Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Alexander’s Persian Campaign (334–330 B.C.E.)

Alexander’s Persian Campaign
(334–330 B.C.E.)


PRINCIPAL THEATER(S): Eastern Mediterranean and
Asia Minor


MAJOR ISSUES AND OBJECTIVES: After consolidating the
Greek mainland, Alexander the Great launched an
invasion of Persia to recapture Greek cities lost in
past wars.

OUTCOME: Early victories against Persian emperor Darius
III led Alexander to set as his goal the conquest of the
entire Persian Empire; by the time of Darius’s assassination,
Alexander had taken control of roughly half the empire’s
dominions and styled himself the new “King of Kings,”
that is, the new emperor.

300,000-plus Persians; initially 35,000 Macedonians

CASUALTIES: At the Battle of Issus Alexander lost 450, the
Persians approximately 50,000; at Arbolla Alexander lost
500, the Persians, again, some 50,000.


Alexander the Great (356–323 B.C.E.) succeeded to the
Macedonian throne in 336 B.C.E. after liquidating many of
his rivals and consolidating his political power (see
of his father’s assassination. Once he had the rebellious
Greeks under his control, he immediately turned to the
Asian crusade that his father, Philip II (382–336 B.C.E.),
had been planning almost from the moment Macedonia
became the ruling house of the Hellenes.
The idea for an Asian campaign went back at least to
the rhetorician Isocrates (436–338 B.C.E.), Plato’s great
philosophical rival, who had argued that not only should
the Greek cities quit quarrelling among themselves and
unite under a strong leader, but that they should also turn
their combined energies to recapturing Greek cities lost in
war to the Persians. Philip had recognized the value of
such an expedition, and Alexander, as his son and a pupil
of Aristotle, was just as keen on the advantages: punishing
the Persians—as was his father’s wish—for the GRECOPERSIAN
WARS from 500 to 448 B.C.E. and the Corinthian
SOCIAL WAR OF 357 to 355 B.C.E. and uniting Greece
against a common enemy, not to mention replenishing
Macedonia’s bare coffers.
Thus, in the spring of 334 Alexander began the military
expeditions that would occupy the rest of his life. Determined
to liberate the Greek cities in Asia, he marched out
of Pella with 30,000 foot soldiers and 5,000 cavalry,
a tiny force with which to assail a continent, but the
supremely confident Alexander put his faith in speed and
daring. At the Hellespont he left the crossing to his generals
26 Alexander’s Occupation of Egypt
while he steered a course for Troy, there to place a wreath
on the grave of Achilles and to take away an ancient Homeric
shield, which he bore as a talisman of his prowess.
At the first true battle, in 334 B.C.E., he threw his cavalry
against a Persian force equal to his own at the river
Granicus, and the momentum of the charge carried the
day. Alexander led the charge, and in the hand-to-hand
combat that followed an enemy spear clanged against his
breastplate and a battle-ax split his plumed helmet. However,
he never suffered a cut, and the Persians fled, terrified
by the sheer fury of the Macedonians. Alexander
marched down the Ionian coast, becoming the liberator
for whom its Greek-speaking population had prayed. City
after city threw open its gates. Several, heavily garrisoned
by the Persians, required more force. Miletus, a major Persian
naval base, fell after a surprise attack and siege in 334
B.C.E.; Halicarnassus, an important port, also surrendered
after a brief siege in 334 B.C.E.
As Alexander pushed east into Asia Minor, the Persian
defenders of the narrow pass at the Tarsus Mountains fled
at the news of his approach. Alexander followed them out
onto the Mediterranean coastal plain above Syria. The Persian
emperor, Darius III (d. 330 B.C.E.)—at last aware
there was a new threat coming from the west—had mobilized
an army of perhaps as many as 300,000, including a
number of Greek mercenaries, to check the 35,000 Macedonian
At the Battle of Issus (333 B.C.E.) the Persians encountered
a disciplined army that this time relied on superior
tactics instead of the speed and boldness Alexander had
employed at Granicus. Led by Darius himself, the Persians
anchored their defense between the mountains and the
sea, a cramped position that left little room for Darius to
maneuver his superior numbers. In contrast, Alexander
deployed his army to maximum effect, its flanks covered
by his quick-moving cavalry and its center secured by its
strong Greek phalanxes. As the armies engaged, Alexander
spied a weak spot in Darius’s line and lanced through
it. Watching the battle from the rear in an ornate chariot,
Darius saw his line waver, fall back, and then disintegrate.
With growing horror the Persian tyrant spied the Macedonian
warrior-king astride his legendary horse, Bucephalus,
galloping straight for him. Darius fled the field.
Alexander marched south down the coast, taking one
Persian stronghold after another. For seven months he
besieged the massively fortified city of Tyre, located on an
island just offshore (see TYRE, SIEGE OF), finally storming
the citadel in July 332. He occupied Palestine and Phoenicia
(see ALEXANDER’S SIEGE OF GAZA), before turning
toward Egypt, which he subdued between 332 and 331.
