How Alexander won the Battle of Gaugamela

Silhouette of Alexander the Great riding a horse
Source: https://pixabay.com/photos/statue-sunset-sky-silhouette-4881132/

In 331 BC, Alexander the Great led his army into Persia in an attempt to conquer the empire.

 

The Persians were no match for Alexander and his well-trained forces, and they were quickly defeated in battle after battle. 

 

The most significant victory for Alexander was at Gaugamela, where he faced off against Darius III, the Persian king.

 

The Battle of Gaugamela took place on October 1st, 331 BC near the city of Arbil in modern-day Iraq.

 

This was the final battle between Alexander and Darius III, and it resulted in a decisive victory for Alexander.

Background

Alexander was born in 356 BC in Macedonia, a kingdom located north of ancient Greece.

 

When he was just twenty years old, he became the king after his father, Philip II, was assassinated. Alexander inherited a strong army from his father and immediately set out to conquer new lands.

 

In 334 BC, he invaded Persia and began a five-year campaign to defeat Darius III and his forces.

 

Darius III and Alexander had faced off on the battlefield once before, at the Battle of Issus in 333 BC.

 

In that battle, Alexander emerged victorious, forcing the Persian king to flee back to his capital city of Persepolis. In an attempt to negotiate with Alexander, Darius had offered the Macedonian king half of his empire if he stopped his invasion.

 

However, Alexander refused and continued to march on, adding the Persian province of Egypt to his conquests.


Battle preparations

In 331 BC, Darius III gathered a new army and marched west to meet Alexander in battle.

 

The two armies met at Gaugamela, near the city of Arbil in modern-day Iraq. Darius had a huge army.

 

Exact numbers of his forces vary from 50,000 to 120,000. Some ancient sources claim that Darius assembled a million soldiers.

 

One of the most famous elements of Darius' army was the presence of 200 chariots, with blades, known as scythes, attached to their wheels.

 

Darius had specifically chosen the broad plain of Gaugamela in order to provide wide, open spaces for his chariots to manoeuvre and cause havoc to the Macedonian soldiers.

 

In addition, Darius had 15 war elephants that he had transported from his territories in India.

Persian spearmen
© History Skills

In comparison to Darius' large numbers, Alexander only had around 40,000 men. However, the Macedonian king took the time to personally scout out Darius' position the day before the battle.

 

By luck, he was also able to capture some Persian soldiers, who confirmed the number of Darius' forces and the Persian attack plan.

 

The night before the battle, Alexander held a council of war with his commanders to determine the best strategy.

 

Given that they were so significantly outnumbered, Parmenion suggested that a night attack might be the most effective solution, as it would hide the difference in numbers and confuse the enemy.

 

However, Alexander refused this advice by saying that a night attack was a form of 'cheating' and that he refused to "steal a victory" rather than winning it fairly.

Instead, Alexander claimed to have found a winning strategy while stressing about it overnight.

 

It is said that once he had devised the solution, he fell into a deep sleep, confident of his impending victory.


The Battle of Gaugamela

On the day of the battle, Alexander arranged his troops in a very specific formation. He placed some of his infantry units at angles.

 

The plan was to neutralise any out-flanking movements by the Persians on such an open plain.

 

The battle began with Darius' forces attacking. As expected, his chariots charged forward towards the Macedonian lines.

 

However, the Macedonian phalanxes split ranks, creating open lanes for the chariots to pass harmlessly into.

 

Alexander had trained his soldiers to do this so that the chariots would be funneled into these narrow lanes where the Macedonian archers could easily destroy them. 

Alexander had led his cavalry to the right flank of the Persian line, drawing the enemy cavalry towards him.

 

When an opening appeared in the line, just like he did at Issus, Alexander turned his horsemen and charged through the gap towards Darius himself, who was standing in a chariot behind his army.

 

Alexander managed to get close enough to the Persian king and his bodyguard to throw a spear at him.

 

However, the spear missed Darius by a few inches. Realising how close he was to danger, Darius ordered his chariot to turn and flee from the battlefield.

Once more, Alexander tried to pursue him, but had to return to the fight as the Macedonians were struggling to defeat the greater Persian numbers.

 

When Alexanders' cavalry attacked the enemy from the rear, the Persian soldiers began to break and run.

 

The Macedonians then chased them down and killed as many as they could.

 

Alexander's strategy had worked, and the Persians were defeated. In total, it is estimated that around 60,000 Persians were killed in the battle while Alexander only lost somewhere between 500 to 1000 men.

 

This was a decisive victory for Alexander, and it effectively ended Darius' reign as king of Persia. 


March into Persia

In 330 BC, just one year after his victory at Gaugamela, Alexander marched on the city of Babylon, which surrendered to him, allowing Alexander to enter it peacefully.

 

He then continued on to Susa and Persepolis, the main cities of the Persian empire.

 

The name Persepolis means 'City of the Persians', and it was the capital city of the Persian empire.

 

It is said that when Alexander entered Persepolis, he was so outraged by the extravagance of the palace that he ordered it to be burned down.

 

However, this is not the only reason provided by ancient sources about why Alexander destroyed the city. 

Other sources claim that following a drinking party, Alexander and his troops set fire to the palace in drunken antics. 

 

It is also possible that Alexander destroyed Persepolis as revenge for Darius burning the Greek city of Athens during the Greco-Persian War in 480BC. 

 

Whatever the reason, Alexander's decision to burn Persepolis had significant consequences.

 

Not only did he destroy one of the most magnificent buildings in the ancient world, but he also created a great deal of resentment amongst the Persian people. 

Death of Darius III

In July 330 BC, just four months after Alexander conquered Persepolis, Darius was assassinated by one of his own generals, Bessus.

 

Bessus then proclaimed himself the new king of Persia and attempted to retreat east into Central Asia to escape Alexander's army. 

 

When Alexander found the body of Darius, he is said to have felt pity for his long-time rival.

 

The Macedonian king said that no fellow ruler should be murdered by their trusted advisers. Alexander ensured that Darius was buried with full royal honours before continuing his march. 

 

Then, Alexander pursued Bessus and eventually caught up with him in present-day Turkmenistan. Bessus was captured, tortured, and executed.

 

With Darius dead and Bessus out of the picture, Alexander became the new ruler of the Persian Empire. He was just twenty-five years old.