Few military commanders approach the status of Alexander III of Macedon who, in his brief lifetime, established an empire extending from Greece to India. Had he lived, his dream of consolidation of the known world under his rule might have been realised.

Ancient Authorities

Alexander the Great, the third king of Macedon of that name and the son of Philip II, had many biographers and the story of his conquests was recorded by many ancient historians. Among extant works, that of Arrian (Flavius Arrianus) is the most comprehensive and the most reliable. Arrian lived in the second century AD. He was both a philosopher and a man of action. He was governor of Cappadocia under the Roman Emperor Hadrian and in this capacity resisted and repelled an invasion of imperial territory by the Alans, a nomadic people of south Russia. As a soldier, as a native of eastern Asia Minor and as one whose military experience had been gained in that part of the world, he was admirably qualified to chronicle the wars of Alexander in Asia. He uses judgment in selecting his sources and authorities and he relies mainly on the earlier but unfortunately no longer extant history of Alexander’s general Ptolemy, who was the founder of the Egyptian dynasty which ended in 30 BC with the death of Cleopatra a year after Actium.

In addition to Ptolemy, Arrian also uses the account of Aristobulus, another of Alexander’s trusted officers who was a technician and served the Macedonian army in a technical capacity. Arrian’s work is called the Anabasis of Alexander.Anabasis is the Greek word which Xenophon used in the title of his work recording Cyrus’ expedition; in this context it means “a journey to the interior”. Arrian also retails the account of Nearchus, who was commander of Alexander’s fleet. This work is called the Indica. It begins with an account of India and its customs, but its main theme is the voyage completed by Alexander’s ships, under the command of Nearchus, in support of the Macedonian army as it returned from India to Persia – from the mouth of the Indus to the Tigris.

Arrian also tentatively includes in his account evidence from the works of such other writers as he considers to have some historical value. His discriminating remarks on the subject suggest, however, that a great deal of what was written about Alexander had very little historical value. To some writers, Alexander was simply a legend into whose life story it was possible to interpolate all sorts of romantic or sensational material. His adventures with the Amazons and their queen, to which Arrian alludes with little conviction, fall under this head. Other biographies of Alexander reflect the Greek liberal tradition which regarded Alexander and his father as the assassins of Greek liberty. Such works are unscrupulously slanderous. Ptolemy and Aristobulus, as loyal officers of Alexander, were naturally biased in his favour, but this bias cannot be corrected by reference to other writers who acknowledged no sort of commitment to truth.

Plutarch in his life of Alexander seems to have based himself on very diverse sources and his work consequently suffers in point of consistency. Quintus Curtius Rufus, another biographer, writing in the first century AD, presents a garbled account, from which some useful information may nevertheless be derived, as it may also from Diodorus Siculus. But both Curtius and Diodorus relied heavily on Clitarchus, who wrote, it would seem, in the third century BC. Clitarchus’ reputation as a historian stood very low in the ancient world and it is difficult for a modern historian to know how much truth he mingled with his fiction.

The Political Situation at Philips death

Let us examine the situation which Alexander inherited from his father. After the battle of Chaeronea in 338 BC, Philip was in a position to dictate terms, but he was obviously concerned that the peace which followed should appear to be the outcome of negotiation. After a conference at Corinth, he formed a league of Greek states with himself at the head. Most of the important Greek cities belonged to this federal league, the only conspicuous exception being Sparta. Philip then declared war in the name of Greece against Persia, in alleged retaliation for the Persian invasion of Greece at the beginning of the previous century. It was customary for Greek declarations of war to be based ostensibly on some ancient quarrel or injury. Such revivals of past wrongs lent dignity to a cause and imparted to it the air of a crusade. The Peloponnesian War had begun with recriminations of this kind. But quite apart from Philip’s expansionist ambitions, anyone who wished to unite Greece could not fail to identify Persia as an enemy. The Persians still retained control of many Ionian cities and were quite blatantly dedicated to keeping the free Greek states divided against each other by means of bribery and diplomacy.

At the news of Philip’s death, the cities of the Greek League immediately repudiated the federal agreement; but Macedonian garrisons still occupied strategic points in Greece, including the citadels of Thebes and Corinth, and when Alexander, with characteristic speed hastened southwards at the head of an army, resistance collapsed. Alexander acted on this occasion with his customary firmness and the Corinth federal agreement was quietly and firmly re-established. More serious was the military threat from Macedon’s northern tribal neighbours in Thrace and Illyricum. In dealing with them, both the Macedonian war machine and Alexander’s ability to handle it were thoroughly tested, but both emerged from the test with enhanced reputation.

