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Age of Antiquity
Alexander the Great
Master of the Middle East
In October, 336 BCE, 20-year-old Alexander III succeeded his father, Philip II, as king of Macedonia. He had inherited a difficult position: Philip's great enterprise, an alliance against Persia called the Corinthian League, was poised to fall apart unless Alexander could hold it together, but he was beset by a rival heir, political opponents, and unsettled borders. Yet less than 18 months after assuming the throne, Alexander was leading the League's armies into Asia Minor (modern Turkey): he had disposed of rivals, crushed the mountain tribes threatening his borders, and cowed the wavering city-states of the League back into line with a speed -- and sometimes a brutality -- that awed the Greek world. Despite his impressive beginning, the prospects for Alexander's invasion looked poor. The Persian Empire had been the dominant power in the region for centuries. It had attacked mainland Greece more than once and many times had intervened in the wars and politics of the city-states; seldom had the Greeks been able to carry the war to Persia and never with much success. Darius III, the Persian ruler, had under his command armies and navies many times larger than Alexander's; he had vast amounts of treasure to finance his wars and comparatively secure control of his lands, while Alexander was deeply in debt and had to worry about troubles at home -- most particularly the aggression of Sparta, which had not joined the Corinthian League and had a history of enlisting help from the Persian fleet against its fellow Greeks. Even taking control of Asia Minor, with its many Greek-speaking cities on the coast, seemed a daunting task; few Greeks had any thought of more. But loftier ambitions drove Alexander: he desired nothing less than to rule the Persian Empire, which the Greeks believed covered all of Asia. He soon demonstrated to the Persians he had a realistic chance to achieve his goal: he won victory after victory, often outnumbered, sometimes from bad positions. The Greek infantry, called the phalanx, overmatched even the best Persian foot soldiers; and Alexander and his generals had greater insight into strategy and tactics than the Persian commanders. Within a year all of Asia Minor had been conquered, and Alexander's forces had penetrated into modern Lebanon and Syria. Darius, realizing he faced a serious threat, led a large army in person to crush the invader. The Persians managed to catch the Greeks in a trap at Issus on the river Pinarus (near modern Iskanderum, Turkey) -- but Alexander fought his way out, destroying the opposing army and driving Darius to flight. Alexander, pursuing Darius, found his abandoned chariot and weaponry; Parmenion, Alexander's second-in-command, captured Darius's gold before the Persians could move it to safety; in the Persian camp, the Greeks found Darius's wife, mother, and daughters, whom Alexander treated with the courtesy due royal ladies. From the brink of disaster, Alexander had rebounded to his most advantageous situation yet. Force having failed, the Persian king tried negotiation. During the siege of the great port city Tyre, Persian ambassadors brought Alexander an offer: Darius would cede all of his lands west of the Euphrates River and pay 10,000 talents of gold as ransom for the return of his family captured at Issus; Alexander could marry one of his daughters and become his ally. Alexander met with his council to debate this offer. 'I would accept, were I Alexander,' advised Parmenion. 'So would I, were I Parmenion,' replied Alexander. Alexander told the ambassadors he saw no reason to settle for part of Darius's empire when he could take it all. When Darius received this answer, he realized fighting was his only option; he and his commanders began devising new plans to stop this formidable enemy.
The invasion came to its crisis in the summer of 331 BCE, when Alexander, having secured Asia Minor, the entire Eastern Mediterranean coast, and Egypt, turned toward the heartland of the Persian empire. Taking the coast had eliminated the Persian navy as an effective force by depriving it of ports; control of Egypt helped to feed the Greek soldiers, as the Nile Valley was one of the most bountiful food sources in that part of the world. Now Alexander readied his army to march to Babylon and force a decisive battle with Darius. When the Greeks began moving east, Darius put into action his counterplan. With the summer sun rendering the desert between the Euphrates and Tigris rivers deadly, the enemy had 2 possible routes to Babylon: the Euphrates route described in the 'Anabasis' of Xenophon, a book well-known to Alexander and his generals; and the fabled Road of Kings beyond the Tigris, a region unknown to the Greeks. A small Persian advance force seemingly tried to prevent the Greeks from crossing the Euphrates; but its actual purpose was to lure the enemy into unfamiliar terrain. Alexander, seeing his foe try to keep him south of the river, concluded the Persians must be ready for him along the Euphrates; so he crossed the river and sought the Road of Kings. When Darius learned that Alexander had turned toward the Tigris, he ordered the advance force to lay waste to the lands along Alexander's route to prevent him from finding food. The Persian king saw his opportunity to end this war with a single battle: with the Greeks marching past their supply limit into barren country, a defeat probably would destroy their army completely. Darius assembled his new army at Arbela (modern Irbil, Iraq). Mindful of earlier defeats, he chose the plains of Gaugamela about 50 miles to the east as his battlefield. His troops much outnumbered Alexander's, especially in horsemen; the open ground of the plains would allow his commanders to make full use of the extra men. He set his men to work preparing the battlefield: they leveled the ground in the center to get full use of their scythe-bearing chariots, a non-factor in the previous battles against Alexander; elsewhere they strewed obstacles intended to funnel the enemy advance onto the leveled ground. When the field was ready, the Persians simply waited for the Greeks to arrive. Soon afterward, Greek scouts spotted the Persian encampment; Alexander brought his army to Gaugamela by the most direct route. Though outnumbered, undernourished, in unfamiliar territory, and heading for battleground specially chosen and prepared to favor the Persians, Alexander's battle-tested veterans felt no misgivings about the upcoming confrontation: they possessed the kind of confidence brought only by a long uninterrupted string of victories. The stage was set for the climactic battle both kings wanted; its outcome would shape the course of the future in ways neither king imagined.
