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Gcse ancient History

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Task 3A

Research: find out more about Bagoas -

3.2 The Persian Army

The resources of the Achaemenid Empire were vast, as Plutarch records before Gaugamela:

Alexander knew that Darius would not stop fighting through lack of weapons or men since he had so great an army and so vast an empire, but only when he gave up any hope of success and was convinced by clear-cut and utter defeat.

Plutarch, Alexander 31

The Persian king could draw on his own trained Persian troops, including those who served in his personal guard, the so-called Immortals, distinguished by the golden apples on the pommels of their spears: evidence for these can be found at Susa on reliefs in glazed brick or in stone at Persepolis. In addition to the professional Persian forces, there were conscript forces whose abilities were less well developed and there were also Greek mercenaries deployed against Alexander, such as those under the leadership of Memnon at the Battle of the River Granicus. The army as a whole was commanded by the king himself, his family or by close companions. However there were significant difficulties drawing on the full range of forces available to be called up. At the first encounter at the river Granicus, the local satraps and commanders drew on forces close at hand, and did not wait for the further troops to arrive. In later battles, Darius was able to choose the ground and so could make sure he had appropriate forces ready. Alexander’s judgment that he needed a clear-cut defeat of Darius in open battle is probably correct, though he received a number of peace offers before the final battle. Even though the empire was weaker than it had been, under a strong leader it remained very powerful and there is no evidence that the western satrapies were acting independently of the centre at this time, though it is clear that Egypt at least was keen to throw off the Persian yoke, to judge by their enthusiastic response to Alexander’s arrival.
To get a sense of the strength of the Persian army for each battle, it is important to examine the sources, though there is a tendency to exaggerate the numbers. However the main types of troops available to the king were chariots, cavalry and infantry, together with a powerful navy. The cavalry were a very important element, regularly armed with bows and javelins; the horses could have some protective armour. Persian infantry was often deployed in mixed units of archers and shieldbearers armed with spears. Chariots were also employed, including the visually impressive scythe-bearing chariots used at Gaugamela, which also had a spear projecting forward from the end of the chariot pole (Curtius IV.9.5): the driver sat in a high armoured box. However their effectiveness was limited by the need to choose appropriate terrain for the battle, and they appeared to present little threat to well trained troops such as those of Alexander:
The barbarians sent into battle their scythe-bearing chariots towards Alexander himself, in an attempt to disrupt his phalanx. They had no success in this, for as soon as they began to get close, the Agrianians and the javelin throwers led by Balacrus, who were drawn up in front of the cavalry of the companions, hurled their weapons; they grabbed hold of the reins, dragged the men out of the chariots and stood around the horses and struck them. There were a few that got through the Greek battle line, for, as they had been ordered to, the Greeks moved apart at those points where the chariots attacked; this was the reason some got through safely and passed through those they were attacking without doing any damage. The grooms of Alexander’s army and the royal guards finished them off.

Arrian 3.13

3.3 Alexander’s campaign against Darius
It is worth getting a good understanding of the ground covered by Alexander during his campaigns. Below is an exercise using Google Earth, which makes it easy to switch between ancient and modern views of the territory he conquered. The scale of Alexander’s conquests is still breathtaking today, even if his early death meant that his empire was soon broken up between competing factions. Although strictly beyond the demands of this specification, it is worth noting the impact that Alexander’s conquests had on the subsequent history of the region; the kingdoms that resulted, ruled by the descendants of Alexander’s companions, competed largely with each other and allowed time for Rome to grow beyond its boundaries to become a Mediterranean superpower. Although the Achaemenid Empire had been weakened in the 4th century by internal disputes, a strong king, such as Darius III might have become, could once again have turned his attention to the Greek world and beyond.

Task 3B

(Using Google Earth):

First make sure Google Earth is installed on your computer: it can be downloaded from

Use to search for “Google Earth Alexander Great”, and download the .kmz file to load into Google Earth.

Or use the following direct link to the Google Earth Community:
Explore Alexander’s route in the first stages of his campaign, including the sites of the great battles (Granicus, Issus, and Gaugamela).
[Alternatively, use the internet to find a map of Alexander’s campaign and trace his route through to his defeat of Darius at Gaugamela]

3.4 The beginning of Alexander’s campaign
Alexander crossed over into Asia in 334 BC with an army of some 35000 men (there are disagreements in the sources about the exact numbers), consisting of 30000 heavy infantry and light infantry and 5000 cavalry. The majority of these were Macedonian, though the Greeks contributed 7000 infantry and a small cavalry force, together with a navy of some 160 ships.
Plutarch (Alexander 15) records that he first went to Troy to show his respect for the earlier achievements of the Greeks, before joining Parmenio and the advanced force, which made up about a quarter of the final total.
He then went on to Ilium and sacrificed to Trojan Athena, and dedicated his full suit of armour in the temple, and took down in their place some of the sacred weapons that were preserved from the Trojan war. They say that the royal guards carried these before him into battle. He then sacrificed to Priam as well on the altar of Zeus of Enclosures (as the story goes), asking that the anger of Priam should not be visited on the race of Neoptolemus, as Alexander himself was descended from him.

Arrian 1. 11

It is worth considering what Alexander was intent on doing at this point in the campaign. He had crossed over to Asia with a relatively small force: he had left a considerable body of men in Greece under Antipater, who had been put in charge of Macedonia in his absence; this was to guard against further problems to the north and also to discourage any trouble in Greece itself. According to Plutarch, he had only 70 talents in cash for the expedition and provisions for thirty days. Some modern historians have argued that this suggests Alexander initially intended only to conquer Asia Minor, while others suggest that his aims were always on a greater scale.
Alexander appears to have regarded the campaign as part of his inheritance from his father, who had persuaded the League of Corinth to send him to gain revenge for the Xerxes’ destruction of Greek cities and to free the cities on the coast of Asia Minor. Philip could satisfy this mandate with a relatively brief campaign to free Asia Minor from Persian control. However, not all historians agree with this view of Philip’s intentions: some suggest that it is likely that he intended to place himself on the Persian throne, and that he was actively trying to promote himself as an equal to the gods at the marriage ceremony of Cleopatra at which he was killed:
In addition to magnificent displays of all kinds, the king set in the procession statues of the twelve gods crafted with extraordinary skill and wonderfully decorated with a dazzling display of wealth; there was in the procession a thirteenth statue, worthy of a god, but of Philip himself, who was revealed enthroned amongst the twelve gods.

Diodorus Siculus 16.92.5

This could suggest that at the outset of the campaign, Alexander already had his eyes on the greater prize of the Persian throne, and that his thoughts could already have turned towards higher things. It is difficult to come to firm conclusions as we do not have any direct evidence for Alexander’s intentions (or for Philip’s).
Another possibility is more easily grounded in the evidence of contemporary historians. That Alexander only had 70 talents in cash when he crossed to Asia comes from Aristobulus, while Onesicritus, another historian who accompanied Alexander, claimed that he also owed 200 talents. This could suggest that Alexander needed continuous campaigning to maintain the army he had inherited from his father.

Map of Alexander’s Empire

Picture source:

3.5 Battle of the River Granicus

Once Alexander had combined his forces with the advanced guard, he began to move forwards. The local Persian leaders, according to Arrian, held some discussion about the best way to deal with Alexander, receiving advice from Memnon, a Greek mercenary leader from Rhodes who was the son-in-law of Artabazus; he suggested they should draw Alexander further away from the coast and instigate a scorched earth policy to undermine his advance. This was, however, rejected (Arrian 1. 12), so they had drawn up their forces to block his way, selecting ground that would favour them. According to Arrian, Parmenio was concerned at the difficulty presented by the situation:

In my opinion, O king, it would be good in this situation to set up camp on the riverbank just as we are. I do not believe that the enemy will dare bivouac near us as we outnumber them in infantry, and by doing this we will ensure that the army can easily cross the river at dawn; for we will be able to do this before they can get ready for battle. But as things are, I think it would be dangerous to make the attempt, because it is not possible to lead the army through the river in a broad line of battle. You see how there are many deep stretches in the river, and the banks are very high and extremely steep in places; the enemy cavalry drawn up in battle order will be upon us as we come out of the river in marching formation and in no proper order, which puts us in a very weak position. The first defeat would be difficult in the present situation and damaging for the outcome of the whole campaign.

Arrian 1.13

Alexander was determined to fight, and drew up his forces accordingly.

Task 3C

What does Arrian’s account of Alexander’s preparations for the battle tell us about the organisation of the Macedonian army?

Once he had done this, Alexander sent Parmenio to take control of the left wing, while he went along with his forces to the right. He had already put in position a number of commanders. On the right there was Philotas, son of Parmenio, in charge of the companion cavalry, the archers and the Agrianian javelin men; next to him was Amyntas, son of Arrabaeus, who was in charge of the lancers, and the Paeonians and the squadron of Socrates; next were the royal guards, under the leadership of Nicanor, son of Parmenio; then the phalanx of Perdiccas, the son of Orontes, and next to that, the troops led by Coenus, son of Polemocrates, then those led by Amyntas, son of Andromenes, and finally on the right wing the phalanx led by Philip, son of Amyntas. On the left wing, the Thessalian cavalry were positioned first, under the leadership of Calas, son of Harpalus, and next to them the allied cavalry, commanded by Philip, the son of Menelaus; then Agatho led the Thracian contingent; beyond them were infantry battalions, the phalanx of Craterus, then those of Meleager and Philip, right up to the middle of the whole battle line.


