Posts Tagged With: Curtius

Alexander, Slicer of Knots

Justin’s Alexander
Book XI Chapters 6-9
Part Two
Other posts in this series

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

Chapter Six
When deciding upon a title for the first post in this series, I considered ‘Alexander the Pragmatist’ as that seemed to be a key feature of his early kingship. I eventually decided against it as I didn’t think Alexander could be fully described by one word alone.

Nevertheless, his pragmatism was an important element of his rule, and we shall see it more than once today. For example, Justin reports that as the Macedonian army advanced through Asia, Alexander exhorted his men not to destroy the land – as it was their property.

Having mentioned this, Justin allows himself for a brief moment to be in awe of his subject. The Macedonian army was a small force consisting of just 32,000 infantry and 4,500 cavalry. Justin remarks,

Whether, with this small force, it is more wonderful that he conquered the world, or that he dared to attempt its conquest, is difficult to determine.

Another example of Alexander’s pragmatism then follows. He entered Asia not with an army comprised of ‘robust young men, or men in the flower of their age’ but veterans, ‘masters of war’. Further to this, Justin says that none of the officers were under sixty.

He is exaggerating the age of Alexander’s army. But why would he do so? I wonder if it is an attempt to rationalise the magnitude of Alexander’s achievement, one that – in his opinion – was surely beyond the power of young men to attain.

Having said that, it’s true that Alexander began his expedition with much older men riding alongside him – Parmenion, for example, and perhaps Erygius? He knew the value of experience.

In his blink-and-you’ll-miss-it account of the Battle of the Granicus River, Justin notes that Alexander’s ‘conduct’ – his bravery – was as much responsible for the Persian defeat as ‘the valour of the Macedonians’. And again, ‘the terror of his name’ is said to have played as large a part in defeating Darius’ lieutenants as his weapons did.

Chapter Seven
A further example of Alexander’s pragmatism begins this chapter. On hearing of Alexander Lyncestes’ alleged treachery, the king doesn’t have him executed but put under arrest. He knows that he is still close to Macedon to avoid trouble from the pro-Lyncestian faction there.

Another feature of Alexander’s character that we saw in the first post was his respect for history, albeit when it suited him. Here, he is not so much selective about what he says but particular in his interpretation.

Justin reports that Alexander took Gordium,

… not so much for the sake of plunder, as because he had heard that in that city, in the temple of Jupiter, was deposited the yoke of Gordius’s car; the knot of which, if anyone should loose, the oracles of old had predicted that he should rule all Asia.

Alexander searched for the ends of the knot but was unable to find them. Unwilling to give up (and risk his army being unsettled by the bad omen), he simply cut the through the knot and announced that he had undone it. He had certainly put, as Justin puts it ‘a forced interpretation on the oracle’. Most importantly, though, it was accepted.

Chapter Eight
Justin says that Alexander ‘crossed Mount Taurus’ (to reach Cilicia) because he feared its defiles. This is certainly not the witness of Curtius.

We move on to the severe illness that afflicted Alexander after he went to bathe in the Cydnus River, and which left him gravely ill.

With a little kindness, we might say that having been warned by Parmenion that Philip of Arcanania meant to poison him, the king was very brave to trust his doctor’s medicine. I suspect Justin is right, though, when he says that ‘Alexander, however, thought it better to trust the doubtful faith of the physician, than to perish of certain disease.’

Chapter Nine
Issus. As the Macedonian and Persian armies approached each other, Justin reports Alexander as being concerned by the small size of his force versus the huge one opposite him. He calmed his nerves by recalling the ‘powerful people he had overthrown’ and marched on.

That was fine for Alexander, but what about his men? Justin notes that to stop them worrying, the king decided a. not to avoid giving battle (so as to not give the men time to panic), and b. to stop and start as they marched towards the Persians to enable his men to get used to what lay before them.

As you might expect, he also encouraged his men with a stirring speech, or rather, several – one tailored for each nationality represented.

He excited the Illyrians and Thracians by describing the enemy’s wealth and treasures, and the Greeks by putting them in mind of their wars of old, and their deadly hatred towards the Persians. He reminded the Macedonians at one time of their conquests in Europe, and at another of their desire to subdue Asia, boasting that no troops in the world had been found a match for them, and assuring them that this battle would put an end to their labours and crown their glory.

