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Battle of Gaugamela

Battle of Gaugamela

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The Battle of Gaugamela (1st October 331 BCE, also known as the Battle of Arbela) was the final meeting between Alexander the Great of Macedon and King Darius III of Persia. After this victory, Alexander was, without question, the King of all Asia. Gaugamela (means "The Camel's House") was a village on the banks of the river Bumodus. The site of the battle is thought to be Tel Gomel (Hebrew - "Camels Mount") in northern Iraq.

Alexander's Campaign

Following the assassination of Phillip II, his father, in 336 BCE, Alexander and his army left their home of Macedonia for the last time and set out on a goal of conquering all of Persia. After crossing the Hellespont, Alexander traveled northward where he met and defeated the Persians under the leadership of the Greek mercenary Memnon at the Battle of River Granicus. As in future meetings with Alexander, Darius and his generals continually underestimated the abilities of the young Alexander. He was considered by many, even those in Greece, to be nothing more than an upstart.

Darius offered Alexander half of his kingdom; however, Alexander rejected the offer by simply saying there could never be two suns.

From the River Granicus Alexander moved southward along the coast of Asia Minor to Halicarnassus where he defeated Memnon for the second time. Finally, after waiting for over a year, Alexander and his forces met Darius at Issus in November of 333 BCE where, again, the Persians suffered defeat. Even more embarrassing for Darius was that Alexander captured his family - his mother, wife, and daughters. Wishing to avoid further conflict (and hoping to regain his family), Darius offered Alexander half of his kingdom and even his daughter's hand in marriage; however, Alexander rejected the offer by simply saying there could never be two suns - it would upset the world order. Alexander also challenged the Persian king to face him again in battle.

From Issus Alexander moved along the Mediterranean coast, capturing the island city of Tyre in a seven-month siege. As he traveled southward, he was welcomed in both Jerusalem and Egypt, for they had felt the wrath of the Persian army and the pangs of religious oppression. After laying out the plans for the future city of Alexandria and visiting the temple at Siwa, Alexander prepared for his next engagement with Darius.

Battle Preparations

Alexander had planned to march straight to Babylon, but when he learned of Darius' presence at Gaugamela, he turned northward to meet the waiting Persian king. He realized a victory at Gaugamela meant all of Persia - Babylon, Persepolis, and Susa - would be his.

Darius, however, had learned his lesson at the Battle of Issus and had carefully chosen Gaugamela for his next, and hopefully last, battle against Alexander. This time his army was quite different, having brought together men from all over his empire, even Indian mercenaries - estimates of his army vary from 50,000 to 100,000 to almost a million. Along with 15 elephants (although they were never used), he had 200 scythed chariots. He fashioned longer swords and lances as well as adding more cavalry. The terrain of Gaugamela was also significant; it was much wider so he could make use of his chariots and deploy his cavalry more effectively, something that had been impossible at Issus. He had the ground leveled, placing obstacles and traps to impede the advances of Alexander's forces. To Darius it appeared the size of his army and the terrain gave him a significant advantage.

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Alexander made camp several miles from Darius; his men (estimated at 40,000) would only take their weapons to do battle, nothing else. After assembling a small scouting party, Alexander looked down from a hill, unobserved by Darius, accessing the king's preparation. Luckily, while on the scouting trip, he came upon an advance party sent out by Darius. While some of the party fled, several others were captured and more than willingly told of Darius' numbers and the presence of the traps and obstacles on the field.

The night before battle Alexander held a council of his generals; Parmenio, the commander of Alexander's left flank, suggested that the large size of Darius's forces called for them to attack at night; however, Alexander disagreed. The historian Arrian made mention of this episode in his History of Alexander:

It is said that Parmenio came to him in his tent and urged him to make a night attack on the Persians, saying that thus he would fall upon them unprepared and in a state of confusion … but the reply which he made to him … was that it would mean to steal a victory …

Later, as Alexander addressed his men, he spoke of the forthcoming battle, reassuring the typically superstitious Macedonians that an earlier eclipse of the moon was a sign of victory.


On the day of the battle, Alexander is said to have overslept. As he had done previously, he made sure his men were well-fed and well-rested. Darius' men, on the other hand, had been awake all night fearing a night attack that never came. As Alexander looked across the battlefield towards the Persians, Alexander called out individual soldiers by name, speaking of their bravery in other battles and asking them to fight again for Macedonia. As he spoke an eagle (a favorite animal of Zeus) flew overhead and towards Darius. To Alexander, this was another omen of victory.

As in every other battle, Alexander and his companion cavalry took position on the right flank while Parmenio, as usual, held the left flank. Stationed in the middle were the well-trained Macedonian phalanx with more light infantry and archers on either side. Alexander also did something different; he chose to place infantry at angles on the ends of both the right and left flanks, to protect against a possible flanking maneuver by the Persians. He also placed additional Greek infantry to the rear of the center.

As the battle began, Alexander and his Companions immediately moved to the right at an oblique angle. Following Darius's orders, the Persians, under the leadership of Bessus, moved to their left, countering Alexander in an attempt to outflank him. As the Persians moved further and further to their left and into terrain that had not been cleared, an opening or gap was created. According to some historians, this entire move by Alexander had been a feint. Seeing the opening, Alexander formed his men into a wedge and quickly moved to his left and into the clearing, charging the shocked Darius.

