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PostAlexander, Part II: The Burning of Persepolis (A. J. Cave, USA, 01/30/16 9:32 am)
"Is it not passing brave to be a king, and ride in triumph through Persepolis?"
"O, my lord, ‘tis sweet and full of pomp."
And so the story goes in Christopher Marlowe's influential play Tamburlaine the Great (1590, Part 1, Act 2, Scene 5), loosely based on the 14th-century Turkic-Mongol conqueror Timor the Lame (better known as Tamerlane), walking in the footsteps of Alexander.
By then, Persepolis (meaning: City of the Persians) was in ruins, and all but long forgotten by those who should have remembered it well. But the remoteness of the site (roughly 38 miles inland northeast of modern Shiraz) and fanciful religious association (called Takht-e Jamshid, Throne of Jamshid, based on Yima [or Yama], the mythical Mazdaean first man and king) had saved it from complete destruction, even during the brutal Muslim Arab conquest. Faces of friezes at ground level were hacked, either by Hellenes and Macedonians, or by Muslims who considered smashing "idols" an act of religious piety. Palaces were mined for building materials through time, but the massive site was simply left in place to collect dirt and dust and debris over centuries.
Marlowe either knew a little about Persepolis ruins through medieval travelogues, or knew his Classical texts and had used it as a literary device to tell a story. Some brave Europeans had ventured beyond the Holy Land during and after the Crusades and had written about the ancient ruins they had crossed in exotic Eastern lands mentioned in the Hebrew Bible. Odoric of Pordenone, a Franciscan friar, had seen Persepolis in 1321 on his way to China, and the Venetian Giosafat Barbaro, the Ambassador to Persia (1472-1478), had visited Persepolis and Pasargadae. It was García de Silva Figueroa, the Spanish Ambassador to the Persian Safavid court, who correctly identified the ruins as Persepolis in 1618--after Marlowe's death.
For Persepolis, Alexander was the hand of fate. He and his army, who had ridden in triumph through Persepolis in late January (330 BCE), had burned it down on his way out in mid-summer (May 330 BCE).
The reason Alexander had started to hop from one Persian royal city to the next after the battle at Gaugamela was not entirely chasing after more royal treasuries to loot. In three words, he was looking for: "location, location, location."
Babylon royal province was pretty flat and even though the city of Babylon was fortified, it had the same weakness that had opened the ancient city to the conquering Cyrus the Great and his army couple of centuries before. Susa, the ancient capital of the Elamites across the Tigris River from Babylon, was also flat and exposed. Outside of the famous Persian Royal Road from Sardis to Susa, which the Hellenes and Spartans used to take to visit their royal bankers, the rest of the royal territories were unknown to outsiders.
Almost all the Persian royal cities and provinces (satrapies) were connected by a system of primary and secondary roads, complete with resupply waystations in regular intervals, stocked with food, water, horses, and safe places to spend the night--more amenities than medieval caravansaries--free for those who traveled on royal business. It was how the Great Kings kept a watchful eye over the royal provinces (satrapies) with royal messengers crisscrossing the lands on fast horses, without having to carry bulky provisions to slow them down.
But why had Alexander headed for Persepolis in the first place? The quintessentially Persian royal city was on the best kept secret list; it was geographically off the beaten path and mentally off the Hellenic radar.
Alexander really didn't know what the Great King, surrounded by friends and shielded from foes in Ecbatana, was planning to do next. Fresh satrapal armies and reserves (not yet deployed) could have circled his army in Babylon or Susa. But if the Macedonians managed to get to Persepolis on the Highlands, they had a better chance of defending themselves during the winter months. And as it turned out, this brilliant strategic move had not been anticipated by the Great King and his royal counselors, and the small local forces, meant to safeguard the access roads from marauding mountain tribes, were no match for the formidable Macedonian killing machine. Who would have thought Alexander not only knew about Persepolis, he was crazy enough to drag his entire war-weary army there, away from wine and women of Babylon? Ariobarzanes (Arya-brdana in Persian), one of the Persian military high commanders, who had heard of Alexander (and half of his army) trekking through the Zagros Mountains, had rushed to hold the Persian Gates with his men (survivors from Gaugamela) and after a month, they had all been killed to the last man.
What was in Persepolis was not just more gold and silver, but food and wine enough to feed an entire army and fodder and water for the horses: Persepolis was a massive local and regional food storage and clearing center, and with the Persian New Year right around the corner (in mid-March), more foodstuff was probably being stockpiled in anticipation of hosting converging crowds.
How could have Alexander known all of this?
The "insider information" was not probably from the Persians disloyal to the Great King. Except for a handful of royal subjects on the western front who had changed colors, a majority of the Persian elite had remained faithful to the Great King. It was most likely talked about over wine when the Persian Artabazus, grandson of the Great King Artaxerxes II and satrap of Phrygia, had been kicked out of Persia by the Great King Artaxerxes III for revolt, and had ended up in the welcoming court of the Macedonian King Philip II--Alexander's father--along with some of his family. The famous Barsine, mistress of Alexander, was one of the daughters of Artabazus and had been practically raised with Alexander at Philip's court. It is unlikely that elderly Artabazus (fluent in Greek) had willingly given away state secrets. He wasn't probably paying any attention to the young Alexander eagerly listening to every word, and even if he did, what were the chances of him ever making it to the heart of the formidable Persian Empire? But Alexander had a head for that sort of thing--we call it photographic memory. When Phillip's army crossed into the Persian Empire, Artabazus (and his family) returned to the Achaemenid royal court and stayed with the Great King till the end. Barsine was captured at Issus along with the rest of the Persian royal household and became a concubine of Alexander until she was cast off when she got pregnant. With the blue-blooded Persian royal women at hand, the twice-married and widowed daughter of a former satrap had no chance of ever being promoted to wife of the king.
Sitting high on a massive rock (14 meters, roughly 46 feet off the ground), Persepolis was a site for sore eyes. In keeping with the well-known ancient Near Eastern tradition, the palaces and their decorations, mostly made of mud-bricks, local stone and wood, were painted. In some places, colorful glazed and baked bricks were used, showing trees, flowers and beasts in blue, yellow, and turquoise--the clay version of the lush Persian gardens (paridaida, root of paradise) surrounding the famed Pasargadae royal complex (built by Cyrus the Great). Based on modern analysis of the few remaining ancient pigments, most of Persepolis was painted blue (probably luminance Egyptian blue), to imitate the coveted appearance of precious blue lapis lazuli.
The story of Persepolis (called Parsa in Persian after the elite Persian tribe based there) had started with Darius (I) the Great (522-486 BCE). After securing the Persian Empire for his own royal house (by 520 BCE), the Great King had turned his attention to building a grand palace without rival--the Axis of the Empire. He had chosen an outcrop of dark grey limestone at the foot of a majestic mountain--a natural formation--not far from Pasargadae (about 40 miles southeast).
The royal complex, called a stronghold (fortress) by Darius himself, was most likely designed as a whole by the Great King and his royal architects (complete with sophisticated underground water and drainage system extending for miles under the palaces). The Great King's celebrated concept of "vispazana," meaning: of many kinds and many tongues, all kinds of people speaking different languages"--what we call diversity--was reflected in the assembly of the skilled hands and finest materials from across the empire.
The massive rock was cut into multi-leveled terraces and the gap between the rock and the mountain was filled solid with leftover stones of all sizes and shapes, spanning 450 x 300 meters (1476 x 984 ft.). Ceremonial palaces, audience halls (apadana) with columns as high as 19 meters (62 ft.), residential quarters, and a treasury on various terraces were connected with many grand stairways, and hemmed in by a chain of fortification walls. Persepolis, built mostly by Xerxes, was work-in-progress and the construction was never fully finished.
The bedrock was flanked on the north and south by two fertile valleys dotted with the estates of the Persian elite, in addition to royal lands and orchards full of fruit trees. The city of Persepolis was on the plain with (now vanished) mud-brick houses and gardens of ordinary Persians--although the site has not been scientifically excavated yet.
There is no material evidence that the royal palaces were really lived in. So, it has been speculated that Persepolis might have been the ceremonial center of the Persian Empire where the Great King and court and governors of the royal provinces and their kith and kin gathered every spring to celebrate the festival of the Persian New Year in style. The rest of the year, it could have functioned as the royal regional administrative center and year-round royal treasury, or even an observatory for recording imperial time-reckoning calendars.
Why Artaxerxes II and Artaxerxes III were buried in Persepolis (instead of Rock of Behistun, 8 miles up the road), with some burial pods (for family and friends?) nearby, along with a third unfinished royal tomb planned for the next Great King, is a mystery. A divergence from conservative royal burial practices usually meant a material change, but what? Imperial Achaemenids were masters in the art of never bothering to explain anything to mere mortals.
