Alexandria's founded by Alexander

Alexandria's founded by Alexander the Great (by year BC): 334 Alexandria in Troia (Turkey) - 333 Alexandria at Issus/Alexandrette (Iskenderun, Turkey) - 332 Alexandria of Caria/by the Latmos (Alinda, Turkey) - 331 Alexandria Mygdoniae - 331 Alexandria (Egypt) - 330 Alexandria in Areia (Herat, Afghanistan) - 330 Alexandria of the Prophthasia/in Drangiana/Phrada (Farah, Afghanistan) - 330 Alexandria in Arachosia (Kandahar, Afghanistan) - 330 Alexandria in Caucasus (Begram, Afghanistan) - 329 Alexandria of the Paropanisades (Ghazni, Afghanistan) - 329 Alexandria Eschate or Ultima (Khodjend, Tajikistan) - 329 Alexandria on the Oxus (Ai-Khanoum, Afghanistan) - 329 Alexandria in Margiana (Merv, Turkmenistan) - 326 Alexandria Nicaea (on the Hydaspes, India) - 326 Alexandria Bucephala (on the Hydaspes, India) - 325 Alexandria Sogdia - 325 Alexandria Rambacia (Bela, Pakistan) - 325 Alexandria Oreitide - 325 Alexandria in Opiene (confluence of Indus & Acesines, India) - 325 Alexandria on the Indus - 325 Alexandria Xylinepolis (Patala, India) - 325 Alexandria in Carminia (Gulashkird, Iran) - 324 Alexandria-on-the-Tigris/Antiochia-in-Susiana/Charax (Spasinou Charax on the Tigris, Iraq) - ?Alexandria of Carmahle? (Kahnu)

Saturday, October 27, 2012

Alexander's schooling at Mieza. Visit of the surrounding area

Mieza today is generally called Náousa after the city made famous for its wine and driving through this area, one can easily see why. Náousa lies at the edge of a high plateau offering an impressive overall view of the wineries and orchards spread over the fertile valley between the villages of Lefkada and Kopanos. It is such a pleasant landscape, especially in spring when the fields are generally overgrown with dark red poppies.

My favorite approach is from Pella and Giannitsa, heading south towards Veroia. Close to Lefkadia and Kopanos, there are several old Macedonian tombs, some of which show a particularly good state of preservation. My absolute favorites are the Tomb of the Judgment and the Tomb of the Palmettos. Unfortunately in 2011 because of the economic crisis in Greece, several sites were closed to the public as victims of the system. Back in 2006 however, I was lucky enough to visit them – a true privilege for then the doors were opened for me alone. What an experience!

I drove down a dirt road between the cornfields, crossing the railroad tracks till I saw a pink building on my right with no sign or inscription whatsoever. Yet this was the shelter protecting the Tomb of the Judgment. A local guide produced a big set of keys to open the heavy metal sliding doors and I had to wait a moment for the lights to be turned on. The space was kept at a constant temperature and the cool air gave me the chills. Slowly my eyes got used to the dim light as I stepped down the stairs that ran over the entire width of the building. At first, I thought I was standing in front of a well-preserved temple, slowly realizing this was a true tomb. Its façade is 8.6 meter wide and of equal height, heavily supported by beams to keep it upright. It looks as if there are two floors but that is only an optical illusion. The entrance door is flanked by two times two half Dorian columns, with in between them a fresco of a person. The figure to the left is the deceased himself on his way to Hades and next to him the god Hermes escorting his soul; to the right the seated Aiakos and the standing Rhadamanthys, both judges from Hades – hence the name of the tomb. I had never seen painted figures from so close-by and the profusion of color and delicacy of the brush strokes is absolutely wonderful. The deceased is represented wearing the military uniform of a Macedonian nobleman but without helmet or shield which would indicate that he didn’t die in battle. He is dressed in a short red chiton with sleeves; his bright blue coat with red trimmings is draped around his shoulders and his feet are fitted in sandals of yellow leather. In his hand, he carries the winged emblem by which he is identified. This is a true pleasure for the eye.

