Why Is Alexander’s Victory at the Persian Gate Known as the Persian Thermopylae?

Tristan Hughes

4 mins

02 Jan 2019

On 1 October 331 BC Alexander the Great defeated King Darius III at the Battle of Gaugamela and was subsequently recognised as the rightful King of Asia upon his arrival in Babylon. Yet although decisive, Gaugamela was not the last time Alexander had to overcome a Persian army.

Into the Persian heartlands

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Alexander may have won the Persian crown with victory at Gaugamela, but Persian resistance continued. Darius had survived the battle and had fled further east to raise a new army; Alexander also now had to march through the hostile Persian heartlands.

Upon hearing that Darius was keen on further resistance in the east, Alexander went in pursuit. Yet to accomplish this the new Lord of Asia had to traverse the Zagros Mountains, a mountain range stretching from northwestern Iran to southwest Turkey.

Upon reaching the Mountains, Alexander placed the lion’s share of his army under the command of Parmenion and instructed them to circumnavigate the Mountains. Meanwhile Alexander lead his crack troops – mainly his Macedonians and a number of key allied units – through the Mountains in order to reach Persepolis, the Persian royal capital, as quickly as possible.

A map of Alexander’s march through the Zagros Mountains (dotted white line). Alexander sent Parmenion with the majority of the army down the Persian Royal Road. Credit: Jona Lendering / Commons.

Path blocked

The mountain paths were narrow and treacherous. Yet Alexander was confident, safe in the knowledge that he had the most professional army of the age.

Early on during the march Alexander and his army all-but-destroyed the Uxians, a native hill people who dwelled in the Zagros Mountains, after they had refused to submit to him. Still, this was not the last resistance he would face.

Near the end of the mountain paths the Macedonian king and his army were ambushed by a well-prepared Persian defence at a valley called the Persian Gate.

The defence was led by a Persian baron called Ariobarzanes, the satrap of Persis (the heartland of the Persians) who, together with some 40,000 infantry and seven hundred cavalry, had walled off the valley’s narrowest point which Alexander and his men would have to force their way through to reach Persepolis.

Scholars have recently debated whether Arrian’s figure of 40,000 Persians is credible and some now suggest the Persian force in fact numbered much less than that – perhaps as few as seven hundred men.

A photo of the approximate place where Ariobarzanes blocked off the path today.

The Battle of the Persian Gate

After Alexander and his force had entered the valley, Ariobarzanes sprung his trap. From the precipices above his men hurled javelins, rocks, arrows and slingshot down on the Macedonians inflicting severe losses on their enemy below. Unable to advance further because of the wall blocking their way the Macedonians panicked.

As Macedonian casualties began to mount, Alexander ordered his men to fall back from the valley of death. This was the only time that Alexander ever called a retreat.

Alexander now faced a huge dilemma. Storming the Persian Gate’s defences from the front would undoubtedly cost many Macedonian lives – lives he could not afford to throw away. But it appeared the alternative was to retreat, circumnavigate the Mountains and re-join Parmenion, costing valuable time.

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Fortunately for Alexander however, some of his Persian prisoners had been locals of the area and revealed there was an alternative route: a narrow mountain path that bypassed the defence. Gathering the soldiers best-suited for traversing this mountainous path, Alexander was guided up the narrow path during the night.

Although the climb was tricky – especially when you consider the soldiers would have been carrying full-armour and at least a day’s rations – in the early morning of 20 January 330 BC Alexander’s force emerged behind the Persian defence and stormed the Persian outposts.

A map highlighting the key events of the Battle of the Persian Gate. The second attack track is the narrow mountain path taken by Alexander. Credit: Livius / Commons.

The Macedonians get their revenge

At daybreak trumpets echoed through the valley as Alexander’s army then attacked the main Persian camp from all sides, exacting their revenge on the unsuspecting Persian defenders. Nearly all the Persian defenders were killed as the Macedonians exacted furious revenge upon them for the slaughter they had suffered the previous day.

As for Ariobarzanes, the sources differ as to what happened to the Persian satrap: Arrian claims he fled deep into the Mountains, never to be heard of again, but another source states Ariobarzanes was killed at the battle. One final account claims he died during the retreat to Persepolis.

Whatever happened, it appears almost certain the Persian leader did not survive long following the collapse of his defence.

The Battle of the Persian Gate has since been defined as the Persian Thermopylae: despite facing a vastly superior army, the defenders had put up a heroic defence, but had ultimately been defeated after their enemy enlisted the aid of a local guide and traversed a difficult mountain path that surrounded the hapless Persians.

A painting of the Spartans at Thermopylae in 480 BC. The Persian defence at the Persian Gate shares many similarities with the story of the 300 Spartans at Thermopylae.

After defeating the Persian defence, Alexander continued through the Mountains and soon reached Persepolis where he seized the Persian royal treasury and burned the royal palace to the ground – a symbolic end to Achaemenid rule over Persia. The Macedonians were here to stay.

Header image credit: A statue of Ariobarzanes. Credit: Hadi Karimi / Commons.