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 of the Prophthasia/in Dragiana/Phrada (Farah, Afghanistan) - 330 Alexandria in Areia (Herat, 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 - 324 Alexandria-on-the-Tigris/Antiochia-in-Susiana/Charax (Spasinou Charax on the Tigris, Iraq) - 325 Alexandria Xylinepolis (Patala, India) - 325 Alexandria in Carminia (Gulashkird, Iran) - ?Alexandria of Carmahle? (Kahnu)


Sunday, May 29, 2016

Alexander’s real face

Whatever its history and its origin, what we have here is a superb gold coin showing Alexander on the obverse and a tiptoeing elephant on the reverse.

This may well be the best-kept secret about Alexander for the past ten years or so, a golden coin showing us Alexander with the elephant headdress, the horns of Ammon, the Gorgon around his neck and the coiling snakes worn as an aegis, but with an unfamiliar face. With his wide-open eyes, crooked nose and wild curls he reminds us of the picture on the mosaic from Pompeii. For once his image has not been idealized! This is believed to be the only portrait actually created during the lifetime of Alexander the Great to survive into modernity. The reverse of the coin shows a cute dancing elephant; this image together with the elephant skin on Alexander’s head connects the coin immediately to his battle against Porus on the Hydaspes in India that took place in 326 BC. This is Alexander as he saw himself - invulnerable, verging on godhood, immortalized in the moment of his triumph.

We have to go back to the small ivory head found at the Tomb in Vergina and said Pompeian mosaic to find another picture of Alexander-true-to-life, and this has been kept away from us?

Well, not entirely, it seems, although I personally have had no knowledge of its existence until now. A dear friend of mine sent me an article from the Sunday Times “Getting hold of the Alexander Medallion” dated 25 September 2011. How could I have missed such important news? After further investigation, I found a similar article in the Greek Reporter which in turn is dated 4 April 2014. What has happened here?

Both articles are pretty detailed and refer to the famous hoard found at Mir Zakah in north-eastern Afghanistan, a village located along the ancient road from Ghazni in Afghanistan to Gandhara in Pakistan. The hoard had been hidden in a well for more than two thousand years and contained an estimated 550,000 coins together with hundreds of other objects in silver and gold. The oldest pieces date back to the 5th century BC and the most recent belong to the 2nd century AD.

Osmund Bopearachchi was the first to recognize the medallion in 1993. It has since then been evaluated and discussed by many scholars and ended in the middle of a fight about it being authentic or fake. For this study and scrutiny, Bopearachchi luckily called in the help of Frank Holt, famous for his study of the Elephant Medallions (see: Alexander the Great and the Mystery of the Elephant Medallions). With Frank Holt in the picture, my own skepticism soon ebbed away.

Digging in further I discovered that Osmund Bopearachchi and Frank Holt have co-written a book on this very medallion, “The Alexander Medallion, Exploring the Origins of a Unique Artefact”. The bottom line is that there should be no doubt about the authenticity of this coin. It is not because it is unique that one should automatically label it as being a fake. Picking it by chance from among the countless bags of coins is the proverbial needle in a haystack of nearly 4 tons of gold. The hoard had been stuffed in sacks of about 50 kg each which found their way to the obscure bazaars of Peshawar where they were sold by the sack. Bopearachchi came to see what he called “a rain of coins” and tried desperately to sort the coins out by their origins, Greek city states, Seleucid, Indo-Greek, Indo-Scythian, Indo-Parthian, Kushan but the task was colossal! Were there any more Alexander Medallions? Who knows.

In their book, both men examine the authenticity of the medallion and also very effectively attack and eliminate the many critics contesting it. The medallion is, of course, being compared with other existing Alexander coins minted in the wake of his victory over Porus, with and without elephants, made of gold or silver. The gold has been tested to determine its origin which could be traced back to the area where the medallion was found. Typically, gold does not oxidize when it contains no impurities and that certainly was the case here. It has been determined that the Alexander Medallion contained 97.7% of gold; 1.8% of silver; 0.4% of copper; and traces of other elements (no wonder it looks brand new!).

