Alexander the Great

New Article: Mountain Passes Ancient and Modern

Two bay horses in a steeply sloped pasture full of wild grasses and flowers
Descendants of mighty Rhaetian war-horses? West side of the Brenner near Patsch, Tirol.

In mid-September I got lost on my return from the Goldbichl and found myself between Patsch and the Brennerautobahn. If you spend time hiking in Tirol that happens frequently, even though the mountain peaks provide good points of references and there are networks of paved or gravelled paths dotted with nice yellow signs, some of which even point within 90 degrees of the actual direction. And if you think about why that happens, you will understand the topic of my latest article for Ancient Warfare, namely why armies in eastern Anatolia (modern Turkey) follow the same few routes for thousands of years.
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Monarchy and Power in Ancient Macedonia

The speakers at the conference on the Courts of Philip II and Alexander the Great, Edmonton AB, 2-4 May 2018. I am fourth from the left next to the woman in the yellow dress.

At the beginning of May I attended the conference on the courts of Philip and Alexander at the University of Alberta, Edmonton. I arrived late due to some travel problems, so I can’t talk about Graham Wrightson’s sarissa project down in South Dakota. Most of the intended guests were there, although unfortunately Pat Wheatley from Otago New Zealand had to cancel. (Aside from the Otagonians, there were two of us from Austria, two from Germany, two from Poland, one from South Africa, and the rest from Canadian, American, and British universities).

Quite a few scholars have taken a postmodern approach to Alexander, emphasizing that the vast majority of sources date from Roman times or questioning whether after 200 years of learned scholarship there are any more facts to tease out (Mary Beard’s “Alexander: How Great?” in the New York Review of Books is a good example, even though it contains one or two howlers … if she has ever written up similar ideas in a more careful way, please let me know!)* The papers on Thursday took the opposite view, showing that for a figure in ancient or medieval history, we are quite well informed about Alexander.

Sabine Müller had a very amusing paper about Macedonia in Athenian comedy, with its stereotypes of hard-drinking, fish-eating, rough and tough northerners. Several speakers looked at the Attic orators, and all the gossip about upper-class men in southern Greece which survives. These texts are as blissfully self-centred as the opinion section of a national news magazine, but they have all kinds of stories about who was marrying or bedding whom, who fumbled their speech at a particular embassy or accepted a gift of golden cups, and the different policies which people adopted as Macedonian power grew. Dina Guth looked at stories about the origins of Macedonia, and how in different tellings Macedonia either came into existence at a specific place and expanded by conquest, or was the result of fusing different lands and peoples into something new. This was an important question if you were an Argead king trying to justify your rule and find a modus vivendi with other powerful families. Jeanne Reames used onomastics to try and track down Hephaistion’s family background. In Argead times, names invoking Hephaistus are much more common in Aeolis, Boeoetia, Attica and the Crimea than in northern Greece and Macedonia, which raises the possibility that his family were immigrants. Fred Naiden looked at references to Alexander discussing military problems with his advisors, and said that on a quick look, he could not find a similar list for any general before modern times. While it is hard to pick out fact from slander or apology in stories about Parmenio warning Alexander not to take a risk, or Darius offering to trade peace for half his kingdom, we at least have a great many opportunities to study how Alexander and his companions made decisions. For most kings, we have no sources instead of unreliable sources.
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Scythed Chariots

A Persian scythed chariot as imagined by the artists at DBA Online http://www.dbaol.com/ I like the style and colour, although someone should have reminded the artist that these chariots just had a driver, no passengers with bows!

As I write a section of the chapter of my dissertation on Greek literature, I have been thinking about how that literature drives ideas about the Achaemenids along certain channels. Achaemenid historians trained as classicists have trouble forgetting a long list of tropes, stereotypes, and traditions which began in the Achaemenid period but were even more vividly expressed in Roman times. A good example is the most famous Persian weapon, the scythed chariot.

