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 Dragiana/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 OR Termez, Afghanistan) - 328 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)

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Alexander the Great exhibition in Mannheim

I am dying to share my Mannheim experience where I visited the exhibition on Alexander the Great. It is one of the best I ever saw, very well planned and organized with bilingual explanation in English and German.

At the very entrance I was immediately welcomed by an entire Alexander committee: the Alexander head from Munich, the one found at the Villa Hadriani now in Bad Homburg, the so-called Erbrach head from Berlin, the one from Alexandria now at the Glyptothek of Copenhagen, a small incense burner from Brussels which I never managed to see here (kept in the catacombs!), and the head from Dresden. A most gracious bronze of Alexander riding Bucephalos from Naples found in Pompeii, surrounded by several bronze statuettes in typical Hellenistic pose, resting on his (lost) spear. Besides plaster copies of Aristotle and the Azara Hermes, there were plenty of Alexander coins, medals (including Philip and Olympias), a beautiful attic vase representing Achilles, some jewelry, etc. I spent, at least, a full hour in that first room alone!

When at last I managed to let go of Alexander, I moved to the next room with several maps. Firstly, the world as known by Alexander through Aristotle with a reconstruction of Hekataios’ map followed by maps of what the world looked like after Alexander’s conquests and maps by the Arabs in our early Middle Ages. Against the long wall a huge map of Alexander’s conquests was mounted with push buttons for the location of the battlefields and the cities he built on his way east; and next to it, there was a kind of Google map tracing his steps while zooming in on the terrain here and there as he marched through mountains and vales – very impressive!

Most exciting though was the 15-foot sarissa that visitors were allowed to handle. This is quite an experience, so heavy, so difficult to handle! I now could clearly see the joint halfway where the sarissa could be taken apart for transport and the counterweight butt at the bottom end with its sharp point. There were also two bronze helmets to try on. I never realized they had a leather lining, but then it was so evident for the soldiers could never have tolerated the steaming heat or blistering cold of the very metal on their head, of course. I was very much surprised by the weight on my head and the Macedonian helmet, although rather comfortable compared to the Pilos one, created a kind of resonance, a surround noise like an echo and I wondered how deafening this must have been on the battlefield. Wow! A showcase at the far end then contained elements of the full armor with breastplate, different types of helmets (Phrygian, Chalcidicean, Greek, etc); greaves, lead catapult stones, decorative elements from shields and horse harnesses including a round plate representing a war elephant worth of Porus, etc.

Inevitably, I was to come across the Alexander Mosaic, here as an oil painting by the Italian Michele Mastracchio who created this scene shortly after its discovery in 1831. It may not be the best copy but interestingly he filled in the blanks that are lost on the original scene.

The next section is about the Persian Empire, Foe, and Fascination – and fascinating it was! The visitor is received by a lively Persian guard in glazed bricks from the Palace of Susa and to the left is an amazing relief of an Achaemenid nobleman dating from the days of Darius I. Further, small items like Assyrian bracelets with animal heads, appliqués, and crowns in pure gold; an alabaster vase with an inscription in four languages (old Persian, Babylonian, Aramaic and Greek) reading “Xerxes, the Great King”; a terracotta statue of a wealthy lady; clay tablets; several reliefs from Persepolis; a bronze cup inlaid with gold and silver figurines; cylinder seals; bronze bowls and libation cups; rythons inlaid with silver and gold; all wonderful pieces!

Then follows the subject “vision of the others”, i.e. how the Greeks saw the Persians and how the Persians perceived the Greeks. To me, this might well have been Alexander’s vision of the Persian Empire before he conquered it. From the Greeks’ point of view, we mainly see the Persian life depicted on the vases while the Persians express their perception of the Greeks rather on coins and cylinder seals. And then there are of course the gift-takers from the reliefs on the walls of Persepolis.

In the adjacent room, Alexander arrives in Babylon. Very helpful is the large-scale model of the city along the Euphrates with the canal surrounding the city walls, the Procession Way that Alexander must have used, the many temples and, of course, the very Ziggurat with the Temple of Marduk/Bel. To give the visitor an idea of Babylon’s blue glazed brick walls, there is a striding lion from the Museum of Vienna and a mythical griffon from the Museum of Berlin, a very select choice. Without the Chaldean priests, Babylon would not have been what it was and there is plenty of proof of their influence with the many clay tablets predicting the future, including those foretelling the outcome of the Battle at Gaugamela. But there are more tablets in cuneiform writing containing chronics, astronomical calendars, texts of law, the tables of multiplication, mathematical problems with geometric drawing, and even a zodiac calendar with the stars! Then a series of terracotta heads, men, women, satyrs, musicians and Eros figurines; and small terracotta statues in Greek tunics, except one wearing a Babylonian(!) robe. Last but not least, definite signs of truly Greek influence on a roof tile from the 3rd-2nd century BC and a frieze fragment probably pertaining to a theater built in Babylon many years after Alexander’s death, around 1st-2nd century AD. And, don’t miss the tiny glass vases which are said to be Parthian but look very Roman!

