In This Chapter How Alexander escaped from a pincer movement
Cleitus and Glaucias could not have asked for better luck. Alexander and his army was caught right between them, and what’s more, both could sally forth and begin the final showdown at their leisure: Cleitus was safe behind the walls of Pellium and Glaucias had the advantage of height as offered by the hills that surrounded the city. In addition to that, the woods that covered them gave him a good protection.
In Chapter Four we saw how Alexander used shock and awe tactics in order to defeat the Getae. Outside Pellium, he used the same tactic but in a very different way.
Rather than attack either the city or the hills hard and fast, or simply retreat, and risk being attacked in his rear, Alexander formed his phalanx up to a depth of 122 rows. Then, after ordering silence, he took his infantrymen through a series of manoeuvres. ‘[S]pears upright’, then down and left and right; he marched the phalanx forward at speed, and wheeled it about on both left and right wings. Finally, he put it into a wedge formation and approached Glaucias’ men who were watching from the foothills. Unnerved by the Macedonian display of discipline and power, they fled back into the hills. Alexander allowed his men to beat their shields and issue their battle cry. This added to the Taulantians’ terror. Those who did not flee into the hills made their way into Pellium.
Having nullified the threat of Glaucias for now, Alexander rode away from the phalanx to dislodge some of the Taulantians who held a hill overlooking the pass that was the Macedonians’ only route to safety. On seeing him come, they fled. The Taulantians were not at all keen fighters. Or maybe they were just realistic ones.
The Phalanx forded the river (Eordaicus). Instead of ordering it to continue marching, Alexander lined it up on the other side of the bank – to discourage the Taulantians from pursuing him and picking off the men at the rear.
This, though, is what they tried to do. As the Taulantians rushed forward, Alexander and his cavalrymen charged them. You will not be surprised to read that, according to Arrian, Glaucias’ men did not stand and fight but once more fled.
The Taulantians made one last attempt to claim some scalps but as the last of the Macedonian army crossed the river, Alexander gave the order for catapults and archers to provide covering fire. This was effective. Alexander lost no men in his retreat.
Alexander may have been forced into a retreat but like Glaucias, he was not above an act of opportunism. Three days later, on hearing that the Illyrians and Taulantians were camped outside Pallium ‘in disorderly fashion’, Alexander led a large company of men back over the Eordaicus ahead of the main body of the army. Cleitus and Glaucias had assumed that Alexander had left the area and not bothered to send any spies to confirm this. This was their undoing.
Alexander came crashing down on the Illyrian and Taulantian men. Many were killed in their beds. Others tried to flee; those who did so successfully were forced to dump their weapons on the way. Cleitus locked himself in Pellium. Seeing no hope for the future there, he burnt the city down and snuck away to rejoin Glaucias in the latter’s kingdom.
Thoughts In the way he used silence and discipline to overwhelm the Taultantians, Alexander showed himself to be a master of psychological warfare. He knew exactly what would get under his enemy’s skin, what would make it panic and flee. Thanks to the brilliant training of his army – for which he would have had to thank his father, Philip – he was able to execute his idea. If the death of Langarus changed the complexion of the Wars of the Successors (see Arrian I.2.1-6 here) this was a ‘battle’ that was won in 359 BC when Philip became king.
Chapter Six marks the end of the Illyrian campaign. In the next chapter, Alexander heads south to deal with Thebes. What do the Thracian and Illyrian campaigns tell us about Alexander? As a general, this:
– He had a tactically creative mind – He had supreme confidence in the abilities of his soldiers – He was able to think on his feet – He was a calm thinker, not given to panicking – He did not look down on ‘dirtier’ acts, such as acts of opportunism – He knew the minds of his enemies – He lead from the front
Having defeated the Getae and declared himself a friend of the Celts Alexander ‘advanced towards the territory of the Agrianians and Paeonians’. He was not intending to attack either of these tribes as they were both allies of Macedon(1). Indeed, Langarus, the king of the Agrianians, was a personal friend of Alexander’s and joined the Macedonian king while he was still on the road.
During his march, Alexander was informed that an Illyrian client king named Cleitus had revolted against him. Cleitus would have been known to Alexander for in 359 BC, Cleitus’ father, Bardylis, killed Philip II’s brother, Perdiccas I, in battle. More bad news followed: Cleitus had been joined in his revolt by King Glaucias of the Taulantians who had, up until now, remained independent of Macedonian control. And furthermore, another independent tribe named the Autariates intended to attack (ambush?) him while he was on the road.
