A Letter to Arian (11) Three Cities, and one G. K. Chesterton

roman_writerMy dear Arrian,
A few letters ago, I said that Alexander was such a complex person, he didn’t need a Homer to tell his story for him, ‘his life was poem enough’. I will confess that I was very pleased with this turn of phrase; it was very neat, and it was mine. But now, let me tell you about a writer named G. K. Chesterton who is very dear to my heart. He wrote many books on a wide variety of subjects, including one about a man of great renown called Francis of Assisi. And in that book, he said of Francis that ‘he was a poet whose whole life was a poem’*. I read this book a few years ago; the phrase must have stuck in the back of my mind somewhere! I hope you did not have similar trouble with the writers who came before you!
After the Battle of Gaugamela, you bring Alexander to Babylon. What did that city mean to you, Arrian? For me, when I think of Babylon I think of a place of great wealth and hedonism. The source of this view is the religious tradition which I come from; it is a tradition which, though it existed in your day, was still young so I doubt you know it. Anyway, you pass over Alexander’s stay in Babylon with such speed that it is impossible for me to glean your thoughts; yet, for love of you and Roman history, I would greatly like to know what – if anything – you thought.
Alexander went from Babylon to Susa where he found the treasure that Xerxes stole from Greece. When I read this, I sighed – how I would have liked to have seen the fabulous works of art that he must have amassed! But you know what, I can! The principle museum of my country now exhibits a great many such works; not only from Greece but all over the world. I don’t know if they are as grand as what Alexander saw, but they are certainly more numerous. It is very funny how we sometimes fail to see that which is right in front of us.
Now, it is one thing to make best use of the tools you are given but another entirely to be able to use them innovatively. Alexander’s creation of two cavalry companies under the command of two Companions ‘who had distinguished themselves’ seems to me to have been a little master stroke, for in one go he not only weakened the tribal foundation of the Macedonian army – always a dangerous alternative power base to the king – but did it in such a way that no one could disagree with. After all, who could complain about being led by men who had proven themselves on the battlefield?
Finally, we come to Persepolis. There is a tradition, I am sure you know of it, that says Alexander was inspired to burn the Royal Palace down by Ptolemy’s companion, Thaïs. If the reason for the absence of her name in your account is because you believe that Alexander was at fault rather than her**, then I applaud your honesty. You love Alexander as much as I but are not afraid to say he was wrong where need be. Thank you for not avoiding the complexity of his character.
Your friend,

The above picture is from Ancient History
An index of all the letters can be found here
* See the video below at 15:53ff

** And not as a result of ignorance arising from the fact that Ptolemy diplomatically omitted her name

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