By the Bye

The Carving of the World

The headline reads ‘Vandals paste ‘butcher’ sign on Alexander the Great statue’. You can read the full report here.

Was Alexander the Great a butcher? In answering this question we have to be careful that we don’t do so with a twenty-first century mindset.

The reason for this is simple. If we impose our morality on Alexander we learn nothing about him and only a little – that is not good – about ourselves. Alexander lived, after all, in the fourth century B.C. not the twenty-first A.D.

So what about in terms of fourth century B.C. morality? Was he a butcher? I don’t have a firm answer to this yet, but at the moment I am leaning towards yes. There was no international law that stated what was and wasn’t acceptable in combat back then but there were definitely times when Alexander and his men went too far (e.g. the destruction of Thebes and terrorising of the civilian population in India) in the prosecution of campaign war aims.

No one should be insulted by Alexander being called a butcher. He was a king and a general. That was always going to involve bloodshed. Always. And sometimes, he would go too far. If one wishes to know the real Alexander, one has to accept that this happened.

But also that more happened, or rather, didn’t happen because on other occasions Alexander reigned his men in; prevented blood from being spilt. For example, which was the last city to be sacked before Persepolis? Gaza. Between them, Alexander passed through Pelusium, Memphis, Babylon and Susa without allowing the cities or their citizens to be harmed. He could easily have put any or all of these cities to the sword. His men would have been delighted if he had.

And by-and-bye, though our focus is always naturally on Alexander the conqueror, it is also worthwhile remembering that his life involved more than fighting. We get a glimpse of it in the sources – for example, his love of medicine, of literature, and of philosophy. You may call Alexander a butcher if you like, and in a way, you would not be wrong, but if you do, or if you insist upon its primacy as a way of understanding him you run the very real risk of missing out on the other facets of his character instead revealing only your own prejudices.

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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

A Caesarian Section

Ancient Rome has been much on my mind this week.

Last Monday, I watched Mary Beard’s overview of the life of Julius Caesar on the BBC iPlayer. At the time of writing, it is still there for another 24 days.

The programme is a one hour long one off special; Beard, so the blurb says, ‘is on a mission to uncover the real Caesar, and to challenge public perception’ of the Roman general.

As for ‘the real Caesar’, he turned out to be rather similar to the general that I already knew from past reading. I say ‘rather’ in the English sense of ‘very’, meaning, just the same.

As a result of this, my perception of him was not challenged. In terms of shedding new light on Caesar, the programme was at its best when Beard looked at his influence on world leaders since – with special reference to President Trump. Both present(ed) themselves as the champion of the people, both set themselves against the ruling elite (while in one way or another being part of it). Both make/made use of catchy slogans – Veni, vidi, vici (I came, I saw, I conquered) and Make America Great Again.

Personally, I feel Julius Caesar was a much smarter man than Donald Trump and may even have been more sincere in his efforts to improve the life of Romans but apart from Caesar’s Footprints by Bijan Omrani (a book that I can whole heartedly recommend) it has been a long time since I really engaged with ancient Rome so take my opinion with a pinch of salt.

Mary Beard is quite a mumsy figure, she has an impish smile and a lot of enthusiasm. She reminds me a lot of Michael Wood. She is now in her 60s and if I have her happy spirit when I reach her age I shall consider myself very fortunate.

The one criticism I have of the programme is that it was too short. One hour. One episode. For a life as rich as Caesar’s that’s no time at all. Therefore, if you are a student of ancient Rome and know about him already, Mary Beard’s documentary will not likely reveal anything new to you. If, however, your knowledge of him goes as far as the tourists she interviews at the start of the programme – they knew Caesar was assassinated and that was about it – then the programme will be an ideal introduction.

