Changing the Past: In Antiquity and Today

New Year is well and truly over and I am back at work. When is my next holiday?


This week I read Come, Tell Me How You Live by Agatha Christie Mallowan. Don’t be confused by the last name, she is that Agatha Christie. Mallowan was her married name. The reason for its use here is because Come, Tell Me is not a crime novel but an account of the archaeological trips to the Near East that she undertook with her archaeologist husband, Max Mallowan, in the 1930s.

In Chapter One, Christie and her husband make their way to Syria on the Orient Express. They witness no murders, fortunately, but do pass the Sea of Marmora and Cilician Gates in Turkey.

As soon as I saw these names, my mind went back to Alexander. Christie’s Marmora became Diodorus’ Marmarens. The Marmarens (who, I should say, lived in Lycia rather than around the Sea of Marmara) attacked the Macedonian army as it marched past, killing no few soldiers, kidnapping others and stealing booty. Alexander, unsurprisingly, was rather displeased by this, and lay siege to the Marmarens’ fort.

For two days, Alexander attacked it. However, although he failed to break its defences, he did enough to persuade the Marmaren elders that he would stay until he had done so. Upon realising this, the elders,

… advised their younger countrymen to end their resistance and make peace with the king on whatever terms were possible.
(Diodorus XVII.28)

Interestingly, the younger Marmarens refused to do this. Diodorus tells us that they ‘were eager to die together simultaneously’ (Ibid) for the sake of their freedom. Now, at this point, you might have thought that the elders would have knocked their children’s heads together, remind them of who was in charge and lead the surrender before the youngsters came out with another tom fool idea. But no, they acquiesced to this, and came out with a tom fool idea of their own. The elders told the young men If you are determined to die, kill your wives, children and elderly relatives then break out of the fort and hide yourselves in the mountains.

The young men liked this idea and went away to have a last meal with their families. That evening, however, some of them reneged on the plan. But they didn’t run away with their loved ones. Instead of killing their families ‘with their own hands’ (Ibid) as the elders had suggested, they set fire to their homes and burned them alive. Six hundred men did this, and having done so, they should have had the decency to die with their loved ones. But no. They duly broke out of the fort and headed to the mountains.

This story has stuck with me since I read it. I am fascinated by the apparent equality of power between the young and old Marmarens. I have not heard of any other society in antiquity, or since, for that matter, where a similar situation has existed.

But… Did it exist? It may not have. The above quotations from Diodorus comes from my Loeb edition. The notes there state that ‘Appian… tells the same story of Xanthus, traditionally destroyed in this way three times… it was something of a literary topos’ (Diodorus XVII.28 n.5). Indeed, as the notes say, Diodorus repeats the story in Book XVIII.22 of his Library. There, it is the Isaurians in Pisidia who, seeing that they have no chance of breaking Perdiccas’ siege, burn their families alive in their homes. The Isaurians, however, do not try to flee afterwards. Instead, they destroy their possessions in the fire and, after defending the city for a little while longer, jump into the flames themselves.

Diodorus calls the Isaurians’ actions ‘a heroic and memorable deed’ (Dio.XVIII.22). I can only wonder if he changed the original account of what happened to the Marmarens and Isaurians to highlight their perceived heroism or if his sources did so.


Only Diodorus mentions the Marmarens. In contrast, both Arrian (II.4.3-6) and Curtius (III.4.11-14) refer to Alexander’s passage through the Cilician Gates on his way to Tarsus. There, their similarity ends.

Curtius states that Alexander looked at the narrow path ahead of him and,

… they say [was] never more surprised at his good fortune. For, he observed, he could have been crushed just by rocks, if there had been anyone there to hurl them down on his approaching troops.
(Curtius III.4.11)

According to Arrian, however, the Cilician Gates were heavily defended when Alexander arrived, but when the Persian soldiers realised ‘that Alexander was leading the attack in person’ (Ar.II.4.4), they fled. This sounds altogether a more likely version of events than Curtius’ as it would make no sense for the local satrap, Arsames, to leave the pass undefended.


One of the things that makes Alexander such an interesting figure to study is the fact that he defies our expectations. I was reflecting on this the other day and contemplating writing a blog post titled ‘Alexander the (Social Justice) Warrior’ focusing on how he pardoned Timoclea after she killed the Thracian soldier who raped her (Plutarch Life of Alexander 12), his treatment of the Persian queen and princesses (Pl. Life 21) and the conquered Persians (e.g. in the way he tried to integrate them into his imperial hierarchy as satraps). These were all very progressive social actions.