Once or twice in Alexander’s career he was hit by uncertainty over what to do at a critical moment, but no such weakness struck him in the spring/summer of 335 BC. He decided to move at speed towards the troublesome tribes. Langarus did his bit to make things easier by offering to deal with the Autariates for him; Alexander accepted.
Langarus was so successful in his mission that Alexander offered him the hand of his half-sister Cynane in marriage. Unfortunately, Langarus died (of natural causes) before any marriage could take place. Twelve years before the Wars of the Diadochi started, fate worked to destabilise the environment in which they would take place that little bit more.
Back in 335, Alexander marched on the city of Pellium by the Eordaicus river: Cleitus had seized the city. Upon his arrival, Alexander set up camp by the river. He intended to assault the city walls the following day.
But there was a problem, for Cleitus had men hidden in ‘the thickly wooded heights’ that surrounded the city. If Alexander attacked it, they would run down and attack him in the side and rear. Alexander’s only advantage was in numbers for Glaucias had not yet joined Cleitus so the number of men in the woods was limited.
As Alexander advanced on Pellium, the Illyrians performed a human sacrifice, killing ‘three boys [and] two girls’ before joining the fight. They rushed down the slopes and engaged the Macedonians. At some point after – it isn’t clear how long the battle lasted – Alexander forced the Illyrians back; they fled into Pellium. The Macedonians found the dead youngsters in the hills.
Alexander had won the battle but was still at risk of losing the war as Glaucias was close by ‘with a large force’ – in fact he was now in the hills surrounding Pellium. Alexander clearly had spies monitoring Glaucias’ movements because he knew he did not have the numbers to attack both Pellium and Glaucias at the same time.
While he worked out what to do next, Alexander sent Philotas (Parmenion’s son) on a foraging mission. While Philotas was gone, the Macedonian king received word from his spies that Glaucias intended to ambush Philotas. Alexander immediately set out with a small force to rescue him.
Glaucias’ attack was perhaps an opportunistic one, because on hearing of Alexander’s advance, Glaucias backed off. Maybe he just wanted to save his men for the bigger battle ahead. Either way, Philotas returned to the Macedonian camp safely.
With Philotas back in camp, Alexander was back to square one: what was he to do about the threats in front and behind him? He was caught in a pincer movement that, if he made one wrong move, could bring his life to a sudden end. Surely retreat was the only option, but the only way out was through a narrow pass that would take an agonisingly long time to march through and risk the Macedonian rear being ravaged by Cleitus’ and Glaucias’ forces.
Thoughts I have gone against my practice in the previous posts by inserting some commentary in the first part of this post. One thing remains on my mind now: how did Alexander get himself into such an awkward spot? How did he end up having to worry about Cleitus in front and Glaucias behind him?
He knew about Cleitus and Glaucias coming together before arriving in Pellium. I presume that as soon as he learnt this, he sent spies to report back on their movements and hoped that he would be able to take Pellium before Glaucias and his men arrived. Given that Glaucias arrived on the day he intended to attack the city, however, he was cutting it incredibly fine to the point of given himself an unrealistic target. With this in mind, it could not have been wise to send Philotas foraging in such a dangerous area.
In This Chapter Alexander crosses the Danube and leads an assault on the Getae.
The crossing of the Danube took place without any hitches – the 4,00 horse and 10,000 foot who had stood on the opposite bank to oppose him did not stay overnight but withdrew to their tents.
Once on the far side of the river, Alexander waited until dawn before moving his men inland. They crept through a cornfield, the infantry sweeping their sarissas from side-to-side so as ‘to flatten the corn’.
After reaching the end of the cornfield, Alexander ordered his infantry to proceed ‘in rectangular formation’. The king himself took his cavalry off to the Macedonian right wing.
He found the Getaean warriors encamped together. They were shocked by the sight of the Macedonian army and crumbled under ‘the first charge of the [Macedonian] cavalry’.
The warriors of the Getae fled back to their ‘city’ 3.5 miles away. Alexander followed them. Seeing him, the Getae promptly decided to abandon their city and flee into the interior of their homeland. Alexander took the city, gathered anything of value that the Getae had left behind and ordered Meleager and Philip to take it away. As the plunder began its journey south, Alexander destroyed the city and sacrificed to Zeus the Saviour, Herakles and the Danube itself at a site beside the river for not standing in his way during the operation. No Macedonian soldiers were lost during this mission.
