The Gordian Knot

Market Watch reports on the on-going attempts to resolve the economic crisis in Greece. Greece: Can the Gordian Knot be severed? states that

Greece has… become the Gordian knot of ancient mythology.

In that enduring legend Gordius, a peasant who became king in Asia Minor, tied his wagon to a post with an intricate knot. An oracle said whoever untied the knot would rule all of Asia. Young Alexander the Great 100 years later came through and after a futile effort to untie the knot drew his sword and severed it with a powerful swing. That night a violent electrical storm told the people the gods were pleased. Alexander went on to rule much of the known world.

You can read the article here.

The legend of the Gordian Knot appears in four of the five principle sources on Alexander’s life (Diodorus omits it).

Arrian II.3-4
Curtius III.1.14-18
Justin XI.7
Plutarch Life of Alexander 18

Here is how Market Watch‘s interpretation of the story compares to theirs:

… Gordius, a peasant who became king in Asia Minor…
Arrian – States that it was Gordius’ son, Midas, who became king
Curtius – Does not confirm or deny that Gordius became king
This agrees with Justin
Plutarch – Does not confirm or deny that Gordius became king, referring only to ‘king Midas’

… tied his wagon to a post with an intricate knot…
Arrian – The knot ‘fixed’ the yoke to the wagon
Curtius – Says that the yoke ‘was strapped down with several knots’. The use of the word ‘down’ suggests to me that C. means it was attached to the shaft that connected it to the wagon – which C. calls the ‘carriage’ – rather than to a post
Justin – Says no more than that the knots were attached to the yoke. No mention is made of a post or anything else (J. refers to the wagon as a ‘car’)
Plutarch – The knot attached the yoke to the chariot

An oracle said whoever untied the knot would rule all of Asia.
Arrian – Makes no reference to an oracle but says that the belief (which the Notes to my edition of Arrian’s Anabasis say that, in Alexander’s day, Asia ‘meant the Persian Empire’) was a traditional one
This agrees with Curtius, though he says that ‘the local people claimed that an oracle had foretold mastery of Asia for the man who untied this impossible knot’ (my emphasis)
This agrees with Justin, who refers to oracles in the plural
Plutarch – States that ‘the fates had decreed that the man who untied the knot was destined to become the ruler of the whole world’ (my emphasis)

Young Alexander the Great 100 years later came through…
Arrian – Does not say specifically when Gordius lived though refers to it as being ‘in the ancient days’
Curtius – Makes no mention of when Gordius lived
Justin – Makes no mention of when Gordius lived. He does, though, refer to the oracles who said whoever undid the knot would rule Asia as being ‘the oracles of old’
Plutarch – Does not say when Gordius lived but refers to Midas as being an ‘ancient king’
By-the-bye, Alexander was 22-23 when he arrived in Gordium

… and after a futile effort to untie the knot drew his sword and severed it with a powerful swing…
This agrees with Arrian and Plutarch and some of their sources, for A. and P. both note that – according to Aristobulos – Alexander worked out how to undo the knot
This agrees with Curtius and Justin

That night a violent electrical storm told the people the gods were pleased.
This agrees with Arrian
Curtius, Justin and Plutarch do not mention this part of the story

Alexander went on to rule much of the known world.
This agrees with Arrian, Curtius, Justin and Plutarch and everyone else who has ever studied his life

Categories: By the Bye, Of The Moment | Tags: , , , | Leave a comment

Horsing Around

The online business magazine Quartz has published an article titled Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov accuses the West of violating horse rights. You can read it here.

He is angry because ‘the Czech Republic, where Kadyrov keeps his stable of racehorses, ruled on Monday that it would freeze any prize money won by his animals’.

This anti-equine measure, he claims, would have upset both Alexander and Bucephalus.

“If Bucephalus had heard about this, even a thousand years later he would have been so surprised that he would have rolled over in his grave,” he writes. “And Alexander the Great would have declared a war to restore horses’ rights.”

As for Bucephalus, I suspect any anger he may have felt about the situation would have quickly been allayed by a bag of feed.

As for Alexander, it goes without saying that he would not have ‘declared a war to restore horses’ rights’. Men had few enough rights in Alexander’s day, and he spent little (as in none) of his time extending them. Generally speaking, the rights of animals would not have been of any interest to him to all.

I would say that the only person whose rights mattered to Alexander were his own. He was the king, after all, how could anyone else’s matter as opposed to his own?

Having said that, we know that Alexander did have an interest in horses apart from Bucephalus. I’m thinking here of Arrian VII.13 and Diodorus XVII.110 where the two authors refer to Alexander’s visit to Nesea (aka Nysa).

Lest we think that Alexander was a horse lover in general, let it be remembered that the Nesean horses (or mares, according to Arrian) were known for their excellence. This is why Alexander was there. He wasn’t interested in any old horse breed but excellent ones. Within that context, he like excellent horses such as – for example – Bucephalus.

Thus, when the Mardian tribe stole Bucephalus (D XVII.76), Alexander promised that he would lay waste to the countryside and slaughter the inhabitants unless the horse was returned. Had the Czech Republic stolen Ramzan Kadyrov’s horses and he invoked Alexander, then he would have done so truly.

Categories: Of The Moment | Tags: , , | 1 Comment

Alexander the Great Sharer

The Canadian edition of The Huffington Post has published an article on the value and possibilities offered by sharing. It begins badly, improves a little before descending back into error.