Alexander was not just about the fighting; and when he did fight he did not do so just to make Greece look good. Like any social justice warrior he wanted to change the world for the better. Hence, the above mentioned actions and the fact that he took surveyors and scientists on his expedition.

Of course, the name ‘social justice warrior’ has a pejorative meaning as well. And guess what. Alexander can be found there as well.

Thus, taking the Urban Dictionary’s definition (here),

… an individual who repeatedly and vehemently engages in arguments on social justice on the Internet, often in a shallow or not well-thought-out way, for the purpose of raising their own personal reputation.

Having been taught by Aristotle, Alexander could hold his own in an argument. However, he was undeniably concerned with his reputation. That was the whole reason for the expedition.

Social Justice Warriors or SJWs are: People with paper thin skin who always find something to be offended about. They generally have no concept of humour.

As Black Cleitus (Curtius VIII.1.22-52), Callisthenes (Pl. Life 53) and Cassander (Pl. Life 74) found out to their collective cost Alexander could be very easily offended sometimes, with fatal consequences.

[SJWs] aggressively call for the downfall of the person who carelessly offended them.

Philotas (Curtius VI.7.1-11.40), anyone?

But as I said above, Alexander defies our expectations. He is not only a progressive but also very conservative. Perhaps I will come back to that in my next or a future post.


The BBC and Netflix are producing a new drama based on the Trojan War. Controversy is following in the series’ wake, however, due to the fact that some of the characters, including Achilles, are being played by black actors. For more, see the Greek Reporter here.

If I had been the casting director, I would have chosen a white actor to play Achilles. That’s what he was. However, the more I think about it, the less I think that the casting director is obliged to hire a white person.

The Iliad is not history. Homer’s Achilles did not exist. He might be based on a real person but he is not them. Homer’s Achilles is a myth. He is a meaning. And in that capacity, he can be reinterpreted by every age as it sees fit. Indeed, it is only by being reinterpreted that he remains relevant to us.

If a law was made that permitted only one, single version of Achilles, we would bound him to the meaning of a specific time and place, and one day, he would become strange and unknowable to us. I would a thousand thousand times over rather have a black Achilles, a female Achilles, an Achilles who loves Hector rather than Patroclus or a pacifist Achilles rather than an irrelevant Achilles.

Categories: Alexander in Film, Arrian, Books, Diodorus Siculus, Homer, Plutarch, Quintus Curtius Rufus | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

He fervently prayed

Iliad Diary
Day 3

Book I Lines 33-44

In the last post we saw how Agamemnon incurred Apollo’s wrath by refusing to return Chryseis to her father, a priest of the god.

Agamemnon angrily ordered Chryses out of his presence and so today, we meet the latter wandering helplessly ‘along the shore / of the loud-roaring sea’ (L.34-5).

I have just started reading The Mighty Dead by Adam Nicholson, which is sub-titled Why Homer Matters. In it, he notes Homer’s reference to the pontos atrygetos, the unharvestable sea.

The second I saw that phrase I knew exactly what Homer meant: death; the sea is a place of death. In an agrarian culture, something that was unharvestable could be absolutely nothing else.

With this in mind, Homer’s positioning of Chryses next to the sea as he silently – perhaps numbly – contemplates the enslavement of his daughter becomes overwhelmingly sad*. She is now effectively dead to him.

But Chryses isn’t finished, yet. After reaching a self distance from Agamemnon, or – I imagine – the Achaeans as a whole – he stops and prays to Apollo that he might ‘take vengeance upon the Danaans for my tears’ (l.44).

Chryses’ prayer to Apollo has a formulaic feel to it. He starts by praising the ‘all-glorious ruler’ before addressing him by a couple of his titles— this stopped me in my tracks, for one of them was ‘Mouse-god’. Mouse god?! Where does this title come from? Is it one of Apollo’s oldest, dating to a time when he had not yet risen to his full dignity? At first sight it seems a name that is more suited to a Disney film than The Iliad.

Having praised Apollo and addressed him in a fitting manner, Chryses invites the god to consider his loyal service. Thus, if I have ever pleased you – please destroy the Achaeans**. It is a brutal prayer but we are visitors to a brutal world.

The Alexander Connection
Alexander prayed often, but never – as far as I can recall – in the way that Chryses does here. He didn’t really need to.

