The Nature of Curtius
Book Nine Chapter 9-10
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Tide Waits for No Man
As the Macedonian fleet continued its journey down the Indus River, it met with a very awkward problem: its guides ran away. The soldiers guarding them had become complacent, and this allowed the natives who had been coerced into guiding the ships to flee.
Alexander ordered more guides to be found but when none were his impatience to see the ocean got the better of him. At his command, the fleet set sail again ‘in complete ignorance of the terrain through which they were passing’. Neither did they know which tribes lived here, nor how far they were from the sea, or how dangerous the river-mouth was. Indeed, for all they knew, the Indus would not even bring them to the sea.
It was a recipe for disaster, and disaster very nearly came.
Presently, the smell of sea air wafted past the Macedonians. At the same time, they finally caught some natives. These informed Alexander that the sea – which they knew only as a ‘bitter-tasting water’ – was just two days away.
Delighted at this news, the Macedonians ‘put tremendous vigour into their rowing’ and, sure enough, two days later, they came to where the sea and river water mixed. A ‘gentle tide’ greeted them.
Ahead of the fleet was an island. Alexander landed there to look for provisions.
Curtius says that at ‘about the third hour’* the tide started to come in and that, having no knowledge of tidal movements, the Macedonians thought the gods were showing their displeasure at them.
The island began to disappear underwater, and the men hurried back to their boats; in their panic they got in each other’s way as they clambered into the vessels. Some ships were overloaded, while others left the island before every crew member had returned.
Panic gripped the men. When the ships took to the water, they collided with one another, knocking oars out of place. There were arguments and fights. Some men abandoned their vessels and made for the spots of land that remained above water.
As all this was going on, the tide turned. This volte-face disturbed the Macedonians just as much as the rising tide had. What would happen next? The men ‘foresaw starvation and utter catastrophe’. If the water didn’t get them, they feared that the ‘sea monsters wandering around’ – beached by the departing tide – would.
It was night time and Alexander had no idea what to do next. Unlike his men, however, he did not panic. He gave thought to what had happened and worked out that the tide was rising and falling in accordance with ‘the laws of time’. Realising this, he sent men to the river mouth so that they could ride back and give warning of the next high tide. As for the men, he ordered them to repair the ships in readiness for the tide’s return.
Alexander spent the night maintaining his own watch and encouraging the men in their labour. As a result of his courage, when the tide came rushing in again, the men boarded their vessels and greeted the rising water with cheers rather than cries.
Once afloat, Alexander took his ship out into the ocean before returning to the fleet ‘after sacrificing to the tutelary gods of the sea and the locality’.
From Desperate to Drunk
Returning upstream, the Macedonian fleet arrived at a salt like. There, some men contracted a skin disease after coming into contact with the water. They were cured by [olive?] oil.
Alexander intended to continue his journey west by land. As it was arid he ordered Leonnatus to march ahead of the army and dig wells for it.
‘Nearchus and Onesicritus, who were expert seamen’ were given orders to go back downstream and go as far as they could into the ocean ‘to examine the sea’s characteristics’. They were told to either return to Alexander or continue on to the Euphrates.
After a twenty-two day march, Alexander passed the Arabus River. In doing so, he entered desert country. This brought him to the country of the Horitae. There, he split the army in four – giving ‘the major part of his force to Hephaestion’ and dividing the remaining troops – all light-armed – between himself Leonnatus and Ptolemy. As they marched (Ptolemy along the coast, Alexander, and Leonnatus inland*) the armies looted native settlements and set the country ablaze.
Further along, Alexander met an isolated people who built their homes with the detritus of the ocean. Following this, the Macedonians’ provisions ran out; they were forced to eat their pack animals and horses. Plague struck the column, and the dying as well as the dead were left by the wayside.
Alexander wrote to neighbouring governors for help. They quickly sent it. (In Carmania) the emergency rations were replaced by wine – and lots of it. Much to Curtius’ disgust, the army continued its journey drunk and disordered, ‘why, a mere 1,000 men, if sober, could have captured this group on its triumphal march’. Thus spoke Angry of Rome.
* Curtius specifically states that Alexander’s army, and that of Ptolemy and Leonnatus engaged in looting and destruction. He doesn’t say what Hephaestion’s was doing