Posts Tagged With: Black Cleitus

Honours Even

In this post I continue my look at Ptolemy I King and Pharaoh of Egypt by Ian Worthington. For an explanation of this series, visit the first post here.


… killing Cleitus was a grave error… It was hardly the act of a great general or king: the personal honor that had driven his [i.e Alexander’s] campaigns, and which he expected of others, had long since evaporated.

Worthington is certainly right to call Alexander’s murder of Black Cleitus in 328 BC ‘a grave error’. However, I don’t see the relevancy of this act to Alexander’s status as a general. Great generals become so by winning battles and wars. They don’t become great by behaving  virtuously.

Worthington is on more solid ground when he says that Cleitus’ murder was not the act of a great king. I could not agree more. Kings should be just and merciful to their subjects. Even – especially – to ones who provoke them during drunken quarrels. Of course, they shouldn’t really be getting drunk in the first place.

However, that’s by-the-bye; as usual, I have put in bold the part of the passage that really stuck out for me when I read it.

Worthington presents here the Achillean Alexander: a man driven by ‘personal honor’ who expected others to be similarly honourable. But while I agree with this understanding of the Macedonian king’s character. I question Worthington’s assertion that by the time he killed Cleitus, Alexander’s honour ‘had long since evaporated’.

When? How? The only incident that I can think of that really speaks to this is the Philotas Affair, which took place two years earlier in the summer/Autumn of 330 BC.

But while Philotas’ downfall took place in very murky circumstances that do not reflect well on any of the people who played a major role in it (I think here especially of Hephaestion, Craterus and Coenus who pressed for and conducted the torture of Philotas) I don’t get the impression that it fatally undermined Alexander’s honour.

Had it done so, I think he would have been more concerned about the Macedonians’ supposedly ‘mutinous’ thoughts when they began to ‘pity’ Philotas after his death (see Curtius VII.1.1-4). Instead, the king risked further alienation from his men by bringing Alexander Lyncestis, and the brothers Amyntas and Simmias to trial.

Perhaps the Macedonians were not so fussed about Alexander Lyncestis but Amyntas and Simmias were close friends of Philotas. Their trial would only have put the Macedonians in mind of Philotas whom they now pitied – something that, had he been truly afraid of their ‘mutinous remarks’, Alexander would surely have wanted to avoid. Curtius calls the Philotas Affair and trial of Alexander Lyncestis a time of crisis. It was certainly a difficult time for the king, but not a crisis. Curtius is talking Alexander’s difficulty up for the sake of his narrative.

I’m open to other suggestions on what Worthington means in this passage, but as matters stand, it seems to me that like Curtius with Philotas et al he is simply overstating the effect of Cleitus’ murder on Alexander for the sake of his narrative. The king never lost his honour. It was certainly battered and bruised over the years but even at his death Alexander was acting honourably, and was loved by his men.

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Torture in Curtius (3)

Concluding my look at Curtius’ use of the word ‘torture’ in his history of Alexander. In this post, I look at its usage in the context of the Pages’ Plot.

Read other posts in this series here

  • Book VIII contains 2 references to torture
  • Book IX contains 1 reference to torture

Book VIII.8.20
The fate of the conspirators in the Pages’ Plot

… Alexander closed the meeting and had the condemned men transferred to members of their own unit. The latter tortured them to death so that they would gain the king’s approval by their cruelty. Callisthenes also died under torture.

Book VIII.8.22
Callisthenes’ fate

Callisthenes was a man of the finest character and accomplishments who had restored Alexander to life when he was determined to die after the murder of Clitus. Alexander had not merely executed him but had tortured him as well – and without trial.

Book IX.7.8-9
Rebellion among Greek settlers is quelled

[The Greek guards] decided that Boxus should be executed immediately, but that Biton should be tortured to death. As the torture-irons were already being applied to his body, the Greeks for some unknown reason rushed to arms like madmen and, when those who had been ordered to torture Biton heard the uproar, they abandoned their task, fearing that the cries of the rioters were intended to stop them.

Here are my observations based on the above quotations. Feel free to let me know what you think in the comments section

