What Really Happened At the Battle Of Gaugamela?
Real answer? We will never know, but this is my best stab.
Most accounts of the battle – such as Arrian’s, but also modern ones like those by Lane Fox and the Wikipedia author – try to compile an account of the battle by synthesising/conglomerating all the different accounts. It strikes me that an essential element to compiling an account of the battle is, rather, to decide what we might leave out – i.e. we need to take account of the reliability of the sources as we build our putative narrative of the battle.
The result will be, not a ‘this-is-what-happened’ account, but an account which suggests that some events seem very likely to have happened, and that other things may have happened, and consigns other stories to a list of myths-that-grew-up which may or may not have happened (we will never know).
How strong was Darius’s army?
All our four main sources – Arrian, Plutarch, Diodorus and Curtius – are in agreement that the Persian army was huge (they more-or-less agree on a figure of circa a million).
We can be fairly certain that, if he had been caught out-manoeuvred at Issus, Darius had prepared much more carefully this time. He appears (by a selective scorched earth strategy) to have manoeuvred Alexander into fighting at a place of his own choosing. Modern archaeology has determined that this was a wide, flat plain where he could make best advantage of his superior numbers and scythe-bearing chariots. Darius seems to have moved his army to Gaugamela and waited there some time for Alexander to attack him – Diodorus includes a long section describing how Darius had prepared for the battle, flattening the ground to make the way easier for his chariots, and training his troops so that they would retain battle-discipline. Curtius even includes a story that he had seeded with spikes the most likely route of attack of Alexander’s cavalry.
Do you believe it? There was certainly a propaganda motive for our four sources to exaggerate the strength of the Persian army – the stronger the opponent, the more glorious the victory. Modern writers are dubious that was correct, and suggest that it was logistically impossible for an army at that time to number more than 100,000 … one historian puts it as low as 50,000.
Having said that, however, it seems clear to me that the Persian army was at least much more numerous than the Macedonians.
For a start, why would Alexander draw up his line in an outward-facing horseshoe if he was not facing a numerically-superior army. The horseshoe shape was designed on the premise that the Persians would automatically envelop the Macedonian army, and to prevent them being outflanked, and would have been unnecessary if the Persian line had not been much longer than Alexander’s. Equally, Arrian’s account includes a description of how Alexander’s cavalry initially drifted rightwards, which would be natural if they faced a Persian cavalry which stretched far to the right of their position.
Most convincing, however, are the stories which show that the appearance of the Persian army terrified the Macedonians. Individually, one might consign each of these stories to myth but, taken together, they make it clear that the sheer size of the Persian army reduced the battle-hardened Macedonians to a funk:
- However you might interpret the stories, it is clear that there was a significant and violent disagreement about tactics in the Macedonian command. All four accounts record an attempt by Parmenio to persuade Alexander to make a night attack.
- All four sources record that Alexander thought it necessary on this occasion to give a speech urging his men to courage.
- The story that Alexander slept in on the morning of the battle is recorded by Plutarch, Curtius and Diodorus. However – although Plutarch interprets it as a sign of Alexander’s confidence – both Curtius and Diodorus say it was because he had lain awake all night worrying about the coming battle.
- Arrian records that Alexander tried a night attack, but abandoned it when he saw the size of the Persian army.
- Plutarch describes how Alexander spent the night with his seer Aristander, making offerings to the god Phobos (Fear) – though Curtius has this as Jupiter Minerva (the god of Victory).
- One story in Curtius describes how the mere sound of the Persian army, and the flashes of light from its armour behind a hill, reduced the Macedonians to panic.
- Curtius’s account openly states that Alexander himself was ‘anxious’, ‘in doubt’, ‘began to have second thoughts’ and ‘never more alarmed’.
Having said that, greater numbers does not necessarily imply a better army. Alexander’s men were battle-hardened professionals … Darius’s were conscripts, pulled from all over his empire, and were much less-reliable – remember Diodorus’s account of how Darius had spent time drilling them, and trying to overcome the problems caused by the difference in languages. Curtius, also, includes an interesting comment in Alexander’s motivational speech before the battle, in which he has Alexander say: ‘Look at the disorganised army of the Persians – some armed only with a javelin, other with stones in slings, only a few with regular weapons.’
