On Alexander

The Pilgrim Conqueror

Two weeks ago, I watched a film called The Way. In it, Martin Sheen plays a bereaved father who undertakes the Camino pilgrimage in memory his son, Daniel, who died while undertaking the same journey. Since then, pilgrimages have been much on my mind – even to the point when I’ve thought about doing the Camino myself. I’m a Catholic so the idea of a pilgrimage is a familiar one to me. I also have personal reasons for wanting to undertake the walk.

God and I certainly need to have a chat – about terrible jobs, His Church and a lot else besides. Let’s see what happens; in the mean time, The Way has also lead me to take a closer look at Alexander’s expedition to the east.

I am accustomed to seeing the expedition as a single event, one which involved a march from Macedon to India and back to Babylon, and which involved a war of conquest as well as other types of battles (for example, a war of liberation in Asia Minor) and missions (a quest for glory for Alexander). Maybe this is how you see the expedition as well.

However, after watching The Way it occurred to me that Alexander also undertook several pilgrimages during the course of his kingship. For example, in 336, after securing for himself the captainship of the pan-hellenic crusade against the Persian Empire, he went to Delphi to find out what the gods thought of his expedition (Plutarch Life of Alexander 14). One of his first actions in Asia Minor was to visit Troy to pay homage to Achilles (Arrian I.12.1); Diodorus XVII.17; Justin XI.5.10-12; Plutarch LoA 15). And in Egypt, he went out of his way to visit to the temple of Amon at Siwah (Arrian III.3.1-4.5; Curtius IV.7.5-32; Diodorus XVII.49-51; Justin XI.11.2-12; Plutarch LoA 26-27). In India, Alexander approached Nysa intending to lay siege to it. After the Nysaeans claimed Dionysus as their father, however, Alexander took what could be called a pilgrimage up a mountain associated with the god. I hesitate to call this a true pilgrimage, however; to be quite honest it could have just been an excuse for the Macedonians to go on a drunken bender (See Curtius VIII.10.1-18; Arrian’s account of Alexander’s visit is more dignified – Ar. V.1.1-2.7). Finally, on the way back to Babylon, Alexander paused to visit the tomb of Cyrus (Arrian VI.29.4-11; Curtius X.1.30-32).

People go on pilgrimage for many reasons. Sometimes it is religious, sometimes not. For the most part, the purpose of Alexander’s pilgrimages were military and religious. Delphi, Troy and Siwah all fall into the former category; Nysa and Cyrus’ tomb into the latter. And they were all very personal experiences for him – especially Siwah.

At the end of The Way, Martin Sheen’s character finds a measure of peace following his arrival in Santiago. Whatever the reason one undertakes a pilgrimage that ought to be the least that comes out of it. Unfortunately for Alexander, none of his pilgrimages lead him to becoming a more peaceful person. This is because they all served his purpose rather than helping to define it.

For example, he went to Delphi not to find out if he should undertake the expedition but to find out if the gods approved of it. I have no doubt that he would have still left for the east even if he had received a warning not to do so (look at how Alexander ignored Aristander’s warning at Gaza (Arrian II.26.4-27.1 and again in Sogdia [Arrian IV.4.3]). Perhaps, as might have happened at the Hyphasis river, another sacrifice would have been carried out, one which this time delivered the ‘correct’ result.

One can’t blame Alexander for not finding peace in his pilgrimages. He did not live in a time of peace and in any case, this conception of a pilgrimage is probably a Christian one so it would be unfair to judge him by it. Despite that, I have enjoyed breaking down Alexander’s journey a little, seeing and appreciating that it was more than just a march from one end of the known earth to the other. If I do hit the road at Saint Jean Pied de Port, my own purpose notwithstanding, I shall smile at the opportunity to think about Alexander’s journey some more.

Categories: Arrian, Diodorus Siculus, Justin, On Alexander, Plutarch, Quintus Curtius Rufus | Tags: , | Leave a comment

Doubting Mary

27th August 2018

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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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 –
  3. – 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!

