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Alexander of Macedon
ALEXANDER OF MACEDON
House of the Falcon
Omar Khayyam: A Life
Alexander of Macedon: The Journey to World’s End
The March of the Barbarians
The Crusades: Iron Men and Saints
The Crusades: The Flame of Islam
Kirdy: The Road Out of the World
The Journey to World’s End
He lifted the civilised world out
of one groove and set it in another;
he started a new epoch; nothing
could again be as it had been.
W. W. Tarn,
The Passage of the Chariot of the Sun
The Riddle of the Earth’s Shape
Demosthenes and the Graves of Chaeronea
The Mountains and Thebes
The Road to Troy
The First Summer, and the Winter
The Woman of Damascus
Gates of the Sea
The Turning to the East
Lady of the Beasts
The Wings, the Sun, and the Empire
The Blight of Luxury
River of the Sea and River of the Sands
The Elephants and the Last River
Return to the West
Corrosion of Wealth
The End of the Army
The Waters of Babylon
When we hear of him first he was alone. Not that he was left to himself, because people always kept near him. He was alone in what he wanted most to do, and alone in his thoughts.
The thing he valued most was a copy of the Iliad, or Troy Tale, which he read at night until he knew much of it by heart. After reading it, he put it under his wooden headrest for the remainder of the night. So he thought a lot about Achilles, and one of the tutors nicknamed him Achilles. In the time just before sleep, when the lamp was taken away, the boy traveled with the heroes of the book across the sea and landed upon a strange coast in the east. That parchment book was something that belonged to himself, that he did not need to share with Kinsmen, Companions, tutors, or even the Theban veteran.
The tutors who drilled him in Greek and such things as rhetoric and logic had been selected by his mother. Rigid Leonidas, the governor of the tutors, was Kinsman on his mother’s side. They filled the hours of the day for him, calling him before the first light, to run with the foot slave over a measured course before he tasted food.
“A run before daybreak,” chanted the tutor at the starting point, “gives you a good breakfast. A light breakfast gives you a good dinner.”
The boy ran a thousand paces, with knees bent in the lope of the mountain folk, out to the cemetery. At the turning point he could see the white marble of the shrine upon which had been carved the words: I am an immortal god, mortal no more. They used the pillar as a marker and started back on the other side of it, racing uphill to the city. The boy went eagerly, because the streak of sunrise along the mountain ridge meant that the chariot of the sun was rising out of its stable in the distant Ocean and starting on its course across the sky. When clouds moved over the mountains he thought he could see the heads of the horses uptossed. At the finish line by the first trees of the palace he lengthened his stride and drove ahead of the slave runner. He would not let himself be beaten, nor did the slave dare to outdistance the boy.
When he went in and anointed his hands by the embers of the altar fire he felt as if he were still greeting the racing sun. There in the east it was soaring through the heights of the gods who knew no darkness and never slept.
He took incense from the casket, scattering it recklessly over the embers, waiting for the vapor to rise and the glow to warm his cold face, muttering, “To the God-Father, to his son born of the horned serpent—may they watch over us and protect us.” Spoken in the darkness, these words would have been empty patter; now, in the growing light, they were spoken to those far-off benefactors, those mighty souls, patient and watchful.
That was how he thought of the shining fellowship of the gods, of Zeus and fleet-flying Aphrodite, who had whispered counsel to Achilles.
When he heaped incense too plentifully on the glowing altar Kinsman Leonidas touched his arm, speaking in a dry voice: “Powdered myrrh is not sand, to be thrown away by the handful.”
At such times the boy felt choked, with a tightness pressing around his brain, and he could not speak. Frankincense and myrrh came a long way, it was true, from Araby; they had little enough of incense in the house. But they had appointed him to make sacrifice. How could he take a pinch of the precious stuff, to make a gesture of offering, in order to make the incense last a proper number of days? It seemed to him that he had to offer all of it, or nothing. Yet he could not explain his feeling about that to the Kinsmen.
It was not easy to talk with his mother’s Kinsmen. They told him what he must do, and he did it. The boy understood why Leonidas would not allow him to run with his father’s race horses on the new track, saying that mountain folk like the Macedonians had to climb mountains. Leonidas would not let him eat corn that was finely ground and softened with milk, explaining that the entrails of bear and the marrow of boar would give him courage, which he lacked.
Every day after the morning sacrifice Leonidas searched the cupboards in the boy’s room to see if his mother had smuggled in honey cakes or bowls of milk wine—as she often did. The Kinsmen were doing their duty by him and training him like a Spartan because, they said, he would need courage to perform the duties of a king.
He was not sure that they believed in the gods. They said the earth was hung like a flat bowl, beneath its covering sky, within the immensity of Night. There had been no life upon this earth until Light came. Only old Chronos—Time—had been at work before that.
And now Light dwelt in the east, with Zeus the God-Father. From that height in the east where the chariot of the sun gained light in its course Prometheus had stolen with the first fire. Prometheus had been chained to those mountains of the barrier range in the east by way of punishment.
To the west, the boy knew, existed only the shadows of a twilight over Ocean. There the light of the sun’s chariot was quenched in Ocean. And thither went the souls of men after death, to become slaves of the shadows, seeing no light.
He heard Leonidas say once to Lysimachus, the Greek tutor, that he, Alexander, was a devourer of books, an acolyte of sacrifice, who tried to escape reality and would never be a man of action like his father Philip. Alexander clung to the books because when he was immersed in them no one stood over his shoulder to tell him what he must do or hear next; the friends within the parchment rolls went nimbly at his side, laughing and joyous, telling him all their secrets—they went as if on wings out of the city, to islands in the far seas.
“Has my father any friends?” he asked Leonidas once, abruptly.
The Kinsman seemed surprised. “Your father is King——” he began, and checked himself. He knew well what the boy meant. Had Philip, King of Macedon, any companions who were more than wine companions, who shared his thoughts and loved him in spite of his failings? Leonidas considered and answered honestly but carefully. “He has Parmenio and Antipater. Yes, and Demades the Athenian.”