Word of Alexander’s exploits travelled far and wide. Ambassadors and envoys came to greet him and declare their people’s friendship. Among them were ‘envoys from Syrmus’ who we saw retreat to the island in the middle of the Danube, and Celts from faraway. Alexander asked them what they feared most; he expected them to say him but had the cheek to call them ‘a pretentious lot’ when they replied that they most feared the sky falling on their heads!
Thoughts At first sight, the decision of the Getae to leave the Danube river bank seems an inexplicable one but as you read on their reason why quickly becomes clear. As Arrian makes clear, the Getae regarded the Danube as a strong defence against enemy invasion. They reckoned that any attempt to cross it would be difficult and that a bridge would have to be built for the purpose. Thus, when Alexander appeared in front of them having not bothered to build a bridge at all, they were in shock.
Wikipedia describes the ‘shock and awe’ military tactic in the following terms,
Shock and awe (technically known as rapid dominance) is a tactic based on the use of overwhelming power and spectacular displays of force to paralyze the enemy’s perception of the battlefield and destroy their will to fight
This is how Alexander defeated the Getae. Overwhelming power – Arrian tells us that the Getae found ‘the close-packed phalanx… terrifying’. The sight of the cavalry no doubt also terrified them Spectacular display of power – the fact that the Macedonian army had so easily managed to cross the Danube – in one night and without needing to build a bridge.
One of Alexander’s numerous strengths as a general was his ability to adapt his tactics according the circumstances. Not just offensively, but also in the matter of defence. So, when the Macedonians approached the Getaeans, the infantry did so in a ‘rectangular formation’, which would protect the men if the Getaeans got the better of them. Alexander’s ability to adapt always allowed him to stay one step ahead of his rivals in the field, and can be considered one of the chief reasons why he remained undefeated in war.
When Alexander followed the Getaean warriors to their ‘city’, he remained very respectful of the enemy. Thus, he ordered his cavalry to ride ahead of the infantry to protect it in case of any Getaean ambush or counter-attack. The Getaens, however, were already done for, and so their ‘city’ was good only to be sacked and razed.
The mission against the Getae seems to foreshadow the lead up to the Battle of the Hydaspes River – in fact, it almost feels like a simpler version of that conflict. The essentials of both conflicts, however, is the same: arrival at a river, working out how to safely cross it, engaging the enemy.
Similarly, the arrival of the ambassadors from various native peoples also reads as a much simpler version of the diplomacy that Alexander carried out in 324/23 BC when he met ambassadors and envoys from ‘practically all the inhabited world’ in 324 BC as described by Diodorus (Dio. XVII.113). On that occasion, they not only came to make friends with him but present gifts, make treaties and seek his judgement.
In This Chapter After telling us that Alexander arrived at the Danube river after defeating the Triballians at the Lyginus river, Arrian digresses to give an account of the tribes who live along it.
At the Danube, Alexander was joined by warships from Byzantium (presumably he ordered them to come on a previous occasion; Arrian does not tell us).
After ordering archers and hoplites aboard the ships, Alexander attempted to attack the island where Syrmus had taken refuge. Unfortunately for him, Macedonian numbers were too few, the current too fast, landing sites too steep and Thracian/Triballian opposition too strong for him to succeed in taking it. Alexander gave up and decided to cross the Danube instead, to attack the Getae on the other side.
The Getae were seemingly ready for him – Arrian says that there were 4,000 cavalry and 10,000 foot on the far bank. Alexander, however, had a deep yearning (pothos) to cross the river. Not all of his men would fit onto the ships so he ordered them to ‘stuff their leather tent-covers with hay’ and then sow them up; in addition, he gave orders for local boats to be commandeered. That night, 1500 cavalry and 4,000 men crossed the river.
Thoughts I once read that the Alexander Historians provide details that are applicable to their own time rather than Alexander’s in their work. This makes me wonder, therefore, if Arrian’s list of Danube tribes comes from the second century AD rather than fourth century BC.
Alexander’s inability to take the island represents a rarity for him – a military failure at which he was present. Because Arrian is a pro-Alexander writer (unlike, say, Curtius), the inclusion of this failure is significant. But perhaps Arrian mentions it because in the greater scheme of things, it didn’t matter. We will see how true this is as we read further.