Categories: Of The Moment, On Alexander, Quintus Curtius Rufus | Tags: , , , , , , | 2 Comments

2,374 Years Strong

diary – birthday edition

We don’t know which day exactly Alexander was born on but it usually taken to be 20th/21st July (though I have also seen 26th mentioned). With that in mind, I took the day off work yesterday to commemorate it by visiting a Greek restaurant in Primrose Hill called Lemonia. It is a lovely place and well worth a visit if you are in the neighbourhood. I ate zatziki for starters, keftedes for mains and finished off with a Greek coffee. Sadly for my future as a food blogger and instagrammer I didn’t take any photographs of either the food or drink – I washed the food down with half a bottle of Restina Kourtaki. Oh, and I bought a bottle of Greek Macedonian red wine. When I open that I will certainly take a photograph and upload it here.

While I waited for the courses to arrive, I read the opening chapters of Plutarch’s Life of Alexander, our only (substantial) account of Alexander’s birth. The account is infused with legend as well as bald facts; one might also say it is laced with propaganda as well – particularly regarding Alexander’s divinity. Most interestingly, it also contains what is probably the only example of Olympias being humble. Plutarch records two traditions regarding her; in the first, she tells Alexander ‘the secret of his conception’ and urges him ‘to show himself worthy of his divine parentage’. In the other, Plutarch says that ‘that she repudiated this story and used to say, ‘Will Alexander never stop making Hera jealous of me.’

Who were the authors who maintained this latter tradition, and why did they do so? After Olympias died, in 316 BC, there was no motivation for anyone to defend her from whatever charge her erstwhile enemies cared to bring.

***

The mystery of the large, black coffin found in Alexandria has been solved – for now. It was opened and found to contain three skeletons and sewage water. Yuk. Read more here. Of course, we are disappointed that it didn’t contain Alexander’s body. On the other hand, though, isn’t it nice that the mystery over where his final resting place is, still remains?

***

Hornet, the gay news site, has a curate’s egg of an article on Alexander, here.

… letters of the time described Alexander yielding to Hephaestion’s thighs.

Robin Lane Fox mentions this anecdote and states that it comes from ‘the Cynic philosophers… long after [Alexander’s] death’.

“One soul abiding in two bodies” is how their tutor, Aristotle, described the two men.

Aristotle was respond to the question of ‘what is a friend’; he wasn’t referring to Alexander and Hephaestion (Diogenes Laertius Lives of Eminent Philosophers Book V.20 here)

“The friend I valued as my own life,” Alexander wrote of his partner.

I don’t think Alexander did say this – did he?

Scholars have suggested that he became careless with his health after losing his lover.

I think it would be fair to say that Alexander was always careless of his health! In respect of the statement, I don’t think he was. I don’t recall anything in the sources to indicate it.

… eventually [Alexander and Barsine] are said to have had a son named Heracles. Questions linger about the veracity of that particular account — it’s possible that Heracles was procured in an attempt to usurp the throne after Alexander’s death. Though there were some who supported Heracles’ claim to Alexander’s lineage, he vanished not long after his supposed father died.

This is the first time I have heard anyone doubt that Heracles lived. He is well attested in the sources – Curtius, Diodorus and Justin all mention him. Also, Heracles didn’t ‘vanish not long after his supposed father died’ – he lived until 310/09 BC when Polyperchon tried to use him to reclaim Macedon from Cassander only to be executed after Cassander made Polyperchon an offer suitable to his irrelevant status in the Wars of the Successors.

She was carrying a son at the time, whom she named Alexander IV; but doubt was cast over the identity of the father.

Again, this is the first time I have heard anyone doubt Alexander’s paternity of Alexander IV.

In general, Alexander’s focus was on uniting Persian and Greek culture, and so he arranged marriages that spanned the two groups. He went so far as to organize a mass wedding that lasted five days and included 90 couplings, usually tying highly regarded Macedonian women to Greek soldiers whom Alexander trusted.

If Alexander was intent on uniting ‘Persian and Greek culture’ I don’t know why he would hold a mass wedding involving Macedonian women to Greek soldiers. Of course, he didn’t; the reference here is to the mass weddings at Susa in which Macedonians were married to Persians – see Arrian VII.4-8).

