Posts Tagged With: Lucius Flavius Arrianus Xenophon

Why Did Spitamenes Fail To Defeat Alexander?

A few days ago I attended a talk by Dr. Neil Faulkner on the theme of Lawrence of Arabia’s War, which he gave in support of his new book on this subject.

Several times during the talk, Faulkner made points about T. E. Lawrence that immediately connected the latter to Alexander. For example, both had dominant mothers and both were inspired by heroic figures of the past (for Lawrence it was the Crusaders, for Alexander, Achilles).

To them I would add that both benefitted from deep friendships; that neither held the natives of the countries they were in with contempt, and both were not just fighters but explorers.

However, it was one other statement of Faulkner’s that really stuck out, and that is that one reason why the Arab Revolt succeeded when many insurgency movements of the past had failed, was because they had guns. Guns allowed them to do greater damage from a safer distance before escaping.

In the past, Faulkner said, if you wanted to kill someone, you had – generally speaking – to get up close to them so that you could jab them with your spear or slash with your sword.

Of course, one could use a javelin or sling but the former could only be thrown once and the latter had a slow rate of fire in comparison to a gun. Plus, the use of these weapons greatly increased your chance of being killed before being able to make your escape. And that was vital to the Arabs’ success. Not only because they lacked numbers but because they were in the fight as much for the loot as the promise of their own nation. Killing was no good if they died and could not take booty home with them.

When Faulkner started talking about the role of the gun, I immediately wondered if that was a reason why Spitamenes’ insurgency against Alexander failed. Thinking about it now, I would say it is one reason, but not the only one.

Spitamenes had another problem – he lacked the necessary tactics. When I read him in Arrian, he comes across as an insurgent trying to fight in a traditional manner. For example, he puts Maracanda under siege (IV.4), he captures a Macedonian fort (IV.16); he fights Andromachus’ and Caranus’ detachment in a set-piece battle (IV.5-6), takes on Craterus directly (IV.17), and fights another set-piece battle against Coenus (IV.18).

On all these occasions, he only comes off best when his opponents are either incompetent (the Macedonian detachment) or after using guile instead of brute force (the Macedonian fort). When he tries to fight in the traditional manner, he loses. And in the end, this cost him his life.

Spitamenes was not an incompetent commander – his decision not to fight a close-quarters battle against the Macedonian detachment but instead make use of his horses shows that, and he was adept at melting into the countryside when required to; however, his tactical ability had not caught up with the exigencies of his insurgent operation. And for me, this is the key thing; had Spitamenes superior weaponry he would still have needed to improve his strategy in order to use it effectively. If he didn’t, all the guns in the world wouldn’t make a difference. For Alexander would have had them and he certainly knew how to adapt.

 

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The Council at Zeleia

The Battle of the Granicus pt. 1
The Persian Commanders Meet
Arrian I.13

Alexander crossed into Asia Minor in May 334 BC. Later that month, or in early June, he fought his first great battle of the expedition against a Persian satrapal army at the Granicus River.

While the Macedonian king was busy claiming Arisbe and the other cities in the area, the local Persian commanders met in Zeleia, a city to the east of the Grancius.

There, they held a council. The one question on their lips was this: how was Alexander to be opposed? The commanders all advocated war.

Only one person, Memnon of Rhodes advised against this. We cannot fight him, Memnon said, for two factors are against us.
Firstly, the Macedonian infantry is significantly larger than ours.
Secondly, Alexander himself is riding at the head of his army, whereas Darius is absent from ours.

Instead of fighting, he said, we should destroy the land: force Alexander to return to Macedon on pain of starvation.

Memnon’s opinion carried weight. He was a military commander of proven ability having halted Parmenion’s advance into Asia Minor two years earlier*.

Despite this, the satraps refused to countenance his scorched earth policy. Arrian says that the Persians were suspicious of him. They thought he wanted to avoid a battle because he feared ‘losing the position he held from Darius, if fighing started too soon’.

The Notes to my Penguin Classics edition of Arrian’s Anabasis say that the satraps ‘were (perhaps) actuated partly by jealousy in rejecting his plan’. Jealousy, no doubt, because he was a successful military commander, and they weren’t.

