Posts Tagged With: Sogdia

Arrian I.11.1-8

In This Chapter
Return to Macedon and Departure for Asia Minor

Alexander conquered Thebes in the autumn of 335 BC. After settling matters with Athens, he returned to Macedon where he made sacrifice to Olympian Zeus in a ceremony (?) first established by his predecessor, Archelaus (who reigned from c.413-399). Later, he celebrated Olympic Games – not the famous one – at Dion (Arrian incorrectly says it was held at Aegae). Arrian notes that according to some sources, Alexander also celebrated ‘games in honour of the Muses’.

Around the time that Alexander was holding these celebrations, he received word that a statue of Orpheus in Pieria had started to sweat continuously. A number of seers made prophecies based on this occurrence but Arrian records only one. According to a seer named Aristander, who had served under Philip and would do so under Alexander to at least Bactria-Sogdia, the sweating meant that ‘all the composers of epic and lyric and choral odes’ would have much work to do in ‘celebrating Alexander and his achievements’.

***

Arrian now fast forwards to Spring 334 BC.

In late April or early May, Alexander lead his army to the Hellespont. Twenty days after leaving home, he arrived at Elaeus on the south-eastern tip of Thrace.

As you can see from the map, he chose the shortest sea crossing possible to Asia Minor Alexander never shied away from danger and indeed could sometimes be reckless in the face of it but he clearly knew there was a time and a place for everything. And the crossing to Asia Minor was not it.

At Elaeus, Alexander sacrificed to Protesilaus who was shot dead straight after setting foot on Asian soil following the crossing from Greece at the start of the Trojan war. Alexander wanted his expedition to go better.

Not all of the army went to Elaeus with him. Most of it had stayed with Parmenion a few miles up the road at Sestos. Alexander’s most senior general now oversaw its passage in one hundred and sixty triremes and an unspecified number of freighters to Abydos.

Alexander, meanwhile, sailed for Troy. While at sea – halfway between Thrace and Asia Minor – he sacrificed a bull and poured a libation into the sea. Once he reached Asia Minor, Alexander leapt off his ship – in full armour, no less.

Having already erected an altar at Elaeus, Alexander now had another built at his ships’ landing site. It was dedicated to Zeus ‘the protector of Landings’, Athena and Herakles. Leaving the shore, he marched to Troy, or the run down tourist trap that now claimed to be the same, where he sacrificed to ‘Trojan Athena’. He left his panoply there and took in its place weaponry that dated back to the Trojan War. At the end of his visit, he also sacrificed to Priam so as to ‘avert his anger at the race of Neoptolemus’ from which Alexander was descended (on his mother’s side).

Thoughts
This chapter forms a bridge between the Greek Campaigns and Campaign in Asia Minor. It is dominated by religion. Alexander changed as a person during the thirteen years of his kingship but some things remained constant – his belief in and loyalty to the Olympian gods. The various sacrifices that we see being carried out here are mirrored by those that he conducted during his last illness in June 323 BC.

On a few occasions in this chapter, Arrian distances himself a little from his sources: ‘The prevailing consensus is…’, ‘They also say…’, ‘The prevalent account…’. I take this wording to mean that the relevant information does not come from Ptolemy or Aristobulos?

The above three quotations all relate to Alexander’s crossing of the Hellespont and visit to Troy. Why might Ptolemy and Aristobulos not been interested in recording it (and Arrian vice versa)? We don’t know. Perhaps it never happened – the whole Alexander-Achilles thing is a later invention. Perhaps it did happen but still not with the significance that was later attached to it so Ptolemy and Aristobulos only mentioned it in passing. As for Arrian, perhaps he knew his readers would like the story.

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The Road to Marakanda – Spring 328 B.C.

In the Spring of 328 B.C., the Macedonian army campaigned in Bactria and Sogdia. The native people had closed the gates of their forts to Alexander and needed to be reminded who was in charge.

I say ‘the Macedonian army’ quite deliberately for it does not appear as if Alexander himself took part in the operation.

