X: Diversity in the Armies of Alexander and Darius

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Categories: Arrian, On Alexander | Tags: | Leave a comment

XI: Size Doesn’t Matter

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
Elephants c.15

Macedonian army
– Cavalry not given
– Infantry not given

Persian army (IV.12.13)
– Cavalry 45,000
– Infantry 200,000

Macedonian army
– Cavalry not given
– Infantry  not given

Persian army (D. XVII.53)
– Cavalry 200,000
– Infantry 800,000
in addition (Ibid)
Scythed chariots 200

Macedonian army
– Cavalry not given
– Infantry not given

Persian army (J.XI.12)
– Cavalry 100,000
– Infantry 400,000

Macedonian army
– 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.

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

XII: Where and Why Gaugamela?

19th September – just 12 days to go until the 2,348th anniversary of the Battle of Gaugamela, which took place on 1st October 331 BC. It was the second and decisive battle in the war between Alexander and Darius III. The winner would take all.

To celebrate the anniversary, I have decided to write twelve posts, one every day, and each comprising of a single question and answer relating to an aspect of the battle.


Did I say single? Ha ha. I’m touched that I thought I would stick to that rule, so let’s kick off with two questions:-

Where was Gaugamela? And why was the battle fought there?


Where was Gaugamela?

The map below comes, of all places, from an article on LinkedIn titled 5 Things every start up CEO can learn from the battle of gaugamela. I haven’t read it but if you would like to you can do so here.

Personally, I rather doubt the wisdom of applying lessons from a battle in antiquity to business practices of today but never mind, the important thing is the map. As you can see, Gaugamela is north west of Arbela.

Arrian still exists today, though now it is called Erbil. By-the-bye, Plutarch tells us in Chapter 31 of his Life of Alexander that ‘the majority of writers’ say the battle actually happened there – at Arbela. But both he and Arrian both disagree with this. Arrian (VI.11.5) cites Ptolemy and Aristobulos who both state that it was fought at Gaugamela. Why might ancient historians have given the honour to Arbela? Here is Arrian’s view:

Gaugamela was not a city, but only a large village, otherwise unknown and with an odd-sounding name: that is why I think the credit of the great battle was appropriated by the city of Arbela.
(Arrian VI.11.6)

So now we know where Gaugamela is, or was, we can now ask –

Why was the battle fought there?

Alexander was in Egypt. Couldn’t Darius have challenged him there? Or at least marched to the Phoenician coast and faced him somewhere between Issus (at the corner of modern day Turkey and Syria) and the Nile? Or perhaps Alexander or Darius could have marched directly east/west to face their opponent at a site along the way.

Let’s take a look at Google Earth.

After his defeat at Issus in 333 BC, Darius III retreated east to assemble a new army. He mustered it at Babylon, which – according to Wikipedia – is 53 miles south of Baghdad. As you can see from the map above, a vast expanse of desert separates Egypt and Baghdad/Babylon. That would have stopped Alexander marching directly east or Darius marching directly west. Their armies would have been wiped out by thirst or starved to death long before they every met each other.

It’s true Darius could have marched north along the Royal Road and then turned west towards the Phoenician coast. I think the reason he did not do so is because he did not have time. By the time he was able to leave Babylon, Alexander was well on his way from Egypt. It made better sense for Darius to stay in or around Mesopotamia and let Alexander come to him. That way, the Macedonians would arrive footsore and tired while his men would no doubt be ready for battle having been well provisioned by the fertile soil of Mesopotamia.

Of course, the lack of time explains why Darius didn’t march on Egypt. And just as well – Egypt, as Darius would have known, was highly defensible. So much so that even his grand army, comprised of men from all over the Persian Empire, would have found it hard to invade it.

So, Darius let Alexander do all the work and come to him.

To make sure that his men stayed well fed – or as well fed as possible – Alexander marched up the Phoenician coast.

After turning east, he crossed the Euphrates at the well-established crossing point of Thapsacus. In his biography of Alexander, Robin Lane Fox explains that the young king now had two choices.

