- Perdiccas voted for Roxane because as the most senior officer in the army he had control of her.
- Nearchus voted for Heracles because he had married Barsine’s daughter, and so was Heracles’ brother-in-law.
- Ptolemy wanted the generals to rule because he knew no one man could rule the empire and because he himself was very popular with the men – very useful if the generals could not reach a consensus and needed a ‘nudge’ in the right direction.
- I don’t know enough about Aristonus to know why he chose to support Perdiccas. It may be that he genuinely thought that Perdiccas should be their leader on account of Alexander giving him his ring or maybe Perdiccas had promised him a reward for his loyalty. In 321/0, Aristonus was given command of a mission to defeat the kings of Cyprus who had allied themselves with Ptolemy.
- Meleager’s suggestion that the phalanx was Alexander’s successor was an irresponsible and ridiculous one; it was surely no more than a brazen attempt to grab power by Meleager himself. If this is correct, it is ironic that his plan was undone by a member of the infantry. But if we can fault Meleager for his lack of subtlety, we can’t fault his persistence. Though if he really turned to Arrhidaeos just to spite Perdiccas, he was a shallow and mean minded man.
Quintus Curtius Rufus
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:
‘… the Thessalian cavalry had put up a brilliant fight which matched Alexander’s own success…’
[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…’
‘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’…
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.
26th September – Five days to go until the 2,348th anniversary of the Battle of Gaugamela. Today, I am asking ‘What could Darius have done to win the battle?’
As we saw a few days ago, the Persians lost the battle after (a) Alexander successfully drew its cavalry to the Macedonian right, creating a hole in the Persian centre. He then led his cavalry into the breach and fought his way closer and closer to Darius. Seeing this, the Great King fled from the battlefield, and (b) Mazaeus’ attempt to destroy the Macedonian left wing failed.
So, Darius could have won if a number ‘ifs’ had happened:-
- If Darius had been able to stop his horsemen from being pulled to their left and successfully enveloped the Macedonian right wing, or
- If his infantry had been able to withstand the Companion Cavalry’s attack and caught Alexander out during the close fighting, or
- If Mazaeus had successfully destroyed the Macedonian left wing and enveloped its centre
Then maybe – very likely in the case of (3) – Darius would have won the battle.
There’s more. On his way back to help Parmenion (or on his way back to camp, according to Curtius), Alexander was confronted by a fleeing Persian cavalry unit which, seeing him and his men blocking their way, engaged the Macedonians in a fierce fight.
Once Parmenion’s safety was assured, Alexander returned to the pursuit of Darius. As he and his men rode, they slaughtered any of the enemy in their way.
However, if the fleeing cavalry unit or one of the fleeing Persians had managed to kill Alexander this would almost certainly have led to the disintegration of the Macedonian army.
Admittedly, not at the battle itself as our question requires, but in the days following. Look at how worried the senior Macedonian commanders were when Alexander was badly injured against the Mallians in India (VI.12.1-2), and look at what happened in Babylon after he did indeed die.
The Macedonian army relied utterly on Alexander for its success. Without him, it was liable to break apart. This helps us appreciate what a precarious position the Macedonian army was in on 1st October 331 BC. If Alexander had been killed – and all it would have taken is a stray arrow – his army would have been destroyed either on the battlefield or in the days / weeks following as it splintered and came under the control of the various commanders, all of whom would be a weak opposition for a Persian king.
For their part, however, the Persians could have afforded to lose Darius. For example, had he been killed and Mazaeus been victorious on the Persian left wing, a successor would have been named and the Persian Empire continued.
25th September – Six days to go until the 2,348th anniversary of the Battle of Gaugamela. Today, I am asking ‘What happened in the aftermath of the battle?’
As we saw yesterday, Darius fled from the battlefield. Arrian states that Alexander pursued him only to turn back when he received a message from Parmenion informing him that the Macedonian left wing was in trouble ‘and needed help’ (Ar. III.15.1).
As the king and his men rode back towards the battle, they came across some fleeing Persian cavalry. Arrian tells us that this enemy unit was made up of Parthyaeans, Indians, ‘and the largest and best section of the Persian cavalry’ (Ibid).
The Persians were in flight but they had not lost their heads. Rather than try to flee from Alexander and his men, they engaged them. ‘What ensued was the fiercest cavalry battle of the whole action’ (Ar. III.15.2). We have to give the Persians a lot of credit here. The battle was lost. What were they fighting for? Survival, sure, but I like to think honour as well. Either way – they fought bravely. Who dares say that the Persians were soft?
This cavalry battle saw some significant figures in Alexander’s army wounded. Hephaestion was struck in the arm by a spear (Curtius IV.16.32) and ‘Perdiccas, Coenus and Menidas were almost killed by arrows.’ (Ibid).
