Gardens in the Air

The Nature of Curtius
Book Five Chapter 1
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Chapter One
Media and Babylon – Waste and Wealth
After crossing the Lycus River, Darius made his way to Arbela where he paused long enough to hold a council with his surviving officers. Leaving Arbela (then a village, now a city) straight after, he began his journey to the ‘waste-lands’ of Media where he intended to form a new army.

Not long after Darius’ departure, Alexander arrived in Arbela. He stayed just long to take its valuables before being obliged to leave by disease caused by the decomposing bodies on the Gaugamela battlefield. He rode out of the village with Media on his left, and Arabia on his right.

Alexander’s journey took him through the country of Mesopotamia, so named because it lay between two rivers – the Tigris and Euphrates.

By-the-bye, I once read a biography of C S Lewis, which stated that as a student in the 1910s he would go bathing in Mesopotamia. Lewis, however, never visited the near east; his Mesopotamia was a stretch of land between the two arms of the Isis River in Oxford. I wonder if it is still there – the land, that is. Perhaps Oxford University students still go there.

I don’t know what Mesopotamia (the ancient one) is like now, but – unsurprisingly given the presence of the two rivers – Curtius describes its soil as being so rich ‘animals are purportedly kept from grazing in case they die from over-eating’.

In fact, he says, the soil ‘oozes water’. This reminds me of a plant – I think it was sphagnum moss – that I once walked over in Scotland. You could walk on it without difficulty but there was so much water underneath it from a nearby pond that the moss moved under your feet; very disconcerting! I wonder what the ground in Mesopotamia was like to walk on.

Curtius now shifts his attention to the Tigris and Euphrates. They emerge, he says, from the Armenian mountains. At their widest point, the two rivers are 2,500 stades apart. Leaving the mountains, they travel through Media and Gorduene before slowly converging in Mesopotamia. They then wend their way through Babylonia and out into what Curtius calls the Red Sea, i.e. the Persian Gulf.

Three days after leaving Arbela, Alexander came to a place named Mennis. Here, Curtius notes, ‘there is a cave with a stream that pours forth huge quantities of bitumen’ which was used to cement Babylon’s walls.

As you can see from the above photograph (source: Wikipedia), bitumen is not the most beautiful substance to look at. But that’s fine, for we know move on to Alexander’s arrival in the that most glamorous – in the full sense of the word – city, Babylon.

Upon his arrival, Alexander rode threw the city on a chariot. ‘[F]lowers and garlands’ were laid upon the road in front of him. Altars were set up and ‘heaped not just with frankincense but with all manner of perfumes’.

In Matt. 2: 1-12, the wise men bring three gifts to the child Jesus. Each one has a prophetic value. Gold in recognition of Christ the king, frankincense in recognition of Christ the priest, and myrrh in recognition of his death to come. I wonder why the Babylonian priests used frankincense. Was it simply because that is what they believed the gods wanted? Or were they (also) making a comment about Alexander’s priestly nature?

Animals were also represented during the Macedonian’s king triumphant march. There were ‘herds of cattle and horses’ as well as lions and leopards which were ‘carried along in cages’. Speaking of the wise men, Curtius reports that the magi followed directly after the animals.

You may recall that in the first post in this series, we saw how the Marsyas passed through the walled city of Calaenae. The Euphrates did likewise through Babylon. To make sure it didn’t flood the city, the river was bordered by ‘great embankments’. Behind these were ‘huge pits sunk deep in the ground’ for any excess water. To think that it took London until the nineteenth century to build her embankments.

It sounds like the Babylonians would have made Sir Joseph Bazalgette proud, but according to Curtius the true wonder of the city was the (half a mile long) bridge that spanned the river. It was a prodigious feat of engineering because the Euphrates carried ‘along with it a thick layer of mud’ underneath which was infirm ground – no ‘solid base for supporting a structure’.

And yet, not only did the Babylonians manage to build the bridge, they also built one that could survive being continuously beaten by water against its supports.

We now come to that other construction for which Babylon to this day is renowned – the hanging gardens.

Curtius says they were located on top of the city’s citadel. According to tradition, the gardens were built by a Syrian king* at his wife’s behest as she ‘missed the woods and forests’ of the country. Thus, it is really an arboretum.

The Syrian king must surely have used Mesopotamian soil as the trees are described as being ‘eight cubits thick and their height as much as fifty feet’. Further to this, ‘they bear fruit as abundantly as if they were growing in their natural environment’.

Unfortunately, Curtius gives no further space to the hanging gardens, concentrating instead on the Macedonians and Babylonians – especially their women’s – bad behaviour. If you would like to read the Daily Mail of 2,000 years ago, I commend Bk 5. 1. 36-38 to you.

* According to the notes, it was actually Nebuchadrezzar, a Chaldaean, who built the gardens

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Earth and Water

The Nature of Curtius
Book Four Chapters 11-16
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Chapter 11
Tears and Hard Ground
On the eve of the Battle of Gaugamela, Alexander received another letter from Darius. In it, the Great King offered further concessions to him in order to end the war between them. These included – once again – Stateira II’s hand in marriage but this time all territory west of the Euphrates River. Alexander was warned that taking the whole empire would be ‘fraught with danger’ and that it would be difficult to control.

Why did Darius think Alexander might respond to this letter any more positively than his last?

A few days earlier*, Stateira I had died. Upon being informed, Alexander wept copious tears for her, and he gave his permission for her funeral to be carried out in the ‘traditional Persian fashion’.

