As the end of May approaches, we get ready to say our annual goodbye to Alexander. Following a short illness, the Macedonian king died on 10th/11th June* 323 BC.
What do I mean by ‘short illness’? And what exactly happened?
As to the first question, I will break it down.
‘Short‘: According to Arrian, Alexander died at least nine days after falling ill during a drinking party**. Plutarch has the illness lasting for eleven days. Justin is not specific but indicates that at least six days passed before Alexander succumbed. Unfortunately, the relevant portion of Curtius’ history is missing so we don’t know what he says. As for Diodorus, while he covers Alexander’s death, he doesn’t say how long he was ill for.
‘Illness‘. What happened to Alexander? All we know for sure is that he fell ill during the aforementioned drinking party. The reason for his illness is unknown. In the years following Alexander’s death, poisoning by Antipater was alleged. Did he do it? Well, maybe, but then maybe Antipater’s enemies in the Wars of the Successors blamed him in an attempt to undermine him and his son Cassander’s cause.
Ever since those first allegations, people have proposed different reasons for Alexander’s untimely demise. Every so often, a scholar, a doctor, or someone in-between suggests another cause. None have ever been fully accepted, however, because Alexander’s symptoms, as described in the sources, do not completely fit one illness or intervention.
What happened? All the sources (excluding Curtius) agree that Alexander fell ill at a party hosted by his friend Medius. In regards Arrian and Plutarch, while both agree that the king fell ill after drinking, they disagree on how long he had been drinking for. Arrian seems to suggest that Alexander fell ill after drinking through the evening and into the night, whereas Plutarch says that he drank all night and the following day before falling ill. Both agree that the fever started by the end of, or almost immediately after, Alexander left Medius’ party.
Both Justin and Diodorus claim that Alexander was struck down in pain during the party. Plutarch, however, denies that this happened. He says that it is a later embellishment of ‘certain historians’. Arrian doesn’t address this issue. Presumably, he would agree with Plutarch.
Now, you may think that 25th May is a little early to be thinking about something that won’t happen until nearly two weeks into June, and it is. The reason Alexander’s death is on my mind at the moment is that I had got it into my head that it is about now that Medius’ fatal party took place. Having had a look at the sources, I don’t know why I thought that. I expect I was just misremembering what I had read long ago. Looking at the chronology I wrote out for The Second Achilles a few years ago, I note that at any rate, Peter Green suggests that the party took place on 29th/30th May. I suppose I could have delayed writing this until the start of June but I already leave until tomorrow too many things that could be done today, so why add to the tally.
Anyway, having mentioned that we are approaching the season of Alexander’s death, what next? Just put the information to one side and get on with life? Or, do something with it? And if the latter, what? I don’t know, so I will think about that and see if I can come back to it in another post.
* I have written this as an absolute but I should acknowledge that some scholars propose different dates for his death ** His timeline becomes a little vague right at the end when he refers to events without saying when exactly they occurred; i.e., during the nine days already mentioned, or thereafter?
When I pressed publish for yesterday’s post, the option to add tags appeared. Let’s see if it works today.
A few weeks ago, I came across this image of Alexander by Andy Warhol. Although I am not a big fan of modern art, this one touches me.
I like that Warhol has taken an old image of Alexander: …
… and done something new with it while at the same time keeping the original image at the heart of his work.
If I may go into lit. crit mode, Warhol’s print seems to me to be the art equivalent of a film that remains true to the spirit of the book it is adapting rather than one that simply uses elements of the book to create what is essentially a new work. I dislike it when the latter happens as it is disrespectful to the book and author. Filmmakers who are tempted to go down this path should just create their own story rather than misuse another.
With that in mind, we might ask what does the original bust tell us and how does Warhol’s print stay true to it?
The original bust presents the iconic image of Alexander: his leonine hair, gentle faraway gaze, and slightly parted lips. Strength, dreaminess and motion – key elements of his character – are all present here.
In like fashion, Warhol draws out elements of Alexander’s character through his use of colour.
For example, the red background in the top left image puts us in mind of blood, war, and danger — key elements of Alexander’s life. The darkness of Alexander’s bust hints at the more savage elements of his character.
The white background of the top right image suggests purity, the purity of his relations with women, his generosity to friends, and the respect he gave those of his enemies who fought nobly. The yellowness of his hair and head also puts me in mind of the Argeads’ connection to Herakles.
The blue background of the bottom left image gives it a certain mysterious air. Alexander is a mysterious person to us. The Alexander we ‘know’ is the Alexander of the Romans and his soldiers (even if they are as high ranking as, say, Ptolemy). He is not the Alexander who lived. At least, not completely.
The purple-pink background of the bottom right image suggests royalty, and maybe even Alexander’s priestly role (I’m speaking here as a Catholic where purple is a marker of ecclesial rank).
Those are some of my thoughts. Do let me know yours. There is just one thing left now, and that’s to say if you would like to know more about Warhol’s Alexander, visit the my art broker website. It’s a fascinating article. Right, let’s hit publish and see if I can tag the post.
This post is a bit of an experiment as I am writing it on my tablet’s WordPress app to see how it comes out.