With the benefit of hindsight, we know that the satraps were wrong to reject Memnon’s plan.

But of course, if we were peasants living in western Asia Minor at that time, peasants whose lives depended on our ability to till the land and sell its fruits in order to feed ourselves and our families, we would have breathed a great sigh of relief at the satraps’ decision. Even if we knew it wasn’t out of concern for us that they took it.

The peasantry were prisoners of their age, jailed by the nobility’s deafness to their voices. In a sense, the nobility were in a similar if not worse position. For while they had voices that could be heard, their very thoughts were defined by accepted modes of thinking that could only do harm rather than good.

I believe that these two modes are represented by Persian power politics and racism.

Persian power politics did not permit the satraps to agree with Memnon even if they thought he was right. For if his plan came off, it would be he rather than they who would gain in power thereby; and in a competitive court, that would be intolerable.

As for racism, the Persian nobility rejected sound advice from Greeks too often for it not to be a consideration. Other examples of them rejecting such advice may be found in their reaction to Charidemus’ advice (Diodorus XVII.30), which even led to his execution, and the rejection of the Greek mercenaries wise advice (Curtius III.8.2-7) which, if the nobility had their way, would have led to their massacre.

Thus, I call the satraps ‘jailed’.

All of this, of course, is a marked difference to Alexander who, even though he held very firm beliefs, still had a mind that was open to accepting new thinking if it could prove itself to him.

*Diodorus XVI.91 and Heckel Who’s Who in the Age of Alexander the Great p. 190

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Arrian and Cynnane

23rd – 30th November

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As of today I am up to Book III, Chapter 6 of Arrian’s Anabasis. If you would like to read the latest posts, click here.  For my list of past posts, click here.

Elsewhere…

Ancient History Encyclopedia has a very interesting article on Cynnane, Alexander’s half-sister. She was as strong a woman as her brother was a man and came close to seizing the Macedonian throne through her daughter, Adea and Philip III Arrhidaeus, after Alexander’s death.
Read her story here. If you would like to read more about Alexander’s other siblings, I wrote about them as part of my bullet-point series here.

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Impressions of Arrian I-II

At the end of August this year, I started a little series on my Alexander Facebook page.

It is called ‘A Quote and a Comment’ and is based on a chapter-by-chapter read through of Arrian’s Anabasis. I hope the title explains clearly enough what the series is about!

As of today, I have managed to publish a new post every day. This record will continue for at least another week as I am currently writing the posts a week ahead of schedule.

If you would like to visit the Fb page, just click on the link above. For links to each post, click here. I am in the process of putting the earlier posts into a PDF document; if you would like to read them in that format, send me an e-mail (thesecondachilles[at]gmail.com) and I will post it to you when it is done.

In this post, however, I thought I would mention four things about Arrian and his work that have impressed themselves upon me since I started writing.

  1. Arrian is the most un-character led author I have ever read. In contrast to, say, Plutarch, he spends no time at all discussing Alexander the man. Only the Macedonian king’s deeds seem to interest him. This is not to say that his Alexander is a cypher. Alexander the man can be found (see below) but only through his deeds.
  2. Arrian’s Alexander is a master of psychological warfare. On several occasions he uses these tactics to gain a vital advantage over his foes. For example, when he used silence, discipline, noise and speed to scare the Taulantians (I.6); his deliberately slow advance towards the Persian army at Issus (II.10), which I think was conducted at least in part to unnerve the enemy soldiers; and his decision to have ships surround and attack Tyre whenever possible (II.24) during the final assault. The immediate aim of this was to keep the defenders wherever they were busy but it must also have had the intended effect of damaging their morale by placing Alexander, as it were, everywhere.
  3. Arrian does not dwell on the battles. I first became aware of this when I read the Siege of Tyre. The whole episode is quite long – II.1624 covers it – but the final assault lasts just one chapter. I have looked back to the Battle of the Granicus (I.15-16) and Issus (II.10-12) and found that they are covered equally quickly. I have a theory that Arrian knew what an awful thing war could be and although he admires Alexander he was not minded to make the battles seem glorious events.
  4. Beware Translatations! I may have blogged about this before but can’t remember. The reason I mention this is as follows. In II.13, we see Sisygambis make her famous mistake – thinking that Hephaestion is Alexander.

