Of The Moment

Watch Alexander’s War Unfold

I love my Alexander books but it is always good to see what happened as well. Recently, therefore, I was delighted to discover BazBattles, a You Tube channel dedicated to showing how famous battles unfolded.

Amongst those featured are Alexander’s three battles against the Persian Empire.

The Battle of the Granicus River

The narrator’s strong (Spanish?) accent can make this video a little hard going but stick with it as his voice is actually rather charming in its way. The video is livened up by speech bubbles representing the voices of the Persian satraps. You’ll have to excuse the rather sweary one. The word used is nothing particularly bad but doesn’t really belong in this narrative.

The Battle of Issus

The language is better in this video, and more modern, too; look out for Alexander saying ‘GG’! Also, look out for the extra facts at the end. I don’t think I knew (or had forgotten) that Alexander only started calling himself ‘king’ after Issus. I read, recently, that he referred to himself as King of Asia after this battle so I wonder if the two facts are being conflated? Something to look into, perhaps.

The Battle of Gaugamela

An American narrates The Battle of Issus and I have to say a very caddish sounding Englishman narrates this video. I’d love to know who it is and what other work he has done. The video does not mention how the Persians sacked the Macedonian camp during the battle but does highlight one very salient fact about Alexander – the attention he paid to logistics. One other thing – look out for The Lord of the Rings reference!

All in all I found all three of these videos really useful in helping me to see how the battles turned out so I thoroughly recommend them to you. They aren’t BazBattles‘ only Macedonian videos, either; he – or she – also covers the Battle of the Erigon Valley (one of Philip II’s earliest battles. I have to admit, I don’t recall this one), Chaeronea, the Siege of Tyre and the Battle of the Persian Gates. No sign of Hydaspes yet. I hope it will be included in the future. For a play list of the Macedonian videos, click here.

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Four Names, One Love

Yesterday was Mothering Sunday in the UK so let’s remember one of the most important mothers of antiquity. A descendent of Achilles, she was born Polyxena. Circa 357 BC she changed her name to Myrtale and then in 356 BC she took the name by which we know her: Olympias. In the same year, her son Alexander the Great was born. Following his death, she took the name Stratonice.

The historical record has not been kind to Olympias. Plutarch sums it up in his Life of Alexander (9) where he calls her ‘a woman of a jealous and vindictive temper’.

There is no doubt that Olympias was a tough lady but then, if she wanted to be a serious force in Macedonian politics and not just a pawn to be moved about by others, she needed to be.

On occasion, she may well have gone too far in her actions – we think of the murder of Cleopatra (and possibly her daughter) here (Plutarch 10) – but she lived for her son and must have loved him very, very deeply, indeed.

If we are unconvinced by this, it is only because that love was tainted by an inherently violent political system. In the unstable, Win or Die, world of Fourth Century BC Macedonian politics, however, Olympias had no choice but to fight for Alexander’s right to be king, and defend him once he became king. To step back from that would be to expose herself to attack.

If Olympias is anything, she is a tragic figure rather than an evil one. Most of all, though, she is proof of the intensity of a mother’s love.

  • This is a slightly revised version of a post I wrote for my Alexander Facebook page yesterday
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A Reflection

Earlier this month I read a comment on Twitter by someone who, if memory serves, expressed a need for medievalists to stop white supremacists from using the Middle Ages to justify their ideological views.

Unfortunately, I can’t remember who made the comment but this article in The Economist explains the issue fairly succinctly.

One thing I do remember is that afterwards, I thought to myself how fortunate it is that Alexander had not been dragged into this contemporary ideological battle. He would seem to be the perfect candidate, after all, given that his expedition – his crusade, you might say – was carried out against the decedent people of the East.

But then, three days ago, I read an article regarding a meeting between members of the Greek government and Orthodox Church and a representative of Donald Trump during which, the Greek defence minister, Panos Kammenos, gave to Trump’s man ‘a copy of the sword of Alexander the Great’ (see my post here).

