Saturday, October 9, 2010

On the Wrong Side

THE good fortune of Alexander was not yet exhausted; indeed, if it was to be called good fortune at all, it remained with him in a remarkable way up to the very end of his career. It was a distinct gain that the Persian king had abandoned the waiting policy of Memnon, and, in a haughty self-confidence that brooked no contradiction, resolved to give battle to the invader; but there was a yet greater gain remaining behind. Not only was he going to give battle, but he was going to give it exactly in the place which would be the least advantageous to himself and the most advantageous to his antagonist.

Alexander called a hurried council of war after the banquet to consider the intelligence which had been just brought to him. He expounded to his lieutenants at length the views which he had briefly expressed at the banqueting hall. If Darius was in the mind to fight, their policy was to give him the opportunity that he desired as soon as possible. The suggestion was received with enthusiasm by the majority of the officers present; but there was a small minority, led by Parmenio, that ventured to dissent. Parmenio was the oldest and most experienced general in the army, numbering nearly fifty campaigns. He had often been extraordinarily successful, and Philip had trusted him implicitly. "I have never been able to find more than one general," the king had been wont to remark, "and that general is Parmenio." Accordingly his voice had no little weight. Even Alexander had at least to listen. The substance of his counsel on the present occasion was this: "Let us fight by all means; but let us fight on our own ground. If we march to attack Darius on the plains where he has pitched his camp, we shall be giving him all the advantage of place; if we wait here till he comes to attack us here, this advantage will be ours."

Alexander listened with respectful attention, but was not convinced. "We cannot afford to wait," he said, "an invader must attack, not be attacked. But perhaps we shall be able to combine your policy, which I allow to be admirable, and mine, which I hold to be necessary."

The event justified the hope. The result may be attributed to good fortune; but it was probably due to the extraordinary power of guessing the probable action of an antagonist, which was one of Alexander's most characteristic merits as a general.

To put the thing very briefly, the king's idea was this: Let Darius once get the impression that the invaders were hanging back, and in his overweening confidence in his own superior strength, he would abandon his favourable position, and precipitate an attack. And this was exactly what happened.

The Macedonian army was formed into two divisions. With one of them Parmenio hurried on to occupy the passes from Cilicia into Syria. There were strong places which might have been easily defended; but it was not Darius's policy to hinder the advance of an enemy whom he felt sure of being able to crush; and the garrisons retired according to order when the Macedonian force came in sight.

Some little time after, Alexander himself followed with the rest of his army, taking the same route, and overtaking Parmenio's force at a place that was about two days' march beyond the passes.

And now came the extraordinary change of policy on the part of Darius which Alexander, with a sagacity that seemed almost more than human, had divined. The delay of the Macedonian king in advancing from Cilicia had produced just the impression which apparently it had been intended to produce. Darius imagined, and the imagination was encouraged by the flatterers who surrounded him, that his enemy was losing confidence, that though he had routed the king's lieutenants, he shrank from meeting the king himself. And now the one prevailing idea in his mind was that the invader must not be permitted to escape. Accordingly, though his ablest counsellors sought to dissuade him, he broke up his encampment on the level ground which suited so admirably the operations of his huge army, and hurried to get into the rear of Alexander. He blindly missed the opportunity that was almost in his hands of cutting Alexander's army in two, and took up a position wholly unsuited to the character of his forces, but which had the advantage, as he thought, of cutting off the enemy's retreat.

A rapid march performed under a burning sky had caused not a little sickness in the army, and Alexander had left his invalids at Issus, a delightful little town which had the advantage of enjoying both sea and mountain air. A detachment was told off to protect the place, and as Charondas was among the sick, Charidemus, though always anxious to be with the front, was not altogether displeased to be left in command.

But the change in the Persian plan brought terrible disaster on the occupants of Issus. It was an unwalled town, and, even had it been strongly fortified, it could not have been defended by the couple of hundred men under Charidemus's command. When the Persians appeared, for it was naturally in their line of march, there was nothing for it but to capitulate and to trust to the mercy of the conquerors. Unhappily the Persian temper, always pitiless when the vanquished were concerned, had been worked up into furious rage by recent disasters. Many of the prisoners were massacred at once; those whose lives were spared were cruelly mutilated, to be sent back, when the occasion served, to the camp of Alexander, as examples of the vengeance which the audacious invaders of Asia might expect.

