Battle of Jhelum (326 BC) — Alexander in India (Part 1)

To the ancient greeks , India (indus derived from sanskrit sindhu) marked the eastern edge of the world — The ends of the earth .On the western extremity was the pillars of hercules(gibraltar in spain) beyond which lay the great western ocean,the eastern bound of this great ocean that surrounded the whole earth lay in india -the distant corner of asia(derived from hittite word assuwha).According to greek myth,Dionysus -the greek god of wine and ecstasy was brought up in the east and wandered for several years in india.Hercules was said to have failed in his Indian expedition.Moreover,Darius had conquered a small part of the western subcontinent near gandhara and this also gave alexander a legitimate cause to advance into the region -as he had replaced the ‘King of kings’ as ruler of the erstwhile persian empire.The thought of trumping herakles and going into the unknown to do the impossible yet again drove alexander,now proclaimed son of a god, eastwards.

​Alexander’s route to india. Having overran the persian empire,Macedonians struck with lightning speed in central asia,crushing the dangerous rebellion there under the satrap bessus and secured the southern syr darya valley with the river jaxartes [u can see the j visible in map -above the river oxus]marking the northern limit of the empire -then they swung south and erupted into afghanisthan through the hindu kush)Alexander married Roxanne,the sogdian princess during his central asian conquests.)By 327 BC,Alexander was ready.Having secured the persian empire,crossed the hindu kush and put down revolts in bactra as well as defeating a scythian incursion at jaxartes(Battle of Jaxartes) -the veteran macedonian forces were now poised for the new campaign.

India as a whole consisted of three parts:

  • the valley of the Indus in the west, which can be subdivided into three parts:
  • Gandhara, the valley of the river Cophen (modern Kabul) and the western part of the Punjab, which had, during the reign of Darius I, been part of the Achaemenid empire but consisted in 326 of several small principalities, such as Taxila and Massaga etc.
  • the eastern Punjab, the kingdom of Porus (Pauravas);
  • the lower valley of the Indus, called Sindhu.(Modern day sindh)
  • the Valley of the Ganges in the east. This was the powerful kingdom of Magadha; its capital was Pataliputra, modern Patna.Ruled by the Nanda empire.Beyond them the Gangaridai kingdom on the mouth of the ganges.(modern bengal roughly) andKalinga (modern orissa possibly).According to some gangardai and kalinga were an united one kingdom [as they are said to possess very large numbers of war elephants which small states couldn’t maintain]
  • the deep south, also known as Pandava.Ruled by several deccan kingdoms

The above photo is the map of asia at alexander’s death.The indus valley area here is in alexander’s domain. But u can see the gangaridai,the nandas and the southern kingdoms.


The Macedonian war machine was the creation of Philip the one-eyed ,father of Alexander.The latest innovations in weapons and tactics in Hellenistic warfare were adopted,innovated upon and refined by Philip II, and he created a uniquely flexible and effective army. By introducing military service as a full-time occupation, Philip was able to drill his men regularly, ensuring unity and cohesion in his ranks. In a remarkably short time, this led to the creation of one of the finest military machines of the ancient world from what was a second-rate power.2 things aided philip in the creation of his army — macedonia was naturally prosperous with a large manpower base and he acquired further gold mines through conquest and treachery that allowed him of all the states of greece to maintain a large permanent standing army.The conquests of Alexander would have been impossible without the army his father created.


The core of the macedonian infantry was composed of several phalanx battalions .One of the most imitated and succesful military formations in history,this again was the brain child of philip.

Birth of the Phalanx

When philip came to the throne of macedonia,she was near bankrupt and under constant threat of illyrian invasion who regularly pillaged the country.Indeed the last king had fallen in battle with them.At this time,Hoplites and peltasts dominated infantry warfare in greece.But new trends were emerging with Epaminondas’s use of the oblique order and deep phalanx at leuctra to break spartan power.Philip II spent much of his youth as a hostage at Thebes, where he studied closely Epaminondas and Pelopidas, whose reforms were the basis for a good part of Philip’s tactics. Philip II improved on these military innovators by using both Epaminondas’ deeper phalanx and Mercenary general Iphicrates’ combination of alonger spear and smaller and lighter shield.However, the introduction of the sarissa pike and a smaller shield seem to have been innovations devised by Philip himself.

Philip faced a critical problem.He didn’t have the funds to issue his hastily raised armies to defend macedonia from invasion with heavy armour,without which success in close combat was doubtful.Another was that these hastily drilled armies couldn’t be taught complex manuevering at once,it would take time.He dealt with both these problems ingeneously by removing the need for close combat at all by lengthening the traditional hoplite spear into a huge pike or sarissa that could outreach and enemy and hold him at bay.A sarissa pikeman could do with light or no armour and still come out on top in a head on fight.He also designed the phalanx to concentrate on moving forwards,rather than complex manuevering thus making it easier for the levies to get accustomed to it.The macedonian phalanx had been born.

Organization of the Phalanx

These soldiers fought in close-ranked rectangular or square formations, of which the smallest tactical unit was the 256 men strong syntagma or speira. Six Syntagmas formed a phalanx battalion or Taxies of 1536 men.One Taxies was levied from each of the districts across macedon.It formed one of the first permanent standing armies in history.(an earlier example would be assyrians).This formation typically fought eight or sixteen men deep and in a frontage of thirty-two or sixteen men accordingly. Each file of 16 men, a lochos. was commanded by a Lochagos who was in the front rank. Junior officers, one at the rear and one in the centre, were in place to steady the ranks and maintain the cohesion of the formation, similar to modern-day NCOs. The commander of the syntagma theoretically fought at the head of the extreme far-right file.

A syntagma was accompanied by five additional individuals to the rear: a herald (to act as a messenger), a trumpeter (to sound out commands), an ensign (to hold the unit’s standard), an additional officer (called ouragos), and a servant. This array of both audial and visual communication methods helped to make sure that even in the dust and din of battle orders could still be received and given. Six syntagmata formed a taxis of 1,500 men commanded by a strategos, six taxeis formed a phalanx under a phalangiarch. These infantrymen were called Phezhetairoi — the Foot Companions — and made up the dreaded Macedonian phalanx.Six phalanx battalions accompanied Alexander on his invasion of persia,six remaining behind with antipater in macedon.After Sparta’s final defeat at Megalopolis,one of the taxies from macedon was sent as reinforcement and arrived in time for the indian campaign.

Equipment of the Phalangite

One of the innovations by philip was the light shield that could be slung around the soldier’s shoulder from his neck.This freed up both hands for the heavy 2 handed 18 foot pike to be wielded effectively.This also meant the charge of a macedonian phalanx head on was the most devastating of antiquity -the force of the 2 handed pike could go through shields and body armour with ease..In combat the rear members of the phalanx held their spears up to deflect missiles.See the curved close quarter Kopis blade ,this weapon which bears close resemblance to the iberian falcata originated possibly with the etruscans or the spartans and was introduced in the indian subcontinent by the macedonians.The modernNepalese kukri and the turkish yataghan are direct derivatives of this.

Comparatively light armour allowed macedonian armies to force march incredible distances on average 40 miles a day and baffle their enemies.This was made possible by the regular drilling and marching and annual exercises that philip had introducedand would serve alexander in good stead.See on the march the pike could be folded in 2.On the opposite end is a counter weight which could also act as a substitute spear point if the original broke.(not easily,being made of hardended ashwood)On the extreme right u can see the relative heights of the phalangite in comparison with his weapon.

In total,The Macedonian pike, the sarissa, gave its wielder many advantages both offensively and defensively.Defensively it could hold the enemy at bay presenting an impenetrable barrier of pikes,or offensively relentlessly push an enemy back using their longer reach acting as anadvancing forest of spears.Frontally invincible its vulnerabilities lay in its inability to change direction quickly,open flanks and poor close combat ability of the phalangites.

Through extensive drilling and training, the Foot Companions of alexander were able to execute complex manoeuvres well beyond 
the reach of most contemporary armies.
[something later phalanxes were unable to do] The sound of myriads of pikes moving though the air in unison, as they were deployed, was said to be most impressive, and very demoralising to the ears of enemy troops.In both persia and greece,the phalanx had proved irresistable and indeed would remain unchallenged till the coming of the roman legion.Under Alexander however it was meant to be one element of a combined arms force -the anvil to his cavalry’s hammer.To fix the enemy body in place with the phalanx and allow wedges of companions to slash through his ranks at designated weak points and assault him from flank and rear,crushing them in between the phalanx and cavalry.Alexander usually campaigned his whole career with a core body of around 10,000 phalangites.


The elite of the macedonian foot infantry. These were organized into chiliarchies of 1000 men. There were always 3 chiliarchies for 3000 hypaspists. No more no less.They were never broken down into formations of less than 1000 men to preserve their versitality and superb combat potential.They were a sort of ancient age commando-troop.They could perform nearly every function.Fight as phalangites in a phalanx alongside the regular battalions(as they did at hydaspes),skirmish as peltasts or light infantry,fight in loose order as sword armed assault infantry in sieges or broken terrain,or serving as a running link between the cavalry and infantry(as at gaugamela).They endured far more extensive and rigorous training than the regular foot.Incredibly fit and swift,they could keep up with the cavalry by running on foot!One chiliarchy of 1000 men served as the king’s personal bodyguard or the Agema.Seleucus,later founder of the seleucid empire led the hypaspists at Hydaspes.By the time of the Indian campaign they had been given silvershields by Alexander and this became their new name -Argyraspids(Silvershields),they would make and break the fortunes of macedonian generals in the fight for Alexander’s empire after his death.


Alexander was supplied with substantial contingents of hoplites by the greek states allied or subjected to him.He also recruited thousands of mercenaries.These were outclassed by the macedonian phalanx but could deal with any other contemporary infantry force on equal or better terms.They fought in the traditional hoplite phalanx.Alexander mostly used them as garrisons.At Hydaspes most of them seems to have played a secondary role in Craterus’s diversionary force.



Peltasts formed the bulk of alexander’s light infantry.Peltasts carried a crescent-shaped wicker shield called pelte (Latin: peltarion) as their main protection, hence their name.These were javelin hurling light infantry who could by dint of their lack of armour easily outrun heavy infantry.They were introduced in greek warfare during the peloponessian wars to devastating effect against the slow heavy infantry hoplite armies.

The peltasts throw their javelins into the phalanx, but their lack of armour means that they can evade any attempt by the hoplites to bring them to battle. They can continue to wear down the phalanx with impunity.They also acted as a screen in front of the heavy infantry phalanx in alexander’s army.By the time of alexander peltasts were a common feature of all greek armies and almost all mercenaries were peltatsts.The original peltasts were thracians,but later all javelin light infantry came to be symbolized by this term.In alexander’s army,most of the peltasts were mercenaries.About 1000 were the savage thracian peltasts.

To the left is a Thracian peltast.You can see him fitted out in typical thracian attire and armed for close combat with the national weapon of thrace — the deadly inverted curved slashing blade called the falx.This weapon would give the romans troubles to no end during their campaigns in dacia 400 yrs later.These sickle like weapons imparted enough downward or sideways slashing power to cut through shields.
Thrace,an area N-E of macedon supplied excellent peltasts and medium cavalry for the macedonian armies.


In terms of equipment agrianian javelineers differed little from the other peltasts,but they formed the elite light infantry of alexander’s army.Agrianines were a tribe of mixed thracian-paeonian origin situated to the north of macedon between illyria to the west and thrace to the east.(modern day serbia and south bulgaria)They were allied to macedon from the times of philip.Alexander gave them right to self rule and ample share of booty,earning their total trust and faith.Crack javelin-throwers and axemen, they were some of alexander’s most fanatically loyal infantry.The agranian tribe remained allied to macedon till its incorporation into the roman dominion.
The main speciality of the agrianines was their climbing skills.These mountain men were expert loose order assault troops and were grouped together with the hypaspists.Their commander was Attalus.They numbered from 1000–2000.


Cretan archers were famed military soldiers in the ancient mediterranean world. They were widely recognized as among the best archers in the world for a number of years, and as such found employment as mercenaries in many armies from times much earlier than alexander’s time.They commanded a degree of respect from even the spartans,reknowned-despisers of archery.They served in the macedonian armies throughout alexander’s campaigns and that of the diadochi wars.Rome employed cretan archers as auxillaries throughout the republic and empire period.They were still being used during the byzantine era.The cretan bow was geared towards armour piercing rather than range.Their skill with the bow was equaled or exceeded by no other except the famed archers of syria.Alexander’s army had perhaps 2000 cretan archers.(not all were ethnically cretan-perhaps half were cretan and half macedonians trained in cretan style).Life on the varied terrain of Crete put a focus on skilled hunters and the naval power of ancient Crete revolved around skilled archers to man the ships. Once the Cretans became known for their archery they simply continued to put effort into producing the finest mercenary archers available.


Slingers,particularly those famed slingers from the island of Rhodes formed the final light infantry troop type in Alexander’s army.Using cloth and sinew slings, types of shot ranging from half pound shaped slugs to rocks found on the ground were spun above the head and released at a very high velocity, as much as twice the rang of traditional bows. Though they were not as lethal as arrows, they were far from harmless. Lead shot would shatter arms, and would easily concuss a soldier wearing a helmet and kill one without one.Slings were simple to pick up but took a lifetime to master the precise angle and flick of the wrist needed to hit a man at 400 meters. The actual sling could also be simply constructed or elegantly crafted by an expert. Balearic and Rhodian slingers often had several types of slings, likely for use at different ranges. The different types of shot seemed to be used at different ranges as well.

The second picture depicts a sling projectile with the message ‘Take that’ engraved on it.


Written by Austerlitz on indian defence forum

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