Posts Tagged With: Gordian Knot

The Gordian Knot

Market Watch reports on the on-going attempts to resolve the economic crisis in Greece. Greece: Can the Gordian Knot be severed? states that

Greece has… become the Gordian knot of ancient mythology.

In that enduring legend Gordius, a peasant who became king in Asia Minor, tied his wagon to a post with an intricate knot. An oracle said whoever untied the knot would rule all of Asia. Young Alexander the Great 100 years later came through and after a futile effort to untie the knot drew his sword and severed it with a powerful swing. That night a violent electrical storm told the people the gods were pleased. Alexander went on to rule much of the known world.

You can read the article here.

The legend of the Gordian Knot appears in four of the five principle sources on Alexander’s life (Diodorus omits it).

Arrian II.3-4
Curtius III.1.14-18
Justin XI.7
Plutarch Life of Alexander 18

Here is how Market Watch‘s interpretation of the story compares to theirs:

… Gordius, a peasant who became king in Asia Minor…
Arrian – States that it was Gordius’ son, Midas, who became king
Curtius – Does not confirm or deny that Gordius became king
This agrees with Justin
Plutarch – Does not confirm or deny that Gordius became king, referring only to ‘king Midas’

… tied his wagon to a post with an intricate knot…
Arrian – The knot ‘fixed’ the yoke to the wagon
Curtius – Says that the yoke ‘was strapped down with several knots’. The use of the word ‘down’ suggests to me that C. means it was attached to the shaft that connected it to the wagon – which C. calls the ‘carriage’ – rather than to a post
Justin – Says no more than that the knots were attached to the yoke. No mention is made of a post or anything else (J. refers to the wagon as a ‘car’)
Plutarch – The knot attached the yoke to the chariot

An oracle said whoever untied the knot would rule all of Asia.
Arrian – Makes no reference to an oracle but says that the belief (which the Notes to my edition of Arrian’s Anabasis say that, in Alexander’s day, Asia ‘meant the Persian Empire’) was a traditional one
This agrees with Curtius, though he says that ‘the local people claimed that an oracle had foretold mastery of Asia for the man who untied this impossible knot’ (my emphasis)
This agrees with Justin, who refers to oracles in the plural
Plutarch – States that ‘the fates had decreed that the man who untied the knot was destined to become the ruler of the whole world’ (my emphasis)

Young Alexander the Great 100 years later came through…
Arrian – Does not say specifically when Gordius lived though refers to it as being ‘in the ancient days’
Curtius – Makes no mention of when Gordius lived
Justin – Makes no mention of when Gordius lived. He does, though, refer to the oracles who said whoever undid the knot would rule Asia as being ‘the oracles of old’
Plutarch – Does not say when Gordius lived but refers to Midas as being an ‘ancient king’
By-the-bye, Alexander was 22-23 when he arrived in Gordium

… and after a futile effort to untie the knot drew his sword and severed it with a powerful swing…
This agrees with Arrian and Plutarch and some of their sources, for A. and P. both note that – according to Aristobulos – Alexander worked out how to undo the knot
This agrees with Curtius and Justin

That night a violent electrical storm told the people the gods were pleased.
This agrees with Arrian
Curtius, Justin and Plutarch do not mention this part of the story

Alexander went on to rule much of the known world.
This agrees with Arrian, Curtius, Justin and Plutarch and everyone else who has ever studied his life

Categories: By the Bye, Of The Moment | Tags: , , , | 1 Comment

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

The Gordian Knot

There are two traditions regarding how Alexander cut the Gordian knot.

In the first, Alexander undoes the knot by cutting through it with his sword. In the second, he undoes it by removing the pin that holds the knot together.

Arrian reports both traditions. He doesn’t give a source for the sword tradition, writing only ‘some say that…’ but he does give Aristobulos as the source for the pin tradition.

Plutarch follows Arrian’s example: he mentions both sword and pin, doesn’t give a source for the sword tradition, and cites Aristobulos as the source for the pin tradition.

Curtius only mentions the sword tradition while Diodorus doesn’t even mention Alexander’s visit to Gordium let alone the knot. I don’t have a copy of Justin to hand but I understand that like Curtius he only mentions the sword tradition.

So, which tradition is the correct one?

I would like to suggest that both are.

What I think happened is that when presented with the knot, Alexander attempted to unpick it first. Unable to do so he then resorted to using his sword. At that point, he either cut through the whole knot, or cut through it far enough to be able to unpick the ends that had now appeared and thus remove the pin.

My rationale for saying this is as follows:

I find it very hard to believe that no one thought of pulling the pin out before Alexander. If it really was that simple a solution, someone would surely have tried it already. Aristobulos’ account is too neat to be true.

On the other hand, while Alexander could behave very rashly sometimes, I find it equally hard to believe that he would not have made at least some attempt to undo the knot in the most perfect manner, i.e. by unpicking it, before resorting to his sword. He did like to do things in the best way.

If Alexander used both methods, then, why do we have two traditions that give part of the story rather than one that gives the whole story?