Today (18th May 2023) is Ascension Day. How can The Second Achilles mark it? There’s only on way, of course.
This medieval illustration shows Alexander the Great ascending (see what I did there) thanks to four griffins and bait comprising of two unfortunate dogs. What is the purpose of Alexander’s flight? This from medievalists.net:
One of the famous trips that Alexander the Great makes is his (attempted) journey to heaven. Since Bucephalus does not have wings, Alexander has to resort to some griffins that happen to live nearby. The birds are tied to a chariot with a piece of meat spitted on the top of a lance as bait (in the church of St. Peter and Paul in Remagen, Germany, he is depicted hoisting two puppies). While the unfortunate griffins think they are constantly flying towards the meat (or the puppies), they carry Alexander up, so that he may see for himself if that place, ‘where the sky touches the earth’, is really the end of the world. It is extremely cold up in the air, he describes in a letter to his mother Olympia; and as he approaches the heavens, he encounters a figure and, heeding his warning, he returns to earth and lands somewhere seven days’ journey from his camp. But the journey is not entirely wasted, since Alexander gains a glimpse of the entire world below.
Recently, I have got really into historical documentaries on YouTube. There are some great ones hidden away there. One in particular that has impressed me is a doc. about the Vergina excavations, which uncovered what is believed to be the final resting place of Alexander’s father, Philip II.
The documentary follows Manolis Andronikos, the archaeologist behind Vergina’s discovery. Watching Macedonia: A Civilization Uncovered was a treat, yes because of its content but also because it was the first time I had seen actual footage of the tombs (and, for that matter, Andronikos). I highly recommend this video to you. The video quality isn’t the greatest – it has suffered a bit having been, I guess, recorded off the television onto VHS, but it is easily watchable. The only discordant note was at the end when the narrator said that Andronikos had many more years of excavation work ahead of him. Sadly, he died just a couple of years after the documentary was made. What a legacy to leave behind, though!
Writing this post and inserting the image and video went very smoothly. WordPress organises each paragraph into blocks. A new one begins whenever you press Return. However, I can’t see how to press Return and stay in the same block. I just about managed it for the credit and final note by going into the HTML code. It hasn’t come out perfectly, though. I also can’t see where the option to write tags for the post is (if it exists), so there are a couple of things to work on.
First of all, I must apologise as my posting has become a bit erratic in the last few weeks. I’ve missed two or three Sundays and, except for what was just a ‘supplementary’ post not made up for it during the week. I just haven’t been able to give the blog the time I have wanted in order to write what’s on my mind. Mea Culpa.
Rather than write nothing again, since there are things on my mind, I have now sat myself down (as I write these words it’s currently 4:15pm on 8th May 2023) with a cup of tea and will just write, write, write until I have to leave my desk at 5pm.
Coronations Past and Present So, there was only one news story in Britain this weekend – the coronation of Charles III. Last Friday, I took a walk round Parliament Square, Horseguards Parade, and along The Mall to get a taste of the atmosphere. Parliament Square was full of tourists passing this way and that. In Horseguards Parade I saw a man speaking to someone on his phone (I think he might have been live streaming himself) moaning about the iniquity of monarchy. He seemed to believe that Charles has far more power than he actually does, which is to say, none. I suppose the King could be said to have what we call nowadays ‘soft power’ but it really isn’t the same thing. On The Mall I saw all the truly dedicated fans of royalty and spectacle camped out and ready for the processions on Saturday. The atmosphere on The Mall was a happy one. If you spent all your time on social media, you’d think that the people of Britain were frustrated left-wing republicans. In the real world, they are quite different.
After returning home, I got to thinking about Alexander and the idea of coronation. When he became king of Macedon, it doesn’t look like he had one. At least, none of the sources say that he did (excluding Curtius. We don’t know what he said of Alexander’s accession as we are missing the first two books of his History of Alexander). Given that the Macedonians liked their kings to be as much like them as possible, I guess that even if he had had one, it would have been nothing like Charles – full of grandeur.
We know from the reliefs of him that the Egyptians regarded Alexander as their pharaoh, but did he have a coronation there? Again, we aren’t told. Alexander only spent a few months in Egypt so maybe there would not have been enough time to organise one. And again, when he became Great King, no coronation is ever mentioned. You could say Alexander’s victory at Gaugamela was really his coronation at Great King of the formerly Persian Empire.
Meaning My favourite part of Charles’ coronation was his investiture – the point when he was given various garments and objects that symbolise different aspects of his kingship. I wrote about this in a blog post for my British Catholic Blogs blog here. I love the idea of things having a meaning beyond what they actually are, or are used for.
As I mention in that BCB post, we live in a world that has rejected meaning. I say ‘we’ but I really mean Britain. This may or may not apply to other Western nations and beyond; I am not qualified to say. That aside, Alexander, by contrast, lived in a world that was heavy in meaning. It is why he had Aristander on hand to read the omens and portents. What do you think it would be like to live in a world where the most random events could be taken to mean something good or bad? I’m tempted to say it would be quite scary but I suppose for the ancients it was quite normal. The reason I say scary, though, is because although the omens could benefit you, they could also lead to something as bad as torture or death. At the very least it is all a haphazard way to live. My one consolation is that when I look at the bad omens that Alexander received in his last days – as related by Curtius – I am pretty sure that the latter is doing a fair bit of retconning in order to show Alexander in as bad a light as possible.Well, it is nearly 5pm so I had better stop. I hope this post finds you well, and I look forward to writing again soon!