So the article is a bit hit and miss. I did like the closing passage, though:

… it is impossible not to wonder what passions existed two and a half millennia ago, and how recognizable those feelings would be to us today.

***

Judging by the way people write about Alexander and Hephaestion today, their feelings are very recognisable today! As it happens, I had the opportunity a few weeks ago to consider my own. I was asked who my heroes were. Alexander was suggested but then someone said that perhaps he was someone I was just fascinated by rather than considered heroic.

I wouldn’t consider Alexander heroic in the modern sense – he was no Superman, selflessly acting for the good of others; he was, though, heroic in the ancient Greek manner: devoted to winning glory for himself, proving himself better than anyone else.

Alexander certainly fascinates me but for me it goes much deeper than that, and for that reason, I try to think about him as critically as I can so that I don’t descend into fanboyism – excusing or ignoring the bad things he did and complexities of his life just because he looked good and (probably) slept with Hephaestion. I can’t say how good I am at that, probably not as much as I want to be, but for me it is important to try. It has the added benefit as well of enabling me to learn more about the Alexander who lived rather than the one I hold in my heart.

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What’s in a Name?

A Catch-Up post.

It has been a month since I last wrote anything, here.

Troy: Fall of a City continues on the BBC on Saturday on Saturday night. I have to admit, though, that I have not felt any great desire to keep up with it. I will try to at some point.

‘At some point’ – there’s a fatal phrase if ever there was one. We’ll see.

***

Yesterday, I read an article titled The Ignorant Parkland Kids Don’t Speak for Their Dead Classmates by John Hawkins on the PJ Media website here.

The article is by-and-large a contemptuous piece of right wing trash. In arguing that the teenagers who survived the Parkland School gun massacre should shut up because they are ‘high school kids’ who know nothing it cynically employs the feeble tactic of being as controversial as possible in order to draw readers in either through their outrage or approval.

The reason I mention it here is because of a reference to Alexander as one of the few teenagers to know anything. Hawkins links to an article on a voting website, which says of Alexander,

At age 16, Alexander the Great, having just finished studying under Aristotle, was the regent in charge of Macedonia. The Thracian Maedi revolted against him, and Alexander quickly responded, driving them out of their own territory. He colonized it with Greeks, and founded a city named Alexandropolis.

I imagine that Hawkins’ focus is on Alexander’s studentship under Aristotle as his regency, attack on the Maedi, and the establishment of Alexandropolis is not of itself really relevant to a view of him as being an especially knowledgable person. Perhaps he employed revolutionary new tactics, which he created, in the battle, but it is unlikely.

So what about Alexander and Aristotle? Did being the famous philosopher’s student make him especially knowledgable? Alexander certainly did have a keen intellect. Plutarch tells us (Life of Alexander 8) that Aristotle gave him an interest in medicine and philosophy and that in adulthood, Alexander had a love of literature and history. We might add to this that his baggage train included men of science who surveyed the lands that the army traversed and sent back to Greece perhaps much information about it.

Back in his teenage years, however, I get no sense that Alexander was intellectually precocious. Reading the early chapters of Plutarch, you certainly get a picture of a more generally precocious young man but this is not the same thing. For example, in Chapter 4, Plutarch talks about Alexander for  whom fame was already of the greatest importance; Chapter 5 continues that theme as Alexander quizzes the Persian ambassadors about their country, foreshadowing, of course, his expedition; in Chapter 6 Alexander tames Bucephalus thus proving his bravery.

Alexander was clearly very bright but if the aforementioned events happened, or if they are simply based on the truth about Alexander in his formative years, we may say that his intelligence was focused on the winning of renown and glory. Just like the Parkland ‘kids’ are focused on using theirs to achieve greater gun control.

Having said all that, I do share John Hawkins’ reservations about the living speaking for the dead. This should not – cannot – be done unless one knows that in life the dead supported the cause of the living. This sympathy does not mean, however, that I regard the article as anything other than a hectoring, sneering piece of rubbish.  

