Posts Tagged With: Marsyas River

Gardens in the Air

The Nature of Curtius
Book Five Chapter 1
For other posts in the series click here

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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A Passage to Cilicia

The Nature of Curtius
Book Three Chapters 4 – 6
For the other posts in this series, click here

Chapter Four
The Cilician Gates
As Darius moved north, Alexander marched south from Cappadocia. He stopped in an area known as ‘The Camp of Cyrus’. This was named after Cyrus the Great who ‘maintained a permanent camp’ there when he went to fight Croesus in Lydia. The camp was fifty stades (five miles) away from the Cilician Gates.

The ‘Gates’ were actually a rock formation in a narrow defile. Their name came from the fact that they looked like they were man-made, and they afforded the only means of entering Cilicia, which was bounded by the ‘rugged and precipitously steep’ Taurus mountain range.

The governor of Cilicia was a man named Arsames. He had it in him if not to defeat Alexander then at least to inflict upon him a critical defeat that could in turn have led to the undermining of the whole Macedonian campaign.

In order to achieve this, Arsames needed only to post a small force on the ridge overlooking the defile. Curtius says that the the defile ‘could barely accommodate four armed men [walking] abreast’. Picking them off, therefore, would have been easy.

However, Arsames chose instead to do what Memnon of Rhodes had recommended before the Battle of the Granicus River; namely, to lay waste to the country and starve Alexander into submission. He did so ‘with fire and the sword’. Destroying anything ‘that might be of use’ to his enemy.

Thus, Alexander – to his surprise and delight – found the Cilician Gates unguarded. He passed through them and marched on to Tarsus.

It would be inaccurate to say that Arsames totally ignored the Gates. Curtius tells us that he posted guards to the three mountain passes (of which, only the Cilician Gates provided entry into the country). However, after hearing that the satrap was destroying the countryside the guards deserted believing that they had been betrayed.

Curtius describes how the Cilician countryside ‘levels out’ as it approaches the sea. This flatness, he says, is ‘frequently interrupted by streams’ including two ‘famous rivers’ – the Pyramus and Cydnus.

Of the Pyramus he has nothing else to say, but the Cydnus now takes centre stage in Alexander’s story.

What was the river like? Well, it was neither a particularly deep nor violent one. In fact, it ran very gently ‘with no torrents breaking into its course’. Curtius doesn’t mention any mythological being associated with the Cydnus. Perhaps its gentility gave the impression that it was a rather boring river. Maybe it was, but if so, the Cydnus was a valuable one for it ran over ‘pure soil’. It contained no stories but it helped men live so that they could tell them.

Like the Marsyas, the waters of the Cydnus were very clear. They were also very cold, for the river ran underneath the shade of its banks.

Lest we think that its clarity and clearness were all the Cydnus had to commend itself, Curtius adds that at its headwaters (i.e at the source of the river) there were ‘many monuments popularized in song’. He says ‘They were shown the sites of the cities of Lyrnesus and Thebes, the cave of Typhon, the grove of Corycus where saffron grows’.

By ‘they’, I assume Curtius means the Macedonians. Unfortunately, they did not see too much as the monuments and cities were but ruins or even just memories in the air with no earthly trace left. The cities had fallen, and nature reclaimed her land.

Chapters Five and Six
The Cydnus River
Alexander arrived in Tarsus in August. The weather was boiling hot. As it happened, the Cydnus passed through the city so he went to bathe in it.

Now, you might think this would be a thoroughly innocuous act. What happened next, however, made it a very significant, and nearly fatal, one. Alexander had barely taken a step into the water ‘when he suddenly felt his limbs shiver and stiffen’. He was rushed back to this tent, seemingly on the point of death.

As Alexander’s friends clear the way and carry their king to his bed, I would like to look very briefly at how he – Alexander – used the river as a propaganda tool. The main purpose of his visit was to bathe. However, in so doing, he considered ‘that it would also add to his prestige if he showed his men that he was satisfied with attention to his person which was plain and unelaborate’.

That’s Alexander. He could probably have found a way of making the act of picking the dirt from between his toes a heroic one. As it is, Alexander’s purpose has its origin in the days of his youth when he was taught by the austere Leonidas. It also reminds me of how he used his good treatment of women as a way of proving his superiority to the Persians (see here for more details).

After being taken to his tent, Alexander remained there until his physician, Philip of Arcanania, had cured him of his illness. This covers the rest of Chapter 5 and all of 6. If you would like to read more about what happened, see here and here.

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A Land of Nymphs and Knots

The Nature of Curtius
Book Three, Chapter 1
For the other posts in this series, click here

Quintus Curtius Rufus is known for the dramatic nature of his History of Alexander. In his account we see ‘a brilliantly realised image of a man ruined by constant good fortune in his youth’*.

In consequence, when it came to deciding how to approach this series of posts on his book it made perfect sense to look at Curtius’ Alexander through the lens of the flora and fauna that he met and passed through along the way**.

I have to say, I don’t recall that Alexander was ever greatly troubled by wild animals during his expedition, so they are most likely to appear in the form of icons and/or representations.

By the same token, it may well be that Curtius doesn’t have much to say about the land over which the Macedonians marched. If so, this will simply be a very short series!

However, when I began Plutarch’s Women I had much the same worry and that turned out alright, so here’s hoping.

Nota Bene This won’t be an exhaustive look at every last pebble and pigeon that Alexander came across and it will involve a (fair) bit of me speculating and imagining so don’t expect a Gradgrindian concern for FACTS and only FACTS!

And one final note for those who might be unaware – You may have noticed that we are beginning this series at the start of book three. This is because the first two books of Curtius’ History have been lost.

* This quotation comes from the blurb on the back page of my edition of Curtius (Penguin 2004)
** For the avoidance of doubt, yes, I am being ironic!

Chapter One
The Marsyas River
We begin with Alexander in Lycia, settling his affairs in Pamphylia before moving on to Phrygia. There, he came to the city of Caleanae. This brings us to Curtius’ first description of a natural feature – the Marsyas River.

He places the source of the Marsyas high above Calaenae, indeed, high above the world – on a mountain peak. From there, it flows down the mountain side with a ‘thunderous roar’ before crashing down onto a rock and into a pool, or perhaps a lake or mere, at the foot of the mountain.

If the Marsyas flowed as noisily as Curtius says, the sound of it echoing throughout the hills must have been a source of awe and wonder to the Calaenaeans, and anyone else who passed that way.

In fact, I wonder if they were not filled at times with dread. I would not laugh at them if this was the case, for nature can be a violent and oppressive force sometimes. For that reason, I see the travellers pausing before crossing the river at some calmer point, and pouring libations to the Potami*, in order to ensure a safe passage across the water.

This is not a wholly unlikely scenario – Curtius tells us that the Marsyas had been ‘made famous by Greek poetry with all its myths’. For example, the river’s clear water had ‘given rise to… the story… that nymphs sit on the rock, held fast there by their love for the river’.

Love conquers all; so, perhaps we have the nymphs to thank for the Marsyas’ serenity once it poured into the rock pool. If so, their influence was very timely, for the river now had an important work to do – irrigation. Its waters ran out of the pool in streams that splashed and gurgled their way across the Phrygian plains giving life to the seeds sown by farmers.

We must it, however, in another direction – to Calaenae.

Calaenae was a walled city. To enable the Marsyas to enter it, holes had been cut out of the walls.

Lector Walls? For a stream?

I agree. That’s not likely. And Curtius seems to show this when he says that upon leaving the city, the Marsyas did so ‘with increased force’ due to the fact that it was now carrying ‘a larger volume of water’.

Lector Well… maybe the little stream simply became a big stream.

Perhaps, but I don’t think so. If that is all the Marsyas was I don’t think it would have been worth mentioning to begin. And it would hardly have been worth the Calaenaeans effort to change the river’s name after it left their city, for then it stopped being the Marsyas then and transformed, Dr Who like, into the Lycus.

Alexander put the Calaenaeans under siege by surrounding their citadel. The Phrygians agreed to surrender but only if Darius did not come to their aid. When that happened (or rather, didn’t), they kept their word.

* Greek gods of rivers. See Theoi for more details

Curtius describes Gordium as being ‘on the banks of the river ‘Sangarius, equidistant from the Pontic and Cilician Seas’. As I understand it, the Pontic is the Black Sea and Cilician that part of the Mediterranean that touches Cilicia in the south-east of Asia Minor. Given that Gordium is in Phrygia I would say that it is a little closer to the Pontic.

But, to be honest, Curtius’ geography is not very accurate. He describes ‘Asia’ as becoming no more than an isthmus. For him, Asia Minor is really like an island in appearance. To be fair, Curtius does recognise that it is attached ‘to the continent’. Although, I think he means Europe rather than the near east.

Alexander entered Gordium and tried to undo the famous knot. Failing, he simply cut it with his sword, declaring ‘It makes no difference how they’re untied’.

Leaving the city, Alexander ‘determined to attack Darius whoever he was’. In Ancyra he reviewed his troops before moving on to Paphlagonia and hence Cappadocia with troops newly arrived from Macedon.

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