The Nature of Curtius
Book Four Chapters 11-16
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Tears and Hard Ground
On the eve of the Battle of Gaugamela, Alexander received another letter from Darius. In it, the Great King offered further concessions to him in order to end the war between them. These included – once again – Stateira II’s hand in marriage but this time all territory west of the Euphrates River. Alexander was warned that taking the whole empire would be ‘fraught with danger’ and that it would be difficult to control.
Why did Darius think Alexander might respond to this letter any more positively than his last?
A few days earlier*, Stateira I had died. Upon being informed, Alexander wept copious tears for her, and he gave his permission for her funeral to be carried out in the ‘traditional Persian fashion’.
In the confusion following Stateira’s death, a eunuch** belonging to the Persian royal family escaped from the Macedonian camp and made his way to Darius’ tent. There, he told the Great King how Alexander had cried for his late wife, having treated the royal women with the utmost respect since capturing them following the Battle of Issus.
It was this insight into Alexander’s kindness that gave Darius the confidence to send his letter.
Unfortunately, the seeds did not fall on fertile ground and Alexander dismissed Darius’ offer. “‘He generously gives me the land beyond the Euphrates,'” Alexander said, contemptuously, “‘[but] I am already across the Euphrates and my camp stands beyond the boundary of the land he generously promises me as dowry!'”
The ambassadors were allowed to return to Darius. They did so, and told him that ‘battle was imminent’.
* The following account comes from Chapter 10
** Curtius gives his name as Tyriotes
Mist and Sun
As the Macedonian army marched towards Gaugamela, a strange event happened. ‘Intermittent flashes in the bright sky, of the type seen on hot summer days [and which] had the appearance of fire’ were seen. The Macedonian soldiers thought ‘that they were flames gleaming in Darius’ camp, and that they had negligently advanced among enemy outposts’. This caused a general panic to occur.
Realising what was happening, Alexander stopped the march and told his men to ‘lay down their arms and rest’. While they did so, he reassured them that the Persians were still a long way off and that they were in no danger.
As it happens, however, they were, for Mazaeus and his cavalry party were on a hilltop overlooking the camp. Curtius says that if he ‘had struck while [the Macedonians] were still panicking a terrible disaster could have been inflicted’ on Alexander’s army. But he didn’t. Although he had 3,000 horse with him Mazaeus would have known he was hopelessly outnumbered. So, he stayed put ‘content not to be under attack’.
To go back to the flashes of light for a moment, I presume from the Macedonian soldiers’ reactions they thought they were seeing the reflection of the sun on the Persians’ armour and weaponry and that this meant they had drawn too close to their enemy. It makes a lot more sense that fiery flashes of light across a blue sky.
Whatever the cause of the flashes, they unnerved the Macedonians enough to make Alexander call a halt to the proceedings for the day and set up a fortified camp.
The next day, Mazaeus withdrew from the hilltop. The Macedonians took his position. From their new vantage point they had a good view of the battlefield. It was a humid day, however, and a mist descended. While it wasn’t heavy enough to obscure the plain before them, ‘it did render it impossible to see how [the Persian] forces were divided and organized.’
Presently, the mist lifted and the two armies were revealed to each other. Both shouted their war-cries ‘and the woods and valleys round about rang with a terrifying noise’.
Spikes in the Ground
This chapter is concerned mostly with the Persian and Macedonian armies preparation for war, so is of little interest to us. It does conclude, however, with a sole horse rider galloping out of the Persian camp and towards Alexander. His name was Bion and he was a deserter. He warned the Macedonian king that Darius had placed iron spikes in the ground where he thought the Macedonian cavalry intended to ride during the battle. I don’t recall any similar practice at the Granicus River or Issus and if memory serves, Alexander himself never employed such a tactic. Perhaps he thought it would undermine his glory.
Empire and Prison
Alexander encouraged his men with a bold speech. He spoke, as it were, to two people – the brave and non-brave.
To the brave, he made the land out to be a place of triumph, where they had won great victories (e.g. at the Granicus River and Issus) or had passed through as victors (e.g. the Cilician Mountains, Syria and Egypt).
To the non-brave, however, the land was represented as an enemy. You have come so far, he said, that ‘all those rivers and mountains [are] a barrier’ behind you. If you want to go home, you are going to have to fight.
Darius also spoke of barriers. Not natural ones, though; that would have been difficult having wrought so much destruction upon the land as part of his defensive operations. Instead, the Great King asked his men to be living barriers that would save the lives of their families who waited behind them.
The Battle of Gaugamela was in full bloody flow when Alexander’s guards caught sight of ‘an eagle gently hovering just above the king’s head, frightened neither by the clash of arms nor the groans of the dying’.
Aristander – dressed as a priest and with a laurel-branch in his hand – pointed the eagle out to the soldiers as it maintained its station saying (or, more likely, shouting, if he really was there) that it was ‘an infallible omen of victory’.
Up till now, the Macedonians had been in a state of terror. Upon being alerted to the eagle’s presence, however, they became ‘fired with tremendous enthusiasm and confidence for the fight’. This confidence increased when Darius’ charioteer was killed.
Dominos now started to fall. The charioteer was mistaken for Darius. The Persian Cavalry let out a huge cry. This unsettled the entire Persian army. The left-wing folded and the army started to retreat. The Macedonians gave chase. The battle ended and a massacre began.
A Bridge Too Far
Darius fled to the Lycus River (the modern day Greater Zab). Crossing it, he contemplated destroying the bridge behind him. But although he knew that would prevent the Macedonians from pursuing him, he decided not to do as it would also condemn many of his men to death.
In the hours that followed, however, the Persian soldiers themselves either caused the bridge to collapse or surely came close to doing so as they ‘overloaded’ it in their haste to flee the battlefield. So desperate were they that not only did men attempt to wade across the Lycus – with some being carried away under the weight of their armour – but they also trampled over each other in order to reach the other side. It was an ignominious end to the battle of empires.