Posts Tagged With: Mesopotamia

Between a Rock and a Hard Place

The Nature of Curtius
Book Five Chapters 2-3
For other posts in the series click here

Chapter Two
Laying Siege to the Uxians
From Babylon, the Macedonian army made its way into Sittacene. Like Mesopotamia, it was also a fertile land ‘producing rich quantities of provisions of all kinds’. Despite having stopped for a while in Babylon, Alexander now tarried here, holding competitions to decide who should fill a command he had newly created – that of chiliarch*.

That was not the only change Alexander made to the organisation of his army. For the first time, he broke the link between it and the land. Previously, the Macedonian cavalry had been formed along tribal lines. This meant that the commander of each cavalry unit came from the same place as his men. That now ended. From now on, the commanders would be whoever Alexander decided to appoint*.

The king also made a change to the procedure for alerting the men that camp was about to be struck. Before, a trumpet blast had been used to provide the appropriate signal but the camp’s general ‘noise and commotion’ made it impossible to hear.

Alexander’s solution was to turn to nature. A pole would be raised. At the top of it, presumably on a platform, or in a metal bucket, a fire would burn and be the signal that it was time to pack up. During the night the fire would be visible to all; during the day time, the smoke that the fire created would be the signal.

From Sittacene the Macedonian army marched towards Susa. Alexander was met just outside the city by the son of Abulites, its satrap. The young man guided Alexander to the Choaspis River which, Curtius reports, ‘reputedly carries fine drinking water’. There, Abulites himself met his new master. He handed over gifts of ‘dromedaries*** of outstanding speed’ and elephants.

The chapter ends with a neat little detail which shows how far removed the Persian royal family had become from the land which they ruled. After being sent purple fabric from home, Alexander passed it on to Sisygambis so that her grand daughters (Stateira II and Drypetis) could be taught how to make clothing. Sisygambis rejected the gift angrily ‘for to Persian women nothing is more degrading than working with wool’. Such was her offence that Alexander came in person to apologise.

* chiliarchs had responsibility for 1,000 men. Hephaestion, among others, would later hold this office

** From what Curtius says, it seems that the organisation of the cavalry unit remained tribally based

**** Camels

Chapter Three
The Susian Gates are closed
The Persian royal family were left in Susa. Four days later, Alexander reached the Pasitigris River. This river, Curtius says, comes out of the Uxian mountains where ‘it rushes down-country for fifty stades in a rocky channel between well treed banks’. In the plains, however, it is perfectly navigable and so Alexander had no problems crossing it and entering the territory of the Uxians.

As the Pasitigris continued on its genteel way to the Persian Gulf, however, Alexander’s life was about to get considerably more difficult. His target was the Uxians’ satrap, Medates, whose city lay beyond a defile. Some natives told Alexander of a secret path across the mountains that would take him to a high point behind the city. The king despatched Tauron, the brother of Harpalus, to take the path. He himself entered the defile.

Upon reaching the opposite or far end, the Macedonians made use of the local trees to make protective coverings for the men who were ‘bringing up the siege towers’. Once they had arrived, the siege began in earnest. However, Curtius says that the ‘whole terrain was sheer crag, with boulders and stones impeding access’. As a result of this, the Macedonians ‘had to battle with the location as well as the enemy’.

In the larger context of Alexander’s life, the Uxian siege is a minor event. The city was neither very big nor particularly significant. Despite this, Alexander only took it thanks to Tauron. One enemy could be managed, two, however, was too much and the natives withdrew to their citadel.

The Uxians’ begged for mercy. Perhaps embarrassed by his failure to take the city himself, and wanting to teach the Uxians a lesson, Alexander denied their request. Despite this, the Uxians still survived. And they did so using a ploy that any child would recognise. Getting nowhere with their ‘father’, they went to their ‘mother’ instead. At first, Sisygambis declined to intercede for them, but after many pleas, her heart melted and she asked Alexander to relent. He not only did so, but gave the Uxians very favourable terms.

Following the siege, Alexander split his army in two between himself and Parmenion. The general was ordered to enter Persia by marching across its plains. Alexander would do so by passing through the Susian Gates.

Unfortunately, the Gates were held by the only Persian officer to give him a really severe test during his expedition – Ariobarzanes.

Ariobarzanes had 25,000 men under his command and the advantage of the high ground. Thus, when the Macedonians approached the Gates from a narrow defile, Ariobarzanes’ men were able to rain rocks and stones down on them with impunity.