The headline claims that “Alexander the Great Would Probably Have Used Uber”. He would have done no such thing. Alexander was not interested in sharing. He declined to share power with Darius III (e.g. Diodorus XVII.39, Justin XI.12) and got angry when Hermolaus stole the chance of glory from him during a hunt (Arrian IV.13, Curtius VIII.6.7). Alexander could be a very generous man but he was the king and acted like it.

The second paragraph reads,

Enter the Library of Alexandria. As Alexander the Great consolidated his control of the ancient world, he tasked Ptolemny Lagides (one of his leading generals) with “collecting all the worlds’ knowledge” and then sharing it with scholars, royalty, and wealthy bibliophiles throughout the world. At its peak, the library of Alexandria contained over 400,000 manuscripts.

“Enter the Library of Alexandria”. As the first paragraph begins ‘In the third century BC…’ we are now under the impression that this is when Alexander lived and the Library was formed. In fact, both were products of the fourth century B.C.

I don’t know if Alexander himself ordered the Library to be built or if it was Ptolemy I’s (not Ptolemny) idea, but I do know that Alexander did not order (‘tasked’ in the ugly modern parlance) the son of Lagus to build up the Library’s collection of books and share it with others.

During his stay in Egypt, Alexander ‘designed the general layout of the new town’ (Arrian III.2) but there is no record of him assigning posts for particular institutions.

Having said that, absence of evidence is not evidence of absence so he may well have said to Ptolemy ‘When we return, you will be in charge of the Library…’ but I think this possibility can be rejected because in 331, when Alexandria was founded, Ptolemy was still a junior officer. It would be nearly two years (late 330 B.C.) before he would become one of Alexander’s ‘leading generals’, after replacing a soldier named Demetrius in the Royal Bodyguard. Before then, his greatest claim to fame was the fact that it was his lover, Thaïs, who incited Alexander to burn down the Royal Palace in Persepolis. This happened in early 330.

By-the-bye, I don’t think that the librarianship would have gone to a soldier, anyway. As the library was part of a greater institution which included a temple, I believe a priest was its ultimate head – I am open to being corrected on this, though.

***

So much for Alexander ordering Ptolemy to build the library and share its knowledge. But could the latter have decided to share its books ‘with scholars, royalty, and wealthy bibliophiles throughout the world’ anyway?

No.

Once the Library became operational*, Ptolemy’s policy was either to buy books or seize those on ships arriving in Alexandria. They would then be copied, and it would be the copy that was given back to the owner. If scholars wanted to study the originals, they had to come to Alexandria. To the best of my knowledge, the books never travelled abroad.

Why did Ptolemy pursue this policy? In Dividing the Spoils Robin Waterfield says,

Ptolemy’s intention fell little short of an attempt to monopolize Greek literary and scientific culture.
(p.138)

This isn’t a surprise. Knowledge, as they say, is power, and Alexander’s successors were all about amassing as much power as they could and holding onto it with extreme tenacity. They were selfish, yes, but the years following Alexander’s death were also a fight for survival. Kill or be killed. And perhaps, just perhaps, Ptolemy genuinely believed that Alexandria was the best place for these books to be. Given how unstable Greece and the Near East was, but how little Egypt suffered in the Wars of the Successors, he was probably right.

***

Finally, the article claims that the at its peak the Library held ‘over 400,000 manuscripts.’. We don’t know how many books were kept there but it is possible that the Huffington Post writer has short-changed the Library slightly. In Dividing the Spoils, Robin Waterfield states that it ‘is possible that [the Library] came to hold well over half a million rolls’ (this doesn’t mean it had 500,000+ individual books in its possession. Waterfield notes that one book could take up multiple rolls).

***

It seems to me that the writer of The Huffington Post article has fictionalised Alexander for the purpose of his article. His by-line invites readers to ‘become a fan’. I am sure he is second to none when writing about his specialist subject of technology, but my support for him would be stronger if he leaves classical history alone until he has done more revision. His profession demands much more than he has given his readers.

* Presumably no later than 313 B.C. when ‘Alexandria became Ptolemy’s administrative capital… [on] the tenth anniversary of his regime’ (Ibid p.136)

Categories: Of The Moment | Tags: , , | 6 Comments

Perdiccas: The Great Betrayer?

Over on my Tumblr page I am currently writing a read-through of the eighteenth book of Diodorus Siculus’ Library of History – his account of the wars of Alexander’s successors. Today’s post covers the twenty-fourth and fifth chapters of the Library. You can read it here.

While writing the post I was very struck by the fact that Antipater and Craterus were not only surprised but ‘dumbfounded’ when Antigonus Monophthalmus informed them that Perdiccas intended to marry Alexander’s sister, Cleopatra, as a means to make himself king of her brother’s empire.

I’m not surprised by their shock. Perdiccas, after all, was the man to whom Alexander gave his ring of office on his deathbed (Diodorus XVII.117; Curtius X.5.4). The dying king must, therefore, have trusted Perdiccas to ensure that if it were possible for an Argead (e.g. his as yet unborn son) to inherit the throne his deputy – Hephaestion’s successor – would be able to make it happen. And if Alexander thought that, then surely the other generals did, too. It seems that Antipater and Craterus certainly did. Yet here Perdiccas was, all of a sudden, aiming to make himself king.