  • In the first six books of Curtius’ history (stopping just before the Philotas affair) the word ‘torture’ is used eight times and in seven different ways. The Philotas affair adds seven more contexts for its use. The Pages’ Plot, however, adds just one (being the reference to an aborted attempt to torture someone):
    • 2 reference to torture being carried out (VIII.8.20, VIII.8.22)
    • 1 reference to torture having been carried out (VIII.8.20)
    • 1 reference to individual motives for torturing during the act (VIII.8.20)
    • 1 reference to an aborted attempt to torture someone (IX.7.8-9)
  • VIII.8.20 On the one hand, returning traitors to their units for punishment makes perfect sense. Of all the soldiers in the army, their fellow unit members would have been the ones most let down by their actions. Let them, therefore, carry out the punishment due. On the other, it also seems to be a very cunning and manipulative action by Alexander: By having the men execute the condemned, he ensures that if there are any more among them who are having second thoughts about his leadership, they are now part of his ‘tyranny’ in a way they weren’t before having taken part in the execution of the rebels. In this light, the return of the traitors and their executions becomes a kind of psychological warfare carried out against anyone still against him.
  • VIII.8.22 Curtius has a very idealistic view of Callisthenes that was not shared by everyone. I would see his description of the historian as another example of his propensity to exaggerate.
  • IX.7.8-9 Biton certainly had a lucky escape. Why did the Greeks rush ‘to arms like madmen’? As I see it, there were two factions in Zariaspa, where this action took place, at the time – the loyalists (those for Alexander) and the rebels (who wanted to return to Greece). The rebels were led by a man named Athenodorus and were the dominant force. Biton was also a member of the rebels. He had a ‘personal rivalry’ with Athendorus and this led him to kill him. Afterwards, Biton tried to persuade ‘most of the people’ that he acted in self-defence but they weren’t convinced. Nevertheless, when ‘Greek soldiers’ tried to kill him, Biton was saved by a mob – surely inspired by his supporters. Biton then bit the hand that fed him by conspiring ‘against those responsible for saving him’. This time, he was arrested, and about to be tortured when the Greeks rose up in arms. I would have suggested that they were inspired by Biton’s supporters (which is what the torturers thought) again except for the evidence of what happened next. We know this because Biton was taken away from the torturers and brought before the people. Curtius says that the sight of him ‘brought about a sudden transformation of their feelings’. Prior to that moment, then, they had been happy for him to be tortured and, no doubt, executed. Having been twice saved from death, Biton finally took the hint and left the city. As for the people, I can only imagine that their actions were informed by the general unrest of that time. It is not hard to imagine members of either party being inspired to take up arms to fight their rivals. Blood had already been spilt, after all, with soldiers from the rebel party killing loyalists in the initial uprising.

As I come to the end of this little survey of Curtius’ use of the word ‘torture’ I now ask myself what I have learnt from it.

The first thing is that Curtius uses the word much more broadly than I would have guessed without reading his text. In the first six books of his history, he makes 8 references to torture using it in 7 different ways. The Philotas Affair contains 17 references overall with the word being used in 11 different ways – 7 of which are new. The Pages’ Plot contains just 3 references but 4 different contexts. Of course, only 1 of those is new. However, that is still 15 different ways in which he uses the word throughout his book. I would love to be able to make some searingly original and profound insight into Curtius’ literary method but I’m afraid what is most in my mind at the moment is a simply appreciation of how flexible the English language is! Curtius will have to wait.

The second thing I have learnt from this exercise is that Curtius is certainly not shy when it comes to discussing torture. Unlike Arrian and Plutarch, he mentions it a lot (specifically with reference to Philotas) and graphically. In contrast to Arrian who omit any reference to Philotas being tortured and Plutarch who passes quickly over it, we find in Curtius Philotas being ‘racked with the most cruel tortures… fire and beatings’ his body swellling ‘with weals’ and Hephaestion, Craterus and Coenus not only interrogating him but striking their former colleague ‘in the face and eyes’ with their spears.

Is there a need for Curtius to be so graphic? It’s hard to say. My instinctive reaction would be to reply ‘no, he is simply being sensationalistic’ but this is not a judgement I can readily make as I don’t enough about Curtius’ society to know where he was coming from. For all I know, in comparison to other writers of his time, he was writing in a restrained manner.

The third lesson I take away is simply how bloody (literally) dangerous it was to fall into the hands of your enemies. From the Greek captives tortured by the Persians (V.5.5-6) to Philotas’ fate after receiving Alexander’s right hand and what can only be described as Alexander Lyncestes’ (and Callisthenes’ – according to Curtius, anyway) judicial murder.

As an adjunct to the above, I might add I now have a new appreciation of the importance of rhetoric and the right appearance in the ancient world. I’m now sure that Alexander didn’t want Amyntas and his brothers to be acquitted anyway but they certainly didn’t do their chances any harm by the way they spoke and the way Polemon wept before speaking. The same goes for Biton who ended not having to speak at all. What this reminds me of is the importance of meaning in antiquity. The world was full of it – much more so than today. It’s easy to forget that.

Insofar as one can enjoy reading and writing about torture writing the posts in this series has been enjoyable as well as eye opening. I’d be lying though if I said that it wasn’t a aspect of ancient life that I am also happy to close the book on as well.

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Selected Search Enquiries

The following are all enquiries that lead people to this blog.

“who was the successor of philip iii arrhidaeus”
Philip III Arrhidaeus didn’t have a successor; at least, not an Argead one.

When Alexander the Great died in 323 B.C., Arrhidaeus was declared king. To that end, he was given the regnal name of Philip III. A few months later, Roxane gave birth to a son; he was named Alexander IV and became Arrhidaeus’ co-ruler. Because he was an infant, and because Arrhidaeus had a mental impediment that made him unable to rule by himself, the two were placed under the regency of Alexander’s general, Perdiccas. They would spend the rest of their lives being controlled by others.

Philip III Arrhidaeus was assassinated in 317 B.C. and Alexander IV in c. 310 B.C. Their successors were those of Alexander’s generals who declared themselves to be kings of their respective territories a few years later:

Antigonus Monophthalmus and Demetrios Poliocetes (Joint kings) – Asia Minor – 306
Cassander – Macedon – 305-304
Lysimachus – Thrace – 305-04
Ptolemy – Egypt  – 305
Seleucus – Babylon and the east – 305

I have used used Robin Waterfield Dividing the Spoils as my principle source for these dates. Other scholars give different dates, albeit only slightly. For example, Heckel in Who’s Who in the Age of Alexander the Great says that Ptolemy became king in 306 or 305.

