Posts Tagged With: Lycus River

Gardens in the Air

The Nature of Curtius
Book Five Chapter 1
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Chapter One
Media and Babylon – Waste and Wealth
After crossing the Lycus River, Darius made his way to Arbela where he paused long enough to hold a council with his surviving officers. Leaving Arbela (then a village, now a city) straight after, he began his journey to the ‘waste-lands’ of Media where he intended to form a new army.

Not long after Darius’ departure, Alexander arrived in Arbela. He stayed just long to take its valuables before being obliged to leave by disease caused by the decomposing bodies on the Gaugamela battlefield. He rode out of the village with Media on his left, and Arabia on his right.

Alexander’s journey took him through the country of Mesopotamia, so named because it lay between two rivers – the Tigris and Euphrates.

By-the-bye, I once read a biography of C S Lewis, which stated that as a student in the 1910s he would go bathing in Mesopotamia. Lewis, however, never visited the near east; his Mesopotamia was a stretch of land between the two arms of the Isis River in Oxford. I wonder if it is still there – the land, that is. Perhaps Oxford University students still go there.

I don’t know what Mesopotamia (the ancient one) is like now, but – unsurprisingly given the presence of the two rivers – Curtius describes its soil as being so rich ‘animals are purportedly kept from grazing in case they die from over-eating’.

In fact, he says, the soil ‘oozes water’. This reminds me of a plant – I think it was sphagnum moss – that I once walked over in Scotland. You could walk on it without difficulty but there was so much water underneath it from a nearby pond that the moss moved under your feet; very disconcerting! I wonder what the ground in Mesopotamia was like to walk on.

Curtius now shifts his attention to the Tigris and Euphrates. They emerge, he says, from the Armenian mountains. At their widest point, the two rivers are 2,500 stades apart. Leaving the mountains, they travel through Media and Gorduene before slowly converging in Mesopotamia. They then wend their way through Babylonia and out into what Curtius calls the Red Sea, i.e. the Persian Gulf.

Three days after leaving Arbela, Alexander came to a place named Mennis. Here, Curtius notes, ‘there is a cave with a stream that pours forth huge quantities of bitumen’ which was used to cement Babylon’s walls.

As you can see from the above photograph (source: Wikipedia), bitumen is not the most beautiful substance to look at. But that’s fine, for we know move on to Alexander’s arrival in the that most glamorous – in the full sense of the word – city, Babylon.

Upon his arrival, Alexander rode threw the city on a chariot. ‘[F]lowers and garlands’ were laid upon the road in front of him. Altars were set up and ‘heaped not just with frankincense but with all manner of perfumes’.

In Matt. 2: 1-12, the wise men bring three gifts to the child Jesus. Each one has a prophetic value. Gold in recognition of Christ the king, frankincense in recognition of Christ the priest, and myrrh in recognition of his death to come. I wonder why the Babylonian priests used frankincense. Was it simply because that is what they believed the gods wanted? Or were they (also) making a comment about Alexander’s priestly nature?

Animals were also represented during the Macedonian’s king triumphant march. There were ‘herds of cattle and horses’ as well as lions and leopards which were ‘carried along in cages’. Speaking of the wise men, Curtius reports that the magi followed directly after the animals.

You may recall that in the first post in this series, we saw how the Marsyas passed through the walled city of Calaenae. The Euphrates did likewise through Babylon. To make sure it didn’t flood the city, the river was bordered by ‘great embankments’. Behind these were ‘huge pits sunk deep in the ground’ for any excess water. To think that it took London until the nineteenth century to build her embankments.

It sounds like the Babylonians would have made Sir Joseph Bazalgette proud, but according to Curtius the true wonder of the city was the (half a mile long) bridge that spanned the river. It was a prodigious feat of engineering because the Euphrates carried ‘along with it a thick layer of mud’ underneath which was infirm ground – no ‘solid base for supporting a structure’.

And yet, not only did the Babylonians manage to build the bridge, they also built one that could survive being continuously beaten by water against its supports.

We now come to that other construction for which Babylon to this day is renowned – the hanging gardens.

Curtius says they were located on top of the city’s citadel. According to tradition, the gardens were built by a Syrian king* at his wife’s behest as she ‘missed the woods and forests’ of the country. Thus, it is really an arboretum.

The Syrian king must surely have used Mesopotamian soil as the trees are described as being ‘eight cubits thick and their height as much as fifty feet’. Further to this, ‘they bear fruit as abundantly as if they were growing in their natural environment’.

Unfortunately, Curtius gives no further space to the hanging gardens, concentrating instead on the Macedonians and Babylonians – especially their women’s – bad behaviour. If you would like to read the Daily Mail of 2,000 years ago, I commend Bk 5. 1. 36-38 to you.

* According to the notes, it was actually Nebuchadrezzar, a Chaldaean, who built the gardens

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Earth and Water

The Nature of Curtius
Book Four Chapters 11-16
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Chapter 11
Tears and Hard Ground
On the eve of the Battle of Gaugamela, Alexander received another letter from Darius. In it, the Great King offered further concessions to him in order to end the war between them. These included – once again – Stateira II’s hand in marriage but this time all territory west of the Euphrates River. Alexander was warned that taking the whole empire would be ‘fraught with danger’ and that it would be difficult to control.

Why did Darius think Alexander might respond to this letter any more positively than his last?

A few days earlier*, Stateira I had died. Upon being informed, Alexander wept copious tears for her, and he gave his permission for her funeral to be carried out in the ‘traditional Persian fashion’.