Apart from the menace of external enemies, Alexander had found himself confronted by a more intimate challenge in the heart of Macedon itself. Questions had arisen over succession to the throne during Philip’s lifetime, for the king had set aside Alexander’s mother, Olympias, to marry a new queen, Cleopatra. The mere existence of the resulting uncertainty must have encouraged the ambitions of other royal scions. But despite the resentment which Alexander had felt against his father, he promptly punished Philip’s assassin with death and followed this by executing three possible pretenders to the throne, who might or might not have been accessories to the murder. Olympias, without Alexander’s approval, completed his task by procuring the death of Cleopatra and her infant daughter. Despite the Macedonian patronage of Greek constitutional ideals, politics in Macedon itself were dynastic and disputes were settled by normal dynastic methods.

Meanwhile, preparations for the invasion of the Persian empire had proceeded apace. Philip had already dispatched a force of more than 10,000 men, supported by a fleet, across the Hellespont; the Greek cities of Asia Minor welcomed him as a liberator. The force in question was, indeed, a mere vanguard and at the time of Philip’s death had been awaiting his arrival with the main body. The time was certainly opportune, for the Persian court itself had recently been convulsed by palace intrigue and regicide. Here also was a matter which called for Alexander’s prompt attention.

Alexanders Character

Alexander was only 20 years old at the time of his father’s death. Experience usually comes with age, but it had come to Alexander while he was still extremely young, qualifying him as a soldier, an administrator and a diplomat. At the age of 16, he had acted as regent while his father was absent on an expedition against Byzantium and on his own initiative had led a force against rebellious Thracian tribes, expelled them from their chief city and repeopled it, under the name of Alexandropolis, with various immigrants. At the battle of Chaeronea, he had led Philip’s élite cavalry regiment in its charge against the Theban Sacred Band, winning a reputation for dauntless courage. He had also been sent with other envoys to Athens after the conclusion of peace, conveying to that city the ashes of the Athenian dead.

As a military commander, Alexander showed great resource and a flair for ingenious improvisation. These qualities were demonstrated in the campaign in Thrace which followed his father’s death. On one occasion, the enemy tried to overwhelm his troops by launching a fleet of unharnessed chariots down a steep slope on to their heads. Alexander ordered the Macedonian phalangists to open their ranks and allow the chariots to hurtle through; those who could not evade the danger in this way were to lie down, link shields for protection and let the wheels pass over them. These orders were obeyed and there were no Macedonian casualties.

On his campaigns, Alexander made light of physical obstacles. When the Thessalians barred his march into Greece at Tempe, his pioneer corps cut a military road through the rocky cliffs of Mount Ossa, so that he swiftly outflanked the waiting enemy. He showed similar resourcefulness in his campaign against northern tribesmen, when he made a surprise crossing of the Danube by requisitioning local fishing boats for transport.

Alexander, like Philip and earlier Macedonian kings, was very anxious to appear Greek. The Macedonians were a semi-Greek people and their language was a Greek patois, which had absorbed many barbarous elements, so that it could no longer be understood by Greeks. Noble Macedonians, however, spoke both Greek and Macedonian, worshipped the Olympian gods, and were accepted by the Greek athletic authorities as competitors in the Olympic Games. Alexander’s tutor had been the philosopher Aristotle and the young prince’s enthusiasm for Homer and Greek culture in general was well known. He was not even content with being Greek, but wished to proclaim himself a Greek god, the son of Zeus, who had approached his mother, it was rumoured, in the form of a serpent.

In view of such Philhellenic commitments, it seems astonishing that Alexander should have given offence, after his conquest of Persia, by adopting Persian dress and customs and obliging his Macedonian officers to do the same. His Philhellenism was perhaps a natural enthusiasm, while his orientalism was a matter of policy, aimed at conciliating a conquered empire. Indeed, Alexander’s character was full of contradictions. His indifference to danger and hardship was combined with heavy drinking and outbursts of passionate anger which led him into crimes and atrocities. In a moment of drunken fury, he murdered his old friend and veteran officer, Clitus; for a mere whim, he burnt down the captured city of Persepolis, although such an act went quite contrary to his general policy of conciliation. Having made prisoners the women of Darius’ family, he behaved towards them with a courtesy and chivalry that would have done credit to a knight of medieval legend, but he had been quite merciless to the survivors of Tyre and Gaza – not to mention Thebes. At the distance of over two millennia, we can only notice these inconsistencies, not explain them. As Alexander died at the age of 32, it may be argued that his character scarcely had time to form.

