The man who had it all

The Nature of Curtius
Book Four Chapters 1 – 4
For other posts in the series click here

Chapter 1
The King Without a Crown
In the last post, we saw how Darius lost the Battle of Issus but was able to escape from the battlefield using horse relays. At the beginning of this chapter, Curtius makes the very poignant point that the Great King fled

through terrain which he had filled with armies almost beyond number but which was now deserted – to form one vast and solitary wilderness.

So, having lost the symbols of his kingship when he removed his royal insignia at the start of his flight it was now as if Darius had now lost his very kingdom. The earth had turned its back to him.

And I think that the earth could not have deserted (if you’ll excuse the pun) a more appropriate king. We know from the other Alexander historians that Memnon of Rhodes recommended a scorched earth policy prior to the Battle of the Granicus River, and that while the satraps had rejected his advice, as Alexander mentioned in his response to Darius’ letter, the Persians had form for carrying out such devastating actions*.

And, of course, there is Arsames – the satrap of Cilicia – who did indeed destroy his land upon Alexander’s approach.

Speaking of Alexander’s letter, it led to what must have been a very long journey for Thersippus who was given the responsibility of delivering it. If you have seen the film 300 you will know that messengers were not always treated very well (see the film clip below).

Admittedly, 300 is not your go-to film for an example of historical accuracy but if we jump forward to chapter 2 of Curtius’ book for a moment, what do we find happening to Alexander’s heralds after they entered Tyre to warn the Tyrians to make peace with the Macedonian king? They were killed and their bodies thrown over the city walls and into the sea. This. Is. Tyre!

In Sidon**, Alexander overthrew the king and gave the job of nominating a successor to Hephaestion. He offered the kingship to the two noblemen he was lodging with only for them to turn it down as they were not members of the royal family.

Impressed by their humility, Hephaestion invited them to chose the new king. They turned to a poor gardener named Abdalonymus who was ‘distantly related to the royal family’.

In what must be one of the nicest scenes in any biography of Alexander, the two noblemen visited Abdalonymus as he worked in his garden. There, they told him to take off his rags, clean himself up, and put on the royal clothing they had brought him.

The choice of Abdalonymus as king did not meet with everyone’s approval. So, Alexander summoned him in order to assess his character. How did you endure your poverty? He asked him. Abdalonymus replied,

‘These hands of mine satisfied my needs. I had nothing, but lacked nothing.’

I don’t know anything about Abdalonymus’ later career except that the Alexander sarcophagus may have been made for him.

I wonder, though, if Curtius was telling us something about Abdalonymus’ future when, as the two noblemen greeted him, the king-to-be was described as pulling up weeds. Weeds today, corrupt officials tomorrow***?

* In his letter, Alexander referred to how Xerxes I ‘left Mardonius in Greece so that he could destroy our cities and burn our fields’
** Or Tyre according to Diodorus, who also called Abdalonymys ‘Ballonymus’ (see here)
*** I must also mention the fact that when the noblemen met Abdalonymus he had no idea that Alexander and Darius were contending with one another for control of the latter’s empire. He was wise, humble and aloof.

Chapter 2
Re-Maker of Worlds
In this post, we have seen nature used as a metaphor – for the loss of a kingdom and for wisdom. At the start of the second chapter, Alexander threatens the Tyrian envoys by using what appears to be hyperbole. You think you are safe, he tells them, because you live on an island,

‘… but I am soon going to show you that you are really on the mainland.’

As it happens, the envoys believed him. To its cost, however, the city did not.

Alexander’s prophecy came true in two ways. Firstly, when his mole finally reached the island. And secondly when, over the years, the mole caused the sea to silt up around it to the point where the old city and island city could be completely joined. For images of joined-up Tyre today, see this post.

Alexander’s ability to not only use the land but change it according to his wishes stand in stark contrast to the impotent figure of Darius as he rides through the lonely wilderness.

Alexander intended to build a mole (i.e a causeway) to carry his army to the gates of the city. He was opposed not only by the Tyrians, but also the weather.

For example, Curtius says that a gap of four stades (under half a mile) separated Tyre from the mainland. That gap was assaulted by a strong ‘south-westerly wind, which rolled rapid successions of waves on to the shore’.

Then there was the depth of the sea which, beyond the shoreline, fell into a ‘fathomless’ depth. Although this was an exaggeration, as it turned out, the sea was still deep enough to fill the Macedonian soldiers ‘with despair’ when they saw it.

But Alexander was stronger than their hopelessness, and he got his men to work. The mole soon began to rise out of the sea.

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