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Alexander's Persian expedition

By Jack Barkstrom

Philip II of Macedon, in August 338 B.C., had defeated Thebes and Athens at the battle of Chaeronea in Boeotia.  During the battle, the overconfident Athenians advanced against the retreating Macedonians, leaving the Theban Sacred Band exposed.  Occupied fighting a Macedonian phalanx of infantry, the Sacred Band was unable to withstand a Macedonian cavalry charge, believed to have been led by Alexander (the Great), Philip's son.   The Theban commander, Theagenes, was killed.  The isolated force fought on until annihilated.  The rest of the Macedonian force moved in behind the Athenians. About 1,000 were killed and 2,000 captured. The rest ran.

Philip's success against the Sacred Band and the Greek phalanx could be attributed to the use of a spear which was twice as long as that of the Greeks and the development of the coordinated heavy cavalry charge.  Tactically, at Chaeronea, he was also able to deal in piecemeal fashion with the Greek army.

Alexander may have fought well for Philip, but there was little love lost between the two. Philip had married Olympias (Myrtale), from Epirus, in 358 BC, and she had given birth to Alexander in July 356. When Philip divorced Olympias in 337 to marry a woman named Cleopatra, Alexander was invited to the wedding feast.  An angry argument broke out and Philip tried to run Alexander through.  Instead, he tripped and fell.  Alexander hurled an insult: "Look, the man who is preparing an expedition from Europe to Asia trips trying to move from one seat to another."  Alexander decided it was no longer safe to stay and fled with his mother that night.  She sought safety with her brother, the king of Epirus, while Alexander went north, to Illyria. 

In the spring of 336, Philip was ready to lead an expedition into Asia Minor. The generals Parmenio and Attalus crossed the Hellespont to secure the Troad and Bithynia.  Ephesus was captured.  Philip, not wanting to leave an enemy behind while he campaigned in Asia, offered his daughter, Cleopatra, to Olympias' brother, named Alexander.  The wedding was to be celebrated in July.  Beginning the celebration, Philip entered the theater ahead of his escort.  Pausanias, one of the bodyguards, rushed forward and fatally stabbed him. He then ran from the scene. When he tripped and fell, three pursuers managed to get close enough to kill him with javelin thrusts.

There were suspicions that Olympias had planned the assassination, and that her son, Alexander, was involved as well.  The fact that horses had been left outside the city gate to help Pausanias escape, suggested that others had been involved.  Definitive proof was never found and Pausanias' death ensured that the whole story would never be told.  Whether the story was true, Olympias was reported to have later placed a crown of gold on the head of the corpse of Pausanias, which had been nailed to a cross for public display. Another story was that she had a tomb built for Pausanias near that of Philip and had the dagger used in the killing consecrated. 

Believing that Alexander, now twenty years old, lacked the experience to retain the throne, many cities were tempted to revolt on hearing news of the assassination.  Even the Illyrians, who had offered Alexander refuge from Philip, joined the revolt.  The Macedonian general Attalus, in Asia, came out against him, and both Athens and Thebes made noises about joining him.  Alexander had his supporters. Antipater and Parmenion, two of Philip's generals, came out for him. Attalus was captured and executed. Olympias, his ambitious mother, had Cleopatra and her infant son murdered, eliminating a rival claimant to the throne based on royal lineage. Wasting little time in the summer of 336, Alexander moved south with an army, causing Athens and Thebes to reconsider their opposition. Having temporarily checked the Greek cities, he took his army north into Thrace (Bulgaria) to deal with the Triballi and, following that, into Illyria in 335, putting down the revolt there.

Victories to the north should have strengthened Alexander's claims to the throne, but a rumor spread through Greece that he had been killed in Thrace. The Athenian leader Demosthenes even produced a witness who claimed to have seen him killed.  Wishful thinking convinced Theban exiles living in Athens that the rumors were true. Such thinking was fueled by Persian activity.  There had been suspicions that the Persians were behind Philip's assassination.  The new king of Persia, Darius III Codomannus, had reason to fear that Alexander might prosecute the Asian campaign started by his father.  Hoping that the Greek states might topple Alexander or, at least, prove strong enough to serve as a counterweight to Macedonian ambitions, he offered the Athenians three hundred talents, publicly declined, but privately accepted by Demosthenes, to work on behalf of Persia.

