This week, I watched A Man for All Seasons. It tells the story of how Sir Thomas More refused to approve Henry VIII’s separation from Catherine of Aragon or recognise the king as the Supreme Head of the Church of England. More’s story reminded me of Callisthenes, and how he stood up to Alexander over the issue of proskynesis.
The Thomas More of A Man for all Seasons is a heroic figure. I understand (as I haven’t read it) that the Thomas More of Wolf Hall, a novel by Hilary Mantel, is a villain. Arrian discusses Callisthenes’ opposition to Alexander in some detail. He gives the historian little credit for it, referring to his ‘clumsy protest’ and ‘gross stupidity in making such an inappropriately frank outburst’. Conversely, Curtius talks about Alexander’s ‘depraved idea’ of ‘appropriating divine honours to himself’. When Callisthenes argues against this, he is heard, Curtius says, ‘with approval as the champion of public freedom.’
What I found particularly interesting after watching A Man for All Seasons and reading Arrian’s and Curtius’ accounts of the proskynesis controversy is how Thomas and Callisthenes get in trouble despite doing completely opposite things: Sir Thomas is challenged to swear Henry’s Oath of Supremacy. He refuses to do so, but neither will he give Henry a reason to prosecute him, so he stays silent. He keeps that silence up until he is executed. When it comes to the issue of proskynesis, Callisthenes can’t stop talking.
Tragedy lies heavy on all the actors in these two dramas, 1,800 years apart. Henry wanted to annul his marriage to Catherine because he and the country needed a successor – to avoid the possibility of civil war. At a time when Alexander should have been celebrating his many and continuing successes, he let the same go to his head. Thomas should have left the country. Callisthenes should have learnt to control his tongue. All that happened did not need to happen.
Now, the truth is, I know my Tudor history, but only on a shallow level: Perhaps Thomas couldn’t have left the country. I doubt, however, that what happened to him was inevitable. Nothing is ever inevitable. Callisthenes, though, could and should have known when to shut up. It’s all very sad, and frustrating.
In this post, I would like to share a few thoughts based on Alexander’s deeds in the month of July, as outlined in this post.
July is undoubtedly the most important month of the year for anyone interested in the life of Alexander of Macedon as it is the month in which he was born.
The date usually given for Alexander’s birth is 20th/21st July, and for the past few years, I have celebrated it by visiting a Greek restaurant for lunch on one of those dates.
Thanks to the coronavirus I won’t be able to to do so this year – or at least, not this month – but there is no way I am going to let the big day go by without a glass or two of Greek wine. There is a lovely Greek bakery/delicatessen on the corner of Farringdon Road and Topham Street in London so I shall pop in there and buy a suitable bottle of vino tinto and drink to the conqueror.
If you would like to read an account of Alexander’s conception and birth, Plutarch’s Life of Alexander is the book to read.
As it happens, Plutarch is the only one of the principle Alexander historians (Arrian, Curtius, Diodorus, and Justin) to have any interest in Alexander’s life before he became king. All the others, excluding Curtius, begin their narratives in 336 BC when Alexander becomes king. It’s rather like how St. Luke is the only Gospel writer to be very interested in Jesus’ conception and birth. A note on Curtius – perhaps he too wrote an account of Alexander’s birth; unfortunately, the first two books of his history have been lost so we don’t know.
In July 333 BC, Alexander left Gordium in central Asia Minor having either cut or untied the famous knot. What happened with the Gordian Knot is one of those moments in Alexander’s life where you pays your money and makes your choice. Plutarch again tells us that according to ‘most writers’ Alexander cut the knot but that Aristobulos says he untied it.
Which to believe? Aristobulos’ explanation – that Alexander undid the knot by first removing the dowel pin around which it was tied and then the yoke of the cart is elegant and simple. That’s a problem, though: are difficult problems ever so neatly solved? And then there is the issue of Aristobulos’ reputation for always trying to make Alexander look as good as possible.
That Alexander simply cut the knot sounds much more realistic (after all, if the knot could be undone by simply removing the dowel pin and yoke, surely someone would have thought of that before) and like the kind of thing he would do. Like I said, you pays your money and makes your choice.
