Most people know that Alexander the Great – King of Macedon, legendary military leader – was a wildly successful general who conquered huge swaths of Eurasia and the Mediterranean and kicked off the Hellenistic Age, a renaissance of Greek culture. Through a series of impressive military victories, Alexander and his soldiers from the Hellenic League essentially wiped the floor with their enemies all the way from Egypt to the Hindu Kush. What most people don’t know, however, is that much of the Alexandrian mythos was propagated by historians of the Roman Empire, who became obsessed with the Macedonian king’s exploits. In re-evaluating Alexander the Great’s fabled journey to the East, we’ll examine his most well-known exploit: the Battle of Gaugamela, where the small, worn-out Greek force took on the massive and well-equipped forces of the Persian Achaemenid Empire.
ASAP: Alexander’s defeat of the Persian Empire opened the way for his fabled journey to the East.Read on for more details!
The Road to Persia
Alexander’s Hellenic League troops – comprising soldiers from many different Greek city-states – had already beaten the Persian leader Darius III at the Battle of Issus in 333 BCE (located in modern-day Turkey). Following that conflict, Alexander controlled much of Asia Minor, and continued on in the great Greek tradition of beating Persians. The Persians retreated to Babylon (a city on the Euphrates river in modern-day Iraq) and consolidated their forces. Darius tried to get Alexander to stop his advance, offering a huge ransom for the hostages the Hellenic League had collected at Issus; Alexander refused, and his army continued marching East. Apparently the tone of Darius’ letters was vaguely insulting, and Alexander – prone to violent temper tantrums – grew doubly impatient to kill the Persian ruler.
The Hellenic league marched through Northern Mesopotamia, keeping the Armenian mountains on their left. This route allowed the troops to avoid the scorching-hot desert of the more direct route to the south. Darius had hoped Alexander would take the “as-the-crow-flies” route across the desert to Babylon, during which the Persian ruler would have been able to harass Alexander’s supply lines; but the northern passage of the Hellenic League apparently surprised Darius. After finally figuring out Alexander’s location, Darius selected Gaugamela as his battleground. The location – near Mosul, in modern-day Iraq – was perfect. Having just forded the Tigris River, Alexander’s worn out, tiny force would have to face the Persians on a massive, flat field where the Greeks would have nowhere to hide.
The Hellenic League approached Darius’ forces near the end of September, 331 BCE. Alexander had roughly 45,000 troops, consisting mainly of armoured heavy infantry with some cavalry support; the men were, of course, tired from their years-long slog across the hills and mountains of Asia Minor. In contrast, Darius roughly 86,000 men (according to Plutarch. Some sources dispute this number). Although Alexander had more infantrymen, Darius had a massive advantage in cavalry – chariots and elephants that could quickly outflank and slaughter the slow-moving Greek men on foot. Although Alexander’s men were disciplined and motivated, Darius was confident he could crush them under the feet of his Indian war elephants.
The Persian force formed up for battle on October 1st, well-rested and eager for battle. Darius commanded from the centre of his formation, surrounded by his best troops and flanked by highly-mobile cavalry units. At his back were masses of heavy infantry. As the Hellenic League approached, Alexander formed his heavy infantry into a tight phalanx formation – a rectangular mass of men armed with long spears – and commanded the right side of this formation. The left was led by Parmenion, one of Alexander’s close friends and strategists. Alexander had his flanks protected by smaller phalanxes angled to the rear at 45 degrees (apparently designed to appear weak and lure in Persian cavalry).
As the Greeks moved forward, a solid mass of slow, exhausted but determined men in heavy armour, Darius caught sight of Alexander. As their forces drew closer, Alexander and his bodyguards began moving towards their right flank; Darius, noticing the apparent weakness of Alexander’s right side, split his formation and moved to pursue Alexander. Eager to take out the cocky invader, the Persian force swept in to isolate Alexander and “cut off the head of the snake”.
The Persians rushed in and began attacking Alexander’s new position. The Greek right flank was in danger of being wiped out, but it soon became clear that Darius had moved too far from the left body of his army in his eagerness to cut off Alexander. A massive hole had opened up in the Persian line, and – as Alexander had planned – the main Greek phalanx rushed forward to split Darius’ troops in two. The huge Persian flanking force on the Greeks’ right side was now cut off, and Darius risked being surrounded. According to most accounts, the Persian ruler turned and ran. Alexander had hoped to pursue him and kill him, but Parmenion needed help on the Greek left flank. Darius escaped, but Alexander managed to save his friend (and possible lover) from certain death. Anywhere from 40,000 to 300,000 Persians were killed or captured in the confusion; by contrast, Alexander lost somewhere between 100 and 500.