“alexander and bagoas sex”
Yes, Alexander probably very likely had sex with Bagoas, but there was more to a eunuch’s life in antiquity than satisfying his master’s sexual desire. The Encyclopaedia Iranica describes eunuchs as being,

… castrated males who were in charge of the concubines of royal harems, [eunuchs] served in the daily life of the court, and sometimes carried out administrative functions.

For more, click here.

“”what if darius iii survived lived””
In my opinion, if Darius had survived his arrest and abduction by Bessus he would either have been executed by Alexander in order to secure his succession as Great King or been allowed to rule in a subordinate capacity, as happened with Porus.

Although in Diodorus XVII.54 Alexander suggests that he would indeed have let Darius rule under him, I think he would have executed his predecessor. Darius was too obvious a rallying point for Persians and therefore too dangerous to be allowed to live.

However, had Darius lived and been given kingship over, say, Persia, I could see him becoming a major player in the Successor battles, remaining king of Babylon and the east and interfering in the west as suited him.

“which battle did alexander kill cleitus”
Alexander didn’t kill Black Cleitus during a battle but after a quarrel during a drunken party in Maracanda in the Summer of 328 B.C. According to Arrian (IV.8) it started when some sycophants claimed that Alexander’s achievements outstripped those of certain gods. Cleitus angrily rejected this assertion. This did not put off the flatterers, though, for they then claimed that Philip II’s achievement had been ‘quite ordinary and commonplace’ (ibid). Cleitus defended the late king and taunted Alexander for saving his life at the Battle of the Granicus (334 B.C.). Alexander tried to strike Cleitus, but was held back. He then took a spear and ran Cleitus through with it.

Curtius, Justin and Plutarch all tell the story slightly differently but in the same setting and, of course, same result.

Arrian IV.8-9
Curtius VIII.22-52
Plutarch Life of Alexander 50-51

“haephestion was cremated source”
To the best of my knowledge no source says explicitly “Hephaestion was cremated”. However:-

Arrian VII.15 – States that a ‘funeral pyre’ was built for Hephaestion
Diodorus XVII.115 – Refers to the building of Hephaestion’s pyre. Chapter 116 begins ‘After the funeral’ implying that it took place. However, the Greek word ‘pyra’ which is translated here as pyre could also mean ‘monument’. But even if it doesn’t, what about Diodorus XVIII.4 which suggests the pyre – whether to cremate Hephaestion on or a monument – wasn’t built at all?
Justin XII.12 – Refers to a monument to Hephaestion being built.
Plutarch Life of Alexander Chapter 72 – Refers to Hephaestion’s funeral. No mention of cremation.

See my post “Hephaestion’s Remains – Update” here

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Divide and Rule

IV. Joint-Command of the Companion Cavalry
Read the other posts in this series

Alexander split the Companions into two separate divisions and appointed, respectively, Hephaestion son of Amyntor and Cleitus son of Dropidas to command them.

The appointment of Hephaestion and Black Cleitus as joint-commanders of the Companion Cavalry was necessitated by the death of its previous leader – Philotas.

Waldemar Heckel takes a cynical view of Hephaestion’s appointment, calling it ‘a blatant case of nepotism involving a relatively inexperienced officer’. This is why, according to him, Hephaestion was only given command of half the Companion Cavalry.

For his part, Arrian is quite clear about why Alexander split the command between the two men. ‘The reason for this step’, he says,

was that he did not think it advisable that one man – even a personal friend – should have control of so large a body of cavalry – especially as the Companions were the most famous and formidable of all his mounted troops

Arrian’s view makes perfect sense. Philotas was dead. Whether or not he died a traitor or an innocent man doesn’t matter; he was dead and Alexander had to consider the possibility that the next commander of the Companion Cavalry might take advantage of his men’s anger and grief at the loss of his predecessor, and use it to launch a second conspiracy.

The way Arrian presents the story, Alexander split the Companion Cavalry to protect himself against treachery even from Hephaestion. Given what we know of their friendship, it seems hardly creditable that Alexander should have such a fear, but who knows what the state of his mind after the Philotas affair was. Maybe he really was sufficiently unnerved to want to guard against every – no matter how unlikely – eventually.

Either way, I am not convinced by Heckel’s assertion a. To the best of my knowledge, Alexander was not given to acts of nepotism b. Hephaestion was not ‘a relatively inexperienced officer’. How could he having been part of the expedition since its beginning?


What do the other historians say about Hephaestion’s appointment? Actually, nothing. Unless I have missed a reference (do let me know if I have!), Arrian is the only person to mention it. That is a little surprising as the division and the reason for it were surely very significant matters.


Finally, the absence of this information from the other historians suggests to me that it comes to us via Ptolemy and the royal diaries, where it would have been recorded. As a general himself, Ptolemy would have been perfectly aware of the importance of Alexander’s decision to split the Companion Cavalry and recorded it accordingly.