***

Speaking of Alexandropolis, I received an interesting enquiry via my Alexander Facebook page the other day: Why did Alexander name his cities Alexandria? The fact that Alexandria is the feminine version of his name was also brought up. In truth, I don’t know. Unfortunately, I seem to have deleted the message so can’t refer back to it, but if the person who wrote to me reads this, I would be very interested to hear your thoughts on the matter. And indeed, I would be very interested to hear anyone else’s too, in the comments below or on Facebook.

***

Finally, I have written a few posts on Tumblr; well, indulging my love for the film Call Me By Your Name. You can find them, and my latest on Philip II, here.

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I: The Music of Gaugamela

30th September – One day until the 2,348th anniversary of the Battle of Gaugamela. I have a question to ask myself but I don’t yet have an answer for it so let’s have a little music instead. Thank you Oliver Stone, and thank you Vangelis for The Drums of Gaugamela. And thank you reader for reading these blog posts over the last twelve days. You deserve a rest!

Album Version: heroic all the way

Unreleased Version: Includes audio from the battle which gives it a tough, tough edge

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II: Performance Review II (The Macedonian Army)

29th September – Two days until the 2,348th anniversary of the Battle of Gaugamela. And not for the first time, but definitely the last, I am writing this a day late. In light of the heading to this post, today’s question will not be a surprise – ‘How did the Macedonian army perform in the battle?’

In answering this question we obviously come up against the same problem as when we looked at the Persian army (here) – our sources’ accounts of the Battle of Gaugamela are incomplete and biased.

There’s not much we can do about that, other than be wary of the texts rather than give all our trust to them. The same, by the way, applies to this post and, indeed, blog as a whole. I hope no one ever takes what I say as gospel. Let it be a springboard to your own research rather than a conclusion.

So, let’s jump in. As ever, I start with Arrian, who offers the best overall account of the battle.

How to rate the Macedonian army? 10/10, surely. It won the battle, after all; what more could we ask for?

A perfect performance, however, would have required a crushing victory; a victory with no setbacks and minimal casualties. Such triumphs only occur in fantasy novels.

Arrian comes close to going there. He presents Alexander’s victory as happening without any serious setbacks. The Persians put up stiff opposition but never for too long.

Thus, if the Scythian and Bactrian cavalry launch a counter-charge after being attacked by Menidas and the mercenary cavalry it only lasts until the arrival of Aretes and the Paeonians (Ar.III.13.3)

And if the Scythians and Bactrians start inflicting a greater number of casualties upon the Macedonians, the latter will stand up to them and ultimately break them (Ar.III.13.4).

And again, if Darius launches his scythed chariots against the Macedonian phalanx, the Agrianians and Balacrus’ javelin men will quickly dispose of them before the the scythes can do too much damage. And any chariot that makes it as far as the phalanx will quickly be dealt with there (Ar.III.13.5-6).

So it continues. Darius tries to envelope the Macedonian right wing (Ar.III.14.1) only for his cavalry to find itself under attack by the resourceful Aretes (Ar.III.14.3). And when the Persians break through the Macedonian phalanx and attack the enemy camp, they soon come under attack from the phalanx’ second line (Ar.III.14.5-6).

Persian Strike – Macedonian Counter-Strike is a common theme of Arrian’s account of the Battle of Gaugamela.

As it happens, Arrian breaks this thematic structure when he mentions how Simmias was forced to help the Macedonian left wing rather than join the pursuit of Darius (Ar.III.14.4). Arrian moves from Simmias straight to the Persian attack on the Macedonian camp, and Simmias isn’t mentioned again until his trial following the downfall of Philotas (Ar.III.27.1-3). If, that is, they are the same man.

However, insofar as Simmias and his battalion are forced to help the under pressure Macedonian left wing we can tie him not only to its near destruction but also to its eventual victory: Persian Strike – Macedonian Counter-Strike.

So, to go back to the question – the Macedonian army performed very well. It soaked up the Persian pressure and then hit back to achieve ultimate success.

A new question – which element of Alexander’s army performed the best of all?

