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  • James Houser

334 BC - Alexander the Great and the Battle of the Granicus

Updated: Jun 16, 2021

OCTOBER 31 - 334 BC. No one is quite sure how this whole thing happened. The new king of Macedon is some 20-something hothead named Alexander, and nobody took this arrogant kid seriously. But not only has he defeated the Greeks and the barbarian tribes of the Balkans, but he’s invaded the ancient world’s superpower – the Persian Empire. Don’t ask whether he’s ready for the world; ask whether the world is ready for him.

Alexander III of Macedon became king in 336 BC, when his father Philip II was assassinated during a court ceremony by his bodyguard/lover or something. The origins of Philip’s assassination are obscure and mysterious to this day, but many conspiracy theorists then and since have pointed to a single figure: his wife, the infamous schemer and plotter Olympias. Like many prominent women in the premodern era, Olympias kinda gets blamed for everything weird that happened in her age, up to and including even the most benign deaths and accidents. (Basically the Hillary Clinton of her time.) She was universally disliked and distrusted, but still managed to hold power even after her son’s death – though she was eventually brought down and killed after she overplayed her hand. So yeah, people blame Philip’s death on Olympias a lot, which isn’t quite fair. But she did far more than enough on her own.

I discussed Philip II’s career in a previous post (LINK HERE) But if you don’t need catching up, strap in, because Alex is in the driver’s seat now, what with his flowing locks and his good looks and his alcoholic psychopathy, so make sure your seatbelt is securely fastened. Just to recap, Philip II was a military and administrative genius in his own right who had built up the Kingdom of Macedon from an isolated mountain state to the most powerful entity in the Greek world. Not only had he conquered much of the Balkans and northern Greece, he had marched south in 338 BC and subdued a coalition of the most powerful Greek states, including Athens and Thebes. Sparta didn’t show up, but they were about to get theirs in a few years. Philip had also accumulated multiple wives – in accordance with Macedonian custom – and a few children, though Alexander was his only capable son. Alexander’s half-brother Philip Arrhidaeus was not all there, which some people blamed on poisoning by Olympias (seriously, they think everything is her fault) but it’s just as likely he had developmental issues. There were also some daughters and other wives who would scheme for power as soon as Philip was out of the picture.

Alexander’s first task on becoming king, then, was to secure his position. This is a loaded phrase, since “securing your position” after the succession usually involves murder. See, Alexander was 20 years old, and he had numerous enemies at court already. Many people were not keen on this guy becoming the ruler of the Macedonian Empire, inexperienced and untried, and many of Macedon’s enemies predicted that the empire would soon dissolve. Some Macedonian nobles favored Amyntas, an older man who was Philip’s nephew, while others championed the Lyncestis branch of the family. Luckily for Alexander, his father’s two leading generals – Antipater and Parmenion – remained loyal. The defection of either one could have been a disaster.

So Alexander and his mom Olympias got a-murderin’. First on the chopping block was obviously Amyntas, who Alexander had immediately executed, along with two of the leading Lyncestis princes. Olympias had her own rivals to take out: Philip’s young wife Cleopatra Eurydice and her infant daughter. Olympias had them both burned alive, which infuriated Alexander when he found out. “Jeez, mom!” Alexander also had the general Attalus, Cleopatra’s uncle, killed when it looked like he was leaning against Alexander. The new king did spare his half-brother Philip Arrhidaeus, because what the hell was he gonna do, drool on him? Just another succession day in Macedon. Lots of murder, poisonings, assassinations. You gotta watch your back with these folks before they think you’re sus.

The Greeks were overjoyed at the news of Philip’s death. The rabble-rouser Demosthenes, the most prominent political voice against the Macedonian dynasty, led the Athenian assembly in voting official thanks to Philip’s assassin. The Greek cities were soon corresponding with Persia in hopes of an alliance. In the north, the Balkan tribes that Philip had spent so long subduing were in open rebellion. Greek cities began to openly defy the new Macedonian king and kick out his garrisons and diplomats. Alexander’s advisors looked around and saw 20 years of his father’s work about to unravel in an instant. They tried to persuade Alexander to abandon Greece, make concessions to the Balkan tribes, and draw in his horns to reconsolidate his position.

Alexander was not yet as feared, admired, or near-worshipped as he would be when he died only 13 years later. But that did not mean he was not already Alexander. The son of a military mastermind and the most cunning woman in Greece, told from childhood that he was descended from Zeus and that Artemis had watched over his birth, tutored personally by Aristotle, had led troops in his father’s army in a sweeping cavalry charge at Chaeronea, and now he was King of Macedon. He had been given the keys to the world’s greatest military machine, oiled up, gassed up and ready to go. And he was 20 years old. He acted like he could do anything, and can you blame him?