The engagement ended when finally the Persians fled. Alexander let them go and returned to Parmenion. By the time he arrived, however, the Thessalian cavalry had shown their quality and turned the battle in Macedon’s favour (see Ar. III.15.3).
Seeing this, Alexander did not decide to relax. Instead, he returned to the pursuit of Darius. It was inevitable that he would do this. For as long as Darius was alive he had the ability to draw support to himself and build another army: he was still a threat. If there was any chance – any chance at all – of capturing/killing him, Alexander had to take it.
The new Lord of Asia made his way to Arbela. On the way, he crossed a river – the Lycus (modern day Great Zab) – where he stopped to give the men and horses a rest (Ar. III.15.4). Behind him, Parmenion took control of the Persian camp.
At midnight, Alexander led his men on. By the next day, he had entered Arbela. There was no sign of Darius, but his treasure and other possessions were still in situ (Ar. III.15.5).
From what Arrian says, it looks like Alexander remained in Arbela until the rest of his army caught up with him. Then, he began the journey to Babylon. He approached the city in battle order – just in case its governor, Mazaeus, who had fled to the city from the battlefield, had decided to resist him – but the Babylonians were not interested in fighting. They greeted Alexander as their new master (Ar. III.16.3).
So, that’s Alexander. As for Darius, he rode east until he came to Ecbatana. Calculating that Alexander would march south to claim the wealth of Babylon and Susa (Ar. III.16.2), he remained there until Alexander came after him having taken not just Babylon and Susa, but Persepolis as well, However, the two kings would never see each other again after the Battle of Gaugamela as Darius was betrayed and murdered by his captains during the flight from Ecbatana to Bactria.
Curtius agrees with Arrian that Alexander rode after Darius (C. IV.15.32) but turned back after receiving Parmenion’s message (C.IV.16.2). He writes that when Darius reached the Lycus river, the Great King considered tearing down the bridge, but despite the risk did not do so for the sake of his fleeing men (C. IV.16.8).
Curtius tells a sorry story of the fleeing Persians drinking muddy water to quench their thirst and drowning in the Lycus river as Alexander rode towards them. He also includes the story of the cavalry attack on Alexander as he returned – not to Parmenion, for in Curtius’ account, the Macedonian king’s deputy has already told him of the left wing’s victory – but to camp (C. IV.16.20-25).
Curtius has Darius arrive in Arbela at about midnight where he paused to hold a conference with his men (C. V.1.3-9). Alexander arrived in Arbela ‘shortly afterwards’ (C.V.1.10). According to Curtius, his camp must have still been near Gaugamela as he states that Alexander moved it quickly due to the outbreak of disease as a result of the decomposing bodies on the battlefield.
Three days after the battle, Alexander arrived at a town or village named Mennis, where – Curtius says – ‘is a cave with a stream that pours forth huge quantities of bitumen’ (C.V.1.16), of which the walls of Babylon are made.
And speaking of Babylon, Curtius agrees with Arrian again that Alexander approached the city in battle formation but that the city – led by Mazaeus – surrendered itself to him without a fight (C.V.1.17-19).
Diodorus has Darius flee and Alexander pursue him (XVII.60). He also has Parmenion struggle against Mazaeus and send for help to Alexander (Ibid). However, Unlike Arrian, Curtius and Plutarch, the messengers do not reach Alexander, who is too far away. It doesn’t matter, though, for Parmenion eventually gains the upper hand and leads his men to victory (Ibid).
The injuries to Hephaestion, Perdiccas, Coenus and Menidas are mentioned (XVII.61). Diodorus then breaks to describe events back in Greece before coming back to Darius. As with Arrian, he makes his way to Ecbatana where he starts collecting men for a new army (XVII.64).
As for Alexander, he buries his dead and makes his way to Arbela where he finds so much Persian treasure. From there, he goes to Babylon where ‘the people received him gladly’ (Ibid). There is no mention of Mennis, or bitumen/naphtha.
As might be expected, Justin’s account of the aftermath is very short. He agrees with Curtius (IV.15.30) that Darius considered killing himself. But whereas Curtius suggests that Darius decided instead to flee, Justin (XI.14) has the Great King’s officers persuade their lord to escape.
During Darius’ flight, Justin brings him to the Cydnus river. Given that the Cydnus is in Cilicia (Asia Minor) this must be a scribal error. Justin also introduces the idea of the bridge being destroyed. But whereas Curtius says that Darius thought about doing it (IV.16.8), Justin has some of his officers recommend that the Great King order its destruction. As with Curtius, however, Darius declines for the sake of his men to carry out the operation (Ibid).
And that’s that. Justin doesn’t cover Alexander’s pursuit of Darius or his march on Babylon.