Verdict: common sense, and the run of events, might cause us to agree with Curtius: ‘There were more men standing on the Persian side, but more were going to be fighting on the Macedonian.’
Did Alexander try a night attack?
Arrian’s account in your set sources includes the story that Alexander left his baggage about 6 miles from Gaugamela, and set off on a night march to try to surprise the Persian army at dawn. Upon seeing the Persian army, however – on Parmenio’s advice – he paused and waited for a battle the next day.
Do you believe it? Arrian is the only one of our four sources to record the story and, if nothing else, a story which records Alexander following Parmenio’s advice needs treating with caution! Most of all, it makes Arrian’s story of Alexander’s rough reaction to his officers’ later advice to try a night attack incomprehensible and internally inconsistent. It also makes the accounts of Mazaeus’s attack on the Macedonian baggage problematical, if Alexander’s baggage train was six miles from the battle.
Additionally, the similarity of this story to the battle of the Granicus is suspicious, and my personal guess would be that it is a story which has in one of Arrian’s sources become misplaced, and incorrectly assigned to Gaugamela … and that Arrian has tried nevertheless to synthesise it into his account.
Verdict: didn’t happen.
What happened on the Macedonian Left?
Your set sources (Arrian and Plutarch) are particularly poor on the events of the battle on the Macedonian left.
Partly this might be because of the inadequacy of their sources – Ptolemy was in Alexander’s personal bodyguard, so he experienced only what happened on the right; and neither Callisthenes nor Aristobulus fought in the battle, and picked up their knowledge second-hand … presumably from the court favourites/ Cavalry Companions who surrounded (and had surrounded) Alexander. Meanwhile, the Left had been commanded by the disgraced Parmenio, and both Arrian and Plutarch had every motive to minimise his contribution.
Arrian’s account, therefore, concentrates almost wholly on the course of the battle on the Macedonian Right. Plutarch’s account, meanwhile, we can fairly much reject as an authentic account of the battle – dismissed by Tarn as a ‘farrago of nonsense’, as far as the actual battle is concerned, all that happens is that Alexander puts on his (designer) armour, charges, and wins. For both authors, the evens on the Left appear merely as ‘noises off’ which distract Alexander from the real battle, and serve only to demonstrate the incompetence of Parmenio and (to a lesser extent) Ptolemy’s enemy Simmias.
For what happened on the Left, therefore, we have to take from Curtius and Diodorus, who seem to have drawn from a different tradition (Cleitarchus?). And, from them, it is clear that events on the Left were much more important – and happened very differently – to the account offered by Arrian and Plutarch.
According to Curtius and Diodorus, it was the Macedonian Left which Darius attacked first. Mazaeus and the Persian cavalry, and also the scythe-bearing chariots, are recorded as leading the first attack. Diodorus records that Mazaeus ‘killed not a few of his opponents’ (in light of the notorious Greek tendency to manipulate numbers, a remarkable admission), and then attacked the Macedonian baggage train.
It was perhaps at this point – with his forces hard-pressed and outflanked – that Parmenio contacted Alexander. Plutarch records this story, portraying it as an example of Parmenio’s incompetence, which Alexander rudely rebuffs by saying that Parmenio had ‘lost his senses’. Interestingly, Curtius includes a similar story, but merely ‘to advise the king [that the baggage train was under attack] and ask for his orders’.
Personally, I would regard Curtius’s account as the more reliable, just from common sense. Parmenio was not a coward, he knew that his task was to hold the Persian cavalry attack, and he would have know that it was impossible for Alexander to leave the right wing and go to his aid. (leaving the right wing exposed or depleted). I find it highly unlikely that he would have panicked and sent for help. Arrian and Diodorus, moreover, do not mention this early message at all; rather, Diodorus records (and Curtius agrees) that, seeing the success of the Persians on his left wing, ‘Alexander saw that it was time for him to offset the discomfiture of his forces by his own intervention’. (There is room to criticise Alexander in this – did he delay too long and endanger the battle – which is probably why it gets no mention in Arrian or Plutarch.)
Verdict: again, Diodorus and Curtius offer a more convincing account than Plutarch, at least as to events on the Macedonian Left.
What happened to the Macedonian baggage train?