The Thebans were persuaded by the exiles to act.  They seized and murdered two captains of the Macedonian garrison, then besieged the force inside the Cadmea.  Alexander, learning of the attack, marched his army to the city walls. An impromptu attack on the Theban defenses by one of his captains allowed Alexander to gain the Electran gate, then the rest of the city.  In all, 6,000 Thebans were killed, most of the killings being committed by the Phocians and Plataeans, out of revenge for past wrongs. Alexander allowed the fate of the city and its survivors to be decided by a vote of the Confederacy of Corinth. Some seventy years before, in 404 B.C., the fate of Athens had been the subject of a similar vote. Athens came within one vote of total destruction. It was the Spartans who voted to save her. This time there was no one to intervene on behalf of the Thebans. When the vote was taken, it was unanimous - the city should be razed and its inhabitants sold into slavery.  Some escaped, but probably 8,000 (30,000 is often cited), were sold. Alexander left one building standing, the house of the Greek poet, Pindar. Whatever calculations Alexander had made regarding the disposition of forces he would leave behind in Greece, the threat posed by Thebes had been permanently eliminated.

From the Granicus to Gaugamela

In 334 B.C. Alexander began his Persian campaign by sending an army across the Hellespont to Abydos in Asia Minor. It represented more of a reinforcement of existing armies, since Macedonian forces had continued to operate there under Parmenio. Abydos had been the Asian anchoring point for the bridge Xerxes used in 480 to cross over into Europe. Before leaving, Alexander went to Elaeus, to sacrifice at the tomb of Protesilaus, one of the mythical leaders of the Trojan war. When he did sail over to Asia he landed at Ilium near the city of Troy.  He is said to have jumped off the prow of the ship in full battle armor and hurled a spear into the sand.  Indicating his determination to conquer Asia he shouted: "He received Asia as a spear-won prize from the gods."  Sacrificing at the temple of Athena, he removed the sacred shield.  Before returning to the army he visited the legendary city of Troy, where he paid homage at the tombs of Achilles and Patroclus.

The River Granicus (Kocabas) empties into the Propontis east of Troy. The Persian forces, under the Rhodian general Memnon, had established a position on the Granicus in May or June 334, hoping to stop Alexander if he tried to cross.  The Macedonians, with a force of 18,000, outnumbered the Persians, who had about 15,000.  The Persians had positioned their cavalry in front, with their Greek hoplites behind them.  So long as they remained on the eastern banks of the Granicus, they were relatively safe.  Alexander, to tempt them out of their positions, ordered his cavalry, known as the Companions of the King, to charge, then fall back.  The Persian cavalry, in pursuing the now-retreating Companions, left the safety of the river bank to follow them.  Alexander, with his main force, attacked the cavalry. It fled, leaving about 1,000 dead on the field.  When the Greek mercenaries, now surrounded, asked for terms, Alexander refused.  Instead he ordered a massacre.  Of the original 5,000, perhaps 3,000 were killed in the renewed fighting.  Rather than incorporate the remaining 2,000 into his army, he sent them back to Macedonia as slaves to be used as forced labor.

Although the victory left Asia Minor open to Alexander, there was no enthusiastic rush to the Macedonian cause.  Miletus only fell after a siege in 334, as did Halicarnassus, which fell in the autumn. Still, by the time Darius was able to assemble a new army, most of the region had been subjugated. In October 333 Alexander encamped his army at Myriandrus, near the Beilan Pass, north of Phoenicia. He was surprised by Darius who, personally leading the Persian army, found an unguarded pass and managed to get in behind him.  Alexander was forced to march north, to the River Pinarus (Payas), where the Persians had taken up positions.

The battle of Issus was a series of cavalry moves and counter-moves.  Alexander, expecting an attack on his right, concentrated his forces there, only to discover that Darius had shifted his cavalry to the other side of the battle.  Alexander moved to shift forces back, without alerting Darius.  The Persian cavalry was able to get around the Macedonians on the seaward side, where the river empties into the Gulf of Iskendron. Although their attack was successful, they lost formation, and found themselves under flank attack by the Thessalian cavalry.  Unable to reorganize they fled.  Alexander, leading the attack on the other wing, got behind the Persian left wing and enveloped their formation.  Darius fled. Macedonian losses were about 450 killed and 4,500 wounded. Persian losses totaled around 15,000 killed, wounded, or captured.

The victory was enough to intimidate the Phoenician cities, including Sidon, into surrender.  With their surrender, Alexander gained a fleet, which would be augmented by naval forces supplied by Cyprus.  Tyre, located on an island a half mile from the coast, refused to surrender.  Alexander's first attempt to take the city involved the construction of a mole and siege towers in February 332.  The Tyrians managed to attack it and burn the towers, after which heavy seas buried it. A new causeway and siege engines were constructed and the attack renewed. When the city was captured in August it was said that 8,000 were killed in the street fighting. Another 2,000 who survived the fighting were crucified. The rest were sold into slavery. The city was burned.

