Posts Tagged With: Aristander

Arrian I.11.1-8

In This Chapter
Return to Macedon and Departure for Asia Minor

Alexander conquered Thebes in the autumn of 335 BC. After settling matters with Athens, he returned to Macedon where he made sacrifice to Olympian Zeus in a ceremony (?) first established by his predecessor, Archelaus (who reigned from c.413-399). Later, he celebrated Olympic Games – not the famous one – at Dion (Arrian incorrectly says it was held at Aegae). Arrian notes that according to some sources, Alexander also celebrated ‘games in honour of the Muses’.

Around the time that Alexander was holding these celebrations, he received word that a statue of Orpheus in Pieria had started to sweat continuously. A number of seers made prophecies based on this occurrence but Arrian records only one. According to a seer named Aristander, who had served under Philip and would do so under Alexander to at least Bactria-Sogdia, the sweating meant that ‘all the composers of epic and lyric and choral odes’ would have much work to do in ‘celebrating Alexander and his achievements’.

***

Arrian now fast forwards to Spring 334 BC.

In late April or early May, Alexander lead his army to the Hellespont. Twenty days after leaving home, he arrived at Elaeus on the south-eastern tip of Thrace.

As you can see from the map, he chose the shortest sea crossing possible to Asia Minor Alexander never shied away from danger and indeed could sometimes be reckless in the face of it but he clearly knew there was a time and a place for everything. And the crossing to Asia Minor was not it.

At Elaeus, Alexander sacrificed to Protesilaus who was shot dead straight after setting foot on Asian soil following the crossing from Greece at the start of the Trojan war. Alexander wanted his expedition to go better.

Not all of the army went to Elaeus with him. Most of it had stayed with Parmenion a few miles up the road at Sestos. Alexander’s most senior general now oversaw its passage in one hundred and sixty triremes and an unspecified number of freighters to Abydos.

Alexander, meanwhile, sailed for Troy. While at sea – halfway between Thrace and Asia Minor – he sacrificed a bull and poured a libation into the sea. Once he reached Asia Minor, Alexander leapt off his ship – in full armour, no less.

Having already erected an altar at Elaeus, Alexander now had another built at his ships’ landing site. It was dedicated to Zeus ‘the protector of Landings’, Athena and Herakles. Leaving the shore, he marched to Troy, or the run down tourist trap that now claimed to be the same, where he sacrificed to ‘Trojan Athena’. He left his panoply there and took in its place weaponry that dated back to the Trojan War. At the end of his visit, he also sacrificed to Priam so as to ‘avert his anger at the race of Neoptolemus’ from which Alexander was descended (on his mother’s side).

Thoughts
This chapter forms a bridge between the Greek Campaigns and Campaign in Asia Minor. It is dominated by religion. Alexander changed as a person during the thirteen years of his kingship but some things remained constant – his belief in and loyalty to the Olympian gods. The various sacrifices that we see being carried out here are mirrored by those that he conducted during his last illness in June 323 BC.

On a few occasions in this chapter, Arrian distances himself a little from his sources: ‘The prevailing consensus is…’, ‘They also say…’, ‘The prevalent account…’. I take this wording to mean that the relevant information does not come from Ptolemy or Aristobulos?

The above three quotations all relate to Alexander’s crossing of the Hellespont and visit to Troy. Why might Ptolemy and Aristobulos not been interested in recording it (and Arrian vice versa)? We don’t know. Perhaps it never happened – the whole Alexander-Achilles thing is a later invention. Perhaps it did happen but still not with the significance that was later attached to it so Ptolemy and Aristobulos only mentioned it in passing. As for Arrian, perhaps he knew his readers would like the story.

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20th September 331BC: A Blood Red Lunar Eclipse

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.

Curtius IV.10.2

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.

