As the end of May approaches, we get ready to say our annual goodbye to Alexander. Following a short illness, the Macedonian king died on 10th/11th June* 323 BC.
What do I mean by ‘short illness’? And what exactly happened?
As to the first question, I will break it down.
‘Short‘: According to Arrian, Alexander died at least nine days after falling ill during a drinking party**. Plutarch has the illness lasting for eleven days. Justin is not specific but indicates that at least six days passed before Alexander succumbed. Unfortunately, the relevant portion of Curtius’ history is missing so we don’t know what he says. As for Diodorus, while he covers Alexander’s death, he doesn’t say how long he was ill for.
‘Illness‘. What happened to Alexander? All we know for sure is that he fell ill during the aforementioned drinking party. The reason for his illness is unknown. In the years following Alexander’s death, poisoning by Antipater was alleged. Did he do it? Well, maybe, but then maybe Antipater’s enemies in the Wars of the Successors blamed him in an attempt to undermine him and his son Cassander’s cause.
Ever since those first allegations, people have proposed different reasons for Alexander’s untimely demise. Every so often, a scholar, a doctor, or someone in-between suggests another cause. None have ever been fully accepted, however, because Alexander’s symptoms, as described in the sources, do not completely fit one illness or intervention.
What happened? All the sources (excluding Curtius) agree that Alexander fell ill at a party hosted by his friend Medius. In regards Arrian and Plutarch, while both agree that the king fell ill after drinking, they disagree on how long he had been drinking for. Arrian seems to suggest that Alexander fell ill after drinking through the evening and into the night, whereas Plutarch says that he drank all night and the following day before falling ill. Both agree that the fever started by the end of, or almost immediately after, Alexander left Medius’ party.
Both Justin and Diodorus claim that Alexander was struck down in pain during the party. Plutarch, however, denies that this happened. He says that it is a later embellishment of ‘certain historians’. Arrian doesn’t address this issue. Presumably, he would agree with Plutarch.
Now, you may think that 25th May is a little early to be thinking about something that won’t happen until nearly two weeks into June, and it is. The reason Alexander’s death is on my mind at the moment is that I had got it into my head that it is about now that Medius’ fatal party took place. Having had a look at the sources, I don’t know why I thought that. I expect I was just misremembering what I had read long ago. Looking at the chronology I wrote out for The Second Achilles a few years ago, I note that at any rate, Peter Green suggests that the party took place on 29th/30th May. I suppose I could have delayed writing this until the start of June but I already leave until tomorrow too many things that could be done today, so why add to the tally.
Anyway, having mentioned that we are approaching the season of Alexander’s death, what next? Just put the information to one side and get on with life? Or, do something with it? And if the latter, what? I don’t know, so I will think about that and see if I can come back to it in another post.
* I have written this as an absolute but I should acknowledge that some scholars propose different dates for his death ** His timeline becomes a little vague right at the end when he refers to events without saying when exactly they occurred; i.e., during the nine days already mentioned, or thereafter?
In my post on Sunday, I neglected to look at the question of why the five sources either looked at Alexander the Great’s arrival at/time in Babylon in the way that they did, or else ignored it. To make up for this omission, I thought I would write this quick extra post to offer some of my thoughts.
Near the start of his book, Arrian tells us (I.12.4) that ‘there is no other single man, among either Greeks or barbarians, who has given evidence of achievements so many in number or so great in magnitude’. He then adds that, ‘I did not think myself unsuited to the task of making Alexander’s achievements clear to the world’. Leaving aside Arrian’s admirable self-belief, if his priority is to make ‘Alexander’s achievements’ more well known, he is not going to be so very interested in day-to-day events; for example, how the Macedonian soldiers spent their free time. But surely he could have said a bit more about Alexander’s arrival in the city. And yet, why should he? I suspect that to him, it was all frippery. Arrian – perhaps be taking his cue from his own chief sources, Ptolemy and Aristobulos – is about the big moments, the battles, and sieges, not the civilian ones.