As we have seen, Diodorus and Curtius suggests that the Persians first attacked the Macedonian Left – during which they successfully sacked the Macedonian baggage train, freeing Sisyngambris, Darius’s mother, who had been captured at the Issus. Arrian also mentions an attack on the Macedonian baggage, but he puts it late in the battle, after Darius had fled.
What do you reckon to this story? It certainly comes from the ‘Vulgate’ tradition, which is more critical of Alexander, and gives more prominence to events on the Macedonian Left, and the fact that Arrian mentions it – albeit in a garbled form – shows that he too was aware of such a tradition.
Arrian’s account, of course, might records a second attack on the Macedonian baggage, but surely this is unlikely. Arrian’s account is internally inconsistent and muddled. How could the Persians attack the Macedonian baggage when it was at most 6 miles, at best 3 miles, from the battle?
Also, Arrian records it first as an attack which broke through the unit of (Ptolemy’s enemy) Simmias, and the point of weakness between the Macedonian infantry in the centre, and their cavalry on the Left. This would indeed be feasible, but is a bit suspect, given that Arrian has just described Alexander doing exactly the same thing to the Persians. Moreover, this interpretation directly contradicts what Arrian says later in the same paragraph, that ‘[the Persians] had outflanked Alexander’s left wing’ (i.e. gone round the outside of the Macedonian army). Meanwhile, in order to explain such an attack so late in the battle, Arrian has to portray it as a desperate ‘dash’, saying that ‘[the Persians] had not yet realised that Darius had fled’.
Verdict: personally, I would suggest that Arrian was aware of the (Vulgate) tradition of an attack on the baggage train, but that he was unaware of (or chose to suppress) how it fitted in with the primary Persian attack on the Macedonian Left, and that he therefore synthesised it in as a ‘side-affair’ at a point where it would interfere as little as possible with his account of Alexander’s victory (which he saw as a wholly Right-wing matter). As an adherent of the ‘good’ tradition, he would have found it a step too far to credit the Macedonian victory to Parmenio’s successful resistance against massive odds.
What happened on the Macedonian Right?
Here, we are on slightly easier ground, because all our four sources can be reconciled.
Arrian agrees with Curtius and Diodorus that battle was joined first on the Macedonian Left, and only later on the Right. All three also agree that Darius attacked first on Alexander’s right wing, and that Alexander’s attack was a counter-attack; even Curtius salutes Alexander’s courage, and has him rallying his ‘terrified’ soldiers and leading the attack on the enemy. All four of our sources agree that Alexander made a direct attack on Darius, and that the two came face-to-face in battle. This might be a conceit – a fiction that all the writers conspired in to make the accounts more exciting – but you cannot deny that they all agree that it happened.
Arrian has a very interesting variant of the story. According to him, Alexander steadily moved his cavalry further and further to the right. Arrian tells us that this was to force Darius to attack, and also to open up a gap in the Persian line through which he could charge. It is not repeated in any of the other sources, but it seems a likely tactic and – if it is true – is a mark of Alexander’s military genius.
Also, only Arrian has Darius deserting his men and fleeing the battle. Plutarch, with Curtius and Diodorus, having him fighting on bravely, and only leaving the battle when it was clear that the battle was lost. Plutarch suggests that he fled when he saw his forces driven back towards his chariot – whereupon he mounted a mare and left the battle. According to Curtius and Diodorus, Darius withdrew from the battle only when his men began to desert after the king’s charioteer was killed by a javelin, because they thought that Darius himself was killed.
The sources do not agree on everything. Arrian has Aretas and Menidas resolutely holding off the Persian cavalry, and thus allowing Alexander to break through and attack Darius; however, he gets into the most awful muddle about who commanded the Paeonians, Ariston or Aretas. Curtius has Menander disobeying orders and going to defend the baggage (unsuccessfully), and then Aretas (again without an order) leaving the Macedonian right to do so more successfully; however, he also gets into the most terrible muddle because, although he explicitly states that the attack on the baggage came from Mazaeus’s attack on the Macedonian Left, all his description of the actual fighting (between Menidas, Aretas, Scythians and Bactrians) involves units we know were on the Macedonian Right. Who is right? Possibly neither, but certainly not both, so take your pick – as an incident on the Right, my guess would be with Arrian, but not enough to risk my money on it.
