Small Wars Journal

The Politics of Decisive Battle: How Alexander the Great Conquered the Persian Empire

Sun, 08/14/2022 - 12:11am

The Politics of Decisive Battle: How Alexander the Great Conquered the Persian Empire

By Andreas Foerster



            The famed historian and military theorist B.H. Liddell Hart wrote in his book Strategy that “It should be the aim of grand strategy to discover and pierce the Achilles’ heel of the opposing government’s power to make war. And strategy, in turn, should seek to penetrate a joint in the harness of the opposing forces. To apply one’s strength where the opponent is strong weakens oneself disproportionately to the effect attained. To strike with strong effect, one must strike at weakness”.[1] That is, a good military commander finds the enemy centre of gravity and attacks it through whatever means that achieves the best balance between ease toward his own forces and devastation towards the enemy’s. In short, the path to victory lay in maximizing one’s economy of force. However, this strategy is not always purely military in nature: continuing on the subject, Liddell Hart states that, in general, “the analysis of war shows that while the nominal strength of a country is represented by its numbers and resources, this muscular development is dependent on the state of its internal organs and nerve system – upon its stability of control, morale and supply”.[2]

Thus, strategy, has three core elements when dealing with the conquering of another state: politics (control), religion (morale) and economics (supply). This paper will seek to demonstrate that this interpretation of war fits perfectly with Alexander the Great’s strategy to conquer the Achaemenid (Persian) Empire. That is, since Alexander the Great knew that he would be outnumbered at least 3:1 throughout his campaigns in Asia[3], he could not conduct a drawn-out campaign of manoeuvre that would quickly drain him of resources, while playing to the strengths of the Persians. Instead, Alexander conducted a political campaign to insert himself into the Achaemenid royal contest by establishing himself as a better candidate than Darius III. Unsure of the enemy’s centre of gravity (will of the population, the three Persian capitals, their navy, their army, the loyalty of the satraps, or the elimination of the king himself), he conducted a campaign to neutralize them all at once. Therefore, Alexander could achieve strategic gain with each successive victory (or even remaining undefeated or stalled in his advance), transferring the resources initially held by Darius to himself. As a result, Darius could not wage a campaign of attrition over time, forcing him into a dilemma: either face Alexander in battle, where the Macedonians had all the advantages except numbers, or avoid battle and watch his empire slowly turn against him. To this purpose, evidence will be laid out in the following order: first, historiographical support for the thesis, followed by Alexander’s politics and its relation to the Clausewitzian Trinity, then Alexander’s popular image amongst the Persians and the Greeks, then the importance of religion and economics, and finally, decisive battle as a political, as well as a strategic tool for Alexander.

            This paper is not the first to argue this interpretation of Alexander’s strategic thinking. However, this view usually came as a part of a greater examination of Alexander’s policies, not a self contained hypothesis in of itself. These historiographical opinions then often looked at Alexander as simply pragmatic, adapting his policy as he went to fit he needs of the moment, with minimal consideration of the young king’s long term plans before a campaign; that is to say, there is no evidence given in these sources that their authors believed Alexander had any sort of master plan.

            For example, when writing on how to best rule a state, Machiavelli uses Alexander as a mere example of a particular situation, but does not elaborate further. He states that it is well documented that Alexander knew much about the Achaemenid Empire’s system of governance, to the point of fascination and admiration.[4] And so, he would have known that the Persian King had several loyal, firmly placed satraps, governors and advisers that were not independent, hierarchical in their assumption of these offices, nor overly ambitious.[5] Therefore, all Alexander needed to do to win them over was: 1) Prove he was a more worthy ruler than Darius III; 2) Seize the majority of the strategically and politically important cities of the empire; and 3) Rally the nobility to his cause by not threatening their way of way, thus preventing any future rebellion, insurgency or arguments. This is very similar to this paper’s thesis, but Machiavelli compared this to similar situations in France during the Hundred Years’ War and pulled from this evidence the idea that ruling is a balance between fear with decisive force and appeasement.[6]

            David Lonsdale on the other hand views Alexander’s actions as contained within the subject of grand strategy, keeping his analysis within a single chapter with that title.[7] However, he follows in the footsteps of Machiavelli, stating “Alexander was certainly a realist. Alexander’s treatment of defeated enemies was always motivated by strategic requirements”, here meaning grand strategy, and “The post-conflict policies that Alexander enacted were varied, and chosen to fit the specific locale. However, there were common objectives to many of his policies. In general terms, Alexander pursued stability, development and exploitation. Stability was clearly important to prevent rebellion or unrest once Alexander and the main army had left an area”.[8]  Lonsdale then concludes that Alexander was moderately successful in this, with the lack of rebellion beyond limited revolts being key to his ability to continually march east.[9]

            Here Lonsdale makes the mistake of reversing the required logic. He is arguing that Alexander pursued stability as a grand strategy, tackling problems piecemeal and as a result, achieved swift, total victories. In actuality, Alexander pursued a grand strategy of victory, for which stability was but a means to an end; that end being the swift and complete subjugation of Asia. Still though, Lonsdale notes a point key to the thesis, even if he does not realize there is still a level in Alexander’s hierarchy of strategic importance: “If we examine stability more closely, we can identify three main areas within which Alexander acted: economics, political organization and religion”.[10] Lastly on Lonsdale, he makes the error of analyzing Alexander’s thinking in parts. This paper will argue that distinguishing so greatly between levels of warfare (tactical, operational, military strategic and grand strategic) with Alexander is not possible, as each flows into one another not like the usual top-down hierarchy.