… either he could turn right and follow the Euphrates south-east to Babylon in the footsteps of Xenophon, along a valley plentifully supplied but broken by canals which could be dammed against invaders; or he could go north from the Euphrates and then swing right to skirt the hills of Armenia, cross the more distant line of the river Tigris and then turn south to Babylon on the Royal Road.
(Robin Lane Fox Alexander the Great 2004, p.226)

Darius wanted Alexander to take the longer, more dangerous, northern route and so sent men to burn the land along the Euphrates. Alexander duly did as the Great King desired.

Robin Lane Fox adds that Darius could not choose the battlefield until he knew which route Alexander was taking. Thus, once he found out that the Macedonian king was taking the northern path, he was able to pick a suitable plain to establish his army.

A plain: that was the sine qua non of Darius’ preparations. At Issus, the Great King had been prevented from using his entire army on account of the battlefield being a narrow stretch of land between the Gulf of Issus and Amanus mountains. He did not want the same handicap this time.

So, why was the battle fought at Gaugamela? It was fought there because the plain was large enough to accommodate Darius’ mighty army. And while he waited for Alexander, Darius smoothed the ground so that his scythe-chariots would be able to roll across it without hindrance.

What we now call the Battle of Gaugamela, therefore, could have been fought somewhere else, but in the end, Gaugamela was chosen quite deliberately by Darius. He believed that it would give him the best opportunity to defeat Alexander once and for all.

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Alexander: August / Summer Chronology

Alexander’s Chronology

2nd August The Battle of Chaeronea. United army of Thebes and Athens is defeated by Philip II (Alexander fights on the left wing) (Michael Wood)

Summer Philip II is assassinated. Alexander III succeeds him (Michael Wood)
Summer Artaxerxes IV murdered; Darius III becomes Great King (Livius)
Summer (Late) Alexander confirmed as ‘captain-general of war against Persia by the Corinthian League (Peter Green)

Summer Alexander’s Thracian Campaign; Memnon pushes the Macedonian advance guard back in Asia Minor (Livius)

August The Siege of Halicarnassus gets underway (Livius)
Summer Alexander takes Sardis, Ephesus, and Miletus (by siege); he disbands his navy; The city of Halicanassus – excluding its citadel – is captured (Landmark Arrian)

July – September Pharnabzus continues the Persian naval offensive (Livius)
Summer Alexander crosses central Asia Minor; he cuts/slashes the Gordian Knot (Michael Wood)
Summer Alexander falls ill [after bathing in the Cydnus River]; Alexander takes Cilicia; The citadel at Halicarnassus falls; Alexander settles Mallus (Landmark Arrian)

Darius makes a second attempt to negotiate an end to the war [the first was in Autumn 333]. Alexander rejects his offer

July – August Alexander arrives at Thapsacus; Darius marches out of Babylon (Peter Green)
August – September
Alexander crosses Mesopotamia (Livius)
Summer Alexander crosses modern day Syria and enters northern Iraq (Michael Wood)

July – August Alexander marches on Hyrcania (Peter Green)
August (Late) Alexander marches on Drangiana [i.e. Lake Seistan]; The Philotas Affair; From Arachosia to Parapamisadae (Peter Green)
August – September Alexander campaigns in Hyrcania, Parthia and Aria (Livius)
Summer Alexander orders Darius’ body to be given a royal burial; Alexander defeats Tapourians; Sundry Persians surrender; Mardians surrender; Greek mercenaries surrender; Alexander receives word that Bessus has declared himself king (Landmark Arrian)
Summer Darius III is assassinated; Alexander advances to the Caspian Sea (Michael Wood)

Summer (Early) After crossing the Hindu Kush, Alexander makes his way to Balkh [i.e. Bactra/Zariaspa] (Michael Wood)
Summer Alexander crosses the Oxus River; captures Bessus; Alexander arrives at Samarkand [i.e. Maracanda]; Alexander reaches the Jaxartes [Tanais] River; founds Alexandria the Furthest [i.e. Eschate] (Michael Wood)
Summer Alexandria the Furthest is founded; a great rebellion [along the Jaxartes] is quelled (Landmark Arrian)

