Posts Tagged With: Plutarch

Arrian I.1-10 Some Thoughts

Background to the Series
In early 2017, I finished a series of blog posts based on Arrian’s Anabasis. I was happy for I had now written a blog-series based on all the major historians of the great king.

I closed my laptop and asked myself: What next? What must I do to take my love of Alexander to the next level?

Unfortunately, I never resolved that question. Actually, it would more accurate to say that I knew the answer but was not able to see it through. I would have loved to study Alexander more formally and blog about that but the course of my life did not allow it.

As a result, and for over two years, The Second Achilles drifted. I’m afraid to say, so did my reading and study of Alexander. To my chagrin, I became on my Twitter page someone who talked about Alexander using the knowledge he had built up about Alexander in the past rather than one who was using the knowledge he was learning in the present. I did not like that at all. Eventually, the rot set in on my creative Alexander Twitter page as well. To date, it has not recovered, and I don’t know if it will. It was a sad situation to be in – my love for Alexander and his life and times was undiminished but I was simply not doing anything about it. Ideas came, but unfortunately, left just as quickly.

A few weeks ago, another idea came, and this one appears to have stuck: It occurred to me that Arrian – in a manner of speaking – had got me into this rut, let’s see if he can get me out of it. I haven’t read him the whole way through in a long time, let’s do so chapter-by-chapter and see where it takes me.

I am delighted and not a little relieved that three weeks after beginning the series, I have now reached the end of Stage One. Alexander has concluded his Greek campaigns and is now ready to sail across the Hellespont to start to go to war against the Persian Empire.

When I wrote the first post, I didn’t know how I would – or even if I would – divide the series up. I am happy to do so according to Alexander’s various campaigns, though; given his story, it makes a lot of sense. Looking ahead, I think I will continue along the same lines (with the possible exception of his City Sweep: Babylon-Susa-Persepolis).

Arrian I.1-10 Some Thoughts

Arrian presents a very positive image of Alexander as a general. He does this by foregrounding Alexander’s positive qualities (see here) and by suppressing the negative ones (see the comparison between Arrian’s and Diodorus’ Alexander here). He has no time to waste on any ‘other’ type of Alexander; for example, Alexander the youth, or king, or even person: His narrative is wholly geared towards the military leader.

If you would like to know about Alexander the youth or person, you’ll need to read Plutarch’s Life of Alexander; Alexander the king, of course, can still be found in Arrian, but he exists slightly off-centre as the book’s focus is elsewhere.

Arrian’s Alexander is based on the Alexander of his two major sources: Ptolemy and Aristobulos. Having said that, given how focused Arrian is on the military aspects of Alexander’s kingship, and how Ptolemy is supposed to be his source for the same* perhaps we are really reading Ptolemy’s Alexander. I would like to think that actually, we aren’t, that while the Alexander we see in these pages is based on Ptolemy’s version of his king it is substantially Arrian’s. Where Ptolemy’s Alexander ends and Arrian’s begins, though, is a good question.

In the past, I have criticised Curtius’ history of Alexander for being sensationalist, as if written like a modern day tabloid. If that is the case, I think now that Arrian’s Alexander is akin to a Hollywood interpretation of him: Alexander gets into scrapes (e.g. at Mt Haemus and outside Pellium) but just like James Bond or Jason Bourne always manages to extract himself – and with no little panache for the sake of the audience. I have to admit, I have never thought of Arrian like this before; he makes such a thing of how much better he is than other historians that he comes across as rather stuffy and self-important historian rather than a populariser of the man he is writing about.

I said that Arrian suppresses Alexander’s negative qualities. This isn’t completely true. While it is true that he tries to gloss over the Macedonian king’s role in the destruction of Thebes, wait until he delivers his judgement over the destruction of Xerxes’ palace at Persepolis. There, Arrian says it was wrong – no ifs, not buts, just wrong. He is on Alexander’s side, but is not besotted with him.

* I presume on the basis that Ptolemy fought alongside Alexander in the army and became a senior general by the time of Alexander’s death whereas Aristobulos, although he fought, was principally an engineer

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Arrian I.1.1-13

In This Chapter
Arrian’s account of Alexander’s life is titled Anabasis Alexandrou, which means ‘Alexander’s Expedition’. For this reason, Arrian begins his account of Alexander’s life with Philip II’s murder and Alexander’s accession to the throne of Macedon.

Having established his kingship Alexander marched on the Peloponnese where he asked the ‘Peloponnesian Greeks’ to give him ‘leadership of the campaign against Persia’, a role previously granted to Philip. Everyone except the Spartans, who believed only in leading rather than being lead, agreed.

Arrian mentions in passing that Athens stirred in opposition to Alexander but that his quick arrival put an end to it. Alexander was given various honours by the city and returned home.

Alexander became king of Macedon in October 336BC. Arrian now jumps forward to Spring 335BC and the new king’s campaign to secure Macedon’s northern borders before heading east.

Alexander marched into Thrace where he confronted Triballian and Illyrian forces. In his first battle as king (as recorded by Arrian, of course), Alexander used a very inventive tactic in order to nullify a potentially catastrophic threat.