Mr Kammenos’ gift is as historically authentic as a quack medicine is useful. This is of little comfort, however, as extremists are rarely known for their commitment to the truth. What to do? Hope that no extremist read about the meeting and move on? Or how about this; take the opportunity to ask myself more deeply, ever more deeply, who was Alexander? Who was he, and what did he stand for?

This question can be asked both negatively and positively. For example, Alexander was not a racial supremacist. Aristotle may have taught him that Greeks were superior to non-Greeks but while Alexander did not intend to create a ‘unity of Mankind’ he did want non-Greeks to be part of his empire and not just subject to it. Alexander was not a Warrior of the West fighting the good fight against the Evil East. Officially, the expedition started out as a War of Revenge. This immediately alloys its moral value but even if we accepted it as something virtuous, the expedition became over time a personal affair as Alexander conquered not to avenge wrongs but to prove himself greater than his Heroic ancestors. As for the idea of the East being evil, let us not talk of the way the Greeks treated each other.

The question of Alexander’s identity is of such importance that it transcends what will in the fullness of time prove to be transitory political concerns. It is of especial importance to anyone who, like me, is an Alexander supporter. Because if we don’t ask the question we risk dwelling only on those parts of his life that are agreeable to us and glossing over, or just plain ignoring, those parts that are less so. And if we do this, we are not much better, in terms of our thinking, than political extremists. They sin by commission, we do so by omission.

So, while I still regret that Alexander’s name was used by the Greek delegation to curry President Trump’s favour (though I can well understand why they did it), now that it has been, it has afforded me an excellent opportunity to think more deeply about him and maybe to share any insights I come up with here with who knows what result. Positive, I hope!

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Of Swords and Ghosts

Last Thursday, on the eve of Donald Trump’s inauguration as President of the U.S.A., members of the Greek Orthodox Church in America and the Greek government met Mr. Trump’s Chief-of-Staff, Reince Priebus. You can read Greek Reporter USA‘s account of the meeting here.

(Presumably) after the speeches were over the Greek Minister of Defence, Panos Kammenos, gave ‘Priebus a copy of the sword of Alexander the Great as a gift to President Trump.’

Unfortunately, the Greek Reporter report does not contain any further information about the sword than the quotation above. Its video footage of the event does not show it, either. Not that this really matters. Alexander did not have a special sword. Not in the same way, for example, he had a special shield – that of Achilles – or horse, in Bucephalus. The the sword Mr. Kammenos gave Mr. Priebus was probably just a generic sword of the Fourth Century B.C., one labelled as Alexander’s no doubt to appeal to Mr. Trump’s ego.

On that point, it would be very tempting to bemoan the fact that Alexander the Great is being used to foster relations between Greece and one of the most controversial Presidents of America in its entire history, a man whose character would seem to make him wholly unsuited to holding that great office. Well, what’s done is done, but I wonder who is being used here. Is it Alexander? Or is it the Greeks and President Trump? The sword, whose ever it is, symbolises Alexander far more than it does modern Greece or America. Its presentation, therefore, surely represents yet another – running right back to the Successors, via Rome, into the Middle Ages and up to the present – attempt to bring Alexander back to life. He remains dead, of course, but the ghost also remains on his throne.

What ties white supremacism, Alexander and Donald Trump? That will be the topic of my next post.

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The Club of Lethal Trades

Last Saturday, 30th July, I took part in a 27 mile walk from Kensington to Beaconsfield in honour of G. K. Chesterton.

Chesterton (1874-1936) was born in the former and is buried in the latter. He was baptised at St. GKCThomas’ C of E church at Campden Hill, where we started our walk, and prior to his death, lived at two homes in Beaconsfield – Overroads and Top Meadow. He was by trade (or profession?) a journalist but also engaged in Catholic apologetics, writing many books and taking part in debates with his friend Hilaire Belloc in one corner and George Bernard Shaw and H. G. Wells in the other. Belloc and Wells couldn’t stand each other but Chesterton could make friends with a brick wall.

