Gateway to the Classics: Alexander the Great by Jacob Abbott
Alexander the Great by  Jacob Abbott

The Great Victory

A LL the western part of Asia was now in Alexander's power. He was undisputed master of Asia Minor, Phœnicia, Judea, and Egypt. He returned from Egypt to Tyre, leaving governors to rule in his name in all the conquered provinces. The injuries which had been done to Tyre, during the siege and at the assault, were repaired, and it was again a wealthy, powerful, and prosperous city. Alexander rested and refreshed his army there, and spent some weeks in most splendid festivities and rejoicings. The princes and potentates of all the neighboring countries assembled to partake of his hospitality, to be entertained by the games, the plays, the spectacles, and the feastings, and to unite in swelling his court and doing him honor. In a word, he was the general center of attraction for all eyes, and the object of universal homage.

All this time, however, he was very far from being satisfied, or feeling that his work was done. Darius, whom he considered his great enemy, was still in the field unsubdued. He had retreated across the Euphrates, and was employed in assembling a vast collection of forces from all the Eastern nations which were under his sway, to meet Alexander in the final contest. Alexander therefore made arrangements at Tyre for the proper government of the various kingdoms and provinces which he had already conquered, and then began to prepare for marching eastward with the main body of his army.

During all this time the ladies of Darius's family, who had been taken captive at Issus, had been retained in captivity, and made to accompany Alexander's army in its marches. Alexander refused to accede to any of the plans and propositions which Darius made and offered for the redemption of his wife and mother, but insisted on retaining them as his prisoners. He, however, treated them with respect and high consideration. He provided them with royal tents of great magnificence, and had them conveyed from place to place, when his army moved, with all the royal state to which they had been accustomed when in the court of Darius.

It has been generally thought a proof of nobleness of spirit and generosity in Alexander that he treated his captives in this manner. It would seem, however, that true generosity would have prompted the restoration of these unhappy and harmless prisoners to the husband and father who mourned their separation from him, and their cruel sufferings, with bitter grief. It is more probable, therefore, that policy, and a regard for his own aggrandizement, rather than compassion for the suffering, led him to honor his captive queens. It was a great glory to him, in a martial point of view, to have such trophies of his victory in his train; and, of course, the more highly he honored the personages, the more glorious the trophy appeared. Accordingly, Alexander did every thing in his power to magnify the importance of his royal captives, by the splendor of their retinue, and the pomp and pageantry with which he invested their movements.

A short time after leaving Tyre, on the march eastward, Statira, the wife of Darius, was taken suddenly ill and died. The tidings were immediately brought to Alexander, and he repaired without delay to Sysigambis's tent. Sysigambis was the mother of Darius. She was in the greatest agony of grief. She was lying upon the floor of her tent, surrounded by the ladies of her court, and entirely overwhelmed with sorrow. Alexander did all in his power to calm and comfort her.

One of the officers of Queen Statira's household made his escape from the camp immediately after his mistress's death, and fled across the country to Darius, to carry him the heavy tidings. Darius was overwhelmed with affliction. The officer, however, in farther interviews, gave him such an account of the kind and respectful treatment which the ladies had received from Alexander, during all the time of their captivity, as greatly to relieve his mind, and to afford him a high degree of comfort and consolation. He expressed a very strong sense of gratitude to Alexander for his generosity and kindness, and said that if his kingdom of Persia must  be conquered, he sincerely wished that it might fall into the hands of such a conqueror as Alexander.

By looking at the map at the commencement of the volume, it will be seen that the Tigris and the Euphrates are parallel streams, flowing through the heart of the western part of Asia toward the southeast, and emptying into the Persian Gulf. The country between these two rivers, which was extremely populous and fertile, was called Mesopotamia. Darius had collected an immense army here. The various detachments filled all the plains of Mesopotamia. Alexander turned his course a little northward, intending to pass the River Euphrates at a famous ancient crossing at Thapsacus, which may be seen upon the map. When he arrived at this place he found a small Persian army there. They, however, retired as he approached. Alexander built two bridges across the river, and passed his army safely over.

In the mean time, Darius, with his enormous host, passed across the Tigris, and moved toward the northward, along the eastern side of the river. He had to cross the various branches of the Tigris as he advanced. At one of them, called the Lycus, which may also be seen upon the map, there was a bridge. It took the vast host which Darius had collected five days  to pass this bridge.

While Darius had been thus advancing to the northward into the latitude where he knew that Alexander must cross the rivers, Alexander himself, and his small but compact and fearless body of Grecian troops, were moving eastward, toward the same region to which Darius's line of march was tending. Alexander at length reached the Tigris. He was obliged to ford this stream. The banks were steep and the current was rapid, and the men were in great danger of being swept away. To prevent this danger, the ranks, as they advanced, linked their arms together, so that each man might be sustained by his comrades. They held their shields above their heads to keep them from the water. Alexander waded like the rest, though he kept in front, and reached the bank before the others. Standing there, he indicated to the advancing column, by gesticulation, where to land, the noise of the water being too great to allow his voice to be heard. To see him standing there, safely landed, and with an expression of confidence and triumph in his attitude and air, awakened fresh energy in the heart of every soldier in the columns which were crossing the stream.

Notwithstanding this encouragement, however, the passage of the troops and the landing on the bank produced a scene of great confusion. Many of the soldiers had tied up a portion of their clothes in bundles, which they held above their heads, together with their arms, as they waded along through the swift current of the stream. They, however, found it impossible to carry these bundles, but had to abandon them at last in order to save themselves, as they staggered along through deep and rapid water, and over a concealed bottom of slippery stones. Thousands of these bundles, mingled with spears, darts, and every other sort of weapon that would float, were swept down by the current, to impede and embarrass the men who were passing below.

At length, however, the men themselves succeeded in getting over in safety, though a large quantity of arms and of clothing was lost. There was no enemy upon the bank to oppose them. Darius could not, in fact, well meet and oppose Alexander in his attempt to cross the river, because he could not determine at what point he would probably make the attempt, in season to concentrate so large an army to oppose him. Alexander's troops, being a comparatively small and compact body, and being accustomed to move with great promptness and celerity, could easily evade any attempt of such an unwieldy mass of forces to oppose his crossing at any particular point upon the stream. At any rate, Darius did not make any such attempt, and Alexander had no difficulties to encounter in crossing the Tigris other than the physical obstacles presented by the current of the stream.

Darius's plan was, therefore, not to intercept Alexander on his march, but to choose some great and convenient battle-field, where he could collect his forces, and marshal them advantageously and so await an attack there. He knew very well that his enemy would seek him out, wherever he was, and, consequently, that he might choose his position. He found such a field in an extensive plain at Guagamela, not far from the city of Arbela. The spot has received historical immortality under the name of the plain of Arbela.

Darius was several days in concentrating his vast armies upon this plain. He constructed encampments; he leveled the inequalities which would interfere with the movements of his great bodies of cavalry; he guarded the approaches, too, as much as possible. There is a little instrument used in war called a caltrop. It consists of a small ball of iron, with several sharp points projecting from it one or two inches each way. If these instruments are thrown upon the ground at random, one of the points must necessarily be upward, and the horses that tread upon them are lamed and disabled at once. Darius caused caltrops to be scattered in the grass and along the roads, wherever the army of Alexander would be likely to approach his troops on the field of battle.


The Caltrop

Alexander, having crossed the river, encamped for a day or two on the banks, to rest and refresh, and to rearrange his army. While here, the soldiers were one night thrown into consternation by an eclipse of the moon. Whenever an eclipse of the moon takes place, it is, of course, when the moon is full, so that the eclipse is always a sudden, and, among an ignorant people, an unexpected waning of the orb in the height of its splendor; and as such people know not the cause of the phenomenon, they are often extremely terrified. Alexander's soldiers were thrown into consternation by the eclipse. They considered it the manifestation of the displeasure of Heaven at their presumptuous daring in crossing such rivers, and penetrating to such a distance to invade the territories of another king.

