On Alexander

2,374 Years Strong

diary – birthday edition

We don’t know which day exactly Alexander was born on but it usually taken to be 20th/21st July (though I have also seen 26th mentioned). With that in mind, I took the day off work yesterday to commemorate it by visiting a Greek restaurant in Primrose Hill called Lemonia. It is a lovely place and well worth a visit if you are in the neighbourhood. I ate zatziki for starters, keftedes for mains and finished off with a Greek coffee. Sadly for my future as a food blogger and instagrammer I didn’t take any photographs of either the food or drink – I washed the food down with half a bottle of Restina Kourtaki. Oh, and I bought a bottle of Greek Macedonian red wine. When I open that I will certainly take a photograph and upload it here.

While I waited for the courses to arrive, I read the opening chapters of Plutarch’s Life of Alexander, our only (substantial) account of Alexander’s birth. The account is infused with legend as well as bald facts; one might also say it is laced with propaganda as well – particularly regarding Alexander’s divinity. Most interestingly, it also contains what is probably the only example of Olympias being humble. Plutarch records two traditions regarding her; in the first, she tells Alexander ‘the secret of his conception’ and urges him ‘to show himself worthy of his divine parentage’. In the other, Plutarch says that ‘that she repudiated this story and used to say, ‘Will Alexander never stop making Hera jealous of me.’

Who were the authors who maintained this latter tradition, and why did they do so? After Olympias died, in 316 BC, there was no motivation for anyone to defend her from whatever charge her erstwhile enemies cared to bring.

***

The mystery of the large, black coffin found in Alexandria has been solved – for now. It was opened and found to contain three skeletons and sewage water. Yuk. Read more here. Of course, we are disappointed that it didn’t contain Alexander’s body. On the other hand, though, isn’t it nice that the mystery over where his final resting place is, still remains?

***

Hornet, the gay news site, has a curate’s egg of an article on Alexander, here.

… letters of the time described Alexander yielding to Hephaestion’s thighs.

Robin Lane Fox mentions this anecdote and states that it comes from ‘the Cynic philosophers… long after [Alexander’s] death’.

“One soul abiding in two bodies” is how their tutor, Aristotle, described the two men.

Aristotle was respond to the question of ‘what is a friend’; he wasn’t referring to Alexander and Hephaestion (Diogenes Laertius Lives of Eminent Philosophers Book V.20 here)

“The friend I valued as my own life,” Alexander wrote of his partner.

I don’t think Alexander did say this – did he?

Scholars have suggested that he became careless with his health after losing his lover.

I think it would be fair to say that Alexander was always careless of his health! In respect of the statement, I don’t think he was. I don’t recall anything in the sources to indicate it.

… eventually [Alexander and Barsine] are said to have had a son named Heracles. Questions linger about the veracity of that particular account — it’s possible that Heracles was procured in an attempt to usurp the throne after Alexander’s death. Though there were some who supported Heracles’ claim to Alexander’s lineage, he vanished not long after his supposed father died.

This is the first time I have heard anyone doubt that Heracles lived. He is well attested in the sources – Curtius, Diodorus and Justin all mention him. Also, Heracles didn’t ‘vanish not long after his supposed father died’ – he lived until 310/09 BC when Polyperchon tried to use him to reclaim Macedon from Cassander only to be executed after Cassander made Polyperchon an offer suitable to his irrelevant status in the Wars of the Successors.

She was carrying a son at the time, whom she named Alexander IV; but doubt was cast over the identity of the father.

Again, this is the first time I have heard anyone doubt Alexander’s paternity of Alexander IV.

In general, Alexander’s focus was on uniting Persian and Greek culture, and so he arranged marriages that spanned the two groups. He went so far as to organize a mass wedding that lasted five days and included 90 couplings, usually tying highly regarded Macedonian women to Greek soldiers whom Alexander trusted.

If Alexander was intent on uniting ‘Persian and Greek culture’ I don’t know why he would hold a mass wedding involving Macedonian women to Greek soldiers. Of course, he didn’t; the reference here is to the mass weddings at Susa in which Macedonians were married to Persians – see Arrian VII.4-8).

So the article is a bit hit and miss. I did like the closing passage, though:

… it is impossible not to wonder what passions existed two and a half millennia ago, and how recognizable those feelings would be to us today.

