The Savage Desert

Daily Diodorus
Vol. VIII. Book XVII Ch. 105 (Loeb Classical Library)
Read the other posts in this series here

The Headlines
Oreitae Easily Conquered
Cedrosians: Having a Whale of a Time
Macedonians Cross Cedrosian Desert: Heavy Losses in Heat
Oreitae Launch Revenge Attack

The Story
Alexander entered ‘the country of the Oreitae (Oreitis?). Diodorus has more to say about Oreitaean customs than he does about Alexander’s campaign against that people. This is partly because fighting the Oreitae proved easy, and the country was ‘quickly brought… into submission’, and partly because the specific custom to which he refers was such an unusual one.

Diodorus describes how the Oreitae leave the naked bodies of their dead in thickets apparently so that wild animals can eat them. The relatives of the deceased then divide up the dead person’s clothing between themselves, ‘sacrifice to the heroes of the nether world,’ and host ‘a banquet for their friends’.

From Oreitae, Alexander made his way to Cedrosia. There, he travelled close to the shore line.

Diodorus doesn’t tell of any military action taking place in Cedrosia, although if the Macedonians found the going easy in the country of the Oreitae they would not have been troubled by the Cedrosians.

The people, Diodorus says, were ‘unfriendly and utterly brutish’.

This savagery seems to pertain to their personal habits rather than what they were like as warriors. For, with admittedly no small amount of hyperbole, Diodorus says that the Cedrosians let their nails ‘grow from birth to old age’ and that they never washed their hair. He adds that they were heavily tanned and dressed ‘in the skin of beasts’ – as stereotypical a sign that someone is a savage as ever there was.

The Cedrosians may have been very primitive but they knew how to make the best of their limited resources. They not only wore animal skins, but ate ‘the flesh of stranded whales’, which had died on their beaches. Furthermore, they used whale bones to build their homes. This went as far as using whale scales as roof tiles. A very clever feat, of course, since – as the Footnotes point out – whales do not have scales.

Alexander made his way through Cedrosia ‘with difficulty’. Not because of the people, but because he was short of supplies and was now marching through a desert.

The going proved so hard that the army became ‘disheartened’ and Alexander himself ‘sank into no ordinary grief and anxiety’.

The king sent messengers to Parthyaea, Dranginê, and Areia to seek supplies. The messengers delivered their orders and provisions were forwarded on. They did not, however, arrive in time to prevent the loss of many soldiers. They never could have.

These losses were brought about not only by the dreadful conditions and Alexander’s bad planning, but because the Oreitae launched what must have been a surprise attack on Leonnatus’ division, inflicting ‘severe losses’ before escaping home.

Diodorus calls the Oreitae habit of exposing the bodies of the dead to be eaten by wild animals ‘strange and quite unbelievable’. Certainly to our eyes it is most unusual. If I was the Oreitaeans’ PR man I’d point out (a) the decomposing body is kept away from the community so one cannot oppose it on hygiene grounds, and (b) by being eaten it both highlights and makes a practical contribution to the well-being of the environment. What’s the difference between being eaten by a worm and wolf, anyway?

I’m afraid I would find it harder to be the Cedrosians PR agent. Overgrowing finger and toe nails, unwashed hair, skin ‘burned black’ by the sun. And how they must have smelled of whale! Yuk. Well, if anyone can defend the Cedrosians I’d love to see it.

I was very interested by Diodorus’ statement that Alexander ‘sank into no ordinary grief and anxiety’. I read this as Diodorus saying that he became depressed.

Alexander was, it seems, prone to anxiety. A quick google search for references on this blog to him being anxious shows that he suffered from anxiety on at least two occasions.

(i) Diodorus Ch. 31 Over Memnon’s success in the Aegaean – read here
(ii) Plutarch 47 In Hyrcania when he worried over whether his army would continue to follow him – read here.

I have to say, though, neither of these occasions are presented in such a way as to make me feel Alexander suffered from anxiety as a serious mental health disorder. On both occasions he was anxious in the way someone would be in a high pressure situation.

In other words, he was anxious, the moment passed and he moved on.

By contrast, what Diodorus describes feels really quite different. It foreshadows, in a way, the extreme emotion that Alexander will feel when Hephaestion dies (and which Diodorus explains in two simple but foreboding words.  Alexander, he says, ‘intensely grieved’ [Chp. 110] for his friend. Arrian goes into greater detail about how he grieved [Bk 7. Para 14]).

I’m used to reading that Alexander became a megalomaniac in his later days – do we have any justification of suspecting that all along he was prone to anxiety attacks, which in Gedrosia developed into a more serious – even if not clinical – depression? I need to improve my medical knowledge before attempting to answer that question.

Keen to outdo the Cedrosians’ love of all things
whale, Alexander decides to go looking for whales
in their natural habitat.

Picture: The British Library

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Genocide? The Macedonian Trident

Daily Diodorus
Vol. VIII. Book XVII Ch. 104 (Loeb Classical Library)
Read the other posts in this series here

The Headlines
Two Islands Discovered: Sacrifices Offered
Nearchus Sets Sail for Euphrates
Alexander Destroys Tribes
New Alexandria Founded

The Story
In the summer of 325 B.C. Alexander’s fleet sailed out of the mouth of the Indus River and into the Indian Ocean. Diodorus reports that he found two islands in the process. He landed on each and ‘performed rich sacrifices’. Altars to Tethys and Oceanus were built and ‘many large cups of gold’ thrown into the sea after libations had been poured from them.