Curtius IV.10.2-3

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

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20. Sagalassus

Crossing Asia Minor with Alexander

‘[Alexander] set off for Sagalassus. This too was no small city, populated likewise by Pisidians, who were reputed to be the most warlike of this generally warlike race. They were waiting for him now…’
(Arrian I.28.2)

Text used: Arrian ‘Alexander the Great‘ OUP 2013 (translated by Martin Hammond)

Yesterday, I mentioned that after leaving Aspendus, Alexander set off for Telmissus. According to Arrian, however, he never took or entered the city – the home of his favourite seer, Aristander. Why? Well, after arriving outside it Alexander saw that it was too strong to be taken quickly. 

Why was he so impatient to move on? Arrian doesn’t tell us but I suspect Alexander’s appetite for glory had a lot to do with it: he wanted to attack his enemies NOW; win glory NOW rather than next week or after. 

Against this view, Alexander had to work hard to take Miletus and Halicarnassus. Perhaps Aspendus just wasn’t important enough a target to spend time on?

A Nymphaeum in Sagalassus

Credit Where It’s Due
Sagalassian Nymphaeum: Flikr

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The Flawed Brilliance of Alexander

Justin’s Alexander
Book XII Chapters 11-16
Part Six
Other posts in this series

For this post I am using this translation of Justin’s Epitome of the Philippic History of Pompeius Trogus

Chapter Eleven
During Alexander’s expedition, his men, when not fighting, had somehow managed to get themselves deep in debt. Following the Susa weddings, Alexander paid that debt off in its entirety. It cost him twenty thousand talents to do so. One can only wonder how the men had managed to spend that much. Either way,

[Alexander’s] munificence was highly prized, not only for the sum given, but for the character of the gift, and was received not more thankfully by the debtors than by the creditors, exaction being as troublesome to the one as payment to the other.

Once the debts had been paid, Alexander proceeded to discharge his older veterans. Despite the kindness that their king had just showed them, the remaining men complained (during an assembly) that the discharge should be on the basis of service not age.

Justin describes the men as speaking to Alexander not only with ‘entreaties’ but also with ‘reproach’. Rather sulkily, they bid him to ‘“carry on his wars alone, with the aid of his father Ammon, since he looked with disdain on his soldiers.”’

In reply, Alexander oscillated between berating his men and speaking to them ‘in gentler terms’. When neither approach worked, he leapt down from his dais and personally arrested the ringleaders.

Chapter Twelve
His next action was to commend his Persian soldiers for their loyalty and enrol a thousand of them into his bodyguard as well as a number of auxiliaries into the regular army.

This cut the Macedonians to the quick, and they went to Alexander ‘beseeching him with tears “to content himself rather with punishing than ill-treating them.”’ Their pleas worked and Alexander released more veterans.

It is really striking, in this and the previous chapter, how fraught Alexander’s relationship with his men is. One minute they are friends, then enemies, then friends again. It’s as if their relationship has lost its foundations and has become a matter of shifting sands. And why? I think because of the army’s profound tiredness and Alexander’s perennial desire to get his way.

Justin notes that it was around of what we call the Opis Mutiny that Hephaestion died.

Alexander mourned for him longer than became his dignity as a king, built a monument for him that cost twelve thousand talents, and gave orders that he should be worshipped as a god.

Chapter Thirteen
Alexander returned to Babylon ‘from the distant shores of the ocean’. On the way, he was warned by the Magic’“not to enter the city,” for that the “place would be fatal to him.”’. As a result, the king took a diversion to an uninhabited city called Borsippa ‘on the other side of the Euphrates’.

There, however, the philosopher (and professional flatterer) Anaxarchus persuaded him to go to Babylon after all.  Anaxarchus argued that “if things were fixed by fate, they were unknown to mortals, and if they were dependent on the course of nature, were unchangeable.” Que sera, sera.

I am always rather suspicious when I read of about-turns like this. Alexander was not a puppet. He did what he wanted – even in matters of religion* – not what anyone else would have him do. Still, who knows what mental state he was in after Hephaestion’s death; perhaps this did make him more open to influence?