Summer The Bactria and Sogdia campaign continues (Livius; Landmark Arrian)
Summer Spitamenes conducts his semi-guerrilla war against Macedonian army (Landmark Arrian)
Summer (Late) Alexander murders Black Cleitus during a drunken row (Michael Wood)

Summer (Early) [Second] crossing of the Hindu Kush via Kushan Pass; Beginning of the Indian campaign (Peter Green)
The Macedonian army reunites in Balkh; the introduction of the practice of proskynesis; Alexander marries Roxane (Livius)
Summer Alexander meets Taxiles in Hindu Kush; Macedonian army divides between Alexander and Hephaestion and Perdiccas. The latter two take their part of the army to Peucelaotis (Landmark Arrian)
Summer (Late) The Pages Plot; Callisthenes’ execution (Livius)
Summer – Early Autumn Alexander spends six months in the Kabul Valley (Michael Wood)

Summer Numerous Macedonian ships and boats are damaged by the strong current on the Acesines river; Alexander pursues a renegade king named Porus (not the king of the Hydaspes river); Sangala is destroyed; Macedonian army refuses to go any further east at the Hyphasis river; Abisares appointed satrap (Landmark Arrian)
Summer (Late) The Macedonian army mutinies at the Hyphasis River (Livius)

August (Late) Alexander sets out for Carmania (Livius)
Summer Alexander arrives at the delta of the Indus River (Michael Wood)
Summer Alexander sends Craterus and part of the army west [via an inland route]; Alexander explores the delta of the Indus river by ship (Landmark Arrian)

August The Opis Mutiny (Livius)
Summer Reorganisation of Macedonian army; Opis Mutiny; Craterus [and 10,000] veterans sent home; Craterus is ordered to replace Antipater; Alexander sees the horses of Nysia
Alexander issues the Exiles’ Decree; Craterus and [the 1o,000] veterans set out for Macedon (Livius)
Summer Mass Weddings at Susa. As part of the ceremony, Alexander marries Stateira II, daughter of Darius [and Parysatis, grand-daughter of Artaxerxes III Ochus] (Michael Wood)

Michael Wood In the Footsteps Of Alexander the Great A Journey from Greece to India (BBC Books 2004)
Peter Green Alexander of Macedon 356 – 323 B.C. A Historical Biography (University of California Press 1991)
The Landmark Arrian Ed. James Romm (Pantheon Books 2010)

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The Mallian Campaign: Conquest Through Terror?

In this post I continue my look at Ptolemy I King and Pharaoh of Egypt by Ian Worthington. For an explanation of this series, visit the first post here.


In only one week, all of the Mallian towns west of the Hydraortes [sic] were taken and their inhabitants slaughtered in this “conquest through terror”.

As you can see, when Worthington says that Alexander pursued a ‘conquest through terror’, he is quoting another writer. That person is A. B. Bosworth who uses the phrase in Alexander and the East: The Tragedy of Triumph.

What do Worthington and Bosworth mean by a conquest through terror? So far as Worthington is concerned(1), the answer is clear: Alexander defeated the Mallians by slaughtering them. All of them. That was the terror – that no quarter was given to anyone. Soldier or civilian.


Why did Alexander resort to such a ruthless tactic? The answer to this may lie in the intelligence that he received prior to beginning the campaign regarding what kind of fighters the Mallians (and the Oxydracae) were.

According to Arrian (VI.4), Alexander was told that the Mallians and Oxydracae ‘were the most numerous and warlike of the Indians in that part of the country’. So, having decided to conquer both, he knew that he would have to come down hard on them; all of them.


This is what happened. After entering Mallian territory, Alexander attacked one town out of the (Sandar-Bar) desert killing Mallians in the field whether they were armed or not, and whether they resisted him or not. The town was then put under siege and all its defenders slaughtered (Arrian VI.6-7). At the same time, Perdiccas killed Mallians fleeing from another town (Arr. VI.7).

Having taken the first town, Alexander returned to the banks of the Hydraotes. There, he killed any Mallian refugees that he came across (Ibid). Any? Actually, no, not quite. Arrian (Ibid) tells us that he took some prisoner. Most of these, however, escaped to a fortified location, which Peithon then successfully assaulted. The survivors were enslaved.

