Authors: Valerio Massimo Manfredi
‘You want to be in position by tomorrow evening, is that right?’
‘Exactly. We will hold our war council on the banks of the Granicus.’
‘What about you? Are you not going to sleep?’
‘There will be time for sleep . . . may the gods grant you a peaceful night, Ptolemy.’
‘And you too, Alexander.’
Ptolemy went back to his tent, which had been pitched on a small rise on the land near the eastern wall of the field. He washed, changed and prepared himself for the night’s rest. He gave one last look outside before lying down and saw that there was still light in just two tents – Alexander’s and, far off across the field, Parmenion’s.
The trumpets sounded before dawn as Alexander had ordered, but the cooks had already been on their feet for some time and had prepared breakfast – steaming pots of
, semi-liquid oatmeal enriched with cheese. The officers instead had a type of flat bread, sheep’s cheese and cow’s milk.
At the second fanfare the King mounted his horse and took his place at the head of the army, near the eastern gate of the camp, accompanied by his personal guard and by Perdiccas, Craterus and Lysimachus. Behind him came the phalanx of the
, preceded by two units of light cavalry and followed by the Greek heavy infantry and the Thracian, Triballian and Agrianian auxiliaries, all flanked by two lines of heavy cavalry.
The sky was turning red in the east and the air was filling with the chirping of sparrows and the whistles of blackbirds. Flocks of wild doves rose from the nearby woods as the rhythmic noise of the march and the clanking of the weapons woke them from their slumber.
Phrygia lay there before Alexander, with its rolling landscapes covered with fir trees, small valleys crossed by clear-flowing streams along which grew rows of silver poplars and shimmering willows. The flocks and the herds came out to pasture, guided by their shepherds and watched over by the dogs; life seemed to be proceeding peacefully along its daily path as if the threatening sound of Alexander’s army on the move might just blend in perfectly with the bleating of the sheep and the lowing of the cattle.
To the right and the left, in the valleys parallel to the army’s forward movement, groups of scouts, without insignia, camouflaged, also moved forward. Their job was to keep Persian spies as far away as possible. But this was in fact a pointless precaution because any one of the shepherds or peasants might have been an enemy spy.
At the rear of the column, escorted by half a dozen Thessalian horses, came Callisthenes, together with Philotas and a mule with two panniers full of papyrus scrolls. Every now and then, when they stopped, the historian pulled out a stool, took a wooden board and a scroll from the panniers, and sat down to write under the curious gaze of the soldiers.
News had soon got round that the official chronicler of the expedition was to be this bony young man with the knowing air, and everyone hoped to be immortalized in his words at some stage. On the other hand no one was bothered about the very ordinary stories of daily life recorded by Eumenes and the other officers who had the job of keeping the march diary, keeping a tally of the various stages of the expedition.
They stopped to eat around midday and then later, very close to the Granicus by that time, they stopped once more on direct orders from Alexander below a range of low hills, to wait for darkness to fall.
Shortly before sunset the King called the war council in his tent and presented his battle plan. Craterus was there as head of a division of heavy cavalry and Parmenion as leader of the
phalanx. Cleitus the Black was also present, together with all of Alexander’s companions who made up his bodyguard and were in the cavalry: Ptolemy, Lysimachus, Seleucus, Hephaestion, Leonnatus, Perdiccas and even Eumenes, who continued to attend meetings in full military dress – breastplate, greaves and wide belt. He seemed to be enjoying playing the part.
‘As soon as darkness falls,’ began the King, ‘an assault group of light infantry and auxiliaries will cross the river and move as close as possible to the Persian camp to keep them under observation. One scout will come back to let us know how far away the river is, and should the barbarians change position for any reason during the night, others will return to bring us news.
‘We will light no fires and tomorrow morning the battalion commanders and team leaders will give the wake-up call without trumpets just before the end of the fourth watch. If the coast is clear the cavalry will cross the river first, line up on the opposite bank and when the infantry has also crossed, they will all set off.
‘This will be the crucial moment of our day,’ he said, looking around him. ‘If I’m right, the Persians will still be in their tents, or in any case they will not be lined up in formation. At that stage, our distance from the enemy front lines calculated, we will unleash our attack with a cavalry charge that will wreak havoc in the barbarian lines. Immediately afterwards, the phalanx will let fly with the final hammer blow. The auxiliaries and the assault units will do the rest.’
‘Who will lead the cavalry?’ asked Parmenion, who up until that moment had listened on in silence.
‘I will,’ replied Alexander.
‘I advise you against it, Sire. It is too dangerous. Let Craterus do it – he was with me during the first expedition into Asia and he is truly very good.’
‘General Parmenion is right,’ Seleucus intervened. ‘This is our first clash with the Persians, why should we risk jeopardizing the King’s safety?’
Alexander lifted his hand to mark the end of the discussion, ‘You saw me fight at Chaeronaea against the Sacred Band and on the River Ister against the Thracians and the Triballians – how can you imagine that I might behave otherwise now? I will lead the Vanguard personally and I will be the first Macedonian to come into contact with the enemy. My men must know that I will be facing the same dangers they face and that in this battle everything is at stake, including our lives. I have nothing else to tell you, for now. I will see you all at supper.’
No one had the courage to protest, but Eumenes, sitting alongside Parmenion, whispered in the old general’s ear, ‘I would put someone particularly experienced next to him, someone who has fought against the Persians and knows their techniques.’
‘I had already thought about it,’ the general reassured him. ‘The Black will be at the King’s side – everything will go well, you’ll see.’