He had named two generals of the army and a politician.
“And who have I?” the boy persisted. “Name three.”
This time Leonidas answered without thought. “Ptolemy, Nearchus, Harpalus—although I could name a dozen as easily.”
A dozen, Alexander reflected, was the number of boys about his own age—from twelve to fourteen years—selected by his mother to share his classes with the tutors. Ptolemy, a year older than he, was quicker to learn and quicker to jest. His mother had been Arsinoë, a Greek prostitute-companion who dyed her hair in the eastern fashion. Although she never confessed it, Ptolemy believed that Philip himself had sired him by Arsinoë. So Ptolemy secretly thought himself equal if not superior to Alexander, yet placed beneath Alexander because his mother was not acknowledged.
Nearchus, on the other hand, had been born away from the mountains, in Crete. He had voyaged on ships from island to island, although he did not talk about it. Just now he was kept in the city as a hostage, and Alexander did not know what he thought about that. In fact Nearchus seldom said anything; he followed the boys about, his brown face expressionless, and agreed to what they wanted to do. Alexander liked Nearchus, who never quarreled; but there was a gulf of silence between them. In the same way he shared nothing with Harpalus, who was a peasant’s son and often too sick to study. His mother had selected Harpalus because she said Alexander must come to know all types.
“I asked the names of three friends,” Alexander exclaimed angrily. “Not companions.”
The Kinsman looked at him curiously. “A man’s friends must be of his own making,” he said after a moment. “You should know that by now.”
Next to the loneliness was the fear. Alexander did not talk about that. When he thought of it he thought of the Theban veteran. The soldier from Thebes had a scar running down from one eye that made his face like a twisted quince. He had been brought from Thebes by Philip, who had spent his boyhood years there as a hostage and had learned the Theban phalanx drill in that time. Alexander remembered well what Philip had said when he brought the Theban to the boy. “If ever you wage war you must first learn how from those who are supreme in the making of war.” And he had winked his good eye confidentially toward the boy, so it was not clear whether his words had been meant for the silent Theban or the equally silent boy.
This Theban was no giant of a man, but his muscles interlocked like twisted chains. He could take the twelve-foot sarissa spear in the fingers of one scarred hand and whirl it around his head. He could throw the heavy weapon thirty paces ahead of him.
Yet he trained Alexander not with the sarissa but with the sword. These swords were light, bright-polished iron that sang when the edge struck against metal. The Theban polished them after every exercise. If you kept such a sword always in your hand, he said, like a walking staff or hunting knife, you would grow accustomed to one and could really use it. You could strike without thinking what you had to do.
Alexander resented the heavy words of the old man. Such talk of war by a phalanxman was as if a barley farmer discoursed on philosophy. He wondered if the Theban suspected he was afraid of weapons. Especially when he faced Ptolemy in a sword duel. When he fitted the clumsy wooden practice shield on his left arm sweat dampened his palms. He felt a paralysis of cold settle on his stomach—something quite different from the warm eagerness of headlong hunting or the sport of throwing javelins at a mark.
Ptolemy was slighter in body and cleverer than he. Running and training and riding had made Alexander hard. Straight he stood, with his head held on one side a little, his level blue eyes fixed on his opponent, the tangled red-gold curls bound back from his eyes. He had his mother’s delicate skin that reddened over his face and body rather than darkened to brown under the sun. Like her, he had beauty.
But Ptolemy fought viciously, carefully, easily managing to keep ahead of Alexander in the count of blows scored on the wooden shield. Clearly he showed that he was superior in skill. Then, at times, he hurt Alexander on the side away from the watching Theban—flicking the sword blade suddenly against his thigh or the side of his head, to draw blood and induce the Theban to stop the fight. Then Ptolemy would smile, as if tired of playing with such toys.
Once the Theban had not stopped the sword fight between the boys, and Alexander found himself limping so that he could barely shift his weight from one foot to the other, and blood running into his eyes half blinded him. He tried to shake the blood clear of his eyes; instead Ptolemy’s face shone through a red haze, and suddenly the coldness went out of Alexander. His sword felt light, his arm moved free, and his legs drove him forward. Behind the red veil Ptolemy’s shield was breaking, and his sword wavered helplessly.
Alexander felt the fierce warmth of a headlong hunt, when he pressed close upon a weakened deer. Then he heard the Theban shouting, “Rest!” and the Theban’s spear knocked the swords apart. Ptolemy was sobbing and staggering about, badly hurt.
The Theban held fast to Alexander’s right arm and walked him away, until he quieted. “If you can’t master that temper,” he growled, “you won’t live long.”
To Philip the veteran made a different report. “He is incredibly fast, and he is much more dangerous than the others. But he sweats like a racing horse at the touch of chariot harness, and he loses his head, I doubt if he will ever learn to use weapons as he should.”
“If so,” Philip said, “he can thank his mother for it.”
The same cold fear seized on Alexander when he tried to swim the river during the spring flood. Nearchus did not mind the flood. He went into water and worked his way through it methodically, as if it were a wheat field to be crossed. He drifted down the swift current but he got across. Alexander fought the water, and his breath failed him, until he had to turn back. It seemed to him that the Cretan boy had some skill or power that he could not have. However, the good-natured Nearchus did not boast of any such skill. “A water rat can do it much better.” He grinned.
And Ptolemy got in one of his gibes at Alexander. “You are a marvelous runner. Why don’t you enter for the Pythian games next year—if you’re too young for the Marathon?”
Alexander thought of the crowds watching the great games, the athletes straining over the grass course, the chosen runners of the world. He shook his head.
“You’re afraid of not coming in first,” Ptolemy jeered. “A king’s son shouldn’t lose, should he?”
“I would enter,” Alexander burst out, “if the others were kings’ sons.”
