In my post on Sunday, I neglected to look at the question of why the five sources either looked at Alexander the Great’s arrival at/time in Babylon in the way that they did, or else ignored it. To make up for this omission, I thought I would write this quick extra post to offer some of my thoughts.
Near the start of his book, Arrian tells us (I.12.4) that ‘there is no other single man, among either Greeks or barbarians, who has given evidence of achievements so many in number or so great in magnitude’. He then adds that, ‘I did not think myself unsuited to the task of making Alexander’s achievements clear to the world’. Leaving aside Arrian’s admirable self-belief, if his priority is to make ‘Alexander’s achievements’ more well known, he is not going to be so very interested in day-to-day events; for example, how the Macedonian soldiers spent their free time. But surely he could have said a bit more about Alexander’s arrival in the city. And yet, why should he? I suspect that to him, it was all frippery. Arrian – perhaps be taking his cue from his own chief sources, Ptolemy and Aristobulos – is about the big moments, the battles, and sieges, not the civilian ones.
I have read that Curtius’ overall aim with his book is to show how Alexander went from being a good king to a bad one. This would certainly explain why he condemns Alexander for undermining the discipline of his army before, in order to justify his comment, outlining the Babylonians’ errant sexual behaviour.
When I read his Lonely Planet review of Babylon, I see it as being there simply to build up a picture for his audience of the place he is talking about. Arrian wants to highlight Alexander’s achievements. Curtius wants to take his audience to the places where the highs and lows happened.
For Diodorus, Alexander and the Macedonians came, feasted, and – after some important political and military appointments had been made – left. For him, nothing else of note happened, so there is nothing else to say. Diodorus’ ultimate source for his narrative is an Alexandrian writer from the time of Ptolemy I, named Cleitarchus. He presumably knew about what the Macedonian soldiers got up to, because Curtius, who is also believed to have used him, mentions them. Maybe Diodorus dropped that element of Cleitarchus’ narrative because his concern was not, unlike Curtius, to moralise, but rather, to show how ‘disunited cultures [grew] to one Mediterranean civilization under Roman rule.’ (Livius), and there is no space in that for events which were ultimately of local and temporary significance.
At the start of his Life of Alexander, Plutarch explains his reason for writing about the Macedonian king. ‘I am not writing history but biography,’ he says in chapter one, ‘and the most outstanding exploits,’ or, the actions of Alexander’s men during their free time, we might add, ‘do not always have the property of revealing the goodness or badness of the agent’, in this case, of course, Alexander.
Finally, dear Justin. In his epitome of Alexander’s life, he mentions how the Macedonians were given rewards and a month of rest, and how Alexander ‘made an inventory of the spoils’ (XI.14.8). I wonder if he followed in the footsteps of Diodorus, and so moved on because he thought nothing else of lasting significance happened. Actually, I should not say ‘he’ because Justin’s book is a summary of another work by a man named Pompeius Trogus.
Credit The Queen of the Night – possibly Ishtar, the Babylonian goddess of sex and love – Wikipedia
Today (2nd April 2023), is Palm Sunday. In churches all over the world, Christians celebrate the entry of Jesus into Jerusalem.
Most of the crowd spread their garments on the road, and others cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road. And the crowds that went before him and that followed him shouted, ‘Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest!’
Jesus’ triumphant arrival in the Holy City presages His Passion and Death followed by, this time next week, Resurrection. It is the high point of Jesus’ public life, the moment when everyone, it seems, is on His side. As the next few days show, however, they are certainly not.
On 1st October 331 BC, Alexander the Great defeated Darius III in battle for the second time. His victory at Gaugamela gave him the Persian Empire. As for Darius, he managed to escape capture and headed east in order to raise yet another army.
Rather than pursue him, Alexander decided to travel south in order to take possession of Babylon. As today is Palm Sunday, I thought I would take a quick look at the five main ancient sources for Alexander’s life to see what they have to say about his own triumphant arrival in a great city, and his time there afterwards.
ArrianIII.16.3-5 Arrian’s account is very formal. It focuses exclusively on Alexander’s movements and deeds. Thus, he tells us that Alexander approached the city cautiously, ‘leading on his force in full battle-order’. He had no need to worry, however, for the Babylonians opened their gates, and came to meet him with gifts. Arrian immediately takes us from the city’s surrender to Alexander giving orders for the rebuilding of ‘the temples destroyed by Xerxes’*. He then moves on to Alexander’s political and military appointments. These benefitted the satrap Mazaeus who was (re)appointed to his post. Macedonians were put in charge of the army at Babylon and of tax collection. And then, as Arrian says, Alexander ‘set out for Susa’.
