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Decisive Battles of History: Gaugamela

Andrew is an avid reader who enjoys researching and discussing history with others.

Read on to learn the origins and events of the battle of Gaugamela, a decisive historical battle that helped usher in the Hellenistic World.

Read on to learn the origins and events of the battle of Gaugamela, a decisive historical battle that helped usher in the Hellenistic World.

The Origins of the Conflict

The Persian Empire, founded by Cyrus the Great, was the first superpower of Western Eurasia. Cyrus conquered the Median, Neo-Babylonian and Lydian Kingdoms to establish his empire. His son Cambyses conquered Egypt not much later, and the boundaries of the Achaemenid Empire were established. In the 490s and 480s, the Persians came into contact (and, not much later, conflict) with the Greeks of Asia Minor and mainland Greece. They succeeded in subjugating the Greeks of Asia Minor, but the Persians failed to annex mainland Greece thanks to their decisive defeats at Marathon and Platae. The Greek city-states remained independent of Persia for the next 150 years, though, as usual, they spent much of this time squabbling and fighting among themselves.

In the middle of the 4th century BC, Greece was united by King Philip of Macedon, a brilliant general and politician, under whose leadership most Greek city-states and Macedon formed the Hellenic League.

Just before his assassination, Philip intended to attack Persia. However, some historians believe that Philip probably would have settled with conquering Asia Minor and would not have tried to conquer the whole Persian Empire.

Whatever his intentions, his assassination left the powerful army of Macedon and the command of the future expedition in the hands of his young son, Alexander. Alexander had to crush internal revolts before he could invade Persia, but after he mopped up resistance, he crossed into Asia Minor.

At this point, most historians believe that Darius was still not taking Alexander seriously. He had his reasons for this, of course. A vanguard of troops was sent ahead by Philip before he was assassinated, but these troops performed rather poorly and were defeated by the Greek mercenary Memnon of Rhodes.

Quiz

For each question, choose the best answer. The answer key is below.

  1. Alexander the Great remained undefeated throughout his military career.
    • True
    • False

Answer Key

  1. True

The Invasion Began

When Alexander first arrived in Asia Minor, he was not even faced by Darius, who did not bother to travel to western Anatolia to face the Macedonian upstart. Instead, the satraps of the Anatolian provinces of the Persian Empire stood against Alexander.

Memnon of Rhodes advised the satraps to retreat and use scorched earth tactics. That way, if Alexander advanced into a desolate land, his army would weaken and starve. When the Greeks became weak enough, the Persians could move to crush them.

However, this tactic would have meant that the satraps would have had to burn and destroy their provinces, a bitter pill to swallow, no doubt. If Alexander did not advance into Asia Minor after the Persians, he only had the option to retreat into Greece without achieving anything close to victory.

Memnon banked on inciting a revolt in mainland Greece, using the failure of Alexander as his tool of propaganda. He intended to use the superior Persian navy, gold and dissatisfied Greek cities to take the fight to Alexander in Greece. He no doubt hoped that he could either defeat Alexander and end his challenge once and for all or at least weaken Alexander’s army to such a degree that he would have become unable to mount another attempted invasion.

They rejected Memnon’s advice and decided to face Alexander at the Granicus River. Alexander’s battle-hardened army made short work of the satrap’s army and defeated them.

Darius made Memnon the commander of his forces after Granicus. Memnon started to scheme with dissatisfied Greeks and used the Persian navy to capture the islands of the Aegen. He also faced Alexander at the Siege of Halicarnassus and came probably the closest anyone did to defeating Alexander. In the end, he failed, and Alexander prevailed and took Halicarnassus.

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Memnon then started to conquer the Aegean Islands, but he was wounded and died after a siege. With his death, his strategy was abandoned.

The Siege of Halicarnassus

The Road to Gaugamela

In the meantime, Darius assembled an army and marched to finally cross swords with Alexander. Alexander continued his advance in Asia Minor and finally met Darius at the Battle of Issus. Despite being outnumbered 2-1, Alexander once again prevailed. Darius fled the battle once it became clear that he was losing, but Alexander captured and looted his camp and even took hostage a part of the Persian King’s family.

In the meantime, Alexander realised how dangerous a threat the Persian navy posed to him and how vulnerable his homeland was. As his navy was not strong enough to defeat the Persians in a direct fight, he decided to conquer the towns of the Levantine coast, which supplied Darius with his great navy.

So instead of Marching into Mesopotamia, Alexander marched down and conquered the Levantine coast. Some towns, most notoriously Tyre, put up fierce resistance, but they were eventually conquered. After the Levantine coast was conquered, Alexander marched into Egypt. He did not face much resistance there, as the Persian rule was never particularly popular in Egypt.

Once he replenished his soldiers and gathered supplies, Alexander began to march north. He stuck to the coast of the Mediterranean for as long as he could. It was a wise strategy from a logistical point of view as transportation by water was faster than with animals, and the ships' crews did not consume anywhere near as much food as the pack animals would have.

Alexander eventually abandoned the coastline and marched toward the great rivers of Mesopotamia, the Euphrates and the Tigris.

Darius and his commanders anticipated Alexander to take the shorter, more direct route hugging the Euphrates. To make the life of Alexander, who in the meantime rejected several peace proposals from Darius, as hard as possible, the Persians looted the area of the Euphrates. Alexander either anticipated this move or reacted to it and chose the northern route by the river Tigris.

The Battle of Gaugamela

Darius and his commanders either failed to stop Alexander’s crossing or let the Macedonians pass willingly. The two armies came into contact near a village called Gaugamela.

The battlefield near the village suited the Persians more than the Macedonians, as it was wide and flat terrain that suited their greater numbers, which could be appropriately deployed, with their chariots and excellent cavalry. Darius also ordered all vegetation to be cleared from the future battlefield, as he did not want anything to remain that could hinder the movement of his chariots and mounted troops.

Darius made camp on the flat ground while he sent some troops to occupy a nearby hill. These troops were dispatched by Alexander when the Macedonians arrived. Alexander’s army then made camp on the high ground. It is believed that Parmenion advised Alexander to attempt a night attack to catch the larger Persian army by surprise, but Alexander deemed this too risky and dishonourable.

The next day Alexander’s army descended from the hill to face the Persians.

The Persian army was probably quite a bit larger than their enemies. Still, it has to be said that most of their infantry was of a lower quality than the Macedonian and Greek infantry of Alexander. The only infantry which was a reasonable fighting force at Darius’s disposal were his Immortals, some 10,000 strong, and 2000 Greek mercenaries. He also had his chariots lined up before his infantry.

The forte of the Persian army was its cavalry, gathered from all over the Persian Empire, numbering between 30,000-40,000 horsemen. The command of the Persian army was split between Darius, who commanded the centre, and his generals Bessos and Mazaeus.

The Macedonian and Greek armies numbered around 47,000 soldiers. With their very long pikes, the Macedonian infantry made up the first line of the centre, allied infantry the second line. Cavalry was deployed on both flanks. Alexander commanded his Companion cavalry on the right while Parmenion commanded the Thessalians on the left. Parmenion’s role was to hold the Persians while Alexander delivered the death blow to Darius.

Alexander began the battle by ordering his centre to advance against the Persian centre. The Macedonians were matched by the Persians, who met their advance, and an infantry battle developed in the centre.

Darius then ordered a part of his cavalry and infantry to attack Parmenion on the left; the infantry included his higher quality troops also.

Alexander was not sitting on his laurels either and decided to ride to the extreme right of the battlefield, threatening to move off the prepared ground. This move forced the hand of the Persians, who attacked the Macedonian right flank. A great cavalry battle erupted on the Macedonian right. Despite being outnumbered, the Companion Cavalry of Alexander and the allies stationed there held their own against the Persians.

Darius then threw his chariots into the action. Still, the disciplined troops of Alexander dealt with them relatively easily, opening lines for the chariots and picking off the isolated chariot riders.

As the battle stood at this moment, Parmenion on the left was enduring great difficulties under the attacks from Mazaeus but was still holding on. The Macedonian phalanxes were fighting with Persians while a cavalry battle was still going on the right.

Alexander planned the battle in detail, and things were falling into place for him. The troops attacking the Macedonian centre and left were drawn away from the Persian centre, while a big gap developed between the Macedonian centre and right, thanks to Alexander’s opening moves.

Seeing the opening lane, Alexander and part of his companion cavalry disengaged from the cavalry battle on the right and smashed into the exposed centre of Darius, sweeping everything before them. Their charge broke the Persians, and Darius fled the battle once again.

Alexander, however, was unable to pursue them, as he had to turn around and save Parmenion, who was hard-pressed on the left. Alexander saved Parmenion and also his army by turning around.

The battle ended with a decisive victory for the Macedonians and their Greek allies. Darius managed to escape and vowed to continue the fight in the east, but his general Bessus decided to murder him instead. The ignominious death of Darius outraged and saddened Alexander, who hunted down and killed Bessos in the following year.

The Battle of Gaugamela was the decisive victory that led to the fall of the Achaemenid Empire and the establishment of Greek rule over the territories of the former Persian Empire.

Video Explanation of the Battle of Gaugamela

Sources

Green, Peter. (1991). Alexander of Macedon 356-323 B.C.: A Historical Biography. U of California P.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2022 Andrew Szekler

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