Alexanders Army

It would have been impossible for Alexander to make his far-reaching conquests if he had not been able to foster high morale among the men whom he led. Such morale was very largely the product of his own courage and ability as a leader. Apart from this, the Macedonian army was organized with a view to encouraging esprit de corps. The old citizen hoplite army of the fifth century had gained in this respect from the fact that it represented an exclusive social élite. The mercenary armies of the earlier fourth century had been held together – to the extent that they were held together – by a sense of professional allegiance. Well-trained mercenaries had confidence in each other and valued the opportunity of serving under a gifted commander. Alexander certainly employed mercaneries in his invasion of Asia Minor, and he relied more upon them in his operations farther east. At the same time, for reasons which we have noticed, it was not in the interests of an autocratic ruler to maintain a hoplite corps drawn from the wealthier citizen classes of his own territory. For these reasons if no other, the monarchs of Madecon had to find a new basis for “team-spirit”.

We hear of Foot-companions and Hypaspists – a word which literally translates as “under the shield”. The King’s own mounted Guard led the Companion squadrons; and late writers refer to an infantry detachment of “Silver-shields”. Such terminology is suggestive of élite units, and generally speaking élitism was an important principle in Alexander’s army. Elite bodies characterized Macedonian armies from early to late times. In battle, they constituted spearheads, and a spearhead unit was known as an agema. The word agema in Greece had meant “that which is led” (for this use see Xenophon Lacedaemonian Constitution 11.9), and might denote an entire field army. Among the Macedonians, the significance was rather “that which leads”. The Macedonian agema could be the spearhead of an infantry or cavalry corps. There was an agema of Hypaspists and the Royal Squadron of cavalry (ile) was the agema of the Companions – themselves an élite. In Alexander’s eastern campaigns, after the reorganization of the cavalry into hipparchies (hipparchiai), theagema still persisted as a cavalry spearhead.

The army was also technically diversified and highly sophisticated from a practical point of view. It represented the culmination of the fourth-century tendency to arm light troops more heavily and heavy troops more lightly; yet differences between different fighting arms were sharply preserved, as between instruments appropriate for different tasks. The Companions were armoured heavy cavalry. By contrast, the Thracians and Macedonian scouts (prodromoi) represented lighter cavalry units. Alexander also used archers, slingers and peltasts, and the fighting-men were followed by a large body of technicians and engineers, whose ability was amply demonstrated in the ambitious sieges undertaken.

In some ways, Alexander’s tactical handling of his army may seem stereotyped and to that extent unlikely to secure the advantage of surprise. The main instrument of attack was the Companion heavy cavalry; the attack was made on the flank, while the phalanx barred the enemy’s advance in the centre and the lighter cavalry on the left wing guarded the phalanx itself from being outflanked. However, this general pattern left room for flexibility. The timing of the attack, which could easily convert a defensive into an offensive action, was all-important, and in this respect Alexander’s judgment proved unerring. Furthermore, the phalanx was itself a highly flexible unit, capable of assuming various formations; it could form a square, extend itself into rectangular shape with broadside presented to the enemy, or it could become a solid column, capable of being directed either head-on or inclined at an angle against the enemy battle-line. In addition, it could adopt a wedge or arrow-head formation. Even if the full-length sarissa was 17 feet (5.2m) long, some of the phalangists seem to have been equipped more lightly than others. The positioning and employment of variously equipped troops would have been another factor making for flexibility. Certainly, the sarissa of Alexander’s phalangists was shorter than that of later armies. (Ancient measurements are given in cubits and standard cubits differed locally. This variance may account for much of the modern controversy over measurements in the ancient world.)

The Rebellion of the Greek States

Before penetrating into Asia, it was necessary for Alexander to secure his bases in mainland Greece and the Balkan peninsula and his lines of communication in the Aegean. His campaigns in Thrace and Illyricum had subdued the peoples in those regions and he had, no doubt, hoped for sufficient political sympathy among the Greek states to ensure support for the Macedonian garrisons which Philip had placed in Thebes and other cities after Chaeronea. In this, he must have been disappointed. While he was fighting against Illyrian tribes, a rumour circulated that he had been killed. At Athens, the anti-Macedonian orator Demosthenes produced an eyewitness to Alexander’s death and procured money from Persia to promote Theban revolt. At Thebes, two Macedonian officers were murdered and the Macedonian garrison besieged. It says much for Alexander’s personal prestige, even at this early stage, that the mere rumour of his death was enough to inspire rebellion. As it was, he was provided with a pretext for more stringent action than he had previously taken. He marched swiftly into Greece. Thebes was captured by assault and on the ostensible authority of the Greek League, which Philip had originally formed, the city’s walls and buildings were razed and its surviving citizens sold into slavery. In the massacre which accompanied the capture of the city, the Phocian and Boeotian enemies of Thebes, who had been glad to take sides with Alexander, showed themselves more merciless than the Macedonians. Alexander dealt mildly with Athens, and at Thebes insisted, with marked respect for Greek religion and culture, that the city’s temples and the descendants of the renowned poet Pindar should be spared. Other exemptions were families with Maceonian sympathies and connections. If it was in Alexander’s character to be both magnanimous and ruthless as occasion demanded, this was no less than the functions of a military commander required. Such alternative attitudes are perhaps necessary at any time. Vindictiveness may stiffen resistance, but persistent attempts at conciliation are easily taken for weakness.