Leaving the islands, Alexander sailed to the city of Patala. A couple of posts ago we read about the city of the Sambastae, which was ‘governed in a democratic manner’. If this city was the Athens of the east, then it seems Patala was the Sparta. For there, ‘[t]wo kings descended from two houses [and] inherited their office from their fathers’. The two kings had authority over of all matters relating to war ‘while the council of elders was the principal administrative body’.

Some of Alexander’s ships had become damaged by the journey down the Indus river and into the ocean (see here for an example of how damage occurred). Repairs had been carried out, but now, Alexander burned all those that had become damaged again.

The remaining vessels were given ‘to Nearchus and others of [Alexander's] Friends’ who were ordered ‘to coast along through the Ocean’ making observations before meeting the king at the mouth of the Euphrates River.

As the ships set sail once more, Alexander led the army inland. He ‘traversed much territory and defeated his opponents’. Those ‘who submitted were received kindly’. The Abritae and ‘tribesmen of Cedrosia’ are named as having willingly submitted.

Alexander’s march took him across ‘a long stretch of waterless and largely desert country’ right up to the border of Oreitis. Upon his arrival there, the king split the army into three divisions under his own, Ptolemy’s and Leonnatus’ command.

Ptolemy was ordered ‘to plunder the district by the sea’, while Leonnatus was told ‘to lay waste [to] the interior’. As for Alexander, he ‘devastated the upper country and… hills’.

The country ‘was filled with fire and devastation and great slaughter’. The Macedonian soldiers won ‘much booty’. The neighbours of the destroyed tribes ‘were terrified and submitted’ to Alexander.

When all was done, Alexander decided to found another Alexandria, and he did so in a ‘sheltered harbour’.

Diodorus doesn’t give the date at the start of the chapter – that comes from the Footnotes, which cite Strabo.

Theoi is a good source of information about the ancient Greek gods. Here are their entries for Tethys and Oceanos.

It is quite a distance from the mouth of the Indus to Euphrates Rivers though perhaps it would not have seemed so far to the Macedonians given that they believed the world was a smaller place?

I have to admit a little confusion here. Diodorus says that Alexander led his men ‘as far as the frontiers of Oreitis’. I have assumed that his campaign against the tribes took place in that country. In Chapter 105, however, Diodorus describes Alexander as advancing ‘into the country of the Oreitae’ whose name is too similar to Oreitis to be a different people. Perhaps the campaign took place on the frontier itself or in no-man’s land between Oreitis and the region he had just passed through?

Diodorus does not mince his words when talking about Alexander’s campaign, and it sounds absolutely ghastly. The way he talks about Alexander’s ‘destruction of the tribes’ makes it sound like a genocidal action taking place. But what had the natives done to deserve such treatment? Maybe they had done nothing. I imagine they must have resisted Alexander, however, causing him to turn savagely against them.

Macedonian Film Festival

There Will Be Blood
A man discovers resistance and does all he can to destroy it

“An enduring Argead favourite”
“A rich story – for the Macedonians”
“Not sure it will go down well in foreign territories”

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Alexander Saves Ptolemy’s Life

Daily Diodorus
Vol. VIII. Book XVII Ch. 103 (Loeb Classical Library)
Read the other posts in this series here

The Headlines
Alexander attacks Harmatelia
Ptolemy Wounded by Deadly Poison
Alexander Discovers Cure for Poison in a Dream
Ptolemy is Healed
Harmatelia Surrenders

The Story
Alexander’s campaign against the Brahmins drew to its end. Only one city still remained unconquered – Harmatelia. Towards the end of the chapter, Diodorus tells us that the city ‘was large and strongly fortified’. Perhaps it was for this reason, then, that Alexander decided to even the odds a little by using cunning before launching an all-out attack.

He sent a detachment of 500 men to attack the city. If the Brahmin soldiers launch a counter-attack, he told them, withdraw…

The soldiers fulfilled their orders and sure enough the Brahmins launched a counter-attack. The Macedonians quickly retreated. It looked to the Brahmins as if the foreigners were running scared so they pursued them, no doubt with glee.

Alexander’s full plan now came to fruition. He and the rest of the army were hiding. When the Brahmins came near to them, he ambushed them.

The surprise attack was successful but not without its cost for the Brahmins’ arrows were smeared with a deadly snake poison.

Diodorus kindly gives a detailed account of how the poison was made and its effect, which I have outlined below. Go straight to the next paragraph if you are of a nervous disposition.

Final warning.

Making the poison

  1. An unspecified type of snake was ‘killed and left in the sun’
  2. The sun ‘melted the substance of the flesh’ allowing ‘drops of moisture’ to form
  3. The poison was extracted from this moisture

The poison’s effect in order of occurrence

  1. Numbness of the body
  2. ‘[S]harp pains’
  3. Convulsion and shivering across the body
  4. Coldness and lividness of the skin
  5. Vomiting with bile appearing in the vomit
  6. ‘Black froth’ issuing from the wound
  7. Gangrene spreading across the body
  8. Death

Diodorus notes that the poison killed even those whose injury was no more than a scratch. It was a death sentence. Thus, when Ptolemy was struck by a poisoned arrow, he must have feared that his life was over.