The title of my post is ‘Perdiccas’ Betrayal’. If there is an ounce of truth in Diodorus’ words I can’t think of how anyone could have betrayed Alexander more. For he betrayed him not only personally but surely by encouraging those other generals who were not so loyal to the idea of an Argead succession but who, had Perdiccas remained faithful to the late king, might have swallowed their ambitions all the same.

***

Of course, there is an objection to my dim view of Perdiccas, and it is sourced in the texts. According to Diodorus, Alexander was asked to whom he left his kingdom. He did not say ‘his son’ but ‘to the strongest’ (D. XVII.117) or ‘to the best man’ (Curtius X.5.5). My objection to this is that a. Arrian(VII.26) – taking his cue from Ptolemy and Aristobulos – says that Alexander could not speak at the end of his life and b. It would make no sense for Antipater or Craterus to be surprised by Perdiccas’ betrayal if they knew that Alexander wanted ‘simply’ the strongest or greatest man to inherit his throne rather than his son.

  • As visitors to this blog may have noticed, I have been very remiss in updating The Second Achilles for a while now. For this, I apologise; I am in a busy stage of life but have to admit I haven’t used my time as well as I could have to publish posts here. Within the time that I have I would like to change that. I’m not sure how I will yet, but one idea is to write short posts like this one giving my thoughts on Diodorus as I write the read through. If you find short posts like this one helpful, or not so, do feel free to let me know in the comments box or via e-mail thesecondachilles@gmail.com
Categories: Arrian, Diodorus Siculus, Quintus Curtius Rufus, The Wars of the Successors | Tags: , , , | 5 Comments

The Knowledge (of Alexander)

The website Knowledge has an article titled The Danger of Being Alexander in which the writer, Venugopal Gupta, discusses the importance of collaboration in order to achieve one’s goals.

Alexander is mentioned variously and cited as an example of someone who did not collaborate and so failed to achieve his goals.

Let’s take a look at what else Gupta has to say about the Macedonian king and how closely – or otherwise – he sticks to the sources.

***

When Alexander the Great’s father returned home after conquering an important new territory, he found his son unusually depressed. His son’s worry: that his father would win everything and leave nothing for him to win.

This anecdote comes from Chapter 5 of Plutarch’s Life of Alexander. Gupta presents Alexander’s depression as the result of a single incident but Plutarch says that ‘whenever he heard that Philip had captured some famous city or won an overwhelming victory, Alexander would show no pleasure at the news’ (my emphasis).

Also, as can be seen, Plutarch represents Alexander as being angry rather than depressed at his father’s successes.

Gupta’s assertion that Alexander was concerned ‘… his father would win everything and leave nothing for him to win’ is faithful to Plutarch, though only to a point. The Greek historian says that whenever he heard of one of his father’s victories, Alexander

… would declare to his friends, ‘Boys, my father will forestall me in everything. There will be nothing great or spectacular for me with your help to show the world.’

A desire to win is implied by the desire to perform ‘great or spectacular’ deeds, but unlike Gupta’s Alexander, Plutarch’s is not concerned with only winning but with showing the world what he is made of. He is outward rather than inward looking.

***

Fuelled with passion, Alexander piled up victories from Europe into Asia, until, all of thirty-two years of age, Alexander stood at the doorstep of India, to see the culmination of a world dominion that stretched from West to the East.

Gupta is certainly correct to say that Alexander ‘piled up the victories from Europe into Asia’.

At the age of 32 (i.e. in the summer of 324 B.C.), however, the Macedonian king was in Persia on his way back to Babylon rather than ‘on the doorstep to India’.

Alexander’s arrival at ‘the doorstep of India’ came much earlier – as early as Spring 329 B.C. when he made his first crossing of the Hindu Kush. That year, he entered Bactria, which today is part of Afghanistan, Tajikistan and – which is relevant to us – Pakistan. In 329 B.C., Alexander turned 27.

As you can see, I have interpreted Gupta’s reference to India as a reference to ancient India. Just in case he is referring to Alexander’s arrival at the doorstep of modern India, I’ll add that the Macedonian king passed its border when he came to the Hyphasis (Beas) River in the summer of 326 B.C. In that year, he celebrated his 30th birthday.

***

At the camp, one day, Alexander’s personal staff found a strange oily substance that was both transparent and odourless. Knowing their leader to be extremely superstitious, this news was promptly relayed to the court diviners. They reported that oil was given by gods as a reward for hard work and therefore the appearance of this substance at the camp was a good omen.

The incident that Gupta is referring to here took place on the banks of the Oxus River in Spring 328 B.C. when Alexander was marching north to subdue those Sogdians who had refused to accept the authority of his governor. The discovery of the oil is described by Plutarch in Chapter 57 of his Life and Arrian in Book IV.16 of his Campaigns of Alexander.

Plutarch says the ‘head of Alexander’s household servants, a man named Proxenus… uncovered a spring of… smooth and fatty liquid’ and that when

… the top of this was strained off, there gushed forth a pure and clear oil which appeared to be exactly like olive oil both in odour and in taste, and was also identical in smoothness and brightness.

There is no mention in Plutarch’s Life of ‘the court diviners’ being informed of the find on the grounds that Alexander was ‘extremely superstitious’.

