Major BattlesBattle of the Granicus - 334 B.C.
Battle of Issus - 333 B.C.
Battle of Gaugamela - 331 B.C.
Battle of the Hydaspes - 326 B.C.
Many people wonder why Alexander is considered to have been such an outstanding army leader and why his battle tactics were so remarkable. This page is intended as a basic introduction to the subject; its aim is to inspire you to further reading.
- Date: probably May/June 334 B.C.
- Location: western Turkey, river Granicus (modern Biga, near Bandirma & Balikeshir)
- Macedonian army: probably 47,000
- Persian army: from 6,000 (Delbrück) or 15,000 (Fuller) up to 110,000 (Sekunda)
The Persian defence force facing Alexander after the Macedonians had crossed into Asia Minor was not a 'Royal' army lead by the Great King Darius himself. It was an assembly of forces under command of the satraps of the region. The Rhodian mercenary general Memnon was their foremost commander and the one who had actually advocated a 'scorched earth' strategy against Alexander's invasion rather than an open battle. However, his ideas were apparently dismissed by the Persian satraps who were hesitant to lay waste to their realms. According to most studies the main cause of Persian failure at the Granicus was the lack of consensus or a cohesive battle plan amongst Persian commanders.
Whether you accept Fuller's low estimate of 15,000 or Sekunda's grand total of 110,000, all studies agree that the Persian army at the Granicus was inferior to the invading Macedonians. The only real fighting strength of the Persians were about 10,000 cavalry and probably from 5,000 up to maybe 10,000 Greek mercenary hoplites. Whatever exceeded those numbers may have been hastily drawn levies from the region, with no ability to withstand Alexander's drilled forces. Delbrück even estimated the total Persian numbers as low as 6,000.
There is a nice little passage in Arrian who cites one of the first discussions between the king and his veteran general Parmenion. In all likelyhood it is part of a tradition to downplay Parmenion's role in Alexander's victories and to justify his assassination years later. Parmenion observes that the Persian infantry is greatly outnumbered by the Macedonian infantry (!) and that therefore the Persians would probably withdraw during the night, making the crossing of the Granicus much easier. Alexander rejects this proposal to delay the attack, arguing that adjusting one's plans to the postition of the opponent would only boost the enemy's confidence.
So the battle started, possibly late in the afternoon. According to Fuller Alexander's battle plan was to send some auxiliary cavalry against the enemy flanks, giving the Persians the impression that the main assault would take place there. The Persians reacted in the way Alexander desired: they withdrew cavalry from the center (which was guarding the river) to strengthen the flanks. At that moment Alexander and his Companion cavalry rushed into the Persian center and made the decisive attack there.
Fuller states that we should not forget this still happened in the era of 'heroic warfare'. When the Persian commanders spotted Alexander's major move, they attacked the Macedonians with all bravery and courage you might desire from army leaders. They shared just one simple goal: kill Alexander. Often, they engaged in hand to hand combat in a desperate attempt to save the day. Fuller lists as many as eight Persian commanders fallen on the field, two committing suicide afterwards. Deprived of their commanders, the Persian army routed. It was not the number of eliminated armored forces that secured this victory for Alexander, but the number of their commanders dying a soldier's death.
Not that Alexander had been very save himself. He received a major headwound and was - indeed - almost killed, weren't it that his officer Cleitus the Black helped him out by cutting off the arm of an opponent. (While Cleitus saved Alexander's life at that specific moment, he was eventually murdered by his own king during their infamous brawl in Bactria, six years later.)
As most of the Persian cavalry escaped, Alexander encircled and butchered the Greek mercenaries. But the major impact of Alexander's victory at the Granicus was the loss of so many prominent Persians. His rapid advance through almost the whole of Asia Minor - up until the battle of Issus - was facilitated by the fact that there was hardly any Persian satrap alive anymore who could have organized some proper resistance against Alexander's progress.
Peter Green in his Alexander of Macedon presented a controversial theory that Granicus consisted in fact of two battles: one lost by Alexander - or indecisive at least - after which he retaliated and beat the Persians next day. According to Green this would explain why our sources have done very their best to conceal the truth behind blurred and contradictive accounts. Green is correct in his assumption that the written records of Granicus are too vague to allow for a reliable reconstruction of what happened.
- Date: probably November 333 B.C.
- Location: Hatay province of present day Turkey, just north of Iskenderun
- Macedonian army: 30,000 (Fuller, Delbrück) up to maybe 42,000 (Warry)
- Persian army: from 25,000 (Delbrück) or 108,000 (Warry) up to 600,000 (Arrian/Sekunda)
The site of Issus is now called Dörtyol, an unremarkable town in southern Turkey. Near this undistinguished place on the Mediterranean shore one of the most decisive and influential battles of human history was fought. And - to add only to its legend - it probably lasted less than one hour.
The first credits should go to the Persian Great King Darius. Whatever the forces under his command, and whatever his reputation as an army leader - he completely outsmarted Alexander prior to the battle. Darius had been assembling a massive force to counter the Macedonian invasion and he had moved this incredible number of men - even a low estimate of 108,000 is still a really huge army to feed, quenche and maintain on the road - from Babylon to the Mediterranean within three months. While Alexander was moving south along the coast, Darius took a clever detour and followed in Alexander's rear. We are told by our sources how the Persians feasted on massacring Macedonians unfit for service, who were left behind while Alexander's army had moved on.
Darius had for once intercepted Alexander's lines of supply and had disrupted the Macedonian logistic system. When Alexander realised his mistake, he immediately turned his army northwards. In fact he was trapped like a hunted animal. An unsuspectedly fast, forced, overnight march brought the Macedonians in contact with the Persian army. Darius had employed Cardaces (Kardakes) - young Persian soldiers - at his left flank. But as Alexander observed, they were assisted by archers. For Alexander this was a sign of weakness. If Darius would have had blind trust in his fresh Cardaces, the additional support would have been unnecessary.
While Parmenion lead the defence against the fierce Persian attack at the Macedonian left wing (along the sea shore) Alexander rushed his Companion cavalry towards those inexperienced Cardaces in the hills further inland. They could not stand up to the Macedonian assault. As they routed, they opened the way for Alexander to push his attack towards the center where King Darius was. Darius took to flight and the entire Persian army desintegrated. Game over.
But Alexander's victory did not come a moment too soon. Apart from the pressure on Parmenion's cavalry, the advance of the Macedonian phalanx through the center - against Darius' Greek mercenaries - was not going according to plan. The steep banks of the river Pinarus had disrupted the cohesion of the infantry, resulting in heavy losses to the Persian foe. Still, in the end this did not affect the final outcome of the confrontation.
Delbrück has an interesting analysis of Issus. Because Alexander's army was trapped, the Persians really did not need to score victory. A draw would be enough for Darius to isolate Alexander and force him to surrender. This observation - which was absolutely correct - determined Darius' entire battle plan. The Persians did not employ the full attacking ability of their cavalry but put their hopes on a successful defence. They were hesitant to pursue Parmenion's units, though Parmenion was overclassed and outnumbered - with disastrous results. Darius strategical decisions were sound, but he blundered tactically.
Issus is perhaps my favorite battle. The way Alexander turned great odds into an overwhelming victory is just beyond belief. The sheer contradiction between Darius having made preparations of assembling an epic army over many months, and Alexander totally annihilating his foe's efforts within a matter of minutes, just inspires your imagination.
Issus could arguably be called the most decisive moment of the campaign. After the battle the Persians had lost control over all territories west of the river Euphrates. That implied not only the loss of areas with a vital economic importance, but it also included the impossibility of ever launching a counter attack against Macedonia by sea. Alexander had executed the four basic principles of all military strategy: first organise your defences, then secure your supply lines, then capture your opponent's resources. Only after that, go for the final blow. At Gaugamela, two years later, the Persian Great King was already a beaten man.
The Macedonian victory at Issus was so fast that it enabled Alexander to capture the entire Persian Royal household: Queen Mother Sisygambis, Queen Stateira (Darius' wife) and Princess Stateira (his daughter) and Darius' other children.
- Date: probably October 1st, 331 B.C.
- Location: Tel Gomel, close to modern Arbil (ancient Arbela), northern Iraq
- Macedonian army: approximately 47,000 (Warry)
- Persian army: some 52,000 (Delbrück) or 91,000 (Warry) up to 1 million (Arrian)
The respected lieutenant colonel Theodore Dodge was a great fan of Gaugamela (or Arbela): "Never were dispositions better taken to resist the attacks of the enemy at all points; never on the field were openings more quickly seized; never threatening disaster more skillfully retrieved than here." Although his statement was made over a century ago, it might still be valid today. Again there is a nice little episode in Arrian, in which Parmenion advices his king to try a night attack. Alexander rejects Parmenion's plan, claiming that he is Alexander and that Alexander simply does not 'steal' his victories.
From whatever side you look at it, Alexander must have had the intention not to steal his victory at Gaugamela. It could be argued that at Issus Darius had made the stupid mistake to employ his massive army on a narrow coastal plain, denying himself to take full advantage of his stunning superiority in numbers. But Gaugamela was fought on the wide plains of Asia - and Darius had had sufficient time to prepare 'his' battlefield. If the Macedonians would win here, they would have beaten the Persians on their own ground. For the first and the last time ever Alexander backed up his phalanxes with a second line of allied and mercenary heavy infantry, anticipating on the possibility that he could end up being entirely encircled by Persians. Michael Wood in his tv-series states, and perhaps rightly so, that Alexander in fact wanted this to happen. This should be the victory to end all victories: all circumstances should be in favor of the Persians so a Macedonian victory would remain undisputed forever.
