Arrian 4.4.6-7 and Macedonian combined-arms tactics against the Skythians

Luke Ueda-Sarson

(The print version was published in Slingshot, 219 (November 2001), pages 26-28)

This page last modified: 17 January, 2002


As part of an debate on the DBM e-mail list in 2000 about the relative tactical speeds of skirmishing horse archers and other cavalry, I turned to Arrian's description of Alexander attacking a force of Skythians in his Anabasis of Alexander, 4.4.6-7. I was quite surprised when Duncan Head's interpretation of the events mentioned in this passage differed so strongly from mine. This was mostly caused by the different translations we were each looking at, which it turns out varied in many ways. The passage bears looking at closely, since it is one of the very few passages we have describing, at the tactical level, a combined-arms force defeating nomadic-style horse archers. What it has to say therefore ought to considerably influence how the interactions between the troop types involved in this battle are treated - light horse archers on the one side, and light infantry with missile weapons together with heavy cavalry without any effective missile weapons on the other.

The scene is the river Jaxartes. Alexander has just used his catapults to drive the Skythians from the bank on the far side so he can transport his army across in safety on inflated hides. First to disembark are the slingers and archers so they can provide covering fire while the phalanx and cavalry are disembarked.

This is de Selincourt's translation (1958 Penguin, revised 1971):

"As soon as every man was across and the army massed on the river-bank, a regiment of mercenaries and four squadrons of lancers were ordered forward to lead the attack. The Scythians met the challenge: their numbers were for the moment superior; they made circles round the small attacking force, shooting as they rode, then galloped off to a safe distance. At this Alexander ordered an advance by a mixed force consisting of the cavalry together with the archers, the Agrianes, and other light troops under Balacrus, and, when they were almost within striking distance, gave the word for three regiments of the Companions and all the mounted javelin-men to charge, while he himself at the head of the remaining cavalry came on at the gallop with his squadrons in column. This effectually put a stop to the enemy's circling movements: the Macedonian cavalry, with the light troops mixed with it in close support, was now right on top of them, and it was no longer possible for them to repeat their former manoeuvre without the certainty of destruction."

As a result of this, the Skythians were routed, with some 1000 being killed and 150 more captured; Arrian declares the whole force would have perished had not Alexander drunk some contaminated water during the dusty pursuit and immediately fallen violently ill.

Duncan had interpreted this as implying the Scythians, stopped from riding around the advance force, were trapped between two bodies of horse (the mercenaries and the lancers on one side, and the rest of the cavalry on the other). Therefore they had nowhere to run when they were charged, and were routed as a result. There is nothing startling here light troops will naturally be worsted if they can't evade properly and are trapped as a result (eg Xenophon's Anabasis, 3.4.4). I had taken a totally different approach, based on Brunt's 1976 Loeb translation, which runs as follows:

"When they were all in a body on the bank, he launched at the Scythians first a hipparchy of the mercenaries and four squadrons of the lancers. The Scythians awaited their onslaught, riding round in circles and shooting at them; they were many against few, and easily evaded their attack. Alexander them mixed up his archers, the Agrianians and the other light troops under Belacrus, with the cavalry, and led them against the Scythians. Once they were quite close, he ordered three hipparchies of the Companions and all the mounted javelin-men to charge at them; and he himself brought up the rest of the cavalry at full speed and went in with his squadrons in column. So the Scythians were no longer able to wheel round in circles as they had been doing up till then; for the cavalry was now pressing them, and at the same moment the light troops, mingled with the cavalry, prevented their turning about safely."

I interpreted the passage as saying the Macedonian infantry somehow prevented the Skythians from turning as they skirmished, and this enabled the Macedonian cavalry to get close enough to them that when they charged, they could catch the Skythians.

So which is the better interpretation/translation? Duncan's interpretation, based on the Penguin, relied on having the Skythians circling around the Macedonians so that they could be trapped between two bodies of Macedonian horse. In this Duncan was influenced by several previous commentators who had taken a similar approach on this action. For instance, Lane Fox ("Alexander the Great", 1973, p304) says "as they (the Skythians) tried to encircle, he (Alexander) moved up his main cavalry and light-armed infantry". Bosworth ("Conquest and Empire" 1988, p111) reckons the light infantry were used to prevent Skythian outflanking moves which implies a similar scenario. This seems to go back to Fuller's 1958 work in which he clearly illustrates the Skythians encircling the Macedonians, and this is repeated in Hammond's 1981 work (p191).

Their interpretation looks like this:

Battle formation 1

These commentators do not discuss how they arrived at their conclusions however, giving no discussion on Arrian's language. Unfortunately, the Greek is quite clear that there were circles plural (kuklous), not one (kuklos), implying the Skythians were turning about in lots of small circles as they shot rather than making one large circle around the Macedonian sarissophoroi (lancers) and mercenaries. It is just possible that one large circle traversed several times could be described as circles, but the phrase "kukluos periippeuontes" seems to have the sense of "riding (a)round in circles" rather than "riding circles (a)round (something)".

Indeed, there is nothing in Arrian's language declaring that when the Macedonian cavalry charged the Scythians the sarissophoroi and mercenaries were still in a separate isolated body from the main body which included the 3 hipparchies of Companions and the hippakontistai (mounted javelin-men). Rather, I would contend the opposite, since to read a separate body into Arrian's Greek would mean excluding the mercenaries and sarissophoroi from the 'cavalry' (the Penguin is glossing when it calls them "'Macedonian' cavalry" as the word Macedonian does not appear in Arrian's text). This is possible as the Greek, like the English, is somewhat ambiguous, but the passage to me reads much more naturally if the light troops are being mixed up with (all) the cavalry (mentioned so far). The sarissophoroi and mercenaries, being horsemen, are therefore included in "the cavalry". Otherwise we have the prospect of a body of sarissophoroi and mercenaries somehow isolated ahead of the main body, yet the main body simultaneously being close enough to the Skythians that they could charge them in good order. It is hard to envision how this would be possible without the Skythians somehow inserting themselves between the two, but this is ruled out by Arrian's use of kuklous for the noun "circles" and not the verb "encircling". Thus the mercenaries and sarissophoroi had been joined by (at least) 3 hipparchies of Companions and the hippakontistai and they were all interspersed with light troops as they advanced on the Skythians.

My interpretation of the scene would look like this:

Battle formation 2

Before dealing with how the Skythians came to be defeated by this formation, there is a further ambiguity in the passage that might need to be considered. The passage rendered by Brunt as "and he himself brought up the rest of the cavalry at full speed and went in with his squadrons in column" has been interpreted as indicating that Alexander led a flanking movement on the Skythians, since it might otherwise be hard to imagine how the fleet Skythians came to be caught by Alexander's men when they had successfully evaded them before. The Penguin version is more explicit that Alexander led these troops in person: "while he himself at the head of the remaining cavalry came on at the gallop with his squadrons in column". This seems the preferable interpretation, since while Brunt's wording would have Alexander leading both the Companions et al. against the Skythians, as well as leading the column of other cavalry. Gifted as Alexander was, even he could not be in two places at once. The Penguin version has Alexander merely ordering the Companions et al. to charge rather than leading them in the charge (the Greek can have both meanings), thus freeing him to lead the column of other cavalry up. These were presumably in column because having just disembarked they had not had time to deploy properly yet. There is no indication in the text that this column was involved in some outflanking manoeuvre, and I believe there is no need to search elsewhere for an answer as to why Alexander was successful in his attack: the answer lies within Arrian.

We appear to have an hipparchy of mercenary cavalry, 3 hipparchies of Companions, 4 ilai of sarissophoroi (the equivalent of 2 hipparchies) plus the hippakontistai (possibly the equivalent of two hipparchies) for a total of 4000 horsemen interspersed with the Agrianians, Belakros' psiloi and the archers, probably totaling nearly 4000 light infantry. This formation Alexander led close against the Skythians so that "the Scythians were no longer able to wheel round in circles as they had been doing up till then; for the cavalry was now pressing them, and at the same moment the light troops (psiloi), mingled with the cavalry, prevented their turning about safely." The cavalry were pressing close, but this alone was not sufficient to bring success, for the Skythians had previously evaded the Macedonian horsemen easily. It was the psiloi who "prevented their turning about safely".

This brings forwards two questions; how were the Skythians prevented from turning safely by these psiloi, and why did this prevention of their turning lead to their defeat? The answers to both are not hard to devine.

The usual tactic of light horse archers when confronted with a foe that could not retaliate effectively (ie. anyone without a bow or other missile weapon) was to gallop up to the enemy, loose off some arrows and gallop off again to a safe distance to rest their mounts before coming in for another approach. Shooting was conducted at as close a range as possible, since the closer the range, the greater the chance of hitting a target, the greater the chance of penetrating any armour, and the greater the wounds caused. The mercenary cavalry, armed with spears, and the sarissophoroi, with their long lances, could not retaliate effectively against this kind of attack. All they could do was charge and temporarily drive the Skythians away (who already moving at speed had a head start), so in this case they were no more useful to Alexander on their own than the Roman legionaries were to Crassus against the Parthians.

The inclusion of the archers in the Macedonian formation changed this picture completely. The classic tactic of light horse archers galloping around in circles can only be used against enemy that can't shoot back. A single casualty inflicted at the turning point closest to the enemy could lead to all sorts of problems as the following horses tried to avoid the fallen horse while at the same time trying to execute a turn. Any more than a few casualties would lead to instant chaos.

This is why there are plenty of accounts of horse archers operating in this manner against spearmen and the like, but not against other horse archers. When the Ilkhanid Mongols tried to take on the Mamluks at 'Ain Jalut, they fought without skirmishing in this way, which led to their defeat since the heavier armour of the Mamluks was much more suited to this sort of stationary shooting exchange. Saljuk Turkomans, faced with the numerous crossbowmen in Crusading armies did not even attempt to get close to them. They invariably sat off at extreme range loosing off shots that had no power when they eventually arrived at their target, so that the Crusaders would end up at the end of the day looking like porcupines with numerous arrows sticking out of their padded gambesons, but suffer no injury. Similarly, when horse archers were harassing the Ten Thousand, once the Greeks had found themselves just 400 properly equipped archers and slingers, the Persians were obliged to skirmish only at long range and could no longer inflict much damage (Xenophon's Anabasis, 3.4.14-16).

The Skythians at the Jaxartes did not attempt to stand off at long range. Alexander was able to come close to the Skythians with his mixed formation - which could only have happened if the Skythians wanted the range to be closed, since they were apparently entirely mounted and had the freedom of choice in the matter. Thus, when the Skythians attempted to use their traditional tactics once more, they would have had to contend with the psiloi shooting back at them. They couldn't just charge and ride the psiloi down, since they were intermingled with Alexander's cavalry who were better equipped for hand to hand combat, which would have led to the Skythians being defeated even if they had the inclination to charge. As the Macedonian missiles began to find their mark, the speedy Skythian horsemen would have been thrown into confusion, losing their momentum. Then when the Macedonian cavalry charged them at short range, they would not have had a head start on them but a standing start: disordered they were easily caught and routed. That Alexander ordered the Companions et al. to charge and not the mercenaries et al. is to me just an indication that the latter troops, having already charged once before, had already tired their mounts somewhat, and not that they were deployed in a separate formation.

What conclusions can be drawn from this episode then? Skirmishing horse archers ought to be essentially immune to troops that cannot shoot back if they have the room to evade. This sounds obvious yet this is not the case in many rule sets. One of my main criticisms with Armati is the ease with which light troops such as horse archers can be caught and wiped out by slower troops armed with nothing but melee weapons by the simple expedient of charging them: an easy event to engineer since it is often possible to move twice in a row while the enemy is forced to sit still. This should be the case even if the enemy are also unarmoured horsemen such as sarissophoroi who should be able to ride at the same pace: the horse archers will always have a head start on their pursuers and will never be caught unless trapped against an obstacle. The horse archers should always be able to evade out of harm's way. They may lose ground in the process, but it should be entirely risk free. DBM suffers to some extent the same problem, complicated by lumping in a single troop category unarmoured horsemen with lances such as sarissophoroi with troops with missile weapons such as hippakontistai. Horse archers should be vulnerable to one but not the other: their modes of fighting are completely different.

Evasion is not however an option if the horse archers are disordered through taking casualties. A set of rules that includes "disorder", such as WRG's 7th edition, should not allow such disordered troops to evade. Such troops should either sit off at long range to lessen their own casualties (like the Saljuks fighting the Crusaders) and ensure they come to no harm (but do nothing to the enemy), or, they can choose to come close, but get caught when they find themselves unable to flee (as opposed to rout) through becoming disordered by enemy shooting at them. Foot skirmishers would have less of a problem physically with evading when disordered, men being more manoeuvrable than horses, but disorder is also a psychological problem, and infantry skirmishers charged in such a state didn't rally, they took to their heels and never came back


I would like to thank Michael Anastasiadas for his comments on Arrian's Greek, and Duncan Head for providing references.


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