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The Fatal Macedonian

Justin’s Alexander
Book XII Chapters 5-10
Part Five
Other posts in this series

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

Chapter Five
In the last post, we saw how Alexander ‘easternised’ and tried to guide his friends and the army towards doing the same. Justin’s exact words are that Alexander ‘desired’ that his friends adopt Persian dress (Chapter 3) and ‘permitted’ his men to marry barbarian women (Chapter 4).

To my mind desired and permitted are positive words. But there is no doubt that Justin himself regarded these developments as a bad thing. He says that Alexander only ‘permitted’ his men to marry barbarian women so that he did,

not appear to be the only person who yielded to the vices of those whom he had conquered in the field

and he talks about Alexander acting ‘as if he gave himself up to the customs of those whom be had conquered.’ (my emphasis).

At the start of Chapter 5, Justin repeats the assertion (made in the previous chapter) that what angered the Macedonians was not simply that Alexander had taken on Persian mores but that in doing so he had ‘cast off the customs of his father Philip and of his country.’

It might have been better for Alexander to row back on his innovations and proceed thereafter more slowly and with greater caution – although in an inherently aggressive society such as his that is debatable – but instead, he turned inwardly against his men for the first time.

Justin describes the king as showing ‘a passionate temper towards those about him, not with a princely severity, but with the vindictiveness of an enemy’. He states that Philotas’ and Parmenion’s execution came about as a result of their criticising the king’s behaviour.

Parmenion’s and Philotas’ executions drove a wedge between the king and his men. What he has done to the ‘innocent old general and his son’, they said, we must expect to happen to ourselves.

What was Alexander’s response? Did he reassure his men that this would not happen*? No. He manipulated them into writing letters home, letters which he then took possession of and read. On doing so,

… he put all those, who had given unfavourable opinions of his conduct, into one regiment, with an intention either to destroy them, or to distribute them in colonies in the most distant parts of the earth.  

It’s one thing to adopt foreign customs, but quite another to treat his own men so badly. The Justinian anti-Alexander propaganda machine is getting into its stride now.

* In the same way he reassured Philotas’ relatives that they would not be punished along with him by repealing the law which allowed for the relatives of a condemned man to be executed as well (Curtius 6.11.20)

Chapter Six
Propaganda it may have have been, but true it also was*. And that was Alexander’s problem – he made these rods for his own back. For example, the king’s murder of Black Cleitus after the latter ‘defended the memory of Philip’ during a drunken party.

To his credit, though, Justin doesn’t simply say ‘Alexander got drunk and killed Cleitus out of pride’. He also relates the king’s regret, his attempt to kill himself, his continued remorse and realisation of how dreadful he must now appear to his men. In the end, Alexander was saved from his grief by his men, and Callisthenes, in particular. The wedge between them, it seems, was not unbridgeable.

* I’m giving Justin the benefit of the doubt here as Curtius (7.2.35-38) and Diodorus (XIII.17.80) also mention the incident.

Chapter Seven
… and yet, still Alexander persisted with his desire to be treated as if was a Persian monarch. Thus, though admittedly with hesitation, ‘he gave orders that he should not be approached with mere salutation, but with adoration’.

Black Cleitus’ death had not lessoned the opposition of the Macedonians. Callisthenes refused to prostrate himself to the king. And, having saved Alexander’s life, now lost his own to him. I wonder if that is why Justin made sure to mention the historian’s role in saving Alexander’s life as it now makes the his death all the more poignant – and bitter.

Several Macedonians died because they refused to indulge Alexander’s whim. But they did not die in vain; at least, not completely – Justin states that while the ‘custom of saluting their king was… retained by the Macedonians, adoration [was] set aside’.

In the Daedalian Mountains, Alexander received the submission of Queen Cleophis. Justin adds tartly that she ‘recovered her throne from him by admitting him to her bed’.

Curtius (8.10.35-36) also mentions Cleophis, though he only says that – according to some – it was simply her beauty that won her back her throne. He recognises, however, that at some point, she did give birth to a son which she named Alexander.

The Notes to my edition of Curtius cite A V Gutschmid (n.68) who said that Cleophis was a Roman invention*. I can well believe it. Even if Alexander did not abstain from sex, as Plutarch suggests (with the exception of Barsine), the respect he had for women surely makes the scenario given by Justin unlikely.

* An allusion to Cleopatra VII

Chapter Eight
The end of this chapter marks the end of Alexander’s eastward journey. Worn out by the constant travel and war, the Macedonian army begged their king to take them return home. Rather surprisingly (to me, anyway) given the antagonism between them since his adoption of Persian dress and customs, Alexander agreed to the men’s request.

Chapter Nine
This chapter covers more of Alexander’s battles, including the occasion when the king leapt into the city of the Sigambri* where he fought ‘alone against thousands’ until he was felled by an arrow. Typically, the ‘curing of the wound caused him more suffering than the wound itself.’

* Or, the Mallian city (See Arrian 6.9-12 and Plutarch Para. 63); Curtius calls it the City of the Sudracae (9.4.26-33; 9.5.1-21). Diodorus deals with the assault in VIII.17.98-99 but it isn’t clear to me from his narrative where the city was located

Chapter Ten
Alexander had returned to Babylon, where,

many of the conquered people sent deputations to accuse their governors, whom Alexander, without any regard to his former friendship for them, commanded to be put to death in the sight of the deputies.