Alexander and his army came to the foot of the Haemus mountains. Above them stood a rag tag army of locals and ‘independent Thracians’. They had with them carts which they intended to push down the side of the mountain and into the Macedonian army.

Had this tactic worked, it would have thrown the Macedonian army into disarray, making the job of repelling it – perhaps even destroying it – that much easier. Seeing what the enemy intended to do, however, Alexander ordered his men to do one of two things; either (a) part ways so that the oncoming carts simply rolled down empty channels either side of them, or, where that was not possible, (b) lie down with their shields on their backs so that the carts rolled over them. The Macedonian soldiers did both these things and as a result, Arrian tells us, suffered no deaths. With their best chance of defeating the Macedonian army having rolled away, the locals and independent Thracians were easily defeated in the scrappy battle that followed.

Thoughts
How do the other Alexander Historians begin their works? Well, both Diodorus and Justin begin at the same point as Arrian – with Philip’s death and Alexander’s accession to the throne. The first two books of Curtius have been lost so we don’t know where he begins. Only Plutarch tells us anything about Alexander’s early life. In reading it, though, we have to be careful as there is a fair amount of mythologising and propaganda there.

Arrian glosses over the manner of Alexander’s accession and what happened after. In fact, in regards the latter, he has next to nothing to say, which is odd because it is relevant to his focus – a military history of Alexander’s life. For more information, we have to turn to Diodorus.

By the way, Diodorus gives us the first opportunity to ask which of the sources might be more accurate. Diodorus says that when Alexander became king Evaenetus was archon of Athens while Arrian says it was Pythdelus – who is right? Or are these two names for one man?

It isn’t clear from Arrian whether Athens folded after Alexander’s quick arrival at Athens or elsewhere. Diodorus tells us that it happened after the Macedonian king’s arrival in Boeotia, to confront Thebes, which had rebelled against him.

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What Happened to Hephaestion’s Remains?

In my last post (here), I cited the fact that F. S. Naiden says that Hephaestion’s funeral took place in Ecbatana as an example of the avoidable errors that he makes. Naiden’s exact words are,

For the funeral, [Alexander] ordered an altar brought up from Babylon at a cost of 10,000 talents.

(F. S. Naiden Soldier, Priest, and God p.235)

To be fair to Naiden, he does give a source for this view. The relevant end note reads ‘The burial of Hephaestion: App. 1a #58’

I assume that he is referring to Appian; unfortunately, I can’t find the latter anywhere in the bibliography so am not completely sure. If you happen to know who ‘App’ is, and which work of theirs is being referred to, I’d love to hear from you – leave a comment below, and I will be grateful.

In terms of the sources, Arrian and Diodorus seem very clear – Hephaestion’s body was taken to Babylon where a funeral pyre was built for him (Arr. VII.14.5; 14.8; Dio. XVII.110; 114). Plutarch is less clear. He states only that Alexander,

… planned to spend thousands upon thousands of talents on [Hephaestion’s] tomb and on an elaborate funeral.

(Plutarch Life of Alexander 72)


He doesn’t say where the funeral and tomb were supposed to be, however. Depending on how you read Justin, he can be taken to imply that Hephaestion was buried in Ecbatana or somewhere else. He writes,

Alexander spent a long time mourning [Hephaestion. He] built him a tomb at a cost of 12,000 talents…

(Justin XII.12.12-13)

without saying where this happened.

Unfortunately, the relevant section of Curtius has been lost so we don’t know what he said about Hephaestion’s death.

When I wrote my last post, I didn’t refer to the sources. I was convinced within myself that they all took Hephaestion’s body back to Babylon and so there was no need to double-check. Well, as you can see, I should have double-checked. If I take nothing else away from my last post, it is that there is always a need to double-check!

One last point. The Wikipedia entry for Hephaestion states that,

Following Hephaestion’s death his body was cremated and the ashes were taken to Babylon.

(Wikipedia)

It cites Worthington in support of its view, quoting him as follows,

Then Hephaestion was cremated and the ashes were taken to Babylon. There, an enormous funerary monument was to be built of brick and decorated with five friezes. It would stand over 200 feet high and cost 10,000 talents. Alexander himself would supervise its building when he got back to Babylon. In the aftermath of the king’s death, it was abandoned.

(Ian Worthington Alexander the Great: Man and God p.255)


A variation on a theme.

To recap: Naiden has an altar being brought from Babylon (and Hephaestion being ’embalmed, not cremated’ (p.235); Justin, that Alexander simply built a tomb for Hephaestion somewhere not recorded; Plutarch, that Alexander planned to spend an awful lot of money on Hephaestion’s funeral and tomb somewhere not recorded; Worthington, that Hephaestion was cremated in Ecbatana and his ashes taken to Babylon for burial.

It’s all a bit here, there, and everywhere! A question: are Naiden and Worthington using two different sources? They disagree on whether Hephaestion was embalmed or cremated but agree that his body was taken to Babylon for burial. I really need to find out who ‘App’ is. Until I can find out more, I think I will lean on Arrian’s and Diodorus’ account of what happened but I won’t say the Naiden made an avoidable error in this regard.