In 334 BC, Alexander crossed the Hellespont with 40,000 men and joined the Macedonian force, which had already been posted by his father as a bridgehead in Asia. Mainland Greece was secure. The Peloponnesians had taken no part in the revolt. Thebes no longer existed, and Athens, apart from the fact that it contained many Macedonian sympathizers, was cowed by the example of Thebes. To the Greek cities of Asia Minor, the arrival of Alexander promised liberty, as they understood it, and they awaited him as ready-made allies. His plan was to dispense with elaborate lines of communication and to supply his army from ever-increasing conquered territory. Nevertheless, he could not march eastward leaving substantial enemy forces in his rear; and such forces existed, both in the form of the Persian army that three satraps had assembled on the banks of the Granicus river near the Hellespont, and in the Phoenician naval potential, against which he could muster comparatively few ships. His fleet, although it contained a Macedonian element, was contributed for the most part by the states of the Greek League and numbered about 200 vessels in all. Alexander’s strategy, however, was to destroy the enemy’s navy on land by capturing its bases. This expedient was one which often recommended itself in ancient warfare and it was an obvious stratagem in view of the modest size and simple structure of ancient ships. Fleets would not long remain at a distance from a hospitable coast. They could, moreover, easily be replaced when lost. The Persians had ample money to pay for new ships and crews if they wished to do so, and it was therefore more important to occupy ports and shipyards than to destroy the ships themselves.

The Battle of the Granicus

After marching into Asia, Alexander could not advance southwards until he had disposed of the Persian army which menaced his eastern flank. He therefore led his forces towards the enemy by a route roughly parallel with the southern shore of the Hellespont, sending scouts in front of him. The use of scouts and look-outs had in the past been much neglected by Greek commanders – it could, for example, have spared the Athenians their overwhelming defeat at Aegospotami – but Alexander had been well trained in his father’s army and the Macedonian war machine operated scientifically.

The Persians were numerically almost equal to the invaders, though slightly inferior in infantry strength. The part of their force was made up of Greek mercenaries, who presented a formidable hoplite opposition. These numbered somewhat under 20,000 men. The figure has been suspected of overestimate, but Arrian, who records it, is our most reliable source. The Persian position was well chosen, on the farther bank of a deep river. Parmenio, Alexander’s second-in-command, who had, under Philip’s orders, led the vanguard into Asia, counselled a waiting policy, but Alexander was of a different opinion and decided to attack at once.

Despite the difficulties of the terrain and the obstacle presented by the Granicus river, the tactics of the ensuing battle conformed to type. The phalanx engaged the enemy, while the cavalry launched an attack from the right wing. The resulting fight, which took place in the river and on its banks, assumed the hand-to-hand, body-to-body aspect of an infantry battle. In this fighting, the Macedonian cavalry, armed with long lances, had an advantage over the Persian horsemen with their short javelins. At the same time, the Persians were able to make use of their scimitars at close quarters – to which weapons Alexander himself almost fell a victim.

Arrian’s account of the action reads at one point like an epic narrative, with its emphasis on single combat, centred in the duels between leaders on either side. It was evidently the Persian plan to strike down Alexander himself. His splendid insignia and entourage made him easy to recognize – and it was perhaps remembered how the death of Cyrus at Cunaxa had transformed even a victory into a defeat. Cyrus himself had on that occasion singled out King Artaxerxes for personal attack; selection of the enemy leader as a special target may well have been regular Persian practice.

Alexander’s scouts were the first to approach and enter the river and they must have signalled the best points for crossing. The Granicus, although capable of being forded, was running comparatively deep, as one would expect in springtime. In the deep water, horsemen enjoyed some advantage. The Persians rained missiles from the high banks opposite, but the Macedonian cavalry must have been well protected by their armour. Alexander led his forces obliquely downstream. It must thus have been possible for the head of the column to establish itself at a point where the bank was lower; those following would have been able to face round towards the enemy once the bridgehead was secured.