Plutarch’s account of the aftermath of the battle is much truncated. Nevertheless, we see Darius fleeing and Alexander being forced to end his pursuit after Parmenion’s men come to him for help. By the time Alexander arrives on the Macedonian left wing, however, Parmenion has led his men to victory (Life 33).
Plutarch does not cover Alexander’s arrival in Babylon. He does, however, seem to tell a different version of Curtius’ Mennis story. Instead of Mennis, however, Plutarch has Alexander march through Babylonia until he arrives in Ecbatana. As this is in Media a later scribe has surely mixed the names up – just like one of Justin’s scribes.
Anyway, in ‘Ecbatana’, Alexander is ‘impressed by the fissure in the earth… from which fire continually poured fourth’ (Life 35). The cause of the fire is naphtha. What follows is the rather amazing story of one of Alexander’s attendants, an ‘ugly’ man named Stephanos, who agrees to be coated in naphtha in order to demonstrate how flammable the liquid is. Needless to say, the story does not end well, although Stephanos appears to survive.
One Final Point
The Times today ran an interesting story about the discovery of a ‘lost city’ of Alexander’s. You can read the report here.
The connection to Alexander is flimsy at best. It appears to be based upon the idea that he founded the city during his pursuit of Darius after the Battle of Gaugamela.
Well, it took Alexander nearly a month after the battle to reach Babylon so perhaps he did found a fort that then became a city later on but no source mentions this and I don’t get a sense from reading the texts that he tarried long enough anywhere to found a settlement during the journey.
That is just a thought. I await further details of the archaeological dig with interest. Maybe the archaeologists know more about the Alexander connection than the report let’s on.
22nd September – Nine days to go until the 2,348th anniversary of the Battle of Gaugamela (glossing over the fact that I am writing this a day late). In this post, I am asking ‘what kind of speech did Alexander and Darius give to their men before the battle?’
The answer to this question is to a greater or lesser degree unknowable. The speeches that our five sources give us are either their interpretation of what Alexander and Darius said or simple fictions.
So, let’s ask instead, ‘what speech do the sources put into Alexander’s and Darius’ mouths?’
The evening before the battle, Alexander reconnoitred the battlefield with some light armed troops and Companion Cavalry. Upon his return to camp, he spoke to his officers. Arrian doesn’t quote what Alexander said but gives a brief outline of his words, instead. The king’s speech can be broken down into three sections: Inspiration, Reminder and Instruction.
Alexander inspired his men by assuring them that, actually, ‘they had no need from him of encouragement’ – their past bravery and success had shown they were ready for the battle.
Alexander then asked the officers to ‘fire up’ the men underneath them. He asked them to do this in a very particular way, that is, by reminding their men ‘that in this battle they would not be fighting simply for Hollow Syria, for Phoenicia, or for Egypt, as before, but at issue this time was who should rule the whole of Asia’.
After briefly complimenting the the officers’ men, Alexander asked his officers to ’emphasize the importance of individual discipline’ so that the men knew when to be silent and when to issue the Macedonians’ terrible war cry, and so forth. The king concluded this part of his speech with another reminder – ‘that the whole outcome depended on individual performance’.
Arrian concludes by adding that Alexander addressed ‘a few more words of similar encouragement’ to his officers.
Alexander’s speech, as Arrian gives it, is a very practical one – first encouraging the officers so as to get them ready for the hard task ahead before diving into the why of the battle and then what needed to be done. If I was leading an army, I would definitely follow Arrian’s model for Alexander’s speech. It can be no surprise that Arrian’s probable source for this speech is Ptolemy, who would have heard it himself or from someone who was present.
What about Darius? Well, just as Arrian does not tell us what Alexander said to his men immediately before the battle (you’ll have noticed that the speech that I outlined above was given the night before) he does not mention whether Darius spoke to his men or not.
Curtius (IV.14.1-7) – Alexander
Curtius’ version of Alexander’s speech can be broken down into three categories, which are almost the same as Arrian’s: Inspiration, Contempt and Realistic.
Alexander inspires his men by reminding them of their previous successes and of how far they have come. Curtius has him flat out lying by telling them that ‘The Persians had been overtaken while running away, and would now fight only because escape was impossible.’ and cleverly turns Darius’ scorched earth policy against the Great King by saying that it was proof ‘that anything they did not spoil belonged to their foes’ – that’s a lot of land.
Alexander accuses the Persians of being disorganised. There must have been a fair amount of truth to this. Darius had pulled together an army from across his Empire but would not have had time to train every soldier adequately. Curtius adds to this by having the Macedonian king say that there ‘were more men standing on the Persian side, but more were going to be fighting on the Macedonian’ (italics in translation). That’s a great line.
This portion of Alexander’s speech is rather interesting as it is involves an acknowledgement that inspirational language only goes so far. A great fight is about to start and it will involve great suffering. How to ameliorate that? Perhaps wisely, Alexander avoids tackling the issue head on. Instead, he encourages the men to fight because they are such a huge distance from home and, well, have no choice if they ever want to go back there. Alexander must have been very confident that neither now or later his men would reply, ‘Well, whose fault is it that we are in such a precarious position to begin with?’.