In this chapter we see the first mention of Alexander’s pothos, his deep yearning to achieve a goal. If you would like to know more about pothos, how it came to be applied to Alexander and its broader meaning, I highly recommend this article from Livius.
Why would Alexander be so keen to cross the Danube? We don’t know for sure, but the notes to my copy of Arrian suggest that ‘he may have wanted to rival the crossing of the Danube by Darius [the Great] in 512[BC]’. With his love of fighting, perhaps he also wanted to fight further and further afield for the glory of it; in this case, the Danube campaign foreshadows the journey beyond the Hindu Kush and into India very strongly.
In This Chapter Having defeated the armed locals and independent Thracians, Alexander sent the spoils that he had won ‘back to the cities on the coast’.
While the spoils travelled south, Alexander crossed the Haemus Mountains to confront the Triballians.
The Triballians knew he was coming. As a result, their king, Syrmus, sent his women and children to take refuge on an island halfway across the Danube river. The refugees were met there by Thracians who were also hiding from Alexander.
At some point, Syrmus himself sailed to the same island. Not all of his people accompanied him; Arrian says that ‘the main body’ of them fled (past the Macedonians) to the Lyginus river.
Alexander had the option of continuing on to the Danube or turning back to chase down the Lyginus Triballians. He chose to do the latter.
Alexander caught the Triballians as they were setting up their camp. The two armies squared up to each other.
The Triballians were located next to a wood beside the river so Alexander’s first priority was to draw them away from it. He attacked them first with archers and slingers. During the attack, these light armed soldiers approached the Triballians: Alexander was using them as bait to tempt the Triballians forward.
It worked, the Triballians ran forward. Alexander sent Philotas and his cavalrymen forward to attack the Triballians’ right wing. Heracleides and Sopolis were given orders to lead a cavalry attack against the Triballian left wing. Alexander himself lead the phalanx and cavalry that stood in front of it.
It looks like the Triballians put up a good fight as Arrian says during ‘the skirmishing stage the Triballians did not have the worse of it’. This changed, however, when the Macedonian phalanx engaged them. The cavalry soon overwhelmed the Triballians as well; in fact, they attacked the enemy simply by riding them down, rather than using their javelins.
Thoughts Arrian tells us that the two men who were charged with taking the spoils to the coast were Lysanias and Philotas. Lysanias will not appear in Arrian’s book again, though according to Waldemar Heckel (in his Who’s Who in the Age of Alexander the Great), he may have been the Lysanias mentioned by Diodorus during the Wars of the Successors (D.19.29). We can be sure that the Philotas mentioned here is not the son of Parmenion as he would not have had time to take the spoils south and then return to fight the Triballians at the Lyginus river.
Syrmus’ actions here intrigue me. First he sends the women and children away, which is understandable, but then joins them. Shouldn’t he have decided to face Alexander? Did he panic and flee? I can’t say because I don’t know what the Triballians’ law was in this regard but I do suspect the latter.
The Triballians may not have had the worst of it but I think that is only because they were better armed than the javelineers and slingers. Arrian says that the latter were unarmed apart from their principal weapons so once they had been used, it was an unfair contest – fists against swords.
In This Chapter Arrian’s account of Alexander’s life is titled Anabasis Alexandrou, which means ‘Alexander’s Expedition’. For this reason, Arrian begins his account of Alexander’s life with Philip II’s murder and Alexander’s accession to the throne of Macedon.
Having established his kingship Alexander marched on the Peloponnese where he asked the ‘Peloponnesian Greeks’ to give him ‘leadership of the campaign against Persia’, a role previously granted to Philip. Everyone except the Spartans, who believed only in leading rather than being lead, agreed.
Arrian mentions in passing that Athens stirred in opposition to Alexander but that his quick arrival put an end to it. Alexander was given various honours by the city and returned home.
Alexander became king of Macedon in October 336BC. Arrian now jumps forward to Spring 335BC and the new king’s campaign to secure Macedon’s northern borders before heading east.
Alexander marched into Thrace where he confronted Triballian and Illyrian forces. In his first battle as king (as recorded by Arrian, of course), Alexander used a very inventive tactic in order to nullify a potentially catastrophic threat.
Alexander and his army came to the foot of the Haemus mountains. Above them stood a rag tag army of locals and ‘independent Thracians’. They had with them carts which they intended to push down the side of the mountain and into the Macedonian army.
