Posts Tagged With: Curtius

Arrian I.1-10 Some Thoughts

Background to the Series
In early 2017, I finished a series of blog posts based on Arrian’s Anabasis. I was happy for I had now written a blog-series based on all the major historians of the great king.

I closed my laptop and asked myself: What next? What must I do to take my love of Alexander to the next level?

Unfortunately, I never resolved that question. Actually, it would more accurate to say that I knew the answer but was not able to see it through. I would have loved to study Alexander more formally and blog about that but the course of my life did not allow it.

As a result, and for over two years, The Second Achilles drifted. I’m afraid to say, so did my reading and study of Alexander. To my chagrin, I became on my Twitter page someone who talked about Alexander using the knowledge he had built up about Alexander in the past rather than one who was using the knowledge he was learning in the present. I did not like that at all. Eventually, the rot set in on my creative Alexander Twitter page as well. To date, it has not recovered, and I don’t know if it will. It was a sad situation to be in – my love for Alexander and his life and times was undiminished but I was simply not doing anything about it. Ideas came, but unfortunately, left just as quickly.

A few weeks ago, another idea came, and this one appears to have stuck: It occurred to me that Arrian – in a manner of speaking – had got me into this rut, let’s see if he can get me out of it. I haven’t read him the whole way through in a long time, let’s do so chapter-by-chapter and see where it takes me.

I am delighted and not a little relieved that three weeks after beginning the series, I have now reached the end of Stage One. Alexander has concluded his Greek campaigns and is now ready to sail across the Hellespont to start to go to war against the Persian Empire.

When I wrote the first post, I didn’t know how I would – or even if I would – divide the series up. I am happy to do so according to Alexander’s various campaigns, though; given his story, it makes a lot of sense. Looking ahead, I think I will continue along the same lines (with the possible exception of his City Sweep: Babylon-Susa-Persepolis).

Arrian I.1-10 Some Thoughts

Arrian presents a very positive image of Alexander as a general. He does this by foregrounding Alexander’s positive qualities (see here) and by suppressing the negative ones (see the comparison between Arrian’s and Diodorus’ Alexander here). He has no time to waste on any ‘other’ type of Alexander; for example, Alexander the youth, or king, or even person: His narrative is wholly geared towards the military leader.

If you would like to know about Alexander the youth or person, you’ll need to read Plutarch’s Life of Alexander; Alexander the king, of course, can still be found in Arrian, but he exists slightly off-centre as the book’s focus is elsewhere.

Arrian’s Alexander is based on the Alexander of his two major sources: Ptolemy and Aristobulos. Having said that, given how focused Arrian is on the military aspects of Alexander’s kingship, and how Ptolemy is supposed to be his source for the same* perhaps we are really reading Ptolemy’s Alexander. I would like to think that actually, we aren’t, that while the Alexander we see in these pages is based on Ptolemy’s version of his king it is substantially Arrian’s. Where Ptolemy’s Alexander ends and Arrian’s begins, though, is a good question.

In the past, I have criticised Curtius’ history of Alexander for being sensationalist, as if written like a modern day tabloid. If that is the case, I think now that Arrian’s Alexander is akin to a Hollywood interpretation of him: Alexander gets into scrapes (e.g. at Mt Haemus and outside Pellium) but just like James Bond or Jason Bourne always manages to extract himself – and with no little panache for the sake of the audience. I have to admit, I have never thought of Arrian like this before; he makes such a thing of how much better he is than other historians that he comes across as rather stuffy and self-important historian rather than a populariser of the man he is writing about.

I said that Arrian suppresses Alexander’s negative qualities. This isn’t completely true. While it is true that he tries to gloss over the Macedonian king’s role in the destruction of Thebes, wait until he delivers his judgement over the destruction of Xerxes’ palace at Persepolis. There, Arrian says it was wrong – no ifs, not buts, just wrong. He is on Alexander’s side, but is not besotted with him.

* I presume on the basis that Ptolemy fought alongside Alexander in the army and became a senior general by the time of Alexander’s death whereas Aristobulos, although he fought, was principally an engineer

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Arrian I.3.1-6

In This Chapter
After telling us that Alexander arrived at the Danube river after defeating the Triballians at the Lyginus river, Arrian digresses to give an account of the tribes who live along it.

At the Danube, Alexander was joined by warships from Byzantium (presumably he ordered them to come on a previous occasion; Arrian does not tell us).

After ordering archers and hoplites aboard the ships, Alexander attempted to attack the island where Syrmus had taken refuge. Unfortunately for him, Macedonian numbers were too few, the current too fast, landing sites too steep and Thracian/Triballian opposition too strong for him to succeed in taking it. Alexander gave up and decided to cross the Danube instead, to attack the Getae on the other side.

The Getae were seemingly ready for him – Arrian says that there were 4,000 cavalry and 10,000 foot on the far bank. Alexander, however, had a deep yearning (pothos) to cross the river. Not all of his men would fit onto the ships so he ordered them to ‘stuff their leather tent-covers with hay’ and then sow them up; in addition, he gave orders for local boats to be commandeered. That night, 1500 cavalry and 4,000 men crossed the river.

Thoughts
I once read that the Alexander Historians provide details that are applicable to their own time rather than Alexander’s in their work. This makes me wonder, therefore, if Arrian’s list of Danube tribes comes from the second century AD rather than fourth century BC.

Alexander’s inability to take the island represents a rarity for him – a military failure at which he was present. Because Arrian is a pro-Alexander writer (unlike, say, Curtius), the inclusion of this failure is significant. But perhaps Arrian mentions it because in the greater scheme of things, it didn’t matter. We will see how true this is as we read further.