Curtius (IV.14.8-26) – Darius
The Great King’s speech is twice as long as Alexander’s. I have broken it down into four categories: Realistic, Self-Justification and Contempt, Inspiration/Contempt/Philosophical, Pleading.
Curtius presents this portion of Darius’ speech as a kind-of mirror image of Alexander’s. The latter reminded his men of their past successes. Darius, in a manner of speaking, reminds his of their failures. “‘Recently,'” he says, “‘you were the masters of lands washed by the ocean on one side and bounded by the Hellespont on the other. But now it is not glory for which you must fight but for survival.'” Of course, it is actually just Darius who is fighting for survival but as we have already seen with Alexander’s speech, the truth is not an essential element of pre-battle exhortations.
Self-Justification and Contempt
Here, Darius pretty much says, I’ve done my bit (in gathering you all together and arming you), now you have to do yours. He then denigrates the Macedonians. Their ‘bravery is mere recklessness’, they are few in number (as compared to the Persians, of course, this was true), ‘their centre [is] weak and depleted’, the ‘rearmost ranks’ have turned away from the Persians as if ‘already starting their flight’ (another neat bit of rhetoric) and so forth.
Inspiration, Contempt, Philosophical
In a clever bit of role reversal, Darius tells his men that they are now what the Macedonians were. Once, therefore, the enemy was mobile but now has now grown heavy with loot and we – the Persians – are the mobile army. However, having compared his army to the Macedonian he then makes a second attempt to break through the latter’s reputation for being courageous. He does this by pointing out that though ‘Macedonian weapons are over there’, due to the amount of blood spilt in this war, ‘Macedonian bodies’ are not. Darius accuses Alexander of being ‘a headstrong and crazy’ person.
Finally, Darius muses that perhaps the reason the Persian Empire is in this position is because the gods want ‘to give it a good shock rather than to shatter it, in order to remind us of human frailty which is too often forgotten in times of prosperity’. I really can’t imagine any king diving into philosophy just before a fight. This portion of Darius’ speech, more than any other, feels like Curtius thinking aloud to his audience.
Darius concludes his speech in a rather desperate fashion, by pleading with his men to save the lives of the royal family. He has a legitimate concern here but would he really have used them to motivate his soldiers? Of course, he would not have been speaking to everyone but perhaps those closest physically to him, and they were his kinsmen, so perhaps they would have been motivated to help save the royal family’s lives.
Diodorus records only that ‘Alexander summoned his officers and encouraged them for the battle which they faced with suitable words’. He says nothing about what Darius might have said. In XVII.57 we do see him give instructions to the phalanx on how to deal with the scythed chariots but this is not presented as part of his pre-battle speech.
According to Justin/Pompeius Trogus, Alexander spoke to each nationality in turn in order to motivate them. Justin gives us some examples. Thus, Alexander ‘excited the Illyrians and Thracians by describing the enemy’s wealth and treasures’. And encouraged the Greeks by reminding them ‘of their wars of old, and their deadly hatred towards the Persians’. As for the Macedonians, they were reminded of their conquests and their desire to ‘subdue Asia’. Justin records that Alexander told his fellow countrymen that ‘this battle would put an end to their labours and crown their glory.’ Could he have really meant that?
Justin says just a few words about what Darius told his men. Like Alexander, he encouraged them; he did so by putting ‘them in mind of the ancient glory of the Persians, and the perpetual possession of empire vouchsafed them by the immortal gods.’
Plutarch (Life of Alexander 33)
So, whereas Justin has Alexander speaking to all the nationalities of his army, Plutarch states that Alexander ‘gave a long address to the Thessalians and the other Greeks’. They liked what they heard, he says, and urged the king to lead them into battle. Upon hearing this, Alexander raised his right hand and prayed to the gods ‘if he were really the son of Zeus, they should protect and encourage the Greeks’.
The idea that Alexander would speak only to his Greek Allies is not convincing, yet Plutarch names his source for this – Callisthenes. He would have known the truth, of course, but as court historian/propagandist he would also have known what to tell the Greeks to make Alexander look as good as possible. And in this case, that was the king speaking only, or at least first and foremost, to their fellow Greeks.
Plutarch doesn’t record what Darius said to his men.
20th September – Eleven days to go until the 2,348th anniversary of the Battle of Guagamela. But wait; I am publishing this on the 21st. Why so? Read on. Yesterday’s question was, ‘What was the size of the Macedonian and Persian army?’
