Master & Commander: The 5 Most Important Wins of Alexander the Great’s Career

Master & Commander: The 5 Most Important Wins of Alexander the Great’s Career

Patrick Lynch - November 28, 2016

Master & Commander: The 5 Most Important Wins of Alexander the Great’s Career
(History Sites by Knox – Boise State University)

4 – Battle of Gaugamela (331BC)

This was the battle that resulted in Alexander finally defeating the Persians. Once again, he came up against Persian King Darius III, this time at Gaugamela on the Persian plains in 331 BC. Darius appeared to have learned from his defeat at Issus as he ensured the battleground favored his army. Gaugamela offered a flat terrain which was ideal for his scythe-wheeled chariots. In fact, Darius ordered the territory to be plowed and leveled to make it as flat as possible.

Estimates vary significantly with regard to the size of the respective armies. One of the best-known ancient sources, Arrian, claims the Persians had an army of one million men. He is supported in this claim by Plutarch and Diodorus Siculus, but these numbers are almost certainly complete exaggerations if not fabrications. While Hans Delbruck claims the Persians probably didn’t have more than 50,000 men, it is possible that Darius had over 100,000 men at his disposal. Most historians agree that Alexander’s army had no more than 47,000 soldiers. Regardless of the actual numbers, it seems likely that the Macedonian commander was heavily outnumbered.

Once he arrived at Gaugamela, Alexander assembled a small scouting team and was fortunate to capture an advance party sent by Darius. He was able to get information regarding the size of the Persian army along with details about various obstacles and traps on the field. Armenia was one of Alexander’s trusted commanders, and he recommended a night assault, yet Alexander disagreed and decided to wait. He gave a speech about the upcoming battle and assured his men that the eclipse of the moon was a sign of a certain victory.

If Alexander was nervous, he certainly didn’t show it as he allegedly overslept on the morning of the battle. While his men were well-fed and well-rested, the Persians were exhausted as they stayed up all night waiting for an attack that never materialized. After another speech, Alexander took the right flank; Parmenio commanded the left while the phalanx and archers held the middle. Also, Alexander placed infantry at the rear and on the right and left flanks to protect against a Persian flanking maneuver.

Historians claim Alexander tricked the Persians by continuing to move right; he knew the enemy would be forced to move left to contain him. In doing so, the Persians ended up on less suitable terrain and an opening was created which the Macedonian commander charged through. Meanwhile, Darius’s idea to attack the center with chariots was a disaster as the phalanx simply moved aside and allowed the chariots through. Alexander’s infantry then attacked and soon, the Persians were overwhelmed. It is alleged that Alexander threw a spear at Darius and missed him by inches.

The Persian army fled, and Darius managed to escape. However, he was murdered by Bassus, one of his commanders. Alexander was outraged to see a respected rival murdered in such a manner and gave the former Persian king a dignified funeral ceremony at Persepolis. He hunted down Bassus and had him executed. The death of Darius is usually recognized as the official fall of the Achaemenid Empire.

Master & Commander: The 5 Most Important Wins of Alexander the Great’s Career
Battle of Hydaspes (Pinterest)

5 – Battle of Hydaspes (326 BC)

By now, Alexander and his army had been fighting almost continuously since they left Macedonia in 334 BC. For most commanders, conquering vast swathes of territory would have been enough, and they would have returned home; but not Alexander. Despite the objections of his loyal and weary men, he turned his attention to India in a bid to add to his conquests of Greece, Asia Minor, Egypt and Persia. When he reached the Hydaspes River in 326 BC, he was to meet one of his greatest foes; King Porus.

As Alexander marched through Asia, he ignored the protestations of his army and pressed onwards until he reached a place that the Greeks called India but is actually modern day Pakistan. He met a local leader called Taxiles in a place called Taxila and made an alliance whereby Taxiles allowed Alexander to use his city and take his supplies in exchange for defeating another local ruler called Porus who reigned in what is now known as Punjab, India. Alexander sent an agent to the Indian leader where he offered a peaceful resolution. Porus refused to pay tribute and announced that he would meet his enemy in battle.

The combatants met at Hydaspes River in what was the fourth and final pitched battle of Alexander’s amazing career. Historians often refer to this battle as Alexander’s masterpiece as it is arguably his best victory; it was also the triumph that cost him the most. As well as suffering over 1,000 casualties, Alexander’s beloved horse Bucephalus was mortally wounded.

Alexander and his army of around 50,000 men set up directly across the river from Porus’ army of 60,000 men and up to 200 elephants. Porus quite reasonably assumed that his rival would be forced to wait until the monsoon season ended and created a defensive position along the river. Alexander knew his opponent expected him to remain in his location for several months and played along by ordering huge grain shipments from Taxiles.

Porus believed he had an ace up his sleeve with his elephants which had never been seen by Western armies before. The sight of these huge beasts did not worry the Macedonian who ordered his men to find a suitable place to cross the river. Eventually, they found a heavily wooded area at a bend in the river around 18 miles from the camp. In the midst of a thunderstorm, Alexander and around 26,000 of his men attempted the crossing. Instead of finding the shore on the other side of the river, they found a small island first which almost certainly aided their journey.

Porus knew of the crossing but made an error in judgment by sending his son with 3,000 cavalry and around 120 chariots. They were destroyed but instead of pushing on, Alexander wisely waited for the rest of his men to cross. Eventually, the enemies met in battle, and Alexander used his familiar tactic of attacking the flanks with cavalry. His horse archers bombarded the Indian elephants with arrows; the large animals became frightened and revolted and ended up causing more damage to their side.

Alexander’s generals swarmed the enemy from the sides, and by the end of the battle, some 12,000 Indians were dead compared to just 1,000 Macedonians. According to legend, Alexander asked his fallen rival how he wanted to be treated, and Porus replied ‘like a king.’ The victorious commander was impressed by his defeated enemy and not only spared him; he gave Porus his own kingdom as Alexander’s satrap along with additional territory.

Hydaspes River was to be Alexander’s last great triumph. He finally agreed to return home at the behest of his men but came back to Babylon a few years later. Alas, he was apparently succumbed to fever and died in 323 BC while planning yet another campaign. Some historians claim that the Macedonians were attacked numerous times while traveling south towards the sea after defeating Porus. Alexander was supposedly hit with an arrow, and the wound he suffered may ultimately have contributed to his premature death a few years later.

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