By 330 BCE, Alexander the Great had clearly gained the upper hand against the Achaemenid Empire of Persia. He had personally won several successive battles against the Persian king, Darius III, including the battles of Granicus (334 BCE), Issus (333 BCE) and Gaugamela (331). Now, Darius III was on the run, hoping to catch his breath and mobilize another force, in order to defend his shrinking empire. In the meantime (returning to 330 BCE), Alexander the Great was able to march unimpeded into the Persian capital of Persepolis. In one of his more infamous episodes, Alexander let his army have its way with the city, even though Persepolis had surrendered peacefully.
While his army was camped at Persepolis, Alexander was said to have launched a short expedition into the nearby mountains. The official reason for the mission was to make the mountain tribes submit to Alexander’s rule, but other historians theorize that the king may have felt guilty about sacking Persepolis and wanted a distraction. Others simply attribute the expedition to boredom. Whatever the case, Alexander supposedly headed off for the snow-covered mountains with a small division of light infantry and around 1,000 cavalry.
As Alexander entered the highlands, he eventually passed into the territory of a small tribe called the Mardi. This peculiar tribe supposedly lived in natural caves and generally kept to an archaic hunter-gatherer lifestyle. Another prominent characteristic of the tribe was that the Mardi women were said to have been more than willing to fight alongside their men. The weapon of choice for these warrior women was the common sling, which, when not in use, had the secondary purpose of acting as a hair band. Unfortunately, Alexander the Great apparently found entertainment in tracking and killing these people. He was said to have spent around thirty days hunting members of the tribe in the mountains near Persepolis before returning to the city and notoriously burning the palace of Xerxes.
Later that year (still in 330 BCE), Alexander marched his army to the region of Hyrcania, located near the Caspian Sea. While there, he met with numerous dignitaries, including some Persian officials who wished to surrender, as well as some Greek mercenaries who wanted employment. Alexander the Great was even rumored to have received a tantalizing visit from the Amazonian queen, Thalestris, while camped at Hyrcania. Yet, just like before, Alexander decided to take a small detachment from his main force and go investigate some nearby tribes.
While exploring around the shoreline of the Caspian Sea, Alexander apparently wandered up to the border of a region called Mardia. Unbelievably, the Macedonian king found himself facing yet another Mardi tribe (no relation with the group near Persepolis). Unlike the previous Mardi, the tribe that ruled Mardia was more populous, had a tradition of horsemanship and fielded a sizeable army. This bigger and better Mardi tribe supposedly mobilized a force of 8,000 men and set up a defensive position at a mountain pass that blocked Alexander’s access into their territory. Yet the unexpected arrival of the Hellenic forces had still caught the Mardi off guard and unprepared. Plus, the man at their gates was Alexander the Great, of all people. Unsurprisingly, Alexander shattered their defenses and forced the Mardi warriors to scatter back into their mountainous territory.
Although the Mardi had lost the battle at the mountain pass, they had no intention of surrendering. In a likely fictional tale about the reign of Alexander, a band of sneaky Mardi warriors managed to steal the Macedonian king’s beloved horse, Bucephalas, an animal that he had personally trained during his youth. It was a big mistake—they underestimated just how much affection the king had for his royal steed. After hearing of the theft, Alexander the Great sent out his forces on a systematic rampage throughout Mardi lands, supposedly harming both the tribe and the very landscape. Eventually, the Mardi decided they could not sustain their war. They returned Bucephalus with additional gifts and petitioned for peace. Alexander, in a better mood after being reunited with his horse, granted peace to the Mardi in exchange for unconditional surrender and hostages.
Written by C. Keith Hansley.
Picture Attribution: (Mosaic of Alexander the Great and Darius III, c. 1st century BCE, found in Pompeii, [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).
- The Campaigns of Alexander by Arrian, translated by Aubrey de Sélincourt. New York: Penguin Classics, 1971.
- Alexander the Great by Philip Freeman. New York: Simon & Schuster Paperbacks, 2011.
- Alexander the Great: The Story of an Ancient Life by Thomas R. Martin and Christopher W. Blackwell. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2012.
- (Diodorus Siculus) http://penelope.uchicago.edu/Thayer/E/Roman/Texts/Diodorus_Siculus/17D*.html#note76