As a sign of sheer royal power and prestige, the city of Persepolis was not walled in and fortified, and even though the royal complex was walled in, its minimal fortification could not have held back an experienced invading army with siege engines. So the treasurer (probably the highest royal official on site) had surrendered the fortress along with whatever was stashed in the royal treasury. Supposedly, the treasury's "vaults were packed full of silver and gold," to the tune of 120,000 talents. But that didn't stop the slaughter, when Alexander allowed his army to sack the lower city as a reward, while he and his companions stayed at the royal fortress.
The estimate of how many were killed as the Hellene and Macedonian soldiers savagely tore into those houses and raped all the women is high (perhaps 150,000), but who they were is hard to tell. The Persian elite, close enough to be granted the privilege of owning homes and estates around the fortress, would have been traveling with the Great King, along with their wives and children. Some of them had already been captured after the Battle at Issus (333 BCE) along with the entire household of the Great King. So in addition to the Persians, the body count indicates a good portion of the poor souls who were raped and killed must have been lowly local keepers and care-takers, cooks, clerks, farmers, herders, shepherds, gardeners, guards, government and estate administrators, scribes, servants, workers, elderly and the multitude of priests attending to all the gods and their flocks with provisions allocated from the royal treasuries.
The amount of gold and silver that fell into Alexander's hands was substantial, but not astronomical. In Hellenic math, anything to do with the Persians (like armies, treasuries, women, etc.) automatically got an added zero for good measure. The Empire's gold (and silver--a lot more useful than gold) reserves were an unconditional guarantee of payment backed by the Persian crown across the entire empire. So, logically and fundamentally, Persian royal treasuries had to have enough reserves. Even Athenians and others with a market economy along the western provinces took Persian minted coins above their own for purity. Persepolis, due to sheer size and remoteness, could have been like the US Fort Knox.
After playing some games, doing some sightseeing at Pasargadae up the road (Tomb of Cyrus the Great) and more sacking and killing, Alexander was restless. There was no news of what the Great King was up to in Ecbatana. Although the battle back home between the old Antipater (the regent he had left in charge of Macedon) and the young Spartan King Agis (as the Persian ally and proxy) had been settled in favor of the Macedonians (Battle of Megalopolis, Fall of 331 BCE), thanks to gold from royal treasury at Egypt, there was no guarantee that the Hellenes would keep the forced peace. That old Athenian windbag, Demosthenes, was constantly calling for a new war against him and praying for his death at the hands of the Persians. And with those letters from home, there was usually a letter (or many) from his mother Olympias, complaining about Antipatros. There was no love lost between Alexander and his regent, but the stalwart Antipatros had his hands full with the formidable mother of the king, who expected to be greeted and treated just like the Persian royal women in care of her son. And speaking of the Persians, the Persian New Year had come and gone and there was still no sign of them surrendering and beating themselves to fall at his feet and call him king.
There were apparently discussions among the Macedonian high command about what to do next. Villages and cities and provinces under Persian rule had surrendered (some even at the sight of the approaching Macedonian army) and had revolted afterward. The Hellenes had been cowed when Alexander had razed the prominent city of Thebes to the ground (in 335 BCE) and had sold all the survivors into slavery. Razing Persepolis to do the same to the Persians must have come up among the military options. Later, sources made light of the advice of the conservative Parmenion not to burn Persepolis in contrast to the brash Alexander dancing with torches in a drunken feast, but that was Monday-morning quarterbacking--meaning, writing after the outcome was already known. This was not just the typical pairing of classical wise advisor and foolish king; it was a serious clash between the two dominant court factions for command and control. Parmenion was one of the old guards--the more experienced generals who were fundamentally Phillip's men--who probably just wanted to go back home and live large and long with looted gold, whereas Alexander and his young companions were the new establishment, hungry to rule the world.
Alexander won. Persepolis was put to torch (in May 330 BCE), and immediately afterward, the Macedonians headed north on the royal road to Ecbatana to face the Great King again.
Before Persepolis was torched, the content of the royal treasury had been packed and shipped north, and even the precious metal decorations inlaid in sculptured reliefs were removed. So, this was a calculated move and not a careless drunken accident, as spinned later. Thinking Alexander would have let some Athenian hetaera camp-follower burn down anything without his royal permission is pure pulp fiction.
Alexander knew that in burning the Persepolis royal fortress, he was also burning his bridges with the Persian aristocracy. Since his army had already killed most of the Persians and members of their household when they had sacked the lower city, that might have already happened, so his immediate problem was not holding the hands of the Persians but cutting off the hands of the Hellenes (mostly unruly and unpredictable Athenians and Spartans). Their heydays were behind them, but the few thousand Greek mercenaries still in the service of the Great King, and some 7,000 of them in his own army as their nominal participation in the League of Corinth, could still cause major headache. Based on experience, as long as the Great King had gold, the Greeks were in love. By looting the Persian treasuries, Alexander was cutting the funding sources of the Greek mercenaries, and by burning Persepolis, he was warning everyone that if he was willing to burn down his own prized possession, he would do the same to them, if they didn't fall in line.
Being the son of an Egyptian god, Alexander had probably forgotten all about the god of the Persians, or had never understood the high religion and the relationship of the Mazda-worshiping Persians with fire in the first place.
Symbolically, fire (Atar in Avestan) represented the eternal light of Ahura Mazda--the Wise Lord--and defiling it by burning anything unclean (particularly the dead) was sacrilege. The Mazdaean priests (called Athravans, meaning keepers of the "sacred" fire), maintained the royal and personal fires, performed ritual purification, offered sacrifices to deities, interpreted dreams, and cared for royal tombs, among other things. Watching a bunch of foreign soldiers creating chaos in Persepolis, killing and spilling blood on good earth, raping women, running around naked (exercising), spitting and answering the call of nature all over the place (or hearing about it later) was bad enough; deliberately setting fire to Persepolis was unforgivable.
So Alexander had not just burned Persepolis, he had committed (no doubt unwittingly) supreme sacrilege in front of the horrified Mazdaean clergy, who might have ultimately held the Great King responsible for his failure to protect the purity of fire and keep the earth happy. In a nutshell, the pollution of air, earth, fire and water was a sin, and it was the sacred duty of the Great King as the guardian of the world to protect nature, keep it clean, and maintain the divine order. Mazdaeans were the first environmentalists.
In one fell swoop, both the Great King and the Lord of Asia had become cursed heretics in the smoke-filled eyes of the powerful priesthood, without the possibility of redemption and reconciliation. In Mazdaism, redemption was cosmological, not political.
Darius the Great had clashed with the Magi--the priestly clan of the Medians--and had probably brought them under the royal rule and curtailed their influence over the masses. In the post-Darius era, the Magi had embraced the Mazda-worship religion of the Great Kings and had worked their way up in the Persian religious and political hierarchy. The glitter from the gold and silver looted from the three royal treasuries (save Egypt)--roughly 210,000 talents--blinded the impoverished Hellenes and Macedonians and sent classical writers chasing after shiny pebbles. But it was the loss of the support of the fire-watchers that ultimately proved fatal to the crown. It was a sign of things to come, where the powerful priesthood became the swing factor that decided the fate of the Persian Great Kings and Empires.
What Marlowe didn't know (nor anyone else for that matter until early 1930s) was that in burning of Persepolis, Alexander had perfectly preserved one of the grand stairways on the main site. The field excavations (by the archaeologists from the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago) also turned up a part of the royal Achaemenid administrative archive consisting of 750 Elamite clay tablets that were left heaped in a western columned hall among burnt debris (known as treasury archive), and another 30,000 (mostly) Elamite clay tablets in two small rooms in the northeast fortification wall (known as fortification archive).
Before these archives could offer any clues to the mysteries of the Persian Achaemenids, they had to be deciphered. The Elamite language was obscure and still remains difficult at best. So, the Iranian authorities loaned the fortification tablets to the Oriental Institute in 1935 for research and publication. The large archive arrived in Chicago in 1936 and has been under study since 1937. The two archives, collectively called the Persepolis Administrative Archives, sparked an academic interest in the study of the ancient Achaemenids and ushered in a Western renaissance of Persian studies in 1980s.
Sprawled across the ancestral Persian Highlands, the stone remains of Persepolis are now like the glistening bones of an ancient wonder, picked clean and purified, preserved for posterity, by the very hands that meant to destroy them.
Pretty as a picture, Persepolis is literally covered with graffiti--some, as old as the stonemasons who built it. Visitors through ages, kings and commoners alike, have carved their own names on the legacy of the Persian Great Kings--like signing a royal guest book, saying, "Remember me," because "I will remember you!"
[Coming next: Alexander, Artaxerxes and the dogfight for the Persian Empire.]