    Alexander merely remarked that her error was of no account, for Hephaestion, too, was an Alexander – a ‘protector of men’.

    When I wrote about this, I said that the line “a ‘protector of men'” made it seem that Arrian was not identifying Hephaestion with Alexander the person but with his office. However, that line – which appears in my Penguin Classics edition of the Anabasis – does not appear in the Landmark Arrian; it says

    But Alexander declared that she had not erred, since Hephaistion, too, was Alexander.
    (II.12.7)

    So it would appear that “a ‘protector of men'” is the translator’s interjection rather than Arrian’s; is it what he understood Alexander to mean when he called Hephaestion another Alexander, though, or what he believed Arrian to mean?

    By-the-bye you’ll note that the reference for the two translations is different. The Penguin Classics text was published, I suppose for a general audience and so they were happy to play slightly fast and loose with the start and end point of each chapter in order to make them cover a page length each time.

Have you read Arrian’s Anabasis? If so, what did you make of it? I would love to read your comments. In the meantime, as I have written this after finishing the first two books I will write a follow-up post at the end of Book IV to see if my thoughts about Arrian and his work have developed any further.

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Quoting and Commenting Upon Arrian

For the last two weeks I have been reading a chapter of Arrian’s Campaigns of Alexander every day, picking a quotation from it and writing a short post based upon both it and the wider chapter.

I am publishing the posts to my Alexander Facebook page. If you would like to read any of the first fourteen posts, then just click here. If you are someone who is already reading the posts and ‘Liking’ them, Thank You! It means a lot that people are taking the time to do both.

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A Letter to Arrian (27) The 114th Olympiad, in the archonship of Hegesias at Athens

a_roman_writerMy dear Arrian,

Alexander the Great Administrator. Well, no-one will ever call him that but I must say I am impressed by the attention he paid to the construction of a sluice between the Euphrates river and Pallacopas canal.
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As you note, the reason why the then current sluice needed to be replaced was that it was built into weak ground – ‘soft, wet clay’ which soaked up the Euphrates’ water thus defeating the purpose of having the sluice in the first place.
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You also say that the reason for Alexander’s interest is that he wanted to ‘improve Assyria’s prospects’. Could I add that he probably wanted a free flowing river for his warships as well?
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Even if that is also the case, Alexander could easily have left this work for one of his officers to do. That he took it on himself suggests a future area of study for me – ‘Alexander as administrator. Does the Euphrates-Pallacopas show he was better at it than I have hitherto given him credit for?’
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Something else I shall surely be looking into is the authenticity of Alexander’s letter to Cleomenes. The king never acted upon sentimental desire in matters of government. It seems inconceivable to me, therefore, that he would be prepared to offer Cleomenes a pardon for any future criminal acts just as long as the latter carried out Alexander’s instructions in regards the shrines in Alexandria and on Pharos.
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We now come to Alexander’s last days.
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What strikes me most about Alexander’s dying is not so much the rapidity of it – though I suppose that is notable – but the way it happened – how shall I say it? – in a single, flowing movement: Alexander fell ill, the illness got worse, he became gravely ill, and then – without his decline having been arrested or reversed once along the way; without him suffering any sharp declines as he lay on his bed – he died.
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Leaving aside the question of whether he was assassinated, Alexander died as gentle and straight forward a death as I can think of. It was almost tender. Given how he lived, I find this extraordinary.
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Something that I find inspiring is the way that even though Alexander was dying – and must after a point have known he was dying – ‘he still refused to neglect his religious duties’ and his military ones. This is a measure of the man, both of his faith (is that the right word?) in the gods, and determination to see his will done. Alexander the Religious is perhaps another aspect of his character that I might look into.
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With Alexander’ death, I come to the end of my last letter to you. I have enjoyed writing it, immensely. You will never read it, but I hope that one day I will meet you in those Elysian fields and that we may talk about Alexander together. And who knows who we might meet as we walk across that blessèd land in conversation – maybe the king himself? That would be good.