The council was brought to an end. They all left and went to their divisions to give the final briefing. Eumenes remained behind and approached Alexander. ‘I wanted to say that your plan is excellent, but there is still one unknown factor, an important one.’
‘Exactly. If they lock up into a square formation it’ll be a hard job even for the cavalry.’
‘I know. Our infantry might well find themselves in trouble, perhaps it’ll come to hand-to-hand combat – swords and axes. But there is one other thing . . .’
Eumenes sat down, pulling his cloak over his knees, and the gesture reminded Alexander of his father, Philip, whenever he was losing his temper. But for Eumenes the gesture was different – simply the result of his feeling the cold in the cool evening; he wasn’t used to wearing the short military chiton and had goose-bumps all over his legs.
The King took a papyrus scroll from his famous box, the one containing the edition of Homer’s works which Aristotle had given him, and he unrolled it on the table. ‘You know
The March of the Ten Thousand
, don’t you?’
‘Of course, it’s studied in all the schools now. The prose is very readable and even youngsters can manage it without any difficulty.’
‘Good, listen to this then. We are on the battlefield at Kunaxa, some seventy years ago, and Cyrus the Younger orders the commander Clearchus:
. . . to lead his army against the enemy’s centre, for the reason that the King was stationed there; “and if,” he said, “we kill him there, our whole task is accomplished.” ’
‘So you would like to kill the enemy commander with your own hands,’ said Eumenes in a tone of complete disapproval.
‘This is why I will lead the Vanguard. Then we will take care of Memnon’s mercenaries.’
‘I understand. And now I must take my leave because no matter what I say, you aren’t going to pay any heed to my advice.’
‘Exactly, Mr Secretary General,’ laughed Alexander. ‘But this doesn’t mean that I love you any the less.’
‘I am fond of you too, you stubborn old sod. May the gods protect you.’
‘And may they protect you too, my friend.’
Eumenes left and went to his own tent, where he took off his armour, put something warm on and set about reading a manual of military tactics while he waited for suppertime to come around.
HE RIVER RAN FAST
, its waters swollen by the melting snows on the Pontus mountains, and a light westerly wind stirred the leaves of the poplars which grew along the banks. The sides of the banks themselves were steep, clayey, sodden after the rains.
Alexander, Hephaestion, Seleucus and Perdiccas were all positioned on a small rise from which they could see both the course of the Granicus and a certain extent of the territory beyond the eastern bank.
‘What do you think?’ asked the King.
‘The clay on the banks is very wet and slippery,’ said Seleucus. ‘If the barbarians take up position along the river they will let loose a rain of arrows and javelins and wipe out many of us before we reach the other side. As for those of us who do get across, our horses will sink up to their knees in the mud, many of them will be lamed and we will be at the total mercy of our enemies once more.’
‘It is not an easy situation,’ Perdiccas commented dryly.
‘It’s too early to begin to worry about it. Let’s wait for the scouts to return.’
They waited in silence for some time, and the gurgling of the flowing water was drowned out only by the monotonous croaking of the frogs in the ditches nearby and the chirping of the crickets just beginning in the peaceful evening. At a certain point there came a call, like an owl.
‘It’s them,’ said Hephaestion.
They heard the noise of men walking through the sodden clay and then the gurgling of the river around two dark figures who were fording it – two of their scouts from the shieldsmen battalion.
‘Well?’ asked Alexander impatiently. The two looked terrible – completely covered in red mud from head to toe.
‘Sire,’ said the first of them, ‘the barbarians are three or four stadia from the Granicus, on a small hill which dominates the plain right up to the banks. They have a double row of sentries and four teams of archers patrolling the area between the camp and the banks of the river. It is extremely difficult to cross without being seen. What’s more, there are bonfires burning all around among the guard units and the sentries are using the concave sides of their shields to project the light outwards.’
‘Fine,’ said Alexander. ‘Go back and wait on the other bank. At the slightest movement or sign from the enemy camp, hurry back to this side and raise the alarm with the cavalry guard behind those poplars. I will be told almost instantly and I will decide what is the best thing to do. Go now, and make sure no one spots you.’
The two slid back down into the river and crossed it again in the waist-deep water. Alexander and his companions walked to their horses to ride back to camp.
‘And if tomorrow we find them waiting for us on the banks of the Granicus?’ asked Perdiccas as he took his black horse by the reins.
Alexander ran his hand quickly through his hair, as he always did when he had a lot on his mind. ‘In that case they will have to line up their infantry along the river. What sense is there in using the cavalry to hold a fixed position?’
‘That’s true,’ agreed Perdiccas, increasingly laconic.
‘So they will line up their infantry and we will send out the Thracian, Triballian and Agrianian assault troops, plus the shieldsmen covered by a thick rain of arrows and javelins let loose by the light infantry. If we manage to dislodge the barbarians from the bank, we’ll push the Greek heavy infantry and the phalanx forward, while the cavalry will protect their flanks. Anyway, it’s early yet to decide all this. Let us return now, supper will be ready soon.’
They went back to the camp and Alexander invited all the commanders to his tent, including the chiefs of the foreign auxiliaries, who felt very honoured.
During supper they all wore their weapons, as called for by the tense situation. The wine was served in the Greek manner, with three parts of water, meaning that they could approach the discussion with the necessary clarity of mind, and because drunken Agrianians and Triballians were dangerous.
The King briefed them with all the latest news regarding the situation and they all breathed a sigh of relief; at least their enemies were not yet in direct control of the river.
‘Sire,’ said Parmenion, ‘the Black asks for the honour of covering your right flank tomorrow. He fought in the front line during the last campaign against the Persians.’
‘I fought alongside your father, King Philip, more than once,’ added Cleitus.