The servants said that water would always be dangerous to Alexander. The spirit that resided in deep water was hostile to him, and no sacrifice could alter that. Nearchus, who had been brought up on the blue sea, said that here in the mountains the torrents were dangerous enough, spirits or no spirits.
Why Alexander hated the city, his father’s city of Pella, is not clear. It had no wall, because Philip declared it needed no wall; it was small and gray, with houses of granite blocks built like barracks. It had no gardens, and its streets were winding alleys with stairs leading up and down the hillside. Perhaps, because he was confined to it, the boy felt that it served as a prison for him; perhaps the constant building made the place as unsettled as if it were recovering from an earthquake. The new houses had pillared porticoes in the Greek style, yet Pella was ugly and dwarfed compared to the great Greek cities in the south.
Philip had insisted on moving down from their old home at Aegae in the hills to this lake near the seashore. “If we have no ships,” he grumbled, “at least we can move the city nearer the highway.” And for once his wife made no objection.
The handsomest place in their new capital was the hippodrome Philip had designed with care for his race horses, down by the lake. (“We do have good stables,” Alexander’s mother had remarked when she first saw the racecourse laid out.)
His mother, who journeyed constantly to the Mysteries at Delphi and the markets at Corinth, belittled Pella to him. The city, she reiterated, was being made according to Philip’s plan; he would leave nothing for his son to build after his death. And he had no more sense of design than a horse herder.
Perhaps Alexander hated Pella because of the pent-up antagonisms within it. Although Philip was absent most of the time with the armies, he domineered over Pella, not liking anything to be done in the city except on his advice.
Then Pella in its narrow upland valley was close to the great highway. From the ridge over the cemetery you could see the dark glint of the Great Sea; you could trace out the white line of the distant King’s Way along the coast. Philip had nothing to do with that. It had been built by the Great King Xerxes, who came out of Asia to subdue Greece a century before, and it was still the best highway to the east.
Along that highway one day came a procession of men from the east. The procession wound up the dirt road to Pella in a haze of dust of its own making, and through the dust shone bright purple coats and cloth-of-gold tunics. Never had the boys seen such splendor.
“From Asia,” said Nearchus, cupping his hands to shut out the sun glare. “They would be Magi wearing those tiaras.”
“Showy,” muttered Ptolemy enviously.
Alexander watched the horses, fascinated. Some of them were the largest he had ever seen, moving with a thrust of the haunches as if spurning the hillside down from them. Others moved nimbly, their small, delicate heads constantly upturned. Alexander had not seen such breeds as these before. They were finer than the best of the Thessalians.
It did not take the boys long to learn that the strangers were ambassadors from the King of Asia—Persians, the Greeks called them. Alexander hung around the entrance steps, staring, wanting to examine the equipment of the easterners but afraid to attract their attention.
“Philip being away as usual,” Ptolemy muttered, “with all the Companions, there is no one above the rank of captain to do the honors for these folk.”
In fact the envoys had dismounted and were standing in the shade while their baggage came up, looking around with amusement at the rambling streets of Pella. Then a woman house slave hurried to Alexander, saying all in a breath: “The Lady Olympias, your mother, greets you, bidding you salute the ambassadors and find quarters for them.”
Alexander edged forward, his throat dry, unable to think of words. His mother had this way of forcing him to do things. She was more imperious than Philip, who contented himself with watching the boy quizzically as if he were a foal of dubious breed. The visitors paid no attention to the boy, who wore an old wool shirt and loose riding trousers. When he had wine brought out for them, they refused it carelessly. It seemed they preferred water.
The Magians among them wore white silk; their dark faces were thin and intent. They spoke in low, quick voices, as they inspected trays of gold objects and lengths of silk, pearl-sewn, that must have been gifts. Alexander heard Ptolemy laughing. But he was fascinated by a Persian horse that had a square of padded leather strapped behind its shoulders, with a cord dangling down on each side. The cord ended in twin loops.
“Footrests,” explained one of the visitors who could speak Greek.
Immediately Alexander swung himself to the back of the horse, which reared, startled. The boy caught the rein, clung close to the great, arched neck, pleased. He got his feet into the loops, and the horse quieted. A servant tried to pull the presumptuous boy off the horse, but an interpreter who had sighted Alexander above the crowd warned the visitors, low-voiced: “This is the only son of the king of the Macedonians; the others are idiots or bastards.”
The ambassadors, sipping their water, studied Alexander calmly and answered his questions about the horses. His fear and shivering had left him, once he had to grapple with the great horse.
On such horses, the visitors explained, they could ride five hundred stadia—sixty thousand paces—in a day between sunset and sunrise. Because of the heat of their lands, they often rode in this fashion during the hours of darkness. The roads of Asia were wider than three streets of Pella, and relays of horses were kept at stations along the routes, so that by changing horses they could go without stopping.
This fired Alexander’s curiosity. His questions tumbled out, one after the other. How far had they come—how had the crossing of the Great Sea [the Mediterranean] been made? How was their king called?
“Artaxerxes the Great King, the King of the Lands of the Earth.”
Those lands, what were they, and how far did they stretch toward the place of the sun’s rising? And this the ambassadors could not tell him. Not one of them had journeyed the breadth of the Great King’s lands. They only knew that twenty-three nations inhabited those lands. One of them had heard it said that if a rider were to journey along the post roads without stopping, from west to east, he might come to the far end of the empire in a hundred days.
“And how many days have you spent in crossing Macedon?”
Alexander had forgotten about welcoming these ambassadors and ushering them to quarters. The Asiatics were sitting around the steps helplessly and the boy was deep in his questions, when a silence fell, as abruptly as a cloud passes over the sun.
His mother Olympias appeared on the terrace above them, escorted by Kinsman Leonidas and a few guards. And no priestess coming before the curtain of the Mysteries could have attracted more attention. Indeed she looked like the priestess-princess she was, with myrtle twisted into her dark curling hair, her girdle shaped like a silver snake, her voice chiming melodious as a golden bell. “Greeting to the envoys of the Great King of Asia. Olympias of Macedon bids them enter her home.”