In the confusion following Stateira’s death, a eunuch** belonging to the Persian royal family escaped from the Macedonian camp and made his way to Darius’ tent. There, he told the Great King how Alexander had cried for his late wife, having treated the royal women with the utmost respect since capturing them following the Battle of Issus.

It was this insight into Alexander’s kindness that gave Darius the confidence to send his letter.

Unfortunately, the seeds did not fall on fertile ground and Alexander dismissed Darius’ offer. “‘He generously gives me the land beyond the Euphrates,'” Alexander said, contemptuously, “‘[but] I am already across the Euphrates and my camp stands beyond the boundary of the land he generously promises me as dowry!'”

The ambassadors were allowed to return to Darius. They did so, and told him that ‘battle was imminent’.

* The following account comes from Chapter 10

** Curtius gives his name as Tyriotes

Chapter 12
Mist and Sun
As the Macedonian army marched towards Gaugamela, a strange event happened. ‘Intermittent flashes in the bright sky, of the type seen on hot summer days [and which] had the appearance of fire’ were seen. The Macedonian soldiers thought ‘that they were flames gleaming in Darius’ camp, and that they had negligently advanced among enemy outposts’. This caused a general panic to occur.

Realising what was happening, Alexander stopped the march and told his men to ‘lay down their arms and rest’. While they did so, he reassured them that the Persians were still a long way off and that they were in no danger.

As it happens, however, they were, for Mazaeus and his cavalry party were on a hilltop overlooking the camp. Curtius says that if he ‘had struck while [the Macedonians] were still panicking a terrible disaster could have been inflicted’ on Alexander’s army. But he didn’t. Although he had 3,000 horse with him Mazaeus would have known he was hopelessly outnumbered. So, he stayed put ‘content not to be under attack’.

To go back to the flashes of light for a moment, I presume from the Macedonian soldiers’ reactions they thought they were seeing the reflection of the sun on the Persians’ armour and weaponry and that this meant they had drawn too close to their enemy. It makes a lot more sense that fiery flashes of light across a blue sky.

Whatever the cause of the flashes, they unnerved the Macedonians enough to make Alexander call a halt to the proceedings for the day and set up a fortified camp.

The next day, Mazaeus withdrew from the hilltop. The Macedonians took his position. From their new vantage point they had a good view of the battlefield. It was a humid day, however, and a mist descended. While it wasn’t heavy enough to obscure the plain before them, ‘it did render it impossible to see how [the Persian] forces were divided and organized.’

Presently, the mist lifted and the two armies were revealed to each other. Both shouted their war-cries ‘and the woods and valleys round about rang with a terrifying noise’.

Chapter Thirteen
Spikes in the Ground
This chapter is concerned mostly with the Persian and Macedonian armies preparation for war, so is of little interest to us. It does conclude, however, with a sole horse rider galloping out of the Persian camp and towards Alexander. His name was Bion and he was a deserter. He warned the Macedonian king that Darius had placed iron spikes in the ground where he thought the Macedonian cavalry intended to ride during the battle. I don’t recall any similar practice at the Granicus River or Issus and if memory serves, Alexander himself never employed such a tactic. Perhaps he thought it would undermine his glory.

Chapter Fourteen
Empire and Prison
Alexander encouraged his men with a bold speech. He spoke, as it were, to two people – the brave and non-brave.

To the brave, he made the land out to be a place of triumph, where they had won great victories (e.g. at the Granicus River and Issus) or had passed through as victors (e.g. the Cilician Mountains, Syria and Egypt).

To the non-brave, however, the land was represented as an enemy. You have come so far, he said, that ‘all those rivers and mountains [are] a barrier’ behind you. If you want to go home, you are going to have to fight.

Darius also spoke of barriers. Not natural ones, though; that would have been difficult having wrought so much destruction upon the land as part of his defensive operations. Instead, the Great King asked his men to be living barriers that would save the lives of their families who waited behind them.

Chapter Fifteen
The Eagle
The Battle of Gaugamela was in full bloody flow when Alexander’s guards caught sight of ‘an eagle gently hovering just above the king’s head, frightened neither by the clash of arms nor the groans of the dying’.

Aristander – dressed as a priest and with a laurel-branch in his hand – pointed the eagle out to the soldiers as it maintained its station saying (or, more likely, shouting, if he really was there) that it was ‘an infallible omen of victory’.

Up till now, the Macedonians had been in a state of terror. Upon being alerted to the eagle’s presence, however, they became ‘fired with tremendous enthusiasm and confidence for the fight’. This confidence increased when Darius’ charioteer was killed.

Dominos now started to fall. The charioteer was mistaken for Darius. The Persian Cavalry let out a huge cry. This unsettled the entire Persian army. The left-wing folded and the army started to retreat. The Macedonians gave chase. The battle ended and a massacre began.

Chapter Sixteen
A Bridge Too Far
Darius fled to the Lycus River (the modern day Greater Zab). Crossing it, he contemplated destroying the bridge behind him. But although he knew that would prevent the Macedonians from pursuing him, he decided not to do as it would also condemn many of his men to death.

In the hours that followed, however, the Persian soldiers themselves either caused the bridge to collapse or surely came close to doing so as they ‘overloaded’ it in their haste to flee the battlefield. So desperate were they that not only did men attempt to wade across the Lycus – with some being carried away under the weight of their armour – but they also trampled over each other in order to reach the other side. It was an ignominious end to the battle of empires.