The destruction of Tyre was not enough to intimidate the Persian commander at Gaza, the eunuch Batis.  Alexander began another siege there in September. The fortress did not fall until October, when the Macedonians, on their fourth attempt, stormed and gained the walls.  The attackers massacred the population, said to be greater than that of Tyre.  The women and children who escaped slaughter were sold into slavery.  According to one story, Alexander was so angry that he tied Batis behind his chariot and dragged him around the walls, in emulation of Achilles, who had dragged the body of Hector around the walls of Troy.

The Persian satrap in Egypt, Mazaces, submitted quickly.  When Alexander entered Egypt in November 332, Mazaces sent his fleet to Memphis to serve as an escort.  Alexander, inclined to take some time off from campaigning, founded the city of Alexandria in January 331.  About the same time he journeyed to the oracular temple of Zeus Ammon in the oasis of Siwah.  He returned to Tyre a few months later and by late spring was ready to launch a new campaign against Darius.

Alexander's immediate objective was Babylon. The reorganized force was larger, about 40,000 infantry and 7,000 cavalry.  It reached Thapsacus, on the Euphrates, by early August. Crossing the river, it moved across northern Mesopotamia.  Darius, advancing north with an army of perhaps 200,000 infantry and 45,000 cavalry, decided to wait for Alexander at a plain near the Tigris about 70 miles west of the town of Arbela.  Nearby was the village of Gaugamela.  Alexander arrived toward the end of September.

In view of the disparity in size, Alexander's army was threatened with encirclement as the armies faced each other on October 1, 331.  He set up a second line to deal with any attack on his flanks. He began by leading a cavalry charge on the right. A counter-attack slowed the advance. Expecting a chariot charge to determine the battle, Darius ordered the chariots on his right wing forward.  The Greeks countered the attack with arrows and spears, or opened their lines up to allow the chariots to pass through. The two armies were now fully engaged along the entire line. When Darius sent some cavalry units forward to support his attack, it opened a hole in his line. Alexander, catching sight of Darius behind the gap, led an attack directed at the king.  Darius fled.  Although the Persian center found a hole in the center of the Macedonian line, it failed to press the attack. As it surged forward it focused, not on the Macedonian units on either side, but on the Macedonian baggage camp behind the line, which it managed to reach.  The Persian army continued to fight until it realized that Darius was no longer present, then collapsed.  Macedonian losses are placed at only 500.  Persian losses have been estimated at 40,000 or 90,000. Some estimates have even placed the losses as high as 300,000, although that assumption is based on a Persian force of about a million.

Alexander pursued Darius for a time, then turned his attention to Babylon. It surrendered without a fight. He reached Susa in December 331 and Persepolis in January 330. Late in the spring he advanced toward Ecbatana, where Darius had taken what remained of his army. Rather than fight, he fled east.  Bessus, the satrap of Bactria (now Afghanistan), who had led the Bactrian cavalry at Gaugamela, was among those accompanying Darius.  With Alexander in hot pursuit, Bessus decided that Darius' chances of recovering the empire were slim.  At Thera, he had Darius arrested and proclaimed himself ruler, taking the title Artaxerxes V.  Darius was locked in a wagon. Later, not wanting Alexander to capture him, the conspirators tried to put him on a horse. When he refused to mount, they stabbed, then abandoned him.  He was supposedly found, still alive, by the side of a stream, but died before Alexander arrived.

The Bactrian Campaign

The problem for Bessus was not so much that his claim to the throne lacked legitimacy, it was that he was relying on the Bactrian cavalry to enforce it.  Since Gaugamela they had not seriously challenged Alexander, not even when he left his main force behind in the pursuit of Darius.  Still, any leader making a claim to the Persian throne was a rival Alexander needed to eliminate. The road to Bactria lay through the province of Areia (modern Herat), east of Parthia.  Satibarzanes, the satrap of Areia, initially submitted to Alexander, then, after he left, revolted.  Alexander was forced to march back, this time taking the capital Artocoana.  Satibarzanes fled to Bactria. The capture of Artocoana and the flight of Satibarzanes was enough to ensure the submission of Drangiana, the province to the south.  While at Phrada (the modern city of Farah) Alexander uncovered a plot against him among the Macedonians. His own general Philotas was executed, along with his father, Parmenio.  The city was renamed Prophthasia.  He was close enough to Gedrosia (Baluchistan),  to establish a satrapy with a capital city at Pura.  Approaching Bactria from the south, Alexander moved through the valley of the Halmand River, past Kandahar, where he would establish a city.