            Finally, there is the already mentioned B.H. Liddell Hart, who also falls into the trap of piecemeal analysis with a focus on grand strategy, however he did understand the dynamic between the strategic (both grand and military) factors of politics, religion and economics with decisive battle: “If we study a chart of Alexander’s advance we see that it was a series of acute zigzags. A study of its history suggests that the reasons for this indirectness were more political than strategical, although political in the grand strategic sense…he had such justifiable confidence in the superiority of his instrument and his own battle-handling of it that he felt no need to dislocate preparatorily his adversaries’ strategic balance. His lessons for posterity lie at the two poles – grand strategy and tactics”.[11] And so, this paper has much historiographical support behind it, but does not seek to simply repeat the views of those greats gone by, but add a new and original opinion on Alexander to the annals of strategic theory.

            This section will argue that Alexander understood is traditionally called the Clausewitzian Trinity. Alexander understood that “war is but a continuation of politics by other means”. This concept, pioneered by the great Prussian military theorist Carl von Clausewitz, explains that in a war where another state seeks to completely conquer the other for an indefinite period of time, the invaded country will be able to continue fighting so long as the government, people and military all remain intact and/or united against the threat. Like a table, if one leg is broken, the whole structure will collapse. Moreover, if two or all three are weakened greatly, this too will cause a collapse. This is because a government without people has no will power or resources, a people without a government cannot coordinate such power, and either without a military cannot turn these forces into organized violence for the purpose of continued resistance.[12] This section will only cover the first section, but the rest of the paper will touch on the others. In terms of Alexander’s politics, it mostly came in the form of balancing retaining existing political structures with ensuring loyalty through force, or the threat of it. This was done in order to turn the Achaemenid bureaucracy to his side. Thus, quick, peaceful transition of power by the Asians’ own accord would occur once Darius was decisively defeated on the field of battle.

            Lonsdale states that “Alexander was conscious of the need to retain existing political structures as far as possible”,[13] explaining that “At the core of Alexander’s approach to the political organization of the empire was the maintenance of existing local arrangements, albeit with slight amendments. During the early stages of the invasion Alexander ‘placed his own men over the existing satrapies, preserving the Persian hierarchy’…much of the civil administration would be left intact and under the control of local officials. In Phoenicia local kingdoms were retained as quasi-independent states, albeit under the overall rule of Alexander…As a result, after his defeat of Darius at the Battle of Guagamela, Alexander was greeted by citizens of Babylon as a liberator from Persian rule”.[14]

            This was all necessary because, as noted by the historian Ian Worthington:


The sheer size of the Persian Empire – from modern Bulgaria to Pakistan and as far south as Egypt – made it impossible for one ruler to administer it effectively…The size and resources of the satrapy dictated troop numbers and the amount of taxation. Beyond that, satraps were free to rule their satrapies as they wished, and they became wealthy and powerful. There was a very close connection between the satraps and the king…the connection was religious in nature…the cult of Ahura Mazda (Zoroastrian god of light, which the Greeks associated with Zeus) was of utmost importance in the Persian religion, and it was the means by which the king exerted his authority over his satraps and his people.[15]


            In Ionia, there was a deep local hatred for their Persian masters, who had been subjugating the Greek inhabitants for centuries. Alexander knew class and ethnic conflict would be likely once the region was freed, so he replaced the Persian oligarchy with a Greek democracy that answered to him personally. However, he also kept many Persian laws in place and let non-Greeks continue to live there, some of them in their old palaces. Alexander forbade any unauthorized violence within the region on punishment of death, and used his popularity as both a liberator as well as a religious figure to ensure local trust in his leadership.[16] This was not new for Alexander, for he was repeating the policies of his father, King Phillip II, which had been so successful in Greece.[17]

            As noted, before by Liddell Hart, Alexander often targeted his operations against specific cities or areas that had political significance more than any apparent military value such as one that makes for a good base of operations. An example of this is that after the Battle of the Granicus River, Alexander’s first target related to land operations was the city of Sardis, which was the political centre of Lydia. He would then go on to restore the nearby Greek regions to their old ways of life, as discussed above.[18] This was not the only way Alexander won over the local people and their satrap masters. Whenever he conquered a city, the king would usually begin the construction or restoration of temples as well as administrative buildings that merged Classical Greek, Macedonian and Persian architecture, which ended up satisfying all parties, earning Alexander credit with the local people as a builder, instead of an alien conqueror.[19] This would also have the benefit of securing Alexander’s rear, allowing for a relatively stable lines of communications back to his homeland.[20] As noted by the great military thinker Antoine Henri de Jomini, the farther an army marches into enemy territory, the longer its supply lines become. Thus, the invader trades interior lines, for exterior lines of communication, decreasing their ability to maneuver, while increasing that of the enemy. And the ultimate aim of maneuver is to bring the enemy to battle.[21]

            The psychological effects of these political actions combined with Alexander’s proof of martial skill was enormous. It forced nobles to balance the minor risk of supporting Alexander with the great risk of seeing his dark side, which had the following result: During the year 333 BCE, when Alexander outmaneuvered the city of Cicilia’s defenders through a mountain pass to arrive at the gates uncontested, the nobles of the city immediately opened the doors to him and proclaimed their allegiance to his claim to the Persian throne.[22] Moreover, later on in the push into Asia, after Alexander’s victory at the Battle of Issus, with the King of the Phoenecian region of Arad off at sea, his son offered Alexander a golden crown of submission. This was the start of decades of undying loyalty toward the Macedonians.[23] Through this section there has been mention alongside politics of religious, military and economic factors. This is because it is unavoidable and will be a trend throughout any analysis of Alexander’s policies; in short, there is no separating different aspects of Alexander’s strategy, merely finding the one which is the focus of a particular scenario within which he is acting. Alexander’s strategy is a combination of different parts of the trinity working in tandem with one another to achieve his objectives.

