Historians of Alexander

Honours Even

In this post I continue my look at Ptolemy I King and Pharaoh of Egypt by Ian Worthington. For an explanation of this series, visit the first post here.


… killing Cleitus was a grave error… It was hardly the act of a great general or king: the personal honor that had driven his [i.e Alexander’s] campaigns, and which he expected of others, had long since evaporated.

Worthington is certainly right to call Alexander’s murder of Black Cleitus in 328 BC ‘a grave error’. However, I don’t see the relevancy of this act to Alexander’s status as a general. Great generals become so by winning battles and wars. They don’t become great by behaving  virtuously.

Worthington is on more solid ground when he says that Cleitus’ murder was not the act of a great king. I could not agree more. Kings should be just and merciful to their subjects. Even – especially – to ones who provoke them during drunken quarrels. Of course, they shouldn’t really be getting drunk in the first place.

However, that’s by-the-bye; as usual, I have put in bold the part of the passage that really stuck out for me when I read it.

Worthington presents here the Achillean Alexander: a man driven by ‘personal honor’ who expected others to be similarly honourable. But while I agree with this understanding of the Macedonian king’s character. I question Worthington’s assertion that by the time he killed Cleitus, Alexander’s honour ‘had long since evaporated’.

When? How? The only incident that I can think of that really speaks to this is the Philotas Affair, which took place two years earlier in the summer/Autumn of 330 BC.

But while Philotas’ downfall took place in very murky circumstances that do not reflect well on any of the people who played a major role in it (I think here especially of Hephaestion, Craterus and Coenus who pressed for and conducted the torture of Philotas) I don’t get the impression that it fatally undermined Alexander’s honour.

Had it done so, I think he would have been more concerned about the Macedonians’ supposedly ‘mutinous’ thoughts when they began to ‘pity’ Philotas after his death (see Curtius VII.1.1-4). Instead, the king risked further alienation from his men by bringing Alexander Lyncestis, and the brothers Amyntas and Simmias to trial.

Perhaps the Macedonians were not so fussed about Alexander Lyncestis but Amyntas and Simmias were close friends of Philotas. Their trial would only have put the Macedonians in mind of Philotas whom they now pitied – something that, had he been truly afraid of their ‘mutinous remarks’, Alexander would surely have wanted to avoid. Curtius calls the Philotas Affair and trial of Alexander Lyncestis a time of crisis. It was certainly a difficult time for the king, but not a crisis. Curtius is talking Alexander’s difficulty up for the sake of his narrative.

I’m open to other suggestions on what Worthington means in this passage, but as matters stand, it seems to me that like Curtius with Philotas et al he is simply overstating the effect of Cleitus’ murder on Alexander for the sake of his narrative. The king never lost his honour. It was certainly battered and bruised over the years but even at his death Alexander was acting honourably, and was loved by his men.

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A Motive Force

In this post I continue my look at Ptolemy I King and Pharaoh of Egypt by Ian Worthington. For an explanation of this series, visit the first post here.


The battle [of the Granicus River] was an example of Alexander’s tactical genius, audacity, and daredevil courage. It also exposed his love of fighting for the sake of fighting.

Worthington gives the impression here that the Battle of the Granicus (334 BC) was an unnecessary confrontation. In my view, it was absolutely the reverse. Alexander had no choice but to meet the satrapal army. This is because, if he didn’t, it would pursue him and either wear him down in the rear or force a confrontation at a time and place of its choosing; or else, it would cross the Hellespont to Macedon and take the fight to Antipater.

That was a potential disaster waiting to happen. The viceroy had 12,000 infantry and 1,500 cavalry(1) at his disposal. The sources disagree radically on the size of the satrapal army but in The Generalship of Alexander, J. F. C. Fuller proposes a figure of 10,000 cavalry and 5,000 Greek mercenaries (p.147).

We don’t know how many Persian infantry there were but whatever the figure, it was surely more than 2,000, and therefore enough to put Antipater at a major disadvantage (as if the 8,500 cavalry he was already shipping to the satraps wasn’t enough) should the two sides meet.

If I am correct, the Granicus exposed no more in Alexander than his understanding of the fact that if his war and kingship were to continue he had to face and beat the satrapal army.

Does Worthington’s statement work as a general principle? That’s more difficult to answer. To do the question justice we would have to look at each and every battle that Alexander fought and ask if, in military terms, he needed to fight it. And if he didn’t, why did he?