While Alexander was challenging the Persians on the right, Darius sent his scythed chariots towards the Macedonian center, a move that failed to have the effect Darius had hoped. As the chariots approached, the phalanx merely opened ranks, allowing the chariots to pass through. The Persians were immediately set upon by the infantry and hand-to-hand combat soon followed. Back on the right, Alexander, spying Darius, seized upon the opportunity and threw a spear at the shocked king (missing him by inches). Just like at Issus, Darius realized that victory was hopeless and fled. Plutarch, in his Life of Alexander, spoke of Darius's flight:

Darius now seeing all was lost, that those who were placed in front of him were broken and beat back upon him, that he could not turn or disengage his chariot without great difficulty, the wheels being clogged and entangled among the dead bodies … was glad to quit his chariot and his arms, and mounting it is said, upon a mare that had been taken from her foal, betook himself to flight.

When the Persians on the left flank saw their king flee the battlefield, they quickly gave up the fight and were soon routed.


Having beaten the Persians at Issus in 333 BC, Alexander the Great moved to secure his hold on Syria, the Mediterranean coast, and Egypt. Having completed these efforts, he again looked east with the goal of toppling Darius III's Persian Empire. Marching into Syria, Alexander crossed the Euphrates and Tigris without opposition in 331. Desperate to halt the Macedonian advance, Darius scoured his empire for resources and men. Gathering them near Arbela, he chose a wide plain for the battlefield — as he felt that it would facilitate the use of his chariots and elephants, as well as allow his greater numbers to bear.


In November 333 BC, King Darius III had lost the Battle of Issus to Alexander the Great, which resulted in the subsequent capture of his wife, his mother and his two daughters Stateira II and Drypetis. Alexander's victory at Issus had also given him complete control of southern Asia Minor (modern-day Turkey). After the battle, King Darius retreated to Babylon where he regrouped with his remaining army that was there, on-site from a previous battle.

Alexander fought at the Siege of Tyre (332 BC), which lasted from January to July, and the victory resulted in his control of the Levant. Alexander then again fought at the Siege of Gaza, which resulted in Persian troop counts becoming very low. Due to this, the Persian satrap of Egypt, Mazaeus, peacefully surrendered to Alexander. [11] [ clarification needed ]

Negotiations between Darius and Alexander Edit

Darius tried to dissuade Alexander from further attacks on his empire by diplomacy. Ancient historians provide different accounts of his negotiations with Alexander, which can be separated into three negotiation attempts. [12]

Historians Justin, Arrian and Curtius Rufus, writing in the 1st and 2nd centuries, say that Darius had sent a letter to Alexander after the Battle of Issus. The letter demanded that Alexander withdraw from Asia as well as release all of his prisoners. According to Curtius and Justin, Darius offered a ransom for his prisoners, although Arrian does not mention a ransom. Curtius describes the tone of the letter as offensive, [13] and Alexander refused his demands.

A second negotiation attempt took place after the capture of Tyre. Darius offered Alexander marriage with his daughter Stateira II, as well as all the territory west of the Halys River. Justin is less specific, and does not mention a specific daughter, and only speaks of a portion of Darius' kingdom. [14] Diodorus Siculus (1st century Greek historian) likewise mentions the offer of all territory west of the Halys River, a treaty of friendship and a large ransom for Darius' captives. Diodorus is the only ancient historian who mentions the fact that Alexander concealed this letter and presented his friends with a forged one that was favorable to his own interests. Again, Alexander refused Darius' offers. [15]

King Darius started to prepare for another battle with Alexander after the failure of the second negotiation attempt. Nevertheless, Darius made a third and final effort to negotiate with Alexander the Great after Alexander had departed from Egypt. Darius' third offer was much more generous. He praised Alexander for the treatment of his mother Sisygambis, offered him all territory west of the Euphrates, co-rulership of the Achaemenid Empire, the hand of one of his daughters and 30,000 talents of silver. In the account of Diodorus, Alexander explicitly deliberated this offer with his friends. Parmenion was the only one who spoke up, saying, "If I were Alexander, I should accept what was offered and make a treaty." Alexander reportedly replied, "So should I, if I were Parmenion." Alexander, in the end, refused the offer of Darius, and insisted that there could be only one king of Asia. He called on Darius to surrender to him or to meet him in battle in order to decide who would be the sole king of Asia. [16]

The descriptions given by other historians of the third negotiation attempt are similar to the account of Diodorus, but differ in details. Diodorus, Curtius and Arrian write that an embassy [17] was sent instead of a letter, which is also claimed by Justin and Plutarch (1st century). [18] Plutarch and Arrian mention the ransom offered for the prisoners was 10,000 talents, but Diodorus, Curtius and Justin had given the figure of 30,000. Arrian writes that Darius' third attempt took place during the Siege of Tyre, but the other historians place the second negotiation attempt at that time. [19] In spite of everything, with the failure of his negotiation attempts, Darius had now decided to prepare for another battle with Alexander.