On the morning of September 30, the Greeks descended from the hills and got their first look at the Persian army. Darius, warned by his scouts of the Greek approach, drew up his army into battle formation. But he did not order an attack: he wanted the Greeks to come to him. Darius planned to use his chariots to soften up the hitherto invincible phalanx; before making his move, he wanted the phalanx on the ground prepared for chariot runs. While the Greek army set up camp, Alexander and his personal cavalry reconnoitered the plain. Alexander noted the Persian preparations and disposition; he considered why the Persians did not attack. His reconnaissance complete, Alexander returned to his camp and ordered his commanders to have the men eat, sleep, and be ready for battle the next morning. In the event, this worked doubly to Alexander's advantage: not only were his troops well-rested for the upcoming battle, but the enemy's troops began the fray already tired. The Persians had a practice of making sacrifices to the sun-god before marching their army; in previous encounters, Alexander had exploited this to move his troops unopposed and gain an advantage. Darius and his generals expected him to do so again, this time by attacking at night; so the Persians stood at arms all night, braced for an assault that did not come until the following morning. At dawn on October 1, the Greeks readied themselves for action while Alexander discussed the situation with his commanders. He had hoped the Persians would attack and expose a weakness he could exploit. But with the Persians still waiting behind their carefully prepared position, he realized he had to make the first move. Alexander, never reluctant to take the initiative, presented a plan of attack that took into account all he had seen and surmised; he ordered his commanders to place his troops in the unusual formation this plan required. Both armies fought with infantry in the center, protected on the left and right by wings composed mainly of horsemen. Alexander had decided his right wing would make the main attack, supported by the phalanx -- partly because the natural motion of the phalanx was slightly rightward, as each soldier subconsciously moved toward the protection of the shield carried in the left hand of his neighbor . Therefore he made his right, which he would command in person, stronger than the left. Parmenion, commanding the left, was ordered simply to defend if attacked. The Persian battleline was twice the length of the Greek; much of the Persian surplus was in cavalry, creating a grave risk of encirclement. Alexander took some battalions from his phalanx, thereby shortening its battleline, and used these battalions to create a second phalanx. This second infantry line was to follow behind the first at a distance -- unless Persians got behind the Greek army, when they were to turn about and prevent attacks from the rear. Alexander deployed his mobile cavalry wings in lines that angled back from the front phalanx almost to the rear phalanx; the resulting formation was similar to a hollow square. The javelin men were posted to the front of the phalanx, opposite the enemy chariots; most of the archers were placed between the phalanx and the cavalry on the right wing. Having organized his forces, Alexander now ordered them to move right and forward at a pace slow enough to avoid disruption by the prepared obstacles. He had two aims in mind: to move his infantry away from the prepared chariot ground, and, if the Persians remained passive, to attack with the entire Greek army against the Persian left wing before the distant right and slow-moving center could intervene. When Darius saw the phalanx moving away from the carefully prepared chariot runs, he ordered cavalry from his left to turn the Greek right flank and so prevent further rightward progress. Because of the Greek formation, though, the Persian attempt to outflank failed; a sharp clash ensued, in which the Greeks eventually gained the upper hand. Alexander's army continued advancing and moving right. Darius, fearing his chariots would become useless, launched them before the phalanx could get clear of the leveled ground; he also loosed a strong attack from his right wing against the Greek left. Despite the fearsome look of the chariots, the Greeks handled them with ease. The javelin men and archers cut down many horses before they reached the phalanx. Some chariots avoided the missiles, but the Greeks opened ranks to allow them through; the chariots slowed considerably when they reached unprepared ground and were dealt with easily by a contingent of the shield-bearing guards. The Persians had more success on the right: the attack by Mazeus, commander of the Persian right wing, halted Parmenion's advance. Two battalions of the phalanx stopped to support Parmenion; when the rest of the phalanx continued its advance, a gap opened in the Greek line, allowing Persian horsemen to burst through. But instead of finding easy attacks on the divided Greek forces, the Persians saw Alexander's second phalanx coming on in good order. Rather than hazard their horses against the long spears of the Greek front, they passed out of the battle altogether: riding between the second line and Parmenion's rear, they fell on the Greek camp to loot and free Persian prisoners. But they were destroyed by the second infantry line, which per orders faced about, pursued the Persian horsemen, and attacked them from behind while they were busy looting. On the left, the Persians, still