Posts Tagged With: Herodotus

Fire and Ice

The Nature of Curtius
Book Five Chapters 6-13
For other posts in the series click here

Chapter Six
Persepolis and Beyond
Upon their arrival in Persepolis, the Macedonians tore the city apart in their desire for loot. Many Persians were killed while others chose to kill themselves and their families before the invaders could get them.

The violence got so out of hand that Alexander had to issue an order to his men ‘to keep their hands off the women and their dress’. He didn’t order an end to the murder and plunder, though, that was legitimate retribution to ‘appease the spirits of their forefathers’.

Alexander arrived in Persepolis in January. In April, ‘at the time of the Pleiades’, he set out to subdue the Persian interior. Along ‘with 1,000 cavalry and a detachment of light-armed infantry’, Alexander marched through heavy rains towards his targets.

The Macedonians must have been high up because their road was ‘covered with permanent snow’. The soldiers trudged through it loyally but the ‘desolation of the terrain and the trackless wilderness terrified’ them. They thought they had reached the end of the world.

Curtius says that the soldiers ‘clamoured to go back before daylight and sky also came to an end’. But Alexander did not give in. And neither did he criticise his men. Instead, he dismounted his horse and continued on foot. Where the ice blocked his way, he simply smashed it apart with an axe.

It’s impossible to imagine how scared the Macedonian soldiers must have been – here they were at the end of the world and still yet the king went on! There was no question of a mutiny, though. The men were inspired by their king’s example to pull out their axes and follow after him.

Presently, signs of civilisation were spotted. There were ‘flocks of animals wandering here and there’ and ‘scattered huts’. On seeing the Macedonians, the natives killed their weak and infirm and fled to the mountains. Before long, however, Alexander managed to persuade them to return to their homes.

He was less clement to other natives and spent some time ‘ravaging’ their territory. Finally, Alexander met to ‘a bellicose people’ called the Mardians who lived in mountainside caves. Curtius makes them sound like cavemen. The tribe lived off the meat ‘of domesticated or wild animals’ and their women had shaggy, unkempt hair. The hemline of their clothes ended above the knee and they wore a sling around their heads that served as both ‘a head-dress and a weapon’.

The Mardians were used to a rough life and liked fighting but they were soon subdued by Alexander’s men. One month after leaving Persepolis, the king returned there in triumph.

Chapter Seven
The Royal Palace is Torched
We now come to Curtius’ account of the burning of the royal palace at Persepolis. Like Diodorus*, he places the blame for its destruction on the shoulders of Ptolemy’s mistress, Thaïs. It was Alexander, however, who threw the first torch. ‘Large sections of the palace had been made of cedar’ so the fire quickly took hold and spread.

The Macedonians in their camp outside the city saw the blaze and thought an accident had occurred. They rushed into Persepolis carrying pails of water. Seeing their king throw wood onto the blaze, however, they realised what was happening and joined in.

That was the end of the royal palace. The birthplace of kings and laws, of military strategy and terror; from it came armies that bridged the Hellespont (Xerxes I in 480 B.C.), and dug tunnels through mountains**. No more, though. Future kings would build their palaces elsewhere. For Curtius, Persepolis would be lost – not even ‘marked by the Araxes’ – which flowed past rather than through it.

* See this post for Diodorus’ account of the burning of the royal palace

** I’ve not been able to find out what Curtius is referring to although I think it might be another Herodotus reference? If you know, please leave a comment below!

Chapter Eight – Thirteen
These chapters focus on Darius’ last days. At the start of Chapter Eight we find him in Ecbatana. From then on, Curtius has very little to say about the Great King’s surroundings. The following, however, is of note –

Chapter Eight

  • (Darius’ rallying speech to his men)

Chapter Nine

  • Nabarzanes urges Darius to temporarily abdicate in order to allow a new king to make a fresh start in the fight against Alexander. He says that victory is possible as the east – Bactria and India are mentioned as well as the Sacae – is still under his control

Chapter Ten

  • Bessus and Nabarzanes decide to assassinate Darius. They are confident they can replace him as their territory (which amounts to a third of Asia) contains its best fighting men

Chapter Eleven

  • (Patron* warns Darius that Bessus and Nabarzanes are plotting against him)

* Leader of the Greek mercenaries

Chapter Twelve

  • When the Persians set up camp, the men put down their weapons and head off in groups to nearby villages to collect supplies. Curtius describes this as being their ‘usual practice’, though I doubt a larger army would do this!