Here is what the sources say:
Macedonian army (A.III.12.5)
– Cavalry 7,000
– Infantry c.40,000
Persian army (A.III.8.6)
– Cavalry 40,000
– Infantry 1,000,000
in addition (Ibid)
Scythed chariots 200
– Cavalry not given
– Infantry not given
Persian army (IV.12.13)
– Cavalry 45,000
– Infantry 200,000
– Cavalry not given
– Infantry not given
Persian army (D. XVII.53)
– Cavalry 200,000
– Infantry 800,000
in addition (Ibid)
Scythed chariots 200
– Cavalry not given
– Infantry not given
Persian army (J.XI.12)
– Cavalry 100,000
– Infantry 400,000
– Cavalry not given
– Infantry not given
Persian army (Life 31)
– Cavalry not given
– Infantry 1,000,000
Yesterday, when I compiled these figures, one thing about them struck me, and it became the reason why I am publishing this post a day late. Namely, only Arrian gives the number of Macedonian cavalry and infantry.
A confession: To find the figures, I opened my copy of Arrian et al and skim read the relevant section until I found them.
After I had finished, I was so surprised that none of the others gave the size of the Macedonian army that I feared that actually, they had done so, and in my haste I had passed them by.
Today, I had to take a day off work to go to the dentist, so I used some of the spare time to properly read each source’s account of Alexander’s journey from Egypt to Babylon just to make sure that I didn’t miss their account of his army’s size given perhaps early, perhaps later than the battle itself in the text.
In case you are wondering which sections of the books I covered:-
- [Arrian III.6.1-16.4]
- Curtius IV.9.1-V.1.23
- Diodorus XVII.53-64
- Justin XI.12-14
- Plutarch Life of Alexander 31-35
The outcome of this exercise was that I discovered that, no, I had not missed anything out; it is indeed only Arrian who tells us the size of the Macedonian army. I am at a loss to say why.
Given that nearly all the sources – Curtius, of all people, being an honourable exception? – over inflate the size of Darius’ army, I wonder if the writers somehow wanted us to focus on the Persians as a horde, as the ineluctable wave, the seemingly invincible force that Alexander somehow managed to overcome in order to achieve glory.
Perhaps. But I have to admit, it’s not a feeling I get from the texts.
That aside, one thing can be said with certainty – or as much as history ever allows: the Macedonian army was greatly outnumbered at the Battle of Gaugamela. Despite this, it managed to achieve a stunning victory. The question of how this happened will be the focus of an upcoming post.
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…
Over on my Tumblr page I am currently writing a read-through of the eighteenth book of Diodorus Siculus’ Library of History – his account of the wars of Alexander’s successors. Today’s post covers the twenty-fourth and fifth chapters of the Library. You can read it here.
While writing the post I was very struck by the fact that Antipater and Craterus were not only surprised but ‘dumbfounded’ when Antigonus Monophthalmus informed them that Perdiccas intended to marry Alexander’s sister, Cleopatra, as a means to make himself king of her brother’s empire.
I’m not surprised by their shock. Perdiccas, after all, was the man to whom Alexander gave his ring of office on his deathbed (Diodorus XVII.117; Curtius X.5.4). The dying king must, therefore, have trusted Perdiccas to ensure that if it were possible for an Argead (e.g. his as yet unborn son) to inherit the throne his deputy – Hephaestion’s successor – would be able to make it happen. And if Alexander thought that, then surely the other generals did, too. It seems that Antipater and Craterus certainly did. Yet here Perdiccas was, all of a sudden, aiming to make himself king.
The title of my post is ‘Perdiccas’ Betrayal’. If there is an ounce of truth in Diodorus’ words I can’t think of how anyone could have betrayed Alexander more. For he betrayed him not only personally but surely by encouraging those other generals who were not so loyal to the idea of an Argead succession but who, had Perdiccas remained faithful to the late king, might have swallowed their ambitions all the same.
Of course, there is an objection to my dim view of Perdiccas, and it is sourced in the texts. According to Diodorus, Alexander was asked to whom he left his kingdom. He did not say ‘his son’ but ‘to the strongest’ (D. XVII.117) or ‘to the best man’ (Curtius X.5.5). My objection to this is that a. Arrian(VII.26) – taking his cue from Ptolemy and Aristobulos – says that Alexander could not speak at the end of his life and b. It would make no sense for Antipater or Craterus to be surprised by Perdiccas’ betrayal if they knew that Alexander wanted ‘simply’ the strongest or greatest man to inherit his throne rather than his son.
- As visitors to this blog may have noticed, I have been very remiss in updating The Second Achilles for a while now. For this, I apologise; I am in a busy stage of life but have to admit I haven’t used my time as well as I could have to publish posts here. Within the time that I have I would like to change that. I’m not sure how I will yet, but one idea is to write short posts like this one giving my thoughts on Diodorus as I write the read through. If you find short posts like this one helpful, or not so, do feel free to let me know in the comments box or via e-mail email@example.com
Concluding my look at Curtius’ use of the word ‘torture’ in his history of Alexander. In this post, I look at its usage in the context of the Pages’ Plot.