I can’t decide whether Justin means this statement to be taken positively or otherwise.

On the one hand, a just judge should not be thinking of friendships when trying cases.

On the other, I do get the impression that when Justin says the governors were put to death ‘in the sight of the deputies’ Alexander was using the executions as a means of intimidation. But again, perhaps that was a good thing for him to do.

Justin concludes with a brief reference to the Susa Weddings. Alexander, he says, married Stateira II. He had his leading men marry

… the noblest virgins… in order that the impropriety of the king’s conduct might be rendered less glaring by the practice becoming general.

This is the third time Alexander has acted along these lines*. Given the king’s pride, I think it is better to take this statement as Justin’s opinion rather than of fact.

* After asking and permitting his friends and army to wear Persian dress and marry barbarian women, as described above

The storm clouds have definitely broken. And yet, Justin still mentions aspects of Alexander’s behaviour that could be taken positively. I have to give him credit for that. What the above chapters have really brought home to me is the fact that the Macedonian army’s estrangement from its king – in Justin’s eyes – was wholly connected to their love for Philip. I am not used to thinking of Philip II as a king beloved of his men.

One last point – Justin’s narrative contains a number of errors. For example, his assertion that Parmenion and Philotas were executed after criticising Alexander’s adoption of Persian dress and customs, and that Parmenion was tortured before being killed. A list of the mistakes are for another post; for now, I just wanted to acknowledge them here lest anyone thought they weren’t in my mind.


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Thunder in the East

The Nature of Curtius
Book Eight Chapter 1-5
For other posts in the series click here

Chapter One
The Hunt
Rather unfairly, in my opinion, ‘Alexander gained more notoriety than credit from reducing the rock’. Curtius doesn’t say why this was so – did Alexander’s use of deception break a rule of combat? Was it the fact that the siege was not stricly necessary? We can only guess.

Before continuing his counter-insurgency operations, Alexander divided his army into three, naming Hephaestion and Coenus as the commanders of the other two divisions.

As these men took up their commands, a Macedonian ‘regional commander’ named Attinas was on the hunt for Bactrian exiles and Massagetae tribesmen who had destroyed some villages in his area.

Upon a moment, Attinas saw some shepherds ahead of him. They appeared to be driving their livestock into some woods. The rebels could wait – here was an opportunity for easy plunder.

The shepherds disappeared into the woods. The Macedonians followed ‘out of regular formation’ in their desire to grab the livestock. Suddenly, they came under attack, and for the second time, a Macedonian force was wiped out in woodland.

Craterus was in the vicinity but arrived in the wood too late. Nevertheless, he set about massacring the Dahae tribe – killing a thousand in all – thus bringing an end to the insurgency in the area. By-the-bye, Curtius doesn’t name the Dahae as being part of the ambush against Attinas but they had helped Spitamenes kill Menedemus and his men so they were not innocent bystanders.

After subduing the Sogdians once again, Alexander returned to Maracanda where he met Derdas, freshly returned from his expedition ‘to the Scythians beyond the Bosphorus’. Derdas came with promises of allegiance from Scythian kings, and a request that Alexander marry the daughter of one. She would turn out to be Roxane, the eventual mother of Alexander’s only legitimate heir*.

Once Hephaestion had returned to Maracanda, Alexander set off for a royal park in a place called Bazaira. There he reversed the Macedonians recent misfortunes in woods by successfully hunting a lion. Curtius notes the interesting fact that the Macedonian people had the right to ban their king from hunting on foot or alone. Health and Safety in the ancient world?

The latter half of the chapter is taken up with Alexander’s drunken argument with Black Cleitus, which ended with the latter’s death.

Of interest to us here is the the insight that the quarrel gives to how successful Alexander’s counter-insurgency operations had been.

The argument between king and officer began over Alexander’s bad-mouthing of his father. But Cleitus had a second grievance, “‘You assign to me the province of Sogdiana, which has often rebelled and, so far from being pacified, cannot even be reduced to subjection. I am being sent against wild animals with bloodthirsty natures.’

* According to Curtius, Alexander met Roxane for the first time after subduing the Sacae (Chapter 4, below)

Chapter Two
Another Day, Another Defile
In the days and weeks following Black Cleitus’ death, Alexander resumed operations against Bactrian exiles. As part of this, he came to a defile in an area called Nautaca where the local satrap, a man named Sisimithres, had set up a defensive blockade. Alexander met it head-on and smashed his way through it.

Sisimthres and his men retreated to ‘a rocky outcrop’ at the end (?) of the valley, which the defile opened out into. Entering the valley, Alexander found that his way to the outcrop was blocked by a torrent*. He decided to reach the outcrop by creating a mound, and so ‘issued orders for trees to be felled and rocks piled together’.

Alarmed by the sight of the Macedonian earthwork, Sisimithres eventually surrendered. As Alexander continues his operations, we learn another little detail about life in antiquity – it appears the Macedonian horses did not have horse shoes for Curtius describes how their hooves became ‘worn’ on the rocky roads.

* Curtius says that the the Nautacans had tunnelled through the outcrop to create a pathway into their country but that only they knew about it.

Chapter Three
Till Death Do Us Part
This chapter covers the end of Spitamenes’ rebellion against Alexander. In an episode reminiscent of Judith’s assassination of Holofernes, his wife cut off his head. She had become weary of being constantly on the run.

Chapter Four
Fire in the Rain
Alexander now led his men into a region called Gazaba. There, the army was scattered by a fierce thunderstorm. The cold froze men to death in the woods – once more a dangerous place for Macedonians to be – even freezing some to the tree trunks against which they were resting.

Just as he had done on the way to the Caucasus, Alexander went back and forth encouraging and helping his men. Rallied by their desire not to let their king down, the men chopped down trees to make bonfires. There would be so many that one ‘might have thought the wood was one uninterrupted blaze’.

Matters improved on the army’s second day in Gazaba when Sisimithres arrived with pack-animals, 2,000 camels, flocks of sheep, and herds of cattle. ‘Alexander divided these evenly among the men’. In return, once he had ‘ravaged’ the land of the Sacae, the king sent ‘a gift of 30,000 head of cattle’ back to the satrap.

Chapter Five
A New Division
For the briefest moment, Curtius turns towards India. It ‘was thought to be a land rich in gems and pearls as well as in gold’. But the chapter is otherwise given over to an account of the Proskynesis Crisis.

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The Macedonian Army’s Formation

Daily Diodorus
Vol. VIII. Book XVII Ch. 56, 57 (Loeb Classical Library)
Read the other posts in this series here

The Headlines
Alexander Oversleeps
Macedonian Army Forms Up Against Persians

The Story

Chapter 56
That night, Alexander lay in his bed pondering the size of the Persian army and the ‘decisive nature of the impending battle’. Whichever army was the strongest would win the day, and win everything. But which would triumph? Alexander didn’t know and this uncertainty kept him awake until the early hours of the next day when his concern finally gave way to sleep.

Dawn came and went and Alexander slept on. This pleased his Friends who thought ‘that the king would be all the keener for the battle’ if he woke up well rested.

However, as the sun continued its rise in the east, Alexander continued to sleep. Parmenion used his authority as Alexander’s second-in-command to order the Macedonian army ‘to make ready for the battle’. The other Friends, meanwhile, entered Alexander’s bed chamber to try and rouse him. After some effort, it seems, they succeeded.

The Friends were astonished at Alexander’s ability to rest for so long. How could he be so unconcerned? Alexander replied that Darius ‘had freed him from all anxiety by assembling all his forces into one place’. This day would decide everything, ‘and they would be saved toils and dangers extending over a long period of time’.

No doubt after completing his toilette and eating, Alexander called his officers together and gave a rousing speech. By now his army was ready to move. He lead it towards the Persian line. As at the Granicus River and Issus, the cavalry rode ahead of the infantry.

Chapter 57
Diodorus dedicates this chapter to giving an account of the formation of the Macedonian army and a brief explanation of how it approached the Persian force.

Cavalry from Right to Left

  • Royal Squadron under Black Cleitus
  • Friends under Philotas son of Parmenion
  • Seven squadrons also under Philotas son of Parmenion
  • Peloponnesians and Achaeans under Erygius of Mitylene
  • Phthiotes and Malians also under Erygius of Mitylene
  • Locrians and Phocians also under Erygius of Mitylene
  • Thessalians under Philip

Diodorus states that Alexander placed Cretan archers and Achaian archers ‘next’ to the Thessalians.

Infantry from Right to Left

  • Silver Shields under Nicanor son of Parmenion (behind the Royal Squadron, Friends and seven squadrons)

Diodorus classes the following as battalions

  • Elimiotes under Coenus
  • Orestae and Lyncestae under Perdiccas
  • Unidentified battalion under Meleager
  • Stymphaeans under Polyperchon
  • Unidentified battalion under Philip son of Balacrus
  • Unidentified battalion under Craterus

The Persian army was much larger than the Macedonian; to prevent the enemy from outflanking him, Alexander ‘kept his wings back’ from the front line. His response to the threat posed by the scythed chariots was to order the infantry to clash their shields when the chariots approached in order to scare their horses into turning back.

If that didn’t work, the men were told to simply move to one side and allow the chariots to pass through the gap. The horses and their riders would then be sitting ducks (my phrase not Alexander’s!) for Macedonian sling and spear.

As usual for the king, Alexander himself rode on the right wing with the royal squadron.

Finally, Diodorus says that Alexander moved the army forward in an oblique (i.e. slanted) line – he wanted to get to the Persians first and ‘settle the issue of the battle by his own actions’.

First of all – I have had to guess at one or two of the proper nouns above. Apologies if you see any incorrect ones (let me know in the comments if you do and I’ll amend the post).

The story of Alexander oversleeping is a very good one. The fact that he couldn’t sleep for worry shows his humanity in a very simple and perfect way.

For me, Chapter 57 is notable for who it omits to mention for as much as who it does. For example, where is Hephaestion? He may have been Alexander’s closest friend but it seems that – according to Diodorus – at Guagamela he was not yet senior enough to command a battalion of the Macedonian army.

I was a little surprised that Diodorus didn’t give Parmenion’s location. It appears from Chapter 60, however, that he was fighting on the left wing next to the Thessalian cavalry. Being Alexander’s deputy he was probably in overall charge of the left wing.

