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Alexander the Great
 
 
 


THIS MONTH'S ARTICLE

ALEXANDER THE GREAT
Ambush at the Gates of Persia

 

At the end of 331 bce, 15,000 troops sent by Antipater arrived at Susa. These reinforcements included 6,000 Macedonian infantry, with 500 Macedonian horsemen to be integrated into the ranks of the Companion Cavalry, all under the leadership of Amyntas, son of Andromenes. Amyntas also brought Alexander the latest reports of the situation back in Greece and the glad tidings of Antipater’s recent successes. Having first concluded a favourable truce with Thrace, the Regent had marched south with an army of 40,000 to deal with the rebellion of the Spartan king Agis. Although the victorious Macedonians lost 3,500 of their own men in the fierce fighting, Agis himself was amongst the 5,300 allied dead, with Spartan autonomy lost forever.

With Greece safe in Antipater’s hands, Alexander was once again able to turn his attentions east. In mid-December 331 bce he left Susa at the head of his replenished army to march 400 miles south-east along the Royal Road to Persepolis and its great treasury.

After four days’ march from Susa, they crossed the river Karun and into the Territory of the Uxians. Although the plain-dwellers simply surrendered, the Macedonians met with their first military action since Gaugamela, when they encountered the hostile nomads who lives in the hills above the Royal Road. Receiving a message that all who passed along this section of the road must pay a toll, even the King of Persia himself, the very idea of the mighty Macedonian army must pay for the privilege of passing by must have greatly amused Alexander.

Following the advance of his Susian guides he therefore led an 8,000 strong force at some speed under cover of darkness along an alternative route, described by Arrian as “a route no one would expect him to take, where the going was rough and difficult”. Arriving in their midst at dawn, Alexander took the Uxian nomads completely by surprise and won an easy victory in the ensuing skirmish. Yet, following appeals for clemency by the Queen Mother Sisygambis, whose family had connections in the region, Alexander allowed the Uxians to remain in their lands, provided they paid annual tribute which in their non-monetary economy was paid in kind and amounted to 30,000 sheep, 500 mules and 100 horses.

Alone of all the sources, Arrian also says that it was in Uxia that Bucephalus “was lost, and Alexander issued an edict that every man, woman and child in the country would be killed unless he was brought back – as he promptly was”.

To speed up his advance to Persepolis, Alexander decided to divide his army at the point where the Royal Road branched south-east, sending Parmenio and the heavy infantry and baggage train on the lower road across the plains through Shiraz. He himself would lead a force of around 20,000 light-armed shock-troops across the snowy, forested terrain of the Zagros Mountains and through the narrow 10km long pass of the Persian (or Susian) Gates.

Hoping his rapid 5-day advance would take its defenders unawares, Alexander was prepared for touch resistance at the pass. The local satrap (of Persis) Ariobarzanes was indeed well prepared for any such advance and had made ready to ambush the invading forces. Using his advantage wisely he had built a defensive wall across the narrow pass with artillery hidden behind it, and 40,000 infantry and 700 cavalry ranged along the ridges of the summit.

Outnumbered by more than 2 to 1, the Macedonians mounted a direct assault over the difficult rocky terrain. As they reached the narrowest section of the pass, Ariobarzanes gave the order to attack and, using the catapults unleashed a barrage of rocks, arrows and javelins, which rained down into the gorge to inflict huge casualties on Alexander’s men. In such a hopeless position the king realised his error and sounded a temporary retreat, hastily backing off down the gorge to a clearing three miles west. Furious with himself for having failed to foresee the possibility of a trap, Alexander realised he must find an alternative route to the impenetrable way ahead and a means of avenging the fallen.

As dusk fell that freezing evening in early January 330 bce, he was brought news that the only route over and around the pass was an ancient footpath used by shepherds, but this was far too narrow to accommodate an army. Nevertheless, at an emergency meeting of his general staff Alexander was adamant that this was their one and only chance to break the deadlock. Leaving Craterus and his men at the mouth of the gorge, where their campfires would reassure the enemy of the Macedonians’ position, the rest of the army were mobilised behind a local bilingual guide who led them through freezing winds and blizzards up to a height of 7,500ft of almost impassable terrain.

Having accomplished their 12 mile journey at the dead of night in total silence, they reached the wide plateau of the summit, where Alexander stopped so that his men could regroup and take food. Meanwhile he and his generals planned a strategy for the day ahead. Amyntas, Philotas and Coenus would lead three infantry brigades straight ahead down into the broad plain of Ardaken, where they would bridge the river Araxes (Palvar) for the army to cross and advance towards Persepolis. Meanwhile Alexander would take three squadrons of cavalry, including the Companions together with an infantry brigade, archers and skirmishers totalling 4,000 men, supported by Ptolemy and 3,000 infantry reserves, to assemble at the back of the pass behind the Persian positions.

Well before dawn, Alexander led 4,000 troops at speed through the freezing darkness, disposing of three Persian guard posts before filing down into the gorge to arrive behind the Persian lines. At the agreed bugle signal, Craterus and his men advanced from the entrance of the gorge as Alexander simultaneously launched his assault with a cry of vengeance for the previous day’s slaughter. With Ariobarzanes already engaged on two fronts, Alexander signalled Ptolemy and his 3,000 infantry to attack down the gorge into the sides of the defenders, who were cut to pieces in the intense hand-to-hand combat. With no means of retreat the Persians were either annihilated where they stood or fell to their deaths from the cliffs in their attempts to flee the onslaught, only a handful managing to escape to the hills on horseback with their commander Ariobarzanes.

Following a resounding victory, Alexander showed his gratitude to the mountain guide by awarding him the staggering sum of 30,000 talents. This massive reward may have been as a result of the fulfilment of a prophecy referred to by Plutarch when he states that the man had a Greek father and Persian mother, “and it was to him that the Pythian priestess had referred when she prophesied whilst Alexander was still a boy that a wolf (lykos) would guide him on his march against the Persians”.

With the route ahead already secured by his three generals Amyntas, Philotas and Coenus, who had also bridged the river Araxes, Alexander and his army swiftly crossed into the province of Persis, the Royal Road to Persepolis wide open before them.

The name of Alexander written in hieroglyphs
 
 
 
 

 

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