Posts Tagged With: Athens

Athens’ Dilemma

Daily Diodorus
Vol. VIII. Book XVII Ch. 15, 16 (Loeb Classical Library)
Read the other posts in this series here

The Headlines
Alexander Demands Athenian Opponents Be Handed Over To Him
Assembly Meets to Consider Response
The Ten Must be Helped – Demades
Alexander Climbs Down From Demand
Fabulous Feast in Macedon

The Story
After razing Thebes, Alexander sent ambassadors to Athens ‘to demand the surrender of ten political leaders who had opposed his interest’. Diodorus names two of them as being Demosthenes and Lycurgus (who, you may recall, condemned Lysicles after he lead the joint Athenian-Boeotian force to defeat at the Battle of Chaeronea).

Once the Athenian assembly had heard Alexander’s demand it was ‘plunged into deep distress and perplexity’. The assembly members wanted ‘to uphold the honour of their city’ but feared that Thebes’ fate might become their own.

The assembly debated how it should respond to Alexander. One of the men to speak was Phocion. Diodorus mentions him in Chapter 74 of Book XVI when he states that Phocion ‘defeated and expelled Cleitarchus, the tyrant of Eretria who had been installed by Philip’. We may say, then, that he had form for being anti-Macedonian.

On this occasion, however, Phocion argued that Alexander’s demand should be met. To those who believed otherwise – on the grounds that to hand over the ten men would mean death for them – Phocion said that ‘the men demanded should remember the daughters of Leos and Hyacinthus and gladly endure death so that their country would suffer no irremediable disaster’. This was not what the assembly wished to hear, though, and Phocion was driven from the stand with great force.

Demosthenes now stood up to speak. Using his most honeyed words, he won the assembly to his side. From what Diodorus says next it appears that Demosthenes did not rely on his oratory to win the day. ‘[I]t is reported’, he begins, that Demosthenes’ supporters bribed Demades with five silver talents to adopt a ‘subtly worded’ decree in defence of the ten. It worked. The decree was passed and a delegation – including Demades – sent to Alexander.

The mission was a total success. Indeed, the delegates even managed to persuade Alexander to let Athens take in Theban fugitives. Diodorus says that Demades ‘achieved all his objectives by the eloquence of his words’. I have no doubt, though, that Alexander really didn’t care that much about Athens. He just wanted to get things wrapped up so that he could return to Macedon and start planning his war against the Persian empire.

Which brings us neatly to Chapter 16. After making his return to Macedon, Alexander discussed with his ‘military commanders and… noblest Friends’ when the expedition should start and how should it be conducted.

Antipater and Parmenion – Alexander’s two most senior officers – told the king that he should delay crossing the Hellespont until he had produced an heir. ‘[B]ut Alexander was eager for action… It would be a disgrace, he pointed out, for one who had been appointed by Greece to command the war, and who had inherited his father’s invincible forces, to sit at home celebrating a marriage and awaiting the birth of children’.

Following the debate, Alexander ‘made lavish sacrifices to the gods at Dium’ and ‘held… dramatic contests in honour of Zeus and the Muses’. They took place over nine days. During that time, Alexander feasted in a tent that could hold a hundred couches. Sacrificial animals ‘and all else suitable for the festive occasion’ were distributed among the Macedonian army putting it ‘in a fine humour’ and ready, no doubt, to go fighting.

Let’s get to the important business first – Alexander’s party. Nine days and of ‘great magnificence’. No wonder he was nearly broke when he arrived in Asia Minor! Still, what a party it must have been. How much did Alexander eat and drink, I wonder? Not enough that he forgot how to prepare his army for what lay ahead. Smart man.

Back in Athens – the idea that Demosthenes might have bribed Demades is very interesting as it shows (I think) how much pressure he felt under. He must really have felt that his life was on the line.

Was his five silver talents money well spent? I’m not so sure – Alexander gave way to the Athenian requests ever so easily. Like I said above, I don’t think he particularly cared about Athens. He had bigger fish to fry (which he probably did at his party).

I don’t know what Parliaments around the world are like, but our one (that is to say, the House of Commons in Britain) can be a very childish place at times – especially at Prime Minister’s Questions, when the MPs seem more interested in scoring points off one another than asking serious questions. Even when the Commons is at its worst, however, I don’t recall any minister or MP being forcibly removed from the Despatch Box like Phocion was. We give Athens a great deal of credit for introducing democracy but the assembly’s treatment of him shows that the behaviour of those lucky enough to be its members left a lot to be desired.

Macedonian Humour
Did you hear the one about the amphora of wine that didn’t get drunk at Alexander’s party? No, I didn’t either.
Knock, Knock. Who’s there? Alexander. Not Alexander of Lyncestis by any chance? No, Alexander III now make an alliance with me or I’ll kill all of you.
Talk is cheap. Unless you’re Demosthenes, in which case it costs a small fortune.


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The Fall of Thebes

Daily Diodorus
Vol. VIII. Book XVII Ch. 8, 9, 11-14 (Loeb Classical Library)
Read the other posts in this series here

Alexander Dead: Exclusive Report
[Correction: In yesterday’s paper we reported that Alexander III, son of Philip II had died; this has been proved incorrect by the sight of him outside our city. The man responsible for this unfortunate error has been executed]
Thebes Falls: Many Dead, Captured
Demosthenes’ Swords: A Futile Gesture by a Worthless Man – Comment by Aeschines

The Story
After our detour into Asia Minor yesterday we return to Greece and her neighbours today. At the beginning of Chapter 8, Diodorus explains that upon subduing the Greek city-states, Alexander entered Thrace to deal with the tribes there who had risen up against him. Once that had been done, he marched west to Paeonia and Illyria. He was still fighting there when he received word ‘that many of the Greeks were in revolt’. If I read Diodorus correctly, Alexander immediately broke off his Paeonian/Illyrian campaign and headed south to confront his new enemies.