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Alexander’s Armour

By now the noise of the engagement had reached the king, who came to the front line, dismissing from his mind the danger of which he had been forewarned – though in deference to his friends’ pleas he did put on his cuirass, which he rarely wore.
(Curtius Bk. 4 Chapter 6)

When I read the above passage this morning*, the last four words immediately jumped out at me – which he rarely wore. What, I thought to myself, Alexander rarely wore armour? That cannot be; Curtius has made a mistake.

In Chapter 13 of Book 4, however, he once again observes that Alexander ‘very rarely… wore his cuirass’ and that when he did, it was only ‘at the request of his friends’.

But, Alexander definitely wore armour. This is confirmed by the Alexander historians**, including Curtius himself.

[Alexander's] courage was great, but the danger greater for, conspicuous in his royal insignia and flashing armour, he was the prime target of enemy missiles…
(Book 4 Chapter 4)

Visual references also show that he wore armour. For example, the famous Alexander Mosaic.

Mosaic of Alexander the Great

The only thing I can say about the mosaic is that it was made around 100 B.C. – just over two hundred years after Alexander’s death; it is believed, however, to be based on an early third century B.C. original (see its Wikipedia entry here).

On the other hand, the sculpture of Alexander on the side of the Alexander sarcophagus appears to me to show the Macedonian king without any armour at all.

Alexander_Sarcophagus

Now, for all I know, he is wearing armour – it’s just underneath his tunic (though this would be unlikely?) or the sculptor only omitted it for propaganda/aesthetic reasons (more likely).

As I see them, the options as regards Curtius are these,

1. He is correct. Alexander really did only wear armour rarely
2. He is deceiving us (to make Alexander look good? Or bad, e.g. reckless)
3. He is incorrect as a result of misreading his source(s)
4. He is incorrect as a result of being deceived by his source(s)
5. He is both wrong and right. Alexander wore armour but only wore a particular type of cuirass rarely – perhaps the muscular cuirass (below)?
Museo_archeologico_regionale_paolo_orsi,_corazza_in_bronzo,_da_tomba_5_necropoli_della_fossa,_370-340_ac._01

Can you think of any other options – or know the answer to this puzzle? Even if you have as much idea as me, feel free to leave your comment below!

* For my post As the Crow Flies

** ‘… they could see Alexander himself, an unmistakable figure in magnificent armour… (Arrian Bk 1)
‘That it was Alexander who stood there was plain to all: his almost legendary courage no less than his shining armour proclaimed him.’ (Arrian Bk 6)
‘[Alexander] put on his helmet. He was already wearing the rest of his armour…’ (Plutarch 32)

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As the Crow Flies

The Nature of Curtius
Book Four Chapters 5-10
For other posts in the series click here

Chapter Five
Offering the impossible
After making good his escape from Issus, Darius wrote to Alexander offering him the hand of his daughter Stateira II and Asia Minor west of the Halys River.

asia_minor

This map comes from Celtia

Do not hesitate to accept this deal, Darius warned him, as fortune never stands still. Darius then told Alexander that his (Alexander’s) fear was that

… like the birds wafted up to the sky by their natural lightness, Alexander would also be carried away by the vanity of his youthful mind – nothing was more difficult than keeping control of great fortune at his age.

To press home his point, Darius warned Alexander that he had ‘many other lands in his power, and… would not always be vulnerable to attack in a narrow pass.’

In his response, Alexander told the Persian messenger ‘that Darius was promising him property which was not his to give’. As for the ‘property’ that remained in Darius’ hands – Alexander dealt with that by giving a sinister version of Ruth 1:16. Wherever he goes, Alexander told the herald, I can follow. Finally, Alexander swapped Darius’ avian metaphor for an aquatic one. The Great King, he told the messenger, ‘should stop trying to frighten with rivers a man whom he knew to have passed over seas’.

Chapter Six
Alexander’s Investment
After leaving Tyre, Alexander’s next major action was a two month siege of Gaza. From the Book of Ruth we fast forward to Matt. 7:24–27 and Luke 6:46–49 and the parable of the house built on rock. When Alexander inspected Gaza, he found it to be akin to the house built on sand in that there was a lack of rock and stone underneath it. So, he ordered his men to undermine the city by digging shafts and tunnels.

While the digging was going on, Alexander carried out a sacrifice. During it, he was struck by a clod of earth dropped by a passing crow. Avian metaphors could be ignored, but not avian actions. What did this one mean?

Aristander’s reply was very unwelcome. The omen predicted ‘that the city would be destroyed’ but that ‘there was also [a] danger that Alexander would sustain injury’. Aristander therefore advised his king to ‘take no initiative that day’. Reluctantly, Alexander agreed.

Events conspired, however, to plunge him into action. Seeing the Macedonians withdraw, the Gazans decided to launch a sortie against them. During the counter-attack, Alexander was shot in his shoulder by an arrow.

Alexander was still recovering from this injury when he undertook another earth-moving project. Gaza stood on a mound (or hill?). To reach its walls, Alexander ordered the construction of a mound. Tall siege towers were rolled up it. The towers were so high the Macedonians were able to fire missiles down into the city.

What did for Gaza, though, were the shafts and tunnels. The shafts that Alexander had ordered to be dug caused the city walls to collapse. Led by their king, the Macedonians poured into the city. It was quickly taken and its governor, Batis, would soon die by being dragged round Gaza’s walls just as Hector’s body had been dragged in front of Troy all those years ago.