Alexander the manipulator at his finest.

One thing that is on my mind though is, did he really intend to stop his eastward expedition after Issus (presuming he thought that there would be no further fighting between it and Babylon?) or was he simply lying?

Following the Battle of Issus, Justin takes us into the Persian royal women’s tent where he describes Alexander as being ‘touched with the respectful concern of the princesses for Darius’. His sympathy for, and the help he subsequently gave to, Sisygambis, Stateira I, Stateira II and Drypetis is undoubtedly a high point in Justin’s treatment of him.

Again, I come away from the book with a sense of Justin’s being on the whole positive towards Alexander. He does describe the Macedonian king as doing some negative actions but they are not dwelt upon. I rather feel at the moment that the real story of Justin’s attitude is to be found between the lines rather than it what he says upfront.

Categories: Justin | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Persian Women

I recently discovered the very well presented Mani website. Contrary to what the name suggests, it is not dedicated that region of Greece, but the great women of Persia from antiquity to the first millennium A.D.

The site contains some beautiful pictures and there is no doubt that the author loves his country a great deal. It is a shame, therefore, that some of his information is not as accurate as it could be.

For example, in the section on Sisygambis (called here Sissy Cambis), we are told that Darius III’s mother,

was a remarkable Achaemenid woman who fought, resisted and did not surrender to Alexander the Macedonian Tyrant.

The only correct statement in this sentence is Alexander’s name and nationality. Actually, I would accept that Sisygambis was remarkable but only if by that one meant that she was remarkable in her devotion to the king.

That aside, Sisygambis neither fought nor resisted Alexander. Not in war and not when he came into her tent. As for never surrendering to him – what else was her act of obeisance to him?

In my opinion, calling Alexander a tyrant is also debatable. The problem with using that word is that it brings to mind a specific office in antiquity, which Alexander never held. If one wanted to use a pejorative terms, would it not have been more precise and accurate to refer to him as Alexander the Macedonian autocrat?

The article next says that Sisygambis,

… was captured by Alexander after the battle of Issus in 333 B.C.E, along with her beautiful daughter Princess Estatira. Alexander was very much found [sic] of her and had a crush on her according to the Greek Historians!

I’ve quoted this passage in full because I am not sure whether the author is saying that Alexander had a crush on Sisygambis or Stateira II (Estatira). I think it is the latter but am not completely sure. Either way, I am not convinced by the accuracy of the statement.

Assuming the author means Stateira – the Greek historians of whom I am aware do not spend a great deal of time discussing her: Arrian and Diodorus only mention Stateira II in the context of the Susa weddings and Plutarch goes out of his way to describe how Alexander treated the entire Persian royal family with great courtesy. (For the record, Curtius doesn’t mention her at all).

Having said that, we know from Plutarch that Stateira I – Sisygambis’ daughter and Stateira II’s mother – died in childbirth over nine months after being captured by Alexander. If he had a crush on anyone, perhaps it was her. Maybe. We know too little about their relationship to talk about ‘crushes’, if that particular word is even appropriate in the first place.

As well as the above, we are also informed in the articles on Sisygambis, Roxane, and the future of Persia that the Bactrian princess was Darius III’s daughter (in the third article she is simply referred to as being Persian).

This is an unfortunate mistake as in his article on Stateira II, the author acknowledges that Roxane was from ‘from the kingdom of Bactria’, which makes me think he must know that she was not Darius’ daughter.

By-the-bye, the Roxane article also calls Alexander’s son, Alexander IV Aegus, which I’m not sure I’ve seen before. Wikipedia says this is a modern error but I don’t know anything more about it.

I have pointed out some of the mistakes in the above mentioned website so let me emphasise the quality of its presentation and clear love of its subject. The website is very political and so invariably makes some contentious statements. Those aside, the author’s history might well – but for the mistakes I have mentioned – be very accurate.

Of course, I speak as no more than a student of Alexander rather than expert. I make my own mistakes. If the errors on Mani can be ironed out I’m sure it’ll be a top-notch website.

