Battle of the Granicus: Alexander's Macedonians Win First Battle Against the Persians

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Battle of the Granicus: Alexander's Macedonians Win First Battle Against the Persians

Today in Military History: May 3, 334 BC

Today's journey in military glory takes us back to the fourth century before the Christian Era. The most successful military commander of his time was Alexander the Great. This was the first step in his conquest of Persia, and it nearly was his last.


Alexander, son of Philip of Macedon, had been king of Macedon for 2 years since the assassination of his father in 336 BC. His father had conquered most of the Greek peninsula in 338; Philip then announced that he was going to lead the newly-consolidated domain in a war of vengeance and conquest against the Persian Empire, then the largest political unit in western Asia. After his father's demise, Alexander spent nearly two years consolidating his position, putting down various revolts, and scouting the opposition.

Alexander the Great (356 BC – 323 BC)

The combined army of Greek states – dominated by his own Macedonian soldiers – crossed the Hellespont from the town of Sestos to the Persian town of Abydos. [This was the site nearly 150 years earlier in 480 BC where the Persians built a mile-long pontoon bridge to cross into Europe to launch their invasion of Greece.] Nearby was the site of the ancient city of Troy, which Alexander briefly visited. Afterwards, the Greco-Macedonian army headed inland.

The army's first objective was the city of Dascylium, capital of the Persian satrapy (province) of Phrygia. It is nearly certain that Alexander's first major objective was to proceed southward down the coast of Asia Minor (modern Turkey) to liberate the Greek-settled cities of Ionia – Miletus and Ephesus were the best known – who had revolted against the Persians around 500 BC, and were brutally put down. With these cities as a firm beachhead, the Macedonians could proceed with their conquest.

The road to Dascylium crossed the nearby Granicus River (known today as the Biga Çayi). According to the several historians chronicling the campaign, the Granicus was approximately 60-90 feet wide, with a strong current, varying depth, and steep irregular banks, especially on the eastern side of the river. While not sounding like a particularly formidable barrier, the river nonetheless gave the local Persian forces "good ground" to defend.

The Two Armies: Greco-Macedonians vs. Persians

The Greco-Macedonian army (I'll just call them "Macedonians" for clarity) was dominated by the armored, spear-armed phalanxes that were the basis of Greek armies for at least 500 years. The main difference is that the Macedonian phalangists were not as heavily armored as the classic Greek hoplite, wearing either leather or even linen armor. However, the Macedonian pikemen carried a longer spear, called a sarissa. This weapon was about 18 feet long, was wielded with two hands, and did a marvelous job of keeping one's opponent at more than arm's length. [see below] Each phalangist also had a shortsword as a secondary weapon.

The smallest unit of the phalanx was the syntagma of 256 men. The unit was usually either 8 or 16 men deep, with a usual frontage of 32 men, thought sometimes to make an extended line a frontage of only 16 men was used. Each file of 8 or 16 men had three junior officers: one in the front, one in the back, and one in the middle. The overall commander of each syntagma was stationed at right-most file of each unit. They were constantly drilling and perfecting their precision. While the largest portion of the Macedonian army, Alexander did not actually use the phalanx as the decisive arm of his battles, but instead used it to pin and demoralize the enemy.

The truly decisive arm of the Macedonians was the Companion Cavalry. They were made up of highly-trained landed nobility. The Companions were divided into 8 squadrons of 200 men – each from a particular province of Macedon – with the exception of the Royal Squadron, the hand-picked bodyguards which totaled 400 men. Companion cavalry would ride the best horses, and receive the best weaponry available. In Alexander's day, each carried a xyston, a 12-13 foot long spear, and wore a bronze breastplate, shoulder guards and Boeotian helmets, but bore no shield. A kopis (a curved slashing sword) was also carried for close combat, should the xyston break. Their horses had a large amount of thick felt draped over their sides, while they probably had partial breast and head plating for protection against spears, missiles and the like. The Companions main function was to charge selected opponents or exposed flanks of enemy unit, most usually after driving the enemy horse they engaged from the field. They were always positioned on the right wing, considered the position of greatest honor.

[NOTE: Hypaspists, labeled above as "elite heavy cavalry," were actually elite heavy infantry]

The next most elite unit – stationed next to the Companions – was the Hypaspists, heavy infantrymen equipped and armored like the classic hoplites. Their main job was to guard the right flank of the phalanx. The Hypaspists were also from higher-class families (similar to the Companions). In addition, they were used for special battlefield missions with the Agrianians (who were elite javelinmen or peltasts) and light cavalry wearing linen or leather armor and carrying swords or even xyston.

On the left flank of the Macedonian army were more light infantry peltasts (see below), light cavalrymen and the Thessalians, the only other heavy cavalry used by Alexander. The Thessalians remained allies of Macedon until the conquest of that nation by Rome in 146 BC (though it seems they were basically mercenaries). These horsemen were equipped similar to the Companions, but used shorter spears or even javelins and shields. These men were usually given the mission of guarding the left flank of Alexander's army, so that the right flank could deliver the decisive blow.

The Macedonians also used a number of irregular skirmishers, who lined up in front of the army, providing harassing fire on the enemy's formations. Mercenary archers from the island of Crete were used, as well as other hired mercenary heavy infantry – these last often used as a reserve, or placed wherever in the main battle line they might be needed. Historians believe that Alexander's army consisted of:

+ 22,000 heavy infantry, both Macedonian phalangists and mercenary hoplites;

+ 20,000 peltasts and skirmishers, mainly Thracians as well as the Cretan archers; and,

+ 5000 cavalry, including the Thessalian mercenary horse and the Companion heavies.

The Persian army that faced Alexander at the Granicus River was not your typical Achaemenid royal army. Since the King was not present, command of this force has been ascribed to one of the Persian provincial governors (called satraps). In addition, by this time most of the heavy infantry of the Persian army consisted of Greek mercenary hoplites, men who sought the spoils of war, as well as earning the gold that the Persian king could offer. The Persian force is described as comprising:

* 10,000-15,000 cavalrymen, most of whom wore linen or leather armor, used spears and were armed with composite longbows, but apparently also included some mercenary Greek horsemen, possibly Thessalians;

* 9500-12,000 peltasts, skirmishers similar to Alexander's Thracian skirmishers, but the Persians were probably Mysians, Pisidians or even Kurds, who in addition to javelins used a large axe as a sidearm. There are also indications that many of these men used bows rather than javelins; and,

* 5000 mercenary Greek hoplites, armed and armored similarly to the traditional Greek soldiers who fought at Marathon in 490 and at Thermopylae in 480. They were likely wearing bronze armor and armed with the traditional 7-9 foot long spear, called a dory (see illustration below).

Traditional Greek hoplite

The Persian figures given above are modern historians' conjectures, because – as usual – most of the ancient historians hyper-inflated the enemy's totals to give more glory to the boy-king of Macedon. In particular, Diodorus Siculus claimed that the Persian infantry alone totaled more than 100,000 men – surely a gross exaggeration!

Tomorrow: battle of the Granicus River 

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