The Knowledge (of Alexander)

The website Knowledge has an article titled The Danger of Being Alexander in which the writer, Venugopal Gupta, discusses the importance of collaboration in order to achieve one’s goals.

Alexander is mentioned variously and cited as an example of someone who did not collaborate and so failed to achieve his goals.

Let’s take a look at what else Gupta has to say about the Macedonian king and how closely – or otherwise – he sticks to the sources.

***

When Alexander the Great’s father returned home after conquering an important new territory, he found his son unusually depressed. His son’s worry: that his father would win everything and leave nothing for him to win.

This anecdote comes from Chapter 5 of Plutarch’s Life of Alexander. Gupta presents Alexander’s depression as the result of a single incident but Plutarch says that ‘whenever he heard that Philip had captured some famous city or won an overwhelming victory, Alexander would show no pleasure at the news’ (my emphasis).

Also, as can be seen, Plutarch represents Alexander as being angry rather than depressed at his father’s successes.

Gupta’s assertion that Alexander was concerned ‘… his father would win everything and leave nothing for him to win’ is faithful to Plutarch, though only to a point. The Greek historian says that whenever he heard of one of his father’s victories, Alexander

… would declare to his friends, ‘Boys, my father will forestall me in everything. There will be nothing great or spectacular for me with your help to show the world.’

A desire to win is implied by the desire to perform ‘great or spectacular’ deeds, but unlike Gupta’s Alexander, Plutarch’s is not concerned with only winning but with showing the world what he is made of. He is outward rather than inward looking.

***

Fuelled with passion, Alexander piled up victories from Europe into Asia, until, all of thirty-two years of age, Alexander stood at the doorstep of India, to see the culmination of a world dominion that stretched from West to the East.

Gupta is certainly correct to say that Alexander ‘piled up the victories from Europe into Asia’.

At the age of 32 (i.e. in the summer of 324 B.C.), however, the Macedonian king was in Persia on his way back to Babylon rather than ‘on the doorstep to India’.

Alexander’s arrival at ‘the doorstep of India’ came much earlier – as early as Spring 329 B.C. when he made his first crossing of the Hindu Kush. That year, he entered Bactria, which today is part of Afghanistan, Tajikistan and – which is relevant to us – Pakistan. In 329 B.C., Alexander turned 27.

As you can see, I have interpreted Gupta’s reference to India as a reference to ancient India. Just in case he is referring to Alexander’s arrival at the doorstep of modern India, I’ll add that the Macedonian king passed its border when he came to the Hyphasis (Beas) River in the summer of 326 B.C. In that year, he celebrated his 30th birthday.

***

At the camp, one day, Alexander’s personal staff found a strange oily substance that was both transparent and odourless. Knowing their leader to be extremely superstitious, this news was promptly relayed to the court diviners. They reported that oil was given by gods as a reward for hard work and therefore the appearance of this substance at the camp was a good omen.

The incident that Gupta is referring to here took place on the banks of the Oxus River in Spring 328 B.C. when Alexander was marching north to subdue those Sogdians who had refused to accept the authority of his governor. The discovery of the oil is described by Plutarch in Chapter 57 of his Life and Arrian in Book IV.16 of his Campaigns of Alexander.

Plutarch says the ‘head of Alexander’s household servants, a man named Proxenus… uncovered a spring of… smooth and fatty liquid’ and that when

… the top of this was strained off, there gushed forth a pure and clear oil which appeared to be exactly like olive oil both in odour and in taste, and was also identical in smoothness and brightness.

There is no mention in Plutarch’s Life of ‘the court diviners’ being informed of the find on the grounds that Alexander was ‘extremely superstitious’.

However, we know that they were told about it because Plutarch says that the diviners called the oil a ‘refreshment’ and an omen for

… a campaign which would be a glorious one but also arduous and painful’.
(Plutarch Life 57)

This is in contrast to Gupta who has the soothsayers calling the spring of oil ‘a reward for hard work’ already done.

Moving on to Arrian, he doesn’t say who specifically found the ‘oily substance’. Neither does he describe its appearance. He is clear, however, about what happened next: the find was not reported to ‘the court diviners’ but to Ptolemy, who then informed the king.