However, we know that they were told about it because Plutarch says that the diviners called the oil a ‘refreshment’ and an omen for

… a campaign which would be a glorious one but also arduous and painful’.
(Plutarch Life 57)

This is in contrast to Gupta who has the soothsayers calling the spring of oil ‘a reward for hard work’ already done.

Moving on to Arrian, he doesn’t say who specifically found the ‘oily substance’. Neither does he describe its appearance. He is clear, however, about what happened next: the find was not reported to ‘the court diviners’ but to Ptolemy, who then informed the king.

Arrian agrees with Plutarch that ‘the court diviners’ were told of the oil’s discovery. He – Arrian – states specifically that

Aristander declared that the spring of oil was a sign of difficulties to come and of eventual victory.

Although there is no suggestion that the diviners ‘reported that [the] oil was given by gods as a reward for hard work’ it is clear that in Arrian’s account as well as Plutarch’s and Gupta’s article, the oil was regarded as a good omen.

By-the-bye, I don’t feel that at this point in his life Alexander would have been regarded as ‘extremely superstitious’ by his men. I hesitate to say more, though, as it is not an aspect of his life that I have yet looked into deeply. I am disagreeing with Gupta out of my guts rather than with my head.

***

After receiving news from the diviners, Alexander’s enthusiasm knew no bounds. He asked the army to prepare for war. While the army shouted valiant war cries, their spirit was worn out. They had run a long campaign before getting up to India and not had enough time to rest and repose. Worse, they had trouble acclimatising to the new weather and were perilously low on provisions.

Following the discovery of the oil, Alexander continued his pacification of Sogdia and Bactria. There was no call for the army ‘to prepare for war’ – it was already effectively in the middle of one – and so no ‘valiant war cries’ in response from the men.

Equally, the Macedonian army was not yet tired nor worn out.

Not that everything was perfect for them. Many soldiers did want to go home, and this desire can be traced back to at least the death of Darius in July 330 B.C.

Back then, Alexander had been so concerned by his men’s homesickness that he had called them together and given a rousing speech in order to persuade them to continue east with him (see Diodorus XVII.74).

When Gupta talks about the ‘long campaign’ and its consequences, he is, I think, building upon Diodorus. The Macedonian army

… had spent almost eight years among toils and dangers… and no relief from fighting was in sight. The hooves of the horses had been worn thin by steady marching. The arms and armour were wearing out, and Greek clothing was quite gone. They had to clothe themselves in foreign materials, recutting the garments of the Indians. This was the season also, as luck would have it, of the heavy rains. These had been going on for seventy days, to the accompaniment of continuous thunder and lightning.
(Diodorus XVII.94)

Arrian also talks about the men becoming depressed (A V.25). However, both authors are referring to a later period (summer 326 B.C.) than that of Gupta (Spring 328 B.C.). To the best of my knowledge, none of the major sources talk about the Macedonians being low on provisions.

***

During this time, the Indian king, Porus, arrived at the camp and spoke with Alexander.

‘Please tell me the purpose of your campaign’ asked Porus, ‘if you wage the war for water and food, then we are obliged to fight as they are indispensable to us’

‘If, however, you come to fight for riches and possessions, as they are accounted in the eyes of the world, and you find me better provided in them, I am ready to share those with you. Else, if fortune has been more liberal to you, I have no objection to be obliged to you,’ Porus offered a compromise.

While Alexander congratulated Porus on his wisdom, he said, ‘No matter how obliging you are, you shall not have the better of me’ he told Porus, asking him to prepare for war. To Alexander, agreeing to Porus was equal to capitulating before him.

Alexander and Porus certainly met, but only after the Battle of the Hydaspes River. As a result, they did not have the conversation that Gupta imagines taking place between them. According to Plutarch (Life 60) Alexander asked the defeated Porus how he would like to be treated and received the equally famous response ‘As a king’. Arrian (V.19) records the conversation slightly differently, saying that Alexander asked Porus what he thought he – Alexander – should do with him. ‘Treat me as a king ought’ came the response.  Curtius (VIII.14.41-43) follows Arrian in respect of Alexander’s question but has Porus give a very philosophical reply. Do ‘[w]hat this day tells you to do’, he says, ‘[this] day on which you have discovered how transitory good fortune is.’

***

Despite an army ten times as strong, Alexander only barely managed to win. While the victory reinforced Alexander’s legendary invincibility, the army lost countless men and their will to fight. Their spirit was battered beyond repair.

Before reading The Danger of Being Alexander I did not know off-hand the size of the Macedonian army at the Battle of the Hydaspes River in and of itself or relative to Porus’. Here is what I found after having a look at the sources:

Arrian
Macedonian army
Infantry 6,000
Cavalry 5,000
(Arrian V.14)

Porus’ army
Infantry 30,000
Cavalry 4,000
Chariots 300
Elephants 200
(Arrian V.15)

Curtius
Macedonian army
No figures given

Porus’ army
Infantry 30,000
Chariots 300
Elephants 85
(Curtius VIII.13.6)
NB
C. doesn’t say how many cavalrymen Porus had. They were present in his army, though, as C. states that 4,000 (maybe all of them?) were sent to attack Alexander as he approached the battlefield (C. VIII.14.2)

Diodorus
Macedonian army
No figures given

Porus’ army
Infantry 50,000+
Cavalry 3,000
Chariots 1,000+
Elephants 130
(Diodorus XVII.87)

Plutarch
Macedonian army
No figures given

Porus’ army
Infantry 20,000
Cavalary 2,000
(Life of Alexander 62)

Justin
Gives no figures for the size of either army

Despite an army ten times as strong
As you can see, only Arrian gives us any figure at all for the size of Alexander’s army. The notes to my Penguin Classics edition of The Campaigns of Alexander state ‘Arrian… writes that the boats took as many of the infantry as they could, perhaps not all had been transported across the river by this time’.

