Alexander the Great crossed the Hellespont with his combined Macedonian and Greek forces and stepped upon the shores of Anatolia. His goal was simple: to defeat King Darius III, the last king of the Achaemenids, and conquer the vast Persian Empire. In May of 334 BCE he had his first opportunity when he faced the Persians on the banks of the River Granicus.
After the death of his father Phillip II of Macedonia, Alexander set his sights on the Persian Empire seeking revenge, or so he claimed, for the invasion of his homeland by Darius I and Xerxes decades before. Upon stabilizing rebellious conditions among the various Greek city-states, he crossed the Hellespont and travelled along the northern coast of Anatolia (present day Turkey) avoiding the mountain ranges of the northern uplands to the site of ancient Troy. Little of him was known to the Persians and King Darius felt little or no inclination to meet him, believing, instead, his trusted commander, Memnon, and the local satraps could handle the young upstart. Besides, the newly appointed king was more concerned with possible rebellion and unrest among the local satraps.
He passed the Hellespont, and at Troy sacrificed to Minerva, and honoured the memory of the heroes who were buried there, with solemn libations, especially Achilles, whose gravestone be anointed, and with his friends, as the ancient custom is, ran naked about his sepulcher, and crowned it with garlands, declaring how happy he esteemed him, in having while he lived so faithful a friend, and when he was dead, so famous a poet to proclaim his actions.
While Alexander and his men were at Troy, the Persians held a council of local satraps to discuss the arrival of the young Macedonian and possible strategies to defend against him. Memnon, a high-ranking Greek mercenary loyal to Darius, suggested applying a burned-earth policy -- to destroy crops, farms, and villages -- depriving Alexander of any possible provisions. The local satraps rejected the idea in part because Memnon was Greek but also because they did not want their lands destroyed. The Persians, of course, considered themselves far superior to the invading Greeks. The council decided to put the arriving Macedonians on the defensive by gathering their combined forces and wait for Alexander at the River Grancius. The Granicus was roughly sixty feet wide with both a fast current and steep embankments, providing, what they thought to be, an advantage for themselves.
After receiving word from his scouts of the Persians' location at Granicus, Alexander advanced towards the river; he had come to realize that he must defeat the Persians to gain the necessary resources to continue on his quest of conquering Persia. As the Macedonian forces neared the river, Parmenion, one of Alexander’s most loyal generals and commander of his left flank, advised Alexander they should wait until morning before attacking. Alexander replied, according to Plutarch, that it would “disgrace the Hellespont should he fear the Granicus.” The historian Arrian spoke of this encounter by saying that Alexander realized that the Persians did not fear him because they did not know him. Alexander rejected Parmenion’s plea, the battle would begin that afternoon but would last barely an hour. Although numbers vary among the various ancient sources, modern accounts number the Persians at 10,000 cavalry and 5,000 Greek mercenary infantry. Alexander’s forces numbered 13,000 infantry and 5,000 cavalry.
One unique and problematic situation for the Persians was the positioning of their cavalry on the banks of the Granicus; the Greek mercenary infantry -- 5,000 strong -- was placed behind them. Some historians believe this idea cost the Persians the battle. The Persian cavalry could neither move forward because of the river banks nor pull back because of the location of the infantry. In addition, the one weapon unique to the Persians, the scythed chariot, was almost useless on the muddy riverbank. Was this a tactical error or pure arrogance? Together with the lack of true leadership -- besides Memnon -- the battle was lost before it was begun.
According to Arrian and other sources, Alexander made himself extremely conspicuous both by the “brightness of his arms” and the “respectful countenance of his staff.” He was also quite noticeable by the large white plume on his helmet. This conspicuousness did not escape the Persians whose major objective became to kill Alexander.
