Posts Tagged With: Danube River

Arrian I.4.1-8

In This Chapter
Alexander crosses the Danube and leads an assault on the Getae.

The crossing of the Danube took place without any hitches – the 4,00 horse and 10,000 foot who had stood on the opposite bank to oppose him did not stay overnight but withdrew to their tents.

Once on the far side of the river, Alexander waited until dawn before moving his men inland. They crept through a cornfield, the infantry sweeping their sarissas from side-to-side so as ‘to flatten the corn’.

After reaching the end of the cornfield, Alexander ordered his infantry to proceed ‘in rectangular formation’. The king himself took his cavalry off to the Macedonian right wing.

He found the Getaean warriors encamped together. They were shocked by the sight of the Macedonian army and crumbled under ‘the first charge of the [Macedonian] cavalry’.

The warriors of the Getae fled back to their ‘city’ 3.5 miles away. Alexander followed them. Seeing him, the Getae promptly decided to abandon their city and flee into the interior of their homeland. Alexander took the city, gathered anything of value that the Getae had left behind and ordered Meleager and Philip to take it away. As the plunder began its journey south, Alexander destroyed the city and sacrificed to Zeus the Saviour, Herakles and the Danube itself at a site beside the river for not standing in his way during the operation. No Macedonian soldiers were lost during this mission.

Word of Alexander’s exploits travelled far and wide. Ambassadors and envoys came to greet him and declare their people’s friendship. Among them were ‘envoys from Syrmus’ who we saw retreat to the island in the middle of the Danube, and Celts from faraway. Alexander asked them what they feared most; he expected them to say him but had the cheek to call them ‘a pretentious lot’ when they replied that they most feared the sky falling on their heads!

Thoughts
At first sight, the decision of the Getae to leave the Danube river bank seems an inexplicable one but as you read on their reason why quickly becomes clear. As Arrian makes clear, the Getae regarded the Danube as a strong defence against enemy invasion. They reckoned that any attempt to cross it would be difficult and that a bridge would have to be built for the purpose. Thus, when Alexander appeared in front of them having not bothered to build a bridge at all, they were in shock.

Wikipedia describes the ‘shock and awe’ military tactic in the following terms,

Shock and awe (technically known as rapid dominance) is a tactic based on the use of overwhelming power and spectacular displays of force to paralyze the enemy’s perception of the battlefield and destroy their will to fight

Shock and Awe – Wikipedia

This is how Alexander defeated the Getae.
Overwhelming power – Arrian tells us that the Getae found ‘the close-packed phalanx… terrifying’. The sight of the cavalry no doubt also terrified them
Spectacular display of power – the fact that the Macedonian army had so easily managed to cross the Danube – in one night and without needing to build a bridge.

One of Alexander’s numerous strengths as a general was his ability to adapt his tactics according the circumstances. Not just offensively, but also in the matter of defence. So, when the Macedonians approached the Getaeans, the infantry did so in a ‘rectangular formation’, which would protect the men if the Getaeans got the better of them. Alexander’s ability to adapt always allowed him to stay one step ahead of his rivals in the field, and can be considered one of the chief reasons why he remained undefeated in war.

When Alexander followed the Getaean warriors to their ‘city’, he remained very respectful of the enemy. Thus, he ordered his cavalry to ride ahead of the infantry to protect it in case of any Getaean ambush or counter-attack. The Getaens, however, were already done for, and so their ‘city’ was good only to be sacked and razed.

The mission against the Getae seems to foreshadow the lead up to the Battle of the Hydaspes River – in fact, it almost feels like a simpler version of that conflict. The essentials of both conflicts, however, is the same: arrival at a river, working out how to safely cross it, engaging the enemy.

Similarly, the arrival of the ambassadors from various native peoples also reads as a much simpler version of the diplomacy that Alexander carried out in 324/23 BC when he met ambassadors and envoys from ‘practically all the inhabited world’ in 324 BC as described by Diodorus (Dio. XVII.113). On that occasion, they not only came to make friends with him but present gifts, make treaties and seek his judgement.

