A Letter to Arrian (19) The River That Could Have Changed History

roman_writerMy dear Arrian,

Really, I did not like your little jibe at Herodotus. I do not know – any more than you – whether he ‘invented’ his story of ‘gold-mining ants’ but you should consider that maybe he was misinformed, or maybe the story that he received was transformed out of recognition from the story – as it were – that left India however many months or years before finally landing in his lap. It is most unwise to take things like this at face value.
After your little advertisement for your Indica and digression regarding how the Romans built their temporary bridges, you consider the question of how Alexander crossed the Indus. As a compliment to the boats that you say he used, I wonder if he might not also have returned to the same method that he used to cross the Danube to confront the Getae in the first year of his reign*: stitching up and packing his tents with hay. You do refer to the use of ‘floats’ later on – I presume that this is not a synonym for boat or ship?
Either way, he got across and marched to the Hydaspes where, on the other side of the river, Porus awaited him.
At the Hydaspes, Alexander realised that he would not be able to cross the river directly – Porus’ elephants would terrify the Macedonian horses allowing his army to cut Alexander’s men down. If he was going to have any hope of victory, he would need to use cunning. Well, Alexander was a very cunning man, we see that in his subsequent actions, but I have to admit, whenever I see the c-word next to his name I can’t help but think it a very un-Alexander like trait. This is because the memory of his refusal to launch a night attack on Darius at Gaugamela is burned into my mind.

‘I will not,’ he said, ‘demean myself by stealing victory like a thief. Alexander must defeat his enemies openly and honestly.’

And yet, I know that even though Alexander is spelling out a philosophy rather than outlining a tactic for that particular battle it would be unfair not to admit the possibility of his thought evolving over time.
When the time came for Alexander to launch his crossing, he did so in a galley along with Ptolemy, Perdiccas, Lysimachus and Seleucus. They could not have known it at the time, but those men – with the exception of Perdiccas – went on to define the Hellenistic era, especially Ptolemy and Seleucus. When I read this passage, I thought to myself ‘imagine how different history would have been if they had all died that day!’. It hardly bears thinking about, though it would definitely make an excellent ‘counter-factual’.
The Macedonian crossing of the Hydaspes took a great deal of effort both in the run-up and during the crossing itself. It almost proved to be for nothing when they realised that what they had thought was the far side of the river was in fact just an island. And that the water which divided them from the bank was flowing with dangerous speed. Nevertheless, Alexander – once more – led the way. This moment is over very quickly in your book. It would be an easy one to forget. I imagine it was much different on the day, though: the fast flowing water, ‘up to the men’s armpits and the horses’ necks’. It must have been very scary. Added to that the knowledge that a battle awaited you on the other side. Really, from one engagement to the next, I don’t know how the Macedonians held themselves together so well. I am in continual awe of them.
Your friend,

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

* Summer 335 BC

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

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2 thoughts on “A Letter to Arrian (19) The River That Could Have Changed History

  1. Thank you, Achilles II. We know they couldn’t have done any of it without Alexander’s brilliant mind; nor would they have tried without his drive and charismatic management. If we could change history, I would have had him go west instead of east at the beginning of his conquests. Imagine how different Europe would have been. Instead of the Hellenization of Persia, Rome might have stayed at home to perfect athleticism and drama rather than war. Alexander did both with style, and no one did it better. Bored with TV last night, I watched Alexander on my PC in ‘Ancients behaving Badly’. Suffice to say, the researchers were not Alex’s fans.


  2. Penina,

    I suspect Romans would have still got their fill of war – by joining Alexander’s army. I have no doubt that he would have conquered Europe as well given how much better the Macedonian army was than any barbarian one at that time.



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