Read other posts in this series here
- Book VIII contains 2 references to torture
- Book IX contains 1 reference to torture
The fate of the conspirators in the Pages’ Plot
… Alexander closed the meeting and had the condemned men transferred to members of their own unit. The latter tortured them to death so that they would gain the king’s approval by their cruelty. Callisthenes also died under torture.
Callisthenes was a man of the finest character and accomplishments who had restored Alexander to life when he was determined to die after the murder of Clitus. Alexander had not merely executed him but had tortured him as well – and without trial.
Rebellion among Greek settlers is quelled
[The Greek guards] decided that Boxus should be executed immediately, but that Biton should be tortured to death. As the torture-irons were already being applied to his body, the Greeks for some unknown reason rushed to arms like madmen and, when those who had been ordered to torture Biton heard the uproar, they abandoned their task, fearing that the cries of the rioters were intended to stop them.
Here are my observations based on the above quotations. Feel free to let me know what you think in the comments section
- In the first six books of Curtius’ history (stopping just before the Philotas affair) the word ‘torture’ is used eight times and in seven different ways. The Philotas affair adds seven more contexts for its use. The Pages’ Plot, however, adds just one (being the reference to an aborted attempt to torture someone):
- 2 reference to torture being carried out (VIII.8.20, VIII.8.22)
- 1 reference to torture having been carried out (VIII.8.20)
- 1 reference to individual motives for torturing during the act (VIII.8.20)
- 1 reference to an aborted attempt to torture someone (IX.7.8-9)
- VIII.8.20 On the one hand, returning traitors to their units for punishment makes perfect sense. Of all the soldiers in the army, their fellow unit members would have been the ones most let down by their actions. Let them, therefore, carry out the punishment due. On the other, it also seems to be a very cunning and manipulative action by Alexander: By having the men execute the condemned, he ensures that if there are any more among them who are having second thoughts about his leadership, they are now part of his ‘tyranny’ in a way they weren’t before having taken part in the execution of the rebels. In this light, the return of the traitors and their executions becomes a kind of psychological warfare carried out against anyone still against him.
- VIII.8.22 Curtius has a very idealistic view of Callisthenes that was not shared by everyone. I would see his description of the historian as another example of his propensity to exaggerate.
- IX.7.8-9 Biton certainly had a lucky escape. Why did the Greeks rush ‘to arms like madmen’? As I see it, there were two factions in Zariaspa, where this action took place, at the time – the loyalists (those for Alexander) and the rebels (who wanted to return to Greece). The rebels were led by a man named Athenodorus and were the dominant force. Biton was also a member of the rebels. He had a ‘personal rivalry’ with Athendorus and this led him to kill him. Afterwards, Biton tried to persuade ‘most of the people’ that he acted in self-defence but they weren’t convinced. Nevertheless, when ‘Greek soldiers’ tried to kill him, Biton was saved by a mob – surely inspired by his supporters. Biton then bit the hand that fed him by conspiring ‘against those responsible for saving him’. This time, he was arrested, and about to be tortured when the Greeks rose up in arms. I would have suggested that they were inspired by Biton’s supporters (which is what the torturers thought) again except for the evidence of what happened next. We know this because Biton was taken away from the torturers and brought before the people. Curtius says that the sight of him ‘brought about a sudden transformation of their feelings’. Prior to that moment, then, they had been happy for him to be tortured and, no doubt, executed. Having been twice saved from death, Biton finally took the hint and left the city. As for the people, I can only imagine that their actions were informed by the general unrest of that time. It is not hard to imagine members of either party being inspired to take up arms to fight their rivals. Blood had already been spilt, after all, with soldiers from the rebel party killing loyalists in the initial uprising.
As I come to the end of this little survey of Curtius’ use of the word ‘torture’ I now ask myself what I have learnt from it.
The first thing is that Curtius uses the word much more broadly than I would have guessed without reading his text. In the first six books of his history, he makes 8 references to torture using it in 7 different ways. The Philotas Affair contains 17 references overall with the word being used in 11 different ways – 7 of which are new. The Pages’ Plot contains just 3 references but 4 different contexts. Of course, only 1 of those is new. However, that is still 15 different ways in which he uses the word throughout his book. I would love to be able to make some searingly original and profound insight into Curtius’ literary method but I’m afraid what is most in my mind at the moment is a simply appreciation of how flexible the English language is! Curtius will have to wait.
