The Nature of Curtius
Book Six Chapters 6-11
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After killing Darius, Bessus fled to his home satrapy of Bactria (Bactriana to Curtius). There, he declared himself to be the Great King’s successor and renamed himself Artaxerxes IV. Satibarzanes, the satrap of Areia, brought news of this to Alexander. He was rewarded for his help by being confirmed in his office.
Alexander’s next move was to set off for Bactria so that he could confront Bessus. While he was on the road, Parmenion’s son, Nicanor, died. Short of supplies, the king left Nicanor’s brother, Philotas, to conduct the appropriate funeral rites.
Meanwhile, letters arrived from various satraps informing Alexander that Bessus was riding out to meet him and that Satibarzanes had defected to the pretender’s side.
Alexander decided to deal with Satibarzanes first. Unfortunately, he was not able to catch up with him before the traitor was able to flee to Bactria with 2,000 cavalrymen. He would still get a fight, though, for the rest of Satibarzanes’ army fled no further than the nearby hills.
13,000 Arians took refuge on a ‘rocky outcrop’ that was 32 stades in circumference. Curtius describes it as being ‘sheer on the west side but with a gentler gradient towards the east’. It benefitted from ‘dense tree-cover and a year-round spring with a generous flow of water’. The rebels were located on the outcrop’s ‘grassy plateau’.
Alexander ordered Craterus to lay siege to Artacana* while he rode after Satibarzanes. After realising that the satrap was too far ahead he made his way to the outcrop.
Things did not go easily there. Alexander ordered the ground to be cleared but was obliged to stop when he came to ‘impassable crags and sheer precipices’. This sounds like he was on the west side of the outcrop – Curtius doesn’t say why Alexander could not attempt an assault on it from the east. Perhaps the forest was too thick? Or the gentle gradient ended in broken land?
Whatever the reason, Alexander now set himself to working out how to overcome the natural barrier. Many plans passed through his mind but none seemed satisfactory. In the end, nature came to his aid.
It was a breezy day with the wind coming in ‘strong from the west’. While they waited for their king to decide what to do, the Macedonians cut the fallen trees up, perhaps for future as firewood. Seeing this, Alexander had a plan. He ordered his men to build a great bonfire. It rose, Curtius says with a little hyperbole, ‘to equal the height of the mountain**’ When it was lit, the wind blew the flames directly ‘into the faces of the enemy’. The fire burned so fiercely that the sky was covered by thick, black smoke.
Curtius doesn’t say it but sparks from the fire must have travelled across the space between the bonfire and plateau. The Arians did their best to escape the flames but to no avail. Some committed suicide by throwing themselves into the fire, others by jumping over the edge of the outcrop to be smashed upon the rocks below. Some prepared to fight to the death while the remainder, ‘half-burnt’, surrendered.
Once the outcrop was taken, Alexander rode to Artacana to lead the siege against the city. Upon seeing the Macedonian siege towers, the Artacanians surrendered.
From Artacana, Alexander proceeded to Drangiana to confront its satrap, Barzanaentes, who was a Bessus-loyalist and who had taken part in Darius’ murder. ‘Fearing the punishment he deserved, Barzaentes fled into India’.
* Artacoana in Arrian, Chortacana in Diodorus; ‘probably Herat’ today, according to the Notes
** By ‘the mountain’ I assume Curtius is referring to the outcrop
Chapter Seven – Eleven
Mainly Speeches to Boot
These chapters cover the Philotas Affair and take place indoors – in the royal tent, which turns out to be able to accommodate over 6,000 people. Either the royal tent was rather bigger than I imagined or else Curtius is not quite correct.