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The Battle of Arbela
On the first of October in 331 B.C., a battle between the well rested, veteran troops of Alexander and the tired soldiers in the army of the Persian King Darius III would decide the fate ofan empire. Alexander had allowed some of his scouts to be captured and interrogated. They told Darius III that Alexander was planning a night attack. Darius therefore kept his entire army awake and in full battle formation all night. To reinforce this perception, Alexander sent light skirmishing forces in a series of quick attacks on the flanks of the Persian army, darting in and out, throughout the night.
On the other side of the Plain of Gaugamela, near the town of Arbela on the Tigris in
Assyria, the Macedonian army had retired early and slept well. The fatigue of the Persians was, however, only one factor that Alexander counted on for victory.
The Persian army definitely had the advantage in the sense that they outnumbered Alexander’s army. From the numerous accounts of this battle by ancient Greek historians such as Arrian and from Plutarch’s Life of Alexander the Great, we know that the strength of the Persian army was about 200,000 men.
Alexander had an army of less than 50,000 infantry and cavalry under his command. The Persians would only have to extend their front and sweep around both flanks to crush the Macedonians once and for all. Alexander had already defeated them in two
previous battles, and the Persians were eager for revenge.
When the sun rose on the Plain of Gaugamela, the entire Macedonian army was drawn up at an oblique angle, with cavalry at either end of the formation, and with the heavy infantry (the phalanx, the shield-bearers, and the hoplites) in formation in the center. As always, Alexander rode his great black warhorse Bucephalus and wore a shining, jewel-encrusted helmet above a flowing red cape so that everyone in his army, and in the enemy army, could see him clearly.
Darius launched his assault on the outnumbered Macedonians by sending forward his 300 battle chariots with razor-like scythes spinning on the axles. Alexander had anticipated this initial assault and immediately ordered his javelin throwers forward
to hurl wave after wave of deadly accurate javelins into the oncoming horses and men. The chariots, horses, and riders were torn to pieces by the oncoming missiles and were quickly eliminated as an effective fighting force.
Meanwhile, the cavalry on either flank of Darius’s army attacked the right and left flanks of the Macedonian army. A bitter fight ensued. But the well-disciplined Macedonian center held firm and began moving right, toward the left flank of the
As the Persian front shifted sideways to counter the movement of the Macedonians, a hole opened up in the center of the Persian line. Alexander, seeing his opportunity, gave a loud battle cry and with his companion guard of elite cavalry pursued
Alexander led the attack. His men, the finest fighting cavalry in the world, hurtled after him. They carved through the front of the Persian line like a knife through butter, heading directly toward Darius’s command post in the center of the army.
Alexander’s objective was clear from the beginning. He knew that the Persian army was made up of conscripted troops from all over the empire. They were not loyal to each other; they were only loyal to Darius, the king. Alexander was certain that if he could kill Darius or drive him from the field, the remaining troops would not stand and fight for each other.
Alexander’s military philosophy was that the opposing general in command was the linchpin that held the enemy army together. He planned each battle to create an opportunity where he could launch his elite cavalry, like a spear, at the enemy general in the middle of the army. In every case, when the enemy general was killed or driven to flight, the rest of the army would lose its cohesion and begin to disintegrate. Victory quickly followed.
As Alexander and his elite cavalry formed a wedge that cut through the front of the Persian army toward Darius, the king lost his nerve, leaped on a horse, and fled from the battlefield. His subordinate generals immediately jumped on their horses
and followed him. The word traveled like wildfire throughout the Persian army, “The Macedonians are in the center, and Darius has fled. The battle must be lost. Run for it!” Without leadership, the army started to come apart. There were two more hours of bitter fighting, between the Persian and Macedonian cavalry on the flanks, and the Persian and Macedonian troops in the center. But the Macedonians under Alexander prevailed. It was a defeat, then a rout, then a slaughter.
By the end of the day, the Persians are believed to have lost about 90,000 men. The Macedonian dead numbered only about 500. This victory made Alexander the master of Persia, at that time the greatest empire in the world. He was twenty-five years old.
Alexander was perhaps the greatest military commander in history, a leader who was never defeated on the battlefield. One of the reasons for his successes was his absolute clarity about the objective to be achieved in each battle.