My guide also has the keys to the other tomb, the Tomb of the Palmettos further down the road between the vines and cornfields. When the heavy door is unlocked and the lights are on, I’m utterly speechless by what I am discovering! Amazing colors! Huge palmettos! I had no idea that the colors could still be that fresh or that intense after more than two thousand years! Enough to give anyone goose bumps. It is said to be the best-preserved tomb, and I gladly believe it. This façade is only 5.25 meter wide and 6.25 meter high, small compared to the previous tomb, but the striking elements are the palmettes on top of the pediment, one in the middle and one on each corner, folded around it to fit the construction. Each palmetto is at least one meter high and shows a heart of bright red and dark pink among the nearly purple-blue of the leaves which are in strong contrast with the ocher-white and soft pink edges. Wow! What a breathtaking image! The pediment also deserves attention for although the picture of the couple looking at each other over a banquet is not too clear, analysts have discovered that a wide range of colors have been used: dark red, purple, ochre for the shadows, green, grey, blue, pink and combinations of diluted grey and black. No real treasures have been found inside as the tomb has been looted over the centuries, but that doesn’t make it less attractive. 


Back on the main road, I stopped at the Tomb of Kinch, not because it is particularly spectacular, far from it as it has been terribly neglected after its discovery by the Danish architect Kinch at the end of the 19th century. Luckily for us, he made an excellent drawing of the mural that he found on the back wall and until today it is being used as an example of a Macedonian cavalryman attacking a Persian with his spear. The only reason to enter this now empty tomb is to get a feeling of what once was – sadly.

I drive on further south till I hit the sign directing me to Náousa. My destination will be Mieza, located in the foothills at the end of the fertile valley floor. This is the place where, upon the recommendations of King Philip II, Aristotle was installed with his pupils – the most important of them being Alexander, of course. I marvel at the lush growth of all kinds, lavishly enhanced by widespread fields of dark red poppies.

The location of Mieza is simply idyllic alongside the fast running rivulet amidst a profusion of green. A description of this school has survived in manuscripts of Plutarch and Pliny, and one of the striking elements is the stoa. It has been dated from after 350 BC with its Ionic columns arranged in the shape of the Greek letter PI. Roof tiles and terracotta simas from the edge of the stoa have been recovered and are exhibited at the Museum of Veroia, enough to give us some idea of the finishing touch. More problematic, in my eyes, are the natural caves in the walls of the cliffs, which allegedly would have served as lodging for the pupils. Looking at the rough and damp state of these caves, I simply cannot picture Alexander or any of his friends using this space as bedrooms – not the least Aristotle! Even the most austere Spartan would have declined such an accommodation. I would rather label these caves as storerooms or stables, but that is my personal opinion, of course. It is not difficult however to imagine Aristotle strolling along the riverbanks in the coolness of the trees, with his flock of pupils in his wake. What exactly he taught these Macedonian youngsters has not been recorded, but the lessons must have included ethics and politics, geography and rhetoric, philosophy, medicine, treatises about fallacy, animals, friendship, memory, nature, etc. In any case, the best possible baggage for any high level of education at that time and certainly meeting the needs of a king-to-be.

Like everywhere else in Hellas, history and legend are interwoven. Here in Mieza, the story is no different. According to local legends, the mystical king of the area, Veretes, had two daughters and one son. His daughters gave their names to the two most important cities in Emathia, Veroia, and Mieza, and his son, Olganos, had a river named after him since he was transformed into a river god. A beautiful bust of Olganos is welcoming the visitor at the Museum of Veroia, a particularly fine work of art. Maybe his spirit is still keeping a watchful eye over the place…

It is generally admitted that in addition to Mieza, there were villages and farms in this area, maybe looking something like today’s settlements. Driving over these narrow local roads, you cannot miss the many remains of villas, tombs, and even a Hellenistic theater. The scenery is very evocative and inspiring in its quietness and timelessness. A walk among the remains of Mieza’s school is in fact very soothing.