Charidemus and his Theban friend, with such other officers as had been captured, were brought before the king himself. Charondas, happily for himself, was recognized by a Theban exile, who had attached himself to the fortunes of Darius, and who happened to be a distant relative of his own. The man made an effort to save him. "O king," he said, "this is a kinsman and a fellow-citizen. I saw him last fighting against the Macedonians. How he came hither I know not, but I beseech you that you will at least reserve him for future inquiry. Meanwhile I will answer for his safe custody."

Darius, whose naturally mild temper had been overborne by the savage insistence of the Persian nobles, signified assent; and Charondas, who had not been asked to renounce his allegiance, or indeed questioned in any way, did not feel himself constrained in honour to reject the chance of escape.

No one now remained to be dealt with but Charidemus himself, who as the chief in command had been reserved to the last.

"Of what city are you?" asked the king.

"Of Argos," replied the prisoner, who was certainly glad to be able to make this answer without departing from the truth. To have avowed that he was a Macedonian would probably have sealed his fate at once.

"And your name?"


The king was evidently struck by this answer. Though he had given the order for the execution of the unhappy Athenian , and, indeed, had been the first to lay hands upon him, the deed had been out of keeping with his character, and he had already repented of it.

"Knew you your namesake of Athens?" he went on.

"I knew him well, my lord. He was the guest-friend of my mother's father."

Darius turned round to the Persian noble, a scion of one of the great Seven Houses, who stood behind his seat, and said, "Keep this man safe as you value your own head."

The Persian took him by the hand, and led him to the king's quarters, where he committed him to the safe keeping of his own personal attendants.

The next morning the army resumed its march, following the same route that had been taken a few days before, but in an opposite direction, by Alexander, crossed the Pinarus, a small stream which here runs a short course, from the mountains to the sea, and encamped on its further or northern shore.

Though the young Macedonian's life had been saved for the moment, he was still in imminent danger. The clemency of the king had not approved itself to his courtiers, though the habit of obedience had prevented them from questioning his orders. Indeed all the Greeks about the royal person were regarded by the Persian nobles with jealousy and suspicion. So strong were these feelings that Darius, though himself retaining full confidence in their attachment and fidelity, thought it best to send them all away before the anticipated battle should take place. They were accordingly despatched under the protection of a strong detachment of troops of their own nation to Damascus, whither a great portion of the royal treasure and of the large retinue which was accustomed to follow the Persian king had been already sent. Charondas of course accompanied his Theban kinsman, while Charidemus remained under the immediate protection of the king.

Alexander, when his scouts brought in the intelligence of the Persian movement in his own rear, had hardly been able to believe that his anticipations had been so speedily and so completely fulfilled. That Darius would leave his position on the plain he had hoped; that he would crowd his enormous forces into a place where not a third of them could possibly be used, seemed almost beyond belief. Yet it was undoubtedly true. A light galley was sent out from the shore to reconnoitre, and what the sailors saw fully confirmed the news. Across the bay of Issus was a distance of little more than ten miles, though the way by land between the two armies may have been nearly double as much, and it was easy to descry the thronging multitudes of the Persian host, crowding, as far as could be seen, the whole space between the mountain and the sea. The day was now far advanced. But Alexander would not lose an hour in seizing the great opportunity thrown in his way. The soldiers were ordered to take their evening meal at once, and to be ready to march afterwards.

