Wars of Alexander the Great: Battle of the Hydaspes River

6/12/2006 • Military History

What a battle! Sheets of heavy arrows from long Indian bows arced over the war elephants that surged forward to meet the Macedonian phalanx’s bristling hedge of sarissas. The Macedonian paean rang out as the great beasts crashed into the long spears, impaling themselves. Other elephants brushed aside the sharp points and waded into the Macedonian ranks, trampling men or flinging them across the field with their trunks. The Macedonians did not flinch but stabbed and thrust at the monsters, while their swarms of javelins and arrows killed the mahouts and fighting men on the howdahs atop the beasts. Other Macedonians rushed forward to hack at the elephants’ legs or underbellies. Finally, as the Macedonian phalanx surged forward with a roar, the beasts backed away and then fled trumpeting through the ranks of their own infantry. For the Indians, it was all coming apart. King Porus, himself wounded, surrendered, and Alexander III, king of Macedon, lord of Greece, Persia, Egypt and all the lesser lands within their conquered empires, added the Battle of the Hydaspes River to his long litany of victories.

It was May of 326 BC, and Alexander did not realize that this was the golden apex of his life. His spirits buoyed at having just won the most adroit and subtle of all his battles in fabled India, he confidently led his army eastward toward the kingdoms of the Ganges. Chandragupta, the future first empire-builder of India, was a child when he first saw Alexander and would later remark that success was assured because the Gangic kingdoms were rotten. Alexander may or may not have had that advance knowledge of the Indian political structure, but his men had fallen prey to an entirely different appreciation of the situation.

Alexander’s energy was superhuman by any standard. Victory and adventure fueled that energy, as did his sense of pothos, or yearning to discover new things, new challenges and new worlds to conquer. His men were far more mortal. The Macedonian and Greek core of his army, in particular, had been with him since he had crossed the Hellespont in 334 BC. After eight years of fighting, their numbers were dwindling and they were exhausted, yet on they marched behind the Invincible One.

The army reached the banks of the Hyphasis (Beas) River in July. The city of Sangala had resisted Alexander and now was a corpse-strewn ruin. There was little to savor in the victory. The Indians had fought hard again, inflicting an alarming number of casualties. The army had been lashed by the monsoon since it left the Hydaspes. Everything that could rust, rot, mold or corrode did. Rumors flew about the camp that the kingdoms against which Alexander would lead them could muster thousands of war elephants and hundreds of thousands of tough soldiers. Fatigue drained the men’s morale.

Learning of the army’s lassitude, Alexander summoned his chief officers. ‘I observe, Gentlemen, that when I would lead you on a new venture you no longer follow me with your old spirit,’ he said. ‘I have asked you to meet that we may come to a decision together: Are we, upon my advice, to go forward, or, upon yours, to turn back?’

It was a shrewd approach. Alexander had always had a fine feel for what would motivate his commanders. A Macedonian king was still very much an Indo-European war chieftain whose position was more first among equals than absolute master. That relationship had been changing as Alexander’s conquests grew, much to the chagrin of his Macedonians. He had barely escaped an assassination attempt the year before in Afghanistan by his disgruntled pages, whipped to a passion for regicide by his court historian. He recognized that the army could only be led and not driven forward. Tact was vital. To this he added the force of argument fired by his powerful charisma.

Alexander reminded his officers that they had conquered much of the world already. Why, he asked, would the Hyphasis River and what lay beyond daunt them now? He then tried to sway them with a rhetorical flourish that revealed much about himself: ‘For a man who is a man, work, in my belief, if it is directed to noble ends, had no object beyond itself.’

It was a mistake. The Macedonian commander lived, ate and slept adventure and war. He assumed that his men, too, were driven by the lines from Homer: ‘One can achieve his fill of good things, even of sleep, even of making love…rapturous song and the beat and sway of dancing. A man will yearn for his fill of all these joys before his fill of war.’

Even Homer could be wrong at times.

Alexander sensed the lack of response among his officers. He argued that beyond the Ganges was the world-encircling ocean, the natural limit to conquest. Besides, he said, should they withdraw now it would be a gross encouragement to peoples in their rear to rise in revolt and contest every inch of the march home. ‘Gentlemen of Macedon, and you, my friends and allies, stand firm,’ he urged, ‘for well you know that hardship and danger are the price of glory, and that sweet is the savor of a life of deathless renown beyond the grave.’