Credit King Charles III at his Coronation: Sky News
I am not one for surprises, but one kind that I do enjoy is finding Alexander in the wild. By this I mean in books that aren’t about and have nothing to do with him.
Case in Point: I’m currently reading The Four Men by Hilaire Belloc. In it, four men – strangers to each other and all based on Belloc himself – walk together from East to West Sussex. Along the way, they start talking about a pub named The Washington Inn. (By the bye, I am very happy to report that it appears this pub still exists (Apologies for the second parentheses but I should add that The Four Men was published in 1912). It is called The Frankland Arms today, and its website can be found here).
According to a character named The Sailor, the Washington Inn is famous for its beer. It is so famous that various famous personages have searched for it, including Alexander. The Four Men is subtitled ‘A Farrago’, which would explain why the Sailor says that it was in search of the Washington Inn’s beer ‘that Alexander fought his way to Indus’, and died following his failure to find it. Well, it’s as good a reason for his death as many of the other theories out there.
While writing this post, I had to use Google to see if the Washington Inn was still extant. I found out thanks to this digital marketing company’s website. I know this is a blog about Alexander the Great, but if you are at all interested in Sussex, Hilaire Belloc, or beer, this blog post of theirs will definitely be of interest to you!
This time last week, I let my diet go for the day and tucked into my Easter Egg. Happiness was mine. Ironically, I was even happier on Monday after resuming my more sensible eating regime. How could it be? Well, in the six or so months since I started watching the calories alongside doing my daily exercise (which I have been able to do more and more of following my hip operation in November) I have lost over two stone. I like my selfies more these days, and appreciate no longer filling out my shirts when I put them on.
The Post That Got Away But that’s enough of me, what about Alexander the Great? Well, I should first apologise for not posting anything last week. I did mean to, and began writing a post, but I started it too late in the day to finish. Despite thinking about it a lot during the week, the moment had gone and I never picked it up again.
Queen Cleopatra Late last week, Google Alerts notified me of two interesting projects coming to Netflix. The first, which will start streaming on 10th May, is a docu-drama about Cleopatra VII. It is titled Queen Cleopatra. The second is a docu-series about Alexander himself.
Over the last few weeks, I have tried to keep my Alexander Facebook page active by posting to it every Friday. Two days ago, however, I knew that if I posted about Queen Cleopatra some people would get annoyed. Why? Because the actress (Adele James) playing her is black, and there is no evidence in the historical record for this being Cleopatra’s ethnicity. I tried to circumvent this by referencing in my post how it would make people angry. I thought that if I highlighted this possible response it might make people think twice before being so predictable. Of course, it didn’t work; though I am pleased to say that I have not yet had to warn anyone about their behaviour or ban them*.
If you would like to read the post and its replies, you can do so here. My view of the Queen Cleopatra docu-series was and remains this: if the filmmakers chose Adele James to play the last Ptolemaic queen because they felt simply that she was the best person for the role or they wanted to use Cleopatra’s story to say something, for example, about the world today, fine. Actually, that’s laudable. If they chose her because they think Cleopatra was black, however, then potentially we have a problem – for the reason mentioned above.
The Queen Cleopatra trailer appears to reveal the filmmakers’ position. You can watch it on YouTube here. It is that they think Cleopatra was indeed black (or, as it is written in American-English, Black). Now, that’s not very encouraging. However, we must be cautious – and charitable. It’s in the nature of trailers to be spicy so as to get you to watch the film or programme. Perhaps Queen Cleopatra itself will be more nuanced: for every person who says, ‘Cleopatra was this’, there will be another to say, ‘Actually, she was that.’
* in between writing this post and publishing it I did have to warn someone. Oh well. Two days was a good run
A Look at the Trailer I’d like to highlight a few points in the trailer that I disagree with or which have made me think.
Firstly, (0:04) the narrator states, ‘There was a time long ago when women ruled with unparalleled power.’ I would very much like to know when that was. It certainly wasn’t in first century BC Egypt.
Secondly, a talking head tells us (0:44) that Julius Caesar wanted ‘to be king to Cleopatra’s queen’. Well, Caesar certainly behaved like he wanted to be a king but I have to say I have a hard time believing that he ever saw Cleopatra as his equal, which sounds like the implication here.
Thirdly, Cleopatra is made to say (0:55), ‘There is no Rome without Egypt’. Actually, this line is quite intriguing. My first reaction was to dismiss it: By the time Julius Caesar came knocking on Cleopatra’s door, Rome was by far the more powerful state. However, I am aware that Egypt provided a lot, if not most of, Rome’s grain. It therefore was a country of vital importance to the latter’s well-being. Unfortunately, I don’t know when Rome’s reliance (if such it was) on Egypt’s grain began. Maybe it was before Cleopatra’s time, hence her confidence. Either way, there’s nothing wrong with showing Cleopatra being proud. Rome was a whippersnapper compared to Egypt, after all.