In Babylon, Alexander rested and resumed ‘the entertainments which had been for some time discontinued’ (no doubt as a result of Hephaestion’s death). One night, at a party given by an officer named Medius, the king collapsed in such extreme pain that he asked for someone to kill him.

His friends reported that the cause of his disease was excess in drinking, but in reality it was a conspiracy, the infamy of which the power of his successors threw into the shade.

* For example, when he took part in the attack of Tyre (Arrian 2:27) and crossed the Tanais (aka Jaxartes Arrian 4:4) despite Aristander’s warnings that the omens were against him

Chapter Fourteen
Justin blames Antipater for Alexander’s death. This chapter has a lot to say about Antipater but less about Alexander. I can’t move on, however, without recording what Justin tells us concerning the poison used to kill the king.

The strength of this poison was so great, that it could be contained neither in brass, nor iron, nor shell, nor could be conveyed in any other way than in the hoof of a horse.

Too strong for metal but able to be safely transported in a hoof. Perhaps Justin was tired when he wrote this.

Chapter Fifteen
Justin has been critical of Alexander. But he allow shim to die in a a noble fashion. Meeting his men for the last time, Alexander

… not only did not shed a tear, but showed not the least token of sorrow; so that he even comforted some who grieved immoderately, and gave others messages to their parents

Alexander, Justin says, was as prepared for death as he was for battle. Can any higher praise be given? Once the last soldier had left, the king asked his friends if they would find another like him. When they did not reply,

he said that, “although he did not know that, he knew, and could foretel, and almost saw with his eyes, how much blood Macedonia would shed in the disputes that would follow his death, and with what slaughters, and what quantities of gore, she would perform his obsequies.”

Finally, the royal friends did speak, and they asked Alexander who should succeed him.

He replied, “The most worthy.”

This response meets with Justin’s whole hearted approval. He says that,

Such was [Alexander’s] nobleness of spirit, that though he left a son named Hercules, a brother called Aridaeus, and his wife Roxane with child, yet, forgetting his relations, he named only “the most worthy” as his successor; as though it were unlawful for any but a brave man to succeed a brave man, or for the power of so great an empire to be left to any but approved governors.

Unfortunately, as Justin recognises, this nobleness opened the door for the wars that followed.

 

Six days after Medius’ party, Alexander gave his ring to Perdiccas. This act at guaranteed that there would at least be a transitional government while the identity of the next king was decided.

Chapter Sixteen
Justin sums up Alexander by paying him a number of compliments.

He was a man endowed with powers of mind far beyond ordinary human capacity.

[Olympias] certainly bore in her womb a conception superior to mortality… by no one’s influence was she rendered more illustrious than that of her son.

[As king, Alexander] inspired his soldiers with such confidence in him, that, when he was present, they feared the arms of no enemy, though they themselves were unarmed.

Justin also mentions the omens of Alexander’s ‘future greatness’ that were seen at his birth and acknowledges his unbeaten record as a general. Finally, he concludes, when Alexander died,

[h]e was overcome at last, not by the prowess of any enemy, but by a conspiracy of those whom he trusted, and the treachery of his own subjects.

Conclusions
Before starting this series of posts, I had a picture of Justin as being uniformly negative towards Alexander. That was the impression I got after reading From Tyrant to Philosopher-King.

However, while Justin does not hesitate to mention Alexander’s major fault – his medising – and his minor ones – his manipulativeness, for example – it is also true to say that he is very complimentary about the Macedonian king. No where is this more seen than in the last two chapters above.

It is possible, of course, that I have misread what Justin wrote, or that the translation I have used is not an accurate one, but assuming that neither is the case, I finish this series with a sense of Justin’s fairness and ability to recognise Alexander’s good whenever he sees it.

As for the mediaeval writers who used Justin to denigrate Alexander; well, I’m not going to criticise them., even though it seems to me (after reading the Epitome) that their reading must have been rather selective. The fact is, we know from other sources that Alexander did medise.