My first reaction is that yes, Alexander enjoyed fighting, but he did nothing without a motive. If fighting could be avoided then he was perfectly prepared to take that route. We see this when he tried to persuade the Thebans to surrender (Arrian I.8) and when he accepted the surrender of various peoples during the expedition itself.

In the above passage, Ian Worthington’s Alexander is nothing more than a thug, a hooligan or vandal. The real man, however, had ideas and ideals. He fought for revenge, for liberation, for domination; he fought to emulate and surpass his ancestors; he fought for glory. But never, not when it mattered, do I believe he fought just for the sake of fighting.

(1) Arrian The Campaign of Alexander Penguin Classics 1971 Bk. I n.38

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Boning Up On Bactria

Into the Land of Bones is a brief – 165 page – account of the Bactria-Sogdia phase of Alexander’s expedition. The Macedonian king entered Bactria in the spring of 329 BC in pursuit of Bessos, murderer of Darius III and pretender to Alexander’s Persian throne. Bessos was captured soon after. At that point, all was well. Bactria had offered no resistance to the Macedonians and a quick departure to India must have seemed probable.

However, it was not to be. Sogdia and Bactria rose up in revolt. Their rebellion was lead by a Persian nobleman named Spitamenes who, for the next year would lead a semi-guerrilla campaign against the Macedonians. His part in the rebellion ended in the autumn of 328 when he was murdered by his own men. Before then, however, Spitamenes would score some impressive victories against Alexander’s army. After he died, the revolt continued for nearly another year.

The Sogdian-Bactrian campaign brought out the best and worst in Alexander. It forced him to adapt his military tactics, which he did, to ultimate success; but it also lead him to take a bloody revenge against the native people far beyond anything that was proportionate or necessary.

And perhaps the uprising had deeper consequences as well for it was during the Bactrian-Sogdian campaign that Alexander and Black Cleitus quarrelled drunkenly leading the king to run his friend through with a spear (Autumn 328), and it was during the campaign that Alexander’s pages conceived their plot to assassinate him (Spring 327).

Alexander finally left Bactria and Sogdia in the summer of 327 BC. Officially, he had pacified both countries. Unofficially they were tinder boxes waiting to explode, which – even in Alexander’s lifetime – they did.


Frank L. Holt’s book is very readable. I finished it in just over a week. Had I dedicated my spare time to it I could have read half that time easily.

In his Preface, Holt says he wrote the book with both ‘professional historians and the general public’ in mind. In my view, Land of Bones offers more to the latter as Holt does not dive deeply into Alexander’s actions; instead, he is content to simply describe what happened and give his thoughts as he does so.

The book ‘grew out of a public lecture’ that Holt gave not long after the 11th September attacks in 2001 and throughout the book he compares and contrasts what happened to Alexander with what happened to the British army during its Afghan campaigns in the late 1830s, to the Soviet Union when it invaded Afghanistan in the 1980s, and the USA and her coalition partners when they did the same in 2003.

(By way of clarification – Afghanistan now encompasses the ancient countries of Bactria and Sogdia, hence the connection. Actually, Sogdia also lies in three other countries – Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Tadjikistan – but as they are politically stable we do not hear much of them in the book).

For me, Holt never really nails the comparisons down. Indeed, in the Preface he admits that history ‘never repeats itself’ directly. As a result, Britain, the USSR and Coalition all come and go in rather an ethereal fashion. It felt to me like he was using the experiences of these modern invaders as hooks to gain the interest of his publisher. I hope and trust that this is a misreading.

In my opinion, Into the Land of Bones does not contain any outstanding revelations. Only one statement in it has made a lasting impression on me, and that is a citation from another book. Early on, Holt states that every day Alexander had to find ‘the equivalent of 255 tons of food and forage, plus 160,000 gallons of water, just to keep his army alive and moving forward’. This fact comes from Donald W. Engel’s Alexander the Great and the Logistics of the Macedonian Army (For more on this point, see my post here).


I’d like to conclude with something I really liked about the book and a couple of things that I didn’t. I’ll start with the latter so that I can end on a positive note.

Firstly, I really did not care for the way that Holt consistently (especially at the beginning) referred to the ‘Greeks and Macedonians’ as if either the Greeks lead the invasion or even that the two were equal in it. They did not, they were not. This was a Macedonian led invasion. If you want to be charitable, you could call it a coalition army, but only at the expense of accuracy. It was a Macedonian army with foreigners – Greeks and others – attached.

