Master & Commander: The 5 Most Important Wins of Alexander the Great’s Career

Master & Commander: The 5 Most Important Wins of Alexander the Great’s Career

Patrick Lynch - November 28, 2016

Alexander the Great is widely regarded as one of the best commanders in history and regularly tops the ‘best general’ lists compiled by historians. He was born in Pella, Macedon, in 356 BC and became King of Macedonia in 336 BC when his father, Philip II, died. There is no question that he inherited a high-quality army but the first couple of years of his reign were marked by upheaval within his country.

After skillfully suppressing insurgents, he turned his attention towards conquest with Persia seen as the biggest prize. By the time he was 30 years of age, he had created one of the largest empires of all time which stretched from Greece all the way to northwest India. Alexander was never defeated in battle and often overcome a numerical disadvantage to emerge victorious. As well as tactical brilliance, he was also capable of rousing his army in a manner few leaders have achieved.

Throughout history, Alexander has been the benchmark against which great commanders are measured. It is impossible to say how much territory he would have conquered had he lived beyond the age of 32. After his success against Porus in 326 BC, his men forced him to return home. However, he was planning a new series of campaigns in Arabia before his untimely death at the palace of Nebuchadnezzar II in Babylon in 323 BC.

Perhaps it is a testament to how much his enemies feared and respected him that Alexander was only involved in a handful of major battles in his career. In this article, I look at his five most significant victories.

Master & Commander: The 5 Most Important Wins of Alexander the Great’s Career
History of Macedonia

1 – Battle of the Granicus (334 BC)

The Battle of the Granicus was the first pitched battle of Alexander’s reign and is arguably the one where he was closest to disaster and death. After becoming King Alexander III of Macedonia in 336 BC upon the death of his father, Philip II, he quickly gained the support of the army but found himself to be the ruler of a rebellious kingdom. He needed to quell this unrest before doing anything else, and he destroyed the barbarian revolts which threatened his reign. Now he was free to pursue his father’s dream which was to conquer the Persian Empire.

When Alexander crossed the Hellespont and arrived in the city of Troy, Persian King Darius III apparently didn’t feel threatened as he decided not to bother meeting the young troublemaker. At a conference between local satraps loyal to the Persians, they elected to combine their forces and meet the invader at the River Granicus. Instead of waiting until morning to attack, Alexander ordered his men to fight on the very afternoon they reached the river.

Historians disagree on the exact number of soldiers (18,000-30,000 on each side), but it appears as if the armies were evenly matched. A succession of blunders ruined Persian chances of victory from the outset. For example, placing its 5,000 cavalry on the banks of the river was a disastrous move. It was unable to move forward or back and was effectively trapped once the fighting began. The Persian chariots were useless on the muddy ground, and they had little or no leadership.

In contrast, the Macedonians were a well-organized fighting unit with a confident young leader. Alexander made sure he was conspicuous by wearing brightly colored clothes and a white plume on his helmet. If the plan was to distract the enemy, it worked as the Persians became fixated on killing him rather than dealing with the battle as a whole. Alexander was the aggressor from the start, and once his men reached the opposite bank of the river, the fight became a hand-to-hand combat affair.

The Macedonians gained the upper hand, and Alexander spotted that Mithridates, son-in-law of Darius, was detached from the Persian cavalry. However, he was almost killed by a Persian called Rhoesaces who cracked the Macedonian’s helmet with his sword. One of Alexander’s men, Cleitus the Black, saved his king and changed the course of history in the process. The Persians quickly fell apart after losing several leaders. Instead of pursuing the fleeing enemy, Alexander ordered his army to stay, and they began slaughtering the Greek mercenaries that had aligned themselves with the Persians. The Macedonians marched on with little resistance until they encountered the enemy at Issus.

Master & Commander: The 5 Most Important Wins of Alexander the Great’s Career
Battle of Issus (GJCL Classical Art History)

2 – Battle of Issus (333 BC)

After winning at the Granicus, Alexander moved forward and crossed the Dardanelles. He took over a few Greek towns and told the inhabitants to support his army, and they would no longer have to pay tribute to the Persians. Although he had enjoyed a solid year of success, Alexander faced several problems. He had little money left to pay his mercenaries and Memnon, one of the defeated commanders at the Granicus, was terrorizing towns in Greece as he sought revenge.

Alexander didn’t know whether he should keep going forward to try and defeat the Persians or return home to deal with the unrest. According to legend, at Gordium, he managed to undo a particularly perplexing knot. The man who did so was supposed to one day rule all Asia. Alexander was apparently seeking a sign to tell him if he should proceed or return home; the undoing of the knot convinced him to march forward.