A Mallian fortress was the next to fall. Most of the defenders died fighting (Arr. VI.8). Arrian tells us that only a handful survived (Ibid). They, presumably, were reduced to slavery as well.

A pause in operations now followed. When Alexander came to the next Mallian settlements he found that they were all deserted – the Indians had wisely fled the coming storm (Ibid). But Alexander was not yet done. He ordered Peithon and a cavalry officer named Demetrius to take an infantry detachment back to the Hydraotes and scour the countryside for any Mallian refugees. He told them to ‘kill all of [the refugees] who refused to give themselves up’ (Ibid).

After resting his men, Alexander returned once more to the Hydraotes. There, he took part in his third river bank confrontation (Arr. VI.8-9). Well, kind of. For though the Mallians held the far bank against him, as soon as Alexander began his advance across the river, they withdrew inland.

Arrian says that when the Mallians realised that Alexander was advancing with only his cavalry, they ‘offered a vigorous resistance’ (Arr. VI.8), but no actual battle appears to have taken place. Instead, Alexander simply kept the Indians at bay with ‘manoeuvring’ (Ibid) and probing attacks.

Given what they must have known about Alexander’s ruthlessness along with their own reputation for being ‘warlike’ (Arr. VI.4), why did the Mallians not attack? According to Arrian, they had the numbers, being ‘some 50,000 strong’. All Alexander had was his cavalry – a few thousand at most. One wonders if reports of the Mallians ‘warlike’ nature had been exaggerated. Who was it who supplied Alexander with this intelligence, after all, if not rival Indian tribes.

The question of how strong the Mallians really were becomes even more pressing when we read that upon the arrival of the Agrianes, archers, and ‘some picked units of light infantry’, the Mallians promptly broke ranks and fled into a nearby fortified settlement. Okay, they would also have seen the Macedonian heavy infantry approaching behind the advance troops but they were still 50,000 in number. Were there that many women and children, perhaps? Or did they just lack the inner strength to fight, or maybe a leader to guide them?

Alexander laid siege to the settlement and there undertook the most heroic action of his life when he jumped into the courtyard of the settlement’s citadel alone to fight the Mallians inside. The Macedonians had brought up scaling ladders but been slow – reluctant – to climb them. Filled with impatience (and no doubt anger as this was the second time in the Mallian operation that it had happened), Alexander climbed the ladder and jumped down into the courtyard. Three men, Peucestas, Leonnatus and a soldier named Abreas followed him but for a long moment, Alexander was quite alone. He fought bravely but was felled by an Indian arrow. He would have died but for the timely arrival behind him of his three officers.

They protected the king until the Macedonian army managed to break into the courtyard. Some climbed over the walls, others heaved the citadel gates open. A general slaughter then took place – Indian men, women, and children were all killed (Arr. VI.9-11).


The citadel assault marks the end of the Mallian campaign. As Alexander recovered from his injuries, the Mallians and Oxydracae both formally surrendered. Alexander accepted their submission and, after appointing a governor to rule over them, continued his journey down the Hydraotes.

As said above, Ian Worthington suggests that the Mallian campaign was an act of ‘conquest through terror’ because of the wholesale slaughter that took place. But it wasn’t quite like that. Surrenders were taken.

With that said, I still agree with him that this was a ‘conquest through terror’ on the grounds that not only did Alexander conduct the campaign with greater violence than was necessary but that those Indians who survived were not set free but enslaved.

All in all it was certainly his most brutal and repressive campaign. Much more so than even the Bactria-Sogdia campaign of 329-27.


The ultimate purpose of the Mallian campaign was to bring their territory into the empire. This is proved by Alexander’s appointment of a governor to rule over them. Had the Mallians and Oxydracae surrendered at the outset, it would not have happened. This is why, when they surrendered, the Indian ambassadors made a point of explaining why they had failed ‘to treat with him earlier’ (Arr. VI.14).


