Alexandria's founded by Alexander

Alexandria's founded by Alexander the Great (by year BC): 334 Alexandria in Troia (Turkey) - 333 Alexandria at Issus/Alexandrette (Iskenderun, Turkey) - 332 Alexandria of Caria/by the Latmos (Alinda, Turkey) - 331 Alexandria Mygdoniae - 331 Alexandria (Egypt) - 330 Alexandria in Areia (Herat, Afghanistan) - 330 Alexandria of the Prophthasia/in Dragiana/Phrada (Farah, Afghanistan) - 330 Alexandria in Arachosia (Kandahar, Afghanistan) - 330 Alexandria in Caucasus (Begram, Afghanistan) - 329 Alexandria of the Paropanisades (Ghazni, Afghanistan) - 329 Alexandria Eschate or Ultima (Khodjend, Tajikistan) - 329 Alexandria on the Oxus (Ai-Khanoum, Afghanistan) - 329 Alexandria in Margiana (Merv, Turkmenistan) - 326 Alexandria Nicaea (on the Hydaspes, India) - 326 Alexandria Bucephala (on the Hydaspes, India) - 325 Alexandria Sogdia - 325 Alexandria Rambacia (Bela, Pakistan) - 325 Alexandria Oreitide - 325 Alexandria in Opiene (confluence of Indus & Acesines, India) - 325 Alexandria on the Indus - 325 Alexandria Xylinepolis (Patala, India) - 325 Alexandria in Carminia (Gulashkird, Iran) - 324 Alexandria-on-the-Tigris/Antiochia-in-Susiana/Charax (Spasinou Charax on the Tigris, Iraq) - ?Alexandria of Carmahle? (Kahnu)

Saturday, June 24, 2017

Olympia, in the footsteps of Pausanias

How about walking through a city with a 2,000 years old guidebook in your hands and still finding your way around? That is actually possible in Olympia where you are able to walk in the footsteps of Pausanias who visited and described the city in the second century AD (see: Pausanias - Fϋhrer durch Olympia). Back then, Olympia shone in all its glory some of which we still can find today although we need to put our imagination to work as well.

Olympia is the very place where the Olympic Games were born in 776 BC, a four-yearly event that was celebrated until 393 AD, spanning twelve centuries. The city definitely has something to tell if you listen closely!

According to tradition, the Olympic Games were held at the first full moon after the summer solstice. The high priestess of Olympia would mark the start of these games by lighting the Olympic flame. Participating individuals and city-states would bring offerings to ask for the favor of Zeus and Hera in their respective temples. Among such expensive gifts, some of which made it to the local museum, we find shields, helmets, money, weapons, and statues by the greatest artists of the time. Many cities, in order to raise their prestige, built their own treasuries to house their valued offerings.

From a simple foot race over the entire length of the stadium (192m), the Olympic Games grew into a five-day event with 18 different competitions. These included wrestling and boxing, foot races over longer distances, discus and javelin throwing, chariot and horse racings, and the pentathlon. To allow the participants to travel unharmed through bellicose city-states, a three-month truce was called all over Greece and Olympia attracted as many as 40,000 visitors. The prize of the victors was meager in our modern eyes: a crown of olive leaves and an olive branch cut from the nearby sacred grove. True to Greek idealism of that time, the real prize was eternal glory and fame reaching a sense of immortality.

Like Pausanias, my first stop is at the Temple of Zeus, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World that was completed in 457 BC. It is impossible to follow his detailed description of the roof, the pediments, the metopes, the votive offerings; there is not even an inkling of the famous statue of Zeus created in 432 BC by nobody less than Phidias, whose workshop is nearby. All I find are massive foundations, the steps of the stylobate, with tumbled down drums from the archaic Doric columns one of which has kindly be re-erected for us to visualize. Originally this temple measuring 64x28m was the largest in Greece, six columns wide and 13 columns long, reaching a height of almost 11 meters. It is hard to imagine the beauty and the glory of this building staring at these weathered gray limestone elements which were coated with a thin layer of stucco. The impressive east and west pediments of this temple have been retrieved and are now exhibited in their full splendor at the local museum. They are facing each other over the entire length of the room, set at eye level enabling the visitor to closely witness the mythical chariot race of Pelops and Oinomaos on the east pediment (the fundamental myth of Olympia) and the battle of the Lapiths and Centaurs on the west pediment with a three-meter tall Apollo at its center. Just try to imagine these pediments when standing in front of the remains of the Temple of Zeus with the huge loose drums of the columns lying on the ground. It must have taken the breath away from any visitor to the Games!

At the museum, there is also a splendid light-footed Nike of Paionos (424 BC) that once stood on a triangular base at the southeastern corner of Temple of Zeus, still in situ. Her waving cloak combined with the opening of her wings gives the impression of her flying descent from Mount Olympus to proclaim her victory. The Nike itself is 2.10 meters tall and the base puts her nearly 9 meters up in the air. The inscription “The Messenians and the Naupactians dedicated to Olympic Zeus a tithe of the booty taken from their enemies” refers to their victory over Sparta probably around 421 BC.

The very statue of Zeus in the inner temple is beyond imagination although descriptions from antiquity mention that it basically was an acrolith, i.e. a wooden frame covered with ivory and gold (see also my earlier blog: The ladies of Morgantina), with inlaid eyes. Zeus was crowned with an olive wreath; in his right hand, he held an elephantine statue of Nike, the goddess of Victory, also crowned with a wreath and holding out a ribbon, while in his left hand he was holding the divine scepter. Although the father of the gods was seated, the statue stood 12.4 meters high meaning that his head nearly hit the ceiling. A recent study has revealed that the slabs of 2.8 to 3 cm thick Pentelic marble used for the temple roofing, let through more light than marble from Paros used for the sculptures in the pediment and apparently lit up Zeus’ features (especially the eyes) once the visitor’s eyesight became accustomed to the darkness inside the temple. In order to preserve the ivory body parts of Zeus, these were regularly rubbed with oil that was kept in a special shallow reservoir in front of the statue that may have acted as a reflecting pool as well.

For obvious reasons, Pausanias next stop and mine is at the nearby workshop of Phidias. Since this building was converted into an early Christian church in the 5th century AD, the overall construction and layout have been preserved – enough, it seems, for scholars to recreate the scale model of this workshop that occupies a prominent place at the Museum of Olympia. It was built especially to house this work of art and it was lit by rows of windows on three different levels. Phidias’ workshop measuring 32x14.5m  could be identified at the hand of the many tools and terracotta molds that were found inside although the solid proof came from a small terracotta cup that was unearthed within its walls carrying the inscription “I belong to Pheidias” and is now exhibited at the museum. The artist’s house must have emitted a certain prestige and elegance when judging by the corner antefixes retrieved on the premises. But then, he was a renowned and accomplished artist, reputed for having worked closely with Pericles at the reconstruction of the Acropolis in Athens. All the sculptures of the Parthenon are by Phidias or were made under his guidance, and his masterpiece certainly was the chryselephantine statue of Athena created some eight years earlier.

The Temple of Hera (the wife of Zeus) was the very first large building in Olympia, built between 650-600 BC making it the oldest known Doric temple built of stone (earlier sanctuaries were made of wood). It is also the first well-preserved peripteral temple, meaning that the columns ran all around the inner sanctum, sixteen deep and six wide. Inside the Heraion was the table on which the garlands for the victors in the Olympic Games were prepared. The museum hosts a wonderful well-restored terracotta acroterion in the shape of a disk that stood on top of each pediment. It may represent the sun or another heavenly body and is unique for its size as well as for the variety of its painted decorations. Better known is certainly the gorgeous Hermes by Praxiteles (late 4th century BC) that was discovered among the ruins of the Heraion. This perfectly rendered Hermes is holding the infant Dionysus who as the future god of wine reaches out for the now lost bunch of grapes which Hermes probably held in his raised right hand. The finely polished 2.13 meters high statue is made of Parian marble and fills the room with its very presence.

At the Philippeon, built by Philip II and finished under Alexander the Great, Pausanias witnessed the statues of both Macedonian kings together with those of Amyntas and Eurydike, Philip’s parents and of Olympias, his wife – all executed by Leochares in ivory and gold. This circular building finished around 338 BC and built to commemorate Philips victory at Chaeronea, has been partially restored to give at least some idea of this exceptional monument although the grand statues are since long gone. For a full description of the Philippeon and its historical context, please refer to my earlier blog: The Philippeon at Olympia.

On the way to the Stadium, then and now, the visitor inevitably passes by the large Nympheion donated by Herodes Atticus and his wife Regilla. The fifteen niches of the circular, two-story high back wall were populated with statues of Herodes Atticus himself, together with those of several Roman Emperors like Antoninus Pius, Hadrian, Marcus Aurelius and their family members. Several of these marble effigies have been recovered and can be admired at the Museum of Olympia. To name just a few, we find Athenaides, daughter of Herodes Atticus; Annia Faustina or Lucilla, daughters of Emperor Aurelius; Marcus Aurelius himself; the emperors Hadrian and Titus. On the edge of the pool separating the circular part of the rectangular basin in the front stood a life-size bull, also moved to the museum, which carries an inscription left by Herodes Atticus’ wife reading: “Regilla, priestess of Demeter offers the water and appendices to Zeus”. Each end of this rectangular basin was decorated with a small tholos.

Next to this grand Nympheum twelve Treasury Houses of which only five have been identified line up before reaching the Stadium. Today, it is difficult to separate the outline of these buildings from the 6th and 5th century BC but this lack of insight is largely compensated by the 16 basis of Zanes (the plural form of Zeus), whose bronze statues ranging from the 4th century BC to the 1st century AD lined up the way to the entrance of the Stadium. One of these statues even represented Alexander the Great as Zeus! They were actually built using the fines which athletes had to pay for cheating at the Games. The athlete’s name and infringement were recorded on these basis for all to know. They stood here as a warning to future competitors. I find it quite amazing to learn that so many statues were made of costly bronze, silver, and even electron; some even were also chryselephantine sculptures with their hands and face made of gold or ivory (beside the famous Zeus). The wealth of Olympia is far beyond our imagination.

The Stadium is, of course, the piece the resistance standing for all what Olympia was about, the very core of the Olympic Games. An inspiring portion of the vault that originally covered the entire entrance way, the Krypte, added in Hellenistic times is still visible today. Emerging from this tunnel into the blasting light of the Stadium must have added to the athletes’ sense of expectation. The Stadium area was 212.5 meters long and 28 meters wide, but the race field proper met the standard length of 192 meters. Even today, it is quite exciting to stand on the stone departure line facing the challenge of the entire length of the track. In antiquity, some 40,000 spectators from all over Greece would have cheered their favorite figure from the sloping sides, simply sitting on the grass. The only benches were those reserved for the judges, the so-called Exedra set halfway on the south side of the Stadium. Opposite this Exedra and still visible today stood the altar of Demeter Hamyne.

Whether Alexander ever visited Olympia or attended the Olympic Games is uncertain but we do know that the news of his birth in 356 BC was brought to Philip together with the news that his horses had won. This competition was held at the adjacent 780 meters long Hippodrome.

It makes one wonder where all these guests and spectators stayed during the games and it is surprising to find a large guesthouse inside the precinct of Olympia, known as the Leonidaion. It was built around 330 BC and entirely financed by Leonidas of Naxos. It is said to be the largest hostel of antiquity and with its 74 x 80 meters, it is indeed very impressive. What’s more, it must have been a quite pleasant place to stay. The rooms were located on all four sides of the buildings around a central atrium trimmed with 44 Doric columns, imitating the Greek fashion of the time. The rooms on the west side were larger and more luxurious than those on the three other sides. A gallery counting 138 Ionic columns, 5.5 meters tall ran around the outside of the Leonidaion. In Roman times the building was converted into living quarters for their dignitaries and a wavy pool complete with a central island was added. The ornate terracotta sima from this building is particularly handsome with its leave motives and lion head spouts which can be admired at the Museum of Olympia.

The last complex of importance is composed of the Palaestra and the Gymnasium where all the competitors trained for at least one month before the start of the games. The Palaestra was conceived in the 3rd century BC for the pugilists and wrestlers to exercise. The building was almost square, 66x77 m with a central courtyard surrounded by a colonnade giving access to spaces for practical use like the cloakrooms, teaching rooms, bathrooms, the rooms where athletes could rub themselves with oil and sand, etc. Adjacent on the northern side is the Gymnasium built about a century later. This building is much larger, measuring 120x220m and is entirely closed off. Like the Palaestra it is set around a vast central courtyard with porticos on all four sides. The roof of these wide Stoas was supported on the inner side by a double row of Doric columns. The Gymnasium was appropriately used for those sports requiring more space like running, javelin and discus throwing, etc. By bad weather, the athletes could still exercise under the covered Stoa. Behind the Stoa on the west side were the rooms dedicated to the athletes, while on the east side the Stoa was closed off by a solid outer wall (see also: Olympia, an ongoing excavation project).

It is evident that Olympia cannot be seen without its museum and vice-versa. They truly complement each other.

[Click here to see all the pictures of Olympia]

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Intriguing pyramid in Rome

Many years ago, I remember how this “piramide” (in Italian with the accent on the “ra”) was my beacon to find my way to my lodgings on the road to Ostia. Back then, I did not investigate its origins and just dismissed this dirty monument as one of those extravagant imitations we may encounter anywhere.

This being said, I was truly surprised to hear that this pyramid was an iconic landmark dating from the first century BC and that a Japanese businessman made funds available for its restoration in gratitude for his flourishing business in Italy. The world is certainly full of surprises!


This steep Pyramid was built around 18-12 BC over the tomb of Gaius Cestius measuring at its base 29.6 meters over a height of 37 meters. The tomb itself was a barrel-vaulted chamber of 6x4 meters and 4.8 meter high, once richly decorated with frescoes that were still visible in 1660 when the tomb was opened for the first time since antiquity. Although the tomb had been sealed after construction, it has, as so often, been looted in antiquity. Today it is empty and only scant traces of fresco survived.

Once the place was cleaned up, it appears that this once grim and obscure pyramid is covered with Carrara marble, which evidently has suffered much from physical, chemical and biological decay over the centuries. Thanks to the use of innovative materials and techniques, which will benefit future conservation projects as well, the restoration team was able to deal with Romes pollution issues.

As a bonus, we now can even read the inscriptions carved on the east and west flanks of the pyramid reading Gaius Cestius, son of Lucius, of the gens Pobilia, member of the College of Epulones, praetor, tribune of the plebs, septemvir of the Epulones. On the east side only, this inscription is followed by these lines: The work was completed, in accordance with the will, in 330 days, by the decision of the heir [Lucius] Pontus Mela, son of Publius of the Claudia, and Pothus, freedman.

The shape of the pyramid is a close reminder of those found in Nubia, which had been conquered by Rome in 23 BC. Because of this similarity, it is possible that Cestius somehow participated in the Roman campaign in that country where the idea caught on. It seems that there were other examples of pyramids built in Rome at that time, like the Pyramid of Romulus that was taken down by Pope Alexander VI who used the marble for the steps of St Peter’s Basilica. Before the Roma hype, these pointed pyramids were already favored by the Ptolemy’s in Egypt, a country that fell to Octavian in 30 BC with the dead of the famous Queen Cleopatra.

What a shame that such an odd construction has been taken out of its context and now sits in the middle of the city’s heavy traffic. But there is good news too as the Pyramid is now open to the public every second and fourth Saturday of the month.

Friday, June 16, 2017

La Fasification de l’histoire de la Macédoine by Nicolaos K. Martis

La Falsification de l’histoire de la Macédoine or in English, The Falsification of the History of Macedonia, is written by Nicolaos Martis and has been translated from Greek into French by Marc and Jean-André Vlachos.

In 1984, the Commercial Bank of Greece, in a serious effort to defend the historical truth, financed the translation of this book and copies were distributed to private and official Hellenistic organizations in order to provide the most complete information about Macedonia as an integral part of Greece from antiquity till now.

Nicolaos Martis starts off by quoting texts and using referrals from early antiquity, including the Macedonian kings, the Old Testament, the archaeological finds at sites all over Macedonia with special attention for its most northerly frontier with modern Yugoslavia and Bulgaria. Of course, much attention is given to Alexander the Great and his Empire, followed by the role played by Macedonia after antiquity, in Byzantine times.

A big jump is then made towards Macedonia’s contribution to the liberation of Greece from the Ottoman rule. This process started in the early 1800s when one Balkan country after the other became independent. These were very roaring times that are seldom tackled by modern historians. This part of history is indeed very complex but eventually, these events lead up to form a new country in 1929, the Kingdom of Yugoslavia.

At the end of WW2, in 1945, the monarchy was abolished and one year later the new Federal People’s Republic of Yugoslavia was officially established with President Tito as their leader. At his death in 1980, the country was renamed again to become the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, composed of six separate republics: the Socialist Republic of Bosnia and Herzegovina, the Socialist Republic of Croatia, the Socialist Republic of Montenegro, the Socialist Republic of Slovenia, the Socialist Republic of Serbia and finally the Socialist Republic of Macedonia.

This latest name is what started all the confusion as it was meant to be a state of ethnic Macedonians, with “Macedonian” as their official language. As Nicolaos Martis manages to prove at the end of his book, there is no such language as Macedonian and there never was either – not even in the days of Alexander the Great! Besides, this Socialist Republic of Macedonia had nothing to do with Greece’s northern province of Macedonia.

As the book was written in 1984, i.e. before the dismantling of the six republics of Yugoslavia upon the death of President Tito, the question of the legitimacy of the new republic and the new name FYROM (Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia) in 1991 is not discussed here.

Tempers fire up regularly, mostly in FYROM as the Macedonian Greeks and Greece as a whole want to keep peace with their northern neighbors. This is obviously a very controversial matter and whatever people’s opinions and convictions, this is not the place to give vent to them. The reason for posting this book is purely informative. And it is not just any book since it received a prize from the Academy of Athens and has been dedicated to the President of the Hellenic Republic, Constantin Caramanlis.

The author, Nicolaos Martis was born in Moustheni (department of Kavala) in 1915. During WW2 he fought against the German invasion, participated in the battles of El Alamein and Rimini and the liberation of Athens in 1944. He held office as Secretary General of the Ministry of Northern Greece (1955-1956), State Secretary of Commerce (1956-1958), Minister of Industry (1958-1961), and finally served as Minister of Northern Greece (1974-1981). He died in 2013.

Monday, June 12, 2017

Your enemy’s table has become your footstool

The expression can be taken philosophically but in the case of Alexander, it was meant literally. The scene is set in Susa, where he arrived in late 331 BC after having spent four weeks in Babylon. Here he installed Sisygambis, Darius’ mother, as well as her grandchildren, who had traveled with her since the aftermath of the Battle of Issus in 333 BC.

The Treasury of Susa was handed over, intact, meaning a bullion of 40,000 talents of gold and silver and 9,000 talents in gold darics. This was the largest amount Alexander ever collected in one take. Happy with this outcome and the surrender of Susa, Alexander sat down on the royal throne of Xerxes to savor the moment. This throne, however, outsized Alexander’s small stature and his feet did not reach the footstool that belonged to his royal seat. One of his attentive pages noticing this shortcoming pulled up a table that had belonged to Darius and slid it under the king’s feet. Alexander was much pleased with this solution but looking around he noticed that one of Darius’ eunuchs was lamenting and crying. He evidently asked him what was the matter and the eunuch replied that he was grieved so see that the table which Darius used for his meals now to serve in such an insulting way. Alexander realized that in the eyes of the Persians he had committed an act of arrogance and ordered the table to be removed. But then Philotas intervened by saying that this was an omen since the table of his enemy had been turned into the king’s footstool. Alexander apparently took the remark at heart and ordered the table to be left at the foot of his throne.

One can argue that Philotas was right, of course, but on the other hand, this was clearly a lack of respect for centuries’ old Persian royal traditions. This incident may well have been one of the first such confrontations between west and east. In Macedonia, things were done in a rather austere way and the eastern wealth with its protocol and glamor was something entirely new.

Alexander’s first encounter with the Oriental way of life occurred right after the Battle of Issus when Darius’ tent had fallen into Macedonian hands and had been prepared for Alexander as he returned from his unsuccessful pursuit of the fleeing Darius. When he entered his enemy’s tent, he remarked – rightfully so – this is what it means to be a king!


Yet, as impressive as these traveling quarters were, it certainly was only a faint hint of what he found two years later in Babylon. Although the origins of Babylon may go back as far as the 23rd century BC, its first archives date from 2286 BC. After being occupied by the Assyrians (Ashurbanipal) and the Neo-Babylonians (Nebuchadnezzar), the Empire fell to the Persians (Cyrus the Great) before Alexander arrived in October 331 BC. This implies that the Palace of Babylon was built, destroyed and rebuilt several times over the centuries and in spite of the shiny blue tiles it has a somewhat reserved appearance.

Susa, on the other hand, was founded circa 4,200 BC and has Elamite origins. This is where the famous Code of Hammurabi stood from 1175 BC onwards. The city was also conquered by Cyrus the Great to eventually become part of the Persian Empire. Yet the glazed bricks walls in Susa are friendlier than those at Babylon as many pastel colors were implemented, giving the walls automatically a more pleasant appearance. It is clear that the palace and its decorations must have impressed Alexander and his entourage. After all, they had not seen Persepolis yet!


Certainly, at this stage, Alexander had no idea of the wealth and luxuries that still awaited him making his enemies tables nothing more than his footstools.

Interestingly, the very stone slab on which the king’s throne once stood is still in place among the ruins of Susa and it is hard to realize that this is the very throne on which Alexander once seated himself. 

Saturday, June 3, 2017

Babylon and Alexander’s reorganization of the army

Most ancient authors do not spend much time in Babylon. After Alexander’s triumphal march into the city and his appointment of Mazaeus as governor, they quickly move on to Susa, his next stop.

Well, it seems they moved a little too quickly for after all Alexander spent exactly 34 days in Babylon and that time was certainly not spent sitting idle. The only ancient writer giving us more details is, as usual, Curtius.

[Charles LeBrun, Alexander's arrival in Babylon, The Louvre] 

For a start, he mentions that upon arrival, Alexander is met by Mazaeusthe foremost Persian general at the recent Battle of Gaugamela, who surrenders himself and the city. Babylon was a well-defended stronghold with a 68 km-long wall and would have been a tough nut to crack had Mazaeus, not presented it to the new King of Asia.

Alexander entered Babylon in a chariot surrounded by his armed men, many people went out to see him. Among them was Bagophanes, guardian of the citadel and of the royal treasury. He went as far as to strewing the entire road with flowers. On both sides of the Procession Way, he had placed silver altars loaded with frankincense and all kinds of perfumes. He did not come empty handed either, leading herds of horses and cattle, while lions and leopards were brought before Alexander as well. This procession was followed by the chanting Magi and the Chaldeans singing and playing musical instruments. The cortege was closed by the Babylonian cavalry looking their smartest. The townspeople were allowed to join the march-past at the very end, after the infantry.

Curtius admires the beauty and antiquity of the city, which he shares with Alexander and whoever lays eyes on it. He gives us a pretty detailed description of Babylon, stating that its walls were built of small baked bricks that were cemented with bitumen – a substance the Macedonians were to discover for the first time. These walls stood 22 meters high and were 10 meters wide and it is said that two four-horse chariots riding on top could pass each other. The wall towers were even three meters taller than the wall itself. No construction leaned against the inside of the city wall and none of the buildings were continuous, leaving an open spaces that could be cultivated – a very handy asset in case of a siege.

The fact, however, that the River Euphrates flew right through Babylon did not seem to create any security concern to the Babylonians. Remarkably, they built a stone bridge over the river in order to connect both sides – not a small achievement considering the inconstant flow of the river and its alluvial deposits.

The Citadel is another impressive feature of Babylon. Curtius mentions that it was 25 meters high (the foundations ran ten meters deep) and that it was surrounded by a nearly four-kilometer-long circuit. The famous Hanging Gardens are, according to this author, to be found at the top of this citadel, just peeping over the top of the city walls, although they generally are seen as being part of the Royal Palace. The entire story of these Hanging Gardens, apparently built by Nebuchadnezzar for his homesick wife, is shrouded in mystery. In spite of being labeled as one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, it remains one of the unsolved enigmas that I will not develop here.

We know that Alexander settled in the comforts of the Royal Palace, receiving ambassadors and delegates from all over his empire and catching up with his many administrative duties. The newly appointed Mazaeus as governor of Babylon (the first “oriental” to receive this honor) was assisted by two military commanders of Alexander’s choice, Apollodorus of Amphipolis and Menes of Pella. He also designated Agathon of Pydna to guard the Citadel. From the freshly acquired treasury, Alexander distributed a bonus to his cavalry and infantry as well as to all the mercenaries in his service.

His army had been very much welcomed by the Babylonians with plenty of food and wine and … women. Curtius brings this generosity to another level by stating that fathers and husbands allowed their daughters and wives to prostitute themselves to the liberators provided that a fair price was paid in return. The women who took part in these drinking parties are said to have peeled off one layer of clothing after the next to “gradually disgrace their modesty”. It seems that prostitution was regarded as a courtesy. Whatever the extent of these feasts, the debauchery had to be stopped and the best remedy was for Alexander to march his men to their next destination, Susa, another Persian capital.

While on the road, reinforcements sent earlier by Antipater joined Alexander’s ranks. They were Macedonian and Thracian cavalry and infantry as well as mercenaries both on foot and horse from the Peloponnese. With these troops, there also was a group of 50 young adult sons of Macedonian chiefs to serve as bodyguards to Alexander. We know that their function ended after four years of service and the timing for this replacement is entirely coherent since the present bodyguards presumably had started off with Alexander in 334 BC. Curtius is kind enough to give us the job description of these boys as follows: they should wait upon the king at the table, bring him horses during the battle, attend him during the hunting parties, and keep watch at the entrance to his bedroom. If they applied themselves they could be promoted to the level of general in his army.

These fresh recruits, however, had to be merged with the existing seasoned troops, a task Alexander never took lightly. He decided to halt about halfway between Babylon and Susa to make the arrangements and started by closely scrutinizing the reports of good or brave conduct of individuals and making sure they were rewarded accordingly. He arranged for many commanders to be promoted to an even higher post of command. By doing so, he managed to bind his men by strong ties of affection and leading, in the end, to a higher degree of effectiveness.

Meanwhile and in order to keep his men occupied, Alexander organized a contest in military valor overseen by judges he had appointed to this effect. There was much at stake as the bravest competitor would win the command over a troop of 1,000 men, the chiliarchae – the first time this number was used. Under eager attention and wide attendance, eight such Chiliarchs were nominated and they formed a new unit in Alexander’s army. This was also the time when Alexander appointed commanders over units that did not necessarily consist of men from their own region as had been the case under Philip and which Alexander had implemented till now. Another novelty was to replace the trumpet signal that sounded when the camp had to be moved. In the commotion more often than not it seems that the trumpet was not heard and it was therefore decided to place a pole on top of the general’s tent for all to see. The signal consisted of a fire visible by night and smoke during the day.

One may conclude that Alexander took his role as King of Asia very seriously but the reorganization of his army here in Babylon is very telling for the conquests that still laid ahead. He partially canceled the proven and tested rules put in place by his father and replaced them with several innovative features in order to be more efficient and more effective. 

He truly was a general in heart and soul who did not shy away from adapting his army to new situations and circumstances of which there were many more to follow in the years ahead.

[Except for the first and last photographs, all others are borrowed from Oliver Stone's movie Alexander]

Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Good and bad news from Perge

The Hurriyet Daily News recently came with the news that many mosaics have been uncovered in the necropolis of Perge, glorifying them to be as magnificent as those that made the reputation of Zeugma. Yet the photograph in their article shows the side of a sarcophagus and none whatsoever of the mosaics that are apparently making the headlines.

However, this article raises many questions besides the matter of pictures. They write that “In front of the mausoleums were intact mosaics depicting the goddess of the sea Oceanus, which is said to be the first in Turkey,..”. Well, first of all, Oceanus is a god and not a goddess and secondly, Oceanus has been depicted in many other mosaics in Turkey as for instance at the Archaeological Museum of Antakya 


and, more to the point, at the Archaeological Museum of Gaziantep that exhibits the finds from Zeugma!


Sadly, this makes me doubt the eulogized information about this discovery. It is clear that Turkey is struggling to find enough tourists to visit their rich archaeological sites and Perge is no exception. In their article “Ancient Perge surviving, but locals are not” also published in May 2017 they confirm that the number of visitors has dropped drastically from 190,000 in 2014 to just 60,000 in 2016.

Perge certainly is one of those sites worth visiting and I warmly welcome everyone to spend prime time among those lovely ruins but it is not by advertising twisted information that this goal can be reached.

Saturday, May 27, 2017

All you need to know about Greek Symposia

Cigarettes, Whisky and Wild Wild Women” is the title of a song which the not so young among us may remember. Yet, there is nothing new under the sun for in antiquity the Greeks would enjoy their own version of fun with “Wine, Women and Wisdom” as these were the main ingredients for their Symposia.

The philosophic part may have been an elegant pretext for their decadent banquets where all was about enjoying themselves with wine, women and music. In an earlier post, The Symposium by Plato I touched the subject as I was more interested in Plato as tutor of Aristotle, who in turn was the tutor of young Alexander.

But it is clear that there is far more to say about these symposia that were open for men only – the only women present were hetaera hired to entertain the men – who met in a special room, the andron, where the couches shared by two men were lined up against the outer walls. Many of such rooms were found all over the Greek world and many such scenes were depicted on countless vases as the tradition goes back to the 9th century BC.

A very systematic and detailed article has appeared in National Geographic and it is very much worth reading as it highlights and illustrates the many aspects of the Symposia.

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Luxurious Greek villa revealed in Paestum

It is great news to read that a monumental building with priceless Greek ceramics has been revealed during recent excavation works at Poseidonia, the Greek name for Paestum in southern Italy.


Until now, Paestum was mainly known for its splendid and well-preserved Doric temples among which the first Temple of Athena dating from circa 550 BC and the second Temple of Hera (originally attributed to Poseidon/Neptune by mistake) whose construction has been dated to 460-450 BC. The newly exposed remains are, however,  proof of how rich the Greek founders of this colony in Magna Graecia were (see also: Magna Graecia, the forgotten Greek legacy).

It has been established that the city founders came from Sybaris, at the bottom of Italy’s heel who were among the pilgrims that came to worship at these temples. A great number of Attic red-figure pottery and other luxury artifacts left behind by the crowds of worshippers certainly attest of the fabulous wealth of Paestum.

The unearthed villa may well be a very rich house or even a palace and seems to date to the early days of Poseidonia. Archaeologists are quite excited to have a view of daily life in the city at the time when the first temples were built. This sets the villa apart from the overall Roman remains from the mid 3rd century BC that were found till now all over Paestum.

Friday, May 19, 2017

Gold digging ants, legend or reality?

As always, it is not easy to separate the wheat from the chaff and in history, it is even more difficult to separate legend from truth. One of such cases is the fabulous story told by Herodotus in the 5th century BC about “outsized furry ants” that dug up enough gold to enrich the Persian Empire. Unless we find hard proof, such stories remain questionable even if Alexander the Great is said to have known about it.


The main problem may simply be that these “giant ants” live in the remote region of the upper Indus River close to the Himalaya Mountains. These creatures are said to be big marmots throwing up soil while building their underground burrows and this soil apparently contains gold. In more recent centuries, explorers were told by the indigenous people that they collected gold dust from these mounds of soil.

Gaining access to the area has been the major setback to expose the truth. The area has been pinpointed to the high plateau of Dansar which overlooks the Indus near the tense cease-fire line between Pakistan and India. Getting there from India is difficult enough but entering the Pakistani side is near-impossible. The high plateau is occupied by the Minaro villagers split up between the two modern countries living at an altitude of some 3,000 meters. Both sides share the same story but the marmots and their burrows can only be found on the Pakistani side of the border. Recently, a landslide had exposed a darker, gold-bearing soil from one meter below the surface and this is exactly the soil which the marmots throw up.

No big secret, but where does the description of “furry gold digging ants” come from? The answer is amazingly simple: Herodotus never visited India but in his days the country was under Persian rule and the Persian word for marmot is “mountain ant” – hence the confusion.

It is clear that this logical explanation needs to be supported by archaeological and geological surveys but the region is still a conflict zone and not safe for travel. Unfortunately, it seems that the population of marmots is dwindling rapidly because soldiers are constantly taking potshots at them.