To show how Hellenism took over in the East, there are several good examples: a terracotta of Europe seated on a steer; limestone and terracotta statuettes of Heracles; a cylinder seal with a surprising Heracles; an alabaster lady in Greek tunica; a delicate marble Aphrodite from Dura Europos (which I just visited in Syria); medallions of a Parthian king (reminding me of Charlemagne) and a winged goddess; fragments of capitals, plaques and metopes, all very Greek indeed.

Big surprise, a Chinese warrior – or isn’t it? I have to look twice at this larger than life-size figure that reminds very much of the terracotta warrior found in the graves of X’ian. What is this doing here? Well, believe me or not, it is a Parthian warrior found in the Temple of Shami, southwest Iran, dating back to the 1st century BC/1st century AD and on loan from the Museum of Teheran. Well, well!

Coins, coins, and more coins! Alexander and his Seleucian successors knew how to make the economy boom. Striking here is the imitation of an Athenian Tetra drachmae from Bactria, representing Athena on one side and the owl on the reverse. It seems so out of place! And all this leads us to Alexander’s legacy in Bactria, homeland of Roxane. Here we see two small cavalry men, one bronze in Median dress and one gold in Kushan dress (the successors of the Greek-Bactrians). There is also a tiny Alexander who lost his horse, but it’s him for sure. The story goes that it was part of a miniature set imitating the life-size bronze group representing Alexander with the 34 men he lost at the Battle of the Granicus; the original was made by Lysippus and sent to Dion where it stood till the Romans took it to Rome in 146 BC. Bactria would not be complete without examples of the finds from Ai Khanoum with many terracotta heads. From a later period, there are terracotta heads found at the Oxus Temple in what is now Tajikistan, a true mixture of Greek and Bactrian. One of the faces still carries freshly traits of paint and it was as if I were looking at Osama Bin Laden, of all people! The same goes for the heads found in Khalchajan, amazingly real! Some statuettes are in a very bad condition, broken into a thousand pieces and lovingly restored, but they definitely show their Greek roots. Another showcase contains wonderful pieces of furniture made out of ivory with clear Hellenistic influences, as seen also in the remains of a sword and elements of a flute. More terracotta household items, inlaid stonework and vessels, jewelry in gilded silver and pure gold, glass vases and beakers as those found around Bagram, ceramics, and medallions with pure Greek goddesses and figurines. Through the Kushan dynasty, the influence is still very much alive till halfway the 4th century AD. If only Alexander could have known this!

The exhibition ends with the subject “Buddhist art in Bactria and Gandhara” with several small pieces more Bactrian than Greek if you ask me, but the two Buddha statues are absolutely exquisite. There is also a smaller relief with scenes from Buddha’s life where he is surrounded by figures in very Greek outfits. Here also, I find several heads of men and women in white limestone. The heads in the next showcase look very much alive as they are made in painted terracotta. They come from Kara-Tepe in Uzbekistan and are just a little smaller than life-size, but show such expression that you wouldn’t be surprised to encounter them in today’s streets!

What I like less is the series of twelve drawings made by a certain Gerard de Lairesse around 1680 of Alexander’s triumphal entry in Babylon or the huge majolica tiles composition of the famous Alexander Mosaic made at the explicit request of Emperor Friedrich Wilhelm in 1843 – both too idealistic to my taste. Even the artistic and refined miniatures of Alexander illustrating medieval books in parchment and paper do not appeal to me. It is like making a modern statue or a modern painting, stating that this is Alexander – no way!

This visit has been so captivating that I went around three times, spending, at least, seven hours in all visiting the exhibition over two days. The audience here was amazingly quiet - even the tour guides spoke in a near whispering voice in order not to disturb, making the visit such an enjoyable one.

[Since I was not allowed to take pictures, my illustrations are just an indication of the artifacts that are exposed in Mannheim, yet they are very closely related]

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Why Alexander the Great?

Time and again, people ask me: Why are you so interested in Alexander the Great? Why Alexander? What makes him so special? As it sounds very stupid to say, “I don’t know”, I gave the matter some serious thought. As can be expected, the answer is not simple. It is like when being asked, why do you love your wife or why do you love your husband? There is not a clear cut reason, in fact, there are several or several combinations. So too when it comes to my friend, Alexander the Great, for I consider him a friend, someone I know intimately, although he lived two thousand three hundred years ago!
To say the least, he is a fascinating figure. We know his actions rather well from what has been written by ancient historians but not his personality, which modern historians try to unravel to the bone with sometimes the most absurd assumptions. In my mind, this is however the most intriguing side - one that keeps me digging ever deeper.

