As the end of May approaches, we get ready to say our annual goodbye to Alexander. Following a short illness, the Macedonian king died on 10th/11th June* 323 BC.
What do I mean by ‘short illness’? And what exactly happened?
As to the first question, I will break it down.
‘Short‘: According to Arrian, Alexander died at least nine days after falling ill during a drinking party**. Plutarch has the illness lasting for eleven days. Justin is not specific but indicates that at least six days passed before Alexander succumbed. Unfortunately, the relevant portion of Curtius’ history is missing so we don’t know what he says. As for Diodorus, while he covers Alexander’s death, he doesn’t say how long he was ill for.
‘Illness‘. What happened to Alexander? All we know for sure is that he fell ill during the aforementioned drinking party. The reason for his illness is unknown. In the years following Alexander’s death, poisoning by Antipater was alleged. Did he do it? Well, maybe, but then maybe Antipater’s enemies in the Wars of the Successors blamed him in an attempt to undermine him and his son Cassander’s cause.
Ever since those first allegations, people have proposed different reasons for Alexander’s untimely demise. Every so often, a scholar, a doctor, or someone in-between suggests another cause. None have ever been fully accepted, however, because Alexander’s symptoms, as described in the sources, do not completely fit one illness or intervention.
What happened? All the sources (excluding Curtius) agree that Alexander fell ill at a party hosted by his friend Medius. In regards Arrian and Plutarch, while both agree that the king fell ill after drinking, they disagree on how long he had been drinking for. Arrian seems to suggest that Alexander fell ill after drinking through the evening and into the night, whereas Plutarch says that he drank all night and the following day before falling ill. Both agree that the fever started by the end of, or almost immediately after, Alexander left Medius’ party.
Both Justin and Diodorus claim that Alexander was struck down in pain during the party. Plutarch, however, denies that this happened. He says that it is a later embellishment of ‘certain historians’. Arrian doesn’t address this issue. Presumably, he would agree with Plutarch.
Now, you may think that 25th May is a little early to be thinking about something that won’t happen until nearly two weeks into June, and it is. The reason Alexander’s death is on my mind at the moment is that I had got it into my head that it is about now that Medius’ fatal party took place. Having had a look at the sources, I don’t know why I thought that. I expect I was just misremembering what I had read long ago. Looking at the chronology I wrote out for The Second Achilles a few years ago, I note that at any rate, Peter Green suggests that the party took place on 29th/30th May. I suppose I could have delayed writing this until the start of June but I already leave until tomorrow too many things that could be done today, so why add to the tally.
Anyway, having mentioned that we are approaching the season of Alexander’s death, what next? Just put the information to one side and get on with life? Or, do something with it? And if the latter, what? I don’t know, so I will think about that and see if I can come back to it in another post.
* I have written this as an absolute but I should acknowledge that some scholars propose different dates for his death ** His timeline becomes a little vague right at the end when he refers to events without saying when exactly they occurred; i.e., during the nine days already mentioned, or thereafter?
In my post on Sunday, I neglected to look at the question of why the five sources either looked at Alexander the Great’s arrival at/time in Babylon in the way that they did, or else ignored it. To make up for this omission, I thought I would write this quick extra post to offer some of my thoughts.
Near the start of his book, Arrian tells us (I.12.4) that ‘there is no other single man, among either Greeks or barbarians, who has given evidence of achievements so many in number or so great in magnitude’. He then adds that, ‘I did not think myself unsuited to the task of making Alexander’s achievements clear to the world’. Leaving aside Arrian’s admirable self-belief, if his priority is to make ‘Alexander’s achievements’ more well known, he is not going to be so very interested in day-to-day events; for example, how the Macedonian soldiers spent their free time. But surely he could have said a bit more about Alexander’s arrival in the city. And yet, why should he? I suspect that to him, it was all frippery. Arrian – perhaps be taking his cue from his own chief sources, Ptolemy and Aristobulos – is about the big moments, the battles, and sieges, not the civilian ones.
I have read that Curtius’ overall aim with his book is to show how Alexander went from being a good king to a bad one. This would certainly explain why he condemns Alexander for undermining the discipline of his army before, in order to justify his comment, outlining the Babylonians’ errant sexual behaviour.
