The Susian Rocks

Daily Diodorus
Vol. VIII. Book XVII Ch. 68 (Loeb Classical Library)
Read the other posts in this series here

The Headlines
Alexander Enters Persia
Does Fortune Really Favour the Brave? An Enquiry
Macedonian Surprise Attack Destroys Ariobarzanes’ Army

The Story
If Fortune had smiled on Alexander when he came to Uxian pass, she was in a less indulgent mood five days later when he came to the Susian Rocks. Before, she had not only allowed the king to perceive how difficult it would be to defeat Madetes and his men, but given him a guide whose knowledge of the pass ensured that the Macedonians won an easy victory against the rebels. Now, the Macedonian king was made to suffer before Fortune would look kindly on him once more.

The Susian Rocks lay at the top (?) of a pass that cut through the Zagros Mountains and were being defended by Ariobarzanes ‘with a force of twenty-five thousand infantry and three hundred cavalry’. At first, Alexander’s advance went well. But only because Ariobarzanes’ men were waiting high above for the moment to attack. It came when the Macedonians had reached the half-way mark. Then, the Persians set boulders rolling down the cliff walls. They crashed into the Macedonian soldiers. Javelins and stones followed. Unable to take the fight to the Persians, Alexander ordered his men on.

Diodorus reports that no Persians were killed or injured in this ambush – not even, it seems, the stone-throwers who threw their missiles at ‘close-quarters’ to the Macedonians. By contrast, ‘many’ of Alexander’s men were killed and ‘not a few’ injured. To compound things, Diodorus states that ‘practically all the [Macedonian] attacking force [was] disabled’.

With his army badly compromised, Alexander had no choice but to sound the retreat. The army turned round and made camp 300 furlongs away.

After setting up camp, Alexander interviewed Persian natives (he was now in Persia aka Persis) to see if they knew of any alternate routes through the Zagros Mountains. They didn’t. The best suggestion was that he simply go round them.

This idea did not appeal to Alexander as it would, in his eyes, be ‘discreditable to abandon his dead’. Neither did he wish to to ask Ariobarzanes’ permission to retrieve their bodies before going on his way as that would have been an admission of defeat in their brief engagement.

Alexander started interviewing his prisoners. And now, Fortune began to smile once more. She brought a Lycian into the king’s presence. He told Alexander he ‘had been brought [to Persia] as a captive’ years ago and was now a goat shepherd. ‘He [knew] the country well and could lead a force of men’ along a secret path that he knew of, one that would bring the Macedonians into the Persian rear.

Promising the man great wealth, Alexander had him lead the way. He did, and the Macedonian army crossed ‘the mountain at night struggling through deep snow’. Presently, it arrived at Ariobarzanes’ first line of defence, which itwas destroyed. The second line was captured, and the third ‘routed’.

If the ‘Susian Rocks’ sounds an unfamiliar name (it did to me) that is because they are otherwise – and more popularly? – known as the Persian Gates.

The other Alexander historians give more detail regarding what happened. For example, (and this from the Footnotes), Arrian states that ‘Alexander… sent… his main body of troops toward Persis along the royal road, and only undertook this pass with a  flying column’.

Since I started this series of posts a month ago, a handful of events/incidents have for one reason or another made a deep impression on me. One of them was the Siege of Halicarnassus (which I wrote about here) where Alexander came closer to defeat than anywhere else (that I can currently remember. Please feel free to remind me of anywhere else in the comments box!). Alexander wasn’t in battle when the Persians forced him to retreat but the fact that he had to still makes an impression because it happened so rarely. In fact, I think this is the first occasion in Diodorus’ narrative that he has had to do so. As above, let me know if I am wrong.

As I said above, Alexander promised a big reward to the Lycian – Curtius says that he gave him no less than thirty talents! I suppose his goat herding days were over after that.

From “Persia: An Economic History 559 B.C. – A.D. 651” by Walter Turnip III

… records discovered during an archaeological dig in Persepolis in 1972  reveal that in early 329 B.C. goat prices across Persia sky rocketed. By autumn, the price of a single, healthy goat had entered the millions of dollars. Not long later, a man could not buy a goat for love nor money.
…..For forty years, historians wondered what could have caused this extraordinary activity. Had disease almost wiped Persia’s goat population out, dramatically raising the price of the survivors?
…..Recently discovered records – also unearthed at Persepolis – give the answer, for they refer to the fact that at the start of the year, one man (unnamed) bought the country’s entire herd.
Who was this man?
…..It is believed that he is none other than the Lycian goat herder who helped Alexander the Great cross the Zagros Mountains in the winter of 329 B.C. and thus defeat the Persian marshal Ariobarzanes at the Persian Gates. In return for his help, Alexander gave the man thirty talents. Historians believe that rather than spend his money elsewhere, the man stuck to what he knew: goats. No one else had the money; no one else had the motive. Or, I think, the compulsion. As one of my esteemed colleagues said to me, recently, “A man’s goat to do what a man’s goat to do.”

Categories: Diodorus Siculus | Tags: , , , , | 2 Comments

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2 thoughts on “The Susian Rocks

  1. Very interesting post. I do remember that story with goatherd form ancient sources but thank you so much for the update on the modern development of this story. I am not sure if it is possible to prove 100% the correctness of this idea but it is a very intriguing one, and quite plausible at that. So, stock market speculations are nothing new…..

    The name of Ariobarzanes brings memory of my own recent discovery on the subject. As far as I know the fact is never mentioned in Western ancient sources on Alexander (I mean Arrian, Plutarch, Diodorus, Curtius and others “minor” sources) but apparently Ariobarzanes had a sister, Youtab, who fought alongside her brother. Here is the link to one of the websites


    • 🙂

      Thank you for that link. It is a very interesting post. At first glance, I’d be inclined to doubt Youtab’s presence at the Persian Gates. Assuming she existed, I’m sure the sources would have mentioned her. Female warriors in the Persian empire were not exactly common.

      It’s interesting how, as it seems, Ariobarzanes’ defence has become a great legend in Iran. Perhaps it has simply because before then no Persian really covered himself in military glory whereas Ariobarzanes went down fighting.


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