Alexander Scholars

What Happened to Hephaestion’s Remains?

In my last post (here), I cited the fact that F. S. Naiden says that Hephaestion’s funeral took place in Ecbatana as an example of the avoidable errors that he makes. Naiden’s exact words are,

For the funeral, [Alexander] ordered an altar brought up from Babylon at a cost of 10,000 talents.

(F. S. Naiden Soldier, Priest, and God p.235)

To be fair to Naiden, he does give a source for this view. The relevant end note reads ‘The burial of Hephaestion: App. 1a #58’

I assume that he is referring to Appian; unfortunately, I can’t find the latter anywhere in the bibliography so am not completely sure. If you happen to know who ‘App’ is, and which work of theirs is being referred to, I’d love to hear from you – leave a comment below, and I will be grateful.

In terms of the sources, Arrian and Diodorus seem very clear – Hephaestion’s body was taken to Babylon where a funeral pyre was built for him (Arr. VII.14.5; 14.8; Dio. XVII.110; 114). Plutarch is less clear. He states only that Alexander,

… planned to spend thousands upon thousands of talents on [Hephaestion’s] tomb and on an elaborate funeral.

(Plutarch Life of Alexander 72)


He doesn’t say where the funeral and tomb were supposed to be, however. Depending on how you read Justin, he can be taken to imply that Hephaestion was buried in Ecbatana or somewhere else. He writes,

Alexander spent a long time mourning [Hephaestion. He] built him a tomb at a cost of 12,000 talents…

(Justin XII.12.12-13)

without saying where this happened.

Unfortunately, the relevant section of Curtius has been lost so we don’t know what he said about Hephaestion’s death.

When I wrote my last post, I didn’t refer to the sources. I was convinced within myself that they all took Hephaestion’s body back to Babylon and so there was no need to double-check. Well, as you can see, I should have double-checked. If I take nothing else away from my last post, it is that there is always a need to double-check!

One last point. The Wikipedia entry for Hephaestion states that,

Following Hephaestion’s death his body was cremated and the ashes were taken to Babylon.

(Wikipedia)

It cites Worthington in support of its view, quoting him as follows,

Then Hephaestion was cremated and the ashes were taken to Babylon. There, an enormous funerary monument was to be built of brick and decorated with five friezes. It would stand over 200 feet high and cost 10,000 talents. Alexander himself would supervise its building when he got back to Babylon. In the aftermath of the king’s death, it was abandoned.

(Ian Worthington Alexander the Great: Man and God p.255)


A variation on a theme.

To recap: Naiden has an altar being brought from Babylon (and Hephaestion being ’embalmed, not cremated’ (p.235); Justin, that Alexander simply built a tomb for Hephaestion somewhere not recorded; Plutarch, that Alexander planned to spend an awful lot of money on Hephaestion’s funeral and tomb somewhere not recorded; Worthington, that Hephaestion was cremated in Ecbatana and his ashes taken to Babylon for burial.

It’s all a bit here, there, and everywhere! A question: are Naiden and Worthington using two different sources? They disagree on whether Hephaestion was embalmed or cremated but agree that his body was taken to Babylon for burial. I really need to find out who ‘App’ is. Until I can find out more, I think I will lean on Arrian’s and Diodorus’ account of what happened but I won’t say the Naiden made an avoidable error in this regard.

Categories: Alexander Scholars | Tags: , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Soldier, Priest, and God: A Life of Alexander the Great

by F. S. Naiden (Oxford University Press, 2019)

Soldier, Priest, and God is a twelve chapter biography of Alexander, which, as per the title, tells his story with special reference to Alexander’s expedition to the east, religious observance, and divinity.

Is the book worth your time?

Three Pros:

  1. The focus on Alexander’s religious observance (not religion; Naiden doesn’t go into a discussion of who the Olympian gods were, etc). I can’t think of any other biography that gives this absolutely essential part of Alexander’s identity any significant amount of attention. If you know of any that do, feel very free to let me know.
  2. Naiden includes tables recording all the ‘acts of sacrifice and related rituals in the Alexander historians and in Strabo’ (p.273) and ‘omens and oracles’ (p.280) in the former. If you are half-interested in the religious side of Alexander, Soldier, Priest, and God is probably worth buying just to have these tables to hand.
  3. Naiden’s text is accessible. He does not have the light touch of a popular historian (though see below) but tells Alexander’s story clearly enough. Further to this, the text is supplemented by several nice-to-look-at maps and illustrations.

