Between a Rock and a Hard Place

The Nature of Curtius
Book Five Chapters 2-3
For other posts in the series click here

Chapter Two
Laying Siege to the Uxians
From Babylon, the Macedonian army made its way into Sittacene. Like Mesopotamia, it was also a fertile land ‘producing rich quantities of provisions of all kinds’. Despite having stopped for a while in Babylon, Alexander now tarried here, holding competitions to decide who should fill a command he had newly created – that of chiliarch*.

That was not the only change Alexander made to the organisation of his army. For the first time, he broke the link between it and the land. Previously, the Macedonian cavalry had been formed along tribal lines. This meant that the commander of each cavalry unit came from the same place as his men. That now ended. From now on, the commanders would be whoever Alexander decided to appoint*.

The king also made a change to the procedure for alerting the men that camp was about to be struck. Before, a trumpet blast had been used to provide the appropriate signal but the camp’s general ‘noise and commotion’ made it impossible to hear.

Alexander’s solution was to turn to nature. A pole would be raised. At the top of it, presumably on a platform, or in a metal bucket, a fire would burn and be the signal that it was time to pack up. During the night the fire would be visible to all; during the day time, the smoke that the fire created would be the signal.

From Sittacene the Macedonian army marched towards Susa. Alexander was met just outside the city by the son of Abulites, its satrap. The young man guided Alexander to the Choaspis River which, Curtius reports, ‘reputedly carries fine drinking water’. There, Abulites himself met his new master. He handed over gifts of ‘dromedaries*** of outstanding speed’ and elephants.

The chapter ends with a neat little detail which shows how far removed the Persian royal family had become from the land which they ruled. After being sent purple fabric from home, Alexander passed it on to Sisygambis so that her grand daughters (Stateira II and Drypetis) could be taught how to make clothing. Sisygambis rejected the gift angrily ‘for to Persian women nothing is more degrading than working with wool’. Such was her offence that Alexander came in person to apologise.

* chiliarchs had responsibility for 1,000 men. Hephaestion, among others, would later hold this office

** From what Curtius says, it seems that the organisation of the cavalry unit remained tribally based

**** Camels

Chapter Three
The Susian Gates are closed
The Persian royal family were left in Susa. Four days later, Alexander reached the Pasitigris River. This river, Curtius says, comes out of the Uxian mountains where ‘it rushes down-country for fifty stades in a rocky channel between well treed banks’. In the plains, however, it is perfectly navigable and so Alexander had no problems crossing it and entering the territory of the Uxians.

As the Pasitigris continued on its genteel way to the Persian Gulf, however, Alexander’s life was about to get considerably more difficult. His target was the Uxians’ satrap, Medates, whose city lay beyond a defile. Some natives told Alexander of a secret path across the mountains that would take him to a high point behind the city. The king despatched Tauron, the brother of Harpalus, to take the path. He himself entered the defile.

Upon reaching the opposite or far end, the Macedonians made use of the local trees to make protective coverings for the men who were ‘bringing up the siege towers’. Once they had arrived, the siege began in earnest. However, Curtius says that the ‘whole terrain was sheer crag, with boulders and stones impeding access’. As a result of this, the Macedonians ‘had to battle with the location as well as the enemy’.

In the larger context of Alexander’s life, the Uxian siege is a minor event. The city was neither very big nor particularly significant. Despite this, Alexander only took it thanks to Tauron. One enemy could be managed, two, however, was too much and the natives withdrew to their citadel.

The Uxians’ begged for mercy. Perhaps embarrassed by his failure to take the city himself, and wanting to teach the Uxians a lesson, Alexander denied their request. Despite this, the Uxians still survived. And they did so using a ploy that any child would recognise. Getting nowhere with their ‘father’, they went to their ‘mother’ instead. At first, Sisygambis declined to intercede for them, but after many pleas, her heart melted and she asked Alexander to relent. He not only did so, but gave the Uxians very favourable terms.

Following the siege, Alexander split his army in two between himself and Parmenion. The general was ordered to enter Persia by marching across its plains. Alexander would do so by passing through the Susian Gates.

Unfortunately, the Gates were held by the only Persian officer to give him a really severe test during his expedition – Ariobarzanes.

Ariobarzanes had 25,000 men under his command and the advantage of the high ground. Thus, when the Macedonians approached the Gates from a narrow defile, Ariobarzanes’ men were able to rain rocks and stones down on them with impunity.

The Macedonians tried to climb up the walls of the defile to confront their enemy but the rocks were too unstable. As hands grasped them they came free sending the men tumbling down. There was nothing for it, Alexander had to retreat.

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