In 336 BCE the aristocrat Pausanias, a member of the king’s bodyguard and reportedly also his former lover, assassinated Philip II, king of Macedon. Pausanias was almost immediately slain. Philip’s 20-year-old son Alexander III (356-323) succeeded to the throne.
Two years before, Philip had defeated the principal Greek city-states in the Battle of Chaeronea in 338 and made himself master of all Greece through the Hellenic League, an essential step prior to his planned great enterprise of invading and conquering the Persian Empire.
On ascending the throne, Alexander quickly crushed a rebellion of the southern Greek city-states and mounted a short and successful operation against Macedon’s northern neighbors. He then took up his father’s plan to conquer the Persian Empire.
Leaving his trusted general Antipater and an army of 10,000 men to hold Macedonia and Greece, in the spring of 334 Alexander set out from Pella and marched by way of Thrace for the Hellespont (Dardanelles) at the head of an army of some 30,000 infantry and 5,000 cavalry. Among his forces were men from the Greek city-states. His army reached the Hellespont in just three weeks and crossed without Persian opposition. His fleet numbered only about 160 ships supplied by the allied Greeks. The Persian fleet included perhaps 400 Phoenician triremes, and its crews were far better trained; however, not a single Persian ship appeared.
Alexander instructed his men that there was to be no looting in what was now, he said, their land. The invaders soon received the submission of a number of Greek towns in Asia Minor. King Darius III was, however, gathering forces to oppose Alexander. Memnon, a Greek mercenary general in the employ of Darius, knew that Alexander was short of supplies and cash. Memnon therefore favored a scorched earth policy that would force Alexander to withdraw. At the same time Darius should use his fleet to transport the army and invade Macedonia. Unfortunately, Memnon also advised that the Persians should avoid a pitched battle at all costs. This wounded Persian pride and influenced Darius to reject the proffered advice.
The two armies met in May. The Persian force, which was approximately the same size as Alexander’s force, took up position on the east bank of the swift Granicus River in western Asia Minor. The Persians were strong in cavalry but weak in infantry, with perhaps as many as 6,000 Greek hoplite mercenaries. Memnon and the Greek mercenaries were in front, forming a solid spear wall and supported by men with javelins. The Persian cavalry was on the flanks, to be employed as mounted infantry.
When Alexander’s army arrived, Parmenio and the other Macedonian generals recognized the strength of the Persian position and counseled against an attack. The Greek infantry would have to cross the Granicus in column and would be vulnerable while they were struggling to re-form. The generals urged that since it was already late afternoon, they should camp for the night. Alexander was determined to attack but eventually followed their advice.
That night, however, probably keeping his campfires burning to deceive the Persians, Alexander located a ford downstream and led his army across the river. The Persians discovered Alexander’s deception the next morning. The bulk of the Macedonian army was already across the river and easily deflected a Persian assault. The rest of the army then crossed.
With Alexander having turned their position, the Persians and their Greek mercenaries were forced to fight in open country. Their left was on the river, and their right was anchored by foothills. The Persian cavalry was now in front, with the Greek mercenary infantry to the rear. Alexander placed the bulk of his Greek cavalry on the left flank, the heavy Macedonian infantry in the center, and the light Macedonian infantry, the Paeonian light cavalry, and his own heavy cavalry (the Companions) on the right flank. Alexander was conspicuous in magnificent armor and shield with an extraordinary helmet with two white plumes. He stationed himself on the right wing, and the Persians therefore assumed that the attack would come from that quarter.
Alexander initiated the battle. Trumpets blared, and Alexander set off with the Companions in a great wedge formation aimed at the far left of the Persian line. This drew Persian cavalry off from the center, whereupon Alexander wheeled and led the Companions diagonally to his left, against the weakened Persian center. Although the Companions had to charge uphill, they pushed their way through a hole in the center of the Persian line. Alexander was in the thick of the fight as the Companions drove back the Persian cavalry, which finally broke.
Surrounded, the Greek mercenaries were mostly slaughtered. Alexander sent the 2,000 who surrendered to Macedonia in chains, probably to work in the mines. It would have made sense to have incorporated them into his own army, but Alexander intended to make an example of them for having fought against fellow Greeks.
Figures for the Persian losses range from 10,000 to 20,000 infantry and around 2,000 horse. These estimates are almost as incredible as the allegedly minute Macedonian losses, which have been variously put at a maximum of 30 infantrymen (minimum 9) and 120 cavalry of whom 25 were Companions killed in the first charge.
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
Green, Peter. Alexander of Macedon, 356-323 B. C.: A Historical Biography. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1991. Hammond, Nicholas G. L. Alexander the Great: King, Commander, and Statesman. 3rd ed. London: Bristol Classical Press, 1996. Sekunda, Nick, and John Warry. Alexander the Great: His Armies and Campaigns, 332–323 B.C. London: Osprey, 1988