Young Macedonian in the Army of Alexander the Great - Alfred J. Church


Whether Charidemus would have reached his destination in safety in the company of his Persian guardians may well be doubted. Artabazus himself seemed well disposed to him. The young noble had spent some time in Greece, having been attached to more than one embassy sent to that country, spoke the language with ease and fluency, and had at least some outside polish of Hellenic culture. But the troopers were genuine barbarians, exasperated to the last degree by their recent defeat, who would have had little scruple in wreaking their vengeance on unprotected Greeks. Happily for Charidemus, he was not long exposed to the dangers of the journey. Alexander, with his usual energy, had already taken measures to secure Damascus. Parmenio was instructed to push forward to that city, where it was well known that an immense spoil awaited the conquerors. The treasure captured in the Persian camp had not been very large; the bulk had been left in Syria, and it was important to get hold of it without delay.

Parmenio lost no time in executing his commission. His main body would require two or three days' preparation before it could march; but some light horse was sent on at once to cut off any fugitives who might be making their way from the field of Issus to the Syrian capital. It was at one of the fords of the Upper Orontes that this detachment came in sight of Artabazus and his companions. The river had been swollen by a heavy fall of rain among the hills, and was rolling down in a turbid and dangerous-looking stream. The troopers, catching sight of the Macedonian cavalry, as it came in sight over the brow of a neighbouring hill, rushed helter-skelter into the ford, without giving a thought either to their chief or their prisoner. The leader's horse, a young untrained animal, refused to enter the water. Twice, thrice was he brought to the brink, but he could not be induced to go in. Meanwhile the pursuers had come within a stone's-throw of the water. Artabazus saw that escape was hopeless, and he disdained to surrender. He turned his horse from the stream, drew his scymetar from its gilded sheath, and threw himself furiously upon the nearest horseman. The man raised his shield to ward off the blow, but the good Damascus blade sheared off three or four inches of the tough bull's hide, and inflicted a deadly wound on the spot so often fatal, where the lappet of the helmet joined the coat-of-mail. The next moment the Persian's horse was brought to the ground by the thrust of a lance, and the rider, as he lay entangled in its trappings, received a mortal wound from a second blow of the same weapon.

Charidemus, who had been sitting on his horse, a passive spectator of the scene just described, now came forward to report himself to the officer in command. There was no need, he found, to explain who he was, for the officer happened to be an old acquaintance, and warmly congratulated him on his escape. "Many thanks," said Charidemus, "but see whether you cannot save your prisoner there alive. He is of one of the Seven Houses, and should be worth a ransom almost royal."

The officer leapt from his horse, and examined the prostrate man. "He is past all help," was the verdict, after a brief examination, "Not Ćsculapius himself could heal him. But he seems to want, to speak to you; I thought I heard him whisper your name."

In a moment Charidemus was on his knees by the dying man's side, and put his ear to his lips. The words that he caught were these: "Damascus—the street of the coppersmiths—Manasseh the Jew." With that his utterance failed; there were a few convulsive gasps for breath, a faint shiver, and then all was over.

It was not a time for much funeral ceremony. A shallow grave was scooped in the sand by the river side, and the body, stripped of armour and weapons, but allowed to retain cloak, tunic, and sandals, was hastily covered over. All the valuables that were found upon the dead were considered to be the booty of the troop; but Charidemus purchased a bracelet, a chain, and a ring. He could not help thinking that the dying man had wished to entrust some commission to him. These articles might at least help to identify him.

After crossing the Orontes, the party halted for the night, and by the bivouac-fire Charidemus told his story, and heard, in his turn, many particulars of the great fight which it had been his strange fortune to see from the side of the vanquished. "We gave you up for lost," said his new companion, who, by the way, was no less distinguished a person than Philotas, son of Parmenio. "A few poor wretches found their way back into the camp; but those brute-like barbarians had shorn off noses, ears, and hands. Many died of loss of blood on the way, and some only just lived long enough to get within the lines. The survivors told us that all the officers had been killed. But, you seem a special favourite of the gods. They must surely be keeping you for something great. And your Theban friend—what of him? I hope that Pylades escaped as well as Orestes."