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The Thrust of an Argument

See caption
Impression of a seal on clay: a warrior in a Median hood and a cuirass with a tall projection behind the neck with a piercing axe thrust into it pulls an enemy’s shield down and stabs overhand into his chest as the enemy brandishes a club. From Erich F. Schmidt with contributions by Sydney P. Noe et al., Frederick R. Matson, Lawrence J. Howell, and Louisa Bellinger, Persepolis II: Contents of the Treasury and Other Discoveries. Oriental Institute Publications 69. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1957 plate 9 seal 30. http://oi.uchicago.edu/research/publications/oip/oip-69-persepolis-ii-contents-treasury-and-other-discoveries

Sometime in the sixteenth year of Xerxes great king (circa 468/7 BCE in our calendar), someone at Persepolis turned a tablet with Elamite writing on end and rolled his seal along it. A conversation with Josho Brouwers of Karwansaray BV recalled it to memory. Because this seems to show the style of body armour with a tall neck-guard and flaps over the shoulders which is often understood as distinctively Greek and said to have been invented about a hundred years before Xerxes based on its appearance in Greek vase paintings. But there is no hint of the Aegean in this scene, and this armour is missing the skirt of pteryges around the waist which usually appear in depictions of armour with this cut from the Aegean.


Showing where this style of armour was invented and how it spread and changed is more difficult than it sounds. It is true that the earliest evidence is painted pottery from mainland Greece in the early sixth or perhaps the late seventh century BCE. But in the sixth century BCE, it happens that we have much more evidence for arms and armour from the Aegean than from anywhere in the neighbourhood. The people there painted armoured men on their pots with durable glazes and carved them on stone, and they deposited large amounts of armour and weapons in graves and especially temples. So it is very dangerous to say that the Greeks invented an object just because it is first depicted in the Aegean, especially if that object is one which does not survive well in the ground. It is usually thought that the first armours with this cut were of cloth or felt or hide, and none of those materials survives 2500 years in the ground unless the conditions are just right. Although by the second century BCE armour with this cut was being worn all around the Mediterranean and made in every possible material, not a single fragment made from cloth or hide has been identified. So while this style of armour was probably invented somewhere in or near to the Aegean around the sixth century BCE, its hard to say for sure that it was invented by Greeks.

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Two Perspectives on the Astronomical Diary for Gaugamela, Part 1: Background

It is notorious that few stories about Alexander the Great written during his lifetime survive. The embroidered narratives by Greek and Latin writers which form the basis of most modern accounts were written 300 to 500 years later. A few of Alexander’s coins and inscriptions have been preserved, but they naturally give his point of view. A few chance references in Greek literature give a sense of the shock which many contemporaries felt that the king of a land on the edge of civilization suddenly overthrew the greatest power which had ever existed and conquered places which were little more than legends. One of the few long stories about Alexander which does survive in a version written during his lifetime is a cuneiform text, the Astronomical Diary for Gaugamela. This week I thought that I would write an introduction to the Diary and what is involved in reading such a text. Next week I will talk about two different ways of reading them as represented in articles by R.J. van der Spek (English: Darius III, Alexander the Great, and Babylonian Scholarship) and by Robert Rollinger and Kai Ruffing (German: ‘Panik’ im Heer: Dareios III, die Schlacht von Gaugamela, und die Mondfinsternis vom 20. September 331 vor Christ). I hope that the second will be helpful for readers who are interested in ancient history but not comfortable reading German.
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A Comment to “The Prince”

Nicolo Machiavelli, tr. W.K. Mariott, Il Principe courtesy of Project Gutenberg: Chapter IV Why the Kingdom of Darius, Conquered by Alexander, did not Rebel Against the Successors of Alexander at his DeathConsidering the difficulties which men have had to hold to a newly acquired state, some might wonder how, seeing that Alexander the Great became... Continue reading: A Comment to “The Prince”