Did Alexander need to act as cruelly as he did? The answer has to be no. But let’s not say that we see anything new here. The Mallian campaign does not signify the emergence of a new, darker Alexander; he could be very clement, sometimes, but he also had form for great ruthlessness. The razing of Thebes in 335 and despoiling of Persepolis in 330 show this. Also, the mass crucifixions at Tyre (332 – Diodorus XVII.46), destruction of Gaza (332 – Arr. II.27), as well as the judicial murder of Philotas in 330 and murder of Black Cleitus in 328 all speak to his ruthless streak.

I would like to propose that Alexander conducted this ‘conquest through terror’ because that’s what he felt the campaign required in order to succeed. It was a pragmatic decision possibly (or definitely if Arrian’s account is true) based upon false information.

At this point, I don’t believe that his anger and disappointment at having to turn back from the Hyphasis river – though an influence on him – or any damage done to his long term mental health by his injuries had a defining effect on his thinking.

(1) Unfortunately, I don’t have Bosworth’s book in my possession so I can’t look up the context in which he uses the phrase

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Honours Even

In this post I continue my look at Ptolemy I King and Pharaoh of Egypt by Ian Worthington. For an explanation of this series, visit the first post here.


… killing Cleitus was a grave error… It was hardly the act of a great general or king: the personal honor that had driven his [i.e Alexander’s] campaigns, and which he expected of others, had long since evaporated.

Worthington is certainly right to call Alexander’s murder of Black Cleitus in 328 BC ‘a grave error’. However, I don’t see the relevancy of this act to Alexander’s status as a general. Great generals become so by winning battles and wars. They don’t become great by behaving  virtuously.

Worthington is on more solid ground when he says that Cleitus’ murder was not the act of a great king. I could not agree more. Kings should be just and merciful to their subjects. Even – especially – to ones who provoke them during drunken quarrels. Of course, they shouldn’t really be getting drunk in the first place.

However, that’s by-the-bye; as usual, I have put in bold the part of the passage that really stuck out for me when I read it.

Worthington presents here the Achillean Alexander: a man driven by ‘personal honor’ who expected others to be similarly honourable. But while I agree with this understanding of the Macedonian king’s character. I question Worthington’s assertion that by the time he killed Cleitus, Alexander’s honour ‘had long since evaporated’.

When? How? The only incident that I can think of that really speaks to this is the Philotas Affair, which took place two years earlier in the summer/Autumn of 330 BC.

But while Philotas’ downfall took place in very murky circumstances that do not reflect well on any of the people who played a major role in it (I think here especially of Hephaestion, Craterus and Coenus who pressed for and conducted the torture of Philotas) I don’t get the impression that it fatally undermined Alexander’s honour.

Had it done so, I think he would have been more concerned about the Macedonians’ supposedly ‘mutinous’ thoughts when they began to ‘pity’ Philotas after his death (see Curtius VII.1.1-4). Instead, the king risked further alienation from his men by bringing Alexander Lyncestis, and the brothers Amyntas and Simmias to trial.

Perhaps the Macedonians were not so fussed about Alexander Lyncestis but Amyntas and Simmias were close friends of Philotas. Their trial would only have put the Macedonians in mind of Philotas whom they now pitied – something that, had he been truly afraid of their ‘mutinous remarks’, Alexander would surely have wanted to avoid. Curtius calls the Philotas Affair and trial of Alexander Lyncestis a time of crisis. It was certainly a difficult time for the king, but not a crisis. Curtius is talking Alexander’s difficulty up for the sake of his narrative.

I’m open to other suggestions on what Worthington means in this passage, but as matters stand, it seems to me that like Curtius with Philotas et al he is simply overstating the effect of Cleitus’ murder on Alexander for the sake of his narrative. The king never lost his honour. It was certainly battered and bruised over the years but even at his death Alexander was acting honourably, and was loved by his men.

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A Motive Force

In this post I continue my look at Ptolemy I King and Pharaoh of Egypt by Ian Worthington. For an explanation of this series, visit the first post here.


The battle [of the Granicus River] was an example of Alexander’s tactical genius, audacity, and daredevil courage. It also exposed his love of fighting for the sake of fighting.