July is also the month in which Memnon of Rhodes died. Of all Alexander’s enemies, he was probably the most dangerous. Before the Battle of the Granicus River, he proposed the adoption of a scorched earth policy to the Persian satraps, as a way of starving the Macedonian army out of Asia Minor.
The local populations would have suffered grievously but it was surely an excellent strategy for dealing with the Macedonians. Despite this, the satraps turned it down.
Afterward the Granicus, Memnon’s naval campaign in the Aegean Sea could well have forced Alexander, either to return home to protect Macedon and Greece, or send back troops he needed to be successful in his expedition.
Before the campaign could reach its fulfilment, however, Memnon died. The commanders who succeeded him were not able to keep the naval campaign going before Alexander defeated it from the land.
In July 332 BC, the Siege of Tyre finally came to a close when the Macedonian army finally broke into the city. The Tyrians had held Alexander at bay for seven months, and paid the price for it as the Macedonians cut down anyone they came across during their rampage across the city.
Tyre still exists and can be found sticking out into the Mediterranean Sea in the south of Lebanon. It does so because of Alexander’s mole. In the centuries following the siege, silt built up over the mole, creating the land that was needed to join the old and new cities together.
Zipping forward to July 330 BC, we come to the assassination of Darius III in Parthia (along the path of the Silk Road) on or around 17th July.
What would have happened to Darius if Alexander had caught him alive? Would he have let his defeated rival live? I very much doubt it. As long as Darius lived, he represented a threat to Alexander’s Great Kingship. He would surely have been put to death just as Alexander’s rivals to the Macedonian throne were.
I started this post with a beginning and so will end it with an ending.
In July 326 BC, the Macedonian army’s mutiny at the Hyphasis River took place. As I have seen written elsewhere, the army didn’t actually mutiny. That is to say, Alexander didn’t issue an order to cross the river, which the army then refused to carry out. Rather, they arrived at the river, and the army told their king we will not go any further. Alexander tried to talk them out of their refusal but to no avail.
Arrian’s account of the debate between Alexander and Coenus is a dramatic piece of literary theatre (in which light it should be seen rather than as an account of what was said on the day) and it’s interesting that although Coenus died not long afterwards there is no suggestion in the sources, and not much made by modern historians, that Alexander had him eliminated as a kind of revenge (Coenus, after all, was speaking as much for the army as himself). Men were killed by Alexander for much less.
Alexander’s anger and frustration as the army sails down the Indus River is also very notable. Never more so than on the two occasions when he impatiently climbs siege ladders by himself. Fed up of the army’s tardiness – now on their way home, the soldiers’ motivation to risk death had gone – Alexander decides to take on the enemy himself. On the second occasion, he is almost killed as a result. Afterwards, his senior commanders finally tell him off for risking himself too much!
Alexander Disbands His Navy After the fall of Miletus, Alexander disbanded his navy. According to Arrian, he did so for the following reasons,
Not enough money to maintain it
The Macedonian navy was not as skilled as the Persians’
He could defeat the Persian navy by continuing to take control of coastal cities (thus depriving them of places to recruit men and replenish supplies) vid. the eagle omen
The second and third reasons above came up in Alexander’s response to Parmenion (Arr. I.18.7-9) but the first is new. What was Alexander’s financial status at this time? Arrian doesn’t refer to it until much later, during the Opis mutiny (Arr. VII.8.1-11.7).
The Opis Mutiny The mutiny so-called – because as Arrian portrays it, no orders were disobeyed – started when Alexander announced that he was discharging those who were unfit for service. A number of his men sarcastically replied ‘that he might as well discharge the whole lot of them’ (Arr. VII.8.3); they believed he meant to replace the Macedonians soldiers with his oriental subjects. Alexander took grave offence at this and after having those who had spoken out arrested, remonstrated with his men. During his speech, he said,
From my father I inherited a few gold and silver cups, less than sixty talents in the treasury, and Philip’s accumulated debts of some five hundred talents.