Had this tactic worked, it would have thrown the Macedonian army into disarray, making the job of repelling it – perhaps even destroying it – that much easier. Seeing what the enemy intended to do, however, Alexander ordered his men to do one of two things; either (a) part ways so that the oncoming carts simply rolled down empty channels either side of them, or, where that was not possible, (b) lie down with their shields on their backs so that the carts rolled over them. The Macedonian soldiers did both these things and as a result, Arrian tells us, suffered no deaths. With their best chance of defeating the Macedonian army having rolled away, the locals and independent Thracians were easily defeated in the scrappy battle that followed.
Thoughts How do the other Alexander Historians begin their works? Well, both Diodorus and Justin begin at the same point as Arrian – with Philip’s death and Alexander’s accession to the throne. The first two books of Curtius have been lost so we don’t know where he begins. Only Plutarch tells us anything about Alexander’s early life. In reading it, though, we have to be careful as there is a fair amount of mythologising and propaganda there.
Arrian glosses over the manner of Alexander’s accession and what happened after. In fact, in regards the latter, he has next to nothing to say, which is odd because it is relevant to his focus – a military history of Alexander’s life. For more information, we have to turn to Diodorus.
By the way, Diodorus gives us the first opportunity to ask which of the sources might be more accurate. Diodorus says that when Alexander became king Evaenetus was archon of Athens while Arrian says it was Pythdelus – who is right? Or are these two names for one man?
It isn’t clear from Arrian whether Athens folded after Alexander’s quick arrival at Athens or elsewhere. Diodorus tells us that it happened after the Macedonian king’s arrival in Boeotia, to confront Thebes, which had rebelled against him.
In This Chapter Arrian informs the reader that his history is based (principally) on the works of Ptolemy and Aristobulos. He explains that the reason he has chosen them is that (a) they are more reliable than anyone else because they rode with Alexander (b) Ptolemy is particularly reliable as he was a king and therefore ‘honour-bound to avoid untruth’, and (c) Neither Ptolemy or Aristobulos had any reason to lie since when they wrote their works, Alexander was dead.
Thoughts The Notes to my copy of Arrian (OUP 2013) say that the reason Arrian thought Ptolemy was ‘honour-bound’ not to lie is because he, Arrian, subscribed to the idea of noblesse oblige. That may be so, and maybe Arrian was also flattering Hadrian here, but I will never read the opening to the Anabasis without wondering whether he really believed it and, to be honest, how could he? How could anyone ever have such a high opinion of another man? If I could go back in time and persuade Arrian to remove any line from his final draft, it would be this one.
We are now in the countdown to the anniversary of the Battle of Gaugamela, which took place on 1st October 331BC.
For me, the start of the countdown is always the anniversary of the lunar eclipse that Alexander and his Macedonian army witnessed after crossing the Tigris River.
The eclipse took place on 20th September, ten days before the battle. Arrian reports it in a very matter-of-fact way. He tells us that after crossing the Tigris, Alexander rested his men. When the eclipse happened, Alexander sacrificed to the Moon, Sun and Earth. Afterwards, Aristander prophesied that the eclipse was a sign that the showdown with Darius would take place that month and that Alexander’s sacrifices showed that he – the Macedonian king – would triumph. The End.
Curtius gives a much more sensational account of what happened. He begins with an account of the actual eclipse.
First the moon lost its usual brightness, and then became suffused with a blood-red colour which caused a general dimness in the light it shed.
As the moon turned blood red, the Macedonians, who were already anxious at the impending battle with Darius, were
… struck… with a deep religious awe which precipitated a kind of panic. They complained that the gods opposed their being taken to the ends of the earth, that now rivers forbade them access, met everywhere by desolation and desert. The blood of thousands was paying for the grandiose plans of one man who despised his country, disowned his father Philip, and had deluded ideas about aspiring to heaven.
According to Curtius, the Macedonians were so spooked that they were on the verge of mutiny. Trouble was averted, however, by Alexander’s Egyptian priests who – although they knew the real reason for the eclipse – told the rank and file that the eclipse indicated a Macedonian victory in the battle ahead. This calmed the Macedonian soldiers’ nerves. ‘Nothing exercises greater control over the masses than superstition’ (C. IV.10.7) Curtius adds with a sneer, which is funny coming from a Roman.
What to make of the two accounts?