Now, on a blog about Alexander, why do I mention Julius Caesar? Well, there is a point of connection between the two:

… in Spain, when he was at leisure and was reading from the history of Alexander, he was lost in thought for a long time, and then burst into tears. His friends were astonished, and asked the reason for his tears. “Do you not think,” said he, “it is matter for sorrow that while Alexander, at my age, was already king of so many peoples, I have as yet achieved no brilliant success?”
(Plutarch Julius Caesar 11)

Mary Beard not only mentions this anecdote but says that writers and artists have ever since used it to mark the turning point of Caesar’s life – the moment when he ceased to be Caesar the man and became Caesar the mighty figure of history that we know today.

There is also another reason why I mention him. After watching Beard’s documentary, it occurred to me that perhaps there is also a point of connection between what happened after Alexander’s and Julius Caesar’s deaths.

Caesar was assassinated. Alexander may have been, but either way, he died and his generals were left to pick up the pieces. If I remember correctly, in Rome, Brutus et al had no programme at all for what to do after Caesar’s murder; they simply expected things to go back to how they were before. Unfortunately, they reckoned without the guile of Octavian and cunning of Mark Antony. Alexander’s phalanx wanted the old (Argead) order to continue and a few of the generals tried to ensure that it did but after the latter had been eliminated, the past was finally over; now, it was a fight, either to the death or until a settled order could be achieved. Three hundred years later, the same thing happened. The old order, as represented by Brutus and Cassius died at Philippi, and with the removal of the irrelevant Lepidus it was a fight to the finish between Octavian and Mark Antony. But whereas Alexander’s generals eventually managed to come to an understanding with each other that allowed the ‘funeral games’ to end, Octavian and Mark Antony were two suns who, as Alexander knew, could not both exist. In both cases, the deaths of Alexander and Caesar, and the subsequent bloodshed, led to the creation of a new order – the Hellenistic Age and the Roman Empire.

In writing the above, I am mindful of the fact that – as I said earlier – it has been a long time since I read about Rome, especially the post-Caesar period, so forgive me if I have got anything wrong (and feel free to provide a correction in the comments).

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A Tigerish Lust

A few days ago I was reading the introduction to The First Poets by Michael Schmidt when I came to the following quotation from Homer’s Contest by Friedrich Nietzsche,

“… the Greeks, the most humane men of ancient times, have a trait of cruelty, a tigerish lust to annihilate – a trait that is also very distinct in that grotesquely enlarged mirror image of the Hellenes, in Alexander the Great, but that really must strike fear into our hearts throughout their whole history and mythology, if we approach them with the flabby concept of modern “humanity”. When Alexander has the feet of Batis, the brave defender of Gaza, pierced, and ties him, alive, to his carriage, to drag him about while his soldiers mock, that is a revolting caricature of Achilles.
(p.xxxviii)

As this is a blog about Alexander the Great I am going to deliberately ignore what Nietzsche has to say about the Greeks in general.

So far as Alexander is concerned, the German philosopher is right in that he had a ‘trait of cruelty’. This should not surprise us as it is a trait nearly all of us share. What is extraordinary is that any of us, when we have the opportunity, do not give way to it.

I disagree with Nietzsche when he claims that Alexander had ‘a tigerish lust to annihilate’. Now, before I continue, I would like add this proviso: I haven’t read Homer’s Contest. It may be that Nietzsche develops his argument later on; I don’t know. This blog post, therefore, is simply an observation based on the above quotation.

So, to continue. Alexander did not have ‘a tigerish lust to annihilate’. His desire was to conquer. If it took fighting to to achieve that aim, then he would fight; if the aim could be achieved through diplomacy, then he would talk. If his enemy surrendered and he was able to accept their surrender, then that is what he would do. Alexander was not a simple destroyer. Yes, he destroyed, but he did not invade Thrace, Greece, the Persian Empire or India with that aim in mind. His purpose was to conquer and create – an empire.

Nietzche’s comment is the nineteenth century version of any made since 1945 that equates Alexander with Hitler. And both depend upon a deliberate suppression of contrary evidence for their validity. Michael Schmidt, in his introduction, joins in the game when he claims that ‘Alexander re-enacted, with deliberation and conceit, what Achilles after ten years’ deprivation and struggle, had done instinctively’ (ibid). This is not the whole truth.