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A Fake Argument

In an article titled A Brief History of Fake News on the Asharq Al-awsat website here, Amir Taheri states the following,

A bigger piece of fake news came in the shape of the yarn woven around Alexander the Great, the invincible conqueror. He is supposed to have lived to the ripe old age of 33.

In just 10 years, the Macedonian is supposed to have conquered almost all of the then known world from the Balkans Peninsula to Russia to the Indian Ocean and from North Africa to the Indian Subcontinent, Central Asia and China. That involves a distance of around 40,000 kilometers, allez-retour, which means he would have been traveling quite a bit. And, yet, he is supposed to have built 20 cities named after himself, taken four wives (long before Islam) and “disappeared” for an unknown length of time looking for the fountain of eternal youth.

That there is no contemporaneous account of those marvelous deeds has persuaded some historians to doubt the existence of such a character which first appeared in Greek and Latin literature in 160 AD, that is to say, centuries after the claimed events.

I don’t know who Amir Taheri is but judging by the bio at the top of the article he is a very experienced writer and journalist. If so, he has let himself down here.

First of all, a quibble: Alexander died at ‘the ripe old age’ of 32. However, maybe I should let that go as Alexander less than two months before his thirty-third birthday. I will not do the same with his other comments.

Secondly, Alexander never made it to Russia (or, to be more precise, the country that is now Russia). You could say that insofar as he conquered territory in what is now Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, he therefore conquered land from the Balkan peninsula to the former USSR but if that’s what Taheri meant he ought to have said it. It would have been best, though, if he had referred specifically to the countries above. That would have been most accurate.

Also, Alexander did not enter China. He didn’t even know it existed. If Taheri had bothered to look at a map of Alexander’s empire, he would have known this.

Thirdly, Alexander married three times, not four. A quick look at Wikipedia could have told Taheri this.

Fourthly, Alexander did not spend any time looking for the fountain of eternal youth. This tale comes from the Alexander Romance which is a fictionalised account of Alexander’s life. If one is going to claim that Alexander the Great is not a real person one might at least try to show that the supposed histories of his life are false rather than the fictions.

Fifthly, Alexander did not first appear ‘in Greek and Latin literature in 160 AD’. Certainly, Arrian and Plutarch wrote about Alexander in the second century AD but before them came Curtius, probably in the first century AD, and Diodorus, in the first century BC. Alexander is also referred to – as Alexander the Great, by and by – by Plautus in his comedy Mostellaria, which was written in the late third century/early second century BC by the Roman playwright, Plautus. Taheri’s claim, therefore, that Alexander does not appear until 160 AD is rot.

Finally, Taheri bases his claim that Alexander is ‘fake news’ by pointing out that there are no ‘contemporaneous accounts of those marvelous [sic] deeds’. It is disingenuous to use the fact that we no longer have the contemporary accounts of Alexander’s life to suggest that he never really lived.

What Taheri ought to be doing is looking at the accounts that we do have – in conjunction with the other evidence – and deciding on the basis of what he sees there whether Alexander lived or not. As it is, he has taken the path of a troll who purposefully uses bad arguments in order to score a point. Badly done, as Mr Knightly, would say; all the more so as he suggests that this is what other historians (I should like to know who) believe rather than himself.

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2,374 Years Strong

diary – birthday edition

We don’t know which day exactly Alexander was born on but it usually taken to be 20th/21st July (though I have also seen 26th mentioned). With that in mind, I took the day off work yesterday to commemorate it by visiting a Greek restaurant in Primrose Hill called Lemonia. It is a lovely place and well worth a visit if you are in the neighbourhood. I ate zatziki for starters, keftedes for mains and finished off with a Greek coffee. Sadly for my future as a food blogger and instagrammer I didn’t take any photographs of either the food or drink – I washed the food down with half a bottle of Restina Kourtaki. Oh, and I bought a bottle of Greek Macedonian red wine. When I open that I will certainly take a photograph and upload it here.

While I waited for the courses to arrive, I read the opening chapters of Plutarch’s Life of Alexander, our only (substantial) account of Alexander’s birth. The account is infused with legend as well as bald facts; one might also say it is laced with propaganda as well – particularly regarding Alexander’s divinity. Most interestingly, it also contains what is probably the only example of Olympias being humble. Plutarch records two traditions regarding her; in the first, she tells Alexander ‘the secret of his conception’ and urges him ‘to show himself worthy of his divine parentage’. In the other, Plutarch says that ‘that she repudiated this story and used to say, ‘Will Alexander never stop making Hera jealous of me.’

Who were the authors who maintained this latter tradition, and why did they do so? After Olympias died, in 316 BC, there was no motivation for anyone to defend her from whatever charge her erstwhile enemies cared to bring.

***

The mystery of the large, black coffin found in Alexandria has been solved – for now. It was opened and found to contain three skeletons and sewage water. Yuk. Read more here. Of course, we are disappointed that it didn’t contain Alexander’s body. On the other hand, though, isn’t it nice that the mystery over where his final resting place is, still remains?

