Episode 40 – Gaugamela versus Hastings

Today’s podcast will recount two major military battles in world history, Gaugamela, a fight between the forces of Alexander the Great against the world power of Persia led by King Darius, and Hastings, when the Norman army under William the Conqueror invaded England in 1066.

My sources for both battles are Battles that Changed History: The Battles that Decided the Fate of Nations by Dougherty et al., 100 Decisive Battles: From Ancient Times to the Present by Paul K. Davis, and Battle: A Visual Journey Through 5,000 Years of Combat by R. G. Grant.

Battle of Gaugamela
Battle of Gaugamela

Our first battle is the Battle of Gaugamela, fought in ancient times, the year is 331 BC. The battlefield is near the city of Arbela, in what is modern day Iraq. On the one side were the Macedonians with 7,000 cavalries and 40,000 infantry led by Alexander the Great, and on the opposing side, we have the Persians led by King Darius III, with 30,000 cavalries, 56,000 infantry, 200 chariots, and 15 war elephants. Now, many ancient historians, in an effort to bolster the legend of Alexander put the Persian numbers at levels that would have been impossible at any point in ancient history, much less today. I’ve seen figures approaching 200,000 to over 1 million men which seems highly unlikely. I’ll go with the 2-1 numbers that Dougherty and his fellow authors came up with.

Two years earlier, Alexander and his Macedonian troops, defeated a much larger Persian force led by Darius at the Battle of Issus in 333 BCE. Again, numbers of soldiers on each side wildly differ, but whatever the real numbers, the Greeks were vastly outnumbered. The aftermath of the fight was to cause Darius to retreat and put together a new and larger force to combat the invaders. Also, his wife, mother, and children were captured by Alexander’s troops and held for ransom.

The ramifications of the loss at Issus was more profound than just losing a battle or having your family taken hostage. It was the first defeat of the mighty Persian army with their king at the lead. It also took the Persian Navy out of the picture because Alexander now controlled the eastern Mediterranean Sea. Darius’s loss also showed that he was beatable and not the great ruler he made himself out to be. This was to haunt him after the Battle of Gaugamela.

During the years between Issus and Gaugamela, the Macedonians conquered much of Egypt where the city of Alexandria was established. It was here that the Greeks wintered before heading off to fight one more battle with their Persian adversaries.

Darius was wary of Alexander, knowing how brilliant of a military strategist he was but sure that the Persian army and in particular his Immortals were simply too much for the smaller Greek army. Darius decided to make sure that any land advantage that Alexander might have would be countered by picking the best field for battle. The land was flat and wide open, which was precisely what Darius believed would give him the edge.  

On October 1, 331 BCE, the two ancient armies faced off against each other. Alexander led the cavalry on the right flank, moving forward to start things off. Behind his initial charge was the lightly armed infantry followed by the devastating Greek phalanx. Seeing a gap occurring, Darius had his scythe-armed chariots charge forward, hoping to cut down the left-center infantry. This attack didn’t work as the Greeks were well-prepared for it and moved away from the swirling knives of the wheels of the chariots. They were able to hurl spears at the drivers and take them down as they passed through their ranks. Still, this did cause a more significant gap to appear with the Persians now believing a rout was about to take place. They charged through the center lines of the Greeks but instead of sweeping left or right, they kept going through toward the Macedonian baggage train. This greedy miscue was to change the course of history.

Had the Persian army fought against the wings of Alexander, we may never have talked about how great the Macedonian general was. There is a distinct possibility that his troops would have been overwhelmed by the Persians and driven off the Asian continent. If that had happened, the Greek mainland would have been in jeopardy as many Greek mercenaries in the Persian military would have been thrilled to overthrow the Macedonians.

History is not a tale of what ifs but a recounting of what actually happened. Alexander saw the weakness in the Persian forces, but instead of attacking the men headed for the baggage train, he led his men straight at Darius. The fighting was fierce, but the Greeks began to make headway which caused Darius to flee the scene to save himself. This demoralized many of his troops who began to abandon the battlefield slowly.

One thing that must be said about the troops on either side is how different they were. The Greeks were united and were considered one people, fighting for their freedom from the potential incorporation into the Persian Empire. Their opponents came from many different peoples, many of whom had no real skin in the game or the same kind of loyalty to their king than Alexander had.

