Alexander vs. Darius

The Battle of Issus  333 BC
by Jeff Jonas

Part I: The Campaign and Battle       Part II: The Battle as a Wargame

Part III: Duncan Head's analysis and sources      Part IV: Sources and references

Part I: The Campaign and Battle 

Prelude  The Campaign  The Armies    The Battleground    The Battle     Aftermath and analysis

The Battle of Issus was the first meeting between Alexander the Great of Macedon and Darius III of the Achaemenid Persian Empire.  The Issus campaign is interesting as it shows both the strengths and weaknesses of both Alexander and Darius as commanders. The campaign also shows how lack of information could lead to armies slipping by each other like ships in the night. Issus is a brilliant example how Alexander could think on his feet and react quickly to new threats as they presented themselves. The Issus campaign reveals how Alexander's army cohesion and leadership kept his men together, even when faced with disaster.   Darius initially pulled off a energetic strategic move, then somehow lapsed into overconfidence,  he bungled his army's preparedness and deployment, and then fled leading to his diverse army's ruination.  This scenario was left out of Warhammer Alexander the Great, as it just couldn't be shoe-horned into the space left without compressing the information beyond usefulness.

"In this year Darius sent money to Memnon and appointed him general of the whole war. He gathered a force of mercenaries, manned three hundred ships, and pursued the conflict vigorously... As word came to Greece that Memnon was about to sail to Euboea with his fleet, the cities of that island became alarmed, while those Greeks friendly to Persia, notably Sparta, began to have high hopes in a change in the political situation.  Memnon distributed bribes freely and won many Greek over to share in Persian hopes, but Fortune nevertheless put an end to is career. He fell ill and died of a desperate malady, and with his death Darius' fortunes also collapsed."      Diodorus Siculus

Alexander spent much of the year 333 BC consolidating Asia Minor.  His decisive victory at the Granicus the year before had forced the Persians to take to the sea, or hold out in towns. With no field army in place to slow down Alexander, or take back cities, the best they could hope for was to delay.  Alexander was relentless and his effective siege organization captured each city one by one.  The main Persian effort was spent through surrogates to kindle rebellion in Greece.  The Rhodian general Memnon used the Persian fleet to raid the Aegean and attempted to cut off Alexander from his homeland.  This campaign of slowly strangling Alexander from home was going well.  The Macedonian fleet had been disbanded through lack of funds, and while Alexander had total dominance on land, at sea the situation was reversed for Memnon could go where he wanted with little opposition. Apparently the Persian strategy had turned to follow the wise words of Memnon before the Granicus, to delay and destroy the countryside in front of Alexander on land, and undermine his support by Greece at sea.  Memnon had captured Chios and was besieging Mytilene.  The strategy was working and Darius now decided to raise an army to coordinate on land while Memnon and his fleet opened up operations in Greece, by landing on Euboea and creating a second front that would over extend Macedonian resources.

But suddenly in the summer of 333 Memnon died of a malicious disease.  Darius'  nephew Pharnabazus  took over the fleet and continued to take back islands and cities on the coast of Asia Minor.  The campaign in Greece was scrapped.  There were divisions in his high command. The traditional story is that the Greeks with their good advice, were distrusted by the Persians with their macho bravado, flattery, and jealousy of the marshal prowess of the Greeks.  Charidamus, Darius' Polemarch, had urged that Darius hire every mercenary and volunteer in Greece and allow him to go fight Alexander "with men", while the King and the Persians "gleaming of gold and in Purple robes", stayed back out of his way.  This was too brash an insult in front of the King and Persian onlookers, and Darius in a fit of rage, ordered Charidamus' throat slit.  Darius summoned the next in line Thymondas, to take charge of the large mercenary contingent. One can only feel sympathy for the Greeks, who were fighting both against Alexander, and against the Persian beurocracy and Imperial toadies.   Charidamus went to his death with a chilling prediction that offering battle would be Darius' downfall. (What if Darius had followed Charidamus' advice?)

The Persians finally decided on their strategy.  Darius would gather a large host over the Summer and would march on Cilicia, at the head of the army, as his council determined that the Persians would fight better in his presence. The strangulation strategy by naval action was still ongoing, but more limited in scope as Pharnabazus turned his attention  to gaining back the the Ionian coast.  Darius, now heeding the late Charidamus' words,  called in all the Greek mercenaries to the army, as he belatedly agreed that the fighting qualities of the Greeks gave him the best chance for victory. This depleted the fleet of most of it strength and their successes slowed, and allowed the Macedonian fleet some time to reform.  Pharnabazus split the fleet, sending the desired troops to Darius, and sending some ships and troops under Orontobates, to retake Halicarnassus.