This is Diodorus’ first mention of the man who would one day become pharaoh of Egypt. He was, we are told, ‘loved by all because of his character and his kindness to all’. For this reason, ‘he obtained a succour appropriate to his good deeds’.

That night, Alexander dreamt of a snake. In its mouth it carried a plant. The snake somehow showed Alexander that the plant could be used to heal its own bite. It even showed him where it grew.

Waking up, Alexander went in search of the plant. Finding it, he ground and ‘plastered it on Ptolemy’s body. He also prepared an infusion of the plant’ which Ptolemy drank. In the hours or days that followed the son of Lagus was restored to health. The same treatment was then applied to the other soldiers who had been poisoned and they too recovered.

Alexander’s attention now returned to Harmatelia. Preparations were made to attack it. Before this could happen, however, the Brahmins came out with their ‘suppliant branches’. Despite the harm they had done to one of his closest friends, Alexander accepted their surrender.

Did this incident happen? Was Ptolemy healed by Alexander? Given that Ptolemy was pro-Alexander even if not pro-Argead you would have expected him to mention in his memoir how the king had healed him. And yet, Arrian does not mention it at all.

Perhaps he did mention it and Arrian chose to omit it but why – given his own respect for Alexander and Ptolemy – would he do that?

Thinking aloud – I am doubtful that it did happen. My suspicion is that the soldiers whose accounts formed the basis of Cleitarchus’ narrative, which Diodorus used as his source text, embellished or invented the story.

Their reason for doing so? They liked Ptolemy on account of his character and/or the fact he (had) employed them, and so wanted to do right by him.

If that sounds unlikely, we know of at least one other occasion when the soldiers went out of their way to give Cleitarchus a favourable impression of Ptolemy (i.e. when they told the Alexandrian that Ptolemy climbed up the ladder with Peucestas when he was elsewhere at the time) so I see no problem in believing they did it again.

Against that, while Ptolemy corrected Cleitarchus’ mistake (Arrian says that the pharaoh ‘has made it quite plan [in his work] that he was not present at this action’) he seemingly makes no mention of the poisoning. Why would Ptolemy correct one mistake and not the other, unless it actually happened?

Survived like a boss

Picture: from Pinterest

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A Land of Blood and Mercy

Daily Diodorus
Vol. VIII. Book XVII Ch. 102 (Loeb Classical Library)
Read the other posts in this series here

The Headlines
War and Peace along the Indus

The Story
Chapter 102 opens hopefully as Alexander makes peace with a few tribes but then becomes a tale of blood shed – one conquest after another as Alexander continues his journey to the ocean.

The Sambastae lived in cities that were ‘governed in a democratic manner’. Their army comprised of ‘sixty thousand infantry, six thousand cavalry, and five hundred armoured chariots’.

I don’t know how large the Macedonian army was at this point, but it seems that the Sambastae was organised and had sufficient numbers to put up a good defence of their country. They were compromised, however, by two things.

(i) An unfamiliarity with ships. When they saw the Macedonian fleet approach, they were taken aback by it.

(ii) A knowledge of the Macedonian army’s reputation.

If only the Sambastae had been ignorant of the Macedonian army’s achievement they might have recovered enough to fight. As it was, the tribal elders advised the authorities ‘not to risk a fight’.

Unlike the young Marmarians (read here) the rulers of the Sambastae agreed, and they sent ‘fifty of their leading citizens’ to beg for their lives. The ploy worked. Alexander ‘praised them and agreed to a peace’. In return, he was given ‘large gifts and heroic honours’.

Sodrae and Massani
These two tribes lived on either side of the Indus River and submitted to Alexander, as it seems, without a fight.

A New City
Alexander built a new Alexandria in or near these tribes’ territory. Ten thousand people were settled in it.

King Musicanus
We are not told whether there was a battle or if Musicanus gave himself up or was kidnapped; however, by some means or another, Alexander caught and executed him. In so doing he made Musicanus’ country subject to himself.

King Porticanus
There was definitely fighting here. Diodorus says that two cities in Porticanus’ country were taken ‘by storm’. Afterwards, Alexander gave his men permission ‘to plunder the houses, and then set them on fire’. As for Porticanus, he managed to escape to a stronghold only to be killed when Alexander attacked it.

Alexander was not done with Porticanus’ territory yet. He captured all ‘the other cities of [Porticanus'] kingdom and destroyed them’.

King Sambus
Diodorus says that Alexander ‘ravaged’ Sambus’ kingdom, killing eighty thousand people and destroying his cities. Most of their populations were taken into slavery. Sambus himself ‘fled with thirty elephants into the country beyond the Indus’. I wonder if he met cousin-Porus out there?

As he had done to Sambus’ people, so he did to the Brahmins. The survivors ‘came supplicating [to Alexander] with branches in their hands’. Alexander heard their appeal. Diodorus notes that he punished ‘the most guilty’ (i.e. those who had called for war against him?) and ‘forgave the rest’.

First of all, I’d like to go back to yesterday’s post. In it, we read how Dioxippus defeated Coragus in their duel by upending him, and placing his foot on Coragus’ neck. I visited the British Museum yesterday, and while there saw this Assyrian relief.


