Posts Tagged With: C S Lewis

22.II.17 A Birth, A General & On Alexander’s Mental Health

Welcome to my midweek post. I hope this post finds you well. I am writing this with a slight cold and chest bug. I have drunk my Lemsip Max and have put on a nice, cozy jumper – bought today because I didn’t have one already and gosh I need it. Rather ironically, perhaps, I also have my fan on because I dislike still air.

What’s going on in Alexanderland, i.e. my Alexander reading and writing?


In the last few days, someone has found the blog by asking if Alexander was born of rape. The answer to this is ‘no’. For more information, read Chapter One and Two of Plutarch’s Life of Alexander. There is no suggestion there that Philip raped his wife. I suspect that whoever asked this question had Oliver Stone’s film in mind. If I recall correctly, Philip very nearly does rape Olympias but backs away after seeing her snakes. Alexander, at that point, is a young boy.


Earlier this week, a commenter on the Facebook challenged the fact that in my introduction post I referred to Alexander as ‘the greatest general ever to live’, and not king. You can find their comment and our subsequent conversation here.

My reference to Alexander as a great general rather than king was deliberate. For me – and I was speaking from my point of view – a great king is one who is not only successful in war but who rules wisely and justly as well. I wouldn’t say that Alexander was, on the whole, unwise or unjust, though he had his moments, but neither would I say that he was a Solomonic figure. In my view, to be a great king, he needed to move east much more slowly – only after consolidating his military gains and bringing peace to the affected region – and been much more of a diplomat (like his father). Further to this, a great king would have given more time and care to the administration of their kingdom than Alexander did. He didn’t neglect it, at least not wholly, but he was too bent on conquest to give his possessions the time they required.


I am still reading Partha Bose’s Alexander the Great’s Art of Strategy: The Timeless Lessons of History’s Greatest Empire Builder. I am now up to page 53 of the 88 I committed myself to on Sunday, and contrary to my expectations, am enjoying it. I like how Bose brings in the example of other military (and business) people to make his point.

One thing I am not sure I like so much is how many assumptions he seems to make about Alexander’s life. For example, we know next to nothing about Alexander’s time at Meiza, where he was tutored by Aristotle, but Bose doesn’t let that stop him from saying they probably did this or that or the other before going on to suggest that this is how Alexander became such a good warrior later.

To be fair, he does in one or two places acknowledge the limited amount of information that we have, but if he really believed in this limitation then surely he shouldn’t go on to try and draw lessons from assumptions that he must know may well not be true. This has happened so much I have started to wonder if he is using a source that I don’t know about.

Having said all that, I didn’t stop to note examples of where Bose writes in the manner I have suggested. I will try to do this between now and Sunday. Maybe I will find that it isn’t as bad as I think tonight.


For a long time now, I have had it in my mind that Alexander was in bad mental health at the end of his life. A while ago, I re-read Arrian and Curtius to see how they described Alexander’s last days. Yesterday and earlier today I re-read Diodorus and Plutarch.

If memory serves, Arrian says nothing that would indicate Alexander suffered from mental ill health. What Curtius says, we don’t know, due to gaps in the text. Both Diodorus and Plutarch do talk of Alexander being scared, deeply so, by ill omens but I have to admit, they are not convincing me of their validity. Partly, this is the rationalist in me speaking but I am also put out by the fact that Diodorus and Plutarch turn Alexander into a superstitious simpleton in order to make the point that the bad omens terrified him. It is reminiscent of Curtius’ account of the Orsines Affair and I don’t believe for a minute Alexander was ever like that. I think this is an issue I will come back to in the future as it troubles me.


Finally, I would like to end this post by acknowledging the 54th anniversary of the death of C. S. Lewis. Lewis is one of my intellectual and spiritual heroes; actually, the greatest. While I am not writing about Alexander directly because of him, I am sure that reading his books gave me the intellectual capacity to do so. More importantly than that, he was a wise, humble, and good man. Requiescat in Pace, Jack.