***

Hornet, the gay news site, has a curate’s egg of an article on Alexander, here.

… letters of the time described Alexander yielding to Hephaestion’s thighs.

Robin Lane Fox mentions this anecdote and states that it comes from ‘the Cynic philosophers… long after [Alexander’s] death’.

“One soul abiding in two bodies” is how their tutor, Aristotle, described the two men.

Aristotle was respond to the question of ‘what is a friend’; he wasn’t referring to Alexander and Hephaestion (Diogenes Laertius Lives of Eminent Philosophers Book V.20 here)

“The friend I valued as my own life,” Alexander wrote of his partner.

I don’t think Alexander did say this – did he?

Scholars have suggested that he became careless with his health after losing his lover.

I think it would be fair to say that Alexander was always careless of his health! In respect of the statement, I don’t think he was. I don’t recall anything in the sources to indicate it.

… eventually [Alexander and Barsine] are said to have had a son named Heracles. Questions linger about the veracity of that particular account — it’s possible that Heracles was procured in an attempt to usurp the throne after Alexander’s death. Though there were some who supported Heracles’ claim to Alexander’s lineage, he vanished not long after his supposed father died.

This is the first time I have heard anyone doubt that Heracles lived. He is well attested in the sources – Curtius, Diodorus and Justin all mention him. Also, Heracles didn’t ‘vanish not long after his supposed father died’ – he lived until 310/09 BC when Polyperchon tried to use him to reclaim Macedon from Cassander only to be executed after Cassander made Polyperchon an offer suitable to his irrelevant status in the Wars of the Successors.

She was carrying a son at the time, whom she named Alexander IV; but doubt was cast over the identity of the father.

Again, this is the first time I have heard anyone doubt Alexander’s paternity of Alexander IV.

In general, Alexander’s focus was on uniting Persian and Greek culture, and so he arranged marriages that spanned the two groups. He went so far as to organize a mass wedding that lasted five days and included 90 couplings, usually tying highly regarded Macedonian women to Greek soldiers whom Alexander trusted.

If Alexander was intent on uniting ‘Persian and Greek culture’ I don’t know why he would hold a mass wedding involving Macedonian women to Greek soldiers. Of course, he didn’t; the reference here is to the mass weddings at Susa in which Macedonians were married to Persians – see Arrian VII.4-8).

So the article is a bit hit and miss. I did like the closing passage, though:

… it is impossible not to wonder what passions existed two and a half millennia ago, and how recognizable those feelings would be to us today.

***

Judging by the way people write about Alexander and Hephaestion today, their feelings are very recognisable today! As it happens, I had the opportunity a few weeks ago to consider my own. I was asked who my heroes were. Alexander was suggested but then someone said that perhaps he was someone I was just fascinated by rather than considered heroic.

I wouldn’t consider Alexander heroic in the modern sense – he was no Superman, selflessly acting for the good of others; he was, though, heroic in the ancient Greek manner: devoted to winning glory for himself, proving himself better than anyone else.

Alexander certainly fascinates me but for me it goes much deeper than that, and for that reason, I try to think about him as critically as I can so that I don’t descend into fanboyism – excusing or ignoring the bad things he did and complexities of his life just because he looked good and (probably) slept with Hephaestion. I can’t say how good I am at that, probably not as much as I want to be, but for me it is important to try. It has the added benefit as well of enabling me to learn more about the Alexander who lived rather than the one I hold in my heart.

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The Iliad, Hephaestion and Alexander’s Jealousy

Recently, I bought the audiobook version of Stephen Mitchell’s translation of The Iliad. I have been listening to it at work and it has been a very intense experience.

One battle after another, one Greek or Trojan after another being killed in the most gruesome way. Homer does not spare you in his descriptions but – and this is surely his genius as a poet – he never descends into any kind of slaughter-porn; the deaths are treated with an amazing, and very mature, matter-of-factness.

As a result, the story never gets too much to bear. With that said, I can only listen to it for an hour or two every day before I need to take a break.

***

A few days ago, perhaps last week, I read an author who suggested that Perdiccas might have been a few years older than Alexander. This got me thinking about how Alexander sent Perdiccas with Hephaestion into Gandhara. It was 327 BC, and their

… instructions were to take by force or negotiate the surrender of all the towns on their route, and, once arrived at the Indus [River], to make all necessary preparations for the crossing of the river.
(Arrian IV.22.7)

Why did Alexander send two of his three most senior officers* away together? My Oxford World’s Classics edition of Arrian says that ‘Alexander needed a macho officer to balance the less bellicose Hephaestion’.

This seems to me to be a rather extraordinary statement. It can only come from the view that Hephaestion was not first-and-foremost a military man. Therefore, he must have been a bit soft.

However, the Hephaestion who, it is true, is most often seen carrying out non-military operations is also the Hephaestion fought with such vigour at the Battle of Gaugamela that he was wounded (Ar. III.15.2). And is also the same Hephaestion who took a ruthless and leading role in the downfall of Philotas (see C.VI.11.10 ff). And, yes, he is the same Hephaestion who was not afraid to square off against Craterus (Plutarch Life of Alexander 47) and even face down Olympias herself despite her ‘sharp criticisms and threats against him’ (Diodorus XVII.114).

