Alexander deserves the glory which he has enjoyed for so many centuries and among all nations; but what if he had been beaten at Arbela [Gaugamela] having the Euphrates, the Tigris, and the deserts in his rear, without any strong places of refuge, nine hundred leagues from Macedonia?”
Napoleon, from The Fifteen Decisive Battles of the World: From Marathon to Waterloo, Sir Edward Creasy
Gaugamela covers a significant part of Book Three in The Landmark Arrian: The Campaigns of Alexander (translation by Pamela Mensch), the battle covering chapters 8 through 16. Alexander continues to emerge as a paradoxical figure on many levels and I wanted to look at a few examples surrounding the battle that highlight contradictions or changes in his behavior. Parmenion proves to be a troubling point in evaluating Alexander—the general responsible for anchoring one wing while Alexander attacked the other side ends up being a victim because of his success. Parmenion’s role in the Persian campaign’s battles could be summed up as having to avoid annihilation while Alexander wins the day. Gaugamela proved to be the one battle where Parmenion almost failed on that assignment.
It is also one of the few times in Arrian where Alexander takes Parmenion’s advice, in this case before the battle in order to scout the battlefield for any Persian traps or ploys. Arrian returns to form, however, with Alexander’s rejection of Parmenion’s suggested night attack as a cowardly tactic. The motives for a day attack may have been sound (Arrian certainly thinks so in his commendation) but once again another jibe gets aimed at Parmenion, actual or apocryphal. One of the most interesting questions of the battle centers on the Persian forces attack of the Macedonian baggage train—did their greed cause the Persian defeat? During the breakthrough of his ranks, Parmenion certainly thought he was in danger of loss and sent a message to Alexander for assistance. Fortunately the greed of the Persians led them to plunder the baggage train instead of circling Parmenion. Once reinforcements arrived to assist, Parmenion’s situation had improved. Even though Alexander had to break off his pursuit of Darius, his return to Parmenion insured the ruin of much of Darius’ troops, making Gaugamela into the decisive battle it turned out to be.
After the battle at the Granicus River, Alexander visits the wounded and provides elaborate funerals for those that fell, not to mention generous tax breaks were provided to their relatives. Arrian does not mention such actions after Gaugamela and chances are they didn’t happen because of Alexander’s initial haste to pursue Darius. Even given allowances for the situation, the impending execution of Philotas and assassination of Parmenion (to happen within the year) stand in marked contrast to the rewards provided exemplary behavior at the Granicus River. From here it’s easy to see these murders as a harbinger for future carnage. The slaughter by Alexander’s army to this point in the campaign, often not discerning between troops and civilians, could be tied to retribution against an enemy at least on some level. The murders of key Macedonian leaders portend a consolidation of power into a selected cabal, one that Alexander could not carry out at until Darius had been effectively defeated. The discipline Alexander demanded from his troops before the battle of Gaugamela proved to be insufficient for some leaders didn’t fit into his plans.
There are many more paradoxes in Alexander to be seen, a few of which were displayed post-Gaugamela which I’ll look at in the next post. Before ending, though, I wanted to look at a line from Herodotus that seems to sum up an aspect of Gaugamela even though the battle was not exclusively between two Greek armies:
As a matter of fact, according to what I hear, the Hellenes are in the habit of starting wars without the slightest forethought, out of obstinacy and stupidity. For whenever the declare war on one another, they seek out the finest and most level land and go to fight, so that the victors depart from the field only after great damage has been done, and I won’t say anything at all of the defeated, for they are completely destroyed.”
Mardonios to Xerxes in The Landmark Herodotus: The Histories, translation by Andrea L. Purvis (7.9.ß.1)