The second thing I have learnt from this exercise is that Curtius is certainly not shy when it comes to discussing torture. Unlike Arrian and Plutarch, he mentions it a lot (specifically with reference to Philotas) and graphically. In contrast to Arrian who omit any reference to Philotas being tortured and Plutarch who passes quickly over it, we find in Curtius Philotas being ‘racked with the most cruel tortures… fire and beatings’ his body swellling ‘with weals’ and Hephaestion, Craterus and Coenus not only interrogating him but striking their former colleague ‘in the face and eyes’ with their spears.
Is there a need for Curtius to be so graphic? It’s hard to say. My instinctive reaction would be to reply ‘no, he is simply being sensationalistic’ but this is not a judgement I can readily make as I don’t enough about Curtius’ society to know where he was coming from. For all I know, in comparison to other writers of his time, he was writing in a restrained manner.
The third lesson I take away is simply how bloody (literally) dangerous it was to fall into the hands of your enemies. From the Greek captives tortured by the Persians (V.5.5-6) to Philotas’ fate after receiving Alexander’s right hand and what can only be described as Alexander Lyncestes’ (and Callisthenes’ – according to Curtius, anyway) judicial murder.
As an adjunct to the above, I might add I now have a new appreciation of the importance of rhetoric and the right appearance in the ancient world. I’m now sure that Alexander didn’t want Amyntas and his brothers to be acquitted anyway but they certainly didn’t do their chances any harm by the way they spoke and the way Polemon wept before speaking. The same goes for Biton who ended not having to speak at all. What this reminds me of is the importance of meaning in antiquity. The world was full of it – much more so than today. It’s easy to forget that.
Insofar as one can enjoy reading and writing about torture writing the posts in this series has been enjoyable as well as eye opening. I’d be lying though if I said that it wasn’t a aspect of ancient life that I am also happy to close the book on as well.
In an article for The Sydney Morning Herald, on how we can say and do things that we regret while hungover as well as drunk, columnist Sam de Brito states that
Alexander the Great (who died of alcoholism) conquered most of the known world, putting endless cities to the sword while hungover.
You can read it here.
First of all, I should say that I don’t know the background to the article: it doesn’t reference any particular event and the heading – ‘Victoria Bitterly divorced’ – appears as no more than a pun on the name of an Australian brewer. Perhaps a high ranking member of the family or company that owns it is going through a messy divorce case.
So far as this blog post is concerned, however, that is by-the-bye as I am going to focus solely on de Brito’s statement regarding Alexander.
Firstly, he states as fact that Alexander ‘died of alcoholism’. Actually, the cause of Alexander’s death is not known with any certainty. The Macedonian king might have died of alcoholism but he also might have died of malaria, typhoid or been poisoned. The ultimate cause of his death might just have been natural causes – his body worn out by the damage done to it during thirteen plus years of campaigning. In short, though, De Brito has no grounds to assert that alcohol was the killer.
Secondly, he states that Alexander ‘conquered most of the known world, putting endless cities to the sword while hungover.’
This is the kind of statement that seems reasonable until you actually think about it. Yes, Alexander ‘conquered most of the known world’ but is it very likely that a person could conduct a successful thirteen year military campaign in an inebriated state?
I personally doubt it but let’s say – for the sake of argument – that it is, what of Alexander specifically? de Brito’s charge finds no favour with Plutarch. In Chapter 23 of his Life of Alexander, he states
Alexander was also more moderate in his drinking than was generally supposed. The impression that he was a heavy drinker arose because when he had nothing else to do, he liked to linger over each cup, but in fact he was usually talking rather than drinking: he enjoyed holding long conversations, but only when he had plenty of leisure. Whenever there was urgent business to attend to, neither wine, nor sleep, nor sport, nor sex, nor spectacle could ever distract his attention, as they did for other generals. The proof of this is his life, which although so short was filled to overflowing with the most prodigious achievements.
I am sure Sam de Brito researched his article before filing it so it is unfortunate that he missed this.
But perhaps de Brito only had a limited amount of time to write his article and happened to use Curtius instead. If anyone is going to present a picture of a warrior-king slaughtering his way across the world while being slaughtered, it is surely him. Curtius writes,
Alexander had some great natural gifts: a noble disposition surpassing that of all other monarchs; resolution in the face of danger; speed in undertaking and completing projects; integrity in dealing with those who surrendered and mercy towards prisoners; restraint even in those pleasures which are generally acceptable and widely indulged. But all these were marred by his inexcusable fondness for drink.
de Brito’s article gives the impression that he has read the last sentence in the quotation above and used it as the lens through which he sees Alexander, either in ignorance or dismissal of Plutarch’s words.
To be honest, I doubt de Brito has read any of the sources – his allegation comes across as the kind of thing someone who-got-it-from-his-mate-who-was-told-it-by-his-old-man-(probably-while-hungover)-who-knew-all-that-old-stuff would say use.