Between Alexander's army and the Bactrian capital of Bactra stood the Hindu Kush Mountains.  In the spring of 329 Alexander began moving through the Khawak Pass   Encountering snow in the pass, the army took two weeks to make the journey.  It ran short of food and the soldiers ate fish and their own pack animals.  Unable to find firewood, they ate the meat raw.  The army quickly recovered, once it reached the towns of  Drapsaca and Aornus.  Bessus, expecting Alexander by the Shibar Pass, was unprepared to challenge him.  He fled Bactra and Alexander entered the capital unopposed.

To catch Bessus, the Macedonians would have to cross fifty miles of desert before reaching the Oxus River.  Although they traveled at night to avoid the heat their water began to run out. In violation of regulations, some attempted to quench their thirst by gorging themselves on available oil and wine, which brought on fits of  vomiting. Alexander managed to reach the Oxus and sent water bearers back to save those he could. Many who had somehow survived died when they drank too much and went into convulsions.  Finding that Bessus' opposition had not materialized, Alexander released some of his soldiers to allow them to go home.  Between the desert deaths and the dismissals, Alexander's army had about a thousand fewer soldiers.

North of the Oxus, it is believed that Alexander encountered a settlement of the descendants of a tribe of Greeks called the Branchidae. They had been re-settled from Miletus by Xerxes in 479, a reward, so it was believed, for betraying a temple in Miletus to the Persians.  The town's residents were happy to see fellow Greeks and warmly welcomed Alexander.  In return, he massacred them all, tore down the walls, and destroyed nearby sacred groves, a belated revenge for their betrayal.

Bessus, unable to raise an army, was finding few friends.  Three of the rebels, Spitamenes, Dataphernes, and Catanes, are said to have turned him in.  Alexander would wait until the following year to deal with him.

Alexander pushed north to the Jaxartes (Syr Darya) River.  Not wishing to challenge the nomadic Scythians for control of the steppes beyond, he decided instead to establish the Jaxartes as the frontier, reinforced with a series of fortifications.  Leaving garrisons in already established towns, including 1,000 at Maracanda (Samarkand), he began construction of a new city, named Alexandria Eschate (Alexandria the Ultimate). It proved the spark for a general uprising in Sogdiana, the region behind him. A provisioning party of Greek soldiers was attacked while out gathering supplies; some were killed, others taken prisoner.  The garrisons left behind in Cyropolis and six nearby towns were murdered. Leading the rebellion was one of the leaders who had turned Bessus in, Spitamenes.  Five of the fortresses were re-taken when Alexander came back.  Alexander personally led a force into Cyropolis and many its 15,000 inhabitants were slain.  The last fortress surrendered.  Those who had not been killed were taken as prisoners to the new Alexandria.

Although the garrison at Maracanda was still under attack, Alexander returned to the building of Alexandria Eschate.  To relieve Maracanda, he sent a mixed detachment of infantry and horse.  Tired of the attacks on his city from across the river, he crossed the river and drove the Scythians into the desert.  The success was marred by sickness.  After drinking from brackish springs in the desert, many, including Alexander, came down with dysentery. The Maracanda relieving force had been all but destroyed at the Polytimetus (Zerafshan) (Sogd) River. None of the officers had survived and most of the original force of 2,360 soldiers had been killed.

The destruction had been brought about by an overeager command.  At the approach of the Maracanda relieving force Spitamenes fled west. Believing they could catch and destroy Spitamenes and his army the Macedonians gave chase.  Spitamenes had been reinforced by six hundred Scythian cavalry, who engaged in a series of hit-and-run attacks.  The execution of the attacks was near perfect, for the Macedonians followed them out into the desert without inflicting any serious casualties.  In the heat the formations began to fall apart. None of the three generals, Andromachus, Menedemus, or Caranus, was able to restore order since none had been given total command. As they retreated the Scythians pressed their attack.  A small group managed to reach the river and swim out to an island.  However, the island provided no refuge and all who reached it were shot down.  Those who had surrendered were executed.  The few who did escape to reach Alexander had to make a journey of 180 miles.

It took Alexander just three days to return to Maracanda with his army.  Spitamenes, who had resumed the siege, once again fled.  Alexander pursued to the edge of the desert, then gave up and returned to the battlefield, where he ordered the dead buried.  Rather than organizing a military expedition against Spitamenes, Alexander turned his anger on the population.  Everything in the region was to be destroyed. Villages and towns were attacked and their structures razed.