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Arrian I.3.1-6

In This Chapter
After telling us that Alexander arrived at the Danube river after defeating the Triballians at the Lyginus river, Arrian digresses to give an account of the tribes who live along it.

At the Danube, Alexander was joined by warships from Byzantium (presumably he ordered them to come on a previous occasion; Arrian does not tell us).

After ordering archers and hoplites aboard the ships, Alexander attempted to attack the island where Syrmus had taken refuge. Unfortunately for him, Macedonian numbers were too few, the current too fast, landing sites too steep and Thracian/Triballian opposition too strong for him to succeed in taking it. Alexander gave up and decided to cross the Danube instead, to attack the Getae on the other side.

The Getae were seemingly ready for him – Arrian says that there were 4,000 cavalry and 10,000 foot on the far bank. Alexander, however, had a deep yearning (pothos) to cross the river. Not all of his men would fit onto the ships so he ordered them to ‘stuff their leather tent-covers with hay’ and then sow them up; in addition, he gave orders for local boats to be commandeered. That night, 1500 cavalry and 4,000 men crossed the river.

Thoughts
I once read that the Alexander Historians provide details that are applicable to their own time rather than Alexander’s in their work. This makes me wonder, therefore, if Arrian’s list of Danube tribes comes from the second century AD rather than fourth century BC.

Alexander’s inability to take the island represents a rarity for him – a military failure at which he was present. Because Arrian is a pro-Alexander writer (unlike, say, Curtius), the inclusion of this failure is significant. But perhaps Arrian mentions it because in the greater scheme of things, it didn’t matter. We will see how true this is as we read further.

In this chapter we see the first mention of Alexander’s pothos, his deep yearning to achieve a goal. If you would like to know more about pothos, how it came to be applied to Alexander and its broader meaning, I highly recommend this article from Livius.

Why would Alexander be so keen to cross the Danube? We don’t know for sure, but the notes to my copy of Arrian suggest that ‘he may have wanted to rival the crossing of the Danube by Darius [the Great] in 512[BC]’. With his love of fighting, perhaps he also wanted to fight further and further afield for the glory of it; in this case, the Danube campaign foreshadows the journey beyond the Hindu Kush and into India very strongly.

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Arrian I.2.1-6

In This Chapter
Having defeated the armed locals and independent Thracians, Alexander sent the spoils that he had won ‘back to the cities on the coast’.

While the spoils travelled south, Alexander crossed the Haemus Mountains to confront the Triballians.

The Triballians knew he was coming. As a result, their king, Syrmus, sent his women and children to take refuge on an island halfway across the Danube river. The refugees were met there by Thracians who were also hiding from Alexander.

At some point, Syrmus himself sailed to the same island. Not all of his people accompanied him; Arrian says that ‘the main body’ of them fled (past the Macedonians) to the Lyginus river.

Alexander had the option of continuing on to the Danube or turning back to chase down the Lyginus Triballians. He chose to do the latter.

Alexander caught the Triballians as they were setting up their camp. The two armies squared up to each other.

The Triballians were located next to a wood beside the river so Alexander’s first priority was to draw them away from it. He attacked them first with archers and slingers. During the attack, these light armed soldiers approached the Triballians: Alexander was using them as bait to tempt the Triballians forward.

It worked, the Triballians ran forward. Alexander sent Philotas and his cavalrymen forward to attack the Triballians’ right wing. Heracleides and Sopolis were given orders to lead a cavalry attack against the Triballian left wing. Alexander himself lead the phalanx and cavalry that stood in front of it.

It looks like the Triballians put up a good fight as Arrian says during ‘the skirmishing stage the Triballians did not have the worse of it’. This changed, however, when the Macedonian phalanx engaged them. The cavalry soon overwhelmed the Triballians as well; in fact, they attacked the enemy simply by riding them down, rather than using their javelins.

Thoughts
Arrian tells us that the two men who were charged with taking the spoils to the coast were Lysanias and Philotas. Lysanias will not appear in Arrian’s book again, though according to Waldemar Heckel (in his Who’s Who in the Age of Alexander the Great), he may have been the Lysanias mentioned by Diodorus during the Wars of the Successors (D.19.29). We can be sure that the Philotas mentioned here is not the son of Parmenion as he would not have had time to take the spoils south and then return to fight the Triballians at the Lyginus river.

