Of the four great battles Alexander fought in the course of his brilliant military career, the Battle of the Granicus, fought in May 334 BC, was the first–and the one in which he came closest to failure and death. The Granicus is also worthy of note because it is one of the earliest battles on record that was decided largely by cavalry strength, though coordinated with infantry support. Although some of the tactical details of the fighting are reasonably clear, to this day one of the more puzzling aspects is Alexander’s strategy of opening the battle with a feint attack. Unfortunately, the three major ancient literary sources–Arrian, Diodorus and Plutarch–give very little real detail of the battle, focusing rather on Alexander’s heroic struggle. Nevertheless, by carefully reviewing those literary sources, a highly probable picture of the battle emerges.
After the death of his father, King Philip II, in 336 BC, Alexander III won the allegiance of the army and ascended to the throne of Macedon at age 20, only to find himself at the head of a rebellious kingdom. The sudden death of his father had encouraged the barbarians to the north and west–and several Greek cities to the south–to revolt against Macedonian rule. Within two years, Alexander had suppressed all internal opposition, crushed the barbarian revolts in decisive campaigns and subdued the Greek insurrection. Once he had consolidated his power at home, Alexander enthusiastically took on the project his father had planned but never carried out–an invasion of the Persian empire.
For well over a century, the Persians’ increasing interference in Greek mainland affairs, their oppression of Greek coastal cities in western Asia Minor and their repeated invasions of Greece had filled the Greeks with fear and loathing. In the spring of 334 BC, Alexander led a combined Macedonian, Greek and Balkan (historically referred to as Macedonian) army of 32,000 infantry and 5,100 cavalry on a 20-day march from Macedon to the Hellespont (today called the Dardanelles). Alexander knew that agents sent by King Darius III of Persia had had much to do with inciting the Greeks against him. To his personal desire for revenge, he now harnessed to his cause the Greeks’ grievances over Persian injustices done to them, past and present.
Prior to Alexander’s Hellespont crossing, the Persian satraps (provincial governors) and others in the Persian high command assembled their forces of about 10,000 cavalry and 5,000 infantry near the town of Zelea in western Asia Minor (present-day Turkey). A council of war–to which Memnon, a high-ranking Greek mercenary in Persian service, was admitted–was held to discuss strategy. Knowing that the Macedonian army would be a formidable adversary, Memnon advised the Persians to burn crops, farms and villages in the country through which Alexander would have to pass, thereby depriving him of provisions, while the Persian army withdrew eastward and avoided battle. The satraps, however, distrusted Memnon because he was a Greek, and they were reluctant to see their territories destroyed. Consequently, they rejected his sound advice and decided to stay to defend their provinces.
The Persian nobles believed themselves superior to the barbaric invaders and counted on a full array of western satraps, a numerically superior cavalry (which for generations was reputed to be the finest in existence), a formidable contingent of Greek mercenary infantry and a sound plan to stop the invasion at the onset. They seem to have had two major objectives. First, they would strategically force Alexander toward a carefully chosen position before he could move farther inland; if he did not move toward that position, he would leave his rear unprotected and possibly lose his logistical support and lines of communication with the Hellespont. Second, the Persians hoped to find a strong defensive position that would not only compel Alexander to attack but also minimize his more than 2-to-1 advantage in infantry, while capitalizing on their 2-to-1 advantage in cavalry.
In keeping with their plan, the Persians advanced from Zelea to the nearby Granicus River (today called the Kocabas Cay). The 60- to 90-foot-wide river, with its varying depth, strong current and steep, irregular bank, would pose a significant obstacle to Alexander’s cavalry and would make it difficult for his phalanxes to hold formation. The Persians established a strong defensive position on the eastern bank and placed all their cavalry in the front line, creating as wide a front as possible–approximately 7,500 feet, or 1.4 miles. There, they confidently awaited the Macedonian army’s arrival.
Diodorus is the only ancient author who provides even a partial Persian order of battle: Memnon of Rhodes, with a cavalry unit of unknown size and nationality, held the extreme left of the Persian forward line. To his right was Arsamenes, also with cavalry of unknown size and nationality; then Arsites, with Paphlagonian cavalry of unknown size; and Spithridates, with Hyrcanian cavalry of unknown size. The extreme right of the Persian forward line was held by 1,000 Median cavalry and 2,000 cavalry of unknown nationality, both under the command of Rheomithres, and by 2,000 Bactrian cavalry. The center was held by cavalry units of unknown size and nationality, probably under the joint command of Mithridates and Rhoesaces, and no doubt others not mentioned in ancient texts. Greek mercenaries, under Omares, made up the mass of the infantry and were placed at the rear of the cavalry on higher ground.