A measure of the success of  the pacification campaign in Sogdiana can be seen in Alexander's actions at the end of the year.  When he returned to Bactria with his army for the winter, he left just 3,000 soldiers behind in Sogdiana.  While at Bactra (Balkh) Alexander officially dealt with Bessus. He was mutilated by having his ears and nose cut off since, according to Persian custom, only a handsome man could be ruler.  He was probably returned to Ecbatana, where Darius' brother Oxathres had him crucified.  He may also have been killed in another gruesome manner: strapped between two bent saplings, which pulled him apart when they were released.

After wintering at Bactra, Alexander took his army back into Sogdiana in the spring of 328. He had been reinforced by 22,000 Greek mercenaries. He left four brigade commanders, Polyperchon, Attalus, Gorgias, and Meleager, to deal with Bactria, south of the Oxus River. The rest of Sogdiana was assigned to five different commands.  Hephaestion was given the Panj River valley.  Ptolemy took the Vakhsh.  Perdiccas commanded in the Kafirngan, and Coenus was given the Surkhan-Darya.  Alexander himself took the western command, closest to Maracanda.

One of the rebel chiefs, Ariamazes, was found within Alexander's sector, along with 30,000 of his people, seemingly immune in a cavern stronghold high above the plains. He was prepared to defy Alexander and confident enough to taunt him about his defiance.  The Greeks could reach him - if they could fly -  he said. Alexander got 300 volunteers to scale the cliffs. It was a dangerous assignment and thirty may have died in the attempt. Whether the force would  have been sufficient to take the stronghold, the fact that the cliffs had been scaled was enough to intimidate Ariamazes. He surrendered.  Alexander, unimpressed by his defiance, had him crucified at the base of the cliff, along with others deemed to be leaders.  His followers were enslaved.

Alexander and his lieutenants had eliminated the Bactrian leadership and enslaved much of the population, but Spitamenes had still not been captured.  He attacked and massacred a Greek garrison west of Bactra, taking only the commandant prisoner. Following that he raided nearby villages. When he drove off some cattle, the Bactra garrison gave chase.  It proved to be another trap.  The Greek force was either annihilated or suffered heavy losses.

In the wake of the losses, Alexander replaced the satrap of Bactria, Artabazus, with Cleitus, one of his senior cavalry officers.  However, the appointment was short lived.  At a banquet in Maracanda, Cleitus got into a drunken argument with Alexander and Alexander ran him through with a spear.  Amyntas was appointed to replace him. Alexander also changed tactics.  He maintained a large garrison at Maracanda, but dispersed the rest of his force around the villages in Sogdiana.

The tactics allowed the Macedonians to more easily detect and confront Spitamenes.  After attacking a garrison, he found himself facing a large force commanded by Coenus at Gabae.  The Scythian cavalry lost over 800 killed.  Spitamenes nevertheless escaped, along with the surviving Scythians.  However, the losses convinced the Scythians that a continued campaign against Alexander would be a costly one.  They beheaded Spitamenes and delivered the head to Alexander. Other warlords surrendered or were killed. Dataphernes was turned in by the Sycthians. Orsodates was killed by Alexander.  Ariamazes and Sisimithres surrendered.  Perhaps relieved that the campaign was turning out successfully, or, in hopes of placating local leaders, Alexander decided to marry a daughter of Oxyartes - Rauxnaka, or, to the Greeks, Roxane.

If the Bactrian campaign was winding down, tension within the Macedonian camp was rising.  In the spring of 327 B.C., there was another plot to kill Alexander, this time by his pages.  The plan was discovered and the plotters executed.  The nephew of Aristotle, Callisthenes, who was serving as one of Alexander's historians, was not proved to be involved, but was suspected.  Alexander put him to death as well.

Alexander must have felt the situation was enough in hand in Bactria to set his sights on India. In the summer of 327 the army moved out.  To control the region he left a sizable force, 10,000 infantry and 3,500 cavalry.  Another 10,000 Greeks and Macedonians, some retired soldiers, remained there as settlers.  The decision to stay was not entirely voluntary.  One of the Companions, assigned to command a garrison, was executed for refusing the assignment.  For every Macedonian or Greek who wanted to leave for home, there was probably a Bactrian who wanted to remain in Bactria.  Military-age Bactrians were conscripted into the Indian army, some to serve as soldiers, others to be held, quite openly, as hostages.

The Bactrian campaign, between 329 and 327, had cost Alexander about 7,000 soldiers, the greatest number of casualties suffered by his army to that point.  The local inhabitants had endured far more; the number of deaths has been estimated at close to 120,000.