* The notes to my copy of Arrian state that this did not happen as Herodotus describes seeing those self-same temples
Curtius V.1.17-45 Curtius’ account of Alexander’s time in Babylon is the longest and, I suspect, the most entertaining, of all five sources. He begins with the surrender of the city by Mazaeus. This was a good start, but as with Arrian, Alexander remained cautious and put his army into battle order. Curtius says he formed it ‘into a square’. I have to admit, I thought the square was a Roman formation. If so, I guess Curtius is simply describing the Macedonian army in a way that his readers will be able to relate to.
Curtius describes how Bagophanes, ‘the man in charge of the citadel and royal treasury… carpeted the whole road with flowers and garlands.’ But that’s not all. He also set up altars and brought a fantastic selection of animals as gifts – ‘herds of cattle and horses, and lions, too, and leopards, carried along in cages’. The Magi also attended Alexander’s arrival, along with musicians. Alexander entered the city on a chariot. That brings us to Charles Le Brun’s painting, below.
Unfortunately, this image is rather smaller than I expected. If you look at the one at Wikimedia Commons (link below), you can easily see an interesting detail – Alexander is looking directly at the viewer. What could he be saying to us? Look at me. Look at this. This is all mine-?
Curtius describes how Alexander made an inspection of the royal palace. His account, thereafter, becomes like something out of a travel guide. I would say The Lonely Planet, but I am also a big fan of E. M Forster, so I will mention Baedeker instead. One thing is for sure, Miss Lavish would have been scandalised by but loved Babylon for its ‘literary’ possibilities.
After finishing his description of the city, Curtius condemns Alexander for undermining ‘military discipline’ while there. Why? Because he let his men take full advantage of the Babylonians seemingly free-wheeling attitude to sex. If Curtius hated this aspect of Babylonian life so much, you would have thought he would either have ignored or at least glossed over it, telling the reader only what was strictly necessary for him to know. Any more, of course, might corrupt him. But that is not what happens. Curtius risks all and explains what exactly the Babylonians did that was so horrid. To be fair, the practices that he describes are rather rum. But I strongly suspect that Curtius rather enjoyed scandalising his listeners.
After the sex, military appointments, and reinforcements from Macedon. Finally, political appointments and then, Alexander is off again, never to stop in one place for the same amount of time (a month or so) again.
Diodorus XVII.64 Diodorus gives no account of Alexander’s arrival at Babylon, and he deals with the Macedonian king’s time there in just a few lines. The people, he says, ‘received [Alexander] gladly’. They gave the Macedonians places to stay and plenty of food and drink. Alexander stayed in the city for ‘more than thirty days… because food was plentiful and the population friendly.’ After describing Alexander’s military and political appointments, Diodorus moves him on.
Justin XI.8 Justin’s account of Alexander’s life is, as its title suggests, an epitome, a summary. Despite Babylon’s importance, Justin does not (in my translation, anyway) mention it by name. He says simply, ‘The [Macedonians] were rewarded and granted thirty-four days’ rest, after which Alexander made an inventory of the spoils…’. He then moves on to Susa. So, no mention of Alexander’s arrival, of Babylon’s fleshpots, or even his military and political appointments.
PlutarchLife of Alexander35 I think uniquely among the sources (I would need to double check), Plutarch implies that Alexander continued military operations between Gaugamela and Babylon. He then includes a really astonishing story about a highly flammable substance called naphtha. What is remarkable about this story is not the naphtha itself but the way in which an Athenian member of Alexander’ court decides to see how flammable it is – even though the Babylonians appear to have already shown them. Athenophanes has the substance smeared over the body of a child named Stephanos. It is then set alight, and Stephanos, unsurprisingly, is engulfed in flames. Fortunately, the fire is put out but ‘afterwards [Stephanos] was in a terrible state’. Alexander is described as being ‘completely panic-stricken with fear’ by Stephanos’ immolation, so maybe at that point he didn’t know how flammable naphtha was.
Well, I hope not, because what an awful thing to do to someone. Why would they have so risked harming the lad? Plutarch tells us that Stephanos, though a good singer, ‘was particularly, even ridiculously, ugly’. A fatal thing to be in an age that idealised beauty.
Plutarch spends a bit more time discussing naphtha, whether Medea used it, and its influence on Babylonian agriculture, but has next to nothing to say about Babylon. He simply records the attempts by Alexander’s treasurer, Harpalus, to get Greek plants, specifically ivy, to grow when he ‘was left in charge of the country’. Then we are in Susa.
So, as you can see, Arrian and especially Curtius are the best sources to read if you are interested in Alexander’s arrival and time in Babylon. Obviously, if you are easily offended, or Roman, you should stick with Arrian and avoid Curtius!
At the beginning, I described Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem as the high point of His public life. I think the same can be said for Alexander in Babylon. Times were pretty good in Susa and Persepolis, but Babylon was all about pleasure. Whether it was food, alcohol, riches, religion, or sex, for one blessed month, the Macedonians had it all. At no point after did they get all the things that made the expedition worth it without any risk to themselves. It’s ironic, therefore, that after Alexander’s death, Babylon was the place where the army tore itself apart, both briefly, between infantry and cavalry, and for good, as the empire was carved up between the Successors.
