As we near the end of the year, we continue our deep dive on different aspects of Alexander the Great’s life. Today’s guest post by Joshua Zapf looks at the troubles Alexander faced during his campaigns in Central Asia, a topic often overlooked public history.
Alexander the Great’s military campaign is generally known for its determination, consistency and above all: success. But that Alexander also had to deal with enormous setbacks and defeats, is often forgotten. A time in which he experienced one of the most forceful and devastating setbacks, was from 330 BC until 327 BC in the ancient areas of Bactria and Sogdiana in Central Asia. This period posed a major threat to Alexander’s power and the aims of his campaign, stopping him for almost three years before marching onto India. This article briefly sheds some light on this period of resistance.
At this point one can say that Alexander had de facto already defeated the Persian Empire. In 331 BC he won the Battle of Gaugamela forcing the Persian King Darius III to flee to Bactria, where he was executed by three of his satraps. One of them, Bessus, enthroned and proclaimed himself as Artaxerxes, the new king of the Persian empire. The new king, though, avoided the encounter with Alexander as well and fled even further north, towards the ancient region of Sogdiana (mainly modern Uzbekistan and Tajikistan). Alexander could not be stopped and finally captured Bessus, who was either betrayed or forcefully captured. After his execution there was no major enemy left in Persia, Alexander thought. So he discovered more and more land in Sogdiana, going all the way up to the ancient river Jaxartes (modern Syrdarja) where he founded the most remote of all of his cities: Alexandria Eschate, meaning the farthest.
There are scientists who believe that the founding of this embattled city, in combination with the brutal Macedonian occupation, was the spark that ignited the fire of resistance within the proud and independent Sogdians. Before the founding of Alexandria Eschate, the region had to be pacified by Alexander, which already turned out to be harder than he might have thought: Sogdian locals had assaulted a Macedonian convoy and Alexander sought revenge in an open battle in which he allegedly had his leg injured severely by an enemy’s arrow. Still, he managed to pacify the region until the founding of Alexandria Eschate.
The main resistance, led by one of Alexander’s local governors, Spitamenes, a Sogdian himself, spread rapidly throughout the cities of the region. In most cases the occupying forces of Alexander were overthrown and killed as they were caught by surprise and lulled into a false sense of security. Spitamenes meanwhile besieged the capital of Sogdiana, Maracanda (modern Samarqand), in which there were also many Macedonian soldiers deployed. Alexander’s answer to these uprisings was one thing and one thing only − violence. He decided to march on every participating city and extinguish any kind of resistance in the most brutal way. He is said to have not only demolished every city and killed every rebel but also to have enslaved all of the women and children, if still alive.
During these fights Alexander was again heavily injured by a stone that was thrown at him. After violently pacifying most of the cities he ordered a large amount of his troops to march onto Maracanda, which was still being besieged by the resistance leader Spitamenes. Knowing of the imminent arrival of Alexanders’s troops, he fled to the north and formed an alliance with the Scythians, inhabitants of the northern Eurasian steppe and known as merciless fighters. Spitamenes and his Scythian allies were then waiting for the Macedonian soldiers to arrive. They eventually met at the Polytimetus river (modern Zeravshan), where the Macedonians were lured into one of their biggest military disasters. Spitamenes and his allies used nomad fighting tactics as they circled Alexander’s troops on their horses while shooting them down with arrows. The Macedonians, who had never experienced a fight like this before, panicked and fled onto a near river island on which they were trapped and shot down from the riverbank one after another by the Sogdians and Scythians. Spitamenes had proven himself as a real threat to Alexander using never-seen guerrilla-type warfare on the well-trained Macedonian Phalanx.
Alexander, who did not participate in the battle, allegedly broke down hearing of the loss of his troops. As one would expect, he tried to chase Spitamenes down the Polytimetus river but failed, while still killing more rebels on the way. He could not catch him before winter, so he stayed in the capital of Bactria, Bactra also known to the Greeks as Zariaspa (modern Balkh in Afghanistan). The uprisings had cost Alexander so many of his troops that he reinforced his army with around 20,000 reservist soldiers that were originally meant for the Indian campaign. Alexander used the winter to work out a plan to bring an end to Spitamenes and the resistance. Therefore, he divided his army into five mobile divisions. This can be understood as an adaption to the Sogdian guerrilla tactics. They were sent out to destroy more strongholds of the rebels, who had drawn themselves back into the mountains of Central Asia over the winter. Also, the divisions had the instruction to establish fortresses in order to ensure the military superiority in the region and to prevent another fatal uprising.
Alexander could not kill Spitamenes, but his adaptions worked out well, as he did not experience anymore major defeats. Still, the Macedonian convoys were raided multiple times by the Sogdians during that time and thus kept their resistance alive even until the next winter. These punctual but effective ambushes stopped with Spitamenes’ death. He was not killed by Alexander or another Macedonian, but by the Scythian allies, who gave up hope on the success of the resistance and refused to fight any longer for Spitamenes, seeing no chance against the massive Macedonian army. They allegedly decapitated him. With the loss of their charismatic leader and experienced general, the resistance slowly died out with only a few more acts of opposition and Alexander could move onto India. He surely did not imagine himself spending three years alone in Central Asia (330 BC. – 327 BC.) after conquering the rest of the Persian empire in only four years. Nor could he have imagined the endurance, toughness and military creativity of the opposition, leading to the loss of thousands of his soldiers. This resistance urged Alexander to reconsider his own strategies that had proven themselves well effective over the last six years. Nowhere else he had to deploy as many troops to secure his power as in Sogdiana, making it the most tenacious and dangerous region for Alexander to conquer.
Mairs, Rachel: The Graeco-Bactrian and Indo-Greek World. New York 2021.
Mairs, Rachel: The Hellenistic Far East. Archaeology, Language and Identity in Greek Central Asia. Berkeley 2014
Holt, Frank L.: Into the Land of Bones. Alexander the Great in Afghanistan. Berkeley/Los Angeles/London 2012
Romey, Kristin M.: The Forgotten Realm of Alexander. In: Archaeology (2004), p. 18-24
My name is Joshua Zapf, I am 22 years old and I am studying History and Ancient Culture (B.A.) in Düsseldorf, Germany. I have been working on Alexander the Great‘s campaign in Central Asia for over a year now and I will visit Uzbekistan in March to see the remains of the hellenistic influence.