Categories: Of The Moment | Tags: , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments


Yesterday I read Alexander the Great and Bactria by Frank L. Holt. The book is published by E. J. Brill and I can confirm that for me it was. Holt offers some very valuable insights into Bactria’s pre-Alexandrian history. He also has a few words to say about what happened after Alexander left; though, as the title indicates, the focus of the book is on the Macedonian king’s visit (329 – 327 B.C.).
Ever since I became interested in the life and times of Alexander the Great the temptation for me has been to focus on the first half of his expedition – all that happened between Greece and Babylon. That was where he fought his three major battles, and won the Persian Empire, after all; what could that most strange and unknown part of the world, the ancient far-east, have to offer to compete with that?
Firstly, it had Alexander’s fourth major battle that I had conveniently forgotten about. It also had some of his most intense personal dramas; for example, the murder of Black Cleitus and his seemingly inexplicable marriage to a barbarian princess; it also had some serious military dramas, too – Alexander was injured more times after Babylon than ever he was before*.
The east also gave the Macedonian king some of his most fabulous triumphs; for example, the crossing of the Hindu Kush and scaling of the Sogdian Rock – as well as most serious reverses; e.g. the crossing of the Gedrosian desert. Therefore, the far-east most certainly deserves to be remembered, read and written about. So, that is why I am writing this post. I must also give credit, though, to Alexander’s Army for putting the thought of Bactria in my head in the first place, (thanks, specifically, to this discussion). It isn’t the first time Alexander’s Army has inspired me and I’m sure it won’t be the last.
Back to Bactria. A wild and primitive place? Poor and inconsequential? Before reading Alexander the Great and Bactria that is what I might have said about it. Holt put me right, though.
According to Holt ‘[s]ome scholars’ (Holt, p. 39) believe that Darius I’s parents were ‘former Bactrian rulers’ (Ibid). Whether they were or weren’t, Bactria was of sufficient interest to Darius (549-486 B.C.) that he made his son, Ariamenes, its satrap. I’m not clear as to whether Darius’ son and heir, Xerxes, held that office prior to becoming the Great King, but after succeeding his father as Great King he appointed his son as satrap.
What did Bactria offer that made it so important? As Alexander found when he marched from Bactra to the Oxus River, part of the country is desert. But, citing Ammianus Marcellinus, Holt notes that it was ‘a fertile region with good grazing lands along the higher plains and in the mountains’ (Holt, p. 18). Marcellinus also praises ‘the quality of Bactrian flocks, including their proverbially strong camels’ (Holt, pp. 18-19). They must have been strong indeed to get a proverbial reputation for it!
Holt (p. 35) notes how Plutarch in his De Alexandri Magni Fortuna aut Virtute (L. 328C-329D) gives Alexander the credit for civilising the Bactrians,

Alexander… taught the Arachosians to till the soil, and persuaded the Sogdians to support rather than slay their parents… He induced the Indians to accept the Greek gods, and the Scythians to bury rather than eat the dead… He taught the Gedrosians the tragedies of Euripides and Sophocles… Thanks to Alexander, Bactria and the Caucasus peoples worship the gods of Greece… He planted Greek institutions all across Asia, and thus overcame its wild and savage way of living… His enemies could not have been civilized if they had not been beaten… Greekness was marked by excellence, but wickedness was the way of the barbarians.