The entire context of this hoard and the Alexander Medallion, in particular, is largely complicated by the fact that it was found in a war zone. Where initially Afghan authorities could stamp some influence on what was excavated, things ran soon out of hand after the invasion of the Allied forces and the growing power of the Taliban. Located on a vague border between Afghanistan and the northwest of Pakistan where warlords impose and apply laws of their own, nobody really knows what is going on. Any treasure quickly moves from hand to hand and is ushered out of the country to potential buyers in America and Europe. The case of the Mir Zakah hoard was no exception and the coins were sold by the sack without any qualified investigation.

Bottom line is that both Osmund Bopearachchi and Frank Holt accept the medallion as being authentic and that it was minted during Alexander’s lifetime after his invasion of India in 326 BC. As Holt puts it: Since we cannot prove this is a forgery we can only assume it is genuine. Let’s not forget that for a forger to “create” this otherwise unknown coin, he has to be extremely well trained in ancient coin making, knowledgeable in the history of Alexander to include so many of the recognizable elements of this medallion (headdress, Gorgon, Ammon horns), as well as in minting gold, which I honestly think is impossible.

Meanwhile, some three tons of these valuable coins are stashed in the vaults of a bank in Basle, Switzerland awaiting a multimillionaire buyer in spite of repeated calls (including UNESCO) to at least allow numismatic scholars to study the content.

[Bottom picture is from The Greek Reporter]

Thursday, May 26, 2016

A healthy mind in a healthy body – in early antiquity

The Oath of Hippocrates is one that is still taken today by a physician-to-be, yet not everybody knows that this goes back to the very man who lived in the days of Pericles and earned the recognition as Father of Western Medicine.

It seems probable that the Hippocratic Oath appeared only after Hippocrates’ death. This oath was actually a religious document established to make sure that a doctor operated within and for community values. The oath was sworn by Apollo, Hygeia, and Panacea, promising to respect their teacher, not to administer poison or abuse their patients; and quite importantly they swore to keep the confidentially between doctor and patient – how modern that is! No wonder that today’s Hippocratic Oath is formulated very much along the same line!

An image of Hippocrates on the floor of the Asclepieion of Kos, with Asklepius in the middle.

Hippocrates of Cos was probably born around 460 BC to become the most famous physician in antiquity, and his great merit is that he “untied” the link with the famous Greek god of healing, Asclepius. Sickness and health were no longer in the hands of the gods but were the result of our living habits, our nutrition, and our environment.

Nothing much has been documented about Hippocrates from his days and all we have are patchy references written down at a later date. The oldest such document is from the 1st/2nd century by the Ephesian physician Soranus, who informs us that Hippocrates travelled extensively all through his life and died in Larissa around 370 BC. He tells us that Hippocrates acquired his knowledge from his father and Herodicus of Selymbria, a gymnastic trainer. He frequented several sophists of his time and Plato has it that Hippocrates worked for a fee (just like in our modern world) and basically treated the entire body of his patients. Other ancient sources seem to confirm that Hippocrates believed in a good diet and in exercises to keep the body healthy.

It has been documented, for instance, that he successfully fought the plague that ravaged Athens in 430 BC by lighting fires throughout the city. He also established that King Perdiccas II of Macedonia, a distant ancestor of Alexander the Great, was love-sick and did not suffer from any other obscure ailment.

Unfortunately, his many treatises, speeches and letters on medicine have not survived, but they still were available at the Library of Alexandria during the reign of the Ptolemy’s. This Hippocratic Corpus as it was called was divided into four separate categories, the diagnosis, biology, treatment of the patient and a general advice for the doctors. It seems that at least sixty treatises existed, each one focusing on a specific subject: therapy, surgery, physiology, gynecology, the evolution of the disease, the purging remedies, to name only a few. He even discussed the interaction of medicine with other subjects, like philosophy. Several ancient physicians are known to have written commentaries on his treatises, among which we can name Apollonius of Citium (1st century BC) and the famous Galen (2nd/3rd century AD).

At least we have inherited his school of medicine on the Greek island of Cos better known as the Asclepion (rather paradoxically) of which important foundations can still be seen today. Hippocrates had three sons who all walked in his footsteps, Thessalus, Dracon, and Polybus.

How about Alexander’s medical knowledge? It is generally accepted that he received some teaching from Aristotle on the subject, but he may well have had direct access to Hippocrates’ treatises as they were written only one hundred years earlier.