Alexander pressed onward from Anatolia into Paphlagonia and then decided to press on into Cilicia.  The Persian Satrap (Arsames) planned to strip the territory and retire rather than fight. He left a small garrison at the Cilician Gates, but did not support them with his main forces.  Alexander held back with the main force and then by night marched with the Hypaspists and Agrianians.  The Persian garrison fled and Alexander had captured the Cilician gates without a fight and his army poured into the fertile ground of Cilicia.  (What if Arsames had fortified the pass, and held Alexander out of Cilicia, or at least caused major delays?) This was quite a coup and a strategic disaster for the Persians. Alexander quickly subdued opposition in the highlands and plains.  He sent Parmenion with Thessalians, Thracians, and the scouts and mercenary cavalry to block the passes of approach; the Belen pass (Syrian Gates), and the passes called the Amanic Gates, that led to the Amik plain across the Amanus Mountains. While in Cilicia Alexander took sick after a bath, and was incapacitated for a number of weeks.  This news hastened Darius' march to Syria, as he hoped that if Alexander was incapacitated or dead, he would roll over the leaderless Macedonians.

The Campaign

"But the one thing Darius did not lack was military numbers. The sight of this assembly filled him with joy, and his courtiers further inflated his expectations with their idle flattery."  Curtius book III

The above map is combined from maps in Engels and Bosworth, it is interesting that in four
books in my library, there were four different spelling of Sochoi, Sochi, etc. Also the position
of this town is also disputed. I went with Engels' maps for placement of the town and spelling.

In early September 333, the Great King’s host had assembled on the Assyrian plains near the city of Sochoi (or Sochi).  By the time the army finished the three month march Alexander had recovered from his illness and was actively squashing resistance along the Cilician coast, which was notorious for pirating. (Yes these are the same Cilician pirates of the movie Spartacus, except back then they would have referred to themselves as "Kilikian", instead of Silesians :) Cleaning out the coves gave the Persian fleet no place to land and threaten the army's lines of communication.  When Alexander heard reports that Darius was encamped at Sochoi he rushed eastwards and joined Parmenion's screening forces at Issus. There he and his generals debated the next course.

Darius' initial intent was to give battle on the open Syrian plains to exploit his numerical superiority, so he hung back around Sochoi.   Hearing that Alexander had recovered from his illness he sent the Royal treasury baggage caravan off to Damascus for safe keeping.  

March and countermarch
After waiting some time in Sochoi for Alexander to attack him, Darius seems to have become impatient and decided to move against Alexander. He must have heard that the Macedonians had unified their forces at Issus, and the Persian army and baggage train may well have stripped the area of supplies, which may have pressured him into action. The logical move would have been to withdraw to the south and cover the Belen pass as Darius already knew that Macedonian troops had secured that passage, but for some unknown reason the Persians were loathe to hold passes during the whole campaign against Alexander (excepting the Persian Gates which was way too late, later on after Gaugamela, another scenario to be addressed later :)   A Macedonian expatriate named Amyntas supposedly told Darius that holding the plains was the least dangerous course of action faced with Alexander's superior army.  Darius, according to the tradition, disdained the good advice, and decided to risk all in a hammer blow.

Darius ordered the army to march north, cross the Amanus range, find the enemy and fight them, head on.... man to man.  His cavalry would ride them into the dust. The army made the move in reasonably good time, after debauching from the unguarded passes Darius' scouts rode up to an almost empty camp at Issus. Where had Alexander gone?

Alexander also yearned for action and a chance to kill or capture Darius, but advancing head on across the Amanic gates and facing him in the open plains would favor Darius, and would be the expected approach. Alexander decided instead to force march to the Belen pass and either hold the narrows against Darius, or be in position to attack Darius from behind his Sochoi position. Good news came from Ionia where for the first time a Macedonian naval action went well , and Orontobates' army was repelled form Halicarnassus.  With this good news, Alexander left his sick and hospitals and those unfit for duty at Issus, and pressed south towards the Jonah pass to Myriandrus.  The weather turned against him, and thunderstorms drenched the troops. The army waited in camp for a day while the ground dried out.  Alexander seemed to be perplexed as he assumed that Darius would move south at meet him in the Belen pass.   Parmenion for once, seems to have convinced Alexander that the prudent thing would be to wait for Darius to move to him in the constricted ground, rather than rush out onto the Assyrian plains.  But nobody could find any trace of the Persians.  Alexander and the Macedonian army had no idea that Darius had marched north and captured Issus behind them.

While Alexander was at Myriandrus, the Persians overran the Macedonian garrison and hospital at Issus and executed many, and mutilated others. Some Macedonians with cut off hands were paraded around the army to show off its awesome size, then they were let go to warn Alexander. Darius convinced himself that Alexander's army had fled from him in a panic, and rather than fight had run south before the Persian advance. He moved the army fifteen miles south and took up a position along the river Pinaurus (Payas) that ran from steep hills inland to the coast on the west. Some portions of the river bank were made more defensible, but Darius failed to guard the Jonah pass  further south. Obviously he felt content to build a wall of troops across the plain with his army, and awaited news of Alexander's capitulation.  (What if Darius had sent troops to delay Alexander at the pillars of Jonah?).

The tortured survivors of the massacre at Issus reached the Macedonian camp.  Alexander was completely surprised by Darius' rapid move and now had to retrace his steps. Naval scouting parties confirmed that a large army was at the Pinaurus and setting up camp.  The weary Macedonian troops rushed back towards the Jonah pass in yet another forced march. Alexander kept up morale by pointing out that any opportunity to face the Persians was welcome, even if they were surrounded.  Alexander sent troops to occupy the Jonah pass ahead of the army...he must have been relieved that he did not have to fight his way through, as time was on the Persian's side. If food ran scarce, or the rumors of their predicament began to fester; his army's morale could suffer. The army bivouacked in the open, and slept in their march columns, they were to be armed and ready for action at the third watch.

Alexander roused the army before daybreak and they started the nearly eight mile march to the Pinaurus, through the Jonah pass which is, at times, only wide enough in places to allow four abreast.  This slowed down the march as he constantly was feeding units through and then deploying them on the other side. The cavalry were last, just in case even worse news might come... that the Persians were following the rear. The army made its way slowly onto the widening plains until they reached sight of Darius' army, no Persian troops had even scouted their advance or harassed them in the least.

Darius takes a reality check
The advance of Alexander's army sent locals fleeing in panic ahead of them. When these panicked civilians reached Darius' army, the Persian troops seemed to panic and scatter. The Persian cavalry and baggage had set up camps all over the plain in front of the river, so that the whole area was covered by carts, baggage, and pack animals. Curtius states the army was more prepared for a march than action.  Darius was not immediately able to come to grips with what was happening, his perception that Alexander was fleeing before him was dashed, now he had to fight, and he had let the army slip into lax order.  Persian troops wandered around, some to the rear, some to the front to see if the rumors were true. One can surmise that it was with difficulty that Darius' generals were able to put together a coordinated deployment. First he sent out his cavalry and skirmishers to cover the front of the army while the non-combatants withdrew, and the generals harangued their troops into some order of a battleline.  He possibly entertained creating a double envelopment of Alexander's forces, as once they were in sight they were drawn up at great depth, plowing onto the plain in 32 deep phalanxes. He sent a force of light troops to hold the hills on the right flank of Alexander's approach route. Either they were sent to delay Alexander, or they were to wait and attack him in the rear, while his cavalry overran the Macedonian wings, or maybe they were just to cover the withdrawel of thousand so non-combatants that wer cut-off  and working their way back the main lines along the hills.

The Macedonian army moved slowly forward, and continued to open up its front.  They reduced the depth of the phalanx as the plain widened before them. The Persian cavalry and light troops stayed well out of contact range, and when close to the Persian lines they were withdrawn across the river. The heavy cavalry under Nabarzanes went the right flank near along the coast, some lighter cavalry moved back to the Persian left wing. It was now late afternoon, nearing 4:30. Alexander had halted his army for a rest outside of bowshot, and redistributed his own cavalry, by sending the Thessalians from the right wing down behind the phalanx to the left.. The battle was initiated by the Agrianians  and a detachment of Companion cavalry on the right wing who pushed back the unenthusiastic Persian light troops into the mountains. Opening up more room for Alexander's army to deploy. Then slowly Alexander began his assault.
(What if Darius had deployed troops to disrupt Alexander's forces as they extended their frontage? Could the Greeks have pushed back the phalanx while Alexander's cavalry was waiting for room to deploy?)

The Armies
The Persian army that marched from Babylon is claimed by various sources to have numbered between 250,000 and 600,000 combatants. These accounts exaggerate the army size for dramatic effect.  Of course if one counts the myriad's of camp followers, servants and attendants of  the Royal army, then the total population of the mob could reach these numbers.   Given the eventual size of the battlefield at Issus, it can be reasonably estimated that Darius  had an  army of  70,000 troops on hand. Of these a portion were  massed levies, some of them armed only with "fire hardened sticks", according to Curtius. A complete Order of battle is impossible to divine from the disparate sources but below is a guess which allows at least a starting point for a game set-up.  Note that Duncan Head has agreed to share his notes, which can be seen in full in the following "Duncan Head's Issus analysis" section.  Duncan points out clearly that although the ancient sources disagree on details they tend to agree to some extent on the percentages of troop types.

The Macedonian army is fairly consistently documented and we can gather a close approximation of its strength from the sources. If anything Alexander's army is deflated in size to make the victory seem greater. A number of units seem under reported in strength, and definitely Alexander's phalanx is usually reported low because reinforcements are not calculated. Most of the histories make an assumption that a phalanx sub-unit of taxi was 1536 men, but it is clear that there were enough troops to have each taxi contain 2000 phalangites. (The Hypaspists were probably 4000 strong as well, instead of the usually quoted 3000).  This immediately increases Alexander's phalanx from 12,000, to 16,000.  (see Luke Ueda Sarson for more details on this).  Are all the other troops in his army under reported as well? Certainly the Companions and Thessalians may have been stronger as well. There are also whole groups of troops that seem to be part of the campaign that are not listed. Up to seven thousand Thracians, Triballians, and Illyrians are left out of many lists of this army.