The Palm Sunday Mass has two Gospel readings. The second includes Jesus’ cry from the cross.
Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani? That is, ‘My God, my God, why have you deserted me?’
It is a cry of desolation. Alexander could not have known it at the time, but Babylon presaged his own desolation, for when he returned to the city in 323 BC, it would be with the corpse of his truest of friends, and heart of his heart, Hephaestion, and with the knowledge that in the last few years, his army had rebelled not once but twice against him. To reflect the loneliness that this must have caused within him, I thought I would add Gustave Moreau’s painting, above, which shows Alexander high on his throne, ruling over all, but completely isolated in that rule. The triumphal entrance had ended, but with a king no longer at one with his people.
Texts Used Arrian Alexander the Great tr. byMartin Hammond (OUP 2013) Curtius The History of Alexander (Penguin Classics 2004) Diodorus Library of History Books 16.66-17 tr. C. Bradford Welles (Loeb Classical Library 1963) Justin Epitome of the Philippic History of Pompeius Trogus Vol.I Books 11-1: Alexander the Great tr. J.C. Yardley (Clarendon Ancient History Series 2003) Plutarch Hellenistic Lives including Alexander the Great tr. Robin Waterfield (Oxford World’s Classics 2016)
Credits Entry of Alexander into Babylon by Charles Le Brun: Wikimedia Commons The Triumph of Alexander the Great by Gustave Moreau: Wikimedia Commons The Triumph of Alexander the Great (detail) by Gustave Moreau: Pinterest
Well, I spent all of last week wondering what to write in this post. The first thing that occurred to me was to publish a breakdown of Alexander’s life as maybe it would be helpful to people wanting to learn about him. I actually first jotted down just such a breakdown a while ago but I did it again last week. Here is the result:
Alexander’s Early Years (356-336) Conception – Accession to the Macedonian Throne – Conception – Alexander’s Character and Appearance – Family Life
The Greek Campaign (336-334) Alexander’s Accession – Beginning of the War of Revenge – Alexander Becomes King – First Greek Campaign — Thebes and Athens Submit – Campaign against Thrace and Illyria – Second Greek Campaign — Destruction of Thebes
The Asia Minor Campaign (334-333) Troy – The Battle of Issus – Troy – The Battle of the Granicus River — Aftermath of the Battle – Siege of Halicarnassus – The Subservient Sea – The Gordian Knot – Alexander’s Illness in Cilicia / A plot against his life? – The Battle of Issus — Aftermath of the Battle
Through the Levant (333-331) Issus – The Siege of Gaza – Alexander in Sidon – The Siege of Tyre – The Siege of Gaza
The March to Gaugamela (331) Egypt – The Battle of Gaugamela – March through the Middle-East – The Battle of Gaugamela — Aftermath of the Battle
The City Sweep (331-330) Babylon – Susa – Persepolis – March to Babylon – One month in Babylon – March to Susa — Alexander Opposed at the Persian Gates – March on Persepolis — Rape of Persepolis — Destruction of Xerxes’ Palace – Visiting Pasargadae and Cyrus the Great’s Tomb
In Pursuit of Darius (330) Persepolis – Hyrcania – March on Ecbatana – In Pursuit of Darius – Finding Darius – The March East – Philotas’ Downfall
The Bactria-Sogdia Campaigns (330-327) Pursuing Bessus – Marriage to Roxane – In Pursuit of Bessus – Fighting the Scythians – Hit and Run: Spitamenes’ Opposition – Death of Cleitus the Black – The Pages’ Plot – Marriage to Roxane
The Indian Campaign (327-325) Indus River – The Battle of Hydaspes – Mutiny at the Hyphasis River – Return West – March to the Indus River with Split Forces – Taking the Aornos Rock – Crossing the Indus River – Drunk in Nysa – Taxiles – The Battle of the Hydaspes River: Lead Up – Battle – Aftermath – The Macedonian Army’s Mutiny at the Hyphasis River – March Down the Indus River: Alexander’s Impatience – Near Death – Genocide (?) – Open Sea
Return to Babylon (325-323) Gedrosia – Babylon – The Fish Eaters – Death in the Desert – Carmanian Celebrations – Return to Pasargadae and Cyrus’ Tomb – Orxines and Bagoas – Purge of Corrupt Officials – The Opis Mutiny – The Susa Weddings – Ecbatana — Hephaestion’s Death – Alexander’s Last Campaign – March to Babylon – Alexander’s Last Days and Death
Please forgive any omissions and errors as I wrote the breakdown off the top of my head and haven’t yet made a substantial effort to make sure all the events mentioned are in the correct order. I would like to do this in the near future, as well as add any events that ought to be there but aren’t.