The man standing up is Tiglath-Pileser III; the man submitting to him is Hanunu, the ruler of Gaza. Can you see where Tiglath-Pileser’s foot is?

I was a bit surprised to read about the Sambastae’s alarm at the Macedonian ships. They obviously live quite close to the river, don’t they use ships themselves? It occurs to me, though, that perhaps it was the design of the Macedonian vessels that threw them – perhaps even their prows with the images of the gods on front.

Citing Arrian, the Footnotes say that this latest Alexandria was built ‘at the junction of the Acesines and the Indus’. I thought we left the Acesines behind when it flowed into the Indus, but obviously not. My picture of the rivers is contained in the third paragraph of this post.

As I said above, Diodorus doesn’t say if Alexander fought Musicanus. I’m going to suggest that he did, and that is why he killed him rather than confirm him in his post, like he did numerous other kings who willingly submitted.

Porticanus must really have angered Alexander, for not only did Alexander let his men plunder Porticanus’ cities, but he destroyed them and then destroyed all the other settlements in that country. In doing so, Diodorus writes, Alexander ‘spread the terror of his name throughout the whole region’.

Sambus’ kingdom gets equally tough treatment. They must have put up fierce resistance to the Macedonians.


Making Bactria and Sogdia look easy since 327 B.C.

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Dioxippus vs. Coragus

Daily Diodorus
Vol. VIII. Book XVII Ch. 100, 101 (Loeb Classical Library)
Read the other posts in this series here

The Headlines
Coragus Challenges Dioxippus to Duel
Dioxippus Wins Duel in Record Time
Dioxippus Accused of Theft
Dioxippus Found Dead

The Story
Chapter 100
Alexander recovered from the arrow shot to his chest. Perhaps in thanksgiving and celebration, he ‘sacrificed to the gods, and held a great banquet for his Friends’. As ever, the wine flowed freely, and that night it caused the downfall of two men.

Coragus (aka Coratas) was a tough Macedonian soldier ‘who had distinguished himself many times in battle’. He also had, it seems, a short temper, which the alcohol ‘sharpened’. And that is as much of an explanation as we get for what happened next – Coragus challenged an Athenian soldier named Dioxippus to a duel.

Dioxippus accepted the challenge. Alexander was informed and set a date for the duel to take place. On the day of the contest, the support of the ‘myriads of men gathered’ who came to watch divided along national lines.

It must have been an awkward occasion for people like Eumenes, though. All his fellow Greeks were supporting Dioxippus; his position in the Macedonian hierarchy, however, required him to be a little more circumspect.

Coragus took to the ‘field of honour… clad in his expensive armour’. By contrast, Dioxippus came naked. And while Coragus carried a javelin, lance and sword, Dioxippus carried only ‘a well balanced club’.

Both duelists were ‘fine to look upon with their magnificent physiques and their ardour for combat’. They seemed as gods to the audience – Coragus inspiring ‘terror as if he were Ares’ and Dioxippus bearing ‘a certain resemblance to Heracles’ because of his club.

The duel began. The two men ‘approached each other'; Coragus threw his javelin only to see it shoot wide as Dioxippus dodged it.

Undeterred, Coragus raised his lance ‘and charged’. But Dioxippus stood firm, and as soon as Coragus came within reach, he ‘struck the spear with his club and shattered it’.

Coragus was now ‘reduced to continuing the battle with his sword’. But before he could unsheathe it, Dioxippus leapt forward and up-ended him. Coragus struck the ground. A second later, he felt Dioxippus’ ‘foot upon his neck’. Looking up, his eyes must have widened at the sight of the Athenian’s club raised and ready to administer the death blow.

Dioxippus did not move. Instead, he paused and ‘looked to the spectators’.

Chapter 101
Diodorus says that the ‘crowd was in an uproar because of the stunning quickness and superiority of the man’s skill’. By ‘uproar’ does he mean it was angry or impressed?

Whichever it was, Alexander brought the proceedings to an end. He gave the signal for Dioxippus to let Coragus go. The Athenian obeyed, and that should have been that.

Except, it wasn’t. Alebit, without providing any evidence, Diodorus describes Alexander as being ‘plainly annoyed’ by Dioxippus’ victory. He also alleges that he ‘continued more and more hostile to him’.

This hostility lead unnamed Macedonian members of Alexander’s court to conspire against Dioxippus. They had a servant plant a gold cup underneath the pillow of the Athenian’s couch. At the next symposium, the cup was ‘found’ and Dioxippus promptly accused of stealing it.

Realising ‘that the Macedonians were in league against him’ Dioxippus took his leave from the party. He returned to his quarters, and there wrote a suicide note. In it, he informed Alexander of the conspiracy against him. Then, he killed himself.

Diodorus says that Dioxippus ‘had been ill-advised’ to accept Coragus’ challenge ‘but… much more foolish’ to commit suicide. For that reason, he adds, ‘many of those who reviled him, mocking his folly, said that it was a hard fate to have great strength of body but little sense’.

Alexander’s reaction was quite different. He read Dioxippus’ suicide note ‘and was very angry’ at his death. Thereafter, he ‘often mourned his good qualities’. No mention is made, however, of any attempt to bring those who had caused Dioxippus’ death to justice.

