Alejandro vs Darius, the battle of Issos

In its advance towards the heart of the Persian Empire, Alexander the Great faced the army of Darius III on a plain between Turkey and Syria in early November. The courage of his phalanges and his genius as a strategist gave him the victory

From the moment he launched his campaign against the vast Achaemenid Empire, in 334 BC, the very young king of Macedonia, Alexander, sought to provoke a direct confrontation with the Persian Great King, Darius III, Lord of Asia. The successive and spectacular successes that he achieved in the initial stages of the invasion seemed to bring him closer to his goal.

After his victory at Granico, the king’s army-some 35,000 men, both Greek and Macedonian, as well as Illyrian and Thracian contingents-advanced through Anatolia, conquering territories and liberating Greek cities from the barbarian yoke, finding little resistance. But, when Alexander was about to enter Syria, he got a big surprise: Darius, with an army that perhaps exceeded 100,000 men, had managed to surround him and was in his own rear, moving to catch up.

The inevitable clash took place in the worst possible location for the two armies. Thanks to the reports of the explorers, both contenders were directed towards a narrow plain about three kilometers wide, cut by the course of the Payas River and bordered by small mountains on one side and with the sea on the opposite flank. A mousetrap on the outskirts of a small Syrian city, Issos, in which the destinies of Asia and the West would have to be settled. The good news for Greeks and Macedonians was that, in such a small space, the enormous numerical superiority of the Persians would be compensated, and therefore the risk of being surrounded by the enemy with ease would be minimized. Against him was the presence of the river, which hindered the advance of the infantry.

The Persians, on the other hand, expected revenge. A year before they had suffered a humiliating defeat at the hands of Alexander in the Granicus River and now they were burning with the desire to expel the invaders from Asia. So inflamed were their minds that when they reached the city of Issos they captured the Greeks and Macedonians who occupied Alexander’s field hospital and passed them all to the knife. The battle that was now coming had to give a decisive and definitive answer to the arrogance of the young Alexander, annihilating once and for all his army and putting an end to his desire for conquest.

The Macedonian king was aware that he was facing a very tough test. For this reason, he entrusted his fate to the gods: at night he performed certain rites in which he invoked several marine deities -Tetis, the Nereids, Poseidon-, in whose honor he ordered to launch a chariot to the sea; He also made sacrifices to the night. At the same time he prepared the disposition of his troops in the battlefield trying to make the most of the orography to his advantage. For that reason he bet the veteran Parmenión like commander of the Greek cavalry in the left wing, with the aim of protecting the flank that adjoined with the beach and to avoid any surrounding movement.

In the center he put the Macedonian infantry, supported by the Greek hoplites -organized all of them in the classical phalanx-, trusting that they would become an immovable rock on which to anchor their strategy. He placed himself in the right wing, commanded by the Companions, a Macedonian elite infantry, now situated in the foothills of the mountains. Next to him were the lancers and the rest of the cavalry, and as a link to the phalanx were the hypaspists, elite troops trained for the assault that could serve as support for the horsemen as well as to defend the soldiers.

The advance towards the river
During the preparations, Alexander perceived that fear took over his men. They had only known for a day that the enemy was behind them, and now, suddenly, they were face to face with him in that narrow place. Alexander went to his soldiers to raise their spirits. That was the occasion, he told them, to pay with the blood of the enemy what until then they had enjoyed as booty. He called them by their names, remembering the exploits that together they had carried out. Thus he managed to enardecerlos, confident in his strength and, above all, in his king. According to a chronicler, all «they shouted to Alexander not to delay and order to charge and against the enemies.»

Battle_issus_initial

Despite that, there were nerves even between the controls. Before the enemy’s disposition, Alexander tried different strategies, hoping that the chosen one was the correct one, because he would only have one opportunity. It seemed evident that its weakest flank was the one near the sea; in fact, the Persians reinforced this side with the intention of breaking the line and surpassing the Greeks.

Perceiving it, Alexander decided to move his pieces, but secretly: he caused the Thessalian riders to change flanks to help Parmenion on the right, but forced them to cross through the lines of soldiers, thus hiding them from the enemy’s gaze. Finally, faced with the Persian numerical superiority, the king decided to extend his own line of battle with the hope of gaining elasticity in such an uneven terrain.

Darius, meanwhile, even knowing himself superior, preferred to act with caution before an opponent whose military genius feared. He placed an infantry corps in each possible ford of the river, and reinforced the places of difficult access with palisades. Its purpose was to force Alexander to fight for the control of the points of passage of the river, trusting that the Macedonian formation would be disorganized and exhausted and would be easy prey to the soldiers stationed at the top of the other shore. Meanwhile, the Achaemenian cavalry, from the second line, would seek to break through the enemy and overflow their flanks to multiply the fronts and destroy it.

Alexander was the first to order his forces to advance, deploying them throughout the expanse of the plain. Then, the Macedonians began to sing the pean, a terrible song of war, while clashing their weapons with force, producing a noise that made the enemy shudder. The Persians reacted by attacking with their cavalry the left side, putting in difficulty Parmenion. In spite of everything, this one endured the flank, in the same way that it also resisted the infantry in the center, facing the crossing of the river and the fierce fight with the enemy, in violent struggle to advance.

On the right side, the Macedonians managed to break the Persian formation and provoke the first retreat. The breach was opened, Alexander put himself at the head of his faithful Companions, and the royal cavalry advanced like lightning, sowing death and confusion, after exceeding the flank of the Persian front row. Moving between the lines, they advanced obliquely towards the very center of the Persian army, where no one would have thought that they could direct their attack.

Battle_issus_decisiveIn the chaos of the battle, Alexander personally led his riders to meet Darius. Caught by surprise, the Persian royal cavalry surrounded the Great King, protecting him from the intense Macedonian attack. Alexander knew that if he eliminated Darius he would have won the war. His fight was desperate: Darius could flee to fight another day, but Alexander and his men, if they failed, would have no escape. Beyond courage and strength, the Macedonians fought with real rage, moved by a desire for survival. Before Alexander’s approach, Darius suddenly decided to turn his car around and flee. Without hesitation, his nobles escaped after him, leaving the army in the middle of a fierce battle.

Alexander wanted to pursue Darius, but the arrival of the sunset and the risk of leaving the battlefield with the fight without deciding forced him to retrace his steps. The king then gave cover to his forces, which had already exceeded in all the lines the Persians; these, sunk in chaos, had been abandoned by their king to certain death under the Macedonian lances. The carnage was terrible. Ptolemy, one of Alexander’s generals, would later recall that he and the other persecutors of Darius crossed a ravine walking on corpses.

In a magnificent strategy lesson, Alexander had managed to organize his troops perfectly in a difficult scenario and before a hardened enemy and superior in strength. His victory at Issos was one of the most outstanding of his career. But what he admired the most was his personal involvement in the fight. Not only did he know how to transmit to his men the moral of victory in the first attack, but he went into the fray in front of the cavalry until he reached Darius’s car without caring about the risks; in fact, the chroniclers record that he was wounded in a thigh by a sword.

His example of courage, inspired by the poems of Homer, dragged all the others. From the first row of his attack, Alexander had been the material author of the victory. He had won not only as the best general, but also as his most valuable soldier.

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