Men in Every Season

This week, I watched A Man for All Seasons. It tells the story of how Sir Thomas More refused to approve Henry VIII’s separation from Catherine of Aragon or recognise the king as the Supreme Head of the Church of England. More’s story reminded me of Callisthenes, and how he stood up to Alexander over the issue of proskynesis.

The Thomas More of A Man for all Seasons is a heroic figure. I understand (as I haven’t read it) that the Thomas More of Wolf Hall, a novel by Hilary Mantel, is a villain. Arrian discusses Callisthenes’ opposition to Alexander in some detail. He gives the historian little credit for it, referring to his ‘clumsy protest’ and ‘gross stupidity in making such an inappropriately frank outburst’. Conversely, Curtius talks about Alexander’s ‘depraved idea’ of ‘appropriating divine honours to himself’. When Callisthenes argues against this, he is heard, Curtius says, ‘with approval as the champion of public freedom.’

What I found particularly interesting after watching A Man for All Seasons and reading Arrian’s and Curtius’ accounts of the proskynesis controversy is how Thomas and Callisthenes get in trouble despite doing completely opposite things: Sir Thomas is challenged to swear Henry’s Oath of Supremacy. He refuses to do so, but neither will he give Henry a reason to prosecute him, so he stays silent. He keeps that silence up until he is executed. When it comes to the issue of proskynesis, Callisthenes can’t stop talking.

Tragedy lies heavy on all the actors in these two dramas, 1,800 years apart. Henry wanted to annul his marriage to Catherine because he and the country needed a successor – to avoid the possibility of civil war. At a time when Alexander should have been celebrating his many and continuing successes, he let the same go to his head. Thomas should have left the country. Callisthenes should have learnt to control his tongue. All that happened did not need to happen.

Now, the truth is, I know my Tudor history, but only on a shallow level: Perhaps Thomas couldn’t have left the country. I doubt, however, that what happened to him was inevitable. Nothing is ever inevitable. Callisthenes, though, could and should have known when to shut up. It’s all very sad, and frustrating.

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Considering ‘the Great’

We are accustomed to calling Alexander of Macedon ‘the Great’ even though this title was never used by his Macedonian subjects. Should we, therefore, avoid it? No, of course not. The final word on what to call a person does not rest with those who knew him. Every generation has the right to decide what, if any, epithet is used.

In regards Alexander’s Macedonians, although they – as far as we know – never called him ‘the Great’, we do know from the sources that they loved him dearly, and esteemed him most highly. If you went back in time and asked a member of his army, ‘is it legitimate to call the king megas alexandros?’ I would bet my last penny on them saying ‘yes, and more besides.’

Our generation, as with every generation before it (going back to the Romans of the late third and early second century BC who were the first people known to use the epithet), calls Alexander ‘the Great’ on account of his brilliant military record.

That is good. But as often as we call him Alexander the Great, though, we ought to reflect on the fact that this epithet comes from Alexander’s hard work, determination, and sacrifice. We should also remember that Alexander owes the epithet not only to his own own actions but also to those of his father, Philip II. Alexander, after all, won every battle with the army that his father founded, using weapons (e.g. the sarissa) and tactics that Philip perfected.

This is important because it helps keep before us the Alexander who was rather than the Alexander of our imagination. For example, it reminds us that when Alexander was born, he was a baby like any other. And when he was a boy, he had to learn the art of war just like everyone else. It reminds us that his future success was not written in stone. At any point – from his first known combat operation against the Maedians in 340 BC* (aged 16) to his last against the Cossaeans in the winter of 324/3** – he could have failed. This is the Alexander of history, the one who we should always be aiming to find.

Why is keeping the historical Alexander before us so important? Because it’s the only way to give Alexander the credit he is due. If we just focus on Alexander as the Great we effectively say that all the effort he put into becoming a great general doesn’t matter. This diminishes the humanity of the man we profess to like, and makes mere glory hunters of ourselves. At best, this makes us look silly. At worst, we make a cypher of him, no more than a projection of our own beliefs, something that is both selfish as well as ahistorical.

* Plutarch Life of Alexander 9
** Arrian VII.15.1-3

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Thoughts After Issus

In the UK we celebrate Bonfire Night on 5th November every year. Given the low esteem in which politicians are generally held this does seem a bit ironic, but there it is.

For my part, I don’t have much time for Bonfire Night, especially since 5th November marks the anniversary of the Battle of Issus.

On or around 5th Nov. 333 BC, Alexander confronted and defeated Darius III in the first of their two battles. It was a battle that shouldn’t have happened – at least, not on the narrow strip of coastland in the north-east corner of what is now Syria, where it ended up place. Darius should have listened to the Macedonian deserter, Amyntas (Arrian II.6.3), and kept his army in the open plains where he would have been able to make use of its superior size. Unfortunately for him, though, he didn’t. And as a result, Darius ended up boxing his men in between the Gulf of Issus and Amanus Mountains. The Great King didn’t lose the Battle of Issus because of this but not being able to use all of his men certainly did not help him.

Before continuing, I’ll acknowledge what you may well be thinking: given what happened at Gaugamela, Alexander would probably have beaten Darius even if they had met on a plain. That’s true, but from Darius’ perspective, at least he would have given himself a better chance of defeating this Macedonian upstart.

Upstart? Yes. Because at Issus, Alexander was not yet ‘great’. True, he had defeated a satrapal army, but for an enemy of Alexander, that achievement would have been easy to dismiss. By the bye, how often do we think of Alexander as anything less than ‘the Great’? If we don’t look beyond that epithet, does it harm our understanding of him?

Another question that has been on my mind recently is Alexander’s view of his empire. While it is true that he wanted to conquer as much territory as possible, I never get the impression that he cared much about being the emperor of it. When making political arrangements for each territory, for example, he acted as pragmatically as possible, e.g., by reinstalling whoever had ruled it before: the path of least resistance, so that he could move on to the next engagement. I have no definite view on this matter but it is fascinating how Alexander could be so immersed in the world and yet, I think, not care about it anywhere near as much as he ought to have done.

(I should add, when I say he didn’t care, I don’t mean he disliked it or anything like that, just that his focus was elsewhere, ie. on winning glory.)

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J.R.R. Tolkien

2nd September 2021 marks the 48th anniversary of the death of J.R.R. Tolkien, academic and, of course, author of The Lord of the Rings.

To the best of my knowledge, Tolkien never wrote about Alexander the Great. He would have known about him: after arriving at Oxford in 1911 Tolkien studied Classics for two years before switching to English Language and Literature. As a don, his focus was Anglo Saxon and medieval literature. In that capacity, he would surely have read the medieval version of The Alexander Romance.

I record the anniversary of Tolkien’s death here, though, because it seems to me that in his Middle-earth writings, The Lord of the Rings and The Silmarillion specifically, he gives us in story what Alexander gave us in life: heroism, nobility, disaster, and decline. I could go on as there are many crossovers. Tolkien wrote about lives lived on an epic stage. Alexander built that stage and then strode across it like a colossus.

For my whole life, I have loved reading about heroism. I don’t remember the moment as a young boy when I said to myself, ‘this is what I like’, but given that I read The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings back then, it wouldn’t surprise me if they started it all off. Today, I appreciate the fragility of Man as well. I am very grateful to Tolkien for showing me both, and to those who wrote about Alexander’s life for not shying away from his (for the most part. Looking at you Arrian). I applaud Alexander himself for striving to be the best despite his weaknesses. Alas, they took him into some very dark places, but until the end – even after Hephaestion’s death – he continued on. That’s all we can ever do.

The photograph below is one of the last that was taken of Tolkien. He is standing next to one his favourite trees – a pinus nigra at the Oxford Botanical Gardens

Some years ago – in the 00s – I persuaded a friend to visit Oxford with me so that I could see that same pinus nigra. My friend was a very good sport and took what is still one of my favourite photos of myself, standing next to that same tree.

Alas! the tree is no more: it suffered damaged 2014 and had to be pulled down. I am more grateful than I can say to have been able to visit it.

Here is a close up of Tolkien’s grave. As you can see, he is buried with his wife, Edith; Beren and Luthien are two of the characters from Tolkien’s mythology, and with whom he identified himself and his wife.

In 1975, Mary Renault published The Nature of Alexander. By coincidence, HarperCollins has today published a collection of essays by Tolkien in which he discusses various aspects of his mythology. The book is titled The Nature of Middle-Earth.

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News (1)

The Greek City Times reports that a statue of Alexander the Great has been found during an archaeological dig in Alexandria. You can read their report here.

No photograph of the statue yet, unfortunately (I think the statue we see in the Instagram screenshot was found a few years ago). Hopefully, it will be shown to the world soon.

The idea that Alexander’s grave might be found is probably the triumph of hope over optimism, but who knows?

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He Lives and Reigns

Alexander the Great was born on, or around, 20th July 356 BC.

Of the five chief sources regarding his life, only one – Plutarch – covers his origins. He does so in the opening chapters of his Life of Alexander.

Chapter 2
Alexander’s Lineage

Plutarch notes that he was:
descended from Heracles via Caranus on his father’s side
descended from Aeacus via Neoptolemus on his mother’s side

Olympias’ Dream
Just before her marriage to Philip II, Olympias dreamed that he womb was struck by a thunderbolt. It started a fire, which spread (a prefiguring, perhaps, of Aexander’s conquests)

Philip’s Dream
After his marriage to Olympias, Philip dreamed that he closed his wife’s womb with a lion embossed seal (indicating, I think, Alexander’s character)
Ammon-Zeus
Plutarch states that one day, Philip glimpsed his wife in bed with a snake

Chapter 3
The Delphic Oracle
Olympias was a snake worshipper, but Philip still asked the Oracle what its presence meant. The Oracle ordered him to ‘offer more sacrifices and honour to Ammon than any other god’. The snake was Ammon.
The Oracle also told Philip that he would lose the eye with which he saw his wife and the god together

The issue of Alexander’s paternity is shrouded in mystery. Did he really believe he was the son of Ammon-Zeus? Plutarch records two traditions. One, that Olympias told her son ‘the secret of his birth’ (i.e. that Ammon-Zeus was his father) but also that she ‘repudiated the idea’.

Around the same time as Alexander’s birth, the Temple of Artemis at Ephesus was destroyed by fire. According to Plutarch, Hegesias of Magnesia said that this was because Artemis was away: delivering the future conqueror! The Magi at Ephesus, however, had a different reason for the fire: it was an omen of the fall of Asia, that is, the Persian Empire.

Three significant events happened on or around the time of Alexander’s birth:

i. Philip captured the city of Potidaea
ii. Parmenion defeated an Illyrian army in battle
iii. One of Philip’s horses won at the Olympic Games

Philip’s soothsayers told the king that these events all pointed to his son’s invincibility.

As can be seen above, Plutarch’s account of Alexander’s conception and birth relies as much on myth and propaganda as it does history. This makes it of a piece with all the accounts of his life. Alexander was not only great on the battlefield, but also in the management of his image (to be sure, we may also say that this is true of his successors).

Alexander was born at Pella, capital of ancient Macedon. In his early years, he had one weakness: although he was Philip’s only credible heir, he was not a full Macedonian (Olympias was the daughter of Neoptolemus, king of Epirus). Had Philip lived longer and fathered a son with his last wife, Cleopatra Eurydice, who was a full Macedonian, that would have been a problem for Alexander, probably a fatal one.

However, Philip was assassinated not long after Cleopatra Eurydice gave birth to a daughter. In the blood letting that followed Philip’s murder – as Alexander eliminated anyone who could be a threat to his place on the throne – Olympias also killed Cleopatra Eurydice, and her daughter. This actually angered Alexander as she was no longer a threat.

As mentioned above, Alexander was born in 356 BC. In 336, he left Macedon for the last time and never looked back. In the next thirteen years, he conquered most of the known world and was planning his next expedition when he died in Babylon in June 323.

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A Mid December Update

29th Nov. – 13th Dec. 2020

Reading
I am still reading Goldsworthy’s Philip and Alexander and Bosworth’s Conquest and Empire. I am getting on well with both books; the only thing I don’t like about Bosworth’s is the small text: just a little on the small side for these middle-aged eyes!

As usual, I have not made the progress that I would like with either book – but that was ever thus.

With Goldsworthy, I am still in the early days of Philip’s reign as king: another opportunity to marvel at how he survived the first few days of his kingship in 359 BC. King Bardylis of Illyria, the pretenders Argaeus backed by Athens and Pausanias backed by King Berisades of Thrace, and Paeonian tribes were all intent on either killing or dominating him. With some combination of bravery, diplomacy and a little good luck Philip managed to worm his way out of trouble and never looked back.

With Bosworth I am in Asia Minor having just seen Alexander fail to take Halicarnassus. Well, to a point: he took the city – albeit after Memnon fled – but the two citadels there remained in enemy hands. Staying to besiege them was not worth his time so he left the matter in the hands of officers. They will eventually capture the citadels but it will take several months for them to fall.

The Road to Alexander
I am really enjoying writing this series for the Facebook page. Every time I open Timothy Venning’s A Chronology of Ancient Greece, two things happen: i. I get to learn about people and events that I previously knew little or nothing about, and ii. I get to distill this information for the Facebook page, which in turn helps me to remember what I have read better.

Before I started The Road to Alexander, I knew two things about the fifth century B.C. in Greece: The Greek-Persian Wars and the fact of the Peloponnesian Wars. I knew a little about the detail of the former but virtually nothing about the detail of the latter and pretty much nothing about the periods in-between.

I have now reached 433 B.C. so that has now changed except, of course, in regards the Peloponnesian Wars. As you can tell by the date, though, I am on the cusp of it so that will also soon change. I can’t wait to open Excel and start writing my own chronological tables for the period. I will do the same for the fourth century up to Alexander as again, my knowledge of the period prior to him is still not at all what it should be.

The other thing I look forward to doing is reading about what happened in translations of the sources – people like Thucydides. That will be Stage Two.

In the meantime, if you are looking for a chronology of Ancient Greece, I can’t recommend Timothy Venning’s highly enough. Here it is on Amazon.

Waldemar Heckel
Speaking of books, I was disappointed to find out recently that the other book that has helped me so much over the last few years, Waldemar Heckel’s Who’s Who in the Age of Alexander the Great, appears to be either currently unavailable or only available at a high price. As a resource it is far better than anything on the web. It is short, names its sources, and is by a scholar. I do hope it goes back on sale at some point.




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AtG on Fb this week

Are you on Facebook? Check out my Alexander the Great page. Every day this week will feature a new post. Here is what is coming up this week:

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Catching Up

My last blog post was on 22nd August. Since then, I have been very busy on my Alexander the Great Facebook page.

In an effort to give it purpose, I decided to start writing short daily posts for it. I began in September, and have not missed a day since.

To date, the posts have usually – though not always – been along the following lines:

Monday – ‘Marshal Monday’ in which I use my copy of Waldemar Heckel’s Who’s Who in the Age of Alexander the Great to write three sets of three facts about one of Alexander’s marshals
Tuesday – Random. Could be a quotation, a link to a video, something about one of his generals etc
Wednesday – Art. A work of art either by itself or with a quotation or some of my thoughts added
Thursday – Usually a quotation from one of the Alexander historians and perhaps a few of my thoughts
Friday – ‘The Road to Alexander’ A chronology of dates from the Persian Wars to Alexander using Timothy Venning’s A Chronology of Ancient Greece
Saturday – Humour. One or more funny memes
Sunday – ‘Scholarly Sunday’ a quotation from an Alexander scholar, either by itself or with some of my thoughts added

Writing these posts has been very enjoyable. The downside, of course, is that it has totally distracted me from the blog. So, now I am wondering what its purpose is.

This is not a prelude to me saying I am going to stop writing it. What I would like to do is occasionally or on a regular basis publish some of the Facebook posts here, either as they are, or, adapted. My preference would be to do the latter. Simply copying and pasting them would be rather dull; wouldn’t it be much better to use the original versions as springboards to learning something new and sharing it?

For now, here is a brief outline of what I wrote about last week:

Facebook aside, I have started reading two books about Alexander:

Philip & Alexander by Adrian Goldsworthy. I’m only a few chapters into this so its much too early to offer an opinion of it. I have read one or two of Goldsworthy’s books and liked him so have high hopes for this one.

Conquest and Empire: The Reign of Alexander the Great by A. B. Bosworth. I am reading this for the Alexander the Great Reading Group, which I am a member of on Facebook (check the group out here). Again, I am too early in the book to be able to say much about it.

Any Other Business
I receive daily Google Alerts relating to Alexander. Recently, I received one that linked to yet another online article that states that Alexander was unable to conquer Afghanistan. Apart from the fact that Afghanistan didn’t exist in Alexander’s day, he did conquer the two countries that occupied what is now Afghan territory – Bactria and Sogdia. It was a very difficult conquest, and not a very stable one, but conquer it he did. Something I would like to do soon is write a post or two outlining as clearly as possible what happened between 330-327 BC when he was in the region.

A while ago, I realised that I did not have a clear outline in my mind of Alexander’s Indian campaign – when it started, when he was in particular places, when it ended, etc. To rectify this, I have started putting together a chronology based on the chronologies provided by the Livius website (here) and some of the Alexander books I own.

I have only just started this project and I fear I will not get firm answers to some of my questions. For example, I have seen Alexander’s arrival in India as ranging from Autumn 327 to February 326.