"Yes, by good luck," said Charidemus, "a Theban exile who was with Darius recognized him, and saved his life. He is, I take it, at Damascus by this time."

"Where we shall soon find him, I hope," returned Philotas. "That is the place we are bound for; and if the stories that the deserters tell us are only half true, we shall have rare sport then. My father is in command of the main body; but we will take care to keep well ahead of the old man, and have the first sight of the good things."

The party had yet more than two hundred miles to ride before reaching their journey's end. Weak as they were—for they did not number in all more than two hundred men—they pushed on in supreme indifference to any possible danger. Danger indeed there was none. The country was stripped of troops, for every available soldier had been swept off by the levies to swell the host that had been gathered only to be scattered to the winds at Issus. A few indeed had found their way back, but these were glad to bury their weapons, and to forget that they had ever wielded them for so unlucky a cause. As for raising them again against these wonderful warriors from the west, before whom the armies of the Great King had melted as snow melts in the sun, that would be madness indeed. Philotas's party met with no opposition; indeed, as far as the Syrian population showed any feeling at all, the new-comers seemed to be welcomed. The Persians had not made themselves beloved, and a change of masters might, it was felt, be a change for the better.

It was about a fortnight after crossing the Orontes that the detachment came in sight of Damascus. They were gazing with delight, as so many travellers have gazed, at the City of Gardens, when a Syrian lad came up to the party, and contrived with some difficulty to make them understand that he had a message to deliver to their chief. Accordingly he was conducted into the presence of Philotas, and put into his hands a small roll of paper. It proved to be a communication from the Persian governor of Damascus. The lad, when further questioned by the help of a peasant who acted as interpreter, said that he had been sent with orders to deliver the letter into the hands of the first Macedonian officer whom he might be able to find. It was thus:—

"Oxathres, Governor of Damascus, to the Lieutenant of the Great and Victorious Alexander, into whose hands this may fall. Seeing that the Gods have so manifestly declared that they adjudge the kingdom of Asia to the great Alexander, it becomes the duty of all their dutiful servants and worshippers to respect their decree. Know, therefore, that great treasures of King Darius, lately deposited by him in this city of Damascus, are now about to be conveyed away by certain disloyal and ill-disposed persons by way of Tadmor."

"We shall have plenty of time to cut them off," remarked Philotas on reading the communication, "for they have the longer distance to travel, and must move slowly. How will they travel, Philip?" he went on, addressing a sub-officer, who had been in the country before.

"If they go by way of Tadmor," replied the man, "they must cross the desert, and will use camels; we had best be beforehand with them, before they get far on the way."

Philotas accordingly gave orders to his troop to start immediately. They took an eastward direction, and by sunset had reached a point on the road which would necessarily have to be passed by a caravan journeying from Damascus. The keeper of the inn, one of the shelters for travellers which the Persian Government had provided along the principal roads, informed them that nothing of the kind described had as yet passed.

It was about sunset next day before the caravan appeared. It was accompanied by a small escort of Persian soldiers, who, however, made no attempt to defend their charge. Indeed, they showed so little surprise or alarm at the appearance of the Macedonian troops that Philotas could hardly help suspecting that the whole business had been contrived, the removal of the treasure being only a feint, by means of which the governor of the city hoped to get some credit with his new masters. The packages with which the animals were loaded bore the royal seal. These Philotas thought it best not to disturb. The Persian soldiers were disarmed, and, as it would cause the party inconvenient delay were they to be encumbered with prisoners, dismissed. They gave a promise not to serve again, and as they were all of the unwarlike Syrian race, were very likely to keep it. The caravan was then turned back by the way on which it had come, and Damascus was reached without any further incident.

Philotas had been right when he anticipated that the city would be a prey of extraordinary richness. The camp which had fallen into the hands of the conquerors at Issus had seemed to these simple and frugal soldiers the ne plus ultra  of luxury, while Darius and his nobles probably fancied that they had limited what they had brought with them to the very narrowest and most necessary requirements in furniture and followers. It was at Damascus that the invaders discovered in what sort of state the Great King travelled when he was not actually in the face of the enemy. There was a vast amount of gold, though this was small in comparison with what afterwards fell into Alexander's hands; but it was the extraordinary number of ministers to the pleasures of the court that struck the new-corners with astonishment. Parmenio, giving a catalogue of his captures to the king, enumerates the following:

329 Singing-girls.
46 Male chaplet-makers.
277 Cooks.
29 Kitchen-helpers, perhaps turnspits
("pot-boilers" is the word in the original)
13 Makers of milk puddings.
17 Strainers of wine.
40 Perfume makers.

And these belonged to the royal establishment alone! The great nobles had establishments, not, indeed, on so large a scale, but still incredibly magnificent and costly. The booty in treasure and slaves that was at the disposal of the conquerors was simply beyond all reckoning.

After an interview with the governor, whom he thanked with perfect gravity for his timely communication, Philotas thought it better to encamp his men outside the city, and there await the arrival of the main body under his father. Some disaster might happen if he allowed his frugal campaigners free access to a place so full of temptations.

Charidemus, who indeed was not strictly under his command, was not prevented from visiting the city. His first inquiries were for Charondas, whom he found in the company of his compatriot, and whose release from the nominal custody in which he had been kept he obtained without difficulty.

He had not, we may be sure, forgotten Barsiné, and, still less, the young Clearista; and he had good reason for believing that they were both in Damascus. Memnon, he remembered, had spoken of sending his wife and his niece to Susa, nominally as hostages, really to remove them as far as possible from the scene of war. Doubtless this had been done. But Darius, he heard, had carried the hostages with him in his train, and when he had resolved to risk a battle, had sent them to Damascus. The difficulty was in finding them. Not only was the city so crowded with the harems of the great Persian nobles that the search would in any case have been difficult, but it was impossible to ask questions. The Persians shut up their wives and daughters with a jealous care, and the Greeks about the Court had adopted their customs. Even intimate friends never spoke to each other about the women of their families. For two young soldiers to go about making inquiries about certain high-born ladies was a thing not to be thought of. If they were so rash as to do it, they certainly would get no answer. The idea of meeting them in public only suggested itself to put aside. At any time it would have been most unlikely. Ladies of high rank never went out but in carriages, and then they were closely veiled. As things were then, with an invading army in possession of the town, it was extremely unlikely that they would go out at all.

[Illustration] from Young Macedonian by Alfred J. Church


Once, indeed, our hero fancied that chance had given him a clue. The two friends had wandered down a lane shaded on either side by the trees that overhung it from two high-walled gardens, and leading down to one of the streams that make Damascus a mass of greenery. A flash of something bright moving amidst the foliage of the trees caught the eye of Charidemus. It disappeared, and then again became visible, to disappear once more as quickly. It was a minute or two before the young man realized that what he saw shining so brightly in the sunshine was the hair of a girl who was swinging between two trees. More he could not see from where he stood, or from any part of the lane, so thick, except in one small spot, was the foliage. Even to climb the wall would not have served him. But the glimpse was enough. Charondas was both incredulous and amused when his friend asserted that this particular tint of auburn was to be found on no head throughout Persia and Greece save on Clearista's alone. They were arguing the point when a huge negro, carrying some gardening tools, issued from a door in the wall of the opposite garden. He made a clumsy salutation to the two young soldiers, but eyed them with an expression of suspicion and dislike. The next time, and that was not later than the following day, that the friends sought to make their way to the same spot, they found the entrance to the lane barred by a quite impracticable gate. That flash of auburn hair in the sunshine might have been a clue; but if so, the clue seemed to have been lost.