In the citadel of Gordium, an ancient town of Phrygia in Asia Minor, was preserved an old wagon; rudely built, and very primitive in structure. Tradition said that it had originally belonged to the peasant Gordius and his son Midas, rustic chiefs who had been selected by the gods and chosen by the people as the primitive kings of Phrygia. The cord which attached the yoke of this wagon to the pole, composed of fibres from the bark of the cornel tree, was tied into a knot so twisted and entangled that it seemed as if the fingers of the gods themselves must have tied it, so intricate was it and so impossible, seemingly, to untie.
An oracle had declared that the man who should untie this famous knot would become lord and monarch of all Asia. As may well be imagined, many ambitious men sought to perform the task, but all in vain. The Gordian knot remained tied and Asia unconquered in the year 333 b.c. , when Alexander of Macedon, who the year before had invaded Asia, and so far had swept all before him, entered Gordium with his victorious army. As may be surmised, it was not long before he sought the citadel to view this ancient relic, which contained within itself the promise of what he had set out to accomplish. Numbers followed him, Phrygians and Macedonians, curious to see if the subtle knot would yield to his conquering hand, the Macedonians with hope, the Phrygians with doubt.
While the multitude stood in silent and curious expectation, Alexander closely examined the knot, looking in vain for some beginning or end to its complexity. The thing perplexed him. Was he who had never yet failed in any undertaking to be baffled by this piece of rope, this twisted obstacle in the way of success? At length, with that angry impatience which was a leading element in his character, he drew his sword, and with one vigorous stroke severed the cord in two.
At once a shout went up. The problem was solved; the knot was severed; the genius of Alexander had led him to the only means. He had made good his title to the empire of Asia, and was hailed as predestined conqueror by his admiring followers. That night came a storm of thunder and lightning which confirmed the belief, the superstitious Macedonians taking it as the testimony of the gods that the oracle was fulfilled.
Had there been no Gordian knot and no oracle, Alexander would probably have become lord of the empire of Asia all the same, and this not only because he was the best general of his time and one of the best generals of all time, but for two other excellent reasons. One was that his father, Philip, had bequeathed to him the best army of the age. The Greeks had proved, nearly two centuries before, that their military organization and skill were far superior to those of the Persians. During the interval there had been no progress in the army of Persia, while Epaminondas had greatly improved the military art in Greece, and Philip of Macedon, his pupil, had made of the Macedonian army a fighting machine such as the world had never before known. This was the army which, with still further improvements, Alexander was leading into Asia to meet the multitudinous but poorly armed and disciplined Persian host.
The second reason was that Alexander, while the best captain of his age, had opposed to him the worst. It was the misfortune of Persia that a new king, Darius Codomannus by name, had just come to the throne, and was to prove himself utterly incapable of leading an army, unless it was to lead it in flight. It was not only Alexander's great ability, but his marvellous good fortune, which led to his immense success.
The Persians had had a good general in Asia Minor,—Memnon, a Greek of the island of Rhodes. But just at this time this able leader died, and Darius took the command on himself. He could hardly have selected a man from his ranks who would not have made a better commander-in-chief.
Gathering a vast army from his wide-spread dominions, a host six hundred thousand strong, the Persian king marched to meet his foe. He brought with him an enormous weight of baggage, there being enough gold and silver alone to load six hundred mules and three hundred camels; and so confident was he of success that he also brought his mother, wife, and children, and his whole harem, that they might witness his triumph over the insolent Macedonian.
Darius took no steps to guard any of the passes of Asia Minor. Why should he seek to keep back this foe, who was marching blindly to his fate? But instead of waiting for Alexander on the plain, where he could have made use of his vast force, he marched into the defile of Issus, where there was only a mile and a half of open ground between the mountains and the sea, and where his vanguard alone could be brought into action. In this defile the two armies met, the fighting part of each being, through the folly of the Persian king, not greatly different in numbers.
The blunder of Darius was soon made fatal by his abject cowardice. The Macedonians having made a sudden assault on the Persian left wing, it gave way and fled. Darius, who was in his chariot in the centre, seeing himself in danger from this flight, suddenly lost his over-confidence, and in a panic of terror turned his chariot and fled with wild haste from the field. When he reached ground over which the chariot could not pass, he mounted hastily on horseback, flung from him his bow, shield, and royal mantle, and rode in mortal terror away, not having given a single order or made the slightest effort to rally his flying troops.
Darius had been sole commander. His flight left the great army without a leader. Not a man remained who could give a general order. Those who saw him flying were infected with his terror and turned to flee also. The vast host in the rear trampled one another down in their wild haste to get beyond the enemy's reach. The Macedonians must have looked on in amazement. The battle—or what ought to have been a battle—was over before it had fairly begun. The Persian right wing, in which was a body of Greeks, made a hard fight; but these Greeks, on finding that the king had fled, marched in good order away. The Persian cavalry, also, fought bravely until they heard that the king had disappeared, when they also turned to fly. Never had so great a host been so quickly routed, and all through the cowardice of a man who was better fitted by nature to turn a spit than to command an army.
But Alexander was not the man to let his enemy escape unscathed. His pursuit was vigorous. The slaughter of the fugitives was frightful. Thousands were trodden to death in the narrow and broken pass. The camp and the family of Darius were taken, together with a great treasure in coin. The slain in all numbered more than one hundred thousand.
The Death of Alexander the Great.
The panic flight of Darius and his utter lack of ability did more than lose him a battle: it lost him an empire. Never was there a battle with more complete and great results. During the next two years Alexander went to work to conquer western Persia. Most of the cities yielded to him. Tyre resisted, and was taken and destroyed. Gaza, another strong city, was captured and its defenders slain. These two cities, which it took nine months to capture, gave Alexander the hardest fighting he ever had. He marched from Gaza to Egypt, which fell without resistance into his hands, and where he built the great city of Alexandria, the only existing memento of his name and deeds. Thence he marched to the Euphrates, wondering where Darius was and what he meant to do. Nearly two years had passed since the battle of Issus, and the kingly poltroon had apparently contented himself with writing letters begging Alexander to restore his family. But Alexander knew too well what a treasure he held to consent. If Darius would acknowledge him as his lord and master he could have back his wife and children, but not otherwise.
Finding that all this was useless, Darius began to collect another army. He now got together a vaster host than before. It was said to contain one million infantry, forty thousand cavalry, and two hundred chariots, each of which had a projecting pole with a sharp point, while three sword-blades stood out from the yoke on either side, and scythes projected from the naves of the wheels. Darius probably expected to mow down the Macedonians in swaths with these formidable implements of war.
The army which Alexander marched against this mighty host consisted of forty thousand foot and seven thousand horse. It looked like the extreme of foolhardiness, like a pigmy advancing against a giant; yet Darius commanded one army, Alexander the other, and Issus had not been forgotten.
The affair, in fact, proved but a repetition of that at Issus. The chariots, on which Darius had counted to break the enemy's line, proved useless. Some of the horses were killed; others refused to face the Macedonian pikes; some were scared by the noise and turned back; the few that reached the Greek lines found the ranks opened to let them pass.
The chariots thus disposed of, the whole Macedonian line charged. Alexander, at the head of his cavalry, pushed straight for the person of Darius. He could not get near the king, who was well protected, but be got near enough to fill his dastard soul with terror. The sight of the serried ranks of the Macedonian phalanx, the terrific noise of their war-cries, the failure of the chariots, all combined to destroy his late confidence and replace it by dread. As at Issus, he suddenly had his chariot turned round and rushed from the field in full flight.
His attendants followed. The troops around him, the best in the army, gave way. Soon the field was dense with fugitives. So thick was the cloud of dust raised by the flying multitude that nothing could be seen. Amid the darkness were heard a wild clamor of voices and the noise of the whips of the charioteers as they urged their horses to speed. The cloud of dust alone saved Darius from capture by the pursuing horsemen. The left of the Persian army fought bravely, but at length it too gave way. Everything was captured,—camp, treasure, the king's equipage, everything but the king himself. How many were killed and taken is not known, but the army, as an army, ceased to exist. As at Issus, so at Arbela, it was so miserably managed that three-fourths of it had nothing whatever to do with the battle. Its dispersal ended the Persian resistance; the empire was surrendered to Alexander almost without another blow.
Great a soldier as Alexander unquestionably was, he was remarkably favored by fortune, and won the greatest empire the world had up to that time known with hardly an effort, and with less loss of men than often takes place in a single battle. The treasure gained was immense. Darius seemed to have been heaping up wealth for his conqueror. Babylon and Susa, the two great capitals of the Persian empire, contained vast accumulations of money, part of which was used to enrich the soldiers of the victorious army. At Persepolis, the capital of ancient Persia, a still greater treasure was found, amounting to one hundred and twenty thousand talents in gold and silver, or about one hundred and twenty-five million dollars. It took five thousand camels and a host of mules to transport the treasure away. The cruel conqueror rewarded the Persians for this immense gift, kept through generations for his hands, by burning the city and slaughtering its inhabitants, in revenge, as he declared, for the harm which Xerxes had done to Greece a century and a half before.
What followed must be told in a few words. The conqueror did not feel that his work was finished while Darius remained free. The dethroned king was flying eastward to Bactria. Alexander pursued him with such speed that many of his men and animals fell dead on the road. He overtook him at last, but did not capture him, as the companions of the Persian king killed him and left only his dead body to the victor's hands.
For years afterwards Alexander was occupied in war, subduing the eastern part of the empire, and marching into India, where he conquered all before him. War, incessant war, was all he cared for. No tribe or nation he met was able to stand against his army. In all his career he never met a reverse in the field. He was as daring as Darius had been cowardly, exposed his life freely, and was more than once seriously wounded, but recovered quickly from his hurts.
At length, after eleven years of almost incessant war, the conqueror returned to Babylon, and here, while preparing for new wars in Arabia and elsewhere, indulged with reckless freedom in that intoxication which was his principal form of relaxation from warlike schemes and duties. As a result he was seized with fever, and in a week's time died, just at the time be had fixed to set out with army and fleet on another great career of conquest. It was in June, 323 b.c. , in his thirty-third year. He had reigned only twelve years and eight months.