Gaugamela: The Battle That Changed The World – 331 BC

Gaugamela The Battle That Changed The World - 331 BC
The Battle of Gaugamela – 331 BC

Intro

The battle of Gaugamela was no doubt a decisive battle that changed the history of the world. Its triumph opened the door to the known world for the Macedonian Army. Alexander became the king of kings after this battle as he went on to defeat the remaining Persian Army and became the king of the known world (Persia, at that time).

The Battle of Gaugamela, perhaps Alexander’s greatest victory, demonstrates that one of the keys to his success as a general was his unusual combination of cautious preparation before battle and quick-thinking boldness once engaged.

Let’s revisit this epic battle!

Gaugamela The Battle That Changed The World - 331 BC-
Gaugamela: The Battle That Changed The World – 331 BC-

Alexander The Great Ascent to Power

What are the qualities that make an outstanding general? Intelligence? Creativity? Daring? Calculation? Charisma? Luck?

The key figure at Gaugamela possessed all of these and he is often regarded as one of the greatest generals of all time. He conquered most of the known world, was victorious in four major battles, conducted several successful sieges, and held together a multinational army during an epic march across much of Europe and Asia. His name, of course, was Alexander, more commonly known as Alexander the Great.

Alexander The Great - King of Macedonia
Alexander The Great – King of Macedonia

The golden age of the Greeks had ended with the long, destructive Peloponnesian War, in which the Greeks again turned against one another. Although Sparta was the nominal victor, all participants were exhausted and impoverished by the struggle.

Over the next half century, a new power arose to the north: Macedonia, a minor, disunited state, weakly controlled by a hereditary king. Between 359 B.C., when Philip II came to the throne, and 339 B.C., he transformed Macedonia into a first-rate power. Most notably, he reconstructed the army which he then used to conquer his neighbours and create a Macedonian empire.

 When Philip was assassinated in 336 B.C., Alexander succeeded to the throne at the age of 20. The young king quickly secured his position, getting the army to swear an oath of loyalty to him personally, killing any who might be potential rivals, and suppressing several revolts.

The Arch-Rivals

At the time of his death, Philip had been planning an expedition against Persia’s westernmost regions, ostensibly in revenge for Persia’s invasions of Greece more than 100 years earlier. Alexander now took up this plan, and in the spring of 334 B.C., he crossed the Hellespont into Asia at the head of a Macedonian-Greek army of approximately 45,000 infantry and 5,000 cavalries.

Dardanelles - also known as the Strait of Gallipoli from the Gallipoli peninsula or from Classical Antiquity as the Hellespont
Dardanelles – also known as the Strait of Gallipoli from the Gallipoli peninsula or from Classical Antiquity as the Hellespont

The Persian Empire at the time of Alexander unquestionably remained the superpower of the region. The current king of kings was Darius III, who had come to the throne in 336 B.C. The ancient sources offer conflicting portraits of DARIUS, with most depicting him as weak and indecisive. However, in the first year of his reign, he crushed a rebellion in Egypt.

Darius III, King of Persia - Depiction of Darius III during the Battle of Issus in the Alexander Mosaic (c. 100 BCE), ancient Roman floor mosaic from the House of the Faun in Pompeii, Italy
Darius III, King of Persia – Depiction of Darius III during the Battle of Issus in the Alexander Mosaic (c. 100 BCE), an ancient Roman floor mosaic from the House of the Faun in Pompeii, Italy

The Macedonian Army and Its Technology

In revamping the Macedonian army, Philip made several innovations to the successful model of the Greek hoplite phalanx. He equipped the Macedonian phalanx with an extra-long spear called a sarissa, rather than the shorter spear of the hoplite. He lightened the soldiers’ armour, particularly reducing the size and weight of the shield.

Maintaining order in wielding these weapons required considerable drilling and discipline; thus, Philip made his army a permanent, professional one.

A modern illustration of the Greek hoplites marching in a phalanx formation
A modern illustration of the Greek hoplites marching in a phalanx formation

He also included contingents of other types. He added archers and slingers to harass the enemy from a distance. There were swift, agile, lightly armed troops to act as skirmishers. There were sizable cavalry units, some of which were light cavalry used as scouts, while others were heavy cavalry who could break an enemy line.

Paintings of Ancient Macedonian soldiers, arms, and armaments, from the tomb of Agios Athanasios, Thessaloniki in Greece, 4th century BC
Paintings of Ancient Macedonian soldiers, arms, and armaments, from the tomb of Agios Athanasios, Thessaloniki in Greece, 4th century BC

The Persian Army and Its Technology

The Persian army was much the same as that which the Greeks had faced at Plataea. Its elite infantry were The 10,000 Immortals. The strength of the Persian army was its numerous and well-trained cavalry, and a favoured weapon among both infantry and horsemen was the bow, although a wide array of swords, spears, and axes were also employed.

