In our special this time, Graham Goodlad charts the career of Alexander from Macedonia to the Indus, while Neil Faulkner analyses the Battle of Gaugamela, his greatest victory and an all-time tactical masterpiece.
The most renowned military commanders of the ancient world were perhaps Alexander, Hannibal, and Caesar. Argument about their relative merits – and those of others – is endless. Such questions have become a staple of online chat among military buffs. But no final resolution will ever be possible, for military ‘genius’ – whatever we mean by that – is always embedded in historical circumstance.
Caesar – regardless of his personal motivation and talent – represented a powerful coalition of social forces pressing against the old senatorial system of government; he was an agent of what Ronald Syme called ‘the Roman Revolution’.
Hannibal – more or less consciously – was an instrument of revanchist, pre-emptive warfare designed to save the Carthaginian trading empire in the Western Mediterranean before the predatory power of Rome became unstoppable.
This does not make the wars they fought ‘just wars’. In particular, Caesar’s conquest of Gaul – with an estimated million dead, a million enslaved, and a thousand settlements torched – was an act of unprovoked aggression. Yet, even here, one feels that Caesar is the personification of a social system – that of Roman military imperialism, which, over many centuries, applauded and rewarded such acts of predatory violence.
Alexander stands apart. Oliver Stone’s 2004 film Alexander gives expression to this. The ageing Ptolemy, who acts as both narrator and commentator, identifies burning personal ambition as the driving force and, at the same time, alerts us to the ultimate futility of it all. For Alexander, heroic leadership in Homeric style, sanctioned by his own presumed divinity, was an end in itself: he was the personification of nothing beyond his own deranged narcissism.
The story of Alexander is a story of military conquest for its own sake. So far from being, as Clausewitz would have it, politics by other means, Alexander’s campaigns were an end in themselves. That is why he ‘orientalised’, adopting Persian practice, and came to loggerheads with many of his own followers. Devoid of any redemptive vision of his own, he simply took over the existing set-up.
What we have is what might be called ‘pure’ military history. Strategy, tactics, and military ‘genius’ without any real anchor in the social order. The Macedonian Army, as it crossed the stage of history in its astonishing whirlwind of achievement, was simply the extension of one man’s will.
Conqueror of the World
Alexander is one of a handful of figures in world history to be known as ‘the Great’. Ruler of the northern Greek kingdom of Macedon for barely 13 years, and dead at the age of 32, he compressed an astonishing record of military achievement into a short career.
He conquered an empire that stretched from the Balkans to northern India, and his armies traversed some 20,000 miles on campaign. What kind of man was Alexander, and what were the skills that enabled him to dominate his world?Alexander’s main foe was the Persian Empire, which in the mid-4th century BC extended from modern Turkey, through much of the Middle East, across to the mountains of the Hindu Kush. Although past its territorial peak, and weakened by internal power struggles, it remained a considerable force, capable of reconquering Egypt a few years before Alexander’s accession to the Macedonian throne.
In embarking on his war against Persia, Alexander was motivated partly by a desire for revenge on an empire that had invaded Greece in 480-479 BC, and more recently had gained control of a number of Greek cities in Asia.
Yet he was driven primarily by a self- centred vision of personal aggrandisement. He tolerated no opposition, disposing of long-serving members of the Macedonian elite without a qualm if they fell under suspicion. He applied the customs of ancient warfare with relentless brutality. Male inhabitants of captured cities were routinely put to the sword, women and children enslaved.
There was a sadistic edge to Alexander’s conduct. Two thousand defenders of Tyre, on the eastern Mediterranean coast, were crucified outside the city. After the fall of Gaza, its governor was dragged to his death behind a chariot.
In his later years, Alexander showed growing signs of megalomania. To the consternation of many of his followers, he demonstrated his displacement of the Persian monarchy by adopting a combination of oriental dress and traditional Macedonian garb. He tried to introduce the Persian royal custom whereby courtiers prostrated themselves before the king. He saw himself not only as the unchallenged ruler of Asia but also as a divine being to whom worship was due.
At the time of his death, he was planning to take his army westwards to the Mediterranean coast with a plan to carry out a circumnavigation of Africa. This was an individual whose ambition knew no bounds.
Alexander’s wars of conquest were made possible by the remarkable achievement of his father, Philip II, under whose rule (359-336 BC) Macedonia became the leading power on the Greek mainland.
