The Nature of Curtius
Book Seven Chapter 5
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We saw in the last post, how Curtius described Bactria as being comprised of both fertile land and desert country. After leaving Zariaspa, Alexander and his men were obliged to march through the latter in order to reach the Oxus River.
It was a strange and punishing journey. Strange because the Macedonians developed ‘a parching thirst’ before they began to crave water. Punishing because the desert was so hot it was akin to walking through an open air furnace.
In a very evocative passage, Curtius describes how the heat of the sun threw up ‘a misty vapour’ that gave ‘the plains the appearance of one vast, deep ocean’. I have to admit, the only way I can imagine such a scene is within the frame of an Impressionist painting.
The extreme heat forced the Macedonians to travel by night. When they did so by day, the heat sapped their energy until their bodies became burned and their spirits lethargic, ‘unwilling to stop and unwilling to go on’.
Of course, the men tried to alleviate their thirst by drinking from their water skins – they also drank wine and [olive] oil – but this made them bloated to the point of being unable to carry their weapons or even walk. The only way to deal with the problem was by throwing up the water that they had just drunk.
What had happened to the men that made them grow so fat? Reading the passage put me in mind of distressing photographs and video footage of African children with bloated bodies. But their condition has arisen because of a long term problem – famine, made worse by war. The Macedonians were not in the Bactrian desert for more than a few days. I think Curtius is over-dramatising his story here.
Whatever the truth of it, Alexander once again stepped up to the mark. Two scouts who had been sent to look for a suitable camping site returned with water for their sons. Meeting Alexander, they offered him the water instead. Upon hearing that it was for the men’s sons, however, the king returned it to them. ‘I cannot bear to drink alone.’ he said, ‘and it is not possible for me to share so little with everybody. Go quickly and give your sons what you have brought on their account’.
Curtius doesn’t say how long it took the Macedonians to cross the desert, but when they finally arrived at the Oxus River, some were so desperate to drink that they drowned in doing so. And the number of those that did, ‘exceeded the numbers Alexander had lost in any battle’.
As for Alexander himself, he neither ate nor drank but stood at the edge of the camp to welcome his men in as they arrived.
That night, Alexander could not sleep. He had surmounted one difficulty by making it to the other side of the desert, but now faced another – in the absence of trees with which to make a bridge, how would he cross the Oxus?
The answer was six years old. During his Balkan campaign Alexander had stitched his tents together and filled them with hay to turn them into floats*. Now, this time using straw, he did the same again. The crossing took five days but eventually the entire army made it to the other side of the river.
News of Alexander’s crossing rattled Bessus’ allies. Spitamenes led a group of them into Bessus’ tent under false pretences where they arrested him. Meanwhile, the Macedonians met and butchered a Greek colony comprising of the descendants of the Branchidae from Miletus. This clan had betrayed the city to Xerxes I during the Graeco-Persian Wars. Alexander asked the Miletans in his army whether ‘they preferred to remember their injury or their common origin’. The Miletans were divided so the king made their mind up for them.
The Branchidae came out with olive branches but to no avail. They were butchered, and their city razed to the ground. It woods and sacred grove were not only torn down but uprooted. It all sounds really quite disgusting. However, according to the Notes, it may just be a fiction. Let’s hope so.
Alexander met Spitamenes at the Tanais River. There, he took possession of Bessus, who he handed over to Darius’ brother, Oxathres, now a member of his Companions, for punishment.
Bessus would suffer by having his ears and nose cut off. He would be crucified and have arrows shot into him. But to make sure he did not die too quickly, archers would also shoot at carrion birds who might be tempted to pick at his body. Such was Oxathres’ determination to make sure Bessus suffered to the maximum amount possible, he employed one of Spitamenes’ fellow conspirators, Catanes, who was an expert shot, to keep the birds at bay.
* Arrian Book 1