By Fred Horne '18
1 October 331 BC. The army of Alexander III, ‘the Great,’ King of Macedon and self-styled son of Zeus Ammon, glittered in the morning sun of the Plain of Gaugamela, near current-day Mosul. Four years ago, forty-nine thousand left Greece. That day, forty thousand infantry and seven thousand cavalry baked in the desert sun. Two hundred thousand infantry and forty-five thousand cavalry, drawn from the farthest reaches of the Persian Empire, and the King of Kings himself, Darius III, loomed across the Plain. Darius chose the wide, flat field for his elephants and scythe-wheeled chariots, tools he hoped would finally break the Macedonian phalanx. Darius feared Alexander, de facto ruler of Persia from Asia Minor to the Euphrates, but Darius was confident he would conquer. Alexander had no fear. Unlike the Persians, who spent the night in formation under arms, the Greeks serenely camped for the night, and Alexander was roused at daylight by a subordinate.
Alexander’s army followed his usual tactics: an oblique thrust with cavalry to the enemy’s left, supported by the inexorable phalanx’s advance toward Darius and the Persian center (Phase 1). Alexander’s thrust would create a gap in the enemy’s lines as each man tried to cover himself with his neighbor’s shield. Combined forces of Thessalian cavalry and light hypaspist infantry would defend Alexander’s flanks (red left and right, Phase 1).
Alexander won. Persian cavalry broke through his right flank, but Alexander’s main line pushed through and broke the Persian center (Phase 2). Greek archers and javelin throwers killed the charioteers, and Darius’ elephants proved unmanageable. The routed Persians fled, the last organized Persian resistance to Alexander’s advance. His victory, however, was incomplete. The commander of Alexander’s reserves, Parmenio, had panicked and called for unnecessary help when Persian cavalry broke through Alexander’s left to raid the baggage train. Darius escaped when Alexander turned to help Parmenio. Darius’ flight, however, did not save him: one of his own satraps murdered him within a year.
Alexander conquered because of tactical brilliance and superior troops. The oblique advance, although a tried-and-true tactic for Alexander, nonetheless brilliantly neutralized Persian numerical superiority. He could use such tactics because he had unmatched soldiers. The Macedonian phalanx formed the hardened core of the Greek army, and it was this heavily armored phalanx that truly broke the less-experienced and lightly armed Persian infantry. Equipped with the six-meter sarissa spear, introduced by Alexander’s father and twice the length of the conventional dory, the Macedonian phalanx was practically unbreakable on level ground. Alexander supplemented the slow-moving phalanx with light, fast infantry battalions of hypaspists. Deployed alongside Alexander’s superb Thessalian cavalry, the hypaspists formed swift battalions that prevented the phalanx from being flanked. Alexander himself led Greek cavalry and the Companions, elite Macedonian cavalry, in the decisive charge that broke the Persian line. Perhaps most important, Alexander’s troops were battle-seasoned, while the Persians were green conscripts. Alexander’s dynamic combination of unequaled heavy infantry, light infantry, and cavalry gave him tactical flexibility and a huge advantage over larger Persian forces.
The Battle of Gaugamela was a decisive victory for the Macedonians. Alexander crushed a vast army and caused the collapse of Darius’ dynasty. When Alexander found Darius’ mangled body in a wagon, he gave Darius a magnificent funeral and made himself King of Kings. This battle paved the way to Alexander’s complete takeover of the old Persian dominions, a campaign that lasted until his troops refused to enter the Ganges river system in 325 BC, forcing him to return to Babylon, where he died of poison or illness June 10, 323. Gaugamela epitomized why Alexander was called ‘the Great’: a massive, brilliant battle that changed the face of the Ancient World.
The Encyclopedia of Warfare. 2013, Amber Books Ltd. Project editors Sarah Uttridge and Michael Spilling. Foreword by Dennis Showalter. “Arbela (Gaugamela), 331 BCE.”
The Oxford Classical Dictionary. 2012, Oxford University Press. General Eds. Simon Hornblower, Antony Spawforth, and Esther Eidinow. “Alexander III.”