What inspired me to think about the breakdown again was the Camino de Santiago. Anyone reading this who also reads my personal blog or Twitter page will know that I think about the Camino often! I walked it in 2019 and although I returned home have barely left it since. In case you don’t know, the Camino de Santiago is a collection of pilgrimage routes through Europe that all enter northern Spain and end at the cathedral of Santiago de Compostela in the north-west of the country.
In 2019, I walked the whole of the Camino Francés route (from Saint Jean Pied de Port in the French Pyrenees to Santiago). It took just over a month to do. Taking a month out of from one’s life to walk the Camino is a big, big commitment so many people walk their route in stages, returning every year or whenever they can to walk the next stage until that blessed day when they finally reach the cathedral.
In other words, they break down their Camino route into manageable portions. That’s what put me in mind of my breakdown of Alexander’s life. Maybe there are people who would like to read about him but aren’t sure where to begin, or who are simply overwhelmed by the thought of studying this amazing figure. If so, presenting his life in pint size portions would seem to be a worthwhile idea. As well as correcting errors and omissions, I’d also like to develop the breakdown further. For example, by specifying where in each of the sources you can read about each phase of his life/expedition, explaining why each phase is worth reading about, and so on.
So, the breakdown was the first thing to occur to me. Then, because I had the Camino in mind, I began thinking about the pilgrimages that Alexander undertook during his War of Revenge against Darius III and after. I started with three and ended with five:
Alexander the Pilgrim – Delphi to see the Oracle – Troy where he and Hephaestion ran naked – Siwah to question Ammon-Zeus – Pasargadae to visit the Tomb of Cyrus the Greatand pay his respects – Nysa to get drunk in the spirit of Bacchus
Can you think of any more pilgrimages that Alexander might have undertaken? I’d be very glad to hear about them if so. I am, of course, not only interested in the idea of Alexander going on pilgrimage because of the Camino. I’m also a practising (albeit badly) Catholic so that makes the idea relevant to me as well. Sadly, I must inform you that I never ran naked anywhere in Spain. I did have at least one beer at the end of every day’s walk. And boy, did I appreciate it! The best thing was, I still managed to lose a stone during the month!
The idea of Alexander on pilgrimage took me to another idea: some posts on Alexander ‘beyond the battlefield’.
What do we know about him off the battlefield? I haven’t yet made any notes about this, but off the top of my head, I could say that he enjoyed literature, the art and practice of medicine, and philosophy. He was exceptionally generous to his friends (much to his mother, Olympias’, annoyance) and even to those enemies who fought bravely against him (e.g. Porus). He did not live for battle alone but was happy to use diplomacy when necessary. He respected women and the customs of his barbarian subjects, even to the point of trying to adopt them. He was politically very pragmatic, tending not to change the political systems of places he conquered but let them retain whatever system they already had in place. He could be utterly ruthless and focused, but was not without occasional self-doubt. He cried, was very religious, and, of course, liked to drink. He hated strongly but loved – both men and women – with equal strength as well. There’s just a few things. I’m sure I could go on. This is the idea that is currently strongest with me. Maybe I could follow my breakdown and make a note of what we learn about Alexander away from all the fighting in each phase.
So, that’s where I am at the moment. This week, I will try and commit to writing about X and get on with it.
In the meantime, let me recommend a programme to you. It’s called The Forum and is a discussion show on the BBC World Service. A few days ago, they had an episode on ‘Alexander the Great or not so great?’. You can find it here. If you are unable to access it on the BBC’s website, drop me a line: I downloaded it, so maybe I could e-mail it to you.
Credits Alexander the Great as seen in the Alexander Mosaic – found on Pinterest but taken from Etsy Alexander the Great by Yevgeni Kacnelson – found on Pinterest but taken from Fine Art America
I started writing this blog, I think, in 2011. Back then, I was still getting to know the main sources for Alexander the Great’s life: Arrian, Curtius, Diodorus, Justin, and Plutarch. I don’t know what the percentage is, but in my memory, I feel that a lot of the posts I wrote then were connected to my reading of them. That was great as the writing allowed me to soak up what I had read better than if I had just read and then put the book away.
However, there came a moment when I realised that I had now read the sources once or maybe twice in a row, all the time writing about them as I did so, and, as a result, it was now time to move on, to find other things to write about Alexander. But what? I never could quite figure it out.
Ever since I ‘discovered’ the great conqueror, I had been happy for my reading and writing to be at the level of a ‘private passion’. Looking back at the last four or five years, though, as the blog slowly ground to a halt because I didn’t know what to say, I wish that I had, after all, signed up to a course to study him in a more formal setting. That would surely have given me ideas. Well, there’s no use crying over spilt milk. I never did sign up to anything, and that’s that.
As a result of my indecision, the blog finally came to a proper halt last August. Perhaps I should have deleted it. Not that I knew last summer that it would be six months before I wrote another post. The problem, though, is that I remain passionate about Alexander. I know this because, even though my blogging, and, I must admit, my reading, had pretty much stopped, I remained very happy – in real life – to talk people’s socks off about him given half the chance.