Three Cons:

  1. Yes, Naiden’s text is accessible but it is also a little dull. I was never bored while reading Soldier, Priest, and God but neither was I excited by it. In cricketing terms, Naiden plays with a very straight bat. As a result, while I will certainly keep this book for reference purposes I doubt very much that I will ever think about reading it from start to finish again.
  2. The text contains the odd easily avoidable error. For example, Naiden states (on p.76) that Sisygambis mistook Leonnatus for Alexander rather than Hephaestion. On Hephaestion, his funeral took place in Babylon, not, as Naiden says (p.235), in Ecbatana*.
  3. Naiden anglicises Alexander’s name but does not always do the same for the Persians. As a result, you may – like me – find yourself pausing to try and remember or work out who Mazdai, Huxshathra, and Spitamanah are (in case you would like to know, they are Mazaeus, Oxyathres, and Spitamenes).

So, Soldier, Priest, and God may be a little dull in the telling but Naiden does make you think – whether with a raised eye brow or not. For example, he talks about Alexander’s Companions as a ‘cult’ (p.1), mentions that a ‘2008 republication of an inscription proves that Alexander was crowned pharaoh’ (p.5)(my emphasis), accuses Alexander of ‘immaturity’ (p.25) in ordering the assassination of Amyntas IV, and states that the box he put his annotated copy of The Iliad in was previously used to store ‘cream scented with palm wine’ (p.143). What is good, though, is that he provides a very full set of end notes, so if you see a statement that looks debatable or plain wrong, there is a good chance he has mentioned his source(s).

In my first post of this year, I reviewed a review of Soldier, Priest, and God. I found the review on the Book Marks website here. If you click on the link you’ll also see extracts from James Romm’s review at the (paywalled) Wall Street Journal.

Obviously, I would agree with Romm about Naiden’s lack of narrative skill – I think I would call it his lack of a story teller’s touch – but I have to say I didn’t get the impression that Naiden was ‘strangely snarky’ in describing ancient religious beliefs. I’m sorry I don’t have a subscription to the Wall Street Journal to read more about what he says on that point.

With that said, like Romm I did come away from the book ‘as puzzled as ever about the young king who conquered the world.’ though I am not sure I can wholly blame Naiden for that. Yes, any book about Alexander should make us feel afterwards that we have learnt something about him but on the other hand, he will always be ‘other’ to us. The lack of his own words, evidence of his inner thoughts and emotions, and differences in the way we live and perceive things compared to his time have seen to that.

In conclusion: Soldier, Priest, and God has its flaws but there is enough in it to make it a book worth considering if you would like to know about about the religious Alexander the Great.

*I’m going to come back to this point in my next blog post.

Credit Where It’s Due
Front cover of Soldier, Priest, and God: me! I took that photo

Categories: Alexander Scholars, Books | Tags: | Leave a comment

Before & After Alexander: The Legend and Legacy of Alexander the Great

by Richard A. Billows (Overlook Duckworth, 2018)

Before & After Alexander is split into three main sections. In the first, Billows looks at Philip II’s kingship and shows how he took Macedon from being a backward country on the brink of destruction to being a regional superpower. In the second, he examines the career of Philip’s son, Alexander the Great. And in the third, he discusses the Wars of the Successors and takes the story of Hellenism right up to the fall of the Byzantine Empire in A.D. 1453 and beyond.

Three Pros:

  1. It makes a convincing case for seeing Philip II as the man who made Alexander the Great’s successful career possible. This is important as while Philip is by no means a forgotten figure he does tend to live in Alexander’s shadow. Without him, though – without his reorganisation of the Macedonian army and development of weaponry and tactics -, without his social and economic policies, which increased Macedonian manpower, Alexander would not have been able to challenge much less defeat the satrapal army at the Granicus let alone Darius III at Issus or Gaugamela.
  2. It does something new by taking the story of Hellenism all the way from Philip II to the Renaissance. Further to this, Billows does not limit himself to talking about Hellenism in the context of Christianity but also Islam.
  3. While Billows’s text does not flow quite as smoothly as some writers’, it is still very accessible. The book also comes with End Notes and a Glossary of Greek Terms as well as the more usual maps, genealogies and chronology.