Arrian’s is so short and to-the-point that it would be tempting to see him as glossing over what really happened that night, something that Curtius is more than happy to reveal. Curtius’ account, however, is too sensational to be regarded as the gospel truth.
I have no problem believing that the Macedonians viewed the eclipse with a ‘religious awe’. They were a very religious people and saw meaning in natural events as a matter of course. Of course an event as profound as an eclipse would make a big impression on them.
Is it likely that the eclipse would cause them to panic? On the one hand, if they generally regarded eclipses as negative events, I don’t see why not; on the other, I don’t know how ancient Macedonians regarded eclipses so don’t have the knowledge to make a judgement one way or the other.
I am less convinced by the idea that the Macedonians complained that the gods opposed their onward movement, ‘that now rivers forbade them access’, and that ‘desolation and desert’ met them everywhere. And I disbelieve entirely that the Macedonians turned again, even if only briefly, against Alexander in the way that Curtius suggests.
The reason I don’t believe the Macedonians felt that the gods turned against them is that, once calmed by the Egyptian priests, they followed Alexander east without a murmur until the death of Darius. If they really believed this early that the gods – the gods! – were now against them, I would expect to see them turn against Alexander much earlier than India. As it is, when they did start to pine for home, it was because the Great King was now dead and they simply saw no need to go any further east. The anger of the gods did not come into it. Neither did they at the Hyphasis River.
I don’t know what Curtius means by ‘rivers forbade them access’ given that they had just easily crossed the Tigris. Similarly, the idea that they were ‘met everywhere by desolation and desert’ is too much hyperbole. Sure, they had crossed a desert but at no great cost to them either as an army or individuals. Curtius’ statement sounds more like the kind of thing that the Macedonians would say as the crossed the Gedrosian Desert on the way back from India.
Finally, if the Macedonian soldiery really believed that the ‘blood of thousands was paying for the grandiose plans of one man who despised his country’ they would have hated Alexander, not followed him to the ends of the earth, and then rebelled against his wishes with tears in their eyes. This is more hyperbole – more of Curtius adding to what he knows for the sake of his story. Similarly in regards the Macedonians’ view of Alexander’s beliefs regarding his divinity. He had only just visited Siwah a few months earlier. Surely he had not yet come to any settled view regarding who he was? Curtius’ statement here is so specific it seems to me to belong to a different time, maybe a few years later, after Alexander had time to ponder what had happened and arrive at an answer, which Curtius now brings back to the eve of the Battle of Gaugamela for the sake of an exciting narrative.
The Lunar Eclipse Arrian III.7.6 Curtius IV.10.1-8
On the fiftieth anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing, an adventure that Alexander would surely have approved of, I continue my conversation with Jeanne Reames.
Jeanne has written Dancing With The Lion, a two part novel about the early years of Alexander, or, how he became the man we know as ‘the Great’. The first part Becoming just just been published. Part Two, Rise, will be published this October.
You can find Dancing With The Lion: Becoming on Amazon in the U.K. here and U.S.A. here or from all good bookshops. Jeanne’s book website is here. With that said, let’s jump back into the interview.
Alexander’s mother, Olympias, is represented very negatively by the Alexander historians; what is your assessment of her character, and how does it inform the way you look at her in Dancing with the Lion? I stand with Beth’s picture: her reputation got a hatchet-job. This doesn’t mean she was nice, but she absolutely must be viewed in the full context of a polygamous court, her obvious intelligence, her Epirote ancestry, and the need simply to survive. This is why I use Myrtalē instead of Olympias, to detach her from all that baggage, much as I use Alexandros to detach him from “Alexander the Great” baggage.
Misogyny is THICK in a lot of Alexander fiction, perhaps unconsciously imbibed from the primary sources. It’s not only in how Olympias is portrayed, but in how Alexander’s sisters are overlooked. In Dancing with the Lion, not only did I try to write a powerful Olympias, but his full-sister Kleopatra is a POV character and even has her own coming-of-age arc, especially in book 2, Rise. Thessalonikē and Audata also play roles. (There’s another female voice that will appear in Rise, but I can’t say who, or it’s a spoiler.)
