Historians of Alexander

A Grave Matter


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!

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VIII: How the War was Won

23rd september – Eight days to go until the 2,348th anniversary of the Battle of Gaugamela. Today, I am asking ‘How did Alexander win the battle?’

That is not a simple question to answer as many factors were involved. For example, we can say that Alexander won the Battle of Gaugamela after creating a hole in the Persian centre, penetrating it, thus forcing Darius III to flee. But did he create the hole by his own skill or was a Persian mistake involved? And could that hole have been created, whether inadvertently by the Persians or by Alexander, if Parmenion hadn’t kept the Macedonian left wing intact or without the efforts of the phalanx, or even without the deserter who – just before the battle – warned Alexander about the traps that Darius had laid on the ground for him?

Most of these are questions we will never be able to answer. So let’s go back to the hole. It is the most direct reason why Alexander won the day. What happened that led to its creation?

In The Generalship of Alexander, J. F. C. Fuller offers some suggestions.

… instead of most of the cavalry of the Persian left wing being directed against Alexander’s Companions, and the others sent to the support of Bessus, the whole galloped towards Bessus. This may have been due to a misunderstanding of verbal orders, or to the instinctive urge of masses of horsemen to follow those in the lead, or again – assuming that part was ordered to charge the Companions – it may have been because it was met by such a hail of missiles from the javelin-men and archers who were posted in front of the Companions that the horsemen instinctively swerved to their left to avoid it and then joined those galloping toward Bessus.
(Fuller, p.173)

To put that into context – Alexander and his Companions were riding to the right of the Macedonian centre (the phalanx); to Alexander’s right was his flank guard. This is where Bessus was heading. He was ignoring Alexander in favour of attacking the flank guard in its rear.

From the Persian perspective, what should have happened is that while Bessus attacked the flank guard, the Persian left wing enveloped Alexander and the Companions. What did happen is as Fuller describes above, with all the uncertainty that comes with it.

It would be easy to criticise the Persian cavalry for being unprofessional. Perhaps it was. Perhaps the horsemen should have slowed down when they realised they were riding instinctively or have been brave enough to take the hit and ridden the Macedonian javelin-men down so as to engage Alexander and the Companions. But if it is a case of misunderstanding orders – in the heat of battle no one can be blamed for that. Can they? Well, maybe, but surely before the battle Darius and his commanders would have considered the risk of a break in the line happening and agreed upon what to do in the event that it did.

Either way, the Macedonian army as a whole is to be congratulated for creating a situation whereby the Persians were forced into making an error. And as Alexander is its leader, the greatest praise must go to him.

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The Mallian Campaign: Conquest Through Terror?

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.


In only one week, all of the Mallian towns west of the Hydraortes [sic] were taken and their inhabitants slaughtered in this “conquest through terror”.

As you can see, when Worthington says that Alexander pursued a ‘conquest through terror’, he is quoting another writer. That person is A. B. Bosworth who uses the phrase in Alexander and the East: The Tragedy of Triumph.

What do Worthington and Bosworth mean by a conquest through terror? So far as Worthington is concerned(1), the answer is clear: Alexander defeated the Mallians by slaughtering them. All of them. That was the terror – that no quarter was given to anyone. Soldier or civilian.


Why did Alexander resort to such a ruthless tactic? The answer to this may lie in the intelligence that he received prior to beginning the campaign regarding what kind of fighters the Mallians (and the Oxydracae) were.

According to Arrian (VI.4), Alexander was told that the Mallians and Oxydracae ‘were the most numerous and warlike of the Indians in that part of the country’. So, having decided to conquer both, he knew that he would have to come down hard on them; all of them.


This is what happened. After entering Mallian territory, Alexander attacked one town out of the (Sandar-Bar) desert killing Mallians in the field whether they were armed or not, and whether they resisted him or not. The town was then put under siege and all its defenders slaughtered (Arrian VI.6-7). At the same time, Perdiccas killed Mallians fleeing from another town (Arr. VI.7).

Having taken the first town, Alexander returned to the banks of the Hydraotes. There, he killed any Mallian refugees that he came across (Ibid). Any? Actually, no, not quite. Arrian (Ibid) tells us that he took some prisoner. Most of these, however, escaped to a fortified location, which Peithon then successfully assaulted. The survivors were enslaved.

A Mallian fortress was the next to fall. Most of the defenders died fighting (Arr. VI.8). Arrian tells us that only a handful survived (Ibid). They, presumably, were reduced to slavery as well.