From here on the road turns and switches upwards to the plateau where Náousa has been built. It is a pleasant town with a broad park overlooking the valley I just left flanked by many hotels and restaurants. At the far end, the foaming waters of the Arapitsa tumble down to a depth hidden among trees and shrubs. The sidewalk on the park side of the main street is entirely occupied by inviting seats, including some lazy chairs and couches with cushions where gas heaters break the chill of the day. It is the place to be and the place to be seen. Young people but also parents with children and elderly people apparently have found this cozy corner where they sip their favorite drink, not necessarily the Náousa wine, which by the way is excellent! Useless to say that I spend some time here to recover from all the impressions and to enjoy a stroll through the park with the unforgettable view. Something to cherish.

From here I push on just a little further southward to the city of Veroia to visit the local museum, which is being advertized as being one of the most important archeological museums in Macedonia. After taking my first photograph of the bust of Olganos dating from the 2nd century AD, I am told that no pictures are allowed. Too bad, because it always helps me to remember.

From a cemetery near Veroia they were able to reconstruct a single-chambered rock-cut family tomb from Hellenistic times. Beside a few cinerary urns from the 4th century BC, there are the usual gifts that accompanied the deceased illustrating the evolution of pottery and art from the end of the 5th to the 2nd century BC. Next I see a range of grave steles but also several inscriptions like the one relating the rules at the Gymnasium of Veroia stating the obligations of the youths that practiced there (first half 2nd century BC). I also stop at an inscription which is a letter written by King Demetrius II referring to the Sanctuary of Heracles Kynagidas in February 248 BC – amazing how they managed to pinpoint the date! Another inscription turns out to be a letter sent by Antigonos Doson in 223 BC. And then, of course, there are terracotta tiles and simas from the roof of the Stoa at Mieza. One needs some imagination to put things together, but that is a worthwhile challenge. Further, some jewelry from female burials finds from the Tomb of the Judgment and from the Tomb of Lyson and Kallikles which is not open to the public at any time – such a pity! Since the museum is set up in chronological order, I end up in the Roman period with several grave reliefs, burial offerings and some terracotta figurines dating from the 2nd-3rd century AD.

Back outside, I take the time to walk around the museum where several funerary vases, sarcophagi, and steles typical for the 2nd century AD have found refuge. Next to the entrance door the oversized head of Medusa is staring at me. It was either part of Veroia’s city walls or a major civic building, dated to the 2nd century BC.

And all this is part of the land that has seen Alexander growing up …

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Could Alexander have known the Garamantes?

It never ceases to amaze me how much people in antiquity knew about other civilizations far beyond their own borders and apparent area of communication. We, in Western Europe, like to keep our attention centered around the Mediterranean countries, where we are aware of seafarers crossing back and forth for eons. We have very little knowledge of what the Persians with their repeated invasions added to our daily lives, but we definitely know that Alexander the Great opened up the eastern world to us as much as he brought Asia in touch with our civilization, which all contributed to what went down in history as Hellenistic.

When I visited the Archaeological Museum of Tripoli in Libya, my guide pointed proudly towards (mostly copies of) petroglyphs from the Libyan Desert made by the Garamantes. They lived in the Fezzan area in the southern Sahara where they created a kingdom of their own. It was a Berber population that prospered from about 500 BC to 700 AD, mainly because of their clever building of “foggaras”, i.e. a network of underground tunnels and shafts by which fossil water was led to the desert surface from a limestone layer buried deep under the desert sands which in the process created fertile lands and oasis.

The Garamantes are mentioned for the first time by Herodotus and he describes them as a very great nation that herded cattle, farmed dates and hunted the Ethiopians from four-horse chariots. Tacitus talks about their raids on Roman settlements along the coast, while Pliny the Elder reports that 15 settlements were captured by his countrymen in 19 BC. How exactly this Garamantian Kingdom declined is not sure but it was probably connected to a change in climatic conditions and/or the overuse of their ground water since fossil water is a non-renewable resource (exactly what is happening right now with the Great Manmade River project in Libya).

