Tonight I’m gonna party like it’s
19 Alexander’s fifth regnal year
Our second celebration took place in Babylon, October 331 B.C. Alexander had just defeated Darius III for the second and decisive time at Gaugamela and, by so doing, inherited his empire.
Diodorus (XVII.64) reports that following the battle, the new Great King went to Arbela where he found food and treasure. He might have tarried there for longer but was worried about Babylonia being polluted by the unburied Persian bodies on the battlefield. To prevent any harm coming to his men he ‘immediately’ resumed his advance upon the capital city.
There, Alexander was greeted with open arms by the Babylonians. Indeed, the whole Macedonian army was greeted happily. The men were given lodgings and much food and drink.
It would be nice to think that the Babylonians were acting out of the kindness of their hearts but we should not fool ourselves. Their actions were much more likely informed by a desire not to be slaughtered. Even if they had never heard of Thebes, they would have known that conquering kings were not always merciful ones.
And then there is Babylon’s reputation as a licentious city. Maybe in the back of many people’s minds was the thought that, if we can persuade these strangers not to kill us, maybe we can persuade them to pay for sex instead. For more on that point, see Curtius below.
As for Diodorus, the only other comment he has to make about Alexander’s first visit to the city is that he stayed for thirty days ‘because the food was plentiful and the population friendly’.
Yesterday, we saw how Arrian’s account of the celebration at Dium was short and rather unenthusiastic. Today, his account (III.26) of Alexander’s visit to Babylon is equally stiff.
Alexander, he says, approached the city cautiously. In fact, ‘in battle order’. To be fair, if the Babylonians had not formally surrendered this was a wise thing to do. He would have looked pretty stupid had he just rolled up to the city only to be met by an armed force (not that the risk of this stopped him from being ever-so-casual in Carmania, as we’ll see in two days).
As it turned out, all was well that ended well; the Babylonians streamed out of the city, handed gifts over, and gave their home ‘with the citadel and all its treasures’ into Alexander’s hands.
Well, maybe. But we’ll never know from Arrian. He focuses on the religious and political dimension of Alexander’s visit. The king ordered the rebuilding of the temple of Bel (‘destroyed by Xerxes’). This was also a political act as Bel was ‘the god held by the Babylonians in the greatest awe’. Alexander was intent on winning hearts and minds to his cause.
Arrian also states that it was in Babylon that Alexander ‘came into contact with the Chaldeans’ (n. ‘priests of Marduk’) and gave them a place in his counsels. The Chaldeans, of course, would go on to play a vital role in Alexander’s life when he returned to Babylon in 323 B.C.
In between of these religious acts, Arrian also mentions a number of political (and military) appointments. Once they are completed, he has Alexander resume his onward journey. And once again, I am forced to imagine Ptolemy sitting at his desk thinking “Babylon… Babylon… mmm, we had a good time there… probably too good a time. Better not mention anything about that, either.”
Despite Arrian’s deficiencies, it is Plutarch who lets the side down for the second day running. At least yesterday he mentioned the weeping statue. Today, he says nothing at all about Babylon. The nearest he comes to it is at the start of Chapter 31.
After Alexander had subdued the whole region which lay [on the west] side of the Euphrates, he resumed his advance against Darius.
And that’s your fun-destroying lot.
Fortunately, Curtius (V.1.36) comes to the rescue. And how. He is positively frothy mouthed with disgust at Babylon’s vices. And in the best hypocritical tabloid journalist fashion, rather than refuse to give publicity to that which he hates, he shares every last detail with us. Well, not every last but enough so that we can share his rage and he, ahem, can get more readers.
There is no doubt that some of the things Curtius mentions are rather unorthodox. Unlike dear Quintus, however, I have no qualms about detailing them so that more people will read this post. So, let’s look at what he says.
[The] moral corruption there is unparalleled
It’s ability to stimulate and arouse unbridled passions is incomparable
Parents and husbands permit their children and wives to have sex with strangers, as long as this infamy is paid for
Babylonians are especially addicted to wine and the excesses that go along with drunkenness
Women attend dinner parties. At first they are decently dressed, then they remove all their top-clothing and by degrees disgrace their respectability until (I beg my readers’ pardon for saying it) they finally throw off their most intimate garments. This disgusting conduct is characteristic not only of courtesans but also of married women and young girls, who regard such vile prostitution as ‘being sociable’
At this point, I fear that I may be held responsible for the moral degradation of my younger or more impressionable readers. Even now, they are probably looking up last minute offers on flights to Babylon for Christmas. But here’s the thing. The city no longer exists. And neither, to all intents and purposes, did Babylon in Curtius’ time. We don’t know when exactly he wrote his history of Alexander, but it is not likely to have been earlier than the middle of the first century B.C., by which time Babylon had been in ruins for nigh on two hundred years. Curtius’ anger makes no more sense than you or me writing about the Georgians and getting annoyed at their sexual practices. Sometimes, you have to take a deep breath and let go. This Curtius appears to have been unable to do.
Having said that, when he adds “I beg my readers’ pardon…” a part of me is nodding my head slowly and thinking Yeah, right… Anything for the fame.
As manipulative or genuinely enraged as Curtius might be, his words do give an insight into what the Macedonians might have got up to in Babylon. Drink and sex. Lots of.
Further to what Diodorus says, Curtius claims that the Macedonians stayed in Babylon ‘revelling in… dissipation’ for thirty-four days. He criticises Alexander for undermining ‘military discipline [there] more than in any other place’ and states that thanks to its licentious behaviour the army
… which had conquered Asia would doubtless have been weakened for any subsequent confrontations, if it had had an adversary.
It did. Ariobarzanes at the Persian Gates the following year. And guess who won. Curtius has his explanation for this, of course.
To lesson the effects of the damage [Alexander’s army] was continually refurbished with reinforcements.
Uh huh. And it was nothing to do with the general wear and tear of war and campaigning.
Babylon in Short
Reason Letting hair down after winning the Persian Empire
Duration A whacking 30 or 34 days
Outstanding Features Pure partying. No apparent religious element
Result Collective liver failure and spike in births nine months later