The ambassadors neither answered nor moved at once. They were startled. Olympias, no more than thirty years of age, was the most striking woman of the northern mountains, and she knew well how to frame herself against a background. The gray monotone of granite walls and gnarled oaks brought out the coloring of her flesh, the challenge of her eyes. In silence the ambassadors began to climb the stairs, picking up the trays.
“What nice gifts.” She smiled. “Shall I accept them for Philip?”
Alexander thought: She is very angry with my blundering. Ptolemy thought: How well she places herself in the center of the stage! Aloud he asked the boy, “You questioned them about everything except the girls of Asia.”
“Women in the east,” Alexander defended absently, “are secluded and veiled; they live apart from men who do not talk about them. At least so Herodotus says.”
“Well, if you are content to learn about girls from books! Achilles!” Suddenly Ptolemy laughed. “If that’s so, I wonder what they think about Olympias?”
What the Persians thought about Olympias was not easy to discover. They hid their thoughts and uttered only complimentary speeches. Yet the Magians among them kept their eyes turned away from the lovely queen of the Macedonians as if the sight of her might do them injury. Ptolemy noticed this, hopefully. His mother, Arsinoë, had the superior education of a Greek prostitute, and she had warned him that Olympias was a dominant woman intent on ruling, yet not intelligent enough to do so wisely. The dark-browed Olympias, Arsinoë confided to him, was still at heart what she had been before marriage, a girl devotee of the wild rites of Dionysos. She had never matured into a wife; she would never escape the slavery of her own ungovernable temper. Besides, even though a princess by birth, the Despoina Olympias was stupid. She had been brought up an orphan in the forests of Epirus and had given herself with passion to orgiastic worship of the hidden gods.
So the intelligent Arsinoë enlightened her son, warning him that he must never offend Olympias in a personal matter. That would be as dangerous as stepping upon one of her tame snakes.
That evening, after Olympias had received with her own hands all the gifts of the ambassadors from Asia intended for Philip, she sent for Alexander, and—as he had anticipated—tongue-lashed him with fury. “What a dumb calf you are—what a bookworm, burrowing into dusty rolls of writing! Arrhidaeus could have greeted the ambassadors more fittingly!”
She had taken the myrtle out of her thick hair and was combing it savagely, paying no attention to the slave girl who tried to help her. And her words had barbs upon them, because Arrhidaeus was Alexander’s bastard half brother who went around stealing food and stuffing his mouth so he always slavered and stammered when he tried to speak. The Kinsmen knew and Alexander suspected that because Arrhidaeus had been born of a Thessalian dancing girl Olympias could not tolerate the sight of him and had fed him as a child enough poison to numb his mind without killing him.
Alexander said nothing, knowing that his mother would get over her rage quickly.
“Feeding your mind with dreams about Achilles,” she muttered, wrenching at a coil of hair, “when you have no more passion than a monk.”
“Of course the tutors call you Achilles. And do you know why? To please me. Although”—and she relaxed a little—“you do have a splendid body for a stripling. But why did you have to seize upon a pad on the back of a horse to argue about with the envoys? Hadn’t you seen a thing like that before?”
“No,” Alexander began to explain eagerly, “and that thing they call a saddle makes it much easier to keep your seat when the horse——”
“Yes, the horse. Precisely, the horse! There speaks the Macedonian farmer. There speaks the breathing, living image of Philip, the son of Amyntas the horse breeder. Do you wonder, child”—Olympias now addressed the little slave—“that the Greeks say the forebears of the Macedonians were centaurs—men above and horses beneath? Even now you can’t separate a Macedonian from his horse.”
“Perhaps that’s why,” the boy laughed, “our cavalry can ride around the Greeks.”
This pleased Olympias, who longed to see in her backward Alexander some instinct of leadership such as the boy Ptolemy displayed. Unfortunately Alexander was not really interested in cavalry—only in horses. That was a Macedonian trait. They were all farmers at heart. Even the phalanxmen who were being drilled in a new way by Philip insisted on returning home for the spring planting and the fall harvesting.
“That is one of Philip’s pet ideas,” she answered her own thought rather than Alexander’s word. “A military aristocracy of the soil—a nation that is an army, an army that is a moving nation, farming and fighting. The Greeks found out long ago that a soldier can’t be a proper citizen, and the other way around.”
Sometimes Olympias probed shrewdly at the truth. An accomplished actress, she could recognize pretense in others, and she had very few illusions. Moreover her ancestors had ruled over folk who came to the Princess of Epirus [Albania] to have sickness healed or omens explained. The orphan girl Olympias had been in truth the youthful princess and priestess of a people. Now upon her son Alexander centered her jealousies, her passion, and her longing to create a second dominant self. She fought in Alexander everything that might belong to Philip.
Particularly she impressed upon the boy the inferiority of his father’s people, the Macedonians. They had lived, she pointed out, too long in their mountains, keeping to the old ways of clan life. They had no true nobility; even the Companions who accompanied and advised Philip were no more than the owners of the biggest horse herds. Their songs were herders’ chants, their dances bucolic stampings and whirlings when they stacked up the last of the harvests. They were still afraid of omens, and of drought and pestilence among the animals. Among these Macedonians had there ever been one orator, one philosopher or general or monarch equal in fame to a second-rate Athenian?
Alexander knew well the ignoble part his people had played in great events. Macedonian foresters had hewn the timber that, floated down to the sea, had built Athenian warships. Macedonian horse breeders had supplied the Greek cities with animals. Their farms had produced the barley, grapes, and meat requisitioned—and paid for—by the invading armies of the Great Kings, Darius and Xerxes. The highly educated Greeks had a right to call the Macedonians barbarians and peasants.
