With no defeats in his campaign, Alexander was prepared to turn his army and march to Babylon, where he hoped he could take over the city and be crowned King of the Persian Empire. But before he could do so, Darius III sent a letter asking for his wife and children to be given back. Additionally, he attempted to form a treaty with the Macedonian king, allowing him to control half of the Persian lands whilst Darius controlled the other half. Unfortunately for the Persians, Alexander did not want shared leadership. He wanted it all, and absolutely all of it.
Darius was having none of it, however. He summoned troops from the furthest reaches of his Empire, including “Indians, the Albanians, the Carians who had been forcibly transported into Central Asia, the Mardian archers ranged opposite Alexander himself”. Chosen in a place that is now in modern-day Iraq, Darius had his men level the battlefield so that it would be more efficient and easily traversable by his chariots. Moreover, he installed traps and obstacles on the terrain that would hopefully make it difficult for Alexander to hold his Macedonian phalanx together when in an advance.
Also known as Arbela, the name of the site of fighting meant “The Camel’s House”, and Darius had his Persian immortals, foreign cavalry and other troops line up in formation and prepare for Alexander’s arrival. The size of his army is debated among ancient sources, but based on the most likely accounts, and most reasonable, Darius’ probably had a force of about 50,000-100,000 men, with a great numerical advantage over Alexander the Great’s 40,000 soldiers and 7,000 cavalry. On the other hand, some sources say that Darius had half a million men, which is absurd, and almost certainly false information.
Instead of marching directly in Babylon, which was considered to be the capital of the mighty Persian Empire at that time, Alexander diverted his forces and advanced straight towards Darius III’s position at Gaugamela. Upon close arrival, he intercepted a band of Persian scouts, who, under pressure, gave up some of the details concerning the sizes and formation of the enemy army.
The plain was wide and straight, and as night fell, Alexander stayed up late, working on plans and ensuring the battle ahead would be a victory. After all, if Darius III was defeated at Gaugamela, then Alexander would have the entire Empire in his palm. On the other hand, if he himself was defeated, he would run the risk of being absolutely destroyed, having to return to Greece or even being charged down and killed himself. Although Alexander was clearly very tired and badly-rested, his men were energetic and well-fed. Additionally, they probably had relatively high moral as well, despite the enormous army that was facing them a short distance away.
At dawn, Alexander assembled his army, with him leading the Companion cavalry on the right, Parmenion with the left wing, and, as always, the strong and impregnable sarissa-bearing Macedonian phalanx in the centre. However, in this battle Alexander had infantry set at angles on his flanks to act as a guard against envelopment.
Following the start of the battle, Alexander immediately led his horses towards the right of the Persians, like he had done in his previous battles. In fact, he went so far and provoked such anger on the Persian’s left wing that they began a rapid movement of troops from the centre to the side. This caused a very weak opening in their main line, which was instantly spotted by the Macedonian king. Turning his cavalry, he headed straight for it, and in doing so, managed to assault the rear of the Persian army. Moreover, Alexander led this attack because, as usual, Parmenion was struggling considerably on the Greek left wing, and had sent a desperate request for help to Alexander.
Now that Alexander was having success fighting the Persian right and rear-centre, as well as his left flank being relieved of pressure, he began moving his phalanx forward. Reacting to the damage caused by the enemy’s cavalry, archers and javelin-throwers on his army, King Darius ordered that the main strike force of his army – the chariots – launch their attack. These wagons were equipped with curved scythes attached to the wheel pivots and were fiercely dangerous.
However, the Macedonians had learnt that openings could be made in their ranks to let the difficult-to-manoeuvre chariots pass through harmlessly, and then be destroyed by rearguard soldiers. Therefore, they did just that, and, under heavy fire from expert javelin-bearers – the Greeks managed to absolutely wreck Darius’ attack. It was this failure of the Persians to deliver the desired blow to the Macedonians that was the decisive moment of the battle.
The elephants in Darius army had little effect. The unit was small and unsubstantial, and their purpose was probably more for prestige than for actual, military power. However, Darius may have believed that they would have been effective at smashing apart the Greek phalanx. We can’t be sure.
Following the chariot attack, there is intense fighting among the Greeks and Persians, with this period seeing Alexander launch a spear at Darius, which may very likely have killed him. The Persian King promptly jumped off his horse – which was bogged down in dead bodies – and fled the battlefield, causing a massive route of his troops and a massacre. It is said that about 40,000 casualties were suffered by the Persians.
After this immense victory, won against all the odds, Alexander marched directly to Babylon and had himself crowned rightful King of Persia.
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