I have to confess I had never heard of this text before. However, I have now found (a different translation of) it here.
Plutarch is almost amusing in his bias. As I see it, the fertile countryside and close attention of senior Persians is as strong an indication as I can think of that the country that was in its own way civilised**.
We need not limit this statement to the period of Darius I and afterwards – Holt points out that archaeological surveys have discovered ‘ample evidence for the early development of irrigation, commerce, and fortified cities in ancient Central Asia’ (Holt, p. 27). ‘Palatial architecture’ (Ibid) has been discovered – which I take to mean either the remains of palaces or high status homes – and ‘temple structures’ (Ibid).  The region went through its ups and downs (much like Greece with its own dark age) but we certainly do not appear to be dealing with primitive peoples here.
How did Bactria achieve its developed state? Holt says that archaeologists are coming to the view that a ‘Bactrian miracle’ occurred rather than a Persian or even Median one (Holt, p. 33). This suggests to me that not only did Bactrians have the right amount of food to live on but they also enjoyed the peace and cultural life necessary for a country to be able to develop.
After crossing the Hindu Kush, Alexander marched to Bactra unopposed. From there, he made his way to the Oxus River, this time opposed only by the fierce heat of the desert. It seems that Bactria, like Egypt, was a country ready and waiting to join his empire.
Things went wrong, though. Holt puts the blame on Alexander’ construction of Alexandria-Eschate (Alexandria the Furthest) on the Bactria-Sogdiana border. The natives regarded this as an intolerable infringement upon their way-of-life and took up arms. Eighteen months of bitter fighting followed.
How did it end? Holt says that while the death of (the principle rebel leader) Spitamenes, was ‘significant’ it was not ‘decisive’ (Holt, p. 67). Rather, ‘[i]t was rather the king’s treatment of the remaining Sogdian chieftains which ameliorated the situation’ (Ibid). What did Alexander do? Well, stop killing them for a start, then he gave them their previous positions of power back.
One other important thing also happened to bring peace to Bactria-Sogdiana: Alexander married Roxane, daughter of Oxyartes, a Bactrian nobleman. Curtius says she was ‘a woman of remarkable physical beauty with a dignified bearing rarely found in barbarians’ (8. 4. 23). And, indeed, prejudiced Roman writers! Her marriage to Alexander, though, is best understood as being of the same kind as Philip II’s to his various wives – a wholly political affair.
By-the-bye, Curtius says that their first meeting took place at a banquet and not after the capture of the Sogdian Rock. He also says that the banquet was arranged by Oxyartes with ‘typical barbaric extravagance’ (Ibid); a final piece of proof that Bactria – for all the political upheaval that had affected it – and Oxyartes were both very wealthy.
* If you would like to read more about Alexander’s injuries, I wrote about them here and here

** NB Bactria’s economy did not rely on Bactrians. Holt mentions the historian Arnold Toynbee who visited the region in 1960. In Toynbee’s eyes,

Bactria provides a classic example of a geographical ’round-about’ where “routes converge from all quarters of the compass and from which routes radiate out to all quarters of the compass again.”
(Holt, p. 31)

An obvious example of the international trade that Bactria must have engaged in is that in the beautiful jewel, lapis lazuli, which made its way (I’m sure amongst other places) to the Egyptian court.

Categories: Of The Moment | Tags: , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Rival Romans: The Road to Gordium


My usual modus operandi on this blog is to use one source per post (usually Arrian). This makes writing it quicker and easier. In this series, however, I am going to branch out a little by using two: Plutarch and Curtius. My aim is simply to look at how they talk about Alexander and his expedition.
The numbers in parenthesis are the sections in Book III of Curtius’ text and Plutarch’s Life where the events referred to can be found.
The Road to Gordium