Worthington gives the impression here that the Battle of the Granicus (334 BC) was an unnecessary confrontation. In my view, it was absolutely the reverse. Alexander had no choice but to meet the satrapal army. This is because, if he didn’t, it would pursue him and either wear him down in the rear or force a confrontation at a time and place of its choosing; or else, it would cross the Hellespont to Macedon and take the fight to Antipater.

That was a potential disaster waiting to happen. The viceroy had 12,000 infantry and 1,500 cavalry(1) at his disposal. The sources disagree radically on the size of the satrapal army but in The Generalship of Alexander, J. F. C. Fuller proposes a figure of 10,000 cavalry and 5,000 Greek mercenaries (p.147).

We don’t know how many Persian infantry there were but whatever the figure, it was surely more than 2,000, and therefore enough to put Antipater at a major disadvantage (as if the 8,500 cavalry he was already shipping to the satraps wasn’t enough) should the two sides meet.

If I am correct, the Granicus exposed no more in Alexander than his understanding of the fact that if his war and kingship were to continue he had to face and beat the satrapal army.

Does Worthington’s statement work as a general principle? That’s more difficult to answer. To do the question justice we would have to look at each and every battle that Alexander fought and ask if, in military terms, he needed to fight it. And if he didn’t, why did he?

My first reaction is that yes, Alexander enjoyed fighting, but he did nothing without a motive. If fighting could be avoided then he was perfectly prepared to take that route. We see this when he tried to persuade the Thebans to surrender (Arrian I.8) and when he accepted the surrender of various peoples during the expedition itself.

In the above passage, Ian Worthington’s Alexander is nothing more than a thug, a hooligan or vandal. The real man, however, had ideas and ideals. He fought for revenge, for liberation, for domination; he fought to emulate and surpass his ancestors; he fought for glory. But never, not when it mattered, do I believe he fought just for the sake of fighting.

(1) Arrian The Campaign of Alexander Penguin Classics 1971 Bk. I n.38

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Boning Up On Bactria

Into the Land of Bones is a brief – 165 page – account of the Bactria-Sogdia phase of Alexander’s expedition. The Macedonian king entered Bactria in the spring of 329 BC in pursuit of Bessos, murderer of Darius III and pretender to Alexander’s Persian throne. Bessos was captured soon after. At that point, all was well. Bactria had offered no resistance to the Macedonians and a quick departure to India must have seemed probable.

However, it was not to be. Sogdia and Bactria rose up in revolt. Their rebellion was lead by a Persian nobleman named Spitamenes who, for the next year would lead a semi-guerrilla campaign against the Macedonians. His part in the rebellion ended in the autumn of 328 when he was murdered by his own men. Before then, however, Spitamenes would score some impressive victories against Alexander’s army. After he died, the revolt continued for nearly another year.

The Sogdian-Bactrian campaign brought out the best and worst in Alexander. It forced him to adapt his military tactics, which he did, to ultimate success; but it also lead him to take a bloody revenge against the native people far beyond anything that was proportionate or necessary.

And perhaps the uprising had deeper consequences as well for it was during the Bactrian-Sogdian campaign that Alexander and Black Cleitus quarrelled drunkenly leading the king to run his friend through with a spear (Autumn 328), and it was during the campaign that Alexander’s pages conceived their plot to assassinate him (Spring 327).

Alexander finally left Bactria and Sogdia in the summer of 327 BC. Officially, he had pacified both countries. Unofficially they were tinder boxes waiting to explode, which – even in Alexander’s lifetime – they did.


Frank L. Holt’s book is very readable. I finished it in just over a week. Had I dedicated my spare time to it I could have read half that time easily.

In his Preface, Holt says he wrote the book with both ‘professional historians and the general public’ in mind. In my view, Land of Bones offers more to the latter as Holt does not dive deeply into Alexander’s actions; instead, he is content to simply describe what happened and give his thoughts as he does so.

The book ‘grew out of a public lecture’ that Holt gave not long after the 11th September attacks in 2001 and throughout the book he compares and contrasts what happened to Alexander with what happened to the British army during its Afghan campaigns in the late 1830s, to the Soviet Union when it invaded Afghanistan in the 1980s, and the USA and her coalition partners when they did the same in 2003.

