The Grand Master: Alexander’s Genius in the Battle of Issus

 
The detail of the Alexander Mosaic showing Alexander the Great.
 
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King Darius planned on fighting Alexander on the wide Syrian plains.This tactic would have allowed Darius the opportunity of surrounding Alexander’s greatly outnumbered army.

Darius decided to rest his troops at the Pinarus river during his pursuit of Alexander. Alexander learned of Darius’s location and immediately executed his strategy of fighting Darius on the plains of the Pinarus, which was shut in by the mountains and sea.

Statue of Alexander the Great. By Carole Raddato / CC BY-SA 3.0

This tactical move prevented Darius from surrounding the Macedonian’s outnumbered army and Alexander’s eventual probable defeat.

Battle of Issus

The Battle of Issus happened in 333 B.C was Alexander the Great’s second battle against the Persian army and his first direct engagement against King Darius III, King of Persia. The battle transpired near the village of Issus wherein Alexander defeated the Persian Army thereby causing Darius III to flee the battlefield. In history, the Battle of Issus has gone down as one of the most pivotal battles to occur.

Battle of Issus. Darius III portrayed (in the middle) in battle against Alexander in a Greek depiction. By Berthold Werner / CC BY-SA 3.0

Upon hearing that Darius III along with his Persian army was approaching the agricultural rich land surrounding Issus, Alexander the Great immediately called together his team of advisors to discuss strategy and tactic. The agreement was to advance to meet the Persians in battle – but not immediately.

Battle of Issus Movements – Persians in Red & Macedonians in Blue.

Because of the delay in action, Darius advisors’ assumed that Alexander did not intend to continue further into Asia. Darius was convinced by his advisors that his troop could easily take over the Macedonian forces. Unfortunately, the Persians were entirely wrong. Darius’s location in a flat and wide open field was the perfect position for his massive cavalry. Had Darius and his troop remained in their original position and not pressed forward, he may have won the battle.

Darius III of Persia

Macedonian soldiers who were injured and ill were left in the port which served as recovery camp. As Darius’s troop advanced forward to meet Alexander at the River Penarus, he stopped at the camp and tortured and slaughtered the recuperating Macedonian soldiers. Word of the massacre reached Alexander, probing him to send the Hetaeri, the elite Macedonian cavalry, to investigate what truly happened.

The Hetaeri returned to Alexander confirming the reports about the slaughter as well as with information about Darius’s current location at Issus. Alexander the Great immediately took action and began rallying his forces – leading his invincible army out to meet Darius III.

Hetaeri – A heavy cavalryman of Alexander the Great’s army, By Marsyas / CC BY-SA 3.0

At Issus, Darius sent 30,000 cavalry with 20,000 light infantry across the Pinarus River. He sent another 20,000 Persians to corner Alexander on the rear. Meanwhile, Alexander brought the Hetaeri along with the cavalry of Thessalians and Macedonians in his own command to the right. The Peloponnesians, under the command of Parmenio, veered to the left.

Darius moved his cavalry to the right pushing the Macedonian left to the seaward side of the battlefield. Alexander responded by moving his Thessalian troop to meet the Persians. He moved slowly and precisely as if he had all the time in the world while waiting for his army to conduct a strike in the distance.

The other Macedonian troops quickly engaged in battle as soon as the Persian forces were within range leaving the Persians helpless against the Macedonian’s full cavalry force. Alexander then moved his men to the center to prevent the Persians from breaking through the line.

From afar, Darius III watched as his forces slowly crumble against the Macedonian force. The Persians, led by Darius retreated.

King Darius Learned From the Battle of Granicus

Battle of the Granicus.

The Pinarus had steep banks in its upper and middle course. The Persians used this as an obstacle to defend their front in the same manner that they did at the Granicus.

The mistake that Darius made at the Battle of Granicus was not repeated at the Battle of Issus. Darius’s best troops, the Greek Mercenaries, were positioned in front of the center of the battle. The cavalry was on the right of the Greek mercenaries at the lower part of the Pinarus river.

Initial Positions of Forces.

At Granicus, Darius mistakenly placed his cavalry in front next to the steep bank of the river Granicus which prohibited his cavalry from charging Alexander’s army.

The banks of the Pinarus river were flat and the stream did not form an obstacle. The ground was level enough for a cavalry approach. Darius’s remaining troops were placed behind this front. Darius positioned himself in his impressive chariot in the center in back of his Greek mercenaries.

Alexander Demonstrates His Military Genius

The Macedonian Phalanx in a perfect position. it would never have looked like this in battle, and Alexander showed that in an interesting and engaging way.

Ulrich Wilken points out in his book, Alexander the Great, that the Pinarus was one of Alexander’s most memorable battles. Alexander began the battle, using the oblique formation, by charging with his heavy cavalry over the Pinarus and attacking the left wing of the enemy.

The Persians began to weaken from the terrific impact Alexander made with his heavy cavalry. However, Alexander’s phalangites were thrown back while they attempted to climb the steep bank of the river. The Greek mercenaries immediately recognized this weakness and threw themselves fiercely into the battle at the edge of the river.

Alexander s Attack.

Subsequently, both the Macedonians and Greek mercenaries fought each other fiercely, demonstrating their ethnic prejudices towards each other. Fortunately for the Macedonians, assistance was provided them from the nearby phalangites and Alexander himself.

Apparently after overcoming the left wing of the Persians, Alexander had executed the decisive turn and was successfully attacking the Persian center. This decided the battle of Issus. Darius, recognized Alexander’s successful defeating of his main force and retreated northwards in a frantic escape.

Painting of the battle of Issus by Jan Brueghel the Elder

Darius’s Escape Caused Great Disaster to His Army

The Persian cavalry continued to fight steadfastly until they learned of Darius’s escape from the battlefield. Then they turned around and commenced a frantic run for their lives. Alexander’s army pursued the fleeing Persians with a vengeance.

The historian, Ptolemy, who rode beside Alexander, recorded that in their pursuit they passed by a ravine, which was filled to the top with the dead bodies of the enemies.

Alexander the Great proved to the world his superior military mind in defeating Darius’s vastly numbered army. He did this by deciding to fight Darius on the plains of the Pinarus which prevented Alexander from being surrounded by King Darius’s heavily numbered army.

The victory at Issus marked the realization of Alexander’s dream of Persian domination.