Battle of Gaugamela: Alexander the Great Thrashes the Achaemenids
No name in world history rings more familiar than that of Alexander the Great. A man that managed extraordinary feats, conquering huge swaths of the world and placing his banner in many a kingdom and empire. His empire spanned from Greece to India - one of the largest empires in history. But gaining it was no small achievement and a lot of blood was shed in the years it took to seize these lands. Still, Alexander was never defeated in battle - and is considered one of the most important military commanders to have ever lived. His victories are many and today we will focus on one of his most successful - the Battle of Gaugamela.
This was Alexander the Great ’s decisive victory over the Achaemenid Empire and the victory gained him many riches and greatly expanded his territories. It was one of his finest victories and a devastating, echoing defeat for the Achaemenids and their ruler Darius III. Let us relive the glorious battles of Alexander !
‘Battle of Gaugamela’ (1602) by Jan Brueghel the Elder. ( Public Domain )
A Force to Be Reckoned With – The Prelude to the Battle of Gaugamela
The period that preceded the Battle of Gaugamela was filled with a steady onward progression of the forces of Alexander the Great. He delivered a crushing defeat to the Achaemenid ruler Darius III at the Battle of Issus in 333 BC - one of the defining victories of Alexander’s conquests. Even when Darius cut off Alexander’s invading march and endangered his supply lines, Alexander managed to soundly defeat his opponent.
The defeat was a crushing one for Darius - in the aftermath of the battle his wife, mother, and two daughters were captured. He rapidly retreated further east to Babylon, which gave Alexander control over southern regions of Asia Minor and a chance to focus on other targets. After he successfully conquered the cities of Tyre and Gaza following long sieges in 332 BC, Alexander opted to recuperate, and he could safely travel to Egypt to replenish his supplies and manpower.
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Alexander Mosaic (depicting the Battle of Issus or the Battle of Gaugamela), from the House of the Faun, Pompeii (VI, 12, 2), Roman era, National Archaeological Museum, Naples, Italy. (Lucas/ CC BY SA 2.0 )
After wintering in Egypt and getting enough rest, Alexander now focused on the so-called Babylonian Campaign , in which he aimed to penetrate further east and face Darius III once again. The latter attempted to avoid conflicts with Alexander after experiencing his full might by sending diplomatic envoys with offers of peace. Alexander refused them several times. In April 331, Alexander the Great and his vast army were once again on the march along the coast. From there they turned inland and crossed the Euphrates river - of which Darius was well aware.
All the while Darius was gathering fresh levies after his defeat at Issus and he once again raised considerable troops. Furthermore, he assembled troops from many of his allies and subjugate satrapies, including Greek mercenary hoplites, Bactrians, Cadusians and Scythians, Cappadocians, and Armenians. It is estimated by modern historians that his army could have quite possibly numbered up to 100,000 men - and consisted of infantry, cavalry, chariot troops, war elephants , camels, and archers. This number is considerable for that era and makes Gaugamela one of the largest battles of the Classical World.
Battle of Arbela, also known as the Battle of Gaugamela (1660-1672) by Charles Le Brun. ( Public Domain )
From the get-go, Darius displayed several key mistakes. Even if he was aware of some of Alexander’s movements, he did not manage to outwit his opponent - but rather got outwitted himself. He expected that Alexander would descend along the Euphrates river valley and march directly to Babylon. To counter this, he practiced the scorched earth policy - a thing Persians did many times before.
The fertile Euphrates valley was razed and plundered to deny Alexander the use of those supplies. But Alexander was not called “the Great” for no reason. He didn’t even consider the Euphrates approach, but rather chose a more difficult, northern route.
He crossed the Tigris river and descended along it instead. This was a difficult, mountainous trek, but Alexander managed to make progress. In time, Darius’ scouts reported this and the Achaemenid ruler had to act quickly.
He immediately marched northwards to meet Alexander and stop his crossing of the Tigris. His vanguard failed to hinder Alexander’s approach and Darius knew that a conflict was looming. In an attempt to make it a pitched battle, Darius chose a flat plain near the village of Gaugamela and made camp there.