After settling affairs in Egypt, Alexander returned to Tyre during the spring of 331 BC. [20] He reached Thapsacus in July or August. [21] Arrian relates that Darius had ordered Mazaeus to guard the crossing of the Euphrates near Thapsacus with a force of 3,000 cavalry. He fled when Alexander's army approached to cross the river. [22]

Alexander's march through Mesopotamia Edit

After crossing the Euphrates, Alexander followed a northern route instead of a direct southeastern route to Babylon. While doing so he had the Euphrates and the mountains of Armenia on his left. The northern route made it easier to forage for supplies and his troops would not suffer the extreme heat of the direct route. Captured Persian scouts reported to the Macedonians that Darius had encamped past the Tigris River and wanted to prevent Alexander from crossing. Alexander found the Tigris undefended and succeeded in crossing it with great difficulty. [22]

In contrast, Diodorus mentions that Mazaeus was only supposed to prevent Alexander from crossing the Tigris. He would not have bothered to defend it because he considered it impassable due to the strong current and depth of the river. Furthermore, Diodorus and Curtius Rufus mention that Mazaeus employed scorched-earth tactics in the countryside through which Alexander's army had to pass. [23]

After the Macedonian army had crossed the Tigris a lunar eclipse occurred. [22] Following the calculations, the date must have been October 1 in 331 BC. [24] Alexander then marched southward along the eastern bank of the Tigris. On the fourth day after the crossing of the Tigris his scouts reported that Persian cavalry had been spotted, numbering no more than 1000 men. When Alexander attacked them with his cavalry force ahead of the rest of his army, the Persian cavalry fled. Most of them escaped, but some were killed or taken prisoner. The prisoners told the Macedonians that Darius was not far away, with his encampment near Gaugamela. [25]

Strategic analysis Edit

Several researchers have criticized the Persians for their failure to harass Alexander's army and disrupt its long supply lines when it advanced through Mesopotamia. [26] Classical scholar Peter Green thinks that Alexander's choice for the northern route caught the Persians off guard. Darius would have expected him to take the faster southern route directly to Babylon, just as Cyrus the Younger had done in 401 BC before his defeat in the Battle of Cunaxa. The use of the scorched-earth tactic and scythed chariots by Darius suggests that he wanted to repeat that battle. Alexander would have been unable to adequately supply his army if he had taken the southern route, even if the scorched-earth tactic had failed. The Macedonian army, underfed and exhausted from the heat, would then be defeated at the plain of Cunaxa by Darius. When Alexander took the northern route, Mazaeus must have returned to Babylon to bring the news. Darius most likely decided to prevent Alexander from crossing the Tigris. This plan failed because Alexander probably took a river crossing that was closer to Thapsacus than Babylon. He would have improvised and chosen Gaugamela as his most favourable site for a battle. [27] Historian Jona Lendering argues the opposite and commends Mazaeus and Darius for their strategy. Darius would have deliberately allowed Alexander to cross the rivers unopposed in order to guide him to the battlefield of his own choice. [28]

Examples and Inspiration from Alexander the Great

Alexander was raised properly as a Greek prince, with heroic accounts of Homer's epic poetry. He was part of a culture that required great men to despise personal danger and take risks to gain experience.
He was also taught by Aristotle himself in philosophy and science, and even as a child he was a charming guest of court guests. Aristotle was appointed his teacher, largely to control Alexander's recklessness and aggressiveness or at least to temper them with more philosophical and civilized values. In this he did not achieve complete success.
Alexander learned a lot from his tutor and became a very learned man, but he remained essentially the boy who wanted to be Hercules.
Alexander's inspiration was Hercules Homer's accounts of his exploits inspired Alexander in his general attitude. It is likely that Alexander was considered as a modern version of the classical Greek heroes. To a large extent, this was true.

Size of Persian army [ edit | edit source ]

Modern estimates [ edit | edit source ]

Units Low estimate High estimate [ Clarification needed ]
Peltasts 10,000 ⎖] 30,000 ⎗]
Cavalry 12,000 ⎖] 40,000 Γ]
Persian Immortals 10,000 [ citation needed ] 10,000
Bactrian cavalry 1,000 Δ] 2,000
Archers 1,500 1,500
Scythed chariots 200 200
War elephants 15 15
Total 52,930 ⎖] 87,000 ΐ]

Some ancient Greek historians suggest that the main Persian army numbered between 200,000 and 300,000, but some modern scholars suggest that it was no larger than 50,000 because of the logistical difficulty of fielding more than 50,000 soldiers in battle at the time. However, it is possible that the Persian army could have numbered over 100,000 men. ΐ] One estimate is that there were 25,000 peltasts, ΐ] 10,000 Immortals, ⎘] 2,000 Greek hoplites, Δ] 1,000 Bactrians, Δ] and 40,000 cavalry, Γ] 200 scythed chariots, ⎙] and 15 war elephants. ⎚] Hans Delbrück estimates Persian cavalry at 12,000 because of management issues, Persian infantry (peltast) less than that of the Greek heavy infantry, and Greek mercenaries at 8,000. ⎖]

Warry estimates a total size of 91,000 Welman 90,000 Delbrück (1978) 52,000 Engels (1920) and Green (1990) no larger than 100,000.

Ancient sources [ edit | edit source ]

According to Arrian, Darius's force numbered 40,000 cavalry and 1,000,000 infantry, ⎚] Diodorus Siculus put it at 200,000 cavalry and 800,000 infantry, ⎛] Plutarch put it at 1,000,000 troops ⎜] (without a breakdown in composition), while according to Curtius Rufus it consisted of 45,000 cavalry and 200,000 infantry. ⎝] Furthermore according to Arrian, ⎙] Diodorus, and Curtius, Darius had 200 chariots while Arrian mentions 15 war elephants. ⎚] Included in Darius's infantry were about 2,000 Greek mercenary hoplites. Δ] What we see here is that ancient historians agree on the size of the Persian infantry: 'one million infantry stretched over four kilometers wide'. Modern writers try to downgrade both the size of the Persian army and the glorious victory of the Greeks.