Still, the battle was yet not won by any stretch of the imagination. On the Greek left, led by Parmenio, one of Alexander’s most trusted men, the Persians were pushing them closer and closer into defeat. The second wave of Greek infantry was sprung into action, being held back for this very moment, but they too were beaten back leaving the entire battle in doubt. It is at this moment we see the brilliance of Alexander as he wheeled his cavalry away from their pursuit of Darius, instead of smashing into the Persians flank and routing them.

The claims of casualties from the ancient sources are almost comical if not so serious. Arrian claims that only 100 Greeks died while 300,000 Persians fell to their death. This is absolutely ludicrous, but not that much further from reality based on the claims of Roman historians Curtius and Diodorus who put the Persian losses at 40-90,000 with the Greeks only losing about 300-500 men. As Paul K. Davis points out in his book, 100 Decisive Battles, “Modern estimates are no better than surmises, but it is clear that the Persians lost a significantly higher number of men than did Alexander’s army.”

The aftermath of the Battle of Gaugamela was to change the ancient world forever. Darius was murdered weeks after the debacle by his own nobles, and the Persian Empire collapsed. Greek influence spread far into Asia, as far as India, Pakistan, and Afghanistan. As we know from episode 8 when we discussed Alexander the Great and his opponent Sun Tzu, the Macedonian general was only going to live a few more years, dying at the age of 33 with no named heir. The empire of Alexander was to disintegrate but his legacy and the Greek influence on culture and society wherever his forces were, was to last for a very long time.

Now for a brief putting it into perspective segment. During the years surrounding the Battle of Gaugamela, The Latin Wars ended with the victory of Rome over its neighbors, and Chandragupta Maurya established the Maurya Empire.

Battle of Hastings
Battle of Hastings

Next up is one of the most decisive military engagements of the medieval times, the Battle of Hastings. In episode 26, we met the leader of the invasion army from Normandy, William the Conqueror when he faced off Admiral Yamamoto of the Royal Japanese Navy. 

While the Battle of Hastings has the fewest number of combatants we will find in Battle Ground History, it must be viewed as one of the most influential of all time. On the one side, the English, led by King Harold Godwinson, had 2,000 housecarls, who were household troops in personal service of someone like a Duke or Lord along with 5,500 militiamen, known at the time as fyrds. This was a type of early Anglo-Saxon army that was mobilized from freemen, or selected representatives to join a royal expedition. Service in the fyrd was usually a few months, and those who fought were expected to provide their own arms and provisions. The housecarls were professional soldiers while the others were volunteers who were less likely to be well trained.

On the Norman side, we have 2,000 cavalries, something that the Anglo-Saxon Brits were lacking. Adding to that are the 5,000 infantrymen who were well trained similar to Godwinson’s housecarls. By the outside look of things, the two armies were pretty well-matched, but the lead up to the battle was all in favor of the Normans.

After the death of the childless Edward the Confessor in January 1066, who was the King of England, there was a significant succession problem that came up in the aftermath. We had numerous claimants to the throne including Godwinson, William as well as Harold Hardrada, King of Norway.

After being crowned King after Edward’s death, claims against him began to surface, with William appealing to the Pope in Rome, Alexander II, who gave him his due against Godwinson. First off, the King of England had to deal with an invasion in the north by Hardrada as well as his own brother Tostig. Godwinson defeated both at Stamford Bridge, near the town of York, on September 25, 1066. His army had been forced to march 200 miles in five days, a mighty feat back then. 

The Battle of Stamford Bridge while a win for the Anglo-Saxon king, was a costly one as he lost about 1/3rd of his best troops, the housecarls. This is about all we really know about the casualties as no numbers of how many fyrd’s were killed passed on to us. It is likely that many of them also perished. To add to their suffering, Godwinson found out that William landed in the south along with his army on October 1st. Harold was forced to march his men yet again, also in haste which probably led them to be exhausted once they arrived at the battlefield. 

