Posts Tagged With: Harmatelia

Wounds of War

The Nature of Curtius
Book Nine Chapter 5-9
For other posts in the series click here

Chapter Five
Alexander against the Mallians
The siege of the Mallian city entered its decisive stage when Alexander jumped into it from the city wall by himself. He did this knowing that his men could not follow – they had overloaded and broken their ladder while climbing up it behind him.

As Curtius notes, Alexander would have ‘uselessly’ sacrificed himself if he had fallen over on landing. In that instance, ‘he could have been overpowered and taken alive before he got up’. But fortune remained on his side. Alexander landed on his feet and started to fight.

To give himself the best chance of survival, Alexander fought next to ‘an old tree whose thickly-leaved branches gave [him] some cover’. He stayed close to it – Curtius says he pressed himself against it – to make sure he could not be ‘encircled’.

Upon a moment, the inevitable happened and an arrow evaded both the tree and Alexander’s shield. It struck him ‘above his right side’. The king fell to the ground. Determined, however, ‘to go down fighting [Alexander] attempted to stand by grasping the overhanging branches [of the tree] with his right hand’.

But the tree had played its part and Alexander ‘sank back to his knees’. Only the timely arrival of some of his soldiers and then the whole army – having broken through the city wall – saved him.

Chapter Six
Alexander Lives – Just
Seven days after being injured, Alexander’s wound was still open. As he lay in his bed, some unwelcome news was brought to him – a rumour that he had died was ‘gaining strength among the barbarians’. This had to be dispelled before it led to revolt.

In order to show the local tribes that he was still very much alive – even if bedridden – Alexander ‘had two ships lashed together and a tent erected in the centre of them’. He, in his bed, was placed in the tent and the boats pushed into the river.

The exercise had the desired effect. The natives saw him knew their hopes of revolt had died. Alexander, meanwhile, was so weak that the rest of the Macedonian fleet was forced to sail ‘some distance’ behind him ‘so that the stroke of the oars would not disrupt his sleep’.

Chapter Seven
A Long Journey Begins
In this chapter we read of a revolt led by (Greek) soldiers whom Alexander had settled around Zariaspa and the duel between Dioxippus and Horratas*.

Neither event is of relevance to us although perhaps we might give an honourable mention to the Greeks who left Zariaspa following their revolt. The Notes record that of those who set out for Greece, 3,000 would make it all the way back. The vast majority, though (‘some 23,000’) would be ‘massacred by Peithon on Perdiccas’ orders in 323 B.C.’

* Diodorus names him as Coragus

Chapter Eight
Alexander and Ptolemy
Alexander continued his journey downstream. Upon entering the territory of the Sabarcae, the Macedonian fleet was seen from by the many villagers who lived near the river bank.

The Sabarcae ‘perceived that the water was entirely covered with boats as far as the eye could see’. This, along with the Macedonians’ shouting, and ‘flashing arms’ terrified them. Indeed, ‘they believed an army of gods was approaching with a second Father Liber’.

The villagers fled to their army. You are insane! They told them, For you are going to fight gods, ‘invincible warriors… beyond number’. The army duly surrendered.

In the territory of King Sambus, the Macedonians undermined his tribe’s ‘strongest city’. When they appeared like moles out of the ground the natives thought their appearance a miracle.

In the city of Harmatelia*, the Macedonians were attacked with poisoned weapons. One of those injured was Ptolemy Lagides. It was only a slight wound but the poison was so strong that he fell gravely ill.

That night, Alexander slept by his friend’s bedside. He dreamt of ‘a snake carrying a plant in its mouth which it had indicated was an antidote to the poison’. Upon waking, Alexander launched a search for the plant. When it was found, he himself applied it to Ptolemy’s wound. The poison subsided. His friend, some say half-brother, was saved.