See, genius is a hard thing to define. It’s not talent, or smarts; it can’t be taught or trained. Genius dances perilously on the line to crazy, because it’s a gift – innovation, spontaneity, intuitive, moving almost beyond reason. It is almost instinctual. Some of the smartest people who ever lived did not have this “genius” thing, brilliant as they might have been, because it operates on a different stratum from intelligence. I realize how mystical this all sounds, but some people just…know. They know what to do at the right moment, they know how to handle a crisis, they see the clear line from Point A to Point B and how to get there.

From the very beginning of Alexander’s reign as king of Macedon, he displayed this quality called genius. He would find himself in a situation that made anyone else doubt, or worry, or cower from the sheer enormity of the problem before them. He would discard cautious advice, fear, and concerns, and just DO something that shocked both friends and enemies with the AUDACITY. If Alexander had a second thought, it is not recorded. It was likely a quality derived from his utter self-confidence and belief in his own destiny. He just KNEW that he was going to be successful in everything he did, and sometimes that assumption was its own greatest advantage. “Oh my God, he’s actually going to do that,” was something his subordinates must have said basically all the time, and it kinda worked out for him.

With every corner of his inherited empire breaking out in flames, Alexander acted, and acted fast. Without waiting to reorganize, Alexander headed south with 3,000 cavalry like a thunderbolt. His mission: subdue the Greeks once again before they even thought about moving against him. This was against all advice, since he didn’t have most of his army on hand and his advisors wanted Alexander to use diplomacy instead. Soon he ran into an issue when he found the army of Thessaly, a province in northern Greece, confronting him at the pass of Tempe near Mount Olympus. The Thessalians informed Alexander that he needed to wait outside the pass while they argued about whether to let him through. Not having time for this nonsense, Alexander ordered his men to cut steps into the sea-facing surface of Mount Ossa, and walked around the mountain pass while the Thessalians sat figuring out whether to let him through. When they woke up the next morning, they were surrounded and forced to surrender.

Alexander added the Thessalians to his army and continued to bulldoze south. He passed through Thermopylae without a fight, since the Greeks were still too surprised at the quickness of his approach to stop him, and he was only 40 miles from Athens when he was met by a delegation from the cities. They had just been misunderstood. Of course they would remain loyal to Alexander, and to prove this they invited him to the Greek council at Corinth. Here, they recognized him as the Hegemon of Greece and as the “allied commander” for the upcoming war against Persia. All of this had been accomplished without a drop of blood being spilled. Speed and shock had been Alexander’s weapon, and it had stamped out the fire down in Greece before it even got going.

The Persian invasion had been a plan of Philip’s, but preparations were only half complete when he was assassinated. Now his son took up the cause, and Alexander displayed a second genius: his gift of unification and inspiration. Alexander told the Greeks that he was preparing for a great war against the Persian Empire, and that this war was to be the Gods’ punishment for the Persian invasion of 480 BC that had burned Athens and killed King Leonidas. This was not exactly true – Macedon was totally just invading Persia for its own purposes – but Alexander’s rhetoric helped discourage many of the Greek cities from allying with Persia, and also served to spread discontent within those cities if they should rise up against him. It was a propaganda victory that would pay dividends in the future, especially when Alexander needed reinforcements during his later campaigns.

There are two stories from this early period of Alexander’s life that show two different sides of him. The first is that, while in Corinth, Alexander met the famous philosopher Diogenes. The legendary Cynic who mocked much of established order and tradition was relaxing in the sun as the young king approached. Alexander, an admirer, asked Diogenes if there was anything he could do for him. Diogenes sneered, “Yes, you can get out of my sun.” Rather than being insulted, Alexander loved this response, later claiming that “If I were not Alexander, I would be Diogenes.”

The second story is somewhat darker. On his way back to Macedon, Alexander visited the Oracle at Delphi to consult Apollo on his upcoming expedition to Persia. The local priestess refused to give him a prediction that day, since it was not an auspicious day for prophecy. Alexander, again not having time for this, grabbed the poor woman and dragged her bodily over to the altar. Gasping, she said, “Thou art invincible, my son!” Alexander released her, saying that was all he wanted to hear, and marched away.

So that took care of Greece – except for Sparta, which was still unsubdued. Alexander could have gone out of his way to subdue Sparta, but it would have been a waste of time and resources that he wanted to use against Persia. Alexander decided to leave his father’s trusted general Antipater with an army in Macedon itself to keep an eye on the Greeks, while Alexander himself led the invasion of Persia.