Plutarch begins his Life with a little family history and Alexander’s conception. Unfortunately, though, we can’t start this post at the beginning of his life as the opening books of Curtius’ History have been lost. The extant text begins a little while after Alexander’s victory at the Battle of the Granicus. We join him in central Asia Minor as he ‘settles matters’ in Lycia and Pamphylia and heads off to the city of Celaenae (1). While he is on the road, Curtius pauses to tell us about the origin and course of the river Marsyas, which runs through Celaenae, even adding a note about its place in Greek myth (2-5). I think Curtius fancies himself as a bit of a Herodotus.
Upon entering the city, Alexander finds it deserted – unsurprisingly, the citizens have barracaded themselves in its citadel. Despite warning the Celaenaeans that if they don’t surrender, he’ll kill them all (6), Alexander eventually agrees to a sixty day truce, at the end of which he will accept the Celaenaeans’ surrender if Darius has not come to their aid. He doesn’t, so Alexander does (8). By the way, here is an early example of Curtius’ inaccuracy. According to Heckel’s notes, Arrian tells us that Alexander spent just ten days at Celaenae before moving on (the Celaenaeans surrendered to Antigonus Monophthalmus who Alexander put in charge of the region).
Curtius gives a brief account of a request by an Athenian embassy for the release of Greek prisoners taken after the Granicus (9) before bringing Alexander to Gordium. Ahead of his arrival, though, a very significant development is recorded – that of the massing of the Macedonian army in its full strength: all the better to beat Darius in the coming battle with (10).
Let’s now jump over to Plutarch. We join him in the seventeenth chapter of his Life as he describes the political and military fall out of Alexander’s victory at the Granicus: Sardis (‘the principle seat of Persian power on the Asiatic seaboard’) surrenders along with the rest of the region – except for Herodotus’ home city, Halicarnassus, and Miletus. They are duly stormed. Plutarch gives the impression that they are both taken. In his Notes, however, Timothy E. Duff says that Halicarnassus was not subdued until the following year.
At this point, Plutarch makes an interesting observation about Alexander, using a word one does not often associate with the Macedonian king. He says that Alexander ‘hesitated’ in deciding whether he should seek Darius out for the final showdown or build up his forces first, namely, by ‘securing the coastal region and its resources, and training his army’. This happened not once but over and over again. I feel here like we have momentarily gone beyond Alexander the icon and found the man, the general, wrestling with the same problems that I should think every military leader ever has had to deal with. Given Plutarch’s desire to shed light on Alexander’s character let’s hope we get more insights like this.
Moving on, Plutarch does his own Herodotus bit by explaining how a spring near the city of Xanthus in Lycia brought an ancient bronze tablet to its surface, upon which was engraved a prophecy that the Persian empire would be overthrown by, guess who, the Greeks. Needless to say, Alexander was ‘encouraged’ by this. Plutarch then goes into full Biblical mode by citing certain unnamed historians who stated that the waves of the sea ‘receded to make way for’ the king. To be fair, he does add that on other occasions the waves came in as normal.
We can take or leave these miraculous events as suits us. Along with Duff, I suspect the hand of Callisthenes in these stories. One thing he had nothing to do with, though, is this quotation from a now lost play by Menander.

Like Alexander, if I want to meet
A man, he’s there before me in the street,
And if am obliged to cross the sea,
The waves at once will make a path for me.

I am going to guess (please correct me if you think I’m wrong) and say that Menander would not have referred to the ‘miracle’ of the waves had it not become at the least a fairly popular story in society. If it had, it surely indicates that reports of Alexander’s journeys were penetrating fairly deeply into the Greek consciousness. I have to admit, I usually only think about the Greeks of this period in terms of their political and military response to Alexander. This, for me, is not only a valuable insight into his cultural influence and their response in that field but also a valuable corrective.
Plutarch concludes his account of Alexander’s journey to Gordium with a reference to his journey along a self-built road and stay in the city of Phaselis. There, the king garlands a statue of a Greek tragedian named Theodectas, in honour of ‘his association with Aristotle and with philosophy’. This is a nice pointer to Alexander’s respect for his teacher and matters of the mind. He really was not, as I once thought, just about the fighting. Having said that, the fact that Alexander garlanded the statue after having ‘drunk well’ reminds us that you can take the man out of Macedon…
A Quick Conclusion

Despite being the longer work, Curtius deals with Alexander’s post-Granicus travels a lot more briefly than Plutarch. I don’t suppose we should make much of this, though, as we are missing the opening two books of his work.
Neither Curtius or Plutarch are above bringing Greek myths into their narratives, although in my translation, Curtius’ comments come across as being a little bit snotty (I’m thinking of the reference to ‘Greek poetry with all its myths’ and ‘poetic fantasy’). I would be happy to accept this interpretation as just an impression, though. By contrast, Plutarch treats the appearance of the bronze tablet and receding sea uncritically. I’m not sure whether it is because he finds no problem with them or simply doesn’t care to comment further.
Finally, Plutarch definitely wins the prize for making Alexander real to us. It is early days yet for Curtius but the opening of Book Three tells us no more about the king than simply what he did between Lycia and Pamphylia and his hesitation (which occurs in Phrygia). By contrast, Plutarch opens him up just a little but very tantalisingly indeed.

Categories: Rival Romans | Tags: , | Leave a comment

Blog at

%d bloggers like this: