Sunday, September 18, 2011

The Campaigns of Alexander: The good, the bad, and the ugly of Books 4 & 5

Alexander and Porus, Charles Le Brun (1673)
Picture source

I wanted to highlight a few of the good, bad and really bad things that happen in these pages. If pointing out Alexander’s dark side makes me “mean, obscure and dull”, so be it.

The Good
Alexander solidifies his reputation for military genius in many different and difficult circumstances. Through his actions Alexander reinforces his contention at Gaza that “the harder the conquest, the more it should be attempted” (quotes come from The Landmark Arrian: The Campaigns of Alexander, translation by Pamela Mensch). The difficulty in capturing impregnable fortresses such as the Sogdian Rock and the Aornos Rock demonstrates his determination to succeed at the impossible. His plan and his troops’ execution against the Indian king Poros at the Hydaspes River battle highlights Alexander’s cleverness in set-piece battles. Unlike the three battles against Darius’ army, Alexander did not have the older generals Parmenion (killed by an ordered assassination) or Kleitos (murdered by Alexander’s hand) to rely on, thus putting his own distinctive stamp on this battle.

The Bad
Alexander proved himself a master of propaganda and troop morale but his touch fails him at times in these books. His insistence on the ritual of proskynesis, following the Persian ceremony of bowing before the king, grated on the Macedonians and Greeks in Alexander’s retinue. Such a ritual would be offensive to Hellene sensibilities, seeing the adoption of a barbarian custom as well as appearing to ask followers to revere a human instead of a god. To this point Alexander’s leadership has been skillful so a misstep this simple, ignoring the religious implications in requiring this social act, hints at ... something. Kallisthenes’ reproof highlights the religious implications and the average Macedonian response to it, meaning Alexander would not be blind to future reactions to his request for divine recognition. It’s easy to wonder at what point his close friends acknowledged the changes in Alexander (as we’ll see in the remaining books).

Since Alexander seems to take enemy resistance as a personal affront, the public rebukes by Kleitos and Kallisthenes all but sealed their deaths. Koinos’ speech at the Hyphasis River, and the soldiers’ reaction to it, makes it clear that that Alexander’s men still support him but not his desires—they want to go home. The trend we see with Koinos, Kleitos, and Kallisthenes speaking out against Alexander appears to mark a change in Alexander and his relationship to his men. Even Arrian, a dedicated apologist for Alexander, feels the need to either speak against him or tortuously defend him.

The Ugly
This category has many possibilities: the mutilation of Bessos, the murder of Kleitos, the massacres at Massaka and Aornos Rock are a few possibilities. Arrian’s formula for Alexander shows generous behavior when vanquished foes behave honorably, such as Khorienes (provisions Alexander’s army) or Poros (noble behavior on the field of battle and in defeat). For any person or group of people that terribly vexes him, though, no mercy is shown. The massacres at Massaka and Aornos Rock, despite Arrian’s excuses, appear as a calculated act of political terrorism. Alexander’s dark side, which seems to be increasingly on display, is just getting warmed up for the marches down the Indus River valley and across the Gedrosian desert. And more.

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