What are the qualities that make an outstanding general? Intelligence? Creativity? Daring? Calculation? Charisma? Luck? The key figure at Gaugamela amply possessed all of these and is often often regarded as one of the greatest generals of all time. He conquered most of the known world, was victorious in four major battles, conducted several successful sieges, and held together a multinational army during an epic march across much of Europe and Asia. His name, of course, was Alexander, more commonly known as Alexander the Great.
Background to Gaugamela
The Battle of Gaugamela, perhaps Alexander’s greatest victory, demonstrates that one of the keys to his success as a general was his unusual combination of cautious preparation before battle and quick-thinking boldness once engaged.
The golden age of the Greeks had ended with the long, destructive Peloponnesian War, in which the Greeks again turned against one another. Although Sparta was the nominal victor, all participants were exhausted and impoverished by the struggle
Over the next half century, a new power arose to the north: Macedonia, a minor, disunited state, weakly controlled by a hereditary king. Between 359 B.C., when Philip II came to the throne, and 339 B.C., he transformed Macedonia into a first-rate power. Most notably, he reconstructed the army which he then used to conquer his neighbours and create a Macedonian empire.
When Philip was assassinated in 336 B.C., Alexander succeeded to the throne at the age of 20. The young king quickly secured his position, getting the army to swear an oath of loyalty to him personally, killing any who might be potential rivals, and suppressing several revolts.
At the time of his death, Philip had been planning an expedition against Persia’s westernmost regions, ostensibly in revenge for Persia’s invasions of Greece more than 100 years earlier. Alexander now took up this plan, and in the spring of 334 B.C., he crossed the Hellespont into Asia at the head of a Macedonian-Greek army of approximately 45,000 infantry and 5,000 cavalry
The Persian Empire at the time of Alexander unquestionably remained the superpower of the region. The current king of kings was Darius III, who had come to the throne in 336 B.C. The ancient sources offer conflicting portraits of Darius, with most depicting him as weak and indecisive. However, in the first year of his reign he successfully put down a rebellion in Egypt.
The Macedonian army and its Technology
In revamping the Macedonian army, Philip made a number of innovations to the successful model of the Greek hoplite phalanx.
- He equipped the Macedonian phalanx with an extra-long spear called a Sarissa , rather than the shorter spear of the hoplite.
- He lightened the soldiers’ armour, particularly reducing the size and weight of the shield.
Maintaining order in wielding these weapons required considerable drilling and discipline; thus, Philip made his army a permanent, professional one. He also included contingents of other types of troops
- He added archers and slingers to harass the enemy from a distance. There were swift, agile, lightly armed troops to act as skirmisher.
- There were sizable cavalry units, some of which were light cavalry used as scouts, while others were heavy cavalry who could break an enemy line.
Such a force called mixed army, had two significant effects
- It made the new Macedonian army much more flexible able to fight against a range of enemies and to react to a variety of circumstances and conditions.
It put greater emphasis on good generalship. A clever general might give separate missions to different parts of his army or send units in different directions. Used creatively, it was an army with great potential.
Persian army and Its Technology
The Persian army was much the same as that which the Greeks had faced at Plataea. Its elite infantry were the 10,000 Immortals.
The strength of the Persian army was its numerous and well-trained cavalry, and a favoured weapon among both infantry and horsemen was the bow, although a wide array of swords, spears, and axes were also employed
After crossing into Asia and visiting Troy, Alexander began his invasion of the Persian Empire. The governor of the region organized the local forces, including a number of Greek hoplite mercenaries, and marched out to confront him. At the Battle of the Granicus, Alexander led a charge and won the victory. He then proceeded deep into Asia Minor, conquering cities as he went.
Recognizing Alexander as a serious threat, Darius determined to take the field himself, and gathered a large army to intercept the Macedonians. They met in 333 B.C. at the Battle of Issues, and although outnumbered, Alexander again prevailed, personally leading the charge.
Rather than immediately pursuing Darius, Alexander spent several years subduing the Persian fleet and capturing all of its bases. Darius spent this time preparing for their next confrontation. Both knew that the next time they met would be the decisive battle to determine which was to rule the Persian Empire
Darius’s most obvious advantage was numerical, and he used the interval to gather a vast army from every corner of his empire.
Darius then chose his battle field carefully a large flat featureless expanse along the Tigris River near Gaugamela, where no topographical features could anchor Alexander’s flanks the Persian numerical superiority could be used to full effect.
Finally, Darius created a special weapon of 200 chariots with blades attached to their wheels. These would be launched against the Macedonian phalanx; the blades would literally carve openings in the formations, into which the cavalry could pour.
Alexander’s advisers, frightened by the size of the Persian army, urged him to attack at night to mask their inferior numbers. Refusing this advice, Alexander went to bed. Darius, fearing just such an assault, kept his army standing ready for battle all night. By morning, Alexander had already scored an advantage: His troops were well rested in contrast to the sleepless Persians. Alexander’s most pressing problem was the lack of a geographic anchor to prevent encirclement.
- His solution was to stagger his forces at an angle on the left and right sides of the phalanx so that they could face an enemy encircling movement head on.
- At a distance behind the main phalanx, he positioned a second line made up of allies and mercenaries.
- His forces were arranged so that if the Persians did outflank them and surround his army, it could form a hollow rectangle with men facing outward in all directions
As the battle began, Alexander led his cavalry to the right. Darius ordered his cavalry to mirror Alexander’s movements, with the result that the lines were stretched out and the center of gravity began to shift away from the ground that Darius had so carefully prepared.
Darius therefore ordered his scythed chariots to charge, but the Macedonian skirmishers and javelineers picked off the charioteers. When the remainder reached the phalanx, the Macedonians opened lanes for the chariots to pass harmlessly. As they slowed to turn, lightly armed troops killed the rest of the charioteers.
Determined to contain Alexander’s sweep, Darius dispatched more Persian cavalry to block him, and an intense cavalry battle ensued. Meanwhile, on the left, the Macedonian phalanx was hard pressed and in danger of losing contact with Alexander and the Macedonian right.