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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Nationalism and an Outflanking

Just a quick post to bring to your attention the following:

Firstly, an article by Alexander scholar Robin Lane Fox on ‘Did nationalism exist in the classical world?’. You can read it here.

Although the article is headed by a detail of the Alexander Mosaic it isn’t (exclusively) about him. With that said, it is well worth reading if you would like to expand your knowledge of how people in antiquity thought.

***

Earlier today, I had a very enjoyable few minutes looking at the history memes on Reddit. While doing so, I came across the following:

The meme is both funny and pretty accurate; well, from panel two onwards, anyway (we’ll ignore the fact that Alexander made a mole rather than a peninsula). In regards the first panel, the Tyrians were not at all so rude or aggressive towards the Macedonian king. They tried to use diplomacy to protect the city only to be outflanked when Alexander told the diplomats that he intended to worship Herakles in the city. The Tyrians were not minded to allow that: if they allowed Alexander in, that might cause trouble with Persia (assuming the latter won the war). So, the gates were closed to him and the mole built.

The comments attached to this meme were fun to read. I’ve included the first in case you didn’t know why modern Tyre is now one city that stretches out into the sea:

The Reddit page from which the above comes from can be found here.

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Chaeronea: Philip Confirms His Domination Over Greece

The Battle of Chaeronea

Source Diodorus Siculus XVI.86
Date 2nd August 338 BC
In his book The Generalship of Alexander the Great (Da Capo Press, 1960), J.F.C. Fuller also suggests 1st September as a possible date of the battle; the Notes to the Loeb (1963) translation of Dio. XVI.86 also suggest 4th August
Combatants: Macedonian Army under Philip II vs A Greek Alliance comprising principally of Athenian and Theban soldiers
Location West of Thebes on the map below

Source: Wikipedia

The Battle

  • The two armies ‘deployed at dawn’
  • Philip II stationed Alexander, then 18 years old, ‘on one wing’. In the Loeb translation, Diodorus does not specify which wing it was but scholars believe it to have been the left (NB In his translation of Diodorus XVI, Robin Waterfield also does not specify which wing Alexander was on)
  • Philip put ‘his most seasoned generals’ with Alexander. The prince had already seen combat (e.g. against the Maedians in 340) but obviously still had much to learn
  • Philip directed the battle from ‘the other’ wing – presumably the right (see Notes below)
  • Diodorus says that ‘the Athenians assigned one wing to the Boetians (i.e. Thebans) and kept command of the other themselves. So, according to Diodorus, the Athenians were in charge of the alliance.
  • Once the battle started, it was ‘hotly contested for a long time’. There were many casualties on both sides
  • Finally, however, Alexander managed to break through the front line of the enemy right wing
  • Diodorus adds that Alexander was fired by a desire to show ‘his father his prowess’ and utter determination to win
  • Once Alexander broke through the enemy front line, the enemy soldiers fled for their lives
  • After Alexander had broken through the enemy front line, Philip advanced. Whether it was on foot or on horseback, Diodorus appears to suggest that Philip led his men from the front
  • Philip forced the enemy back. Overwhelmed, they began to flee

Notes

  • The Notes in Loeb say that ‘It seems certain that Philip, on the Macedonian right, did not engage the Athenians until the Thebans on the allied right, had been shattered by Alexander’
  • As you can see above, the Notes clarifies that the Thebans were Alexander’s opponents and the Athenians, Philip’s
  • The Notes assume Philip was on the Macedonian right because that is where Alexander usually fought during the battles of his war against the Persian empire (the right wing being the ‘traditional position of the Macedonian king’)
  • Among the Allied soldiers who fell in battle was a Theban general named Theagenes. In 335, his sister Timoclea was raped by the leader of some Thracian soldiers during the Macedonian attack on Thebes. After the assault, the leader demanded to know where her valuables were. Timoclea told him she had thrown them into a well. He went to look. As he did so, she pushed him in and then stoned him to death. The leader’s men brought her to Alexander. Although tied up, Timoclea approached and spoke to Alexander proudly and with dignity. Impressed by her, he gave orders for Timoclea and her children to be set free. This incident is recorded by Plutarch in his Life of Alexander 12
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Sweet Summer Child

In this post, I would like to share a few thoughts based on Alexander’s deeds in the month of July, as outlined in this post.

July is undoubtedly the most important month of the year for anyone interested in the life of Alexander of Macedon as it is the month in which he was born.

The date usually given for Alexander’s birth is 20th/21st July, and for the past few years, I have celebrated it by visiting a Greek restaurant for lunch on one of those dates.

