The Siege of Pelium was undertaken by Alexander the Great against the
Illyrian tribes of what is modern-day Albania. It was critical for Alexander to
take this pass as it provided easy access to Illyria and Macedonia, which was
urgently needed in order to quell the unrest in Greece at this time in Athens
and Thebes. This was an important point of demarcation in Alexander's early
reign, as it established him among the Danubian tribes to the north as a
serious monarch to be reckoned with, just as he would later establish this
precedent for the Greek city states under his hegemony. Taking this place
allowed Alexander to march his army to southern Greece quickly, which would
eventually result in the total destruction of Thebes.
Macedon versus Illyrians Taulantian Kingdom Dardanian Kingdom
Commanders and leaders:
Alexander the Great and Hephaestion
Illyians - Glaukias the Taulantian Cleitus the Dardanian
Macedon - 15,000
News of the Illyrian revolt under King Cleitus of the Dardani, and King
Glaukias of the Taulantii first reached the ears of Alexander while he was
campaigning on the Danube against some of the northern tribes that his father,
Philip II of Macedon had previously reduced to a satisfactory level of
subjection, although not outright submission. As this area had been far from
the Greek theatre of operations, Phillip had been satisfied with the level of
subjection he had reduced them to.
Alexander was immediately concerned about the news of this revolt, as the
settlement of Pelium itself occupied one of the most important passes between
Illyria and Macedonia. As a result of this, Alexander would have to make a long
march around a mountain range to the south, and then into Illyria. In addition
to this, without access to this crucial pass, Alexander could be cut off from
Greece, which had freshly revolted, and would eventually do so again, with aid
of the Great King. The loss of this pass, and the resultant long march would
give the Greek city states to the south ample time to prepare for Alexander's
arrival while he was reducing the Illyrians.
An ally of Alexander offered aid to him by protecting his flank from Illyrian
tribes while he marched towards Pelium. Langarus, of the Agrianians, made
frequent incursions into the country of the Autariatae, and managed to put them
on guard sufficiently to allow Alexander to march by in relative peace. Having
successfully made this march, Alexander arrived to find Cleitus the Dardanian
in control of Pelium and awaiting the arrival of King Glaukias with
reinforcements. When Alexander arrived, Cleitus reportedly sacrificed three
boys, three girls, and three black rams before meeting the Macedonians.
Alexander arrived with 15,000 soldiers and determined to attack Pelium at once,
as he hoped to take the place out of hand before King Glaukias could arrive and
reinforce Cleitus. The first thing Alexander did upon arriving was set up the
Macedonian camp.The Macedonians found that not only was Pelium itself held,
which commanded the plateau, but the heights surrounding the Plain of Pelium
was held in force. Upon completing the camp, Alexander resolved to attack the
troops of Cleitus that were surrounding the heights. This he did with some
effect, and as a result of this assault the Illyrians retreated within the
walls of Pelium.
Alexander then attempted to take the town by assault, but failing in this, he
started to erect circumvallation and contravallation around Pelium. This,
however, was interrupted by the arrival of Glaukias and his reinforcements the
next day, which compelled Alexander to retreat from the heights that he had
captured the day before.
Battle and siege:
Having been forced back into the plain itself by King Glaukias, Alexander was
in now a perilous situation. He was outnumbered by the Illyrians, who were free
to gather supplies. Not only that, but Alexander was anxious to take Pelium
quickly before Thebes and Athens could seriously consider imperiling Macedonian
hegemony. Therefore, not only did Alexander have pressing issues elsewhere, but
the Illyrian forces were determined to annihilate Alexander's forces, and could
afford to wait. Being short of supplies, Alexander sent Philotas, one of his
lieutenants, out to forage for materials.
King Glaukias witnessed this force leaving, and pursued and attacked the
foragers. However, Alexander was - with some difficulty - able to fend off the
attackers and extricate his hypaspists, Agrianians, and bowmen. Seeking to
seize his line of retreat before putting his shoulder to the siege, Alexander
desired to attack the heights that commanded the defile through which he had
come. This defile was small, and only four men could march through it abreast.
He drew up some of his infantry and cavalry in front of the settlement of
Pelium itself to defend this maneuver from being attacked by a sortie from
Cleitus. He then drew up his phalanx, one hundred and twenty men deep, with 200
cavalry on either flank, and arranged his soldiers to perform close-order
drills down on the plain, in full view of the Illyrians, in complete silence.
As Peter Green describes: At given signals the great forest of sarissas would
rise to the vertical 'salute' position, and then dip horizontally as for
battle-order. The bristling spear-line swung now right, now left, in perfect
unison. The phalanx advanced, wheeled into column and line, moved through
various intricate formations as though on the parade-ground - all without a
word being uttered. The barbarians had never seen anything like it. From their
positions in the surrounding hills they stared down at this weird ritual,
scarcely able to believe their eyes. Then, little by little, one straggling
group after another began to edge closer, half-terrified, half-enthralled.
Alexander watched them, waiting for the psychological moment. Then, at last, he
gave his final pre-arranged signal. The left wing of the cavalry swung into
wedge formation, and charged. At the same moment, every man of the phalanx beat
his spear on his shield, and from thousands of throats there went up the
terrible ululating Macedonian war-cry - 'Alalalalai!' - echoing and
reverberating from the mountains.
This sudden, shattering explosion of sound, especially after the dead stillness
which had preceded it, completely unnerved Glaucias' tribesmen, who fled back
in wild confusion from the foothills to the safety of their fortress.
?Peter Green, Alexander of Macedon, 356-323 B.C. (1991)
The Macedonian forces took the heights overlooking Pelium. During this
engagement, not a single Macedonian armored soldier was killed. However, deaths
among light troops were usually not reported, and it is unknown whether any
were killed in this instance.
There were still some Illyrian light infantry on the heights that commanded the
ford, and it was critical for Alexander to seize these heights in order to gain
control of the entire plain. Before engaging in battle, Alexander decided to
re-establish his camp on the far side of the river near the ford in order to
ensure the security of both his operations and his camp. However, in the
process of doing so he ran the danger of being engaged in the rear while his
troops were crossing the river. The Illyrians indeed attacked him, perceiving
his army to be retreating. So he ordered his troops to turn around to simulate
an advance, while initiating a charge with his companion cavalry. Meanwhile, he
also ordered his archers to turn around and fire their arrows from mid-stream.
Having gained a place of relative security on the far side of the river,
Alexander was able to freely supply his army and await reinforcements. Before
reinforcements arrived, however, Macedonian scouts reported that they observed
the Illyrians becoming careless in protecting the settlement, as they thought
Alexander was in retreat. Acting on this intelligence, Alexander awaited the
arrival of night, and then rushed ahead without awaiting the crossing of his
complete force, leading his archers, his shield-bearing guards, the Agrianians,
and the brigade of Coenus as the leading unit. He then rushed down upon the
defenders with his Agrianians and archers, who were formed in phalanx
formation. Many of the Illyrians were still asleep, and were taken completely
by surprise. A great slaughter followed; many of the Illyrians were also
As a result of this siege, Alexander gained Pelium, and built a fresh outpost
there, as the Illyrians had burnt the settlement that had previously been
situated there. The Illyrians begged for terms, and Alexander was happy to
accept their submission and allow them to swear fealty to him anew. Having
completed his conquest, Alexander had established himself as a new monarch to
be revered, and was now free to march south to Boeotia and deal with the threat
from Thebes and Athens.