The Conquests of Alexander the Great (334 bce–323 bce)

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The Conquests of Alexander the Great (334 bce–323 bce)

Major Figures

Philip II of Macedon

Philip II (382–336 bce ) was the king of Macedon, a kingdom in northern Greece, 359–336 bce . He created the kingdom that Alexander the Great went on to expand into an empire in Asia and North Africa.

Philip’s Youth

Philip was the third and last of King Amyntas III’s sons to succeed to the throne of Macedon. Although the Macedonians spoke a Greek dialect, their southern neighbors in the Greek city-states considered them to be barbarians. From 390 to 379 bce , Amyntas endured a tumultuous reign during which the neighboring Illyrians ousted him from Macedon. He had to regain his kingdom by paying the Illyrians tribute and by marrying an Illyrian princess, Eurydice, who gave birth to Philip in 382 bce . When Amyntas died in 370 bce , one of his older sons, Alexander II, assumed the throne and dispatched Philip as a hostage to the Illyrians. From 368 until 365 bce , Philip lived as a hostage to Thebes, a powerful Greek city-state that had supported Alexander II during a civil war. There he received a traditional Greek education, both intellectual and physical. The Thebans were unable to prevent Alexander’s assassination, though they did support his eventual successor, Perdikkas, a brother one year older than Philip. Perdikkas ruled Macedon until he and four thousand of his men perished in battle against the Illyrian king Bardylis in 359 bce . This left a young son, Amyntas IV, as heir to the throne. Then twenty-three, Philip began his reign as his cousin’s regent but was soon formally recognized as rightful king of Macedon.

Philip as King

Philip successfully contended with rival Macedonian claimants to the kingship and then dealt with hostile neighbors, the Paeonians and Illyrians. His early victories gave him lands rich in natural resources and population, making them vital to his military might. Some of these acquisitions were further cemented by diplomatic marriages, and by 357 bce he had taken Olympias (also known as Olympia), a Molossian princess, as one of his wives. She gave birth to his eldest child, Alexander (later known as Alexander the Great), the following year.

Philip seized the Athenian colony of Amphipolis in 357 bce . This gave him the region of Mount Pangaeus, famous for its fabulously productive gold and silver mines. With such resources Philip was well supplied with the means to pressure individuals or states with bribes. This gold and silver also allowed Philip to maintain a disciplined standing army. He perfected the phalanx, introducing the use of a very long pike (the sarissa) and integrating cavalry and light infantry troops with heavily armored phalanxes.

The Taking of Greece

Philip continued his territorial expansions, attacking Athenian colonies in the northern Aegean Sea and losing his right eye in the siege of Methone (356 bce ). Meanwhile, southern Greece was in the throes of the Third Sacred War (356–346 bce ). This conflict began when the city of Phocis raided the treasury of the temple at Delphi to finance its defence against Thebes. The Greek city-states broke into Theban and Phocian alliances, with Sparta and Athens siding with Phocis.

In 353 bce , Philip joined the conflict on the side of Thebes, where he had received his formal Greek education. After some minor setbacks, in 352 bce he defeated the Phocians and their allies at the Battle of the Crocus Plain and was rewarded with the presidency of the Thasallian League. Not satisfied, he then went on to invade Thrace in that same year. He seized the members of the Chalcidian League in 349 and 348 bce .

His actions had not gone unnoticed by the other Greek states. The young Athenian statesman Demosthenes delivered his First Philippic address in 351 bce , in which he warned that now was the time to defeat the Macedonian king, but it was already too late. As the Third Sacred War drew to a close in 346 bce , the Phocians surrendered to Philip, giving him not only their territory but their seats in the Delphic Amphictyony, the league that supported the temple of Apollo at Delphi. However, all was not settled in Greece. An anti-Macedonian party was on the rise, led by Demosthenes.

In 341 bce , Athens broke a peace treaty with Philip. Philip besieged the coastal cities Perinthus and Byzantium in the winter of 341–340 bce , threatening the sea route by which Athens received most of its grain supply. This prompted the Artaxerxes III Ochus, king of the vast Persian Empire in Asia, to send aid to these cities because Persian trade routes were also threatened. Philip was unhappy with this interference and his failure to take these cities. His seizure of 240 Athenian grain ships finally caused Athens to declare war. After campaigns in the Balkans, Philip invaded Greece in 339 bce . The combined forces of former rivals Athens and Thebes confronted the Macedonian king at the Battle of Chaeronea in August of the following year. Philip’s eighteen-year-old son Alexander participated in this battle, destroying the Theban lines.

The Last Years

The victorious Philip forged the defeated Greek states into the Corinthian League. With such united strength under his dominating leadership, Philip declared war on the Persian Empire. Before departing on campaign, Philip married his seventh wife. This resulted in the estrangement of Olympias and her son Alexander. Philip came to regret his actions and reunited with his son, but in 336 bce Philip was murdered by Pausanias, one of his bodyguards. It has been speculated that Olympias and Alexander played a role in Philip’s assassination, but the motive might have been a personal grudge held by Pausanias. In any case, Philip’s appointed heir took full advantage of the legacy his father’s death gave him.

Alexander the Great

Alexander the Great (356–323 bce ) was king of Macedon from 336 to 323 bce and leader of the Corinthian League of Greek city-states. He went on to conquer the Persian Empire, proving himself to be one of the greatest military leaders of the ancient world.

