Posts Tagged With: Gordium

22. Gordium

Crossing Asia Minor with Alexander

‘When Alexander arrived at Gordium he was taken with a keen desire to go up to the acropolis, where there was the palace of Gordius and his son Midas, and to see for himself Gordius’ wagon and the knot on its yoke.’
(Arrian II.3.1)

Text used: Arrian ‘Alexander the Great‘ OUP 2013 (translated by Martin Hammond)

Alexander cuts the Gordian knot

Credit Where It’s Due
Alexander cutting the Gordian knot: History

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21. Calaenae

Crossing Asia Minor with Alexander

‘Four days later [Alexander] reached Celaenae, where the acropolis, rising steep on all sides, was held under the satrap of Phrygia by a garrison of a thousand Carians and a hundred Greek mercenaries. They sent envoys to Alexander assuring him that they would surrender…’
(Arrian I.29.1-2)

Text used: Arrian ‘Alexander the Great‘ OUP 2013 (translated by Martin Hammond)

… but only if Darius didn’t send reinforcements by a certain date. Alexander regarded the acropolis as ‘completely unassailable’ (Arr. I.29.2) and so agreed. He left a detachment behind and set off for Gordium.

For the second day in a row we see Alexander recognising his limits and acting accordingly. Of course, the two cases are sightly different. From what Arrian says, it seems that Alexander believed he could take Telmissus but not quickly enough so decided to leave it. As above, Celaenae looked too strong to take in the first place. 

What happened between Celaenae and Tyre? How could he ever have thought that the former was impervious to attack and the latter wasn’t? I suspect here that Alexander was swayed by the Celaenians offer to surrender. The acropolis looked hard, really hard; I could stay, but… they are offering to surrender; let’s call it impossible and move on to a better target.

A medieval picture of Alexander taking Calaenae

Credit Where It’s Due
Alexander takes Celaenae: Wikipedia

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A Land of Nymphs and Knots

The Nature of Curtius
Book Three, Chapter 1
For the other posts in this series, click here

Introduction
Quintus Curtius Rufus is known for the dramatic nature of his History of Alexander. In his account we see ‘a brilliantly realised image of a man ruined by constant good fortune in his youth’*.

In consequence, when it came to deciding how to approach this series of posts on his book it made perfect sense to look at Curtius’ Alexander through the lens of the flora and fauna that he met and passed through along the way**.

I have to say, I don’t recall that Alexander was ever greatly troubled by wild animals during his expedition, so they are most likely to appear in the form of icons and/or representations.

By the same token, it may well be that Curtius doesn’t have much to say about the land over which the Macedonians marched. If so, this will simply be a very short series!

However, when I began Plutarch’s Women I had much the same worry and that turned out alright, so here’s hoping.

Nota Bene This won’t be an exhaustive look at every last pebble and pigeon that Alexander came across and it will involve a (fair) bit of me speculating and imagining so don’t expect a Gradgrindian concern for FACTS and only FACTS!

And one final note for those who might be unaware – You may have noticed that we are beginning this series at the start of book three. This is because the first two books of Curtius’ History have been lost.

* This quotation comes from the blurb on the back page of my edition of Curtius (Penguin 2004)
** For the avoidance of doubt, yes, I am being ironic!

Chapter One
The Marsyas River
We begin with Alexander in Lycia, settling his affairs in Pamphylia before moving on to Phrygia. There, he came to the city of Caleanae. This brings us to Curtius’ first description of a natural feature – the Marsyas River.

He places the source of the Marsyas high above Calaenae, indeed, high above the world – on a mountain peak. From there, it flows down the mountain side with a ‘thunderous roar’ before crashing down onto a rock and into a pool, or perhaps a lake or mere, at the foot of the mountain.

If the Marsyas flowed as noisily as Curtius says, the sound of it echoing throughout the hills must have been a source of awe and wonder to the Calaenaeans, and anyone else who passed that way.

In fact, I wonder if they were not filled at times with dread. I would not laugh at them if this was the case, for nature can be a violent and oppressive force sometimes. For that reason, I see the travellers pausing before crossing the river at some calmer point, and pouring libations to the Potami*, in order to ensure a safe passage across the water.

This is not a wholly unlikely scenario – Curtius tells us that the Marsyas had been ‘made famous by Greek poetry with all its myths’. For example, the river’s clear water had ‘given rise to… the story… that nymphs sit on the rock, held fast there by their love for the river’.

Love conquers all; so, perhaps we have the nymphs to thank for the Marsyas’ serenity once it poured into the rock pool. If so, their influence was very timely, for the river now had an important work to do – irrigation. Its waters ran out of the pool in streams that splashed and gurgled their way across the Phrygian plains giving life to the seeds sown by farmers.

We must it, however, in another direction – to Calaenae.

Calaenae was a walled city. To enable the Marsyas to enter it, holes had been cut out of the walls.

Lector Walls? For a stream?

I agree. That’s not likely. And Curtius seems to show this when he says that upon leaving the city, the Marsyas did so ‘with increased force’ due to the fact that it was now carrying ‘a larger volume of water’.

Lector Well… maybe the little stream simply became a big stream.

Perhaps, but I don’t think so. If that is all the Marsyas was I don’t think it would have been worth mentioning to begin. And it would hardly have been worth the Calaenaeans effort to change the river’s name after it left their city, for then it stopped being the Marsyas then and transformed, Dr Who like, into the Lycus.

Alexander put the Calaenaeans under siege by surrounding their citadel. The Phrygians agreed to surrender but only if Darius did not come to their aid. When that happened (or rather, didn’t), they kept their word.

* Greek gods of rivers. See Theoi for more details

Gordium
Curtius describes Gordium as being ‘on the banks of the river ‘Sangarius, equidistant from the Pontic and Cilician Seas’. As I understand it, the Pontic is the Black Sea and Cilician that part of the Mediterranean that touches Cilicia in the south-east of Asia Minor. Given that Gordium is in Phrygia I would say that it is a little closer to the Pontic.

But, to be honest, Curtius’ geography is not very accurate. He describes ‘Asia’ as becoming no more than an isthmus. For him, Asia Minor is really like an island in appearance. To be fair, Curtius does recognise that it is attached ‘to the continent’. Although, I think he means Europe rather than the near east.

Alexander entered Gordium and tried to undo the famous knot. Failing, he simply cut it with his sword, declaring ‘It makes no difference how they’re untied’.

Leaving the city, Alexander ‘determined to attack Darius whoever he was’. In Ancyra he reviewed his troops before moving on to Paphlagonia and hence Cappadocia with troops newly arrived from Macedon.

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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)

Gordium

Gordium

[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)

Gordium

Gordium

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.
(Ibid)

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

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