For me, that answer is easy: the Thessalian cavalry. The Macedonian left wing, led by Parmenion, was not only under great pressure, but in serious danger of being destroyed by Mazaeus’ cavalry. The left wing was saved, and the inevitable Macedonian counter-strike was delivered, by the Thessalian cavalry.

The best in Greece proved themselves to be the best in the world by taking on their only rivals and, after the hardest of struggles, defeating them.

In so doing, the Thessalians not only saved the day but saved Alexander’s life, kingship, ambition, reputation and legacy. As a whole, they did what Black Cleitus did as an individual at the Granicus River.

The idea of Persian Strike – Macedonian Counter-Strike is surely a literary one. Real battles do not happen in such a neat fashion. However, because nearly all the sources refer to the Thessalian counter-strike that won the day for the Macedonian left I am confident that it really happened.

Here is what the sources say:

Arrian III.15.1;15.3
‘… the Thessalian cavalry had put up a brilliant fight which matched Alexander’s own success…’
Curtius IV.16.1-6
[Parmenion rallies the fading Thessalians] ‘His words rang true, and fresh hope revived their drooping spirits. At a gallop they charged their enemy, who started to give ground not just gradually but swiftly…’
Diodorus XVII.60
‘At this time Mazaeus, the commander of the Persian right wing, with the most and the best of the cavalry, was pressing hard on those opposing him, but Parmenion with the Thessalian cavalry and the rest of his forces put up a stout resistance. For a time, fighting brilliantly, he even seemed to have the upper hand thanks to the fighting qualities of the Thessalians… [Mazaeus, however, fought back and Parmenion sent messengers to Alexander to ask for help] … Parmenion handled the Thessalian squadrons with the utmost skill and finally, killing many of the enemy, routed the Persians’…
Justin
doesn’t mention the left wing
Plutarch Life of Alexander 33
‘[Alexander] learnt on his way [to help Parmenion] that the enemy had been utterly defeated and put to flight.’

As we applaud the Thessalians we should also applaud the one man who, if Curtius and Diodorus are correct, led and inspired them: Parmenion. It’s a shame Arrian doesn’t mention him but as I write these words I can think of no reason to doubt Curtius and Diodorus.

Categories: Arrian, Diodorus Siculus, Justin, On Alexander, Plutarch, Quintus Curtius Rufus | Tags: | Leave a comment

III: Performance Review I (The Persian Army)

28th September – Three days until the 2,348th anniversary of the Battle of Gaugamela. Today, I am asking ‘How did the Persian army perform in the battle?’

This, of course, is an impossible question to answer fairly. Not only is our best record of the battle incomplete – Arrian tells us about key engagements on the left and right wings of the Macedonian army but too little about what happened in the centre – but all our records are biased in favour of Alexander and his men. And let’s not get started on the fact that we are reading the texts in translation.

So far, so not encouraging. But let’s not give up hope. Arrian is no sycophant. Just as he is not afraid to criticise Alexander when he feels the king deserves it, so also he recognises when the Persians did well at Gaugamela.

For example, he describes the cavalry battle between the Bactrians and Paeonians/mercenaries as an ‘intense’ one, and says that Darius’ men killed more Macedonians (Ar.III.13.4) than the latter did Persians.

Similarly, he admits that Simmias could not follow Alexander in his pursuit of Darius because of the pressure that that the Macedonian left wing was under. Simmias had to stay behind to help relieve the embattled battalions (Ar.III.14.4).

And again, he is not shy to mention how the Macedonian phalanx line was broken, thus allowing Persian cavalry to raid Alexander’s camp (Ar.III.14.5-6).

Finally, he gives witness to the calm-headedness of the Persian cavalry who ran into Alexander as he made his way to help Parmenion and who, despite their desperate situation, managed to form themselves up and fight ‘the fiercest cavalry battle’ of Gaugamela (Ar.III.15.1-2).

Arrian’s honesty shows us that the Persian cavalry fought hard and fought well. It did so, even to the point of victory – for as Alexander was destroying the Persian left wing, Mazaeus came within a stroke of doing likewise to the Macedonian left*. Arrian doesn’t have so much to say about this but Parmenion would not have sent a messenger to Alexander (Ar.III.15.1) had he not been in the direst straits.

