The Nature of Curtius
Book Seven Chapter 4
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Bactria and Beyond
I am accustomed to reading about Alexander’s booziness, not so much about the Persians’. It is with a little surprise, therefore, that we begin this chapter with Bessus and his friends in the middle of a drinking session that, very surprisingly, is also a council of war. ‘Sodden with drink’ Bessus criticised Darius for confronting Alexander
in the narrowest defiles of Cilicia when retreat would have enabled him to lead them on into naturally protected areas without their realising it. There were so many rivers to serve as obstacles and so many hiding-places in the mountains, he said; caught among these, the enemy would have had no chance to escape, much less offer resistance.
As I understand it, Bessus is criticising Darius for confronting Alexander in the ‘narrowest defiles’ when he – Darius – could have retreated to more ‘naturally protected areas’, leading Alexander to follow him without realising what the Great King was doing. Had Darius done this, according to Bessus, the rivers and ‘many hiding-places in the mountains’ would have prevented Alexander from either escaping or offering resistance to the Persian Army.
What confuses me a little is that, while I understand how the presence of rivers might be considered an obstacle to Alexander, I can’t see how mountainous hiding places could be thought of in the same way. Surely they would be ideal for escape and resistance?
Perhaps it was just the drink speaking. Maybe, but if so it didn’t stop Bessus from going on to enunciate his own strategy, which was a fairly sensible one. It was, ‘to draw back into the territory of the Sogdians and to use the river Oxus as a barrier… until strong reinforcements could amalgamate from the neighbouring tribes’.
Bessus was satrap of Bactria and had 8,000 of its men in his army. They ‘faithfully carried out his orders as long as they thought that their intemperate climate would make the Macedonians head for India’. On the day they learnt that the climate had failed to divert their enemy, however, ‘they all slipped off to their villages’.
We aren’t told what Bessus made of this betrayal, only that he crossed the Oxus just as he intended. On the far side he burnt his boats and began recruiting Sogdian soldiers.
Alexander, meanwhile, brought his men out of the Caucasus Mountains in a state of near starvation and, it seems, uncleanliness. In both cases the men made do. Without oil to wash themselves with, they used pressed sesame. And in the absence of grain*, they ate fish and herbs. At least there was fresh water to be had from the mountain streams. When the food ran out, the Macedonians were obliged to start slaughtering their pack animals. This continued until they entered Bactria.
Curtius describes Bactria as being an environmentally diverse country. It is, he says, is both fertile and barren. Where the country is fertile, there is ‘rich soil’, ‘plentiful trees and vines’, wheat crops and grazing grounds.
Where it is barren, nothing grows. In fact, it is desert, and as ever a dangerous desert at that. Winds blow in from the Pontic Sea (i.e. the Caspian) creating sand dunes and destroying the road. People crossing the desert do so by night so that they can use the stars to navigate.
The city of Bactra (aka Zariaspa, modern day Balkh) stood at the foot of the Caucasus – which Curtius calls Mt Parapanisus**. The river Bactrus, he says, follows the example of the Araxes River*** by flowing past Bactra rather than through it.
The chapter concludes with news of a revolt in Greece†, the march of the Scythians to Bessus’ camp and Erygius’ duel with Satibarzanes††, which was won by the Macedonian officer.
*there were grain stores around, but the natives had hidden them too well for the Macedonians to find
** As compared to Diodorus who calls it the Paropanisum
*** At Persepolis
† By the Peloponnesians and Laconians. This revolt concluded with the Battle of Megalopolis between Antipater and King Agis that we saw at the start of Book Six
†† Still only one of three that I know to have taken place during either Alexander’s life or the diadoch period. The other two are Dioxippus vs Coragus (c. 326/5 B.C. My post on Diodorus’ account of it is here) and Eumenes vs Neoptolemus in 320 B.C.