It was May of the year 334 B.C.E, and Alexander
the Great’s invasion of the Persian Empire had just begun. For the moment, Alexander’s stated goal was
to pursue a policy of liberation for Greek city-states living under Persian rule. At least, that’s what he was telling everybody,
and at this point there was no reason to doubt him. As the Macedonian expedition into Asia kicked
off, it was already at risk of drowning under its own weight. Somehow, they managed to send 47,000 people
across the Hellespont, but this meant that they only had enough money to feed and pay
them for about a month. After that, the Macedonian state would become
insolvent. Everything depended on immediately winning
some kind of major victory, and using the spoils of that victory to finance the rest
of the campaign. The whole endeavour was built on a financial
house of cards. Alexander and the Macedonians began their
campaign by marching on one of the larger regional cities. Capturing this city would solve their financial
problem, at least in the short term. Alexander sent word that the Macedonians were
here to liberate the city, only to receive word back that that they were perfectly happy
with Persian governance. This was not a great start to the campaign. They were being told that the whole justification
for their invasion was incorrect, and that the locals actually enjoyed the perks of living
in the Persian Empire. Alexander didn’t have the time or resources
to invest in a proper siege, so he was forced to leave with his tail between his legs. One story claims that the locals bribed him
to leave their city alone, but there’s no way to verify this. With one setback under his belt, Alexander
marched east. Along the way, small, undefended villages
surrendered to him, but this was purely symbolic. In order to really shake things up, the Macedonians
would need to capture a major city, or win a decisive victory against the Persian. By the way, where were they? While this was going on, a council of Persian
governors were deciding how they should respond to the Macedonian invasion. One of the people invited to this meeting
was a man named Memnon of Rhodes, a Greek national working for the Persians, who was
in charge of a division of Greek mercenaries. Memnon was familiar with Macedon, and more
importantly he was familiar with the Macedonian economy. He knew that this tiny country must be bleeding
itself dry in order to field an army of this size. With this in mind, Memnon advocated a scorched-earth
policy. Burn the crops, evacuate the towns, and pull
back. Use the Persian fleet to cut the Macedonians
off from the Greek mainland. By the end of the year, he argued, the Macedonians
would be suing for peace without the need for any bloodshed. The Persian governors looked at Memnon like
he’s lost his damn mind. This Greek was advising them not to attack
the invading Greek army. The governors rejected his advice. Instead, they decided to combine their forces,
and attack the Macedonians directly. By the way, history tells us that Memnon was
nothing but loyal. A retreat would have been politically hard
to justify, but his analysis was correct. A scorched-earth policy would have confounded
the Macedonian plans. Instead, the Persians were doing exactly what
Alexander wanted them to do. Before too long, Alexander started to hear
reports that there was a Persian army waiting for him near the Granicus river, only a day’s
march away. He immediately set out to meet them, and arrived
some time in the mid-afternoon. The Persians had sensibly taken a defensive
position on the other side of the river. The river was crossable on foot, but the banks
were unusually muddy and steep. Climbing the banks of the river in the middle
of a battle would totally mess up the Macedonian phalanxes, and would grind any potential cavalry
charge to a halt. Estimates for the sizes of the two armies
vary wildly in all directions, but the historical consensus is that the Macedonians had between
35 and 50,000 men, and the Persians had between 35 and 40,000, giving the Macedonians a slight
numerical advantage. My own personal theory is that the real Macedonian
number was around 47,000, and that the discrepancy comes from some of the ancient sources forgetting
to count the 10,000 Macedonians that were already in Asia waiting for Alexander to arrive. Plus, we have reliable numbers from later
battles, so you either have to argue that the Macedonian army magically grew over time,
or that the army started out at the larger end of the spectrum. Anyways, reasonable people disagree, but in
my opinion the Macedonians had 47,000 men, and the Persians had between 35 and 40,000. Memnon of Rhodes was present with his 5 or
6,000 elite Greek mercenaries, but even with his help, the Persians knew that they were
outclassed in the infantry department. However, they also had with them between 10