One last point – in case Justin has expressed any further opinion of Alexander in the other books of his Epitome and you are wondering why I haven’t mentioned it/them here, it’s because I have only read Books 11 and 12. If you know of any other statements of Justin, though, feel free to mention them in the comments below.

 

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Earth and Water

The Nature of Curtius
Book Four Chapters 11-16
For other posts in the series click here

Chapter 11
Tears and Hard Ground
On the eve of the Battle of Gaugamela, Alexander received another letter from Darius. In it, the Great King offered further concessions to him in order to end the war between them. These included – once again – Stateira II’s hand in marriage but this time all territory west of the Euphrates River. Alexander was warned that taking the whole empire would be ‘fraught with danger’ and that it would be difficult to control.

Why did Darius think Alexander might respond to this letter any more positively than his last?

A few days earlier*, Stateira I had died. Upon being informed, Alexander wept copious tears for her, and he gave his permission for her funeral to be carried out in the ‘traditional Persian fashion’.

In the confusion following Stateira’s death, a eunuch** belonging to the Persian royal family escaped from the Macedonian camp and made his way to Darius’ tent. There, he told the Great King how Alexander had cried for his late wife, having treated the royal women with the utmost respect since capturing them following the Battle of Issus.

It was this insight into Alexander’s kindness that gave Darius the confidence to send his letter.

Unfortunately, the seeds did not fall on fertile ground and Alexander dismissed Darius’ offer. “‘He generously gives me the land beyond the Euphrates,'” Alexander said, contemptuously, “‘[but] I am already across the Euphrates and my camp stands beyond the boundary of the land he generously promises me as dowry!'”

The ambassadors were allowed to return to Darius. They did so, and told him that ‘battle was imminent’.

* The following account comes from Chapter 10

** Curtius gives his name as Tyriotes

Chapter 12
Mist and Sun
As the Macedonian army marched towards Gaugamela, a strange event happened. ‘Intermittent flashes in the bright sky, of the type seen on hot summer days [and which] had the appearance of fire’ were seen. The Macedonian soldiers thought ‘that they were flames gleaming in Darius’ camp, and that they had negligently advanced among enemy outposts’. This caused a general panic to occur.

Realising what was happening, Alexander stopped the march and told his men to ‘lay down their arms and rest’. While they did so, he reassured them that the Persians were still a long way off and that they were in no danger.

As it happens, however, they were, for Mazaeus and his cavalry party were on a hilltop overlooking the camp. Curtius says that if he ‘had struck while [the Macedonians] were still panicking a terrible disaster could have been inflicted’ on Alexander’s army. But he didn’t. Although he had 3,000 horse with him Mazaeus would have known he was hopelessly outnumbered. So, he stayed put ‘content not to be under attack’.

To go back to the flashes of light for a moment, I presume from the Macedonian soldiers’ reactions they thought they were seeing the reflection of the sun on the Persians’ armour and weaponry and that this meant they had drawn too close to their enemy. It makes a lot more sense that fiery flashes of light across a blue sky.

Whatever the cause of the flashes, they unnerved the Macedonians enough to make Alexander call a halt to the proceedings for the day and set up a fortified camp.

The next day, Mazaeus withdrew from the hilltop. The Macedonians took his position. From their new vantage point they had a good view of the battlefield. It was a humid day, however, and a mist descended. While it wasn’t heavy enough to obscure the plain before them, ‘it did render it impossible to see how [the Persian] forces were divided and organized.’

Presently, the mist lifted and the two armies were revealed to each other. Both shouted their war-cries ‘and the woods and valleys round about rang with a terrifying noise’.

Chapter Thirteen
Spikes in the Ground
This chapter is concerned mostly with the Persian and Macedonian armies preparation for war, so is of little interest to us. It does conclude, however, with a sole horse rider galloping out of the Persian camp and towards Alexander. His name was Bion and he was a deserter. He warned the Macedonian king that Darius had placed iron spikes in the ground where he thought the Macedonian cavalry intended to ride during the battle. I don’t recall any similar practice at the Granicus River or Issus and if memory serves, Alexander himself never employed such a tactic. Perhaps he thought it would undermine his glory.