            Earlier, it was briefly mentioned how Alexander wanted people to view him as one of two extremes: a kind, caring, heroic and merciful ruler, or a bloodthirsty, cruel madman. This created in his men, generals, allies and foes the need to psychological need to follow him no matter how they viewed him. For if they were to respect and admire him, he would simply be the most logical choice to serve, given that he would work to bring about their benefit. On the other hand, if they view him as a tyrant, they still must follow him because if they don’t, they, their family and their friends will all die slowly, in agony while their homes and religious idols are burned to the ground.

            Some examples of this are as follows: first, before Alexander had even invaded Asia, he had learned from his father to use these methods to ensure the continued subjugation of Greece. Within his campaign to put down revolts against Macedonian hegemony, Alexander’s sacking of and brief reign of terror in Thebes almost immediately crushed the will of the Greeks to fight on. Thus, when Alexander left for Asia, all of Greece remained submissive.[24] During his campaigns, Alexander always forbade his troops from looting, treated satraps with respect and showered them with gifts or positions of authority. He would also use “stealth taxes” so as to keep the majority of the Asian population from uniting in protest over such new sanctions that technically didn’t exist, given that Alexander often promised to rid the conquered peoples of oppressive Persian taxes. If locals did end up finding out, leading to protests, Alexander would burn their village to the ground and slaughter anyone in that area, men, women and even children. At that point, Alexander’s soldiers could have their way with the locals, in addition to the already established privileges of never paying taxes, as well as receiving numerous titles, honours and offices with each new region conquered.[25]

            Moreover, Alexander would leave Macedonian generals, administrators and troops under their control behind in conquered regions to oversee a satrap or work alongside them, depending on how much Alexander trusted them. These forces loyal to Alexander served the purpose of threatening, or executing, a violent response to disobedience to Alexander’s will, the horror of which by the time the Macedonians got deep into Asia was well known by all.[26] However, this power and independence given to subordinates was limited, as Alexander worked hard to ensure it was only by his order that drastic action be taken by anyone associated with him. Thus, Alexander was just as brutal dealing with misdeeds by his own subordinates as those he conquered, executing thousands for looting, rape, murder, disrespect to local customs and suspicion of planning a conspiracy against him. Not even Alexander’s closest advisors were safe from his wrath. As a result, most under his command, Macedonian or otherwise, viewed Alexander either as a fair ruler, feared him too much to rebel, or were dead.[27]

            Alexander’s mercy for the conquered even went as far as to penetrate into the minute realm of municipal demographics:


An ingenious policy seems to have begun with Alexander, whereby royal favourites who were rewarded with country estates were now forced to attach them to the ‘free’ territory of a Greek city and become its honorary citizens. The result was a system of local patronage. Under the Persians, such land grants had been made without restrictions and created a provincial baronry free from the kind, or a class of absentee landlords, free from their locality. Alexander and his successors arranged that their favourites should be local citizens, able to report and maintain their king’s interests in city affairs, while the Greek cities gained a rich local benefactor and an added acreage of land. By tying country estates to city life, a balance of interest was struck, and it lasted.[28]


            Understandably, Alexander feared how insurgencies and sieges could slow down his thrusts into the heart of the Achaemenid Empire, as well as harm his reputation as invincible in battle. As noted, before, this too would have the effect of exhausting his already thin lines of communication. As a result, Alexander went to great pains to avoid these scenarios, as explained by Worthington:


In Pamphylia an attack on Alexander’s men by the inhabitants of Pisidia wounded and killed a number of them. In retaliation he besieged their fortress, but to prevent capture 600 of the defenders burned their families alive in their houses and stole through the Macedonian position one dark night. The town of Perge and Aspendus surrendered as Alexander approached them, but the people of Aspendus changed their minds when he demanded money and the horses they lored for Darius…The Aspendians refused and barricaded themselves in their town’s citadel. When Alexander threatened them with a siege they capitulated, handing over their horses and paying double the indemnity he had first stipulated. To ensure their passivity he took some of the citizens as hostages, installed a garrison…Alexander could not afford for the towns he subjugated to revolt…his treatment of Aspendus, like that of Thebes and Miletus, was intended to send out a warning message.[29]


            Concerning insurgencies, Fuller notes that Alexander had in Asia “a policy to win the war through reconciliation”[30], giving the following example: “in order to pacify the conquered territory of Helles-Pontine-Phrygia before he moved on, he ordered those who had fled to the mountains to return to their homes, and he acquitted the people of Zela of blame, ‘because he knew that they had been compelled to assist the Persians in the war’ – a remarkable act of moderation for a conqueror of any age”.[31] After taking Cilicia, Alexander rushed to save Tarsus from being burned and abandoned.[32] Obviously, the main objective was to secure an intact forward base of operations, but as a result the people would naturally have been grateful to have their home saved, as well as liberated. Also, with their homes gone, the people may very well have fled into the nearby mountain ranges and conducted a guerrilla campaign against Alexander, or possibly migrated into another populated area, causing untold political, economic and stability problems that Alexander did not have the time or resources to deal with.