So, when I heard the name Garamantes in Libya, it only had a far away familiar resonance but I don’t remember whether anything was said about this marvelous water management. Since I was neither interested in rock art nor in the prehistoric history of Libya, I paid no further attention to this information till last week when I saw a program on TV about the strange shafts still visible in the Sahara desert landscape, remains of said foggaras (a name given by the local Berbers). The program went into some details about their ingenious concept and complex construction (see diagram from Wikipedia)
They made it appear as something entirely unique, as if the Garamantes had invented the principle. At this stage Alexander came to my mind.

Recently I traveled to Uzbekistan where I stopped at a fort built by Alexander the Great near today’s city of Nurata, roughly north between Bukhara and Samarkand. At the foot of this fort was a holy mosque that boosted about its sacred waters that came from the distant hills through a system of kareez or qanats as the Arabs call them. I was told that it was the doing of Alexander the Great (or his engineers most probably). Of course, I was entirely flabbergasted for I had never heard of this Alexander fort and even less about his laying out such an intricate and sophisticated water system without which the oasis of Nur (modern Nurata) could not have flourished.

In the light of the TV program, my immediate question now was: could Alexander have known about the foggaras in the Libyan Desert? Nothing is impossible, of course, but he had never been further west than the Egyptian/Libyan desert on his way to Siwah. Could he have picked up this tale during that trip or was one of his engineers familiar with the system? Or is the story here in Nur only a legend lost in time and conveniently connected to Alexander? Quite an exciting discovery as far as I’m concerned!

I tried to find out more on the subject and in the process I discovered that this system is known all over the world, from North-Africa, to Asia, Arabia, the Mediterranean countries such as Spain, Italy and Greece, and even in the Nazca Valley of Peru and Chili! It goes by many different names according to the country or civilization all through the centuries. The Persian name is kariz or kareez which is still used in Afghanistan, Pakistan and the countries of Central Asia like Uzbekistan; in Morocco it is called khettara, in Spain galleria, in Arabia falaj, and in North Africa foggara or fughara. It is also known as kakuriz, chin-avulz, or mayun, while qanat maybe spelled in different ways as kanat, khanat, kunut, kona, konait, ghanat, ghundat. Pick your choice.

But whatever the name, the origin of the entire system has not been traced to any particular location although Persia seems to be the most likely area from where it probably traveled over the Silk Road across the Eurasian continent. I’m quite amazed to read that last century there were approximately 20,000 qanats still is use in Afghanistan and about 50,000 in Iran.

[Image courtesy U. Leicester/DigitalGlobe/Google]

To add some livelihood to my astonishment, I came across an article in the National Geographic (Nov 2011) on the subject – although not directly. It so happened that images of more than one hundred “lost” fortresses were seen on new satellite photographs taken over the Libyan desert. These castles seem to belong to the Garamantes, a civilization National Geographic places between the 2nd and the 7th century AD. Thanks to these views, researchers have discovered walled towns, villages and farms. An early 2011 expedition has found extremely well-preserved brickwalls standing up to 3-4 meter high, which previously had been erroneously attributed to Roman frontier forts. Their investigation led further to these underground canals, which have enabled the Garamantes to cultivate crops such as wheat, barley, figs and grapes, but also sorghum, pearl millet, and even cotton!

What an amazing world out there!

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Has the tomb of Roxane and young Alexander been located?

This is a very tempting assumption, but so far this is all there is. Recent excavations in Amphipolis, Greece, have unearthed a particularly large burial mound that might lead to the very tomb of Roxane, the Bactrian wife of Alexander the Great, and that of their son, Alexander IV.


After the death of Alexander the Great in Babylon, Roxane gave birth to their son. The dead king’s generals decided that the boy should share the Macedonian throne with Alexander’s (simple-minded) half-brother Arrhidaeus, who received the name of Philip-Arrhidaeus. But the everlasting bickering of these generals and their immense lust for power eventually led to the murder of the 12-year-old Alexander IV and of his mother. According to what filtered through history, the two victims were buried here in Amphipolis.

