… during the operation [Alexander] was wounded in the shoulder by a missile which pierced his corselet.
When I read the above passage recently, I got to wondering how many injuries did Alexander receive during his twelve year campaign in the east? On the occasion described above the wound was not serious; was this always the case?
An Internet search brought me to Lapham’s Quarterly and this useful graphic. On seeing it I wondered if I would be able to find all the injuries that Lapham refers to in Arrian. As it happens, I was. Using the captions provided by the Lapham’s graphic, here is a brief and chronological account of the eight times Alexander was injured.
Cleaver slash to the head
Arrian I. 15-16
Alexander received this injury during the battle at the Granicus River in 334 BC. As the battle raged around him, Alexander plunged his spear into the face of Mithridates, a Persian nobleman (and son-in-law of the Great King Darius III). The blow was delivered with such force that Mithridates was thrown from his horse.
As Mithridates fell to the ground, a Persian nobleman named Rhoesaces came up behind Alexander and brought his scimitar down upon the king’s head. Fortunately for the would-be conqueror, his helmet took the brunt of the blow but only at the cost of being sliced in two. Alexander must have been dazed. Despite this, ‘a moment later’ he turned on Rhoesaces and despatched him with a spear thrust to the chest.
While he was delivering the fatal blow, one of the Persian satraps fighting in the battle raised his arm to strike Alexander down only for Cleitus the Black to cut it off with his own sword. Alexander continued to fight until the battle was won.
Sword blow in the thigh
Arrian II. 12
Arrian reports that Alexander was injured by a ‘sword thrust’ to the thigh during the Battle of Issus (333 BC). The wound was obviously serious enough to be worth mentioning but only after the event. I do not think it could have been such a bad injury as Arrian also says that it did not stop Alexander ‘from visiting the wounded on the day after the battle’ and holding a ‘splendid military funeral’ for those who had fallen.
Incidentally, J. R. Hamilton, who compiled the notes for my edition of Arrian, states
Chares… asserted that the wound was inflicted by Darius himself, a statement that Plutarch (Alexander 20.9) disbelieves, citing a letter of Alexander to disprove it.
Catapult missile to the chest/shoulder
Arrian II. 26-27
In October 332 BC, Alexander lay siege to Gaza. After receiving an omen which suggested that, although he would capture the city, he would be injured in the battle he positioned himself clear of the defenders’ artillery.
However, as the Macedonians built their siege engines and constructed an earth work that would raise the ground level to that of the city’s, the Gazans launched a sortie, very nearly destroying the siege engines and repelling the Macedonians. Unable to stand by as his men came under attack, Alexander joined the fight. His arrival saved the day, but as he fought he was struck by a missile which pierced his shield, tore through his corselet and entered his body. I can’t image what speed it was flying through the air at to be able to do this.
Arrian says that ‘the wound was serious and did not easily yield to treatment’. If Alexander had lived to be an old man I imagine this is the kind of injury that would have nagged at him painfully as he sat upon his throne. In the short term, though, he was quite happy because the fulfilment of one part of Aristander’s prophecy could only mean that the other part – relating to his capture of Gaza – would also be realised.
Arrow through the leg
Arrian III. 30
Arrian reports that after capturing Bessus (in 329 BC), Alexander marched to Marakanda, and thence, to the Tanais river. At the Tanais, the Macedonians were attacked by natives who, after the assault, withdrew to high ground. Despite the ‘excessively broken’ and steep ground that divided them, Alexander attempted to engage the tribesmen. It was a foolhardy move as he was soon forced back by missiles. ‘Many [Macedonians] were wounded’ Arrian says, ‘including Alexander himself’. Indeed, Alexander was felled by an arrow that broke his fibula (calf bone). Despite this injury – or perhaps because of it, given what would happen during the siege of the capital of the Mallians (modern day Multan), the Macedonians fought back and eventually took the natives’ position.
Stone strike to the head and neck
Arrian IV. 1 – 3
‘A few days after’ having his leg broken, Alexander met various Scythian deputations who wished to make peace with him. Less peaceful, however, were the natives along the Tanais River who continued to make trouble. Macedonian garrisons were wiped out and tribal defences strengthened in anticipation of a Macedonian counter-strike.
There were seven cities in revolt. After sending Craterus to lay siege to the largest, Cyropolis, Alexander himself went to Gaza. The city quickly fell, all the men were killed while the women and children were taken prisoner (to be sold into slavery). The next two cities fell with equal speed and in like fashion. The inhabitants of the next two cities attempted to flee before Alexander could come and deal with them, only to run into a Macedonian trap. With five cities now destroyed, Alexander arrived at Cyropolis where he joined Craterus.
Cyropolis posed a unique challenge as it was heavily occupied and contained the best of the native warriors. The city also stood higher than the other cities making storming it very difficult. Nevertheless, Alexander got to work with the siege engines. It wasn’t long, though, before he noticed that Cyropolis could actually be entered by crawling under its walls along the paths of a dry stream. So he did – he himself, and some others. Once inside, Alexander opened the gates of the city to his army.
As the Macedonians poured into Cyropolis they met fierce resistance from the natives, and it was during this fighting that Alexander was wounded by ‘a violent blow from a stone upon his head and neck’. Once more, though, the Macedonian operation was successful and Cyropolis was taken.
If the blow to Alexander’s head was as vicious as Arrian states the king must surely have been concussed by the stone. Bearing in mind it was the second blow he had received to his head during the course of his campaign I wonder – especially if he received any more during his life that Arrian doesn’t mention – if the blows could have affected Alexander’s personality? I don’t know much about brain injuries so may be overstating the matter; if you know more, do feel free to mention it in the comments box.
(To read Part Two of this post, click here)
It would usually take a much more severe and extensive brain injury to cause a personality change – think an arrow or other missile in the head that damages part of one or more cortexes in the brain. The nature of the change would depend on which cortex was principally affected. From these descriptions it sounds like the trauma was more in the nature of bruising to the brain, likely accompanying a fractured skull and concussion. This would cause temporary impairment but no lasting deeper trauma.
That’s good knowledge; thank you for sharing it.
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Alexander the Great, was a military man who leads by example, he followed the front of his troops during the attack operations, in granicus, issus, tyre, Gaugamela and Hydaspes, surely received various injuries, the spearhead, more a fact that attracts itself the focus of the enemy, wore a different dress from the others, making it always a big target !!
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