In 334 B.C., Alexander son of Philip, third king of Macedon to bear that name, was only 21 years of age. But while young, Alexander was already a proven commander; prepared to begin his storied career as one of history’s greatest commanders and conquerors. But he would have to survive his first trial of arms against the forces of the Persian Empire, in what would prove his more perilous battle!
Philip II, that wily statesman and gifted general who had subdued Greece and forged a Hellenic alliance against Persia, before being struck down by an assassin’s blade; had raised his eldest son, Alexander, to lead in his footsteps. From Philip, Alexander had learned the arts (and sciences) of war and kingship; and so confident was Philip 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 elite heavy cavalry at the Battle of Chaeronea; where the southern Greek states were finally brought to heel and forced to accept Macedonian leadership.
Upon Philip’s death in 336 B.C., Alexander was proclaimed king by the Macedonian army. His first two years was spent securing his father’s gains. Campaigning successfully first against the ever-restive Illyrians to the northwest of Macedon, he then had to respond to a revolt by the allied Greek states to the south. He responded by storming the most dangerous of the rebel cities, Thebes; the brutal destruction of which shocked the other Greek states into submission.
His base secured, Alexander marshalled his forces for the great enterprise his father had envisioned: a war of retribution against Greece’s ancient enemy, the Persians.
THE INVASION OF ASIA
Alexander bid farewell to Macedon in 334, leaving Amphipolis in April at the head of an army of just under 37,000 men. Marching east along the northern Aegean coast, Alexander arrived at the narrow Hellespont (Dardanelles), the narrow straits that separate Europe from Asia, in May. While the mainbody of the army 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 rejoined his army and 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 with Persian field forces.
The army of the local Persian satraps (governors) were commanded by a Greek mercenary general, Memnon of Rhodes, appointed by the Great King, Darius III (who was still in distantSusa, one of the three Persian royal residences). Memnon knew well how formidable the Macedonians were in battle, and had urged the satraps to avoid battle and instead adopt a scorched earth policy. But jealous of Memnon’s promotion over command them, these proud nobles refused his advice as “cowardly”; and moved directly to oppose Alexander’s invasion.