Like his son, Philip was an absolute monarch who imposed rigorous discipline on his troops, turning them into a formidable fighting machine. By insisting that infantrymen carry their own provisions and equipment, he eliminated the need for a long baggage train, which slowed down armies in the ancient world. Intensive training enabled the army to cope with the unexpected and sustained soldiers’ morale in the most demanding conditions.
The Macedonian infantry were grouped in a phalanx, a highly mobile close-order formation, 16-men deep. The standard weapon was the sarissa, a 15ft- to 20ft-long spear made of tough cornel wood and tipped with iron.
In battle, the spears of the first four ranks protruded beyond the front line, while those behind held their weapons in the air to deflect oncoming missiles. In defensive mode, the locked shields of the phalanx formed a strong protective front.
An elite infantry body, the Hypaspists, carrying large shields and spears, covered the unprotected flanks of the phalanx and also carried out special operations over long distances.
In a major break with established Greek practice, Philip did not restrict his cavalry to traditional roles of reconnaissance, harassment, or pursuit. Using a combination of speed, cohesion, and perfect control of their mounts, they were to deliver the knock-out blow on the battlefield. These heavily armed horsemen, moving in a wedge-shaped formation, were employed to break through the enemy line in a frontal assault.
Another key feature, initiated by Philip and taken further by Alexander, was the development of siege equipment. Arrow- firing, crossbow-style torsion catapults (see box on p.28) were supplemented by rock-throwing machines and tall, sturdy siege towers.
The army was completed by mercenaries and allied troops drawn from other parts of Greece, such as Cretan archers and lightly armed Agrianian javelin-men.
Aged just 18, Alexander gained experience of leadership when Macedon met the forces of two rival Greek states, Athens and Thebes, at Chaeronea in 338 BC. Here Philip commanded the Macedonian right wing, while Alexander, on the left, is said to have smashed the Thebans in a decisive cavalry charge.
Just two years later, Alexander succeeded to the throne when his father was assassinated by one of his bodyguards. In 335 BC, the new king stamped his authority on Macedon’s restive northern neighbours in Thrace and Illyria, before moving south to deal with a revolt in Thebes.
His army covered some 300 miles in just 12 days, enabling him to deal with the rebels remarkably rapidly. The suppression of the rebellion, followed by the near total destruction of Thebes, meant that Alexander could begin his assault on Persia – a plan bequeathed by his father – without the threat of opposition to his rear.
Launching the invasion
In the spring of 334 BC, Alexander crossed the Dardanelles into modern north-western Turkey, with some 32,000 infantry and 5,000 cavalry – the largest invasion force ever to leave Greece.
The local Persian forces took up what should have been a strong position, close to the steeply sloping eastern bank of the River Granicus. The danger for Alexander was that the Persians, whose cavalry outnumbered the Macedonians’ by more than two to one, would throw him back before he could establish himself on the opposite side.
The ancient sources are unclear on the details of the battle. However, it seems that Alexander took a calculated risk in rejecting the advice of his most experienced general, Parmenion, who wanted to delay until the following morning. Instead, Alexander went into the attack at once, his infantry phalanx in the centre with cavalry on the wings.
He led the charge in person on the right, his horsemen scrambling out of the muddy river bed and maintaining momentum as they crashed into the Persian line. But it was a close-run affair. Alexander’s helmet was shattered by a blow from behind, and his assailant was about to go in for the kill when an aide severed the man’s upraised arm.
As the Persian horse began to falter, more Macedonian units crossed the river and began to force them back. The invaders’ lances were more than a match for the Persians’ light javelins.
The battle turned into a rout as the Macedonians slaughtered the Greek mercenary infantry stationed behind the Persian cavalry. The survivors were despatched to Macedon to end their days as agricultural labourers.
Although it was a small-scale battle, the outcome of the Granicus gives several important clues to the nature of Alexander’s leadership. His presence in the thick of the fighting, taking wounds alongside his men, won their respect. As after all his victories, he took care to bury the dead with due honour. Nor did he neglect his troops’ welfare. Recently married Macedonian soldiers were allowed to return home for the winter, and the families of those who had fallen were excused payment of taxes. These were the marks of a highly personal style of leadership that would earn Alexander his men’s lasting loyalty.
Clash of kings
The onward march, eastwards through Asia Minor, saw Alexander further enhance his image as a man of destiny. At Gordium in Phrygia stood a ceremonial wagon, the yoke of which was secured to the pole by an unusually complex knot. Local legend maintained that whoever unfastened it would become lord of Asia. The story that Alexander cut through the knot with his sword may be apocryphal – but it seemed to endorse his claim to universal dominion.
