The Nature of Curtius
Book Four Chapters 5-10
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Offering the impossible
After making good his escape from Issus, Darius wrote to Alexander offering him the hand of his daughter Stateira II and Asia Minor west of the Halys River.
This map comes from Celtia
Do not hesitate to accept this deal, Darius warned him, as fortune never stands still. Darius then told Alexander that his (Alexander’s) fear was that
… like the birds wafted up to the sky by their natural lightness, Alexander would also be carried away by the vanity of his youthful mind – nothing was more difficult than keeping control of great fortune at his age.
To press home his point, Darius warned Alexander that he had ‘many other lands in his power, and… would not always be vulnerable to attack in a narrow pass.’
In his response, Alexander told the Persian messenger ‘that Darius was promising him property which was not his to give’. As for the ‘property’ that remained in Darius’ hands – Alexander dealt with that by giving a sinister version of Ruth 1:16. Wherever he goes, Alexander told the herald, I can follow. Finally, Alexander swapped Darius’ avian metaphor for an aquatic one. The Great King, he told the messenger, ‘should stop trying to frighten with rivers a man whom he knew to have passed over seas’.
After leaving Tyre, Alexander’s next major action was a two month siege of Gaza. From the Book of Ruth we fast forward to Matt. 7:24–27 and Luke 6:46–49 and the parable of the house built on rock. When Alexander inspected Gaza, he found it to be akin to the house built on sand in that there was a lack of rock and stone underneath it. So, he ordered his men to undermine the city by digging shafts and tunnels.
While the digging was going on, Alexander carried out a sacrifice. During it, he was struck by a clod of earth dropped by a passing crow. Avian metaphors could be ignored, but not avian actions. What did this one mean?
Aristander’s reply was very unwelcome. The omen predicted ‘that the city would be destroyed’ but that ‘there was also [a] danger that Alexander would sustain injury’. Aristander therefore advised his king to ‘take no initiative that day’. Reluctantly, Alexander agreed.
Events conspired, however, to plunge him into action. Seeing the Macedonians withdraw, the Gazans decided to launch a sortie against them. During the counter-attack, Alexander was shot in his shoulder by an arrow.
Alexander was still recovering from this injury when he undertook another earth-moving project. Gaza stood on a mound (or hill?). To reach its walls, Alexander ordered the construction of a mound. Tall siege towers were rolled up it. The towers were so high the Macedonians were able to fire missiles down into the city.
What did for Gaza, though, were the shafts and tunnels. The shafts that Alexander had ordered to be dug caused the city walls to collapse. Led by their king, the Macedonians poured into the city. It was quickly taken and its governor, Batis, would soon die by being dragged round Gaza’s walls just as Hector’s body had been dragged in front of Troy all those years ago.
The fall of Gaza opened Egypt up to Alexander, and it welcomed him with open arms. After settling the country’s administrative affairs he made his famous trip to Siwah. Curtius vividly describes the difficult journey to the oracle of Ammon. Alexander and his small company of men rode through ‘vast stretches of naked desert’ which disoriented the eyes. Curtius refers to the fact that ‘no tree was to be seen [nor] a trace of cultivated soil’. In a ‘vast sea’ of shifting sand dunes this made locating oneself impossible.
Worse was to come when the Macedonians ran out of water. The men’s throats ‘were dry and burned’. Suddenly – perhaps in recompense for causing Alexander such trouble at Tyre – ‘clouds shredded the sky and hid the sun’. The temperatures cooled. Presently, ‘high winds… showered down generous quantities of rain’ which the men collected with the skins and by opening their mouths to the sky.
‘After four days in the desert wastes’, Alexander and his men were met by ‘a number of crows’ which guided them the rest of the way to Siwah. What is it about crows and Macedonians?
Curtius only gives us some specific details about Siwah Oasis. He says that Ammon’s shrine ‘is so well screened on all sides by encircling tree branches that the rays of the sun barely penetrate the shade’ and that the oasis woods ‘are sustained by a wealth of fresh-water springs’.
Curtius also adds that the oasis’ climate is ‘amazingly temperate… providing a healthy atmosphere’. He also tells us about the Water of the Sun – the fountain that (to this day) gets cooler towards midday and hotter at night. For more about the fountain and Siwah, here is what I wrote when I read Diodorus’ account.
According to Curtius, Alexander founded Alexandria after his visit to Siwah. At first, he wanted to build the city on the island of Pharos but following an inspection of its ‘natural features’ he decided to locate it on the mainland instead. It appears that Pharos was too small for ‘a large settlement’.
Out of Date Tactics
We pick the story up again with Alexander now in Mesop0tamia, on his way to Gaugamela for his final showdown with Darius III.
On hearing that Alexander was approaching, Darius ordered his general Mazaeus to ‘lay waste and burn’ the ground in front of the Macedonians. Mazaeus did as he was ordered but the time for such a policy had long since passed. Alexander had greater trouble crossing the fast-flowing Tigris than he did with provisions.
After giving Mazaeus his orders, Darius marched to the Boumelus River* where he pitched camp. Before him was a wide open plain – the perfect battlefield for his large army. It was a little uneven, though, so the Great King ordered the ‘protrusions in the flat land to be levelled and any higher ground to be completely flattened’.
* The modern day Khazir
The Dangerous Eclipse
As we have seen in this series, natural phenomena have played a significant role in the account of Alexander’s journey. In the early hours of 20th September 331 B.C. they played their most important part yet. That night, the moon became pale and then ‘suffused with a blood-red colour’.
The Macedonians observed the eclipse with fear in their hearts. The gods are against us, they said, the rivers forbid access, the moon loses her strength, everywhere is ‘desolation and desert’. And why is all this happening? Because of
… the grandiose plans of one man who despised his country, disowned his father Philip, and had deluded ideas about aspiring to heaven.
‘Mutiny’ Curtius says gravely, ‘was but a step away’. As the Notes say, he is exaggerating but there was ‘clearly already an undercurrent of resentment against Alexander because of his pretensions about Jupiter Ammon’. That, however, is for another post. In this one, we may say that Alexander called his generals and officers together before ordering his ‘Egyptian seers’ to tell him what the eclipse meant.
The Egyptian priests knew exactly what had caused the eclipse. Very smartly, however, they told the Macedonian soldiery (as opposed, I presume, to Alexander et al) that
… the sun represented the Greeks and the moon the Persians, and that an eclipse of the moon predicted disaster and slaughter for those nations.
Their interpretation was accepted and the soldiers’ anxiety eased. Now, they just had a battle to win.