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Strategies of Conquest Alexander’s Persian Campaigns 333-331 BC

James Mitchell


Š 2010 by Author.


In the summer of 333 BCE, Alexander and his army left the town of Gordion on the Royal Road in modern Anatolia and headed south across the Taurus Mountains and descended through the Cilician Gates onto the fertile plain below. By November Darius had arrived in the same area with a Persian army estimated by Arrian to number 600,000, thus outnumbering the Macedonians more than ten to one (Arr. 2.8). In the ensuing battle at Issus Alexander’s army defeated the Persians, causing Darius and his army to flee the field, abandoning his wife, two daughters, his mother, and a fabulous amount of treasure (Arr. 2.12). Soundly defeated, Darius retreated eastward, leaving the Macedonians to invade Syria, march down the seacoast and seize several maritime cities which supplied the Persian navy, still the dominant naval power in the Mediterranean. After besieging Tyre tenaciously for eight long months, Alexander headed off for diplomatic negotiations in Jerusalem and a successful siege of Gaza before moving on to a new set of adventures in Egypt. It would be almost two whole years after Issus that the two kings would meet again in battle––at Gaugamela on October 1, 331. How can we account for this two-year hiatus of military confrontation with the Persians, and what strategic interests were involved on either side? Why did Alexander upon leaving Gordion not lead his forces on to Babylon to force a showdown with the Persians in pursuit of an early victory? And after defeating

4 Darius at Issus, with the entire Persian army in disarray, why would Alexander find it more advantageous to march into Egypt? It is certainly easy to think of reasons why he should have decided to do so, and scholars have not hesitated to advance their own conclusions, which have emphasized Alexander’s ongoing plan to debilitate the Persian navy by capturing the coastal cities in the Levant that supplied it; his desire to seize or gain control of the material wealth of Egypt, in particular its grain supply; his first steps towards the establishment of a new empire in Southwest Asia which would include founding Alexandria and reorganizing Egypt administratively; his desire for official recognition by the Egyptian priesthood at Memphis and the oracle at Siwa as a world-conqueror, if not a deity; his expression of pothos, a “longing” that combined a spirit of adventurousness with the curiosity of an explorer. Each of these purposes may have stimulated Alexander into action––indeed all of them seem sufficiently plausible that it would be quite difficult to argue against any one of them––but what exactly do the sources say? By a close reading and a comparison of the most authoritative texts for Alexander’s campaigns––the works of Diodorus, Plutarch, Arrian and Curtius––we will see what explanation the sources themselves deliver concerning Alexander’s strategic initiatives in Anatolia, in the Levant and in Egypt, and if the sources provide offer an answer to the question why he delayed pursuing Darius after Issus. We will demonstrate that after disbanding his naval fleet at Halikarnassos, Alexander moved his army into the Anatolian Plateau with the intention of marching all the way to the Euphrates if necessary in order to do battle with Darius, turning south to Cilicia only when he had learned that the Persian army was moving across Syria. We will also show from the sources that it was Alexander’s fascination with Egyptian culture that detained him further from moving on to the final showdown with Darius.

5 After the victory at the River Granicus, the Macedonians turned immediately to the coast and took control of several cities on his path south, the most important of which were Ephesos, Priene, Halikarnassos and Miletos. Alexander’s strategy of deploying Macedonian officers to remain and watch over the conquered territory clearly indicates that he intended to actively rule and administrate his growing empire, and also, in the case of the Greek cities in Asia Minor at least, that he intended to replace Persian oligarchies with Greek-style democracies: “Throughout the country he dispossessed the ruling cliques and established popular government in their place, allowing every community to enjoy its own customs and discontinue payment of the taxes it had previously paid to the Persians” (Arr. 18.)1 At first offering considerable resistance at Halikarnassos and Miletos, the Persian defenses were eventually eliminated and it was at Miletos that a major strategic decision was taken to abandon the Macedonian naval fleet. As Arrian puts it, Alexander had awakened to the realization that “by seizing the coastal towns he could reduce the Persian navy to impotence” (Arr. 20). Plutarch does not mention this decision to sack the fleet, but Diodurus provides a somewhat more sinister explanation: anticipating a great land battle with Darius’ forces, Alexander “judged that the Macedonians would fight more desperately if he deprived them of all hope of escape by flight” (Diod. 17.22.23). What happens next certainly does not suggest that Alexander was in any hurry to continue the project of defeating the Persian navy by separating it from its coastal supply bases; in fact he seems rather to have given up the whole idea, at least for the time being. Had he wished to continue the present strategy, there would have been no reason to disband his fleet at Miletos, but rather he could 1