While Darius had a significant advantage in numbers, most of his troops were of a lower quality than Alexander's. Alexander's pezhetairoi were armed with a six-metre spear, the sarissa. The main Persian infantry was poorly trained and equipped in comparison to Alexander's pezhetairoi and hoplites. The only respectable infantry Darius had were his 10,000 Greek hoplites Δ] and his personal bodyguard, the 10,000 Persian Immortals. ⎘] The Greek mercenaries fought in a phalanx, armed with a heavy shield but with spears no longer than three metres, while the spears of the Immortals were 2 metres long. Among the other Persian troops, the most heavily armed were the Armenians who were armed the Greek way, and probably fought as a phalanx. The rest of Darius's contingents were much more lightly armed the main weapon of the Achaemenid army historically was the bow and arrow, and javelin.

The Fall of the Achaemenids

After their defeat at Gaugamela the Achaemenids were in a downfall. Darius fled to Bactria, but he was later assassinated by his commander Bessus. His murder was far from honorable, as he was stabbed and left in the dirt of the desert.

Alexander learned of this and was sad to lose a respected enemy in such a fashion. He would later capture Bessus and punish him severely before executing him. In the aftermath of the battle, Alexander gained control of Babylon, parts of Persia, and all of Mesopotamia.

‘Entry of Alexander into Babylon’ (1665) by Charles Le Brun. ( Public Domain )

He managed a feat that was unheard of, as he brought the Achaemenid Empire to its knees in less than five years. Alexander showed a keen sense of logistics and managed to keep his troops fresh and motivated throughout his conquest. He truly was a commander ahead of his time.

Top Image: ‘Battle of Alexander versus Darius’ (1644-1650) by Pietro da Cortona. Darius III was Alexander the Great’s adversary at the Battle of Gaugamela. Source: Public Domain

5. Battle of Agincourt

The Battle of Agincourt is the most well-known battle in the Hundred Years War and took place on 25 October 1415. It was one of the biggest victories of the English army, led by Henry V himself, against the combined armies of Charles VI of France, who was incapacitated and couldn’t actively command his army. The English longbow was widely used in the battle and legends say that the “V” sign, or the “two-finger salute” was derived from the hand’s motion to fire the longbow.

Weaponry: The Caltrop

Although it was used for centuries by numerous armies, the unobtrusive-looking device called the caltrop, or calthrop, has often been overlooked by military historians, but certainly not by anyone unfortunate enough to have encountered it under field conditions. In many respects, the caltrop is the ideal passive weapon–simply constructed, cheap and easy to manufacture, requiring no special skill or training to use, easily portable, needing no care, maintenance or preparation, capable of recovery and, above all, extremely effective in most settings. It has killed or disabled innumerable soldiers, horses, camels, elephants and even land vehicles equipped with pneumatic tires. Silent, insidious and decidedly not glorious, the caltrop has few admirers. On the other hand, it has never been denounced in the same way as have the crossbow, poison gas, land mines and a whole arsenal of other weapons, ancient and modern. And unlike other weapons, it has never been completely replaced by more modern descendants.

The original caltrop was nothing more than a ball from which four spikes projected in such a way that when three spikes were on the ground the fourth was always pointed upward. To step on it was to risk a laceration or puncture wound–painful, debilitating and hard to heal–which could result in serious infection or a slow death. The caltrop, therefore, bears a close family resemblance to snares, stakes, trenches and pits used singly or in combination to entangle or injure the feet of men and animals. Like those devices, it might well have originated as a hunting trap.

The word ‘caltrop’ originally meant the star thistle, a weed whose form and function were similar to those of the weapon. The Greeks called the device a tetrahedron or tribolos, again because of its shape. Borrowing the Greek word, as they so often did, the Romans referred to it as a tribulus, but they also called it a murex, because of its resemblance to the shell of the murex, the mollusk from which the Tyrians obtained their famous purple dyes. Under a wide variety of names, the caltrop appears and reappears in military history throughout Europe, Asia and North Africa, and eventually in the New World.

As is the case with so many premodern weapons, the caltrop’s origins remain shrouded in mystery. It is possible that its earliest recorded use occurred in Persia, at the Battle of Arbela (Gaugamela) on October 1, 331 bc. At any rate, Polyaenus of Macedonia, writing 500 years after the fact, claimed that Persian King Darius III sowed some of the ground in front of his army with ‘crow’s-feet’ in order to restrict the enemy’s freedom of movement. Alexander the Great, however, was able to maneuver around those devices, penetrate the Persian line of battle and win the day. If the ‘crow’s-feet’ were actually caltrops, they must already have been familiar for some time, for Polyaenus does not describe them further or state that they were a new invention. And although they may not have foiled Alex-ander at Gaugamela, he and his successors seem to have considered them a weapon worth using.

After Alexander’s death, his self-appointed successors struggled for supremacy and territory within the vast empire they had helped to conquer. In the ensuing wars between the various Hellenistic monarchies, extensive use was made of wooden balls armed with metal spikes, which formed a valuable component in field and camp defenses and in the perimeter protection of fixed fortifications. Sown on the battlefield, and sometimes partially buried, they were much more difficult to detect than elaborate, time-consuming systems of pits and stakes and served to discourage attacks on vulnerable sectors of the line. Of course, a thick belt of caltrops also restricted the movements of one’s own troops, but that was a small price to pay for the security they gave. Although not immediately lethal, the devices caused wounds that sapped an enemy’s morale. The sight of injuries inflicted on horses or comrades by caltrops made infantry and, even more, cavalry uneasy about advancing over ground that might be strewn with the insidious devices–thus restricting their offensive capabilities to a greater extent, perhaps, than actual combat fatalities. Moreover, an adequate supply of caltrops was an excellent guarantee against the danger of a night attack.