If this is true, and bearing in mind that up till now on the expedition Alexander has not looted any cities, then it is no surprise that he was short of cash. He presumably got some from the satrapal army’s camp but maybe not so much as he had hoped.
One final point on what happened at Opis – Arrian says that the men were ‘stunned’ (Arr. VII.8.3) when Alexander had ‘the most conspicuous troublemakers’ (Ibid) arrested and sent away for execution. This suggests to me that they did not intend to mutiny, only to vent their frustration at what they saw as Alexander’s medising. They were wholly taken aback, therefore, by his out-of-proportion response.
Arrian says that by this stage of his life, Alexander,
‘had become more quick to anger, and the oriental obsequiousness which now surrounded him had lost him his old easy relationship with the Macedonians’
Arrian is not afraid to mention Alexander’s faults but doesn’t, like Curtius, attempt to show that his success corrupted him. When he shows corruption, therefore, we have to take it seriously as an indication of what Alexander was really like.
Halicarnassus With Miletus captured, Alexander set out for Halicarnassus, which still exists today under the name of Bodrum, and which is also famous for being the home of the immortal Herodotus. Along the way he captured a number of other cities.
Halicarnassus was well protected by its walls. Inside, a Persian and mercenary army protected it under the command of Memnon of Rhodes. The city’s harbour was under the control of Persian naval forces. Alexander’s fleet, had it still been available, would have been of little use to him here.
Day One Alexander approached the Mysala Gate (i.e. the gate which led to the city of Mysala). The defenders came out of the city and attacked the Macedonians but were repulsed.
A Few Days Later Alexander took a substantial number of men to Halicarnassus’ western wall to see how strong it was. He also wanted to raid the city of Myndus ten miles away.
Myndus Alexander wasn’t interested in raiding Myndus just because it was there – he believed its location would help in the siege of Halicarnassus. Arrian tells us that the city had promised to surrender if Alexander came at night.
He did so, but the Myndians had changed their minds, and the city gates remained closed. Alexander had not brought any siege equipment with him but did have his phalanx. He set his men to work undermining the walls. They succeeded in bringing down a tower but nothing else before reinforcements sent from Halicarnassus forced him to retreat.
Why would capturing Myndus have been beneficial to Alexander? The notes to my copy of Arrian tell me that in 360 BC, Mausolus, satrap of Caria in which the city lay, made Myndus his capital. There would, therefore, have been propaganda value in taking it.
I imagine, though, that his main reason would have been in order to win control of the surrounding countryside as well, making it more difficult for anyone to come to Halicarnassus’ aid by land. However, as the city’s harbour was still open, control of the land only had limited value, making Alexander’s decision to withdraw an easy one.
Back at Halicarnassus Alexander had his siege towers moved into place. Seeing the danger, the Persian and mercenary soldiers came out at night time to try and set the towers alight. They were pushed back, however, before they could do so. The night action was a costly one for Memnon’s men – 170 of them were killed against 16 of Alexander’s. The defenders had come out of the city very suddenly and many of the Macedonians who took part in the action went into battle without wearing their armour. As a result, 300 were injured.
Miletus vs Halicarnassus Memnon pursued a much more aggressive strategy than Hegesistratus. Whereas the latter had abandoned the outer city and let Alexander come on to him, the former twice sent men out to attack the Macedonians.
There was, it seems, a lack of communication between the Persian commanders in Miletus – look at how Hegesistratus left the city’s harbour exposed compared to how Memnon made sure Halicarnassus’ was occupied by his ships. We can only guess at the reason for the communication failure. Or maybe the Persian naval forces refused to take orders from him.
Myndus’ failure to open its gates is the second time (after Miletus) that Alexander was promised one thing by an enemy who then decided to renege on his offer.
Text Used Hammond, Martin (tr.) Arrian: Alexander the Great (Oxford, OUP, 2013)
In This Chapter The Ending and Aftermath of the Battle of the Granicus
The Macedonian Army Dominates Arrian describes the Persians as now being ‘harried on all fronts’ by both elements of the Macedonian army; i.e. cavalry and infantry. He says that the Macedonian light troops ‘intermingled’ with their cavalry and caused ‘great damage’ to the enemy.