This is the second duel we have seen in Diodorus’ book – the first being Erygius vs Satibarzanes (read here). It becomes the third that I have known to have taken place in Alexander’s lifetime (as per the just linked-to post, the other is Eumenes vs Neoptolemus in 320 B.C.).

Why did Coragus decide to challenge Dioxippus? There may have been animosity between them, but given where Dioxippus was from, I would be surprised if Coragus wasn’t simply jealous at the fact that the Greek had ‘won a crown’ at the Olympic Games (The Footnotes say he won the boxing competition ‘probably in 336 B.C.’) and in his drunkenness wanted to humiliate him before his fellow Macedonians.

It is notable that Coragus was ‘reduced’ to using his sword. In any film you care to watch – or rather, in any film that I have watched – which is set in ancient Greece or Rome the sword is always prominent. In reality, though, it seems it was by no means the primary weapon. And when it was used, soldiers did not engage in the kind of grand duels we see in the Star Wars films (I think I’m right in saying the Roman legionaries used their swords ‘simply’ to stab and slash?)

Speaking of Star Wars, you are entirely forgiven if you started humming Duel of the Fates while reading this post.

What to make of Dioxippus’ suicide? You could say that he should have complained to Alexander about what had happened. But that would have been useless if the king was as hostile to him as Diodorus says. While there is always another way, Dioxippus undoubtedly read the writing on the wall – that the Macedonian conspirators were determined to get rid of him – and ended his own life before they could do it. It is a very depressing moment in Alexander’s story.

As for Alexander himself, once again we find him regretting the loss of someone after – albeit indirectly this time – bringing it about. If the tale of Dioxippus has any truth to it then it is one of those moments that counts as a stain upon the king’s reputation.

Coragus: These are the rules. You go down,
I win.
 I go down, I win – just a little later on,

Basis eines Athletengrabes. 510 v. Chr.

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From Macedonia in Fiction to Crete in Fact

Links to Alexander (2)

5th August 2014
Historical Fiction can speak very clearly to the present and to the past
The Guardian Book Club – references Mary Renault’s Fire From Heaven

8th – 10th August 2014
The No State Solution
Alexander represents what needs to be destroyed in order for peace to prevail

10th August 2014
Popular Takes on Raksha Bandham
A legendary story of how Roxane used this Hindu festival to help Alexander

12th August 2014
Making Alexander great: creating a hero from zero
The Guardian Book Club on Mary Renault’s The Persian Boy

13th August 2013
USC historian plays with the pieces of an ancient puzzle
“An expert on the Ptolemaic dynasty broadens her studies of Hellenistic Egypt”


There have been numerous stories around the web on the Lion Tomb at Amphipolis. Dr Dorothy Lobel King says what needs to be said best on her blog PHDiva.

The Patrick Leigh Fermor blog has good news about the publication this autumn of not one, but two books about the abduction of General Kreipe by Leigh Fermor and Cretan partisans during the Second World War.

Last Week’s Links

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The City of the Mallians

Daily Diodorus
Vol. VIII. Book XVII Ch. 98, 99 (Loeb Classical Library)
Read the other posts in this series here

The Headlines
Sydracae and Mallians Make Peace in the Face of a Common Enemy
Sydracae and Mallians Form Join Army.
* Negotiations over who commands it ongoing
Joint Army Breaks-up: No Agreement Over Leadership
Macedonians Attack City: Many Indian Casualties

The Story
Chapter 98
Diodorus makes no mention of what happened to the fleet immediately after its escape from the deadly eddies of the Indus River; presumably, Alexander ordered the surviving ships to be repaired while he continued his journey by land; alternatively, he might have waited for the repairs to be completed before continuing on foot with the ships sailing alongside him.

Unfortunately, Diodorus doesn’t give any clue as to which was indeed the case, opening the chapter with ‘[n]ext Alexander undertook a campaign against the Sydracae and the people known as Mallians’.

Up till Alexander’s arrival, the Sydracae and Mallians had been fighting each other. Seeing a common enemy approach, however, they patched up their differences and joined forces.

The joint army numbered ‘eighty thousand infantry, ten thousand cavalry, and seven hundred chariots’. Undoubtedly, a mighty force. But the two tribes also had mighty egos and ‘fell into a dispute’ over who should command the army. Unable to agree, they retired to their cities.

Whether delighted or disappointed by the army’s dispersal, Alexander came to ‘the first city’. Judging by what happened next and with reference to the other Alexander historians, this was the city of the Mallians. Diodorus simply refers to the inhabitants as Indians, though, so I shall follow him in that practice.

Alexander wanted to ‘take [the city] by storm’, but one of his seers – a man named Demophon – warned that if he did so, he would put himself in ‘great danger’. Demophon ‘begged Alexander’ to leave the city be ‘for the present’ but the king’s blood was hot. Not only did he ignore the warning but publicly ‘scolded’ Demophon for ‘dampening the enthusiasm of the soldiers’.

Demophon was dismissed and the siege got underway. Presently, a postern gate was broken open. Alexander led his men into the city. Many Indians were killed. Those who survived fled to the city’s citadel.

Diodorus now states that while the Macedonians fought ‘along the wall. Alexander seized a ladder, leaned it against the walls of the citadel’ and climbed up it.