Thanks to the coronavirus I won’t be able to to do so this year – or at least, not this month – but there is no way I am going to let the big day go by without a glass or two of Greek wine. There is a lovely Greek bakery/delicatessen on the corner of Farringdon Road and Topham Street in London so I shall pop in there and buy a suitable bottle of vino tinto and drink to the conqueror.

If you would like to read an account of Alexander’s conception and birth, Plutarch’s Life of Alexander is the book to read.

As it happens, Plutarch is the only one of the principle Alexander historians (Arrian, Curtius, Diodorus, and Justin) to have any interest in Alexander’s life before he became king. All the others, excluding Curtius, begin their narratives in 336 BC when Alexander becomes king. It’s rather like how St. Luke is the only Gospel writer to be very interested in Jesus’ conception and birth. A note on Curtius – perhaps he too wrote an account of Alexander’s birth; unfortunately, the first two books of his history have been lost so we don’t know.

In July 333 BC, Alexander left Gordium in central Asia Minor having either cut or untied the famous knot. What happened with the Gordian Knot is one of those moments in Alexander’s life where you pays your money and makes your choice. Plutarch again tells us that according to ‘most writers’ Alexander cut the knot but that Aristobulos says he untied it.

Which to believe? Aristobulos’ explanation – that Alexander undid the knot by first removing the dowel pin around which it was tied and then the yoke of the cart is elegant and simple. That’s a problem, though: are difficult problems ever so neatly solved? And then there is the issue of Aristobulos’ reputation for always trying to make Alexander look as good as possible.

That Alexander simply cut the knot sounds much more realistic (after all, if the knot could be undone by simply removing the dowel pin and yoke, surely someone would have thought of that before) and like the kind of thing he would do. Like I said, you pays your money and makes your choice.

July is also the month in which Memnon of Rhodes died. Of all Alexander’s enemies, he was probably the most dangerous. Before the Battle of the Granicus River, he proposed the adoption of a scorched earth policy to the Persian satraps, as a way of starving the Macedonian army out of Asia Minor.

The local populations would have suffered grievously but it was surely an excellent strategy for dealing with the Macedonians. Despite this, the satraps turned it down.

Afterward the Granicus, Memnon’s naval campaign in the Aegean Sea could well have forced Alexander, either to return home to protect Macedon and Greece, or send back troops he needed to be successful in his expedition.

Before the campaign could reach its fulfilment, however, Memnon died. The commanders who succeeded him were not able to keep the naval campaign going before Alexander defeated it from the land.

In July 332 BC, the Siege of Tyre finally came to a close when the Macedonian army finally broke into the city. The Tyrians had held Alexander at bay for seven months, and paid the price for it as the Macedonians cut down anyone they came across during their rampage across the city.

Tyre still exists and can be found sticking out into the Mediterranean Sea in the south of Lebanon. It does so because of Alexander’s mole. In the centuries following the siege, silt built up over the mole, creating the land that was needed to join the old and new cities together.

Zipping forward to July 330 BC, we come to the assassination of Darius III in Parthia (along the path of the Silk Road) on or around 17th July.

What would have happened to Darius if Alexander had caught him alive? Would he have let his defeated rival live? I very much doubt it. As long as Darius lived, he represented a threat to Alexander’s Great Kingship. He would surely have been put to death just as Alexander’s rivals to the Macedonian throne were.

I started this post with a beginning and so will end it with an ending.

In July 326 BC, the Macedonian army’s mutiny at the Hyphasis River took place. As I have seen written elsewhere, the army didn’t actually mutiny. That is to say, Alexander didn’t issue an order to cross the river, which the army then refused to carry out. Rather, they arrived at the river, and the army told their king we will not go any further. Alexander tried to talk them out of their refusal but to no avail.

Arrian’s account of the debate between Alexander and Coenus is a dramatic piece of literary theatre (in which light it should be seen rather than as an account of what was said on the day) and it’s interesting that although Coenus died not long afterwards there is no suggestion in the sources, and not much made by modern historians, that Alexander had him eliminated as a kind of revenge (Coenus, after all, was speaking as much for the army as himself). Men were killed by Alexander for much less.

Alexander’s anger and frustration as the army sails down the Indus River is also very notable. Never more so than on the two occasions when he impatiently climbs siege ladders by himself. Fed up of the army’s tardiness – now on their way home, the soldiers’ motivation to risk death had gone – Alexander decides to take on the enemy himself. On the second occasion, he is almost killed as a result. Afterwards, his senior commanders finally tell him off for risking himself too much!

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