Three Cons:

  1. The section on Alexander comes close to being a hatchet job. After reading it, I had no sense that Billows intended to engage with him. It was as if Alexander existed simply to be criticised and make Philip look good.
  2. Billow’s conclusion is very contentious.

… if not for Philip’s new Macedonia, if not for his unification of Greece, if not for his bold plan to invade and conquer the Persian Empire and spread Greeks, the Greek language, and Greek culture all around the eastern Mediterranean, it is very debatable whether Greek literature and ideas would or could hold the place in western and even Islamic culture that they do.
(Before & After Alexander, pp.301-2)

Philip certainly made Macedon anew. But, he didn’t unify Greece. He didn’t even control all of it; Sparta remained beyond him. True, he could have taken it if he wished, but he didn’t. And the rest of Greece, which he did control, never accepted him as its master. To the best of my knowledge, we do not know that Philip intended to conquer the Persian Empire much less spread Greeks, the Greek language or culture. Recently, I read that his usual modus operandi was to campaign for a season before returning home, then repeat the same process the following year – perhaps going a bit further territorially. Surely, this is what he would have done in Asia Minor.

I think the analysis offered in the chapters above shows clearly that Alexander is one of the most overrated figures in world history. The truly great man was Alexander’s father Philip; and credit belongs too to the generals – Antigonus, Ptolemy, Seleucus – who took on the role of governing the lands Alexander had merely marched through and fought battles in, and of turning those lands into viable empire with Greek cities and Greek culture.
(Before & After Alexander, p.302)

Obviously, I disagree that Billows’s analysis succeeds in showing that Alexander was ‘one of the most overrated figures in world history’. His analysis, such as it is, is too one sided and brief to be convincing. However, I do agree that Philip was a great man. For what he did for Macedon he deserves to be called Philip the Great.

Unfortunately, Billows’s book is dedicated to taking the credit away from Alexander for his successes and giving it to Philip for his. Indeed, Billows’s Alexander is not much more than an extension of Philip’s genius; he is not his own man. This is not an accurate way to describe either father or son. Philip II was an excellent general but his greatness comes from the way he rescued and then developed the Macedonian army and state. Alexander’s comes from his military genius. Philip II and Alexander III, therefore, are complimentary figures, not rivals; to see them as such blinds us to the skills and talents of the other.

How much credit can we give Antigonus, Ptolemy and Seleucus? In truth, this is a question I need more time to think about. My first response to it, though, is this:

Antigonus spent most of his time fighting. He founded a few cities but I didn’t get the impression from Billows that he did much more of lasting value than that. I don’t know, therefore, how Billows can criticise Alexander for just fighting and yet be so favourable towards Antigonus. I’ll note here that Antigonus did not found the Antigonid empire in Macedon. The credit for that goes to his grandson Antigonus Gonatas (277 and 272 BC). I wonder if Billows is referring to him? If he is, I don’t know why he is referring to the Antigonus who governed the lands that ‘Alexander… merely marched through and fought battles in…’.

Billows says that Ptolemy and Seleucus deserve credit for turning their kingdoms into ‘viable empires’. Alexander’s empire was equally viable. Even though he died childless, Roxane was pregnant, and the empire would have survived had the generals remained loyal. For various reasons, however, they weren’t. It’s fall, therefore, is as much on them as it is on Alexander.

To stay with this quote, Billows states that, ‘Alexander… merely marched through and fought battles in’ the Persian empire; he did not turn ‘those lands into viable empires with Greek cities and Greek culture.’

There is a sense in which this is correct. Alexander’s main purpose in life was to win glory; to prove himself better than those who came before him (for example, Achilles, Herakles, Cyrus the Great, Semiramis, his own father, etc). He was not primarily interested in establishing Greek cities and culture. He believed in both, however, and so they flourished under him.

We could, perhaps, argue that Alexander is to the Ptolamiac and Seleucid empires what Philip is to Macedon: the founder, the man who paved the way for those who came after him. On a personal note, it is a great shame that Alexander died so young, really only at the end of the first phase of his life’s work. I feel that had he lived longer, we might have seen him develop his kingship to the benefit of Hellenism.

Or maybe he would just have continued fighting. But if he had, he would not have simply marched and fought, marched and fought any more than he did during the first expedition. For while he did not stop nearly often, or long, enough to properly establish Hellenism, we do see him stopping to secure his territory and engaging with his subject people.

