On Alexander

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.

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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.

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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.

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X: Diversity in the Armies of Alexander and Darius

21st September – Ten days until the 2,348th anniversary of the Battle of Gaugamela.

In the last post, we saw how large the armies of Macedon and the Persian Empire were. The figures for the latter are, with the possible exception of Curtius, very overinflated, but they do point to a very interesting truth – that his army was a incredibly diverse one.

When I say ‘diverse’, I mean in terms of nationalities represented.

Arrian is our best source for the battle, so let’s look at the peoples he mentions.

Darius’ forces had been augmented by the support of the Indians who bordered the Bactrians, as well as the Bactrians themselves and the Sogdians: all these were under the command of Bessus, the satrap of Bactria. Together with them came the Sacae, who are a Scythian people, one of the tribes of Scythian race inhabiting Asia. They were not subjects of Bessus, but came under the terms of their military alliance with Darius: they were mounted archers, and their leader was Mauaces. Barsaentes the satrap of Arachosia led both the Arachosians and the so-called Mountain Indians; the Areians were led by the satrap of Areia, Satibarzanes; Phrataphernes led the Parthyaeans, Hyrcanians, and Topeirians, all of these cavalry; the Medes were under the command of Atropates, and brigaded with the Medes were the Cadusians, Albanians, and Sacesinians; the tribes bordering the Red Sea were commanded by Orontobates, Ariobarzanes, and Orxines; the Uxians and Susians had Oxathres the son of Abulites as their leader; Bupares commanded the Babylonians, and the transplanted Carians and the Sittacenians were brigaded with the Babylonians; the Armenians were led by Orontes and Mithraustes, and the Cappadocians by Ariaces; the Syrians of both Hollow and Mesopotamiam Syria were commanded by Mazaeus.
(Arrian III.8.3-6)

At III.11.3-7 Arrian gives an account of Darius’ order of battle. As above, he identifies each element of the Persian army by nationality whereas at III.11.8-12.5 he identifies each element of Alexander’s order of battle according to the commander-in-charge.

I’d like to think this is because he wanted to dehumanise Darius’ army and emphasise the humanity of Alexander’s (see this post) but it is more likely because the captured battle plan that the information ultimately came from arranged the information in this way.

Speaking of Alexander’s army, Arrian doesn’t have much to say about how diverse it was though we can glean some information. For example, the Thessalian cavalry served on the far left wing (Ar.III.11.10) and half of the Agrianians formed part of the right flank guard (Ar.III.12.2).

Diodorus (XVII.57) gives us a little more information about where the various parts of the Macedonian army came from. For example, he states that an Elimiote battalion served on the right wing of the phalanx. Curtius (IV.13.29) tells us that Craterus had charge of ‘the Peloponnesian cavalry – to which were attached squadrons of Achaeans, Locrians, and Malians’. These Malians, by the way, should not be confused with the Mallians who almost killed Alexander in India.

Why mention all this? Two begin with, I was just interested to find out the various peoples who were involved in the battle. I wish I had time to go behind the names and find out more about where the likes of the Cadusians and Mountain Indians came from, but that will have to wait for another day.

Looking at how tribally or nationally diverse the armies were also helps me to appreciate firstly how wide ranging the Persian Empire was and, by extension, how wide ranging Alexander’s war had become. Men from Greece to Bactria-India stood on the field of Gaugamela, men who otherwise may never have known that each other existed. This was in a sense a world war.

If only they could have come together in peace. If only. After Alexander’s victory, however, they did. Regretfully, Macedonian xenophobia meant that that peace never amounted to very much.

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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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Did the Wars of the Successors need to happen?

After Alexander died, the Macedonian phalanx and cavalry divided over who should succeed him. The phalanx wanted Alexander’s half-brother, Arrhidaeos, to do so. The cavalry, however, which included Alexander’s most senior officers, were opposed to this. The two sides nearly came to blows before reaching a compromise: Arrhidaeos would become king and Perdiccas, leader of the cavalry faction, his regent (See Diodorus XVIII.2). A few months later, when Alexander’s son, Alexander IV, was born, he was made co-king (See Justin XIII.4).