            Lonsdale goes into great detail in an elaboration of such policies by Alexander, which makes for a fitting conclusion to this section:


Alexander netted other benefits from the manner of his political organization of the empire. Mithrines, the Persian who had previously surrendered the city of Sardis to Alexander, was made satrap of Armenia. To the Persian elite, such examples of Alexander’s favour gave out a clear message. Those who peacefully surrendered cities to Alexander, thus sparing him from lengthy and costly sieges, would be rewarded. Alexander, clearly conscious of his limited military resources, did not wish to fight for every inch of land. If he could encourage existing Persian local rulers, through the reward of governship, to capitulate without fighting, this was to be welcomed. In fact…such a result was forthcoming at Susa, one of the three Persian capitals, where the city was handed over by its satrap, Abulites, without a struggle. By minimizing disruption to the political fabric of the empire, Alexander was also cementing his legitimacy in the eyes of the Persian governing class. The Macedonian conqueror was not bringing political revolution to the empire, he was merely replacing Darius as king.[33]


            Though it is highly debated, many historians believe that Alexander encouraged people to deify him because he intended to play on the religious and political views of the Orient, thus securing his rule once Darius, along with his armies, were taken care of.[34] This section will argue that this is indeed the case. Wherever Alexander went, he was careful to follow the regional religious traditions and laws, as opposed to the Achaemenids, who’s fanatical theocracy had blinded them to the need to appease the millions under them who were just as devoted to their own unique religious beliefs. This resulted in locals despising their rulers, viewing them as infidels, as opposed to Alexander, who was immediately embraced, as much as a true religious figure as simply a change from centuries of oppression.[35]

            The regions of Western Asia were filled with influential magi whose allegiance was often to no one but themselves and who the Persians could rarely control. Many locals viewed these people as their true leaders, instead of the administrators placed in power by the empire. When Alexander invaded, he immediately started a campaign to win their trust.[36] Noted expert on Alexander the Great, Robin Lane Fox describes well the great pains Alexander would go to in order to satisfy these magi, as well as to create a religious image of himself to all (Greeks and Asians both):


In spirit, Alexander made a gesture to the Lydians’ sensitivities…climbing the heights of the acropolis which still towers split in half above the tombs of the old Lydian kings in the plain below, Alexander…considered building a temple to Olympian Zeus on its summit, but thunderclaps broke from the summer sky and rain streamed down over the former palace of the Lydian kings: ‘Alexander considered that this was a sign from the gods as to where his temple to Zeus should be built and he issued orders accordingly’. At this omen from Zeus the Thunderer, thoughts of a temple on the site of former domination gave way to a generous recognition of the Lydian kings, suppressed by the Persians for the past two hundred years, and diplomatically Alexander had more reason to choose the latter than obedience to a shower of rain”.[37] Lane Fox does think on how all of this may have been a ploy by Alexander to play on the religious sides of both peoples he ruled over, demonstrating first that he cared for satisfying the Greek gods, but then prioritizing satisfying local religious beliefs. Thus, he hit two birds with one stone, resulting in Ionians and Phoenicians treating Alexander as a living god from thenceforth.[38]


            Another great example of this kind of policy is when, during the siege of Tyre, the inhabitants of the city believed Alexander was a punishment sent by the god Apollo. Alexander did nothing but encourage this, speaking of dreams he had where the demi-god Heracles called on him to fulfill his destiny and follow his footsteps by conquering Phoenicia. He also let several Greek and Asian seers make bold proclamations about Alexander’s invincibility in battle, heroic heritage and connection to Apollo. This aided in Tyre’s eventual surrender, and when this happened, messages were sent to the rest of Asia that the wrath of the gods was coming in the form of Alexander.[39] This was not Alexander’s only attempt at religious propaganda though. Alexander used the prophecy of the Gordian knot to proclaim himself the true ruler of Asia, the story of which quickly spread throughout the land and caused mass religious upheaval. This was not any ordinary political message, but for many a dictate from the heavens that Alexander’s victory was not only right, because the gods willed it, but inevitable, because the gods willed it.[40]

            Alexander also showed his respect for local customs through the important act of sacrifice: “At Memphis Alexander sacrificed to Apis and other gods, a political act of high importance that made a profound impression on the Egyptians”.[41] The young king also understood that each capital of a region in Asia was the religious, as well as political centre of that area in question, further reinforcing the need for him to focus on the seizure of these locations over any other.[42] Once entering these cities, Alexander would immediately begin establishing a religious connection with the area, its people and his role as their new king. To do this, Alexander adopted the Persian tradition of Proskynesis, which involved subjects of the king of kings “paying homage to the king by kissing his hand and bowing”. In Greek society, this was only done to honour one of the gods.[43] Therefore, Alexander sought with this maneuver to both establish himself as the new king of the Persian Empire, but also to establish himself among the Greeks as a living god.

