The Nature of Curtius
Book Three, Chapter 1
For the other posts in this series, click here
Quintus Curtius Rufus is known for the dramatic nature of his History of Alexander. In his account we see ‘a brilliantly realised image of a man ruined by constant good fortune in his youth’*.
In consequence, when it came to deciding how to approach this series of posts on his book it made perfect sense to look at Curtius’ Alexander through the lens of the flora and fauna that he met and passed through along the way**.
I have to say, I don’t recall that Alexander was ever greatly troubled by wild animals during his expedition, so they are most likely to appear in the form of icons and/or representations.
By the same token, it may well be that Curtius doesn’t have much to say about the land over which the Macedonians marched. If so, this will simply be a very short series!
However, when I began Plutarch’s Women I had much the same worry and that turned out alright, so here’s hoping.
Nota Bene This won’t be an exhaustive look at every last pebble and pigeon that Alexander came across and it will involve a (fair) bit of me speculating and imagining so don’t expect a Gradgrindian concern for FACTS and only FACTS!
And one final note for those who might be unaware – You may have noticed that we are beginning this series at the start of book three. This is because the first two books of Curtius’ History have been lost.
* This quotation comes from the blurb on the back page of my edition of Curtius (Penguin 2004)
** For the avoidance of doubt, yes, I am being ironic!
The Marsyas River
We begin with Alexander in Lycia, settling his affairs in Pamphylia before moving on to Phrygia. There, he came to the city of Caleanae. This brings us to Curtius’ first description of a natural feature – the Marsyas River.
He places the source of the Marsyas high above Calaenae, indeed, high above the world – on a mountain peak. From there, it flows down the mountain side with a ‘thunderous roar’ before crashing down onto a rock and into a pool, or perhaps a lake or mere, at the foot of the mountain.
If the Marsyas flowed as noisily as Curtius says, the sound of it echoing throughout the hills must have been a source of awe and wonder to the Calaenaeans, and anyone else who passed that way.
In fact, I wonder if they were not filled at times with dread. I would not laugh at them if this was the case, for nature can be a violent and oppressive force sometimes. For that reason, I see the travellers pausing before crossing the river at some calmer point, and pouring libations to the Potami*, in order to ensure a safe passage across the water.
This is not a wholly unlikely scenario – Curtius tells us that the Marsyas had been ‘made famous by Greek poetry with all its myths’. For example, the river’s clear water had ‘given rise to… the story… that nymphs sit on the rock, held fast there by their love for the river’.
Love conquers all; so, perhaps we have the nymphs to thank for the Marsyas’ serenity once it poured into the rock pool. If so, their influence was very timely, for the river now had an important work to do – irrigation. Its waters ran out of the pool in streams that splashed and gurgled their way across the Phrygian plains giving life to the seeds sown by farmers.
We must it, however, in another direction – to Calaenae.
Calaenae was a walled city. To enable the Marsyas to enter it, holes had been cut out of the walls.
Lector Walls? For a stream?
I agree. That’s not likely. And Curtius seems to show this when he says that upon leaving the city, the Marsyas did so ‘with increased force’ due to the fact that it was now carrying ‘a larger volume of water’.
Lector Well… maybe the little stream simply became a big stream.
Perhaps, but I don’t think so. If that is all the Marsyas was I don’t think it would have been worth mentioning to begin. And it would hardly have been worth the Calaenaeans effort to change the river’s name after it left their city, for then it stopped being the Marsyas then and transformed, Dr Who like, into the Lycus.
Alexander put the Calaenaeans under siege by surrounding their citadel. The Phrygians agreed to surrender but only if Darius did not come to their aid. When that happened (or rather, didn’t), they kept their word.
* Greek gods of rivers. See Theoi for more details
Curtius describes Gordium as being ‘on the banks of the river ‘Sangarius, equidistant from the Pontic and Cilician Seas’. As I understand it, the Pontic is the Black Sea and Cilician that part of the Mediterranean that touches Cilicia in the south-east of Asia Minor. Given that Gordium is in Phrygia I would say that it is a little closer to the Pontic.
But, to be honest, Curtius’ geography is not very accurate. He describes ‘Asia’ as becoming no more than an isthmus. For him, Asia Minor is really like an island in appearance. To be fair, Curtius does recognise that it is attached ‘to the continent’. Although, I think he means Europe rather than the near east.
Alexander entered Gordium and tried to undo the famous knot. Failing, he simply cut it with his sword, declaring ‘It makes no difference how they’re untied’.
Leaving the city, Alexander ‘determined to attack Darius whoever he was’. In Ancyra he reviewed his troops before moving on to Paphlagonia and hence Cappadocia with troops newly arrived from Macedon.
Very original idea (to use geographical features) for the series. Looking forward to reading more.
I am sure that you know that river’s name, Marsyas, comes from mythological character. In one of the books I read (sorry, don’t remember which one but I think it is from “Travelling heroes : Greeks and their myths in the epic age of Homer” by Robin Lane Fox) it is said the one of the local folk legends explained the roar of the river in following manner: when satyr died and became the river, his body remembered the pain that Apollo inflicted on him when he flayed him alive, so the roar of the river was reminiscent of the screams of the Marsyas during the “procedure”. Also, somewhere near the river there is a cave where locals liked to show travellers the skin, presumably of Marsyas, nailed to the walls of the cave; that skin would “dance” (in convulsions?) if flute was played nearby.
I wonder if Alexander was given that explanation for the origins of river’s roar or was showed the skin of Marcyas? 🙂