When I read his Lonely Planet review of Babylon, I see it as being there simply to build up a picture for his audience of the place he is talking about. Arrian wants to highlight Alexander’s achievements. Curtius wants to take his audience to the places where the highs and lows happened.
For Diodorus, Alexander and the Macedonians came, feasted, and – after some important political and military appointments had been made – left. For him, nothing else of note happened, so there is nothing else to say. Diodorus’ ultimate source for his narrative is an Alexandrian writer from the time of Ptolemy I, named Cleitarchus. He presumably knew about what the Macedonian soldiers got up to, because Curtius, who is also believed to have used him, mentions them. Maybe Diodorus dropped that element of Cleitarchus’ narrative because his concern was not, unlike Curtius, to moralise, but rather, to show how ‘disunited cultures [grew] to one Mediterranean civilization under Roman rule.’ (Livius), and there is no space in that for events which were ultimately of local and temporary significance.
At the start of his Life of Alexander, Plutarch explains his reason for writing about the Macedonian king. ‘I am not writing history but biography,’ he says in chapter one, ‘and the most outstanding exploits,’ or, the actions of Alexander’s men during their free time, we might add, ‘do not always have the property of revealing the goodness or badness of the agent’, in this case, of course, Alexander.
Finally, dear Justin. In his epitome of Alexander’s life, he mentions how the Macedonians were given rewards and a month of rest, and how Alexander ‘made an inventory of the spoils’ (XI.14.8). I wonder if he followed in the footsteps of Diodorus, and so moved on because he thought nothing else of lasting significance happened. Actually, I should not say ‘he’ because Justin’s book is a summary of another work by a man named Pompeius Trogus.
Credit The Queen of the Night – possibly Ishtar, the Babylonian goddess of sex and love – Wikipedia
Today (2nd April 2023), is Palm Sunday. In churches all over the world, Christians celebrate the entry of Jesus into Jerusalem.
Most of the crowd spread their garments on the road, and others cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road. And the crowds that went before him and that followed him shouted, ‘Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest!’
Jesus’ triumphant arrival in the Holy City presages His Passion and Death followed by, this time next week, Resurrection. It is the high point of Jesus’ public life, the moment when everyone, it seems, is on His side. As the next few days show, however, they are certainly not.
On 1st October 331 BC, Alexander the Great defeated Darius III in battle for the second time. His victory at Gaugamela gave him the Persian Empire. As for Darius, he managed to escape capture and headed east in order to raise yet another army.
Rather than pursue him, Alexander decided to travel south in order to take possession of Babylon. As today is Palm Sunday, I thought I would take a quick look at the five main ancient sources for Alexander’s life to see what they have to say about his own triumphant arrival in a great city, and his time there afterwards.
ArrianIII.16.3-5 Arrian’s account is very formal. It focuses exclusively on Alexander’s movements and deeds. Thus, he tells us that Alexander approached the city cautiously, ‘leading on his force in full battle-order’. He had no need to worry, however, for the Babylonians opened their gates, and came to meet him with gifts. Arrian immediately takes us from the city’s surrender to Alexander giving orders for the rebuilding of ‘the temples destroyed by Xerxes’*. He then moves on to Alexander’s political and military appointments. These benefitted the satrap Mazaeus who was (re)appointed to his post. Macedonians were put in charge of the army at Babylon and of tax collection. And then, as Arrian says, Alexander ‘set out for Susa’.
* The notes to my copy of Arrian state that this did not happen as Herodotus describes seeing those self-same temples
Curtius V.1.17-45 Curtius’ account of Alexander’s time in Babylon is the longest and, I suspect, the most entertaining, of all five sources. He begins with the surrender of the city by Mazaeus. This was a good start, but as with Arrian, Alexander remained cautious and put his army into battle order. Curtius says he formed it ‘into a square’. I have to admit, I thought the square was a Roman formation. If so, I guess Curtius is simply describing the Macedonian army in a way that his readers will be able to relate to.
Curtius describes how Bagophanes, ‘the man in charge of the citadel and royal treasury… carpeted the whole road with flowers and garlands.’ But that’s not all. He also set up altars and brought a fantastic selection of animals as gifts – ‘herds of cattle and horses, and lions, too, and leopards, carried along in cages’. The Magi also attended Alexander’s arrival, along with musicians. Alexander entered the city on a chariot. That brings us to Charles Le Brun’s painting, below.
