The Nature of Curtius
Book Seven Chapter 6-9
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War in the Mountains
While Alexander was dealing with Bessus, some Macedonian soldiers went off to forage. They were ambushed by natives ‘who came rushing down on them from the neighbouring mountains’.
Hearing about the attack, Alexander responded by laying siege to the natives. During his assault, the king was struck in the leg by an arrow.
From ‘their high position on the mountain’, the barbarians saw Alexander being carried away. But this did not embolden them to continue the defence of their lives let alone go on the offensive.
Instead, envoys came to Alexander in his tent and told him how ‘saddened’ they were by his injury and that ‘if they had found the culprit, they would already have surrendered him’. There is a context for this surprising attitude, for in the view of this tribe, ‘it was only the sacrilegious who fought against gods’.
After making peace with the tribe, Alexander was carried (on alternate days by cavalry and infantry in order to satisfy the honour of both) to Maracanda. From there, he set about pillaging and burning ‘the neighbouring villages’.
Back in Maracanda, he received a visit from a friendly Scythian tribe from the far side of the Tanais (Jaxartes) River. Curtius says that after ‘addressing the deputation courteously’ Alexander sent one of his Friends, a man named Derdas, over the river to warn the Scythian tribes there not to cross it ‘without the king’s order’ (permission?).
Derdas was also given orders ‘to explore the terrain and make an expedition… to those Scythians who live beyond the Bosphorus’. That would be some expedition indeed if Derdas was being told to go all the way back to the Hellespont.
What the above shows again is how much smaller Curtius’/Alexander’s conception of the world was. This is further seen in the fact that the Scythians on the far side of the Tanais were regarded as living on ‘European soil’.
Alexander now intended to build a new city on the banks of the Tanais – Alexandria Eschate (the Furthest). First, however, he had to deal with a revolt among the Sogdians and Bactrians, which had been set off by Spitamenes and Catanes.
Craterus was sent to lay siege to the city of Cyropolis while Alexander did the same to the city of the Memaceni. Both cities fell but not before Alexander lost some of his best men fighting the Memaceni and was himself knocked unconscious by a slingshot.
Once the two cities had fallen, Alexander sent a detachment to Maracanda, where Spitamenes had taken refuge, while he returned to the Tanais to build Alexandria Eschate in just seventeen days.
At the start of the chapter, Curtius reiterates that Scythia north-of-the-Tanais is part of Europe, while south of the river, it is on Asian soil. He says, that the Scythians who live near Thrace belong to the Sarmatian tribe, while those who live ‘directly beyond the Ister’ (i.e. the Danube) are spread out as far as Bactra.
The Scythian people also live ‘quite far north, beyond which the land is covered with deep forests and endless wilderness’.
The reason for Curtius’ brief overview is that the Scythian king had decided Alexandria Eschate was too close for comfort and had sent his brother, Carthasis, to make war on the Macedonians. This was awkward for Alexander because he still had the revolt in the south to deal with.
There was no question of the Scythians not being confronted. If they weren’t, he told his officers during a war council, they – the Macedonians – would lose face to the Sogdians and Bactrians. If they did, and defeated the Scythian force ‘who then will hesitate to submit to us when we are also the conquerors of Europe?’
The meeting was not yet over when bad news came from Maracanda – Menedemus had been ambushed by Spitamenes and his detachment wiped out in a wood. The first Teutoburg.
God of the World
That night, Alexander pondered how best to conduct his assault against the Scythians. He had placed the royal tent on the banks of the Tanais so that he could open the flaps and observe the enemy on the other side of the river to make a count of their numbers. He did this through the night.
The next day, Scythian ambassadors arrived in the camp to try and dissuade Alexander from attacking them.
‘Had the gods willed that your stature should match your greed the world could not hold you. You would touch the east with one hand and the west with the other, and reaching the west you would want to know where the mighty god’s light lay hidden.’
This sums up Alexander. He was very greedy – for glory – and had he had his way he would certainly have carried on fighting to the east and westernmost points of the world.
The ambassadors failed to persuade Alexander to desist. Once they had departed, the crossing of the Tanais began.
Despite the current of the river which made steering the rafts difficult, and the archers on the far side, the Macedonians made it to the banks where they engaged the Scythians.
As for the battle, the Scythians were put into disorder as soon as the Macedonians landed. They tried to flee only to be pursued. At some point, the Macedonian cavalry ‘crossed the bounds of Father Liber’ – Dionysus/Bacchus – ‘marked by stones set out at frequent intervals and by tall trees with ivy-covered trunks’. It seems Alexander was able to stay with the pursuit long enough to see the boundary stones before he was forced to turn back to camp by his recent injuries.
Back in camp, good news came from the south – the Sogdian and Bactrian revolt had collapsed. Victory over the Scythians had made the rebels see ‘that no race was a match for Macedonian arms’.
No doubt feeling well pleased with how things had turned out, Alexander thereafter made for Maracanda. There, he buried Menedemus and his men before going on to lay waste to the countryside and executing all ‘men of military age’ in the usual fashion.