According to Curtius (IV.6.7-29) the Siege of Gaza (which took two months) followed a fairly normal pattern: the Macedonians mined the city but for a time were forced to retreat due to the difficulty of protecting the soldiers engaged in the operation. This gave the Gazans the confidence to launch a sortie. In the end, Alexander won the siege by building a mound to create a path to the top of Gaza’s fortifications. This allowed the Macedonian siege towers to fire at those in the city. Meanwhile, Macedonian sappers succeeded in undermining Gaza’s walls. They fell, and Alexander’s men poured into the city, taking it after a fight.

So far, so ordinary. But two things happened to Alexander during the siege to give a fuller reason for his harsh treatment towards Batis. Firstly, he was injured twice. Once by an arrow to the shoulder. This injury was serious enough to make him faint and make Batis believe that his enemy had died. Then, by a rock to the leg. The injury does not appear to have broken it but it was enough to force Alexander to support himself on his spear during the fighting. Secondly, during a lull in the fighting, Alexander received a deserter who he allowed to join his own army. The deserter, however, was an assassin. Only Alexander’s quick reactions saved his life when the man, having paid homage to him, lunged at the king’s neck with his sword.

If Alexander really did execute Batis by dragging him around Gaza then this was a terribly cruel act. It was not, however, simply ‘a revolting caricature’ of what Achilles did, nor a ‘crude literary gesture’ (The First Poets p.xxxviii). If the event even happened (I believe not all scholars believe that it did?) it was an act informed by  the frustration, pain and betrayal that Alexander had faced during the siege rather than being simply a re-playing of Achilles’ action as recounted in The Iliad. Nietszche’s seeming failure to recognise this (allowing for the proviso mentioned above) devalues his comment.

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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

Pillai’s Imaginary Invader

Dr. Radhakrishnan Pillai may be an excellent ‘management guru’ but he is no historian. In this article from the Hindu Times he is quoted as saying that,

… the great Indian philosopher Chankaya united the country against the global invader Alexander the Great. “It is because of one man’s intelligence; Alexander showed his back without waging a war against India. This was possible because of the effective communication. He used his good offices and united the princely states to terrify the invader.”

  • Chankaya did not unite India against Alexander.
  • Alexander fought (and won) a number of battles against Indian tribes.
  • Alexander at no point displayed any fear of ‘the princely states’.

Chankaya is not mentioned in any capacity by any of the Greek sources. Are they suppressing his involvement in expelling Alexander from India? Why would they when they are perfectly content to talk about other people who tried to resist the Macedonian king during the course of his career?

All five of the major sources for Alexander’s life (i.e. Arrian, Curtius, Diodorus, Justin and Plutarch) mention the conqueror’s Indian campaign and the battles he led while there. The idea that Alexander ran scared from the sub-continent is simply risible.

Further to the above, I cannot think of any occasion when any of the sources say that Alexander was ‘terrified’ by the Indians. When Alexander decided to quit the country, he did so because his army – mentally exhausted after ten years of fighting – told him it could go no further.

By the way, India is where Alexander displayed one of his most conspicuous acts of courage; that is, when he jumped into the Mallian fortress alone to take on its defenders in a fight to the death (see Arrian VI.9-12). The fact that Peucestas, Leonnatus and Abreas followed him showed that though though the Macedonian army had weakened it had lost none of its bravery.

With all that said, Dr. Pillai makes one very good point. According to the Hindu Times,

The management guru said the most important ingredient of modern business was to understand the local culture and develop a local model. For this one had to imbibe multi-lingual skills and understand many cultures to sustain for many years.

Alexander would have been sympathetic to this advice. Although I doubt he would ever have followed it, he did try to create not just a Macedonian but a world empire by appointing Persians to key political positions, by taking on their customs and dress and through the Susa mass weddings. Sadly, the Macedonians at large never accepted even this, and we know of only one – Peucestas – who did indeed ‘imbibe multi-lingual skills’ by learning Persian. I am quite sure that he also sought to understand the culture of Persia where his satrapy was located.