Fourthly, and here we come back to Cleopatra’s ethnicity. A talking head states (1:22), ‘it’s possible she was an Egyptian’. I mean, in that she was born in Egypt she certainly was. But that is probably not what they mean as another talking head (1:27) adds, ‘I remember my grandmother saying to me, “I don’t care what they tell you in school, Cleopatra was Black.”‘ I bow to no one in my love of grandmothers and their wisdom. However, even I know not to take everything they say as gospel. As I mentioned above, there is simply no evidence to support this grandmother’s view. If Queen Cleopatra acknowledges this, the programme will be doing its work well; if it doesn’t, it will, to paraphrase Mr Knightly, have done badly.
Related Material When I read my Google Alerts, I did a search to see if I could find any more info about Cleopatra’s ethnicity – preferably from a reputable source. In doing so, I came across this article on the Oxford University Press’s website. I like its headline: Cleopatra’s true racial background (and does it matter?) In a way, it doesn’t matter at all but it certainly does if someone takes a position for which there is no justification.
To Watch or Not? So, will I watch Queen Cleopatra? Of course! And for the reason I mentioned above about trailers purposefully being ‘spicy’. The only way to find out what the programme is really saying is to watch it. I admit I am not very confident but that’s irrelevant. Fairness demands a viewing.
Alexander @ Netflix As I mentioned above, Netflix are also making a series about Alexander. You can read about it here. Please try to forgive Deadline’s faux pas in calling ancient Macedonia a city. They are but a humble entertainment website and cannot be expected to be able to research basic facts. More seriously, though, Netflix have a big job on their hands if they are going to improve upon, say, Michael Wood’s In the Footsteps of Alexander the Great.
Thinking Aloud How does someone mistake a country for a city, anyway? To be fair, the writer is probably thinking of the Greek city-states. And if he is rushing to finish his article, he may forget to double check that what applies to the rest of ancient Greece also applies to Macedon. It is a bad mistake to make but an easy one. To quote Warnie Lewis in Shadowlands, ‘there it is’ so let’s move on.
To Conclude These are my thoughts. Please feel free to let me know yours. One thing that has occurred to me in the writing of this post is that the OUP article I linked to was written in 2010. I wonder if any new evidence about Cleopatra’s ethnicity has come to light since then. If you know of any, please do mention it!
PS One last thing: This blog has had the same travel theme since I created it over ten years ago. I’m thinking about replacing it. If you know of any other WordPress themes that might suit The Second Achilles, I’d love to hear your suggestions.
In my post on Sunday, I neglected to look at the question of why the five sources either looked at Alexander the Great’s arrival at/time in Babylon in the way that they did, or else ignored it. To make up for this omission, I thought I would write this quick extra post to offer some of my thoughts.
Near the start of his book, Arrian tells us (I.12.4) that ‘there is no other single man, among either Greeks or barbarians, who has given evidence of achievements so many in number or so great in magnitude’. He then adds that, ‘I did not think myself unsuited to the task of making Alexander’s achievements clear to the world’. Leaving aside Arrian’s admirable self-belief, if his priority is to make ‘Alexander’s achievements’ more well known, he is not going to be so very interested in day-to-day events; for example, how the Macedonian soldiers spent their free time. But surely he could have said a bit more about Alexander’s arrival in the city. And yet, why should he? I suspect that to him, it was all frippery. Arrian – perhaps be taking his cue from his own chief sources, Ptolemy and Aristobulos – is about the big moments, the battles, and sieges, not the civilian ones.
I have read that Curtius’ overall aim with his book is to show how Alexander went from being a good king to a bad one. This would certainly explain why he condemns Alexander for undermining the discipline of his army before, in order to justify his comment, outlining the Babylonians’ errant sexual behaviour.
When I read his Lonely Planet review of Babylon, I see it as being there simply to build up a picture for his audience of the place he is talking about. Arrian wants to highlight Alexander’s achievements. Curtius wants to take his audience to the places where the highs and lows happened.
For Diodorus, Alexander and the Macedonians came, feasted, and – after some important political and military appointments had been made – left. For him, nothing else of note happened, so there is nothing else to say. Diodorus’ ultimate source for his narrative is an Alexandrian writer from the time of Ptolemy I, named Cleitarchus. He presumably knew about what the Macedonian soldiers got up to, because Curtius, who is also believed to have used him, mentions them. Maybe Diodorus dropped that element of Cleitarchus’ narrative because his concern was not, unlike Curtius, to moralise, but rather, to show how ‘disunited cultures [grew] to one Mediterranean civilization under Roman rule.’ (Livius), and there is no space in that for events which were ultimately of local and temporary significance.
At the start of his Life of Alexander, Plutarch explains his reason for writing about the Macedonian king. ‘I am not writing history but biography,’ he says in chapter one, ‘and the most outstanding exploits,’ or, the actions of Alexander’s men during their free time, we might add, ‘do not always have the property of revealing the goodness or badness of the agent’, in this case, of course, Alexander.