For Alexander this was the ultimate motivation, but it had lost its allure to those around him. He tried another tack: ‘I could not have blamed you for being the first to lose heart if I, your commander, had not shared in your exhausting marches and your perilous campaigns; it would have been natural enough if you had done all the work merely for others to reap the reward. But it is not so. You and I, gentlemen, have shared the labor and shared the danger, and the rewards are for us all.’

He recounted how he had liberally passed the greater part of the treasure of conquest to the army, and the governing of the conquered lands to his officers. He promised more when the last of Asia was subdued: ‘[T]hen indeed I will go further than the mere satisfaction of your ambitions; the utmost hopes of riches or power which each one of you cherishes will be far surpassed, and whoever wished to return home will be allowed to, either with me or without me. I will make those who stay the envy of those who return.’

To this, the Macedonian leader was met with dead silence. Again and again he asked his commanders’ opinion, until Coenus, an old officer, spoke. He thanked Alexander for consulting rather than compelling them on this matter, and told him that the officers would go forward with him regardless; they could do no less for all the riches and honor Alexander had showered upon them. But he was not speaking for the officers, but for the men. He pointed out how few were left of the Macedonians and Greeks who had set out for Asia with him. Many had died in the battles and sieges along the way; more had died of sickness. ‘Every man of them longs to see his parents again, if they yet survive, or his wife, or his children,’ the officer said. ‘All are yearning for the familiar earth of home, hoping, pardonably enough, to live to revisit it, no longer in poverty and obscurity, but famous and enriched by the treasures you have enabled them to win.’

Then Coenus put his finger on the gulf between the king and his army: ‘Do not try to lead men who are unwilling to follow you; if their heart is not in it, you will never find the old spirit or the old courage.’ Return home in glory, he pleaded, recruit a fresh, new army and resume the campaign. ‘Sir, if there is one thing above all others a successful man should know, it is when to stop,’ he concluded. ‘Assuredly for a commander like yourself, with an army like ours, there is nothing to fear from any enemy; but luck, remember, is an unpredictable thing, and against what it may bring no man has any defense.’

Alexander was taken aback by the applause and tears with which Coenus’ words were met. He resented Coenus’ frank advice and dismissed the officers out of hand. The next day, Alexander angrily told them that he would force nobody to go on with him, but added: ‘I shall have others…who will need no compulsion to follow their King. If you wish to go home, you are at liberty to do so — and you may tell your people there that you deserted your King in the midst of his enemies.’

Alexander then sulked like Achilles in his tent for three days, refusing to admit even his most trusted soldiers, the Companions, hoping the withdrawal of his affections would bring the men around. He must have been stunned when this last resort also failed. At last, the pragmatist in him won out. He seized upon bad omens to announce that the army would return home. The men surged around his tent, cheering, weeping and calling down blessings upon him for giving in to their wishes. It was the only defeat Alexander had ever suffered.

If the men thought they were about to embark on a peaceful march, they were mistaken. Alexander ordered a prompt return to the Hydaspes, where he commanded the building of a large fleet to descend the Indian rivers south to the sea. From its shore, the army would march home. But there was a rub. The army would have to conquer its way to the sea.

The fleet first followed the Hydaspes to the Acesines (Chenab), which in turn fed into the Indus. The larger part of Alexander’s forces paralleled the fleet on either side of the river. At the river junction, he halted the fleet for repairs and concentrated his forces coming by land. They were on the borders of two hostile peoples — the Mallians (Mahlavas) immediately to the east of the Acesines, and the Oxydracae (Ksudrakas) to their east across the Hydraotes (Ravi) River. Both peoples were led not by kings but by Brahmin elites. They had put aside their bitter mutual enmity to ally against the foreigners. Rumors put the strength of the Mallians alone at 90,000 infantry, 10,000 horse and 900 chariots. They were also reputed to be the most warlike of the Indians in those regions.

Alexander was anxious to strike before the two peoples could unite, but he was too late. The joint Mallian-Oxydracae force had gathered behind the shelter of the waterless Desert of Sandar to the east of Alexander’s camps. But Alexander’s luck held, as the two peoples could not agree on a single leader and had broken up. Nevertheless, Alexander’s spies reported that the Mallians were still concentrated in the area. They expected Alexander to continue down the Acesines to where it was joined by the Hydraotes, which sheltered the city of Multan.

