Darius III, formerly known as Codomannus, was the last Persian Great King of the Achaemenid dynasty. Ascending to the Persian throne at age 44, most of Darius’ rule was spent in opposition to Alexander the Great, who invaded his empire only two years into his reign. Darius faced Alexander in two major battles and lost both of them; the Battle of Issus in November 333, and the Battle of Gaugamela in October 331. After both battles he fled, and has been branded a coward by most sources.
However, most of these sources were Greek with very biased views against the Persians, calling them barbarians and seeing them as inferior to themselves. In light of this prejudice, was Darius really as cowardly and incompetent as the sources say? Or was he really a noble and courageous enemy? Background Born around 380 BCE, Codomannus was a cousin of King Artaxerxes III, the strong but violent ruler of the great and powerful Persian Empire. Codomannus was presented with the satrapy of Armenia in 340 BCE, after killing a Cadusian warrior champion in single combat during a military campaign.
In 338 Artaxerxes was poisoned along with all but one of his sons, Arses, by Bagoas, a vizier who was displeased by the King’s severity. After establishing Arses as a puppet king, Bagoas realised that he could not be controlled, poisoning him as well. One of the last legitimate heirs to the Persian throne, Codomannus was named Great King in the year 336 (the same year that Alexander was named King of Macedonia), assuming the name Darius III. Like Arses, Darius proved unwilling to be controlled, and Bagoas attempted to poison him as well.
However, learning of the plot, Darius managed to thwart the assassination attempt, forcing Bagoas to drink his own poison. The Battle of Issus In the year 334 BCE, Alexander the Great invaded Asia Minor with an army of Macedonians and Greeks, defeating a combined Persian and Greek mercenary army led by Memnon at the River Granicus. Realising that he had underestimated Alexander in not meeting him in battle himself, Darius assembled an army from the satrapies of Babylon and set out to confront the invaders, who were encamped in the town of Mellus.
Around this time, Alexander fell sick, and was bedridden for two months while being cured by his physician Philip. Hearing of Darius’ emergence from Persepolis, Alexander moved east through the Cilician Gates, sending Parmenio south with a force of men ahead to occupy the Syrian gates and locate Darius’ army. Alexander, meanwhile, took over the Cilician town of Issus, who surrendered when they saw the size of his army.
Receiving word from Parmenio that Darius was camped at Sochi, a town on the other side of the Amanus Mountains, Alexander set out for the Syrian Gates, leaving a number of his wounded soldiers behind in Issus while leading the majority of his army south along the Mediterranean coast, in pursuit of the Great King. The Battle of Issus, Movements to the battlefield. Darius, meanwhile, had been waiting for Alexander at Sochi, where his superior numbers had the advantage of a large open battlefield.
When Alexander did not arrive, due to the delay caused by his illness, Darius believed Alexander to have remained in Cilicia, electing to delay the inevitable battle with the Persians. Whether he allowed himself to be persuaded by his followers that Alexander was too afraid to face him in an open battle, as many pro-Alexander sources would have it, or whether he wanted to avoid facing the difficulty of supplying his large army as winter approached, Darius decided to abandon his advantage and marched north then east through the undefended Amanic Gates to Issus.
Seeing that Alexander was not there, Darius killed most of the wounded men, severing the right hand of several and sending them to Alexander before marching south himself. Hearing of this slaughter, Alexander sent ships north to make sure that Issus had been taken, not wanting to admit his mistake. When the reports had been proven to be true, Alexander turned his men north, eventually meeting Darius on the banks of the Pinarus River seven miles south of Issus, on the 5th of November, 333 BCE. Darius’ army greatly outnumbered Alexander’s.
Arrian describes the Persians numbering 600,000 men, but this was likely exaggerated in order to enhance Alexander’s reputation. More realistic reports estimate about 25,000 to 100,000 – still more than Alexander’s force. However, Darius had thrown away his advantage when he left Sochi, as the restricted strip of land between the Amanus Mountains and the Gulf of Issus would invalidate the Persian’s superiority of numbers. Plutarch describes how, “Fortune was not kinder to Alexander in the choice of 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. ” In addition, Darius had ignored the advice of his general Charidamus, who had recommended that Darius split his forces so that Charidamus could take on Alexander alone. Seeing this as Charidamus’ desire for glory and prestige, Darius refused, leaving the honour for himself. Darius later executed Charidamus for insulting the King, despite being an invaluable general in Darius’ army.