Chapter Thirteen

  • Alexander chases Darius across country, being guided along the way by deserters
  • Reaching the Persian convoy, he has trouble finding Darius who has been hidden in a covered wagon
  • A Macedonian named Polystratus goes to a spring to quench his thirst. While drinking from it, he notices the wounded animals who had been pulling Darius’ wagon.
  • Polystratus wonders why the animals had been wounded rather than just driven off when he hears cries from within the wagon…

There is a lacuna in the text and Book 5 ends here

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Plutarch’s Women: Athena, the Persian Royal Family, Barsine & Callixeina (Chapts. 15, 19 & 21)

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We pick up Plutarch’s narrative again in chapter 15 of his Life of Alexander when, upon his arrival at Troy, the Macedonian king ‘sacrificed to Athena’. Unfortunately, that’s all Plutarch has to say about her. Understandably, he is more interested in Alexander’s acts of homage to his great hero, Achilles.
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By-the-bye, I could not help but note Alexander’s remark that ‘Achilles was happy in having found a faithful friend while he lived and a great poet to sing of his deeds after his death.’ This comment appears to suggest that Alexander considered that – in contrast to Achilles – he had neither a faithful friend nor a great poet. The latter is true; Callisthenes was no Homer; but where does that leave Hephaestion?
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Going back to Athena, I wish Plutarch had given a context for Alexander’s act of worship. I suppose he assumed, no doubt rightly, that his audience would be aware of why the sacrifice was carried out. We who come to the text so many years later, however, may need a little help. Theoi reminds me that Athena supported the Greeks during the Trojan War (you can read more about her here) so perhaps that is why Alexander sacrificed to her.
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After Athena, no more women are mentioned until chapter 19 when (in 333 B.C.), as he lay seriously ill in bed, Alexander was given a note from Parmenion warning him that his doctor, Philip, meant to poison him. According to Parmenion Darius had ‘… promised [Philip] large sums of money and even the hand of his daughter if he would kill Alexander’.
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When I wrote about this incident a few weeks ago (here) I mentioned my suspicion that Parmenion was using Alexander’s illness to carry out a coup. If we pretend for a moment, however, that the threat was real, who might Darius have married Philip to in the event that the latter did successfully  assassinate Alexander? Darius married twice and had at least three daughters – an unnamed one from an unnamed wife (who was the daughter of a Persian nobleman named Pharnaces) and two by his sister-wife Stateira, namely, Stateira II and Drypetis.
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We don’t know when Stateira II was born, but because Alexander took her as his wife at the Susa Weddings (in February 324 B.C.) she is believed to be Drypetis’ elder sister. As for the ‘younger’ sister, depending on when she was born, Drypetis could have been as young as 12 when Alexander fell ill, or as old as 16. Either way, she would go on to make a good match at Susa in that she became Hephaestion’s wife.
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Sadly, their marriage only lasted a few months as Hephaestion later the same year. After Alexander died the following June, the sisters’ days were numbered and indeed they were both soon killed by Perdiccas and Roxane as part of the dynastic struggle.
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We move on now to chapter 21 of Plutarch’s Life but stay with Stateira II and Drypetis as Plutarch relates how, following Alexander’s capture of the Persian camp after the Battle of Issus,

… word was brought to him that the mother, the wife and the two unmarried daughters of Darius were among the prisoners…

Darius’ mother was named Sisygambis; the wife being referred to here is Stateira I. Upon being taken prisoner by the Macedonians and seeing Darius’ bow and chariot they beat their breasts and cried in the belief that their lord was dead. This is the only insight into their character that Plutarch gives us before detailing Alexander’s most gentlemanly response to the news that his army had captured them. It isn’t much of an insight – perhaps ‘just’ a ritual response? Although even if it is it tells us something about their fidelity to Persian mourning traditions.
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Either way, and in fairness to him, Plutarch does add that the women were ‘chaste and noble’ (Plutarch adds that Stateira I was regarded as being ‘the most beautiful princess of her time’ and that Stateira II and Drypetis ‘resembled their parents’. It’s interesting that propaganda of this nature survived even though the daughters fell victim to more powerful interests after Alexander’s death).
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Chapter 21, and this post, ends with a delineation of Alexander’s moral character, which references a few women. Plutarch tells us that,