Informed of the approach of Alexander, and perhaps somewhat shaken in his confidence by the news, Darius resolved to await the attack where he was, that is, behind the stream of the Pinarus. His main line was formed of ninety thousand heavy-armed infantry. A third of these were Greek mercenaries, and occupied the centre; the rest were Asiatics armed in Greek fashion. Darius himself took his place in the centre behind his Greek troops. It was in them, after all, notwithstanding the jealousy of his nobles, that he put his chief confidence. The cavalry were massed on the right wing, that end of the line which was nearest to the sea, for there alone was there any ground suitable for their action. On the left wing, reaching far up the mountain side, were twenty thousand light-armed troops who were to throw themselves on the flank of the Macedonians when they should attempt to cross the stream. Of these, indeed, nothing more need be said. They did not attempt to make the movement which had been assigned to them; but remained inactive, easily held in check by a handful of cavalry which was detached to watch them. Behind this line of battle, numbering, it will have been seen, somewhat more than a hundred thousand men, stood a mixed multitude, swept together from all the provinces of the vast Persian Empire. This mass of combatants, if they may be so called, already unwieldy, received the addition of fifty thousand troops, who had been sent to the southern bank to cover the formation of the line, and who were brought back when this formation was completed. There was no room for them in the line, and they were crowded into the endless multitude behind.

It was a novel experience for Charidemus to watch, as he was compelled to do from his place behind the chariot of Darius, the advance of the Macedonian army. He saw them halted for a brief rest, and watched the men as they took their morning meal. Then again he saw them move forward at a slow pace, preserving an admirable regularity of line. Never before had he had such an opportunity of observing the solidity of their formation; never before had he been so impressed with the conviction of their irresistible strength. Finally, when the front line had come within a bowshot of the river he observed Alexander himself gallop forward on his famous charger, turn with an animated gesture to the line behind him, and advance at a gallop, followed by the cavalry and light-armed foot, while the phalanx moved more slowly on, so as not to disturb the regularity of array on which its strength so much depended.

The terror which this rapid movement caused in the Persian left cannot be described. It was all the more startling because the Macedonian advance had before seemed slow and even hesitating. Nothing less than a panic set in among the troops against whom this sudden attack was delivered. The heavy-armed Asiatics had the equipment and, in a degree, the discipline of European troops, but they wanted their coolness and steadfastness. Before they had felt the thrust of a pike, or the blow of a sword, before even a missile had reached them, they wavered, broke, and turned to fly. The huge multitude behind them caught the infection of panic. So narrow was the space in which they had been crowded together that movement was almost impossible. A scene of frightful terror and confusion followed. The fugitives struggled fiercely with each other—had they shown as much energy in resisting the enemy, they might have changed the fortune of the day. They pushed aside the weak, they trampled pitilessly on the fallen. In less than half an hour from the beginning of the Macedonian charge the whole of the left wing of the Persians was a disorganized, helpless mass.

It is true that the rest of the army did not show the same shameful cowardice. The Greeks in the centre stood their ground bravely, and held the division that attacked them in check for some time. Then assailed in the rear by the Macedonian right returning from their own easy victory, they cut their way through the opposing lines and made good their escape. The Persian cavalry on the right wing also behaved with courage, crossing the river, and charging the Thessalian horse on the Macedonian left. But the miserable weakness of the Persian king rendered all their bravery unavailing. When he saw the line of the Asiatic heavy-armed waver and break, and perceived that his own person was in danger, he turned precipitately to flee, and his escort of cavalry followed him, Charidemus being swept away by the rush, without having a chance to extricate himself. Before long the ground became so rough that the chariot had to be abandoned, and the king mounted on horseback, leaving in his hurry his shield and bow behind him.

The flight was continued at the fullest speed to which the horses could be put till the king felt sure that for the time at least he was safe from pursuit. He then called a halt, and made his disposition for the future. His own destination was Thapsacus, where there was a ford over the Euphrates, and whence he would make his way to Babylon. The greater part of the escort, of course, accompanied him. The young Persian noble, Artabazus by name, to whose charge Charidemus had been committed, was to make his way to Damascus, with instructions for the officers who had been left there in charge of the treasure and retinue.

To the young Macedonian the king addressed a few words of farewell. "Truly," he said, "the Athenian is avenged already. Well; I seem to owe you something for his sake. Take this ring," and he drew, as he spoke, a signet-ring from his finger. "It may help you in need; perhaps, too, you will have the chance of helping some whom I cannot help. My wife and child are, doubtless by this time, in your king's hands, for they can hardly have escaped. I can trust him. But there are others whom you may find at Damascus. When they see this ring it will be proof that they may put faith in you." Then turning to Artabazus, he went on, "Guard this man's life as you would your own."

No comments:

Post a Comment