Mapping Alexander

XII: Where and Why Gaugamela?

19th September – just 12 days to go until the 2,348th anniversary of the Battle of Gaugamela, which took place on 1st October 331 BC. It was the second and decisive battle in the war between Alexander and Darius III. The winner would take all.

To celebrate the anniversary, I have decided to write twelve posts, one every day, and each comprising of a single question and answer relating to an aspect of the battle.


Did I say single? Ha ha. I’m touched that I thought I would stick to that rule, so let’s kick off with two questions:-

Where was Gaugamela? And why was the battle fought there?


Where was Gaugamela?

The map below comes, of all places, from an article on LinkedIn titled 5 Things every start up CEO can learn from the battle of gaugamela. I haven’t read it but if you would like to you can do so here.

Personally, I rather doubt the wisdom of applying lessons from a battle in antiquity to business practices of today but never mind, the important thing is the map. As you can see, Gaugamela is north west of Arbela.

Arrian still exists today, though now it is called Erbil. By-the-bye, Plutarch tells us in Chapter 31 of his Life of Alexander that ‘the majority of writers’ say the battle actually happened there – at Arbela. But both he and Arrian both disagree with this. Arrian (VI.11.5) cites Ptolemy and Aristobulos who both state that it was fought at Gaugamela. Why might ancient historians have given the honour to Arbela? Here is Arrian’s view:

Gaugamela was not a city, but only a large village, otherwise unknown and with an odd-sounding name: that is why I think the credit of the great battle was appropriated by the city of Arbela.
(Arrian VI.11.6)

So now we know where Gaugamela is, or was, we can now ask –

Why was the battle fought there?

Alexander was in Egypt. Couldn’t Darius have challenged him there? Or at least marched to the Phoenician coast and faced him somewhere between Issus (at the corner of modern day Turkey and Syria) and the Nile? Or perhaps Alexander or Darius could have marched directly east/west to face their opponent at a site along the way.

Let’s take a look at Google Earth.

After his defeat at Issus in 333 BC, Darius III retreated east to assemble a new army. He mustered it at Babylon, which – according to Wikipedia – is 53 miles south of Baghdad. As you can see from the map above, a vast expanse of desert separates Egypt and Baghdad/Babylon. That would have stopped Alexander marching directly east or Darius marching directly west. Their armies would have been wiped out by thirst or starved to death long before they every met each other.

It’s true Darius could have marched north along the Royal Road and then turned west towards the Phoenician coast. I think the reason he did not do so is because he did not have time. By the time he was able to leave Babylon, Alexander was well on his way from Egypt. It made better sense for Darius to stay in or around Mesopotamia and let Alexander come to him. That way, the Macedonians would arrive footsore and tired while his men would no doubt be ready for battle having been well provisioned by the fertile soil of Mesopotamia.

Of course, the lack of time explains why Darius didn’t march on Egypt. And just as well – Egypt, as Darius would have known, was highly defensible. So much so that even his grand army, comprised of men from all over the Persian Empire, would have found it hard to invade it.

So, Darius let Alexander do all the work and come to him.

To make sure that his men stayed well fed – or as well fed as possible – Alexander marched up the Phoenician coast.

After turning east, he crossed the Euphrates at the well-established crossing point of Thapsacus. In his biography of Alexander, Robin Lane Fox explains that the young king now had two choices.

… either he could turn right and follow the Euphrates south-east to Babylon in the footsteps of Xenophon, along a valley plentifully supplied but broken by canals which could be dammed against invaders; or he could go north from the Euphrates and then swing right to skirt the hills of Armenia, cross the more distant line of the river Tigris and then turn south to Babylon on the Royal Road.
(Robin Lane Fox Alexander the Great 2004, p.226)

Darius wanted Alexander to take the longer, more dangerous, northern route and so sent men to burn the land along the Euphrates. Alexander duly did as the Great King desired.

Robin Lane Fox adds that Darius could not choose the battlefield until he knew which route Alexander was taking. Thus, once he found out that the Macedonian king was taking the northern path, he was able to pick a suitable plain to establish his army.

A plain: that was the sine qua non of Darius’ preparations. At Issus, the Great King had been prevented from using his entire army on account of the battlefield being a narrow stretch of land between the Gulf of Issus and Amanus mountains. He did not want the same handicap this time.