The Macedonian advance party which first crossed the river suffered severe casualties. But Alexander, with the Companion cavalry, followed hard on their heels. Unlike the Persian kings, he was not surrounded by his bodyguard, but led it. This may be interpreted as a mark of his courage or an instance of his rashness.

As the Macedonian cavalry emerged from the riverbed in ever increasing numbers, they bore down the enemy horsemen opposed to them and the two wings of the Persian army eventually broke and fled. The Greek hoplite mercenaries, who held the centre, remained in position; not, as Arrian ungenerously remarks, through any rational plan of action, but paralysed by the magnitude of the disaster. They were soon clasped against the thorny breast of the phalanx by Alexander’s encircling cavalry on either wing and relentlessly mown down. Hardly any escaped; 2,000 were taken alive and were sent back in chains to Macedon to serve a sentence of hard labour, as traitors to the Greek cause. For Alexander regarded the Macedonians who composed nearly half his army as Greeks; the cities of the Greek League, with some Greek mercenaries recruited by Alexander himself, supplied certainly over one quarter, the rest being recruited from Thracians, Paeonians and other northern peoples. However, a leader for the defeated Greek mercenary force, Memnon of Rhodes, eluded both death and capture and lived to fight another day. He had in any case advised against fighting at the Granicus and had hereby incurred some odium among the Persians.

After the Granicus

The result of the Granicus battle must have reaffirmed the faith placed by the Persian king, Darius III, in Memnon. The Greek mercenary commander’s strategy had been sound. He had wished to avoid a pitched battle, conduct a scorched-earth policy in Asia, fortify maritime and naval bases on the coast and cut Alexander off from the sea. While Memnon himself survived, there were still considerable prospects of putting this plan into effect. However, many coastal cities, as well as the important road junction of Sardis, soon fell to Alexander with little or no resistance. Miletus held out in the hope of relief from a Persian force inland. It also received encouragement from Phoenician and Cyprian ships based on Mycale. But Alexander forestalled both naval and military relief and captured the city. Memnon fell back on Halicarnassus and fortified it strongly. Driven from there, he tried to establish naval bases on the major Aegean islands, not only threatening Alexander’s flank from the sea but providing a springboard for a counter-offensive against Greece and Macedon. Unfortunately for the Persians, Memnon suddenly fell ill and died. Those who inherited his command persisted for some time in the same strategy, but were eventually deterred by quite a small show of naval strength by Antipater, the Macedonian governor whom Alexander had left in charge of mainland Greece.

Alexander had left Parmenio with the main body of the army at Sardis. With his own striking force, he marched round the south-west extremity of Asia Minor and along the southern coast, digressing northward to join Parmenio again at Gordium in the interior. Strategically, the move seems superfluous, but Alexander’s expeditions sometimes wore the aspect of exploration, pilgrimage or even tourism. In any case, he lost no opportunity of acquainting himself with the features of an empire which he already regarded as his own.

Having joined forces with Parmenio, Alexander marched southward again into the Cilician plain and threatened Syria. A Persian force, inadequate to defend the vital mountain pass, fled at his approach, but the main Persian army, under command of Darius himself, was waiting farther south in Syria. At this point, Alexander was suddenly incapacitated by a bout of fever and his advance was checked.

Emboldened by the delay, Darius made a circuitous march and descended, by a northern mountain pass, on the town of Issus, where he brutally put to death the Macedonian sick who had been left there. This manoeuvre placed him at Alexander’s rear. Alexander was surprised but not dismayed at the move, for it had carried the Persian army to a point where the plain was pinched between the mountains and the sea. Here, their superiority in men and missiles could not be deployed to advantage. However, the position in some ways resembled that which the satraps had chosen at the Granicus. Darius’ army was drawn up with a river in front of it; the river was not flowing, since it was late autumn (334 BC). The king’s mercenary hoplites were placed in the centre. His cavalry held the wings, his right wing being more heavily loaded, since the mountains left little room for deployment on the left. He also hoped to break through on the right wing and cut Alexander off from the sea. It must be remembered that after Darius’ encircling march the two armies had exchanged positions.

Much of Alexander’s success seems in general to have been due to good reconnaissance work. Darius had relied on preventing an outflanking move from the Companion cavalry by posting a substantial force on the mountain slopes above. Having ascertained this plan, Alexander provided a light detachment of his own to mean and ward off the threat. He also sent the Thessalian cavalry, under Parmenio, to reinforce his left wing. It was possible for Alexander to make all such changes shortly before battle was joined; his advance was leisurely, and the Persians kept their positions, leaving him the initiative.