That is not a surprise – the Persian horsemen only had two arms, and they were needed to fight / protect themselves against the Macedonian cavalry. They simply could not defend themselves against light armed troops who were sneaking around and stabbing them from below.
Conclusion of the Battle The battle effectively ended when the Persian centre gave way. This lead to the Left and Right wings of the Satrapal army fleeing. Unsurprisingly, the infantry collapse happened under pressure from Macedonian troops led by Alexander himself.
I say ‘unsurprisingly’ with a little cynicism – it is very convenient that the Persian army should break at the point where Alexander physically stands.
Arrian states that a thousand Persian cavalry were killed in the battle. Alexander did not long pursue those who fled, whether they were cavalry or infantry; instead, he ordered his men to surround the Persians’ Greek mercenaries, who were still stationed a little behind the main army. They had not fought in the battle, but could not be permitted to walk away; they had betrayed Greece. Alexander ordered them to be killed. Most were; any survivors were taken away in chains to the mines of Macedonia.
Aftermath The Satrapal army suffered serious losses in its officer class. Here are the chief casualties according to Arrian:
Spithridates (Satrap of Lydia)
Mithrobuzanes (Governor of Cappadocia)
Mithridates (Son-in-Law of Darius III)
Arbupales (son of Darius who was the son of Artaxerxes)
Pharnaces (Brother of Darius III’s wife)
Omares (Mercenary Commander)
Arsites (He didn’t die on the battlefield but committed suicide after fleeing home)
25 Companion Cavalry
60+ Non-Companion Cavalry
30 or so Infantry
Alexander honoured both his own and the enemy dead.
The twenty-five dead Companion Cavalry men had bronze statues to them set up in Dium – Alexander had Lysippus, the only sculptor he permitted to reproduce his image, make the statues. The families of all the Macedonian dead were exempted from paying land taxes as well as ‘other forms of personal state service or property levies’.
The Macedonian dead were buried with their arms. The Persian dead were also buried. This stands in contrast to what happened after the Battle of Guagamela, when – according to Curtius – the Persian dead were left on the battlefield and Alexander had to move camp more quickly than expected due to the outbreak of disease caused by the rotting bodies (Curtius V.I.11).
The Macedonian wounded were not ignored. Alexander visited and invited them to tell him how they had received their injuries, letting them brag if they wished.
The only people to be treated badly after the Battle of the Granicus were the surviving Greek mercenaries. As mentioned above, they were sent to the mines.
In light of what happened to the Greek mercenaries, the Spartan state may be grateful that it received only a tongue lashing from Alexander. He sent 300 panoplies (complete sets of Persian armour) to Athens,
… to be dedicated to Athena on the Acropolis… [with] the inscription… ‘Alexander the son of Philip and the Greeks except the Spartans dedicated these spoils for the barbarians occupying Asia.’
Thoughts The following are the things that really jump out at me in this chapter:
The statement that the Persian centre broke ‘at the point where Alexander was at the forefront of the action’. In the chaos of a battlefield, would you really be able to tell where exactly a collapse began? Maybe, but I strongly suspect Ptolemy placed it just where Alexander was for the benefit of his king.
The fact that the Satraps did not use the Greek mercenaries. They were the best infantry soldiers in their army. Their first mistake was not listening to Memnon and employing a scorched earth policy against Alexander to force him back home; their last was not to use their best soldiers.
The number of senior officers in the Satrapal army who died. Not just one or two but at least nine. I think this speaks to their bravery and sense of honour; they truly lead from the front.
Alexander’s honourable response towards not just his dead but the Persian dead as well. When we ask ‘What kind of man was Alexander?’ We might say, one who lived for glory and leave it at that. That’s true, but as may be seen here, he did not do so without a care for those who died as a result of his quest.
Text Used Hammond, Martin (tr.) Arrian: Alexander the Great (Oxford, OUP, 2013)
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
*(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 readhere] 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.)
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.
For more information about Dancing With The Lion, visit Jeanne Reames’s website here.
All the images used in this blog post belong to Jeanne Reames and are used with her permission
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.