So if Alexander's army is too small, the opposite is true of the Persians, as all the accounts make Darius' forces too large to fit onto the battlefield, even with massed depth. For example, if thirty thousand Greek hoplites were involved their front would cover over a mile (1875 yards) even if drawn up at the ridiculous depth of 32 ranks.  Such a deployment would cover the frontage of Alexander's army, cavalry and infantry, even if the phalanx was deployed at 8 ranks.   Other information points to the how the numbers were inflated. For example, we are told  by various sources that 8000-12000 Greeks survived the battle. This makes sense considering that the Greeks won their part of the battle and  retired mostly unscathed, and are specifically mentioned as being spared in the pursuit.  It is extremely unlikely that the Greeks lost many men in the battle as they won for the most part on their front, and a number of sources describe them as retiring in good order from   the field. Somehow 18,000 Greeks vaporize in the histories to fit the known numbers later on that assembled with Darius, went back to Greece, or retreated to Phrygia. 

Another key tidbit is offered in the account of the battle. As Alexander had dispatched a force to deal with the Persians surrounding his right flank, Arrian states "At the same time he further strengthened his right by a contingent of Agrianes and Greek mercenaries which he drew up in line, and so outflanked the Persian left." (Arrian Book II, 9)  This is interesting as it relates that Alexander was able to cover Darius' battleline and extend further, and outflank their left.  A woefully outnumbered force rarely has enough troops to cover an enemy frontage, let alone extend beyond their line. 

So if the mercenary number of 30,000 is improbable, then what is a "likely" number, and can the resulting ratio be applied to the rest  of the army. If one accepts that at most 12000 Greeks were on the Persian side, then all the other inflated numbers can be ratcheted downwards in a similar relationship. For example the 30,000 reported cavalry have the same problems as the Greeks, they just don't have enough room to deploy in the area on the coast unless drawn up in the impossible depth only seen CGI enhanced sword and sandal, and fantasy motion picture epics. The following guesses are then used to describe both armies, and are then used as reference for the real purpose of all this blather.. to build a wargames army.

Persian OOB
(The numbers here are derived from the comparison numbers given by Duncan. The inflated numbers from the sources have been reduced by a third to create a probable army strength, that could fit on the Issus plain, deployed in deep formation, but not unreasonable masses.)

Persian advanced forces:
6,000 Heavy cavalry (retired to the right wing)    Barcanians 1, Armenians, Persians.
5000 light infantry, mixed slingers and archers (retired to cover the center of the army)
2000  Median and Hyrcanian cavalry (retired to the left flank)

Persian right wing:
10,000 kardakes   (split as 4000 kardaka hoplites, and 6000  kardaka peltasts, slingers and archers ?) 2
1000 Mardian archers 3

Persian center:
1000 kinsmen (3000 is far too many cavalry too fit behind the line hoplites, as other numbers have been chopped by a third these have as well).
10,000 Greek hoplites and peltasts (10,000 to 12,000 Greeks are reported as surviving the battle and escaping to Greece and Asia )

20,000? Levies from Armenia, Derbices 4 , Barcanians, other Black Sea coastal (Parikanians?) 5, and Caspian Sea troops  "drawn up in great depth"  
(Not all of the army probably marched to Issus as some must have been left to guard the passes, and Sochoi, and then garrison Issus itself.... this is one possible way to peel off many of the levy troops in Darius' horde.) 

Persian left wing to the hills:
10,000 kardakes      (split as 4000 kardaka hoplites, and 6000   kardaka peltasts, slingers and archers ?)
1000 Mardian archers

Troops in the hills surrounding Alexander's right flank:
3000-5000 Light and Skirmisher infantry, and thousand of stragglers, onlookers, and non-combatants. (The size and effectiveness of these troops has been severely truncated in my estimate here, there may have been more troops on this out-flanking wing, but they were completely ineffective, and many could have been camp followers and stragglers described by Curtius that took to the hills when Alexander's army marched onto the plain.  The small force that drove them off certainly merits reducing the effective strength of the combat troops posted here).

Totals: 9000 horse and 59-61,000 foot,   18,000 hoplite or heavy infantry, 41-43,000 lighter armed, skirmishers and levy infantry.

Whatever its real size, the Persian army was still large enough to outweigh Alexander’s  forces.  The historian Curtius notes that other forces from Bactria and the Eastern provinces were unable to reach the army in time for the campaign.  One final thing to ponder is that with all the movement through passes in this swift moving campaign; if Darius' army had involved hundreds of thousand of troops then the maneuvers ascribed to it would have been logistically impossible.  If Darius only took his effective troops with him to Issus, the myriad's of extras described by the sources could have been left behind in the Assyrian plains to guard lines of communications.

Notes to the Persian OOB:
1 - Curtius describes the Barcanian  cavalry and infantry as armed with double headed axes and light round shields (caetra).  These "Barcanians" were originally from the city of Barca in Libya/Egypt.  This city rebelled and was sacked by the Persians and the citizens were enslaved and moved to  a new city near Bactria also called Barca. This may explain their unusual armament of double headed axes and caetra as described by Curtius. Since they were from Bactria it is possible that some portion rode armored horses (Olmstead page 148-9).
2- The equipment of the Kardaka infantry is much debated.  Here I opted for a combination of light armored "hoplites" with large shields, and lighter troops armed as peltasts but operating as line infantry. See the Karkakes information supplied by Duncan in his section.
3- The Mardii were Persian  tribesmen from the desert area around Persepolis. Originally famous brigands, by the time of Alexander' campaigns they were highly regarded as excellent archers in the old style (Olmstead 34).  I have split the 2000   Mardians given in Curtius into two brigades.
4- Derbices (or Derbikes) are listed by Olmstead (page 17) as being from the Black Sea area. They practiced geriatricide on their elders.
5- Parikanians are mentioned by Duncan Head, these were equated with Pactyans by Herodotus, Pacticia is near Gandara in the East.  Pactyans were archers in earlier armies.

Alexander's Army

Alexander's army had been constantly reinforced since crossing into Asia. Losses were not staggering and many units were stronger than at the Granicus battle the year before. Alexander's army was lean on the march, only combatants were allowed, and his total force probably may  not have exceeded  40,000 men.   As already stated above, a highly recommended and much more detailed description of the size and organization of Alexander's army by Luke Ueda Sarson, is on his excellent website:

Macedonian OOB

Left wing
Thessalian cav 2000  Allied Greek cav 700
Thracian and Illyrian* skirmishers 3000
Cretan archers 1000

Phalanx  12000
Hypaspists 2000
Companions 2000

Right wing
Paeonians and Lancers 800
Mac Archers 1000
Agrianians 1000
Agrianian or Thracian slingers 300
Greek Mercenary peltasts and  Illyrians* 3000
Squadron of Mercenary Greek cav 300

Greek league troops  5500
Veteran Mercenaries 4000

Grooms and pages 800? (these factor in as second line troops at Gaugamela, I feel they should count as a reserve light cavalry unit, even if most of the horses were replacements for Companion mounts)

Totals: 6,600 horse and 32,800 foot

Notes to the Macedonian OOB:
* Sources describe Alexander addressing his Illyrians and Thracian troops and yet the army descriptions leave off the Illyrians and Triballian troops known to be a part of the army at the start of the campaign and later at Gaugamela. The units with (*) above are likely candidates for inclusion of some Illyrian units.  I feel the Illyrians and Thracian troops are under reported in strength since they were expendable troops. Arrian states (book 2 page 117, Penquin edition) that the Thracians, cavalry and Cretans in the van of the left flank, all had a proportion of the foreign mercenaries assigned to them... my guess these foreigners are the Tribbalians, and Illyrians, as well as the reserve Greek hoplites.

The Battleground
This is another situation where there is controversy.... in other words; the location of battlefield is not well defined by identifiable landmarks.  Historians, and topographers have bickered over which river south of Issus is the ancient Pinaurus.  Two likely candidates have been discussed, the closest to Issus is the Deli river. That river has been assumed to be the Issus battlesite for many years.  Lately it has been better argued that the Payas (a bit further south) is the proper battlefield location, as it has a plain wide enough to fit the description of the battle. This is for two reasons. One, the width of the plain Deli is too wide, as Callisthenes (as quoted by Polybius) claims a width of  "not more than 1400 stades" which is about a mile and a half of relatively open ground. Since the light troops extended into the hills, we can assume that the actual area of the battlefield was probably not much more than two miles wide.   including the foothills, the width of the Payas battlefield covers 3828 yards  Also, since we are told that Alexander's army march from the Jonah pass that very morning, we can estimate the distance from there to the battlefield. Engels states that an army of Alexander's size would take 7 hours to pass through the pillars of Jonah, which is 7.75 miles from the Payas, and 16.25 from the Deli.   After a dawn rousting and a seven hour delay at the pass, Alexander's troops would need at least 2 1/2 hours to reach the Persian line, at a brisk  3.5 mph pace. Most accountings place the time of the start of the battle at 4:30, or late afternoon, so there is time for Alexander to have rushed to the Payas, but not enough daylight to get to the Deli. Engels delivers a hammer blow to the "Deli" theory in his appendix.

There are some other useful pictures here as well)

The Payas area encompasses a coastal plain, wider on the Persian side and narrower toward the Jonah pass.  Alexander's approach allowed him to widen his frontage and gradually extend his flanks, he could now see the enemy dispositions and the strength of their position. As Hammond states: page 89
"The position he (Darius) had chosen was exceptionally strong. On emerging from the steep mountainside the Payas today has a boulder strewn bed 35 meters wide, and shelving banks, sometimes eaten into by flood water."  The river cuts a bank into the rock toward the hills of up to 7 meters high, but then near a crossing point (where a modern bridge and highway intersects) the river flattens out to a gravel and rock bed with occasional stretches of low banks.  Gaps in these low banks were reinforced with stockades hastily erected during the deployment confusion.  Toward the coast the stream loses its rocks and becomes sandy and marshy toward the water itself. The rockiness of the stream bed is an important obstacle for unshod cavalry, as they cannot charge at speed across rocks, unless their hooves are hardened. The depth of the river is not mentioned as problem, but the barricaded low banks, and rocky river bed width aided the Greeks in their fight with the phalanx so these effects must be considered in any game scenario. Obviously, only dismounted light troops could negotiate the 5- 7 meters river cuts on the inland flank.


Much of the artwork on this page is from the palace of Versailles outside of Paris.  Louis XIV was a Alexanderophile and patterned his life after his hero.  The walls and ceilings of the palace are adorned with paintings of episodes of the life and conquests of Alexander. Many of the works are painted by Le Brun his court artist. The paintings are full of action, even though the armor and costumes may be stylized. One doesn't often see these works in print so I felt this was an excellent page to show them off. The painting on the right is of Louis XIV, depicting himself as Alexander on the hunt.






Darius army deployed for battle:
The heavy cavalry under Nabarzanes held the right flank.
A force of Kardakas foot lined on their left.
The Greek mercenaries held the center.
More kardaka footmen rolled up into the foothills.
Median and Hyrcanian cavalry covered the left flank
The front was covered by slingers, bowmen, and javelinmen.
Darius and his Royal kinsmen lined up behind the Greeks.
Masses of levy troops backed up the King.
On the left some light troops attempted to get behind Alexander's troops



Alexander's deployment:
The left wing:
Cretan archers, Thracian and Illyrian skirmishers covering the front
Then the  Thessalians and the Peloponessian Allied Greek cavalry under Parmenion
Next in line were the six battalions of the phalanx.
The right wing:
In front the Agrianes, Macedonian archers, and some peltasts
The Hypaspists lined up next to the phalanx, with Alexander
on their right the Companions, then the Paeonian and lancer cavalry.

Alexander's right wing was covered by a small force of cavalry Agrianians and slingers, these troops ran off the Persian threat from the hills

The League Greek troops were held back in reserve.

The Battle

"Having thus marshaled his men, he caused them to rest for some time, and then led them forward, as he had resolved that their advance should be very slow. For Darius was no longer leading the foreigners against him, as he had arranged them at first, but he remained in his position, upon the bank of the river, which was in many parts steep and precipitous; and in certain places, where it seemed more easy to ascend, he extended a stockade along it. By this it was at once evident to Alexander's men that Darius had become cowed in spirit. But when the armies were at length close to each other, Alexander rode about in every direction to exhort his troops to show their valor, mentioning with befitting epithets the names, not only of the generals, but also those of the captains of cavalry and infantry, and of the Grecian mercenaries as many as were more distinguished either by reputation or any deed of valor. From all sides arose a shout not to delay but to attack the enemy." Arrian

The hills and valleys swarmed with Persian troops and non-combatants.  Darius’ kinsmen, mounted on large Niseaean chargers held the center.  Behind them, Darius stood tall in his Royal chariot.   To the left and right up to ten to twelve thousand Greek Hoplites under the Polemarch Thymondas guarded the riverbanks.  On each flank large masses of the Kardakes extended to the hills and ocean. Some these Kardakes were armed with hoplite shields and spears, and were deemed the Persian's  hasty answer to Alexander’s phalanx. Some Kardaka units formed into units of peltasts, and maybe provide slingers and archers as well.  Callisthenes' account differs from Arrian's, he places all the Greeks from the shore to the center, then the Kardakes extend to the hills.   The symmetry of Arrian's account seems more likely for a Persian army, but since there was confusion forming the battleline it is possible both accounts are correct to some extent.  Behind the front lines the levies formed up in useless masses…at least they made an  impressive display.

A screening force of Persian skirmishers held the high ground on Alexander’s right flank.  The excellent Persian cavalry under Nabarzanes was pulled back behind the river near the coastline.  Alexander immediately dealt with the threat to his right flank and sent in Agrianians and slingers reinforced by a squadron of Companions and mercenary cavalry.   These cleared the hills and the Persians fled.  Alexander arrayed his forces in the typical fashion with the Companions on the right wing, the Hypaspists to their left and then the six taxeis of the phalanx in oblique order to the left.  In front, the Agrianians, Cretans and other skirmishers screened the advance.  On the far left Parmenion commanded the Thessalian and Peloponnesian cavalry, with strict orders to maintain touch with the ocean and not be outflanked.  Alexander's Greek League troops were held back, as there was little desire to get them stuck in with the mercenaries in Persian service.

Alexander's Assault
After a deliberate march to contact and a short rest, the battle started abruptly as Alexander’s wing arrived at the river first.  While the Companions waited for the oblique line of phalanxes to catch up, they were fired on by Mardian archers across the river.  This unsettled the horses and Alexander lost patience and charged in without waiting for the phalanx to close up. It is likely that he charged across the river with the Hypaspists, then the cavalry came over once a bridgehead was created.  

"But when they came within range of darts, Alexander himself and those around him, being posted on the right wing, dashed first into the river with a run, in order to alarm the Persians by the rapidity of their onset, and by coming sooner to close conflict to avoid being much injured by the archers. And it turned out just as Alexander had conjectured; for as soon as the battle became a hand-to-hand one, the part of the Persian army stationed on the left wing was put to rout; and here Alexander and his men won a brilliant victory."    Arrian

Curtius describes the Macedonians as armed with javelins as their bridgehead is assailed by the Persian infantry. As he does not specify clearly where this combat occurs it is possible that he is describing the initial crossing of the Hypaspists, and that some or all were armed with javelins. Luke Ueda Sarson once posted on the ancmed YahooGroup an idea that since the army anticipated a fight for the pass, the elite troops (and possibly the whole phalanx) may have been armed for fighting in restricted ground. Once the Hypaspists gained a footing on the escarpment their swords made short work of any Mardians or Kardakes troops opposite them. With some elbow room, Alexander could start feeding the rest of squadrons of Companions across the river.

The Mardians fled before the combined assault of heavy cavalry and infantry.  Then the Kardakes in their rear broke as the Macedonians bore down on them.  Within minutes the whole Persian left wing routed to the rear .  (All wargamers will note the similarity of this 'reality' to one of those tabletop "bad-luck-dice" sprees that seem to seize the whole army at times! In a game of this battle, if such a spell of luck does not hit the Persians, then sometimes they can recover and hem in Alexander.   Of course, this is why we play the games :)  



"But the Grecian mercenaries serving under Darius attacked the Macedonians at the point where they saw their phalanx especially disordered. For the Macedonian phalanx had been broken and had disjoined towards the right wing, because Alexander had dashed into the river with eagerness, and engaging in a hand-to-hand conflict was already driving back the Persians posted there; but the Macedonians in the center had not prosecuted their task with equal eagerness; and finding many parts of the bank steep and precipitous, they were unable to preserve the front of the phalanx in the same line. Here then the struggle was desperate; the Grecian mercenaries of Darius fighting in order to push the Macedonians back into the river, and regain the victory for their allies who were already flying; the Macedonians struggling in order not to fall short of Alexander's success, which was already manifest, and not to tarnish the glory of the phalanx, which up to that time had been commonly pro claimed invincible. Moreover the feeling of rivalry which existed between the Grecian and Macedonian races inspired each side in the conflict. Here fell Ptolemy, son of Seleucus, after proving himself a valiant man, besides about 120 other Macedonians of no mean repute.Arrian

The Phalanx Recoils
By now, the phalanx arrived at the riverbank and began assaulting the Greek mercenaries across the river.  After a struggle, the Macedonians were repelled with heavy losses.   Near the coastline, the Persian cavalry literally bowled over a squadron of Thessalians. Parmenion’s faster cavalry struck at the slow moving heavy Persian horsemen  then turned around and galloped to safety, trading time with space, rather than attempt to duke it out in melee.  The Thessalians kept up their delaying hit and run tactics while Parmenion gathered the reserve troops and counterattacked, stabilizing the left wing. The Greeks on Darius' side seemed to have held up any  pursuit as Alexander's cavalry and the Hypaspists appeared on their left flank.



Alexander's spearhead was now knifing through the Persian left wing as the levies behind the main line were swept away with the routing Kardakes.  As he approached Darius from the rear, the Persian kinsmen threw themselves in his path.  The Companions fought through them and their bodies piled up in front of the Great King.  Alexander was wounded in the thigh as he came within a javelin throw of capturing Darius (the scene as possibly depicted in the famous "Issus mosaic" from Pompeii).  Darius seized with panic fled, or possibly his kinsmen grabbed the traces and dragged the chariot away as they saw the tide turning against them. Darius jumped out of the chariot an took to his horses as the ground broke up, by now the whole Persian center was in flight jamming the narrowing channels and paths out of the battlefield.


The Persian Rout
Alexander on Darius' ridge, could see the phalanx and left flank needed help, so he turned from pursuing Darius and charged the rear of the Greek mercenaries.  The Macedonian phalanx rallied and held.   The Greeks began to back away.  The Persian Royal Guards were now surrounded, and fled or died, but they had saved the King.  It must have been a moment similar to the raising of the flag at Mount Suribachi at Iwo Jima, the Macedonians and Thessalians and Persians could all see Alexander in his shining armor along with Companions occupying the center of the line, and no sight of the Great King.  As dusk set in the Persian cavalry on the seashore fled back across the river, hampered by their heavy armor.  They trampled the crowded masses of their own infantry attempting to escape.  The Thessalians rode down the Persians as the their horses bogged down in the sand along the coast.

As night fell, the Macedonians pursued and slaughtered the fugitives for many miles.  Eventually darkness allowed an end to the slaughter. Exaggerated accounts say that 110,000 Persians were killed and captured, Macedonian losses were but 500 killed.  Darius lost his chariot, his mantle, shield, bow and bowcase, and worse;   his camp with his wife, mother and daughters. He fled back to Susa, all he had left was the treasury which fled from Damascus.  Alexander and his army savored the riches as they plundered Darius' camp... fastidious Alexander took a bath in the golden Royal bathtub.


"The next day, Alexander, though suffering from a wound which he had received in the thigh from a sword, visited the wounded, and having collected the bodies of the slain, he gave them a splendid burial with all his forces most brilliantly marshaled in order of battle. He also spoke with eulogy to those whom he himself had recognized performing any gallant deed in the battle, and also to those whose exploits he had learnt by report fully corroborated. He likewise honored each of them individually with a gift of money in proportion to his desert."  Arrian


Darius fled with 4000 troops back to the East, and gathered his treasury at Damascus and recouped.  He  offered to bribe Alexander as ransom for his family. Alexander refused. Some of Darius surviving troops including some Greek mercenaries fled north into Phrygia and became the nucleus of new army under Nabarzanes. Another larger group of Greeks seems to have marched deliberately off the field, taking full advantage of the pandemonium, straight through the Macedonian lines south. According to Curtius up to 8000 of them were able to get to Trapesius and re-embark on Persian ships there. These troops then went on to take Crete, and eventually joined King Agis III of Sparta to finally open up a second front against Alexander.