I always felt a bit guilty, though, because I knew I was using old knowledge. I wasn’t keeping myself fresh through (re)reading books or watching videos on YouTube, listening to podcasts, etc.
That aside, passion is why I am writing this post now.
Passion is a funny thing. I wrote my last post in August ’22 but for most of the time since – even though I haven’t known what to write – I’ve wanted to write. I’ve thought of ideas but none have stuck long enough for me to set them down on the screen, and then press publish.
What has changed? ‘Passion’ aside, why am I writing this post now? Well, it isn’t because I have had a revelation and now am full of ideas. I think it really is just that passion driving me to write something/anything. Maybe it will lead to renewed posting, maybe not. We’ll see.
I say I’m not full of ideas. I did have one. I am writing this post on 19th March 2023. It is Mothering Sunday today in the UK. A very happy Mothers’ Day to you if you are a mother of any description. I heard Mass at my local parish church this morning, and while there, I got distracted – it usually happens – and it occurred to me that I could write something about Olympias, Alexander’s mother.
Ideally, I would have liked to have researched her a little first, but because the desire to write and, I guess, explain my blog absence, was stronger, here I am now. So, I will just say this: Olympias was a very driven person. She was probably not a tremendously likeable one. She undoubtedly (in my mind), though, gets a very bad rap from the sources. Maybe she was as vile as they make out, but I suspect they just didn’t like a strong woman who knew what needed to be done and got on with it, even if to the nth degree. Even today, we as a society still aren’t overly keen on women who speak up, who are strong: and we live in a supposedly more accepting world. No wonder Olympias gets both barrels from the far more mysoginistic world in which she lived, and which came after in the form of the Roman empire.
That aside, Olympias may still have been a nasty piece of work, but one anecdote about her speaks very loudly to me in this regard. It comes from Plutarch’s Life of Alexander (Chapter 3). There, he talks about how, according to an author named Eratosthenes, when Alexander set out,
… on his eastern campaign, Olympias accompanied him during the procession [and] told him in private the secret of his birth…
i.e. that he was not Philip’s son but the son of Zeus-Ammon. However, according to other sources, Olympias,
… repudiated the idea [that Alexander was Zeus-Ammon’s son] on religious grounds, and said, ‘I wish Alexander would stop getting me into trouble with Hera.’
Even if at the expense of Alexander’s ego, I hope that this anecdote is true. It would give us a glimpse of a woman who was devout and had a good sense of proportion, of someone who was not totally hell bent on her and her son’s success. Maybe I’m clutching at straws but it’s better than nothing.
Well, there we are. I’m back. I hope to write another post next Sunday when I get home from Mass. It would be wonderful if I could make late morning – early afternoons on Sundays my Alexander writing time. Before I finish, though, I will mention this: a few days ago I started reading again. I picked up my copy of Alexander the Great: Myth, Genesis and Sexuality by Daniel Ogden. I read the introduction and a couple of pages of Chapter One. Let’s challenge myself to make good progress in the week ahead so that, even if I have nothing else to say, I can talk about the book!
Credits Plutarch Hellenistic Lives including Alexander the Great (tr. Robin Waterfield) (OUP 2016) Olympias, Roman Medallion Wikipedia Angelina Jolie as Olympias – Reddit
In the UK we celebrate Bonfire Night on 5th November every year. Given the low esteem in which politicians are generally held this does seem a bit ironic, but there it is.
For my part, I don’t have much time for Bonfire Night, especially since 5th November marks the anniversary of the Battle of Issus.
On or around 5th Nov. 333 BC, Alexander confronted and defeated Darius III in the first of their two battles. It was a battle that shouldn’t have happened – at least, not on the narrow strip of coastland in the north-east corner of what is now Syria, where it ended up place. Darius should have listened to the Macedonian deserter, Amyntas (Arrian II.6.3), and kept his army in the open plains where he would have been able to make use of its superior size. Unfortunately for him, though, he didn’t. And as a result, Darius ended up boxing his men in between the Gulf of Issus and Amanus Mountains. The Great King didn’t lose the Battle of Issus because of this but not being able to use all of his men certainly did not help him.
Before continuing, I’ll acknowledge what you may well be thinking: given what happened at Gaugamela, Alexander would probably have beaten Darius even if they had met on a plain. That’s true, but from Darius’ perspective, at least he would have given himself a better chance of defeating this Macedonian upstart.
Upstart? Yes. Because at Issus, Alexander was not yet ‘great’. True, he had defeated a satrapal army, but for an enemy of Alexander, that achievement would have been easy to dismiss. By the bye, how often do we think of Alexander as anything less than ‘the Great’? If we don’t look beyond that epithet, does it harm our understanding of him?