Before this great expedition, Alexander needed to deal with the Balkan tribes to the north, most of which had gone into revolt after his father’s death. So in 335 BC, Alexander led an expedition into the wild northern lands of Thrace, the Danube, and Illyria to secure his northern front before tackling the superpower. It would be the young king’s first independent military campaign.

Alexander set out into the Balkan Mountains with his Macedonian army: the Greek archers, phalanx pikemen, heavy Companion Cavalry, all types of light skirmish troops - the combined force his father had created. Ambushed in the Shipka Pass in modern Bulgaria, he easily cleared the mountains by a skillful flanking maneuver, then drove down towards the Danube River in modern Romania. Here he confronted the tribe of the Triballi while their women and children sought refuge on an island in the Danube. Alexander had planned ahead, though, and had ordered his navy to sail up from Greece and join him on the great river; this threat cut the Triballi off from their families and forced them to surrender.

THEN, threatened by the Getae nomads north of the Danube, Alexander conducted a nighttime river crossing with his army and ambushed them in an early-morning attack. It would be difficult for the modern U.S. Army to conduct a river crossing on the fly against a shore held by the enemy, let alone an ancient Greek force. When Alexander is in your backyard, the hits keep coming and they don’t stop coming.

As Alexander was knocking heads way off in the wilderness, the Greek cities picked up a wild rumor that he had been killed. The Persian Emperor Darius III had been offering large sums of gold to any Greek city that would split off from Alexander’s alliance, and multiple politicians in Athens and Thebes accepted these donations. Demosthenes, always an enemy of the Macedonians, used his Persian money to arm and equip Theban exiles to overthrow their government and install an anti-Alexander government. He even produced a soldier who claimed to have been wounded in battle and seen Alexander fall. Of course, Alex was hale and hearty and kicking every ass he found, but Demosthenes was prepared to go to any lengths to remove Macedonian rule from Greece.

The Theban exiles took over the city, and soon Thebes itself openly declared against Alexander for a second time – and this was after they had accepted membership in his alliance. They had made a grave error. The first time they had proclaimed against him, it was understandable, since their treaties had been with Philip and not with his son; that could be forgiven. This, though, was both the sundering of an oath and an act of treason against the leader of their (forced) alliance. Alexander had a creed: fool me one, shame on you, fool me twice, you’re going to die. And Alexander enforced it.

Alexander had just finished winning his first major field battle against the Illyrians at Pelion (and he obliterated them, it wasn’t even close) when he got word of Thebes’s rebellion. The young king immediately dropped everything he was doing and blazed south at Warp 9 to take care of business. When the Macedonians arrived like a shockwave in front of Thebes with a very much alive Alexander at their head, the stunned city nevertheless resolved to fight. They refused multiple demands for submission and offers for negotiation from Alexander, insulted him, and attacked his camp. Alexander shrugged, brought out the Macedonian phalanx, and steamrollered the Theban army, pushing through the city gate before it could be closed.

Thebes would not be spared. Alexander needed to make an example, and they had openly defied him twice. For all his glorious genius, love of culture, brilliant reputation and great accomplishments, Alexander had a deep streak of psychotic cruelty that could well up at any moment. It came out in full force at Thebes. As an example to the other cities of Greece, Alexander ordered Thebes to be utterly destroyed. The men were all executed, the women and children sold into slavery, and the city itself destroyed stone by stone. The ancient Greek city of Thebes – men who had stood at Thermopylae, fought the Athenians, and conquered Sparta – ceased to exist. It was an ex-city.

The fall and destruction of Thebes fulfilled its intended purpose. The utter annihilation of one of the most powerful and respected Greek cities was like a body blow to the entire civilization. The Greek cities tossed aside any notion of resisting Alexander, even secret ones. Arcadia had its anti-Macedonian leaders executed, while other cities put their pro-Macedonian people in charge. Demosthenes had to flee Athens, and Alexander could be sure once again that the Greeks would not be a problem. Except maybe Sparta, but Antipater could take care of them.

With all his enemies on the home front taken care of, Alexander could get to work on invading Persia. Like everything else, he set out to do it quickly. He spent the winter of 335-334 BC planning the operation and gathering troops and supplies; he wasn’t going to go off half-cocked, and active operations in winter were always a bad idea. He planned to leave 9,000 infantry and 2,000 cavalry with Antipater in Macedon itself to keep an eye on things, and by spring of 334 BC he was ready. Alexander rode out to where his army had been assembling on the coast of Turkey to prepare for the great campaign of his life: the crushing of the Persian Empire.