Diodorus says that Alexander “was particularly generous to the Greek cities,” even “adding the assurance that the freedom of the Greeks was the object for which he had taken upon himself the war against the Persians” (Diod. 17.24.4)

6 have used it to support his march down the coast to the area around Ephesos and Issus before continuing further along the Phoenician coast to reduce several larger cities that functioned as key Persian power-bases along the length of the Levant. Instead, the Macedonians did exactly the opposite: they began a long and arduous march to the northeast, into the high mountainous plains of Phrygia, in modern Anatolia, with the clear intention of locating Darius’ army and defeating it in a decisive battle.2 There are at least two recorded themes that reveal Alexander’s strategic initiative. The first are the statements repeated in all the sources indicating that he accepted as his foremost mission to find Darius and take him out. After the hard-fought victories at Miletos and Halikarnassos, Plutarch says that “at this point Alexander hesitated to see what his next step should be. Time and time he was impelled to seek out Darius and risk everything upon the issue of a single battle” (Plut., Alex. 17). Curtius delivers the same analysis: “He also pressed on with the business of Darius who, he had learned, had not yet crossed the Euphrates. He consolidated his troops from every quarter so as to have his full strength for the decisive engagement of this momentous war” (Curt. 3.10). Curtius says upon reaching Gordion: “Alexander had now determined to attack Darius wherever he was” (Curt. 3.19). Diodorus too indicates that Alexander after capturing Miletos was spoiling for a winner-take-all shoot-out with Darius, insisting that “there was bound to be a great battle” (Diod. 17.23), while Plutarch


In the absence of any method of generating reliable military intelligence, the difficulties involved with simply trying to locate the whereabouts of an opposing army seem to have been prodigious, due no doubt to the vast expanse of territory contained by the Persian Empire. But there is often difficulty even when the armies are close by, as remarked by our sources in the days and weeks before the Battle of Issus, when both armies passed by each other unnoticed. Tight Persian security is another problem that is mentioned by Curtius: “Alexander meanwhile devoted the utmost care in ascertaining Darius’ destination, but he was unable to discover this because of the Persian custom of concealing the secrets of their kings with an amazing degree of loyalty…” (Curt., 4.5).

7 joins the chorus by asserting that Alexander “was impelled to seek out Darius and risk everything upon the issue of a single battle” (Plut., Alex. 17). Equally convincing evidence suggesting that Alexander had no intention as of yet to head south and attack the seaport cities is shown by his decision to depart the coast on a road leading north and east along the classic trade route which runs east-west from Lydia to Susa, called the “Royal Road,” (or, as it was to become known in later centuries, the “Old Road to Baghdad”). 3 This was a caravan route that is no doubt older than any historic record of it, since towns situated along the road such as Gordion had been settled already in the Bronze Age.4 After negotiating surrender and settlement with some less important towns on the way,5 Alexander reached Gordion and paused there long enough to await military reinforcements coming from Macedonia to join his forces, no doubt affording him plenty of time to craft a solution to the problem of loosing the Gordian Knot.6 Next we hear from Curtius, Arrian and Plutarch that the 3

Diodorus to be sure omits the entire episode of Alexander’s march to Gordion, and therewith of course the story of the unloosening of the knot. He says that instead of marching to the Anatolian Plateau, the Macedonians “overran the littoral as far as Cilicia” (Diod. 17.27.6), and then he describes how Darius in Babylon decided to “march down with all his armed forces and fight the Macedonians” (Diod. 17.30.1), which he estimates at 400,000 infantry and 100,000 cavalry (Diod. 17.31.20). 4 “The importance of Gordion was that it was on the great royal road from Sardes to Susa. From Sardes to Gordion was 220 miles covered in twelve daily stages. From Gordion to the fortress protecting the crossing of the River Halys on the border of Kappadokia was 135 miles and eight stages. From there to the two fortress-protected defiles on the Kilikian border was 390 miles and twenty-eight stages. From the defiles to the Armenian boundary on the River Euphrates was fifty-eight miles and three stages, and across the Matienian land including four ferries was 515 miles and thirty-four stages. To Susa from there was 160 miles and eleven stages. All these stages represent day’s marches for small parties of ordinary travelers. Persian royal messengers managed two stages per day, while a large army might cover only half as far.” Phil Barker, Alexander the Great’s Campaigns. A Guide to Ancient Political and Military Wargaming. (Cambridge, U.K.: Patrick Stephens, 1979), 75. Scholars typically have overlooked the significance of the route chosen by Alexander in determining his military goals; Barker too brings no explanation of Alexander’s sudden change of plans to move south across the Taurus Mountains and pass through the Cilician Gates. Barker calculates a daily stage on this long road lying between ten and twenty miles, depending on the terrain, and halves it for armies. A normal day’s march for the Macedonians is often mentioned to have been about thirteen miles, yet it is also recorded that they could cover as many as seventy miles when undertaking a forced march. 5 Curtius describes Phrygia as a country of “more villages than cities” (Curt. 3.11). 6 Over 3000 Macedonian troops joined up with Alexander at Gordion, all commanded by Ptolemy, son of Seleucus (Arr. 1.29).

8 Macedonians continued their journey eastward on the Royal Road first to Ancyra, where he was met by a delegation of Paphlagonians who duly rendered their submission, and from Anycra to Cappadocia, “where he received the submission of all territory bounded by the River Halys and also of a large tract of land to the west and north beyond it” (Arr. 2.4). The three sources then simply announce that Alexander left the Royal Road and marched south across the Taurus Mountains through the Cilician Gates into the plains near Issus, where of course the first engagement with Darius’ army soon took place. Although our sources don’t explain why Alexander suddenly decided to head south instead of continuing on to Susa, the logical inference is that he found out no later than Cappadocia that Darius was on the march across Syria, and because of his universally acknowledged eagerness to stake all on a decisive battle, he consequently took direct action to face the Persians as rapidly as possible.7 It appears that Alexander didn’t know Darius’ location when he began operations in the Anatolian Plateau, and, after summoning reinforcements from Macedonia, it seems at least possible that he was preparing to march on to Susa to force a confrontation in the Persian heartland. Examining the sources to resolve what Darius was actually doing during the period after the Macedonian victories in Miletos and Halikarnassos, we find only in Curtius a satisfactory report of his activities, and indeed a very detailed one. Viewing his generals as less competent than himself, Darius decides that he must take command of the field in person, and after a “hurried mobilization” he begins by staging a huge public display of his entire military strength in a specially constructed arena at Babylon (Curt. 3.2.1-9). In what must have looked like a Soviet-style military 7

Of course it is fascinating to speculate what would have happened if the Macedonians had immediately marched on to the Euphrates instead, having already covered about a third of the distance, which would have forced Darius to return home from Syria to deal with the foreign invaders. But Alexander of course couldn’t wait.

9 parade, the Persian king had all his columns, which included two hundred thousand warriors summoned from all over the kingdom, march past him, “from sunrise to nightfall” (Curt. 3.2.1-8). Curtius then goes on to describe with much gusto the whole line-up of the fighting units and the assembled mobs of noncombatants, including Darius’ mom, wife, children, all their relatives and attendants, 360 concubines and a “herd of eunuchs” (Curt., 3.3.8-26). Unfortunately Curtius neglects to tell us where they were all going, but since in his narrative we next find Darius and his army suddenly transported to the area near Issus, we can assume that a decision had been taken to cross Syria and search for Alexander’s army. Diodorus says only that it was known to Alexander around the time of his arrival in Cilicia “that Darius had already left Babylon with his army” (Diod. 17.31.5). Plutarch says that when Alexander was still engaged on the Anatolian Plateau in the process of “winning over” the peoples of Cappadocia and Paphlagonia, Darius was meanwhile on the march from Susa to the coast (Plut., Alex. 18). None of our sources state explicitly that Alexander turned south to Cilicia as a result of learning the destination of Darius’ army, but three of them mention another story that may have had some bearing on the strategic planning of both commanders: the death of Memnon, a Greek mercenary officer from Rhodes who commanded the Persian mercenaries at the battle of River Granicus, and who was appointed by Darius commander of the Persian fleet after escaping from Halikarnassos when Alexander captured it. Plutarch says Darius had entrusted the entire defense of the coast of Asia Minor to Memnon, and that he would have offered the greatest resistance to Alexander’s advance had he lived (Plut., Alex. 18). Memnon however died in August 333, one month before Alexander marched to Cilicia. Plutarch indicates that the news confirmed Alexander’s resolve to march “to the interior” (Plut., Alex. 18). Unfortunately

10 Plutarch doesn’t tell us to the interior of what exactly, but we might well think that Memnon’s unexpected removal from the campaign may have influenced Alexander’s decision to return to the seacoast. Perhaps Memnon’s incursions in the Aegean had caused Alexander to regret having disbanding the Macedonian naval fleet at Miletos. It is certainly clear to Diodorus that Alexander had been watching how “Memnon had won over Chios and the cities in Lesbos and had taken Mitylene by storm” (Diod. 17.31.3). Alexander had learned also that Memnon “planned to carry the war into Macedonia… while the greater part of the Greeks were ready to revolt” (Diod. 17.31.5).8 Arrian describes in detail Memnon’s troublemaking in the Aegean; he seems to indicate that Alexander found out about Memnon’s death while in Gordion; and Arrian opines that this was “the most serious setback which Persia received during this period of the war” (Arr. 2.1). Curtius carries this chain of thought a step further by explaining that Darius was “duly distressed” by Memnon’s death, and indeed served as the decisive factor that led Darius to assume command of the Persian forces personally, “abandoning hope of any other option” (Curt. 3.2.1). The Battle at Issus in November 333 ended very quickly with a total rout of Darius’ forces, and it marked the beginning of the end for the Persian empire. Remnants of the defeated army scattered and fled in all directions, many or most of whom eventually reunited with Darius at the Euphrates (Curt. 4.1.1-3). Alexander was then faced with a crucial strategic decision whether to give 8

The Persians evidently hoped that Memnon would threaten Alexander’s rear by inciting revolts in the Greek islands, and later on the mainland as well. As we mentioned above, Diodorus contradicts Plutarch and Arrian by saying that Alexander had learned of Memnon’s demise shortly before he fell sick in Cilicia (Diod. 17.31.5). This seems mostly unlikely, since Memnon died in August and Alexander arrived there in September. Curtius says explicitly that Alexander found out about it before reaching Ancyra (Curt. 3.1.21). Diodorus’ view that Alexander was already greatly worried about Memnon invading Macedonia seems a bit overwrought, since not that much time had elapsed since he was expelled from Halikarnassos a few months previous.

11 immediate chase and force a second confrontation. His decision not to do so postponed a conclusion to the Persian campaign by two years. Our sources do not record his thoughts on the matter, but report instead that after placing Ptolemy in charge of Syria, he set about dismantling Darius’ southwest Asian empire by capturing all the major coastal cities in Phoenicia and continuing down the length of the Levant to Gaza, before entering Egypt on what was to become a likely unanticipated stay of several months. Perhaps after Issus Alexander wanted to begin right away the process of building up his new empire, or to continue the plan begun earlier to neutralize the Persian fleet by eliminating its supply bases.9 Surely he would have realized that without establishing political stability in Syria his new empire could never remain secure. By hunting down Darius immediately after Issus, Alexander may have felt that in so doing he would only delay those actions that would have required his personal attention and presence in the southern Mediterranean, and for which he would have had to return to Syria later on. After narrating Alexander’s relentless progress in capturing the major coastal cities of the Levant, the sources next provide a reasonably unified picture of Alexander’s accomplishments in Egypt, which may be grouped into four important thematic areas: 1) the formal handover of power by the Persian satrap and the subsequent entry into Memphis; 2) the journey to the oracle of AmmonZeus in Siwa; 3) the foundation of the city of Alexandria; and 4) the administrative reorganization of Egypt with the appointment of Greeks and Macedonians as the new officers and agents of Alexander’s empire. The surrender of Egypt at Pelusium was effected by Mazaces, the Persian governor who according to Arrian had been left high and dry without military 9

Indeed he gained a new fleet, as the commanders of the formerly Persian vessels, left now without support, pledged their loyalty to Alexander instead (Arr., 2.20).

12 support following Darius’ “ignominious scramble for safety” after Issus (Arr. 3.1). Important in Arrian’s narrative is that Alexander took part in the worship of native Egyptian deities at Memphis, indicating at least his open-mindedness, if not outright enthusiasm, regarding the exercise of local rites. There is disagreement in the sources concerning whether Alexandria was founded before or after the trip to Siwa, Plutarch and Arrian saying before, and Curtius and Diodorus indicating after. Arrian’s statement that Alexander chose the site because he “felt the new city would prosper,” is the one indication that it may have been founded for economic reasons (Arr. 3.2). All our sources are greatly interested in Alexander’s visit to the oracle––each devotes more time to this episode than to any other event in Egypt––although the exact nature of the conversation, which may have targeted the question of Alexander’s divine parentage or his role as world-conqueror, remains frustratingly unclear. In any event the most significant immediate accomplishment of Alexander’s stay in Egypt was the transformation of the political, administrative and economic organization of the country. Numerous Greeks and Macedonians were appointed to a whole series of newly-created offices––caution being taken, as Arrian suggests, to avoid assigning absolute control over the country to any one individual (Arr. 3.5-6). Alexander’s absorption with Egypt’s internal affairs––political, religious and cultural––makes it easy for us to agree with Arrian’s statement that he was indeed “deeply impressed with Egypt” (Arr. 3.6), recognizing not only its past glory,10 but also its future potential. Certainly a more different and exotic environment compared with his native Macedonia could hardly be imagined. 10

In a beautifully phrased passage Curtius extends Alexander’s pothos to include an appreciation of Egyptian and––as he was hoping to oberve personally––even Ethiopian architecture: “In his longing to explore antiquities, the famous palace of Memnon and Tithonus was drawing him almost beyond the boundaries of the sun” (Curt., 4.8.1).

13 And one imagines also that it was with considerable reluctance that “at the first sign of spring Alexander left Memphis, crossing the Nile by a bridge that had been built for him over the river and all its canals, and marched for Phoenicia” (Arr. 3.6). In spring along the banks of the Nile the long march to Gaugamela had begun.11


Marred only by the death of Parmenion’s son Hector, who died after his boat sank (Curt. 3.8.1).



Arrian. The Campaigns of Alexander. Translated by Aubrey de Selincourt. Harmondsworth, U.K.: Penguin Books, 1971. Barker, Phil. Alexander the Great’s Campaigns. A Guide to Ancient Political and Military Wargaming. Cambridge, U.K.: Patrick Stephens, 1979.

Diodorus of Sicily. Books XVI. 66 - XVII. Translated by C. Bradford Welles. Loeb Classical Library, Vol. VIII. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1963. Plutarch. The Age of Alexander: Nine Greek Lives by Plutarch. Translated by Ian Scott-Kilvert. Harmondsworth, U.K.: Penguin Books, 1977.

Rufus, Quintus Curtius. The History of Alexander. Translated by John Yardley. Harmondsworth, U.K.: Penguin Books, 1984.

Strategies of Conquest: Alexander’s Persian Campaigns 333-331 BC  

Alexander the Great in Egypt

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