Young Macedonian in the Army of Alexander the Great - Alfred J. Church


"These Persians must be either very much frightened or very bold, if they have nothing to say to us at such a place as this."

Such in substance was what every one in the Macedonian army was saying or thinking as they struggled through the dangerous and difficult ford of the Tigris. It was indeed a crossing which even a few resolute men posted on the opposite shore would have made disastrous, if not impossible, to the advancing army. The stream was at its lowest—the time was about two-thirds through the month of September—but the rapid current fully justified the name of the "Arrow," for such is the meaning of the word Tigris. The cavalry, keeping as steady a line as they could across the upper part of the ford, did their best to break the force of the stream, but did not save the infantry from a vast amount of labour and some loss. In their lances and armour, not to speak of other accoutrements, the men had to carry an enormous weight; they trod on a river-bed of shifting stones, and the water was nearly up to their necks. If a man stumbled it was very difficult for him to recover his footing, and it was only the exceptionally strong who could do anything to help a comrade in difficulties. It was already dark when the last lines painfully struggled up the slippery bank on the eastern side of the river. The depression of spirits caused by fatigue and discomfort were aggravated by the portent of an eclipse. The soldiers saw with dismay the brilliant moon, for whose help in arranging their bivouac they had been so thankful, swallowed up, as it seemed, by an advancing darkness, and they drew the gloomiest omens from the sight. But Alexander was equal to the occasion. A disciple of Aristotle, the greatest natural philosopher of the ancient world, he knew the cause of the phenomenon, but as a practical man, whose business it was to understand the natures with which he had to deal, he knew also that a scientific explanation of that cause would be useless. Aristander the soothsayer was directed to reassure the terrified multitude with something more adapted to their wants; and he did not fail to produce it. "The moon," he said, "was the special patron of Persia, as the sun is of Greece. It is to the Persian now as more than once before that the eclipsed moon portends defeat." This reassuring explanation was eagerly listened to, and when, after the sacrifices of the next day, sacrifices with which Alexander impartially honoured sun, moon, and earth, Aristander confidently declared that the appearance of the victims indicated certain, speedy, and complete victory, he was readily believed. "Before the new moon shall be visible," he boldly predicted, "the kingdom of Persia shall have fallen."

That the final struggle was at hand was soon put beyond a doubt. Towards the close of the sixth day after the passage of the Tigris—two days out of the six had been allowed for repose some Persian troopers were espied in the distance. The king himself at once started in pursuit, taking the best mounted squadron of his cavalry with him. Most of the enemy escaped, but some were taken, perhaps allowed themselves to be taken, for Darius's disastrous cowardice at Issus had weakened his hold on the fidelity of his subjects. From these men Alexander learnt all that he wanted to know. Darius had collected a host far larger even than that which had fought at Issus. The contingents of which it was composed came indeed chiefly from the remoter east. Western Asia had passed out of the Great King's power and was added to the resources of the invader; but the eastern provinces from the Caspian to the Persian Gulf and even to the Indus were still faithful to him. The town of Arbela had been named as the rendezvous  of the army, and there the magazines and baggage had been located; but the place chosen as the battle-field, where Darius would meet his enemy on ground selected by himself, was Gaugamela, a village some ten miles east of Nineveh, and situated on a wide and treeless plain, on which the Persian engineers had levelled even such slopes as there were. At Issus they had fought in a defile where their vastly superior numbers could not be utilized; on the vast level of the Babylonian plains every man, horse, and chariot could be brought into action.

Alexander saw that he must fight the enemy on their own ground, and took his measures accordingly. Daring as he was—he knew that he had to deal with Asiatics—he threw away no chance, and neglected no precaution. On hearing what the prisoners had to say about the force and position of the enemy, he called a halt, and ordered the construction of an entrenched camp. Here the soldiers had four days' repose. After sunset on the fourth day he gave the signal to advance. His intention was to attack the enemy at daybreak, but the ground over which he had to pass presented so many difficulties that when the day dawned he was still three miles distant from the hostile lines.

The sight of them made him hesitate and reconsider his plans. Though he did not doubt of victory, he saw that victory was not to be won by a haphazard attack. And indeed it was a formidable array that stretched itself before him, as far as the eye could reach, or at least as far as the eye could distinguish anything with clearness. On the extreme right were the Syrians, the Medes, once the ruling people of Western Asia and still mindful of their old renown, the Parthian cavalry, and the sturdy mountaineers of the Caucasus; on the opposite wing were the Bactrians, hill men for the most part, and famous for fierceness and activity, and the native Persians, horse and foot in alternate formation. But it was in the centre of the line, round the person of Darius, where he stood conspicuous on his royal chariot, that the choicest troops of the empire were congregated. Here were ranged the Persian Horse-guards, a force levied from the noblest families of the dominant people, and distinguished by the proud title of the "Kinsmen of the King;" and the Foot-guards, also a corps d'élite, who carried golden apples at the butt end of their pikes. Next to these stood the Carians, men of a race which had shown itself more apt than any other Asiatic tribe to learn Greek discipline and rival Greek valour; and next to these again, the Greek mercenaries themselves.

