The Gateway to the East

The Nature of Curtius
Book Eight Chapter 11-14
For other posts in the series click here

Chapter Eleven
Ain’t No Outcrop High Enough
After leaving Mazagae, Alexander’s next major engagement was at the Aornis* Rock. Hercules himself had once laid siege to this ‘rocky outcrop’ only to be forced into retreat by an earthquake. At first, it did not look like Alexander would fare any better. The land remained still, but the rock looked impregnable.

Curtius describes the Aornis Rock as being conical in shape and ‘precipitously sheer on every side’. Could the Macedonians climb it like they had the Sogdian Rock? Yes, and they would, but not easily, for the Aornis was protected by both the Indus River, which ran ‘deep with steep banks on both sides’ and ‘sheer chasms and ravines’.

At first, Alexander ‘was baffled’ as to what to do. Then, ‘an old man who knew the area’ offered to ‘show him a way up, for a price’. Alexander accepted the man’s offer but did not rely on his help alone**. Remembering how he had approached Sisimithres’ outcrop (see here), the king ordered his men to fill the chasm.

The operation took seven days to complete. Once the chasm had been filled, Alexander led his men in a climb up the cliff face. It was a perilous journey as the cliff was slippery. And things took a turn for the worse when the Indians saw them coming and starting rolling ‘huge boulders’ over the side of the cliff. Some Macedonians were killed by them, but the rest made it to the top.

In the hand-to-hand fighting that followed, the natives held the advantage because they were on the higher ground. Indeed, Alexander was forced to retreat and decided to abandon his siege. He could not withdraw, however, without making ‘a show of persevering with the siege, ordering roads to be blocked, siege-towers moved up, and exhausted troops replaced by others’.

This did not appear to impress the Indians who now ‘spent two days and nights feasting and beating drums… ostentatiously demonstrating not only their confidence but their belief that they had won. On the third night, however, drumbeats were no longer heard’. The Indians had fled.

Discovering what had happened, Alexander ordered his men to give ‘a concerted shout’. This ‘struck terror into the Indians’. Thinking that the Macedonians were behind them many ‘hurled themselves to their deaths down the slippery crags and impassable rocks’. Others ‘suffered mutilations… and were abandoned by their uninjured comrades’.

Alexander had snatched victory out of defeat. But not a victory over the Indians; rather, as Curtius says, ‘over the terrain’ – just as he had been doing ever since starting his campaign.

* aka Aornus or Aornos

** In the end, it appears that Alexander made it to the top of the Aornis Rock before the man did

Chapter Twelve
The Calm Before the Storm
At the Indus River, Alexander met the ever-reliable Hephaestion* who presented the king with his new boats. Curtius doesn’t say where Alexander met Omphis, the king of Taxila – whether it was on the near or far side of the rive; according to Arrian it was the latter.

Omphis had already been in touch with Hephaestion – and given him corn gratis while the boat building had been carried out. Now, he entertained the whole Macedonian army for three days. Gifts were shared between the kings. As well as gold and silver, Omphis gave Alexander fifty-six elephants, ‘large numbers of sheep of exceptional size’, and three thousand bulls. Impressed by his generosity, Alexander returned the gifts along with extra treasure from his booty.

* And, presumably, Perdiccas though Curtius does not mention him

Chapter Thirteen
A Prelude To War
Alexander sent an order to Abisares and Porus that they must submit to him. Abisares did but Porus refused. At the same time, Barzaentes* was caught and presented to the Macedonian king along with thirty elephants in his possession. These were sent to Omphis.

The Macedonian army arrived at the Hydaspes River. They were watched from the other side by Porus and his army.

As well as thirty thousand infantry and three hundred chariots, Porus’ strength included ‘eighty-five enormously powerful elephants’. He himself sat atop one ‘which towered above the other beasts’.

The sight of Porus’ army ‘alarmed’ the Macedonians. But it wasn’t the only thing on their minds – the river caused concern as well. ‘[F]our stades wide’, the Hydaspes was deep, too, and had a fast current. Curtius describes it as being like a ‘torrential cataract’. The way the water rebounded on itself suggested that there were rocks beneath the surface as well. Crossing it would be difficult.

Following a skirmish between Macedonian and Indian soldiers on an island in the river, Alexander decided to use one for his crossing. First, though, he had to get his men to it without Porus seeing. This was achieved by having Ptolemy** carry out aggressive manoeuvres downstream. This would hopefully convince Porus that they were a prelude to an attack. To complete the ruse, Alexander had the royal tent set up in full view of the enemy and one of his soldiers who bore a resemblance to him dressed up in royal clothing to give the impression that he was staying put.

As Ptolemy carried out his manoeuvres, and the fake-Alexander remained in his tent, the king led the rest of the army through a ravine to the point where he intended to cross the river. It was delayed by a fierce storm. When the rain lifted, ‘cloud-cover… blocked out the daylight’. ‘Another man would have been terrified by the darkness’ but Alexander ‘derived glory from perilous situations’ so jumped into his boat and led the way in silence across the river to the island.

When they reached it, the Macedonians found the island deserted. And when they set foot on the far bank of the Hydaspes, they arrived unnoticed. The Indians were all watching Ptolemy.

* The erstwhile satrap of Drangiana who had fled from Alexander while the latter was in Artacana, see here for more details

** According to Arrian, Craterus carried out the distraction manoeuvres while Ptolemy accompanied Alexander

Chapter Fourteen
Alexander’s Last Major Battle
The Battle of the Hydaspes River was shaped by two important elements: the earth and elephants.

The rainfall had reduced the earth to mud. This made the ground ‘slippery and impossible to ride upon’. Thus, when Porus sent his chariots to intercept the Macedonian army they were able to make no impression upon it. They simply got ‘stuck in the mud and quagmires’. By contrast, Alexander – who had light-armed troops with him – was able to go on the attack with ease.

When the battle proper got under way, the charioteers forced their horses forward in desperation. They killed enemy soldiers but only at the cost of their own lives as their horses slipped on the ground and ‘flung out their drivers’. Some of the horses panicked and fell into the river while others rode into the Indian lines.

The muddy ground also ill-served the Indian archers. Their bows were too large to shoot while standing. In order to fire them, therefore, they were obliged to rest the bow on the ground. But the slippery surface made finding grip difficult and before the troops could ‘make a shot they were overtaken by their swift-moving enemy’.

Porus could not have anticipated the arrival of the storm but he surely has to take responsibility for his men carrying oversized weaponry and for sending his chariots into the mud.

Fortunately for the archers, Porus had already led his elephants into the attack. They not only checked the Macedonian advance but caused panic among Alexander’s men.

Alexander responded by sending ‘the Agrianes and the Thracian light armed’ soldiers against them. Their firepower and mobility gradually wore the elephants down. Despite this, the Indian attack continued and as the day progressed, both Porus and Alexander enjoyed the ascendancy.