On to India

The advance to India repeated a familiar pattern. Any town or settlement which resisted was eliminated. Hephaestion and Perdiccas were ordered to take part of the army by a southern route, which led past modern Kabul and Jalalabad and over the Khyber Pass, while Alexander took the other part through the mountains to the north.  In December 327 Hephaestion's group reached the Indus, only to have a revolt break out in the region they had just passed through. It was serious enough to require a thirty-day siege of Peucelaotis (modern Charsada) by Hephaestion's force.  Following its capture, the rebel leader, Astis, was executed.

Alexander employed tactics similar to those used in Bactria. One of the first fortified settlements encountered, near Jalalabad, was taken by storm, following which all the defenders were massacred and the town walls razed.  The Aspasians received similar treatment.  When the inhabitants burned their own homes and fled, Alexander had his troops kill any they managed to overtake.  Those not killed were enslaved, to be re-settled as inhabitants of the fortified towns he established.  At Massaga, in the Swat Valley, Alexander first accepted the surrender of 7,000 Indian mercenaries, on the understanding that they would serve in his army, then had them surrounded and massacred. The mountain fortress of Aornus was captured after the Macedonians constructed a raised earthwork.  Many who were not killed by Alexander's men, threw themselves off the cliffs.

Having re-united with Hephaestion, the army crossed the Indus in the spring of 326 BC.  Moving south, it faced its last major opponent, the Indian king Porus, at the Hydaspes (Jhelum) in June.  Porus was unable to prevent Alexander from crossing the river, and lost much of his army - 12,000 were killed and 9,000 were captured - while Alexander lost just 230 cavalry and 700 infantry.  After about a month of rest the army moved east.  At the city of Sangala, the army conducted another siege, resulting in 17,000 Indian deaths and 70,000 prisoners.  Despite the victories, by the time the army reached the Hyphasis (modern Beas) River, it wanted to go home.

Alexander, hoping to at least reach the Ganges, expected to inspire the troops with reminders of shared dangers and future prizes.  If he had in mind the glorified and heroic dangers encountered in battle, his soldiers may have been reminded of the increasing number of non-combat fatalities resulting from snake-bite, malaria, and dysentery. Coenus, one of his phalanx commanders, finally challenged him. Despite all the victories the army had achieved, wasn't there a time to set a limit to the campaign?  Few of the original members of the army were left. While some had died in battle, and others had been retired or assigned to garrison conquered areas, most had died of disease.  The true sign of greatness, he ended, was knowing when to stop.  The next day Alexander tried to shame them by saying he would continue by himself, and those who went home could tell everyone they had allowed their king to face his enemies alone.  Finding, after three days alone in his tent, that the army was still unwilling to continue, he ordered a sacrifice for the river crossing.  The seer, reading the entrails, found them unfavorable. Since the gods were against the campaign, Alexander would have to turn back. Coenus, having frustrated Alexander's plans, became sick and died near the Chenab River in September 326, just as the army was beginning its return journey.

Alexander may have agreed to turn back short of the Ganges, but he was not about to change tactics.  New towns encountered on the return journey were to be conquered.  At one town, hoping to inspire the troops, Alexander climbed a siege-ladder to reach the parapet, followed by three of his guards.  When the ladder broke, the four were stranded on top of the wall.  Alexander fell after being struck in the chest by an arrow, which may have been poisoned.  The panicked army now found the inspiration to attack.  Once inside the city they massacred the entire population.

Alexander paused at the confluence of the Indus and Punjab rivers, to found another city, Alexandria (at the Confluence), then spent nine months sailing down the Indus, to reach Patala (modern Hyderabad) in the summer of 326 BC.  The death toll among the Indian inhabitants encountered along the way was said to be 80,000.

Into the Desert

The Greek historian Arrian, who accompanied Alexander, reported that, when the army ran short of water in the Gedrosian Desert, a soldier found just enough to fill a helmet.  When the helmet was presented to Alexander, he poured it out into the sand.  If there wasn't enough water for his soldiers, then he wouldn't drink either.

The Gedrosian Desert is a strip of coastline on the Arabian Sea in southern Pakistan.  It has also been called the Makran Desert for the Makran (also Baluchistan) Province.  It did support some life, such as black flies and other insects, and poisonous plants and snakes.  There were even people who made it their home - one, the Oreitae, who lived along the edge of the desert; the other, given the name Ichthyophagi, or fish-eaters, by the Greeks, who lived along the coast, subsisting on fish and the occasional whale.

If a lack of water represented the obvious danger for desert travelers, the Gedrosia could also be dangerous for the opposite reason - too much water.  Sometimes downpours in the nearby mountains brought flash floods along gullies, ravines, and dry stream beds. One such wall of water, mud, and rocks hit Alexander's camp one night, carrying away a number of people.  The camp followers were particularly hard hit.