JE comments: Chapter II of A. J. Cave's Alexander saga is the perfect treat for a Saturday afternoon. A. J.'s excellent storytelling is matched only by her ability to burrow into the minds of the ancient peoples. What motivated Alexander to take such risks? And how did Alexander's burning a sacred city lead the Persian people to abandon, rather than strengthen, their support for their Great King?
Good history is that which teaches lessons for today.
Bravo. When A. J.'s Chapter III arrives, you'll see it here first.
Alexander, Part III: The Dogfight for the Persian Empire
(A. J. Cave, USA
02/07/16 12:45 PM)
Blame Aristotle and his Poetics (c. 335 BCE)--not poetry, but rather a framework for developing creative content--dated to around the time Alexander, his star pupil, was razing Thebes to the ground.
Thanks to Aristotle, every (Western) story has to have a narrative arc. It starts over here, stalls somewhere in the middle, and finally ends over there. The 19th-century German novelist Gustav Freytag made that into a 5-step structure (Freytag's Pyramid) called "Dramatic Structure," which no one remembers to remember.
Which brings us back to somewhere in the middle. It was rough getting there, but during those 4 months or so that Alexander was lingering in Persepolis, life was good. For the first time in living memory, the royal city was swarming with foreign enemies. It would have been hard to miss thousands of pack animals (mostly mules and some camels) being gathered around the palace complex to carry away a mountain of silver and gold. There would have been a long line of Macedonian soldiers going up and down the 111 short steps to and from the massive entrance gates, crossing the Gate of all Peoples, snaking around the palaces to the treasury building all the way back (southeast corner), with arms full of bags or buckets (or probably animal skins) of silver and gold. A talent of silver was equal to 6,000 [Hellene] drachmas--a lot of money back then--with an average mercenary solider getting 30 drachmas a month, and some Macedonians up to 60 drachmas a month. Assuming one (Hellenic) talent of silver weighed about 57 pounds, each mule could have been loaded with about 4 talents of silver (little over 200 pounds)--needing close to 30,000 mules for 120,000 talents of silver. Camels could carry more, but there weren't that many of them in the area. The impossible logistics would have entailed feeding, watering and resting the poor mules every night (or roughly every 50 miles or so) with that kind of load, not to mention the soldiers who had to secure the loot all the way to their intended destination, and officers to mind the soldiers
No one, certainly not the Carian fortune-teller Aristander nor even the watchful Babylonian star-readers, could have foretold that (most of) those Macedonians would be killing their own horses and pack animals and eating their raw flesh to survive come winter--caught in one of those blinding blizzards in the mountains of Hindu Kush. As they say, winter was coming.
Just as Alexander and the Macedonians had suspected, the Great King had been kept informed of their activities in Persepolis. But the news that Alexander had put the royal fortress to torch after emptying the royal treasury must have come as a great shock to the Great King and the Persian high command.
With Persepolis smoldering on the Highlands, Alexander and most of his army left on the direct royal road for the northern royal city of Ecbatana to force a showdown with the Great King once and for all--a fight to the end. They had observed the military capabilities of the Persian royal army in three different battles (Granicus, Issus and Gaugamela) firsthand, and most of them were supremely confident that as long as the Great King played the center, they could win any pitched battle, and they were right. The sophisticated Macedonian royal army Phillip (II) had engineered, assembled and tested and Alexander had battle-hardened, was the most effective killing machine in the antiquity, while the height of military innovation in the Persian royal army had been hiring more Hellene mercenaries, after the bloody nose the Spartans had given Xerxes at Thermopylae (and the Athenians at Salamis).
By the time the Macedonians reached Ecbatana, the Persians had already left. Contrary to rumors, the Great King and his remaining companions, guards and soldiers (roughly 10,000 with thousands of Hellene mercenaries still holding on) along with a large baggage train, were not fleeing from Alexander. The royal war council had probably decided to finally reverse course and move the fight to Bactria, where they had a clear advantage. So instead of dragging the rest of the eastern satrapal armies to the west to face the rested Macedonian army, they were dragging the Macedonians in their wake to fight the fresh and fierce Bactrians and Sogdians--even Scythians beyond the Oxus River (now Amu Darya, probably called the "Good River" by the ancient Mazdaeans).
Since the region was mostly unknown (even to the later Romans), the significance of this was lost on the ancient observers. Mountainous Bactria (Persian royal provinces of Baxtrish, roughly modern Afghanistan) was not only one of the most formidable satrapies with more than enough fighters and horses to take on an invading army (as a few years of brutal guerrilla warfare proved later), it was also the religious center of Mazdaism. With Persepolis in flames and other royal cities in the hands of the invaders, the Great King could have mended fences with the ornery clergy and turn Bactria into a makeshift royal center for the Empire. It was brilliantly conceived, only if the Persians had seen it through to the end.
Alexander did not blink at the news. Instead, he declared victory--mission (of the league) accomplished--ended the fiction of the Panhellenic coalition, and paid and dismissed the Hellene mercenaries and Thracian cavalry in his service. With confirmation from Antipatros that Spartans had been checked and their young king dead, and he was now firmly holding a sharp sword at the throats of the rest of the Athenians and Spartans, the Hellene hostages were no longer useful. With another battle with the Great King and his Hellene mercenaries looming on the horizon, Alexander did not want to worry about the loyalties of men under his command. He was sick and tired of Parmenion constantly second-guessing him, and blamed the old general for letting Darius slip through his fingers at Gaugamela. So, just before getting back on the royal road to chase after the Great King, Alexander unexpectedly left his second-in-command in charge of Ecbatana, ingeniously separating the old general from his two living sons (one had drowned in the Nile) and the army factions loyal to him and his family without anyone thinking much of it.
The Persians weren't probably expecting Alexander in hot pursuit at breakneck speed without most of his army that would have slowed him down considerably. To confuse the Macedonian headhunters on their trail, at the suggestion of the Babylonians in his entourage, the Great King and (most of) his satraps agreed to use the old Babylonian "substitute king" scheme, where someone would volunteer (or be picked) to take on the bad omen predicted for the king upon himself. After the omen (disaster) had passed (no longer than 100 days), the substitute king was killed and the royal power reverted back to the rightful king. Bessus (Bayasa in Persian), the formidable satrap of Bactria, who had been assigned to his lucrative post by Darius, must have volunteered army-style (assigned) to pull the invaders away from the Great King. The Achaemenid Empire was a family business and the satraps (governors of royal provinces) were more than likely related to the royal family, either by birth or by marriage. So, Bessus and Darius were not only members of the Achaemenid clan, it is possible that they were first cousins and Bessus had as close a blood tie to the Achaemenids as Darius, since traditionally royal sons of the House (meaning sons of the king) were sent to govern Bactria, due to its unique rank among royal provinces. So Bessus was not just another satrap, he was serious competition for the crown.
Among those in disagreement in the inner circle of the Great King were probably the old Artabazus (former satrap of Phrygia, now in northwest Turkey) and his (7) sons, and the commanders of the Hellenes who wanted to stand their grounds and fight man-to-man, given the small hand-picked Macedonian mobile trying to keep up with Alexander. They knew that with Alexander dead and no heir to succeed him (save a dim-witted half-brother unacceptable to the military rank-and-file), Macedonians would have taken the gold and left. But those who wanted to fight right there and then were overruled by the Great King and the satraps who were still fighting the last battle at Gaugamela in their heads. Images of a spectacular military victory over the Macedonian king as payback for the humiliating defeats (in pitched battles) he had piled on one after another must have been dancing in the eyes of the Great King. So, the trappings of kingship (crown, ring, robe...) were transferred to Bessus, and Darius was placed in an unmarked wagon buried in a sea of wagons in the baggage train, along with his favorite dog and couple of court eunuchs. Feeling sidelined and ignored by the eastern satraps, Artabazus and company abandoned the (substitute) great king and disappeared into the thin air.
At the time, there was a total of one person in the entire Macedonian army who spoke passable Persian, but there were at least a few thousand (as many as 2,000) Hellene mercenaries in the service of the Great King who were naturally fluent in Greek. So, a handful were picked and sent to Alexander posing as deserters with the message that the Great King (Bessus) was on horseback bound for Bactria, along with the Bactrian cavalry (some 7,000 riders), mercenaries, eastern satraps, and the rest of the Persian royal army.
Believing he was now seriously outnumbered by the Persian forces, Alexander was lingering in Rhagai (close to modern Tehran), waiting for major reinforcement before continuing after Darius, when word came that Bessus was now in charge of the army and the Great King Darius was actually traveling incognito in one of those covered wagons in the baggage train.
Who betrayed the Persians is a mystery. Whoever it was, by the time breathless Alexander and a bunch of exhausted companions (about 70) caught up to the baggage train, it was totally deserted. Frantically searching through the abandoned wagons, following the faint yelping of a dying dog finally led the Macedonians to Darius.