In the summer of 356 bce , Alexander was born to Olympias, a Molossian princess who was one of several women married to King Philip of Macedon. Probably the eldest son, Alexander enjoyed a well-rounded education at the Macedonian court, in both martial and intellectual subjects. For three years, the famed Greek philosopher Aristotle numbered Alexander among his pupils, and he prepared for Alexander a condensed version of the Iliad, Homer’s epic poem of the Trojan War. Alexander’s mother had impressed upon her son that through her he was descended from Achilles, Greek hero of that war. This deeply impressed the passionate Alexander, who carried Aristotle’s “Casket Iliad” wherever he went.

Early Battles

In 340 bce , Alexander left Aristotle’s school to return to the royal court at Pella where, although only sixteen, he served as regent while his father attacked the coastal cities of Byzantium and Perinthus. In his father’s absence, he put down a revolt by the Maedi in northern Macedon, renamed their chief city “Alexandroupolis,” and settled Greeks in the territory. He joined his father’s campaign against Athens and Thebes in 338 bce , leading a key cavalry charge in the Battle of Chaeronea. This victory allowed Philip to forge the Greek city-states into an alliance known as the Corinthian League. Under Philip’s leadership, the league then prepared for war against the Persian Empire.

Before embarking on that campaign, Philip married a seventh wife. A relative of the new wife gravely insulted Alexander and Olympias, and, in a drunken rage, Philip threatened to kill his wife and son, who fled to Molossia, Olympias’s home region. Regretting that he had united Greece but divided his own family, the king reconciled with Alexander. Following Philip’s assassination in 336 bce , Alexander had to put down a rival claimant to the throne, as well as various other uprisings. After Alexander’s brutal treatment of the Greek city-state of Thebes, the renewed Corinthian League agreed to accept him as hegemon (leader). He would lead the invasion of the Persian Empire, ostensibly to free the Greek colonies in Asia Minor from the despotic rule of King Darius III.

Early Victories in Asia

The invasion began in 334 bce , when Alexander’s mostly Macedonian troops (probably numbering about 43,000 infantry and 6,000 cavalry) crossed the Hellespont (the narrow strait that separates Europe from Asia) into Asia Minor. He paused at Troy to honor the heroes of the Iliad and to sacrifice to the goddess Athena. He intended to turn south to free the Greek colonies but could not ignore the Persian forces that had gathered along the banks of a river to the northwest. The first encounter between the Macedonian and Persian armies occurred at the Battle of the Granicus. The Persians lost, and as Alexander began his advance, the important city of Sardis and its surrounding territories surrendered to him.

He took the cities of Miletus, Halicarnassus, and other regions in western Asia until arriving at Gordium, the capital of Phrygia, where he wintered. In his wake Alexander installed satraps (governors) who poured what would have been Darius’s taxes into Alexander’s coffers. This wealth financed the campaigns of his expanding empire. Rumors of miraculous signs sprang up, prophesying Alexander’s conquest of Asia.

May of 333 bce found Alexander’s forces on the march again. As before, Persian forces were massing, this time at Issus (near the modern border of Turkey and Syria). Alexander advanced quickly across southern Asia Minor, nominally claiming the lands through which he passed without stationing garrisons or officials. Alexander fell ill along the route but recovered before engaging the opposition at the Battle of Issus. Despite the Persian advantage in numbers, Alexander achieved yet another decisive victory. Darius fled to Mesopotamia (modern Iraq), although this meant abandoning his mother, wife, and children to the mercy of the Macedonian forces. Alexander treated his royal hostages respectfully but rebuffed an offer from Darius to ransom them.

Rather than enter Mesopotamia, where the Persian king began to rebuild his forces, Alexander swung south into Syria. He besieged the island city of Tyre (in modern Lebanon) while his second in command, Parmenion, campaigned farther inland. Once Tyre and then Gaza fell, Alexander entered Egypt in the winter of 332–331 bce . Glad to be rid of Persian domination, the Egyptians offered no resistance. Alexander himself laid out the plans for the port city of Alexandria. He made a pilgrimage through the Western Desert to the oracle at the Siwa Oasis. Even the Greeks respected this oracle of the Egyptian god Ammon, identified by the Greeks with their own supreme god, Zeus. The oracle declared Alexander to be a son of the god, confirming what Alexander himself likely already believed.

The End of the Persian Empire

The time had finally arrived to pursue Darius again. Darius offered Alexander a large concession of territory, a vast sum in ransom, a daughter in marriage, and a promise of alliance. Alexander, who in the exchange of letters referred to himself as “King of Asia,” had other ideas. He wanted to subjugate Darius as a vassal in a Macedonian empire.

Darius chose to make his next stand at the highly defensible position of Gaugamela, a plain situated between a river and a tall hill. In September of 331 bce the armies met, and the outcome of the Battle at Gaugamela was the same as the Battle at Issus. Alexander triumphed and Darius retreated, but this time Alexander did not hesitate to follow the Persian king. Even so, he failed to catch him.

The cities of Babylon and Susa surrendered to Alexander without a fight. He married Darius’s eldest daughter and arranged a mass marriage between Persian noblewomen and members of his court, a decision not entirely popular with his men. He next undertook a winter crossing of the Zagros mountains to achieve Persis, heart and namesake of the Persian Empire. Here he met ultimately unsuccessful resistance. After the capital city Persepolis surrendered, he allowed his troops to loot it. The men were massacred, the women enslaved, and the palace was burned. Alexander moved on to Ecbatana, where Darius had established a new capital. Darius fled it in advance of the conqueror’s arrival. Alexander finally caught up with him in 330 bce , but only after the Persian king had been assassinated by one of his own satraps, Bessus. Alexander accorded Darius a royal burial and campaigned against Bessus, whom he turned over to Persian authorities for execution.