The battle finally turned in Alexander’s favour once and for all as the sun started to fall in the west. The Macedonians began using axes to hack at the elephants’ legs, and scythes to chop their trunks off. Exhausted, the elephants retreated – charging through the Indian lines in fear and pain.

One elephant remained, however, and on it sat Porus. He continued to attack until his injuries caused him to nearly faint. His driver turned his elephant round. Alexander pursued it only for his horse to collapse. Mounting another, he continued the chase.

Presently, he caught up with his enemy – injury had forced Porus’ elephant to halt. Barely conscious, Porus ‘began to slip’ out of his basket. His driver thought he wanted to dismount so ordered the elephant to crouch. Seeing this, all the other elephants did likewise, thus bringing the battle to an end. Porus fell out of his basket in front of Alexander.

Porus thereafter was obliged to surrender. In reward for his bravery, Alexander not only gave him his kingdom back but ‘bestowed on him an empire larger than he had formerly held’.

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India

The Nature of Curtius
Book Eight Chapter 6-10
For other posts in the series click here

Chapter Six – Eight
Hermolaus and Co.
The Pages’ Conspiracy occupies the attention of all these chapters. The only thing worth noting in this blog post is that the conspiracy originated in Alexander’s treatment of Hermolaus during a hunt.

As Curtius tells it, Alexander ‘ear-marked’ a boar that he wished to kill, only for Hermolaus to get to it first. In punishment, Alexander had his page flogged. Humiliated, Hermolaus conceived his plan to assassinate the king.

As Alexander says during Hermolaus’ trial in chapter eight, the flogging took place according to ‘traditional custom’. Had it just been a matter of humiliation, therefore, Hermolaus might have swallowed his punishment and got on with his work but he was also disillusioned with Alexander’s medising (see chapter seven). The flogging, therefore, was the straw that broke the camel’s back.

Chapter Nine
India
When Alexander struck camp and set off for India*, his reason for doing so – according to Curtius – is that he wanted to avoid gossip in the camp through inactivity. Undoubtedly, he most wanted people not to talk about his court historian, Callisthenes who had also been executed with the pages.

Certainly, the less said about Callisthenes the better. Not only had he not been part of the conspiracy, but he had not committed any offence other than being a close friend of the conspirators. Furthermore, like so many Macedonians, he was a known opponent of the king’s adoption of Persian dress and customs.

Curtius describes India as being eastward facing, and of greater length than width. He tells us that the country is flat, except for where it is exposed to the south wind; there, the land is is ‘of higher elevation’. The even surface of the ground means that the ‘many famous rivers’ that have their source in the Caucasus pass gently across the Indian plains.

The greatest of the Indian rivers is the Ganges, which flows southwards before being ‘diverted eastwards by some rocky moutaints’. Both it, and the Indus (which, Curtius says, is colder than the other rivers) flow out into the Red Sea, that is, the Indian Ocean. Curtius is not thinking of the more famous Red Sea here but the one named after a king Erythrus, whose name means red in Greek.

As well as being cold, the Indus appears to be a fast flowing river as well, for Curtius describes it as tearing ‘away its banks and many trees on them along with large tracts of soil’. There are boulders in the river, too, and the  waters smash against them ‘violently’. However, after a point, the river calms down and runs slowly between islands.

From what Curtius says, the Acesines seems to act as a tributary for both the Indus and Ganges. In regards the latter, ‘the two rivers [collide] with great violence’ due to an unspecified blockage at the Acesines’ river mouth.

There is another river, the Diardines, which ‘is less well known because it runs through the most remote parts of India’ and is home to crocodiles (‘like the Nile’), dolphins and other ‘creatures unknown’.

Then there is the Ethymantus, which meanders along on an undulating course and is used ‘for irrigation by the natives’. By the time it reaches the Indian Ocean, its water level is so low that the river is given no name.

Curtius tells us that India has many other rivers but they are unnamed due to being in ‘unchartered territory’. Finally, in the matter of rivers, he records that they are ‘gold-bearing’ and that the sea ‘throws up precious stones and pearls on the beaches’.

We’ve seen how the south wind affects the areas of India that are above sea level. The coastal regions suffer under the dryness of the North wind. The interior of the country is less affected as it is protected by the Himalaya mountains. This means that the land is fertile – fruit and flax are both grown / produced there. There is even a type of tree that grows in India, the bark of which is soft and can be used for writing.

Among the animal population, there are birds that ‘can be trained to imitate the human voice’, rhinoceroses and elephants which ‘possess greater strength than those trained in Africa’. They are larger than their African cousins, too.

Curtius makes a note of how ‘the environment also shapes the character of the people’. The preponderance of flax makes linen clothing very popular. The rich wear jewellery made of gold and the king is carried in a ‘golden litter fringed with pearls’. Trained birds sing to him to take his mind off ‘serious matters’.

Nature influences Indian architectural style as well – the king’s palace contains ‘gilded pillars with a vine in gold relief… and silver representations of birds’.

There is a downside to all this, though; the wealth that nature has given the king has made him lazy. When he hunts, the animals are kept in a pen, and he uses an oversized weapon. He travels on horse and elephantback with his ‘long retinue of concubines in golden sedan-chairs’ behind him.

Despite this, the Indians have not lost touch with the land which has blessed them with so much of itself. ‘To anything they have started to cultivate’ Curtius says, ‘they give divine status, especially to trees’. Interfering with one is punishable by death.

And in case there is any doubt, yes, astrology is practiced in India, too.

Finally, Curtius notes how ‘the earth inverts its regular seasonal changes’ but doesn’t know why this happens.

* Nota Bene: When Curtius talks about India he includes the area that now forms Pakistan.

Chapter Ten
A Mountain Party
Entering India, Alexander received the submission of a number of ‘petty kings’. He ‘sent Hephaestion and Perdiccas ahead… to crush any opposition to his power’. Their ultimate destination, however, was the Indus River where Alexander instructed them to make boats for – not only its crossing, but the crossing of any other river that they came to. To achieve this, the two generals made boats that could be dismantled and put back together again as needs be.

At the town of Nysa, the Macedonians inadvertently set fire to the local sepulchres, which were made of cedar. The first the Nysans knew of Alexander’s arrival, though, was when their dogs started barking.

Curtius describes Nysa as being ‘at the foot’ of Mount Meron. The Notes record that in Greek, méros means thigh. As a result of the similarity between the two names, he says, the Greeks invented ‘their story of Father Liber [Dionysus] being concealed in the thigh of Jupiter’.

Alexander led his men to the top of the mountain. Along the way, they found streams that flow all year round rushing past them. Unsurprisingly, ivy and vines were also present up and down the mountain. But that was not all; ‘fruits whose juices have health-giving properties’, soil so fertile it could produce spontaneous harvests, ‘laurels and berry-bushes’ – were all present.

As you might expect, though, the Macedonians made straight for the ivy and vines, making garlands out of them. They noisily worshipped the god of the mountains, and lazed, drinking all the while. Alexander did not oppose the revelry. Quite the reverse – he put on a feast and joined in the fun and feasting. All-in-all, the Macedonian army spent ‘ten days in the worship of Father Liber’.

Once the partying was over, Alexander campaigned against the Daedala people, who tried to hide ‘in some remote, tree-clad mountains’. He crossed the Choaspes River and put the city of Mazagae under siege.

Mazagae was protected on its east side by a ‘swift river’ with sheer banks on the far side. To the west and south of the city were ‘beetling crags’. To the north of the city was ‘a ditch of massive proportions’. The city itself was, of course, fortified.

Alexander dealt with the underground crags by simply rolling boulders and trees into them. This took nine days. Once they were filled up, he rolled his siege towers towards the city. The Mazagaetans were terrified of the towers and Macedonians’ pikes (sarissas?) and retreated to their citadel for long enough to surrender. In due course, Alexander met their queen and, allegedly, proved that both he and her were as fertile as the Indian soil. The queen gave birth to a son whom she named Alexander.

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Thunder in the East

The Nature of Curtius
Book Eight Chapter 1-5
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Chapter One
The Hunt
Rather unfairly, in my opinion, ‘Alexander gained more notoriety than credit from reducing the rock’. Curtius doesn’t say why this was so – did Alexander’s use of deception break a rule of combat? Was it the fact that the siege was not stricly necessary? We can only guess.

Before continuing his counter-insurgency operations, Alexander divided his army into three, naming Hephaestion and Coenus as the commanders of the other two divisions.

As these men took up their commands, a Macedonian ‘regional commander’ named Attinas was on the hunt for Bactrian exiles and Massagetae tribesmen who had destroyed some villages in his area.

Upon a moment, Attinas saw some shepherds ahead of him. They appeared to be driving their livestock into some woods. The rebels could wait – here was an opportunity for easy plunder.

The shepherds disappeared into the woods. The Macedonians followed ‘out of regular formation’ in their desire to grab the livestock. Suddenly, they came under attack, and for the second time, a Macedonian force was wiped out in woodland.

Craterus was in the vicinity but arrived in the wood too late. Nevertheless, he set about massacring the Dahae tribe – killing a thousand in all – thus bringing an end to the insurgency in the area. By-the-bye, Curtius doesn’t name the Dahae as being part of the ambush against Attinas but they had helped Spitamenes kill Menedemus and his men so they were not innocent bystanders.

After subduing the Sogdians once again, Alexander returned to Maracanda where he met Derdas, freshly returned from his expedition ‘to the Scythians beyond the Bosphorus’. Derdas came with promises of allegiance from Scythian kings, and a request that Alexander marry the daughter of one. She would turn out to be Roxane, the eventual mother of Alexander’s only legitimate heir*.

Once Hephaestion had returned to Maracanda, Alexander set off for a royal park in a place called Bazaira. There he reversed the Macedonians recent misfortunes in woods by successfully hunting a lion. Curtius notes the interesting fact that the Macedonian people had the right to ban their king from hunting on foot or alone. Health and Safety in the ancient world?

The latter half of the chapter is taken up with Alexander’s drunken argument with Black Cleitus, which ended with the latter’s death.

Of interest to us here is the the insight that the quarrel gives to how successful Alexander’s counter-insurgency operations had been.

The argument between king and officer began over Alexander’s bad-mouthing of his father. But Cleitus had a second grievance, “‘You assign to me the province of Sogdiana, which has often rebelled and, so far from being pacified, cannot even be reduced to subjection. I am being sent against wild animals with bloodthirsty natures.’

* According to Curtius, Alexander met Roxane for the first time after subduing the Sacae (Chapter 4, below)

Chapter Two
Another Day, Another Defile
In the days and weeks following Black Cleitus’ death, Alexander resumed operations against Bactrian exiles. As part of this, he came to a defile in an area called Nautaca where the local satrap, a man named Sisimithres, had set up a defensive blockade. Alexander met it head-on and smashed his way through it.

Sisimthres and his men retreated to ‘a rocky outcrop’ at the end (?) of the valley, which the defile opened out into. Entering the valley, Alexander found that his way to the outcrop was blocked by a torrent*. He decided to reach the outcrop by creating a mound, and so ‘issued orders for trees to be felled and rocks piled together’.

Alarmed by the sight of the Macedonian earthwork, Sisimithres eventually surrendered. As Alexander continues his operations, we learn another little detail about life in antiquity – it appears the Macedonian horses did not have horse shoes for Curtius describes how their hooves became ‘worn’ on the rocky roads.

* Curtius says that the the Nautacans had tunnelled through the outcrop to create a pathway into their country but that only they knew about it.

Chapter Three
Till Death Do Us Part
This chapter covers the end of Spitamenes’ rebellion against Alexander. In an episode reminiscent of Judith’s assassination of Holofernes, his wife cut off his head. She had become weary of being constantly on the run.

Chapter Four
Fire in the Rain
Alexander now led his men into a region called Gazaba. There, the army was scattered by a fierce thunderstorm. The cold froze men to death in the woods – once more a dangerous place for Macedonians to be – even freezing some to the tree trunks against which they were resting.

Just as he had done on the way to the Caucasus, Alexander went back and forth encouraging and helping his men. Rallied by their desire not to let their king down, the men chopped down trees to make bonfires. There would be so many that one ‘might have thought the wood was one uninterrupted blaze’.

Matters improved on the army’s second day in Gazaba when Sisimithres arrived with pack-animals, 2,000 camels, flocks of sheep, and herds of cattle. ‘Alexander divided these evenly among the men’. In return, once he had ‘ravaged’ the land of the Sacae, the king sent ‘a gift of 30,000 head of cattle’ back to the satrap.

Chapter Five
A New Division
For the briefest moment, Curtius turns towards India. It ‘was thought to be a land rich in gems and pearls as well as in gold’. But the chapter is otherwise given over to an account of the Proskynesis Crisis.

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The Men Who Could Fly

The Nature of Curtius
Book Seven Chapter 10-11
For other posts in the series click here

Chapter Ten
The Polytimetus River
‘Sogdiana is mainly desert’ Curtius tells us at the start of the chapter. That may have been so but it was not a totally inhospitable land, for through it flowed the Polytimetus River.

According to Curtius, the Polytimetus flowed quickly – indeed, as a torrent – down a thin channel. Unfortunately for travellers, this channel entered a cave and disappeared underground. Not too far, though, for Curtius says the sound of it could be heard from above ground. Having said that, it was clearly not too close to the ground as the soil remained dry.