So, in answer to the question of ‘How did the Persian army perform in battle?’ I would answer: I cannot speak to the infantry because Arrian doesn’t really tell us anything about it, but the Persian cavalry gave a pretty decent account of itself. Yes, they failed in the end but not for want of trying.

*If Mazaeus had destroyed the Macedonian left wing, he would have been able to envelope and destroy the Macedonian centre. And if he had achieved that, Alexander and the right wing would have been crippled and liable to be chased down before they could ever escape home. At that stage, even if they had managed to repulse Mazaeus’ attack, continuing on would not have been an option as there would have been too few of them

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IV: An Alexandrian Credo

27th September – Four days to go until the 2,348th anniversary of the Battle of Gaugamela. Okay, three days as I am writing this on the 28th but if you don’t tell anyone, neither will I.

Yesterday’s question was ‘What would have happened if Darius III had won the Battle of Gaugamela?’

 

I’ll split my answer between Persia and Macedon.

Persia
If Darius had defeated Alexander, the Macedonian army would have been crushed. There would be no rematch. Any survivors would have been hunted down and only a handful of the 40,000 men who took to the field at Gaugamela would have made it home. Darius’ position as Great King would have been strengthened and in the end the Persian Empire would have survived him.

In the following months and years after 1st October 331, Darius would have taken back Alexander’s conquests – Egypt, Tyre, Phoenicia, Asia Minor etc. But I do not believe that he would have moved against Greece. Such a step would have been too bold for him. The Persians had spent the last 150 years interfering with Greek internal affairs with a far more effective weapon than men or swords: money. Darius, I think, would have been happy to continue that policy.

How long would the Persian Empire have lasted? I think it would have kept going until at least the rise of Rome. I say this because in real life the only serious challenger to any of the Hellenistic kingdoms before Rome was Chandragupta Maurya in India. But he was happy to make his peace with the Seleukids rather than seek their kingdom for himself. Had Darius won, and had he any contact with India, I think Chandragupta would have treated him in the same way.

Macedon
Had the Macedonian army been defeated at Gaugamela, Alexander would surely have died with his men. If that had happened, the Argead dynasty would have either died with him or fallen in the years following. In the event of Alexander’s death in battle, I see Arrhidaeus being appointed king just as he was in 323, but also being controlled and then disposed of, just as he was in 317.

Thereafter, I think history would have taken the same course as it actually did: Arrhidaeus’ assassin would have made himself king. How long he would have survived is another matter. For had Gaugamela been lost, Macedon would certainly have lost its hegemony over Greece. Emboldened by Alexander’s death, the Greeks would have risen up just like they did in 323. And this time, it is unlikely that Craterus or Leonnatus would have survived to come to Antipater’s aid. And even if they had, they would not have brought much of an army with them.

So, the Greeks would have rebelled, thrown off the Macedonian yoke, and resumed the intercity rivalries that had riven them since the Persian invasion. Macedon would have been one more combatant in the arena but never more, and maybe a lot less, unless another man of genius rose to the throne, just like Philip II did.

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VII: Did Darius Flee the Battlefield Too Quickly?

24th September – Just one week to go until the 2,348th anniversary of the Battle of Gaugamela. You can see today’s question in the title above. So, what about it? Did he?

Arrian (III.13.115.5) offers the most coherent account of the battle. Let’s break down the sequence of events that led to Darius’ flight.

III.13.1
The two armies approach each other
Alexander leads his unit of Companions to the right of the Macedonian phalanx
The Persian left wing moves left to ensure that Alexander doesn’t outflank them

III.13.2
The Scythian cavalry engage the advance Macedonian cavalry units
Alexander continues riding to the right and comes to the border of the levelled ground
Seeing Alexander approach the border, Darius orders his advance cavalry on his left wing to block Alexander’s way

