Sunday, July 12, 2009

Great Books: Plutarch's Biography of Alexander (Part Five)

The first four parts of this essay can be accessed from the archive bar on the right side of the screen.

The Battle of Gaugamela has been covered in depth by such a variety of historians, both ancient and modern, that we ultimately learn more about Plutarch and the slant of his narrative from his account of it than we do about this decisive battle that effectively spelled the end of the Persian empire. As Plutarch’s stated purpose is to focus his “more particular attention to the marks and indications of the souls of men,” he spends the paragraphs leading up to the battle sketching out contrasting pictures of his opposing generals’ states of mind, rather than their military readiness.

Upon discovering the news of his wife’s death, Darius is portrayed as being torn between his grief at watching his empire slowly destroyed by Alexander’s relentless campaigning and his lyrical admiration for his opponent’s virtue. Plutarch quotes him (rather liberally one suspects) as saying:

“Ye gods,” said he, “of my family and of my kingdom, if it be possible, I beseech you to restore the declining affairs of Persia that I may leave them in as flourishing a condition as I found them, and have it in my power to make a grateful return to Alexander for the kindness which in my adversity he has shown to those who are dearest to me. But, if the fatal time be come, which is to give a period to the Persian monarchy, if our ruin be a debt that must be paid to the divine jealousy and vicissitude of things, then I beseech you grant that no other man than Alexander may sit upon the throne of Cyrus” [555].

Despite his uncertainty regarding the future, Darius, by Plutarch’s account, came seeking Alexander with “a million of men” (though historians of every era have reached widely differing conclusions about this). The two armies met at a place known as Gaugamela, probably located near Mosul in modern Iraq. Unlike the previous battles, in which the terrain and subterfuge played a huge role in the outcome, the scene Plutarch describes sounds a lot like two giant armies, lining up on open terrain so that a clear victory might be achieved by one or the other. Darius, who had been attacked at night by Alexander twice now, kept his men nervously waiting all night for the battle to begin. Meanwhile, Alexander after “performing certain mysterious ceremonies, and sacrificing to the god Fear,” ignored the advice of his second general, Parmenio, who wanted to use the nighttime to level the advantage in numbers that Darius enjoyed, and instead went to bed.

As for the battle itself, Plutarch is a better biographer than a military historian. Though he includes more details about this battle than previous ones, his account focuses more on Alexander’s personal courage than on tactics.

And not only before the battle, but in the height of danger, he showed himself, and manifested the self-possession of a just foresight and confidence. For the battle for some time fluctuated and was dubious…But before they could come to blows with the first ranks, the barbarians shrunk back, and were hotly pursued by Alexander, who drove those who fled before him into the middle of the battle, where Darius himself was in person [557]

However the battle itself may have been fought, Alexander’s bold charge right up the center of the Persian line, as is accepted among many ancient historians of the day, was the deciding factor. Soon, Darius found his chariot trapped by the dead bodies of the men given the duty of protecting him and managed to escape only with his life (again) by abandoning the battlefield on horseback. With his exit, the Persian army (along with its supplemental troops drawn from many places) lost its spirit and surrendered the victory to Alexander.

Before leaving the Battle at Gaugamela, Plutarch’s unshielded disregard for Parmenio as a meaningful contributor to Alexander’s legacy of conquest is worthy of some discussion. Parmenio had been among Phillip’s generals and, as such, represented the one of the only direct ties back to Macedonia from whence this expedition originally began. As Parmenio’s contribution to holding the army together and waging war as co-general doesn’t fit in with Plutarch’s mission to glorify Alexander at the expense of all else, Parmenio is ultimately cast as a villain of sorts. He is described throughout the work as a foot-dragging, overly conventional and, eventually, openly critical detractor from Alexander’s greatness. Plutarch describes his contribution to the Battle of Gaugamela as “sluggish and unserviceable” while wondering aloud “whether age had impaired his courage….or that, as Callisthenes says, he secretly disliked and envied Alexander’s growing greatness.” It’s entirely feasible that these were ideas that Alexander himself propagated after things turned sour between he and Parmenio later, but Plutarch certainly shows no reservations about reporting it as fact rather than speculation or, even, outright slander.