The Battle of Issus, Initial dispositions. Darius set out his army, sending a screen of 30,000 cavalry and 20,000 light infantry across the Pinarus in order to deter the Macedonians from attacking the Persians as they organised their battle formations. According to Arrian, he placed the cream of his infantry, 30,000 Greek mercenaries, in the centre, along with 30,000 Persian infantry, known as Kardakes, to support them on either side, screened by archers. Darius himself, as was the Persian tradition, took the centre, protected by his personal bodyguard, the Immortals, 1000 strong.
A division of 20,000 infantry was deployed on Alexander’s right flank, on the slopes across the Pinarus. The remainder of Darius’ army was placed behind the Greek mercenaries, as the battlefield was too narrow to allow them to join the battle. When his army was in position, Darius withdrew his advanced screen and placed them on his right flank under command of Nabarzanes, in order to threaten Parmenio, where the ground was more suitable for cavalry. Seeing this deployment, Alexander sent his forces of Thessalian cavalry to support the allied cavalry on his extreme left.
He had placed the heavy infantry, the phalanxes, in the centre, and himself leading the Companion cavalry on the right wing, with the Lancers and Paeonian light horse close behind. Seeing the threat posed by the Persian infantry on his extreme right, Alexander sent a small force to confront them, leaving 300 soldiers to keep them bottled up after they retreated up the hill. The Greek mercenaries were placed behind the infantry, so as to support any weaknesses in the lines. The Battle of Issus, the decisive moment. Once his troops were in position, and Alexander’s right side had been made secure, the Macedonian army advanced.
Alexander wanted to create the impression that time was on his side, and kept his army moving slowly and unhurriedly until they were within missile range from the Persians. At this point, Alexander led his Companions and the rest of the right flank in a charge across the Pinarus, shattering the Persian Kardakes who offered little resistance. However, most of the phalanxes had failed to storm the opposing bank, allowing a hole in the Macedonian centre through which the Greek mercenaries fighting for the Persians attacked.
Arrian describes the struggle: “Darius’ Greeks fought to thrust the Macedonians back into the water and save the day for their left wing, already in retreat, while the Macedonians, in their turn, with Alexander’s triumph plain before their eyes, were determined to equal his success and not forfeit the proud title of invincible, hitherto universally bestowed upon them. ” Alexander and his right wing soon came to the rescue of the infantry, forcing the mercenaries away from the river before hitting them with an attack from the Persian left, which had been broken under Alexander’s first charge.
The Persian cavalry on Darius’ right flank, who were pressing Parmenio and the Thessalonians across the river, broke when they saw the defeat of the Greek mercenaries, and the Persians were easily routed by the Macedonians. The Alexander Mosaic. Once Alexander had broken through the lines of the Persian centre, Darius fled the battle, causing even greater panic among his men. The famous Alexander Mosaic, pictured above, shows (somewhat fictionally) the closeness of Alexander to Darius in the midst of the fighting, as Darius’ bodyguard fell beneath the onslaught of the Macedonians and Darius turned to flee.
Arrian describes this as a cowardly act, where Darius abandoned his army and his family in order to save his own skin. “The moment the Persian left went to pieces under Alexander’s attack and Darius, in his war-chariot, saw that it was cut off, he incontinently fled – indeed, he led the race for safety. ” Other, more contemporary sources, say that this was a sacrifice on Darius’ part, choosing to leave in order to fight another day. “The act of leaving his army and family becomes, then, not one of a coward, but one of putting his kingdom above all else.
Whatever the motivation, Darius left the battlefield, signalling chaos among his army, and was followed by Alexander, intent on facing down his rival for the Persian throne. Arrian describes how Darius fled from Alexander, first in his chariot, then, as the ground grew too steep and treacherous, he switched to a single horse, leaving behind his shield, armour and bow. Alexander and his companions did not give up the chase until nightfall, when they turned back to seize Darius’ chariot and manage the army in the aftermath of the battle.
Darius eventually joined with Persian survivors, heading east to the Euphrates River and hence to Babylon with 4,000 men. The Persian defeat and Darius’ flight from the battlefield left Alexander in charge of the royal baggage train, including 3,000 talents (about NZ$3 billion) and Darius’ mother, wife and children. After abolishing Macedonian taxes, money had been a real problem for Alexander throughout his campaign, and filling the Royal Treasury was one of the main objectives of the Persian invasion.
Alexander had also gained the allegiance of many thousands of defectors from the Persian army, mostly Greek mercenaries. Thousands more disbanded, scattering across the Persian Empire in fear of Alexander’s wrath. The Macedonian’s morale was strengthened; they saw how they, led by Alexander, could defeat a Persian army many times larger, and that they could do it again if needs be. They felt even more supportive of their king and his ambitions, wherever they might take them. However, Alexander had not won a total victory, as Darius had not been captured or killed in the battle.
With Darius still at large, Alexander could not claim the title of Great King, or sovereignty over the whole Persian Empire. Most of the satrapies not already conquered by Alexander were still loyal to Darius rather than this foreign invader. This error could have been averted had Alexander chosen to continue to pursue Darius immediately after the battle, instead of marching his army south to Egypt. Darius was allowed to regroup, meeting Alexander again on the plains of Gaugamela two years later.
The Battle of Gaugamela While Alexander was colonising Egypt, Tyre and the other south-western provinces, Darius returned to Babylon, in the heart of the Persian Empire. From here, he sent messages to Alexander, requesting an alliance, offering land, gold and the hand of his daughter in marriage in exchange for the return of his family and an end to hostilities. Alexander replied, refusing these terms and demanding unconditional surrender. Darius refused, and in preparation for a second conflict marshalled another army – this time from the eastern Persian territories, including Sogdiana and Bactria.
With them came Bessus, the satrap of Bactria and one of Darius’ senior generals. Forces were also sent from the northern Saca tribesmen and from the central provinces of the empire, commanded by Mazaeus, the satrap of Syria, as well as from most of the provinces east of the Euphrates with a contingent of scythed chariots. Arrian estimates that the total army numbered around 40,000 cavalry, 1,000,000 infantry, 200 scythe-chariots, and a squadron of elephants, sent from India. Q. Curtius Rufus gives a more realistic account of 45,000 cavalry and 200,000 infantry.
Nevertheless, Darius’ new army greatly outnumbered that of Alexander’s, approximately 70,000 in number, marching east to confront him. Much like at Issus, Darius chose a large, open battlefield, where his larger army could fully utilize their superior numbers – the plain of Gaugamela, about 300 miles north of Babylon across the Tigris River. Unlike Issus, however, Darius refused to be coaxed out of his advantage to confront Alexander early, instead electing to wait patiently and allow Alexander to come to him.
In order to enhance the devastation caused by his scythed chariots, Darius flattened parts of the plain, allowing greater room within which his massive army could manoeuvre. He had also planted spikes in the ground to cause injury to any Macedonian cavalry. A squadron of 5,000 men under the command of Mazaeus was sent to spy on Alexander, hindering their crossing of the Euphrates and disrupting their journey northwards. Darius knew that the longer Alexander took to arrive, his army would grow, as troops travelled to Gaugamela from the farthest reaches of the Persian Empire.
Despite the opposition Alexander managed to cross the Euphrates in the summer of 331. Marching north, Alexander crossed the Tigris on the evening of 20 September, during a lunar eclipse, before making his way north to Gaugamela. Upon arrival, Alexander camped by the slopes rounding the plain where the Persian army was stationed, where he could get a good look at Darius’ battle preparations. In order to avoid a surprise attack from the Macedonians, Darius had ordered his men to remain in battle formation overnight.
While somewhat necessary, due to the long time needed to mobilise his massive army while remaining ulnerable to the Macedonians, this meant that the Persians were tired and stressed for the battle the next day. Arrian describes this as a tactical blunder on Darius’ part, saying, “One thing, at this critical moment, told against the Persians, more than anything else: their protracted stand under arms, and the consequent fear…” This also allowed Alexander all night to form a battle strategy and decide on his own formation. After worrying late into the night, Alexander slept in the next day, pleased that his pursuit of Darius was about to be over.
Diodorus writes how Alexander, when asked, remarks “Now, I am free from all fear and care concerning Darius, who has brought his whole strength together into one place; for by one day’s battle for the trial of all, I shall be quit and discharged of all my hazards and toils for the time to come. ” Both Alexander and Darius knew that this battle, between the massive Persian army and the highly trained and battle-hardened Macedonians, would decide who would rule Asia as the Great King. The opening of the battle of Gaugamela.
Darius had placed his soldiers according to their ethnicity, so that they were among men from their home province with similar levels of training and fighting experience, and would fight better as a group. He had placed cavalry from Cappadocia and Armenia with 50 scythed chariots on his right wing, in front of troops from Syria, Mesopotamia and the central satrapies commanded by Mazaeus. This was repeated on the left wing, with the fearsome cavalry from the Saca people and the other north-eastern satrapies, led by Bessus, behind cavalry from Bactria and Scythia and another 100 chariots.
As always, Darius himself took the centre, with his Royal Bodyguard and the remnants of the Greek mercenary force from Issus. In front were 50 chariots and 15 elephants, which could cause chaos among enemy infantry. Additional infantry was placed behind. In response to this line-up, Alexander placed Parmenio in his normal position on the left flank, with the allied Greek and Thessalian cavalry. Alexander took the centre, opposite Darius, with the phalanx and the Companion cavalry, led by Philotas. The right flank was guarded by the hypaspists.
Behind Alexander was stationed a second row of infantry, providing a reserve force in case the Persians managed to break through. A small force protected the Macedonian camp, where Darius’ family were kept under guard. Darius’ tactics were to use the chariots to create gaps in the Macedonian formations, allowing the cavalry to charge into the heart of Alexander’s army and cause mayhem. Seeing this, Alexander ordered his men to open ranks when the chariots charged, allowing them to enter without inflicting much damage, before closing formation again and allow the infantry at the back to take care of them.
Recognising also the danger of being surrounded by Darius’ far larger army, Alexander structured his army that both his sides and his rear were given equal protection to the front, so that even if the Persians did manage to surround him, all sides would be prepared for conflict. “So flexible was the battle-formation which he arranged that the troops standing in the rear to prevent an encircling movement could still wheel round and be transferred to the front. ”
According to Q. Curtius Rufus, a Persian deserter came to Alexander right before the battle to warn him of the spikes Darius had left as traps for the Macedonian cavalry. Alexander stationed guards at these to warn the cavalry away from them. Darius’ strategies had been annulled before fighting even started. Armies in formation and tactics worked out, the two sides advanced. Alexander, with the phalanxes and the Companions began to gradually edge to the right, drawing the Persians with him in order to counter any move he might make.
Once Alexander looked to be moving out of the space cleared for his spiked chariots, Darius ordered the cavalry under Bessus to charge. Alexander responded by sending in his mercenary cavalry. A counter-attack from the Scythians pushed the mercenaries back, but Alexander again countered with a squadron of Paeonian cavalry. A close cavalry battle ensued, with the Macedonians, being outnumbered, bearing the most casualties in the engagement. While this was going on, Darius had unleashed his scythe chariots.
However, these did not have the desired effect, as most were taken out by arrows or javelins before they even made it to the Macedonian lines, and those that did were swallowed up by the phalanx and disposed of, as planned by Alexander. “Their formation resembled a rampart; after creating an unbroken line of spears, they stabbed the flanks of the horses from both sides as they charged recklessly ahead. Then they began to surround the chariots and to throw the fighters out of them. ”