Archeologists have found a circular, 3 meter high precinct with a perimeter of about 500 meters surrounding a tomb, which apparently has not yet been excavated due to the serious lack of money. Greece’s economy does not allow any further investigation for the time being, although the place is known since 1965 as Kasta Tom. There is no indication so far as to the identity of the tomb’s owner(s).

I can understand that the work is being stopped pending financial contribution but on the other hand I am afraid that the mound might fall in the hands of illegal diggers and tomb robbers as most sites cannot be secured properly. Let’s hope for the best.

Saturday, October 13, 2012

Alexander's outpost in the Gulf

Honestly, I raised my eyebrows when I first heard how the Asian conquests of Alexander the Great had left its traces on a rather desert island in the Persian Gulf off the coast of today’s Kuwait.

With the occupation of Kuwait by Saddam Hussein the island of Failaka had not escaped to modern warfare, but maybe this is what made archaeologists aware of an earlier conquest of this sun-baked island by Nearchus, one of Alexander’s generals, in the 4th century BC. Luckily, joint excavations with the Greeks are now on their way, focussing on the remains of a citadel and a cemetery. Before that, the French had discovered the remnants of a Temple of Artemis, together with several Greek coins and statuettes. Well, well, …

In an interview, Michael Wood (In the Footsteps of Alexander the Great) reminds us how after the death of Alexander Hellenistic culture spread from India to Egypt. As an example, he mentions Uruk, near today’s Basra in southern Iraq where, even several hundreds of years after Alexander’s death, inscriptions show the names of local rulers in a mixture of ancient Babylonian and Greek. Alexander’s conquests of Asia have accelerated commerce in this part of the world, “the first globalisation” according to Michael Wood.

Failaka occupied a strategic position at the point where Tigris and Euphrates empty their waters in the Gulf. Michael Wood even expects to find traces of more ancient civilizations that thrived in the Gulf doing business with Mesopotamia as well as with the Indus Valley. It is generally accepted that the name Failaka comes from the Greek “fylaikio”, meaning outpost. We will remember that Alexander in 324 BC while building the Pallacopas canal spotted a good site for a new fortified town to settle some of his Greek mercenaries and old veterans no longer fit for service.

Further excavation work will centre around the ancient city of Icarea and the Greek team will also work on restoring what has already been uncovered earlier. Very promising indeed!

[pictures from news.bbc.co.uk]

Monday, October 8, 2012

Alexander vs. Parmenion

A good subject for debate, which I’m afraid cannot be settled to everyone’s satisfaction. Too many opinions from too many authors, too many interpretations by the old historians and too many options to choose from. That is basically my conclusion. That is, if you can call that a conclusion.

[picture from the movie by Oliver Stone]

Parmenion was a Paeonian chieftain, who during one of the campaigns led by King Philip II of Macedon, decided to rally to the side of Macedonia. A clever choice from his side no doubt, and the result was even better as he turned out to be a faithful brother in arms to Philip. On many occasions he acted in Philip’s name, like the time he went to Athens together with Antipater and Eurylochus to repeat his king’s terms for the Common Peace in 346 BC. Six years later when Alexander was elected Regent while Philip besieged Perinthus, Parmenion together with Antipater remained in Pella to keep an eye on things. He was the one who ended the Fourth Sacred War, taking Amphissa within three hours. And during the Battle of Chaeronea the same veteran general was probably assisting Alexander’s cavalry upon Philip’s instructions.

All along his many fights, sieges, and diplomatic meetings, Philip largely moved with Parmenion at his side. Yet at the same time, Philip formed a clique with his senior generals, Parmenion, Antipater and Attalus from which Alexander was excluded as they were bound together by several intermarriages (much to Alexander’s dismay as one may imagine and maybe a reason why he held on to his own group of Companions created during the days at Mieza).