Arrian agrees with Plutarch that ‘the court diviners’ were told of the oil’s discovery. He – Arrian – states specifically that

Aristander declared that the spring of oil was a sign of difficulties to come and of eventual victory.

Although there is no suggestion that the diviners ‘reported that [the] oil was given by gods as a reward for hard work’ it is clear that in Arrian’s account as well as Plutarch’s and Gupta’s article, the oil was regarded as a good omen.

By-the-bye, I don’t feel that at this point in his life Alexander would have been regarded as ‘extremely superstitious’ by his men. I hesitate to say more, though, as it is not an aspect of his life that I have yet looked into deeply. I am disagreeing with Gupta out of my guts rather than with my head.

***

After receiving news from the diviners, Alexander’s enthusiasm knew no bounds. He asked the army to prepare for war. While the army shouted valiant war cries, their spirit was worn out. They had run a long campaign before getting up to India and not had enough time to rest and repose. Worse, they had trouble acclimatising to the new weather and were perilously low on provisions.

Following the discovery of the oil, Alexander continued his pacification of Sogdia and Bactria. There was no call for the army ‘to prepare for war’ – it was already effectively in the middle of one – and so no ‘valiant war cries’ in response from the men.

Equally, the Macedonian army was not yet tired nor worn out.

Not that everything was perfect for them. Many soldiers did want to go home, and this desire can be traced back to at least the death of Darius in July 330 B.C.

Back then, Alexander had been so concerned by his men’s homesickness that he had called them together and given a rousing speech in order to persuade them to continue east with him (see Diodorus XVII.74).

When Gupta talks about the ‘long campaign’ and its consequences, he is, I think, building upon Diodorus. The Macedonian army

… had spent almost eight years among toils and dangers… and no relief from fighting was in sight. The hooves of the horses had been worn thin by steady marching. The arms and armour were wearing out, and Greek clothing was quite gone. They had to clothe themselves in foreign materials, recutting the garments of the Indians. This was the season also, as luck would have it, of the heavy rains. These had been going on for seventy days, to the accompaniment of continuous thunder and lightning.
(Diodorus XVII.94)

Arrian also talks about the men becoming depressed (A V.25). However, both authors are referring to a later period (summer 326 B.C.) than that of Gupta (Spring 328 B.C.). To the best of my knowledge, none of the major sources talk about the Macedonians being low on provisions.

***

During this time, the Indian king, Porus, arrived at the camp and spoke with Alexander.

‘Please tell me the purpose of your campaign’ asked Porus, ‘if you wage the war for water and food, then we are obliged to fight as they are indispensable to us’

‘If, however, you come to fight for riches and possessions, as they are accounted in the eyes of the world, and you find me better provided in them, I am ready to share those with you. Else, if fortune has been more liberal to you, I have no objection to be obliged to you,’ Porus offered a compromise.

While Alexander congratulated Porus on his wisdom, he said, ‘No matter how obliging you are, you shall not have the better of me’ he told Porus, asking him to prepare for war. To Alexander, agreeing to Porus was equal to capitulating before him.

Alexander and Porus certainly met, but only after the Battle of the Hydaspes River. As a result, they did not have the conversation that Gupta imagines taking place between them. According to Plutarch (Life 60) Alexander asked the defeated Porus how he would like to be treated and received the equally famous response ‘As a king’. Arrian (V.19) records the conversation slightly differently, saying that Alexander asked Porus what he thought he – Alexander – should do with him. ‘Treat me as a king ought’ came the response.  Curtius (VIII.14.41-43) follows Arrian in respect of Alexander’s question but has Porus give a very philosophical reply. Do ‘[w]hat this day tells you to do’, he says, ‘[this] day on which you have discovered how transitory good fortune is.’

***

Despite an army ten times as strong, Alexander only barely managed to win. While the victory reinforced Alexander’s legendary invincibility, the army lost countless men and their will to fight. Their spirit was battered beyond repair.

