[November 5, 2019] It is a military axiom as old as armies have been in existence that the best defense is an offense. The meaning should be clear; in military circles, the emphasis is always on how to gain the advantage, and that is accomplished by taking the fight to the enemy. Today, I’ll discuss the significance of the Battle of Issus that occurred on this date, November 5, 333 B.C.
“Carry the battle to them. Don’t let them bring it to you. Put them on the defensive, and don’t ever apologize for anything.” – Harry S. Truman, 33rd U.S. President
War brings out the best and the worst in humans. It also brings out the validity (or not) of strategic leadership and, if it works, will bring about great things to those who risk the most. The Battle of Issus was Alexander the Great’s second battle against the large Persian army and first direct engagement with King Darius III. Both these men were renowned then and now as some of the greatest leaders to have ever lived.
As I wrote in an earlier article, Alexander the Great was a flexible and adaptable military command leader (link here). His adaptability was in contrast to King Darius III, who ruled with an iron fist over his subjects and used large, massed, well-organized armies to conquer and defend his territories. What we have in the Battle of Issus is a flexible, adaptable commander and a commander who was known for bringing large groups of soldiers together for his cause.
Darius III had Greek mercenaries on his side during this battle, showing how good he was at uniting allies. There is much we can learn from his tremendous capabilities, statesmanship, and cunning. This battle, however, did not go as Darius III planned. There is no space here to lay out those reasons but note that Darius’ Persian army had the advantages of knowing the land, a larger force, a better intelligence network, and support of the local population.
The entire battle did not go well for Darius III. Despite his advantages, he was unable to maneuver as he would have liked his army to do so. Alexander’s Macedonian army, on the other hand, was able to use his trusted phalanx formation. The Macedonians were able to crush the Persian center where Darius III was located and forced the Persians into a retreat. Darius III fled the battlefield to leave his army, his mother, wife, and two daughters behind. His flight was a cowardly act that will forever sting the reputation of Persians.
Alexander was able to again meet Darius III on the battlefield, this time at Gaugamela, where Darius III would again flee. This time, however, Darius III met his death by one of his own, Bessus.
The thumbnail used in this article is from a wall painting (a fresco) from the city of Pompeii depicting the Battle of Issus and Alexander the Great.