Vol. VIII. Book XVII Ch. 85 (Loeb Classical Library)
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Alexander Achieves the Impossible: Takes the Aornos Rock
After leaving Mazagae, the next few cities that Alexander encountered were taken by force. Presently, he arrived at the Aornus (aka Aornos) Rock, where the survivors from his earlier assaults had taken refuge.
‘It is said’, Diodorus tells us, that Herakles wanted to lay siege to the rock but decided not to following an earthquake ‘and other divine signs’. Upon being told this, Alexander was far from discouraged. In fact, he became even more determined to capture the rock ‘and so… rival the god’s reputation’.
Here are the Aornus Rock’s vital statistics:
- Circumference 100 furlongs (12 miles)
- Height 16 furlongs (2 miles)
- Surface Even
- Shape Circular
- Rock Wall Sheer on north, east and west side dipping into ‘deep gorges’; on the south side the cliff was banked by the Indus River
The rock appeared to have no weak points at all. Realising this, Alexander decided ‘that its forcible capture was impossible’. Before he could make any decision about moving on, however, an old man and his two sons presented themselves to him and informed the king that, actually, the rock could be taken, and offered to show him the way up it.
It turned out that the old man and his sons (none of whom are named) lived in a cave cut out of the rock. We are not told how long they had lived there but it must have been a while as they knew ‘the country intimately’ including, as it turned out, its secret paths.
Alexander accepted the man’s help, and promised him ‘rich gifts’ in return for it. In the end, the man and his sons only took the Macedonians as far as the gorge that cut off the only path leading to the refugees’ camp.
At this point, I assume that the refugees reached their fastness over a bridge which they then destroyed because Alexander now ordered his men to start filling in the gorge. Having built mounds to attack Gaza and a mole to attack Tyre I am sure simply flinging – admittedly a lot of – earth into the gorge did not discourage the Macedonians at all. Except maybe the first clods, which simply disappeared into the emptiness below.
However deep the gorge was, a ramp was soon created. The Macedonians advanced up it. Using relays of teams (for the first time since the sieges of Miletus and Halicarnassus?), Alexander attacked the refugee camp for seven days and nights.
The continual assaults did not go well. The refugees had the higher ground and killed ‘many [Macedonians] who attacked rashly’. When the ramp was finished, though, Alexander brought up his siege engines. The sight of them, the nearing ramp, and Alexander’s evident determination to see the siege through to the end made the refugees quailed. The Aornus Rock was, it seemed, now there for the taking.
What happened next, though, was not that Alexander broke into the refugee camp, slaughtered the men and enslaved the women and children. Rather, sensing the refugees’ fear, and, ‘craftily anticipating what would happen’ next, he withdrew his forces. That night, the Indians who wished to leave the rock were allowed to do so.
At the start of Chapter 86, Diodorus justifies what Alexander did by claiming he ’employed the false alarms of war to outgeneral the Indians and… gain possession of the “rock” without further fighting’.
With the greatest respect to Diodorus, I cannot bring myself to believe that this is really what happened. Alexander had control of the rock in his grasp. All he needed to do was put his siege engines to work and the refugees would surely have either surrendered, or been wiped out when their camp was penetrated. Instead – without even agreeing a truce or signing a treaty with the Indians – we are asked to believe that Alexander let them go, for all he knew, to fight him again. It is all very un-Alexander like behaviour.
On Herakles – Alexander claimed descent from the demigod on his father’s side.
The Footnotes say that Alexander gave the old man eighty talents for his help. If he ever found out about it, the Lycian goatherd must have been quite annoyed – he ‘only’ got thirty talents for taking Alexander all the way to to the Susian (Persian) Gates, and beyond.
By-the-bye, the Footnotes quote Arrian (4. 29. 1) as saying it was “some of the neighbouring tribesmen” who helped Alexander rather than an old man and his sons.
I used this converter to convert furlongs into miles
In 1926, Sir Aurel Stein visited Gandhara where he claimed to have found the Aornos Rock. Here is a contemporary report of his find, from The Northern Star newspaper of New South Wales. I have to admit, though, that as interesting as the report is, I was rather taken by the one following regarding the Odyssean dog…!
When asked, 8/10 Macedonian women
confirmed that they would rather
conquer a different Rock.