Another question that has been on my mind recently is Alexander’s view of his empire. While it is true that he wanted to conquer as much territory as possible, I never get the impression that he cared much about being the emperor of it. When making political arrangements for each territory, for example, he acted as pragmatically as possible, e.g., by reinstalling whoever had ruled it before: the path of least resistance, so that he could move on to the next engagement. I have no definite view on this matter but it is fascinating how Alexander could be so immersed in the world and yet, I think, not care about it anywhere near as much as he ought to have done.
(I should add, when I say he didn’t care, I don’t mean he disliked it or anything like that, just that his focus was elsewhere, ie. on winning glory.)
An article on the Ekathimerini website looks to the past in order to make sense of the present. If you would like to know about Alexander, fake news, and the end of ancient Athenian democracy then click here.
I have no comment to make about the current situation vis-a-vis North Macedonia, Greece, Russia et al but I will say that I did not like the description of Philip II as a ‘a Trump-level warlord’. Donald Trump is not a warlord, and you can be sure that if he was, he would not be one of the same level as Philip.
Philip II was as skilled a diplomat as he was a general. He deserves better than to be compared to Trump.
Also, I am still trying to work out how the writer can blame Alexander for an example of fake news that happened after he died and as a result of the actions of another person. Stratocles used Alexander to achieve his aim.
So Alexander is an eerie symbol in the name conflict. Hopefully, the Macedonian kings’ disdain for democracy will not prevail in the region.
As above, it’s Stratocles’ name that should appear here but it has to be said, Alexander did engage in fakery when it suited his interests – think of how he forged one of Darius’ letters to him.
Alexander and Hephaestion make a list of National Geographic‘s Top 10, Red-Hot (no less), Power Couples here. Our lack of knowledge regarding what we know of their relationship means that you can take Alexander’s and Hephaestion’s inclusion in this list as seriously or not according to your preference. That aside, the caption provided with the image of the two contains a couple of interesting statements:
‘Many historians believe the two were lovers but ended the amorous side of their relationship when it was time to marry and start a family.’ I have never read a historian who believed that this was the case. If it is true, though, why did no one tell Bagoas?
Hephaestion and Alexander ‘were said to look so much alike, that some couldn’t tell them apart.’ Some needed to open their eyes – just like Sisygambis did when she mistook Hephaestion for Alexander because he was the taller of the two and better looking.
Read a very short history of the Vergina Star at Neos Kosmoshere.
Who is to blame for the conflict between North Macedonia (formerly the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia) and Greece? Philip II and Alexander III, apparently:
The ultimate source of the problem – or at least the justification for the problem from the Greek perspective – has to be laid at the feet of Philip II of Macedon and, even more squarely, at those of his son Alexander the Great. If father and son hadn’t literally put Macedon on the map, modern day Greeks wouldn’t have been able to claim copyright over the place name. (my emphasis)
If I read this correctly, the writer is saying that Macedon did not exist before Philip and Alexander’s time, that they created it. Well, he said with a sigh, it’s an argument. At first glance, it also looks like a lunatic assertion but let’s not assume that the writer has lost his senses. What is he really saying? For me, the rest of the article does not shed any further light on the matter so it’ll have to remain an open question for now. If you would like to read the full article (at the History News Network website) you can do so here.
Greek Reporter‘s list of the Top 10 archaeological finds in Greece over the last decade puts the Amphipolis tomb at Number One. You can read the complete list here. One quibble: Alexander died in Babylon, not Baghdad; the two are separate places.
Hello to anyone visiting this blog from my Alexander Facebook page. If you have any comments regarding the North Macedonia links, please leave them here, not on Fb. Because the Greece-North Macedonia dispute can inflame tempers and lead to unpleasant ‘discussions’, I delete any comments relating to it there.
IFL Science reports on the find of 50 mummies on the west bank of the Nile. You can read the article here. They may come from the Ptolemaic era. Reading the article, I was taken by the fact that they were found thirty feet below ground. Does this mean Ptolemy I’s Alexandria is now that far below ground as well?
“In 334 BCE, Alexander the Great set out to conquer the world.” We don’t actually know for sure that he did but this article on the Bookriot website is a nice little run down of facts about the Great Library of Alexandria, which either he or Ptolemy I Soter – not Demetrius of Phaleron as the article states – founded.
A neat little biography of Alexander can be found here at the National Geographic website. It contains a couple of interesting statements that I wouldn’t mind exploring in the future – that Alexander was not ‘much of a diplomat’ and that the Macedonian army became ‘mutinous’ in India.
The Ten Best Generals of All Time – According to Ethan Arsht. You can read the short version at Business Insider‘s website here, or Mr Arsht’s article here. Warning: it involves maths! This warning is really for me as I am useless at numbers but I will try to read Mr. Arsht’s article even though – shock, horror – he does not put Alexander at No. 1.
Book Review: The Land of the Elephant Kings: Space, Territory, and Ideology in the Seleucid Empire by Paul J. Kosmin. This is a short review at the StrategyPage website of a book that will be of interest to anyone who is serious about the Seleucids.
