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

News from the East

The six years that followed were years of quiet, uneventful happiness for Charidemus and his wife. The governorship of Pergamos was not exactly a sinecure, but it was not laborious. The garrison duty was of the slightest. The place was practically safe from attack, even if there had been any enemies to attack it. The governor's chief duty was the charge of a depôt, for which the town had been found a convenient situation. New troops were trained at it; troops who were invalided, or who had passed their time, were sent there to receive their formal discharge. These veterans had much to tell of what the army was doing. Of course plenty of fable was mixed with the fact, the more so as much of the news came at second or third hand and from very remote regions indeed. A more regular and reliable source of information were the letters which Charondas, who had been attached to headquarters, continued to send to his friend. The two had contrived a system of cypher, and so the Theban was able to express himself with a freedom which he would not otherwise have been able to use. Some extracts from these letters I shall give:

". . . So Bessus the murderer has met with his deserts. We crossed the Oxus, the most rapid and difficult river that we have yet come to. We got over on skins, and lost, I am afraid, a good many men and horses. I myself was carried down full half a mile before I could get to land, and thought more than once that it was all over with me. If Bessus had tried to stop us there must have been disaster; but we heard afterwards that he had been deserted by his men. Very soon after we had crossed the river he was taken. I have no pity for the villain; but I could wish that the king had not punished him as he did. He had his nostrils and ears cut off. You remember how Alexander was moved when he saw those poor mutilated wretches at Persepolis, what horror he expressed. And now he does the same things himself! But truly he grows more and more barbarian in his ways. Listen again to this. We came a few days since on our march to a little town that seemed somewhat differently built from the others in this country. The people came out to greet us." Their dress was partly Greek, partly foreign; their tongue Greek but mixed with barbarisms, yet not so much but that we readily understood them. Nothing could be more liberal than their offers; they were willing to give us all they had. The king inquired who they were. They were descended, he found—indeed they told the story themselves without any hesitation—from the families of the priests of Apollo at Branchidæ. These priests had told the secret of where their treasures were kept to King Xerxes after his return from Greece, and he to reward them, and also we may suppose, to save them from the vengeance of their countrymen, had planted them in this remote spot, where they had preserved their customs and language as well as they could. Now who could have imagined that the king should do what he did? He must avenge forsooth the honour of Apollo on these remote descendants of the men who caused his shrine to be robbed! He drove the poor creatures back into their town, drew a cordon of soldiers round it, and then sent in a company with orders to massacre every man, woman, and child in it. He gave me the command of these executioners. I refused it. 'It is against my vows, my lord,' I said. I thought that he would have struck me down where I stood. But he held his hand. He is always tender with me, for reasons that he has; and since he has been as friendly as ever. But what a monstrous deed! Again I say, the barbarian rather than the Greek.

. . . . . .

"Another awful deed! O my friend, I often wish that I were with you in your peaceful retirement. In war the king is as magnificent as ever, but at home he becomes daily less and less master of himself. Truly he is then as formidable to his friends, as he is at other times to his enemies. What I write now I saw and heard with my own eyes. At Maracanda there was a great banquet—I dread these banquets a hundred-fold more than I dread a battle—to which I was invited with some hundred other officers. It was in honour of Cleitus, who had been appointed that day to the government of Bactria. When the cup had gone round pretty often, some of those wretched creatures who make it their business to flatter the king—it pains me to see how he swallows the flatteries of the very grossest with greediness—began to magnify his achievements. He was greater than Dionysus, greater than Hercules; no mortal could have done such things; it was only to be hoped that the gods would not take him till his work was done. If I was sickened to hear such talk, what think you I felt when Alexander himself began to talk in the same strain. Nothing would satisfy him but that he must run down his own father Philip. 'It was I,' he said, 'who really won the victory of Chæronea, though Philip would never own it. And, after all, what petty things that and all his victories are compared to what I have done!' On this I heard Cleitus whisper to his neighbour some lines from Euripides:

" 'When armies build their trophies o'er the foe,

Not they who bear the burden of the day,

But he who leads them reaps alone the praise.'

" 'What did he say?' said the king, who guessed that this certainly was no flattery. No one answered. Then Cleitus spoke out. He, too, had drunk deeply. (What a curse this wine is! Do you remember that we heard of people among the Jews who never will taste it. Really I sometimes think that they are in the right.) He magnified Philip. 'Whoever may have won the day at Chæronea,' he said, 'anyhow it was a finer thing than the burning of Thebes.' I saw the king wince at this as if some one had struck him. Then turning directly to Alexander, Cleitus said, 'Sir, we are all ready to die for you; but it is hard that when you are distributing the prizes of victory, you keep the best for those who pass the worst insults on the memory of your father.' Then he went on to declare that Parmenio and Philotas were innocent—in fact, I do not know what he said. He was fairly beyond himself. The king certainly bore it very well for a long time. At last, when Cleitus scoffed at the oracle of Ammon—'I tell you the truth better than your father Ammon did,' were his words—the king's patience came to an end. He jumped from his couch, caught hold of a spear, and would have run Cleitus through on the spot had not Ptolemy and Perdiccas caught him round the waist and held him back, while Lysimachus took away the lance from him. This made him more furious than ever. 'Help, men,' he cried to the soldiers on guard. 'They are treating me as they treated Darius.' At that they let go their hold. It would have been dangerous to touch him. He ran out into the porch and caught a spear from a sentinel. Just then Cleitus came out. 'Who goes there?' he said. Cleitus gave his name. 'Go to your dear Philip and your dear Parmenio!' shouted the king, and drove the spear into his heart.

. . . . . .

"The king is better again, but he has suffered frightfully. Again and again he offered to kill himself. For three days and nights he lay upon the ground, and would neither eat nor drink. At last his bodyguard fairly forced him to do so. One curious reason for the king's madness I heard. The fatal feast was held in honour of the Twin Brethren, and it was one of the sacred days of Bacchus! Hence the wrath of the neglected god. It is certainly strange how this wrath, be it fact or fancy, continues to haunt him.

. . . . . .

"Thank the gods we are in the field, and Alexander is himself again. Nay, he is more than himself. Sometimes I scarcely wonder at the flatterers who say that he is more than man. There never was such energy, such skill, so much courage joined to so much prudence. His men will follow him anywhere; when he heads them they think nothing impossible. Since I last wrote he has done what no man has ever done before; he has tamed the Scythians. The great Cyrus, you know, met his end at their hands; Darius narrowly escaped with his life. And now this marvellous man first conquers them and then makes friends of them. A week ago he took in a couple of days a place which every one pronounced to be impregnable: the 'Sogdian Rock,' they called it. Never before had man entered it except with the good will of those who held it. It was a rock some two hundred cubits high, rising almost sheer on every side, though, of course, when one looked closely at it, there were ledges and jutting points on which an expert climber could put his foot. The king summoned the barbarians to surrender. If they would, he said, they should go away unharmed, and carry all their property with them. They laughed at him. 'If you have any soldiers with wings, you should send them,' they said, 'we are not afraid of any others.' The same day the king called an assembly of the soldiers. 'You see that rock,' he said, 'we must have it. The man who first climbs to the top shall have twelve talents, the second eleven, the third ten, and so on. I give twelve prizes; twelve will be enough.' That night three hundred men started for this strange race. They took their iron tent-pegs with them, to drive into the ice or the ground, as it might be, and ropes to haul themselves up by. Thirty fell and were killed. The rest reached the top, the barbarians not having the least idea that the attempt was being made. At dawn Alexander sent the herald again. 'Alexander,' he said, 'has sent his soldiers with wings, and bids you surrender.' They looked round, and the men were standing on the top. They did not so much as strike a single blow for themselves. It is true that others did this for the king. But this is the marvel of him. Not only does he achieve the impossible himself, but he makes other achieve it for him.

. . . . . .