Which brings us back to Aristotle. In his poetics world, something happened that created a test--a challenge or a conflict. There was a rush to the climax scene--sort of a big bang moment--and then everything went downhill from there. In the dramatic (hi)story of Alexander, that climax should have been the capturing or killing of the Great King--the operatic moment he would have walked on the world stage decked out like a Persian king, pushed his face right into that big blaster and had shouted something like "I am the king of the world," followed by a victory lap around some palace à la Achilles puling dead Hector in his wake, mopping up the dead bodies, holding the funeral games, creating a new world order, giving credit where credit was due (or not), and living happily ever after with that shiny golden upright crown of the Achaemenids.
But instead of happiness, the sight of the fresh blood-soaked white garb of the Great King horrified Alexander. Hearing unfamiliar voices and approaching footsteps, the two eunuchs had knifed the faithful dog, stabbed Darius through heart, and had killed themselves over his royal body. What a heartbreaking end to the life of one of the last of the great Achaemenids. Darius was roughly the same age as Philip (late 40s), and his regicide must have reminded Alexander of the blood-soaked assassination of his own father at the hands of a jilted lover boy. He had sworn by Zeus that he had no hands in that bloody patricide (and he hadn't), and the old Antipatros had reluctantly believed him and had persuaded the army to his cause. As foretold, the Babylonian prophecy had come to pass. The moon had eclipsed and the Great King was dead within a year. But with Darius dead like that in the middle of road, now what?
Parmenion might have known what to do, but Alexander was not going to bring himself to ask for directions and listen to a long list of things that he should or shouldn't have done. He knew enough that he couldn't just burn the Great King on a giant funeral pyre according to the Macedonian customs, nor could he send the royal body for burial to Persepolis, since most of the royal city was now reduced to ashes. Sending it to Sisygambis, the Queen-mother, in Susa was also out of the question, since the pitiful sight of the murdered king might have rallied "Mother" and the Persians against him.
The tactical problem of disposing of the dead Darius might have been resolved by the Mazdaean priests who had kept an eye on the Great King from afar and had come forth for his royal body, but the strategic problem of what to do next remained hanging in the putrid air.
On the way to Persia, Alexander had taken along his own chronicler, Kallisthenes, the great nephew of Aristotle. Kallisthenes was more like a Macedonian royal glorification and public relations officer than a Hellene historian. So, he wrote a cinematic press release for the benefit of the people back home and counted the last breaths of a grateful Darius dying in the arms of a dutiful Alexander (as his rightful heir) and put the bloody regicide squarely on the shoulders of Bessus and the rest of the eastern satraps--who, by then, had safely arrived in their old royal provinces. To show support for Alexander, Kallisthenes had colorfully invented a number of (adult) sons and brothers for Darius and previous Great Kings, who, if still alive and well, would have been fighting over the empire among themselves--not cheerleading and spying for the enemy.
Alexander took his forces off the royal road and headed north to Hyrcania on the shores of Caspian Sea (called the Sea of Varkana, meaning wolves) for some quality fighting with the natives while debating and discussing options for the future, when Artabazus, some of his sons and the Hellene mercenaries appeared out of nowhere and asked for quarter. The only living royal son and heir to the Persian Crown (Tirshata, Son of Darius, about 8 or 9 years old) with Achaemenid blood was a Macedonian hostage in Susa, and the childless Alexander, stepping into the role of Darius, could still have made the boy his heir to win over the Persian elite. But the old Artabazus still hoped that Alexander would marry his half-Hellene daughter Barsine and father a son as his heir to the crown of the conquered lands. Alexander was sorely in need of able administrators to run the empire, and as the grandfather of the crown prince, Artabazus could have regained old prestige, gained power, and secured the future of his clan. He might have even ordered Barsine brought there from Susa (with the blessing of Parmenion desperate for a dynastic heir) to rekindle the old affair between the two.
But what rekindled Alexander's love on the land of wolves was the news that without Darius in the picture and with the trappings of the Persian kingship in his grasp, Bessus had promoted himself (from the substitute king) to the next Great King with the throne name of Artaxerxes V. To the dismay of men who considered the death of Darius the end of the line and wanted to pack up and go home, it was now as the heir, successor, and avenger of Darius that Alexander reinvented his quest for the Persian Empire.
The "road to and from Oxiana" was a well-known part of an ancient caravan road since 4th millennium BCE (later Great Khorasan Road, called the Silk Road by the Europeans later) from Badakhshan (ancient name unknown, now in northeastern Afghanistan and Tajikistan) bringing the coveted lapis lazuli from Bactria to Rhagai and from there up the mountains to Ecbatana, across the highlands to Anshan, down the mountains to Susa, and across the river to Babylon. But instead of taking that road straight to Bactria, Alexander, for some unknown reason, headed south skirting the desert, crossing Areia (Harriwa), Drangiana (Zranka), and (maybe) Arachosia (Harahuvatish), and through treacherous Hindu Kush Mountain passes to Bactria. The official reason given later was to pursue and punish the lesser accomplices of Bessus first. And so it was, since a handful of satraps were caught and killed along the way.
Someone said, Alexander was like a hunter circling his prey. He was, but that prey was not the beleaguered Persian satraps trying to mount a grassroots resistance against foreign invasion. Also dead was Nikanor, second son of Parmenion and commander of the elite guards, who had gotten sick and had died somewhere before reaching Drangiana (probably in Areia). Alexander seized the opportunity and Philotas, the eldest son of Parmenion and commander of the companion cavalry (sort of second-in-command of the army), was accused of conspiracy and thrown to the archaic Macedonian assembly for judgment, while a couple of loyal companions were swiftly dispatched to Ecbatana to see to Parmenion. Son and father were killed within days of each other, one stoned, then other stabbed and beheaded. Childhood friends and loyalists closed ranks around Alexander and an entire opposition faction (the last link to Philip--save Antipatros and company back in Macedon) was wiped out almost overnight.
The mission impossible had proven deceptively simple until the spring of 329 BCE--save a deadly long trek through (Khawak) eastern pass to Bactria, before it had fully cleared of deep snow, when the food ran out and the Macedonians had to eat their own pack animals raw. Lucky for them, Bessus and the Bactrian cavalry were waiting for them on the western (Shibar) pass. Somewhere along the way, there was a wholesale massacre of the poor Branchidae too--descendants of the Hellenes tossed there long ago by Xerxes.
Bessus had done his best to rally the Bactrian and Sogdian warlords to help him repel the Macedonians, with little luck and without backing from clergy. Locals had done well under the Achaemenids, but in the chaotic aftermath of the western wars and suspicious death of Darius, everyone had a wait-and-see attitude. In desperation, Bessus started burning crops (scorched-earth policy) to stop and starve the Macedonians. Instead, the (mostly) Mazdaean warlords finally got mad and captured and delivered him to Alexander, hoping they would all go away and leave them alone with their fires, faith, families, feuds, farms, flocks, and yes, dogs.
Alexander made a big show of punishing Bessus. He was bound and lashed and tortured naked (on the rack), mutilated (face), and finally strapped between two bent trees and ripped to pieces when the trees sprang straight in full view of the local warlords and tribal chiefs, summoned for the bloody occasion. The ill-omened prince had lived longer than a substitute king (100 days), but had reigned shorter than a year as a Great King (Artaxerxes V), so the Babylonian scribes erased his name from the traditional King-List and re-dated the royal administrative documents.
With all the contenders to the Persian throne now dead or kept under the lock and key, Alexander rewarded Artabazus with the satrapy of Bactria and passed again on marrying his eldest daughter--not what the old man had in mind.
That should have been the third act of Alexander's Aristotelian play Occupy Persia-except that it wasn't.
Summer of 329 BCE was hauntingly quiet. The spectacular public execution of Bessus had not only polluted the land with his blood and dead flesh, it had proven him right (posthumously) that the invaders were the army of the Dark Lord (Angra Mainyu in Avestan, literally meaning: Evil Spirit)--absolute opposite of Spenta Mainyu, the Good Spirit.
Until then, locals had mostly observed and avoided a military confrontation with the invaders. As if someone had said, "Stay as you are and there shall be peace between us. Move this way or that way and there will be war."
Alexander moved and hell broke loose across Bactria. It is what we now call "insurgency."
The fuse that ignited the all-out war might have been lit over banning of what the horrified Macedonians called "devourer dogs"--the dogs that devoured the dead. To Mazdaeans, death was the great equalizer. King or commoner made no difference. It started the journey of the departed soul through the Bridge of Chinvat-Bridge of Judgment--and from there to heaven (House of Song) or hell (House of Lies). The body was ritually washed and covered with white sheets of cloth and moved to open-air dakhma (Tower of Silence) within a day. The sheets were then carefully removed and the body was left on a stone platform to be consumed by the birds of prey and dogs. The bones, picked clean, were then purified again and deposited in the pits-called astodan, the place of bones--in the base of the towers. In the eyes of the Hellenes and Macedonians, it meant the unburied dead, left to be devoured by dogs, were tormented ghosts.