In this chapter we see the first mention of Alexander’s pothos, his deep yearning to achieve a goal. If you would like to know more about pothos, how it came to be applied to Alexander and its broader meaning, I highly recommend this article from Livius.

Why would Alexander be so keen to cross the Danube? We don’t know for sure, but the notes to my copy of Arrian suggest that ‘he may have wanted to rival the crossing of the Danube by Darius [the Great] in 512[BC]’. With his love of fighting, perhaps he also wanted to fight further and further afield for the glory of it; in this case, the Danube campaign foreshadows the journey beyond the Hindu Kush and into India very strongly.

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Arrian I.1.1-13

In This Chapter
Arrian’s account of Alexander’s life is titled Anabasis Alexandrou, which means ‘Alexander’s Expedition’. For this reason, Arrian begins his account of Alexander’s life with Philip II’s murder and Alexander’s accession to the throne of Macedon.

Having established his kingship Alexander marched on the Peloponnese where he asked the ‘Peloponnesian Greeks’ to give him ‘leadership of the campaign against Persia’, a role previously granted to Philip. Everyone except the Spartans, who believed only in leading rather than being lead, agreed.

Arrian mentions in passing that Athens stirred in opposition to Alexander but that his quick arrival put an end to it. Alexander was given various honours by the city and returned home.

Alexander became king of Macedon in October 336BC. Arrian now jumps forward to Spring 335BC and the new king’s campaign to secure Macedon’s northern borders before heading east.

Alexander marched into Thrace where he confronted Triballian and Illyrian forces. In his first battle as king (as recorded by Arrian, of course), Alexander used a very inventive tactic in order to nullify a potentially catastrophic threat.

Alexander and his army came to the foot of the Haemus mountains. Above them stood a rag tag army of locals and ‘independent Thracians’. They had with them carts which they intended to push down the side of the mountain and into the Macedonian army.

Had this tactic worked, it would have thrown the Macedonian army into disarray, making the job of repelling it – perhaps even destroying it – that much easier. Seeing what the enemy intended to do, however, Alexander ordered his men to do one of two things; either (a) part ways so that the oncoming carts simply rolled down empty channels either side of them, or, where that was not possible, (b) lie down with their shields on their backs so that the carts rolled over them. The Macedonian soldiers did both these things and as a result, Arrian tells us, suffered no deaths. With their best chance of defeating the Macedonian army having rolled away, the locals and independent Thracians were easily defeated in the scrappy battle that followed.

Thoughts
How do the other Alexander Historians begin their works? Well, both Diodorus and Justin begin at the same point as Arrian – with Philip’s death and Alexander’s accession to the throne. The first two books of Curtius have been lost so we don’t know where he begins. Only Plutarch tells us anything about Alexander’s early life. In reading it, though, we have to be careful as there is a fair amount of mythologising and propaganda there.

Arrian glosses over the manner of Alexander’s accession and what happened after. In fact, in regards the latter, he has next to nothing to say, which is odd because it is relevant to his focus – a military history of Alexander’s life. For more information, we have to turn to Diodorus.

By the way, Diodorus gives us the first opportunity to ask which of the sources might be more accurate. Diodorus says that when Alexander became king Evaenetus was archon of Athens while Arrian says it was Pythdelus – who is right? Or are these two names for one man?

It isn’t clear from Arrian whether Athens folded after Alexander’s quick arrival at Athens or elsewhere. Diodorus tells us that it happened after the Macedonian king’s arrival in Boeotia, to confront Thebes, which had rebelled against him.

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20th September 331BC: A Blood Red Lunar Eclipse

We are now in the countdown to the anniversary of the Battle of Gaugamela, which took place on 1st October 331BC.

For me, the start of the countdown is always the anniversary of the lunar eclipse that Alexander and his Macedonian army witnessed after crossing the Tigris River.

The eclipse took place on 20th September, ten days before the battle. Arrian reports it in a very matter-of-fact way. He tells us that after crossing the Tigris, Alexander rested his men. When the eclipse happened, Alexander sacrificed to the Moon, Sun and Earth. Afterwards, Aristander prophesied that the eclipse was a sign that the showdown with Darius would take place that month and that Alexander’s sacrifices showed that he – the Macedonian king – would triumph. The End.

Curtius gives a much more sensational account of what happened. He begins with an account of the actual eclipse.

First the moon lost its usual brightness, and then became suffused with a blood-red colour which caused a general dimness in the light it shed.

Curtius IV.10.2

As the moon turned blood red, the Macedonians, who were already anxious at the impending battle with Darius, were

… struck… with a deep religious awe which precipitated a kind of panic. They complained that the gods opposed their being taken to the ends of the earth, that now rivers forbade them access, met everywhere by desolation and desert. The blood of thousands was paying for the grandiose plans of one man who despised his country, disowned his father Philip, and had deluded ideas about aspiring to heaven.

Curtius IV.10.2-3

According to Curtius, the Macedonians were so spooked that they were on the verge of mutiny. Trouble was averted, however, by Alexander’s Egyptian priests who – although they knew the real reason for the eclipse – told the rank and file that the eclipse indicated a Macedonian victory in the battle ahead. This calmed the Macedonian soldiers’ nerves. ‘Nothing exercises greater control over the masses than superstition’ (C. IV.10.7) Curtius adds with a sneer, which is funny coming from a Roman.

What to make of the two accounts?