Monday, May 23, 2016

The Acropolis of Athens in 3D

Over the centuries, we know, the aspect of the Athenian Acropolis has changed repeatedly.

In order to help in visualizing the many facelifts this natural outcrop underwent, here is an areal view that clearly illustrates the different construction periods and the repeated attacks to annihilate the power it stood for.

In short, this is a history of the Acropolis from 3500 BC till today.

Thursday, May 19, 2016

The other side of Demosthenes

The friends of my friends are my friends, the saying goes. This implies that the enemies of my friends are my enemies, and for me, this automatically applies to Demosthenes since he definitely was not a friend of Alexander’s and consequently not a friend of mine (see: Philip vs. Demosthenes, an ongoing business). Yet I keep encountering Demosthenes in many museums, even in the most unexpected corners. From Athens and Rome, Naples and Florence, to Tirana, Copenhagen, Harvard, Malibu, and New-York; from Antalya, Cyrene, Cologne to the Louvre; from the British Museum to the Hermitage, and many more that do not immediately spring to mind.

Demosthenes is known in history as being a prominent statesman and orator of ancient Athens. Born in 384 BC, he delivered his first judicial plea at the age of twenty to secure his inheritance and by the time he was thirty he made his first public political speech. In those days, the power of Athens was waning and Demosthenes was most determined to restore the city’s supremacy. Athens was still a democracy where people had the final say in all matters through the Assembly which would address the issues and vote by a show of hands. Another important component was the Boule or Council that would set the agenda of the Assembly and serve as its advisor by meeting on a daily basis. A number of men took advantage of their rhetorical skills to address the people, among which we find Demosthenes. His greatest adversary, however, was to become king Philip of Macedonia, Alexander’s father.

During the Third Sacred War that lasted from 356 till 346 BC (see: End of the Third Sacred War and Peace with Athens), the Greeks had allowed Philip to raise a vast number of soldiers, including forces from Thessaly or other allies. His enemies definitely had underestimated his power and by the time this war was over they had no way of stopping him anymore.

Frictions started as early as 351 BC at least when Demosthenes warned the Athenians about the threat posed by Philip’s expansion policy in the north. Demosthenes wrote his first open letter to the Macedonian king, the first of his so-called  Philippics – a word that has become proverbial since it still today applies to any fiery speech aimed to condemn the person in question (in this case, Philip).

Demosthenes became highly influential in Athens’ decision to support Olynthus, their ally, against Philip as he wrote an extensive speech for each individual call for help, known as the three Olynthiacs. These were all delivered in 349 BC, the first one calling the Athenians to organize an expedition and send it on its way, the second one complaining that Athens did not budge, and the third one being aimed to Philip, calling him a barbarian and warning his fellow-citizens that the Macedonian king would quickly seize more and more of their colonies. Demosthenes in his last Olynthiac pled for a military intervention to rescue the Olynthians and called for a large naval and military force to destroy Philip’s territory. The orator didn’t manage to convince his public until it was much too late.

It is important to note that Demosthenes (and probably most Athenians) did not realize that the days of Athens’ polis system were counted. It was clear that Philip could make his decisions and act upon them immediately while the Athenian system was slow, meaning that by the time they reached a decision the entire context had changed. Philip really wanted a treaty of peace and an alliance in which he and the Athenians were equals, something that did not sink in with the Athenians. In any case, in early April 346 BC, an embassy of ten men was sent to Pella to discuss ‘peace and the common interests of Athens and Philip (cf. Demosthenes). This would be the first of four embassies.

This is a story that is very well told by Mary Renault in her book Fire from Heaven, featuring young Alexander. Ten envoys travelled to Pella when Alexander was about ten years old. Among them were great men like Philocrates, Nausicles, Demosthenes, and Aeschines. Each had prepared his speech on the proposed alliance and peace, and they had decided to speak in order of age, the youngest last and this happened to be Demosthenes after Aeschines who tells us that he began “in a voice dead with fright, and after a brief narration of earlier events suddenly fell silent and was at a loss for words, … Seeing the state he was in, Philip encouraged him to take heart and not to suppose that he had suffered a complete catastrophe. … But Demosthenes … was now unable to recover; he tried once more to speak, and the same thing happened.” What an appearance for such an orator! Having listened graciously to every ambassador, Philip summarized his idea, that of a bilateral agreement between him and his allies on one side and Athens and their allies on the other.