The numbers for Porus’ army vary. The lowest is Plutarch’s 22,000. This means that Alexander would have needed to have over 200,000 men in his army to meet Gupta’s requirement of being ten times stronger. Is it likely that Arrian’s figure is that inaccurate?

Alexander only barely managed to win.
Curtius is the only writer who gives the impression that the Macedonians might conceivably have lost this battle. ‘Victors moments before, the Macedonians were now casting around for a place to flee’ (C. VIII.14.24). ‘… the fortunes of the battle kept shifting, with the Macedonians alternatively chasing and fleeing from the elephants’ (C. VIII.14.28). There is no sense in his text, though, that the eventual Macedonian victory was a close run thing, ‘just’ that it was a very tough battle.

the [Macedonian] army lost countless men
Arrian (V.18) states that Alexander lost 80 infantry, 10 mounted archers, 20 Companion Cavalry and 200 ‘of the other cavalry’ in the Battle of the Hydaspes River.

Diodorus (XVII.89) ‘the only other writer to mention casualties’ (according to the notes to my edition of Arrian) says that Alexander lost 700+ infantry and 280 cavalry.

Given how fierce the battle was, Arrian’s figure seem much too low. Diodorus’ are surely more realistic. But even he has downplayed casualty numbers, I again get no sense from the texts the battle that the Macedonian army lost the high numbers in the manner that Gupta suggests happened.

and their will to fight. Their spirit was battered beyond repair.
Weeks after the battle, the Macedonian army mutinied on the banks of the Hyphasis River. If anything, therefore, its spirit was ‘battered beyond repair’ even before the fight against Porus. However, Gupta is definitely on the right track here.

***

A victorious Alexander wanted to move forward but his army revolted against him. He was forced to turn back. He made Porus a king under his empire and allowed him to govern not only his original kingdom but many more provinces.

Actually, Alexander did move forward, albeit not very far. Gupta’s other statements here are all correct. As mentioned above, the army revolted a few weeks later on the banks of the Hyphasis River, forcing Alexander to turn back. Similarly, Porus was not only given his kingdom back but given additional territory, too (Arrian V.19, Curtius VIII.14.45, Plutarch Life 60).

Categories: Of The Moment, On Alexander | Tags: , | 1 Comment

Iran, Beards, and Money Management

In an article title From Alexander The Great To Mohammed Bin Salman (here), the editor-in-Chief of the Arab Times, Ahmed Al-Jarallah, has written an article criticising the ‘elderly leaders of Iran’ who have poured ‘mercenaries into Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Yemen and Bahrain’ resulting in the deaths of ‘thousands of people’ and the displacement of others. He reminds Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei

… of Alexander the Great, who chased the Persians out of Central Asia and put an end to their empire when he was in his thirties

Of course, Alexander never ‘chased the Persians’ out of anywhere. What he did do – as Ahmed says – was overthrow the Persian Empire.

There are a number of dates which may be counted as the point when it fell (For example, October 331 following the Battle of Gaugamela or later that same month upon Alexander’s entry into Babylon) but if we take – what I propose to be – the latest one: the death of Darius III in July 330 B.C. then that would mean Alexander ‘put an end’ to the Persian Empire when he was just 26 years old.

Perhaps Ahmed, despite his obvious disapproval for the leaders of Iran, didn’t want them to feel too bad.

***

The Mens XP website has 20 Facts Every Man Should Know About Beards. One of which is

IMG_1857

Leaving aside the fact that the Battle of Arbela has been spelt incorrectly, there is nothing in the five principle sources for Alexander’s life to back up the claim that he made his men shave or that they grew their hair long at the back.

The quotation may be rubbish but it hasn’t been made up by the writer of this article. A bishop of the late fourth/early fifth century, St Synesius, referred to it in a playful work titled A Eulugy of Baldness. In it, he claims that Alexander made his men shave before the Battle of Gaugamela and gives Ptolemy I as his source. You can read more here.

I strongly suspect Ptolemy or Synesius or someone in between was pulling his reader’s leg; unfortunately, this has been forgotten leading to the picture above.

***

Forbes magazine isn’t the place one would normally expect to see a piece of fan-fiction in, but yet, at the start of an article on the American health care system, there it is – a short story starring Alexander at the tomb of Achilles.

At the heart of the narrative is Alexander’s recognition that nothing lasts, that all things fail. I am open to correction on this, but in reality, I believe Alexander spent precisely zero time worrying about the future. He was too busy winning fame in the present.

 ***

Money Management reports on the semi-retirement of ‘TAL chief executive and ardent All Blacks supporter, Jim Minto’ here.

Reflecting upon the good which life insurance delivers to people, Minto ascribed to Alexander the Great final words to the effect that the good deeds people do are remembered long after the people themselves.

However in this age of Google, interwebs, etc those at the media table quickly came to the view that notwithstanding Minto’s laudable sentiments, Alexander the Great’s final words were claimed by most experts to have been “I wish people to know that I came empty handed into this world and empty handed I go out of this world”.

