Posts Tagged With: The Battle of Gaugamela

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

Categories: On Alexander | Tags: | Leave a comment

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’…
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.

Categories: Arrian, Diodorus Siculus, Justin, On Alexander, Plutarch, Quintus Curtius Rufus | Tags: | Leave a comment

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

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

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.

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.

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.

Categories: On Alexander | Tags: | Leave a comment

V: The Kipling Scenario

26th September – Five days to go until the 2,348th anniversary of the Battle of Gaugamela. Today, I am asking ‘What could Darius have done to win the battle?’

As we saw a few days ago, the Persians lost the battle after (a) Alexander successfully drew its cavalry to the Macedonian right, creating a hole in the Persian centre. He then led his cavalry into the breach and fought his way closer and closer to Darius. Seeing this, the Great King fled from the battlefield, and (b) Mazaeus’ attempt to destroy the Macedonian left wing failed.

So, Darius could have won if a number ‘ifs’ had happened:-

  1. If Darius had been able to stop his horsemen from being pulled to their left and successfully enveloped the Macedonian right wing, or
  2. If his infantry had been able to withstand the Companion Cavalry’s attack and caught Alexander out during the close fighting, or
  3. If Mazaeus had successfully destroyed the Macedonian left wing and enveloped its centre

Then maybe – very likely in the case of (3) – Darius would have won the battle.

There’s more. On his way back to help Parmenion (or on his way back to camp, according to Curtius), Alexander was confronted by a fleeing Persian cavalry unit which, seeing him and his men blocking their way, engaged the Macedonians in a fierce fight.

Once Parmenion’s safety was assured, Alexander returned to the pursuit of Darius. As he and his men rode, they slaughtered any of the enemy in their way.

However, if the fleeing cavalry unit or one of the fleeing Persians had managed to kill Alexander this would almost certainly have led to the disintegration of the Macedonian army.

Admittedly, not at the battle itself as our question requires, but in the days following. Look at how worried the senior Macedonian commanders were when Alexander was badly injured against the Mallians in India (VI.12.1-2), and look at what happened in Babylon after he did indeed die.

The Macedonian army relied utterly on Alexander for its success. Without him, it was liable to break apart. This helps us appreciate what a precarious position the Macedonian army was in on 1st October 331 BC. If Alexander had been killed – and all it would have taken is a stray arrow – his army would have been destroyed either on the battlefield or in the days / weeks following as it splintered and came under the control of the various commanders, all of whom would be a weak opposition for a Persian king.

For their part, however, the Persians could have afforded to lose Darius. For example, had he been killed and Mazaeus been victorious on the Persian left wing, a successor would have been named and the Persian Empire continued.

Categories: Arrian, Quintus Curtius Rufus | Tags: | Leave a comment

VI: The Aftermath of the Battle

25th September – Six days to go until the 2,348th anniversary of the Battle of Gaugamela. Today, I am asking ‘What happened in the aftermath of the battle?’

As we saw yesterday, Darius fled from the battlefield. Arrian states that Alexander pursued him only to turn back when he received a message from Parmenion informing him that the Macedonian left wing was in trouble ‘and needed help’ (Ar. III.15.1).

As the king and his men rode back towards the battle, they came across some fleeing Persian cavalry. Arrian tells us that this enemy unit was made up of Parthyaeans, Indians, ‘and the largest and best section of the Persian cavalry’ (Ibid).

The Persians were in flight but they had not lost their heads. Rather than try to flee from Alexander and his men, they engaged them. ‘What ensued was the fiercest cavalry battle of the whole action’ (Ar. III.15.2). We have to give the Persians a lot of credit here. The battle was lost. What were they fighting for? Survival, sure, but I like to think honour as well. Either way – they fought bravely. Who dares say that the Persians were soft?

This cavalry battle saw some significant figures in Alexander’s army wounded. Hephaestion was struck in the arm by a spear (Curtius IV.16.32) and ‘Perdiccas, Coenus and Menidas were almost killed by arrows.’ (Ibid).

The engagement ended when finally the Persians fled. Alexander let them go and returned to Parmenion. By the time he arrived, however, the Thessalian cavalry had shown their quality and turned the battle in Macedon’s favour (see Ar. III.15.3).

Seeing this, Alexander did not decide to relax. Instead, he returned to the pursuit of Darius. It was inevitable that he would do this. For as long as Darius was alive he had the ability to draw support to himself and build another army: he was still a threat. If there was any chance – any chance at all – of capturing/killing him, Alexander had to take it.