Until that day, dear Lucius, I remain

Your friend,

φιλέλλην

The above picture is from Ancient History

An index of all the letters can be found here

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A Letter to Arrian (26) The Loss of Friends

a_roman_writerMy dear Arrian,

It is ironic that after turning against Alexander because of his orientalising, the Macedonian soldiers came back to him upon hearing about the promotion of Persian officers, and creation of Persian units. It feels – even if not reads – like Alexander called their bluff on how his empire should be run, and won.
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And – surprise, surprise – he kept on winning, for after the reconciliation banquet the Macedonians who were no longer fit for service were sent home just as Alexander had intended should happen in the first place-!
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A confession: I felt no joy in reading about Alexander’s success at Opis. How could I? It was achieved completely at the expense of his men’s concerns and fears. That is not kingly behaviour.
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All in all, reading these pages was  a very difficult experience. There are no acts of heroism in them, no acts of derring-do; Achilles is wholly absent. In his place, we have only the unwise acts of a politician-king, the exposure of deep divisions and wounds within the Macedonian state, and death.
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And not just the death of ‘minor’ figures but, as it were, of Alexander himself: Hephaestion. What a blow that was. Two months later, Alexander went on campaign against the Cossaeans. It should have helped. It should have restored the old Alexander to us but I must say that it – the campaign – felt a bit pathetic.
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The reason for this is because I suspect that Alexander launched his attack against the Cosseans as much to take his mind off Hephaestion rather than because the Cossaeans were a worthwhile enemy. Well, alright, but I wish he could have found a different way to work through his grief than bloodshed. It just doesn’t seem fitting to Hephaestion’s memory, somehow.
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We know very little about Amyntoros, but I think he was a cultured man. He should have been honoured through the arts not with the edge of a sword.
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In my last letter I said that it felt like you were setting Alexander’s story up to reveal that he was murdered. For all the falsity of the aforementioned ‘reconciliation banquet’ I must admit I did not get the same feeling as I read these pages.
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The Babylonian priests’ warning reminded us, however, that Alexander’s end was indeed close. I must say I really dislike the inclusion of these prophecies. If they are historical, nothing can be done about them, but are they? They really do seem much too neat, much too certain to be true.
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In closing, I would like to go back to the discharged Macedonians. Alexander appointed an unwell Craterus to take them home. Nine months after leaving Opis (?), he had only gone as far as Cilicia. Why was he marching so slowly?
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Perhaps ill health slowed him down? I don’t think Craterus could have been that unwell, though; he was not going home into retirement but had orders to relieve Antipater as Deputy Hegemon of the Corinthian League. Did he know something was about to happen to Alexander and was holding onto his ready made army? I do wonder.
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Of course, we’ll never know. Moving on, I look forward to reading your thoughts on Alexander’s death, which I will cover in my next – and, dear friend, last! – letter. Your words will not be easy to read but only by staring down death can we make sense of life.

Your friend,

φιλέλλην

The above picture is from Ancient History

An index of all the letters can be found here

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A Letter to Arrian (25) The Sun Also Sets

a_roman_writerMy dear Arrian,

The seventh book of your account of Alexander’s life begins with an intimation of the future. You record that, according to some authorities, Alexander wanted to,

… make for Sicily and southern Italy to check the Romans, whose reputation, being greatly on the increase, was already causing him concern.

