Alexander III of Macedon was arguably the greatest military leader of his time, conquering almost the whole world as it was known in the 4th century BC.
He was said to have wept on learning that there was no more territory for him to acquire. Alexander was undoubtedly a military prodigy, simply ‘knowing’, as genius usually does, the right strategy and tactics to employ in order to win battles.
Alexander and the Greek city-states
Alexander became King of Macedon at the age of 20 in 336BC, after his father, Philip, was assassinated.
The Greek city-states of Athens and Thebes which had been forced by Philip to pledge their alliegance to him, saw this as a moment to seize their independence from the inexperienced young monarch. But despite his youth, Alexander was already a powerful warrior leader and in any case, needed Greek support for his forthcoming war against King Darius III of Persia.
Alexander had to move quickly, because Darius was using gifts of gold to bribe the Greeks to come over to his side. The Thebans were willing to join Darius, but were frightened off when Alexander and his army appeared at the gates of the city and demanded their surrender. They gave in at once.
Other Greeks were much more willing to back Alexander and gathered at the Isthmus of Corinth where they elected the young king Captain-General of the Hellenes – as the Greeks were known – against Persia. His father Philip had held this same title before him. Only Sparta, the Greek military city state, refused to join in.
Fighting the Thracians
In 335BC, the year after he became king of Macedon, Alexander moved to secure the northern border of his territory at the river Danube against the Thracians and Illyrians.
He moved first against the Thracians and deliberately deceived them about the power of his forces by sending out his archers and slingers against them. This ploy lulled the Thracians into believing that Alexander’s army was weak and ineffective.
Assured, as they thought, of an easy victory, the Thracians attacked a force they thought could do not more than throw rocks and arrows at them. Instead, they encountered instead Alexander’s crack troops, his infantry. The Thracians surrendered immediately.
Victory by Deceit
The Illyrians were a much tougher proposition. They managed to isolate Alexander and his small force from the rest of his army. In response, Alexander put on a special military show. He ordered his troops to parade in front of the Illyrians, marching in close, disciplined formation while carrying their long spears.
As they went, Alexander’s forces carried out intricate military maneuvers. The Illyrians were so fascinated by this strange performance that they were taken by surprise when Alexander suddenly ordered his cavalry to charge against them.
Alexander’s infantry joined in, setting up a cacophony of noise by striking their swords on their shields and yelling the Macedonian war cry. The Illyrians ran back to their fortress as Alexander ordered his catapults to go into action. The enemy was soon defeated.
Alexander in Persia
Alexander and the army of Macedon crossed the Hellespont (now the Dardanelles) in 334BC and landed in present day Turkey. His force was so large that it took more than 100 triremes, the Greeks’ three-tiered oar ships, to transport it. When King Darius III of Persia learned of Alexander’s arrival, he refused to take the young king seriously. It was a grave mistake which Darius would bitterly regret.
But Alexander also miscalculated, thinking that Darius was soft, weak and ineffective in battle. As it happened, it was true that the Persian style of warfare did not major in strategies or the sort of cunning tactics Alexander preferred to employ. Alexander believed, therefore, that it would be easy to outwit the Persian king.
In the event, he did not have to bother. Darius was so convinced that Alexander could do nothing against him, that even as the Macedonian monarch marched his army through Turkey towards Persia, he did not mount a serious challenge to the advance. Nor did Darius dispute the liberation of Greek towns that had been overrun by Persian forces and surrendered one after the other.
Nothing, it seemed, was going to stop Alexander and he was deep inside Persian territory when, at long last, Darius realised that he must act against him. The Persian and Macedonian armies finally met at the battle of the Granicus River, near the site of Troy, in May of 334BC, where the battlefield did the Persians no favors.
The Battle of the Granicus River
The locale of this battle, fought on the banks of the Granicus river was very much to the disadvantage of the Persian army. Their forte was deploying huge forces on the battlefield and seeking victory through sheer weight of numbers.
This strategy might have been effective in battles sited on broad, flat plains, but river banks were cramped, muddy and slippery and afforded little or no room for deploying large forces or allowing space for war chariots to operate.
At Granicus, the Persians arrayed their infantry behind their cavalry on the east bank of the river. Alexander placed his heavy phalanxes comprising massed infantry in rectangular formation, in the centre, with his cavalry on either side.
Alexander took the Persians by surprise by attacking as soon as his troops were in place. The Macedonian cavalry and light infantry made the first attack, from the left, with Alexander and his personal bodyguards charging through on horseback to smash into the Persian centre.
Many Persian nobles were killed although one, Spithridates, managed to hit Alexander over the head with his axe. Alexander was stunned and Spithridates was preparing to finish him off when he was himself killed by one of Alexander’s officers, Cleitus the Black.
A gap had now opened up in the Persian line and Alexander’s cavalry surged through to fall upon the Persian infantry in the rear. The infantry fled in panic and Darius’ cavalry retreated.