The Deathblow of Antiquity’s Largest Empire (Battle of Gaugamela Arbela)

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A Brief History

On October 1, 331 B.C., one of history’s most significant battles occurred: The Battle of Gaugamela in which Alexander the Great dealt a decisive defeat to the then largest empire the world had ever seen (at 3.08 million square miles the Persian Empire even surpassed the Roman Empire’s 2.51 million square miles!).  Yet, modern representations of this key battle that ended the Persian Empire are not entirely accurate…

Digging Deeper

Also known as the Battle of Arbella, the Battle of Gaugamela was Alexander the Great’s biggest victory.  It is ranked among The Fifteen Decisive Battles of the World: from Marathon to Waterloo (1851) according to Sir Edward Shepherd Creasy and was the subject of a full episode of the History Channel’s Decisive Battles (2004).  The epic battle was also featured as one of two major action sequences in Oliver Stone’s 2004 epic film Alexander.  Well, sort of, at least.

In the actual historical battle, Alexander the Great of Macedon with 47,000 Greeks and Macedonians faced off against Darius III of Persia with 34,000-100,000 Persians and Greek mercenaries.  The Persian forces included the famed Immortals from 300 and even war elephants.  Despite controlling the world’s largest empire to that point in history and having a massive army that also included scythed chariots and archers, Alexander’s military genius and the superiority of the Greco-Macedonian phalanx with their long pikes ultimately won the day and dealt a decisive blow to one great empire, while serving as another step on the rise of another.  To that end, the battle was a major shift in human history.  Even though Alexander’s empire splintered just over a decade after his death, his successors still Hellenized large portions of ancient Europe, Asia, and Africa over the course of the next three centuries.

It is of course not surprising then that Stone would select such a monumental battle as an opening action showcase for his film.  The thing is, however, that in recreating the battle, Stone plays a bit fast and loose with history.  For example, not only are the war elephants not depicted in the cinematic version battle, when they do show up later in the movie, the Macedonians act as if they had never encountered them before, which of course is not historically correct.  Moreover, Stone actually combines the events of the Battle of Gaugamela with what occurred in the earlier Battle of the River Granicus (334 B.C…yep, three years earlier!).  Historically, Alexander was narrowly saved from death by Cleitus the Black.  In the incident, Alexander was knocked down and about to be killed by a Persian when just then Cleitus severed the Persian’s arm.  Nevertheless, Stone has this sort of near-death experience occur at Gaugamela.

But should we be so hard on Stone?  Well, here is the most frustrating thing about studying Alexander the Great: the ancient sources themselves are all over the place.  For example, the Ancient sources estimate that the Persian army at Gaugamela numbered from 250,000 to 1,000,000.  Moreover, they disagree on casualties.  According to Arrian, Alexander lost 100 infantry and 1,000 cavalry, but Curtius Rufus claims they lost 300 infantry, while Diodorus Siculus puts the number at 500 infantry.  It is even worse when we compare the alleged loss of Persian forces.  While Curtius Rufus claims Persian lost 40,000 of its soldiers, Diodorus Siculus jumps the number up to 90,000 and this time Arrian has the most inflated number when he claims over 300,000 Persians were captured.  How can they have such disparate statistics.  Tragically, the original primary sources on Alexander have been lost to history.  As such, what we have to work with come many years later.  Both Arrian and Curtius Rufus were Roman historians writing in the first century A.D., over 300 years after the battle took place and even Greek historian Diodorus Siculus wrote in the first century B.C., still centuries after the battle.  In other words, what you think you may know about Alexander the Great might not be true!

Historical Proof

We obviously recommend the aforementioned book by Creasy and History Channel documentary and Stone’s film is good for entertainment value as well.

For a good web source, see also http://www.stfrancis.edu/content/historyinthemovies/alexander.htm

For more on the importance of key moments in Alexander’s life, see Arnold Toynbee’s classic Some Problems of Greek History and Josiah Ober’s “Conquest Denied” in What If?, subtitled What If?: The World’s Foremost Military Historians Imagine What Might Have Been (1999), which asks, “What if Alexander the Great had died at the Battle of the Granicus River?”

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About Author

Dr. Zar

Dr. Zar graduated with a B.A. in French and history, a Master’s in History, and a Ph.D. in History. He currently teaches history in Ohio.