Battle of Issus

Battle of Issus

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The Battle of Issus, on 5 November 333 BCE, was Alexander the Great's second battle against the Persian army and the first direct engagement with King Darius III, near the village of Issus in southern modern-day Turkey. It was a major victory for Alexander, defeating the Achaemenid Empire and causing Darius III to flee the battlefield.


After the death of his father and his ascension to the Macedonian throne, Alexander's first order of business was to pursue his father's dream, the conquest of the Persian Empire. Using the excuse that he was seeking revenge for the invasion of Greece by Darius I and Xerxes, Alexander crossed the Hellespont into Asia Minor. As he moved southward he defeated the Persian forces at Granicus and Halicarnassus. His next major confrontation would be at Issus in November 333 BCE. This battle would be the first of two meetings between Alexander the Great and King Darius of Persia; both would end in a defeat of the Persian forces.

When Alexander learned of Darius' presence in the agricultural-rich land surrounding Issus, he quickly moved southward from Gordium through the Cilician Gates to the port town of Issus. Although the battle itself would be further south on a narrow plain between the Mediterranean Sea and the Amanus Mountains, the port served as a base camp for Alexander's forces. It was there that he left a number of wounded and sick to recover. Later, as Darius marched his troops to meet Alexander at the River Penarus, the Persian king stopped at the Greek base camp where he tortured and executed the recuperating Macedonian soldiers, cutting off the right hand of those who were allowed to live. This act would serve as a further incentive to Alexander's army to defeat the Persians.

The two armies met at the River Penarus; the weather was rainy and cold.

Focusing on his rendezvous with Alexander, Darius moved north from Babylon to an area east of the Issus River. Basing her estimates on ancient sources, historian Ruth Sheppard has Darius with an estimated army of between 300,000 and 600,000 as well as 30,000 Greek mercenaries while more modern numbers are from 25,000 to 100,000 with only 10,000 Greek mercenaries. Although he considered waiting there for Alexander, Darius changed his mind hoping to separate Alexander from his base at Issus and thereby isolating him. Alexander had marched south from Issus toward Syria, but after confirming the presence of Darius at Issus, he turned back to the north. Darius moved further south into the narrow strip of land west of the Amanus, thereby placing his forces at a disadvantage. The two armies met at the River Penarus; the weather was rainy and cold. The area did, however, provide a distinct advantage for Alexander because not only did it reduce Darius's mobility but he could also spread out his own troops.

Plutarch, in his The Life of Alexander the Great, spoke of this advantage and the victory it would soon bring when he said:

Fortune was not kinder to Alexander in the choice of ground, than he was careful to improve it to his advantage. For being much inferior in numbers, so far from allowing himself to be outflanked, he stretched his right wing much further out than the left wing of his enemies, and fighting there himself in the very foremost ranks, put the barbarians to flight.


Unfortunately for Darius, he had ignored the advice of Charidamus, one of his trusted Greek generals, who had told Darius to divide his forces and allow him (Charidamus) to fight alone against Alexander. Darius ignored this suggestion for what some see as a matter of ego and prestige. He could not lose to this young Greek upstart. After being ignored, Charidamus made the mistake of a few ill-chosen comments about Persians. Darius, who spoke Greek and perfectly understood the comments, was offended and immediately had his general executed — something many consider as unwise because Charidamus was viewed at one of Darius's most capable generals.

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The entire battle did not go well for Darius. Despite the advantage of numbers, he and his men were soon on the defensive, unable to maneuver as they would have liked. Darius's left flank was hampered by the river valley, mountains on his left and the sea on his right.

Alexander, on the other hand, was able to use his trusted phalanx formation. His right flank extended to the mountains and his left to the sea. He had three battalions on the right and four to the left with heavy infantry in the middle. After viewing Alexander's formation, Darius moved his cavalry to attack Alexander's right with hopes of breaking through his right flank. Although hampered by the river bank and stockades erected by Darius, Alexander and his Companion cavalry moved quickly through the Darius's left flank. Attempts to drive Alexander back across the Pinarus failed. Historian Arrian in his The Campaigns of Alexander said:

Darius' Greeks fought to thrust the Macedonians back into the water and save the day for their left wing, in their turn, with Alexander's triumph plan before their eyes, were determined to equal his success and not forfeit the proud title of invincible, hitherto universally bestowed upon them.

Alexander and his forces turned toward the Persian center where he spotted Darius. Although Darius's brother Oxathres attempted to block Alexander's charge, he failed. Darius fled the battle at first in his chariot and then on horseback. Despite a serious thigh wound, Alexander would pursue him until nightfall but returned empty-handed. Meanwhile, Alexander's left flank, under the leadership of Parmenion, was having problems with Darius's right. However, when the Persian forces saw their leader flee, they fled, too; many were trampled to death in the mass exit. In all, the Persians lost 100,000 foot soldiers and 10,000 cavalry while Alexander only lost 1,200. These numbers are, as before, Greek estimates. Modern estimates are more reasonable having Darius lose around 20,000 and Alexander 7,000. The Persians left so hurriedly that there was much plunder awaiting Alexander and his men. Plutarch said:

…Darius's tent, which was full of splendid furniture and qualities of gold and silver, they (his soldiers) reserved for Alexander himself, who, after he had put off his arms, went to bathe himself saying, 'Let us now cleanse ourselves from the toils of war in the bath of Darius.

There was more than gold and silver, however, left behind — Darius's mother, his wife, and two daughters were found in Darius's tent, but Alexander promised them that they would come to no harm. Plutarch wrote:

… (Alexander) let them know Darius was not dead, and that they need not fear any harm from Alexander, who made war upon him only for dominion; they should themselves be provided with everything they had been used to receive from Darius.

Although Darius sought the return of his family, promising Alexander half of his kingdom, Alexander refused. Instead, Alexander challenged him to stand and fight, and they would meet a second time at Gaugamela where Darius would again flee, but this time he would meet his death by one of his own — Bessus.

Since 340 BCE, a clash between Macedonia and the Persian Empire was inevitable. In that year, the Macedonian king Philip laid siege to Perinthus, threatening the vital interests of Greece and Persia (clear transit through the Bosphorus and Hellespont). The Persians responded by sending troops to Europe. note [Diodorus, World History 16.75.2.] It was for the first time since Xerxes that the Persians intervened in the west, and the Macedonians considered this to be an unforgivable act of aggression. Philip first secured his rear having provoked the Fourth Sacred War, he defeated the Greeks at Chaeronea (338) and forced them into the Corinthian League. Now, he was ready to strike east.

At about the same time, the Persian king Artaxerxes III Ochus died, leaving the Persian Empire without strong successor. His son Artaxerxes IV Arses had to cope with revolts in Babylonia (Nidin-Bel), Egypt (Chababash), and Armenia (Artašata). For the Macedonians, everything was now ready for the attack - except that king Philip was assassinated in 336 (more. ), more or less contemporary with the death of Arses and the accession of Artašata, who became known as Darius III Codomannus.

In 334, Philip's son and successor Alexander invaded Asia, which was still poorly defended because of the Persian civil war. He defeated the local levies at the Granicus, which enabled him to conquer Anatolia. The only Persian force to offer resistance was the navy, commanded by Memnon and Pharnabazus, which consisted of Phoenician ships. To defeat the navy, the Macedonians decided to attack the Phoenician ports. In the autumn of 333 BCE, they entered Cilicia through the Cilician Gate.


Alexander III of Macedon (356–323 BC), best known as Alexander the Great, was an Ancient King of Macedon who reigned from 336 BC until his death. He is widely regarded as one of the greatest military tacticians and strategists in history, [1] and is presumed undefeated in battle. [2] [3] Renowned for his military leadership and charisma, he always led his armies personally and took to the front ranks of battle. [4] [5] By conquering the Persian Empire and unifying Greece, Egypt and Babylon, he forged the largest empire of the ancient world [6] and effected the spread of Hellenism throughout Europe and Northern Africa. [7]

Alexander embarked on his expedition to conquer the Persian Empire in the spring of 334 BC, [8] having pacified the warring Greek states and consolidated his military might. [9] During the first months of the Macedonian passage into Persian Asia Minor, Darius III – king of Persia – largely ignored the presence of Alexander's 40,000 men. The Battle of the Granicus, fought in May, [8] was Persia's first major effort to confront the invaders, but resulted in an easy victory for Alexander. Over the next year, Alexander took most of western and coastal Asia Minor by forcing the capitulation of the satrapies in his path. [10] He continued inland, travelling northeast through Phrygia before turning southeast toward Cilicia. After passing the Cilician Gates in October, Alexander was delayed by fever in Tarsus. [11] Darius meanwhile mustered an army of up to 100,000 (some ancient sources posit exaggerated figures of over 600,000) [12] and personally directed it over the eastern slopes of the Amanus Mountains. In early November, as Alexander proceeded about the Gulf of Issus from Mallus via Issus, the two armies inadvertently passed one another on opposite sides of the mountains. [13] This was decidedly to Darius' advantage: now at the rear of Alexander, he was able to prevent retreat and block the supply lines Alexander had established at Issus. [14] It was not until Alexander had encamped at Myriandrus, a seaport on the southeastern shores of the Gulf of İskenderun, that he learned of the Persian position. He immediately retraced his route to the Pinarus River, just south of Issus, to find Darius' force assembled along the northern bank. [13] The Battle of Issus ensued.

Darius' initial response was defensive: he immediately stockaded the river bank with stakes to impede the enemy's crossing. A core vanguard of traitorous Greek mercenaries and Persian royal guard was established as was usual for Persian kings, Darius positioned himself in the centre of this vanguard, in order that he might effectively dispatch commands to any part of his large army. [15] A group of Persian light infantry was soon sent to the foothills, as it was suspected that Alexander would make an approach from the right, away from the coast. A mass of cavalry commanded by Nabarsanes occupied the Persian right. [16]

Alexander made a cautious and slow advance, intending to base his strategy on the structure of the Persian force. He led a flank of his Companion cavalry on the right, while the Thessalian cavalry were dispatched to the left, as a counter to Nabarsanes' mounted unit. [17] Aware of the importance of the foothills to his right, Alexander sent a band of light infantry, archers, and cavalry to displace the defence Darius had stationed there. The enterprise was successful – those Persians not killed were forced to seek refuge higher in the mountains. [17] [18]

When within missile range of the enemy, Alexander gave the order to charge. [17] [19] He spearheaded the assault of his heavily armed Companion cavalry, who quickly made deep cuts into the Persian left flank. The Macedonian left wing, commanded by Parmenion, [18] was meanwhile driven back by Nabarsanes' large cavalry. The Macedonians' central phalanx crossed the river and clashed with the renegade Greek mercenaries who fronted Darius' vanguard. As the Companion cavalry pushed further into the Persian left, the danger arose that Darius would exploit the gap that had formed between Alexander and the rest of his army. When he was satisfied that the left wing was crippled and no longer a threat, Alexander remedied the situation by moving the Companions to assault the Persian centre in the flank. Unable to handle the added pressure, the Persian vanguard was forced to withdraw from the river bank, allowing the Macedonian phalanx to continue their advance and lifting the pressure on Parmenion's left wing. [19]

Upon realising that the onslaught of Alexander's Companion cavalry was unstoppable, Darius and his army fled. Many were killed in the rush, trampled by those who fled with them or collapsed with their horses. [20] Some escaped to regions as remote as Egypt, and others reunited with Darius in the north. [21] The onset of darkness ended the chase after approximately 20 km (12 mi) Alexander then recalled his army and set about burying the dead. Darius' family were left behind in the Persian camp it is reported that Alexander treated them well and reassured them of Darius' safety. [21] [22] Darius' royal chariot was found discarded in a ditch, as were his bow and shield. [21]

Ancient sources present disparate casualty figures for the Battle of Issus. Plutarch and Diodorus Siculus approximate 100,000 Persian deaths, in contrast with the 450 Macedonian deaths reported by Quintus Curtius Rufus. [23] In any case, it is probable that more Persians were killed as they fled than in battle [24] Ptolemy I, who served with Alexander during the battle, recounts how the Macedonians crossed a ravine on the bodies of their enemies during the pursuit. [23] [25]

The Macedonian conquest of Persia continued until 330 BC, when Darius was killed and Alexander took his title as king. [26] Alexander died in 323 BC, having recently returned from campaigning in the Indian subcontinent. The cause of death remains a subject of debate. [27] [28]

Previous work Edit

Albrecht Altdorfer is regarded as one of the founders of Western landscape art. [29] He was a painter, etcher, architect, and engraver, and the leader of the Danube school of German art. As evidenced by such paintings as Saint George and the Dragon (1510) and Allegory (1531), much of Altdorfer's work is characterised by an attachment to sprawling landscapes that dwarf the figures within them [30] The Battle of Alexander at Issus epitomises this facet of his style. With reference to St George and the Dragon in particular, art historian Mark W. Roskill comments that "The accessory material of landscape [in Altdorfer's work] is played with and ornamentally elaborated so that it reverberates with the sense of a sequestered and inhospitable environment". [31] Inspired by his travels around the Austrian Alps and the Danube River, [32] Altdorfer painted a number of landscapes that contain no figures at all, including Landscape with a Footbridge (c. 1516) and Danube Landscape near Regensburg (c. 1522–25). These were the first "pure" landscapes since antiquity. [33] Most of Altdorfer's landscapes were made with a vertical format, in contrast with the modern conception of the genre. The horizontal landscape was an innovation of Altdorfer's Flemish contemporary Joachim Patinir and his followers. [34]

Altdorfer also produced a great deal of religious artwork, in reflection of his devout Catholicism. His most frequent subjects were the Virgin Mary and the life and crucifixion of Christ. As in The Battle of Alexander at Issus, these paintings often feature settings of great majesty and use the sky to convey symbolic meaning. This meaning is not uniform throughout Altdorfer's corpus – for example, the visage of the setting sun connotes loss and tragedy in Agony in the Garden, but serves as "the emblem of power and glory" in The Battle of Alexander at Issus. [35]

Larry Silver of The Art Bulletin explains that The Battle of Alexander at Issus is both similar to and in direct contrast with Altdorfer's previous work: "Instead of the peaceful landscape of retreat for Christian events or holy figures, this panel offers just the opposite: a battleground for one of ancient history's principal epoch-making encounters . Yet despite its global or cosmic dimensions, the Battle of Issus still looks like Altdorfer's earlier, contemplative liminal landscapes of retreat, complete with craggy peaks, bodies of water, and distant castles." [36]

Although the Battle of Alexander is atypical of Altdorfer in its size and in that it depicts war, his Triumphal Procession – a 1512–16 illuminated manuscript commissioned by Maximilian I of the Holy Roman Empire – has been described as a conceptual antecedent. [37] The Procession was produced in parallel with the Triumph of Maximilian, a series of 137 woodcuts collaboratively executed by Altdorfer, Hans Springinklee, Albrecht Dürer, Leonhard Beck and Hans Schäufelein. [38]

Influences and commission Edit

Altdorfer's most significant contemporary influence was Matthias Grünewald (c. 1470–1528). Art historian Horst W. Janson remarked that their paintings "show the same 'unruly' imagination". [39] Elements of The Battle of Alexander at Issus – particularly the sky – have been compared to Grünewald's Heavenly Host above the Virgin and Child, which forms part of his masterpiece, the Isenheim Altarpiece. Lucas Cranach the Elder (1472–1553), also associated with the Danube school, was another important influence for Altdorfer. According to Roskill, works by Cranach from about 1500 "give a prominent role to landscape settings, using them as mood-enhancing backgrounds for portraits, and for images of hermits and visionary saints", and seem to play a "preparatory role" for the onset of pure landscape. [40] Altdorfer owed much of his style, particularly in his religious artwork, to Albrecht Dürer (1471–1528) [41] Larry Silver writes that Altdorfer's "use of convincing German landscapes in combination with celestial phenomena for his religious narrative" is "firmly tied" to a tradition "modeled by Albrecht Dürer." [42]

William IV, Duke of Bavaria commissioned The Battle of Alexander at Issus in 1528. [43] Altdorfer was approximately 50 at the time, and was living in the Free Imperial City of Regensburg. [44] As a result of over a decade of involvement with the Regensburg city council, Altdorfer was offered the position of Burgomaster on 18 September 1528. He declined the council annals reported his reasoning as such: "He much desires to execute a special work in Bavaria for my Serene Highness and gracious Lord, Duke [William]." [44] William probably wanted the painting for his newly built summer Lusthaus ("pleasure house") in the grounds of his palace in Munich, approximately 60 miles (97 km) south of Regensburg. [43] [44] [45] There, it was to hang alongside seven other paintings with a similar format and subject matter, including Ludwig Refinger's The Matyrdom of Marcus Curtius, Melchior Feselen's The Siege of Alesia by Caesar, and the painting of Battle of Cannae by Hans Burgkmair (1473–1531). [46] [47] Another eight, each portraying a famous woman from history, were later added to the set, probably at the behest of the Duke's wife, Jacobaea of Baden. [47] Altdorfer's Susanna and the Elders (1526) was among these. [48]

Earlier depictions Edit

Earlier depictions of the Battle of Issus are few. Battle of Issus, a fresco by Philoxenus of Eretria, is probably the first such. It was painted sometime around 310 BC for Cassander (c. 350–297 BC), who was one of Alexander the Great's successors. [49] Alexander and Darius – each within a lance's length of the other – are pictured among a wild fray of mounted and downed soldiers. While Alexander maintains an aura of unshaken confidence, fear is etched in Darius' face, and his charioteer has already turned to rein his horses and escape. [49] Roman author and natural philosopher Pliny the Elder claimed that Philoxenus' portrayal of the battle was "inferior to none". [49] Some modern critics posit that Battle of Issus might not have been the work of Philoxenus, but of Helena of Egypt. One of the few named women painters who might have worked in Ancient Greece, [50] [51] she was reputed to have produced a painting of the battle of Issus which hung in the Temple of Peace during the time of Vespasian. [52]

The Alexander Mosaic, a floor mosaic dating from c. 100 BC, is believed to be a "reasonably faithful" copy of Battle of Issus, [49] though an alternative view holds it might instead be a copy of a work painted by Apelles of Kos, [53] who produced several portraits of Alexander the Great. [54] It measures 5.82 m × 3.13 m (19 ft 1 in × 10 ft 3 in), and consists of approximately 1.5 million tesserae (coloured tiles), each about 3 mm (0.12 in) square. The mosaicist is unknown. Since the mosaic was not rediscovered until 1831, during excavations of Pompeii's House of the Faun, [55] Altdorfer could never have seen it. It was later moved to the Naples National Archaeological Museum in Naples, Italy, where it currently resides.

Description Edit

The Battle of Alexander at Issus is painted on a limewood panel measuring 158.4 cm × 120.3 cm (62.4 in × 47.4 in), [56] and portrays the moment of Alexander the Great's victory. The vertical format was dictated by the space available in the room for which the painting was commissioned – each in William's set of eight was made to be the same size. At an unknown date, the panel was cut down on all sides, particularly at the top, so the sky was originally larger and the moon further from the corner of the scene. [57] The scene is approached from an impossible viewpoint – at first only feet from the fray, the perspective gradually ascends to encompass the seas and continents in the background and eventually the curvature of the Earth itself. [58] [59]

Thousands of horse and foot soldiers immersed in a sea of spears and lances populate the foreground. The two armies are distinguished by their dress, anachronistic though it is: whereas Alexander's men clad themselves and their horses in full suits of heavy armour, many of Darius' wear turbans and ride naked mounts. [60] The bodies of the many fallen soldiers lie underfoot. A front of Macedonian warriors in the centre pushes against the crumbling enemy force, who flee the battlefield on the far left. The Persian king joins his army on his chariot of three horses, and is narrowly pursued by Alexander and his uniformly attired Companion cavalry. [47] The tract of soldiers continues down the gently sloped battlefield to the campsite and cityscape by the water, gravitating toward the mountainous rise at the scene's centre.

Beyond is the Mediterranean Sea and the island of Cyprus. [61] Here, a transition in hue is made, from the browns that prevail in the lower half of the painting to the aquas that saturate the upper half. The Nile River meanders in the far distance, emptying its seven arms into the Mediterranean at the Nile Delta. [61] South of Cyprus is the Sinai Peninsula, which forms a land bridge between Africa and Southwest Asia. The Red Sea lies beyond, [61] eventually merging – as the mountain ranges to its left and right do – with the curved horizon.

A fierce sky caught in the dichotomy between the setting sun and the crescent moon dominates more than a third of the painting. [57] The rain-heavy clouds swirling ominously around each celestial entity are separated by a gulf of calmness, intensifying the contrast and infusing the heavens with an unearthly glow. [62] Light from the sky spills onto the landscape: while the western continent and the Nile are bathed in the sun's light, the east and the Tower of Babel are cloaked in shadow.

The painting's subject is explained in the tablet suspended from the heavens. The wording, probably supplied by William's court historian Johannes Aventinus, [63] was originally in German but was later replaced by a Latin inscription. It translates:

Alexander the Great defeating the last Darius, after 100,000 infantry and more than 10,000 cavalrymen had been killed amongst the ranks of the Persians. Whilst King Darius was able to flee with no more than 1,000 horsemen, his mother, wife, and children were taken prisoner.

No date is provided for the battle alongside these casualty figures. The lower left-hand corner features Altdorfer's monogram – an 'A' within an 'A' – and the lower edge of the tablet is inscribed with "ALBRECHT ALTORFER ZU REGENSPVRG FECIT" ("Albrecht Altdorfer from Regensburg made [this]"). Tiny inscriptions on their chariot and harness identify Darius and Alexander, respectively. [64] Each army bears a banner that reports both its total strength and its future casualties. [43] [60]

Analysis and interpretation Edit

Anachronism is a major component of The Battle of Alexander at Issus. By dressing Alexander's men in 16th-century steel armour and Darius' men in Turkish battle dress, Altdorfer draws deliberate parallels between the Macedonian campaign and the contemporary European–Ottoman conflict. [44] [59] [64] In 1529 – the year of the painting's commissioning – the Ottoman forces under Suleiman the Magnificent laid siege to the Austrian city of Vienna, [64] then also the capital of the Holy Roman Empire and called 'the golden apple' by the Sultans. Although far inferior in number, the Austrian, German, Czech, and Spanish soldiers marshalled to defend Vienna were able to force the enemy into a retreat and stall the Ottoman advance on central Europe. It is probable the painting's underlying allegory was inspired by the siege of Vienna, given its similarities to Alexander's victory at Issus. Some critics go further, suggesting that the inclusion of anachronism may have been an element of Altdorfer's commission. [47] [59]

In his Futures Past: On the Semantics of Historical Time, historian Reinhart Koselleck discusses Altdorfer's representation of time in a more philosophical light. After differentiating between the superficial anachronism found in the casualty figures on the army banners and the deeper anachronism ingrained in the painting's contemporary context, he posits that the latter type is less a superimposition of one historical event over another and more an acknowledgement of the recursive nature of history. With reference to Koselleck, Kathleen Davis argues: ". for [Altdorfer], 4th-century Persians look like 16th-century Turks not because he does not know the difference, but because the difference does not matter . The Alexanderschlacht, in other words, exemplifies a premodern, untemporalized sense of time and a lack of historical consciousness . Altdorfer's historical overlays evince an eschatological vision of history, evidence that the 16th century (and by degrees also the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries) remained locked in a static, constant temporality that proleptically saturates the future as always a repetition of the same . In such a system there can be no event as such: anticipation and arrival are together sucked into the black hole of sacred history, which is not temporalized because its time is essentially undifferentiated . " [65]

Featured alongside the anachronism in The Battle of Alexander at Issus is a genuine lack of historicity. Altdorfer demonstrates minimal hesitance in neglecting the painting's historical integrity for the sake of its heroic style, in spite of the pains he took to research the battle. That the Persian army was up to twice the size of the Macedonian army is not clear, and the relative positioning of the soldiers as reported by ancient sources has been disregarded. According to art critic Rose-Marie Hagen, "The artist was faithful to the historical truth only when it suited him, when historical facts were compatible with the demands of his composition." [60] Hagen also notes the placement of women on the battlefield, attributing it to Altdorfer's "passion for invention", [60] since the wife of Darius, his mother and his daughters were waiting for Darius back at the camp, not in the thick of battle. [66] True to form, however, Altdorfer made the aristocratic ladies "look like German courtly ladies, dressed for a hunting party" in their feathered toques: [60]

Altdorfer's primary point of reference in his research was probably Hartmann Schedel's Nuremberg Chronicle (Schedelsche Weltchronik), an illustrated world history published in Nuremberg in 1493. Schedel was a physician, humanist, historian and cartographer, and his Chronicle was one of the first books produced on the printing press. With a heavy reliance on the Bible, it recounts the seven ages of human history, [67] from Creation to the birth of Christ and ending with the Apocalypse. [68] Altdorfer's statistics for the battle of Issus mirror those of Schedel. Furthermore, the errors in Schedel's maps of the Mediterranean and Northern Africa are also present in The Battle of Alexander at Issus: the island of Cyprus is noticeably oversized, and both the mountain rise in the painting's centre and the range adjacent to the Nile do not exist. [61] Since the Chronicle describes Alexander's victory over the Persians in terms of its proximity to Tarsus and omits mention of Issus, it is likely that the cityscape by the sea is intended to be the former city rather than the latter. Issus in the 16th century was minor and relatively unknown, whereas Tarsus was renowned for its having been a major centre of learning and philosophy in Roman times. Tarsus was also said to be the birthplace of the Apostle Paul, which may explain the presence of the church towers in Altdorfer's portrayal. [61] Another source may have been the writings of Quintus Curtius Rufus, a 1st-century Roman historian who presents inflated figures for the number of killed and taken prisoner and the sizes of the armies. [60]

The sky bears overt metaphorical significance and is the centrepiece of the painting's symbolism. Alexander, identified by the Egyptians and others as a god of the sun, finds his victory in the sun's rays and the Persians are routed into the darkness beneath the crescent moon, a symbol of the Near East. [69] Considered in terms of the painting's contemporary context, the sun's triumph over the moon represents Christendom's victory over the Islamism of the Ottomans. [35] Eschatological meaning, probably inspired by prophecies in the Book of Daniel, is imbued in the heavenly setting. In particular, Daniel 7 predicts the rise and fall of four kingdoms before the Second Coming these were thought to be Babylon, Persia, Greece, and Rome at the time of the painting's creation. Altdorfer saw the Battle of Issus as a principal indicator of the transition of power from Persia to Greece, and thus as an event of cosmic significance. [35] [57] The battle also marked a progression toward the end of the world – an important theological concern in the 16th century, given that the last traces of Rome were diminishing with the papacy. As a member of the Regensburg council and a practising Catholic, Altdorfer frequently interacted with the Church and was surely aware of this trend of eschatological thought. Schedel, too, had calculated that the final age of the seven he identified was nigh. [67] It may therefore be inferred that the sky's expression of the momentous event at Issus was intended to be of contemporary relevance as well. [57]

The Battle of Alexander at Issus remained part of the royal collection of the Dukes of Bavaria for centuries. By the late 18th century, it was regularly featured in public galleries at the Schleissheim Palace. The painting was one of 72 taken to Paris in 1800 by the invading armies of Napoleon I (1769–1821), [70] who was a noted admirer of Alexander the Great. [60] [71] The Louvre held it until 1804, when Napoleon declared himself Emperor of France and took it for his own use. When the Prussians captured the Château de Saint-Cloud in 1814 as part of the War of the Sixth Coalition, they supposedly found the painting hanging in Napoleon's bathroom. [72]

The Battle of Alexander at Issus and 26 others taken in the 1800 invasion were subsequently restored to the King of Bavaria in 1815. [70] Five of the paintings in William IV's original set of eight – including The Battle of Alexander at Issus – later passed from the royal collection to the Alte Pinakothek art museum in Munich, Germany, where they remain the other three are in the National Museum of Fine Arts in Stockholm, having been looted by the Swedish army in the Thirty Years War of 1618–1648. [73] Susannah and the Elders is the only other work by Altdorfer in the Alte Pinakothek.

Contextually, the painting forms part of the Northern Renaissance, a resurgence of classical humanism and culture in northern Europe during the 15th and 16th centuries. The Renaissance induced a new kind of social individualism which Altdorfer expressed through the heroic emphasis on Alexander and Darius, and which is reflected in the specifics of the painting's commission and by the subjects of its companion pieces: "During the Renaissance people no longer saw themselves solely as members of a social group, as the citizens of a town, or as sinners before God in whose eyes all were equal. They had become aware of the unique qualities that distinguished one person from another. Unlike the Middle Ages, the Renaissance celebrated the individual. Altdorfer may have painted row after row of apparently identical warriors, but the spectators themselves would identify with Alexander and Darius, figures who had names, whose significance was indicated by the cord which hung down from the tablet above them." [47]

Altdorfer was not only a pioneer of landscape, but also a practitioner of early incarnations of the Romanticism and expressionism which impacted the arts so greatly in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Kenneth Clark writes of Altdorfer and contemporaries Grünewald and Bosch, "They are what we now call 'expressionist' artists, a term which is not as worthless as it sounds, because, in fact, the symbols of expressionism are remarkably consistent, and we find in the work of these early 16th-century landscape painters not only the same spirit but the same shapes and iconographical motives which recur in the work of such recent expressionists as van Gogh, Max Ernst, Graham Sutherland and Walt Disney." [74] According to art critic Pia F. Cuneo, "Altdorfer's construction of landscape on a cosmic scale" in the Battle of Alexander at Issus, and his "spiritual and aesthetic affinities with Romanticism and Modern art (in particular, German Expressionism)", "have been especially singled out for praise". [75]

The Battle of Alexander at Issus is typically considered to be Altdorfer's masterpiece. Cuneo states that the painting is usually "considered in splendid isolation from its fifteen other companion pieces, based on the assumption that it either metonymically stands in for the entire cycle, or that its perceived aesthetic predominance merits exclusive focus." [75] German writer Karl Wilhelm Friedrich Schlegel (1772–1829) was one of many who saw the painting in the Louvre and marvelled, calling it a "small painted Iliad". [72] Reinhart Koselleck comments that Altdorfer's depiction of the thousands of soldiers was executed with "a mastery previously unknown", [65] and Kathleen Davis describes the painting as "epochal in every sense". [65]

The Grand Master: Alexander’s Genius in the Battle of Issus

King Darius planned on fighting Alexander on the wide Syrian plains.This tactic would have allowed Darius the opportunity of surrounding Alexander’s greatly outnumbered army.

Darius decided to rest his troops at the Pinarus river during his pursuit of Alexander. Alexander learned of Darius’s location and immediately executed his strategy of fighting Darius on the plains of the Pinarus, which was shut in by the mountains and sea.

Statue of Alexander the Great. By Carole Raddato / CC BY-SA 3.0

This tactical move prevented Darius from surrounding the Macedonian’s outnumbered army and Alexander’s eventual probable defeat.

Battle of Issus

The Battle of Issus happened in 333 B.C was Alexander the Great’s second battle against the Persian army and his first direct engagement against King Darius III, King of Persia. The battle transpired near the village of Issus wherein Alexander defeated the Persian Army thereby causing Darius III to flee the battlefield. In history, the Battle of Issus has gone down as one of the most pivotal battles to occur.

Battle of Issus. Darius III portrayed (in the middle) in battle against Alexander in a Greek depiction. By Berthold Werner / CC BY-SA 3.0

Upon hearing that Darius III along with his Persian army was approaching the agricultural rich land surrounding Issus, Alexander the Great immediately called together his team of advisors to discuss strategy and tactic. The agreement was to advance to meet the Persians in battle – but not immediately.

Battle of Issus Movements – Persians in Red & Macedonians in Blue.

Because of the delay in action, Darius advisors’ assumed that Alexander did not intend to continue further into Asia. Darius was convinced by his advisors that his troop could easily take over the Macedonian forces. Unfortunately, the Persians were entirely wrong. Darius’s location in a flat and wide open field was the perfect position for his massive cavalry. Had Darius and his troop remained in their original position and not pressed forward, he may have won the battle.

Darius III of Persia

Macedonian soldiers who were injured and ill were left in the port which served as recovery camp. As Darius’s troop advanced forward to meet Alexander at the River Penarus, he stopped at the camp and tortured and slaughtered the recuperating Macedonian soldiers. Word of the massacre reached Alexander, probing him to send the Hetaeri, the elite Macedonian cavalry, to investigate what truly happened.

The Hetaeri returned to Alexander confirming the reports about the slaughter as well as with information about Darius’s current location at Issus. Alexander the Great immediately took action and began rallying his forces – leading his invincible army out to meet Darius III.

Hetaeri – A heavy cavalryman of Alexander the Great’s army, By Marsyas / CC BY-SA 3.0

At Issus, Darius sent 30,000 cavalry with 20,000 light infantry across the Pinarus River. He sent another 20,000 Persians to corner Alexander on the rear. Meanwhile, Alexander brought the Hetaeri along with the cavalry of Thessalians and Macedonians in his own command to the right. The Peloponnesians, under the command of Parmenio, veered to the left.

Darius moved his cavalry to the right pushing the Macedonian left to the seaward side of the battlefield. Alexander responded by moving his Thessalian troop to meet the Persians. He moved slowly and precisely as if he had all the time in the world while waiting for his army to conduct a strike in the distance.

The other Macedonian troops quickly engaged in battle as soon as the Persian forces were within range leaving the Persians helpless against the Macedonian’s full cavalry force. Alexander then moved his men to the center to prevent the Persians from breaking through the line.

From afar, Darius III watched as his forces slowly crumble against the Macedonian force. The Persians, led by Darius retreated.

King Darius Learned From the Battle of Granicus

Battle of the Granicus.

The Pinarus had steep banks in its upper and middle course. The Persians used this as an obstacle to defend their front in the same manner that they did at the Granicus.

The mistake that Darius made at the Battle of Granicus was not repeated at the Battle of Issus. Darius’s best troops, the Greek Mercenaries, were positioned in front of the center of the battle. The cavalry was on the right of the Greek mercenaries at the lower part of the Pinarus river.

Initial Positions of Forces.

At Granicus, Darius mistakenly placed his cavalry in front next to the steep bank of the river Granicus which prohibited his cavalry from charging Alexander’s army.

The banks of the Pinarus river were flat and the stream did not form an obstacle. The ground was level enough for a cavalry approach. Darius’s remaining troops were placed behind this front. Darius positioned himself in his impressive chariot in the center in back of his Greek mercenaries.

Alexander Demonstrates His Military Genius

The Macedonian Phalanx in a perfect position. it would never have looked like this in battle, and Alexander showed that in an interesting and engaging way.

Ulrich Wilken points out in his book, Alexander the Great, that the Pinarus was one of Alexander’s most memorable battles. Alexander began the battle, using the oblique formation, by charging with his heavy cavalry over the Pinarus and attacking the left wing of the enemy.

The Persians began to weaken from the terrific impact Alexander made with his heavy cavalry. However, Alexander’s phalangites were thrown back while they attempted to climb the steep bank of the river. The Greek mercenaries immediately recognized this weakness and threw themselves fiercely into the battle at the edge of the river.

Alexander s Attack.

Subsequently, both the Macedonians and Greek mercenaries fought each other fiercely, demonstrating their ethnic prejudices towards each other. Fortunately for the Macedonians, assistance was provided them from the nearby phalangites and Alexander himself.

Apparently after overcoming the left wing of the Persians, Alexander had executed the decisive turn and was successfully attacking the Persian center. This decided the battle of Issus. Darius, recognized Alexander’s successful defeating of his main force and retreated northwards in a frantic escape.

Painting of the battle of Issus by Jan Brueghel the Elder

Darius’s Escape Caused Great Disaster to His Army

The Persian cavalry continued to fight steadfastly until they learned of Darius’s escape from the battlefield. Then they turned around and commenced a frantic run for their lives. Alexander’s army pursued the fleeing Persians with a vengeance.

The historian, Ptolemy, who rode beside Alexander, recorded that in their pursuit they passed by a ravine, which was filled to the top with the dead bodies of the enemies.

Alexander the Great proved to the world his superior military mind in defeating Darius’s vastly numbered army. He did this by deciding to fight Darius on the plains of the Pinarus which prevented Alexander from being surrounded by King Darius’s heavily numbered army.

The victory at Issus marked the realization of Alexander’s dream of Persian domination.


Alexander, having won all the kingdoms west of Greece up to Bacteria (Persia), proceeded to India, defeated many kings and finally met his foe Porus in Punjab. Alexander entered into a pact with Ambhi, a sworn enemy of Porus with whom he attended Taxila as a student.

Alexander defeated Porus and in appreciation of his valor, Alexander gave the kingdom back to Porus and left Selecus Nicator as his representative in India. This is utter lie. Facts lie below.

Strabo, the Greek historian wrote: “Generally speaking, the men who have written on the affairs of India were a set of liars…Of this we became the more convinced whilst writing the history of Alexander.”

“After Alexander’s failure to gain a position in India and the defeat of Seleucus Nicator, relationships between the Indians and the Greeks and the Romans later, was mainly through trade and diplomacy. The Greeks and other ancient peoples didn’t see themselves as in any way superior, only different.”

This statement by Russia’s Marshal Gregory Zhukov on the Macedonian invasion of India in 326 BCE is significant because unlike the prejudiced colonial and Western historians, the Greeks and later Romans viewed Indians differently.

For instance, Arrian writes in Alexander Anabasis that the Indians were the noblest among all Asians. In fact, Arrian and other Greeks say the Indians were relentless in their attacks on the invaders.

They say if the people of Punjab and Sindh were fierce, then in the eastern part of India “the men were superior in stature and courage”. All this is glossed over by Western historians, in whose view the one victory over king Porus amounted to the “conquest of India”.

But the Greeks made no such claim. Greek contemporary writers describe the Battle of Hydaspes (Jhelum) as the hardest fought of all Alexander’s battles.

Frank Lee Holt, a prof of ancient history at the University of Houston,writes in his book, Alexander the Great and the Mystery of the Elephant Medallions: “The only reference in Arrian’s history to a victory celebration by Alexander’s army was after the battle with Porus.”

Alexander’s army did not indulge in celebrations after the Battle of Gaugamela where they defeated 200,000 Persians. No wild festivities were announced after the Battle of Issus where they defeated a mixed force of Persian cavalry and Greek mercenaries.

The fact they celebrated after the Battle of Hydaspes suggests they considered themselves extremely lucky to survive after the clash with the Hindu army, with its elephant corps.

According to the Greeks, Alexander was apparently so impressed by Porus that he gave back his kingdom plus the territories of king Ambhi of Taxila who had fought alongside the Macedonians.

This is counterintuitive. Ambhi had become Alexander’s ally on the condition he would be given Porus’ kingdom. So why reward the enemy, whose army had just mauled the Macedonians?

The only possible answer is at the Battle of Hydaspes, the Macedonians realised they were dealing with an enemy of uncommon valour. Sensing defeat they called for a truce, which Porus accepted.

The Indian king struck a bargain in return for Ambhi’s territories, which would secure his frontiers, Porus would assist the Macedonians in leaving India safely. Alexander’s post-Hydaspes charitable behaviour, as per Greek accounts, is uncharacteristic and unlikely.

For, in battles before and after, he massacred everyone in the cities he subdued. Description of the War: The Greek force, after having lost several thousand soldiers fighting much smaller Indian mountain cities, were terrified at the prospect of fighting the Paurava army.

They had also heard about the havoc that Indian war elephants were supposed to create among enemy ranks. The modern equivalent of battle tanks, the war elephants also scared the wits out of the horses in the Greek cavalry.

According to the Roman historian Marcus Justinus, the battle was savagely fought. Puru challenged Alexander, who charged him on horseback.

In the ensuing duel, Alexander fell off his horse and was at the mercy of the Indian king’s spear (and this is where legend meets history) when Puru perhaps remembered his promise to his rakhi sister (probably a Trojan horse sent in by the Greeks).

He spared the Macedonian’s life, and Alexander’s bodyguards quickly carried off their king. The Greeks may claim victory but if Alexander’s troops were so badly mauled by the petty regional fiefdoms, how could they have crushed the comparatively stronger army of Puru?

An unbiased re-examination suggests the Greeks had lost the battle. In his epic, The Life and Exploits of Alexander the Great, a series of translations of the Ethiopic histories of Alexander, E.A.W. Budge, Egyptologist, orientalist and philologist,has given a vivid account of same.

According to Budge, in the Battle of Hydaspes, the Indians destroyed the majority of Alexander’s cavalry. Realising that if he were to continue fighting he would be completely ruined, the Macedonian requested Puru to stop fighting.

True to Hindu traditions, the magnanimous Indian king spared the life of the surrendered enemy. A peace treaty was signed and Alexander helped Puru in annexing other territories to his kingdom.

Featured image courtesy: Quora.

Note: The above article is an exact (with very minor changes) reproduction of a twitter thread on Puru and Alexander by Aabhas Maldahiyar.

History Minds

The Battle of Issus in 333 B.C. was one of the greatest for Alexander the Great. As told from the Macedonian point of view it was a victorious, though violent, battle from which the Macedonians continued to carry their title of invincible. In history it has certainly gone down as one of the pivotal battles of antiquity.

As soon as news arrived that Darius of Persia was approaching the Macedonian forces, Alexander the Great immediately called together his advisors to discuss their options. The consensus was to advance to meet them in battle, though not immediately. Ever the strategist, Alexander was not quick to action.

Darius’s advisors claimed that the Macedonian slow response to their advance signaled that Alexander did not intend to continue further into Asia. They convinced him that the Persians could easily overtake the Macedonian forces the Persians should press forward, his advisors claimed. Had Darius remained in his original position, which was a flat and wide open battlefield, perfect for his numerous cavalry, he may have won the battle. Based on this advice, Darius advanced to Issus where he found Alexander’s rear detachment.

The Hetaeri returned to Alexander confirming that reports of the slaughter were true. The cavalry unit also reported that Darius was presently occupying Issus. Alexander immediately sprang to action and began to rally his troops. In typical fashion, Alexander cited other battles in which the Macedonians had been victorious. He compared the luxury-loving Persians who fought as slaves, to the free Macedonians who fought with their hearts dedicated to the battle – endowing them with a pre-nation patriotism that stood out against the forced conscription of the Persians. After his men ate a hearty meal, Alexander led the army out to meet Darius.

At Issus, Darius sent 30,000 cavalry and 20, 000 light infantry across the Pinarus River. He dispatched another 20,000 men went to Alexander’s rear. Meanwhile, Alexander brought the cavalry, composed of the Thessalians, Macedonians and the Hetaeri, on the right under his own command. The Peloponnesian troops made up the Macedonian left, under the command of Parmenio, a trusted advisor and general from the days of King Philip, Alexander’s father.

Darius then moved his cavalry to his right, threatening the Macedonian left on the seaward side of the battlefield. Darius continued to move his men around throughout the battle, though it seemed to his detriment. Alexander quickly responded by moving the Thessalian troops to meet the Persians. He led his forces slowly, but precisely, in order to give the appearance that he had all the time in the world, until the armies came within striking distance.

The Macedonians quickly fell into battle with the Persians as soon as they were within range. Their swift pace decreased casualties and left the Persians helpless. The Persian left fell almost immediately against the Macedonian cavalry forces. Alexander then moved his men to the Macedonian center to maintain stability and keep the Persians from breaking through the line. Alexander’s swift success encouraged the troops in the weakening center, and they began to fight harder.

Darius watched his forces from afar, preferring to remain outside of the battle. When the Macedonian cavalry became too much for them, the Persians retreated with Darius leading the way.

Alexander pursued Darius until the sun died that day. Although he did not capture him, Alexander and the Macedonian forces had decimated the Persian army at the battle of Issus.

Arrianus, Flavius. “The Battle of Issus.” The Art of War in World History: from Antiquity to the Nuclear Age. Ed. Gerard Chaliand. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994.

Battle of Issus - History

Displaying image 421 of 467 images in History.

The Battle of Issus shown on the Alexander Mosaic (c 100 BC) in the House of the Faun in Pompeii (Wikimedia Commons). It is believed to be a copy of a painting by Alexander&rsquos contemporary Apelles of Kos. Alexander is shown on the left on his horse Bucephalus. The mosaic representing the battle of Alexander the Great against Darius III, perhaps after an earlier Greek painting of Philoxenus of Eretria. This mosaic is now in the Museo Archeologico Nazionale (Naples).

The Battle of Issus (or the Battle at Issus) occurred in southern Anatolia, in November 333 BC. The invading troops, led by the young Alexander of Macedonia, defeated the army personally led by Darius III of Achaemenid Persia in the second great battle for primacy in Asia. After Alexander's forces successfully forced a crossing of the Hellespont (the Dardanelles) and defeated the Persian satraps in a prior encounter, the Battle of the Granicus, Darius took personal charge of his army, gathered a large army from the depths of the empire, and maneuvered to cut the Greek line of supply, requiring Alexander to countermarch his forces, setting the stage for the battle near the mouth of the Pinarus River and south of the village of Issus.

Eventual accounts tell of bodies piled within the waters high enough to dam its flow and that the river ran red with blood. So while Alexander is known to have repeatedly emphasized the importance of maintaining contact with the beach to his sub-commander on the left (seaward) flank, it is safe to assume a lot of action that day along all the water course in its 2.5 km travel through the small narrow rough hilly coastal plain that prevented the Persians, with their greater numbers, from outflanking the attacking Greeks.

Initially, Alexander chose what was apparently unfavorable ground to an attack across (rough, briar choked, uphill) which was in fact a feint meant to pin and hold the Persian forces. This surprised Darius who mistakenly elected to hold position while Alexander then led the true attack personally on the right while instructing the Macedonian phalanx trained infantry, his main body, to make contact and just hold the main Persian army in check thus in essence he advanced to take up a defensive posture. Meanwhile Alexander personally led the more elite Greek Companion cavalry against the Persian left up against the hills, and cut up the enemy on the less encumbering terrain generating a quick rout. After achieving a breakthrough, Alexander demonstrated he could do the difficult and held the cavalry successfully in check after it broke the Persian right. Alexander regrouped, then turned the body into the right flank of the Persian center, butchering Darius' body guard and under generals, provoking a panic and flight by that emperor himself, and causing a general rout. Any subsequent pursuit of Darius was delayed and generally impeded by the fleeing Persian troops and camp followers, although he managed to follow Darius' chariot until after dark some 24 to 25 km before giving up the chase.

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Topic: Macedonia (800s BC-146 BC)


Alexander ordered a general advance. The tight formation of the Macedonian infantry phalanx lost cohesion moving forward over rough ground and crossing the stream. Darius's infantry were able to penetrate gaps in the bristling barrier of spears and to cut and stab at men in the exposed core of the phalanx. But on the left the Thessalian horsemen performed well against the strongest concentration of Darius's cavalry, while on the right, Alexander led a charge of the companion cavalry that swept all before it. Wheeling in from the flank, Alexander's horsemen bore down upon the rear of the enemy infantry who were driven onto the anvil of the Macedonian phalanx. Darius and his entourage fledthe battlefield to avoid capture. Much of the infantry was trapped and cut down where it stood, while large numbers of fleeing cavalry and skirmishers were pursued and massacred. 

Cavalry fight on the beach

On the Persian right wing, victory had already been achieved. Alexander's cavalry, which consisted of horsemen from the Greek allies and the Thessalian riders, had crossed the shallow delta of the Pinarus, but had had been blocked by the Persian horsemen, which were superior in numbers and were commanded by Darius' chiliarch, Nabarzanes.

They had now come within javelin-range when the Persian cavalry made a furious charge on the left wing of their enemy for Darius wanted the issue decided in a cavalry engagement since he presumed that the phalanx was the main strength of the Macedonian army. note [Curtius Rufus, History of Alexander of Macedonia, 3.11.1 tr. J. Yardley.]

Within a few minutes, one of the Thessalian squadrons had been annihilated. The Persians started to push back the other Thessalian riders and the Greek allies, into and across the river. Parmenion ordered them to regroup, but the enemies came across the river in great numbers, and were already winging to the left to attack the Macedonian phalanx in the rear. The regrouped Thessalians and Greek allies had to prevent the destruction of the infantry, and could count on the support of the small reserve that Alexander had, with this purpose in mind, placed behind his lines. However, it was a matter of time until the Persian cavalry would surround the reserve and reach the phalanx, which was already forced back by the Greek hoplites.

Experience and Execution

Alexander’s success came down to experience and execution.

Both commanders had sound plans. Alexander, however, had more expertise in the field and so did his men. They were able to execute their maneuvers more effectively.

Once the battle got going, Alexander was able to seize the opportunities he needed. He adapted to Darius’ moves, countering each one.

Issus was a close call for Alexander. His enemy got behind him, and his left flank almost collapsed. He pulled victory out of desperate circumstances, once more proving why he was the Great.

General Sir John Hackett, ed. (1989), Warfare in the Ancient World.

Watch the video: The Battle of Issus 333 BC