In what is said to be Alexander the Great’s most spectacular battle, the Macedonian king tested their most daring tactics against the fierce Central-Asian mounted Scythian nomads on the banks of the Jaxartes River.
Before charging into the battle, a little geography would not hurt. The Jaxartes River, what is known today as the Syr Darya, originates in the Tian Shan Mountains in Kyrgyzstan and eastern Uzbekistan. The river flows for 2,212 kilometers (1,374 miles) west and northwest through Uzbekistan and southern Kazakhstan to the remains of the Aral Sea.
Sunset over Sir-Darya river, Kazakhstan. In Ancient Greek river is called Yaxartes (Ἰαξάρτης). (Petar Milošević /CC BY-SA 3.0)
Map of the Syr Darya Basin watershed, of the Syr Darya and Chu Rivers in Central Asia. (CC BY-SA 4.0)
The battle of Jaxartes was a result of an earlier rebellion between the Scythians and the Macedonians.
A man named Spitamenes instigated the cause that would lead up to the battle. Spitamenes was famous for his capture of Bessus, in which he put him in chains and left him for Alexander, resulting in Spitamenes becoming the invisible tribal leader among the Sogdiana, an ancient civilization of Iranian people.
The Punishment of Bessus, by Andre Castaigne (Public Domain)
Alexander had targeted Cyropolis in 329 BC in his conquest of Sogdiana.
Beginning with Cyropolis
Spitamenes, now Sogdian warlord, skillfully planned a rebellion of which not even Alexander had a clue. Spitamenes attacked Alexander’s rear, disabling the fortification system on the frontier starting with Cyropolis.
Silk road figure head, thought to be Sogdian. (CC BY-SA 4.0)
Sogdians, depicted on a Chinese Sogdian sarcophagus of the Northern Qi era. (CC BY-SA 3.0)
Spitamenes’ men caught them by surprise, storming the fort and taking no mercy. Spitamenes also garrisoned these fortresses with his own men afterwards. Once word reached Alexander, it must have been a total shock to him, as he was busy building the new city of Alexandria Eschate.
Sogdiana and Alexandria Eschate, in the north of the map. (Public Domain)
Alexander quickly assembled his men for battle and sent them to the nearest fortress called Gaza. From Gaza, Alexander and his forces captured four fortresses in two days, killing the inhabitants inside. Next, Alexander turned his forces to Cyropolis.
Out of all the forts, Cyropolis was the hardest to take.
Alexander’s plans to march further east were now on hold due to the rebellion. Alexander could not leave with tension existing in his empire. So, Alexander went on a policy of terror as he did at Thebes, but this did not seem to faze the Sogdians, and in doing so, prompted the mighty nomadic confederation of Massagetae to assemble with many horse archers on the right side of Jaxartes River, waiting to invade if the Macedonians failed in stamping out the revolt.
The rebellion became so serious that news came to Alexander that Spitamenes had besieged Maracanda. Alexander quickly sent forces to lift the siege under the command of Pharnuches, who was a diplomat and not a soldier. Once Pharnuches made it to the outskirts of the city, he engaged the enemy and was teased by the Scythians to follow them into the desert.
Scythian Horseman depicted on felt artifact, circa 300 BC. (Public Domain)
Once in the middle of nowhere, Spitamenes and his Sogdiana Scythian nomads enveloped them from all sides. Pharnuches ordered his forces to form a square formation, leaving the center empty during the battle. The Macedonian forces fought well during the battle, but needed to withdraw quickly, and once they spotted the river Polytimetus to cross for safety, they made a mad dash for it. This very act of breaking rank and battle formation is a mistake when fighting the Scythians, for once the Macedonian forces exposed themselves by breaking rank, the heavier Scythian cavalry mowed them down and totally annihilated them.
This would prove to be the worst disaster that any of Alexander forces would ever face in battle. Alexander knew he would have to react quickly in order to put down the rebellion by defeating those responsible with a show of force.
The Men of War
When it came to the size and composition of both military forces, the estimations are relatively unknown. As far as technology, there is no exact information regarding what was used at the battle, but due to the circumstances of the time and what we do know regarding the Macedonian army Alexander led, we have only to look at the main army Alexander brought with him.
