The Nature of Curtius
Book Seven Chapter 10-11
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The Polytimetus River
‘Sogdiana is mainly desert’ Curtius tells us at the start of the chapter. That may have been so but it was not a totally inhospitable land, for through it flowed the Polytimetus River.
According to Curtius, the Polytimetus flowed quickly – indeed, as a torrent – down a thin channel. Unfortunately for travellers, this channel entered a cave and disappeared underground. Not too far, though, for Curtius says the sound of it could be heard from above ground. Having said that, it was clearly not too close to the ground as the soil remained dry.
The Polytimetus is the second river to disappear from sight in Curtius’ narrative – you’ll recall that the Ziobetis did the same in Pathiene. Curtius gives no indication of where or if the Polytimetus resurfaced again. Thus, and very regretfully, there was no opportunity for Alexander to play his own version of Pooh Sticks again. His horses were no doubt relieved.
Leaving Sogdia, Alexander made his way to Bactra (aka Zariaspa) where he received reinforcements for his army. Once they had arrived, he made his way north again, this time only as far as the Oxus River, to confront insurgents who were still active in the country.
At the Oxus, Alexander set up camp. The river’s ‘silt content’ made it dirty and unsuitable for drinking, so the men started digging wells. They dug deep but no water was to be found. Until, that is, ‘a spring was discovered right inside the king’s tent’.
What I would really like to know, and what – unfortunately – Curtius does not say is how exactly this spring was found? Who was digging in Alexander’s tent?
From what Curtius says next, it appears that the men were embarrassed not to have discovered the spring earlier – why? Surely the king’s tent was out of bounds for digging in! To cover their blushes, the men ‘pretended [that the spring] had appeared all of a sudden’.
As for Alexander, he was content to call the spring ‘a gift of the gods’.
The Sogdian Rock
Counter-insurgency operations continued on both sides of the Oxus and Ochus rivers until the Macedonian army came to the last hide-out of the rebels. It was ‘a rocky outcrop’ thirty stades high, one hundred and fifty in circumference and ‘precipitously steep on every side’. It’s only access was one ‘very narrow path’, which was guarded.
Curtius reports that 30,000 men were on the rock. Not (only) on the top but also in a cave half-way up. This cave ran deep into the rock and was watered by springs up and down it. The men had two years’ worth of provisions. If Alexander was going to lay siege to the rock, the rebels were well placed to resist him for a long time.
There was no real need for Alexander to waste time with a full siege. There may have been 30,000 men on the rock but given that their only route out was the narrow path they were as ill placed to attack Alexander as he was to put them fully under siege.
Alexander must have realised this because his first thought was to leave. The ‘difficulties of the terrain’ made a siege not worth considering. But then, guess what, the king ‘was overcome by a desire to bring even nature to her knees’. This was nothing new. He had already altered the landscape at Tyre. But there he had been able to get up close to the city via his mole and ships. Surely there was no way to get close to the rebels?
They, and their commander Arimazes, certainly thought so. He asked Alexander’s herald if the king could fly. That would be the only way he would take the rock.
When Alexander was told this, he was ‘incensed’. But Arimazes’ words had given him an idea. He gathered around him the most agile and determined of his men and gave them a simple instruction – climb the rock.
‘My comrades! [Alexander said,] With you I have stormed the fortifications of cities that had remained undefeated. With you I have crossed mountain chains snow-covered throughout the year, entered the defiles of Cilicia and endured without exhaustion the fierce cold of India*.'”
In short, We have overcome Man and nature alike before, now do so again. In case the men quailed at the thought of climbing the Sogdian Rock, Alexander advised them that nature ‘”has set nothing so high that it cannot be surmounted by courage'”.
Given that Alexander had only a short time previously considered the rock too difficult to attack it is tempting to see his words as a lot of hot air but given his track record of personal bravery I should think that he meant everything he said. Yes, he had thought the rock too hard, but that was before he set his mind to assaulting it; when he did, it became possible. As the saying attributed to him goes ‘there is nothing impossible to him who will try’.
The men began their climb. Some used their hands, others flung rope with ‘sliding knots’ over the rocks.
I am not an expert on knots, but I think the reason these men used sliding knots is so that they could throw their rope over the rocks and tighten it enabling them to climb up (feel free to correct me in the comments box if I have got this wrong).
Still other climbers made their way up the cliff face by driving pins in between the rocks and using them to haul themselves up.
The climb was a long and difficult one – the men ‘spent the day in fear and toil’. Thirty-two men died after losing their footing and falling. The rest*, however, made it to the top. Thereafter, they were pointed out to Arimazes, who was then told that ‘Alexander’s men did have wings’. Arimazes was stunned by the sight and immediately surrendered.
* The Notes state that Alexander meant the country just east of the Caucasus
** Curtius is not clear on how many climbers there were overall. After being told about Arimazes’ insulting remark, he ordered ‘the group he normally consulted’ (presumably his senior officers) to each bring him 300 men. We are not told how many officers he was speaking to. Arrian says that there were 300 climbers overall.