Could you be the next Seleucus I Nikator? Antigonus Monophthalmus? Scipio Africanus? Gamasutra and the makers of the ‘grand strategy’ game Imperator: Rome look forward to its release in late April here.
Happy February! If you would like to read about what Alexander got up to around this time of year, read this blog post.
CoinWeek has started a series based on coins of the Seleucid dynasty (c.305/304-64 BC). It’s well worth a read if you are interested in Hellenistic coinage or would like an overview of the Seleucid kings. The link will take you to part one in the series.
Who can be surprised at this? Inquisitor reports that a Graeco-Roman winery has been discovered on the banks of the Nile. It was probably founded by Ptolemy I for his Macedonian friends as they sailed up and down the river!
If you are looking for a short biography of Alexander, then Greek Reporter has your back. If you are already familiar with Alexander’s life, the article is still worth reading to see if the writer’s understanding of Alexander matches your own. For instance, do you think this statement correct: ‘What are now the modern-day countries of Turkey, Syria, Israel, Egypt, and the entirety of the modern-day Arab world, became Greek in less than ten years’ time.’ (emphasis mine)?
This story has appeared all over the internet over the last few days: ‘Otago academic offers new explanation for Alexander the Great’s death‘. This headline comes from Voxy. It’s a creepy, painful and fascinating story. I’m very grateful to the person on my Alexander Facebook page who said that they had spoken to Dr. Hall who told them that she thought Alexander would have lost his higher functions by the time he was mummified; he wouldn’t have felt anything.
Are you in Liverpool (U.K.) at 6pm on 21st February this year? If you are, you could attend this adventurously titled lecture The Further Adventures of Alexander the Great – Boyfriend, Gay Warrior, Porn King. More details can be found on Liverpool University’s website here.
Your occasional reminder that (a) Afghanistan didn’t exist in Alexander the Great’s day and (b) he defeated its predecessor people – the Bactrians and Sogdians – during the course of his eastward march. His victory was not a lasting one but it was still a victory. Why am I mentioning this? Read this article at We Are The Mighty.
Finally, could the dispute between Greece and the Former Republic of Macedonia (FYROM) regarding the use of the name ‘Macedonia’ by the latter finally be over? The BBC reports here that the Greek Parliament has approved FYROM’s name change to North Macedonia. I have to admit that I don’t understand how ‘North Macedonia’ can be a more satisfactory name than the ‘Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia’ so am very glad that this blog is focused on Alexander rather than modern Balkan politics.
BTW If you have come to this post from my Alexander Facebook page and would like to comment on the Greece/FYROM story, please do so on the blog; if you do so on the Fb page I will have to delete it. It’s not that I don’t want to hear from you, but the issue is so controversial that any mention of it will quickly lead to insults and barbs.
In an article titled A Brief History of Fake News on the Asharq Al-awsat website here, Amir Taheri states the following,
A bigger piece of fake news came in the shape of the yarn woven around Alexander the Great, the invincible conqueror. He is supposed to have lived to the ripe old age of 33.
In just 10 years, the Macedonian is supposed to have conquered almost all of the then known world from the Balkans Peninsula to Russia to the Indian Ocean and from North Africa to the Indian Subcontinent, Central Asia and China. That involves a distance of around 40,000 kilometers, allez-retour, which means he would have been traveling quite a bit. And, yet, he is supposed to have built 20 cities named after himself, taken four wives (long before Islam) and “disappeared” for an unknown length of time looking for the fountain of eternal youth.
That there is no contemporaneous account of those marvelous deeds has persuaded some historians to doubt the existence of such a character which first appeared in Greek and Latin literature in 160 AD, that is to say, centuries after the claimed events.
I don’t know who Amir Taheri is but judging by the bio at the top of the article he is a very experienced writer and journalist. If so, he has let himself down here.
First of all, a quibble: Alexander died at ‘the ripe old age’ of 32. However, maybe I should let that go as Alexander less than two months before his thirty-third birthday. I will not do the same with his other comments.
Secondly, Alexander never made it to Russia (or, to be more precise, the country that is now Russia). You could say that insofar as he conquered territory in what is now Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, he therefore conquered land from the Balkan peninsula to the former USSR but if that’s what Taheri meant he ought to have said it. It would have been best, though, if he had referred specifically to the countries above. That would have been most accurate.
Also, Alexander did not enter China. He didn’t even know it existed. If Taheri had bothered to look at a map of Alexander’s empire, he would have known this.
Thirdly, Alexander married three times, not four. A quick look at Wikipedia could have told Taheri this.
Fourthly, Alexander did not spend any time looking for the fountain of eternal youth. This tale comes from the Alexander Romance which is a fictionalised account of Alexander’s life. If one is going to claim that Alexander the Great is not a real person one might at least try to show that the supposed histories of his life are false rather than the fictions.
