Lessons from Gaugamela

“A tomb now suffices him for whom the world was not enough.” Alexander the Great’s tombstone epitaph

Alexander the Great is my hero.

A military genius, Alexander demonstrated limitless ambition and went on to conquer more of the known world (from Greece to India) than anyone before him, cementing the reach and influence of Hellenic life and culture.

A king at 20, master of the world by 30 and dead by 32, he succeeded in achieving what many others before and since have craved; eternal glory.

The battle of Gaugamela

The battle of Gaugamela took place between Alexander The Great and the Persian emperor Darius on 1 October 331 BC, near the city of Mosul, in what is now modern day Iraq. The fault-lines of history are remarkably constant…

The ramifications of the battle for Alexander were profound:

  • Victory would bring vengeance for Greece and with it, the empire of Persia; the culmination of one of young Alexander’s dreams.
  • Defeat would almost certainly spell death and even worse in the mind of Alexander, a future of anonymity unlike his hero Achilles; such were the stakes on the young 25 year old’s shoulders.

The outcome of the battle was decisive. Alexander and his army routed Darius (who escaped) and took control of the Persian empire.

History is not short of battles or heroic soldiers, yet Gaugamela encapsulates one of those rare moments in history, the transfer of global supremacy from one leader to another.

What does Gaugamela teach us?

Beyond the historical implications of Gaugamela, the battle, from beginning to end offers important lessons and strategies relevant to us today, over two millennia later.

  1. Superiority of numbers doesn't necessarily matter

Alexander and his army were greatly outnumbered at Gaugamela.

Arrian (the principal source on Alexander) tells us Darius led an army of 1,000,000 infantry and 40,000 cavalry. Modern estimates put the size at a more conservative 250,000 which still vastly outnumbered Alexander’s 40,000 infantry and 7,000 cavalry.

The Macedonians’ sight across the battlefield (carefully chosen and flattened by Darius) would have been daunting, but Alexander knew his troops, knew his tactics and knew how to deploy them to maximum effect.

By 331 B.C. Alexander and his army were 2,400 KM from their home in Pella, Macedonia. Many of Alexander’s generals had fought for his father, Philip; others had grown up and fought with Alexander.

All however, had fought alongside each other on the road to Gaugamela.

They were a cohesive, battle-hardened unit of soldiers loyal to Alexander and Macedonia. In battle, like in business or on the football pitch, loyalty and cohesiveness count for a lot against a disjointed opponent.

Alexander had forged a bond with his troops, and they with him.

Darius’ army, although numerically superior was made up of various nationalities either conscripted to fight or obligated to under military alliance with Persia.

These included:

Sogdians, Bactrians, Sacae, Arachotians, Parthians, Hyrcanians, Tapurians, Cadusians, Albanians, Sacesinians, Uxians, Susiani, Sitacenians, Carians, Armenians, Cappadocians and Mesopotamian Syrians.

Although these troops would have technically been loyal to Darius and Persia, loyalties forged by money, as opposed to blood, are notoriously flexible.

In summary, a small, cohesive, disciplined and experienced contingent can be very powerful. A perfect example is the Battle of Thermopylae, where 300 Spartans (and other warriors) held the Hot Gates against Xerxes.

2. Superior weapons and tactics can defeat any enemy

The tactical employment of tools and resources can make all the difference to your strategic objectives. Alexander knew that his army held specific advantages in aspects of weaponry and military tactics and exploited these to rout Darius.

The Macedonian infantry fought in a densely packed, disciplined phalanx formation. Troops were armed with the sarissa, a pike which measured up to 18ft in length.

The length alone allowed them to engage and kill Darius’ oncoming troops while maintaining a buffer zone of relative safety.

Furthermore, Alexander’s troops were better armed and protected with infantry carrying either a xiphos or kopis and a two-foot wide circular shield.

The mostly conscript Persian army had little to no armour. They carried wooden shields which, when tested against the sarrisae, literally fell to pieces.

Alexander’s approach was simple. He analysed his resources, analysed Darius’ and then judged where and how he could inflict proportionally large damage on his rival, gaining absolute supremacy on the battlefield. Something he seemed to have a gift for…

3. Finding and exploiting your enemy’s weakness brings decisive victory

Alexander knew that superiority in numbers can be compensated for by superior knowledge of your enemy.

Alexander recognised that if he could cut off the head of the snake (Darius), the potency of his enemy would disappear. Alexander, therefore planned an intricate battle plan that would allow his army to open up a gap in the Persian line through which Darius could be toppled.

Alexander knew that the longer the battle wore on, the greater the advantage to Darius and his larger number of troops. Alexander would have to force Darius’ hand in altering his formation in a way that would leave him exposed.

Prior to engaging Alexander at Gaugamela, Darius had the battleground flattened in order to give his chariots the best conditions to fight Alexander.

Knowing this, Alexander rode along the line with his cavalry to the right flank, drawing a large number of Darius’ cavalry with him. Darius did not expect this and knew that if he didn't act quickly and attack Alexander, the battle would soon move off the prepared, flattened ground rendering Darius’ capabilities useless.

His hand was forced and Darius attacked. The result of which created a gap in the Persian line in which Alexander charged directly at Darius and in effect, the battle was over.

Finding and exploiting a weakness (everyone and everything has one) is a basic fundamental of warfare or business strategy. Research your target, probe it, test it and force it into a position where you have the upper hand. This was Alexander’s strategy and it worked.

Alexander’s decisive manoeuvre and final charge on Darius’ position

4. Keep your enemy guessing

Predictability in war can be fatal.

Before the day of the Battle of Gaugamela, Alexander had rested his troops for four days and he even woke up at mid-day on the 1st. Darius, expecting an attack at night, had his troops maintain battle formation waiting for an attack.

In fact, conventional leaders would have believed that the dark favoured a numerically inferior army and would have listened to Parmenio (one of Alexander’s generals) and attacked; but not Alexander.

Keeping Darius guessing helped Alexander in two ways:

  1. Darius tired out his troops by keeping them awake all night before the actual battle giving an obvious physical advantage to Alexander; and
  2. In terms of troop morale, Darius’ soldiers knew that their leader had been defeated two years earlier by Alexander at the Battle of Issus. Alexander by not succumbing to Darius’ logic (of attacking at night), I believe would have unnerved and hurt the morale of Darius’ troops further. Outwitted yet again, there couldn't have been much confidence in Darius to defeat the young Macedonian.

Unpredictability, combined with effective resources and an effective strategy can keep you ahead of your competitors while deterring them from action against you.

Darius expected an attack at night; Alexander attacked in the day. Keep them guessing.

The final ingredient is belief

A theme that surrounds the entirety of Alexander’s life that I have not mentioned above is belief.

Alexander would never let anyone tell him he couldn't do something and neither should you. If you have a dream, an ambition or an idea and in your heart and mind, follow it and nurture it.

It is what Alexander would have done.

Alexander’s route, battles and empire