Chapter Fourteen
Empire and Prison
Alexander encouraged his men with a bold speech. He spoke, as it were, to two people – the brave and non-brave.

To the brave, he made the land out to be a place of triumph, where they had won great victories (e.g. at the Granicus River and Issus) or had passed through as victors (e.g. the Cilician Mountains, Syria and Egypt).

To the non-brave, however, the land was represented as an enemy. You have come so far, he said, that ‘all those rivers and mountains [are] a barrier’ behind you. If you want to go home, you are going to have to fight.

Darius also spoke of barriers. Not natural ones, though; that would have been difficult having wrought so much destruction upon the land as part of his defensive operations. Instead, the Great King asked his men to be living barriers that would save the lives of their families who waited behind them.

Chapter Fifteen
The Eagle
The Battle of Gaugamela was in full bloody flow when Alexander’s guards caught sight of ‘an eagle gently hovering just above the king’s head, frightened neither by the clash of arms nor the groans of the dying’.

Aristander – dressed as a priest and with a laurel-branch in his hand – pointed the eagle out to the soldiers as it maintained its station saying (or, more likely, shouting, if he really was there) that it was ‘an infallible omen of victory’.

Up till now, the Macedonians had been in a state of terror. Upon being alerted to the eagle’s presence, however, they became ‘fired with tremendous enthusiasm and confidence for the fight’. This confidence increased when Darius’ charioteer was killed.

Dominos now started to fall. The charioteer was mistaken for Darius. The Persian Cavalry let out a huge cry. This unsettled the entire Persian army. The left-wing folded and the army started to retreat. The Macedonians gave chase. The battle ended and a massacre began.

Chapter Sixteen
A Bridge Too Far
Darius fled to the Lycus River (the modern day Greater Zab). Crossing it, he contemplated destroying the bridge behind him. But although he knew that would prevent the Macedonians from pursuing him, he decided not to do as it would also condemn many of his men to death.

In the hours that followed, however, the Persian soldiers themselves either caused the bridge to collapse or surely came close to doing so as they ‘overloaded’ it in their haste to flee the battlefield. So desperate were they that not only did men attempt to wade across the Lycus – with some being carried away under the weight of their armour – but they also trampled over each other in order to reach the other side. It was an ignominious end to the battle of empires.

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As the Crow Flies

The Nature of Curtius
Book Four Chapters 5-10
For other posts in the series click here

Chapter Five
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.

asia_minor

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’.

Chapter Six
Alexander’s Investment
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.

Chapter Seven
Siwah
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.

Chapter Eight
Alexandria
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’.

Chapter Nine
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

Chapter Ten
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.

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Plutarch’s Women: Olympias of Epirus (Chapt. 1-3)

For the other posts in this series click here

A Quick Preliminary

Plutarch’s life of Alexander is not a history but a character study. For this series of posts I am going read Plutarch’s Life chapter by chapter to see what – if anything – he has to say about the character of the women Alexander met and knew.
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To keep the word count of each post at a reasonable (I hope) level I will discuss each appearance by a woman in the narrative individually, as and when I come to it.
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Finally, and just for the record, I am reading Plutarch’s life of Alexander in the revised edition of Penguin Books Age of Alexander, translated by Ian Scott-Kilvert and Timothy E. Duff.
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Olympias of Epirus

