On Alexander

Considering ‘the Great’

We are accustomed to calling Alexander of Macedon ‘the Great’ even though this title was never used by his Macedonian subjects. Should we, therefore, avoid it? No, of course not. The final word on what to call a person does not rest with those who knew him. Every generation has the right to decide what, if any, epithet is used.

In regards Alexander’s Macedonians, although they – as far as we know – never called him ‘the Great’, we do know from the sources that they loved him dearly, and esteemed him most highly. If you went back in time and asked a member of his army, ‘is it legitimate to call the king megas alexandros?’ I would bet my last penny on them saying ‘yes, and more besides.’

Our generation, as with every generation before it (going back to the Romans of the late third and early second century BC who were the first people known to use the epithet), calls Alexander ‘the Great’ on account of his brilliant military record.

That is good. But as often as we call him Alexander the Great, though, we ought to reflect on the fact that this epithet comes from Alexander’s hard work, determination, and sacrifice. We should also remember that Alexander owes the epithet not only to his own own actions but also to those of his father, Philip II. Alexander, after all, won every battle with the army that his father founded, using weapons (e.g. the sarissa) and tactics that Philip perfected.

This is important because it helps keep before us the Alexander who was rather than the Alexander of our imagination. For example, it reminds us that when Alexander was born, he was a baby like any other. And when he was a boy, he had to learn the art of war just like everyone else. It reminds us that his future success was not written in stone. At any point – from his first known combat operation against the Maedians in 340 BC* (aged 16) to his last against the Cossaeans in the winter of 324/3** – he could have failed. This is the Alexander of history, the one who we should always be aiming to find.

Why is keeping the historical Alexander before us so important? Because it’s the only way to give Alexander the credit he is due. If we just focus on Alexander as the Great we effectively say that all the effort he put into becoming a great general doesn’t matter. This diminishes the humanity of the man we profess to like, and makes mere glory hunters of ourselves. At best, this makes us look silly. At worst, we make a cypher of him, no more than a projection of our own beliefs, something that is both selfish as well as ahistorical.

* Plutarch Life of Alexander 9
** Arrian VII.15.1-3

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Thoughts After Issus

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.)

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Chaeronea: Philip Confirms His Domination Over Greece

The Battle of Chaeronea

Source Diodorus Siculus XVI.86
Date 2nd August 338 BC
In his book The Generalship of Alexander the Great (Da Capo Press, 1960), J.F.C. Fuller also suggests 1st September as a possible date of the battle; the Notes to the Loeb (1963) translation of Dio. XVI.86 also suggest 4th August
Combatants: Macedonian Army under Philip II vs A Greek Alliance comprising principally of Athenian and Theban soldiers
Location West of Thebes on the map below

Source: Wikipedia

The Battle

  • The two armies ‘deployed at dawn’
  • Philip II stationed Alexander, then 18 years old, ‘on one wing’. In the Loeb translation, Diodorus does not specify which wing it was but scholars believe it to have been the left (NB In his translation of Diodorus XVI, Robin Waterfield also does not specify which wing Alexander was on)
  • Philip put ‘his most seasoned generals’ with Alexander. The prince had already seen combat (e.g. against the Maedians in 340) but obviously still had much to learn
  • Philip directed the battle from ‘the other’ wing – presumably the right (see Notes below)
  • Diodorus says that ‘the Athenians assigned one wing to the Boetians (i.e. Thebans) and kept command of the other themselves. So, according to Diodorus, the Athenians were in charge of the alliance.
  • Once the battle started, it was ‘hotly contested for a long time’. There were many casualties on both sides
  • Finally, however, Alexander managed to break through the front line of the enemy right wing
  • Diodorus adds that Alexander was fired by a desire to show ‘his father his prowess’ and utter determination to win
  • Once Alexander broke through the enemy front line, the enemy soldiers fled for their lives
  • After Alexander had broken through the enemy front line, Philip advanced. Whether it was on foot or on horseback, Diodorus appears to suggest that Philip led his men from the front
  • Philip forced the enemy back. Overwhelmed, they began to flee

Notes

  • The Notes in Loeb say that ‘It seems certain that Philip, on the Macedonian right, did not engage the Athenians until the Thebans on the allied right, had been shattered by Alexander’
  • As you can see above, the Notes clarifies that the Thebans were Alexander’s opponents and the Athenians, Philip’s
  • The Notes assume Philip was on the Macedonian right because that is where Alexander usually fought during the battles of his war against the Persian empire (the right wing being the ‘traditional position of the Macedonian king’)
  • Among the Allied soldiers who fell in battle was a Theban general named Theagenes. In 335, his sister Timoclea was raped by the leader of some Thracian soldiers during the Macedonian attack on Thebes. After the assault, the leader demanded to know where her valuables were. Timoclea told him she had thrown them into a well. He went to look. As he did so, she pushed him in and then stoned him to death. The leader’s men brought her to Alexander. Although tied up, Timoclea approached and spoke to Alexander proudly and with dignity. Impressed by her, he gave orders for Timoclea and her children to be set free. This incident is recorded by Plutarch in his Life of Alexander 12
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32. The Battle of Issus