            Sometimes Alexander took this image to extremes. For example, upon entering the famous city of Troy, Alexander entered the local temple to Athena. In this temple were the bones thought to have belonged to Achilles, who Alexander believed was his ancestor. After sacrificing to Athena, the king did something startling: “Alexander swapped his own shield for that of Achilles, a move that went beyond the mere familial piety to identifying himself with his ancestor and Homeric hero. Alexander was already seeing himself as a young Achilles and intended his invasion to put him on par with the Homeric warriors – a desire that underscored many of his personally risky actions in Asia”.[44] Therefore, even Alexander’s actions of bravery in battle too had religious ramifications. Cults of Homeric heroes were common throughout Greece and Asia, including many of the magi mentioned earlier. These men and women had been prophesizing the return of Achilles and Heracles to Asia for generations.[45] Because of this, it is not a surprise that the man often wore the attire of Heracles and attempted to repeat actions or large events from the scripture of the ancients, both Greek as well as Asian in origin, nor a surprise that he took with him everywhere he went on official royal prophet named Aristander, whose advice he would often listened to more than his military advisers.[46] Lastly, it also not a surprise that upon invading most areas of the empire, especially in Iran, the people were usually not bothered by the minor political changes by Alexander so long as they retained their religious independence.[47]

            The last element in Alexander’s all-encompassing strategy was the targeting of the Asian economic system. The economic policies of Alexander existed in three categories: 1) the build up and improvement of his armies through recruiting locals, so as to deal with the threat of being cut off from his lines of communication back across Asia, which came through the sustaining of good relationships with the people he conquered as detailed in previous sections; 2) the use of seized money and resources to fund these armies; and 3) the establishment of new cities where Greeks could settle, so as to ensure long term stability in the region.

            Because of Alexander’s policy of recruiting people from conquered areas, he was not only capable of replacing his casualty rates, as well as the troops he had to leave behind in city garrisons, but eventually increasing his army’s strength to 120,000 strong by the time he invaded India.[48] In fact, from Babylon and Susa after the Battle of Guagemela, Alexander would acquire over 10,000 men for his army, then when he moved on to the Persian gates and Persepolis, he gained 40,000 infantry and 700 elite Persian cavalry.[49] Alexander’s incorporation of different types of warriors, technology, cultures and fighting techniques into his army greatly enhanced its flexibility. For example, Alexander would add thousands of Persian light infantry as well as Iranian and Bactrian light cavalry that would later aid in his battles in India by fixing enemy heavy infantry or elephants so the Companion cavalry could then surround them.[50]

            As for seizing goods from areas, though Alexander was cautious in taking too much or letting his men ravage the area as conquerors usually did the detraction of their campaign, he still enforced his right as the true lord of Asia to take what he wanted from his new subjects. For example, when he sacked Babylon and Susa, he acquired 50,000 talents. From the Persian Gates and Persepolis, he gained 120,000. Finally, 6000 more would be taken from Pasargae, who essentially handed it over by their own volition as part of their swift and peaceful surrender of the city to Alexander once he arrived at their gates.[51] Furthermore, the coastal regions of the western half of the Persian Empire minted much of Asia’s coins, and so when Alexander seized them, he crippled the alliance of different regional satraps through inciting economic upheaval and damaging the wealth of those nobles who chose to remain loyal to Darius, all while strengthening his own funds for his war effort (to the detriment of Darius’ own treasury).[52] Lastly, as the centre of grain distribution to most of the known world, Egypt was key to keeping the Persian Empire united. There are no stable alliances of extremely different states that are desperate to feed their own people. This is probably why Alexander sought to capture Egypt so early in the invasion, diverting so greatly in his march through the western half of the Persian Empire.[53]

            Finally, Lonsdale provides a useful summary of Alexander’s economic policies:


The objective of development can be seen primarily in the many cities founded by Alexander. Cities were designed to foster economic, social and political development. The larger aim was to establish a durable empire, constructed from an amalgamation of Hellenic and Persian elements. Finally, the use of the term ‘exploitation’ is not meant to imply Alexander ruthlessly, and without forethought, raped the empire of its riches. Rather, it refers to the fact that Alexander often saw the advantages of winning over potential enemies to serve his interests. One benefit of such actions is the potential for absorbing their resources and forces into your own. This reflects the advice of Sun Tzu and was something Alexander achieved on a number of occasions. In fact, in the later stages of his campaigns, the majority of Alexander’s forces had been recruited from within the Persian Empire.[54]


            All of the policies laid out above would be pointless if not for this key aspect of Alexander’s master plan for the conquering of Asia. Everything Alexander did was to create a scenario whereby he could, as quickly as possible, bring Darius to battle. Darius could then be killed, captured or at least humiliated, which would seal the nail in his coffin, as this would be the last piece of proof for the nobles, people and religious figures of Asia that Alexander was more worthy for the throne. Alexander knew that he had a near unbeatable army and that he was a far superior tactician than Darius or any general the king of kings could throw at him. However, this was not the same case at sea, where Alexander understood he and his society were weak, while the Persians were strong, and so attempted to avoid such a scenario at all costs. Also important, is that Alexander approached warfare with a Clausewitzian philosophy of decisive battle, acquiring territory and destroying the enemy army in mind, which the Greeks had always been formidable in. The Persians, on the other hand, were more Jominian, preferring manoeuvre warfare.