For example, in Asia Minor he visits Gordium to see the famous knot; in Egypt, he undertakes a pilgrimage to Siwah; he refuses to let his men loot and pillage many of the places they visit; in India, he goes on a second pilgrimage past Nysa to Mount Meros; in Pasargadae he goes to the tomb of Cyrus the Great to pay his respects.

Often, Alexander had a vested interest in doing some of these things; other times, there was no need. But when we take these actions, and put them together with the knowledge that Alexander also had an abiding interest in literature, and especially philosophy and medicine, we see that there was much more to him that just fighting and marching.

3. Before & After Alexander has a few annoying typos. They don’t detract from the reading but are a nuisance in a book that costs £20.

In conclusion: I would definitely recommend Before & After Alexander to anyone wanting to increase their knowledge of where Alexander came from and where the actions of he and his father ultimately took Hellenism. I can’t recommend the chapter on Alexander himself but it is still worth reading in order to gain an opposite view – which has, after all, been there since Cleitarchus put quill to papyrus – of the man who, for all his faults, is still important enough to have his name in the book’s title rather than his much vaunted father.

Credit Where It’s Due
Image: Amazon.com

Categories: Alexander Scholars, Books | Tags: , | Leave a comment

Reviewing the Reviewer

No end to Alexander’s talents

As this is my first post of 2019, may I wish you a belated happy New Year. I hope 2019 is a good one for you. It will be an interesting one for me: in two days, I leave my job without another to immediately go to. It will also be an interesting year for Great Britain as on 29th March this year she leaves the European Union. If you follow British politics you will know that the Brexit journey has not been – and continues not to be – a very smooth one. In fact, Brexit has caused such tumult that our national politics are currently about as stable as an ancient Macedonian party.

Recently, a new biography of Alexander came out. Titled Soldier, Priest & God it is an attempt by Professor F. S. Naiden of the University of North Carolina to put Alexander into his religious context. I have been interested in Alexander and his religion for a while now so was delighted to hear about this book. I now have a copy and hope to start reading it soon. In the meantime, what are reviewers saying about it?

I’d like to take a quick look at Benjamin Welton’s review in the New York Review of Books, here. The review does not have the most auspicious beginning. Welton states,

Alexander III of Macedon, better known as Alexander the Great, took a backward Balkan nation and turned it into one of the first multiethnic empires of Western history.

This statement is not entirely correct. When Alexander came to the throne of Macedon in 338 BC, Macedon was not a ‘backward Balkan nation’ but a regional superpower. It was his father, Philip II, who came to the throne of a ‘backward’ country.

Welton states,

Some [historians] have suggested that Alexander may have even been divinely aided, with the Greeks arguing that his father was none other than Zeus.

I would be a little careful with the phrase ‘the Greeks’ here. It suggests that ‘the Greeks’ as a whole argued that Alexander’s father was Zeus, which wasn’t the case.

According to Welton, ‘Naiden notes’ that,

Some scholars (mostly British) have seen Alexander as a proto-Anglican who went through the motions of pagan rituals, but did not take them seriously.

In all the reading I have done on Alexander, I have never seen him compared to an Anglican. Neither have I read any of the sources and got the impression that he was anything other than a devout worshipper of the gods. I hope Naiden expands upon this idea. At this point, though, I’m not altogether impressed by the insinuation that Anglicans have an empty faith. Their communion is, perhaps, too broad, but not so much so that the faith on which it is based is no longer taken seriously.

His companions, who have mostly been remembered as officials, officers, and members of the traveling court of Macedon, were in fact members of an elite circle of priests—a coven, if you will.

If Mr Welton doesn’t mind, I won’t. This gives what is to my mind a false picture of Alexander’s court. Its members may in their own lives have had a priestly function but as soon as you call the court a coven you introduce images and ideas that really have no place there.

I found Welton’s review via the Book Marks website, here. If you click on the link, you’ll find two other reviews mentioned; however, since you need to be subscribed to the relevant websites in order to read them, I will not say anything more about them here.

Credit Where It’s Due
The image above comes from Book Mark’s website.

Categories: Alexander Scholars, Books | Tags: , , , | 2 Comments

A Grave Matter

diary

As I write this post, we are just ninety minutes away from the start of the World Cup final. Sadly, football will not be coming home for England as the national team were knocked out on Wednesday by Croatia. It’s hard to be too upset by this as football hasn’t come home for an awfully long time.