For 2 endless years, it was a hellish war with no borders and no winners. Macedonians had finally met their match. For every action now, there was a reaction. The massive Macedonian army was divided into small and smaller units, going city to city, village to village, house to house, and door to door, killing everyone to stamp out the resistance. There were no civilians. If there weren't Persians gunning for them, there were Bactrians, if there weren't Bactrians, there were Sogdians, if there weren't Sogdians, there were Scythians. And they kept coming. And if the Macedonians weren't fighting men, they were fighting the Mother Nature. Winters were long and freezing and summers were short and boiling, and they were eating or starving, fit or sick, marching or dying, or worst of all, left behind and abandoned in Alexandria-this and Alexandria-that in the middle of nowhere. There was no end to their misery.
(Coming next: Alexander and the Last Royal Daughter.)
JE comments: A. J. Cave calls the third installment of her Alexander Saga the "Superbowl Edition." This wonderful narrative will make a perfect halftime break from a long and likely tedious game. Kickoff is in five minutes.
How many of you knew that a talent was so big and heavy?
Alexander, Part IV: The Last Royal Daughter
(A. J. Cave, USA
02/14/16 10:49 AM)
Isn't love a many-splendored thing? A golden crown that makes a king a man?
"...high on a windy hill, in the morning mist, two lovers met, and the world stood still."
And that's how, supposedly, the world's most eligible bachelor of the 4th century BCE met the least likely bride-to-be. During the siege of the Sogdian Rock (also called the Rock of Sisimithres, after the owner) in the late winter of 328 (or early spring of 327) BCE, she literally fell out of sky into his hands.
Alexander had successfully avoided the marriage trap after the disastrous attempt to subvert his father and beat his dim-witted half-brother Arrhidaios in marrying the eldest daughter of the Carian dynast Pixodaros, when he was 17. He was now 28 years old and no closer to begetting a legitimate heir. No wonder Macedonian high command was visibly getting nervous over the uncertainty of dynastic succession--all that bloodshed could come to nothing.
Macedonian military monarchy revolved around the person of the king, and historically royal houses had fallen apart without a viable crown prince. Philip (II) himself was the 3rd son of Amyntas (III) and had grabbed the throne from his young nephew when he was his regent. And Alexander had come to the throne of his father under the suspicious cloud of patricide and regicide, and his mother Olympias had literally roasted Philip's infant daughter in the arms of his 7th and last wife Cleopatra Eurydice, to eliminate a hated rival. If, as they say, "Heaven has no rage like love to hatred turned, nor hell a fury like a woman scorned," Olympias was its spokeswoman. She was not the sort of mother-in-law any king would have wished upon his blushing queen.
From the ashes of Bessus (Artaxerxes V), the cunning and daring Sogdian warlord Spitamenes had been keeping Alexander and his army busy in a bloody game of cat and mouse since the autumn of 329 BCE--we now call that guerilla warfare. While Bessus was a royal son of the house (Persian prince) assigned to the satrapy (royal province) of Bactria by the late Great King Darius (III), Spitamenes was local born and bred and knew every inch of the land like the back of his hand. His name in Avestan, Spitamaneh, indicated that he was not just a Mazdaean, he was a Zoroastrian, since his name was the epithet of the Prophet Zoroaster (Zarathushtra in Avestan).
In Spitamenes, Alexander finally had a worthy opponent he had been itching to fight for years. He finally had the sort of royal army he had always wanted too--not only totally dependent on him, but utterly lost without him. Taking the long roundabout way to Bactria, instead of following the blue brick road, had done its trick, and the rank-and-file soldiers had no idea where on (flat) earth they were and how to get back home to their kith and kin, should anything happen to Alexander--their ticket home.
To fight Spitamenes and his highly fluid army and alliances, Alexander and his men were literally going house to house, door to door, cave to cave, and rock to rock. The imperial Persians had a high tolerance for local autonomy (gaps in governance) as long as the region was peaceful and taxes were paid regularly to the royal treasury, but Alexander was cut from a different cloth and to him, every man, woman, and child had to be yoked into submission.
Maybe rock climbing was just more thrilling than sitting on a throne and attending to the humdrum business of running a working empire and letting the dust of conquest settle. The rural uplands of Macedon were too far from the great cities of the Persian Empire to develop a sophisticated royal administration and a core of boring bureaucrats necessary to run it. Those rocks were massive fortresses on top of high mountain ridges that were inaccessible--save to locals and mountain goats. And Alexander had started to make sports of capturing and razing every one of them, even after Spitamenes had been betrayed and beheaded by his Scythian allies. Apama (Abbamush in Persian), the daughter of Spitamenes, was to later become the honored wife of Seleukos (Seleucus), one of Alexander's capable (or surviving) generals who later carved out the Seleucid kingdom from the remains of the Persian Empire.
Sogdian Rock (or Fortress of Sisimithres, or Rock of Chorienes) was another one of those fortresses (probably somewhere in northern Bactrian-Sogdian border, now probably in Uzbekistan) that local warlords and tribal chiefs had sent their women and children to keep them out of the hands of the godless invaders. One of those warlords was Oxyartes, who had stashed his wife and daughters on the Rock along with at least 2 years of provisions--a sign that Bactrian and Sogdian fighters across the Persian royal provinces were hunkering down for a long and nasty war with the intruders.
In response to the Macedonian demand to surrender unconditionally (with the help of local heralds), the rock-dwellers had said something like "go, grow wings," or "when pigs fly." And the customary 300 volunteers had been rounded and sent up the sheer rock and save 30 who had fallen to their deaths, the rest had made it to the icy overhang above the rock.
At the news, Oxyartes and other warlords rushed over and surprisingly negotiated a bloodless surrender in exchange for the fortress and food. And down came the flood of women and children, among them, one of the daughters of Oxyartes, the barely 16 year-old Roxana, who caught the eyes of the 28 year-old Alexander.
In one of the last official press releases Callisthenes wrote before he fell out of favor couple of months later, he must have described a lavish feast complete with local entertainment--a tribal dance by 30 virgins-sort of house-warming present for the new owners of the rock, where Alexander had picked Roxana from the lineup, had cut a loaf of bread with his sword, and the couple were now ceremoniously man and wife. It sounded like young love at first sight followed by marriage on the rocks, but the marriage-alliance probably took a while to negotiate. Her bride-price (what Alexander agreed to) was general quarters for the Bactrian soldiers (including surviving males members of her own family) and assumption of responsibility for about 30,000 local boys--a mix of war orphans and hostages for the good behavior of their fathers. Her dowry was the fragile peace that her side agreed to, at least until Alexander and his army left the area, guaranteed by 10,000 Foot and 3,500 Horse-13,500 Macedonians and Hellenes mercenaries left in Bactra (capital of Bactria).
Olympias, the Molossian fire-breathing, snake-worshiping queen-mother must have been thrilled at the news that the son she had spilled blood for, had married a barbarian belly-dancer on the farthest edges of the flat world.
After Stateira, the late royal wife of Darius whom Alexander had buried somewhere before the battle at Gaugamela, Roxana was named the winner of the Alexandrian beauty pageant. Unlike his classical headshots, Alexander himself was short and stout--about a head shorter than his officers--with a mass of dirty blonde hair, skin that turned red in sun, and mismatched eyes-one light blue, the other dark brown (now called heterochromia iridum or iridis). The dreamy tilt of his head (to left) was thanks to injuries from stones that had damaged the nerves of his neck, and his body was dotted with marks of honor wounds by just about any weapon used on the battlefield. But when it came to Roxana, some ancient historians were smitten by her beauty--romantically captured in a wedding portrait painted by the contemporary Athenian Aetion and exhibited at the Olympic Games and seen centuries later by the 2nd century Roman writer Lucian (contemporary of Arrian) that inspired Italian Renaissance painters Giovanni Antonio Bazzi and Sandro Botticelli--and called the marriage a love match. Others called it a bribe to bind the warring factions together. So, was it passion or politics?
Before getting to dancing with the (little) stars, who was this Oxyartes and what did he have to offer Alexander to negotiate, where all other fortresses had been captured and razed and rockers crucified?
Bactria was not just breaking Alexander; it was driving his historians to drink. It was driving everyone to drink. Macedonians had always been heavy drinkers, but back home, their wine was watered. In Persia, they drank wine like the Persians--pure--and in one of those binge drinking frat parties, Alexander had skewered Cleitus the Black (Kleitos Melas) for drunken ranting and raving. He was apparently not happy with his recent promotion as the new satrap of Bactria and Sogdiana, replacing old Artabazus--who would have faked his own death to get out of there alive.
Sources were right to be baffled and confused by Roxana. She was one piece of Alexander's puzzle that couldn't just be explained, excused, and spinned away. Why her? Why there? Why then?
Alexander didn't probably fancy a Macedonian bride, since he wasn't interested in sleeping with any of the snake-worshipping disciples of his mother or promoting any of his men to be his father-in-law and potential regent for his (not-yet born) son. But he had his pick of political brides from the daughters of who's who in his new empire--actually he could have had them all to strengthen his ties to them. The beautiful (and impossibly tall) royal daughters of Darius were being groomed in Greek back in Susa, and Bagoas, a savvy young eunuch of Darius, was now his. And there was his childhood friend and lover, Hephaistion (Hephaestion), at his side as always. Fighting in eastern provinces had sure been fierce, but there is no reason to believe that Alexander had any reservations about wiping out the entire region, no matter how long it took. He wouldn't have married a Bactrian dancing girl (no matter how pretty) against his own nature just to end bloody warfare, and if he did, he would have left her by the roadside (like Barsine), once she had served her purpose.
There is very little about Roxana in the historical accounts. She not only survived Alexander and produced a royal son and heir at the eleventh hour (Alexander IV), she was always protected by the inner circle of Alexander. There were court rumors that she conspired with Perdiccas (Perdikkas, son of Orontes and possibly a member of Argead royal house), the Macedonian general who had grabbed Alexander's signet ring on his death bed, to eliminate the royal daughter(s) of Darius (III) and possibly Artaxerses (III) who had married Alexander at the opulent Susa weddings. She was even protected by Antipatros and Olympias on Macedonian soil, when the rest were dead and dying.
Pieces of the famous love birds fall into place with a spoon full of sugar and a twist of romance--more fiction than fact--what could have been and probably was, but impossible to prove or disprove.
Hellenic writers, dating back to Herodotus, were obsessive about genealogy. When they didn't know the real bloodlines, they invented them. But there is strangely nothing about the family of Bessus, other than he himself was related to Darius--possibly a cousin. When Persians and Macedonians eliminated a political threat, they routinely eliminated all the male members of their families who could have taken up a blood feud against the crown. Classical sources would have relished in the (factual or fictional) details of elimination of family of Bessus by Alexander, but there is nothing. Bessus surely had a large family like the rest of the Persians, so what happened to them?
Oxyartes, a minor Bactrian warlord (possibly confused at time by Oxyathres, as brother of Darius), had been closely connected with Bessus, Spitamenes, and other resistance fighters, and the last man to expect quarter from Alexander. So, what was the winning card he was holding?
The clues were in the nature of the imperial Achaemenid structure and the character of Alexander himself. Roxana (or Rhoxana), Greek for Rauxshana (pronounced rokh-shaana, probably the root of modern Roshanak, meaning luminous, or small light) was the name of other known Persian royal women. The name of her father, Oxyartes (Uxshiyarta), and her brother, Itanes (or Istanes) (Persian Utana or Wistana), were also Persian (not Bactrian or Sogdian) names. Names by themselves were not an irrefutable mark of identity. Parents did give Persian names to their children, just as Persians named their children by Babylonian (and other ethnic regional) names. Here, based on circumstantial evidence, Bessus and Oxyartes could have been related by blood or by marriage. Bessus could have taken a Bactrian wife who had tied the two clans. With Bessus dead, the care of his family might have fallen to Oxyartes--among them, a young daughter, named Roxana, making her the last royal daughter of Artaxerxes (V), or Bessus.
Without acknowledging Bessus as the (last) heir to Darius, the unique position of Roxana was well understood at the time within the complex and elaborate Achaemenid imperial court which Alexander had continued to maintain. As a "Great King," he almost had to marry the daughter of the last Achaemenid King, just as all the previous Great Kings, starting with Darius the Great, had married and absorbed all the royal women of previous kings into their royal households. Oxyartes was perfect as the nominal father-in-law. He was given the command over a mountainous satrapy and left behind.
In a little over a month after marrying Roxana, with all the royal women of the Great Kings now in his grasp, Alexander ventured to consolidate his fragmented court (Macedonian and Persian) into one and implement sophisticated Persian royal court protocols in his new court--among them the Persian court custom of paying respect to the Great King--called proskynesis in Greek. It was simply bowing slightly, blowing a kiss by the tips of the fingers and holding them in front of the mouth while speaking to the Great King. Like the Hellenes and Spartans before them, the Macedonians didn't like this polite gesture--among them Callisthenes, the court press secretary. What Alexander's men didn't like and his historians called "Orientalizing" or going native, was simply stretching into his new role as (the heir to) the Great King. He would have worn the Persian upright crown, if he could have held his head straight, so instead he wore a diadem--a thin ribbon around his forehead. And Roxana was seen as a part and parcel of that "Persianization" of Alexander. Callisthenes was summarily sacked and hanged (or caged until he died of disease) for displeasing the king on charges of conspiring with the royal pages (elite Macedonian boys) to kill Alexander.
In the medieval Persian poetic traditions, the fictional Dara (as historical Darius) had become the last Achaemenid (thanks to classical sources) and the fictional Roshanak (as historical Rauxshana) had married the fictional Eskandar (as historical Alexander) and long-lost younger brother of Dara, making for a smooth transition of power within the same royal house. Instead of Roshanak, it was not difficult to use the fictional Setareh (as historical Stateira), the real daughter of Darius, if her memory had survived in ancient texts. Setareh (meaning star in modern Persian), might have been the root of the biblical Esther--the Judaean girl who had presumably married Xerxes.
Even Marco Polo, the famous Venetian world traveler and trader of the Middle Ages, crossing Bactria on the Silk Road on his way to China, recorded in his il Milione, The Travels of Marco Polo--published in 1298--that according to the Bactrians, Alexander the Great married the daughter of the Persian King Darius in Bactria.
Kings, ancient or modern, who marry for love are a rarity in any culture.
Alexander's curse or good fortune was that he fell in love with Roxana, the last Achaemenid Royal Daughter--a love that was returned in kind.
[Coming next and last: Alexander and the Great Jade Emperor.]
JE comments: A. J. Cave has sent the perfect present for Valentines Day! Enjoy.
So Alexander was short, lobster-toned, and had a crooked head? A. J.--you're destroying our mental image! My vision of Alexander looks rather like Colin Farrell.
Alexander, Part V: The Great Jade Emperor
(A. J. Cave, USA
02/21/16 12:48 PM)
And how does the son of a god die?
Babylonian star-watchers didn't care much about how the Lord of Asia was going to die. They didn't care much about where he was going to die either, as long as it wasn't in Babylon--even though it had already been foretold by the heavenly bodies. When the barbaric king had entered the holy city through the northerly Gate of Ishtar nearly eight years before, they had given him the old red carpet treatment [typical Babylonian royal entry] by the order of the Persian satrap. They had strewn the path with flower petals and had burned precious Arabian incense in silver altars along the processional way. The old Kidinnu, the master star-watcher the king had taken along with him on his way to grab the rest of the Persian Empire, had told the young king how to appease the great gods, and instead of gold and gratitude, the king had shown him the blade of a sword for not recanting his words.
Now the Persians and pageantry were all gone, and instead of a welcoming party, the road to Babylon was blocked by a small army of gloomy Chaldeans in white robes, trying to prevent Alexander from entering the old city, with a few dead black crows scattered around the plains for special effects.
The watchers warned the king that he shouldn't enter the city through the eastern gate [Bel/Marduk or Zababa gates] facing the setting sun. And that the lands around the western gates [Adad and King's Gate] facing the rising sun were covered with flood waters and muddy marshes and unpassable that time of the year. [It is a mystery why no one talked about a royal entry through the ceremonial Ishtar Gate in the north.] They told him there was going to be an eclipse of the sun on the day 29 of the month and that meant the king would die within a year. They told him Nergal, god of the Netherworld, was sitting on his shoulders.
But there were no other royal cities that suited Alexander. The pregnant Roxana was already on her way from the royal city of Ecbatana with the main royal army under Perdikkas, carrying the casket of Hephaestion. Egypt was half a world away. Susa was hotter than hell with two hostile royal wives who had learned Greek just to curse him in his own tongue for killing their kinsmen. Persepolis was burned, and Ecbatana--well, he was never ever going to go back to Ecbatana where the vengeful shade of Parmenion had stolen the breath of his Hephaestion. Babylon had eight giant gates. So, after trying the western gates first, the king and his entourage had circled back and had made their way in through the eastern gates to the dismay of the Babylonian star-watchers (astronomers). By then, Alexander was not a king; he was [and remains] an industry, complete with thousands of singing and dancing minions who had come from all over Greece to make their fame and fortunes from flattering Alexander. Someone said, "Your father, Zeus-Ammon, will shield you from any evil within the walls of these doom-worshipers." And that was that.
A substitute king to take the evil upon himself was marked by the reluctant temple priests (called erib-bet-ili, meaning: temple enterers, a separate group from tupshar enuma anu enlil, meaning: scribes of the celestial omens, or the star-watchers), but he was killed after wearing the royal diadem and sitting on the throne for only a day, by the order of the king (instead of waiting for the traditional 100 days). The eclipse of the sun came and went as forecasted. Alexander entered, exited and reentered Babylon and wasn't stricken by lighting, so he thought he had cheated death just as he had cheated the Gordian knot. He had survived the fearsome Bactrian, Sogdian and Scythian resistant fighters, Macedonian conspirators, disloyal satraps, deadly war elephants in India (Indus Valley), the arrow with the jagged head [that had pierced his lung in the town of Malava (now Multan in Pakistan)], the fatal trek through the Desert of Death (Gedrosian, now Baluchistan), and the deadlier mass weddings at Susa.
But the Lord of Asia didn't know much about Asia. When Hephaetion had died in Ecbatana a few months earlier, the grief-stricken Alexander had ordered all the royal fires at Mazdaean fire altars to be extinguished as a mark of honor. Smothering those fires was signaling the death of the reigning king, and the Mazdaean priests still smarting from the burning of Persepolis had gleefully obliged. And now Alexander had pulled down a part of the outer walls of Babylon for a massive funeral pyre for Hephaestion and was contemplating building a memorial for him right in the middle of the city next to the half-ruins of the holy temple of e-sag-ila (Esagil). Moreover, he had threatened the Babylonian priesthood that if they didn't release the sacred land for the temple of a divine hero (Hephaestion, according to those Egyptian priests at Siwah), he would put all of them to the sword. The only man who could have told Alexander that he had completely gone mad and still kept his head was Hephaestian himself.
To bend the powerful Babylonian priesthood to his will, Alexander did what he had always done to the prickly Macedonian army with amazing success--he made himself inaccessible and flatly refused to attend the Babylonian spring festival of the New Year (Akitu Festival) and other duties expected of a pious king of the lands (Babylon).
Worldly priests, however, were not ignorant soldiers. Their kind had dealt with all sorts of kings going back to the time before the great flood. When all the begging and pleading fell on deaf royal ears, the priests of Bel [Marduk, chief god of Babylon] hurled powerful curses at the Lord of Asia for intending to desecrate the sacred temple grounds of the great gods. They called him "Bel la ilim", meaning: a man without [god] Bel. The old Kidinnu had warned the temple priests that when the young king returned to Babylon, they had to choose between the wrath of the great gods and the wrath of the conquering king. It was the price of betraying the King of the Lands (Darius) and surrendering Babylon without a battle. He had told them Babylon would fall and fade from being the center of the world, and they had laughed at him. Their dismal, half-hearted attempt at the ancient substitute king ritual was more to save Babylon from the brutal foreign army who killed at the drop of a [Macedonian] hat, than to save the king himself.
The Mazdaean priests had cursed the king after the burning of Persepolis and raping and killing of their flocks, and the Babylonian priests now cursed him for desecrating the sacred Esagila temple grounds.
The fever that had started like a flickering candle, had turned into a towering inferno, as Persepolis was consumed by fire, Alexander was being devoured by fever. It was not the wine that was killing him, it was the waters of Babylon, filled with spits of the great gods and tears of the temple priests, to give him a dying disease. And those priests flatly refused to pray for the sick king in light of his sins against the great gods. When the weary Macedonian high command finally gave ground and asked the priests, if they should bring the feverish king to the temple to be healed, they had told the commanders to leave him where he was. Let that Zeus-Ammon care for his dying son. Unlike the Hellenes and Macedonians, the Babylonians had no regards for the hartibu (Egyptian priests) who crawled into the belly of the shifting sands to seek answers that only heavenly bodies were meant to reveal to mortal men. They called the Oracle of Ammon at Siwah a golden tub that clicked and clacked like a dancing girl.
Whether Alexander himself believed in his own immortality and invincibility, this was not the first time he had been that sick. For ten years, he had endured over twenty battle wounds and sicknesses that would have killed a mere mortal many times over. But just in case, while he could still manage to force a few words out of his lips, he had told Perdikkas (chiliarchos and de facto second-in-command after the death of Hephaestion) to stay close and take his signet ring, should he fall into a death-sleep in a broken body that no longer obeyed his royal commands. Perdikkas was the only man among the seven bodyguards (Somatophylakes) and companions Alexander trusted to protect Roxana and his unborn child (due in a month or so), come hell or high water.
Some say, Alexander deserved a warrior's death--flaming out in a blaze of glory on a battlefield somewhere, or vanishing into a brilliant sunset riding his favorite horse, Boukephalos. Others say, "When the days of a king are numbered and counted, it does not matter to the great gods if he dies in battle or in bed."
So died Alexander, son of Philip. His flanks--both right and left--were finally turned by Hades, the Unseen One, and the center had fallen too. He had a collection of royal titles: King of Macedon, Mery-amun Setep-en-re (Beloved of Amun, Chosen by Re/Ra), and Lord of Asia--or simply, Basileos Alexandros. The one royal title that eluded him was the Persian title of the King of Kings and the Great King--Xshayathiya vazarka, or simply Khashayatiya. He couldn't have pronounced it anyway.
A goodly amount of ink has been spilled on when and how he died. But no one really knows.
One of the scribes of the astronomical diaries (clay fragments now at the British Museum) consolidated all the daily and nightly observations for the 2nd month in the Babylonian calendar (April/May):
year [...unreadable, probably 8] of a-lek-sa-an-dar, month 2, ayyaru
Day 29: The king died. Clouds [were in the sky].
That fateful day was the last calendar entry followed by some commodity prices and celestial observations. Starting with day 21, every night (and probably day) had been cloudy, making reading the skies (will of the great gods) nearly impossible. That day has now been calculated as 11 June 323 BCE. Some Alexander historians insist on 10 June. Others use 13 June. A Babylonian "day," however, was sundown to sundown, so that 11 June was half and half--from sundown on 10 June to sundown on 11 June.
The dying Alexander had been surrounded by his beleaguered bodyguards and a number of his companions during his last days. Sorting out the dynastic succession while keeping the Macedonian army from going crazy again and killing everything in sight were the top-of-the-mind concerns of the high command, so the Babylonian scribes who were responsible for court records must have found out the news of king's death from palace eunuchs (probably via Chare the chamberlain). Their terse entry means that they had heard the news between the early morning hours up to sundown--before the start of a "new" day in Babylon.
Alexander could have died before the midnight (10 June) with the scribes recording the day of death when they heard about it (11 June). Either way, it was about a month short of his 33rd birthday.
When the Macedonian high command had returned to the death chamber days later, Alexander's body was still warm (unusual even in the unbearable heat of Babylon), which means he could have still been barely alive, but in deep coma. So, in reality, the time of his actual death is lost.
As to the cause of death, if there was any foul play (other than the curses by the temple priests), nothing was known by the Babylonian scribes. They would have mentioned something, if poisoning was suspected at the time--meaning the rumors were more than likely fabricated later for political reasons. According to the now vanished Royal Journals (Ephemerides) that was kept by Eumenes, the royal secretary, the fever had started on Day 17 of the Macedonian month Daisios and had ebbed and flowed for eleven days, without mentioning anything suspicious either.
When Alexander was looking at the blood-soaked body of Darius, he didn't know how their fates mirrored each other's. They had both come to power in the same year (336 BCE) under a cloud--Alexander under the cloud of suspicion for patricide and regicide, Darius from a secondary line of Achaemenids, when the rest had died or killed each other in dynastic disputes. The pomp of Susa mass weddings and the opulent lineup of Persian brides and Macedonian grooms (spring 324 BCE) had obscured the death decree of the royal son and heir of Darius (around 13 or 14 years old by then), who had been a hostage at Susa since the battle at Issus. The Peace of Dynasts (in 311 BCE) signed by a handful of Alexander's men, some present at his deathbed (Lysimacus, Ptolemy and Seleucus), was the death decree of his own royal son and heir (around 12 or 13 at the time of death). The body of Darius had disappeared after his wretched death, supposedly on the way to Persepolis. The body of Alexander, contrary to historical accounts, could not have been properly mummified--the only embalmers who could have mummified the royal body (removing the internal organs, cracking the skull and sucking out the brain through the nose, and drying out the body on a bed of natron salt for 40 to 70 days and then wrapping it a million times with linen) were in Egypt and by the time they could have reached Babylon, the body would have been too decomposed for mummification.
Instead, it was probably originally placed in a golden coffin, covered with a customary layer of wax and then preserved in honey. It was hijacked two years later on the way to be buried in the ancestral Argead burial grounds in Aigae (Aegae, now Vergina) by Ptolemy under the pretense that Alexander wanted to be buried in the Oasis of Siwah, and was first deposited in Memphis, and was eventually put on display in a glass casket for the private viewing of the Hellene-Macedonian and Roman tourists in the royal mausoleum (called Sema or Soma) in Alexandria. It eventually disappeared in the 2nd or 3rd century CE--but later sightings were reported. Most of the Hellenistic Alexandria in now under water, including the royal mausoleum. But that hasn't stopped the enterprising tomb-hunters to find the famed tomb at least once a year in various spots around the world.
