This tapestry, made in the workshop of Karel van Mander the Younger (1579–1623), was inspired by the Battle of the Granicus, fought between Alexander the Great and the Persians in 334 BCE. It was the first major pitched battle that occurred after Alexander the Great crossed into Anatolia and invaded lands controlled by the Achaemenid Empire, then ruled by Darius III (r. 336-330). In choosing to engage the enemy at the Granicus River, Alexander the Great handicapped himself, for he would have to ford through the water in order to strike at his foes. If, however, he could beat the odds as well as the opposing army, it would add further to the renown and distinction gained from the victory. At the start of the battle, Alexander brought his army to the banks of the Granicus in battle array, with the Persians matching him on the other side. Alexander positioned himself with the troops on the right flank of his army, and he sent the other columns on his left to begin marching into the water of the river. Although Alexander had other columns advance first, it was his own cavalry force positioned on the right side that would be the real threat to the Persians. While the opposing army was distracted by the marching infantry, Alexander the Great charged across the river with his cavalry from the side and, as he often did, began fighting his way straight for the Persian commanders. The Roman historian, Arrian (90-173+), described this cavalry charge:
“The first to engage the Persians were cut down and died a soldier’s death, though some of the leading troops fell back upon Alexander, who was now on his way across: indeed, he was almost over, at the head of the army’s right wing. A moment later he was in the thick of it, charging at the head of his men straight for the spot where the Persian commanders stood and the serried ranks of the enemy horse were thickest. Round him a violent struggle developed, while all the time, company by company, the Macedonians were making their way over the river, more easily now than before” (Arrian, Anabasis, 1.15).
Such, then, is the history behind the battle being reproduced in Karel van Mander’s tapestry. Alexander’s bold charge paid off and his army went on to win the Battle of the Granicus in 334 BCE. Alexander the Great can be seen in the center of the artwork, wearing golden armor and a crown while riding into the fray with his sword raised high.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
- The Campaigns of Alexander by Arrian, translated by Aubrey de Sélincourt. New York: Penguin Classics, 1971.