Chapter Seven
Siwah
The fall of Gaza opened Egypt up to Alexander, and it welcomed him with open arms. After settling the country’s administrative affairs he made his famous trip to Siwah. Curtius vividly describes the difficult journey to the oracle of Ammon. Alexander and his small company of men rode through ‘vast stretches of naked desert’ which disoriented the eyes. Curtius refers to the fact that ‘no tree was to be seen [nor] a trace of cultivated soil’. In a ‘vast sea’ of shifting sand dunes this made locating oneself impossible.

Worse was to come when the Macedonians ran out of water. The men’s throats ‘were dry and burned’. Suddenly – perhaps in recompense for causing Alexander such trouble at Tyre – ‘clouds shredded the sky and hid the sun’. The temperatures cooled. Presently, ‘high winds… showered down generous quantities of rain’ which the men collected with the skins and by opening their mouths to the sky.

‘After four days in the desert wastes’, Alexander and his men were met by ‘a number of crows’ which guided them the rest of the way to Siwah. What is it about crows and Macedonians?

Curtius only gives us some specific details about Siwah Oasis. He says that Ammon’s shrine ‘is so well screened on all sides by encircling tree branches that the rays of the sun barely penetrate the shade’ and that the oasis woods ‘are sustained by a wealth of fresh-water springs’.

Curtius also adds that the oasis’ climate is ‘amazingly temperate… providing a healthy atmosphere’. He also tells us about the Water of the Sun – the fountain that (to this day) gets cooler towards midday and hotter at night. For more about the fountain and Siwah, here is what I wrote when I read Diodorus’ account.

Chapter Eight
Alexandria
According to Curtius, Alexander founded Alexandria after his visit to Siwah. At first, he wanted to build the city on the island of Pharos but following an inspection of its ‘natural features’ he decided to locate it on the mainland instead. It appears that Pharos was too small for ‘a large settlement’.

Chapter Nine
Out of Date Tactics
We pick the story up again with Alexander now in Mesop0tamia, on his way to Gaugamela for his final showdown with Darius III.

On hearing that Alexander was approaching, Darius ordered his general Mazaeus to ‘lay waste and burn’ the ground in front of the Macedonians. Mazaeus did as he was ordered but the time for such a policy had long since passed. Alexander had greater trouble crossing the fast-flowing Tigris than he did with provisions.

After giving Mazaeus his orders, Darius marched to the Boumelus River* where he pitched camp. Before him was a wide open plain – the perfect battlefield for his large army. It was a little uneven, though, so the Great King ordered the ‘protrusions in the flat land to be levelled and any higher ground to be completely flattened’.

* The modern day Khazir

Chapter Ten
The Dangerous Eclipse
As we have seen in this series, natural phenomena have played a significant role in the account of Alexander’s journey. In the early hours of 20th September 331 B.C. they played their most important part yet. That night, the moon became pale and then ‘suffused with a blood-red colour’.

The Macedonians observed the eclipse with fear in their hearts. The gods are against us, they said, the rivers forbid access, the moon loses her strength, everywhere is ‘desolation and desert’. And why is all this happening? Because of

… the grandiose plans of one man who despised his country, disowned his father Philip, and had deluded ideas about aspiring to heaven.

‘Mutiny’ Curtius says gravely, ‘was but a step away’. As the Notes say, he is exaggerating but there was ‘clearly already an undercurrent of resentment against Alexander because of his pretensions about Jupiter Ammon’. That, however, is for another post. In this one, we may say that Alexander called his generals and officers together before ordering his ‘Egyptian seers’ to tell him what the eclipse meant.

The Egyptian priests knew exactly what had caused the eclipse. Very smartly, however, they told the Macedonian soldiery (as opposed, I presume, to Alexander et al) that

… the sun represented the Greeks and the moon the Persians, and that an eclipse of the moon predicted disaster and slaughter for those nations.

Their interpretation was accepted and the soldiers’ anxiety eased. Now, they just had a battle to win.

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Nature’s Enmity; Alexander’s Victory

The Nature of Curtius
Book Four Chapters 3 – 4
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Chapter Three
The Young King and the Sea
In order to build the mole, the Macedonians cut down trees and took rocks from the surrounding countryside. On Mount Libanus they were attacked by Arab peasants. This led Alexander to lead ‘a detachment of light-armed troops’ into Arabia to kill them.

In the summer of 323 B.C. Alexander was planning an expedition into Arabia. His death in June, however, meant that it never happened. This punitive expedition would be his only excursion into that sandy region.

The Tyrians did their best to stop the building of the mole. To do so, they used some familiar materials and some that I hope were less familiar (at least, in a martial context).

The familiar came in the form of ‘rocks and sand’. The rocks were piled into a boat at its stern*, so that the prow ‘stood high out of the water’ – all the better to land the boat on the mole with. The boat was also ‘daubed… with bitumen and sulphur’ so that it would burn more easily.

The boat was then launched towards the mole and set alight. We saw yesterday how the weather set itself against the Macedonians. It now did so again, for as the burning ship drew near, ‘an especially high wind whipped up the sea from its very depths and smashed it against the mole’. The mole collapsed, and Alexander was forced to begin building it again.

Curtius takes this opportunity to give a little insight into how the mole was built. Trees were thrown into the sea first and rocks dropped over them. A second line of trees were then placed on top of the rocks. Earth was then placed over the rocks before another layer of rocks and trees were added ‘thus forming a structure virtually bonded’. Alexander tried to make the wind work for him by directing the mole into the head-wind. This ensured that the front of the mole (guarded by towers) protected the men working behind it.

