A Letter to Arrian (17) Conquering Heracles

roman_writerMy dear Arrian,
So, after capturing the Sogdian Rock, Alexander decided to assault the Rock of Aornos. And why not – it was only twenty-five miles in circumference and 8,000 feet high with only one way up!

Aornos was a mighty prospect but you are sceptical that Heracles even visited India let alone failed to take it himself. Instead, you suggest that it has been invented by people who want to create a cover for their own failures.
Tangentially, I wonder what impulse inclines some writers to overstate Alexander’s successes. For example, Quintus Curtius Rufus says that the Sogdian Rock was 18,000 feet high! Surely Curtius knew that this was a wholly unrealistic figure? In fact, it was probably about 1,200 feet as that is how far the men would have been able to climb in six or seven hours*.
The assault on Aornos could have been one of Alexander’s greatest achievements. As it turned out, his passage was eased, firstly, by defectors who showed him the way to the Rock’s most vulnerable point. Alexander ordered Ptolemy to secure the position. This he did, but was soon attacked by Indians.
I had to smile at Alexander’s message to his general – defend the position by attacking the enemy! This is so Alexander. I can only imagine what Ptolemy made of this message. He must have been nervous, but, yes, I bet he was equally fired by Alexander’s spirit. That was the effect that the king had on people.

At this point, I must say that I really wish I had a graphic to go with the description of Alexander’s assault of the Indians’ position. It sounds like he was creating a causeway just as he did at Tyre but I am not sure.
Whatever Alexander was doing it was enough to frighten the Indians, and despite the strength of their position they tried to flee. This second reversal of fortune for the natives not only eased Alexander’s passage but concluded the assault. I have to admit I was a little disappointed by the anti-climactic ending – a successful assault on the Aornos Rock would have added to Alexander’s prestige considerably. Well, it’s not like he didn’t win enough elsewhere.
As Alexander marched for the Indus he took up elephant hunting. For someone who had hunted lions before I can’t imagine that this gave him much of a thrill. Elephants are, after all, rather slow animals. Too easy a target to be worth chasing.
I have more to say about what I read in this session but I will leave the rest for the next letter so that I remain under my word limit (almost).

Your friend,


The above picture is from Ancient History
An index of all the letters can be found here
* In the absence of any rock climbing experience, I came across this fact while watching an episode of Top Gear in which a car was pitted against two rock climbers in a race to the top of a cliff. As I recall, the rock climber, Leo Houlding, stated that an experienced climber would be able to manage the 1,200 in the time given above, i.e. 6 – 7 hours.

Categories: Letters to Arrian | Tags: , | 2 Comments

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2 thoughts on “A Letter to Arrian (17) Conquering Heracles

  1. arkadyrose

    Having spoken to experienced rock-climbing friends & shown them your post, they say it sounds like they could do it in 8-9 hours with equipment, and probably 10-12 hours without (or only the rudimentary equipment Alexander’s men would have had).


    • Arkady,

      Thank you for that. I just had another look at the relevant line in Arrian and he says that the 300 set off under cover of darkness.This was in Spring. If they were at the top by dawn they must have climbed hard all through the night. Quite an achievement!



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