I have absolutely no desire to cast aspersions on the quality of Money Management‘s journalism, but if the website had actually spoken to any expert on Alexander the Great it would have discovered that he did not say any such thing.

Upon receiving the call from this journal, the expert would have opened up his copy of Arrian up and said ‘Arrian gives three different possibilities for Alexander’s last words.

‘The first, which comes from Ptolemy and Aristobulos, is that he – Alexander – did not speak at his death as he had lost the use of his voice a day or so earlier (vide Arrian VII.26).

‘The second – which comes from unnamed writers – is that, after being asked to name his successor, Alexander said he left his empire to ‘the best man’ (Arrian VII.27).

‘The third – again, from unnamed writers – is that ‘… he went on to say that he knew very well there would be funeral ‘games’ in good earnest after he was dead’ (Ibid).

Putting Arrian to one side, the expert would then turn to Curtius and Diodorus, and tell Money Management that they elaborate on Arrian’s statements. –

[Alexander] bade his friends draw near since, by now, even his voice had started to fail, and then took his ring from his finger, and handed it to Perdiccas. He also gave instructions that they should have his body transported to Hammon. When they asked him to whom he bequeathed his kingdom, he answered, ‘To the best man,’ but added that he could already foresee great funeral games for himself provided by that issue. When Perdiccas further asked when he wished divine honours paid to him, he said he wanted them when they themselves were happy. These were Alexander’s last words; he died moments later.
(Curtius X.4-6)

and Diodorus –

When [Alexander], at length, despaired of life, he took off his ring and handed it to Perdiccas. His Friends asked: “To whom do you leave the kingdom?” and he replied: “To the strongest.” He added, and these were his last words, that all of his leading Friends would stage a vast contest in honour of his funeral.
(Diodorus XVII.117)

Next, Plutarch.

‘Sadly,’ our expert would have said, ‘Plutarch does not record Alexander’s last words. By-the-bye, he agrees with Arrian that Alexander lost his voice (vide Life 76) but it is not clear whether this remained the case until the end or if Alexander regained the power of speech before his death.’

Finally, Justin. ‘He has Alexander say a few things’ our expert would have said.

On the fourth day, Alexander, finding that death was inevitable, observed that “he perceived the approach of the fate of his family, for the most of the Aeacidae had died under thirty years of age.”… he asked his friends that stood about him, “whether they thought they should find a king like him?” All continuing silent, he said that, “although he did not know that, he knew, and could foretel[l], and almost saw with his eyes, how much blood Macedonia would shed in the disputes that would follow his death, and with what slaughters, and what quantities of gore, she would perform his obsequies.” At last he ordered his body to be buried in the temple of Jupiter Ammon. When his friends saw him dying, they asked him “whom he would appoint as the successor to his throne?” He replied, “The most worthy.”… On the sixth day from the commencement of his illness, being unable to speak, he took his ring from his finger, and gave it to Perdiccas, an act which tranquillized the growing dissension among his friends; for though Perdiccas was not expressly named his successor, he seemed intended to be so in Alexander’s judgment.
(Justin XII.15)

Putting his copy of Justin to one side, the expert would then have said to Money Management, ‘My dear friend, I hope that has been useful for you. But, pray, do not be disappointed. The words you thought Alexander said do belong to antiquity, only, they sound more like something one would read in the Bible rather than a pagan text.’

The words that Jim Minto ‘ascribed to Alexander’, though equally inaccurate, at least sound like something Alexander would say. I suspect, though, he was conflating his reading of Alexander with his watching of Gladiator.

Either way, I hope he enjoys a long and happy retirement.

Categories: Of The Moment, On Alexander | 2 Comments

Shields and Public Shaming

The Global Times frames an article on Europe’s future within the context of Macedon’s and Greece’s past. It writes,

In the 4th century BC Macedonia, a Greek-speaking kingdom of Northern Greece, under the leadership of Phillip II, set out to unify the Mediterranean world. Macedonia’s quest for hegemonic stability brought it into a direct conflict with old established Hellenic powers like Thebes, Sparta and most of all Athens.

The ancient Macedonians did not speak Greek. As I understand it, their tongue was a Greek dialect (which could not be understood by the Greeks).

During Philotas’ trial, Alexander asks Parmenion’s son if he will give his defence using his ‘native language’. When Philotas replies that he will speak Greek, Alexander uses this to score a nationalist point against him (see Curtius VI.9.34-36). Ironically, the reason why Philotas decides to use Greek is because he wants more people to understand him.

Rather than use the word ‘unify’, which for me suggests that Philip wanted to make all peoples equal under his rule, I would say simply that he wanted to conquer them. I have to admit here I am no expert on Philip’s foreign policy so what I say could be wide of the mark; however, I don’t get the impression that Philip was an idealist. He was in the business of winning power. Had he lived longer, maybe that would have changed – we’ll never know.

Macedon never came ‘into direct conflict’ with Sparta. In fact, both Philip II and Alexander left the Spartans alone. Not because they were afraid of the Lacedaemonians but because the latter were militarily and politically irrelevent. There was simply no need to waste time subduing them.

The article concludes

Germany must lead Europe without being hubristic toward other EU states. When Alexander the Great, Phillips’s heir, won his first battle against Persia, he dedicated his triumph to Athens and adorned the Parthenon with the shields of the Persian generals.