Alexander’s campaigns took him eastward into Bactria. When he had finally put down Bessus and Bessus’s allies, he married a Bactrian princess, Roxane. In 326 bce Alexander survived an attempted assassination by several young noblemen who were perhaps inspired by what was seen as Alexander’s increasing despotism. Through the course of his conquests, Alexander had honored and even adopted local customs. He wore Persian dress at court. Perhaps even worse, as far as his men were concerned, he demanded that others bow to him. This was an everyday gesture to a superior in Persia, where it had no religious overtones, but in Greece only gods, not kings, were greeted with such bows.

Into India and Back

Later that year Alexander led his troops toward India. He variously met with surrender and resistance. He crossed the Indus River in the spring of 326 bce . Alexander then defeated King Porus at the Battle of the Hydaspes. Deeply impressed by Porus’s courage, he kept Porus on as his vassal ruler in the region. Further campaigns in India were undertaken, but growing dissatisfaction among his forces ultimately persuaded Alexander to return to the west. When he arrived at Carmania (in southeastern Iran) after an arduous desert passage, unfavorable news greeted him. Some of his satraps were rebelling. In retaliation he executed the offenders and ordered the remaining satraps and his generals to dismiss their mercenary forces but not their native troops. These decisions and Alexander’s “orientalized” ways cultivated mistrust and contributed to the instability of the empire’s leadership.

The End of the Macedonian Empire

Intending to conquer Arabia, the Caspian Sea region, and perhaps more of Africa, Alexander set out for Babylon. There, in the late spring of 323 bce , he fell ill, probably with malaria. After suffering for eleven days, he died. Alexander the Great was mummified, and his body was brought to Egypt.

Although Roxane gave birth to his son shortly thereafter, Alexander the Great’s empire died with him. His hard-won territories were sliced up among squabbling successors and, at the age of thirteen, his son, Alexander IV Aegus, was murdered.

King Darius III Codomannus

Darius III Codomannus (c. 370–330 b.c.e ) ruled the Persian Empire from 336 to 330 bce and was the principle adversary of Alexander the Great.

Troubled Beginnings

Darius was born to Sisygambis, who, like her husband Arsanes, was a member of the Persian royal family. Known as Codomannus before becoming king, he distinguished himself as a general in a campaign near the Caspian Sea against a tribe known as the Cardusii. This occurred during the reign of Artaxerxes III Ochus, who made his cousin Codomannus satrap (governor) of Armenia. A high-ranking minister and eunuch named Bagoas poisoned Artaxerxes III to install Artaxerxes’s son, Arses, on the throne as a puppet king. Arses proved to be too independent, however, and Bagoas also poisoned him in 336 bce . Bagoas next placed Codomannus on the throne as Darius III. Darius was no more eager than Arses to have Bagoas as the power behind the throne. When the minister attempted a third assassination, Darius switched cups. This put an end to Bagoas the kingmaker.

Although Alexander the Great campaigned against him under the pretext of freeing Greek colonies in Asia Minor from the rule of an unjust king, later historians credited Darius with a mild disposition and a sense of decency. And his reign, despite its troubled origin, showed early promise. Darius returned Egypt to Persian rule by defeating an Egyptian king named Khababash and he put down a revolt in Babylon.

Confronting the Macedonian Army

Judging from his lack of preparation against an invasion, Darius did not anticipate the danger posed by Alexander, the young king of Macedon who crossed into Asia in 334 bce . Darius’s generals, including the Greek mercenary Memnon, led their forces into their first battle against Alexander at the Granicus River, and were defeated. Memnon died suddenly the next year. Deprived of his skilled general, Darius moved against the young king too late. He was soundly beaten at the Battle at Issus (in the vicinity of the modern Turkish/Syrian border) in the autumn of 333 bce . Unwilling to surrender, Darius abandoned the battlefield, leaving behind his family, including his wife Stateira, his mother, and his children (including Darius’s six-year-old heir, Ochus), whom he subsequently attempted to ransom. His offers of a daughter’s hand in marriage and the Persian Empire west of the Euphrates did not satisfy Alexander. The Macedonian wanted Darius on the throne of Persia, but as a vassal king, subordinate to Alexander. Darius refused, so Alexander continued his campaigns.

Gaugamela and Its Aftermath

In 331 bce, Darius attempted to stop Alexander at the Gaugamela (near modern-day Mosul, Iraq), but here again he was forced to flee, either from personal cowardice, according to Greek sources, or because his army deserted him, according to Persian sources. This time he went to Ecbatana (modern Hamadan, Iran). The capital Persepolis and other Persian cities fell to the advancing Macedonians, depriving Darius of his financial resources.

Darius’s forces were insufficient to meet the approaching Macedonians at Ecbatana. As Alexander continued his acquisitive pursuit, hoping to capture Darius alive, Darius retreated eastward to Parthia (northeastern Iran). The local satraps doubted Darius’s leadership, preferring that of the satrap Bessus. In 330 bce , Darius’s allies arrested him. Bessus, a blood relative, ordered him executed and set himself up as King Artaxerxes V. Bessus was ultimately defeated by Alexander in Bactria (northern Afghanistan). The usurper was brought before the Persian council and executed for regicide. Alexander, who had married Darius’s eldest daughter, Stateira, in 331 bce , accorded his dead father-in-law and enemy a lavish burial in Persepolis.


Porus (?–c. 317 bce ) ruled a kingdom in India between the Hydaspes and Acesinces Rivers (modern Jhelum and Chenab). He was defeated by Alexander the Great in 326 bce but became a loyal vassal in Alexander’s short-lived empire.