Those of you who know Alexander’s army well will have noticed an anachronism in Diodorus’ desciption of it. According to the Footnotes, ‘Silver Shields’ only came into use as a term to describe the hypaspistae (Shield Bearers) during the diadoch period. It originated from the ‘introduction of silver and gold trappings in 327′ presumably on the soldiers’ shields.

From Alexander’s Crusade by Professor Tufton Frobisher-Smythe (OUP 1902)
The Battle of Gaugamela is sometimes referred to as The Battle of Arbela in deference to the village of that name, near which Alexander and Darius III clashed. However, Gaugamela is the more accurate name as that is where the two armies actually were.

That the battle should be called The Battle of Gaugamela is highlighted in certain early manuscripts of Arrian’s history where he refers to an another battle that really did take place at Arbela even as Alexander and Darius were fighting one another a few miles away. The combatants were a number of Macedonians and Persians. Arrian writes,

“The men on both sides were stragglers. Messengers had previously come from the main army of both kings and told them to make for Arbela ‘as that is where all would be decided’. So they did. Of course, the messengers meant Gaugamela but the men did not realise this. Thus, when they arrived outside Arbela and saw each other both assumed that the enemy in front of them were the sole survivors of a mighty battle that had already taken place. That there were no bodies nearby did not occur to anyone as reason to doubt this assumption. As a result of this mistake, the stragglers decided to fight each other for the honour of their late kings and country. The Macedonians won and claimed the Persian Empire for themselves. They were very disappointed when messengers from the main army reappeared to tell them what had happened at Gaugamela.”

An undeniably curious episode that no other ancient historian mentions. Did it really happen? Or was Ptolemy (or Arrian for that matter) drunk when he wrote it?

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The Battle of the Granicus River

Daily Diodorus
Vol. VIII. Book XVII Ch. 19-21 (Loeb Classical Library)
Read the other posts in this series here

The Headlines
Macedonians and Persians Clash
Black Cleitus Saves Alexander’s Life
Persian Cavalry Routed
Undefended, Persian Infantry Crumble
Alexander Wins First Major Battle of Reign

The Story
Learning of the satrapal army’s approach, Alexander ‘advanced rapidly’ to the Granicus River where he set up his camp on the opposite bank to the Persians. At this point, the satraps had the advantage: Alexander would not only have to cross the river to meet them but climb up the bank on the opposite side before doing so. This would be sure to put the Macedonian phalanx into disorder and make Alexander’s men easy pickings.

Or so you would have thought. At dawn the next day, Alexander lead his men across the river and not only managed to scramble up the bank but was able to deploy it ‘in good order’ before [the Persians] could stop him’.

Now faced with an organised Macedonian army, the satraps deployed their cavalry at the front of their own line. Here is how satrapal army lined up:

Left Wing (flank to centre)

  • Memnon and Arsamenes – each in command of his own cavalry
  • Arsites – in command of the Paphlagonian cavalry
  • Spithrobates – in command of the Hyrcanian cavalry

Right Wing

  • Median cavalry – 1,000 in number / commanded by ?
  • Rheomithres – with 2,000 horse / in command of ?
  • Bactrian cavalry – 2,000 in number / commanded by ?


  • Various ‘national contingents’


  • Cavalry 10,000+
  • Infantry ‘not fewer than’ 100,000

NB The question marks regarding the right wing commanders reflects the fact that I am not clear about what Diodorus is saying here. It may be that Rheomithres was in charge of the Medes and Bactrians but that isn’t the impression I get when I read his text (see below).

We come now to the battle itself. I have broken it down into the following parts to make writing, and – hopefully – reading about, it easier. Do feel free to let me know if you find this arrangement useful or not.

One The Persian and Macedonian cavalry ‘joined battle spiritedly’. Diodorus singles out the Thessalian cavalry for praise. Under the command of Parmenion, it ‘gallantly met the attack of the troops posted opposite’.

Two Alexander, leading ‘the finest of the riders on the right wing’ charged at the Persians and inflicted ‘substantial losses upon them’.

Three The satrapal army ‘resisted [the Macedonian attack] bravely. Spithrobates, Darius’ son-in-law, threw himself at the Macedonians ‘with a large body of cavalry, and… forty companions, all Royal Relatives of outstanding valour’.

Four Seeing the success of Spithrobates’ attack, Alexander turned to meet him.

Five Spithrobates saw Alexander coming and saw an opportunity to end the menace of the Macedonian king once-and-for-all. He threw his javelin at him. It pierced Alexander’s shield and ‘right epomis’ and ‘drove through [his] breastplate’. This sounds serious. The Footnotes tell us, however, that according to Plutarch, Alexander wasn’t injured. Alexander shook the javelin off and drove his spear into Spithrobates’ chest. This movement caused both armies to cry out ‘at [his] superlative display of prowess’.

Six The movement was not a complete success, though. The point of the spear broke and the length recoiled in Alexander’s hand. Spithrobates ‘drew his sword and drove at Alexander. Fatally for him, he was not quick enough. Alexander ‘recovered his grip’ upon the spear and thrust it into Spithrobates’ face.

Seven Spithrobates fell to the ground. Just then, Spithrobates’ brother, Rhosaces, rode up behind Alexander and brought his sword down on the king’s head with such force that ‘it split his helmet’. Despite this, Alexander’s only physical wound was ‘a slight scalp wound’. Before Rhosaces could strike him again, Cleitus the Black ‘dashed up on his horse and cut off the Persian’s arm’.

Eight Diodorus now reports that Spithrobates’ companions, the Royal Relatives, threw their javelins at Alexander. Somehow, he managed to survive this deadly shower and the Relatives next, close-up, attack. Not without harm, though, Diodorus says Alexander suffered – ‘two blows on the breastplate, one on the helmet, and three on the shield’ it being the shield he had taken from Athena’s sanctuary. Back then, things were clearly made to last!

Nine Diodorus now lists some of the Persian commanders who died during the battle. They included Atizyes, Pharnaces (Stateira I’s brother), and Mithrobuzanes who commanded the Cappadocian cavalry contingent.

Ten With ‘many of their commanders’ dead and ‘all the Persian squadrons… worsted’ the Royal Relatives fled from Alexander. Seeing them retreat, other cavalry officers followed them. From what Diodorus says it seems that the flight of the Relatives allowed Alexander to claim the credit for being the ‘chief author of the victory’ in the whole battle (Do you remember how – in Book XVI Ch. 86 – we saw Philip II claim the victory at the Battle of Chaeronea after he put the Athenian-Boeotian soldiers to flight, despite the fact that the real damage had already been done by Alexander?). Diodorus also singles out the Thessalian cavalry again for praise.

Eleven Despite the route of the cavalry, the battle was not over yet. It soon would be, though, for the Persian soldiers were no match for the Macedonian phalanx. As Diodorus notes, they were also rattled by the cavalry’s retreat.

Twelve By the time that the Persian infantry was put to flight, the satrapal army had lost ‘more than ten thousand’ men. ‘[N]ot less than two thousand’ cavalry officers were killed, and 20,000 prisoners taken.

Thirteen Following the battle, Alexander ‘gave magnificent obsequies to the dead, for he thought it important by this sort of honour to create in his men greater enthusiasm to face the hazards of battle’.

Fourteen From the Granicus River, Alexander then marched through Lydia, taking over Sardis. Perhaps having heard of the Macedonians’ success at the Granicus River, Lydia’s satrap, Mithrines, gave up the city, its citadels and their treasuries without a fight.

If you are familiar with the other Alexander historians, specifically Arrian, you might have noticed that Diodorus gives a different time for Alexander’s crossing of the Granicus. He has it happening at daybreak on the day after the Macedonian army’s arrival at the river; Arrian, on the other hand,  places it in the late afternoon on the day of their arrival.

Diodorus doesn’t explain how on earth the Persians allowed the Macedonians not only to make a successful crossing of the river but make their way up the bank and form up, afterwards. Either he is incorrect regarding what happened or the Persians were negligent. The former is more likely the case as Arrian describes the Persians attacking the Macedonians from the get-go, and his source was someone who was there.

Regarding my uncertainty over who was in charge of the cavalry divisions on the Persian right wing, here are Diodorus’ own words, ‘The right wing was held by a thousand Medes and two thousand horse with Rheomithres as well as Bactrians of like number’.

In the last post we saw that there was rough agreement between our sources over the size of the Macedonian army. This is not the case in regards its Persian opposite. Here are the figures quoted by the Footnotes:

  • Justin 600,000
  • Arrian 20,000 foot, 20,000 horse

There is surely an extra zero or two in Justin’s figure.

During the course of his career Alexander sustained numerous injuries but never came as close to death on the battlefield as he did at the Granicus River. As for Black Cleitus – his timely arrival would not only have implications for Alexander’s life but the spread of Hellenism across the world. If we were compiling a top ten of historically influential Macedonian commanders his intervention here would surely be Number One. In my opinion, the only other officer to come close to him is Ptolemy, for his building of the Museum of Alexandria and the role of the Library (e.g. in the translation of the Septuagint and its patronage of great scientists and writers), but if Rhosaces had landed his blow and killed the Alexander, Ptolemy would never have become king of Egypt in the first place.

Diodorus omits to mention how many Macedonian soldiers died in the battle. The Footnotes give us the other historians say.

  • Justin 9 foot, 120 horse
  • Plutarch 9 foot, 25 horse
  • Arrian 20 foot, 60 horse

Well. All I can say is if Macedonian casualties were really that low then the army was in inspired form that day. Staying at the bottom of the page, the Footnores also give the other historians’ figures for Persian casualties.

  • Plutarch 20,000 foot, 2,500 horse
  • Arrian 1,000 horse + ‘most of the Greek phalanx’ minus 200 who were captured

I’m a little surprised by how quickly Diodorus moves on from the battle. In one line, Alexander is performing his ‘magnificent obsequies’ the next he is on the way through Lydia. If Alexander took the Persian camp maybe Diodorus omitted that on the grounds of repetition – Alexander would do the same to greater effect after Issus (which we will come to in Ch. 35)

Wanted – Darius. Dead or Alive.
Wanted – A new army. Contact Babylon ASAP
For Sale –  Persian Hopes. Going Cheap

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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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