So much for Hephaestion not being a ‘bellicose’ man. But if we rule the Oxford World’s Classics’s explanation out, why did Perdiccas travel with him? Well, I’m not going to pretend I know; I don’t, but a thought that came to me is that perhaps, if Perdiccas was appreciably older than Alexander (with whom Hephaestion was coeval), just perhaps, he was not there to cover the military side of the mission while Hephaestion handled the non-military but was assigned to Hephaestion to act as a mentor – to help him grow as a military commander rather than replace him as one. It’s just a thought.

* The third being Craterus

***

I am on Twitter – @secondachilles if you would like to follow me – and yesterday I had a conversation with someone that led me to this passage,

… Alexander never used to greet the news that Philip had captured an important city or won a famous victory with particular delight; instead, he used to say to his friends, ‘Lads, my father’s going to pre-empt me in everything. By the time he’s finished, there’ll be nothing important left for me to present to the world, no splendid victories to be won with your help.’
(Plutarch Life 5)

Isn’t it amazing that Alexander worried about this? In his youth, he must have either had a very limited conception of the size of the world or else regarded most of it as being simply beyond reach. More likely, though, he never said any such thing and that the anecdote is based not on a specific conversation but on Alexander’s attitude and his tendency to be jealous of other people’s achievements – see how he called the Battle of Megalopolis in 331 BC ‘a battle of mice’ (Plutarch Life of Agesilaus 15) and his fatal quarrel with Black Cleitus (Curtius VIII.1.22-52).

Picture Credits
The Iliad cover – The Telegraph

Categories: Arrian, Diodorus Siculus, Hephaestion Amyntoros, Homer, Plutarch, Quintus Curtius Rufus | Tags: , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

What’s in a Name?

A Catch-Up post.

It has been a month since I last wrote anything, here.

Troy: Fall of a City continues on the BBC on Saturday on Saturday night. I have to admit, though, that I have not felt any great desire to keep up with it. I will try to at some point.

‘At some point’ – there’s a fatal phrase if ever there was one. We’ll see.

***

Yesterday, I read an article titled The Ignorant Parkland Kids Don’t Speak for Their Dead Classmates by John Hawkins on the PJ Media website here.

The article is by-and-large a contemptuous piece of right wing trash. In arguing that the teenagers who survived the Parkland School gun massacre should shut up because they are ‘high school kids’ who know nothing it cynically employs the feeble tactic of being as controversial as possible in order to draw readers in either through their outrage or approval.

The reason I mention it here is because of a reference to Alexander as one of the few teenagers to know anything. Hawkins links to an article on a voting website, which says of Alexander,

At age 16, Alexander the Great, having just finished studying under Aristotle, was the regent in charge of Macedonia. The Thracian Maedi revolted against him, and Alexander quickly responded, driving them out of their own territory. He colonized it with Greeks, and founded a city named Alexandropolis.

I imagine that Hawkins’ focus is on Alexander’s studentship under Aristotle as his regency, attack on the Maedi, and the establishment of Alexandropolis is not of itself really relevant to a view of him as being an especially knowledgable person. Perhaps he employed revolutionary new tactics, which he created, in the battle, but it is unlikely.

So what about Alexander and Aristotle? Did being the famous philosopher’s student make him especially knowledgable? Alexander certainly did have a keen intellect. Plutarch tells us (Life of Alexander 8) that Aristotle gave him an interest in medicine and philosophy and that in adulthood, Alexander had a love of literature and history. We might add to this that his baggage train included men of science who surveyed the lands that the army traversed and sent back to Greece perhaps much information about it.

Back in his teenage years, however, I get no sense that Alexander was intellectually precocious. Reading the early chapters of Plutarch, you certainly get a picture of a more generally precocious young man but this is not the same thing. For example, in Chapter 4, Plutarch talks about Alexander for  whom fame was already of the greatest importance; Chapter 5 continues that theme as Alexander quizzes the Persian ambassadors about their country, foreshadowing, of course, his expedition; in Chapter 6 Alexander tames Bucephalus thus proving his bravery.

Alexander was clearly very bright but if the aforementioned events happened, or if they are simply based on the truth about Alexander in his formative years, we may say that his intelligence was focused on the winning of renown and glory. Just like the Parkland ‘kids’ are focused on using theirs to achieve greater gun control.

Having said all that, I do share John Hawkins’ reservations about the living speaking for the dead. This should not – cannot – be done unless one knows that in life the dead supported the cause of the living. This sympathy does not mean, however, that I regard the article as anything other than a hectoring, sneering piece of rubbish.  

***

Speaking of Alexandropolis, I received an interesting enquiry via my Alexander Facebook page the other day: Why did Alexander name his cities Alexandria? The fact that Alexandria is the feminine version of his name was also brought up. In truth, I don’t know. Unfortunately, I seem to have deleted the message so can’t refer back to it, but if the person who wrote to me reads this, I would be very interested to hear your thoughts on the matter. And indeed, I would be very interested to hear anyone else’s too, in the comments below or on Facebook.

