Posts Tagged With: The Battle of Issus

Thoughts After Issus

In the UK we celebrate Bonfire Night on 5th November every year. Given the low esteem in which politicians are generally held this does seem a bit ironic, but there it is.

For my part, I don’t have much time for Bonfire Night, especially since 5th November marks the anniversary of the Battle of Issus.

On or around 5th Nov. 333 BC, Alexander confronted and defeated Darius III in the first of their two battles. It was a battle that shouldn’t have happened – at least, not on the narrow strip of coastland in the north-east corner of what is now Syria, where it ended up place. Darius should have listened to the Macedonian deserter, Amyntas (Arrian II.6.3), and kept his army in the open plains where he would have been able to make use of its superior size. Unfortunately for him, though, he didn’t. And as a result, Darius ended up boxing his men in between the Gulf of Issus and Amanus Mountains. The Great King didn’t lose the Battle of Issus because of this but not being able to use all of his men certainly did not help him.

Before continuing, I’ll acknowledge what you may well be thinking: given what happened at Gaugamela, Alexander would probably have beaten Darius even if they had met on a plain. That’s true, but from Darius’ perspective, at least he would have given himself a better chance of defeating this Macedonian upstart.

Upstart? Yes. Because at Issus, Alexander was not yet ‘great’. True, he had defeated a satrapal army, but for an enemy of Alexander, that achievement would have been easy to dismiss. By the bye, how often do we think of Alexander as anything less than ‘the Great’? If we don’t look beyond that epithet, does it harm our understanding of him?

Another question that has been on my mind recently is Alexander’s view of his empire. While it is true that he wanted to conquer as much territory as possible, I never get the impression that he cared much about being the emperor of it. When making political arrangements for each territory, for example, he acted as pragmatically as possible, e.g., by reinstalling whoever had ruled it before: the path of least resistance, so that he could move on to the next engagement. I have no definite view on this matter but it is fascinating how Alexander could be so immersed in the world and yet, I think, not care about it anywhere near as much as he ought to have done.

(I should add, when I say he didn’t care, I don’t mean he disliked it or anything like that, just that his focus was elsewhere, ie. on winning glory.)

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Arrian I.23.1-8

In This Chapter
Halicarnassus Falls to Alexander

Memnon of Rhodes and Orontobates surveyed the damage caused to the city walls by the Macedonians, the injuries the enemy had caused, and the number of men killed; they decided that ‘as things stood they could not hold out’ (Arr. I.23.1) for much longer. As I mentioned in my previous post, morale may also have been a problem after the men guarding the city gates panicked and closed them, locking many of their comrades outside the city, leaving them to be slaughtered by the Macedonians.

The decision was taken to flee the city. Houses of civilians were set ablaze to prevent the Macedonians from following them. But not only houses burned; a siege tower was set alight as well, as were the arsenals. Perhaps Memnon was concerned not to let his weapons fall into Alexander’s hands.

As the wind spread the fire throughout the city, the Persians and mercenaries retreated either to Halicarnassus’ citadel or to an offshore island (actually a peninsula) named Zephyria.

Deserters alerted Alexander to what was going on. He entered the city and gave two orders: to kill anyone caught starting a fire and to spare any Halicarnassan found in their home.

The next morning, Alexander went to see the citadel and Zephyria on the western and eastern points respectively of the harbour exit.

He decided against besieging them, thinking that he would waste much time on them because of the nature of the ground, and that there was no great point now that he had taken the whole city.

Arrian I.23.5

Arrian tells us that Alexander ‘razed the city to the ground’ (Arr. I.23.6). He left enough of it, however, for a garrison to live in so that the Persians and mercenaries would not be able to break out. Two officers, Ptolemy (not the son of Lagus) and Asander were left in charge. The following year, just before Alexander fought Darius at Issus, they would finally defeat Orontobates in battle and end the sieges (Arr. II.5.7).

Back in the present, Alexander also buried the (enemy) dead before leaving for Phrygia. Around this time, he appointed Ada satrap of Caria. For her, the wheel of fortune had now turned full circle: In 344/3, Ada’s father, Hidrieus, had appointed her his successor. In 340/39, however, her brother, Pixodarus, usurped her. Since then, Ada had lived in a fort at Alinda. By the time of Alexander’s arrival in Caria, Ada’s situation had not improved. Pixodarus was now dead but Orontobates – to whom Ada had been married – now ruled instead. Alexander’s victory at Halicarnassus ended that. Ada, who had gone to meet Alexander upon his entry into Caria and offer him Alinda and adoption as her son, was now given Caria to rule just as before. She would continue to do so until no later than 324.

So in the end, Halicarnassus kind of fell with a bit of a whimper. Memnon and Orontobates saw the writing on the wall and ran. Arrian does not (unsurprisingly?) give the impression that they ran Alexander close but it is clear from his text that they had some good ideas – the surprise attack from the Tripylon gate being an example. In the end, though, they weren’t able to translate those ideas into performance. Why? Partly because of the strength of the Macedonian army but also, I think, they just didn’t have the numbers to oppose Alexander’s men. Their attacks were, of necessity, hit-and-run, and that was never going to be enough, with or without the men panicking. In this light, the defenders needed Halicarnassus to be strong enough to save them, and as it turned out, it wasn’t.

Texts Used
Hammond, Martin (tr.) Arrian: Alexander the Great (Oxford, OUP, 2013)
Heckel, Waldemar Who’s Who in the Age of Alexander the Great (Oxford Wiley-Blackwell, 2009)

See previous posts in this series here

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