Diodorus focuses his narrative on Thebes. Determined to recover their freedom, the Thebans put the Macedonian garrison in the Cadmeia under siege. They built ‘deep trenches and heavy stockades’ to ensure that no ‘reinforcements [or] supplies’ could be taken in. Messengers were sent to other Greek cities – Diodorus names Arcadia, Argos and Elis – to ask for their help. An appeal was also sent to Athens.

For his part, Demosthenes sent weaponry to Thebes. However, while various cities sent soldiers, these did not enter the city but hung back to see which way the war with Macedon went.

When Alexander arrived at the city, the Thebans held a vote to determine how to proceed. The hawks got their way and the council voted unanimously to fight. Outside the city gates, Alexander made no move. He could not imagine that ‘a single city would… dare to match forces’ with his army. Diodorus says that the king had 30,000 infantry and 3,000 cavalry ‘all battle-seasoned veterans’.

In Diodorus’ opinion, had the Thebans come to terms with Alexander, the king would have let the city have whatever it wanted because he was more interested in beginning his war against the Persian Empire. Sadly, ‘… he realized that he was despised by the Thebans, and so decided to destroy the city utterly…’

The Destruction of Thebes

Phase 1 Alexander invited any Theban who wished to ‘enjoy the peace… common to all the Greeks’ to leave their city and join him. The Thebans retorted ‘that anyone who wished to join the Great King and Thebes in freeing the Greeks and destroying the tyrant of Greece should come over to them’.

Phase 2 Being called a tyrant angered Alexander intensely. Diodorus says that he ‘flew into a towering rage’. He began building siege engines and preparing for battle.

Phase 3 After only three days preparation, Alexander was ready to begin his assault of Thebes. He divided his army into three divisions:

  • One to attack the palisades in front of the city
  • One ‘to face the Theban battle line’
  • One to be kept in reserve

The Thebans set up the defence of their city in this way:

  • Cavalry were stationed behind the palisades
  • Enfranchised slaves, refugees and resident aliens were placed at the city walls
  • Thebans were stationed in between the palisades and city walls to fight the Macedonians about Alexander

Phase 4 The battle cry went up and the Macedonian army approached the city. Both sides showered each other with missiles.

Phase 5 Hand-to-hand fighting followed the deadly rainfall. The Macedonians fought in phalanx formation. Diodorus says that while the Macedonians were numerically superior, the Thebans were stronger due to their ‘constant training in the gymnasium’.

The battle was long and bloody. The Macedonians were encouraged to ‘not… be unworthy of their previous exploits’ while the Thebans were reminded of the parents, wives and children whose lives depended on them. Great play was also made of Thebes’ past military successes, for example, at the Battle of Leuctra and Mantineia.

Phase 6 ‘At length Alexander saw that the Thebans were still fighting unflinchingly… but that his Macedonians were wearying’. He brought his reserve into the attack. This move reaped immediate results and many Thebans were killed.

Phase 7 And yet, the city was not ready to surrender itself into Alexander’s hands. Theban soldiers shouted that the Macedonians were ‘openly’ confessing to be their inferiors. Indeed, Diodorus suggests that they drew strength from having to fight the fresh Macedonian soldiers.

Phase 8 As the battle raged, Alexander noticed a postern gate ‘that had been deserted by its guards’. He ordered Perdiccas to break into the city through it. He and ‘a large detachment of troops’ broke the gate down and entered the city without being seen.

Phase 9 Once the Thebans realised that their defences had been compromised, they withdrew into the city. Unfortunately, their retreat was disorganised. Cavalrymen trampled over infantry before, in their haste to escape the Macedonians, falling off their horses and onto their swords.

Phase 10 At the same time as the Thebans were retreating, the Macedonian garrison in the Cadmeia broke out and fell upon the enemy. The Thebans’ disorder allowed the garrison soldiers to carry out ‘a great slaughter’ of men.

Phase 11 The fight for Thebes was violent even by the standards of the time. Diodorus informs us that the Macedonian army was ‘enraged’ by the Theban proclamation (phase two, above). They yelled curses and slew ‘all whom they met without sparing any’. Despite the wrath being visited upon them, the Thebans continued to defend their city. None would be ever seen ‘begging the Macedonians to spare his life’ and neither ‘did they in ignoble fashion fall and cling to the knees of their conquerers’.

Phase 12 As the Macedonian army rampaged through the city, all her buildings were pillaged and ‘[e]verywhere boys and girls were dragged into captivity as they wailed piteously the names of their mothers’. ‘[C]hildren and women and aged persons who had fled into the temples were torn from sanctuary and subjected to outrage without limit’

It is worth remembering that the Macedonian army did not fight the Thebans alone. Diodorus says that other Greeks did so alongside them; he names Thespians, Plataeans and Orchomenians as well as some others. In the Footnotes, we learn that, Justin added Phocians to that list. Conversely, Plutarch and Arrian only name the Phocians and Plataeans.

6,000+ Thebans were killed in the battle.
30,000+ Thebans were captured and sold into slavery (earning Alexander 440 talents of silver).

Once the battle was over, Alexander buried the Macedonian dead – over 500 in number. He then held a meeting with the representatives of the Greek cities in his army to discuss what should be done with Thebes itself. Now was the time for score settling. Destroy it, some of the representatives said; after all, Thebes allied herself to Persia during the Greek Wars. Other reasons were also given but Diodorus does not name them. A vote was taken and it was agreed that the city should be razed to the ground. Here is what the meeting decided:

  • Raze Thebes
  • Sell all prisoners
  • Outlaw Theban exiles from Greece
  • Prohibit all Greeks from sheltering Thebans

Diodorus covers Alexander’s Thracian campaign in a matter of lines. Fortunately, Arrian is on hand to tell us more about it in the first chapter of his account of Alexander’s life. I wonder why Diodorus treats it so briefly. Did he not regard it as being important? Was that why he wrote only briefly about the Battle of Chaeronea?