In fact, the men were predisposed to fear. Having wandered to a vast distance from home, having passed over such mountains and deserts, and now, at last, having crossed a deep and dangerous river, and thrown themselves into the immediate vicinity of a foe ten times as numerous as themselves, it was natural that they should feel some misgivings. And when, at night, impressed with the sense of solemnity which night always imparts to strange and novel scenes, they looked up to the bright round moon, pleased with the expression of cheerfulness and companionship which beams always in her light, to find her suddenly waning, changing her form, withdrawing her bright beams, and looking down upon them with a lurid and murky light, it was not surprising that they felt an emotion of terror. In fact, there is always an element of terror in the emotion excited by looking upon an eclipse, which an instinctive feeling of the heart inspires. It invests the spectacle with a solemn grandeur. It holds the spectator, however cultivated and refined, in silence while he gazes at it. It mingles with a scientific appreciation of the vastness of the movements and magnitudes by which the effect is produced, and while the one occupies the intellect, the other impresses the soul. The mind that has lost, through its philosophy, the power of feeling this emotion of awe in such scenes, has sunk, not risen. Its possessor has made himself inferior, not superior, to the rest of his species, by having paralyzed one of his susceptibilities of pleasure. To him an eclipse is only curious and wonderful; to others it is sublime.

The soldiers of Alexander were extremely terrified. A great panic spread throughout the encampment. Alexander himself, instead of attempting to allay their fears by reasoning, or treating them as of no importance, immediately gave the subject his most serious attention. He called together the soothsayers, and directed them to consult together, and let him know what this great phenomenon portended. This mere committing of the subject to the attention of the soothsayers had a great effect among all the soldiers of the army. It calmed them. It changed their agitation and terror into a feeling of suspense, in awaiting the answer of the soothsayers, which was far less painful and dangerous; and at length, when the answer came, it allayed their anxiety and fear altogether. The soothsayers said that the sun was on Alexander's side, and the moon on that of the Persians, and that this sudden waning of her light foreshadowed the defeat and destruction which the Persians were about to undergo. The army were satisfied with this decision, and were inspired with new confidence and ardor. It is often idle to attempt to oppose ignorance and absurdity by such feeble instruments as truth and reason, and the wisest managers of mankind have generally been most successful when their plan has been to counteract one folly by means of the influence of another.

Alexander's army consisted of about fifty thousand men, with the phalanx in the center. This army moved along down the eastern bank of the Tigris, the scouts pressing forward as far as possible in every direction in front of the main army, in order to get intelligence of the foe. It is in this way that two great armies feel  after each other, as it were, like insects creeping over the ground, exploring the way before them with their antennæ. At length, after three days' advance, the scouts came in with intelligence of the enemy. Alexander pressed forward with a detachment of his army to meet them. They proved to be, however, not the main body of Darius's army, but only a single corps of a thousand men, in advance of the rest. They retreated as Alexander approached. He, however, succeeded in capturing some horsemen, who gave the information that Darius had assembled his vast forces on the plain of Arbela, and was waiting there in readiness to give his advancing enemy battle.

Alexander halted his troops. He formed an encampment, and made arrangements for depositing his baggage there. He refreshed the men, examined and repaired their arms, and made the arrangements for battle. These operations consumed several days. At the end of that time, early one morning, long before day, the camp was in motion, and the columns, armed and equipped for immediate contest, moved forward.

They expected to have reached the camp of Darius at daybreak, but the distance was greater than they had supposed. At length, however, the Macedonians, in their march, came upon the brow of a range of hills, from which they looked down upon numberless and endless lines of infantry and cavalry, and ranges after ranges of tents, which filled the plain. Here the army paused while Alexander examined the field, studying for a long time, and with great attention, the numbers and disposition of the enemy. They were four miles distant still, but the murmuring sounds of their voices and movements came to the ears of the Macedonians through the calm autumnal air.

Alexander called the leading officers together, and held a consultation on the question whether to march down and attack the Persians on the plain that night, or to wait till the next day. Parmenio was in favor of a night attack, in order to surprise the enemy by coming upon them at an unexpected time. But Alexander said no. He was sure of victory. He had got his enemies all before him; they were fully in his power. He would, therefore, take no advantage but would attack them fairly and in open day. Alexander had fifty thousand men; the Persians were variously estimated between five hundred thousand and a million. There is something sublime in the idea of such a pause, made by the Macedonian phalanx and its wings, on the slopes of the hills, suspending its attack upon ten times its number, to give the mighty mass of their enemies the chances of a fair and equal contest.

Alexander made congratulatory addresses to his soldiers on the occasion of their having now at last before them, what they had so long toiled and labored to attain, the whole concentrated force of the Persian empire. They were now going to contend, not for single provinces and kingdoms, as heretofore, but for general empire; and the victory which they were about to achieve would place them on the summit of human glory. In all that he said on the subject, the unquestionable certainty of victory was assumed.

Alexander completed his arrangements, and then retired to rest. He went to sleep—at least he appeared to do so. Early in the morning Parmenio arose, summoned the men to their posts, and arranged every thing for the march. He then went to Alexander's tent. Alexander was still asleep. He awoke him, and told him that all was ready. Parmenio expressed surprise at his sleeping so quietly at a time when such vast issues were at stake. "You seem as calm," said he, "as if you had had the battle and gained the victory." "I have done so," said Alexander. "I consider the whole work done when we have gained access to Darius and his forces, and find him ready to give us battle."

Alexander soon appeared at the head of his troops. Of course this day was one of the most important ones of his life, and one of the historians of the time has preserved an account of his dress as he went into battle. He wore a short tunic, girt close around him, and over it a linen breast-plate, strongly quilted. The belt by which the tunic was held was embossed with figures of beautiful workmanship. This belt was a present to him from some of the people of the conquered countries through which he had passed, and it was very much admired. He had a helmet upon his head, of polished steel, with a neck piece, also of steel, ornamented with precious stones. His helmet was surmounted with a white plume. His sword, which was a present to him from the King of Cyprus, was very light and slender, and of the most perfect temper. He carried, also, a shield and a lance, made in the best possible manner for use, not for display. Thus his dress corresponded with the character of his action. It was simple, compact, and whatever of value it possessed consisted in those substantial excellences which would give the bearer the greatest efficiency on the field of battle.

The Persians were accustomed to make use of elephants in their wars. They also had chariots, with scythes placed at the axles, which they were accustomed to drive among their enemies and mow them down. Alexander resorted to none of these contrivances. There was the phalanx—the terrible phalanx—advancing irresistibly either in one body or in detachments, with columns of infantry and flying troops of horsemen on the wings. Alexander relied simply on the strength, the courage, the energy, and the calm and steady, but resistless ardor of his men, arranging them in simple combinations, and leading them forward directly to their work.

The Macedonians cut their way through the mighty mass of their enemies with irresistible force. The elephants turned and fled. The foot soldiers seized the horses of some of the scythe-armed chariots and cut the traces. In respect to others, they opened to the right and left and let them pass through, when they were easily captured by the men in the rear. In the mean time the phalanx pressed on, enjoying a great advantage in the level nature of the ground. The Persian troops were broken in upon and driven away wherever they were attacked. In a word, before night the whole mighty mass was scattering every where in confusion, except some hundreds of thousands left trampled upon and dead, or else writhing upon the ground, and groaning in their dying agonies. Darius himself fled. Alexander pursued him with a troop of horse as far as Arbela, which had been Darius's head-quarters, and where he had deposited immense treasures. Darius had gone through and escaped when Alexander arrived at Arbela, but the city and the treasures fell into Alexander's hands.