Until his father’s time the only wars fought by Macedonians had been to beat off inroads of the forest folk from along the Danube or raids of the equally wild Scythian horsemen. Not until Philip possessed himself of the gold and silver mines around Mount Pangaeus had the Macedonian kings had a currency of their own. Until then they had used the fine silver coinage of Athens. Now the Pangaeus mines brought in a thousand talents a year; but this did not satisfy Olympias. “So we have become miners as well! Again we draw wealth out of the holy soil, and what wealth? It would not have hired General Xenophon’s division of ten thousand Greek mercenaries—not that your father will consent to hire mercenaries, even when the Pharaohs of Egypt pay for a guard of Spartans.”
In the eyes of Olympias all that Philip contrived was ignoble and wrong. She fought against Philip’s will and she surrounded Alexander with the Kinsmen of her house. She made the palace slaves report to her all that Alexander did. She made the boy feel that she had no one except him to depend on, and Alexander did feel that he and his mother stood alone and disliked by Philip, who kept away from them on various pretexts.
Philip spoke to the boy of that estrangement only once, “I won’t keep on sharing your mother’s bed with the snakes,” he muttered, closing his bad eye. He made a joke even of this.
The large snakes did have a way of emerging suddenly from the ivy hung about Olympias’s sleeping room and the fans she used in the sacred dances. But the boy wondered why Philip should be bothered by ordinary serpents. Certainly it was no secret that Philip had been passionately bound, body and spirit, to his bride at their marriage. He had craved her from the moment of their meeting that night during the Dionysian festival on the sacred island of Samothrace, when he had seen her in wavering torchlight, running, tearing at her garment, and crying out, possessed by the spirit of the god. From that moment, people said, until a year after their marriage bed, he had not left the side of the splendid orphan girl. Even when she had been delivered of the boy, Philip had been her devoted lover.
That birthnight old Aristander the Telemessan, the diviner, had come to Olympias’s couch and had told her that at sunset he had seen a vision of flames rising from the eastern sky. And in time this omen was verified, because on that birthnight the temple of Aphrodite at Ephesus had burned on the Asian shore.
“And that night,” Philip added, “one of my horses had won a course at the Olympic games.”
Now Philip avoided Olympias, who was more beautiful than in her madcap girlhood. Philip drank of nights with his soldier cronies. And Philip drunk was a different man from Philip sober. When he was hot with wine he might throw his arm around any handsome woman he met in the corridors and force her to his room. Many of the women took care to keep out of his way, while others did not. Yet it does not seem that Philip loved any woman after Olympias.
Much as Alexander hated Pella and feared his father, he found that in some way when Philip came to Pella—which he rarely did now—the city changed its aspect. Visitors hurried in—job hunters, agents of the rich Delphic oracle, merchants, pilots, horse traders, mathematicians from Syracuse, bits of all the Mediterranean world, bringing information to Philip and trying to get a word from him. Pack horses moved faster through the alleys, and the hammers of carpenters rang louder on timbers, because Philip of Macedon was in Pella.
Through the dust and uproar Philip limped, refusing to ride a war horse to ease his lame leg. His brown, bearded face shone with sweat, and he kept wiping at the eye that had been blinded by a shield point. One arm hung stiff and useless. He boasted that he still had one good limb and organ of every kind, and two good testicles.
Never, apparently, did Philip read a book. His letters he dictated to a secretary who followed him around, parchment and marker in hand. Alexander used to steal off to the racecourse and watch the horse tryouts, keeping on Philip’s blind side as much as he could. At such times he felt relaxed. Near the limping, cursing Philip he felt more secure than in the silence of his rooms by the women’s quarter, where his books were piled.
He was down at the hippodrome early in the morning of the day when Philip sent all the teachers and tutors out of the palace.
Philip was watching the test of a new machine called a gastraphete, a catapult that shot a six-foot dart farther than a bowman could send an arrow. When Deiades, the conceited engineer-designer from Syracuse, released the catch, the twisted ropes snapped, the wooden machine thudded violently, and the heavy dart flashed away. Philip grunted. “Now take it down,” he ordered.
To Alexander’s surprise, two workmen flung themselves on the machine and began to wrench out pegs and cast off ropes. The thing came apart like a wheat stack when the binding cord is slipped. “Now let’s see you load it,” Philip added mildly.
With some effort four of the men shouldered the various parts of the catapult and began to walk around as if on a march. Alexander had heard some talk of the new portable artillery Philip and Deiades were designing, to be carried with the field army. This, apparently, was one of the new type of engines. Stoop-shouldered Deiades watched the exhibition exultantly, saying loud enough for Philip to hear that so light a catapult, with such power, had never been fashioned before.
Philip’s good eye fastened on Deiades. “The power is sufficient; the weight is still too much by half. No four men could carry all that stuff uphill——”
“Two horses could.”
“Two horses could do it nicely. Only, Deiades, in your magnificent self-adulation, you have forgotten that this catapult has to shoot something. Twenty of those heavy darts will load two more men, or another horse. No, you’ll have to really scratch around and find a tougher seasoned wood and lighter hemp strands for the ropes.”
Shaking his fists in the air, the machine designer howled, enraged. “Find, you say! Just find—a bit of Hermes’ staff, or witchwood! Scratch around, for a rope lighter than this ten-ply Byzantine hemp!” Thrusting his heavy head at Philip, he spluttered. “Shall I clip the tresses off your golden-haired girls, Philip, to make ropes fine enough to suit your fancy——”
“No,” Philip shouted. “A woman’s head of hair is heaviest of all—I’ve tested it. As far as I’m concerned your contrivance is lumber, as long as it takes six men to transport it.”
“You think so?” Deiades ground his teeth to show his disdain. “It could make dogs’ meat of any six men you pick.”
Philip turned to Antigonus the One-Eyed. “Have this dart shooter set up again and send for five Cretan archers. Then clear the mid-field and I’ll prove to this ivory-headed designer how wrong he is. Find out from him how he would like to be buried.”
