Formidable Companions and the devastating Macedonian phalanx epitomised the conquests
of Alexander. Yet there were many other units in Alexander’s army besides his mighty Macedonians
– many of which specialised in performing roles critical to some of Alexander’s greatest
military triumphs. In this episode, we will have an in-depth look at these units.
The Macedonian army was lacking in terms of the light infantry, having very few archers
and skirmishers. Instead, Alexander’s greatest light infantry came from outside his home
region. One such unit were the Agrianians. Hailing
from the upper Strymon valley the Agrianians 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 no small 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 skill and had incorporated units of Agrianians into his reformed army
to serve as versatile light infantry – a compliment to the heavier Macedonian footmen.
Alexander would continue promoting Macedonian friendship with the Agrianians, even marrying
his half-sister, Cynane, to the Agrianian king Langarus. In return he received the best
light infantry the Agrianians could offer to swell the ranks of his forces and an elite
Agrianian contingent would accompany Alexander to Asia.
Each Agrianian was equipped in a very similar style to the peltast. Their panoply consisted
of a Phrygian helmet and very light body-armour, while javelins called lonche were their primary
weapon. Alongside javelins, each Agrianian warrior also carried a 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 to cover his prestigious right flank. Furthermore, on any lightning
marches undertaken by Alexander through harsh terrain, the Agrianians were included. Not
only was their expertise at both traversing and fighting in mountainous areas unmatched
throughout the entirety of Alexander’s army but their light armour meant they were ideal
troops to accompany Alexander across desert terrain. Consequently, they were regularly
assigned for special missions where mobility was key. 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. The Agrianians were a critical part of his army throughout his campaign and
he reinforced them with units from their homeland whenever possible.
Alongside the Agrianians, Alexander also had the archers, organised into companies of 500
men. He 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 the
mainland Greece, the Cretans prioritised the bow as their weapon of choice on the battlefield.
Their self-bows were likely made from either yew or cedar wood – the best available on
the island. Each Cretan was also equipped with both a sword and a small bronze pelta
shield to give them more protection if it came to the hand to hand fighting.
As the mainland Greeks 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 bowmen as mercenaries to complement their armies. Alexander
was no different and his Cretans soon became the elite company in his archer regiment.
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. Yet on occasion, Alexander positioned his Cretans away from
the rest of his archers on the left flank – where they were tasked with doing an identical
job. Like the Agrianians, Alexander’s archer corps were highly-mobile and followed Alexander
on various special missions through harsh terrain. At the Persian Gates in the Zagros
Mountains, for instance, the archers accompanied Alexander’s elite force up a narrow mountain
pass that bypassed the Persian defence. Descending on the Persian camp behind, they slaughtered
the unsuspecting Persians. Later, Alexander would upgrade his archer
corps. Just as with the Cretans in Europe, the Persians were renowned for their archery
in Asia and their composite bows outdistanced the Cretan self-bows. Recognising this, Alexander
incorporated many Persian archers into his army as he progressed eastwards. By 326 BC
he had expanded the archer corps so significantly that they were now divided into multiple regiments
of 1,000 men or chiliarchies. 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, as 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 and long-distance runners had long been used for
this purpose in both Greek and Persian armies – most famously the Athenian Pheidippides
following the Battle of Marathon. Thanks to Crete’s uneven terrain, long-distance training
races occurred regularly during any Cretan’s military education. Many were thus adept endurance
runners. Although Alexander’s notorious Companion
cavalry have come to epitomise his conquests, they were not the only elite shock cavalry
force in his army. Among Alexander’s body of horsemen was another equally-prestigious
unit: the Thessalian cavalry. Similar to Macedonia, the region of Thessaly
had a rich equine history. Its topography consisted of extensive plains – ideal for
grazing horses. Consequently, the horses bred in Thessaly became famed in antiquity for
both their speed and endurance and were considered the best in Greece. It is no surprise that
the famed steed of Alexander - Bucephalus, was from Thessaly.
Embracing their region’s suitability for rearing quality horses, the Thessalian cavalry
quickly gained a reputation as the best in Greece until the time of Philip’s reforms.
Upon gaining military control of Thessaly in c.344 BC, Philip thus incorporated units
of Thessalian cavalry into his reformed Macedonian army.
Ten years later, Alexander brought 1,800 of them into Asia with his invasion force with
200 further Thessalians arriving as reinforcements soon after – in total, the largest allied
cavalry force in his army, almost equalling the size of his elite Macedonian companions.
