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Achaemenid Soldiers, Alexander’s Conquest, and the Experience of Defeat

John Hyland

The overthrow of Achaemenid Persia by Alexander’s invasion ranks among the greatest military catastrophes of ancient history. Despite the lack of Persian narrative sources, it is possible to reconstruct some of the defeated peoples’ responses to disaster by assessing relevant passages of the Alexander histories in dialogue with documentary evidence from Babylon, Bactria, and other Achaemenid regions. Modern studies have shed particular light on the survival strategies of imperial elites in the wake of the conquest (see Briant 2002, 842-864; Hyland 2013; Olbrycht 2013). But less attention has been paid to another experience of Achaemenid defeat, involving a larger subset of the imperial population: the non-elite soldiers from Darius III’s beaten armies, who faced difficult post-battle choices as the imperial power that had once defined their world crumbled around them.

Despite exaggerating Persian army size and casualties, the Alexander historians make clear that the vast majority of Darius’ soldiers survived the battles of Granicus, Issus, and Gaugamela. A number of sources hint at their resulting attitudes towards the imperial power that had recruited them. A Babylonian text highlights the losing army’s disenchantment with its king, claiming that the troops deserted Darius and returned to their cities (BM 36761 and 36390; see van der Spek 2003, 297-299); but its perspective reflects Babylon’s rapid surrender, while the Alexander historians show that much of the Gaugamela army reassembled in Iran for further resistance (see Briant 2002, passim, on Achaemenid military resilience). We must consider a wide range of soldiers’ responses to the unprecedented situation of defeat within the imperial heartland.

In the aftermath of battle, defeated soldiers had several choices: they could attempt to rejoin the royal army, demonstrating a continued trust in Achaemenid authority; or maintain unit cohesion but follow a commander like Mazaeus in surrender to the enemy; or reject military authority entirely, seeking a place of refuge or an ultimate homecoming. This paper will explore several factors that influenced soldiers’ decisions, including distance from home and circumstances of recruitment; loss of property and camp followers during the chaos of escape from the battlefield; access to routes and supplies (subject to the conditions of their battlefield escape); loss or survival of officers and administrators; and religious or ideological considerations.

Finally, it will consider the variety of options that awaited Achaemenid veterans in the years after Gaugamela. Those who returned to rural communities might encounter significant socio-economic disruption, as seems to have occurred in the Granicus valley of northwest Anatolia (Rose 2007), but many regions retained significant continuities with Achaemenid tradition, as shown by the Bactrian economic document ADAB C4 (Naveh and Shaked 2012, 198-212), and some returning veterans might have found that less had changed than they feared. On the other hand, many of those who did not desert Darius in 331 will have continued in further military service through the 320s, some resisting the invaders, but a greater number following former commanders into new employment in the armies of Alexander.

Session/Panel Title

The Other Side of Victory: War Losses in the Ancient World

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