I can’t remember when or how exactly my passionate interest for Alexander the Great started. I may not have heard of him until my first years in highschool and that is about the time I craved for everything that was Greek and Roman.

The walls above my bed were filled with pictures from calendars showing remains of temples and theaters from all over the ancient world – I knew them by heart, and still do.

Those were the days when Ben-Hur raced from one movie theater to the next, with me in his wake! I lost track of how many times I watched the movie, not so much for the story for that is not particularly exciting, but for the setting, the landscapes, the chariots, the circus, the furniture, the ships and galleys, the uniforms and marches of the Roman soldiers, the hair-dresses and outfits of the ladies, the superb music by Miklos Rosza, etc. To me it simply meant a trip back in time. And all these discoveries about ancient history were further fuelled by treasures from across the borders that were laid out at my doorstep during the World Fair of 1958. The entrance to the Fair was just one block away from my home and it was utterly exciting to have all those faraway countries within reach. It was my worse school year, but that was a small sacrifice compared to the unique exhibitions which each country proudly presented. I think I never missed any free event over the six months the Fair lasted for I might never visit any of those countries, but at least I saw the part that came to me!

Somewhere amidst all those events, Alexander must have popped out, a hero, if ever the world has seen one. Imagine a young man of sixteen receiving the seal of Macedonia from his father to rule the country in his absence. Imagine him again at twenty when his father is assassinated and he has to take charge not only of Macedonia but of all of Greece as well. Philip II was Hegemon of all Greeks according to the treaty signed in Corinth a few years earlier and if Alexander was to walk in his father’s footsteps, i.e. to free the Greek cities of Asia Minor from Persian rule, he needed that title as with it came the contributions from all the participating city-states, including more soldiers. Not even in those days would such a young lad be trusted by the elderly or the politicians, so Alexander had to prove himself. He marched his army north and south through Greece to show his competence with such zeal, speed and victory that two years later nobody doubted that he could indeed invade Asia as planned by his father and approved by the members of the Corinthian League.

So, at twenty-two, Alexander leaves Macedonia appointing his trusted general Antipater as regent, while he sets out with an army of about 40,000 infantry and 5,000 cavalry to cross the Hellespont into Asia. The gods are with him, all the way! The Persians don’t take Alexander seriously and don’t even bother to stop him from ferrying his army across. The first opposition happens in a lost corner of Asia Minor, on the banks of the River Granicus. Darius III, King of Persia, King of Kings, does not even bother to be present in person and delegates the attack to a mercenary, a Greek on top of that, called Memnon. Well, Memnon is defeated, and Alexander marches on, taking one city after another, one port after another, all along the coast of today’s Turkey.

Amazingly, it takes King Darius more than a year before facing Alexander in person, this time at the tiny River Pinarus near Issus. The Persian army is huge compared to the Macedonian but it is outmaneuvered after the first minutes of the battle. Isn’t that enough to trigger your interest, your respect, your admiration for this young man? Who is there today at twenty-three to boost of such accomplishments, such leadership, and such audacity? How can I not admire such a personality?
King Darius literally panics and turns around, leaving the Issus’ battlefield head over heals… shame on him! Both kings will meet again, two years later in a decisive combat on Persian soil this time near Arbela, a place we all know as Gaugamela. This really does the trick, as far as I’m concerned. It is a fight worthy of David and Goliath, where Alexander with his 50,000 men stands up against Darius’ troops the number of which may be exaggerated to 500,000 but must have counted at least 250,000 – five times more than Alexander’s! The guts alone! The odds may have been against Alexander but the gods were not, and here too he is victorious as Darius once again fleas into the back country. Tactically speaking, this battle was such a marvelous prowess that it still is being taught at West Point Military Academy! And speaking of guts, do you realize that Alexander attacked an empire that was ten times bigger than his home country?

Well, so far for his campaigns, but Alexander did much and much more than winning battles. He took on the organization of the entire enterprise, working out the logistics and constantly moving his equipment and his soldiers. Everyone looked up at him for guidance, for he was not a puppet king – far from it! His shear spirit never ceases to amaze me. I read somewhere that he knew thousands of his soldiers by name. Imagine how that feels when the king knows you personally. The more reason for you to be motivated and do a proper job, and then there is the gratitude when he recognizes you among your comrades, knowing how well you fought. How inspiring this must have been!

