Vol. VIII. Book XVII Ch. 106, 107 (Loeb Classical Library)
Read the other posts in this series here
Macedonian Army Arrives in Carmania
Macedonians Enjoy A Seven Day Road Party
Caranus: Was he Right To Kill Himself?
A Royal Wedding in Susa!
Whatever the state of Alexander’s mental health, he made it through the Cedrosian desert. The Macedonian army arrived in Carmania, a ‘well-populated country’ and one that contained ‘everything needful’ for a good time. Which is exactly what the Macedonians proceeded to have as they passed through it.
First of all, though, Alexander let his army rest. That should probably be in inverted commas. When they resumed their march, the men walked ‘in festive dress’. As for Alexander, he ‘led a Dionysiac comus, feasting and drinking as he travelled’. Happy days.
But all good parties must come to an end, and when you wake up the next day, you are liable to do so with a headache. Alexander’s was a particularly bad one – he discovered that ‘many of his [satrapal and military] officials’ whom he had left in charge of various cities and regions had been abusing their power.
Alexander began punishing the offenders. Word of this got around. Some of the guilty ‘revolted against the king’s authority’, others stole money and fled. Hearing of this, Alexander ‘wrote to all his generals and satraps in Asia, ordering them… to disband all their mercenaries immediately’.
Alexander’s next stop was a seaside city named Salmus. There, he rested. One day, while he watched ‘a dramatic contest in the theatre’, Nearchus’ fleet put in to port. The sailors came straight to the theatre where they received a rapturous welcome from the audience.
They gave a report of their voyage to Alexander. The sailors spoke of ‘astonishing ebbings and flowings in the Ocean’, of ‘many large and unsuspected islands… along the coast’ and – most spectacularly of all – ‘an encounter with a large school of incredibly large whales’. The Cedrosians would have been very jealous.
The sailors were enamoured towards the animals. They spoke of their fear that their ships would smash against them, and of how they shouted, blew their trumpets, and beat their shields to make such a loud noise that the whales took fright and dived to deeper water.
Having received the report, and – hopefully – after giving the sailors a little time to rest, Alexander ordered them to continue their journey to the Euphrates. He and the army left Salmus on foot and started the long trek to Susianê.
They reached it without incident. On the border, an Indian philosopher named Caranus (aka Calanus), who had travelled west with Alexander, fell ill. He was 73 years old and had never been ill before. Knowing that ‘he had received the utmost limit of happiness both from nature and from Fortune’, and – perhaps – perceiving that his illness was terminal, Caranus decided to end his life.
He asked Alexander to build a pyre for him. The king tried to talk him out of killing himself but Caranus’ mind was set. When pyre was finished, he ‘cheerfully’ climbed onto it. The pyre was then lit, and he died.
Diodorus reports that while some who watched him die ‘marvelled at his fortitude and contempt for death’, others ‘thought him mad’, while others still regarded him as ‘vainglorious about his ability to bear pain’.
Caranus was given ‘a magnificent funeral’. When that was done, Alexander resumed his journey and in due course arrived in Susa. There, ‘he married Stateira’ and had Hephaestion marry Drypetis. Diodorus concludes the chapter by saying that Alexander ‘prevailed upon the most prominent of his Friends to take wives also, and gave them in marriage the noblest Persian ladies’. And that is all Diodorus has to say about the famous Susa Weddings.
Did Alexander really hold a seven day party? The Footnotes say that neither Ptolemy or Aristobulos refer to it. On the other hand, both Alexander and his father ‘were fond of the comus in general’.
One of my images of Alexander is of a great general but, frankly, rubbish administrator. He simply wasn’t interested in that sort of thing. The corrupt satraps and generals seem to bear that out. However, upon learning of their deeds he did punish them rather than leave them in place. Having said that, he should never have given Harpalus any position of authority or reinstated him when he abused Alexander’s trust.
And who was the official to whom Alexander said, after Hephaestion died, he would not punish him for any wrong-doing he might do in the future if he honoured Hephaestion? Was that Harpalus? I can’t remember and can’t find it on the ‘net. I don’t know if that is a true story so will have to try and find out.
It seems to me that what we have with Caranus is an early example of a very topical issue – assisted suicide. Plus ça change. Alexander’s initial opposition to Caranus’ request makes sense in terms of his outlook on life. He lived for glory, something that he could never attain enough of. Life, for him, would never reach a point where he could say ‘I have had my fill’. Caranus’ outlook was, by contrast, rather less ambitious.
Of course, there is the story (told by Arrian) that when close to death, Alexander tried to commit suicide by throwing himself into the Euphrates river (only to be dissuaded from doing so by Roxane). But Alexander only wanted to kill himself in order to make it appear that he was the son of Ammon. Only Alexander could turn suicide – the ultimate act of self-abnegation – into an act that confirmed his greatness.
Inevitably, along with the debate between those for and against the assisted suicide there were the unhelpful opinions of no few people regarding Caranus, which they should really have kept to themselves.
Diodorus’ representation of the Susa Weddings joins the list of important events that he writes all too briefly about.
Somewhere in the crowd,
Thaïs had to admit she was really quite
This picture can be bought on (German) eBay