The Romans, with their usual flexibility in matters of weaponry, were quick to adopt the caltrop from the various Hellenistic armies and military engineers they encountered. Surprisingly, Gaius Julius Caesar made no use of caltrops in the great siege works he erected around the Gallic stronghold of Alesia in 52 bc, but his ‘blocks of wood…with iron hooks fixed in them,’ called ‘goads’ by his legionaries, served the same purpose.

At the Battle of Nisibis (modern Nusaybin, Turkey), fought in the summer or early autumn of 217 ad, the Romans gave a brilliant demonstration of the proper use of caltrops in combat conditions. Artabanus V, the last Parthian Shahanshah (king of kings), was justly incensed by a treacherous massacre–from which he himself had narrowly escaped–that had been engineered by the Roman Emperor Bassianus Marcus Aurelius Antonius (aka Caracalla) during negotiations for an alliance. The notorious Caracalla was murdered by one of his own officers in April 217 and replaced by Marcus Opelius Macrinus, but the Parthian ruler was not to be appeased. Both Artabanus and Macrinus took to the field, commanding their respective armies in person. Artabanus was already a veteran commander, while the new Roman emperor, although he had been praetorian prefect before his ‘election’ by the army, lacked practical military experience.

There might have been some preliminary skirmishing over access to water, but the Parthians seem to have achieved almost complete tactical surprise. Artabanus immediately took the initiative and, shortly after sunrise, opened the battle with a furious charge. While his archers laid down a hail of arrows, Artabanus’ heavy cavalry advanced at a gallop, accompanied by armored lancers mounted on camels. The Moorish soldiers and cavalry on the Roman wings, and the light-armed troops in the center, withstood the assault and fought back bravely, but the sheer weight of the Parthian attack soon overwhelmed them.

Macrinus must have had excellent advice from his staff, as well as highly disciplined and experienced troops, because at that point the Romans pretended to retreat, while throwing down caltrops and other iron devices with spikes sticking out of them. The caltrops sank into the sand, and the Parthians failed to see them in time. Horses and camels were made lame and brought down and their riders thrown to the ground. The Romans, too, had taken heavy casualties, but they had definitely foiled the Parthian charge. The battle lasted for two more days and ended in something like a draw, although Macrinus found it prudent to make reparations to Artabanus. The Roman emperor had had a close brush with disaster, and he was overthrown in the following year by Caracalla’s cousin, Varius Avitus, while Artabanus fell victim to a revival of Persian power under Ardashir of Sassan in 226.

The next notable example of the use of caltrops occurred in December 637 at the Battle of Jalula, during the conquest of the Sasanid Persian empire by the Muslim Arabs. In June of that year, Ctesiphon, the winter capital of Yazdgard III, the last Sasanid Shahanshah, had fallen to the Arabs after the Persian ruler fled. Ctesiphon lay on the Tigris River, about 40 miles below modern Baghdad, and the Persians were determined to recover the city.

By autumn, Yazdgard once again had considerable forces at his disposal, and he sent one of his remaining generals, Mihran, forward to the fortress town of Jalula, located on the fringe of the Iranian highlands, some 90 miles northeast of Ctesiphon. There the Persian forces constructed a large fortified camp, surrounded by stakes and extensive fields of caltrops.

Sa’d ibn abi-Waqqas, the Arab commander, sent two of his generals and 12,000 men to attack the much larger Persian army. According to some accounts, there was some indecisive fighting, but the Arabs were reduced to blockading the strong Persian position for the next 80 days. The blockade was not particularly effective, for both sides received supplies and reinforcements. Finally, Mihran, possibly deceived by a feigned Arab withdrawal, confidently ordered his troops to sweep lanes through their own caltrops and advance on the enemy. Unfortunately for him, the Arabs held the attack, then forced the Persians back, so that many of them fell victim to their own caltrops. The result was catastrophic. During the battle and the pursuit that followed, Persian losses were so heavy (100,000 men, according to inflated Arab claims) that Yazdgard abandoned Ctesiphon to its fate and fled on to Ray, outside mod-ern Tehran.

In the Middle Ages, European smiths improved and simplified the caltrop design by eliminating the ball, twisting two double-pointed strips of iron and cold-hammering them together. The caltrop now resembled, more than ever, the ground thistle from which it took its English name. By that time, too, the caltrop was in use throughout Europe, Asia and North Africa. In fact, medieval China witnessed what was probably the largest single deployment of the device in military history.

In late July or early August 1213, Genghis Khan brought his armies back into North China in order to renew the Mongol assault on the Chin empire of the ‘Golden Tatars,’ a dynasty of Manchurian origin. The northwest approach to Chung Tu, the main Chin capital, was guarded by a huge fortress complex in the Chü-yung Kuan pass. Although seemingly impregnable, the Chü-yung Kuan had actually fallen to the famous Mongol general, Jebe Noyan, just over a year before. Pressed for time, and realizing that his detachment was not strong enough to storm the Chin fortifications, Jebe had lured the garrison out by a feigned retreat, then virtually annihilated the Chin troops 35 miles from their base. The Mongols soon abandoned their prize, however, since they had little use for permanent fortifications, concentrating instead on depleting the much more numerous military manpower of the Chin.