Mosaic detailing the famous military leader and conqueror Alexander the Great/Alexander III of Macedon. (Public Domain)
What history books tell us is that Alexander had a mix of Macedonian infantry and cavalry along with Thessalian and Thracian cavalry. In addition, Alexander required the Greek states to provide additional cavalry and infantry alongside his main forces when he invaded Asia. However, we should consider that by the time Alexander’s forces had made it up to this point in history, those men that accompanied him from Macedonia into Persia, and right before the battle of Jaxartes, were not the vast majority, but rather a mix of forces and foreigners in his ranks. Thus, to get an idea of what units partook in the battle is unknown, but assumptions can be made.
The Scythians on the other hand, were pure cavalry, carrying the bow and arrow. They may have had some heavy cavalry among their ranks, but it is doubtful. Rather, we can gather that the Scythians were mainly light cavalry archers since there are no descriptions of heavy cavalry mentioned.
As for military doctrine and training, Alexander the Great learned warfare, tactics, and strategy from his father Philip. Before Alexander became king, he had already experienced battles beforehand as the commander of Philips left wing, such as at the battle of Chaeronea. Alexander was a practitioner of his father’s style of organized warfare, which was called the hammer and anvil tactic. The Macedonian phalanx served as the anvil while the cavalry served as the hammer.
Alexander the Great liked to charge head on with his men but always kept a close eye on the situation. His leadership skills were numerous due to the many detailed battles provided in historical chronicles. Alexander was a leader who led his men into battle, charging in head-first at every chance he got. He led by example and bore the scars to prove it. He desired not to sit in the back of his army and shot out orders like a manager. He was a natural leader, with a natural gift. Not many leaders in the annals of war have ever had such a gift as had by Alexander.
As for the Scythian leader Satraces, there is nothing known about him other than by name for being at the battle. Leadership is crucial under such circumstances, but in this case, there is virtually nothing known about Satraces leadership ability. As for skills, he was a true Scythian tactician, wherein swarming and deception was the game. One only knows this due to the battle description provided.
From the info gathered before the battle, Alexander had no choice but to cross the Jaxartes River and engage the Scythians. If he did not, the situation could have gotten out of hand and the number of Scythians may have started to grow. Alexander only had one choice and that was to attack them and win. If he lost, it might have cost him his empire or at least part of it. These Scythians were most likely paid by Spitamenes to harass and engage Alexander. Alexander had no choice but to deal with the enemy.
Feasts and Fights
The opening moves before the battle were actually feasting. Once Alexander founded a new city-fort named after him, he held an elaborate feast with a sacrifice to the gods and even held a gymnastic contest. Alexander was having a merry ole’ time.
But while feasting and having a luxurious time with his men, Scythians on the far side of the bank of the River Jaxartes began to shout insults at Alexander and his men. Alexander knew that if he ignored this and allowed it to continue, the numbers of these men might swell and become too big to handle. Alexander stopped the party and began planning.
Alexander was in no mood for combat, but rather relaxation and celebration. He was still recovering from a leg wound he received from an earlier battle, and the bone splinters were making their way out of Alexander’s leg. Alexander had no choice but to send in his advance cavalry. However, in order to do this, he needed to establish a beachhead first to protect his forces that would be crossing.
The Hammer and Anvil
He moved his artillery to the bank of the river and began to shower the Scythians with projectiles—one of the projectiles said to have killed the Scythian chief Satraces or their champion warrior, nevertheless, it remains unknown, but the outcome seems to have not rattled the Scythians knees.
The artillery Alexander placed on the bank of river worked well for its intended use, which was to push the Scythians back, allowing the Macedonian forces to cross the river safely. Once the river was safe to cross, Alexander sent in a portion of cavalry first. However, some think that the use of cavalry was a military blunder that turned in his favor.
Battle between the Scythians and their enemies. (Public Domain)
Stephen Tanner, who wrote the popular book, “Afghanistan: A Military History from Alexander the Great to the War against the Taliban Insurgency” argues that the Macedonian element (cavalry) advanced to quickly and was surrounded by the Scythians. However, it seems Alexander may have done this intentionally. The tactician knew better than to just send in an attack force for the slaughter. He knew he had to bait the Scythians, for if he did not, the Scythians would play a cat and mouse game of reverse attrition. In other words, the Scythians would lose few while the bigger forces would lose many!
Battle of the Jaxartes, Alexander crossing river. Battle movement images by Stephen Smith. (Creative Commons)
As the advance Macedonian cavalry came closer into contact with the Scythians, the Scythians broke themselves up into units and quickly moved into position surrounding the enemy from afar. Each unit began to form a circle and rode around like they were in a race, chasing each other’s tails. This was like how a hurricane is perceived; it is a deadly circle that rotates about, spewing forth projectiles. The high winds represent the bow and whatever the winds spit out are the arrows.
With the advanced Macedonian cavalry now surrounded by many Scythian cavalry circles showering them down with arrows, Alexander began to advance with the rest of his force. Alexander knew that by sending in a small cavalry force as bait, the Scythians would quickly go after it. What the Scythians did not expect was what was coming next.
Battle of the Jaxartes, Alexander luring Scythians to battle. (CC BY-SA 3.0)
Alexander then gave the orders for his light infantry to advance towards the Scythian cavalry in front of Alexander. Now, as the light infantry advanced towards the Scythians, Alexander than gave the order for a second part of his cavalry to block any flanking attempt by the Scythian horse archers. Once the pieces were in place, half of the Scythian cavalry found themselves surrounded. Alexander then gave the order to his heavy cavalry to charge at the surrounded Scythian horse archers. The heavy cavalry shot through the gaps between his light infantry and anti-flanking cavalry and plunged right into the Scythian ranks, thus allowing the advance cavalry unit that was sent in as bait to now focus on the Scythians that found themselves surrounded. This allowed Alexander’s anti-flanking cavalry to ward off the remaining Scythian cavalry, thus allowing the light infantry men to advance in quickly in order to dislodge any enemy combatants on horseback. Overall, it was a brilliant maneuver on Alexander behalf.
The Battle of Jaxartes – Alexander traps the nomadic Scythian cavalry. (Creative Commons)
The outcome of the battle was a Macedonian victory through Alexander’s brilliance. As for deaths, the Macedonians only killed a small number, roughly around 1,000 with another 150 captured. The main part of the Scythian cavalry force escaped capture. It was a small battle that produced a new tactic for consideration when facing the Scythians.
The Economy of Force
Assessing the significance of the actions and the lessons learned from the battle of Jaxartes is one-sided. The Scythians deceived themselves with over confidence. They figured that this foreign element was no different than what they had encountered before, thus making themselves one-dimensional. As for Alexander, he quickly looked at the situation, understood what he was facing, and quickly executed his objective with precision.
In order for Alexander to accomplish this, he had confidence in his men and captains, and his men, in turn, showed faith in him and his battle plan. In other words, when it came to the economy of force, every Macedonian was responsible for the other. Because of this, Alexander placed his men in areas that they would be effective against the enemy and allowed his captains and men to build on their effectiveness.
Alexander won many battles before Jaxartes using the hammer and anvil tactic made so famous by the Macedonians. However, the traditional Macedonian way of war came to a standstill when confronting the Scythians and this demonstrated not only their strength but also their weakness. Nevertheless, the strength and simplicity of these tactics are obvious; adapt to your enemy’s method and incorporate some of your own—innovate!
Alexander knew that if he were stay with the same old tactical method it would kill him in the end. Alexander also felt that he and his men were in an ‘unholy land’ and had to fight in ‘unholy ways’ in order to achieve victory.
As for the Scythians, their form of guerrilla-like warfare has gone unnoticed for thousands of years, but every so often hordes (camps) from the east have pushed successfully west. Nevertheless, the methods of these steppe peoples are very unorthodox, innovative, and asymmetrical. They fight without touching you and deceive you without notice. However, the Scythians could have given Alexander a bigger hassle, but they did not. And in turn, Alexander knew that it was best to beat them and leave them alone. Alexander the Great did not want or need the weight of Central Asia pouring down on him like lava from a volcano; it was not worth it. The Scythians would have loved if Alexander had marched into the open fields of Central Asia—but Alexander knew better.
Featured image: Another of Alexander’s important battles – The battle of Issos between Alexander the Great and Darius of Persia. Representative image only (Public Domain)
By Cam Rea