This is the dangerous thing about reading – you start out in one location but can never know where you will end up! Here I am in Pasargadae and Persepolis but now I want to leave my desk and rush to the Roman history section of the library in which I am writing these words, and see what your people were doing during Alexander’s reign that was of such concert to him. Out of respect for Alexander and you, my friend, I shall bravely resist this temptation!
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You quote an Indian sage as telling Alexander that he was ‘human like the rest of us’. Alexander took no offence at this. Indeed, he ‘expressed his approval’ of the sage’s words. How could he do so, though, if he also regarded himself as the son of Ammon-Zeus? The reason I ask this is that I have always imagined that after Siwah, Alexander believed himself to be semi-divine but maybe I got that wrong. It looks like I have another shelf to visit once I have visited the Romans.
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Sometimes in reading your text I feel as if I am swimming in the shallows. This is not because your writing is simple but that the history behind your words is deep. For example, Dandamis tells Alexander that his men ‘get no good from their world-wide wondering over land and sea’. I know that Dandamis is looking at the matter from the point-of-view of his philosophy but I wonder: could he also  have been referencing the deep discontent of the Macedonian soldiery that made Alexander turn back at the Hyphasis River, and which led to the mutiny at Opis? I wish very much that you had said more about Dandamis. I know, I know; you probably didn’t have the information to be able to do so. Ever is this the historians’ curse!
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If Dandamis makes me yearn for a greater historical knowledge, then the death of Calanus brings me right back to the present, and a very important issue in my time: assisted suicide. This is how I would describe Calanus’ death. Too weak to end his own life, he persuaded Alexander build the pyre for him. Should the king have done so? As with proponents of assisted suicide, you you look at the issue from Calanus’ point-of-view, and refer glowingly to the,

… unconquerable resolution of the human spirit in carrying a chosen course of action through to the end.

But what if that ‘unconquerable resolution’ is the ‘fruit’ of an unsound mind or external pressures? Alexander had no wish to see Calanus die. Not everyone, though, is so good towards those in a weakened state.
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In quick succession, we have the Susa Weddings, the clearing of the Macedonian soldiers’ debts, awards ‘for distinguished conduct’ and the Macedonians’ upset at the arrival of the 30,000 oriental soldiers whom Alexander calls – rather dangerously – his Epigoni (inheritors). These events gave me a strong sense of Alexander’s story coming to an end.
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Although I don’t believe that Alexander was assassinated, when I read about the Epigoni and the anger over Peucestas’ and Alexander’s orientalising I have to admit it almost feels like you are laying the groundwork for saying that he was murdered.
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Finally, a question. You say that at Opis, Alexander discharged those Macedonians now unfit for service. Why did he wait till then to do this? This reminds me of how he waited until he had crossed the Bactrian desert before discharging those Macedonians who were too unfit to serve anymore. It’s a small issue but I can’t imagine why he didn’t do this in Bactra and Pasargadae/Persepolis respectively.
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I have gone way over my word limit. Dandamis thought that the Macedonians’ exploring had no end. My letter does, though, and it is here.

Your friend,

φιλέλλην

The above picture is from Ancient History

An index of all the letters can be found here

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A Letter to Arrian (24) Nature’s Danger, Man’s Reward, a King’s Rest

a_roman_writerMy dear Arrian,

In the course of my life I have lead other men. I cannot say that I was a good leader, though, for while I was perfectly capable of giving an order I found that knowing what to say at other times much more difficult. What are the right words to use when comforting someone who is sad? How does one tell a person his work or behaviour is unacceptable?
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I wish I had read your account of Alexander’s march through the Gedrosian desert when these things were happening, for it has taught me a very important truth: sometimes, there are no right words. Furthermore, sometimes it is even better not to say anything at all.
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This was certainly the case for Alexander. His men were starving and thirsty. They were dying. This is why they stole the provisions meant for Nearchus’ fleet, and butchered their pack animals. In light of this, Alexander showed wisdom by feigning ignorance of what was happening. Of course, what the men were doing was objectively wrong. What Alexander was doing was objectively wrong, too. But I hold that the circumstances means that neither was culpable for their actions. How complex morality is!
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The harshness of the Gedrosian desert gave witness to some of the greatest highs and lows of Alexander’s career. He tipped the water into the sand in solidarity with his men but also had to leave behind those who were dying. Am I right to say that the Macedonians (like the Greeks?) believed that one had to be buried/cremated in order to find peace in the afterlife? If so, leaving people behind must have been a traumatic decision to take. They were not just fellow soldiers but friends.
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Alexander is to be commended for his selfless act but we cannot move on without asking why he decided to take his men through such inhospitable territory in the first place. I am amazed that he chose to do so in order to ‘go one better than Cyrus [the Great] and Semiramis’. It is one thing to do a positive deed in order to achieve greatness but no good could ever come of crossing such a harsh desert.
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And yet, it was the same spirit that led Alexander to take on the Persians in the first place, to defeat them and do so many other great things that led him to put his army at such risk. Desire is a dangerous creature, indeed.
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At this point, I would like to propose Peucestas as Alexander’s best satrapal appointment. He has stiff opposition from Antigonus Monophthalmus but whereas Antigonus was forced to use arms to bring his enemies to heel, Peucestas made friends of them with his willingness to learn Persian, and to live, and dress in an oriental fashion.
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I live 2300 years after Alexander died. There are not many places left that we can say ‘Alexander stood here’. Siwah is one of them, the tomb of Cyrus at Pasargadae is another. I am delighted to tell you that it still stands. Here is a picture.
thetombofcyrusthegreat
As you can see, the grove of trees is gone, and the door has been unsealed. The inside is bare, and there is no sign anymore of Cyrus’ body. A different religion looks after the tomb now. Everything is different. But, one day, all those years ago, though I am sure under the same blue sky, Alexander and his officers stood in front of where we are looking now. It is a tremendous thought. Oh to be the sun who witnessed that event!