The new Lord of Asia made his way to Arbela. On the way, he crossed a river – the Lycus (modern day Great Zab) – where he stopped to give the men and horses a rest (Ar. III.15.4). Behind him, Parmenion took control of the Persian camp.

At midnight, Alexander led his men on. By the next day, he had entered Arbela. There was no sign of Darius, but his treasure and other possessions were still in situ (Ar. III.15.5).

From what Arrian says, it looks like Alexander remained in Arbela until the rest of his army caught up with him. Then, he began the journey to Babylon. He approached the city in battle order – just in case its governor, Mazaeus, who had fled to the city from the battlefield, had decided to resist him – but the Babylonians were not interested in fighting. They greeted Alexander as their new master (Ar. III.16.3).

So, that’s Alexander. As for Darius, he rode east until he came to Ecbatana. Calculating that Alexander would march south to claim the wealth of Babylon and Susa (Ar. III.16.2), he remained there until Alexander came after him having taken not just Babylon and Susa, but Persepolis as well, However, the two kings would never see each other again after the Battle of Gaugamela as Darius was betrayed and murdered by his captains during the flight from Ecbatana to Bactria.

Curtius agrees with Arrian that Alexander rode after Darius (C. IV.15.32) but turned back after receiving Parmenion’s message (C.IV.16.2). He writes that when Darius reached the Lycus river, the Great King considered tearing down the bridge, but despite the risk did not do so for the sake of his fleeing men (C. IV.16.8).

Curtius tells a sorry story of the fleeing Persians drinking muddy water to quench their thirst and drowning in the Lycus river as Alexander rode towards them. He also includes the story of the cavalry attack on Alexander as he returned – not to Parmenion, for in Curtius’ account, the Macedonian king’s deputy has already told him of the left wing’s victory – but to camp (C. IV.16.20-25).

Curtius has Darius arrive in Arbela at about midnight where he paused to hold a conference with his men (C. V.1.3-9). Alexander arrived in Arbela ‘shortly afterwards’ (C.V.1.10). According to Curtius, his camp must have still been near Gaugamela as he states that Alexander moved it quickly due to the outbreak of disease as a result of the decomposing bodies on the battlefield.

Three days after the battle, Alexander arrived at a town or village named Mennis, where – Curtius says – ‘is a cave with a stream that pours forth huge quantities of bitumen’ (C.V.1.16), of which the walls of Babylon are made.

And speaking of Babylon, Curtius agrees with Arrian again that Alexander approached the city in battle formation but that the city – led by Mazaeus – surrendered itself to him without a fight (C.V.1.17-19).

Diodorus has Darius flee and Alexander pursue him (XVII.60). He also has Parmenion struggle against Mazaeus and send for help to Alexander (Ibid). However, Unlike Arrian, Curtius and Plutarch, the messengers do not reach Alexander, who is too far away. It doesn’t matter, though, for Parmenion eventually gains the upper hand and leads his men to victory (Ibid).

The injuries to Hephaestion, Perdiccas, Coenus and Menidas are mentioned (XVII.61). Diodorus then breaks to describe events back in Greece before coming back to Darius. As with Arrian, he makes his way to Ecbatana where he starts collecting men for a new army (XVII.64).

As for Alexander, he buries his dead and makes his way to Arbela where he finds so much Persian treasure. From there, he goes to Babylon where ‘the people received him gladly’ (Ibid). There is no mention of Mennis, or bitumen/naphtha.

As might be expected, Justin’s account of the aftermath is very short. He agrees with Curtius (IV.15.30) that Darius considered killing himself. But whereas Curtius suggests that Darius decided instead to flee, Justin (XI.14) has the Great King’s officers persuade their lord to escape.

During Darius’ flight, Justin brings him to the Cydnus river. Given that the Cydnus is in Cilicia (Asia Minor) this must be a scribal error. Justin also introduces the idea of the bridge being destroyed. But whereas Curtius says that Darius thought about doing it (IV.16.8), Justin has some of his officers recommend that the Great King order its destruction. As with Curtius, however, Darius declines for the sake of his men to carry out the operation (Ibid).

And that’s that. Justin doesn’t cover Alexander’s pursuit of Darius or his march on Babylon.

Plutarch’s account of the aftermath of the battle is much truncated. Nevertheless, we see Darius fleeing and Alexander being forced to end his pursuit after Parmenion’s men come to him for help. By the time Alexander arrives on the Macedonian left wing, however, Parmenion has led his men to victory (Life 33).

Plutarch does not cover Alexander’s arrival in Babylon. He does, however, seem to tell a different version of Curtius’ Mennis story. Instead of Mennis, however, Plutarch has Alexander march through Babylonia until he arrives in Ecbatana. As this is in Media a later scribe has surely mixed the names up – just like one of Justin’s scribes.

Anyway, in ‘Ecbatana’, Alexander is ‘impressed by the fissure in the earth… from which fire continually poured fourth’ (Life 35). The cause of the fire is naphtha. What follows is the rather amazing story of one of Alexander’s attendants, an ‘ugly’ man named Stephanos, who agrees to be coated in naphtha in order to demonstrate how flammable the liquid is. Needless to say, the story does not end well, although Stephanos appears to survive.

One Final Point
The Times today ran an interesting story about the discovery of a ‘lost city’ of Alexander’s. You can read the report here.

The connection to Alexander is flimsy at best. It appears to be based upon the idea that he founded the city during his pursuit of Darius after the Battle of Gaugamela.

Well, it took Alexander nearly a month after the battle to reach Babylon so perhaps he did found a fort that then became a city later on but no source mentions this and I don’t get a sense from reading the texts that he tarried long enough anywhere to found a settlement during the journey.

That is just a thought. I await further details of the archaeological dig with interest. Maybe the archaeologists know more about the Alexander connection than the report let’s on.

Categories: Arrian, Diodorus Siculus, Justin, Plutarch, Quintus Curtius Rufus | Tags: | Leave a comment

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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

Categories: Arrian, On Alexander | Tags: | 1 Comment

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.

Categories: Historians of Alexander, On Alexander | Tags: | Leave a comment

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

XI: Size Doesn’t Matter

20th September – Eleven days to go until the 2,348th anniversary of the Battle of Guagamela. But wait; I am publishing this on the 21st. Why so? Read on. Yesterday’s question was, ‘What was the size of the Macedonian and Persian army?’

Here is what the sources say:

Macedonian army (A.III.12.5)
– Cavalry 7,000
– Infantry c.40,000

Persian army (A.III.8.6)
– Cavalry 40,000
– Infantry 1,000,000
in addition (Ibid)
Scythed chariots 200
Elephants c.15

Macedonian army
– Cavalry not given
– Infantry not given

Persian army (IV.12.13)
– Cavalry 45,000
– Infantry 200,000

Macedonian army
– Cavalry not given
– Infantry  not given

Persian army (D. XVII.53)
– Cavalry 200,000
– Infantry 800,000
in addition (Ibid)
Scythed chariots 200

Macedonian army
– Cavalry not given
– Infantry not given

Persian army (J.XI.12)
– Cavalry 100,000
– Infantry 400,000

Macedonian army
– Cavalry not given
– Infantry not given

Persian army (Life 31)
– Cavalry not given
– Infantry 1,000,000

Yesterday, when I compiled these figures, one thing about them struck me, and it became the reason why I am publishing this post a day late. Namely, only Arrian gives the number of Macedonian cavalry and infantry.

A confession: To find the figures, I opened my copy of Arrian et al and skim read the relevant section until I found them.

After I had finished, I was so surprised that none of the others gave the size of the Macedonian army that I feared that actually, they had done so, and in my haste I had passed them by.

Today, I had to take a day off work to go to the dentist, so I used some of the spare time to properly read each source’s account of Alexander’s journey from Egypt to Babylon just to make sure that I didn’t miss their account of his army’s size given perhaps early, perhaps later than the battle itself in the text.

In case you are wondering which sections of the books I covered:-

  • [Arrian III.6.1-16.4]
  • Curtius IV.9.1-V.1.23
  • Diodorus XVII.53-64
  • Justin XI.12-14
  • Plutarch Life of Alexander 31-35

The outcome of this exercise was that I discovered that, no, I had not missed anything out; it is indeed only Arrian who tells us the size of the Macedonian army. I am at a loss to say why.

Given that nearly all the sources – Curtius, of all people, being an honourable exception? – over inflate the size of Darius’ army, I wonder if the writers somehow wanted us to focus on the Persians as a horde, as the ineluctable wave, the seemingly invincible force that Alexander somehow managed to overcome in order to achieve glory.

Perhaps. But I have to admit, it’s not a feeling I get from the texts.

That aside, one thing can be said with certainty – or as much as history ever allows: the Macedonian army was greatly outnumbered at the Battle of Gaugamela. Despite this, it managed to achieve a stunning victory. The question of how this happened will be the focus of an upcoming post.

Categories: Alexander Scholars, Arrian, Diodorus Siculus, Justin, Plutarch, Quintus Curtius Rufus | Tags: | Leave a comment

Blog at

%d bloggers like this: