Thursday, March 31, 2011

Alexander's Lost Dream

After the battle of Gaugamela in 331 BC, the back of the Persian Empire had been broken. Shortly thereafter King Darius, the leader or Persia was killed by a satrapy and relative, Bessus. A satrap was a local kingdom whose loyalty lay with a greater power. In this case it was Persia, later loyalty would be to Macedonia. With only remnants of the Persian army remaining and a few indignant satrapies remaining the gates to the east were essentially wide open. Although Bessus claimed himself king, he was merely a thorn in Alexander’s side. What lay beyond Bessus was a vast new world. It was the true prize for the conquering Alexander. It could have been Alexander’s dream. Yet it would also be the site of his greatest disappointment. This was where his invincible army came up against an immovable force that finally led Alexander to turn around.

The death of Darius did not bring an end to the Persian-Macedonian Wars. With Darius out of the picture, Bessus proclaimed himself king. Alexander was never content with coming to any peaceful conclusion of the war with Persia. In his mind, the Greek world had suffered mightily at the hands of the Persians in the two previous Greco-Persian Wars. It was Alexander’s duty to exact revenge. In Alexander’s mind, this could not be achieved until the entirety of the Persian Empire was conquered with him at the reins. Previously in the war, peace had been offered by the King Darius. The entire Persian Empire west of the Euphrates was guaranteed for Alexander. This was not enough. The Hellenes had suffered too much at the hands of the Persians in their long, heated rivalry. Plus in Alexander’s mind, land west of the Euphrates had been spoken for as a result of a series of Persian defeats in that region. Alexander wanted it all and there was no Persian force that could stop him.

One of the renegade provinces that shared in Bessus’s desire to stand up to Alexander the Great was the satrapy of the Persian province Persis. The leader of Alexander’s opposition was named Ariobarzanes. The battle was fought in a valley known as the Persian Gates. Valleys are great defensive locations. This was especially true when facing Alexander. Alexander relied heavily on using his infantry to approach from one angle to keep enemy forces at bay, while his highly mobile cavalry could come around and entrap or smash through enemy forces. This tactic became known as the hammer and anvil strategy. The hammer and anvil strategy was used with repeated success for Alexander as in the battle of Issus. The narrowness of a valley prevented the type of mobility open plains of Issus had allowed. The Persians effectively held the valley for roughly a month. It took a local to show Alexander a way around the valley for the Macedonians to deal the final crushing blow to the entrapped Persians.

The last of the major Persian resistance was defeated and only little of the remaining known world was left to be conquered. The known world according to the Hellenes ended at the farthest extent of the Persian Empire, eastern India. It is believed that little or nothing was known by the Greeks about anything east of the Persian border. With Persian resistance out of the way, nothing was stopping Alexander from approaching the edge of the world.

Upon entering what is today Pakistan, Alexander was able to achieve the surrender of many local chieftains. Alexander had proven himself a great conqueror and was thus able to secure their submission. Many of the local chieftains who met with Alexander in the satrapy of Gandhara agreed to Alexander’s terms, but a few refused. The hill tribes of the Aspasioi, the Kambojas, and Assakenoi remained independent. These tribes put up a fierce resistence against Alexander. According to one source the Assakenoi were able to field 38,000 infantry, 30,000 cavalry, and 30 elephants against Alexander in one battle.

The tribes also chose not surrender right away but rather take defensive positions in cities all along Alexander’s path of conquest. So fierce was the resistance that the enraged Alexander burned down the defensive cities of Massaga and Ora. Alexander was eventually able to move past these tribes with the help of local leaders who supported Alexander. Alexander enticed supportive local leaders with land as in the aftermath of the Siege Aornos, a well fortified city.

Victory allowed Alexander to move further east into the region of Punjab. With the support of a local Kingdom known as the Taxiles, Alexander advanced past the Indus River towards the Hydaspes River. At the battle of the Hydaspes River, the local King Porus fielded a large army to meet Alexander’s advance. Porus’s army included a mix of infantry cavalry, chariots, and war elephants.

The forces of Porus took up a strong position along the Hydaspes River bank. Alexander’s forces sat on the other side of the side of the river. Alexander was required to come up with innovative maneuvering schemes to cross the Hydaspes to meet the challenge of King Pours. Essentially what Alexander had to do to win the battle was leave a portion of his army on the river banks as a diversionary force. King Porus’s forces, waiting on the other side of the river bank could see Alexander’s forces remaining stationary. At night Alexander would create sounds of movement to make King Pours think Alexander was readying for attack. The attack never came. King Porus began to disregard the sounds of battle preparation . Because nothing had ever amounted from Alexander’s diversionary sounds, King Porus disregarded the diversion the day of the attack. King Porus waited for a direct crossing.

Secretly Alexander personally took troops further down the river, to a spot where there was an island in the middle of the river. There Alexander could land his forces to springboard an attack on the other side of the river. The island landing allowed for a shorter and safer transportation required to cross the river. Alexander with his small diversionary force hoped to draw King Porus away from the river banks allowing for the bulk of the Macedonian army waiting on their side of the river, to cross. The diversion worked and King Porus was trapped. Despite falling victim to Alexander’s trap, King Porus and his men fought on bravely. So well did King Porus’s units fight that it actually impressed Alexander. In the aftermath of the battle Alexander befriended the imposing, some say 7 foot tall King Porus and allowed him to rule his former territory and more provided by Alexander, so long as acknowledged he ruled under Alexander.

It is important here to note why Alexander found his dream in the Indian subcontinent. Alexander was first and foremost a conqueror. This why he did not settle for peace deals against Persia. Alexander’s conquering nature is why he decided to cross over India into the first place. Alexander wanted to be ruler of the known world. Alexander loved conflict, and loved using his military genius to overcome great odds to defeat his opponents. Over the years Alexander had won so many hard fought victories despite often being outnumbered, taken many “impregnable” cities and fortresses, and allowed no natural obstacles stand in his way. In his mind, he and his army were invincible. India, with its huge population and its largely unknown nature provided a place where Alexander could outwit, outfight, and conquer indefinitely. For all that Alexander was, one thing he was not was restive. Until the day he died Alexander had designs on conquest. Yet it is these designs for unending conquest in the face truly insurmountable odds that made Alexander’s troops do the one thing no commander could in the field could do: put an end to his conquests.

What was it about India that made the Macedonian army who’s spearheading advance had never been dulled finally decide enough was enough? For one thing Alexander’s troops had been on a non-stop campaign from the years 335 BC until the battle of the Hydaspes in 326 BC. Alexander’s army had proven too successful. Home was far away and the inspiration of Alexander could only do so much the deeper into foreign lands the army got. Secondly, tribes on the Indian subcontinent had proven themselves worthy fighters. Resistance was always fierce and they were able to field diverse armies that included elephants. Elephants were crucial because the hammer and anvil strategy required the crushing power of cavalry to act as the anvil. Elephants with their grandiose size and loud cries scared horses. Thus Alexander when fighting forces that included elephants had to factor how to draw away the elephants from his own cavalry.

The greatest threat to Macedonian advance was the people who lay ahead in India, the one’s Alexander had not even warred with yet. The empires of the Nanda and the Gangaridai were truly the immovable objects that Alexander’s army could not defeat. It would have been nearly impossible for the depleted forces of Alexander’s armies match the rested and waiting armies of these two empires. This is saying a lot for an army that repeatedly pushed the boundaries of what impossible meant. According to the ancient historian Plutarch Alexander’s forces were, “violently opposed to Alexander’s,” furthering campaigns against the Nanda and Gangaridai. After years of campaigning Alexander’s army had roughly 20,000 men left to fight. The Nanda-Gangaridai Alliance could field a total of an estimated 294,000 troops. Nanda-Gangaridai forces were comprised of 200,000 infantry, 80,000 cavalry, 8,000 chariots, and 6,000 war elephants. If estimates regarding the size of the Indian armies and Roman armies are true, the Indians could field a substantially larger army than Rome could during the reign of Augustus. It is difficult to verify these numbers. What can be said for certain is whether or not these numbers are accurate it was believed by the soldiers that the Nanda-Gangaridai forces were on the order of this size. Furthermore both empires were known for having huge populations and since much was not known about their lands it was hard for Alexander’s army to know how great resistance could have been. In addition Alexander’s troops had just completed a war with the Persian Empire who fielded colossal armies as well and all they had to show for it was continued conquests. The men were tired and their opponents were too strong, too fierce, and too well equipped.

Ultimately Alexander’s dreams lived and died in India. India was the place where he could try to conquer endlessly. Alexander loved the competition and the thrill of beating the odds. His army though could not stand by his dream. They had to put an end to the conquests. Alexander believed his army was invincible, yet his army knew they met their match. Alexander was so angered by the end of his conquests that upon turning around from India some believe Alexander made his forces take the more difficult path back to Babylon as punishment. Many soldiers died along the way. Alexander never lost his dream of unending conquest. If he could not do so far from home in India, he would conduct his conquests a little closer to home. Had Alexander been able to fulfill his dream, he would have undoubtedly altered the course of history. Alexander had his eyes set on the three places that would come to dominate the period from after his death until the Middle Ages. Alexander had his eyes set on Rome, Carthage, and the Arabian peninsula. Alexander passed away before he could conduct those campaigns. It was Alexander’s insatiable appetite for conquest that made him great, but it also caused the mutiny exposing a dissatisfied army as Alexander’s Achilles heal. The realities of maintaining a military limited Alexander’s unsatisfiable dream.