fighting to get behind the Greek right, suffered a fatal breakdown. Their left wing was joined to the center by two cavalry companies on the line; Bessus, commander of the left wing, sent in those horsemen to reinforce his attack. But the inexperienced foot soldiers ordered to take their place failed to close up the hole in the line -- giving Alexander the opportunity he desired. He wheeled his personal squadron left, formed a wedge with his cavalry, shield bearers, and 4 phalanx battalions, and charged through the hole into the Persian center. The Persians tried to stand firm, but had to give way before Alexander's assault; confusion replaced order as companies moving up to fight had to dodge retreating allies. The Greek wedge drove swiftly through the enemy ranks toward its goal: the royal cavalry guard and Darius himself in his chariot. As Alexander, in the forefront of his men, fought his way nearer, the strain of the long night and the bad turn of events began to tell: some of the Persians broke ranks and ran even before the Greeks reached them. As the enemy approached and their defenders fled, the royal bodyguards took Darius out of the battle to safety. Word of his departure spread rapidly, causing the last resistance in the Persian center to crumble; those who still could ran for their lives. At this point, the battle was strategically won for the Greeks. The Persian king had been driven from the field; with the center of the enemy army gone, both wings were vulnerable (in fact, the Persian left wing broke off and retreated just a short time later). So Alexander made ready to pursue Darius; but a message from Parmenion, still under strong attack by the Persian right wing, changed his mind. Alexander led his troop back to the battlefront and engaged the Persian right; there followed the fiercest fighting of the day, with order breaking down and horsemen abandoning their training to fight in whatever way they could. Eventually Mazeus withdrew to safety with those Persians who had not been crushed between Alexander's and Parmenion's cavalries, leaving the Greek army in possession of the battlefield. The battle won, Parmenion seized the Persian camp; Alexander rested a squad of horsemen, then rode swiftly to Arbela in pursuit of Darius. But already Darius had left, heading for the remote reaches of his domain; as at Issus, Alexander had to be content with destroying his opponent's army and capturing his gold, weapons, and chariot.
Though more battles lay ahead, winning this one made Alexander de facto master of the Persian Empire: he now had a clear road to the vast riches of the Persian palaces at Susa, Persepolis, and Babylon, and he never again fought under such unfavorable circumstances or against such numbers. When the Greek army reached Babylon, Mazeus surrendered the city without resistance. Less than a year later, Alexander's claim to the title 'Lord of Asia' became uncontested: Darius, still trying to build another army, was assassinated by Bessus, who hoped to take Darius's throne himself. In the 3 years after Gaugamela, Alexander conquered all of the Persian territory and pacified some of its borders; in a further 2, he expanded his conquests deep into what is now Pakistan. But there his great adventure ended: his troops refused to go farther when they learned that, rather than having reached the eastern end of Asia, they had penetrated only the edge of the vast Indian subcontinent. Alexander ordered, threatened, and cajoled his men; but finally he yielded to their demands and turned back. He busied himself in exploring, securing, and strengthening his empire, doubtless intending to create a dynasty; but he died in Persepolis less than 8 years after his victory at Gaugamela, a mere 33 years old.
Alexander's military achievement did not outlast his life: after his death, his empire was split among his most powerful generals. But his cultural impact proved more enduring: as a result of his conquests, Greek language and thought spread throughout the Middle East. Koine, a Greek dialect, became the common business language of the Eastern Mediterranean and later, when Rome conquered lands once ruled by Alexander, of the Roman Empire; the New Testament was written in Koine. Some of the many cities Alexander and his successors founded, especially Alexandria in Egypt and Antioch in Asia Minor, became great centers of knowledge. Later, the Arab peoples built on the Classical learning near at hand and took it to new heights, attaining a lofty pinnacle of science and culture. Meanwhile Europe, after the breakup of the Western Roman Empire, lost touch with much of its heritage and struggled for centuries to rediscover things known to the Greeks and Romans; over time, though, some of the ancient texts along with Arab additions filtered into Europe and helped to spark the Age of Discovery.
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History Fact of the Month
Did you know ...
The Origin of Valentine's Day?
Valentines day dates back to Roman times, when a holiday called The Feast of Lubercus was celebrated to protect shepherds and their flocks from wolves. During this time of year, goddess Juno Februata was honored by pairing boys and girls and denoting them 'partners' for a year.
Pope Gelasius declared February 14 St. Valentine's Day around 497 AD, in an effort to replace pagan holidays with Christian tradition. Although the pairing ritual was banished, romance remains the distinctive attribute of this holiday.
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