Syrmus’ actions here intrigue me. First he sends the women and children away, which is understandable, but then joins them. Shouldn’t he have decided to face Alexander? Did he panic and flee? I can’t say because I don’t know what the Triballians’ law was in this regard but I do suspect the latter.

The Triballians may not have had the worst of it but I think that is only because they were better armed than the javelineers and slingers. Arrian says that the latter were unarmed apart from their principal weapons so once they had been used, it was an unfair contest – fists against swords.

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Echoes of War

The Nature of Curtius
Book Three Chapters 7 – 10
For the other posts in this series, click here

Chapter Seven
The City of Issus
Once Alexander had recovered from his illness he marched south from Tarsus via Soli to Mallus on the Cilician coast. In order to enter the city, he had to cross the Pyramus River. He did so by constructing a pontoon bridge.

Curtius gives no details regarding how the bridge was built but perhaps Alexander used the same method by which he crossed the Danube in 335 B.C. and would cross Jaxartes in 329; namely, by having his men stitch their tents together and filling them with hay so that they acted as floats.

As it happens, Alexander was not the only bridge builder at this time. Just before he crossed the Pyramus, Darius had crossed the Euphrates, possibly at Thapsacus according to the Notes. In order to do so, the Great King also built a pontoon bridge. Again, Curtius doesn’t explain how the bridge was built. But it must have been sturdy, as it was good enough to survive the trudge of soldiers’ feet for five days while the Persian army made its way across.

From Mallus, Alexander made his way to Castabalum – a day’s march along the road. There, he met Parmenion. The old marshal made up for having incorrectly accused Philip of Arcanania of betraying the king by delivering some good news*.

He reported that not only had he taken control of a ‘pass through which [the Macedonians] were obliged to march to reach the city called Issus’ but he had won the city itself. Furthermore, his men had ‘dislodged the Persians holding positions within the [Taurus] mountains’.

Alexander marched on through the newly won pass and into Issus. There, he called his senior officers together to discuss whether to continue marching or wait for reinforcements that were on the way from Macedon**.

Parmenion was unequivocal in his response – they should wait in Issus. If they did so, the ‘narrow pass’ outside the city would nullify the size advantage of the Persian army. If they carried on into the plains, the Persians would be able to constantly replenish their front line or use their superior size to surround or trap the Macedonian army in a ‘pincer-movement’. Alexander saw the sense in this argument and ‘decided to await his enemy at the narrowest part of the pass’.

* One can only wonder whether Parmenion’s good news was enough to make Philip forgive him
** The Notes say that no other source mentions these reinforcements and that they may be Curtius’ invention

Chapter Eight
Darius’ Inflexibility
The similarities between Darius’ and Alexander’s journeys extend beyond the building of pontoon bridges. The Great King too received advice regarding how to fight his enemy, and Darius also had the chance to influence where his army would form up against the Macedonians. But unlike Alexander, Darius proved unable to accept the advice and was therefore unable to influence where the battle would take place.

When I say unable I mean he could have accepted it but through weakness failed to do so. Let’s look at what happened.

At an unspecified point after crossing the Euphrates River, Darius received a message from his Greek mercenaries. They ‘strongly urged’ him ‘to retreat and head for the plains of Mesopotamia’.

At the very least, the mercenaries said, you should split the army in two so that if even if you lose the upcoming battle your kingdom will not be put in peril.

To his credit, Darius took the advice seriously – in contrast to his courtiers who not only dismissed the counsel but said that the idea of splitting the army up showed that the mercenaries wanted to ‘hand over to Alexander whatever part was entrusted to them’!

Again, to his credit, Darius dismissed the courtiers’ wild claims. But critically he did not do as the mercenaries advised. Instead, he sent a message back thanking ‘them for their concern’ and confirming he would not retreat as that would destroy his reputation, which would ‘certainly’ cause the loss of his kingdom to Alexander.