Something else that Diodorus fails to tell us much (actually, anything) about is why the Thebans revolted. Again, Arrian fills in the gaps. According to him, an anti-Macedonian party managed to persuade the Thebans that Alexander had died.

With friends like these… Nothing says cynical more than the actions of the Greek cities who sent soldiers to Thebes’ aid presumably with orders not to actually enter the city until they knew which way the fight was going. Diodorus makes no issue of this rather unsatisfactory state of affairs so I suppose it was an accepted part of ‘helping’ your neighbour back then, but really; no one could have liked it, could they?

Reading Diodorus’ account of the fight for Thebes has not been the easiest experience. By modern standards, it was a very nasty affair, indeed. Credit has to go to the Thebans for fighting so well. On a different occasion, perhaps Alexander would have treated them more leniently afterwards. If only they had not insulted him.

Perdiccas at the postern gate reminds me of an incident much later on in Alexander’s career, which I have been reading about lately. During his Sogdian campaign, Alexander laid siege to Cyropolis. As his men assaulted the city, Alexander noticed a dry river bed running out of it. The tunnel through which the river (during winter) ran was large enough for a man to crawl through. So, that’s exactly what Alexander and a few others did. Once again, Arrian covers that story. The Footnotes here say that Perdiccas may have carried out a similar manoeuvre at Halicarnassus.

Speaking of the Footnotes, they also note that whereas Diodorus states that Perdiccas broke through the postern gate during the fighting, Arrian (citing Ptolemy as his source) says that it happened at the outset and that Perdiccas acted without Alexander’s authorisation. Ptolemy also states that Perdiccas was badly injured during the assault, which Diodorus does not. I’ve seen this incident cited as proof that Ptolemy was bad-mouthing Perdiccas, although if he was writing his book in old age he would have no need to. Could it be evidence that Ptolemy wrote his narrative between 323 – 321 B.C.?

Unintended Consequences

  • The price of slaves must have plummeted due to the sudden influx of so many onto the market
  • The cost of building a must also have decreased thanks to all the Theban rubble that was now available
  • The Greek economy must have suffered at least a little due to Thebes’ fall. It was an important city and surely contributed a great deal to the wealth of the country.
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The Greek Response to Alexander’s Accession

Daily Diodorus
Vol. VIII. Book XVII Ch. 3 & 4 (Loeb Classical Library)
Read the other posts in this series here

Greece Rejects Alexander’s Authority
Alexander’s Charm Offensive Wins Greek Submission
Alexander Appointed War Leader

The Story
Yesterday, we looked at what happened to Attalus after Alexander became king of Macedon. Today, we turn to Greece.

Chapter 3
Philip’s death was met with great joy. Despite having been defeated at the Battle of Chaeronea two years earlier, ‘the Athenians were not ready to concede the leading position among the Greeks to Macedon’. Given that they had the talented orator, Demosthenes, agitating against their northern rivals this is no surprise.
As we saw yesterday, Athens made common cause with Attalus. At the same time as the city was talking to him, it also ‘encouraged many of the [Greek] cities to strike for their freedom’. No wonder Alexander was ‘seriously worried’ at this time.
Restored ‘those of the Arcananians who had experienced exile because of Philip’.
Persuaded by a citizen (?) named Aristarchus to expel the Macedonian garrison in the city and adopt a democratic form of government.
Expelled the Macedonian garrison from the Cadmeia (citadel) and refused to ‘concede to Alexander the leadership of the Greeks’.
Diodorus says that ‘alone of the Greeks [Arcadia] never acknowledged Philip’s leadership nor did they now recognize (sic) that of Alexander’. The Footnotes confirm that he is confusing Arcadia with Sparta.
Peloponnese ‘… the Argives and Eleians and Lacedaemonians, with others, moved to recover their independence’.
Elsewhere Diodorus says that ‘[b]eyond the frontiers of Macedonia, many tribes moved toward revolt and a general feeling of unrest swept through the natives in that quarter’. He means, of course, the tribes of Thrace, Paeonia and Illyria. We will meet them again in the next day or two.

So, as you can see, Alexander’s reception among the Greeks was universally bad. According to Diodorus, no one at all accepted his authority. What was his response? Persuasion and diplomacy; fear, and force.

Chapter 4
Persuasion and Diplomacy

Alexander marched to Thessaly where he reminded the Thessalians ‘of his ancient relationship to them through Heracles’. He spoke ‘kindly words’ and made ‘rich promises’. Both had their desired effect and the Thessalian League duly recognised Alexander’s ‘leadership of Greece’.

After winning ‘over the neighbouring tribes similarly’, Alexander marched from Thessaly to Pylae, where he asked/made the Amphictyon League recognise him as the leader of Greece. It did.

Alexander then met Ambraciot ambassadors ‘and, addressing them in friendly fashion, convinced them that they had been only a little premature in grasping the independence that he was on the point of giving them voluntarily’. I wonder if he managed to keep a straight face while saying this.

Fear and Force
Alexander’s next destination was Boeotia and the city of Thebes. Knowing that the Thebans would not accept him as quickly as the Thessalians et al had done, he marched to their city ‘in full battle array’. The Thebans panicked. Diodorus doesn’t actually say what happened next but as the destruction of the city took place later (we will come to it in Chapter 14) we know that on this occasion the Thebans did the smart thing and made peace with the Macedonian king.

The Thebans panicked when they saw the Macedonian army outside their city. Athens did not wait until Alexander made his way to Attica before doing the same. Their panic began when they learnt that he had passed into Boeotia. Alarmed by the speed of Alexander’s advance, Athens brought all her property into the city and made plans to rebuild the city walls. Recognising her limited ability to resist, Alexander, however, the city sent envoys to Alexander to beg his forgiveness ‘for [the] tardy recognition of his leadership’.