In the next post, we’ll see how Apollo attacked the Achaeans for nine days with his deadly arrows. ‘[T]his plague is killing our men’ (l.62). Alexander was on the road for thirteen years and I can’t think of one outbreak of disease within his camp that threatened it in the way that Apollo’s is about to threaten the Achaeans.

Perhaps Alexander was lucky – it wouldn’t be the first time – but it does seem rather remarkable that it never, ever became an issue for him.

* Later on in the poem we will see Achilles take a similar journey after the all too real death of his beloved friend, Patroclus
**Danaans is term synonymous with Achaeans. Later on, we’ll also find Homer referring to the Achaeans as Argives

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A Deadly Plague

Iliad Diary
Day 2

In my first post you may have noticed that I included an asterisk at the end of the fourth paragraph… and then forgot to add the footnote!

What I said, was ‘With that said, let’s jump into the poem. Book I Lines 1-7. I have chosen these because they comprise Homer’s introduction to his work*.’

And what I meant to add at the end of the post was ‘* I know that Homer, whom some say did not exist at all, is not the creator of The Iliad but the person who is believed to have written the poem, previously transmitted orally, down. I could have paid lip service to this by writing ‘the poet’ or indeed ‘the poets’ but as Homer is the conventionally accepted author of the written Iliad, I will stick with him.’

Alright, with that done, I would like to thank S. Abel-Smith and Silasaila for their comments after the first post. Both pointed out that the goddess to which Homer is referring in line 1 is the Muse. Which one? Perhaps Calliope, the muse of epic poetry.


Book 1 Lines 8-32
To the poem. And it is Apollo, a priest named Chryses and Agamemnon who take centre stage for these 24 lines.

In the first line of The Iliad, Homer asks the Muse to sing through him of the ‘rage of Achilles’ but it is Agamemnon and Apollo who are the first two to people get angry*.

The reason for Apollo’s anger is Agamemnon, and the fact that he has taken Chryses’ daughter, Chryseis, captive. We are not immediately told Chryseis’ age, but though Chryses refers to her as his ‘dear child’, I assume that she is a woman as Agamemnon has taken her to be his concubine. As he tells Chryses,

‘She will grow old in Argos… working the loom and coming to bed when I call her.’

If only Agamemnon knew that he would not enjoy too many visits to his bed when he did finally get home…

… but we are getting ahead of ourselves. Why is Apollo offended by Agamemnon’s actions? Well, as you might suspect, Chryses is not any old Tom, Dick or Achilles. He is one of Apollo’s priests, and Apollo looks after his own.

Thus, when Agamemnon refuses Chryses’ plea to release his daughter, Apollo, in his anger unleashes ‘a deadly plague to the [Achaean] camp’ (L.10).

Agamemnon has acted most unwisely. Chryses even came ‘with a splendid ransom’ (L.12), and was supported in his plea by the Achaean rank and file. But not only did Agamemnon refuse to hand Chryseis over, he threatened to kill Chryses should the priest ever return again. This is a level of disrespect that no Greek god could ever ignore and down come Apollo’s arrows.

Apollo’s response to Agamemnon’s hubris epitomises for me the relationship between the Greeks and their gods: You worship me, and I’ll look out for you.

If Agamemnon is hubristic, Chryses is plain pitiful. We aren’t told this, but I assume that the latter is a Trojan. If so, despite this, when making his plea to Agamemnon, the priest says,

may the gods allow you to plunder Priam’s great city,
then grant you a safe homecoming. But hear my plea.

Priam’s great city – Troy – will have been his life; his wealth, sacrifices, honour – all would have come from there. Now, he is forced to betray it.

Well, yes, he has, but only for love of his daughter. Chryses may be pitiful, therefore, but also noble and brave.

The Alexander Connection
Three aspects of this chapter put me in mind of aspects of Alexander’s life:

  1. Agamemnon’s preparedness to disrespect a priest
  2. Agamemnon’s intention to use Chryseis as a concubine
  3. The ‘disloyalty’ of the Achaean rank and file towards the will of the king

Unlike Agamemnon, Alexander was generally very respectful of religions. We often see him sacrificing to the gods. With that said, his attitude wasn’t of perfect submission to their will, as we see when he ignored the bad omens and crossed the Jaxartes river to fight the Scythians (Arrian IV.4). He was also capable of fighting foreign priests – as he did when he took on the Brahmins (Ar. VI.8, 17). In the last few days on Twitter I have also been reading about how Alexander put the Zoroastrians to the sword. I mention that advisedly as Alexander’s anti-Zoroastianism comes to us from (Zoroastrian) texts relating to Alexander  written a long time after the event – though they may bear witness to an authentic oral tradition.