So, why was the battle fought at Gaugamela? It was fought there because the plain was large enough to accommodate Darius’ mighty army. And while he waited for Alexander, Darius smoothed the ground so that his scythe-chariots would be able to roll across it without hindrance.

What we now call the Battle of Gaugamela, therefore, could have been fought somewhere else, but in the end, Gaugamela was chosen quite deliberately by Darius. He believed that it would give him the best opportunity to defeat Alexander once and for all.

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The Foundation of Alexandria

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The following account of the foundation of Alexandria is not historical. It comes from The Life of Alexander of Macedon (Longmans, Green and Co. 1955) by an unknown author named Pseudo-Callisthenes.

According to the translator, Elizabeth Hazelton Haight, the Life was written around c. AD 300 although it is likely based on much a much older text dating, it seems, to just after Alexander’s death.

Now they began to construct Alexandria from the plain of Mesos and the district took its name from the fact that the building of the city began there…

[Alexander] directed that the digging of the foundations should proceed only in one place, namely exactly where a great hill appeared which is called Kopria. And when he had prepared the foundations of the greatest part of the city and planned it, he inscribed five letters Α Β Γ Δ Ε, Α for Alexander, Β for βασιλεύς (king), Γ for γἐνος, (son), Δ for Δίος (of a god), and E for the initial of the phrase beginning ἔκτισε (built the city).

… [Alexander] constructed a very great altar in front of the Heroon, which is now called the Altar of Alexander. Then he made a sumptuous sacrifice, and offered this prayer: “Whatever god thou art who dost protect this land and dost survey the boundless world, accept the sacrifice and be my helper against my foes.” With these words, he placed the sacrifice on the altar. Then suddenly a great eagle, swooping down, seized the viscera of the offering and bearing them through the air put them down upon another altar… [Alexander] went… in haste and saw the viscera lying on the altar and a temple built in antiquity and a seated wooden image inside, which mortal tongue could not describe… Now he made enquiries of the natives there as to who the god was… 

The mysterious god turned out to be Sarapis. He appeared to Alexander in a dream and prophesied the rise of Alexandria to him, and the Macedian king’s destiny:

By my authority, you in your youth
Shall all the tribes barbarian subdue.
And have a longed-for city, queen of the world.
And, after many seasons and times pass,
It shall be famed among the brave, adorned
By many temples, many varied shrines,
Famed for its beauty, size, inhabitants.
And every traveller shall come to stay,
Forgetful of the land where he was born.
And of this city I shall be the god

… everywhere and always in your life
Shall mortals reverence you as if a god,
And dying you shall be a god indeed,
Receive obeisance and the gifts of kings.
Here in this city always you shall dwell
In life and death. The city which you built.
Shall be your tomb. This I, your sire, swear,
O Alexander…


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The Gordian Knot

  • Following in Alexander’s footsteps thanks to Google Maps!
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In antiquity Gordium was the capital of Phrygia. Now, it is is the village of Yassıhüyük in Turkey

In antiquity Gordium was the capital of Phrygia. Now, it is is the village of Yassıhüyük in Turkey

Gordium is in Hellespontine Phrygia; the town stands on the river Sangarius, which rises in Phrygia and runs through Bithynian Thrace into the Black Sea.
(Arrian I. 29)

Upon reaching this place [Alexander] was irresistibly impelled to visit the palace of Gordius and his son Midas high up on the acropolis, in order to inspect the famous Wagon of Gordius and the Knot with which its yoke was fixed.
(Arrian II. 3)



[According to tradition] the man who undid the knot which fixed its yoke was destined to be the lord of Asia.

The cord was made from the bark of the cornel tree, and so cunningly was the knot tied that no one could see where it began or where it ended.
(Arrian II. 3)



For Alexander, then, how to undo it was indeed a puzzle, though he was none the less unwilling to leave it as it was, as his failure might possibly lead to public disturbances. Accounts of what followed differ: some say that Alexander cut the knot with a stroke of his sword and exclaimed, ‘I have undone it!’, but Aristobulus thinks that he took out the pin – a sort of wooden peg which was driven right through the shaft of the wagon and held the knot together – and thus pulled the yoke away from the shaft… In any case, when he and his attendants left the place where the wagon stood, the general feeling was that the oracle about the untying of the knot had been fulfilled.