Deiades glared and called to his workmen to set up the catapult. Antigonus studied Philip uncertainly. Because Philip prized the engine designer more than the staff generals like Antigonus, he had a way of quarreling with Deiades’s work, pretending it was faulty in order to drive the engineer to think of something better. So also did Philip mock at Antigonus, to make him exceed his efforts. There was no telling what was at the back of Philip’s agile mind. Antigonus knew well enough that here in the open field Philip and his five archers would make short work of Deiades and his workmen and the catapult.
“These catapults are only fortification pieces,” he growled. “So if you’re really minded to test it, let Deiades set it up on a housetop and let the archers assault it.”
Instead of calming down Philip exploded. “Hell’s cisterns and fish-eyes in the soup! How many years have I told all of you, in good plain Macedonian that even you can understand, One-Eyed, that I do not want to hear anything more about siege engines. And that I have no slightest intention of being pent like a sheep behind a wall; nor do I have the slightest desire ever to assault men who are fortified behind a wall and engines. The Spartans are the dumbest humans whelped out of women, but even they have learned to keep away from walls, out in the open.”
Antigonus grinned. “Well, if you want a machine that can march with men, why don’t you hitch a horse to it? One horse can pull this dart dingus.”
Immediately Philip’s shouting ceased. “Yes, if we put wheels on the shooter. We’ve done that. This piecemeal takedown is for mountain work. But suppose one horse pulls the machine—you need a man to drive the horse. Well, is it worth a single cavalryman, in the field?”
The others were accustomed to following Philip’s lightning-quick change of ideas. “Yes,” said Antigonus, “no horseman could ride against the javelin of a catapult.”
But Deiades was still smarting under the king’s jeers. “Why didn’t you say it could be put on wheels? In that case I can give you a discharge of six javelins instead of one.”
Philip spun around. “Six—at once?”
“Certainly, with a bar projector. It won’t have the range of this beauty, and,” he added hastily, “you’ll have to allow for a horse-drawn cart in addition, to carry the weapons for such a multiple machine.”
Wiping at his blind eye, Philip pondered, visibly pleased. He began to pat Deiades’s heavy shoulder. “Even if this one-shot machine is a bastard, never mind. It will bother a phalanx badly enough. But put your mind, Deiades my genius, on the six-shaft apparatus. Ask for anything you need. I’ll give you its weight in g—— in silver, Deiades, if it passes its test.”
Deiades breathed deep and lifted his head with pride. “I can meet any stinking test,” he shouted for all to hear, “if you’ll simply tell Deiades what test you have in mind.”
And he waved to his workmen to carry away the pieces of the new-model catapult.
“If you make him angry,” Philip muttered to Antigonus, “he often produces something really useful.” He nodded, twisting his thin head on his stiff neck. “Six javelins at one discharge! From a hundred machines, six hundred missiles—held until the range is close . . .” His lips moved inaudibly. “But I’m afraid, I’m afraid. By the time Deiades is finished with this invention it will be heavy enough to need a team of horses to pull it over a day’s march. That means still another pack horse to carry fodder for the other two. And that means at least three men . . .” His good eye roved around until it rested on Alexander, ten paces away. “That’s the trouble with engineers. They always want to make machines bigger and heavier, without thinking once how we’re going to find transport for them. If Deiades had his way we’d all be hauling moving towers, flying bridges, mine hoists, and fire projectors. Yes, he’d expect to turn the cavalry into teamsters and draft horses.”
Philip scrutinized Alexander to discover if the boy gave his words any attention. But Alexander, perched on a course marker, was wholly intent on a string of colts from Thessaly that were being put through their paces in mid-field by Philip’s inspectors, who picked out the best of the animals.
One of these yearlings gave constant trouble by trying to break away from its holders. Its smooth black coat shone in the morning sun glare; its nervous head, tossing and pulling at the halter, was marked by a single white blaze. Alexander could not take his eyes off this black colt with the gigantic limbs and massive head. He went over to it, as close as he dared approach the busy inspectors.
When they turned to examine the black horse it backed away, making a swirl among the men as it circled and kicked out. Its handlers, losing patience, tried to throw a cape over its head. When one jumped to its back the colt reared, and he was thrown heavily. It seemed to Alexander that this colt with the white marking of an ox on his great black head was almost human in feeling such distress and excitement when the men crowded around, shouting at it. One of the inspectors said it must have some internal strain to make it so savage. And Alexander felt a longing for this defiant colt. It was superior to all the other horses he had seen.
He ran over to the officers around Philip when he heard the inspectors reject Oxhead—Bucephalus—as he christened the black colt. He shoved in beside Antigonus. “It’s a shame to lose that horse,” he cried. He was quivering with suspense, knowing that no one paid attention to him. “Look,” he blundered, “you mustn’t—that colt——”
Antigonus only glanced at the colt, now being led away. And Alexander felt his body grow hot with rage. “Listen,” he shouted, “or it will be too late.”
They stopped their talk then, and Philip stared, blinking, at his son. Antigonus the One-Eyed explained about the rejected colt. An inspector added that, besides being unmanageable, the black yearling was held at a price of thirteen talents by its owner. Alexander felt the sting of tears in his eyes and choked. Philip began to talk about a transport train again, without heeding him.
“It’s the finest horse,” the boy cried, “and they don’t know how to manage him!”
This time Philip paid attention to him. “Are you trying to tell me that the inspectors can’t handle a colt?”
Alexander saw his mistake but he felt desperate. “I can manage this horse. I can bring him under my hand.”
Philip did not smile. “And ride him around the course, and hold him to the rein?” he asked.
When Alexander nodded Antigonus put in, “And if you can’t, what will you pay up for your foolishness?”
“Thirteen talents, which is the price of Bucephalus.”