Alexander the Great Arrives in India

Porus was remarkable for his great height (he was likely about six feet tall, a remarkable size for the era), handsomeness, and spirit. In 326 bce , his unfriendly neighbor, King Omphis (or Ambhi) of Taxila formed an alliance with Alexander the Great, the young Macedonian king. Alexander had recently defeated the Persian Empire and was expanding his own empire eastward. Although another enemy of Omphis, King Abisares, also willingly submitted to Alexander, Porus refused to do so. Instead, he readied his army along the Hydaspes River and stationed his son upstream with more troops. Confident that the river, swollen with monsoon rains, would provide an additional deterrent to the invaders, Porus waited for Alexander. He was yet another ruler who underestimated Alexander’s abilities and determination.

Victory in Defeat

Alexander succeeded in crossing the river, defeating first Porus’s son and then Porus himself at the Battle of the Hydaspes. Even with the imposing presence of two hundred trained war elephants, Porus’s outnumbered troops were no match for the Macedonian army. The Indian king fought valiantly, remaining on the field even after Alexander had routed his army. Finally, wounded and virtually alone, Porus had to surrender. Alexander held games in honor of his victory and later had coins struck to commemorate it. However, Porus’s old enemy Omphis could not savor his neighbor’s defeat. The honorable and courageous behavior that Porus had displayed on the battlefield had greatly impressed the Macedonian conqueror. In 325 bce , Alexander installed him as a vassal ruler of his former kingdom. Moreover, after campaigning in the rich, forested territory northeast of Porus’s domain, Alexander assigned this new land to Porus, too. Unlike other satraps (governors) he had appointed elsewhere, Alexander did not assign Porus any Macedonian officials or garrisons with which to exert his authority. Porus could exercise his own power, with his own local troops, in Alexander’s name.

This sudden increase in Porus’s power alarmed one of his relatives, a neighboring king also named Porus, who had submitted to Alexander prior to the Battle of the Hydaspes. This second Porus now withdrew his forces eastward across the Hydraotes (Ravi) River. Alexander pursued him in appalling weather, planting garrisons along the way, and finally besieged the city of Sangala (near modern Lahore). The first Porus joined Alexander with fresh troops, and together the Indian and Macedonian forces razed Sangala and massacred the inhabitants. This territory and its numerous cities were also added to the first Porus’s domain.

Although the deaths of Alexander and of his successor Perdikkas resulted in the division of Alexander’s hard-won empire, Porus retained his important position as guardian of this eastern border region. However, sometime between 321 and 315 bce , Eudamus, who commanded the Macedonian army in Taxila, assassinated Porus so that he could claim the king’s 120 war elephants.

Major Battles

The Granicus

The Granicus is a river with steep banks that flows through the plain of Adrasteia, in northwestern Anatolia (Turkey). It was the site of the first battle between the forces of Alexander the Great of Macedon and Darius III of Persia in 334 bce .

Alexander Arrives

In the early spring of 334 bce , when Alexander the Great landed in Asia Minor, the Persian generals convened a meeting at Zeleia, in northwest Anatolia (modern Turkey), to determine the best course of action against the young would-be invader. There were obvious strengths and weaknesses in both forces. The Persians had 20,000 mounted troops, with about the same number of Greek mercenaries. Ancient sources record that Alexander brought with him an army of between 4,000 and 5,000 cavalry and 30,000 to 43,000 infantry. Among the assembled Persian generals was a Greek, Memnon of Rhodes, one of the ablest commanders in the army of Darius III. He suggested stopping the enemy’s advance by laying waste to the fodder in advance of Alexander, thus starving the troops. However, the satrap (governor) of this particular territory persuaded the other commanders to a plan of direct engagement. The Persians selected the plain of Adrasteia as the location to assemble their forces.

Alexander arrived in Asia near the ancient site of Troy. Having learned that the Persians were to the northwest, he postponed his intended liberation of the Greek colonies to the south. For three days his army marched toward the plain of Adrasteia, where the defending Persian cavalry was arrayed east of the Granicus in a line about a mile and a half long. Their Greek infantry mercenaries were stationed on a hill some distance behind them.

Ancient accounts of the battle, and the deployment of the Persian forces, differ. Most modern historians follow the detailed description given by Arrian, who wrote that the Persian cavalry lined the riverbank. The Granicus, swollen and swift with spring rains, and its steep, muddy banks alarmed Alexander’s officers. Over their objections, Alexander led an afternoon charge across the dangerous river under a hail of enemy missiles.

The Battle

The Macedonian forces were deployed under the command of Alexander on the right wing and his second in command, Parmenion, on the left. In the middle, evenly divided between the wings, were six phalanxes of heavy infantry, flanked by cavalry and light infantry. The extreme left of the Macedonian line moved first in a costly advance that cut Memnon’s forces off from the principal battle and drew off some of the Persian heavy cavalry from the center of the line. Next came Alexander himself, in a helmet capped by white feathers, an obvious target at the head of his cavalry. If the Persians could kill Alexander, they would throw the invaders into confusion and bring about a rout, or so Darius’s officers assumed.

Alexander and his cavalry took advantage of the gap in the center of Persian lines, but this charge put Alexander in a vulnerable position. The fighting of this battle was less cavalry charge and more mounted hand-to-hand combat. In the midst of a furious melee, one of the Persian commanders, either Spithridates or his brother Rhoesaces, struck Alexander from behind with an ax. This blow to his helmet temporarily incapacitated the king, but before the Persian could land a second, fatal blow, the attacker lost his arm to a strike from Cleitus the Black, a veteran commander. While Alexander recovered his wits from the shock, his forces and Parmenion’s continued to bear down upon the defenders. The Persian army that intended to rout the Macedonian army by slaying Alexander found itself virtually leaderless. Against the continued onslaught, the Persians broke ranks and fled. One surviving Persian commander, Aristes, felt such guilt for the loss that he later committed suicide.