Finally, I am always interested in finding points of connection between contemporary events and Alexander. For example, in respect of the coronavirus, it’s interesting how in the thirteen years of his kingship his army was never once seriously troubled by disease. This despite their lack of knowledge about hygiene. Curtius mentions an outbreak of disease caused by the decomposing bodies on the battlefield of Gaugamela (Curt. V.1.11) but it didn’t cause the Macedonians too much trouble: they dealt with it simply by moving on. He also mentions the fact that some of Alexander’s men were afflicted by a skin disease after entering a salt lake near the Indus River. It was contagious but seems to have been easily treatable (Curt. IX.10.1-2). I’d like to do more of this kind of thing, and dive a little deeper, too, if I can.

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Skeletons Found in Persepolis

The headline reads 13 Skeletons discovered in hidden layers of Persepolis. Below it is a video report. You can watch it on the Mehr News Agency website, here.

Intriguingly, the article that accompanies the video explains that ‘the discovered skeletons, probably murdered, may belong to Achaemenids [sic] era and the time Persepolis was raided by the Alexander the Great and his army.’

Alexander arrived in Persepolis at the end of January 330 BC. There, ‘cruelty as well as avarice ran amok in the captured city’ (Curt. V.6.6).

According to Curtius, Alexander held a meeting with his generals prior to entering the city. He told them that ‘no city was more hateful to the Greeks than Persepolis’ (C. V.6.1), because from it came the soldiers who had made war on Greece 160 years earlier. ‘To appease the spirits of their forefathers’ (C. V.6.2) Alexander allowed his men to loot and destroy the city.

Many Persians fled the city before the Macedonians arrival. Of those who remained, some were murdered by the invaders while others chose to kill themselves and their families. No one was granted mercy. The Macedonians appear to have used rape as part of their vengeance because Curtius adds that Alexander had to issue an order ‘for his men to keep their hands off the women and their dress’ (C. V.6.8).

Curtius states that Alexander ‘eventually’ issued this order, so presumably he permitted his men to rape Persian women for an amount of time before then. This puts a limit on how much we can say he respected women, though it is surely significant that he issued the order at all. It would surely have been far easier for him to let the men do as they wished until he was ready to bring a halt to the rampage.

The Macedonian Assault on Persepolis
Arrian III.18.10
Curtius V.6.1-8
Diodorus XVII.70
Justin XI.14.10
Plutarch Life of Alexander 37

Arrian does not mention the Macedonians’ assault at all. He states simply that they arrived ‘before the garrison had plundered the treasury’. So not only does he not mention what the Macedonians did, he makes the Persian garrison look like the bad guys. Whitewashing of the first order (having said that, a few lines further on he does freely criticise Alexander for burning Xerxes’ palace down).

Diodorus‘ account of the Macedonian assault is so similar to Curtius that you can see they were using the same sources (Cleitarchus and eye-witness testimony). Like Curtius (C. V.6.4), Diodorus mentions that the Macedonians turned on each other in their greed. He doesn’t, however, mention Alexander’s order to leave the Persian women alone. He notes only that women were taken into slavery. Diodorus tells us that the Macedonian rampage lasted for a day, at the end of which, they were still greedy for more.

Unsurprisingly, given the brevity of his whole account, Justin says very little about Persepolis – simply that Alexander captured it.

Unfortunately, Alexander’s arrival at Persepolis is missing from Plutarch’s Life of Alexander. It covers the period immediately after the attack on the Persian Gates to the end of his account of the Macedonian assault on Persepolis. All that remains is a reference to a ‘terrible massacre of prisoners’ that occurred.

The destruction of Persepolis, rape and murder of her people is one of the darkest moments of Alexander and the Macedonian army’s career. Having said that, we cannot be surprised that Alexander let his men loose on the city: this was one of the perks of their jobs. What is a surprise is that he permitted it relatively rarely. If memory serves, the last time he cut his men loose was in Tyre two years earlier, although that was in the context of the siege of the city. After Persepolis, nothing like it occurs until – ? I need to look this up, as I’m not sure. India? Outside of battles, I don’t think Alexander put any Bactrian or Sogdian cities to the sword. I’m happy to be corrected on this.

One final point – can we trust Curtius’ account? He is not always very trustable. Unfortunately. Arrian’s silence and Justin’s brevity make it difficult to assess Curtius’ case. Diodorus backs him up but then he would as he was surely using the same sources.


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