The Nature of Curtius
Book Three Chapters 4 – 6
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The Cilician Gates
As Darius moved north, Alexander marched south from Cappadocia. He stopped in an area known as ‘The Camp of Cyrus’. This was named after Cyrus the Great who ‘maintained a permanent camp’ there when he went to fight Croesus in Lydia. The camp was fifty stades (five miles) away from the Cilician Gates.
The ‘Gates’ were actually a rock formation in a narrow defile. Their name came from the fact that they looked like they were man-made, and they afforded the only means of entering Cilicia, which was bounded by the ‘rugged and precipitously steep’ Taurus mountain range.
The governor of Cilicia was a man named Arsames. He had it in him if not to defeat Alexander then at least to inflict upon him a critical defeat that could in turn have led to the undermining of the whole Macedonian campaign.
In order to achieve this, Arsames needed only to post a small force on the ridge overlooking the defile. Curtius says that the the defile ‘could barely accommodate four armed men [walking] abreast’. Picking them off, therefore, would have been easy.
However, Arsames chose instead to do what Memnon of Rhodes had recommended before the Battle of the Granicus River; namely, to lay waste to the country and starve Alexander into submission. He did so ‘with fire and the sword’. Destroying anything ‘that might be of use’ to his enemy.
Thus, Alexander – to his surprise and delight – found the Cilician Gates unguarded. He passed through them and marched on to Tarsus.
It would be inaccurate to say that Arsames totally ignored the Gates. Curtius tells us that he posted guards to the three mountain passes (of which, only the Cilician Gates provided entry into the country). However, after hearing that the satrap was destroying the countryside the guards deserted believing that they had been betrayed.
Curtius describes how the Cilician countryside ‘levels out’ as it approaches the sea. This flatness, he says, is ‘frequently interrupted by streams’ including two ‘famous rivers’ – the Pyramus and Cydnus.
Of the Pyramus he has nothing else to say, but the Cydnus now takes centre stage in Alexander’s story.
What was the river like? Well, it was neither a particularly deep nor violent one. In fact, it ran very gently ‘with no torrents breaking into its course’. Curtius doesn’t mention any mythological being associated with the Cydnus. Perhaps its gentility gave the impression that it was a rather boring river. Maybe it was, but if so, the Cydnus was a valuable one for it ran over ‘pure soil’. It contained no stories but it helped men live so that they could tell them.
Like the Marsyas, the waters of the Cydnus were very clear. They were also very cold, for the river ran underneath the shade of its banks.
Lest we think that its clarity and clearness were all the Cydnus had to commend itself, Curtius adds that at its headwaters (i.e at the source of the river) there were ‘many monuments popularized in song’. He says ‘They were shown the sites of the cities of Lyrnesus and Thebes, the cave of Typhon, the grove of Corycus where saffron grows’.
By ‘they’, I assume Curtius means the Macedonians. Unfortunately, they did not see too much as the monuments and cities were but ruins or even just memories in the air with no earthly trace left. The cities had fallen, and nature reclaimed her land.
Chapters Five and Six
The Cydnus River
Alexander arrived in Tarsus in August. The weather was boiling hot. As it happened, the Cydnus passed through the city so he went to bathe in it.
Now, you might think this would be a thoroughly innocuous act. What happened next, however, made it a very significant, and nearly fatal, one. Alexander had barely taken a step into the water ‘when he suddenly felt his limbs shiver and stiffen’. He was rushed back to this tent, seemingly on the point of death.
As Alexander’s friends clear the way and carry their king to his bed, I would like to look very briefly at how he – Alexander – used the river as a propaganda tool. The main purpose of his visit was to bathe. However, in so doing, he considered ‘that it would also add to his prestige if he showed his men that he was satisfied with attention to his person which was plain and unelaborate’.
That’s Alexander. He could probably have found a way of making the act of picking the dirt from between his toes a heroic one. As it is, Alexander’s purpose has its origin in the days of his youth when he was taught by the austere Leonidas. It also reminds me of how he used his good treatment of women as a way of proving his superiority to the Persians (see here for more details).
After being taken to his tent, Alexander remained there until his physician, Philip of Arcanania, had cured him of his illness. This covers the rest of Chapter 5 and all of 6. If you would like to read more about what happened, see here and here.