Alexandria's founded by Alexander

Alexandria's founded by Alexander the Great (by year BC): 334 Alexandria in Troia (Turkey) - 333 Alexandria at Issus/Alexandrette (Iskenderun, Turkey) - 332 Alexandria of Caria/by the Latmos (Alinda, Turkey) - 331 Alexandria Mygdoniae - 331 Alexandria (Egypt) - 330 Alexandria in Areia (Herat, Afghanistan) - 330 Alexandria of the Prophthasia/in Dragiana/Phrada (Farah, Afghanistan) - 330 Alexandria in Arachosia (Kandahar, Afghanistan) - 330 Alexandria in Caucasus (Begram, Afghanistan) - 329 Alexandria of the Paropanisades (Ghazni, Afghanistan) - 329 Alexandria Eschate or Ultima (Khodjend, Tajikistan) - 329 Alexandria on the Oxus (Ai-Khanoum, Afghanistan) - 329 Alexandria in Margiana (Merv, Turkmenistan) - 326 Alexandria Nicaea (on the Hydaspes, India) - 326 Alexandria Bucephala (on the Hydaspes, India) - 325 Alexandria Sogdia - 325 Alexandria Rambacia (Bela, Pakistan) - 325 Alexandria Oreitide - 325 Alexandria in Opiene (confluence of Indus & Acesines, India) - 325 Alexandria on the Indus - 325 Alexandria Xylinepolis (Patala, India) - 325 Alexandria in Carminia (Gulashkird, Iran) - 324 Alexandria-on-the-Tigris/Antiochia-in-Susiana/Charax (Spasinou Charax on the Tigris, Iraq) - ?Alexandria of Carmahle? (Kahnu)

Saturday, October 1, 2016

Alexander in hot pursuit of Darius

Talking or writing about Alexander is generally centered on his major battles with a few rare exceptions for his generalship. What keeps fascinating me, however, are all in-between stories that link his major achievements. At times, it feels like reading between the lines while in fact, no moment of his life was ever dull or uneventful.

One of such less-known but extremely exciting period in Alexander’s life is his chase after Darius. Fleeing from the Battle of Gaugamela, the Persian King had elected residence at Ecbatana, the Achaemenid summer capital. When Alexander was at about three days march from that city he learned that Darius had left five days before heading for Bactria, taking with him the available treasure of 7,000 talents and a force of 6,000 infantry and 3,000 cavalry. Before  starting his merciless pursuit, Alexander had to settle a few pressing matters like dismissing the Greek allied contingent and the Thessalian cavalry that had finished playing its role in the League War. He also instructed Parmenion to transfer the treasuries from Persepolis and Pasargadae to Ecbatana.

Once that was taken care of, Alexander elected his Companions and the mercenary Cavalry, as well as the advanced scouts, the Macedonian heavy infantry, the archers and the Agrianes to accompany him on this manhunt. Yet his advance was so rapid that many of them dropped out as they were unable to keep up the high pace; many horses were also worked to death which makes me wonder about the number of horses he took as spare. But everything and everybody had to yield to Alexander’s determination and he reached Rhagae in eleven days, a distance of some 390 km if he took the shortest route via Qazvin.

On the way, Alexander met many of Darius’ soldiers who had deserted and either returned to their homes or surrendered to him. Darius had passed Rhagae a while ago and since Alexander could not catch up with him at this stage, he gave his troops a five day’s rest. I don’t know much about horses but I am aware that they cannot gallop for an entire day and also that they need a rest after about four days of continuous riding. The break evidently was not a luxury stop but a mere requirement if he wanted to continue.