The Polytimetus is the second river to disappear from sight in Curtius’ narrative – you’ll recall that the Ziobetis did the same in Pathiene. Curtius gives no indication of where or if the Polytimetus resurfaced again. Thus, and very regretfully, there was no opportunity for Alexander to play his own version of Pooh Sticks again. His horses were no doubt relieved.

Leaving Sogdia, Alexander made his way to Bactra (aka Zariaspa) where he received reinforcements for his army. Once they had arrived, he made his way north again, this time only as far as the Oxus River, to confront insurgents who were still active in the country.

At the Oxus, Alexander set up camp. The river’s ‘silt content’ made it dirty and unsuitable for drinking, so the men started digging wells. They dug deep but no water was to be found. Until, that is, ‘a spring was discovered right inside the king’s tent’.

What I would really like to know, and what – unfortunately – Curtius does not say is how exactly this spring was found? Who was digging in Alexander’s tent?

From what Curtius says next, it appears that the men were embarrassed not to have discovered the spring earlier – why? Surely the king’s tent was out of bounds for digging in! To cover their blushes, the men ‘pretended [that the spring] had appeared all of a sudden’.

As for Alexander, he was content to call the spring ‘a gift of the gods’.

Chapter Eleven
The Sogdian Rock
Counter-insurgency operations continued on both sides of the Oxus and Ochus rivers until the Macedonian army came to the last hide-out of the rebels. It was ‘a rocky outcrop’ thirty stades high, one hundred and fifty in circumference and ‘precipitously steep on every side’. It’s only access was one ‘very narrow path’, which was guarded.

Curtius reports that 30,000 men were on the rock. Not (only) on the top but also in a cave half-way up. This cave ran deep into the rock and was watered by springs up and down it. The men had two years’ worth of provisions. If Alexander was going to lay siege to the rock, the rebels were well placed to resist him for a long time.

There was no real need for Alexander to waste time with a full siege. There may have been 30,000 men on the rock but given that their only route out was the narrow path they were as ill placed to attack Alexander as he was to put them fully under siege.

Alexander must have realised this because his first thought was to leave. The ‘difficulties of the terrain’ made a siege not worth considering. But then, guess what, the king ‘was overcome by a desire to bring even nature to her knees’. This was nothing new. He had already altered the landscape at Tyre. But there he had been able to get up close to the city via his mole and ships. Surely there was no way to get close to the rebels?

They, and their commander Arimazes, certainly thought so. He asked Alexander’s herald if the king could fly. That would be the only way he would take the rock.

When Alexander was told this, he was ‘incensed’. But Arimazes’ words had given him an idea. He gathered around him the most agile and determined of his men and gave them a simple instruction – climb the rock.

‘My comrades! [Alexander said,] With you I have stormed the fortifications of cities that had remained undefeated. With you I have crossed mountain chains snow-covered throughout the year, entered the defiles of Cilicia and endured without exhaustion the fierce cold of India*.'”

In short, We have overcome Man and nature alike before, now do so again. In case the men quailed at the thought of climbing the Sogdian Rock, Alexander advised them that nature ‘”has set nothing so high that it cannot be surmounted by courage'”.

Given that Alexander had only a short time previously considered the rock too difficult to attack it is tempting to see his words as a lot of hot air but given his track record of personal bravery I should think that he meant everything he said. Yes, he had thought the rock too hard, but that was before he set his mind to assaulting it; when he did, it became possible. As the saying attributed to him goes ‘there is nothing impossible to him who will try’.

The men began their climb. Some used their hands, others flung rope with ‘sliding knots’ over the rocks.

I am not an expert on knots, but I think the reason these men used sliding knots is so that they could throw their rope over the rocks and tighten it enabling them to climb up (feel free to correct me in the comments box if I have got this wrong).

Still other climbers made their way up the cliff face by driving pins in between the rocks and using them to haul themselves up.

The climb was a long and difficult one – the men ‘spent the day in fear and toil’. Thirty-two men died after losing their footing and falling. The rest*, however, made it to the top. Thereafter, they were pointed out to Arimazes, who was then told that ‘Alexander’s men did have wings’. Arimazes was stunned by the sight and immediately surrendered.

* The Notes state that Alexander meant the country just east of the Caucasus

** Curtius is not clear on how many climbers there were overall. After being told about Arimazes’ insulting remark, he ordered ‘the group he normally consulted’ (presumably his senior officers) to each bring him 300 men. We are not told how many officers he was speaking to. Arrian says that there were 300 climbers overall.

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Striking out from the Tanais

The Nature of Curtius
Book Seven Chapter 6-9
For other posts in the series click here

Chapter Six
War in the Mountains
While Alexander was dealing with Bessus, some Macedonian soldiers went off to forage. They were ambushed by natives ‘who came rushing down on them from the neighbouring mountains’.

Hearing about the attack, Alexander responded by laying siege to the natives. During his assault, the king was struck in the leg by an arrow.

From ‘their high position on the mountain’, the barbarians saw Alexander being carried away. But this did not embolden them to continue the defence of their lives let alone go on the offensive.

Instead, envoys came to Alexander in his tent and told him how ‘saddened’ they were by his injury and that ‘if they had found the culprit, they would already have surrendered him’. There is a context for this surprising attitude, for in the view of this tribe, ‘it was only the sacrilegious who fought against gods’.

After making peace with the tribe, Alexander was carried (on alternate days by cavalry and infantry in order to satisfy the honour of both) to Maracanda. From there, he set about pillaging and burning ‘the neighbouring villages’.

Back in Maracanda, he received a visit from a friendly Scythian tribe from the far side of the Tanais (Jaxartes) River. Curtius says that after ‘addressing the deputation courteously’ Alexander sent one of his Friends, a man named Derdas, over the river to warn the Scythian tribes there not to cross it ‘without the king’s order’ (permission?).

Derdas was also given orders ‘to explore the terrain and make an expedition… to those Scythians who live beyond the Bosphorus’. That would be some expedition indeed if Derdas was being told to go all the way back to the Hellespont.

What the above shows again is how much smaller Curtius’/Alexander’s conception of the world was. This is further seen in the fact that the Scythians on the far side of the Tanais were regarded as living on ‘European soil’.

Alexander now intended to build a new city on the banks of the Tanais – Alexandria Eschate (the Furthest). First, however, he had to deal with a revolt among the Sogdians and Bactrians, which had been set off by Spitamenes and Catanes.

Craterus was sent to lay siege to the city of Cyropolis while Alexander did the same to the city of the Memaceni. Both cities fell but not before Alexander lost some of his best men fighting the Memaceni and was himself knocked unconscious by a slingshot.

Once the two cities had fallen, Alexander sent a detachment to Maracanda, where Spitamenes had taken refuge, while he returned to the Tanais  to build Alexandria Eschate in just seventeen days.