Alexander had assembled a large army of around 37,000 men, and it was certainly a diverse lot. In addition to the usual buzzsaw combination of Macedonian pikemen, heavy cavalry, and light troops, he brought along thousands of mercenaries from Greece, Thrace and Illyria, in addition to light cavalry from Thessaly and Epirus. It was an army that came from all corners of Greece, which again highlights how important it had been to secure his home base before he went on the great campaign.

His opponents, the local Persian governors, had assembled only about 30,000 men to try and stop this young hothead before he got too far. These forces were originally under the Greek mercenary general Memnon of Rhodes, and almost all the Persian infantry were Greek mercenaries as well since the hoplite infantryman was the most lethal warrior in the ancient world. The upcoming confrontation would be largely fought by Macedon’s Greeks versus Persia’s Greeks. Memnon wanted to wage a scorched-earth tactic against Alexander, refusing to confront him in open battle and instead starve him out and attrite him through guerrilla tactics, but the Persian governors mistrusted Memnon because of his background and refused to listen to him. They decided to fight Alexander as he advanced into Asia, and they would do it at the Granicus River.

(There are multiple versions of the following battle. This is the version of Alexander’s biographer Arrian, but other contemporary scholars and modern historians have different interpretations of the Battle of the Granicus.)

Alexander’s army approached the Granicus in May 334 BC, where they could see the Persian army lining the high ground across the river to the north. Alexander had as his senior subordinate Parmenion, the other trusted general he had inherited from his father. Parmenion allegedly often served as the devil’s advocate to the young king, presenting him with a safe option before Alexander inevitably chose a riskier and more dangerous one. It is possible that this was a later narrative device used by historians to portray Alexander as a daredevil genius, but also likely that Parmenion functioned more like a Chief of Staff – presenting information to Alexander and recommending multiple courses of action.

Parmenion recommended resting the army until the next day, then attacking the Persians by crossing upstream to outflank their position. Alexander agreed with Parmenion’s idea to outflank the Persians, but instead decided to attack that very day, even though the sun was already sinking. The decision to fight so late in the day caught the Persians off guard, which was what Alexander wanted all along: to live rent-free in their heads.

Alexander planned the battle of the Granicus in a format that would dominate his future battles: Parmenion commanding the left of the Macedonian formation as a feint/decoy, while Alexander led the main assault from the right. Parmenion was the anvil, Alexander was the hammer. Parmenion launched his attack first with much of the light infantry, and their harassing attacks caused the Persian governors to divert more and more strength to that side. The Persians had foolishly placed their cavalry in the first line of battle, rather than their heavy Greek infantry, which is no way to defend a riverbank. This left the cavalry unable to charge – their main weapon – and Alexander took his chance when he saw a gap open up thanks to Parmenion’s diversion. He led his cavalry into the breach.

Alexander’s heavy Companion Cavalry piled into the Persian horse, and a ferocious melee ensued. It was probably one of the toughest spots in Alexander’s career, a touch-and-go fight that could have gone either way at various points. At one particular moment, though, Alexander almost bit it when a Persian nobleman named Rhoisakes brained him on the head with an axe. As the Persian governor Spithridates was about to kill the stunned king, he himself was killed by Alexander’s bodyguard Cleitus the Black, who cut off the Persian’s arm in mid-stroke. Alexander’s brush with death came extremely close, and who knows what could have happened had he died that day on the Granicus.

But Alexander didn’t. His cavalry triumphed in the confused battle, thanks to their heavier weaponry and use of light infantry within their squadrons. Alexander turned his cavalry left to pile-drive the forces out of Parmenion’s way, clearing the path for the Macedonian infantry to advance through the gap he had just created. The Macedonian pikemen were soon shoving their way through the Greek mercenaries and routing everyone else. The Greeks began to surrender in droves, and the Persian cavalry broke and ran. Soon Alexander’s army stood triumphant atop the ridge on the Granicus River. He had won his first great battle against Persia.

In less than two years after taking the throne, Alexander stood on the verge of the great conquest that would define his life – and the history of the ancient world for the next three centuries. From here on out, his armies would march into the lands of the Persian Empire in one of the most storied series of conquests ever undertaken. Alexander’s genius was about to reach full flower.

But I already mentioned how genius and crazy are only a mood swing apart. Alexander’s treatment of the priestess at Delphi and his brutal destruction of Thebes were only early indicators of what lay beneath his aura of glory. It would only be a few years before he would kill Cleitus the Black – the man who had saved his life – in a drunken rage during the invasion of central Asia. No one was safe when Alexander’s genius suddenly took a turn for the dark.

Great doesn’t always mean good.

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