However, let’s take de Brito seriously and ask what does Curtius have to say about the role of alcohol during the course of Alexander’s career? After all, the above quotation certainly speaks of a man whose life was coloured by it. Does Curtius present Alexander as being hung over during his conquests? Let’s find out.
de Brito talks about Alexander being hungover while ‘putting endless cities to the sword’. To get a more representative look at what role alcohol might have played in his career, I have picked ten major military actions that Alexander took part in. Obviously, as Books I and II of Curtius’ have been lost, I am starting with Book III.
The Siege of the Celaenaeans’ Citadel
After entering Celaenae without any difficulty, Alexander laid siege to its citadel. At first, the Celaenaeans were defiant, but as the days passed, and – presumably – their food and water ran low they offered to surrender if Darius did not send a relieving force within the next sixty days. Alexander agreed, and when no Persians arrived, the Celaenaeans duly surrendered. Two months is plenty of time for Alexander to have got drunk once, twice or maybe sixty times. However, not only does Curtius make no mention of any drinking taking place in the Royal Tent, he says that Alexander left Celaeanae after just ten days. He was a man with a mission and didn’t have time to mess around with alcohol.
The Battle of Issus
In the lead up to Alexander’s first confrontation with Darius, we see him stopping in Soli and enjoying a holiday. No doubt he enjoyed a drink there but Curtius does not mention it – neither does he record Alexander drinking at any other point before the start of the battle.
The Siege of Tyre
This siege lasted for six months so Alexander undoubtedly enjoyed a few drinks along the way. And indeed, Curtius does state that ‘excessive drinking’ took place – but by the Tyrians. It occurred after ‘a sea-creature of extraordinary size’ beached itself on the Macedonian mole before slipping back into the sea. The Tyrians interpreted this as a sign of Neptune’s* anger with the Macedonians and the sure failure of their siege so started to celebrate.
* Curtius was a Roman
The Siege of Gaza
Part of Curtius’ manuscript is missing here but in the portion we have there is no reference to Alexander drinking at any time during the siege.
The Battle of Gaugamela
From the arrival of the ten ambassadors to the start of the battle at Gaugamela there is once again no mention of Alexander drinking. The night before the battle he stayed up late (IV.13.16) but not to drink – his mind was completely occupied by the fight to come.
The Susian Gates
Neither on the way to the Gates, not despite the humiliation of having to withdraw from them after the Persian boulder ambush, did Alexander turn to drink. Instead, he regrouped, found a new route, and took the fight to his enemy – winning.
The Sogdian Rock
Upon his arrival at the Rock, Alexander examined ‘the difficulties of the terrain’ before him. The Sogdian Rock seemed too well protected to be taken and the Macedonian king ‘decided to…’ drink his frustration away? No. ‘leave, but then… was overcome by a desire to bring even nature to her knees’. During the siege, Alexander spent the whole day watching for any sign that his men had successfully completed their ascent. Curtius describes how, when night came and darkness fell, Alexander ‘withdrew to take refreshment’. Perhaps this included a little wine? I expect so but no so much as the king was up before daybreak the next morning to continue his watch.
The Aornos* Rock
At first, Alexander was baffled as to how this outcrop might be taken but soon found help – not from wine but a local guide. When the time came to launch an attack, Alexander was the first to clamber over the makeshift ramp that the Macedonians had built to cover the gap between the rock and surrounding land. The fight was hard fought and when mounting casualties forced Alexander to order a retreat it looked like the Indians had won. But, though forced back, the Macedonians had unnerved them and, two nights later, the Indians tried to flee from the rock. Alexander was sufficiently clear headed to order them to be pursued and cut down.
* Curtius calls it the Aornis Rock
The Battle of the Hydaspes River
When Alexander arrived at the Hydaspes he did not know how to cross its broad expanse without being cut down by Porus’ army, which was waiting for him on the other side. At the Aornos Rock, a guide had shown him the way. This time, he used his own guile – his own clear-headed, no reference to alcohol once again, guile.
The Mallian City
Before carrying out what must surely rank as one of the most famous jumps in military history, Alexander had to quell a potential mutiny in the Macedonian ranks. His army had thought that after turning west at the Hyphasis River, they were ‘quit of danger’. Realising that this was not so, they ‘were suddenly terror-stricken’. Alexander met his men’s fear head on and inspired them to follow him into battle once more. Could he have done this while hungover? I doubt it. By now it can go without saying that, there is – yet again – no reference to Alexander drinking at this time.
Ten military actions ranging from Asia Minor to India. No direct references to Alexander drinking alcohol let alone being hungover during operations. Curtius accuses Alexander of marring his talents ‘by his inexcusable fondness for drink’, I accuse him (once again) of resorting to sensationalism and exaggeration.
As for Sam de Brito, I am sure he is an excellent journalist, but on this occasion, I can’t help but feel that he trusted to his historical knowledge more than was perhaps wise. Maybe he wrote his article while hungover.