The battle of Issus was a major conflict between Alexander the Great, king of Macedonia, and Darius III Codomannus, the king of Persia. Macedonia had been preparing to invade Persia for several years prior to the battle, but these plans had been hampered by the death of then-king Philip. The ascension of his son Alexander to the throne allowed the invasion to continue, though the delay allowed Persia to overcome its own problems and better prepare to face the Macedonian forces (Lendering, Issus, 2014).
The battle itself took place in the year 333 BCE. During his invasion of Cilicia, Alexander passed through Issus once without incident. At the time, his army was split with Alexander in control of one section and his right hand man Parmenion in control of the other. Though he believed the Persian’s to be to the east, Alexander understood that his split army was vulnerable at the time. To amend that, he marched south around the coast to meet with Parmenion’s section. To speed the march, he left the sick and wounded behind in Issus. The plan was sound, though Alexander discovered too late that his information was flawed. While he was joining with Parmenion, the Persians had marched north and used a mountain pass to descend on Issus sooner than had been anticipated. They attacked the wounded Macedonians and killed most of them. Their methods were quite messy, and included such lovely methods as “slicing off hands and burning the stumps” (Curtius, 1998). The few survivors fled south to join with Alexander, who started moving back north after news of the massacre reached him. He moved slowly, as the terrain forced his army to reorganize frequently.
With the ocean to the west and mountains to the east, Alexander only had a narrow area to march through. The Persians, however, occupied a much more open plane, which offered their cavalry a distinct advantage. Though cavalry charges couldn’t be repeated for hours and hours, they were brutally effective (Sidnell, 2006). Heavily armored horses tired regrettably quickly, so most cavalry in use was lightly armored (Worley, 1994). In an attempt to mitigate this advantage, Alexander kept his hoplites in two lines, hoping that it would allow his troops time to advance to a more open area. He also kept his companions to the right, planning to use them to destabilize the Persian left wing.
(Lendering, Map of the Battle of Issus, 2014)
The battle itself was bloody. Alexander’s hoplites were the main targets of the Persians. The Macedonian right wing was also in danger, though Alexander managed to turn the tide of the battle with a single, brilliant maneuver. During the initial charge, the Macedonian forces were fired upon by Persian archers, who then retreated as the attacking phalanx grew closer. However, in order for them to do so, the Persian lines had to open for a brief moment. It was then that Alexander and his companions struck in a devastating cavalry charge. By destroying the right flank of the Persian army, Alexander was able to flank the center and support his phalanx. At that moment, the Battle of Issus turned into the Massacre of Issus. The Persians in the front were pushed forward by their forces in the rear, and were quickly crushed by the combined force of the cavalry and the phalanx.
This battle cemented Alexander’s fame. None could mistake that he had led the charge that won the battle, which solidified his reputation for bravery. It also destroyed the bulk of the Persian forces and led to Alexander gaining Phoenicia and Egypt from the Persians.
Curtius, Q. (1998). History of Alexander. London: Harvard University Press.
Lendering, J. (2014, February 1). Issus. Retrieved from Livius.org: http://www.livius.org/battle/issus/
Lendering, J. (2014, January 23). Map of the Battle of Issus. Retrieved from Livius.org: http://www.livius.org/pictures/a/maps/map-of-the-battle-of-issus/
Sidnell, P. (2006). Warhorse. New York: Continuum.
Worley, L. (1994). Hippeis. Boulder: Westview Press.