My personal opinion is that Demosthenes was terribly frustrated by his flop at the Macedonian court, making a fool of himself in the presence of both Philip and Alexander. This frustration soon turned to anger and even hatred towards his first audience during such an important mission! He must have resented both kings simply because they had witnessed how helpless he had been!

As soon as the embassy left, Philip sent Antipater, Parmenion and Eurylochus to Athens to repeat his terms of peace and receive Athens’ consent in return. The news was buzzing in Athens’ Assembly, which at first was inclined to accept Philip’s proposal but Demosthenes had to give his own twist to the story as usual and persuaded the Assembly to go for a Common Peace in which every state was free to join. Of course, this was refused by Antipater when he was called in the next day for those were not his king’s terms. In the end, the Athenians and their allies swore their oaths to the peace and alliance to Macedonia – not a happy day for Demosthenes.

Yet Demosthenes was stubborn – or should we say determined? In 345 BC he did all he could to sabotage the treaty with Philip, while Aeschines, on the other hand, tried by all means to keep it alive. As was to be expected, Demosthenes had done his utmost to convince the Athenians that the peace treaty with Philip was worthless, using every trick in the book to manipulate his audience and distort Philip’s words. As a result, by 342/341 BC the famous peace treaty collapsed entirely.

Meanwhile, as Philip was called to intervene in the Chersonese’s conflict with neighboring Cardia, he wrote many letters of complaint to Athens as they had violated their mutual peace treaty by attacking his allies and pirating the Macedonian merchant ships. Demosthenes, of course, took it personally and his speeches ‘On the Chersonese’ and his next Philippic was wildly applauded and very successful in Athens. The Athenians even went so far as to request support from the Persian King, who gave the ambassadors large sums of money, some of which eventually found its way to Demosthenes’ pocket. Philip was no fool and seized the Athenian corn fleet. In spite of his failure to secure the shipping route, Demosthenes was crowned for his services at the Theatre of Dionysus during the festival of 340 BC. The world of politics was as strange in antiquity as it is today!

Thebes was a constant headache, siding with Athens or with Philip as they saw fit at the moment. Early 339 BC, they seized Nicaea at the entrance of the Pass of Thermopylae. By so doing they blocked Philip’s access road to central Greece, not for long though for Philip immediately marched around Thermopylae, scarring the hell out of the Thebans and the Athenians. The situation escalated and eventually led to the Battle of Chaeronea in August 338 BC. Demosthenes came into action once again and managed to convince the Athenians to join him in an alliance against Philip. It was one of his greatest diplomatic triumphs, although it came at a great cost for there were a number of demands that Thebes required in exchange.

Demosthenes participated in the Battle of Chaeronea alongside his fellow-Athenians, but as we know, they were defeated by Philip (with young Alexander in his left wing against the Theban Band!). Once the fight was over, Demosthenes barely escaped and his glamorous orator career was over.

Next time Demosthenes comes to the foreground again is evidently after Philip’s death when he is said to have celebrated the king’s assassination. Aeschines tells us that at that time Demosthenes was in the middle of a mourning ceremony for the death of his daughter. When he heard the news of Philip’s murder, he interrupted his mourning and instead put a garland on his head to make thank-offerings to the gods – certainly not the proper thing to do!

In spite of such disrespectful behavior, the Athenians still admired Demosthenes and the orator Ctesiphon even suggested honoring his colleague for his services by presenting him with a golden crown! Lengthy debates followed and seemed to have dragged on for at least six years since we know that in 330 BC Aeschines prosecuted this same Ctesiphon for legal irregularities implying Demosthenes. The latter wrote his own defense, which is known to be his most brilliant speech ‘On the Crown’ that inspired every statesman ever since. He was successful in effectively defending Ctesiphon and exploiting the ruling feelings of frustrated patriotism, arguing that all he ever had done was for the honor of Athens and to prove his own loyalty to his city.