Unfortunately, this image is rather smaller than I expected. If you look at the one at Wikimedia Commons (link below), you can easily see an interesting detail – Alexander is looking directly at the viewer. What could he be saying to us? Look at me. Look at this. This is all mine-?
Curtius describes how Alexander made an inspection of the royal palace. His account, thereafter, becomes like something out of a travel guide. I would say The Lonely Planet, but I am also a big fan of E. M Forster, so I will mention Baedeker instead. One thing is for sure, Miss Lavish would have been scandalised by but loved Babylon for its ‘literary’ possibilities.
After finishing his description of the city, Curtius condemns Alexander for undermining ‘military discipline’ while there. Why? Because he let his men take full advantage of the Babylonians seemingly free-wheeling attitude to sex. If Curtius hated this aspect of Babylonian life so much, you would have thought he would either have ignored or at least glossed over it, telling the reader only what was strictly necessary for him to know. Any more, of course, might corrupt him. But that is not what happens. Curtius risks all and explains what exactly the Babylonians did that was so horrid. To be fair, the practices that he describes are rather rum. But I strongly suspect that Curtius rather enjoyed scandalising his listeners.
After the sex, military appointments, and reinforcements from Macedon. Finally, political appointments and then, Alexander is off again, never to stop in one place for the same amount of time (a month or so) again.
Diodorus XVII.64 Diodorus gives no account of Alexander’s arrival at Babylon, and he deals with the Macedonian king’s time there in just a few lines. The people, he says, ‘received [Alexander] gladly’. They gave the Macedonians places to stay and plenty of food and drink. Alexander stayed in the city for ‘more than thirty days… because food was plentiful and the population friendly.’ After describing Alexander’s military and political appointments, Diodorus moves him on.
Justin XI.8 Justin’s account of Alexander’s life is, as its title suggests, an epitome, a summary. Despite Babylon’s importance, Justin does not (in my translation, anyway) mention it by name. He says simply, ‘The [Macedonians] were rewarded and granted thirty-four days’ rest, after which Alexander made an inventory of the spoils…’. He then moves on to Susa. So, no mention of Alexander’s arrival, of Babylon’s fleshpots, or even his military and political appointments.
PlutarchLife of Alexander35 I think uniquely among the sources (I would need to double check), Plutarch implies that Alexander continued military operations between Gaugamela and Babylon. He then includes a really astonishing story about a highly flammable substance called naphtha. What is remarkable about this story is not the naphtha itself but the way in which an Athenian member of Alexander’ court decides to see how flammable it is – even though the Babylonians appear to have already shown them. Athenophanes has the substance smeared over the body of a child named Stephanos. It is then set alight, and Stephanos, unsurprisingly, is engulfed in flames. Fortunately, the fire is put out but ‘afterwards [Stephanos] was in a terrible state’. Alexander is described as being ‘completely panic-stricken with fear’ by Stephanos’ immolation, so maybe at that point he didn’t know how flammable naphtha was.
Well, I hope not, because what an awful thing to do to someone. Why would they have so risked harming the lad? Plutarch tells us that Stephanos, though a good singer, ‘was particularly, even ridiculously, ugly’. A fatal thing to be in an age that idealised beauty.
Plutarch spends a bit more time discussing naphtha, whether Medea used it, and its influence on Babylonian agriculture, but has next to nothing to say about Babylon. He simply records the attempts by Alexander’s treasurer, Harpalus, to get Greek plants, specifically ivy, to grow when he ‘was left in charge of the country’. Then we are in Susa.
So, as you can see, Arrian and especially Curtius are the best sources to read if you are interested in Alexander’s arrival and time in Babylon. Obviously, if you are easily offended, or Roman, you should stick with Arrian and avoid Curtius!
At the beginning, I described Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem as the high point of His public life. I think the same can be said for Alexander in Babylon. Times were pretty good in Susa and Persepolis, but Babylon was all about pleasure. Whether it was food, alcohol, riches, religion, or sex, for one blessed month, the Macedonians had it all. At no point after did they get all the things that made the expedition worth it without any risk to themselves. It’s ironic, therefore, that after Alexander’s death, Babylon was the place where the army tore itself apart, both briefly, between infantry and cavalry, and for good, as the empire was carved up between the Successors.