(By way of clarification – Afghanistan now encompasses the ancient countries of Bactria and Sogdia, hence the connection. Actually, Sogdia also lies in three other countries – Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Tadjikistan – but as they are politically stable we do not hear much of them in the book).

For me, Holt never really nails the comparisons down. Indeed, in the Preface he admits that history ‘never repeats itself’ directly. As a result, Britain, the USSR and Coalition all come and go in rather an ethereal fashion. It felt to me like he was using the experiences of these modern invaders as hooks to gain the interest of his publisher. I hope and trust that this is a misreading.

In my opinion, Into the Land of Bones does not contain any outstanding revelations. Only one statement in it has made a lasting impression on me, and that is a citation from another book. Early on, Holt states that every day Alexander had to find ‘the equivalent of 255 tons of food and forage, plus 160,000 gallons of water, just to keep his army alive and moving forward’. This fact comes from Donald W. Engel’s Alexander the Great and the Logistics of the Macedonian Army (For more on this point, see my post here).


I’d like to conclude with something I really liked about the book and a couple of things that I didn’t. I’ll start with the latter so that I can end on a positive note.

Firstly, I really did not care for the way that Holt consistently (especially at the beginning) referred to the ‘Greeks and Macedonians’ as if either the Greeks lead the invasion or even that the two were equal in it. They did not, they were not. This was a Macedonian led invasion. If you want to be charitable, you could call it a coalition army, but only at the expense of accuracy. It was a Macedonian army with foreigners – Greeks and others – attached.

To be sure, Holt is not the only historian who gives the Greeks an importance in Alexander’s army that they did not have – in fact, I think most if not all historians do it – but they really ought not to. To be fair, you could argue that the Macedonians were in a sense Greek in that they came to Macedonia from there but by Alexander’s day they were almost entirely sundered from the Greeks; they hated them, and the Greeks themselves did not even think of the Macedonians as one of them. At the least, I wish Holt, and all historians, would talk about the Macedonian led invasion rather than imply that it was something other.

Secondly, the price of the book. It’s publisher, the University of California Press is currently selling Into the Land of Bones for £52.95 (here). This is an absolute disgrace. Which member of the general public will pay that much for a slender volume like this? I enjoyed Land of Bones and am very grateful to the person who gave me a copy of it because even I would not pay that much. And if I would not then someone who has only a part time interest in Alexander never will. If universities insist on charging such ridiculous prices for their books I really don’t know why they bother to publish them in the first place. I am sure they have their reasons, but really, there’s no point. No one will buy them. NO ONE.

If anyone knows how many copies of Into the Land of Bones have been sold – especially if it is a lot – I would love to know it and be proved wrong.

Oh, one more point – £52.95 is the hardback price. The paperback costs £24.95. For heaven’s sake, that’s still the price of a hardback work of fiction! The UCP also sells an e-book version. It costs $29.95. The website does not sell the e-book in pounds. An exchange rate website tells me that $29.95 is £23.95 which is surely a joke on the publisher’s part.

Well, you have seen me come as close to losing my temper in a blog post as ever I have, so let’s finish with my plus point. There are two. Firstly, I appreciated the way in which the book refreshed my memory of this part of Alexander’s expedition. Secondly, and most of all, I really, really appreciated the final chapters which covered what happened in Bactria-Sogdia in the centuries after Alexander waged war there. They are not happy chapters but they are fascinating ones, especially when Holt talks about the discoveries of archaeological expeditions. Once upon a time we knew of about seven Bactrian kings. Thanks to locals and archaeologists discovering coin hoards, however, that figure has risen, and risen, and risen.

To conclude, would I recommend Into the Land of Bones? Yes, I would, but I would have to say, borrow it from a friend or the library as the retail prices are wholly unreasonable.

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Ptolemy I: Some General Observations

In this post I continue my look at Ptolemy I King and Pharaoh of Egypt by Ian Worthington. For an explanation of this series, visit the first post here.


Ptolemy was not in [Parmenion’s or Antipater’s] league, and even under Alexander was never a general, but it is possible that because of his relationship with Alexander, Philip had him on the Macedonian left wing with the young heir.