There, he was declared a son of Amon, the Egyptians’
supreme deity. He founded Alexandria (according to legend
at a site based on a description from Homer) but did
not linger in Egypt (see ALEXANDER’S OCCUPATION OF
EGYPT). Returning to Tyre in 331, he then followed the arc
of the fertile triangle eastward into Mesopotamia. Darius
had seen enough and sent an envoy to sue for peace, offering
his daughter in marriage, 10,000 gold talents, and a
third of his empire. Alexander, whose ambition had grown
mightily since crossing the Hellespont, refused. His goal
now was nothing less than the conquest of the entire Persian
Empire, with its marvelous vistas of new lands, new
cultures, and new riches.
Preparing to meet the Macedonian firebrand at a point
east of the Tigris in 331 B.C.E., Darius once more mobilized
a massive army, outnumbering Alexander’s army perhaps
five to one, though the Macedonian had swelled his own
army with newly hired mercenaries. This time Darius
chose his battle site more carefully. The plain at Gaugamela
offered enough open ground to give full range to his
greater numbers, and Darius improved the field by plowing
it flat. He planned not only to avoid the bottleneck he had
suffered at Issus but to use 50 highly mobile chariots specially
designed with scythe blades attached to their wheels
to grind up and scatter the Greek phalanx. When Alexander
arrived at the site his generals urged a surprise night
attack to improve the odds. But their commander refused
to “steal” a victory and retired to his tent for the night,
there to plan a special assault that relied on the superior
speed and discipline of his own men while also taking into
account what he had come to learn about Darius’s temperament.
As the battle commenced on the following morning,
Alexander deployed his cavalry obliquely to the right in
an effort to throw the enemy line off balance. The maneuver
worked: Taken in by the ruse, Darius ordered his
troops to follow. Many soon found themselves stumbling
about in the rough terrain just beyond Darius’s carefully
prepared battlefield. Meanwhile, Darius had ordered his
chariots forward against the Macedonian phalanxes
advancing in the center. Suddenly, however, the flood of
the Greek advance parted. The scythed chariots shot
through the opening ranks of the phalanxes, thundering
harmlessly to the Greek rear, where Alexander’s waiting
cavalry dealt with them. As the Greek historian Plutarch
(46–after 119) described it, scarcely a Macedonian was
killed or injured. Instead, Alexander, waiting for the
moment he knew would come, charged through the Persian
line when it momentarily thinned. Once again
Alexander led the charge; once again he aimed directly for
Darius’s imperial chariot; once again Darius’s nerve failed
him; and—as at Issus—he turned tail and ran.
The utterly humiliated Darius retreated to Medina,
his empire crumbling behind him, as Alexander drove
forward from one Persian city to the next, meeting at best
only scattered resistance. Babylon not only threw open its
golden gates to him in 331, but staged a month-long festival
in honor of the conqueror. Susa quickly capitulated
the same year. When a local satrap attempted to hold his
ground near Persepolis, Alexander not only overran the
Persian troops but allowed his own soldiers a rare bout of
pillaging. When Alexander captured Persepolis in 330
B.C.E. he took possession of the main treasury of the Persian
Empire as well as its spiritual heart, the ceremonial
seat where vassal lords assembled annually to pay tribute
to the Basileus, the King of Kings. As he had with Troy at
the Hellespont, Alexander paid tribute to Persia’s great
warrior tradition by visiting the tomb of Cyrus the Great
(590/580–c. 529), founder of the empire, at Pasargade.
As Alexander remained some months in Persepolis,
resting his troops and attending to state business, he began
showing signs of Persian influence in his dress and leadership.
His growing “orientalism” disturbed his troops, used
to a close camaraderie with their commander and already
upset with the mercenaries Alexander had hired, who the
Macedonians felt were diluting the army’s character.
Alexander, on the other hand, was trying to put on the
mantle of a great ruler of a world empire. By now he had
been in Asia Minor for some four years, and at 26 he had
conquered roughly half the Persian Empire. It would take
him eight years to subdue the vast eastern expanses that
ASIA. For now he concentrated on running Darius to
ground, nearly capturing him by the Caspian Sea. But
when Darius was murdered in 330 by Bessus, a rebellious
Persian satrap and cousin of Darius, Alexander
draped Darius’s corpse with his own robe and ordered a
royal funeral. A year later he would capture Bessus and
crucify him. Meanwhile—much to the chagrin of his fellow
Greeks—Alexander had himself declared King of
Kings before going to winter quarters near the Hindu

Further reading: Flavius Arrianus, The Campaigns of
Alexander (New York: Viking, 1976); Peter Green, Alexander
of Macedon, 356–323 B.C.E.: A Historical Biography
(Berkeley: University of California Press, 1992); Peter
Green, The Greco-Persian Wars (Berkeley: University of
California Press, 1998).

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