The accounts of the battle show it to have been hard fought and in places desperate. Arrian sums up the problems the Macedonians faced:

Where those with Amyntas and Socrates first reached the bank, the Persians assailed them with missiles from above; some threw javelins from their high position on the bank into the river, while others, where the ground was more level, went down to meet them as far as the water. There was a great thrusting of cavalry, some trying to get out of the river, while others tried to prevent them; there was a great shower of javelins from the Persians, while the Macedonians were fighting with their spears. But the Macedonians, as they were greatly outnumbered, began to struggle in the first assault, since they were defending themselves from the river on ground that was not firm and from a lower position, as the Persians held the high bank.

Arrian 1.15

Task 3D

Read Arrian’s account of the Battle of Granicus (Arrian 1.13-16).

  • What does this description of the battle suggest about Alexander’s abilities as a general?

  • What does it suggest about the strengths and weaknesses of the opposing armies?

Task 3E

Compare this picture, an engraving based on a painting by Charles Le Brun (1619-1690), with the accounts you have studied in the ancient sources.

Picture source:

Task 4D

(You may find it helpful to search the internet for better quality versions of the original painting.)

Picture Source: Bronze sculpture of Alexander on horseback from Herculaneum
After the battle Alexander proceeded more cautiously and fulfilled an important element in the campaign agreed by the League of Corinth, as he set about freeing the Greek cities of Asia Minor. He was generous towards those who came over to him: the Persian ruler of Sardis, Mithrenes, surrendered his city to Alexander (and was later rewarded with control of Armenia in 331 BC). He dealt more harshly with those who put up some resistance, notably the cities of Miletus and Halicarnassus, where Memnon, in charge of the Persian navy, was active. At this point Alexander disbanded his fleet, a decision which seemed surprising to some; Alexander presumably felt it was unlikely to be successful against the Persian navy, and the loyalty of its Greek crews was open to question; in addition, maintaining a fleet at sea was expensive. He therefore set about depriving the Persians of any friendly ports along the coast. During this winter, he continued his campaign in Lycia and Pamphylia.
In the spring of 333 BC, Alexander made his way to Gordium, where he ‘solved’ the problem of untying the Gordian knot: ‘whoever undid the knot of the yoke of the wagon was destined to rule Asia’ (Arrian 2.3). This visit suggests that whatever Alexander’s intentions were at the outset, his ambitions was already leading him on to greater expectations. His careful approach to the coastal areas laid the foundations of a lengthy campaign and challenged the Persian king to defend his territory. This suggests that Alexander was already interested in achieving more than the freedom of the Greek cities in the area.

3.6 Battle of the Issus
Darius III had by now collected his forces and now chose to force the issue with Alexander. There are various accounts of the battle: Plutarch Alexander 19-20, Arrian 2. 7-11, Curtius 3. 8-11. This proved to be another decisive victory for Alexander, as Darius had allowed himself to be drawn into terrain that was more suitable for the smaller Macedonian army. The decisive moment came when Alexander led a charge directly at the king, who turned and fled. There was considerable slaughter after the battle, and the Macedonians made themselves masters of a considerable quantity of Persian equipment, though much had previously been sent on to Damascus. This too was soon captured by Parmenio, thereby completing a significant victory, though Darius had made good his escape and could assemble another army in the heartland of his empire.
After the battle, Alexander found himself in control of Darius’ camp. Darius’ mother, wife and several other family members were captured. Alexander treated them as royalty and looked after them well.
Picture source: Mosaic from the house of the Faun in Pompeii depicting Darius and Alexander at Issus
Picture source: The Alexander sarcophagus, showing Alxander at the battle of Issus

Task 3F

Consider these two works of art from the ancient world. Compare the accounts given in the literary sources.

  • What can we learn from them about the Battle of Issus?

  • What do they suggest about the way Alexander was viewed?

3.7 The Siege of Tyre

After the initial pursuit of Darius, Alexander returned to his previous plan of occupying the coastal cities to deprive the Persian fleet of any base in the region. Most proved easy to convince, though the siege of Tyre was long and difficult. It is arguable that there was no need for the siege, as the people of Tyre were prepared to submit to Alexander, but did not want to allow him to enter the city to sacrifice at the Temple of Heracles there. This made Alexander very angry (Arrian 2. 16). Although the siege took seven months, it left no doubt of Alexander’s seriousness and the siege convinced the Cypriot kings and the Phoenicians to bring their fleets over to Alexander. This helped bring the siege to a successful conclusion.

Alexander himself took great interest in the preparations for the attack on the city, which was extraordinarily well defended:
The eagerness of the Macedonians for the task was great, and Alexander was there directing each step of the work, sometimes inspiring them with his words, at other times encouraging those who worked exceptionally hard with gifts.

Arrian 2. 18

Task 3G

Read Arrian’s account of the siege of Tyre (2. 18-24):

  • What can we learn from this account about Alexander’s character and leadership?

  • What aspects of this event demonstrate Alexander’s resourcefulness and innovation on campaign?

  • What does this account suggest about the impact of Alexander’s successes on both his own troops and the enemy?

After this, Alexander moved on to Gaza, which was captured after a siege of two months. According to Curtius (4.6.29), the Persian garrison commander Batis (or Betis) was dragged round the walls of the city by Alexander, imitating the way Achilles treated Hector. This is not supported by Plutarch or Arrian.

Task 3H

Make notes on the way Alexander treats his enemies.

Is there a pattern to his behaviour?

3.8 Alexander in Egypt

Alexander’s progress in Egypt was swift, as he was welcomed by the people eager to throw off Persian control, only recently reasserted over them. He was accepted as the rightful pharaoh and was recognised as the son of Ammon; he made a journey to the oracle of Ammon at Siwah to be recognised by the god.

You can find an account of Alexander’s visit to the oracle in Plutarch Alexander 27 and Arrian 3.3-4

The adoption of Egyptian custom was acceptable to the Egyptian people and in line with what the Persian kings had done to legitimise their rule. However it is likely that this behaviour by Alexander caused more difficulty for his loyal Macedonian troops, who felt by acknowledging publically that he was the son of Ammon, he was denying the paternity of Philip. This is the first occasion when dissatisfaction emerged amongst his own forces. There is increasingly in the sources a tension between Alexander’s apparent desire to be recognised as a god and his troops’ view of him as a Macedonian king. Alexander could well be displaying political skill in choosing the best way to present himself to those he had conquered; however as he tried to integrate these newcomers with his Macedonian forces, this became increasingly difficult.

In 331 BC, Alexander founded the city of Alexandria on the site of a small Egyptian town of Rhakotis. Although Alexander never returned to the city after he left to continue his pursuit of Darius, the city thrived under the new administration, as it gained a great deal from the destruction of Tyre. After Alexander’s death, Egypt came under the control of Ptolemy, one of his generals, and the city steadily increased in size and importance.

3.9 Battle of Gaugamela
By 331 BC, Darius had called up further conscripts and was ready to take to the field against Alexander. He set out from Babylon, placed his baggage at Arbela and set up camp near Gaugamela; this time he chose a battle field more appropriate to his mix of troops, and he spent some time ensuring that he would be able to deploy his scythe-bearing chariots and his elephants.
Alexander was under pressure at this time as he had received news that the Spartans in Greece were agitating against the established peace. His choice of commander in Greece proved sound however, as Antipater proved more than equal to the task, defeating the Spartans at Megalopolis, reducing Spartan numbers considerably and killing King Agis III.
Alexander was eager for a decisive confrontation, even though he was considerably outnumbered. Once the two armies were close, he
‘summoned his companions, generals, squadron leaders and the commanders of allied and mercenary forces and held a council of war to discuss whether he should press on towards the enemy from where they were straightaway, or follow Parmenio’s advice to set up a camp where they were and reconnoitre the whole area, in case there was something suspicious or a serious obstacle, or ditches anywhere, or stakes concealed in the ground; the organisation of the enemy forces could also be checked more carefully. It was decided to follow Parmenio’s advice, and they set up camp where they were, organised ready for the coming battle.’

Arrian 3. 9

Task 3I

Read the following passage from Arrian carefully.

What can we learn from this about the organisation of Alexander’s army?
When he returned, he summoned again the same leaders, and told them they needed no encouragement from him for the battle ahead; for a long time they had received their encouragement from their acts of bravery and the noble deeds so often accomplished already. However he thought that they should rouse up the men under their command, each man his own company or squadron, since in the coming battle they would not be fighting over Hollow Syria or Phoenicia or Egypt, as before, but the decision was to be made at that very time about who would control the whole of Asia. There was no necessity for long speeches to encourage towards noble deeds men who possessed the right qualities, but they should urge each man to consider in time of danger his own place in the great scheme of battle; they should be completely silent, when that was called for in the advance, and again should make a great shout, when shouting was called for, and they should make their battle cry as fearful as possible, when the time came for the charge and the battle cry; the leaders should obey orders sharply when they received them, and deliver those orders sharply to their squadrons; and every one of them should remember that the whole enterprise was at risk if they did not attend to their duties, but if they put all their energy into what they were doing, they would together achieve success.

Arrian 3. 9

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