Diodorus comes into much more (gory) detail regarding the poison. If you are up to it you can read what I wrote about it here

* This name is given by Diodorus rather than Curtius

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Alexander Saves Ptolemy’s Life

Daily Diodorus
Vol. VIII. Book XVII Ch. 103 (Loeb Classical Library)
Read the other posts in this series here

The Headlines
Alexander attacks Harmatelia
Ptolemy Wounded by Deadly Poison
Alexander Discovers Cure for Poison in a Dream
Ptolemy is Healed
Harmatelia Surrenders

The Story
Alexander’s campaign against the Brahmins drew to its end. Only one city still remained unconquered – Harmatelia. Towards the end of the chapter, Diodorus tells us that the city ‘was large and strongly fortified’. Perhaps it was for this reason, then, that Alexander decided to even the odds a little by using cunning before launching an all-out attack.

He sent a detachment of 500 men to attack the city. If the Brahmin soldiers launch a counter-attack, he told them, withdraw…

The soldiers fulfilled their orders and sure enough the Brahmins launched a counter-attack. The Macedonians quickly retreated. It looked to the Brahmins as if the foreigners were running scared so they pursued them, no doubt with glee.

Alexander’s full plan now came to fruition. He and the rest of the army were hiding. When the Brahmins came near to them, he ambushed them.

The surprise attack was successful but not without its cost for the Brahmins’ arrows were smeared with a deadly snake poison.

Diodorus kindly gives a detailed account of how the poison was made and its effect, which I have outlined below. Go straight to the next paragraph if you are of a nervous disposition.

Final warning.

Making the poison

  1. An unspecified type of snake was ‘killed and left in the sun’
  2. The sun ‘melted the substance of the flesh’ allowing ‘drops of moisture’ to form
  3. The poison was extracted from this moisture

The poison’s effect in order of occurrence

  1. Numbness of the body
  2. ‘[S]harp pains’
  3. Convulsion and shivering across the body
  4. Coldness and lividness of the skin
  5. Vomiting with bile appearing in the vomit
  6. ‘Black froth’ issuing from the wound
  7. Gangrene spreading across the body
  8. Death

Diodorus notes that the poison killed even those whose injury was no more than a scratch. It was a death sentence. Thus, when Ptolemy was struck by a poisoned arrow, he must have feared that his life was over.

This is Diodorus’ first mention of the man who would one day become pharaoh of Egypt. He was, we are told, ‘loved by all because of his character and his kindness to all’. For this reason, ‘he obtained a succour appropriate to his good deeds’.

That night, Alexander dreamt of a snake. In its mouth it carried a plant. The snake somehow showed Alexander that the plant could be used to heal its own bite. It even showed him where it grew.

Waking up, Alexander went in search of the plant. Finding it, he ground and ‘plastered it on Ptolemy’s body. He also prepared an infusion of the plant’ which Ptolemy drank. In the hours or days that followed the son of Lagus was restored to health. The same treatment was then applied to the other soldiers who had been poisoned and they too recovered.

Alexander’s attention now returned to Harmatelia. Preparations were made to attack it. Before this could happen, however, the Brahmins came out with their ‘suppliant branches’. Despite the harm they had done to one of his closest friends, Alexander accepted their surrender.

Did this incident happen? Was Ptolemy healed by Alexander? Given that Ptolemy was pro-Alexander even if not pro-Argead you would have expected him to mention in his memoir how the king had healed him. And yet, Arrian does not mention it at all.

Perhaps he did mention it and Arrian chose to omit it but why – given his own respect for Alexander and Ptolemy – would he do that?

Thinking aloud – I am doubtful that it did happen. My suspicion is that the soldiers whose accounts formed the basis of Cleitarchus’ narrative, which Diodorus used as his source text, embellished or invented the story.

Their reason for doing so? They liked Ptolemy on account of his character and/or the fact he (had) employed them, and so wanted to do right by him.

If that sounds unlikely, we know of at least one other occasion when the soldiers went out of their way to give Cleitarchus a favourable impression of Ptolemy (i.e. when they told the Alexandrian that Ptolemy climbed up the ladder with Peucestas when he was elsewhere at the time) so I see no problem in believing they did it again.

Against that, while Ptolemy corrected Cleitarchus’ mistake (Arrian says that the pharaoh ‘has made it quite plan [in his work] that he was not present at this action’) he seemingly makes no mention of the poisoning. Why would Ptolemy correct one mistake and not the other, unless it actually happened?

Survived like a boss

Picture: from Pinterest

Categories: Diodorus Siculus | Tags: , , | 2 Comments

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