The Greek mercenaries in Persian employ, considered traitors to their fellow Greeks, were not so fortunate as the cavalry. They retreated to higher ground. Although Memnon and some others escaped, most were trapped by another merciless Macedonian advance. The two thousand survivors were shipped back to Macedon as slaves. These men were freed two years later at the behest of other members of the Corinthian League.

As reward for their ultimate sacrifice, Alexander declared that the families of the dead among his own forces would be spared both taxes and obligation for further military service. To secure the material results of this victory, Alexander appointed one of his Macedonian officers as satrap of the region. From this riverbank, where he showed both the Persians and his own troops what they were capable of accomplishing, Alexander went on to acquire much of southwestern Asia and Egypt.


In 333 bce , Alexander the Great, king of Macedon, and Darius III, king of Persia, met on the battlefield for the first time at Issus, a town near the northeast corner of the Mediterranean Sea near the modern town of Iskenderun, Turkey. The result was a Macedonian victory and the beginning of the end of the Persian Empire.

Darius Leads the Charge

The year before, Alexander had landed in Asia and achieved victory over Persian forces at the Battle of the Granicus and other locations in western Anatolia (Turkey). He went on to occupy Cilicia, a rich region in southern Anatolia, before pressing on toward Syria. He dispatched Parmenion, his second in command, to secure the passes into Syria. Even after Parmenion had dealt with the Persian stations along the way, Alexander’s progress was delayed for several weeks while the king recovered at Tarsus, in western Cilicia, from a serious illness that nearly killed him. Once recovered, and after a campaign westward along the coast, Alexander resumed his progress eastward. Along the way, he received intelligence that the Persian forces were at a certain Syrian town, probably near modern Aleppo.

Darius had assembled an army consisting of not only his own troops but also including as many as 30,000 Greek mercenaries. One exaggerated ancient account numbered his total forces at 600,000. This figure is improbable, but it is certain Darius commanded a vast army, one much larger than the army led by Alexander. One of his Greek generals, Memnon, had died unexpectedly of illness, but he had another Greek commander, the Athenian-born Charidemus, to rely on. Like Memnon, Charidemus was not popular with the other commanders, who did not support his suggestion that he take half the Persian army to attack the Macedonians while Darius remained behind in Babylon with the other half. This disagreement led to a heated argument that in turn led to Charidemus’s execution. The Persian army moved out against the Macedonians early in the summer of 333 bce . In addition to the fighting and support troops, Darius’s wife, children, and mother traveled with the king. The delay in Alexander’s advance prompted Darius to believe that the invaders wanted to avoid a pitched battle. He, on the other hand, hoped to take advantage of the expansive plains of eastern Cilicia, which would give the advantage to his huge number of troops.

Logistics of supply brought Darius onto Alexander’s chosen ground. Darius was dependent on supplies brought overland, while Alexander, who had by now moved into the hilly coastal plain south of Darius’s forces, had the advantage of the sea routes. Rather than move directly against Alexander, Darius went first to Issus where he slew the sick and wounded men Alexander had left behind there, and he cut Alexander from the land routes to his forces stationed back in Cilicia. This move caught Alexander by surprise. With the majority of his forces—perhaps leaving some behind to guard the south, in case of a Persian attack from that direction—the Macedonian king marched back north, where Darius was waiting at the Pinarus River. Unlike the Granicus, its banks were shallow and rocky, and would afford a crossing for cavalry.

The Battle

As at the Granicus, the Persians waited for the Macedonians on the far side of a river. This time, King Darius rode his chariot in the center of the front line, surrounded by his personal guard and flanked by infantry, with cavalry stationed at the far right of the line, nearest the sea. The Greeks came down to the Pinarus in a mass of phalanxes, followed by infantry, followed by cavalry. As room permitted, they fanned out over the uneven plain, with Alexander leading the right and Parmenion the left, as at the Granicus. Cavalry made up the left wing and most of the right, while between them stood phalanxes and light infantry. Other light infantry and archers remained stationed higher on the hill, obliquely to the right.

The Persians may have made the first move, a cavalry charge across the river against Parmenion’s vastly outnumbered cavalry and infantry. At about this same time, the Macedonian phalanxes struck against Darius’s Greek mercenaries. This did not go well for the Macedonians at first, and Alexander was forced to send in his Thassalian cavalry to outflank the left wing of the Persian cavalry. Alexander was then able to launch a successful rout of the mounted enemy.

Rather than pursue the fleeing Persians, Alexander intended to press on to the center of the Persian line, to take Darius himself. During the battle, Darius fled the field. Some Greek historians state that he did so before the battle, but more likely the Persian king held his ground until his forces gave way around him. His retreat shattered the morale of his own troops, which also broke and ran. Darius’s Greek mercenaries, who had been holding the Macedonian phalanxes at the river, were now pressured not only by the phalanxes but also by a cavalry charge on their left. They too broke. News that Darius had deserted the field spread to the Persian cavalry on the right, which also fled, plowing through their own infantry as everyone tried, like their king, to escape.

The retreat resulted in more losses than had the battle. Ancient historians say that 100,000 Persian troops died, a figure that is certainly too high but reflects what was surely an enormous loss. Alexander sustained losses of probably about 450 men.

Alexander seized Darius’s baggage trains at Issus and at Damascus. Through this acquisition he came by an enormous amount of wealth and also Darius’s own family, whom he treated as royal guests rather than mere hostages. Later, Darius would attempt, and fail, to ransom them.

From Issus, Darius fled back to Mesopotamia, where he would gather the forces to make another stand, this time at Gaugamela. Alexander, meanwhile, went on to conquer the Levant and Egypt, and, eventually, the rest of Darius’s empire.


Also called the Battle of Arbela, the Battle of Gaugamela was the last, and unsuccessful, stand of King Darius III of Persia against the invasion of Alexander the Great, king of Macedon, in 331 bce .

Darius Prepares

Alexander had wrested from Darius the western portion of his empire, but the east still belonged to the Persian king, and he drew from this region to renew his army. Although he had lost most of his Greek infantry, he retained access to the cavalries of Bactria and Sogdiana, as well as troops from India and grasslands to the north. He gathered his new forces at Babylon but moved them, and himself, to a plain in Assyria called Gaugamela, which lay between the Bumelus (Gomil) River and Zagros foothills, east of the modern city of Mosul, Iraq. His men harvested crops that might otherwise have supported Alexander’s approaching army. He also prepared the ground at Gaugamela for the conflict, making it flat enough so that his chariots would have an advantage. He had brought with him two hundred scythed chariots, equipped with blades attached to the wheels to mow down cavalry and infantry. About fifteen war elephants stood at his disposal, but these animals were withdrawn before the battle.

Alexander began his march from Tyre in the middle of summer, 331 bce , knowing that Darius was headed for the Assyrian plains with an army far larger than he had fielded at Issus. Alexander found the crossing of the Tigris River sufficiently taxing to delay further advance for two days. On their second night, September 20, the shadow of the earth eclipsed the moon. Alexander offered sacrifice to the moon, the sun, and the earth on that night and took the eclipse as a good omen. For the Persians, however, a lunar eclipse was an ill omen, and the event may have undermined their morale.

Alexander encountered some advance Persian cavalry, about one thousand in number. Most escaped, but a few taken captive revealed Darius’s position and the nature of his forces. By one ancient account, Alexander acquired the Persian battle orders. Once again Alexander rested his troops, this time for four days, and examined the battlefield, where the Persians were waiting in plain sight.

The Battle

The Persian intent was to break the Macedonian line while maintaining their own. Darius was positioned at the center, flanked by cavalry and infantry. Chariots and more cavalry were stationed ahead, more infantry behind. The Macedonian army was divided, as earlier engagements, with Parmenion commanding the left and Alexander the right. Both ends of the Macedonian line, mostly cavalry, were angled back from the rest of the line, to prevent the line from being outflanked. In the center, as usual, Alexander stationed the phalanxes. Because Alexander had aligned his position with Darius’s, the left of the Persian line extended beyond the right of the Macedonian, leaving the latter liable to an attack from its flank.

Alexander led an advance of cavalry to the right, drawing the Persian line away from the prepared battleground. Parmenion, meanwhile, was left with his forces to contend with the bulk of the Persian forces. The central phalanx was forced to remain behind to strengthen Parmenion. Darius’s Persian and Indian forces penetrated through the resulting gap in the Macedonian line to Alexander’s baggage train, from which Macedonian reserves had to repulse them. But he had less luck with his scythed chariots, which were evaded and diverted, and the horses slain, by Alexander’s infantry and grooms.

The movement of the Persian forces, led by the satrap of Bactria, Bessus, finally created a gap in the Persian lines. Alexander led a charge into it, enlarging the hole before making a flank attack while the phalanxes attacked the Persian line from the front. This drove the Persians backward and finally broke their formation. Bessus retreated with his men in an orderly fashion.

King Darius fled during the fighting. Alexander pursued, so that Parmenion, who was having difficulty with the right wing of Darius’s army, was unable to send word of his troubled situation. However, once again news of Darius’s flight, and that of his center and left wing, landed a blow upon the morale of the remaining Persians, who may have been already rattled by the eclipse several nights before. Parmenion’s troops, notably the Thessalian cavalry, pressed the Persian forces hard enough to rout the right wing. The final engagement of the battle occurred when Alexander and his men, having given up the pursuit of Darius, met members of the retreating Persian army. In this battle, some sixty members of Alexander’s cavalry lost their lives.

Despite the numerical mismatch in forces, Alexander achieved yet another decisive victory. This was to be Darius’s final battle against the Macedonians. He fled to Arbela, then headed farther eastward with Bessus and some of his troops. Many others in the Persian army fled to Babylon, which Alexander later seized. Alexander failed to catch up with Darius at Arbela, but the next year the Persian ruler would be dead, murdered by Bessus.


Alexander the Great defeated the Indian ruler, King Porus, at the Battle of the Hydaspes in the spring of 326 bce . After his victory here, Alexander established the easternmost borders of the Macedonian Empire.

Onward to Punjab

Having already conquered the bulk of the Persian Empire, the army of Alexander the Great crossed into the Punjab (an area around the modern border of India and Pakistan) in 326 bce , to begin what he hoped would be the conquest of the rest of Asia.

Omphis (Ambhi), king of Taxila, had already bowed to Alexander’s rule and greeted him on the eastern shore of the Indus, which the Macedonian army crossed by means of a bridge and boats built from local materials. At Omphis’s capital, games and festivities celebrated the foreigners’ arrival, but not all of Omphis’s neighbors were so pleased. King Porus refused to submit and assembled an army on the banks of the Hydaspes (Jhelum) River, east of the Indus. Porus knew that Alexander’s army outnumbered his own and he hoped that the river, which had few crossings and was running fast with spring snowmelt and the early monsoon, would prove to be an ally.

The Battle

Finding the ford of the river blocked on the eastern side by Porus’s army, Alexander established his camp here. The Indian king included up to two hundred war elephants among his troops, which comprised four thousand cavalry, three hundred chariots, and thirty thousand infantry, and, of course, the river. Alexander gave the appearance of being prepared to wait for the waters of the river to recede in the autumn. Although they were outnumbered by the Macedonian forces (which seems not to have been at full strength), the Indians succeeded in holding the ford and the other potential river crossings upstream.

Alexander called for the boats that he had used to cross the Indus. They were dismantled and brought to the Hydaspes, where they were secretly reassembled near Alexander’s chosen crossing site near an island that would shield them from enemy view. One night during a storm, Alexander moved to make the crossing. He left one of his commanders, Craterus, with troops at the ford base camp. He brought other troops along the bank upstream, to cross at other locations and occupy Porus’s army while he himself crossed from behind the island. The discovery of another small branch of the river, unknown to Alexander, delayed their crossing and arrival on the western bank. Once they had landed, they met a force of chariots and cavalry commanded by Porus’s son. The chariots were at a great disadvantage in the mud, and Alexander destroyed his opponents, including Porus’s son, but some escaped back to the Indian king to inform him of Alexander’s approach on the eastern side of the Hydapes.

Porus, who rode an elephant, withdrew most of his troops from the ford to meet Alexander, leaving some behind to continue thwarting Craterus’s advance. When the two armies met, Porus’s cavalry and chariots were in front, followed by the war elephants, and lastly the infantry. Alexander’s’ cavalry rode up to screen his infantry in order to give them time to prepare for battle. Alexander’s cavalry on the right moved to attack Porus’s left. Porus’s right wing swung to reinforce the point of attack, which resulted in Alexander’s advancing his left wing of cavalry in pursuit of them. The Indian cavalry and chariotry retreated behind the elephants. The rain hampered the Indian archers’ attacks, but not the Macedonian use of their long pikes, which they put to effective use against the elephants. Many of the mahouts (elephant drivers) were forcibly removed from their animals, resulting in unmanned elephants on the battlefield. In the resulting chaos, Alexander’s forces destroyed or routed almost all of Porus’s forces except Porus himself. Finally, wounded, the Indian king had to surrender. The victory was overwhelming, but Alexander suffered a personal loss: his favorite horse, the famed Bucephalus, died during the action.

Alexander celebrated his victory with athletic competitions and the foundation of two settlements, Nicaea and Bucephala, the remains of which have yet to be identified archaeologically. The valiant Porus impressed Alexander so much that he allowed the defeated king to govern his own country, but as a vassal subject to Alexander. He also rewarded him with further territories, making Porus guardian of the eastern borders of the empire.

Alexander went on to take more of India, but the campaign was, in the end, not especially successful and India did not long remain under Macedonian rule.

Key Elements of Warcraft

War Elephants

Elephants were probably first used as beasts of burden in about 2000 bce . During the next millennium, they came into use as living war machines, and armies have used them into the twenty-first century ce .

Elephants as Weapons

Both the Indian elephant (Elephas maximus) and the African elephant (Loxodonta africana) have been used in war. Unlike horses or pigs, elephants are not domesticated. To be used as work animals they must be captured in the wild and then trained. Although they do have tough skin, for military purposes it could also be covered with armor of hide or leather, sometimes supplemented with metal plates or rings. Elephants must have a driver, commonly referred to by the Indian term mahout. The mahout is usually in addition to the fighting men who ride the elephant, commonly in a structure, such as a wooden or woven box or something more elaborate, mounted on the animal’s back.

Unless trained otherwise, horses are frightened of elephants, making elephants effective against cavalry and chariotry. In addition, their enormous size is of great psychological value against enemy infantry. They can serve as walking artillery platforms or attack combatants directly using their powerful trunk and their tusks, which can be armed with metal blades. They are capable of tearing down structures, and the animals’ bulk allows them to act as breakwaters to facilitate a river crossing.

Tactics against War Elephants

Certain offensive and defensive steps can be taken against war elephants. Trenches are effective. Stakes planted in the ground or mounted on wagons can prevent a charge, and sharp implements, such as caltrops, can keep elephants from advancing, grabbing, or pushing. Such devices might also be used by infantry. Dismounting a mahout, by means of a long pike or a grappling hook or by otherwise killing him, removes an elephant from enemy control but also creates a rogue element on the battlefield.

Missiles fired by catapults, like the Roman carroballista, are effective offense weaponry against elephants, as are modern artillery and gunfire. Fire provides another defensive weapon. Setting wagons or even live pigs alight among elephants can disrupt an attack.

War Elephants through History

Armies throughout the ancient world, especially in Asia, made use of these animals as living war machines. The Chinese armies of the Shang and Zhou dynasties (1523–256 bce ) employed them. Both the Assyrians and their successors, the Persians, confronted elephants in the Indian armies, beginning in the ninth century bce . The Persians themselves employed elephants against the invading army of the Macedonian king Alexander the Great. About fifteen of the animals were in the initial front line for the Battle of Gaugamela (331 bce ), but for some reason they were sent back to the Persian baggage train, where Alexander’s general, Parmenion, seized them after the battle. About two hundred elephants played a much more critical, if ultimately unsuccessful, role against Alexander when he fought against the Indian king Porus at the Hydaspes River. The Macedonian infantry managed to unseat many of the mahouts and wounded the elephants by means of their long pikes (called sarissae). Despite being witness to the liabilities of war elephants, Alexander continued to include them into his own army, and after his death they played important, and more successful, roles in the wars of his successors. At the Battle of Ipsus (301 bce ), the elephant corps of Seleucus I shattered not only the army of Antigonus the One-Eye but the potential of a united Macedonian empire. In 276 bce , they helped the Seleucid king Antiochus I thwart an invasion of Asia Minor by Gauls.