On Twitter a few days ago, I considered (as one does) who else never went home. The best answer, of course, is Alexander. After leaving Macedon in 336 B.C. he never looked back. It looks like he didn’t even want to return home in death, either. Michael Wood states that Alexander wished ‘to be buried with his ‘father’ in Siwa’ (In the Footsteps of Alexander, p.217). Of course, his body never made it there; after hijacking the cortege, which under Perdiccas’ instructions was on its way to Macedon, Ptolemy took the coffin, first to Memphis and then to Alexandria a few years later, once the city had been built.

***

On the subject of coffins, there has been a great deal of interest in a large black coffin that has been discovered in Alexandria, Egypt. You can read about it here. The coffin dates to the Ptolemaic period so naturally there has been speculation that the body inside is Alexander’s.

Well, the size of the coffin certainly indicates that it belonged to someone of great wealth, and therefore importance, and it has been found in Alexandria – Alexander’s last known resting place – so… However, the Macedonian king was not the only important person to be buried there. Maybe the coffin belongs to one of the Ptolemys. I would be very happy for it to be Ptolemy I’s. We just don’t know who was laid to rest inside it and will have to be patient and wait for the Egyptian archaeologists to open it. Let’s hope they find enough evidence inside to solve the mystery.

***

A link to Alexander: Gay or Straight? appeared on my Twitter timeline earlier today. It is a 2011 blog post on the Forbes website. The post is quite short but still worth your time as it features Paul Cartledge and James Romm – two classicists who know all about Alexander. James Romm is particularly worth paying attention to as he co-edited the lovely Landmark Arrian book. On a personal note, I like Paul Cartledge, too, as he signed a book for me after a talk once and was very friendly.

Anyway, back to Alexander: the title of the blog post is, of course, unhelpful as it imposes a modern understanding of sexuality on someone who lived in the fourth century B.C. The highlight of the post for me was learning that some scholars doubted the existence of Alexander’s eunuch, Bagoas.

***

I have finally started reading Mary Renault’s The Nature of Alexander. I’m commenting on it as I read over at the Facebook Alexander the Great Reading Group. I may post them on this blog after I have finished the book but for now, you can read them, here.

***

One last point – I first found out about the Alexander: Gay or Straight blog post when someone I follow retweeted the original post containing the link. The retweeter was none other than @Olympias_Epirus. Alexander was very fortunate to live in an age where he never had to come out as gay, straight, bisexual, etc. Instead, however, Olympias or Philip II worried about their son’s apparent lack of interest in sex. Athenaeus (Deipnosophistae X.435) states that Olympias hired a courtesan to sleep with him; ‘they feared he might prove to be a womanish man’, which perhaps means a eunuch? Unfortunately for Olympias it would be a little longer before Alexander set her mind at rest.

***

It is now 3:37pm. Kick-off is in 23 minutes. Time to get ready for the game!

Categories: Alexander Scholars, Books, Historians of Alexander, Of The Moment | Tags: , , , , , | Leave a comment

20th June 2018

This afternoon, I had lunch and a beer in the Marquis of Cornwallis pub in Bloomsbury. While I was eating I looked up and happened to see a framed picture of The London Illustrated News with a coin bearing Alexander’s image on it. What an unusual sight! And a very pleasant surprise. Here it is:

Apologies for the interruption of myself in the glass. You can tell the head is Alexander’s on account of its leonine hair but most especially the ram’s horns, which indicate Alexander’s connection (i.e. sonship) to the Egyptian god, Ammon.


The picture was a surprise for me but not the pub. On the way to the toilet I saw a portrait of some eighteenth century soldiers sighting… with light sabres. The owner clearly has a taste for mixing the old and new.

***

This week, the World Cup continues apace in Russia. Obviously being English, I am supporting England; however, as I drew France in our office sweepstakes, the mercenary in me would like them to win so that I would be quids in. Are there any teams from Alexander’s world taking part? As a matter of fact, yes, there are, though only two: Egypt and Iran.

Unfortunately, Egypt have lost their first two games and so will make no further progress in the tournament. I saw some of their game against Russia last night and was entertained by the pharaonic head dress that some of the fans were wearing. It’s nice that they remember the past even if it is only for entertainment value. Who knows, though, perhaps they discussed the pharaonic dynasties afterwards?

As I write this blog post, Iran – Persia – is playing Spain and acquitting herself very well. The first half is coming to an end and the score is still 0-0.