At least, not according to Arrian. He recounts how, after leaving Zariaspa, the Macedonian king put Attalus, Gorgias, Polyperchon and Meleager in charge of subduing Bactria, and Coenus and Artabazus (together), Hephaestion, Perdiccas and Ptolemy in charge of subduing Sogdia.

As for Alexander himself, he

… proceeded with [the rest of the army] in the direction of Marakanda, while the the other four commanders carried out offensive operations.

It is possible that he attacked Sogdian settlements along the way, but the fact that Arrian distinguishes between Alexander’s actions and those of his four commanders suggests to me that Arrian didn’t think so.

This passage has been on my mind for a while for it seems quite strange that Alexander would choose to miss an opportunity to win take part in a military operation.

Did he see the ‘offensive operations’ as no more than a bit of mopping up, and so unworthy of his attention?

The fact that Alexander had to split his army into as many as nine divisions, excluding his own, would suggest that the threat posed by the Bactrians and Sogdians was no small matter, if anything, the reverse.

Perhaps he had business to take care of in Marakanda? Arrian doesn’t mention any. However, the city had been put under siege twice by Spitamenes the previous year (Arrian IV.5,7). I am guessing, therefore, that Alexander wanted to assign new men to the garrison (Curtius VII.10.11*) that had held it over the winter. This, of course, is a job that could have been done by one of the king’s generals – Hephaestion, for example, whom some scholars tell us was not a particularly good soldier.

At first sight, the other sources are not helpful in working out what Alexander was up to in the Spring of 328 B.C. Plutarch covers the period of the Bactria-Sogdia campaign in Chapters 50-58 of his Life but says nothing about the army’s military operations. The same is the case with Justin (who covers the same period in XII.7 of his epitome). Diodorus might have done but unfortunately, the relevant section of his account has been lost.

That leaves us with Curtius. After bringing Alexander out of his winter quarters at Zariaspa (VII.10.13-16), Curtius appears to confuse the early 328 campaign with another set of events** before having Alexander build some cities and move on to the Sogdian Rock.

This most famous siege took place in 327 B.C. It appears, therefore, that Curtius has misdated it. Thus, at the start of Book Eight, he follows in Arrian’s footsteps by describing how Alexander divided his army into three (between himself, Hephaestion and Coenus***) and with his men ‘once more subdued the Sogdians and returned to Maracanda’ (VIII.1.7) (my emphasis]).

So, if Curtius is to be believed, Alexander did take part in the campaign before reaching Marakanda. And, I have to admit, that seems the more believable version of events.

However, if asked to chose who I believe – him or Arrian – I’m not sure that I wouldn’t stick with Arrian. Curtius can be such an unreliable historian.

As already mentioned, he gets the date of the Siege of the Sogdian Rock wrong. After bringing Alexander to Marakanda, Curtius has him speak to Derdas, whom he sent into the territory of the Scythians over the Tanais River the previous year (VII.6.12) as well as ‘a deputation of that people’ (VIII.1.7) who offered him their allegiance and the hand of the king’s daughter. Arrian, by contrast, places these events in Spring, while Alexander was still in Zariaspa (A IV.15).

As can be seen, Curtius appears to have a particular problem with accurate dating. In this light, I wonder if his account of Alexander’s actions in Sogdia at VIII.7 could be a reference to Alexander’s Autumn 329 campaign against the Sogdians, subsequent arrival in Zariaspa and meeting with the Scythians per Arrian.

And yet… and yet… As you can see, I am Hamlet-like in my indecision! The reason for this is that I just can’t think of a convincing reason why Alexander would not have joined the campaign while he was on his way to Marakanda.

Actually, there is one possible reason – injury and/or ill health. The previous year, Alexander’s leg was broken by an arrow (A III.30); he also suffered a slingshot blow to the head and neck (A IV.3) and a severe bout of dysentery but surely he would have recovered from the worst effect of these by Spring 328?