The men laughed, all except Philip, who asked if Alexander had thirteen talents. The boy said no, but he could get the money. Philip said, “You have made a wager. Now go through with it. By the same token, if you can gentle this—this Oxhead, he is yours.”
Alexander started to run out toward the black horse and for a moment he felt the paralyzing chill that seized him when he faced Ptolemy with a sword. Remembering that Bucephalus had struggled against a blinding cloth, the boy loosed the cape from his own shoulders, letting it fall as he came up to the horse at a walk. When he took the rein and motioned the handlers away the cold feeling left him. Talking to Bucephalus, he saw the muscles quivering under the smooth hide, the restless flickering of the ears, and he loved the colt. Gently he turned its head around into the sun, still talking.
Not until the horse thrust its muzzle down toward the grass did the boy jump to its bare back, without tightening the rein. Bucephalus tensed, leaped forward, and Alexander bent down to keep its head into the sun by pressure on a rein. He did not strike or kick the horse but when it galloped free, coming into the racecourse, he hauled in on the rein, turning it into the runway. For a moment the black horse strained forward, then yielded to the rein, rounding the course at an even canter and slowing when the boy checked him. Not until then did Alexander notice that all the staff officers and his father were watching him. Antigonus called out that it was neatly done; but Philip only gave command to pay for the colt out of his private account. Then he motioned for Alexander to come with him and limped over to a deserted tier of stone seats.
When they were out of hearing of the others Philip grunted, “Lovely to look at, but how was it done? Did you bribe the handlers to make the horse cut up?”
This stung the boy. He almost shouted, “What are you trying to make out?” Thinking about it, he explained curtly that he had watched the men inspecting the colt, and at that early hour the long shadows of the horse and restless men had twisted along the ground in front of Bucephalus and must have frightened the colt. Alexander had only turned its head into the sunlight and had treated it quietly. There was nothing the matter with the splendid colt.
“Umm,” Philip grunted, and asked what Greek stuff the boy was reading now. Philip himself spoke only the harsh Macedonian dialect, which made his utterances sound abrupt, but Alexander suspected that he understood eloquent, polished Greek well enough.
Excited over Bucephalus, grateful to his limping, swearing father, the boy poured out in words his newest delight—he had been searching out all the tales of Heracles, the son of Zeus, the mighty archer, the slayer of beasts who wore the mask of a lion’s hide on his head and journeyed without fear into the regions of outer darkness, killing the witch Hippolyte and taking her girdle, then crossing the stream of Ocean itself——
The boy had mastered every variation of the Heracles Tale, and he confided in his father his discovery of the hero.
Restlessly Philip listened and then exploded: “Hell’s sweet sewers! You’ve been grazing on hero tales. First Achilles and his white armor—now Heracles in a lion’s pelt.” Philip coughed and spat irritably, because he could not think of the right words to use with Alexander. “Ptolemy has a head for politics, Amyntas, your cousin, knows a deal more mathematics. Yes, Arrhidaeus would know better than to chant a hymn to Heracles! Now let’s hear you read.”
When anything bothered Philip he worried at it, like a hungry panther getting marrow out of bones. Taking Alexander off to his littered study, he made the boy read aloud the whole of an oration of a young Athenian, Demosthenes. Alexander felt stirred by the majestic sentences that rang out like choral tones, invoking the citizens of Athens to take up arms and die rather than surrender their rights to a tyrant. I hold him to be our enemy, for everything that he has done until now has been a gain to him and a harm to us.
It bothered Alexander, although it did not seem to trouble Philip, when he discovered that the tyrant against whom Demosthenes stormed was Philip of Macedon, his father.
Indeed, while the boy read with feeling Philip lolled on a bench chewing at a bunch of grapes, listening not the less intently. At the end, when the boy laid down the scroll, thrilled by the power of the peroration, Philip nodded—it had been well read—and asked if he liked it.
“All but the attack on you, Father,” Alexander said honestly,
“It is an attack on me—one of Demosthenes’ Philippics. He is a modern Heracles, laboring for an ideal good—yes, trying to cure the weakness of a city-state by a fine ideal.” Philip fell utterly silent, rubbing his injured arm, his thoughts going far away from them, as often happened with him. “You might call it the rule of the people, that ideal, that democracy of his. He is a magnificent speaker-to-the-people—demagogue, the Greeks call it—and I’d judge that speech to be worth a brigade. Now read this—here.”
Fishing among a pile of letters, the lame man tossed Alexander a thin strip of parchment. “A copy of course.” And the boy read: “Philip to Demosthenes the Athenian: Greeting, and welcome at any time to speak before me at Pella and return safe.”
This, even if written by a scribe, pleased the boy, because it was generous to invite an enemy in this manner. It showed that Philip could be magnanimous as well as cunning and avaricious. But when he said that, Philip fell into silence again, seemingly not pleased. (And not until years afterward did Alexander learn how Demosthenes had come, to be received with ostentation and to be made so nervous by Philip’s ceremonious preparations for his speech that the high-strung orator broke down and made such a labored effort, people thought he could find nothing to say before Philip. For Demosthenes stammered at times.)
“By the way,” observed Philip suddenly, “this great Athenian says that you are a bookish, sacerdotal worm. What do you think, eh?”
Alexander laughed. “Perhaps he is right.”
Philip swore softly. “Your tutors agree that you can do anything you have a mind to, in the way of study. Here you are, stinking of incense, golden-haired, girl-eyed, I don’t know what! Building stairways to Parnassus in imagination. Faugh!” Abruptly his voice roared at the boy. “Why can’t I put iron in your milky flesh? How else are you going to meet danger, eh? Do you think milk calves will live, when the herd starts to run?” He glared helplessly, angered at himself. “Never mind, you, never mind. Don’t look like a stricken moon calf. We soldiers ever use words like tools, to shape acts. I’m afraid—it irks me to see you buried alive in books, a suppliant at a shrine, mocked by a Demosthenes. Eh, you make me think of Astyanax, killed by conquerors——” And Philip cried out in Greek words: “A poor, dear child: uncrowned by manhood or by marriage: or by kingship that makes of man a god: in service of his country—why don’t you read Euripides instead of those Homeric legends? Or if you want to meddle with sick souls learn to be a doctor.” Philip stopped abruptly. “A physician. No physician or blacksmith was ever murdered.”