Preparing to Clash – The Enemies Meet Again
Soon after, Alexander and his troops reached the location and realized that their enemy was near only by chance - after capturing a Persian advance scouting party. After finding out that Darius was only 30 kilometers (18.64 miles) away with his whole army Alexander marched. A battle was approaching.
From the start, Alexander had an upper hand. The plain before Gaugamela could easily be observed from a rising hill. This hill was held by the Achaemenid vanguard, but was quickly abandoned after they saw Alexander’s frightening army on the march.
This hill gave Alexander a commanding view of the battlefield and he could easily assess the situation and make his plans. But even so, Alexander was heavily outnumbered. Historic record accurately mentions the number of his troops, which totaled roughly 47,000 men.
Portrait of Alexander the Great. Marble, Hellenistic artwork, 2nd-1st century BC. Said to be from Alexandria, Egypt. ( Public Domain )
Most of these were infantry soldiers and he had a limited cavalry. Infantry numbered up to 40,000 men - most of them heavy phalanx troops, with a small number of light peltast soldiers. Alexander’s men were mostly Macedonian troops and Greeks of Paeonia. Also included were men of Thracia. In the end, Alexander chose to avoid a night encounter and he waited for the dawn to react.
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The sight that Alexander’s troops could see that morning of October 1st, 331 BC was certainly frightening. Around 100,000 warriors were standing in formation, ready to defend their “king of kings” and fight to the death. The core was made up of the infamous “Immortals,” an elite royal guard of veteran Achaemenid infantrymen. On both flanks there were cavalry - up to 30,000 mounted men. Sources mention that there were also 15 war elephants and numerous war chariots with bladed wheels - terrifying weapons that Darius acquired from the Indians who bordered the Bactrian satrapies.
Even so, Alexander and his men marched on unfazed into the maw of hell. They deployed their forces around noon - in a slightly slanted, diagonal line. Alexander was well aware of a possible encirclement when facing a numerically superior enemy, so he curved his flanks and reinforced them with cavalry. At the center were his finest warriors - the notorious phalanx. These were heavy infantry men in a rectangular formation - armed with extremely long sarissa spears that measured up to six meters (19.69 ft.) in length. Advanced tactics made the phalanx a formidable formation - a tightly packed forest of spears that was difficult to penetrate.
A Greek phalanx. ( Public Domain )
His small second line was made up of a small number of Thracian and Illyrian troops - most likely light peltast units. These were lightly armed and unarmored “harassment” units, armed with several light spears, small shields, and slingshots.
The first clash was made by Darius. Seeing Alexander’s attempt to stretch his lines further to the right, he sent out a part of his cavalry to attack Alexander’s right flank. The latter replied by riding out to confront them, and he managed to rout some of the Achaemenid troops.
Seeing this, Darius decided to immediately employ his deadliest weapon - the bladed war chariots . These were greatly feared by all troops that encountered them. They consisted of small two wheeled, two horse chariots that held two men. On the wheel hubs were two protruding long blades.
Illustration of bladed war chariots. ( Public Domain )
Once these chariots entered the fray, they would cut off legs at knee level and mangle bodies. But Darius was surprised to see that his chariots had little to no effect on the Alexander’s core. Some of them spread out in the last moment to let the chariots through, while others stood in line and simply watched as the chariots broke as a wave onto a rock.
Darius’ next move was to send his right flank, under the commander of Mazaeus, towards the left flank of Alexander’s army. Alexander’s trusted commander Parmenion had the command of the left flank and he managed to endure the fierce Persian attack - but with considerable losses.
Exploiting Weaknesses – Alexander Turns the Tide
It was at this point that Alexander the Great showed his true skills as a military commander and where Darius III made a crucial mistake. While Parmenion was occupied on the left flank and Alexander with his cavalry on the left flank, the center and its phalanxes were in place. But all the while, Alexander kept stretching his right flank, and what Darius saw was a thinned out central line with a vulnerable gap that could be exploited.
But that was exactly what Alexander wanted. From the very beginning of the battle he was attempting to stretch his right flank to create this ruse. Unknowingly, Darius ordered his finest units - the fearsome Immortals - to storm the center and exploit the gap that was formed. He hoped to push through the gap and encircle or outflank his opponent. Doing this, he made a key mistake.