Alexander was the last man ever to give an enemy the favor of doing the expected, but he would feed the Mallians’ expectations by sending the fleet and most of the army south. Alexander himself would strike east across the Desert of Sandar to the Hydraotes. The Mallians assumed the desert to be an effective obstacle, but they had not met the Macedonian commander yet.

Five days before he marched, Alexander ordered his trusted general Hephaestion to lead one contingent south along the east bank of the river to intercept any of the enemy who fled before his advance. Three days after Hephaestion departed, a second contingent, commanded by Ptolemy, was to follow him, to gather up any Mallians who doubled back to escape. A third contingent, under Craterus, paralleled the first two on the western bank of the Acesines.

Alexander selected for his own strike force half the Companion Cavalry, commanded by Perdiccas, as well as the Guards, foot archers, the superb Agrianian light infantry, a brigade of the phalanx and all the Scythian Danae mounted archers. It was the typical force Alexander normally chose for separate operations under his own eye — one that combined flexibility, speed and shock. The Scythians were the newest addition to his elite units, having demonstrated their worth at the Hydaspes. As usual, Alexander’s intelligence of the terrain was excellent. The strike force advanced a half day’s march to the Ayek River, where he rested the men and ordered them to fill every possible container with water. At night he struck out across 50 miles of desert. Alexander was one of the few commanders of antiquity to exploit the night. It concealed the movement of his forces and in this case also sheltered them from the sun’s heat.

Emerging from the desert, Alexander rode ahead of the infantry with his cavalry and came upon the Mallian forces scattered on the outskirts of Agalassa. It had been too small to garrison such a large force. Taken completely by surprise, the Mallians panicked and fled toward the city as Alexander’s cavalry rode them down with great slaughter. Again his Scythians proved their worth, each spewing showers of deadly arrows. The cavalry encircled the city until the infantry could come up for a proper assault. Alexander ordered Perdiccas to take the cavalry and the Agrianians to cross the Hydraotes and encircle but not assault a city (Harappa) until he could bring up the infantry. But Perdiccas found the city empty, its inhabitants having already fled.

Alexander speedily disposed of Agalassa. Through missile fire alone, his men cleared the walls of defenders, then stormed the citadel from all sides. The 2,000 Indians within fought to the last man.

After a meal and short rest, Alexander roused his men to march, again under cover of night. Most of the Mallian survivors had fled south across the Hydraotes before the Macedonians reached it; the remnants still struggling to cross the river were cut down. Alexander immediately crossed the river and harried the enemy, who took refuge in a strongly fortified position (modern Tulambo). He waited for the phalanx to come up and sent it forward, supported by cavalry, to carry the position, killing or enslaving all the Indians.

As Tulambo was falling, Alexander heard that another Mallian force was concentrating at a city of the Brahmins (modern Atari). Again he marched quickly, encircled it with his infantry, and drove the defenders from the walls to their citadel with a deluge of missiles. The Macedonians immediately began sapping the walls. As at Agalassa, the cornered Indians fought manfully, killing 25 Macedonians who had forced their way into the citadel through a breach. A tower, then the adjoining curtain wall, collapsed.

Alexander bounded through the rubble to mount the broken base of the wall. For agonizing moments, he held the breach alone against the Indians. For the first time, the Macedonians had not rushed where he led. Finally, impelled by shame, small groups came forward to join their king and break into the citadel. This time 5,000 Mallians died fighting as they set fire to their own houses. Subsequent events would show that the commander did not fail to note how his Macedonians had hung back, even momentarily.

Alexander then learned that the Mallians were concentrating to defend their principal town, but upon his arrival he found it abandoned. He pursued the Mallians who had crossed the Hydraotes and established a strong position on the western bank. Without a pause, he ordered the infantry to follow as he led his cavalry directly across the river. The Mallian commander lost his nerve in the face of such audacity and ordered a withdrawal before Alexander was halfway across. As soon as the Mallian realized the Macedonian infantry had not completed the river crossing, however, he turned and presented a solid front to Alexander. Alexander used his cavalry to fix the Mallians, while his horse archers took their toll of the enemy. The Indians were already demoralized when Alexander’s Guards, foot archers and Agrianians attacked, with the phalanx coming up behind. The Mallians broke and fled to the nearest city, Multan, with Alexander’s cavalry cutting down the laggards. The Macedonians encircled the city, but for once Alexander abandoned an immediate assault. Night was falling, and his men were exhausted.