Something in this thought pleased Philip. “Go, boy, hunt up all your preceptors, tutors, and what nots. Tell them Philip has a word to say to them. Don’t forget to stable Oxhead. He’s a fine beast. I’d like him myself for the ten-stadia course, but he’s yours.”
And Philip kissed his son over one ear, pressing him hard with his good arm. “What else did they say about Astyanax? I forget—no—and thou, if nothing else of his, shalt have thy father’s shield there with thee! So you shall. This is a day of good omens, this day of Bucephalus. Tell the gate guard to fetch me some good red Thessalonican wine, no more of that thin Chian syrup. Hail!”
Alexander shouted the message to the guard as he ran out to find the black colt. That night when he curled up on his pallet by the flickering lamp and opened his manuscript of Homer he could still hear the echo of his father’s complaining, even when his mind drifted out upon a long galley speeding with straining sail toward his beloved Troy. When his mother came in to kiss him her scent was like the smoke of incense and her low voice chimed, “Philip was drunk again this evening, dear. He sent all your teachers, even Leonidas, out of Pella. He swears he is sending you off on some black colt to school away from Pella in a deserted temple sacred to the nymphs. And what’s more, if you can imagine all that, he condemns you to study under one man from Stagyra, a physician named Aristotle. I think his father used to be your grandfather’s physician. As if you could be exiled, to study medicine!”
But Aristotle the Stagyrite came. The deserted temple was made over into Aristotle’s private academy. It proved to be not far from Pella, and Philip allowed the other boys—Ptolemy and Nearchus and the rest—to go along with Alexander.
Mounted on Bucephalus, Alexander could ride back to Pella in a few hours. And Olympias pretended to be content, because in this matter of schooling Philip refused, in his sober intervals, to change his mind.
Olympias could change her mind as quickly as she moved her eyes. And since she could not get rid of the Stagyrite philosopher and his academia for the boys, she determined to profit by him. From her spies she learned that Aristotle taught more than medicine and had a flair for politics—that his closest friend was Antipater, the most reliable general on the staff, and that Philip himself often rode in to consult the eccentric philosopher.
In fact Philip had been so eager to get Aristotle near to Pella that he had agreed to pay a great price: to rebuild all the homes of Stagyra which had been devastated by a war. Olympias could appreciate influence.
“You are old enough to have a mind of your own,” she told Alexander. “Don’t waste yourself on medicine. This Stagyrite can reveal the secrets of politics and government to you. You ought to be given some authority of your own—especially when Philip’s away hunting or marching most of the time. You should be regent when he’s away.”
Authority given to Alexander would mean more power in the queen’s deft hands.
Before venturing to visit the new school at Mieza, Olympias, who bothered to read few books, read the tragedies of Euripides carefully, especially the Medea. It seemed to her that Medea had stood, like herself, unaided except by sorcery against the strength of men. And she appeared like a living goddess within the Temple of the Nymphs. When she dismounted from her chariot, her supple body draped in sheer silk, whipped about her by the wind, the boys stared. Few married women ventured out of doors with face and body so exposed. Alexander did not notice but Ptolemy observed that the queen brought with her two handsome slave girls who laughed at the gray stone figures of the nymphs standing along the entrance terrace. To Aristotle, who came out perforce to greet her, she deferred prettily, saying that she was old-fashioned as this deserted shrine, being brought up in the Mysteries, without a notion of science. And she quoted Andromache’s line: “The only joy of a woman’s heart is to have her sorrows ever on her tongue.”
She left behind her at Mieza the impression that this fascinating woman trusted Aristotle with the future of her only son.
To Aristander the diviner she confided that this new-world philosopher named Aristotle lisped and had nothing really to offer in the way of creative ideas. Probably he owed his reputation, such as it was, to being one of Plato’s favored pupils and to his habit of denying the powers of the gods.
The boys at Mieza found the temple and the gardens filled with strange apparata. Piles of variegated rocks, collection boxes of shellfish, stuffed birds, insects, occupied all the corners, along with furnaces, basins of living fish, books of butterflies and pressed leaves—as if specimens of all living and growing things had been gathered in. They began the study of medicine by examining the blood stream in animals and drawing sand charts of human anatomy. Moreover the Stagyrite himself had little to say to them; a staff of assistants worked with them through the endless experimentation that began with the first daylight after Alexander had finished his sacrifice to Zeus.
The assistants explained that Aristotle worked like that. He would not reason—not at first, anyway. He would only examine and experiment to determine natural causes, answering the what before the why and avoiding wondering about the wherefore. In this strange method of taking nothing for granted it was necessary to learn the causes of sickness before being taught the cures. Not until the noble young Macedonians had advanced beyond the study of natural things could they gain knowledge of phenomena, of the Mysteries. Aristotle had a way of dodging talk about the Mysteries by saying that life was enough of a mystery for one man’s mind.
“He’s a phenomenon himself,” Ptolemy complained. “He doesn’t preach, he doesn’t teach, he tells us not to believe what we read but to ask questions. And when we ask questions he says he doesn’t know the answers.”
The assistants said no, Aristotle had plenty of Mysteries tucked away in his head, of which he had worked out the solutions. He simply didn’t believe it to be as important to hit on an answer as to be able to work it out. “It’s like that Gordium knot in the shrine over in Asia. Aristotle would say you couldn’t untie it without knowing how it was tied. After finding that out any galley slave could undo it.”
And did this mean, Ptolemy retorted, that they were expected to work like galley slaves? It seemed so. They might be royal Kinsmen but they were set to sorting out and classifying all the varied species of things