As the dust settled, Alexander must have been shocked at his success. The battle should not have been a success for him. Far from home, outnumbered, immobile and nearly surrounded by a strong enemy on their own turf, Gaugamela could have been Alexander’s grave. But the plan had worked, and Darius’ impatience to kill Alexander had gotten the best of him. The Hellenic League captured huge amounts of war loot and even some of Darius’ elephants (which had apparently been held back due to their fatigue). Darius lived a few more weeks, but one of his men, Bessus, killed the Persian ruler for his cowardice and dumped the former ruler in an alley.
As Alexander led his forces farther East, even his most diehard supporters grew tired of fighting. They had already beaten the odds and cut the Achaemenid Persian empire in two; Babylon was in their hands, as well as most of Mesopotamia. Even the most pro-Alexander historians find it hard to justify the young Macedonian’s headlong charge to the East. We all know how Alexander was successful in his conquests; what we struggle more with is why? Plutarch claims that Alexander was impulsive and violent, and modern scholars tend to agree. Tutored by Aristotle, Alexander developed a quick mind as a young man; but the influence of his successful father contributed to his power-hungriness. As he won more battles, Alexander gained a god-like status among his friends and foes – and it went to his head. Towards the end of his campaigns in India, Alexander seemed to think of himself as an infallible god; his unshakeable self-confidence, previously his biggest asset, resulted in him overextending himself and his men. He died a young man, a result of sickness and wounds accumulated during his numerous campaigns.
In a hurry? Here are the ASAP notes on this topic.
- Who? Alexander the Great, Macedonian king, and around 45,000 men of the Hellenic League (predominantly heavy infantry). They faced off against nearly 100,000 Achaemenid Persians under Darius III, who enjoyed a massive advantage in cavalry forces.
- Where? Gaugamela, near Mosul, Iraq – deep within Persian Achaemenid territory. The battleground was a huge, flat field specially chosen by Darius and flattened out by his men.
- When? October 1st, 331 BCE.
- What? Alexander had previously beaten Darius as Issus and wanted to finish off the Persians and claim the territory for himself. His heavy infantry were outmatched by the highly mobile Persian cavalry; but a skilful feint to the right drew in Darius and split the Persian force in half. The main Greek phalanx punched a hole through the Persians, scattering them and sending Darius running. Alexander held off pursuing Darius himself as his left flank under general Parmenion needed assistance.
- Why? Darius had the advantage and could have surrounded the slow-moving Greeks, but became obsessed with tracking down Alexander and split his own forces. The mistake was exploited by Alexander, who had apparently predicted Darius’ fatal move.
- Result: Massive Greek victory. Darius was eventually killed by his own men and Alexander’s Hellenic League gained control of Mesopotamia and split Persia in two.
Food for Thought
Like what you’ve read? Here are a couple essay questions/prompts to get you thinking. Good writing is all about answering questions the reader didn’t know they had, after all. These questions are to inspire further research, help with an academic paper, or maybe just get you thinking more about the topic.
- Why did Alexander pursue his conquests? What about his upbringing led to his ambition?
- What was Darius’ biggest mistake? Could he have won, and if so, how?
- Assess the Roman historical take on Alexander. What purpose did the mythologizing of Alexander serve the Roman Empire?
- Has history been too unkind to Darius? Assess his tactical decisions in a modern context.
- How would Alexander be viewed as a general in the 21st century?
Further Reading & Citations
Here are a couple useful sources for further reading or using to flesh out an essay. Remember to cite everything properly!
- Marsden, Eric William. 1964. The campaign of Gaugamela. [Liverpool]: Liverpool University Press.
- Lonsdale, David J. 2004. Alexander, killer of men: Alexander the Great and the Macedonian art of war. London: Constable.
- “Alexander The Great.” The British Medical Journal 2, no. 4986 (1956): 245.
- Stoneman, Richard, Krzysztof Nawotka, and Agnieszka Wojciechowska. 2018. The Alexander Romance: history and literature.
- Tierney, Michael. “Aristotle and Alexander the Great.” Studies: An Irish Quarterly Review 31, no. 122 (1942): 221-28.