Monday, May 02, 2011

Arrian: Book One—Granicus: “Thou art invincible”

Then he went to Delphi, to consult Apollo concerning the success of the war he had undertaken, and happening to come on one of the forbidden days, when it was esteemed improper to give any answers from the oracle, he sent messengers to desire the priestess to do her office; and when she refused, on the plea of a law to the contrary, he went up himself, and began to draw her by force into the temple, until tired and overcome with his importunity, "My son," said she, "thou art invincible." Alexander taking hold of what she spoke, declared he had received such an answer as he wished for, and that it was needless to consult the god any further. Among other prodigies that attended the departure of his army, the image of Orpheus at Libethra, made of cypress-wood, was seen to sweat in great abundance, to the discouragement of many. But Aristander told him, that far from presaging any ill to him, it signified he should perform acts so important and glorious as would make the poets and musicians of future ages labor and sweat to describe and celebrate them.

- From Alexander, Plutarch’s Lives, the Dryden translation edited by Arthur Hugh Clough

For tonight’s conference call on Book One of The Landmark Arrian: The Campaigns of Alexander (see the sidebar for more information) I was asked to begin the discussion on the battle at the Granicus River, Alexander’s first conflict with the Persians. I wanted to post my thoughts here in order to organize them for tonight’s call—the following doesn’t necessarily address all of the discussion questions about the battle. I may raise more questions than I answer as well as engage in a lot of surmising, presuming, and guessing to fill in the blanks of Arrian’s narrative.

The Persians
The Persians did not attempt to stop Alexander when he crossed the Hellespont. Were they content with their army and cavalry strength as compared to the Macedonians and Greeks? By letting Alexander cross freely at the Hellespont it seems like they are daring Alexander to face them on their turf. For the Persians, Memnon of Rhodes had faced the advance Macedonian force led by Parmenion the previous year and had driven them back to wait for Alexander. He was most familiar with their capabilities (some of this comes from sources other than Arrian…I’ll try and limit outside sources from now on except for the opening quote):

Memnon of Rhodes advised them not to take a chance against the Macedonians, whose infantry, he said, was far superior to their own; furthermore, he said, the Macedonians had Alexander present, while on their side Darius was absent. He advised them to march ahead, destroy the grazing land by trampling it with the cavalry, and burn the standing harvest, not even sparing the cities themselves; Alexander would not remain in the country, he said, if provisions were scarce. (from 1.12.9, The Landmark Arrian: The Campaigns of Alexander, translation by Pamela Mensch)

Memnon’s suggestion of a scorched-earth policy, in hindsight, proved to be the perfect tactic to deprive Alexander of the ability to live off the land. If the Persians had followed this advice, Alexander could have supplied his troops to some extent as long as he stayed close to the coast and used his fleet to supply the troops. But for how long? As it was, Alexander disbanded the fleet at Miletus due to monetary constraints. But politics never change—the other Persian commanders questioned Memnon’s motives for avoiding a direct fight with Alexander instead of evaluating the proposal on its own merits.

Since Parmenion had already faced the Persians his counsel should have carried more weight than Alexander allowed. Parmenion seems destined to be used as Alexander’s foil or Arrian’s literary device. Even allowing for literary license, Alexander’s behavior demonstrates a mix of recklessness, confidence, and desperation. In Book One, Alexander establishes he can choose or avoid battles to his advantage. Does Alexander’s mad rush into battle, both in general for the entire army and specifically with his behavior, show us how important he viewed this battle? Did he trust the priestess in her claim that he was invincible?

The “early renown in the war” was important to Alexander but that phrase comes from Miletus where he already had achieved several victories (including Granicus). I can’t shake the feeling that the battle at the Granics River for Alexander boiled down to two choices—success or death. If he failed here, his invasion against Persian forces would effectively be over. He uses a similar rationale at Miletus in choosing not to engage in a direct naval battle because of the perceived superior Persian fleet. But at the Granicus River the Persians held a markedly better position, which offset any superiority Alexander thought his troops held, numerical or situational. Did Alexander’s decision at the Granicus River boil down to a choice between marked success and veiled suicide? If Alexander failed in this battle it seems that his intended invasion of Persia would be over, the Greek cities would renege on the League of Corinth, and his reign in Macedonia would be challenged.

There are many other points that could be investigated surrounding this battle. The Landmark Arrian: The Campaigns of Alexander has many appendices pertaining to various aspects of Alexander’s reign and campaigns. I’m happy to say that one aspect that I think gets overlooked or marginalized is addressed in Appendix F: “Money and Finance in the Campaigns of Alexander”. An army cannot march very far beyond where it can afford to go or where it can be supplied, however boring such topics may be to cover.

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