The Nature of Curtius
Book Five Chapters 4-5
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The Susian Gates are forced open
The whole business of the Siege of the Susian Gates reads like a more challenging version of the Uxian siege. We have seen how on both occasions the defile worked against Alexander (albeit in different ways). Now, just as a guide showed Tauron the way to Medates’ town, Alexander found another guide to take him through the mountains to Ariobarzanes’ camp.
Before setting Alexander on his way, Curtius gives us a run down of Persia’s topography. Enclosed by mountains on one side and the Persian Gulf on the other, the country contains a fertile and ‘extensive plain’. The richness of the soil comes from the Araxes River which ‘encourages a greater growth of vegetation’ than any other. Persia, Curtius says, has a ‘healthier climate’ than anywhere else in Asia. It’s easy to see how civilisation was able to form there.
It all sounds very splendid. For Alexander, though, it was also very far off. His guide had warned him that the path to Ariobarzanes’ camp would be a difficult one, and so it proved. Along the way, they encountered ‘impossible crags and precipitous rocks that time and again made them lose their footing’, then there were the snow drifts and the fear that darkness in enemy country brings.
Despite these difficulties, and lingering suspicions over the guide’s loyalty, however, Alexander and his men reached the top of the mountain path. There, they divided in two with Alexander ordering Philotas, Coenus, Amyntas and Polyperchon to take an easier path, while he himself – accompanied by his mounted bodyguard – proceeded along a higher route.
The king met no difficulties until lower down when the road became interrupted by a chasm. What remained of it was blocked by tree branches. That night, the wind howled all around them.
The next day, Alexander wiped out a Persian outpost. With Craterus, who had brought the main part of the Macedonian army back through the defile, and Philotas et al, he attacked Ariobarzanes’ base. The battle was hard fought with Ariobarzanes managing to break through the Macedonian centre but to no avail.
From what Curtius says, it appears that that at one part Ariobarzanes fled from the battlefield and tried to enter Persepolis, only to be turned away. He then went back to the Susian Gates and fought alongside his men until being killed.
Alexander had won the Gates but was still wary of the country. Not because there might be Persians about, but because it was broken, and there were ‘deep ditches with steep sides’ on either side of the road.
While on the road, a messenger from Persepolis arrived with a letter from Tiridates, the ‘guardian of the royal moneys’. Come quickly, he said, before the people pillage the treasury.
Alexander set off with his cavalry and, after a night long journey, arrived at the river Araxes. There, the Macedonians demolished some nearby villages to make a bridge.
It is here that Curtius says Alexander met a colony of mutilated Greeks, placed here by the Persians for their amusement. The Notes suggest that the story is a fiction, included to remind the reader ‘of the past atrocities of the Persians’.
Alexander offered to send the men home, but after a debate they elected to stay. Shame, and a desire to keep the wives and children they had found in Persia won the day. Accepting this, Alexander gave them money, clothing, sheep, cattle and seed-corn to till and sow.