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Alexander’s Visit to Troy

Following in Alexander’s footsteps thanks to Google Maps!

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Troy is located just 'under' the Propontis (Sea of Marmara) on this map

Troy is located just ‘under’ the Propontis (Sea of Marmara) on this map

Alexander advanced with his army to the Hellespont and transported it from Europe to Asia. He personally sailed with sixty fighting ships to the Troad, where he flung his spear from the ship and fixed it in the ground, and then leapt ashore himself the first of the Macedonians, signifying that he received Asia from the gods as a spear-won prize.
(Diodorus XVII. 17)

Troy on the east coast of Asia Minor (Turkey)

Troy on the east coast of Asia Minor (Turkey)

[Alexander] travelled inland to Troy and offered sacrifice to Athena, patron goddess of the city; here he made a gift of his armour to the temple, and took in exchange, from where they hung on the temple walls, some weapons which were still preserved from the Trojan war. These are supposed to have been carried before him by his bodyguard when he went into battle.
(Arrian I. 11)

Troy is a ruin today but, as you can see, is still popular with photographers

Troy is a ruin today but, as you can see, it is still popular with photographers

He is also said to have offered sacrifice to Priam on the altar of Zeus Herceius, to avert his anger against the family of Neoptolemus, whose blood still ran in his own veins.

At Troy his sailing master, Menoetius, crowned him with gold, as did Chares the Athenian, who came from Sigeium with a number of others, either Greeks or natives.

One account says that Hephaestion laid a wreath on  the tomb of Patroclus; another that Alexander laid one on the tomb of Achilles, calling him a lucky man, in that he had Homer to proclaim his deeds and preserve his memory.
(Arrian I. 11 – 12)

Troy, the city that fell for a woman's beauty

Troy, the city that fell for a woman’s beauty

Once arrived in Asia, [Alexander] went up to Troy, sacrificed to Athena and poured libations to the heroes of the Greek army. He smeared himself with oil and ran a race naked with his companions, as the custom is, and then crowned with a wreath the column which marks the grave of Achilles; he also remarked that Achilles was happy in having found a faithful friend while he lived and a great poet to sing of his deeds after his death.

While he was walking about the city and looking at its ancient remains, somebody asked him whether he wished to see the lyre which had once belonged to Alexander [Paris] of Troy. He answered that he cared nothing for that lyre but asked for the lyre which Achilles played when he sang of the glorious deeds of brave men.
(Plutarch, Life of Alexander, 15)

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The Siege of Tyre

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According to Quintus Curtius Rufus (and with the help of Google Earth)

IV. 2. 7-8
“… the Tyrians had sufficient confidence in their position to… withstand a siege. The strait separating the city from the main land had a width of four stades*. It was particularly exposed to the south-westerly wind, which rolled rapid successions of waves on to the shore from the open sea, and nothing represented a greater obstacle to a siege-work – which the Macedonians were contemplating, to join island and mainland – the this wind.
IV. 2. 12
“The people of Tyre… deployed their artillery along the walls and turrets, distributed weapons to the younger men, and allocated the city’s generous resources of craftsmen to workshops.
* ‘Less than half a mile’ according to Heckel who compiled the Notes for the Penguin Classics edition of the work that I am using for these posts

IV. 2. 21, 23
“Little by little the mole now began to rise above the surface and the mound’s width increased as it approached the city… Alexander… had hides and sheets of canvas stretched before the workmen to screen them from Tyrian missiles, and he erected two turrets on the top of the mole from which weapons could be directed at approaching boats.
IV. 3. 2-3
“Meanwhile the Tyrians took an enormous ship, loaded its stern with rocks and sand so that its prow stood high out of the water, and daubed it with bitumen and sulphur. Then they rowed out the ship which, after its sails caught a strong wind, quickly came up to the mole. At this point the oarsmen fired the prow and then jumped into boats that had followed the ship expressly for this purpose. The vessel flared up and began to spread the blaze over a large area. Before help could be bought it engulfed the towers and other structures built on the top of the mole.
Tyre2IV. 3. 8
“The king set to work on a fresh mole, but now he aimed it directly into the head-wind, instead of side-on to it, so that the front offered protection to the rest of the work which, as it were, sheltered behind it. Alexander also added breadth to the mound so that towers could be raised in the middle out of range of the enemy’s missiles.
IV. 3. 23
“Some [Tyrians] advocated the revival of a religious rite which had been discontinued for many generations and which I certainly would not have thought to be at all acceptable to the gods – namely the sacrifice of a free-born male child to Saturn… Had it not been vetoed by the elders, whose judgement carried weight in all matters, cruel superstition would have triumphed over civilized behaviour.”
Tyre3IV. 4. 10 – 12
“The king himself climbed the highest siege-tower. His courage was great, but the danger greater for, conspicuous in his royal insignia and flashing armour, he was the prime target of enemy missiles. And his actions in the engagement were certainly spectacular. He transfixed with his spear many of the defenders on the walls, and some he threw headlong after striking them in hand-to-hand combat with his sword or shield, for the tower from which he fought practically abutted the enemy walls. By now the repeated battering of the rams had loosened the joints in the stones and the defensive walls had fallen; the fleet had entered the port; and some Macedonians had made their way on to the towers the enemy had abandoned.
IV. 4. 13. 16-17
“Alexander ordered all but those who had fled to the temples to be put to death and the buildings to be set on fire… 6,000 fighting-men were slaughtered within the city’s fortifications. It was a sad spectacle that the furious king then provided for the victors: 2,000 Tyrians who had survived the rage of the tiring Macedonians, now hung nailed to crosses all along the huge expanse of the beach.
Nota Bene
As can be seen above, the island city of Tyre is now joined to the mainland. This was caused by the stretch of water between the island city and mainland silting up over the course of years – perhaps as a result of Alexander’s causeway? In his biography of Alexander, Robin Lane Fox states that Tyre had two ports. The south-east one has now vanished as a result of the silting; the northern port, though, is still in use and can be seen in the above image.

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Alexander at Siwa

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According to Quintus Curtius Rufus

“From Memphis Alexander sailed upstream and penetrated into the interior of Egypt where, after settling administrative matters without tampering with Egyptian traditions, he decided to visit the oracle of Jupiter Ammon. The journey that had to be made could scarcely be managed even by a small band of soldiers lightly armed: land and sky lack moisture; the sands lie flat and barren, and when they are seared by the blazing sun the ground swelters and burns the feet and the heat is intolerable.

Siwa Oasis

“Alexander was… goaded by an overwhelming desire to visit the temple of Jupiter – dissatisfied with elevation on the mortal level, he either considered, or wanted others to believe that Jupiter was his ancestor.
“After four days in the desert wastes, [the Macedonians] found themselves not far from the site of the oracle. Here a number of crows met the column, flying ahead of the front standards at a slow pace, occasionally settling on the ground, when the column’s advance was relatively slow, and then again taking off as if they were going ahead to show the way.
siwa2“At last the Macedonians reached the area consecrated to the god which, incredibly, located though it is among the desert wastes, is so well screened on all sides by encircling tree branches that the rays of the sun barely penetrate the shade, and its woods are sustained by a wealth of fresh water springs.
“… as the king approached, he was addressed as ‘son’ by the oldest of the priests, who claimed that this title was bestowed on him by his father Jupiter. Forgetting his mortal state, Alexander said he accepted and acknowledged the title, and he proceeded to ask whether he was fated to rule over the entire world. The priest, who was as ready as anyone else to flatter him, answered that he was going to rule over all the earth.
“Alexander… offered sacrifice, presented gifts both to the priests and to the god, and also allowed his friends to consult Jupiter on their own account. Their only question was whether the god authorized [sic] their according divine honours to their king, and this, too, so the priest replied, would be agreeable to Jupiter.”

The Temple of Amun at Siwa

The Temple of Amun at Siwa

from Curtius 4:7. 5-6, 8, 15-16, 25-26, 28
Nota Bene
If you haven’t seen Michael Wood’s documentary on Alexander, made for the BBC in 2005, I thoroughly recommend it to you as a matter of course. Wood visits Siwa and says that the oracle’s shrine is ‘perhaps the only place on earth where you can trace [Alexander’s] footsteps right up to the door’.

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