The exact truth of this statement depends upon which of the sources you read and trust.

Plutarch (Life of Alexander 16) states that the Macedonian king sent 300 shields (‘captured from the enemy’) to Athens. He writes

… over the rest of the spoils he had this proud inscription engraved: Alexander, the son of Philip, and the Greeks except the Spartans won these spoils of war from the barbarians who dwell in Asia’.

Arrian says that Alexander sent 300 panoplies to Athens as

… an offering to the goddess Athena… with the following inscription: Alexander, son of Philip, and the Greeks (except the Lacedaemonians) dedicate these spoils, taken from the Persians who dwell in Asia

If we follow Plutarch, the article is right to say that shields were sent, though not necessarily from ‘Persian generals’.

Was this a humble gesture on Alexander’s part? It is hard to say as Plutarch doesn’t give the king’s motive for sending them.

The article says that Alexander dedicated his victory at the Granicus to Athens. Plutarch doesn’t say this, and Arrian disagrees. He states that the panoplies were sent as ‘an offering to… Athena’. That makes sense; they were going to the Parthenon, after all.

Sending the panoplies as ‘an offering to… Athena’ sounds like a very humble gesture. However, as the notes to my Penguin Classics edition of Arrian point out, Greeks only played a small part in the Macedonian victory. And note what Alexander says about the Spartans. This inscription – and therefore the spoils – have less to do with humility, therefore, and much to do with propaganda (as my notes suggest) and public shaming. These two things are not evidence of hubris but neither are they good examples of behaviour for Germany or anyone else to follow.

Categories: Of The Moment, On Alexander | Tags: , , , , , | 1 Comment

To Whom Does This ‘No’ Belong?

The Daily Star of Bangladesh begins a column on the country’s well-being,

War-time British Prime Minister Sir Winston Churchill ‘mobilised the English language and sent it into battle’, so said American journalist Ed Murrow. Churchill in a major address to the House of Commons quoted Alexander the Great as saying, “Why the Asians were slaves? It is because they have not learnt to say ‘no’.”

Adding, Churchill said, ‘I don’t want that epitaph for Britain.’ He was inspiring the Britons to stand up to the tyrannical Hitlerite blitzkrieg on London at an extremely crucial phase of World War II. Although Alexander’s remark was demeaning to Asia, going back to around 300 B.C when the native rulers were quarrelsome, the Asians were to give a much better account of themselves as history bore out subsequently.

The obvious thing to point out here is that if Alexander did make the remark ascribed to him, he did not say it ‘around 300 B.C.’ unless through a medium. By the turn of the century, he had, of course, been dead for 23 years.

Leaving the issue of the date to one side, is Churchill’s quotation an accurate one?

I certainly cannot think of any occasion when Alexander accused Asians (whether by this we mean those who lived in Asia Minor, India or anywhere in between) of being slaves for any reason let alone the lack of ability to say ‘no’. Certainly, in his own dealings with them, he did not treat them as slaves.

Against that, I have to admit that while I have read the four major histories (plus Justin) on Alexander’s life, I have not read every last reference and fragment. Maybe an author I have not heard of gives those words to him?

Is it worth searching to find out, though? A quick Google search reveals that not only does it appear that Churchill did not mention Alexander in a ‘major address to the House of Commons’ but – contra the Daily Star‘s report – he did not quote him, either.

According to The Churchill Centre, Churchill gave a broadcast speech to ‘the United States and to London’ (presumably the U.K. is meant here) on 16th October 1938. It is during this speech, that he said

Alexander the Great remarked that the people of Asia were slaves because they had not learned to pronounce the word “No.” Let that not be the epitaph of the English-speaking peoples or of Parliamentary democracy, or of France, or of the many surviving liberal States of Europe.

I appreciate that while Churchill doesn’t quote Alexander directly he does say that the Macedonian king said the words that the Daily Star now puts into his mouth; however, the Daily Star has still inaccurately recorded both Churchill’s speech and, I believe (along with Churchill), Alexander’s opinion of Asian/barbarian history.

***

By-the-bye, I could only smile wryly when I read the column’s dismissal of Alexander as belonging to the ‘hoary past’ but then end with a reference to the Gordian Knot. That’s life in the old king’s example, yet.

Categories: By the Bye, Of The Moment, On Alexander | Tags: | Leave a comment

The Shadow Story

I am currently reading The Hunt for Zerzura by Saul Kelly, which tells the story of the interwar desert explorers who criss-crossed the Egyptian desert in search of the lost oasis of Zerzura.

They never found Zerzura but did manage to map a great deal of previously unknown territory. These maps eventually ended up in the hands of both the Axis Powers and British armies after the outbreak of the Second World War.

***

There is much I could say about the book and the people involved in the exploration, but in this post I just wanted to highlight a comment made by ‘The Director of Military Intelligence, Brigadier Freddie de Guingand’ (p.187) regarding the contribution made to the desert war on behalf of Britain and her allies by the Long Range Desert Group (LRDG).

The LRDG was founded by one of the desert explorers, Ralph Bagnold, with orders ‘to make trouble for the Italians, and later the Germans, anywhere in Libya’ (p.136).

