History in a novel: The Battle of Issus

In my previous post, I mentioned the difficulty of getting some historical information for the setting of a novel. The problem is somewhat greater when the background includes ancient battles. In my ebook, Athene’s Prophecy, my protagonist has to study earlier battles before he can become an officer in the Roman army, and one such battle is the Battle of Issus. What would my protagonist learn from this? First, what happened? Here we have a problem, because while the accounts are clear and include a lot of detail, they were written by the victors, and the Macedonians would not have been the first  (nor the last!) to exaggerate the nature of their victory. Leaving that aside, what my protagonist would have been told in his lesson goes something like this.

Alexander had captured Issus and had marched around the Gulf of Iskanderun and headed south. Darius had brought an army alleged to be about 600,000 men, while Alexander possibly had as few as 20,000 men. While I am far from convinced that these figures are at all accurate there is little doubt that the Persians greatly outnumbered the Macedonians, and that is sufficient for the lesson my protagonist was receiving. Darius had crossed a mountain pass and retaken Issus, then he marched south where there was a narrow coastal strip between sea and mountain. Alexander rushed to meet him. Strategically, Darius had made a huge mistake because the width of the strip could be filled nicely by Alexander’s men, while most of Darius’ army could not engage. So the first lesson was the value of terrain. Had Darius remained on the central plain, he would have been in a much better position.

As Alexander approached the Pinarus river, Darius sent 50,000 troops across to Alexander’s side to hold up Alexander while Darius fortified the northern bank. This worked, and eventually these Persian troops retreated back across the river. What I find interesting is that Alexander did nothing about this advanced force, but rather he waited and when they retreated, as far as we can tell, he let them go unchallenged. Why? In my view, because he did not want Darius to accidentally drift into his best strategy, given that Darius was where he was. At the battle itself, Darius’ men held fortified positions to stop the Macedonian phalanxes, Darius sent some light infantry and cavalry to the left flank and sent his main cavalry to the right flank. Alexander attacked through his right flank with infantry and cavalry, Darius’ men fled, Alexander pursued, and now there was a hole between Alexander’s cavalry and the rest of his army. Darius tried sending infantry into this hole, but he was too slow and the Macedonian phalanxes held. Meanwhile, Darius’ cavalry on the right flank crossed the river, and Parmenio allowed (or could not prevent) a modest withdrawal that put a bend in the Macedonian line. What actually happened? Most say the Persian cavalry was making progress, but I suggest Parmenio ordered this. Why? Because it makes a longer front that is at an angle to the cavalry. If the cavalry goes forward, its room narrows as it cannot move right because the sea occupies that space. At the same time, the cavalry cannot ride directly at the Macedonian line, again because the sea removes depth. They are trying to get around the Macedonians, but they have to slide past and their front becomes progressively narrowed while their own personal flanks are exposed as they become increasingly congested. Cavalry works best when it is mobile, and it is not suitable for a slugging match in a congested space. Further, the bend leaves a point, and if this is reinforced, it is like an arrow ready to plunge into the enemy. Eventually, Darius decided his left flank was in trouble when Alexander returned and attacked the flank of the men he had deployed into that hole, and he fled. Commentators invariably say that at this point the cavalry had to turn around and Parmenio cut them to pieces, but I think that could have happened anyway, and it might have been the cause of Darius fleeing.

So, what does this teach my protagonist? First, Darius should make up his mind whether his strategy will be defensive or aggressive. If the former, he should keep his cavalry out of the right flank and plug that side with infantry. Over two thirds of his infantry were not doing anything, so he could easily spare them. Let the Greeks attempt to cross the river. If the latter, then once over with 50,000 men, he should let them slug it out with the Macedonians for an hour or so, then send forward a further 50,000 to replace them. The river is a defensive asset but an aggressive problem. If he wishes to be aggressive, he should cross that river while he can. If the accounts are true, he could do that for up to twelve switches, if the 50,000 includes cavalry. Alexander’s troops could not fight continuously for that long. This tactic works best if it had been practised. As it happens, that is also standard Roman procedure, and the Roman troops were so well drilled the substitution would be no problem.

If he defended, he should have kept his cavalry for his left flank. He would know that Alexander would attempt to cross the river, and a mix of cavalry and infantry that heavily outnumbered Alexander should have given Alexander at least a severe problem. So, the lessons I hoped to get into my protagonist here were simple. Pick a strategy that might work and throw everything behind it so that it should work. Pick a strategy that favours your numbers. Darius fled when over two-thirds of his massive army had not even seen a Macedonian. Pick a strategy that favours the terrain. Make sure the reserves are placed so that if something develops, they are ready to take advantage of it. I think these are sensible things to learn, so even if what I am writing seems a little academic, I think it at least has some air of realism.