The peace that this arrangement brought about held for virtually no time at all. After dividing the satrapies of the empire among Alexander’s senior officers, Perdiccas sent Peithon to quell a revolt of Greek settlers in Bactria and Sogdia (Diodorus XVIII.4; see also Dio. XVII.99). Peithon accepted the commission but he did not intend to fight the rebellious settlers; rather, he intended to win them over to his side and take power in Bactria and Sogdia (Diodorus XVIII.7). As it happens, Peithon was foiled in his plan but his was the first act of rebellion by one of Alexander’s commanders, and it set the stage for the conflict that would continue for forty years.

So, that is what happened. But did it need to?

Well, the cavalry could have sent Roxane home and accepted Arrhidaeos as their king, allowing him to rule under the aegis of a regent. In the summer of 323 this didn’t happen because the cavalry knew that Arrhidaeos was unfit to rule: he had a physical or mental impediment that made it impossible. Of course, they did eventually allow it to happen, but when it did, the Wars of the Successors started.

An alternative would have been for Arrhidaeos to be sent home and Roxane’s child, if a boy, to be elevated to the throne, instead. Of course, he too would have required a regent, but only until he came of age.

Or, Alexander’s illegitimate son Heracles could have been made king, instead (Curtius X.6.10-12).

These were the options. Why did the Successors not take them? Or, when they did, why did they not adhere to them?

A mixture of reasons. Arrhidaeos’ mental/physical impediment denied him the authority that he needed to rule. Moreover, it meant that he could never lead from the front, which is what a Macedonian king had to be able to do.

As for Alexander IV, I believe he was rejected out of fear; the Successors feared that when he came of age, Alexander might strip them of the power they had enjoyed for the previous eighteen years, and have them killed.

Why would Alexander IV do this? After all, he would have known that he owed his empire to the Successors. This is true, but the Macedonian political situation in the late fourth century BC was too unstable to permit Alexander IV to trust anyone. He would know full well that as long as the generals lived they would be rivals to his throne. He would not be safe until men of his generation, and therefore men with less authority than him, were in the key positions of power. This is why Alexander the Great removed Philtoas and Parmenion, and I believe it is why Cassander assassinated Alexander IV, and why none of the other Successors so much as said a word about it let alone protested or made war on him. They might not have liked what Cassander had done but they liked the idea of being killed even less.

Heracles was rejected because of old fashioned Macedonian (and Greek) racism: he was seen as a barbarian (Curt.X.6.13-14). Had Ptolemy Lagides got his way, Alexander IV would have been rejected for the same reason.

So, back to the headline question: did the Wars of the Successors need to happen?

When Ptolemy rejected Alexander IV and Heracles, he suggested that the generals should rule the empire together (Curt. X.6.15). I suppose this is why Ptolemy is regarded as a separatist. His idea, though, made sense. It would have lead to a kind-of government of all the talents, just what the diverse empire needed.

The only problem was – fear; the same fear that made Cassander kill Alexander IV. Fear is what drove Macedonian politics. It is the reason why, upon his accession in 336 BC, Alexander the Great killed anyone with a rival claim to the throne; it is the reason he had Philotas and Parmenion killed. I think it is one of the reasons why Hephaestion, Craterus and Coenus colluded in the judicial murder of Philotas (Curt. VI.11.10). In the Macedonian royal court, one was either in favour or out, and one had to do what was necessary to stay in. Co-operation happened but one had to be prepared to betray friends and allies as necessary. After all, they might do the same to you – as necessary.

So, no, the Wars of the Successors didn’t need to happen, but I think that the prejudices of the Successors, allied to their legitimate fears, made the conflict inevitable. The only thing that might have stopped it is if Alexander III had died twenty or more years later and if his son had been as strong and determined a person as his father. But even then, all it would have taken is one cup laced with poison…

Categories: Arrian, Diodorus Siculus, Justin, On Alexander, Plutarch, Ptolemy I Soter, Quintus Curtius Rufus | Tags: | 2 Comments

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!

Categories: Of The Moment, On Alexander | Tags: , | Leave a comment

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