In May 334 B.C. the 21 year old king of Macedon, Alexander son of Philip, led the army his father had bequeathed to him into Asia. While young, Alexander was already a proven and successful commander, prepared to begin his storied career as one of history’s greatest master of war and conqueror. 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 of Macedon made Macedon the leading power in the Hellas and a Balkan empire. Before being struck down by an assassin’s blade Philip forged a Hellenic alliance against Persia, revenge for the previous century of Persian aggression towards Greece. Philip raised his eldest son, Alexander, to lead in his footsteps. From his father Alexander had learned the arts (and sciences) of war and kingship, and so confident was Philip in his preternaturally gifted son-and-heir, he had entrusted Alexander with command of an army and the regency of his kingdom when Alexander was only 16 years old.
The boy had won his first victory in battle that same year, 340 B.C., leading the troops Philip had left him with against Thracian hill tribesmen of the southern Balkans. The prince also founded there a Macedonian colony, Alexandropolis; the first of the many eponymous cities he would leave in the wake of his conquests. Soon after his Balkan victories, Alexander rejoined his father and commanded the Macedonian 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 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. Alexander responded by storming the most dangerous of the rebel cities, Thebes, the brutal destruction of which shocked the other Greek states into submission.
When Thracian tribesmen attempted to break his phalanx by rolling carts down hill into their ranks, Alexander had his men lay down and form a road of their shields over which these carts passed harmlessly. The phalangites then stood and, reforming, successfully continued the attack.
His base secured, Alexander marshaled 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 main body 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 Great King, Darius III , to refute his claim.
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 a Persian army awaited him to the east on the plains of Zeleia, Alexander decided instead to march northeastward; both turning the Ida position and seeking battle with this Persian field force.
This Persian army represented the forces of the local satraps (governors). They were commanded by an experienced Greek mercenary general, Memnon of Rhodes, appointed by Darius (who was still in distant Susa, 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 them, these proud nobles disdained his advice as “cowardly”; and called upon him to stand and fight the invader.
Memnon’s army awaited the Macedonian’s advance at the River Granicus. Here the river was stony and its banks steep. Alexander would have to attack the Persians in a prepared and very difficult position. Arriving at the opposite bank, the Macedonian king and a small group of trusted officers surveyed the position of the Persian forces waiting beyond the river. Parmenio, the most senior of his generals, warned him of the difficulty of traversing a fast-moving stream, then fighting their way up a slippery river bank to gain the top, and of having then to defeat the superb Persian cavalry; for centuries acknowledged as the best horsemen in the world. All this while being showered with javelins by the defenders!
Despite these warnings, the headstrong young king ordered his soldiers to the attack. They would do so without hesitation, trusting Alexander and to their own skill in battle.
THE MACEDONIAN ARMY
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, who under Philip had seen victory over every foe from the Danube to the Gulf of Corinth. As a child Alexander had played in their barracks, mimicked their drills, and knew many of them by their names. He was their mascot, their touchstone, their “Golden Boy”. Cleitus the Black, who commanded the bodyguard squadron (ile basilikoi) of his elite Companion heavy cavalry, was brother to Alexander’s nursemaid, and had known him all of his life. 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 (and king), or he with them.
The iron core of this force was the superbly trained and experienced 12,000 strong phalanx, a force the like of which the world had never yet seen. Armed with the 15′ long sarissa, a heavy two-handed pike, these could advance rapidly in a variety for formations, presenting their foe with a bristling hedge of pikes. This was the anvil upon which any foe would be broken.
Supporting the phalanx’s right flank, and forming a link between this and the cavalry, were the hypaspists. These were an elite force raised by Philip, in three battalions of a thousand men each (one of which was the Agema, the royal foot guards). A highly trained and versatile force, these could fight as fast-moving heavy infantry in open battle, or as elite light infantry in mountain terrain. The armament of the hypaspists has long been disputed by scholars; but this author believes they fought as pseudo-hoplites in open battle, armed with spear and aspis; and as an armored peltast in their light infantry role, utilizing spear and javelin.
Member of the Agema of the Hypaspists, the Macedonian Foot Guards
If the phalanx was the anvil upon which an enemy was broken then the hammer was provided by the 1,800 man “Companion” (Hetairoi) heavy cavalry. Comprised of the sons of the Macedonian nobility (as well as “new men”, adventurers who had come to Macedon in Philip’s time to find their fortune), these were among the best horsemen in the Greek world. Only the Thessalians could challenge their claim to be the finest cavalry in Alexander’s army. Armed with a 12′ lance (xyston), these were a hard-charging shock force, despite riding with neither stirrup nor saddle (a notable feat of horsemanship, seen also in the Comanche and Lakota of the North American plains). Aside from the Companions, Alexander’s Macedonian cavalry included 600 prodromoi (scouts), armed like the Companions with a lance but lacking the full armor.
Companion cavalryman, member of the elite “ile basilikoi”, the Royal Squadron that acted as the mounted bodyguard of the king in battle; distinguished by his purple-bordered yellow cloak
These Macedonian troops were augmented by allies and mercenaries from Greece and the surrounding Balkan tribes. Alexander had some 7,000 Greek allied heavy infantry hoplites, provided by the city-states of the allied league; as well as another 5,000 professional Greek mercenaries (hoplites and lighter “peltasts”). For light infantry skirmishers he had 7,000 Thracian and Illyrian light infantry, mostly armed with light javelins; and 1,000 elite Agrianian javelineers and a matching number of Cretan archers, the best in Greece. The Macedonian cavalry were augmented by 1,800 superb Thessalian heavy cavalry, 600 allied Greek horse, and 300 Paionian and Thracian light horse.