Soon after Philip’s death, Attalus is executed to silence a possible claim to the Macedonian throne (his adopted niece had recently married Philip), and when Alexander starts his march to Asia he leaves Antipater behind as Regent while Parmenion joins his forces.

At this point, it is worth considering the extend of Parmenion’s power and influence over the army – a viewpoint that is largely neglected.

Parmenion was a man from the “old” stock, Philip’s foremost general and, let’s not forget, the one who played a highly pivotal role as commander of Alexander’s left wing in his battles at the Granicus, Issus and Gaugamela. What has transpired from ancient authors is that Parmenion disagrees with Alexander’s decisions or plans on several occasions (there may have been more), while no other veteran general has been recorded saying that much. We all will remember Alexander’s words: … yes, I would, if I were Parmenion... The fact that Alexander acted upon his own initiative, brushing Parmenion’s advice aside and coming out victorious from the many confrontations, cannot have gone down smoothly.
 
Steven English in his “The Sieges of Alexander the Great” draws the picture of an all-powerful Parmenion, a seasoned fighter with a thorough experience. Besides that, the key positions in the army were occupied by his relatives: sons, allies, kindred, friends, etc. It is entirely possible that he saw himself as the successor of Philip. In his eyes, the young and inexperienced Alexander was not a true competitor. Big mistake, of course. He probably didn’t expect Alexander to win all his battles as he did, and maybe he even hoped that the young king would soon be killed – in which case he was well prepared with his own trusted network of men.

Jona Lendering (see Livius site) is even more blunt as he declares that Philotas (Parmenion’s son accused of conspiracy) confessed under the force of torture that he and his father had wanted to kill Alexander in order to rule themselves. I don’t know where he found that statement, but let’s say it is a rather plausible assumption.
 
Robin Lane Fox (“Alexander the Great”) in turn paints a picture where Parmenion constitutes a serious threat for Alexander. The worrying situation occurs in 330 BC at Ecbatana, where the general controls his king’s supply line with Macedonia while Alexander is fighting in Bactria. Parmenion already in his seventies keeps ignoring Alexander’s orders for three months to come to Gurgan. The fact by itself is strange enough, but just consider that on the one hand Parmenion is sitting on the enormous Persian treasury collected in Susa and Persepolis which Alexander centralized at Ecbatana, and that on the other hand he has an army of 25,000 men strong at his disposal: Thracians, veteran-mercenaries, Thessalian and Paeonian cavalry, plus another 6,000 men Foot Companions who protected the very money transport. Alexander at that time had “only” 30,000 soldiers with him, i.e. approximately the same amount of manpower. In any case, these figures alone are enough to give the King serious headaches and many a sleepless night, no doubt.

Pierre Briant in his book “Alexander the Great and his Empire” has a totally different view, stating that Alexander committed a brutal act when he sent a commando to explicitly murder Parmenion in Ecbatana. He doubts that Philotas was guilty of conspiracy, so it is obvious that he disagrees with Parmenion’s execution. Briant feels that from 330 BC Alexander no longer wanted to tolerate Parmenion’s meddling as his vision of his new world had changed (becoming more Persian).
In any case, the accusations and the trial of Philotas were handled the Macedonian way where every man had his say. Philotas eventually was condemned to death. Under Macedonian law relatives were equally responsible for the crimes committed by any member of their family and this did imply his father Parmenion occupying his key position in Ecbatana and empowered by the Persian treasury and a large army force. Alexander applied the Macedonian law which his generals and soldiers could understand, but he may of course have seized this convenient opportunity to eliminate a possible threat to his person and to his crown.

Personally, I am convinced that in 330 BC Alexander had become a different person from the young king who came to power at age twenty. The years of heavy fighting and sieges, long marches through hostile lands and deserts, river crossings, logistical problems, rivalry and jealousy among his officers, and conspiracies, while he was constantly alert about the moves of his Persian opponent (only in 330 BC King Darius III was captured more dead than alive), etc. were enough elements to change any man. In the process he became the Great King of a huge empire that had functioned for eons according to its own rules and principles. Aware of these differences and oppositions, we owe it to Alexander’s genius that he makes huge efforts to comply with the customs from both east and west.

