Alexander and his Companions are crossing the river Granicus. The greatest adventure of World History is just beginning (artwork by Peter Connolly).
By Periklis Deligiannis
The main problem of the Persian army at the Battle of Granicus against Alexander the Great (334 BC), was its polycentric leadership. The Persian leadership consisted of five Iranian satraps, a Rhodian Greek mercenary officer called Memnon, and several other generals and commanders. It seems that Arsites, the satrap of Hellespontic Phrygia, was the official general commander, but the other Iranian satraps and generals were generally unruly and disobedient, and not influenced by his office. Memnon was probably the ablest general in the Persian headquarters, as it is evidenced by Darius’ (the Persian Great King/Emperor) appreciation for him. Moreover he had lived for a decade in Macedonia and probably knew all about the Macedonian Greek army, while he had confronted the Macedonians for two years (337-335 BC) as a general, fighting the first invading army of Parmenio and Kalas in Asia Minor. Memnon was certainly a very capable commander, but his commanding ability and the value of his proposal to the Persian council of war in Zeleia (see below) have been probably exaggerated by some ancient Greek authors (Arrian, Diodorus etc.) who preferred their mercenary fellow-countryman as a protagonist in the Persian war effort, than the Iranian commanders. But despite Memnon’s strategic ability, Darius could not appoint him high commander of the Persian amry against Alexander, because he was not Persian or Median. The proud and rebellious satraps and “relatives of the Great King” (a honorific title of the most powerful Iranian nobles) would never obey a “barbarian” (from the Iranian point of view).
The decision to line the Persian army for battle, on the banks of the river Granicus, in order to beat off Alexander the Great in a decisive battle, was taken by the satraps-generals in a war council in the city of Zeleia of Hellespontic Phrygia. During the council, Memnon warned the satraps that they should not risk a battle with the enemy because of the Macedonian superiority in infantry, meaning not necessarily the numerical superiority (Alexander’s 32,000 Macedonian-Greek infantrymen against the 20,000 Greek mercenaries of the Persians) but probably the tactical superiority of the Macedonian phalanx of “sarissophoroi” (pikemen). A Persian defeat in an open battle would judge the war. The Rhodian general noted that if the Persians would defeat Alexander in battle, he would not lose anything because he was in enemy territory, but if he was the winner, then the Persian defeat would mean the loss of the whole of Asia Minor. Memnon also noted that the Macedonians would be led by their king (Alexander), while the Persian king was absent, probably noting indirectly the problem of lack of a robust Persian high command. Memnon’s strategic proposal was the following. The Persian army would have to retreat before Alexander’s march, turning inland and destroying farms, grains, villages and even cities, so that Alexander could not feed his army. With this tactic of “scorched earth”, the Macedonian army would get hungry and exhausted, and finally it would be eliminated by the Persian counterattack. Memnon’s plan has caused an endless debate between modern military and other researchers. Many think that it was an appropriate tactic, others argue that it was impractical and others believe that even if it was carried out, it would be unsuccessful. In my opinion, the latter are rather wrong. The tactics of “scorched earth” brought about very often if not usually, the defeat of the attacker. In the modern era, this was epitomized mainly in the decimation of the Grand Army of Napoleon Bonaparte, when the Russian general Kutuzov lured him to Moscow. Alexander invaded Asia Minor in the spring, i.e. the time when agricultural stocks are reduced and while awaiting the new harvest. The grains are not developed sufficiently until April in the Mediterranean countries. Thus if the Persians destroyed all the grains and the other agricultural stocks of Southern Troad and Hellespontic Phrygia, Alexander would rather face serious supply problems.
Troas and Phrygia (Hellespontic) in northwestern Asia Minor.
The Battle of Granicus (334 BC).
In theory, Memnon’s plan would have succeeded because Alexander’s communications would be dangerously extended when he would have to march in Asia Minor mainland, and his army could not be supplied from the Macedonian/Greek fleet. But Memnon’s plan was not realistic, not because of its possible outcome (probably successful), but for the following reasons.
1) the Rhodian commander could not see that the Persian satraps would never accept it, because their annual income came from the grains and the trade and other activities of the residents of these areas.
2) the areas proposed to be destroyed, were inhabited by peoples subjugated to the Persians, who obviously were not friendly to them. If the Persian army burned their belongings, they would revolt and join Alexander the Great. The inhabitants of Troad and Phrygia were not Persians and Medes who were giving a patriotic defensive fight against Alexander, as it happened later in Persia and Sogdiana, but subjects of Persia who would not hesitate to join Alexander, as it had happened on several occasions during his magnificent campaign.
3) the official quest of a Persian/Median satrap was to protect the territory that the Great King had entrusted to him. If the land was destroyed with the consent of the satrap, he would possibly be accused of treason by the king. Furthermore, the honor of an Iranian satrap or aristocrat was identified with the protection of his lands.
4) Memnon suggested essentially the destruction of the agricultural stocks of Hellespontic Phrygia and probably southern Troad, areas with a numerous population. But if this had happened, a major refugee problem would arise. The Persians would have to withdraw the Phrygian and Troadite refugees in Central Asia Minor Mainland caring for feeding, protection and medical care, something extremely difficult if not impossible.
A Macedonian helmet of the Thraco-Phrygian type
Somehow Memnon insulted the Persian generals by advising them bluntly to avoid open battle with Alexander. Memnon had experienced himself in Philip’s Macedonia and in Asia Minor, the crushing attack and fighting action of the Macedonian phalanx. He also knew that the redoubtable phalanx of the Macedonian Greeks overwhelmed all the opponent Helladic hoplite armies. However, despite the sincerity of the Rhodian commander, in societies with warlike origins such as the Iranian nobility (Aryans), this kind of advice is perceived as addressed to cowards. It seems that Memnon ignored generally the Iranian code of honor . Those who believe that the plan of the Rhodian commander was futile, note the fact that he did not implement it later, when Darius appointed him general commander of the Persian defense of Asia Minor, supposedly because Memnon actually did not considered his own plan effective. But these scholars forget that when Memnon became high commander, Alexander had already annexed Hellespontic Phrygia, Troas, Aeolis, Ionia and Lydia, i.e. the wealthier regions of Asia Minor, from which he had ensured sufficient supplies for the relatively small Macedonian army. Thus, the tactic of “scorched earth” against Alexander would have no further effect. The Persian satraps rejected out of hand the plan of the Rhodian general. The local satrap Arsites stated clearly that he would not accept even the burning of a single dwelling house. The decision of the war council was to line up the Persian army on the eastern bank of the river Granicus, where the Iranian generals felt that the Macedonian army would fragment while trying to cross it. So the Macedonians would be vulnerable to the Persian attack and would be crashed. But their estimates were wrong, as it turned out to be very soon, because of the tactical genius of Alexander ….