This army, created by Philip and which followed Alexander to Asia, was a well-integrated combined arms force of cavalry and infantry, light troops and heavy. It also included engineers, surveyors, and surgeons, muleteers and grooms, saddlers and blacksmiths, armorers and weapon-smiths. Dismantled in the baggage train, ready to be assembled on site, was a superb siege train of bolt and stone throwing machines, as well as the parts hardware necessary for the rapid construction of siege towers and battering rams.
It was perhaps the first “modern” army in European history.
While surveying Memnon’s forces drawn up along the opposite bank of the river, Alexander’s keen eye noted that in their deployment the Persians 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 their Greek infantry 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, it was the Persian cavalry (numbering another 20,000) that waited upon the lip of the river’s eastern bank.
At charging and breaking an enemy cavalry has no peer. But horsemen are wholly unsuited to standing and holding ground. The power of the horseman lies in his mobility and the impact of the charge, and is hamstrung when asked to stand and receive one. Memnon would have used his Greek mercenary hoplites to stop Alexander’s assault, and once thrown back into the river and in disarray, to than counter charge and break them with his Persian cuirassiers. This likely would have been disastrous for Alexander, and perhaps fatal for both him and his future ambitions.
Fortunately for the Macedonians, Memnon was overruled by his arrogant subordinates.
Alexander leading the Royal Squadron across the river; artwork by Pablo Outeiral
Deciding immediately to take advantage of his enemy’s faulty deployment, Alexander ordered his forces to prepare for immediate battle, rather than make camp and attack on the morrow. 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 on the flank of Socrates’ force. The phalanx and his hypaspists also began to cross; but the nature of the terrain slowed their advance, and the battle was to be 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 cavalry were armed with javelin and sword; while the Macedonian Companions were lancers. In the fierce fighting along the river bank, the longer reach of the Macedonian lance aided them in pushing back their Persian opponents. Fighting their way up the muddy embankment, the Companions gained the top, using their lances with both hands, like a pike, aiming at the faces of the their Persian opponents and driving them back. Once atop the far bank, the Macedonian squadrons began to expand their hold, spreading to the right.
4th century B.C. Persian “cuirassier”. Though well armored and superb horsemen, they only carried a javelin; and suffered in melee against the Macedonian cavalry with their 12’ long lances.
Fresh Persian formations now charged Alexander’s force, where the young king was conspicuous in his silvered-helmet, adorned with three white plumes; fighting in true Homeric fashion in the front ranks. The young king and his immediate entourage suddenly found themselves assailed from all sides.
This Persian counter-attack was commanded by Mithridates, son-in-law of the Great King. Alexander speared him through, unhorsing and killing him. But while the king was so occupied, he was attacked from his blind side by a high-born Persian noble named Rhoesaces; who cut down at Alexander’s head (with sword or perhaps with a saddle axe), shearing away one of Alexander’s plumes, renting his helmet and 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, Spithridates, satrap of Lydia and Ionia and brother of Rhoesaces, came up behind the stunned Alexander. It seems likely that these high-ranking Persians, much like the Duke of Alençon at Agincourt, had sworn an oath to slay the young king. As he raised his sword to deliver what would certainly have been the death-blow, Cleitus the Black saved Alexander’s life (and changed history) by hacking off Spithridates’ upraised arm with a stroke from his razor-sharp kopis!
Stunned by a head-blow, Alexander is only saved from death by Cleitus the Black
Alexander’s heroic example no doubt fired his troops, who pushed the Persian cavalry back and soon routed them altogether. Memnon’s Greek mercenaries, bitter enemies of Macedonia to a man, were treated by Alexander as traitors to the Hellenic cause, and offered no quarter. Drawn-up on a hill, they were surrounded and killed.
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. But Granicus was perhaps his most dangerous battle, one in which he took the greatest risks both tactically and personally. Though he was nearly killed on several other occasions, in none of his great battles was he so close to death as at the moment when Spithradates raised his sword. Only Cleitus the Black’s timely intervention prevented Alexander III of Macedon from becoming a footnote in history: not “the Great”, but merely the vainglorious son of a great father!
For more, see Great Captains: Alexander the Great
Some of the artwork in this article has been reproduced with the permission of Osprey Publishing, and is © Osprey Publishing, part of Bloomsbury Publishing Plc.
- For a more detailed examination of the Macedonian phalanx, and the Greek hoplite phalanx that opposed them as mercenaries at Granicus, read my article, “Phalanx vs Legion: Closing the Debate“.
- As stated, the armament of the hypaspists is hotly debated. Some have claimed that they were armed just as the pezhetairoi of the phalanx, with the sarissa; and that the distinction between the two was more one of role than armament. Certainly the fact that after the death of Alexander the veterans of the hypaspists, renamed Argyraspides (“Silver Shields”) at the time of the Indian campaign, fought in the Wars of the Diadochi as a phalanx, gives weight to this theory. But during Alexander’s battles, where in open battle their role was to provide the mobile link between the fast-moving Companion cavalry strike force and the phalanx, it seems highly unlikely that they were armed with the cumbersome sarissa. I would suggest that they likely fought as rapid-moving, spear-armed “shield-bearers” in the earlier battles, but were fully trained and capable of fighting as a phalanx. As these veterans aged, they were no longer fit to run about the battlefield as they did when young men; and instead took to fighting as more conventional phalangites (this by the wars of the Diadochi). This is a debate that will go on until the unlikely event that some more conclusive evidence, heretofore undiscovered, is revealed.
- The prodromoi’s role as scouts and flankers would eventually be made redundant by the inclusion of Iranian and Dahae light horse into Alexander’s army following the conquest of Persia. By his Indian campaign, the prodromoi were merged into the Companion heavy horse; presumably being issued additional body armor.
- 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.