That, I think, is down to bias. Aristobulos’ is very biased towards Alexander. He always puts a positive spin on the king’s actions. Cleitus’ death? That was his fault not Alexander’s. It makes sense, therefore, that he should say Alexander simply removed the pin and omit all reference to his use of the sword.

By the same token, I imagine that the sword tradition comes from Macedonian soldiers who either gave the full story and were then selectively quoted by historians like Cleitarchus, or from their comrades who were less favourably disposed towards the late king. In the case of the latter, unable or unwilling to lie when asked if Alexander undid the knot, they resorted instead to emphasising the ‘negative’ aspect of the story – Yes, he undid it, but only by using his sword.

I say ‘Macedonian soldiers’ deliberately as I believe Callisthenes, the court historian, would have written that Alexander pulled the pin out. Whereas Aristobulos probably wrote out of love for Alexander, Callisthenes had to put a positive spin on the king’s actions out of necessity. Undoubtedly, though, the full story disseminated through the rank and file and it is thanks to them that we have the sword tradition.

This post was inspired by a couple of tweets that I saw. I don’t know if the people concerned would want to be named here so I won’t but if they read this – thank you from Alexander’s ‘scribe’ 🙂

Categories: By the Bye | Tags: | Leave a comment

Egypt: A Modern Gordian Knot

In antiquity, Greeks did not completely accept Macedonians as being one of them. Herodotus (V. 22) tells us that Alexander I (reigned 498-454 B.C.) was permitted to take part in the Olympic Games, but only after proving his Greek descent.
Today, of course, the country has no doubt and is rightly proud of the achievement of Macedon’s most famous son, Alexander the Great. In proof of this, here is the first paragraph of an article on the Al Arabiya News website.

When Greek Defense Minister Dimitris Avramopoulos met with presidential candidate Abdel Fattah al-Sisi on April 28, he presented him with the Sword of Alexander in appreciation of Sisi’s status and efforts. Some, however, have questioned the sword’s significance and why it was given to him.

You can read the full article here. Abdel Fattah al-Sisi is a Field Marshal in the Egyptian army, and the leading candidate to become the country’s next president following the downfall of Mohamed Morsi last summer.
The BBC website has an article about Sisi here. As I don’t know a great deal about Egyptian politicians I can’t vouch for its fairness but I trust that the BBC – while not being a perfect organisation – would not publish anything hopelessly bad.
One thing that jumped out at me as I read the BBC article was this quotation from Sisi regarding a dream he had had,

I saw President Sadat, and he told me that he knew he would be president of Egypt, so I responded that I knew I would be president too.

It immediately reminded me of the way Alexander’s Successors claimed to see/speak to Alexander in their dreams as part of their political strategy.  By-the-bye I can just about remember seeing the footage of Anwar Sadat being assassinated in 1981; it is interesting to see that his memory has not been forgotten in the last thirty or so years.
To go back to the article, though, the gift of the sword is a dramatically two-sided one. The article explains that it was given to Sisi as a symbol of his bravery for standing,

…by the Egyptian people on June 30 last year [upon the fall of Morsi]. He struck a knot and took a brave stance. This is what Egypt needs, and what Sisi needs to do.

But, of course, swords are not instruments of peace and one might also say that Dimitris Avramopoulos’s gift also alludes not only to Sisi’s military background but the ability that the Field Marshal will have – if he becomes president – to orchestrate violent actions in defence of his rule. I know it could be said that as a high ranking military official he already has that ability. But either way, whoever wins the election, I hope and pray that peace is restored to Egypt and her people.

Categories: Modern Politics | Tags: , , | Leave a comment

The Gordian Knot

  • Following in Alexander’s footsteps thanks to Google Maps!
  • For other posts in this series, click here
In antiquity Gordium was the capital of Phrygia. Now, it is is the village of Yassıhüyük in Turkey

In antiquity Gordium was the capital of Phrygia. Now, it is is the village of Yassıhüyük in Turkey

Gordium is in Hellespontine Phrygia; the town stands on the river Sangarius, which rises in Phrygia and runs through Bithynian Thrace into the Black Sea.
(Arrian I. 29)

Upon reaching this place [Alexander] was irresistibly impelled to visit the palace of Gordius and his son Midas high up on the acropolis, in order to inspect the famous Wagon of Gordius and the Knot with which its yoke was fixed.
(Arrian II. 3)



[According to tradition] the man who undid the knot which fixed its yoke was destined to be the lord of Asia.

The cord was made from the bark of the cornel tree, and so cunningly was the knot tied that no one could see where it began or where it ended.
(Arrian II. 3)



For Alexander, then, how to undo it was indeed a puzzle, though he was none the less unwilling to leave it as it was, as his failure might possibly lead to public disturbances. Accounts of what followed differ: some say that Alexander cut the knot with a stroke of his sword and exclaimed, ‘I have undone it!’, but Aristobulus thinks that he took out the pin – a sort of wooden peg which was driven right through the shaft of the wagon and held the knot together – and thus pulled the yoke away from the shaft… In any case, when he and his attendants left the place where the wagon stood, the general feeling was that the oracle about the untying of the knot had been fulfilled.

Categories: Mapping Alexander | Tags: , , , | 4 Comments

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