Our walk took just over twelve hours – breaks included – and by the end although I was in good spirits I was very footsore. This got me to thinking about the Macedonian army.

Between 336 – 323 Alexander took his men on numerous forced marches. for example, from Thrace to Thebes (Arrian I.7), which he accomplished in a fortnight. On other occasions, the men – and women – had to walk for extended periods through very difficult territory on pain of death; I am thinking here particularly of the Gedrosian desert crossing (Arrian VI.24-27).

What must these walks have done to their feet? I had plasters to cover my blisters; cuts can be covered with ointment. How did the Macedonians dress their injuries? And how strong mentally they must have been to endure these long walks day-after-day: I was done for at the end of Day One!

Anyway, I wish I knew more about ancient Macedonian feet and how they cared for them. Walking on tender feet is horrible but they made a career out of it. As usual, I am in awe. Not so much of Alexander this time, but his very faithful soldiers and camp followers.

***

In the photo below: this author on a pontoon bridge somewhere between Ealing and Uxbridge. As can be seen, this bridge doesn’t cross the canal but runs alongside the path while it is being resurfaced. Hephaestion and Perdiccas could not have done a better job.

IMG_1710

Photo Credits
Chesterton Way of Wonder
The picture of me S. McCullough

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And the Loser Is…

If there was such a thing as the Bad Luck, Old Chap award and it had a category for antiquity, I would definitely nominate –

Craterus
Serves Alexander with distinction,
Could have been the man to whom Alexander left his empire,
Falls under his horse and dies early in the Wars of the Successors (Diodorus XVIII.30).

Perdiccas
Serves Alexander loyally,
Forms an effective team with Hephaestion in India,
Is deserted by his friends after failing to clear a disused canal (a canal!) (Diodorus XVIII.33)
And is assassinated after failing – wait for it – to cross a river (Diodorus XVIII.36).

Sometimes, it’s just not meant to be.

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He Conquered Through His Tears

In an article on The Myth of the Macho Christ for Patheos (here), Simcha Fisher writes quotes a correspondent who complained about her definition of masculinity. They wrote,

If an affinity for babies and not having sex is manliness or courage or masculinity then some anemic nerd virgin gamer who babysits his cousins on the weekend is literally more manly and masculine than Achilles or Alexander the Great or Gengis Khan, since they fornicated.

To which Fisher replies,

In charity, we’ll overlook the facts that Alexander the Great almost certainly had sex with men, and is best known for sitting down and crying,

Before proceeding to prove her correspondent wrong in his, or her, definition of what masculinity really is.

I agree with Fisher that Alexander ‘almost certainly had sex with men’ although I would limit their number to either one (Bagoas) or two (Bagoas and Hephaestion)*.

She is, however, is quite wrong when she says that Alexander is ‘best known for sitting down and crying’. Not even the village idiot would say such a thing. I suspect she is thinking of Achilles here, although I don’t know The Iliad well known to say how much time he spends sitting and sobbing. Having said that, I don’t think anyone in their right mind would say Achilles’ greatest claim to fame is the amount of tears he shed. Fisher has created a parody in order to make a point. In charity let’s say that on this occasion her memory of Alexander and Achilles both fooled her. It’s a great shame as the rest of the article is, in my opinion, a good one.

* On that point, see this comment

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Alexander’s Sexuality

The Bay Area Reporter of San Francisco has published an article titled Alexander the Great & Greek Love on its website. You can read it here.

By the standards of most on-line articles concerning Alexander, the article is a really good one; the writer has clearly looked more deeply into the topic than plenty of other journalists. Occasionally, however, he lets himself down.

Paragraph 1
This is an excellent introduction to Alexander. It’s the kind of passage that I wish I had written. I would dispute that Alexander ‘in the West, [is] probably the best-known ancient ruler’. In my opinion that honour belongs to Julius Caesar.

