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Alexander's Generalship Notes

Classics Notes > Alexander the Great and his early Successors (336 BC – 302 BC) Notes

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How significant was Alexander's personal skill as a general in his conquest of the Persian Empire?
It cannot be denied that the military success of Alexander's armies in the East was extensive, unprecedented and rapid. However to what extent Alexander's personal skill as a general contributed to this success is something which must be considered; there usually came a point when the great generals of history were defeated, Hannibal at Zama comes to mind, therefore factors other than a single man's brilliance, no mater how great, must have been infuental in ancient warfare. For all Alexander's excellent planning, his ability to react to developing tactcal situatons and his personal courage the infuence of his other commanders, especially Parmenion, the skill and training of his troops, the inferiority of his opponents and a certain degree of luck all contributed to his victories. The best way to assess Alexander's ability as a general as well as these other factors is to examine the four pitched batles he fought and one of his most famous sieges; the Granicus River, Issus, Gaugamela, the Hydaspes River and Tyre. One of the most important parts of any batle is to have an efectve and robust batle plan; Alexander shows himself to be a good general by having one in each of the four pitched batles he fought. The sources (Curtus, Plutarch and Arrian) show him, at the Granicus and at Gaugamela, famously disagreeing with his most senior general Parmenion over the batle plan and always optng for his own, usually more daring plan. Whether this is accurate or designed to blacken the name of Parmenion by making him seem sluggish and cowardly is unclear but it certainly would have been the case that the fnal batle plan would have been lef to Alexander himself, partcularly given the nature of Macedonian kingship, and so success in this area is rightly atributed to him. Firstly at the batle of the River Granicus Arrian says that the frst troops which Alexander sent into batle were the advanced scout cavalry under Amyntas. This seems a strange decision given that they were lightly armed and inferior to the Persian cavalry that opposed them; Arrian confrms that they had a hard tme and sufered losses being outnumbered as they were. However this is not as foolish a decision by Alexander as it may seem because it was probably a tactcal feint designed to draw down the Persian cavalry in disarray from their commanding positon on the bank as they sensed victory over their weak opponents. They would then be much more easily dealt with by Alexander's charge with the companion cavalry which followed shortly afer the scout's atack; this became a tactc which he employed at Issus and Gaugamela also. This batle was relatvely straight-forward and did not test Alexander's true ability as a batleplanner; it did show, however, that he recognised when litle more than a full-blooded charge with the cavalry would suffice and nothing much more subtle than that was required. The batle of Issus was a much sterner test for his abilites to plan and stage a pitched batle on a grand scale as it was the frst tme he faced the full might of the Persian army. He prepared for the batle well by picking the batlefeld and waitng untl Darius came to him and fought on his terms; sensibly he chose the coastal narrows which would prevent the

Persians from using their advantage in numbers to its full potental. Arrian says that he instructed Parmenion to draw up his lef fank as close to the sea shore as possible so that the Macedonians could not be outlanked on that side. He gradually deployed his phalanx as the narrow ground opened up by expanding its length and contractng its depth untl it flled the area; they occupied their normal positon in the centre of the line fanked by lighter infantry, archers and the cavalry on the extreme fanks. The Persians had two signifcant threats to the Macedonian army and Alexander seems to have developed plans to deal with both of them. Firstly the heavy cavalry on their right wing and in order to counter them more efectvely Alexander employed the same tactcal feint as at the Granicus; he sent forward his weak Greek allied cavalry as bait to draw in the Persian heavy cavalry and force them to give up their strategic cohesion and expose their fank to the much stronger Thessalian cavalry under Parmenion. Although the Persians here were said to have fought bravely untl the fight of Darius this tactc was no doubt important in weakening a strong opponent from potentally making a devastatng charge against the lef fank. The other major threat at Issus was the Greek mercenary infantry who, armed in the hoplite fashion, were the only infantry capable of causing trouble for the Macedonian phalanx. To counter this the Macedonian phalanx marched en echelon with the right fank taking the lead; this allowed them to only face a small porton of the hoplite phalanx (which took its strength from driving forward as a unit over the entre length of its front) and to strike at the weak hinge of the Persian line where the hoplites joined the weaker peltasts next to them. This allowed the Macedonian phalanx to outlank the mercenaries and atack both their rear and their side and was ultmately responsible for the victory in this part of the batle; the hundred and twenty losses the pezhetairoi are said to have sufered show the threat the mercenaries potentally posed at Issus and how crucial sound planning and tactcs were to defeatng them. The next great pitched batle against the Persians at Gaugamela was also the last, afer this the campaign descended into smaller skirmishes and guerrilla warfare. Darius had learnt to some degree from his mistakes at Issus and returned with a much more formidable force; he had more mercenary infantry and had many more heavily armed cavalry from Bactria and Sogdiana, which were roughly comparable to Alexander's own companion cavalry and furthermore he had cataphract horsemen from the Saca tribes to the north of the Persian Empire. This tme also Darius choose the batlefeld and dug in with prepared defensive positons which included smoothed areas of ground for his newly acquired detachment of scythe chariots. This also meant that the batle was to take place on a very wide open plain which much more suited the Persian numbers and traditonal strategy of outlanking their opponents on both sides. In order to counter this threat Alexander showed great foresight in lining up his troops with detachments providing mobile infantry protecton on the fanks of the centre phalanx so that if they were outlanked their sides, which were by far the weakest point of the phalanx, would not be exposed. Arrian discusses these defensive preparatons, "Such was the dispositon of Alexander's front line, in additon to which he posted reserve formatons in order to have a solid core of infantry to meet a possible atack from the rear;

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