One member of the party sent to Alexander was none other than Demosthenes. Like Attalus, though, he got cold feet and at Cithaeron turned back for home. If there is uncertainty as to why Attalus decided against challenging Alexander, there can be no doubt regarding Demosthenes volte face. It was written in all his screeds against Alexander and Philip II. There was another reason, too: Diodorus says that the orator had ‘received large sums of money’ from Darius III. He, of course, would not be happy if he heard that Demosthenes had made peace with the Macedonian king.

Having put the fear of himself into the Athenians, Alexander settled things amicably with the envoys. This allowed him to get on with the really important business of calling ‘a meeting at Corinth’ to ask the assembled Greeks to ask them to appoint him as their ‘general plenipotentiary’ and promise to join his war of revenge against Persia. This was done and he returned to Macedon.

Diplomacy is never something that I think about in relation to Alexander of Macedon but as his response to the Greek rejection of his authority shows, he knew how to charm and persuade just as much as he did to fight a battle. As I sit here writing these words, I still can’t quite believe that he did not have to resort to arms at least once during this period. Unfortunately for Thebes, he soon would, but even then, blood was only spilled after Alexander attempted to resolve the dispute diplomatically.

Something else that I never associate with Alexander is fear; Diodorus’ mention of it at the start of Chapter 3, therefore, is very notable. It reminds me that he – Alexander – did not always act quickly, either. While in Asia Minor, he vacillated a great deal over whether to confront Darius or build up his forces (Plutarch, 17).

Although it has been interesting to learn about the Greek response to Alexander’s accession, it pales next to the insight into the king’s emotional state at the start of his reign and in Asia Minor. The reason for this is obvious – it makes him a man, someone I can relate to, rather than simply The One Who Conquered All. To see Alexander as a man who tripped over from time-to-time doesn’t diminish his achievement but puts it into context and, I think, makes it all the more remarkable.

FOR SALE: A house between a rock and a hard place. Contact: Demosthenes
WANTED: A new Greek ‘pen friend’ for a Persian Great King. Prepared to Pay Handsomely
FOR SALE: A rusty sword. Contact: Any bored Macedonian soldier

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The Battle of Chaeronea and Its Aftermath

Daily Diodorus
Vol. VIII. Book XVI Para 86-88 (Loeb Classical Library)
Read the other posts in this series here

Philip Defeats a Joint Athenian-Boeotian Army at Chaeronea
Demades Charms Philip
Lysicles Condemned to Death

The Story
Diodorus’ first substantive reference to Alexander comes at the Battle of Chaeronea (338 B.C.). His account of the battle itself is very brief but he does tell us that when the armies deployed, Alexander – ‘young in age but noted for his valour and swiftness of action’ – was positioned among Philip’s ‘most seasoned generals’, no doubt to learn from them as much as to fight himself.

The battle began at dawn and ‘was hotly contested for a long time’. Finally, however, the Macedonians prevailed. Unsurprisingly, the man whom Diodorus says made the difference was Alexander. Determined to show Philip ‘his prowess’, the eighteen year old prince broke through the Boeotian line and put the enemy to flight.

Seeing what his son had done, Philip now advanced himself. He was, Diodorus says, determined not to concede ‘credit for the victory even to Alexander’!

  • 1000+ Athenians killed
  • 2000+ Athenians captured
  • ‘Many’ Boeotians killed and ‘not a few’ captured

After the battle was over, Philip completed the day’s work by raising ‘a trophy of victory’, giving up the enemy dead so that they could be buried, sacrificing to the gods in thanksgiving for his win and rewarding those of his men who ‘had distinguished themselves’ during the battle.

That was Philip at his best. His worst, unfortunately, soon appeared. Diodorus explains that after drinking neat wine, Philip began mocking his prisoners. But they did not take it lying down; one of them, however, an Athenian named Demades, chastised the Macedonian king. ‘O King,’ he said, ‘when Fortune has cast you in the rôle of Agamemnon, are you not ashamed to act the part of Thersites?’

Demades’ rebuke sobered Philip up. Realising his mistake, he not only freed Demades but made him one of ‘his own company’. But Demades hadn’t finished yet. He used his skill as an orator to persuade Philip to free all the Athenian prisoners.

Back in Athens, the Athenians dealt with their defeat by condemning the losing general, Lysicles, to death upon the accusation of Lycurgus. But what had Lysicles done beyond losing the battle? Had he acted negligently? Betrayed the alliance? No. Lycurgus’ accusation came simply out of anger that after losing the battle, and so many men, Lysicles had the temerity to show his face in Athens again. Rough justice.

In reading Diodorus’ account of the Battle of Chaeronea I was very struck by his insistence that Alexander did not defeat the Boeotians alone. Alexander, we are told, was ‘ably seconded by his men’ during the battle. As he broke through the line, ‘the same success was won by his companions’.

The way in which Philip ‘steals’ the victory made me smile wryly. That’s how men were, back then – very very competitive – and how they would be during the Wars of the Successors (323-281 B.C.).

Philip’s drunken antics inevitably reminds one of Cleopatra Eurydice’s wedding party latter that year, or in 337 B.C. when he tried to assault Alexander who had just insulted Attalus. Then, Philip’s drinking made him look an idiot as he fell off his couch. Here, it leads to his rejecting the ‘symbols of pride’ that he wore (e.g. his garland). This makes me think that he had an ulterior motive for listening to Demades though I can’t imagine what it would be.

According to Wikipedia, Thersites was an Achaean soldier during the Trojan War. He was an ugly man, bow legged and lame. Rather unwisely, he insulted Agamemnon. In revenge, Odysseus beat him – much to the amusement of the assembled Achaeans.