Paragraph 2
Another good paragraph. Unfortunately, it does contain one mistake: contrary to what the writer asserts, Philip II did not ‘subjugate’ Sparta. He threatened the Spartans but never invaded their country. Ultimately, he had no need to do so. On the positive side, the writer makes a nice point about Olympias, one that is always worth remembering: ‘Olympias must have been remarkable, or else little would be known about her’.

Paragraph 3
Again, a good paragraph. The line ‘Philip was assassinated, perhaps by a former male lover’ (my emphasis) stood out for me. Diodorus (XVI.93) says that that a man named Pausanias was ‘beloved by [Philip] because of his beauty’. In English, to be beloved of someone is not necessarily to be their lover, which is perhaps the reason for the writer’s caution in describing Pausanias. However, Diodorus goes on to describe how he – Pausanias – bad mouthed another man of the same name when he – Pausanias the assassin – ‘saw that the king was becoming enamoured’ of them. Pausanias accused his namesake ‘of being a hermaphrodite and prompt to accept the amorous advances of any who wished’. If Pausanias the assassin was not Philip’s lover I don’t think he would have had any reason to speak to the second Pausanias in that way.

Paragraph 4
This paragraph opens with some excellent questions regarding Alexander’s empire that we will debate until the end of time. The writer then states that Alexander ‘married an Afghanistani chieftain’s daughter’. Roxane, of course, was not from Afghanistan. The country did not exist then. She was Bactrian.

Paragraph 5
It’s hard to judge this paragraph one way or the other as the writer dives into history too early and late for me. However, I like very much that he recognises that it is anachronistic to talk of Alexander being homosexual on the grounds that ‘”homosexuality” and “heterosexuality” as social constructs didn’t exist before the 19th century’. For the record, I have no idea when homo- and hetero- sexuality were invented so I take him at his word that it was indeed in the nineteenth century.

Paragraph 6
The writer points out that ‘many writers’ believe Alexander and Hephaestion could not have had a sexual relationship as they ‘were the same age’ (Curtius III.12.16 says they were the same age) and points to evidence in James Davidson’s The Greeks and Greek Love to show that peers could be lovers. He cites Davidson’s example of Harmodius and Aristogeiton. They lived in the sixth century B.C. It would, I suppose, have been more helpful to use an example from Alexander’s own time as times do change but given how slowly this seems to have happened in the past I doubt much changed between the late sixth century and the middle of the fourth.

Paragraph 7
The following two quotations contain the whole of this paragraph. The writers states,

Most ancient sources agree that Alexander was attracted to young men.

This is more than I know. I know that he was certainly attracted to one young man – Bagoas; I am not aware of any others with whom he had an affair. It would be interesting to know who the writer’s source was, or who his sources were, for this statement.

According to Plutarch, Hephaestion was the man whom “Alexander loved most of all.”

This quotation doesn’t appear in my Penguin Classics (2011) edition of Plutarch’s Life of Alexander but I think it comes from Chapter 47. In my edition, the text there reads ‘In general [Alexander] showed most affection for Hephaestion’.

Their relationship was all-encompassing. They drank, hunted, and campaigned together. Hephaestion acted as Alexander’s Chief of Staff. It was most likely sexual. 

Really? It is equally likely that they were simply very close friends. In terms of how the writer sees Alexander’s and Hephaestion’s relationship, I am on his side, but here I think the last sentence is an example of his wish for the two to have been lovers rather than because the facts he mentions prove it to have been so.

Paragraphs 8 – 9
Here, the writer turns to the best ‘evidence’ to my mind for Alexander and Hephaestion being lovers: their imitation of Achilles and Patroclus (Arrian I.12 cf. Plutarch Life 15)who in their day were believed to be lovers. As a side note, I like that the writer acknowledges that Homer doesn’t call Achilles and Patroclus lovers. It’s this attention to detail which really sets the article above any other I have read on Alexander.