The Macedonians tried to climb up the walls of the defile to confront their enemy but the rocks were too unstable. As hands grasped them they came free sending the men tumbling down. There was nothing for it, Alexander had to retreat.

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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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The Eagle That Saw Everything

The Nature of Curtius
Book Three Chapter 2 & 3
For the other posts in this series, click here

Chapter Two
A field outside Babylon
At the start of The Lord of the Rings there is a scene when a fox comes across the hobbits as they rest in the woodland of the Shire.

“‘Hobbits!’ he thought. ‘Well, what next? I have heard of strange doings in this land, but I have seldom heard of a hobbit sleeping out of doors under a tree. Three of them! There’s something mighty queer behind this.’ He was quite right, but he never found out any more about it.

Let us imagine a fox taking a walk down a country road just outside Babylon in 333 B.C. It is a mild November morning in Mesopotamia*, perfect hunting weather. Suddenly, the fox halts. He has heard a distant thud thud thud. He doesn’t round and run away, though. For one thing, the noise is mesmerising in its consistency; for another, he knows what it portends. The fox walks forward before stopping at the top of a slope.

Thud thud thud.

The noise grows louder. And then, after what seems an age, a column of men led by a cavalry officer appears from round a corner at the far end of the road. They don’t approach the fox, though; instead, they take another turn to his left.

For reasons best known to himself, the fox decides to follow the column. He wriggles his way underneath the hedgerow at the side of the road (It’s true, I may be making Mesopotamia sound like England here) and trots along the top of the hill for what seems an age.

As he walks, the breeze picks up and the fox hears shouting, trumpets blowing, feet marching and picks up the scent of many strange bodies.

Finally, the animal comes to the opposite end of the hill from where he started. And after emerging from underneath another hedgerow, he sees in the near distance a plain. And that plain is brim full of men gleaming with ‘purple and gold’.

‘The Great King’s army,’ he said to himself. ‘I have seen it before, but not this size. All his men must be here. And there is the Great King himself, standing on his chariot, reviewing his soldiers before they set off to battle. He is holding himself very proudly. But who is he about to fight? It must be a mighty foe, indeed.’ It was, but the fox had breakfast to catch, so never found out who this powerful enemy was.

As for the army – Curtius reports that Darius reviewed a quarter of a million infantry and sixty-two thousand cavalry on that plain. Although they came from many parts of his empire, not all regions were represented. The eastern provinces, Bactria and Sogdia, for example, had not had enough time to send men there.

I am assuming that the field used by Darius in the same way that the Romans used the Campus Martius – for pasturage and military exercises. It would be very rum the Great King used someone’s estate. Especially since he damaged it by digging a ditch to delineate the border of the area he was using for the review. Farmer Maggot would not have stood for that.

During the review, Darius asked his Athenian commander, Charidemus, if he thought that this army was enough to defeat Alexander’s. Charidemus replied bluntly that it was not. Insulted, Darius had him executed only to regret his decision immediately afterwards.

* I am basing this statement on the weather and climate for Baghdad as described here. I know that over time our climate changes; hopefully, in the case of Mesopotamia, it has not done so by too much in the last 2,300 years.

Chapter Three
Sacred Animals
A number of animals ‘accompanied’ Darius as he marched north to confront Alexander. There were the white horses that drew the ‘chariot consecrated to Jupiter’ (i.e Ahura Mazda) and behind them ‘a horse of extraordinary size’, which the Persians called ‘the sun’s horse’. They were driven by men wearing white robes and wielding golden whips. I’m sure the sting just felt the same, though.

Curtius describes Darius’ chariot as being mounted with images of two gods – Ninus and Belus. Between them ‘was a consecrated eagle made of gold and represented with wings outstretched’. I have to admit I was a little surprised when I read this as I am more used to thinking of eagles as Roman and Greek symbols.

Wikipedia says that some Greek writers wrote that the Achaemenes, the founder of the Archaemenid empire (c. 700 B.C.), was raised by an eagle. Perhaps Darius was referencing this? Or maybe Curtius added the detail in order to build up the architecture of his his narrative.

The eagle was not the only bird-of-prey on display. Darius wore a cloak that ‘bore a gilded motif of hawks attacking each other’. It sounds terribly impressive. But there’s no chance Curtius will leave us with that image of the Great King. Immediately afterwards he says that Darius wore his belt ‘in the style of a woman’. Can who ever is last out please clean up the sarcasm behind them.

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