Meanwhile, the Chin authorities had not been idle. They strengthened the main Chü-yung Kuan fortress with trenches and other works, and they took special precautions with the P’ei K’ou fort at the north entrance to the vital pass. According to some records, the gates of the forts were sealed with iron and the surrounding country for 100 li (approximately 30 miles) strewn with caltrops. Genghis Khan himself waited in front of the fort for more than a month before leaving to deal with less formidable obstacles. The Mongols must have compelled vast numbers of Chinese civilians to clear away the belt of caltrops, for they blockaded the P’ei K’ou so effectively that its food supplies gave out and the garrison was even reduced to cannibalism. In any case, the Mongol holding force, under Kita and Bukha, did not have long to wait for success. Jebe Noyan and an equally re-nowned general, Sübotei, swept through the Chü-yung Kuan from the south, and the commandant of P’ei K’ou surrendered with his starving troops.

As time wore on, the caltrop declined in popularity in Europe, for reasons that are not altogether clear, although the growing use and refinement of gunpowder weapons must have played a part in its eclipse. Caltrops were still used for defense in sieges, where they could be thrown into breaches in fortifications to impede storming parties. Leonardo da Vinci even designed machines for hurling baskets of caltrops in the direction of the enemy. Only the Swedes continued to use caltrops in any quantity in the field, doing so as late as the 18th century. Ironically, just as the caltrop was falling out of favor in Europe, it found a short-lived application in the New World. The first English settlers at Jamestown, Va., brought with them a supply of caltrops, ideal for discouraging surprise attacks by the American Indians should relations turn sour.

Most caltrops, like those from Jamestown, are quite small, and those forged by the Japanese had spikes only about an inch long. Some Indian examples, on the other hand, designed for use against elephants, were relatively large and elaborate, resembling Caesar’s ‘goads’ more than caltrops. Whatever its size, however, the caltrop is dangerous to man and beast. In fact, it is so potent an agent of infection–being exposed to contamination by soil and weather–that attempts to deliberately apply poison to it seemed unnecessary.

Despite its shifting fortunes, the caltrop remains very much with us. Its use was revived during the Korean War, when it was employed effectively against sneaker-shod Chinese infantrymen by United Nations forces. Today, it has reclaimed its old Greek name and reappeared as the tetrahedron, the bane of all vehicles running on pneumatic tires, and is used by both the military and police. Beside this versatile, durable and diabolical little device, its alleged descendant, the barbed-wire entanglement, seems quite prosaic.

This article was written by Robert W. Reid and originally appeared in the August 1998 issue of Military History magazine. For more great articles be sure to subscribe to Military History magazine today!

The eclipse of the moon before the battle at Gaugamela

When we were looking for astronomical support for our discovery that Roman time most probably is dated 218 years too old dendrochronologically, we found four dated observations in Pliny's "Natural History" (read about Pliny's quadruple here, opens in new window). Even though these observations strongly support the conventional chronology, there is an almost exactly matching second astronomical solution 232 years later than that conventionally assumed. Are there maybe more dated astronomical records which have a solution 232 years later in time?

Several Greek and Roman writers recorded a lunar eclipse that occured before the battle between Alexander the Great's army and Persian forces at Gaugamela near Arbela (todays Erbil in northern Iraq). The date of the battle is given by Arrian as during the month Pyanopsion when Aristophanes was archon at Athens. This means early in the autumn (October) RomBC331 or 330 in our calendar. Plutarch mentions that the eclipse preceded the battle by 11 days.

There was a large lunar eclipse on -330 September 20, but also a second one on -98 October 6. Both eclipses would date the battle to October as Arrian says, and both were visible in northern Iraq, but at different hours of the night. A strange coincidence is the fact that the two solutions for Pliny's quadruple and the two candidates for the Arbela eclipse are offset by exactly the same number of days: 232 (Julian) years + 16 days = 84754 days.

A timing of the lunar eclipse at Arbela and a second place is given by both Pliny and Ptolemy. Both writers lived several centuries after Alexander. Therefore it is impossible that they made the observations themselves. However neither writer states the source for his timings and they give completely different hours of the night for the event. The difference is fully three hours. Read more about the astronomical details in Appendix A.

To summarize, Pliny's timing for the lunar eclipse at Arbela is fully compatible with the -330 event and just incompatible with the -98 event. However, Ptolemy's timing is not compatible with either of the two events, especially not with the -330 event which was already over at the time mentioned at Arbela. We might wonder how it is possible that Pliny, who was not an astronomer, could have more exact data than Ptolemy, who was a professional astronomer and had access to the best data available (in Alexandria). This is even more strange as Pliny lived about hundred years before Ptolemy.

Moreover, it seems that a Babylonian clay tablet mentioning the battle at Gaugamela has been preserved by a rare coincidence. Two cuneiform tablet pieces (BM 36761 + BM 36390) in the British Museum bear the official title "Astronomical Diary concerning month VI and VII of the fifth year of Artašata who is called Darius". The two pieces are from the same tablet, but they do not join. The references to the king, his regnal year and month are missing but can be deduced from the astronomical data given on the tablet.

To summarize the tablet: There was a battle 11 days after the lunar eclipse on -330 September 20. About three weeks after that battle the victorious "Alexander, king of the world" entered Babylon. It is most likely that the battle at Gaugamela is described in astronomical diary BM 36761 + BM 36390, and that this battle is dated by the tablet to -330 October 1 as conventionally assumed. Read more about the details in Appendix B.

Even though there are two solutions with 232 years offset for both Pliny's quadruple and the lunar eclipse before the battle at Gaugamela, the Babylonian clay tablet tilts the scales in favour of the conventional solution. However, if our dendrochronological results are correct, something must be wrong with the astronomical records in some way. Ultimately we have to decide which dating method we trust most. For the time being we rely on dendrochronology as this method is completely independent of historical considerations.