Agamemnon’s enslavement of Chryseis puts Alexander’s treatment of women in mind. Plutarch (Life of Alexander 21), for example, tells us of the effort Alexander went to in order to take care of the Persian Royal Family. Alexander himself kept no concubine**. To the best of my knowledge, he ignored Darius’ harem after winning the Persian empire and may very well have married Roxane as much for for love as the political benefit that their union would bring (see Arrian IV.19-20).

Finally, the ease with which the Achaean soldiers turned against Agamemnon stands in very stark contrast with the fierce loyalty of the Macedonian army to Alexander. Of course, they revolted twice; once at the Hyphasis river and then at Opis. At the Hyphasis they were simply and very deeply worn out. At Opis they thought Alexander had lost faith in them. They revolted, therefore, for two profound reasons, not over whether Alexander should keep or send a woman away.

* Perhaps I should say ‘the first man and god’
** Bagoas the eunuch is as close as Alexander ever came to keeping a concubine, and I think Alexander loved him (see Athenaeus Deipnosophists XIII.80 here), even if not on the same level as Roxane or Hephaestion

Texts Used
I am reading Stephen Mitchell’s translation of The Iliad in e-book form (Phoenix 2013). The Arrian quotations come from my copy of the Penguin Classics (1971) edition

Categories: Homer | Tags: , | Leave a comment

Bitter Words

I last read The Iliad in its entirety 21 years ago. Given my interest in Alexander the Great I should have read the epic that so inspired him much, much more recently than that. Well, it’s no use crying over spilt milk. I’ve started reading it now and as often as I do so will write an update on this blog on how I am getting on.

Iliad Diary
Day 1

Firstly, an apology. An apology for all the references that I will miss while reading the poem. I am an amateur when it comes to the fourth century B.C. and am rather less than that when it comes to the thirteen. To make up for this, I will, as I read The Iliad be doing some background reading as well. Where I can incorporate what I learn into these posts, I will certainly do so.

Secondly, a word about how I will structure these posts. To keep the word count down, and encourage myself to be more concise I will be taking the poem one scene at a time. Having said that, I don’t want to be in the position of blogging about one line so this will change if the scenes are very short.

With that said, let’s jump into the poem. Book I Lines 1-7. I have chosen these because they comprise Homer’s introduction to his work*.

The rage of Achilles – sing it now, goddess, sing through me
the deadly rage that caused the Achaeans such grief

Two things jump out at me in these two lines: the fact that Homer is asking the goddess to sing the poem through him and the fact that Achilles’ anger hurts his own side, not the Trojans.

A question: which goddess is Homer referring to? Is it Artemis, the goddess of war? Or perhaps Hera, who loved Achilles (I.201)?

Whichever goddess it is, the first line of the poem tells us something very interesting about how poets of archaic Greece saw themselves. Not just reciters of great lays but channels of the gods, themselves.

Now, I am sure Homer was a very humble man, but the idea of poets seeing themselves as the gods’ interlocutors must have given at least a few of them big heads.

This reminds me of Callisthenes’ alleged big headedness. Arrian tells us (IV.10) of a story that Aristotle’s nephew claimed,

without the history he was writing, Alexander and his work would be forgotten

And that Callisthenes claimed,

if Alexander was destined to have a share of divinity, it would not be owing to Olympias’ absurd stories about his birth, but to the account of him which he would himself publish in his history.

At this point, I should say that if at any point I can relate anything I read in The Iliad to Alexander’s life, then I will endeavour to do so. I beg your patience if the connexions I draw are just too tenuous!

Going back to the poem, the poet implies that Achilles’ anger was ‘the will of Zeus’. The king of Olympus, therefore, permitted many of his people – Greeks – to die because of Achilles. This is a very pressing reminder that though Hera loved Thetis’ son, the gods could not always be relied upon to have their subjects backs at any given time.

A question: Was this because the Olympians only ever acted according to self-interest or were they at the mercy of fate, or the Fates?


I almost forgot to tell you: I am reading Stephen Mitchell’s translation of The Iliad in e-book form (Phoenix 2013).

The Arrian I quoted from is the beat up Penguin Classics (1971) edition that I wouldn’t lose for the world.

Categories: Books, Homer | 4 Comments

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