It was a preliminary to a clash of arms that would give Alexander control of the Near East as far as the Euphrates river. This was the first of two encounters with the Persian king, Darius III, who was determined to engage Alexander in person.
The Battle of Issus in November 333 BC was fought close to the present-day border between Turkey and Syria. Darius approached from the north, with the intention of cutting the communications between Alexander and his bases. This obliged Alexander to retrace his steps to the north, encountering the Persians close to the Pinarus, a stream which flowed into the Mediterranean from the Amanus Mountains. He fielded some 40,000 troops to an estimated 100,000 on the Persian side.
The Battle of Issus 333 BC
The battle took place on a coastal plain just two miles wide, where Darius’s advantage of numerical superiority was neutralised. Alexander, by contrast, was able to avoid being outflanked by extending his right flank to the mountains and his left to the sea.
Darius positioned himself in the middle of his line with his Greek mercenaries and royal household cavalry; to his right, he placed his heavy cavalry and, on his left, the Persian infantry.
The engagement did not begin well for Alexander. The central Macedonian phalanx took heavy casualties as it crossed the Pinarus and came into contact with the Greek mercenaries on the northern bank.
On the right wing, it was Alexander who again took decisive action, his cavalry charging into the ranks of the lightly armed Persian infantry before turning to attack the mercenaries in the centre.
Darius fled to avoid capture, exchanging his war chariot for a horse for greater speed, and leaving his baggage train behind. Also abandoned were his wife, mother, and daughters, whom Alexander refused to ransom but did treat with exemplary courtesy.
As word spread that their king was racing for safety, Persian resistance began to crumble, leaving Alexander the undisputed victor.
Master of siege warfare
There remained a risk that the Persians might use their navy to frustrate Alexander’s land-based campaign. He therefore moved south along the Mediterranean coastline, to take control of the bases where the enemy fleet might find anchorage.
The strongest opposition came from Tyre, in what is now Lebanon. It was an almost impregnable island stronghold, with walls 150ft high, separated from the mainland by half a mile of sea. Without naval supremacy, an attempt to take the city was a daunting task.
In January 332 BC, Alexander began building a mole or causeway out towards the island. His men had to labour under a barrage of missiles from the walls. On to the mole, the Macedonians moved two siege towers, from the top of which catapults returned the defenders’ fire.
But he had not reckoned with the determination of the Tyrians, who sailed a fireship packed with pitch, sulphur, and other flammable material into the mole. Alexander was forced to withdraw while the mole and towers burned.
Undeterred, Alexander constructed a new mole and siege machines. He was fortunate that the Phoenicians, who provided the Persians with most of their ships, came over to his side, enabling him to gain the upper hand over the smaller Tyrian fleet.
The city fell in July to an intense assault using ships equipped with battering rams, boarding bridges, and stone-throwing catapults. Despite desperate resistance by the defenders, the walls were breached and Macedonian troops poured through. Eight thousand Tyrians were massacred and the survivors sold into slavery. It was a terrible warning to others who might resist.
Alexander took Gaza after a shorter siege and then moved southwards into Egypt, which surrendered to him without a fight. Here occurred one of the strangest episodes of his career, a detour to visit an oracle in the desert at the Siwah Oasis. The priest of the shrine is said to have welcomed him as the son of Ammon – an Egyptian divinity identified with Zeus, chief of the Greek gods.
The encounter confirmed Alexander’s reputation as an individual who stood apart from ordinary mortals. Returning to the Nile Delta, he founded Alexandria, one of a series of cities to bear the conqueror’s name across his empire.
The end of Persian rule
After wintering in Egypt, the army resumed its campaign against Darius. The battle that brought about the Persian king’s final overthrow was fought in October 331 BC at Gaugamela, in what is now northern Iraq. It is covered in depth in a second article.
Victory at Gaugamela left the rest of the Persian kingdom at Alexander’s mercy, and in quick succession he occupied the historic cities of Babylon, Susa, and Persepolis.
The fate of Persepolis, ancient capital of the empire, symbolised the end of Persian rule. After stripping the royal treasury of gold and silver, the palace was burnt. This extraordinary act of destruction began during a drunken banquet. It may have been intended as long-delayed revenge for the devastation inflicted on Athens by Persian invaders in 480 BC, but Alexander later regretted what had been done.
There remained a further task for the victorious Alexander. After Gaugamela, Darius had fled eastwards with a dwindling group of companions. Alexander was determined to capture the fallen ruler so that power could be visibly transferred to him.
