Ariobarzanes

ALEXANDER the Great : Battle of the Persian Gate.

A Persian commander in the army of Darius III (r. 336–330 BCE), the last Achaemenid king. Ariobarzanes was present at the Battle of Gaugamela (Arbela), which was fought between Darius III and Alexander the Macedon in present-day northern Iraq in October 331 BCE. As the governor (satrap) of Parsa (Persis) in present-day southern Iran, Ariobarzanes fought Alexander in January 330 BCE in the Battle of the Persian Gates in a last-ditch effort to prevent the invading Macedonians from reaching the Achaemenid ceremonial capital of Persepolis.

In the Battle of Gaugamela, Ariobarzanes served as the co-commander of a unit of Persian, Mardian, and Sogdian forces, sharing this command with Oronotobates (Quintus Curtius Rufus: 4.12.7). The “supreme command” of the unit “rested with Orsines,” who was descended from one of the Persian officers who had supported Darius I when he seized the Persian throne in 522 BCE and “also traced his line back to the renowned King Cyrus” (Quintus Curtius Rufus: 4.12.8). According to Arrian, in the Battle of Gaugamela, Ariobarzanes and Oronotobates were commanders of the “contingents from the neighborhood of the Persian Gulf” (Arrian: 3.8.5). After he was defeated, Darius III fled to Hagmatana/Ecbatana (modern-day Hamedan) accompanied by a group of his generals. With their king in flight and in the absence of any centralized authority that could organize an empire-wide resistance, each governor became responsible for the defense and security of his own province. Left to their own means and without any support from the Achaemenid central government, many Persian satraps surrendered to Alexander and accepted his suzerainty. Initially, Alexander accepted the surrender of these satraps and preserved them in their posts.

Meanwhile, after his victory at Gaugamela, Alexander moved south and seized Babylon and Susa. He then marched against the province of Parsa (Persis) and Persepolis, the ceremonial capital of the Achaemenid Empire. Alexander split his forces. His general, Parmenio, “was given orders to proceed by the main road into Persia,” while Alexander himself, “at the head of a force consisting of the Macedonian infantry, the Companion cavalry, the Agrianes, the archers, and advanced scouts, set off with all speed through the hills” (Arrian: 3.18.2). The Persian satrap of Parsa (Persis), Ariobarzanes, tried to slow down Alexander’s march to Persepolis on a mountainous track called the Persian Gates (Arrian: 3.18.2; Strabo: 15.3.6). According to Arrian, Ariobarzanes fled to the mountains with a band of horsemen (Arrian: 3.18.9).

At the Persian Gates northeast of modern Yasuj, the capital of the present-day Iranian province of Kohgiluyeh and Boyer-Ahmad, the Macedonian units under the command of Alexander “encountered Ariobarzanes,” who “had already built defenses across the pass” and with his force “had taken up a position there to prevent Alexander from getting through” (Arrian: 3.18.2). Curtius claimed that Ariobarzanes had occupied the pass “with 25,000 infantry,” while Arrian stated that Ariobarzanes commanded an infantry force of 40,000 supported by 700 cavalrymen (Arrian: 3.18.6). These numbers are not only grossly exaggerated but are also laughable. Such embellished numbers were used as a means of portraying the Achaemenid state as a military giant with unlimited resources and manpower and converting Alexander into a military genius who fought and defeated armies many times larger than the size of his own. If they admitted that a small force of desperate but determined Persians inflicted a humiliating defeat on a much larger Macedonian army led by Alexander, who was forced to retreat, then one could not glamorize the Macedonian victory over a disintegrating polity as a unique moment in human history.

Confident of his ability to score an easy victory against the small Persian force that blocked his path to Persepolis, Alexander attacked Ariobarzanes with a force of 10,000 men (Arrian: 3.18.1). Holding a commanding position over the narrow pass, Ariobarzanes and his small Persian force fought back. The Persians rolled “massive rocks down the mountain slopes” (Quintus Curtius Rufus: 5.3.16). “Stones, shot from slings, and arrows were also showered” on the Macedonians (Quintus Curtius Rufus: 5.3.19). The Macedonians “suffered severely from missiles hurled or catapulted from above,” and Alexander was forced to retreat (Arrian: 3.18.3). At this critical juncture, a native who knew the various passes in the region led Alexander and his commanders under the cover of darkness through roundabouts to the rear of the Persian position. At dawn Alexander attacked the Persian force under the command of Ariobarzanes, while his general, Craterus, assaulted the gate from the front. Surrounded, the Persians put up “a memorable fight. … Unarmed men grappled with men who were armed, dragging them to the ground by virtue of their bodily weight and stabbing many with their own weapons” (Quintus Curtius Rufus: 5.4.31–2; Arrian: 3.18.3–8). The Persian defenders were mostly killed. According to Curtius, Ariobarzanes “broke through the center of the Macedonian line” and “hurried to occupy the regional capital, the city of Persepolis,” but he was shut out from there by the city garrison (Quintus Curtius Rufus: 5.4.33–34). Left with no other alternative, Ariobarzanes renewed the battle and died fighting together with all those who had fled with him (Quintus Curtius Rufus: 5.4.34). The valor, audacity, selflessness, and heroism of Ariobarzanes, who sacrificed his life in defense of Persia, has been celebrated by numerous Iranian writers of the 20th century. Today, a statue of the Persian commander welcomes visitors to the city of Yasuj, the capital of the province of Kohgiluyeh and Boyer-Ahmad, located in the Zagros Mountains of southwestern Iran.

Further Reading

Arrian. The Campaigns of Alexander. Translated by Aubrey De Sélincourt. New York: Dorset, 1986.

Briant, Pierre. From Cyrus to Alexander: A History of the Persian Empire. Translated by P. T. Daniels. Winona Lake: Eisenbrauns, 2002.

Cook, J. M. The Persian Empire. New York: Schocken Books, 1983.

Dandamayev, M. A. “Artabazus.” Encyclopaedia Iranica, 1986, http://www.iranicaonline.org/articles/artabazus-gk

Diodorus Siculus. Translated by C. H. Oldfather. London: William Heinemann, 1933.

Quintus Curtius Rufus. The History of Alexander. London: Penguin, 2004.

Shahbazi, A. Sh. “Ariobarzanes.” Encyclopaedia Iranica, 1986, http://www.iranicaonline.org/articles/ariobarzanes-greek-form-of-old-iranian-proper-name-arya-brzana.

Strabo. The Geography of Strabo. Translated by Horace Leonard Jones. London: William Heinemann, 1930.

 

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