***

Finally, I have written a few posts on Tumblr; well, indulging my love for the film Call Me By Your Name. You can find them, and my latest on Philip II, here.

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Changing the Past: In Antiquity and Today

New Year is well and truly over and I am back at work. When is my next holiday?

***

This week I read Come, Tell Me How You Live by Agatha Christie Mallowan. Don’t be confused by the last name, she is that Agatha Christie. Mallowan was her married name. The reason for its use here is because Come, Tell Me is not a crime novel but an account of the archaeological trips to the Near East that she undertook with her archaeologist husband, Max Mallowan, in the 1930s.

In Chapter One, Christie and her husband make their way to Syria on the Orient Express. They witness no murders, fortunately, but do pass the Sea of Marmora and Cilician Gates in Turkey.

As soon as I saw these names, my mind went back to Alexander. Christie’s Marmora became Diodorus’ Marmarens. The Marmarens (who, I should say, lived in Lycia rather than around the Sea of Marmara) attacked the Macedonian army as it marched past, killing no few soldiers, kidnapping others and stealing booty. Alexander, unsurprisingly, was rather displeased by this, and lay siege to the Marmarens’ fort.

For two days, Alexander attacked it. However, although he failed to break its defences, he did enough to persuade the Marmaren elders that he would stay until he had done so. Upon realising this, the elders,

… advised their younger countrymen to end their resistance and make peace with the king on whatever terms were possible.
(Diodorus XVII.28)

Interestingly, the younger Marmarens refused to do this. Diodorus tells us that they ‘were eager to die together simultaneously’ (Ibid) for the sake of their freedom. Now, at this point, you might have thought that the elders would have knocked their children’s heads together, remind them of who was in charge and lead the surrender before the youngsters came out with another tom fool idea. But no, they acquiesced to this, and came out with a tom fool idea of their own. The elders told the young men If you are determined to die, kill your wives, children and elderly relatives then break out of the fort and hide yourselves in the mountains.

The young men liked this idea and went away to have a last meal with their families. That evening, however, some of them reneged on the plan. But they didn’t run away with their loved ones. Instead of killing their families ‘with their own hands’ (Ibid) as the elders had suggested, they set fire to their homes and burned them alive. Six hundred men did this, and having done so, they should have had the decency to die with their loved ones. But no. They duly broke out of the fort and headed to the mountains.

This story has stuck with me since I read it. I am fascinated by the apparent equality of power between the young and old Marmarens. I have not heard of any other society in antiquity, or since, for that matter, where a similar situation has existed.

But… Did it exist? It may not have. The above quotations from Diodorus comes from my Loeb edition. The notes there state that ‘Appian… tells the same story of Xanthus, traditionally destroyed in this way three times… it was something of a literary topos’ (Diodorus XVII.28 n.5). Indeed, as the notes say, Diodorus repeats the story in Book XVIII.22 of his Library. There, it is the Isaurians in Pisidia who, seeing that they have no chance of breaking Perdiccas’ siege, burn their families alive in their homes. The Isaurians, however, do not try to flee afterwards. Instead, they destroy their possessions in the fire and, after defending the city for a little while longer, jump into the flames themselves.

Diodorus calls the Isaurians’ actions ‘a heroic and memorable deed’ (Dio.XVIII.22). I can only wonder if he changed the original account of what happened to the Marmarens and Isaurians to highlight their perceived heroism or if his sources did so.

***

Only Diodorus mentions the Marmarens. In contrast, both Arrian (II.4.3-6) and Curtius (III.4.11-14) refer to Alexander’s passage through the Cilician Gates on his way to Tarsus. There, their similarity ends.

Curtius states that Alexander looked at the narrow path ahead of him and,

… they say [was] never more surprised at his good fortune. For, he observed, he could have been crushed just by rocks, if there had been anyone there to hurl them down on his approaching troops.
(Curtius III.4.11)

According to Arrian, however, the Cilician Gates were heavily defended when Alexander arrived, but when the Persian soldiers realised ‘that Alexander was leading the attack in person’ (Ar.II.4.4), they fled. This sounds altogether a more likely version of events than Curtius’ as it would make no sense for the local satrap, Arsames, to leave the pass undefended.

***

One of the things that makes Alexander such an interesting figure to study is the fact that he defies our expectations. I was reflecting on this the other day and contemplating writing a blog post titled ‘Alexander the (Social Justice) Warrior’ focusing on how he pardoned Timoclea after she killed the Thracian soldier who raped her (Plutarch Life of Alexander 12), his treatment of the Persian queen and princesses (Pl. Life 21) and the conquered Persians (e.g. in the way he tried to integrate them into his imperial hierarchy as satraps). These were all very progressive social actions.

Alexander was not just about the fighting; and when he did fight he did not do so just to make Greece look good. Like any social justice warrior he wanted to change the world for the better. Hence, the above mentioned actions and the fact that he took surveyors and scientists on his expedition.

