Vol. VIII. Book XVII Ch. 91-94 (Loeb Classical Library)
Read the other posts in this series here
From Porus it shall be taken; to Porus it shall be given
Sopeithes: An Obsessive Quest for Perfection
Macedonians arrive at the Hyphasis River
Macedonian Army Rejects Further Progress
Alexander was on the march when he learnt that Porus’ cousin, also named Porus, ‘had left his kingdom and fled to the people of Gandara’. This annoyed the Macedonian king – had cousin-Porus not yet submitted to him? – and so ‘he sent Hephaestion with an army into his country’ so that it might be handed over ‘to the friendly Porus’.
As for Alexander, his next campaign was against the Adrestian people. He won their cities ‘partly by force and partly by agreement’.
Leaving the Adrestians behind, he now came to ‘the country of the Cathaeans’. Diodorus tells us that under Cathaean law, wives were cremated along with their husbands. The reason for the law, we are told, is that a wife had once murdered her husband. Alexander ‘captured their greatest and strongest city after much fighting and burned it’. He was besieging another ‘notable city’ in the region when its inhabitants surrendered to him.
Now, Alexander came to a group of cities under the rule of a king named Sopeithes. Diodorus says that his people were devoted to beauty. ‘From birth’, children were examined to make sure they were ‘well formed and designed by nature to have a fine appearance and bodily strength’. If they passed the test, they were were allowed to live. If they did not, they were killed.
Sopeithes himself was ‘strikingly handsome’. He was also smart. Seeing Alexander approach, he came out of his city and handed it over to him. In return, Alexander gave it back. No doubt relieved, Sopeithes put on a great feast for the Macedonians which lasted for several days.
Sopeithes gave Alexander a gift of 150 dogs ‘remarkable of their size and courage’. To ‘test their mettle’, Sopeithes put two of the worst in a cage with a lion. When the lion gained the upper hand, two more dogs were put in the cage. The four took control of the fight. As they did so, one of Sopeithes’ men slashed the leg of one of the dogs. Alexander protested at this only for Sopeithes to promise to give him three more dogs in replacement. Sopeithes’ man severed the dog’s leg. It ‘uttered neither yelp nor whimper’ until it collapsed due to blood loss.
Alexander was still with Sopeithes when Hephaestion returned having transferred cousin-Porus’ land to the friendly king of that name. The king congratulated him on his work and set off on campaign once more.
His next target was ‘the kingdom of Phegus’ who surrendered and ‘met the king with many gifts’. His reward was to be confirmed as king. The Macedonians were given another feast – this one lasting a mere two days before they took their leave.
Alexander now arrived at the Hyphasis River. Diodorus gives it as being seven furlongs in width, six fathoms in depth, and having a violent current.
As they stood on the river’s western bank, Alexander questioned Phegus about what lay beyond. Phegus told him that there was a desert that would take twelve days to cross; beyond that was another river – the Ganges – which was 32 furlongs (4 miles) in width. It was ‘the deepest of all the Indian rivers’.
What lay beyond the Ganges? A number of tribes – the Tabraesians and Gandaridae (to whom cousin-Porus had fled), ‘whose king was Xandrames’. He had an army of 20,000 cavalry, 200,000 infantry, 2,000 chariots, and 4,000 elephants.
Alexander didn’t believe these figures, so sought a second opinion from Porus. He confirmed them, but added that Xandrames ‘was an utterly common and undistinguished character, and was supposed to be the son of a barber’! Despite his low position, Xandrames’ father ‘had been handsome’. The queen fell in love with him and murdered her husband, presumably so that they could marry.
The figures were daunting but Alexander ‘was not discouraged’. ‘He had confidence in the fighting qualities’ of his men and still remembered what the Pythia had told him – that he would be ‘unconquerable’ – and how ‘Ammon had given him the rule of the whole world’.
But while Alexander had faith in his men, he also knew that they ‘were exhausted with their constant campaigns’. If they were to fight the Gandaridae, he needed to make ‘an effective appeal’ to them. Diodorus outlines the condition of Alexander’s army after ‘eight years among toils and dangers’.
- The hooves of the horses had worn thin
- ‘[A]rms and armour were wearing out’
- ‘Greek clothing was quite gone’
The clothing had been replaced with Indian materials, which cannot have pleased the men. A further difficulty was the weather – it had been raining for seventy days ‘to the accompaniment of continuous thunder and lightning’.
Alexander gave thought to all this and decided that the best way to secure his men’s loyalty was to gain their ‘goodwill through gratitude’. So, he gave them permission to plunder the land they were in.
While the men were doing this, Alexander met their wives and children. To the former he promised a ‘monthly ration, to the children he distributed a service bonus in proportion to the military records of their fathers’.
Once the plundering was over, Alexander met his men in an assembly. He urged them to join him against the Gandaridae but his appeal fell on deaf ears. As a result of this, ‘he gave up the undertaking’.
The long journey home was about to begin.
In his Who’s Who in the Age of Alexander the Great, Waldemar Heckel goes out of his way to downplay Hephaestion’s military credentials. His appointment to command of half the Companion Cavalry was an act of ‘nepotism’; he was ‘a relatively inexperienced officer’ who had ‘no extraordinary abilities as a general’.
As I’m sure I’ve said before, if Alexander had wanted to act in a nepotistic manner towards Hephaestion, he would have promoted him long before 330 B.C. As it is, how Heckel can call him ‘relatively inexperienced’ after five years of campaigning – including three major battles – is beyond me. Finally, I might ask who of Alexander’s officers had ‘extraordinary abilities as a general’? The only two I can think of are Eumenes and Antigonus Monophthalmus. The others were very talented indeed but I would hesitate to call them men of genius.
And ultimately, so what if they weren’t all extraordinarily talented commanders? An army needs more than brilliant leaders to survive. It needs soldiers who can organise – Hephaestion, soldiers who can inspire – Black Cleitus and Craterus, soldiers who can influence – Ptolemy, stalwarts – unglamorous men who can get a job done – Perdiccas, and soldiers who are prepared to learn about the country they are in – Peucestas, and so on.
Diodorus’ comments regarding Sopeithes’ people’s obsession with beauty should make for uncomfortable reading for us today as it does not sound a million miles from the practice of gender selection or aborting unborn children when they are found to have a physical defect.
I gave Sopeithes the benefit of the doubt by calling him ‘smart’. It may well be that he surrendered to the Macedonians simply to protect his good looks.
Was there ever an occasion when a military leader tried to secure the loyalty of his men by appealing to their wives and children? I can’t think of it.
The perfunctory way in which Diodorus deals with the Macedonian army’s mutiny at the Hyphasis River is really quite remarkable. In fact, in his text, there is no mutiny. Alexander simply asks his men to follow him and they decline; he agrees, therefore, to turn back. It all sounds rather democratic.
Why did Alexander’s appeal to his soldiers fail? Some hurts are shallow and can be healed; others go much deeper and either heal more slowly or never at all. Reading between the lines, the latter was surely the case with the Macedonian soldiers.
But, one might say, shouldn’t they have been more grateful having just made themselves very rich through plunder? I doubt all the riches in the world would have persuaded the Macedonians to continue. To be rich is a good thing but wealth pales into utter insignificance against the anguish caused by mental and physical pain.
And this one is for Alexander