Verdict: despite contradictions, it is possible to work out the general gist of what was happening on the Macedonian Right: Alexander at first delayed; he may have used a clever tactic to stretch the Persian left wing and open up a gap – so when the Persian cavalry, under Bessus, attacked the Macedonian Right, Alexander drove through the gap directly at Darius. Darius ran away, allegedly before, probably as, his army turned and fled.
Did Parmenio lose Alexander total victory?
According to Plutarch, Curtius and Arrian, yes!
Plutarch is the most outspoken:
It is believed that [Darius] would not have escaped if some of the cavalrymen of Parmenio had not come to Alexander, asking him to bring help, as there was still a considerable force of the enemy in the field where they were, and they were not yet surrendering. Many have blamed Parmenio for being sluggish and ineffectual in this battle, either because old age had already undermined his bravery or, as Callisthenes says, he was depressed and envious of the authority and self-importance of Alexander’s power. At this point, the king, although he was annoyed by the summons, did not tell his soldiers the truth, but recalled his forces, on the grounds that it was dark and he wanted to stop the slaughtering.
Unusually, the story is almost exactly the same in Curtius, who reports Alexander as ‘furious that victory was being snatched away’.
Do we believe this?
There is an element of doubt. According to Diodorus, Darius escaped because he was a clever strategist and did not flee the same way as the rest of his army, and because the huge amounts of dust prevented Alexander seeing where he had gone (a factor mentioned also by Curtius). And how, if Alexander was in full gallop after Darius, did Parmenio’s messengers catch Alexander to tell him – Diodorus says that they set off, but failed.
Most of all, do you not see in Plutarch – in Alexander’s supposed pretence that he had been turned back by night – a hint that such in fact may have been really the case?
King and General had started to clash even before Gaugamela. When (after Tyre) Parmenio had commented that he would accept Darius’s offer of the western empire, Alexander had commented witheringly: ‘So would I, if I were Parmenio’. Our sources on Gaugamela support an interpretation that, in the row about tactics before the battle, Parmenio had declared as ‘childish and empty-headed’ Alexander’s statement that he would not ‘steal victory’ – hence Arrian’s attempt to justify Alexander’s ‘arrogance’, and Callisthenes’s suggestion that Parmenio was jealous of Alexander’s ‘authority and arrogance’. Indeed, not much more than a year later, Parmenio would be executed, and would become for Alexander’s eulogists the butt of criticism.
Verdict: it is entirely possible that – as in other accounts Alexander’s battles – the chroniclers covered up Alexander’s failure (in this case, to catch Darius) by blaming Parmenio.
On the other hand, the story was obviously so current that you may decide that there must be some truth in it, even if you do not accept it in Plutarch’s libellous form.
So what happened in the battle?
So, to summarise:
- The battle took place, certainly, at Gaugamela, probably in October 331bc.
- Darius had the initial advantage – he had chosen and prepared the ground, and Alexander’s army was greatly inferior numerically (although perhaps not in fighting strength).
- Arrian’s story of a night attack is highly improbable.
- The Macedonians were VERY frightened; Alexander, also, was undisguisably anxious – there seems to have been a furious argument about tactics, notably between Alexander and Parmenio.
- The battle opened when Darius released his scythe-bearing chariots; depending on who you believe, they did extensive (Curtius) or limited (Arrian) damage.
- At the same time, the cavalry on the Persian left wing, under Mazaeus, attacked the Macedonian Left under Parmenio – although they failed to break the Macedonian cavalry, they outflanked them. It is most likely that at this time they sacked the Macedonian baggage train; Parmenio may have sent a message to Alexander, but even if he did, we cannot be sure what it said.
- On the Macedonian Right, Alexander at first delayed; he may have used a clever tactic to stretch the Persian left wing and open up a gap – so when the Persian cavalry, under Bessus, attacked the Macedonian Right, Alexander drove through the gap directly at Darius.
- Darius ran away, allegedly before, probably as, his army turned and fled.
- Alexander was unable to capture Darius; there is a strong tradition that Parmenio’s request for help forced Alexander to abandon the chase … though one suspects that the clouds of dust and nightfall had required this already, and that Parmenio was a convenient excuse.
- The recorded losses on both sides are hopelessly exaggerated, although it is possible that the Persian flight turned into a massacre.