Fearing that dreaded night attack, King Darius kept his army standing in battle formation all night, probably only adding to fatigue and demoralization. Alexander, we are told, had an excellent night's sleep, nearly overslept himself and had to be woken by Parmenion who had to remind his king that it was time for battle. Of course, this is probably a romatizised tale - but it fits perfectly to emphasize on the confidence Alexander had in this ultimate victory.
The battle progress of Gaugamela is far more complex than the earlier confrontations at Granicus and Issus. Parmenion, again, was ordered to take a stand against the Persian attack on the Macedonian left, lead by the capable satrap Mazeus commanding many elite cavalry units of the Persian empire. Alexander meanwhile advanced in an oblique order - some say 'diamond shaped' - against the Persian left.
Then, as the Bactrian satrap Bessus tries to encircle the Macedonian advanced attack forces on the Persian (left) wing, he leaves a weak spot in between the Persian left and the Persian center. Alexander and his Companion cavalry immediately take advantage of this opportunity. They fight their way towards the center where King Darius is.
Satrap Bessus was probably in the best position of all Persian commanders to observe the disaster in the heart of the Persian army. Though Bessus' Bactrians easily outclassed the opposing Macedonians at his wing, Bessus signalled the retreat so most of his Bactrian cavalry could leave the battlefield unharmed. But because Alexander had shifted his attack entirely to the right, a gap had also opened between the Macedonian center and the left flank guarded by Parmenion. And Parmenion's cavalry found itself under the ever increasing pressure of the bulk of Persian forces still willing to fight.
So some controversial elements remain. In the first place, Persian cavalry managed to brake through the Macedonian center. Instead of using this success to harrass the Macedonian front from the rear, the Persians were tempted - or ordered - to sack the Macedonian camp. If Alexander was aware of this danger (in the chaos of battle he might have been ignorant), he chose not to respond to it. Maybe he figured that a decisive victory in the end would compensate generously for anything lost now in the progress of fighting. As the battle turned heavily in favor of the Macedonians, these looting Persian troops were eventually eliminated by the Macedonian reserves which Alexander had deployed behind the phalanx. (There is this nice little tale of these Persians trying to help Persian Queen Mother Sisygambis to escape; but she refuses the offer due to her loyalty to Alexander.)
Secondly, there is this a weird account of Parmenion asking Alexander to help him out against the overwhelming Persian assault. Given the extent of the battle and the distance these messages presumably had to cover, this story is very unlikely. Allegedly, Alexander abandoned his pursuit of Darius to aid Parmenion - but this could easily be anti-Parmenion propaganda once again.
Third, but certainly not last, we do not really know what happened first: did Darius abandon his commanding position under the pressure of Alexander's Companions, causing most of his army to rout? Or did the troops - especially Bessus' cavalry - abandon their king as soon as they noticed that the Persian center was under attack? Accounts differ. Still, the outcome is the same.
In the end, the disastrous news of the collapse of Darius' center and the flight of Bessus reached Mazeus. Parmenion rallied his troops and started pushing back the Persians. By now, the battle was all but over. Alexander chased the fleeing Persians for thirty up to seventy miles before turning back to base camp. If anything, Gaugamela had proven the superiority of the Macedonian army and Alexander's generalship over the otherwise decisive courage of Persian leaders and their high quality cavalry.
The Persian Great King Darius had tried everything within his abilty. He had employed about 200 scythed chariots at Gaugamela, intended to cut down Macedonian infantry like life-size lawn mowers. His army had been accompanied by fiftheen Indian elephants, which strangely enough do not seem to have played any part in the fighting. The six thousand strong Bactrian contingents had included impressive catraphacted cavalry. Even the sceptical Delbrück admits that Alexander was outnumbered in cavalry by 12,000 against 7,000. If any battle has ever justified Alexander to be named 'the Great', this would be it.
- Date: probably May or July 326 B.C.
- Location: somewhere near the towns of Malakwal and Haranpur, nothern Punjab, Pakistan
- Macedonian army: 15,000 up to 25,000 (attack force) plus 11,000 (under Craterus in camp; Fuller)
- Indian army: 22,000 (Plutarch) or 34,000 (Arrian) plus 85 (Curtius) up to 200 (Arrian) elephants
Poros' army was much smaller than Alexander's. Though Alexander probably employed about some 36,000 troops on the actual battlefield, his entire entourage at these final phases of the campaign is said to have included close to 100,000 men. Poros did not rule 'India'. He ruled a relatively small and modest kingdom; so he could only levy little over 30,000 troops. But Poros played one big trump: 200 war elephants, one of the highest figures of these behemoths ever employed in any battle of Western classical history as far as we know of. Seleucos in 301 B.C. had 500 war elephants but - even as both figures might be exaggerated - Poros' number comes second best. Horses do not like elephants. Such a multitude of pachyderms rendered the Macedonian cavalry useless.
