Through the Lens of History 7 – To the End of the World and Beyond – Alexander the Great, Conclusion

13 January, 2010

We are already to the Ides of January, the new year is moving quickly!  But let us pause for some history:

Through the Lens of History: Using History for Better Gaming
Vision 7: To the End of the World and Beyond – Alexander the Great, Conclusion

The lens continues with Alexander the Great, King of Macedon, Emperor of the World. Alexander is one of the most well known and dynamic of history’s great conquerors, conquering the greatest empire of his age and making it his in a few short years. Macedonian armies were invincible when Alexander lead them, no army could defeat his, no city’s wall could resist a siege directed by the young king.

This vision covers Alexander’s history from the beginning of the invasion of Persia to his untimely death at the age of 32.

Part I – The History

Alexander had reimposed his control over the wayward Greek city-states, leaving his general Antipater behind with a small army to remind the Greeks who ruled them, and began his Persian expedition in the Spring of 334 BCE. After a symbolic visit to the ruins of Troy where he sacrificed to Athena and asserted his link to the legendary hero Achilles by visiting the hero’s tomb. Soon after crossing over the Dardanelles straights to Asia Minor (modern day Turkey) Alexander’s army of 32,000 infantry and 4,500 cavalry soon faced its first test.

The satrapies of Asia Minor raised their forces. Along with a large number of Greek mercenaries they moved to stop Alexander, confronting him along the Granicus river. The Persian forces outnumbered the Greek armies but they were not prepared for Alexander’s audacity as the Macedonians moved quickly to attack, catching the Persians offbalance. Alexander personally led his elite Companion cavalry which broke the Persian line.  The Persians were soon overwhelmed, losing a huge number of men. The Persian loses would have been higher except Alexander stopped pursuit of the fleeing army to slaughter the Greek mercenaries who he viewed as traitors. After the battle 300 captured Persian shields were sent to Athens as a sacrifice to Athena (and as political theatre).

Alexander spent the winter of 334-3 BCE consolidating his hold on Asia Minor and bringing over more troops from Macedonian and Greece, while the Persian Emperor, Darius, gathered soldiers from all over his Empire. The Persian Emperor raised a huge army (estimated between 312 and 600 thousand men) while Alexander had perhaps 60,000 soldiers. Summer of 333 BCE would see the first battle directly between the Emperor and King.

The battle took place at Issus on a narrow strip of land between the sea and the mountains. Darius was cautious and took defensive positions against Alexander.  Unawed by the Persian numbers, which could not be fully deployed on the narrow battlefield, Alexander attacked. The fighting was hard.  As Alexander came close to a breakthrough, Darius fled the battlefield and insured the collapse of his army.  Persian loses were huge, estimated at over 100,000 men, and Darius’ mother, wife and children, who had accompanied the Emperor, were captured. Alexander treated his royal captives as guests and went on to become close friends with Darius’ mother.

Over the next two years, Alexander expanded his control down the Mediterranean coast (of modern day Syria, Lebanon and Israel). Most of the cities surrendered and accepted Alexander as their new King. City by city, as Alexander acquired the port cities on the Mediterranean coast, he also gained the Persian fleet piecemeal.

Tyre was one city that would not submit. Its walled citadel stood on an island half a mile off the coast. Believing that they could defy Alexander, the citizens of Tyre refused to acknowledge Alexander as king and killed his heralds in a show of defiance. Alexander responded by building a causeway out from the shore to the citadel. Supported by the ships of the cities that had joined him Alexander took Tyre in a matter of months. Another siege at Gaza further slowed Alexander’s advance south, but he soon conquered that city and continued into Egypt. The Egyptians welcomed Alexander as a liberator and proclaimed him Pharaoh and the ‘son of Ra’.

In 331 BCE, Alexander moved to finish Darius who had raised another huge army. The two met at Gaugamela, on the plains of Northern Mesopotamia. Darius had assembled a huge number of infantrymen supported by fine cavalry, heavy chariots with scythes mounted and even a few elephants. Advancing at a time and place of his own choosing, Alexander refused to fight the battle that Darius wanted. To deal with the scythed chariots, Alexander’s soldiers opened their ranks to let the chariots through and let the Macedonian javelin men killed the Chariot drivers as they rode past. While his infantry engaged the enemy, Alexander led his Companion cavalry strait for Darius. Cutting his way through the Immortals, Darius’ bodyguards, Alexander came close enough that his spear killed Darius’ charioteer. The Persian Emperor again fled. Alexander choose not to pursue Darius returning instead to the battle to aid his men who were still fighting. With the Emperor’s flight, the Persian army collapsed once again and Alexander seized another magnificent victory. Darius’ prestige would never recover from this battle.

Alexander swung south into Babylon and the heartlands of the fertile-crescent. There, Babylon welcomed him as a liberator and granted him all of the honors of its king. After a few weeks of rest Alexander continued on to take the administrative capital of Persia, Susa, and its vast treasury. The treasury included valuables and ancient statues looted from Athens during Xerxes’ invasion of Greece; Alexander returned these stolen treasures to the Athenians.

From Susa, Alexander decided to drive hard towards Persepolis, en route he was ambushed in a narrow pass by the Satrap of the region. Alexander’s forces were driven back with heavy losses after a failed frontal assault. Not to be kept from his goal, Alexander found a trail and led part of his force around through the narrow mountain tracks at night to strike the Persians from behind. The Persians were routed and Alexander continued to Persepolis.

Persepolis, the spiritual heart of the Persian Empire and capital of the Persian people themselves, surrendered to Alexander in 330 BCE. Alexander seized the Persian treasury for his own use and rewarded his troops with a day to loot the wealthy city. Alexander rarely allowed his soldiers to loot, preferring to reward them from captured funds. This allowed him a greater degree of control over his army and avoided offending the people that he conquered. Shortly after the city’s capture, Persepolis burned. Sources differ on what happened, the fire may have been a deliberate act by Alexander or accidentally started in the aftermath of a drunken party. In either case Alexander directed his men to fight the fire but much of the city was destroyed.

From Persepolis, Alexander resumed his pursuit of Darius. Before he could meet his adversary, Darius was betrayed and killed by treacherous Persians. Alexander used his own cloak to wrap the body of the Emperor and had it returned to the Persian Queen Mother for a proper burial.
Now Alexander had to deal with Bessus, Darius’ cousin and satrap of Bactria, who proclaimed himself Emperor of the Persians. Alexander announced his intention to bring Bessus to justice, blaming him for the murder of Darius. Oxathres, Darius’ brother, appealed to Alexander for justice and was made a Companion in order to join the effort. Alexander needed time to gather his forces to crush Bessus, and was forced to double back from his first expedition in order to destroy a rebellion by the satrap of Aria.

The beginning of the next year (329 BCE) saw the continuation of Alexander’s campaign against Bessus across the mountains of the Hindu Kush. To Bessus’ surprise, Alexander crossed over the 3,550 meter high Khawak Pass in winter. Due to the scorched earth tactics of Bessus, the Macedonians quickly exhausted their supplies and were forced to eat their pack animals, but it did not stop their advance. Terrified by Alexander’s arrival Bessus fled across the Oxus river to Sogdia, burning his boats behind him. His army dispersed and Bactria fell to Alexander without a fight. By filling their tents with straw, the Macedonians were able to cross the fast flowing Oxus over the course of five days. Alexander’s friend and general Ptolemy captured Bessus and brought him back to Alexander who in turn had him flogged and sent back to the Persian court for trial, there Bessus was executed.

From this point, the north-eastern edge of the Persian Empire, Alexander campaigned to expand his control. Fighting against rebellious Persians and the Scythians from across the borders, the years 329-328 BCE were marked by harsh fighting far from home. In early 327 BCE, Alexander turned to the Sogdian Rock, a massive fortress on a towering rock outcrop. When Alexander offered to negotiate, the defenders laughed and told him to find men with wings. Alexander offered twelve talents (a small fortune) to the first man to reach the top of the sheer rock. Three hundred volunteers climbed the steepest, least guarded part of the rock by night, when dawn broke 270 of them had reached the summit. Alexander again came fourth to deal with the Sogdians and informed them that he had found “men with wings” and indicated his soldiers above them. The fortress surrendered.

Among the Sogdians was the daughter of the Bactrian nobleman Oxyartes, Roxane whom Alexander fell in love with and married that spring. But trouble was waiting for Alexander. In his attempt to combine Persian and Macedonian tradition, Alexander asked his loyal men to perform proskynesis (the Persian ceremonial bow) to him and then receive a kiss, a traditional Macedonian mark of kingship. Normally Macedonians only bowed before the gods but all went well, until Callisthenes, the court historian, did not bow before Alexander and was refused a kiss. Angered at such a snub, Alexander began doubting the loyalty of Callisthenes. This coincided with a plot by several of his pages to murder Alexander. The plot failed and Callisthenes was implicated, the pages were stoned to death and Callisthenes died in prison before he could be sent to Greece for trial.

In the late spring of 327 BCE, Alexander began his campaign into India, marching to the Indus, which had been the eastern border of Persian for more than 150 years. Alexander called the Indian kings to him and many came, some of them allied themselves with the conqueror of Persia. Alexander spent the rest of the year securing his lines of communication before resuming his advance against those who would not accept him as king. The next spring, 326 BCE, his campaign began anew. Cities and fortresses fell before Alexander and his army as he advanced ever further to the Indus river which the Macedonian engineers successfully bridged. With his allied Indian troops, Alexander confronted King Porus and his army, which included 200 war elephants, on the banks of the Hydaspes river. While the main army acted as a diversion to focus Porus’ attention, Alexander made a flank march. Crossing the river 29 kilometres north of the camp, Alexander forced Porus to fight on two fronts. King Porus was captured and when asked how he wished to be treated by Alexander, Porus replied, “As a king.” Alexander was so impressed by Porus’ bravery and nobility that he restored him as king and Porus became and remained a loyal ally to Alexander.

Alexander and his men had to endure the wet of the monsoon season as they prepared to move further east; Alexander intended to go the Ganges river and beyond. But in the foothills of Kashmir, the Macedonians mutinied and refused to cross the Beas river. Alexander’s loyal soldiers, who had served for eight years, had finally had enough. Hundreds of kilometres from home in a foreign land, they were exhausted, their equipment ruined by rains and many were sick. Even a personal appeal by Alexander could not convince them to continue. So, Alexander turned back from the furthest reaches of his territory, marking the occasion with great games and the building of twelve massive altars to the Olympian gods along the border line.

Alexander gathered his soldiers, leaving the newly conquered territories to be administered by King Porus, and began traveling down the Jhelum River to the Indus River. Alexander built and assembled a great fleet of ships to carry men and supplies on this journey. He traveled with the fleet while separate divisions marched on each side of the river and followed behind to insure the safety of the supply line. Most of the tribes and cities along the river submitted to Alexander peacefully but a few did not. The Malli were one of these and while storming the fortress of Multan, Alexander was badly wounded and even thought dead for a brief while. But he survived and the Macendonians finally made it to the coast.

Alexander sent the fleet along the coast while he led the army marching parallel along the coast. This proved to be a terrible mistake as it shoreline soon turned to desert. The fleet had to be sent on while the army moved inland in search of water and supplies. Food and water ran short, and through it all, Alexander suffered the hardships with his men. When some of them found a small trickle of water in a small gully and brought it to Alexander in a helmet, Alexander accepted it, thanked the men and poured it on the ground in full view of his troops showing that he would suffer with them. Finally, after sixty days of torment, Alexander and his army finally emerged from the desert but the losses were terrible, the worst he had suffered on the entire Indian campaign. Reunited with the fleet in 325 BCE, Alexander prepared to return to the heart of the Persian Empire.

In early 324 BCE, Alexander returned to Susa where he tried to build upon his policy of unification of the people by marrying a pair of Persian princesses, one of whom was the eldest daughter of Darius (Macedonian Kings often had multiple wives for political reasons). At Alexander’s request ninety-two of his Companions married Persian noblewomen. Alexander provided the dowries for all of the Persian brides. Further he gave wedding gifts to the ten thousand odd Macedonians who had already taken Persian wives. While this won him favor with his men, the arrival of thirty thousand Persian youths, who had been trained and armed in the Macedonian style, caused resentment among the Macedonian veterans as they feared being supplanted in the King’s esteem.

Later that year Alexander began letting soldiers no longer fit for duty retire and return home with generous payouts. The Macedonian veterans, already upset by the new Persian troops, protested that Alexander was turning them away in disgrace. Alexander angrily reminded them of everything he and his father had done for them and withdrew from them, surrounding himself with a purely Persian staff. This caused the Macedonians to recognize their loyalty and they camped outside Alexander’s palace for three days until the King at last forgave them.

That summer of 323 BCE, Alexander’s closest friend Hephaestion fell ill and later died. Alexander was unable to be at his friend’s side when he died and fell into a madness of grief, ordering a state of general mourning throughout the empire and for sacrifices to be made for Hephaestion. Memorials were built for Hephaestion and his embalmed body was sent to Babylon where Alexander held a grand funeral ceremony for his friend.

When Alexander returned to Babylon, he ignored both oracles and omens that foretold ill should he enter the city. Once there he received envoys from across his empire and from other states. He set in motion preparation for a campaign against the Arabians. Other dark omens followed him and shortly before the Arabian campaign was to begin, he fell ill. Ten days later, Alexander was dead.

Within a year, the empire was at war with itself as Alexander’s generals each moved to seize the throne. Alexander’s dream of a unified empire died with him, no one else could match his charisma, leadership or drive and unite the various factions. But that is a story for another vision.

Alexander remains one of history’s greatest conquerors. In a matter of years he conquered the largest empire of his age and pushed beyond the boundaries of what had been the known world of his era. He built dozens of cities, most of them named after him (most called Alexandria), created a new empire on the ashes of the old Persian empire, and tried to forge his subject peoples into a greater whole by blending what he saw as the best of the Macedonian, Greek and Persian traditions. In the end, only Alexander could maintain Alexander’s dream and without his inspired leadership it shattered into warring states.

Part II- Breaking it apart and putting it back together

Alexander was an amazing man –successful politician, brilliant general, masterful leader of soldiers– a true renaissance man (though pre-dating that term). Any conquering hero or heroine can easily be based upon his life. Alexander was larger than life, a true hero among men, but like the legendary Greek heroes he admired so much, he was flawed as well. Alexander was full of pride bordering on arrogance, prone to rash actions and fits of temper, he had a dark side to his golden personality.

An interesting campaign or scenario would be to place the characters in opposition to a conqueror like Alexander. Letting them match their wits and heroic deeds against the conqueror, hopefully coming to respect him (or her). It would be difficult to pull off, but very much in the mold of Alexander, for the characters to be defeated in the end by the Alexander analog only to be welcomed as friends and allies in recognition of their bravery and talent.

Supplemental d20 Material:

New Feat

Elite [General]
You have served with distinction in the military and are among the best of the best and you know it.

Prerequisites: Character level 5, Base Attack Bonus +3, Base Will Save +2, having served as part of an organized military unit.

Benefit: You gain a +2 bonus to Initiative rolls and a +2 morale bonus on Intimidate checks, Fear saves and to opposed checks to resist Feints in combat. Further, you receive a +1 circumstance bonus on all social interactions with military and martial types.  At 15th level, all of these bonuses increase by 1.

Special: This feat may be selected as a Fighter bonus feat.

You may receive a -1 or higher circumstance penalty on social rolls with those who are opposed to the military or who are pacifists.

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