So what could be wrong with the record on the clay tablet found in the ruins of Babylon in 1880 (ref.5)?
The tablet is an astronomical diary, and it is a copy of an older damaged tablet. There is no doubt that the astronomical record describes the situation in the autumn of Astr-330, but the political record is a bit vague. The only explicite name mentioned is "Alexander", neither "Darius" nor "Gaugamela" or "Arbela" are preserved. The tablet could therefore describe another battle and another victorious Alexander.

However, the most plausible explanation (for the case that we are right) is that the scribe chose a set of suitable astrological omens when he handled the record of a decisive battle with far-reaching consequences for his society (see the commentary in ref.4). This he could achieve in two ways: either he could add the political record to a suitable existing astronomical record, or he could fabricate (i.e. retrocalculate) the entire astronomical record. That the Babylonians were fully capable of doing so is proven on the same clay tablet: the equinox on the twenty-first day was calculated as the astronomer comments "I did not watch". And the solar eclipse on the twenty-ninth day was expected after sunset (!) and moreover impossible to see in Babylon.

If already the Babylonians had these skills, also later ancient astronomers could have been experts in retrocalculation. This is exactly what Robert Newton (ref.6) suspects regarding Claudius Ptolemy and his Syntaxis (Almagest). Newton claims that all Ptolemy's own and most of the earlier "observations" made by others in the Syntaxis were fabricated. He goes so far that he states in his Final Summary:

It is clear that no statement made by Ptolemy can be accepted unless it is confirmed by writers who are totally independent of Ptolemy on the matters in question. All research in either history or astronomy that has been based upon the Syntaxis must now be done again.

If this is valid for the Almagest, which is regarded as the most eminent support for our conventional chronology, it could as well be valid for Pliny's astronomical statements in his "Natural History". So what makes even modern astronomers convinced that the conventional solution is correct? First there is the eclipse timing mentioned above and second there is one explicite date in Pliny's quadruple which clearly point out the conventional solution as the right one. These two statements happen to appear in the same passage (ref.3, ch.72):

Consequently inhabitants of the East do not perceive evening eclipses of the sun and moon, nor do those dwelling in the West see morning eclipses, while the latter see eclipses at midday later than we do. The victory of Alexander the Great is said to have caused an eclipse of the moon at Arbela in the second hour of the night while the same eclipse in Sicily was when the moon was just rising. An eclipse of the sun which occurred the day before the calends of May, in the consulship of Vipstanus and Fonteius a few years ago, was visible in Campania between the seventh and eighth hour of the day but was reported by Corbulo commanding in Armenia as observed between the tenth and eleventh hour: this was because the curve of the globe discloses and hides different phenomena for different localities. If the earth were flat, all would be visible to all alike at the same time also the nights would not vary in length, because corresponding periods of 12 hours would be visible equally to others than those at the equator, periods that as it is do not exactly correspond in every region alike.

What if a later copyist with astronomical skills made some "minor changes" in that passage for some reason? We get a hint that something is wrong when Pliny about hundred years before Ptolemy gives a far better timing of the eclipse at Arbela. Maybe Ptolemy's "Geography" contains some genuine information about the eclipse (i.e. that it was seen around midnight), while Pliny's "Natural History" has been amended with later "improved" information?

Further it is interesting that the 232 years offset apparently was invented in Babylon, if we are right. It could have been rediscovered and used for some special purposes by later colleagues, maybe as the ultimate hard to detect and therefore longlasting fraud.

Appendix A: Astronomical details about the lunar eclipse candidates
Several Greek and Roman writers recorded a lunar eclipse that occured before the battle between Alexander the Great's army and Persian forces at Gaugamela near Arbela (todays Erbil in northern Iraq). Details see ref.1, ch.10.5.

The date of the battle is given by Arrian (Anabasis, II, 7.6) as during the month Pyanopsion when Aristophanes was archon at Athens. This means early in the autumn (October) RomBC331 or 330 in our calendar. Plutarch mentions (Life of Alexander XXXI) that the eclipse preceded the battle by 11 days.

The Nasa Eclipse Web Site (ref.2) shows that there was a large lunar eclipse visible at Gaugamela on -330 September 20:

This would date the battle at Gaugamela to -330 October 1.

Exactly 232 years later, we find another large lunar eclipse on -98 October 6:

This would date the battle at Gaugamela to -98 October 17.

Both eclipses would date the battle to October as Arrian says, and both were visible in northern Iraq, but at different hours of the night. According to the NASA Eclipse Web Site the partial eclipse in Arbela began: in -330 at 19:46 when the moon was 19 degrees above the horizon (i.e. in the night's second hour), and in -98 at 00:50 when the moon was 54 degrees above the horizon (i.e. in the night's seventh hour). So there is a five hours difference between the timings of the two events, see also the tables below.

A timing of the lunar eclipse at Arbela and a second place is given by both Pliny (ref.3, ch.72) and Ptolemy (Geography, I, 4). Both writers lived 400 resp. 500 years after Alexander. Therefore it is impossible that they made the observations themselves. However neither writer states the source for his timings and they give completely different hours of the night for the event. The difference is fully three hours. Both realize correctly that the eclipse would start about two hours local time later in Arbela than in the middle of the Mediterranean, because Arbela's position is about 30 longitudinal degrees farther to the east.

