Rival Romans: The Road to Gordium


My usual modus operandi on this blog is to use one source per post (usually Arrian). This makes writing it quicker and easier. In this series, however, I am going to branch out a little by using two: Plutarch and Curtius. My aim is simply to look at how they talk about Alexander and his expedition.
The numbers in parenthesis are the sections in Book III of Curtius’ text and Plutarch’s Life where the events referred to can be found.
The Road to Gordium

Plutarch begins his Life with a little family history and Alexander’s conception. Unfortunately, though, we can’t start this post at the beginning of his life as the opening books of Curtius’ History have been lost. The extant text begins a little while after Alexander’s victory at the Battle of the Granicus. We join him in central Asia Minor as he ‘settles matters’ in Lycia and Pamphylia and heads off to the city of Celaenae (1). While he is on the road, Curtius pauses to tell us about the origin and course of the river Marsyas, which runs through Celaenae, even adding a note about its place in Greek myth (2-5). I think Curtius fancies himself as a bit of a Herodotus.
Upon entering the city, Alexander finds it deserted – unsurprisingly, the citizens have barracaded themselves in its citadel. Despite warning the Celaenaeans that if they don’t surrender, he’ll kill them all (6), Alexander eventually agrees to a sixty day truce, at the end of which he will accept the Celaenaeans’ surrender if Darius has not come to their aid. He doesn’t, so Alexander does (8). By the way, here is an early example of Curtius’ inaccuracy. According to Heckel’s notes, Arrian tells us that Alexander spent just ten days at Celaenae before moving on (the Celaenaeans surrendered to Antigonus Monophthalmus who Alexander put in charge of the region).
Curtius gives a brief account of a request by an Athenian embassy for the release of Greek prisoners taken after the Granicus (9) before bringing Alexander to Gordium. Ahead of his arrival, though, a very significant development is recorded – that of the massing of the Macedonian army in its full strength: all the better to beat Darius in the coming battle with (10).
Let’s now jump over to Plutarch. We join him in the seventeenth chapter of his Life as he describes the political and military fall out of Alexander’s victory at the Granicus: Sardis (‘the principle seat of Persian power on the Asiatic seaboard’) surrenders along with the rest of the region – except for Herodotus’ home city, Halicarnassus, and Miletus. They are duly stormed. Plutarch gives the impression that they are both taken. In his Notes, however, Timothy E. Duff says that Halicarnassus was not subdued until the following year.
At this point, Plutarch makes an interesting observation about Alexander, using a word one does not often associate with the Macedonian king. He says that Alexander ‘hesitated’ in deciding whether he should seek Darius out for the final showdown or build up his forces first, namely, by ‘securing the coastal region and its resources, and training his army’. This happened not once but over and over again. I feel here like we have momentarily gone beyond Alexander the icon and found the man, the general, wrestling with the same problems that I should think every military leader ever has had to deal with. Given Plutarch’s desire to shed light on Alexander’s character let’s hope we get more insights like this.
Moving on, Plutarch does his own Herodotus bit by explaining how a spring near the city of Xanthus in Lycia brought an ancient bronze tablet to its surface, upon which was engraved a prophecy that the Persian empire would be overthrown by, guess who, the Greeks. Needless to say, Alexander was ‘encouraged’ by this. Plutarch then goes into full Biblical mode by citing certain unnamed historians who stated that the waves of the sea ‘receded to make way for’ the king. To be fair, he does add that on other occasions the waves came in as normal.
We can take or leave these miraculous events as suits us. Along with Duff, I suspect the hand of Callisthenes in these stories. One thing he had nothing to do with, though, is this quotation from a now lost play by Menander.

Like Alexander, if I want to meet
A man, he’s there before me in the street,
And if am obliged to cross the sea,
The waves at once will make a path for me.

I am going to guess (please correct me if you think I’m wrong) and say that Menander would not have referred to the ‘miracle’ of the waves had it not become at the least a fairly popular story in society. If it had, it surely indicates that reports of Alexander’s journeys were penetrating fairly deeply into the Greek consciousness. I have to admit, I usually only think about the Greeks of this period in terms of their political and military response to Alexander. This, for me, is not only a valuable insight into his cultural influence and their response in that field but also a valuable corrective.
Plutarch concludes his account of Alexander’s journey to Gordium with a reference to his journey along a self-built road and stay in the city of Phaselis. There, the king garlands a statue of a Greek tragedian named Theodectas, in honour of ‘his association with Aristotle and with philosophy’. This is a nice pointer to Alexander’s respect for his teacher and matters of the mind. He really was not, as I once thought, just about the fighting. Having said that, the fact that Alexander garlanded the statue after having ‘drunk well’ reminds us that you can take the man out of Macedon…
A Quick Conclusion

Despite being the longer work, Curtius deals with Alexander’s post-Granicus travels a lot more briefly than Plutarch. I don’t suppose we should make much of this, though, as we are missing the opening two books of his work.
Neither Curtius or Plutarch are above bringing Greek myths into their narratives, although in my translation, Curtius’ comments come across as being a little bit snotty (I’m thinking of the reference to ‘Greek poetry with all its myths’ and ‘poetic fantasy’). I would be happy to accept this interpretation as just an impression, though. By contrast, Plutarch treats the appearance of the bronze tablet and receding sea uncritically. I’m not sure whether it is because he finds no problem with them or simply doesn’t care to comment further.
Finally, Plutarch definitely wins the prize for making Alexander real to us. It is early days yet for Curtius but the opening of Book Three tells us no more about the king than simply what he did between Lycia and Pamphylia and his hesitation (which occurs in Phrygia). By contrast, Plutarch opens him up just a little but very tantalisingly indeed.

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