Paragraph 10
The writer now turns to the famous moment when Sisygambis mistook Hephaestion for Alexander (Arrian II.13, Curtius III.12.16-17) only for the king to reply “This one, too, is Alexander.” in support of his case that they were lovers. When considering this passage, I feel that I am at the limit of my understanding of what Alexander meant with those words. Was he implying that the two were one as lovers are or was he referring to a very deep and platonic friendship?

Paragraph 11
The writer refers to Bagoas as Darius III’s ‘boyfriend’ which is a wholly inaccurate and misleading way to describe him. Bagoas was a eunuch, a slave. There was no equality between Darius and Bagoas, such as exists between lovers of the same or opposite sex. The writer goes on to say that Bagoas ‘soon found his way into Alexander’s bed’ as if he managed to inveigle his way there. Far more likely that Alexander told or asked him to come to him. Finally, he writes ‘Bagoas’ presence doesn’t rule out physical intimacy between Alexander and Hephaestion. In any case, they remained inseparable.’ Both these statements are surely and certainly true.

Paragraph 12 – 13
This paragraph begins ‘Nothing demonstrates Alexander’s passion for Hephaestion more than his reaction to his death.’ I could not agree more. The writer goes on to give an account of Alexander’s response to Hephaestion’s death, to which I can only say that even if they did not share a bed, if there is an ounce of truth in account, it is proof positive that Alexander loved Hephaestion very deeply indeed.

Paragraph 14
This paragraph begins with the admission that ‘Unless new evidence is uncovered, the exact nature of Alexander’s sexual orientation (to use an anachronistic term) will never be known.’ It concludes,

Nonetheless, a reasonable interpretation of extant sources, studied within the context of the sexual mores of Classical and Hellenistic Greek societies, leads to the conclusion that his erotic feelings were primarily directed at males.

This I disagree with. Alexander had three wives – Roxane, Stateira II and Parysatis. But these were dynastic marriages, one may say; this is true, but what of his mistresses: Barsine, Pancaste/Callixeina, Thalestris, Cleophis and perhaps Thais, later Ptolemy I’s lover? Some of these relationships may be legendary (e.g. Thalestris) but all? I doubt it. My conclusion to all that I have read is that Alexander was sexually attracted to both men and women, and of them both he liked Hephaestion most.

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Thoughts on Rehabilitating Olympias

Alexander committed some terrible actions over the course of his reign as king. The mass crucifixions after the siege of Tyre (Diodorus XVII.46, Curtius IV.4.17), the manner of Betis’ execution (C. IV.6.29) and Black Cleitus’ murder (Arrian IV.8-9, C. VIII.1.22-52, Plutarch Life of Alexander 50-1) spring quickly to mind.

However, we forgive him these because – as Plutarch records – he was also an ‘exceptionally generous’ (P. 39) man just with gifts but in the mercy he showed to others. For two diverse examples of this, see how he treated Timoclea (P. 12) and Porus (A. V.19, C. VIII.44-46. D. XVII.89, P. 60).

Someone for whom forgiveness has surely come less easy over the years is Alexander’s mother, Olympias. Unfortunately for her, she was not a brilliant general, did not spread Hellenism or give riches to her friends and former enemies alike. I used to think that this was because she was simply not a very nice person, that things like her religious zealotry (P. 2) and political ruthlessness (P.10) were all that there was about her.

I should have known better of course, because this is the kind of one-sided approach that tabloid newspapers take when they want to demonise persons or sections of society whom they do not like and we know well enough that they are wrong. But what proof was there that Olympias was more than the sum of the criticisms made of her? Reading Plutarch the other day, I wonder if I found it.

According to Eratosthenes, Olympias, when she sent Alexander on his way to lead his great expedition to the East, confided to him and to him alone the secret of his conception and urged him to show himself worthy of his divine parentage. But other authors maintain that she repudiated this story and used to say, ‘Will Alexander never stop making Hera jealous of me?’
(Plutarch Life 2)

But other authors maintain that she repudiated this story

I can’t discount the possibility that I am misreading the above line (if you think I am, leave a comment) but it appears to suggest that Olympias was – or rather, could be – a humble person, one who knew her place in relation to the gods. If so then she was surely capable of humility in other areas of her life.

