Echoes of Alexander

Vides ut alta stet nive candidum Soracte…

Mount Ida (Psiloritis) in Crete. Credit: sacvoyage on Tumblr)

Mount Ida (Psiloritis) in Crete. Credit: sacvoyage on Tumblr)

See Soracte’s mighty peak stands deep in virgin snow
And soon the heavy-laden trees their white load will not know,
When the swiftly rushing rivers with the ice have ceased to flow.
Pile, O Thaliarchus, pile the good logs on the fire!
Fetch up some crusty four-year wine in cobwebbed Sabine jar!
Thus we’ll drive away Jack Frost, with his biting cold so dire!
Care-free, all other matters among the gods we’ll keep
They when they’ve checked the battling wind upon the boiling deep
Untossed about the cypress and the old ash tree may sleep.
Seek not to know what changes to-morrow may be found
But count as gain whatever lot the change of days brings round;
Spurn not, young friend, sweet love-making, nor yet the dances round,
While withered age is distant from thy youth frequent the plain,
The throned lawns, each fashionable haunt, a crowded lane,
And at the trysting hour, e’en night-fall, softly whispered love’s refrain.
Now doth a roguish laugh our hiding girl betray
From her dark cover, where love’s token, perforce, is snatched away,
And her ill-withstanding finger but feebly bids him nay.

(Horace Ode to Thaliarchus translated by Patrick Leigh Fermor)

 I’m still heart-deep in love with Patrick Leigh Fermor’s writing so to-day, instead of a work of art by a man, here is a work of art by nature. Mount Ida has been deliberately chosen. I shall let Leigh Fermor himself explain why. It is 1944. Leigh Fermor and his band of British soldiers and Cretan Resistance have successfully kidnapped the German General Heinrich Kreipe. The Nazis are in hot pursuit as the team make their escape over the Cretan mountain range…

During the lull in the pursuit, we woke up among the rocks just as a brilliant dawn was breaking over the crest of Mount Ida. We had been toiling over it, through snow and then rain, for the last two days. Looking across the valley at this flashing mountain-crest, the general murmured to himself:

Vides ut alta stet nive candidum

It was one of the ones I knew! I continued from where he had broken off:

nec jam sustineant onus
Silvae laborantes, geluque
Flumina constiterint acuto,

and so on, through the remaining five stanzas to the end. The general’s blue eyes had swivelled away from the mountain-top to mine – and when I’d finished, after a long silence, he said: “Ach so, Herr Major!” It was very strange. As though, for a long moment, the war had ceased to exist. We had both drunk at the same fountains long before; and things were different between us for the rest of our time together.

(Patrick Leigh Fermor A Time of Gifts)

As the note below the photograph of Mount Ida (which today is called Psiloritis) says, the photograph comes from a Tumblr blog called Sacvoyage. I heartily recommend it to you as it includes some beautiful pictures of Greece. Also, Leigh Fermor’s translation of Horace’s Ode comes from Artemis Cooper’s biography of him (Patrick Leigh Fermor An Adventure, John Murray, 2013). Finally, here is a video of Leigh Fermor et al meeting Kreipe again many years after the war.

Categories: Art, Echoes of Alexander, Poetry | Tags: , | 2 Comments

Judith and Alexander – An Artistic Comparison

I recently created a Tumblr page for The Second Achilles. As well as being a place to reblog pictures of the great man himself I also use the page to reblog other classically related pictures and pictures that really have no place there but which I like anyway. For example, a few days ago, I found a still from one of my favourite films – Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistlestop Café. No connection to ancient Greece at all (that I can think of, anyway) but I wasn’t going to miss an opportunity to reblog it, anyway.

The following detail comes from Tumblr. It is a detail from Caravaggio’s Judith Beheading Holofernes.

Judith Beheading Holofernes by Caravaggio: a detail

Judith Beheading Holofernes by Caravaggio: a detail

I was immediately struck by Judith’s expression. Her brow is furrowed, she is concerned; indeed, it feels like she is ageing ten years before our very eyes. And no wonder for at this moment she is cutting Holofernes’ head off. What I don’t see in this detail is fear or regret. There is a steeliness in her face, a determination to see her deadly job through.

