Today (2nd April 2023), is Palm Sunday. In churches all over the world, Christians celebrate the entry of Jesus into Jerusalem.
Most of the crowd spread their garments on the road,Matthew 21:8-9
and others cut branches from the trees
and spread them on the road.
And the crowds that went before him
and that followed him shouted,
‘Hosanna to the Son of David!
Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!
Hosanna in the highest!’
Jesus’ triumphant arrival in the Holy City presages His Passion and Death followed by, this time next week, Resurrection. It is the high point of Jesus’ public life, the moment when everyone, it seems, is on His side. As the next few days show, however, they are certainly not.
On 1st October 331 BC, Alexander the Great defeated Darius III in battle for the second time. His victory at Gaugamela gave him the Persian Empire. As for Darius, he managed to escape capture and headed east in order to raise yet another army.
Rather than pursue him, Alexander decided to travel south in order to take possession of Babylon. As today is Palm Sunday, I thought I would take a quick look at the five main ancient sources for Alexander’s life to see what they have to say about his own triumphant arrival in a great city, and his time there afterwards.
Arrian’s account is very formal. It focuses exclusively on Alexander’s movements and deeds. Thus, he tells us that Alexander approached the city cautiously, ‘leading on his force in full battle-order’. He had no need to worry, however, for the Babylonians opened their gates, and came to meet him with gifts. Arrian immediately takes us from the city’s surrender to Alexander giving orders for the rebuilding of ‘the temples destroyed by Xerxes’*. He then moves on to Alexander’s political and military appointments. These benefitted the satrap Mazaeus who was (re)appointed to his post. Macedonians were put in charge of the army at Babylon and of tax collection. And then, as Arrian says, Alexander ‘set out for Susa’.
* The notes to my copy of Arrian state that this did not happen as Herodotus describes seeing those self-same temples
Curtius’ account of Alexander’s time in Babylon is the longest and, I suspect, the most entertaining, of all five sources. He begins with the surrender of the city by Mazaeus. This was a good start, but as with Arrian, Alexander remained cautious and put his army into battle order. Curtius says he formed it ‘into a square’. I have to admit, I thought the square was a Roman formation. If so, I guess Curtius is simply describing the Macedonian army in a way that his readers will be able to relate to.
Curtius describes how Bagophanes, ‘the man in charge of the citadel and royal treasury… carpeted the whole road with flowers and garlands.’ But that’s not all. He also set up altars and brought a fantastic selection of animals as gifts – ‘herds of cattle and horses, and lions, too, and leopards, carried along in cages’. The Magi also attended Alexander’s arrival, along with musicians. Alexander entered the city on a chariot. That brings us to Charles Le Brun’s painting, below.
Unfortunately, this image is rather smaller than I expected. If you look at the one at Wikimedia Commons (link below), you can easily see an interesting detail – Alexander is looking directly at the viewer. What could he be saying to us? Look at me. Look at this. This is all mine-?
Curtius describes how Alexander made an inspection of the royal palace. His account, thereafter, becomes like something out of a travel guide. I would say The Lonely Planet, but I am also a big fan of E. M Forster, so I will mention Baedeker instead. One thing is for sure, Miss Lavish would have been scandalised by but loved Babylon for its ‘literary’ possibilities.
After finishing his description of the city, Curtius condemns Alexander for undermining ‘military discipline’ while there. Why? Because he let his men take full advantage of the Babylonians seemingly free-wheeling attitude to sex. If Curtius hated this aspect of Babylonian life so much, you would have thought he would either have ignored or at least glossed over it, telling the reader only what was strictly necessary for him to know. Any more, of course, might corrupt him. But that is not what happens. Curtius risks all and explains what exactly the Babylonians did that was so horrid. To be fair, the practices that he describes are rather rum. But I strongly suspect that Curtius rather enjoyed scandalising his listeners.
After the sex, military appointments, and reinforcements from Macedon. Finally, political appointments and then, Alexander is off again, never to stop in one place for the same amount of time (a month or so) again.
Diodorus gives no account of Alexander’s arrival at Babylon, and he deals with the Macedonian king’s time there in just a few lines. The people, he says, ‘received [Alexander] gladly’. They gave the Macedonians places to stay and plenty of food and drink. Alexander stayed in the city for ‘more than thirty days… because food was plentiful and the population friendly.’ After describing Alexander’s military and political appointments, Diodorus moves him on.
Justin’s account of Alexander’s life is, as its title suggests, an epitome, a summary. Despite Babylon’s importance, Justin does not (in my translation, anyway) mention it by name. He says simply, ‘The [Macedonians] were rewarded and granted thirty-four days’ rest, after which Alexander made an inventory of the spoils…’. He then moves on to Susa. So, no mention of Alexander’s arrival, of Babylon’s fleshpots, or even his military and political appointments.
Plutarch Life of Alexander 35
I think uniquely among the sources (I would need to double check), Plutarch implies that Alexander continued military operations between Gaugamela and Babylon. He then includes a really astonishing story about a highly flammable substance called naphtha. What is remarkable about this story is not the naphtha itself but the way in which an Athenian member of Alexander’ court decides to see how flammable it is – even though the Babylonians appear to have already shown them. Athenophanes has the substance smeared over the body of a child named Stephanos. It is then set alight, and Stephanos, unsurprisingly, is engulfed in flames. Fortunately, the fire is put out but ‘afterwards [Stephanos] was in a terrible state’. Alexander is described as being ‘completely panic-stricken with fear’ by Stephanos’ immolation, so maybe at that point he didn’t know how flammable naphtha was.
Well, I hope not, because what an awful thing to do to someone. Why would they have so risked harming the lad? Plutarch tells us that Stephanos, though a good singer, ‘was particularly, even ridiculously, ugly’. A fatal thing to be in an age that idealised beauty.
Plutarch spends a bit more time discussing naphtha, whether Medea used it, and its influence on Babylonian agriculture, but has next to nothing to say about Babylon. He simply records the attempts by Alexander’s treasurer, Harpalus, to get Greek plants, specifically ivy, to grow when he ‘was left in charge of the country’. Then we are in Susa.
So, as you can see, Arrian and especially Curtius are the best sources to read if you are interested in Alexander’s arrival and time in Babylon. Obviously, if you are easily offended, or Roman, you should stick with Arrian and avoid Curtius!
At the beginning, I described Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem as the high point of His public life. I think the same can be said for Alexander in Babylon. Times were pretty good in Susa and Persepolis, but Babylon was all about pleasure. Whether it was food, alcohol, riches, religion, or sex, for one blessed month, the Macedonians had it all. At no point after did they get all the things that made the expedition worth it without any risk to themselves. It’s ironic, therefore, that after Alexander’s death, Babylon was the place where the army tore itself apart, both briefly, between infantry and cavalry, and for good, as the empire was carved up between the Successors.
The Palm Sunday Mass has two Gospel readings. The second includes Jesus’ cry from the cross.
Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani?Matthew 27:46
That is, ‘My God, my God, why have you deserted me?’
It is a cry of desolation. Alexander could not have known it at the time, but Babylon presaged his own desolation, for when he returned to the city in 323 BC, it would be with the corpse of his truest of friends, and heart of his heart, Hephaestion, and with the knowledge that in the last few years, his army had rebelled not once but twice against him. To reflect the loneliness that this must have caused within him, I thought I would add Gustave Moreau’s painting, above, which shows Alexander high on his throne, ruling over all, but completely isolated in that rule. The triumphal entrance had ended, but with a king no longer at one with his people.
Arrian Alexander the Great tr. byMartin Hammond (OUP 2013)
Curtius The History of Alexander (Penguin Classics 2004)
Diodorus Library of History Books 16.66-17 tr. C. Bradford Welles (Loeb Classical Library 1963)
Justin Epitome of the Philippic History of Pompeius Trogus Vol.I Books 11-1: Alexander the Great tr. J.C. Yardley (Clarendon Ancient History Series 2003)
Plutarch Hellenistic Lives including Alexander the Great tr. Robin Waterfield (Oxford World’s Classics 2016)
Entry of Alexander into Babylon by Charles Le Brun: Wikimedia Commons
The Triumph of Alexander the Great by Gustave Moreau: Wikimedia Commons
The Triumph of Alexander the Great (detail) by Gustave Moreau: Pinterest