Posts Tagged With: Pelusium

The Carving of the World

The headline reads ‘Vandals paste ‘butcher’ sign on Alexander the Great statue’. You can read the full report here.

Was Alexander the Great a butcher? In answering this question we have to be careful that we don’t do so with a twenty-first century mindset.

The reason for this is simple. If we impose our morality on Alexander we learn nothing about him and only a little – that is not good – about ourselves. Alexander lived, after all, in the fourth century B.C. not the twenty-first A.D.

So what about in terms of fourth century B.C. morality? Was he a butcher? I don’t have a firm answer to this yet, but at the moment I am leaning towards yes. There was no international law that stated what was and wasn’t acceptable in combat back then but there were definitely times when Alexander and his men went too far (e.g. the destruction of Thebes and terrorising of the civilian population in India) in the prosecution of campaign war aims.

No one should be insulted by Alexander being called a butcher. He was a king and a general. That was always going to involve bloodshed. Always. And sometimes, he would go too far. If one wishes to know the real Alexander, one has to accept that this happened.

But also that more happened, or rather, didn’t happen because on other occasions Alexander reigned his men in; prevented blood from being spilt. For example, which was the last city to be sacked before Persepolis? Gaza. Between them, Alexander passed through Pelusium, Memphis, Babylon and Susa without allowing the cities or their citizens to be harmed. He could easily have put any or all of these cities to the sword. His men would have been delighted if he had.

And by-and-bye, though our focus is always naturally on Alexander the conqueror, it is also worthwhile remembering that his life involved more than fighting. We get a glimpse of it in the sources – for example, his love of medicine, of literature, and of philosophy. You may call Alexander a butcher if you like, and in a way, you would not be wrong, but if you do, or if you insist upon its primacy as a way of understanding him you run the very real risk of missing out on the other facets of his character instead revealing only your own prejudices.

Categories: By the Bye | Tags: , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

19.II.17 Reading, Egypt, and Learning

I have started reading a book titled Alexander the Great’s Art of Strategy: The Timeless Lessons of History’s Greatest Empire Builder by Partha Bose. I’m only a few pages in but the book appears to be part-biography, part-management manual. For that reason, I don’t know if I will finish it as I am not sure how interested I am in applying the lessons of Alexander’s kingship to modern-day businesses (I took the book out of the library because I wanted to read about about Alexander the general). Well, it is 264 pages; I’ll commit myself to reading a third – 88 pages – of it and see how I feel then.

If you would like to read more about the book, it’s page is here.


I spend a fair amount of time on my Alexander Facebook page these days, and I am extremely proud that in the last few months it has crossed the 10,000 mark for both Likes and Follows. It shows how relevant Alexander remains today.

On 14th November, I noted that it was – according to Peter Green – the 2,349th anniversary of Alexander’s coronation as pharaoh of Egypt. The qualification according to is very important as Green is the only historian I know who even says that Alexander was made pharaoh let alone gives a date for it.

I am very happy to celebrate ‘Coronation Day’ on 14th Nov. because it is good to celebrate positive events, but I have to admit, I do not know where Green gets his confidence from: none of the five major sources into Alexander’s life mention his being crowned pharaoh. Indeed, they hardly even mention (his first visit to) Memphis. Only Arrian tells us anything of substance. He says that Alexander sacrificed to sundry gods, including Apis, then held athletic and literary contests before leaving again. Curtius states that Alexander went to Memphis and that’s it.

So, is it likely that Alexander was crowned? This is a question that it might be better for me to come back to, as at the moment, over on the Facebook page, I am writing a series of Alexander in Egypt posts. It is a location-by-location account of the various places he went to according to the sources. I have just left Memphis. In case you would like to read them, here are the posts:

  1. Coronation Day post
  2. Pelusium
  3. Heliopolis
  4. Memphis

Don’t worry about clicking on the links, though: I intend to reblog the posts here when I am finished. What I really wanted to say is that Alexander spent seven months in Egypt. As mentioned above, he visited Memphis at the start of his trip, and at the end. Unfortunately, neither Arrian nor Curtius – who are the only two to mention the first visit to Memphis – say how long he spent there before moving on. This is is a shame because if the coronation of a new pharaoh required a lot of preparation, and he was there for only a short while, then we could rule November out as the coronation date. But perhaps the Egyptian authorities would have been ready by the following April? What I am hoping is that as I continue reading the Egypt chapter of the sources I will come upon a passage that sheds more light on how long Alexander spent in particular places. I fear it won’t happen but we’ll see.