By the middle of July 333 BC, Darius finally reacted to the threat and assembled an enormous force. Initially, at least, Darius outsmarted Alexander by not making an approach through the Syrian Gates as his rival was expecting. After having his communication lines cut, the Macedonian leader had no choice but to force his men to march around 70 miles in just two days. Eventually, he arrived at Issus where he was heavily outnumbered by the enemy. As always, estimates vary though it appears as if Alexander had little more than 40,000 men. In contrast, the Persians probably had at least 100,000 soldiers. Ancient estimates of 250,000+ Persians are almost certainly an exaggeration.

In wet and windy weather, the two forces met at the River Penarus. Darius made the mistake of moving his army to this area; it reduced his mobility and the effectiveness of his chariots. He ignored one of his top Greek commanders, Charidamus, who suggested that he fight Alexander alone while Darius divided his forces. Charidamus made some disparaging remarks about Persians and was executed for his trouble. This was another huge mistake as it deprived the Persians of a capable leader.

The river valley, mountains, and sea all hampered Darius’ army, and they were quickly put on the defensive by Alexander and his phalanx formation. Darius failed to break through the Macedonian right flank and was unable to drive his enemy back across the river. The Persian leader was initially forced to flee the battlefield on a chariot, and once his army saw him leave, it panicked. The result was hundreds of Persians trampled to death and an utter failure for Darius.

In their haste, the Persians left behind gold and silver while Darius’ wife and two daughters were found in the king’s tent. Darius offered half of his kingdom in return for his family, but Alexander refused because he wanted to meet his rival on the battlefield once more.

Master & Commander: The 5 Most Important Wins of Alexander the Great’s Career
Siege of Tyre (HubPages)

3 – The Siege of Tyre (332 BC)

Alexander had achieved a significant amount of momentum with his win at Issus and was able to march into Phoenicia and take Sidon and Byblus without resistance. He wanted to make a sacrifice to the God Heracles in Tyre, but its residents believed this to be a ploy designed to allow the Macedonians to take the city. They told him he could make the sacrifice at Old Tyre which had no strategic importance. The Tyrians knew it was a declaration of war but were confident that their city would be able to withstand any attack.

Their confidence was not unfounded as the city was an island approximately 0.8 kilometers from the shore. The walls on the landward side were around 150 feet high according to estimates, and the Tyrian army and navy were formidable. Their women and children were evacuated to Carthage, and 40,000 people remained to defend the city. The Carthaginians also promised to send more ships, men, and supplies.

The siege began in January 332 BC, and Alexander constructed a causeway across the channel which was designed to go right to the walls of the city. Things started smoothly enough until the engineering team came to a point where the seafloor shelved sharply to a depth of 18 feet. The work gang was also close enough to the city to be bombarded by missiles from the Tyrians.

The Macedonians got around this issue by building two siege towers at the end of the causeway. There were artillery engines at the top as a means of returning fire and the construction of the causeway recommenced. The Tyrians launched one successful attack which burnt some siege engines, but Alexander refused to quit. He asked for the causeway to be widened, and more artillery towers were built. He also briefly left the siege to get more ships from Sidon; places such as Cicilia, Rhodes, and Lycia also offered him ships.

Alexander sailed this fleet straight for Tyre and completely surprised the Tyrians. They responded with further artillery assaults and eventually took to the water with 13 galleys and destroyed a couple of Alexander’s ships. The Macedonians launched a fierce counterattack which damaged some Tyrian ships. He was able to bring his ships beneath the walls and began bombarding them with battering rams. After several days, the Macedonians finally made a breakthrough and streamed into the city.

Thousands of Tyrians fled to the old fortress of Agenorium but were quickly massacred. The angry Alexander displayed his ruthless streak as 8,000 Tyrians were slaughtered with 30,000 more sold into slavery. He made his sacrifice to Heracles and could now turn his attention to conquering Egypt.

Master & Commander: The 5 Most Important Wins of Alexander the Great’s Career
(History Sites by Knox – Boise State University)

4 – Battle of Gaugamela (331BC)

This was the battle that resulted in Alexander finally defeating the Persians. Once again, he came up against Persian King Darius III, this time at Gaugamela on the Persian plains in 331 BC. Darius appeared to have learned from his defeat at Issus as he ensured the battleground favored his army. Gaugamela offered a flat terrain which was ideal for his scythe-wheeled chariots. In fact, Darius ordered the territory to be plowed and leveled to make it as flat as possible.

Estimates vary significantly with regard to the size of the respective armies. One of the best-known ancient sources, Arrian, claims the Persians had an army of one million men. He is supported in this claim by Plutarch and Diodorus Siculus, but these numbers are almost certainly complete exaggerations if not fabrications. While Hans Delbruck claims the Persians probably didn’t have more than 50,000 men, it is possible that Darius had over 100,000 men at his disposal. Most historians agree that Alexander’s army had no more than 47,000 soldiers. Regardless of the actual numbers, it seems likely that the Macedonian commander was heavily outnumbered.

Once he arrived at Gaugamela, Alexander assembled a small scouting team and was fortunate to capture an advance party sent by Darius. He was able to get information regarding the size of the Persian army along with details about various obstacles and traps on the field. Armenia was one of Alexander’s trusted commanders, and he recommended a night assault, yet Alexander disagreed and decided to wait. He gave a speech about the upcoming battle and assured his men that the eclipse of the moon was a sign of a certain victory.

If Alexander was nervous, he certainly didn’t show it as he allegedly overslept on the morning of the battle. While his men were well-fed and well-rested, the Persians were exhausted as they stayed up all night waiting for an attack that never materialized. After another speech, Alexander took the right flank; Parmenio commanded the left while the phalanx and archers held the middle. Also, Alexander placed infantry at the rear and on the right and left flanks to protect against a Persian flanking maneuver.

Historians claim Alexander tricked the Persians by continuing to move right; he knew the enemy would be forced to move left to contain him. In doing so, the Persians ended up on less suitable terrain and an opening was created which the Macedonian commander charged through. Meanwhile, Darius’s idea to attack the center with chariots was a disaster as the phalanx simply moved aside and allowed the chariots through. Alexander’s infantry then attacked and soon, the Persians were overwhelmed. It is alleged that Alexander threw a spear at Darius and missed him by inches.

The Persian army fled, and Darius managed to escape. However, he was murdered by Bassus, one of his commanders. Alexander was outraged to see a respected rival murdered in such a manner and gave the former Persian king a dignified funeral ceremony at Persepolis. He hunted down Bassus and had him executed. The death of Darius is usually recognized as the official fall of the Achaemenid Empire.

Master & Commander: The 5 Most Important Wins of Alexander the Great’s Career
Battle of Hydaspes (Pinterest)

5 – Battle of Hydaspes (326 BC)

By now, Alexander and his army had been fighting almost continuously since they left Macedonia in 334 BC. For most commanders, conquering vast swathes of territory would have been enough, and they would have returned home; but not Alexander. Despite the objections of his loyal and weary men, he turned his attention to India in a bid to add to his conquests of Greece, Asia Minor, Egypt and Persia. When he reached the Hydaspes River in 326 BC, he was to meet one of his greatest foes; King Porus.

As Alexander marched through Asia, he ignored the protestations of his army and pressed onwards until he reached a place that the Greeks called India but is actually modern day Pakistan. He met a local leader called Taxiles in a place called Taxila and made an alliance whereby Taxiles allowed Alexander to use his city and take his supplies in exchange for defeating another local ruler called Porus who reigned in what is now known as Punjab, India. Alexander sent an agent to the Indian leader where he offered a peaceful resolution. Porus refused to pay tribute and announced that he would meet his enemy in battle.

The combatants met at Hydaspes River in what was the fourth and final pitched battle of Alexander’s amazing career. Historians often refer to this battle as Alexander’s masterpiece as it is arguably his best victory; it was also the triumph that cost him the most. As well as suffering over 1,000 casualties, Alexander’s beloved horse Bucephalus was mortally wounded.

Alexander and his army of around 50,000 men set up directly across the river from Porus’ army of 60,000 men and up to 200 elephants. Porus quite reasonably assumed that his rival would be forced to wait until the monsoon season ended and created a defensive position along the river. Alexander knew his opponent expected him to remain in his location for several months and played along by ordering huge grain shipments from Taxiles.

Porus believed he had an ace up his sleeve with his elephants which had never been seen by Western armies before. The sight of these huge beasts did not worry the Macedonian who ordered his men to find a suitable place to cross the river. Eventually, they found a heavily wooded area at a bend in the river around 18 miles from the camp. In the midst of a thunderstorm, Alexander and around 26,000 of his men attempted the crossing. Instead of finding the shore on the other side of the river, they found a small island first which almost certainly aided their journey.

Porus knew of the crossing but made an error in judgment by sending his son with 3,000 cavalry and around 120 chariots. They were destroyed but instead of pushing on, Alexander wisely waited for the rest of his men to cross. Eventually, the enemies met in battle, and Alexander used his familiar tactic of attacking the flanks with cavalry. His horse archers bombarded the Indian elephants with arrows; the large animals became frightened and revolted and ended up causing more damage to their side.

Alexander’s generals swarmed the enemy from the sides, and by the end of the battle, some 12,000 Indians were dead compared to just 1,000 Macedonians. According to legend, Alexander asked his fallen rival how he wanted to be treated, and Porus replied ‘like a king.’ The victorious commander was impressed by his defeated enemy and not only spared him; he gave Porus his own kingdom as Alexander’s satrap along with additional territory.

Hydaspes River was to be Alexander’s last great triumph. He finally agreed to return home at the behest of his men but came back to Babylon a few years later. Alas, he was apparently succumbed to fever and died in 323 BC while planning yet another campaign. Some historians claim that the Macedonians were attacked numerous times while traveling south towards the sea after defeating Porus. Alexander was supposedly hit with an arrow, and the wound he suffered may ultimately have contributed to his premature death a few years later.

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