While Alexander was taking care of the Thracian and Illyrian uprisings that erupted after his father’s death, Demosthenes spread the news that the young king and his army had been slaughtered. Thebes and Athens took their chances and with money provided by the Persian King Darius a new rebellion was financed (Demosthenes apparently received about 300 talents!). As soon as the news reached Alexander, he force-marched his army south and razed Thebes to the ground. He did not attack Athens but demanded that all the politicians who were openly against Macedonia be exiled with Demosthenes on top of his list.  This never materialized, mostly because Alexander treated Athens with a privileged reverence.

But this is still not the end of Demosthenes’ grudge for in 324 BC he was only too happy to give refuge to the defecting Harpalos, one of Alexander’s companions who was in charge of the king’s treasury. The Athenian Assembly, following Demosthenes advice, had decided not to allow him to enter the city mostly out of fear of Alexander’s possible reprisal since Harpalos clearly was an insurgent. Harpalos was taken in custody and his treasure (well over 700 talents) was confiscated and entrusted to a special committee presided over by Demosthenes. Once the money was counted, the committee found only half the sum as declared by Harpalos. They decided not to make this fact public for the time being. However, when Harpalus escaped, they discovered that Demosthenes had mishandled twenty talents. During the trial that ensued, it transpired that there was a much larger deficit than these twenty talents and that Demosthenes had been bribed by Harpalos. Yet it remains unclear how much money Demosthenes had manipulated and to what purpose it was used. In the end, he was fined but refused to pay. For this reason, he was sent to prison but escaped in a manner, not unlike Harpalos. From then onward, he lived in exile, first at Troezen and later at Aegina.

Even after Alexander’s death in 323 BC, Demosthenes could not refrain himself from urging the Athenians to get rid of the Macedonian supremacy. He returned to Athens and mingled in the Lamian War, from which Antipater (still regent at Pella) appeared victorious. Finally, Antipater had had enough and demanded Demosthenes to be surrendered to him. The Athenian Assembly, in fact, condemned the city’s anti-Macedonian agitators to death, and that included Demosthenes. The orator escaped and found refuge at a sanctuary on the island of Poros, where Antipater eventually tracked him down. Feeling totally cornered, Demosthenes took his own life using poison. He was 62 years old.

Years later and for reasons beyond logical comprehension, Athens erected a statue in honor of their able orator, a tradition that has apparently been perpetrated over many centuries – hence the many statues of Demosthenes we still find in the many museums today.

Monday, May 16, 2016

A unique collection of Hellenistic art at the Metropolitan Museum in New-York

Hellenism would not have existed were it not for Alexander the Great, who spread Greek culture over the territories he had conquered. His own court artists may well have led the way with key figures as the sculptor Lysippos and the painter Apelles.

The huge amount of money and wealth that was available after Alexander’s death was not invested only in warfare among his successors but eventually went into promoting the image and prosperity of the following Hellenistic kings and their entourage. The kings of Pergamon were no exception and the artworks brought together at the Metropolitan Museum in New York clearly illustrate what it meant to live in a Hellenistic city.

Until 17 July 2016, the museum will be showing some 264 artifacts from those glorious times that span roughly three hundred years, from 323 BC the date of Alexander’s death until 133 BC when the Pergamon kingdom fell to the Romans.

The centerpiece for me is obviously the splendid bronze and silver statuette of Alexander the Great on horseback dating from the first century BC that is on loan from the Museo Nazionale of Naples, and was exhibited recently among the bronzes in Firenze, Italy (see: A splendid collection of Greek bronze masterpieces).

But there are, of course, many other statues in marble and bronze, as well as statuettes in terracotta; also exhibited are engraved cameos, gold and silver coins, some delicate gold jewelry, fine glassware, and much more.

The collection has been put together thanks to the collaboration of museums from Germany (obviously including the Pergamon Museum that contributed to one-third of the collection), Greece, France, Denmark, Austria, Italy, Morocco, Tunisia and the United States.

It is a unique opportunity for those living in or travelling to the New-York area to see all these masterpieces at first hand!

Thursday, May 12, 2016

Another reconstruction of ancient Greek music

In one of my earlier posts on the subject, Reconstructing ancient Greek music, an impossible task? I spoke about Armand D’Angour, a musician and tutor in classics at Oxford University, who reminded us that the epics of Homer, the love-poems of Sappho and the tragedies of Sophocles and Euripides originally were music. This means that pieces composed between 750 and 400 BC were to be sung partially or in their totality, accompanied by the lyre, reed-pipes, and some percussion instruments.

At present, he and other scholars claim to be able to reconstruct and perform those ancient songs with 100% accuracy. Hereunder is a rendering by David Creese, a classist from the University of Newcastle. This is an ancient Greek song composed by Seikilos (see: Revealing ancient Greek music, the Seikilos Epitaph) and performed on an eight-string zither-like instrument with movable bridges. 

So, how about that for a lazy afternoon listening?

Monday, May 9, 2016

News from the sunken harbor of ancient Corinth

In recent years, underwater archeology is definitely on the rise shedding light on so many unexpected remains from antiquity about which we could only guess till now. Corinth is no exception and as a booming trading hub in the eastern Mediterranean, it must have a lot to tell. For more than one thousand years, roughly from the 6th century BC till the 6th century AD, the city was at the center of trade carried out by its mixed population of Greeks, Romans, and Jews, later by early Christians as well.

For two years, expert divers from Greece and Denmark have been exploring the ancient harbor of Lechaion to expose the infrastructure of this important port-city. Recent discoveries have exposed two monumental piers built of ashlar blocks next to a smaller dock. They also have located a canal entrance leading into Lechaion’s three inner harbors, as well was a breakwater.

Lechaion is not the only harbor for we all know the strategic location of Corinth right on the isthmus between mainland Greece and the Peloponnesus (less than 4 miles wide), which meant that the city needed both an eastern and a western harbor. Lechaion, on the Gulf of Corinth, served the western sea routes to Italy, Sicily and beyond to Spain. The harbor of Kenchreai is situated on the Saronic Gulf from where the ships sailed to and from the Aegean, Asia Minor, Syria, and Egypt. Goods could be transported overland from one port to the other and even lightweight ships were hauled using a platform along the road connecting Lechaion to Kenchreai. This, evidently, was before Nero’s idea to dig a canal to link both sides, a plan that eventually materialized nearly two millennia later.

The remains of the pier at Lechaion date from early Byzantine days and are constructed of six well-preserved wooden caissons over a total length of 57 meters. These caissons were, in fact, rectangular wooden boxes which could be floated into their assigned place where they were sunk by filling them with debris or concrete. This way a breakwater or pier could easily be constructed in order to protect the ships and their precious cargo. The principle was known but the wooden caissons in Lechaion are the first ever to be discovered. As the caissons and their fill slowly set in the seabed, the wood has been preserved, enabling today’s archaeologists to recreate their construction.

While they were at it, the underwater archaeologists have been carrying out geophysical surveys. The search is still on for Corinths naval base and hopefully some remains of the famous trireme ships that were built here (see: The trireme, a ship to remember).

[Pictures from the Haaretz]

Friday, May 6, 2016

Alexander the Great, it’s all in the name

Were it only for the fun of it, it may be interesting to take a closer look at the name of Alexander the Great, who became king of Macedonia in 336 BC and died as king of Asia in 323 BC.

The very name derives from the Greek “alexo” meaning “refuge/defence/protection”, and “ander” meaning “man”.

Because of his consecutive conquests to the east, it is inevitable that Alexander’s name was corrupted or that some additional qualifier was used as an extension.

So, for instance, his name as “Alexander the Accursed” was given to him by the Persians after he conquered their empire and burnt Persepolis to the ground. In that country, he is also known as Eskandar-e Maqduni (= Alexander of Macedonia). The Alexander Romance from Persian literature has contributed to twist history into legend where Alexander is known as the Iskandarnamah.

The Arabic language mentions him as Al-Iskander Al-Makadonia (= Alexander of Macedonia) and he is also mentioned in the Quran. The Hebrews knew him as Alexander Mokdon (also = Alexander of Macedonia). In India, Hindi and Urdu languages used the name Sikandar-e-azam meaning as much as “expert” and “extremely skilled”. In Egypt, as well as in Aramaic language, he is known as the Tre-Qarnayia (= the Two-Horned One), based on the image of Alexander with the two ram’s horns, the emblems for the Egyptian god Amon.

Interestingly, India made a movie about Alexander the Great, called ‘Sikander’ in 1941, and Prithviraj Kapoor, the actor playing his role, is said to be very much like Alexander is supposed to be according to Indian standards (in spite of him being 1,90 meter tall).