It is a matter of great frustration that we neither know who the authors to whom Plutarch refers are or what else they said about Alexander’s mother because they seem to me to be evidence of a pro-Olympias tradition in Greek letters. If so, history has sadly extinguished it.

I wonder: would it be possible to read the surviving references to Olympias in the main sources in a positive light? Could her zealotry be seen as devoutness? Her ruthlessness as a fight to survive in a world that was against her both as a woman and queen?

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The Gordian Knot

Market Watch reports on the on-going attempts to resolve the economic crisis in Greece. Greece: Can the Gordian Knot be severed? states that

Greece has… become the Gordian knot of ancient mythology.

In that enduring legend Gordius, a peasant who became king in Asia Minor, tied his wagon to a post with an intricate knot. An oracle said whoever untied the knot would rule all of Asia. Young Alexander the Great 100 years later came through and after a futile effort to untie the knot drew his sword and severed it with a powerful swing. That night a violent electrical storm told the people the gods were pleased. Alexander went on to rule much of the known world.

You can read the article here.

The legend of the Gordian Knot appears in four of the five principle sources on Alexander’s life (Diodorus omits it).

Arrian II.3-4
Curtius III.1.14-18
Justin XI.7
Plutarch Life of Alexander 18

Here is how Market Watch‘s interpretation of the story compares to theirs:

… Gordius, a peasant who became king in Asia Minor…
Arrian – States that it was Gordius’ son, Midas, who became king
Curtius – Does not confirm or deny that Gordius became king
This agrees with Justin
Plutarch – Does not confirm or deny that Gordius became king, referring only to ‘king Midas’

… tied his wagon to a post with an intricate knot…
Arrian – The knot ‘fixed’ the yoke to the wagon
Curtius – Says that the yoke ‘was strapped down with several knots’. The use of the word ‘down’ suggests to me that C. means it was attached to the shaft that connected it to the wagon – which C. calls the ‘carriage’ – rather than to a post
Justin – Says no more than that the knots were attached to the yoke. No mention is made of a post or anything else (J. refers to the wagon as a ‘car’)
Plutarch – The knot attached the yoke to the chariot

An oracle said whoever untied the knot would rule all of Asia.
Arrian – Makes no reference to an oracle but says that the belief (which the Notes to my edition of Arrian’s Anabasis say that, in Alexander’s day, Asia ‘meant the Persian Empire’) was a traditional one
This agrees with Curtius, though he says that ‘the local people claimed that an oracle had foretold mastery of Asia for the man who untied this impossible knot’ (my emphasis)
This agrees with Justin, who refers to oracles in the plural
Plutarch – States that ‘the fates had decreed that the man who untied the knot was destined to become the ruler of the whole world’ (my emphasis)

Young Alexander the Great 100 years later came through…
Arrian – Does not say specifically when Gordius lived though refers to it as being ‘in the ancient days’
Curtius – Makes no mention of when Gordius lived
Justin – Makes no mention of when Gordius lived. He does, though, refer to the oracles who said whoever undid the knot would rule Asia as being ‘the oracles of old’
Plutarch – Does not say when Gordius lived but refers to Midas as being an ‘ancient king’
By-the-bye, Alexander was 22-23 when he arrived in Gordium

… and after a futile effort to untie the knot drew his sword and severed it with a powerful swing…
This agrees with Arrian and Plutarch and some of their sources, for A. and P. both note that – according to Aristobulos – Alexander worked out how to undo the knot
This agrees with Curtius and Justin

That night a violent electrical storm told the people the gods were pleased.
This agrees with Arrian
Curtius, Justin and Plutarch do not mention this part of the story

Alexander went on to rule much of the known world.
This agrees with Arrian, Curtius, Justin and Plutarch and everyone else who has ever studied his life

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