At the height of his power, his empire stretches from Greece to India and from Uzbekistan to Egypt. His army must have counted at least one hundred thousand men, to which you have to add the entire baggage train with its merchants, peddlers, blacksmiths, tailors, stone cutters, ship builders, entertainers, carpenters, cooks, masons, road builders and whores. Alexander managed to take his dismantled ships and catapult towers with him on the road - he introduced the prefab concept eons before the word ever existed - so he could assemble them whenever needed! He moved this mass of people across scorching deserts like the Karakum and the Gedrosian, over snowcapped mountains like the Zagros and the Hindu Kush, and traversed swift running rivers as the Euphrates and Tigris, the Oxus and Indus. I try to picture that crowd of soldiers, horses, followers and equipment trudging through uncharted territories! It is dazzling!

Alexander took it upon him to organize a form of government adapted to each and every tribe and people he conquered. He founded cities at strategic trade-road crossings. We all are familiar with Alexandria in Egypt, but don’t forget cities like Khodjend in Tajikistan, Kandahar, Herat and Ai-Khanoum in Afghanistan, Samarkand in Uzbekistan, to name just a handful – and those cities still exist and still prosper. His task was absolutely colossal, and he just did it! Of course, he had his engineers and craftsmen to assist him but Alexander was the power behind it all! He decided where the city was going to be built, what its lay-out would be, which veterans no longer fit for service would settle there, etc.

Alexander also was a visionary, one that we would love to have around in our modern times! He welded the world into one country for had he lived long enough, he would have conquered the Romans also. As part of that globalization (another modern concept, we think!), he assimilated local gods to Greek gods and goddesses, making them recognizable to all. He stimulated intra-cultural marriages (after years away from home, I suppose all the Macedonian soldiers had children growing up everywhere in Alexander’s new empire), the young boys would receive a Greek education and be trained to join his army. He himself, much to the critics and sorrow of his fellow-Macedonians, adopted certain “Persian ways” not only because the Persians expected that from their king, but that too was part of the fusion of both cultures.

The Macedonians, or even the Greeks for that matter, were not ready to comprehend the vastness, the scale or the grandeur of his conquests, but Alexander did. He made excellent use of the untouched treasuries from the Persian Royal cities, minting huge amounts of gold, silver and bronze coins. He paid his army lavishly, and the men spent the money as lavishly on all kinds of extravaganza and exotics. Trade flourished and the economy was booming to a level unheard off before or after. The coins had Alexander’s image stamped on them and that was a rather new concept for until then only gods were worthy of such a favor. It seems that Alexander’s father, Philip II, was among the first to put his features on coinage, and now it was Alexander’s turn. This started the habit of putting a kings’ image on coins, something that we still do today! His coins were known and accepted all over the empire, from east to west and from north to south. It was the euro of antiquity! And we think we invented the single currency!

Finally, there is Alexander’s legacy, i.e. the impact of Greek fashion, culture and art on the occupied territories that went into history as the Hellenistic Period. Here it is that from Athens to the Indus the official language was Greek, and remained so for several hundreds of years till the Islam took over and Arabic was introduced. The cities which Alexander built were set-up according to the Hippodamian pattern with right-angled streets, and they included familiar buildings like temples, gymnasiums, theaters and stadiums. Alexander’s love for games, sportive competitions and theatrical contests with play-writers and actors travelling thousands of miles, is another tradition that was perpetrated for centuries. Architects and sculptors introduced the Hellenistic style far to the East, which is still very visible today, like for instance in the features of Buddha. And if you are familiar with the treasures of Ai-Khanoum and Tillya-Tepe that are still travelling around the world with the exhibition on "Afghanistan: Hidden Treasures from the National Museum in Kabul" you know exactly what I mean!   [photo source: Musée Guimet]

Our world would not be what it is, had it not been for Alexander the Great. To me history is simply divided in two periods: before Alexander and after Alexander, instead of splitting time up in BC and AD as we do in our Western world. No matter if I am looking at city ruins, statues, jewelry, pottery, theatre plays or ancient writers, I’ll always place them in the time frame related to Alexander. It’s either something that he could have known or was familiar with, or it’s something that he created and shaped in such a way that we can still benefit from it today.

No other man in history has had such an impact on the world as Alexander the Great. Some did try to copy him, like Caesar and Napoleon; others simply tried to conquer the world on their own, like a Genghis Khan or the Chinese Emperor Qin, but nobody raised to his high standards! Nobody ever will. That is why my life is so much centered around Alexander, called the Great, and rightfully so.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Breathtaking, Alexander the Great at Gaugamela

I’m simply out of breath! I just watched for the hundredth time or so the Alexander Revisited DVD, which is much and much better than the movie that has been shown in theaters around the world. This DVD version is arranged by Oliver Stone the way he wanted it and starts off straight away with the Battle of Gaugamela. What a performance and what an achievement! I admire Oliver Stone’s eye for detail and how he uses all the information available from antiquity – a shame that most viewers don’t see this or don’t realize it.

