Battle of Gaugamela Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

The Battle of Gaugamela pitted Alexander the Great’s Macedonian forces against the Persians in a decisive battle for supremacy in Asia Minor.

Summary of Event

After King Philip II of Macedonia had defeated the Greek states in the Battle of Chaeronea (338 b.c.e.), he made plans to invade the Persian Empire. His assassination in 336, however, forestalled this scheme until his son Alexander made his succession to the throne secure. In 334, Alexander the Great invaded Asia Minor and quickly defeated the Persians on the Granicus River. Alexander advanced eastward and, at the town of Issus in northern Syria, defeated King Darius II himself in 333. Next, Alexander took the wealthy province of Egypt in 332. Alexander the Great Bessus Darius III Parmenio

By 331 b.c.e., Alexander was ready for a second and decisive battle with Darius for the supremacy of Asia. The Persian king had been collecting a large army, and he came westward as far as the plains near the village of Gaugamela (Tel Gomel in modern Iraq), where he waited to be attacked. Darius’s army consisted mainly of cavalry posted in long lines on level ground. The left wing was made up of his good Iranian horsemen, the Persians, some heavily mailed Śaka, and the Bactrians, all commanded by Bessus, the satrap of Bactria. Syrian, Mesopotamian, and Median cavalry took stations on the right. Behind the cavalry was the infantry, mostly troops of little fighting value who had been conscripted recently. Behind the center of the two fighting lines was Darius, with his personal bodyguard and fifteen elephants. The Persian forces numbered more than fifty thousand men.

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Alexander arrived in Gaugamela in the autumn and, on October 1, he led his army out of camp. Alexander had forty thousand infantry and seven thousand horsemen, both Greek and Macedonian. His army was also in long lines, with the infantry placed in the center and half the cavalry on either flank. Parmenio commanded the left, while Alexander himself took charge of the right with his best squadrons of Macedonian heavy cavalry. Alexander’s chief virtues as a general were his understanding of how to use cavalry and infantry together and his gift for inspiring his men, either in battle or in the relentless, disciplined pursuit of a disorganized and fleeing foe. He now slowly advanced to his right while studying the enemy’s array until the Hypaspists, a brigade of crack Macedonian infantry, were facing scythed chariots in front of the Persian center. Alexander turned to confront the enemy. Bessus sent the Śaka charging at the extreme right of Alexander’s cavalry. Alexander countered by bringing forward squadrons deployed behind them. There was a sharp fight with losses on both sides until Bessus’s cavalry drew off to regroup. Meanwhile, the scythed chariots bounded forward against the Macedonian center, but here Alexander had posted troops armed with arrows and javelins who were able to shoot down most of the chariot horses before they reached the phalanx. The chariots, which did little damage to the Macedonians, were routed.

The cavalry action on Alexander’s front had opened a gap between Bessus and the center of the long line of Persian horsemen. As soon as Alexander had his own horsemen under control, he charged into this gap, with the infantry phalanx following him on the run. This blow was irresistible, and the Persian lines began to crumple and stream toward the rear. For the second time, Darius turned to flee. His personal guard of two thousand Greek mercenaries stood their ground and lost five hundred men, sacrificed to win time for Darius to escape. As Alexander was reforming his troops to pursue Darius, he received distress messages from Parmenio that the Persian right was pressing him hard. Alexander rushed across the field with his own cavalry, and his timely arrival sent the Persian right reeling back. As the battle became a general rout, Alexander drove his horseman rapidly after the remnants of the Persian army, dispersing large numbers of fugitives until he reached the city of Arbela (modern Arbīl, Iraq) after nightfall. Despite these efforts, Alexander did not succeed in catching up with Darius.

Significance

The Battle of Gaugamela, also known as the Battle of Arbela, was decisive. The Persian forces were so scattered that they could not be reorganized. The Persian nobles believed that Darius was responsible for the debacle, and they accordingly deposed and killed him. Bessus, whose troops were the only ones to withdraw in fairly good order, became king as Artaxerxes IV. He was unable, however, to collect enough men to oppose Alexander’s swift and inexorable advance. The Persians quickly lost their wealthiest provinces, and the rich plains of Babylonia surrendered without resistance. Persis, the heartland of the Persian Empire, fell, and the religious capital of Persepolis was also taken, along with some fourteen years’ worth of accumulated tribute. Alexander eventually caught Artaxerxes and had him executed, alleging the murder of Darius as an excuse. Alexander also burned the magnificent royal buildings at Persepolis. This act signaled the fall of the Persian Empire, the beginning of Alexander’s own empire, and the subjugation of the East to Macedonian imperialism.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Adcock, F. E. The Greek and Macedonian Art of War. Reprint. Berkeley: University of California, 1974. A reprint of Adcock’s Sather lectures delivered at the University of California, this slim volume provides insight into Alexander’s military strategy. Adcock regards Gaugamela as the Persian army’s only serious attempt to win a battle by using chariots; this was a strategy that failed utterly.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Fuller, J. F. C. The Generalship of Alexander the Great. 1960. Reprint. Ware, Hertshire, England: Wordsworth, 1998. Still the most thorough analysis of Alexander’s military strategy. The Battle of Gaugamela is covered as the Battle of Arbela. Written by a British major general who was himself renowned as a strategist.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Green, Peter. Alexander of Macedon, 356-323 b.c.: A Historical Biography. Reprint. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1992. One of the best biographies of Alexander, with great attention paid to the cultural context of the fourth century Mediterranean world. Includes maps and battle plans, a table of dates, bibliography, and genealogical table.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hammond, Nicholas Geoffrey Lempriere. Alexander the Great. 1980. Reprint. London: Duckworth, 2002. Detailed biography of Alexander by one of the twentieth century’s foremost scholars of the Hellenistic Age.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Lane Fox, Robin. The Search for Alexander. Boston: Little, Brown, 1980. Intended for the general reader, this work provides an excellent mix of current research, photographs, and readable narration. Contains an extensive discussion of the Battle of Gaugamela.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Marsden, Eric William. The Campaign of Gaugamela. Liverpool, England: Liverpool University Press, 1964. A brief but comprehensive account of nearly every aspect of the battle. Also contains a useful map and a list of helpful sources for further study.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Worthington, Ian, ed. Alexander the Great: A Reader. New York: Routledge, 2003. A collection of essays on all aspects of Alexander’s life and career. One chapter addresses Alexander’s campaigns in Asia, and another considers his generalship.
Related Articles in <i>Great Lives from History: Ancient World</i>

Alexander the Great. Gaugamela, Battle of (331 b.c.e.)

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