As is well known, women are the fairer sex. In past times they have also been called the weaker. But while this may be true in terms of out-and-out physical strength it certainly isn’t in terms of the intellect and/or will. Olympias’ life bears witness to the truth of this.
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Plutarch mentions Alexander’ mother on the very first page of his Life. He describes how Alexander’s father, Philip II, fell in love with Olympias during their initiation into the Mysteries of Samothrace. Olympias was an orphan so Philip had to obtain the consent of her brother, Arybbas, in order to marry her.
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The night before the newly-weds consummated their marriage, Olympias had a dream in which her womb was struck by a thunderbolt. A ‘blinding flash’ followed from which a sheet of flame emerged and spread out ‘far and wide’ before fading away. ‘Some time’ after the wedding, Philip had his own dream. In it, he sealed Olympias’ womb using a seal engraved with the figure of a lion.
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Most of Philip’s soothsayers thought that his dream was a warning to keep a close eye on his wife. Why? Plutarch doesn’t actually say but one doesn’t need to be Herr Freud to guess the answer. Only one said otherwise. Aristander, who would go on to have an illustrious career in Alexander’s court, said that it portended the birth of a powerful son.
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It looks like Philip sided with Aristander for Plutarch gives no indication that he took any action against his suspect wife. Sadly, however, his love for her did eventually cool down. According to Plutarch it happened after Philip found his wife in bed with a snake stretched out beside her. Plutarch says Philip feared that Olympias would cast an ‘evil spell’ on him or was the consort of some higher being’.
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What was going on? Well, in Plutarch’s words, Olympias was an initiate of the all female ‘Orphic religion’ which ‘engaged in the orgiastic rites of Dionysus’. At this point, you would do well to stop thinking that this religion involved lots of sex. Well, for all I know, it did, but it also involved initiates entering into a possessed Dionysiac state – something that Olympias did ‘with even wilder abandon’ than her fellow cult members and consorting with snakes. The sight of these snakes emerging from ivy wreaths or twining round the initiates’s (women’s) wands ‘terrified the male spectators’.
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Upon seeing his wife in bed with a snake Philip sent a messenger to Delphi to ask what the sight meant. The oracle replied that the snake was a god – Zeus-Ammon. Philip was told to sacrifice to this Greek-Egyptian deity and revere above all other gods.
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Before continuing, let’s pause for a moment to consider what we have and haven’t read. What we have read is, very likely, Argead propaganda designed to convince people of Alexander’s divine parentage. What we haven’t read is anything that tells us what Olympias herself was like. All we can surmise from the opening chapters of Plutarch’s narrative is that she was very religious and that’s it.
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Or is it? Plutarch continues,

According to Eratosthenes, Olympias when she sent Alexander on his way to lead his great expedition to the East, confided to him and to him alone the secret of his conception and urged him to show himself worthy of his divine parentage. But other authors maintain that she repudiated this story and used to say, ‘Will Alexander never stop making Hera jealous of me?’

The reason I mention this passage is that, apart from the fact that it confirms Olympias’ religiosity, it also – in my opinion, anyway – speaks to her humility. It tells me that Olympias was a woman who respected – no doubt, feared – the gods deeply and was concerned lest her son’s successes cause them to bring their wrath down on her.
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This post is not about rehabilitating Olympias’ character but if I can find anything that shows she was not, or rather more than the proud, ruthless schemer of Oliver Stone’s film then I am very happy to mention it. People are always more complex in real life than on the silver screen and we – I – definitely need to remember that.
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The third chapter ends with an account of Alexander’s birth, placing it on the same day as the destruction of Artemis’ temple at Ephesus (20th July 356 B.C.). Plutarch refers to a writer named Hegesias of Magnesia who said the temple burned down because Artemis had left it to attend Alexander’s birth. If nothing else, Hegesias wins plaudits for a fine show of sycophancy!
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Before finishing, I would like to go back to the matter of Olympias’ religion. Plutarch says that she followed the same ‘observances’ as the women who lived around Mount Haemus (in Thrace). Twenty years after his birth, Alexander would cross the Haemus on his way to subdue the Triballians and Getae – I wonder if he met any women who had danced with his mother all those years ago and what he thought of them.

Categories: Plutarch's Women | Tags: , , , , , | 1 Comment

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