Some military historians have interpreted the Persian battle array as a tactical blunder. They argue that, by placing the cavalry so close to the steep riverbank, the Persians deprived it of the opportunity to charge; and the infantry, in the rear of the cavalry, became mere observers of a struggle in which they could offer little assistance. One of the greatest of Alexander’s modern biographers, Sir William Tarn, disagreed, however, stating that ‘the Persian leaders had in fact a very gallant plan; they meant if possible to strangle the war at birth by killing Alexander.’
In ancient times, the commander’s personal leadership and presence in the forefront of battle were so important that his sudden loss, especially at the beginning of the combat, would have a demoralizing effect, possibly causing his army to panic and flee soon after his death. Thus, it seems likely that, by placing their cavalrymen in the front, the Persian leaders intended to meet Alexander’s cavalry charge with their numerically–and, they believed, qualitatively–superior cavalry and simply overwhelm his horsemen.
While the Macedonian army was completing its crossing into Asia Minor, Alexander, accompanied by a portion of his royal guards, sailed ahead, steering south to visit the ruins of the nearby ancient city of Troy. There, he ceremoniously made sacrifices to the gods in honor of the legendary Greek heroes who had fallen nearly 1,000 years earlier in the Trojan War–Greece’s first known invasion of Asia.
Upon rejoining his main army, Alexander received intelligence that the Persian forces were some 50 miles to the northeast. He realized that his first objective could no longer be to move south to liberate the Greek cities under Persian control, since that would leave a substantial enemy force in his rear. Instead, he marched northeastward along the shore of the Hellespont and the Propontis (the present-day Sea of Marmara) with just more than 18,000 of his finest troops (13,000 infantry and 5,100 cavalry), ready to challenge the Persians to a pitched battle.
In midafternoon on the third day of marching, Alexander was not far from the Granicus when his scouts reported that the Persian army was drawn up on the east bank of the river. As the Macedonian army marched toward the river through open country, Alexander placed his heavy infantry in the center in two tandem columns, heavy cavalry on each flank and the baggage train in the rear; he then advanced in semideployment behind a heavy screen of light cavalry and infantry.
When Macedonian General Parmenion, Alexander’s second-in-command, could see the enemy’s line, he studied their forces on the far bank, as well as the topography, and advised caution. He disagreed with Alexander about the battle plan, pointing out the difficulties in the river crossing and warning that an immediate attack invited disaster. Alexander, however, rejected Parmenion’s advice, perhaps wanting to capitalize on the Persians’ error in tactical deployment, and decided to deploy his army to attack at once.
In the center of his line, Alexander placed his six Foot Companion battalions of heavy infantry (historically referred to as phalanxes), arranged in the following order from left to right: Meleager’s phalanx with 1,500 infantrymen; the phalanx of Philip, son of Amyntas, with 1,500 infantrymen; the phalanx of Amyntas, son of Andromenes, with 1,500 infantrymen; Craterus’ phalanx, with 1,500 infantrymen; the phalanx of Coenus, son of Polemocrates, with 1,500 infantrymen; and the phalanx of Perdiccas, son of Orontes, with 1,500 infantrymen. On the left of the phalanxes stood 150 Thracian Odrysian light cavalry under Agathon and 600 Greek allied heavy cavalry under Philip, son of Menelaus. On the extreme left of Alexander’s line were 1,800 Thessalian heavy cavalry under Calas, joined by Parmenion, who probably stationed himself at the head of the Pharsalian squadron. On the right of the phalanxes stood, in succession: 3,000 shield bearers divided into three phalanxes of 1,000 heavy infantrymen each, all under Nicanor, son of Parmenion; a combined light mounted force of 600 Prodromoi cavalry and 150 Paeonian cavalry, commanded by Amyntas, son of Arrhabaeus; one squadron of 200 Companion heavy cavalry under Socrates, whose turn it was to take the lead that day; 1,600 Companion heavy cavalry (with Alexander stationed at the head of the royal squadron), under Philotas, son of Parmenion; 500 Agrianian light-javelin men, under Attalus; and, finally, 500 Cretan light archers, under Clearchus.
For the purpose of command, the army was divided into two wings. The right, commanded by Alexander, consisted of the three right Foot Companion phalanxes and everything to their right; while Parmenion commanded the three left Foot Companion phalanxes and everything to their left.
As the Battle of the Granicus began, the Persian leaders, in keeping with their plan to kill Alexander, focused on the Macedonian commander in chief’s movements. The glitter of his magnificent armor, the white plumes on helmet and his entourage made him a conspicuous target. When the Persians observed Alexander at the head of the Companion cavalry on the right flank, they concluded that his intention was to attack their left. As a result, the Persians transferred some of their cavalry regiments from their center and left center and massed them on and above the riverbank opposite Alexander to meet what they expected would be his main assault.
Once the final Persian and Macedonian battle arrays were complete, the two armies paused a moment and faced each other in silence. Then Alexander opened the battle by sending forward an advance force under the command of Amyntas. Three contingents of cavalry–the combined Prodromoi and Paeonian force, along with Socrates’ Companion squadron–totaling 950 horsemen, and one phalanx of infantry (1,000 soldiers) made a feint attack on the Persians’ extreme left flank, with Socrates’ squadron leading the way.
Arrian, a 2nd-century Greek historian whose account of the battle is the most comprehensive and reliable, described the hard-fought cavalry action that ensued in the river and on its bank: ‘At the point where the vanguard under Amyntas and Socrates touched the bank, the Persians shot volleys on them from above, some hurling their javelins into the river from their commanding position on the bank, others going down to the stream on the more level ground. There was a great shoving by the cavalry, as some were trying to get out of the river, others to stop them, great showers of Persian javelins, much thrusting of Macedonian spears. But the Macedonians, much outnumbered, came off badly in the first onslaught; they were defending themselves from the river on ground that was not firm and was beneath the enemy’s while the Persians had the advantage of the bank; in particular, the flower of the Persian cavalry was posted here, and Memnon’s sons and Memnon himself ventured their lives with them. The first Macedonians who came to grips with the Persians were cut down, despite their valor.’
Although the relatively weak Macedonian advance force met with predictably intense resistance and suffered heavy losses, it succeeded in drawing the Persian left-flank cavalry out of their formations. Once that was achieved, Alexander, with trumpets blaring his commands, launched his main assault, leading his famous Companion cavalry, the elite of the army, forward toward the now-disorganized Persian cavalry. With Alexander at the head of the royal squadron, the six other Companion cavalry squadrons crossed the river and fought their way up its eastern bank, as the Persians hurled their javelins down upon them.
Arrian described the fighting at that point: ‘Though the fighting was on horseback, it was more like an infantry battle, horse entangled with horse, man with man in the struggle, the Macedonians trying to push the Persians once and for all from the bank and force them on to the level ground, the Persians trying to bar their landing and thrust them back again into the river.’ Meanwhile, the remainder of Alexander’s right wing–the Agrianian javelin men, Cretan archers, two phalanxes of shield bearers and three right phalanxes of Foot Companions–also advanced, with trumpets and battle cries resounding as they entered the river.
When the Persian leaders recognized Alexander, they rode to engage him in a fierce hand-to-hand struggle. The battle became a series of heroic duels between individuals rather than a fight between cavalry units. During the struggle, Alexander’s long Macedonian cavalry lance, or sarissa, was splintered, and he called upon Aretas, one of his Companions, to provide him with another. Aretas’ own weapon had suffered the same misfortune, so Alexander continued fighting bravely with the aftpoint (sauroter). He had no sooner received another sarissa from the Companion Demaratus than the Persian cavalry commander Mithridates appeared at the head of a squadron. Alexander rode forward and struck the Persian leader in the face with his sarissa, killing him instantly.
Rhoesaces, another Persian nobleman, rode up and with his scimitar sliced off part of Alexander’s helmet, causing a minor wound. Then Alexander drove his sarissa through Rhoesaces’ breastplate and into his chest, bringing him to the ground. A third Persian leader, Spithridates, was close behind Alexander and raised his scimitar to strike, but Cleitus, commander of the royal squadron to whom the king’s safety was entrusted, anticipated the blow and severed the Persian’s sword arm, saving Alexander’s life.
Although the Persians maintained a vigorous resistance throughout the bitter struggle, they failed to withstand the charge of the Companion cavalry and were continually pushed back. Arrian wrote, ‘The Persians were now being roughly handled from all quarters; they and their horses were struck in the face with lances [sarissas], they were being pushed back by the [Companion] cavalry, and were suffering heavily from the light troops, who had intermingled with the cavalry.’ With the Companion cavalry’s fierce onslaught opening the way, the remainder of Alexander’s right wing crossed the Granicus. They slowly but steadily drove the Persians farther back, gaining the level ground above the steep riverbank.
Meanwhile, Parmenion’s left wing had also advanced and secured a footing. According to Diodorus, the Thessalian cavalry ‘won a great reputation for valor because of the skillful handling of their squadrons and their unmatched fighting quality.’ Although there are no details about the role of Parmenion’s left wing in the battle, its advance was probably delayed until Alexander’s attack was well underway. At the later great battles of Issus and Gaugamela, the Macedonians used a strong defensive left wing at the onset of the battle to balance and safeguard their bold offensive operations on the right.