III.13.3
In response to Darius’ blocking move, Alexander orders Menidas – who commands the mercenary cavalry – to charge the Persian advance cavalry
Seeing Menidas’ attack, the Scythian and Bactrian cavalry (who are part of the Persian advance cavalry) launch a counter-charge. Their superior numbers force Menidas back
Seeing Menidas’ retreat, Alexander orders Aretes – who commands light cavalry – and the Paeonian cavalry to help Menidas and the mercenaries. The Scythians and Bactrians are pushed back

III.13.4
Not all of the Bactrian cavalry were involved in the counter-charge. Those who had held back now ride forward to confront the Paeonians and mercenaries (Aretes has, presumably withdrawn from the confrontation – see III.14.1, below)
As the remainder of the Bactrian cavalry advance to the battle, they force their comrades who were withdrawing from it to turn back
The battle between the Scythians and Bactrians and Paeonians and mercenaries is ‘intense’; the Macedonian side takes the greater number of casualties. Despite this, Alexander’s men still manage to break the Scythians’ and Bactrians’ formation

III.13.5
At the same time as the above mentioned cavalry battle is happening, Darius orders his scythed chariots forward
The Agrianians and Balacrus’ javelin-men have been posted in front of the Macedonian cavalry. They successfully attack the charioteers and their horses

III.13.6
Some of the scythed chariots make it past the Agrianians and javelin attack but the Macedonian soldiers simply move out of the way. The charioteers pass by them are either brought down by grooms or royal shield-bearers

III.14.1
Presumably at the same time as the above mentioned cavalry battle and scythed chariot attack are taking place, Darius moves his phalanx forward
Alexander orders Aretes and his light cavalry to charge the Persian cavalry as it attempts to envelope the Macedonian right wing

III.14.2
Alexander continues to advance in oblique formation
Aretes engages the Persian cavalry. In so doing, he appears to draw so many Persian cavalry to himself that a hole opens in the Persian centre*
Alexander sees the hole and turns towards it
He forms a wedge made up of Companion Cavalry and infantry. Together, they drive through the hole and approach Darius

III.14.3
A short period of hand-to-hand combat takes place between the Macedonian Companion Cavalry/infantry and Persian phalanx
Darius flees. He is the first to do so
The Persian cavalry trying to envelope the Macedonian right wing is ‘thrown into panic’ apart by Aretes and the light cavalry

* At the Battle of Gaugamela, the Persian cavalry stood in front of the less experienced and skilled infantry. The hole, therefore, is of cavalry and exposed the infantry behind it to attack

So, did Darius flee the battlefield too quickly?

First of all, I ought to say, please don’t put too much store in this question. It is one of those that occasionally occurs to me as a result of having read something once upon a time. It may be that the author accused Darius of fleeing too fast, or, just as likely, it may be that I am remembering what they said inaccurately. I’m not too bothered about which it is as it has given me a morning of reading Arrian and co’s accounts and the opportunity to write and share the above sequence.

Anyway, with that proviso, let’s move on. Unlike the other sources, Arrian presents a proper battle taking place before Darius flees. On the basis of what I have read and outlined above, I don’t think he does present Darius as fleeing too quickly. What in all probability he does do is  distill the action for the sake of the narrative. Within that limit, reading and re-reading what Arrian says, I could easily imagine the battle unfolding as he writes it and Darius legitimately deciding to escape when Alexander got too close.

This is not to say that Arrian treats Darius very fairly, however. For example, he all but accuses Darius of cowardice. The Macedonians and Persians are fighting hand-to-hand all around him,

… the already fearful Darius could only see danger multiplied all round, and he was the first to turn and run.
(Ar. III.14.3)

Already fearful? The first to flee? This is the man who is supposed to have defeated an enemy in a duel and had the strength of will to take on the powerful eunuch Bagoas (not the Bagoas who became Alexander’s lover) at his own game of assassination. I am sure he had fear in him during the battle, but all things considered I would be surprised if it was any worse than any other soldier’s. And while he could have been the first to run, so could any Persian. The Darius of Arrian’s statement, above, would surely not have lasted long enough as Great King to ever fight Alexander.

Categories: Arrian, On Alexander | Tags: | 1 Comment

VIII: How the War was Won

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Categories: Historians of Alexander, On Alexander | Tags: | Leave a comment

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