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The Club of Lethal Trades

Last Saturday, 30th July, I took part in a 27 mile walk from Kensington to Beaconsfield in honour of G. K. Chesterton.

Chesterton (1874-1936) was born in the former and is buried in the latter. He was baptised at St. GKCThomas’ C of E church at Campden Hill, where we started our walk, and prior to his death, lived at two homes in Beaconsfield – Overroads and Top Meadow. He was by trade (or profession?) a journalist but also engaged in Catholic apologetics, writing many books and taking part in debates with his friend Hilaire Belloc in one corner and George Bernard Shaw and H. G. Wells in the other. Belloc and Wells couldn’t stand each other but Chesterton could make friends with a brick wall.

Our walk took just over twelve hours – breaks included – and by the end although I was in good spirits I was very footsore. This got me to thinking about the Macedonian army.

Between 336 – 323 Alexander took his men on numerous forced marches. for example, from Thrace to Thebes (Arrian I.7), which he accomplished in a fortnight. On other occasions, the men – and women – had to walk for extended periods through very difficult territory on pain of death; I am thinking here particularly of the Gedrosian desert crossing (Arrian VI.24-27).

What must these walks have done to their feet? I had plasters to cover my blisters; cuts can be covered with ointment. How did the Macedonians dress their injuries? And how strong mentally they must have been to endure these long walks day-after-day: I was done for at the end of Day One!

Anyway, I wish I knew more about ancient Macedonian feet and how they cared for them. Walking on tender feet is horrible but they made a career out of it. As usual, I am in awe. Not so much of Alexander this time, but his very faithful soldiers and camp followers.

***

In the photo below: this author on a pontoon bridge somewhere between Ealing and Uxbridge. As can be seen, this bridge doesn’t cross the canal but runs alongside the path while it is being resurfaced. Hephaestion and Perdiccas could not have done a better job.

IMG_1710

Photo Credits
Chesterton Way of Wonder
The picture of me S. McCullough

Categories: By the Bye, Of The Moment | Tags: | 1 Comment

And the Loser Is…

If there was such a thing as the Bad Luck, Old Chap award and it had a category for antiquity, I would definitely nominate –

Craterus
Serves Alexander with distinction,
Could have been the man to whom Alexander left his empire,
Falls under his horse and dies early in the Wars of the Successors (Diodorus XVIII.30).

Perdiccas
Serves Alexander loyally,
Forms an effective team with Hephaestion in India,
Is deserted by his friends after failing to clear a disused canal (a canal!) (Diodorus XVIII.33)
And is assassinated after failing – wait for it – to cross a river (Diodorus XVIII.36).

Sometimes, it’s just not meant to be.

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Pebbled Propaganda in Pella?

This post is me unpacking my thoughts regarding the Pella Lion Hunt mosaic. Please forgive its length and, probably obvious, conclusion. The identity of the people in the mosaic is not something I had seriously considered before so was starting first base here
Pella_Lion_Hunt_Mosaic
I have just started reading By the Spear, Ian Worthington’s account of the lives and deeds of Philip II and his son Alexander.

At the start of the book, Worthington talks about how Macedonian boys were taught to hunt from an early age. It was a way of teaching them how to fight against men when they grew up.

Hunting, however, was more than just a utilitarian exercise.

… it allowed time for the king and his nobles to interact socially, which affected their relations politically. These hunts were clearly dangerous, as a mosaic depicting a lion hunt from Pella attests.

The mosaic that Worthington is referring to here is, of course, the one you can see at the top of this post. He goes on,

Although the figures on the mosaic have been disputed, most likely we have Alexander to the animal’s left, trapped by its paw, and Craterus (who became one of Alexander’s generals) to its right, coming to his rescue… Both are wearing next to no protective clothing and are armed only with short swords – they thus had to get up close and personal with their deadly prey and rely on split-second instincts.

When I read the above passage, I was very taken by Worthington’s statement that Alexander was trapped by the lion. I had never noticed that detail before. And certainly, if you look at his expression, he does seem very alarmed. So, thank you to Ian Worthington for showing me something new in an image I thought had nothing new to say.

