In 335 BCE, Alexander the Great campaigned against the hostile tribes along the Danube River in order to ensure the security of his European territory before invading the Persian Empire. Soon after enforcing peace on the Danube tribes, Alexander received troubling news—King Cleitus of Illyria, who submitted to Alexander’s father in 349 BCE, had launched a rebellion against Macedonia. Making maters worse, Cleitus was not alone; the Autariatae tribe gave its support to the Illyrian king, and Prince Glaucias of the Taulantians also raised an army to support Cleitus’ rebellion.
Around the time that Alexander received the news, he was staying with his ally, King Langaros, the ruler of the Agriania. Upon hearing of the rebellion, Langaros offered to personally invade the land of the Autariates, so that Alexander could march against Illyria without any distractions. While King Langaros ravaged the Autariatae, Alexander the Great quickly marched toward Cleitus’ headquarters at the city of Pelium. He made good time (as he usually did) and arrived at the city before Prince Glaucias was able to reinforce the town with his Taulantian troops. Even so, upon the arrival of the Macedonians, the Illyrian forces at Pelium pulled back to the safety of their city and both sides prepared for a siege.
Yet, the quick arrival of Prince Glaucias with a large Taulantian army made it impossible to continue the siege. If Alexander assaulted the city, Glaucias would surely come to the defenders’ aid. Conversely, if the Macedonians moved against the Taulantians, the Illyrian army would attack while Alexander’s back was turned. Alexander also could not just let the stalemate continue, for Glaucias was harassing every Macedonian scavenging party that was sent into the countryside.
As the saying goes, Alexander was trapped between a rock and a hard place. He needed to escape, but Cleitus and Glaucias would not make it easy for him; both leaders planned to attack as soon as they saw Alexander begin to withdraw. Even so, Alexander the Great had a plan, albeit an odd and unusual plan, yet a plan all the same.
Alexander determined that even though he could not yet physically engage the enemy armies, he could still attack their minds. So, the Macedonian king marched his troops to a highly visible location and put on an impressive show. It was time for the Taulantians and the defenders of Pelium to know who they were up against. With the eyes of the enemy upon him, Alexander had his whole army run through an array of complex military drills, all of which was done in complete and utter silence. The drills continued long enough for the troops of Cleitus and Glaucias to become completely entranced by the display of Macedonian training and discipline. Yet, something suddenly changed in the Macedonian army—the left column of Alexander’s army rushed to the front in a wedge formation. Then, in a drastic contrast to the earlier silence, the whole Macedonian army began shouting taunts while loudly clanging their weapons and shields together.
Alexander’s psychological attack dealt a heavy blow to shocked enemy forces, especially the Taulantians. A significant portion of Prince Glaucias’ army was allegedly so terrified that they ran in panic toward the safety of Pelium’s walls. Whatever the case, Alexander’s display caused enough chaos in the Taulantian ranks that a large gap in their forces appeared, allowing the Macedonian army to make a bid for escape.
Seeing the opening, Alexander quickly launched into action. He sent his cavalry forward to clear out any remaining Taulantians in their path. The main obstacle in Alexander’s escape route was a small river or stream that his army would need to cross. The water was shallow enough to stand in, but it would still slow his progress. This was all the more concerning because, by the time Alexander reached the river, the forces of Cleitus and Glaucias had regained their composure and had begun to pursue the Macedonian army.
Alexander rushed his army into the river, ordering the archers to continue launching constant volleys of arrows, even while they struggled against the water’s current. When the Macedonian siege engineers reached the other side of the river, they set up catapults and they, too, began launching projectiles at the approaching enemies. The archers, catapults, and a few quick charges against opposing groups that got too close, allowed the Macedonian army to successfully cross the river virtually unscathed.
As Cleitus and Glaucias watched the Macedonian king retreat from the battlefield, they felt like they had won a great victory. Even though Alexander had escaped, the rebels successfully lifted the siege of Pelium. Convinced that Alexander was racing home to Macedonia, Cleitus and Glaucias camped together with their forces somewhere outside of Pelium. They were so sure that they had broken Alexander’s fighting spirit that the rebels lost all sense of order. The camp looked more like a festival than a military encampment—there were no sentries, trenches or any semblance of a wall. Perhaps they would have acted with more caution if they had known that Alexander was still in the area and more than willing to fight.
Alexander had scouts watching the forces of Cleitus and Glaucias closely. On the third day after his escape from Pelium, Alexander was ready to start round two of the battle. Under the cover of night, Alexander and his troops silently marched back across the river and quietly approached the enemy camp. When the Macedonians took up their positions, Cleitus and Glaucias had yet again neglected to set up sentries, walls or any other defensive structures around their camps. Adding to Alexander’s fortunes, most of the rebels were apparently fast asleep. The Macedonian army was able to slip into the enemy camp and began slaughtering the sleeping soldiers.
Sometime during the grisly night attack, an alarm rang out—the Macedonians were discovered. When they woke up to the horror, the panicked Illyrians and Taulantians could not fathom mounting a counter-attack, all they wanted to do was flee, and flee they did. The camp descended into a confused exodus, with frightened men running in all directions. Macedonian troops hunted down and killed many of the fleeing soldiers, and captured others. King Cleitus and Prince Glaucias both managed to escape on that chaotic night. After his encounter with Alexander, Cleitus decided to abandon his kingdom and took asylum with Glaucias in the lands of the Taulantians. After that, the Illyrians gave Alexander no more problems.
Written by C. Keith Hansley.
Picture Attribution: (Alexander at the Granicus, painted by Charles Le Brun (1619–1690), [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.