Of the other countries playing, only Saudi Arabia comes close to having an Alexander connection: at the time of his death in June 323, of course, he was about to invade it. During the siege of Tyre in 332 BC, Alexander did actually launch a few sorties into Arabia.

***

I am currently reading Ghost on the Throne by James Romm – his account of The Wars of the Successors. I have been reading this book on and off for months. I don’t know why it has taken me so long as it is a good book. Mea culpa: laziness on my part along with a great ability to be distracted by other books is most likely to blame. Anyway, I am coming towards the end now and overall my impression of the book is a very positive one – except, that is, for one thing: Romm’s tiresome habit of calling Antipater ‘old man Antipater’. Thank goodness we have passed 319 BC and Antipater has died but up till that point it was rather annoying me. Antipater was more than just his age; I don’t know why Romm had to alert us to it in a not very complimentary way very other time he mentioned him.

Categories: Alexander Scholars, By the Bye | Tags: , | 1 Comment

The Haunted Empire

Several months ago, I bought a copy of Ghost on the Throne by James Romm. The sub-title to the book explains what it is about: The Death of Alexander the Great and the Bloody Fight for His Empire.

To date, the only other book dedicated to the wars of the Successors that I have read has been Robin Waterfield’s Dividing the Spoils. As I write these words I am 170 pages into the 322 page long book, and I have to say I am not enjoying it as much as I did Dividing the Spoils. Not because I think Romm is a bad historian but because Waterfield is simply a better write. He has the rare gift of making his text flow easily off the page.

Having said that, Ghost on the Throne is a well written book; it is also very well laid out. Romm not only sub-divides his chapters but gives the latter their own titles so that you know exactly where and when you are in the story.

As for me, I have seen the death of Leonnatus in the Lamian War, and the death of Alexander’s half-sister, Cynnane, as she travelled east to marry her daughter, Adea, to Philip III. Coming up is Ptolemy’s theft of Alexander’s body and the death of the most popular living Macedonian at this time, Craterus.

***

Out of what I have read so far, two facts mentioned by Romm have really jumped out at me. I think I knew them already but for whatever reason they have made a strong impression on me now.

The first is that only Macedonian kings could marry more than one woman at a time. This was a big shame for Perdiccas – if noblemen could have practiced polygamy, he could have married Nicaea, Antipater’s daughter, and Cleopatra, Alexander’s only full-sister, and put himself in an all but unassailable position if he wished – as he surely did – to make a bid for the Macedonian throne. As it was, he had to pick one with the inevitable result that he would insult the parent of the other.

The second is how – between the cavalry and infantry – utterly divided the Macedonian army was. Even though I know very well what happened after Alexander died – how the infantry demanded that Arrhidaeos be made king while the cavalry decided on Roxane’s as yet unborn child, and the way in which the infantry more or less ran the cavalry out of town before a reconciliation was reached – reading about it again is still astonishing.

The fault line between infantry and cavalry seems to have been absolute. No cavalry or infantrymen joined the other side. How could they have been so opposed to each other? Had the rebellions at the Hyphasis river or at Opis divided them? Or would they have still turned on each other if Alexander had died without ever going to Asia? Whatever the answer, the fact that he managed to hold the two sides together and make sure a brilliant fighting force out of them speaks many volumes for his charisma and intelligence.

Credit Where It’s Due
Front cover of Ghost on the Throne: Goodreads

Categories: Alexander Scholars | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

XI: Size Doesn’t Matter

20th September – Eleven days to go until the 2,348th anniversary of the Battle of Guagamela. But wait; I am publishing this on the 21st. Why so? Read on. Yesterday’s question was, ‘What was the size of the Macedonian and Persian army?’

Here is what the sources say:

Arrian
Macedonian army (A.III.12.5)
– Cavalry 7,000
– Infantry c.40,000

Persian army (A.III.8.6)
– Cavalry 40,000
– Infantry 1,000,000
in addition (Ibid)
Scythed chariots 200
Elephants c.15

Curtius
Macedonian army
– Cavalry not given
– Infantry not given

Persian army (IV.12.13)
– Cavalry 45,000
– Infantry 200,000

Diodorus
Macedonian army
– Cavalry not given
– Infantry  not given

Persian army (D. XVII.53)
– Cavalry 200,000
– Infantry 800,000
in addition (Ibid)
Scythed chariots 200

Justin
Macedonian army
– Cavalry not given
– Infantry not given

Persian army (J.XI.12)
– Cavalry 100,000
– Infantry 400,000

Plutarch
Macedonian army
– Cavalry not given
– Infantry not given

Persian army (Life 31)
– Cavalry not given
– Infantry 1,000,000

Yesterday, when I compiled these figures, one thing about them struck me, and it became the reason why I am publishing this post a day late. Namely, only Arrian gives the number of Macedonian cavalry and infantry.

