain. That’s true, but from Darius’ perspective, at least he would have given himself a better chance of defeating this Macedonian upstart.

Upstart? Yes. Because at Issus, Alexander was not yet ‘great’. True, he had defeated a satrapal army, but for an enemy of Alexander, that achievement would have been easy to dismiss. By the bye, how often do we think of Alexander as anything less than ‘the Great’? If we don’t look beyond that epithet, does it harm our understanding of him?

Another question that has been on my mind recently is Alexander’s view of his empire. While it is true that he wanted to conquer as much territory as possible, I never get the impression that he cared much about being the emperor of it. When making political arrangements for each territory, for example, he acted as pragmatically as possible, e.g., by reinstalling whoever had ruled it before: the path of least resistance, so that he could move on to the next engagement. I have no definite view on this matter but it is fascinating how Alexander could be so immersed in the world and yet, I think, not care about it anywhere near as much as he ought to have done.

(I should add, when I say he didn’t care, I don’t mean he disliked it or anything like that, just that his focus was elsewhere, ie. on winning glory.)

Categories: Arrian, Of The Moment, On Alexander | Tags: | Leave a comment

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