* Curtius says that Alexander left a 3,000 strong garrison in Sogdia. I take it that some even if not all of them stayed in Marakanda
** The Notes in my edition of Curtius say he could be thinking of the rebellion of Arsaces in Aria and Barzanes in Parthia and their capture by Stasanor
*** I don’t count this as an error on Curtius’ part – it could be him ‘telescoping’ the story in order to focus on the principle player(s) in it

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A Master of the Battle and Green Field

VI. Division 
(IV.16)
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Alexander… after crossing into Sogdiana, divided his remaining strength into five, one division to be commanded by Hephaestion, another by Ptolemy, son of Lagus, a third by Perdiccas, a fourth by Coenus and Artabazus. The fifth he took over himself…
(Arrian IV.16)

***

Alexander arrived in Bactria in the Spring of 329 B.C. hot on the trail of Bessus. After a brief stop in Zariaspa to give his men time to recover from their crossing of the Hindu Kush, the Macedonian king led his army north. The chase ended on the Sogdian side of the Oxus River when Bessus was betrayed by his officers and handed over to Ptolemy*.

The capture of Bessus did not signify the end of Alexander’s presence in Sogdia or Bactria. Not long later, what appears to have been a multi-tribal native army, or armed force (Arrian III.30), attacked Macedonian foragers. Then, natives who lived in settlements along the Jaxartes (aka Tanais) River (A IV.1-4) rebelled against their new overlords. ‘They were joined in this hostile move by most of the people of Sogdiana… [and] some of the Bactrians’ (A IV.2). It would take Alexander nearly two years to pacify Bactria and Sogdia. It would never know peace, however.

After putting down the rebellion along the Jaxartes River, Alexander decided to cross the Jaxartes to attack some Scythians who had gathered there hoping to ‘join in an attack upon the Macedonians in the event of a serious rising’ (A IV.4), and suffered the loss of 2,300 men at the hands of a joint Scythian-native force led by Spitamenes who had decided to rebel against him (A IV.5-6).

Amidst all these events, Alexander was wounded twice and suffered a serious bout of dysentery. Operations continued until winter, which Alexander spent in Zariaspa.

***

The following Spring, Alexander led his men out of the city to deal with native settlements who had closed their gates to the governor. The unrest was so widespread Alexander was forced to divide his army up in order to deal with all the trouble.

Responsibility for bringing Bactria to heel was divided between Attalus, Gorgias, Meleager, and Polyperchon. I presume they acted independently of one another at this time but the text isn’t clear.

As for Sogdia, as we see from the quotation at the top of the post, the army was divided into five between Alexander himself, Hephaestion, Ptolemy, Perdiccas, and Coenus and Artabazus.

By-the-bye, the Sogdian operation is only the second time that Arrian has mentioned Hephaestion in the context of a military operation (the first being at [3] below). Here is a quick reminder of his previous appearances-

  1. I.12 During the visit to Troy
  2. II.13 In Sisygambis’ tent when she mistook him for Alexander
  3. III.15 Casualty list following the Battle of Gaugamela
  4. III.27 Given joint-command of the Companion Cavalry
  5. IV.12-13 Talking to Alexander the night Callisthenes failed to bow to the king

I don’t mention this in order to suggest that Hephaestion was not a good soldier. The picture we have of him in Arrian is Arrian’s own after Ptolemy and Aristobulos and such other sources as he has cared to use.

If anything, the grant of an independent command shows that Alexander clearly trusted his friend’s military capabilities. The times were simply too dangerous for the king to be handing divisions of his army over to friends just because they were friends.

Once the commands had been handed out, the

… four commanders carried out offensive operations as opportunity offered, storming the forts where some of the native tribesmen were trying to hold out, or receiving the voluntary surrender of others.
(A IV.16)

When these were completed, the generals returned in Marakanda. Hephaestion did not stay long, for Alexander sent him back out to ‘to plant settlements in the various towns’ (Arrian IV.16)

So, one minute a general, the next a settlement planner. Hephaestion was definitely a man of diverse talents. And we may talk of him as being very talented because his name crops up again and again when Alexander requires some kind of non-offensive operation to be completed.