A confession: To find the figures, I opened my copy of Arrian et al and skim read the relevant section until I found them.

After I had finished, I was so surprised that none of the others gave the size of the Macedonian army that I feared that actually, they had done so, and in my haste I had passed them by.

Today, I had to take a day off work to go to the dentist, so I used some of the spare time to properly read each source’s account of Alexander’s journey from Egypt to Babylon just to make sure that I didn’t miss their account of his army’s size given perhaps early, perhaps later than the battle itself in the text.

In case you are wondering which sections of the books I covered:-

  • [Arrian III.6.1-16.4]
  • Curtius IV.9.1-V.1.23
  • Diodorus XVII.53-64
  • Justin XI.12-14
  • Plutarch Life of Alexander 31-35

The outcome of this exercise was that I discovered that, no, I had not missed anything out; it is indeed only Arrian who tells us the size of the Macedonian army. I am at a loss to say why.

Given that nearly all the sources – Curtius, of all people, being an honourable exception? – over inflate the size of Darius’ army, I wonder if the writers somehow wanted us to focus on the Persians as a horde, as the ineluctable wave, the seemingly invincible force that Alexander somehow managed to overcome in order to achieve glory.

Perhaps. But I have to admit, it’s not a feeling I get from the texts.

That aside, one thing can be said with certainty – or as much as history ever allows: the Macedonian army was greatly outnumbered at the Battle of Gaugamela. Despite this, it managed to achieve a stunning victory. The question of how this happened will be the focus of an upcoming post.

Categories: Alexander Scholars, Arrian, Diodorus Siculus, Justin, Plutarch, Quintus Curtius Rufus | Tags: | Leave a comment

XII: Where and Why Gaugamela?

19th September – just 12 days to go until the 2,348th anniversary of the Battle of Gaugamela, which took place on 1st October 331 BC. It was the second and decisive battle in the war between Alexander and Darius III. The winner would take all.

To celebrate the anniversary, I have decided to write twelve posts, one every day, and each comprising of a single question and answer relating to an aspect of the battle.

***

Did I say single? Ha ha. I’m touched that I thought I would stick to that rule, so let’s kick off with two questions:-

Where was Gaugamela? And why was the battle fought there?

***

Where was Gaugamela?

The map below comes, of all places, from an article on LinkedIn titled 5 Things every start up CEO can learn from the battle of gaugamela. I haven’t read it but if you would like to you can do so here.

Personally, I rather doubt the wisdom of applying lessons from a battle in antiquity to business practices of today but never mind, the important thing is the map. As you can see, Gaugamela is north west of Arbela.

Arrian still exists today, though now it is called Erbil. By-the-bye, Plutarch tells us in Chapter 31 of his Life of Alexander that ‘the majority of writers’ say the battle actually happened there – at Arbela. But both he and Arrian both disagree with this. Arrian (VI.11.5) cites Ptolemy and Aristobulos who both state that it was fought at Gaugamela. Why might ancient historians have given the honour to Arbela? Here is Arrian’s view:

Gaugamela was not a city, but only a large village, otherwise unknown and with an odd-sounding name: that is why I think the credit of the great battle was appropriated by the city of Arbela.
(Arrian VI.11.6)

So now we know where Gaugamela is, or was, we can now ask –

Why was the battle fought there?

Alexander was in Egypt. Couldn’t Darius have challenged him there? Or at least marched to the Phoenician coast and faced him somewhere between Issus (at the corner of modern day Turkey and Syria) and the Nile? Or perhaps Alexander or Darius could have marched directly east/west to face their opponent at a site along the way.

Let’s take a look at Google Earth.


After his defeat at Issus in 333 BC, Darius III retreated east to assemble a new army. He mustered it at Babylon, which – according to Wikipedia – is 53 miles south of Baghdad. As you can see from the map above, a vast expanse of desert separates Egypt and Baghdad/Babylon. That would have stopped Alexander marching directly east or Darius marching directly west. Their armies would have been wiped out by thirst or starved to death long before they every met each other.