Obviously, Demades is telling Philip not to be ridiculous like Thersites, but the image I take away from the allusion is of Philip as Agamemnon. I don’t mean the Agamemnon who was king of all the Greeks; rather, the Agamemnon who, when he returned home, was slain in his bath by Clytemnestra and Aegisthus. I know that we have no proof that Olympias played the role of Clytemnestra but she had a certainly had a strong enough motive to kill him.

One more point about Demades – I don’t think I will ever get used to the way in which enemies could become trusted friends – so quickly – in those days. It seems incredible that Philip could even think about placing Demades in a position of responsibility; and yet, he did so, giving the Athenian ‘every mark of honour’ as well. And all because Demades had a good way with words. Mind you, we elect our leaders today when they have not much more so perhaps I should not be surprised.

The Athenians’ treatment of Lysicles puts me in mind of Stalin’s purges in the thirties. Then, men were executed not because they were criminals who deserved the death sentence (assuming anyone ever does, which I do not believe) but because they had fallen out of favour with the Man of Steel. This is what happened to Lysicles. Yes, he had lost the battle but as I mentioned above not for reasons of negligence. This is proven by the nature of Lycurgus’ accusation. The Athenians may have been the world’s first democrats, but truly, only to a point; sadly, it appears that Lysicles soon felt it.


  • Diodorus does not mention the Sacred Band, wiped out by the Macedonians
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The Dark Before the (False?) Dawn

I have just started reading John D. Grainger’s Alexander the Great Failure. Before I even open the book I have to say a word about the title. While it is certainly very dramatic, and will no doubt achieve its aim of getting people interested in what Grainger has to say, it also comes across as rather attention-seeking. That’s a shame as it makes one immediately wary of Grainger rather than open to whatever argument he puts forward.
I’m going to read and blog the book one chapter at a time. This won’t be an in-depth response to Grainger, though, just some thoughts, questions and comments. Let me know if I appear wary rather than open! Although I am as much ‘for’ Alexander as Grainger appears to be against, I will try and read his book with an open mind.
Alexander the Great Failure opens with a brief introduction. There, Grainger states that the ‘fundamental facts’ (Grainger, p.xvii) of Alexander’s life are (a) that he was Philip II’s son and (b) a Macedonian. To understand Alexander’s failure, therefore, these two facts ‘need to be considered in some detail’ (Ibid). I already have a problem here as I would add that Alexander’s self-identification with Achilles is also a fundamental fact, as well as his determination to live the life of a homeric hero.
That aside, looking at Alexander with reference to his father and country makes perfect sense. No one is born in a vacuum. We are all influenced by our families and country. This would also imply, however, that Alexander’s failure was not – entirely – his own but shared with those who made him the man he was. I wonder if Grainger will make this point.
Grainger begins Chapter 1 in 370 B.C. By-the-bye, the book ends in 272 B.C. – nearly ten years after the death of the last two diadochi, Lysimachus and Seleucus. This makes sense from the point of view that Alexander’s actions led directly to the diadoch wars. Although, did they not have free will? They did not need to fight.
To go back to the introduction, Grainger confirms that his intention is to show how Alexander’s empire came into being, and how it failed. He accuses Alexander of being no less than ‘one of the world’s great failures’ (Grainger, p. xviii) and of bringing ‘that failure on himself’ (Ibid). But again, Alexander can hardly be held responsible for what the diadochi did. I wonder if Grainger will gloss over their contribution to the ‘misery and death’ that ensued after 323 B.C.?
As well as blaming Alexander for the deaths of ‘countless thousands of people’ (Ibid), Grainger also blames him for his untimely death. In Grainger’s eyes, Alexander’s death was caused by his ‘arrogance’ (Ibid). At this point I can only assume that he means in the way Alexander exposed himself to injury during his campaigns or perhaps his alleged over-drinking? But did he? And one man’s recklessness could be another’s bravery.
Grainger also states that Alexander failed because ‘he both refused to provide [an heir] and killed off any man who could be seen as one’ (Ibid). As for the former argument – Alexander IV, anyone? In regards the latter, that turned out not to be true, either.
That’s the Introduction; let’s jump into Chapter 1. I am definitely grateful to Grainger for taking the time to explain the position of Macedon in the years leading up to Philip II’s accession. He really brings home what a weak country it was.
To fully demonstrate this, he goes back to the first Macedonian king about whom we have any degree of knowledge – Alexander I (ruled 497 – 454 B.C.) who was forced to kowtow to Darius I during the Persian Wars. Afterwards, he did the same with the Greeks. Later on, Archelaos (413 – 399 B.C.) bowed to the power of the Spartans. His successor, Amyntas III (391 – 370 B.C.), was in turn was beaten about by the Chalcidian League,
So far so humiliating. Macedon’s weakness in the face of her enemies abroad had several causes. For example, baronial rivalry; a fundamentally unstable royal succession policy (see below); the lack of bureaucratic infrastructure, and lack of national identity. Just like the Greeks thought of themselves as Athenians and Spartans rather than Greeks, it seems many Macedonian subjects – I’m really thinking here of those in Upper Macedon – held themselves to be members of their local community (tribe) rather than as Macedonians. Consequently, their natural inclination was to rebellion rather than conciliation.
By the time Philip II ascended to the throne in 359 B.C. none of this had changed. The odds on him faring any better than his predecessors, therefore, were very long indeed. Chapter 2 will pick up his story.
Before finishing, I’d like to go back to the issue of the royal succession, which, as Grainger notes was often a very bloody affair. One reason for this is because Macedon did not practice succession according to the principle of primogeniture. The eldest son (as in Alexander III’s case) might inherit the throne, but if he did he did not do so because of who he was.
In principle, the king chose his successor and an Assembly ratified that choice. I guess that is why Alexander’s generals gathered round his bed in June 323 B.C. to ask him who would succeed him even though Roxane was pregnant – Did he say Craterus?. But this would imply that Grainger is making too much of Alexander’s ‘refusal’ to provide an heir, as what need would there be for him to do so when he could just designate one?
I don’t know which side I am on. If Alexander didn’t really need to have an heir, there would have been no need for Parmenion and Antipater to have wasted time urging him to marry and father a son before leaving Macedon.
Having said that, as is clear from Robin Lane Fox’s biography of the king that Alexander’s refusal even to marry let alone have a child may have been born of political insight: had Alexander married either Parmenion’s or Antipater’s daughters you can bet their fathers would have taken full advantage of their new closeness to the Macedonian throne. And in ancient Macedon, ‘[a]ssassination, murder and civil war’ (Grainger, p. 5) were not only part of the succession process.

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Plutarch at the Granicus

Before beginning his Life of Alexander, Plutarch warns us that he is not concerned with the ‘great exploits and battles’ of the Macedonian king but rather ‘those details which illuminate the workings of the soul’. He can hardly ignore the great moments of Alexander’s life, though… or can he? Let’s find out by looking at his account of Alexander’s four great battles. If you are already familiar with Plutarch’s account, you may want to skip forward to ‘Some Thoughts’ below.
The Battle of the Granicus River
In chapter 15 of the Life Plutarch tells us that when Alexander left Macedon his army was between 30,000 – 43,000 infantry and 4,000 – 5,000 cavalry in size. We must get used to these figures as he does not provide any more ahead of his account of the Battle of the Granicus, which begins in chapter 16.
According to Plutarch, ‘Darius’ generals had gathered a large army’. When Alexander arrived at the Granicus, however, it was not the size of the Persian force that alarmed ‘[m]ost of the Macedonian officers’ but ‘the depth of the river and… the rough and uneven slopes of the banks on the opposite side’.
Tradition was also on the mind of some of his officers for it was not the Macedonian custom to wage war in the current month (Daesius). According to Timothy E. Duff in his Notes, Daesius was roughly our May/June and the custom ‘may have’ arisen out of ‘the need to gather the harvest’. Alexander dealt with this objection by declaring the new month to be the last one (Artemisius) repeated.
The issue of the month was not the only objection that Alexander had to deal with. The Macedonians arrived at the Granicus late in the day and Parmenion, not unreasonably, counselled against attempting a crossing at such an hour. Alexander was having none of that, though and ‘declared that the Hellespont would blush for shame’ if he held back now.
Reservations and objections dealt with, Alexander plunged into the river with thirteen cavalry squadrons. Despite the swiftly running water and Persian missiles raining down on him the king and his men made it to the opposite bank – ‘a wet treacherous slope covered with mud’ – where they engaged the enemy.
Plutarch tells us that as the horsemen fought one another, Alexander was picked out by ‘many’ of the Persian cavalry ‘for he was easily recognizable (sic) by his shield and by the amazingly tall white feathers which were fixed upon either side of the crest of his helmet’.
The Persians’ attention was not in vain. As the battle raged, Alexander was struck by a javelin. Fortunately, it only pierced the joint of his breast plate rather than him. However, when a Persian nobleman named Spithridates struck him on the head with his sword – splitting the helmet and ‘grazing’ Alexander’s hair – it must have looked like his life was about to come to an early end.
Fortunately, just as Spithridates raised his sword for the coup-de-grace, Black Cleitus ran him through with his spear. For his part, Alexander killed another Persian named Rhoesaces with his sword. It seems that his helmet not only saved his life but stopped him from being stunned.
The Macedonian phalanx now made it across the river. Its presence made the difference. Plutarch says that ‘[t]he Persians offered little resistance, but quickly broke and fled’. The rout was not total, however; Darius’ Greek mercenaries – as well trained and disciplined as the phalanx – stood their ground. The mercenaries asked Alexander for quarter. ‘[G]uided by [his] passion’, however, he refused to give it and led a charge against them. During this battle, Alexander lost his horse to a spear thrust.
Plutarch puts the Persian losses a 20,000 infantry and 2,500 cavalry. As for the Macedonians, he cites Aristobulos who says they lost only 34 men, of whom 9 were members of the infantry. Timothy Duff notes that, according to Arrian, Macedonian losses were ‘somewhat higher’ and that 25 men died in the initial charge. Turning to Arrian, I note that he says (in addition to the 25) ‘rather more’ than sixty cavalry were killed. I am not sure what he means by that. He is more specific in regards infantry saying that ‘about’ thirty died.
However many Macedonians died, both Plutarch and Arrian agree that Alexander honoured his dead (in part or whole) by ordering his official sculptor, Lysippos, to make bronze statues of them.
Having paid his respects to the Macedonian dead, Alexander turned to Greece. He was ‘anxious’ for the Greek poleis to share in his victory so had 300 Persian shields sent to Athens with the famous inscription, ‘Alexander, the son of Philip, and the Greeks except the Spartans won these spoils of war from the barbarians who dwell in Asia’. Other plunder – luxury items – was sent to his mother in Macedon.
Some Thoughts
Plutarch’s account of the battle at the Granicus, its lead-up and aftermath, is very brief and focuses on key moments, which may be summarised, thus:

  1. The Macedonian officers’ reaction on arriving at the river
  2. Alexander Crosses the River
  3. The Persian and Macedonian cavalry engage
  4. Black Cleitus saves Alexander’s Life
  5. The Macedonian Phalanx’s arrival
  6. The Greek Mercenaries’ Last Stand
  7. Alexander honours the dead

Having said that, there is certainly enough here for us to make the following observations.
Plutarch gives us a fascinating insight into the mind of the Macedonian officers before the battle. And while I can understand why they were worried by the strength of the river and the ‘rough and uneven’ bank on the far side, the idea that they shouldn’t fight because it was the wrong month takes more getting used to. What we appear to be seeing here is a tradition that had lost its reason for being and now got in the way of legitimate progress. When I put it that way it does not seem so alien a moment, after all.
The other thing that jumps out at me is how quickly the battle concludes. I am guessing this is because the Persians fought in a loose and fundamentally disordered fashion, which was never going to be strong enough to resist the phalanx’s tight formation and superior weaponry (i.e. the sarissa). I can’t wait to read Arrian’s account of the battle for more details.
What might we say of Alexander? At first glance he comes across as thoroughly impatient in his desire to fight the battle and reckless for crossing the river before his men are ready join him. Is it really impatience, though, if you arrive at the battlefield, and – believing your men to be ready to fight – decide to get on with it?
As for his recklessness, well, he did not cross the river alone and it is not as if he did so intending to fight the entire Persian army. He must have felt that he had a good chance of cutting into it, if not defeating it, before the rest of his cavalry and infantry arrived. Alexander did not have a death wish.
So, for patience and recklessness could we not read confidence? After all, it is not as if Alexander was not capable of being patient and careful when need be. A case-in-point would be when he offered Thebes terms in 335 B.C. rather than just go straight ahead and attack the city (See Plutarch, chapter 11).
The other aspect of Alexander’s character that Plutarch draws out is his ruthlessness in dealing with the Greek mercenaries. Not even I can justify that. The battle was won. Giving the mercenaries quarter would have been not only a merciful act but also a politically clever one.
Finally, when Alexander sent the 300 shields back to Greece he was surely referencing the Spartans’ last stand at Thermopylae. If so, he was surely engaging in a very sly piece of historical revisionism – giving the shields to Athens makes it seem (to me, anyway) like he was crediting the Athenians for what Leonidas, his men and allies did rather than the Spartans.

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The Spies of Ancient Athens: Olympias’ Real Purpose

The index of posts in this series can be read here
Read the introduction to this series here

Zeus seduces Olympias by Giulio Romano

Zeus seduces Olympias by Giulio Romano

In the last chapter, I wondered aloud if Olympias told her handmaid that Zeus had had sex with her because she wanted Philip II to be angry and fearful of her. This would only make sense if she had a reason for wanting his enmity. But what could that reason be? Before we look at a possibility, let us look at proof that Olympias did not speak accidentally to her handmaid. She wanted Philip to turn against her; I am sure of this because at the end of 357 BC, P. sent this report back to Athens,

… [text missing] came to my rooms. Pale. Weak. [He said] King Philip ordered me to look into his bed chamber. I remembered Gyges and Candaules. I looked. Olympias lay upon her bed. Naked. A snake was curled round her thigh. Its tail rested upon her [pubic] hair. Its head rested upon her breast. [Philip said] She is a witch. Look at what I have to suffer. Look. He w[a]s drunk.

Plutarch states that Olympias may have belonged to a snake worshipping Dionysian religion and that,

[i]t was Olympias’ habit to enter into… states of possession and surrender herself to the inspiration of the god with even wilder abandon than others…

‘Look at what I have to suffer’. These words indicate not only Philip’s upset but the fact that Olympias was pursuing a policy of upsetting him as much as possible without being openly disloyal. Judging by Plutarch’s description of her religion, she had chosen the perfect vehicle to do this. But, again, why was Olympias making such an effort to anger and distress her husband? At the same time as she was sleeping with her snakes, B. was writing,

I witnessed another fight in the market place today – once again between Macedonians and a group of Epirotians. The Macedonians were complaining that there are too many Epirotians in Pella today; that they upset their wives and children; that they cast spells upon both friends and enemies; that they want to seize the throne for Epirus [my emphasis].

Did the fights in Pella just happen or were they orchestrated? The Macedonians clearly thought there was more to them than just the violence. If they were orchestrated, perhaps Olympias’ religious ‘devotion’ was simply a ruse to destabilise her husband so that he was  a shadow of his former self; a softening up exercise such as the street fighters were engaged in. It seems incredible that Olympias might have been plotting against Philip at such an early stage but one day, murder did – in the eyes of many – enter her mind, for she has been plausibly accused of orchestrating Pausanias’ murder of the king.

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The Spies of Ancient Athens: The Conception of Alexander

The index of posts in this series can be read here
Read the Introduction here
Based on The Spies of Ancient Athens by Reynard and Grün (London, 2004)
“Philip II of Macedon and Olympias of Epirus married in 357 BC. Their wedding was celebrated in Aegae, where Philip would meet his end at the hands of an assassin twenty-one years later.
On the eve of the marriage, Aegae was struck by a fierce storm, which caused panic across the city. Athens appears to have had only two spies in the Macedonian court at this time; unamed in the sources, they have – since the time of Stern – been nicknamed B(road) and P(ersonal)  for the type of the intelligence that they sent back to Athens.
Thus, while B. tells us about the storm itself,

[the] … thunderstorm caused palace to shake. I saw lightening stike several homes, destroying them and burning people alive. In the market this morning, many were frightened. The storm is believed to be gods’ anger, though no-one knows for what. Whispers against king in marketplace

P. – whose reports are tightly condensed – focuses on what was happening within the palace – to no less a person than Olympias,

Myrtale* awake all night. Severe headache. Temporary blindness. Myrtale told handmaid that Zeus was ma love to her. She was not strong enough for him. Story repeated among servants. Believed to be nonsense as queen watched all night. Despite all, servants relieved – Myrtale [was] feared to be dying.

Both these reports are dated, which is how we now that Olympias suffered her migraine, or visit from Zeus, on the night of the storm. What is intriguing, though, is the fact that Olympias saw fit to tell a servant that Zeus had had sex with her. She must have known that there was a fair chance the handmaid would gossip about it and that the information might eventually come to Philip’s ears. Would he appreciate hearing that he had been cuckolded by a god? But maybe that is what Olympias wanted. Maybe she wanted him to be angry, and even fearful. We’ll come back to this idea later on.
A few days after the storm, P. sent another report to Athens. It gives a fascinating, if rather unnerving, insight into Olympias’ character.

