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Practice English Speaking&Listening with: Special Forces of Alexander the Great

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Formidable Companions and the devastating Macedonian phalanx epitomised the conquests

of Alexander. Yet there were many other units in Alexanders army besides his mighty Macedonians

many of which specialised in performing roles critical to some of Alexanders 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, Alexanders 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 homelands 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 infantrya 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 Agrianiansdeadliness. 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 Alexanders 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 Alexanders 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 islands 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 woodthe 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 flankwhere they were tasked with doing an identical

job. Like the Agrianians, Alexanders 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 Alexanders 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 Alexanders

communication system while on campaign and long-distance runners had long been used for

this purpose in both Greek and Persian armiesmost famously the Athenian Pheidippides

following the Battle of Marathon. Thanks to Cretes uneven terrain, long-distance training

races occurred regularly during any Cretans military education. Many were thus adept endurance

runners. Although Alexanders notorious Companion

cavalry have come to epitomise his conquests, they were not the only elite shock cavalry

force in his army. Among Alexanders 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 plainsideal 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 regions suitability for rearing quality horses, the Thessalian cavalry

quickly gained a reputation as the best in Greece until the time of Philips 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 afterin total, the largest allied

cavalry force in his army, almost equalling the size of his elite Macedonian companions.

Although similar in many respects, Alexanders 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 nicknameThessalian Wings.’ Aside from their iconic cloak, the arms and

armour of Alexanders 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 Philips

and then Alexanders 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 Thessaliansfamous 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 attacksomething 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 Parmenions personal bodyguard on the

left wingsuch 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 armythe 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 armys 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 Dariusabandoned 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 Alexanders 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 Alexanders

army. Although Alexanders 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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The Description of Special Forces of Alexander the Great