***

Judging by the way people write about Alexander and Hephaestion today, their feelings are very recognisable today! As it happens, I had the opportunity a few weeks ago to consider my own. I was asked who my heroes were. Alexander was suggested but then someone said that perhaps he was someone I was just fascinated by rather than considered heroic.

I wouldn’t consider Alexander heroic in the modern sense – he was no Superman, selflessly acting for the good of others; he was, though, heroic in the ancient Greek manner: devoted to winning glory for himself, proving himself better than anyone else.

Alexander certainly fascinates me but for me it goes much deeper than that, and for that reason, I try to think about him as critically as I can so that I don’t descend into fanboyism – excusing or ignoring the bad things he did and complexities of his life just because he looked good and (probably) slept with Hephaestion. I can’t say how good I am at that, probably not as much as I want to be, but for me it is important to try. It has the added benefit as well of enabling me to learn more about the Alexander who lived rather than the one I hold in my heart.

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What’s in a Name?

A Catch-Up post.

It has been a month since I last wrote anything, here.

Troy: Fall of a City continues on the BBC on Saturday on Saturday night. I have to admit, though, that I have not felt any great desire to keep up with it. I will try to at some point.

‘At some point’ – there’s a fatal phrase if ever there was one. We’ll see.

***

Yesterday, I read an article titled The Ignorant Parkland Kids Don’t Speak for Their Dead Classmates by John Hawkins on the PJ Media website here.

The article is by-and-large a contemptuous piece of right wing trash. In arguing that the teenagers who survived the Parkland School gun massacre should shut up because they are ‘high school kids’ who know nothing it cynically employs the feeble tactic of being as controversial as possible in order to draw readers in either through their outrage or approval.

The reason I mention it here is because of a reference to Alexander as one of the few teenagers to know anything. Hawkins links to an article on a voting website, which says of Alexander,

At age 16, Alexander the Great, having just finished studying under Aristotle, was the regent in charge of Macedonia. The Thracian Maedi revolted against him, and Alexander quickly responded, driving them out of their own territory. He colonized it with Greeks, and founded a city named Alexandropolis.

I imagine that Hawkins’ focus is on Alexander’s studentship under Aristotle as his regency, attack on the Maedi, and the establishment of Alexandropolis is not of itself really relevant to a view of him as being an especially knowledgable person. Perhaps he employed revolutionary new tactics, which he created, in the battle, but it is unlikely.

So what about Alexander and Aristotle? Did being the famous philosopher’s student make him especially knowledgable? Alexander certainly did have a keen intellect. Plutarch tells us (Life of Alexander 8) that Aristotle gave him an interest in medicine and philosophy and that in adulthood, Alexander had a love of literature and history. We might add to this that his baggage train included men of science who surveyed the lands that the army traversed and sent back to Greece perhaps much information about it.

Back in his teenage years, however, I get no sense that Alexander was intellectually precocious. Reading the early chapters of Plutarch, you certainly get a picture of a more generally precocious young man but this is not the same thing. For example, in Chapter 4, Plutarch talks about Alexander for  whom fame was already of the greatest importance; Chapter 5 continues that theme as Alexander quizzes the Persian ambassadors about their country, foreshadowing, of course, his expedition; in Chapter 6 Alexander tames Bucephalus thus proving his bravery.

Alexander was clearly very bright but if the aforementioned events happened, or if they are simply based on the truth about Alexander in his formative years, we may say that his intelligence was focused on the winning of renown and glory. Just like the Parkland ‘kids’ are focused on using theirs to achieve greater gun control.

Having said all that, I do share John Hawkins’ reservations about the living speaking for the dead. This should not – cannot – be done unless one knows that in life the dead supported the cause of the living. This sympathy does not mean, however, that I regard the article as anything other than a hectoring, sneering piece of rubbish.  

***

Speaking of Alexandropolis, I received an interesting enquiry via my Alexander Facebook page the other day: Why did Alexander name his cities Alexandria? The fact that Alexandria is the feminine version of his name was also brought up. In truth, I don’t know. Unfortunately, I seem to have deleted the message so can’t refer back to it, but if the person who wrote to me reads this, I would be very interested to hear your thoughts on the matter. And indeed, I would be very interested to hear anyone else’s too, in the comments below or on Facebook.