Alexander had gained everything he needed, he had decisively beat the Persian army, allowing him free access to the ports of Phoenicia. As he reduced them in his path, the Persian fleet would shrivel up. Now the shoe was on the other foot as Alexander would start to strangle the Persian strategy in the Aegean.

The short battle was so anti-climatic after so dramatic a build-up. Darius' host initially did everything right and pulled off a strategic move of Napoleonic brilliance. But all Alexander needed to do was come to grips with the Persians on the open field and his army bowled them over.  Within a few twilight hours the campaign and Darius' army was ended.  Of course once Darius had 'trapped' Alexander, he did nothing to help his cause. If he had sent Amyntas with some Greek troops to fight for the Jonah pass, maybe Alexander's men would have seen the desperate situation they were in. Instead he laxadaisically aligned his troops along the river, and allowed Alexander the full initiative of where to attack.

Alexander was probably at his worst in this campaign. He blindly rushed south in a move to strike at Darius, but either did not have the troops or just failed to cover the Amanic Gates. Once he reached Myriandrus and Darius was not opposite him in the Syrian Gates, he seems to have been at a loss as to what to do next. Some believe the rainstorms drenching the camp is a fabrication to cover for Alexander vacillating for once in his career.  However, the news that Darius was behind the army seems to have snapped him into action. His confidence in turning around the army certainly kept any kind of panic from filtering down. He immediately addressed the troops and told them that this is what they all were waiting for, the final confrontation with Darius and inevitable victory. He kept his army moving, there was to be no delay to allow the troops time to think about their dilemma. As Alexander marched into battle he rested the men, knowing that they had been forced marching for days, and there was no chance to form camp and delay, even though daylight was fading.  His immediate tactical moves allowed him to counter the Persian attacks on his left, brush away the rabble in his right flank, and his deployment allowed him to get his best shock troops opposite looser order Persian footmen guarding the river.  Alexander was supremely confident that once that riverline was breached then the "cowards" that hid behind it would run... and he was right.   His rush at Darius probably saved the Macedonian phalanx from really serious losses, as the Greeks seemed to have given up once Darius and his army fled.  But their success is clear especially if some of these merceanries were able to march to Tripesius. Nabarzanes' cavalry had initial successes, but when the Thessalians began to trade space for time they were unable to catch up with them. If Darius could have hung on longer, then Parmenion might have run out of space to trade.

Ultimately Issus should be either a draw, or near run Persian victory. Had Darius been able to get some his best troops opposite Alexander's "scwherpunkt" he may have survived. The Cavalry battle was going his way, and the Macedonian phalanx's attempt to cross the opposed river failed, if his left had just held on and absorbed the majority of Alexander's strike troops, then things may have been much different. Of course, these what-ifs are why folks like to play games, and the next section details how to work all of this into a wargame.

Special thanks to: Mike Bruck, Jérôme Grebet, Luke Ueda Sarson, and Duncan Head for providing materials and feedback.

Duncan Head, Armies of the Macedonian and Punic Wars, 359 BC to 146 BC (Wargames Research Group 1982)
Duncan Head, The Achaemenid Persian Army (Montvert Publications 1992)
Ospreys:  Alexander the Great, Nick Secunda and John Warry (Osprey Military 1998), The Ancient Greeks, Nick Secunda (Osprey Elite1986), The Persian Army 560-330BC, Nick Secunda (Osprey Elite1992), ).
John Drogo Montagu, Battles of the Greek & Roman World, (Greenhill Books 2000)
Paolo Moreno, Apelles: The Alexander Mosaic, (Skira  2002)
Peter Green, Alexander of Macedon 356-323 BC A Historical Biography, (University of California Press 1991)
J.F.C Fuller, The Generalship of Alexander the Great, (Minerva press 1960)
A. B. Bosworth, Conquest and Empire, (Cambridge University Press)
Donald W. Engels, Alexander the Great and the Logistics of the Macedonian Army, (University of California Press 1978) 
N. G. L. Hammond, The Genius of Alexander the Great, (University of North Carolina Press 1997)

Diodorus Siculus. Diodorus of Sicily in Twelve Volumes with an English Translation by C. H. Oldfather. Vol. 4-8. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press 1989.
Plutarch. The Age of Alexander, Translated by Ian Scott-Kilvert, Penguin edition, 1980
Arrian.  The Campaigns of Alexander, Translated by Aubrey De Selincourt, Penguin edition, 1971
Herodotus.  The Histories, Translated by Aubrey De Selincourt, Penguin edition, 1974
Quintus Curtius Rufus.  The History of Alexander, Translated by John Yardley, Penguin edition, 1988
Xenophon.  The Persian Expedition, Translated by Rex Warner, Penguin edition, 1965

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