and 20,000 of some of the best heavy cavalry in the world, which was double or triple the
number that Macedon had. The Persians placed their cavalry at the front
of their line, ready to charge as soon as the Macedonians reached the bank of the river. They would hold their light infantry and Greek
mercenaries in reserve. It was not entirely clear how the Macedonians
should proceed. It was late in the day, and the Granicus river
stood between them and the enemy. What should they do? Alexander’s second in command, Parmenion,
advised him to encamp for the night, and wait. He argued that since the Macedonians had superior
numbers, the Persians might want to pull back and wait for reinforcements. If so, the Macedonians should just let them. In Parmenion’s opinion, attacking across the
river was an unnecessary risk. Alexander responded, saying something like,
“it would be a disgrace if, after crossing the Hellespont, this tiny river stood in our
way for even a moment.” He also went on about the courage and valour
of the Macedonian people, blah blah blah, a bunch of nonsense. For the record, historians seriously disagree
over whether or not this conversation actually took place. It pops up in one of our less reliable ancient
sources, and it kicks off a pattern that repeats itself over and over again, where Alexander
is faced with a problem, Parmenion suggests a rational solution, and Alexander does the
exact opposite. Many have argued – and it’s a legitimate argument
– that we’re not really supposed to take these conversations at face value, but instead see
them more as a literary device created by the authour to highlight Alexander’s unique
style of leadership. So, if we’re not sure that this conversation
happened, why did I include it here? Well, if Parmenion wasn’t giving this kind
of advice, he definitely should have been. Attacking across a river after a long day’s
march is a very bad idea! Parmenion knew this! But his advice went unheeded. Alexander ordered an immediate attack across
the river. The Macedonians deployed for battle, with
their heavy infantry in the centre, and the Companion cavalry on the wings. The king would take command of the right flank,
and Parmenion would take command of the left. The Persians could see Alexander, with his
distinctive armour and his bodyguards, and re-positioned some of their own cavalry in
response. Alexander initiated the battle by ordering
his centre to advance, sending his heavy infantry and some cavalry into the river. The Persians hit the Macedonians with every
arrow at their disposal as they slowly made their way across the river. Then, on the Macedonian right, Alexander charged
with his Companion cavalry. Parmenion on the left did the same. But unlike Parmenion, Alexander and his cavalry
didn’t go straight across the river. Instead, they crossed at a sharp angle, ignoring
the enemy opposite them, and heading straight for the Persian centre. When they got up the bank of the river, they
charged. Suddenly the Macedonian Companion cavalry,
lead by the king himself, were in the midst of the Persian lines, fighting in all directions
at once. There was a violent, chaotic struggle. One source describes the cavalry being crammed
so tightly together that they were fighting more like infantry, standing still and hacking
away with their swords and spears in order to make incremental gains. Alexander was right there in the middle of
this. His ancient Trojan shield took several direct
hits, and his distinctive armour attracted a lot of Persian attention. At some point Alexander’s spear snapped, and
he had to grab another one from his bodyguard. It was intense. It wasn’t long before a second wave of Persian
cavalry arrived to reinforce the centre. Alexander rallied the Companions, and charged
for a second time. Mid-charge, somebody threw a javelin right
at the king, but Alexander managed to catch it with his Trojan shield. He yanked the javelin free, and then charged
straight at the person who threw it, one of the enemy cavalry commanders. Alexander and the Persian cavalry commander
met on the battlefield. Alexander’s spear took the Persian in the
chest, puncturing his armour and wounding the rider. The impact snapped the metal tip off of Alexander’s
spear, rendering the weapon useless. Although he was wounded, the cavalry commander
stayed on his horse. Sword in hand, he prepared to strike Alexander
down, who was basically just sitting there holding a big stick. As a last resort, Alexander gave one final
thrust with his broken spear. Macedonians were deadly accurate with these
weapons, and it paid off here, because the splintered end of the spear hit the Persian
rider right in the face, knocking him off his horse. Alexander’s victory was short lived, because
while he was doing this, another Persian came up behind him, lodging his sword into the
