Ancient History has always been my other passion, and when I decided that a break was needed after 6 years of NATO vs Warsaw Pact, I had no doubts on the next subject: Alexander the Great, and his legendary campaign against the Achaemenid empire.
To my surprise, I discovered that the more you dig in Alexander’s history, the less certainties you have. This made the research phase even more interesting to me, as collecting and verifying data wasn’t enough: A real interpretation effort was needed.
Let’s see what I mean in practical terms. What follow is the first part of a work-in-progress diary detailing some interesting facts, evaluations, and decisions we encountered during development. As I said, in most cases uncertainty reigns sovereign, and the “most accepted theory” was followed – or in its absence, the most plausible one.
And remember, the Gods observe and judge your deeds. Send a Votive Tablet to info@TRLGames.com to reserve your place in Perdiccas’ Phalanx!
The Macedonian War Machine
The organisation and equipment of Alexander’s army are the most studied and documented among the forces involved in the campaign, but even here there’s ample space for doubts. Using both classical sources and modern studies, it’s quite safe to assume that Alexander’s army included the following troop types:
Phalanx – The Anvil
The feared heavy infantry used as anvil during a battle, organised in units (Taxis) of probably 1500 men each. Each Taxis was usually 16 ranks deep, while its width depended on the tactical needs: Open Order (4 cubits or 2 meters for each soldier), Standard Order (2 cubits or 1 meter for each soldier) or Locked Shields Order (1 cubit or 50cm for each soldier).
There are different opinions about the equipment’s details, but everyone agrees on the basics: A 4 to 6 meters spear (Sarissa), a short sword (Makhaira or Kopis), a body armour made of several layers of linen and leather (Linothorax or Kottybhos), a helmet (Konos), a small shield (Aspis), greaves (Knemides).
A particularly interesting document on this subject is a decree by Philip V, defining the fines for missing equipment. It must be noted that, differently from the Greek hoplite, the equipment of a phalanx soldier was paid and supplied by the state, so “losing” it was not considered as acceptable:
‘[T]hose not bearing the weapons appropriate to them are to be fined according to the regulations:
for the kotthybos, two obols, the same amount for the helmet [konos], three obols for the sarissa, the same for the sword [makhaira], for the greaves [knemides] two obols, for the shield [aspis] a drachma. In the case of officers, double for the arms mentioned, two drachmas for the cuirass [thorax], a drachma for the half-cuirass [hemithorakion]. The secretaries and the chief assistants shall exact the penalty, after indicating the transgressors to the King.’
In The Fate of All, the Macedonian phalanx has some of the highest combat and morale value, and a superiority in Heavy Infantry gives an advantage in Strategic Combat. Phalanx units also have a higher stacking limit when using Tactical Combat, allowing them to bring more “weight” in melee combat.
Hetairoi – The Hammer
The Royal Companions’ heavy cavalry, usually deployed on the right flank, was invariably the Hammer in every battle fought by Alexander.
Their designation as heavy cavalry doesn’t come from the equipment or armour, but from their battlefield tactics: Differently from most cavalry of the period, whose main goal was to attack the enemy on the flank or rear, the Heitairoi were also trained to charge frontally in a compact, wedge-shaped formation. This kind of tactics would have been suicidal against a phalanx but was extremely effective against troops of lower quality.
Each squadron of 200 horsemen was equipped with spears of up to 3.5 meters length (Xyston), curved swords (Kopis), helmet (probably of Boeotian type), and the classic linen / leater armour (Linothorax). The Agema squadron, 400 horsemen strong, was personally led by Alexander, and also acted as King’s bodyguard in battle.
In The Fate of All, a superiority in heavy cavalry gives an advantage in Strategic Combat. In Tactical Combat, heavy cavalry may also adopt a compact formation and charge.
Hypaspists – The Link
Despite the scarcity of information about them, the Hypaspists had the critical task of ensuring the continuity of the battle front between the Anvil (The Phalanx) and the Hammer (The Heitairoi). This required a strong fighting power, combined with a good mobility to follow the advance and cover the flank of the cavalry charging the enemy line.
Most historians agree that, in order to accomplish their task, the Hypaspists had to be formed by hand-picked elite soldiers and equipped similarly to the Phalanx, but organised in smaller, more mobile formations of 1000 men. Their training probably included specific manoeuvres to extend the frontage and change facing without losing cohesion.
In The Fate of All, Hypaspists gives the same advantages of the Phalanx during Strategic Combat. In Tactical Combat, they are also more agile.
Peltasts – The Wasps
The word “Peltast” identifies light infantry units often deployed as skirmishers. In the classical sources the term is unfortunately used in an interchangeable manner for troops with different origin, equipment, and capabilities. In the end, it becomes impossible to distinguish one from another, and almost every modern historian has his own theory about them.
According to the most common, but contested, theory the Peltasts were organised in 500 men units equipped with light or no armour, a crescent-shaped shield (Pelte), two or more javelins, and a short sword. Some historian propends for a short spear in place of javelins, making them a sort of “light phalanx”.
Basically, Alexander’s army had three different types of Peltasts: The Agrianians, from a tribe in the regions just North of Macedonia; The Thracian, obviously from Thrace; The Mercenary, from Greece or Balcanic regions not under Macedon control.
Alexander had great consideration and trust for the Agrianians, as he often detached them to independent operations or used them for particularly dangerous assignments. Consequently, we have assigned them higher combat and morale values.
Prodromoi – The Jackals
Even in the case of the Prodromoi, the term is generically used by ancient sources to identify a light cavalry unit, with no particular attention to the differences or the exact equipment.
The Prodromoi were organised in 300 horsemen squadrons, equipped with swords, some kind of helmet, sometime with a light armour. Their operational tasks included reconnaissance, foraging, and raiding, while at tactical level they were used to cover the flanks, and surround and pursuit the enemy.
Regarding the main weapon, there were apparently three different kinds of Prodromoi: a javelin-armed one, a lance-armed one, and a short sarissa-armed one called a Sarissophoroi, a Macedonian specialty.
As it seems impossible even for professional historians to discern the different types, we opted for the following subdivision:
- Macedonian Prodromoi, armed with short Sarissa and with higher combat values
- Thracian Prodromoi, armed with javelin
- Others Prodromoi, armed with lance
Friends, Allies and Such
Thessalia, part of the Macedonian Kingdom, contributed to the expeditionary force with 1800 – 2000 heavy cavalry. Its equipment, organisation and quality was very similar to the Macedonian Hetairoi.
The League of Corinth, a federation of Greek city-states created and controlled by Macedonia, supplied at least 7000 hoplites and 600 – 1000 horsemen. This cavalry was probably heavier than the Prodromoi, but following the Greek tradition it was not trained to charge in close formation, therefore qualifying as light or possibly medium cavalry.
Mercenary troops (in most cases meaning once again Greek) of different types were also recruited: 3000 hoplites, 600 – 1000 Prodromoi, 1000 Peltasts, 1000 Slingers and 1000 Archers are the most probable figures.
The Achaemenid War Machine
If there’s some doubts about the Macedonian equipment and organisation, things get definitely more complicated with the Persians.
The classical sources (Arrian, Diodorus, Plutarch and such) present completely different and often ludicrous numbers for the Persian army, varying from one million to one hundred thousand, and usually have no detail about its equipment and organisation.
Modern estimates give a Persian army of about 100,000 men at Gaugamela, but every historian has his own version, with significant changes on critical details: Were the 10,000 Immortals present, or no more used in Darius III time? Were the elephants deployed or left at the camp? Were the Kardakes real heavy infantry, or they were still light infantry equipped as hoplites? Was the Bactrian cavalry really able to charge and manoeuvre like heavy cavalry? In modern studies, you may find every possible answer and its opposite.
In the end, the following points seem to be consistent with the available information and modern analysis:
- During the first year of Alexander’s invasion, the Achaemenid army was still formed and used in its traditional manner: mostly light and skirmish troops, predominantly cavalry, with elite units of medium infantry and cavalry and a significant contingent of mercenary heavy infantry.
- Each Persian Satrapy supplied several contingents of different troops types.
- The basic Persian tactical unit was of 1,000 men, both for infantry and cavalry.
- Javelin, bow, and sword were the predominant weapons. Armour and shield were usually light.
- After the defeat at Granicus, Darius started reforming the army to make it capable of facing the Macedonians (see Darius’ Rearming Program).
Regarding the numbers, the only certain thing seems to be that, except at Granicus, there was usually a damn lot of Persians. In The Fate of All, the Achaemenid empire is able to recruit vast number of troops, but the Persian commander will probably find that beyond a certain limit this becomes more a problem than a solution.
Darius’ Rearming Program
Darius III was no military genius, but probably deserves more consideration than he usually receives: He manoeuvred at least competently at operational level, and also tried some tactical innovation to beat an enemy he recognized as more efficient. Unfortunately for him, his opponent was Alexander the Great.
After being informed of the disastrous defeat at the Granicus, Darius correctly understood that the traditional Achaemenid army, formed by light infantry and cavalry supported by mercenary heavy troops, was no match for the Macedonians.
Therefore, he tried to reorganise the army following a “Greek – Macedonian” model. His best infantry (The Kardakes and probably the Melophoroi or Royal Foot Guard) started to be equipped and trained as hoplites; Some of his best cavalry from Bactria, Persia and probably Schytia started to use heavier armour and lances, and to train in charging as a compact formation. As a final and a bit desperate touch, the scythed chariot was also resurrected.
Some of these troops were fielded for the first time at the battle of Issus, 18 months after the defeat on the Granicus. It’s no surprise that a few months of training were not enough to turn soldiers used to fight for generations as light hit-and-run troops into hardened warriors able to stand their ground in a frontal clash.
In The Fate of All, most of the Persian heavier troops are not initially available, but may be raised during the first recruitment phase in winter, thus following the historical timeline.
The Forgotten Expedition
Alexander’s invasion of the Achaemenid empire had an often-forgotten prelude, planned and executed by his father Phillip II.
This forgotten expedition is particularly interesting as it could have been the cause for the Persian defeat at the battle of Granicus, where the Anatolian Satraps confidently faced Alexander with an army that was numerically smaller than the enemy, but with a large advantage in cavalry.
In 336 BCE, two years before Alexander’s invasion, Phillip II sent an expeditionary force of 10,000 men under the command of Parmenion into Anatolia, with the task of freeing the Greek cities on the East Aegean coast from the Persian rule and paving the way for the main offensive to follow.
Things went quite well initially, with several cities revolting against the Persian rulers, but the tide turned with the assassination of Phillip II and the defeat at Magnesia by the Persians forces led by Memnon of Rhodos. Parmenion was forced to progressively abandon his gains and retreat near Abydos in NorthWest Anatolia, where he resisted until the arrival of Alexander’s army in the spring of 334 BCE.
At Magnesia, Memnon was able to defeat a 10,000 strong Macedonian force using an army numerically inferior, but with at least a 3 to 1 advantage in cavalry. According to the ancient sources, Parmenion had no more than 1000 cavalry, while judging by the troops recruited one year later Memnon could probably count on 3000 or more horsemen, plus 5000 Greek mercenaries supplied and paid by Darius III.
At the Granicus, two years later, the Persians basically tried to replicate the same schema they successfully used at Magnesia: An agile army, smaller than the enemy but with a large advantage in cavalry.
Needless to say, this turned out to be a big mistake. Alexander was not Parmenion, and the Persian light cavalry was no match for the Macedonian and Thessalian heavy cavalry. See “Darius’ Rearming Program” above for the consequences.
Of course, the Persian commander is not forced to replicate the initial strategic errors of his historical counterparts. A viable and probably effective alternative could be the “Scorched Earth” strategy proposed at the time by Memnon, but refused by the other Satraps for its cost in terms of stability and prestige.