Finally, dear Justin. In his epitome of Alexander’s life, he mentions how the Macedonians were given rewards and a month of rest, and how Alexander ‘made an inventory of the spoils’ (XI.14.8). I wonder if he followed in the footsteps of Diodorus, and so moved on because he thought nothing else of lasting significance happened. Actually, I should not say ‘he’ because Justin’s book is a summary of another work by a man named Pompeius Trogus.
Credit The Queen of the Night – possibly Ishtar, the Babylonian goddess of sex and love – Wikipedia
Today (2nd April 2023), is Palm Sunday. In churches all over the world, Christians celebrate the entry of Jesus into Jerusalem.
Most of the crowd spread their garments on the road, and others cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road. And the crowds that went before him and that followed him shouted, ‘Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest!’
Jesus’ triumphant arrival in the Holy City presages His Passion and Death followed by, this time next week, Resurrection. It is the high point of Jesus’ public life, the moment when everyone, it seems, is on His side. As the next few days show, however, they are certainly not.
On 1st October 331 BC, Alexander the Great defeated Darius III in battle for the second time. His victory at Gaugamela gave him the Persian Empire. As for Darius, he managed to escape capture and headed east in order to raise yet another army.
Rather than pursue him, Alexander decided to travel south in order to take possession of Babylon. As today is Palm Sunday, I thought I would take a quick look at the five main ancient sources for Alexander’s life to see what they have to say about his own triumphant arrival in a great city, and his time there afterwards.
ArrianIII.16.3-5 Arrian’s account is very formal. It focuses exclusively on Alexander’s movements and deeds. Thus, he tells us that Alexander approached the city cautiously, ‘leading on his force in full battle-order’. He had no need to worry, however, for the Babylonians opened their gates, and came to meet him with gifts. Arrian immediately takes us from the city’s surrender to Alexander giving orders for the rebuilding of ‘the temples destroyed by Xerxes’*. He then moves on to Alexander’s political and military appointments. These benefitted the satrap Mazaeus who was (re)appointed to his post. Macedonians were put in charge of the army at Babylon and of tax collection. And then, as Arrian says, Alexander ‘set out for Susa’.
* The notes to my copy of Arrian state that this did not happen as Herodotus describes seeing those self-same temples
Curtius V.1.17-45 Curtius’ account of Alexander’s time in Babylon is the longest and, I suspect, the most entertaining, of all five sources. He begins with the surrender of the city by Mazaeus. This was a good start, but as with Arrian, Alexander remained cautious and put his army into battle order. Curtius says he formed it ‘into a square’. I have to admit, I thought the square was a Roman formation. If so, I guess Curtius is simply describing the Macedonian army in a way that his readers will be able to relate to.
Curtius describes how Bagophanes, ‘the man in charge of the citadel and royal treasury… carpeted the whole road with flowers and garlands.’ But that’s not all. He also set up altars and brought a fantastic selection of animals as gifts – ‘herds of cattle and horses, and lions, too, and leopards, carried along in cages’. The Magi also attended Alexander’s arrival, along with musicians. Alexander entered the city on a chariot. That brings us to Charles Le Brun’s painting, below.
Unfortunately, this image is rather smaller than I expected. If you look at the one at Wikimedia Commons (link below), you can easily see an interesting detail – Alexander is looking directly at the viewer. What could he be saying to us? Look at me. Look at this. This is all mine-?
Curtius describes how Alexander made an inspection of the royal palace. His account, thereafter, becomes like something out of a travel guide. I would say The Lonely Planet, but I am also a big fan of E. M Forster, so I will mention Baedeker instead. One thing is for sure, Miss Lavish would have been scandalised by but loved Babylon for its ‘literary’ possibilities.
After finishing his description of the city, Curtius condemns Alexander for undermining ‘military discipline’ while there. Why? Because he let his men take full advantage of the Babylonians seemingly free-wheeling attitude to sex. If Curtius hated this aspect of Babylonian life so much, you would have thought he would either have ignored or at least glossed over it, telling the reader only what was strictly necessary for him to know. Any more, of course, might corrupt him. But that is not what happens. Curtius risks all and explains what exactly the Babylonians did that was so horrid. To be fair, the practices that he describes are rather rum. But I strongly suspect that Curtius rather enjoyed scandalising his listeners.
After the sex, military appointments, and reinforcements from Macedon. Finally, political appointments and then, Alexander is off again, never to stop in one place for the same amount of time (a month or so) again.
Diodorus XVII.64 Diodorus gives no account of Alexander’s arrival at Babylon, and he deals with the Macedonian king’s time there in just a few lines. The people, he says, ‘received [Alexander] gladly’. They gave the Macedonians places to stay and plenty of food and drink. Alexander stayed in the city for ‘more than thirty days… because food was plentiful and the population friendly.’ After describing Alexander’s military and political appointments, Diodorus moves him on.