The battle conformed to the pattern of many ancient battles. The right wing of the Macedonian army, in encircling the enemy, placed the central phalanx under strain. As the phalangists on the right strove to maintain contact with the cavalry on the wing, they parted company with the phalangists on their left and a dangerous gap appeared, which Darius’ Greek mercenaries were quick to exploit. It then became a question of whether Alexander with his Companions could encircle the mercenaries before the mercenaries could break through the centre and encircle him. Alexander won, ploughing devastatingly into the mercenary flank and rear. In danger of capture, Darius fled precipitately in his war-chariot, and even the Persian forces of the right, who had held back Parmenio’s cavalry, soon followed their king’s example. Darius’ mother, wife and children, who had accompanied the army, were left prisoners in Alexander’s hands.

The Siege of Tyre

Such was the battle of Issus. It would have been understandable if Alexander, possessed of his royal hostages, had determined there and then to march eastward into the heart of the Persian empire, before Darius had time to mobilize fresh forces. However, he adhered to his original plan of securing the Levant coast. The prudence of this strategy is beyond question. While Persian and Cyprian fleets were amenable to Persian control, they remained, despite the death of Memnon, capable of launching a counter-offensive against mainland Greece and Macedonia itself. The bizarre logic of such a move might be that the armed forces on either side would end by occupying each other’s countries.

Alexander continued his march southwards down the Syrian coast. Awed by the result at Issus, Sidon and Byblus surrendered to him without opposition. Tyre, however, while offering to accept his suzerainty, refused him entry into the city precincts. Undaunted by the fact that Tyre was built on an offshore island in a seemingly impregnable position, Alexander at once resolved upon a siege. His small naval force could not hope to match the number of Tyrian ships in the open sea, so he began to construct a causeway from the land. As the causeway was extended into deeper water the task became more difficult; the builders were soon within range of missiles from the city walls and the Tyrian ships. Alexander replied by constructing two towers on the causeway, from which he was able to use siege artillery (sling and crossbow-types) to ward off the attack, at the same time screening his builders. The towers themselves were protected by hides from the sharp, flaming darts of the enemy. However, the Tyrians managed to burn down the towers eventually by launching fireships against them.

Alexander widened his causeway and brought up more siege engines. He was also now able to muster a large fleet; Sidon and Cyprus, overawed by his victorious progress, contributed ships and sailors. The Tyrians were surprised by the size of the naval armament brought against them and refused to fight in the open sea; but they used their own ships to block the island’s northern and southern harbours which faced towards Sidon and Egypt respectively.

The causeway was at last completed and Alexander’s siege engines were turned against the walls of the city. But the Tyrians countered his towers with wooden towers of their own, superimposed upon the city battlements – which were already 150 feet (46m) high. Approach to the walls was in any case made difficult by rocks which had been dumped in the sea at the base of the walls. Alexander ordered these rocks to be hauled away, but the ships detailed for this work were thwarted by armoured Tyrian ships which cut their mooring cables. Alexander set armoured vessels of his own to protect the workers; when Tyrian divers were used to cut the cables, the Macedonians anchored their ships with chains. In the end, they lassoed the rocks and used their catapults to hurl them into deep water where they would present no obstacle to them.

The Tyrian ships now mounted a surprise sally against the Cyprian naval force which guarded the north harbour. Alexander, however, was on the alert and took timely measures. Other ships were sent to seal the harbour entrance, and he, with some hastily manned vessels, sailed round the island to intercept such Tyrian triremes as had broken through. Most he managed to disable, although the crews saved themselves by swimming.

The besiegers now brought up engines on ships to the north wall of the city, but the masonry resisted their efforts. A similar attack from the south, however, was more successful and a breach was made. The first attempt to penetrate by means of gangways failed, but eventually the breach was enlarged and the city was entered. Alexander gained possession of the walls, but the Tyrians made a last desperate stand within the city. This was overcome by Alexander and his Hypaspists and the defenders were massacred. A few pilgrims and visitors from Carthage were spared, but women and children were enslaved.

The Battle of Gaugamela (331 BC)

While Alexander was still besieging Tyre, Darius sent him envoys offering all territory west of the Euphrates, with the sum of 10,000 talents and the hand of his daughter in marriage, in exchange for the restoration of his family and the conclusion of a treaty of friendship and alliance. Alexander rejected the offer on the grounds that the possessions offered were already within his grasp and that he would marry Darius’ daughter, if he chose, with or without Darius’ consent.

Like Tyre, the Phoenician city of Gaza resisted Alexander. It was built on a lofty eminence which seemed to defy siege, but to Alexander obstacles were merely opportunities for demonstrating his invincibility. He was wounded at Gaza, but captured the city, leaving no male adult survivors and enslaving the women and children.