One might argue that negatively portraying Olympias doesn’t equal misogyny, which is true. And yes, she committed a number of murders (although she got blamed for some I’m pretty sure she didn’t commit, too). Yet as Beth points out in her articles, she didn’t do anything her husband and son didn’t also do. The horror was that she was a woman doing it. Greek women were supposed to stay out of politics, but Epirote Olympias didn’t get that memo! While the Macedonian court doesn’t appear to have been as repressive as, say, Athens, it also wasn’t as open as Epiros. Arriving in Pella, the 14/15/16-year-old Olympias must have found it all very flat, very hot, and very hobbling, compared to what she was used to at home. I expect Eurydike, Philip’s mother, had experienced something similar, decades earlier, and she, too, was roasted in the ancient sources. These powerful, northern women were not understood.
We must also recall the Macedonian court was polygamous (that’s why I never use “queen” for any of Philip’s wives in the novels). If royal polygamy had predated Philip, he employed it with gusto, marrying 5 women in his first 5 years on the throne. Olympias was either number 4 or 5, so even if her birth made her royal, she came into a situation with 3-4 other wives already there, plus the queen mother likely still alive. Imagine that.
At a polygamous court, the most important male in a woman’s life isn’t her husband, but her son. The more (healthy) sons she can produce, the higher her status, although it seems birth status also played a role, especially if there’s more than one son. As mother to the only viable heir, Olympias eventually became chief wife, but that took time to establish. And her continued position hung on ALEXANDER’S status, and survival. That’s what motivated her.
I’ve tried to make that very clear in the book. I’ve also tried to make her as savvy and competent as I think she was. Ergo, she acts as chatelaine for the entire palace, and is also trained as a healer and midwife, which comes into play in the first novel. The tale of her poisoning of Arrhidaios via “pharmakos” (herbs) may conceal an historical ability with herbal remedies. The Greeks were highly suspicious of “what those healer women did” and midwives, while necessary, were also viewed with mistrust. In myth, witches like Circe employed a knowledge of pharmakos. So Olympias gets called a witch by the men in the novel (including Philip), and poor Alexander is constantly defending her. To them, midwife-herbalist-priestess-witch…it would have been a fuzzy distinction.
How did you approach writing people about whom we know very little (e.g. Alexander’s sister, Cleopatra) or nothing (e.g. Hephaestion’s father, Amyntor)? Did you have any models for them or did you give your imagination free reign? Sometimes I do use real people as models; for instance, parts of Amyntor’s personality are based on my own father, but also on my mother. Yet no character is ever a complete match for a living person. They’re composites. I also use things like the Myers-Briggs Personality Indicator to conceptualize them. So Alexander is an ENTP and Hephaistion an INTP. Amyntor is an ISFJ, and Philip an ENTJ. Thinking in these terms helps flesh them out, so that the details emerge organically from who they are. Fictional characters must be more consistent than real people, in part because they are fictional.
I’m not sure how well that answers your question, but it’s how I think about characterization generally. Ultimately, all these people are characters, even those about whom we may know more: Alexander, Philip, Ptolemy, Aristotle. There’s still a boatload we don’t know. So, for instance, Alexander’s favorite fruit was, supposedly, apples. But we don’t know what his favorite color was. His voice is described as deep and harsh, but we don’t know what hand he favored. I made him a lefty for the hell of it. My point is chiefly that, even for the better-known characters, I’m still filling in a lot of blanks.
Your scholarship no doubt helped you write Dancing with the Lion– do you think your novels will help you as a scholar, and if so, how? Absolutely writing fiction makes me a better historian because it forces me to be more aware of the various levels of probability in the historical record. One has the factual (and even what’s “fact” can be disputed), then the probable, the possible, and finally, educated speculation. Pure fiction is the next step.
In addition, writing fiction can force the historian to think about old problems in new ways, ask questions we might not think to ask. So, for instance, the novelist wonders what happened in those first few minutes, and hours, after Philip’s murder. It must have been a madhouse in Aigai. Diodorus tells us nothing—yet it’s still important to consider. So that’s the sort of thing fiction can bring to light.
Was there anything in particular that you enjoyed about writing Becoming and Rise? A character, perhaps, or a scene? Kleopatra and Hephaistion were my favorite characters to write.
Kleopatra, because she’s a “type” I favor in storytelling. If the Dionysos novel ever gets published, Ari(adne) there is similar. Both are the antithesis of the drama queen or “spunky heroine.” Kleopatra just quietly gets shit done without flailing, and unlike her brother, she isn’t given to romanticizing things. If/when I get back to the series, readers will see more of her.