As always, I sit here with my eyes wide open, afraid to miss the slightest movement or action in this battle of all battles! I witness how Alexander sets off to the far right with the cavalry in his wake, making sure that Bessus takes on the pursuit, luring him away from Darius. Shrouded in a cloud of dust, Alexander’s infantry moves along, hidden from the Persian eye, a magnificent maneuver. And then, when Alexander swings around to the left, heading straight for the center where Darius is standing, Bessus finds himself unexpectedly confronted with Alexander’s infantry! I believe that only few people notice this – a pity because this is a decisive moment of the battle. I always feel out of breath when all the fighting is finally over. It is a rather sudden and unexpected closure when Darius turns around and leaves the battlefield in panic. Alexander, much to his frustration, has to let him go because Parmenion’s left wing is crumbing down and needs his support. The climax is complete, even on the screen!

After this passage, I stop my DVD. I have to recover from my overwhelming emotions!

In the same context, I watched a program last week about Darius where the question was being raised why he fled from the Battlefield at Gaugamela (as he did at Issus, by the way). Historians generally agree that Darius was not a coward. He is being described as a competent leader who has been victorious in many previous fights, so why did he flee when facing Alexander? Well, watching my DVD tonight, I suddenly realized I found an answer to that question. The fact is that Alexander headed straight for Darius – he was attacking him personally! This was no longer an organized battle of one army against the other, neither was it a fight of Persians against Greeks/Macedonians, it was Alexander himself who attacked the Great King Darius, the King of Kings!

Just imagine how in the middle of all that commotion and dust with so much tension in the air, you are suddenly facing a wild screaming “Barbarian”, ready to cut you into pieces! The adrenaline in Alexander’s blood must have risen to peak level by now. How many men has he slain? How much blood has been shed? The frenzy of battle must have been complete and suddenly out that deafening roar of war appears a most striking figure with waving plumes on his helmet, looking at you with piercing eyes that you can feel before seeing them. There comes Alexander in person, charging at you, the King! That should be enough for any man to flee head over heals, wouldn’t it?

I am so excited by what is happening there and by my own unexpected conclusions that I have to take a break in watching the movie. I’ll have another look tomorrow or so. What a grand pitched battle! Isn’t this a splendid reenactment? And then there is the music that supports this battle and carries it to a climax, it keeps on resonating in my head! I have to catch my breath and come back to my senses before returning to Alexander!

[photographs from the movie Alexander]

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Macedonian Warrior by Heckel and Jones

Macedonian Warrior, Alexander’s Elite Infantryman (ISBN 978-1841769509), is a highly informative account about this skilled entity of Alexander’s forces.

Heckel and Jones have made a praiseworthy effort to cover every aspect of infantrymen from the days of King Philip to training, campaigning, marching and fighting along with the rest of the army that accompanied Alexander the Great for more than ten years. They tell about the enlistment of the men, their appearance and equipment (sarissa, shield, body armor), and the overall conditions of service, i.e. their pay, rewards, promotions and punishments – not be taken lightly! Most interesting of all is to read about the phalanx, a formation that never failed Alexander. Very exciting to me anyway is the chapter about the splitting up of these infantrymen into pezhetairoi, asthetairoi, hypaspistai (regular hypaspists), argyraspids, hypaspistai basilikoi (royal hypaspists), taxeis and chiliarchia.

This is a rather small booklet but packed with interesting analysis of every single aspect of this force, with referrals to ancient writers, and plenty of pictures and drawings to clearly illustrate it all. In the back we find a nice glossary of the Greek words as well as museums and websites for those who want to dig in further.

In short, a must for everyone who is interested in the campaigns of Alexander the Great.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Iskander by Louis Couperus

I finally wrestled through Couperus’ book Iskander, the Persian name for Alexander the Great. It was pure stubbornness and determination that made me read it to the end. I actually read it on the recommendations of a friend who qualified it as delightful reading in a fluent narrative, having read it in a German translation. My book was in the original Dutch of the 1920’s, a very awkward and old fashioned language usage, to say the least.

I found Couperus’ description of the women especially as theatrical as the characters encountered on the set of silent movies. Besides, I missed the action that inevitably should surround Alexander for he was either fulminating in rage or speaking in over-delicate tone to Sisygambis and her grandchildren – his military conquests were put on the backburner.

Although I’m very much aware that this is a novel and that the author is, of course, entitled to his own liberties, I had a hard time accepting Couperus’ constant referrals to Alexander’s greed (oh yes?) and megalomania, his uncontrolled fits of rage and his rough humiliation of Bagoas, whom he literally crushes under his feet! The latest may simply fit the general conception of a eunuch in his days, so I can forgive him for that. I found it rather comical to read that Alexander grew a beard according to the Persian fashion that he adopted after conquering the country. Just imagine what he would have looked like! And then I failed to find anything about his close relationship with Hephaistion, who in the beginning is set at the same level as Philotas - of all people! I have not found him to be “his pillar and his sanity” as one would expect, certainly in a novel. There hardly seems to be any communication between them at all!

The German version may have been an improvement on the original Dutch text. This is rather exceptional for generally books loose their true character in translation. A comparison with Mary Renault to which my friend compared the author, is out of the question as far as I’m concerned. Whereas I can loose myself entirely in Renault’s novels and walk with her through antiquity, Couperus’ story could hardly make it to the local newspaper, to be shredded next day. Sorry. This book will sit on my shelves, a dead weight.

Those who are curious about this story telling will have a hard time finding the book at all since it is out of print since 1995 or so. I got mine second hand, but I’ll gladly pass it on to whoever is interested. Otherwise you can look it up under ISBN 90 254 1403 6.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Questioning The Tomb of King Philip II, father of Alexander the Great

Like me, you probably read Sarah Goudarzi’s article in National Geographic News, April 2008, “Alexander the Great’s "Crown", Shield Discovered?” about the new conclusions regarding the excavation site of Vergina, Greece. When these Macedonian tombs were discovered in the late 1970’s, Manolis Andronikos, archaeologist at the University of Thessaloniki, concluded that the largest and best-preserved tomb most probably belonged to King Philip II, the father of Alexander the Great. At that time, this theory was largely developed and the frieze above this so-called Tomb of Philip should even represent a hunting scene including Alexander the Great in person.

[picture from National Geographic News]

Presently, Eugene Borza, Professor Emeritus of Ancient History, The Pennsylvania State University, comes forward with a different conclusion, because Tomb II (let’s say, Philip’s) is vaulted and apparently vaulted tombs were not found before 320 BC, i.e. a good generation after Philip’s reign. Why this tomb simply could not be an earlier example of this style, the article does not explain. Another of Borza’s arguments, shared by Olga Palagia from the University of Athens is that the frieze above the entrance of the tomb represents a “ritual” hunting scene “with Asian themes”. I’m not a professional, of course, but I would like to know what makes this scene so Asian, and why is it a “ritual” hunt? I fail to see this, but who am I?

The archaeologists now attribute the artifacts from the tomb, i.e. a silver headband, an iron helmet, a ceremonial shield, a six-foot long scepter and a panoply of weapons to no one less than Alexander the Great. I can't help being skeptic about such an assumption for it would be evident that this weaponry traveled with Alexander's corpse, which we all know went to Egypt.

Both Borza’s and Palagia’s opinion is that the First Tomb, a simple “stone box”, should be considered as being the tomb of King Philip II. No golden larnax was found in there, no armory, no luxurious vessels, in fact, nothing worthy of a king and, most importantly in my eyes, nothing referring to a king. Doesn’t that seem out of proportion? While Tomb III is being attributed to Alexander’s son, Alexander IV, we do find a gold wreath and silver urn in there – so this burial went into greater expense than the one for Philip, the creator of the Macedonian phalanx, the Hegemon of Greece, the very king who put Macedonia on the map?

OK, I do agree that if the silver markings on the vessels found in Tomb II (up till now Philip's Tomb) are of the type introduced by Alexander the Great, it does not make sense to find such gifts in a Tomb dedicated to his father. Borza thus assumes that this Tomb II might well belong to King Philip III Arrhidaeus, Alexander’s simple minded half-brother who was put on the throne after Alexander’s death. Once again, we find more luxury for this burial site than for Alexander’s father.

I must say that I am quite skeptical when it comes to Eugene Borza, with all respect for his impressive title. I read his comments earlier on Oliver Stone’s movie Alexander in the AIA, and these are really below any standards! It is loaded with critics only, even those that don’t really matter as they can be explained as simple adjustments for the sake of the movie and don’t distort or effectively misrepresent the course of history or the image of Alexander’s conquest. Besides, Oliver Stone made it quite clear that he was not making a documentary, why are so many viewers expecting one? Why do we accept all the oddities and untruthfulness in a movie like Troy and not in the one about Alexander? A little tolerance could do no harm. Alexander would have shown some, why can’t Mr. Borza?

I’m curious what will come out this new theory around Vergina, especially after the Meeting of the Archaeological Institute of America that was planned for January last and the issuing publication by the German Archaeological Institute. Will National Geographic News publish the results of these meetings also? I’m looking forward to it!

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

A statue of Alexander the Great found in Alexandria?

This is the latest news from The Egypt State Information Service, published on Oct 7, 2009. Spicy headlines announce the very encouraging news about a statue of Alexander the Great being unearthed in the center of Alexandria, Egypt. But then there are still archeologists who doubt the statue is indeed Alexander, although it is being dated to the 2nd century BC and would fit the period in which Alexander’s body was transferred from Memphis to Alexandria.

The Greek delegation concludes head over heels that this discovery will lead to the Tomb of Alexander the Great, a rather daring statement, I would say, especially if other archeologists doubt this even being Alexander. I find these statements rather vague. A picture would have been helpful.

Saturday, October 3, 2009

The Campaigns of Alexander the Great by Arrian

The Campaigns of Alexander the Great by Arrian (ISBN-10: 0140442537). Simply the best! A must for every fan, admirer and fanatic of Alexander the Great.

Like it or not, this is the Bible for whoever wants to read first hand about Alexander the Great. Accounts from contemporary historians like Callisthenes, Onesicritus, Nearchus and Aristobulus did exist but came to us only in bits and pieces. Arrian was lucky enough to have access to the biography of Alexander written by Ptolemy, one of Alexander’s generals and maybe his half-brother, who later became Pharaoh of Egypt. What we know today has been recorded by a handful of ancient writers (Diodorus, Curtius Rufus and Plutarch mainly) who still had access to those old records, and Arrian is one of those writers.
Lucius Flavius Arrianus, better known as Arrian, was a Greek historian from the 2nd century AD, who served as a military commander in the Roman Empire. He had widespread interests in philosophy, topographic-ethnography, history, and military matters, which culminated in his books on Alexander. He writes in a matter-of-fact-tone without being dull or dry.

Personally, I possess the pocket version of The Campaigns of Alexander which I always carry with me when travelling. Arrian knows how to keep his reader’s mind alive, which may or may not have been influenced by the translator, Aubrey de Sélincourt. In any case, it turns out to be very pleasant and fascinating reading material. 

Over the years since antiquity up till today, whoever wants to write about Alexander the Great will always refer to Arrian in the first place. All what the history or science fiction authors tell us is based on Arrian’s accounts. He clearly states the dates and the events, describes the battlefields and positions of the armies involved with nearly analytical precision, and he puts the cities and landscapes in true perspective. Whatever information you need, you can always rely on Arrian to find it, without fringes or inessential details.

Friday, October 2, 2009

Heracles, the forgotten son of Alexander the Great

Alexander the Great still makes the headlines! After the recent speculations around the Tomb of King Philip of Macedonia in Vergina, wondering if this is indeed the tomb of Alexander’s father, there have been other new findings of two tombs in that vicinity, one of which might be that of Heracles, the illicit son of Alexander and Barsine. Barsine had been married to Memnon, the Greek mercenary and commander in chief of the Persian army who lost the battle against Alexander at the Granicus in 334 BC. He survived the battlefield and fought back fiercely later on in defending Halicarnassus, the city which Alexander besieged, to die of some illness – not a very glamorous end for a military. Barsine, his widow, was war booty although she was a Persian royal princess and must have been a rare beauty. Alexander never included her in any wedding plans but apparently, she did fit his political ambitions, for a relation with her, could be seen as a friendly gesture towards Persia. In any case, she gave him a son and he was called Heracles.

Recent excavations in Aegae have revealed the remains of a youngster who, according to one expert, could be those of Alexander’s murdered son. It is very strange however that these remains that were unearthed next to those uncovered last year were buried under unusual circumstances. Everything seems to indicate that initially they were laid to rest at another location before being reburied here, in the heart of the city. Oddly enough, these two large silver vessels were found under the Agora, close to the theatre where King Philip was murdered in 336 BC while it was common practice to entomb the dead outside the city walls.

[photo AP]

According to the article published by Associated Press, Chrysoula Saatsoglou-Paliadeli states that the silver urn looks very, very much like the one discovered several years ago in the nearby royal tumulus, close to the Tomb of Philip II. There also, archeologists couldn’t confirm who occupied the tomb, although many fingers point towards Alexander IV. Chrysoula Saatsoglou-Paliadeli believes that this newly found grave dates from the 4th century BC and is clearly of Royal Macedonian origin because of the golden crown that was found on top.

Very little is known about young Heracles. When Alexander the Great died in 323 BC, there was officially no heir to his throne. He had married Roxane a few years earlier while he was in Bactria, but their son, the later Alexander IV was not yet born when Alexander expired.

Nobody had expected Alexander to die so young, he the least of all. His generals now faced the task to appoint a successor. A series of lengthy, bloody and fanatic quarrels followed in which they fought each other, jealous and envious of whatever share of the empire the other parties could acquire. This fight for power went into history as the Wars of the Diadochi and lasted for about forty years! To give some shape and stature to the royal house of Macedon, they finally decided to crown Arrhidaeus, the simple-minded brother of Alexander the Great, as king pending the coming of age of Roxane’s son, Alexander IV.

Then like today, it was all a matter of political manipulation and poor Heracles didn’t live a happy life. According to Hieronymus, quoted by Diodorus, the boy was probably born in 328 or 327 BC, about five years after Alexander’s battle at Issus. There is no way to trace back how long Alexander’s relation with Barsine lasted. It is possible that she accompanied him until her father, the old Artabazus resigned as satrap of Bactria and she escorted him to Pergamon. Possibly Alexander’s marriage with Roxane had something to do with her leaving the baggage train. In any case, Barsine and Heracles both were residing in Pergamon when Alexander died and all of the sudden the boy was put in the floodlights.

Of course, Heracles was half Persian but after all, he also was half Macedonian and, what’s more, the son of Alexander. The Diadochi will face the same problem later on when Roxane gives birth to a boy who is only half Macedonian too. The fact that Heracles was an illegitimate son of Alexander’s was however not a problem for the Macedonians. After all Alexander’s very mother was not from Macedonian stock either as she came from Epirus.

After countless fiery discussions, Perdiccas took charge of the Empire as Regent until he clashed with Ptolemy, who appropriated Egypt. If we believe Strabo (and there is no reason not to), Perdiccas had “the children of Alexander” with him during his Egyptian campaign, which must mean that both Heracles and Alexander IV travelled with him - a way to ensure that neither of them would fall in the hands of the enemies. But then Perdiccas was killed by his own men in 320 BC and presumably Heracles returned to Pergamon.

Then it was Antipater’s turn to take over the Regency (a task that was originally entrusted to him by Alexander himself) only to die one year later. New skirmishes exploded, this time between Cassander, Antipater’s son and general of Alexander’s, and Polyperchon, also one of Alexander’s generals. This Second War of the Diadochi ended with a treaty of both men with Antigonus, another general, and the murder of Eumenes, yet another general of Alexander’s and at one time his secretary. Truly, this entire succession of Alexander the Great was a never-ending messy quarrelling filled with countless murders and manslaughter! Meanwhile, we have entered the year 317 BC and all scruples have long been obliterated. It then is the turn of the somewhat retarded Arrhidaeus to be eliminated and a year later even Alexander’s clever and manipulative mother, Olympias can’t escape her fate and is murdered.

Cassander, who once pretended to be Alexander’s faithful friend, by now is entirely intoxicated by wealth, ambition and greed, and in 310 BC he decided to poison the young prince Alexander IV and his mother Roxane! Well, he didn’t have the guts to do it himself, of course, but instructed the prince’s guardian, Glaucias to clear the job. So much for Cassander’s friendship! 

When this news reached the other Diadochi, Cassander’s enemies erupted in new speculations and conspiracies, especially Polyperchon who was master over the Peloponnesus and Antigonus who ruled Anatolia. Remaining as Alexander’s sole heir, it was obvious that all attention now focused once again on Heracles in Pergamon. This city was part of Antigonus’ empire, and Polyperchon who was yearning to steal away Cassander’s power in Macedon conceived all sorts of tricks to achieve his goal. In his report Diodorus mentions that Polyperchon sent letters to all his friends and to Cassander’s enemies, pleading to restore the now almost seventeen years old Heracles on the throne of his forefathers. Everything went according to his plans, but while Heracles settled in Polyperchon’s camp, Cassander had second thoughts and felt uneasily threatened. He instructed a messenger to carry such attractive promises to Polyperchon as to melt their territories together and to rule jointly without having to bow to any king. The proposition sounded very attractive indeed and Polyperchon agreed with Cassander to eliminate Heracles. This happened probably in 309 BC.

[photo from unknown origin]

In his Moralia, Plutarch mentions that Polyperchon was paid one hundred talents by Cassander to kill Heracles. True or not, the story goes that Polyperchon invited Heracles to dinner but the young man asked to be excused as he didn’t trust him or was scared (rightfully so, as he’ll find out afterwards). Unhappy with this response, Polyperchon then visited the young prince in his quarters and told him “the first quality of your father you should imitate is his readiness to oblige and attachment to his friends” (Dixit Plutarch) unless the young prince would accuse him of treason? Heracles was left no choice but to attend the dinner. His meal was served and he was strangled. Justinian pretends that upon Cassander’s instructions, Barsine was murdered at the same time as her son and that their bodies were secretly hidden in the earth to erase all traces of this crime (meaning there would be no pyre as was the custom).

Not the prettiest picture of the Macedonian rulers – enough to make Alexander turn in his grave, no doubt! But these facts leave us with a number of corpses that are not accounted for. We don’t know how, where or when they were disposed of. One known theory is that Alexander IV lies in the tomb next to that of Philip II in Vergina, but even that has not been confirmed. And with this new evidence, we have another theory regarding the remains of Heracles that were found in the same area, although not in a tomb. There is still no trace whatsoever of the resting place of Roxane, Barsine or even Olympias. What a story to investigate further through Unsolved Mysteries!