Arrian’s is so short and to-the-point that it would be tempting to see him as glossing over what really happened that night, something that Curtius is more than happy to reveal. Curtius’ account, however, is too sensational to be regarded as the gospel truth.

I have no problem believing that the Macedonians viewed the eclipse with a ‘religious awe’. They were a very religious people and saw meaning in natural events as a matter of course. Of course an event as profound as an eclipse would make a big impression on them.

Is it likely that the eclipse would cause them to panic? On the one hand, if they generally regarded eclipses as negative events, I don’t see why not; on the other, I don’t know how ancient Macedonians regarded eclipses so don’t have the knowledge to make a judgement one way or the other.

I am less convinced by the idea that the Macedonians complained that the gods opposed their onward movement, ‘that now rivers forbade them access’, and that ‘desolation and desert’ met them everywhere. And I disbelieve entirely that the Macedonians turned again, even if only briefly, against Alexander in the way that Curtius suggests.

The reason I don’t believe the Macedonians felt that the gods turned against them is that, once calmed by the Egyptian priests, they followed Alexander east without a murmur until the death of Darius. If they really believed this early that the gods – the gods! – were now against them, I would expect to see them turn against Alexander much earlier than India. As it is, when they did start to pine for home, it was because the Great King was now dead and they simply saw no need to go any further east. The anger of the gods did not come into it. Neither did they at the Hyphasis River.

I don’t know what Curtius means by ‘rivers forbade them access’ given that they had just easily crossed the Tigris. Similarly, the idea that they were ‘met everywhere by desolation and desert’ is too much hyperbole. Sure, they had crossed a desert but at no great cost to them either as an army or individuals. Curtius’ statement sounds more like the kind of thing that the Macedonians would say as the crossed the Gedrosian Desert on the way back from India.

Finally, if the Macedonian soldiery really believed that the ‘blood of thousands was paying for the grandiose plans of one man who despised his country’ they would have hated Alexander, not followed him to the ends of the earth, and then rebelled against his wishes with tears in their eyes. This is more hyperbole – more of Curtius adding to what he knows for the sake of his story. Similarly in regards the Macedonians’ view of Alexander’s beliefs regarding his divinity. He had only just visited Siwah a few months earlier. Surely he had not yet come to any settled view regarding who he was? Curtius’ statement here is so specific it seems to me to belong to a different time, maybe a few years later, after Alexander had time to ponder what had happened and arrive at an answer, which Curtius now brings back to the eve of the Battle of Gaugamela for the sake of an exciting narrative.

The Lunar Eclipse
Arrian III.7.6
Curtius IV.10.1-8

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Dancing With The Lion – an interview with Jeanne Reames, Part One

Today, on the 2,375th anniversary of Alexander’s birth, I am delighted to welcome Jeanne Reames to The Second Achilles for the first of a two part ‘interview’ to discuss her part one of her new novel Dancing With The Lion: Becoming, in which she tells the story of how Alexander became the Great.

You can find Dancing With The Lion: Becoming on Amazon in the U.K. here and U.S.A. here or from all good bookshops. Jeanne’s book website is here.

To celebrate Dancing With The Lion: Becoming hitting the bookshelves, I caught up with Jeanne in the most twenty-first way possible, via e-mail, to discuss the novel and its characters.

What was your inspiration for writing Dancing with the Lion?
When I was in grad school for the first time at Emory, this guy, “Alexander the Great,” kept popping up in my Early Church history classes, yet I knew nothing about him. Deciding I might learn something, I trekked off to the library and grabbed two biographies off the shelf, somewhat at random. They happened to be Peter Green’s Alexander of Macedon (the original 1974 Thames-on-Hudson edition with images), and N.G.L. Hammond’s 1980 Alexander the Great: King, Commander, and Statesman (his more measured bio). I couldn’t have picked more divergent visions of Alexander if I’d tried.

So I became fascinated by this young man who literally changed the face of his world, then died before 33, leaving behind such varying analyses from heroically positive to viciously negative. The novelist in me took note, as we love a complicated character. I kept reading, and fell in love with Macedonia itself, as well.

What was it like writing about Alexander himself? Did he come with a lot of baggage – given to you by other authors and historians – or does he travel lightly, so’s to speak?
Oh, he comes with a freight-load of baggage, which is why I chose to use his real (Greek) name—Alexandros—to cut off some of it. In addition, I wanted to write him from a Macedonian perspective, as best I could. He’s too often viewed through a Greek (and later Roman) lens.

Much of that owes to our surviving sources, none of which were written during his own lifetime; Diodorus (arguably the earliest we still have) dates to the first century BCE. That would be like trying to write on John F. Kennedy with nothing more recent than bios 200 years in the future. Lord knows what they’d actually understand about the 1960s.

Fortunately, modern archaeology is producing amazing new insights, especially about early Iron-age, Archaic, and Classical Macedonia, rewriting our understanding of the Argead Macedonian kingdom. Never mind the royal cemetery at Aigai, what’s coming out of Aiani (ancient Elimeia), Archontiko (Pella), and Methone is stunning. But unfortunately, most of these reports are in modern Greek. I’ve tried to include at least references to our new discoveries in the novel, although the bulk of the text was written well before 2000. Again, all this contributes to my goal to show a non-Athenocentric, Macedonian Alexander.

Mieza, where Aristotle taught Alexander, Hephaestion et al

Did Alexander surprise you by his actions in the course of writing this book or did you feel you always had him under control?
If your characters are real, they always have a life of their own. Non-writers can be baffled when novelists talk about characters as if they were real people with whom the author has regular conversations. But if the author can’t do that, her characters aren’t 3D.

That said, Alexander was a bit harder to write my way into than Hephaistion. Hephaistion winked into existence when I (re-)read Peter Green’s bio and hit the line that describes him as, “Tall, handsome, spoilt, spiteful, overbearing, and fundamentally stupid” (p. 465, U. Cal ed., 1991 reprint). And in my head, this little Hephaistion sat up and said, “No, I wasn’t like that at all.” That gave me both a character and a dissertation, so I thank Peter for it.*

I’m sure some of my reaction was a gelling of what I’d read, leading me to a different opinion about Hephaistion. Yet from that moment, Hephaistion’s book character has been firmly formed and hasn’t changed much. Also, I’d like to note that I do see a distinction between my character and the historical person. If the former is certainly based on my research into the latter, I’m not confused about where the lines are.

The character who morphed the most during the writing was Myrtalē-Olympias. When I began, I had a fairly traditional, negative view. Then I read Beth Carney’s work, which fundamentally altered how I understood her and her motives, creating (I hope) a more nuanced character.

The historical Hephaestion did not live to write his memoirs and appears only episodically in the works of the Alexander historians. This makes him a rather elusive personality. Was that a blessing or curse for you in writing about him?
I consider it a blessing, as it left me a lot of freedom. Yet I’ve spent so much time with this fellow, I do feel as if I have some sense of what the historical person must have been like.

With Hephaistion, we must avoid too simplistic a reading. It can be easy to slam him into certain pre-made categories. The first is a yes-man without genuine ambition or much of a mind of his own, just beauty and a steadfast loyalty to Alexander. A second is more sinister: an ambitious man of limited ability, using Alexander’s affection for him to climb the socio-political ladder at the Macedonian court, and targeting his enemies along the way. He may (or may not) have felt genuine affection for Alexander.

To me, the evidence from the ancient sources doesn’t support either of those. First, he actually was capable (both Sabine Müller and I have written academic material about this). Second, all his clashes are late in his career, once he’d risen to very high rank, and in at least the case of Krateros, he may have been the target rather than the targeted. Earlier, he had no obvious enemies (aside from, perhaps, Olympias). In the novel, in fact, I’ve made him a bit more testy than I think he actually was. If Curtius (who was no fan of Alexander) paints a mostly positive picture of Hephaistion, perhaps we should pay attention.

He appears to have been deeply—and genuinely—attached to Alexander, and Curtius observed that he was diplomatic enough to avoid pushing his place. Yet he may also not have cared for personal advancement to the same degree as his fellows. That said, we must be careful not to make him passive; the evidence suggests that if insulted, he’d strike back. Remember, a virtuous Greek didn’t turn the other cheek; one was expected to help friends and hurt enemies, not ignore them, an important difference between now and then. In fact, showing clemency could be a backhanded insult, one Julius Caesar later used to great political effect. One could show clemency only to one’s social inferiors, after all.

I’ve come to think of Hephaistion as a “gamma male”; in pop culture, there’s little agreement as to what these men are like, but originally the term was coined to define those who disengage from the whole alpha-beta dynamic. They neither attempt to lead (although may be capable of doing so), nor do they willingly follow, unless they agree on the direction. While it might seem that alpha and gamma males should naturally clash, gamma males may also be the only true friend a strong alpha can have (and trust).

I find three aspects of Hephaistion’s personality mostly consistent according to our sources: he was honest with Alexander but diplomatic about his status in public, he seems to have agreed with Alexander’s policies in general and supported them, and last—and most importantly—Alexander wasn’t the least threatened by him. Add to that a friendship that quite probably spanned two decades and it suggests he was more complex than some would allow.

In writing Hephaestion did you ever find yourself in dialogue with previous interpretations of him? For example, in authors such as Mary Renault and film makers like Oliver Stone?
Very little, actually. First, this novel is now 30 years from its inception, and Hephaistion was among the earliest solid characters I had. I wrote the first line in December of 1988. I hadn’t even read Renault yet, and all of that was long before Stone came on the scene. Not to mention Stone’s Hephaistion is really Renault’s Hephaistion.

So while some of my characters owe to the influence of others (say, Beth Carney’s impact on my view of Olympias), Hephaistion is solely mine, unless you count Curtius and the other original sources.

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*(Important note: scholars can like each other very much while still disagreeing on evaluations of the evidence, and Peter gave me one of the best edit jobs I’ve ever had for “The Mourning of Alexander the Great” [Ed’s Note: Which you can read here] which I also think is probably the best article I’ve published to date. So be aware that our scholarly disagreements in no way reflect our personal opinions about our colleagues. Also, we may disagree vehemently with one point, but agree substantially on others.)

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Check back tomorrow for Part Two of the interview in which, among other things, we discuss Alexander’s mother, Olympias and his sister, Cleopatra and I get some advice on how to write (historical) fiction.

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For more information about Dancing With The Lion, visit Jeanne Reames’s website here.

Coming this October…

All the images used in this blog post belong to Jeanne Reames and are used with her permission

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A Fake Argument

In an article titled A Brief History of Fake News on the Asharq Al-awsat website here, Amir Taheri states the following,

A bigger piece of fake news came in the shape of the yarn woven around Alexander the Great, the invincible conqueror. He is supposed to have lived to the ripe old age of 33.

In just 10 years, the Macedonian is supposed to have conquered almost all of the then known world from the Balkans Peninsula to Russia to the Indian Ocean and from North Africa to the Indian Subcontinent, Central Asia and China. That involves a distance of around 40,000 kilometers, allez-retour, which means he would have been traveling quite a bit. And, yet, he is supposed to have built 20 cities named after himself, taken four wives (long before Islam) and “disappeared” for an unknown length of time looking for the fountain of eternal youth.

That there is no contemporaneous account of those marvelous deeds has persuaded some historians to doubt the existence of such a character which first appeared in Greek and Latin literature in 160 AD, that is to say, centuries after the claimed events.

I don’t know who Amir Taheri is but judging by the bio at the top of the article he is a very experienced writer and journalist. If so, he has let himself down here.

First of all, a quibble: Alexander died at ‘the ripe old age’ of 32. However, maybe I should let that go as Alexander less than two months before his thirty-third birthday. I will not do the same with his other comments.

Secondly, Alexander never made it to Russia (or, to be more precise, the country that is now Russia). You could say that insofar as he conquered territory in what is now Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, he therefore conquered land from the Balkan peninsula to the former USSR but if that’s what Taheri meant he ought to have said it. It would have been best, though, if he had referred specifically to the countries above. That would have been most accurate.

Also, Alexander did not enter China. He didn’t even know it existed. If Taheri had bothered to look at a map of Alexander’s empire, he would have known this.

Thirdly, Alexander married three times, not four. A quick look at Wikipedia could have told Taheri this.

Fourthly, Alexander did not spend any time looking for the fountain of eternal youth. This tale comes from the Alexander Romance which is a fictionalised account of Alexander’s life. If one is going to claim that Alexander the Great is not a real person one might at least try to show that the supposed histories of his life are false rather than the fictions.

Fifthly, Alexander did not first appear ‘in Greek and Latin literature in 160 AD’. Certainly, Arrian and Plutarch wrote about Alexander in the second century AD but before them came Curtius, probably in the first century AD, and Diodorus, in the first century BC. Alexander is also referred to – as Alexander the Great, by and by – by Plautus in his comedy Mostellaria, which was written in the late third century/early second century BC by the Roman playwright, Plautus. Taheri’s claim, therefore, that Alexander does not appear until 160 AD is rot.

Finally, Taheri bases his claim that Alexander is ‘fake news’ by pointing out that there are no ‘contemporaneous accounts of those marvelous [sic] deeds’. It is disingenuous to use the fact that we no longer have the contemporary accounts of Alexander’s life to suggest that he never really lived.

What Taheri ought to be doing is looking at the accounts that we do have – in conjunction with the other evidence – and deciding on the basis of what he sees there whether Alexander lived or not. As it is, he has taken the path of a troll who purposefully uses bad arguments in order to score a point. Badly done, as Mr Knightly, would say; all the more so as he suggests that this is what other historians (I should like to know who) believe rather than himself.

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Doubting Mary

27th August 2018

In my last post, I mentioned an online article which cast doubt on the veracity of the figure of Herakles, Alexander’s son by Barsine. It was, I said, the first time I had seen doubt expressed regarding whether Herakles was a real person or not.

A few days later, and perhaps rather inevitably, I came across another writer expressing the same doubt. That writer was none other than Mary Renault in The Nature of Alexander. Speaking about the capture of the non-royal women at Damascus*, she says,

These ladies, not being royal game, were not so strictly preserved. One has a role in Alexander’s legend, another in his history. Only Plutarch says that he took for himself Barsine, Memnon’s widow and Artabazus’ daughter; for the staggering reason that Parmenion – of all people! – told him she would be good for him. The dubiety of the story lies not only in this, but in the powerful motive for inventing it. No record at all exists of such a woman accompanying his march; nor of any claim by her, or her powerful kin, that she had borne him offspring. Yet twelve years after his death a boy was produced, seventeen years old, born therefore five years after Damascus, her alleged son ‘brought up in Pergamon’; a claimant and short-lived pawn in the succession war, chosen probably for a physical resemblance to Alexander. That he actually did marry another Barsine [Stateira II] must have helped both to launch and preserve the story but no source reports any notice whatever taken by him of a child who, Roxane’s being posthumous, would have been during his lifetime his only son, a near royal mother. In a man who named cities after his horse and dog, this strains credulity.
(Mary Renault “The Nature of Alexander” pp.100-1)

It would take a blog post or two to do justice to Renault’s statement. For now, I would like to just mention a few thoughts that I have about it.

  1. Is it really so hard to imagine Alexander taking advice from Parmenion? I know he gets short shrift in some of the texts but even if that is because he made some wrong or bad calls, Alexander never stopped trusting him. When he left him at Ecbatana, he put into Parmenion’s hands, an awful lot of money and troops. It would have been truly ‘staggering’ for him to do that if he did not have complete confidence in the general.
  2. Herakles wasn’t produced out-of-the-blue twelve years after Alexander’s death. Nearchus suggested him for the vacant crown at the first Babylonian conference (Curtius X.6.10-12). I presume Renault would say this was a fiction created in 311 –
  3. – But if so, wouldn’t Cassander have known it? Wasn’t he in Babylon when Alexander died, after all? Even if he wasn’t, he could simply have asked someone – Ptolemy, for example – who was there, if Nearchus had mentioned Herakles and then acted accordingly. Well, maybe he didn’t have time. The whole matter is still very fishy, though.

* Following the Battle of Issus in 333 BC

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Speaking of The Nature of Alexander, I am still reading the book. This morning, I started the Persia chapter and left a comment about it on the Alexander Reading Group Facebook page. To read it, or any of the other comments in the Reading Group, click here.

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Curtius (VII.6.12) states that Alexander asked a friend of his named Derdas to cross the Tanais* river to undertake a diplomatic mission and engage in a little intelligence gathering. He asked him ‘to explore the terrain and make an expedition also to those Scythians who live beyond the Bosphorus’.

I’ve always been intrigued by this passage. As you no doubt know, the Bosphorus is the strait** that splits Istanbul into a European and Asian city. Did Alexander really think that he had travelled so far round the world that he was but days or mere weeks away from Asia Minor? It sounds like it, though the idea is hard to credit.

Speaking of ’round’, did Alexander know that the world was a sphere? You would be forgiven for saying ‘no’ on the grounds that there was so much that the ancients did not know about the world. However, if you did, you’d be wrong. According to the British Library’s blog, here, Plato and Aristotle – Alexander’s teacher, of course, – taught unambiguously that the world was round. What no one knew, though, was how people on the other side of the world didn’t fall off it. Gravity remained unknown.

*aka Jaxartes, modern day Syr-darya
** As well as the ‘small indentation at’ the base of a woman’s throat. First prize to anyone who can guess which book and film this comes from. It’s been mentioned on this blog before!

Categories: Of The Moment, On Alexander, Quintus Curtius Rufus | Tags: , , , , , , | 2 Comments

2,374 Years Strong

diary – birthday edition

We don’t know which day exactly Alexander was born on but it usually taken to be 20th/21st July (though I have also seen 26th mentioned). With that in mind, I took the day off work yesterday to commemorate it by visiting a Greek restaurant in Primrose Hill called Lemonia. It is a lovely place and well worth a visit if you are in the neighbourhood. I ate zatziki for starters, keftedes for mains and finished off with a Greek coffee. Sadly for my future as a food blogger and instagrammer I didn’t take any photographs of either the food or drink – I washed the food down with half a bottle of Restina Kourtaki. Oh, and I bought a bottle of Greek Macedonian red wine. When I open that I will certainly take a photograph and upload it here.

While I waited for the courses to arrive, I read the opening chapters of Plutarch’s Life of Alexander, our only (substantial) account of Alexander’s birth. The account is infused with legend as well as bald facts; one might also say it is laced with propaganda as well – particularly regarding Alexander’s divinity. Most interestingly, it also contains what is probably the only example of Olympias being humble. Plutarch records two traditions regarding her; in the first, she tells Alexander ‘the secret of his conception’ and urges him ‘to show himself worthy of his divine parentage’. In the other, Plutarch says that ‘that she repudiated this story and used to say, ‘Will Alexander never stop making Hera jealous of me.’

Who were the authors who maintained this latter tradition, and why did they do so? After Olympias died, in 316 BC, there was no motivation for anyone to defend her from whatever charge her erstwhile enemies cared to bring.

***

The mystery of the large, black coffin found in Alexandria has been solved – for now. It was opened and found to contain three skeletons and sewage water. Yuk. Read more here. Of course, we are disappointed that it didn’t contain Alexander’s body. On the other hand, though, isn’t it nice that the mystery over where his final resting place is, still remains?

***

Hornet, the gay news site, has a curate’s egg of an article on Alexander, here.

… letters of the time described Alexander yielding to Hephaestion’s thighs.

Robin Lane Fox mentions this anecdote and states that it comes from ‘the Cynic philosophers… long after [Alexander’s] death’.

“One soul abiding in two bodies” is how their tutor, Aristotle, described the two men.

Aristotle was respond to the question of ‘what is a friend’; he wasn’t referring to Alexander and Hephaestion (Diogenes Laertius Lives of Eminent Philosophers Book V.20 here)

“The friend I valued as my own life,” Alexander wrote of his partner.

I don’t think Alexander did say this – did he?

Scholars have suggested that he became careless with his health after losing his lover.

I think it would be fair to say that Alexander was always careless of his health! In respect of the statement, I don’t think he was. I don’t recall anything in the sources to indicate it.

… eventually [Alexander and Barsine] are said to have had a son named Heracles. Questions linger about the veracity of that particular account — it’s possible that Heracles was procured in an attempt to usurp the throne after Alexander’s death. Though there were some who supported Heracles’ claim to Alexander’s lineage, he vanished not long after his supposed father died.

This is the first time I have heard anyone doubt that Heracles lived. He is well attested in the sources – Curtius, Diodorus and Justin all mention him. Also, Heracles didn’t ‘vanish not long after his supposed father died’ – he lived until 310/09 BC when Polyperchon tried to use him to reclaim Macedon from Cassander only to be executed after Cassander made Polyperchon an offer suitable to his irrelevant status in the Wars of the Successors.

She was carrying a son at the time, whom she named Alexander IV; but doubt was cast over the identity of the father.

Again, this is the first time I have heard anyone doubt Alexander’s paternity of Alexander IV.

In general, Alexander’s focus was on uniting Persian and Greek culture, and so he arranged marriages that spanned the two groups. He went so far as to organize a mass wedding that lasted five days and included 90 couplings, usually tying highly regarded Macedonian women to Greek soldiers whom Alexander trusted.

If Alexander was intent on uniting ‘Persian and Greek culture’ I don’t know why he would hold a mass wedding involving Macedonian women to Greek soldiers. Of course, he didn’t; the reference here is to the mass weddings at Susa in which Macedonians were married to Persians – see Arrian VII.4-8).

So the article is a bit hit and miss. I did like the closing passage, though:

… it is impossible not to wonder what passions existed two and a half millennia ago, and how recognizable those feelings would be to us today.

***

Judging by the way people write about Alexander and Hephaestion today, their feelings are very recognisable today! As it happens, I had the opportunity a few weeks ago to consider my own. I was asked who my heroes were. Alexander was suggested but then someone said that perhaps he was someone I was just fascinated by rather than considered heroic.

I wouldn’t consider Alexander heroic in the modern sense – he was no Superman, selflessly acting for the good of others; he was, though, heroic in the ancient Greek manner: devoted to winning glory for himself, proving himself better than anyone else.

Alexander certainly fascinates me but for me it goes much deeper than that, and for that reason, I try to think about him as critically as I can so that I don’t descend into fanboyism – excusing or ignoring the bad things he did and complexities of his life just because he looked good and (probably) slept with Hephaestion. I can’t say how good I am at that, probably not as much as I want to be, but for me it is important to try. It has the added benefit as well of enabling me to learn more about the Alexander who lived rather than the one I hold in my heart.

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

The Iliad, Hephaestion and Alexander’s Jealousy

Recently, I bought the audiobook version of Stephen Mitchell’s translation of The Iliad. I have been listening to it at work and it has been a very intense experience.

One battle after another, one Greek or Trojan after another being killed in the most gruesome way. Homer does not spare you in his descriptions but – and this is surely his genius as a poet – he never descends into any kind of slaughter-porn; the deaths are treated with an amazing, and very mature, matter-of-factness.

As a result, the story never gets too much to bear. With that said, I can only listen to it for an hour or two every day before I need to take a break.

***

A few days ago, perhaps last week, I read an author who suggested that Perdiccas might have been a few years older than Alexander. This got me thinking about how Alexander sent Perdiccas with Hephaestion into Gandhara. It was 327 BC, and their

… instructions were to take by force or negotiate the surrender of all the towns on their route, and, once arrived at the Indus [River], to make all necessary preparations for the crossing of the river.
(Arrian IV.22.7)

Why did Alexander send two of his three most senior officers* away together? My Oxford World’s Classics edition of Arrian says that ‘Alexander needed a macho officer to balance the less bellicose Hephaestion’.

This seems to me to be a rather extraordinary statement. It can only come from the view that Hephaestion was not first-and-foremost a military man. Therefore, he must have been a bit soft.

However, the Hephaestion who, it is true, is most often seen carrying out non-military operations is also the Hephaestion fought with such vigour at the Battle of Gaugamela that he was wounded (Ar. III.15.2). And is also the same Hephaestion who took a ruthless and leading role in the downfall of Philotas (see C.VI.11.10 ff). And, yes, he is the same Hephaestion who was not afraid to square off against Craterus (Plutarch Life of Alexander 47) and even face down Olympias herself despite her ‘sharp criticisms and threats against him’ (Diodorus XVII.114).

So much for Hephaestion not being a ‘bellicose’ man. But if we rule the Oxford World’s Classics’s explanation out, why did Perdiccas travel with him? Well, I’m not going to pretend I know; I don’t, but a thought that came to me is that perhaps, if Perdiccas was appreciably older than Alexander (with whom Hephaestion was coeval), just perhaps, he was not there to cover the military side of the mission while Hephaestion handled the non-military but was assigned to Hephaestion to act as a mentor – to help him grow as a military commander rather than replace him as one. It’s just a thought.

* The third being Craterus

***

I am on Twitter – @secondachilles if you would like to follow me – and yesterday I had a conversation with someone that led me to this passage,

… Alexander never used to greet the news that Philip had captured an important city or won a famous victory with particular delight; instead, he used to say to his friends, ‘Lads, my father’s going to pre-empt me in everything. By the time he’s finished, there’ll be nothing important left for me to present to the world, no splendid victories to be won with your help.’
(Plutarch Life 5)

Isn’t it amazing that Alexander worried about this? In his youth, he must have either had a very limited conception of the size of the world or else regarded most of it as being simply beyond reach. More likely, though, he never said any such thing and that the anecdote is based not on a specific conversation but on Alexander’s attitude and his tendency to be jealous of other people’s achievements – see how he called the Battle of Megalopolis in 331 BC ‘a battle of mice’ (Plutarch Life of Agesilaus 15) and his fatal quarrel with Black Cleitus (Curtius VIII.1.22-52).

Picture Credits
The Iliad cover – The Telegraph

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

Changing the Past: In Antiquity and Today

New Year is well and truly over and I am back at work. When is my next holiday?

***

This week I read Come, Tell Me How You Live by Agatha Christie Mallowan. Don’t be confused by the last name, she is that Agatha Christie. Mallowan was her married name. The reason for its use here is because Come, Tell Me is not a crime novel but an account of the archaeological trips to the Near East that she undertook with her archaeologist husband, Max Mallowan, in the 1930s.

In Chapter One, Christie and her husband make their way to Syria on the Orient Express. They witness no murders, fortunately, but do pass the Sea of Marmora and Cilician Gates in Turkey.

As soon as I saw these names, my mind went back to Alexander. Christie’s Marmora became Diodorus’ Marmarens. The Marmarens (who, I should say, lived in Lycia rather than around the Sea of Marmara) attacked the Macedonian army as it marched past, killing no few soldiers, kidnapping others and stealing booty. Alexander, unsurprisingly, was rather displeased by this, and lay siege to the Marmarens’ fort.

For two days, Alexander attacked it. However, although he failed to break its defences, he did enough to persuade the Marmaren elders that he would stay until he had done so. Upon realising this, the elders,

… advised their younger countrymen to end their resistance and make peace with the king on whatever terms were possible.
(Diodorus XVII.28)

Interestingly, the younger Marmarens refused to do this. Diodorus tells us that they ‘were eager to die together simultaneously’ (Ibid) for the sake of their freedom. Now, at this point, you might have thought that the elders would have knocked their children’s heads together, remind them of who was in charge and lead the surrender before the youngsters came out with another tom fool idea. But no, they acquiesced to this, and came out with a tom fool idea of their own. The elders told the young men If you are determined to die, kill your wives, children and elderly relatives then break out of the fort and hide yourselves in the mountains.

The young men liked this idea and went away to have a last meal with their families. That evening, however, some of them reneged on the plan. But they didn’t run away with their loved ones. Instead of killing their families ‘with their own hands’ (Ibid) as the elders had suggested, they set fire to their homes and burned them alive. Six hundred men did this, and having done so, they should have had the decency to die with their loved ones. But no. They duly broke out of the fort and headed to the mountains.

This story has stuck with me since I read it. I am fascinated by the apparent equality of power between the young and old Marmarens. I have not heard of any other society in antiquity, or since, for that matter, where a similar situation has existed.

But… Did it exist? It may not have. The above quotations from Diodorus comes from my Loeb edition. The notes there state that ‘Appian… tells the same story of Xanthus, traditionally destroyed in this way three times… it was something of a literary topos’ (Diodorus XVII.28 n.5). Indeed, as the notes say, Diodorus repeats the story in Book XVIII.22 of his Library. There, it is the Isaurians in Pisidia who, seeing that they have no chance of breaking Perdiccas’ siege, burn their families alive in their homes. The Isaurians, however, do not try to flee afterwards. Instead, they destroy their possessions in the fire and, after defending the city for a little while longer, jump into the flames themselves.

Diodorus calls the Isaurians’ actions ‘a heroic and memorable deed’ (Dio.XVIII.22). I can only wonder if he changed the original account of what happened to the Marmarens and Isaurians to highlight their perceived heroism or if his sources did so.

***

Only Diodorus mentions the Marmarens. In contrast, both Arrian (II.4.3-6) and Curtius (III.4.11-14) refer to Alexander’s passage through the Cilician Gates on his way to Tarsus. There, their similarity ends.

Curtius states that Alexander looked at the narrow path ahead of him and,

… they say [was] never more surprised at his good fortune. For, he observed, he could have been crushed just by rocks, if there had been anyone there to hurl them down on his approaching troops.
(Curtius III.4.11)

According to Arrian, however, the Cilician Gates were heavily defended when Alexander arrived, but when the Persian soldiers realised ‘that Alexander was leading the attack in person’ (Ar.II.4.4), they fled. This sounds altogether a more likely version of events than Curtius’ as it would make no sense for the local satrap, Arsames, to leave the pass undefended.

***

One of the things that makes Alexander such an interesting figure to study is the fact that he defies our expectations. I was reflecting on this the other day and contemplating writing a blog post titled ‘Alexander the (Social Justice) Warrior’ focusing on how he pardoned Timoclea after she killed the Thracian soldier who raped her (Plutarch Life of Alexander 12), his treatment of the Persian queen and princesses (Pl. Life 21) and the conquered Persians (e.g. in the way he tried to integrate them into his imperial hierarchy as satraps). These were all very progressive social actions.

Alexander was not just about the fighting; and when he did fight he did not do so just to make Greece look good. Like any social justice warrior he wanted to change the world for the better. Hence, the above mentioned actions and the fact that he took surveyors and scientists on his expedition.

Of course, the name ‘social justice warrior’ has a pejorative meaning as well. And guess what. Alexander can be found there as well.

Thus, taking the Urban Dictionary’s definition (here),

… an individual who repeatedly and vehemently engages in arguments on social justice on the Internet, often in a shallow or not well-thought-out way, for the purpose of raising their own personal reputation.

Having been taught by Aristotle, Alexander could hold his own in an argument. However, he was undeniably concerned with his reputation. That was the whole reason for the expedition.

Social Justice Warriors or SJWs are: People with paper thin skin who always find something to be offended about. They generally have no concept of humour.

As Black Cleitus (Curtius VIII.1.22-52), Callisthenes (Pl. Life 53) and Cassander (Pl. Life 74) found out to their collective cost Alexander could be very easily offended sometimes, with fatal consequences.

[SJWs] aggressively call for the downfall of the person who carelessly offended them.

Philotas (Curtius VI.7.1-11.40), anyone?

But as I said above, Alexander defies our expectations. He is not only a progressive but also very conservative. Perhaps I will come back to that in my next or a future post.

***

The BBC and Netflix are producing a new drama based on the Trojan War. Controversy is following in the series’ wake, however, due to the fact that some of the characters, including Achilles, are being played by black actors. For more, see the Greek Reporter here.

If I had been the casting director, I would have chosen a white actor to play Achilles. That’s what he was. However, the more I think about it, the less I think that the casting director is obliged to hire a white person.

The Iliad is not history. Homer’s Achilles did not exist. He might be based on a real person but he is not them. Homer’s Achilles is a myth. He is a meaning. And in that capacity, he can be reinterpreted by every age as it sees fit. Indeed, it is only by being reinterpreted that he remains relevant to us.

If a law was made that permitted only one, single version of Achilles, we would bound him to the meaning of a specific time and place, and one day, he would become strange and unknowable to us. I would a thousand thousand times over rather have a black Achilles, a female Achilles, an Achilles who loves Hector rather than Patroclus or a pacifist Achilles rather than an irrelevant Achilles.

Categories: Alexander in Film, Arrian, Books, Diodorus Siculus, Homer, Plutarch, Quintus Curtius Rufus | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

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