All along the historical accounts we read how the soldiers from the old Macedonian guard still breathe by the rules of their homeland. These are men who fought with King Philip (and Parmenion), and who became great at his side; men worthy of the great battlefields like those of Chaeronea and Gaugamela. We like to see an army that carries Alexander on hands. They do, yet only to a certain degree, i.e. as long as their king follows the known old proven Macedonian traditions. But once in Bactria and Sogdiana everything changes. There no longer are great battles to be fought, only heavy skirmishes, surprise attacks and guerrilla-wars. The men grow tired – no wonder. Inevitably conflicts arise. His soldiers, even his generals can’t understand how the newly conquered enemy suddenly has to be accepted as friendly mates filling the ranks of their dead comrades. Yet it is clear that Alexander needed to replace those thousands of men left behind on the battlefields, in the newly founded towns, in the strongholds and forts along the way, in the heat of the deserts or in the waters of the many rivers, the wounded men, the invalids, the veterans. The logistics of Alexander’s campaign in Asia are simply beyond anyone’s comprehension even today – so how much could be asked from the simple Macedonian soldier?

Some authors like to throw in the ideal image of Alexander aiming at melting east and west together in order to create an impossible dreamworld. I believe there were limits, even to his ambition. I’m certain that Alexander found the world much bigger and far more different from what he could ever have imagined. He was very much aware of the fact that life in Asia evolved according to rules and values away from those he grew up with. Yet he was a visionary and his visions ran far ahead of his time. Nobody could understand the complex amplitude of his world, I think, nobody except maybe Hephaistion.

Even today, we still struggle to understand …

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

The Sieges of Alexander the Great by Stephen English


The Sieges of Alexander the Great (ISBN 184884060-8) is an interesting book although not one that really sticks to your mind. It handles not so much about Alexander’s strategies but takes a close-up look at his siege technology: catapults, rams, ladders, siege towers, sappers and even his naval siege equipment. A matter of detail, one may think but details that really matter and demand serious consideration.

It never occurred to me, for instance, that the ladders used for a siege could not be higher than three-four meters simply because that was the maximum height of the trees used for their construction. By logical deduction this means that in case of such an attack the city walls cannot have been higher than those three-four meters, unless the wall had been breached and the ladders were used to climb over the debris. In my mind, any city wall would be at least three to five stories high – probably due to common images I have of medieval towns – but that would imply a height of seven to twelve meters which the Macedonian ladders could not reach. That explains why catapults and siege towers were so important, I understand now.

English describes a number of interesting siege details, referring mainly to the texts of Arrian and Curtius Rufus. He analyzes the exact meaning or bearing of their story adding comments made mainly by other modern writers like A.B. Bosworth, David Engels (Logistics) or Aurel Stein. Not very original, is it? What I miss however is a map of Alexander's conquests, not that I don't know the story but it would have been helpful to pinpoint the sites of the sieges all along the route.

In my opinion however, English often is too black-and-white in his conclusions. On one hand he praises Alexander because he is the first ever to use this or that military equipment or technique, while on the other hand he condemns him without mercy if he fails to act as a “perfect” commander. This is the case for instance at Tyre when Alexander is building the first mole to connect the island to the mainland and is being attacked by the enemy fleet - a failure according to English, for Alexander should have expected and prevented such an attack. My personal belief is that Alexander most certainly will have considered this possibility but has not acted on it for reasons unknown to us. We have no way knowing what was going on in Alexander’s mind, have we? English also likes to repeat previous remarks or conclusions, which I find annoying for I feel as if I were treated like a child. Well, my modest opinion, of course, for all in all this book is not unpleasant reading.

The Sieges of Alexander the Great is in fact the second book of a trilogy by Stephen English. In Book 1, The Army of Alexander the Great, he takes a close look at Alexander’s army, and in Book 3, The Field Campaigns of Alexander the Great, he analyzes his battlefields.

Also available as e-Book (click here)