Too scared to fight him mano-a-mano, the Indians ‘flung javelins and shot arrows at him’ instead. Their blows (upon his shield) made Alexander stagger. Where were his men? They were making ready to follow him. Two ladders were placed against the wall. The soldiers ‘swarmed up in a mass’. Suddenly – disaster. There were too many, and the ladders broke under their weight.

Chapter 99
Alexander was on top of the wall, alone. He could have climbed back down to rejoin his men, but that was not his way. His way was to fight. So, he leapt into the…

… citadel? No, apparently he jumped into ‘the city’. Did Diodorus forget he had just written that Alexander climbed the citadel wall a few lines ago? Perhaps. Or maybe the reference to Alexander climbing the citadel wall is a mistake and that after pursuing the Indians to the citadel he returned to the city walls. Although, why he would feel the need to go back outside and climb the wall to re-enter the city is beyond me. I think Alexander jumped into the citadel and Diodorus has been a bit lazy checking his text. As he says ‘city’ though, I will follow him in this.

Therefore, after jumping down into ‘the city’, Alexander found himself surrounded by Indians. Diodorus says he was ‘undismayed’ by their attack. I suspect that is only the beginning of the Macedonian king’s emotions, most of which were probably along the lines of ‘This is fantastic! A chance to win GLORY!’

During the fight, Alexander made use of a tree on his right-hand side and the city wall on his left to give him extra protection.

The Indians drew closer and closer; Alexander sustained ‘many blows upon the helmet [and] not a few upon the shield’. But he was determined to ‘make this, if it were the last feat of his life, a supremely glorious one’.

The fight continued until – inevitably – an Indian arrow hit its target. Alexander ‘was struck… below the breast’. The wound caused him to falter. The archer who had shot him ran up to deliver the coup de grâce. His hubris was the death of him. Alexander lunged his sword into the Indian’s side. Using a branch, the king hauled himself to his feet to continue the fight. Despite his injury and the pain he must have been in, Alexander ‘defied the Indians to come forward and fight’.

On the other side of the city wall, a third ladder had been found and was now flung against the wall. Peucestes (more commonly called Peucestas), the man who had carried the sacred shield into battle ever since Alexander took it from Troy, climbed up first.

Leaping down into the city, Peucestes covered Alexander with his shield. More Macedonians now followed. The Indians took fright and withdrew.

The Macedonians took the city ‘by storm. In a fury at the injury to their king, [they] killed all whom they met and filled the city with corpses’.

Alexander was seriously injured. So much so that a rumour went round the Greek settlements in Bactria and Sogdiana that he had died. The settlers had never really wanted to live in these wild and unfriendly places and so packed their bags to begin the long journey home. They never made it, being ‘massacred by the Macedonians after Alexander’s death’.

Hands up anyone who thought of the Greeks when they read about the Sydracae and Mallians falling out over who should command the army! That was certainly my first reaction.

Why did Alexander publicly admonish Demophon? What was so important about the city that he simply had to attack it? I wonder if it wasn’t just a matter of pride – something that Alexander was feeling a lot of after his humiliating climb down on the Hydaspes River.

I think the image of Alexander, an arrow sticking out of his chest, shouting at the Indians to to fight him is one of my most favourite from the whole of Diodorus’ book. The whole episode – how he climbed up the wall first, jumped into the citadel/city and kept fighting says everything that needs to be said about Alexander as a general.

The south-west wall of Multan’s citadel.

Did Alexander jump down here?









Only Diodorus knows, and he ain’t telling

Photo: From Livius

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Those Hellenists are Crazy!

… [Alexander] remembered his tutor Leonidas and presented him with 500 talents of frankincense and 100 of myrrh: this was in remembrance of the hopes with which his teacher had inspired him in his boyhood. For it seems that one day when Alexander was sacrificing and was throwing incense on to the altar by the handful, Leonidas had remarked to him, ‘Alexander, when you have conquered the countries that produce these spices, you can make as extravagant sacrifices as you like: till then, don’t waste what you have!’ So now Alexander wrote to him, ‘I have sent you plenty of myrrh and frankincense, so that you need not be stingy towards the gods any longer.’
(Plutarch Life of Alexander 25)

Humour is not something that one necessarily thinks off when reading any of the accounts of Alexander’s life. As the above quotation proves, however, it can be found, even when it is ‘just’ a sarcastic retort.

Can we do any better than sarcasm which, as the saying goes, is the lowest form of wit?

Maybe we can. Recently, I came across A Eulogy of Baldness by a late fourth-early fifth century bishop of Ptolemais named St Synesius. This work is a light hearted speech in defence of, yes, baldness; specifically, the good bishop’s.

In the course of his apologia, St Synesius recounts an story mentioned, so he says, by Ptolemy I Soter in his memoir of Alexander’s expedition. If Ptolemy really did write this story nothing and no one is going to persuade me that he did not have a smirk on his face as he did so.

The following translation comes from part fifteen and sixteen of a translation that appears on the Livius website.

… before the battle of Arbela, which we may justly describe as a great battle, having learned by experience that hair is a disadvantage to soldiers, [Alexander] made the whole host of them shave, and with God, fortune, and valor to help them combined in the struggle of all the Greeks.

Now the reason for the prejudice against hair was the following, as Ptolemy son of Lagus related in his history, one who knew, for he was present at these events, and, because he was king at the time when he wrote his history, did not lie.

