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Three Great Battles of Alexander the Great

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201.117 Assignment 1

3.) Discuss three major battles of Alexander the Great with reference to the sources supplied and in their wider and political and military context. To what factors would you attribute his success?


A military commander's success on the battlefield is not always solely determined by his (or her) own brilliance. Victory is often due to his opponent's circumstances, both in the military and strategic context, not to mention the political situation, and even cultural factors. This was certainly true in the case of the young King Alexander III of Macedonia (better known as Alexander the Great). In the fourth century BC he crushed the Persian Empire in three decisive engagements, these being the battles of the Granicus, the Issus, and Gaugamela. He did this not just by his own genius, but was also assisted by his opponent, King Darius III, and his mistakes, not to mention the state of the empire he ruled.

In evaluating the reasons for Alexander's success, one must first compare the state of the opposing armies. Alexander was fortunate in that he inherited a very powerful war machine from his father, Phillip II. Among other things, Phillip was responsible for the combination of the phalanx with cavalry and light infantry. This innovation allowed the phalanx to be protected the cavalry and infantry from flanking attacks, as well as making similar movements of their own.1 (A variation of such a formation was used in at the Granicus, for example, where a double phalanx was flanked by cavalry, with light troops in front.) Apart from this, the army was very well organized (the command structure was more decentralized than the Persian army), well versed in tactics (especially the wedge formation used so decisively at Gaugamela), and well funded, thanks to Phillip's conquests of neighbouring Greek states.


This was a marked contrast to the Persian Army, a vast conglomeration of nationalities, never welded into a single well-organized unit. Even the better troops,

Greek mercenaries and Persian cavalry, found themselves under the command of relatively incompetent satraps (regional governors).2 Many of the native levies only equipment were ordinary hunting weapons. The Greek writer Xenophon was very scathing of the Persian military machine, not to mention the overall state of the empire. 3 In his opinion, riddled with corruption, militarily weak, and over-extended, the empire was ripe for invasion.

One of the fundamental weaknesses of the Persian Empire, was that its power was not dependent on any advanced military technique. It had no ancient equivalent of the atomic bomb or overwhelming air power. Persian military might rested on the chariot, a form of fighting that even in Alexander's day was over a thousand years old. When pitted against an enemy with revolutionary military means at his disposal (such as Alexander), the result was inevitable.4

This was demonstrated all too convincingly at Gaugamela. When the two hundred scythed chariots charged Alexander's lines (on ground that Darius had levelled in advance), the Macedonians simply opened their ranks and allowed them to pass through, where troops in the rear brought the drivers and horses down. Some historians present a more gruesome picture of the effect of the chariot's scythes, but whatever the truth, they were certainly not decisive.5


What is even more remarkable is that what happened to the chariots at Gaugamela happened nearly seventy years earlier to another Persian army at Cunaxa. Evidently

Darius did not take this into account, which illustrates his deficiency as a military leader.

A key element of Alexander's brilliance was his ability to anticipate his opponent's strategy.6 At the Granicus, he could see the Persians were not capable of meeting his troops because of their numbers, equipment and position. Therefore he used his superior mobility to draw the enemy down into the riverbed where they would be vulnerable to his better-armed and trained forces. Likewise at the Issus a year later, he anticipated Darius' tactic in deploying his cavalry to the Macedonian right; and so he created mobile flank guards and lured on the Persian center and right until a gap appeared. 7

Combined with this ability to anticipate was a talent for devising expedients to meet new situations, even in the heat of battle.8 At Gaugamela, despite his exposed flanks and fewer numbers, Alexander was skillfully able to engage both Darius' left and right flanks, leading to a thinning of the Persian lines, especially in the center. This created the opportunity for the Macedonian wedge to surge forward, creating a break in the center, and effectively sealing the battle in their favour.


Clever Strategy on Alexander's part between the two-year period between Issus and Gaugamela also assisted in his victory in the latter climatic battle. Rather than continue deeper into Persian territory after his victory at Issus, he turned westwards

Instead, towards the Levant Coast. Although he may have defeated Darius in battle, the Persian navy was still capable of launching an attack on mainland Greece and Macedonia. Alexander's success in this campaign not only secured his rear flank, it also meant Darius would now have to meet his (militarily superior) rival in battle, if he was to eject him from his empire.

Alexander was also fortunate in that these battles were fought on the periphery of the Persian Empire, and in open country.9 Had Darius had the insight to lure his opponent further into his own vast territory he might have been able to halt the Macedonian invasion. At the very least he could have slowed the advance, which Alexander experienced when he encountered guerilla style warfare against the Bactrian Spitamenes a few years later.

The quality of Persian leadership, or perhaps the lack of it, also assisted Alexander in these battles and his eventual conquest of the Persian Empire. At the battle of the Granicus for example, Alexander himself dispatched the Persian leaders Mithridates and Rhosaces, while his friend Cleitus the Black (ironically killed later by Alexander in a drunken rage) killed Spithridates, who was about to deliver the coup-de-grace on a stunned Alexander.10(It is interesting to speculate how history may have changed had Alexander had died that day.) The sudden loss of these division


commanders is generally considered



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