Meanwhile, the Tyrians were not restricting their attacks to boats. Divers attached hooks to the trees at the base of the mole and pulled them away, again causing the structure to collapse.

It is at this point that Curtius says Alexander was ‘dejected, undecided whether to continue or leave’. Very opportunely, new soldiers from Greece and ships arrived from Cyprus. Encouraged by these reinforcements, Alexander decided to stay and see the job through.

The ships surrounded the city. Alexander intended to attack at midnight. At the appointed hour, though, the weather once more intervened. Thick clouds gathered and ‘a layer of fog’ fell. Then a strong wind whipped up the sea. The ships crashed against one another. Most if not all survived but the attack had to be aborted.

When Alexander renewed his attack the Tyrians employed their more unusual – and wholly unpleasant – weapon. We have seen how they used rocks. Now they poured boiling sand on the enemy soldiers. If only it was just that, for they also boiled excrement and poured that down as well. I suppose desperate times called for desperate measures.

* Stern – rear, prow – front (the starboard is the right hand side of the boat as you look forward, the port the left hand side)

Chapter Four
The Walls Came Tumbling Down
Alexander had had enough. He decided to lift his siege and depart for Egypt. And yet, when push came to shove, he could not bear to leave. It would be a disgrace for him to leave Tyre behind for if he did it would be a ‘witness that he could be beaten’. The city would also be a thorn in his side with its ability to disrupt his supply lines.

So, ‘he ordered more ships to be brought up’. At the same time, ‘a sea-creature of extraordinary size’ – perhaps a whale? – gave nature’s verdict on what would happen next. It rose out of the sea and splashed down on the mole.

The Tyrians took this to be a sign that Poseidon (Neptune to Curtius, of course) was ‘exacting vengeance’ for Alexander’s ‘occupation of the sea’. The Macedonians, however, believed that they were being shown the way to point the mole.

In the end, the Macedonians were proved right. They reached Tyre’s walls, broke through them and stormed the city. Many Tyrians were killed, either in the fighting or by being executed afterwards. They had given the Macedonians their hardest fight since the start of the expedition and now had to suffer the consequences.

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The man who had it all

The Nature of Curtius
Book Four Chapters 1 – 4
For other posts in the series click here

Chapter 1
The King Without a Crown
In the last post, we saw how Darius lost the Battle of Issus but was able to escape from the battlefield using horse relays. At the beginning of this chapter, Curtius makes the very poignant point that the Great King fled

through terrain which he had filled with armies almost beyond number but which was now deserted – to form one vast and solitary wilderness.

So, having lost the symbols of his kingship when he removed his royal insignia at the start of his flight it was now as if Darius had now lost his very kingdom. The earth had turned its back to him.

And I think that the earth could not have deserted (if you’ll excuse the pun) a more appropriate king. We know from the other Alexander historians that Memnon of Rhodes recommended a scorched earth policy prior to the Battle of the Granicus River, and that while the satraps had rejected his advice, as Alexander mentioned in his response to Darius’ letter, the Persians had form for carrying out such devastating actions*.

And, of course, there is Arsames – the satrap of Cilicia – who did indeed destroy his land upon Alexander’s approach.

Speaking of Alexander’s letter, it led to what must have been a very long journey for Thersippus who was given the responsibility of delivering it. If you have seen the film 300 you will know that messengers were not always treated very well (see the film clip below).

Admittedly, 300 is not your go-to film for an example of historical accuracy but if we jump forward to chapter 2 of Curtius’ book for a moment, what do we find happening to Alexander’s heralds after they entered Tyre to warn the Tyrians to make peace with the Macedonian king? They were killed and their bodies thrown over the city walls and into the sea. This. Is. Tyre!

In Sidon**, Alexander overthrew the king and gave the job of nominating a successor to Hephaestion. He offered the kingship to the two noblemen he was lodging with only for them to turn it down as they were not members of the royal family.

Impressed by their humility, Hephaestion invited them to chose the new king. They turned to a poor gardener named Abdalonymus who was ‘distantly related to the royal family’.

In what must be one of the nicest scenes in any biography of Alexander, the two noblemen visited Abdalonymus as he worked in his garden. There, they told him to take off his rags, clean himself up, and put on the royal clothing they had brought him.

The choice of Abdalonymus as king did not meet with everyone’s approval. So, Alexander summoned him in order to assess his character. How did you endure your poverty? He asked him. Abdalonymus replied,

‘These hands of mine satisfied my needs. I had nothing, but lacked nothing.’

I don’t know anything about Abdalonymus’ later career except that the Alexander sarcophagus may have been made for him.

I wonder, though, if Curtius was telling us something about Abdalonymus’ future when, as the two noblemen greeted him, the king-to-be was described as pulling up weeds. Weeds today, corrupt officials tomorrow***?

* In his letter, Alexander referred to how Xerxes I ‘left Mardonius in Greece so that he could destroy our cities and burn our fields’
** Or Tyre according to Diodorus, who also called Abdalonymys ‘Ballonymus’ (see here)
*** I must also mention the fact that when the noblemen met Abdalonymus he had no idea that Alexander and Darius were contending with one another for control of the latter’s empire. He was wise, humble and aloof.

Chapter 2
Re-Maker of Worlds
In this post, we have seen nature used as a metaphor – for the loss of a kingdom and for wisdom. At the start of the second chapter, Alexander threatens the Tyrian envoys by using what appears to be hyperbole. You think you are safe, he tells them, because you live on an island,

‘… but I am soon going to show you that you are really on the mainland.’