Categories: Arrian, Diodorus Siculus, Plutarch, Quintus Curtius Rufus | Tags: , , , | Leave a comment

Gardens in the Air

The Nature of Curtius
Book Five Chapter 1
For other posts in the series click here

Chapter One
Media and Babylon – Waste and Wealth
After crossing the Lycus River, Darius made his way to Arbela where he paused long enough to hold a council with his surviving officers. Leaving Arbela (then a village, now a city) straight after, he began his journey to the ‘waste-lands’ of Media where he intended to form a new army.

Not long after Darius’ departure, Alexander arrived in Arbela. He stayed just long to take its valuables before being obliged to leave by disease caused by the decomposing bodies on the Gaugamela battlefield. He rode out of the village with Media on his left, and Arabia on his right.

Alexander’s journey took him through the country of Mesopotamia, so named because it lay between two rivers – the Tigris and Euphrates.

By-the-bye, I once read a biography of C S Lewis, which stated that as a student in the 1910s he would go bathing in Mesopotamia. Lewis, however, never visited the near east; his Mesopotamia was a stretch of land between the two arms of the Isis River in Oxford. I wonder if it is still there – the land, that is. Perhaps Oxford University students still go there.

I don’t know what Mesopotamia (the ancient one) is like now, but – unsurprisingly given the presence of the two rivers – Curtius describes its soil as being so rich ‘animals are purportedly kept from grazing in case they die from over-eating’.

In fact, he says, the soil ‘oozes water’. This reminds me of a plant – I think it was sphagnum moss – that I once walked over in Scotland. You could walk on it without difficulty but there was so much water underneath it from a nearby pond that the moss moved under your feet; very disconcerting! I wonder what the ground in Mesopotamia was like to walk on.

Curtius now shifts his attention to the Tigris and Euphrates. They emerge, he says, from the Armenian mountains. At their widest point, the two rivers are 2,500 stades apart. Leaving the mountains, they travel through Media and Gorduene before slowly converging in Mesopotamia. They then wend their way through Babylonia and out into what Curtius calls the Red Sea, i.e. the Persian Gulf.

Three days after leaving Arbela, Alexander came to a place named Mennis. Here, Curtius notes, ‘there is a cave with a stream that pours forth huge quantities of bitumen’ which was used to cement Babylon’s walls.

As you can see from the above photograph (source: Wikipedia), bitumen is not the most beautiful substance to look at. But that’s fine, for we know move on to Alexander’s arrival in the that most glamorous – in the full sense of the word – city, Babylon.

Upon his arrival, Alexander rode threw the city on a chariot. ‘[F]lowers and garlands’ were laid upon the road in front of him. Altars were set up and ‘heaped not just with frankincense but with all manner of perfumes’.

In Matt. 2: 1-12, the wise men bring three gifts to the child Jesus. Each one has a prophetic value. Gold in recognition of Christ the king, frankincense in recognition of Christ the priest, and myrrh in recognition of his death to come. I wonder why the Babylonian priests used frankincense. Was it simply because that is what they believed the gods wanted? Or were they (also) making a comment about Alexander’s priestly nature?

Animals were also represented during the Macedonian’s king triumphant march. There were ‘herds of cattle and horses’ as well as lions and leopards which were ‘carried along in cages’. Speaking of the wise men, Curtius reports that the magi followed directly after the animals.

You may recall that in the first post in this series, we saw how the Marsyas passed through the walled city of Calaenae. The Euphrates did likewise through Babylon. To make sure it didn’t flood the city, the river was bordered by ‘great embankments’. Behind these were ‘huge pits sunk deep in the ground’ for any excess water. To think that it took London until the nineteenth century to build her embankments.

It sounds like the Babylonians would have made Sir Joseph Bazalgette proud, but according to Curtius the true wonder of the city was the (half a mile long) bridge that spanned the river. It was a prodigious feat of engineering because the Euphrates carried ‘along with it a thick layer of mud’ underneath which was infirm ground – no ‘solid base for supporting a structure’.

And yet, not only did the Babylonians manage to build the bridge, they also built one that could survive being continuously beaten by water against its supports.

We now come to that other construction for which Babylon to this day is renowned – the hanging gardens.

Curtius says they were located on top of the city’s citadel. According to tradition, the gardens were built by a Syrian king* at his wife’s behest as she ‘missed the woods and forests’ of the country. Thus, it is really an arboretum.

The Syrian king must surely have used Mesopotamian soil as the trees are described as being ‘eight cubits thick and their height as much as fifty feet’. Further to this, ‘they bear fruit as abundantly as if they were growing in their natural environment’.

Unfortunately, Curtius gives no further space to the hanging gardens, concentrating instead on the Macedonians and Babylonians – especially their women’s – bad behaviour. If you would like to read the Daily Mail of 2,000 years ago, I commend Bk 5. 1. 36-38 to you.

* According to the notes, it was actually Nebuchadrezzar, a Chaldaean, who built the gardens

Categories: Quintus Curtius Rufus | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

Points of Connection Between the Living and the Dead

John F Kennedy (1917 - 1963)

John F Kennedy (1917 – 1963)

Today marks the fiftieth anniversary of John F Kennedy’s assassination. It wasn’t the most significant event of its kind in the twentieth century – Gavrilo Princip’s assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, which lead to the Great War, and thereby to World War II and the Cold War was much more important – but as the victim was the effective leader of the ‘free world’ it commands a unique place in our collective memory.
John F Kennedy was not the only person to die on 22nd November 1963. On the same day, we lost C S Lewis and Aldous Huxley. Lewis needs no introduction. Unfortunately, the same is probably not the case with Huxley. This is a shame, as his novel Brave New World is regarded as one of the finest science fiction novels of the twentieth century – on a par with 1984.
Now, what has all this got to do with a blog dedicated to Alexander the Great? Well, it occurred to me last night that there is a way in which Kennedy’s assassination echoes Philip II’s, while Alexander’s death similarly echoes C S Lewis’ and Aldous Huxley’s.
My reasoning is this – the assassination of both Philip and John F Kennedy were (at least in part) acts of spite by their murderers, and both murders had big political consequences. In Philip’s case it was the accession of Alexander to the Macedonian throne, the downfall of the Persian empire and the birth of the hellenistic period. As for John F Kennedy it is my understanding that when he died he was thinking of withdrawing American troops from Vietnam. Had he done so he might have saved America the bitter regret and disinclination to involve itself in future wars that came with its defeat to the Viet Cong, which was a consequence of President Johnson’s decision to send more troops there.
It goes without saying that Alexander’s death also had political consequences – one’s which in both the short and long term were much more profound than those which follwe Philip’s murder – but the consequence that I am most interested in is the fact that when Alexander died, the heroic age of Greece – which had begun in the mythical age of the Titans and gods – finally came to a close.
Alexander was a king but – as I’m sure I have said before – I don’t think he actually cared for kingship very much. He ‘simply’ wanted to win glory through war and exploration; to go further than any man – or god – had done previously – and to do it better than them as well. I can’t think of any monarch since who has followed in his footsteps.

C S Lewis (1898 - 1963)

C S Lewis (1898 – 1963)

So, when Alexander died, an idea died with him. Which idea died with C S Lewis and Aldous Huxley? Actually, none. They themselves were the idea – Lewis with his ‘muscular Christianity’ and Huxley with his dystopian view of the future.
Of the three ideas, Lewis’ is certainly the most pleasing. I should add here that when I talk about ‘muscular Christianity’ I don’t mean the Victorian idea. I’m thinking of no more than that Christianity which takes its faith with a pint of ale, cigarette or pipe if one so wishes, a hearty meal and conversation around the hearth. I might as well call it Inklings Christianity! As much as I like Alexander I am rather glad I don’t feel obliged to make war on people to win a good reputation. Why a dystopian future is not so likeable should be obvious.
Having said that, as the consequences of Archduke Franz Ferdinand’s and Philip’ II’s deaths show, we live interconnected lives, so even as I praise Lewis I have to recognise that he could not have lived as he did if it had not been (for example) Alexander – think the spread of hellenism and how it aided the spread of the Christian faith three centuries later, which Lewis was a part of. And in truth, I like that. I like the fact that we owe each other something as that builds up community; one which, I might say, transcends life itself. On this day of deaths, that is a comforting thought.
JFK, CSL, AH – Requiescant in Pace.

Aldous Huxley (1894 - 1963)

Aldous Huxley (1894 – 1963)

Categories: Of The Moment | Tags: , , , , | Leave a comment

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