***

It was very unwise of me to think that the Pella Lion Hunt Mosaic had nothing new to say when it is such a mysterious image. Worthington identifies the man on the left with Alexander, and the man on the right with Craterus. The mosaic, however, makes no such identification on either account.

The man on the left wears a kausia (‘wide-brimmed felt hat’ as Worthington calls it) but while this was worn by Macedonian kings, it was not worn exclusively by them. In fact, up until Alexander became influenced by Persian customs and dress, his royal predecessors seem to have gone out of their way to be as much like their men as possible, including in what they wore.

Perhaps there is something in the cloak, spear or scabbard that the man on the left is holding that suggests Alexander, but if there is, I’m afraid I can’t see it. The same applies to the man on the right in respect of Craterus.

The Lion Hunt Mosaic was found in a Pella residence known as The House of Dionysos, named after another mosaic found there (see below). The house was a big one. It obviously belonged to an extremely wealthy individual. This video shows what kind of a place it was.

If you watch the video, you’ll see that it places the Lion Hunt Mosaic in the very centre of the building. Whoever lived here, the mosaic meant a lot to them, and they would have wanted as many people as possible to see the work.

So who did live in this residence? Well, I’m afraid I don’t know. But whether it was a royal property or belonged to a nobleman, here are some thoughts I have regarding the Lion Hunt Mosaic.

Firstly, whoever the two figures are, I think that the one on the right stands for the owner of the house, or at least the one who paid for the mosaic and probably had a residence there. He is the one coming to the rescue of the other man, after all; it would make sense for him to place himself in the starring role, so’s to speak.

Secondly, I have seen the creation of the mosaic dated to between 325-300 B.C. If the two men are not Alexander and whoever but are simply two hunters, whether real of fictional, then there is nothing more to say about it; it simply records a hunting trip of some description and was made in the late fourth century B.C.

If, however, the man on the left is Alexander then the identity of the man on the right becomes very intriguing.

Imagine walking into the House of Dionysos. Come, the owner says, Come and look at my new mosaic. You walk into the central room and there you see that he has had a mosaic installed in which ‘he’ is rescuing King Alexander. It is between 325 and 300 B.C. You know about the king’s amazing exploits in the east. If this man had no connection to Alexander then this mosaic would surely come across as a bit presumptuous. Actually, the mere fact that the man placed himself in a mosaic with Alexander would be laughable. And the fact that he showed himself rescuing the king would be ridiculous.

So, if the man on the left is Alexander, I think the man who paid for the mosaic knew him, and probably fought alongside him; not just as a junior officer much less a rank and file soldier but as a general, and maybe even directly helped the king if not saved his life on one or more occasions. This would have definitely entitled the man to put himself next to Alexander on the mosaic, and even to come to his rescue.

Ian Worthington identifies the man on the right with Craterus. As he says, though, the identification is disputed. I have also seen Hephaestion mentioned as the right hand figure. A couple of other names occur to me – Black Cleitus and Peucestas.

Black Cleitus and Peucestas were both high up in Alexander’s army and both saved his life (Cleitus at the Granicus in 334 and Peucestas at the Mallian town in 325). Cleitus died in 328. There is no reason he could not have ordered the making of the mosaic before then but I would question whether he would have wanted to, given how estranged he had become from Alexander due to the latter’s orientising ways. As for Peucestas, I think his focus was on the future, not the past. He could have ordered the mosaic to be made after 325 but I suspect he was too busy getting used to his Persian trousers.

In truth, there are probably any number of people who could have ordered the mosaic but let’s go back to Craterus and Hephaestion. Hephaestion was Alexander’s best friend and fought alongside him. He was a nobleman, to boot. He surely had the money and motive to have the mosaic made. But did he have the ego to show himself saving Alexander’s life? We know from Diodorus (XVIII.114) that Hephaestion was perfectly comfortable in his friendship with Alexander. I don’t think he would have felt the need to show how important he was to the king, even to the point of saving his life.