As a result of the loss of so many of its leaders, the opposition offered by the Persian cavalry deteriorated rapidly. The Persian line first began to give way at the point where Alexander was engaged; then the whole center collapsed. Once the center had caved in, both wings of the Persian cavalry–Memnon among them–panicked and fled. The Macedonians could not pursue the fleeing cavalry very far, however. The Persian Greek mercenary infantry, who up to that point had taken no part in the battle, still held their ground and stood in Alexander’s path. The mercenary contingent (perhaps 3,000 troops) presented Alexander with terms under which it would surrender, but he rejected them and ordered his phalanxes to attack the mercenaries in the front, while his cavalry assaulted them on their unprotected flanks and rear. With the exception of 2,000 prisoners–and possibly a few others who threw themselves on the ground and concealed themselves among the dead–the mercenaries were cut down.
The ancient historians’ accounts vary widely as to the losses on both sides. In view of the swiftness of the battle, Arrian probably provided the most credible statistics, although the Macedonian figures are suspiciously low and the Persian numbers perhaps slightly elevated. According to him, Macedonian losses totaled 115 killed–85 cavalry (including 25 Companions from Socrates’ squadron, who fell in the advance force) and 30 infantry. No doubt the number of wounded was considerably higher. Persian losses amounted to 4,000 killed–about 1,000 cavalry and perhaps 3,000 Greek mercenaries–along with 2,000 taken prisoner.
Among the Persian high command known to have died in the attempt to slay Alexander were: Spithridates, satrap of Ionia and Lydia; Mithrobuzanes, satrap of Cappadocia; Mithridates, son-in-law of King Darius; Arbupales, grandson of King Artaxerxes II; Phranaces, brother-in-law of King Darius; Rhoesaces, brother of Spithridates; Omares, commander of the Greek mercenaries; Niphates, perhaps a cavalry commander; Petines, perhaps a cavalry commander; and Arsites, satrap of Hellespontine Phrygia (the province in which the battle took place), who fled and later committed suicide, according to Arrian, ‘because the blame of the present blunder seemed to the Persians to lie at his door.’
By Alexander’s order, all who had fallen in the Battle of the Granicus, including the Persian leaders and Greek mercenaries, were buried with military honors. To the surviving relatives of his fallen soldiers, Alexander granted immunity from taxation and public service. He ordered Lysippus, considered perhaps the greatest sculptor of the day, to make bronze statues of the 25 Companion cavalrymen who fell in the initial feint attack. The statues were eventually set up in Dium, a city in Macedon at the foot of Mount Olympus. Alexander visited his wounded, examined their injuries and, according to Arrian, gave every soldier an opportunity to recount–and perhaps exaggerate–his deeds.
The Persian commanders had not kept pace with military developments in Greece, including the tactics and quality of the Macedonian army, in the two decades prior to Alexander’s invasion. Believing themselves to be a match for Alexander in the field, the Persians, who failed to use their professional infantry, simply counted on their numerically superior cavalry and their personal bravery to secure a victory. The resulting lack of coordination between horse and foot violated a principle of integrated armies that even the Persians had long understood.
According to historian E.W. Davis, however, the Persians’ greatest weakness was that the ‘Persian army seems to have been commanded by a committee [and] it may be that we do not have a Persian battle-plan at all, only a blotched compromise between several rival plans.’ The Persian defeat, resulting in the loss of so many satraps and others in the Persian high command, was so overwhelming that no other army could be reassembled to challenge Alexander in all of Asia Minor.
On the other hand, the Battle of the Granicus highlighted Alexander’s remarkable insights into the development of the battle, his anticipation of the enemy’s reactions, his sense of timing, and especially his coordination of heavy infantry, heavy cavalry, light cavalry and light infantry in a single attack. Alexander calculated that, although his cavalry was outnumbered 2-to-1, it was superior in skill and discipline. His cavalrymen were shock troops, armed with long sarissas, and were more accustomed to strong hand-to-hand fighting than were the Persian cavalrymen. The latter were armed with short javelins (designed more for throwing than for thrusting) and scimitars, both of which were ineffective against the Macedonian sarissas.
Alexander also realized that his attacking cavalry had a great advantage over its Persian counterpart, whose defensive role forfeited its mobility and whose faulty deployment negated its advantage in numbers. Alexander’s light infantry archers and javelin men, interspersed among his Companion cavalry, also inflicted much damage and further helped to offset the Persian cavalry’s numerical superiority.
Alexander’s heroic leadership, as he fought in the thick of battle and narrowly escaped death, earned him what Diodorus called the ‘palm for bravery’ and gave him his first great victory over the Persians, opening the way to western and southern Asia Minor. From the spoils of that success, Alexander sent 300 suits of Persian armor to the Parthenon in Athens, to remind the Greeks that this victory was part of the war of revenge against the Persians and to stir Greek enthusiasm. With the triumph at the Granicus, the Greek cities of Asia Minor were liberated from Persian rule–and the beachhead was established for later campaigns deeper in Persian territory.
This article was written by John R. Mixter and originally published in the December 1997 issue of Military History magazine.
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