A Macedonian with hair unusually long and a thick drooping beard, was attacking a Persian, but the Persian, although in danger, with excellent judgment drops the well-known oblong shield and spears from his hands, as insufficient for coping with the Macedonian. He then charges him, and contriving to slip in under his enemy’s guard, seizes him by the beard and hair, and thus throws the soldier, who had not struck a blow, to the ground, drawing him to himself by the hair like a fish, and once fallen slays him with his drawn scimitar.

Some other Persian also saw this, and another and another, and soon they were all throwing away their shields, and in full pursuit of the enemy through the plain, where one would catch one man [by] his hair, and another, another; for it now passed through the Persian army like a signal that these troops could be captured by their hair, and no one probably of Alexander’s phalanx stood his ground except that portion which was bald. Meantime the king was in sore straits, exposed to unarmed men, against whom when fully armed his army was irresistible.

As it was, Alexander might have been compelled to retreat to Cilicia in disgrace, and to become the laughing-stock of the Greeks, as one who had been defeated in a battle of the hair! But as matters were (for it was already destined that the Heraclids should deprive the Achaemenids of their scepters), speedily understanding the danger, he orders the trumpets to sound the retreat, and when he has led his army as far away as possible, and has placed it in a good position, he lets loose the barbers upon it, and induced by the gifts of the king, they shaved the Macedonians en masse.

As to Darius and the Persians, the campaign no longer proceeded according to their hopes, for as there was no longer anything to hold on to, they were condemned to struggle in armor against much superior adversaries.

Could this story really come from Ptolemy, general of Alexander and pharaoh of Egypt?

To be honest, I don’t think so. The story, as St Synesius writes it, is too ridiculous to be true. I strongly suspect that either he or a third party made it up.

As for Ptolemy, though we know very little to the point of nothing about his character, we do know he omitted fantastical occurrences from his memoir (e.g. the Amazon queen’s two week visit to Alexander’s bed-chamber and the week long party in Carmania). He was not a writer given, therefore, to repeating outlandish tales, which this certainly is.

But let’s say for a moment that Ptolemy did write it. If he did so in later life, when the Wars of the Successors were over and Egypt was settled, I would still not call the story true, but rather, an old man’s indulgence.

If, however, he wrote it during his battle with Perdiccas I would simply view it as a much needed moment of levity during a dangerous and uncertain period.

Having said that, whoever wrote it, and whenever they did so, it remains a funny tale; one that would not look out of place in an Asterix book.

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A Narrow Escape on the Indus River

Daily Diodorus
Vol. VIII. Book XVII Ch. 97 (Loeb Classical Library)
Read the other posts in this series here

The Headlines
Macedonian Fleet Wrecked at Confluence of Hydaspes, Acesines and Indus Rivers
Alexander Narrowly Escapes Being Drowned
Two Ships Destroyed, Others Damaged

The Story
At the start of Chapter 97, Diodorus says that (after pardoning the Agalesseians), Alexander continued his journey down river until he reached ‘the confluence of the rivers named above with the Indus’.

The rivers to which Diodorus is referring are the Hydaspes and Acesines. If you have read yesterday’s post you will know about the confusing way in which he writes about the waterways of this region.

Based upon what Diodorus and the Footnotes say, my current picture of the rivers is that the Sandabal becomes the Acesines where it meets the Hyarotis and Hydaspes. The Hyarotis ends here but the Hydaspes splits away from the Acesines and runs alongside it until (?) they meet the Indus River further on. This picture may or may not be accurate.

Fortunately, it doesn’t really matter. What does is that – according to Diodorus – the three rivers ran so quickly, they created fiercely eddying waters at the confluence. These drew Alexander’s fleet into them, causing the ships to ‘collide with each other, [causing] great damage’. Two ships sank. Some of the others did manage to escape the eddying water only to run aground.

Meanwhile, Alexander’s ship was drawn into ‘a great cataract’ (i.e. a rapid). ‘With death staring him in the face’ the king tore off his clothing and jumped into the river. The Footnotes refer to Plutarch’s assertion that Alexander could not swim. If that was so, he was fortunate indeed to be able to make it to the shore. Did he hold on to a piece of debris? Perhaps someone rescued him – Diodorus does say that his ‘Friends swam with him, concerned to help the king to safety’.

Back on Alexander’s ship, the crew tried desperately to save the vessel ‘but the water was superior to all human skill and power’. The translation suggests that despite this, the ‘ships with [Alexander]‘ reached safety. The Footnotes say, however, that the manuscript may have mistaken the word ‘ships’ for ‘young men’ or, simply, ‘swimmers’.

On the banks of the confluence, Alexander sacrificed to the gods for delivering him from danger. As he did so, he reflected that ‘like Achilles, [he] had done battle with a river’.

For the record, Diodorus doesn’t say whether Alexander reached the confluence with the Indus River by sailing down the Acesines or Hydaspes. I would assume it was the former as that is the way he had come up until now.

I don’t know what it is like in the rest of the world, but here in the UK football managers will always try to find a positive from a game even when their side loses 4-0. I think it is safe to say that by comparing his escape from the cataract to Achilles’ fight against the river god Alexander committed a fine example of a football manager positive.