            If anyone were to doubt Alexander’s knowledge of and care for the destruction of strategic, as well as tactical command and control (C2), they should consider the following exert from Victor Davis Hanson’s acclaimed book Carnage and Culture: “If this new and sudden report from Parmenio was true – that more than a mile away to his left and rear his old marshal was about to be annihilated – then there could be no pursuit of the Achaemenid king, no further anything until his own army behind was secure. It was bothersome for the triumphant Alexander to turn around 180 degrees and ride back into the swarm of interlocked horsemen to save his senior general. The historian Curtius says that Alexander ‘gnashed his teeth in rage’ at the very thought of breaking off his pursuit”.[55] The risk of the whole battle itself also makes this fact evident, because defeat at Guagamela would mean for Alexander being stranded “nine hundred leagues from Macedonia”, as supply lines were stretched so thin.[56] Now, Parmenio’s error had possibly turned Guagamela from the point from which the Persian Empire would collapse, to another influential devise for Alexander to achieve this eventual end. Alexander had long claimed to his generals that there could be no victory, no official assumption of duties as the king of kings, without Darius being dead or in his custody.[57] Thankfully for Alexander though, “although Darius had escaped, he had been so decisively defeated at Guagamela that the battle made Alexander de facto, if not de jure, the king of kings.” This led to the swift fall of Babylon, Persepolis and Parsagae, all of them proclaiming Alexander their new king.[58]

            This was not the first time that Alexander had sought a decisive battle in Asia. At the Battle of Granicus River, exhausted from marching ten miles that day and having to attack uphill, across a river and straight into dense, well positioned defences, the Macedonians still won crushingly. The numerically superior Persian army was slaughtered as the Greek hoplites, phalanxes and companion cavalry sliced through the enemy ranks of far inferior troops.[59] Afterwards, the main body of armies stationed in Western Asia collapsed, the Persian general Memnon lost his revered position among Darius’ staff and exaggerated rumours quickly spread throughout the empire of Alexander’s martial skill and military genius.[60]

            In Phoenicia, Alexander quickly turned to neutralizing the Persian navy, focusing his energy on Tyre, for it was the main naval base for the enemy, crippling the latter’s ability to effectively use their navy against him for much of the rest of the war.[61] Lonsdale agrees that by seeking to neutralize or destroy the Persian fleet through land operations alone, Alexander was keeping to his strengths while avoiding his weakness at sea. This also aided in keeping his lines of communication intact.[62] Though the fall of tyre was by siege, it can still be considered a decisive battle given its results. Afterwards, when Memnon took 300 warships, almost all of what remained of the Persian fleet, on a massive raiding operation along Asia’s west coast, Alexander would not be goaded, ignoring him and continuing onward into Iran.[63] Most of these ships would later be destroyed by storms, dissert their posts or defect to Alexander’s side.[64] Also as a result of these events, and especially Granicus, all the satraps and governors looked to Darius for a clear sign of leadership. And so, knowing he was being tested, Darius refused to listen to his Greek advisers, even Charidemus, who had served as a general under Alexander, or even give any of them further command positions. In fact, this would lead him to refuse to split his army or continue a policy of Jominian manoeuvre warfare, thus doubly playing into Alexander’s hands.[65]

            In any confrontation between two or more parties, but especially in war, the person who takes the initiative will be victorious. This is because whoever takes the first intelligent, decisive action, will force their opponent to react to that move. From there, the first person can dictate in advance how the confrontation will be played out, in terms of the environment more than anything else. Also, this gives the first person to attack the weakness of the opponent, while they cannot do the same in return, because they first must defend themselves. This creates options for the attacker, leading to countermoves that can target numerous points of importance, maybe even their centre of gravity, while the defender falls into a cycle of constantly defending and reacting to their opponent until they eventually fail, then are defeated. Such is how it determined whether one is on the strategic offensive or defensive; one may be tactically attacking or defending, but this does not necessarily mean that the same is the case on the strategic level.[66]

            As explained by Clausewitz, “The original means of strategy is victory – that is, tactical success; its ends, in the final analysis, are those objects which will lead directly to peace…Insofar as [a tactical battlefield victory] is not the one that will lead directly to peace, it remains subsidiary…”.[67]. Therefore, “Defence without an active purpose is self-contradictory both in strategy and tactics”,[68] because given the nature of strategy, “Only the general who imposes his will can take the enemy by surprise”.[69]. A good commander, then, first and foremost understands that “In war, the will is directed at an animate object that reacts”.[70] This principle necessitates that a complete avoidance of distractions from the most economical path to the enemy’s centre of gravity, while ensuring they cannot do the same to you. Simplicity and adaptation, therefore, are key to success: “War plans cover every aspect of a war, and weave them all into a single operation that must have a single, ultimate objective in which all particular aims are reconciled. Not one starts a war – or rather, no one in his senses ought to do so – without first being clear in his mind what he intends to achieve by that war and how he intends to conduct it. The former is its political purpose; the latter is its operational objective. This is the governing principle which will set its course, prescribe the scale of means and effort which is required, and make its influence felt throughout down to the smallest operational detail”.[71] In short, by constantly keeping to his own strengths and targeting Darius’ weaknesses, Alexander was able to trap his enemy into an indefinite state of strategic defence, no matter what they did at the tactical level. The only way for Darius to transition from tactical to strategic success was to defeat Alexander in a decisive battle. However, as already noted, such a decision would stack the deck in Alexander’s favour.

            Few commanders understood the above concepts better than Alexander. Alexander wished to never be limited in his ability to march, whether it would be because of supply trains or the harsh climate. He wanted to be able to strike important targets before being strategically outmaneuvered by the vast armies of the Persians. Therefore, even if his lines of communication were compromised, he was still threatening the cities and ports so important to the stability of the empire. Thus, on every campaign, Alexander put Darius into a position where he would always lose something valuable, no matter his decision, while also tempting Darius into a policy of confrontation with Alexander for a final, decisive battle before theoretically Alexander simply walked into each regional capital of the empire.[72] Alexander knew that by taking a direct approach toward the societal centre of each region he invaded, his enemies would not be able to outmaneuver him very far from his army, unless they wanted to risk him escaping after burning a city to the ground instead of seizing it. This would then allow Alexander to engage them in battle, which was his ultimate aim. This is why when leading up to the Battle of Issus, though he was surprised, Alexander was hardly alarmed when Darius outflanked his camp and captured his rear guard, severing his connection to his allies on the coast, using the opportunity to defeat Darius himself in battle.[73]

            As the campaign progressed, this dilemma imposed on Darius by Alexander became ever more serious. As Worthington states, “The Great King was a diplomatic and military leader and was expected to prove himself in both areas”, meaning eventually Darius would have to engage Alexander’s tactically brilliant army. Lane Fox further illuminates Alexander’s psychological hold over Darius: “On receiving news of the invasion, the Persian high command met to discuss their possible tactics. There were two alternatives: either confront Alexander directly or else burn the crops in his path and hope to repel him through lack of food. The second plan was Memnon’s…there were deep objections to his policy. He was asking the satraps to burn a land which was highly productive; besides, they and their fellow Persians had taken the best of the estates”[74] And so, Darius was just as hopeful for a decisive battle for the Persian throne. He thought that he could set a trap and then overwhelm Alexander with sheer numbers, but he was just playing into the young conqueror’s hands.

            And this policy of decisive battle was not new for the Macedonians. It was a part of their very culture. The Greek city states had been fighting honour based pitched battles to decide their wars for centuries, and by the 4th century BCE, Macedonia under Phillip II had conquered them all through the perfection of this unique way of war. The Macedonian military machine adapted phalanx and hoplite warfare by lengthening the spear, creating more light, flexible armour as well as intermixing cavalry and light infantry with the usual heavy infantry. Greeks, and especially Alexander, as a result, were always ready and willing to offer battle.[75] They prepared their whole lives for every tactical scenario imaginable.[76] When Greeks campaigned, wherever they meant to make camp, they scouted the area for a suitable tactical zone, because they wanted to be always ready for battle, preferring if they could to stay and fight instead of retreat.[77] Alexander and his generals were so eager for battle upon crossing the Hellespont that they sent out messages to the whole land challenging anyone to meet them on the field, sacrificing the little surprise they had in their invasion.[78]

            Alexander beat every opponent he ever faced through different versions of the same tactics: hammer and anvil – Alexander would create a gap in the enemy line through some ingenious method with his cavalry, while his flanks were held by hoplites and heavy cavalry. Once the enemy cohesion was disrupted, Alexander’s phalanxes would rip through the enemy infantry or surround them, leading to a whole-sale slaughter. The two key components to victory were always Alexander’s genius and the unstoppable force/immovable object that was the Macedonian heavy infantry.[79] When fighting the Persians, Alexander knew that the only infantry that could even stall his hoplites and phalanx, let alone stop them, were fellow Greeks serving as mercenaries for Darius. After Granicus and Issus, these groups had been completely destroyed.[80] Therefore, at Guagamela, the slaughter was even more prominent, especially around Darius, where Alexander concentrated his assault. This was not just because of the strategic factors revealed previously, but the fact that once separated from their C2 placed in the centre of the ranks, the massive hordes of Persian troops became a disorganized mess that could not make use of its great numerical superiority. When Darius fled and the satraps were killed or captured (this being another benefit for Alexander, because it meant the nobles most loyal to Darius would not be left aloof in the empire to harm Alexander’s succession to the throne), the Persians simply gave up or fled themselves. This was because their only reason for fighting as conscripts for the king was fear and respect out of the idea that he was a living god, which at this point would obviously be shattered forever.[81]

            In conclusion, Alexander the Great had a master plan for invading the Persian Empire. This was to replace Darius III as King of Kings by proving himself more worthy of the throne. This was done because Alexander understood that he did not have the time or the resources to achieve victory simply through the acquisition of territory. His strategy for winning the throne was a fluid one, having the different levels of military analysis work in tandem. These were as follows: politics, psychology, religion, economics and decisive battle. In short, Alexander sought to and ultimately accomplished the feat of turning Darius’ empire against him, allowing Alexander a relatively swift and peaceful transition into power that retained the existing empire, ensuring a strong forward base from which he could continue on conquering until he died. Given the evidence presented by this paper, it can only be concluded that Alexander was a military genius in every sense of the word. Any scholar studying the nature of victory and defeat in ancient warfare should take note of these strategic principles put into practice by Alexander. Even more importantly, those today who wish to practice the art of war would be wise to apply these principles to their own actions.



[1] B.H. Liddell Hart, Strategy: Second Revised Edition (New York: Penguin Group Publishing, 1991), 212.

[2] Ibid, 213.

[3] Victor Davis Hanson, Carnage and Culture: Landmark Battles in the Rise of Western Power (New York: Random House., 2001), 77.

[4] Niccolo Machiavelli, The Prince (London: Roads Publishing, 2014), 41.

[5] Ibid, 42.

[6] Ibid, 42-43.

[7] David J. Lonsdale, Alexander the Great: Lessons in Strategy (London: Routledge, Taylor and Francis, 2007), 43.

[8] Ibid, 46.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Liddell Hart, Strategy, 19-20.

[12] Thomas Waldman, “War, Clausewitz and the Trinity”. Department of Politics and international Studies. University of Warwick, June 2009, 17-20.

[13] Lonsdale, Alexander the Great: Lessons in Strategy, 47.

[14] Ibid, 48.

[15] Ian Worthington, By the Spear: Phillip II, Alexander the Great and the Rise and Fall of the Macedonian Empire (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014), 142.