To be sure, Holt is not the only historian who gives the Greeks an importance in Alexander’s army that they did not have – in fact, I think most if not all historians do it – but they really ought not to. To be fair, you could argue that the Macedonians were in a sense Greek in that they came to Macedonia from there but by Alexander’s day they were almost entirely sundered from the Greeks; they hated them, and the Greeks themselves did not even think of the Macedonians as one of them. At the least, I wish Holt, and all historians, would talk about the Macedonian led invasion rather than imply that it was something other.

Secondly, the price of the book. It’s publisher, the University of California Press is currently selling Into the Land of Bones for £52.95 (here). This is an absolute disgrace. Which member of the general public will pay that much for a slender volume like this? I enjoyed Land of Bones and am very grateful to the person who gave me a copy of it because even I would not pay that much. And if I would not then someone who has only a part time interest in Alexander never will. If universities insist on charging such ridiculous prices for their books I really don’t know why they bother to publish them in the first place. I am sure they have their reasons, but really, there’s no point. No one will buy them. NO ONE.

If anyone knows how many copies of Into the Land of Bones have been sold – especially if it is a lot – I would love to know it and be proved wrong.

Oh, one more point – £52.95 is the hardback price. The paperback costs £24.95. For heaven’s sake, that’s still the price of a hardback work of fiction! The UCP also sells an e-book version. It costs $29.95. The website does not sell the e-book in pounds. An exchange rate website tells me that $29.95 is £23.95 which is surely a joke on the publisher’s part.

Well, you have seen me come as close to losing my temper in a blog post as ever I have, so let’s finish with my plus point. There are two. Firstly, I appreciated the way in which the book refreshed my memory of this part of Alexander’s expedition. Secondly, and most of all, I really, really appreciated the final chapters which covered what happened in Bactria-Sogdia in the centuries after Alexander waged war there. They are not happy chapters but they are fascinating ones, especially when Holt talks about the discoveries of archaeological expeditions. Once upon a time we knew of about seven Bactrian kings. Thanks to locals and archaeologists discovering coin hoards, however, that figure has risen, and risen, and risen.

To conclude, would I recommend Into the Land of Bones? Yes, I would, but I would have to say, borrow it from a friend or the library as the retail prices are wholly unreasonable.

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Ptolemy I: Some General Observations

In this post I continue my look at Ptolemy I King and Pharaoh of Egypt by Ian Worthington. For an explanation of this series, visit the first post here.


Ptolemy was not in [Parmenion’s or Antipater’s] league, and even under Alexander was never a general, but it is possible that because of his relationship with Alexander, Philip had him on the Macedonian left wing with the young heir.

Even under Alexander, [Ptolemy] was never a general…

In yesterday’s post, I said that I disagreed with this idea. How can I say that, though, when – as I must admit – I don’t know how a man became a general in Philip’s or Alexander’s army.

But, does anyone?

Ian Worthington is quite sure that Ptolemy was not a general. Frank L. Holt, in Into the Land of Bones, is of a different opinion. Here are some quotes from his book,

Out of the one shaft flowed a fatty substance so strange that the Macedonian general Ptolemy summoned his king and the royal soothsayers.

… the work progressed under the supervision of three Macedonian generals: Ptolemy, Perdiccas, and Leonnatus.

Subsequently, a few of Alexander’s surviving generals felt free to proclaim themselves kings… Ptolemy in Egypt…

So, who’s right? I suspect both and neither. We don’t know; we just don’t know for there is no text that tells us how it happened. This leaves historians free to make up their own minds.

In respect of Ptolemy, Holt says yea, while Worthington says nay. And me? Well, after joining the Royal Bodyguards (Arrian III.27) Ptolemy certainly joined the upper ranks of the Macedonian army. Not long later, he was granted his first independent command (Arr. III.30). In India, he was put in charge of special missions by Alexander (Arr. IV.29) and led a division of the army during the march home (Diodorus XVII.104). These are all the kinds of jobs that I would expect a general to undertake; therefore, while I admit the fragility of my position, I believe whole heartedly that Ptolemy was a general.

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The Powers Behind the Sarissas

In my last post, I started discussing Ptolemy I King and Pharaoh of Egypt, which I recently finished. Here, I am going to share any passages from Frank L. Holt’s Into the Land of Bones, which I have just started reading, and which jump out at me.