As it happens, the envoys believed him. To its cost, however, the city did not.

Alexander’s prophecy came true in two ways. Firstly, when his mole finally reached the island. And secondly when, over the years, the mole caused the sea to silt up around it to the point where the old city and island city could be completely joined. For images of joined-up Tyre today, see this post.

Alexander’s ability to not only use the land but change it according to his wishes stand in stark contrast to the impotent figure of Darius as he rides through the lonely wilderness.

Alexander intended to build a mole (i.e a causeway) to carry his army to the gates of the city. He was opposed not only by the Tyrians, but also the weather.

For example, Curtius says that a gap of four stades (under half a mile) separated Tyre from the mainland. That gap was assaulted by a strong ‘south-westerly wind, which rolled rapid successions of waves on to the shore’.

Then there was the depth of the sea which, beyond the shoreline, fell into a ‘fathomless’ depth. Although this was an exaggeration, as it turned out, the sea was still deep enough to fill the Macedonian soldiers ‘with despair’ when they saw it.

But Alexander was stronger than their hopelessness, and he got his men to work. The mole soon began to rise out of the sea.

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Persian Women

I recently discovered the very well presented Mani website. Contrary to what the name suggests, it is not dedicated that region of Greece, but the great women of Persia from antiquity to the first millennium A.D.

The site contains some beautiful pictures and there is no doubt that the author loves his country a great deal. It is a shame, therefore, that some of his information is not as accurate as it could be.

For example, in the section on Sisygambis (called here Sissy Cambis), we are told that Darius III’s mother,

was a remarkable Achaemenid woman who fought, resisted and did not surrender to Alexander the Macedonian Tyrant.

The only correct statement in this sentence is Alexander’s name and nationality. Actually, I would accept that Sisygambis was remarkable but only if by that one meant that she was remarkable in her devotion to the king.

That aside, Sisygambis neither fought nor resisted Alexander. Not in war and not when he came into her tent. As for never surrendering to him – what else was her act of obeisance to him?

In my opinion, calling Alexander a tyrant is also debatable. The problem with using that word is that it brings to mind a specific office in antiquity, which Alexander never held. If one wanted to use a pejorative terms, would it not have been more precise and accurate to refer to him as Alexander the Macedonian autocrat?

The article next says that Sisygambis,

… was captured by Alexander after the battle of Issus in 333 B.C.E, along with her beautiful daughter Princess Estatira. Alexander was very much found [sic] of her and had a crush on her according to the Greek Historians!

I’ve quoted this passage in full because I am not sure whether the author is saying that Alexander had a crush on Sisygambis or Stateira II (Estatira). I think it is the latter but am not completely sure. Either way, I am not convinced by the accuracy of the statement.

Assuming the author means Stateira – the Greek historians of whom I am aware do not spend a great deal of time discussing her: Arrian and Diodorus only mention Stateira II in the context of the Susa weddings and Plutarch goes out of his way to describe how Alexander treated the entire Persian royal family with great courtesy. (For the record, Curtius doesn’t mention her at all).

Having said that, we know from Plutarch that Stateira I – Sisygambis’ daughter and Stateira II’s mother – died in childbirth over nine months after being captured by Alexander. If he had a crush on anyone, perhaps it was her. Maybe. We know too little about their relationship to talk about ‘crushes’, if that particular word is even appropriate in the first place.

As well as the above, we are also informed in the articles on Sisygambis, Roxane, and the future of Persia that the Bactrian princess was Darius III’s daughter (in the third article she is simply referred to as being Persian).

This is an unfortunate mistake as in his article on Stateira II, the author acknowledges that Roxane was from ‘from the kingdom of Bactria’, which makes me think he must know that she was not Darius’ daughter.

By-the-bye, the Roxane article also calls Alexander’s son, Alexander IV Aegus, which I’m not sure I’ve seen before. Wikipedia says this is a modern error but I don’t know anything more about it.

I have pointed out some of the mistakes in the above mentioned website so let me emphasise the quality of its presentation and clear love of its subject. The website is very political and so invariably makes some contentious statements. Those aside, the author’s history might well – but for the mistakes I have mentioned – be very accurate.

Of course, I speak as no more than a student of Alexander rather than expert. I make my own mistakes. If the errors on Mani can be ironed out I’m sure it’ll be a top-notch website.

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Artemis in the Air

The Nature of Curtius
Book Three Chapters 11 – 13
For other posts in the series click here

Chapter Eleven
A Ridge with a View
The Battle of Issus got underway. Upon seeing that Darius was trying to surround his army, Alexander ‘ordered two cavalry squadrons to maintain a position on [a] ridge’ overlooking the battlefield. It appears from Curtius’ text that they remained there for the rest of the battle.

The battle effectively ended when, fearing that he was about to be captured by Alexander, Darius fled. Before doing so, he threw ‘off his royal insignia so they could not betray his flight’. The consecrated eagle on his chariot had already been left behind, now he divested himself of the hawks attacking one another.

We should not be surprised by Darius’ actions. When he cited tradition as his reason for refusing to split his army up, Codomannus proved himself to be a man living in the shadow of past Persian Great Kings rather than their worthy successor. His willingness to shed the marks of his kingship simply takes his unworthiness to sit upon the Persian throne one step further; it proves that he was their shadow.

Once Darius fled, the Persian army quickly followed. Some of the men returned to their camp through the pass, while others began the journey back to Persia. These latter took different routes with some crossing the plains and others travelling across the ‘sequestered mountain passes’. Alexander was also on the move – doing his best to chase the Great King down.