***

Finally, I have written a few posts on Tumblr; well, indulging my love for the film Call Me By Your Name. You can find them, and my latest on Philip II, here.

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I: The Music of Gaugamela

30th September – One day until the 2,348th anniversary of the Battle of Gaugamela. I have a question to ask myself but I don’t yet have an answer for it so let’s have a little music instead. Thank you Oliver Stone, and thank you Vangelis for The Drums of Gaugamela. And thank you reader for reading these blog posts over the last twelve days. You deserve a rest!

Album Version: heroic all the way

Unreleased Version: Includes audio from the battle which gives it a tough, tough edge

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II: Performance Review II (The Macedonian Army)

29th September – Two days until the 2,348th anniversary of the Battle of Gaugamela. And not for the first time, but definitely the last, I am writing this a day late. In light of the heading to this post, today’s question will not be a surprise – ‘How did the Macedonian army perform in the battle?’

In answering this question we obviously come up against the same problem as when we looked at the Persian army (here) – our sources’ accounts of the Battle of Gaugamela are incomplete and biased.

There’s not much we can do about that, other than be wary of the texts rather than give all our trust to them. The same, by the way, applies to this post and, indeed, blog as a whole. I hope no one ever takes what I say as gospel. Let it be a springboard to your own research rather than a conclusion.

So, let’s jump in. As ever, I start with Arrian, who offers the best overall account of the battle.

How to rate the Macedonian army? 10/10, surely. It won the battle, after all; what more could we ask for?

A perfect performance, however, would have required a crushing victory; a victory with no setbacks and minimal casualties. Such triumphs only occur in fantasy novels.

Arrian comes close to going there. He presents Alexander’s victory as happening without any serious setbacks. The Persians put up stiff opposition but never for too long.

Thus, if the Scythian and Bactrian cavalry launch a counter-charge after being attacked by Menidas and the mercenary cavalry it only lasts until the arrival of Aretes and the Paeonians (Ar.III.13.3)

And if the Scythians and Bactrians start inflicting a greater number of casualties upon the Macedonians, the latter will stand up to them and ultimately break them (Ar.III.13.4).

And again, if Darius launches his scythed chariots against the Macedonian phalanx, the Agrianians and Balacrus’ javelin men will quickly dispose of them before the the scythes can do too much damage. And any chariot that makes it as far as the phalanx will quickly be dealt with there (Ar.III.13.5-6).

So it continues. Darius tries to envelope the Macedonian right wing (Ar.III.14.1) only for his cavalry to find itself under attack by the resourceful Aretes (Ar.III.14.3). And when the Persians break through the Macedonian phalanx and attack the enemy camp, they soon come under attack from the phalanx’ second line (Ar.III.14.5-6).

Persian Strike – Macedonian Counter-Strike is a common theme of Arrian’s account of the Battle of Gaugamela.

As it happens, Arrian breaks this thematic structure when he mentions how Simmias was forced to help the Macedonian left wing rather than join the pursuit of Darius (Ar.III.14.4). Arrian moves from Simmias straight to the Persian attack on the Macedonian camp, and Simmias isn’t mentioned again until his trial following the downfall of Philotas (Ar.III.27.1-3). If, that is, they are the same man.

However, insofar as Simmias and his battalion are forced to help the under pressure Macedonian left wing we can tie him not only to its near destruction but also to its eventual victory: Persian Strike – Macedonian Counter-Strike.

So, to go back to the question – the Macedonian army performed very well. It soaked up the Persian pressure and then hit back to achieve ultimate success.

A new question – which element of Alexander’s army performed the best of all?

For me, that answer is easy: the Thessalian cavalry. The Macedonian left wing, led by Parmenion, was not only under great pressure, but in serious danger of being destroyed by Mazaeus’ cavalry. The left wing was saved, and the inevitable Macedonian counter-strike was delivered, by the Thessalian cavalry.

The best in Greece proved themselves to be the best in the world by taking on their only rivals and, after the hardest of struggles, defeating them.

In so doing, the Thessalians not only saved the day but saved Alexander’s life, kingship, ambition, reputation and legacy. As a whole, they did what Black Cleitus did as an individual at the Granicus River.