Fifthly, Alexander did not first appear ‘in Greek and Latin literature in 160 AD’. Certainly, Arrian and Plutarch wrote about Alexander in the second century AD but before them came Curtius, probably in the first century AD, and Diodorus, in the first century BC. Alexander is also referred to – as Alexander the Great, by and by – by Plautus in his comedy Mostellaria, which was written in the late third century/early second century BC by the Roman playwright, Plautus. Taheri’s claim, therefore, that Alexander does not appear until 160 AD is rot.
Finally, Taheri bases his claim that Alexander is ‘fake news’ by pointing out that there are no ‘contemporaneous accounts of those marvelous [sic] deeds’. It is disingenuous to use the fact that we no longer have the contemporary accounts of Alexander’s life to suggest that he never really lived.
What Taheri ought to be doing is looking at the accounts that we do have – in conjunction with the other evidence – and deciding on the basis of what he sees there whether Alexander lived or not. As it is, he has taken the path of a troll who purposefully uses bad arguments in order to score a point. Badly done, as Mr Knightly, would say; all the more so as he suggests that this is what other historians (I should like to know who) believe rather than himself.
In my last post, I mentioned an online article which cast doubt on the veracity of the figure of Herakles, Alexander’s son by Barsine. It was, I said, the first time I had seen doubt expressed regarding whether Herakles was a real person or not.
A few days later, and perhaps rather inevitably, I came across another writer expressing the same doubt. That writer was none other than Mary Renault in The Nature of Alexander. Speaking about the capture of the non-royal women at Damascus*, she says,
These ladies, not being royal game, were not so strictly preserved. One has a role in Alexander’s legend, another in his history. Only Plutarch says that he took for himself Barsine, Memnon’s widow and Artabazus’ daughter; for the staggering reason that Parmenion – of all people! – told him she would be good for him. The dubiety of the story lies not only in this, but in the powerful motive for inventing it. No record at all exists of such a woman accompanying his march; nor of any claim by her, or her powerful kin, that she had borne him offspring. Yet twelve years after his death a boy was produced, seventeen years old, born therefore five years after Damascus, her alleged son ‘brought up in Pergamon’; a claimant and short-lived pawn in the succession war, chosen probably for a physical resemblance to Alexander. That he actually did marry another Barsine [Stateira II] must have helped both to launch and preserve the story but no source reports any notice whatever taken by him of a child who, Roxane’s being posthumous, would have been during his lifetime his only son, a near royal mother. In a man who named cities after his horse and dog, this strains credulity.
(Mary Renault “The Nature of Alexander” pp.100-1)
It would take a blog post or two to do justice to Renault’s statement. For now, I would like to just mention a few thoughts that I have about it.
Is it really so hard to imagine Alexander taking advice from Parmenion? I know he gets short shrift in some of the texts but even if that is because he made some wrong or bad calls, Alexander never stopped trusting him. When he left him at Ecbatana, he put into Parmenion’s hands, an awful lot of money and troops. It would have been truly ‘staggering’ for him to do that if he did not have complete confidence in the general.
Herakles wasn’t produced out-of-the-blue twelve years after Alexander’s death. Nearchus suggested him for the vacant crown at the first Babylonian conference (Curtius X.6.10-12). I presume Renault would say this was a fiction created in 311 –
– But if so, wouldn’t Cassander have known it? Wasn’t he in Babylon when Alexander died, after all? Even if he wasn’t, he could simply have asked someone – Ptolemy, for example – who was there, if Nearchus had mentioned Herakles and then acted accordingly. Well, maybe he didn’t have time. The whole matter is still very fishy, though.
* Following the Battle of Issus in 333 BC
Speaking of The Nature of Alexander, I am still reading the book. This morning, I started the Persia chapter and left a comment about it on the Alexander Reading Group Facebook page. To read it, or any of the other comments in the Reading Group, click here.
Curtius (VII.6.12) states that Alexander asked a friend of his named Derdas to cross the Tanais* river to undertake a diplomatic mission and engage in a little intelligence gathering. He asked him ‘to explore the terrain and make an expedition also to those Scythians who live beyond the Bosphorus’.
I’ve always been intrigued by this passage. As you no doubt know, the Bosphorus is the strait** that splits Istanbul into a European and Asian city. Did Alexander really think that he had travelled so far round the world that he was but days or mere weeks away from Asia Minor? It sounds like it, though the idea is hard to credit.
Speaking of ’round’, did Alexander know that the world was a sphere? You would be forgiven for saying ‘no’ on the grounds that there was so much that the ancients did not know about the world. However, if you did, you’d be wrong. According to the British Library’s blog, here, Plato and Aristotle – Alexander’s teacher, of course, – taught unambiguously that the world was round. What no one knew, though, was how people on the other side of the world didn’t fall off it. Gravity remained unknown.
*aka Jaxartes, modern day Syr-darya
** As well as the ‘small indentation at’ the base of a woman’s throat. First prize to anyone who can guess which book and film this comes from. It’s been mentioned on this blog before!