After the battle, despite the fact that Darius had escaped, there was little else for Alexander to do but march down the royal Persian road and take the throne at Susa. Meeting little to no resistance along the way, Alexander was recognized as the rightful ruler of the known world upon his arrival and, pleased by the unimaginable luxury of the Persian court, settled his army in the area for the winter. Plutarch is meticulous in his description of the spoils taken at Susa and to whom they were sent to back in Greece, whether to reinforce alliances or just to enrich those friends and loved ones whom he had not seen in over three years now. He also suggests that a torpor of sorts fell over the armies while wintering in Susa, much to Alexander’s chagrin.

But when he [Alexander] perceived his favorites grow so luxurious and extravagant in their way of living and expenses…he reproved them in gentle and reasonable terms, telling them he wondered that they who had been engaged in so many single battles did not know by experience, that those who labour sleep more sweetly and soundly than those who are labored for…And to strengthen his precepts by example, he applied himself now more vigorously than ever to hunting and warlike expeditions, embracing all opportunities of hardship and danger…But his followers, who were grown rich, and consequently proud, longed to indulge themselves in pleasure and idleness, and were weary of marches and expeditions, and at last went so far as to censure and speak ill of him. [560]

It begs mentioning that Plutarch spends almost as much time describing uncouth things that Alexander did while drinking heavily as he does insisting that Alexander’s reputation as a drunken lout was undeserved. These are the inconsistencies in his depiction of Alexander that are difficult to reconcile and represent, so far as we can see from this distance, the gap between the myth and the man that Plutarch refuses to treat as separate personages.

After the winter, Alexander resolved to marshal his armies once again to track down the elusive Darius but, even as he prepared to leave the capital, word arrived that Bessus, a Persian satrap and one of the commanders that opposed him at the Battle of Gaugamela, had prevented Darius from escaping out of Persia and was holding him for Alexander to take. Though Plutarch is less than clear in explaining the sequence of events, Alexander rushes far ahead of his army, accompanied by only his most ardent and able followers, in an attempt to reach Darius before harm might befall him. He was not successful.

And, at last, after much trouble, they found him lying in a chariot, wounded all over with darts, just at the point of death…he told Polystratus, who gave [him water], that it had become the last extremity of his ill fortune to receive benefits and not be able to return them. “But Alexander,” said he, “whose kindness to my mother, my wife, and my children I hope the gods will recompense, will doubtless thank you for your humanity to me. Tell him, therefore in token of my acknowledgement, I give him this right hand,” with which words he took hold of Polystratus’s hand and died. When Alexander came up to them, he showed manifest tokens of sorrow, and taking off his own cloak, threw it upon the body to cover it. [562]

While this account is very touching, it does make one somewhat suspicious that Plutarch has become a mouthpiece for what Alexander had wanted people to believe rather than a seeker of the truth. Given Alexander’s propensity for having people in his social orbit punished (sometimes with death) for minor indiscretions, this image of him deeply concerned for the well-being of an enemy he had relentlessly pursued for three years of his still-young life just seems too saccharine to be accurate. More likely, Alexander wished to have Darius publically transfer the authority of the Empire to him (as he had insisted when offered terms for truce earlier) in order to better maintain order in the outlying areas of his now radically expanded empire. It is also possible that he just wished to kill Darius personally to earn the glory among the Greeks that would come from having done so. While ancient historians were not of one accord as to what exactly happened to Bessus for having slain Darius before Alexander’s arrival, every account differs only in the mode of his death and not the severity with which he met it.


  1. "Caesar forsook all of his other identities and poured himself into becoming a new man in the eyes of the Roman people; a man fit, ultimately, to rule them not as first among many but as one above all."
    Rob, this is perhaps the most succinct description of Caesar's incredible ambition and focus I have ever read, not to mention is is damn finely constructed! Upon reading that sentence I sat back in my chair and sighed with contentment; its so inspiring to read something so well put.
    I am growing more and more inspired to explore in depth some of the classics I only gave a cursory (and class required!) glance to years ago.
    Keep rollin', dude, it rocks!

  2. Thanks for your generous comments. The most important thing is, of course, getting the work done but if it reads well every once and a while, well, that's ok too.