Of course, the name ‘social justice warrior’ has a pejorative meaning as well. And guess what. Alexander can be found there as well.

Thus, taking the Urban Dictionary’s definition (here),

… an individual who repeatedly and vehemently engages in arguments on social justice on the Internet, often in a shallow or not well-thought-out way, for the purpose of raising their own personal reputation.

Having been taught by Aristotle, Alexander could hold his own in an argument. However, he was undeniably concerned with his reputation. That was the whole reason for the expedition.

Social Justice Warriors or SJWs are: People with paper thin skin who always find something to be offended about. They generally have no concept of humour.

As Black Cleitus (Curtius VIII.1.22-52), Callisthenes (Pl. Life 53) and Cassander (Pl. Life 74) found out to their collective cost Alexander could be very easily offended sometimes, with fatal consequences.

[SJWs] aggressively call for the downfall of the person who carelessly offended them.

Philotas (Curtius VI.7.1-11.40), anyone?

But as I said above, Alexander defies our expectations. He is not only a progressive but also very conservative. Perhaps I will come back to that in my next or a future post.

***

The BBC and Netflix are producing a new drama based on the Trojan War. Controversy is following in the series’ wake, however, due to the fact that some of the characters, including Achilles, are being played by black actors. For more, see the Greek Reporter here.

If I had been the casting director, I would have chosen a white actor to play Achilles. That’s what he was. However, the more I think about it, the less I think that the casting director is obliged to hire a white person.

The Iliad is not history. Homer’s Achilles did not exist. He might be based on a real person but he is not them. Homer’s Achilles is a myth. He is a meaning. And in that capacity, he can be reinterpreted by every age as it sees fit. Indeed, it is only by being reinterpreted that he remains relevant to us.

If a law was made that permitted only one, single version of Achilles, we would bound him to the meaning of a specific time and place, and one day, he would become strange and unknowable to us. I would a thousand thousand times over rather have a black Achilles, a female Achilles, an Achilles who loves Hector rather than Patroclus or a pacifist Achilles rather than an irrelevant Achilles.

Categories: Alexander in Film, Arrian, Books, Diodorus Siculus, Homer, Plutarch, Quintus Curtius Rufus | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Alexander’s Last Days – Plutarch

1st June 323 BC
Daesius – 18th

  • Alexander feverish. Sleeps in bathroom

2nd June 323 BC
Daesius – 19th

  • Alexander bathes; is moved back to his bedchamber
  • Spends day playing dice with Medius
  • Late Evening Alexander bathes again, sacrifices to gods and dines
  • Night Alexander remains feverish

3rd June 323 BC
Daesius – 20th

  • Alexander bathes; sacrifices as normal
  • He rests in bathroom; listens to to Nearchus’ account of voyage

4th June 323 BC
Daesius – 21st

  • Alexander bathes, sacrifices and spends time with friends; his fever grows ‘more intense’
  • Night Alexander doesn’t sleep well

5th June 323 BC
Daesius – 22nd

  • Alexander’s fever is ‘very high’
  • He has his bed moved to beside ‘great plunge bath’
  • Discusses vacant army posts with senior officers

6th June 323 BC
Daesius – 23rd

  • [No account given]

7th June 323 BC
Daesius – 24th

  • Alexander’s fever grows ‘still worse’; he is now bedridden
  • He is carried outside so he can sacrifice
  • Alexander orders senior officers ‘to remain on call’ in palace courtyard; also orders company and regimental commanders ‘to spend the night outside’

8th June 323 BC
Daesius – 25th

  • Alexander moved to palace ‘on the other side of the river’ to help the fever. He is able to sleep ‘a little’ but fever remains
  • When Alexander’s senior officers visit him, they find him unable to speak

9th June 323 BC
Daesius – 26th

  • Alexander remains feverous and unable to speak

9th and / or 10th June 323 BC
Daesius – 26th
and/or 27th

  • Macedonians believe Alexander has died. They demand access to him
  • Macedonians file past Alexander ‘one by one, wearing neither cloak nor armour’
  • Python (aka Python) and Seleucus ‘sent to the temple of Serapis’ to ask the god ‘whether Alexander should be moved there’
  • Serapis tells them Alexander should be left where he is

11th June 323 BC
Daesius – 28th

  • ‘Towards evening’ Alexander dies

Note
You’ll notice that I have written this post in a slightly more concise manner than its Arrian equivalent. That’s because I first wrote it for my Second Achilles Tumblr page. You can find the relevant post here. In case it is important, I have not changed any part of the timeline.
The edition of Plutarch that I used for this timeline was the Penguin Classics Age of Alexander (2011)
As can be seen, Plutarch (just about) agrees with Arrian that Alexander was ill for eleven days.
I mentioned in my Arrian post that Robin Lane Fox dates Alexander’s death to 10th June. The notes to my copy of Plutarch are equally certain that he died on 11th June, and they cite the authority of a Babylonian astronomical text; I suspect that those scholars who date his death to the 10th also cite the astronomical text, just in a different way.
I could choose a side in this dispute but I would have no rational reason for doing so. Instead, just as I respected Lane Fox in my Arrian post, I respect the writer of the notes here and so date Alexander’s death to the 11th.