I also really enjoyed writing Hephaistion because he’s that rare personality type who just doesn’t give two figs what most people think of him, with a few exceptions such as Alexander or his family. He’s therefore always authentically himself. That doesn’t mean he has no filter; he keeps his mouth shut a lot of the time, but when he does express an opinion, he says exactly what he thinks. He’s also a bit (maybe more than a bit) of a smart-ass, which in turn means he gets to star in some of the funnier moments in the novel. In several, he takes down Kassandros a peg, but my favorite with him is when he and Erigyios throw another student in a cold river, because the boy was being insufferable. Later, Alexander tells the boy, “Hephaistion doesn’t start things, he ends them,” which is a fair summary.
That said, my overall favorite scene, at least in Becoming, is “Drunk Aristotle.” I won’t say more or it’s too much of a spoiler. Just…drunk Aristotle and a tutorial. I’ll leave you with that.
Do you have any advice for anyone who would like to write their own work of (historical) fiction, especially if it’s about Alexander (and Hephaestion)?
First, practice the art of getting it right.
That means do your homework, and not all on the internet. Read books and articles, read more than one or two, and not just biographies on Alexander. It’s vitally important to understand Macedonia. Also, if writing about his conquest of Persia, then one MUST understand Persian culture and the court, as well as other Ancient Near Eastern cultures from Phoenicia and Egypt to Baktria and India. Plus knowing Greek culture would help, too. Ha. It’s not a small undertaking.
Make sure you understand the world you’re writing about, so the characters act and react in ways authentic to their era. Otherwise, it’s just a costume drama with modern characters in ancient dress. While yes, one can’t make them too alien, or modern readers won’t connect/care, ancient Greek attitudes can be surprising not just in predictable ways (misogyny, acceptance of slavery), but unexpected ones, at times.
Do look up details. Not long ago, I read an ATG novel that had the Persian female characters talking about limes (didn’t exist yet, just the citron) and referencing Zoroastrian religious beliefs that developed in the Sassanid era—hundreds of years later. One is bound to make a mistake or three; it’s almost inevitable. But a lot can be avoided by double- and triple-checking. Even a throw-away line can be wrong. In an earlier draft, I had Hephaistion tell Alexander to wash out his mouth with clove water. Whoops. Cloves weren’t known in Greece yet. Had to look up ancient Greek dental hygiene. 😊All for a single line.
Additionally, a mistake is different from making a choice about a controversial matter; so, for instance, I come down on the side that Argead Macedonia was not a constitutional monarchy. That means a potential author needs to realize there is a debate about whether ancient Macedonia was a constitutional monarchy. Back to doing one’s research.
Second, have a story you want to tell.
I think the two biggest problems I’ve seen in novels about Alexander (or any historical figure) are those that do a half-assed research job because “it’s just fiction.” If you don’t want to do your homework, please, write something else where you can make it all up. But the other side of the coin is forgetting one is writing a story in the effort to make it accurate. That confuses historical fiction with creative non-fiction, which is a thing and has a place. But it’s not a novel.
What is the STORY you’re telling? It might be an adventure story (e.g., the point is action), or it might be a character story (e.g., the point is character development), but there needs to be some sort of story-arc. The plot/characters must go somewhere, be different at the end than at the beginning. When somebody asks me, “What’s your novel about?” I say, “It’s about Alexander becoming Alexander-the-Great,” or “It’s a coming-of-age story about a prince who doesn’t know if he’ll live to become king.” That’s a story-arc. Then you build on it.
If it’s a coming-of-age novel, who should be included? Parents, check; siblings, check; teacher, check; first love, check; even nemesis, check. Next, you can select what historical events allow you best to tell that story, which may mean tweaking some, eliminating others, or adding a few. But you don’t begin with events then try to construct a story around them, or it’ll be disjointed. So for instance, in Becoming, I don’t do a lot with the politics following the Third Sacred War and Philip’s Scythian/northern Thracian campaign because the story isn’t about Philip, it’s about Alexander, and he’s off at Mieza. If he would certainly have been aware of these things, it would have been peripheral. It’s only in Rise that I start to insert more about wider-world politics, because by then, it matters to his story.
An author has to keep her eyes on the ball, not go down random rabbit holes, no matter how interesting!
And on that note, I would like to thank Jeanne for her time. It has been a pleasure having her here. Go buy the book! And if you do, feel free to let me know what you think of it, either in the comments below or via e-mail – thesecondachilles @ gmail.com MJM
all images used in this blog post belong to Jeanne Reames and are used with her permission