Pyrrhus, king of Epirus and relative of Alexander the Great, invaded Italy with twenty elephants in his army in 280 bce , to the great alarm of the defending Romans, to whom the animals were new. The famed Roman legions were still some time in the future, and the arms at hand were initially inadequate against the pachyderms. The Romans later deployed flames and other countermeasures successfully against them. Another enemy of Rome, Carthage in North Africa, also turned elephants against Rome, though during the initial encounter, the siege of Agrigentum (262 bce ), the Carthaginians so badly deployed the animals that they were worse than useless. A Spartan mercenary, Xanthippus, led Carthage and its elephants to a victory seven years later, resulting in a defeat for the Romans that thereafter made them wary of the creatures until the Roman general Metellus employed a trench to defeat them at Panormus.

Hamilcar Barca, ruler of Carthage, seized the Iberian peninsula with the aid of elephants. His son and successor, Hannibal, famously crossed the Alps into Italy with the animals, though in the end only a single elephant, named Surus, survived. Fighting the Romans back on North African soil, at Zama in 202 bce , he fielded eighty elephants, intending to simply charge them at the Roman line, letting their bulk, rather than any mounted archery, do the damage. Commanded by Scipio, the Roman army managed to frighten and wound many of the pachyderms, and dismounted the mahouts of others, resulting in a Roman victory that ended the Second Punic War.

The Roman Republic went on to field elephants against the successors of Alexander in the east, the Iberian tribes in the west, and on Italian soil during the civil war with Julius Caesar (49 bce ). The Roman Empire sent elephants into campaigns in Europe, but, unlike their Parthian and later Sassinid neighbors in Persia, it seldom employed war elephants during this period.

Armies resisting the advance of Mohammed and Islam made use of elephants in both western Asia and India. The Muslim Ghaznavid Empire of the tenth through eleventh centuries ce had elephants in its forces. The Indians used them to repel Kublai Khan’s Mongols in the thirteenth century ce but a hundred years later another Mongol ruler, Tamerlane, defeated India’s elephants. Elephants continued to figure in the warfare of Asia into the twenty-first century ce , with Myanmar being the last remaining state to include elephants in its armed forces.

The Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II numbered a single elephant in his thirteenth century ce army, which he sent into battle against the Italians, but for the most part, after antiquity, European encounters with war elephants took place on Asian soil. Colonial armies made use of them as transport, especially for artillery, through the twentieth century ce .

Impact of the Conquests of Alexander the Great

Alexander the Great’s conquests destroyed the Persian Empire, but his own empire did not remain unified after his death. His successors fought a number of wars, resulting in several Hellenistic kingdoms in western Asia, northeast Africa, and southeastern Europe. Despite this rupture, his conquests had spread Greeks and Greek culture throughout Asia and led to the Hellenistic Age, generally defined as the period between the death of Alexander in 323 bce and the demise of the last Hellenistic kingdom in 33 bce .

New trade routes, notably the sea route to India, were opened during the period of rule by Alexander’s successors. The use of coinage and a monetary economy became standard. Visual, literary, and dramatic arts flourished in the multicultural hotbed of Hellenistic cities. From the dialogue of comedy to the drapery portrayed on statuary, the idealistic forms of Classical Greece were replaced by more realistic and individualistic models. The quests for realism and understanding were undertaken by philosophers and scientists of the age, including Alexander’s tutor Aristotle. Great advances in astronomy and mathematics were achieved, in part by such brilliant men as Euclid and Archimedes, but also through Babylonian scholarship. The science of medicine made important advances as well. The syncretism of eastern and western religious practices contributed to the proliferation of mystery religions, in which individuals underwent secret rites of passage, notably those of Isis and Mithras and at least some branches of early Christianity.

Many peoples chafed, however, under Hellenistic rule, which had the effect of placing a class of ruling foreigners over local populations. Even in the Seleucid Empire, which seemed to take particular pains to integrate Asians and Greeks, the former retained a second-class status. In Egypt, rebellions led to brief but independent reigns of native Egyptian pharaohs in Thebes. In Judea, Judas Maccabaeus led a revolt when the Seleucid king, Antiochus IV, tried to merge the Jewish religion with the Greek worship of Zeus, thus splitting the Jews into pro- and anti-Hellenic factions. In many areas, the local people (even the wealthy and educated) did not take up Hellenistic culture. In Persia, this fragmented the Seleucid Empire.

The fractured Hellenized regions weakened as Rome was consolidating its power. Rome conquered the Hellenistic kingdoms, reducing them to mere provinces, and what Rome could not reach (for example, Bactria, now northern Afghanistan) eventually fell apart to internal and other external forces. The Ptolemies were the last to succumb to the might of Rome, in 33 bce , when Cleopatra VII and Marcus Antonius lost to Octavian at the Battle of Actium.

Hellenistic culture outlasted the Hellenistic kingdoms, however, persisting under Roman rule. Greek as the lingua franca throughout Alexander’s former empire. The Roman conquerors, for their part, were more than a little impressed with the man whose former empire they came to dominate: they practically worshipped him. It is reported that when Julius Caesar saw a statue of Alexander the Great in Gades (modern Cadiz, Spain), he wept with envy. Roman general and political leader Pompey acquired a robe once belonging to Alexander and wore it as a symbol of greatness. Emperor Caligula, never a mentally stable man, even robbed Alexander’s tomb and took to wearing his armor. The Romans happily appropriated the Hellenistic culture spawned by Alexander, spreading it throughout western Europe as far north as Britain.

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The Conquests of Alexander the Great (334 bce–323 bce)

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