Battle of Gaugamela

The Battle of Gaugamela, also known as the Battle of Arbela, was the final conflict between Alexander the Great of Macedon and King Darius III of Persia. It occurred on October 1, 331 BCE. Alexander was certainly anointed King of Asia following this victory. The town of Gaugamela (meaning “The Camel’s House”) was located on the banks of the Bumodus River. According to reports, the battle took place atop Tel Gomel (Hebrew for “Camel’s Mount”) in northern Iraq.

The Campaign of Alexander

Following the execution of his father, Phillip II, in 336 BCE, Alexander and his army departed Macedonia for the last time to conquer all of Persia. Alexander headed north after crossing the Hellespont, where he fought and beat the Persians led by the Greek mercenary Memnon in the Battle of River Granicus. Like in future encounters with Alexander, Darius, and his generals consistently misjudged the youthful Alexander’s skills. Many people, including those in Greece, thought of him as little more than an upstart.

Preparations for the Battle of Gaugamela

Alexander had intended to march directly to Babylon, but after learning of Darius’ presence at Gaugamela, he headed north to meet the Persian monarch. He recognized that if he won at Gaugamela, he would have control of all of Persia, including Babylon, Persepolis, and Susa.

On the other hand, Darius had learned his lesson at the Fight of Issus and carefully selected Gaugamela for his next, presumably final, battle with Alexander. This time, his army was substantially different, with warriors from throughout his kingdom, including Indian mercenaries – estimates of his army range from 50,000 to 100,000 to almost a million. He possessed 200 scythed chariots and 15 elephants (but they were never deployed). He made longer swords and lances, as well as another cavalry. Gaugamela’s topography was also crucial; it was far broader, allowing him to employ his chariots and deploy his cavalry more efficiently, something that had been impossible at Issus. He flattened the land and set up barriers and traps to hinder Alexander’s march. To Darius, the strength of his army and the terrain gave him a substantial edge.

Alexander set up camp many miles away from Darius, and his troops (estimated at 40,000) would only bring their weapons to combat. Alexander assembled a small scouting group and gazed down from a hill, unnoticed by Darius, to access the king’s preparations. Fortunately, while scouting, he came across an advance party sent out by Darius. While some of the group fled, others were apprehended and eagerly testified of Darius’ numbers and the placement of traps and obstructions on the field.

Alexander conducted a grand conference the night before the fight; Parmenio, the commander of Alexander’s left wing, advised that the massive bulk of Darius’ forces required them to strike at night; however, Alexander disagreed.

Later, as he addressed his troops, Alexander spoke of the impending conflict, telling the generally superstitious Macedonians that an earlier moon eclipse was an omen of triumph.

Battle of Gaugamela

Alexander is reported to have overslept on the day of the fight. He ensured that his troops were well-fed and rested, as he had done previously. Darius’ troops, on the other hand, had stayed awake all night anticipating a night attack that never materialized. Alexander called out specific troops by name as he stared across the battlefield towards the Persians, telling of their valor in previous wars and imploring them to fight again for Macedonia. An eagle (Zeus‘ favorite animal) swooped overhead, approaching Darius as he spoke. This was another sign of success for Alexander.

As in previous battles, Alexander and his cavalry took up positions on the right wing while Parmenio guarded the left flank. The well-trained Macedonian phalanx was stationed in the center, with extra light soldiers and archers on either side. To protect against a possible flanking movement by the Persians, Alexander also opted to put troops at angles on the extremities of both the right and left sides. He also sent more Greek armies to the back of the center.

As the conflict began, Alexander and his companions moved to the right at an oblique angle. The Persians, led by Bessus, advanced to their left, confronting Alexander in an attempt to outflank him, per Darius’ orders. An opening or gap was formed when the Persians marched farther to their left and onto terrain that had not been cleared. According to some historians, Alexander’s entire strategy was a ruse. Alexander arranged his soldiers into a wedge and advanced rapidly to his left and into the clearing, assaulting the stunned Darius.

Darius dispatched his scythed chariots into the Macedonian center while Alexander challenged the Persians on the right, a strategy that did not have the desired impact. The phalanx opened ranks as the chariots approached, enabling the chariots to pass through. The troops attacked the Persians instantly, and hand-to-hand fighting ensued. On the right, Alexander, who was spying on Darius, took advantage of the situation and hurled a spear at the stunned king (missing him by inches). Darius, like Issus, recognized victory was impossible and fled.

When the Persians on the left wing watched their monarch escape the battlefield, they surrendered and were quickly routed.

Alexander’s well-trained army charged the left flank of Darius’ battle line with archers, javelin throwers, and cavalry while protecting against Darius’ outflanking horsemen with reserve flank guards. A rush by Persian scythed chariots at the heart of Alexander’s armies was repulsed by lightly equipped Macedonian warriors. During the engagement, so much of Darius’ cavalry on his left wing was pulled into the fray that the Persian infantry in the center of the battle line was left exposed. Alexander and his cavalry swiftly turned half left into the gap, then wheeled again to assault the Persians’ flank and rear. Darius fled, and fear spread across his army, which began a desperate retreat while being cut down by the pursuing Greeks. Darius was later assassinated by one of his satraps, and Alexander seized control of the Persian city, Babylon. The Macedonian victory effectively ended Cyrus II the Great’s Persian kingdom, making Alexander the ruler of southwest Asia.

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