Over the millennia warfare has changed exponentially. Weapons have been innovated innumerable times. Tactics have evolved to fit the needs of the modern army just as weapons have. One thing that has not changed though is the need for military intelligence. Although methods for gathering information have changed, the need to understand one’s ones strategical position is still essentially the same. Alexander the III of Macedon, commonly known as Alexander the Great, understood this need. During his conquest of the Persians, from 336-323 BC, he employed numerous tactics in order to gather information about the foreign lands and enemies around him. Two of the most important positions in his army were scouts and guides.
Mounted scouts utilized by Alexander were most often called Prodromoi. This is an apt name for them because the translation of this word, from ancient Greek, literally means “runners ahead” (“Prodromoi). Their job exactly was to go ahead of the main body of the army to scout and perform reconnaissance. These men would study the terrain in order to find the best places for the army to camp and march over. The scouts also would interrogate the local population about weather, supplies, and enemy movements (Payne 283). These tasks were vital to the survival of the army and were a major piece of the logistical puzzle of the Macedonian army.
Another aspect that could have spelled life or death for the Macedonian army was the work of guides. Guides had to know the land most intimately so that they could guide the army over the path of least resistance. Alexander and his army needed to be led to traversable terrain and to places with fresh water and a source of food. The escorts had to keep the troops out of geographical peril. For these reasons, guides were most often people from the lands that Alexander had either conquered or had been surrendered. Sometimes the native people willingly helped the Macedonians on their trek. Other times these people would be angry about being subdued and would purposely lead soldiers astray. Because of this, Alexander often held the family members of his guides hostage until they had gotten him to where he needed to go (Engles 331-332). Regardless of the circumstance, Alexander always knew how to utilize his resources.
A time when Alexander most needed a source of information and intelligence was during his march through the Gedrosian Desert. On his way back from India, through present day Pakistan and Afghanistan, he was forced to go through one of the deadliest deserts in the world (shown in the picture below). The leader of the Macedonians knew that many other commanders had brought armies into the area before and had perished in the heat. He knew that no man had ever been successful in bringing an army through the wasteland (Arrian 333). Knowing this, he entrusted his scouts and guides to lead him through the desert.
(Botsford. “Map of empire of Alexander the Great shortly after acquiring the Persian Empire.” The Gedrosian Desert is located in the bottom right hand corner- Southeast corner- of the page. Alexander was traveling from the border of the yellow to the capital city Gedrosia in Pura.)
In the beginning, Alexander tried to follow the coast to stay supplied by his fleet. When nothing could be seen of the ships, he sent some of his Prodromoi ahead, on a reconnaissance mission. This mission yielded no sighting of the ships or fresh water sources (Arrian 334). Having this important information from his scouts allowed Alexander to save his troops from thirst, for a time.
When the coastal route failed, the King of Macedon turned his army inland. This turned out to be a bad decision. The scorching heat and the less than abundant source of water led to the death of many of his men (Arrian 335). Despite their hardship, his guides continued to lead the way. After a time though, even they lost their way. They were unable to find specific landmarks because the marks had been scrubbed away by sand (Arrian 335). It seemed that all hope was lost, but the tide soon turned.
Once again Alexander’s intelligence gathering system saved the day. A group of Prodromoi, led by the king himself, found a route back to the sea. The discovery of fresh water, on the beach, by the scouting party literally saved the bodies and the morale of his men. Soon after, the guides found their way back to the proper trail (Arrian 339). Eventually Alexander the Great and his army made it out of the desert and into the less treacherous interior of Persia.
Although many of his men had perished, his force was the largest that had ever made it through the Gedrosian. While part of this feat can be attributed to Alexander’s true grit, he would have never made it through without his intelligence gatherers. His scouts and native guides were the true pathfinders through the desert as well as for all of his campaigns. The combination of these two made the Macedonian information gathering system and army as a whole the most powerful military force of Alexander’s time.
Arrian. The Campaigns of Alexander. Trans. Aubrey De Selincourt. London: Penguin, 1958. Print
Engles, Donald. “Alexander’s Intelligence System.” The Classical Quarterly XXX.1 (1980): 327-340. Print.
Payne, Kathryn. “Information collection and transmission in Classical Greece.” Libri 43.4. (1993): 271-288. Print.
“Prodromoi.” Wikipedia. Wikipedia, n.d. Web. 3 March 2014.
Botsford, George Willis. “Map of empire of Alexander the Great shortly after acquiring the Persian Empire.” Photograph. Wikipedia. Wikipedia, n.d. Web 3 March 2014.