Alexander’s Masterpiece: Gaugamela – Defeating The Persians, 331 BC


In the countless theoretical lists of best generals of all time, Alexander the Great is often at or very near the top, in fact, such lists often spark great amounts of arguments and controversy, but over the other generals, not Alexander.

In his string of victories across his thousands of miles of campaigning, Alexander had one masterpiece that won him an empire and securely ensured the protrusion of Greek culture in the eastern world. That battle was fought near the small village of Gaugamela.

To better understand Alexander’s success, especially at such a young age, one must understand all of the advantages he had in addition to his own inherent talent. Alexander was lucky enough to have excellent mentors in his early life; his personal teacher was none other than Aristotle, a philosopher who learned from Plato, who learned from Socrates. While not directly correlating to warfare, lessons learned from one of the most enlightened thinkers of the ancient world would have had near universal applications.

Alexander also learned valuable lessons from his father. Before Philip, Macedon was an afterthought on the world stage. With Philip’s reorganization of the army into a professional mixed army, Macedon became an organized military power. The core of the army was the sarissa wielding phalanx able to stoutly hold their ground or methodically churn their collective spearheads forward through any foe.

The army had other important elements as well, skilled skirmishers including Cretan archers, a mix of light and heavy cavalry and elite Hypaspists capable of multiple battlefield roles. This mixed army was intended to be used in multiple ways and relied on skilled generals to adapt to conditions of a battle and use the different troops in the best way possible, Philip was quite good at this and taught Alexander the basics of utilizing such an army.

Map of Macedon showing the strides taken by Philip in preparation for a Persian invasion. Persia looms large just across the Aegean
Map of Macedon showing the strides taken by Philip in preparation for a Persian invasion. Persia looms large just across the Aegean

Philip passed this army down to Alexander in excellent condition. Philip also was the original planner for a Persian invasion and likely passed along a wealth of information and ideas for an invasion, perhaps thoughts on fighting the Persian armies, what they would consist of, how they were led into battle and so on. Ultimately Alexander was given the absolute best tools for his invasion, a professional army meant to be utilized by creative commanders, and outstanding practical and military education for him and many of his leading commanders.

As Alexander invaded Persia, he had immediate success, first winning the battle of the Granicus River that proved the ability of the phalanx to cross a river and still fight effectively. At Granicus, Alexander defeated a Persian satrap, at Issus Alexander faced an army assembled by the Persian King Darius himself. Issus was another victory for Alexander, and he used the victory to march along the coast to Egypt and capture Persian naval bases such as Tyre.

With the coast secure and supply lines in place, Alexander sought to take the fight to Darius again. This time, Darius had as large of a force as he could muster and the stakes were fairly clear, whoever won this battle would have control over Persia.

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