The idea of Persian Strike – Macedonian Counter-Strike is surely a literary one. Real battles do not happen in such a neat fashion. However, because nearly all the sources refer to the Thessalian counter-strike that won the day for the Macedonian left I am confident that it really happened.

Here is what the sources say:

Arrian III.15.1;15.3
‘… the Thessalian cavalry had put up a brilliant fight which matched Alexander’s own success…’
Curtius IV.16.1-6
[Parmenion rallies the fading Thessalians] ‘His words rang true, and fresh hope revived their drooping spirits. At a gallop they charged their enemy, who started to give ground not just gradually but swiftly…’
Diodorus XVII.60
‘At this time Mazaeus, the commander of the Persian right wing, with the most and the best of the cavalry, was pressing hard on those opposing him, but Parmenion with the Thessalian cavalry and the rest of his forces put up a stout resistance. For a time, fighting brilliantly, he even seemed to have the upper hand thanks to the fighting qualities of the Thessalians… [Mazaeus, however, fought back and Parmenion sent messengers to Alexander to ask for help] … Parmenion handled the Thessalian squadrons with the utmost skill and finally, killing many of the enemy, routed the Persians’…
Justin
doesn’t mention the left wing
Plutarch Life of Alexander 33
‘[Alexander] learnt on his way [to help Parmenion] that the enemy had been utterly defeated and put to flight.’

As we applaud the Thessalians we should also applaud the one man who, if Curtius and Diodorus are correct, led and inspired them: Parmenion. It’s a shame Arrian doesn’t mention him but as I write these words I can think of no reason to doubt Curtius and Diodorus.

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III: Performance Review I (The Persian Army)

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

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IV: An Alexandrian Credo

27th September – Four days to go until the 2,348th anniversary of the Battle of Gaugamela. Okay, three days as I am writing this on the 28th but if you don’t tell anyone, neither will I.

Yesterday’s question was ‘What would have happened if Darius III had won the Battle of Gaugamela?’

 

I’ll split my answer between Persia and Macedon.

Persia
If Darius had defeated Alexander, the Macedonian army would have been crushed. There would be no rematch. Any survivors would have been hunted down and only a handful of the 40,000 men who took to the field at Gaugamela would have made it home. Darius’ position as Great King would have been strengthened and in the end the Persian Empire would have survived him.

In the following months and years after 1st October 331, Darius would have taken back Alexander’s conquests – Egypt, Tyre, Phoenicia, Asia Minor etc. But I do not believe that he would have moved against Greece. Such a step would have been too bold for him. The Persians had spent the last 150 years interfering with Greek internal affairs with a far more effective weapon than men or swords: money. Darius, I think, would have been happy to continue that policy.

How long would the Persian Empire have lasted? I think it would have kept going until at least the rise of Rome. I say this because in real life the only serious challenger to any of the Hellenistic kingdoms before Rome was Chandragupta Maurya in India. But he was happy to make his peace with the Seleukids rather than seek their kingdom for himself. Had Darius won, and had he any contact with India, I think Chandragupta would have treated him in the same way.

Macedon
Had the Macedonian army been defeated at Gaugamela, Alexander would surely have died with his men. If that had happened, the Argead dynasty would have either died with him or fallen in the years following. In the event of Alexander’s death in battle, I see Arrhidaeus being appointed king just as he was in 323, but also being controlled and then disposed of, just as he was in 317.

Thereafter, I think history would have taken the same course as it actually did: Arrhidaeus’ assassin would have made himself king. How long he would have survived is another matter. For had Gaugamela been lost, Macedon would certainly have lost its hegemony over Greece. Emboldened by Alexander’s death, the Greeks would have risen up just like they did in 323. And this time, it is unlikely that Craterus or Leonnatus would have survived to come to Antipater’s aid. And even if they had, they would not have brought much of an army with them.

So, the Greeks would have rebelled, thrown off the Macedonian yoke, and resumed the intercity rivalries that had riven them since the Persian invasion. Macedon would have been one more combatant in the arena but never more, and maybe a lot less, unless another man of genius rose to the throne, just like Philip II did.

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VII: Did Darius Flee the Battlefield Too Quickly?

