With what army did Alexander the Great build the largest empire of the ancient world

Intelligent strategy, battle tactics and numbers behind unparalleled feat

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It took only 13 years for the young ruler of the Kingdom of Macedonia to secure the alliance of the Greek city-states and complete the campaign to occupy the entire Persian Empire.

A truly inconceivable conquering feat that historians will study over time, wanting to bring to the surface the hows and the whys.

The Macedonians were a predictable force of the time, but were their military forces and financial strength sufficient for such a grandiose goal? Or maybe most of them became possible thanks to his intellect recruiter;

Questions persistent and difficult to answer, as the complete reconstruction of the story of Alexander III is still in demand.

We do know, however, that through his military genius, his incomparable leadership skills, and his terrifying diplomatic rhetoric, he managed to make the universe surrender to him, with greater or lesser resistance.

The borders of his empire covered a very important part of the then known world. It was indeed the largest kingdom the ancient world had ever seen.

The time of Alexander undoubtedly stood a historic crossroads. But how did all this happen?

Philip II lays the foundations

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Alexander III of Macedon owes part of his success to the foresight of his father, Philip II. The war feats of the young king, however, date back to even earlier, from the time when the Greek city-states established the hoplite phalanxes.

Around 700 BC, cities like Sparta, Corinth and Argos resort to a new battle strategy, mass formations of heavily armed infantry that was fighting in phalanxes.

The new type of soldier, the hoplite, would prove to be very effective in battle and would show what he could do during the Persian invasion, first of Darius I and then of his son, Xerxes I.

Philip took this heavy legacy and turned it into a Macedonian phalanx. The spear became longer (sarissa), the shield smaller and the Boeotian helmet abandoned, with the hoplites now wearing a phrygian type (allowing better peripheral vision).

Philip devised new tactical battles for the phalanxes of his infantry, as he did for his cavalry, largely adopting the Thracian triangular formation for the Macedonian cavalry.

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And so the relatively ineffective army he inherited when he became king in 359 BC. transformed into a firepower that would surprise the world.

However, the reorganization of the army also brought changes in the numbers. Of the 10.000 Macedonian hoplites handed over to him, the number reached 24.000, while increasing his cavalry from 600 to 3.500, according to the records of Flavius ​​Arrian.

At the same time, his complete dominance in southern Greece meant that his men had gained extensive experience in battle. Before we get to the crucial Battle of Chaeronia, Philip took part in the Third Holy War and subdued Thessaly (attaching here the famous Thessalian cavalry to his army).

And in 338 BC. He faced a coalition of city-states just outside Livadia, bending the last pillars of resistance in his plans. Chaeronia, in which he fought with his 18-year-old son at his side, was the archimedean point of Macedonian rule in the Greek world…

Alexander III begins

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Alexander began his campaign against the Persian Achaemenid Empire, as ruler of the Panhellenic Alliance, in the spring of 334 BC.

Arrianos assures us in "Alexandrou Anavasis" that the Macedonian mercenary crossed the Hellespont with an army of 30.000 hoplites and over 5.000 cavalry, including the selected heavy cavalry of the Partners. He also had 160 ships with him.

Analyzing his army even further, he had 12.000 Macedonian hoplites - 9.000 infantry and 3.000 lieutenants - and more than 7.000 infantry from the rest of Greece, who intended mainly to remain a guard in the territories he would conquer. It even had infantry Illyrians, Trivalles, Paeons, Agrian javelin throwers, etc.

And since Alexander was the ruler of the Panhellenic Congress, he also had in his ranks additional cavalry, infantry and warships from the city-states.

Historians tell us today that his military power was admittedly limited in terms of his intentions. Alexander wanted to to punish the Persians and to occupy all their lands, a vast empire that could oppose multiple forces.

Except that Alexander was not ultimately based on numerical superiority, but on the thorough training of his army. And in his strategic intellect, alas.

Replenishment of the army

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Alexander, like his father, was well aware that the only disadvantage of the mighty Macedonian phalanx was that it worked better on flat surfaces. Despite the small flaw, he recruited her with exemplary success.

In every battle, his formation remained almost unchanged, with the exception of the bloody battle with Poros on the river Hydaspes, when he brought his archers to face the king's elephants, during the campaign in India any longer.

In all the other battles he applied the so-called "hammer and anvil" tactic, trapping the enemy army with the phalanxes, that is, hitting with the heavy cavalry. The strike unit of the Macedonian army was the cavalry and not the hoplites.

Arrian tells us that Alexander regularly replenished his army, giving great weight to the cavalry. At the battle of Gavgamila, his last and most decisive victory against Darius III, which marked the fall of the Persian Empire, Alexander lost 1.000 horses.

He did, however, intend to set up a fixed supply mechanism for horses, which was available at all times.

The scary numbers of the opponents

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At the Battle of Granikos, the first clash of Alexander's expeditionary corps in Asia Minor, when confronted by the united army of the Achaemenids, found himself facing 20.000 infantry soldiers and 20.000 cavalry.

According to Arrian, this is because Diodorus raises them to 110.000 and the historian Justin speaks (in the "Summary of Philippine Stories") even for 600.000. In his first great victory, the Macedonian king lost only 110 men.

At the battle of Issus, Darius III deployed a large army. We are talking about 30.000 horsemen, 20.000 "thin", that is, lightly armed, and 90.000 hoplites. But also a reserve of 20.000 men on a hill. According to other sources, the Persians had gathered 60.000 hoplites, 100.000 cavalry and tens of thousands of infantry.

Alexander won easily. Arrian, Diodorus and Kourtios Roufos ("Stories of Alexander the Great") agree that the Persians lost 110.000 men, while Justin puts the number of losses at 71.000. The Macedonian army lost 450 men, counting 4.500 wounded.

At Gavgamila in 331 BC, Alexander was informed that Darius had gathered an army even larger than that of the battle of Issus. Arrian testifies that the Persian army gathered here numbered 1.000.000 infantry and 40.000 cavalry, an estimate that historians consider highly exaggerated.

We do know, however, that the Persians had amassed the best they had, including drainage chariots, but also 15 armed elephants. It is the first time that ancient historians who wrote about the Macedonian campaign mention elephants on a battlefield.

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Alexander sent 47.700 men to Gavgamila. And he took the greatest victory in the whole campaign, a triumph that struck the Persians not only militarily but also in prestige.

We are told that he lost 100-500 men. Modern historians place the Persian losses at 30.000 men. However, if we believe Arrian, they lost more than 300.000, and if we listen to Diodorus, they lost even 900.000 soldiers.

After the conquest of Ekvatana, the Persian Empire was effectively overthrown, all power was now in the hands of the Macedonians. THE purpose of his campaign was completed with complete success.

Consistent with his commitments, he let his Greek allies go back, whoever they wanted at least. For him, however, the story was not over. Darius was still alive and all the eastern satrapies were open to his appetites.

The next three years (330-327 BC) Alexander would spend them again on the battlefield, wanting to secure control of all the lands of the Achaemenids and their allies.

Now he would be chasing Vissos, satrap of Bactria, who had not only killed Darius ingloriously, but was also eyeing the Asian possessions of the Macedonians.

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Arrian tells us here that his expeditionary force had undergone drastic changes in its composition, because of the losses but also of those who had to be left behind as guards in the cities he conquered or founded.

After the pursuit and execution of Vissos and the suppression of the uprisings in Bactria and Sogdiani, without large-scale battles, however, Alexander turned south, India.

Before starting and knowing that the marches would be difficult in inaccessible and mountainous areas, he changed the composition of his army again. Arrian claims that he increased the numerical power of his forces, making them more flexible at the same time.

A good part of the Panhellenic Alliance had returned to Greece (among them the famous Thessalian cavalry), at the same time that many of the Macedonians who had marched together had remained guards in the conquered cities.

We know that he brought infantry and cavalry reinforcements from Μακεδονία, hired Greek mercenaries, but also many Asians. In addition to hoplites, cavalry, and lightly armed soldiers (archers, peltas, velites, javelin throwers), local cavalry and cavalrymen had now been added.

Despite the new heterogeneity of his army, Alexander once again managed to rule them exemplary. In fact, his first battles for the conquest of the Indian subcontinent took place with an even smaller part of his army.

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Until it was reunited with the main body of its forces in 326 BC. on the Indus River, he had conquered the kingdoms of the Aspasians and Assassins, in a particularly demanding campaign that almost cost him his life.

It was the turn of the brave Poros, who ordered him not to surrender and would wait for him armed in the river Hydaspis. Alexander had 5.000 Hindu soldiers with him during this phase of the campaign.

In the battle of Hydaspes in 326 BC., the Macedonian recruiter faced for the first time 200 war elephants. Poros numbered 30.000 infantry, 4.000 cavalry, 300 chariots and elephants.

Alexander stood against him with 15.000-20.000 infantry and 5.000 cavalry and scored another great victory, despite the unprecedented conditions created by the elephants for the Macedonian army.

Arrian wants Alexander in this phase of his advance to number 11.000 men, 6.000 hoplites and 5.000 horsemen. And he tells us that the armies he encountered on Indian soil were always numerically superior, of the order of 3: 1 or even 5: 1.

According to the Greek historian, Alexander lost only 310 men, while Diodoros Sikeliotis confirms in his "Historical Library" that the losses amounted to 1.000 dead. As for Poros, he lost 23.000 men according to Arrian and 12.000 according to Diodorus, who, however, says that another 9.000 were taken prisoner.

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Alexander also had 80 war elephants in his hand. But he lost his Bucephalus. Going even deeper, in the river Hydraotis this time, he came face to face with the warlike people of Kathaia.

He easily defeated them and forced them to lose 17.000 men, capturing 70.000 prisoners. The Macedonians lost 100 men and counted another 1.200 wounded.

For one of his last campaigns, the siege of Malla, which turned into a siege of Malla (November 326 BC to February 325 BC), Alexander brought reinforcements from Thrace with 5.000 infantry and 7.000 cavalry.

Modern historians estimate the forces of Mallon at 90.000 infantry, 10.000 cavalry and 900 chariots. But again, they proved to be few.

Alexander finally reached the delta of the Indus, when it was time to return. It was essentially a break, because from the spring of 324 BC. began organizing new campaigns.

He wanted to conquer the Arabian Peninsula, North Africa, which was the stronghold of the mighty Carthage, and he had heard something about a rising force on the Italian peninsula.

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His uncle, Alexander I of Epirus, had told him about some Romans which were becoming stronger and stronger. So he passed away in June 323 BC, ready to leave for new glories in Arabia.

Until then it was clear to the whole world that it was not his mighty phalanxes nor his heavy cavalry that was the reason he went so far. Neither the weakened Persians nor the fragile alliances of the peoples of Asia.

It was first and foremost Alexander himself. He won despite being permanently inferior in numbers and very often surrounded by the enemy.