Although Alexander had been so completely victorious over his enemies on the day of battle, and had maintained his ground against them with such invincible power, he was, nevertheless, a few days afterward, driven entirely off the field, and completely away from the region where the battle had been fought. What the living men, standing erect in arms, and full of martial vigor, could not do, was easily and effectually accomplished by their dead bodies corrupting on the plain. The corpses of three hundred thousand men, and an equal bulk of the bodies of elephants and horses, was too enormous a mass to be buried. It had to be abandoned; and the horrible effluvia and pestilence which it emitted drove all the inhabitants of the country away. Alexander marched his troops rapidly off the ground, leaving, as the direct result of the battle, a wide extent of country depopulated and desolate, with this vast mass of putrefaction and pestilence reigning in awful silence and solitude in the midst of it.

Alexander went to Babylon. The governor of the city prepared to receive him as a conqueror. The people came out in throngs to meet him, and all the avenues of approach were crowded with spectators. All the city walls, too, were covered with men and women, assembled to witness the scene. As for Alexander himself, he was filled with pride and pleasure at thus arriving at the full accomplishment of his earliest and long-cherished dreams of glory.

The great store-house of the royal treasures of Persia was at Susa, a strong city east of Babylon. Susa was the winter residence of the Persian kings, as Ecbatana, further north, among the mountains, was their summer residence. There was a magnificent palace and a very strong citadel at Susa, and the treasures were kept in the citadel. It is said that in times of peace the Persian monarchs had been accustomed to collect coin, melt it down, and cast the gold in earthen jars. The jars were afterward broken off from the gold, leaving the bullion in the form of the interior of the jars. An enormous amount of gold and silver, and of other treasures, had been thus collected. Alexander was aware of this depository before he advanced to meet Darius, and, on the day of the battle of Arbela, as soon as the victory was decided, he sent an officer from the very field to summon Susa to surrender. They obeyed the summons, and Alexander, soon after his great public entrance into Babylon, marched to Susa, and took possession of the vast stores of wealth accumulated there. The amount was enormous, both in quantity and value, and the seizing of it was a very magnificent act of plunder. In fact, it is probable that Alexander's slaughter of the Persian army at Arbela, and subsequent spoliation of Susa, constitute, taken together, the most gigantic case of murder and robbery which was ever committed by man; so that, in performing these deeds, the great hero attained at last to the glory of having perpetrated the grandest and most imposing of all human crimes. That these deeds were really crimes there can be no doubt, when we consider that Alexander did not pretend to have any other motive in this invasion than love of conquest, which is, in other words, love of violence and plunder. They are only technically shielded from being called crimes by the fact that the earth has no laws and no tribunals high enough to condemn such enormous burglaries as that of one quarter of the globe breaking violently and murderously in upon and robbing the other.

Besides the treasures, Alexander found also at Susa a number of trophies which had been brought by Xerxes from Greece; for Xerxes had invaded Greece some hundred years before Alexander's day, and had brought to Susa the spoils and the trophies of his victories. Alexander sent them all back to Greece again.

From Susa the conqueror moved on to Persepolis, the great Persian capital. On his march he had to pass through a defile of the mountains. The mountaineers had been accustomed to exact tribute here of all who passed, having a sort of right, derived from ancient usage, to the payment of a toll. They sent to Alexander when they heard that he was approaching, and informed him that he could not pass with his army without paying the customary toll. Alexander sent back word that he would meet them at the pass, and give them their due.


Alexander at the Pass of Susa

They understood this, and prepared to defend the pass. Some Persian troops joined them. They built walls and barricades across the narrow passages. They collected great stones on the brinks of precipices, and on the declivities of the mountains, to roll down upon the heads of their enemies. By these and every other means they attempted to stop Alexander's passage. But he had contrived to send detachments around by circuitous and precipitous paths, which even the mountaineers had deemed impracticable, and thus attack his enemies suddenly and unexpectedly from above their own positions. As usual, his plan succeeded. The mountaineers were driven away, and the conqueror advanced toward the great Persian capital.

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