Saturday, 21 May 2016

The Battle of Granicus: The Bacchic Fury of Alexander

The opening attack at the battle.

On May 22nd, 334 (2,350 years ago), Alexander the Great fought the first of his three great battles against the Persians, the battle at the Granicus River in Asia Minor. The battle reveals Alexander to have been a better leader than a general, with a simple tactical approach that relied heavily on esprit de corps and demoralizing the enemy by pushing him onto the defensive.

With a force of 30,000 infantry and 5,000 cavalry, Alexander was faced by a Persian army of roughly equal size. The Persian army also included a large number of Greek mercenaries, especially in the infantry, so the latter part of this battle was an unfortunate case of Greek fighting Greek.

The early part of the battle was the most difficult, involving a cavalry attack across a deep river with muddy banks. Reading Plutarch's account, one can only imagine that it was the overwhelming aggressiveness of the Macedonians that pulled this off:
"[He] plunged into the stream with thirteen troops of horsemen. And since he was charging against hostile missiles and precipitous positions covered with infantry and cavalry, and through a stream that swept men off their feet and surged about them, he seemed to be acting like a frenzied and foolish commander rather than a wise one. However, he persisted in his attempt to cross, gained the opposite banks with difficulty and much ado, though they were moist and slippery with mud, and was at once compelled to fight pell-mell and engage his assailants man by man, before his troops who were crossing could form into any order. For the enemy pressed upon them with loud shouts, and matching horse with horse, plied their lances, and their swords when their lances were shattered."
It was at this point of the battle that Alexander was almost killed, having his helmet cracked open with an axe. Such excessive courage seems reckless and unforgivable in a commander-in-chief, but it no doubt also helped inspire the heroism of the common soldier that helped to make the Macedonians invincible at this time.

The Granicus River
The cavalry attack also seems to have played a distracting role, creating the opportunity for the Macedonian phalanx to cross the river, where they soon put the enemy to flight; all except for the Greek mercenary force, which made a stand on a hill.

Here again, Alexander can be accused of recklessness, as the Greeks asked for quarter, which he refused, preferring to attack them for what seems like the sheer pleasure of it. In his defence, it could be said that it is always important to enjoy your work, and if you do, you will do well at it, and Alexander was clearly emotionally driven to wage war with an almost Bacchic fury. Another point is that crushing the Greek mercenaries would also serve a useful function, by making them an example and thus demoralizing other Greek mercenaries in Persian service. But sheer blood lust and joy of battle seems to have been the dominant reason Alexander refused quarter.

This part of the battle also involved him in danger. Changing to another horse -- not Bucephalas, his favourite -- he led his men against the Greeks, but had his horse killed under him. Arrian records the grim fate of the Greeks.
"Leading the phalanx against these, and ordering the cavalry to fall upon them from all sides in the midst, he soon cut them up, so that none of them escaped except such as might have concealed themselves among the dead bodies. About 2,000 were taken prisoners."
Plutarch records high casualties on the Persian side (twenty thousand footmen and twenty-five hundred horsemen dead) but very light casualties on the Macedonian side (thirty-four dead in all, of whom nine were footmen), a ration of 66:1. This implies the kind of mismatch in the quality of the troops that only happens when distant cultures come into conflict, but that is not the case here, so the conclusion has to be something more mystical, like a kind of divine fury that Alexander could instill in his troops. It is for this reason that he is called "The Great."

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