How Critical Were Alexander’s Allies to His Victories? | History Hit

How Critical Were Alexander’s Allies to His Victories?

Archers frieze from Darius' palace at Susa. Glazed siliceous bricks, ca. 510 BC.
Image Credit: Public Domain

When one thinks of Alexander the Great’s army, two units epitomise his conquests more than others: his formidable Companions and devastating Macedonian phalanx. Yet critical to some of Alexander’s greatest triumphs were a range of specialised troops. Though the Macedonians wielded the most powerful infantry force in the world, they lacked supporting arches, skirmishers and javelin throwers. As a result, much of Alexander’s greatest light infantry came from outside Macedon.

The Agrianians

One such troop were the Agrianians. Hailing from the upper Strymon valley the Agrianes were a Paeonian tribe with a prestigious history. The Thracians, Illyrians and Paeonians were all famed for their versatility and skill as light infantry, but the Agrianians stood out above the rest. This was in part due to their homeland’s terrain.

Its rugged, mountainous landscape ensured these hardened warriors were well-suited to traversing and fighting on even the most unforgiving terrain, where speed and mobility triumphed above all else. Philip recognised their prowess with this style of fighting. From early in his reign he incorporated units of Agrianians into his reformed army as versatile light infantry.

Depiction of a peltast.

Image Credit: Public Domain

Alexander continued to promote Macedonian friendship with the Agrianians. Indeed, he ensured the closest possible ties with the Agrianian royal house when he offered his bellicose half-sister, Cynane, to the Agrianian king Langarus. Thanks to this close relationship, Alexander in return received the best light infantry the Agrianians could offer to swell the ranks of his forces. When Alexander departed for Asia in 334 BC, an elite Agrianian contingent accompanied his army.

Speed and mobility

For their equipment, each Agrianian was equipped in a very similar style to the peltast. They carried a Phrygian helmet, very light body-armour, while javelins called lonchai were their primary weapon. Alongside javelins, each Agrianian warrior also carried a small pelta shield as well as either a sword or spear for close combat.

As with all light infantry, mobility was key to the Agrianians’ deadliness. In battles, Alexander would place them on the right side of the infantry line – where they would provide cover to Alexander’s prestigious right flank.

Furthermore, on marches through harsh terrain, he included the Agrianians. Not only was their expertise at both traversing and fighting in mountainous areas unmatched but their light armour meant they were ideal troops to accompany Alexander across desert terrain. Consequently, Alexander regularly assigned them for special missions where mobility was key.

Agrianian excellence on the battlefield

It was the Agrianians for instance that Alexander tasked with defeating a numerically-superior Persian force situated on foothills to the right of Alexander’s force during the Battle of Issus. Although vastly outnumbered, the Agrianians easily overwhelmed their Persian counterparts as they excelled at fighting in this terrain.

For Alexander, the unique assets of the Agrianians meant they remained a critical part of his army throughout his campaign. He was therefore always keen to swell his Agrianians with reinforcements from their homeland whenever possible. Alongside the Agrianians, Alexander had another specialised light infantry force:

Macedon’s archers

Organised into companies of 500 men, Alexander had two battalions of bowmen in his army at the beginning of his campaign. Although some Macedonians appear to have served as archers, the most notable contingent was that comprised of Cretans. Situated in the Southern Aegean, the island of Crete was famous for its archers.

Rough terrain dominated the island’s landscape, rendering phalanx warfare useless. Rather than embrace the hoplite tradition of their mainland Greek counterparts the Cretans therefore prioritised the bow as their weapon of choice. Their bow was a self-bow likely made from either yew or cedar wood. Each Cretan equipped themselves with a sword and a small bronze pelta shield. This provided them more protection if it came to hand-to-hand fighting.

As the mainland Greeks irrationally regarded archery with disdain, the Cretans soon became some of the most feared archers in the Hellenic world. For many years before the rise of Macedon, Greek armies had recruited these crack bowmen as mercenaries to compliment their armies. Cretans soon became the elite company in his archer regiment.

Alexander’s archers had a critical role in battle…

In battle Alexander would usually deploy most of the archers to fight alongside the elite Agrianians on his right flank. Together they acted as agile skirmishers who would cover that side of the Macedonian line. On occasion, the Cretans were positioned away from the rest of his archers on the left flank. Their job remained the same: protect the Macedonian flank.

Like the Agrianians, Alexander’s archer corps were highly-mobile. At the Battle of the Persian Gate in the Zagros Mountains, the archers accompanied Alexander’s elite force up a narrow mountain pass that bypassed a Persian defence. Descending on the Persian camp behind, they slaughtered the unsuspecting Persians.

Persian incorporation

Later, Alexander upgraded his archer corps. The Persians were renowned for their archery in Asia. In many ways, these bowmen were even more formidable as their composite bows outdistanced the self-bows of their Cretan counterparts. As Alexander progressed eastwards, he incorporated Persian archers into his army. By 326 BC he had expanded the archer corps so significantly that they were now divided into regiments of 1,000 men or chiliarchies.

The Macedonian phalanx, from “Cassell’s Illustrated Universal History” (1893).

Image Credit: British Library / Public Domain

Born to run

Alexander evidently saw his archer contingents as one of the most crucial parts of his light infantry. Yet for the Cretans it appears Alexander did not always use them solely as archers. Evidence survives that certain Cretans also served as long distance runners, or hemerodromoi.

Messengers were a critical part of Alexander’s communication system while on campaign. Long-distance runners had been employed in Greek and Persian armies long before Alexander, most famously the Athenian Pheidippides following the Battle of Marathon. Thanks to Crete’s uneven terrain, long-distance training races occurred regularly during Cretan military education. Many were thus adept endurance runners. It seems probable Alexander thus employed many Cretans from his archers to also serve as elite long-distance runners when necessary.

Alexander’s Macedonians formed the nucleus of his army for the entirety of his campaigns, yet they were not the only units Alexander relied upon. The Agrianians, Cretans, Thessalians and horse archers all served similarly critical roles for the Macedonian king throughout his campaigning life.

Tags: Alexander the Great

Tristan Hughes