Regardless of when and how, death was not the end of Alexandrian (hi)story. But it was the end of the road for many with a casual interest in history of that period. Compared to the glorious accounts of the perfect domino fall of the Persian Empire at the hands of a twenty-something western wonder magician and tactician, the messy and murderous post-Alexandrian period that was later enthusiastically called "Hellenistic" by the 19th century German historian Johann Gustav Droysen (as the precursor to the wave of Christianity that swept Europe later) was exactly that: messy and murderous--even more so than the popular Game of Thrones--save the dragons, unless the founding fathers of Hellenistic kingdoms count.
When the curtain was coming down on the illustrious career of Alexander, it was going up on the ambitious careers of the men around him. When they finally pulled out of Alexander's shadow, they were extraordinary in their ordinariness. Most of them died within a few years in dynastic squabbles, siding with various members of the Argead royal family and paying the price with their lives. No combination of royals and generals was powerful enough to rise above the rest.
What was eventually forgotten under the dust of history in the famous phrase "to the glory that was Greece, and the grandeur that was Rome," in Edgar Allan Poe's poem "To Helen" (1845), was the peace that was [Achaemenid] Persia--sort of an (imperfect) Pax Persica or Pax Persiana.
The empire that the Achaemenid Great Kings had forged and held for 220 years, and Alexander had conquered in 10 years, was broken and destroyed in never-ending wars between the Diadochi (Diadokhoi, Successors of Alexander) and the Hellenistic kingdoms that came to a fragile balance of power in roughly 50 years--the longest and toughest funeral games ever. Their claim to legitimate rule (even in Macedon) was solely based on military muscle, and their baked-in hostilities came to set the pattern of fighting in western Asia. Imperial Romans were just too happy to pull those petty warring Hellenistic kingdoms under their servitude and call it peace.
There is a lot that can be said about Alexander and the impact of the Macedonian conquest.
It was a decade that changed the world. It is now fashionable to evaluate Alexander with the politically correct scales of the 21st century. But whether what Alexander did was for better or for worse, can't be tweeted in 140 characters or less. First, it is very complicated, and second, it is not the task of writers (like me) to pass moral judgment on the subjects of their interest. That is best left to moralists. But the question can be unpacked on the historical side based on surviving evidence.
There is finally some interest among Classicists and Alexandrian scholars to tackle the mostly ignored post-Alexandrian power struggles and Hellenistic kingdoms and season their classical cheerleading with a pinch of archival and archaeological data. Arrian himself wrote a 10-volume account of the first four years after Alexander's death (now vanished). By his time, all those Macedonian kingdoms that had inherited Alexander's gold and had divided his glory among themselves were long parts of the Roman Empire, and in case of Egypt, mostly the private property of the Roman emperors.
Lagids (or Ptolemies) and Seleucids made Greek the primary language of their administrations, which eventually made Greek the lingua franca (common language) of their kingdoms. Among the two, Ptolemies are the best known and equally the most bizarre. They successfully divided Egypt between a handful of Hellenistic cities (polis) as the playgrounds of the Mediterranean's ruling elite, and the rest for the lowly second-class natives. The silver lining was the love of arts and letters that flourished under their royal patronage. The famous Library of Alexandria collected remarkable scholars and precious manuscripts; the Hebrew Bible was translated to Greek (Septuagint); and the "Decree of Priests of Memphis," dated to 196 BCE, became the famous key [as in the Rosetta Stone] to deciphering Egyptian hieroglyphs in 1822 by the brilliant Frenchman Jean-Francois Champollion--father of modern Egyptology. Next to Alexandria, the best known Egyptian temples at Dendera, Edfu and Philae, were building projects of Ptolemies, as well as Pharos (colossal lighthouse) now vanished--counted as one of the seven wonders of the ancient world. But Ptolemies are now mostly famous for the last of them--Cleopatra VII , immortalized by Elizabeth Taylor, the most beautiful actress of the 20th century, in the epic movie Cleopatra (20th Century Fox, 1963). One of her Horus names was weret-tut-en-it-es, meaning: the great one, sacred image of her father, and that she was-a chip off the old Ptolemy block. Product of generations of pharaonic brother-sister marriages, she was probably olive-skinned, smallish with bulging eyes, a hooked nose, a strong chin, and a thick neck (as in her minted coin). She was the very first Ptolemy to learn Egyptian (and a few other languages) and was educated, charming, witty and wise. She was also mostly unknown in Egyptian records, and her fame is thanks to the classical biographer Plutarch.
There is always a cost to conquest, and that cost is measured in human life. Everyone pays to play. There are no freebies. Before the narrative history, there is plenty of evidence in ancient archives (in various ancient languages, some now successfully deciphered) and biblical accounts that there was hardly ever a bloodless conquest anywhere in Asia--no matter how we break down the pieces. Before the invention of writing, we can find archaeological footprints.
In the ground-breaking TV documentary for BBC, In the Footsteps of Alexander the Great: A Journey from Greece to Asia (1997) and its companion book, the British journalist Michael Wood, with a camera in one hand and stacks of classical books in the other, traced the most likely path Alexander had taken trekking through Asia and visited the places that were on his path--save some of the places like Babylon that couldn't be visited safely at the time of the brutal Iraqi president Saddam Hussein. Actually walking in the footsteps of Alexander perfectly showed that he didn't really go anywhere the Persians hadn't gone before. If he had just gone a little further than Alexandria-the-farthermost (eschate), he might have just met the Chinese and the Great Jade Emperor.
Even with better research and bigger budget, something like that documentary can't be attempted now, since some of the same areas in Iraq and Syria are now under the feet of ISIS--the new conquering idiots on the block. So, instead, we can just take a cursory mental survey of what happened to the world Alexander left behind.
In reality "Alexandrian Empire" became his grave-goods. Leaving his conquest to "the strongest" or "the best" was pure Diadochi propaganda, but it was also true. That "best" or "strongest" was Alexander himself [proven by Diadochi], who never considered any man equal to himself or his deeds--although he reportedly admired Cyrus the Great. When Alexander died, he literally took his prized trophy with him.
And whatever happened to all that looted gold and silver? Those, Alexander left to his inner circle, and they gleefully spent almost every bitcoin on armies and wars to kill each other. It generously financed the warring Houses of Lagids, Seleucids, and Antigonids, founded by Ptolemy, Seleucus and Antigonos "one-eyed."
Primary members of Alexander's royal house: mother, sister and half-sisters, half-brother, wives and children (legitimate and illegitimate) were all killed in a little over a decade.
Classical Hellenes turned into legends. Their descendants were deprived of that cherished democracy and freedom of theirs by a string of admiring Macedonians, Romans, Byzantines, and Ottomans until the Treaty of Constantinople in 1832. Their pagan language became the language of Septuagint, philosophy, and the Greek Orthodox Church (Eastern Orthodox Christianity).
So, what happened to the Persians?
If it wasn't for the Hellenes and their obsession with the Persians, this brief narrative sketch might not have been possible at all. So, let the Greeks have the last words here.
The 20th century Greek poet Konstantine Kavaphes (or Constantine Cavafy), born in Alexandria, Egypt, wrote a great poem "Waiting for the Barbarians" (1904, various translations). He was as proud of being Greek, as I am proud of being Persian.
Barbarian (barbaroi) was a Greek word that originally meant those who didn't speak Greek. It eventually came to specifically mean the Persians. So, I have substituted "Persians" for "barbarians" in my abridged adaptation of his poem:
Waiting for the Persians
Greeks: What are we waiting for?
Chorus: The Persians are coming.
Greeks: Why is the king sitting by the gate, wearing his crown?
Chorus: Because the Persians are coming.
Greeks: Why is everyone wearing their fineries?
Chorus: Because the Persians are coming.
Greeks: Why is everyone so worried?
Chorus: Because the Persians haven't come.
Greeks: Why not?
Chorus: Because there are no Persians left.
Greeks: Who are we going to blame for everything now?
Chorus: Who else? The Persians, of course...
And this is a good place to rest.
JE comments: "Waiting for the Barbarians"--a prophecy for every age?
A. J. Cave's five-part Alexander saga will become a WAIS classic. In the not-too-distant future, I'll assemble the installments and post the whole text on the WAIS "publications" page.
- Alexander, Part V: The Great Jade Emperor (A. J. Cave, USA 02/21/16 12:48 PM)
- Alexander, Part IV: The Last Royal Daughter (A. J. Cave, USA 02/14/16 10:49 AM)