The next morning Alexander’s personal reconnaissance of Multan revealed a postern gate that looked vulnerable. He arranged for the Perdiccas to attack the outer walls, fixing the Mallians’ attention. Meanwhile, Alexander would move with his Guards to the postern gate. Batteries of catapults sent a torrent of darts and stones to savage the defenders. Seeing the mass of Macedonian infantry form for the assault, the Indians abandoned the walls and crammed themselves into their citadel. While that was going on, Alexander’s Guards tore the postern from its hinges and rushed into the city.

Unknown to Alexander, the sudden departure of the Mallians from the walls had left Perdiccas with the impression that the city had already fallen to his assault. Consequently he brought no ladders forward when his men reached the walls. As Perdiccas’ men marked time trying to find a way in, Alexander and the lead element of the Guards had cut their way through masses of fugitives to reach the citadel. Rather than wait for Perdiccas, he ordered ladders brought up. Only two had reached the point of assault, and the men holding them hung back. This time the hesitancy Alexander had first seen at Atari was not momentary — the men stood rooted to the ground, as heavy Indian arrows, javelins and sling stones thudded into their raised shields.

Alexander prowled in front of their ranks, protected by his shield bearer, Peucestas, who bore the sacred shield of Troy that the king had taken down from Athena’s sanctuary at that ancient site. Next to him also was his bodyguard, Leonnatus, an officer of the Guard. Deciding that personal example was the only way to bring the Guard forward, as it had at Atari, he snatched one of the ladders and ran to the wall.

In an instant, Alexander planted the ladder and bounded up, holding his own shield before him. His sword flicked with deadly speed as he cleared the parapet of defenders and climbed over the top. When he had dispatched the last defender, those Indians on the adjoining towers poured spears and arrows down on him. He was the most magnificent target in military history, standing there alone in his gold-decked armor, the white plumes and crest of his helmet nodding violently as he swung his shield back and forth to parry the converging missiles.

Below him, his Guards stood transfixed in horror. Peucestas and Leonnatus scrambled up the ladder, followed by Abreas, a double-pay Guardsman who was the only man with the presence of mind to seize a second ladder and mount it. The Guards shouted to Alexander to jump to safety into their arms, but he ignored them. He saw that the ground level inside the citadel was higher than outside. He would later say that he calculated that the greatest danger was to stay where he was, while jumping back would accomplish nothing. By attacking, he might intimidate the enemy and at the very worst die a legendary death. With that split-second decision made, he leapt inside. Crying out in shock, the Guard rushed to the ladders as Peucestas, Leonnatus and Abreas disappeared over the top. But so many tried to mount at once that the ladders shattered.

The Indians were even more astonished than the Guards as Alexander landed on his feet, put his back to the wall and assumed his fighting stance. A group of Indians then attacked, but all, including their commander, fell to his sword. Alexander felled a second leader with a stone, hurled with the force of a small catapult. More Mallians only added their bodies to the growing heap in front of the raging commander. The Indians may have been brave, but they recognized a near-inhuman killing machine, a veritable mythic hero from their Vedic epics come to life, and prudently kept their distance, forming a half circle from which to hurl every sort of missile at him.

At that moment, Alexander’s three protectors dropped inside the wall and rushed to his side. They were an instant too late. Abreas fell with an arrow in the face. Peucestas was throwing his shield in front of his commander when another arrow sped past and struck Alexander in his left lung. Red foam, blood mixed with air, bubbled from the wound through his pierced corselet. The Indians surged forward for the kill, but Alexander continued to defend himself. Finally, blood gushed from the wound and their king slumped forward over his shield. Peucestas and Leonnatus stepped in front of his body to shield him with their own, as arrows, darts and stones rained down on them.

Outside the citadel, near panic had gripped the Guards. Some formed human ladders; others drove wooden pegs into the wall so they could climb it. One by one they reached the top and dropped inside. ‘There they saw the King on the ground,’ wrote the historian Arrian, ‘and a cry of grief and a shout of rage rose from every throat.’ Each man leapt forward to cover Alexander with their shields and bodies as the Indians pressed the fight.

Alexander would have rejoiced in the Homeric scene straight from the pages of the Iliad, where Achaeans and Trojans fought over the bodies of their heroes. The howls from inside redoubled the efforts of the men outside trying to get through a gate in a curtain wall, until with superhuman strength they snapped the bolt. The gate was still wedged half shut, letting only one man inside at time. Then others put their shoulders to the gate and with a heave sprung it open. In poured the Macedonians, by then joined by Perdiccas’ larger force, in white-hot fury.

Alexander was carefully placed on a shield and carried out of the citadel to his tent as the city was given over to massacre. The shouts and screams of a dying city became a muted backdrop as the Macedonian leaders huddled around their king. They had all seen mortal wounds aplenty, and every warrior must have thought Alexander a dead man. The arrow that quivered in his chest was heavy, with a large barbed head. Alexander’s physician, Critodemos of Kos, ordered him stripped naked and the shaft of the arrow cut off. He determined that the only way to extract it without the barbs doing greater damage was to enlarge the wound. Critodemos was a man of extraordinary skill, but the prospect of the king dying at his hands evidently unnerved him so much that even Alexander, who had regained consciousness, was aware of his fear.

Even in this Alexander led. ‘Why are you waiting?’ he asked. ‘If I have to die, why do you not at least free me from this agony as soon as possible? Or are you afraid of being held responsible for my having received an incurable wound?’ Critodemos told his commander that he would have to be held down during the operation. Alexander said there was no need, and went through the ordeal unflinching. When the barbed head was extracted, blood spurted from the wound, and Alexander finally fainted. At first the hemorrhage could not be stopped, and the onlookers began to wail as if for the dead.

The Macedonian troops, refusing to go to their camps, instead had stood in arms around the tent, waiting for news. Panic must have raced through them when they heard what they thought was the sound of death; without Alexander, they would be stranded at the ends of the earth. Mixed with that fear was the shame and grief that they had let him down. Inside the tent, the bleeding finally stopped, and Alexander regained consciousness.

Bad news never waits for confirmation, and a report of Alexander’s death sped from his camp to the main Macedonian camp on the Acesines, throwing the army into paralytic despair. Even assurances from Alexander’s senior officers were dismissed as forgeries. Reports of the army’s state reached Alexander as he recuperated, and he determined to address them in person. It was barely seven days, and his wound had not even completely closed when he arranged to be carried by ship down the Hydraotes to the main camp.

As his ship approached the quarters, he had the awnings pulled back so that the men could see him on his bed. They thought they were seeing only a motionless corpse until he raised a hand to wave at them, prompting wild cheering from the shore. As the ship docked, the Guard brought out a litter, but Alexander refused it, walked down the gangplank and, in an act of extraordinary will, mounted his horse to ride to his tent. ‘[A]t the sight of him, once more astride his horse, there was a storm of applause so loud that the river-banks and neighboring glens re-echoed with the noise,’ Arrian wrote. ‘Near his tent he dismounted, and the men saw him walk; they crowded round him, touching his hands, his knees, his clothes; some content with a sight of him standing near, turned away with a blessing on their lips.’

The officers assembled in the commander’s tent were far more serious. They remonstrated with Alexander for risking his life and thereby the survival of the army. This did not sit well with him, but he was cheered by an old Greek soldier who said in his broad Boeotian dialect, ‘Action is man’s job, my lord.’ The Mallians and the Oxydracae at this time sent delegations to offer submission. Alexander did nothing more than accept the proffered tribute and hostages.

After his recuperation, the Macedonian king sailed down the Indus to the Indian Ocean and then marched back to Babylon. Although there was more fighting, Alexander’s wound put an end to any more personal exploits. Lung tissue never fully recovers, and the thick scarring in its place made every breath cut like a knife. It probably rendered him vulnerable to whatever microbe finally killed him in Babylon two years later.

But Alexander, like his hero Achilles, had been willing to make the choice between safety and the sweet’savor of a life of deathless renown beyond the grave.’ That single moment on the wall of the Mallian citadel, to him, was worth it all.

This article was written by Peter G. Tsouras and originally published in the June 2004 issue of Military History.

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