I enjoy updating the Facebook page even though there are times when I have to delete disagreeable posts. These tend to be any that even hint at the current dispute between Greece and FYROM and – thankfully very rare – homophobic posts. The annoyance of those kinds of post is more than made up for by the supportive ones and insights that readers share. Recently, I have benefitted from two in particular:

  1. That Alexander’s battle strategy was based on a ‘hammer and anvil’ approach. i.e. The phalanx acted as an anvil on which the enemy was placed while the Companion Cavalry beat it like a hammer. This strategy can be seen most clearly at the Granicus, Issus and Gaugamela. The analogy is not a perfect one but has been really helpful in helping me ‘see’ the battles more clearly than I did before.
  2. Heliopolis: When I wrote the above linked post I suggested that Alexander sacrificed there. A commenter stated, however, that by his day, the city was a ruin. It’s more likely, therefore, that Alexander simply used it as a place to cross the Nile before continuing on to Memphis.
Categories: Arrian, Quintus Curtius Rufus | Tags: , , , | Leave a comment

Alexander Aloud

This morning I took a walk to Hampstead Heath in north London. There, I sat down on a bench and read some of John Keats’ poems. Keats lived at an address just off the heath between 1818-1820 before moving to Rome for the sake of his health. Sadly, the tuberculoses that necessitated his removal to the Eternal City claimed his life not long later.

Whenever I pass through Hampstead, I often feel an urge to read his poetry. Either Keats haunts the place, urging us not to forget him, or his memory is now part of Hampstead’s very fabric and can be sensed by people partial to his work in the same way lovers can sense the mood, beauty and thoughts of their beloved.

My bench was just off the nearest path. This gave me the confidence to read some of the poems out aloud to myself. For all my faults as a reader I found it a really enriching experience. It got me closer to the poem, closer – I shall dare to say – to Keats. Reading the poems out aloud made my heart ache, but my goodness I  felt more alive afterwards.

The reason I am mentioning Keats here is that as I read him, I wondered what it would be like to read one of the Alexander historians aloud. Would that be similarly intense? I pulled up Arrian, and selected the opening paragraphs of Book Three.

‘Pulled up’: I was reading e-book versions of both Keats’ and Arrian’s works. A while ago I bought them and a number of favourite books for moments such as these. It was definitely money well spent.

Back to Arrian. I have to be honest, my heart did not ache to read him. Of course, it would have been foolish to expect it to. It would take a better writer than Arrian to compete with Keats’s airy intensity. What reading Arrian aloud did do, however, was help my imagination picture his words, remind me of obscure references and introduce new questions to look into. For example –

Arrian describes how Alexander arrived in Pelusium where his fleet, after ‘coasting along from Phoenicia, was already at anchor’. Coasting along from Phoenicia Reading these words out revealed a Greek ships sailing in formation to port. As I think about the imagine now I see a bright blue sky and deep blue sea. It is a very simple image but one that brings that little bit more life to the story.

Arrian refers to ‘Darius’ ignominious scramble for safety’. Here, I locked on to the idea of his ‘ignominious scramble’. What a dreadful way to describe the Persian Great King – and all the more dreadful for being true. Poor Darius.

A little further on Arrian mentions how Alexander ‘offered a special sacrifice to Apis’. As soon as I read this, I said to myself, ‘Alexander sacrificing to a foreign god? Are there any other examples of him doing that? I don’t recall so’. I hope I can find out whether he did. I knew that Alexander held other religions in high regard but I don’t recall him ever going so far as to offer to their gods.

Leaving Memphis, Alexander and his men sailed to somewhere called Canobus. I highlighted this name as it is a place I am completely unfamiliar with. As with Apis, I hope I can now find the time – even if just through a google search or look at Wikipedia – to find out more about this mysterious place.

I stopped reading at the point where Alexander’s ship came out of the Nile delta and stopped ‘at the spot where Alexandria, the city which bears his name, now stands’. What a rich collection of images that sentence contains – Alexander on his boat and the city in its many manifestations thereafter.

This post has been a little here and there but if the opportunity to read an ‘Alexander text’ aloud occurs again then I will definitely try to write a more organised post. In the mean time, whether it is poetry or prose that you like, why not see what you can get out of it when you read it aloud?

Categories: Reading Aloud | Tags: , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Blog at

%d bloggers like this: