Posts Tagged With: Gordium

Sweet Summer Child

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!

Categories: Chronology of Alexander's Life | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

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.

Categories: Quintus Curtius Rufus | Tags: , , , , , , , , , | 1 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)

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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