From Rhagae (modern Rey) it would have taken Alexander a full day to reach the (South) Caspian Gates according to Arrian, but Donald Engels (see: Alexander the Great and the Logistics of the Macedonian Army) says that he stopped short of the gates proper. He is certain that Alexander chose for Airan Kief (modern Eyvanekey), some 13 km before the gates because the nearby village of Aradan provided the only source of fresh water for his men and horses. His light infantry must have marched all night long till noon next day, taking advantage of the long daylight hours of summer. At Aradan, Alexander met two important Persian leaders who had deserted their king. They reported that Darius had been seized and arrested by his own commander of cavalry Nabarzanes, supported by Bessus, satrap of Bactria, and Barsaentes, satrap of Arachosia and Drangiana. The news rekindled Alexander’s resolution and he was on the march again, this time only escorted by his Companions, the advanced scouts and a picked body of his toughest infantry. The remaining part of the army was put under Craterus’ command and was to follow on at their own pace. Alexander traveled extremely light; his men only carried their weapons and rations for two days.

They marched all through the night till noon the next day when they took a brief rest. Soon, they all mounted again for a second all-night march and at first daylight they reached the camp mentioned by one of the defectors Alexander had met a few days earlier. The place, probably southwest of Samnan was deserted, the enemy had moved on. The locals confirmed the defector’s story. They also mentioned that Darius had been put in a covered wagon and that Bessus, since he was related to Darius, had proclaimed himself to be the new king.

Without any further delay, Alexander threw himself again in this hot pursuit. His men and their horses were very much exhausted by the demanding marches, but Alexander drove them on none the less. I wonder how many times he and his men had to change horses to keep up this high pace. After yet another night and morning march, they reached a village where Darius and his capturers had stayed the previous day. His advanced intelligence informed Alexander that there was a shortcut which unlike the main road from Samnan to Ahuvan avoided the mountain pass; it ran however through uninhabited territory and was totally lacking water. This was not going to stop Alexander, of course, and he ordered the locals to guide him through the stretch of desert.

Being aware that his pace was beyond that of his infantry, Alexander decided to dismount some 500 cavalrymen and replaced them with the toughest and fittest officers of his infantry and other units. They were to keep their own arms and equipment. The remainder of his troops was to follow the road Bessus and his followers had taken.

Alexander set off at dusk, riding through the desert at raging speed covering some 68 km overnight and finally caught up with the Persians near Damghan at dawn. Most were straggling along unarmed and fled as soon as they saw that Alexander in person was on their tail, a few attempted to fight but soon gave up since any resistance was useless. Bessus and his friends were not inclined to abandon Darius so quickly, but when Alexander was nearly on top of them Nabarzanes and Barsaentes struck him down without any reverence and made their escape. Darius died shortly afterwards.

This is the pursuit based mainly on Arrian as Curtius spent more ink describing the corruption and conniving at Darius’ court. Curtius also provides more details about the murder of Darius and how the wagon with his body was found off the main road. A Macedonian, driven by thirst stopped at the nearby river where he found the wagon with the wounded horses still harnessed. Wondering why the animals had been stabbed he came closer and heard the groans of a dying man who turned out to be the King of Persia. It remains uncertain whether Alexander found him still alive or not. In any case, he is said to have shed many tears, taking off his own cloak to cover the body of Darius and ordering it to be taken to Persepolis for a proper burial. 

The Macedonians had covered almost 350 km in six days over difficult desert terrain, meaning that they rode at an average speed of 53 km a day in hot mid-summer temperatures through a country that was largely desert. Much of the riding was done at night and the horses could easily trip over loose rocks and step into unavoidable pits, for how much visibility was there if any? How alert were the riders still after a night and a morning on their unsaddled horses? And look at that last 68-km-run to Damghan which was covered between dusk and dawn! I wonder whether such achievements were ever repeated in history.

It is quite striking to discover that when following Alexander’s pursuit on the modern map of Iran his route coincides entirely with the modern road linking Tehran to Damghan which runs in the shadow of the Elbruz Mountains along the very edge of the Great Salt Desert or Dasht-i-Kavir. Yet this is also the layout of the ancient Persian Military road and would explain, at least in part, why Alexander was able to move at such a high speed. Unfortunately, the caravanserai that must have dotted this route every 40 km or so cannot have been of great help for him and his men as I doubt they would have the hundreds of spare horses that were needed. This route was later known as being part of the Silk Road.

Alexander definitely wrote history here, nothing short of any of his celebrated battles or other exploits. This is, however, one of the details often overlooked by historians or by the general Alexander public.

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