… Alexander… thought it more worthy of a king to subdue his own passions than to conquer his enemies…

To this end he avoided meeting the Persian queens and princesses. In fact, Plutarch explains that until his marriage (i.e. to Roxane), he avoided women altogether… almost: Barsine, Memnon’s widow, and daughter of Artabazus ‘who had married one of the Persian king’s daughters’, became his mistress. Citing Aristobulos as his authority, Plutarch adds,

Alexander slept with [Barsine], as… Parmenion had encouraged him to have relations with a woman of beauty and noble lineage.

This reminds me of the story of Callixeina ‘[a]n exceptionally attractive Thessalian heteira‘*. Philip and Olympias were worried that Alexander was showing no interest in women. So, his mother entreated her son to sleep with one. Eventually, Alexander did, with Callixeina being the lucky lady. According to Waldemar Heckel, however, this story is suspect as it comes from a hostile tradition. I’d like to think that Alexander did not sleep with Barsine at Parmenion’s suggestion but why would Aristobulos lie about something like that? Let’s hope his information was just, plain wrong.
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The final reference to women in chapter 21 is an aside that Alexander makes after seeing the other female Persian prisoners. We are told that Alexander,

… took no… notice of them than to say jokingly, ‘These Persian women are a torment for the eyes’ He was determined to make such a show of his chastity and self-control as to eclipse the beauty of their appearance, and so he passed them by as if they had been so many lifeless images cut out of stone.

Timothy E. Duff, in the Notes, compares Alexander’s words to the actions of the Persian ambassadors to Macedonia in Book 5:18 of Herodotus’ Histories. They describe the Macedonian women as a torment to their eyes but, unlike Alexander, are unable to control themselves. We end, then, with women becoming a means by which Alexander may prove his superiority to the Persians. It wasn’t enough to defeat them twice on the battlefield, he had to do it in love as well.
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* Waldemar Heckel Who’s Who in the Age of Alexander the Great (Wiley-Blackwell, 2009)

Categories: Plutarch's Women, Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Explorers of the Egyptian Desert

Almasy_Title_Page

I have just finished reading The Secret Life of Laszlo Almasy by John Bierman. It is an excellent read and I highly recommend it to anyone with an interest in Almásy’s life.
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Laszlo Ede Almásy is a controversial figure. Depending on who you read, he was pro-Nazi, a Soviet spy, helped saved Jews during the War, a German agent, and British agent. There are not enough documents publicly available to pin him down to one side or another.
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One thing we can be certain of, though, is that he loved the Western or Libyan Desert (so named even though part of it is in Egypt), and he spent numerous years exploring it. Almásy’s abiding desire – his pothos – was to find the lost oasis of Zerzura and Cambyses’ lost army, which was wiped out by a sandstorm after leaving the Siwah Oasis (Herodotus 3:26). Thank goodness Alexander did not encounter such a menace when he visited it.
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Unfortunately, Almásy achieved neither aim (unless Zerzura is to be found in the Gilf Kebir, which Almásy did explore – see below), but his exploration was by no means in vain. Along the way, for example, he found some superb examples of pre-historic cave art. His knowledge of the desert also came in useful during World War II; albeit for Rommel’s Afrika Korp. The Allies were very fortunate that, despite this, Rommel was not very interested in it.
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Almasy wrote his own book about his travels – Récentes Explorations dans Le Désert Libyque (1932 – 1936) – which, as you can tell from the title, was written in French. This is bad news for me as it means I can’t read it. However, after finding the book in the library I thought I would share here some pictures that I took of it.
CaveOfSwimmersThe above watercolour must be one of the most famous images to come out of the Gilf Kebir (Wadi Sura). As you can see, it shows men swimming. Once upon a time the desert was a fertile land.
Domestic_Animals If you have heard of Laszlo Almásy these days you are either an Egyptologist or, like me, a fan of The English Patient film and/or book.  Both, however, are inspired rather than based on his life. The real Almásy did not have an affair with a woman named Katherine Clifton; neither did he bring about her death or that of her husband, Geoffrey. In fact, the Cliftons were based on a young couple named Sir Robert and Dorothy Clayton-East-Clayton. Sir Robert accompanied Almásy into the desert in April 1932 but, sadly, died of an illness picked up there in September of the same year. As for Dorothy, not only did she not sleep with Almásy but appears to have actively disliked him. More could be said about that, but not here. For the remainder of this post, I would like to share with you Sir Robert Clayton-East-Clayton’s report on his trip into the desert. It was published by The Times newspaper on 6th July 1932.
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The report reads:

THE LOST OASIS

A SEARCH IN THE DESERT

THE ELUSIVE WADI

Cairo messages on the attempt to discover the lost oasis in the Libyan Desert have appeared in our columns within the last two months. The following article tells the full story. Photographs by members of the expedition from their aeroplane tend to confirm the opinion that the Wadi which was discovered is identical with the lost oasis.

By Sir Robert A. Clayton East Clayton

The object of the expedition organized by Count L. E. de Almasy and myself was to explore the unknown area of the Libyan Desert north of the Gilf Kebir, and to find the legendary lost oasis called Zerzura. We had three motor-cars and one light aeroplane. Though aeroplanes had not before been used for exploration in this part of the world, we thought our machine would help us by increasing the range of vision and enabling us to examine mountain-tops. It fully bore out our expectations. At Heliopolis the Royal Air Force gave us much assistance in our preparations; and there I met Squadron Leader Penderel, who got leave to join the expedition and contributed his valuable knowledge of aeronautical matters. The Egyptian Government lent Mr. P. A. Clayton, of the Desert Survey Department; he had been most of the way in previous expeditions, and naturally became our guide and navigator.
…..From Kharga Oasis on April 12 we went in the cars to make a dump, and that night camped about 110 kilometres away. Next morning we marked out a landing-ground on a stretch of flat sand. This was done by skidding a car in a small circle to mark the centre, and driving it three times round the limits to make a boundary. Then and afterwards the method proved serviceable, for the marks lasted for a long time. But on open stretches of sand, with no stones or inequalities, it was always difficult to spot a landing-ground; the glare and complete absence of shadow made it hard to focus one’s eyes where the sand, even at no great distance below the machine, seemed like a yellow mist.
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AT THE SURVEY WELL
On April 15, finding ourselves near Bir Messalia, we packed camp and drove over to it. Bir Messalia means “Survey Well.” Lying in a slight hollow in the middle of a vast, featureless sand plain, it consists of one small wooden hut containing the winch, the scaffolding over the well and a wooden beacon. It looked an impossible place to find from the air, as it would hardly be visible a mile away. After winding up some water, Clayton and Almasy took the lorry and dumped petrol about 80 kilometres further on in a line of crescent dunes. Penderel and I marked out a landing-ground near the well. As there were practically no landmarks, we made corner marks of empty benzine tins in addition to our usual circle and boundary. We also prepared a smoke fire in case the machine was seen searching for the camp.
…..When we left Bir Messalia to go back to Kharga for the aeroplane and more petrol, Almasy stayed behind to see what it felt like to be alone in the desert for a few days. At Kharga Penderel and I took up the aeroplane to practice following tracks, and dropped a message in a weighted towel on Clayton, who had gone on with the three cars. The return to Bir Messalia, during which we encountered a flock of plover migrating northwards, was the worst flight I have ever experienced. As the sun got higher the tracks became invisible. I had to keep my eyes glued on the ground the whole time; lifting them for only a second would have meant losing the tracks for good. What with the terrible glare and the intense concentration needed I lost all idea of height, position, and speed. My head began to swim, and I had an almost unbearable longing to dive the machine into the ground and end it all. The worst of it all was that, as Penderel’s goggles did not fit, he could not take over to give me a rest. However, after what seemed to me an age we arrived at Messalia to find Almasy had laid out a landing. It was terribly hot, with no wind, so we just lay in the winch hut and sweated till Clayton arrived.
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PETER AND PAUL
On April 20 we set off by car for some point south-west of the Gilf Kebir, our real objective, and finally camped under two large hills which we called Peter and Paul. Next morning Penderel and I left with three Arabs and two cars; and the Arabs, upon whom we had depended for guidance, took us out of the way. The visibility was bad, and no landmarks were to be seen. Moreover, we encountered a small sandstorm. It became necessary to ration both petrol and water. We realized that Clayton and Almasy would have very little chance of finding us with one car, and would be in a dangerous position, having to trust their lives to that car in those vast spaces. Accordingly it was up to us to get out of our own mess. So, early on the following day, we sent the Arabs on foot to see if they could discover anything. We ourselves spotted a small hill to the north which, if our map and estimates were correct, should have had a small cairn of it. But the Arabs, returning after several hours, said there was nothing on the hill. We began to think of all the stories we had ever heard about death from thirst.
…..After calculating our position, we decided to drive north. The petrol ran out at the foot of the little hill we had seen and depended upon. What was our joy on climbing to the top to find that there was a cairn! The wretched Arabs had tired before reaching the hill and reported wrongly. We now knew the camp was only 25 kilometres away, and accordingly sent the men off to collect a tin of petrol. It was getting dark by this time, so we did not expect them back till afternoon next day. Then we brewed a cup of tea from radiator water. Although the water was darker than the tea, I have never tasted a drink nearly so good. The mixture of oil, rust, and dirt only made it nicer. Having also eaten some biscuits, the first food for 36 hours, we felt better and went to bed.
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DESERT LESSONS
The men came back next afternoon, and we were enabled to make for the camp. From this incident we learnt several lessons: Never trust an Arab guide, however good, but do your own navigation; always carry enough petrol to get back to your starting-place; keep notes of every journey and never forget that the desert will hit you a blow below the belt if you give it the slightest chance.
…..On the morning of April 26 Almasy, who had a pass from the Italian embassy, started for Kufra with two cars to get water. On April 27 Penderel and I took off for a flight over the Gilf. Soon after crossing its edge we found the beginning of a large wadi running the same course as ourselves. This broadened out and trees appeared, a bit scattered at first but thickening after a short distance. Unfortunately visibility was bad and we could not see the end of the wadi distinctly. It seemed to be about 30 or 40 kilometres long, and, as far as we could see, well filled with trees. This was intensely interesting. We would have liked to fly right to the end, but the thought of a forced landing in that broken, rocky country was too much for us. On our telling Clayton of our find he confirmed the opinion that it was quite possibly Zerzura.
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CHIANTI SAVES WATER
Almasy returned that evening after a successful trip to Kufra. He had been received with the greatest cordiality by the Italian officers; he was apparently the first tripper there since the Expeditionary Force left. Among other things he brought 12 bottles of Chianti, which, apart from other considerations, helped to save our water.
…..Another exploratory trip up several wadis drew a blank, except for a solitary saizal tree and the spoor of one grazing camel about two or three years old. The country was terribly rocky and broken, giving ample evidence of the floods in the past. There was a little dried-up grass in one or two wadis, but nothing more. The greatest difficulty was to know which was the main scarp of the Gilf.
…..The time when we had expected to start back was now at hand, and petrol was running short. On April 20 Clayton and Penderel climbed to the top of the Gilf and found an Arab road, very old, marked with cairns. As far as they could see it led to a large wadi a bit to the south. While they were up on top, a swallow, very exhausted, came down quite close to Almasy and myself. Although we offered it water in a plate it would not drink. We took some photographs of it.
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THE LAST TRY
When Penderel and Clayton came down we made for the wadi they had seen from aloft. It had quite a lot of trees in it and some mountain sheep skeletons under them. However, it ended about five kilometres further on in a sidd, or dry waterfall, which showed it could not be our wadi. In the evening Penderel took up Almasy, and I took up Clayton, for a look at the wadi. Seeing it again we altered our ideas a bit, and after working out the petrol to about seven places of decimals, we decided that, if we went straight to where we now felt certain the entrance to the wadi was, we should have just enough petrol to get back to our dump at Peter and Paul.
…..Accordingly we had a try again next day, but the wadi beat us again. No wonder it is called a lost oasis. This was our last possible effort. It was disappointing not to have entered the promised land, although we had seen it several times from the air.
…..The journey home to Kharga was uneventful. Luckily we arrived the day before the weekly train for Cairo, so Clayton and Almasy did not have to wait. Penderel and I flew back to Heliopolis without incident. Clayton and Almasy had the only mechanical breakdown of the trip when the train broke down in the middle of the desert.
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Categories: Of The Moment | Tags: , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Tarn Springs Some Surprises

I have now finished W W Tarn’s Narrative. Here are three things that made an impression upon me between pages 86 and 148. If you would like to read what I thought of the first half of the book and can’t see the relevant post below this one, just click here.
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Alexander and Herodotus

Herodotus was no longer much read… there is no sign that Alexander knew him at all, not even his account of Scylax’s voyage.
(Tarn, p. 86)

I almost drew breath when I read this even though I have no idea whether it is accurate or not. My understanding is that Alexander was a well read man. Is this not true? Of course, we may well have been and still not known about Herodotus’ Histories if the latter had fallen into obscurity. Tarn’s book was published just after World War II ended and at least one part of it was written in the 20s so scholarship may have discovered that Herodotus was not a stranger to Alexander after all. I certainly hope so. The alternative does not seem at all fitting.
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In the last post, I noted a couple of points where Oliver Stone used Tarn’s text in his film about Alexander. In the film, Stone has Bucephalus die during the Battle of the Hydaspes River. I had always thought this to be inaccurate and that Bucephalus died at some point earlier or later. Tarn surprised me, therefore, when I read,

Alexander after his victory [in the Battle of the Hydaspes] founded two cities, Alexandria Nicaea where his camp had stood, and Alexandria Bucephala on the battlefield, nicknamed from his horse which died there…
(Tarn, pp 96-7)

Ah. Maybe my memory was at fault, then. I jumped to Arrian to see what he said. Sure enough…

Porus’ son… wounded Alexander with his own hand and struck the blow which killed his beloved horse Bucephalus.
(Arrian, p. 274)

To be sure, Arrian is talking about the engagement that took place just before the battle started but it was a confrontation that was part of the whole so on that basis we can give Stone and Tarn a qualified pass. Except, Plutarch –

After [the battle at the Hydaspes River] Bucephalus… died, not immediately but some while later. Most historians report that he died of wounds received in the battle, for which he was being treated but according to Onesicritus it was from old age, for by this time he was thirty years old.
(Plutarch, para 61)

I don’t know much about Onesicritus but if his Wikipedia entry is accurate then he is not necessarily a writer to be trusted.
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The last thing that made a big impression definitely did make me draw a breath, which is funny because its one of those things I kind of knew already. In short, it highlighted how interested Alexander was in exploring and learning about the world. My principle image of him is, of course, as the second Achilles – being all about the war and glory. Tarn makes it clear though, that Alexander was simply not about blood ‘n guts. Here is the relevant passage:

[Alexander] attacked the secret of the ocean. He sent Heracleides to explore the Hyrcanian sea, and ascertain whether Aristotle had been right in calling this great expanse of salt water a lake, or whether the old theory that it was a gulf of Ocean might not be true after all…

He himself turned his attention to the Persian Gulf. He took steps to ensure better communication between Babylonia and the sea by removing the Persian obstacles to free navigation of the Tigris and founding an Alexandria on the Gulf at the mouth of that river…

He also planned to colonise the eastern coast of the Gulf, along which Nearchus had sailed, and sent 500 talents to Sidon to be coined for the hire or purchase of sailors and colonists. This would help to establish the already explored sea-route between India and Babylon; but he meant to complete the sea-route from India to Egypt by exploring the section between Babylon and Egypt and circumnavigating Arabia, possibly as a preliminary to still more extensive maritime exploration in the future. He therefore planned an expedition along the Arabian coast…
(Tarn, p. 118)

I can’t tell you what about this passage opened my eyes because I don’t know, but reading it felt like a splash of cold water to the face. As I said above, I already knew that Alexander was a keen explorer and student but what this passage has succeeded in doing is bringing that truth home to me in a strong and direct way. I’m not going to rename this blog The Second Aristotle but sure I won’t forget it in a hurry.

Editions Used
Arrian The Campaigns of Alexander (Penguin Classics London 1971)
Plutarch The Age of Alexander (Penguin Classics London 2011)
Tarn, W W Alexander the Great I Narrative (Cambridge University Press 1948)

Categories: Of The Moment | Tags: , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Tom Holland on Herodotus’ Histories

This evening I visited Daunt Books in Marylebone to listen to Tom Holland talk about his new translation of Herodotus’ Histories with the editor of History Today*.
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I first met Herodotus in 1996 after watching The English Patient. If you haven’t seen Anthony Minghella’s masterpiece, I thoroughly recommend it to you; it is a powerful story of love, betrayal and the fluid nature of identity. Herodotus’ story of Candaules and Gyges plays a small but central part in the unfolding drama of Almásy and Katherine’s relationship.
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Tom Holland’s engagement with Herodotus began at the age of twelve. Back then he read the book to learn about the Persian Wars. As anyone who has read the Histories knows, Herodotus is not only the Father of History but the Master of Digression. Holland admitted that when he was young they made him impatient but now he regards them differently; as legitimate, I suppose, a part of the book as the ‘gripping’ accounts of the Persian Wars themselves.
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The Histories is not, technically speaking, a history. The Greek word, historia, from which we derive ‘history’, meant ‘enquiry’ or ‘research’ to Herodotus. Historia did not come to mean ‘history’ for another hundred years (Holland referred to the ‘Alexandrian era’). The title, though, is well chosen as Herodotus was perennially interested in everything around him. Thus, the book contains history, ethnography, information about cultural customs, religious practices, and so forth. Holland made the entertaining point that when we use Google we are following in Herodotus’ inquisitive footsteps. Imagine if Herodotus had had Google; I imagine he would have been stuck to his laptop!

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Alexander to Herodotus (note the scratch on the cover. The book should have had a dust jacket!)

Holland told us that Herodotus was an ‘utterly charming’ writer; he was the kind of man you would want at a dinner party. But Herodotus’ was not an empty charm; he was also a very sympathetic man. This is seen in the respect he gives to the Persians who were, after all, the Greeks’ enemy. I think Holland said that Herodotus admires them. That really is the mark of a truly civilised man. I wonder if our modern day equivalent would be to respect and admire countries and religions to whom we are opposed or do not believe in.
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Holland said that it took him five years to translate the Histories. While working on it, he followed the practice of translating one paragraph a day. Of course, some of the paragraphs are very short – a sentence long – while others are equally long – being pages in length. Holland’s practice here was not to ‘bank’ his sentence and then go and do something else but carry on so that he wouldn’t fall behind his schedule whenever he came to a long paragraph. I wonder how Herodotus wrote?
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One thing that came across very strongly tonight was Holland’s love for Herodotus. I suspect he really was sad when he finished translating the book.
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During the Q and A session, a man asked if we could also call Herodotus the Father of Journalism. The man said he hoped so as he was a teacher in that subject and taught his students to follow Herodotus’ practice of declaring the source of his information when writing stories; for example, by writing ‘this is what I was told [by]…’, ‘I got the story this way’ so that, I guess, people knew with what caution to approach it. Holland agreed that there is a sense in which Herodotus is a journalist.
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Finally, I must mention that Holland suggested that Herodotus gives us the earliest joke that we can still genuinely smile at. He was referring to the story of the small pyramids at Giza. Herodotus says the Egyptian priests told him they were built by a pharaonic princess who paid for them by prostituting herself. Well, she was a princess so was able to charge a lot of money! In case you are wondering we know for a fact that that is not how they were built – as if a princess would ever prostitute herself (or indeed make enough money to pay for pyramids of any size).
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After the Q & A finished, those of us with books queued to have them signed. I have already started reading my copy and am enjoying it a lot. The only disappointment I have with it, is its physical appearance. It is a thick book (833 pages) but came with no book mark. Also, the spine and front cover have – within days – started to become worn. The book was not sold with a dust jacket, which surprised me. I suppose this was to keep the price down but am still disappointed.
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After the event concluded, I stepped out into street filled with the kind of satisfaction that only a glass of nice red wine, an hour with a friendly author, good convo and questions, and the knowledge that I am lucky enough to have his translation of Herodotus to read, can give. Take that Croesus.
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* You can hear Tom Holland talk about his translation in a podcast at the History Today website here

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