I have read that Curtius’ overall aim with his book is to show how Alexander went from being a good king to a bad one. This would certainly explain why he condemns Alexander for undermining the discipline of his army before, in order to justify his comment, outlining the Babylonians’ errant sexual behaviour.
When I read his Lonely Planet review of Babylon, I see it as being there simply to build up a picture for his audience of the place he is talking about. Arrian wants to highlight Alexander’s achievements. Curtius wants to take his audience to the places where the highs and lows happened.
For Diodorus, Alexander and the Macedonians came, feasted, and – after some important political and military appointments had been made – left. For him, nothing else of note happened, so there is nothing else to say. Diodorus’ ultimate source for his narrative is an Alexandrian writer from the time of Ptolemy I, named Cleitarchus. He presumably knew about what the Macedonian soldiers got up to, because Curtius, who is also believed to have used him, mentions them. Maybe Diodorus dropped that element of Cleitarchus’ narrative because his concern was not, unlike Curtius, to moralise, but rather, to show how ‘disunited cultures [grew] to one Mediterranean civilization under Roman rule.’ (Livius), and there is no space in that for events which were ultimately of local and temporary significance.
At the start of his Life of Alexander, Plutarch explains his reason for writing about the Macedonian king. ‘I am not writing history but biography,’ he says in chapter one, ‘and the most outstanding exploits,’ or, the actions of Alexander’s men during their free time, we might add, ‘do not always have the property of revealing the goodness or badness of the agent’, in this case, of course, Alexander.
Finally, dear Justin. In his epitome of Alexander’s life, he mentions how the Macedonians were given rewards and a month of rest, and how Alexander ‘made an inventory of the spoils’ (XI.14.8). I wonder if he followed in the footsteps of Diodorus, and so moved on because he thought nothing else of lasting significance happened. Actually, I should not say ‘he’ because Justin’s book is a summary of another work by a man named Pompeius Trogus.
Credit The Queen of the Night – possibly Ishtar, the Babylonian goddess of sex and love – Wikipedia
Today (2nd April 2023), is Palm Sunday. In churches all over the world, Christians celebrate the entry of Jesus into Jerusalem.
Most of the crowd spread their garments on the road, and others cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road. And the crowds that went before him and that followed him shouted, ‘Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest!’
Jesus’ triumphant arrival in the Holy City presages His Passion and Death followed by, this time next week, Resurrection. It is the high point of Jesus’ public life, the moment when everyone, it seems, is on His side. As the next few days show, however, they are certainly not.
On 1st October 331 BC, Alexander the Great defeated Darius III in battle for the second time. His victory at Gaugamela gave him the Persian Empire. As for Darius, he managed to escape capture and headed east in order to raise yet another army.
Rather than pursue him, Alexander decided to travel south in order to take possession of Babylon. As today is Palm Sunday, I thought I would take a quick look at the five main ancient sources for Alexander’s life to see what they have to say about his own triumphant arrival in a great city, and his time there afterwards.
ArrianIII.16.3-5 Arrian’s account is very formal. It focuses exclusively on Alexander’s movements and deeds. Thus, he tells us that Alexander approached the city cautiously, ‘leading on his force in full battle-order’. He had no need to worry, however, for the Babylonians opened their gates, and came to meet him with gifts. Arrian immediately takes us from the city’s surrender to Alexander giving orders for the rebuilding of ‘the temples destroyed by Xerxes’*. He then moves on to Alexander’s political and military appointments. These benefitted the satrap Mazaeus who was (re)appointed to his post. Macedonians were put in charge of the army at Babylon and of tax collection. And then, as Arrian says, Alexander ‘set out for Susa’.