Before reading The Danger of Being Alexander I did not know off-hand the size of the Macedonian army at the Battle of the Hydaspes River in and of itself or relative to Porus’. Here is what I found after having a look at the sources:

Arrian
Macedonian army
Infantry 6,000
Cavalry 5,000
(Arrian V.14)

Porus’ army
Infantry 30,000
Cavalry 4,000
Chariots 300
Elephants 200
(Arrian V.15)

Curtius
Macedonian army
No figures given

Porus’ army
Infantry 30,000
Chariots 300
Elephants 85
(Curtius VIII.13.6)
NB
C. doesn’t say how many cavalrymen Porus had. They were present in his army, though, as C. states that 4,000 (maybe all of them?) were sent to attack Alexander as he approached the battlefield (C. VIII.14.2)

Diodorus
Macedonian army
No figures given

Porus’ army
Infantry 50,000+
Cavalry 3,000
Chariots 1,000+
Elephants 130
(Diodorus XVII.87)

Plutarch
Macedonian army
No figures given

Porus’ army
Infantry 20,000
Cavalary 2,000
(Life of Alexander 62)

Justin
Gives no figures for the size of either army

Despite an army ten times as strong
As you can see, only Arrian gives us any figure at all for the size of Alexander’s army. The notes to my Penguin Classics edition of The Campaigns of Alexander state ‘Arrian… writes that the boats took as many of the infantry as they could, perhaps not all had been transported across the river by this time’.

The numbers for Porus’ army vary. The lowest is Plutarch’s 22,000. This means that Alexander would have needed to have over 200,000 men in his army to meet Gupta’s requirement of being ten times stronger. Is it likely that Arrian’s figure is that inaccurate?

Alexander only barely managed to win.
Curtius is the only writer who gives the impression that the Macedonians might conceivably have lost this battle. ‘Victors moments before, the Macedonians were now casting around for a place to flee’ (C. VIII.14.24). ‘… the fortunes of the battle kept shifting, with the Macedonians alternatively chasing and fleeing from the elephants’ (C. VIII.14.28). There is no sense in his text, though, that the eventual Macedonian victory was a close run thing, ‘just’ that it was a very tough battle.

the [Macedonian] army lost countless men
Arrian (V.18) states that Alexander lost 80 infantry, 10 mounted archers, 20 Companion Cavalry and 200 ‘of the other cavalry’ in the Battle of the Hydaspes River.

Diodorus (XVII.89) ‘the only other writer to mention casualties’ (according to the notes to my edition of Arrian) says that Alexander lost 700+ infantry and 280 cavalry.

Given how fierce the battle was, Arrian’s figure seem much too low. Diodorus’ are surely more realistic. But even he has downplayed casualty numbers, I again get no sense from the texts the battle that the Macedonian army lost the high numbers in the manner that Gupta suggests happened.

and their will to fight. Their spirit was battered beyond repair.
Weeks after the battle, the Macedonian army mutinied on the banks of the Hyphasis River. If anything, therefore, its spirit was ‘battered beyond repair’ even before the fight against Porus. However, Gupta is definitely on the right track here.

***

A victorious Alexander wanted to move forward but his army revolted against him. He was forced to turn back. He made Porus a king under his empire and allowed him to govern not only his original kingdom but many more provinces.

Actually, Alexander did move forward, albeit not very far. Gupta’s other statements here are all correct. As mentioned above, the army revolted a few weeks later on the banks of the Hyphasis River, forcing Alexander to turn back. Similarly, Porus was not only given his kingdom back but given additional territory, too (Arrian V.19, Curtius VIII.14.45, Plutarch Life 60).

Categories: Of The Moment, On Alexander | Tags: , | 3 Comments

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3 thoughts on “The Knowledge (of Alexander)

  1. I think the interpretation of the meeting of Alexander and Porus of Venugopal Gupta comes from a misunderstanding of the meeting of Alexander and Taxiles, related by Plutarch (Life of Alexander, 59, 1-5, see especially the speech of Taxiles, “Why do we need to fight if you didn’t come here for our water or food?”). Therefore, according to Plutarch, the two kings ended up by doing peace, but V.Gupta turns upside down the sentence and is forced to change the scene, from the beginning of the Indian Campaign to the Idaspes Battle!

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  2. B

    What say you of the people who believe that Porus won the battle?

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    • I was vaguely aware of this line of thought but didn’t take it seriously. I’m thinking I might try and find out more information, though, and write a blog post about it. Thank you for mentioning it!

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