Myrtale entered her bed chamber. Stood at her offering table. Offerings made. [She] said, You blessed me and I was not afraid. She took a knife. Exposed her left breast and cut it next to her nipple letting the blood drop onto the offering table. She repeated the words You blessed me, and I was not afraid. I left the bed chamber in fear.

Several weeks now passed during which – Philip and Olympias’ wedding aside – nothing of consequence happened. Then, B. suddenly reported that there was,

… great consternation among seers. They walk quickly and with darting eyes through the palace, seeing everyone but speaking to no one. The servants and guards are very worried. Even Parmenion looked anxious as he drilled the men this afternoon.

B.’s next few reports contained no further information. But Athens wanted to know more.

It is very difficult to obtain information. The seers no longer walk among us but either with one another or in the shadows. When they meet, they admit no servants or slaves. Even the guards are told to wait outside.

In the end, it was P. who came good. One of the seers fell ill. As he lay on his deathbed, he spoke to his son who, it seems, was also a seer. P. was present waiting on Aristander.

Aristander** worried for Olympias. Told son Philip dreamt he sealed [her] womb. [Has she been] unfaithful?. Aristander told his son seers have advised Philip to ignore dream[. U]rged him to do same in future. Coughing fit. Expired.

There is no mention here of the ‘fact’ (according to Plutarch) that Philip – after sealing Olympias’ womb, put a seal in the shape of a lion on it. Could it be that this detail was added a later date – after Alexander had proved his leonine nature? Perhaps, but it is worth noting the following report that P. wrote in late 357 BC.

Olympias did not bleed this month. The Telmessian*** confirmed she is with child. Olympias excited. [She asked] what manner of child she would give birth to. [Aristander said i]f her child has her blood then he will be exceedingly strong and cunning.

Six months later…

Olympias bedridden. Child kicks her with great strength. Impatient to be born. Olympias said It is as if I have a lion inside me, not a baby. Many servants now afraid to go near her lest the lion break out.

P.’s use of the word ‘confirmed’ is significant as it shows that Aristander had already stated his belief that Olympias was pregnant. This would tie in with Plutarch’s sources who say that he – Aristander of Telmessus – was the only seer to correctly interpret Philip’s dream as meaning his wife was pregnant rather than unfaithful. Further to this, I wonder if – even if unwittingly – Aristander is the ultimate source of the lion seal detail. Perhaps Olympias was remembering his ‘strong and cunning’ comment when she said ‘It is as if I have a lion inside me’; her aside then became part of palace oral tradition before eventually finding its way to the Macedonian people and into Plutarch’s Lives.
* Olympias changed her name a number of times throughout her life. The name ‘Olympias’ came in 356 BC to reflect her husband’s success at the Olympic Games
** Not Aristander of Telmessus who accompanied Alexander on his expedition across Asia
*** From later reports, we know this to be Aristander of Telmessus

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The Spies of Ancient Athens

The index of posts in this series can be read here
Athens’ period of dominance in Greek affairs ended with her defeat to Sparta at the end of the Peloponnesian War (431 – 404 BC). Despite this, she continued to play an important part in the internecine conflicts that bedevilled Greece until 338 when Philip II of Macedon defeated a joint Athenian-Theban army at Chaeronea. Athens – like every other Greek city – was now a pawn to be moved about wherever the Macedonian king wished.
However, although down, Athens was not out. Demosthenes continued to rage with all his oratorical might against Philip, and at the beginning of Alexander’s reign, the city successfully persuaded the new king to forgive her for not immediately recognising his authority over the Greeks.
Athens’ strength was not limited to fulminating and reacting to events. She also sought to change them.
After Philip’s murder, Alexander ordered the assassination of anyone who he feared might oppose his rule. Amongst those killed was Philip’s last wife, Cleopatra Euridike, and her children, Europa and Caranus. Europa and (especially) Caranus had to die as their bloodline made them too dangerous for Alexander to let live. Cleopatra didn’t but – according to Peter Green – was murdered by Olympias anyway out of spite.
The deaths of Philip’s last family put the future of Cleopatra Euridike’s guardian, the general Attalus, into question. He was in Asia Minor when Philip was killed, waiting for the arrival of the king and the start of the campaign against the Persian Empire.
Attalus had no claim of his own to the Macedonian throne, but it is not hard to imagine that on hearing of the death of his ward and her children, he would seek to take revenge by making common cause with Alexander’s Greek enemies, and lead a Greek army into Macedon. Diodorus tells us that this is exactly what Alexander did fear. And indeed, it might have happened as Athens sent secret agents to Asia Minor to discuss a possible alliance with the general.
As we know, Attalus was assassinated. What really intrigues me about this moment in history, though, is Athens’ use of ‘secret agents’. In truth, they are probably more accurately called envoys rather than spies but there was definitely a cloak and dagger feel to their mission. As Diodorus says, the city ‘[c]ommunicated secretly’ with him. I would be very surprised if the agents did not bring back to Athens intelligence relating to the size and state of the Macedonian army under Attalus’ command.
These questions have lead me to ask myself (whimsically, I admit) what if Athens had a secret intelligence service? What if she had agents in foreign courts sending reports back to the city? What would those reports say? For all I know, this is exactly what did happen; if so, I confess it is not an element of ancient Greek history I know anything about. These posts, therefore, are my imagining of what those reports would say. To give them a little context, the posts are presented as if they were extracts from a book titled ‘The Spies of Ancient Athens’.

  • The chief inspiration for this series of posts is a book titled Russian Roulette on how British spies took on Bolshevik Russia following the 1917 Revolution there. I have not enjoyed reading a book so much recently and heartily recommend it. It’s Amazon page is here but I am sure it will be available from all good bookshops.
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