"We have fought and won a great battle, greater by far than Granicus, or Issus, or Arbela. We had crossed the Indus—I talk, you see, familiarly of rivers of which a year or two ago scarcely any one had ever heard the name—and had come to the Hydaspes. There a certain Porus, king of the region that lies to the eastward of that river, was encamped on the opposite bank. Our Indian allies—happily the tribes here have the fiercest feuds among themselves—said that he was by far the most powerful prince in the whole country. And indeed when we came to deal with his army we found it a most formidable force, not a few good troops with an enormous multitude of helpless creatures who did nothing but block up the way, but really well-armed, well-disciplined soldiers. The first thing was to get across the river. It was quite clear that Porus was not going to let us get over at our own time and in our own way, as Darius let us get across the Euphrates and the Tigris. You would have admired the magnificent strategy by which Alexander managed it. First, he put the enemy off their guard by a number of false alarms. Day after day he made feints of attempting the passage, till Porus did not think it worth while to take any notice of them. Then he gave out that he should not really attempt it till the river became fordable, that is, quite late in the summer. Meanwhile he was making preparations secretly. The place that he pitched upon was about seventeen miles above Porus's camp. The river divides there, flowing round a thickly-wooded island. To get to this island—a thing which could be done without any trouble—was to get, you see, half across the river. We had had a number of large boats for the crossing of the Indus. These were taken to pieces, carried across the country, and then put together again. Besides these there was a vast quantity of bladders. Craterus was left with about a third of the army opposite to Porus's camp. He was to make a feint of crossing, and convert it into a real attempt if he saw a chance of making good his landing. You see the real difficulty was in the enemy's elephants. Horses will not face elephants. If Porus moved his elephants away, then Craterus was to make the attempt in earnest. Some other troops were posted half way between the camp and the island. These were to make another feint. The king himself was going to force a passage at all hazards. Then came in his good luck, which is really almost as astonishing as his skill. There was a violent thunderstorm in the night. In the midst of this, while there was so much noise from the thunder and the torrents of rain that nothing could be heard on the opposite bank, the king's force got across to the island. Then, by another stroke of good fortune, the rain ceased, and the rest of the crossing was finished without having to strike a blow.

[Illustration] from Young Macedonian by Alfred J. Church


"Meanwhile Porus had heard that something was going on higher up the river, and sent a detachment of cavalry under one of his sons to defend the bank. It was too late. If they had come while we were crossing, they might have made the work very difficult. As it was, they were simply crushed by our cavalry.

"Then we marched on—I had crossed, I should have told you, with the king—and about half way to Porus's camp, found him with his army drawn up. Very formidable it looked, I assure you. In front of the centre were the elephants. We had never met elephants before. Some of our men had never even seen them. I think now, after trial of them, that they look a great deal worse than they are; but at the time they alarmed me very much. How our lines could stand firm against such monsters I could not think. On the wings were the chariots, with four horses all of them. Each chariot had six men in it, two heavily-armed, two archers, and two drivers. The cavalry were posted behind the chariots, and the infantry behind the elephants.

"Alexander began by sending the mounted archers into action, by way of clearing the way for himself and his cavalry. The archers sent a shower of arrows on the chariots in front of the left wing. These were closely packed together, and made an excellent mark. Some of the arrows, I observed, fell among the cavalry behind them. Meanwhile Alexander, with the élite  of the cavalry, had gained one of their flanks, while Cœnus threatened the other. They tried to form a double front. While they were making the change, the king fell upon them like a thunderbolt. They held their own for a short time; but our cavalry was too heavy for them. They fell back upon the elephants.

"Here there was a check. At one time I thought there was going to be more than a check. Our horses could not be brought to face the great brutes; the horses of the Indians were used to them, and moved in and out among them freely. Nor could the phalanx stand against them. The long spears were simply brushed aside like so many straws when an elephant moved up against the line. If their drivers could have kept them under control, it must have gone hard with us. But they could not. There are thin places in the animal's skin where it can be easily wounded; and when it is wounded it is at least as dangerous to friends as to enemies. Only a few of the creatures were killed, but many became quite unmanageable. At last, as if by common consent—and this was one of the most curious things I had ever seen—such as were still serviceable, turned and left the field. They seemed to know that they were beaten. Indeed, I have since been told that their sagacity is wonderful.