* The notes to my copy of Arrian state that this did not happen as Herodotus describes seeing those self-same temples
Curtius V.1.17-45 Curtius’ account of Alexander’s time in Babylon is the longest and, I suspect, the most entertaining, of all five sources. He begins with the surrender of the city by Mazaeus. This was a good start, but as with Arrian, Alexander remained cautious and put his army into battle order. Curtius says he formed it ‘into a square’. I have to admit, I thought the square was a Roman formation. If so, I guess Curtius is simply describing the Macedonian army in a way that his readers will be able to relate to.
Curtius describes how Bagophanes, ‘the man in charge of the citadel and royal treasury… carpeted the whole road with flowers and garlands.’ But that’s not all. He also set up altars and brought a fantastic selection of animals as gifts – ‘herds of cattle and horses, and lions, too, and leopards, carried along in cages’. The Magi also attended Alexander’s arrival, along with musicians. Alexander entered the city on a chariot. That brings us to Charles Le Brun’s painting, below.
Unfortunately, this image is rather smaller than I expected. If you look at the one at Wikimedia Commons (link below), you can easily see an interesting detail – Alexander is looking directly at the viewer. What could he be saying to us? Look at me. Look at this. This is all mine-?
Curtius describes how Alexander made an inspection of the royal palace. His account, thereafter, becomes like something out of a travel guide. I would say The Lonely Planet, but I am also a big fan of E. M Forster, so I will mention Baedeker instead. One thing is for sure, Miss Lavish would have been scandalised by but loved Babylon for its ‘literary’ possibilities.
After finishing his description of the city, Curtius condemns Alexander for undermining ‘military discipline’ while there. Why? Because he let his men take full advantage of the Babylonians seemingly free-wheeling attitude to sex. If Curtius hated this aspect of Babylonian life so much, you would have thought he would either have ignored or at least glossed over it, telling the reader only what was strictly necessary for him to know. Any more, of course, might corrupt him. But that is not what happens. Curtius risks all and explains what exactly the Babylonians did that was so horrid. To be fair, the practices that he describes are rather rum. But I strongly suspect that Curtius rather enjoyed scandalising his listeners.
After the sex, military appointments, and reinforcements from Macedon. Finally, political appointments and then, Alexander is off again, never to stop in one place for the same amount of time (a month or so) again.
Diodorus XVII.64 Diodorus gives no account of Alexander’s arrival at Babylon, and he deals with the Macedonian king’s time there in just a few lines. The people, he says, ‘received [Alexander] gladly’. They gave the Macedonians places to stay and plenty of food and drink. Alexander stayed in the city for ‘more than thirty days… because food was plentiful and the population friendly.’ After describing Alexander’s military and political appointments, Diodorus moves him on.
Justin XI.8 Justin’s account of Alexander’s life is, as its title suggests, an epitome, a summary. Despite Babylon’s importance, Justin does not (in my translation, anyway) mention it by name. He says simply, ‘The [Macedonians] were rewarded and granted thirty-four days’ rest, after which Alexander made an inventory of the spoils…’. He then moves on to Susa. So, no mention of Alexander’s arrival, of Babylon’s fleshpots, or even his military and political appointments.
PlutarchLife of Alexander35 I think uniquely among the sources (I would need to double check), Plutarch implies that Alexander continued military operations between Gaugamela and Babylon. He then includes a really astonishing story about a highly flammable substance called naphtha. What is remarkable about this story is not the naphtha itself but the way in which an Athenian member of Alexander’ court decides to see how flammable it is – even though the Babylonians appear to have already shown them. Athenophanes has the substance smeared over the body of a child named Stephanos. It is then set alight, and Stephanos, unsurprisingly, is engulfed in flames. Fortunately, the fire is put out but ‘afterwards [Stephanos] was in a terrible state’. Alexander is described as being ‘completely panic-stricken with fear’ by Stephanos’ immolation, so maybe at that point he didn’t know how flammable naphtha was.
