The Correspondence of Alexander the Great and the Persian King Darius III.

The Setting

In November 333 BCE Alexander defeated a huge Persian army in what was the largest battle of his Asian expedition so far – the Battle of Issus. A year and a half had passed from the moment when he entered Asia and crossed the borders of the Achaemenid (Persian) Empire. His army marched across the enemy territory mostly unchallenged, and when the local satraps and the regional Persian forces finally tried to stop them, Alexander emerged victoriously. During that year and a half, the Persian king realized the size of this threat, recruited a huge army and decided to stop Alexander’s progress once and for all in a single decisive battle. Darius decided to lead the Persian army himself and gathered a huge force under his command. The ancient sources estimated up to as many 600 thousand soldiers, the modern historians offer a more sober estimation of 60 thousand. In any case, the Persian army easily outnumbered the Macedonians. Despite this disadvantage, Alexander came up with a tactic that gave his army a reasonable chance to win. Moreover, after spotting a gap in the enemy lines, Alexander himself led a cavalry attack into this gap, exactly to the place where Darius stood. The Persian king got scared, abandoned the battlefield and fled. His army’s morale was destroyed (seeing a supreme commander flee in terror usually has this effect on soldiers) and the battle was effectively over. Alexander achieved a total victory but failed to catch the fleeing king. Without Darius in Macedonian hands, it was clear the war was still far from over.

Nevertheless, Alexander took hold of many precious possessions of the Persian king – a huge treasure, that had been stored in Damascus, changed owners and Darius’ mother, wife and children were found among the captives. Alexander treated the family of his foe with respect, but it was clear that letting them go was out of the question. It was in this desperate situation when Darius sent envoys to Alexander carrying a letter.

The contents of this letter are available to us in the work of Arrian of Nicomedia from the 2nd century CE. Arrian worked centuries after Alexanders campaign took place, but he cited the works of two Alexander’s companions as sources, which makes his account reasonably reliable.

The Message for Alexander from Darius

Darius was in an undesirable situation and his letter reflected this. He asked Alexander:

  • To free his family and let them go.
  • To stop the war effort and form an alliance with Darius.

Darius argued that the Persians had been allies of Alexander’s father Philip II. during the reign of Achaemenid king Artaxerxes. Only after this king’s death, Philip changed his attitude and refused to respect the new king Arses. But even then, the Persians did nothing to break the old friendship and the first injustice was clearly coming from Philip’s side. Then, after Arses died and Darius sat on the Persian throne, Alexander (now a king of Macedon) failed to make an effort to restore the old friendship and invaded the Persian soil with an army instead. Under such circumstances, Darius understandably rushed to defend his empire, although, by the decision of gods, the battle ended as it ended. Nevertheless, all he wished for, is to be reunited with his family and reunited with Alexander in friendship and alliance.

The Message for Darius from Alexander

Alexander knew that after the military victory, he is now in a commanding position and free to continue his efforts as long as it suits him. He wrote a reply and instructed the envoys to give the letter to Darius, but not to enter any further discussions about its contents. Obviously, he rejected both demands of the Persian king, countering all the arguments in Darius’ letter.

Alexander reminded the Persian king that it was not true that the Macedonian aggression was unprovoked. In the past, the Persian armies invaded Macedon and Greece and caused many deaths. Alexander was now in the position of the leader of all Greeks and decided to go for an act of just revenge for all the suffering in the past.

It was also not true, that the Persians peacefully awaited friendship and alliance from the Kingdom of Macedon. In fact, they actively pursued every opportunity to bring them harm:

  • The Persians sent aid to Perinthus, a town in Thrace, that was an enemy of Philip II. Persians sent forces to Thrace, which was under Macedonian rule.
  • The Persians were behind the assassination of king Philip II. And even bragged about it in their letters (note that the detailed circumstances of this assassination are still not clear today and while the Persians are definitely among the suspects, their guilt remains unproven)
  • Darius took power in Persia unjustly. His predecessor was killed by a Persian official who installed Darius on the throne (only to be killed by him soon after).
  • The Persians tried to bribe various Greek cities and get them to rebel against the Macedonian power. Those attempts were futile, as the Greeks refused the money (with a notable exception of Sparta)

To punish the injustice and deal with the obvious hostility, Alexander crossed the sea, landed in Asia and honourable fought a victorious battle. Darius was now invited to speak with him in person, and even ask Alexander to free his family, but Darius was no longer allowed to treat Alexander as an equal. After all, following the defeat of Darius in battle, Alexander was now the lord of all Asia and demanded respect as such. Alexander proclaimed himself the ruler of all Darius’ territories and if Darius refused to acknowledge that, the war had to go on until they would meet in another battle.

The Response from Darius

Darius responded to Alexander’s demands. The Macedonian king received another letter from the Persian leader during his siege of Tyre, might city in Phoenicia. Unsurprisingly, Darius’ response wasn’t a simple „yes“ to all Macedonian demands. However, it was not exactly hostile either. Darius offered a huge ransom for his family. He also addressed the political situation and, taking his undesirable position at this time into consideration, he made Alexander an interesting offer. The Persian empire would cease to make any claims on territories west of the Euphrates river. This would mean vast and rich territories – Asia Minor, Syria, Egypt…all would fall into Alexander’s hands. Moreover, to add a guarantee to the proposal of peace and alliance, Darius offered Alexander the hand of his own daughter in marriage.

Alexander’s Final Response

Alexander told his generals about the offer from the Persian king. Parmenion, his most senior general, advised him to accept those generous terms. But Alexander, being Alexander and not Parmenion, refused. Under the circumstances, he didn’t consider the Persian offer to be generous or interesting:

  • After looting the Persian territory for two previous years, defeating the Persian army repeatedly, conquering many rich cities and especially seizing a large Darius’ treasure stored in Damascus, he didn’t really need more money at that moment.
  • After the victorious Battle of Issus, Alexander saw himself as the lord of the whole of Asia and that means the whole Achaemenid empire, not just the western part. Receiving what was already his (at least in his opinion) and only a half of it? Thas was almost an insult!
  • Darius’ daughter had been captured by Alexander. Had he wished to marry her, he could have done so at any time and without any involvement of Darius.

Alexander’s response was, therefore, a clear “no” to the Persian proposal. In his response, Alexander repeated his request that any additional proposals must be made by Darius in person. Darius, afraid for his own safety, knew that coming to Alexander was out of the question and continued gathering new forces for a decisive battle with the Macedonian army. Needless to say, it that battle (the Battle of Gaugamela) he suffered another huge defeat.


Arrian – The Anabasis of Alexander

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