Ever since his victory at the Granicus, Alexander knew that sooner or later he would have to face the bulk of the Persian army again and more importantly, King Darius in person. In Summer 333 BC, when he had successfully crossed the Taurus Mountains, news reached him that Darius had left Babylon with a huge force of combatants. His army was in slow motion, not only because of its size but also because Darius took his entire retinue with him and an elaborate baggage train. His mother, Queen Sisygambis, his wife and sister Stateira, and their three children accompanied him, together with their servants, ladies from the harem, advisers, physicians, soothsayers, eunuchs, cooks and all those that were part of Persian pomp and circumstance. Darius halted in the plain near Sochi, just east of the Amanus Mountains which run parallel to Turkey’s coastline at the point where it makes a right angle turn to the south. Here he put his army in position and waited for Alexander, but Alexander did not show up.
Unknown to Darius, Alexander was delayed at Tarsus, struck with fever and incapable of moving for several weeks. After he recovered, he set out to clean up the hill tribes of Cilicia and spent time celebrating his victory over Halicarnassus where he had left Ptolemy the year before to finish the siege. It was October by the time Alexander marched to Magarsus the most southerly point between the Seyhan and the Ceyhan Rivers, near modern Karataş, which served as the port for Mallus (possibly near today’s Kızıltahta). It was here that he heard the news that Darius had taken position on the other side of the Amanus Mountains.
The situation now was serious and called for immediate action. Alexander set his army in motion to meet his Persian enemy for this was the battle he had waited for all his life.
Darius’ choice for the location was excellent, but whether he listened to ill-advice from his entourage or became impatient when Alexander did not show up, he decided to move his army in order to confront Alexander. He sent most of his treasury and luxurious paraphernalia of his baggage train to Damascus for safety together with the gear and womenfolk of his officers. Darius’ own mother, wife, and children stayed with him as he started moving north along the eastern flanks of the mountains, which he crossed at the Amanus Pass or Amanian Gate. Alexander meanwhile had moved south along the coast and occupied Issus. By a strange combination of circumstances both armies passed each other unknowingly in the opposite direction and on the opposite side of the mountain range. Alexander had already crossed the pass called the Pillars of Jonah south of Issus when he was informed that Darius was in his back, dangerously threatening his line of supply. Darius had indeed reached Alexander’s baggage train at Issus where the king had left the sick and those unfit for service. It were the mutilated survivors who brought the bad news to Alexander. Yet, he still could not believe the report and ordered some of his companions to ascertain the situation and sail back to Issus. Soon enough they returned to confirm that the Persian army had set up camp along the Pinarus River (modern Payas River), south of Issus.
It is hard to estimate the size of Darius’ army as figures cannot be trusted and differ widely from one source to the other. Some say that the Persians had twice as many soldiers as Alexander – could well be. Whatever the truth, we can be certain that the Persians outnumbered the Macedonians but on the narrow flat between the mountains and the sea this did not really play to their advantage. Darius had set up his forces along the opposite bank of the river, occupying the entire width between the Amanus Mountains and the sea. At his center Darius had posted his Greek mercenaries, to his right on the seaside he placed his cavalry since that flat terrain was most suitable for horses, and at his left, he positioned a smaller detachment of cavalry preceded by slingers and javelin-throwers.
As soon as the news reached Alexander, he immediately jumped into action. First, his men should take a rest and eat. At the same time, he sent a small party to hold the Pillars of Jonah over which he would have to retrace his steps. By nightfall, the signal was given to start the march and when the Macedonians reached the pass around midnight, they were allowed another rest. At first daylight, they resumed their march. At its narrowest part the pass only allowed four men or two horses to pass abreast, but Alexander had his plan all worked out. First to cross the defile were the infantry and as soon as they emerged from the pass and reached more open terrain he instructed them to gradually extend their front line but to keep it coherent at all times. As they reached more open ground, he put every detachment in place between the hills on his right and the sea on his left. The cavalry was last to come across and in a first stage, Alexander split them up between his far left and far right flank. All through the operation, he kept riding back and forth among his troops, speaking encouraging words, holding them back here and moving them closer together there. Both Arrian and Curtius spend many lines describing Alexander’s speeches and personal addresses to his commanders and even to individuals of lower ranks, making sure to touch every man’s pride and to get their mind ready for the battle to come.
The confrontation took place on either the 5th or the 6th of November when daylight is very short. So even with an early start, it would have taken Alexander most of the day to cross the pass. By late afternoon, his army arrived at the Pinarus, ready to fight. What a march this had been! Still, Alexander was in no hurry – the Persians were not going anywhere – and Arrian even says that at times his advance was slow and deliberate, “giving the impression that time was on his side”. He must have tantalized Darius’ nerves! What a masterly control of the situation!
It transpires that Alexander’s approach was a cool-blooded one, taking his time to spread out and to position his troops to face the enemy. He kept on moving forward in line and at a deliberate pace. His Macedonian phalanx at the center was placed opposite the Greek mercenaries in Persian service. Parmenion was in overall command of the left flank at the head of the Greek Allied Cavalry and had to face the heavy Persian cavalry which vastly outnumbered his own forces. He had received clear instructions to keep as close as possible to the waterfront in order to oppose an enemy move that could outflank him. Craterus at the head of his infantry was to stay in touch with him, as were all the other battalions further down the line towards Alexander who occupied the right flank with his Cavalry Companions, as usual. On the bluffs above Alexander were two detachments of Persian light infantry. These Alexander attacked first sending two companies to clear that outcrop that endangered his right back. The enemy didn’t put up much resistance and fled, leaving Alexander with one worry less. Behind the central phalanx, Alexander kept his own mercenary troops on standby, just as Darius had a line of infantry reserves in the back of his attacking line.
Through all these maneuvers, Alexander kept a close eye on his opponent across the river. He noticed that Darius moved his cavalry away from the hills where, because of the broken terrain, they were not of much use. They were instead sent to reinforce his attack on the Macedonian left at the seaside. Till then, Alexander had kept his Thessalian Cavalry with him, but noticing the Persian move, he sent them with all speed to support Parmenion with clear instructions to conceal their move while passing behind the massed Macedonian infantry.
It is not easy to reconcile the accounts of this battle as told by the ancient historians, but it seems that Darius had a sound plan by making the most of his cavalry in the hope to encircle Alexander’s forces and pin him down against the mountains. It makes you wonder whether Alexander had considered this possibility or predicted this to happen, yet the fact remains that his Thessalian cavalry arrived in time to take the Persians by surprise and to charge their cavalry back across the river. It was a fierce fight, and a bloody one beside that, but in the end, it proved that Alexander outmaneuvered Darius.
While the action on his left flank was unfolding, Alexander facing the weak Persian left rushed forward to attack. Arrian tells us that he charged “on the double” across the river but, contrary to the general assumption, this does not mean that he was riding his horse but rather leading his hypaspists across (a matter of translation, I am told). Anyone who stood upriver as I did a few years ago will notice the broken terrain which does not allow a cavalry charge anyway. It is indeed more likely that Alexander sent a detachment of his light cavalry supported by light infantry to hold the enemy at bay while he and his Companions forded the river and were able to form up in their wedge formation. With these elite troops Alexander charged the small Persian forces that opposed him and eliminated them.
Alexander now reached the crucial point of his plan: with the support of his Companions he turned left straight into the Persian center where Darius stood. This is the same maneuver he used at Granicus a year earlier and that he will repeat at Gaugamela and on the Hydaspes!.
The Macedonian center was slower to move across the river, which although rather narrow at their position was very steep, with banks reaching up to 2-4 meter, not the ideal terrain to attack while keeping in formation. The phalanx was pinned down for a while and a gap opened between them and Alexander’s cavalry, exposing their vulnerable side where the Persian attackers were out of reach of the sarissai. Yet by chance or thanks to his exceptional good timing Alexander’s flanking move to the left coincided perfectly with the arrival of his hypaspists under Nicanor and the heavy infantry under Perdiccas and Coenus. As soon as these formations were on the Persian side of the river, Alexander’s remaining elite infantry followed suit and the Greek mercenaries fighting for the Persian king and the rest of the Persian contingents were squeezed in the two-pronged penetration Alexander had thus created between him and Parmenion’s cavalry at the other end of this line. The bloodiest fights may have occurred right here where you had to kill or at least incapacitate the man in front of you to get to the next. Every soldier, it seems was aiming at the Persian King, who in turn was fiercely defended by his own generals.
It is estimated that the battle took no more than an hour, one hour and a half max. It is certain that the shock of the Macedonian joint attack from across the Pinarus was too much for the Persians, who quickly started to retreat. But the retreat was severely hampered by the second line of light-armed soldiers positioned behind the turning Persians, who unaware of what was happening up front, were pushing forward to the battle scene. One can only imagine the onslaught and chaos that occurred when these two forces collided with the Macedonians pushing the fleeing troops in front of them. This is where most of the Persians were killed.
Some sources claim that Darius fled right from the onset of the fight, but it is more probable that he started fleeing only after his wounded and frightened horses began to panic with the piles of corpses piling up around them. The description of a fleeing Darius, leaving behind his chariot as well as his mantle and his weapons is the picture on the well-known mosaic found at the House of the Faun in Pompeii. As soon as the entire Persian army was routed, Alexander set in his pursuit but was cut short when darkness fell.
Had he captured Darius, Alexander would have conquered Persia there and then and the war would have been over. History would have taken a completely different turn, but as the situation was now, another battle was inevitable. Unknown to either king, this was going to be fought on the plains of Gaugamela two years later.
[Click here for more pictures of Issus and the battlefield along the Pinarus River]
[Click here for more pictures of Issus and the battlefield along the Pinarus River]