Craterus, however, is another matter. He loved Alexander more than any other man. But, as Alexander himself pointed out (D. XVIII.114; Plutarch Life of Alexander 46), Craterus loved Alexander the king whereas Hephaestion loved Alexander the man. This could only have angered and distressed Craterus as he would have known that to love the man rather than the office placed Hephaestion closer to Alexander’s heart than himself – a very painful position for a lover of any kind to be in. No wonder he and Hephaestion feuded. Therefore, I think Craterus commissioned the mosaic not just to show how close he was to Alexander but as a slight against Hephaestion and act of self-affirmation: I was important to Alexander, I WAS (and more than him, too)*.

Another reason I am going with Craterus as the man on the right is that according to Robin Waterfield in Dividing the Spoils,

Craterus marked the end of the Lamian War with a large monument at Delphi, sculpted by the best artists of the day, that showed him saving Alexander’s life during a hunt…

He did it at Delphi, I think he did it at Pella, too. It would not surprise me to learn one day that the building we call the House of Dionysos was Craterus’ family residence.

dionysos_on_panther

Dionysos riding on a panther; the mosaic from which the House of Dionysos takes its name (Source: Theoi via Pinterest)

* On this point, Hephaestion may have been comfortable in his friendship with Alexander but he could be a very proud man, and there is space within this to see him ordering the mosaic’s creation for similar reasons to Craterus. When I think about that, though, I go back to his letter to Olympias and it seems to me that however proud he was, he was not self-doubting

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Hair Today, Legendary Tomorrow

Just over a year ago, I wrote this post in which I disparaged the idea that Ptolemy I Soter could be responsible for the claim that Alexander forced his men to shave after almost losing an unnamed battle (but perhaps that of Issus) when a Persian soldier realised he could kill Macedonian soldiers more easily by grabbing hold of their beards and throwing them to the ground first.

I happened to return to the issue in April this year, here. A few months on, I still maintain that the idea of Alexander almost losing a battle because of his men’s beards is nonsense.

However, I have come across evidence to suggest that there really was a tradition that Alexander made his men shave in case their beards were used against them by their enemies.

I haven’t made an exciting new discovery. If you know your Plutarch, you will know which text I am about to quote. It comes from his Life of Theseus. In Chapter 5, Plutarch tells us about a tribe called the Abantes who were experts at close-order combat. He writes,

… in order to deny their enemies a hand-hold on their hair, they cut it off. No doubt Alexander of Macedon understood this, too, when he gave orders to his generals, so we are told, to have the beards of their Macedonians shaved, because these offered the easiest hold in battle.

I wonder: Plutarch’s assertion seems a very reasonable one. Could he be representing a true tradition and St Synesius, not so much a fake one, but a tradition that saw the original information – perhaps Ptolemy’s – embellished to the point where fiction overtook reality?

***

I was never fond of the Macedonians long hair in Oliver Stone’s Alexander film. As far as I was concerned, only barbarians had such flowing locks; depicting the Macedonians with them was just another absurdity in a film that already had several.

However, He Has A Wife You Know may just have put me right. In this post, the author focuses mainly on beards, but links both them and long hair when he writes,

For the Greeks facial hair, and in particular beards, denoted masculinity. Find any Greek vase depicting Greek men and you’ll witness this simple rule, beardless males are youths, those with beards are men. For a society that prized masculinity as highly as it did the very symbol of that was something quite sacred, beards weren’t to be messed with.

I have to be a bit careful here as I really don’t know much about Macedonian social customs. For all I know, the Macedonians liked having long hair and beards but did not attach the same significance to them as Greeks did.

However, while they formed a distinct society to the men down south, the two did share some important customs (e.g. religion) so it is not beyond the realms of possibility – perhaps we may say it is very likely – that they both looked at long hair and beards in the same way, too, as masculinity was definitely very important to both. If so, I owe Oliver Stone an apology.

And that is the beauty of the internet. It helps you to learn, to write, to discover, to correct, and ultimately, to improve.

Categories: By the Bye | Tags: , , | 2 Comments

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