It took about two months, most of September and October 325, for Alexander to cover the 200 miles of desert country.  The initial part of the journey had been relatively easy.  The army followed the coast until they reached the Tomeros River. There the Taloi Range came down to the sea.  Alexander had to turn inland and try to follow what tracks there were.  The guides got lost due to the shifting sands.  To avoid the heat the army began traveling at night.  When the food ran out they ate their baggage animals.  Problems of dehydration and exhaustion were compounded by unsanitary conditions and disease.  Those who fell behind or stopped to rest risked death since the army was too weak to rescue stragglers.  The supply problems had been made worse by the Oreitae who decided to attack a division commanded by Leonnatus, inflicting heavy casualties and killing the recently appointed satrap Apollophanes.  Alexander had ordered him to forward provisions.

The losses suffered in the Gedrosian march are unknown. They may have been as high as three-quarters of the soldiers and nearly all the camp followers.  In numbers, some estimates are that, out of 70,000, as few as 15,000 survived, more than the combined total for all Alexander's campaigns. Those who survived the march were able to rest at a city called Pura, where the satraps had sent provisions.  Alexander and the army moved quickly, once they had recovered. By the early spring of 324 they were back at Persepolis.

A Warning About Babylon...

Alexander survived the Gedrosian journey but began to hear ominous warnings about the future. While at Persepolis, an Indian saddhu (ascetic or holy man) named Calanus, who believed he was dying, decided to end his life quickly by immolation on a funeral pyre.  Before he died, he said farewell to the Macedonian generals, but not to Alexander. He is said to have told Alexander that they would meet again in Babylon.  Just before he entered Babylon, Chaldean astrologers came to him and said he should not go westwards, but turn around and go back to the east.  There were omens of evil if he entered the city facing the setting sun.

Alexander, in the spring of 324, found little time to worry about future events.  He found the administrative structure left behind in need of overhaul. Whether the idea for a purge had been forming while in India or occurred once he returned, he took swift action as he approached the Persian capital.  Astaspes, the satrap of Carmania, the district which bordered the Gedrosian Desert, was executed for failing to provide sufficient help in the desert. Alexander suspected that he was planning to revolt.  At Persepolis what was called a 'reign of terror' began.  The rage which Alexander normally directed at enemy armies now turned inward, to fall on enemies within his own ranks.  Administrators and governors were summoned to account for their administration.

The Greek generals Sitalces, Cleander, Heracon, and Agathon were accused of crimes, such as rape and embezzlement, and executed. Alexander then ordered that 600 of the 6,000 troops under their command be executed as well, the decimation practice adopted by the Romans   The satrap of Persepolis was accused of corruption and hung.  The satraps Abulites and Oxarthes, father and son, were also executed.  Alexander personally killed Oxarthes by grabbing a pike and running him through just after he had offered his accounting.  When the purges had run their course, eighteen of the twenty-two satraps who had been in office in 325 B.C. were gone.  Six had been executed for treason, twelve had been imprisoned.

Harpalus, a boyhood friend of Alexander's, had been placed in charge of the treasuries at Babylon, Susa, and Ecbatana, while the army campaigned in India.  He spent the funds lavishly, building palaces and gardens, and supporting his Athenian concubines.  On hearing that Alexander was conducting a purge, he fled to Greece, along with 5,000 talents and a bodyguard of 6,000 mercenaries.  He was finally assassinated in Crete.

In the late summer of 324 B.C., Alexander assembled his army at Opis, north of Babylon, and announced that 10,000 of his soldiers were being pensioned off. The announcement coincided with the arrival of 30,000 Bactrian recruits, orphans who had been raised and trained to form a new unit in the army, called by Alexander the Epigoni. When members of the old army began booing and heckling him, he jumped off the rostrum and into the ranks, grabbing thirteen of the loudest complainers.  The Persian guard took them out to the nearby river, where they were executed by drowning.

While celebrating a festival at Ecbatana in the fall, Alexander's favorite, Hephaestion, became ill.  According to one version Glaucias, his doctor, ordered him to stop drinking. Later, believing he had recovered, he ate a whole chicken and some wine. The meal proved fatal.  He suffered a relapse and soon died.  There were suspicions that the death was due to more than disobeying an order to limit drinking.  Whether Alexander believed there was a wider plot to poison Hephaestion, his suspicions fell on the doctor. He was crucified, a Persian punishment usually reserved for treachery or treason.

Alexander returned to Babylon in May 323 B.C., with plans for an expedition to circumnavigate Arabia.  Following one of his drinking bouts he became feverish.  After a few days he was too weak to move and had to be carried into Nebuchadrezzar's palace.  He died on June 13th (or June 9th/10th), 323 BC.  He was only thirty-two years old.

The cause of death is not known.  Had the Gedrosian Desert belatedly taken its revenge?  In the world he had created, everyone and everything had a motive for killing him or wanting him dead; only a few had the opportunity.  He had few friends among the conquered people and even his own soldiers had come to hate him. The symptoms suggested everything from malaria, pancreatitis, and leukemia, to typhus, West Nile virus, and alcoholic hepatitis.  Nature had certainly been given ample opportunity to avenge itself.  The last few months of Alexander's life had been spent in and along the canals on the Euphrates, where mosquitoes would have played host to both the malaria organism and the West Nile virus. The symptoms also suggested poisoning, although given his prodigious drinking habits, any poisoning associated with alcohol ingestion could have been self-induced.  Acute abdominal pain, high fever, and extreme thirst are consistent with arsenic poisoning. Arrian and Plutarch both mention that a poison, so corrosive that it could only be carried in a mule's hoof, was brought from Macedonia, and administered to Alexander during one of his drinking bouts. The political turmoil which followed Alexander's death swept away many of the main characters. Roxane is believed to have murdered Alexander's second wife, Stateira, and was herself murdered, along with her son, Alexander IV, in 313 (or 311). Olympias, Alexander's mother, had been executed by Cassander in 315 BC.

Would-be successors tried to gain control of what was left of the Persian Empire.  Ptolemy decided that Alexander's body was one of the greatest prizes, seized it, and removed it to Egypt for burial.  After that, he was content to establish a claim to Egypt alone. In the spring of 310 Antigonus, the One-Eyed, another of Alexander's generals, who had governed Asia Minor, was defeated and killed at the battle of Ipsus (modern Sipsin) by the forces of Lysimachus and Seleucus.  The Seleucid Empire, comprising much of Syria and lands to the east, would later fall to the Parthians. Seleucus himself was assassinated in 280. Lysimachus was killed at Corupedium.  While he was alive, Seleucus had given up claims to the Indian lands (modern Pakistan and southeastern Afghanistan) by acknowledging the sovereignty of the rajah Chandragupta Maurya. He sold the claims for some war elephants.


Suggestions for further reading.

J. B. Bury, S. A. Cook, F. E. Adcock, eds., "The Cambridge Ancient History: Volume VI: Macedon: 401-201 B.C.," Cambridge at the University Press, (London, New York 1964).

Paul Cartledge, "Alexander the Great: The Hunt for a New Past," The Overlook Press, (Woodstock, NY 2004).

Paul Doherty, "The Death of Alexander the Great: What - or Who - Really Killed the Young Conqueror of the Known World?," Carroll & Graf Publishers, (New York, NY 2004).

David Eggenberger, "A Dictionary of Battles," Thomas Y. Crowell Company, (New York 1967).

R. Malcolm Errington, Trans. by Catherine Errington, "A History of Macedonia," Barnes & Noble Books, (New York, NY 1990).

J.E.C. Fuller, "The Generalship of Alexander the Great," Da Capo Press, (Cambridge, MA 1960).

General Sir John Hackett, ed., "Warfare in the Ancient World," Facts on File, (New York 1989).

Victor Hanson, "Warfare and Agriculture in Classical Greece," (Pisa 1983).

Frank Lee Holt, "Into the Land of Bones: Alexander the Great in Afghanistan," University of California Press, (Berkeley, CA 2005).

Archer Jones, "The Art of War in the Western World," University of Illinois Press, (Urbana, IL 1987).

Tom B. Jones, "From the Tigris to the Tiber: An Introduction to Ancient History, 4th ed." Wadsworth Publishing Company, (Belmont, CA 1989).

John Keegan, "A History of Warfare," Alfred A. Knopf, (New York 1993).

Plutarch, "Lives: Alexander"

John Prevas, "Envy of the Gods: Alexander the Great's Ill-Fated Journey Across Asia," Da Capo Press, (Cambridge, MA 2004).

William Seymour, "Decisive Factors in Twenty Great Battles of the World," St. Martins' Press (New York 1988).

John H. Waller, "Beyond the Khyber Pass: The Road to British Disaster in the First Afghan War," Random House, (New York 1990).

John Warry, "Warfare in the Classical World," University of Oklahoma Press, (Norman, OK 1995).

Michael Wood, "In the Footsteps of Alexander the Great: A Journey from Greece to Asia," University of California Press, (Berkeley, CA 1997).