In May of 334BC the young king of Macedon, Alexander son of Philip led his army into battle for the first time against the forces of the Persian Empire. The opposing armies met at the River Granicus. It would prove his most dangerous battle, very nearly costing him his life. Though he would survive and create the greatest legend in the annuls of military history, none of his great battles was more perilous than his fight along the steep-sided banks of the Granicus. It could have ended his legend before it had truly begun.
Though only 21 years old, Alexander was already a proven commander.
Son of Philip II, a great commander in his own right, Alexander had learned the arts (and sciences) of war at his brilliant father’s feet (and of the nature of human psychology from his tutor, the great philosopher and scientist, Aristotle). Philip had possessed such confidence in his preternaturally gifted son and heir that he had entrusted to Alexander command of an army, and regency of the kingdom, when Alexander was only 16 years old.
The boy had won his first victory in battle that year, leading the Macedonian home guard against Thracian hill tribesmen of the southern Balkans (and founding there a Macedonian colony, Alexandropolis; the first of the many cities named for himself he would leave in his wake throughout his short but spectacular life ). Soon after, Alexander had commanded his father’s cavalry at the Battle of Chaeronea.
After becoming king upon Philip’s assassination in 336BC, Alexander had campaigned successfully for two years to secure his father’s kingdom. He had pacified the ever-restive Illyrians to the northwest of Macedon, and responded to a revolt by the allied Greek states to the south by storming and destroying the most dangerous of the potential rebels, the Greek city of Thebes.
His base secured, Alexander led an army of just under 37,000 men east along the northern Aegean coast. Its iron core was the superbly trained and experienced 12,000 Macedonian phalangites, veterans from Philip’s long years of campaigning; and 1,800 “Companion” (Hetairoi) heavy cavalry. These were augmented by allies and mercenaries from Greece and the surrounding Balkan tribes: The infantry were 7,000 Greek allied hoplites, and another 5,000 professional Greek mercenaries; 7,000 Thracian and Illyrian light infantry, and 1,000 elite Agrianian javelineers and Cretan archers. Aside from the Companions, Alexander’s cavalry included 1,800 superb Thessalian heavy horsemen, 600 Macedonian prodromoi (scouts), 600 allied Greek horse, and 300 Paionian and Thracian light horse.
This army which followed Alexander to Asia had a special bond of trust with their young but immensely capable king. Alexander had grown up among these hard, proud men. He had played in their barracks, mimicked their drills, knew many of them by their names. He was their mascot, their touchstone, their “Golden Boy”. One, Cleitus the Black, was brother to Alexander’s nursemaid; and now commanded the Bodyguard (Royal) Squadron of his elite Companion heavy cavalry. There was a special familial bond between Alexander and his soldiers; and never in history has an army enjoyed a closer relationship with their general, or he with them.
Alexander arrived at the narrow Hellespont (Dardanelles), the narrow straits that separate Europe from Asia. While his mainbody was ferried across, Alexander and a picked guard sailed down the straits to Troy. As he came ashore, he cast a spear; symbolically claiming Asia to be “won by the spear”. It was an ancient challenge, and it was now for the Persians to refute his claim to ownership.
After holding athletic games at Troy, and sacrificing at the tomb of his ancestor and role-model, Achilles, Alexander prepared to move against the Persians. South of the plain of Illium the rich Greek cities of the Ionian coast were barred to him by Mount Ida; whose passes were guarded by Persian troops. Learning that the main Persian awaited him on the plains of Zeleia to the east Alexander instead moved northeastward; both turning the Ida position and seeking battle.
The forces of the local Persian satraps (governors) were commanded by a Greek mercenary general, Memnon of Rhodes, appointed by the Great King, Darius III (still in distant Susa, one of the three Persian royal capitals). Memnon knew well how formidable the Macedonians were in battle, and had urged the satraps to adopt a scorched earth policy and avoid battle. But jealous of Memnon’s promotion by the Great King to command them, these proud nobles refused his advice as cowardly; and moved directly to oppose Alexander’s invasion.
At the Granicus the Persian army awaited him. Here the river was stony and its banks steep. Alexander would have to attack the Persians in a prepared and very difficult position. Parmenio, his most senior general, warned him of the difficulty of traversing a fast-moving stream; of fighting their way up a slippery river bank to gain the top; of fighting against the superb Persian cavalry, for centuries acknowledged as the best horsemen in the world, who would be showering them with javelins as they attempted the crossing. Despite these warnings, Alexander ordered his soldiers to the attack. They would do so without hesitation, trusting to their king and commander and to their own skill in battle.
As he approached the Granicus, Alexander surveyed Memnon’s forces drawn up along the steep bank, defending the river line. He observed that in their deployment they had made a fundamental mistake.
The Persian army included in its numbers some 20,000 Greek mercenary hoplites. These had been recruited by Memnon from men who, like himself, were blood enemies of the Macedonians or their policies*. Drawn up in a deep-ranked phalanx and armed with long thrusting spears, these would have been the ideal troops to defend the river bank. But possessed of an excess of bravado and despising the Greeks as mere “hirelings”, the proud Persian nobles refused to wait in reserve and give “pride of place” to the Greeks. So again rejecting Memnon’s wise counsel, the Persian cavalry (numbering another 20,000) were drawn up along the lip of the river’s eastern bank.
Deciding immediately to take advantage of his enemy’s faulty disposition, Alexander ordered his forces to deploy for battle. Placing his heavy phalanx in the center, with light troops and cavalry on both wings, Alexander began the battle with a diversionary attack on his left. This was followed by a special assault force, commanded by an officer of the Companion’s named Socrates, composed of cavalry and light infantry, assaulting the Persian line on his right-wing; attempting to gain purchase atop the steep river bank.
With the Persian left-wing thus tied down, Alexander then crossed with the bulk of his Companion cavalry. The phalanx and his hypaspists (elite, fast-moving heavy infantry) also began to cross; but the nature of the terrain slowed their advance, and the battle was decided by cavalry alone.
The Persian horse was determined to throw the Macedonians back into the river; the Macedonians equally determined to gain purchase atop the bank. The Persian horse were armed with javelin and sword; while the Macedonian Companions were equipped and trained as lancers, bearing a sturdy 12 foot long xyston. In the fierce fighting along the river bank, the longer reach of the Macedonian lances aided them in pushing back their Persian opponents. As he gained the top of the river bank, Alexander’s squadrons began to expand their hold, spreading to the right.
Fresh Persian squadrons now charged Alexander’s force, where the young king was conspicuous fighting in the front ranks in true Homeric fashion; his silvered helmet adorned with three white plumes. Alexander and his immediate entourage found themselves assailed from all sides. The Persian counter-attack was commanded by Mithridates, son-in-law of the Great King. Alexander speared him through, unhorsing and killing him. From his opposite side, Rhoesaces, brother of Mithridates, cut down at Alexander’s head (with sword or perhaps with a saddle axe), shearing away one of Alexander’s plumes and renting his helmet; delivering a wound to the king’s head.
Though partially stunned, the King nevertheless turned and speared him through as well. At that moment a third noble (it seems certain that these high-ranking Persians had sworn an oath to slay the young king), Spithridates, came up behind the stunned Alexander. As he raised his sword to deliver the death blow, Cleitus the Black saved his king by hacking off the Persian’s upraised arm with his razor-sharp machaira!
Alexander’s heroic example no doubt fired his troops, who pushed the Persians back and soon routed them altogether. Memnon’s Greek mercenaries, drawn-up on a ridge to the rear, were surrounded and killed. Bitter enemies of Macedonia, they were treated by Alexander as traitors to the Hellenic cause, and offered no quarter.
This was Alexander’s first battle victory over the Persians. It would take two more, along with several hard-fought sieges, before Alexander would complete the conquest of the Persian Empire; and earn the title of “Great”. But Granicus was perhaps his most dangerous battle, and though he was nearly killed of several other occasions, in none of his great battles was he so close to death. Only Cleitus the Black’s timely intervention prevented Alexander III of Macedon from becoming a mere footnote in history; the vainglorious son of a great father!
Here is a dramatic presentation from the History Channel (produced by my friends at Morningstar Productions).
*Both Philip and Alexander controlled the Greek city-states by supporting one political faction within the city against its rival. Philip patronized the oligarchical factions; while Alexander tended to support the democratic faction (at least in the Greek cities he liberated from Persian rule in Ionia). In all Greek cities under Macedonian domination (which were all of those north of Sparta, who obdurately refused to kowtow to Macedonian hegemony) anti-Macedonians were exiled. As nearly all Greek males of the property owning classes were trained to serve in the ranks of the city’s hoplite forces, these exiles tended to take up the profession of arms. Much prized in the Mediterranean world for their steadiness in battle and superior fighting quality, Greek hoplite mercenaries had become the infantry backbone of all later Achaemenid Persian armies. During Alexander’s campaigns against the Darius, these Greek mercenaries were the most dangerous and committed foes he faced.