Well, I hope not, because what an awful thing to do to someone. Why would they have so risked harming the lad? Plutarch tells us that Stephanos, though a good singer, ‘was particularly, even ridiculously, ugly’. A fatal thing to be in an age that idealised beauty.
Plutarch spends a bit more time discussing naphtha, whether Medea used it, and its influence on Babylonian agriculture, but has next to nothing to say about Babylon. He simply records the attempts by Alexander’s treasurer, Harpalus, to get Greek plants, specifically ivy, to grow when he ‘was left in charge of the country’. Then we are in Susa.
So, as you can see, Arrian and especially Curtius are the best sources to read if you are interested in Alexander’s arrival and time in Babylon. Obviously, if you are easily offended, or Roman, you should stick with Arrian and avoid Curtius!
At the beginning, I described Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem as the high point of His public life. I think the same can be said for Alexander in Babylon. Times were pretty good in Susa and Persepolis, but Babylon was all about pleasure. Whether it was food, alcohol, riches, religion, or sex, for one blessed month, the Macedonians had it all. At no point after did they get all the things that made the expedition worth it without any risk to themselves. It’s ironic, therefore, that after Alexander’s death, Babylon was the place where the army tore itself apart, both briefly, between infantry and cavalry, and for good, as the empire was carved up between the Successors.
The Palm Sunday Mass has two Gospel readings. The second includes Jesus’ cry from the cross.
Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani? That is, ‘My God, my God, why have you deserted me?’
It is a cry of desolation. Alexander could not have known it at the time, but Babylon presaged his own desolation, for when he returned to the city in 323 BC, it would be with the corpse of his truest of friends, and heart of his heart, Hephaestion, and with the knowledge that in the last few years, his army had rebelled not once but twice against him. To reflect the loneliness that this must have caused within him, I thought I would add Gustave Moreau’s painting, above, which shows Alexander high on his throne, ruling over all, but completely isolated in that rule. The triumphal entrance had ended, but with a king no longer at one with his people.
Texts Used Arrian Alexander the Great tr. byMartin Hammond (OUP 2013) Curtius The History of Alexander (Penguin Classics 2004) Diodorus Library of History Books 16.66-17 tr. C. Bradford Welles (Loeb Classical Library 1963) Justin Epitome of the Philippic History of Pompeius Trogus Vol.I Books 11-1: Alexander the Great tr. J.C. Yardley (Clarendon Ancient History Series 2003) Plutarch Hellenistic Lives including Alexander the Great tr. Robin Waterfield (Oxford World’s Classics 2016)
Credits Entry of Alexander into Babylon by Charles Le Brun: Wikimedia Commons The Triumph of Alexander the Great by Gustave Moreau: Wikimedia Commons The Triumph of Alexander the Great (detail) by Gustave Moreau: Pinterest
This week, I watched A Man for All Seasons. It tells the story of how Sir Thomas More refused to approve Henry VIII’s separation from Catherine of Aragon or recognise the king as the Supreme Head of the Church of England. More’s story reminded me of Callisthenes, and how he stood up to Alexander over the issue of proskynesis.
The Thomas More of A Man for all Seasons is a heroic figure. I understand (as I haven’t read it) that the Thomas More of Wolf Hall, a novel by Hilary Mantel, is a villain. Arrian discusses Callisthenes’ opposition to Alexander in some detail. He gives the historian little credit for it, referring to his ‘clumsy protest’ and ‘gross stupidity in making such an inappropriately frank outburst’. Conversely, Curtius talks about Alexander’s ‘depraved idea’ of ‘appropriating divine honours to himself’. When Callisthenes argues against this, he is heard, Curtius says, ‘with approval as the champion of public freedom.’
What I found particularly interesting after watching A Man for All Seasons and reading Arrian’s and Curtius’ accounts of the proskynesis controversy is how Thomas and Callisthenes get in trouble despite doing completely opposite things: Sir Thomas is challenged to swear Henry’s Oath of Supremacy. He refuses to do so, but neither will he give Henry a reason to prosecute him, so he stays silent. He keeps that silence up until he is executed. When it comes to the issue of proskynesis, Callisthenes can’t stop talking.