Achaemenid Soldiers - Modern reconstruction of the Immortals in their ceremonial dress during the 2,500-year celebration of the Persian Empire in Pahlavi Iran, 1971.
Achaemenid Soldiers – Modern reconstruction of the Immortals in their ceremonial dress during the 2,500-year celebration of the Persian Empire in Pahlavi Iran, 1971.

The Battle of Gaugamela

Darius’s most obvious advantage was numerical, and he used the interval to gather a vast army from every corner of his empire.

Darius then chose his battlefield carefully: a large, flat, featureless expanse along the Tigris River near Gaugamela, where the Persian numerical superiority could be used to full effect.

Empire of Alexander the Great - Battle of Guagamela
Empire of Alexander the Great – Battle of Gaugamela

Finally, Darius created a special weapon of 200 chariots with blades attached to their wheels. These would be launched against the Macedonian phalanx; the blades would carve openings in the formations, into which the cavalry could pour.


Alexander’s advisors, frightened by the size of the Persian army, urged him to attack at night to mask their inferior numbers. Refusing this advice, Alexander went to bed. Darius, fearing just such an assault, kept his army standing ready for battle all night. By morning, Alexander had already scored an advantage: His troops were well-rested in contrast to the sleepless Persians. Alexander’s most pressing problem was the lack of a geographic anchor to prevent encirclement.

His solution was to stagger his forces at an angle on the left and right sides of the phalanx so that they could face an enemy encircling movement head-on. At a distance behind the main phalanx, he positioned a second line made up of allies and mercenaries. His forces were arranged so that if Persians did outflank them and surround his army, it could form a hollow rectangle with men facing outward in all directions.

Initial dispositions and opening movements of the Battle of Guagamela
Initial dispositions and opening movements of the Battle of Gaugamela

As the battle began, Alexander led his cavalry to the right. Darius III ordered his cavalry to mirror Alexander’s movements, with the result that the lines were stretched out and the centre of gravity began to shift away from the ground that Darius had so carefully prepared.

Darius III, therefore, ordered his scythed chariots to charge, but the Macedonian skirmishers and javelineers picked off the charioteers. When the remainder reached the phalanx, the Macedonians opened lanes for the chariots to pass harmlessly. As they slowed to turn, lightly armed troops killed the rest of the charioteers.

Determined to contain Alexander’s sweep, Darius dispatched more Persian cavalry to block him, and an intense cavalry battle ensued. Meanwhile, on the left, the Macedonian phalanx was hard-pressed and in danger of losing contact with Alexander and the Macedonian right.

A gap developed in the Macedonian line, into which a group of Persian cavalry poured. Had they wheeled to the right and struck the main phalanx from behind, they might well have broken the phalanx and won the battle. But the Persian cavalry began looting the Macedonian baggage train; thus, elements of the second line of the Macedonian phalanx had time to confront and contain them.

Meanwhile, Alexander had decided to take advantage of the parallel stretching of the Persian lines, and he now led a bold charge, cutting from the right flank where Darius stood in his chariot. The Companion cavalry, formed into a wedge with Alexander himself at its head, crashed into the Persian ranks.

Alexander's decisive attack - Battle of Guagamela
Alexander’s decisive attack – Battle of Gaugamela

Darius took fright and, just as he had at the earlier Battle of Issus turned his chariot and fled from the field, abandoning his army. Upon his desertion, Persians in that section lost heart, and after some tough fighting Alexander’s army routed them

Alexander had won the battle and, with it, the Persian Empire. Although Darius escaped and would manage to evade capture for another year or so, until mortally wounded by his men, from the moment he fled from Gaugamela, he had effectively forfeited his throne; Alexander became the king of King, and effectively the king of Persia.

Account of Alexander's victory over the last Achaemenid king Darius III at the battle of Gaugamela on 1 October 331 BCE
Account of Alexander’s victory over the last Achaemenid king Darius III at the battle of Gaugamela on 1 October 331 BCE and his triumphant entry into Babylon, in cuneiform. Babylon, Iraq. British Museum

2 thoughts on “Gaugamela: The Battle That Changed The World – 331 BC

  1. I Always wonder about the strategies of rulers in the past and Gaugamela is indeed one of the strategic battles fought in history.

  2. This was truly fascinating to read, I’m surprised at the way people in the past created such clever strategies and managed to rule in such amazing way. Keep creating content like this!

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