Chapter Seven
Scythia
At the start of the chapter, Curtius reiterates that Scythia north-of-the-Tanais is part of Europe, while south of the river, it is on Asian soil. He says, that the Scythians who live near Thrace belong to the Sarmatian tribe, while those who live ‘directly beyond the Ister’ (i.e. the Danube) are spread out as far as Bactra.

The Scythian people also live ‘quite far north, beyond which the land is covered with deep forests and endless wilderness’.

The reason for Curtius’ brief overview is that the Scythian king had decided Alexandria Eschate was too close for comfort and had sent his brother, Carthasis, to make war on the Macedonians. This was awkward for Alexander because he still had the revolt in the south to deal with.

There was no question of the Scythians not being confronted. If they weren’t, he told his officers during a war council, they – the Macedonians – would lose face to the Sogdians and Bactrians. If they did, and defeated the Scythian force ‘who then will hesitate to submit to us when we are also the conquerors of Europe?’

The meeting was not yet over when bad news came from Maracanda – Menedemus had been ambushed by Spitamenes and his detachment wiped out in a wood. The first Teutoburg.

Chapter Eight
God of the World
That night, Alexander pondered how best to conduct his assault against the Scythians. He had placed the royal tent on the banks of the Tanais so that he could open the flaps and observe the enemy on the other side of the river to make a count of their numbers. He did this through the night.

The next day, Scythian ambassadors arrived in the camp to try and dissuade Alexander from attacking them.

‘Had the gods willed that your stature should match your greed the world could not hold you. You would touch the east with one hand and the west with the other, and reaching the west you would want to know where the mighty god’s light lay hidden.’

This sums up Alexander. He was very greedy – for glory – and had he had his way he would certainly have carried on fighting to the east and westernmost points of the world.

Chapter Nine
Dionysus Outdone
The ambassadors failed to persuade Alexander to desist. Once they had departed, the crossing of the Tanais began.

Despite the current of the river which made steering the rafts difficult, and the archers on the far side, the Macedonians made it to the banks where they engaged the Scythians.

As for the battle, the Scythians were put into disorder as soon as the Macedonians landed. They tried to flee only to be pursued. At some point, the Macedonian cavalry ‘crossed the bounds of Father Liber’ – Dionysus/Bacchus – ‘marked by stones set out at frequent intervals and by tall trees with ivy-covered trunks’. It seems Alexander was able to stay with the pursuit long enough to see the boundary stones before he was forced to turn back to camp by his recent injuries.

Back in camp, good news came from the south – the Sogdian and Bactrian revolt had collapsed. Victory over the Scythians had made the rebels see ‘that no race was a match for Macedonian arms’.

No doubt feeling well pleased with how things had turned out, Alexander thereafter made for Maracanda. There, he buried Menedemus and his men before going on to lay waste to the countryside and executing all ‘men of military age’ in the usual fashion.

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The Dry Ocean

The Nature of Curtius
Book Seven Chapter 5
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Chapter Five
Northern Bactria
We saw in the last post, how Curtius described Bactria as being comprised of both fertile land and desert country. After leaving Zariaspa, Alexander and his men were obliged to march through the latter in order to reach the Oxus River.

It was a strange and punishing journey. Strange because the Macedonians developed ‘a parching thirst’ before they began to crave water. Punishing because the desert was so hot it was akin to walking through an open air furnace.

In a very evocative passage, Curtius describes how the heat of the sun threw up ‘a misty vapour’ that gave ‘the plains the appearance of one vast, deep ocean’. I have to admit, the only way I can imagine such a scene is within the frame of an Impressionist painting.

The extreme heat forced the Macedonians to travel by night. When they did so by day, the heat sapped their energy until their bodies became burned and their spirits lethargic, ‘unwilling to stop and unwilling to go on’.

Of course, the men tried to alleviate their thirst by drinking from their water skins – they also drank wine and [olive] oil – but this made them bloated to the point of being unable to carry their weapons or even walk. The only way to deal with the problem was by throwing up the water that they had just drunk.

What had happened to the men that made them grow so fat? Reading the passage put me in mind of distressing photographs and video footage of African children with bloated bodies. But their condition has arisen because of a long term problem – famine, made worse by war. The Macedonians were not in the Bactrian desert for more than a few days. I think Curtius is over-dramatising his story here.

Whatever the truth of it, Alexander once again stepped up to the mark. Two scouts who had been sent to look for a suitable camping site returned with water for their sons. Meeting Alexander, they offered him the water instead. Upon hearing that it was for the men’s sons, however, the king returned it to them. ‘I cannot bear to drink alone.’ he said, ‘and it is not possible for me to share so little with everybody. Go quickly and give your sons what you have brought on their account’.

Curtius doesn’t say how long it took the Macedonians to cross the desert, but when they finally arrived at the Oxus River, some were so desperate to drink that they drowned in doing so. And the number of those that did, ‘exceeded the numbers Alexander had lost in any battle’.

As for Alexander himself, he neither ate nor drank but stood at the edge of the camp to welcome his men in as they arrived.

That night, Alexander could not sleep. He had surmounted one difficulty by making it to the other side of the desert, but now faced another – in the absence of trees with which to make a bridge, how would he cross the Oxus?

The answer was six years old. During his Balkan campaign Alexander had stitched his tents together and filled them with hay to turn them into floats*. Now, this time using straw, he did the same again. The crossing took five days but eventually the entire army made it to the other side of the river.

News of Alexander’s crossing rattled Bessus’ allies. Spitamenes led a group of them into Bessus’ tent under false pretences where they arrested him. Meanwhile, the Macedonians met and butchered a Greek colony comprising of the descendants of the Branchidae from Miletus. This clan had betrayed the city to Xerxes I during the Graeco-Persian Wars. Alexander asked the Miletans in his army whether ‘they preferred to remember their injury or their common origin’. The Miletans were divided so the king made their mind up for them.

The Branchidae came out with olive branches but to no avail. They were butchered, and their city razed to the ground. It woods and sacred grove were not only torn down but uprooted. It all sounds really quite disgusting. However, according to the Notes, it may just be a fiction. Let’s hope so.

Alexander met Spitamenes at the Tanais River. There, he took possession of Bessus, who he handed over to Darius’ brother, Oxathres, now a member of his Companions, for punishment.

Bessus would suffer by having his ears and nose cut off. He would be crucified and have arrows shot into him. But to make sure he did not die too quickly, archers would also shoot at carrion birds who might be tempted to pick at his body. Such was Oxathres’ determination to make sure Bessus suffered to the maximum amount possible, he employed one of Spitamenes’ fellow conspirators, Catanes, who was an expert shot, to keep the birds at bay.

* Arrian Book 1

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Loose Tongues and Empty Stomachs

The Nature of Curtius
Book Seven Chapter 4
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Chapter Four
Bactria and Beyond
I am accustomed to reading about Alexander’s booziness, not so much about the Persians’. It is with a little surprise, therefore, that we begin this chapter with Bessus and his friends in the middle of a drinking session that, very surprisingly, is also a council of war. ‘Sodden with drink’ Bessus criticised Darius for confronting Alexander

in the narrowest defiles of Cilicia when retreat would have enabled him to lead them on into naturally protected areas without their realising it. There were so many rivers to serve as obstacles and so many hiding-places in the mountains, he said; caught among these, the enemy would have had no chance to escape, much less offer resistance.

As I understand it, Bessus is criticising Darius for confronting Alexander in the ‘narrowest defiles’ when he – Darius – could have retreated to more ‘naturally protected areas’, leading Alexander to follow him without realising what the Great King was doing. Had Darius done this, according to Bessus, the rivers and ‘many hiding-places in the mountains’ would have prevented Alexander from either escaping or offering resistance to the Persian Army.

What confuses me a little is that, while I understand how the presence of rivers might be considered an obstacle to Alexander, I can’t see how mountainous hiding places could be thought of in the same way. Surely they would be ideal for escape and resistance?

Perhaps it was just the drink speaking. Maybe, but if so it didn’t stop Bessus from going on to enunciate his own strategy, which was a fairly sensible one. It was, ‘to draw back into the territory of the Sogdians and to use the river Oxus as a barrier… until strong reinforcements could amalgamate from the neighbouring tribes’.

Bessus was satrap of Bactria and had 8,000 of its men in his army. They ‘faithfully carried out his orders as long as they thought that their intemperate climate would make the Macedonians head for India’. On the day they learnt that the climate had failed to divert their enemy, however, ‘they all slipped off to their villages’.

We aren’t told what Bessus made of this betrayal, only that he crossed the Oxus just as he intended. On the far side he burnt his boats and began recruiting Sogdian soldiers.

Alexander, meanwhile, brought his men out of the Caucasus Mountains in a state of near starvation and, it seems, uncleanliness. In both cases the men made do. Without oil to wash themselves with, they used pressed sesame. And in the absence of grain*, they ate fish and herbs. At least there was fresh water to be had from the mountain streams. When the food ran out, the Macedonians were obliged to start slaughtering their pack animals. This continued until they entered Bactria.

Curtius describes Bactria as being an environmentally diverse country. It is, he says, is both fertile and barren. Where the country is fertile, there is ‘rich soil’, ‘plentiful trees and vines’, wheat crops and grazing grounds.

Where it is barren, nothing grows. In fact, it is desert, and as ever a dangerous desert at that. Winds blow in from the Pontic Sea (i.e. the Caspian) creating sand dunes and destroying the road. People crossing the desert do so by night so that they can use the stars to navigate.

The city of Bactra (aka Zariaspa, modern day Balkh) stood at the foot of the Caucasus – which Curtius calls Mt Parapanisus**. The river Bactrus, he says, follows the example of the Araxes River*** by flowing past Bactra rather than through it.

The chapter concludes with news of a revolt in Greece†, the march of the Scythians to Bessus’ camp and Erygius’ duel with Satibarzanes††, which was won by the Macedonian officer.

*there were grain stores around, but the natives had hidden them too well for the Macedonians to find

** As compared to Diodorus who calls it the Paropanisum

*** At Persepolis

† By the Peloponnesians and Laconians. This revolt concluded with the Battle of Megalopolis between Antipater and King Agis that we saw at the start of Book Six

†† Still only one of three that I know to have taken place during either Alexander’s life or the diadoch period. The other two are Dioxippus vs Coragus (c. 326/5 B.C. My post on Diodorus’ account of it is here) and Eumenes vs Neoptolemus in 320 B.C.

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Death in a Cold Climate

The Nature of Curtius
Book Seven Chapters 1-3
For other posts in the series click here

Chapter One
Old Scores Are Settled
Following Philotas’ execution, Alexander Lyncestes was put on trial and executed. Alexander Lyncestes’ brothers had been killed by Alexander III in the purge following the latter’s accession to the throne. Alexander Lyncestes had saved his skin on that occasion by being ‘the first to salute Alexander as king’. Now, however, stage fright overtook the Lyncestian and rendered him unable to give a defence of himself. Curtius presents his death as little less than a summary execution during the trial.

The chapter continues with the trial of Amyntas and Simmias (the sons of Andromenes) who were charged with being part of Philotas’ conspiracy and as well as with other minor misdemeanours. Despite the fact that a third brother, Polemon, had deserted after hearing about Philotas’ torture, Amyntas was able to put up a very good defence.

As with the trial of Philotas, those of Alexander Lyncestes and Andromenes’ sons all took place indoors.

Chapter Two
Parmenion’s Downfall
The trial of Amyntas and Simmias was halted when guards brought in Polemon who had just been caught. Amyntas took his brother’s arrival in hand and succeeded in winning over not only the Assembly but Alexander, too. As a result, the trial ended with all the brothers’ acquittal.

After the trial, Alexander turned his thoughts to Parmenion. He ordered the general’s friend, Polydamas, to ride to Ecbatana with three letters – two for Parmenion (one in Alexander’s name and one written as if by Philotas*) and one for the other generals there. The latter contained the order to murder his friend.

Knowing how quickly rumour could travel, and how fatal it would be for him if Parmenion were to hear of Philotas’ death, Alexander ordered Polydamas to make haste. When the latter left the Macedonian camp, therefore, he did so on camelback**. In order to shorten their journey, Polydamas and his Arab guides (or guards) rode across ‘stretches of arid desert’. After ten days, they arrived in Ecbatana.

The letters were handed over to their recipients. The next day, Parmenion was stabbed to death in a grove.

* Presumably to make sure that Parmenion was distracted while the generals unsheathed their weapons

** And, Curtius says, dressed as an Arab. As Arabia was not on Polydamas’ route, perhaps this is an example of Curtius not knowing his geography (see below) or of him knowing that Arabs did indeed travel across the desert between Drangiana and Media.

Chapter Three
Mountain Bound
With Parmenion’s death, the Philotas Affair was finally over. Alexander now struck camp and led his army out of Drangiana and into Arimaspia – the land of the Euergetae, the Benefactors, whose kindness had once saved the army of Cyrus the Great.

Four days into his march across Arimaspia, the king learnt that Satibarzanes had returned to Aria. Rather than go back to confront the traitor himself, Alexander sent his friend Erygius along with Caranus, Artabazus and Andronicus to do so for him.

As for Alexander, he stayed in Arimaspia long enough to reward the natives for helping Cyrus, before proceeding to Arachosia. There, he subdued the natives (‘whose territory extends to the Pontic Sea’ Curtius says, inaccurately*) and met Parmenion’s soldiers who had been brought out as reinforcements. There was no backlash between them.

