Battle of the Granicus (334 BCE): Alexander’s Conquest Begins

Alexander the Great first crossed swords with the Persians at the Battle of the Granicus, earning the first of many victories of his Persian campaign.

Apr 1, 2024By Robert C. L. Holmes, MA Ancient & Medieval History, BA Archaeology

battle granicus alexander the great

 

With his position in Greece and the Balkans now secure, Alexander the Great led his army across the Hellespont into Asia Minor. Alexander’s timing was perfect as a revolt in Egypt had drawn away the new Achaemenid king, Darius III, along with his army. However, the local Achaemenid satraps were not about to let Alexander do as he pleased. The satraps of Asia Minor had plenty of experience fighting Greeks and had driven back an earlier Macedonian expedition launched by Alexander’s father, Philip II. Now, the satraps marched to confront Alexander on the banks of the Granicus River.

 

Background of the Battle of Granicus

Bust of Philip II, Roman after a Greek original. Source: Wikimedia Commons

 

Having secured control of the Greek city-states, in 336 BCE Philip II of Macedon dispatched an advance guard across the Hellespont into Asia Minor. This force was led by Parmenion, Philip’s best general, and was tasked with establishing a base of operations so that the rest of the army could cross over later. In short order, most of the Greek cities of Asia Minor went over to the Macedonians. At the same time, a massive revolt broke out in Egypt. Despite this auspicious start, the situation soon turned against the Macedonians when word arrived that Philip had been murdered.

 

Philip’s son Alexander now rose to take control of the Macedonian throne. However, the Greek city-states and Thracian tribes to the north revolted, threatening Alexander’s power. This meant that for the time being, the Macedonian expeditionary force in Asia Minor was on its own. Darius III suppressed the Egyptian revolt in 335 BCE and dispatched an army of Greek mercenaries led by Memnon of Rhodes to deal with the Macedonians. In relatively short order, they dealt the Macedonians two defeats. By the end of 335 BCE, the Macedonians retained control of only a small area. However, they had held on and in early 334 BCE, Alexander was able to cross over the Hellespont with the main Macedonian army.

 

Macedonian and Achaemenid Armies

Votive plaque depicting an Achaemenid soldier, Achaemenid, 550-331 BCE. Source: Museum of Fine Arts Boston; with Fresco depicting a Macedonian soldier, Greek or Macedonian, 4th Century BCE. Source: Wikimedia Commons

 

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Alexander led an army that consisted primarily of infantry. The core of this force consisted of 12,000 heavy infantry armed with pikes, a smaller elite unit known as the hypaspists, and the Foot Companions. They were accompanied by around 1,000 archers and the elite Agrianian javelin-men. For cavalry, Alexander had his elite 1,800 Companion cavalry, along with another 1,800 Thessalian cavalrymen, and 600 Greek allies. There were also around 900 light cavalry men, which included the allied Paeonians and Thracians as well as the prodromoi, or scouts, a more regular Macedonian unit of uncertain ethnicity. All told, the Macedonian army consisted of 12,000 pikemen, 1,000 light infantry, and 5,100 cavalry for a grand total of 18,100 men.

 

Opposing the Macedonians were the forces of the Achaemenid satraps of Asia Minor. Unfortunately, information about the size and composition of the Achaemenid army is inconsistent or unavailable. The army was primarily drawn from the troops available to the satraps, along with some soldiers of the regular Achaemenid army, and a large contingent of Greek mercenaries. Estimates place the Achaemenid infantry at about 20,000 with 4,000-5,000 of these being the Greek mercenaries and the rest local levies. The Achaemenid cavalry was of higher quality than the infantry and is estimated as numbering around 5,000-10,000. Most modern historians, therefore, have the Achaemenid army at 25,000 to 30,000; though some estimates have been much lower.

 

The Armies Deploy

Terracotta statuette of a horseman in Persian dress, Cypriot, 3rd Century BCE. Source: Metropolitan Museum of Art; with terracotta statuette of a Greek horse and rider, Hellenistic, 3rd Century BCE. Source: Museum of Fine Arts Boston

 

There are three main accounts of the battle of the Granicus that have come down to us from antiquity by the historians Arrian, Plutarch, and Diodorus Siculus. The major point of contention is whether the battle was fought after Alexander’s army crossed the river and deployed on the other side, as in Diodorus’ account, or if the armies deployed and fought with the river between them, as with Arrian and Plutarch’s accounts. Both versions have the commanders making inexplicable decisions in their deployments and subsequent actions. Therefore, we will follow the accounts of Arrian and Plutarch, suggesting that the Achaemenids may not have intended to fight a battle at that juncture. Instead, their questionable deployment may have been intended as a show of force, as the assumed Alexander would not attempt to make a contested river crossing.

 

As the armies approached, they deployed on opposite banks of the Granicus River. The Achaemenids deployed with their cavalry atop the steep bank of the river, likely to intimidate the Macedonians. While some of the infantry may have been present, the majority, including the elite Greek mercenaries, were deployed behind the calvary. They were also, apparently, too far back to adequately support the Achaemenid cavalry. On the other side of the river Alexander deployed with his Companion cavalry, Paeonian cavalry, and prodromoi on his right along with the archers and Agrianians. His left consisted of the Thracian cavalry, as well as the allied Greek cavalry, and Thessalian cavalry. The center consisted of the pike-wielding Foot Companions of the phalanx with the elite hypaspists in the place of honor on the right.

 

Memnon of Rhodes

Nereid Monument frieze depicting an important personage in Persian dress, Greek, 390-380 BCE. Source: British Museum

 

The commander of the Achaemenid forces at the Granicus was the satrap Arsites, who shared command with several other satraps and members of Darius III’s family. However, the most influential figure in the Achaemenid army at the time of the battle was the Greek mercenary commander Memnon of Rhodes. Memnon (ca.380-333 BCE) entered the service of the satrap of Phrygia in 358 BCE and participated in a failed revolt against the Persian king. Following the revolt, Memnon fled to Pella, the capital of Macedonia. While in exile, Memnon became acquainted with both Philip II of Macedon and his son Alexander. According to Plutarch, Memnon and Alexander had lengthy discussions of military matters. Both came away with an understanding of the other sides’ military capabilities, political strengths, and weaknesses.

 

In 343 BCE, Memnon was able to reenter Achaemenid service and soon found himself facing off against Philip and the Macedonians. At Byzantium in 339 BCE, Memnon helped to defend the city from Philip’s assaults before being recalled to deal with the Macedonian expedition of Parmenion in Asia Minor. With the arrival of Alexander and the Macedonian army, Memnon advocated a scorched earth policy. He knew that the Greeks were unhappy with Macedonian rule and that Alexander’s army would have difficulty maintaining its supplies. However, Memnon’s council was overruled by the satraps who did not want to damage their lands. At Granicus, Memnon appears to have been with the cavalry rather than his Greek mercenaries. While this may have been because the satraps distrusted him, a more likely explanation is that Memnon had intended a show of force to intimidate the Macedonians and had not expected to fight a battle at this point.

 

Alexander Attacks

Map depicting the Battle of Granicus, Frank Martini, Department of History, United States Military Academy. Source: Wikimedia Commons

 

The battle began with Alexander launching a cavalry attack across the river at the Achaemenid left flank. The attack consisted of a squadron of the Companion cavalry, the Paeonian cavalry, and prodromoi, along with an unspecified unit of infantry. From their position atop the riverbank the Achaemenid cavalry rained missile fire down on the attacking Macedonians, blunting their attack. Outnumbered and suffering casualties, the Macedonians pulled back. Sensing an opportunity, the Achaemenid cavalry left the height of the riverbank to pursue the Macedonians down into the river.

 

Modern historians have argued that the Macedonian retreat was in fact a ruse. It was intended to lure the Achaemenid cavalry down from their position on the riverbank and to disrupt their formation. Regardless of whether it was intentional or not, the Achaemenid cavalry was now vulnerable. Alexander now launched an attack with the rest of his companion cavalry and the entire right wing of the infantry phalanx. With the Achaemenid cavalry formation disrupted, Alexander was able to lead his own cavalry across the river and then ascend the riverbank. Such an attack would have required skillful maneuvering on Alexander’s part as his cavalrymen would have been vulnerable until they deployed on the opposite side of the river. This has, therefore, led to a great deal of debate amongst modern scholars. Having reached the opposite side of the river, Alexander now charged directly at the massed Achaemenid cavalry.

 

Deadly Duels 

Battle of the Granicus, Charles Le Brun, 1665. Source: Wikimedia Commons

 

Having crossed the river, the Macedonian cavalry led by Alexander closed with their Achaemenid opponents. At close quarters, the Macedonians now held the advantage. Their longer lances were far more deadly at such ranges than the shorter Achaemenid javelins. It has also been suggested that Alexander’s cavalry may have charged the Achaemenids in a wedge or diamond formation. This would have enabled them to penetrate deep into the Achaemenid formation, disrupting it. Alexander, as was his usual practice, was leading his cavalry from the front, actively participating in the battle and exposing himself to danger.

 

Cavalry battles were fluid, swirling affairs, as it was imperative for riders to remain mobile since standing still negates all the advantages of the cavalryman. According to Arrian and Plutarch, Alexander now engaged in a series of duels in the finest Homeric tradition. During the fighting, Alexander came face-to-face with Mithradates, Darius III’s son-in-law and one of the Achaemenid cavalry commanders. Charging straight for him, Alexander killed Mithradates by thrusting his lance into his face. This exposed Alexander to an attack from the Achaemenid noble Rhosaces, who swung his sword at Alexander’s head. Rhosaces’ blow connected with Alexander’s head, though his helmet saved him from harm. Alexander killed Rhosaces with a thrust of his lance into the chest, but was then attacked by Spithridates, the satrap of Ionia and Lydia. Before Spithridates could strike Alexander from behind, he was killed by the Macedonian commander Cleitus the Black. By now the Macedonian cavalry had established themselves on the riverbank and were driving the Achaemenids back.

 

Memnon’s Mercenaries

Right: Nereid Monument frieze depicting hoplite and cavalry combat, Greek, 390-380 BCE. Source: British Museum

 

The left flank of the Achaemenid cavalry broke and fled, with the center following shortly thereafter. According to the sources there appears to have been some fighting that took place between the Achaemenid and Macedonian infantry. However, exactly which units were involved and the extent of the fighting was not recorded. With the flight of the Achaemenid cavalry and whatever other infantry may have been engaged. Alexander now turned his attention to the Greek mercenaries serving under Memnon. Up to this point, they had taken no part in the battle despite being the best infantry that the Achaemenids had on the field. Unfortunately, they were deployed too far back from the cavalry to provide support. Additionally, their commander Memnon was forward with the cavalry when the battle began and was unable to issue orders.

 

Yet the Greek mercenaries still represented a dangerous force, so Alexander directed his attacks towards them. With the rest of the Achaemenid army in flight, the mercenaries retreated to a more defensible position on a rise. They then attempted to negotiate their surrender with Alexander, who refused. The Macedonian Foot Companions attacked the mercenaries from the front, while the cavalry circled to attack from the flanks and the rear. The Greek mercenaries fought back bitterly. Eventually, they were defeated and few managed to escape the battlefield. Most of the Macedonian casualties occurred during the fight with the mercenaries.

 

Battle of Granicus: Aftermath 

Shield with a head of Dioskouros, with helmeted Athena figure, Hellenistic, Hellenistic, 4th-3rd Century BCE. Source: The Museum of Fine Arts Boston

 

Determining casualties in ancient battles is a notoriously difficult process. Based on the source material it is estimated that between 100-120 Macedonians were killed, mostly amongst the cavalry. Achaemenid casualties are even more difficult to estimate, but modern historians estimate that around 5,000-6,000 were killed. Additionally, around 2,000 Greek mercenaries were captured. Alexander viewed them as having betrayed their fellow Greeks, so they were sent to Macedon to work as slaves. He also sent a votive offering of 300 suits of armor to the temple of Athena in Athens.

 

Alexander at the Granicus, Peter Connoly, 1935-2012. Source: Warfarehistorynetwork.com,

 

Following the battle, the Achaemenids withdrew their garrisons from several cities across the region which went over to Alexander. The Macedonians now occupied Dascylium, Magnesia, Tralles, Ephesus, and most importantly, Sardis. Only Miletus resisted and was besieged. The western half of Asia Minor had effectively fallen. However, the Achaemenid army had not suffered disastrous losses and was able to regroup at Halicarnassus. Resistance was still possible as the Achaemenids had unimaginable resources at their disposal. Yet the strategic situation was precarious. Alexander’s Macedonians had established a base of operations and could march inland at any moment. The stage had been set for the conquest of the Achaemenid empire.

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By Robert C. L. HolmesMA Ancient & Medieval History, BA ArchaeologyRobert Holmes has an MA in Ancient & Medieval History and a BA in Archaeology. He is an independent historian and author, who specializes in the Military History of the Ancient and Medieval World and has published over a dozen articles on related topics. Originally from Massachusetts, he now lives in Florida where he works doing public history leading tours, giving lectures, and educating people about the local history.