Tragedy lies heavy on all the actors in these two dramas, 1,800 years apart. Henry wanted to annul his marriage to Catherine because he and the country needed a successor – to avoid the possibility of civil war. At a time when Alexander should have been celebrating his many and continuing successes, he let the same go to his head. Thomas should have left the country. Callisthenes should have learnt to control his tongue. All that happened did not need to happen.
Now, the truth is, I know my Tudor history, but only on a shallow level: Perhaps Thomas couldn’t have left the country. I doubt, however, that what happened to him was inevitable. Nothing is ever inevitable. Callisthenes, though, could and should have known when to shut up. It’s all very sad, and frustrating.
In this post, I would like to share a few thoughts based on Alexander’s deeds in the month of July, as outlined in this post.
July is undoubtedly the most important month of the year for anyone interested in the life of Alexander of Macedon as it is the month in which he was born.
The date usually given for Alexander’s birth is 20th/21st July, and for the past few years, I have celebrated it by visiting a Greek restaurant for lunch on one of those dates.
Thanks to the coronavirus I won’t be able to to do so this year – or at least, not this month – but there is no way I am going to let the big day go by without a glass or two of Greek wine. There is a lovely Greek bakery/delicatessen on the corner of Farringdon Road and Topham Street in London so I shall pop in there and buy a suitable bottle of vino tinto and drink to the conqueror.
If you would like to read an account of Alexander’s conception and birth, Plutarch’s Life of Alexander is the book to read.
As it happens, Plutarch is the only one of the principle Alexander historians (Arrian, Curtius, Diodorus, and Justin) to have any interest in Alexander’s life before he became king. All the others, excluding Curtius, begin their narratives in 336 BC when Alexander becomes king. It’s rather like how St. Luke is the only Gospel writer to be very interested in Jesus’ conception and birth. A note on Curtius – perhaps he too wrote an account of Alexander’s birth; unfortunately, the first two books of his history have been lost so we don’t know.
In July 333 BC, Alexander left Gordium in central Asia Minor having either cut or untied the famous knot. What happened with the Gordian Knot is one of those moments in Alexander’s life where you pays your money and makes your choice. Plutarch again tells us that according to ‘most writers’ Alexander cut the knot but that Aristobulos says he untied it.
Which to believe? Aristobulos’ explanation – that Alexander undid the knot by first removing the dowel pin around which it was tied and then the yoke of the cart is elegant and simple. That’s a problem, though: are difficult problems ever so neatly solved? And then there is the issue of Aristobulos’ reputation for always trying to make Alexander look as good as possible.
That Alexander simply cut the knot sounds much more realistic (after all, if the knot could be undone by simply removing the dowel pin and yoke, surely someone would have thought of that before) and like the kind of thing he would do. Like I said, you pays your money and makes your choice.
July is also the month in which Memnon of Rhodes died. Of all Alexander’s enemies, he was probably the most dangerous. Before the Battle of the Granicus River, he proposed the adoption of a scorched earth policy to the Persian satraps, as a way of starving the Macedonian army out of Asia Minor.
The local populations would have suffered grievously but it was surely an excellent strategy for dealing with the Macedonians. Despite this, the satraps turned it down.
Afterward the Granicus, Memnon’s naval campaign in the Aegean Sea could well have forced Alexander, either to return home to protect Macedon and Greece, or send back troops he needed to be successful in his expedition.
Before the campaign could reach its fulfilment, however, Memnon died. The commanders who succeeded him were not able to keep the naval campaign going before Alexander defeated it from the land.
In July 332 BC, the Siege of Tyre finally came to a close when the Macedonian army finally broke into the city. The Tyrians had held Alexander at bay for seven months, and paid the price for it as the Macedonians cut down anyone they came across during their rampage across the city.
Tyre still exists and can be found sticking out into the Mediterranean Sea in the south of Lebanon. It does so because of Alexander’s mole. In the centuries following the siege, silt built up over the mole, creating the land that was needed to join the old and new cities together.
Zipping forward to July 330 BC, we come to the assassination of Darius III in Parthia (along the path of the Silk Road) on or around 17th July.
What would have happened to Darius if Alexander had caught him alive? Would he have let his defeated rival live? I very much doubt it. As long as Darius lived, he represented a threat to Alexander’s Great Kingship. He would surely have been put to death just as Alexander’s rivals to the Macedonian throne were.
I started this post with a beginning and so will end it with an ending.
In July 326 BC, the Macedonian army’s mutiny at the Hyphasis River took place. As I have seen written elsewhere, the army didn’t actually mutiny. That is to say, Alexander didn’t issue an order to cross the river, which the army then refused to carry out. Rather, they arrived at the river, and the army told their king we will not go any further. Alexander tried to talk them out of their refusal but to no avail.
Arrian’s account of the debate between Alexander and Coenus is a dramatic piece of literary theatre (in which light it should be seen rather than as an account of what was said on the day) and it’s interesting that although Coenus died not long afterwards there is no suggestion in the sources, and not much made by modern historians, that Alexander had him eliminated as a kind of revenge (Coenus, after all, was speaking as much for the army as himself). Men were killed by Alexander for much less.
Alexander’s anger and frustration as the army sails down the Indus River is also very notable. Never more so than on the two occasions when he impatiently climbs siege ladders by himself. Fed up of the army’s tardiness – now on their way home, the soldiers’ motivation to risk death had gone – Alexander decides to take on the enemy himself. On the second occasion, he is almost killed as a result. Afterwards, his senior commanders finally tell him off for risking himself too much!
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 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
If you are a new visitor to The Second Achilles, welcome to the blog. I hope you enjoy what you read here. If you are an occasional or regular reader, welcome back!
In today’s post: a novel, a Commentary and Donations
Dancing With The Lion: Becoming and Rise by Jeanne Reames
Reames is a scholar of Alexander and now a novelist. Volume I: Becoming is published on 1st July this year and Volume II: Rise on 21st October. Just in time for my birthday a few days later.
Jeanne Reames’ website can be found here, and her page dedicated to Dancing with the Lion, here. There’s a lot to read so definitely take a look. I particularly liked the Homeric quotation – ‘Always to excel and claim renown over others’ – and hearing it in ancient Greek. Alexander’s music play list, though, was a nice bonus, though will no doubt prove controversial!
A Historical Commentary on Arrian’s History of Alexander, Vol I A. B. Bosworth
I took my copy of the OUP 2013 translation of Arrian with me to Spain to read while on the Camino. Unfortunately, I had to get rid of it after just a few days as part of a drive to reduce the weight of my backpack. And as I spent so much money on the Camino I can’t yet afford to buy another copy. As it is such an important book to me, I went to my library yesterday and took out their copy.
While there, I came across a copy of A. B. Bosworth’s Historical Commentary Vol I (covering books I-III). I took it out straight away. Now, obviously I am going to read it, but I’m not sure how. I think I might just dip in and out of it; if I have time, I’ll make a note of any comments that stand out and mention them here.
Donations I have added a Donate to the Blog page at the top of the blog. As soon as I can work out how to do it, I’ll add a Paypal button to the sidebar as well. In doing so, I feel all the awkwardness associated with talking about money so please feel free to ignore this and get on with doing what I would most like you to do – enjoy reading the blog. The reason for the donate option is practical – the blog and life in general costs money. There are a million good causes in the world that all deserve money more than me so I don’t know if the Donate option will be used but after eight years of writing The Second Achilles, nine of updating the Facebook page and ten writing the Twitter Macedonians I hope I have proved myself to be serious about him.