The Nature of Curtius
Book Eight Chapter 6-10
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Chapter Six – Eight
Hermolaus and Co.
The Pages’ Conspiracy occupies the attention of all these chapters. The only thing worth noting in this blog post is that the conspiracy originated in Alexander’s treatment of Hermolaus during a hunt.
As Curtius tells it, Alexander ‘ear-marked’ a boar that he wished to kill, only for Hermolaus to get to it first. In punishment, Alexander had his page flogged. Humiliated, Hermolaus conceived his plan to assassinate the king.
As Alexander says during Hermolaus’ trial in chapter eight, the flogging took place according to ‘traditional custom’. Had it just been a matter of humiliation, therefore, Hermolaus might have swallowed his punishment and got on with his work but he was also disillusioned with Alexander’s medising (see chapter seven). The flogging, therefore, was the straw that broke the camel’s back.
When Alexander struck camp and set off for India*, his reason for doing so – according to Curtius – is that he wanted to avoid gossip in the camp through inactivity. Undoubtedly, he most wanted people not to talk about his court historian, Callisthenes who had also been executed with the pages.
Certainly, the less said about Callisthenes the better. Not only had he not been part of the conspiracy, but he had not committed any offence other than being a close friend of the conspirators. Furthermore, like so many Macedonians, he was a known opponent of the king’s adoption of Persian dress and customs.
Curtius describes India as being eastward facing, and of greater length than width. He tells us that the country is flat, except for where it is exposed to the south wind; there, the land is is ‘of higher elevation’. The even surface of the ground means that the ‘many famous rivers’ that have their source in the Caucasus pass gently across the Indian plains.
The greatest of the Indian rivers is the Ganges, which flows southwards before being ‘diverted eastwards by some rocky moutaints’. Both it, and the Indus (which, Curtius says, is colder than the other rivers) flow out into the Red Sea, that is, the Indian Ocean. Curtius is not thinking of the more famous Red Sea here but the one named after a king Erythrus, whose name means red in Greek.
As well as being cold, the Indus appears to be a fast flowing river as well, for Curtius describes it as tearing ‘away its banks and many trees on them along with large tracts of soil’. There are boulders in the river, too, and the waters smash against them ‘violently’. However, after a point, the river calms down and runs slowly between islands.
From what Curtius says, the Acesines seems to act as a tributary for both the Indus and Ganges. In regards the latter, ‘the two rivers [collide] with great violence’ due to an unspecified blockage at the Acesines’ river mouth.
There is another river, the Diardines, which ‘is less well known because it runs through the most remote parts of India’ and is home to crocodiles (‘like the Nile’), dolphins and other ‘creatures unknown’.
Then there is the Ethymantus, which meanders along on an undulating course and is used ‘for irrigation by the natives’. By the time it reaches the Indian Ocean, its water level is so low that the river is given no name.
Curtius tells us that India has many other rivers but they are unnamed due to being in ‘unchartered territory’. Finally, in the matter of rivers, he records that they are ‘gold-bearing’ and that the sea ‘throws up precious stones and pearls on the beaches’.
We’ve seen how the south wind affects the areas of India that are above sea level. The coastal regions suffer under the dryness of the North wind. The interior of the country is less affected as it is protected by the Himalaya mountains. This means that the land is fertile – fruit and flax are both grown / produced there. There is even a type of tree that grows in India, the bark of which is soft and can be used for writing.
Among the animal population, there are birds that ‘can be trained to imitate the human voice’, rhinoceroses and elephants which ‘possess greater strength than those trained in Africa’. They are larger than their African cousins, too.
Curtius makes a note of how ‘the environment also shapes the character of the people’. The preponderance of flax makes linen clothing very popular. The rich wear jewellery made of gold and the king is carried in a ‘golden litter fringed with pearls’. Trained birds sing to him to take his mind off ‘serious matters’.
Nature influences Indian architectural style as well – the king’s palace contains ‘gilded pillars with a vine in gold relief… and silver representations of birds’.
There is a downside to all this, though; the wealth that nature has given the king has made him lazy. When he hunts, the animals are kept in a pen, and he uses an oversized weapon. He travels on horse and elephantback with his ‘long retinue of concubines in golden sedan-chairs’ behind him.
Despite this, the Indians have not lost touch with the land which has blessed them with so much of itself. ‘To anything they have started to cultivate’ Curtius says, ‘they give divine status, especially to trees’. Interfering with one is punishable by death.
And in case there is any doubt, yes, astrology is practiced in India, too.
Finally, Curtius notes how ‘the earth inverts its regular seasonal changes’ but doesn’t know why this happens.
* Nota Bene: When Curtius talks about India he includes the area that now forms Pakistan.
A Mountain Party
Entering India, Alexander received the submission of a number of ‘petty kings’. He ‘sent Hephaestion and Perdiccas ahead… to crush any opposition to his power’. Their ultimate destination, however, was the Indus River where Alexander instructed them to make boats for – not only its crossing, but the crossing of any other river that they came to. To achieve this, the two generals made boats that could be dismantled and put back together again as needs be.
At the town of Nysa, the Macedonians inadvertently set fire to the local sepulchres, which were made of cedar. The first the Nysans knew of Alexander’s arrival, though, was when their dogs started barking.
Curtius describes Nysa as being ‘at the foot’ of Mount Meron. The Notes record that in Greek, méros means thigh. As a result of the similarity between the two names, he says, the Greeks invented ‘their story of Father Liber [Dionysus] being concealed in the thigh of Jupiter’.
Alexander led his men to the top of the mountain. Along the way, they found streams that flow all year round rushing past them. Unsurprisingly, ivy and vines were also present up and down the mountain. But that was not all; ‘fruits whose juices have health-giving properties’, soil so fertile it could produce spontaneous harvests, ‘laurels and berry-bushes’ – were all present.
As you might expect, though, the Macedonians made straight for the ivy and vines, making garlands out of them. They noisily worshipped the god of the mountains, and lazed, drinking all the while. Alexander did not oppose the revelry. Quite the reverse – he put on a feast and joined in the fun and feasting. All-in-all, the Macedonian army spent ‘ten days in the worship of Father Liber’.
Once the partying was over, Alexander campaigned against the Daedala people, who tried to hide ‘in some remote, tree-clad mountains’. He crossed the Choaspes River and put the city of Mazagae under siege.
Mazagae was protected on its east side by a ‘swift river’ with sheer banks on the far side. To the west and south of the city were ‘beetling crags’. To the north of the city was ‘a ditch of massive proportions’. The city itself was, of course, fortified.
Alexander dealt with the underground crags by simply rolling boulders and trees into them. This took nine days. Once they were filled up, he rolled his siege towers towards the city. The Mazagaetans were terrified of the towers and Macedonians’ pikes (sarissas?) and retreated to their citadel for long enough to surrender. In due course, Alexander met their queen and, allegedly, proved that both he and her were as fertile as the Indian soil. The queen gave birth to a son whom she named Alexander.