"Porus was mounted on the largest elephant, and, I suppose, the bravest, for it was the last to turn. The king had been wounded in several places, and was faint with loss of blood. The driver of his elephant was afraid that he would fall, and made his beast kneel. Just then Alexander came up; and thinking that the king was dead ordered his body to be stripped of the arms, which were of very fine workmanship, I may tell you. The elephant, when it saw this, caught up its master with its trunk, and lifted him to its back, and then began to lay about it furiously. It was soon killed, but not till it had done great deal of mischief. King Porus was carried to our camp by Alexander's orders, and attended to by the physicians with the greatest care. When he was recovered of his wounds, and this it did not take him long to do, for these Indians are amazingly healthy people, he was brought before the king. I was there, and a more splendidly handsome man, I never saw. 'How would you have me treat you?' asked Alexander. 'As a king should treat a king,' was the answer. And so, I hear, it is to be. Porus is to be restored to his throne, and a large tract of country is to be added to his dominions.

. . . . . .
[Illustration] from Young Macedonian by Alfred J. Church


"We have had a great festival of Bacchus. The god himself was represented riding on a tiger, which, by the way, was very well made up. After the procession there was a competition in drinking wine. What marvellous amounts these Indians drank! One swallowed twenty-three pints and got the prize. He lived only four days afterwards.

. . . . . .

"At last we have turned back. We came to a river called the Hyphasis, beyond which, our guide told us, there lived Indians bigger and stronger than any that we had hitherto seen. All this, as you may suppose, fired the king's fancy, and made him more anxious than ever to go on. But the soldiers began to murmur. 'They had gone far enough,' they said. 'Was there ever to be an end? Were they ever to see their country again?' Then Alexander called the men together, and expounded his great scheme. I cannot pretend to give you his geography, for I did not understand it. But I remember he told us that if we went on far enough we should come out somewhere by the Pillars of Hercules. His promises were magnificent; and indeed if we were to conquer the world, they could not be too big. His speech ended, he asked our opinion. Any one that differed from him was to express his views freely. This is just what we have been learning not to do. In fact, he is less and less able to bear free speech. There was a long silence. 'Speak out,' the king said again and again; but no one rose. At last Cœnus, the oldest, you know of the generals, came forward. The substance of what he said was this: 'The more you have done, the more bound you are to consider whether you have not done enough. How few remain of those who set out with you, you know. Let those few enjoy the fruits of their toils and dangers. Splendid those fruits are; we were poor, and we are wealthy; we were obscure, and we are famous throughout the world. Let us enjoy our wealth and our honours at home. And you, sire, are wanted elsewhere, in your own kingdom which you left ten years ago, and in Greece which your absence has made unquiet. If you wish henceforth to lead a new army, to conquer Carthage and the lands that border on the Ocean, you will find volunteers in abundance to follow you, all the more easily when they shall see us return to enjoy in peace all that you have given us.' The king was greatly troubled—that was evident in his face—but he said nothing, and dismissed us. The next day he called us together again, and briefly said that he should carry out his purpose; we might do as we pleased. Then he shut himself up in his tent two days. He hoped, I fancy, that the men would yield. As there was no sign of any change in their feelings, he gave way, but in his own fashion. He ordered sacrifice to be offered as usual. The soothsayer reported that the signs were adverse. Then we were called together a third time. "The will of the gods," he said, "seems to favour you, not me. Let it be so. We will turn back.' You should have heard the shout that the men sent up! Having yielded the king did everything with the best grace, behaving as if he were as glad to go back as the rest of us."

Along with this letter Charidemus received a despatch from the king requiring his presence at Babylon in a year and a half's time from the date of writing.