[16] Lonsdale, Alexander the Great: Lessons in Strategy, 50.

[17] Ibid, 53.

[18] Liddell Hart, Strategy, 20.

[19] Lonsdale, Alexander the Great: Lessons in Strategy, 54.

[20] Liddell Hart, Strategy, 21.

[21] Hew Strachan, European Armies and the Conduct of War (London: Routledge, 1983), 60-65.

[22] Robin Lane Fox, Alexander the Great (London: Allen Lane, 1973), 155.

[23] Ibid, 178.

[24] Joseph Roisman; Ian Worthington, A Companion to Ancient Macedonia (John Wiley & Sons, 2010), 199.

[25] Lonsdale, Alexander the Great: Lessons in Strategy, 46-47.

[26] Ibid, 48.

[27] Ibid, 57.

[28] Lane Fox, Alexander the Great, 140-141.

[29] Worthington, By the Spear, 158.

[30] J.F.C. Fuller, The Generalship of Alexander the Great (Westport: Greenwood Press Publishers, 1960), 91.

[31] Ibid, 91-92.

[32] Lane Fox, Alexander the Great, 156.

[33] Lonsdale, Alexander the Great: Lessons in Strategy, 49.

[34] Paul Davis, 100 Decisive Battles, from Ancient Times to the Present: The World’s Major Battles and how they Shaped History (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999), 31.

[35] Lonsdale, Alexander the Great: Lessons in Strategy, 54-55.

[36] Lane Fox, Alexander the Great, 126-127.

[37] Ibid, 128.

[38] Lane Fox, Alexander the Great, 130.

[39] Plutarch, The Parallel Lives (Cambridge: Loeb Classical Library, 1919), 299.

[40] Worthington, By the Spear, 159.

[41] Fuller, The Generalship of Alexander the Great, 105.

[42] Worthington, By the Spear, 143.

[43] Lonsdale, Alexander the Great: Lessons in Strategy, 55.

[44] Worthington, By the Spear, 141.

[45] Lane Fox, Alexander the Great, 152.

[46] Ibid, 150.

[47] Ibid, 141.

[48] Lonsdale, Alexander the Great: Lessons in Strategy, 56.

[49] Fuller, The Generalship of Alexander the Great, 109-111.

[50] Lonsdale, Alexander the Great: Lessons in Strategy, 56.

[51] Fuller, The Generalship of Alexander the Great, 109-111.

[52] Lane Fox, Alexander the Great, 116.

[53] Liddell Hart, Strategy, 21.

[54] Lonsdale, Alexander the Great: Lessons in Strategy, 46.

[55] Hanson, Carnage and Culture, 64-65.

[56] Ibid, 66.

[57] Davis, 100 Decisive Battles, from Ancient Times to the Present, 33.

[58] Fuller, The Generalship of Alexander the Great, 109.

[59] Lane Fox, Alexander the Great, 120-121.

[60] Ibid, 119.

[61] Plutarch, The Parallel Lives, 297.

[62] Lonsdale, Alexander the Great: Lessons in Strategy, 60.

[63] Lane Fox, Alexander the Great, 154.

[64] Ibid, 157.

[65] Ibid, 156.

[66] Liddell Hart, Strategy, 322-337.

[68] Ibid, 600.

[69] Ibid, 200.

[70] Ibid, 146.

[71] Ibid, 579.

[72] Ibid, Alexander the Great, 143.

[73] Worthington, By the Spear, 165.

[74] Lane Fox, Alexander the Great, 118-119.

[75] Hanson, Carnage and Culture, 65-70.

[76] Ibid, 70.

[77] Worthington, By the Spear, 164.

[78] Lane Fox, Alexander the Great, 116.

[79] Hanson, Carnage and Culture, 72-74.

[80] Ibid, 70.

[81] Ibid, 71-73.


Clausewitz, Carl von. On War. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1976.

Davis, Paul. 100 Decisive Battles, from Ancient Times to the Present: The World’s Major Battles             and how they Shaped History. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999.

Fuller, J.F.C. The Generalship of Alexander the Great. Westport: Greenwood Press Publishers,    1960.

Hanson, Victor Davis. Carnage and Culture: Landmark Battles in the Rise of Western Power.     New York: Random House, Inc., 2001.

Lane Fox, Robin. Alexander the Great. London: Allen Lane, 1973.

Liddell Hart, B.H. Strategy: Second Revised Edition. New York: Penguin Group Publishing,        1991.

Lonsdale, David J. Alexander the Great: Lessons in Strategy. London: Routledge, Taylor and      Francis, 2007

Machiavelli, Niccolo. The Prince. London: Roads Publishing, 2014.

Plutarch. The Parallel Lives. Cambridge: Loeb Classical Library, 1919.

Roisman, Joseph; Worthington, Ian. A Companion to Ancient Macedonia. John Wiley & Sons,    2010.

Strachan, Hew. European Armies and the Conduct of War. London: Routledge, 1983.

Waldman, Thomas. “War, Clausewitz and the Trinity”. Department of Politics and international Studies. University of Warwick, June 2009.

Worthington, Ian. By the Spear: Phillip II, Alexander the Great and the Rise and Fall of the         Macedonian Empire. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014.


About the Author(s)

Andreas Foerster is a graduate student at the Royal Military College of Canada, in Kingston, Ontario, studying for his Masters of Arts in War Studies. He served as an Infantry Officer in the Canadian Armed Forces from 2015 to 2020.