Justin XI.8 Justin’s account of Alexander’s life is, as its title suggests, an epitome, a summary. Despite Babylon’s importance, Justin does not (in my translation, anyway) mention it by name. He says simply, ‘The [Macedonians] were rewarded and granted thirty-four days’ rest, after which Alexander made an inventory of the spoils…’. He then moves on to Susa. So, no mention of Alexander’s arrival, of Babylon’s fleshpots, or even his military and political appointments.
PlutarchLife of Alexander35 I think uniquely among the sources (I would need to double check), Plutarch implies that Alexander continued military operations between Gaugamela and Babylon. He then includes a really astonishing story about a highly flammable substance called naphtha. What is remarkable about this story is not the naphtha itself but the way in which an Athenian member of Alexander’ court decides to see how flammable it is – even though the Babylonians appear to have already shown them. Athenophanes has the substance smeared over the body of a child named Stephanos. It is then set alight, and Stephanos, unsurprisingly, is engulfed in flames. Fortunately, the fire is put out but ‘afterwards [Stephanos] was in a terrible state’. Alexander is described as being ‘completely panic-stricken with fear’ by Stephanos’ immolation, so maybe at that point he didn’t know how flammable naphtha was.
Well, I hope not, because what an awful thing to do to someone. Why would they have so risked harming the lad? Plutarch tells us that Stephanos, though a good singer, ‘was particularly, even ridiculously, ugly’. A fatal thing to be in an age that idealised beauty.
Plutarch spends a bit more time discussing naphtha, whether Medea used it, and its influence on Babylonian agriculture, but has next to nothing to say about Babylon. He simply records the attempts by Alexander’s treasurer, Harpalus, to get Greek plants, specifically ivy, to grow when he ‘was left in charge of the country’. Then we are in Susa.
So, as you can see, Arrian and especially Curtius are the best sources to read if you are interested in Alexander’s arrival and time in Babylon. Obviously, if you are easily offended, or Roman, you should stick with Arrian and avoid Curtius!
At the beginning, I described Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem as the high point of His public life. I think the same can be said for Alexander in Babylon. Times were pretty good in Susa and Persepolis, but Babylon was all about pleasure. Whether it was food, alcohol, riches, religion, or sex, for one blessed month, the Macedonians had it all. At no point after did they get all the things that made the expedition worth it without any risk to themselves. It’s ironic, therefore, that after Alexander’s death, Babylon was the place where the army tore itself apart, both briefly, between infantry and cavalry, and for good, as the empire was carved up between the Successors.
The Palm Sunday Mass has two Gospel readings. The second includes Jesus’ cry from the cross.
Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani? That is, ‘My God, my God, why have you deserted me?’
It is a cry of desolation. Alexander could not have known it at the time, but Babylon presaged his own desolation, for when he returned to the city in 323 BC, it would be with the corpse of his truest of friends, and heart of his heart, Hephaestion, and with the knowledge that in the last few years, his army had rebelled not once but twice against him. To reflect the loneliness that this must have caused within him, I thought I would add Gustave Moreau’s painting, above, which shows Alexander high on his throne, ruling over all, but completely isolated in that rule. The triumphal entrance had ended, but with a king no longer at one with his people.
Texts Used Arrian Alexander the Great tr. byMartin Hammond (OUP 2013) Curtius The History of Alexander (Penguin Classics 2004) Diodorus Library of History Books 16.66-17 tr. C. Bradford Welles (Loeb Classical Library 1963) Justin Epitome of the Philippic History of Pompeius Trogus Vol.I Books 11-1: Alexander the Great tr. J.C. Yardley (Clarendon Ancient History Series 2003) Plutarch Hellenistic Lives including Alexander the Great tr. Robin Waterfield (Oxford World’s Classics 2016)
Credits Entry of Alexander into Babylon by Charles Le Brun: Wikimedia Commons The Triumph of Alexander the Great by Gustave Moreau: Wikimedia Commons The Triumph of Alexander the Great (detail) by Gustave Moreau: Pinterest
Well, I spent all of last week wondering what to write in this post. The first thing that occurred to me was to publish a breakdown of Alexander’s life as maybe it would be helpful to people wanting to learn about him. I actually first jotted down just such a breakdown a while ago but I did it again last week. Here is the result:
Alexander’s Early Years (356-336) Conception – Accession to the Macedonian Throne – Conception – Alexander’s Character and Appearance – Family Life
The Greek Campaign (336-334) Alexander’s Accession – Beginning of the War of Revenge – Alexander Becomes King – First Greek Campaign — Thebes and Athens Submit – Campaign against Thrace and Illyria – Second Greek Campaign — Destruction of Thebes
The Asia Minor Campaign (334-333) Troy – The Battle of Issus – Troy – The Battle of the Granicus River — Aftermath of the Battle – Siege of Halicarnassus – The Subservient Sea – The Gordian Knot – Alexander’s Illness in Cilicia / A plot against his life? – The Battle of Issus — Aftermath of the Battle
Through the Levant (333-331) Issus – The Siege of Gaza – Alexander in Sidon – The Siege of Tyre – The Siege of Gaza