He pursued Darius relentlessly, but by the time he caught up with his quarry, south-east of the Caspian Sea, he was dead. Darius had been murdered by Bessus, the head of his bodyguard, who had proclaimed himself king in his place.
Alexander responded to this turn of events with a calculated mixture of decorum and savagery. He gave Darius an honourable burial with his ancestors, and then mercilessly hunted down the usurper Bessus.
In line with Persian custom, the latter was exhibited naked and fettered, and his nose and ears were cut off before he was despatched for execution. This drastic punishment enabled Alexander not only to claim that he was avenging Darius’s murder but also to present himself as the legitimate successor to the vanquished dynasty.
The last campaigns
This was not the end of Alexander’s military career. The sheer size of his empire meant that rebellion was an ever-present threat. He spent two years engaged in the gruelling pacification of Sogdiana and Bactria, a turbulent region of central Asia, at the edge of the known world.
In the spring of 327 BC, Alexander moved south again, leaving the area garrisoned by mercenaries, and with a string of new settlements in his wake. The most northerly of these, in what is now Tajikistan, was known as Alexandria the Farthest.
Alexander’s last great campaign took him over the western spur of the Himalayas into the valley of the River Indus, an area historically claimed by the Persian monarchy. Here he encountered opposition from Porus, an Indian ruler who had never acknowledged Darius as overlord.
Porus possessed a large force of war elephants – estimates range from 85 to 200 – and a defensible position behind the River Hydaspes.
Crossing the river with part of his army under cover of a spring thunderstorm, Alexander caught the Indian forces in a pincer movement. The Macedonian phalanx drove the elephants back on to their own troops, while the cavalry exploited gaps in the Indian flanks and rear to bring about a crushing defeat.
For once magnanimous in victory, Alexander recognised Porus as a worthy adversary and allowed him to retain his power as a vassal ruler. He then pushed further south into modern Punjab until, remarkably, his exhausted army refused to go any further. Alexander may not have been prepared to recognise a boundary to his conquests, but the troops on whom he depended had reached their limits.
In late 325 BC, the army started on the long road home. Some travelled by sea, while the main army made an arduous overland march with Alexander through Gedrosia, a parched desert region on the north-western shores of the Indian Ocean.
Alexander was assembling a war fleet for yet another expedition when, in June 323 BC, he died of fever at Babylon. Inevitably, there were rumours that he had been poisoned. Nevertheless, it seems much more likely that his constitution, undermined by a habit of heavy drinking and numerous battle wounds, simply succumbed to illness.
Alexander’s empire vanished within a few short years of his death, torn apart by disputes between his generals.
He left three wives: Stateira and Parysatis, members of the Persian royal family, and Roxane, a Bactrian princess, who gave birth to a son shortly after Alexander’s death. All fell victim to the power struggles that accompanied the disintegration of his dominions.
More enduring was the memory of Alexander, the undefeated commander. Generals from Caesar to Napoleon regarded him as the ultimate role model for his strategic grasp, his tactical flair, and his unremitting, violent energy on the field.
They were inspired by his vision of empire without limits – yet none equalled him in the scale of his conquests. He remains a unique figure: a consummate performer of the art of warfare, who bestrode his world, yet left so little of substance behind.
Torsion catapults: These siege engines were first developed in the reign of Alexander’s father, Philip. The power was provided by tightly twisted animal sinews or hair, drawn to a notched pull. The machine was in effect a large crossbow, capable of firing a bolt upwards of 300 yards. Both sides used these weapons. At the siege of Gaza, Alexander was wounded in the shoulder by a catapult of this kind.
Life of Alexander
BC 356 Born son of King Philip II of Macedon
BC 336 Succeeds to throne after Philip’s assassination
BC 335 Suppresses rebellion in Greek city-states and destroys Thebes
BC 336 Launches invasion of the Persian Empire; Battle of River Granicus
BC 333 Battle of Issus 332 Sieges of Tyre and Gaza
BC 331 Founds Alexandria in Egypt; Battle of Gaugamela
BC 330 Burning of Persepolis; assumes role of Persian ‘Great King’
BC 327 Invades India
BC 326 Battle of River Hydaspes
BC 323 Dies in Babylon
A B Bosworth (1993) Conquest and Empire: the reign of Alexander the Great (Canto).
Paul Cartledge (2005) Alexander the Great: the truth behind the myth (Pan).
In Part Two, Neil Faulkner analyses the Battle of Gaugamela, Alexander the Great’s momentous victory and an all-time tactical masterpiece.