After such a demonstration, the Persian satrap in Egypt thought it prudent not to resist. The Egyptian population, which had only recently been re-subdued by Persia, regarded Alexander as a liberator. He was acknowledged as a Pharaoh, founded a city on the Greek pattern at Alexandria and marched his army across the inhospitable desert to Siwa, where the oracle of Ammon (Zeus to the Greeks) was interpreted as declaring him to be the god’s own son.

In 331 BC, Alexander led his forces back eastward. The coastline had now been secured and his programme of eastern conquest began in all seriousness. He marched up through Syria, crossed both the Euphrates and the Tigris and confronted Darius on the other side of Mesopotamia, in the plain of Gaugamela, near the town of Arbela. This was the scene of his final and decisive battle against Darius.

The Persian king had assembled a host for which its size and picturesque variety was reminiscent of that which Xerxes had led into Greece a century and a half earlier. It contained scythed chariots, elephants, camels and contingents of many nationalities, including Indians, Scythians and Bactrians, with the traditional Persian regiments of “apple-bearers”, so called from the globular gold and silver pommels on their spear butts. Darius’ now depleted ranks of Greek mercenaries, however, required reinforcement by Asiatic infantry and tribal levies.

As usual, Alexander prepared for the battle with painstaking intelligence and reconnaissance work. From the interrogation of prisoners, he ascertained Darius’ entire order of battle. He also led in person a cavalry reconnaissance of the ground on which he meant to fight. It was necessary to make sure that there were no cavalry-traps in the form of pits or spikes. Darius had, in fact, caused the ground to be levelled in preparation for the use of his scythed chariots.

As at Issus, Darius would willingly have left the initiative to Alexander, but in the circumstances this became inexpedient. Alexander led his right-wing cavalry still farther to the right and the more numerous and extensive Persian lien moved correspondingly in the same direction, so that it might continue to outreach him on the flank. Had this drift persisted, both armies would have slid away from the ground which had been levelled for the chariots. Darius therefore ordered his left-wing cavalry to attack. The fighting at this point was at first indecisive, but eventually Alexander prevailed. As for the scythed chariots, they proved a fiasco, as they had done nearly 70 years previously at Cunaxa. The Macedonians opened their ranks and allowed them to pass through, while the light troops bombarded them with missiles, grasped the reins of the horses and dragged down the drivers.

Meanwhile, as Alexander drove the routed Persian left wing before him, the central phalanx found itself unable to follow, especially as the left wing under Parmenio was recoiling before the Persian right. Alexander had foreseen this situation and had posted flanking guards to the phalanx, but as gaps appeared between the main divisions of the army, Persian and Indian troops broke through and attacked the Macedonian baggage train, rescuing Persian prisoners and mowing down the guards. Eventually, the rear formation of the phalanx, which had been placed in reserve, saved the situation and drove the enemy from the baggage.

At this stage, Alexander, summoned by an appeal for help from Parmenio, abandoned his pursuit of the enemy and rode with his Companions across the battlefield to save the left wing of his army. The course of events was complicated when he collided with enemy cavalry in flight from the centre; this delayed the help which he was able to bring to Parmenio. However, Parmenio’s Thessalian cavalry had managed to hold out and the Persians were already beginning to retreat in this sector of the field. Alexander was thus enabled to renew his pursuit of Darius, who had fled when the Persian left wing crumbled. As at Issus, the Great King’s example was followed by his entire army. If a more resolute leader had been in command of the Persian forces, either at Issus or Gaugamela, the results might have been very different.

Farther East

Alexander now took possession of the great capitals of the Persian Empire – Babylon, Susa, Persepolis and Ecbatana – with all their accumulated treasure. Darius became a refugee in the wilder northern provinces, where he was eventually murdered by one of his officers. Alexander was then free to assume the title of King of Persia and, when he captured Darius’ murderer, handed him over to Persian justice for barbarous execution.

The subjugation of the central territories of the Persian Empire was not difficult, but conquest of the eastern provinces involved three years of arduous mountain warfare in the areas now comprised by Khorasan, Russian Turkestan and Afghanistan. But Alexander’s experience qualified him for all types of warfare, and his marriage to Roxana, daughter of a Bactrian tribal chief, perhaps did something to conciliate what was otherwise a hostile population.

During the years which followed Gaugamela, Alexander’s problems became increasingly political rather than military. With the assumption of despotic power, his character revealed itself as despotic and tyrannical. He killed Clitus – the officer who had saved his life at Granicus – in a drunken rage. Philotas, the son of Parmenio, once Alexander’s trusted commander of the Companions, was accused of treason and executed. Fear of reprisal then led Alexander to procure the murder of Parmenio.