The Palm Sunday Mass has two Gospel readings. The second includes Jesus’ cry from the cross.
Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani? That is, ‘My God, my God, why have you deserted me?’
It is a cry of desolation. Alexander could not have known it at the time, but Babylon presaged his own desolation, for when he returned to the city in 323 BC, it would be with the corpse of his truest of friends, and heart of his heart, Hephaestion, and with the knowledge that in the last few years, his army had rebelled not once but twice against him. To reflect the loneliness that this must have caused within him, I thought I would add Gustave Moreau’s painting, above, which shows Alexander high on his throne, ruling over all, but completely isolated in that rule. The triumphal entrance had ended, but with a king no longer at one with his people.
Texts Used Arrian Alexander the Great tr. byMartin Hammond (OUP 2013) Curtius The History of Alexander (Penguin Classics 2004) Diodorus Library of History Books 16.66-17 tr. C. Bradford Welles (Loeb Classical Library 1963) Justin Epitome of the Philippic History of Pompeius Trogus Vol.I Books 11-1: Alexander the Great tr. J.C. Yardley (Clarendon Ancient History Series 2003) Plutarch Hellenistic Lives including Alexander the Great tr. Robin Waterfield (Oxford World’s Classics 2016)
Credits Entry of Alexander into Babylon by Charles Le Brun: Wikimedia Commons The Triumph of Alexander the Great by Gustave Moreau: Wikimedia Commons The Triumph of Alexander the Great (detail) by Gustave Moreau: Pinterest
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!
In This Chapter Having defeated the armed locals and independent Thracians, Alexander sent the spoils that he had won ‘back to the cities on the coast’.
While the spoils travelled south, Alexander crossed the Haemus Mountains to confront the Triballians.
The Triballians knew he was coming. As a result, their king, Syrmus, sent his women and children to take refuge on an island halfway across the Danube river. The refugees were met there by Thracians who were also hiding from Alexander.
At some point, Syrmus himself sailed to the same island. Not all of his people accompanied him; Arrian says that ‘the main body’ of them fled (past the Macedonians) to the Lyginus river.
Alexander had the option of continuing on to the Danube or turning back to chase down the Lyginus Triballians. He chose to do the latter.
Alexander caught the Triballians as they were setting up their camp. The two armies squared up to each other.
The Triballians were located next to a wood beside the river so Alexander’s first priority was to draw them away from it. He attacked them first with archers and slingers. During the attack, these light armed soldiers approached the Triballians: Alexander was using them as bait to tempt the Triballians forward.
It worked, the Triballians ran forward. Alexander sent Philotas and his cavalrymen forward to attack the Triballians’ right wing. Heracleides and Sopolis were given orders to lead a cavalry attack against the Triballian left wing. Alexander himself lead the phalanx and cavalry that stood in front of it.
It looks like the Triballians put up a good fight as Arrian says during ‘the skirmishing stage the Triballians did not have the worse of it’. This changed, however, when the Macedonian phalanx engaged them. The cavalry soon overwhelmed the Triballians as well; in fact, they attacked the enemy simply by riding them down, rather than using their javelins.
Thoughts Arrian tells us that the two men who were charged with taking the spoils to the coast were Lysanias and Philotas. Lysanias will not appear in Arrian’s book again, though according to Waldemar Heckel (in his Who’s Who in the Age of Alexander the Great), he may have been the Lysanias mentioned by Diodorus during the Wars of the Successors (D.19.29). We can be sure that the Philotas mentioned here is not the son of Parmenion as he would not have had time to take the spoils south and then return to fight the Triballians at the Lyginus river.
Syrmus’ actions here intrigue me. First he sends the women and children away, which is understandable, but then joins them. Shouldn’t he have decided to face Alexander? Did he panic and flee? I can’t say because I don’t know what the Triballians’ law was in this regard but I do suspect the latter.
The Triballians may not have had the worst of it but I think that is only because they were better armed than the javelineers and slingers. Arrian says that the latter were unarmed apart from their principal weapons so once they had been used, it was an unfair contest – fists against swords.
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.
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.
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.
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 Alexander47) 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 Life5)
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 Agesilaus15) and his fatal quarrel with Black Cleitus (Curtius VIII.1.22-52).
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.
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 Alexander12), 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. Life53) and Cassander (Pl. Life74) 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.