How to Lose an Empire

331 BCE

In 331 BCE, Emperor Darius III made a decision during the Battle of Gaugamela (fought near present-day Irbīl in northern Iraq). His army greatly outnumbered his opponent’s, and he was fighting where and almost when he wanted. At the point Darius lost it all with one bad decision, the Persian emperor still had plenty of uncommitted troops and the other side was on their last reserves. Almost everything still favored Darius, except that he had an immediate and personal problem. The opposing commander was leading a charge directly at the king of kings, and that commander was Alexander of Macedon.

Alexander’s charge was a grave threat to Darius, but at that point, the rest of the fighting was actually going well for the Persians. On the Persian right, they were pressing back the Greeks, who were commanded by Alexander’s top general, Parmenion. The Persian center was only lightly engaged except directly in front of the throne from which Darius was commanding the battle. There the elite companion cavalry, and a number of the best Macedonian phalanxes, had reversed a march across the Persian front and were cutting their way toward the emperor. Virtually no Greek forces faced the much larger Persian army’s left.

A few years earlier, in the Battle of Issus, Darius had fled when the battle seemed lost. He had hurried back to Babylon with no ill effect on his control of the heart of his empire. There he raised a newer and much larger army. He intended to use that superior army to defeat Alexander in the current fight. Darius’ survival was politically important. Being a Persian emperor was a highly personal position; for Alexander to claim the throne and be recognized by the rest of the empire, he had to capture or kill Darius III. Perhaps the fact that he fled at Issus with no problems encouraged the emperor to think he could flee again without it being a disaster. Or maybe, although he was a most capable leader and politician, Darius III was just a coward when physically threatened. Whatever the logic or reason, before the Macedonians even got close to his throne, the Persian emperor got into a chariot and fled the battle.

There were more Persian infantry covering Darius’ retreat than there were phalangists, the heavy infantry who carried the thirteen-plus-foot-long metal-tipped pikes known as sarissas and who endured the burden of the “push” that was the basis of the fighting in Alexander’s Macedonian army. And Parmenion was in the process of being mauled by far-superior Persian infantry and horsemen, and almost half the Macedonian army was in danger of being destroyed. So decimated were Parmenion’s troops that Alexander had to use his entire attack force to assist the hard-pressed left side of his army. This command decision was made all the more difficult because Alexander knew that all he had to do was eliminate the king of kings to win a clear victory. Fortunately, since the leadership of Persia was a very personal thing, when word got out that Darius III had run away, the rest of his army either backed off or fled outright.


The Battle of Gaugamela

By almost any standard, Darius was not losing the battle when he hurried away. He still had plenty of uncommitted forces that could have been called on, including a large number of cavalry. If he simply moved to another location and had his army continue to fight, he might even have won. Certainly he would have punished the Macedonian army, which was already at the end of a very long supply line with few reinforcements expected, and at the point where it could not effectively occupy the capital. Alexander the Great might today instead be known as the Alexander who overreached himself and failed. But for whatever reason or personal flaw, Darius did run and run hard. He was still fleeing when he died weeks later at the hands of his own generals. Because he abandoned the Battle of Gaugamela, the Persian threat to Greek culture was ended, and the world as we know it, democracy, heroes, and all, came to be.

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