Was Alexander the Great’s Sogdian Campaign the Hardest of his Career?

Tristan Hughes

3 mins

09 Aug 2019

By January 329 BC Alexander was entering the fifth year of his Asian campaign. Already, he had won several remarkable victories and commanded an empire stretching from Greece to Iran.  

The hardest part of his campaign was still to come.  

Pursuing the pretender

In April, after founding another Alexandria, Alexander marched his army across the Hindu Kush into Bactria, a region famed for a plethora of powerful settlements that dotted the banks of the Oxus River.

It had been from this province that the Persian pretender Bessus had hoped to muster a sizeable army and confront his pursuer. The Bactrians however, thought otherwise.

Rather than resist, city after city welcomed the Macedonian king and his army with open arms. Bessus was forced to flee north, across the Oxus into the largely inhospitable Sogdia. Alexander maintained his pursuit. 

Bessus’ cause soon lost all steam. In the summer of 329 BC the Persian pretender was betrayed and handed over to Alexander for a brutal execution. He was the last warlord to challenge Alexander for the Persian crown. 

The punishment of Bessus.

‘The Furthest’

Having crushed Bessus, Alexander continued north to the Jaxartes River, today the Syr Darya. Beyond the river lay the lands of nomadic tribes and steppe: the so-called ‘eastern Scythians’ or Sacae. It was here that Alexander decided to mark the north-eastern frontier of his empire.

On the southern shoreline of the Jaxartes he erected a new city: Alexandria-Eschate (Alexandria the furthest). Its primary purpose was to maintain a firm watch over the new frontier. It was a terrible mistake.

The ancient Greeks and Romans had many enemies. Yet one of their greatest, most enduring foes were the nomadic Scythians. Join Dan Snow at the British Museum, where he discusses the Scythians and their extraordinary way of life with St John Simpson.Watch Now

The Sogdian Revolt

Great anger erupted among the native Sogdians and the Scythians to the north. For decades these two peoples had lived harmoniously side-by-side; now Alexander’s creation of this urban bulwark threatened this historical bond. Turning on Alexander, Sogdians and Scythians united to conduct a vicious guerrilla war against his army.

For two whole years it raged, destabilising the province to its core and proving highly costly for Alexander and his men. Where the Macedonian king won a decisive victory, elsewhere his adjutants suffered ignominious, demoralising defeats.

In late 329 BC, 2,000 soldiers – mainly Greek mercenaries – were lured into a trap and annihilated by a Scythian cavalry force, commanded by the Sogdian chieftain Spitamenes. It proved the greatest military disaster of Alexander’s career. Worse was to follow. 

The ancient Greeks and Romans had many enemies. Yet one of their greatest, most enduring foes were the nomadic Scythians. Join Dan Snow at the British Museum, where he discusses the Scythians and their extraordinary way of life with St John Simpson.Watch Now

The demise of Cleitus

In late 329 BC Alexander decided to assign control of the troublesome province of Sogdia to Cleitus ‘the Black’, the commander who had saved Alexander at the Granicus 5 years earlier. But Cleitus was far from content at being left to manage this rebellious region on a far-edge of the known world.

The night before he was to assume his post, at a banquet at modern-day Samarkand, the general drunkenly berated Alexander for the appointment. He also attacked the young king’s attitude: his adoption of certain Persian practices and his deriding of his father Philip’s achievements.

In a drunken rage Alexander picked up a spear and ran Cleitus through, killing him.  

The death of Cleitus.

An unstable peace

For both Alexander and his army, their two years spent in modern-day Uzbekistan proved the hardest of their entire careers. The revolt was eventually subdued. Spitamenes was betrayed and killed and Alexander married Roxana, the daughter of a powerful Sogdian chief, to restore a sense of stability to the region.

Nevertheless, large pockets of resistance remained, and Alexander was forced to leave a huge garrison – consisting largely of reluctant Greek mercenaries – to maintain order over this miserable frontier. 

With that the great army departed Sogdia and Bactria and continued east, over the Hindu Kush mountains into India.