back of the king’s head, cutting clean through his helmet and into his scalp. Dazed, Alexander was somehow able to draw
his own sword, and kill his attacker. While his back was turned, a third Persian
rider charged, sword in the air, ready to kill the king. At the last moment, one of Alexander’s personal
bodyguards named Cleitus the Black – which is just the best name ever – cut the guy’s
arm off, saving the king’s life. Alexander’s personal bodyguards rallied to
his side and fought some kind of defensive action around the king. Our sources don’t explicitly say why this
happened, but some people believe that it’s because Alexander fell unconscious. This makes the most sense to me, but I want
to make it clear that none of the ancient sources actually say this. While Alexander was perhaps unconscious on
the ground, the Macedonian heavy infantry were still trickling across the river. Just take a moment to appreciate how much
of a disaster this was. Their king was wounded, perhaps unconscious,
perhaps even dying, they didn’t know, and the majority of the Macedonian army had yet
to join the battle. Parmenion was right. Alexander’s charge across the river had indeed
been reckless, and, one could argue, downright stupid. But, say what you will about Alexander’s recklessness,
the Companion cavalry did create a enough space for the Macedonian infantry get themselves
across the river. Once they were back in formation, they slowly
began to push the Persian cavalry back. Now that the infantry was in the fight, the
Companion cavalry got a few minutes to recover. In no time at all, Alexander was back up on
his horse again. The Persian centre was beginning to cave,
which meant that it was time to commit their reserves. The Greek mercenaries were well disciplined
and held their own, but the Persian light infantry were inexperienced and ill-equipped. The Macedonian phalanxes continued to gain
ground. At this key moment, Parmenion, who had been
conservatively fighting on the left this entire time, lead an incredibly well-timed cavalry
charge. This sent most of the Persians into a full
route. The elite Greek mercenaries, however, would
not budge. The exhausted Macedonian phalanxes ground
to a halt. Alexander, still addled from taking a sword
to the head, attempted to rally the army by leading a third cavalry charge against the
Greek mercenaries. During this charge, Alexander’s horse was
killed and the king was thrown to the ground for a second time. Hopefully at this point somebody told him
to take a knee, and cool it with the near-death experiences. The final bit of fighting was tough, but the
outcome was inevitable. The Greek mercenaries couldn’t take on the
entire Macedonian army. They eventually surrendered. Let’s talk about losses. All of the 5 or 6,000 Greek mercenaries were
killed or captured, but because of this, the Macedonians never had a chance to pursue the
fleeing Persians, which made their losses remarkably small. Only around 2,500 Persian cavalry were killed. We don’t know how many Persian light infantry
were lost, but probably not that many, since they were held back for most of the battle. The Persian defeat was decisive, and yet over
three quarters of their army escaped. They got lucky. The Macedonian losses even smaller than that. According to our sources, it’s possible that
as few as 150 Macedonians were killed. That number sounds way too low – and it probably
is, again, our sources suck – but bear in mind that 10 times that number would have
been wounded as well. Whatever the real number is, it’s remarkable
that so few Macedonians were lost. It’s even more remarkable considering how
the king’s recklessness almost got him killed multiple times. Alexander was victorious, but he still had
massive financial problems. Remember, he had repealed taxation back home,
and the entire apparatus of state was basically running off of the spoils of conquest. He looted the enemy camp and sent whatever
treasure he could find back home, but frankly there wasn’t much there. In desperation, he enslaved the captured Greek
mercenaries and sent them back to Macedon to work in the mines. Enslaving his fellow Greeks was not good P.R.
considering that the whole justification for this war was the liberation of the Greek people. Anyways, the spoils from the Battle of the
Granicus did buy Alexander a few more months. If he could use that time to capture a major
city, his financial problems would go away. This was achievable, since the Western Persian
Empire now stood largely undefended. However, success brought with it new problems. What had begun as a minor border issue had
become an existential threat to the Persian Empire. Darius III of Persia, King of Kings, finally
took notice, and ordered an army assembled so that he meet this threat, personally.