First up is this:-

No matter what the climate or circumstances might be, Alexander had to procure every day the equivalent of 255 tons of food and forage, plus 160,000 gallons of water, just to see his army alive and moving forward.
(Into the Land of Bones, p.32)

This passage comes with an end note – Holt is quoting from Donald W. Engels’ Alexander the Great and the Logistics of the Macedonian Army (University of California 1978), which I have a copy of but have yet to read (Soon! Soon!),

I read the above yesterday and it still bowls me over. 255 tonnes and 160 thousand gallons. That’s an awful, awful lot of food and water. It brings into very clear view the fact that Alexander benefitted from an absolutely brilliant logistics operation during his invasion of Asia. In fact, I read a while ago that it failed him only twice during his ten year anabasis – and that was when he was half way up the Hindu Kush and in the Gedrosian desert.

Who is the unsung hero of Alexander’s expedition? Whose hard work enabled the Macedonian army to remain fed and fit? Hephaestion is the name that comes first to mind because we often see him carrying out logistical work on behalf of the king.

Among his missions are picking a vassal king for Alexander in Sidon (Curtius 4.1.16-26), sailing to Gaza with siege engines (Ibid 4.5.10), and building a bridge across the Indus (Arrian IV.28). However, I don’t get the impression that Hephaestion was the chief logistician. What he was, or rather, who he was, was someone Alexander could trust to get these kind of unglamorous but absolutely necessary jobs done and so was used often in that capacity.

I’m coming round to the view now that there was not a chief logistician – not beyond Alexander himself. The way I see it happening is that Alexander said ‘I want this done’ then told whichever officer he wanted to complete the job to do it. Sometimes – often?-  it would be Hephaestion; other times, someone else. Hence, we see other senior officers also engaged in logistical work. For example, Craterus, when Alexander ordered him to gather supplies in preparation for what he thought would be a long siege at the Aornos Rock (Arrian IV.29), and again when the king ordered him and Coenus to forage in the territory on the near side of the Hydraotes river (Ibid V.21).

There is the saying ‘jack of all trades and master of none’ but it seems to me that the Macedonian officers were not only jacks-all-trades but masters of their work as well. How else could they manage to keep finding the 255 tonnes and 160 thousand gallons in diverse territories and sometimes difficult conditions for ten years on the trot, and, of course, keep winning battles under the direction of their king, a genius, it seems, on and off the battlefield?

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Ptolemy I and the Periphery

Recently, I read Ptolemy I King and Pharaoh of Egypt by Ian Worthington.

How does one write a biography about a person of whom we know almost nothing? Worthington does so by looking at Ptolemy in relation to the events that took place around him; chiefly, Alexander’s expedition (334-323 BC) and the wars of the Successors (323-282 BC).

As I read Ptolemy, I did something I too rarely do and underlined the passages that most interested me. I even wrote a quick note on my mobile phone to remind myself why I had underlined the passage. This post, therefore, and those after, come to you sponsored by the Notes function on the iPhone. Thank you, Apple.

As for this post, and the rest in this little series, I don’t mean to go into the book in depth. Instead, what I would like to do is quote one of the passage that I underlined and share my thoughts regarding it. I will go through the book sequentially.



After Alexander’s death in Babylon in 323, Ptolemy, then about 44 years old, found himself suddenly pitted against Alexander’s generals and satraps when crucial decisions had to be made about the future of the empire. He had largely remained on the periphery of the king’s retinue in Asia, but if the senior staff thought little of him because of his status they were mistaken. [Emphasis mine]
(Ptolemy I p. 3)

For me, this is a very contentious passage, most of all for the statement that I have put in bold.

Firstly, I disagree with the insinuation in line two that Ptolemy was not a general. This is something I shall be coming back to in my next post so I shall leave it hanging for now.

Secondly, and now the line in bold, I reject the notion that Ptolemy was on the periphery of Alexander’s ‘retinue’. For the last seven years, he had been one of the king’s royal bodyguards (the Somotophylakes). As such, and by and bye, he was not just a piece of muscle between Alexander and everyone else; he was an advisor, too. When Alexander wanted counsel, Ptolemy was one of the men he went to.

The idea, therefore, that Ptolemy, lived on the periphery of Alexander’s court is inconceivable to me.

Why does Worthington take this position? I think it is so that he can present Ptolemy as the outsider who made good. He left Macedon a nobody and died not only a king but one of the most brilliant of the Successors. That’s a great story but I don’t believe the record bears it out.


Before finishing, I should say that this will not be the only occasion that I disagree with Worthington. However often I do, though, don’t think that I didn’t enjoy reading his book. I did, and I am very glad that I have this blog to hold a kind-of conversation with it. If we were in a pub, I’d certainly buy Worthington a beer. For now, though, I’ll just say that if you are interested in Alexander’s captains and Successors I would absolutely recommend the book to you.

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