Shall I go sailing or shall I stay alive? Hmmm


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Of Giant Altars and Heraclean Men

Daily Diodorus
Vol. VIII. Book XVII Ch. 95, 96 (Loeb Classical Library)
Read the other posts in this series here

The Headlines
Great Camp Assembled: A Different Kind of Shock and Awe
Congratulations to Bucephala and Nicaea on their Name Day
* Inside: Remembering the horse behind the name
Sibians: A Present People, A Past Legend

The Story
Once the decision to return west had been taken, Alexander didn’t simply up sticks and depart. On the banks of the Hyphasis River he had his men construct altars to the dodekathaeon, fifty cubits (75 feet) high.

A camp perimeter was ‘traced’ at three times its normal size and a ditch ‘fifty feet wide and forty deep’ created. The displaced earth was used to make a great wall.

Inside the ‘camp’, men were ordered to build outsized beds and stables that were ‘twice the normal size’. Alexander wanted any natives passing this way to believe that ‘men of huge stature, displaying the strength of giants’ had once been here.

Only when the entire camp had been built in similarly exaggerated proportions did Alexander finally take his leave of the easternmost border of his empire.

From the Hyphasis, the Macedonian king returned to the Acesines River. There, he found the ships he had ordered to be built (see Chapter 89) ready and waiting for him.

But rather than board them and set sail straightaway, Alexander again paused. The ships needed to be fitted out and he wanted more built.

It was while the ships were being attended to and built that reinforcements arrived all the way from Greece. They comprised of Greek allied soldiers and mercenaries. In total they were 30,000 infantry and just under 6,000 cavalry. The soldiers came with ‘elegant suits of armour for 25,000 foot soldiers and a hundred talents of medical supplies’.

The armour and supplies were distributed to the men. By the time this was done, the fleet was again ready. It now comprised of ‘two hundred open galleys and eight hundred service ships’.

Alexander’s last act before finally setting sail was to name the two cities he had built on either side of the river. These became Nicaea on the western side and Bucephala on the eastern bank, where the battle against Porus had been fought.

Before I continue, I must pause to address two slightly confusing matters that you may have noticed.

i. I don’t know if it comes out as such, but when I wrote about the building of Nicaea and Bucephala in this post I did so under the impression that both cities were built on the eastern side of the river – Bucephala on the eastern bank and Nicaea further on. That this was the case was the impression I got from Diodorus’ text where he writes, ‘[Alexander] founded two cities, one beyond the river where he had crossed and the other on the spot where he had defeated Porus’. He now states that the cities were built ‘on either side of the river’.

ii. When Diodorus has Alexander name Nicaea and Bucephala he is still on the Acesines River. However, in Chapter 89 they are being built on (either side of) the Hydaspes. The Footnotes state that the Hydaspes is renamed the Acesines ‘after its confluence with the Sandabal and the Hyarotis’. If this is the case, Diodorus has been a bit lazy in saying the battle happened on the Hydaspes but at least it clears up the confusion… except that in Chapter 96, he ‘mentions the confluence of the Acesines and Hydaspes as if they were different’. The Footnotes suggest that the Acesines is the Sandabal river.

Chapter 96
Alexander now set sail. The fleet was not large enough to carry the entire army, or even most of it; led by Craterus and Hephaestion, they marched down river. The Footnotes cite Arrian as saying Craterus marched on the right bank and Hephaestion on the left. Given their prickly relationship that was probably just as well.

At ‘the junction of the Acesines and the Hydaspes’ (see point ii above), Alexander disembarked and led his army ‘against the people called the Sibians’. Diodorus refers to the belief that they ‘are the descendants of the soldiers who came with Heracles to the rock of Aornus’ and ‘were settled in this spot by him’. It isn’t made clear whether Alexander knew this or not before he stepped off his ship.

Either way, no fighting happened. The ‘leading notables’ of the Sibians met him and handed over ‘magnificent gifts’. They ‘renewed their ties of kinship, and undertook to help him enthusiastically in every way, as being his relatives’. Alexander gave the Sibians their freedom and moved on.

The Agalesseis came next. Their army – 40,000 infantry and 3,000 cavalry – formed up against the Macedonians. In the ensuing battle, Alexander killed most of the enemy. Some Agalesseians escaped from the carnage into ‘neighbouring cities’. These were put under siege and captured. Prisoners were sold as slaves.

Alexander also stormed ‘a large city in which twenty thousand persons had taken refuge’. There, his army appears to have sustained high losses in the street-by-street fighting. Angered by this, Alexander torched the city, burning most of the city’s inhabitants to death in the process. This sounds a very ugly moment. The Footnote, however, record Curtius as saying that the Indians themselves set fire to the city ‘to avoid subjection’.

The surviving Agalesseians withdrew to the city’s citadel. There, they ‘appealed for mercy with suppliant branches’. Despite his anger, or perhaps now becalmed, Alexander accepted their appeal.

Alexander’s building of a super-sized camp reminds me of the Anglo-Saxons’ reaction to the ruined Roman villas. They too thought they had been built by giants.

I wonder what the new arrivals from Greece felt like when they finally reached Alexander only to discover that they were going back the way they came again! Annoyed or quite happy?

When Arrian says that Craterus marched on the right bank and Hephaestion on the left I assume this is as you look down the river towards the Ocean; if so, Craterus would have been on the western bank and Hephaestion on the eastern.

Giants, Mind Your Heads


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