The Battle of Gaugamela

By Johndisp

No one likes a battle that starts out against you. Most generals will choose not to fight, if they are outnumbered by even a few thousand. Yet in what many consider Alexander the Great's finest hour, he was vastly outnumbered. This is an account of the Battle of Gaugamela.

Alexander always fought with fewer men than his opponents did and Gaugamela was no different. With his designs on conquering the world, Alexander knew that the first obstacle in his way was the Persian Army. He knew that with their vast numbers, he had to lure them into a battle of his choosing and on his battlefield. In fact, to totally claim victory and unify Persia under his reign, he would need to kill or capture Darius, the Persian king.

Alexander had been victorious against the Persian army before. In 333 BC, Alexander's army had met the Persians at Issus, and won the day, but Darius fled the battle without being captured. Now in 331 BC, Alexander was ready to try again.

In late July of that year, Alexander's army reached Thapsacus on the Euphrates. Alexander was not sure exactly where Darius was awaiting him, but he suspected that he was raising an army in either the Babylon or Arabela area. Both cities were obvious targets for Alexander, and so Darius had no choice but to protect them.

Darius knew that Alexander would have to come one of two ways from Thapsacus to Babylon. He could either come directly down the Euphrates or he could go through Mesopotamia and come down on the east side of the Tigris River. Darius was sure that Alexander would choose the first route and so he positioned his forces accordingly. He figured to meet Alexander north of Babylon. But as was common practice for Alexander, he did what the enemy did not expect, and chose to come down through Mesopotamia.

Darius soon realized the error of his ways, and had to change his plans. He second plan was based in sound military logic, but would be difficult to pull off. He ordered his scouts to search out Alexander's army and find out where they would cross the Tigris. Then they were to report to Mazaeus, the Persian satrap of Babylon, and he would take his forces to the location of the crossing and defend it. Then while Alexander's attention was diverted, Darius would quick march his army to the scene and destroy Alexander once and for all.

There were four places where Alexander's army could cross the river. The Persians guessed that he would cross at Mosul, which was the only place in which they could pull off their plan. In normal fashion, Alexander chose another place, but we are unsure which one he chose. What we do know is that Alexander's army was across the Tigris before Darius' scouts found it.

By now, Darius was thoroughly confused and his staff was unsure. Both plans they had so carefully put together to destroy Alexander's army, were useless. This was the first advantage that Alexander was to achieve during this campaign.

Darius realized that he still had one advantage. His army was between Alexander and his target of Babylon, and so Darius could choose the battlefield. He scanned his maps and decided upon Gaugamela. It was a flat plain and Darius ordered the few jagged outcroppings of rock stripped away to allow his chariots to attack unhindered. There was only one problem with this battleground. Three miles to the northwest was a range of hills, which Alexander would use as an observation post.

By nightfall on 30 September 331 BC, the armies were close enough to each other to attack. This is where the disparity in numbers becomes obvious. The Persians numbered 100,000 infantry and at least 34,000 cavalry. Many of the cavalry were Cappadocians, who had just received link armor, a long sword, and a spear instead of a javelin. Alexander's force was the largest he ever took the field with. It numbered 40,000 infantry and 7,000 horsemen.

Although Alexander's generals pushed him to attack that night, Alexander refused and decided to wait. He went back to his tent and planned out his strategy late into the night. He also ordered his men well fed and rested, and to be ready to move out before dawn.

The next morning, the Persians formed up in a long line running east-west. Darius placed the Cappadocians, commanded by Mazaeus, on his right flank, and the eastern cavalry commanded by Bessus on his left flank. He placed himself in the center along with 1000 horseguards, 50 scythed chariots and 15 war elephants. For reasons still unknown, Darius never ordered the war elephants used in the battle. There were another 100 chariots on his left center, and 50 more on his right center. The used of scythed chariots had long been abandoned by the Persians, but Darius had ordered them to be reintroduced into his army. The consequence of his rush to get them back into usage left him with mostly untrained crews manning them. This too would come into plat during the battle.

