A Letter to Arrian (23) Harsh Words and Bitter Drinks

a_roman_writerMy dear Arrian,

In my last letter I looked at Alexander’s irresponsibility during his Mallian campaign. It’s worth pointing out that it did not, of course, stop him from defeating the Indians.
Moving on, I am sure all historians, as much as myself, are grateful for your digression to set the record straight regarding what happened at the Mallian fort! Who was the real Alexander, though? He was such a complex person that mere facts don’t seem to me to be enough to unveil the person that he truly was.
Does that make him knowable to us? Maybe. Although, if we really think that, we might as well stop wasting our time reading and writing about him.
On the other hand, if we think that he can be known, how do we find him? I am currently reading a book* that has been described as a poem. It eschews linear narrative in favour of a story that is comprised of impressions. Maybe that is a way to find at least something of Alexander – in the impressions that the stories of him leave behind. I realise, however, it is a method fraught with danger…
I noted with a smile the fact that you are not fond of the name ‘Gaugamela’ on the grounds that it ‘has a somewhat unpleasant sound’. Have you ever met someone from Germania? Maybe it was better in your time, but today, the German language sounds rough and harsh. Having said that, one of my favourite words (“Götterdämmerung”) is German! I apologise if this word, which means ‘Twilight of the Gods’ offends your ears. It is funny, though, how we can find beauty in such unexpected places. What is the explanation for this?

‘[H]e who acts bravely must expect his meed of suffering.’

These words, spoken to Alexander by a Boeotian soldier (and which are a quotation from Aeschylus) are as true today as they were then. It is a very sharp saying. How should one react to it? One possible way is by remembering the words of a soldier, as given in a poem** written eight or nine hundred years after your day. His lord had fallen. The men were dispirited. Death was coming and they knew it. But if this soldier was going to fall, he was not going to do so easily. Rousing the men, he said “Our hearts must be the stronger… as our strength grows less.” That is the way to be if we are forced to drink our meed of suffering.
I would now like to take issue with you. Well, kind of. After Musicanus’ capitulation to Alexander you state that the best way to get what one wanted with him (Alexander, that is) was to admit one’s error. I know what you are saying but it seems to me the best way to get what one wanted from him was to fight him bravely.
Finally, I have a question. Not so much for you but Alexander’s soldiers. You say that they were caught out by the ebbing tide of the Indus River as they ‘had no previous experience of it’. Could that really be so? Did they not see the tide when they crossed from Greece to Asia Minor? Or at any other point during their long journey? Well, maybe not. I’m still surprised, though, but as I have long since exceeded my word limit I had better stop.
Until my next letter, I remain

Your friend,


The above picture is from Ancient History

An index of all the letters can be found here
* The English Patient by Michael Ondaatje
** The Battle of Maldon (text)

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