Chapter Twelve
Altars by the Shore
Thanks to horse relays, Darius escaped. Thwarted, Alexander made his way to the Persian camp. That night, as he banqueted with his ‘most intimate friends’ a loud cry issued from the Persian royal family’s tent. The women were lamenting what they believed to be the death of their king.

When Alexander visited them the next day, Sisygambis –  the Queen Mother – made her famous mistake when she paid homage to Hephaestion thinking him to be the king instead of Alexander who was standing next to him.

Later, Alexander ‘consecrated three altars on the banks of the river Pinarus to Jupiter, Hercules and Minerva’. I can only wonder why he chose to carry out the sacrifice next to the river.

Chapter Thirteen
Snow Outside Damascus
Alexander’s journey now takes a back seat as Curtius follows Parmenion to Damascus. He had been sent there to retrieve the Persian royal treasury.

While Parmenion was still on the road, the governor of Damascus decided to surrender. He sent a message to Alexander to that effect.

Parmenion intercepted this message. After reading it, he ordered the messenger to return to Damascus – presumably to inform the governor that his surrender had been accepted.

On the way back, though, the messenger escaped from his Macedonian escort, and it seems he did not return to his master, for on seeing Parmenion approach, the governor thought his offer to surrender had been turned down.

Anxious to avoid a fight, he ordered his porters to march out of the city before sunrise carrying the royal treasury. It was a cold and windy morning. Upon a moment, the weather turned; it began to snow.

To protect themselves against the porters put on ‘the gold-and-purple-embroidered clothing’ that they had been carrying along with the money and other valuables.

In Chapter Ten we saw how Alexander pointed out those in the ‘enemy line’ who were wearing gold and purple. Curtius says that these clothes belonged to ‘high-ranking men and… distinguished women’. Perhaps the men’s clothes belonged to the same men that Alexander had pointed out to the Illyrians and Thracians.

The porters’ actions were in absolute contravention of Persian protocol, but ‘the king’s misfortunes meant that even the dregs could flout his authority’.

Upon seeing the richly clad men approach him, Parmenion mistook them for soldiers and prepared for a fight.

Fortunately for all concerned, however, the porters had good eyes. Despite the snow, they saw the Macedonian force in front of them; and as soon as they did, they dropped their loads and took to their heels.

Rather than pursue them, the Macedonians set about recovering the treasures – reaching into bramble-bushes and sinking their hands into mud in order to reach it.

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Politicised Archaeology and other Subjects

Linked to Alexander (3)
More links here

21st August 2014
Mary Renault’s Alexander: history and fiction both
The Guardian Book Club on MR’s Alexander trilogy (see also 24th Aug. 14)

23rd August 2014
Hamblin & Peterson: Alexander the Great wasn’t content to be merely human
On Alexander’s divinity

26th August 2014
Book Review: All our Alexandrias
“Hala Halim examines the long and cosmopolitan history of Alexandria”

26th August 2014
Tom Holland’s web-chat with The Guardian Reading Group on Mary Renault and other subjects
Scroll down to the comments to find the web-chat

1st September 2014
Michael Wood on Alexander the Great and the Middle East
A free talk on Monday 15th September 6-7:30pm

1st September 2014
Amphipolis Tomb: All Circus, No Bread at Greece’s Newly Found “Archaeological Disneyland”
A critical article from the Greek Reporter on the hullabaloo surrounding the Lion Tomb

2nd September 2014
Politicized Archaeology
from ekathimerini newspaper

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Echoes of War

The Nature of Curtius
Book Three Chapters 7 – 10
For the other posts in this series, click here

Chapter Seven
The City of Issus
Once Alexander had recovered from his illness he marched south from Tarsus via Soli to Mallus on the Cilician coast. In order to enter the city, he had to cross the Pyramus River. He did so by constructing a pontoon bridge.

Curtius gives no details regarding how the bridge was built but perhaps Alexander used the same method by which he crossed the Danube in 335 B.C. and would cross Jaxartes in 329; namely, by having his men stitch their tents together and filling them with hay so that they acted as floats.

As it happens, Alexander was not the only bridge builder at this time. Just before he crossed the Pyramus, Darius had crossed the Euphrates, possibly at Thapsacus according to the Notes. In order to do so, the Great King also built a pontoon bridge. Again, Curtius doesn’t explain how the bridge was built. But it must have been sturdy, as it was good enough to survive the trudge of soldiers’ feet for five days while the Persian army made its way across.

From Mallus, Alexander made his way to Castabalum – a day’s march along the road. There, he met Parmenion. The old marshal made up for having incorrectly accused Philip of Arcanania of betraying the king by delivering some good news*.

He reported that not only had he taken control of a ‘pass through which [the Macedonians] were obliged to march to reach the city called Issus’ but he had won the city itself. Furthermore, his men had ‘dislodged the Persians holding positions within the [Taurus] mountains’.

Alexander marched on through the newly won pass and into Issus. There, he called his senior officers together to discuss whether to continue marching or wait for reinforcements that were on the way from Macedon**.

Parmenion was unequivocal in his response – they should wait in Issus. If they did so, the ‘narrow pass’ outside the city would nullify the size advantage of the Persian army. If they carried on into the plains, the Persians would be able to constantly replenish their front line or use their superior size to surround or trap the Macedonian army in a ‘pincer-movement’. Alexander saw the sense in this argument and ‘decided to await his enemy at the narrowest part of the pass’.

