The reason for this rather unorthodox title is the fact that the so called “last stand of the 300 Spartans” in 480BC is said to have been a battle in which tyranny and evil (East, Persia) fought against freedom and good (West, Greece ) and is sometimes said to have been the “only battle were a smaller army stood up to a larger one, until utter destruction”. However little know of the stand made by Ariobarzanes, and the heroic few who were armed with little but fought and withstood 31 days of brutal and aggressive fighting against Alexander and the Macedonians until at last they were ultimately destroyed in 330BC. This article studies the regrettably ignored valiant stand by Persian commander Ariobarzanes who died from the ideal of freedom.
Biography of Ariobarzanes
Little is known about Ariobarzanes (Old Persian Ariyabrdna) life or his exact birth date; however historical evidence tells us that he was born into a wealthy, noble Persian family and he is probably descended from the earlier satraps of Cyrus the Great, Darius I and Xerxes I. It is interesting to note the fact that high King Darius III had appointed him satrap (or viceroy) of Persis. It seems that in the past, this position had not existed. This possibly means that Ariobarzanes was either a close friend or relative of Darius III Codomannus. It may also means that Darius, who had come to power in a period of great confusion and civil strife, needed a reliable man at home while he was away, fighting against the Macedonians and Alexander at Issus and Gaugamela. With such a high office of being in charge of Persis and thus, Persepolis the capital of the Achaemenid Persian Empire, were a vast sum of gold was kept.
My guess is that Ariobarzanes was in his late thirties when he was slain although there is little verification to back this up. Despite there being little on is precise birth date of Ariobarzanes, it is speculated that he was born around 368 BC and died in 330BC (aged 38). If this is true then he was born during the reign of Artaxerxes II Mnemon (405-358 BC), a time of upheaval and rebellion throughout the Achaemenid Empire. Throughout most of his youth he would have (like all Persian boys) gone through rigorous training and so he would have had to be able to withstand hardship, and learn to live on very little.
According to a small number of sources he was related to a satrap of Hellespont of the same name, but this is unlikely due to the fact that there is no classical reference to any relation between the two Ariobarzanes and it may just be coincidence. Albeit if it is true then our Ariobarzanes is “Ariobarzanes II.”
During the Battle of Gaugamela Alexander the Great of Macedon had led a highly organized force of troops to conquer the Persian Empire . He was a young man in his twenties but none the less he was a brilliant commander and tactician with his armies he utterly crushed many armies of Darius III of Persia, at the Granicus River at Issus in 333BC and finally at the Battle of Gaugamela in northern Iraq. It was here that Darius made a desperate final attempt to beat Alexander, Darius now gathered the largest and most powerful army the Achaemenid Empire had ever compiled containing Greek mercenaries, Iranian, Indian and Bactrian cavalry and 15 war elephants imported from central India, 250 scythed chariots, elite immortal infantry and some 50,000 other cavalry and infantry forces as well as archers. This was compared to the 47,000 strong Macedonian army containing archers, phalanxes and companion cavalry. Darius had levelled the ground out for his chariots to ride smoothly. He also ordered all stones and vegetation to be removed from the field. One more addition to this was the use of “caltrops” a metal spike that was used to cripple a horse or mans foots that would step on them.
Not surprisingly Ariobarzanes commanded a regiment of soldiers from the Persian Gulf region. These men served mostly as heavy infantry, it is also not surprising to find the satrap of Persis as commander of these troops, because Persis is situated north of the Persian Gulf . Alexander and his forces however decisively won the battle and Darius along with Ariobarzanes fled from the battle having lost yet another major fight.
Darius himself had withdrawn to city of Ecbatana; Persia attempting to gather what remained of his army. Ariobarzanes was given charge of preventing the Macedonian advance into Persis and to this effect he relied heavily on the terrain, Alexander needed to pass through. There were only a few possible routes through the Zagros Mountains, all of which were made more hazardous by the icy winter’s onset. The final stand Ariobarzanes had only a few men to his disposal according to a number of sources only 70 men! After Alexander had captured Susa, he split his army into two Alexander’s general, Parmenion, took one half along the Royal Road, and Alexander himself took the route towards Persis and thus onto the imperial capital of the Achaemenid Empire, Persepolis. Passing into Persis required traversing the Persian Gates, a narrow mountain pass that lent itself easily to ambush. In the bitter Iranian winter of 330BC Alexander and 14,000 of his men subdued a local hill tribe the Uxians. As he passed through the Persian Gates he met no resistance. Believing that he would not encounter any more enemy forces during his march, Alexander refused to send scouts ahead of his vanguard, and thus walked unwittingly into Ariobarzanes’ ambush. Ariobarzanes had carefully planed his ambuscade; he used vegetation to cover his “death zones” and allocated his units of troops to the tops of the cliffs, many of which skilled archers and other being armed with stones, rocks and catapults, it is possible that a very minuet of heavy infantry was used to support the archers this may have been the Immortal infantry the famed guards of the kings of Persepolis. The local tribes also seemed to have aided Ariobarzanes forces, providing the Persians with supplies and weapons. All was set for the Achaemenid Persian Empires great revival.