Alexander realized that he could not hold the Persian empire without conciliating its inhabitants; he progressively adopted Persian manners and dress and required his officers to do the same. But by these conciliatory gestures to the Asiatics, he alienated the Macedonians and the Greeks, who grew indignant and rebellious. However, the prestige of a triumphant war-leader will carry any political ruler a long way. It carried Alexander on another march eastward into India. Perhaps he felt that a career of continued military conquest was essential to his political power. On the banks of the Hydaspes (Jhelum river), he defeated the Indian king Porus.

Elephants figure conspicuously in the accounts of Alexander’s Indian warfare; in the battle of the Hydaspes, where they seriously disrupted the Macedonian phalanx, they presented Alexander’s men with a new challenge. Although Darius had assembled elephants at Gaugamela, they had not played any conspicuous part in the fighting there. Apart from their novelty, the Indian elephants did not constitute a very serious menace. The animals’ drivers were vulnerable to missiles and, deprived of their drivers, frightened and uncontrolled, elephants were as dangerous to their own side as to the enemy, trampling underfoot whatever stood in their way. At the same time, their fighting value cannot have been negligible, since they were widely adopted by both Greek and Macedonian armies during the succeeding century. After the battle of the Hydaspes, Alexander captured a number of them. He accepted others as gifts from Indian princes and welcomed their presence in the armies of Indian forces allied to his cause.

Alexanders Return

Having traversed the Punjab, Alexander wished to march across the desert to the Ganges. But here his army rebelled; even the magnetism of his personality could not persuade them to follow him further. He had intended to reach the Ocean which, according to Greek geographical theory, embraced the circumference of the world’s land mass. This, he hoped, would enable him to open a sea route to India; with a sea voyage in view, he had brought Greek shipwrights with him on his long march. He now consoled himself with the prospect of a return journey by sea. Building a fleet, he sailed for hundreds of miles down the Indus to its mouth. Long before this was reached, his officer Craterus with the main body of the army, which had marched alongside the ships on the river, was sent back towards Persia by an inland route. Nearchus, Alexander’s admiral, commanded the fleet on its hazardous voyage along the coasts of the Indian Ocean and the Persian Gulf. Alexander himself marched meanwhile with his army on land across the Gedrosian desert, with the intention of creating bases and assembling provisions for the fleet. In this march, the army suffered horribly from every kind of privation and hardship and many died in the wilderness. Alexander rejoined his fleet on the Carmanian coast (near Hormuz), but gave orders to Nearchus to continue the voyage as far as the mouth of the Tigris, at the head of the Persian Gulf.

On his return to Persia, Alexander dealt severely with cases of corruption and conspiracy that had occurred during his absence. Subsequently, he gave time to public works and the suppression of brigandage. He then began preparing a new voyage of discovery, planning to bring a fleet down the Euphrates and sail round Arabia as a preliminary to conquest of that territory. His attempts to fuse his Macedonian followers with the Persian population continued apace. Already, before setting out for the eastward frontiers of empire, he had done much to secure military fusion, training Persians in Macedonian methods of fighting. There were now units of Persian Companions and Persian “Silver-shields”. This policy remained a source of grievance with the mouth of the Tigris, Alexander’s veterans, fearing to be made redundant, came near to mutiny. However, he succeeded in reassuring them and emotional scenes of reconciliation followed.

Apart from his Arabian designs, Alexander had apparently not forgotten his plan to navigate the Ocean. By this route, he hoped that he might sail round the inhabited world, as it was then conceived, conquer the territories dominated by Carthage and curb the growing power of Rome. It is not beyond possibility that if he had lived he would, in pursuit of this aim, have taken a fleet round Africa. As it was, the western nations felt that he was a political and military force which they could no longer afford to ignore. Near Babylon in 324 BC, Alexander was approached by conciliatory envoys from Libya, Carthage, Spain and Gaul: representatives of remote people, whose very names were in some instances unknown to the Macedonians.

Alexander’s death, after a short, sudden illness, at Babylon, his chosen capital, in 323 BC, took the whole world by surprise. In addition to Roxana, he had married Statira, Darius’ daughter; and Barsinè, Memnon’s widow, had been his cherished mistress. Arrian, on the authority of Aristobulus, mentions also another Persian wife1. The Macedonians, unlike the Greeks, do not seem always to have observed a monogamous tradition. Roxana bore Alexander a posthumous son, but the prospects of infants and children in such circumstances were negligible. Alexander had never nominated, let alone prepared, anyone to inherit his authority. Had he lived, however, he would predictably have been an absentee emperor and his regents would no doubt have fought each other as his successors did.


1 There is some confusion in ancient accounts as to the number of Alexander’s wives and mistresses.

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