For example,

332 Summer ‘Hephaestion conveys the fleet and the siege-equipment from Tyre to Gaza’
331 H. receives ‘a young Samian named Aristion, whom Demosthenes had sent in an effort to bring about a reconciliation with Alexander’
330 H. part of the ‘consilium’ that decided Philotas’ fate
328/7 H. collects ‘provisions for the winter’
327 Spring ‘Hephaestion and Perdiccas… sent ahead into India with a substantial force to act as an advance guard’

All-in-all

Alexander used him regularly for non-military operations: the founding of cities, the building of bridges and the securing of communications.

All the above quotes, including the last one, come from Who’s Who in the Age of Alexander the Great by Waldemar Heckel (Wiley-Blackwell 2009) pp. 133-4. The final quote above ends ‘[these] constitute Hephaestion’s major contribution’. Obviously, Heckel has no great opinion of Hephaestion as a general. In my opinion, Arrian proves him wrong.

For the record, Heckel describes the five pronged operation in Sogdia as being ‘a mission that appears to have done little more than win back several small fortresses to which the rebellious natives had fled’ (ibid). I must emphasise that I don’t speak from a position of expertise here but I can’t believe that Alexander would feel the need to divide his army up for such a minor task.

* Or directly to Alexander – see Arrian III.30

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Thunder in the East

The Nature of Curtius
Book Eight Chapter 1-5
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Chapter One
The Hunt
Rather unfairly, in my opinion, ‘Alexander gained more notoriety than credit from reducing the rock’. Curtius doesn’t say why this was so – did Alexander’s use of deception break a rule of combat? Was it the fact that the siege was not stricly necessary? We can only guess.

Before continuing his counter-insurgency operations, Alexander divided his army into three, naming Hephaestion and Coenus as the commanders of the other two divisions.

As these men took up their commands, a Macedonian ‘regional commander’ named Attinas was on the hunt for Bactrian exiles and Massagetae tribesmen who had destroyed some villages in his area.

Upon a moment, Attinas saw some shepherds ahead of him. They appeared to be driving their livestock into some woods. The rebels could wait – here was an opportunity for easy plunder.

The shepherds disappeared into the woods. The Macedonians followed ‘out of regular formation’ in their desire to grab the livestock. Suddenly, they came under attack, and for the second time, a Macedonian force was wiped out in woodland.

Craterus was in the vicinity but arrived in the wood too late. Nevertheless, he set about massacring the Dahae tribe – killing a thousand in all – thus bringing an end to the insurgency in the area. By-the-bye, Curtius doesn’t name the Dahae as being part of the ambush against Attinas but they had helped Spitamenes kill Menedemus and his men so they were not innocent bystanders.

After subduing the Sogdians once again, Alexander returned to Maracanda where he met Derdas, freshly returned from his expedition ‘to the Scythians beyond the Bosphorus’. Derdas came with promises of allegiance from Scythian kings, and a request that Alexander marry the daughter of one. She would turn out to be Roxane, the eventual mother of Alexander’s only legitimate heir*.

Once Hephaestion had returned to Maracanda, Alexander set off for a royal park in a place called Bazaira. There he reversed the Macedonians recent misfortunes in woods by successfully hunting a lion. Curtius notes the interesting fact that the Macedonian people had the right to ban their king from hunting on foot or alone. Health and Safety in the ancient world?

The latter half of the chapter is taken up with Alexander’s drunken argument with Black Cleitus, which ended with the latter’s death.

Of interest to us here is the the insight that the quarrel gives to how successful Alexander’s counter-insurgency operations had been.

The argument between king and officer began over Alexander’s bad-mouthing of his father. But Cleitus had a second grievance, “‘You assign to me the province of Sogdiana, which has often rebelled and, so far from being pacified, cannot even be reduced to subjection. I am being sent against wild animals with bloodthirsty natures.’