In front of the line were the scythed chariots, numbering two hundred in all, each with its sharp-pointed sides projecting far beyond the horses, and its sword-blades and scythes stretching from the yoke and from the naves of the wheels. Behind the line, again, was a huge mixed multitude, drawn from every tribe that owned the Great King's sway.

So formidable was the host, and so strong its position that Alexander halted to take counsel with his generals how the attack might be most advantageously delivered. A new entrenched camp was constructed, and the rest of the day was spent in carefully reconnoitring the enemy's forces. Some of the most experienced officers—Parmenio among them—suggested a night attack. Alexander rejected the proposal with scorn. Raising his voice that he might be heard by the soldiers, who were crowding round the tent where the council was held, he cried, "This might suit thieves and robbers, but it does not suit me. I will not tarnish my fame by such stratagems, for I prefer defeat with honour to a victory so won. Besides I know that such an attack would fail. The barbarians keep a regular watch; and they have their men under arms. It is we, not they, who would be thrown into confusion. I am for open war."

And this, of course, was the last word.

The next morning the Macedonian king drew out his order of battle. As usual he put himself at the head of the right wing. This was made up of the Companion Cavalry, under the immediate command of Philotas, son of Parmenio, with next to them the light infantry, and three of the six divisions of the Phalanx. The three other divisions, with a strong body of cavalry from the allied Greek states, formed the left wing, commanded as usual by Parmenio.

But behind the first line of the army stood another in reserve. Frequent reinforcements had not only enabled the king to supply all losses, but had also largely increased his numbers. The thirty thousand infantry which had been brought into action at the Granicus had now grown to forty thousand, the four thousand five hundred cavalry to seven thousand. It was thus easier to have a reserve, while the nature of the battle-field made it more necessary, for attacks on the flanks and rear of the main line might probably have to be repelled. This second line consisted of the light cavalry, the Macedonian archers, contingents from some of the half-barbarian tribes which bordered on Macedonia, some veteran Greek mercenaries, and other miscellaneous troops. Some Thracian infantry were detached to guard the camp and the baggage.

The Persians, with their vastly superior numbers, were of course extended far beyond the Macedonian line. Left to make the attack, they might have easily turned the flanks and even the rear of their opponents. Alexander seeing this, and following the tactics which had twice proved so successful, assumed the offensive. He put himself at the head of the Companion Cavalry on the extreme right of his army, and led them forward in person, still keeping more and more to the right, and thus threatening the enemy with the very movement which he had himself reason to dread. He thus not only avoided the iron spikes which, as a deserter had warned him, had been set to injure the Macedonian cavalry, but almost got beyond the ground which the Persians had caused to be levelled for the operations of their chariots. Fearful at once of being outflanked and of finding his chariots made useless, Darius launched some Bactrian and Scythian cavalry against the advancing enemy. Alexander, on his part, detached some cavalry of his own to charge the Bactrians and the action began.

The Bactrians commenced with a success, driving in the Greek horsemen. These fell back on their supports, and advancing again in increased force threw the Bactrians into confusion. Squadron after squadron joined the fray till a considerable part of the Macedonian right wing and of the Persian left were engaged. The Persians were beginning to give way, when Darius saw, as he thought, the time for bringing his scythed chariots into action, and gave the word for them to charge, and for his main line to advance behind them. The charge was made, but failed, almost entirely, of its effect. The Macedonian archers and javelin throwers wounded many of the horses; some agile skirmishers even contrived to seize the reins, and pull down the drivers from their places. Other chariots got as far as the Macedonian line, but recoiled from the pikes; and the few whose drivers were lucky enough or bold enough to break their way through all the hindrances were allowed to pass between the Macedonian lines, without being able to inflict any damage. As a whole, the charge failed.

Then Alexander delivered his counter attack. He ceased his movement to the right. Then, wheeling half round, his Companion Cavalry dashed into the Persian line at the spot where the Bactrians, by their advance, had broken its order. At the same time, his own main line raised the battle cry, and moved forward. Once within the enemy's ranks he pushed straight for the point where, as he knew, the battle would be decided, the chariot of the king. The first defence of that all-important position was the Persian cavalry. Better at skirmishing than at hand-to-hand fighting, it broke before his onslaught. Still there remained troops to be reckoned with who might have made the fortune of the day doubtful, the flower of the Persian foot and the veteran Greeks. For a short time these men stood their ground; they might have stood it longer, but for the same disastrous cause that had brought about the defeat of Issus, the cowardice of King Darius. He had been dismayed to see his chariots fail, and his cavalry broken by the charge of the Companions, and he lost heart altogether when the dreaded Phalanx itself with its bristling array of pikes seemed to be forcing his infantry apart, and coming nearer to himself. He turned his chariot and fled; the first, when he should have been the last, to leave his post.

