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Overview of the Battle at Issus (November 333 B.C.)

Alexander the Great Defeated Darius III

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Alexander the Great and the Battle of Issus

Alexander the Great and the Battle of Issus. Mosaic from Pompeii in the House of the Faun.

Public Domain. Courtesy of Wikipedia.
Queens of Persia at the feet of Alexander

[Queens of Persia at the feet of Alexander] [Battles of Alexander], Le Brun, Charles, 1619-1690 Picart, Etienne, 1632-1721 Picault, Pierre, 1680-1711, Engraving, etching.

Digital image courtesy of the Getty's Open Content Program.
Alexander the Great fought the Battle at Issus soon after the Battle at the Granicus. Like his father Philip, the glory-seeking Alexander aimed to conquer the Persian Empire. Although greatly outnumbered, Alexander was a better tactician. The battle was bloody, Alexander suffered a thigh wound, and the Pinarus River was said to have run red with blood. Despite injury and the steep cost in human lives, Alexander won the Battle at Issus.

Alexander's Opponents

After the recent Battle at the Granicus, Memnon was given command of all Persian forces in Asia Minor. Had the Persians followed his advice at Granicus, they might have won and stopped Alexander in time. In "Upset at Issus" (Military History Magazine), Harry J. Maihafer says Memnon was not only astute militarily, but doled out bribes. A Greek, Memnon almost persuaded Sparta to back him. As Greeks, the Spartans should have been expected to support Alexander, but not all Greeks preferred rule by Alexander to rule by the king of Persia. Macedonia was still Greece's conqueror. Because of mixed Greek sympathies, Alexander hesitated to continue his eastward expansion, but then he sliced the Gordian Knot and took the omen as urging him on.

The Persian King

Believing he was on the right track, Alexander pressed on his Persian campaign. A problem emerged: Alexander learned he had come to the attention of the Persian king. King Darius III was at Babylon, moving towards Alexander, from his capital at Susa, and gathering troops en route. Alexander, on the other hand, was losing them: he may have had as few as 30,000 men.

Illness

Alexander became seriously ill at Tarsus, a city in Cilicia that would later become the capital of that Roman province. While recovering, Alexander sent Parmenio to capture the harbor town of Issus and watch for Darius' approach into Cilicia with his perhaps 100,000 men. [Ancient sources say the Persian army had many more.]

Faulty Intelligence

When Alexander recovered sufficiently, he rode to Issus, deposited the sick and wounded, and traveled on. Meanwhile Darius' troops gathered in the plains east of the Amanus Mountains. Alexander led some of his troops to the Syrian Gates, where he expected Darius to pass, but his intelligence was flawed: Darius marched across another pass, to Issus. There the Persians mutilated and captured the debilitated people Alexander had left behind. Worse, Alexander was cut off from most of his troops.
Darius crossed the mountain range by what are called the Amanic Gates, and advancing towards Issus, came without being noticed to the rear of Alexander. Having reached Issus, he captured as many of the Macedonians as had been left behind there on account of illness. These he cruelly mutilated and slew. Next day he proceeded to the river Pinarus.
Arrian Major Battles of Alexander's Asian Campaigns

Battle Prep

Alexander quickly led the men who had traveled with him back to the main body of the Macedonians and sent out scouting horsemen to learn exactly what Darius was up to. At the reunion, Alexander rallied his troops and prepared for battle the following morning. Alexander went to a mountain top to offer sacrifices to the presiding gods, according to Curtius Rufus. Darius' enormous army was on the other side of the Pinarus River, stretched from Mediterranean Sea to foothills in an area too narrow to give advantage to his numbers:
...and that the deity was acting the part of general on their behalf better than himself, by putting it into the mind of Darius to move his forces from the spacious plain and shut them up in a narrow place, where there was suffficient room for themselves to deepen their phalanx by marching from front to rear, but where their vast multitude would be useless to the enemy in the battle.
Arrian Major Battles of Alexander's Asian Campaigns

Fighting

Parmenio was in charge of the those of Alexander's troops deployed to the sea side of the battle line. He was enjoined not to let the Persians get around them, but to bend back, if necessary, and stick to the sea.
First, upon the right wing near the mountain he placed his infantry guard and the shield-bearers, under the command of Nicanor, son of Parmenio; next to these the regiment of Coenus, and close to them that of Perdiccas. These troops were posted as far as the middle of the heavy-armed infantry to one beginning from the right. On the left wing first stood the regiment of Amyntas, then that of Ptolemy, and close to this that of Meleager. The infantry on the left had been placed under the command of Craterus; but Parmenio held the chief direction of the whole left wing. This general had been ordered not to abandon the sea, so that they might not be surrounded by the foreigners, who were likely to outflank them on all sides by their superior numbers.
Arrian Major Battles of Alexander's Asian Campaigns
Alexander stretched his troops parallel to the Persian forces:
Fortune was not kinder to Alexander in the choice of the ground, than he was careful to improve it to his advantage. For being much inferior in numbers, so far from allowing himself to be outflanked, he stretched his right wing much further out than the left wing of his enemies, and fighting there himself in the very foremost ranks, put the barbarians to flight.
Plutarch Life of Alexander
Alexander's Companion Cavalry headed across the river where they faced the Greek mercenary forces, veterans and some of the best of the Persian army. The mercenaries saw an opening in Alexander's line and rushed in. Alexander moved to gain the Persian's flank. This meant the mercenaries needed to fight in two places at once, which they couldn't do, and so the battle tide soon turned. When Alexander spotted the royal chariot, his men raced towards it. The Persian king fled, followed by others. The Macedonians tried, but were unable to overtake the Persian king.

Aftermath

At Issus, Alexander's men rewarded themselves richly with Persian loot. Darius' women at Issus were frightened. At best they could expect to become the concubine of a high status Greek. Alexander reassured them. He told them not only was Darius still alive, but they would be kept safe and honored. Alexander kept his word and has been honored for this treatment of the women in Darius' family.

Next - Significance

Sources

"Upset at Issus," by Harry J. Maihafer. Military History Magazine Oct. 2000.
Jona Lendering - Alexander the Great: Battle at the Issus
"Alexander's Sacrifice dis praesidibus loci before the Battle of Issus," by J. D. Bing. Journal of Hellenic Studies, Vol. 111, (1991), pp. 161-165.

For more on Alexander's general battle tactics, see:
"The Generalship of Alexander," by A. R. Burn. Greece & Rome (Oct., 1965), pp. 140-154.

There were other Battles at Issus:
(194 A.D.) Roman Emperor Septimius Severus vs Pescennius Niger.
(622 A.D.) Eastern Roman Emperor Heraclius vs the Sassanid Empire.

The famous mosaic of Alexander the Great, from the House of the Faun, may depict the Battle of Issus.

For Parmenio and others in Alexander's life, see People in Alexander's Life.

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