‘Sikander’ is also the title of a Bollywood film from 2009 but has nothing to do with “our” Alexander.

Monday, May 2, 2016

In the aftermath of the Battle of the Hydaspes

The Battle of the Hydaspes is undisputedly the most overwhelming and the most decisive battle Alexander ever fought but it was also the most ferocious one. The Macedonians, after three years of unforgiving guerilla war in Bactria and Sogdiana, had by now turned into killing machines. This sounds very harsh but warfare in those days was to kill or to be killed, and five years after their last “organized” battle at Gaugamela, most men had reached the point of simple survival in combat.

The Battle of the Hydaspes ended in victory for Alexander but at what cost! Historical records go by facts and figures, yet it is not surprising that our sources do not agree on any of them. Rough estimates give Porus between 20,000 and 50,000 infantry, between 85 and 200 war elephants, 2,000 to 4,000 cavalry, and 300 to 1,000 chariots. His losses vary between 12,000 to 20,000 infantry and 3,000 cavalry, while 9,000 men were captured. Porus lost his two sons, all the commanders of his elephants and his cavalry, and all his generals – a very unusual number of leaders.

Alexander troops counted approximately 40,000 infantry, and between 5,000 and 7,000 cavalry, plus an unknown number of Asiatic forces. His losses (generally kept down by ancient authors) amount to 80 to 700 infantry, 200 to 280 cavalry, including 20 Companions (although modern estimates reach 1,000 casualties).

Even by using the lowest figures, the battlefield after several hours of conflict was covered with the bodies of some 13,000 infantry + 4,000 cavalry = 17,000 men but these numbers may have grown to 25,000 men from both sides combined. To these staggering figures we have to add an unknown number of horses (Alexander had three horses shot from under him!) and elephants. Imagine the pure stench of blood, sweat, and excrements that emanated from the muddy river bank that had been defended by Porus for a while previous to the attack. A grueling place to catch your breath, if you had any left! Troops on both sides must have been pretty much exhausted after those long hours (some speak of eight hours) of merciless combat. In this extremely hot and humid climate, flies, vultures and other animals of prey must have swarmed in and the heavily wounded must have died soon afterward. No wonder that burial procedures were set in motion as soon as possible – a reverence to Macedonian gods and beliefs, if not a mere matter of hygiene.

The wounded raise another question in my mind, for when was a soldier counted as being wounded? Was it when he had lost an arm or a leg, or when he was so amputated that he was no longer fit for further service and was left in one of the many cities Alexander built during his campaign? In such an intense battle as the one on the Hydaspes, I believe everybody was wounded. It is impossible to come out of such a fierce and intensive battle with only a mere scratch.

How does a soldier recover his senses after such an onslaught? How does he come back to his normal self? Even today that poses a serious problem to our soldier in combat zones. Alexander was very well aware of what his men went through and generally organized games and competitions to celebrate his victories as a counterbalance. In the case of the Hydaspes he even issued a special commemorative medallion to all his men – at least, that is the very plausible theory developed by Frank Holt in his book Alexander the Great and the Mystery of the Elephant Medallions. An exceptional reward to his faithful troops.

From the Hydaspes (modern Jhelum), Alexander moved further east, crossing the Acesines River (modern Chenab) and the Hydraotes River (modern Ravi) swollen by the melting snows from the Himalaya, till he was stopped at the Hyphasis River (modern Beas) by his own Macedonians who refused to continueIt did not matter whether they were reaching the end of the earth or what promises and incentives Alexander produced, they had had enough. In fact, I think that the Macedonian spirit died on the killing ground along the Hydaspes. It had been such an outrageous carnage for so little profit as there were no wealthy cities here to be plundered like the ones they found in Persia with Ecbatana, Pasargadae, and Persepolis. In their eyes, the next challenge and the next battle became meaningless and they simply mutinied. The continuous downpour of the monsoon rains and the fanatical resistance of the local Indian population cannot have improved the mood of Alexander’s men. They refused to march on and demanded to return home. Alexander had to concede, much to his dismay. 

It makes you wonder in how much, in the end, the Battle of the Hydaspes was a victory for Alexander. His men had given their all, and after that, there was nothing more to be given except the love for their king.

[Bottom picture is from the Alexander movie by Oliver Stone]