With his army now strengthened, Alexander moved on to the land of the Parapamisadae – ‘a backward tribe, extremely uncivilized even for barbarians’. Their country ‘touches Bactria to the west and extends as far as the Indian Ocean in the south’. In Alexander’s day, Bactria lay due north ( and Aria to the west) while Arachosia and the Oreitae stood between the Parapamisadae and the ocean.

Curtius writes that Paropamisus** is such a cold and barren land few trees grow there, and there is ‘no trace… of birds or any other animal of the wild’. It seems that even the sun rarely comes that way for the ‘overcast daylight, which would be more accurately called a shadow of the sky, resembles night and hangs so close to the earth that near-by objects are barely visible’.

The cold caused the Macedonian army great suffering as it trudged eastwards. Men suffered from frost-bite, snow-blindness and exhaustion; those who stopped to rest became too stiff to get up again.

Alexander did his best to help his men, and he lifted them up and supported them with his own body. ‘At one moment he was at the front, at another at the centre or rear of the column, multiplying for himself the hardships of the march’. That is why, despite all, they loved him so much.

Presently, the army came to ‘a more cultivated area’ where it set up camp.

The soldiers needed to rest – before them lay the Caucausus Mountains (i.e. the Hindu Kush)

In one direction it faces the sea that washes Cilicia, in another the Caspian, the river Araxes and also the desert areas of Scythia. The Taurus range, which is of lesser height, joins the Caucasus, rising in Cappadocia, skirting Cilicia and merging into the mountains of Armenia. Thus interconnected in a series, these ranges form an unbroken chain, which is the source for practically all the rivers of Asia, some flowing into the Red***, some into the Caspian, and others into the Hyrcanian**** and Pontic Seas.

Obviously, Curtius’ geography is inaccurate. What the above quotation shows, however, is how much smaller the world was for him. That’s not something I dwell upon often enough so I record it here as much for my benefit as anyone else’s.

Curtius says that the Macedonian army crossed the Caucasus in seventeen days. Along the way, it passed the ‘rocky crag’ where ‘Prometheus was bound’. At the foot of the Caucasus Alexander decided to build a new city.

* The Pontic Sea is the Caspian. In Alexander’s day, and surely afterwards?, a number of countries separated Arachosia from the Pontic. For example, Drangiana, Aria, Parthia and Hyrcania.

** Curtius doesn’t give us the name of the Parapamisadae’s land; ‘Paropamisus’ is what Diodorus calls it

*** The Persian Gulf

**** The Hyrcanian, Caspian and Pontic Sea are, of course, all one.  The Notes suggest that Curtius is ‘mistakenly’ talking about different parts of the same water

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Zephyros Lends A Hand

The Nature of Curtius
Book Six Chapters 6-11
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Chapter Six
Outcrop Siege
After killing Darius, Bessus fled to his home satrapy of Bactria (Bactriana to Curtius). There, he declared himself to be the Great King’s successor and renamed himself Artaxerxes IV. Satibarzanes, the satrap of Areia, brought news of this to Alexander. He was rewarded for his help by being confirmed in his office.

Alexander’s next move was to set off for Bactria so that he could confront Bessus. While he was on the road, Parmenion’s son, Nicanor, died. Short of supplies, the king left Nicanor’s brother, Philotas, to conduct the appropriate funeral rites.

Meanwhile, letters arrived from various satraps informing Alexander that Bessus was riding out to meet him and that Satibarzanes had defected to the pretender’s side.

Alexander decided to deal with Satibarzanes first. Unfortunately, he was not able to catch up with him before the traitor was able to flee to Bactria with 2,000 cavalrymen. He would still get a fight, though, for the rest of Satibarzanes’ army fled no further than the nearby hills.

13,000 Arians took refuge on a ‘rocky outcrop’ that was 32 stades in circumference. Curtius describes it as being ‘sheer on the west side but with a gentler gradient towards the east’. It benefitted from ‘dense tree-cover and a year-round spring with a generous flow of water’. The rebels were located on the outcrop’s ‘grassy plateau’.

Alexander ordered Craterus to lay siege to Artacana* while he rode after Satibarzanes. After realising that the satrap was too far ahead he made his way to the outcrop.

Things did not go easily there. Alexander ordered the ground to be cleared but was obliged to stop when he came to ‘impassable crags and sheer precipices’. This sounds like he was on the west side of the outcrop – Curtius doesn’t say why Alexander could not attempt an assault on it from the east. Perhaps the forest was too thick? Or the gentle gradient ended in broken land?

Whatever the reason, Alexander now set himself to working out how to overcome the natural barrier. Many plans passed through his mind but none seemed satisfactory. In the end, nature came to his aid.

It was a breezy day with the wind coming in ‘strong from the west’. While they waited for their king to decide what to do, the Macedonians cut the fallen trees up, perhaps for future as firewood. Seeing this, Alexander had a plan. He ordered his men to build a great bonfire. It rose, Curtius says with a little hyperbole, ‘to equal the height of the mountain**’ When it was lit, the wind blew the flames directly ‘into the faces of the enemy’. The fire burned so fiercely that the sky was covered by thick, black smoke.

Curtius doesn’t say it but sparks from the fire must have travelled across the space between the bonfire and plateau. The Arians did their best to escape the flames but to no avail. Some committed suicide by throwing themselves into the fire, others by jumping over the edge of the outcrop to be smashed upon the rocks below. Some prepared to fight to the death while the remainder, ‘half-burnt’, surrendered.

Once the outcrop was taken, Alexander rode to Artacana to lead the siege against the city. Upon seeing the Macedonian siege towers, the Artacanians surrendered.

From Artacana, Alexander proceeded to Drangiana to confront its satrap, Barzanaentes, who was a Bessus-loyalist and who had taken part in Darius’ murder. ‘Fearing the punishment he deserved, Barzaentes fled into India’.

* Artacoana in Arrian, Chortacana in Diodorus; ‘probably Herat’ today, according to the Notes

** By ‘the mountain’ I assume Curtius is referring to the outcrop

Chapter Seven – Eleven
Mainly Speeches to Boot
These chapters cover the Philotas Affair and take place indoors – in the royal tent, which turns out to be able to accommodate over 6,000 people. Either the royal tent was rather bigger than I imagined or else Curtius is not quite correct.

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Sex and the Country

The Nature of Curtius
Book Six Chapters 1-5
For other posts in the series click here

Chapter One
Sparta’s Last Hurrah
The lacuna that brought Book Five to a halt covers the start of Book Six. As a result, we miss the opening of the Battle of Megalopolis*, which was fought between Antipater and Agis of Sparta in 331 B.C. In lieu of that, here is what I wrote about Diodorus’ account of the battle. What remains of Curtius’ account contains no topographical references.

* And, of course, any part of the narrative that Curtius may have included before it

Chapter Two
Parthia
After tarrying in an unnamed location, Alexander marched into Parthia. Where had he been before hand? The map provided with my copy of Curtius’ History suggests Mardia. When he meets the Mardians in Chapter Five below, however, having ‘penetrated the furthest reaches of Hyrcania’ I assume Alexander has either backtracked or these Mardians are out of place.

Curtius does not give us much information about Parthia (which he calls Parthiene) other than to say that it is a ‘level and fertile area…  occupied by… Scythians’. Alexander made his way to the city of Hecatompylos (Diodorus’ Hecatontapylus) where a rumour spread in the Macedonian camp that they were going home.

Chapter Three
Catalogue of Victories
As the men packed up their bags, Alexander had to  summon his best rhetoric in order to persuade them to follow him east. He did so by first reminding them of the people and places they had conquered* (deep breath):-

Illyrians, Triballians, Boeotia, Thrace, Sparta, Achaeans, the Peloponnese, Ionia, Aeolis, Caria, Lydia, Cappadocia, Phrygia, Paphlagonia, Pamphylia, Pisidia, Cilicia, Syria, Phoenicia, Armenia, Persia, the Medes and Parthia.

Once that was done, Alexander then reminded the men that the people they had conquered had still to be broken. And the people they had not yet conquered would stab them in the back the minute they turned for home.

* Alexander’s exact words are places that had been ‘subdued under my direct leadership or by campaigns conducted under my orders or instructions’. Alexander himself never conquered Sparta – there was no need to as it did not pose a threat – and as far as I am aware, Antipater did not go to war against King Agis on Alexander’s ‘orders or instructions’. He did so because he needed to
Also, I can’t help but notice that he did not include Egypt in his list. I wonder why?

Chapter Four
A Rich Country
The rhetoric did its job and the men told Alexander ‘to lead them wherever he wished’.

Close to the Parthia-Hyrcania border, Alexander set up camp. He did so near a ‘dense, shady grove of tall trees’. The land was fertile here, being nourished by the streams that fell from the surrounding cliffs.

Curtius tells us of the Ziobetis River, which has its source ‘at the foot of the [nearby?] mountains’. After being split in two by a rock the river runs more aggressively before diving underground for 300 stades. When it reappears, it returns to being one channel until joining another river called the Rhidagnus.

Alexander learnt from natives that if you throw something in to the hole where the Ziobetis disappears underground, it will appear again at the opening. To test this, he threw in two horses. Sure enough, their bodies duly appeared at the opening. Pooh sticks, the Alexander way.

While at the border camp, Alexander received a letter from Nabarzanes in which he declared his wish to surrender. The king accepted it. Afterwards, he began his march to Hyrcania.

At first, Alexander moved cautiously. The ‘belligerent temper of the natives and the lie of the land’ made it awkward territory to cross.

Curtius informs us of a valley that travels as far as the Caspian Sea, where it ends in a crescent shaped piece of land. The Caspian, he says, is ‘less salty than other seas [and] has a population of huge serpents… its fish are very differently coloured from other fish’.

‘To the north’, he continues, the Caspian ‘covers the coastal area’. Finally, Curtius notes that some people call the Caspian the Hyrcanian Sea while others say that the Palus Maeotis (the sea of Azov) ‘drains into it’. Against this, other people believe that the waters which cause the aforementioned coastal area to be flooded come from India rather than the Caspian.

Passing the Caspian Sea by, Alexander took ‘a virtually impassable track overhung by forest’ along which ‘torrents and floods’ travelled. Unsurprisingly, he was unchallenged by any hostile natives and eventually came to cultivated land.

Curtius says that this land ‘produces plentiful quantities of all provisions’ and that the soil ‘is particularly suited to viticulture’. I bet the Macedonians appreciated that. There was also an oak-like tree that had ‘leaves thickly coated with a honey’ which had to be collected before daybreak as the sun made the sap evaporate.

Chapter Five
Alexander was well into his march across Hyrcania when Artabazus surrendered himself and his sons to him. Artabazus was 95 years old. Rather than embarrass the old man by walking while Artabazus rode his horse, Alexander had his own brought up and mounted it.

Sometimes, Alexander does things that you think ‘that was very good of him’ but you also wonder ‘did he do that for an ulterior motive?’. I am thinking of his attitude to women here, especially as Plutarch outlines it. This time, however, Alexander had no need to mount his horse. He did it purely out of respect. Not only does this show that he was a respectful man but also that it is worth giving him the benefit of the doubt when the question of his motive comes up elsewhere.

In the last post, we saw how Alexander led a brief campaign against the Mardians. Now, he does so again. They were ‘a culturally backward’ people who ‘had failed to send ambassadors’ to him. In other words, they had failed to submit to him.

Alexander led a small detachment out to bring the Mardians to heel. Upon his arrival in their land, they fled to the interior of Mardia (?). Alexander pursued them but found the going tough, for the interior ‘was enclosed by mountain ridges, tall forests and impassable cliffs’.

The Mardians may have been primitive but they knew how to make the country work for them. For example, they grew trees close by one other, wound their branches together and knotted them before putting them into the ground to grow again.

It’s not clear to me whether the branches were broken off or still attached to the trees, but whichever it was, they grew anew and ‘with even greater vigour’. This created a very simple and effective barrier that could not easily be cut down.

Alexander chased the Mardians to woods, which he then surrounded, with the intention of finding a way in to attack his enemy. Before he could do so, however, the natives took advantage of the Macedonians’ ignorance of the country to carry out some successful sorties. During one, they captured not only some men but Bucephalas as well.

Curtius does not give Bucephalas’ history. Instead, he says only that the horse was prized ‘above all other animals’ by the king. He also states that Bucephalas ‘would not allow another man to sit on him’ and that, when Alexander wished to mount him, ‘he would of his own accord bend his knees to receive him’.

Furious at Bucephalas’ loss, Alexander issued a Return Him or Else ultimatum. The thieves wisely chose the former option, with added gifts for good measure. But the king was not placated, and he ordered ‘the woods to be felled and for earth to be hauled from the mountains and heaped on the flat ground’. It appears his intention was not to break through the barriers but rise above them, using the earth as a siege tower.

Seeing this, the Mardians surrendered.

Alexander moved on to Hyrcania city where he received Nabarzanes’ surrender.

Alexander’s last action in Hyrcania was to entertain Thalestris, the queen of the Amazons, whose territory lay on ‘the plains of Themiscyra in the area of the river Thermodon’ on the opposite side of the Caspian Sea. When I say ‘entertain’ I mean, of course, in the sexual sense as Thalestris came (no pun intended) wanting to bear his child. She promised that if it were a boy, he could have it, but that if it was a girl, it would remain with her.

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