* According to Curtius, Alexander met Roxane for the first time after subduing the Sacae (Chapter 4, below)

Chapter Two
Another Day, Another Defile
In the days and weeks following Black Cleitus’ death, Alexander resumed operations against Bactrian exiles. As part of this, he came to a defile in an area called Nautaca where the local satrap, a man named Sisimithres, had set up a defensive blockade. Alexander met it head-on and smashed his way through it.

Sisimthres and his men retreated to ‘a rocky outcrop’ at the end (?) of the valley, which the defile opened out into. Entering the valley, Alexander found that his way to the outcrop was blocked by a torrent*. He decided to reach the outcrop by creating a mound, and so ‘issued orders for trees to be felled and rocks piled together’.

Alarmed by the sight of the Macedonian earthwork, Sisimithres eventually surrendered. As Alexander continues his operations, we learn another little detail about life in antiquity – it appears the Macedonian horses did not have horse shoes for Curtius describes how their hooves became ‘worn’ on the rocky roads.

* Curtius says that the the Nautacans had tunnelled through the outcrop to create a pathway into their country but that only they knew about it.

Chapter Three
Till Death Do Us Part
This chapter covers the end of Spitamenes’ rebellion against Alexander. In an episode reminiscent of Judith’s assassination of Holofernes, his wife cut off his head. She had become weary of being constantly on the run.

Chapter Four
Fire in the Rain
Alexander now led his men into a region called Gazaba. There, the army was scattered by a fierce thunderstorm. The cold froze men to death in the woods – once more a dangerous place for Macedonians to be – even freezing some to the tree trunks against which they were resting.

Just as he had done on the way to the Caucasus, Alexander went back and forth encouraging and helping his men. Rallied by their desire not to let their king down, the men chopped down trees to make bonfires. There would be so many that one ‘might have thought the wood was one uninterrupted blaze’.

Matters improved on the army’s second day in Gazaba when Sisimithres arrived with pack-animals, 2,000 camels, flocks of sheep, and herds of cattle. ‘Alexander divided these evenly among the men’. In return, once he had ‘ravaged’ the land of the Sacae, the king sent ‘a gift of 30,000 head of cattle’ back to the satrap.

Chapter Five
A New Division
For the briefest moment, Curtius turns towards India. It ‘was thought to be a land rich in gems and pearls as well as in gold’. But the chapter is otherwise given over to an account of the Proskynesis Crisis.

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The Men Who Could Fly

The Nature of Curtius
Book Seven Chapter 10-11
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Chapter Ten
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’.

Chapter Eleven
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.

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Striking out from the Tanais

The Nature of Curtius
Book Seven Chapter 6-9
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Chapter Six
War in the Mountains
While Alexander was dealing with Bessus, some Macedonian soldiers went off to forage. They were ambushed by natives ‘who came rushing down on them from the neighbouring mountains’.

Hearing about the attack, Alexander responded by laying siege to the natives. During his assault, the king was struck in the leg by an arrow.

From ‘their high position on the mountain’, the barbarians saw Alexander being carried away. But this did not embolden them to continue the defence of their lives let alone go on the offensive.

Instead, envoys came to Alexander in his tent and told him how ‘saddened’ they were by his injury and that ‘if they had found the culprit, they would already have surrendered him’. There is a context for this surprising attitude, for in the view of this tribe, ‘it was only the sacrilegious who fought against gods’.

After making peace with the tribe, Alexander was carried (on alternate days by cavalry and infantry in order to satisfy the honour of both) to Maracanda. From there, he set about pillaging and burning ‘the neighbouring villages’.

Back in Maracanda, he received a visit from a friendly Scythian tribe from the far side of the Tanais (Jaxartes) River. Curtius says that after ‘addressing the deputation courteously’ Alexander sent one of his Friends, a man named Derdas, over the river to warn the Scythian tribes there not to cross it ‘without the king’s order’ (permission?).