While William headed towards Hastings, Harold took his men and headed straight for his Norman adversaries. They met each other on October 13th with Hardrada’s men stopping at the top of Senlac Hill, a desirable high ground perch where they could see William’s army. The main problem Harold had was the lack of men who were ready to fight. Many of the fyrd members had headed home as their limit of service had come to an end. On top of that, those left were exhausted. Even with all of these disadvantages, his troops were situated in an ideal line to repulse any advance from the Norman’s; or so they thought.

The one thing different about William’s cavalry that would give them a huge advantage and that was the introduction of the stirrup. This allowed the heavily armored knights to stay in the saddle while using their long lances. Hastings was also the first major battle where the crossbow was used although not with great effectiveness. 

The Norman’s began the battle by heading up the hill and shooting their arrows up at the English, but due to the angle, the attack faltered. After an attack by the Norman infantry, they began to retreat which caused the inexperienced fyrd to start to pursue their enemies down the hill, breaking up the almost impenetrable wall the English had created at the crest. Adding to the confusion was the rumor that William had been killed which began to demoralize his men. Quick thinking led the Norman leader to ride amongst his men without his helmet to rally them onwards.

William saw that his frontal assaults were not working so he decided to fake out the English with what looked like a panicked retreat. Godwinson knew that following the Norman’s off of their high ground would be a major mistake, but he could not control his men who began to descend downward. The Norman army turned around and slaughtered the English. Now William decided to try his archers again, this time with devastating results. While the English tried their turtle styled huddle, one of the arrows broke through and struck Harold Godwinson in the eye, killing him. The Battle of Hastings was for all intents and purposes over with the Norman’s taking the high ground. 

While William and his Norman army had to fight throughout England over the coming years to complete the conquest, the war had turned to the invader’s advantage at Hastings.

As Paul K. Davis writes in his book 100 Decisive Battles, “Devastating as the short-term consequences of the Norman invasion were – and William destroyed large amounts of the countryside while imposing his will – in the long run, the nation of England was created, with all the ramifications that has had on the course of world history.”

Now on to the putting it into perspective segment. During the decade surrounding the Battle of Hastings, Alp Arslan succeeds to the throne as Sultan of the Seljuk Empire. He becomes sole ruler of Persia, the Norman’s led by Robert Guiscard, fresh from their conquest of Sicily, invade southern Italy, and Go-Sanjō becomes the 71st emperor of Japan after his brother, Emperor Go-Reizei dies after a 23-year reign.

It is now time to begin the scoring between these two monumental battles.

The first fifteen points are for the number of people involved in the battle, and this one is a slam dunk for the Battle of Gaugamela. While the ancient clash had at least 120,000 soldiers present, the medieval fight had, at most, 20,000 combatants. For this reason, Gaugamela received 15 points with Hastings getting five.

Next up is the twenty points for how the battle affected the rest of the world in their time. Gaugamela effectively destroyed the mighty Persian Empire and opened the door for Alexander the Great’s continued conquest of western Asia. Hastings was a localized affair which transformed England. It also had some short-term effects on France, but nothing near the impact that the other clash had on the world. Twenty points for the ancient battle while Hastings receives ten points.

Next up is the 25 points on how the battles affected world history. Here is where we see how Hastings changed the fundamental nature of England with the downstream effects on Europe and the rest of the world for centuries to come. While Gaugamela’s influence was cut short by Alexander’s death just five years after the battle, it still allowed for the influence of Greek culture and language to spread around large swathes of western Asia. Twenty-five points go to Hastings while Gaugamela receives twenty.

Now we hand out the big score, the fort points on how the battle affected their country of the better. This is a tough one as the immediate benefit to the Macedonian state was enormous while the benefit of Hastings on England was pretty negative for the first few decades. After the death of Alexander and the dissolution of his empire, the benefits to the Greek state erodes while England sees the benefits of the changes William the Conqueror more and more. For these reasons, I will give Hastings the full forty points with Gaugamela receiving 30.  

The final total, in a complete surprise to me, is Gaugamela 85, Hastings 80. The ancient battle moves on to the second round to face the Battle of Tours which won in episode 28.

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Mark Schauss has been podcasting for over 8 years. His Russian Rulers History was a top history podcast for 7 1/2 years. Discover his new entry into the podcast world.



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