Ariobarzanes had occupied a position near the little village that is now known as Cheshmeh chenar. When one approaches this place from the west, the valley, called Tang-e Meyran, is initially very wide, so the Macedonians marched at some speed. But Ariobarzanes knew what he was doing. After an hour’s walk, the valley becomes narrower, and curves to the east-southeast, where the Macedonians were blinded by the morning sun. Immediately after they had crossed an icy brook, the would had to turn to the left, where Ariobarzanes was ready to strike against an army that was standing on slippery ground, pushed forward by its rearguard, and under attack from all the hilltops.
Sources mention that Ariobarzanes had also built a wall across the canyon, but he probably did not have to. The Persian Gate was only a couple of meters wide. However this may be, at some point, the first Macedonians must have realized that they could no longer advance, understood that they were ambushed, and hesitated to move. This was the moment Ariobarzanes had been waiting for. One signal was sufficient enough to convert the valley into a Macedonian blood bath.
Arrows and boulders flew thick and fast, the Macedonians suffered very heavy casualties, losing entire regiments and supply caravans at times. At first it seems that the officers were able to rally some of their troops. In an attempt to protect themselves, the Macedonians over-locked their shields to protect themselves from the blistering barrage of arrows. The Persian simply threw down rocks crushing the Macedonian and Greek men beneath them.
The terrified Macedonians and Greeks now saw that resistance against the merciless Persians was simply futile, and attempted to flee but the harsh icy terrain and their still-advancing rear guard made an organized retreat impossible. Alexander was forced to leave his dead behind to save the rest of his demoralized army a humiliating mark of disgrace to the Greeks and Macedonians who valued highly the recovery and proper burial of their fallen comrades. The Persians had virtually no causalities inflicted upon them; this was because Alexander’s forces had little time to prepare a counter-attack during the ambush and it is also possible that the Macedonian archers would have been the Persians first target of the ambuscade as they may have been the only soldiers that posed a serious threat to the Persians, who were stationed on the cliff tops.
Alexander made a second attempt to attack the Persian ambuscade troops, but this came at another costly Macedonian defeat. Alexander considered all options and finally he decided to send a message to Ariobarzanes offering him a position as a Field Marshal of Macedonian army if he was to surrender. Ariobarzanes refused and declared that he would fight to death to protect Iran and his countrymen .
Ariobarzanes had reason to believe that success here at the Persian Gate could change the course of the war, for the better. Preventing Alexander’s passage through the Persian Gates would force the Macedonian army to use other routes to invade Iran proper, all of which would allow Darius more time to field another army, and possibly bring the Macedonian invasion to a grinding halt altogether and even create a counter attack. Ariobarzanes held the pass for 31 days, however according to historical sources; either an Iranian shepherd or a tribal leader told Alexander of a way to outflank Ariobarzanes (this is similar to betrayal made by Ephialtes of Trachis and the goat’s path that Xerxes used against the 300 Spartans to at last destroy them). Alexander encircled the Persian army in a pincer attack with captain Philotas and broke through the Persian defenses. Alexander and his elite contingent of heavy phalanx pike men then attacked the force of Ariobarzanes from above in a surprise attack until the Persians could no longer block the pass. Rather than surrendering, Ariobarzanes and the Persians charged into the Macedonian and Greek lines, historian Curtius claimed that: “[The Persians]…Fought a memorable fight… Unarmed as they were, they seized the armed men in their embrace, and dragging them down to the ground… [and] stabbed most of them with their own weapons.”- (Curtius 5.3.31-2) The Persians seeing nothing to lose fought like demons possessed inflicting even more casualties upon the Macedonian forces. One such Persian warrior was a certain Youtab (يوتاب) , the sister of Ariobarzanes. Ariobarzanes and his troops fought so brutally for a number of reasons, one is that many of these men were once inhabitants of Iran who probably had homes and families that they wished to protect. Another is the fact that their commander Ariobarzanes must have inspired his troops with a speech during the battle. Below is a part of a poem composed by poetess Turan Bahrami Shahriari, which portrays the last battle of Ariobarzanes and the lessons that can be taught by his great patriotic and heroism:
كنون گويمت رويدادي دگر / زتاريخ ديرين اين بوم و بر
چو اسكندر آمد به ملك كيان/ يكي گرد فرمانده ي قهرمان
به ايرانيان داد درس وطن/دراين ره گذ شت از سرو جان و تن
كه فرزند نام آور ميهن است / مرآن شير دل آريو برزن است
چو نزديك شد لحظه ي واپسين / به ميدان_ آورد گفت اين چنين
بدان اي سكندر پس از مرگ من/ پس از ريزش آخرين برگ تن
تواني گشايي در پارس را / نهي بر سرت افسر پارس را
به تخت جم و كاخ شاهنشهان / قدم چون نهي بادگر همرهان
مبادا شدي غره از خويشتن / كه ايران بسي پرورد همچو من
چو اسكندر اين جانفشاني بديد / سرانگشت حيرت به دندان گزيد
به آهستگي گفت با خويشتن / كه اينست مفهوم عشق وطن
اگر چند آن آريا مرد گرد / پي پاس ايران زمين ، جان سپرد
ولي داد درسي به ايرانيان / كه در راه ايران چه سهل است جان
سروده ي خانم توران بهرامي ( شهرياري) برگرفته از كتاب ديوان توران
Alexander was hoping to capture Ariobarzanes and the other Persians, but their will could not be broken and Alexander had no choice but to use lethal violence. After hours of continuous battling the satrap of Persis, who had tried so hard to defend his home had died along with all of this warriors. This seems very much similar to the last stand made by the “300” Spartans at Thermopylae in 480BC. Alexander and the Macedonians eventually massacred the Persian resistance forces, the casualty figures for the Macedonians is not precisely known, probably about 6-9,000 top rate Macedonian and Greek troopers as well as numerous officers and commanders fell during the Battle of the Persian Gate. This battle itself had demoralized the Macedonian soldiers, who had gone so far away from their homes.
Aftermath of the final stand
The Persian Gates played the role “of a Persian Thermopylae and like Thermopylae it fell.” (Burn, 1973, p. 121) .The Battle of the Persian Gates served as a kind of reversal of the Battle of Thermopylae, fought in Greece in 480 BC in an attempt to hold off the invading Persian forces. Here, on Alexander’s campaign to extract revenge for the Persian invasion of Greece , he faced the same situation from the Persians. There are also accounts that an Iranian shepherd led Alexander’s forces around the Persian defenses, just as a local Greek showed the Persian forces a secret path around the pass at Thermopylae . Alexander took to the heart of Iran in an attempt to capture the imperial capital of the Persian Empire, Persepolis and find the man the had put him in so much trouble- Darius, Darius had by now linked up with the satrap of Bactria, Bessus in Media and was attempting to rebuild a cavalry based army drawn from his eastern provinces. However he was betrayed by Bessus and was assassinated in mid 330BC. With this final chapter, the Achaemenid Persian Empire ceased to exist.
Iranians are exceptionally well known across the world for being brave; as recent as the Iran-Iraq war (1980-1988). We need to remember how so many people died for freedom in Iran . Iranian people should look up to Ariobarzanes for aspiration. Hopefully one day our nation truly would honor Ariobarzanes and what he attempted to achieve at the blood soaked mountains of the Persian Gates…
Note to the reader: While in most of my articles I have over 20 references and sources, this article has only a select few sources purely for the matter that there are not much resources and historical readings on Ariobarzanes and his heroic last stand and the Persian Gate. Rastani “First Knights” Iranian.com Stein, Old Routes of Western Iran .London, 1940. Prevas 19D. W. Engles, Alexander the Great and the Logistics of the Macedonian Army, Berkeley and London, 1978, pp. 72ff Al-Beruni and Persepolis “. Acta Iranica (Leiden: Brill) 1: 137–150. 1974 Arrian 3.18.5-6; Curtsies 5.4.29 Iranica “Alexander” and “Ariobarzanes” Zegorat-iran Website (2004): Online Poems and Notes on Aryo Barzan (in Persian). Shadow of the Desert by Dr Kaveh Farrokh, Encyclopaedia Britannica “Alexander the Great” Persian Army 550BC-330BC.