Crossing Asia Minor with Alexander

‘… about one hundred thousand [Persian soldiers] were killed (including more than ten thousand cavalry), such large numbers that Ptolemy the son of Lagus, who was with Alexander at the time, says that when the party in pursuit of Darius met a ravine in their path they could cross it over the bodies of the dead.’
(Arrian II.11.8)

Text used: Arrian ‘Alexander the Great‘ OUP 2013 (translated by Martin Hammond)

Following his victory at Issus, Alexander left Asia Minor once and for all and entered Phoenicia. I end my series of posts on Alexander in Asia Minor with an image of his route through the region, the famous Naples mosaic, a painting of Sisygambis’ equally famous mistake, and a bust of Ptolemy – one of Arrian’s main sources for his account of Alexander’s expedition. I hope you have enjoyed reading these posts!

Alexander’s Route Through Asia Minor
The famous Alexander Mosaic from Pompeii (now in Naples). In it, we see Darius fleeing, possibly at the Battle of Issus
Sisigambis pays homage to Alexander after mistaking Hephaestion for the king
Ptolemy I Soter

Credit Where It’s Due
Map of Alexander’s route through Asia Minor: University of N. Carolina
The Alexander Mosaic: Livius
Sisigambis mistakes Hephaestion for Alexander: Wikipedia
Ptolemy I Soter: New World Encyclopaedia

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31. The Syrian Gates

Crossing Asia Minor with Alexander

‘… at nightfall [Alexander] took his whole army and marched to secure the [Syrian] Gates once more. By about midnight he had re-established control of the pass, and for what remained of the night he rested his army on the rocky outcrop above it, with guard-posts at the critical points.’
(Arrian II.8.1-2)

Text used: Arrian ‘Alexander the Great‘ OUP 2013 (translated by Martin Hammond)

The Syrian Gates

Credit Where It’s Due
The Syrian Gates: Flikr

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30. Myriandrus

Crossing Asia Minor with Alexander

‘… and camped by the city of Myriandrus: during the night a fierce storm blew up, with rain and a violent wind, which kept him confined to camp.’
(Arrian II.6.2)

Text used: Arrian ‘Alexander the Great‘ OUP 2013 (translated by Martin Hammond)

With Myriandrus we actually leave Asia Minor and enter Phoenicia. As you can see from the map, Alexander had to march north towards the border of the two regions after realising that Darius was actually behind him.

Map showing the location of Myriandrus (or Alexandretta). Further to yesterday’s post, note the very southern location of the Syrian Gates. I wonder if the whole passage from the Gates to the Pinarus river are regarded as the Syrian Gates? More investigation required

Credit Where It’s Due
Map showing the location of Myriandrus: Wikimedia Commons

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29. The Assyrian Gates

Crossing Asia Minor with Alexander

‘[Alexander] led his army out on the march against Darius and the Persians. On the second day he passed through the [Assyrian] Gates…’
(Arrian II.6.2)

Text used: Arrian ‘Alexander the Great‘ OUP 2013 (translated by Martin Hammond)

Where are the Assyrian Gates? I’ve not been able to work it out. I think they are just west of the Beilan Pass. This pass, however, is supposed to be the Syrian Gates. In this image, however, the Syrian Gates are further north. Headache!

Credit Where It’s Due
Map showing the road to the Battle of Issus: Wikimedia Commons

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28. Mallus

Crossing Asia Minor with Alexander

‘Next [Alexander] came to Mallus… [he] made the customary offerings for a hero to Amphilochus. He found the Malians in a state of civil strife, and brought that to an end…’
(Arrian II.5.9)

Text used: Arrian ‘Alexander the Great‘ OUP 2013 (translated by Martin Hammond)

An ancient Greek warrior

Credit Where It’s Due
Ancient Greek warrior: EPIGONI

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27. Magarsus

Crossing Asia Minor with Alexander

‘[Alexander] went to Magarsus with the infantry and the royal squadron of cavalry: there he sacrificed to the Athena of Magarsus.’
(Arrian II.5.9)

Text used: Arrian ‘Alexander the Great‘ OUP 2013 (translated by Martin Hammond)

Map of Cilicia. I’ve not been able to find a map that mentions Magarsus; however, as it was Mallus’ port, you can see from Mallus’ location here where Magarsus would have been

Credit Where It’s Due
Map of southern Cilicia: Pinterest

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26. Soli

Crossing Asia Minor with Alexander

‘From Anchialus Alexander came to Soli. He installed a garrison there, and imposed a fine of two hundred talents of silver in punishment for the city’s pro-Persian tendency.’
(Arrian II.5.5)

Text used: Arrian ‘Alexander the Great‘ OUP 2013 (translated by Martin Hammond)

In the event, Soli paid Alexander 150 talents of silver. Perhaps because he was flush with victory after the Battle of Issus, Alexander waived the final fifty. At the same time, he sent the Solian hostages that he had taken from the city back home (Arr. II.12.2).

Soli, Asia Minor

Credit Where It’s Due
The Ruins of Soli: Wikipedia

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