* One can only wonder whether Parmenion’s good news was enough to make Philip forgive him
** The Notes say that no other source mentions these reinforcements and that they may be Curtius’ invention

Chapter Eight
Darius’ Inflexibility
The similarities between Darius’ and Alexander’s journeys extend beyond the building of pontoon bridges. The Great King too received advice regarding how to fight his enemy, and Darius also had the chance to influence where his army would form up against the Macedonians. But unlike Alexander, Darius proved unable to accept the advice and was therefore unable to influence where the battle would take place.

When I say unable I mean he could have accepted it but through weakness failed to do so. Let’s look at what happened.

At an unspecified point after crossing the Euphrates River, Darius received a message from his Greek mercenaries. They ‘strongly urged’ him ‘to retreat and head for the plains of Mesopotamia’.

At the very least, the mercenaries said, you should split the army in two so that if even if you lose the upcoming battle your kingdom will not be put in peril.

To his credit, Darius took the advice seriously – in contrast to his courtiers who not only dismissed the counsel but said that the idea of splitting the army up showed that the mercenaries wanted to ‘hand over to Alexander whatever part was entrusted to them’!

Again, to his credit, Darius dismissed the courtiers’ wild claims. But critically he did not do as the mercenaries advised. Instead, he sent a message back thanking ‘them for their concern’ and confirming he would not retreat as that would destroy his reputation, which would ‘certainly’ cause the loss of his kingdom to Alexander.

Darius also rejected the idea of splitting the army up. And here is why he was weak. To break the army in two, he said, would mean ‘breaking with tradition’. In any case, Alexander – ‘formerly… a fearsome figure… had taken to a hiding-place in the narrow parts of a mountain valley’ and was ‘deceiving his own soldiers with a feigned illness’.

To be fair, Darius’ concern for his reputation is a reasonable point. Arsames’ scorched earth policy, which we read about in the last post, caused him to lose his with his mountain guards who then promptly deserted. I find it hard to believe, though, that Darius’ influence over his men was so light that they would desert simply as a result of any decision to retreat.

Darius’ decision to keep the army whole on the grounds that that’s what his ancestors did is lamentable. In a way, he didn’t need to split his army – after being defeated at Issus, he still managed to form a new one for the Battle of Gaugamela – but that is besides the point. Darius’ reason for keeping it as one shows that he was unable to adapt to circumstances.

I can’t help but feel that when Darius told the mercenaries that Alexander was feigning illness, he was not acting on even faulty intelligence, but simply deluding himself. He wanted – or needed – to believe that his enemy was a fraud and so convinced himself of the ‘fact’.

In this, Darius was being every bit as inflexible as the French generals who did nothing to protect the Ardennes forest against a Nazi advance as they were determined to believe that Hitler’s troops would attack along the Maginot Line.

So, Darius continued on his way, and his delusion continued with him. Around the time that the Persians passed through the Amanic Gates, Darius discovered that Alexander had left Issus. Why? The delusion provided the answer: He had abandoned it and was in retreat.

A number of stragglers from the Macedonian army were caught. Darius had them mutilated before making them inspect the Persian forces. He wanted them to tell Alexander what they had seen and put the fear of Darius’ strength in him.

When that was done, Darius crossed the Pinarus River in pursuit of his ‘fleeing’ rival. The mutilated stragglers, meanwhile, caught up with their army and reported to Alexander what they had seen. The king could not believe that the Persians were behind him, so sent scouts to investigate.

They passed along the coast and the sound of crashing waves soon gave way to the duller thud thud thud sound of marching men.

Alexander had been concerned to learn whether Darius was coming with his entire army. On hearing that he was, he happily set up camp in the pass they were currently situated. So much Darius’ attempt at shock and awe.

From passes to ridges. That night, Alexander climbed ‘to the top of a high ridge’ and ‘sacrificed to the tutelary gods of the area’. The next day, the Macedonian army approached the Persian force in a narrow defile. When told about this, Darius was incredulous, and his army ‘alarmed’.

As the Persians took up their weapons, some of the men climbed hilltops to get a view of the enemy. Darius thought about doing the same with a view of using it to organise an encircling movement of the Macedonians. In the end, Curtius says, he was undone, by fortune. ‘Some of the Persians were too frightened to carry out their orders, [while] others obeyed them to no effect’.

How different it might have been Darius he had listened to the mercenaries and returned to the Mesopotamian plains.

Chapter Nine
In the Defile
This short chapter covers the disposition of the Macedonian and Persian armies. At the end, Curtius notes the very simple way in which Alexander adapted to his environment. While the defile remained narrow, the phalanx marched with no protection on its flanks (except that afforded by the rocks). As it widened, though, Alexander placed cavalry cover there.

Chapter Ten
The Art of Rhetoric
At the start of the battle, the two armies sought to gain a psychological advantage by issuing their battle cries. These echoed ‘from the mountain tops’ no less ‘and vast forests’.

Alexander rode ahead of his men, inspiring them with talk of conquering the entire world. ‘It would not be fruitless labour on the sheer rocks and crags of Illyria and Thrace: they were being offered the spoils of the entire East.’

And just as he adapted his strategy according to the lay of the land, Alexander adapted the way he spoke to his men in order to get the best result from them. ‘Since the Illyrians and Thracians usually made their living by looting, Alexander told them to look at the enemy line agleam with gold and purple… They [the Illyrians and Thracians] should exchange their rugged mountain-tops and barren hill-trails permanently stiff with frost for the rich plains and fields of the Persians’.

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