The reason why the close up of Judith jumped out at me is because it tangentially recalled to mind a moment from Michael Wood’s documentary on Alexander (2005). In the first episode, he visits an (unnamed) Greek archaeologist who shows him a little carving of the nineteen or twenty year old Alexander’s head, which was found on a banqueting couch in Philip II’s tomb. Wood says he has a ‘sensitive face’ and compares it to a bust of the thirty year old Alexander who looks like ‘a troubled man’. If you would like to watch the sequence, it begins at 6:47 in the video below.

I suppose the reason why Caravaggio’s painting reminded me of the carving and sculpture of Alexander is because of the way he, Alexander, goes from being young and carefree in the former to old and worn in the latter. By contrast, Caravaggio manages to achieve a broad range of emotion in just the one image. And he makes Judith look so beautiful as well!
It would be unfair to say that this makes the Italian a better artist than Alexander’s sculptors. They were, no doubt, working to very different rules than Caravaggio but the detail happily reminds me of why Caravaggio is such a great artist and makes me now want to go and look at some of his other paintings again.
On a personal note – I first read Judith’s story when I studied the Anglo-Saxon poem at university. It stayed in my mind because the poet calls refers to Judith as ‘ælfscinu’ – elf shining – which (I am trusting to memory here) given that the Anglo-Saxons were not keen on elves and elvish things seemed an odd choice of word to use. Perhaps by the time the poet (Cynewulf) wrote his poem ælfscinu had changed its meaning?

Categories: Art, Echoes of Alexander | Tags: , , , | 2 Comments

The Broken Road by Patrick Leigh Fermor


There is something poignant and mysterious about incomplete masterpieces

Thus begins the introduction to The Broken Road, the third and final part of Patrick Leigh Fermor’s account of his walk across Europe – from the Hook of Holland to Constantinople between 1933 and 1935, which was published today.

These words, however, are not Leigh Fermor’s. He died in 2011 at the age of 96 having spent over twenty years trying to write this book. Ironically, he almost already had. The Broken Road is based on a manuscript that Leigh Fermor wrote in the sixties. It has been edited by Artemis Cooper and Colin Thubron. The omens are good for this book. Thubron and Cooper are both distinguished writers in their own right. Cooper wrote the excellent biography of Leigh Fermor that appeared last year.

As with Paddy Leigh Fermor so with Alexander. His masterpiece was his expedition across the world. What could he have achieved if the hearts of his men not given out? If Hephaestion had not died? If he had not drunk so much, received so many injuries, perhaps – just perhaps – if one or more of his officers had not poisoned him?

We’ll never know. And we’ll never know what PLF’s Broken Road would have looked like, or even how it would have been titled; this one is Cooper’s and Thubron’s and is given in recognition of the fact that the account ends just before Leigh Fermor reaches Constantinople.

We are left with informed guesses, our imagination and wise heads like Cooper and Thubron to guide us. As I sit in the pub with a celebratory beer – yes, I like PLF that much! – I can’t wait to walk the last stage of Leigh Fermor’s journey with him and with thanks to those who have made this experience possible.

As I read I shall say a little thank you to those men whose effort has kept the memory of Alexander alive. Their texts are all political in one way or another but I’d rather have that than no text at all.

Categories: Echoes of Alexander, Of The Moment | Leave a comment

Fortunately, it wasn’t a forced march

Yesterday, I went on a walk that was twenty seven miles in length and took about twelve hours to complete. I enjoy walking – it is excellent not only for exercise but (creative) thinking – but had never covered such a great distance before. As I write these words I am a little surprised but very pleased that it was only when we were a mile or two from our objective that I really began to tire. I completed the last couple of miles thanks to the sugar rush from my chocolate bar. I wonder what weary Macedonians ate to keep them going? And how did they deal with blisters?