Although similar in many respects, Alexander’s Thessalian squadrons could be distinguished
from the Companions by their iconic purple cloak. This robe was designed so that two
corners of the robe hung down both in front and behind the wearer and was iconic to the
Thessalian nobility. When his horse galloped, a horseman wearing this cloak would be flanked
by what looked like purple wings as the cloak waved up loosely behind him, thus giving the
cloak the nickname ‘Thessalian Wings.’ Aside from their iconic cloak, the arms and
armour of Alexander’s Thessalians was very similar to the elite companions. Their panoply
consisted of a linen cuirass and pteruges as well as a Boeotian helmet and metal greaves.
They carried a curved, slashing sword called a kopis, although this was their secondary
weapon. Traditionally, the Thessalian cavalry had been primarily equipped with two short
spears. One would be thrown as a javelin, while the cavalryman would then use the other
as either a second javelin or short spear depending on the situation.
Yet by the time the Thessalian cavalry contingents had been incorporated into first Philip’s
and then Alexander’s Macedonian army, it appears this weaponry had changed. By 334
BC, their main armament was a lance called a xyston, similar to that carried by the Companions
as it was the perfect weapon for the Thessalians’ famous formation: the rhomboid.
First developed by the tyrant Jason of Pherae just prior to the rise of Macedon, the rhomboid
formation was flexible, as its shape allowed the formation to change direction without
losing its cohesiveness. To lead the others in the manoeuvres, expert cavalrymen were
placed on the sides of this formation while the very best positioned themselves at the
angle-points to lead the others when changing direction. The squadron leader, the iliarch,
would be placed at the top point while a squadron closer, an ouragos, would place himself at
the rear-point. Those positioned on the right and left point were called flank-guards or
plagiophylakes. When fighting in this formation, contemporaries
described them as unstoppable. Its flexibility especially was useful for when the Thessalians
were tasked with holding ground against an enemy cavalry attack – something Alexander
was sure to appreciate and take advantage of.
Alexander structured his Thessalian cavalry very similarly to his Companions. They were
formed into ile squadrons of two hundred men, each based on the various districts of Thessaly.
Each squadron was commanded by an iliarch. Like the royal squadron of the Companions,
one of the Thessalian squadrons, the Pharsalian squadron, was more powerful than the rest.
It consisted of 300 men and the best of the Thessalian cavalry. At the Battle of Gaugamela
for instance, the Pharsalian squadron acted as Parmenion’s personal bodyguard on the
left wing – such was their quality. Keen to ensure his control over the Thessalians,
Alexander appointed a Macedonian officer, called Philippus, as the overriding commander,
or hipparch, of the squadrons. In each of his three major battles against
the Persians, the Thessalians would play a critical role. Alexander would place them
on the left flank of his army – the counterpart to himself and his companions on the right.
There, the Thessalians would hold off superior Persian forces long enough for Alexander to
deal the critical blow with his phalanx and Companions. It was the Thessalians who were
tasked with fending off the Persian army’s formidable cavalry contingents during the
Battle of Issus. Thanks to both their quality and their use of the rhomboid formation, the
outnumbered Thessalians held off the Persian cavalry long enough for Alexander to rout
the rest of the force, thus saving the day. Alexander would recognise the critical role
his Thessalians had played in his victory and he thus gave them the lion share of the
spoils in Darius’ abandoned baggage train. The Thessalians would not remain with Alexander
for all his campaigning. By 330 BC, Alexander had captured the key Persian administrative
capitals: Babylon, Susa, Persepolis and Ecbatana and he duly disbanded all his allied-Greek
contingents including the Thessalians. A few did stay on as mercenaries, yet within a year,
Alexander had them disbanded too. Following the departure of his Thessalians
from his expedition, Alexander added another specialised cavalry force. The hippotoxotai
or horse-archers. Recruited mostly from the nomad Dahae in central
Asia, who were specialists at horse-archery, this 1,000-strong contingent of horse archers
were devastatingly effective. Lightly armoured and swift-moving, they acted as a highly-mobile
screen in front of Alexander’s army, peppering their foe with volleys of arrows and keeping
them preoccupied while Alexander advanced his phalanx forward. It is also likely that
this unit replaced the Macedonian light cavalry as the main scouting force in Alexander’s
army. Although Alexander’s Macedonians formed
the nucleus of his army for the entirety of his campaigns, they were not the only units
Alexander relied heavily upon during his conquests. The Agrianians, Cretans, Thessalians, Persians
and Dahae all served similarly critical roles for the Macedonian king at various times throughout
his campaigns. Our series on the evolution of the armies
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