A Letter to Arrian (5) Knots, Razors, and Reversals of Fortune

roman_writerMy dear Arrian,
Although we know about the Gordian Knot in my age, I have a feeling that the prophecy that said whoever untied it would become Lord of Asia, and Alexander’s rôle in doing so, are less well known.
Similarly, while the story of Midas, the man with the golden touch, is still well known in my time, I have no doubt that many people would be surprised to hear of his connexion to the knot. Such is the fate of history as well as myth, it seems; namely, to either be misremembered (for as you say, your sources do not agree as to whether Alexander untied or cut the knot or simply pulled out the pin holding it in place) or to fade away from our collective memory to one degree or another.
Can anything be done about this? Well, hundreds of years after your age, a man gave his name to the ‘solution’ for problems such as this. We call it Occam’s Razor; according to this principle, the simplest answer to a problem is the best one. By this measure, I imagine Alexander simply cut the knot in two. However, I prefer Aristobulos’ version – that he took the pin out. Not only is it a simple solution but also an elegant one.
You state that the cord, which made the knot, was made from the bark of a cornel tree. This, of course, is the wood that was used to make the mighty sarissa. I don’t suppose the wood type made the knot any easier or harder to untie but it is nice to come across familiar things in new contexts.
I must say a word about Midas, and how he became king. Well, talk about being the right man in the right place! However, it seems to me that it also proves the fundamental instability of our lives. One minute, there is Midas riding with his parents, the next, he is king thanks to a prophecy that said the next Phrygian monarch would be the one who arrived among them on a wagon. It went well for Midas on that day; on another, the outcome might have been less good. Contemplating how our fortunes can so easily be reversed is a sobering business.
Finally, with Parmenion’s letter of warning we come to the first allegation of a plot against Alexander. Philip the Physician was innocent, but I can’t help but wonder what effect the letter had on Alexander’s mindset. I cannot believe that he was ‘firm in his refusal to suspect treachery in friends’. He must have wondered. So many of us want to be rich and famous, but for all kinds of reasons, what a lonely place it can be.
Your (loyal, I promise) friend,

The above picture comes from Ancient History
An index of all the letters can be found here

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