A pause in operations now followed. When Alexander came to the next Mallian settlements he found that they were all deserted – the Indians had wisely fled the coming storm (Ibid). But Alexander was not yet done. He ordered Peithon and a cavalry officer named Demetrius to take an infantry detachment back to the Hydraotes and scour the countryside for any Mallian refugees. He told them to ‘kill all of [the refugees] who refused to give themselves up’ (Ibid).

After resting his men, Alexander returned once more to the Hydraotes. There, he took part in his third river bank confrontation (Arr. VI.8-9). Well, kind of. For though the Mallians held the far bank against him, as soon as Alexander began his advance across the river, they withdrew inland.

Arrian says that when the Mallians realised that Alexander was advancing with only his cavalry, they ‘offered a vigorous resistance’ (Arr. VI.8), but no actual battle appears to have taken place. Instead, Alexander simply kept the Indians at bay with ‘manoeuvring’ (Ibid) and probing attacks.

Given what they must have known about Alexander’s ruthlessness along with their own reputation for being ‘warlike’ (Arr. VI.4), why did the Mallians not attack? According to Arrian, they had the numbers, being ‘some 50,000 strong’. All Alexander had was his cavalry – a few thousand at most. One wonders if reports of the Mallians ‘warlike’ nature had been exaggerated. Who was it who supplied Alexander with this intelligence, after all, if not rival Indian tribes.

The question of how strong the Mallians really were becomes even more pressing when we read that upon the arrival of the Agrianes, archers, and ‘some picked units of light infantry’, the Mallians promptly broke ranks and fled into a nearby fortified settlement. Okay, they would also have seen the Macedonian heavy infantry approaching behind the advance troops but they were still 50,000 in number. Were there that many women and children, perhaps? Or did they just lack the inner strength to fight, or maybe a leader to guide them?

Alexander laid siege to the settlement and there undertook the most heroic action of his life when he jumped into the courtyard of the settlement’s citadel alone to fight the Mallians inside. The Macedonians had brought up scaling ladders but been slow – reluctant – to climb them. Filled with impatience (and no doubt anger as this was the second time in the Mallian operation that it had happened), Alexander climbed the ladder and jumped down into the courtyard. Three men, Peucestas, Leonnatus and a soldier named Abreas followed him but for a long moment, Alexander was quite alone. He fought bravely but was felled by an Indian arrow. He would have died but for the timely arrival behind him of his three officers.

They protected the king until the Macedonian army managed to break into the courtyard. Some climbed over the walls, others heaved the citadel gates open. A general slaughter then took place – Indian men, women, and children were all killed (Arr. VI.9-11).


The citadel assault marks the end of the Mallian campaign. As Alexander recovered from his injuries, the Mallians and Oxydracae both formally surrendered. Alexander accepted their submission and, after appointing a governor to rule over them, continued his journey down the Hydraotes.

As said above, Ian Worthington suggests that the Mallian campaign was an act of ‘conquest through terror’ because of the wholesale slaughter that took place. But it wasn’t quite like that. Surrenders were taken.

With that said, I still agree with him that this was a ‘conquest through terror’ on the grounds that not only did Alexander conduct the campaign with greater violence than was necessary but that those Indians who survived were not set free but enslaved.

All in all it was certainly his most brutal and repressive campaign. Much more so than even the Bactria-Sogdia campaign of 329-27.


The ultimate purpose of the Mallian campaign was to bring their territory into the empire. This is proved by Alexander’s appointment of a governor to rule over them. Had the Mallians and Oxydracae surrendered at the outset, it would not have happened. This is why, when they surrendered, the Indian ambassadors made a point of explaining why they had failed ‘to treat with him earlier’ (Arr. VI.14).


Did Alexander need to act as cruelly as he did? The answer has to be no. But let’s not say that we see anything new here. The Mallian campaign does not signify the emergence of a new, darker Alexander; he could be very clement, sometimes, but he also had form for great ruthlessness. The razing of Thebes in 335 and despoiling of Persepolis in 330 show this. Also, the mass crucifixions at Tyre (332 – Diodorus XVII.46), destruction of Gaza (332 – Arr. II.27), as well as the judicial murder of Philotas in 330 and murder of Black Cleitus in 328 all speak to his ruthless streak.

I would like to propose that Alexander conducted this ‘conquest through terror’ because that’s what he felt the campaign required in order to succeed. It was a pragmatic decision possibly (or definitely if Arrian’s account is true) based upon false information.

At this point, I don’t believe that his anger and disappointment at having to turn back from the Hyphasis river – though an influence on him – or any damage done to his long term mental health by his injuries had a defining effect on his thinking.

(1) Unfortunately, I don’t have Bosworth’s book in my possession so I can’t look up the context in which he uses the phrase

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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.

Categories: Historians of Alexander | Tags: , | 1 Comment

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