After the Immortals engaged that fierce forest of the phalanx, Alexander saw what he wanted - Darius and his center exposed. In a daring maneuver - fit only for the most daring commanders - Alexander wheeled a large part of his cavalry from the right flank and attacked Darius’ exposed core. And this was the turning point of the Battle of Gaugamela.
Just as he did at Issus, Darius panicked. The sudden and fierce charge of Alexander’s cavalry toward his own positions took him unaware, and soon his troops broke, as did he. He turned around and fled the battle, his core troops in tow.
Alexander was bent on pursuit by all means, but his troops were still engaged behind him. Parmenion especially was under great strain and soon after his baggage train would be threatened as well. Under advice of his commanders, Alexander chose not to pursue Darius for the time being and he turned back to relieve his left flank.
Darius fleeing the battle. (Luis García/ CC BY SA 3.0 )
With his cavalry, he wheeled back and descended on Mazaeus’ own cavalry from the back, inflicting heavy losses and relieving his trusted commander Parmenion. Mazaeus and his men soon broke and fled, as did the remaining Immortals at the center, which suffered greatly on the spears of the phalanx and the harassment of the peltasts.
On the right flank of Alexander’s army, the remaining cavalry remained in place and their Persian opponents also fled soon enough. Darius III’s army was utterly crushed after just a few hours of fierce and bloody fighting.
The end result was decimating for the Achaemenids. The disparage between the casualties of the two factions was enormous. Achaemenids suffered an estimated 40,000 casualties and numerous captives, while the forces of Alexander had as little as 1,500 casualties.
Greek hoplite and Persian warrior fighting each other. Depiction in ancient kylix. 5th c. BC. National Archaeological Museum of Athens. ( Public Domain )
While a lot of these numbers come from historians contemporary to the battle, they could be both certain and slightly lessened. Either way, Alexander’s superior tactics , the greater morale of his men, and their superior military formations all worked in his favor, making the huge number of Persian casualties a very plausible number. Alexander’s clever use of his troops, his patience and calmness in the heat of battle, as well as his quick wit and the ability to spot and exploit crucial weaknesses during the battle, helped him to win at Gaugamela. It is considered as one of his finest victories.
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The Fall of the Achaemenids
After their defeat at Gaugamela the Achaemenids were in a downfall. Darius fled to Bactria, but he was later assassinated by his commander Bessus. His murder was far from honorable, as he was stabbed and left in the dirt of the desert.
Alexander learned of this and was sad to lose a respected enemy in such a fashion. He would later capture Bessus and punish him severely before executing him. In the aftermath of the battle, Alexander gained control of Babylon, parts of Persia, and all of Mesopotamia.
‘Entry of Alexander into Babylon’ (1665) by Charles Le Brun. ( Public Domain )
He managed a feat that was unheard of, as he brought the Achaemenid Empire to its knees in less than five years. Alexander showed a keen sense of logistics and managed to keep his troops fresh and motivated throughout his conquest. He truly was a commander ahead of his time.
Top Image: ‘Battle of Alexander versus Darius’ (1644-1650) by Pietro da Cortona. Darius III was Alexander the Great’s adversary at the Battle of Gaugamela. Source: Public Domain
Cheshire, K. 2009. Alexander the Great. Cambridge University Press.
Delbruck, H. 1990. Warfare in Antiquity. University of Nebraska Press.
Green, P. Alexander of Macedon, 356-323 BC: A Historical Biography. University of California Press.
Well, Pete, your comment certainly makes great sense in this very moment in time. The Greeks could certainly use an Alexander to defend their lands today: the Achaemenids are back at it again - this time invading. Alas, I am afraid that men such as was Alexander the Great are a fiber of our mythical and legendary past - such bravery and nobility will never grace the Earth again.
Instead of wars, which are temporary expedients that last only in history books, the ancient Greeks should have pursued, and were well-capable of erecting, great walls to defend against the invaders. Well-placed, and with alliance with kin-like peoples to the North, they could have continually defended against the Persians from the East and the similarly greedy and ruthless Romans from the West. Unfortunately, that didn’t happen and their great existence came to an end. Only question remains, could we ever get it back again?