Derdas was also given orders ‘to explore the terrain and make an expedition… to those Scythians who live beyond the Bosphorus’. That would be some expedition indeed if Derdas was being told to go all the way back to the Hellespont.

What the above shows again is how much smaller Curtius’/Alexander’s conception of the world was. This is further seen in the fact that the Scythians on the far side of the Tanais were regarded as living on ‘European soil’.

Alexander now intended to build a new city on the banks of the Tanais – Alexandria Eschate (the Furthest). First, however, he had to deal with a revolt among the Sogdians and Bactrians, which had been set off by Spitamenes and Catanes.

Craterus was sent to lay siege to the city of Cyropolis while Alexander did the same to the city of the Memaceni. Both cities fell but not before Alexander lost some of his best men fighting the Memaceni and was himself knocked unconscious by a slingshot.

Once the two cities had fallen, Alexander sent a detachment to Maracanda, where Spitamenes had taken refuge, while he returned to the Tanais  to build Alexandria Eschate in just seventeen days.

Chapter Seven
Scythia
At the start of the chapter, Curtius reiterates that Scythia north-of-the-Tanais is part of Europe, while south of the river, it is on Asian soil. He says, that the Scythians who live near Thrace belong to the Sarmatian tribe, while those who live ‘directly beyond the Ister’ (i.e. the Danube) are spread out as far as Bactra.

The Scythian people also live ‘quite far north, beyond which the land is covered with deep forests and endless wilderness’.

The reason for Curtius’ brief overview is that the Scythian king had decided Alexandria Eschate was too close for comfort and had sent his brother, Carthasis, to make war on the Macedonians. This was awkward for Alexander because he still had the revolt in the south to deal with.

There was no question of the Scythians not being confronted. If they weren’t, he told his officers during a war council, they – the Macedonians – would lose face to the Sogdians and Bactrians. If they did, and defeated the Scythian force ‘who then will hesitate to submit to us when we are also the conquerors of Europe?’

The meeting was not yet over when bad news came from Maracanda – Menedemus had been ambushed by Spitamenes and his detachment wiped out in a wood. The first Teutoburg.

Chapter Eight
God of the World
That night, Alexander pondered how best to conduct his assault against the Scythians. He had placed the royal tent on the banks of the Tanais so that he could open the flaps and observe the enemy on the other side of the river to make a count of their numbers. He did this through the night.

The next day, Scythian ambassadors arrived in the camp to try and dissuade Alexander from attacking them.

‘Had the gods willed that your stature should match your greed the world could not hold you. You would touch the east with one hand and the west with the other, and reaching the west you would want to know where the mighty god’s light lay hidden.’

This sums up Alexander. He was very greedy – for glory – and had he had his way he would certainly have carried on fighting to the east and westernmost points of the world.

Chapter Nine
Dionysus Outdone
The ambassadors failed to persuade Alexander to desist. Once they had departed, the crossing of the Tanais began.

Despite the current of the river which made steering the rafts difficult, and the archers on the far side, the Macedonians made it to the banks where they engaged the Scythians.

As for the battle, the Scythians were put into disorder as soon as the Macedonians landed. They tried to flee only to be pursued. At some point, the Macedonian cavalry ‘crossed the bounds of Father Liber’ – Dionysus/Bacchus – ‘marked by stones set out at frequent intervals and by tall trees with ivy-covered trunks’. It seems Alexander was able to stay with the pursuit long enough to see the boundary stones before he was forced to turn back to camp by his recent injuries.

Back in camp, good news came from the south – the Sogdian and Bactrian revolt had collapsed. Victory over the Scythians had made the rebels see ‘that no race was a match for Macedonian arms’.

No doubt feeling well pleased with how things had turned out, Alexander thereafter made for Maracanda. There, he buried Menedemus and his men before going on to lay waste to the countryside and executing all ‘men of military age’ in the usual fashion.

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Loose Tongues and Empty Stomachs

The Nature of Curtius
Book Seven Chapter 4
For other posts in the series click here

Chapter Four
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.

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