The March to Gaugamela (331) Egypt – The Battle of Gaugamela – March through the Middle-East – The Battle of Gaugamela — Aftermath of the Battle
The City Sweep (331-330) Babylon – Susa – Persepolis – March to Babylon – One month in Babylon – March to Susa — Alexander Opposed at the Persian Gates – March on Persepolis — Rape of Persepolis — Destruction of Xerxes’ Palace – Visiting Pasargadae and Cyrus the Great’s Tomb
In Pursuit of Darius (330) Persepolis – Hyrcania – March on Ecbatana – In Pursuit of Darius – Finding Darius – The March East – Philotas’ Downfall
The Bactria-Sogdia Campaigns (330-327) Pursuing Bessus – Marriage to Roxane – In Pursuit of Bessus – Fighting the Scythians – Hit and Run: Spitamenes’ Opposition – Death of Cleitus the Black – The Pages’ Plot – Marriage to Roxane
The Indian Campaign (327-325) Indus River – The Battle of Hydaspes – Mutiny at the Hyphasis River – Return West – March to the Indus River with Split Forces – Taking the Aornos Rock – Crossing the Indus River – Drunk in Nysa – Taxiles – The Battle of the Hydaspes River: Lead Up – Battle – Aftermath – The Macedonian Army’s Mutiny at the Hyphasis River – March Down the Indus River: Alexander’s Impatience – Near Death – Genocide (?) – Open Sea
Return to Babylon (325-323) Gedrosia – Babylon – The Fish Eaters – Death in the Desert – Carmanian Celebrations – Return to Pasargadae and Cyrus’ Tomb – Orxines and Bagoas – Purge of Corrupt Officials – The Opis Mutiny – The Susa Weddings – Ecbatana — Hephaestion’s Death – Alexander’s Last Campaign – March to Babylon – Alexander’s Last Days and Death
Please forgive any omissions and errors as I wrote the breakdown off the top of my head and haven’t yet made a substantial effort to make sure all the events mentioned are in the correct order. I would like to do this in the near future, as well as add any events that ought to be there but aren’t.
What inspired me to think about the breakdown again was the Camino de Santiago. Anyone reading this who also reads my personal blog or Twitter page will know that I think about the Camino often! I walked it in 2019 and although I returned home have barely left it since. In case you don’t know, the Camino de Santiago is a collection of pilgrimage routes through Europe that all enter northern Spain and end at the cathedral of Santiago de Compostela in the north-west of the country.
In 2019, I walked the whole of the Camino Francés route (from Saint Jean Pied de Port in the French Pyrenees to Santiago). It took just over a month to do. Taking a month out of from one’s life to walk the Camino is a big, big commitment so many people walk their route in stages, returning every year or whenever they can to walk the next stage until that blessed day when they finally reach the cathedral.
In other words, they break down their Camino route into manageable portions. That’s what put me in mind of my breakdown of Alexander’s life. Maybe there are people who would like to read about him but aren’t sure where to begin, or who are simply overwhelmed by the thought of studying this amazing figure. If so, presenting his life in pint size portions would seem to be a worthwhile idea. As well as correcting errors and omissions, I’d also like to develop the breakdown further. For example, by specifying where in each of the sources you can read about each phase of his life/expedition, explaining why each phase is worth reading about, and so on.
So, the breakdown was the first thing to occur to me. Then, because I had the Camino in mind, I began thinking about the pilgrimages that Alexander undertook during his War of Revenge against Darius III and after. I started with three and ended with five:
Alexander the Pilgrim – Delphi to see the Oracle – Troy where he and Hephaestion ran naked – Siwah to question Ammon-Zeus – Pasargadae to visit the Tomb of Cyrus the Greatand pay his respects – Nysa to get drunk in the spirit of Bacchus
Can you think of any more pilgrimages that Alexander might have undertaken? I’d be very glad to hear about them if so. I am, of course, not only interested in the idea of Alexander going on pilgrimage because of the Camino. I’m also a practising (albeit badly) Catholic so that makes the idea relevant to me as well. Sadly, I must inform you that I never ran naked anywhere in Spain. I did have at least one beer at the end of every day’s walk. And boy, did I appreciate it! The best thing was, I still managed to lose a stone during the month!
The idea of Alexander on pilgrimage took me to another idea: some posts on Alexander ‘beyond the battlefield’.
What do we know about him off the battlefield? I haven’t yet made any notes about this, but off the top of my head, I could say that he enjoyed literature, the art and practice of medicine, and philosophy. He was exceptionally generous to his friends (much to his mother, Olympias’, annoyance) and even to those enemies who fought bravely against him (e.g. Porus). He did not live for battle alone but was happy to use diplomacy when necessary. He respected women and the customs of his barbarian subjects, even to the point of trying to adopt them. He was politically very pragmatic, tending not to change the political systems of places he conquered but let them retain whatever system they already had in place. He could be utterly ruthless and focused, but was not without occasional self-doubt. He cried, was very religious, and, of course, liked to drink. He hated strongly but loved – both men and women – with equal strength as well. There’s just a few things. I’m sure I could go on. This is the idea that is currently strongest with me. Maybe I could follow my breakdown and make a note of what we learn about Alexander away from all the fighting in each phase.