In the confusion following Stateira’s death, a eunuch** belonging to the Persian royal family escaped from the Macedonian camp and made his way to Darius’ tent. There, he told the Great King how Alexander had cried for his late wife, having treated the royal women with the utmost respect since capturing them following the Battle of Issus.

It was this insight into Alexander’s kindness that gave Darius the confidence to send his letter.

Unfortunately, the seeds did not fall on fertile ground and Alexander dismissed Darius’ offer. “‘He generously gives me the land beyond the Euphrates,'” Alexander said, contemptuously, “‘[but] I am already across the Euphrates and my camp stands beyond the boundary of the land he generously promises me as dowry!'”

The ambassadors were allowed to return to Darius. They did so, and told him that ‘battle was imminent’.

* The following account comes from Chapter 10

** Curtius gives his name as Tyriotes

Chapter 12
Mist and Sun
As the Macedonian army marched towards Gaugamela, a strange event happened. ‘Intermittent flashes in the bright sky, of the type seen on hot summer days [and which] had the appearance of fire’ were seen. The Macedonian soldiers thought ‘that they were flames gleaming in Darius’ camp, and that they had negligently advanced among enemy outposts’. This caused a general panic to occur.

Realising what was happening, Alexander stopped the march and told his men to ‘lay down their arms and rest’. While they did so, he reassured them that the Persians were still a long way off and that they were in no danger.

As it happens, however, they were, for Mazaeus and his cavalry party were on a hilltop overlooking the camp. Curtius says that if he ‘had struck while [the Macedonians] were still panicking a terrible disaster could have been inflicted’ on Alexander’s army. But he didn’t. Although he had 3,000 horse with him Mazaeus would have known he was hopelessly outnumbered. So, he stayed put ‘content not to be under attack’.

To go back to the flashes of light for a moment, I presume from the Macedonian soldiers’ reactions they thought they were seeing the reflection of the sun on the Persians’ armour and weaponry and that this meant they had drawn too close to their enemy. It makes a lot more sense that fiery flashes of light across a blue sky.

Whatever the cause of the flashes, they unnerved the Macedonians enough to make Alexander call a halt to the proceedings for the day and set up a fortified camp.

The next day, Mazaeus withdrew from the hilltop. The Macedonians took his position. From their new vantage point they had a good view of the battlefield. It was a humid day, however, and a mist descended. While it wasn’t heavy enough to obscure the plain before them, ‘it did render it impossible to see how [the Persian] forces were divided and organized.’

Presently, the mist lifted and the two armies were revealed to each other. Both shouted their war-cries ‘and the woods and valleys round about rang with a terrifying noise’.

Chapter Thirteen
Spikes in the Ground
This chapter is concerned mostly with the Persian and Macedonian armies preparation for war, so is of little interest to us. It does conclude, however, with a sole horse rider galloping out of the Persian camp and towards Alexander. His name was Bion and he was a deserter. He warned the Macedonian king that Darius had placed iron spikes in the ground where he thought the Macedonian cavalry intended to ride during the battle. I don’t recall any similar practice at the Granicus River or Issus and if memory serves, Alexander himself never employed such a tactic. Perhaps he thought it would undermine his glory.

Chapter Fourteen
Empire and Prison
Alexander encouraged his men with a bold speech. He spoke, as it were, to two people – the brave and non-brave.

To the brave, he made the land out to be a place of triumph, where they had won great victories (e.g. at the Granicus River and Issus) or had passed through as victors (e.g. the Cilician Mountains, Syria and Egypt).

To the non-brave, however, the land was represented as an enemy. You have come so far, he said, that ‘all those rivers and mountains [are] a barrier’ behind you. If you want to go home, you are going to have to fight.

Darius also spoke of barriers. Not natural ones, though; that would have been difficult having wrought so much destruction upon the land as part of his defensive operations. Instead, the Great King asked his men to be living barriers that would save the lives of their families who waited behind them.

Chapter Fifteen
The Eagle
The Battle of Gaugamela was in full bloody flow when Alexander’s guards caught sight of ‘an eagle gently hovering just above the king’s head, frightened neither by the clash of arms nor the groans of the dying’.

Aristander – dressed as a priest and with a laurel-branch in his hand – pointed the eagle out to the soldiers as it maintained its station saying (or, more likely, shouting, if he really was there) that it was ‘an infallible omen of victory’.

Up till now, the Macedonians had been in a state of terror. Upon being alerted to the eagle’s presence, however, they became ‘fired with tremendous enthusiasm and confidence for the fight’. This confidence increased when Darius’ charioteer was killed.

Dominos now started to fall. The charioteer was mistaken for Darius. The Persian Cavalry let out a huge cry. This unsettled the entire Persian army. The left-wing folded and the army started to retreat. The Macedonians gave chase. The battle ended and a massacre began.

Chapter Sixteen
A Bridge Too Far
Darius fled to the Lycus River (the modern day Greater Zab). Crossing it, he contemplated destroying the bridge behind him. But although he knew that would prevent the Macedonians from pursuing him, he decided not to do as it would also condemn many of his men to death.

In the hours that followed, however, the Persian soldiers themselves either caused the bridge to collapse or surely came close to doing so as they ‘overloaded’ it in their haste to flee the battlefield. So desperate were they that not only did men attempt to wade across the Lycus – with some being carried away under the weight of their armour – but they also trampled over each other in order to reach the other side. It was an ignominious end to the battle of empires.

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