Pliny says that the eclipse was seen at Arbela in the night's second hour, and the same eclipse was seen in Sicily when the moon was just rising.
According to NASA, the partial eclipse began in Syracuse on Sicily in -330 at 17:46 when the moon was 4 degrees below the horizon (i.e. the moon rose eclipsed), and in -98 at 22:50 when the moon was 53 degrees above the horizon (i.e. in the night's fifth hour), see also the tables below.

Ptolemy says that the eclipse was seen at Arbela in the night's fifth hour, and at Carthage in the night's second hour.
According to NASA, the partial eclipse began in Carthage in -330 at 17:31 when the moon was 8 degrees below the horizon (i.e. a little before sunset, the moon rose almost totally eclipsed), and in -98 at 22:35 when the moon was 52 degrees above the horizon (i.e. in the night's fifth hour), see also the tables below.

Pliny's timing for the lunar eclipse at Arbela is fully compatible with the -330 event and just incompatible with the -98 event. However, Ptolemy's timing is not compatible with either of the two events, especially not with the -330 event which was already over in the night's fifth hour at Arbela. We might wonder how it is possible that Pliny, who was not an astronomer, could have more exact data than Ptolemy, who was a professional astronomer and had access to the best data available (in Alexandria). This is even more strange as Pliny lived about hundred years before Ptolemy.

Timings for the two lunar eclipse candidates given by NASA (partial eclipse begins), Pliny and Ptolemy at different places. Pliny reports almost exact timings for the begin of the partial eclipse (second contact) in -330. This sounds more like a professional observation (or retrocalculation) than a casual observation. Note: At full Moon, i.e. when a lunar eclipse is at all possible, the moon rises at sunset and sets at sunrise.

For those who want to look at more details:
Time tables generated by using ref.2, Javascript Lunar Eclipse Explorer, for the appearance of the total lunar eclipses at Arbela, Syracuse and Carthage.

Appendix B: A Babylonian clay tablet mentioning the battle at Gaugamela?
Two cuneiform tablet pieces (BM 36761 + BM 36390) in the British Museum bear the official title "Astronomical Diary concerning month VI and VII of the fifth year of Artašata who is called Darius". The two pieces are from the same tablet, but they do not join. The references to the king, his regnal year and month are missing but can be deduced from the astronomical data given on the tablet. Moreover, the tablet is a copy of an older one which was damaged. We use a recent translation of the tablet by Bert van der Spek and Irving Finkel (ref.4) for the following discussion.

As the tablet is very incomplete, we have to verify which information actually is extant, and which information is filled in by the translators. The tablet contains (as a Babylonian astronomical diary usually does) information about prices for staple goods, weather etc. besides astronomical data and political events. We are only interested in the latter two types, and only the significant statements.

Astronomical data
The thirteenth, Moonset to sunrise: 32 minutes . lunar eclipse, in its totality covered. 40 minutes of the night . Jupiter set Saturnus .
The twenty-first: Equinox. I did not watch.
Night of the twenty-ninth: Solar eclipse which was omitted (it was expected for) about the 4th minute of the night after sunset.
At that time, Jupiter was in Scorpius .

This information is a fully sufficient description of the total lunar eclipse on -330 September 20. The penumbral eclipse at Arbela started 18:49 local time, which was about 40 minutes after sunset (18:05). At that time Jupiter, which was in Scorpius, set. All this can be simulated with a modern planetarium software, we use Stellarium. We can also see that Saturn was in the vicinity of the moon.

Moreover, if the 13th day in that month was September 20, the 21th day would have been September 28. In the (Julian) year -330 the autumnal equinox would have fallen on this date. And there was indeed a solar eclipse on -330 October 6, but that one was visible in Greenland and North America only.

On the other hand, the eclipse described on the clay tablet has nothing to do with the total lunar eclipse of -98 October 6. At that time Jupiter was in Cancer, and the autumnal equinox had been passed ten days ago. Though there was a solar eclipse on -98 October 20 which was visible in Antarctis.

Political events
The twenty-fourth, in the morning, the king of the world . standard . Opposite each other they fought and a heavy defeat of the troops . The king, his troops deserted him and to their cities . land of the Gutians they fled.
That (next) month, from the first until . came to Babylon, saying as follows: 'Esagila . and the Babylonians . to the treasury of Esagila .
On the eleventh, in Sippar an order of Al. 'Into your houses I shall not enter.' On the thirteenth day . la gate, the Outer gate of Esagila and .
The fourteenth day, these Greeks a bull . short . fatty tissues . Alexander, the king of the world, entered Babylon . horses and equipment . and the Babylonians and the people . a parchment letter to .

To summarize the tablet: There was a battle 11 days after the lunar eclipse on -330 September 20. About three weeks after that battle the victorious "Alexander, king of the world" entered Babylon. It is most likely that the battle at Gaugamela is described in astronomical diary BM 36761 + BM 36390, and that this battle is dated by the tablet to -330 October 1 as conventionally assumed.


Darius' defeat at Gaugamela cost him the western half of his empire, and he was forced to flee east to Bactria with the remnants of his army. Alexander proceeded to advance on Babylon, and, seeing that all was lost, Darius' satraps, led by Bessus, imprisoned the Shahanshah and attempted to surrender him to Alexander in exchange for clemency. When Alexander insisted on continuing his advance east, the frightened satraps murdered Darius in 330 BC, and, in 329 BC, Alexander subdued them, executed Bessus, and assumed the title of Shahanshah for himself.

Watch the video: The Best Documentary Ever - BATTLE OF GAUGAMELA 331 BC (June 2022).


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