As the war progressed, the LRDG’s role also developed so that its commanding officer, Guy Prendergast could say that it

… found itself more and more in the position of ‘universal aunts’ to anyone who has business in the desert behind the enemy lines. An increasing stream of Commandos (European and Arab), L. Detachment, I.S.L.D., G(R)., bogus Germans (BUCK), lost travellers, ‘escape scheme’ promoters, stranded aviators, etc., has continued to arrive at SIWA needing petrol, rations, maintenance, information, training, accommodation, and supplies of all kinds.
(p.188)

***

In 1942, spying was at the top of the LRDG’s list of priorities as a 24-hour watch was kept on the Via Balbia, ‘Rommel’s main line of communication’ (p.187). Every vehicle and man that passed this way was noted and a report sent back to Cairo. The information sent by the LRDG’s observers was important as it

… enabled Military Intelligence in Cairo to check the Axis vehicle figures it was getting from Enigma so as to arrive at a reasonably accurate figure, in particular of the number of serviceable tanks, which Rommel could put in the field.
(p.187)

I’m sure I don’t need to say why it was important for the British army to know how many tanks the Desert Fox had at his disposal. And, indeed, this information was not just important but absolutely critical to the British war effort. So much so that de Guingand

… later maintained that the road watch was the LRDG’s most valuable contribution in the fight against the Axis in North Africa.
(ibid)

The raids behind enemy lines, the harassment of enemy forces, the soldiers ferried about, aviators rescued – no doubt all were valuable works but the most important thing that the LRDG did was lie down on the ground for hours on end and jot down names and numbers. That’s quite a thought.

***

Reading the above passage made a deep impression on me as it brought home once again how an army simply does not win its battles only on the battlefield. That may be where the greatest amount of glory is won but clearly, without the efforts of those behind the (battle) scenes, the ultimate outcome of any clash of arms has the potential to be a lot less certain.

Over the last few months, this thought has lead me to consider Hephaestion’s role as Alexander’s chief-logistics officer. I might now also consider who else served him in an equally unglamorous but perhaps vital way.

One person does immediately spring to mind: Eumenes, his chief war secretary. I might also mention Perdiccas who worked with Hephaestion on the logistics side. And then there is Chares, Alexander’s Royal Usher when the king was taking on Persian dress and customs and so a link between the traditional and progressive factions at court. Also, Leonidas and Lysimachus, the king’s tutors. Leonidas is well known but Lysimachus (not to be confused with the general of that name) perhaps less so. Alexander considered him important enough to rescue at great risk to his own life when the old man’s strength failed him during a brief campaign against arabs in Anti-Lebanon (Plutarch Life 24).

I’m sure I could go on but, hopefully, you already see my point – the chief story of Alexander’s life is definitely the battles, sieges and brave deeds he did, but there is definitely another – even if more shadowy – story to tell alongside that one. I must thank Saul Kelly (and, ultimately, Brigadier Freddie de Guingand) or reminding me of this in his excellent book.

Categories: Of The Moment | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Bad News from Greece: Amphipolis Tomb to be sold?

Bad news from Greece. The following article appeared in yesterday’s print edition of Kathimerini. The translation is my own.

Alexis Tsipras could be about to face his first crisis as leader of the Hellenic Republic after suggesting that Greece might sell the site of the Kasta Tomb in Amphipolis, Macedonia.

The revelation came when Tsipras answered questions during a dinner at the Maximos Mansion in Athens, the Prime Minister’s official seat, in honour of Thanos Anoitos, the founder of Greece’s largest technology company, FutureTech.

The Prime Minister was asked what future he saw for the tomb. “Actually, none.” he told startled guests, “That place represents a Greece that died 2,000 years ago. Who cares about that? I don’t. My eyes are set firmly forward, to the world – I must say – of brilliant organisations like FutureTech.”

When questioned further about his surprising response, Tsipras replied, “Let me tell you something. One month ago I received a letter. It was from the Historical Society of America. They are big people. Super rich businessmen run it; the President of America is its patron.

“The HSA wrote to say that it wants to buy the Kasta Tomb and either make it the centre of a theme park based on ancient Macedonia – just like Disney World – or dig the whole thing up and take it to America like they did with London Bridge so many years ago.

“And you know what? I’m happy for them to do either – I just want it out of the way. Even as I speak we are in negotiations with the HSA and I hope to have good news for the country within a few weeks.”

Gasps of astonishment went round the hall as Tsipras spoke and he was asked if he seriously intended to let sell such an important site, but the Prime Minister was unrepentant.

“To whom is the tomb important? Greece? I said a moment ago that it represents a Greece that died 2,000 years ago. Actually, that is nonsense! Macedonia was never part of Greece! Greeks hated Alexander the Great. If the people of his own lifetime hated him why should I – a proud Greek – like him now? No, if we get a good enough offer for the Tomb, it will enter foreign hands and – maybe – foreign territory. Good riddance, I say. Let us build a FutureTech phone mast on the site instead. Goodbye imperialist junk, good day to a tower that will help empower all Greek people.”

It is rumoured that several people at the dinner left in disgust at the Prime Minister’s words but this has not been confirmed.

That, however, may be the least of Tsipras’ problems. Senior officials in his Syriza party as well as opposition leaders have condemned the Prime Minister’s words and there have been calls for a vote of confidence to be held in Parliament. If this were to go against Tsipras he could be forced from office only months after winning the election.

We wait to see what happens next. Hopefully, sense will prevail.

Categories: Uncategorized | 8 Comments

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