So, that’s where I am at the moment. This week, I will try and commit to writing about X and get on with it.
In the meantime, let me recommend a programme to you. It’s called The Forum and is a discussion show on the BBC World Service. A few days ago, they had an episode on ‘Alexander the Great or not so great?’. You can find it here. If you are unable to access it on the BBC’s website, drop me a line: I downloaded it, so maybe I could e-mail it to you.
Credits Alexander the Great as seen in the Alexander Mosaic – found on Pinterest but taken from Etsy Alexander the Great by Yevgeni Kacnelson – found on Pinterest but taken from Fine Art America
I started writing this blog, I think, in 2011. Back then, I was still getting to know the main sources for Alexander the Great’s life: Arrian, Curtius, Diodorus, Justin, and Plutarch. I don’t know what the percentage is, but in my memory, I feel that a lot of the posts I wrote then were connected to my reading of them. That was great as the writing allowed me to soak up what I had read better than if I had just read and then put the book away.
However, there came a moment when I realised that I had now read the sources once or maybe twice in a row, all the time writing about them as I did so, and, as a result, it was now time to move on, to find other things to write about Alexander. But what? I never could quite figure it out.
Ever since I ‘discovered’ the great conqueror, I had been happy for my reading and writing to be at the level of a ‘private passion’. Looking back at the last four or five years, though, as the blog slowly ground to a halt because I didn’t know what to say, I wish that I had, after all, signed up to a course to study him in a more formal setting. That would surely have given me ideas. Well, there’s no use crying over spilt milk. I never did sign up to anything, and that’s that.
As a result of my indecision, the blog finally came to a proper halt last August. Perhaps I should have deleted it. Not that I knew last summer that it would be six months before I wrote another post. The problem, though, is that I remain passionate about Alexander. I know this because, even though my blogging, and, I must admit, my reading, had pretty much stopped, I remained very happy – in real life – to talk people’s socks off about him given half the chance.
I always felt a bit guilty, though, because I knew I was using old knowledge. I wasn’t keeping myself fresh through (re)reading books or watching videos on YouTube, listening to podcasts, etc.
That aside, passion is why I am writing this post now.
Passion is a funny thing. I wrote my last post in August ’22 but for most of the time since – even though I haven’t known what to write – I’ve wanted to write. I’ve thought of ideas but none have stuck long enough for me to set them down on the screen, and then press publish.
What has changed? ‘Passion’ aside, why am I writing this post now? Well, it isn’t because I have had a revelation and now am full of ideas. I think it really is just that passion driving me to write something/anything. Maybe it will lead to renewed posting, maybe not. We’ll see.
I say I’m not full of ideas. I did have one. I am writing this post on 19th March 2023. It is Mothering Sunday today in the UK. A very happy Mothers’ Day to you if you are a mother of any description. I heard Mass at my local parish church this morning, and while there, I got distracted – it usually happens – and it occurred to me that I could write something about Olympias, Alexander’s mother.
Ideally, I would have liked to have researched her a little first, but because the desire to write and, I guess, explain my blog absence, was stronger, here I am now. So, I will just say this: Olympias was a very driven person. She was probably not a tremendously likeable one. She undoubtedly (in my mind), though, gets a very bad rap from the sources. Maybe she was as vile as they make out, but I suspect they just didn’t like a strong woman who knew what needed to be done and got on with it, even if to the nth degree. Even today, we as a society still aren’t overly keen on women who speak up, who are strong: and we live in a supposedly more accepting world. No wonder Olympias gets both barrels from the far more mysoginistic world in which she lived, and which came after in the form of the Roman empire.
That aside, Olympias may still have been a nasty piece of work, but one anecdote about her speaks very loudly to me in this regard. It comes from Plutarch’s Life of Alexander (Chapter 3). There, he talks about how, according to an author named Eratosthenes, when Alexander set out,
… on his eastern campaign, Olympias accompanied him during the procession [and] told him in private the secret of his birth…
i.e. that he was not Philip’s son but the son of Zeus-Ammon. However, according to other sources, Olympias,
… repudiated the idea [that Alexander was Zeus-Ammon’s son] on religious grounds, and said, ‘I wish Alexander would stop getting me into trouble with Hera.’
Even if at the expense of Alexander’s ego, I hope that this anecdote is true. It would give us a glimpse of a woman who was devout and had a good sense of proportion, of someone who was not totally hell bent on her and her son’s success. Maybe I’m clutching at straws but it’s better than nothing.
Well, there we are. I’m back. I hope to write another post next Sunday when I get home from Mass. It would be wonderful if I could make late morning – early afternoons on Sundays my Alexander writing time. Before I finish, though, I will mention this: a few days ago I started reading again. I picked up my copy of Alexander the Great: Myth, Genesis and Sexuality by Daniel Ogden. I read the introduction and a couple of pages of Chapter One. Let’s challenge myself to make good progress in the week ahead so that, even if I have nothing else to say, I can talk about the book!
Credits Plutarch Hellenistic Lives including Alexander the Great (tr. Robin Waterfield) (OUP 2016) Olympias, Roman Medallion Wikipedia Angelina Jolie as Olympias – Reddit