The flight of the king was the signal for a general rout, as far, at least, as the left wing and centre of the Persian host were concerned. It was no longer a battle; it was a massacre. Alexander pressed furiously on, eager to capture the fugitive Darius. But the very completeness of his victory, it may be said, hindered him. So headlong was the flight that the dust, which, after months of burning summer heat, lay thick upon the plain, rose like the smoke of some vast conflagration. The darkness was as the darkness of night. Nothing could be heard but cries of fury or despair, the jingling of the chariot reins, and the sound of the whips which the terrified charioteers plied with all their might.

Nor, indeed, was Alexander permitted to continue the pursuit as long as he could have wished. Though the precipitate flight of Darius had brought the conflict on the Persian left to a speedy end, the right had fought with better fortune. MazŠus, who was, perhaps, the ablest of the Persian generals, was in command, and knew how to employ his superiority of numbers. While the sturdy Median infantry engaged Parmenio's front line, MazŠus put himself at the head of the Parthian horse and charged his flank. Parmenio was so hard pressed that he sent an orderly to the king with an urgent demand for help. Alexander was greatly vexed at receiving it, feeling that any chance that remained of capturing the person of Darius, a most important matter in his eyes, was now hopelessly lost. But he knew his business as a general too well—being as cautious when the occasion demanded as he was bold when boldness was expedient—to neglect the demand of so experienced an officer as Parmenio. He at once called back his troops from the pursuit, and led them to the relief of the left wing. Parmenio had sent the same message to the left division of the phalanx, which, though under his command, had actually taken part in the advance made by the right division. These, too, prepared to come to his assistance.

Before, however, the help thus demanded could be given, the need for it had almost ceased to exist. On the one hand, the Thessalian cavalry had proved themselves worthy of their old reputation as the best horsemen in Greece. Held during the earlier part of the engagement in reserve, they had made a brilliant charge on the Parthians, and more than restored the fortune of the day. And then, on the other hand, MazŠus and his men had felt the same infection of fear which the flight of Darius had communicated to the rest of the army. The conspicuous figure which was the centre of all their hopes had disappeared, and they had nothing to fight for. Parmenio felt the vigour of the enemy's attack languish, though he did not know the cause, and he had had the satisfaction of recovering and more than recovering his ground before any reinforcements reached him.

[Illustration] from Young Macedonian by Alfred J. Church


Strangely enough it was in the very last hour of the battle, when nothing could have changed the issue of the fight, that the fiercest conflict of the whole day occurred. The cavalry, mainly Parthian, as has been said, but with some squadrons of Indian and Persian horse among them, which had won a partial victory over Parmenio's division, encountered in their retreat across the field of battle, Alexander himself and the Companions. Their only hope of escape was to cut their way through the advancing force. It was no time for the usual cavalry tactics. Every man was fighting for his life, and he fought with a fury that made him a match even for Macedonian discipline and valour. And they had among them also some of the most expert swordsmen in the world. Anyhow, the Companions suffered more severely than they did in any other engagement of the war. As many as sixty were slain in the course of a few minutes; three of the principal officers, Hephaestion being one of them, were wounded; and Alexander himself was more than once in serious danger. It is not easy to say what might have been the result if the chief thought of the Persians had not been to cut their way through and save themselves. Those who succeeded in doing this did not think of turning to renew the fight, but galloped off as hard as they could.

Yet another success was achieved by the Persians in the extreme rear of the Macedonian army. The wheeling movement of the left companies of the phalanx to help Parmenio had left a gap in the line. A brigade of Indian and Persian horse plunged through this gap, and attacked the camp. The Thracians who had been left to guard it were probably not very reliable troops, and they were hampered by the number of prisoners over whom they had to keep watch. Many of these prisoners contrived to free themselves. The chief object of the attack was to liberate the mother of Darius (the king's wife had died a few weeks before, worn out with grief and fatigue). This object might have been attained but for the unwillingness of the lady herself. Whether she was afraid to trust herself to her deliverers, or despaired of making her escape, or was unwilling to leave Alexander, it is certain that she refused to go. Meanwhile, some troops from the second line had come to the rescue of the camp, and the assailants had to save themselves as best they could.

Alexander, his fierce struggle with the retreating cavalry over, was free to renew his pursuit of Darius. The Persian king had reached the Lycus, a river about ten miles from the battle-field. His attendants strongly urged him to have the bridge which spanned the stream broken down, and so delay the conqueror's pursuit. But, though his courage had failed him at the near sight of the Macedonian spears, he was not altogether base. He thought of the multitudes whom the breaking of the bridge would doom to certain death, and determined to leave it standing. It was dark before Alexander reached the river, and the cavalry was by that time so wearied that a few hours' rest was a necessity. Accordingly he called a halt, and it was not till midnight that he resumed the pursuit. Even then many had to be left behind, their horses being wholly unfit for service. With the rest the king pushed on to Arbela, where he thought it possible that he might capture Darius. In this he was disappointed. Darius had halted in the town only so long as to change his chariot for a horse. The chariot with the royal robe and bow fell into Alexander's hands, but Darius himself, safe, at least for the present, was on his way to the Median Highlands.