Even under Alexander, [Ptolemy] was never a general…

In yesterday’s post, I said that I disagreed with this idea. How can I say that, though, when – as I must admit – I don’t know how a man became a general in Philip’s or Alexander’s army.

But, does anyone?

Ian Worthington is quite sure that Ptolemy was not a general. Frank L. Holt, in Into the Land of Bones, is of a different opinion. Here are some quotes from his book,

Out of the one shaft flowed a fatty substance so strange that the Macedonian general Ptolemy summoned his king and the royal soothsayers.

… the work progressed under the supervision of three Macedonian generals: Ptolemy, Perdiccas, and Leonnatus.

Subsequently, a few of Alexander’s surviving generals felt free to proclaim themselves kings… Ptolemy in Egypt…

So, who’s right? I suspect both and neither. We don’t know; we just don’t know for there is no text that tells us how it happened. This leaves historians free to make up their own minds.

In respect of Ptolemy, Holt says yea, while Worthington says nay. And me? Well, after joining the Royal Bodyguards (Arrian III.27) Ptolemy certainly joined the upper ranks of the Macedonian army. Not long later, he was granted his first independent command (Arr. III.30). In India, he was put in charge of special missions by Alexander (Arr. IV.29) and led a division of the army during the march home (Diodorus XVII.104). These are all the kinds of jobs that I would expect a general to undertake; therefore, while I admit the fragility of my position, I believe whole heartedly that Ptolemy was a general.

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The Powers Behind the Sarissas

In my last post, I started discussing Ptolemy I King and Pharaoh of Egypt, which I recently finished. Here, I am going to share any passages from Frank L. Holt’s Into the Land of Bones, which I have just started reading, and which jump out at me.

First up is this:-

No matter what the climate or circumstances might be, Alexander had to procure every day the equivalent of 255 tons of food and forage, plus 160,000 gallons of water, just to see his army alive and moving forward.
(Into the Land of Bones, p.32)

This passage comes with an end note – Holt is quoting from Donald W. Engels’ Alexander the Great and the Logistics of the Macedonian Army (University of California 1978), which I have a copy of but have yet to read (Soon! Soon!),

I read the above yesterday and it still bowls me over. 255 tonnes and 160 thousand gallons. That’s an awful, awful lot of food and water. It brings into very clear view the fact that Alexander benefitted from an absolutely brilliant logistics operation during his invasion of Asia. In fact, I read a while ago that it failed him only twice during his ten year anabasis – and that was when he was half way up the Hindu Kush and in the Gedrosian desert.

Who is the unsung hero of Alexander’s expedition? Whose hard work enabled the Macedonian army to remain fed and fit? Hephaestion is the name that comes first to mind because we often see him carrying out logistical work on behalf of the king.

Among his missions are picking a vassal king for Alexander in Sidon (Curtius 4.1.16-26), sailing to Gaza with siege engines (Ibid 4.5.10), and building a bridge across the Indus (Arrian IV.28). However, I don’t get the impression that Hephaestion was the chief logistician. What he was, or rather, who he was, was someone Alexander could trust to get these kind of unglamorous but absolutely necessary jobs done and so was used often in that capacity.

I’m coming round to the view now that there was not a chief logistician – not beyond Alexander himself. The way I see it happening is that Alexander said ‘I want this done’ then told whichever officer he wanted to complete the job to do it. Sometimes – often?-  it would be Hephaestion; other times, someone else. Hence, we see other senior officers also engaged in logistical work. For example, Craterus, when Alexander ordered him to gather supplies in preparation for what he thought would be a long siege at the Aornos Rock (Arrian IV.29), and again when the king ordered him and Coenus to forage in the territory on the near side of the Hydraotes river (Ibid V.21).

There is the saying ‘jack of all trades and master of none’ but it seems to me that the Macedonian officers were not only jacks-all-trades but masters of their work as well. How else could they manage to keep finding the 255 tonnes and 160 thousand gallons in diverse territories and sometimes difficult conditions for ten years on the trot, and, of course, keep winning battles under the direction of their king, a genius, it seems, on and off the battlefield?

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