Darius also rejected the idea of splitting the army up. And here is why he was weak. To break the army in two, he said, would mean ‘breaking with tradition’. In any case, Alexander – ‘formerly… a fearsome figure… had taken to a hiding-place in the narrow parts of a mountain valley’ and was ‘deceiving his own soldiers with a feigned illness’.

To be fair, Darius’ concern for his reputation is a reasonable point. Arsames’ scorched earth policy, which we read about in the last post, caused him to lose his with his mountain guards who then promptly deserted. I find it hard to believe, though, that Darius’ influence over his men was so light that they would desert simply as a result of any decision to retreat.

Darius’ decision to keep the army whole on the grounds that that’s what his ancestors did is lamentable. In a way, he didn’t need to split his army – after being defeated at Issus, he still managed to form a new one for the Battle of Gaugamela – but that is besides the point. Darius’ reason for keeping it as one shows that he was unable to adapt to circumstances.

I can’t help but feel that when Darius told the mercenaries that Alexander was feigning illness, he was not acting on even faulty intelligence, but simply deluding himself. He wanted – or needed – to believe that his enemy was a fraud and so convinced himself of the ‘fact’.

In this, Darius was being every bit as inflexible as the French generals who did nothing to protect the Ardennes forest against a Nazi advance as they were determined to believe that Hitler’s troops would attack along the Maginot Line.

So, Darius continued on his way, and his delusion continued with him. Around the time that the Persians passed through the Amanic Gates, Darius discovered that Alexander had left Issus. Why? The delusion provided the answer: He had abandoned it and was in retreat.

A number of stragglers from the Macedonian army were caught. Darius had them mutilated before making them inspect the Persian forces. He wanted them to tell Alexander what they had seen and put the fear of Darius’ strength in him.

When that was done, Darius crossed the Pinarus River in pursuit of his ‘fleeing’ rival. The mutilated stragglers, meanwhile, caught up with their army and reported to Alexander what they had seen. The king could not believe that the Persians were behind him, so sent scouts to investigate.

They passed along the coast and the sound of crashing waves soon gave way to the duller thud thud thud sound of marching men.

Alexander had been concerned to learn whether Darius was coming with his entire army. On hearing that he was, he happily set up camp in the pass they were currently situated. So much Darius’ attempt at shock and awe.

From passes to ridges. That night, Alexander climbed ‘to the top of a high ridge’ and ‘sacrificed to the tutelary gods of the area’. The next day, the Macedonian army approached the Persian force in a narrow defile. When told about this, Darius was incredulous, and his army ‘alarmed’.

As the Persians took up their weapons, some of the men climbed hilltops to get a view of the enemy. Darius thought about doing the same with a view of using it to organise an encircling movement of the Macedonians. In the end, Curtius says, he was undone, by fortune. ‘Some of the Persians were too frightened to carry out their orders, [while] others obeyed them to no effect’.

How different it might have been Darius he had listened to the mercenaries and returned to the Mesopotamian plains.

Chapter Nine
In the Defile
This short chapter covers the disposition of the Macedonian and Persian armies. At the end, Curtius notes the very simple way in which Alexander adapted to his environment. While the defile remained narrow, the phalanx marched with no protection on its flanks (except that afforded by the rocks). As it widened, though, Alexander placed cavalry cover there.

Chapter Ten
The Art of Rhetoric
At the start of the battle, the two armies sought to gain a psychological advantage by issuing their battle cries. These echoed ‘from the mountain tops’ no less ‘and vast forests’.

Alexander rode ahead of his men, inspiring them with talk of conquering the entire world. ‘It would not be fruitless labour on the sheer rocks and crags of Illyria and Thrace: they were being offered the spoils of the entire East.’

And just as he adapted his strategy according to the lay of the land, Alexander adapted the way he spoke to his men in order to get the best result from them. ‘Since the Illyrians and Thracians usually made their living by looting, Alexander told them to look at the enemy line agleam with gold and purple… They [the Illyrians and Thracians] should exchange their rugged mountain-tops and barren hill-trails permanently stiff with frost for the rich plains and fields of the Persians’.

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