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A hero styled like Achilles

Ambitious: Placido Costanzi’s oil ‘Alexander founding Alexandria’.

Ambitious: Placido Costanzi’s oil ‘Alexander founding Alexandria’.   | Photo Credit: Wiki Commons

In Anabasis, Arrian writes about Alexander’s battles in a flat tone, keeping to the facts

There are three main histories of Alexander the Great that have come down to us from classical times. One is his biography by Plutarch who, though Greek himself, wrote for the Romans. Plutarch wrote a series in which he compared the lives of great Greeks with great Romans. He was writing a few centuries after Alexander, and his writing is highly anecdotal, meaning that it is not particularly believable.

The second source is Quintus Curtius Rufus, who was Roman, as his name suggests, and was writing also around the same time as Plutarch. His book, which is longer, is quite unreadable. He is a racist and makes no effort to hide this. It is a struggle to go through it and though I did it when I forced myself to trudge through the entire classical canon, it is a work I cannot bear the thought of going back to.

Tutored by Aristotle

The third work, which is our subject today, is by a writer named Arrian. He wrote this book in the second century after Christ (about 400 years after Alexander). The work is called Anabasis, which means a military advance into the interior of a country. The source of Arrian’s writing is probably the notes and book written by one of Alexander’s most successful generals, Ptolemy, who later became Pharaoh of Egypt. Arrian modelled himself on one of the great historians of classical antiquity, Xenophon, who also wrote a work called Anabasis, recording his time as a mercenary in Persia. Arrian is flat in his tone, like Xenophon, and mindful of fact.

Alexander was born to Philip of Macedon, who revolutionised warfare in the fourth century before Christ. The Greek states of Athens, Corinth and Sparta fought with an 8 foot spear that was held at the shoulder with the right hand. The left hand held a round shield, three feet across, that protected its holder and half the body of the person standing to the left. The fighting happened in lines and the armoured fighter tried to spear the exposed flesh — the eyes, nose and mouth, neck and armpit — of the person opposite.

Philip of Macedon had his army fight with an 18 foot long pike, called a Sarissa. It was held with both hands, around waist-high. There were at least four or five rows of these pike-holders and so the opposition was faced with a forest of spears. This strategy helped Philip overwhelm the Greek states. Alexander had assumed he was his father’s heir, but Philip chose to marry again and at the ceremony, it was hinted that Alexander was a bastard. Philip was murdered soon after — most likely by his son, and Alexander became king.

He was extremely ambitious and he must have been very intelligent. I say this because he was personally tutored by one of the finest minds of history, Aristotle (who had himself been taught by Plato). He took very little time to put together a campaign that went on till he died and has become a legend. His army was fairly multi-national and though not particularly big (this was a time when large armies beyond a particular size were impossible because there were no supply chains or networks) it comprised several strategic components, like archers and cavalry.

The Great

The great power of that time was, of course, Persia, and this was the target of Alexander. The current ruler of Persia was always referred to by the Greeks as “the Great” (megas), and so we have Cyrus the Great and Xerxes the Great and so on. The man ruling Persia at the time of Alexander was Darius the Great. It is because Alexander defeated Darius that he inherited the title of “the Great” from him.

In many ways he styled himself like the Greek hero Achilles. In fact, when Alexander crossed over to Asia (at Turkey), he and his lover Hephaestion offered wreaths at the tombs of Achilles and his lover Patroclus.

Fascinating theory

The Macedonian army first swept through Egypt, which was a Persian protectorate and therefore more or less undefended. Here, the foundation of the city of Alexandria was laid (designed by Alexander himself). And then came the turn of the Persians. We think of him as a great warrior, and he was, but in his entire life, Alexander fought only two great battles, at Issus and at Gaugamela, when the Persians were finally defeated. Everything else was mere skirmish.

After becoming king of the Persians (and taking on Persian manners, including the kurnish or salute, which greatly offended his fellow Macedonians) Alexander moves on to Afghanistan and Punjab. Here, we have the legend of Porus, the king who demanded respect.

Arrian describes the battle of Jhelum very cogently and there is no reason to dispute his version. It is a tough fight and after victory, Alexander’s troops want to return home and so he turns around, going through Sindh and to the Arabian Sea before wheeling right and heading back to Persia, where he dies at age 32.

But I came across a recent version by the Pakistani writer Mustansar Hussain Tarar, who claims that the Macedonians mutinied because the ‘victory’ over Porus was actually not a victory at all, but a defeat or at least a draw, papered over later by hagiographers. This is a fascinating theory. It could well be true, but we will never know because we do not have historians like Arrian in our parts, and what we know about ourselves in antiquity, we know from the eyes of others.

(A monthly series on the world literary classics.)

The writer is a columnist and translator of Urdu and Gujarati non-fiction works.

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Printable version | Feb 18, 2020 7:22:23 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/books/a-hero-styled-like-achilles/article25322330.ece

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