The Gordian Knot

There are two traditions regarding how Alexander cut the Gordian knot.

In the first, Alexander undoes the knot by cutting through it with his sword. In the second, he undoes it by removing the pin that holds the knot together.

Arrian reports both traditions. He doesn’t give a source for the sword tradition, writing only ‘some say that…’ but he does give Aristobulos as the source for the pin tradition.

Plutarch follows Arrian’s example: he mentions both sword and pin, doesn’t give a source for the sword tradition, and cites Aristobulos as the source for the pin tradition.

Curtius only mentions the sword tradition while Diodorus doesn’t even mention Alexander’s visit to Gordium let alone the knot. I don’t have a copy of Justin to hand but I understand that like Curtius he only mentions the sword tradition.

So, which tradition is the correct one?

I would like to suggest that both are.

What I think happened is that when presented with the knot, Alexander attempted to unpick it first. Unable to do so he then resorted to using his sword. At that point, he either cut through the whole knot, or cut through it far enough to be able to unpick the ends that had now appeared and thus remove the pin.

My rationale for saying this is as follows:

I find it very hard to believe that no one thought of pulling the pin out before Alexander. If it really was that simple a solution, someone would surely have tried it already. Aristobulos’ account is too neat to be true.

On the other hand, while Alexander could behave very rashly sometimes, I find it equally hard to believe that he would not have made at least some attempt to undo the knot in the most perfect manner, i.e. by unpicking it, before resorting to his sword. He did like to do things in the best way.

If Alexander used both methods, then, why do we have two traditions that give part of the story rather than one that gives the whole story?

That, I think, is down to bias. Aristobulos’ is very biased towards Alexander. He always puts a positive spin on the king’s actions. Cleitus’ death? That was his fault not Alexander’s. It makes sense, therefore, that he should say Alexander simply removed the pin and omit all reference to his use of the sword.

By the same token, I imagine that the sword tradition comes from Macedonian soldiers who either gave the full story and were then selectively quoted by historians like Cleitarchus, or from their comrades who were less favourably disposed towards the late king. In the case of the latter, unable or unwilling to lie when asked if Alexander undid the knot, they resorted instead to emphasising the ‘negative’ aspect of the story – Yes, he undid it, but only by using his sword.

I say ‘Macedonian soldiers’ deliberately as I believe Callisthenes, the court historian, would have written that Alexander pulled the pin out. Whereas Aristobulos probably wrote out of love for Alexander, Callisthenes had to put a positive spin on the king’s actions out of necessity. Undoubtedly, though, the full story disseminated through the rank and file and it is thanks to them that we have the sword tradition.

This post was inspired by a couple of tweets that I saw. I don’t know if the people concerned would want to be named here so I won’t but if they read this – thank you from Alexander’s ‘scribe’ 🙂

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