Categories: Plutarch | Tags: | Leave a comment

A Friend, A Father, and a Queen

Google Alerts was quiet this week so rather than do nothing with my Facebook Alexander page (something I do too often) I decided to post three pictures from Pinterest. They appeared on Monday, Wednesday and Friday, and judging by the number of ‘Likes’ that they received, they were all quite popular. Here are the ‘final’ scores (i.e. the scores as of 11:43am today when I am writing these words):

Monday Alexander and Hephaestion by Louis Gauffier – 65 Likes
Wednesday Alexander Threatened by his Father Donato Creti – 99 Likes
Friday Olympias, Queen of the Macedonians (Anon) – 35 Likes

The ‘final’ tally surprises me a little in that Alexander Threatened by his Father proved to be more popular than Alexander and Hephaestion. Hephaestion is a very popular figure with fans of Alexander so to see what is also a very touching scene between him and Alexander outstripped by the rather more violent and disturbing confrontation between Alexander and Philip II is unexpected. If you have a preference between the two why not leave a comment below to say why.

When I posted the pictures on Facebook, I did so without any text to explain them or the scenes that they are depicting. Rather than let them be, I shall do that now.
alexander-and-hephaestion
Alexander and Hephaestion by Louis Gauffier
This painting draws its inspiration from Chapter 39 of Plutarch’s Life of Alexander. In it Plutarch describes how Alexander’s mother, Olympias, often wrote to her son telling him to not reward his ‘friends and bodyguards’ so well as it made them ‘the equals of kings’.

Alexander kept [Olympias’] letters to himself, with one exception, Hephaestion was in the habit of reading the king’s letters with him, and on this occasion his eyes fell on a letter which had been opened. The king did not prevent him from reading it, but took the ring from his own finger and pressed the seal to his lips, so much as to tell him to keep silence.

What we see in Plutarch and Gauffier’s painting is an intensely personal and political moment. It is personal for the obvious reason that Hephaestion is reading a letter written by Alexander’s mother and is political because of Olympias’ role as Queen Mother. It is intense because if Hephaestion had had a mind to he could easily have used the knowledge gained from reading Alexander’s letters against the king. Alexander would have known this. The fact that he still let Hephaestion read the letters, therefore, is indicative of the trust he had in him. Having said that, Alexander still makes Hephaestion kiss his ring. There was no need for him to do this but as close a friend as Hephaestion was, Alexander was still his king as well as friend, and it seems never forgot this.
alexander-threatened-by-his-father
We stay with Plutarch for Alexander Threatened by his Father by Donato Creti. In 337 BC, Philip married his seventh and last wife, Cleopatra. At the post-wedding party…

Cleopatra’s uncle Attalus, who had drunk too much at the banquet, called upon the Macedonians to pray to the gods that the union of Philip and Cleopatra might bring forth a legitimate heir to the throne. Alexander flew into a rage at these words, shouted at him, ‘Villain, do you take me for a bastard, then?’ and hurled a drinking cup at his head. At this Philip lurched to his feet, and drew his sword against his son, but unfortunately for them both he was so overcome with drink and with rage that he tripped and fell headlong. Alexander jeered at him and cried out, ‘Here is the man who was making ready to cross from Europe to Asia, and who cannot even cross from one couch to another without losing his balance.’ 

This incident takes place in Chapter 9. As for the painting, I really like Alexander’s red cloak. No doubt it represents the danger of the moment. But for Philip falling over, it might have represented blood shed as well. Speaking of blood shed, I wonder if that is Attalus lying on the floor in the foreground of the painting. If it is, his red cloak could represent the injury he sustained from Alexander’s cup striking him. In regards the event that the painting portrays, it was probably the most dangerous moment of Alexander’s youth. It tells us a lot about Alexander’s pride and fear and how quickly Macedonian parties could turn nasty.

olympiasOf course, this carved image of Olympias does not depict any scene from her known life. I am do not know much about sculptural conventions so I will quote the following from the Galerie Sismann website from where I took the picture,

This portrait of this woman outstands for its strong graphic character, the sophistication of the tinae and the ribbons in her hair, and the sensuality of the naked breasts.

To read the full text, click here. I have long thought that Olympias is a woman in need of rehabilitation as the image that the sources present of her is of a wholly ruthless, vindictive and wicked person. Well, she was certainly a fighter. In order to survive, she had to be. Evil, though? In his time, Alexander behaved worse than she ever did yet we still hold him in high regard. Why? Why not her? That’s a question for another day; going back to this sculpture, I appreciate it because in the dignity, sensuality and regal bearing that it gives Olympias, it cuts her a break far more than the sources (especially Plutarch who, in Chapter 9 of his Life of Alexander blames her for inciting her son against his father and therefore causing indirectly the near-fatal confrontation at the wedding party) ever do. Going back to the point about sensuality, I do like the way that Olympias’ left breast breaks through the frame barrier. It gives the image an extra dynamism.

Categories: Art | Tags: , , , , | 2 Comments

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