For a brief moment, both armies stood across from each other in silence. Alexander had lined his forces on the western banks of the river -- Parmenion commanded the left while Alexander (with his eight bodyguards), his Companion cavalry forces, and light troops stationed themselves on the far right. In the center of the traditional phalanx were the Thessalian cavalry and additional light troops. Alexander became the aggressor sending, from the center, Companion cavalry, lancers and light troops across the river first. The Persians responded with a hail of arrows and javelins. They were intent upon attacking the Macedonians in the water where the footing was slippery and difficult. Memnon himself led the Persian centre. As more Persians joined the attack against the Macedonian centre, attention was drawn away from Alexander. Although causing considerable damage to the attacking centre, the Persian weaponry did not match well against the Macedonians – light javelins versus fifteen foot lances.
Amid the sound of trumpets, Alexander and his men plunged into the water and up the opposing bank diagonally. Arrian wrote:
He himself led the right wing with sounding of trumpets, and the men raising the war-cry to Enyallus, He entered the ford, keeping his line always extended obliquely in the direction in which the stream turned itself aside, in order that the Persians might not fall upon him as he was emerging from the water with his men in column, but that he himself might, as far as practicable, encounter them with a broad line.
Upon arriving on the opposite bank of the river, the fight turned to a hand-to-hand confrontation. Although suffering a number of casualties, Alexander began to gain the advantage, and many of the Persians began to retreat. Throughout the battle, however, the Greek mercenary infantry remained in its position and did not move.
As Alexander rose from the waters of the Granicus, he noticed Mithridates, Darius’s son-in-law, riding with a squadron of cavalry -- detached from the main Persian forces. Alexander attacked, slashing Mithridates across the face. Rhoesaces, a Persian satrap commander, noticed the attack upon Mithridates and raised his sword at Alexander, slicing off part of his plume and cracking his helmet. Alexander quickly ran him through. Spithridates, another Persian commander, raised his own weapon to attack Alexander but Cleitus the Black attacked him first, severing Spithridates’s arm, saving Alexander’s life. With the loss of a number of their leaders, the Persians became disorganized and with morale destroyed retreated.
As the Persians fell back, Alexander, instead of pursuing the retreating Persians, turned his attention to the Greek mercenaries who, in turn, pleaded for mercy. Parmenion with the Thessalians encircled to the left of the Greeks while Alexander and his Companions positioned themselves to the right. Plutarch spoke of this encounter saying:
The mercenary Greeks, who, making a stand upon a rising ground, desired quarter, which Alexander, guided rather by passion than judgment refused to grant, and charging them himself first, had his horse (not Bucephalus) killed under him. And this obstinacy of his to cut off these experienced desperate men cost him the lives of more of his own soldiers than all the battle before, besides those who were wounded.
Of the five thousand Greek mercenaries only two thousand survived, and they were sent to Macedonia to work the mines; the rest were slaughtered. Why did Alexander ignore the pleas of the mercenaries? Some believe he wanted to make a point for their taking Persian money while others say it was mostly anger and the near death experience that provoked him.
The spoils of war -- gold and rich cloth -- were sent home to Alexander’s mother. To honor all who had died in battle Alexander buried both Greek and Persians alike (although the Persians normally burned their dead). According to adjusted modern accounts, the Persians lost ten to twenty percent of their forces and two-thirds of their commanders. Sources concerning Alexander are varied -- twenty-five to thirty Companions -- possibly one hundred twenty in total. Back home, statues honoring the twenty-five fallen Companions were erected at the sanctuary of Zeus at Dium near Mount Olympus. Three-hundred suits of Persian armour were sent home to Athens to remind the Greeks that Granicus were only one step in the war of revenge against the Persians.
After Granicus there was little resistance against Alexander and his forces. Soon, however, he would meet the King of Persia himself. In November of 333 BCE, Alexander and Darius would face each other at Issus.
- Arrian. History of Alexander.
- Cantor, N.F. Alexander the Great: Journey to the End of the Earth. Harper Perennial, 2007.
- MacLean Rogers, G. Alexander: The Ambiguity of Greatness. Random House, 2005.
- Plutarch. The Life of Alexander.
- Sheppard, R. Alexander the Great at War. Osprey Publishing, 2008.
- Tsouras, P.G. Alexander: Invincible King of Macedonia. Brassey's Inc., 2004.