24th September – Just one week to go until the 2,348th anniversary of the Battle of Gaugamela. You can see today’s question in the title above. So, what about it? Did he?

Arrian (III.13.115.5) offers the most coherent account of the battle. Let’s break down the sequence of events that led to Darius’ flight.

III.13.1
The two armies approach each other
Alexander leads his unit of Companions to the right of the Macedonian phalanx
The Persian left wing moves left to ensure that Alexander doesn’t outflank them

III.13.2
The Scythian cavalry engage the advance Macedonian cavalry units
Alexander continues riding to the right and comes to the border of the levelled ground
Seeing Alexander approach the border, Darius orders his advance cavalry on his left wing to block Alexander’s way

III.13.3
In response to Darius’ blocking move, Alexander orders Menidas – who commands the mercenary cavalry – to charge the Persian advance cavalry
Seeing Menidas’ attack, the Scythian and Bactrian cavalry (who are part of the Persian advance cavalry) launch a counter-charge. Their superior numbers force Menidas back
Seeing Menidas’ retreat, Alexander orders Aretes – who commands light cavalry – and the Paeonian cavalry to help Menidas and the mercenaries. The Scythians and Bactrians are pushed back

III.13.4
Not all of the Bactrian cavalry were involved in the counter-charge. Those who had held back now ride forward to confront the Paeonians and mercenaries (Aretes has, presumably withdrawn from the confrontation – see III.14.1, below)
As the remainder of the Bactrian cavalry advance to the battle, they force their comrades who were withdrawing from it to turn back
The battle between the Scythians and Bactrians and Paeonians and mercenaries is ‘intense’; the Macedonian side takes the greater number of casualties. Despite this, Alexander’s men still manage to break the Scythians’ and Bactrians’ formation

III.13.5
At the same time as the above mentioned cavalry battle is happening, Darius orders his scythed chariots forward
The Agrianians and Balacrus’ javelin-men have been posted in front of the Macedonian cavalry. They successfully attack the charioteers and their horses

III.13.6
Some of the scythed chariots make it past the Agrianians and javelin attack but the Macedonian soldiers simply move out of the way. The charioteers pass by them are either brought down by grooms or royal shield-bearers

III.14.1
Presumably at the same time as the above mentioned cavalry battle and scythed chariot attack are taking place, Darius moves his phalanx forward
Alexander orders Aretes and his light cavalry to charge the Persian cavalry as it attempts to envelope the Macedonian right wing

III.14.2
Alexander continues to advance in oblique formation
Aretes engages the Persian cavalry. In so doing, he appears to draw so many Persian cavalry to himself that a hole opens in the Persian centre*
Alexander sees the hole and turns towards it
He forms a wedge made up of Companion Cavalry and infantry. Together, they drive through the hole and approach Darius

III.14.3
A short period of hand-to-hand combat takes place between the Macedonian Companion Cavalry/infantry and Persian phalanx
Darius flees. He is the first to do so
The Persian cavalry trying to envelope the Macedonian right wing is ‘thrown into panic’ apart by Aretes and the light cavalry

* At the Battle of Gaugamela, the Persian cavalry stood in front of the less experienced and skilled infantry. The hole, therefore, is of cavalry and exposed the infantry behind it to attack

So, did Darius flee the battlefield too quickly?

First of all, I ought to say, please don’t put too much store in this question. It is one of those that occasionally occurs to me as a result of having read something once upon a time. It may be that the author accused Darius of fleeing too fast, or, just as likely, it may be that I am remembering what they said inaccurately. I’m not too bothered about which it is as it has given me a morning of reading Arrian and co’s accounts and the opportunity to write and share the above sequence.

Anyway, with that proviso, let’s move on. Unlike the other sources, Arrian presents a proper battle taking place before Darius flees. On the basis of what I have read and outlined above, I don’t think he does present Darius as fleeing too quickly. What in all probability he does do is  distill the action for the sake of the narrative. Within that limit, reading and re-reading what Arrian says, I could easily imagine the battle unfolding as he writes it and Darius legitimately deciding to escape when Alexander got too close.

This is not to say that Arrian treats Darius very fairly, however. For example, he all but accuses Darius of cowardice. The Macedonians and Persians are fighting hand-to-hand all around him,

… the already fearful Darius could only see danger multiplied all round, and he was the first to turn and run.
(Ar. III.14.3)

Already fearful? The first to flee? This is the man who is supposed to have defeated an enemy in a duel and had the strength of will to take on the powerful eunuch Bagoas (not the Bagoas who became Alexander’s lover) at his own game of assassination. I am sure he had fear in him during the battle, but all things considered I would be surprised if it was any worse than any other soldier’s. And while he could have been the first to run, so could any Persian. The Darius of Arrian’s statement, above, would surely not have lasted long enough as Great King to ever fight Alexander.

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VIII: How the War was Won

23rd september – Eight days to go until the 2,348th anniversary of the Battle of Gaugamela. Today, I am asking ‘How did Alexander win the battle?’

That is not a simple question to answer as many factors were involved. For example, we can say that Alexander won the Battle of Gaugamela after creating a hole in the Persian centre, penetrating it, thus forcing Darius III to flee. But did he create the hole by his own skill or was a Persian mistake involved? And could that hole have been created, whether inadvertently by the Persians or by Alexander, if Parmenion hadn’t kept the Macedonian left wing intact or without the efforts of the phalanx, or even without the deserter who – just before the battle – warned Alexander about the traps that Darius had laid on the ground for him?

Most of these are questions we will never be able to answer. So let’s go back to the hole. It is the most direct reason why Alexander won the day. What happened that led to its creation?

In The Generalship of Alexander, J. F. C. Fuller offers some suggestions.

… instead of most of the cavalry of the Persian left wing being directed against Alexander’s Companions, and the others sent to the support of Bessus, the whole galloped towards Bessus. This may have been due to a misunderstanding of verbal orders, or to the instinctive urge of masses of horsemen to follow those in the lead, or again – assuming that part was ordered to charge the Companions – it may have been because it was met by such a hail of missiles from the javelin-men and archers who were posted in front of the Companions that the horsemen instinctively swerved to their left to avoid it and then joined those galloping toward Bessus.
(Fuller, p.173)

To put that into context – Alexander and his Companions were riding to the right of the Macedonian centre (the phalanx); to Alexander’s right was his flank guard. This is where Bessus was heading. He was ignoring Alexander in favour of attacking the flank guard in its rear.

From the Persian perspective, what should have happened is that while Bessus attacked the flank guard, the Persian left wing enveloped Alexander and the Companions. What did happen is as Fuller describes above, with all the uncertainty that comes with it.

It would be easy to criticise the Persian cavalry for being unprofessional. Perhaps it was. Perhaps the horsemen should have slowed down when they realised they were riding instinctively or have been brave enough to take the hit and ridden the Macedonian javelin-men down so as to engage Alexander and the Companions. But if it is a case of misunderstanding orders – in the heat of battle no one can be blamed for that. Can they? Well, maybe, but surely before the battle Darius and his commanders would have considered the risk of a break in the line happening and agreed upon what to do in the event that it did.

Either way, the Macedonian army as a whole is to be congratulated for creating a situation whereby the Persians were forced into making an error. And as Alexander is its leader, the greatest praise must go to him.

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X: Diversity in the Armies of Alexander and Darius

21st September – Ten days until the 2,348th anniversary of the Battle of Gaugamela.

In the last post, we saw how large the armies of Macedon and the Persian Empire were. The figures for the latter are, with the possible exception of Curtius, very overinflated, but they do point to a very interesting truth – that his army was a incredibly diverse one.

When I say ‘diverse’, I mean in terms of nationalities represented.

Arrian is our best source for the battle, so let’s look at the peoples he mentions.

Darius’ forces had been augmented by the support of the Indians who bordered the Bactrians, as well as the Bactrians themselves and the Sogdians: all these were under the command of Bessus, the satrap of Bactria. Together with them came the Sacae, who are a Scythian people, one of the tribes of Scythian race inhabiting Asia. They were not subjects of Bessus, but came under the terms of their military alliance with Darius: they were mounted archers, and their leader was Mauaces. Barsaentes the satrap of Arachosia led both the Arachosians and the so-called Mountain Indians; the Areians were led by the satrap of Areia, Satibarzanes; Phrataphernes led the Parthyaeans, Hyrcanians, and Topeirians, all of these cavalry; the Medes were under the command of Atropates, and brigaded with the Medes were the Cadusians, Albanians, and Sacesinians; the tribes bordering the Red Sea were commanded by Orontobates, Ariobarzanes, and Orxines; the Uxians and Susians had Oxathres the son of Abulites as their leader; Bupares commanded the Babylonians, and the transplanted Carians and the Sittacenians were brigaded with the Babylonians; the Armenians were led by Orontes and Mithraustes, and the Cappadocians by Ariaces; the Syrians of both Hollow and Mesopotamiam Syria were commanded by Mazaeus.
(Arrian III.8.3-6)

At III.11.3-7 Arrian gives an account of Darius’ order of battle. As above, he identifies each element of the Persian army by nationality whereas at III.11.8-12.5 he identifies each element of Alexander’s order of battle according to the commander-in-charge.

I’d like to think this is because he wanted to dehumanise Darius’ army and emphasise the humanity of Alexander’s (see this post) but it is more likely because the captured battle plan that the information ultimately came from arranged the information in this way.

Speaking of Alexander’s army, Arrian doesn’t have much to say about how diverse it was though we can glean some information. For example, the Thessalian cavalry served on the far left wing (Ar.III.11.10) and half of the Agrianians formed part of the right flank guard (Ar.III.12.2).

Diodorus (XVII.57) gives us a little more information about where the various parts of the Macedonian army came from. For example, he states that an Elimiote battalion served on the right wing of the phalanx. Curtius (IV.13.29) tells us that Craterus had charge of ‘the Peloponnesian cavalry – to which were attached squadrons of Achaeans, Locrians, and Malians’. These Malians, by the way, should not be confused with the Mallians who almost killed Alexander in India.

Why mention all this? Two begin with, I was just interested to find out the various peoples who were involved in the battle. I wish I had time to go behind the names and find out more about where the likes of the Cadusians and Mountain Indians came from, but that will have to wait for another day.

Looking at how tribally or nationally diverse the armies were also helps me to appreciate firstly how wide ranging the Persian Empire was and, by extension, how wide ranging Alexander’s war had become. Men from Greece to Bactria-India stood on the field of Gaugamela, men who otherwise may never have known that each other existed. This was in a sense a world war.

If only they could have come together in peace. If only. After Alexander’s victory, however, they did. Regretfully, Macedonian xenophobia meant that that peace never amounted to very much.

Categories: Arrian, On Alexander | Tags: | Leave a comment

Watch Alexander’s War Unfold

I love my Alexander books but it is always good to see what happened as well. Recently, therefore, I was delighted to discover BazBattles, a You Tube channel dedicated to showing how famous battles unfolded.

Amongst those featured are Alexander’s three battles against the Persian Empire.

The Battle of the Granicus River

The narrator’s strong (Spanish?) accent can make this video a little hard going but stick with it as his voice is actually rather charming in its way. The video is livened up by speech bubbles representing the voices of the Persian satraps. You’ll have to excuse the rather sweary one. The word used is nothing particularly bad but doesn’t really belong in this narrative.

The Battle of Issus

The language is better in this video, and more modern, too; look out for Alexander saying ‘GG’! Also, look out for the extra facts at the end. I don’t think I knew (or had forgotten) that Alexander only started calling himself ‘king’ after Issus. I read, recently, that he referred to himself as King of Asia after this battle so I wonder if the two facts are being conflated? Something to look into, perhaps.

The Battle of Gaugamela

An American narrates The Battle of Issus and I have to say a very caddish sounding Englishman narrates this video. I’d love to know who it is and what other work he has done. The video does not mention how the Persians sacked the Macedonian camp during the battle but does highlight one very salient fact about Alexander – the attention he paid to logistics. One other thing – look out for The Lord of the Rings reference!

All in all I found all three of these videos really useful in helping me to see how the battles turned out so I thoroughly recommend them to you. They aren’t BazBattles‘ only Macedonian videos, either; he – or she – also covers the Battle of the Erigon Valley (one of Philip II’s earliest battles. I have to admit, I don’t recall this one), Chaeronea, the Siege of Tyre and the Battle of the Persian Gates. No sign of Hydaspes yet. I hope it will be included in the future. For a play list of the Macedonian videos, click here.

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

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