Your friend,

φιλέλλην

The above picture is from Ancient History

An index of all the letters can be found here

Photograph: Wikipedia

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A Letter to Arrian (23) Harsh Words and Bitter Drinks

a_roman_writerMy dear Arrian,

In my last letter I looked at Alexander’s irresponsibility during his Mallian campaign. It’s worth pointing out that it did not, of course, stop him from defeating the Indians.
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Moving on, I am sure all historians, as much as myself, are grateful for your digression to set the record straight regarding what happened at the Mallian fort! Who was the real Alexander, though? He was such a complex person that mere facts don’t seem to me to be enough to unveil the person that he truly was.
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Does that make him knowable to us? Maybe. Although, if we really think that, we might as well stop wasting our time reading and writing about him.
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On the other hand, if we think that he can be known, how do we find him? I am currently reading a book* that has been described as a poem. It eschews linear narrative in favour of a story that is comprised of impressions. Maybe that is a way to find at least something of Alexander – in the impressions that the stories of him leave behind. I realise, however, it is a method fraught with danger…
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I noted with a smile the fact that you are not fond of the name ‘Gaugamela’ on the grounds that it ‘has a somewhat unpleasant sound’. Have you ever met someone from Germania? Maybe it was better in your time, but today, the German language sounds rough and harsh. Having said that, one of my favourite words (“Götterdämmerung”) is German! I apologise if this word, which means ‘Twilight of the Gods’ offends your ears. It is funny, though, how we can find beauty in such unexpected places. What is the explanation for this?

‘[H]e who acts bravely must expect his meed of suffering.’

These words, spoken to Alexander by a Boeotian soldier (and which are a quotation from Aeschylus) are as true today as they were then. It is a very sharp saying. How should one react to it? One possible way is by remembering the words of a soldier, as given in a poem** written eight or nine hundred years after your day. His lord had fallen. The men were dispirited. Death was coming and they knew it. But if this soldier was going to fall, he was not going to do so easily. Rousing the men, he said “Our hearts must be the stronger… as our strength grows less.” That is the way to be if we are forced to drink our meed of suffering.
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I would now like to take issue with you. Well, kind of. After Musicanus’ capitulation to Alexander you state that the best way to get what one wanted with him (Alexander, that is) was to admit one’s error. I know what you are saying but it seems to me the best way to get what one wanted from him was to fight him bravely.
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Finally, I have a question. Not so much for you but Alexander’s soldiers. You say that they were caught out by the ebbing tide of the Indus River as they ‘had no previous experience of it’. Could that really be so? Did they not see the tide when they crossed from Greece to Asia Minor? Or at any other point during their long journey? Well, maybe not. I’m still surprised, though, but as I have long since exceeded my word limit I had better stop.
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Until my next letter, I remain

Your friend,

φιλέλλην

The above picture is from Ancient History

An index of all the letters can be found here
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* The English Patient by Michael Ondaatje
** The Battle of Maldon (text)

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