It’s true Darius could have marched north along the Royal Road and then turned west towards the Phoenician coast. I think the reason he did not do so is because he did not have time. By the time he was able to leave Babylon, Alexander was well on his way from Egypt. It made better sense for Darius to stay in or around Mesopotamia and let Alexander come to him. That way, the Macedonians would arrive footsore and tired while his men would no doubt be ready for battle having been well provisioned by the fertile soil of Mesopotamia.

Of course, the lack of time explains why Darius didn’t march on Egypt. And just as well – Egypt, as Darius would have known, was highly defensible. So much so that even his grand army, comprised of men from all over the Persian Empire, would have found it hard to invade it.

So, Darius let Alexander do all the work and come to him.

To make sure that his men stayed well fed – or as well fed as possible – Alexander marched up the Phoenician coast.

After turning east, he crossed the Euphrates at the well-established crossing point of Thapsacus. In his biography of Alexander, Robin Lane Fox explains that the young king now had two choices.

… either he could turn right and follow the Euphrates south-east to Babylon in the footsteps of Xenophon, along a valley plentifully supplied but broken by canals which could be dammed against invaders; or he could go north from the Euphrates and then swing right to skirt the hills of Armenia, cross the more distant line of the river Tigris and then turn south to Babylon on the Royal Road.
(Robin Lane Fox Alexander the Great 2004, p.226)

Darius wanted Alexander to take the longer, more dangerous, northern route and so sent men to burn the land along the Euphrates. Alexander duly did as the Great King desired.

Robin Lane Fox adds that Darius could not choose the battlefield until he knew which route Alexander was taking. Thus, once he found out that the Macedonian king was taking the northern path, he was able to pick a suitable plain to establish his army.

A plain: that was the sine qua non of Darius’ preparations. At Issus, the Great King had been prevented from using his entire army on account of the battlefield being a narrow stretch of land between the Gulf of Issus and Amanus mountains. He did not want the same handicap this time.

So, why was the battle fought at Gaugamela? It was fought there because the plain was large enough to accommodate Darius’ mighty army. And while he waited for Alexander, Darius smoothed the ground so that his scythe-chariots would be able to roll across it without hindrance.

What we now call the Battle of Gaugamela, therefore, could have been fought somewhere else, but in the end, Gaugamela was chosen quite deliberately by Darius. He believed that it would give him the best opportunity to defeat Alexander once and for all.

Categories: Alexander Scholars, Mapping Alexander | Tags: | Leave a comment

Of Lions and Men

It occurred to me the other day that images of Alexander most often show him in the guise of Heracles. Think of all those coins, for example, where he is wearing the same lion-cap that the mythical hero wore. Why is this, I wondered, when he drew his real inspiration from Achilles?

alexander_coin
The answer to this is perfectly obvious, which is probably why I missed it: Heracles was Alexander’s paternal ancestor, the god from whom the Argead dynasty claimed descent. Alexander may have liked Achilles more but for propaganda purposes he had to focus on Heracles. I am very grateful to my friend Jen for helping me see this.

This morning, another question occurred to me – did Alexander really wear a lion shaped helmet? One, that is, like Colin Farrell wears in Oliver Stone’s Alexander,

alexander_lion_helmet
Well, he is certainly portrayed wearing one on the Alexander sarcophagus,

alexander_sarcophagus
In his biography of Alexander, Robin Lane Fox notes the sarcophagus image and says ‘no doubt Alexander wore it in real life’. This wording suggests to me that we don’t know for sure that he did but (at least in RLF’s opinion) it is very likely.

One final question: What exactly is Alexander’s relationship to Achilles? I don’t mean in terms of his family, but rather, did he really see himself as a second or new Achilles or is that the invention of the ancient historians? Well, I don’t know for sure – none of us do – but as I write these words I feel that even if details were made up later on, if Olympias – Alexander’s mother and descendent of Achilles – had any influence on her son, she would have imbued him with a knowledge of, love for, and desire to emulate/beat the great hero of the Trojan War.

Credits
Jen’s Alexander blog
Silver tetradrachm: VRoma
Colin Farrell as Alexander: Aceshowbiz
Alexander Sarcophagus: SUNY Oneonta

Categories: Alexander in Film, Alexander Scholars, Art, By the Bye | Tags: , , | 1 Comment

Blog at WordPress.com.

%d bloggers like this: