The Nature of Curtius
Book Six Chapters 1-5
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Sparta’s Last Hurrah
The lacuna that brought Book Five to a halt covers the start of Book Six. As a result, we miss the opening of the Battle of Megalopolis*, which was fought between Antipater and Agis of Sparta in 331 B.C. In lieu of that, here is what I wrote about Diodorus’ account of the battle. What remains of Curtius’ account contains no topographical references.
* And, of course, any part of the narrative that Curtius may have included before it
After tarrying in an unnamed location, Alexander marched into Parthia. Where had he been before hand? The map provided with my copy of Curtius’ History suggests Mardia. When he meets the Mardians in Chapter Five below, however, having ‘penetrated the furthest reaches of Hyrcania’ I assume Alexander has either backtracked or these Mardians are out of place.
Curtius does not give us much information about Parthia (which he calls Parthiene) other than to say that it is a ‘level and fertile area… occupied by… Scythians’. Alexander made his way to the city of Hecatompylos (Diodorus’ Hecatontapylus) where a rumour spread in the Macedonian camp that they were going home.
Catalogue of Victories
As the men packed up their bags, Alexander had to summon his best rhetoric in order to persuade them to follow him east. He did so by first reminding them of the people and places they had conquered* (deep breath):-
Illyrians, Triballians, Boeotia, Thrace, Sparta, Achaeans, the Peloponnese, Ionia, Aeolis, Caria, Lydia, Cappadocia, Phrygia, Paphlagonia, Pamphylia, Pisidia, Cilicia, Syria, Phoenicia, Armenia, Persia, the Medes and Parthia.
Once that was done, Alexander then reminded the men that the people they had conquered had still to be broken. And the people they had not yet conquered would stab them in the back the minute they turned for home.
* Alexander’s exact words are places that had been ‘subdued under my direct leadership or by campaigns conducted under my orders or instructions’. Alexander himself never conquered Sparta – there was no need to as it did not pose a threat – and as far as I am aware, Antipater did not go to war against King Agis on Alexander’s ‘orders or instructions’. He did so because he needed to
Also, I can’t help but notice that he did not include Egypt in his list. I wonder why?
A Rich Country
The rhetoric did its job and the men told Alexander ‘to lead them wherever he wished’.
Close to the Parthia-Hyrcania border, Alexander set up camp. He did so near a ‘dense, shady grove of tall trees’. The land was fertile here, being nourished by the streams that fell from the surrounding cliffs.
Curtius tells us of the Ziobetis River, which has its source ‘at the foot of the [nearby?] mountains’. After being split in two by a rock the river runs more aggressively before diving underground for 300 stades. When it reappears, it returns to being one channel until joining another river called the Rhidagnus.
Alexander learnt from natives that if you throw something in to the hole where the Ziobetis disappears underground, it will appear again at the opening. To test this, he threw in two horses. Sure enough, their bodies duly appeared at the opening. Pooh sticks, the Alexander way.
While at the border camp, Alexander received a letter from Nabarzanes in which he declared his wish to surrender. The king accepted it. Afterwards, he began his march to Hyrcania.
At first, Alexander moved cautiously. The ‘belligerent temper of the natives and the lie of the land’ made it awkward territory to cross.
Curtius informs us of a valley that travels as far as the Caspian Sea, where it ends in a crescent shaped piece of land. The Caspian, he says, is ‘less salty than other seas [and] has a population of huge serpents… its fish are very differently coloured from other fish’.
‘To the north’, he continues, the Caspian ‘covers the coastal area’. Finally, Curtius notes that some people call the Caspian the Hyrcanian Sea while others say that the Palus Maeotis (the sea of Azov) ‘drains into it’. Against this, other people believe that the waters which cause the aforementioned coastal area to be flooded come from India rather than the Caspian.
Passing the Caspian Sea by, Alexander took ‘a virtually impassable track overhung by forest’ along which ‘torrents and floods’ travelled. Unsurprisingly, he was unchallenged by any hostile natives and eventually came to cultivated land.
Curtius says that this land ‘produces plentiful quantities of all provisions’ and that the soil ‘is particularly suited to viticulture’. I bet the Macedonians appreciated that. There was also an oak-like tree that had ‘leaves thickly coated with a honey’ which had to be collected before daybreak as the sun made the sap evaporate.
Alexander was well into his march across Hyrcania when Artabazus surrendered himself and his sons to him. Artabazus was 95 years old. Rather than embarrass the old man by walking while Artabazus rode his horse, Alexander had his own brought up and mounted it.
Sometimes, Alexander does things that you think ‘that was very good of him’ but you also wonder ‘did he do that for an ulterior motive?’. I am thinking of his attitude to women here, especially as Plutarch outlines it. This time, however, Alexander had no need to mount his horse. He did it purely out of respect. Not only does this show that he was a respectful man but also that it is worth giving him the benefit of the doubt when the question of his motive comes up elsewhere.
In the last post, we saw how Alexander led a brief campaign against the Mardians. Now, he does so again. They were ‘a culturally backward’ people who ‘had failed to send ambassadors’ to him. In other words, they had failed to submit to him.
Alexander led a small detachment out to bring the Mardians to heel. Upon his arrival in their land, they fled to the interior of Mardia (?). Alexander pursued them but found the going tough, for the interior ‘was enclosed by mountain ridges, tall forests and impassable cliffs’.
The Mardians may have been primitive but they knew how to make the country work for them. For example, they grew trees close by one other, wound their branches together and knotted them before putting them into the ground to grow again.
It’s not clear to me whether the branches were broken off or still attached to the trees, but whichever it was, they grew anew and ‘with even greater vigour’. This created a very simple and effective barrier that could not easily be cut down.
Alexander chased the Mardians to woods, which he then surrounded, with the intention of finding a way in to attack his enemy. Before he could do so, however, the natives took advantage of the Macedonians’ ignorance of the country to carry out some successful sorties. During one, they captured not only some men but Bucephalas as well.
Curtius does not give Bucephalas’ history. Instead, he says only that the horse was prized ‘above all other animals’ by the king. He also states that Bucephalas ‘would not allow another man to sit on him’ and that, when Alexander wished to mount him, ‘he would of his own accord bend his knees to receive him’.
Furious at Bucephalas’ loss, Alexander issued a Return Him or Else ultimatum. The thieves wisely chose the former option, with added gifts for good measure. But the king was not placated, and he ordered ‘the woods to be felled and for earth to be hauled from the mountains and heaped on the flat ground’. It appears his intention was not to break through the barriers but rise above them, using the earth as a siege tower.
Seeing this, the Mardians surrendered.
Alexander moved on to Hyrcania city where he received Nabarzanes’ surrender.
Alexander’s last action in Hyrcania was to entertain Thalestris, the queen of the Amazons, whose territory lay on ‘the plains of Themiscyra in the area of the river Thermodon’ on the opposite side of the Caspian Sea. When I say ‘entertain’ I mean, of course, in the sexual sense as Thalestris came (no pun intended) wanting to bear his child. She promised that if it were a boy, he could have it, but that if it was a girl, it would remain with her.