As Poros was guarding the Hydaspes river (modern Jhelum) with his elephant corps, he prohibited Alexander from making a crossing. For about two weeks - according to Robin Lane Fox - Alexander moved his troops up and down the western river bank. And Poros followed suit - until the Indian king became tired of all these false alarms. When Poros was finally 'lulled into sleep', Alexander left officer Craterus with a substantial body of troops in base camp. In secret the hard core of Macedonian forces crossed the river overnight. Craterus had complex instructions: Poros reaction to the Macedonian crossing would determine if Craterus had to cross the river too - or to stay put. At least six different scenario's were discussed, according to Fuller. Summarized, Craterus should only cross the Hydaspes when there were no Indian elephants blocking his way.
When Poros found out about the Macedonian crossing, he sent a small force under command of his son (probaby also called Poros) to intercept Alexander's advance. Already too late. This Indian counter group was annihilated by the strong force of Macedonians who had made it across the Jhelum.
The battle proper opened with a sharp cavalry confrontation on the Macedonian right wing. Arrian says Alexander was determined not to attack the Indian center, because of the elephant herd amassed there. Poros' responded as Alexander had anticipated - by sending his right wing cavalry across the (still empty) battlefield to support the fighting at his left flank. But officer Coenus' and his cavalry had moved to the other side of the ranks, hidden behind the Macedonian infantry lines. Coenus was now able to intervene with the Indian crossfield cavalry move from behind the enemy's rear.
Whatever Alexander's battle plan was, Coenus' attack resulted in disorder in the Indian cavalry regiments. As they had to fall back, the Indian cavalry, infantry and elephant forces became mingled. Maybe this was Alexander's intention: to deny Poros the opportunity to use his forces as separate units. As soon as Alexander saw the Indian confusion, the Macedonian phalanx was ordered to advance. According to our sources everything seems to have ended up in complete mayhem. Wounded elephants do not retreat: they stampede. Friend and foe alike were trampled under rampaging elephants. (To add one more gruwesome detail: elephant riders - mahouts - carried a chisel and a hammer so they could split the skull of their animals when the beasts became uncontrolable.)
In all likelihood the Hydaspes battle was just utter carnage. No pretty battle. Plutarch suggests the fighting lasted for eight hours - exceptionally long for an ancient battle. Curtius Rufus mentions the use of axes and swords by the Macedonians to cut off the elephants' trunks. That Alexander was victorious in the end, was the result of his initial clever river crossing which had enabled him to take Poros by surprise. Even modern logistic experts admire the fact that the Macedonians were able to ship an entire fighting force across a swollen Indian monsoon river in just one single night.
In overview, Alexander had defeated a substantially weaker army at the cost of many lives. Arrian says that after crossing the Jhelum most Macedonians entered the battle already exhausted and out of breath. Diodorus mentions 280 Macedonian cavalry and 700 infantry killed. When you apply normal battle statistics to these figures, this would imply up to 10,000 or 12,000 wounded on the Macedonian side. Plutarch states the Hydaspes confrontation "blunted" the courage of the Macedonians to advance further into India. In Curtius Rufus officer Coenus' claims that the Macedonians by now had lost most of their battle gear, armor and horses. "Will you expose this fine army naked to wild beasts?", he asks Alexander afterwards, trying to persuade his king to avoid a next confrontation with an Indian elephant corps.
Anyway, a few weeks after Hydaspes Alexander ordered the southbound retreat towards Babylon. Some controversial statements were made by (predominantly Indian) historians, hinting at the possibilty that Alexander was actually defeated by Poros. Poros' final statement after the battle - "Treat me like a king" - could be interpreted both ways around for sure. For some food for thought visit Alexander the ordinary, a webpage that advocates Alexander's defeat at the Jhelum.
If you would summarize Alexander's tactics displayed at the four main confrontations, three essential observations catch the eye. First, Alexander always managed to make his opponents respond in the way he desired. Second, he had an absolutely convincing talent for immediately determining the weak spots in the enemy line. And third, no matter how grim the situation, he never panicked, but always executed his plans in a coherent way.
Fuller observes that other commanders have equalled Alexander's talent to lead an army into battle. But the essence of Alexander's generalship was that he was also extremely succesfull in all other types of armed confrontations: sieges, anti-guerilla actions, ambushes. And it is this strange combination of mastery of all types of war that makes him unique.
Plutarch, The Age of Alexander. ISBN 0-14-044286-3. Buy from amazon.co.uk.