The Macedonian army marched as far during the day as the king wanted. I have never sat down with a map to measure the distances that they can be said to have done on any given day but I certainly wish I had that information to hand now.
Not that by doing so I could compare my journey to theirs even when the miles covered was the same.
Firstly, I travelled lightly; I don’t know if the Macedonians carried all their own equipment (like the Romans did?) but I would be surprised if they didn’t carry at least some of it, even if it was just their weapons.
Secondly, the majority of our walk was on the pavement. The opposite would have been the case for the Macedonians. The only occasion that I can think of when they would have had a good road to walk along is when they were marching down the Royal Road, which ran from Asia Minor to Persepolis and beyond. Even then, how wide was the Road? Surely not so broad that most of the men would have fitted on it.
Thirdly, our pace was fairly easy. We had to pick it up at one point in order to meet an objective but nevertheless there were still frequent stops to allow stragglers to catch up. I doubt very much that Alexander pulled Bucephalas up to let those at the back of the column catch up!
Although I had not met any of my fellow walkers before yesterday all of them were very friendly. There’s nothing like a common cause to bring people together. This really makes me wish we had the testimony of ordinary Macedonian soldiers to learn about the friendships they formed during the ten years that they were on the road. There must have been some good ones. From a purely military perspective, there must also have been great trust between the soldiers and an understanding of how their fellows would behave in a battle. That can only have given them a very useful edge when it came to armed conflict.
Let’s talk about love. I was full of it by the end of our trip yesterday. Both for the object of our journey and for the gift of being able to walk and for those who had given me that gift in the first place. Now, it may just be that I am given to romanticism but I like to think I was feeling the same sense of gratitude that Alexander’s men had for him.
The name of Alexander is only fully pronounced when the name of Hephaestion is spoken alongside it. Yet Bucephalas also has a claim to be part of his master’s identity. I have lived in cities all my life. As a result, I think it was for the first time yesterday that I came up close to horses. And I don’t mean from the other side of a fence, either. We walked through a field where they were grazing with their foals and walked among them.
This fellow was one of the first that we saw, happily munching away on the grass.

A grazing horse

And here are some foals.
This horse was very friendly, and inquisitive (or hopeful of food), as he followed us for a few feet along the path. I didn’t stroke him as much as I could have done as – being a rather ignorant townie – I know nothing about equine behaviour so didn’t want to do anything that might annoy him. I know I was being very cautious, but then, until someone in our party told another person not to stand so close behind him in case he kicked them, I hadn’t realised that that might be a possibility, so it was probably best that I was careful.

A friendly horse

We spent only a few minutes of the day in the company of these splendid animals but it was more than enough to get a sense of their dignity and grace. Is what I felt in general what Alexander felt in particular towards Bucephalas? I imagine it was only the beginning of what Alexander felt but as echoes of Alexander are about as close to him as I expect we can get I am happy with that.

Categories: Echoes of Alexander | Tags: , , | 2 Comments

From Pella to Windsor…

The United Kingdom has witnessed ‘a great joy’ this week with the birth of Prince George Alexander Louis of Cambridge on Monday. Assuming Prince Charles doesn’t take George as his regnal name or that George of Cambridge doesn’t go in the opposite direction and pick another name when he ascends to the throne he will one day become King George VII.
I don’t know the precise reasons why George’s parents, William and Catherine, the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, or Will and Kate in the vernacular, chose the above mentioned names for their firstborn, although I think I can guess in respect of George and Louis: George for William’s great grandfather, George VI, and Louis for Lord Mountbatten who was beloved of William’s father, Charles.
But what about Alexander? It doesn’t appear in Prince Charles’ name, or in his father, Philip’s. Neither does it appear as part of Michael Middleton’s name. So, given that Prince William is clearly attentive to his roots, why Alexander?
Well, the fact is, I have no idea. I am sure the internet could suggest reasons to me, but rather than look them up, I am going to imagine that one day, while he was studying at St Andrew’s, William found himself in the classics section and picked up a book on Alexander and, impressed by the king’s feats, decided ‘one day, if I should have a child, I will bless him with that greatest of names.’
Well, one can dream.
By way of an addendum, while I doubt William had Alexander the Great in mind, I do rather like the fact that – albeit three generations apart – we now have a Philip and Alexander in the Royal Family. Philip has had a long and happy life (may it continue for him); here’s to George Alexander Louis enjoying the same.