The Macedonian line was obviously much shorter. In fact, Alexander, who placed himself on the right wing, was almost directly opposite Darius in the Persian center. Alexander knew that Darius would try to encircle him with his much longer lines. This left Alexander with only one choice. He went on the defensive. Alexander put his phalanx in the center, with the sides turned back 45 degrees from parallel with Darius' lines. This would make it impossible for Darius to envelop him. On the left wing, Parmenion led the Thessalian cavalry, and on the right Philotas commanded the Companion cavalry, half of the Macedonian archers, and several units of javelinmen.

Just before the battle began, Alexander shifted his forces slightly to the right so that his Companions were no longer opposite the chariots. His infantry, which was much stronger against the chariots, was now in line with them. He continued to shift to the right, until his outermost ends reached the limits of the ground that Darius had ordered cleared away. This had the effect that if the chariots wanted to encircle Alexander, they would have to move over rough, unbroken ground.

Darius had no choice but to attack Alexander's right wing. He ordered his Scythian cataphracts and then the Bactian cavalry to attack Alexander's right wing. The fighting was brutal, but the Greek lines held. Darius then ordered the 100 chariots near him to engage and support the Bactians. This is when the javelinmen showed their worth. The first barrage of javelins threw the untrained charioteers into a panic, and those that were not killed found their mounts running amok with them. Most of the surviving chariots found their way to the rear of Alexander's lines where they met a quick death at the hands of the reserve infantry.

Darius wrongly believed that Alexander was being overwhelmed by the action on his right wing and so decide to launch his attempts at enveloping his lines. Darius ordered his cavalry to attack the far left of the Greek army, and a gap appeared in Darius' lines.

Alexander had always shown supreme control on the battlefield and Darius should have known that he would on this day as well, but Darius' faith in his sheer numbers appeared to cloud his judgement. Alexander now personally led his Companion bodyguards in an attack through the gap and directly at Darius himself.

Just as Alexander was closing with Darius' chariot, Darius lost heart. His driver was slumped over the front of the chariot dead, and so Darius took the reins and fled. The Persian center saw this and assumed Darius was dead and so they began to crumble.

Although he had abandoned the field, Darius had not yet lost the battle. By attacking directly at Darius, Alexander had created a gap in his lines. Darius' Persian Guard and the Indian cavalry quickly charged into the gap. Had they turned and hit Parmenion, who was fully engaged, the Greek left would have been near collapse. Fortunately, the Persians charged ahead to loot Alexander's baggage train.

Briefly saved, Parmenion sent to Alexander for assistance. Alexander immediately turned his Companion cavalry and led them across the battlefield. Before he reached Parmenion, Alexander had to fight the Persian Guard who had just looted his camp. By the time Alexander arrived, the Thessalians had fought off the Persians and were safe.

Most of the Persian army, realizing that their leader had fled, now abandoned the field. Mazaeus, who was himself little more than a mercenary, interpreted that his obligation had been met and left the field. Bessus and his army on the left also decided the time had come to flee.

Alexander then led his forces on a ferocious charge of 35 miles after the routing Persians and slaughtered thousands of them. His actions today insured that they would not rise up to oppose him any time soon. Although Darius' chariot was found, there was no sign of the Persian king.

Alexander thus decided that Darius was no longer worthy of his attention and continued on to Babylon. Upon his arrival, Alexander received the surrender of Mazaeus and rested his army. Alexander then marched on Susa, and through the Persian Gates to Persepolis. He rested his men there for four months while he looted Darius' palaces.

Early in 330 BC, Alexander learned that Darius had been be seen near Ecbatana and so he began the pursuit again. Upon arriving, Alexander heard he had fled through the pass in the Elburz Mountains known as the Caspian Gates. Alexander chased Darius for another month before learning that he was now being held captive by Bessus, his former general.

Alexander, concerned that Darius might name another heir to his empire, led his army on an overnight charged of 25 miles in an attempt to intercept Bessus' forces. Just after dawn, they saw a caravan in the distance. Darius was not with them, but they later found him murdered in an abandoned wagon further up the trail. Alexander showed his adversary his due respect by wrapping the body in his own cloak and taking it back to Persepolis for royal internment.

Within the next year, one of Darius' murderers, the Persian general Nabazarnes, surrendered to Alexander. He had to chase Bessus through Bactria, and just prior to his capture, Bessus was betrayed by his men. They took him to a Persian court where he was tried and executed.

Alexander had won the day at Gaugamela through courage, insight and bravery. Although he fought many battles in his long career, most historians agree that this was his best.