The Rôle of Rain in Arrian’s Campaigns of Alexander

Rainfall (Wikipedia)

Puddles of Rain (Wikipedia)

As I sat in the library yesterday trying with varying degrees of success to develop an idea for a story I want to write, it began raining outside; lightly, at first, but soon quite heavily. Before long, there were puddles of water on the roof tops outside. The rain got me thinking – is it mentioned during Alexander’s expedition? And if so, in what context? Last night, I opened up Arrian and took a look.
There are eleven references to rain during the course of the book, I have bunched them according to their context. I used the Penguin Classics (London, 1971) edition of Arrian for this post.
p. 77
The first reference comes early on in Alexander’s campaign when he is still in eastern Asia Minor. Upon entering the city of Sardis, the Macedonian king visits its acropolis and decides to build a temple there in honour of Zeus, presumably in thanksgiving for the success thus far of his expedition.
But where should it be built? Arrian tells us that Alexander is still mulling over this question when a storm break suddenly ‘over the palace of the Lydian kings’. It must have been a hot and close day as Alexander’s visit to Sardis took place in the summer. Either way, he – Alexander – interprets the rain fall as a sign from Zeus that he wants his temple to be built at (or in place of?) the palace.
The story presents Alexander in a very positive light in that it shows him paying due respect to the gods; it also places him in the grand tradition of people who decide upon an action on account of an external / ‘miraculous’ event. Another famous example of this is the basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore in Rome, the site of which was chosen on account of a vision – and a miraculous snowfall in the middle of summer.
p. 152
The second mention of rain in a religious context occurs during Alexander’s invasion of Egypt. After settling the country, he becomes ‘passionately eager’ to visit the oracle at Siwa. After riding to Paraetonium (modern day Mersa Matruh; known to Alexander as Amunia) he turns inland. A trip across the desert follows. ‘Fortunately,’ Arrian says, ‘there was much rain – the god’s own gift, as he supposed’*.
I know of no modern churches that have been built in a particular place because of a miraculous event (I know of few modern churches that – architecturally speaking, anyway – are worthy of commemorating a miraculous event, but that is another matter) but interpreting events as having taken place by God’s grace/will/permission, etc, is still very common. Have we failed to move on or are those who see God at work in human history part of the grandest tradition of all? I have no idea what Arrian would say, but his aside ‘as he supposed’ makes him sound quite sceptical of Alexander’s belief – or what he presents as his belief.
* I presume Arrian means there was much rain at the start of the desert journey rather than during it.
p. 110
On a number of occasions Arrian mentions the rain in no more than its basic historical context. It happened, and this is what happened as a result. For example, after arriving at Myriandrus (south eastern corner of Asia Minor) he is forced by ‘a storm of… violent wind and rain’ to stay put rather than break camp and confront Darius III. Given how sensitive Alexander was to omens and portents I am a little surprised that this storm was not interpreted as portending trouble in the same way that the eclipse on the night before the Battle of Gaugamela was. He didn’t, it passed, Alexander met Darius at Issus, and defeated him for the first time.
p. 330
The Hydaspes is not the only occasion when the weather impedes Alexander. Nearchus is forced to wait at Pattala for the weather to change before he can sail at the head of the Macedonian fleet along the Indian coast back west.
p. 300
On the westward journey, Alexander stops once again at the Hydaspes River. There, he visits his two settlements – Nicaea and Bucephala (named for his horse, Bucephalas, who had died following the battle against Porus) – which had been damaged by ‘heavy rains’. Alexander pauses just long enough to repair the damage and see to any other outstanding matters before sailing down the river towards the Indian ocean.
p. 338
Alexander’s crossing of the harsh Gedrosian desert on his way back to Babylon is the stuff of legend. It was also something of a disaster. If it wasn’t the fierce sun and lack of water that nearly did for the Macedonian army, there was the ‘deep, burning, sunbaked sand’ (p. 336) and the ‘lofty hills of sand’ (Ibid) that the men and animals too easily sank into. Then, there was also the water when it did finally appear. The Macedonians were so parched they would accidentally drown in their desperation to slake their thirst. That was a consistent problem; there was also one that came suddenly and with great violence.
During their desert crossing, the Macedonians arrived at a stream; a very welcome sight. But it was monsoon season, which meant that heavy rain falls were taking place in the mountains. Over night, the stream started to swell until a flash flood swept through the camp.

… the stream… grew into such a torrent that it drowned most of the camp-followers’ women and children and swept away the royal tent with everything it contained…

Depending on where Alexander spent the night, then, it sounds like he was lucky to escape with his life.
p. 268
When Alexander arrived at the western bank of the Hydaspes River, he began making preparations to cross it. On the other side, Porus awaited him. However, the water level was high and – thanks to the seasonal rains and water flowing down from the Indian Caucasus (i.e Hindu Kush) – very dangerous. So. Alexander declared that he would wait until the river had calmed down before attempting a crossing. Despite this, he still kept an eye out for any opportunity to cross over.
By-the-bye, Arrian says that Alexander arrived at the Hydaspes at the time of the summer solstice. J. R. Hamilton, who compiled the notes for my translation, says that – as Arrian himself records – the battle takes place in May. Alexander had a very keen eye!
p. 271
When Alexander did decide to cross the Hydaspes he moved away from his camp so that the Indian king would not know where his crossing point was. On the night that the Macedonian army made its move, a thunder storm struck. Arrian doesn’t say it but (if I may echo Alexander after leaving Paraetonium), it was a god-send, for it drowned out ‘the clatter of arms, shouted orders, and the commotion’ of the moving army.
p. 272
After helping facilitate Alexander’s safe crossing of the Hydaspes, the rain very quickly becomes a serious impediment. In fact, this happens before he has completed his crossing. Alexander and his men reach the far shoreline. Or so they think. Actually, they are on an island. Another stretch of water need to be traversed before they reach the eastern side of the river. Ordinarily, this would not have been a problem, but the previous night’s rain had now swollen the water and made it very hazardous to cross. Nevertheless, a fording point was found, and as he did so often, Alexander led the way.
p. 291
Diodorus VIII. 17. 94. 3
In his notes, Hamilton says that the rain also contributed to the exhaustion of the Macedonian army, leading to its mutiny at the Hyphasis River, and cites Diodorus to this effect. The latter states that by the time they reached the Hyphasis, it had rained for seventy days in succession, ‘to the accompaniment of continuous thunder and lightning’.
p. 358
Arrian’s final mention of rain comes when Alexander is back in Susiana. Arrian states that he sailed down the Eulaeus River towards the sea (i.e. the Persian Gulf) before digressing with an account of how the Euphrates River – in the absence of much rain fall in the region – is used to help irrigate the country
To conclude, before writing this bog post I had thought that I would find either Alexander or Arrian interpreting the rôle of the rain much more than has happened. This is definitely a hangover from reading once that whenever Herodotus mentions people crossing bridges it means something bad is going to happen to them. Speaking of Herodotus, I would say that only three of the eleven references to rain in Arrian are positive in respect of its rôle – at Sardis, Paraetonium, and the Hydaspes when it drowns out the noise of the Macedonian army. The rest of the time it gets in his way to some degree or another.

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