  • Read about the meaning of our new prince’s names, and those of his family in this article at the Oxford University Press blog.
Categories: Echoes of Alexander | Tags: , | Leave a comment

Fermor’s Heir: Rory Stewart

Further to my recent post on Patrick Leigh Fermor and General Kreipe, I thought I would ‘break a lance’ for another Englishman who has embodied a little of Alexander’s adventurous spirit.
Rory Stewart is a Conservative MP now but in 2002 he decided for reasons best known to himself to walk across Afghanistan from Herat (visited by Alexander) to Kabul. What makes this walk especially impressive is that Stewart undertook it not long after the American led invasion of the country to drive out the Taliban. Stewart received the help of sundry Afghans along the way but his sojourn was not without its dangers from the deposed militants. His book The Places In Between is a wonderfully evocative account of his one month trek.
As if crossing Afghanistan was not enough excitement for him, Stewart then went to Iraq in 2003 to help the Coalition forces set up a new government following the overthrow of Saddam Hussein. It wasn’t easy what with rival Iraqi groups vying for power, militia trying to storm his camp and the usual difficulties of being shot or blown up. Stewart’s book on this experience is titled Occupational Hazards and is also a great read.
As I mentioned above, Stewart is now an MP so I fear his adventuring days are over. Wikipedia also reports that he has gone and got married, which is surely the death knell for any future mad expedition. If David Cameron has any sense, though, he will surely promote Stewart to the front benches before the next General Election in 2015.
(Apologies to those of you who read this post earlier today. I have reposted it as the first version had the wrong ‘byline’)

Categories: Echoes of Alexander | Leave a comment

The Abduction of General Kreipe

Alexander the Great was one of a kind; occasionally, however, we may detect elements of his character in the life of another person. Patrick Leigh Fermor (1915-2011) is proof of this.
In 1933, at the age of 18, Fermor set out from London to walk across Europe. I don’t think his epic journey was precisely the result of a pothos (i.e. deep yearning) to explore the world but like Alexander he did have a very inquisitive spirit. This comes out most strongly in his books recounting the journey, A Time of Gifts and Between the Wood and the Water.
A Time of Gifts takes the story from its beginnings in London/the hook of Holland to the Middle Danube. Between the Wood and the Water sees Fermor walk across the Danube on the Mária Valéria bridge to the Iron Gates (i.e. Hungary/Slovakia to Yugoslavia/Rumania).
Unfortunately, the final volume in the trilogy was not completed before his death.
Happily, however, his biographer, Artemis Cooper (a name that Alexander would definitely have liked), is editing Fermor’s manuscripts to produce it. The book will be called The Broken Road: From the Iron Gates to Mount Athos and is due to be published this September. Here it is at Amazon, but I hope you’ll consider buying it at your local bookshop.
During World War II, Fermor served with the Special Operations Executive (SOE) in Crete. There, he spent two years living in the mountains disguised as a shepherd organising resistance to the Nazi occupiers. He did not spend the whole time on the backfoot for in May 1944, Fermor and his party (Ilias Athanasakis, Nikolaos Komis, Efstratios Saviolakis, Dimitrios Tzatzadakis, Antonios Zoidakis) successfully carried out the kidnap of German Heinrich Kreipe. This documentary takes up the story.

Alexander was used to fighting guerrillas rather than being one, and to the best of my knowledge, his only experience of a kidnap was when one foolish mountain tribe snatched Bucephalas. A furious Alexander promised to annihilate the tribe if they did not give his beloved steed back forthwith. They did. That notwithstanding, Alexander was a man who appreciated and rewarded bravery – see how he gave King Porus his kingdom back after defeating him in a hard won fight at the battle of the Hydaspes River – and I think he would have approved of Fermor’s great act of derring do.

  • In Between the Woods and Water Fermor recounts visiting the Bulgarian town of Plovdiv, which was founded by Philip II, calling it Philippopolis. The city’s origins go back even further than Philip, though; you can read about them here.
  • Wikipedia has an entry on ‘The Abducation of General Kreipe’ here
Categories: Echoes of Alexander | 2 Comments

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