In This Chapter
The Siege of Miletus
The Milesians’ Offer
When the Milesians saw the Persian fleet back off they knew they were between a rock and a hard place. Their response was to send one of their leading men to Alexander with an offer: ‘equal access to their walls and harbours’ (Arrian I.19.1) along with the Persians. Alexander refused to accept it, and told the Milesians to prepare for a siege.
Alexander’s refusal to share the city gives an insight into the uncompromising side of his nature. Yes, he could be pragmatic, but not in all things, small or large. Diodorus records that Alexander refused to share the Persian empire with Darius III telling the Great King’s envoys that ‘… the earth could not preserve its plan and order if there were two suns’ (Dio.XVII.54).
The Siege of Miletus
The next day, Alexander oversaw the undermining of the Milesian walls. He was watched, no doubt, by the Miletians but also by the Persian naval force, which had anchored off Mycale, as well as Nicanor, who was anchored at the island of Lade.
Seeing the siege begin, Nicanor ordered the anchors to be lifted. He led the fleet into Miletus’ harbour so that the Persians would not be able to sail past him to help the city.
Nicanor’s arrival lead some Milesians and mercenaries from the city’s garrison to give up hope of resisting Alexander; they jumped into the harbour and swam towards an islet just outside it. Others attempted a break out in boats; many of them were caught and killed.
The siege didn’t last long. In fact, it looks like from Arrian that it was over in a day, perhaps just a few hours. When it ended, Alexander had won.
Once he had taken the city, Alexander turned his attention to those on the islet. Arrian tells us that,
When [Alexander] saw that the men on the island were prepared to fight to the death, he was moved to pity for these evidently courageous and loyal soldiers…(Arr. I.19.6)
and offered them their lives in return for serving in his army (The Milesians present were simply sent back home).
Alexander’s clemency towards his defeated noble enemy is an established part of his character in the sources (see how he treats Timoclea, Cleophis and Porus*) but I suspect that more than just pity informed his actions at Miletus. For one, the mercenaries on the islet were protected by its cliffs. Alexander had ladders to scale them but he would have known that before ever his soldiers made it to the top, many would be killed by the mercenaries. Secondly, just days or weeks after the event, he also surely knew that he had gone too far in slaughtering the Greek mercenaries at the Granicus. Doing so caused an even deeper breach between himself and Greece – not conducive to maintaining control of the city-states – and he needed mercenaries in his army.
The Persian Naval Force
Despite being unable to stop Alexander take Miletus, the Persian naval force did not fully retreat. Instead, it sallied forth hoping to provoke a battle with the Macedonian fleet. In response, Alexander sent a detachment to Mycale, where the Persians were based, to stop them from disembarking their ships and collecting fresh water from the Maeander river.
With their ability to replenish their water supplies removed, the Persians were forced to sail further away to Samos. Once they had done this, however, they returned. When they did so, they conducted a daring operation. Five ships sailed into the Milesian harbour,
… hoping to catch Alexander’s ships unmanned, as they had discovered that most of the crews were away from their ships, out and about on details to collect firewood, provisions, or fodder.Arrian I.19.9
Some sailers had indeed left their ships, but others remained. Seeing the Persian ships approach, Alexander sent his men after them. Four made it back to the fleet; one vessel, however, proved to be too slow and was captured. Following this defeat, the Persian naval force retired for good.
Timoclea – Plutarch Life of Alexander 12
Cleophis – Curtius VIII.10.35
Porus – Arrian V.19.1-3
Hammond, Martin (tr.) Arrian: Alexander the Great (Oxford, OUP, 2013)
Bradford Welles C. (tr) Diodorus of Sicily The Library of History Bk XVII (Harvard University Press 1963)